State of Wonder, Ann Patchett

State of Wonder: A Novel (P.S.)Ann Patchett’s novel State of Wonder is my school’s upper school summer read. I am not sure I would have thought to pick it up otherwise, as I haven’t read Patchett before, and I have a list of books I want to read a mile long. However, I found it a compelling and fascinating book, and it far outstrips most of the other books I have read this year (and even the previous year) so far.

I don’t typically include the book synopsis in my reviews, but it seems appropriate for this novel.

In a narrative replete with poison arrows, devouring snakes, scientific miracles, and spiritual transformations, State of Wonder presents a world of stunning surprise and danger, rich in emotional resonance and moral complexity.

As Dr. Marina Singh embarks upon an uncertain odyssey into the insect-infested Amazon, she will be forced to surrender herself to the lush but forbidding world that awaits within the jungle. Charged with finding her former mentor Dr. Annick Swenson, a researcher who has disappeared while working on a valuable new drug, she will have to confront her own memories of tragedy and sacrifice as she journeys into the unforgiving heart of darkness. Stirring and luminous, State of Wonder is a world unto itself, where unlikely beauty stands beside unimaginable loss beneath the rain forest’s jeweled canopy.

The reference to Heart of Darkness is not incidental, but State of Wonder updates Conrad’s classic with ethical questions for our own times. How far should science to go to improve on nature? Why do we develop certain drugs over others? What impact could such scientific research have on native populations? Should we care about that impact, or should we care more about “the greater good”? What happens when, to paraphrase Dr. Swenson, we allow ourselves to lose focus on the things we are looking for so that we don’t overlook the things we find?

Marina’s journey into the jungle reminded me of some of the ancient mythological heroic quests to go into the unknown and come back again. The hero is often never the same, and even Dr. Swenson warns Marina about this transformation. Dr. Swenson is Patchett’s own Kurtz, a formidable and ruthless woman committed to her research, even at the expense of her supposed commitment to her Hippocratic Oath as a doctor. Marina’s confrontation of her former teacher, a woman who has loomed like specter over Marina’s life and informed some of her most important life decisions, is the central story of the novel, and it is fascinating to watch their relationship unfold. Dr. Swenson is at the center of everything, and it is her choices and decisions that the novel revolves around, in the end.

Laura Ciolkowski says in her review of the novel for The Chicago Tribune that State of Wonder is “Part scientific thriller, part engaging personal odyssey,” and “a suspenseful jungle adventure with an unexpected ending and other assorted surprises.” That would be my assessment as well.

I would recommend this novel to anyone who has read Heart of Darkness, but thought it seemed dated. It will change your mind. But I would also recommend it to readers who liked The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. All three novels explore the Western exploitation of indigenous people, simultaneously unmasking the horrors of colonialism as well as the terrible beauty of the jungle.

Rating: ★★★★★

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Top Ten Tuesday

Top Ten Historical Novels

Top Ten TuesdayHistorical fiction is my favorite genre, and I’m not sure I could pick an adequate top ten. There are so many great books that fit into this genre. You can find my list below with the following caveats: I simply haven’t had a chance to read a lot of great historical fiction that’s out there yet, so this list is necessarily limited to just those books I have experience with, and also I have decided not to include classics that were set during their own contemporary times but are history now (e.g. [amazon_link id=”0486284735″ target=”_blank” ]Pride and Prejudice[/amazon_link] or [amazon_link id=”1441408223″ target=”_blank” ]Jane Eyre[/amazon_link]). Also, these are in no particular order (aside from the order in which they occurred to me) because I couldn’t begin to rank them. Finally, I selected these particular books out of all the historical fiction I have read and loved because they so perfectly evoke their time settings that they bring the historical eras in which they are set alive (with historical accuracy) and simply couldn’t take place any other time.

