Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (audio)

station eleven

Wow. The entirety of this book is every bit as good as it seemed when I wrote about it some time ago. I am reeling, very sorry that it is finished, and will want to track down more of Emily St. John Mandel’s work as soon as I can. Thanks again, Liz, for the great recommendation as always.

Station Eleven has two settings, dually in a dystopian or post-apocalyptic future world, and with flashbacks to the world of here and now. The story begins with the beginning of the collapse, when during a stage production of King Lear the lead actor dies of a heart attack onstage. The audience member who tried to save him leaves the theatre, stunned, as a highly virulent and fast-acting flu virus sweeps through his home city of Toronto; warned by a friend who is an ER doctor, he stocks up on supplies and holes up with his brother in the brother’s apartment. His brother lives on the 22nd floor and is in a wheelchair, so they do not evacuate the city.

Flash forward 15 or 20 years, and now we follow a group called the Traveling Symphony, incompletely named because they also specialize in Shakespeare productions. The world has changed: almost the entire human population of every continent died of the flu, with only small bands of people left and little technology. There is no more electricity, no more fossil fuel, no more computers. Small communities have formed but are insular and suspicious, and sometimes violent; life is hard. The Traveling Symphony brings some light to this regretful world – art is still beautiful – but the symphony members are not exempt from the hardships; they carry weapons, deal with uncertainty every day.

The story is told in disjointed chronology, jumping back and forth between the pre-collapse world and the world after. Each of these two timelines runs chronologically, but we alternate between the two. The third world is that of Station Eleven, a fictional creation of one of our characters that also bears on the real world both before and after the flu epidemic.

Perspective shifts as well between several characters, some of whom we follow both before and after the collapse – if they survive. They have aged 15-20 years in that time, which presents some interesting possibilities and points of view. It also ramps up the suspense and tension: what happened to this person or that, did she live, does he ever find his loved ones again, and do they see any consequences for their actions? Mandel is expert at teasing us with these questions, and I heartily second Liz’s feeling that this book ends too soon: I too want more.

Mandel exhibits genius in the details of all three of the worlds in this story. Her characters are outstanding: nuanced and complex people with strengths and flaws that we can mostly learn to love but never worship. The struggles of these characters ask questions of the reader: what kinds of behavior are justified by hard times? What technologies would be hardest to live without, and is there anything to be gained by going “back to basics” or back to a less technological era that we often regard as “simpler”? What is the value of art; what do we want out of it? What is the meaning of friendship? If computers and cars and airplanes and iPhones suddenly went away, should we teach the next generation about them or let that history go silent?

As a novel-reading (listening) experience, I thought Station Eleven was nearly as good as it gets: entertaining, aesthetically pleasing, thought-provoking, stimulating, colorful, well-written, compelling. As a cultural critique, I found it useful as well, although as I contemplate global collapse in its various forms and our strategies related to it, I want to think about forms of collapse that are rather more our fault than this is. That’s a little awkward; what I mean is, the flu in this story is sort of an act of god, a thing that happens to us, but I think it would be useful to think about economic, environmental, societal collapse due to human hubris and poor decision-making. The flu could be a version thereof, less directly. Still, its results are instructive or at least stimulating.

The narration on this audio production by Kirsten Potter is very fine. I told my parents partway through that there were two readers, a man and a woman, but that was wrong; between listenings, I clearly got confused, due to Potter’s fine acting of male and female perspectives throughout.

Mandel is a nuanced writer with a keen imagination. I can’t wait to discover more of her work and recommend this novel highly.


Rating: 9 knife tattoos.

The Secret Place by Tana French (audio)

secretI think I will call it a great credit to Tana French that even though this novel took me months to finish, due to my much-reduced audio-listening time, I never lost the thread or lost interest. It can be hard to read a book that slowly, over that much time. But The Secret Place is gripping, compelling, peopled by fine, interesting, and distinctive characters; it lent itself pretty well to this less-than-ideal reading (listening) schedule.

French’s dedicated readers will recognize several characters from earlier novels, although these books do not exactly form a series. The central detective in The Secret Place is Stephen Moran, who has been relegated to the depths of the Cold Cases unit, where he is not particularly happy. Then a gift is dropped in his lap: Holly Mackey, who was but a little girl in Faithful Place, is now 16 years old and boarding at a chi-chi girls’ school called St. Kilda’s. She brings Moran a card stating that the writer knows who killed Chris Harper, found murdered last year on St. Kilda’s grounds.

