Station Eleven: The Importance of Memory After The Apocalypse

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When Mr. AMB saw The Oyster Review’s selection of the “100 Best Books of the Decade So Far,” he said that the list consisted of “a handful of good [books], but mostly wankery.” Check out his review of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven to see whether he thinks this Oyster favorite falls into the “good” or “wankery” category.



Via Mr. AMB:

station elevenI’m a sucker for post-apocalyptic books and movies. I saw Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven recommended on many of the same lists that included The Martian, and I added it to my ever-growing list of “maybe” books, but I got wrapped up in other books and forgot about it. Then, in the span of a month, Station Eleven was listed by George R.R. Martin as the “best novel” of 2014 and it won The Millions’ Tournament of Books*, so it ended up back on my radar.

Superficially, the book bears a striking resemblance to Stephen King’s The Stand: over 99.9% of the world’s population is swiftly killed by an influenza pandemic, and thereafter the survivors are so widely dispersed, and so suspicious of one another — not least because so many survivors have either gone mad or are downright predatory — that even rudimentary interactions with strangers present a life-threatening challenge. And then there’s a charismatic and ruthless “prophet.”

But the similarities end there.

Like Martin says, “One could, I suppose, call it a post-apocolypse [sic] novel, and it is that, but all the usual tropes of that subgenre are missing here, and half the book is devoted to flashbacks to before the coming of the virus that wipes out the world, so it’s also a novel of character…”  The “flashbacks” show us both how the world before the collapse continues to have repercussions on the world thereafter,** and how skewed the characters’ priorities were in that world.

But there’s more than just flashbacks. In the post-apocalyptic present, more than a decade after, the characters struggle with the past, both the golden age before the collapse and the initial year or two after the collapse, during which life was so dangerous, uncertain, and painful that most of the characters have effectively erased it from their minds.

Age plays a big role there as well. Some of the characters are so young that they do not remember the time before the collapse, while others are at impressionable ages and have some memories, many of which they question, wondering if they’ve invented a different past. Then there are others with a crystal-clear recollection of the time before. The book thus also explores the role of memory in constructing a person’s identity and in forming social bonds, and the obligation people feel both to preserve their memories and to pass them on to the next generation.***

All in all, Station Eleven is one of the best post-apocalyptic books out there, and one of the best recently published books I’ve read.


* Winning the Tournament of Books was not, to me, a decisive factor in buying it. The Tournament of Books has always struck me as agenda-driven, with the judges trying harder to be “right” by picking the book more likely to win a subsequent prize than trying to actually guide readers to better books. I have tried to read several of the books that won the “ToB,” and I gave up reading more than one of them.

** As Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Thank goodness I don’t have to pay for the privilege of quoting two lines from him.

***If you’re interested in how we preserve memories–and the collective “myth-making” that often results–3quarksdaily recently posted a combined analysis of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant and Avishai Margalit’s The Ethics of Memory.

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Updating Dr. Seuss for a 21st Century Kid

Great Birthday Bird
Dr. Seuss’s “Great Birthday Bird” from Happy Birthday to You! has delighted girls and boys for over half a century. Earlier this week, Seuss’s festive feathered friend visited my daughter on her birthday for the first time. She’s four-years-old.

I downloaded the ebook version of this classic children’s book a few months ago, just after Jeanne from Necromancy Never Pays mentioned it in a comment to my post about the dissenting opinion in Yates v. United States, in which U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan cited Seuss’s One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish.

Jeannes Comment

Happy Birthday to You! is as charming and entertaining as anyone familiar with Dr. Seuss’s other books would expect. Also, like other Seussian classics, its 60+ pages of tongue twisters are somewhat challenging for those who don’t practice reading it aloud ahead of time.

My daughter enjoyed the book, even when I tripped up on the rhymes and pro-nun-see-eye-ations (as Dr. Seuss would say).*  ;-)

My daughter also shared Jeanne’s appreciation for the sentiment that, when finding a pet as a birthday present, “the best pet is the tallest of all-est.” At the 98th percentile for height, my [not-so-] little girl seems to be taking after her 6’5” dad instead of her 5’2” mom.

Now I’m wondering whether I can make the book even better for my children. As much as I love the dated classic feel of this Dr. Seuss book, I’m going to slightly tweak the text when we read it next time.

The original text reads:

“The Great Birthday Bird!
And, so far as I know,
Katroo is the only place Birthday Birds grow.


And, whether your name is Pete, Polly, or Paul,
When your birthday comes round, he’s in charge of it all.

