Book Review: State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

30 Sep

Harper Collins. Purchased at Chapters Indigo.

After having read a State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, here are a some thoughts on this emotional and powerful read.

The story starts out with Dr. Marina Singh learning of the death of her colleague Dr. Anders Eckman. The scene where Marina breaks the news to Dr. Eckman’s wife is heart-wrenching.  In this opening sequence, the reader becomes aware of Marina’s feeling of abandonment when Mr. Fox leaves the room and she’s forced to tell Karen the news on her own.  Marina is also very conflicted because she’s aware of her employer’s role in the death of her colleague. Patchett’s writing immediately hooks you into wanting to know more about the story and its characters. It’s not a fast-paced book but her prose is enthralling.

Ann Patchett transports her readers with her writing. In Bel Canto we are trapped with the hostages in the confines of a mansion in a poor South American country. But in State of Wonder, the setting is much grander in scope. I don’t know if her descriptions of Manaus and the Amazon are correct but they are evocative. I was able to picture the oppressive heat, the humidity-filled air, the torrential downpours, the muddy waters of the river, and the claustrophobia-inducing darkness of the Amazon jungle. Patchett illustrates the harshness of the conditions but through the story we are also made aware on the fragility and complexity of this ecosystem.

Dr. Marina Singh, the protagonist, embodies a quiet strength that allows her to take in stride many of the setbacks she encounters in Manaus and the Amazon. Yet, it’s the character of Dr. Swenson that I found the most interesting. Dr. Swenson’s intense focus and belief in her convictions leads her to make decisions that many would find ruthless or unethical. Except for a few demonstrations of vulnerability, she seems to be in complete control.

These are just a few themes that struck me as I was reading but there is much more to this story. State of Wonder is definitely one of the best books I’ve read in 2011 but don’t take my word for it. I encourage you to pick up a copy and see for yourself.

 

 

Book Review: A Visit from The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

7 Aug
Cover of "A Visit from the Goon Squad"

Anchor Books. Purchased online at The Book Depository

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan is episodic. It develops in a non-linear fashion making it is easier to read the novel if you think of it as a collection of short stories loosely threaded together by common characters. Each chapter is told from the point-of-view of a different character and the order of the chapters is not chronological. Yet, despite the novel’s  fractured quality, I became enamoured with the original structure of the book and  I was completely engrossed with the complicated lives of the characters featured. I loved finding out how the characters fared by they way they’re mentioned sometimes offhandedly in another story.

The characters’ dysfunctional ways make them believable and identifiable. I thought the stories were funny, sad, disturbing and very touching. Time, and how it leaves nothing unchanged, is the theme of Egan’s novel and she does an excellent job of describing its effect without being fatalistic. I especially enjoyed the chapters based in the future where Jennifer Egan deals with the evolution of language and the way people relate to each other.

Here’s another taste of Jennifer Egan’s writing. A short story in the form of a list.

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A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

9 Jul
A Game of Thrones

Bantam Books. Purchased online at The Book Depository

I know I’m late to the party when it comes to the A Song of Ice and Fire series but I just wanted to express my new-found appreciation for anything related to A Game of Thrones.  I started watching the series on HBO and while it’s quite accomplished I often found myself confused and I would look up character names online to try to figure out who is who. I realized that to truly enjoy the series you must first read the books. The first season of the HBO show ended a few weeks ago and season two is scheduled for sometime in 2012 so I decided to catch up on my reading.

I read A Game of Thrones in about a week and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  The story line is gripping and fast-paced. The book is detailed but the language is straight-forward thus making it easy to read. After reading the book, I realize the scope of the project of creating the TV series. I’m even more impressed with the result now that I know the source material.  I’m definitely looking forward to reading the rest of the series and watching the second season on HBO. The only deterrent is the size of the books. These things are humongous! The paperback of A Game of Thrones is 835 pages long and Clash of Kings is even larger at 1009 pages. Eek! I better get reading!

Canada’s Nuclear Connections – Bloom by Michael Lista & They Never Told Us These Things by Julie Salverson

5 Jul
Louis Slotin's Los Alamos badge mugshot, taken...

Louis Slotin

I don’t normally read poetry but I recently got the opportunity to read Bloom by Michael Lista and I’m very glad I did.

Lista’s poems are  powerful, striking, sometimes scathing but not without compassion for the persons involved in the tragedy of the death of Canadian physicist Louis Slotin who worked on the Manhattan Project.

From the publisher House of Anansi:

On May 21, 1946, the day of a lunar eclipse, a Canadian physicist named Louis Slotin was training his replacement on the Manhattan Project, which prepared the bombs that had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But Slotin decided to forego the standard safety procedures, and there was an accident: the plutonium went critical, a phenomenon scientists call a “bloom.” Nine days later Slotin died.

