A quiet but fierce novel. Set in Brazil (it's important to me to know WHERE I am as I read- I'm geographically-anal so I put together various clues- a...moreA quiet but fierce novel. Set in Brazil (it's important to me to know WHERE I am as I read- I'm geographically-anal so I put together various clues- a severe drought in NE Brazil in the early 1980s, sugar cane industry, zebu cows, a great southern city, the Amazon. Then I read two 2002 interviews with Mason where he stated he was working on a novel set in Brazil...) Mason offer the mystical, mythology, a sense of fable- all swirling like feathery clouds through the stony reality of poverty, famine, drought, civil unrest, racism, slums and violence. Isabel leaves the protection of her family circle in a village stricken by drought and famine in the country's north to seek her beloved older brother, Isaias. Isaias ran off to find his fortune as a musician in the country's fabled city of gold and the family fears what has become of him.
Most of the book follows Isabel's quest to find her brother from her journey south to her life in the city, where she shares a one room flat in the projects with her cousin and minds the cousin's baby. The baby becomes her companion during her increasingly bold circuits through her neighborhood and eventually into the city in search of her cherished soulmate and kin. Isabel is barely a teen but carries the depressed and resigned soul of someone decades her elder. Her wanderings seem aimless and the plot vague, but it comes together with a rush of breath and a bittersweet resolution.
Mason's writing is beautiful, lyrical, full of vision, impression. This nearly gets in the way of plot development, but he is still a joy to read. (less)
This novel raced to the top of New Zealand's best seller charts- the author, Rachel King, is the daughter of one NZ most-celebrated historians and wri...moreThis novel raced to the top of New Zealand's best seller charts- the author, Rachel King, is the daughter of one NZ most-celebrated historians and writers (Michael King, The Penguin History of New Zealand). King is also the step-sister of a member of my then-book group. I will hold confidential the discussion we held at PLONK, a frou frou wine bar in Christchurch (I recall having a pot of herbal tea...),
I tried hard to like this novel. The narrative- which moved between Victorian England and the wild, dangerous Amazonian jungle- flowed at good pace and the characters were well drawn, but I found the story and the themes it utterly derivative of AS Byatt. Rampant sex and violence, colonialism, the noble savage, homosexuality, infidelity, women's liberation, corporate greed, science, mental illness, tropical diseases- what more other than the kitchen sink could King have tossed into the mix? What suffers from this thematic potpourri is credibility and depth.
But I would read a second novel by King- she's a good storyteller- to see if she can curb her enthusiasm and present a more carefully thought out but equally-entertaining yarn...
Urrea approaches the subject of illegal immigration, one that is fraught with political baggage, violence and despair, with sweetly bizarre characters...moreUrrea approaches the subject of illegal immigration, one that is fraught with political baggage, violence and despair, with sweetly bizarre characters, gentle satire and an earnest quest that disarm and charm the reader. Instead of the hammerhead of stereotypical gringo moral vacuousness and illegal alien helplessness that bludgeoned us in TC Boyle's Tortilla Curtain, Urrea crafts slight caricatures that defy stereotypes. Just when you are getting comfortable with your assumptions and think you know where the story is heading, up springs a staff-wielding Samurai of the Tijuana dump, a former missionary-surfer dude, or tattooed goth-rocker with lush locks and a puppy-dog heart to tweak the story and steer the wheel ever so gently north.
This is a novel about choices, about personal liberty, and opportunity- not themes you would expect to find when reading about Mexicans crossing into the United States illegally. The originality of the story, Urrea's light touch in directing the characters' foolish and courageous journey, and his eye for rich detail make this such a refreshing read. (less)
I've just marked a review by Will that nails it for me. In short, I felt that the parts of this novel were greater than its sum.
Kingsolver's writing...moreI've just marked a review by Will that nails it for me. In short, I felt that the parts of this novel were greater than its sum.
Kingsolver's writing can be exquisite and there are sections and storylines where her prose sings. The relationship between Harrison and his irreverent survivor of a mom, his childhood in Mexico and his two years at reform school in D.C. had so much potential- there was a richness and color reminiscent of John Irving at his long-ago best. But I felt her characterizations of Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and Lev Trotsky were as flat as paperdolls. If you really want to flesh out these larger-than-life characters, I recommend Hayden Herrara's excellent biography of Frida Kahlo.
The second half of the novel, set in Asheville, N.C. and delivered primarily in epistolary form, was dull. It felt like a great story, just waiting to be carved from a block of primary sources.
ETA to add some thoughts: This is a lame comparison, but it's one that came to me yesterday in reference to Kingsolver's development of her own primary sources for this novel. Tolkien created an entire world of Middle Earth- languages, cultures, geographies, histories, geneological maps, etc and from that he created the stories, legends and myths. If you were that keen a fan, you could go back and read up on some his "primary sources" and he referenced them in The Lord of the Rings- but you could also skip all that and simply enjoy a rollicking good story.
