Mystery

Reader’s Journal: Norwegian by Night

Norwegian by NightAt the age of 82, Sheldon Horowitz has been transplanted from Manhattan to Oslo, Norway. Sheldon’s granddaughter Rhea brings Sheldon to Oslo to live with her and her husband Lars after the death of her grandmother, Mabel. Rhea believes, as did the late Mabel, that Sheldon is suffering from dementia that started when his son Saul (Rhea’s father) was killed in Vietnam in in 1975 and has slowly continued to worsen over the years. Sheldon insists, for example, that he was a Marine sniper during the Korean War, rather than the file clerk they believed him to be, and he continues to see the enemy everywhere—around corners, behind trees. He thinks they are always watching, waiting to get revenge.

But the truth is more complicated than that. And that sentence, in fact, could sum up this entirely wonderful, perfectly paced thriller, Norwegian by Night. Sheldon is hapless and guilty. He believes he owes American his allegiance for helping to liberate Europe from the Nazis. As a young Jewish American, he was too young to join the war against the Nazis, so instead he volunteered during the Korean War, joining the Marines. When Saul joins the Navy and heads off to Vietnam, Sheldon is proud of his patriotism, but when Saul returns from his first tour of duty physically unharmed but mentally distressed and wanting to talk about the horrors he experienced, Sheldon tells him to set it behind him and move on with his life. Saul signs on for a second tour and is killed shortly after returning to Vietnam, and Sheldon believes he is responsible for his own son’s death.

But the truth is more complicated than that. One afternoon when Rhea and Lars are out of the apartment and Sheldon is home alone, he hears a violent altercation between a man and a woman in an upstairs apartment. The argument escalates, and he hears the woman leave the apartment. Peering out the peephole in the front door, he sees the woman stop. In his mind, he faces a test: will he refuse entry for someone who has nowhere else to go? Will he sit silently behind the door the way so many Europeans did when they knew their Jewish neighbors and friends needed a place to hide? Sheldon’s actions will send him on a tour of Norway with a small boy in tow.

But the truth is more complicated than that. The man, Enver, who was involved in the altercation is the boy’s father. He’s a refugee from Kosovo, where he fought bravely and brutally against the Serbs for independence. With the war ended and the Kosovo freed, he wants to take his son and return to his home. He’ll stop at nothing. As he pursues Sheldon and the boy, Enver is pursued by Sigrid, a Police Chief Inspector for her district in Oslo.

But the truth is…Okay, I’ll stop doing that. But. The truth is this story is humorous and sweet, melancholy and tragic, fast-paced and thrilling. Derek B. Miller masterfully navigates this third-person narrative told from alternating points of view, presenting at one time a novel that’s both personal and political. The weight of history—family history, national history, religious history—weighs on every character, informs every action. The pride and loneliness of people who are forced to wander, the way they carry their stories and the stories of the people they love, are at the center of this beautiful novel. I long to tell you more, but I don’t want to spoil it. Miller has done such a terrific job at revealing details that move the story forward at just the right moments that to know too much could spoil the pleasure in turning the page. I had a tough time putting it down, and I hope that you will, too.

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January Reading Wrap-Up

Over the last few years, January has been one of my better months for blogging. This year, even though I’ve been reading steadily, the idea of sitting down and writing about books has seemed kind of pointless. Many other book bloggers have expressed this same anxiety and heart-heaviness and wonder about the use of it all, so I know I’m not alone. For myself, I find avoiding Twitter and Facebook helps. For a while scrolling and scrolling made me feel connected, but it started to take on a life of its own, and I’d reach the end of the day with nothing accomplished—no work, no exercise, nothing. The only reason I read as much as I did was because I made it a point to get up in the morning and NOT to look at any headlines or social media but to open my book instead.

Alys, AlwaysI picked up Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl on New Year’s Eve and finished it quickly. You can read my thoughts about it here, or you can just trust me when I say I highly recommend it and you should get to it sooner rather than later. I’m doing the TBR Dare again this year, but in December I had also put a bunch of books on hold at the library that came available that first week of January: Version Control by Dexter Palmer, Tomorrow Will Be Different by Maria Semple, The Summer That Melted Everything by Tiffany McDaniel, and Alys, Always by Harriet Lane. The only one I managed to read was Alys, Always. It’s a dark little book, with a wry, somewhat sociopathic heroine who carefully inserts herself into the lives of a famous writer and his family after she witnesses a tragic accident. I tried with all the others, but I just wasn’t hooked and decided not to force it.

Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of PunkInstead, I moved on to Please Kill Me: The Uncensored History of Punk by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain. I’ve always liked punk rock (you would never know it to look at me, now or then), the raw energy and the cheek of it. Please Kill Me focuses primarily on the New York scene, which was heavily influenced by The Velvet Underground, but also by the MC5 and Iggy Pop and the Stooges out of Detroit. It’s basically an anthology of collected interviews with people on the scene (including Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, David Johansen of the New York Dolls, the Ramones, Debbie Harry, Richard Hell from Television, along with artists and journalists and other folks on the scene), arranged chronologically and by topic. It was interesting to read this book from a sociological standpoint at this point in time. The rise of punk followed the decline of utopian hippie idealism and the rise of economic instability. A lot of these kids were blue collar; they were disillusioned and disaffected. Very few of them had any musical training at all. Serious drug addiction, especially heroin addiction, was rampant. I think if you transported a lot of these people into the here and now, they would be like a lot of people who voted in our current president: angry and overlooked, with a lot of uncertainty about the country. They saw no easy future, they saw their friends dying in Vietnam, they saw all the institutions they had previously trusted as corrupt. That said, the music wasn’t a political statement—it was an escape, and in a weird way a highly romantic one at that. If you’re not familiar with much punk music, or at least the kind coming out of New York in the early 1970s, you might not know how much of it was influenced by the rock and roll of the late 1950s and the early 1960s. They hated all the commercial, progressive rock, the long guitar solos, the post-hippie syrup. In a lot of ways they were children. The one thing they all agreed on: Patti Smith was the real deal, the true queen of punk, always true to herself and her vision (and for the record, not a drug addict). If you’re interested in music history at all, it’s an interesting read, and it’s amazing to consider their influence all these years later. So many of them died too young, some long before they got to understand what a profound influence they had.

What with Please Kill Me and all the bad news in my Twitter feed, I decided next I needed something light to read, so I picked up the first book in Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series, Still Life. I found it well-paced, smart, and surprisingly funny. I don’t often commit to reading series, but as soon as the TBR Dare is over I’m putting these on hold at the library. Brain candy, with all-natural ingredients.

The Atomic Weight of LoveAfter Still Life, I picked up The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church. Not going to kid you, the cover attracted me. It’s the story of a woman who marries a scientist involved in the Manhattan project, and how his life takes over her own plans and ambitions, and how she finds love and life in Los Alamos. Overall I really enjoyed it. The writing was beautiful, although I had some weird quibbles with it while I was reading that I had ultimately let go by the end. For one thing, the main character, Meri, goes to the University of Chicago to study science, but all of the conversations she has with her professor and things she thinks about come across as elementary. Another strange quirk I noticed was that almost all the female characters were described in terms of their weight (“ a red-headed woman with a thickened waist”; “Anorexic Peggy Hilson dressed only in Beatnik black”; “the crisp presentation of the fat-free stewardesses”). Silly things, I know, but sometimes it’s like having a tiny rock in your shoe, one that’s not really worth it to dig out but bothers you from time to time just the same.

Most recently I started reading a book a publisher sent me back in 2010 (ouch) called Power Trip: From Oil Wells to Solar Cells–Our Ride to the Renewable Future. I’m sorry I didn’t read it sooner, because the author Amanda Little takes a close look at how incredibly dependent we are on petroleum products and what sort of alternative energy sources might help us break that dependence. It’s crazy to think, but some of the book is already dated (the Nissan Leaf and the Tesla were not then on the market, for example). On the other hand, since we’re about to see massive deregulation and drilling and fracking…well, I’m just going to stop here. This one really deserves its own post.

And finally, I had a few more books on my hold list come up at the library: Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, which I’m reading now, and The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson, about the migration of black Americans from the South to North from 1915 to 1970, which I plan to read next. After that I may pick up more non-fiction, because it’s just seemed more appealing lately, but we’ll see.

