Category Archives: review

Know your story: A look at Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

Honestly, there’s not much “new” news to add about preparing for my writer’s residency, other than, to quote Dory from Finding Nemo, “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming…” At least, on the writing front. However, there is another side to writing, and that is reading.

While toiling away on what passes for my current manuscript, I’ve thundered through an increasing number of books. Recently, I completed Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel.
cover of novel Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Station Eleven was a book I added to my “to-read” list near the end of last year, when everyone and their grandmother was coming out with end-of-the-year best-of lists. I’m not sure what list I found Station Eleven on. It was an early list, that much I know, because after a while List Exhaustion set in and I couldn’t care less who ranked what where.

I realized, after I received my copy (the wait list at the library was over 200 people when I added my name) that I’d previously read one of Mandel’s other books, and I didn’t like it. The characters annoyed me. Fortunately, Station Eleven was different.

Station Eleven displays a gift for the revealing detail. The story is also good at answering only those questions that require an answer. I liked this book a lot, and my inner Nerd Writer was pleased, also. My inner Nerd Writer is on high alert ever since the residency news came in, and I’m happy to appease her whenever possible.

Choosing what questions to answer

In Station Eleven, Mandel created a “post-apocalyptic” setting. This is a novel about a not-too-distant future in which society has collapsed after a global pandemic. Making assumptions about a theoretical future can be either inspired or a disaster. Fantasy and scifi books by definition permanently must run this gauntlet. Mandel keeps the premise probable by doing the opposite of what most writers want to do: she refrains from going into (too many) details (too early).

Because of her setting, she has a large territory to explore: what aspects of the collapse of civilization will we learn about? One of the failings of writers in this position is often the summary statement (“and then, Russia fell, and when the satellites stopped working there was a long period of confusion…”). Instead, Mandel avoids giving a third person omniscient perspective — what I think of as the “newscaster view,” in which you can imagine a network talking head getting us up to speed. Instead, we learn about aspects of the collapse and the aftermath while we are meeting the characters. Mandel answers only the questions directly relevant to these people, and this saves us from falling into an encyclopedia.

The relevant detail

I’ve thought a lot lately about what goes into a vivid, submersive description. How can we show what our written world looks like, and the people in it? How much is enough, and how much is too much information? We’ve all seen those books where character descriptions run like a police profile: height, weight, eye and hair color. Mandel almost falls into the opposite trap: we get few physical character details, and by the end of the book, I confess I still wasn’t sure what some of the main characters looked like.

Oddly, that was mostly not a problem. Information about characters, their flaws, their preferences, are sprinkled throughout Station Eleven. The effect is cumulative: as we move forward through the story, we get to know more about the characters, just as we do when we meet another person repeatedly in real life. By the end of the novel, we know a lot about who these characters are (which I think is more important), and the contours of the world they live in.

Mandel does this by choosing precise details, and leaving out the rest. The trick is, I think, to be specific. Instead of saying “flowers,” say “tulips.” Instead of writing about every aspect of scene composition, pick out a handful of details that can stand in for the rest, the way a stage set can be minimal and suggestive at the same time. Station Eleven is full of selective detail. True, Mandel doesn’t veer into botany, but she does use specific nouns for her scenes and constructs a suggestive, rather than exhaustive, set.

Know your story

In the end, I think these two strengths come back to the basic premise, “Know your story.” Mandel can do more with less because she knows what her story is about. Station Eleven is a quiet book. The action and confrontation that drive the plot are conspicuous by their absence from the page — characters are witnesses, but the reader is not. This is both good and less so. On the one hand, Mandel runs the risk of losing the reader. On the other hand, explosive action is not what the book is about. Station Eleven is about what happens to the human heart and the human condition in unusual circumstances. I think Mandel stays true to that bedrock foundation. A worthwhile read.

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What do you nerd out about in the books you read?

