Reader’s Journal

Reader’s Journal: The Seas

The SeasSometimes I feel like a mystery even to myself. When I went to the library a few weeks ago to pick up a bunch of holds, I thought for sure that the one book I had waited for the longest would knock my socks off (turns out I was wrong). If anything, I was probably most dubious about Samantha Hunt’s The Seas. Her most recent novel, Mr. Splitfoot, is one of the more unusual books I’ve read, and it was one of my favorites last year. I was kicking around the idea of re-reading that one when I decided to put The Seas, her debut novel, on hold at the library. The book jacket probably has the shortest description I’ve ever seen:

A lovesick and awkward young woman, haunted by the ocean that her father disappeared into years before, convinces herself she is a mermaid to escape her dreary, small town life and find her true identity.

It’s short, but it smacks of the fantastical. It practically screams EXPERIMENTAL. From that description, you probably would expect at least a few sections with run-on sentences that go on for several pages at a time. After all, nothing says EXPERIMENTAL like stream-of-consciousness, amirite? She convinces herself she’s a mermaid…why did I check this out again? I’m not a big fan of fantasy, after all.

Here’s how it begins:

The highway only goes south from here. That’s how far north we live. There aren’t many roads out of town, which explains why so few people ever leave. Things that are unfamiliar are a long way off and there is no direct route to these things. Rather it’s a street to a street to a road across a causeway to a road across a bridge to a road to another road before you reach the highway.

The narrator is nineteen, living in a house with her mother and paternal grandfather. Her father disappeared into the ocean when she was eight. Before he left, at the breakfast table, he told her she was a mermaid. She believes now he was telling her they were from the ocean, and she awaits his return:

People often suggest that it would be better if we knew for certain whether or not my father is dead rather than just disappeared. That to me seems cruel, as if they want me to abandon all hope. That is how dreary people try to keep things here on dry land.

Despite them, I remain hopeful. Even though the way I remember my father and these things he once said is becoming more and more like the way a page of paper yellows with time or the way a dream slips ahead of the waking dreamer or the way people get hard-skinned with age and use that hard skin like a file to toughen up their children. Am I mermaid? I once was certain. But now the older I get, the vaguer things become.

She loves a man named Jude, and Iraq war veteran who is fourteen years older than she is, but although Jude cares for her he does not return her romantic feelings. The thing about this book, about Hunt’s writing, is that she normalizes the fantastical. The narrator—who is isolated and lonely, with no friends her own age—for a good portion of the story seems simply quirky and naïve, a young woman who has held on too long to childhood because she’s unsure how to become an adult, especially in a place with so few opportunities for her, so few models to follow. With little else to occupy her time, she thinks about Jude. She follows him around town. The shifts are subtle. She’s quirky. And then maybe she’s depressed. And then when things take a turn the full reality becomes apparent to the reader, who is maybe just invested enough to wonder: what part is real, and what part is a fantasy? In hindsight, everything seems clear. But in the telling, not so much.

Hunt has said she wrote The Seas originally as a book of poems. She said in a Powell’s interview, “I learned to write by hanging out with poets, and I’ve never abandoned the idea that every word should be handled and adored. Making the world from 26 letters is my delight.” I love that so much: every word should be handled and adored. What a difference that is from taking words, shoving them into cheap, shiny gowns, painting their faces, and then pushing them onto a stage and forcing them to perform.

When I finished The Seas, overall I thought it was pretty good for a debut novel. But in the few days since I finished it, and then sitting down to write this post, I am starting to realize just how well-crafted this novel really is. When I was about two-thirds through the novel, I had written in my notebook, “Fever dream?” But by the end I realized that was wrong. Hunt has clear empathy for the narrator. I suppose what I mean is this: the best stories about madness show us that madness isn’t really absence of reason; it’s just that the reasons don’t make sense to the outside world. Hunt makes us see the sense. And she has this talent not just in fiction—just consider this from her 2015 article on One Direction:

Tonight the mass of girls before me in the arena, swarming like insects, raises a question of economy. How many waitressing shifts, humid summer jobs, and hours babysitting does it take to hold these five boys aloft, to lard the fiefdom? How better might these girls’ energies be spent in humanitarian projects and education? And how best to understand their mania without dismissing it as a fault of their youth or gender?

