Fields & Fantasies presents… Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Welcome to the January/February pick for the Fields & Fantasies book club! Each month or so, in collaboration with my wonderful co-host Diana of Strahbary’s Fields, we’ll pick one book to read and discuss. Today, we’re looking at Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel:

station elevenSynopsis (Goodreads):

An audacious, darkly glittering novel set in the eerie days of civilization’s collapse, Station Eleven tells the spellbinding story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity.

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 two cents:

It’s always such a terrific gift when a book surprises you in all the right ways. Such was the case for me with Station Eleven. I’d seen some reviews, I’d seen it on many of the “Best of” lists for 2014, and I’d heard the hype. At the same time, the initial synopses I’d read all focused on a traveling Shakespeare company in a post-apocalyptic world. For whatever reason, I assumed the Shakespearean framework would shape the entire novel, so that we’d follow the company from settlement to settlement, seeing their performances and making some sort of symbolic connection between the classic plays and the new world.

It was really a thrill for me to discover that Station Eleven is so much more. Station Eleven takes a truly frightening tale of a global pandemic that kills off most of humanity, and weaves into it a story about human connection, random meaning, and the elusive nature of relationships.

The Georgia flu wipes out human life on Earth almost instantly. In this age of international travel, we’re all only one contaminated airline passenger away from disaster, and Station Eleven lets the pandemic play out to its awful, inevitable conclusion. The narrative of the novel jumps in time between the outbreak of the pandemic, the path of the Traveling Symphony twenty years later, and the earlier history of Arthur Leander, possibly the last man on Earth to attract attention for his death prior to the catastrophe.

It’s hard to explain just what’s so wonderful about Station Eleven. The plotting is elegant, with connections between characters and events that only become apparent later on. The descriptions of the post-apocalyptic world are chilling, and yet the mixed sense of wonder and boredom that the new generations feel toward old stuff (electronics, phones, and all the other pieces of our technology that twenty years later are dusty museum pieces) is almost funny to read about, with a hint of the bittersweet as well. The writer is able to convey a sense of nostalgia for our own times by showing how little so much of what we have now will matter later on. There’s horror for the death and destruction, as well as an edge of mystery as we try to see just how all the different story threads are intertwined.

Above all, Station Eleven is filled with beautiful writing.

Miranda opened her eyes in time to see the sunrise. A wash of violent color, pink and streaks of brilliant orange, the container ships on the horizon suspended between the blaze of the sky and the water aflame, the seascape bleeding into confused visions of Station Eleven, its extravagant sunsets and its indigo sea. The lights of the fleet fading into morning, the ocean burning into sky.

In little moments, we see the awe-inspiring vision of a world without people and what the death of our civilization might look like. No alien invasion, no nuclear war, no second ice age — just a disease working its deadly way through the entire population of the planet over the course of a few short weeks.

Despite the end of life as we know it, life goes on, and the book seems to emphasize above all the way the people’s lives, woven together, form something that’s greater than just the individual. There’s still hope and beauty, and those who understand that are the ones who manage to keep hold of an idea of a future that means something. Station Eleven is sad and gorgeous and, oddly, not depressing. There’s a strange sense of nobility and purpose folded into the survivors’ determination to keep going, to remember, and to grow again.

If you like your post-apocalyptic novels full of explosions, zombies, and mayhem, this may not be the book for you. But if you appreciate a more thoughtful approach to matters of connection and survival and what it means to be human, definitely give Station Eleven a try.

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The Fields & Fantasies chat:

I’ll add a link to Diana’s review shortly. Meanwhile — a Q&A between Diana and me.

Warning: SPOILERS from this point forward. Proceed at your own risk!

Lisa: Did Station Eleven match your expectations?
Diana: I think so. I don’t think I was expecting a whole heck of a lot but I heard that this book was pretty good and I think it lives up to my basic expectations.
Lisa: Did any images from the post-apocalyptic world make a big impression? What sorts of thing really stand out for you?
Diana: Just the way that everything seemed to be so Mad Max-esque with just a touch of Walking Dead. Did you find the premise to be believable?
Lisa: I really did! We have so many health-crisis scares and the media seems to really overreact… and yet, I think it’s really plausible that if there were a bad enough virus, like the flu in Station Eleven, there’s nothing to stop it from spreading globally within days or weeks. The speed of the pandemic in this book was really scary. I loved the descriptions of the world afterward, how quickly everything reverts back to nature and the people become nomads and survivalists.
Lisa: Who were your favorite characters, and why?
Diana: I really loved Kirsten. I liked how resilient she was and how much she loved Shakespeare. She had that good combination of being able to kick ass but yet was still personable. I also really liked Jeevan but I was a bit disappointed that we didn’t get a whole lot of time with him.
Lisa: I loved those two too! I also really liked Miranda — I just found her story so sad, a poor girl who never fit in with the life she ended up with, who spent her whole life working on a comic book that almost no one ever saw. (And which I wish I could see! It sounded amazing.) Also, Arthur’s friend Clark was very cool and understated.
Lisa: Which storylines were you most interested in?
Diana: All of them. She does this wonderful job of starting us at one point spreading out to other various points then bringing it back around into one fantastic place. Was there a storyline that you really liked or that you weren’t too fond of?
Lisa: I thought the whole idea of people stranded at an airport and just staying there for another twenty years was really inventive! I was so entertained by that concept and all the details the author provided to make it feel so real. I wasn’t crazy about the prophet storyline — I didn’t actually think the story needed it, other than for the dramatic element of danger.
Lisa:  Were there any storylines or plot points that you thought were unnecessary or less interesting?
Diana: There wasn’t one that i didn’t like but I would have liked to see more with Jeevan. I really really liked the character but i feel like his story just wasn’t in there enough.
Lisa: What else would you want to know about the world of the future, as portrayed in Station Eleven?
Diana: Were the people who survived just immune to the virus or did they just get lucky enough to not get it. Is there any major attempt to regain civilization. Also did any of the other greats survive?

