" . . . some people have asked, 'Will you tell us what this book is about?' I'll say, 'There's this tribe in the Amazon where the women can have children forever.' The audience gasps and recoils. Then I laugh and say, 'Yes,it's a horror novel.' "
It's always a delight when a reader's expectations and a writer's vision coincide. And, yes, that was the case for me and Ann Patchett's vibrant new novel, State of Wonder.
I've been a fan of Patchett for some time. I loved her early novels, The Magician's Assistant and The Patron Saint of Liars. Admiration for her creative talents peaked with Bel Canto, which won the 2001 PEN/Faulkner Award.
Her 2007 novel, Run, was something of a disappointment, but such a statement must carry a disclaimer. Most authors would proudly have their name on Patchett's most disappointing book. She's that good.
In State of Wonder, Patchett is flexing her literary muscles once again. Marina Singh, a Minnesota-born pharmaceutical scientist, is packed off to the Amazon on a multi-pronged mission. Her boss, who is also her lover, wants her to come back with answers from the all-too-independent doctor/scientist who is trying to isolate the chemicals that allow those Amazon women to procreate in old age.
Marina is also charged with finding out more about the death of her colleague, who was originally sent on the fact-finding mission and who died under mysterious circumstances.
Of course, it's complicated. The doctor/scientist has her own agenda. She's also Marina's former instructor. Marina was on the path to become a talented surgeon until a delivery room mishap led her to flee the program and eventually led her to become a research scientist.
Marina finds redemption and more in the Amazon jungles. It doesn't give much away to say that dismembering a snake with a machete is the least of it.
State of Wonder is a wonder. A vivid novel of hope, redemption and human tenacity. It's Patchett at her finest.
For me, biking will never supplant running. It's a nice substitute. A way to take some pressure off the knees and hips, spend a leisurely morning with friends and see a lot of countryside in a way you can't see running or in a car.
So, I'm not the audience for Robert Penn's account of his efforts to build his dream bike. It's All About The Bike is, well, all about the bike. It's about the hardware and, admittedly, some cyclists have a love affair with all those components.
I have this friend and biking has been very, very good to him. He's lost nearly 100 pounds because of cycling. He's read this book twice and the second time he was taking notes.
Hardcore bicycle junkies , like my friend, are going to love Robert Penn's book. And I have to admit, I liked it a lot. I was especially fascinated by his chapters on the headset and the saddle. The headset is that component that allows the front wheel to turn independently of the frame. Fifteen years or so of biking and I didn't know that. It's kind of cool.
As for the saddle (seat to you neophytes) anyone who rides 60+ miles for multiple days, as I have done, understands just how important it is. Your body has three points of contact with a bicycle -- the pedals, the handles and the seat. I can't emphasize the importance of the right saddle. To paraphrase Penn, you may hurt, but you don't need to suffer.
Penn is a stout advocate for the bicycle -- a machine that is rightfully enjoying a renaissance. He gives anyone who is thinking about assembling their own dream machine plenty to think about. Steel. Leather. Gears and Gruppo.
I'm not prepared to say it's all about the bike, but Penn makes a convincing case.