Michael Lista, a thrilling and wildly engaging new voice in poetry, reimagines this fateful day in a long poem that draws upon the still-mysterious events of May 21, 1946; the connection to Slotin’s ancient predecessor Odysseus, creator of the Trojan Horse, the first weapon of mass destruction; and the link to Slotin’s literary mirror, the cuckolded Leopold Bloom in Joyces Ulysses. Bloom brilliantly draws these stories, themes, and images together, and moves us toward the untranslatable moment of human novelty and creativity, the eclipse — the moment of the “bloom.”

Each poem tells a story, enhancing the tension and building up to the accident that killed Slotin.

A few of my favourites from the book:

“Louis Slotin as Pigeon Feeder”, “Do. But Do” and the goosebumps-inducing “Louis Slotin Improvises.”

Coincidentally, a week after reading Bloom, I read an excellent piece in Maisonneuve Magazine that explored another Canadian connection to the Manhattan Project. In “They Never Told Us These Things”, Julie Salverson writes about a mine in Port Radium in the Northwest Territories that supplied uranium to the Manhattan Project. The townsfolk didn’t know that the substance they were mining and transporting was harmful and it was only until the 1990s that it was confirmed that the uranium extracted in Port Radium was used in the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. I’m not surprised at Canada’s involvement in the Manhattan Project but I was distressed to learn about the government’s mishandling of the situation in Port Radium. After researching the health impact of the mine, the Canada-Deline Uranium Table reported that there was not sufficient evidence to link the rise in cancer deaths in Port Radium to the uranium mine.

House of Anansi. Won copy through a Twitter contest offered by The Walrus

Book Review: Buried Secrets by Joseph Finder

28 Jun

St Martin's Press. Received ARC from Goodreads First Reads giveaway.

Nick Heller is back! I read Buried Secrets within a couple of weeks of finishing Vanished and I have to say that this second book in the Nick Heller series is much more intense. In this instalment, Nick Heller is searching for Alexa, the kidnapped daughter of billionaire and family friend Marshall Marcus. The reasons for the kidnapping are not clear and Nick is not getting the information he should from Alexa’s father.

Nick’s characteristic sense of humour (I got strange looks on the bus because I kept snickering as I read)  is still present in this novel but the overall feeling of urgency makes you want to plow through the remaining pages to find out what happens. Alexa is being kept under some pretty horrific conditions which allows for some pretty gruesome scenes. In Buried Secrets, Nick Heller’s is conflicted as ever as he deals with some pretty nasty characters and a woman from his past and, like in Vanished, some of Nick’s investigative efforts lead him to uncover some questionable government deals.

Buried Secrets is another fast-paced, enjoyable thriller full of suspense from  Joseph Finder. I’m looking forward to reading his other stand alone books.

#50BookPledge 2011 – Update

22 Jun

I’ve been busy with work and school these past few weeks so I haven’t had much time to read or update my blog. But school’s out for the summer and it’s time to get some reading done!

To get back on track, I decided to update my 2011 reading list with a few comments on my favourite reads so far. Here goes:

1. Impact by Douglas Preston

2. A Midnight Summer’s Dream by William Shakespeare

My first Shakespeare play! I read this for my intro to literature class and enjoyed it. I think this one of Shakespeare’s lighter plays and it’s a great introduction to Shakespearean English.

3. Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

Wonderful book. Heart-wrenching story. I cried. A lot.

4. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

I went to see an exposition on the German painter Otto Dix at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Otto Dix fought in WWI and some of his paintings and drawings portray the horrors he saw as a soldier. A quote from All Quiet on the Western Front was used in the exposition and it made me want to read the book. From the point-of-view of a young German soldier, Remarque’s tale depicts the futility of war. The Otto Dix exposition was amazing by the way.

5. The Raven’s Gift by Don Rearden

Amazing debut by Alaskan author Don Rearden. You can check out my review here and you can follow the author on Twitter here.

6. Turn of the Screw by Henry James (+ Literary Criticism Essays)

After reading the Turn of the Screw and many essays by literary critics in which this novella is analyzed to death, I don’t care if the governess is insane, I don’t know if the ghosts are real and I doubt the children are evil. My opinion is that this is Henry James’s idea of a practical joke. The man purposely made the story as ambiguous as possible and then laughed quietly to himself as the critics tried to make sense of it.

