Book Review, Canadian, Contemporary, Dystopia, Emily St John Mandel, Fiction, Post-Apocalyptic

Thoughts: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel


Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0

Station Eleven begins, ironically and appropriately, in a theater with a staging of William Shakespeare’s King Lear. Three of the novel’s recurring characters are first encountered in this opening scene, a moment in time that will be revisited throughout the novel. As the pages unfold, and the Traveling Symphony makes its way through a dangerous Midwestern landscape, ancient literature—from the Bible to Shakespeare—will become central in rebuilding culture and society in a drastically altered world .

Arthur Leander, Jeevan Chaudhary, and Kirsten Raymonde: three strange and special lives destined to intersect as one world ends and another begins. Over the course of decades, in the old, pre-plague world and the new world of survivors, the lives of these few characters, as well as the dark prophet child who grows up to be more sociopath than saint, begin to reflect the power, the beauty, the fear, the ability, the evils, and the resilience of the human spirit.  

Although this story cannot exist without its characters, I found many of them rather superficial throughout most of the book. This may be because the reader’s attention is drawn between the development of the characters and the effects of the apocalyptic tragedy; it may also be a result of the number of characters; it could be because of the multiple perspectives or the dance with time and numerous settings. Suffice to say, it’s a complex world and this often results in a certain distance between reader and characters. That being said, as the story unfolds and the many characters’ backgrounds begin to come together and to interact more closely, and more clearly, the dual worlds (before and after) and major conflicts (good and evil) begin to envelop the characters, resulting in a page-turning climax that makes any earlier lack seem basically innocuous.

One of the best things Station Eleven has going for it is its style and language. This is a distinctly literary work, more reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984 and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale than the majority of contemporary dystopian fiction. The prose style and complexity are, quite frankly, a welcome breath of fresh air in a rather over-saturated and underwhelming genre.

So, do you want to be scared out of your mind in a paradoxically beautiful way? Okay, then: read Station Eleven. The balance of realistic and futuristic themes, art and politics, society and wilderness, all work together in bizarre and unexpected ways. St. John Mandel’s talents are expressed in the crafting of each of these individual elements, but most of all in her construction of a symphony that effectively highlights each of her strengths without allowing one or the other to overshadow or outperform the rest. Those expecting a traditional post-apocalyptic novel may be disappointed, but those open to experiencing the dystopian genre in a somewhat softer, more realistic, and character-centered (rather than event-centered) way will be pleasantly surprised.

The fluidity of time, the focus on how individuals cope with the change and how larger society functions, how history begins to be rewritten following a worldwide calamity, are elements which coalesce to form a fresh, unique, and disturbingly thought-provoking new work in an age-old and often derivative genre.  

Suggested Reading For:

Age Level: YA+ (skewed toward adult)

Interest: Dystopia, Apocalyptic, Post-Apocalyptic, Literary.

Notable Quotes:

“Dear friends, I find myself immeasurably weary and I have gone to rest in the forest.”

“First we only want to be seen, but once we’re seen, that’s not enough anymore. After that, we want to be remembered.” 

“No one ever thinks they’re awful, even people who really actually are. It’s some sort of survival mechanism.” 

“She had never entirely let go of the notion that if she reached far enough with her thoughts she might find someone waiting, that if two people were to cast their thoughts outward at the same moment they might somehow meet in the middle.” 

“If your soul left this earth I would follow and find you.”

Book Review, Dystopia, Fiction, Post-Apocalyptic, Rick Yancey, Science-Fiction, Young Adult

Review: The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

17415470The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey
Final Verdict: 2.5 out of 4.0
YTD: 35

3 – Plot/Story is interesting and believable.

Rick Yancey’s The 5th Wave is a young adult sci-fi dystopian novel that has been carefully constructed to check off all the boxes of the new “classic” post-apocalyptic genre of YA fiction.  In it, we find the main character, Cassie, on a quest to save her younger brother after they have been separated from each other during the 4th Wave.  Cassie’s family, like so many other families, has been decimated, leaving her entirely alone.  As she navigates the dangerous and deserted middle United States, she encounters a young man named Evan who might turn out to be her personal savior, or her biggest nightmare.  In the meantime, her first crush – Ben Parish- has been taken to a secure military base, where children between the ages of 6 and 16 are being trained as soldier-warriors.  They are given the tools they need to identify the enemy and the skills they need to end them.  But, in the end, the question of “who is the enemy?” turns out to be much more complicated than anyone could have imagined and the answer brings Cassie and Ben racing toward each other and toward the same goal, though they don’t even know it.   

