State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

state of wonder

Marina is heartbroken by the news of the death of her co-worker, Anders, who had been sent to the Amazon to assess the progress of research being conducted down there.  But when she learned that she now was the one being sent after him to investigate his death, her feelings were, understandably, quite mixed.  Why would her boss, Mr. Fox, with whom she had an “un-bossly” relationship send her down into a perilous situation?  And what would she encounter with the strong-minded and controversial researcher with whom she’d trained and had a checkered past with herself?  After seeing Anders’ wife and 3 boys and their sadness and disbelief that their father could truly be dead, she felt it her duty, though, to go and to see for herself how he’d died and what she could do to bring back his effects to help them in their grief.  What she found was beyond what she could have ever imagined.

This novel was stunning in both beauty and its depth.  As Marina learns more and more about the Amazon —  its people, its natural habitat, its dangers and its wonders — so too, does the reader.  Because of the crispness of the writing, one can breathe in the heaviness of the air, hear the insects buzzing around ones ears, feel the murkiness of the water they bathe in, and see the filth on the clothing Marina is forced to wear because she’s lost all of her luggage on the very first day.

But there is also a layering to the story which gives it depth.  There is the search for how Anders became sick with his undiagnosed fevers and the tenderness of the relationship he’d developed with the boy raised by the head researcher, Dr. Swenson.  There is the research itself, looking into why the women in the local tribe maintained their fertility well into their sixties and seventies – and the ethical concerns surrounding this.  There is the controversial character of Dr. Swenson – her avoidance of oversight and reluctance to be beholden to those who are funding her research.  What is she hiding?

I will not say how this book ended – but I will admit to you that I cried as I read the last few pages.  There unexpected twists that tug at your heart and at least caught me quite off guard.  So well done!

I have to say, this is a must-read!

 

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The Girl who Wrote in Silk by Kelli Estes

girl who wrote in silk

In the late 1880’s, Washington territory, Mei Lien’s whole world revolved around her father and grandmother, both of whom she revered and loved with all her heart.  But with one unthinkable strike, both of them were torn from her and her entire life trajectory changed.

Fast forward to current day, and we find Inara, whose favorite aunt has died, with a wish that Inara take her estate and turn it into an island inn.  In her exploration of the estate, Inara stumbles upon the sleeve of a robe, embroidered with an elaborate scene that appears to be communicating an urgent message from long ago.

What is the connection?  And what will that connection mean for Inara’s family?  What did it mean, more importantly, for Mei Lien?

I feel this book, while powerful in its message and matter, just missed its mark in the telling.  The idea of the story is a brilliant one, based in a historical reality that needs to be told – and one that I, for one, was beforehand, ignorant of.  In the late 1800’s and well into the 1900’s, the Chinese who immigrated to the US and Canada were treated abominably, often with prejudice at best and with violence at worst.  This story brings that racism to a very personal level, highlighting the loneliness, despair, and abject terror that racism induces.

On the more literary side, the resolution of the story that is told is just too extreme to be believable.  The family connections are too improbable.  The way Inara finds a chef for her kitchen for her inn is too coincidental.  And the ending just slides into home plate for that grand slam in a way that almost trivializes the story.  I am not saying that the ending is not what anyone reading the story would have wanted, but I think it was too neat and tidy.  It’s not real life.

But maybe that is why it’s called fiction.

I am still glad I read this book and would recommend it to others as well.  If not for the literary sparkle, for the historical perspective it provides.

 

The Arsonist by Sue Miller

the arsonist

Frankie has just arrived home from her relief work in Africa, unsure of her next step, and immediately she is sucked into the drama of both her parents’ lives and of the small New England town they now inhabit year-round.  What everyone seems to be caught up in are the fires – fires being set in peoples’ homes.  First in homes of those not yet up for the summer, then gradually in homes of those who were up but not at home at the time, and then, most frighteningly, a few set when people were home.  As Frankie becomes more involved because of her parents’ involvement, she also becomes more involved in the newspaper reporter who is reporting on the fires – and this may disrupt her usual lifestyle of keeping herself unencumbered.  Will she change her pattern for him?  Will she change her pattern to help her more needy parents?  And who is setting these fires?

