Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Rachel rides the train every day. And every day she passes the same homes and people going through their same routines. Until one day, something changes. What Rachel sees alters the trajectory of her life that is already complicated with a divorce and alcoholism.

Anna is a stay at home mom. Although her life seems simple, she lives in the shadow of her husband's ex-wife, struggling with raising her two-year old daughter and keeping her sanity while trying to maintain a happy marriage.

Megan shouldn't have a care in the world. She is free to work on her art and has a loving husband. Although she loves him too, for some reason that just isn't enough for her. And when she goes missing, the lives of these three women converge.

Three women, three points of view, all telling the same story. Although I was able to guess the "whodunnit" aspect of the book (and I'm usually not great at that), I felt Hawkins put enough mystery and twists and turns to keep things intriguing and moving. While I didn't particularly like her main characters (probably intentional on her part, though), I felt she made them interesting.

I would be remiss if I didn't address one point. That's the whole Gone Girl comparison. We have multiple narrators, a missing girl, diary-like entries, and unlikeable characters. So how do the two face off? IMHO The Girl on the Train edges out her competition. I didn't have to press the "I want to believe button" like with Gone Girl and, in general, I was more engrossed in the story. While I wouldn't say to skip Gone Girl, if you had a choice between the two, I'd go with The Girl on the Train. 

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

After much hype and fanfare (and waiting on the library hold list), I finally got my hands on Station Eleven. I purposefully didn't read many reviews on this book so I wouldn't be influenced by others' take on things. All I really knew was what the publisher provides as a preview...that an orchestral and theatric troupe travels around what is left of Michigan after a devastating illness has decimated the world population. I wasn't quite sure what to think of that.

I'm happy to report the whole theatric troupe angle didn't come across as contrived or pretentious. If you're wondering why Mandel frames her story with this concept, it may have something to do with the troupe's mantra, which is "survival is insufficient." Mandel gives us more than a survival tale, focusing her story on her characters, who live their lives in spite of their circumstances. And this means doing more than just surviving. It means providing and finding enjoyment despite what has happened.

Mandel introduces us to many players, who are all somehow tied together, whether through direct relationships or by varying degrees of separation. She jumps from person to person and from time to time. Through their stories, we learn how everything changed once an illness struck the world, killing all but one of every 200-300 people.

Unlike similar story lines, where the future is still somewhat technologically advanced (Hunger Games, Divergent, the Maze Runner), Mandel explores a future where all technology is lost (more like the Forest of Hands and Teeth or the Walking Dead). What happens when the power goes out permanently? When the internet stops? When all the gas is no longer usable and transportation is only accomplished with animals? How does one rebuild?  All the while with a new world population of potentially less than the current population of California. Is it important to teach children who grew up after the pandemic about technology that no longer exists? How do you describe a smartphone? Or how people traveled by airplane? What happens if you were on vacation in a foreign country when the pandemic hit and all air travel was permanently suspended?

Mandel provides you with a varied cast, so there is bound to be someone you can relate to or want to root for. And she shows us how these people evolve and adapt. Not just because of what happened, but because that's what people tend to do in general. Rather than dwell on the why and how of what happened, Mandel deals with the questions that people face afterward. Her story-telling and writing is solid, and you will be drawn into this world that so frighteningly resembles our own. This is what makes Station Eleven memorable...if not a bit scary.

Monday, June 8, 2015

After Awhile You Just Get Used to It: A Tale of Family Clutter by Gwendyolyn Knapp

Gwendolyn Knapp is only in her thirties, but her colorful family and personal relationships have already provided enough fodder for a memoir. After Awhile is the story of Gwendolyn, her sister Molly, her mother Margie, and her stepfather John. Of course, there is a host of other family members and the occasional love interest that pepper her life with stress and shenanigans.

Knapp grew up in Florida where she lived with her packrat mother and overachieving goth sister, as well as her mother's extended family. She begins by introducing us to her stepfather, John, and her grandparents. She hits the ground running with sudden death and a bout of scabies. And things only gets worse from there.

As she regales her teenage years, I experienced a certain nostalgia, since we're about the same age. Reading about her music choices and high school experiences made this time in her life seem, well, normal to me. Her stories seemed filled with an appropriate amount of whimsy and dysfunction that many people (myself included) have experienced in one form or another. I began to wonder where all this was headed, and if I should consider writing my own memoir...

