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Miracles of Science in the Amazon: State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (AUDIO)

Cover image of State of Wonder audiobookNarrated by Hope Davis, State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (Harper Audio) recently won the 2012 Audie Award for literary fiction. Very well deserved! It is an incredible performance of a story that starts with the barest of news of the death of a colleague somewhere in the Brazilian jungle and gradually develops into a Heart of Darkness-style journey from Minnesota to the Amazon for Dr. Marina Singh.
A tall, dark-haired woman of Indian-American descent, Marina (pronounced on the audiobook as “More-ray-na”) was the consummate outsider among the other Minnesota natives – tall, blond, and easily sunburned. The idea that she would be sent alone to the Amazon, after the death of the last emissary of the Vogel Pharmaceutical Company, Anders Eckman, Morena’s lab-mate and friend, father of three young boys, who also went along, seems crazy, but is explained by the delicacy of the mission and the dangerously eccentric secrecy demanded by the doctor in charge of the jungle camp, Annick Swenson, who is on the verge of developing a fertility drug that will make Vogel’s fortune. The complexity of the story grows rapidly from the opening scene, developing tendrils and offshoots in a matter of hours like a rainforest vine.
In a remarkable reading, greatly enhancing my enjoyment of the story and the characters, narrator Hope Davis conveys Marina’s natural scientific detachment, outsider’s tendency to observe without engagement, and reluctant probes into her own state of mind after she is transported to a setting far more exotic and remote than her childhood trips to visit her father in India prepared her for.
The psychological, suspenseful, and topical aspects of the complicated story intertwine in combinations that seem unbelievable yet inevitable, making this an excellent choice for a book discussion group. I highly recommend this as an audiobook!

Listen to an excerpt from the HarperAudio edition of State of Wonder here.

Other opinions of State of Wonder audiobook (mixed):
Audiobook Jukebox (Find links to other reviews here)
Devourer of Books
Everyday I Write the Book
Literate Housewife

State of Wonder
Patchett, Ann
HarperAudio, 2011
ISBN: 9780062072498
Unabridged Length: 12 h, 25 m

Celtic Gothic – The Night Swimmer by Matthew Bondurant (Audio)

The audiobook edition of The Night Swimmer by Matthew Bondurant, narrated absolutely perfectly by Hillary Huber, will be the first on my list of best audiobooks of 2012 (if I get one posted this year.)
The Night Swimmer opens with excerpts from The Journals of John Cheever referring both to Revolutionary Road (about the dissolution of a marriage) by Richard Yates and to the accidental death of children by poisoning, so a reader will know right away not to expect this story – about a man’s winning a pub in a contest sponsored by an brewery and moving with his wife to start a new life in Ireland – to be a lighthearted story in the style of the TV show Cheers. The cover design of a ruined lighthouse on a rocky outpost on the edge of the Atlantic is another strong hint.
A heavy sense of foreboding hangs over the book from the start. The story is told by Elly, Fred’s wife, who carries The Journals of John Cheever like a talisman, and, like a character from one of John Cheever’s stories, is happiest when in the water. Narrator Hillary Huber captures the mixture of regret and remembered happiness with which Elly remembers life with Fred – the good times they had and the gradual coming apart – and how her deep passion for open-water swimming lures her away from Fred and his pub, The Nightjar, and into the dangerous waters off the island of Cape Clear.
Here are the opening lines:

It began with a dart, a pint, and a poem, three elements that seemed to demonstrate the imprecise nature of fate. When Fred stepped up to the line, the dart held loosely in his hand, you could see in the way he carried his body the assurance of a man who was well prepared. Fred was always lucky, but to say that now, seems to remove something essential from him. In fact, it is Fred who should be telling you this story, for he was the one preparing for this all along. Not me.

Now, listen to them as read by Hillary Huber on Audible.com.
I’m not going to outline the book’s plot because the inexorable unfolding of events (because they’ve already happened to Elly and her husband) contributes so much to the impact of this atmospheric, contemporary gothic. I’ll just say that the Ireland of The Night Swimmer has more in common with the feudal Ireland of the past or the mystical, myth-shrouded Ireland of the early saints than with the quirky Ireland of Ballykissangel, say, or the cozy Ireland of Maeve Binchy’s fiction.
The Night Swimmer would be great for a book group because it could spark spirited discussions of how the author intended the reader to interpret this part of the story or that, and also more lofty talk of chance, fate, predestination, national character, love, family, and human nature.
This was the first book I’ve read by the author of The Third Translation and The Wettest County in the World, but it really impressed me and I would like to read more. Its descriptive language, first-person point of view, and the subtle undercurrents of meaning make The Night Swimmer an ideal audiobook, especially with the right narrator. If you’re wondering whether to listen to it or read it, I recommend listening to it!

