Tag Archives: Fiction

Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, a book review

“STATE OF WONDER,” is a 21st century fairy tale. The Ann Patchett novel explores, among many things, the potential for human excellence, the power and consequence of romantic love, the implications of paternal presence and absence. Perhaps most importantly, the story reveals our willingness to deceive, disappoint, and betray one another. But also our ability to persevere and survive.

Read State of Wonder twice. It’s that good. I missed most of the message on first reading. I’m planning to give it a third go, a few years hence. I can’t wait to see how the story stands the test of time. After two readings, I think it has “classic” stamped all over it.

State of WonderOne reader called State of Wonder “A life-changing experience.” For anyone paying attention, it is a life-informing experience, at least.

As a story, State of Wonder is a tale of grand adventure, bordering on science fiction, in a faraway and dangerous place.

The journey takes us from frozen Minnesota to steaming Amazon jungle. It’s the archetypical plot of ancient and modern literature. To wit: The hero leaves home; the hero returns home.

First the hero, Dr. Anders Eckman, departs on a great quest, which includes birdwatching and searching for a disappeared mad scientist. Dr. Eckman contracts a tropical fever and perishes.

Now comes the heroine, Dr. Marina Singh, an unwilling volunteer on a mission. The heroine departs partly because she’s guilt-tripped into it, and partly because she’s in love with the anti-hero, a CEO named Mr. Fox. He stays home, at least for now. What a man! Mr. Fox must remain behind to keep the ship from sinking. In this case, the ship is a corporation. But never mind.

Is the brilliant (mad?) scientist, Dr. Annick Swenson, seemingly lost in the jungle without even a telephone, the true heroine? Or is she the villain? Whatever, Dr. Swenson understands the hard truth, when it finally slaps her in the face.

I don’t know another story to match this,” says she.

Correct. There is no story to match this, at least not since Homer. Or maybe Adam and Eve. Forgive my hyperbole.

The icy Dr. Swenson inspires unwavering loyalty, admiration, and fear. She’s a central character here, but not THE central character.

The central character is our overeducated and slightly naive heroine, Dr. Singh.  All the leading characters seem to be doctors, if you don’t count the endearing little boy, named Easter, who happens to be deaf.

Marina Singh is a humble but daring protagonist. She wanders alone in a sweltering, alien city, braving deadly insects and malaria day and night. She travels by small boat down unknown tropical rivers, deep into the dense Amazon jungle.

Our heroine is fearful, but overcomes all fears. She battles a fire-breathing dragon. And slays it with a machete.

(Time out for truth in book reviewing: OK, it’s NOT a fire-breathing dragon. It’s ONLY a poison-spitting boa constrictor, powerful enough to squeeze the life out of a child, and possibly also devour a grown man. This snake is a creature of mythic proportions, a perfectly good stand-in for the archetypical dragon.)

Dr. Marina Singh performs life-and-death surgeries under primitive conditions. She ingests the bark of the tree of eternal fertility, but eschews the hallucinogenic blue mushrooms.

Most importantly, Marina discovers a great truth (I’m not giving it away!) and uncovers a great deception (read the book!).

After all these labors, Marina finds and rescues our original lost hero (Dr. Birdwatcher) and returns him home at last to his family in Minnesota, where it is now springtime.

Ann Patchett has written five other novels and a couple of non-fiction memoirs. She’s only of a certain age, so probably she will write many more books. State of Wonder is, I believe, her masterwork. My review of Ann Patchett’s novel “Run” is here.

I’m tempted to nominate State of Wonder to be a Great American Novel, except that most of the story takes place in the Amazon jungle.

Tell me, have you read State of Wonder? Or Run? What did you think of Ann Patchett’s work?

— John Hayden

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Doctorow’s ‘Andrew’s Brain’ (But On Second Thought . . .)

Got the hot new book, published this month, ink’s still wet. E.L. Doctorow’s “Andrew’s Brain.”

It’s a pretty weird book. At least it’s not long. Even as a short novel, I’m not sure I’ll be able to finish it.

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Michael Connelly’s “Gods Of Guilt” (Mickey Haller Channeling Perry Mason)

Gods of Guilt

I’ve just finished Michael Connelly’s newest novel, “The Gods Of Guilt,” and the final  pages of tense testimony left me shocked, drained and gasping for breath.

“The Gods of Guilt” is courtroom high drama with the explosive tension of a crashing airplane. I haven’t read all of Connelly’s 26 novels, but this has to be one of his best. The ink is still wet on the book, published only two months ago, but the verdict is in.

Michael Connelly, call your accountant. If you’re not already a rich man, “The Gods Of Guilt,” and the movie that will surely follow, will make you one.

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Lawyer Fiction: John Grisham and Michael Connelly, Part 2

books headerWriting without an outline is like walking a tightrope without a net. Dangerous! I should know better.

But the truth is, I nearly always write without an outline. It’s more exciting that way. When I start a story, I think I know where I’m going. I often end up someplace else entirely. (Kids, don’t try writing without an outline in English class; it makes the teacher crazy.)

