Monday 29 April 2013

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett - A Review

Writing this review is frustrating only because my internet connection is cactus because I have exceeded my 8 gb limit for the month.  Our service provider, Telstra has no infrastructure in our neighbourhood so we must rely solely on this one wi fi modem connection we are allowed. No broadband and the fancy new high speed national broadband network, a political football between our current government and most likely our next government, the opposition, quit installation 1.5 kms down the road…. never mind, onto this interesting book.

I have not read an Ann Patchett book before. It was chosen by Ali, our reading group leader at Fuller's book shop where I attend the monthly meetings.  The best thing about being in a book group is it encourages me to read books I normally wouldn't choose for myself.   Some I enjoy, others I don't.  I have never been a fan of the "moral dilemma of the week" type of book.  I read 2 books by Jodi Piccoult a couple of years back, also for book clubs, and I found I really didn't like it. So formulaic. Pick out the big cause whether it be organ donation, mass shootings in America, abortion, create a story that cocoons the issue, try to present both sides and then come up with an ending that won't scare off 50% of the readers.

Fortunately I had no idea what State of Wonder is about. I  probably would have dug my heels in if I had. However, keeping an open mind is always useful, all those cliches about parachutes etc….made me continue once I realised what was going on.

Marina a young pharmaceutical researcher from Minnesota is sent by her married boss/lover to the Amazon rain forest in Brazil to find out what happened to the previous researcher once they receive a message he has died.  He was working with the old stalwart researcher lecturer professor, Dr. Swenson, in the rainforest who isn't very forthcoming about the research she is undertaking. As the drug company, Vogel is funding this research they want to know what the status of it is.  

Marina is sent to Manaus in Brazil to await Dr. Swenson's sporadic appearance in the city when she comes in for supplies or to attend the local opera as is the case. 

She spends time exploring the city, contemplating her relationship with Mr. Fox , who is her employer and married lover and doesn't really find a great deal of satisfaction in any of these activities.  She also must spend time with the young Bohemian couple who protect Dr Swenson's interruptions to her work. Once Dr. Swenson arrives the story really begins. 

I won't say anything more except to say she goes into the jungle with Dr. Swenson who it turns out is studying the reproductive habits of the Lakashi people. It seems that the Lakashi women are able to conceive children throughout their entire life. It is not unusual for the 70 year old plus grandmothers to give birth to children their grandchildren will raise.  The implications of finding the ' golden key'  to such a feat of fertility are enormous especially monetarily to the drug companies.  

Now I have a confession to make.  I often write my review, thoughts and feelings of a book about 80% of the way through the book.  As I don't want to spoil the ending in any way I figure if I write it up before I finish it there is no chance of making a slip up.  Also whether I like the ending or not is irrelevant to my reporting of it because I'd hate to say the book ended badly and put readers off or I'd hate to say the ending was great and have people think, " What is the matter with her?!"  

I can say I am really enjoying Ann Patchett's writing.  I can feel the heat and the humidity of the Amazon. I almost went and got a towel during one of the rain storms. The people are clear in my mind and the issues are very interesting.  There are also a couple of absolute ripper surprises (at least I was really surprised a couple of times.) There is suspense when " jungle " things happen.  One of the things I really like is she writes about the insects, the birds, the smaller creatures of the jungle.  You feel the swarms of insects around your head, enjoy the beauty of the river birds and the book  is not all jaguars or other large animals flying out of bushes at the reader.  Well most of the time.  So I won't say another word about that. There are also other very interesting minor characters who have issues they need to work around. Does one take a small deaf child out of the familiar jungle to raise in the USA? Does one have an affair with the available people nearby because their partners are several thousand miles away? 

I would encourage anyone who likes a good adventure yarn with some brain stopping moral values to pick this book up.  I can see why it was chosen as a book group read.  I think the discussion could get quite heated especially if we have any really conservative people in the group turn up. Might be fun to stir the pot a bit.  

