State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

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.

 

 

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Book Review: Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O’Neill

Harper Collins Canada. Purchased at Chapters Indigo.

I picked up Lullabies for Little Criminals because it’s on the reading list of a class on Montreal authors that I’m hoping to take at Concordia University.  In the story, Baby is a bright, intelligent twelve-year-old who is motherless and lives with her heroin-addicted father in a rough area in downtown Montreal. She’s surrounded by poverty, violence, drugs, prostitution but with her childlike wonder she’s still able to see beauty in her squalid surroundings.

I was struck by the sordidness of the story’s setting. I’ve lived in Montreal close to two years now so I’m familiar with the area where the story takes place but it was hard to picture a child growing up in those surroundings. A very naïve attitude on my part because I know that children are often forced to live in horrible conditions. The “lucky” ones like Baby manage to salvage part of their childhood and keep a measure of hope for their future despite the obstacles in their way.

The reversal of the parent-child roles is also very present in the story.  In many instances, it’s Baby who seems to have the role of caretaker in the relationship with her father Jules. Jules is impulsive, immature and selfish. He cares for Baby but he’s unable to offer the stability she needs. Later in the story when Jules’s abuse and inattention pushes Baby into the arms of the pimp Alphonse, I felt her complete vulnerability and helplessness at her inability to control her circumstances.

Lullabies for Little Criminals is wonderful but heartbreaking. I felt the book got harder and harder to read but the effort was definitely worth it. It’s a harsh story but it’s not without beauty and hope.

Book Review: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Cover of
Harper Collins. Purchased at Chapters Indigo

I’ve been meaning to read Water for Elephants for a while and I finally picked up the book when I realized it was to be made into a movie. I read it in one sitting and loved it! In the story, Jacob Jankowski is a lively, cantankerous, ninety-something year old living in a nursing home. A circus setting-up across the street from the home triggers his memory and he begins to remember the months he spent travelling with a circus after the sudden death of his parents. At the circus, he meets and falls in love with Marlena who is married to the charismatic, unpredictable and vindictive animal trainer August.

Water for Elephants is a wonderful love story with an eclectic complement of characters set to the chaotic but still hierarchical life of a travelling circus. An enjoyable read that deals with the desperation and poor working conditions of the depression era as well as the issue of animal cruelty. The book effectively gives us a glimpse of the crude reality under the big top of the greatest show on earth. A fun read I really hope the movie does the book justice.