Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Read: May 6, 2018

This is a bunch of interconnected lives, both pre- and post-apocalypse. I found both sections engaging, and I really enjoyed seeing the points where they intersect.

It was an interesting choice to combine a story about Hollywood discontentment and loss of privacy with a more traditional dystopian run-in with a totalitarian cult leader. I don’t know how big the overlap is between the two audiences. But, somehow, it worked. It worked best as neither plot overstayed its welcome. Although there was a certain whiplash as I was taken away from a plot line – sometimes for multiple chapters – that I was interested in following.

I did appreciate what the pre- storyline added, but I did come here for the post-, and that was a bit thin. As a story-driven story, it needed much more story. As a character-driven story, much of the character development occurred in the pre- storylines, so characters that didn’t feature in both ended up not getting a whole lot of development.

Despite my complaints, I did enjoy myself throughout the whole book, and the writing style was quite excellent.

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien

Read: 23 April, 2018

I read this with my seven year old son. We both really enjoyed the first bit of the book, which is about Mrs Frisby and her sick child. The stakes felt very real, and we enjoyed all the characters she meets (the helpful crow, the wise owl, the mouse doctor, the shrew neighbour, the scary cat, etc). There was whimsy there, even as we fretted over little Timothy.

But then came the titular rats. Most of the second half of the book is the backstory of the rats, as told by Nicodemus. The narrative voice gets very removed, and we just weren’t given any time to care about any of the characters. And the characters we did care about, and spent the first half of the book getting to know, disappear almost entirely until the very end.

So we found the story to be very uneven. I think we would have liked both sections of it if they had been in different books, but we just spent too much time waiting for Mrs Frisby and Jeremy and all the rest of them to make a reappearance for the second half to be much fund.

The Underneath by Kathi Appelt

Read: 25 March, 2018

My son and I tried to read this together, but only got about 2/3 of the way through before he gave up and I had to finish it on my own. The writing style is beautiful, and we both enjoyed the interweaving of myth and realism. But, unfortunately, it just takes too long to get anywhere.

There are two stories: In the first, a calico cat hides under a porch with an old hunting dog and gives birth to two kittens. The four of them form an unlikely family as they hide from the dog’s dangerous and cruel master. In the other story, taking place a thousand years earlier, a snake’s daughter changes herself into a woman to be with a hawk man, leaving the abandoned snake heartbroken and jealous.

I loved the way the two stories work together to comment on love and family. Mostly, though, this is a story about the place – a swampy jungle on the border between Texas and Louisiana. Long pages are spent describing the trees and the water, sometimes multiple times over. And while this was poetic and beautiful, it’s also what lost my kid’s attention.

It’s a beautiful meditative piece, but it is just too repetitive to be as long as it is, or perhaps too long to be as repetitive as it is.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” and Other Stories by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Read: 25 March, 2018

I originally tried to read these stories when they were assigned in High School, but I was a thoroughly uninterested student – bordering on lethargic. And, as is true in most cases, I think I got a lot more out of it now than I would have at the time.

The stories are very short, and they don’t have the satisfying arcs that I like in stories – “The Yellow Wallpaper” worked the best as far as story structure goes. Mostly, though, these were little vignettes that each tackle some feminist issue.

I quite enjoyed the writing style, which was very concise (particularly for the time period) and readable. I do wish that there were more narrative structure, so that the pieces could stand on their own even without the political message.

Overall, though, I did enjoy every one of these stories. Some, like “The Yellow Wallpaper”, I enjoyed both as stories and for their political message. Some, like “Making a Change”, I mostly only liked for their political message. And some, like “The Cottagette”, were just enjoyable wish-fulfilment.

“The Yellow Wallpaper”

This story was legitimately creepy. The visuals were great, and I would definitely watch a horror movie adaptation. The feminism was spot on with its critique of the White Knight who just wants to “protect” women by treating them like china dolls. While the ending was a little weak, it didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the story.

“Three Thanksgivings”

This is feminism from the other perspective – that of a woman who has independence and freedom, and who wants to keep it. Of course, she is greatly helped by owning a large house, and it is the house that enables her to make money in the way she does. So let’s call this the feminism of the wealthy. Still, I appreciated that the main character was given a selection of options (all perfectly attractive and ‘suitable’ for a woman of her age), and rejects them all in favour of work and independence.