  1. [amazon_link id=”034549038X” target=”_blank” ]The Dante Club[/amazon_link] by Matthew Pearl: Not only is this book a solid thriller with fun connections to Dante’s [amazon_link id=”0812967216″ target=”_blank” ]Inferno[/amazon_link] and the Fireside Poets, but it is also a great snapshot into life in Boston right after the Civil War. In terms of period detail and engaging reads, you could do worse than Matthew Pearl for sure.
  2. [amazon_link id=”0780748433″ target=”_blank” ]Catherine, Called Birdy[/amazon_link] by Karen Cushman: This is a middle grades/early YA novel set in 1290 in England. Catherine is the daughter of a knight, and Cushman captures the Middle Ages (particularly, the lives of a family in a small manor house) in exquisite detail.
  3. [amazon_link id=”0152164502″ target=”_blank” ]The Coffin Quilt[/amazon_link] by Ann Rinaldi: The subject of this YA novel is the feud between the Hatfields and McCoys. Told from the viewpoint of Fanny McCoy, the novel touches on all the major events of the feud and is simply one of the most well-written YA novels I’ve ever read.
  4. [amazon_link id=”0345521307″ target=”_blank” ]The Paris Wife[/amazon_link] by Paula McLain: This novel about Ernest Hemingway’s first marriage and time in Paris perfectly captures the lives of the American artist expatriates living in France during the 1920’s. It’s a gorgeous novel.
  5. [amazon_link id=”1565125606″ target=”_blank” ]Water for Elephants[/amazon_link] by Sara Gruen: This isn’t just great historical fiction. It really captures an era and a subculture that I’ve not seen captured as well in any other novel. Superb read.
  6. [amazon_link id=”0765356155″ target=”_blank” ]Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell[/amazon_link] by Susanna Clarke: While also classified as fantasy, this novel also explores England during the Napoleonic Wars, including brushes with Mad King George and Lord Byron as well as the Duke of Wellington. The footnotes are a great touch. I loved this novel.
  7. [amazon_link id=”039331507X” target=”_blank” ]Nothing Like the Sun[/amazon_link] by Anthony Burgess: I don’t think I’ve read another historical fiction book about Shakespeare that touches this one. Burgess’s characters speak like Elizabethans, and the events described are both believable and fun homages to Shakespeare’s plays. The premise behind the book is that Shakespeare’s tangled love life majorly influenced all of his work.
  8. [amazon_link id=”B000FC10KC” target=”_blank” ]Ahab’s Wife[/amazon_link] by Sena Jeter Naslund: Oh, how I love Una Spenser. She is my fictional BFF. She is amazing. I need to read this one again. As you might have guessed, this book takes the passage in [amazon_link id=”B003GCTQ7M” target=”_blank” ]Moby Dick[/amazon_link] in which Captain Ahab mentions he has a young wife at home and creates her character and her life (and it’s a fascinating life that, in my opinion, puts that of her husband to shame).
  9. [amazon_link id=”0061577073″ target=”_blank” ]The Poisonwood Bible[/amazon_link] by Barbara Kingsolver: This novel about Christian missionaries in the Belgian Congo right as the country declares its independence from Belgium is a fascinating snapshot into the Congo of the 1960’s as well as the lives of Christian missionaries and also serves as an allegory for America’s own role in colonialism.
  10. [amazon_link id=”0061990477″ target=”_blank” ]The Thorn Birds[/amazon_link] by Colleen McCullough: When I read this novel, I couldn’t put it down. I haven’t read a lot of books set in Australia, but this novel seems to so perfectly capture the times and setting. Meggie is an engaging heroine, and who doesn’t love Father Ralph de Bricassart?

Because I read a ton of historical fiction, I need to include some honorable mentions:

