Station Eleven

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“He found he was a man who repented almost everything, regrets crowding in around him like moths to a light. This was actually the main difference between twenty-one and fifty-one, he decided, the sheer volume of regret.”

Stray Observations:

  • I love post-apocalyptic fiction, but 50-100 pages in I was still sitting on the fence about whether this book was for me. I could sense the individual stories would weave together, but I was impatient for the connections to reveal themselves.
  • However, at one point it really just clicked and I couldn’t put it down. Still impatient to know how the stories were linked, but now with an eagerness to read more and read it quickly.
    • If I’m being critical, sometimes the leaping between storylines felt a little bit messy, occasionally jarring. Particularly when I was keen to read more about a particular character.
  • I did have a preference for the stories that reflected on the “end of the world” – rather than the flashbacks and scene-setting. Obviously, it turns out they are hugely important (of course) but I can’t really express just how much I love people’s imaginings of our world, undone.
  • I got such a great deal of joy out of successful guessing certain elements of the plot along the way. I’m pretty sure I actually said an Alan Partridge-like “A-Ha!” at one moment.
  • With about a third of the book to go, I thought I’d bring it to work with me to make more of a dent in it. When, at lunch, I realised I’d forgotten it, I was absolutely raging. I think that expressed how much I wanted to demolish it.
  • It was, genuinely, an absolute treat to read and one with a satisfying ending.

Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda & Leah on the Offbeat

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“The way I feel about him is like a heartbeat — soft and persistent, underlying everything.”

Stray Observations:

  • There’s all the hallmarks of a classic teen high-school romance here, but with a much more diverse cast. Simon, dealing with the practicalities of his sexuality, makes what can be a tired genre feel somewhat refreshed.
  • Representation matters and I enjoyed viewing the high school experience through a totally different lens. My lens is usually ‘fat girl protagonist’ of course.
  • I would argue that the storyline felt a bit sanitised – sometimes too ‘cute and fluffy’ for my liking, even with the realistic (but occasionally irritating) teen dialogue. I did, from time to time, physically cringe at certain points,
  • But, to be fair, there are some darker elements to the story. A little bit of blackmail, cyberbullying etc. Some of Simon’s behaviour and remarks are questionable too.
  • The exchanges between Simon and Blue were the most illuminating part of the book for me. Their support for each other, the developing flirtation, the frisson of excitement at finding someone who ‘gets them’.
  • There were a lot of rave reviews about this when it came out, and I can understand why. I suspect if this had been around when I was a teenager I would have been obsessed. But despite the way the book is so open about sexuality, the rest of it just falls a bit flat for me. I liked it, but couldn’t get excited about it in the way I thought I would.

leah

“Leah.’ Mom shakes her head. ‘You’ve got to stop doing this.’

‘Doing what?’

‘Burning everything to the ground whenever something goes wrong.”

 

Stray Observations:
  • I read both of these books back to back and while I enjoyed them both, I felt that this was a bit of a lacklustre follow-up.
  • Leah does seem to get a bit of a kicking by some reviewers – both in ‘Simon’ and her own story. She isn’t immediately likable in the way Simon is and it is OBVIOUS in the first book that something is going on with her, behind the scenes. I thought this follow-up was going to tackle it, but I feel it really missed the mark.
  • It also offered another opportunity for some character development – some of the cast were a bit 2D in Simon’s story – but I think it failed on that front. We got to know Leah and Abby a bit more, but the others were still a bit nebulous.
    • Some criticisms argued that the characters seemed very different in this follow-up, but I’d argue we are viewing their friendship group from a very different viewpoint, so this didn’t bother me in the way it has other readers.
    • As an aside – I quite like Leah as a character. Girls should be allowed to be angry and irritable. I’ll admit, this does veer towards histrionics every now and then, but I can empathise with her behaviour in certain social situations so I suppose I cut her a bit more slack.
  • Where the mystery of ‘Blue’ is a thread holding all of ‘Simon vs’ together, I felt like nothing really happened, plot-wise, here. It does tackle sexuality in a different way to ‘Simon vs’ and tackles a racist incident pretty overtly, but the rest of the plot was all a bit ‘meh’.

All That Remains: A Life in Death

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“There is only one way to discover the truth about dying, death and being dead and that is to do it, which we will all get round to eventually. I only hope I am ready and have my bag packed for the big adventure.”