Whether your name is Nate, Nelly, or Ned,
He knows your address, and he heads for your bed.”

At least three of those names — Polly, Nelly, and Ned — are far less common today than they were in 1959, the year Dr. Seuss published Happy Birthday to You! For example, the name “Ned” dropped from its place as the 310th most popular name in the United States in 1900 to #530 in 1959 to “not in the top 1000 names” by 2000.

Most of the substitute names I’m planning to use are likely far less common in the United States than “Ned” is today, but they better reflect my daughter’s diverse community than the six names of European origin in the original text.

The next time I read this story, I will say:

“And, whether your name is [Ai, Aiden, or Amal],
When your birthday comes round, he’s in charge of it all.

Whether your name is [Zack, Zayla, or Zay-ed],
He knows your address, and he heads for your bed.”

I think my little Z will love seeing her name and mine included in the story. I have alliterative replacements that include my twins’ names ready to go too.

I also considered adding a hometown touch to the story by changing “Zummer” to “Mummer,” referencing a beloved Philadelphia tradition in which men and (a few) women dress up in elaborate costumes and parade through the city streets on New Year’s Day.

The new text would’ve been:

“First, we’re greeted by Drummers who drum as they come.
And next come the Strummers who strum as they come.
And the Drummers who drum and strummers who strum
Are followed by [Mummers] who come as they [mum].
Just look at those [Mummers]! They’re sort of like Plumbers.”

Drummers who drumWhat I like about the substitution of “Mummer” for Dr. Seuss’s “Zummer” is not only that my daughters would recognize the word, but also that real-life Mummers actually have a historical connection to the building trades, including plumbing. In 1994, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer:

“The bawdy Happy Tappers[‘]… theme was ‘Mummers Plumbers.’ Their float consisted of a very large toilet bowl and a gang of plumbers dressed in yellow satin shirts and green silky coveralls. Others wore bright orange and blue.”

However, I probably won’t mention the Mummers the next time we read Happy Birthday to You! The Mummers are loved by many Philadelphians who look forward to their performances year after year, but I find it hard to forget that they are a racially homogenous and gender imbalanced group (especially when there has been a Minstrel-style performance in recent years).**

So, referencing this Philadelphia tradition may detract from my goal of updating Dr. Seuss’s book to include diversity and better reflect my daughter’s world. The types of controversies that surround the Mummers are sadly part of that world, but they shouldn’t be, and books can reflect a better reality than the one we actually live in.

Here is a picture of my four-year-old (and here she was last year on her special day). She had a great birthday!

Zayla is four

*In Happy Birthday to You!, the Great Birthday Bird is trained by the “Katroo Happy Birthday Asso-see-eye-ation.”

**You can see a video of the parade here and, in the comments, some defenses to the blackface-inspired performance.


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Thunder Lizards, Van Gogh, & Raising Writers

Did you hear the news?

Sisters - dinosaur Late 80s

Yes, I am the blue brontosaurus

(1)  Brontosaurus may be back! As I discussed in my favorite post on this blog, The Brontosaurus Between Us, it’s been the scientific consensus since 1903 that what had been called Brontosaurus was really an Apatosaurus. That didn’t stop 20th Century books about dinosaurs from including the Brontosaurus. Can you blame them, though? It’s an awesome name for an awesome dinosaur.

One of my favorite books from the late 1980s, Stan and Jan Berenstain’s The Day of the Dinosaur, said:

The giant Brontosaurus
was seventy feet tall.
Its name means ‘thunder lizard.’
It was the biggest one of all.

This reference to Brontosaurus was out-of-date then, but it might not be out-of-date now!

New research suggests that “the original thunder lizard is actually unique enough to resurrect the beloved moniker.” According to one study, there are subtle differences between the bones of the original Brontosaurus and two known species of Apatosaurus. It remains to be seen whether other paleontologists can replicate these results and, if so, whether the scientific community will agree that the subtle differences warrant different names. Still, it’s exciting news.

(2) Moving onto another topic, I’ve decided that I want to learn more about Vincent van Gogh.

Van Gogh 2So, I downloaded all 900+ pages of Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith’s Van Gogh: The Life. Right now, I’m reading about van Gogh’s childhood, when his evenings ended with a book:

“Far from being a solitary, solipsistic exercise, reading aloud bound the family together and set them apart from the sea of rural Catholic illiteracy that surrounded them. Anna and Dorus [van Gogh’s parents] read to each other and to their children; the older children read to the younger; and, later in life, the children read to their parents. Reading aloud was used to console the sick and distract the worried, as well as to educate and entertain.” [Chapter 2]

“Solipsistic” isn’t a word we see every day.

