The Lost City of the Monkey God

In my ever continuing quest to read more non-fiction, I chose The Lost City of the Monkey God because the premise reminded me so much of one of the opening scenes of Justin Cronin’s The Passage. While there are no physical monsters, there is a consistent quest, riddled with incredible political as well as geological challenges, to excavate the story of the fabled “White City.” While traveling in the remote parts of Honduras looking for the White City the team battles rain, snakes, and bugs. After leaving the dig and returning to the states, the team finds they have been stricken with an incurable disease.

Douglas Preston takes readers on a part historical journey and part biological study of the areas of Honduras that become known as T1 – T4. The book reads like an extended National Geographic piece and is incredibly fascinating from beginning to the end – actually Preston covered the topic for the publication in the piece called, “Lure of the Lost City.” The book could also be the prep notes to a Hollywood film, reading like an adventure with plenty of background information to round out the story.

I found myself feeling incredibly small on this little rock of our in the universe. To think there are still unexplored areas of our planet ruled my wildlife and vegetation – and that hide the remnant artifacts of vanished civilizations – is enough sustenance for the imagination to persist on forever.

I most applaud Preston for the final chapter. He does an incredible job of wrapping up the pieces and links it back to the fear and awe we, as humans, should bestow upon disease all around us. With the ever encroaching threat of global warming, these fears become less of a nightmare and more of a possibility. Reading about the power of disease to truly decimate our world as it has the worlds of civilizations before us is humbling. It also makes me miss the days when I worked in public health and once again shows the relevance of such organizations that don’t get near enough support. Our reliance on our modern medicine and technology is a theater production that we have whipped the ills of the world, but as Preston points out, stronger threats lurk in the shadows waiting for an opportunity to jump into the path of humanity.

I didn’t rush through this book. It wasn’t a page-turner for me, but each time I picked it up, I enjoyed reading Preston’s account. His writing is sharp, and his voice is pure, sharing both what’s important to the story and him. I think his rumination on his experience left him with powerful statements to make, which he did an excellent job of at the very end. I can see myself returning to that chapter in the future.

Favorite Passages in The Lost City of the Monkey God

The Honduran rainforests are disappearing at a rate of at least 300,000 acres a year. Between 1990 and 2010, Honduras lost over 37 percent of its rainforest to clear-cutting. (72)

Archaeology is in a race again deforestation; by the time archaeologists can reach a rainforest site to survey it, it may well be gone, fallen prey first to the logger’s ax and then the looter’s shovel. (72)

mere words are inadequate to express the chromatic infinities. (96)

We were flying above a primeval End, looking for a lost city using advanced technology to shoot billions of laser beams into a jungle that no human beings had entered for perhaps five hundred years: a twenty-first-century assault on an ancient mystery. (97)

It amazed me that a valley so primeval and unspoiled could still exist in the twenty-first century. It was truly a lost world, a place that did not want us and where we did not belong. We planned to enter the ruins the following day. What would we find? I couldn’t even begin to imagine it. (138)

People need history in order to know themselves, to build a sense of identity and pride, continuity, community, and hope for the future. (288)

In the last ten thousand years, as human population densities increased, disease moved into center stage of human affairs. Pandemics changed the very arc of human history. Despite our dazzling technology, we are still very much at the mercy of pathogens, old and new. (289)

The world is now divided into Third and First, not Old and New. (296)

No civilizations has survived forever. All move toward dissolution, one after the other, like waves of the sea falling upon the shore. None, including ours, is exempt from the universal fate. (302)

I’ll Give You the Sun

My literal soul quivered on every single page from the unexpected laughs to the warranted tears in Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You the Sun. Once again, I approached a YA novel with reservations and preconceived notions of how it would unfold. I was so very mistaken, much like the time I prejudged The Fault in Our Stars.

There is this poor idea that floats around regarding YA saying there is no depth to it. There are many great examples that prove that idea wrong, and I’ll Give You the Sun is one of those examples. The depth and richness of all the characters, especially the two main narrators, is so thirst quenching.

The plot is driven by two main characters, twins Noah and Jude. In normal twin-ness they seemingly complete each other so much so that they know one another singularly as NoahandJude. However the narration is split between characters and time frames. Noah gets to narrate the past, while Jude gets to narrate the present. The time frames are split by a tragic event that leaves both characters scarred and hurt and torn from one another until the thought of NoahandJude becomes mythical. Using art as a force to divide but ultimately heal, Nelson delivers an emotional home run, searching for what it means to be true to oneself.