Wow, that was a long one! Going forward I’ll manage all this through individual posts or a weekly wrap-up. Stay safe out there, stay strong, #resist, and tell me what you’re reading!

Ten Books I Picked up on a Whim (Or Every Book I Ever Picked Up, Ever)

The thing about being a reader who has a (mostly neglected) book blog and a Twitter account where I follow all sorts of bookish accounts (book bloggers, critics, authors, publishers) is that it’s very, very difficult to avoid being influenced in some way when it comes to what I read. Everything on my TBR is something I’ve seen recommended somewhere else, however fleeting the recommendation might be. But almost everything I buy or pick up next is based on a whim (well, a whim based on a list). I rarely plan or schedule or commit (as evidenced by the blog) to anything except the very few authors whose books I will pre-order without question (Alice Munro, Tana French, Donna Tartt, and so on and so forth), and even the arrival of one of these titles doesn’t guarantee it will be my automatic choice for what to read next. Couple this tendency with my willingness to set any book aside that doesn’t grip me at the moment, and you can see, whim is where I live.

Let’s face it: I’m a freewheeling reader. Perhaps I should consider changing the blog name.

Instead of listing every book on my shelf (because that would be way more than 10), for today’s Top Ten Tuesday (hosted by The Broke and the Bookish), I thought I’d list the last ten books I bought, and the reason why (if I can remember it). Here goes:

Late One Night

Late One Night, Lee Martin. You may or may not have heard me sing the praises of Martin’s Pulitzer-nominated novel, The Bright Forever. Martin has a way with quiet moments in small-town America that renders them both universal and unforgettable.

Mongrels

Mongrels, Stephen Graham Jones. Okay, I’m not even going to pretend that horror is up my alley, or that I’m very well-versed in werewolf tales much beyond An American Werewolf in London. I read Jones’s Not for Nothing back in 2014, and let’s just say he has a way with story that makes me think this will be one of those genre-busting books for hardcore horror and literary fiction fans alike.

Mr. Splitfoot

Mr. Splitfoot, Samantha Hunt. It was on my TBR, and it was on sale for $2.99 on Kindle. That said, I don’t purchase every book on my TBR that comes up for sale, and I have to say this one was going to end up in my hands one way or another. It just sounds too deliciously unusual to ignore.

Wilde Lake

Wilde Lake, Laura Lippman. I have at least three unread Laura Lippman titles that I could have picked up to read, but instead I had to have Wilde Lake. Why? I read an interview where she mentioned that someone at a reading asked a question about her choice to write the book in alternating first and third person. I’ve been thinking a lot about novelistic structure lately and was so intrigued I felt like I had to read it. Right. Now. So I bought it and I read it and I still don’t know the answer to that question….but this is probably the best Lippman I’ve read, maybe ever.

Into the Darkest Corner

Into the Darkest Corner, Elizabeth Haynes. One of you told me to check out Elizabeth Haynes. It was Wendy at Musings of a Bookish Kitty, as a matter of fact! And this one was on sale and occasionally I do what I am told, so I bought it and will be checking it out. Eventually.

The Round House

The Round House, Louise Erdrich. I have been meaning to read this book for ages. Every time I read an interview with her, I am left with the feeling that I want to read all of her books. Maybe someday I will.

The Circular Staircase

The Circular Staircase, Mary Roberts Rinehart. Sarah Waters said this was one of her influences for writing The Little Stranger. Oh, when are we getting new Sarah Waters?

During the Reign of the Queen of Persia

During the Reign of the Queen of Persia, Joan Chase. Okay, rare instance where I cannot remember where I heard about a book, but it was one of those “I have to have this NOW” purchases through Better World Books. And of course I haven’t read it yet, but I hope to, very soon.

Wild Life

Wild Life, Molly Gloss. Because I loved The Jump-Off Creek, and also was interested in reading more books set in the American West just after I finished Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose.

The Last Child

The Last Child, John Hart. Um…I can’t remember why I bought this. Another used purchase from Better World Books. I have three of Hart’s titles on my TBR wishlist, so I picked one at random. Ta DAH!

