Sunday, May 27, 2012

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

A woman must enter the jungle to find two people but ends up finding much more.

Much like Margaret Atwood, Ann Patchett combines exceptionally evocative literary description and imagery with a deep technical understanding of plot. That’s why her books are so hard to put down. The first image in State of Wonder is a blue airmail letter, a letter that sends our main character, Dr. Marina Singh, immediately packing for the jungle.  Not a scene in the book is wasted. The minor characters are also cogs in the plot, moving the story along.  

This book was wonderful, deeply satisfying, although only for the first four fifths. Dr. Marina, a mixed race Minnesota medical researcher, is apparently the only person who can be sent into the jungle to discover what happened to her lab mate, Anders, when he failed to return from his jungle assignment. Their employer, a pharmaceutical company, is interested in the status of their company’s billion dollar investment in drug research being completed at a hidden Amazonian lab. (Question: couldn’t the head office find the lab with a close perusal of Google maps?). The lab is overseen by the elderly terrifying Dr. Swenson, who was involved in a prior tragedy in Marina’s medical career. The establishment of Marina’s inner and outer conflict is set up brilliantly.

There’s so much to think about in this wonderful book – motherhood and industrialization and innocence and evil and nature. The plot serves as a frame to deliver at last Marina into a beautiful bizarre grove of otherworldly trees – trees that give life (and visions) to the tribe. The story is really about Marina’s discovery of herself and what she wants.

In the last part of the book, however, the cold mechanics of the plot take over, and the quick twists at the end are possibly unsupported. The final twist is unbelievable, actually, and is not emotionally true for the character of Dr. Marina. I think more open endedness and a touch of tragedy would have served the story better. The plot snaps into place so certainly it snuffs out the life of the story. We were headed for someplace great.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Three children visit separate Hells after their mother’s death

The story is about the Bigtree siblings, left adrift after their mother’s death devastates them emotionally and economically.  Their mother, Hilola Bigtree, was the star attraction alligator wrestler at Swamplandia!, the family business. When she dies, the tourists stop coming.  The novel is about what happens next.

Why didn’t I like this more? It sounded right up my alley – Ava Bigtree, the 13 year old alligator wrestler/narrator in a tale where she must descend into the world of the dead to rescue her beloved older sister Ossie who happens to have a date to marry a ghost. And yet, I couldn’t emotionally connect with Ava. The relentless whimsy of the opening section bored me. I much preferred the third person anarchic narration of her brother Kiwi’s adventures on the mainland.

I think I was not drawn to Ava because Ava did not have an internal conflict or struggle to match her vivid external struggle and journey through the swamp. She didn’t feel vulnerable and any vulnerability she possessed felt imposed on her.

The novel was slow going at first, but then I started to recognize the outlines of book’s majestic architecture and got more excited. But there never was a payoff. We had a scarlet alligator, a Birdman who can visit the dead, a rich heiress rescued from a pool of blood – and none of these truly eccentric and great details built to a conclusion. When something terrible happened to Ava near the end of the book, I didn’t care. The novel never came to an emotional climax for me. In the final section, the matter of fact explanation for the mysterious events put us 100 percent back in the world of reality. Apparently all the magical happenings stemmed from Ava’s gullibility and Ossie’s chemical brain imbalance.

It was a love poem to Florida, I’m pretty sure. That part worked. And I loved the fact that all the alligators were called Seth. But reading this book frustrated me.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Arcadia by Lauren Groff

A child cast out of a seemingly idyllic commune cannot get over the rupture

This is the story of Bit, the first child born on the commune of Arcadia in upstate New York.   He is quiet, tiny and precocious. In this novel, we see the world through his eyes – the heroic men and women – mother Hannah and father Abe, the young people who abandoned the straight world and tried to build a new one free of distortions and hang-ups. Only guess what – human nature reasserts itself and there is just as much greed, hypocrisy and power struggle in Arcadia as in the real world.

The first part of the book describes the life on the commune.  The inevitable collapse of Arcadia feels a bit forced and the story peters out after the family leaves.  Also, the forward momentum of the story is not helped by the use of Bit as the narrative consciousness – he’s passive and Christlike.

I have been reading Lauren Groff’s short stories and admired her facility with language, the gorgeousness of it, though sometimes I felt the core of a story was too sentimental, non nutritious. But here the prose was determinedly not showy, sticking to a muted palette of metaphor, the turnips, the tofu, the mud – the stuff you find on a commune. I didn’t buy Bit’s love affair and subsequent child with Helle, the troubled child of Handy, the creepy commune founder. She’s a heroin addict and it wasn’t emotionally set up for me why Bit would be in love with her or have a child with her.

In some ways the most moving part of the story was at the end when Bit's caring for his terminally ill mother was described. She had always been depicted as physically strong and extremely self sufficient. That part felt real and was very moving.

I liked it but the different sections didn't quite gel for me.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

A murder mystery twists its way through a philosophical discourse on divine love

Such characters! Such passion! This wasn’t what you’d call a light read – each page was bursting with things to think about, to ponder and savor. The nature of evil, the nature of love, the enslavement of the soul by ego and lust.   Reading this book felt like a pilgrimage and I was deeply grateful to participate. (But I won't be picking it up again any time soon. It required too much devotion.)

The Brothers Karamazov is about a completely despicable, completely entertaining father and his four sons. Each son represents a different aspect of human nature; Dmitri, the hot tempered soldier, Ivan, the intellectual man of reason, Alyosha, the sexually innocent mystic, and Smerdyakov the cynical bastard; however, they are all Karamazovs, that is, tainted by the father's sensual vices, prey to corruption. These are the men – but the women! All that fainting and crying. The brain fevers! Men and women derange each other. Except for shrewd Grushenka. And of course saintly childlike virginal Alyosha.

Why does this book feel so immediate to me when it was written over a hundred years ago, in a completely different society, with oppressed serfs and oppressed women? Duelling and horseriding? Why is the dialogue here so fascinating when it walks away from the murder mystery plot to consider the concepts of good and evil, and the nature of divine love? In modern novels, that type of extraneous dialogue would derail the forward momentum of the story for good. Perhaps because in the modern novel the topics are so slight and the stakes are so low and here good and evil mean life and death.

The comic scenes are legitimately comic. And the murder plot makes complete sense. The child conceived of rape murders the rapist. And were the architects of the Russian Revolution like Ivan? Everything is allowed.

The ending I found strange and poetically fit. Just after describing an upcoming jail break escape, instead of telling us how it turns out, Dostoevsky instead leaves us at the sweetly melancholy funeral of a child. Hurrah for Karamazov!