The identity struggles both characters go through is so enriching and fulfilling. Jude is labeled early on as that girl and loses herself completely by trying not to be that person. Almost like she can avoid being that girl only if she is no one at all. But she has this awesome transformation that comes from her realization that she is the one who gets to decide who she is … finally realizing she can say, “No, that’s not me.”

Noah struggles with his identity, too. From the get-go of the story, we know he’s gay; he’s attracted to other guys. But he’s skirting that label (which understandably at 13 he may not be ready for); in fact, we never even hear the word, “gay,” until the last quarter of the novel, when it’s at acceptance. The pejorative, “fag,” is used; however, it doesn’t seem to stimulate any identification quandary in Noah.

Again, art is the powerhouse of this novel. Both Noah and Jude are gifted artistically and through their gifts they navigate the telling of this story. In the “present” story, Jude and Noah are hardly on speaking terms, for an array of reasons. At the turn of the novel, Jude comes up with the idea that she’ll carve an image of her and Noah from stone. I think it’s poignant that she is never able to free NoahandJude from the rock she’s carving. She doesn’t need to; they are already free.

Of course, art is also a vessel for healing. Isn’t it always? “Remake the world,” is used several times. Art is the brush that remakes the world. It definitely does so for the two main characters. It creates an entirely new world for them.

I’ll Give You the Sun is a remarkable coming-of-age story with genuine characters that are completely real to me. NoahandJude, wholly and separately, are people I know, people I want to know. The depth and the emotion this novel is able to extract from an individual makes it deserving of all the awards it has won and certainly deserving of your attention.

Favorite Passages in I’ll Give You the Sun

No one tells you how gone gone really is, or how long it lasts. (295)

But what if I don’t need her permission, her approval, her praise to be who I want to be and do what I love? What if I’m in charge of my own damn light switch? (307)

People die … but your relationship with them doesn’t. It continues and is ever-changing. (367)

Because who knows? Who knows anything? Who knows who’s pulling the strings? Or what is? Or how? Who knows if destiny is just how you tell yourself the story of your life? (369)

The Martian

I must admit, Andy Weir’s The Martian captured me back in 2014 by the cover alone. I was pleasantly surprised by the film adaptation in 2015. I don’t really consider myself a space enthusiast, but I’m definitely interested in space exploration — from a plausible, current standpoint. That’s the nice thing about Weir’s sci-fi novel: it has the technicality of true space exploration sans alien foes.

In fact, the Martian in question is actually a stranded earthling, Mark Watney. After a sand storm cancels the current mission on Mars, a freak accident leaves Watney stranded — his crew must abandon him (thinking he is dead). Watney pulls together his resources and genius, working on a plan to survive as long as possible, and maybe, just maybe contact NASA. To his luck, NASA just barely makes the connection based on satellite imagery that Watney lives and starts working overtime on a plan to safely bring him back home.

We spend the novel at this 30,000 foot view. There is no getting to know the characters intimately. Watney tells his portion of the story through logs (journal-type entries that tend to be more technical). In fact, my interest started waning because the first few chapters were like this, but luckily there is also narrative about what’s happening at NASA. So there’s a good mix of the logs vs. narrative.

I was a little disappointed with the lack of character development, though. The technical nature of Watney’s logs really fed the realism, and it was fascinating for a time, but after a while, I was a little upset that I didn’t get to know him more — at least other than his goofiness, which really annoyed me after a while. I also didn’t care too much for the descriptive math and technical jargon. It seemed endless at points. I understand that was his main focus, but I just wish we had more insight into Watney as a character.

Other characters were also a little flat or generic, like Annie, the PR diva. I see what Weir was reaching for when modeling her character, but she didn’t feel at all real to me. Her aggressiveness/anger seemed really unwarranted and unprofessional for a director of communications.

Overall, I think the story was fantastic, and it kept me interested and engaged enough to compel me to finish. I was pleased with minor feelings of disappointment as noted above. But for someone’s first novel, I think it is an excellent start. There is plenty of action, and if you like space travel, this one is for you.