Some books are bad

And we should know about them.

black and white cat cuddling with novel

CC image courtesy of Leach84 on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

It’s snowing here right now. Big, wet flakes of spring snow. Which means I have the perfect excuse to cuddle up with some blankets, a mug of hot chocolate, and a good book. Or several good books, as the case may be.

I am a book glutton.

I go on library binges the way some people go on chocolate binges or shopping binges. I can never seem to stop at just ONE book. There’s just too much (potential) goodness.

Notice that cute editing trick I played right there? The parentheses? It’s because I caught myself saying “goodness” as if every single book was good. Or good for us. Which is not true.

Some books are bad.

Damn, that’s hard to say out loud.

I LOVE books. Books are the perfect conversation partner — they’re always going at the exact speed we want them to go. They’ll pause when we want to pause, and continue as we want to continue. Until we get to The End, of course.

But some of them, to be honest, are lousy.

Occasionally, when I get a little ways into a book I impulse-brought-home from the library, I’ll wonder what possessed me to grab it. Not often, but sometimes. This is my version of the bar crawl and associated regret.

I try to make excuses for the book, but sometimes it’s plain bad.

Enter the book review

I was thinking about the reality of Bad Books again this week. Not because I am in the middle of a lousy book. I was on Goodreads, researching a book I was considering bringing over for coffee. I was going over one rave review after another, and my eyes were glazing over. Can this be true? I thought. It can’t be. People here totally drank the Kool-Aid.

Sometimes books are bad, and we want to know about them. In fact, low-star and negative book reviews may be more useful than any other kind of review for helping us to weed out the crowd.

I found out that I appreciated bad reviews, at any rate.

In support of the “bad” review

There were a LOT of reviews for the book I was looking up. A LOT of POSITIVE reviews. I think book reviews operate on the reverse principle of the calls made to most customer service departments. Customer service departments tend to hear from people who are pissed. Sites for reader reviews feature the readers who are in love with the book they are reviewing. Neither of these scenarios gives us an accurate picture. Book readers, on the whole, want someone else to know how amazing the book was they just read! They can’t keep the information to themselves — they want to sing it from the rooftops!

All the positive reviews for this book began to look exactly the same to me. I was getting zero information.

(Side note: what is it about book reviews that makes people want to recap the plot? Not necessary! We already have the jacket flaps and the publisher’s blurb! Otherwise the information is just spoilers! But I digress.)

They were all the same, these reviews. They weren’t telling me anything I didn’t already know by the 3rd 5-star review — except what they revealed about the text itself (spoiling spoiling spoiling). I don’t care, I caught myself thinking. What if I met you (the reviewer) in person and thought you were a complete flake? This book review would do me no good whatsoever.

Then I got to the first two-star review.

Don’t tell me you “like” something. Tell me WHY you like it!

I felt as though someone had just opened a door to let in some fresh air. Finally, I had what I wanted: if there was an aspect of the book which might not thrill someone (and I’m not saying there always has to be or that the lack of thrill complaint is always valid), or which could be described as annoying, what would that be? Was this something which could bother me as well? I read on, first one and then another 2-star review, and I came across a few candidates for What Could Annoy.

I kept scrolling down through the pile of comments, giving all the 4- or 5-stars a pass. Sometimes, a 3-star would make me hesitate, but they appeared to be rare in this instance. I focused on the 2-star reviews.

Here’s the beauty of this approach: it matters not whether I agree or disagree with the 2-star review. Either way, I’ve learned something about the book by learning about the reader who disliked it. I can get a feeling for the book by checking to see whether or not I do agree or disagree with what annoyed this person. And that, gentle reader, helps me make a decision about reading the book.

Many people who like books forget to tell us why they like them. “Beautiful” may be descriptive because the word is an adjective, but it doesn’t tell me anything. I can imagine whatever I like under the word “beautiful” and my beautiful may have nothing to do with yours!

This is not to say that I want everyone to go out there and find some book to pan online. Rather, I appreciate the people who are not raving fans of certain works who took the time to share why.

This is my call to your customer service department, to say Thank You for a job well done.

