Literary Mixtape | Annihilation

A biologist, an anthropologist, a psychologist, and a surveyor walk into the jungle… This group of four women, known only by their occupational titles, is the twelfth expedition into remote Area X, a pristine, yet unusual forest that rarely allows survivors. Annihilation is book one in the Southern Reach trilogy and it centers on a remote coastline accessible only by permission…from the forest? Protected by an invisible force, people are only permitted to enter the region under hypnosis. It’s eerie.

Part Lovecraftian fiction, part psychological thriller, this slim novel can be read in one sitting. If you are anything like me, you will find yourself glued to the book after a slower first 50 pages. What we as readers know about the story is far, far outweighed by what we don’t know. Unreliably narrated by the biologist, the reader learns that Area X has undergone unsettling, potentially sentience-inducing changes and that no one has lived to tell the tale. Not really. What they don’t know is how or why it happened; they just know that the phenomenon is growing.

Although it’s hard to imagine being satisfied by a book that offers no satisfactory explanations, Annihilation is exactly that book. Unnerving and filled with foreboding, it’s an extraordinary tale about nature gone awry. I’d recommend Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer for both fans of science fiction and mystery.
And now I can watch the movie. Finally.

As an alternative for a review, I decided to create a soundtrack for the book. Please note that quite a bit of this is intended to be playful and irreverent. I’m rarely serious and this post is no exception.

01. Thought Contagion // Muse

“But there is a limit to thinking about even a small piece of something monumental. You still see the shadow of the whole rearing up behind you, and you become lost in your thoughts in part from the panic of realizing the size of that imagined leviathan.”

02. Comedown // Bush

“We all live in a kind of continuous dream,” I told him. “When we wake, it is because something, some event, some pinprick even, disturbs the edges of what we’ve taken as reality.”

03. Paranoid // Black Sabbath

“I knew these elements were intended for me and me alone. There were no endearments, but I understood in part because of this restraint. He knew how much I hated words like love.”

04. Pretender // Foo Fighters

“Pretending often leads to becoming a reasonable facsimile of what you mimic, even if only from a distance.”

05. Sounds of Silence // Disturbed

“Silence creates its own violence.”

06. Hurt // Johnny Cash

“I think you’re confusing suicide with self-destruction, and they’re very different. Almost none of us commit suicide, whereas almost all of us self-destruct. Somehow. In some part of our lives. We drink, or take drugs, or destabilize the happy job”.

07. Green Grass and High Tides // The Outlaws

This was the way of things here. There were no reasons so mighty that they could override the desire to be in accord with the tides and the passage of seasons and the rhythms underlying everything around me.”

08. Love Will Tear Us Apart // Joy Division

“‘Ghost bird, do you love me?’ he whispered once in the dark, before he left for hs expedition training, even though he was the ghost. “Ghost bird, do you need me?” I loved him, but I didn’t need him, and I thought that was the way it was supposed to be.”

09. A Forest // The Cure

“There is no one with me. I am all by myself. The trees are not trees the birds are not birds and I am not me but just something that has been walking for a very long time . . .”

10. Dear God // XTC

“Eventually, though, I was able to reconstruct fragments of a handful of some of the variants: Why should I rest when wickedness exists in the world… God’s love shines on anyone who understands the limits of endurance, and allows forgiveness… Chosen for the service of a higher power. If the main thread formed a kind of dark, incomprehensible sermon, then the fragments shared an affinity with that purpose without the heightened syntax.”

11. Riverside // Agnes Obel

“The wind off the sea and the odd interior stillness dulled our ability to gauge direction, so that the sound seemed to infiltrate the black water that soaked the cypress trees. This water was so dark we could see our faces in it, and it never stirred, set like glass, reflecting the beards of gray moss that smothered the cypress trees. If you looked out through these areas, toward the ocean, all you saw was the black water, the gray of the cypress trunks, and the constant, motionless rain of moss flowing down.”

Care to add anything? Or just chime in on the Southern Reach Trilogy?


Florida // Lauren Groff

My love of short stories is well known by now, at least to me. It’s possible I love a good short story collection more than a good novel, though if you’d asked me ten years ago, I would’ve said that was impossible.

(I’d still say it’s possible, but not probable, overall.)

When I saw the new work from Lauren Groff (author of the phenomenal Fates and Furies) was a collection of short stories set in Florida, I was thrilled. I lived in Florida briefly, and I don’t think I’d want to revisit my time there, even for the mild winters, yet the stories resonated with me nonetheless*. Florida is dark, oppressive, full of dread—an “Eden of dangerous things”—essentially everything I hoped it would be.

Groff captures the gritty essence of the state. The stories are rich in characters, atmosphere, and perils of the natural world. The author has a wonderful way of phrasing and describing even the most mundane of activities, it can make for compelling reading. This collection is a wonderful addition to Groff’s work and a great pick for your summer reading list. If you’re unsure about this one, a few of the stories are available online at the New Yorker.

