Station Eleven is a “pandemic book” that came out before the COVID-19 pandemic – and proved to be scarily prescient. While conditions in our world never reached the dire circumstances described in the book (95% death rate, the end of electricity, a plunge into primitive living conditions), I can better imagine such things happening now. What happens to a civilization when its people are totally unprepared for its collapse? How do we rebuild? How do we hold onto hope? Station Eleven offers insights into these questions without being preachy – the reader is given a lush description of this post-pandemic world, which encourages reflection.
The book begins with a performance of King Lear in a Canadian theater, during which the pandemic first takes hold. We follow the actors, audience members, and medical personnel as they grapple with this unexpected sickness that seems to be sweeping the population. Some are afraid, others are quick to dismiss it as nothing. Fast forward about twenty years, to a world without lights, gasoline, computers, supermarkets – the elements of “civilization” are gone. We join the “Traveling Symphony,” a group of itinerant actors and musicians, who are trying to keep the arts alive through performances of Shakespeare plays and classical music.
The members of the Symphony struggle with despair and hope, with trying to focus on beauty while surrounded with ugliness. They worry about staying alive, and what the world might be like in the future. Is there any point in carrying on? Will there ever be a breakthrough, a watershed moment when humanity will regain what’s been lost?
The narrative is very immersive, so the reader can imagine what it would be like to live in such a world – and the likelihood that these things could really happen to all of us. During 2020, many of us experienced the mental health challenges of navigating the mundane (procuring groceries) and the profound (millions of deaths, lack of a vaccine, no end in sight). What happens to the human spirit under such conditions? Do we give in to despair, or become our best selves?
While this book isn’t new, it’s not “dated.” It’s a favorite that I’ll be keeping on my shelf, and returning to. I encourage you to give it a read – and expect to be moved. You’ll be thinking about this book long after you turn the last page.
It’s interesting to me that I’m categorizing this book as one that matters – because I have ambivalent feelings about it. I would give it a 3/5 stars, but I still think it’s worthwhile and important for a lot of reasons. Few of these reasons have to do with the quality of the book … it’s more about the deeper cultural critique it invites, and how it affected me.
Emily Ratajkowski is a model and actress, most remembered for appearing topless in Robin Thicke’s controversial “Blurred Lines” video. In this memoir (really more of a collection of essays than a continuous story), she reflects on her feelings about her body, displaying her body for the male gaze, and her frustration with her public image.
All of those things sound important – and they are – but I found her “don’t hate me because I’m beautiful” tone really off-putting. Throughout the book, she emphasizes that she is beautiful, that she has a appealing body, and that she is widely desired; while these things may be true, I would have liked to see a deeper reflection on why these attributes give a person value in our culture. To me, she seems to take for granted that this is just the way it is, and that a woman’s path to power is pleasing men.
She writes a lot about power – her lack of it, her desire for it, and how she can increase her own confidence and sense of power through pleasing men. She has no problem with nudity, she says (multiple times), because for her it’s a way of using her body to “take back her power.” She touches on the paradox of this, that attracting the sexual gaze of men may not truly be liberating, but she doesn’t examine this deeply.
Most public figures write memoirs late in their careers, to share the wisdom they’ve gained along the way. Emily is young, and very much a work in progress. She has not yet parsed all the complicated meanings of body vs. mind and spirit, and how being identified primarily as a “body” disconnects her from herself and others (she frequently mentions a sense of detachment when she is being photographed nude). She is frustrated that others don’t seem interested in her intellect, but doesn’t seem to see how she has commodified her own body – the blame for that is laid upon culture, or men. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not “blaming the victim” here, I just hesitate to see her entirely as a victim. She has participated in this system in the name of taking back her power, but in the end she feels powerless … I hope she takes a deeper dive into the “why.”
As a person, I didn’t like her (the “her” that comes through in her writer’s voice, anyway). This is not a person I would befriend, as I found her immature and shallow – but I can see the seeds of a deeper understanding of her own life, given time. The book raises more questions than it answers, but those questions are worthwhile ones. So if the book makes you think, you have not wasted your time in reading it.