Sadly, reading aloud isn’t an activity that many of us engage in every day either. Reading is usually just one of many forms of solitary entertainment at home.

In my household, though, my children are still young enough to love listening to the books I read to them.

As I mentioned in Reading Aloud: Ephemeral Entertainment I Wish Would Last Longer, we read together at the bus stop in the morning, before bed at night, and whenever we have downtime on the weekends.

Right now, we’re reading From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, a book originally published in 1967 that has been an interesting read for my 21st Century children (a subject for a later post).

The books we’ve read together have encouraged age-appropriate discussions about major issues, like homelessness (thanks to Louis Sachar’s Holes) and the Holocaust (thanks to Patricia Polacco’s The Butterfly). They’ve also been the basis for conversations about writing-related topics, like grammar, plot structure, and character development.

(3) On the subject of writing: Earlier this month, I tweeted about an exchange between my twins:

tweet from april 1st with border

I asked my daughter if she would consider writing down any of those books in her brain.

“I will,” she replied. “When they’re ready.”

I can’t wait! :-)

(4) Finally, this is my 300th post on this blog! Thanks for reading.

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Dept. of Speculation: Being Thirty-Something Sucks

Dept of Spec second coverAs Jenny Offill writes sardonically in Dept. of Speculation, “wives have requirements too, of course,” including “unswerving obedience.” So when my wife, A.M.B., recommended I read the same book that I had seen make her both laugh out loud and gaze silently into the distance, well, I did as I was told. And I was glad: Dept. of Speculation was poignant, funny, and concise.

“Concise” isn’t a word you hear used much these days to compliment novels, given the long-standing trend in modern literature to equate a book’s merit with the endurance required of the reader. (NPR says Jonathan Franzen’s newest book “is likely to be something of a sprawl,” which is enough to keep me from punishing myself with it like I did his last two books.) When Offill wants to quote an aphorism from Rilke, Hesiod, or Keats, or a book about marriage from 1896, she doesn’t waste space inventing some silly, unbelieveable conversation among the characters in which to do it. She just quotes them and moves on.

To be honest, I did not find the book “demanding” nor “disparate and disconnected,” as two glowing reviews described it. I thought it was straight-forward and genuine, a far more accurate depiction of the protagonist’s inner world than is typically found in a “sprawling” work of literature. Life is lived in the immediate present as a sprawl, but a person’s emotional life — particularly when they are in turmoil — is usually more a series of piercing vignettes and ruminating spirals, each so powerful and confused and contradictory that they are typically indescribable.

Offill’s gift is the ability to capture those moments in clear, compelling prose. Consider this standalone passage in the book:

I have lunch with a friend I haven’t seen in years. She orders things I’ve never heard of, sends back a piece of middling fish. I tell her various schemes to redeem my life. “I’m so compromised,” she says.

In a typical work of literature, that same scene would have absorbed a dozen pages to communicate the same message, but in Offill’s hands it comes out just the way it would in a person’s memory, as a vague sense of economic insecurity (“She orders things I’ve never heard of”) and a recognition of her friend’s entitlement (“sends back a piece of middling fish”) followed by her friend’s apparent lack of useful guidance and the depressing, self-absorbed response of “I’m so compromised.” Everything you needed to know — everything that you would have remembered — in four sentences.

As A.M.B. said, “The wife’s observations about motherhood and marriage are honest and compelling.” But there’s another lurking theme in the book that warrants attention, and which I hope will give it additional staying power for the future: the sharp decline in happiness and optimism that seems to plague people in their mid-to-late thirties these days.

There’s a well-known sociological trend for happiness to decline in people’s 40s and 50s — often called the “midlife crisis,” as detailed at length by The Atlantic not too long ago  — but, in my observation, that professional and personal malaise seems to be affecting people as early as their mid-thirties, much as it affects the late-thirties couple of Dept. of Speculation. Offill demonstrates this same problem just as well as she demonstrates the challenges of motherhood and marriage, and I hope other readers and critics won’t dismiss that as a side-effect of their personal life. As I read the book, the issues are all tied together, for both the wife and the husband.

It’s an excellent book and an excellent recommendation from A.M.B. I’m grateful she did not heed the advice of that 1896 marriage guide, to wit: “The indiscriminate reading of novels is one of the most injurious habits to which a married woman can be subject.”


