2015: a year in (interrupted and chaotic) reading

Bluestalking does not tell anywhere near the full tale of my 2015 reading, a secret shame for any book reviewer, not to mention generally voracious reader. My blog should reflect all I’ve read in any given year, not just the smattering I was able to pull it together enough to write about. It should be my go-to place, where I share all my thoughts about books and writers and the reading and writing life, instead of a mostly quiet wasteland I’ve sort of half-assed for the past twelve full months.

In my defense, it was a rough year. My divorce was finalized in June, the months before and up to the writing of this post fraught with anxiety. This would be enough in its own right, without the fact  my ex is all but married again so soon, having started dating the woman he’s since grown very serious with before the judge had even dropped his gavel. Before the soul of our marriage had departed its body. And yeah, I’m public with my life, my social media accounts open and honest. I have little doubt the new Mrs- to-be isn’t reading this, putting her own spin on things courtesy of the half-story she’s heard, her own gospel truth.  The thing is, the person she’s dating is not the person I was with for 30 years: the kid I met at 18, married at 23, had three children with and shared  25 toxic years. But then, she isn’t the person I am, either. So maybe she’s in the clear. Best of luck.

And while I have been reading through it all, I’ve largely failed in finding the level of concentration required to think all that deeply about what’s passed before my eyes. Most of my reading has been conducted in my tiny, cramped apartment-sized bathtub this year, amongst buckets and buckets of bubbles. The warmth of the water soothes, the extravagance of “premium” lavender bubbles – i.e., not the cheap crap you buy at Walmart but the good stuff from Lush or Bath and Body Works – a luxurious treat I more than deserve right now, even if more than one book has met its soapy demise right alongside me.

What I’ve read for review doesn’t always garner mention on Bluestalking, nor does it always make the rounds of venues like Goodreads or Amazon. Yet, I hesitate to call my blogging behavior lazy. It isn’t that. My outside life has consumed the bulk of my time and energy, sapping most of my creativity, even the energy it takes to lift my head off the pillow many mornings, much less reading critically then writing cogently about it. Still and all, I’ve read some remarkable books this year, truly stellar stuff offering more than enough “best of 2015” material.

My intentions at the beginning of the year were good, my disappointment with myself for not having achieved nearly as much as I’d hoped, coming to the conclusion of 2015, a heavier weight on my shoulders than I should have allowed. Regardless, I will write that list, short though it will be. I’ll write it as tribute to having gotten through any reviews at all, for reading what I managed to despite having suffered deeply through the course of this year. Because reading has always lifted me, always made so much of life bearable, from a despicable childhood through today. When things get awful, the thought of having books to read comforts me beyond any other single factor in my life.

So, what’s the best of my 2015 reading? Damn near all of it’s been impressive but in looking back one book screams out, a book I read and reviewed here. That one book is Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, the dystopian marvel I haven’t gotten out of my head. No matter the number of books I’ve read since, this book has managed to stay surprisingly fresh. Triggers have popped the book back into my mind more times than I can count. There’s something about it, some quality of dark deliciousness I can’t shake and have no desire to. By no means am I alone in this; Station Eleven was one of the undisputed great novels of 2015.

stationeleven

Yes, other books blew me away, books I read before and since choosing this one favorite. A very close second came a few days after I’d drafted the beginnings of this post, Kevin Barry’s Beatlebone, a fantastic gem of a book framed by John Lennon’s connection to an island off the coast of Ireland, one he bought for its association with his Irish ancestral past and then came back to visit after a lapse of decades, just before his murder. There was Matt Bell’s Scrapper, as well, another great dystopia of 2015,  written with Detroit as its backdrop, a gorgeous staccato testament to the continued relevance of its darkly violent theme of despair.

With 2016 newly arrived, I once again vow to do better, to keep closer track of my reading and review everything I read here on Bluestalking. Honestly, I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep that promise. Life’s been hard on me, each year managing to blindside with events I didn’t see coming – and some I did, like the divorce – knocking out my breath. But I’ll try. All I can do is set goals and strive my hardest to reach them.

Here’s hoping 2016 proves less traumatic and cheers to all who stopped by in 2015. I cannot express the depth of my appreciation and hope I’ll bring more to the table from here on out. As always, I bring my best hopes.

Bless.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

stationeleven

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; First Edition edition (September 9, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385353308
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385353304
  • $24.95

 

[Kirsten] Raymonde: … Look, I was eight. Nine, when we stopped walking. I can’t remember the year we spent on the road, and I think that means I can’t remember the worst of it. But my point is, doesn’t it seem to you that the people who have the hardest time in this – this current era, whatever you want to call it, the world after the Georgia flu – doesn’t it seem like the people who struggle the most with it are the people who remember the old world clearly?

Diallo: I hadn’t thought about it.

Raymonde: What I mean to say is, the more you remember, the more you’ve lost.

 

Summing up such a complex book in the space of a blog post, without notes and organized forethought, is daunting. But I have to push on and get my thoughts out before too much time passes, and I either don’t address it at all or forget too many details.