Moran takes this card to the Murder squad, where he has ambitions, and begins working with Detective Antoinette Conway, a prickly, defensive sort. The two form an unlikely, tentative team, and the rest of the novel covers a single, very long day they spend on campus at St. Kilda’s, solving the case.

Or at least part of it does. The Secret Place is split into two narratives, which alternate chapters: the story of Moran & Conway’s single long day, and the last 18 months or so in the lives of Holly Mackey and her three girlfriends. Holly, Selena, Julia and Becca are very, very close. They all knew Chris Harper, some more closely than they’ve let on to the police; their friendship and their lives are caught up in the case, and Moran knows it. As Moran & Conway work the case, the second narrative brings readers up to date in the girls’ lives.

As an audio production, this is effectively played by two readers, a male reader for Stephen Moran’s story and a female third-person narrator of Holly and her friends’ lives. The latter narrative is ghostly, compelling, and mystical; there are magical elements, although of course this is a realistic story; the magic is simply that of youth.

Moran is a sympathetic character who wants badly to “make it,” to fit in in Murder, to have a partner, to have a friend. He is sensitive and self-conscious, yearning. The girls wield their own self-referential magnetic power, very much evocative of the strange world of teenagerhood. Friendship, its meaning and its powers, are very much the central themes of this story.

In short, Tana French has done it again. Her characters are mesmerizing, both realistic and spell-binding. The plot is twisty: beware thinking you know where she’s headed! I love this stuff. Keep it coming.


Rating: 7 earbuds.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (audio)

**AVOID SPOILERS!** (There are none below.) As a commenter pointed out, there may be spoilers even on the dust jacket or other coverings for the book or audiobook itself. Proceed cautiously. Just trust me and read the book itself.


beside

This is one of those with a big reveal to it that *makes* the book. For the love of whatever you love, please, avoid all discussion of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves until you read it. Excepting this review, of course, which promises to be spoiler-free and is therefore safe, and brief.

I’m glad Liz recommended this one to me, on audio specifically, and I shall do the same. Get the audiobook, which is beautifully and feelingly narrated by Orlagh Cassidy. Our young female protagonist/narrator Rosemary is a little troubled, but likeable right from the start. She uses the unusual second-person voice, breaking down the fourth wall to talk directly to her audience: “you may have the impression from what I’ve just said, that… but here’s another thing I’d like you to know…” Her story is compelling from the beginning, and involves a number of different threads and an occasionally disjointed timeline. I don’t know what else I can tell you without giving it all away. It’s about family, self-determination, the nature of memory. Life. You will laugh and be amazed. Go out and get this book now, and don’t let anybody tell you anything about it. Oh – a little bird told me Karen Joy Fowler gave away the big secret in a book talk somewhere. She is an outstanding writer, but apparently a potentially disastrous speaker. Avoid her talks til you’ve read the book. Go read the book. That’s all.


Rating: 8 studies quoted.

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (audio)

treasureAfter reading Under the Wide and Starry Sky, I was driven to reread Treasure Island. I suspect that I only ever read the Great Illustrated Classics version, in fact: and I loved that series for several years, but I worry now about what I missed. (I reread certain of those classics in full later on, but not all. What misconceptions am I still harboring?) Husband and I first attempted this audio version, read by David Buck, on our U-haul drive cross-country this fall. But the Scottish accent, and the story-within-a-story format, proved too difficult for the big loud truck and our navigation of unfamiliar roads. Fair warning: this is not a criticism of the book (or the audiobook), but it is not the most distraction-friendly listen I’ve encountered.

The story itself is, of course, riveting, once you get into it. It is narrated from a distance of some years by the voice of Jim, who is a young boy (perhaps 12 or so?) in the time of his tale. At his father’s seaside inn, Jim assists in hosting a mysterious sailor we call Billy Bones; Billy is apparently frightened of certain other seafaring men, particularly a one-legged man who wishes him ill. When Billy dies – of fright, after a visit from a band of related ruffians – Jim finds a map within the possessions of the deceased. Local community members Dr. Livesey and Squire Trelawney conspire with young Jim to buy and staff a ship to go looking for buried treasure they believe is indicated on the pirate map.

