State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
Harper Perennial, 2011
I finally dusted State of Wonder off my shelf because I picked it for book club. I really liked Bel Canto and thought the same sort of novel would make for a good discussion and for a non-annoying read. After finishing SoW, I still prefer Bel Canto, and I think it’s because the form of the novel felt unsatisfying to me.
First of all, all I really knew about the book going in was that it was a sort of female version of Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. State of Wonder is much longer, with lots of descriptions of every step before the journey up the river into the rainforest. Conrad’s story is much, much leaner. Both stories have a sort of a cipher of a narrator (or I may just not remember much about the protagonist of the book I read last as a teenager). Marina Singh is an MD turned pharmacologist working in Minnesota for a pharmaceutical company funding the fertility drug research of Dr. Swenson, one of the ob/gyns who trained her over a decade before the story takes place. Marina’s officemate Dr. Eckman is sent to the Amazon to check up on Dr. Swenson, and after word arrives that he’s died, Marina travels to find out what happened to him. After a long and strange interlude in the city of Manaus, Marina leaves for the lab and camp in the jungle, and that’s my favorite third of the book. Everything else leads up to the journey.
I ultimately felt unsatisfied because the book felt like a retake of Orpheus and Eurydice with the woman doing the rescuing. It doesn’t feel like a complete tale though the endings are different. My favorite version of Orpheus and Eurydice is a play, Eurydice by Sarah Ruhl, which is a version of the myth from Eurydice’s perspective. It was stranger and more emotional somehow. Marina is a very closed-off person, and even throwing in her relationship with a young deaf boy in the jungle doesn’t humanize her much, and it feels like a bit of an old trick a la the movie Aliens.
Patchett writes beautifully, but ultimately I was not that interested in long descriptions of the jungle or the odd city of Manaus and it’s gorgeous opera-house. And I didn’t find the story of what was going on with Dr. Swenson’s research that enthralling because the characters were so closed-off. You know when you think a book is more focused on an idea than on a story? That’s this book.
The Silence of the Rain by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza
Translated by Benjamin Moser
Henry Holt, 2002
Originally published as O silêncio da chuva, 1996
I picked up this first novel in the Inspector Espinosa series as I’m in the final stretch of the 2013 Global Reading Challenge, and this is my first Brazilian crime novel. Espinosa works in Rio in a corrupt police department, which makes for an interesting set-up as he investigates the apparent murder of a wealthy executive in a parking garage. Several other crimes follow, and, interestingly enough, we as readers know that the executive actually killed himself. This doesn’t feel like a police procedural because Espinosa spends most of his time investigating in a roundabout fashion by himself, and sometimes he’s accompanied by Detective Welber.
Espinosa is an interesting character: age forty-two, divorced, a wanna-be bookstore owner, a man who relies on contemplative times in a crowded park by the port to determine which way to proceed in his investigation. It’s not an entirely rational or scientific approach, which makes the story entertaining. The hypotheses–or fantasies as Espinosa calls them– can go on a bit long in parts, but I think that is in part because we know that he’s investigating a suicide and coverup instead of a murder. I believe part of his approach is his coping mechanism for working within a police department he doesn’t trust, though he hasn’t left the force in 22 years.
The book touches on class issues (Carvalho, the deceased, is quite wealthy and his secretary who disappears is not) as well as how the police are viewed by the people of Rio (it’s a rare crime novel that admits that police are known to rough up the public) and how pointless some investigations are. Carvalho is not missed, the investigation does not proceed well, and there is a certain amount of a lack of resolution of the plot in the end. It’s not a frustrating ending, but it is not a neat and tidy one.
I borrowed this book from the library.
Other reviews appear in Confessions of a Mystery Novelist, Bitter Tea and Mystery, and Finding Time to Write.
Scott Wallace went on an approximately three month expedition led by Sidney Posseulo, then head of the Department of Isolated Indians, part of FUNAI, Brazil’s National Indian Foundation. His purpose was to write a profile for National Geographic about Posseulo and his work, and, thankfully, he had enough material to write this book about his expedition and the history and context of such expeditions on behalf of the Department of Isolated Indians. The goal of the trip was to find the outer boundaries of the Arrow People, log the coordinates by GPS, and then have that area deemed protected by the government.
Although I haven’t read many travel/expedition books, my husband has read the good parts of books like The Lost City of Z to me. Also, I watch a ton of National Geographic specials. What’s differen tabout this book than a TV special or a National Geographic spread is the depth of coverage about previous expeditions, including Fawcett’s ill-fated trip,which was covered in The Lost City of Z, the anthropology, the biology, and the governmental efforts to protect the lands of wild Indians in the Amazon. It’s a book that took me awhile to digest because there was so much for me to learn. Rubber harvesting, drug trafficking, gold dredging, Brazilian federal agencies: it’s all stuff about the Amazon I didn’t know that much about.
This is a harrowing read: nearly three months in the jungle, either by motor boat, on foot, or by canoe is a tough go even in good conditions, and there were dangers outside (crocodiles) and inside (fatigue and insubordination). Posseulo is an interesting figure, but I haven’t figured him out even from these detailed stories. I know I’m not cut out for an expedition of this length of time and difficulty in the Amazon, that’s for sure.
The Unconquered by Scott Wallace
Publication date: October 18, 2011
Source: Publisher via NetGalley