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: borne and made for love

Like I said in my previous post, I have been craving some good fiction recently. Here are two fantastically weird books I read in the last couple months fit the bill and will rank highly when I look back at everything I read this year! I read great books by both of these authors before and was really excited for their new ones.

In Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne, Rachel is a scavenger in a post-apocalyptic city in the near future. She holes up in an abandoned apartment building with a mysterious guy named Wick, who worked for a biotech company in town that may or may not have something to do with ruining the city. One day scavenging, Rachel picks up Borne, an amorphous, living creature she raises and teaches like a child, but we’re not sure of Borne’s origins or real purpose. Meanwhile, there is a humongous building-sized grizzly bear named Mord that flies (no wings) above and terrorizes the city. What. Am. I. Reading. I loved it—it was suspenseful and immersive, strange and compelling. Just like in Annihilation and his Southern Reach Triology, VanderMeer is the king of weird world building and psychologically eerie style. I had absolutely no idea where the plot was going and it was awesome. [Read in Aug. 2017.]

I was so excited for Made for Love by Alissa Nutting after reading her salacious book Tampa a few years ago. In Made for Love, Hazel leaves her tech mogul husband Byron after his inventions become too invasive. She stays with her aging father and his newly acquired life-like sex doll at his trailer-park retirement home, while trying to dodge Byron’s seemingly never-ending reach. Meanwhile, a second story line takes place involving a con man (think Sawyer from Lost) who is in love with dolphins. How will these people all intersect in the end? It sounds crazy and ridiculous but still makes total sense as you’re reading. I laughed out loud many times! I love Nutting’s absurdist but still kind of matter-of-fact style. This was a brilliant and imaginative story from Nutting and I was entertained and satisfied from start to finish. [Listened to audiobook in September 2017.]

book club: parable of the sower and bitch planet

This week, my friend Anthony and I held another meeting (online) of our Best Friends International Book Club! I have so much fun reading and discussing books with him. Anthony put it sweetly in a comment on my Instagram:

You encourage me to think deeper and wider with each selection, and I love how this keeps us connected—with each other and the world around us! 😍 [link]

That’s how I feel about him and our club! It means a lot to me to stay connected to my beloved Kansas City family. And although we’re in different countries and drinking different beverages when we have our book club Skype dates, we actually do stay on topic! Mostly! We keep it loose as far as timing our meetings go; we chat when we’re both done with the books and when we’re available.

First, we read Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler. It was the first Butler book for either of us. In 2025, society is descending into a chaotic collapse. Headstrong teenager Lauren’s family is killed and her home is destroyed, so she and a few neighbors journey north to a rumored safe haven. Along the way they encounter dangers and new people, and Lauren reveals her plans for a new religion. Lauren also has a condition called “hyperempathy,” which allows her to physically feel the pain of others. I was struck by how prescient and insightful Butler was in her description of this near-future America: privatization, climate change, gender and race issues, religion, the opioid crisis, and more. It’s an important addition to the science fiction genre for these reasons, plus being written by a woman of color. Unfortunately, the book didn’t entirely live up to the hype and rave reviews for me. The religion aspect turned me off, as did the hyperempathy. I always have trouble with epistolary novels, too—Sower is basically Lauren’s diary. I’d rather be shown the action than be told about it after the fact. I think this may actually be a YA book, too, which are usually hard for me to get into. I was interested in the The Road-like journey the crew takes north, though. I wonder if I would have liked Sower better if the religion and hyperempathy had been cut? These parts bothered Anthony less, but overall he felt the same. We decided this first book in Butler’s Earthseed series was enough for us. But! I’m not writing off Butler entirely; I’m looking forward to reading Kindred one day. [Read ebook in May 2017.]

Bitch Planet, Book One by DeConnick and De Landro was our second pick for this discussion. In another near-future dystopia, if women don’t comply with the behavioral and beauty expectations placed upon them by the patriarchal leadership, they are arrested and sent away from Earth to a prison planet. The plot (so far) involves the “non-compliant” women being forced to compete in an all-male game called Megaton in order to “spice up” the event, and there’s corruption in the government and prison, etc. I love how in-your-face this graphic novel is, and how the women are non-apologetic and kick-ass. I’m really interested in seeing where this is going. I do wish there was more backstory, and I felt it drag when the focus shifted to men on Earth just talking about Bitch Planet. Otherwise, I think Bitch Planet has a great premise and is an excellent, creative way to get readers thinking and talking about intersectional feminism, the prison industrial complex, sexism, societal expectations of women, and more. Anthony felt the same way, so we chose Bitch Planet, Book Two for our next discussion. He also mentioned the best part: the hilarious fake ads at the end of each issue! [Read in May 2017.]