I think I have a new favorite author for my list.

Reader’s Journal: Lab Girl

Lab GirlIn my other life, I’m a scientist. When I say, “my other life,” I don’t mean my life outside the blog; I mean my life in an alternate universe. I do things in a lab that involve other scientists, and also math. I do whatever kind of science I’m interested in at the moment, obviously. Mostly, I work on things that  have to do with going into space. You know, it’s rocket science. But sometimes I am in a lab looking into space through a large telescope, or else looking through a microscope at rocks or plants. I may or may not wear a lab coat. I am always taller. Always.

In this life, I was in my third year of college before I realized that I was not bad at math or science. In fact, I was borderline good at it. But by the time I figured that out, I had already switched majors too many times (five: drama, communications, drama again, fashion merchandising—don’t ask—and English) to believe that my parents would happily support me through an additional year or two of college because I wanted to switch from English to, say, geology. Alas, I after getting an MA I ended up leaving academia and entering the “real” world as a technical writer, and it was in that job that I realized I should have been a computer science major. But life and finances and reality being what they are, I also realized that was probably not going to happen.

So what does my little sob story have to do with Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl? It’s simple. I’m illustrating how completely unfair it is that I, a former English major and current “content creator,” cannot just wake up one day and decide to “do science”—but Hope Jahren, who spent most of her life in a lab studying plants, can just pick up a pen (or a laptop) and write a really fantastic book. Honestly. Where does she get off?

In Lab Girl, Jahren tells the story of her childhood, her struggles as a student and trying to establish herself as a woman scientist, her experience with mental illness, and her remarkable relationship with her best friend and lab partner, Bill. Between more personal chapters, Jahren also includes interesting shorter chapters about plants and trees based on lectures she has delivered to her classes over the years. All of this could really be so much blah blah blah, but Jahren has a terrific way of connecting her passion for science with the narrative of her life without resorting to hokey metaphors:

Science has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life. It has also convinced me that carefully writing everything down is the only real defense we have against forgetting something more important that once was and is no more, including the spruce tree that should have outlived me but did not.

I stood and absorbed this revelation as my life turned a page, and my first scientific discovery shone, as even the cheapest plastic toy does when it is new.

I suspect this is a book that many parents might hand off to daughters in their early teens who are already showing a budding interest in science, but if that’s the case then the parents should read it, too, because there’s a lot to discuss. She writes openly and honestly about her mental illness (bipolar disorder) and how she tried to deal with it on her own before finally getting help. She also does not shy away from the difficulties of being a research scientist—especially one who is female:

Public and private organizations all over the world have studied the mechanics of sexism within science and have concluded that they are complex and multifactorial. In my own small experience, sexism has been something very simple: the cumulative weight of constantly being told that you can’t possibly be what you are.

And in explaining how the National Science Foundation funds (or fails to sufficiently fund) research scientists:

…$7.3 billion sounds like a lot of money. Remember that this figure must support all curiosity-driven science–not just biology, but also geology, chemistry, mathematics, physics, psychology, sociology, and the more esoteric forms of engineering and computer science as well.

[Six million dollars for the NSF’s paleobiology program] still sounds like a lot of money. Perhaps we could agree that one paleobiologist from each state in the country should get a grant. If we divide $6 million by fifty, we get $120,000 for each contract. And this is close to the reality: the NSF’s paleobiology program gives out between thirty and forty contracts each year, with an average value of $165,000 each. Thus, at any given time, there are about one hundred funded paleobiologists in America…Note also that there are a lot more than one hundred paleobiology professors in America, which means that most of them can’t do the research they were trained to do.