  • [amazon_link id=”0547550294″ target=”_blank” ]The Witch of Blackbird Pond[/amazon_link] by Elizabeth George Speare: This YA novel is set in Colonial Massachusetts and is a great vehicle for middle schoolers (or even their older siblings and parents) to learn about that time period in history. I can’t think of too many books that do as good a job with this era.
  • [amazon_link id=”0312378025″ target=”_blank” ]The Tea Rose[/amazon_link] by Jennifer Donnelly: This book is a fun read, but has a few lapses in terms of credibility (at least for this reader). Set in Whitechapel as Jack the Ripper ravages London, this novel is the story of Fiona, daughter of one of the Ripper’s victims, who makes her way to New York and builds a tea empire from scratch.
  • [amazon_link id=”B001NLKT2E” target=”_blank” ]The Commoner[/amazon_link] by John Burnham Schwartz: This story of a commoner’s marriage into the Japanese imperial family makes for a great read, too, though Schwartz takes some liberties to make his character’s ending happier than that of the real model for his heroine.
  • [amazon_link id=”0060515139″ target=”_blank” ]A Plague of Doves[/amazon_link] by Louise Erdrich: Some of this novel is contemporary, which is one reason I didn’t include it above, but it is one of the finest novels I’ve read and concerns the repercussions of a murder and hate crime that sent ripples through a community for generations.
  • [amazon_link id=”B003WUYROK” target=”_blank” ]The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane[/amazon_link] by Katherine Howe: Also partly set in contemporary times, this novel concerns Connie Goodwin’s attempts to learn more about her ancestors’ grimoire and secret powers.
  • [amazon_link id=”0399157913″ target=”_blank” ]The Help[/amazon_link] by Kathryn Stockett: While this book certainly evoked Mississippi of the 1960’s, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, it did not seem as realistic to me as some of the books I included in my top ten.
  • [amazon_link id=”0307588661″ target=”_blank” ]Madame Tussaud[/amazon_link] by Michelle Moran: This novel, set during the French Revolution, was an excellent read and shone a spotlight on a historical figure who hasn’t perhaps received as much attention as she was due.
  • [amazon_link id=”0143034901″ target=”_blank” ]The Shadow of the Wind[/amazon_link] by Carlos Ruiz Zafón: Barcelona’s book world during the 1930’s and 1940’s, though to me, the plot did not have to be set during era or in that place.
  • [amazon_link id=”0451202503″ target=”_blank” ]The Songcatcher[/amazon_link] by Sharyn McCrumb: Again, because this novel is set partly in contemporary times, I excluded it from the list above, but the historical fiction parts were my favorite. This novel is the story of how a song learned on the crossing from Scotland to America in the eighteenth century was passed down in a family and survived to the present day.
  • [amazon_link id=”039306915X” target=”_blank” ]Emily’s Ghost[/amazon_link] by Denise Giardina: The story of Emily Brontë and one of the better historical fiction novels about the Brontë family.
  • Pretty much anything by Jude Morgan. Love him. And Syrie James. And Tracy Chevalier. I mean, this was really a hard topic for me to narrow down.

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Top Ten Tuesday

Readers Who Don’t Read Historical Fiction

Top Ten Tuesday

I’m a huge fan of historical fiction. I enjoy learning when I’m reading, and I have always been fascinated by history. My historical fiction reading habits may have formed when I was in middle school and started reading the Sunfire historical romances. But I recognize that not everyone really likes historical fiction. If I could recommend ten books I think might change your mind if you count yourself among those who don’t like it, I think it would be the following books:

  1. [amazon_link id=”0441020674″ target=”_blank” ]Those Across the River[/amazon_link], Christopher Buehlman: If you think you prefer horror or even just creepy stories, this historical fiction novel about werewolves in a small Georgia town might just prompt you to give historical fiction a chance. Just because it’s set in the past doesn’t mean it’s all petticoats. Review.
  2. [amazon_link id=”0440423201″ target=”_blank” ]Outlander[/amazon_link], Diana Gabaldon: This first book in the Outlander series has a bit of romance and sci-fi as well as some war drama as it begins as World War II ends and moves back in time to just before the second Jacobite Rebellion. Notoriously hard to classify, Diana Gabaldon’s books take you squarely back to another time and keep you turning the pages, too. Review.
  3. [amazon_link id=”0765356155″ target=”_blank” ]Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell[/amazon_link], Susanna Clarke: This alternative history fantasy novel set during the Napoleonic Wars pits two great magicians against one another. It’s a little bit Jane Austen, a little bit Neil Gaiman, and a little bit J.K. Rowling. Review.
  4. [amazon_link id=”034549038X” target=”_blank” ]The Dante Club[/amazon_link], Matthew Pearl: This one is part murder mystery set against the backdrop of post-Civil War Boston, where Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is translating the first American edition of Dante’s Inferno. He and his fellow poets Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, John Greenleaf Whittier, and their publisher J. T. Fields, gather to look over Longfellow’s latest cantos and offer him feedback. Meanwhile, a series of murders mimicking the punishments in Dante’s hell strike fear into the heart of the city, and only the poets know Inferno well enough to commit such crimes… Review.
  5. [amazon_link id=”0345419642″ target=”_blank” ]The Vampire Lestat[/amazon_link], Anne Rice: Anne Rice will make you interested in eighteenth and nineteenth century Paris and New Orleans. I have always thought Rice wrote better when she was writing about the past.
  6. [amazon_link id=”0345521307″ target=”_blank” ]The Paris Wife[/amazon_link], Paula McLain: This book will interest folks who normally only go for literary fiction. First, it’s about Hemingway’s time in Paris and is told from the point of view of Hadley Richardson, his first wife. Second, it’s quite literary and beautifully written itself. Review.
  7. [amazon_link id=”1565125606″ target=”_blank” ]Water for Elephants[/amazon_link], Sara Gruen: Set in a Depression-era circus, this book has a little of everything: action, forbidden romance, and running away to the circus! Review.
  8. [amazon_link id=”0684801469″ target=”_blank” ]A Farewell to Arms[/amazon_link], Ernest Hemingway: Given that this book was written in the 1920’s about WWI, I guess it qualifies as historical fiction, although it does feel like cheating to include it because I wouldn’t include a book set in the 1990’s on this list. Ah well. At any rate, it’s a great novel, well written, with some of the most beautiful passages in American literature. And it’s Hemingway writing on war. Review.
  9. [amazon_link id=”B000FC10KC” target=”_blank” ]Ahab’s Wife[/amazon_link], Sena Jeter Naslund: Not only does this one give you the perspective of Captain Ahab’s wife Una, but you also learn quite a bit about nineteenth century New England. The book is gorgeous. One of my favorites of all time. Review.
  10. [amazon_link id=”0061577073″ target=”_blank” ]The Poisonwood Bible[/amazon_link], Barbara Kingsolver: This book is for those who love literary fiction, symbolism, and allegory and think it can’t be found in historical fiction. This is a beautiful book, another one of my favorites, and so important in terms thinking about Africa and America’s own role in colonial history. Review.

