Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

station eleven by emily st john mandelFormat read: ebook provided by the publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genre: dystopian fiction
Length: 333 pages
Publisher: Knopf
Date Released: September 9, 2014
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

One snowy night Arthur Leander, a famous actor, has a heart attack onstage during a production of King Lear. Jeevan Chaudhary, a paparazzo-turned-EMT, is in the audience and leaps to his aid. A child actress named Kirsten Raymonde watches in horror as Jeevan performs CPR, pumping Arthur’s chest as the curtain drops, but Arthur is dead. That same night, as Jeevan walks home from the theater, a terrible flu begins to spread. Hospitals are flooded and Jeevan and his brother barricade themselves inside an apartment, watching out the window as cars clog the highways, gunshots ring out, and life disintegrates around them.

Fifteen years later, Kirsten is an actress with the Traveling Symphony. Together, this small troupe moves between the settlements of an altered world, performing Shakespeare and music for scattered communities of survivors. Written on their caravan, and tattooed on Kirsten’s arm is a line from Star Trek: “Because survival is insufficient.” But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who digs graves for anyone who dares to leave.

Spanning decades, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, this suspenseful, elegiac novel is rife with beauty. As Arthur falls in and out of love, as Jeevan watches the newscasters say their final good-byes, and as Kirsten finds herself caught in the crosshairs of the prophet, we see the strange twists of fate that connect them all. A novel of art, memory, and ambition, Station Eleven tells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it.

My Review:

If you enjoy post-apocalyptic stories that focus more on continuing a life that celebrates what is best in us despite conditions that travel well past hell in the handbasket, Station Eleven is utterly marvelous.

If you prefer the violent aspects of surviving in a world gone mad, try Dies the Fire by S.M. Stirling instead.

The apocalyptic event that creates the world of Station Eleven feels all too real, all too plausible. In 1918, the influenza pandemic killed 3-5% of the world population. The event was slightly less than a century ago, and some of the same factors apply in Station Eleven, especially the ones where governments underestimated the infection rate and communicability of the disease. Or simply chose not to communicate the communicability of the disease.

Another frame of reference is the Black Death in the 1300s. 30-60% of the population of Europe was killed, and it took 150 years for the continent to recover. The combination of these two real-life historical examples bear strange fruit in Station Eleven.

More than 90% of the world’s population is wiped out in less than a month by a particularly virulent strain of swine flu. The disease strikes so quickly and in such large numbers that the world healthcare system is overwhelmed instantly. And it also gains a foothold because the country of origin downplays the seriousness of the epidemic. It spreads before anyone has a chance to find a cure, and then everyone who is either not resistant or not isolated dies in days.

Station Eleven is about how the world tries to right itself, and how much we take for granted that can be gone in an instant. With 90% of the world’s population dead, there is no one to maintain all the hallmarks of civilization that we use without a thought. No electricity, no grocery stores, no internet, no police or fire services. No national government because there is no communication infrastructure.

But it isn’t back to the Stone Age, because all the adults remember the world before. Even in a fight for bare survival, people remember how things used to be. As time goes on, the people who remember are the ones who have the most difficult time adjusting, because now they know just how marvelous the world was, and they mourn for it, or want it back.

The story begins with an event that feels like the death of patient zero, even though it isn’t. But Arthur Leander’s death on stage in King Lear occurs just as the first cases are dying in New York. For the group of people who witness his last performance, it becomes their touchstone for the day the universe changed.

Everything from that point forward is reckoned in B.D. (before disaster) or A.D. (after disaster). No other time frame matters.

“Because survival is insufficient” is a quote from the Star Trek Voyager episode Survival Instinct. It is also painted on the canvas of the Traveling Symphony, a group of actors and musicians who travel around the Great Lakes performing classic works of music and Shakespeare in the small villages and hamlets that have survived the epidemic.

Kirsten Raimonde is one of the actors in the Traveling Symphony. She was also a child actress on stage when Arthur Leander fell, and she is one of the links between the pre-apocalyptic past and the dystopian present.

She and her traveling company tour a circuit of towns around the Great Lakes that, through trial and deadly error, they have determined to be a safe route. That route is disrupted when they return to St. Deborah by the Water to discover that it has been taken over by a cult leader who symbolically, or realistically, buries anyone who does not go along with his beliefs.