…Now, for my hot chocolate and cuddle with my “good” book…. which I may or may not feel inspired to review…

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How do you feel about book reviews? Let me know in the comments!

Book bullies: When that novel just won’t leave you alone

black and white of child throwing a tantrum

I don’t wanna read this book! Don’t make me! — CC image “Tantrum” courtesy of demandaj on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

I’ve picked up a book that I’m beginning to find intrusive.

This book is really getting in the way. I see it there, on the floor next to my bed, with the bookmark sticking out of its spine, and narrow my eyes at it. I know for a fact that beguiling cover is only a smokescreen for total entrapment. If I start reading again, I’ll be unable to stop for at least a few chapters, and then what’ll I do? Not much else with the rest of my day, that’s what!

Plus, I’ll get agitated. Terrible things are happening to the main character all the time. The book thinks it can fool me, because it starts out with a backdrop of lyrical words and natural beauty. Then it likes to hammer me and tear my guts out, before sending a few more soothing droplets of peace my way.

Keeping this book next to my bed is a bad idea. I want to know what is happening next, but on the other hand, I also want to sleep. I’ll lie down and get all cuddly with my book, knowing I’ll keep turning pages until the next emotional crash. At which point I will lie awake, fretting about the uncertain (fictional) future, as emotionally invested in the characters as if we were related.

I was browsing at the library (always a dangerous pastime) when I found the book, although I should only have been returning items and rushing out before my car meter expired. Intrigued by the cover and the title, I checked out the jacket flaps. Then I started reading the first chapter. I have a rule of thumb which says, if I am standing in a bookstore or a library for more than 10 minutes reading a book I only thought about “checking out” briefly, I need to pick up a copy for myself to read at home. The rule applied, so I took this dangerous novel back to my place with me, little knowing the emotional time-bombs it was going to set off in my psyche.

I knew the author, too; I’d read some of her short prose. That was destructive, also. In a beautiful way. This should have warned me, had I paid closer attention to the byline. But I was snookered by my own oversight.

Ooh, shiny pretty cover design!

I’ve had the book for a couple of weeks now — I usually read MUCH faster than this — and have made my painful way to the final third of the story. I had another book from the library waiting for me to read — the new Khaled Hosseini, which, since it was new, was only being lent for a limited time and I wasn’t allowed to renew it — which I didn’t get to read AT ALL because of Book Number One.

I had to return a book without reading it.

That never happens.

But, Alex, you might point out. All of the characteristics of the book you are complaining about — these sound like GOOD things. And you’d be right, of course. Don’t all of us want to create a world that’s so real it rivals the tangible surroundings of our readers? Don’t we all yearn to create characters who haunt our readers just like they haunt us? Don’t we all want our prose to be described by adjectives that we synonomize with “beautiful”?

Now, I like immersive fiction. After all, that’s kind of the point. I just like to be the one in charge, and right now, I’m not.

Book bully.
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When was the last time a book grabbed you by the scruff of the neck and dragged you kicking and screaming? Share in the comments!

Why I am not a fan of this well-written novel

How hopelessness doesn't play in literature - a case study

 

leatherbound book with ribbon bookmark

image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

I recently finished a new book by a well-known author.1 It was a very different kind of book from what her previous readers would likely expect, a characteristic that particularly intrigued me. I love it when artists break boundaries. I had enjoyed her other books, and I wanted to enjoy this one.

I finished it, and a couple of weeks have gone by. The book was good, and I found it difficult to put down… but I’m not sure that I can say I like it.

Weird, no?

I certainly didn’t dislike it. But the book is different from what I expected.

Not because I was expecting a variation on the earlier work. But rather because this new one is actually quite a dark, angry book, sometimes bleak and frankly cynical.