The heart of the book, though, is about her longtime friendship with her lab partner, Bill, who is unconventional, antisocial (er, maybe misanthropic would be a better word), stubborn, humorous, intelligent, and hard-working. In Bill she finds a true (non-romantic) partner to support her work and really, her heart. This part of the book gives it strength by rounding out the story, but it’s also the book’s only real flaw. Most likely Jahren’s preservation instinct is to blame; she’s clearly aware, even in terms of their friendship, of crossing any boundaries that might be too personal or reveal too much. While I appreciate that instinct, about halfway through the book the anecdotes involving her relationship with Bill start to become repetitive. Some of the action drives the story along (i.e., now we are here in this place, researching this new thing), but the exchanges between her and Bill start to seem like a couple of people performing a vaudeville act. I think this is less a function of the writing than the probably very real way they interact, but if you’ve ever spent time with two people who seem to have a shorthand or very particular way of interacting, you know it can be exasperating after a while. The good thing is that it’s very clear that they care for and support each other a great deal, even during the worst of times.

Ultimately, I felt like Jahren brought the same passion to her story about science and friendship that Patti Smith brought to her memoir Just Kids. Both books are about a bond, and about discovering a life’s passion (plants on one hand, poetry on the other). “Love and learning are similar in that they can never be wasted,” writes Jahren. Truer words were never spoken.

Reader’s Journal: Girl Waits With Gun

Girl Waits with Gun (Kopp Sisters, #1)Charming is a word I would like to see restored. These days when people say “charming” they often mean quaint, or old, or precious. For me, the word evokes the idea of having grace and spunk in equal measure, and knowing when it’s appropriate to use more of one and less of the other, or—to use a gun metaphor—when to fire from both barrels.

Amy Stewart’s debut novel Girl Waits With Gun is a charming book based on a true story that Stewart uncovered when doing research for her non-fiction book, The Drunken Botanist. The Kopp sisters—Constance, Norma, and Fleurette—live alone on a farm outside Paterson, New Jersey. The story begins in July 1914, when their horse and buggy are struck by a motor car driven by one Henry Kaufman, a wealthy hooligan who owns one of the silk factories in town. In the street, Constance asks nicely for—and then demands—compensation for the accident. Kaufman and his thug friends scoff at her and then threaten her. All of this sets off a chain of events that upset the quiet lives of the Kopp sisters, but Constance in particular refuses to back down and fights for justice for herself and her sisters. Her case falls on deaf ears at the local prosecutor’s office, but the sheriff of a nearby town becomes her ally, offering the Kopp sisters protection and even teaching them to shoot revolvers.

A less skilled author could have made caricatures of the Kopp sisters, but Stewart does a terrific job of making them each interesting and distinct. At one point, Constance, who narrates the story, describes them as three women with nothing in common and little to say to each other. That they love each other and are fiercely loyal to one another is without question, but Stewart cleverly uses their singular responses to events and their interactions with one another to show how times are changing (but also lagging)—especially for women. Their late mother, an Austrian who never cared for America or bothered to pursue citizenship, had a habit of sharing news headlines about women who were disgraced, injured, or killed in some way, all to convince her daughters that the world was a terrifying place and they were better off at home:

I can’t look at our childhood samplers without remembering the disgraceful fate of Laura Smith, age seventeen, who was lured away from her home by the grocer and ruined by him, or that of thirteen-year-old Lena Luefschuetz, found dead for reasons having to do with her “undesirable companions.”

This upbringing affected the sisters in vastly different ways. Norma, 31, dislikes any and all intrusions from the outside world, preferring to spend time with the homing pigeons she raises on the farm (she trains the pigeons by fastening news headlines—for example, ”Girl Scalded in Kitchen,” on a day when Fleurette is cooking—to their legs). Fleurette, 16, is such an ingenue that it almost seems she believes the stories she reads in the paper are actually fictions just awaiting her embellishment. And Constance, the oldest at 35, is at once restless and pragmatic. With secrets of her own, she is aware of both the lack of opportunities for and the very real threats to women that the world holds. However, she longs for something more than what she has, even daring to picture a life for her independent self apart from her sisters.

