Hello readers and welcome to the long-delayed first entry in the 2020 Reading List. I know there is a lot going on in the world but I hope that means we are all taking stock of what is important in life. For me that is a close read of a phenomenal novel. And I had that in my first title for the year: Ursula Le Guin’s landmark 1969 science fiction work The Left Hand of Darkness. This was without a doubt the greatest sci fi book I have ever read. Better than Gibson or Heinlein, and maybe even Vonnegut, who was just hitting his stride around the same time. There are many reasons for this so let’s start from the top.
First, the entire novel was a master class in how to say a lot with very little prose. There are so many layers to this work: the world itself, its inhabitants and its societal structure, but far beyond this are the androgynous aspects to the people of Gethen and those of its various regions. We are brought into the story by an anthropological envoy named Genly Ai whose sole mission is to bring this world (Gethen, or Winter to the envoy) into the Ekumen, or collection of planets. He visits both regions and is treated poorly by both. Throughout there are deft allusions to the geo-political situation on our planet at the time, but Le Guin is so masterful with her prose you have to ponder how those are drawn out. There is no simple statement within saying one nation is better than the other, but there are quite a few nods toward the notion that an androgynous society is much less susceptible to the quarrels and demons of our world, the chief being warfare. War is shown as something that has to be manipulated into, and there are very interesting passages where Genly is considering how their society is different from his own.
Second, this novel is also a master class of how to world build by breaking all the rules. I’ve gone over this on the blog before, but most “rules” for writers are nonsense for those who have the talent to break them. Many of us, myself included, might think to put the details of the world in the first part of the book. Instead Le Guin dumps a bunch of terms and mannerisms on us from the outset (not to mention changes in perspective that aren’t always recognizable) and starts a slow download of what they mean as we progress through the work itself. We don’t find out the origin of a major term (“shifgrethor”) until almost the end of the novel, but the word itself is shown so freaking well through the story that it does not matter. That’s how skillful the prose is here. The entire last portion where the two major characters are traversing the ice back to the start, was one of the most gripping and stunning passages of prose I have ever encountered.
I must thank you readers for sticking with me as I took almost two months to devour this novel, and it was worth every chapter. As I stated I may not be getting to as many titles per year as before but I am going to analyze the heck out of each novel as I get through them. To that end, the next title in this continuing march through science fiction territory will be an author I have avoided until now: Dave Eggers and his dystopian 2013 novel The Circle. And I’m getting scary close to finishing both Orange is the New Black the Netflix series and the memoir, so stay tuned for a post on that next month.
And of course in these scary times it’s important to truly reflect on what matters in life. I hope as we are all self-quarantined and distancing ourselves we all are noticing the beauty of life that does exist, and the wonderful connection we all share. As great books like this show us, this is pervasive despite the many attempts at division. Stay safe and healthy out there and thanks for reading.
Hello and welcome to a new decade. Long-time readers will surely know what to expect out of me around this time: a look back at all the reading and work I did over the last year and a reflection upon the (revamped) 2019 Reading List. And like last year I won’t disappoint, but I’m also hoping to use this post as a re-envisioning of John Abraham the author. First I wanted to get to the books I read this year now that I’m taking a deeper dive into each work.
First of all, I’m not counting books I technically read in 2019 but considered part of the previous year’s reading list, which does shorten things a bit. But I am also realizing that I gained a lot more in my close reading despite not getting to as many books. Ann Patchett proved she is a genuine great storyteller, Emma Cline showed me a contemporary woman author can have as much punch as anyone before or after, and unfortunately Edan Lepucki displayed some of the opposite qualities. As readers know this year continues a trend of reading more contemporary female authors, and Katherine Dunne was one of the best I have encountered. I rounded out the group on a local note with Julie Schumacher.