He is also the only other person in the changed world to have read an extremely limited run graphic novel that Arthur Leander gave to Kirsten just before the world ended. While Kirsten tries to resolve that puzzle, she and her friends also must journey to a Museum of life before the fall in order to find missing members of their crew who may be dead, or may just have fled the cult.

The cult, the symphony, and everyone’s memories of the late Arthur Leander travel back and forth through time and across a desolate Midwestern landscape to reach one isolated place that ties them all back together again.

Escape Rating A: Station Eleven is all about the journey. Both the literal journey that Kirsten and company take to find their missing crew, and the journey that humanity is taking from our world of overabundance to their world of scarcity. It is a journey that reveals the preciousness of human connection over all the technological distractions of contemporary life.

Using Arthur Leander’s coincidental death provides a mechanism for viewing the world as it was before, and the world as it is after. We see his life move from purpose to pointlessness to death. We also see the destruction through the eyes of the people who surrounded him in those last moments – his best friend, his child co-star, and the paramedic who tried to save him. Each of them takes a completely different journey to that point 15 years A.D. where they all meet again, along with his ex-wife and her son.

They each survive in different but quite possible ways. All equally traumatic and life changing as the universe changes. There is a world after, but the journey to get their is fraught with pain, and sorrow, and occasional sparks of joy.

Station Eleven has been lauded as literary fiction, but the story it tells is firmly within the post-apocalyptic genre of speculative/science fiction. Because it is set 15 years later, we get to see the story of how people survived, and not just the violence of the immediate collapse. It makes this a hopeful and sometimes lyrical tale, one well worth reading.

Because survival alone IS insufficient. To make us human, we must find ways to do and be more. And that is the story of Station Eleven.

p.s. Get your flu shot. It may not help but it can’t hurt.

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

Review: The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore

secret history of wonder woman by jill leporeFormat read: ebook provided by Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, paperback, audiobook
Genre: nonfiction
Length: 432 pages
Publisher: Knopf
Date Released: October 28, 2014
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

A riveting work of historical detection revealing that the origin of one of the world’s most iconic superheroes hides within it a fascinating family story—and a crucial history of twentieth-century feminism

Wonder Woman, created in 1941, is the most popular female superhero of all time. Aside from Superman and Batman, no superhero has lasted as long or commanded so vast and wildly passionate a following. Like every other superhero, Wonder Woman has a secret identity. Unlike every other superhero, she has also has a secret history.

Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore has uncovered an astonishing trove of documents, including the never-before-seen private papers of William Moulton Marston, Wonder Woman’s creator. Beginning in his undergraduate years at Harvard, Marston was influenced by early suffragists and feminists, starting with Emmeline Pankhurst, who was banned from speaking on campus in 1911, when Marston was a freshman. In the 1920s, Marston and his wife, Sadie Elizabeth Holloway, brought into their home Olive Byrne, the niece of Margaret Sanger, one of the most influential feminists of the twentieth century. The Marston family story is a tale of drama, intrigue, and irony. In the 1930s, Marston and Byrne wrote a regular column for Family Circle celebrating conventional family life, even as they themselves pursued lives of extraordinary nonconformity. Marston, internationally known as an expert on truth—he invented the lie detector test—lived a life of secrets, only to spill them on the pages of Wonder Woman.

The Secret History of Wonder Woman is a tour de force of intellectual and cultural history. Wonder Woman, Lepore argues, is the missing link in the history of the struggle for women’s rights—a chain of events that begins with the women’s suffrage campaigns of the early 1900s and ends with the troubled place of feminism a century later.

My Review:

Wonder Woman has often been presented as an icon of feminism. Admittedly, she looks like feminism for the male gaze, with her abbreviated and skin-tight uniform of bustier and increasingly short shorts, but the principles that she espouses, at least when she is being drawn by someone who cares, are generally considered feminist.

If Wonder Woman’s history in the comic books is often convoluted, as DC Comics continually revises, retcons and retools the origin stories for their superheroes, the story of how she was created was possibly even stranger.

There’s also an amount of “small world” feeling that surrounds her creation. She was created by a man who believed that what he was propagating were first-wave feminist values, in spite of the life he lived being something rather different. At the same time, everyone seems to have known everyone. There’s a weird straight line between the creation of Wonder Woman and the invention of the birth control pill. In this history, that line has a couple of kinks in it.

Wonder Woman was created by William Moulton Marston in 1942 during the Golden Age of comic books. Marston’s life was somewhat of a comic book all by itself, but no one seems to have been aware of it at the time, including his children. That’s part of what made this story so fascinating.