Our next choices for BFIBC are Bitch Planet, Book Two, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and Chris Hayes’s A Colony in a Nation. I’m excited!

american war

I’ve been listening to a ton of audiobooks lately while I draw during the day. I recently finished American War by Omar El Akkad, his killer debut novel. El Akkad has reported myriad events across the globe, including Egypt’s Arab Spring, the Black Lives Matter movement originating in Ferguson, Missouri, the war in Afghanistan, and the Guantànamo Bay trials. From Goodreads:

Sarat Chestnut, born in Louisiana, is only six when the Second American Civil War breaks out in 2074. But even she knows that oil is outlawed, that Louisiana is half underwater, and that unmanned drones fill the sky. When her father is killed and her family is forced into Camp Patience for displaced persons, she begins to grow up shaped by her particular time and place. But not everyone at Camp Patience is who they claim to be.

Eventually Sarat is befriended by a mysterious functionary, under whose influence she is turned into a deadly instrument of war. The decisions that she makes will have tremendous consequences not just for Sarat but for her family and her country, rippling through generations of strangers and kin alike.

The book imagines a United States in about 50 years from now, not so united anymore after civil war breaks out between the North and South (again), this time over a law banning fossil fuels. The capital has moved from Washington D.C. to Columbus, Ohio. Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia secede, fighting the North to still use oil and coal, while the rest of the country (and, apparently, world) forges ahead with renewable energy. South Carolina is a quarantine state.

It’s not difficult to speculate on another civil war occurring in the United States, based on its current political and ideological divisiveness, with unsettling surges of violence, intolerance, and hate crimes across the country. Historical issues of war such as families torn apart and living indefinitely in refugee camps, children recruited as guerrilla soldiers, cities and towns destroyed, and corrupt politicians appear in El Akkad’s vision of America’s future here, making it that much more believable.

It’s pretty clear that American War serves as an allegory of the Iraq War, with climate change as the book’s catalyst. The climate change aspect is realistic and handled well, but I found it a little strange that race is only brought up in the periphery, and I can’t recall religion being mentioned at all. It’s a noticeable omission, since race and religion loom so large in American society and politics now (still). It would be reasonable to conclude that race and religion would also be factors in an American civil war taking place just a short 50 years from now.

That said, I was able to suspend my disbelief and become immersed in this ruined-wasteland vision of America’s South. I’ve heard that the printed book has a few pages of maps, which I’m sorry I missed out on with the audio, but narrator Dion Graham (who also recorded the audio for the incredible Pulitzer Prize-winning 2016 book Evicted by Matthew Desmond) did a fantastic job adding dimension to the characters and dramatizing the action scenes. I really liked El Akkad’s technique of dispersing “historical documentation” with Sarat’s journey, so the reader has a change to learn about how we got to this point.

American War is a fine addition the dystopian-climate change fiction genre popular right now.

Listened to audiobook in April 2017.

reading recap: january 2017

I think I’m getting my stride back with reading now in 2017. I’m not participating in any creative reading challenges this year, just the Goodreads and 50 Book Pledge ones, which takes some (admittedly imaginary) pressure off. So far I set my goal at 50, but I’m hoping to get back up to around 60, closer to my normal yearly amount. Bad bookish news, though: my Kansas City Public Library account expired! I was hoping I had at least another six months, tears. I’ve been using it for ebooks and audiobooks through Overdrive, and it’s been great. I’ll get a new account at my local Wisconsin library on my next visit back, but still. I liked having one last connection to Kansas City. Sigh.

I had a good January for reading, and enjoyed all of these books:

jan-2017-recap

  • Born a Crime (ebook) … Trevor Noah
  • Packing for Mars … Mary Roach
  • Metallica: Back to the Front … Matt Taylor
  • The Handmaid’s Tale (audiobook) … Margaret Atwood, read by Claire Danes
  • March, books 1–3 … John Lewis with Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell

Almost all non-fiction… one could make the joke that I read all non-fiction… (weeps). But The Handmaid’s Tale was my favorite book of the month. I read it once before, in early 2010, and loved it then. I’ve had a little celebrity crush on Claire Danes for years and years—she was my spirit animal in My So-Called Life—and hearing her read one of my all-time favorite books gave me life in this state of political unrest. Just a terrifying, disquieting book. I read once that Atwood based things in the book (women losing agency over their finances, property, eventually their own bodies) on real-life events throughout world history. I wanted to start it over again from the beginning right after finishing (and I just may listen to it again before the year is out).

I was so excited to also read Born a Crime by Trevor Noah, an immigrant, when it came through my (last) library holds at the beginning of the year. It was a wonderful, sharp, insightful memoir to start of 2017. There were some utterly hilarious scenes, and I really admired his honesty about his relationships with his country and family, especially his mother. I loved his reflections on language and how that can effect interpersonal understanding and empathy. I only wish I had been able to listen to the audio version!