The narrative is cynical about the behaviors and motivations of all human beings. Under the pretense of honesty, the author portrays all people as weak, cowardly, and entirely self-interested. I use the word “pretense” advisedly. Pop culture finds it “hip” to be dark and nihilistic — I felt this way about The Dark Knight, which I thought was an excellent but depressing movie, and the same thing seems to be happening in the new Kevin Bacon series, The Following — whereas in my opinion, a story doesn’t redeem itself without being redeeming in some way. I’m not saying the author is trying to hook into pop culture, just that her book falls under this wider umbrella of nihilism which has become somewhat pervasive. Portraying the entire human race as either evil, or vapid, is just as unrealistic as painting us all as angels and saints.

During the book’s setup, however, this negative assumption worked well: I read it in the spirit of a farce, perhaps something sharp and biting, like George Bernard Shaw, or Oscar Wilde. But quickly, the humor began to disappear, like water in a leaky watering can.

One character escaped this treatment, I felt: AP, the acne-ridden older son of an abusive, petty criminal father, who is infatuated with the new girl in town. He is a three-dimensional character, with strengths as well as weaknesses, and his personality develops naturally throughout the book. AP doesn’t stand in for a type or an idea; he is his own person.

Also on the positive side, readers of her earlier works will recognize the author’s command of language, particularly dialogue. At the same time, a number of characters were visual “blanks” to me. I was missing details I could hang my hat on. MF, for example. She didn’t even get a personality until the end of the book. Now, that may have been intentional, a literary allusion to the way the community treated her as an icon and an idea. But in that case, I’d rather have her remain entirely characterless the whole way through. But the most egregious example, I think, was the case of KW. What color was her hair? Was she tall? Chubby? No idea. For such a central character, thematically, and for someone with such a large physical presence, I feel this was a huge oversight.

The story is a page-turner. I wanted to know what happened next. That being said, for the most part I found myself so stressed out by the events unfolding in the book that I couldn’t read it before going to bed. I was unable to sleep, I was so on edge.

But my greatest reservation pertains to the negative outlook (drum roll, please) The Casual Vacancy seems to possess regarding human interaction, rather than any literary qualities it displays. I saw virtually no capacity for grace in this novel. The ending lifts… from an annihilating hopelessness we float to a kind of regret… but I didn’t feel a resolution. I felt relief, yes, and a waning of the tension I carried in my body as I had been reading the book, but there wasn’t anything to hang onto. All the social battles framed by the narrative were being lost — but the narrative never went into the arguments for wanting to win them. As a reader, I felt much like the character PJ, who realizes she’s supporting one side of an argument out of habit, personal friendship and allegiance. This is the side I think JK Rowling is on, through her social worker character, but the only coherent argument I discern in favor of this position is that the alternative would be… sad.2

hardcover design for novel The Casual Vacancy

image courtesy of goodreads.com

The story filled me with indignation. But the tale dissolves in a sigh, rather than coalescing into any kind of grace or light, and in that, I feel cheated as a reader, and very cheated in my having felt indignant.

Yet I can’t say I dislike the book (although I don’t like its vision). Ms. Rowling has brought to life a complex (and navel-gazing) small community. I salute her for getting another, different work out so soon after the Harry Potter series. She has avoided being pigeonholed (I hope), as well as from being sucked into the vortex Harper Lee fell into. To Kill a Mockingbird was a smash success. Ms. Lee never wrote another book. Ms. Rowling has.

Would I recommend you read The Casual Vacancy? Absolutely. As I said at the beginning of this post, this is a good book. It’s engaging and well worth reading. Plus, I would love to hear what other people think about both the story and the literary construction. How do you feel about some of my observations in this post?

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1. Don’t fret, those of you who are curiosity-minded; I’ll do a “reveal” at the end of the post. Feel free to skip down to find out who it is in advance. The post may include a few spoilers, so keep that in mind if you’d rather be surprised.

2. A weak argument. Can’t we muster anything stronger than that? Losing hold of “right” and “wrong” not only diminishes us as people, but robs us of literary muscle.