The best part of the novel for me is the idea of people banning together to help save this one guy. A good deal of effort is put forth for his rescue, and that’s refreshing and illustrative on many levels of the human spirit: hope and the desire to help others. It reminds me a lot of the film, Captain Philips, for the US to send highly trained folks to rescue someone technically non-essential — just inspiring. We all matter. One of the last passages in Weir’s novel says, “they did it because every human being has a basic instinct to help each other out. It might not seem that way sometimes, but it’s true.” I couldn’t agree more.

Favorite Passages in The Martian

Turns out even NASA can’t improve on duct tape. (32)

I am /completely/ alone here. I already knew that, of course. But there’s a difference between knowing it and really experiencing it. (75)

It’s a strange feeling. Everywhere I go, I’m the first. Step outside the rover? First guy ever to be there! Climb a hill? First guy to climb that hill! Kick a rock? That rock hadn’t moved in a million years! (99)

I’m the first person to be a lone on an entire planet. (99)

Sure, I might not get rescued. But I won’t be alone. (116)

Duct tape works anywhere. Duct tape is magic and should be worshiped. (220)

Life is amazingly tenacious. They don’t want to die any more than I do. (224)

The Fault in our Stars

I avoided John Green’s The Fault in our Stars for some time. I read the critical acclaim. You couldn’t look at Amazon’s Top 100 without seeing it somewhere on the list. Still I resisted. I sometimes like to pretend to know what my type is — for books at least. I wish I hadn’t waited. I read the book in a 24 hour window. I almost read it in one sitting but I made myself wait. I wanted to savor! If I could recommend any book to you this year, TFIOS would be one of my picks.

It’s a rarity that an author can know his characters so well. It’s a greater rarity that I should feel so connected. I honestly feel as if I have been torn from my dearest friends as I flipped the last page and found no more words. Shailene Woodley (who plays the lead in the film) said spot on in an issue of TIME, “Some say that through his books, John gives a voice to teenagers. I humbly disagree. I think john hears the voices of teenagers.” Yes!

The novel is narrated by Hazel, who has a spectacular voice, but is considered a terminal cancer case. In a cancer support group, she meets two friends, Issac and Augustus, who become her social life outside of her parents. Slowly, her bond with Augustus grows past friendship.

While Hazel and Augustus serve as the lead characters in the novel, Hazel’s favorite novel, An Imperial Affliction (a fictitious book created by Green), steps in as a secondary character. First, it serves as an ice breaker for Hazel and Gus, and they bond over the awesomeness of the book. But the true genius stems from how well AIA parodies TFIOS.

It would be hard to talk about a book that deals with cancer and not talk about death. It lurks within the shadows throughout the novel; however, Hazel’s strength can be felt. Her wit and her drive are so intense. What’s so striking to me, though, is that while death can be so near, there are some things it can’t change — some things it doesn’t have power over. Hazel still has “teenage moments” where she snaps at her parents, where she wants to storm out. Death also can’t change love.

Hazel is also torn when she falls for Augustus. I love the inner struggle she has over whether to admit her feelings to him. She doesn’t want to be close to more people than necessary because she doesn’t want to hurt them when she dies. Her thought process is so noble it’s hard not to side with her, but love has a way of winning. Thankfully! I appreciate that Green acknowledges that we may be terminal but our love isn’t.

Augustus’s fears of dying (or really what becomes of us after death) were so thoughtful and touching. He stands in good contrast to Hazel, who maybe has accepted that she lives on the edge of life. His faulty idea that someone’s death only matters if they lived some extravagant life really captures teenage desires of fame and recognition. What he really hopes is to be seen, to matter to someone. As Hazel continually points out to him, he does matter … to her, to his friends, to his family.

The scenes where Gus is lamenting his lack of fame reminds me of a scene from Tell the Wolves I’m Home (one of my all-time favorite novels). One of the characters, Toby, says, “Because maybe I don’t want to leave the planet invisible. Maybe I need at least one person to remember something about me.” Man I’m tearing up just writing that quote. I think that’s the same place Augustus is coming from. Sometimes that’s really hard to see. It’s hard to recognize how much we matter to other and how many people we actually do impact.