Lisa: Very good question — was there a reason that the survivors were immune, or did they just not to encounter the virus? I wonder. And we’re left hanging a bit at the end, with the possibility that there could be a return to some of what was lost.

Lisa: How would you describe Station Eleven to someone who hasn’t read it yet?
Diana: It’s far more intellectual than i thought it would be. It’s also more of a drama about the human spirit.

 

And that wraps it up! Thanks, Diana! It’s a pleasure talking books with you! Let’s do this again next month…

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The details:

Title: Station Eleven
Author: Emily St. John Mandel
Publisher: Knopf
Publication date: September 9, 2014
Length: 333 pages
Genre: Adult fiction
Source: Purchased

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Next for Fields & Fantasies:

9476337Our April book will be Bossypants by Tina Fey.

 

Fields & Fantasies presents… Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh

Welcome to the December pick for the Fields & Fantasies book club! Each month or so, in collaboration with my wonderful co-host Diana of Strahbary’s Fields, we’ll pick one book to read and discuss. Today, we’re looking at Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened by Allie Brosh:

hyperbole

Synopsis (Goodreads):

This is a book I wrote. Because I wrote it, I had to figure out what to put on the back cover to explain what it is. I tried to write a long, third-person summary that would imply how great the book is and also sound vaguely authoritative–like maybe someone who isn’t me wrote it–but I soon discovered that I’m not sneaky enough to pull it off convincingly. So I decided to just make a list of things that are in the book:

Pictures
Words
Stories about things that happened to me
Stories about things that happened to other people because of me
Eight billion dollars*
Stories about dogs
The secret to eternal happiness*

*These are lies. Perhaps I have underestimated my sneakiness!

My two cents:

How do I even begin to describe a book like Hyperbole and a Half? Besides saying that I found myself bursting into uncontrollable giggles while reading — and you can ask my family: I’m not usually the uncontrollable giggles type.

So — Allie Brosh is well-known for her web comic/blog (also called Hyperbole and a Half). I’d never read anything by her prior to reading this book. But I understand she has quite a following, and I can see why.

Unflinchingly honest, the author splits this book between odd childhood behavior, her two dogs (the “simple” dog and the “helper” dog), and her own struggle with depression. I’ll admit it straight out — the dog stories are the ones that really cracked me up. How to even describe the glory of her test of the simple dog’s IQ? Or the helper dog’s hatred of the fact that other dogs exist anywhere at all? And then there’s the story of the mad goose that came into her house one night, like some evil spirit out of a horror movie.

If you were sitting quietly on your couch, waiting for your girlfriend to come back inside so you could finish watching your movie, and while you were waiting, someone called you up and said “I’ll give you a million dollars if you can guess what’s going to happen next,” you absolutely would not guess “I am going to be brutally and unexpectedly attacked by a goose in my own home.” Even if you had a hundred guesses, you would not guess that.

I absolutely loved the first piece in the book, about finding a letter from herself at age 10, written to her adult self. I won’t even try to describe it — but let’s just say that by page 2, my first laughing fit had kicked in.

And then there’s the cake story from when she was three years old:

I had tasted cake and there was no going back. My tiny body had morphed into a writhing mass of pure tenacity encased in a layer of desperation. I would eat all of the cake or I would evaporate from the sheer power of my desire to eat it.

Seriously, read the cake story. It’s been a long time since I’ve laughed until I cried…

Her ruminations on depression are eye-opening and informative — and somehow manage to convey all the depths of nothingness inherent in depression while still being human and even humorous. A friend who has struggled on and off with depression for years informs me that this book is one of the few she’s read where she really could see herself on the page.

Likewise, I loved the author’s honesty in a section in which she delves into identity and believing herself to be a good person –without actually having to back it up most of the time:

I like to believe that I would behave heroically in a disaster situation. I like to think this because it makes me feel good about myself. Conveniently, it is very unlikely that I will ever actually have to do anything to prove it. As long as I never encounter a disaster situation, I can keep believing I’m a hero indefinitely.

She ‘fesses up to the fact that she likes to be proud of herself for being a good person, but suspects that without seeking that internal approval for her own good deeds, she might actually be a horrible person.

I don’t just want to do the right thing. I want to WANT to do the right thing. This might seem like a noble goal to strive for, but I don’t actually care about adhering to morality. It’s more that being aware of not wanting to do the right thing ruins my ability to enjoy doing the right thing after I’m forced into doing it through shame.