“The Cottagette”

I enjoyed this little wish-fulfilment piece. A woman stifles her artistic self to attract a husband with evidence of her domesticity. But, twist of twists, he loves her as an artist, and will only marry her on condition that she stay out of the kitchen. It’s an excellent commentary on the toll domestic chores can take on a woman, and on her ability to do the kind of work that she finds fulfilling.

“Turned”

A wife finds out that her husband has gotten their maid pregnant. While she initially lashes out against the maid, she quickly realises the power imbalance, and how impossible it must have been for the girl to reject her boss – a fact of which her husband would have been well aware. The story ends with the husband finally finding his wife, who is now living independently with the maid and their baby and making a fine little family together, and they have absolutely no interest in whatever he’s there to sell them.

I absolutely loved the message of this piece. The solidarity, and the recognition of power imbalance, and the creation of a new family built on mutual support and affection… it really couldn’t have been more up my alley.

“Making a Change”

This one pairs well with “Turned”, returning to that theme of women supporting women. We begin with a small family comprised of a wife, her husband, their newborn, and her mother-in-law. The mother-in-law has always been good with babies, but the wife feels that it’s her role, and she guards it jealously, but it just isn’t working out for her. Deprived of sleep, deprived of her music, and feeling like a profound failure, she tries to commit suicide. But when her mother-in-law finds her, the two realise that something has to change.

And so, without the husband even noticing, the wife goes back to teaching music, the mother-in-law takes over the childcare and opens up a nursery for all the neighbourhood babies, and they use their extra wages to hire a good housekeeper who can deal with all the domestic stuff that neither of them likes to do.

The tension comes in when, after months pass in this blissful arrangement, the husband finds out that his wife and mother are both working. He is humiliated, and tries to make things go back as they were. But we quickly comes to realise that everyone is so much happier with this arrangement, and he drops the subject.

I really liked the message of this piece – households are so much happier if everyone gets to do the things that they find fulfilling. Trying to contort ourselves into unnatural shapes just because it’s How It’s Done will lead to unhappiness – not just for ourselves, but for everyone in the family.

“If I Were a Man”

A woman gets to experience what it’s like to be a man, when she suddenly finds herself in his body. The science is a bit underdeveloped in this one, as it isn’t clear just how much of his personality remains in his body (she does seem to have access to his perceptions and memories), and we never do see what happens to her own body (did they trade places?).

And while this was perhaps the least narratively developed, it’s worth a read just for the part where she discovers pockets.

“Mr. Peebles’ Heart”

This is the only story centred squarely on a man. Mr Peebles has always supported the women in his life, catering to their every want and need so that they are never challenged. This has not only left him unhappy, it’s also left his wife unhappy, as she is afraid to travel (even to visit her daughters) and has no real interests of her own.

Then along comes her sister – a “lady doctor”/fairy godmother who solves everything by prescribing him a year-long trip to Europe. The two of them are separated while he explores himself, and she is forced to discover who she is without him. In the end, they are both happily travelling together.

I found this to be the weakest story in the collection.

A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka by Lev Golinkin

Read: 24 February, 2018

My mother loaned me this book because my spouse, though not Jewish, also fled from Russia at around Golinkin’s age. Though he was an emigrant, rather than a refugee, the experiences were surprisingly familiar – particularly in the ways both families responded to the trauma of having lived in the USSR.

I love that this book paints a complex picture. Recipients of charity aren’t always grateful, threat and trauma can lead even the most sober people to make careless decisions, and acts of kindness are sometimes done for entirely selfish reasons.

I also enjoyed the humour of the book. A lot of it is a distinctively Russian humour, that fatalistic “everything is terrible, isn’t if funny?” brand of deadpan humour that I enjoy so much.

Mostly, though, I love the message of hope. In the course of its story, A Backpack presents thousands, millions, of small acts – a donation here, a smile there – that, together, build up to something so meaningful. As Canada discusses its obligations toward refugees, this was a powerful book to read.