Aside from the threat presented by Henry Kaufman and company, a bit of a mystery occurs that draws Constance further into danger and helps develop her relationship to Sheriff Heath in an interesting way. The mystery also brings Constance’s past into play, which helps to explain why she reacts the way she does at the accident scene in the beginning of the story.

Somehow this novel manages to be both lighthearted and serious at the same time. Stewart manages to create comic situations about women in very real peril–and not as a result of Henry Kaufman so much as from being a woman in a society still clinging to Victorian ideas. The sisters’ quirks offer some comic relief. Fleurette is forever twirling and selecting special outfits to suit the occasion, even when that occasion is being the well-dressed target of a kidnapper, and Norma is fully devoted to her pigeons. Constance even has the occasion to manhandle Henry Kaufman to comic effect. However, even in moments of humor, we’re always reminded that the sisters face serious trouble. They are running out of money and have no foreseeable means of making income, which means that they may lose their farm–and if they lose their farm, what will happen to them? Fleurette is young enough still to find a husband, but she knows very little of the world as she was schooled at home and has been kept away even from people her own age. Norma and Constance are both essentially spinsters who are not trained in any skill, and Norma especially would rather not spend time with other people if she can avoid it. As the oldest, Constance feels the most responsible, but Stewart makes it quite clear that the options for her are limited on almost every front except the most unexpected.

This book was absolutely so delightful I did not want it to end. Halfway through the novel I was already sorry about saying goodbye to Constance, Norma, and Fleurette, so I was very happy to learn that Stewart is writing a sequel to Girl Waits With Gun called Lady Cop Makes Trouble, to be released in September 2016. Keeping my fingers crossed for a series!

Reader’s Journal: The Pursuit of Cool

The Pursuit of CoolI don’t know how I came across Robb Skidmore’s self-published novel The Pursuit of Cool, but all I had to do was read the description and I knew I had to read it:

A novel that uniquely captures the 1980s, The Pursuit of Cool tells the story of Lance Rally and his turbulent college years. He faces pressure to live up to his super-achieving family and is fueled by grandiose ambition. He wants to become a success but is easily distracted and obsessed with pop culture. He also has a deeply romantic nature and though inept he is sincere and falls in love quickly…This coming-of-age journey is a funny and emotional ride through album covers, dance techniques, all-nighter revelations, and corporate internships gone bad. The story comes alive with music and movies which give Lance solace as he questions his beliefs and his heart gets crushed. He tries to capture that illusive quality, that magic of youth, the essence that is ‘cool.’

In 1986, Lance Rally leaves his Washington, D.C. area home, bound for the fictional Langford College on the outskirts of Atlanta. His grandfather, father, and older brother all attended Harvard, but Lance’s grades weren’t quite up to Ivy League standards, so he’s headed to a second-tier school to study economics in the hopes of getting into a really good business school after college. But here’s the thing: Lance doesn’t really understand economics, and the famous professor who runs the department (and whom everyone suggests Lance pursue as a mentor) is a crank whose opaque lectures Lance struggles to understand. So Lance begins to float…He befriends a punk rocker from California named Ian LaCoss, who’s majoring and drama and introduces him to, well, punk rock, and a squirrely genius named Charles Boyd. He eventually begins to date a popular dancer who is majoring in psychology, and he struggles (and often fails) to comprehend her subtle hints and moods. He gets a summer internship with a high-powered consulting firm. A few other things happen, but because he’s more of a dreamer than anything, Lance drifts through the rest of his time, and the reader drifts with him.

