Saturday, September 10, 2016

Review: Station Eleven

Author: Emily St. John Mandel
Genre: Science fiction, literary fiction, post-apocalyptic
My rating: ★★★★★ (5 of 5 stars)

The last wedge of chocolate you chewed on. The fading flavour of coffee on your tongue. The last note of your favourite song that hung in the air. The creased page of the last book you read. The excited shriek you let out when you caught a virtual creature in a hip game-app. The uneven but beautiful smile of a friend. The soft, persistent kiss of someone you love. The familiar dissonance of the city—the honking of cars, the prattling strangers on the sidewalk during rush hour, the tired sighs of commuters as they wait for the next jam-packed train…

When the world as we know it comes to an end, what would you miss?

How much of the things we have today do we unwittingly take for granted? How much of the inconsequential things do we put so much weight on? How much of these actually matters when we are left with nothing but the actual thing that mattered—our lives?

Emily St. John’s Station Eleven will make you stop in your tracks and contemplate on these questions.

Coming up with an all-encompassing synopsis for the novel is a bit difficult. In essence, it is a post-apocalyptic patchwork of anecdotes, but it does not seem to sound like any of the novels in the genre that hit the shelves recently. It does not have anti-heroines that notice something wrong in the system and spark a revolution; it does not construct Big Brother-esque societies or its Brave New World counterparts, despite the obvious pop culture sensibilities on the subject that linger in it. At its simplest, it depicts the quotidian lives of people before and after the civilization disintegrated—before and after a devastating flu pandemic wiped out more than half the population on the planet.

The novel focuses on The Travelling Symphony, a troupe of theatre artists who have dedicated themselves to keeping the remnants of art and humanity alive by performing in towns. The story leaps back and forth in time and introduces characters outside the troupe that still ties to it via a brush of fate. We meet an actress that managed to safekeep a piece of comic well into wrecked world; an overwrought prophet who believes he is the Messiah; a stranded group of “quarantined” passengers who makes the airport their new home; a frustrated surgeon who perhaps holds the key to slowly re-starting a civilization; and the late Hollywood actor that serves as all these characters’ subtle line of connection.

Alternating the gloomily lyrical with the hopeful, Station Eleven is the kind of novel that leaves glowing imprints on both the mind and the heart of its readers. It lunges into the commercial playpen of “What Happens After the End” that fills today’s bestseller shelves to the brim, but it refuses to be interned in the malignant recycles of what a piece of dystopian literature should be like. It carves a niche of its own and gets its message across with a tone knotting together poetry and prose.
The storytelling, although unconventional enough to bewilder readers in the beginning, unfolds its beauty in a leisurely pace.  Sometimes I stop to reread a few passages, which will then prompt me to look around and realize how fortunate I still am to be experiencing the world we have now.

Since for the most part the novel sews together slice-of-life type of narratives, the story is justifiably not plot-driven. The whole thing is laid out for the readers to experience, thanks of course to Mandel’s excellent world-building. Following the troupe can make you feel like you are part of it, too. You get to feel like you are walking among its members, your skin sun-drenched and your feet sore from being protected only by slippers fashioned from old tires; you clutch your violin or your flute in one hand and knives or guns in the other, knowing that being part of a harsher world forces you to juggle being a creator and a destroyer at the same time. And then there are the idiosyncrasies, the intricate map of overlapping relationships of your dysfunctional family, fractured often by frivolities but pieced back together by your need to be with each other.

(And though I am enamoured with how the troupe was fleshed out, my favourite parts are always with a secondary character who only gets his story told at the latter part of the novel. I enjoyed every bit of his chapters, from the dreamy notions that make him straddle the line between sanity and madness to the way he led the slow rebuilding of their worlds starting from their own corners of the airport.)
It is easy to lose oneself in the novel, with the tone being mostly elegiac and its subject matter with a strong potential to be close to one’s heart. Station Eleven allows you to actually see what’s in front of you and urges you to enjoy these temporary things while they are still there. Shrouded with the melancholy of a poem and the haunting tang of reality, it is arguably one of the most darkly poignant books that celebrate the world as we know it.

In the end, it is a long piece about gratitude…and I’m deeply thankful that I managed to put my hands on this novel.

Five stars for a great read.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Review: My Heart and Other Black Holes

Author: Jasmine Warga
Genre: Young adult
My rating: ★★★★

Poems may get written because of it, songs may pull out their lyrics from it, and stories may be born from its dark womb, but there is irrefutably nothing beautiful about depression. It is not your garden-variety sadness; it is an ugly monster seeking shelter inside you, consuming all the happiness it can find there and eating up a bit more of you until you feel like an empty husk. It attaches itself to you like an additional vital organ, one that pumps away hollowness into your veins. It makes each day too hard to meet, and makes even the thought of smiling feel like a demanding chore. Ultimately, it can urge you to believe that dying—suicide—is a better alternative than living.

