I have very little to say about faithful adaptations. Like The Lost Daughter, a fantastic movie based on a fantastic book, a relatively close adaptation all things considered. I could not write a whole newsletter about it. But I can about Station Eleven.
I read the novel in April, 2014. A very long time ago. I read a galley, before release, before it became surprisingly popular. I liked it, it was on my Best of 2014 list. But it has been almost 8 years and my recollection of it boils down to: man hides in apartment when plague comes, everyone dies, but we still have Shakespeare and a comic book.
When everyone started reading Station Eleven at the beginning of pandemic I thought they were bananas. (Still do!) And when the show came out I thought that was bananas, too. I approached it warily, and for once it wasn't because it was an adaptation of a book I liked and I was nervous that they'd mess it up. It took me weeks to watch the first few episodes.
But eventually I was able to come back to it, and I was often overwhelmed by how much bigger the show was than my memory. Nothing jogged my recollection, nothing was familiar. It was off. But then again what hasn't changed in the last 8 years? In April 2014 I was in Boston still technically married and figuring out how to be single again, I had just started my first full-time job in a totally new career path the previous month, I had a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old, and a blog. It was pre-2016 election, pre-2020 pandemic, a different universe, really.
I admit I got kind of mad at Station Eleven the show. It hit me with a lot of feelings and I was mad about it. Mad because the old me didn't have these feelings when she read the book, mad because a lot of pandemic (and especially parenting in pandemic) is being able to keep a hold on your feelings so you can still get through the damn day. I am an Enneagram Type 5 and if you break down my walls I will harbor some resentment.
But the other night I pulled out my galley, that's still on my shelf with "September 2014" at the bottom of the spine. I wasn't going to reread the whole book, but I still had this nagging question about why it never jogged my memory. I reread the first section, the handful of pre-plague chapters which I remembered being short. And they were. I remembered why I liked the prose so much, it's lovely without being inaccessible. And I loved her little teasing, terrifying flash forwards dashed in here and there to let you know just how bad it will get in a short time.
But mostly I was looking for, and found, one thing: the absence of the show's major plot line. My memory was right. Jeevan goes by himself to his brother's apartment with a bunch of supplies to wait out the flu. The show's first episode is actually quite different when it comes to the details (In the book Jeevan is a former paparazzo and EMT-in-training! He performs CPR!) as well as the broad strokes. He doesn't take young Kirsten with him. He doesn't lay the groundwork for the show's emotional core of their relationship.
And maybe this is just how weird I am but this was an immense relief to me. My memory was vague but it wasn't wrong. It knew that Chicago was not it (it's Toronto!!) and it was suspicious about this little girl plot line. A quick flip shows that the book meanders, but not in the deliberate way the show does. The show is a new thing, a much bigger thing. It is also sometimes rather emotionally clunky, especially at the end. But that plot that invoked in me the most shouting at the television and the most weeping wasn't in the book. I haven't changed so much and the world hasn't changed so much that I could forget it and then be totally surprised by it.
It's a good adaptation. It has a different style (its nonlinear storytelling is very Prestige TV, there isn't really a literary equivalent) and it wants to hit different beats. It reminded me why I often re-read a book just before the adaptation, ideally a few months ahead, just enough time for it to fade but not so long that I can't look with a discerning eye at how it was translated to a new medium.
I had a lot of personal feelings about The Lost Daughter, but I felt ready for them, anchored, prepared for the wave to hit. If I'd re-read Station Eleven I would have known immediately that it was different, and that would not have been such a bad thing. I love an adaptation that builds and grows around the original. But then again, maybe it is good to have feelings take you by surprise sometimes. Maybe that's how it's supposed to work.
Another Best of the Year release today! January is packed with them. This is not a horror novel (the cover and title are there for reasons you will discover as you read) but a narrative-about-narratives that's also about true crime and urban legends. It is a big fat 400+ page book and it's very ambitious and it's worth at least getting to the second of its seven sections before you make a decision about it.
