mini-reviews: station eleven and the last one

I bought Station Eleven right after it came out, and of COURSE I didn’t read it until two years later. Somehow it survived my Great Purge of Stuff of 2016 in the overseas move, and I finally read it last fall. Coincidentally, I won a copy of The Last One from a Goodreads giveaway right before moving too.These two post-apocalyptic literary books are often compared, and rightly so.

I had to work a bit to get into Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, and unfortunately (for me) I only got a little ways in before I had to put it down for the move, but when I finally picked it up again I flew through it. After a lethal virus sweeps the globe, a group of actors, musicians, and artists travel the decimated Great Lakes region performing plays and concerts to the few inhabitants left in the towns they pass through. There were a few odd things (like the dearth of guns/ammo and books in America after almost all of its citizens are wiped out… wouldn’t there be an abundance of these things?) but these minor anachronisms don’t detract from the story. I really enjoyed this thoughtful and imaginative speculative fiction novel. It shifts timelines, giving you a glimpse of living through a societal collapse instead of just showing you the aftermath. Thus, rather than being strictly about survival during and after a global epidemic, the story is more about beauty, nature, music, art, literature, and culture surviving. It’s about humanity and connection. Station Eleven was one of my favorite reads of 2016. [Read in September 2016.]

Alexandra Oliva shows she is a promising, creative writer with her debut novel, The Last One. During the filming of a survival reality TV show, a pandemic killed off much of the population. The show’s contestants have been cut off from the outside world and don’t know what’s happened. One person, a woman known as Zoo, who continues believing she’s in a game rather than an apocalypse. Zoo wasn’t as kick ass as I wanted her to be and I think the book is a bit long and winding overall. I also kind of wish I (as reader) hadn’t known that the corpses, danger, and devastation Zoo comes across were real—it left me frustrated that I knew and she didn’t, having to witness her behavior based on being in the dark. But I liked the book in general. It’s thought provoking regarding the portrayal of reality in media (how much of reality TV is real?) and how it can shape your perception of people, the world, etc. I think it’s worth a read if you like post-apocalyptic stories. [Read/listened to audiobook in March 2017.]

mini-reviews: heart’s invisible furies and child finder

I was really focused on non-fiction for a few months there this summer that I felt like I needed a good dose of fiction, and luckily for me there have been some fantastic new releases this year. Here are two that I listened to on audio last month:

Cyril Avery was born to a teenage mom in 1940s Ireland and adopted by a rich family who always let him know he wasn’t “really” one of them. John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies is a beautiful, engrossing story of a man’s life and his personal journey to uncover his identity and where and with whom he belongs. I’m always attracted to literature coming from and based in Ireland, and I’ve been wanting a great LGBTQ+ story lately too, so this book pleasantly scratched a few itches for me. I’ll be adding more of John Boyne’s books to my TBR list, for sure. [Listened to audiobook in September 2017.]

I loved Rene Denfield‘s last book, The Enchanted, so I knew I had to read The Child Finder when it came out. Naomi, a private investigator with a troubled past, is searching for a girl named Madison, who disappeared a few years earlier. As the plot unfolds through alternating viewpoints, you learn about Naomi’s past and why she is uniquely qualified to be the titular Child Finder, and also about Madison’s experience. It’s very dark and disturbing subject matter—child abduction and all you can expect that goes along with that but it’s not graphic whatsoever—so it’s not necessarily for the faint of heart. But the writing is just as lovely as in The Enchanted, with elements of magical realism (but still heavy on the realism), use of characters’ imaginations, and an otherworldly quality that is emotional without being sappy. I didn’t dig the narrator so much, so I kind of wish I had read on paper, but despite that I did still get pulled in to the story. [Listened to audiobook in September 2017.]

difficult men

I recently started re-watching The Sopranos, one of my all-time most favorite shows ever, which compelled me to borrow Difficult Men by Brett Martin from my library on audio. I remember seeing it make the blog rounds a few years ago. Edited from Goodreads:

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the landscape of television began an unprecedented transformation. No longer necessarily concerned with creating always-likable characters, plots that wrapped up neatly every episode, or subjects that were deemed safe and appropriate, shows such as The Wire, The Sopranos, Mad Men, Deadwood, The Shield, and more tackled issues of life and death, love and sexuality, addiction, race, violence, and existential boredom.This revolution happened at the hands of a new breed of auteur: the all-powerful writer-show runner.

Combining deep reportage with cultural analysis and historical context, Brett Martin takes us behind the scenes of our favorite shows, delivering never-before-heard story after story and revealing how cable TV has distinguished itself dramatically from the networks, emerging from the shadow of film to become a truly significant and influential part of our culture.

Difficult Men definitely lets you know what it’s all about with its title, but I still wanted something a little different that what Martin delivered. I think I wanted more about the complex characters of Tony Soprano (The Sopranos), Don Draper (Mad Men), and Walter White (Breaking Bad)  themselves and their cultural impact. Difficult Men is mostly about David Chase and behind the scenes of The Sopranos, which of course I enjoyed learning about, as well as how James Gandolfini handled (or rather, struggled with) his iconic role. I guess I expected a broader look at what Martin calls the “Third Golden Age of Television.” Martin gives short shrift to regular network shows (no love for Lost?? I loved that show) and you don’t read much about women in the business here (well, that could and should be a whole book unto itself).

The process from writing to production was really interesting, as well as how the show runners were given freedom to see their vision through and push the boundaries of televised storytelling thanks to the development of the 60-minute episode and 10–13 episodes-per-season format. It’s worth a read if you want to know more about the background of The Sopranos for sure, and some background on a few other revered cable dramas.

