Dipping into science-fiction

I’m not a huge fan of science-fiction, but the friend who recommended this book assured me that I would enjoy the theme of pharmaceutical meltdown and the emergence of a post-apocalyptic society that it examines. This novel was the winner of the Arthur C Clarke Award for Science Fiction in 2015, so it is acclaimed in its field.

station-eleven-imgThe book is set in Canada and the United States just 20 years after a catastrophic virus seemingly wipes out about 99% of humanity in a matter of days. The consequences of this are that, within a short space of time, electricity, running water and all the other basic services we take for granted, cease to exist. Vehicles are abandoned on motorways as their passengers leave their homes, to escape to…where? These people then die. Aircraft no longer fly and people are stranded pretty much wherever they happened to be at the moment the virus struck. And then mostly die. Whilst reading I recalled all those diseases in recent years that seemed to prefigure cataclysmic consequences (AIDS, Swine fever, SARS, Avian ‘flu, Ebola) fights which, for the most part, we eventually won; in this novel it is the disease (Georgian ‘flu) that prevails. And that’s scary.

The central character is Kirsten, who was 8 years old at the time of the disease, and was performing in a production of King Lear. The character of Lear was being played by Arthur Leander, a renowned celebrity actor, who dies on stage (not from the ‘flu). This seems to be a catalyst for chaos as that very evening the ‘flu takes hold and people start dying very quickly and in vast numbers.

“Hell is the absence of the people you long for.”

Station Eleven

The plot of the novel is complex. Kirsten survives the pandemic and we follow her in Year 20 as she becomes part of a travelling orchestra/theatre company bringing Shakespeare to remote and unconnected communities in the central states of North America. There is also Arthur Leander’s story – recollections of his childhood on a remote island off British Columbia, his early life as an actor before he became famous, then his acquisition of celebrity status, life in LA and, most significantly, his three marriages and relationship with his son.

There are two further significant characters: Clark, an old friend of Arthur’s, who survives the virus, but finds himself stranded in an airport, which becomes a significant community in the post-apocalyptic scenario. And Miranda, Arthur’s estranged first wife, who, when unable to cope with the trappings of fame and the effect this had on their marriage, sought sanctuary in writing a graphic novel (called Station Eleven) which envisaged a frightening future world controlled by an evil megalomaniac. Her graphic novel, a copy of which Kirsten treasures, provides a motif for the events of the book.

station-eleven-img-2The author has quite a task managing this complexity: each of the four characters’ stories are told separately and in a non-linear way, but they are like pieces of a jigsaw gradually being pieced together until the overall picture becomes clear. The novel jumps back and forth in time and I found this quite difficult to follow. Also, for me, the drawing together of the strands was a little too contrived; it just did not seem entirely plausible that a tiny number of survivors could have such a connected past. I think this has been my problem with science-fiction generally (but perhaps I haven’t read enough); I get that you have to suspend disbelief but it’s too much for me when that means suspending credibility.

Despite my reservations about the plot, I think the themes explored are very interesting: firstly, our vulnerability – technology has brought us so much but without it we are lost. Secondly, how we have so many communication tools at our disposal, but we don’t use them to say the things that really matter. And, thirdly, how society organises itself (or not!) when the usual social structures which keep us under control disappear. What is also interesting is that we take for granted that time equals progress, but in Year 20, so much ‘progress’ has been lost that things like engines and antibiotics seem like science-fiction. People can die of a cut from a rusty blade.

So, I enjoyed this aspect of the book, and it is well-written, but for me the plot did not work particularly well and the time-shifts were a bit frustrating and confusing. One to read if you like being a bit scared!

 

Do you love science fiction? Can you recommend a title for this reluctant sci-fi reader that I might enjoy?

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Reading hack #1 – book reviews save you time

1 min read

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I’ve blogged here before about how time vanishes and that if you’re a reader it can be so frustrating when it takes ages to read a book. Well, I would like to demonstrate that reading book reviews, rather than eating into more of your precious time, can actually save you time. Bear with me!