There is just enough suspense and character development to keep interest in this story, although it is only just enough.  It seems as though the author herself has only just enough interest in the story itself.  There is good character development and I liked each of the characters, particularly Bud, the newspaper reporter, who has given up the big city, political reporting for the small town, local newspaper gig.  He is down-home, and down-to-earth, and he connects to people genuinely with his heart.  She also creates a side story of Frankie’s parents and their tragic aging, which is painful and harsh, but also realistic and relatable.

I think the point is that the story is about relationships and not what is actually happening/the plot.  Maybe that is what the author intends all along.

Maybe that is life?

The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer

female persuasion

This new, very popular novel centers around Greer Kadetsky, who begins as a young freshman at what she considers a mediocre college in western Massachusetts.  If her disappointing parents had filled out the financial aid forms appropriately, she would have been at Yale, where she was really meant to be.  But then she wouldn’t have met her best friend, Zee, who then wouldn’t have dragged her along to hear Faith Frank, the feminist, speak.  And then she wouldn’t have had that moment with Faith Frank that sparked, really, the trajectory for the rest of her life.

This novel encompasses two stories in one.  On one level, it tells the story of Greer, a smart, ambitious young woman who is seeking love and approval from others because she doesn’t feel  it from her nebulous parents.  She has it from her boyfriend, Cory, who is steadfast, but has his own life and stressors, and she has it from her friend, Zee, but she seeks it from an adult, in the form of Faith Frank.  And as she goes through her journey, she learns that no one is perfect, even those who appear to be.

On the second level, it is also a story of the women’s movement.  In the telling of the story of Faith Frank, the author essentially recounts the story of the fractions of women and the various perspectives, both forward and backward (at least in my opinion) as it is going these days, particularly with regard to availability of women’s choice and control over our bodies.  Faith Frank, in her early days, helps a friend through a life-threatening, almost-botched illegal abortion and it drives her friend in a totally opposite direction from Faith (which is very hard to believe, but I imagine is true of some women).  Faith is empowered by this experience to push hard for women’s access to safe, legal abortion.  In this, I think the author opens up the debate where we stand very precariously now – where women are arguing over the rights over our bodies.  (As an aside, I have to say that I believe that no woman likes the idea of abortion.  On the other hand, I believe that the majority of women in our country do believe that this should be a matter decided by the woman herself and perhaps her doctor, as it is a physical and medical and emotional decision for a woman – NOT a decision to be made by mostly MEN in a back room somewhere having nothing to do with the woman herself.  THIS is what “choice” means.)  And this depressing backlash that we are experiencing here in our country is discussed in the book and lamented.  It’s hard to see it in a book and not just in the news – it gives it so much more permanence, in a way.

What is somewhat disappointing about this book is how it sort of fizzles at the end.  Most of the book is engaging and there are a few twists and major events that turn the plot around on its head.  Most of it grabbed me.  But as it wound down, it really wound down and sort of fell.  Maybe even fell flat.

Otherwise, I think this is an interesting story of a woman’s struggle with finding her place and meaning in the world through the lens of the women’s movement.  An interesting read…

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

eleanor oliphant

The best perk of writing a book blog is that I’ve gotten some fantastic recommendations from fellow book lovers.  This may be one of my favorites — thank you, Larry and Jim!

Eleanor Oliphant starts out in this story actually believing herself to be completely fine.  She is very much self-sufficient – she has a job, she has keeps herself clean and nourished and has her very practical routine which gets her through each week.  When she suddenly sees the man of her dreams at a party, a rock singer who is very handsome and would likely satisfy her Mummy’s vision of who would be sophisticated enough for her, she decides to go on a mission to spruce herself up a bit so that when she actually meets this man, she’ll convince him that they are meant for each other.  In the course of her doing this, a sudden incident with a co-worker, becomes a distracting adventure that opens up Eleanor’s world and enables her to see how she can truly heal toward becoming completely “fine.”

