Monday, December 28, 2015

beautiful dystopia

Station Eleven - Emily St. John Mandel

This may very well be one of my favourite books of the year. Weeks after finishing Station Eleven, I still find myself thinking about the world that Emily St. John Mandel has created within its pages and of the people who inhabit them. I keep wanting to return to that world where wonder exists in the midst of seemingly insurmountable odds, where existence is so much more than just survival.

On a snowy night in Toronto, famed stage and screen actor Arthur Leander suffers a fatal heart attack onstage in the middle of a performance of King Lear. Despite the CPR administered by audience member Jeevan Chaudhary - a former paparazzo, now an EMS responder - Leander dies in front of his young protege, child actor Kirsten Raymonde. 

That same night, though, the tragedy unfolding in the theatre is overshadowed by a deadly flu that has arrived in the city on a trans-Atlantic flight. Quickly, hospitals are overwhelmed, people begin to die, and the world goes dark.

Fifteen years after the Georgian flu has wiped out 99% of the world's population, Kirsten Raymonde is an actor in The Travelling Symphony, a group of musicians and actors who traverse the Great Lakes area performing Shakespeare in the small isolated settlements that dot the region. 

Station Eleven moves back and forth through the decades, from the post-apocalyptic world of the roving performers, to Arthur Leander's early years and rise to fame, and back to that fateful night in Toronto when Jeevan Chaudhary - cautioned by a call from a friend who is an Emergency Room doctor - barricades himself in his brother's highrise apartment and watches the lights of the city die.

The novel unfolds through the eyes of Raymonde, Chaudhary, Leander, as well as Leander's wives and friends. Slowly, the threads from their individual stories, separated by time, geography and circumstance, weave into a single strand.

Mandel is a gifted storyteller. She eloquently meters out the growing fear and ominous realization of that first night. She melds the survival instinct and resiliency that has become a critical part of life by Year 15 post-pandemic with a sense of wonder and a basic human need to elevate existence to something higher than food and shelter. Everyday occurrences of the past - like pressing a button that connects you to someone else on the other side of the world or the light that comes on when a refrigerator door is opened - have become things of legend, stories passed among those too young to really remember when these things were reality. There are even rumours of the existence of a Museum of Civilization in an airport terminal somewhere.

Through her weaving of timelines and stories within stories, Emily St. John Mandel gradually pieces together seemingly scattered tales into one beautifully interconnected work. 

Definitely recommended. 

Monday, December 21, 2015


Soon, kiddies, soon, the daylight will return. Infinitesimally at first, a few seconds gained at sunset, but lost again at sunrise.

But slowly, slowly, as we burn more candles and watch our stockpile of winter socks dwindle in the drawer, until we have no choice but to pull on the flimsy cotton anklets and declare it spring, the sun will wrench itself free of the frozen horizon. The corner will turn and this winter solstice day - an agonizing 8 hours and 39 minutes shorter than its summer counterpart - will be but a chilly memory.

In the meantime, please pass the shortbread.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

commence the advent

I've accepted the fact that the Advent calendar that I remember from my childhood will remain only a memory. 

For years I tried to find one just like it - a streetscape of an old German city centre at twilight, sparkling windows looking out over a main street where St. Nicholas is trailed by adoring young uns. St. Nicholas (no Coca Cola Santa Claus here) had just the right combination of German sternness and begrudging generosity. I spent way too much time gazing at those lighted shop windows, wondering what life was like in the apartments above those shops. There was just the right amount of glitter sparkling through windows that opened to reveal modest offerings of teddy bears and spinning tops. There were no cartoon figures or crappy chocolate.

This was one classy Advent calendar. Or, at least that's how I remember it.

I've given up trying to reproduce the magic. It belonged to another time. But I did recently stumble upon a lovely box of Advent calendar short stories. So I think I will start a whole new tradition. What better way to go through the darkness of December than escaping into a short story every day?