The ending of the novel is, again, a perfect parallel to An Imperial Affliction. It leaves us hanging! What happens? This is so symbolic to true endings (our endings). They sneak up on us, surprise us. We are left with wonder and lingering hope.

Overall, The Fault in our Stars is genuine. That is what makes it so fantastic. Hazel isn’t some kind of philosophical saint in her last moments telling us how to live our lives. But TFIOS does take a look at very powerful themes and questions them in the light of hopelessness, hopefulness, and love. It is a powerful book that deserves to revisited if only to bring back the same laughs and draw the same tears.

Favorite Passages in The Fault in Our Stars

Depression is a side effect of dying. (3)

“There will come a time when all of us are dead. All of us. There will come a time when there are no human beings remaining to remember that anyone ever existed or that our species ever did anything. There will be no one left to remember Aristotle or Cleopatra, let alone you. Everything that we did and built and wrote and thought and discovered will be forgotten and all of this will have been for naught. Maybe that time is coming soon and maybe it is millions of years away, but even if we survive the collapse of our sun, we will not survive forever. There was no time before organisms experienced consciousness, and there will be time after. And if the inevitability of human oblivion worries you, I encourage you to ignore it. God knows that’s what everyone else does.” (12-13)

I’ve always liked people with two names, because you get to make up your mind what to call them” (32)

Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book. And then there are books like /An Imperial Affliction/, which you can’t tell people about, books so special and rare and /yours/ that advertising your affection feels like a betrayal. (33)

“Sometimes people don’t understand the promises they’re making when they make them,” I said. Isaac: “But you keep the promise anyway. That’s what love /is./ Love is keeping the promise anyway.”(60-61)

The physical evidence of disease separates you from other people. (144)

I know that love is a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable (153)

“in freedom, most people find sin” (157, cab driver)

“I don’t believe we return to haunt or comfort the living or anything, but I think something becomes of us.” (168)

“this childish notion that the author has some special insight to the characters in the novel … it’s ridiculous. That novel was composed of scratches on a page, dear. The characters inhabiting it have no life outside of those scratches. What happened to them? They all ceased to exist the moment the novel ended.” (191-92, Van Houten)
— So untrue! This is absolutely the complete antithesis of who Green is as a novelist and the characters he developed. I love this

Maybe some people need to believe in a proper and omnipotent God to pray, but I don’t. (201)

You have a choice in this world, I believe, about how to tell sad stories, and we made the funny choice. (209)
— This could be a summation of the novel. This novel could have made a quick right turn any moment and gone completely depressing. But Green navigated us through using moments of tenderness and humor.

The urge to make art or contemplate philosophy does not go away when you are sick. Those urges just become transfigured by illness. (212-13)

“I thought being an adult meant knowing what you believe, but that has not been my experience.” (223, Hazel’s father)
— Probably the most profound statement to me in the entire novel. Knocked the wind out of me because I feel much the same way.

You gave me forever within the numbered days (260)

My thoughts are stars I can’t fathom into constellations. (311)

You don’t get to choose if you get hurt in this world … but you do have some say in who hurts you. (313)

The Girl with All the Gifts

M.R. Carey’s The Girl with All the Gifts begins in a strangely dystopia-esque world where it appears that children are caged and tied to wheelchairs. It’s only later that we find the children are zombies. But aside from other zombie tropes, these children are still functioning mentally. They are able to learn and process information. The sharpest child with these skills is the protagonist of the story, Melanie. With this fascinating development of zombie-children, army scientists have set up a special base to study these “specimens.” Most intriguing about Melanie’s acuity is her capacity to love, which develops between her and one of the instructors, Miss Justineau.

Of course, as any zombie novel is prone to do, whatever control that may have been left post-apocalypse will ultimately crumble. So goes this science base leaving a small band of humans and high-functioning zombie left to proceed on a journey throughout the remainder of the novel.

Carey’s excellence in storytelling is illustrated through subtlety. This is not an in-your-face horror genre novel. The scare-factor that, in this case, won’t leave you sleepless is the lingering humanity in Melanie that is warring against a new natural (zombie) state. Why is this frightening? In all other zombie novels, yes it is a scary thought to be eaten by a once-human monster. But we can ultimately separate these monsters from ourselves because the person inside is no more. Whatever happens to the spirit, we know zombies are reanimated shells. Not so in this novel — well at least for some.