The writing in this book is magical.  The author writes of pain with humor and raw honesty all at the same time.  There is no over-dramatization, there is no explosiveness.  It’s quiet and understated and because it is subtle, even awkward because it is from Eleanor’s voice, it sneaks straight into your heart.  It made me laugh out loud but it also revealed darkness and sadness that almost choked me.  Few authors can do this with such grace and tenderness.

Eleanor develops her first real friendship with a coworker, Raymond, whom she finds initially almost irritating, with his smoking, his unkempt scruffiness, and his difficulty with being punctual.  But she learns that what really matters is that he is also kind and generous, and loyal – and that he is there for her when she really needs someone to be there for her.  That this is actually what friends do.  She’s just never had this before.

This is a beautiful book from beginning to end – the kind that you don’t want to put down but that you don’t want to end either.  I am reluctant to start the next book because I just want to live with these characters for a bit.

You will too – I promise!

This is truly a MUST READ!

 

 

The Woman in the Window by AJ Finn

woman in the window

Anna has been watching the world from her windows for the past ten months.  A little ironic that a psychologist would develop agoraphobia, but this is the situation she finds herself in.  After she witnesses a probable murder through one of her windows, she tries to convince those around her that someone is in danger but somehow things get twisted and people are finding it hard to believe Anna, considering all that Anna has been through herself.  It’s even getting hard for Anna to believe it herself, but she knows what she saw… or does she?

This is a psychological thriller crisply written and immaculately spun.   There are twists and turns in the plot that would have Agatha Christie surprised and that had me exclaiming out loud to the pages of the book (ask my family – it’s true!).  Those pages had to keep turning or I could not sleep!  The characters are not all that fully developed, except for that of Anna’s, but it’s not that kind of a story.  It just works.

Let’s just say that if you start this book, be prepared to not be able to put it down until you finish it.

Got to give it a “Must Read!” Just for the fun of it!

Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman

orange-is-the-new-black-book-cover

I’m probably the only person on the planet who has not watched the series on Netflix – and, nerd that I am, I have read the book instead.  But actually, I’m really glad I did.

Piper Kerman had just graduated Smith College and was unsure of her next step.  As she drifted toward an older, cooler crowd, she found herself falling for Nora, an older woman who she perceived as quirky but sophisticated and who had set herself apart by making quite a bit of money – by coordinating drug runners.  When Nora invited Piper to join her in Indonesia, Piper jumped at the opportunity and indulged in the opulent lifestyle that Nora’s business afforded them. When Nora asked Piper to transport money back into the States, Piper felt obligated to say yes, never thinking that years later, she’d be served papers that would charge her with a federal crime.  After court appearances and delays, Piper was finally required to serve a 15 month sentence in federal prison.  This book is the true story of her experience of that prison sentence in Danbury, CT.

Kerman writes about her experience with honesty, sadness, humor, and heart.  She describes how she’s finally matured into a life –  a successful job which she loves, an engagement to a man whom she adores and who adores her – and how painful it is to leave this behind.  She writes of the guilt she has about the agony she knows she’s inflicting on her family because of what she’s done. And she writes about how even as horrific as this experience is for her, she is aware of how privileged she is as a well-to-do, educated, white woman with resources and a supportive family, which is vastly different from the experience of most of the women with whom she’s incarcerated.  She describes so eloquently the bond which develops between her and so many of these other women because, at the end of the day, they are all in the same boat.  They need each other to survive and those who understand this develop a mutual respect that underlies the kindnesses they show each other.  It is these small kindnesses and empathy toward each other that help them to survive with their dignity and their sanity intact.

While this story is a few years old, it is still painfully relevant.  Our penal system is woefully broken and unjust.  Because of mandatory sentences on non-violent, drug-related crime, there are way too many people who are incarcerated for way too many years and a disproportionate number of these people are African-American and Latino.  In addition, there is an inordinate emphasis on punishment rather than rehabilitation and education and this only perpetuates the problem.  Piper never feels that she should not have been punished, but she does feel that there are random, myriad abuses of an inadequate system that she was witness to and that that need remediation.

I would highly recommend this book to others – and maybe I’ll watch some of the series now just to compare it to the book!