Hyperbole and a Half is a very quick read. The primitive, brightly-colored drawing are hilarious, and the interplay between words and pictures is perfect.

Not many books can make you burst into giggles and at the same time force you to examine your inner self and take a hard look at your actions and motivations. Reading Hyperbole and a Half is a surprisingly thought-provoking and moving experience for something that’s just so damned funny.

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And just to show that intelligent people can disagree, I’ll point out that while I gave this book 5 stars on Goodreads, Diana gave it only 2 stars — and doesn’t seem to have liked it at all. I’ll add the link to Diana’s review once it’s up!

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The details:

Title: Hyperbole and a Half
Author: Allie Brosh
Publisher: Touchstone
Publication date: 2013
Length: 369 pages
Genre: Humor
Source: Purchased

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Next for Fields & Fantasies:

station elevenOur January book will be Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.

 

 

Fields & Fantasies presents… Hello From the Gillespies

Welcome to the November pick for the Fields & Fantasies book club! Each month or so, in collaboration with my wonderful co-host Diana of Strahbary’s Fields, we’ll pick one book to read and discuss. Today, we’re looking at Hello From the Gillespies by Monica McInerney:

gillespiesSynopsis (Goodreads):

For the past thirty-three years, Angela Gillespie has sent to friends and family around the world an end-of-the-year letter titled “Hello from the Gillespies.” It’s always been cheery and full of good news. This year, Angela surprises herself—she tells the truth….

The Gillespies are far from the perfect family that Angela has made them out to be. Her husband is coping badly with retirement. Her thirty-two-year-old twins are having career meltdowns. Her third daughter, badly in debt, can’t stop crying. And her ten-year-old son spends more time talking to his imaginary friend than to real ones.

Without Angela, the family would fall apart. But when a bump on the head leaves Angela with temporary amnesia, the Gillespies pull together—and pull themselves together—in wonderfully surprising ways….

My two cents:

In this slice-of-life family drama, we meet a seemingly perfect family — and then get to see what they’re really like. When Angela sits down to write her annual Christmas letter, she’s stuck and completely flustered at the idea of producing yet another glib, sugar-coated interpretation of her family’s current events. Instead, she starts a stream-of-consciousness rant, covering everything from her adult daughters’ career troubles, affairs, and debts, to her 10-year-old son’s weirdness, to the wall of coldness that’s come between her and her husband Nick.

Angela never intends to send the letter — but in the midst of a family crisis, Nick thinks he’s helping Angela out by hitting “send” on her Christmas email. And thus begins a touching and funny tale that explores the power of communication and family love.

This domestic drama was a huge change of pace for me, after reading a lot of horror and thrillers recently — but in truth, I loved it.

First of all, you can’t tell from the synopsis, but Hello takes place on a sheep station in the Australian outback. So, 10 bonus points for excellent setting! The landscape is described beautifully, and the isolation of the station is a big factor in how much the family has fallen apart.

The book takes some turns that I did not expect, with the crazy Christmas letter being dealt with much sooner than I would have thought. I was surprised by how honest Angela and her children ended up being with one another, and I loved the relationships between the daughters, who come with their own sets of problems and idiosyncrasies.

It’s much tougher for Angela and Nick to figure out their issues — and after a freak accident leaves Angela with a strange case of amnesia in which she believes her fantasy life to be real, her family’s nurturing and support help her find her way back to herself and to the life she and Nick truly want.

The characters here are all quirky and memorable, and I enjoyed the glimpses of the various Gillespie kids, their messed-up lives, and their great personalities. (Son Ig is my favorite, hands-down — funny, rambunctious, and with an endearingly oddball sense of creativity and imagination.) Angela and Nick have a bedrock of true love at the heart of their marriage, so it was quite moving to see the pain they each suffered along the way toward healing the rift between them.

As I said earlier, the Australian setting absolutely enhances the overall story and made it that much more enjoyable. And who hasn’t gotten tired of the annual Christmas letters, where every child is brilliant, every spouse is a success, every house is sparkling and lovely? Hello shows the fall-out from a massive dose of truth-telling. It’s fun, light reading, but with a real sense of heart as well.

This would be a great choice for someone looking for a holiday read that’s a bit different, but that still leaves you feeling warm and fuzzy when you’ve finished.

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The details:

Title: Hello From the Gillespies
Author: Monica McInerney
Publisher: Penguin Group/NAL Trade
Publication date: November 4, 2014
Length: 624 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy via NetGalley

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Diana is sitting this month out, but check back next month when we’ll be back with full interactivity!

Next for Fields & Fantasies:

hyperboleOur December book will be Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh.

 

 

Fields & Fantasies: What’s Coming Up

Fields & Fantasies is a monthly book club, in which I team up with my bookish pal Diana (of Strahbary’s Fields) to pick a book to read and discuss. We’d love for you to join us!

Our posts and discussions always take place on the last day of the month.