This ultimately draws out the intrinsic question: what makes a person a person? Melanie is a zombie, but again, she has the capacity to think, to talk, to hinder herself (for the most part) from ripping everyone to shreds. So is she a monster? Do we doom her (aka kill her) because this “disease” has doomed her?

Favorite Passages

there were just things without names, and things without names don’t stay in your mind. (1)

you can’t save people from the world. There’s nowhere else to take them. (51)

When there’s nothing to do, and you can’t even move, time goes a lot more slowly. (61)

all love is blind as it needs to be. (228)

How could there ever have been enough people to live in all these houses? How could they ever have built their towers so high? And how could anything in the whole world ever have conquered them? (247)

the horror of the unknown is more frightening than any horror you can understand (370)

The Fall Guy

James Lasdun’s The Fall Guy is a complicated and overwrought piece of literature. The main character, Matthew, is full of misdirection both in the way his life has lead him thus far and the way he leads the reader in the present. There is so much separation, so much space, between all the characters, like Matthew and Charlie being cousins, not brothers–like Matthew’s idea of Chloe as a daughter, sister, mother, friend, lover, when she really isn’t any of those things to him– and it’s within these wide spaces where deception takes place as to who the characters really are. The facade and ambiguity entrenches the novel in some spooky watchfulness, that of Matthew’s watchful, but I wonder if some of the spookiness doesn’t come from our own (the reader’s) watchfulness. Yet aside from the watchfulness, there is an inherent misconstruction on all accounts as to who the characters are, and who we are lead to believe they are.

To create this feeling, the novel has to be built on the mundane, and it digs a mote between the reader and the characters by silently introducing them as the “1%” often talked about in politics. I somehow believe this is a protection mechanism for the reader. The lavishness of the family harkens us to look in upon them, revealing no shame for us, while it also relieves us of any connection that would derive any empathy for the characters.

I read this novel unbelievably faster than normal. I was surprised because the mundane, mentioned above, threatened to tax my interest to the point of shelving this Book of the Month Club pick. But trusting something good was coming paid off. I think the psychologically thrilling aspects of the novel are worth it. It’s complicated, and it’s messy. Lasdun also has a tendency to overwrite in several places. But what’s genius about his writing is usually a big critique for other books. If you find yourself saying, I didn’t find the characters believable, I think Lasdun has succeeded. They are not meant to be believable, nor are we to really know if we see the real characters at any point within the novel. There are fractured moments where we can certainly believe they are being genuine, but for the most part, I think we were duped … in such a good way.

The Fall Guy is one of those slowburn novels. I read it thinking the entire time it was a 2.5 or 3 star book, but the more the completed work ruminates in my mind, the more I understand I’ve had a delectable weekend treat.

The End We Start From

This beautiful little book caught my eye with its stunning cover and colors. The End We Start From ends almost as quickly as it begins. It’s brief but lovely and rich. I adore when writers know how to skillfully say lots with little. Megan Hunter has done just that.

In a very timely apocalyptic scenario, London (and perhaps much of the UK) is flooded by rising seawaters, displacing millions and disrupting the normal life of the developed world into a struggle for survival. For me the terrifying undercurrent beneath the surface story is the speculative reality that could easily ensue in our own world. Hunter seems to call out our complacency for these types of stories and warnings: “How easily we have got used to it all, as though we knew what was coming all along” (68). Yet while there is an undertone of warning for us all, the story itself is not preachy. Nor does it look for answers to whatever may have caused the waters to rise. Instead it portrays the human condition that longs to persevere and remain.

The novel is eerily quiet, and it is the gaps between the paragraphs that seem to be filled with panic and worry — working towards diluting the individual characters into sketches that are more reminiscent of memories. The narrator shares with us that she used to take minutes at her job and it is halfway through the novel that we learn she is writing this account: “I want to write about the checkpoint quickly. Get it over with” (68). To me this explains the brevity, which I imagine will be the greatest complaint of many as they read this story. It’s almost as if the waters have washed and faded away all the details in between and left these more calcified details to hold the fragments of the story together.

