Station Eleven

20170404[1]I hadn’t given much thought to the impact or aftermath of a pandemic until I read Station Eleven. In Station Eleven a virus, the “Georgia Flu,” kills the majority of the world’s population within a few days. There’s no explanation, it just happened. Only pockets of human life remain. Author Emily St. John Mandel broaches the story in a creative way by intersecting multiple characters that are connected to one person, a Shakespearean actor named Arthur. In the first few pages, Arthur dies of a heart attack on stage while playing King Lear. At the same time, the Georgia Flu is taking hold and within days everything has changed forever. Mandel toggles in time between pre-pandemic days and twenty years after. The pandemic is referred to as “the collapse” of civilization where there is no electricity, no food and no running water. Roads are jammed with cars, inside are remnants of humans. All homes and buildings ransacked and deteriorating. Survivors travel by foot and some think they are the world’s sole survivor until one day they see footprints in the snow. Mandel paints a grim scene.

One character, Kirsten, is a child actor who made appearances in King Lear with Arthur and was witness to his heart attack. We get to know Kirsten twenty years after the collapse. She is in her late twenties and a Shakespearean actress in the Traveling Symphony, a band of twenty who perform symphonies and plays as they travel from settlement to settlement. Kirsten is obsessed with all things Arthur, especially a comic-book series written by Arthur’s ex-wife, Miranda.  The comic book features a character, Dr. Eleven, a physicist who lives on a space station, Station Eleven, after escaping an alien takeover of Earth. There is a parallel universe here that Kirsten understands but is never really developed.  Kirsten is tough and self-sufficient. She defends herself and others against The Prophet who is a cult leader taking pre-teen brides and training young boys to kill.

Another character is Clark who was Arthur’s best friend. The pandemic leaves Clark stranded in an airport where he lives for the rest of his life while building a Museum of Civilization that showcases pre-pandemic items such as cell phones, computers and credit cards. The Traveling Symphony is making its way to the airport which, after twenty years, has become a settlement of over 300 people. Clark and Kirsten meet but then the book ends.  Did they know that Arthur was a common connection between them?  I’m left with questions.  Who was that Prophet anyway?

Author Emily St. John Mandel

Author Emily St. John Mandel

As Mandel skillfully developed each of the characters in connection to Arthur, I had an expectation of a climactic event, a coming together. The end left me suspended.  Perhaps there’s a sequel? Regardless, I enjoyed reading this book, it’s a real page turner and perfect for a book club discussion.

See what the New York Times had to say about Station Eleven.

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Boys in the Boat

The UW crew team (far shell) winning the 1936 Olympics in Berlin

The UW crew team (far shell) winning the 1936 Olympics in Berlin

th[2]I’m probably the last person in Seattle to read this book.  Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown is a remarkable story of nine young men from the University of Washington who overcame all odds to win the 1936 Olympic gold medal in rowing.  Even though you know the end before you start reading, the book is compelling and exciting.  Throughout, Brown focuses on one crew member, Joe Rantz, whose early life was so challenging it’s implausible he would survive, let alone succeed.  His is a truly moving story.  The author interviewed Joe Rantz for this book shortly before he passed away in 2007.

An interesting element of the book is the context Brown provides on Germany in 1936 as Hitler was gaining momentum.  This was Hitler’s Olympics and the U.S. win over Germany was a particular affront to him.

I really enjoyed the gripping details Brown conjures out of the races that lead to the Olympic gold.  Each race is captivating.


Author Daniel James Brown

This story is about inspiration and teamwork on a transcendent level.   It’s a must read.  The question is, why did it take over 70 years for this story to be told?

See what the Seattle Times had to say about Boys in the Boat.

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Intimate Impressionism


Berthe Morisot, The Artist’s Sister Sitting at a Window, 1869

Having recently posted a blog on The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris by David McCullough, it seems appropriate to highlight the Seattle Art Museum’s Intimate Impressionism, a stunning exhibition of French Impressionist art.  On display are masterpieces by Renoir, Monet, Manet, Morisot, Degas and others.