I wish Emily well. I hope she continues to learn and grow.
Despite the fact that I’m not teaching during the second summer session, I’m still busy! I have four major projects going on, and also have to get four online learning sites ready to run by the end of August. Not to mention meetings galore! Hence, a weekly blog for the rest of the summer – look for me on Fridays.
Enjoying a late cup of coffee, while reflecting on July 4:
I have seen a lot of posts on social media expressing discouragement at the current state of politics and our country’s culture. We are sad. We are disillusioned. We are highly conscious that America is not the “shining city on the hill” on the world’s landscape – yet our anger and disillusionment are connected to an ember of hope, of belief in what we should be.
I fear we are losing sight of the fact that this country was founded on an ideal – and even at the time of its founding, that ideal had never been met. Our forefathers had an idea of what a “perfect union” would look like, and they dared to write it down: a land of freedom and justice and equality. Keep in mind that these men were born British citizens, rooted in a culture of class structure, where the idea of being “created equal” was something new. And yes, it didn’t extend to people of color, or to women, then or now. But it was a beginning.
I hear a lot of people say they “hate politics,” but what they mean is that they hate our current state of political impasse and hate speech from both sides. Politics, in its purest form, is a process of people trying to figure out how to live with one another. Figuring this out requires a certain amount of good faith on all sides, an empathy, a willingness to listen, an openness to having one’s mind changed. That’s where we’re lacking, where we need work. Our communication has become toxic.
Why are classrooms important?
Here’s an example. On discussion days, I start by having my students “graffiti the board” with words, phrases, and ideas they’d like to offer up for conversation on the day’s topic. This serves several purposes: it gives us a starting point, it allows introverts to contribute in relative anonymity, and it allows students to steer the discussion in ways they find meaningful. I facilitate, and direct, and guide us into channels, but they have to figure it all out. I’m not the “sage on the stage” dispensing wisdom they write into their notebooks. We create knowledge together, with me as director of the production.
Let’s talk about a book:
First, a quick note: I’m changing the way I talk about books. For a while there I tried reviewing multiple books at a time, and talking about everything I’d read. Going forward, I plan to talk about fewer books, and only the most meaningful ones. I read a lot of fluff too, “beach books” and the like, but some of those aren’t worth talking about or recommending. This one is.
“Crying in H Mart” is a memoir, by the lead singer of the group Japanese Breakfast. If you’re looking for it in the bookstore, you’ll probably find it shelved in the music or entertainment sections, rather than non-fiction or biography (though I think this is a mistake, or it should be shelved in both places – some readers are going to have a hard time finding it). In the book, Michelle Zauner shares stories of her upbringing as a Korean-American (no, she’s not Japanese, despite the name of her band). She begins in the present day with a reflection of what it’s like to shop in H Mart, a grocery store that carries Korean foods, and how the smells and flavors remind her of her mother, and of her childhood.
My own mother passed away last year, and I share a lot of Michelle’s bittersweet feelings about moving forward in my life without her presence. It’s interesting, because I didn’t have any direct connections with any of Michelle’s memories, yet the experience of reading about them was meaningful. I would recommend this book to those dealing with grief, illness, and the challenges of living with the loss of a vital part of your support system. We are all stronger than we think, and in time, the memories are uplifting and remind us that we were, and are, loved.
How’s your self-care going? This week, my self-care looked like this:
Homemade potato salad. Big chunks of potato with mayo (the real stuff), honey mustard, and a dash of curry powder. None of that store-bought stuff in a tub that never tastes quite right. I like it the way I make it, even though it takes time!
Fresh strawberries, and corn on the cob. Delightful things that are just coming into season, and are at their most plentiful and least expensive this time of year.
Painted my toenails bright purple. Because sometimes you gotta.
Stopped and took a deep breath when I wanted to fly into a rage about something – because flying into rages doesn’t solve anything, and takes a toll on the spirit.
Called my dad every day (he’s in an assisted living center). These conversations usually consist of topics like whether he won at bingo, or if he liked Jeopardy the previous night, or if he’s planning to go for a walk today – but really, isn’t this the stuff life is made of?