The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell by W. Kamau Bell

Read: 4 February, 2018

I happened on this book while searching for north African recipe books, and I’m still debating whether that’s a search algorithm win or a search algorithm fail. In any case, I knew as soon as I saw it that I had to read it, and promptly put it on hold at my library.

The book is a collection of memoir essays. They are a bit disconnected (although all come back, in some way, to themes of social justice), but I didn’t mind this time. It felt natural, like a conversation with a good friend that goes all over the place.

I really enjoyed the way Bell breaks down concepts – even when I still understood what he was getting at, I enjoyed the journey of the explanation. I never felt talked down to or excluded, even when he was explaining 101 concepts, even when he was clearly addressing readers who’ve shared his perspective and experiences.

This isn’t as hard-hitting as, for example, Between the World and Me or The New Jim Crow, while still expressing many of the same ideas. This would be a perfect starter book for that white friend who kinda gets it but doesn’t get it get it, but who wouldn’t want “all the negativity” of Michelle Alexander.

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

Read: 28 January, 2018

After a smash hit like The Fault In Our Stars, I can imagine how much pressure Green felt to follow it up without disappointing fans. Especially given how much more in the public eye he is than most authors. So it’s no wonder that, after publishing a book ever 1-2 years, we suddenly got a five year gap.

My favourite Green book is Looking for Alaska, because of the way he captured the effects of [redacted] on others – in particular, the mystery and the never knowing. But, at the same time, it was the beginning of the John Green Formula: awkward buy meets Manic Pixie Dream Girl, comes to amazed realisation that she is actually a full person, he is irrevocably changed. Which is exactly the sort of realisation that 99.5% of teenage boys need to have.

Then we had The Fault In Our Stars, which broke with tradition because, for the first time, Green wasn’t writing about himself. For that book, he put on the skin of Esther Earl – a teen fan who died of cancer. Not to psychoanalyse the author, but it was the first time he moved from realising that women are people, to actually taking on their thoughts and perspectives. It was an interesting transition, quite apart from all the other stuff that TFIOS was about.

Then there’s this book, which is still from the perspective of a woman, but is also much more personal. I don’t experience anxiety the way the main character does, but Green managed to capture something in her spiralling thought patterns. Enough so that, just reading the narrative, my own stomach (never the smartest part of my body) started reacting as if her thoughts were my thoughts. Which made this a bit of a difficult – not to mention physically painful – read.

I liked the way Green avoids easy resolutions – which is something he’s always done well. I also liked the centring of friendship, and the ultimate lesson of the story. I liked the authenticity of the way the man character felt.

If you don’t like YA or you don’t like Green, you probably won’t like this. But, personally, I might be changing my favourite Green novel.

We Were Feminists Once by Andi Zeisler

Read: 6 January, 2018

At a time when feminism sells, We Were Feminists Once examines just why that is, and what kind of feminism is being sold. It’s a well-researched and, as far as I am concerned, necessary look at what happens when feminism and capitalism team up.

It is a dense little book. There’s very little repetition, or meandering, or fluff. Zeisler hits the gas right from the first page, and it’s up to the reader to pause for processing when needed.

I appreciated that this book put down concretely into words, with facts and statistics to back it up, elements of the mainstream feminism (“Girl Power”, Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign, and more) that have made me feel uncomfortable – though I couldn’t always articulate why.

Ayn Rand and the World She Made by Anne C. Heller

Read: 27 November, 2017

I had a Libertarian friend in high school. While I was firmly in camp Nader, she was a Bush supporter, and even went so far as to buy me a gloating ice cream sandwich when Bush won the presidency. In the course of that friendship, I was convinced to pick up a copy of The Fountainhead.

I tend to find passion infectious. While I found the book itself a tedious and poorly-written slog, the excitement it showed for architecture really spoke to me. I gave up on the book fairly early – I’m not even sure that I made it a quarter of the way through – but I started looking up information on architecture and even considered pursuing it as a career. As it happened, however, my talking about architecture infected my mom, who picked it as her second career (an excellent fit, as she’s always had a keen eye for shapes). Once she enrolled in an architecture program, I had to pick something else to avoid falling on the wrong side of her competitive streak, and that’s how I ended up with my BA in English Literature.

