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Mean Maureen’s Online Book Club – Station Eleven for Nov 1st!

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Hi all!  I’m sorry it took me FOREVER to decide on our next online book club selection, but I’ve finally chosen Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.  I had so many intriguing options suggested to me, but I ultimately selected this one because of the number of reviewers who described it as impossible to put down.  I’m definitely very busy and pregnant these days, and I need my books to be addictive and really compelling or, let’s be totally honest, I will fall asleep reading them at 9pm.  (Because pregnancy is a life force draining exercise that results in ever increasing levels of feeling sleepy, “blob-esque” and old.)

But enough about how uncool I’ve become, let’s read a little bit about Station Eleven from its description on Amazon!

An audacious, darkly glittering novel set in the eerie days of civilization’s collapse,Station Eleven tells the spellbinding story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity.
 
One snowy night Arthur Leander, a famous actor, has a heart attack onstage during a production of King Lear. Jeevan Chaudhary, a paparazzo-turned-EMT, is in the audience and leaps to his aid. A child actress named Kirsten Raymonde watches in horror as Jeevan performs CPR, pumping Arthur’s chest as the curtain drops, but Arthur is dead. That same night, as Jeevan walks home from the theater, a terrible flu begins to spread. Hospitals are flooded and Jeevan and his brother barricade themselves inside an apartment, watching out the window as cars clog the highways, gunshots ring out, and life disintegrates around them.
 
Fifteen years later, Kirsten is an actress with the Traveling Symphony. Together, this small troupe moves between the settlements of an altered world, performing Shakespeare and music for scattered communities of survivors. Written on their caravan, and tattooed on Kirsten’s arm is a line from Star Trek: “Because survival is insufficient.” But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who digs graves for anyone who dares to leave.
 
Spanning decades, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, this suspenseful, elegiac novel is rife with beauty. As Arthur falls in and out of love, as Jeevan watches the newscasters say their final good-byes, and as Kirsten finds herself caught in the crosshairs of the prophet, we see the strange twists of fate that connect them all. A novel of art, memory, and ambition, Station Eleven tells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it.

Sounds good to me – let’s dive in!  Since I took so long to make this selection, this book will be reviewed on November 1st instead of October 1st, so you have nearly a month and a half to pick up a copy at your local library or online or what have you, and read it in time to join the discussion!  So get to it!  Happy reading and happy Sunday!

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Mean Maureen’s Online Book Club – the Martian

Hi, all, happy Sunday!  Sorry I’m posting this so late, but my husband and I spent the entire day at Ikea, then desperately trying to leave Ikea, then cursing loudly while putting together furniture from Ikea!  (SIDE NOTE – HOW ARE WE NOT DONE MOVING YET???  It’s been approximately 27 years, I think, that this process has been going on.)  But anyway, the end is finally in sight (I PRAY) and my husband and I spent a whole day in the bowels of Ikea and are not yet divorced, so I’m going to call it a good day.

Enough preamble though – speaking of someone who did NOT have a good day, and in fact, probably the worst day of his entire life, meet Mark Watney:

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Mark is the protagonist of the Martian, a guy with a lot of intelligence, wit, and maybe the worst luck in the known universe.  In this excellent novel by Andy Weir, Mark is an astronaut on the third manned mission to Mars (Ares 3), and as he and the rest of his team are evacuating to abort the mission due to an extremely powerful dust storm, he gets speared with an antenna, blown out of sight and left for dead, despite his team’s best efforts to save him.  The only thing is, he ISN’T dead (otherwise this would be a very short novel) but he doesn’t regain consciousness until after his team has left the planet, and the communications system is broken, so he can’t exactly have them turn around and get him.

So, Mark finds himself utterly alone on Mars, with about a year’s worth of rations, about FOUR years from when the next team is planning to come back to the planet.  The rest of the book has to do with him fighting to survive in one of the most hostile environments imaginable, against incredible odds.

I’m going to stop right here, now that the basic set up is out of the way, and strongly recommend that if you haven’t read this book and are planning to see the movie,  you stop reading right now.  This is a very entertaining book, and unless they screw it up royally, it’s going to be a wonderful movie.  I mean, it’s just dying to be a movie.  All of the stakes and various points of extreme jeopardy that Mark runs into are great and they’ll be even better on the big screen as surprises.  So seriously, heed my warning, you’ll have an awesome time in the theater!

But for those of us who have already read the book, let’s plow ahead.  Okay, I obviously enjoyed this book.  As someone with an interest in science, but no formal background in it, it was super fun to watch a protagonist repeatedly save his own life thanks to nothing but science and math.  (Okay, and a helluva lot more optimism than I would have been capable of mustering up in such a dire situation.)