Here’s what’s coming up in the next few months:

November:

gillespies

December:

hyperbole

 

January:

station eleven

What you might have missed:

Want to see what we’ve discussed already? Check out our earlier Fields & Fantasies picks:

July: The Fever by Megan Abbott

August: The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman

NEW: September/October: Horns by Joe Hill

Fields & Fantasies presents… Horns by Joe Hill

Welcome to the October (Halloween!) pick for the Fields & Fantasies book club! Each month or so, in collaboration with my wonderful co-host Diana of Strahbary’s Fields, we’ll pick one book to read and discuss. Today, we’re looking at Horns by Joe Hill:

HornsSynopsis (Goodreads):

Ignatius Perrish spent the night drunk and doing terrible things. He woke up the next morning with a thunderous hangover, a raging headache . . . and a pair of horns growing from his temples.

At first Ig thought the horns were a hallucination, the product of a mind damaged by rage and grief. He had spent the last year in a lonely, private purgatory, following the death of his beloved, Merrin Williams, who was raped and murdered under inexplicable circumstances. A mental breakdown would have been the most natural thing in the world. But there was nothing natural about the horns, which were all too real.

Once the righteous Ig had enjoyed the life of the blessed: born into privilege, the second son of a renowned musician and younger brother of a rising late-night TV star, he had security, wealth, and a place in his community. Ig had it all, and more—he had Merrin and a love founded on shared daydreams, mutual daring, and unlikely midsummer magic.

But Merrin’s death damned all that. The only suspect in the crime, Ig was never charged or tried. And he was never cleared. In the court of public opinion in Gideon, New Hampshire, Ig is and always will be guilty because his rich and connected parents pulled strings to make the investigation go away. Nothing Ig can do, nothing he can say, matters. Everyone, it seems, including God, has abandoned him. Everyone, that is, but the devil inside. . . .

Now Ig is possessed of a terrible new power to go with his terrible new look—a macabre talent he intends to use to find the monster who killed Merrin and destroyed his life. Being good and praying for the best got him nowhere. It’s time for a little revenge. . . . It’s time the devil had his due. . . .

My two cents:

Want to know a secret about Joe Hill’s Horns?

At its heart, Horns is a love story. A tragic one, to be sure, but lovely enough in its own way to bring tears to my eyes. Not what I expected when I picked this horror novel to enjoy during the spooky month of October.

In Horns, Ig Perrish lost the love of his life when his one-and-only Merrin was savagely raped and murdered a year earlier. Ig is widely believed to be guilty of the crime, but the case was dismissed without ever clearing his name. Ig is now a pariah, despised by all, wandering aimlessly through the shambles of his life… until the day he wakes up semi-drunk and quite hungover, and finds horns growing out of his head.

The horns are quite real, and seem to give Ig the power of persuasion: People who encounter Ig tell him their deepest, darkest secrets, and with just a nudge, Ig can get them to act on their impulses. Oh, and he seems to attract snakes as well. Meanwhile, with the ability to see inside people’s minds simply by touching them, he’s now privy to new information about Merrin’s murder, and is well on his way to tracking down her killer and making him pay.

Is Ig the devil? Is he evil? How can we explain the horns, Ig’s fondness for pitchforks, his imperviousness from fire?

The symbolism here is rich. Ig and Merrin are presented as true soul mates. When Ig loses Merrin, has he also lost his soul?

Horns is dark and scary — although the scariest element isn’t the supernatural side, but rather, the look inside the very disturbed brain of the murderer. Meanwhile, Ig and Merrin’s love story is pure tragedy — the story of a true and selfless love that is cruelly destroyed by forces outside the lovers’ control.

Written by Joe Hill, son of the legendary Stephen King, Horns feels very much like a King family novel. As in many King books, there are thematic repetitions throughout, a slow reveal of the major event with many hints and glimpses, hidden meanings in everyday objects, and the familiar (yet always scary) concept of people giving into their own worst impulses and letting their ids guide their behaviors.

Horns is a perfect read for the frightful month of October, and I can’t wait to check out the movie version starring Dan Radcliffe! (Scroll down for a peek at the trailer… )

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For another view, check out Diana’s review here.

And now for the interactive portion of our program —  a Q&A between Diana and me.

Warning: SPOILERS from this point forward. Proceed at your own risk!

Diana: What are your thoughts on Ig’s spiral into demonhood?

Lisa: I thought the author struck a great balance between humor and horror. I loved how the power of the horns meant that no one really looked twice — it was more like “oh, hey, you have horns on your head, and here’s what going on in my own twisted mind”. Ig’s transformation was a living illustration of his inner demons taking over his life, but I like that he didn’t exactly turn evil; he just became focused on vengeance and got the power he needed to attain it.

Diana: Rapes are always a sensitive subject in books and other forms of media. What were your thoughts on Merrin’s rape?

Lisa: Disturbing and awful to read about, of course. I’m glad that we knew up front what had happened to Merrin, rather than having it turn up later as a surprise. The author showed the brutality and violence of the rape, while showing the twisted mind of the attacker and the sick way in which he justified his actions. It really made my heart break for Merrin, to know the terror and pain she suffered at the end.

Diana: During Ig’s Fire Sermon as he discussed what happened to Merrin I couldn’t help but think about all the times that rape was used by the Greco Roman gods as a punishment. I’ve been studying a lot of these myths so I couldn’t help but make the parallels.