I know a lot of people were meh on Darnielle's previous novels, Wolf in White Van and Universal Harvester. I liked both but they were so different from this new one. The prose and style are nowhere near the same. He is trying to "do a thing" but those things were quite specific and small, while this thing is a whole lot bigger. So I wouldn't count this one out if you were lukewarm on his previous books.
A Lisa Lutz standalone crime novel with a double timeline about Owen and Luna, who become best friends in college and are still best friends years later even though they are both married to other people. People are really weird about opposite-gender friendships as an adult, and this book wants to dive into that. A pretty good balance between character development and plot twists.
The book equivalent of a murder mystery party. Treat it like a game and it'll be a light diversion that isn't too serious full of eccentric characters told almost entirely through emails.
You may recall my very very long brain dump on this one a few months ago. I still do not recommend it as a primer or how-to on nonmonogamy. But I can't say it isn't a unique memoir.
What I've Been Reading
Release Date: May 3
Shelves: Authors of Color, LGBTQ, Best of 2022
This book is going to be living in my brain for a very long time.
I will often groan aloud when I see that a book is about a young woman and a much older man. There are so many of them out there, if you are going to do it you have to justify its existence. Songsiridej more than delivers. Our protagonist (who is unnamed for most of the book) is not the young, straight, white woman under 20 we often see in these stories. She is 30, biracial, and identifies as queer. She has a day job but mostly she is a writer and she is not exactly successful but she is not all that far off from it. She meets the man, a choreographer, at an artists' residency and doesn't like him. It is only later that they meet again and she starts to see him differently.
While there is an imbalance in their relationship (he is not just successful but well-known and wealthy along with being at least a couple of decades her senior) it is just that--an imbalance. They may turn heads, she may be taken for his daughter, their friends may disapprove, but it isn't inherently bad. He does not have a habit of chasing much-younger women. She spends most of her time with queer women and while she is dazzled by him, she is also wary of his status. She is not unaware of what is happening, of how they look.
And how they look to his friends is quite different than how they look to hers. Her friends are mostly queer people close to her in age, well-educated and underemployed. To them, her choice of the choreographer is a choice that rejects their community and identity. Not just because he is a man but because this kind of relationship is so wrapped up in the power dynamics of patriarchy and heterosexuality. Not only that, but our protagonist is making textbook bad relationship choices: spending all her free time with her new boyfriend, making all the effort for them to see each other while he makes hardly any, etc. This is particularly galling to her roommate, who has been her closest friend since college.
Our protagonist knows she is making bad decisions. She thinks about it often. She questions herself. She also knows what her desires are and luxuriates in the rewards of satisfying them. Gradually they incorporate BDSM into their relationship, and she struggles with the mixture of happiness and sadness the relationship brings her. She also starts to see the rest of her life in new ways. The patterns she starts to see, particularly with her roommate, show us that this relationship is not a sudden shift but may in fact have been a long time coming.
Not long before this I read another novel about a relatively young queer woman who has a notable affair with an older partner (We Do What We Do In the Dark by Michelle Hart) and they went well together even though they were quite different. But actually the contrast only made each more distinctive. I definitely spent both books feeling very old as I watched these young women jump fully into obsessive relationships that to someone like me whose spent years in the dating pool were full of red flags. I understood their choices, I just did a lot of cringing. I wanted so badly to take them both aside and give them some good advice, even if I didn't think they would take it.
The end of this book is a real gut punch. I knew it would be. As I got closer and closer to the end and we still hadn't reached some kind of resolution I realized that it was going to be one of these books that doesn't walk you there and let you take a breather but one that would leave you gasping and oh boy it did. It shifts the entire narrative. It was the first time in a long time that I went back to reread the last ten pages.
Songsiridej's prose is lovely, I like the comparison to Cleanness because she shares a frankness of prose with Greenwell. Her writing about sex is sometimes focused on the details because she wants us to see the story in it, what it means for the characters, how the dynamics play out in this most delicate arena. Sex and desire is much of what draws our protagonist into this relationship, it's important that Songsiridej doesn't gloss over those things or close the bedroom door. We need to understand how she feels, and this book is one of the best I've read at helping the reader understand obsession.
I tore through this in a day and I am pretty sure I will read it again.