In the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, Marston lived at the head of an extremely unconventional household. His wife, Sadie Holloway, embodied the feminist principles that he inserted into Wonder Woman. She was the primary breadwinner, working at the executive level in various industries, including insurance, and was also an editor.

In addition to supporting Marston and their children, Sadie was also supporting the other woman in Marston’s life, Olive Byrne Richard, and the two children Marston had with her. In return for her involvement in this unusual arrangement, Olive Byrne became the caretaker for Holloway’s children with Marston in addition to her own.

Olive Byrne was the niece of Margaret Sanger, the famous (sometimes infamous) birth control advocate, so Marston knew Sanger.

Marston was also the originator of the lie-detector test, even though his design was not the one that went into widespread use.

The story in The Secret History of Wonder Woman is not a publication history of the comic, although there is a bit of that. Instead, it is a biography of the eccentric group of people who made the original Wonder Woman, and a fascinating look at how their unconventional lives and Marston’s unusual psychological theories about love and dominance made their way into the iconic character of Wonder Woman.

Reality Rating B: This is one of those stories that can only be true, because an attempt to fictionalize it would run past anyone’s willing suspension of disbelief.

As narrative, it takes a while to get into, but the journey is definitely worth the ride. At least partially because it’s such a surprise.

Marston certainly believed that the ideas he was promoting in Wonder Woman were aligned with first-wave feminism. After reading this book, I can’t say that I believe it, but I can see that he did. He also had a lot of very strange theories about the power of love and submission both being ultimately stronger than violence and dominance and being what women really needed. Again, not saying I believe it, or that anyone outside his immediate household believed his theories very long, but he did embody those theories in Wonder Woman.

On that other hand, he used both his wife and his mistress as models for different aspects of Wonder Woman’s personality and some of her costume and gadgetry. It also seems like Wonder Woman is the only thing he managed to succeed at, and the rest of the time he was a supposedly enlightened despot overseeing the household that was maintained for his convenience by his two “wives”.

There was a certain amount of bravery on everyone’s part in living a very unconventional life-style, but it seems as if it mostly benefitted him, which doesn’t seem feminist at all. Marston also used the Wonder Woman narrative as a way of poking none too gentle fun at various academics and officials who had derided his theories in the early part of his career.

Whatever he may have voiced regarding the power of women, Marston described all the many and varied ways in which Wonder Woman gets chained and bound, over and over, with a little too much loving detail to sit comfortably with readers who equate Wonder Woman with feminism. It feels like a disconnect between what he said and what he did, and one wonders why no one pointed it out at the time.

All in all, the way that Marston’s real life and theories inserted themselves into Wonder Woman is strangely compelling. The way that first-wave feminism was both promulgated and ultimately rejected by Wonder Woman when it changed hands reflects the change in women’s status after World War II. The backdrop history of the fear of comic books’ influence on children and the rise of censorship is reminiscent of the trials of both television violence and video games that have occurred in more recent times. Some things that have happened before are happening over and over.

This book reads much more like a biography of Marston than a history of Wonder Woman. Still, where those two intersect, and how, is fascinating.

Reviewer’s note: This book is not as long as it initially appears. While reading on my Kindle app, I was 65% completed when the narrative ended and the extensive footnotes began. It’s great to see how well researched the book is, but I thought it had a lot longer to go.

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

Review: Thirteen Days in September by Lawrence Wright

thirteen days in september by lawrence wrightFormat read: hardcover provided by the publisher
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genre: political history
Length: 345 pages
Publisher: Knopf
Date Released: September 16, 2014
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

A gripping day-by-day account of the 1978 Camp David conference, when President Jimmy Carter persuaded Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian president Anwar Sadat to sign the first peace treaty in the modern Middle East, one which endures to this day.