2 – Characters slightly developed.

This section contains spoilers.

To begin with, Yancey, like many other YA dystopian writers before him, makes a smart choice in centering his story on teenagers and children.  We all want to root for young heroes – we want to see them overcome their struggles and survive despite the lack of guidance and protection that comes with having lost their parents.  Yancey also cleverly introduces a muddled love interest – an intergalactic Romeo and Juliet scenario that should tug on everyone’s heart strings.  Except it, like many of the other relationships in the book, falls flat.  Cassie is totally in lust with Ben.  Evan is totally in lust with Cassie (okay, maybe in love, a little bit).  Ben doesn’t really know Cassie exists, but he conveniently helps to save her little brother, which brings them all together – the result?  Nothing.  450 pages of build-up on a sidelined teen romance that goes absolutely nowhere, except that we are to assume Evan disappears to make way for Ben (in a future sequel?).  On the other side, we have the villains who are essentially villains for villainy’s sake.  This is, in my opinion, the least satisfying type of “bad guy.”  Sure, the Silencers need bodies (apparently) and thus have a motive for their bad deeds but it is established by one of their own that the Silencers could have lived on Earth in peaceful coexistence with humans. They just didn’t want to do that – too confusing?  Ultimately, these formless, bodiless consciousnesses floated through space for thousands of years to get to Earth, where they could unite their minds with human bodies, except they don’t really want or like their human bodies.  Ultimately, it felt as if a bad guy was needed and alien villains haven’t been used on a grand scale in a while (considering all the zombie/vampire/supernatural stories lately), so it was a simple and “uniquely retro” solution.  In the end, the one-dimensional bad guys and the relatively depthless good guys (aside from a few interesting ones, like Sam and Evan whose points of view we only get once, sadly, and Ringer, who we see only as a secondary character) created rather shallow relationships and motivations.  Their stories lacked substance which kept me from caring too much about what happened next and, unlike Ender’s Game or The Hunger Games, does not leave me wondering about the sequel books. 

3 – Satisfactory Prose/Style, conducive to the Story.

Yancey certainly knows how to tell a story.  His use of language is great – engaging and effective.  Some of the choices he makes, though, such as the multiple points of view, do not seem to be entirely necessary or helpful.  Each chapter is from a different character’s perspective and, in some ways, this was required due to the fact that Cassie and Ben, the two protagonists, were in different locations and developing their two divergent stories, to be later united at the end; however, I think a third-person narration might have done more for the story.  Take, for instance, the lack of uniformity – all of the chapters were wildly different lengths so a moment might be spent with one character, and then dozens of chapters with another.  Also, some of the most poignant perspectives, such as that of Sam and Evan, were glimpsed only briefly, which was disappointing.  Ultimately, the narrative’s style – the ease and naturalness of the prose – is definitely strength, whereas the form and structure were not as well-crafted. The first portion of the narrative drags on for quite a while and the latter part flies by.  Uniformity and balance, plus some careful cutting and focus, could have tightened up the plot and allowed Yancey’s talents as a storyteller to shine a bit more brightly than it did. 

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
2 – Additional elements are present and cohesive to the story.

The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey is perhaps one of the most hyped, most anticipated young adult books of 2013.  It is being described as Ender’s Game meets The Host and as The Hunger Games meets Close Encounters, among other combinations.  In keeping with the trend, I would add my own comparison:  The 5th Wave is Battle Royale meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  The problem with all of these comparisons, though, is that they spawn from a sense of the derivative.   While the story and some of its cast were interesting, what the narrative lacked was a true sense of purpose and meaning.  There might be multiple messages, here – don’t always do what you’re told just because someone in a position of authority says so.  Things are not always what they appear to be.  Only the strong survive.  Luck matters.  These are all great, simple additives for stories, but they don’t hold up too well as major themes.  Aliens invade, almost everyone dies, but a few fight back – this might work well in the movies, particularly if a romantic or emotional subplot is infused into the action, but a good book needs more than goodness for goodness sake.  