First, time is precious, so you don’t want to waste valuable reading time on something you’re not going to enjoy, right? And, if you’re like me, you don’t like giving up on books. I have to really dislike a book before I’ll give up on it. If it’s just that I’m not getting into it then I only allow myself to give up by promising that I’ll come back to it later; I felt able to re-shelve Zadie Smith’s White Teeth a few years ago after making this bargain! So, following a book reviewer you trust or who is on the same wavelength as you can help you choose more wisely.

Second, book reviews can help you engage with the conversation about a book even if you haven’t read it. Do you remember those How to bluff your way in… books? Great for appearing informed at dinner parties/interviews/meetings! Seriously, though, they can help you put things in context. You can watch those bookish Sky Arts TV programmes or listen to the high-brow radio shows and still feel part of it because you know something about the books being discussed.

Third, it can give you background and context about a book so you already have a bit of knowledge about it before you start. A book review can set a scene or give you some of the themes to look out for, thereby enhancing your appreciation of a book. Perhaps even give you some good angles for your book group!

books-1655783_1280There are so many books published that you may find people in your usual circle haven’t read the same things as you. But you will always find book review websites (whose authors would love you to post comments or engage in conversation, hint, hint!), or online reading communities, who have read your favourite most recent read. Sometimes, if I read a book I love (or loathe, though these are very few) I’m just bursting to talk about it with someone. I can always do that online.

Do you enjoy reading book reviews? If so, why? Or if not, why not?

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A bloody good book!

2 min read

This novel was one of the six titles shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker prize (and one that I did not get to before the winner was announced on the 26th of October). I wasn’t especially looking forward to it (possibly why I left it almost to last); crime fiction is not one of my chosen genres (though I’ve reviewed Frances Brody on this blog, and I like a bit of Agatha Christie now and then). Also, the typeface is quite small and there aren’t any chapters! Pathetic, I know, but I think most keen readers have their little quirks.

2016-11-16-15-34-36I have to say, though, that it’s a totally gripping story. Roddy Macrae is the 17-year old son of a crofter in a small village in the Scottish Highlands. The book begins with five short police statements from different witnesses who later testify in Roddy’s trial. They recount the incident, in August 1869, when Roddy murdered three other residents of the village: Lachlan Mackenzie, the village Constable and long-time foe of Roddy’s father, Mackenzie’s teenage daughter, Flora, and his young son Donnie. These witnesses observed Roddy walking through the village covered in blood and in addition to their account of the events they saw, they make observations on his character and background. Thus, there is little doubt that Roddy carried out the triple murder and the scene is set for an account of how these events came to pass.

Continue reading “A bloody good book!”

A brilliant but complex novel – an essay passing as fiction?

It’s a week since Paul Beatty’s The Sellout was announced as the winner of this year’s Man Booker Prize, and, finally, I have finished it. There at least two other books on the shortlist that I have enjoyed more (I reviewed them here recently, Hot Milk  and Eileen), but by golly this is an extraordinarily clever book! I’m not even sure I’m clever enough to review it! The blurb doesn’t really tell you what it’s about and the arty commentators I heard talking about it on the news when it won the prize, didn’t really say what it was about either (I’ll bet most of them had not even read it!) And I’m not surprised, because it is a really difficult book to describe. But, for what it’s worth, here goes…

the-sellout-imgThis is a novel about race in modern America where the white population seems to feel it has solved the problem of racism. Firstly, it abolished slavery and then set in place several pieces of legislation to reinforce racial equality. Unfortunately, this has not addressed a fundamental problem of disparity of outcomes between whites and blacks (or people of colour more widely), in academic achievement, income, social status, crime, you name it, the statistics paint a troublesome picture. The thesis of the novel is that, whilst white America is slightly uncomfortable with the facts as they stand, they can point to a number of black high achievers (not least the first African-American President) as evidence that they have done all they could. The under-achievement of the rest can be put down to, for example, their own fecklessness or problems of character.