In The Lacuna, particularly the latter half, I could feel the potential of an important and gripping story dealing with McCarthyism, censorship, the US military's policy toward gay men, the dual culture phenomenon of returned ex-pats- but the drama and humanity of these themes were dulled by the reliance on faux book reviews, news articles and journal entries and mostly one-way correspondence.
This farce holds the same canny and clever delight as the Pink Panther, Dr. Strangelove and The Comedy of Errors, with dialogue and pacing to which Da...moreThis farce holds the same canny and clever delight as the Pink Panther, Dr. Strangelove and The Comedy of Errors, with dialogue and pacing to which David Mamet is clearly indebted. I could almost see the smoke from Graham Greene's typewriter keys swirling in the air as he tore through sheets of erasable bond, churning out this crazy, wonderful and utterly a propos satire of spies.
It's the mid 1950's when we meet our man, Jim Wormold, a milquetoast British expatriate who moved to Havana prior to World War II, having escaped military service due to his bum leg. He is a sad sack salesman of vacuum cleaners, abandoned by the mother of his blossoming 17 yr old daughter, Milly, who is part sainted Madonna, part bombshell Marilyn.
Wormold is inexplicably recruited as a spy by MI6- the British Secret Service- in a fabulous men's room encounter with scene stealer and smooth operator, Hawthorne (a.k.a 59200). Wormold marvels that he has been entrusted to spy- he has few contacts, fewer friends, is apolitical to the point of apathy, and bumbles awkwardly through his dull and lonely life. He is also broke and has a daughter whose demands score his guilty heart.
This brief tale chronicles Wormold's adventures as a spy; ironically, he creates a network of sub-agents, unleashes a series of events that rock the intelligence world, and manages to build up his bank account with a tidy sum in the process.
The butts of the joke are the British Secret Service and the cult of pop culture espionage. There are so many laugh-out-loud moments- I won't spoil by sharing- but this was a delicious read.
It's not all fun and games, however; Greene may have intended a light-hearted comedy, but he reveals critical and extremely prescient observations about Cuba and the coming revolution and about the Cold War hysteria that damaged reputations and even destroyed the lives of innocent people who were identified as Communists or communist sympathizers. In light of the manipulation of military intelligence that led to the invasion of Iraq, his satire remains alive and relevant to this day.
It is a true gift that a writer so associated with heavier themes of religious ambivalence, imperialism, and the universality of suffering, could toss those themes back with a wink and a giggle and wonderful readability. (less)
**spoiler alert** The book jacket describes State of Wonder as provocative, ambitious, and thrilling. Ambitious it is without question, provocative an...more**spoiler alert** The book jacket describes State of Wonder as provocative, ambitious, and thrilling. Ambitious it is without question, provocative and thrilling it is at times. This is a good book that misses being a great book in perplexing ways. Ann Patchett is a supremely gifted writer and I wanted so badly for all elements of this novel to reach the heights of the writing she attains, but does not sustain.
State of Wonderis an irresistible read, fulfilling my desire for any piece of fiction: a good story. But it is like watching a terrific movie and catching a glimpse of the camera dangling at the top of the screen, or listening to a skilled actor bungle a regional accent- you wonder why the director and editor allowed such gaffes and flaws to remain, jarring the viewer out of the story.
I struggle to define the theme and purpose of State of Wonder. Is it an indictment of the pharmaceutical industry, which exploits vulnerable societies for money and power? This theme runs as an undercurrent throughout the second half of the book, at times bubbling to the surface, but mostly it trickles along just out of earshot.
Is it a romance, in the classical sense? It is rich adventure, complete with an Odyssey-like journey, mythical beasts, enchanted children, knights in shining armour (who drive taxis and pontoon boats instead of powerful steeds), witches, and magic mushrooms. But the energy of the adventure stalls often as its heroine, Marina, searches aimlessly for direction.
Is it a character-driven story, one that allows the reader to see character transformation through a series of defining events? There are critical events a-plenty, but the main character, Marina, remains a passive observer who simply follows orders until the book's final scenes. Her most independent and assertive act results in a moral catastrophe, but Patchett's closing scene implies that Marina made the right choice. I can just hear the book club discussions now..
Perhaps Patchett is striving for all of these, but she stretches logic and manipulates circumstance to such an extent I had to suspend disbelief to enjoy the story in its moment. The author fills space with irrelevant characters, such as the Bovenders; implausible relationships, such as Marina's with Mr. Fox; she drags the reader's heels in Manaus and through Marina's Lariam-induced nightmares; she manufactures a super-secret research facility deep in the heart of the Amazonian jungle which appears to be under the sole purview of a renegade researcher, but is surprisingly and inexplicably populated with a handful of lucid, relatively stable scientists engaged in morally-suspect experimentation.