The Night Swimmer (audiobook)
Bondurant, Matt
Huber, Hillary (Narrator)
AudioGO, 2012
9 hrs., 56 min.
8 CDs

Disclosure: I received a review copy of this audiobook from AudioGO. I would have liked The Night Swimmer just as much if I had bought it or borrowed it from the library, though.

Better Than Medical School: Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese is much longer, but much, much better, than The Kite Runner. Cutting for Stone and The Kite Runner were both books I read only because so many people asked me if I had, because I’m abysmally ignorant about politics and world history, and felt that my ignorance about an unfamiliar setting like Ethiopia or Afghanistan would make it harder to get immersed in the story. Also, the title Cutting for Stone made me think of stonemasons (BO-O-O-RING) when it really refers to surgery, as in bladder stones.
Cutting for Stone is a big novel that’s a good choice for a book club read, because it is packed with discussable subjects, including the exotic setting of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia (pronounced by natives as “Ethyo-pya”, not “Eee-theee-op-eee-ya”); political upheavals; terrorism; hospitals as institutions; doctors as professionals and as people; emigration and foreignness; how the culture of medicine compares from one country to another or one hospital to another; twin-ness and family; the many mystical moments in the story, and the meanings the author has layered into the narrative.
Cutting for Stone is essentially the story of Marion Stone, who becomes estranged from his twin brother, Shiva, and throws himself early into the study of medicine, planning to become a surgeon, as they go from conjoined babies who had to be surgically separated at birth and who slept together head to head as boys, into identical-looking teenagers with utterly distinct talents, personalities, and ease of being in the world. Marion and Shiva (like the author himself) are raised by Indian doctors in Ethiopia. Their adoptive parents, Hema and Ghosh, work and live at the run-down Missing Hospital. The title Cutting for Stone comes from the Hippocratic Oath, but also refers to Thomas Stone, the hospital’s third doctor for many years – the surgeon-father whose absence looms large over Marion’s childhood and whose presence in Addis Ababa is known only by the sons he left behind and the medical knowledge he passed on to Marion’s adoptive parents who then passed it on Marion and Shiva.
This would have been a very different book if brilliant, graceful, spiritual Shiva had been the one narrating – piecing together the pasts of their  absent parents and adoptive parents, guessing others’ thoughts and parsing their actions, while making his way through life – but Shiva would not have felt the need to write the story. Where Marion plans and works ever harder at his studies, Shiva succeeds effortlessly at everything but doesn’t seem to notice. Marion says of himself, as an adult surgeon, in the book’s prologue:

“…I am not known for speed, or daring, or technical genius. Call me steady, call me plodding; say I adopt the style and technique that suits the patient and the particular situation and I’ll consider that high praise….Knowing when not to operate, knowing when I am in over my head, knowing when to call for a surgeon of my father’s caliber–that kind of talent, that kind of “brilliance,” goes unheralded.”

This would have been a very different book if brilliant, graceful, spiritual Shiva had been the one narrating – piecing together the pasts of their  absent parents and adoptive parents, guessing others’ thoughts and parsing their actions, while making his way through life – but Shiva would not have felt the need to write the story. While Marion plans and works ever harder at his studies, Shiva succeeds effortlessly at everything but doesn’t seem to notice. Throughout his adolescence and long years of medical training, Marion is uncomfortable in his own skin and prickly by nature. Although he struggles to find a mystical communion with his mother through her few belongings, his nature leads him to observe and describe his life clinically. As a reader, I also felt like a detached observer and wasn’t gripped by the novel until close to the end. Only a few of the other characters come fully to life. This may have been the author’s intention, but I found myself wishing for more fully-drawn characters and that Marion would get a life. Also, be forewarned, if you tend towards queasiness, the descriptions of surgeries are long and very detailed.
Cutting for Stone is a good novel, well worth reading, that will appeals to a variety of people, and would be great for a book discussion group.
This is the first book completed for my TBR Pile Challenge. I was given a friend’s copy of the book to get me to read it, and now I can tell her I finally did!

Getting in Shape to Live: The Widower’s Tale by Julia Glass (Audio)