 

Stray Observations:

  • Every time I’ve come across Professor Dame Sue Black, either through her appearances on television or through interviews, I have been fascinated with her career and specialty. And every time I read about her, I think to myself to look out for more and promptly forget, so I was genuinely excited to find out she had written a book.
  • Black is an anatomist and forensic anthropologist, which means she’s a conduit for all my various professional and personal interests! True crime, medicine, history etc. This book is autobiographical, and she regales the reader with stories from her youth and her family as well as reflections and accounts of her career. Weaved in between these are lessons on things like anatomy, forensics and death, which make for sobering but thoroughly engaging reading.
  • As she says herself, she is not cold, but a practical, pragmatic person and she deals with sensitive topics very matter-of-factly. They are, of course, wrapped up in her everyday life – whether that’s dealing with cadavers, murder victims or perpetrators of child abuse.
  • I was completely absorbed by her accounts of her career to date . It’s genuinely a thrill to see the practical application of forensic anthropology – her work in Kosovo is particularly moving, if hard to stomach.
  • Many of the topics covered in this book are difficult to read about, but one that ought not to be is our relationship with death. Black is very open about discussing her own, as well as the important deaths in her life. It’s a discussion that the British are generally very poor at having (sweeping generalisation there) so I’d happily applaud anyone writing about it so frankly. It all adds to the conversation we all should be having.
  • From the above, you can see that I had such a vested interest in this that it’s quite hard for me to write anything unbiased! I will admit that it is a little slow to start (the first third perhaps?) and if you are unfamiliar with her, you might be left wondering where the book is heading. I’d urge you to stick with it though, as beyond her early years we begin to see how her work is carried out in the field and it’s implications in solving crime. If this is your thing, it’s fascinating.
  • The writing is occasionally flowery too, which I might be guilty of skimming -at times. I wasn’t a huge fan of the characterisation of Death, who makes an appearance every now and then.

Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea

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“As Mrs Song would observe a decade later, when she thought back on all the people she knew who died during those years in Chongjin, it was the “simple and kindhearted people who did what they were told– they were the first to die.””

 

Stray Observations:

  • I’m doing my best to avoid using hyperbole in these observations, but this is a stellar piece of journalism, and one of the best nonfiction reads I’ve ever encountered.
  • I don’t want to describe any specific instances within the book because I feel anyone who picks this up should be allowed to experience it for themselves.
    • However, it essentially pieces together the story of a particular community in North Korea from a variety of defector’s voices. The result is a harrowing, desperate and frequently heartbreaking account of life in Chongjin, under the reign of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.
  • It is hard not to get swept away in the drama of it all. Demick masterfully weaves together the lives of the people in this community and at one stage in book we reach a point where, one by one, each of the people involved have made the decision to escape. Their attempts read like a thriller and for every surge of adrenaline you get reading their accounts, everything comes crashing down around your ears when you remind yourself it is all real.
  • The book also looks at the reality of life for defectors after they have made it to ‘safety’. Many still have arduous journeys to seek refuge and once settled, there is the harsh reality of adjusting to their new lives. It’s not a spoiler to know that this is often a very difficult process: defectors need to navigate guilt, anger & shame as well as adjusting to a new culture.
  • I think the West has been very guilty at painting the Kims as caricatures, which is fine as a bit of satire but the reality, based on these kinds of testimony, is so very different. I like to think I’m critically engaged with the world, and I’m aware I have a fascination with life in these types of regimes, but I think I need to question why that is the case. Reading this has shifted my way of thinking and I don’t think there’s any higher praise for a book than that.

The Fact of a Body

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“I have come to believe that every family has its defining action, its defining belief. From childhood, I understood that my parents’ was this: Never look back.”

 

Stray Observations:

  • This is a hard, but compelling read. Part memoir, part true-crime and an exercise in beautiful storytelling, it deals with some desperately difficult issues quite transparently. That might be problematic for some readers.
  • The author has exercised her artistic license to reconstruct the life of Ricky, the murderer (and paedophile) whose case she becomes obsessed with as she gets started in her legal career. Ricky’s life, and those of people around him, become a lens through which she comes to terms with her own experiences – the abuse she suffered at the hands of her grandfather.
  • Despite the intense amount of research she’s undertaken and privileged access she was given (detailed at the end of the book), I would still caution that these reconstructions of Ricky’s life and circumstances ought to be taken with a pinch of salt. They are often beautifully rendered but I think it’s important not to get swept up in them.
    • To be fair, she does make this quite clear the beginning of the book, so I don’t think her interpretations of Ricky’s early life are misleading. I would just bear it in mind that some of the storytelling is just that, the author’s own imagining.
  • The two narrative strands here (the unravelling of the crime and her ‘memoir’ as it were) sometimes interwine quite beautifully, but at certain points feel like a bit of a stretch. I can certainly see the links she has drawn, and appreciate them, but sometimes the switching between the two is a bit jarring, especially as you get into the flow of the story.
    • I read some reviews after reading the book and there were a lot of comments suggesting that this should have been two separate books. Fresh from the book, I felt they were a little unfair and perhaps unimaginative. But now, a few weeks out from reading it, I’m inclined to agree.
  • It’s difficult to say I enjoyed it, given the subject matter, but I remained gripped by the stories involved, despite any reservations I had about the structure.
    • There are some parts that perhaps sagged a little within the overall story – certainly in the last third of the book.
  • This is undoubtedly a labour of love and an intensely personal read, and of course the subject matter isn’t going to be for everyone. However, if you can stomach true crime (or overlook it) the ‘memoir’ strand of this book is wonderful. It’s still worth a read, despite my misgivings.

Educated

Apologies in advance, this entry is going to be looooong.

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“I could tolerate any form of cruelty better than kindness”

 

Stray Observations:

  • It is an intensely powerful memoir, one I will never forget reading. As soon as I finished it I needed to make someone else I know read it too, so I could vocalise how I felt about it.
  • I really resent using the word (because it’s so overused), but what she has been able to achieve really is ‘inspirational’. I don’t just mean her determination to forge ahead with a formal education, but her emotional fortitude and ability to carve a path in the world that must have seemed so unobtainable.
    • A by-product of this is being grateful for my upbringing and circumstances, but also being sadly appalled at my own motivation. Ha.
  • The book really highlighted the complexities of human relationships and their capacity to both hold us back and help us blossom. I touch upon this, and the issue of the abuse she suffered through her familial relationships in my “rant” below.
    • Nevertheless, her father is a truly engrossing personality. It’s easy to see him as a monster and his decision-making regularly left me open-mouthed, wide-eyed in despair. I couldn’t extend my empathy to him at all, although there are occasional glimmers of hope. His support of Westover’s singing ability, for example, was moving in the context of the rest of his behaviour.
    • Her examination of her brother’s cruelty (he exhibits classic physical and psychological abuse) is haunting and upsetting, as is her family’s defence of his behaviour.
    • As an aside, I’m not naive to think that she is now ‘done’ processing what has happened to her and the decisions she’s made to extricate herself from such a poisonous and destructive situation.
  • There are many, many stand-out moments in the book where you truly realise how alien she is to the modern world. A regularly quoted section is the moment in class where she doesn’t recognise the word ‘Holocaust’. Another powerful lightbulb moment is when she takes pain relief for the first time, throwing her mother’s herbal remedies immediately into doubt. I found myself thinking about that experience in some depth.
  • I find it interesting that she regularly examined her perception of the events in her childhood – her critical reflection of her own experiences is woven throughout the book. She makes very clear that there are discrepancies between her accounts and those of her siblings. It captures just how tricky dealing with memories can be.
  • It’s a sobering read, and one that will live with me for a long time.

 


A personal rant, for your pleasure:

A bit of an off note to end on, but when I posted the above photo to Instagram, I captioned it with a (very brief summation). Here’s a snippet:

…Much has been said about her unusual upbringing (including some complaints on GR that it wasn’t unusual enough, FFS). But what’s really at the heart of the memoir is the complexity of familial love and the power of personality, faith and mental illness.

Then a few weeks later, I got a slightly irritable comment from someone who disagreed with that (very brief) summation. Apparently I had misled them based on that single sentence summary – they seemed to have taken great offence to the fact I hadn’t referred to the abuse in the book and failed to mention it in the caption. I responded to say that I didn’t think I was being disingenuous for doing so, and I stand by that second sentence above. They responded that I was being misleading, and that made me angry.

I’m not a professional reviewer, I’m not getting paid to post on IG, I’m not being paid to promote anything, I’m not part of anyone’s PR. This blog, and my Instagram are just little opportunities for me to be reflective and creative. While I’m also happy to engage in some friendly debate over books (we’re all going to like different things, obviously), it got weirdly confrontational and accusatory quite quickly. Almost as if the commenter thought I was defending the abuse. So, feeling the familiar rise of panic and anxiety, I made the swift decision to just exit the conversation and block the user.