In fact, I’d say this book (and movie) should be the ad campaign for science and math in general.  (Do they have ad campaigns for school subjects?  Seems like they probably do these days.)  Anyway, I’m going to give this book to all of my future children, with the grim warning – hey Junior, if you don’t know your math and your science YOU WILL TOTALLY DIE ON MARS, OKAY???  (Something I won’t tell future children – I would have died at literally every perilous juncture in this story.)

Anyway, enough about my poor chances of survival on Mars – onto other stuff I liked about the book!   It was super interesting to read a behind the scenes NASA type story that seemed very convincing as a layperson.  (I’d have to verify with someone who actually has an aeronautics background, but it seemed legit to me!)  Though it did spark me to research some of NASA’s real fatal disasters and man do I not recommend that!  (Especially Apollo 1, which Mark’s character references in the book.  So, so horrible.)  But honestly – it was just great fun to read a gripping, well paced story populated by so many incredibly smart people in an interesting universe.  I mean, that ticks a lot of What Do You Want in a Book? boxes, for me.

Stylistically, I also enjoyed the diary format for Mark’s part of the story.  Diaries in books can be gimmicky, but I thought it really worked with the plot and also made all the science and math much more easily digested than if it had been written differently.  Toward the end, every time it left Matt’s diary and went into the omniscient narrator explaining what was happening to him, I was afraid he was going to die.

Side note – I would have been so pissed if he died.  I mean, even if that was probably the most statistically likely outcome at, well, every point in the story, if he had just, like, driven into the dust storm and slowly starved to death as his potatoes and solar cells dwindled, I would have showed up at Andy Weir’s house with protest signs.  I mean AFTER EVERYTHING WE’VE BEEN THROUGH???  But luckily, that didn’t happen.  However unlikely, Mark survived in an explosive (literally) and triumphant ending that was tension filled with right until the very end, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

The only criticism I have of the book is that I feel like, for a story set with one guy alone for much of the book, we baaaaaarely scratch the surface of his thoughts, other than him working out his immediate survival.  And I mean, him working out his survival such a crazy situation is plenty entertaining, especially coupled with some of the smartest minds on Earth trying to bring him home at the same time.  But when I say we barely scratch the surface of his thoughts I mean that for a man, presumably in his 30’s at least, with some life experience behind him, he never turns his thoughts to former loves or close friends, outside of the flight crew he was with and some incredibly generic and very fleeting thoughts of his parents.  You would imagine a guy with literally nothing to do but think for well over a year, would have… well, a more developed inner universe, especially since this diary might well be the only thing of him that survives.

I feel like with a touch more inclusion of Mark’s thoughts this could have been elevated from Incredibly Entertaining Book to Incredible Piece of Literature.  Not to be all highfalutin, mentioning the difference between art and entertainment here, but I think if it came down to it, I would classify this as very high quality entertainment, but not quite literature.  I mean, I will definitely read whatever Andy Weir has coming out next, but I think he’s more of a spinner of yarns rather than a writer with big ideas and deep insight into the human condition.  Because if he’d had ’em, we probably would have heard at least some of them with a man stranded with only his thoughts for a year and a half on Mars, alone.

That said, a.) I could be wrong and am eager to read more of his work and b.) he tells a REALLY entertaining tale.  And again, the Martian was just made to be a movie.  A thrilling movie!  It’s one of the few books I’ve read where I thought wow, this could be a movie as is.  Don’t change anything, just have someone write it down in script format and there you go!  (Also, funnily enough, while reading, I found myself hearing Mark Watney’s diary in Matt Damon’s voice, and it really worked, so I think they did a great job with casting.)

Anyway, I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments, those of you who have read the Martian!  Did you love it as well?  Do you think the movie will be any good?  Are you excited to see it, even though you know everything that happens?  (I seriously think going into it without knowing anything would be so awesome and I’m kind of jealous of people in that situation.)  Do you think my thought on this book being really high quality entertainment instead of art holds water or am I the wrongest wrong that ever wronged?  Let me know!  And let me know if you have any suggestions for the next Mean Maureen’s Online Book Club, to be reviewed/discussed October 1st!

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Mean Maureen’s Online Book Club: Just Kids Review

Just Kids is a beautiful, heartbreaking story about an unusually strong connection between two artists, Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe.