Here Stevenson securely establishes several tropes of pirate fiction. The cook they install on board their ship is peg-legged Long John Silver, who sings “yo ho ho and a bottle of rum,” talks in the pirate-talk (“aye, matey”), and carries a parrot on one shoulder. The treasure map, marked with an X, takes them to a deserted island, where the shipmates plan a mutiny: Squire Trelawney has haplessly engaged a bunch of pirates for his crew, and they will be captained not by the captain he’s hired, but by Silver himself. By luck, Jim finds out about their scheme in time to warn Trelawney and the doctor, and the three of them take cover – with their honest captain and a few other loyals – on the island, but Silver and his men are bent on treasure and murder. Also by luck, Jim meets a man who identifies himself as Ben Gunn: he was marooned on the same island years ago, by the very same pirates. And he knows where the treasure is.

Originally published as a story for young boys, Treasure Island keeps the pace up and the action quick, after the first few chapters of set-up at Jim’s father’s inn. (Those early chapters do run the risk of wearying the short attention span of young boys and my Husband, though.) The ship’s journey is fraught with danger, but once on Treasure Island the action really ramps up: there are battles, injuries and fatalities, double- and triple- and quadruple-crossings, treasure! and intrigue. I’ll stop with the plotline there. Jim is the unlikely but triumphant hero of this story (again betraying its original audience); by virtue but mostly by luck, he contributes every major piece of action or intelligence throughout. What fun!

Pacing and action are the clear strengths of this adventure tale, which is as it should be. David Buck’s narration is fine – he does voices and accents where appropriate – but I think this version probably missed some opportunity for theatrics that this wildly theatrical story offered. It’s still a great yarn, and sets up a number of recognizable pirate jokes we know and love today. It would still suit young boys well (although look out for a slightly slow start).


Rating: 7 pieces of 8.

Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan (audio)

starryI love-love-loved Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank, so I was easily sold on the idea of this, her second novel, on audiobook. Under the Wide and Starry Sky is the story of Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne, an American woman who fled a troubled marriage when she took her three children with her to Europe to pursue her studies in the arts. There, Fanny met a young Scotsman, a sickly lawyer with a passion for writing rather than the law. This man, 10 years her junior, is Robert Louis Stevenson. He is attracted to her first; her reciprocation comes a little later; but they end up in a passionate love affair, complicated by her married-with-children status and his family’s disapproval (of his writing, as well as of Fanny as an adulterer and an American). She goes back to California; he follows her; she eventually divorces, and they marry. Fanny and Louis (as he is called) live in a wide variety of locations all over the world, as he battles persistent health problems and writes such classics as Treasure Island and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

As Loving Frank touched on the life of the more-famous Frank Lloyd Wright while focusing on his longtime mistress Mamah Borthwick, so does this story cover Stevenson by covering his wife. Fanny is brave, and strong-willed, and protective of her own, but also strong-tempered. She is creative, and sees herself as an artist in her own right – a painter, a writer – but is overshadowed by Louis. His health is best when at sea, while she gets deathly seasick as soon as she steps aboard. Their romance, their shared life, is deeply felt, ardent, and loving, but also rocky; both are passionate people with strong personalities, and they have their troubles.

This novel was not the overwhelming success for me that Loving Frank was, although I certainly enjoyed it. Both books are novels, works of fiction, but also shed a great deal of light on the real lives of men (and women) I didn’t know much about. As I’ve discussed before, fiction is not the most reliable source of knowledge, but I know more now than I did, and I won’t go writing any nonfiction monographs based off this reading (in other words, good enough). More, I enjoyed getting to know both strong women, Mamah and Fanny. However… Under the Wide and Starry Sky slowed down for me considerably in the middle. This might be partly my fault. Due to my own life’s events, I slowed way down in my listening patterns; maybe I was too far away from regular “reading” to appreciate the rhythm of Horan’s writing. But I think more objectively that the story of Louis and Fanny was faster-paced and more engaging early on, during their courtship and the grand achievement of their marriage, and later on, as they battled some significant late-life challenges, than it was in the middle when they bickered with friends and set up a few different homesteads. Also, I think Mamah got the spotlight of Loving Frank much more decisively, where Louis was a stronger costar in Under the… Sky. This is a loss from the feminist perspective (that I suspect Horan was pursuing, and that is part of her books’ attraction), of giving the women behind these men a little of the focus and attention they deserve. On the other hand, Stevenson himself was a great character to get to know (and I loved the Scottish accent as performed by Kirsten Potter), so that if you were not concerned about the feminist angle, you might be happy to have more Louis and less Fanny. Frankly, she was a little less likeable to me.

Although it lacked the magic sparkle that made Loving Frank a near-perfect achievement in my book, Under the Wide and Starry Sky was enjoyable, and I will miss Fanny and Louis in my life. For historical fiction about the strong women behind their better-known strong men, I continue to recommend Nancy Horan. And Potter’s narration was nuanced, had personality, and improved the experience.