With his hallmark insight into the forces at play in the Middle East and his acclaimed journalistic skill, Lawrence Wright takes us through each of the thirteen days of the Camp David conference, illuminating the issues that have made the problems of the region so intractable, as well as exploring the scriptural narratives that continue to frame the conflict. In addition to his in-depth accounts of the lives of the three leaders, Wright draws vivid portraits of other fiery personalities who were present at Camp David––including Moshe Dayan, Osama el-Baz, and Zbigniew Brzezinski––as they work furiously behind the scenes. Wright also explores the significant role played by Rosalynn Carter.
What emerges is a riveting view of the making of this unexpected and so far unprecedented peace. Wright exhibits the full extent of Carter’s persistence in pushing an agreement forward, the extraordinary way in which the participants at the conference—many of them lifelong enemies—attained it, and the profound difficulties inherent in the process and its outcome, not the least of which has been the still unsettled struggle between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

In Thirteen Days in September, Wright gives us a resonant work of history and reportage that provides both a timely revisiting of this important diplomatic triumph and an inside look at how peace is made.

My Review:

It is fascinating to read history about something you remember, and discover new truths and new insights on events that still feel familiar – especially when those events are still shaping the world today.

Ostensibly, this is the story of the negotiations at Camp David in 1977 between the U.S., Israel and Egypt to provide at least a framework for peace in the Middle East, something that was not achieved and has not yet been achieved. From the perspective of 2014, it seems as if the issues in the Middle East are more intransigent than ever.

A goodly part of this book tells why things haven’t shifted much, or at least not shifted in a good direction, as a result of the events of these thirteen (not an auspicious number) days.

The author does this by interweaving the specific events at Camp David with a look into the contemporary histories of both Israel and Egypt, particularly in the 20th century. He looks behind the myths that both sides have created about the way that politics and history shaped and partitioned the area that is holy to three religions, and how that background of religious warfare has impacted contemporary events.

A critical part of the mix is the author’s triple biography of Carter, Begin and Sadat, to outline the ways in which their personal histories brought them to the summit, and kept them from reaching the kind of over-arching peace that they are claimed they sought. Some of the problems that they brought to the table were rooted in their own pasts, and that they each defined peace, and how that peace might be defined, from radically different perspectives.

Not all the baggage at Camp David came in suitcases – quite a lot of it was embedded into the psyches of the three principals. In many ways, it is amazing that they managed as much as they did.

On top of the personal, this story was also impacted by the three political landscapes at the time – Jimmy Carter staked the prestige of his presidency on Camp David, and probably lost his second term at least partially because he blocked out all other issues in his attempt to make a lasting peace. Begin was head of a coalition party in Israel that had multiple agendas, while Sadat was very much out on a limb politically from the other Arab nations, who viewed his attempt to negotiate with Israel as traitorous.

And yet, the accords signed at Camp David have not been broken in nearly 40 years. It may sometimes be a fractious peace, but there is peace between Egypt and Israel. But for how long?

Reality Rating A-: This historical narrative seemed like a perfect choice for this season that hopes for “peace on earth and goodwill to all” because it highlights a time when peace in a troubled region might have been within reach. That the attempt was made at all is a testament to the desires of people of good will, and yet, that they fell short is also a testament, not just to their human frailties, but also to the drumbeat of ancient as well as modern grievances.

If those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it, then the story of Camp David is about the unwillingness or inability of a whole lot of people with the best intentions in the world who could not let go of a past that everyone remembers differently but all too well.

One of the things that makes this history accessible to the reader, is the way that the author set the negotiations into their historical and personal contexts. It wasn’t just about these thirteen days, but about the histories of the Middle East and the negotiators. Each part had a profound influence on all the others.

But the skill in which the past is interwoven into the day-by-day account of the negiations makes a gripping story, as well as a revealing triple-portrait of Carter, Begin and Sadat, as well as the members of their teams.

This is a work of living history for anyone who is interested in the issues in the Middle East.

***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.

Review: Love and Treasure by Ayelet Waldman + Giveaway

love and treasure by ayelet waldmanFormat read: ebook provided by NetGalley
Formats available: ebook, hardcover, paperback, audiobook
Genre: Historical fiction
Length: 449 pages
Publisher: Knopf
Date Released: April 1, 2014
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

In 1945 on the outskirts of Salzburg, victorious American soldiers capture a train filled with unspeakable riches: piles of fine gold watches; mountains of fur coats; crates filled with wedding rings, silver picture frames, family heirlooms, and Shabbat candlesticks passed down through generations. Jack Wiseman, a tough, smart New York Jew, is the lieutenant charged with guarding this treasure—a responsibility that grows more complicated when he meets Ilona, a fierce, beautiful Hungarian who has lost everything in the ravages of the Holocaust. Seventy years later, amid the shadowy world of art dealers who profit off the sins of previous generations, Jack gives a necklace to his granddaughter, Natalie Stein, and charges her with searching for an unknown woman—a woman whose portrait and fate come to haunt Natalie, a woman whose secret may help Natalie to understand the guilt her grandfather will take to his grave and to find a way out of the mess she has made of her own life.