Character names are simplified to letters, except the narrator who remains nameless. I didn’t quite understand this convention except that perhaps it is to keep everyone opaque enough to possibly be anyone, yet still distinguishable for narrative. There’s something that makes me wonder if there isn’t more to it, though. The narrator’s child is Z, the last letter –the omega– of the English alphabet, and this story is quite like the end times, though children are the promise of a future. There was a character, H, who traveled between an island and the mainland on a boat — if you look at the structure of “H,” it is two lines bridged. H’s wife was F, and they had two children. Looking at the structure of “F,” it has two lines coming off one major line.

I know I’m stretching, but as I said, I feel like perhaps the letters have more meaning than just being identifiers. I think names are important, so it’s interesting to me that they would fall away in this narrative. Because in most survival stories, while living day to day is the main plot, retaining a sense of self and identity also remain. “I do not know where I am … Where doesn’t seem to be the question anymore” (85), writes the narrator. The question seems to transition to what is home and how does identity derive from that?

Overall, I enjoyed this quick read. It is easily read in one sitting and it is accessible enough to want to read quickly. I’m always fascinated with societal decline storylines. I like to feel the suspense and terror observing the decay of our normalcy. The upswing, that is the struggle after the fall, is always less enjoyable for me; however, there’s not much to get bogged down in during The End We Start From. It’s atmospheric and reminiscent of the film adaptation of Children of Men. Hunter has dispensed with writing too much and instead has poetically woven an intricate and impactful story of survival in flashes of memory and tableaus. I look forward to picking this up again someday for a refreshing albeit haunting treat.

Favorite Passages from The End We Start From

It is bad, the news. Bad news as it always was, forever, but worse. More relevant. This is what you don’t want, we realize. What no one ever wanted: for the news to be relevant. (22)
— Good God, I would love to write something this striking and lovely.

We are told not to panic, the most panic-inducing instruction known to man. (60)

Landing. From water to land. From moon to earth … the beach is the in-between place. The world between worlds, a memory from a book read at bedtime. (102)

I left my job behind every day at five, as thy say. I peeled it off like a lining. V never stopped working I wonder what he does now, now that work is frozen in time. One hand held in the air, one leg lifting from the ground. (116)

Reunions come from television … the crush of shoulder against cheek under studio lights. … This is how it really is: seconds of almost nothing, edging readjustment to an old face. (126-127)

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda

I typically don’t read very fast. But I read Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda almost in one sitting. It took me back to the moments in (small-town South Georgia) high school when I knew it was time to come out. I can still remember uttering those words, heart pounding, to my two best friends, Kasey and Ame. And I remember being greeted with love and support from all my friends who were so glad that I finally decided to come out.

Anyway, this novel was so well done. I was giddy and on the edge of my seat at times trying to figure out who Blue could be. Sadly, I figured it out before the big reveal, but it was still nice. I love that this novel hammers home the importance of strong friendships and what a difference acceptance makes in the lives of gay youth.

I did think it was a little too magical that both Simon and “Blue” received almost universal acceptance — especially being set in the South. Actually it felt a little wishful when I was reading it. The story was good enough that I could over look it, but it was a little unbelievable that nonacceptance would only come from the peripheral.

Overall the novel is an excellent YA story that brilliantly captures the stress and pressure of coming out and coming into acceptance of oneself, to only then try to navigate the strange world of teen relationships. Looking forward to the movie adaptation.

Favorite Passages in Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda

He has an actual southern accent. Which is something you almost never hear in Atlanta, really.
— this struck me as very funny. When I first moved to Metro Atlanta, many of my friends pointed out my very southern accent. I would always retort with, “We’re in the south! What do you expect?” 😉

I mean, I feel secure in my masculinity, too. Being secure in your masculinity isn’t the same as being straight.
— Yes!! 100% yes!

Annihilation

Annihilation, the entry to Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, is a masterpiece. Don’t argue with me. I read the novel back in 2014 when it was first released, and I was astounded at how beautiful and completely … other a novel could possibly be. As such a fan, of course, I was incredibly excited to learn of a film adaptation.

Actually, I was lucky enough to meet the VanderMeers (Jeff and Anne) at the Decatur Book Festival in 2014. Jeff teased that the novel had been shopped around for film rights and it was in the works.I slowly forgot about it until the trailer surfaced and my heart raced. So this opening weekend, I marched into the theater trusting Natalie Portman to be a strong Biologist/Ghost Bird, and I found my heart breaking.