So there you have it. What about you: do you plan your purchases? Is reading on a whim unusual for you?

If Books Were Wishes: 10 Recent Adds to the TBR

For today’s Top Ten (hosted by The Broke and the Bookish), we’ve all been asked to list the top ten recent additions to our TBR queue. Now I don’t know about you, but I have two TBR queues, really: one for books I want to read, and one for books I own, but because I don’t automatically read books as I buy them (because that would just make sense), today I’m going with a sample of books I recently added to my wishlist over the last couple of months. Some of those books were in my Top Ten post last week (2015 books I missed), so I’m not going to repeat those here. Instead, you get a fresh, shiny new list! I’ve compiled these from my Goodreads To-Read list and my Amazon Wishlist. (I’m slowly trying to move my wishlist over to Goodreads, but there are over 400 books on that list, so…yeah.)

Girl Waits with GunGirl Waits with Gun, Amy Stewart. I’ve heard so many great things about this book, and I find the description really charming. “Constance Kopp doesn’t quite fit the mold. She towers over most men, has no interest in marriage or domestic affairs, and has been isolated from the world since a family secret sent her and her sisters into hiding fifteen years ago. One day a belligerent and powerful silk factory owner runs down their buggy, and a dispute over damages turns into a war of bricks, bullets, and threats as he unleashes his gang on their family farm. When the sheriff enlists her help in convicting the men, Constance is forced to confront her past and defend her family — and she does it in a way that few women of 1914 would have dared.”

DocDoc, Mary Doria Russell. Because you all know I am a sucker for Westerns. I can’t believe I didn’t know anything about this book (or its follow-up, Epitaph) until a week ago. “Born to the life of a Southern gentleman, Dr. John Henry Holliday arrives on the Texas frontier hoping that the dry air and sunshine of the West will restore him to health. Soon, with few job prospects, Doc Holliday is gambling professionally with his partner, Mária Katarina Harony, a high-strung, classically educated Hungarian whore. In search of high-stakes poker, the couple hits the saloons of Dodge City. And that is where the unlikely friendship of Doc Holliday and a fearless lawman named Wyatt Earp begins–before the gunfight at the O.K. Corral links their names forever in American frontier mythology when neither man wanted fame or deserved notoriety.”

The Kind Worth KillingThe Kind Worth Killing, Peter Swanson. Got to have a great thriller on the list! It amazes me that ten years ago, I never would have even looked at some of the books that have become favorites of mine, just because they weren’t “literary fiction.” “On a night flight from London to Boston, Ted Severson meets the mysterious Lily Kintner. Sharing one too many martinis, the strangers begin to play a game of truth, revealing intimate details about themselves. Ted talks about his marriage and his wife Miranda, who he’s sure is cheating on him. But their game turns dark when Ted jokes that he could kill Miranda for what she’s done. Lily, without missing a beat, says calmly, ‘I’d like to help.'”

Crossing to SafetyCrossing to Safety, Wallace Stegner. I own Angle of Repose and read about a third of it many years ago. I don’t know why I put it down, but I’d love to read both of these books this year. “Called a ‘magnificently crafted story . . . brimming with wisdom’ by Howard Frank Mosher in The Washington Post Book World, Crossing to Safety has, since its publication in 1987, established itself as one of the greatest and most cherished American novels of the twentieth century. Tracing the lives, loves, and aspirations of two couples who move between Vermont and Wisconsin, it is a work of quiet majesty, deep compassion, and powerful insight into the alchemy of friendship and marriage.”

The Silkworm (Cormoran Strike, #2)The Silkworm, Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling). I read The Cuckoo’s Calling in December and enjoyed it so much that I added this and Career of Evil to the TBR instantly. Fun fact: that was my first Rowling. Does it count? “When novelist Owen Quine goes missing, his wife calls in private detective Cormoran Strike. At first, Mrs. Quine just thinks her husband has gone off by himself for a few days—as he has done before—and she wants Strike to find him and bring him home.”