7. The Rossetti Letter by Christi Phillips

8.  Altar of Eden by James Rollins

9. The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly

10. The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud

11. In the Company of Angels by Thomas E. Kennedy

12. Gideon’s Sword by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

13. Little Princes by Conor Grennan

Ladies, I dare you to read Little Princes without falling a bit for Conor Grennan. Dudes, if you want to impress the ladies, you should do some volunteering in a remote country and save a bunch of orphans.

Kidding aside, you have to check out this book. Child trafficking is a reality and Conor’s story is very inspiring. Plus some of the proceeds from the book go to his foundation Next Generation Nepal. Check out my post.

14. The Dead by James Joyce (+ Literary Criticism Essays)

15. Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

I loved this book. Wonderful story-telling and great characters and setting. You can check out my post here. I haven’t seen the film adaptation yet, I pray that it’s as good as the book.

16. Fever Dream by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

17. Better Living Through Plastic Explosives by Zsuzsi Gartner

Gartner’s short stories are weird…in a good way. My thoughts on them here.

18. Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O’Neill

O’Neill’s book is simple amazing. Baby’s story is pretty unsettling but it’s not without beauty and humour. My post.

19. Two Kisses for Maddy: A Memoir by Matthew Logelin

Check out Matthew Logelin’s blog and then read his book.

Disclaimer: Keep a box of tissues handy when you do.

20. Bullet Work by Steve O’Brien

21.  Bottle Rocket Hearts by Zoe Whittall

Great coming of age story that is set in Montreal around the time of the 1995 referendum in Quebec. Themes: homosexuality, homophobia, activism, English-French relations in contemporary Montreal.

22. La chaise bercante by A.M. Klein

23. They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children by Romeo Dallaire

Another sad reality affecting children. L. Gen Romeo Dallaire writes about his experience with child soldiers during the conflict in Rwanda and the efforts of the international community to stop the use of child soldiers in armed conflicts around the world. My thoughts

24. Arranged by Catherine McKenzie

I picked up this book after a crappy day and read it one sitting. I LOVED IT. It’s smart, funny, well-written, and romantic without being corny. Follow the author on Twitter @CEMcKenzie1

25. Annabel by Kathleen Winter

I think once you’ve read this book your thoughts on what defines gender will change.

26. Standing Wave by Robert Allen

27. Ape House by Sara Gruen

Another fun read by Sara Gruen. My post here.

28. Vanished by Joseph Finder

Joseph Finder introduces super spy Nick Heller. My post here.

29. Stranger Music: Selected Songs and Poems by Leonard Cohen

30. Buried Secrets by Joseph Finder

Fast-paced sequel to Vanished. Post to come soon.

31. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Another wonderful book from Kazuo Ishiguro with a subtle sci-fi story line that raises many questions on the ethics of human cloning.

Re-reads:

Sometimes I’m not in the mood for something new so I return to some of my  favourites.

After reading Fever Dream by Douglas Preston and Lincold Child I was in the mood for some more of Agent Pendergast so I re-read the Cabinet of Curiosities and Brimstone. I’ll make some time to read Dance of Death and The Book of the Dead before their next book comes out in the fall.

I also re-read Barney’s Version by Mordecai Richler for class and I probably enjoyed it more this time around because I know more about Richler and more about Montreal. I took a walk through the Mile End to explore some of the places mentioned in the novel for an assignment for my English class. I told my family about my little trip and after looking at the photos I took, my Dad asked to read the essay I wrote.  As I’m writing this post, I received an e-mail from my Dad. He monitors the Montreal Gazette website just because I live here and he sent me the link to the article announcing that the gazebo/speaker’s corner on Côte Placide on Mount Royal will be named after Mordecai Richler. My Dad rocks.

Book Review: Vanished by Joseph Finder

12 Jun

Purchased online at The Book Depository

With his novel Vanished, Joseph Finder introduces the character of Nick Heller a private spy who served with the U.S. Army Special Forces.  In this first instalment Nick is dealing with the disappearance of his older brother Roger who vanishes after his wife is attacked. Nick faces the task of protecting his sister-in-law and nephew while uncovering the circumstances of his brother’s disappearance. The more he uncovers the more he realizes that his brother is living a double-life. This fast-paced book leads readers into the grey area where governments and private contractors work in, in other words, the money-making side of war.

Our hero is intelligent, tough, loyal and seems to follow his own code of honour. He can also be funny, charming and a smartass when the situation calls for it. Like any great character there’s conflict in his background. His father is in jail for fraud and grand larceny after embezzling millions of dollars and his once close relationship with his brother is now rocky.

Vanished is an enjoyable action-packed read filled with interesting characters. I’m glad I decided to read it before reading the ARC I got of Buried Secrets. the next book by Joseph Heller featuring Nick Heller private-spy extraordinaire.

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