Monthly Archives: May 2015

A Pleasure and a Calling by Phil Hogan

pleasurecalling

For our “year of reading” at work, our director suggests a genre each month to get us to try books we might not otherwise read. So far it has been good for me – I read an Agatha Christie for Cozy Mystery month, a Regency Romance (with indentured servitude, mistaken identity and kidnapping by pirates!) for Romance month, and finally had an excuse to read Philip Reeve’s Fever Crumb for Steampunk month. (The month we were supposed to read Narrative Nonfiction I decided I read enough of that already without any provocation.) This month’s genre is “Thrillers”, so I dug this book up, but I think I’m going to have to read something else because this wasn’t the thriller I thought it was going to be. I don’t mean it was bad, just that it was more of a psychological suspense kind of book than the action-packed thrillride bunch of scariness I expected a “thriller” to be. So if you’re looking for car chases, frantic running through dark woods, or the fear of death every minute, look elsewhere. But if you’re looking for mildly creepy on the surface but terrifying once you think too much about it, this is your book.
Our protagonist, Mr. Heming, is a real estate agent. He is quiet, unremarkable, and even if you bought your house from him you’ve probably forgotten him. But he hasn’t forgotten you. In fact, he probably still has the key to your house and comes over when you’re not home to “get to know you”. Mr. Heming likes to have breakfast in houses where he knows the owners aren’t in. He likes to keep detailed records of his clients’ comings and goings, their browsing histories on their computers, their credit card statements, their address books – he’ll even go so far as to spend the night in crawl spaces listening to the inhabitants as they retire for bed. This is a harmless personality quirk, surely…people are just so interesting, and Mr. Heming thinks it’s only natural that he should want to know all about them. It’s even sort of amusing when Heming occasionally takes revenge on people who have wronged others – in one case, he witnesses one of his homeowners knocking the mirror off of his neighbor’s car. When the man denies this and refuses to pay for the repairs, Heming anonymously pays for it himself – and then uses the information he’s collected on the homeowner to make his life miserable. All this is weird, but still relatively innocent, and Mr. Heming seems so reasonable while he is telling you his story…until it becomes apparent that he will do anything necessary to avoid getting caught, and has in fact done some things in his past that he’s forgotten to mention to you.

I’m not sure what reads like this, since it isn’t my usual genre. It reminds me a little of Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places in the sense that the protagonist is really not a very good person, but you’re stuck with him because he’s the one telling you the story. It also vaguely brought back some hints of Joyce Carol Oates’ Rosamund Smith books, like Lives of the Twins, where characters turn out to be way scarier on the inside than they look on the outside.

All I can say is that I am VERY, VERY HAPPY that my husband and I changed the locks right after buying our house. Not because we suspected our realtor of being a psychopath (she’s actually quite charming), but because there was a key for each door. EACH DOOR. Who has 5 keys for one house? But better safe than sorry in case our realtor turns out to be a Mr. Heming wannabe, right?

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

station11

Yes, I read another post-apocalyptic novel where civilization goes to hell in a handbasket. But in my defense, there’s Shakespeare! And comics!

The novel begins when Arthur, a fiftyish actor who is finally old enough to play King Lear, has a heart attack onstage. A young man in the audience who is training to be an EMT tries to help, and winds up comforting a small girl involved in the production after the ambulance takes Arthur away.

On his way home, the young EMT-to-be gets a call from a friend who works in a hospital, who warns him that an epidemic has broken out and that he should hole up at home and not talk to anyone. Since he knows this friend is not normally an alarmist, he stocks up on supplies and heads to his brother’s house to wait out the scare. From here, the story is taken up by several different characters – Kirsten, the young girl who was onstage with Arthur when he had his heart attack, Miranda, Arthur’s first ex-wife, and Clark, a friend of Arthur’s. We piece together from their stories of the present, future and past how all of these characters are connected, and what happened before, during and after the flu pandemic.

This novel is beautiful. I know it should be depressing, and yes, 99 percent of the population dies in the first few chapters, but what happens in the aftermath is not as bleak as you’d expect. Civilization as it was known disappears, communications between communities is limited to what news can be gleaned from travelers, and technology more sophisticated than hand tools is no longer of any use – but somehow, the survivors survive, the world goes on, and there’s still classical music and Shakespeare being performed, so really, how bad could it be? Plus there’s a graphic novel (loosely inspired by Spaceman Spiff from Calvin and Hobbes) which inspires two of the characters – one to make art, the other to start a cult. And did I mention the museum one of the characters starts – in an airline lounge, with cell phones and other useless devices as exhibits? And best of all, all of these things are connected, even if the people involved don’t know it. I only wish that the book had pictures, because the author’s descriptions of the graphic novel’s illustrations sound incredible. (Artists – make Station 11 the comic happen. Please.)

What reads like this? Well, the post-apocalyptic elements make it sort of like Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy, or Roth’s Divergent. But the writing style for some reason reminded me of Ann Patchett – maybe because the story is vaguely similar to Bel Canto, where the world has gone to hell but art keeps the survivors going?