Audiobook Review  The Widower’s Tale by Julia Glass – like her first novel, Three Junes – takes characters from different generations of an extended family and explores their interactions with each other and with the wider social circles they belong to. What characteristics are handed down through the generations? How do the family members respond in times of personal or public crisis? How strong are their family bonds?
The Random House Audio edition of The Widower’s Tale is excellent. Although narrator Mark Bramhall’s accent for Percy Darling, the 70-year-old widower of the title who tells a good part of the story in the first-person, made me think of Maine, the setting for the book is actually “Matlock”, a fictional rural-turned-upscale western suburb to the west of Boston. (Maybe similar to the author’s hometown of Lincoln, Mass.?)
Percy Darling owns an historical house with a converted barn on a pond  – a property that is now worth a fortune. But Percy is a bookish man, an unapologetic intellectual, and a retired Harvard University librarian. He thinks of it only as the property on which he raised his two daughters (now married with children): a house that needed a lot of TLC when he and his dead wife bought it so long ago, the barn where she had her beloved dance studio, and the pond in which she drowned. All of which – until the start of the book – Percy has kept exactly as it was when his wife died.
At the start of The Widower’s Tale, Percy is heading firmly into curmudgeonhood – set in his ways, rebuffing all attempts to jolly him into flexibility, and bemoaning the slothfulness of today’s youth. He has taken up jogging to get in shape for the “hard work” of dying. But he has agreed to allow the barn on his property to be used as a preschool named “Elves & Fairies”, and thus has opened the floodgates of change, endangering the established order and threatening his carefully hoarded memories of his wife.
The author tackles a lot of current issues in The Widower’s Tale (including gay rights, environmental activism, undocumented immigration, universal health care, and breast cancer) that almost overwhelm the main characters’ stories at times, but the characters of Percy himself, his college-student grandson Robert, and Ira, a teacher at the new preschool, have remained strong in my memory for weeks after listening to the audiobook, along with the stories of many of the wide supporting cast of characters.
The story of the fourth main character, Celestino, a Guatemalan who has been working illegally in the U.S. for years, was the only one that seemed contrived to home the author’s point that there are smart, decent immigrants in this country working for low wages who differ from Americans only in lack of money and opportunity. Celestino is smart and pleasant; he becomes friendly with Robert, despite their differences in age and social status; eventually, like Percy, he has to let go of his romantic idea of the past.
The Widower’s Tale, with its themes of social justice and economic injustices, would make a good choice for a book discussion group with liberal leanings or with members who would enjoy discussing the author’s clearly liberal stance on these issues.

Listen to an excerpt from the audiobook here.
Read more about The Widower’s Tale in this Bookslut author interview.

Other Opinions (All Good):
Book Club Classics
Literally Booked
Sommer Reading

Domestic Sturm und Drang: Daughters-in-Law by Joanna Trollope

Joanna Trollope became one of my favorite authors years ago when I first read The Best of Friends or maybe The Men and the Girls (since that was the first of her novels to be published in the U.S.) and then proceeded to read every Joanna Trollope novel I could get my hands on. (She also wrote historical novels under the name Caroline Harvey.) She wrote about young marrieds, or siblings, or May-December couples, or illicit romances with a kind of touched-up realism, showing readers the characters’ faults but never crossing the line into utter ugliness. And the British characters were so smart (in both the English and American senses of the word)! But starting with Friday Nights (2007) and The Other Family (2010) and now with Daughters-in-Law (2011), her characters’ faults came to seem mostly minor and forgivable and their problems too easily resolved by love or money…preferably both. (Yes, I’ve gotten older, but so has the author. Have her books gotten lighter, the more popular they became?)
It turns out that Joanna Trollope is known in England as the “Queen of the Aga Saga“, an offhand but catchy tag from a male literary critic that stuck, relegating her novels of middle-class English country life to a subset of fiction known as the “family saga“. Usually referring to long or multi-volume novels covering multiple generations, such as The Forsyte Saga, by John Galsworthy or The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard, the best family sagas eventually get made into public television miniseries, sometimes more than once. (Hey, BBC, what about Penny Vincenzi’s Lytton Family trilogy?)
A few years ago, Joanna Trollope and another popular English female author beat Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner to the punch in wondering why their best-selling domestic dramas weren’t ever even shortlisted for prestigious literary prizes — cleverly labeling the usual prize-winners “grim-lit”. This caused the literary critic who coined the phrase “Aga saga” to wonder why the bestselling novelists couldn’t be happy with the big royalty checks from their books when most literary fiction is quickly consigned to the remainder tables unless it wins recognition from a prize committee.
In Daughters-in-Law, the author examines a mother’s relationship with her three adult sons and their wives, as well as the dynamics of marriages with children. She details the crises of everyday life and the moments when choices between conflicting loyalties must be made. There were moments, reading Daughters-in-Law, when I thought the book might break out of its genre conventions and have the characters not all neatly work out their issues and messy entanglements by page 319, but if it had, the untidy ending probably would have upset more readers than it pleased.
I would recommend this one to women’s book clubs because there are plenty of characters and their motivations to discuss. A reading group guide is included in the softcover edition.

Click here for a funny riff on the family saga and chick-lit labels from a male columnist for The Independent.

Other opinions about Daughters-in-Law (mostly good):
The Hungry Bookshelf
I Prefer Reading
Pickle Me This

Peace by Richard Bausch

>Gary on the Booklist Book Group blog suggests Peace by Richard Bausch might be a title that would appeal to men as well as women in a book group. The book just won the W. Y. Boyd Literary Award for Excellence in Military Fiction for 2009.

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