Archives for category: book review

Station Eleven CoverThere is something very lovely about this book, a National Book Award finalist. The author, Emily St. John Mandel, delivers a complex tale of the collapse of the modern world and of the interconnectedness of its inhabitants. Not just another post-apocalyptic tale, this novel spans decades and follows five characters whose lives intersect. It is a reflection on the resilience (and fragility) of humanity and on the restorative power of the arts. But these themes emerge slowly over the course of the book, so shame on me for leading with them.

The tale begins in a theater in Toronto, where a famous Hollywood actor is playing King Lear in a stage production. He suffers a medical crisis on stage, and the play cannot be finished. As the other actors linger in the theater’s bar that night, we glimpse their future: “Of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city.” (Now that’s a hook.)

The same night, Jeevan, an audience member and EMT in training who treated the fallen actor, gets a call from a friend who is a doctor at a Toronto hospital. There’s a flu—the Georgia Flu—and the hospital is filling with patients. He tells Jeevan that the flu is spreading like wildfire (my words, the author is much cleverer) and that it’s a full-fledged epidemic. He warns Jeevan to leave the city. The reader accompanies Jeevan as he buys cartloads of household supplies and holes up in his brother’s high-rise apartment. But soon enough, the story leaps 20 years into the future, and it’s clear that very few survived the Georgia Flu: society as it was at the novel’s beginning has gone.

The story jumps smoothly between past and future. The characters’ lives are interwoven in various ways, and it’s easy to appreciate each unveiling of connection as it appears. There is the usual sense of foreboding that dwells in a post-apocalyptic novel: will this person survive the Flu? will bandits kill them on the road? will they find food? how will they survive? Yet, there is a sense of wonder at the meaningfulness of these lives and of community.

I admit to a bit of bias, because much of the novel is set in Michigan, my home state. But this was the first real page-turner that I’ve read in a long while. And I have to admire St. John Mandel’s work—the novel is well crafted. I would even read this again, and I can’t say that about many books.

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Sometimes I wonder why I enjoy memoir so much. Why should a stranger’s life–or some particular occurrence in it–be so compelling? It seems curious, even voyeuristic. But the memoirs I’ve liked most have a strong narrative arc, like fiction. It’s the narrative that’s compelling, regardless of whether it’s a true story or an imagined one. This memoir reinforced that realization for me.

David MacLean was a Fulbright scholar working in Hyderabad, India when he awoke on a train platform without any knowledge of where he was, why he was there, or even who he was. As he stood, not knowing where to begin, a kindly tourism officer offered assistance. As the officer helps him discover his identity and contact his parents, MacLean flits in and out of lucidity. The reader follows along through hallucination after hallucination, through cycles of waking and dreaming or maybe not even dreaming, maybe more hallucinating, and all the while the reader is thinking, “Whoa! This is CRAZY! What is going on??”

The memoir does a great job of showing readers what this confusing, traumatic experience must have been like. Through lucid moments and hallucinations, the readers piece things together in the order that MacLean must have done, though certainly with better cognition than he was experiencing. He is hospitalized, strapped down, and medicated, and aside from descriptions of visitors and doctors and the continuing hallucinations, we don’t learn much about why he’s in this state until his parents come to take him home.

The mystery of the story keeps readers going, at least in the early part of the book. In the beginning there are all the questions: who, and what, and where, and why. But as we journey further into the story, we’re asking how: how will he get his memory back? Will he get his memory back?

We travel with MacLean as he returns from India to Ohio, United States, to recover at his parents’ home. As he pieces together his identity and his past, we learn that the psychosis had been caused by an anti-malarial drug, that it has happened to others, and that doctors aren’t sure whether he’ll ever fully recover. For a time, David pretends a lot. He plays the role that it seems he should be playing, pretending to remember the people he sees in photos, hiding some of the aftereffects of the hallucinations. As memories begin to return, piecemeal, he struggles to put his life story together even as he returns to India to finish his Fulbright and then returns to graduate school to complete his studies.

I appreciate that MacLean has shared this terrifying experience, because its cause–the drug mefloquine (brand name Lariam)–is still in use today, and people need to be aware of its dangerous neuropsychiatric effects. (MacLean does mention that a doctor told him years after the incident in India that the cause was not Lariam, so maybe the jury is out on this point?) Information about this drug is woven into the narrative and a chart detailing its many adverse effects is included in the postlude. Disturbingly, MacLean reports that the drug was widely prescribed by the U.S. military for soldiers up until 2009 and was still used in “special situations” as late as 2012.