Auguste Renoir (French, 1841 - 1919 ), Picking Flowers, 1875, oil on canvas, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection

Auguste Renoir (French, 1841 – 1919 ), Picking Flowers, 1875, oil on canvas, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Collection

Many of these artists were featured in McCullough’s book  as core to the Impressionist movement in the mid to late 19th century.  I saw the exhibition yesterday and will likely revisit.  If you’re in Seattle between Oct-Jan, this exhibition is a must see.  You’ll also want to see Samuel Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre which is separate and on a different floor, but don’t miss it!


Samuel Morse, Gallery of the Louvre, 1831-1833

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Americans in Paris

51VCGMQNTKL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_I normally prefer fiction to history books but this title had me at Paris.  The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris was written by two-time Pulitzer Prize author David McCullough. This is a sizable book; 536 pages of deeply researched history requiring 76 pages of source notes and bibliography.

I was excited to get into this book hoping it touched on early 20th century Americans in Paris.  But you won’t find Hemingway, Fitzgerald or Stein in these pages.  McCullough stays devoted to the 19th century Americans such as George Healy, Mary Cassatt, John Singer Sargent and many more who, over seven decades, became the original Americans to showcase French influence through their artistry.


Elihu Benjamin Washburn

Not all who traveled to Paris were artists and writers.   Elihu Washburn, the US Minister to France at the time, may have been one of the most moving characters in this book.  At the Library of Congress, McCullough and his research team uncovered Washburn’s detailed daily journals that were buried amongst letters and other documents.  These journals had never before been published.  The monumental discovery of these exquisite writings enabled McCullough to shine a spotlight on Washburn and his gallant efforts during the Franco-Prussia War.  McCullough’s admiration is apparent as he expands on Washburn’s earlier life and how the great struggles on a farm with eleven siblings motivated a successful career in politics.  Mostly though, Elihu Washburn attributed his astounding accomplishments to his mother:   “When I think of her labors, her anxieties, her watchfulness, her good and wise counsels and her attention to all our wants, my heart swells with emotions of gratitude toward her which no language can express.” Elihu Washburn

McCullough’s history includes details of the 1889 Exposition Universalle which featured the newly constructed Eiffel Tower.  He also includes the building of The Statue of Liberty and the evolution of the inventions of Thomas Edison and Samuel Morse.  The historical detail in the book is staggering.  When I finally finished the book it felt as though I had completed a semester course in history.  History was never this fun.

David McCullough, author of The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris

David McCullough

I enjoyed this book and am in awe of its author.    He embodies the very qualities he so clearly admires in his characters.  Like them,  he too will have an everlasting impact.

Upon release of The Greater Journey in 2011, PBS News Hour did an interview with David McCullough that captures the essence of his book.  In the video I saw a striking resemblance between McCullough and Walter Cronkite.        Do you?

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International Literacy Day

Happy International Literacy Day!  OK, I’m one day late but I figure it’s never too late to celebrate literacy.

The International Literacy Day was declared by UNESCO in 1965 to place a global spotlight on the link between literacy and economic growth.  Approximately 775 million people worldwide are functionally illiterate, lacking the basic reading and writing skills to manage daily living and employment tasks.

The International Literacy Association (ILA) suggests taking the community approach to promote literacy.  They’re celebrating the day by sponsoring the Little Free Library® and  have created a toolkit to get you started on one of the hottest literacy movements today.  Little Free Library toolkit.

Little Free Libraries in my neighborhood.  One day I’ll build one myself.

Another Little Free Library in the Magnolia neighborhood of Seattle.


Some Little Free Libraries are quite elaborate such as this one on the east side of Magnolia in Seattle

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Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl


Carrie Browstein of Sleater-Kinney band and actress on the TV series Portlandia will release her first book Oct 27th.

Don’t miss this great opportunity to meet two very talented female artists and authors from the Pacific Northwest.

Carrie Browstein, musician and actress from Portland, will release her first book called Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl on October 27th.   She’ll appear at the Neptune Theater in Seattle on November 6th with Maria Semple, the famed Seattle author of Where’d You Go, Bernadette.

Check out Browstein’s book tour schedule.  More information  from the The Seattle Theater Group website:

41EPYSumZvL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_From the guitarist of the pioneering band Sleater-Kinney, a candid, funny, and deeply personal look at making a life—and finding yourself—in music.