Is The 5th Wave a good read?  Absolutely.  It is actually the epitome of a great summer read – filled with action, suspense, aliens, and friendships formed in the face of great adversity.  But is The 5TH Wavethe Young Adult book of the year,” as some have claimed?  No, I think not.  I would much sooner give that title to Andrew Smith’s Winger.  Still, if you’re a fan of this genre, if you enjoyed The Hunger Games, Divergent, and the like, then the odds are you will like this one, too.  It might not be the most profound book in the world, but it is an entertaining read – not a bad way to spend a summer afternoon.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: 13+ (Language, sexuality, children in adult situations, graphic violence).   
Interest:  Dystopia, Post-apocalyptic, Science Fiction.   

Notable Quotes:

“And it occurs to me that there’s no real difference between us, the living and the dead; it’s just a matter of tense: past-dead and future-dead” (113).

“There’s more than one kind of bullshit. There’s the bullshit you know that you know; the bullshit you don’t know and know you don’t know; and the bullshit you just think you know but really don’t” (149).

“It’s why a kid army makes sense. Adults don’t waste their time on magical thinking” (242).

“The fire in my chest grows white-hot, spreads over every inch of my body. It melts my bones; it incinerates my skin; I am the sun gone supernova” (263).

“I thought the only way to hold on was to find something to live for. It isn’t. To hold on, you suave to find something you’re willing to die for.” (281).

“1st Wave: light’s out. 2nd Wave: surf’s up. 3rd Wave: pestilence. 4th Wave: Silencer. What’s next, Evan? What is the 5th Wave?” (351).

“I am a shark who dreamed he was a man” (360).

“When the moment comes to stop running from your past, to turn around and face the thing you thought you could not face – the moment when your life teeters between giving up and getting up – when that moment comes, and it always comes, if you can’t get up and you can’t give up either, here’s what you do: Crawl” (419).

“It’s the strong who remain, the bent but unbroken, like the iron rods that used to give this concrete its strength.  Floods, fires, earthquakes disease, starvation, betrayal, isolation, murder. What doesn’t kill us sharpens us. Hardens us. Schools us” (446).

“It’s almost dawn. You can feel it coming. The world holds its breath, because there’s really no guarantee that the sun will rise. That there was a yesterday doesn’t mean there will be a tomorrow” (456).

American Lit, Book Review, Culture, Don DeLillo, Fiction, Literature, metafiction, Post-Apocalyptic, Psychology

Review: White Noise by Don DeLillo

923693White Noise by Don DeLillo
Final Verdict: 3.75 out of 4.0
YTD: 51

4 – Plot/Story is interesting/believable and impactful (socially, academically, etc.)

 “This is the language of waves and radiation, of how the dead speak to the living.”

White Noise is the story of Jack Gladney, a professor of Hitler Studies at a small liberal arts college in “Middle America” (I envisioned South Dakota, though it is never explicitly stated).  Jack and his (fourth) wife have an interesting relationship – a co-dependency of sorts, wherein they’re drawn together both from a sense of love but also from a fear of dying.  They have four children, each of whom is special in some way, particularly the eldest son whose brilliance is in a way emasculating to his professor-father.  The family dynamic and the parents’ overwhelming, paralyzing fear of death come to the fore-front as a black chemical cloud is accidentally unleashed in the community.  This “airborne toxic event” as it is called, is a physical manifestation for the emotional “white noise” that the Gladneys and, in a way, all Americans are experiencing.   All of the technological advancements and innovation have brought us great wonders, but at what cost? 