If anyone who reads this has read this book I would love to know what you thought of it.  

p.s.  Alex if you read this post you'll laugh to know Marina's choice of reading material for the plane trip to South America was no other than the Wings of the Dove. Of course her luggage was lost and she never does get to read it. I thought of you when I read that. 

Sunday 21 April 2013

Autumn Has Arrived But Not Much is Slowing Down.

Sorting through the King Penguins.
I know most people do a good clean in the spring time but as winter approaches and we're enjoying fall colours I have decided to reorganise my library collections. The main collections I have of course are the Penguin Books. I have them on a few different shelves plus quite a few in boxes in a closet. No more, I am in the middle of organising them series by series as I go. Hopefully the list of all of my Penguins will be accessible by series titles. More on that later. 

I have the main series finished and put on the bookshelves that take up an entire wall in our front room. Previously I had all the non Penguins on those shelves and the Penguins on the smaller shelves. No more. The non Penguins are going through a serious cull and several boxes are going to auction.  I can read anything I like either through library books or Kindle and I don't need so much STUFF in the house. A good winter's project when it isn't so nice to be out motorbiking around the country side.

It is a work in progress and once finished I will post up the final photos. I am currently putting the King Penguin series onto Library Thing and finding them their very own shelf. They are lovely old books with their interesting illustrated hard covers and they deserve their time to shine on my shelves.

I also finished an interesting book, non Penguin, I got from the library.  Into the Abyss by Carol Shaben is the true story of a young Canadian bush pilot who under extreme pressure from the company he works for  to keep flights on time no matter how bad the weather, crashes the small plane he is flying killing everyone except for the rookie Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman, the prisoner he is transporting, himself and a Member of Parliament.

The story is written by the daughter of the MP. The Canadian mountie is very badly injured, the MP has lost his glasses and can't see anything, the pilot is badly injured but can walk and the prisoner being transported is doing everything he can to save all of them. He becomes the real hero of the story but the repercussions for him are great.

Their main adversary was the snow storm they are trapped in and the extremely cold weather that only northern Canada can present.

The friendship that develops between the four men is very interesting as it progresses over several decades. The information related to the small airlines that employ bush pilots across northern Canada's remote areas is quite disturbing.

Found this week: Penguin No. 2012
Interesting colour if a bit worn.
I really enjoyed this story. I felt I got to know all four of the characters well. The four men couldn't be any more diverse. The pilot's and injured passengers were real and the rescue suspenseful. The reader learns a great deal about the past of each man and how their friendship remains through the following decades. The accident occurred in 1985 and the story ends not long ago. The bond between the four men is quite moving.
I cared about all of the men and wanted to know how this accident impacted on them, some better than others.

Found this week at market:
Penguin No. 1319- an Eric Newby
Travel book.
The only negative I can give this book is I got irritated when the author wrote in the third person all of the time, but whenever referring to her father during the last half of the book she dropped back into the first person. The book wasn't about her, it was his story but sometimes she sneaked in there as a character.

I found that annoying as she appeared to lose her objectivity a bit. There is a very good section at the end of the book of notes to let the reader know how she acquired all of the information in the book. I would recommend this story to anyone who is interested in aviation and likes a good survival tale in the wilderness.

The other book I'm reading (or should say listening to) is the unabridged edition of Moby Dick. I began it a few months ago but couldn't concentrate as life was happening. Now things are slowing down I'm enjoying listening to it in the evenings on my MP3 player. I am not that far into it, maybe chapter 12 or 13 but am enjoying it so far. I didn't expect the humour in it. Parts of the story are quite amusing. There are more than 100 chapters in this book and I find I need to jot down a few words as I go to keep the stream of thought continuing so I don't forget bits of it. So far so good.

The past week has turned out to be quite productive and I've even managed to get in a few rides on the new Scooter that I have named "Penguino".  I expect Penguino and I will be doing some penguin hunting once I point out where the various places are. Yes, I do anthropomorphise both my pets and my scooters. Yesterday I stopped at a country market and found two Penguins I didn't have. It is always fun to be out on the bike and finding Penguins at the same time.

