Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Three Mini-Reviews: Station Eleven, An Untamed State, The Laughing Monsters

It's so much fun to write about novels you're enthusiastic about and can recommend highly. Here are three:

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel — Novels like this one that are so carefully constructed, so meticulously crafted, and so freakin' engrossing just absolutely astound me. How did she do this? How did she pull it all together? And how did she make it so much fun to read? All I know for sure is that she did, and this is one of the best novels of 2014. It'd be too easy to pigeonhole this novel as a post-apocalypse book — though, it is that. A band of survivors who call themselves the Traveling Symphony caravan around what had been Michigan 20 years after a deadly flu has wiped out 99 percent of Earth's population. They play music and perform Shakespeare, because, as one of our protagonists, Kirsten fervently believes, "Survival is insufficient." But the novel is also the pre-flu story of an actor named Arthur, his first wife Miranda, his friend Clark, and a guy named Jeevan who pops up in various roles throughout. So we jump back and forth in time to before the flu, to right after the flu, and then to 20 years after when the Traveling Symphony encounters a prophet — a religious fanatic who means them harm. Each piece of the puzzle falls into place, furthering both our understanding of these characters' connections to each other and also the themes of the novel as a whole — loyalty and friendship, the value and necessity of art, and, of course, the uncompromisable importance of empathy. I can't recommend this more highly — it's a book you won't soon forget. 

An Untamed State, by Roxane Gay — Unflinching. Devastating. Gay's debut novel is about a woman named Mireille who is kidnapped in Haiti. She is raped, beaten, and stripped of her humanity — indeed, she begins thinking of herself as "no one," both as a survival mechanism (she has to separate the person she is in captivity from from the woman she was prior to the kidnapping) and as a way to try to rationalize how these men, her tormenters, could be so cruel to another human. Eventually, when she's released, she and her husband must figure out how to be with each other after such an unspeakably horrible ordeal. It's not all smooth sailing. This is a book that, as much as you want to "look away," you can't. It doesn't exactly reinforce your faith in humanity, but it does reinforce your faith in a writer's ability to tell a horrific story with grace. I won't say this was a good time with a book, necessarily (indeed, it can even be insulting to men at times: "Girl children are not safe in the world where there are men," Gay writes) but it was one that was hard to put down. And I'm very glad I read it. Reading to try to understand something foreign isn't always easy, but it is essential.

The Laughing Monsters, by Denis Johnson — You may know Denis Johnson from his highly acclaimed short story collection or his National Book Award-winning novel, Tree of Smoke. This short novel is a zany spy story about a guy named Roland Nair who is working, ostensibly, for NATO Intelligence — he's sent to Sierre Leone to find out what his former friend and long-time schemer, Michael Adriko, is up to. It's presumed the answer is "no good," and Nair soon finds out how right that is — but he has a few schemes up his sleeve as well. Will he join forces with Michael on one last get-rich-quick caper, or will he rat him out? This is just a good romp of a novel — you spend most of your time with it trying to figure out who will be loyal to whom, or who might be betrayed. Is there actually honor among thieves? And it's all set against the chaos and strange customs (to an American audience) of modern Africa, as the two (along with Michael's fiancee) travel from Sierre Leone to Uganda and then to Congo. This is a quick, one- or two-sitting read, and a good introduction to Johnson, if you've never read him before.


  1. I so hate it when people get me excited about a book just before the TBR Dare starts. Then I have to go out and buy it so I'll have a copy for The Dare. Now I'll have to get three!

    I knew of Station Eleven but the other two here are new to me. I am very interested in the first two now and I was planning on visiting my local book shop anyway.....

  2. Both Station Eleven and An Untamed State are on my TBR and I really hope to get to them soon. I'm glad to hear more good reviews of them! Roxane Gay has also written a book of essays about feminism that I want to read.

  3. Yeah I haven't Denis Johnson yet so maybe The Laughing Monsters is the one to start at.

  4. Station Eleven was one of those books that snuck up on me in a way I completely did not expect, but loved. So well-done. So impressive. And you're right: How did she DO that!?

    You're right about An Untamed State, too. Impossible not to look, even when you know that all you want to do is look away. I still haven't found the words to talk about this one. How can you recommend something so brutal? But then again... how can you not?

    And as another one who's never read Johnson, good to know this is a good place to start. I've had Tree of Smoke on my shelf since it was a galley (I know, I know), but it's in storage now, so perhaps I'll pick this one up in the meantime.