Thursday, October 25, 2012

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

A few people have asked me, what happened to my book blog~why had I stopped writing it?  Don't worry. I'm still here, and I'm still reading. (My husband can vouch for that.) It just that it takes a while to find a best book, but State of Wonder by Ann Patchett certainly fits the bill.

I've read three of Patchett's other books: Bel Canto, Run, and Truth and Beauty, and State of Wonder is  better than these. Maybe it appeals to me because of the medical/pharmacological plot.  (I do love tales of pharmaceutical intrigue!) A Minnesota-based pharmaceutical company wants to keep tabs on its well-paid drug researcher in the Amazon, who is far less forthcoming about her progress than desirable.  The company sends another scientist to find her and report back, with disastrous results.  Instead of canceling the drug altogether (because of projected millions to be made), the company CEO sends yet another employee, Dr. Marina Singh, into the wild.  The story of Dr. Singh searching and finding her erstwhile teacher/pharmaceutical savant is captivating.  The Amazon jungle bubbles with snakes, mosquitoes, cannibals, and unforeseen surprises of a more human variety.  The setting and character development of State of Wonder remind me very much of another best book~Barbara Kingsolver's African tale, The Poisonwood Bible.

The theme of travel as a route to self-knowledge has always fascinated me: it is irony at its richest.  Indeed, Marina learns more about herself on this journey than she would have had she stayed in her beloved Minnesota.  Sometimes, you have to go far away to discover what lies nestled in your very own cerebral cortex.  Marina learns that long-gestating fears can be birthed in the most remote of locales, resulting in longed-for peace and homecoming.

Our family tends to be homebodies, and books like State of Wonder remind me how transforming trips can be.  Every day stress cues are gone, and you can focus on what's in front of you and learn. (I just don't want to go to the Amazon jungle~malaria is best experienced textually rather than biologically.)

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Jeneration X by Jen Lancaster

We're smack-dab in the middle of summer, and if you have nothing to read, may I suggest Jeneration X: One Reluctant Adult's Attempt to Unarrest her Arrested Development... by Jen Lancaster? Gut-poppingly funny, it goes so well with the season's Crystal Light and chlorinated hair. 

Lancaster has turned her unapologetic, self-deprecating memoirs into quite the cottage industry. Her first, Bitter is the New Black, detailed her humbling, yet humorous, journey through unemployment.  This latest installment (#6) is my favorite because her humor, always nodding at nostalgia, full-on nails the peccadilloes and foibles of those of us born in the 1960s and 70s, the Gen X-ers.  I can't remember the last time I laughed so hard when reading.  The usual "Jennsylvania" (title of her blog) themes are included: husband and pets and laziness, but Lancaster's upped the ante this time with nuggets particular to those in middle age.  Her trip to the mammography clinic is endearing, if anything because Lancaster is proud she fit into the regular machine and didn't need the super sized one.  She tests a skirted swimsuit (the wetsuit of middle-age), gives an uncomfortable bra the heave-ho, and decides spying on the neighbors is not a thrill but disgustingly t.m.i-provoking.

Reading Jeneration X, I felt like I was having lunch with a favorite friend. (I love listening while someone else does all the talking.) Lancaster knows how to dole out a story, one delicious bit at a time, and then hit you with a self-truth, so funny and true, you can't help but love her.  To wit:

Almost as soon as I discovered a deep and abiding love for Panang Thai Curry, I discovered that I can't digest it. Maybe I don't have a tolerance for so much spice or it may be that I ruined by colon from years and years of running Artificial Red Dye #7 through it. Regardless, I need to case and desist with the Panang Thai Curry because I'm murdering myself from the inside out. [Lancaster's husband finally calls the restaurant and tells them never to sell this dish to his wife. She closes with this lesson:]
Reluctant Adult Lesson Learned:
Being a grown-up means not staying in an abusive relationship...even if it's just with your colon.

In fact, the whole book, which I devoured like my own Panang Thai Curry sans ill effects, was a wonderful affirmation that life in one's forties is much the same for all of us. We become our own mothers and fathers and start taking better care of our bodies and minds.  Although, in Lancaster's (and my) case, it may be a little too late to keep sharp if your mind is comfortably ensconced in the 1980s. Her anecdote about becoming enthralled with the heretofore ho-hum song "Hysteria" by Def Leppard made me want to kiss her. I too heard this song on the radio a few months ago and can't get enough of it. I even created a Pandora station around it. Me love Def Leppard?  What is happening?

It's just part of being Generation X, baby.

p.s. My friend T.M. and I went to a book signing by Lancaster a few months ago in our town. She is an engaging, composed speaker and very generous with her time. I highly recommend seeing her if you have the chance. Also, the assembled group of fans was gracious, unassuming, and not fashionable in the least. (My highest compliment, folks.)

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Just for Liberal Arts Majors--The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

So what do you do with an English major?

I must have heard this question fifty times circa 1989, my senior year of college.  I didn't know the answer then, and I wasn't alone. Plenty of liberal arts majors were asking themselves that kind of question in the 1980s.  I still don't know the answer--I've had three careers (roughly) of middling success, which have led me no closer to the English major's pot of gold.

One of the reasons I love Jeffrey Eugenides' novel The Marriage Plot is its similarly foggy main characters.  Madeleine, Leonard, and Mitchell are Brown seniors in the early 80s who make up a traditional love triangle.  Madeleine, the English major of the trio, tries to stretch her love of literature to accommodate the hip critical theories taught in class.  Leonard, a brilliant manic depressive, and Mitchell, a Religion major smitten by Madeleine, are both bolder in intellectual and career plans than she is.  As Madeleine finishes her senior year, she's a little lost: she starts to think her thesis on "the marriage plot" in 18th century novels is stodgy, irrelevant and reflective of how uncool she is compared to her peers. Her upper crust childhood of chintz and sanity slightly shames her, and she finds herself drawn to mysterious, charismatic Leonard.  Hot college passion ensues, and, for once, Madeleine doesn't feel old-fashioned.  But the flames dampen when Leonard is non-compliant with his medication, preferring mania over depression. To thicken the plot, the characters make some very bad choices.  Should Madeleine marry the pharmaceutically reformed Leonard? No!  Should Mitchell keep believing Madeleine will one day love him? Hell no!  But these characters choose the bumpy road, and the wiser reader enjoys the ride.

Perhaps, the most compelling lesson of The Marriage Plot is that many bad choices can be fixed. One can dissolve a rotten marriage, resolve infatuation, and even craft a career from English courses.  Madeleine decides to pursue a PhD in Victorian Studies and become a professor after all, a job which seems highly suited to her passion and background.  The story ends by showing the lost finding their way, if only jaunt by jaunt.  There's truth to this pattern: college graduation forces us out into the world, and we stumble and make mistakes.  But we can correct these choices, sometimes several times, and in this way we move through the years. By middle age, you find that you've made a life.

What does one do with an English major? You know, I really don't think it matters.