December Book Club: Station Eleven

Cover art for Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

If I had to summarize Station Eleven for someone while only having read the first few chapters, I would describe it as what it would be like to be a part of a traveling Symphony in a post pandemic world where most of the population dies. Now that it’s in my “read” pile, I think a better summary would need to include how one person can shape and connect the lives of many.

Arthur was not a great person, he cheated on his wives and had a hard time prioritizing the right things. Towards the end of his life, more than one person described him as if he was acting off camera/stage. It was as though during his pursuit of happiness, Arthur lost himself and his understanding of what could really make him happy. This isn’t to say that Arthur was a bad man, he had a way of genuinely caring about people and wanting to support them. No, Arthur’s issue seemed to stem from not really knowing what was important when it was important and a misguided quest for what happiness really was.

Despite dying early in the book, Arthur’s life shaped the story of the many characters that we encountered throughout Station Eleven. In some ways, this was for the better. Clark found himself realizing that he had been sleep walking his way through life after having dinner with Arthur shortly after his death. Kirsten turned to Arthur for comfort during her childhood and found herself comforted still by the comics that he gifted her. Miranda came into her own. Jeevan learned that he did in fact want to become an EMT (and eventually became a doctor).

In other ways, Arthur caused a lot of chaos in the new world by not being a good father to his son Tyler. You can’t help but wonder what would have happened if Arthur hadn’t missed so many of Tyler’s birthdays or had been able to move to Jerusalem before the pandemic. Would Tyler have learned to cling to the bible the way that he did? Would he have a world view to balance his mothers? If so, imagine how many people would have lived more peaceful lives.

Another thing that Station Eleven did was point out that there will always be people that try to support and grow from each other. People who do their best to take the ugly and make something beautiful. Just as there will always be people who are unable to see past the ugly, and it’s not that these people are lesser than the first group of people (although you do wish they’d rise to the occasion!), it’s that their version of doing the best that they can isn’t as outward facing. Where some are able to turn to others and raise them up, others are barely able to put their own oxygen masks on.

Station Eleven is what I wanted from The Stand. A story about people putting the pieces back together after trauma and learning how to move forward. There was just enough description of the pandemic to understand what has happening without the feeling of “ok I get it, everyone is dying”. I had a lot of reservations about reading this book in the middle of a pandemic, but honestly the pandemic was simply the spark that started this story.

Last October, I poured over a bunch of horror books and added them to my to-read list. Not because of Halloween (although maybe), but because I found myself rereading The Shinning yet again. Since adding Lovecraft Country to my to-read list it has become a show on HBO and the trailer reminded me that I should read it. I have not seen the show beyond episode one, so I’m coming into the story with a set of (mostly) unbias eyes.

Cover art for Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff.

The critically acclaimed cult novelist makes visceral the terrors of life in Jim Crow America and its lingering effects in this brilliant and wondrous work of the imagination that melds historical fiction, pulp noir, and Lovecraftian horror and fantasy.

Chicago, 1954. When his father Montrose goes missing, twenty-two year old Army veteran Atticus Turner embarks on a road trip to New England to find him, accompanied by his Uncle George—publisher of The Safe Negro Travel Guide—and his childhood friend Letitia. On their journey to the manor of Mr. Braithwhite—heir to the estate that owned Atticus’s great grandmother—they encounter both mundane terrors of white America and malevolent spirits that seem straight out of the weird tales George devours.

At the manor, Atticus discovers his father in chains, held prisoner by a secret cabal named the Order of the Ancient Dawn—led by Samuel Braithwhite and his son Caleb—which has gathered to orchestrate a ritual that shockingly centers on Atticus. And his one hope of salvation may be the seed of his—and the whole Turner clan’s—destruction.

A chimerical blend of magic, power, hope, and freedom that stretches across time, touching diverse members of one black family, Lovecraft Country is a devastating kaleidoscopic portrait of racism—the terrifying specter that continues to haunt us today. 

November Book Club: A Court of Thorns and Roses

Cover art for a Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J Maas.

The fastest and simpliest way to summarize A Court of Thorns and Roses to someone who has never read it before is to say that it’s a retelling of Beauty and the Beast. A beautiful land is under a curse that can only be broken by true love.

There is, of course, a lot more to this book than that. For starters, Feyre doesn’t stumble across a castle in the woods because she’s trying to find her father. While trying to keep a promise to her dead mother, Feyre kills a faerie in the shape of a wolf while hunting for food. Though she doesn’t know it, this one action sparks a chain of events that leads to being whisked off to a magical land and her family being elevated back to their original wealthy status.

I want to start by discussing the dedication that Feyre feels towards the promise that she’s made to her mother to look after her family. She was the youngest daughter and was less than ten years old, other than requiring this plot point to put her hunting in the woods, I didn’t really understand this decision. What a weight to put on a young child’s shoulders, in fact Feyre literally complains about how binding the promise is and how heavy keeping the promise feels sometimes. When viewed upon as a plot point, however, it’s clear that this is meant to show us that Feyre is honorable and stubborn.

Feyre’s distinction of hunting for necessity and hunting out of pleasure is another interesting point that should have done more in the realm of foreshadowing what was to come. By knowing this about her during the third trial, we can appreciate her struggle as she fights to remember the fate of many is more important than the fate of a few. Knowing that she only hunts to eat and has no interest when food is readily available, I’m left to assume that Feyre will be affected by the two deaths for the rest of her life (or at least the next book in this series).

I wanted more from the three trials to free Tamlin and the people of faerie. As scenes, they seemed rushed and anticlimactic. I also disliked the use of the fairy wine even though it was done to get her out of the dungeon for a few hours and show Tamlin that she was safe. They could have worked something out where she didn’t have to drink the wine every single night. Also, Tamlin’s indifference was agitating – even if it was to protect her. It would have been more forgiving if he was under a spell as Alice alluded that he might be.

I also found the use of magic something to be desired. True, there was a curse that limited the ability of the faeries to use magic and true, the story stayed true to most of the general rules of faerie land (minus the “if you eat the food you can’t leave”), I just felt as though there could have been more. There was nothing spectacular about Feyre’s day to day minus being pulled from her family. It wasn’t until she went under the mountain that we got to experience what the world had the potential to be.

All in all, I enjoyed this book but don’t feel the need to read the other books in the series. There’s obviously going to be a story line with Feyre trying to deal with being a faerie with a human heart and some sort of love triangle that’s probably brought on by Feyre thinking something like “how can Tamlin love me after all that I did?” and the monthly requirement to spend a week in the night court.

Next month we’ll be reading Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. I think this book made my “to-read” list after discussing it with a co-worker on zoom last fall due to the premise of it taking place after a super flu. I’ve previewed a chapter to make sure that it doesn’t feel too much like the pandemic we’ve been living through (that wouldn’t be escapism!) and am please to report that it seems like a lot of fun.

Set in the days of civilization’s collapse, Station Eleven tells the story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity.

One snowy night a famous Hollywood actor slumps over and dies onstage during a production of King Lear. Hours later, the world as we know it begins to dissolve. Moving back and forth in time—from the actor’s early days as a film star to fifteen years in the future, when a theater troupe known as the Traveling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains—this suspenseful, elegiac, spellbinding novel charts the strange twists of fate that connect five people: the actor, the man who tried to save him, the actor’s first wife, his oldest friend, and a young actress with the Traveling Symphony, caught in the crosshairs of a dangerous self-proclaimed prophet.