Although I’m uneasy about shutting down the discussion, I can’t let myself feel guilty for prioritising my mental health. I know I would have fixated on the negativity for some time, and spun off into a spiral of intrusive thoughts. Perhaps I’ve been a little naive – with only 400-odd followers, it hadn’t occurred to me that someone might buy or read a book based on my comments. Maybe that’s something I need to bear in mind in future. On the other hand, the content of this book has been well publicised and (rightly or wrongly) I don’t feel it’s my responsibility to copy/paste plot synopses in my IG captions. It’s boring, I find it unhelpful when other people do it and the information is better written elsewhere.

For me, the heart of Educated is Westover’s relationship with her family – you are welcome to disagree with this, but that was my reading experience. The abuse she suffered at the hands of her brother and father is desperately cruel: the physical, the psychological, the emotional. That is clearly a formative part of her life, and, in effect, drives her ‘education’. It’s also hugely at odds with the fact she clearly loves her family and many of her reflections try to reconcile both of theses realities.

But as I tried to point out to the angry commenter (and mentioned in the original caption), the abusive behaviour is compounded by many things: undiagnosed mental illness, the power of personality, the power of faith, and even US politics all had a role to play in the development of their family dynamics. It feels like a perfect storm and Westover covers all of this in her writing: I’m not reading into anything that wasn’t already in the text.

I’m not excusing the behaviour of her abusers and nor does seeking an explanation for it diminish the severity of what happens to her. As Westover herself says, she is convinced that much of what her father did was driven by his love for his family, however misguided. Neither am I buying in to the language of the abuser here, just to be clear, but merely reflecting the author’s own feelings:

“You can love someone and still choose to say goodbye to them,” she says now. “You can miss a person every day, and still be glad that they are no longer in your life.”*

As an aside, I also feel like lingering on the abuse fetishises it. I’m not keen on how it is used to market memoirs, so I decided not to do that in that original caption. To me, she is much more than a product of what happened to her and she shouldn’t be defined be it. Even without the abuse, her achievements are extraordinary and her determination to understand and explore the world is remarkable. I simply feel that her story is bigger and more complex than “girl gets abused by religious family, gets herself a formal and spiritual education”. I feel it does her a disservice to believe otherwise.

So, while I may be sorry, on reflection, that my single sentence might not have encompassed the whole book (sarcasm intended). I still stand by the fact that familial love is complicated, especially in instances of abuse, control and fundamentalism. It’s still possible to love someone in spite of their behaviour. People’s capacity to forgive is on a spectrum, and Westover’s capacity is hers and hers alone – I make no judgment here.

 


*this quote was pulled from here but is all over GoodReads as a quote from the book. As I’ve loaned my copy out, I can’t check for page numbers etc. so this placeholder will need to do for the meantime.

 

 

 

The Accusation

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“Where in the world might you find such a garden, such a den of evil magic, where cries of pain and sadness were wrenched from the mouths of its people and distorted into laughter?”

 

Stray Observations:

  • This, for me, was a remarkably quick read for such a dense little book. It features 7 stories about life and the regime in North Korea, focusing on families across the class system in rural and urban communities.
  • The way Bandi structures his stories makes them feel like classic morality tales – and all the better for it. Each story is packed with symbolism and they cleverly exalt the regime while also steadily undermining it. They might not all have a neat resolution (for good reason), but there are glimpses of the characters coming to terms with their reality.
    • While his critique of the regime isn’t always overt, there’s no doubt that if the manuscript for this book had fallen in to the Party’s hands, there’d be no doubt that it would be viewed as seditious.
  • If dystopian literature is your thing, this will certainly be of interest to you. But this recommendation comes with the caveat that while the stories Bandi has penned are fiction, the paranoia, control and power they convey very much reflect the testimony of North Korean defectors. It’s makes for chilling reading when you are reminded that the brutality of these stories has its roots in reality.
  • I’ve recently been reading more and more works translated into English and it’s interesting to see the approach taken by different translators. I felt that The Accusation was handled expertly – any odd phrases felt cultural, rather than a hangover from the translation. There was the odd paragraph here and there that I needed to re-read to fully grasp what was happening, but hey, that’s no different to reading some books originally written in English.
  • The additional information at the end of the book – which details how the manuscript was smuggling out of North Korea – was absolutely fascinating. I’m aware of how the story ended, given I’m holding the book in my hands, but it was packed full of tension regardless.