The point of all of this being that Ayn Rand has had a fairly profound and wide-reaching cultural influence – even on those of us who had almost no interest in her work and found her writing unbearable. Whatever one thinks of her, or her philosophy, there’s no denying that she’s one of the last century’s Notable People.

Rand popped into my Active Interest slot again when I came across an Atlas Shrugged read-along series on Daylight Atheism. It’s a great series that I definitely recommend. Adam Lee does a great job of thinking through the implications of the book and, as Rand would love to say, “checking the premises.”

One of the sources Lee cites frequently is Heller’s Ayn Rand and the World She Made. Since, once again, passion is infectious, I took the book out of the library.

A month ago, I couldn’t have told you anything about Ayn Rand except that she’d written The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, she was a woman, she is somehow related to the Libertarian movement, and she’s dead. So I came to The World She Made a fairly blank slate. Because of this, I can’t say how groundbreaking the research of the book is, and I see from other reviews that maybe there isn’t so much that is new here. But as a starting point, it’s perfect.

Heller moves methodically through Rand’s life – from her childhood in revolutionary Russia, to her death in New York. At each stage, Rand is the centre focus, but Heller explores the broader context of who Rand was meeting, what her living situation was like, what ideas was she exposed to…

On Rand herself, the book didn’t much improve my perception of her. In her early life, it’s easy to feel some sympathy towards her, but so much of her suffering seems to have been entirely self-inflicted. Worse, her life is, itself, the most damning argument against her philosophy.

Worse, she strikes me as a shallow thinker. I’m sure that she was a fantastic arguer, and probably quite quick and witty. She must have bowled over people in person (even if only by virtue of her stamina for argument). But it doesn’t take much thinking through to realize that her philosophy is immature at best. Over and over again, The World She Made makes reference to Rand’s popularity among teenagers and young adults, as opposed to more mature readers. This isn’t surprising.

On her emphasis on individuality, I was reminded of the ubiquity of the self-esteem movement during my childhood, and how – as a thoroughly weird kid – offensive I found it. Everywhere I turned, every school program, every TV show, ever fast food ad campaign was telling kids to “just be yourself.” And yet, the message I heard over and over again was “no, not like that.” And that’s Rand in a nutshell – her whole philosophy is wrapped around the idea of individuality and personal freedom, and yet she required that her followers only listen to certain types of music, only thought certain types of thoughts.

I was both surprised and not surprised by the cult that sprang up around Rand. While I had never heard Objectivism described as a cult, its ideas – and the reverential way in which Rand is so often talked about – certainly smell of cult.

But enough about the subject, what about the book? It’s good! It’s very readable, and it’s a great introduction to Rand and to her ideas.

The Red Tree by Caitlin R. Kiernan

Read: 4 November, 2017

At it’s most basic, the plot is about a writer who has hermitted herself to get away from a recent tragedy. It’s a common story, but Kiernan handles it well.

I didn’t find the book to be particularly scary or haunted, unfortunately. I found that The Woman In Black got me quite a bit harder with the atmosphere (though Sarah and Constance’s picnic came close), and The Haunting of Hill House did a better job of getting under my skin. But I found The Red Tree compelling from start to finish. Even though very little happens, and we spend most of our time ruminating with the main character, I still had trouble putting the book down until I’d finished.

…and even after. The ending is somewhat abrupt. I was expecting, and would have liked, a follow up from the ‘editor’ who wrote the preface. Just something to give us the reality anchoring – what does the evidence tell us about Sarah’s time in that house, and how does it differ (or not) from her own account of it? Or maybe that would have been spelling things out too much. I did re-read the preface after I had finished the book, though, and there were some interesting details in the wording, but without the answers I had been hoping to find.

But other than my vague dissatisfaction with the ending (which, in addition to being very abrupt, also suffered from predictability), I enjoyed the book on the whole. I would have liked something a little more gut-grippingly scary as my Halloween read, but I’m not disappointed to have picked The Red Tree.

Oh, and the cover design really is very unfortunate.