So I’ve thought of a number of different ways I might start off talking about books here, and nothing seemed quite right. I thought I should do something momentous, I thought I should do something epic, I thought I should maybe do a listicle. But in the end, I decided I would just give a whole hearted recommendation for a book that blew me away, and that I can give an unabashed recommendation to. Because I can’t give unabashed recommendations easily. I read constantly. Literally, I get irritated at my job, my dogs, my dirty laundry, sometimes even my spouse for taking me away from my escape worlds and bringing me back to the world in which I currently reside, and must pay bills in.
And I have high standards. I want a plot and beautiful sentences. I prefer a subject matter that is not about white people bored in their marriages. I want movement, suspense, and I want to have an opinion about the characters. I don’t have to love them, hell, I don’t have to even like them, but I want to be interested in them. I like books of all kinds. I like mysteries, I like YA, I like fantasy, I like prize winning books. And like David Mitchell said, I think if you’re not reading genre, you’re doing yourself a disservice. Read the books. Read all the books. You don’t have to like them, and you don’t have to finish them, but crack their spines. Or, these days, the digital equivalent of the aforementioned spine cracking. I read mostly on my Kindle app on my ipad these days, so no judgement here.
So all of this brings me to why I loved Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel. It had a plot, and a damn good one. Its fast paced, post-apocalyptic, and chillingly so. The book starts out with the death of an actor on stage, and, despite the fame and notoriety of the actor, no one is quite sure who to contact about his death. The issue becomes moot, though, as hours after a fast sweeping and deadly flu wipes out most of the population around the world. The book then swings to the future, about twenty years post-flu-apocalypse, and then back in the past, pre-apocalypse, as it explores the lives and relationships of the characters. In the future, we tour the post-apocalyptic world through the eyes of a group of Shakespearean actors. It feels fantastical at times, it feels all too real at others.
While I read and enjoyed The Road (and it was in fact the only book by Cromac McCarthy I’ve EVER enjoyed), this book not only tells you how “the world ends” but dwells on it and then moves past it, and it is hyper chilling because it seems so plausible. It’s a story that takes place in two time frames, both before the end of the world, and after. You meet the majority of your characters in the after, and then explore their lives before. Mandel says, in an interview with NPR, that she purposely set it fifteen and twenty years ‘after’ because “It’s that I don’t think that period would last forever everywhere on earth. You know because, mayhem is not a terribly sustainable way of life.” So she then tries to imagine what that world-after-world-end would look like, and it involves Shakespeare.
The Shakespearean troupe discover curiosities as they travel, their discoveries revealing much about the world they inhabit, and much about the world left behind. Perhaps the most weighty discovery is that of a comic book. The role of art in the novel becomes almost hyper-important. Indeed, in that same interview, Mandel says “There’s something about art I think that can remind us of our humanity. It could remind us of our civilization.” The link between art, and civilization, and, perhaps, humanity is strong throughout the book. My favorite quote from the book is the one NPR and others have picked up on “Survival is insufficient.” Which not only forms the thesis of the book, it seems like a pretty damn good otto if you ask me. But its also a book that you just can’t put down.
And I think its the best book I’ve read in ages. It works on so many levels. Its intricately put together, and a true work of art in a way that the mystery thrillers I often enjoy are not. They’re fun reads, but I don’t think anyone will be reading them int twenty years. They are a flash in the pan, and I’m ok with that. What Mandel has done with Station Eleven is something different, something that I would argue will last. And what I like best about it, is that it is also such a quick, captivating read. It immerses you in its world, and when you leave it – well, you never really leave it. The atmosphere of the book haunts me. I read it nearly a year ago, and I still think about it frequently. And it is the first book I recommend when people ask me for a recommendation as to what they should be reading. So it seems natural that I pick it for this first post.
Next week I’ll be discussing another favorite – the Neapolitan series by Elena Ferrante.
But please – I myself am always looking for recommendations. What are you reading? What do you love?