Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

The structure of Station Eleven is undeniably clever. (The skill that must have been required is comparable to Toni Morrison’s when she crafted the story of Beloved.) Only gradually do readers piece together the relationships between the characters as Station Eleven skips around in time. Some slivers of story are from the time when a global plague first hits, and some are from the empty, bleak years following the deaths of most of the Earth’s people.

I found the story depressing. I tend to dislike stories about epidemics; they make me feel both disgusted and powerless. Add to my distaste for unstoppable illness the inevitable collapse of civilized society, which gives rise to the spread of lawlessness and dangerous cults, and you have a recipe for misery. The faint glimmer of hope tacked on at the end failed to console me in the slightest.

When and why I read Station Eleven

I keep hearing about this book.

Genre: fiction (speculative fiction)
Date started / date finished:  13-Nov-18 to 17-Nov-18
Length: 333
ISBN: 9780804172448
Originally published in: 2014
Amazon link: Station Eleven

City of Ember (2008)

Never judge a book by its movie. City of Ember (the movie) is only okay, but City of Ember (the book) is fantastic.

Deep underground, the people of Ember have never seen the sun and don’t even know it exists. The builders of their city planned for them to emerge, but that plan was lost and forgotten, and now Ember is running out of supplies, and its generator, without which there is no light, is breaking down. Will the builders return to save the people of Ember, as some believe? Will the mayor come up with a plan for his people? Or will it be up to Lina and Doon to rediscover the lost exit to the surface?

The premise is great. However, the movie lacks the focus of the book because some added elements don’t quite fit, some of the positive thematic messages are missing, and some of the action shots were created with awkward CGI. Also, personally, I’m not fond of Bill Murray.

I think The City of Ember would be great as a television series, because a TV show could spend a lot more time developing the characters and exploring the unique underground world.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/city-of-ember/id299413486

See below for a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Continue reading City of Ember (2008)

The Diamond of Darkhold by Jeanne DuPrau

The Diamond of Darkhold, the fourth and last City of Ember book, is not my favorite in the series. Still, DuPrau on a bad day is a better writer than most folks out there!

Here are three of her ideas I particularly liked.

Trogg had a knack for figuring things out, Doon had to admit it. And yet he did not see Trogg as a truly intelligent person. Trogg seemed to think that he knew everything, but strangely enough, it was exactly this that made him seem stupid to Doon. A person who thought he knew everything simply didn’t understand how much there was to know. (120)

Trogg and his family are ignorant and destructive. They think books are useful—for fuel. Doon is horrified that they don’t believe “figuring out squiggles” (reading) can teach them anything they don’t already know. See pages 139–140.

“I don’t agree that it’s good to speak only when spoken to…. If everyone did that, no one would ever speak at all! What you mean is that people should only speak when you speak to them.” (150)

When and why I read The Diamond of Darkhold

I was reminded of The City of Ember when I read The Ship. I decided to go back and re-read it, and read the two sequels and the prequel. (Previously, I only read City of Ember itself and the first sequel.)

Genre: fiction (children’s fantasy)
Date started / date finished:  10-Nov-18 to 13-Nov-18
Length: 285
ISBN: 9780375855719
Originally published in: 2008
Amazon link: The Diamond of Darkhold

Collateral (2004)

In Edge of Tomorrow, Tom Cruise somehow made dying funny. In Collateral, he somehow makes killing funny. And also sad.

The premise is that Tom Cruise, playing contract killer Vincent, hires Jamie Foxx, playing taxi driver Max, to chauffeur him around LA all night, without, of course, explaining that he will be murdering five people before skipping town. What’s a hardworking, law-abiding taxi driver to do, apart from cooperate? Can he improvise a way out of his horrible predicament?

Collateral seems like it could have been an action movie, but it’s kinda not. Although it features crazy driving, shooting, Tom Cruise running, and a police hunt, it’s a drama as much as it is a thriller. The whole story takes place in one night, and dialog seems to take up the bulk of the screen time. It’s more serene than frantic.

The theme is carpe diem. Don’t postpone your dreams! Don’t be afraid of taking risks! Also: Don’t hire yourself out as a contract killer, because if you do, when you die, no one will care!

I hated Tom Cruise’s hair. Was that style fashionable back in 2004? Clamshell phones were. Those are a joke now that smartphones have taken over the world…

All nitpicking aside, I enjoyed the movie. Sure doesn’t make me want to live in LA, though!

The plot summary on Wikipedia is not bad.

This Roger Ebert review is full of praise.

This review at Pajiba calls the movie melancholy and soulful, claiming it may be the best movie Tom Cruise will ever make.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/collateral/id291825916

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (2018)

When I started seeing movie posters for The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, I was curious but apprehensive. Watching the movie, I was pleasantly surprised.

Unlike the 1993 film featuring ballet student and Home Alone star Macaulay Culkin, the movie is not merely a recording of a stage performance of the ballet, nor is it a musical, nor does it follow the “story” of the ballet. It’s a through-the-looking glass version, a mirror image, or echo of the story in the ballet. The film includes a bit of ballet and some of the musical themes, but mostly it is a beautiful, original, inspiring fantasy.

The sets, CGI, and costumes are impressive, but the strength of the movie is the theme it expresses: how to deal with the loss of a loved one. There are healthy ways and unhealthy ways, both demonstrated dramatically.

Other solid, admirable themes are family togetherness, friendship and loyalty, creativity and curiosity, bravery, compassion and forgiveness, choice, and belief in one’s self.

With so much for the protagonist to learn on her adventure, I don’t see how detractors can call the movie ‘soulless’. Did we even watch the same movie? Whatever their reasons, critics and audiences don’t seem to like this movie nearly as much as I did, saying it’s as clunky as that ambitious 2018 flop, A Wrinkle in Time. That’s not fair at all. Four Realms is miles better than A Wrinkle in Time.