During an eventful Thanksgiving we meet her Aunt Susie and uncle Ricky, a heartbreaking couple with real problems, but let's be honest, they made the holidays memorable. Then she describes plenty of other family gatherings that involve multiple strangulation attempts and lots of squirrels.

Knapp eventually ends up in New Orleans. Although she's a bit farther from the influence of her family, her adult life is full of one dimensional characters with little redeeming value. At this point in the book, I began to notice Knapp's negativity in how she views people. Take her boyfriend Robin, for instance. She describes him as an artist who doesn't bathe, take her anywhere, and has bean bag furniture. But her description is more matter of fact, as opposed to critical. She goes on to describe a doctor's appointment where the doctor only wants to talk about an upcoming vacation. Even after the doctor compliments her boots, Knapp reveals they are atrocious, as if to say the doctor was being disingenuous. She describes another encounter where someone compliments her dress and she explains it's a two dollar thrift store atrocity.  At this point, Knapp's knack for turning even nice gestures into something negative begins to grate on me. 

Even her description of where she and her family traveled for vacation (at the mid-point between the world's crapiness and despair) depressed me. And to make matters worse, her mother and stepfather eventually join her in New Orleans. After a family reunion and another failed relationship, it seemed not a lot had changed and Knapp's negativity was still a big part of her life. She was still struggling to make ends meet and keep herself sane. 

So a mixed review. I felt her struggles weren't any bigger than most people's, although perhaps she has more patience and creativity to get them on paper. I was a bit exhausted and left wondering where Knapp's life was headed. I guess I was hoping for some great revelation on her part, or a success story. A moral, perhaps? Some tidbit to leave me with? When she didn't offer any, well, I suppose it was fitting, and by that time, I had just gotten used to it. 

Disclaimer: I received this book in exchange for a review.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach

Did you ever wonder how an astronaut goes to the bathroom in space? Mary Roach will make you question why you've never pondered this before. With lines from her book like, "give me a napkin quick, there's a turd floating in the air," she'll also give you the greatest appreciation of gravity you never anticipated...

Roach is a master of taking a topic (like cadavers, sex, and in this case, space travel) and deconstructing it, showing its many facets...whether interesting, surprising, or even a bit awkward. Packing for Mars is the tell all for space travel. Besides providing somewhat of a history of the international space program, Roach gives the nitty gritty of space logistics: how NASA obsesses over a mission, the research associated with space travel, the personality testing, the mission simulations, how astronauts eat, drink, poop, and maneuver in a tin can in clunky suits in zero gravity. Besides participating in interviews with those involved, Roach also participates herself, when possible.

Take parabolic flights, for example. Besides being a novel way to spend your time, they are used for research and training for the space program. Imagine flying in a jet that goes high enough into the atmosphere to reach zero gravity for twenty seconds before hurtling back down to earth for ten seconds, only to repeat this endeavor 29 more times. Under the auspices of research, Roach participates in such a flight to give a first hand account of what it's like (spoiler - depends on your propensity for motion sickness).

Of course, I call bullshit on Roach not participating in some other studies, like the ones where you lay in a bed at a -6 degree decline for weeks to see the effect on one's body (in a pseudo simulation of zero gravity). Or the "all cube diet" or "forty-two days of milkshakes" diet (not as enticing as it sounds). Honestly, the chapter on space food depressed me, which was kinda her point. Food from tubes really should be relegated to those in a vegetative state. I hear the meals up there have vastly improved...but that still leaves lots of room for hijinks.

Roach also reveals tidbits here and there that you just can't anticipate until you send people up in space. Things like how plants used for experiments in space cannot be edible. Otherwise astronauts nostalgic for something besides toothpaste to eat will end up eating the science experiments as well.

Or there's the scary prospect of losing an astronaut to space euphoria, the phenomenom whereby an astronaut on a spacewalk achieves such a feeling of awe that it threatens to overtake good sense and prevents him from returning to the spaceship.

There are also chapters on animals in space, simulated space missions on earth, and the little-known science behind keeping floating vomit out of your space helmet. The chapter on space hygiene was rife with unwelcome terms like "underarm sweat supplies," "restricted-bathing experiment," and "odor plateau."

If none of this interests you, perhaps you enjoy reading technical papers and users manuals for furniture assembly. Otherwise, you'll probably enjoy this book, or find it eye opening, to say the least.