 

The Tsar of Love and TechnoThe Tsar of Love and Techno, Anthony Marra. This could have easily gone on last week’s list, too. I haven’t heard a bad word about it, and I’ve also had his novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, on my TBR since it was published. Oy. ” A 1930s Soviet censor painstakingly corrects offending photographs, deep underneath Leningrad, bewitched by the image of a disgraced prima ballerina. A chorus of women recount their stories and those of their grandmothers, former gulag prisoners who settled their Siberian mining town. Two pairs of brothers share a fierce, protective love. Young men across the former USSR face violence at home and in the military. And great sacrifices are made in the name of an oil landscape unremarkable except for the almost incomprehensibly peaceful past it depicts.”

Days of AweDays of Awe, Lauren Fox. Honestly, from the description, this doesn’t sound like a book I would pick, because it seems justthisside of chick lit. I’ve read so many compelling reviews, though, I thought I should give it a chance. “Only a year ago Isabel Moore was married, the object of adoration of her ten-year-old daughter, and thought she knew everything about her wild, extravagant, beloved best friend, Josie. But in that one short year: her husband moved out and rented his own apartment; her daughter grew into a moody insomniac; and Josie — impulsive, funny, secretive Josie — was killed behind the wheel in a single-car accident. As Isabel tries to make sense of this shattering loss and unravel the months leading up to Josie’s death, she comes to understand the shifts, large and small, that can upend a friendship and an entire life.”

OreoOreo, Fran Ross. I had never heard of this re-issued novel (originally published in the early 1970s) until I saw it on the Tournament of Books list. I’m interested because it was written so close to both the Civil Rights and the Women’s Rights movements, but then is also written to recall Greek mythology. “Oreo is raised by her maternal grandparents in Philadelphia. Her black mother tours with a theatrical troupe, and her Jewish deadbeat dad disappeared when she was an infant, leaving behind a mysterious note that triggers her quest to find him. What ensues is a playful, modernized parody of the classical odyssey of Theseus with a feminist twist, immersed in seventies pop culture, and mixing standard English, black vernacular, and Yiddish with wisecracking aplomb. Oreo, our young hero, navigates the labyrinth of sound studios and brothels and subway tunnels in Manhattan, seeking to claim her birthright while unwittingly experiencing and triggering a mythic journey of self-discovery like no other.”

Watch Me GoWatch Me Go, Mark Wisniewski. Some modern noir for the list. “Douglas “Deesh” Sharp has managed to stay out of trouble living in the Bronx, paying his rent by hauling junk for cash. But on the morning Deesh and two pals head upstate to dispose of a sealed oil drum whose contents smell and weigh enough to contain a human corpse, he becomes mixed up in a serious crime. When his plans for escape spiral terribly out of control, Deesh quickly finds himself a victim of betrayal—and the prime suspect in the murders of three white men. When Jan, a young jockey from the gritty underworld of the Finger Lakes racetrack breaks her silence about gambling and organized crime, Deesh learns how the story of her past might, against all odds, free him from a life behind bars.”

The Sparrow (The Sparrow, #1)The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell. Yes, another book from Russell, but this one completely different. I have heard so many people sing this book’s praises that I decided I have to find out what it’s all about. Of everything on this list, this is the one I am most likely to request at the library in April, after my three-month exile. “In 2019, humanity finally finds proof of extraterrestrial life when a listening post in Puerto Rico picks up exquisite singing from a planet that will come to be known as Rakhat. While United Nations diplomats endlessly debate a possible first contact mission, the Society of Jesus quietly organizes an eight-person scientific expedition of its own. What the Jesuits find is a world so beyond comprehension that it will lead them to question what it means to be human.”

Your turn! Have you read any of these books? Do you have any of them on your TBR—or will you be adding them now? Happy reading!

Reader’s Journal: The Girl on the Train

The Girl on the TrainMy first book of the year for 2015 was going to be The Girl on the Train. I had pre-ordered it in the fall of 2014 in great anticipation because it was getting such terrific early notices. This was before all the (highly inaccurate) Gone Girl comparisons. Taken alone, the book’s description sounded interesting. Taken alone, the book is actually pretty good, something I had to wait until now to find out.

By the beginning of January 2015, it seemed that everyone was reading/had read this book, and most of the reviews were raves. By the end of January, the backlash had already started, and most of the reviews were duds. I decided to wait for the air to (mostly) clear. I’m glad I did.