While it is established that depression and/or suicide are not pretty things, it still gets to be the bleak little muse of many of today’s YA bestsellers. The steady stream of these books hangs onto the twisted trend “depression is the new vampire”, though fortunately for us, many authors treated the subjects responsibly. I have not read a lot of them, but I think I have tasted enough in Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why, Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story, and Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, to name a few. I distanced myself from the YA shelves for a while when it started to get too bandwagon-y, but I gave them a shot again through Jasmine Warga’s My Heart and Other Blackholes. I am glad I did.

The story follows sixteen-year-old physics nerd Aysel Seran who, after her father committed a crime that rocked her small town, has developed a morbid little hobby: plotting her own death. Her problem is that she is not brave enough to do it alone. So when she finds a website with a section called Suicide Partners, she is convinced she has found the solution—Roman, a teenage boy haunted by a family tragedy, is also looking for a partner.

The two then start a suicide pact, inadvertently forming a bond that is grounded on their own deaths. They even set a date. But when the countdown starts and their remaining days alive deplete, Aysel begins doubting if they should go through their plan at all. She must decide if she will go on to take the plunge with him or try to make Roman see the will to live and consider their potential energy together.

Unapologetically moving and largely cerebral, My Heart and Other Black Holes is a story that wears depression as a gloomy overcoat but conceals a warm, enormous heart beneath it. I love how the dreary tone of narration is sharpened by piercing honesty yet softened at times with bursts of hope and humour (which, to my surprise, is not always of the gallows kind).

I liked how the author laid out two kinds of depression side by side and gently picked out the differences through the behaviour of the main characters. Aysel and Roman acknowledge that their depression are two different beasts, and they learn to understand each other’s damage without judgment. Their interactions are hard to not like, from their teasing to their understandably dark heart-to-hearts. They seem so natural, and I attribute it to Aysel being an honest narrator.

The plot is not really unique; even the synopsis at the back of the book speaks of an ending that is a predictable non-secret (the keyword is “transformative love”, which in turn dictated the carrying theme of the book). And even without that, the ending is something you can smell from a mile away, so yes: this is a tale of a damsel-in-distress and a bachelor-in-a-binder who chose to be accomplices to each other’s destruction but somehow ended up saving each other.

To be fair, the book hints of this perspective too. The whole “you saved me” theme is more underscored in Aysel’s case so it is not easy to see, but squint and you will perceive it in the case of Roman. Even if in the end he feels the same way for Aysel, he still thinks the world is a pretty dreary world to live in. He will need counselling, he will need people to talk to, and he will need to fight the urge to give in to the lure of ending his own suffering. The author is not sugarcoating that.

Now, we get to where I think the novel gets a not-so-little faux pas. Personally, I think depression is not something that romance can easily scoop you out of; it is something that you have to individually grapple with and may take years—eternities—to win against. Talking to other people may help, but the battle is still with you. Nobody can slay the monster inside you but yourself.

Somehow, though, I am grateful that the ending has a hopeful note…if only for the benefit of the depressed souls who may choose to pick this up. However, I reiterate that this may still give the false idea that love alone can magically cure depression. I half-hoped that the author would choose not to go down that way, that romance will not be the sole reason for the choice for survival, but I guess we're still in the YA section after all?

Looking at it another way, Aysel did need someone to enlighten her about what she is going through, though it must be noted that she stood up against the "black slug" living inside her on her own volition. She and Roman started off as friends, and I could attest to how friendship can work wonders to your well-being and mental health. I liked how the author toyed with the notion that the two characters are still fumbling with the idea of romance between them; there is a part near the end where Aysel admitted that she is in love with Roman, and backpedaled with a subtle remark about how he might think she was misusing the term. It gives an "are we or are we not" vibe to the whole thing between them, even though the readers may roll their eyes if we ever deny that the author is not waving the "romance" neon lights. I still wished they stayed friends, though. It could have had a bigger impact.

Lastly, I think the novel could have been so much better with an epilogue. After all, Aysel did have a life before Roman came into the picture. There is the lingering question about her father (I stopped questioning it when I thought she was not really in a hurry because she would not take the plunge at all; I also totally see how this was a way for our girl and her mother to reconnect, but STILL),about her siblings, and about everything else that have made her spiral down into depression in the first place. That may be a lot to cram in an epilogue, but taking a peek into the future would have been nice.

