Monday, April 15, 2013

The state of wonder through the heart of darkness

Title: State of Wonder
Author: Ann Patchett
Pages: 353
Publisher: Harper Collins
ISBN: 978-0-06-204980-3

Although not explicit, State of Wonder embodies the three different definitions of wonder, according to
        1. to think or speculate curiously be filled with admiration, amazement, or awe; marvel
        3. to doubt

The Vogel company has an uncommunicative, isolationist scientist in the Amazon region of Brazil that is researching a miracle fertility drug that could extend pregnancy beyond middle age. However, the CEO, Mr. Fox, can't get a progress report from Dr. Swenson and when Anders Eckman is sent to get one, he supposedly dies in the jungle. Marina Singh, a former student of Dr. Swenson, is sent next to attempt to find the research station and extract some reports on the research.

This book is her journey, comparable to Conrad's Heart of Darkness, into the darkness of not only the jungles of Brazil, but the darkness of medical ethics and exploitation of research subjects. During this journey, Marina is troubled by her own background - an Indian father who mostly abandoned his American family, her perception of herself as unremarkable, and her own medical mistake that forced her to leave hands-on medicine to lab research. Once in Brazil, she is confronted with the strange juxtaposition of colonial and uncivilized Manaus and the hippie gatekeepers of Dr. Swenson's outpost. Dr. Swenson herself is an indomitable force, who inspires both awe and fear in those who work for her, including the native tribe, the Lakashi.

Once Marina is accepted to the outpost, she travels down the river, and much like Conrad's Marlow, as civilization recedes the darkness of the jungle encroaches on Marina both physically and emotionally. However, the greatest darkness is the flagrant disregard for medical ethics as the means are constantly justified by the ends. The unique substance in the jungle may hold answers to multiple medical issues and Marina is quickly subsumed into both the Lakashi and research cultures. However, she quietly continues to doubt Dr. Swenson's methods and words. I don't want to reveal the climax, as it is a good one, but Marina has good reason to distrust her former teacher – who has been in the jungle too long.

Through most of the book, Marina moves about in a “state of wonder” - either drugged, sick, in shock or intimidated by her teacher. However, she finally makes sense of her own experiences and convictions and begins to make decisions for herself, rather than acquiesce to the demands of others.

“I don't like work--no man does--but I like what is in the work--the chance to find yourself. Your own reality--for yourself not for others--what no other man can ever know. They can only see the mere show, and never can tell what it really means.”
― Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness 

Sunday, April 7, 2013

“The worst loneliness is to not be comfortable with yourself.” ― Mark Twain

Title: Fire
Author: Kristin Cashore
Pages: 528
Publisher: Firebird
ISBN: 014241591X

I enjoyed Graceling, but did not enjoy Fire. It is a companion, not a sequel and takes place in a completely different kingdom with completely different characters. Fire, the main character, is half human, half monster in a world that seems to be a twisted version of a Dr. Seuss book. Fire's curse is her innate desirability that drives men (and some women) to do crazy things. Fortunately, she can read minds and anticipate most attacks. She is drawn into the politics of a neighboring kingdom and consents to use her mind-reading abilities to find the plots to overthrow the kingdom. Along the way, she accepts herself for who she is, makes friends that also accept her, and learns to use and control her powers. I have to admit that I skimmed more than read most of the book as I was not as intrigued with the politicking.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Yet another underdog, who does discovers her true purpose!

Title: Graceling
Author: Kristin Cashore
Pages: 480
Publisher: Harcourt Children's Books
ISBN: 015206396X

I don't remember why I initially put this book on my PaperBackSwap wish list, but I did. Then I missed out on getting a paper copy when I was on vacation and missed the email. But, I learned how to check out a Kindle book from my local library, so that was an unexpected bonus! Oh, and I have book 2 and figured this time, I would read a series in order!

This is classified as a young adult fantasy book. I guess that after Harry Potter and the Twilight series, the types of fantasy for children have gotten more mature. I didn't even realize this was a young adult novel until I looked it up after I read it. The writing was descriptive and clear, and the general story was engaging. In many ways it reminded me of Anne McCaffery's Harper Hall Trilogy, which I really enjoyed.

In this world, certain people are given “Graces” or in-born abilities to become an expert in something – sometimes that ability is useful, like cooking or music, but other times, it can be trivial. However, the main character, Katsa, was born with the Grace of killing. She is the niece of a king, and he uses her for his dirty work. However, she begins to question the ethics of her work, and she starts a secret society, called the Council, to protect people. During one of her missions, she runs into another person Graced with fighting ability and eventually finds that he is investigating the same thing she is, the kidnapping of an elderly member of the royal family of a neighboring kingdom. The kidnapped victim turns out to be the fighter's (named Po) grandfather. Katsa and Po work together to find the plot and realize that a king with evil and cruel ambitions has been Graced with the ability to control people's thoughts. They rescue Po's niece and struggle to kill him, which Katsa eventually does. In the process, Katsa discovers that her Grace is actually survival, and Po loses his sight, but develops his real Grace, the ability to sense the things around him. The story ends with a clear set up for the series, Po returns to his kingdom, Katsa continues to work for the Council, and the niece begins to rule her new kingdom.

I'm looking forward to picking up the next few books in the series.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Lone Savior of Beautiful Woman

Title: Die Trying
Author: Lee Child
Pages: 567
Publisher: Jove Premium Edition
ISBN: 0515142247

I've gotten hooked on the dry humor of Jack Reacher so I've been picking up the novels at used books stores when I see them. But, that also means I'm reading them out of order. Fortunately, each book is really a stand alone story and it really doesn't seem to matter what order I read them in. In some ways, the series reminds me of the old 70s and 80s TV shows of The Incredible Hulk and Knight Rider. The hero, Jack Reacher, get embroiled in a dangerous situation and needs to investigate and save an innocent person – most often a beautiful woman. In this case, the beautiful woman is an FBI agent that was kidnapped because of who her godfather is – the President of the US. Jack becomes involved because he happened to be in the wrong place at the right time. At first, Holly tries to protect Jack until recognizes Jack has skills that can help her. The kidnappers – an extreme white supremacist group that wants to convert and control the nation. At the end, all issues are solved, and like Bruce Banner, Jack walks down the road, by himself, with muddy music playing in my head.