Release Date: Out Now
Shelves: Audiobooks, Authors of Color
This is a twisty story that manages to fit a whole lot of drama into just a few characters. Intricately plotted but always staying close to our characters. It is one of those books where every character brings their own perspective to the story and part of the pleasure is seeing them see each other.
Ronke, Boo, and Simi have been best friends for years. They are all biracial, half British and half Nigerian, living in Britain. They all have complicated family histories. They are a group that has always been in sync even when their lives are in different places. Boo already has a husband and daughter, Simi dropped out of college but bounced back into fashion, and Ronke is single and a practicing dentist. Things get thrown when Isobel appears, a girl from far in Simi's past. Isobel immediately makes waves and sends up hackles, but slowly they accept her as a new part of the group.
But it's clear to us that Isobel is Up To Something. Especially when we see things from different points of view and start to see the cracks in Isobel's story. Isobel nudges them all in different ways, giving them each a little push here and there, and soon their friendship is on the rocks and old grudges resurface.
Our characters here are not perfect but all distinctive and I really appreciated how May got us to care about them while still making it pretty clear what their flaws are. I really could have read this for ages, I loved going back and forth between the three women and seeing just how they were going to mess things up next.
I am very very tempted to deduct half a star because the ending to this book is all wrong. Too fast and also suddenly ramps things up way too many notches. Felt like we jumped genres, almost. I wanted us to get to have some real time to work on resolution here just like we'd had so much time to get so deep into the mud.
I listened on audio and the reader was great, easily moving between British, Nigerian, American, and French accents and really bringing all the characters to life.
Release Date: May 10, 2022
There is one good twist in this book and I just want to note that up front because this is definitely the kind of book where I can get so hung up on all the things that frustrated me that I leave out something like the one good twist. There was also a good red herring. The opening pages are good, too.
There are good bones here, but oh boy everything else. Mallory is college-aged but not in college, because she is just out of rehab. Mallory, we are told, was raised in South Philly by a single mother and after high school spent a couple years in complete thrall to her addiction. I note that we are told this because besides being told it, nothing about Mallory would ever give you this idea. Besides her Philly references, she doesn't talk or act like someone with her background. She conveniently was spared any significant trauma while living as a homeless addict, which I find highly unlikely but I guess it makes the story easier to tell. She camouflages well when she pretends to be a college student, and honestly she seems more like a typical college student. She is perfectly content suddenly dropped into a fancy suburb to be a live-in nanny.
Then again, the couple she nannies for have the same flaw. We are told at the beginning about their rules for the nanny, which seem rather strict but not much they do really aligns with the people we are told they are in the beginning. And when things get weird, they are even less those people. If my nanny came and told me with absolute belief that my child was drawing pictures while under the control of a ghost, I would not have the mild reaction these two have. And it's unclear why Mallory would present this to them and expect that she will be able to convince them, since it's pretty inconsistent with everything we know about them.
Nothing Mallory does makes much sense. Not just when she suspects there is a ghost but when she is actually being a nanny. Several times I would think, "Mallory, wtf, if you think that kid is being possessed during quiet time then stop leaving the kid alone in their room during quiet time??? Seems like a simple solution." Eventually there will be a reason for this, but the reason is not something Mallory consciously decided but something the book needs to be true so it can throw a reveal at you later.
Besides the one good twist, this book also has one reveal I did not like at all and that I would have encouraged someone to avoid if they'd asked me. It is also a reveal that makes no sense because it's impossible that Mallory wouldn't have known this within 24 hours of being the nanny to a 5 year old. And all the rest of the reveals, well, they were not nearly as good as the one good one. By the time I was halfway through I was just reading to find out if there was at least an interesting reason for all this. Alas.
Release Date: Out Now
Shelves: Authors of Color, Readaloud
For me this one took too long to get going, it wasn't until we were halfway through that I felt like we were in the meat of the plot. Glad to see it'll continue as a series because I think the way Lee intertwines Korean mythology and science-fiction is really impressive, from the characters to the technology. Kids enjoyed this one, though I don't think we had quite as much urgency around it, took us longer to read than usual by a whole lot.