Three things from A.M.B:

  1. Thanks, Mr. AMB, for your wonderful review! And for your “unswerving [intermittent] obedience.” ;)
  2. Here’s my review of Dept. of Speculation.
  3. For those who have read this novel, there will be a “spoilers-welcome” discussion of it at Socratic Salon on April 29th.
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Dept. of Speculation: A Short, Unusual, Wonderful Puzzle

Dept of SpecI hadn’t heard of Jenny Offill’s second novel, Dept. of Speculation, until I received it as a present from my Dad. Even then, I didn’t look it up to find out its genre, subject matter, or reception. All I knew was what was on the front cover, including a snippet from The New York Times Book Review calling it “joyously demanding.”*

I’m rarely in the mood to read a “demanding” piece of fiction — these days, I read for entertainment — but I decided to give Offill’s book a chance. My Dad, the person who made me into the reader I am today, has never steered me wrong. With Dept. of Speculation, his streak continues.

It’s a short, unusual, and wonderful book about everyday subjects.

This little novel is a compilation of the loosely connected thoughts of a narrator we know only as “the wife.” She is struggling with a professional plateau, the highs and lows of motherhood, and a rocky marriage. It’s a somber story, one that includes a betrayal of trust, but there are several moments that made me laugh.

For example, after the birth of her daughter, “the wife” takes issue with the phrase, “sleeping like a baby,” saying:

Some blonde said it blithely on the subway the other day. I wanted to lie down next to her and scream for five hours in her ear.

Tidbits like this one made “the wife” real to me. My three girls were fitful sleepers, when I was able to get them to sleep at all, a reality that not only made me resentful of the phrase “sleeping like a baby” but also made me angry at every well-intentioned person who advised me to “sleep when the baby sleeps.” My babies never slept! They still don’t. Ugh.

But back to the book:

The wife’s observations about motherhood and marriage are honest and compelling. She’s a woman with “crookedness” in her heart, one who “thought loving two people so much would straighten it.” Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple.

Fragments about the wife’s personal struggles are interspersed with trivia about a range of topics, from antelopes to the Zen master Ikkyu, forcing readers to figure out the connections. It’s challenging to piece together the story from a series of anecdotes — an endeavor that requires reading between the lines — but, in the end, it’s an interesting and worthwhile 176-page puzzle.**

This book is worth reading again both to savor its unusual presentation of common obstacles in life but also to make sure I didn’t miss anything. I wonder if I’ll connect the dots a little differently next time.


*However, I’m wary of the advertising that appears on book covers. Remember Anita Shreve’s Strange Fits of Passion?

**I read the e-book version, which doesn’t have page numbers. The Internet tells me that this novel is somehwere between 176 and 192 pages long. The Internet also tells me that it was highly acclaimed, though I didn’t read any of the reviews (at least not that I remember!), not even the one I quoted in this post (that appeared on the cover).

***Have you read Dept. of Speculation? Do you plan to read it by April 29th? If so, stay tuned for the discussion about the book on Socratic Salon, a new “spoilers-welcome” zone for bookish folks led by some of my favorite bloggers. I’m really looking forward to it.

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Truth: The Daughter of Time (Plus Science, Arts, & Humanities)

Truth DOT 2Richard III’s reburial in Leicester, England this week was a ceremony fit for a king. There was a three-day viewing attended by thousands, live television coverage, and a cathedral service presided over by the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, with a role for Cardinal Vincent Nichols too. Sherlock Holmes — I mean, Benedict Cumberbatch, a distant relative of Richard III — read a poem written for the event by Carol Ann Duffy, Britain’s poet laureate.

Queen Elizabeth II was not there, but she sent a message, calling the reinterment of King Richard III “an event of great national and international significance.”

What’s interesting is that all this pomp and circumstance was for a monarch who has been dead for half a millennium and reviled for just as long.

Many of us know of Richard III from Shakespeare, who portrays the last Plantagenet King as a villain responsible for the disappearance of his nephews, the Princes in the Tower, among other crimes. In Richard III (1592), Shakespeare connects the controversial king’s behavior to his physical appearance, describing him as “deform’d,” “unfinish’d,” and as a “bunch-back’d toad.”

Richard has always had his defenders, though.

In Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time (1951), a historical mystery novel set in the 20th Century, Inspector Alan Grant decides that Richard III couldn’t have been a murderous criminal because, based on his 15th/16th Century portrait, he simply doesn’t look like one.

