Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Patchett's State of Wonder a vivid novel of hope and redemption; Penn builds a case for steel and leather

" . . . 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.' "

Book 74. State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

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.

Book 75. It’s All About The Bike by Robert Penn

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.

Monday, July 04, 2011

McCullough's Greater Journey an exuberant, sprawling history

73. The Greater Journey by David McCullough

The Greater Journey is a sprawling, exuberant history of Americans in Paris during a 70-year span of the 19th Century.

It's hard to say this is McCullough's best book -- he does have those two Pulitzers after all -- but it's easy to understand why it's his favorite. 

The book overflows with energy and inspiration, creativity and promise, so well does McCullough capture the spirit of Paris and the Americans who briefly called it home.

We meet novelist James Fenimore Cooper, Samuel F.B. Morse (famous in this country for inventing the telegraph, but who was a bold and muscular painter), the portraitist George P.A. Healey, the medical student Oliver Wendell Holmes, writers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne, the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, painters Mary Cassatt and John Singer Sargent, future Senator Charles Sumner and the American ambassador Elihu Washburne.

It is a large, sprawling cast that's not limited to Americans.  Paris, its citizens and sites -- from the Louvre to the Champs-Elysee to the Eiffel Tower (which appears surprisingly late in the story) -- also play a major role in McCullough's history.

McCullough's principal contention is that 19th Century Paris -- from 1830 to 1900 -- helped shape these Americans and consequently helped shape America.  McCullough's American cast, and more, returned to their homeland having increased their knowledge, enhanced their expertise and awakened to an awareness of a wider world and a new perspective on that world. 

It was in Paris, for example, that Sumner, who became a leading proponent for the abolition of slavery, first began to understand that the way blacks were treated in American was not part of the natural order, but an outgrowth of custom.

In entertaining fashion, McCullough leads us to re-examine the critical role that France played in the America we celebrate today.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Three to read, one to skip

Once again, I'm guilty of reading rather than blogging. The consequence is that there's a small tower of books on the stand next to the computer.

So, here's four quick summaries to reduce the tower to a more manageable size. 

69. The Alchemist by Paolo Bacigalupi

Bacigalupi is Gaiman-like in his ability to master a variety of genres frrom pure science fiction to YA lit to unadulterated fantasy.

The Alchemist, an award-winning novella from Subterranean Press, is Bacigalupi's stab at fantasy. It's a compelling tale of a world in which each use of magic, however benign, spawns the growth of a thorny, poisonous, malevolent bramble.

The alchemist of the title uses magic to calm the persistent cough that threatens his daughter's health. He feels guilty about using magic, but justifies it by his search for a solution to eradicate the bramble.

I have only one complaint about The Alchemist -- it's a paired novella. The story of the alchemist, who is on the run when this book ends, is completed in a novella by Tobias Buckell. So many books, so little time.

70. Bradbury An Illustrated Life by Jerry Weist

It wouldn't work for just anyone, but Ray Bradbury is the perfect choice for an illustrated biography. This table-top sized book, assembled by Jerry Weist, makes no attempt to be a comprehensive story of Bradbury's life.

What it does do is capture a broad swatch of his creative life. The book is fat with reproductions of early fanzines in which Bradbury got his start, stills from television shows and movies, artist's illustrations of his stories that appeared in countless magazines, covers of pulps featuring his writing, pages of story adaptations from EC Comics and the covers of his books, including foreign editions.

It's a visual feast, and a fitting celebration of Bradbury's creative life.

71. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie

Humor and pain are the elements that war for dominance in Sherman Alexie's superb stories of Indian life in and around the Spokane Indian Reservation.

Alexie's stories are filled with vivid characters who confront heartbreak and loss, the devastating (and inevitable) effects of alcohol and the decades-old degradation that penetrates the soul of a conquered people with a sly humor and stoic acceptance.

Alexie, who tweaks our funny bone and our conscience, ranks among America's most gifted writers. 

72. The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

This 2010 novel by Philip Pullman is a mean-spirited re-creation of the Gospel.

Mary gives birth to twins. One she names Jesus. The other, we are told, is given a common name, but Mary always calls him Christ, which is Greek for Messiah.

Inspired by his cousin, John, Jesus becomes an itinerant preacher who attracts a small following even as he begins to generate controversy among the religious rulers. Christ, who is regularly visited by a mysterious stranger, chronicles the events of Jesus's life and his sayings.

Eventually, Jesus is crucified. It is Christ who appears to Mary three days after the crucifixion, to several of the disciples on the road to Emmaus.  Christ eventually leaves the area, marries and -- encouraged by the stranger -- sets to work on his account of Jesus's life.

" . . . as Christ sat . . . he couldn't help thinking of the story of Jesus, and how he could improve it. For example, there could be some miraculous sign to welcome the birth: a star, an angel. And the childhood of Jesus might be studded with charming little wonder-tales of boyish mischief leavened by magic, which could nevertheless be interpreted as signs of greater miracles to come."

It's an altogether cynical excursion into fantasy that rather than re-telling the life of Jesus, seeks to re-invent it, and the establishment of the Catholic Church, as a great hoax.