Ashley: Station Eleven may not be a spooky Halloween read, but its depiction of the apocalypse—the rapidity with which it descends and the desolation it leaves behind—sent a chill down my spine. I felt particularly frightened in the very beginning, as it describes a new strain of flu becoming a deadly pandemic; after a group of unsuspecting people mourn the death of famed actor Arthur Leander in a bar, we’re told: “Of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city.” From there, the story starts weaving a tale that spans decades—from years before the flu started to 15 years after this mass devastation—with all its characters connected in some way through Arthur.
At its heart, Station Eleven isn’t a story about survival or revealing the evils that arise in dystopias, though the novel touches on those aspects. Rather, Emily St. John Mandel’s novel is a rumination on the importance of art—it follows Arthur’s life as an actor, his first wife’s struggle to create a great graphic novel even though only 10 copies were ever made, and a traveling troupe that most often performs Shakespeare’s plays. It’s a touching contemplation on the highs and lows of the literary and the lowbrow, and what would survive even if most of us didn’t.
Freya: I enjoy a good thriller, especially with Halloween around the corner and everybody itching for a scare. Sharp Objects scratches that itch, or rather, digs deeper into you as you squirm through the gruesome details of a murder-mystery. This is a twisted, disturbing book, yet wildly addicting, and I loved every second of it.
The protagonist, Camille Parker, fresh out of the psych ward, returns to her small Missouri town of Wind Gap to investigate the murders of two young girls found dead with the nails painted and their teeth missing. While staying at her childhood home, Camille is forced to deal with the mother who never loved her and a Lolita-esque 13-year-old half-sister who violently swings from childlike tantrums to sexual promiscuity.
Women so rarely get to play the villain, and that’s what makes Sharp Objects so compelling. We encounter female characters who are complicated, deeply disturbed, and purely evil. As Flynn explains on her website:
“I particularly mourn the lack of female villains — good, potent female villains. Not ill-tempered women who scheme about landing good men and better shoes (as if we had nothing more interesting to war over), not chilly WASP mothers (emotionally distant isn’t necessarily evil), not soapy vixens (merely bitchy doesn’t qualify either). I’m talking violent, wicked women. Scary women. Don’t tell me you don’t know some.”
Alex: What a title for a memoir. Dan Menaker is in great company in framing his life around his “mistakes,” but I didn’t realize it until he used the word “errata” in one of the early chapters. That open reference to the conceit—and the nod to The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin—adds a more complex layer of ironic self-deprecation. It’s hard not to recognize the trick of adopting exaggerated humility in a thinly veiled effort to cast successes in all the more flattering light, as Franklin did. But in borrowing the device so openly, the conceit goes from projecting humility to craftiness to a kind of self-effacing cleverness.
That level of literary layering comes as no surprise when you consider Menaker’s background. From fiction editor at The New Yorker to Executive Editor-in-Chief of Random House, Menaker is about as pedigreed a literary personage as you can find. Amazingly, he still manages to present himself as an outsider, though generally in pretty minor ways—at one point he says “Hi” to Mr. Shawn, the New Yorker’s longtime (and notoriously proper) editor, instead of the expected “Hello.” But Menaker has much to be proud of, and his successes stand out much more than his failures. Nothing shines so much as his love of the written word, though. Whether it’s a bitingly witty account of the personalities that comprise the publishing world or an emotionally riveting contemplation of his brother’s death or his own cancer diagnosis—reflections on mistakes or successes—Menaker’s lovingly crafted prose glimmers through.
The Opposite of Loneliness
Lara: Marina Keegan’s writing will get you in the gut. And it’s not just because you learn early on in The Opposite of Loneliness—Keegan’s first and only book, that she died five days after graduating Magna Cum Laude from Yale. It’s because Keegan’s writing is poignant, honest, and true. In fact, her essay, “Stability in Motion”—about her 1990 Toyota Camry—made me ache, feeling Keegan’s nostalgia, and the memories that lived in the creases of the Camry’s seats. Keegan wrote about how her car, a hand-me-down from her grandmother, became a living, breathing scrapbook of sorts, containing her joy and heartbreak—along with balled-up candy wrappers and the faintness of her grandmother’s long-ago Opium perfume. Keegan’s nine stories and nine essays draw you in with their tangible details and casual flow, and none of them belie Keegan’s age (22), or the fact that she wrote them while in college. Her youthful point of view lends a sort of wide-eyed charm—especially in her essays, yet it also breaks your heart, because it reminds that Keegan’s life was taken too soon.
Keegan’s writing professor, Anne Fadiman helped collect Keegan’s stories and essays, and wrote a moving introduction in which she lovingly details Keegan’s quirks (she’d always lose her keys), and her passion: writing. In fact, all Keegan ever wanted to do was write—and knowing this can sometimes make The Opposite of Loneliness a tough read. But then, the stories are compelling, the characters visceral and round, and the essays ring with Keegan’s belief in “possibilities” we must never forget. If you let yourself just read, and slip away with Keegan, her writing itself can make you forget her senseless death, and remind you of the talent and gift she so passionately wanted to live for.