*perhaps because I don’t have fond memories of the insects, arachnids, predators, and general ly oppressive heat and humidity…


The Tipping Point // Six Degrees of Separation

The idea behind this exercise is to connect books in any way that’s meaningful to you, from the profound to the inane. Although Kevin Bacon is typically behind the six degrees game, books are just a bit more fun. June’s jumping off point is The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell.

I did not read that one, I was in college at the time and suspect I was buried in text books. One of my favorite Malcolms is in Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton (though I did prefer the movie version of the character). I consider Jurassic Park to be part of the “nature go awry” category of literature that I love so much. Very official, obviously.

You can’t create predators and expect to control them. You can’t really expect to control predators, period. Nature finds a way. Perhaps with a great white shark, for example. Underwhelming lead in aside, Jaws is my next link for the off-kilter nature connection. The Stephen Spielberg link is entirely coincidental.

If it happens in the water, it can happen on land. Just as Daphne DuMaurier wrote in her novella that inspired Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (included in her collection The Apple Tree).

While the entirety of Britain under avian assault is a national catastrophe, Stephen King wrote a much more personal story about the threats we face from animals. King’s tale involves the family pet, an adorable St. Bernard named Cujo. Cujo is simply a victim of rabies, a good dog with a bad end.

Another novel featuring a devoted dog is The Dog Stars by Peter Heller. After an influenza epidemic wipes out most of the population, Hig is living in an airplane hanger with his dog Jasper. If you haven’t read this novel and like post-apocalyptic fiction, this is a good one.

Another post-apocalyptic novel, and one I’m having difficulty deciding how I feel about, is Wonderblood by Julia Whicker. It’s the story of a world where most everyone has been wiped out by a disease known as Bent Head. Those left worship the astronauts who lived many years before. It’s a fantastic premise, but one I’m not sure I entirely enjoyed. I’m still thinking about it though, for what it’s worth.

From learning about little things that make a big difference to worshiping the ruins of Cape Canaveral in six easy steps. Care to join?


The Mars Room // Rachel Kushner

The Mars RoomI’ll keep this short and sweet, as plenty has been written about the new novel from National Book Award finalist Rachel Kushner.

Romy isn’t quite sure where she went wrong. What is this decision? Or that one? Now serving two consecutive life sentences, Romy examines her choices, starting in her wild and neglected childhood, and how her choices may not have been choices at all.

You would not have gone. I understand that. You would not have gone up to his room. You would not have asked him for help. You would not have been wandering lost at midnight at age eleven. You would have been safe and dry and asleep, at home with your mother and your father who cared about you and had rules, curfews, expectations. Everything for you would have been different. But if you were me, you would have done what I did. You would have gone, hopeful and stupid, to get the money for the taxi.

Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room is a remarkable novel about life in prison, life leading up to prison, and those that cross the path of prisoners – fellow inmates, a well-meaning GED teacher, the police officers and lawyers involved in the justice system. The timeline moves back and forth, and to multiple characters, although it primarily sticks with Romy (though there are even excerpts by convicted Unabomber Ted Kaczynski). It’s difficult to do this hard, humane novel justice in so few words, but it’s a thoughtful, nuanced story of the circumstances and decisions that, in the end, make up an entire life.

The quiet of the cell is where the real question lingers in the mind of a woman. The one true question, impossible to answer. The why did you. The how. Not the practical how, the other one. How could you have done such a thing. How could you.

*I received a review copy of this novel in exchange for my honest review.


The Poisonwood Bible // Six Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees The Poisonwood Bible
The idea behind this exercise is to connect books in any way that’s meaningful to you, from the profound to the inane. Although Kevin Bacon is typically behind the six degrees game, books are just a bit more fun. May’s pick is The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver.

I haven’t read that one, but I read and loved her Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I am absolutely fascinated by living off the land/back to nature books and I wish that’s something I could pursue (though I’ll settled for raised garden beds for now). I’m part of a book club that focuses on nature literature and one of the few fiction picks that has made the cut is The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey.

One of Abbey’s most famous environmentally minded contemporaries was Wallace Stegner. I’ve only read Angle of Repose, but his others are high on my list as well. One book I did read is David Gessner’s All the Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West.

Part of the book follows Gessner as he travels to various places that were important to Abbey and Stegner. It reminded my a bit of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, which is one woman’s journey, through many adverse condition with adventure (and a bit of sex) thrown in.

With the description I just gave of Wild, it pairs well with The River at Night, which is the story of an unprepared group of women who embark on a dangerous trip through the wilderness.

A similar synopsis, though vastly different in content, is applicable to Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer. Annihilation is the story of four (though briefly five) women – a psychologist, a surveyor, an anthropologist, and a biologist – who walk into a forest to explore the unknown. To put it mildly.

From The Poisonwood Bible to Annihilation in six easy steps. Where would you find yourself after six degrees of literary separation? Join in here.

*Apparently I was having so much fun that I just kept going, when I should’ve stopped at The River at Night. However, I love the connection between The River at Night and Annihilation so much that I can’t bear to remove it. So… Bonus book!



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