This question has to be asked because it’s just this kind of book: What disturbed you the most?

Lisa: See above — knowing what Merrin went through in her final moments was the most disturbing, although I have to say that seeing inside so many people’s minds was pretty creepy too. And of course, getting an inside view into the mind of a soulless sociopath was absolutely chilling.

What did you find the most disturbing?

Diana: By the time we get to the rape scene I already felt like I was wallowing in the mud so by the time we got to the really nitty gritty the stuff that was going on didn’t disturb me as much. The thing that made me squirm was every time a snake died. I have some as pets and it’s kind of like dogs in movies for me. I cringed every time one of them got hurt or died. I am worse when it comes to dogs in movies. The moment the dog dies I’m out, people could be dropping like flies but the moment the dog gets offed I am out.

The people around Ig were pretty horrible. Were there any redeeming qualities for you?  Or do you think Joe Hill did too good of a job making us hate pretty much everyone but Ig?

Lisa: I didn’t hate everyone but Ig! Granted, most of the people were pretty despicable. But I did think his brother had redeeming qualities. He really loved Ig and Merrin too, but got too caught up in his own fear and cowardice to do the right thing. And I felt sorry for Glenna. I couldn’t hate her at all; in fact, I was hoping that she’d manage to come out of it all with some sort of happy ending. She was just a poor girl who never caught a break, and I thought she was pitiable, but not unlikeable.

Was there anyone you liked at all? Anyone who was less awful than the rest?

Diana: I liked Terry. He redeemed himself to me by the end. I agree with you on Glenna, she just couldn’t catch a break. I like her and Terry’s ending.

How do you feel about Lee’s relationship to Merrin? Do you think at some level he was justified in thinking she had feelings for him? Or do you think Lee was just a sociopath that couldn’t comprehend any normal relationship cues?

Lisa: The second option, for sure! Lee is a sociopath, and yes, he misread Merrin’s intentions, but that’s not her fault. He put on a good act and fooled a lot of people, always doing what society expected of him and looking like the perfect former sinner, a poster child for salvation — but inside, he was just twisted and beyond hope.

Diana: One of the things that he reminded me of is the recent shootings just outside of Santa Barbara and Seattle. Both of those young men acted out because they believed they were jaded by other young women. Lee really speaks to our need as a society to take a better stance in regards to mental health.

Lisa: What do you make of the treehouse? Why was it important?

Diana: The treehouse felt like it was their personal palace or safe place as you say. I like to think that they are living happily in that treehouse.

Lisa: How did you feel when you found out the big secret Merrin was keeping from Ig?

Diana: In a way it was a bit of deus ex machina, she wanted to push him away because she was sick. It was like Joe Hill wanted to make sure that we walked away liking her, or that no one reading it felt like she had it coming. (which for the record no one deserves Merrin’s fate) It is possible that she just could have gotten afraid of commitment, afraid to leave the US, I’m sure it happens all the time. On the other hand, it added to the tragedy and the parallels I made earlier with the Greek Myths and her rape, the poor girl got what she asked for, a quick way out.

Lisa: Have you read other books by Joe Hill? If so, how do you rank Horns in comparison? And if not, would you want to read more by this author?

Diana: This is my very first Joe Hill book. I am excited to discover this new to me author!

Lisa: Do you consider Horns a horror novel? Would you recommend it only to horror fans, or are there other types of reader who should check it out as well?

Diana: If we go by what Joe defined horror as, as being rooted in sympathy then yes this is a horror novel. I personally am not a horror fan, I am a thriller fan and overall this fit within the thriller genre. I do have to say, this is the first time I have simultaneously swooned and be creeped out by an ending to a book.

Lisa: Ultimately, would you describe Ig as a good person? Why or why not?

Diana: I can’t describe Ig as either good or bad…he’s just human. It’s very true to life. In stories it’s easy to say whose the good guy or whose the bad guy but in our own lives can we really point out who the good guys and the bad guys are? Ig is just like us.

And that wraps it up! Thanks, Diana! It’s a pleasure talking books with you! Let’s do this again next month…

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The details:

Title: Horns
Author: Joe Hill
Publisher: William Morrow
Publication date: 2010
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Purchased

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Intrigued? Read the book for sure — but you might also want to check out the movie version:

Next for Fields & Fantasies:

gillespiesOur November book will be Hello From the Gillespies by Monica McInerney.

Fields & Fantasies presents… The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman

Welcome to the August/September pick for the Fields & Fantasies book club! Each month or so, in collaboration with my wonderful co-host Diana of Strahbary’s Fields, we’ll pick one book to read and discuss. Today, we’re looking at The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman:

The Museum of Extraordinary ThingsSynopsis (Goodreads):

Mesmerizing and illuminating, Alice Hoffman’s The Museum of Extraordinary Things is the story of an electric and impassioned love between two vastly different souls in New York during the volatile first decades of the twentieth century.

Coralie Sardie is the daughter of the sinister impresario behind The Museum of Extraordinary Things, a Coney Island boardwalk freak show that thrills the masses. An exceptional swimmer, Coralie appears as the Mermaid in her father’s “museum” alongside performers like the Wolfman, the Butterfly Girl, and a one-hundred-year-old turtle. One night Coralie stumbles upon a striking young man taking pictures of moonlit trees in the woods off the Hudson River.

