Archive | June, 2011

Book Review: State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

29 Jun

Genre: Literary fiction

Publisher: Harper Collins (Harper)

Pub date: 7 June 2011

Source: Publisher

Synopsis

Marina Singh is a forty-something researcher living a rather complacent life in a safe job and a comfortable relationship with her much older boss. She is jolted out of this complacence when her colleague Anders Eckman dies in the Amazon where he was chasing the secretive, larger-than-life Dr Annick Swenson to find out about her research.

Marina is persuaded by Eckman’s wife and her boss Mr. Fox to go to Brazil and track down Swenson. Swenson was Marina’s teacher and mentor many years ago when she was a resident gyneacologist. On this unexpected journey, she experiences such magical things and learns so much – about the Lakashi people, the research, her mentor and herself.

Review

State of Wonder is a tale of adventure into the heart of darkness – Marina Singh ventures into the Amazon where the extremely secretive Annick Swenson has been working for over 10 years. She has been closely guarding the results of her research into a fertility drug that keeps the Lakashi women fertile into their 70s, not even letting her employer know where she is.

Patchett’s storytelling of this almost mythological tale is clean, minimalistic but oh so beautiful! Her descriptions pull you in and take you along the river into the jungle. Initially Marina does not seem like the person who can stand up to her old mentor and get the information she wants. But over time we see that she seems to have a strange staying power, patience and intelligence.

Marina is helped in her initial difficult days in the jungle by Easter, a young deaf native boy. Soon though, Marina and Easter find comfort in each other’s company and forge a strong bond.

This is a page turner that really takes its time to build the characters, and the situation, layer by layer. As a reader I was completely committed to going along with Marina. Marina has to tough it out in a strange new environment filled with strange insects, snakes, diseases and other dangers. While on this voyage is also battling her old demons – her absent father, her reasons for giving up gynaecology and turning to research, her sadness about Eckman. In no small part, the way Marina’s trip to the jungle will turn out depends on whether she can get past her old feelings about her mentor and stand up to her.

The story and the people seem so exotic and magical, yet so realistic that you ask yourself: Is this true? Could it be? The tribe, their long years of fertility, the trees, the ecosystem, the people?

It also makes the reader think about the ethics of pharmaceutical research on indigenous people, their inevitable exploitation and the importance of economics in health-related research.

I can’t say enough great things about State of Wonder and clearly I’m not the only one since there have been rave reviews on blogs and from critics. I do wonder how I’ve missed reading other works by this author – something I plan to remedy right away.

Verdict

Highly, highly recommended. Long after I closed the book, my thoughts were with Marina, Easter and Swenson and the Lakashi people. Don’t miss this magical story.

Rating: 5*

*See my Rating policy

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Book Review: The Virgin and the Gypsy by D.H. Lawrence (Audiobook)

24 Jun

Genre: Classic

Publisher: Naxos Audio

Pub date: 10 March 2011

Source: Publisher via BookPleasures.com

Format: Audiobook

Narrator: Georgina Sutton

Length: 3 hours 37 minutes

Synopsis

Lucille and Yvette Saywell are young girls who feel oppressed in their middle class home in the rectory. The girls are irritated by their old grandmother and angry aunt, and they feel doomed to a  life of boredom and middle class existence. But when Yvette meets a gypsy, strange feelings rise in her that threaten all accepted morality of the family and society.

Review

As expected, of D.H Lawrence questions and casts aside all accepted morality and societal norms in this short novella.

Lucille and Yvette live until the dark cloud of their mother who abandoned her husband and children and ran away with a younger man.

Yvette has never been in love and scorns the attention of the young men of her social circle. She is disdainful of her family and her home and openly flouts rules and their idea of morality. These young girls are full of life and promise and feel that they are wasting away in their prison-like home. This is a short novel, but Lawrence packs a lot into it. The characters are well drawn, and easy to recognize: the old grandmother who holds onto her position of power in the house, the frustrated aunt who is angry about wasting away her life and her sex in service to her mother, the loving, ineffective father who wants to be liked.

A big part of the problem is that the young boys and girls in this small town actually have everything. What they lack is intellectual stimulation and real difficulties. This brings about a sense of ennui and disdain for their families. Which is why when Yvette meets the gypsy, her her interest is piqued. He represents freedom, virility and earthiness. Only at the end does she realise how she feels about him and learns his name and sees his more than a concept.

To me, the end seemed a little rushed and incomplete (this novella was published posthumously) and a little overly dramatic.

The audiobook: I suggest that you do listen to this novella in audio. Georgina Sutton does a great job of creating the ethereal Yvette, the old grandmother, the choleric aunt and the gruff and real gypsy. I only listened to it once, but bits of dialogue stand out in my memory for which the audio production is the reason.

I will definitely be looking for more classics to consume in audio. Having someone else interpret the material intelligently adds so much to my absorption and enjoyment of the book.

