We’re approaching the mid point of the year so what better opportunity to review the last six months and pick my favourite reads to date. Top Ten Tuesday this week in fact is all about the best 10 books of 2017. Of the 30 books I’ve read so far there were eight that stood head and shoulders above the rest.
Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel: I never thought to find myself choosing a sci-fi novel as a favourite read. But this was outstanding. My review noted: The combination of beautiful style of writing and a compelling narrative made this a book I found hard to put down.
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy: Not only is this one of my favourites of 2017, it’s high up on my list of favourite Booker Prize winners because of its glorious characters and dazzling language. My review is here
Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney: Bold and brash, this is a novel that pulls no punches in its depiction of the underbelly of Cork in Ireland. But as much as the drug dealers, prostitutes and thugs will have you rolling your eyes in despair, there will be times you can’t help but feel a wave of sympathy for their predicament. As I noted in my review, this is a novel which poses serious questions about salvation and guilt.
My Ántonia by Willa Cather: It took me long enough to get around to reading what is considered one of Cather’s finest novels. It celebrates the pioneering spirit but not in a rose-tinted glasses way; there is plenty of sorrow mixed in with the nostalgia. My review is here
Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey: “a marvellously idiosyncratic tale of two misfits” is how I described this Booker Prize winner in my review. It has some wonderfully surreal scenes including one where a gangly young priest is hoisted aboard a steam ship in a cage normally used for transporting animals.
His Bloody Project by Graeme Burnett McCrae: a cleverly constructed novel that purports to be a true account of a young Scottish lad accused of three murders. It’s presented in the style of a case study into the murders in late 1860s and the subsequent trial so readers get witness statements, a newspaper account and an investigation by a criminologist. My review is here.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang: This has to be the most bizarre and disturbing novel I’ve read this year. It begins with a decision by a Korean housewife to stop eating meat and traces her mental and physical decline. My review summed up my reaction: This is not a novel you can say you ‘enjoy’ or ‘like’ but it’s certainly one that you will not forget.
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki: this is quite an extraordinary novel which covers a dazzling array of topics and themes. Zen Buddhism; environmental degredation; bullying; suicide; memory – to name just a few. The result should be a complete mess but it’s a surprisingly mesmerizing story of a Japanese teenager writing a diary to express her feelings of dislocation – that diary is found many years later washed up on a beach in British Colombia. I haven’t got around to reviewing it yet in full.
Last month I put out an appeal here and via Twitter for recommendations of books that would help me break through my aversion to science fiction. One book was mentioned over and over again: Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel. I’m not going to promise that this book has made be a sci-fi convert but if this is a taste of what’s available then I can certainly see me reading more in that line in the future.
Usually when I hear a novel is set in a dystopian or post-apocalyptic world, my reaction is akin to that of encountering the most fetid smell possible. But Mandel’s imagined world, while disintegrated, degraded and thoroughly unpleasant, is recognisable enough for me to feel it could still be real. The characters’ names for one thing are largely realistic — admittedly one of them is called Jeevan which is not a name I’ve ever heard of before, but you can’t get much more down to earth than Arthur and Clark. The locations are also real with most of the action taking place in Toronto, Chicago and the shores of Lakes Huron and Michigan. And then the opening scene takes me to a very familiar experience, that of being in the theatre watching a performance of King Lear. The combination of those realities made it possible for me to accept the disruptive elements of Station Eleven more readily.
Mantel begins with a personal tragedy. Part way through a performance of King Lear, the renowned Hollywood actor Arthur Leander collapses. Despite the efforts of Jeevan, a trainee paramedic, and a cardiologist, both of whom who were in the audience, he dies. Tragedy on a considerably vaster scale follows quickly via a flu pandemic so virulent its victims die within 48 hours. In a few short weeks Georgia Flu sweeps across the globe and claims the lives of 99.99 per cent of the world’s population. The few survivors must learn to live without power, mechanised transport or antibiotics. The world, as they have come to know it, exists no more.
No more pharmaceuticals. No more certainty of surviving a scratch on one’s hand, a cut on a finger while chopping vegetables for dinner, a dog bite. … No more fire departments, no more police. No more road maintenance or garbage pick up.
As bleak as this sounds, Mantel can’t resist a touch of humour for the results of the lack of power is a world sans the Internet and social media:
… no more scrolling through litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches, cries for help and expressions of contentment and relationship-status updates with heart icons whole or broken, plans to meet up later, pleas, complaints, desires, pictures of babies dressed as bears or peppers for Halloween. No more reading and commenting on the lives of others, and in so doing, feeling slightly less alone in the room. No more avatars.