The dashing photographer is Eddie Cohen, a Russian immigrant who has run away from his father’s Lower East Side Orthodox community and his job as a tailor’s apprentice. When Eddie photographs the devastation on the streets of New York following the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, he becomes embroiled in the suspicious mystery behind a young woman’s disappearance and ignites the heart of Coralie.

With its colorful crowds of bootleggers, heiresses, thugs, and idealists, New York itself becomes a riveting character as Hoffman weaves her trademark magic, romance, and masterful storytelling to unite Coralie and Eddie in a sizzling, tender, and moving story of young love in tumultuous times. The Museum of Extraordinary Things is Alice Hoffman at her most spellbinding.

True confession time: I did not finish this book.

I seem to have a love/hate relationship with Alice Hoffman’s novels. The ones I love, I love wholeheartedly — The Dovekeepers, Practical Magic, Second Nature, among others. But when I don’t like them, I really don’t (Here on Earth comes to mind… with a big shudder to go with it).

I started Museum with high expectations — the setting, the era, and the description all appealed to me. But as I began to read, I found myself in the weird situation of loving the beautiful writing… and having no compelling interest in the story itself. To me, it felt slow and disjointed. Each chapter begins with pages upon pages of a character’s history — all in italics, which is annoying to read after a while — and then more pages picking up the story in the main timeline of the book. As a portrait of odd characters, it’s an impressive piece of writing, and the language itself is lovely. Still, the storyline as a whole simply didn’t hold my attention. Finally, at around page 130, I couldn’t convince myself to continue forward, and closed the covers.

I will say that one particular section, a detailed description of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, is especially breathtaking and beautifully crafted. Unfortunately, the individual moments of great writing never coalesced into a story engaging enough to keep me motivated to stick with it.

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My F&F partner Diana has a different take on Museum. You can view her review in its entirety on her blog, and it’s excerpted here:

Overall I liked the story. I haven’t read that much about New York City during the turn of the century. The culture clashes and new immigrants made it dangerous and exotic. I think Alice created a good glimpse into the world at that time. Each story progressed on its own and then merged about half way through the book. Which created a slow build that eventually paid off.

I really like Coralie and Eddie. Especially once they met. They both matured as the story progressed. There were a number of secondary characters that I really enjoyed, though I have to say I prefer the freaks that were around Coralie more so because they felt like complete characters. In many ways, the people that Eddie interacted with in the first half of the book felt like stereotypes in some parts.

I wanted to know more about our different takes on the story. Did Diana see something in it that I didn’t? And so, I asked her. Here’s a Q&A between Diana and me about The Museum of Extraordinary Things. Warning: SPOILERS from this point forward. Proceed at your own risk!

What was your favorite part of the story?

I really enjoyed the secondary characters. I have a good friend who is always more fond of the secondary characters in most books that we read and right now I feel like her.  As much as I like Eddie and Coralie, I like the secondary characters more. We start to see a relationship form between Maureen, the “professor’s maid” and the wolf man (whom I loved btw) and I really liked their story. Likewise, why was Maureen so attached to Coralie so much so that she would put up with an abusive father? I would love to have known more about what was going in Maureen’s head.

What was your least favorite part?

Some of the immigrant characters seemed  like stereotypes.  They were just a generalized mass of people, those that did have character development didn’t really seem logical. For example Eddie’s father. He was a runner, and came off as a fairly weak character but all of a sudden at the end we find out his dad was some tough labor activist. It didn’t fit.

What three words come to mind when you think about the plot?

Slow: if I hadn’t been so curious about the historical elements to the book I probably would have dropped it before I became invested in the main characters.

Simple: there aren’t any major revelations that you don’t see coming. But the plot adequately gets you from point a to point b.

Accurate: one of my biggest pet peeves in historic fiction is when the author doesn’t do their homework. The history of Coney Island and the Labor movement was spot on.

Is this more of a character study or more plot-driven?

It’s hard to say. I would like to say that it’s more of a character study because of the detail that is put into the main characters and those closest to them.

What would you say to try to convince me to read this?

I haven’t convinced you so far?? The second half of the book is SO much better.  Give it just a little more time. The characters will grow on you.

Is there any one thing about this book that makes it really stand out for you?

The whole historic freak show/circus element.  It’s actually started me on a Gothic/steampunk circus kick. There was a period in our history where these circuses and freak shows were big attractions. I have really found it fascinating.

Have you read other books by this author? If so, how would you rank this one compared to the others?

You know this is the first book by Alice Hoffman that I have read. Which is odd because the movie Practical Magic is one of my favorite movies. I have heard people on a number of occasions say they weren’t fond of her writing but I quite liked this book and plan on reading more.

Thanks, Diana! I can’t say I’m convinced, but at least I have a sense of what you liked about the book and what I might have come to appreciate if I’d gone a bit further! I don’t think I’ll go back to this one, but I can see that the historical elements probably would have continued to be the most interesting part of the book for me.

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Next for Fields & Fantasies:

HornsTo get in the mood for Halloween, we’re picking a horror story for October. Can’t wait to finally read Horns by Joe Hill.