MacLean’s story is disturbing, painful even, because the trauma described is intense and his struggle is profound. But it’s also an encouraging account of human resilience and an exploration of enduring questions about identity and memory.

arrow of godArrow of God is a subtle, weighty tale that portrays the dramatic shifts that occurred in West African society due to British colonization of the region in the 1800s and early 1900s. (The novel is set in the early 1900s.) Achebe reveals to readers a traditional culture that’s adjusting to the reality of the European presence in its homeland.

The novel follows the Igbo man Ezeulu, High Priest of the deity Ulu, who is the most important official of Umuaro, an association of six villages that have banded together for mutual protection. As Ezeulu struggles with strife between Umuaro and a neighboring Igbo power, Okperi, the British Administration in the region plans to appoint him Warrant Chief, part of a colonial strategy of indirect rule. But we see very little of the British officers for the first three-quarters of the novel, even though the narrator often refers to various incidents and histories of the white man and his actions. Instead, we are immersed in the life of the village.

The villages are ruled by a group of elders who make decisions together, but as priest of the highest deity, Ezeulu is responsible for certain critical decisions, such as when the villages’ yam crops can be harvested. The fundamentally different methods of rule employed by European and Igbo society is an important theme of the novel. It reveals the misunderstandings and other pressures that invade a society when two societies of uneven power collide. A good part of the novel is a commentary on how customs and cultures shift to accommodate new powers. It’s almost as though we see in the villages of Umuaro the last traditional Igbo villages: their society is becoming something new. This is even clear to some characters, who advocate for change of a tradition that they feel is no longer relevant to their time.

But the struggle for power is not limited to the interactions between the Africans and the white men. Most conflict in the novel is within the society of Umuaro itself. The elders and priests compete for loyalties and power; their interactions are an incessant tug of war. In families, wives and children compete for status and favor. But within these struggles are revealed strict codes of behavior and a strong belief system.

Achebe uses many Igbo terms in his story, many of which are used to name religious rituals, objects, or ideas. While the terms do not make the reading easier, they do make it more interesting and precise. After all, most of the Igbo terms used in the novel likely did not have precise English equivalents because many of the objects and concepts of traditional Igbo life did not exist for the English.

This is the second of Achebe’s novels that I’ve read. The other was Things Fall Apart. Both novels are classics; both are a sort of history of colonization from a Nigerian’s point of view.

If you’d like to read more about how Achebe became a writer and why he writes, there is an interview with him in the Paris Review.

I had so much fun reading Maggie Shipstead’s first novel, Seating Arrangements, that I picked up her second, Astonish Me, the following month. I confess that I expected something very like Seating Arrangements–a perfect mix of humor and bad behavior. And this second novel is like Shipstead’s first in that her writing is technically just as good. The story itself, however, is less fresh.

The novel spans two decades, beginning  in the 70s in New York City, where we join a young ballet dancer and her friends as they navigate life in an elite dance company. Our heroine, Joan, falls in love with the world-famous Aslan, a Russian dancer who has just escaped his home country to join the ballet in New York. But it’s not a relationship that will stick, and Joan knows she will never be a soloist. So she moves on.

The story is told non-linearly, switching between Joan’s life dancing in New York and her life after she leaves the company. She marries, she moves away from New York, she has a child, she teaches ballet. Her son takes her classes and when, as a teenager, he moves to New York to dance, Joan’s old and new worlds collide. The results are intense, even melodramatic.

The problem with the novel is that the characters are a little empty, a little too stereotypical. They weren’t as engaging, as simultaneously likeable and flawed, as the characters in Seating Arrangements. And… I have to say that I didn’t care for the ending, which I found unsatisfying and even a touch distasteful. Overall, it was an enjoyable read, and I’ll probably read Shipstead’s next book, but this one doesn’t make it to my list of favorites.

 

 

 

This summer is my summer-of-trying-to-read-the-book-before-I-see-the-movie-based-on-the-book. The first book in that category (longest name of a category ever) was Gone Girl, which I read a few weeks ago while on vacation. That was perfect timing, really, because it’s a complete page turner and it was fine for me to keep reading till the wee morning hours. Seriously, I think I stayed up until 3 the first night.

The novel is a mystery-thriller, and I don’t often read mysteries or thrillers, but because this book was included in at least half a dozen summer reading lists back in May, I thought I’d give it a try. Also, the trailer didn’t hurt, seeing how the movie looks great. Also, Ben Affleck. But getting back to the book. There I was, a non-mystery reader, reading this mystery and gleefully–gleefully!–anticipating every little reveal in the plot. The pacing was so good and the plot so skillfully developed that I wished I could read the various drafts of the book that would show how it all took shape.