There were many illogical details that gnawed at me like a persistent mosquito: that in decades past Dr. Swenson travelled frequently from Johns Hopkins on a Thursday evening to spend a long weekend at the research facility deep in the Brazilian rainforest, returning in time to teach her Monday morning class - a trip that even today requires multiple flights and a trek down the Amazon; that Marina would be foolish enough to pack vital gear in her checked bags, like a hapless tourist; that a pharmaceutical company would have limitless, unquestioning resources to support a team of researchers without a clue of who was doing what, where, and how; that the researchers have regular access to boats traveling to Manaus (such that Dr. Swenson maintains a box at the Manaus opera), but couldn't get Anders out of the camp at the first sign of serious illness; that Dr. Swenson, an exacting woman who does not suffer fools, would put her trust, possessions, and her "secret" location in the hands of idiotic opportunists.
Several reviewers have compared State of Wonder to Joseph Conrad's classic Heart of Darkness. Without a doubt, Patchett brings vivid, pulsing, claustrophobic, seething, and frightening life to the jungle. It becomes the narrative's most compelling character.
But the novel that came to my mind was John le Carre's tremendous The Constant Gardener. Here is a book that succeeds in where State of Wonder does not: it is at once a riveting thriller, a scathing revelation of the morally-corrupt pharmaceutical industry, an adventure story set in the challenging terrain of eastern Africa, and a love story with characters that you ache to know and understand. Le Carre is able to weave together multiple themes while telling a powerful, relevant story. Patchett offers elements of greatness, but doesn't succeed in connecting plausibility to wonder.(less)
Isabel Allende is a fearless writer. She can take on magical realism, contemporary political thrillers, historical fiction, or epic sagas and craft un...moreIsabel Allende is a fearless writer. She can take on magical realism, contemporary political thrillers, historical fiction, or epic sagas and craft unforgettable characters, evocative settings, and surprising plots. She is a natural storyteller with a keen sense of pacing and a flair for high drama. Unlike other authors I’ve followed over the years who captivated me with early works but faded to middle road pablum as they struggle to stay relevant, Allende keeps taking chances—damn the torpedoes.
She emerges, literary guns blazing, with Maya’s Notebook. Maya, a nineteen-year-old fugitive and recovering drug and alcohol addict, has made her way to the Chiloé archipelago off Chile’s southern coast after living as a drug runner in Las Vegas. She is an unreliable narrator prone to disastrous choices and sophisticated self-reflection. Retreating to the safe space of a journal, Maya brings the reader ‘round from her childhood through her recent past to her life in exile on a remote, windswept island in the Pacific.
This novel confounds me. In many ways it reads like Allende’s bid to stay relevant, to keep up with the Lisbeth Salanders and Carrie Mathisons—intelligent but troubled young women with dangerous vices and brutal pasts who battle mental illness, addiction, and the world. But Maya Vidal hasn’t had a particularly troubled past. Yes, she is the result of an affair between a pilot and a flight attendant. Her mother returned to Denmark—uninterested in her infant daughter—and her father dropped her off at her grandmother’s and kept flying. But she had a pretty great kidhood, growing up in a rambling mansion in the Berkeley Hills with her beloved grandparents.
Which makes her descent into the Las Vegas underworld unbelievable. Allende throws her character into so many dire situations that the plot becomes a breathless tangle of overactive imagination. We know, of course, that Maya survives her many brushes with calamity so we aren’t worried about her fate. But instead of admiring Maya’s survival skills, we are asked to suspend disbelief that she falls into a rabbit hole of addiction and $10 tricks because her grandfather died. I think Allende is trying to show how far a child can slide—from teddy bears to turning tricks—and how quickly addiction can grab hold of one’s reason. But the melodrama cheapens Maya’s narrative.
Juxtaposed with the ripe-for-the-big-screen thriller is the quiet drama playing out on Chiloé. Maya’s refuge is the home of Manuel Arias, a taciturn anthropologist who has removed all the interior doors in his house. His story becomes the story of Chile’s political exiles—a frequent theme in Allende’s novels. Chiloé harbors secrets—Manuel’s, Maya’s, and the villagers’; it is a place that can heal and inflict damage in equal measure.
Isabel Allende excels at portraits and she does not disappoint here. Each character is colorfully and distinctly rendered, including the characters of her settings—be they Berkeley, the rehab center in Oregon, the streets of Las Vegas or the misty, green shores of Chiloé. Her writing is as engaging and expressive as ever. Unfortunately, the principal character’s transformation from slacker to victim to take-charge fugitive strains credibility and the loopiness of the plot dulls the lustre of the story’s appeal.
I soaked up the beautiful writing, the interesting twists, and the strong secondary characters, and brushed off my misgivings with the central plot to enjoy an entertaining, if not always plausible, novel. I applaud Isabel Allende for taking chances. (less)