If that sounds dull, it isn’t. In fact, it’s charming. Skidmore is confident storyteller who clearly cares about Lance, who is compelling and endearing in his confusion. Lance is an all around genuinely nice guy, a good kid. He’s a dreamer. He loves to read. He loves movies. He can spend hours and hours listening to music. He’s observant and slightly obsessive when it comes to going over situations (usually involving his girlfriend Lynn) in his head. He’s constantly trying to figure out how to be. He’s picked the wrong major, but he can’t bring himself to change it for fear of disappointing his father. And besides, he has no idea what he wants to do until the very last page of the book (the very last day of college, incidentally), when everything becomes abundantly clear to him.

It’s highly possible I enjoyed this book because I identified with Lance in many ways. Although I didn’t have any family legacy to live up to, I had talked a big game all through senior year of high school about how I was going to New York to become a playwright. When I wasn’t accepted by the two schools in New York where I actually managed to complete applications for by the deadline, I decided to start college closer to home and transfer after my first year. Five years and five majors later (drama, communications, back to drama, fashion merchandising, and finally English literature) I graduated from that same university. Like Lance, I was a distracted romantic who wasn’t sure where I fit in, who was likely to spend way more time reading novels, listening to music (or going to see bands, my favorite college pastime), or obsessing over friendships and guys than I ever spent studying. It took me two-and-a-half years to settle into a major and apply myself, and another four years until one of my best friends really helped me clue into the same realization Lance has at the end of The Pursuit of Cool.

Another reason I probably identified with this book so much was the time: Lance goes to college in 1986, and I went to college in 1987. My guess is that Robb Skidmore went to college around this same time, because he gets so many things about the time spot-on, especially the music, while managing to avoid so many Eighties cliches. If you like campus novels, if you’re interested in the 1980s, or if you just like a well-told coming-of-age story, I recommend The Pursuit of Cool.

And because music plays such an important part in The Pursuit of Cool, I decided to make a playlist. Instead of adding songs from the book (the playlist would be at least three hours long and range from Led Zeppelin to The Clash to The Pixies), I decided to put together my own “greatest hits” that I loved in college. It’s hardly comprehensive, and to stop myself from going on and on, I picked twenty songs (listen on Spotify or YouTube).

What were your favorite songs from college and/or the 80s? Better to share music than tragic fashion! Happy reading!

Reader’s Journal: Our Endless Numbered Days

Our Endless Numbered DaysWhat am I going to tell you about Claire Fuller’s beautiful, heartbreaking debut novel Our Endless Numbered Days, which won the 2015 Desmond Elliott Prize for most prestigious first-time novelists? My first five-star read of 2015, it feels like one of those books that defies reviewing. It’s deep. It’s haunting. It’s pretty. It’s enraging. All these things.

In 1976, when she is eight years old, Peggy Hamilton is taken from her London home by her father, James. Up until that time she has lived a relatively normal life as the only child of two somewhat eccentric parents, her aforementioned father James, who does not work but instead obsesses about the end of the world, and her mother, Ute Bischoff, a famous German concert pianist. Peggy goes to school. She has a best friend named Becky. She is attached to her BBC recording of Edith Nesbit’s The Railway Children, and even at the age of eight still sometimes relies on her doll Phyllis for company. She loves Ute, but her mother is also larger than life, and is not willing to share that most vital part of her–the piano–with Peggy. Her father belongs to the North London Retreaters, a group of men who gather to drink (heavily) and discuss the best ways to survive the end of days, whether from nuclear apocalypse or some natural disaster. James seems to take things seriously, going so far as to build a shelter underneath their house and outfit it with food and supplies, putting Peggy through regular drills (of which Ute wants no part) where she has only minutes to pack her rucksack and report to the shelter, where at the end of the drill her father inspects the items she has chosen to bring along.