I then pivoted to the genre of my current manuscript (science fiction) by reading Robert Heinlein, considered a master of the form. And possibly my closest read of the year was also my most disappointing, as I struggled for two months puzzling through why many of the stories of an anthology I read were considered the “best.” And on the last day of the year I posted my review of a book my editor suggest I read when she got through an initial (and awful) first draft of my own manuscript. And just like last year, eliminating most of my “other” types of reading left open a larger chunk of time to catch up on my non-fiction at work. This allowed me to read quite a few books I have wanted to for a long time: The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, Understanding Media by the late great Marshall McLuhan, The Reactionary Mind by Corey Robin, Failed States by the legendary Noam Chomsky, and a couple that found their way to me through the bookstore where I work: Commander in Cheat: How Golf Explains Trump by Rick Reilly and Ten Arguments to Delete Your Social Media Account Right Now by tech pariah Jaron Lanier.
All told I fell quite a bit short of my total last year, getting through 14 books, which is much less than the 25 from last year. While I could feel bad about that, lately I’ve been reading the travails of those who got to way more books and it has confirmed for me that I'm on the right track regardless of how many titles I hit in a year. While it is great to catalogue each book you read one should not put too much stock in the number. While I did not get to as many books this year, for those that I did I took my time and really considered my reaction, as well as what I learned (about myself, about society, about writing, about whatever). And I have to say this has been a very successful year of reading.
So, how did I do on my other goals for the year? I would say major accomplishments were posting a much better short story to the blog, and finally starting on the Writing Life Series (parts one, two and three are here if you missed them). And the original post (“What’s a Writer For?”) still languishes on my computer, but I hope to finally post that and a similar one (“What’s a Reader For?”) by the time I reach five years writing for this site in the summer. I am also planning a fourth entry in the “How to Write a Book” series now that I’m deep into rewrites on my manuscript.
Long-time readers will once again recognize that I’ve been compiling these reflections on my years for a long time now, and while I enjoy them I don’t put such pressure on myself to complete goals like I once did. So what’s on tap for the next year and decade? Not much in the way of change. Even though I didn’t make much headway on it this year, I am still planning on mixing up the series with other genres (drama, poetry, graphic novel) and still hope to write more about other mediums (up next in the Netflix series will be Orange is the New Black). And while I’m still working on earlier goals (don’t over-promise and under-deliver, keep diversifying the list with non-old white guy authors) after doing this for years now I can see how it has affected and improved my writing. Simply having a broad comparison of other writers can help you hone your own voice.
Until then, as I stated last time the next book on my list will be Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness. And thanks to all of you who have stuck around reading my posts on this here website blog for the past (almost) five years.
Hello readers and welcome to the final installment of the (revamped) 2019 Reading List! At this point I am continuing through science fiction territory, previously spending a few months on an anthology dive (of which I had mixed thoughts). I decided to finish up the year with a book my editor Libby recommended for drawing comparisons to my manuscript: Omar El-Akkad’s 2017 novel American War.
Right off the bat I can see why she urged me to read this; the setting and plot are remarkably similar to my own manuscript. We both envision a future lacerated with civil war (his a more protracted conflict over the “right” to keep burning fossil fuels, mine over what I feel will be an even more valuable asset, drinking water), but his lasts over twenty years and involves various forms of warfare. Suffice it to say that I found enough here different from my own work to find some issues with the prose, but the story was so good I was compelled to finish it. El-Akkad makes a major choice deciding to show an entire civil conflict through the eyes of one family. Granted this group plays a very pivotal role throughout the war, but I felt there were some downsides to this decision. What is great is getting to see the incredible character devastation of Sarat Chestnutt, which also makes us think about what would happen if this type of warfare did come home. Not to give too much away but there is not much for Sarat to live for by the end of the novel and El-Akkad does a great job showing her life to us so we know why she takes the actions she does by the end of the novel. I also thought El-Akkad shines the most when he takes what he surely must have witnessed all across the globe in his “real” job as a journalist and portrays it in new fictional ways. I thought the best examples were his portrayal of the geo-political situation as it will become through the climate shift, but also how the “Blue” (aka the North) is not above using the same torture techniques used at places like GTMO on its own citizens.
