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Annihilation (Southern Reach Trilogy #1)
by Jeff Vandermeer
Area X is uninhabited. It appears to be an Eden but every exploratory team that heads out there comes back changed, if they come back at all. The 2nd expedition committed suicide; the third turned their guns on each other. This is the 11th trip and the 4-member team is wholly female. The team before them – which included the narrator’s husband- just popped up at home unexpectedly and within months were all dead of cancer. We do eventually get some backstory on the narrator, threaded in between a series of eerie events, but it is served up slowly and without any kind of emotional inflection on her part. It is hard to know what to make of her. Area X changes her. She is altered by ‘the brightness’ which invades her and is also visible to others on the team leading them to mistrust her. Each of them seem to have their own agenda. Not every reader will enjoy the voice of this sci-fi novel. Names are not used- characters are referred to as the surveyor, the anthropologist, the psychologist, and the main character is simply the biologist. I thought her curiously clinical tone even in the midst of terrifying incidents fit her personality- she reports facts although eventually cannot rely on her basic senses to understand what she is experiencing- it is all so new. She is also a somewhat unreliable witness. I seem to gravitate towards atmospheric novels and the narrator’s somewhat stark description of precipitating events heightened the sense of dread, which builds steadily throughout the book. This is the first in a series, which is also packaged together into one book (Area X: The Southern Reach trilogy). The setting is rich and intriguing, the descriptions of Area X and its denizens are fascinating.
A shooter loose in a high school. Four unique perspectives. An edge of your seat story that unfolds over the space of 54 taut minutes. I thought this was superbly paced, minute by tension-filled minute. It was (dare I say it?) unputdownable. Nijkamp deftly weaves together the various skeins of her plot until everything comes together at the end. The characters are diverse and realistic and well-fleshed out. Because of the multiple points of view and the narrow window of action, the reader feels like they’re in the middle of it all, as if they know these children. There are many moments that are truly shocking, and the losses are almost palpable. For a book to represent so well for the victims of a school shooting (and that includes to some extent the perpetrator) is a rare and laudable achievement, though by no means an easy read.
Written by Jean-Pierre Siméon
Illustrated by Olivier Tallec
(Enchanted Lion Books)
What does life in a fishbowl amount to? It is difficult to observe a captive goldfish without experiencing a degree of existential anxiety, which makes this a clever entry point for exploring poetry and its meaning. Arthur is worried that his fish Leon is going to die of boredom. His mother suggests he “give him a poem!” Young Arthur has no idea what a poem is, so he sets out to find one. There is none in the cupboard or under the bed, so he visits a colourful cast of neighbourhood characters to ask what a poem is. Lolo, who repairs bikes and is always in love, says: “A poem, Arthur, is when you are in love and have the sky in your mouth.” Friends and family members each volunteer an impression of poetry informed by their own life, their words amounting to poetry itself as they grapple with their definition. Illustrator Olivier Tallec renders these observations in rich, fanciful illustrations using fine pencil lines splashed with broad strokes of vibrant colour - inviting young readers to experience, as Arthur does, the power of poetry to evoke images and feelings. The magic of this picture book lies in its visceral, experiential explanation of poetry and its value for all of us who might sometimes feel like fish in a bowl.
Kazuo Ishiguro's most recent novel The Buried Giant is a gently-told, deeply affecting tale about an aging couple who set off on a journey to find their long-lost son. Set (sort of) in iron age Britain, this is a beautiful, disturbing epic that incorporates fantastic elements - ogres, dragons, and giants - in a very reasonable way. Ishiguro has expertly combined many genres here, and the story stays with the reader long after the reading. It is a gorgeous, exciting novel, that tells an enormous story about love, war, the strangeness of memory and aging - in simple, powerful language.
Every now and then I'll share older books that I think should be essentials on everyone's shelves. Anne Waldman's Fast Speaking Woman: Chants and Essays, originally published in 1974, is a marvellous little book, featuring at its centre the title poem, which is a rolling, ecstatic list poem/chant. This is a highly energetic, rhythmic, and empowering piece, which is very fun to read aloud. A lot of the works in this small book, which has had 20 poems added since the initial publication, are about the poet as an energy source for poetry, which moves through the poet as portal. This book was one of those eye (and ear) openers for me - the exuberance in language and the community of women. Upon re-reading/re-listening, there are some questions about appropriation that arise from the speaker's universal "I" in the title poem- but there is a prismatic and oracular quality to the piece that simply presents the I as being a multitude of experiences and embodiments, without assuming a position of expertise. A great book! Read Waldman aloud, and listen to her read the poem here for the full experience.