Despite its obvious flaws, I would still say I liked this novel. It is a story of two people with a knowledge that their pains are fingerprint-like in their uniqueness, but know that it would not stop them from being each other’s crutch. It is a story of two damaged souls who learned not only to navigate but also fill the cracks of each other’s brokenness. It is a story of acknowledging that you have to save yourself before you can save somebody else. And more importantly, it is a story about living more than dying.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Review: Bone Gap

Author: Laura Ruby
Genre: Magical realism, contemporary, young adult
My rating: ★★★★ 

“The face that the world sees is never the sum of who we are.” I was thumbing the blurb’s print on the roughish dust jacket of Bone Gap when my fingertips stopped at this line, the last one dangling at the end. It struck a chord with me. Lately I was contemplating about appearances, about the metaphorical masks we put on when we bottle up feelings or when we don’t want the society to judge us for who we really are. With its ambiguous synopsis, would the book be able to quench my curiosity?
It did, but in a way I did not expect.

The story unfolds in the small town of Bone Gap, which couldn’t have been more aptly named. Patched together by sleepy cornfields, neighbourly bonds, and gossips with little to no drop of truth in them, the Midwestern farm town is full of gaps—instances and realizations where people could just slip into when they think they no longer want to be part of the town. Brothers Finn and Sean O’ Sullivan, for instance, have been orphaned twice, first when their mother hightailed it to Oregon with a new man and second when the inexplicably beautiful Roza disappeared from their lives.

The town did not think anything is amiss with Roza’s disappearance, as they are used to people leaving them. But eighteen-year-old Finn knows Roza did not leave on her volition; he saw her being kidnapped by a man whose face he could not quite describe. Since he could only identify the man by the way he moves—“like a cornstalk in the wind”—the police and the people of Bone Gap starts doubting him, even believing that he has helped Roza go away. Finn could handle that. What he could not is when his brother Sean seems to side with the town…which is not really that surprising, since Sean has given his heart to Roza the night the mysterious girl appeared in their barn after escaping an unknown evil.

In a series of events that marries dream and reality, the readers are introduced in a world awash with mystery and magical realism. I love how the story cradles Easter eggs lifted from the pages of D’Aulaires’ Greek Myths, with the starker ones pointing to the tale of Persephone and Demeter. The prose, which bears the beauty of lyricism and the subtlety of poetry, are helpful in binding the different realities of the novel together. I initially did not know that the book is tinged with fantasy, which is why it took me by surprise when the magic in it turns out to be not merely metaphor but real magic. It was a nice touch, especially when you get to pick out the references to other literature.
Most of the characters are indelibly endearing. Finn, who earns the nicknames Moonface, Sidetrack, and Spaceman for always seemingly drifting and not looking anyone in the eye, is a precious character whose development throughout the novel is palpable. I love how his “distractedness” became also useful in making the third-person POV a little unreliable. This makes the chapters enchanting to read, with essential twists at every turn.

The novel also dips its edges into romance, but not of the cloying, sweet kind. Pretty boy Finn finds himself uncontrollably enamoured with Petey, the feisty and not-so-pretty bee-eyed daughter of the town’s beekeeper (much to the bafflement of the whole Bone Gap, of course). A heart-aching revelation explains this unconventional attraction, but headstrong Finn refuses to back down. His love for Petey is real, no matter what.

Fairytales drop by here, too, but in a style that reverses their Disneyfied formula. Whereas the traditional ones include poor, pretty girls in the dirt who get swept up and brought to castles to live the life of princesses, the one we have with Bone Gap includes a poor, pretty girl who actually enjoys working in the dirt and is not interested in a living in a castle with you, thank you very much. Stockholm syndrome is eschewed here in the process.

Unfortunately, the poor, pretty girl in question—Roza—shapes up to become the story’s Mary Sue. She is beautiful to a fault, charming enough to captivate the whole town (and basically everyone she gets in contact with, including otherworldly abductors), and in possession of little “flaws” that are not flaws at all. In other words, our little Polish girl is just too good to be true. I believe that with more believable imperfections (and a bit more of personality development), she could have been more humanized.

But over all, the story is still good; it is up there with my “most unputdownable” list. It dissects what real heroism is—should it should always involve brawn and good looks, of Knight-in-Shining-Armour treatment, of definite hubris on the sides of saviourism? Or is it enough to have bravery and steadfast belief in the midst of doubters and critics, of a good heart beaten by disquiet but unbeaten by hopelessness?  Here, the princess did not get saved by her prince, but by another young man with a disability he did not know and a need to get himself a family again. Here, the prince shuts off the world and retreats inside himself to brood and simmer in stoicism. Here, a not-so-pretty maiden gets her heart broken by a love that she thought made her beautiful, only to be washed away by a reality that sneakily hid itself in masks. Here, we are reminded that true love does not require seeing what others could, if it could already see what it needed to in order to remain alive.

Four stars for an amazing read.