3 – Characters well developed.
The Gladney family reminds me of a real modern family.  They are recognizable in a distinctly “now” way, as coinhabitants of a specific residence (although, sometimes, there are multiple parents and step-children who do not all live together so, really, they are not even coinhabitants of a residence, but of a stretched sphere).  Parents have lost a certain parental authority.  Children have gained a certain dominance over their elders because they are growing up with a firmer grasp of the contemporary technology.  All of this is represented by Jack & Babette and their bizarre children.  Heinrich, who at 14 is already a skeptic and a cynic who reduces everything to analysis – who cannot wish or wonder or find awe in anything.  Steffie is overly sensitive, unable even to watch television shows where people are put in danger or made to look stupid (like reality shows).  Denise is sharp and bossy, spotting her mother’s drug problem before anyone else and trying, unlike anybody else, to do something about it.  Wilder, though mute throughout the entire book, turns out to be one of the most important family members, particularly as a source of comfort to his neurotic parents.  

4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.
Combined with the interesting subject matter and the (sad) realism is a great writing style.  Dialogue and storytelling are clearly strengths for DeLillo (at least in this novel – I have not read anything else by him).  He understands people and contemporary relationships, in particular.  This comes across in the way he tells the story, the sense of humor, the movement, the disappointment – it is all there in the language.  For a book that is largely about our unwillingness or inability to communicate, DeLillo manages to get the message across loud and clear. White Noise is a masterpiece of postmodern discourse – it is a work of metafiction, cleverly disguised as a family story. 

Additional Elements: Setting, Symbols/Motifs, Resolution, etc.
4 – Additional elements improve and advance the story.
This is the book I would love to have written.  This is the type of book that I think about all the time, that I have tried to write on a few occasions. Nobody knows how to communicate effectively.  Kids create drama to get noticed, parents create drama because they are unfulfilled, bored, unsatisfied – constantly bombarded with messages that we are all supposed to want more, own more, buy bigger, have better.  We don’t really know our neighbors anymore, or our co-workers.  Drugs are prescribed to treat our problems, other drugs are prescribed to control the side-effects of the first ones.  We can’t sleep without pills, can’t wake up without caffeine.  We take pictures of pictures and lose all sense of or care for original works of art, because we can keep photocopies of these things, oftentimes more brilliant than the originals, in our back pockets.  We are constantly connected to instant-information devices, so we learn nothing and remember nothing, because the answers are handed to us at the touch of a screen.  We are becoming something other than human.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: 14+
Interest: Mass Culture, Paranoia, Cultural Studies, Contemporary Issues, Neurosis, Anxiety, Family, Higher Education, Technology, Chemical Weapons, Pollutants, Postmodernism, Metafiction, Language
Notable Quotes:

“What good is knowledge if it just floats in the air? It goes from computer to computer. It changes and grows every second of every day. But nobody actually knows anything.”

“Man’s guilt in history and in the tides of his own blood has been complicated by technology, the daily seeping falsehearted death.”

“These things happen to poor people who live in exposed areas. Society is set up in such a way that it’s the poor and the uneducated who suffer the main impact of natural and man-made disasters.”

“Heat. This is what cities mean to me. You get off the train and walk out of the station and you are hit with the full blast. The heat of air, traffic and people. The heat of food and sex. The heat of tall buildings. The heat that floats out of the subways and the tunnels. It’s always fifteen degrees hotter in the cities.  Heat rises from the sidewalks and falls from the poisoned sky. The buses breathe heat. Heat emanates from crowds of shoppers and office workers. The entire infrastructure is based on heat, desperately uses up heat, breeds more heat. The eventual heat death of the universe that scientists love to talk about is already well underway and you can feel it happening all around you in any large or medium-sized city. Heat and wetness.”

“Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.”

“I am the false character that follows the name around.”

“I feel sad for people and the queer part we play in our own disasters.”

2011 Challenges, 2011 TBR Challenge, Book Review, Dystopia, Fantasy, Fiction, Jeanne DuPrau, Post-Apocalyptic, Science-Fiction

Review: The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau

The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau
Final Verdict: 3.25 out of 4.0
YTD: 4

3 – Plot/Story is interesting & believable.