The novel is set in Dickens, California, a predominantly black suburb of Los Angeles that is undesignated as a city and, literally, disappears from maps. Our central character, the eponymous Sellout, but otherwise nameless, known to us only as ‘Me’, seeks to restore its place through some unconventional methods, whilst also seeking to address problems associated with racial inequality. He decides to reintroduce segregation. He also takes a ‘slave’, Hominy an elderly bit-part actor who made a very small name as a black ragamuffin in minor films, made in an era when the black and white minstrels were quaint and funny. ‘Me’ takes his authority to do this from the fact that his father, an intellectual and social scientist, was a local hero of sorts. Known as the ‘nigger-whisperer’ he had a reputation for being able to calm down violent or suicidal black people, using his own brand of counselling and persuasion. He also set up the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals, which met in the local Dum Dum Donut’s store to engage in great philosophical debates. We learn a great deal about Me’s bizarre upbringing; he had no mother and his father used some unusual techniques, including violence and intimidation, to instil in his son his own theories about the ‘black condition’.

The novel starts with a prologue, where ‘Me’ is being tried in the Supreme Court for slavery. The rest of the novel tells us how a black man could possibly get to this point. The novel has been described as a ‘satire’ (although I’ve heard that the author does not like it described thus) and as darkly comic. Certainly, there are parts which are very funny, in a bleak sort of way, such as the circumstances surrounding the father’s death. I can see it is also satirical in the tradition of Jonathan Swift and Gulliver’s Travels, it is both poking fun at and calling out the self-interested and those who perpetuate injustice. It is a really tough book to pin down, but there is a moment towards the end where ‘Me’ is describing what he calls “Unmitigated Blackness” as “essays passing for fiction”. For me, that’s exactly what the book is, and it’s the author having the last laugh.

It’s hard to say I enjoyed this book; I admired it, most certainly. It’s brilliantly written and if you just love seeing how artists can put words together in unique and beautiful ways it is a treasure trove; I spotted a 218-word sentence which was absolutely breathtaking. It has quick wit, brilliantly acute observations of the absurdities of life, and is rich in irony (not normally seen as an American trait). For me, though, it was slightly too much essay and not quite enough story (fiction). Besides the satirical politics of the novel, which are, it has to be said, profound and thought-provoking, there is the story of a nameless black man in a modern-day, still racist world, in the shadow of a domineering father trying to work out his place in the world. This did not come through as much as I would have liked, until the end.

It’s a great read, but a complicated one. You need to be up for the challenge.

A disturbing psychological thriller

Here is my third review from the Man Booker Prize 2016 shortlist. The Sellout, by Paul Beatty, was announced as the winner last Tuesday, which means I did not predict correctly (in my blog on Monday I hoped it would be Deborah Levy, but thought it would probably be won by Madeleine Thien). My only excuse is that I had not finished reading all six books on the shortlist by the time of the announcement!

As promised, here is my review of Eileen, by American writer Ottessa Moshfegh, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Have a read and see what you think, and if you have read it I’d love to know what you thought.

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This is a novel about disorder; set in a seemingly sedate generic town in New England in the 1960s (for the purposes of the novel it’s called X-Ville), we are presented at the outset with a horrifying picture of chaos, in Eileen’s family home, in her messed-up mind, in her lifestyle and in her work. Eileen is a young woman and an administrator in a penal institution for young boys. Eileen, like many of the young males incarcerated at the prison, one imagines, is damaged, but, unlike those boys, the damage has not yet manifested itself in actions that have got her into trouble. Not yet. And that is the suspense of the novel – will the neglect to which she has been subjected burst out at some point?

Eileen has led a troubled life: neglected as a child by an alcoholic mother (now dead after what seems to have been a protracted illness), possibly abused by her father (we are not certain), with whom she now lives alone and who is also an alcoholic. Her father is mentally ill but his public misdemeanours are tolerated by the local police because he himself in an ex-cop. Instead, Eileen is more or less blamed for failing to keep him under control. The house they live in is disgusting – foetid, cluttered and in a state of disrepair. The effect is so visceral that just reading about it made me want to wash my hands! Continue reading “A disturbing psychological thriller”

Tame your gremlin and banish negative thoughts

lake-1585556_1280Autumn is becoming the new ‘new year’ for many people, lighter, brighter and generally a nicer time of year than January, which I’ve always felt was a really bad time to make resolutions and embark on new activities! On that theme, a lot of people I know are using October to make fresh starts or implement changes. For so many of us, transformation starts on the inside; if we have problems or issues we want to tackle or changes we want to make in our lives, it often means overcoming personal barriers – fears, phobias, addictions and the like – or building confidence in moving forward and realising dreams.