I’ve enjoyed a couple other Mary Roach books, and Packing for Mars was no exception. My husband got it as a Christmas gift a couple of years ago and recommended it to me this month. I realize now that it was another pertinent read for these times, with anti-science and anti-education mindsets becoming more rampant. RESIST!! But truly, Packing for Mars is signature Roach, making you feel as though you’re right alongside her as she investigates the “everything-you-want-to-know-but-are-too-embarrassed-to-ask” questions surrounding any given topic. Bonus: after I finished Nick and I visited the NASA: A Human Adventure exhibit currently on at the ArtScience Museum here in Singapore. It was a treat to see artifacts of the very things I’d just read about in person, including the space toilet!

The March graphic novel trilogy by John Lewis had been on my TBR for at least a few months now, but skyrocketed to the top thanks to events that took place on Twitter, you all know what I’m talking about. I snagged the only set at the Kinokuniya bookstore and devoured all three books in a matter of days. I usually struggle with graphic novels just in that I focus on the words so much I forget to take time absorbing the art too, but I made an effort to pay attention to both text and image and the experience really paid off. March is a very engaging work that clearly connects events and people through the civil rights movement of the 1960s via John Lewis’s involvement. I really hope young people are reading this right now.

Finally, for some much needed mental catharsis, I read through Metallica: Back to the Front, the authorized story of the Master of Puppets album and subsequent tour, as prep for the band’s concert here in Singapore on January 22. I listened to (almost) the whole discography as I read, which really enhanced the experience. This book is obviously a must-own for any die-hard fan, but I think even casual fans and listeners would really appreciate this round-table style recounting and images of the band starting up, the making of its first three albums, and the epic (and ultimately tragic) tour of 1986. Besides the history, this is a beautiful tribute to the band’s unforgettable late bassist Cliff Burton.

Looking ahead, I’d like to read Duff McKagan’s It’s So Easy and Other Lies before we see Guns N’ Roses on February 25 here, When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, Freedom is a Constant Struggle by Angela Davis, Blood at the Root by Patrick Phillips, You Can’t Touch My Hair by Phoebe Robinson, and Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood. I’m already almost finished with Roxane Gay’s Difficult Women, which I simply haven’t been able to put down. We’ll see what I can get through!
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reading recap: september 2016

We’re almost through October all of a sudden! Time is a little weird for me here in Singapore, firstly because I’m on “temporary unlimited vacation” (code for job-free) right now, and secondly because the weather is such that it’s basically perpetually August. So I sort of feel like every day is an August Saturday, and it’s tough to make myself get on the computer these days when I have pretty much zero routine. But when I realized October is almost over, I figured I should put up my September books and try to get myself back on track! Here’s what I read in September:

sept-reading

  • My Life on the Road … Gloria Steinem
  • Station Eleven … Emily St. John Mandel
  • The Vegetarian … Han Kang
  • We Were Liars (audio) … E. Lockhart, read by Ariadne Meyers
  • Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (audio) … Dee Brown, read by Grover Gardner
  • The Underground Railroad (ebook) … Colson Whitehead
  • Yes, Chef (audio) … Marcus Samuelsson, read by author

My two best reads of the month were Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and Station Eleven. I’d been wanting to read Bury My Heart forever, maybe since high school, and it was just as devastating and infuriating as I knew it would be, but so important and one that every American should read. I bought Station Eleven almost right after it was first released, but kept putting it off—that whole thing where you’re worried a book won’t live up to the hype or expectations. But luckily it totally did live up to the hype (for me). I loved how it was a different look at society’s not only practical but also cultural needs after a collapse, and that the reader is shown the process of and reason for the collapse rather than just the aftermath (as in so many future-dystopia books I’ve read).

The Vegetarian was brief but interesting and strange, and I thought about it quite a long time after finishing. We Were Liars, also a brief read, was kind of predictable and reminded me (once AGAIN) that I should not pick up YA lit. But I do understand the appeal, no judgement here of those who love YA. I love a good food memoir, and Yes, Chef was enjoyable enough and he certainly has had a incredible life and career, even if I didn’t “click” with Samuelsson so much on a personal level like I did with other memiorists. Like I did with Gloria Steinem in My Life on the Road. I shamefully didn’t know much about her life before reading this book, and I really enjoyed “tagging along” on her travels and speaking engagements (so to speak). Her insight on the 2008 democratic race between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama was illuminating, especially at this moment eight years later.

And here’s my unpopular opinion of the month: Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad didn’t really do it for me. While the subject matter is extremely important and timely even today, the characters fell flat and the plot felt disjointed for me. I’m the odd one out it seems, looks like the majority of readers were blown away, so don’t let my feelings stop you from reading it if it’s on your list.

October recap coming next week (on time!)
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