Before Carrie Brownstein became a music icon, she was a young girl growing up in the Pacific Northwest just as it was becoming the setting for one the most important movements in rock history. Seeking a sense of home and identity, she would discover both while moving from spectator to creator in experiencing the power and mystery of a live performance. With Sleater-Kinney, Brownstein and her bandmates rose to prominence in the burgeoning underground feminist punk-rock movement that would define music and pop culture in the 1990s. They would be cited as “America’s best rock band” by legendary music critic Greil Marcus for their defiant, exuberant brand of punk that resisted labels and limitations, and redefined notions of gender in rock.

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is an intimate and revealing narrative of her escape from a turbulent family life into a world where music was the means toward self-invention, community, and rescue. Along the way, Brownstein chronicles the excitement and contradictions within the era’s flourishing and fiercely independent music subculture, including experiences that sowed the seeds for the observational satire of the popular television series Portlandia years later.

With deft, lucid prose Brownstein proves herself as formidable on the page as on the stage. Accessibly raw, honest and heartfelt, this book captures the experience of being a young woman, a born performer and an outsider, and ultimately finding one’s true calling through hard work, courage and the intoxicating power of rock and roll.

I’m looking forward to reading this one!

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Bookstores and Romantic Tales

I really like stories about books and bookstores.  They typically intertwine romance or mystery and have a happy, heartfelt ending.  Here are three such books I’ve recently read:

The Moment of Everything

This charmer was written by Shelly King who works for a Silicon Valley software Moment of Everythingcompany.  How she can work in high-tech and write a book at the same time is beyond me, but she does it well.  In The Moment of Everything King’s main character, Maggie, has been ousted from a Silicon Valley startup and is in need of motivation to move on.  She thinks a book club might be a network opportunity but must read Lady Chatterley’s Lover in one day.  That’s when she happens upon an old hardcover edition of the book.  She quickly discovers this book has special love notes in the margins.  These love notes grab Maggie’s curiosity and become core to a charming and clever mystery.   This a delightful love story, a quick read.   See Amazon reviews of this book.

The Shadow of the Wind

Shadow of the WindThe author, Carlos Ruiz Zafon has created a story involving a lot of characters that are intricately interwoven.  Mystery and intrigue are front and center.  For his tenth birthday, the main character, Daniel, is taken to a “Cemetery of Forgotten Books” by his father, a bookstore owner in Barcelona, where Daniel selects a random book for his very own.  Over time, Daniel’s curiosity in the book’s author propel him into a seriously complex mystery and life-long journey.   The journey takes the reader in and out of many lives.  It’s a story of hairpin turns and varying scenes.  But there is violence throughout and violence against women.  I could have done without that.  And, in parts, Zafon’s detail is tedious and distracting from the momentum of the story.  It took me a while to get into this book but I’m glad I stuck it out.  It gratifies and comes full circle.  Read what The New York Times said.

AJ Fikry The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

Written by Gabrielle Zevin, this is a story about a bookstore owner who has recently lost his wife. He’s living a curmudgeonly life in every way. One night he gets drunk and awakes the next morning to find his rare collection of Poe poems has been stolen.   There is change in the wind, however, as a series of events transforms him, his bookstore and those around him. This is a delightful story, uplifting and humorous.   See NPR’s interview with the author.

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Readable yet Disturbing

I recently read The Dinner and Euphoria, both absorbing and readable books but haunting at the same time.  Great fodder for conversation or a book club discussion.

The Dinner

This page-turner is a translated novel by the Dutch writer Herman Koch.  Koch takes youThe Dinner through a complex story theme in the timeframe of one dinner at an upscale restaurant in Amsterdam.  Two brothers and their wives are out to dinner.  One brother is a politician, the other is an unemployed history teacher.  There is sibling tension and a cultural chasm, but none of that compares to the nightmare brewing in the background.  Their children are involved in a horrific situation and the tension between the two families builds to a shocking conclusion.  It’s raw, harsh, disturbing and thought-provoking.  Typically I like more approachable characters and storylines, but I admit I couldn’t put this book down. Once done, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.  “Unsettling” is the final analysis of the New York Times review.  I have to agree.