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Sunday Salon: The Shelf Awareness Interview

Still Life with Plato

No, Shelf Awareness isn’t interviewing me, but I love to read their author interviews, and they always ask the same questions (at least in my limited observation). They’re fun questions, too. So should Shelf Awareness ever want to interview me, they can simply copy and paste.

On your nightstand now:

I actually have a stack of books against the wall more than a pile on the nightstand. In my stack are [amazon_link id=”0451169522″ target=”_blank” ]Misery[/amazon_link] by Stephen King, a few Sharyn McCrumbs I want to get to, [amazon_link id=”0711231893″ target=”_blank” ]Tea with Jane Austen[/amazon_link], [amazon_link id=”B001P3OLEM” target=”_blank” ]Burning Bright[/amazon_link] by Tracy Chevalier, [amazon_link id=”0060791586″ target=”_blank” ]The Widow’s War[/amazon_link] by Sally Gunning, [amazon_link id=”0312304358″ target=”_blank” ]Moloka’i[/amazon_link] by Alan Brennert, [amazon_link id=”0679781587″ target=”_blank” ]Memoirs of a Geisha[/amazon_link] by Arthur Golden, and [amazon_link id=”0152053107″ target=”_blank” ]A Northern Light[/amazon_link] by Jennifer Donnelly, among other books I dip into occasionally.

Favorite book when you were a child:

When I was in the third grade, it was [amazon_link id=”0142408808″ target=”_blank” ]Superfudge[/amazon_link] by Judy Blume because Mrs. Elliott read it to us, and it was impossible to check out of the library for months afterward. I also loved [amazon_link id=”0807508527″ target=”_blank” ]The Boxcar Children[/amazon_link] by Gertrude Chandler Warner. When I was a little older, [amazon_link id=”0385739893″ target=”_blank” ]Tiger Eyes[/amazon_link] by Judy Blume.

Your top five authors:

  1. J. K. Rowling: Her books are pure, imaginative escapism, and I am grateful for all the time I’ve spent at Hogwarts.
  2. Jane Austen: She is my literary comfort food. I can always turn to her for a good read.
  3. William Shakespeare: Unqualified genius and master of the English language.
  4. F. Scott Fitzgerald: Beautiful turns of phrase and poetic writing. I admit his place here rests on one book—[amazon_link id=”0743273567″ target=”_blank” ]The Great Gatsby[/amazon_link].
  5. Barbara Kingsolver: I so enjoyed [amazon_link id=”0061577073″ target=”_blank” ]The Poisonwood Bible[/amazon_link], and [amazon_link id=”0061765228″ target=”_blank” ]The Bean Trees[/amazon_link] is one of the few books I’ve read in one sitting.