I’ll admit that I originally gave The Girl on the Train an enthusiastic four stars right after I finished reading it. I was pleasantly surprised by the novel, but I think I also felt a bit defensive, because someone else in my feed on the same day gave it two stars and called it a dud…yet again, in comparison to Gone Girl. Let’s go ahead and set the record straight: The Girl on the Train isn’t anything like Gone Girl. Every book with an unreliable narrator (and there are plenty of them—for example, Michelle Huneven’s Blame, about a woman who blacks out and wakes up in jail only to learn that she’s killed two people in an accident of which she has no memory…and then years later learns the truth) isn’t Gone Girl, doesn’t have to be Gone Girl. Every female writing a thriller doesn’t have to try to be Gillian Flynn. That they might want to be Gillian Flynn is another issue for another time, but honestly, I don’t think Paula Hawkins wants to be. Her book is her own.

Rachel Watson is 34. She has a serious drinking problem. She’s lost everything in her life that mattered to her, including her husband Tom. Riding the train into London every morning and evening, she catches a glimpse of a couple she calls Jason and Jess. She idealizes their relationship, until one day she sees Jess with another man. And then soon after, Jess—whose real name, Rachel learns, is Megan Hipwell—goes missing, and Rachel suddenly believes she needs to find out what happened to Megan.

To complicate matters, Jess and Jason—or Megan and Scott—live four doors down from where Rachel’s ex-husband Tom lives with his new wife, Anna, and their two-year-old daughter. Rachel still loves Tom, and many of her feelings about Megan and Scott are tied up in her continued obsession over Tom. All of this comes together in interesting ways…at least when the story belongs to Rachel. The book shifts points of view, from Rachel in the present, to Megan in the year leading up to her disappearance, and then back to Anna in the present. If the novel has a weakness, it isn’t so much the shifting POV as the fact that Megan is so uncompelling as a character. As a character, to the reader, she’s dull as hell. What keeps things interesting is that we see the real Megan juxtaposed with the person Rachel imagines her to be, and the same is true of Anna (who also has interesting views on Rachel). Rachel, on the other hand, even though she’s a sad sack, she’s an interesting sad sack. Her bad decisions were frustrating, but I liked her enough to keep rooting for her. I’ll admit, I may have liked her so much because I know Emily Blunt is playing her in the film, and Emily Blunt could be charming just reading the dollar menu at Taco Bell. She’s who I heard and pictured as Rachel, so it will be interesting to see how she brings her to life on screen, and if she stays likable for me (Rachel, that is).

The mystery overall was only okay, but I do think Hawkins did a good job of offering up a lot of possibilities for how things might have gone that keep the reader guessing. The mystery piece relies completely on Rachel’s faulty memories of the past, and sometimes she has nothing more to go on than gut feeling. She’s unreliable and she doesn’t even trust herself. I wasn’t sure how things would go until the last quarter of the book, but then I’m also not someone who likes to guess. In this case the point was to stick with Rachel and let things unfold as her memories returned, and so I suspended judgement and followed her. This is a pet peeve of mine, people who need to prove they are smarter than the books they read. I always suspend disbelief for as long as possible if the writing is good enough. Otherwise, what’s the point of reading? To criticize?

If anything, The Girl on the Train reminded me of a really, really dark Bridget Jones’ Diary, if Bridget’s drinking had got out of control and she’d lost Mark Darcy to another woman and had a mystery to solve. After a few days, my view has tempered somewhat, and I have knocked my rating down from four stars to three. All in all, I found The Girl on the Train to be a well-paced, solidly entertaining novel with a compelling main character. I’m looking forward to see what they do with the movie.

Strange Things Are Afoot in Area X

Annihilation (Southern Reach, #1)I have never read anything quite like Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation, the first book in the Southern Reach Trilogy.

A psychologist, a linguist, an anthropologist, a surveyor, and a biologist all walk into a bar. Okay, not a bar, but a place called Area X, beyond the border of civilization, where thirty years before, something bad happened. Okay, scrap the linguist, because she never even actually makes an appearance. So.