Gone Girl is about a wife who goes missing and how the public blames her husband. At least, that’s the top layer of the story. Really it’s the story of a marriage. By interspersing flashbacks with the novel’s current-day mystery, Flynn lets us get to know the characters and their story slowly, over time. The fact that I spent half of the book in denial (“No–he isn’t that stupid! He can’t be such a jerk! No way she’s smart enough to . . . “) is proof of the shifting tensions and the steady conflict in the novel. And the ending was a surprise (Me: What . . . ? No… What?). But no more about that; I must avoid spoilers.

I can’t say that I loved the characters. They were too imperfect for love, which is imperfect enough to be really interesting. And the novel didn’t have me contemplating heavy themes. (But there were heavy themes, believe me.) I was simply engrossed and entertained, which is, for me, more than good enough. I’ll be looking forward to seeing how Flynn adapted her novel for the screen.

Now that it’s June, I am catching up on some “Best of” reads from 2013 and 2012. I heard a lot about Seating Arrangements last year, and it popped up on more than a few “Best of” lists in December. I’ve been curious about the book–what could possibly deserve such praise?–but I also skeptical, having too often picked up a book because of stellar reviews only to find that it fell short of the hype. And, I admit, the beginning of this novel had me wondering if I wasn’t going to be disappointed.

And then I discovered that it’s clever. Very clever. And funny. Every character is a world. I finished the book a few days ago, and since then I have the delightful sense that I’ve just spent the weekend on the coast even though I’m stuck in central Texas, which is anything but refreshing at the moment. Although I’m grateful to never have been an attendee at a wedding of hilarity and tension such as the one in the novel, I couldn’t be more glad that it was the focus of my first fun read of the summer.

Rather than give you a synopsis, I’ll link to the first review that I heard of the novel, which was by Maureen Corrigan on NPR. The novel is extremely well written, light without being farcical, and worth every word.

I finished this book weeks ago, but I delayed writing my review because I wasn’t sure what to say about it. I can’t rave; it didn’t capture me in that way. I can’t dismiss it or offer criticism; it is too good, too well written for either or those reactions. What it is, perhaps more than anything, is real. The writing is understated and powerfully descriptive, conveying the steady pace of life in the small fictional town of Holt, Colorado where the novel is set. The characters are skillfully depicted; each of them seemed like someone I know, or once knew—a pregnant teenager, a high school teacher, a pair of elderly farmers, two young brothers. Likewise, the setting is vivid and realistic.

Plainsong was a finalist for the National Book Award (NBA) and won other prestigious awards. Critics loved it. I tried to, but I kept wishing that something would happen. I was impatient. Each chapter follows one character, so that first you learn what is happening with the young girl, then the two little boys, then the teacher, and so on. It takes some time for the reader to see the threads coming together. But as the characters’ lives become more and more intertwined over the course of a year, we see a community growing together, a family being created. The story, then, is that of the quiet acts of bravery, kindness, and generosity of the characters, who each seek to connect to others.

There is something very lovely and powerful about this book. There is the truth that to truly connect with others, one must become vulnerable. One must show need, expose the self. There is also a profound sense that everything will be okay, that people’s capacity to love is abiding, and that everyone can find a home.

 

 

I picked up Divergent a couple of months ago after a friend told me she’d read it and liked it. “If you liked The Hunger Games,” she said, “you’ll like it.” Well, I had consumed The Hunger Games trilogy in less than a week when I discovered it a few years ago, so this new trilogy sounded like fun. And with Allegiant, the final piece of the Divergent trilogy, releasing in October, I figured it was an excellent candidate for some binge reading.

Some people are probably over dystopian fiction at this point given the upsurge in titles in recent years, but ever since reading Alas, Babylon as a kid, I’ve been drawn to post-apocalyptic and dystopian stories. My risk-planning mind even dreams dystopian: After the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, I dreamed that I was in a city that had been destroyed and I had to forage in the city for food and water to take back to the family I’d left hiding in a safe place. In other dreams there were catastrophic floods, bombings that destroyed my city, and even paratroopers landing in my neighborhood and running amok through the streets while I cowered under a neighbor’s porch. Such things  happen often around the world (well, maybe not the tons of paratroopers part), so it’s easy to see why my mind might want to play the “what-would-I-do-if” game. It’s about preparation. Dystopian fiction, although more outlandish on the face of things, taps into that same instinct, which is why I think it often works for me. When it’s good, it activates a primal response. You have to know how the characters are going to get out of the mess they’re in. The reader’s subconscious desire is to know what could be done were he or she ever in a similar situation.

Or maybe that’s just this reader. Ahem.

