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Posts Tagged ‘Emily St. John Mandel’

Yes, I know I’m a little late with a March post. Ok, a lot late. But I’ve been busy social distancing, washing my hands, playing with the cats, streaming BritBox and reading in place. Not that much difference from my real life, truth be told. I was a stay-at-home person even before I was told to stay home. I miss friends and lunch out and even running errands, but I’m high-risk. Thankfully, there’s no risk of me running out of anything to read.

My favorite new book is Lily King’s witty and hopeful new novel, Writers & Lovers (Grove Atlantic, digital galley), which was the book I didn’t know I needed until I read it in one sitting a few weeks ago, and the reread it a couple days back. Casey is a 30ish writer and waitress in Boston, dealing with her grief at her mother’s recent death and struggling to finish her first novel. Two men complicate her life’s plot. Oscar is an older, well-known writer, a widower with two winsome little boys. Silas is younger, a student of Oscar’s, and still improvising his life and work. I went back and forth between the two, but in the end, I rooted for Casey.

Emily St. John Mandel’s last novel, Station Eleven, was about a global pandemic and life afterward, and it’s another favorite, although perhaps not the best choice for rereading just now. So I read her new novel, The Glass Hotel (Knopf/Doubleday, digital galley) which differs in subject, following several people afloat in the “kingdom of money,” but which is also moody and haunted. Both Vincent ad her half-brother Paul work at the isolated Vancouver Island resort of the title, but then go in different directions, he as a troubled video performance artist and she as the trophy wife of the hotel’s owner, Jonathan. He’s running a giant international Ponzi scheme, which ensnares a number of people, including a couple of characters from Station Eleven, when it collapses. The story of choice and guilt plays with the idea of parallel/alternate lives, and it is full of ghosts. I liked it, but trying to explain why is like grasping at clouds.

Rats! Chris Bohjalian’s clever thriller The Red Lotus (Knopf/Doubleday, review hardcover) is full of them, all carrying dread and disease and death. Not a comfort read in these times, but it’s tense and diverting, moving between the Vietnamese countryside and a New York research hospital. Alexis is an ER doctor whose boyfriend Austin disappears while they are on a bike vacation in Vietnam. Austin, it turns out, is a first-class liar, and Alexis, wounded and betrayed, is compelled to investigate all the things he never told her. Bohjalian carefully parcels out critical information — about Austin’s darts-playing friend Douglas, an unnamed higher-up in cahoots with Douglas, a former Vietnam vet now a private detective, and antibiotic-resistant pathogens. Rats, too.

 

Louise Erdrich drew on the life of her grandfather in writing The Night Watchman (HarperCollins, digital galley), an involving story set in 1953 on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in rural North Dakota. Thomas Wazhashk, a night watchman at a jewel bearing factory, is also a Chippewa Council member who is fighting against a bill winding its way before Congress that would terminate the rights of Native Americans to their land as spelled out in long-standing treaties. Thomas’ activism will reach to  Washington, D.C., but it also affects the lives of others, including Patrice Parenteau, a high-school valedictorian and factory worker worried about the disappearance of her older sister Vera in Minneapolis; the boxer Wood Mountain; and white high school teacher and coach Stack Barnes. I vaguely remember studying termination in a college anthropology class — dry, distant facts, nowhere near as fascinating and real as Erdrich’s vividly realized novel.

Several ongoing crime series have new entries that offer escapism from the world’s woes. Detective and apprentice wizard Peter Grant takes on corporate crime in False Value (DAW, digital galley), the eighth book in the always entertaining Rivers of London series. Here, he goes undercover at the Serious Cybernetics Company to investigate tycoon Terrence Skinner and his connection to a fabled machine built by Ada Lovelace. In Meg Gardiner’s third volume in the UNSUB series, In the Dark Corners of the Night (Blackstone, digital galley), FBI behavioral analyst Caitlin Hendrix is trailing the Midnight Man. The serial killer terrorizes family homes in Los Angeles, killing the parents but letting their kids live — at least so far. Deanna Raybourn’s high-spirited Victorian mystery, A Murderous Relation (Berkley, digital galley), is the welcome fifth in a clever, sexy series.   Victoria Speedwell and Stoker Templeton-Vane team to resolve a royal scandal featuring a certain relative of Veronica’s, even as a serial killer stalks London’s streets.

 

 

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station11It begins with an ending. On a snowy night in Toronto, King Lear literally dies on stage when lead actor Arthur Leander is felled by a heart attack. A paramedic trainee springs from the audience to try and revive him. A child actress who witnessed Leander’s collapse is escorted from the stage. Later, fellow members of the cast and crew gather together to toast the actor.  “Of all of them there in the bar that night, the bartender survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city.”