The narrative hops forward from Day 1 to Year 20 of the virus. The survivors have formed small settlements in abandoned towns and empty shopping malls and factories, forever fearful of armed bandits who roam the land.
Civilisation in Year Twenty was an archipelago of small towns. These towns had fought off ferals, buried their neighbours, lied and died and suffered together in the blood-drenched years just after the collapse, survived against unspeakable odds and then only by holding together into the calm. These places didn’t go out of their way to welcome outsiders.
One of the most interesting aspects of this novel for me was the way Mandel deals with individual responses to the calamity. Some hunker down in isolated properties living off whatever they can hunt; others take to religion and follow prophet-like figures bent on absolute power. Some never give up hope that out there, somewhere, something of normality survives. In Traverse City an inventor rigs up an electrical system to a stationary bicycle that when pedaled furiously could power a laptop and help him find the Internet. Over in Chicago pilots use their last fuel supplies for reconnaissance trips outside the city where they might find food and supplies. They never return. One of the more unusual responses comes in the form of The Travelling Symphony: a group of 20 or so musicians and actors in horse-drawn wagons who move between settlements staging concerts and theatrical performances wherever they stop. Why? The answer lies in the message painted on the side of their lead wagon: “Because Survival is Insufficient.”
For many of these people the past is recalled only in fragments. Kirsten, an actress with the symphony, was eight at the time of the outbreak. Her mother’s face has grown vague over the years but she remembers clearly the actor Arthur Leander because she was there, on stage with him, the night he died. She’s made a habit of collecting information about him that she finds in deserted houses during her travels. Photos with actresses outside restaurants, gossip column pieces about his repeated failed marriages and reviews of his films; all are kept safe in her zip-lock bag. Also in the bag are two issues of a comic-book series featuring a character called Dr. Eleven, a physicist who lives on a space station after escaping an alien takeover of Earth.
A very different response to the past is shown by a survivor holed up in the airport. Clark Thompson, friend of Arthur Leander, begins collecting some of the items abandoned because in the new world order, they are useless. He discovers there is no end to the number of objects that had no practical purpose but people want to preserve nevertheless : credit cards; Nintendo consoles; drivers’ licences; passports; cellphones; laptops; car engines and a gleaming chrome motor cycle; even a pair of red stiletto heels. All become the basis for the Museum of Civilization, a museum of artefacts to teach people born into the new world, about the old world.
But what of the future? It would have been easy for Mandel to end the novel with a sense that the apocalypse is nearing its end. Too easy and far too neat a resolution. Instead she leaves us with a feeling that a major collapse might have crippled the world, but has not ruined it as long as there are people alive who retain hope:
If there are again towns with streetlights, if there are symphonies and newspapers, then what else might this awakening world contain? Perhaps vessels are setting out even now, traveling toward or away from him, steered by sailors armed with maps and knowledge of the stars, driven by need or perhaps simply by curiosity: whatever became of the countries on the other side?
Station Eleven is Emily St. John Mandel’s fourth novel. Published in 2014 it was long listed for the National Book Award.
About the author:
Emily St John Mandel was born in Canada. Her second novel, The Singer’s Gun was the 2014 winner of the Prix Mystere de la Critique in France. She is a staff writer for The Millions. She lives in New York City with her husband.
Why I read this book:
It was recommended by several book bloggers who have far more knowledge of science fiction than I possess. This was the first of their recommended authors that I could find in the local library.
The calendar has moved forward once again and its time to take a quick snapshot of what I was reading/ planning to read on the first of the month. One June 1, 2017 I was:
The book on my bedside table on June 1 was one of the titles on my 20 Books of Summer reading list: The Vegetarian by Han Kang. I’m approaching the end of this novella and can safely say it’s one of the oddest books I’ve read in many years. I knew, even before opening it, that it would be an extraordinary piece of work about a woman whose decision to stop eating meat causes an irreconcilable rift in three families. I wasn’t expecting it to be quite so dark and provocative.
It was a good way to start the month particularly since I’d ended May with two astonishing books: My Ántonia by Willa Cather (reviewed here) and Station Eleven by Emily St John Mantel (my first experience of science fiction in many decades).
