Hello readers and welcome to this installment of the 2018 Reading List. As a quick reminder, I’m catching up with some contemporary female-authored books, last time being Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Now I’m taking a dive into a dystopic future with a recommendation made by my editor: Emily St John Mandel’s 2014 novel Station Eleven.
This was a very enjoyable read and the revelations kept me turning the page, even if they didn’t always add up in the way I was expecting. Mandel takes as her starting point a flu epidemic not unlike those the world has witnessed in the last decade. Something about using a way of killing off 99 percent of the population via the flu made this story feel eerily real to me. But while the post-pandemic storyline is where the action is, I find myself liking the pre-pandemic character development a bit more. For now I will dive into the two key lessons of this work:
Keep it simple - This is definitely a strong suit of Mandel, and each time I caught myself wanting a little more detail or information I had to realize what she was doing with the writing. It isn’t easy to describe such a breakdown of society, but Mandel’s beautifully simple language makes it a breeze to experience. The converse is Mandel (or her editors) didn’t seem to have a problem violating a cardinal writing verity, that of “show, not tell.” There are a few amazing passages that are marred with later, lesser repetitions of what occurred. But overall the sparse language keeps this tale moving at a brisk clip.
Thematic elements - This was the best part of the book for me: the tying together of various characters over the pre- and post-pandemic timelines, the re-working of a Sartre quote (“hell is other people”) in some revelatory ways, the introduction of a graphic novel series created by one of the characters that shows up throughout. All of it is done very well and helps give the story and characters a richer meaning.
Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone looking for a good dystopian tale about humanity picking up the pieces after most of us are wiped out. While many other authors have tried their hand at this type of tale (myself included) Mandel’s writing makes hers stand out, and the few problems I had with the text did not mar that experience much. I’m now interested in Mandel’s other work and hope to return to it in the future.
Coming up next, I’m taking on an author I’ve wanted to read since viewing The Hours (and became entranced with Philip Glass’s existential score, among many other highlights): Virginia Woolf and her 1925 novel that inspired Michael Cunningham: Mrs. Dalloway.
I also hope to get another “How to Write a Book” series update here after I wrap up my current drafting, and will continue on with some other writing series as the year progresses. Thanks, as always, for reading!
Hello readers and welcome to the second entry of the 2018 Reading List.
As a quick reminder, I am catching up on some contemporary female-authored books, the first being Margaret Atwood’s monumental The Handmaid’s Tale. Next is a recommendation from the co-worker who inspired me to head this direction in the first place: Donna Tartt’s phenomenal (and first!) 1992 novel The Secret History.
Though not much of this “mystery” novel is hidden, therein lies the deft ways in which Tartt spins this incredibly compelling narrative. I will refrain from giving even that bit away for those that have yet to dive into this one, and would recommend this to readers of all types of fiction. The history of the deeds of six college students in a leafy, quiet Vermont town is a powerful mediation on subjects we don’t consider often enough today: beauty, the will, how the ancients got on versus our stultifying age, etc. For now I will get into a few of the many lessons to be pulled from this prose.
Control. This word generally annoys me when I see it attached to a blurb on a book jacket. But in this case, I can’t think of a better word to describe Tartt’s level of hold on her craft. It’s not just in the settings, which are luminously detailed, or the character development, which is descendent and spellbinding, but overall in how compelled I felt to finish this stirring yarn. Tartt gives away the major event committed right there in the opening. It’s up to the reader to gauge the characters’ actions from this point onward, and that makes the story so flipping interesting. I could not put this one down until I got to the end, as disappointed as I was that some plot elements ultimately get dropped (Julian, their teacher, being the prime example).
Use of setting/characters. Despite her stunning control over the pacing, I feel I must mention something here that I also attempted (she obviously much better than me) in my second novel - using a campus setting for a shady storyline. It was very imaginary yet real the way she describes the idyllic (and dangerous for the protagonist during a freezing winter) town of Hampden and its school. On the other side, the characters are all quite unique and paranoid in their own ways, and I grew uncomfortable more than a few times recognizing similar weird behaviors in myself over the years.
While these are the two lessons I chose to highlight for this entry, there are without a doubt many more you can pull from this masterwork of a debut novel (and if I’m being nitpicky, a few places where an editor’s pen might have moved even more deftly). The story is forceful, pulling you through each scene by breaking down days into various segments of situations among the characters, and the writing is just excellent. I would recommend this to anyone looking for a great story.
Up next, I’m turning to a female author mentioned to me by my editor - Hilary St. John Mandel and her 2014 science fiction novel Station Eleven. Thanks as always for reading!
Hello readers and welcome to the first entry in the Reading List. (This is basically the same as Another Year of Fiction but I’m just not making it a “formal” experiment any longer.)
It was pointed out to me last year that the ratio of male to female authors was a bit out of whack, so I decided to correct that in 2018 with a bevy of women writers. The first selection was Margaret Atwood’s brilliant and prescient 1985 novel The Handmaid’s Tale. I won’t delve into the plot much as the recent Hulu series seems to have renewed interest in this story and really, one cannot understand this book without reading it. The themes are so deep and universal (and scary) that each reader will draw his or her own parallels to our society as it’s gone in the decades since this book was published. I did draw some great lessons for writers, however, and will get to that now:
Use of an unreliable narrator - The entire book (with the exception of the “historical notes” section at the end) is from the point of view of Offred, the handmaid assigned to Commander Fred’s home. While she did have some experience with the dystopian overthrow of the US government, much of what she sees of the current regime is necessarily limited to her own perspective. Atwood masterfully spins multiple stories of past and present into a single narrative that shows how this society came to be and describes Offred’s previous life in stunning detail. While at times I would have liked a bit more information about the regime, there is plenty within this book to give the reader a compelling look at this futuristic world that could be around the corner.
Using the novel to speak about society - This is obviously the major strength of this work, and holds it up against other dystopian tales of the 20th century. Just off the top of my head, Atwood levels a blasting critique of: organized religion, totalitarian societies and how they can begin literally anywhere, feminism (the deeper levels of which I am not well versed enough to fully describe here), sterility due to biological factors, patriarchy, and many others. Atwood has described this novel as more in the vein of “speculative fiction” and it is quite apparent she was viewing the disturbing trend lines of the Eighties (the Reagan revolution, the abortion issue, the feminist backlash, televangelism) and how they could take our nation to such a place. Obviously in the age of *ugh* President Trump, all of these issues have taken on greater significance, inspiring the streaming series last year (which I hope to view soon).
Overall I would strongly recommend this novel to any writer who wants to see one of the best examples of an author taking a deep look into her society and seeing where it was headed. There are too many themes to fully explore here, and again I think this is a book that everyone needs to read and understand on their own terms. I know for sure as a man my empathy toward what women have to deal with has been deeply moved, and perhaps I am a bit more dug out of the ignorance of my earlier days.
Up next for the Reading List, a book recommended to me by a coworker: Donna Tartt’s landmark 1992 novel The Secret History. As always, thanks for reading.
John Abraham-Watne is an author and freelance journalist located in the Twin Cities, where he lives with his wife Mary and their two cats. This blog is his attempt to catalog all the events that culminate a local writer's life.