I should note that list fluctuates, but it’s true for today.

Book you’ve faked reading:

[amazon_link id=”1461120292″ target=”_blank” ]The Red Badge of Courage[/amazon_link] by Stephen Crane. I’ve still never finished it. I read the Cliff’s Notes for a test in American Realism and Naturalism in college, and I earned a B on it. If I’d read it, I could probably have earned an A, but that’s the way it is.

Book you’re an evangelist for:

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. I think everyone should read it, even if they don’t think they’re interested in Africa. What Kingsolver did with that book amazes me, and it’s the kind of writing I aspire to.

Book you’ve bought for the cover:

I’ve talked about this before, but I bought Alice Hoffman’s [amazon_link id=”0345455932″ target=”_blank” ]Blackbird House[/amazon_link] because I liked the cover, and it didn’t pay off. However, [amazon_link id=”0743298039″ target=”_blank” ]The Thirteenth Tale[/amazon_link] by Diane Setterfield and [amazon_link id=”B003WUYROK” target=”_blank” ]The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane[/amazon_link] by Katherine Howe, both of which I bought for their covers, paid off beautifully.

Book that changed your life:

This is a hard one, but I’m going with Harper Lee’s [amazon_link id=”0061743526″ target=”_blank” ]To Kill a Mockingbird[/amazon_link]. I never get tired of that book. It helped me look at my own beliefs and made me question what I would do if I were Atticus. Would I have the guts to do the right thing in the face of so much prejudice and opposition in the town, especially knowing I was licked before I began? The reason that Atticus is such a hero is that he did all this and so few people would.

Favorite line from a book:

The last page of The Great Gatsby is beautiful:

And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

And as I sat there, brooding on the unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in the vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run raster, stretch out our arms farther… And one fine morning—

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

I never tired of The Great Gatsby, and that page contains so much gorgeous writing.

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

Oh, surely the [amazon_link id=”0545162076″ target=”_blank” ]Harry Potter[/amazon_link] series. The wonder and waiting for the plot to unfold was one of the best reading experiences of my life.

The Sunday Salon

photo credit: chefranden

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Booking Through Thursday: Not in Theaters

Congo Refugee

This week’s Booking Through Thursday question asks “And–the reverse of last week’s question. Name one book that you hope never, ever, ever gets made into a movie (no matter how good that movie might be).”

[amazon_image id=”0061577073″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” class=”alignright”]The Poisonwood Bible: A Novel (P.S.)[/amazon_image]Isn’t that the cutest little boy? The photographer says he is a Congo refugee. Which brings me to the answer to this question. I do not see how Barbara Kingsolver’s novel [amazon_link id=”0061577073″ target=”_blank” ]The Poisonwood Bible[/amazon_link] could be done justice by any film, no matter how good the film might be (or how long). I’m convinced the many layers in this novel couldn’t be reproduced on film.

The multiple narrators would be a challenge, especially the trick of reproducing the voice of each of narrator. The natural disasters might be doable with modern special effects, but there is a magic to that book that would be lost if we did not take the time to pore over the words. No film could capture the life and color in the book. I can’t think of a modern novel that approaches the artistry of this book. I remember reading it and thinking I had read a classic along the lines of [amazon_link id=”0142437174″ target=”_blank” ]The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn[/amazon_link] or [amazon_link id=”0743273567″ target=”_blank” ]The Great Gatsby[/amazon_link]. The book also attempts to examine America’s own culpability in some of the tragedies in Africa in a symbolic way that would be impossible to capture on film. You can read my review.

What book do you think could never be a movie?

photo credit: babasteve

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Barbara Kingsolver on World Book Club

Congo

Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Poisonwood Bible is a book that means a great deal to me. I don’t think you can forget it once you’ve read it. It demands a lot from a reader, but the reward is so rich. It’s beautiful and terrible all in one.

Kingsolver was the the guest on the most recent episode of the BBC’s World Book Club. She discussed this novel (a spoiler is revealed at the end, so listen with care if you still haven’t read this book and want to).

World Book Club Podcast: Barbara Kingsolver

(Click the plus sign to control the player.)

I find Kingsolver’s discussion of this book fascinating. It’s one of those books that I read and immediately knew I’d read something important, a classic.

photo credit: Steve Evans

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