Divergent is cool because it’s set in Chicago. I love Chicago. And the premise is interesting. The society is split into multiple factions, each of which trains its members to think and operate according to a specific virtue: truthfulness, selflessness, courage, pursuit of knowledge, or kindness. Following a school-administered aptitude test, teenagers must choose which faction to commit their life to. After choosing, initiates must train in order to become full members of their chosen faction. We follow the main character, Tris, as she makes this choice and goes through the initiation process. What begins as a coming-of-age story (albeit it in a dystopian world) morphs into mystery as clues of plotting and resistance surface.

I don’t want to discuss the plot too much because that would mean introducing spoilers. There are certainly some interesting plot twists in the story. But the first and second parts of the novel–the part where Beatrice is training and going through initiation–really dragged. Some of the training seemed really pointless.  Also, the construct of the society had some holes. While it was clear that a couple of factions had a specific role in the society, it seemed that others did not. They were just there, being truthful, or just there, being friendly. And, a couple of factions really only seemed to exist in order to be functional in the plot; their “usual” role in this dystopian society was unclear.

Another problem was the style of the writing itself. It was difficult for me to engage with it.  There was far too much use of the pronoun I. Passages such as the following were not uncommon.

I WAKE TO sweaty palms and a pang of guilt in my chest. I am lying in the chair in the mirrored room. When I tilt my head back, I see Tori behind me. She pinches her lips together and removes electrodes from our heads. I wait for her to say something about the test—that it’s over, or that I did well, although how could I do poorly on a test like this?—but she says nothing, just pulls the wires from my forehead.

The novel is written in first person, of course, so how else could the author have done it? I get that. Still, it was somehow distracting for me, and I found myself getting a little tired of Tris and wondering whether the story would’ve been more compelling had we been able to get outside of her head.

Before picking up this book in early July, I had read only one, short war story. So this was a new experience for me. And it’s hard to find words to describe the impact of this collection of stories, which the publisher has called “loosely autobiographical.” They are inspired by the award-winning author’s experiences in the Vietnam War. They are the sort of true story that you feel in your gut, the kind that opens your eyes. They go beyond “seeing is believing,” because what Tim says he sees–or what his characters see–cannot always be believed. But somehow, through his writing, Tim still makes it known, which is even stronger truth. In the chapter titled “Good Form,” he explains his storytelling approach in The Things They Carried.

“But listen. Even that story is made up.

I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.

Here is the happening-truth. I was once a soldier. There were many bodies, real bodies with real faces, but I was young then and I was afraid to look. And now, twenty years later, I’m left with faceless responsibility and faceless grief. . . .

What stories can do, I guess, is make things present.

I can look at things I never looked at. I can attach faces to grief and love and pity and God. I can be brave. I can make myself feel again.”

The Vietnam War was over before I was born. I had one uncle who had fought in Vietnam. Although I can’t remember ever being told this, I knew that he was scarred by that war. He claimed that he’d been a P.O.W. and had been tortured in a Viet Cong prison camp; the VA denied this. Certain family members, I knew, weren’t sure what to believe about his stories. I confess that I never really thought about it much. But now I’m thinking about it, about how my uncle’s happening-truth and his story-truth were not so far apart; how it probably didn’t matter so much which was which; how his family needn’t have struggled so much to untangle the this from the that. O’Brien’s stories, in making things present for him, also make them present for all of us.

The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien. Mariner Books, 2009. (First published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 1990.)

The Ice Palace was, without a doubt, one of my favorite reads of this summer. Written by the celebrated Norwegian writer Tarjei Vesaas, it was first published in English in 1966. In this novel, Vesaas, who is both a poet and a novelist, uses sparse, poetic language to tell the story of two young girls and their powerful friendship.

Unn is an 11-year-old girl who has recently moved to a new school. Shy and reserved, she keeps to herself even though the other girls in her class have repeatedly invited her to play. But one day she finally approaches Siss, the most popular girl in the class, and invites her to her house. They have one visit together and develop an extraordinary connection. The next day, overwhelmed, Unn goes for a walk in the woods instead of going to school. When she doesn’t return home, the townspeople begin an extended search ranging over the harsh winter landscape near the town. It’s no use; Unn is not seen again.

Vesaas explores the complexities of human connection, loss and grief, and the impersonal beauty and power of nature. The real journey of the novel is Siss’s; we first follow her as she heads through the dark of a late autumn afternoon to Unn’s house for their visit. Then we watch as she realizes, incredibly, heartbreakingly, that Unn will not be seen again; that her friend, only just found, is already lost. We watch as she struggles with memory and loyalty–how best can she honor her friend? Wouldn’t it be disloyal to continue without her?

This is a novel that, though simple, rings with truth, stunningly beautiful.