But from the bad can always come good. While I was disappointed at Hollywood’s failed attempt to translate this masterpiece to the silver screen, I knew the antidote to such a poison was to read the novel again. So I did. I finished it in one delicious gulp.

Good God, what an intriguing and stunning novel. There is little to tell without telling everything, and fortunately, there is a fantastic novel to take care of that.

In the simplest terms, an expedition of four scientists are commissioned to go into Area X, a mysterious piece of land that has changed since the Event (whatever that refers to). Each specializes in a different area of expertise: psychology, biology, anthropology, military. Things aren’t as they seem; though, on the surface, everything appears to be pristine untouched land. In reality, it is anything but.

VanderMeer shows incredible prowess as he crafts a story that works so intricately upon the creepy. The tension in these pages can be so real at times that it’s mesmerizing. The novel is built in the guise of the biologist’s journal. She recreates her experience as she and her crew journey into the heart of Area X. There is this constant melange of the biologist fulfilling the role as the watcher and the watched. Tension fills the background because obviously there is some undefinable presence.

What I love so much about this novel, and I think speaks so well to VanderMeer’s true talent is the use of veiled writing. The characters are only partially defined for us. We don’t get much detail as to what they look like, or even what they’re names are. This cloaking adds to the mystery of this land. As the biologist notes, “Names belonged to where we had come from, not to who we were while embedded in Area X” (9). And it these withheld details that make the novel so cerebral but also direct our attention to the unknown.

Not only that, it puts us at the mercy of our self-proclaimed unreliable narrator. She tells the reader she is withholding certain information: “It may be clear by now that I am not good at telling people things they feel they have a right to know, and in this account thus far I have neglected to mention some details” (150). And this creates a rift of distrust, or perhaps envy. What does she know that we don’t? It is much like a mimicry of Area X itself — the answers escape us.

The biologist is much of an enigma. The psychologist and the surveyor (again they have no names, so they go by their titles) point out that the biologist has begun to change, while she argues that she is steadfast and the same as she always was. That’s actually untrue. She has indeed changed more than she lets on. She reveals in flashbacks that she is a very closed person. She is content in solitude. But as her journal (this document we are reading) shows, she has become much more open. She has revealed much more to us than she has to anyone else, though she claims, “I haven’t told it quite right” (193).

As I write this post, I have reread several passages, and I can’t help but remark at how gorgeous the prose reads. This is one of my favorites:

The ghost bird had found his ghost, on an inexplicable pile of other ghosts. But rather than looking forward to reading that account I felt as if I were stealing a private diary that had been locked by his death. A stupid feeling, I know. All he’d ever wanted was for me to open up to him, and as a result, he had always been there for the taking. Now, though, I would have to take him as I found him, and it would probably be forever, and I found the truth of that intolerable. (118)

This is no ordinary thriller in my opinion. Annihilation is an upstanding piece of fiction. I always judge a work by my level of jealousy, and I have to admit that I wish I had written this! It’s just so damn good. VanderMeer’s writing is masterful. The evidence of the creepy persists so strongly in the background of the novel, that the thrill of the journey seeps into your bones.

Circling back to the film, I often found myself wishing someone like Lars von Trier had a hand in the novel to give us something closer to Melancholia. There just wasn’t enough strangeness, mystery, and wonderment – not to mention aggressive changes to the story. So please, do me a favor, read the book first.

Favorite Passages

when you see beauty in desolation it changes something inside you. Desolation tries to colonize you. (6)

There are certain kinds of deaths that one should not be expected to relive, certain kinds of connections so deep that when they are broken you feel the snap of the link inside you. (46)

no amount of training could prepare you for encountering a monster. (59)

what was a map but a way of emphasizing some things and making other things invisible? (66)

That’s how the madness of the world tries to colonize you: from the outside in, forcing you to live in its reality. (108)

“but what about the /veil/ already in place?” (Psychologist, 128)
— confirmation of the veiled writing I mentioned … mentioned several other times

When you are too close to the center of a mystery there is no way to pull back and see the shape of it entire. (130)

I felt as if I were stuck between two futures, even though I had already made the decision to live in one of them. (147)

“but we couldn’t see it through the veil, the interference.” (Biologist’s husband, 166)
— further confirmation of the veil