 

Sum

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“The missing crowds make you lonely. You begin to complain about all the people you could be meeting. But no one listens or sympathizes with you, because this is precisely what you chose when you were alive.”

 

 

Stray Observations:

  • It’s a small but powerful read – there’s plenty of thought experiments here to get your brain going.
  • I found the stories were very much a mixed bag. I couldn’t get quite so interested in the scientific ones but those that hooked me in kept me ruminating on them for some time afterwards.
    • Some were creepy and unsettling, others very funny. I think all of the stories speak of an author with an extraordinary imagination.
  • For such a short book, it felt like it took an age to read. Looking back, I wonder whether it might have been better to dip in and out of the book – one story at a time. Because they are so short, bingeing the book meant adjusting the ‘scene’ every page or so, which is a bit jarring.
    • Despite the stories being unique, the set-up can feel repetitive when reading them all in one go.
    • I think I ought to do the book justice by revisiting it and looking at all the vignettes individually.
  • Many of them appealed to the part of my brain that recalls my Philosophy degree in a positive light! I was all about Ontology, until I very much wasn’t.
    • I wish it had been around when I was studying at that point – it’s exactly the sort of book that bridges the gap between

Dear Mrs Bird

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Stiff upper lips and getting on with things were all very well, but sometimes there was nothing to do but admit that things were quite simply awful.

 

Stray Observations:

  • A sweet and easy read, I hoovered it up pretty quickly on a Sunday afternoon.
  • I’d argue that the plot is pretty predictable, but ultimately in a comforting way – it’s no bad thing by any means.
    • It’s the sort of light-hearted plot – with tragic consequences – which will end up making a lovely slice of British cinema, if done right.
  • Emmeline, the protagonist, is the plucky, spirited soul of the book. I’ve seen some criticisms about The Random Capitalisations in her narration – but I think they are important to highlight her class, intonation and personality. For me, they helped bring her to life – I had a voice for in my head immediately, even if they were occasionally grating to read.
  • Underpinning the narrative are the untold stories of women during the war. In the letters they write to the problem pages, we see a bit more about the reality of family life – beyond the “make do and mend”.
    • Bonus material at the end of the book covers Pearce’s research into the women’s magazines that inspired the book. It’s really important social history and Dear Mrs Bird captures that quite well – from the stories themselves to the actual Mrs Bird’s ludicrous reactions to what was the reality for many women.

The Immortalists

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“She understands, too, the loneliness of parenting, which is the loneliness of memory—to know that she connects a future unknowable to her parents with a past unknowable to her child.”

 

Stray Observations:

  • The strap line for this book is “If you knew the date of your death, how would you live your life?” Therefore I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that death is at the heart of this novel. Don’t read on if you want to go into the book blind – I won’t discuss specifics here but will reflect on some of the plot points!
  • I think Benjamin does a pretty masterful job at keeping the reader wondering whether the characters are making decisions based on this advanced knowledge of their death, or through their own free will. Soon the question of their relationships to one another also fold into the circumstances surrounding their deaths, making the revelation of their passing more complicated.
    • I predicted one of the deaths almost immediately, but this got more difficult the murkier the story became. I would argue that one of the stories is a bit weaker than the others – I had less buy-in to death of that character – but looking back I can see how those circumstances revealed themselves.
  • Because I am a glutton for punishment, I keep seeking out reviews on GoodReads, even when I know they cloud my judgment on a book. Quite a few people seemed to find the book boring, and while I disagree I can sort of see why they might feel that way.
    • I think the reader will get more out of the book by considering the bigger picture as they move throughout the story. It moves from literary fiction, to thriller, to classic tragedy as the story unfolds – by asking yourself why the character is doing something, you do maintain a stronger connection with the book.
  • After reading the book I don’t feel capable of answering the strap line. Some characters live full yet short lives, others long and seemingly repressed. Could those situations have been the inverse if they hadn’t learnt of their death date? Did learning about their future as children have an impact? Could they have altered their fates if they’d known as more rational adults? It’s a set of stories that leave you asking questions, which might be frustrating for some – but would be fantastic for a book group.