Things seem normal enough. Like any eight-year-old child, Peggy is both fascinated and confused by her parents and their friends. She stays up late to spy on their parties, to listen to the long arguments the men maintain over the best survivalist techniques. She senses a strain between her father and Ute, but through everything she maintains her version of normal, until Ute leaves to go on a two-week concert tour. During those weeks Peggy begins to spend more time outside her normal routine and camping out with her father in the garden. She tells the school her mother has died. More time passes and still Ute does not return. And then Peggy awakens one morning to her father’s sharp whistle. He tells her to pack her things. It’s time to go. He’s promised her a holiday.

He takes her across the Channel and deep into the continent. They are going to a place called “die Hütte,” a place Peggy heard her father and his friends (especially one in particular, named Oliver Hannington) discussing during their late nights. She imagines the place to be something from a fairytale. She is wrong, but not long after they arrive there, her father tells her the world has ended, and that they are the only people left in the world, and nothing exists beyond what he calls the “Great Divide,” referring to the world on the other side of the mountains that surround their valley.

We hear the story directly from seventeen-year-old Peggy, who alternates between her time in die Hütte with her father and present day London where she is back in Ute’s house. In their exile, Peggy and her father struggle to survive. In the woods, they become not Peggy and James, but Papa and Punzel. They have not brought enough food; they have not brought the right supplies; and die Hutte is not equipped as promised. The threat of freezing or starving to death is always an issue. Yet Peggy offers her audience many, many moments of great beauty and grace, such as when Papa teaches her to play the piano with the one book of sheet music he has taken from home, Franz Liszt’s “La Campanella.” He builds her a wooden piano and she learns to sing the notes. She makes up a narrative to guide her through the music:

When I played, my father would sometimes sing the bass line while I was the bell, or the bird; one of us sang the treble clef with the other joining in on the high notes to create the chords. By page six, the bird was joined by a cat, and the fluttering became more desperate. The bird circled higher and higher, trying to escape the open maw that followed its flurries at the window. When the bird tired and swooped too low, the cat jumped, feathers were lost, and I despaired for the creature. In the final refrain, as if sounding an alarm call, the bird began to fight back. The animal I had taken for a sparrow or wren became a fiercer creature, showing its talons and curved beak so that fur flew as well as the feathers.

While Peggy/Punzel loves her father, and while she comes to love things about the woods and she begins to forget her old life, she always has a real sense of danger. And while much of the danger is very real–she is afraid of water, for example, and cannot swim–she knows something else is off kilter. But she has only her Papa to rely upon, and so she makes what life she can.

It wasn’t until well after I had finished Our Endless Numbered Days that I began to associate it with another beautiful, yet also tragic and disturbing book, Bonnie Nadzam’s Lamb. In both books, a man abducts a girl (because yes, even though James is Peggy’s father, what he does is abduction, stealing her away from her life and other family) for incredibly complex reasons of his own and takes her away to a solitary place, where he feels in control, not just of the girl but of something bigger: life, maybe. And like David Lamb, Peggy is an unreliable narrator, not just because she is a child, but because she is in a sense broken forever by being taken away. No doubt about it, what happens to Peggy is clear-cut child abuse. For me, this was the most difficult thing about the book. I had very little empathy for James (although I did have a strange empathy for David Lamb, but I wonder if I would have had the story been told from the girl’s point of view). Aside from the abduction, even in real life, I have no patience for survivalist types. While so many readers (and movie fans) found Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild tragic and romantic—promising young man yearns for more authentic way of life, so gives up all worldly possessions and hits the open road—I saw someone who was quite possibly mentally ill and breaking down. That’s also what the reader sees in James/Papa, no matter how Peggy presents him. And while he cares for as best he can, he is also prone to mood swings, and we know always what he has done to her—and to Ute.

Yet this is still Peggy’s story, and she must be allowed to tell it in her own way. We will never really know what she endured in the woods. It’s the beauty of Fuller’s writing that makes this book so difficult to put down. This novel is so remarkable for a debut, and the author was 47 when it was published, which just goes to show that not every talented, promising writer is under 25 (or 30). And on that note, let’s have some music.