Let’s start over: A psychologist, an anthropologist, a surveyor, and a biologist–all women, by the way–walk into Area X, a place beyond the border of civilization, where thirty years before, a bad thing (or bad things) happened. Area X is completely uninhabited by humans (um, kinda), occupied only by flora and fauna. What signs of human life remain are being slowly reclaimed by nature (or something resembling nature), with the exceptions of a lighthouse and a 60-foot cement circular platform that the the expedition stumbles across on their fourth day. I should also add that at dusk and on through the night, there’s a mysterious moaning that seems to come from….everywhere.

At the north edge of the platform, there are stairs leading down into darkness. The psychologist, the anthropologist, and the surveyor call this place “the tunnel.” The biologist, who also happens to be the first-person narrator of this account, calls it “the tower”:

At first, I only saw it as a tower. I don’t know why the word tower came to me, given that it tunneled into the ground. I could as easily have considered it a bunker or a submerged building.

Their expedition, sponsored by the Southern Reach (also known as Control), is the twelfth expedition into Area X. The first three were such failures (more bad things: “We knew that the members of the second expedition to Area X had committed suicide by gunshot and members of the third had shot each other.”) that for a time the expeditions were abandoned altogether. But Control has a need to understand what is happening in Area X, as the border is slowly encroaching on civilization. All of the expeditions continue to be failures of a sort, with members dying, drifting off, or returning home without warning only to die of disease not long after.

Or so we’re being told. For the biologist is almost completely unreliable, which we begin to understand right from the beginning:

The reasons I had volunteered were very separate from my qualifications for the expedition. I believe I qualified because I specialized in transitional environments, and this particular location transitioned several times, meaning it was home to a complexity of ecosystems.

Notice how she makes the distinction between why is she is qualified to go and why she actually goes, which we only learn slowly, through bits and pieces. She is almost coy:

I understood why no one lived in Area X now, that it was pristine because of that reason, but I kept un-remembering it. I had decided instead to make beleive that it was simply a protected wildlife refuge, and we were hikers who happened to be scientists.

Not forgetting, but “un-remembering.” As it turns out, what she is trying to “un-remember” has everything to do with why she has actually embarked upon the expedition. But there are more sinister reasons for her unreliability. For one thing, she realizes that she was probably hypnotized or otherwise mentally compromised during her training for the expedition. For another, when she finally enters the tunnel/tower, something happens to her there that affects her perception (or really, her experience) of reality.

Because of course they go into the tunnel/tower. How could they not? And of course they find something:

At about shoulder height, perhaps five feet high, clinging to the inner wall of the tower, I saw what I first took to be dimly sparkling green vines progressing down into the darkness. I had the sudden absurd memory of the floral wallpaper treatment that had lined the bathroom of my house when I had shared it with my husband. Then, as I stared, the “vines” resolved further, and I saw that they were words, in cursive, the letters raised about six inches off the wall.

In as calm a voice I could manage, aware of the importance of that moment, I read from the beginning, aloud: “Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms that…”
Then the darkness took it.
“Words? Words?” the anthropologist said.
Yes, words.
“What are they made of?” the surveyor asked. Did they need to be made of anything?

And let me interrupt this sort of plot synopsis to say that when I saw the words (the writing on the wall, that is), I was seriously worried that later on in the book we’d get pages of italicized gobbledygook to try and decipher. Lame. Luckily, Vandermeer is too good of a writer, and too in control of his story, to let that happen. And so there we are, in the tunnel, mysterious words made out of some organic material, and the four of them will surface again, but of course not all of them will survive.

And I am saying “of course” a lot because many elements of this novel are conventional, maybe even cliché. But you know how they say that having a strict routine can actually give you more freedom to do the things you want to do? That’s sort of how Vandermeer works some of these traditional science-fiction/thriller conventions or tropes in Annihilation, by using them quite skillfully to leave space in our brains for everything else that’s going to happen, which feels like a lot and nothing at the same time.

In fact, while I was reading Annihilation, I started thinking about that Procol Harum song, “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” Although the band has been pretty straightforward in sharing the song’s origins, people have continued to debate about what the lyrics mean, or whether they mean anything at all. Keith Reid, who wrote the lyrics to that 1967 hit, said, “I had the phrase ‘a whiter shade of pale,’ that was the start, and I knew it was a song. It’s like a jigsaw where you’ve got one piece, then you make up all the others to fit in. I was trying to conjure a mood…With the ceiling flying away and room humming harder, I wanted to paint an image of a scene.”