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image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Oh They Could Sell It

An Evening of Song at Denver Public Library

I looked around me.  I kept thinking I was going to make a comment to someone next to me — a friend, or my theater-mad relatives — but of course that wasn’t possible.  I had gone to the show alone.

image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

Part of the reason for that was I only found out about it approximately twenty-four hours before it was set to take place.  My discovery was a total accident — a concert? at the library?  It would never have occurred to me.

The description sounded like a gas: “songs with the flirt built in.”  The program featured songs from the 30s through the 50s, with lyrics crafted to duck censors and standard bearers of the appropriate.  The setlist (provided below) reveled in examples of bawdy humor and sly digs at the foibles of human relationships.  And best of all — it was free!

It was too outrageous to pass up.

I turned up at the top level of the Denver Central Library early.  Balloons were scattered festively across the floor, and paintings along the gallery walls added to the color (and artistic je ne sais quoi).  A group in period-ready dresses and heels chatted off to the side — these, I presumed correctly, were the performers.  Well — most of them.  A few fashionable ladies broke off from the group later to join us in the audience.  A phalanx of black plastic chairs filled the space that opened from the center of the main gallery, and I easily found a seat.  Had I come much later, it would have been a different story: nearly every seat was taken; of all ages and dressed in all kinds of ways — including the aforementioned ladies in costume solidarity.

The 8 female performers were decked out in a set of amazing ruffles, bodices, and gowns of every description, and the 2 male “backup” singers were resplendent in tuxedos.  All of the ladies (but none of the men) went through costume changes throughout the evening.  I don’t know where — but we were all so distracted by what was happening on “stage” that I suppose they could have swapped kit in the gallery itself and we never would have noticed.  Everybody could sing — or play.  The performance was backed by a band consisting of piano, upright bass/ukelele, and drums.  In keeping with the tenor of the show, which was arranged as one extended series of sketches holding together the musical numbers, the musicians were drawn into and became a part of the performances.

Numbers included sultry songs such as “A Man What Takes His Time,” show tunes, such as “Adelaide’s Lament” from Guys and Dolls, naughty flirts like “Always True to You,” and jazzy numbers like “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby” and “When You’re Good to Mama.”  Most of the numbers were solo spots, a few were duets or trios; some had chorus, and a big group number concluded the show: “I’m Tired.”  The audience, though, was definitely NOT tired.  My personal favorite was “If I Can’t Sell It,” a naughty way to play with the paradigm of marriage as a financial transaction between a man and a woman.  That’s right, Mae West!

It’s becoming less and less of a surprise to me, the more performances I see, of any kind, that everyone seems to have so many talents.  Once you get started, it’s contagious, I think.  Singing means dancing means acting means creating stories…

I wasn’t the only one laughing and applauding uproariously throughout the evening, and I wasn’t the only one standing for the ovation at the end, either.  A good time was had by all.

So kudos to the events programming at the library.  The library as performance space — who knew?  But it was brilliant.  And kudos to all the performers, who really threw themselves into it, purely out of joy — their work for the event was all “volunteer.”  A show absolutely worth paying for.

Have you been to any good shows lately?

Setlist for Wink! Songs with the flirt built in:
The Girl in 14G
Come Ona My House
Frim Fram Sauce
A Man What Takes His Time
I Enjoy Being a Girl
Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby
Always True to You
Adelaide’s Lament
One Hour Mama
Whatever Lola Wants
Mambo Italiano
If I Can’t Sell It
Mop Song
My Handyman
Nobody Makes a Pass at Me
When You’re Good to Mama
My Heart Belongs to Daddy
Too Old To Cut the Mustard Anymore
Love For Sale
Glitter and Be Gay
I’m Tired

Vocalists: Jennifer Adams, Marta Burton, Elizabeth Caswell-Dyer, Abbi Chapman, Dee Galloway, Ken Parks, Chuck Stevenson, Nancy Stohlman, Cora Vette, Marnie Ward
Piano: Nick Busheff
Bass and Ukelele: Mike Fitzmaurice
Drums: Ed Contreras
Written and Directed by Marta Burton