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Full disclosure: I went into this book knowing next to nothing about Patti Smith and literally nothing about Robert Mapplethorpe.  Fair warning – if you’re looking for a Patti Smith biography or documentation of her music career, this is not that.  In fact, I would happily read another book by Patti Smith where she goes into more detail about her music career, but this book is something else entirely. Just Kids is a heartfelt, wonderfully written memoir of a unique relationship that seemed to expand beyond the romantic into something even more profound – an intense love, a fierce lifelong bond and, more than anything else, the deep, artistic connection of what she describes at one point as twin souls.

This book is fantastic for several reasons, but first because it’s clear immediately that Patti is an artist with an artist’s view of the world, which makes for an interesting read.  From page one, when she recalls her childhood frustration with the word swan not being enough to describe the essence of a swan, to later in that same chapter when she sees a series of childhood illnesses and fevers as opportunities to ascend to different levels of awareness, it is clear we are dealing with someone who sees the world in a different way.  She has a wonderful way with words and a palpable presence on the pages.  For lack of a better term, I really felt this book.  I felt her experience of childhood, I felt her painful struggles in New York and I, more than anything, felt her deep and consuming love for Robert.

In fact, Patti Smith does such an amazing job of conveying the intense emotions of her love for Robert, and his for her, that even though I’ve never had a relationship like theirs – a love that keeps evolving and growing and that is central to both of their lives and artistic paths – it felt familiar and important.

In fact, even if you don’t consider yourself remotely artistic, there is something familiar to the universal pains of growing up, and struggling.  More specific to this book are the hallmarks of the time in which it took place, the 1960’s and 70’s, mostly.  I couldn’t help but think about all of the social progress we’ve made since then and I thought a lot about how much of the suffering that occurs in the book, Patti’s horrific treatment when pregnant as an unwed mother (including being left alone for hours during breech labor by some monstrous nurses) and the emotional torment of Robert (and Patti) as he struggled to deal with his homosexuality, might have been lessened or avoided altogether now.  Of course, we still have a long way to go, but I certainly think it would have been easier for a young Robert to be gay in 2015 than in the 60’s and 70’s and if anyone treated a woman like they treated Patti during her labor there would be a million dollar lawsuit.

But of course, if Robert and Patti were living in 2015 we would have missed out on interactions with such luminaries such as Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin!  Though, I must say, if I had one criticism of this book it would be that the middle drags a little bit when they’re living in the Chelsea Hotel and literally, I assume, 100% of the artists and musicians of the time come in and say hello.  There were about 15 more names mentioned than I could possibly keep track of.  If you’re a 60’s/70’s music/art scene nerd, you might love the random one paragraph mentions of this person or that, but for me, I could have kept it to the big names and the people who actually played a meaningful part in Patti and/or Robert’s lives and left a few of the characters who waltzed through the Chelsea on the editing room floor.

However, that’s a minor, minor critique.  The book is lovely.  I cried at the end, several times, because, again, the love between Patti and Robert is palpable.  It vibrates right off the page.  I couldn’t imagine reading this without being touched by the great love story contained within, even if you were totally bored and disinterested by the lives of struggling artists in New York in the 60’s and 70’s.  And hell, if you ARE interested in the struggles of artists in 60’s and 70’s New York, you are seriously going to devour this book.

A minor word of warning: this book is not for the easily grossed out.  I was plainly horrified by many of the gritty NYC passages, like the apartment they moved into with the walls smeared with blood and the oven full of syringes.  Or all of the times everyone had lice.  Or the piss jars that Patti kept in her room because it didn’t have a bathroom.  Or the time that Robert had impacted wisdom teeth, gonorrhea and “trench mouth,” which is something I have never even heard of and am surely not going to look up!

But really, in a way, Patti and Robert’s high threshold for things that are gross (along with hunger and poverty) just shows how strong their love was – their love for each other, and their intense, uniting love for the artistic path.  You get the clear sense that it was all worth it, every sacrifice, every painful evolution of their relationship, because they had each other, and in the end, they made the art they wanted to make.

Anyway, I thought Just Kids was excellent!  Mean Maureen gives it 4.75 out of 5 Means.* I would love to hear what any other readers have to say!  Maybe you hated it! Maybe you found the middle section with all the luminaries to be your favorite part and you think I’m crazy!  Maybe you know what trench mouth is!  Let me know in the comments!

Meanwhile, I’ve chosen our book for the month of July.  Please make any suggestions about book ideas for August in the comments!  Meanwhile, everyone get ready, because we’re going to space!  Mean Maureen’s Online Book Club will be reading… the Martian this month!  I saw the trailer for the upcoming movie and was intrigued!  So, pick up a copy and get to reading, book clubbers!  Review to come August 1st.

*A random rating system I just decided on this very instant.

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