Reader’s Journal: Brilliance

Brilliance (Brilliance Saga, #1)I’m not going to lie to you. I bought Marcus Sakey’s Brilliance because I heard that Gillian Flynn liked it a couple of years ago. And even after hearing that Gillian Flynn recommended it, I didn’t buy it right away. I waited until it was $1.99 on Kindle and thought, “Might as well.” It took me more than two years to get around to reading it, even with people heaping praise on it left and right. And now here I am, ready to heap praise.

Nick Cooper is an agent in the Equitable Services division of the Department of Analysis and Response. Beginning in 1980, large groups of children with abnormally high intelligence were born, a trend that continued to increase over the following decades. At first thought to be a benefit, these brilliants begin to manipulate systems created by normal people, who start to see them as threat. After a brilliant takes over the stock market and causes global financial systems to collapse, the divide between normal people and abnorms, as the brilliants become known, begins to grow.

Defending national security, Cooper hunts abnorms for Equitable Services. The thing is, Cooper himself an abnorm. A series of deadly events cause him to go underground to hunt the abnorm terrorist the agency believes is behind a series of escalating attacks, but in the process, Cooper learns some difficult truths about the abnorm movement that make him call into question just who the good guys are and where his loyalties really lay.

I don’t know what it was about this book, but I could not put it down. At first, it bothered me because while Sakey is a solid writer, he also uses some tired techniques and tropes that typically irritate me enough to put a book down. For example, why do so many thriller writers use characters’ full names, even after they’ve been introduced multiple times, or even been referred to by a single name in a preceding sentence or paragraph? Example:

He went looking for Valerie West—there’d been no need to snap at her that way, especially when it sounded like she had something—and found the whole team together and frenetic…Luisa Abrahams leaned over her shoulder, talking fast into the phone. Bobby Quinn, bulky with a vest, was checking the load on his weapon.

This is on page 106, people. The reader has already been introduced to these characters a dozen times. Just a couple of pages before, they were simply “Valerie” and “Luisa.”

And then there are the sections in italics, to show that Nick Cooper (see what I did there?) is talking to himself. This isn’t terrible, but Sakey often starts these sections mid-sentence, like so:

About six foot, long hair, and a black t-shirt, a shotgun in his hand, the barrel swinging and—

Shotguns are bad news; the wide spread of buckshot cuts down your edge.

But the holes in the door were small, fist-size.

He’s firing double- or even triple-ought shells. Call it six nine-millimeter pellets in each. Incredibly lethal, but intended for tactical operations, which means a full choke in the barrel for precision. The lead will only spread about eighteen inches over fifty yards.

And he’s not even ten feet away.

—his finger tightening on the trigger, and Cooper stepped sideways ten inches as a blast of fire bloomed from the barrel  of the shotgun and the metal shards hurtled through the space he had been standing in.

A little annoying, but as the pages fly by (and they do fly, for the pacing is absolutely spot-on) you get used to it. The only other thing was that when it comes to sex, it’s like Sakey turns into a sixteen-year-old boy writing a letter to Penthouse. For example, he actually uses the phrase “he rode her.” No joke. So just…yeah.

But purple prose and annoying tics aside, Brilliance really is a hell of a story. I should mention that Sakey doesn’t make Cooper go through all this alone—he gives him an abnorm counterpoint, a woman named Shannon, and Sakey creates just the right chemistry between these two characters: they compete, they bicker, they joke, and while they don’t completely trust each other, they need each other. And so even though he can seem silly and sexist, I give Sakey credit for creating Shannon, because she’s likable and strong in her own right, and Cooper really does admire her.

So I’m a little all over the place and not heaping quite as much praise as I thought, but really, trust me: If you’re looking for a page-turner (and a trilogy, because this is book one) and you like thrillers and/or dystopian fiction, you cannot go wrong with Brilliance. I give it four solid stars.

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.