Tag Archives: Book Review

Station Eleven: Emily St. John Mandel – Book Review

Unknown-2I have been shaken out of my reading lull with Emily St. John Mandel’s wild, beautiful book Station Eleven. The book moves back and forth between two very different but related worlds. One world is the world today as we know it and the other is the one that exists after a pandemic kills 99% of the human race.

The book opens in a theatre in Toronto where aging and legendary film actor Arthur Leander plays King Lear for his final time. He suffers a massive heart attack on stage and dies. A member of the audience runs to help him, the same man who years earlier, had as a paparazzi, stalked Leander and his wife Miranda outside his Hollywood mansion. When the paparazzi/medic leaves the theatre he calls a friend who tells him people are dying everywhere – that he should get out as soon as he can.

This last evening marks the end of the ‘old’ world. The new world order picks up with characters whose iives at some point or another have intersected with Arthur’s’ life. By moving back and forth between the old and the new world we not only find out about Arthur’s life but also of those who survived the pandemic.

The new world picks up in year twenty with Kirsten, who is now in her twenties and a survivor of the old world.She had been a child actress in the old world and now travels with a Shakespearean Theatre caravan who roam from settlement to settlement and in between dodge the dangers of a civilization that has become entirely undone. Nothing remains of the old world except ghosts of its former structures, abandoned houses, cars, buildings and airplanes – meals left half eaten, skeletons fully dressed lying in beds, on roads and in cars reminding the survivors of another life and time.

This merry band of artists and actors called the Travelling Symphony travel under the banner “survival is not enough” a line taken directly from Star Trek.  As a part of her old world possessions Kirsten has two limited edition comic books in her possession called Station Eleven which tells the story of Dr. Eleven, a physicist who lives on a space station after escaping an alien takeover of Earth. These comics at one time belonged to Miranda Leander, Arthur’s first wife, who was their author.

So what does all this mean? This book is more than just a story of a fading actor and his empty life. It’s more than a dystopic vision of post modern collapse and the end of the world as we know it. This is a rich novel where art and life are inextricably intertwined and it’s as though the world is a stage. And indeed the novel opens with Arthur in his last moments playing one of the greatest characters in literature – King Lear.

This theme continues with Miranda’s comics. She is driven to create a world that mirrors her own strange life in many ways. And as these comics get passed on they become the lifeblood of inspiration to two characters (Kirsten and the cult leader) in the new dystopian world. And in many ways the post pandemic world resembles Station Eleven  – an outpost world created out of the ruins of the death of a civilization.

And again, there are moments in the book, for example when Arthur is dining with his old friend and he notices that Arthur is no longer himself but is acting. It could be a commentary on the shallowness of Arthur and the world he lives in but it’s also the indivisibility of life and art. Life and art flow through each other like a river. Life without art is only survival as the Travelling Symphony knows. It elevates the human condition on every level and in the end it saves us from ourselves, each other and from barbarity. It’s what makes us a mensch.

I feel that Emily St. John Mandel has written a book that lays art against a bleak hopeless world (both the new and the old) and shows us that everything from comics to film and theatre including old standards like Shakespeare make the world an infinitely better more hopeful,  and more feeling place.

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The Virgin Suicides – Jeffrey Eugenides (a book review sort of)

When I was away in Europe these past three weeks, I read The Virgin Suicides, the only book I probably could have managed to read other than “How to Learn Italian Real Fast”.  I had seen the movie a number of years ago and liked it but reading the book reminded me how much more of  a book reader I am, than a movie lover. Don’t get me wrong. I love movies but because I am more a word person than an image person, I have a deeper love and excitement when I read great books. Reading the book after seeing the movie made me realize that movies can do justice in so many ways, but by necessity they have to leave out so many of the words. And when I read The Virgin Suicides on this trip I was reminded of this.

The opening paragraph let’s us know immediately what will transpire in the book:

“On the morning the last Lisbon daughter too her turn at suicide – it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese – the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope.”

And from here Jeffrey Eugenides takes the reader on a walk down memory lane to an American family suburb of the 70s where middle-age men who had once loved and known the 5 Lisbon girls in their youth, tell the story of their undoing through the lens of memory and interviews.

The book reminded me of Laurie and Ian, two students I knew in high school. I didn’t  know them well but I knew Laurie well enough that when she came to our grad dinner and told me about her troubles at  home because her parents were divorcing, I offered that she stay at my house because my mother had gone to Europe for the summer. She said she would take my number and let me know. A week or so later a friend of Laurie’s called to say that she and Ian had commit suicide. A double suicide. In her parents garage.

Like the Lisbon girls, in this weirdly beautiful, tragic tale, nobody could quite figure out why Laurie and Ian did it. But in this book you can piece together a family, a neighbourhood, a time, and pieces of the girls lives through people who knew them, but you never really get to know the girls themselves.

That great mystery of death, made even stranger when death is chosen, only leaves you with this strange memory. Snapshots of conversations transport you as memory serves, to  a another time, that inexplicably still feels like right next door, so familiar, so still right now. I thought it was a beautiful way to tell the story.

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Boys in the Trees: Mary Swan – Book Review

I just finished reading Boys in the Trees by Mary Swan. The novel takes place in the late nineteenth century in Emden, a small Ontario country town. The story is about a man who murders his entire family and the effect this has on the townspeople. Most of the chapters are told from a different person’s point of view so you get a sense of the far reaching effects a horrific incident like this has on an entire community. Continue reading

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Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

I read Eat, Pray, Love a few months ago and have been mulling it over ever since. On my facebook reading group comments I wrote that I thought it was completely self-conscious and overrated and that except for small parts here and there I thought it wasn’t that great of a read.  

Judging from the hullaabooloo surrounding the book though, I am one of the very few to not really like it. But then again, here I am three months after the fact still thinking about it and even blogging about it. So what gives? For those of you who don’t know what the book is about Elizabeth Gilbert is a New York writer of some standing, whose marriage falls to pieces. Continue reading

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Atonement by Ian McEwan: Book Review

I find that when I pick up one of Ian McEwan’s books, I can’t put it down until I’m done much, much later. I have read Enduring Love, Saturday and recently finished Atonement.   Continue reading

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