I'm hoping for more bike adventures in the coming weeks and am very much looking forward to a "new" reorganised library in the house. Stay tuned.

Friday 12 April 2013

Peppy Bikes and Penguins Present this week.

The Weldborough region in northeast Tasmania where
we went camping.
The last time I posted I was about to go camping with a mate on our motorbikes and I was planning on finishing the Agatha Christie Book mentioned then.  Well, I finished those so on this trip I took along Muriel Sparks' The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Now I do realise I am probably one of the few remaining people on earth who has not read this book but I am about 2/3rds of the way through it now and am loving it.

Penguin copy of Prime of Miss Jean
I vaguely remember seeing the film years ago when Maggie Smith was merely just beyond youngsterhood and I didn't remember much from it.  I have decided that I really do enjoy Muriel's books. She is so quirky, the writing is pretty much to the point and you just never know where she'll lead the reader.  I have found Miss Jean Brodie a sadder book than I thought,  yet I admire her character so much in what she wanted to teach her students.  I loved how she constantly referred to events of her life as happening either before her prime, during her prime or after her prime had moved on.  I think many of us could relate to that.  I am sure now that my prime is well and truly fading into the distance though when I get on my bike or find another interesting Penguin I perk up again.

My tent is the little one in the back.
I read most of this book, lying on my back in a sleeping bag with a tent window open looking up to millions of stars overhead as the campground we were in was very dark that night. It was also very cold.  I had my sleeping bag up around my neck, a polar fleece blanket inside of it, a comfy pillow doubled over to raise my head, a wool beanie on my head and a miner's lamp around my forehead shining brightly on the book's pages.  I really was as snug as a bug in a rug and in the middle of nowhere in Tassie reading Muriel Sparks.  I actually felt as quirky as old  Muriel once was.  I would recommend this lovely book to everyone.

My new Penguin Hunter II. No doubt he will
get me to many bookshops and op shops.
The day after returning from the camping trip I had to clean up my old scooter and trade it in for the new one that arrived while I was away.  I went in to Motorworks in Hobart on Monday and took delivery of a beautiful new black 300 cc Piaggio scooter.  Storage under the seat holds both a small tent and my sleeping bag. It goes over 130 kms an hour (if I wanted it to though I'm not entirely silly) and is smooth on acceleration. I took it out every day this week to get it run in a bit and already have more than 400 kms on the odometer.

The day before yesterday I decided to take it out for an hour's ride and ended up in the south of the state at Dover Tasmania- 90 minutes away. There is a large second hand book shop there and I thought I'd do some Penguin hunting to see how this bike compares with the previous for finding these devious little orange creatures.  The clouds were thick and black, but it felt balmy and the curves on the road were good, the pavement smooth and I just kept going until the road ran out.  Of course the shop was closed. Never mind, I knew I would be passing another very large book shop on the way home in Huonville and they always have Penguins.
First Penguin book published in
France in 1941. Who would of
thought I'd find this in country Tasmania.

There was also an antique shop I dropped in on that had Penguins in appalling condition, covers torn off and paper clipped and silly prices on them like $4.00 each.  I found a few I really wanted but managed to talk her into 50 cents to a dollar when I pointed out the torn covers, lack of title page in one book and lack of copyright data in another. But they were books that were definitely not going to sell to anyone except me (I was sure of that) so I bartered her down.  However there was a very decent find that this odd uppity bookseller who knew nothing of books as furniture is her thing, had on the shelf.  I stuck it amongst the badly injured Penguins and got it for next to nothing.

It is a first published No 1 French Penguin Publie' en 1941.  The text is in French, there is a number F1 on the spine and the title is Verites Sur La France by Louis Levy.  I have to say I felt quite smug walking out of the shop with this little gem. I had never seen a French Penguin before though I knew they were out there.
Love this cover.  No. 2512

Continuing the ride home I stopped at the third book shop of the day and found a couple of later Penguins I didn't have. They were both published in 1966 and 1968. I liked the covers on them, especially the one called The Best of Beachcomber which appears to be a book of short stories.