Fields & Fantasies presents… The Fever by Megan Abbott

Welcome to the first Fields & Fantasies book club feature. Each month, in collaboration with my wonderful co-host Diana of Strahbary’s Fields, we’ll pick one book to read and discuss. Our inaugural pick is Megan Abbott’s The Fever:

The FeverThe panic unleashed by a mysterious contagion threatens the bonds of family and community in a seemingly idyllic suburban community.

The Nash family is close-knit. Tom is a popular teacher, father of two teens: Eli, a hockey star and girl magnet, and his sister Deenie, a diligent student. Their seeming stability, however, is thrown into chaos when Deenie’s best friend is struck by a terrifying, unexplained seizure in class. Rumors of a hazardous outbreak spread through the family, school and community.

As hysteria and contagion swell, a series of tightly held secrets emerges, threatening to unravel friendships, families and the town’s fragile idea of security.

Something is happening to teen girls, and it’s very, very bad.

First it’s Deenie’s best friend, Lise, who suffers some sort of seizure in the middle of class — and whose greatest worry is whether everyone saw. (They did). Next, Deenie’s almost-best-friend Gabby has a spell of some sort in the midst of an orchestra performance. And then more, and more, and more. Is it an epidemic? Is it mass hysteria?

In The Fever, there are many questions, but not so many answers.

Reminiscent both of The Crucible and Mean Girls, The Fever shows the damage done to girls as they enter and transition through the perilous teen years. For Deenie and her friends, the change from unformed, bright innocents to girls who attract boys’ eyes and know it is fraught with physical and emotional dangers.

They revel in the changes in their own bodies, but are undermined by the food provided by family. They delight in their power, but can be brought low by the looks or oversights of boys. They hunger for attention, but don’t know what to do with it once they get it.

And as we see through the eyes of Deenie’s brother Eli, the girls become a mass of indistinguishable sexualized beings. Eli is a protective big brother, cherishing his younger sister and defending even her friends from predatory eyes — and yet Eli is a total hound toward every other girl in school, having no qualms about inviting adoring girls (he’s a big hottie) over for late-night booty calls and then sending them on their way. The girls are faceless and interchangeable to Eli and his friends: They’re sexy, they’re available, and they’re easily forgotten.

The girls in The Fever are all damaged, one way or the other. Of the characters we meet, all have deficiencies in their home lives — bitterly divorced parents, no parents, irresponsible guardians, even a mother who survived a vicious assault by the father and bears horrific scars as a constant reminder. The environment, too, is literally toxic — the lake is an unnatural emerald green and was declared unsafe for swimming years earlier. The school itself is later found to have all sorts of deadly and dangerous substances in its walls and its grounds.

So what’s making the girls sick? Perhaps everything. Hysterical parents initially blame the mysterious outbreak on the HPV vaccine that was administered to all girls the previous year — but when that proves to be a red herring, other scapegoats must be found. Suspicious eyes turn to Deenie, one of the few who isn’t sick. Does that mean she’s a carrier? Is she the local version of Typhoid Mary?

Deenie is devastated, not just by her friends’ illnesses, but by the shock of discovering the secrets lurking behind the scenes in the life she thought she knew.

I found The Fever to be a compelling read, but I couldn’t quite decide how I really felt about it. In parts, it felt like a mystery to be solved, sifting through clues, unraveling stories that do and don’t make sense. On the other hand, it’s very much an atmospheric piece. There’s a sense of doom and misery throughout the book. None of these girls are happy, and they all suffer, one way or another. It’s all quite dismal, and at times, it’s practically suffocating.

And yet, I couldn’t look away. Perhaps it’s the book version of a car crash on the highway. You know bad things are happening, and yet you stretch to get a glimpse just the same. Towards the end, as the lies and secrets unravel, the story becomes more straightforward and I found myself enjoying it more. The narrative in most of the book weaves between different points of view, but eventually, plot seems to matter more, and I could not wait to get answers.

So yes, by the end, there is a solution of sorts — but not everything is easily explained. The girls of the town may be recovering, but they’ll never recapture the innocence of assuming oneself to be safe. As a study of what it means to be a teen girl in America, The Fever is very frightening indeed.

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For another view, check out Diana’s review here.

And now, for a change of pace, a Q&A between Diana and me. Warning: SPOILERS from this point forward. Proceed at your own risk!

Lisa: So many of the girls in this books seem like a “type”. Which, if any, felt more original or unusual to you?

Diana: They didn’t really feel original to me. It was the cliche good girl caught in the middle, the meanest of the mean girls and the girl that wanted to be liked. Then for the mothers it felt like you had the absentee, the clueless one and the overprotective one. Nothing all that original.

Lisa: I agree [with what you said in your review] that Tom was a decent character. What do you think about the book’s portrayal of parents in general?

Diana: Overall I think that the parents were clueless as to what was going on in their kids lives. Perhaps from a teens’ perspective they are but I would think that the parents would have some idea. Do you think that there was anything that the parents could have done to be more involved with their children?

