How Station Eleven, The Chronology of Water, and Guyana prove the arts essential to everyday life
By Tyler Mendelsohn
In school, the arts are often regarded as something extra, not one of the essential subjects students learn. However, the arts—music, literature, visual, performing—are a foundation for a lifelong education, taking us far beyond the classroom.
They teach us about our world and ourselves; they create meaning and form the core of our being. This month, I am presenting three books that reflect how art is inseparable from life, at times in surprising ways. These books explore how the arts create meaning, facilitate healing, and prove to be one of the most essential aspects of living.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
This is a post-apocalyptic novel about the relevance of art—and it concludes that art is vital. Long after most of the world has died off, the surviving humans practice the arts.
Twenty years after the collapse—despite a landscape of danger and uncertainty—a travelling Shakespeare Company and orchestra continues to perform. A librarian compiles interviews with people about their lives before and after. One protagonist collects artifacts of the past civilization into a museum. Another spends much of the novel obsessively tracing the origins of an arcane graphic novel, Station Eleven, which she was given before the world ended. Station Eleven helps this character find connections to her former world, proves relevant in her current world, and ultimately saves her life.
In their own ways, each character attempts to understand their new world through art—even though no one is sure there will be a future world to experience that art.
The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch
The Chronology of Water, first of all, not chronological. A beautiful writer and lifelong swimmer, Yuknavitch uses poetic language and the recurring theme of water to make connections between varied aspects of her life. She doesn’t have to tell her story in a linear fashion, because she refuses to put a label on anything, and thus no boundaries are drawn between different facets of her life. As it unfolds, everything connects naturally, flows seamlessly.
Yuknavitch writes about queer dating without categorizing it. She writes about using drugs and alcohol and then getting sober without relying on addiction memoir tropes. Even love is left undefined, recalling moments that were love, sex, and somewhere in between without attempting a distinction. The flow between everything feels like the water that runs as a metaphor throughout—it’s amorphous, but also one complete body.
Guyana by Élise Turcotte
Guyana is a gem that hasn’t received much attention. While mourning the death of his father, Philippe and his mother Anne found comfort in regular visits to Kimmi’s hair salon. When Kimmi is found hanging in her salon, Anne becomes fixated with learning about Kimmi’s past. She replaces the routine of going to the salon with her new obsession.
This book is about grief in many forms. In a way, Anne is living her own version of art; she’s a reporter, and she uses her professional skills in tracking down details of Kimmi’s history. Anne also uses her eye for detail as part of her grieving process: she notices small changes in her son’s demeanor; she finds points of connection between herself and her husband, even after he is gone; she finds parallels between Kimmi’s very distant past in Guyana and more recent one in Montreal. This book reminds us that we are always ourselves, and that we all do things differently—even the universal experience of mourning.
The Artist Bookshelf is a monthly series in which we explore books that highlight art’s presence and power in our world. They are books that might inspire us in our work and in our lives—books that might make us think differently than we did before. It is sponsored by The Ivy Bookshop. The Ivy Bookshop offers a wide and wonderful range of books, including art books, books on creativity, and books that highlight art’s importance in our lives. You can also find more information on The Ivy’s blog here.
Author Tyler Mendelsohn is a Baltimore writer, book aficionado and member of The Ivy Bookshop’s team. You can read more of Tyler’s work here. Tyler has an MFA in Creative Writing and Publishing Arts from the University of Baltimore.