If this resonates with you and you are on your own transformation programme at the moment, I’d like to recommend Rick Carson’s Taming Your Gremlin. 

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Managing negative self-talk

I first came across this book a few years ago when I was doing some personal development training. First published in 1983 it remains in print and is widely considered a self-help classic. Its starting point is simple: that when it comes to getting what we want out of life, we are each our own worst enemy. In other words, there is a voice inside of us (which Carson embodies as a hostile gremlin) which talks us down, which questions our worthiness and which fills us with fear. All of this negative self-talk holds us back and stands in the way of us enjoying the life we have been given.

Your gremlin’s goal “is to squelch the natural, vibrant you within”

 

Carson’s method for dealing with our gremlin is a 3-step process. We begin by “simply noticing” the gremlin. This is linked to the Zen Theory of Change and to what we would now recognise as mindfulness. It’s very much a practical book, so to help you do this there are both physical and written exercises, for example, learning to breathe in a way that keeps you centred.

“I free myself not by trying to be free, but by simply noticing how I am imprisoning myself in the very moment I am imprisoning myself”

Step 2 invites us “Choose and play with options” or in other words, to observe our habitual behaviour patterns and write our own script, to change the negative thoughts to positive self-talk. The exercises are quite useful in doing this and the little stories (case histories) throughout the book will be familiar to many of us.

“As long as you operate out of habit you will limit your ability to fully experience, appreciate and enjoy your gift of life.”

 The final step is to “Be in process” to remain alert to the threat the gremlin poses. The future is unknown, your destiny is not mapped out by the events of your past and your gremlin cannot determine the path your life will take.

The book is a very easy and enjoyable read and its very practical. There is also a website accompanying the book.

In need of a post-holiday magic wand?

Most children will now be back at school. And most parents will be breathing a bit of a sigh of relief! Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE having mine off, and enjoy being able to step off the term-time treadmill for a few weeks, but I am always glad to get back to the routine. I have one teenager and two precocious pre-teenagers in my household, and whilst I’m no longer in the zone of clearing up their toys every five minutes or spending all day and every day ‘entertaining’ them as I did when they were little (here’s to you if you still are), a low-level chaos still seems to take over the house when they’re off school. They leave ‘stuff’ everywhere, they change clothes multiple times a day, and once the disorder sets in it is so hard to rein it back.

A few months ago, I bought Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying, in a flurry of enthusiasm; after having some work done in the house and finding so much irrelevant and pointless stuff lying around as I prepared for the builders, I felt a sudden motivation to “sort things out once and for all”. The family cowered and hoped I’d get over it quite quickly. I made a good start, organising both my own wardrobe and persuading my husband to do his as well. This is Marie’s Step 1. Step 2 is Books, so I’m psyching myself up for that one! Here’s my review of the book.

I’d love to know what you think, or if you have the same feeling of needing to reorganise once the Autumn comes around.

the-life-changing-magic-imgI didn’t think that the words “life-changing” and “tidying” could belong in the same sentence in anyone’s world, let alone adding the word “magic” as well! Don’t get me wrong, like many people, I enjoy the buzz I get from a clean tidy space, it’s the cleaning and tidying bit I don’t like. Marie Kondo is a different kind of animal, but she is highly likeable because she doesn’t try to hide it. She confesses that when she was a child she loved tidying both her own and other people’s things, and devoured women’s magazines with all their cleaning and tidying tips.

I felt vaguely uncomfortable at times with this book; I was worried that it was a bit of a throw-back, like I might turn into my mother whilst reading it! However, (isn’t there always one of those?) it IS actually more than that. Decluttering experts, psychologists and television producers all know that a chaotic domestic environment often says as much about our minds as it does about our lifestyles. It can also affect our minds and our lifestyle more than we realise. And that is where Marie Kondo is coming from, in her quirky, charming and guileless way.

Continue reading “In need of a post-holiday magic wand?”