Verdict

Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys classics, especially D.H Lawrence. I do suggest you try the audiobook, it greatly added to my appreciation of this short novel.

Rating: 4.25*

Thanks to Naxos Audios for sending me the audiobook.
I received this book as a reviewer for BookPleasures.com

*See my Rating policy

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Book Review: Miss Timmins’ School for Girls

23 Jun

Genre: Literary fiction

Publisher: Harper Collins (Harper Paperback)

Pub date: 21 June 2011

Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Synopsis

Charu Apte, a young innocent girl, fresh out of college, starts teaching at Miss Timmins’ School for Girls (a boarding school). 20 years after the British have left India, this school is still run like an outpost of the Empire. By day, Charu navigates the politics of the teachers and students while teaching Shakespeare to the girls of class 9 and 10. But she is drawn to the rebellious and glamourous Moira Prince – a pot-smoking teacher who seems to have many secrets.

One monsoon night, a teacher is found murdered, and the strict school atmosphere undergoes a change. Charu finds herself in the middle of this murder investigation while coming to terms with  the changes in her own life and the choices that she needs to make.

Review

Miss Timmins’ School for Girls is a murder mystery and so much more. It is set in India in the early 1970s – a time of hippie experimentation with drugs, music and sex.

Charu Apte comes from a traditional Brahmin home and has lived a sheltered existence. Exposed to this new world of sexual freedom and a new culture, she takes to it, and ends up learning more about herself than she ever expected.

Told in first person by Charu, this is her story of overcoming her own perceptions of herself. All her life, the mark on her face has ruled her and she is terribly self-conscious about it. There is also a cloud hanging over her family – a scandal that caused her father to give up a promising naval career and move to Indore.

After the murder of the teacher, the second part of the story is told by one of Charu’s students, 15-year old Nandita. Nandita and her friends decide to play detective in an attempt to find out what really happened that night and who had the motive to kill the teacher. I actually found this part of the book a little jarring and the mood of the book changed. I was very glad when Charu took up the thread of narration again.

Miss Timmins’ School for Girls is a brilliantly written story that transcends the expectations of the genre. The young Charu is an easy character to love. It was heartwarming to see her bloom from a self-conscious young provincial girl to someone who is confident and accepts herself. In spite of her sheltered life so far, she is open to new experiences and accepts people for who they are without judgement. The one she is hardest on is herself and through the course of the story, she learns to let go of her inhibitions and the limits she places on herself.

Not being a murder mystery in the traditional sense, the crime itself takes a back seat and cultural and social issues like the hippie movement, class and caste bias, dynamics of Indian family life and life in a girls boarding school are examined. And because of it, this is a story to be savoured slowly and enjoyed for its lyrical beauty and in-depth character development.

Verdict

Highly recommended. Fans of literary fiction should definitely get their hands on Miss Timmins’ School for Girls.

Rating: 4.75*

*See my Rating policy

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Book Review: The Art of Forgetting by Camille Noe Pagan

20 Jun

Genre: Women’s fiction

Publisher: Penguin Group USA (Dutton)

Pub date: 9 June 2011

Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Synopsis

Marissa and Julia have been best friends since high school. Marissa has been the quiet one, content to stay in Julia’s shadow since she made friends with her on the first day of school. Julia is rather bossy and demanding, but Marissa doesn’t question her loyalty. Then one day Julia is hit by a car and suffers brain injury. This makes Julia’s behaviour erratic and her memory spotty. Now Marissa has to take centre stage as she helps her friend navigate her new world.

Review

This is not a completely typical tale of women’s friendship – where the relationship is tested. Because Julia’s personality and memories are affected, the way she and Marissa are with each other has the potential to change. Amnesia, especially when is affects someone young, is scary for the person suffering from it and for those around her.

Marissa has worked very hard to forget all the ways in which Julia ran roughshod over her all these years. Maybe because I haven’t experienced quite this kind of high school, I have less patience for it. This desperation to fit in somewhere was so important in high school that Marissa could not see when the best friendship stopped being healthy for her. And as an adult these roles continue.

Julia’s accident gives Marissa a chance to see their friendship in a different light. It was heartening to see her grow stronger, step away from this unhealthy dependence and make decisions for herself.

While the story overall was warm, filled with important messages about brain trauma and lessons on friendship, there were parts of it that had the flavour of an after school special. Marissa volunteers with a group of young girls teaching them self-esteem and training them to run a 5K race. Themes like healthy self image, eating, right, exercising, healthy friendships, dealing with bullying etc. are rather clumsily addressed in these class. Helping young girls with all these issues is a great thing, but I didn’t really think the detail with which it was addressed fit into the overall plot. Some of the dialog was a little stilted as well.

I enjoyed seeing both Marissa and Julia grow up. I especially liked how Marissa finally grew up and saw how good her life could be instead of chasing after adolescent dreams.

Verdict

An easy read about how friendships can (and perhaps should) change as our lives and dreams grow. Recommended for fans of women’s fiction.

Rating: 3*

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