Alas, while this was a phenomenal read and kept my interest throughout, some of the larger choices El-Akkad made caused me to want so much more. There is a larger struggle playing out on the world stage that influences the domestic conflict that we only get through a representative of the Bouazizi empire (an amalgamation of Middle Eastern nations that band together) as well as “historical document” sections among the chapters, but I wish we could have gotten more about it. The real problem I had with the choice of following the Chestnutt family at the exclusion of almost everything else was this: in a book about civil war, there is surprisingly little actual warfare. Again this is a choice the author made, but I found that most of the battles are alluded to and while the major character does assassinate a general on the other side, we see very little of the fallout from that during the war (demarcation of time becomes more of an issue later). But I must stress that the plot of this book is so interesting that I would recommend it for anyone seeking a great, speculative read. And I have learned that there is much to be gained by reading “comp” titles as I now know my manuscript is much different than contemporary novels with similar themes (including another I was even less thrilled by earlier this year).
Up next I will be back with a post looking back on this year’s Reading List and what to expect going forward. I am also going to keep plowing ahead in the science fiction vein and read an author I am ashamed to say I have not read: Ursula Le Guin and her masterful 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness. And stay tuned for more updates in the Writing Life series and some other things. Hope you all had as wonderful a year as you could, and I’ll see you in the next decade.
Hello readers and welcome to this installment of the (revamped) 2019 Reading List! At this point I am diving deep into the science fiction realm, last time getting through what is still considered an earlier masterpiece of the form. I decided to pivot from Heinlein to more contemporary work in the genre and picked up a collection I had almost no familiarity with, Houghton Mifflin’s long-running Best American series. The Science Fiction and Fantasy version was only in its third year by then, and while I am a little behind the times with this entry, this was a great look at the genre authors making waves in 2016, which as we all know was an important year in this country for a lot of horrific reasons. The series editor is John Joseph Adams, who in addition to editing runs his own imprint. The esteemed science fiction author Charles Yu was the guest editor. And while there were yards to learn from these talented authors I found there were only a few of the supposed “best” stories I thought deserving of the title.
I enjoyed the fantasy stories in this collection much more overall, which was a surprise for me. Leigh Bardugo’s Head, Scales, Tongue, Tail was an all-around show stopper, with excellent dialogue, setting and characters that stuck with me. This collection was also my first encounter with the extraordinary N. K. Jemisin, whose subversive and immersive Cthulhu-inverted The City Born Great towered over every other story. The legendary Peter Beagle told a fascinating eastern-inspired tale in The Story of Kao Yu, and Alice Sola Kim contributed a fearsome yarn inspired by her writing group in Successor, Usurper, Replacement. All of these stories were incredible examples of how to use the genre to say far more than what is on the surface, and I am looking forward to reading more of these authors.
There were a few science fiction stories I really liked, including a very Black Mirror-esque tale by Alexander Weinstein called Openness. Joseph Allen Hill scored with the final entry, The Venus Effect, a powerful allegory about police brutality. And there was a darkly funny “choose your own adventure” type of science fiction story in Caroline Yoachim’s Welcome to the Midnight Clinic at the Interplanetary Relay Station | Hours Since the Last Patient Death: 0.
Before I get to what I didn’t like about this series, I must again stress that this was a great assemblage of talent. And yet, I found myself wondering if these tales were really the “best” of that year or if it was more of a subjective thing. There were a number of stories in here (Dale Bailey’s Teenagers From Outer Space, Debbie Urbanski’s When They Came to Us) that appeared to be less-great workings of Neil Blompkamp’s epic alien film of nearly a decade ago, District 9. And if I’m being nit-picky, Catherine Valente could have used a bit more research on her subject (the great garbage patches of the seas) in order to present it more realistically (they are not giant islands of refuse, as she seems to suggest). Some of the other stories Adams mentions in the introduction that did not make the cut (especially Sarah Pinsker’s Nebula finalist Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea) seemed like better work that could have been incorporated here.
I hate to end this on a downer note, but after spending two months on what is a very popular anthology series, I have to say I was fairly disappointed and am going to look elsewhere for my next genre collection. The subjectivity of the selection process, despite finding some amazing and talented authors, left something to be desired. But I did learn a ton about writing stories and as I’ve stated before, I am celebrating the publication of my very first short story this month.
Thanks for bearing with me as I eked out the time and space to for this collection and my thoughts on it. I will be continuing in the science fiction realm for the rest of the year, heading back into novel territory with another suggestion of my editor Libby: Omar el Akkad’s revolutionary 2017 book American War. Thanks as always for reading and writing!