Rating: 7 cacao seeds.

Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck (audio)

tortillaTortilla Flat is set in the neighborhood by that name in post-WWI Monterey, California, and involves a group of paisano friends. Perhaps I am just being lazy, but I do think that Steinbeck himself can tell you best what the book undertakes. I give you the first paragraph of his Preface:

This is the story of Danny and of Danny’s friends and of Danny’s house. It is a story of how these three became one thing, so that in Tortilla Flat if you speak of Danny’s house you do not mean a structure of wood flaked with old whitewash, overgrown with an ancient untrimmed rose of Castile. No, when you speak of Danny’s house you are understood to mean a unit of which the parts are men, from which came sweetness and joy, philanthropy and, in the end, a mystic sorrow. For Danny’s house was not unlike the Round Table, and Danny’s friends were not unlike the knights of it. And this is the story of how that group came into being, of how it flourished and grew to be an organization beautiful and wise. This story deals with the adventuring of Danny’s friends, with the good they did, with their thoughts and endeavors. In the end, this story tells how the talisman was lost and how the group disintegrated.

And that is, very much, what the book is about.

Danny inherits two houses from his grumpy grandfather upon returning from the war. He is astonished by his good fortune and newfound riches, but also dismayed at the great responsibility of owning property. He takes in friends, one by one by one, and they become a strange, disordered household. It is true that critical readings of this book treat it as an interpretation of the knights of King Arthur’s Round Table; but I think it’s worth pointing out that these men are a rather dirty, devious, and intermittently disloyal version thereof. They steal from each other on occasion; and their main purpose in life is to obtain wine, and drink it. Not necessarily a bad thing. Steinbeck writes as impressively as ever about the wine:

Two gallons is a great deal of wine, even for two paisanos. Spiritually the jugs maybe graduated thus: Just below the shoulder of the first bottle, serious and concentrated conversation. Two inches farther down, sweetly sad memory. Three inches more, thoughts of old and satisfactory loves. An inch, thoughts of bitter loves. Bottom of the first jug, general and undirected sadness. Shoulder of the second jug, black, unholy despondency. Two fingers down, a song of death or longing. A thumb, every other song each one knows. The graduations stop here, for the trail splits and there is no certainty. From this point anything can happen.

You might also call it a picaresque, being full of minor adventures that often run to humor and pathos by turns.

My audio version is narrated by John McDonough, and I like his interpretation very much. The Spanish-in-translation word order and sentence structure gives an accurate paisano feel, and McDonough reflects that in the lilt and rhythm of his speech. (Note that I did not say he puts on an accent.) I enjoyed hearing this story told. I did not always like the players, but that’s not a requirement for liking a book.

I won’t rate this one above the best of the Steinbeck I have read, Cannery Row and Of Mice and Men. But it is recognizably Steinbeck, and worth the time.


Rating: 7 jugs of wine, naturally.

The Rathbones by Janice Clark (audio), finished

rathbonesSee also my review of the first half.

The Rathbones finished, as it started, an odd and unusual book; which is not necessarily a good or a bad thing, and in this case worked out nicely. It was certainly memorable. I don’t want to give away any more plot than I already have (not much), because I think this unique reading experience does best when the reader goes in blind, as I did. So this review will be brief.

In regards to an earlier stated concern, I will say that the threads were pulled together in the end, but only in a loose weave. All the stories connect, but aren’t tied up with great neatness. I’m fine with this. It’s a dreamy tale, with vaguely supernatural elements. It nods to the Odyssey and Moby-Dick – or maybe more than nods. I liked the characters very much, by which I mean both that they are well crafted (with some complexities), and also likeable; they are not drawn in firm black lines, but a little blurrily, which is true of the book as a whole, and part of its charm.

The story of the Rathbone family is centered around the sea, with notes on the whaling industry that shaped the New England coast for a time. There are elements of a bildungsroman, a literal journey as well as a journey toward adulthood, the uncovering of family legacy and forming of new bonds. Travel and adventure on the sea are only part of what brings the Odyssey into play; more explicit references are made with The Rathbones‘ own Circe character, for example. But I’m going to stop there.

My experience in listening to this audiobook was excellent, even if I was perplexed halfway through. The reading is grand. The story is fanciful, and the narration fits it well. For those who enjoy relinquishing control and floating along with a fine author’s imagination, I think The Rathbones is an engaging and entertaining adventure.


Rating: 7 sons.
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