Lisa: I thought Tom was as involved as possible for a parent of high school teens, which just goes to show that even great parents probably have no idea what’s really going on their kids’ lives and inside their kids’ heads. I mean, his son is bringing girls home for sex right under his nose, and he just says hi as they walk by! The other parents all seem very caught up in their own nonsense. Everybody wants to be a good parent, I thought, but nobody really succeeds.

Lisa: Did you buy the explanation for the epidemic? Do you find a mass event like this credible?

Diana: Absolutely. Looking back through history there are a number of cases like this happening throughout the world to teenage girls. My favorite happening in 2006 in Portugal. It was dubbed the Strawberries with Sugar Virus. A number of adolescent girls became sick, their symptoms couldn’t be explained. As it turns out, there was a very popular show called Strawberries with Sugar and there was a girl on the show that had an illness with those symptoms. Portuguese officials later determined it was a case of mass hysteria based on the television show. My only problem with the premise is the guilty party at the beginning of everything being a victim of mass hysteria.  What do you think?

Lisa: Yeah, I hadn’t thought of it in those terms, but you’re right. It’s like she couldn’t deal with her own guilt, so she followed in the victim’s footsteps, and then the whole thing blew up from there. It seemed to be saying that each of these girls had such problems in their lives that becoming a victim of the epidemic was a way out for them. Maybe a way to get the attention they’d been missing? Or a way to physically embody all the turmoil and stress of their lives?

Diana: I like the attention train of thought. It could be one of those cases where a lie just takes on a life of it own…

Lisa: What did you think of the role of social media, cell phones, and other plugged-in technologies in this story?

Diana: It was very relevant. I know I am addicted to my electronics and so many teens are social media obsessed. I think that part felt the most realistic to me.

Lisa: I agree. It made me realize how much harder it must be to be in high school right now than when I was that age. In my day, if you did something embarrassing, people might talk and ridicule, but then it would blow over. With this culture of selfies and everything always being shared, your worst moments can live forever. In The Fever, the girls who had seizures not only broke down in school — they then had to live with knowing that their awful moments would be seen all over YouTube.

Diana: Oh God, I can only imagine the trauma I would have had to deal with if my fellow high school students had social media. There are some things in life that are just best left forgotten.

Lisa: Did the high school setting in The Fever feel realistic to you? 

Diana: There were moments that it felt realistic.  Like with the day to day school stuff. But some of it felt “Saved by the Bell”-esque. Like would the sports star also be in the school band? How many of the cool kids did you know who played in band?

Lisa: True. But I did think the shifting alliances among the girls was pretty true to life — the fact that Deenie thought Gabby was her best friend and that Skye was just an annoyance hanging around, not seeing that Gabby and Skye had a much stronger connection or what the truth of her friendship with Gabby was all about.

Lisa: Is there anything the author could have done differently that would have made this book work better for you?

Diana: Better characters for sure. I so wanted this to be my dirty little indulgent book of the summer. I think if she dug deeper and went beyond the clichés it would have been so much better.

Lisa: It’s been fun talking books with you! Sounds to me like The Fever was not a huge success for either of us (although I liked it more than you did), but it still did give us some things to think about!

Diana: I have really enjoyed our discussion as well! Yeah, I can’t say Fever was my favorite read of the year so far but it has created some great discussion. I have already started reading our book for August: The Museum of Extraordinary Things.

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Updated to add:

Fascinating article by Megan Abbott on the real-life case that inspired The Fever: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/megan-abbott-/dont-look-now-social-medi_b_5534200.html

Next for Fields & Fantasies:

Join us for our August book, The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman

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The details:

Title: The Fever
Author: Megan Abbott
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: June 17, 2014
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of Little, Brown and Company via NetGalley

Announcing Fields & Fantasies: A New Book Club!

I’m delighted to announce that starting this month, I’m teaming up with the fabulous Diana of Strahbary’s Fields to introduce a new virtual book discussion platform, Fields & Fantasies Book Club!

Each month, we’ll pick a book to discuss, and we hope you’ll join in. At the end of the month, Diana and I will each write up our thoughts and will “talk” to each other about our reactions, what we loved, and what — if anything — left us scratching our heads.

We’re so excited to kick off Fields and Fantasies!

To start things off, our book pick for July is The Fever by Megan Abbott.

The FeverThe panic unleashed by a mysterious contagion threatens the bonds of family and community in a seemingly idyllic suburban community.

The Nash family is close-knit. Tom is a popular teacher, father of two teens: Eli, a hockey star and girl magnet, and his sister Deenie, a diligent student. Their seeming stability, however, is thrown into chaos when Deenie’s best friend is struck by a terrifying, unexplained seizure in class. Rumors of a hazardous outbreak spread through the family, school and community.

As hysteria and contagion swell, a series of tightly held secrets emerges, threatening to unravel friendships, families and the town’s fragile idea of security.

A chilling story about guilt, family secrets and the lethal power of desire, The Fever affirms Megan Abbot’s reputation as “one of the most exciting and original voices of her generation” (Laura Lippman).

 

Future Fields & Fantasies picks include:

August: The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman

September: The Possibilities by Kaui Hart Hemmings

We hope you’ll join in and jump into the discussion. And if you have an idea for a book you’d like us to feature in the future, just let one of us know!