On New Year’s Eve, I set out to compare authors John Grisham and Michael Connelly.  Turns out the two men and their careers are as similar as Coke and Pepsi. But when you open the covers of their books, there’s a definite contrast, like salt and pepper. If you’d like to read Part 1 of this extended post first, click here.

Grisham and Connelly are writers of the same generation, both productive enough to wear out a reader, but good enough to keep customers coming back for more.

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Lawyer Fiction: John Grisham And Michael Connelly, Part 1

So many weighty questions remain unresolved as this miserable old year runs out the clock.

Who’s the best at writing lawyer fiction: John Grisham or Michael Connelly? That’s the question keeping me awake on the last night of 2013.

John Grisham

JOHN GRISHAM (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve read more of Grisham than Connelly. In fact I think I’ve read all of Grisham’s stuff, except his recent dabbling in the juvenile market. I just finished his latest, “Sycamore Row.” It’s classic Grisham with a deep-South setting, Clanton, Miss., a town caught in a racial time warp. Clanton is modern enough to have an elected black sheriff, but the rural backwater keeps producing court cases highlighting its history of racism.

A Grisham trademark is fast-paced suspense — maybe a chase scene — after a long buildup. Many of Grisham’s novels delve deeply into a particular legal quagmire, such as the death penalty, product liability, environmental pollution, or class-action suits. You feel like you’ve been through a law school seminar, except it was fun.

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Uncommonly Good Books By Great American Writers

It’s not exactly writer’s block. But I have chronic difficulty writing about exceptional  books and great American authors.

How long has it been since I promised to finish my review of J.K. Rowling’s “The Casual Vacancy?”  Is it a novel about small-town life, or hypocrisy, or intolerance, or poverty? Local politics gone crazy, or class warfare? Darned if I know. I’d have to read the whole thing again to sort it all out. (Rowling is British, but her story resounds in American culture.)

As I read the final page of “The Casual Vacancy,” I was struck speechless. Partly it’s a sense of grief that the book is over. Partly it’s awe at the author’s virtuoso performance. What can I say but, “Bravo!”?

ANN PATCHETT

ANN PATCHETT

Among contemporary authors, Ann Patchett amazes me the most. I never wrote a word about Patchett’s “State of Wonder.” What could I say? What kind of story is it, science fiction? Corporate treachery vs. scientific deception? Human hubris? The premise is a discovery so unlikely that you find yourself believing it, combined with an adventure so implausible that it has to be real. Yet it’s all nothing more than a figment — an elaborate figment — of Patchett’s hyperactive imagination! (Patchett and the following authors are all American originals.)

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J.K. Rowling’s “Casual Vacancy” Zooms to Top of Lists

The book was published the last week of September, and already “The Casual Vacancy” has hit No. 1 on bestseller lists.

J.K. Rowling’s first novel for adults is No. 1 on the New York Times lists for hardback fiction, combined fiction and nonfiction, and eBook fiction. The three “Fifty Shades of Grey” books have been pushed down to second, third and fourth places  on the lists.

Casual Vacancy also is listed first for in-store hardback sales at Barnes & Knoble. Surprisingly, the book is only No. 8 on B&N’s list for Nook eBooks.

On Amazon, Casual Vacancy is listed No. 3, behind something called “The Mark of Athena” by Rick Riordan, and “Killing Kennedy: The End of Camelot,” by Bill O’Reilly.

On USA Today’s bestseller list, Casual Vacancy is No. 1. The book is also at the top of fiction bestseller lists in the United Kingdom.

— John Hayden

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“One Good Dog” by Susan Wilson

Five Stars
An exceptional novel disguised as a great story! “One Good Dog” has pain you can feel, two protagonists transformed, lots of anger, and of course, forgiveness and redemption. Makes you think about the unfairness of luck. (The pit bull’s name is “Chance”.)  Susan Wilson is a master novelist. An unusually fun read, but definitely not a cheap thrill. Best $2.99 I ever spent!

A cat and dog, the two most popular animals ke...

Image via Wikipedia

— John Hayden

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Ann Patchett’s ‘Run’ — Book Review

ANN PATCHETT

Blogger’s note: This review was originally published in December 2007, in three installments, on my first WordPress blog, Maryland On My Mind. Time flies, posts get buried, new blogs are born, and great books live forever. The original review has been deleted from the old blog in compliance with search engine policy. — John Hayden

Ann Patchett’s ‘Run’ — Preview

Dec. 8, 2007 — When you read about Bernard Doyle, the former Boston mayor with great ambitions for his sons, you can’t help but free-associate: Kennedy.  At least I can’t. Two of the sons are named Tip and Teddy!

And then I free-associate: Skeffington. Bernard Doyle and Frank Skeffington. Two Irish-Catholic mayors who loved their city, and were beloved by many. The voters turned on both of them. Doyle told a lie to protect his family and faded away without achieving his own ambitions. Skeffington stayed on too long. Again, I free-associate: William Donald Schaefer, late great mayor of Baltimore.

Ann Patchett reminds me of Edwin O’Connor. I discovered O’Connor’s 1956 novel, The Last Hurrah,  in high school, and read all his other books. The two authors have insights about the same subjects — people, politics, family, God — and breath-taking writing talent, honed by attention and effort.

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