A cheerful looking late Penguin.
No. 2892 or 2993 (smudging on number)
All in all it was a good day of Penguins and riding and somehow I missed feeling the wrath of all the very dark black clouds in the sky. They seemed to part as I rode towards them.  You know it's going to be a good day when that happens.

Any information on any of these books is welcomed.

Wednesday 3 April 2013

Enjoying Agatha Christie At The Moment

Tomorrow a friend and I are going camping on the motorbikes in the north east of Tasmania. We're probably mad as the temps today are high of 15 degrees C (59 F) and nights are forecast to be about 9 C which is 48 F but the sun is shining. Winter will be here before too long but the autumn days are gorgeous and we're going to take the bull by the horns with warm clothes, our cameras and technology and enjoy ourselves.  Tasmania is so incredibly beautiful in the fall. We don't get the New England USA colours but we have our own shades of yellows and the colours combined with the sea and the paddocks are beautiful.

The first message here is for Alex in Leeds.  I died 33% of the way through The Wings of the Dove by Henry James.  I was going really well when the first couple of books were about Kate and the young man she loved but then new characters and lots of waffle hit me hard and I truly couldn't bear any more.  So I am told if I am to read Henry James I should stick with his Turn of the Screw or Washington Square.  I read What Maisie Knew for our book group a year or so ago and was fairly neutral about it. I am sure I have the Penguin versions of his other books so maybe another time I will give them a try..

Instead, I switched on my Kindle and saw the list of Agatha Christie books I have.  My mother was a big Agatha Christie fan when I was growing up. She had the entire set of her books in paperback once upon a time but when she moved house quite awhile ago she got rid of all of them.  I still had not experienced her until one month in a previous book club I belonged to we each chose one and discussed it. I enjoyed the book but now don't remember the title.

I have just completed A Caribbean Mystery which I enjoyed quite a bit. Miss Marple on holiday in the warm sunshine of the Caribbean was just what I needed.  My good friend has an aunt who was raised in England and now lives in Melbourne. I was at my friend's house last weekend while her aunt was visiting her here in Tasmania. I told her I was reading Agatha Christie and we had a fun discussion about her. She is now approaching age 80 and has fond memories of reading Agatha when she lived in England and since.  She told me she always reads the first chapter and then the last chapter. I must have had a funny look on my face because she went on to explain that Agatha Christie's clues are scattered throughout the book and she always wants to know who the killer is up front so she can enjoy the inter-weaving of all of the clues.  She gets more enjoyment from her writing style of following the clues and recognising at the time they are clues than to actually try to work out who did it.

I finished A Caribbean Mystery which I enjoyed very much and it never dawned on me who committed the murder. Generally I am pretty good at working these things out but was completely delighted when she stumped me and then I thought.......(slap hand to forehead)...I should have seen that. So much fun.  I am now about 83% (love Kindle's percentages at bottom of the page) through the second Miss Marple book, The 4:50 from Paddington.  Love the concept of being on a train, riding around a sweeping bend as another train overtakes the train we're all in and can see a woman being throttled as the faster train flies by. So the chapter begins with a woman turning blue as she is strangled while Mrs. McGillicuddy observes the murder and of course tells her friend Jane Marple.  I thought how on earth does one even begin solving this crime?

Having coffee today with another good friend I mentioned I was reading Miss Marple and I how "gentle" the murders are.  Next to a blood and guts James Patterson or Jo Nesbo, the Agatha Christie mysteries really are about the ongoing perseveration of  Miss Marple, never giving up and she solves the crime yet again. Much like Midsommer Murders, I wouldn't want to live near Miss Marple. People are always getting killed.

I am enjoying these tales and they all lie ahead of me as new books to me. I plan on taking my Kindle with me camping and will continue reading her in my tent over the next two nights.  We tend to go to our tents as soon as it becomes dark and our days are now quite short. By Sunday night we will be on very short days as we change our clocks back an hour.  So stay tuned for the photos and a possible new Penguin book or two from our camping/Penguin hunting trip. Hopefully we won't have icicles on our bikes when we wake up in the mornings. Until then...