Mood is everything in Annihilation, although it is not without a very one-foot-in-front-of-the-other plot. Vandermeer gives us a lot of material to think about, seems to sprinkle a lot of clues as the biologist reveals more to us about who she is (or thinks she is), why she is in Area X and not with her husband, and what she uncovers for her own part on the expedition. The thing is, all of this could mean something (and given that there are two more books, I’m sure some or much of it does), or it could not mean anything at all, so unreliable is our narrator (or is she?):

It may be clear by now that I am not always good at telling people things they feel they ought to have a right to know, and in this account thus far I have neglected to mention some details about the brightness. My reason for this is, again, the hope that any reader’s initial opinion in judging my objectivity might not be influenced by these details. I have tried to compensate by revealing more personal information than I would otherwise, in part because of its relevance to the nature of Area X.

Most certainly, atmosphere is everything in this novel, and Area X itself becomes a character, a formidable one. But after finishing the book, I still wonder what we’re dealing with here: human versus nature? Mind versus reality? Sanity versus madness? Big Brother versus the average nobody? I realize all I probably have to do is read the next two books and a couple of interviews with the author and all my questions will be answered. The thing is, Annihilation in some ways is perfect all by itself. I want to know what happens, but had this been a stand-alone novel, I would not feel disappointed. The not-knowing somehow feels natural, necessary.

I read Annihilation very quickly, mostly because I never wanted to put it down; that said, it’s scary. It’s a cross between the best of Stephen King and Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain, with a little bit of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House thrown in. You know you shouldn’t go into the room, but you must go into the room. But not only can Vandermeer tell a gripping tale—he can also write the most lovely sentences:

The black sky, free of clouds, framed by the tall narrow lines formed by pine trees, reflected the full immensity of the heavens. No borders, no artificial light to obscure the thousands of glinting pinpricks. I could see everything. As a child, I had stared up at the night sky and searched for shooting stars like everyone else. As an adult, sitting on the roof of my cottage near the bay, and later, haunting the empty lot, I looked not for shooting stars but for fixed ones, and I would try to imagine what kind of life lived in those celestial tidal pools so far from us.

I can’t decide if I want to go on with the trilogy, for once because I am afraid of having the whole thing spoiled. Have any of you read all three books? Should I keep on? Am I reading too much into it all? Perhaps it’s just like the biologist says:

A religious or spiritual person, someone who believed in angels or demons, might see it differently, Almost anyone else might see it differently. But I am not those people. I am just the biologist; I don’t require any of this to have a deeper meaning.
I am aware that all of this speculation is incomplete, inexact, inaccurate, useless. If I don’t have real answers, it is because we still don’t know what questions to ask. Our instruments are useless, our methodology broken, our motivations selfish.

Top Ten Tuesday: 10 Books of Summer

10 booksI’m late to the party, and really only joining for half. Today’s Top Ten Tuesday (hosted by The Broke and the Bookish) asks us about the top books on our summer TBR list, and that coincides quite nicely with Cathy’s #20BooksofSummer challenge (although I am only doing 10 because I have become the world’s slowest reader). Without further ado, here are the books on my list:

Unfamiliar Fishes, Sarah Vowell (read)
Astonish Me, Maggie Shipstead
My Antonia, Willa Cather (read)
My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante (read)
Mind of Winter, Laura Kasischke
Annihilation, Jeff Vandermeer (read)
After I’m Gone, Laura Lippman
Cleopatra, Stacy Schiff
Black Water Rising, Attica Locke (DNF)
Dirty Love: Stories, Andre Dubus III
False Mermaid, Erin Hart

A nice mix of fiction and nonfiction, one classic, some mysteries…but lighter reads overall. I had grand plans to tackle Wolf Hall, East of Eden, and Cloud Atlas this summer , but given my slow pace those might have ended up being the only books I read. I’d like to make a bit more of a dent in my TBR pile, so we’ll see how it goes! What’s on your list?