Listened to audiobook in August 2017.

mini-reviews: the bell jar and one flew over the cuckoo’s nest

I’m not great at reading classics. There are some I remember from high school and just loathing (Their Eyes Were Watching GodThings Fall Apart) that I would definitely like to give a second chance. But there are some classics that weren’t in my school curriculum that I’ve always wanted to read, but have had trouble starting. Thank you, audiobooks! This year I’ve listened to a few, and these two complemented each other nicely.

I just finished Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (read by Maggie Gyllenhaal) a couple days ago. I really wish I had read this in my late teens or early 20s—I think I would have been obsessed! It’s an eerie, affecting book especially knowing Plath’s life story and her suicide. The writing is beautiful but also unemotional, if that makes sense. I didn’t quite get “insane” from Esther, but her mental illness does come through from knowing hints in the beginning to growing paranoia and intense questioning of her own thoughts and actions by the end. The electroshock therapy scenes were horrifying. I was really moved by Plath’s use of being trapped in a bell jar to describe Esther’s mental state—the distorted view from the inside looking out. It’s obvious why this is a time-tested classic. [Listened to audiobook in Sept. 2017.]

Many years ago I “borrowed” my mom’s copy of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and surprise! never got around to reading it. The audiobook version, though, read by Tom Parker, was fantastic and engaging. I saw the movie years ago but didn’t realize the book is told from the point of view of Chief Bromden. McMurphy is quite a character—he’s likable, obnoxious, and a troublemaker, but it’s a fight-the-power kind of trouble that I liked. Kesey’s no-nonsense writing makes you think more about societal roles, authority, mental health, and its healing and treatment practices in psychiatric institutions, at least during the 1950s and 60s. I’m still not sure if McMurphy really had a mental illness or not. This was a great, complex story that I’m glad I finally took the time to experience. [Listened to audiobook in March 2017.]

mini-reviews: i’m just a person and mo’ meta blues

Two of my favorite books read in 2016 were celebrity memoirs. I read them both after I left Kansas City, one while I was in Madison for the summer and one after moving to Singapore, but both still stand out to me a year later.

I admit I’m not a die-hard fan of stand-up comedy, but there are a select few comedians that have reached me through their work—Marc Maron, Trevor Noah—and Tig Notaro ranks highly. I watched her great Netflix special Tig in 2015, and have been following her since. While much of the material in i’m just a person is familiar to fans from Tig and her stand-up routines, this raw, personal memoir is still worth a quick read. She talks more about her childhood and 2012, her horrible year battling disease and dealing with a breakup as well as her mother’s death. I was really inspired by her tenacity through tragedy, and how she makes her painful stories and vulnerabilities relatable and entertaining. [Read in July 2016.]

I’ve loved The Roots for a long time and I had been meaning to read this one for a while, and with all my newfound free time in Singapore last year I finally got to it! I found Questlove’s Mo’ Meta Blues just a delight. Questlove is more charming, humble, and thoughtful a human being than I ever realized. He keeps this book light while still deep-diving on certain topics at the same time. His philosophical musings about the states of pop culture, hip-hop, and music criticism are intelligent and spot on. I loved that he started each chapter with a question, and I think my favorite parts were his recollections of certain critical albums in his life. [Read in November 2016.]

a fine balance (audio)

I’m not sure why, but I felt like re-reading A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry recently. It was available on audio at my library—one of the best ways to re-read a book! From Goodreads:

With a compassionate realism and narrative sweep that recall the work of Charles Dickens, this magnificent novel captures all the cruelty and corruption, dignity and heroism, of India.

The time is 1975. The place is an unnamed city by the sea. The government has just declared a State of Emergency, in whose upheavals four strangers—a spirited widow, a young student uprooted from his idyllic hill station, and two tailors who have fled the caste violence of their native village—will be thrust together, forced to share one cramped apartment and an uncertain future.

As the characters move from distrust to friendship and from friendship to love, A Fine Balance creates an enduring panorama of the human spirit in an inhuman state.

I first read A Fine Balance in 2012, and absolutely loved it. This book has stayed with me since then and I’m sure I’ll revisit it again in the future. Aside from noting the excellent narration by John Lee on this audiobook version, I’m not sure I have much more to add to my 2012 review, although I think I’d be more casual with my language in a blog post these days:

This book is dark. The characters are destitute, piteous… yet not without hope, not entirely humorless. There are moments of tragicomedy, moments of beauty, moments of love. The four protagonists’ relationships are truly moving and wonderful by the end. You feel so deeply for them—going through so many trying hardships—I was distressed and terrified for them during several scenes. The characters face the inexplicably unjust events in their lives with dignity and courage, though.

Mistry’s prose is delicate and polished, visually and emotionally evocative, and left me breathless at the end. The scope of A Fine Balance is staggering and broad, but the stories of the characters are intimate and complex. At times while reading I found myself thinking a scene here or there, or seemingly random minor characters were perhaps unnecessary, but everything is needed and comes together by the book’s conclusion. Not one thing is superfluous.

While not a pleasant or light read, A Fine Balance is important for its portrait of political/socioeconomic austerity and the depth and substance of the human spirit. The characters became very real for me, and I thought about this story for days after finishing. It is a heartrending, beautiful work and I will definitely follow this author.

It was as good the second time through. I remembered most of it, but I still enjoyed experiencing this story again. I only regret I haven’t read any more by Mistry! I still have a copy of Family Matters on my shelf, waiting to be read.

Listened to audiobook in August 2017.