This is a complex tale with complex characters woven very tightly, though the full realization of their relationships comes about slowly, through the natural course of the story. Writers as accomplished as Joyce Carol Oates have admitted they have no idea how Mandel did this so seamlessly, appearing so effortless. Oates read  it through twice and couldn’t unravel how it was done and she is an artistic genius in her  own right. So, what does this make Emily St. John Mandel, creator of a work capable of baffling one of our greatest contemporary writers? An uber genius, or just a writer who managed a nearly impossible feat of artistry, either through the most intricate of planning, spinning gossamer threads into a cloth of unearthly beauty, or a series of unintended opportunities she chanced upon?

It’s impossible to imagine the author didn’t know what she was doing. A writer doesn’t just luck upon this degree of mastery. Or, if she does, I’m insanely jealous. And though it seems silly pronouncing a book to have reached artistic heights unrealized before, this book has achieved wondrous things. Yet, it’s not a book so complex readers should feel  intimidated reading it. This is not difficult or obscure writing. It can be read as the riveting story it holds, or it can be analyzed ad nauseum in a literature course. It works well on both levels.

The plot hinges on an American actor, Arthur Leander, who has a heart attack and dies in the beginning of the book, during a performance of King Lear. The character Kirsten Raymonde, from the above quote, is a little girl acting the part of one of Lear’s daughters, in a clever side-stage vignette at the beginning of the play. Kirsten survives the flu, of course, thanks to an older brother whose resourcefulness kept the two of them alive long enough for her to meet up with others, who took her in.. She grows into a strong young woman, proficient in the art of killing by way of throwing knives with deadly accuracy. From an innocent, if a bit bratty, child actor she matures into a woman capable of surviving in a post-apocalyptic world. As for Arthur, he leaves behind three ex-wives and one child, a son. It’s his first wife, Miranda, whose graphic artwork is the basis for the book’s title, artwork that will unite a few other characters, in just one of Mandel’s cleverly laid plans. And it all comes back around perfectly.

Station Eleven is a post-apocalyptic novel; the premise is the world has been decimated by the “Georgia Flu” (as in former Soviet bloc, not the state of Georgia), a fast-moving deadly virus that kills within a couple of days. It hits the U.S. in California, through air travel and normal interaction between people, swiftly encompassing the country and the world before most people realize – or can bring themselves to believe – what is happening. The horrific part is this is precisely the sort of thing that could conceivably occur. Acts of terrorism will come but odds are, unless things go drastically wrong, it’s less possible carnage on the scale in Station Eleven would happen. Not impossible, because no one can claim to know the extent to which humans are capable of destroying each other,  but less likely. What gets under the reader’s skin is this could, and someday likely will, happen here.

The way Mandel handles the ensuing chaos, following the realization most of the world’s population will be wiped out, leaves much to the imagination. It is handled gently, in some respects. Instead of describing grotesque images of death and decaying corpses, much of it is laid out within the story and not overly graphic. For that I was grateful. She creates horror, just in a less obvious way, which really does require a great amount of skill. Along the same lines, the violence is occasionally front and center but often occurs off-stage, as it were. There is enough to make the novel feel real and immediate but not so much your stomach is turned. She inserts just enough of each.

Panic ensues: fleeing people try to get out of cities, clogging the roadways. People grab rations, looting stores. Inevitably,  things get to the point violence breaks out, as food and necessary rations become scarce or disappear. Shots ring out in cities; anarchy reigns. Odd groups of people come together. Religious cults form in reaction to the apocalyptic catastrophe. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the Travelling Symphony, a group of actors and musicians who travel from town to town, dedicated to keeping the arts alive. Years crawl by, then decades, as civilization struggles to make sense of what happened and how to go forward.

Station Eleven‘s power lies not just in its structure or lyricism but also in its realism. I lost myself in the story, taking on feelings of visceral dread and hopelessness. I felt uncomfortable. The house quiet, the light fading, I tried to remind myself the world as we know it hadn’t ended but a part of me didn’t rebound so quickly. This being the 21st century, reassurance came via Twitter, all that scrolling mass of humanity reaching out to bring news headlines, links to cats behaving badly and really mundane statements about what’s for dinner. And it is silly it was the first place I turned, and this is an oddly connected disconnected world, but after reading Emily St. James Mandel’s book I found it all delightfully wonderful. It’s a weirdly, wildly wonderful world, the kind where we’re able to read amazing books and reach out to strangers and friends via social media.

Station Eleven makes you realize what we have, all that sustains us in the 21st century. In many ways we’re spoiled, having coming to rely on technology for so many things, and it’s not clear how we could survive a pandemic. Mandel presents one way in which human beings could get things back together, slowly. The road is long and difficult, but as long as we have people dedicated to preserving their area of expertise, sharing it with others, we’d have a chance. The novel ends on a promising note, not guaranteeing anything but giving the reader hope that, one day, the world will make it back.