While some people (ahem, Shakespeare) choose to emphasize Richard’s alleged “deformities,” Grant focuses on what he perceives to be Richard’s “extraordinary eyes,” which were “set close under… brows slightly drawn in [a] worried, over-conscientious frown.” Grant believes he’s looking at “the face of a great judge, a great administrator,” not “the author of the most revolting crime in history,” the presumed murders of the princes.

As I’ve discussed previously, Grant’s attempt to exonerate Richard through the application of the historical method uncovers “the truth”: that “villainy, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder” and that history is written by the victors. The Tudors defeated Richard at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 and influenced how history remembered him.

We may never know what really happened to the Princes in the Tower, but thanks to a collaboration of scientists, historians, and other scholars we now know much more about the man history has held responsible for their deaths.

In 2012, archaeologists excavated King Richard III’s remains from a parking lot in Leicester. Since that time, researchers have confirmed the ruler’s identity through mitochondrial DNA testing.* They have also discovered that he had roundworms, possessed a spinal curvature that wasn’t extreme enough to warrant the physical description Shakespeare gave him in Richard III, and was probably blue-eyed and blond-haired (at least while a child), contrary to popular perception.

Still, many questions about Richard remain, from his alleged role in his nephews’ disappearances to why his Y chromosome does not match the DNA of others living today who claim Plantagenet and Tudor paternal ancestry. In time, future scientific and historical discoveries may give us the answers.

*Not that everyone agrees that these bones belong to Richard: See Richard III: We’re Burying the Wrong Body; and the rebuttal: We Are Definitely Burying the Right Body, Say Archaeologists.

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Deception: On & Between The Covers

Typee Portion of Cover

In discussing Herman Melville’s Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, David Samuels writes in Lapham’s Quarterly, “All literature is a species of fraud.” Authors routinely borrow from other sources and process first- and second-hand experiences through their imaginations. Melville was no exception.

Typee was originally published in 1846 as a travelogue purporting to describe the author’s four months on a Polynesian island. Soon after publication, however, reviewers questioned the accuracy of the story, with one prominent review “dismiss[ing] it as a ‘piece of Munchausenism.’”

Apparently, like the “sock-puppets” we have today, Melville defended his credibility in anonymous articles. According to Samuels, “The suggestion that Typee was a fraud stung Melville deeply.” Yes, he took creative liberties with the details of his time on the island, but he otherwise believed in the truths behind his autobiographical fiction.

I read Samuels’ piece with more recent examples of literary lies in mind, such as the disgraced James Frey’s embellished memoir and the beloved J. K. Rowling’s impersonation of an ex-military police officer.

There’s nothing wrong with adding creative touches to nonfiction or assuming a pseudonym, as long as the resulting books are marketed appropriately. As I said on this blog back when we first learned about the famous woman behind ex-military police officer “Robert Galbraith,” “We don’t expect a fictional novel to be real between the covers, but we do expect the text on the front and back to reflect the truth about the book’s origin.” In that case, “Galbraith’s” biography, which was almost entirely a fabrication, claimed that the idea for the main character “grew directly” from the [fake] author’s “experiences.”

A fake author bio that suggests a work of fiction is based on first-hand fact is a problem from a consumer protection angle. So is a memoir or travelogue that is closer to fiction than to real-life. Sometimes that happens inadvertently–the effects of memory over time–but deviations from the truth shouldn’t be intentional. If the front and back covers indicate that the content of the book is factually accurate, then that’s what readers should get. After all, it is often one of the factors that convinces consumers to spend their hard-earned money on that book instead of one of the others on the shelves.

These days, it seems like most people refer to Melville’s Typee as a novel, not a memoir or travelogue, thus resolving the controversy around its authenticity. The struggle behind the marketing of that novel nearly 170 years ago is one that many authors probably identify with today. Saying a book is based in fact might increase sales, but authors and publishers take a risk when they lie. Nobody wants to be accused of “Munchausenism,” right?

Not that it’s unusual to twist the truth sometimes. We do it for a variety of reasons, from sparing someone’s feelings (“hey, that’s a great haircut!”) to keeping ourselves out of trouble (“I swear, the dog ate my homework!”). But some lies are worse than others, and among the more pernicious examples are the ones that manipulate people into making purchasing decisions based on false information (a/k/a consumer fraud).

Other fabrications might not be such a big deal.

On that note, today’s my 28th birthday! It’s not a total lie. I don’t feel any older than that. ;)

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