It is sometime in the future, on planet Earth, and something rather terrible has happened. For reasons not explained (though one would infer nuclear apocalypse), most of the world’s population has been eliminated, and only a small few survive, deep below the Earth, generations after the catastrophic event. They have no knowledge of their true origins, or of what happened centuries before their births. All they know is a group of people named “The Builders” created their city and left it stocked with an inexhaustible amount of supplies. That is – the people of Ember thought their supplies were never-ending. As it happens, the people were to have vacated the city some time ago, using instructions left for them by the builders. They were supposed to have resurfaced and rebuilt their community above ground, before supplies ran out, but those instructions were lost – and it is up to two inquisitive and daring twelve-year-old children, who stumble upon the instructions, to find their way out and get a message to the rest of the city: Egress!

3 – Characters well developed.

The two main characters, Lina Mayfleet and Doon Harrow, are twelve year olds who have just graduated from school and gone off to join the city’s work force, as all citizens do at the age of twelve. Lina is fiercely loyal and has a strong sense of morality – wanting to do what is right. She is protective of her young sister and respectful of her grandmother and other elders, though she does not hesitate to let adults know when they are in the wrong. Doon is independent and hot-tempered, but sensitive. He too has a strong connection to his family, and his primary goal is to make his father proud. Unlike Lina, though, Doon is more able to leave the city behind and to let its people fend for themselves, preferring to leave further instructions for everyone on how to get out, rather than guide them. Doon’s independence comes across as uncaring or unsympathetic, which makes Lina, in contrast, seem to be the true leader (though she turns out to be forgetful – a trait which could cost the entire city but, fortunately, a convenient dues-ex-machina at the end is her -and their- salvation). These two are well written and distinct, as are the other minor characters, such as the Mayor, Lina’s caring neighbor, the botanist, and the shady shopkeeper. The characters do not have much depth, but this is a young adult novel, so they are as engaging as necessary, without complicating the story.

4 – Extraordinary Prose/Style, enhancing the Story.
*This portion has a few minor spoilers

The highest achievement for this book is the writing. Dialogue and prose are both very well done – simple but not boring, and well-paced overall. The most impressive example of the masterful writing, though, is in all that is described rather than told. This is necessary in a book where the people have forgotten their histories and do not know the meaning of many words or the uses for many tools. One of the greatest moments of the book is when Lina and Doon discover a boat, but have no idea what it is. Fortunately, “The Builders” anticipated this, and have left small cards indicating what each item on/around the boat is (though, not what it does). This type of description happens again later, when Lina and Doon come to the surface and see, for the first time, things like grass, the moon, the sun, a small animal and a new kind of fruit (fresh, not canned). None of these things have names, for the citizens of Ember, so they do not get names in the book – the reader does not witness Lina gazing at the moon but, instead, at the silver lantern in the sky. These types of necessary descriptions for common objects turn out to be some of the most beautiful and thought-provoking moments in the book.

Additional Elements:
3 – Additional elements are present and cohesive to the Story.

Overall, this book is an interesting take on the post-apocalyptic novel. Many of this genre are set in other places – outer space, other planets, underwater. Many are set on Earth itself, but an Earth changed – barren and hostile. The City of Ember, though, is one of the few set almost entirely underground (preceded by Suzanne Martel’s The City Underground in 1963). This makes for an intriguing and uncomfortable story – witnessing people of Earth living under ground, with no knowledge that they are underground; instead, they simply think they are the one and only city – nothing exists outside the city limits, except darkness. There is a definite moral element to the story, a damning indictment of the nature of humanity – condemning and chastising a people who would willingly bring their civilizations to destruction and force their offspring to live miles below the Earth, their histories a complete mystery. There is also an examination of the dangers of power and greed – the age-old tale of a community forced to suffer due to the immorality and cowardice of its leader. Each of these themes is strong and woven well enough into the storyline to make it present without being overt. The one minor nuisance is the story’s resolution (though, of course, the story goes on in subsequent books) – the last few moments of the book allow Lina and Doon to look down upon their city, in an interesting way, but one which, in this reader’s opinion, puts the book’s realism in question.

Suggested Reading for:
Age Level: Young Adult
Interest: Dystopia, Eschatology, Post-Apocalyptic Society, Science-Fiction, Fantasy, Friendship, Adventure, Coming-of-Age

This book is now available in the SHOP @ Roof Beam Reader