My Review:

I loved the first two sections of Love & Treasure, which pretty much embody the two words in the title. Part 1 is Treasure, Part 2 is Love.

However, there was a part 3, and it felt like it broke the narrative flow of the story. Not that it wasn’t good on it’s own, but that the entire book could have ended with part 2, and I’d have been content.

Not making sense? Let’s try it this way.

Part 1 of Love & Treasure is about the finding of the treasure. It’s a story bound up with World War II, the confiscated property of Jews who were deported, and one American Jewish soldier stationed in Salzburg at the end of the war, watching the looting of the artifacts of an entire community.

The Hungarian Gold Train really existed. Hungary was captured by the Nazis in 1944. The Jewish population was shipped off to concentration camps by the colluding Hungarian government. When it looked like Hungary was going to be liberated by the Allied forces in 1945, all that confiscated loot was put on a train bound for Germany.

The train was captured by U.S. troops, and that’s where the story begins. Captain Jack Wiseman is put in charge of inventorying the collection, and he finds himself forced to watch as his superior officers systematically loot the property in order to furnish their occupation headquarters all over Europe.

In history, none of the property was ever returned to its owners or their descendants. In the story, Jack takes one small piece as a memento; a peacock necklace. On his deathbed, he asks his granddaughter to find someone to whom that necklace rightfully belongs (or at least more rightfully than himself). He wants to give her a quest, and to assuage some of his own guilt. But it’s mostly about taking care of her, one last time.

The second part of the story is Natalie’s quest to find a person who is connected with the necklace. Her journey puts her in the path of the slightly shady art dealer, Amitai Sasho. Amitai usually finds people who are heirs to concentration camp victims, and locates treasure owned by their dead ancestor. Then he brokers a deal where the art gets sold, and everyone involved gets a piece of the pie, especially his firm. There’s nothing illegal about the operation, but it is just a bit grey.

That peacock necklace features prominently in a painting by an relatively unknown Hungarian artist. Amitai is obsessed with finding, not the necklace, but the lost painting. Natalie is driven to fulfill her promise to her grandfather.

Tracking down the provenance of the necklace brings Amitai and Natalie close enough to discover that what they have really both been searching for is each other. Finding the painting is just a bonus. Admittedly a very big bonus.

Escape Rating B+: There turn out to be three stories here; the original provenance of the peacock necklace, Jack’s service in Salzburg and conditions among the general population and particularly the DPs (Displaced Persons) and finally his granddaughter Natalie’s search for someone connected with that original provenance.

While it was interesting seeing the story of the necklace before it ended up on the train, and finding out how the original owners used it as a present back and forth, that story was told at the end, and it lost dramatic tension. It felt like it should have been at the beginning, but it wasn’t nearly as dynamic a story as Jack’s or Natalie’s. YMMV.

Jack’s story has the most meat to it. He’s conflicted at watching the assets of the train get bureaucratically looted, and he feels torn between his identity as a Jew and his service as a soldier. He knows what’s happening isn’t right, but he’s powerless to stop it. The problems that he can at least contribute to solving are the continued deprivations of and depredations on the Jewish DPs stuck in Salzburg. By doing the right thing, he becomes involved with a Hungarian DP, Ilona. He’s never sure what their relationship is, and whether she is using him or really cares. Through his involvement with her, we also see the political machinations of Zionists who will use any means necessary to force the British to open up Palestine. (Historically, we know where this ended up).

Natalie’s story provides closure, but it occurs in the middle. Jack is the past, and Natalie is the future. Her willingness to search everywhere and do anything to settle his ghosts gets the story involved with Amitai’s mercenary repatriation efforts. And with Amitai, who is a slightly shady character that finds a way out into the light.

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Ayelet is giving away a print copy of Love & Treasure to one lucky U.S. winner.
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***FTC Disclaimer: Most books reviewed on this site have been provided free of charge by the publisher, author or publicist. Some books we have purchased with our own money or borrowed from a public library and will be noted as such. Any links to places to purchase books are provided as a convenience, and do not serve as an endorsement by this blog. All reviews are the true and honest opinion of the blogger reviewing the book. The method of acquiring the book does not have a bearing on the content of the review.