In Emily St. John Mandel’s remarkable fourth novel, Station Eleven (Knopf Doubleday, digital gallery), a fast-moving flu pandemic wipes out 99 percent of the world’s population, along with all borders, cities, countries, and pretty much civilization as we know it. But the novel doesn’t linger long on the horrific end times as it gracefully loops post and pre-apocalypse, linking Leander’s life as a Hollywood actor to a handful of survivors and talismans. Station Eleven thus becomes a moving mystery of memory and connections lost and found.

Twenty years into this new dark age, survivors can be found in small settlements, living off the land and scavenging useful remains — clothes, canned goods, soap — from long-abandoned houses. Kirsten Raymonde, the little girl who witnessed Leander’s death, is  an actress with the Traveling Symphony, a theatrical and musical troupe that travels by horse-drawn wagon from one community to the next. It performs Beethoven and Shakespeare because “people want what was best about the world.”  Also, as its motto states: “Survival is insufficient,” a line not from Shakespeare but an episode of Star Trek: Voyager. Kirsten has the words tattooed on her wrist, along with two black knives, and she carries worn copies of the graphic novel “Station Eleven,” that Leander gave her long ago.  The meaning of the knives is one of the small mysteries that will be revealed as the troupe moves through an increasingly hostile landscape around Lake Michigan, where a strange Prophet now holds sway. As for the comic books, we learn in a flashback that they were created by Miranda, the first of Leander’s three wives, and they take on a greater significance as Mandel deftly spins her elegiac story, intertwining her characters’ fates.

One thread follows Javeen, the paramedic who tried to save Leander, and who then took grocery carts of supplies to his disabled brother’s high-rise. Another belongs to the actor’s best friend from college days, who ends up stranded in a Michigan airport and becomes curator of the Museum of Civilization — an ever-growing collection of survivors’ useless belongings from cell phones and laptops to credit cards and high heels. When Kirsten and a companion become separated from the Traveling Symphony, they head for the previously agreed-upon meeting point — the airport. Out on the tarmac, abandoned planes have been turned into shelters except for the last plane to land, which sits apart. It chose to lock its doors in a self-imposed quarantine, dooming its passengers so others might live. Perhaps those survivors — or their children — will live long enough for the world to remake itself, for the lights to come back on.

 

 

 

 

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Lately it seems as if everything I read reminds me of another book or author. This is not necessarily a bad thing because it often leads to playing a favorite game of “This and That.” You know:  “If you like this, then you should read that.” Or vice-versa.

To wit, if you like Kate Atkinson’s crime fiction, then you should read Emily St. John Mandel’s elegantly constructed new novel The Lola Quartet (Unbridled, publisher’s galley). Mandel offers episodic scenes with no readily apparent connection — a young woman with a baby on the run, high school seniors playing jazz in a truck bed in the hot South Florida night, a New York reporter fictionalizing facts. At the center of this jigsaw-puzzle plot is a photograph of a 10-year-old girl that resembles reporter Gavin’s adult sister and has the same last name as his high-school sweetheart. Returning to Florida’s suburban sea of foreclosed houses and lost dreams, Gavin’s search for the little girl leads to encounters with his past and the other members of his student jazz ensemble, all now coping with degrees of disappointment. Mandel’s noir tale is both perceptive and evocative as Gavin plays gumshoe in the sultry heat, not realizing that his well-intentioned quest has unleashed dangerous consequences.

If you enjoy Kate Morton’s historical novels such as The Distant Hours and The Forgotten Garden, then check out Katherine Webb’s The Unseen (Morrow, paperback review copy). Inspired by the infamous British fairy photograph hoax of 1917, Webb’s engaging tale unfolds as dual narratives. In 1911 Berkshire, the Rev. Albert Canning and his naive wife Hester welcome two strangers to their home — Cat Morley, the new maid with suffragette leanings and a tainted past, and Robin Durrant, a spiritualist looking for dryads in the nearby water meadows. In 2011, reporter Leah travels to the village while researching the identity of a World War I veteran who saved two mysterious letters hinting at 1911’s secret tragedy. But of course . . .

Now, if you can’t get enough of the true-life story of Edward and Mrs. Simpson, and/or the lush period details of  Downton Abbey or The King’s Speech, historian Juliet Nicolson’s Abdication (Atria Books, digital galley via NetGalley) may be just the thing. As the royal romance unfolds in 1936, Nicolson focuses on fictional characters caught up in the wake of the manipulative Wallis, “a woman with an unnaturally wide smile, a doll-like body, high little shoulders and a perfectly enormous head.” Evangeline Nettleton, a clumsy American spinster, is a girlhood friend of Mrs. Simpson, and her attempts to fit in with the royal entourage are cringe-inducing. In stark contrast, 19-year-old May Archer, recently arrived from the West Indies and living with Jewish relatives, forges an independent path as the chauffeur of a MP. No wonder she is attracted to a leftist Oxford student. Nicolson is a better historian than novelist, so her sudsy plot plays out against a fascinating factual tapestry.

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