Maybe the detractors don’t award as many points for theme as they do for how subtly those themes are expressed. Some hoped for more ballet, others hoped for more music. Some wanted it to be scarier, others wanted it less scary. Maybe they all simply had higher expectations. Maybe nobody quite knew what to expect at all. I agree the film could have been better, but I think it was actually pretty decent. This review at Empire Online agrees with me.

See below for a plot summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Continue reading The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (2018)

The Prophet of Yonwood by Jeanne DuPrau

The Prophet of Yonwood, the third and prequel City of Ember book, is the one in the series that people seem to have a tendency of skipping.  Do not make that mistake!

I admit that I put off reading it because I thought it was going to be a didactic mess. From the word “prophet” in the title and the image of a nuclear bomb on the cover, I assumed it would be a finger-wagging book about the human tendency to commit murder on a shockingly large scale for merely political reasons. That is not what it is about.

The book is also not about Ember until you get to the very, very end, so don’t read it thinking you’ll learn much about Lina and Doon’s world. Read it because it contains a fresh and interesting new story.

The story of Nickie, a newcomer to Yonwood, and Grover, a friend she meets there, has important messages to convey about the fraught relationship between morality and authority.

When and why I read The Prophet of Yonwood

I was reminded of The City of Ember when I read The Ship. I decided to go back and re-read it, and read the two sequels and the prequel. (Previously, I only read City of Ember itself and the first sequel.)

Genre: fiction (children’s fantasy)
Date started / date finished:  07-Nov-18 to 10-Nov-18
Length: 289
ISBN: 9780440421245
Originally published in: 2006
Amazon link: The Prophet of Yonwood

The People of Sparks by Jeanne DuPrau

The People of Sparks, the sequel to The City of Ember, is a harsh wake-up call for Doon and Lina’s cave people, and for readers. Secrets, lies, tricks, and brooding resentment explode in a conflict between the people of Ember and the people of Sparks, who have agreed to feed and shelter them.

While the first book in the Ember series was triumphant, and glorified curiosity, tenacity, and problem-solving, this book puts uglier human tendencies in the spotlight. It’s not as much fun to read, but it’s well thought-out, well written, and ultimately still satisfying.

When and why I read The People of Sparks

I was reminded of The City of Ember when I read The Ship. I decided to go back and re-read it, and read the two sequels and the prequel. (Previously, I only read City of Ember itself and the first sequel.)

Genre: fiction (children’s fantasy)
Date started / date finished:  05-Nov-18 to 06-Nov-18
Length: 338
ISBN: 0375828249
Originally published in: 2004
Amazon link: The People of Sparks

The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau

The more I think about The City of Ember, the more I like it.

Deep underground, the people of Ember have never seen the sun and don’t even know it exists. The builders of their city planned for them to emerge, but that plan was lost and forgotten, and now Ember is running out of supplies, and its generator, without which there is no light, is breaking down. Will the builders return to save the people of Ember, as some believe? Does the mayor have a plan for his people? Or will it be up to Lina and Doon to rediscover the lost exit to the surface?

The setting is richly imagined, and the plot and characters live up to a unique and fascinating premise. The real strength of the book is the thematic content, though. Ember (the book) is not a riveting but meaningless retro-futuristic adventure like Ember (the movie); it has a wealth of moral lessons that come across as relevant rather than didactic.

The core message of the book is to uphold dedication to thinking over complacency, to admire planning and forethought rather than taking things as they come, to act rather than wait.

Other themes are that curiosity is good, that we should pay attention and notice things, that we should take our family, friends, and responsibilities seriously, that getting away with something doesn’t make it right.

See below for a chapter-by-chapter plot summary and some key quotes.

You might also want to check out the Shmoop literature guide for City of Ember.

But really, if you haven’t, you should read the book yourself!

Continue reading The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

A more accurate title for this novel might be: The Adventures of the Strangely Wise and Poetical Free Spirit Huckleberry Finn, and the Hapless Runaway Slave Jim, Interrupted by the Heartless Cloudcuckoolander Tom Sawyer.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was required reading in my 10th-grade English class. I didn’t like it. Years later, now that I’ve re-read it, I still don’t like it, but I have more insight into what makes it a good book as well as what annoys me about it.

See below for the strengths of the book and what annoyed me about it, a plot summary (with SPOILERS), and what stood out as well as when and why I read it.

Continue reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

The House of the Mosque by Kader Abdolah, translated by Susan Massotty

The House of the Mosque is a perfectly good literary novel but not my cup of tea. I tend to feel like family sagas are pointless even when they’re interesting.

This one tells the story of a family that lives in the titular house of the mosque in a town in Iran. Over the course of the book, time passes, and times change. Different characters, confronted with modernity, make different choices, or fall victim to changes outside their control. It’s an informative but melancholy book.

On the subject of modern Iran, I have previously read the autobiographical graphic novel Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi, the non-fictional account Taken Hostage, by David Farber, and the lengthy novel Whirlwind, by James Clavell. The House of the Mosque is less dramatic than Whirlwind and has less true-to-life impact than either of the non-fiction books. (I made essentially the same observation about the American family saga Roots, which I think is flawed both as fiction and as non-fiction.)

When and why I read The House of the Mosque

I am reading this for the Singapore Ladies’ Book Group for November.

Genre: fiction (historical, family saga)
Date started / date finished:  01-Nov-18 to 02-Nov-18
Length: 449
ISBN: ASIN B0033TI4BC
Originally published in: 2010
Amazon link: The House of the Mosque