Reflecting on the state of my personal library
One of my goals for 2017 is to enjoy the books I already own and to reign back on acquiring yet more. I started 2017 with 318 unread books. With the help of some culling (mainly children’s fiction and some non-fiction books) I’m now down to 280. There are new books still coming into the house but they’re in extremely modest numbers compared to past years (2016 was the year things went completely out of control). My most recent aquisition was on the final day of May when I won a copy of Katherine of Aragon: The True Queen (the first in the Six Tudor Queens series by Alison Weir) when she gave a talk about Anne Boleyn (Henry VIII’s second wife). I was chuffed to be identified as the person in the audience who asked the best question!
Thinking of reading next…
Do I go for the latest Helen Dunmore novel Birdcage Walk which The Observer newspaper described as her finest work. Reading this will be a poignant experience given news of her death yesterday. My other option, chosen because the opening seems fitting for the current bout of stormy winds and rain in the UK, is Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. As always I won’t make the final decision until my hand reaches out to the bookcase…
Hello to May. Before I get into the snapshot of my reading life on the first of this month I wanted to share with you some wonderful news. You’ll have seen from a post t the start of this year that I’ve been dealing with a serious health issue. It’s almost a year now since I was diagnosed with cancer and started the treadmill of treatment. First chemotherapy, then radiotherapy, followed by liver surgery in January and then just five weeks ago further surgery. Going for the post-op check up today I expected the consultant to tell me that I’d need to do yet more chemotherapy but to my surprise – delight I should say – he not only told me that it wasn’t necessary but the recent tests have shown a full recovery and no sign anywhere of malignant cells. “It doesn’t get any better than this,” he said. Since this month also sees a landmark birthday for me, I am in celebration mode. I might even be able to risk a small glass of wine (my first drop of alcohol since January 26).
On May 1 itself I was nearing the end of The Primrose Path by Rebecca Griffiths, a book I bought late in 2016 as part of my intention to read more work by authors from Wales. It’s her debut novel and has attracted a lot of praise with good reviews in a number of the more popular UK newspapers. My edition includes a lot of quote from bloggers too – from CrimeFictionLover who called it a “cracking debut from an author who shows great promise” and Bibliophoenix who thought it “disturbing, mysterious and quite unpredictable.” I wouldn’t call it ‘cracking’ but I was certainly impressed by Griffiths’ ability to manage multiple narrative threads and bring them to an unexpected ending.
Most of the books I read in April I really enjoyed with the star being The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. Unfortunately I also encountered a book which I could not finish – Muriel Barbary’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog. It was one of the first books I bought when I decided about four years ago it was time to expand my reading to countries outside of UK/USA. It started off well with the introduction to the two main characters – one is a concierge of an apartment building who secretly conceals her intellectual interests in books, films, philosophy and the other is the daughter of a wealthy family in the building who decides to kill herself because of all the hypocrises she sees in the world. The novelty of Barbery’s alternating narrators soon wore off – by the time I got to page 100 I was finding it tedious. So off its gone to the charity shop.
State of my personal library
One of my goals for 2017 is to enjoy the books I already own and to reign back on acquiring yet more. I started 2017 with 318 unread books ( I thought it was 299 but then discovered my list of ebooks was incorrect) and a plan to hold off from adding to that number for the first six months of the year. It’s not a book ban as such – I know that if I really, really wanted a particular book I would just go and buy it or borrow from the library. So far I’ve been restrained – I haven’t bought anything and have just two books on loan from the library (Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel and one about the Wars of the Roses.). Having done a little bit of a clear out of books I realised I would never read my level of ‘owned but unread’ books is now down to 280.
I’ve been rather restrained with my wishlist on Goodreads. In March I added Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout which is a collection of linked stories about one community and also Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera which has been described as one of the most arresting novels to be published in Spanish in the last ten years. I haven’t done brilliantly with Spanish authors until now so I hope that description proves to be true. I’ve also been keeping an eye on the Shadow Panel for the International Man Booker Prize (you can see all their reviews of the shortlisted novels here). The one calling to me most is The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen which is about a family living on a small Norwegian island.
On the reading horizon…
After my recent post about reading books that are out of your comfort zone, I’m ready to take the plunge into my own dark zone of sci-fi. Armed with a list of recommendations from bloggers in response to my question ‘where do I begin’ I went off to the library only to find that most of these titles were not available. Some of them are buried in the basement of the county library (a place where it seems the library staff are not keen to visit) so I shall have to wait for Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea series and also for anything by William Gibson to come back from the deep. In the meantime I shall give Station Eleven a go.
There are a few other titles jostling for attention however which might squeak in before Station Eleven. Do I go for A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki? Or Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question? Or All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville-West. As always, when the moment comes to take a book from the shelf, it will invariably be none of these – something else will have taken my fancy.