Euphoria This beautifully-written book by Lily King was inspired by Margaret Mead’s experiences in Samoa in the 1930s.  King’s story features three young anthropologists researching in New Guinea – a married couple and a colleague, of sorts, who is researching on his own.  There is the predictable love element. The characters are intricately developed. King’s brilliant descriptions of life in the jungle are so vivid they are almost tangible. But, throughout, there is a nagging undercurrent of violence and uneasiness, not just within the tribes. The ending left me stunned. Again, I couldn’t stop thinking about this book once I finished. It’s engaging and haunting.  New York Times review of Euphoria

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I Always Loved You

9780143126102I recently read I Always Loved You by Robin Oliviera, a fictional look at the relationship between American artist Mary Cassatt and French Impressionist Edgar Degas.  It’s not as much a true love story as it is a reflection of the time.  The late 1800’s Paris was the boom of independently minded artists who brought the impressionist movement to life.  Those visionaries included not only Cassatt and Degas, also the likes of Renoir, Caillebotte, Monet, Cezanne, Pissaro, Morisot and Manet.  The author of I Always Loved You intertwines their lives and creates a fascinating story featuring tumultuous relationships, radical ideas, and ambitious Impressionism.  Results?  Well, we’re all familiar with the consequence of their genius.

Dega Sculpture

The Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer by Edgar Degas

During a recent trip to Boston I visited the Museum of Fine Arts and spent considerable time in the Impressionist section.   On display are notable Degas pieces along with his Little Fourteen-Year-Old Dancer sculpture, which is divine.  The museum also has a few Mary Cassatt pieces, The Tea and In the Loge for example, but they are featured in the American Artists section, not the Impressionist section, which is bit disappointing given her deep devotion and contribution to Impressionism.

I Always Loved You is a delightful story for those fascinated by the romance, brilliance and masterpieces of the Belle Époque.

I really enjoyed this book, I hope you do too.

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Save the Dolphins

51QFPPDKLCL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_ (2)

Author Susan Casey

Hey Seattlites, this is one you won’t want to miss!   Author Susan Casey will be reading from her latest book “Voices in the Ocean: A Journey Into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins,” at the Seattle Public Library’s Microsoft Auditorium on Monday, August 17, 2015, 7 – 8:30pm.

I haven’t read this book yet but here’s the scoop from B&N.

Barnes & Noble overview:

From Susan Casey, the New York Times bestselling author of The Wave and The Devil’s Teeth, a breathtaking journey through the extraordinary world of dolphins

Since the dawn of recorded history, humans have felt a kinship with the sleek and beautiful dolphin, an animal whose playfulness, sociability, and intelligence seem like an aquatic mirror of mankind. In recent decades, we have learned that dolphins recognize themselves in reflections, count, grieve, adorn themselves, feel despondent, rescue one another (and humans), deduce, infer, seduce, form cliques, throw tantrums, and call themselves by name. Scientists still don’t completely understand their incredibly sophisticated navigation and communication abilities, or their immensely complicated brains.
     While swimming off the coast of Maui, Susan Casey was surrounded by a pod of spinner dolphins. It was a profoundly transporting experience, and it inspired her to embark on a two-year global adventure to explore the nature of these remarkable beings and their complex relationship to humanity. Casey examines the career of the controversial John Lilly, the pioneer of modern dolphin studies whose work eventually led him down some very strange paths. She visits a community in Hawaii whose adherents believe dolphins are the key to spiritual enlightenment, travels to Ireland, where a dolphin named as “the world’s most loyal animal” has delighted tourists and locals for decades with his friendly antics, and consults with the world’s leading marine researchers, whose sense of wonder inspired by the dolphins they study increases the more they discover.
     Yet there is a dark side to our relationship with dolphins. They are the stars of a global multibillion-dollar captivity industry, whose money has fueled a sinister and lucrative trade in which dolphins are captured violently, then shipped and kept in brutal conditions. Casey’s investigation into this cruel underground takes her to the harrowing epicenter of the trade in the Solomon Islands, and to the Japanese town of Taiji, made famous by the Oscar-winning documentary The Cove, where she chronicles the annual slaughter and sale of dolphins in its narrow bay.
     Casey ends her narrative on the island of Crete, where millennia-old frescoes and artwork document the great Minoan civilization, a culture which lived in harmony with dolphins, and whose example shows the way to a more enlightened coexistence with the natural world.
     No writer is better positioned to portray these magical creatures than Susan Casey, whose combination of personal reporting, intense scientific research, and evocative prose made The Wave and The Devil’s Teeth contemporary classics of writing about the sea. In Voices in the Ocean, she has written a thrilling book about the other intelligent life on the planet.

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