Hello readers and welcome to this installment of the (revamped) 2019 Reading List. Previously I finished up a run of contemporary female authors with a local, academic read. Now as I complete the first round of re-writes on my science fiction manuscript I decided to pivot to that genre in the Reading List, starting with Robert Heinlein’s masterwork, the 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land. Or rather I decided to read what was released in 1991 as the “original, uncut version.” (Although Heinlein may have actually preferred the initial version.)
This novel is considered a masterpiece of the form, and while I don’t totally disagree I must say I had my ups and downs with both the narrative and what Heinlein was trying to say with the story. As readers know by now, these entries are not so much rundowns of the plots of these books, and I wouldn’t want to do that with this book anyway. If you are truly interested in the genre this one is without a doubt worth reading, but I don’t think I would place it as high as Vonnegut or Gibson. The novel was indeed vastly ahead of its time, and was visionary in how to use fiction to deconstruct such societal woes as religion and worries about “the other” (in this case an “other” from the planet Mars, yet human like us). It was also quite revolutionary in its approach to sexual relationships, which scandalized people at the time and led to the novel being banned from schools. Not much of it seems that way in 2019; despite the novel supposedly taking place around our time period there were more than a few lines (including a victim-blaming one concerning rape uttered by a female character and some pretty outdated views on homosexuality) that I would have preferred cut.
I thought the novel’s strongest parts were in fact the religious bits, and Heinlein’s deft use of prose to examine what was just becoming a major element of society in his day to be very interesting. He was essentially describing today’s megachurches, and I was blown away to read passages of gambling halls and strip joints being turned into religious domains, pondering how he was simply drawing conclusions of what was to come. The entire novel is also a great example of how to build up enough of a world that it is a believable place for the characters to interact through the story. On the whole, I did enjoy this over-five-hundred page novel, and it was a good if not overly satisfactory (re-)introduction to the genre, and I do hope to revisit Heinlein again in the future.
Toward the end of this year I plan on getting to Omar El Akkad, Dave Eggers and Ursula Le Guin, as well as possibly some Burroughs and Asmiov. But up next, in the middle of all of this I am going to take a break from my manuscript and work on some (science fiction-y) short stories that I hope to submit in the wake of “Live a Mile” finding publication. To that end I’m going to dive into a relatively new entry in Houghton Mifflin’s long-running Best American Series: the Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017 (ok so I’m a little behind the times, sue me). And I will be back with an update on that published story when it hits the streets in October. Thanks as always for reading and writing!
Hello readers and welcome to this short installment of the (revamped) 2019 Reading List! Finishing up the first half the year reading nothing but contemporary female authors (last time was one of the best), I am wrapping up this portion with a local author, Julie Schumacher and her hilarious 2014 novel Dear Committee Members, a novel-in-letters unlike that I’ve encountered since maybe Dracula.
Schumacher is a professor at the U of M in the Department of English, and it comes through in every inch of this tale, which is told entirely through Jay Fitger’s letters of recommendation, whether that be of current and former students, or for literary honors. This conceit becomes increasingly bizarre as Fitger’s life intervenes upon his students’, including one who is re-imagining Melville and ends up with one of the more darker ends of the piece. The rest of the time I was laughing out loud repeatedly, reading out loud lines of prose that were just so ridiculous (and let’s face it, would never be included in a “real” LOR but perhaps that is the point) yet cathartic and abrasive. Schumacher notes in her bio she has “written more letters of recommendation than she cares to recall,” and the entire novel (short and succinct as it is) revolves around this theme.
And even for a book published five years ago, that theme was quite obvious. Though the letters take place over the school year of 2009-2010, for both her and her character the writing is on the wall. Liberal arts doesn’t have the luster it once had in the era of unaffordable college; the economics department gets its floor upgraded as we hear about ad nauseum (Fitger is a stunning creation, a witless once-talented creature inhabited by many people the author must have encountered over the years); Fitger’s recriminatory letters continue to gain in self righteousness and self loathing; I have never seen character work done like this and it’s quite impressive. As I keep digressing, the major theme is the deconstruction of the academic scene via economics, and one man’s vigilant (some of the other characters might say vicious) crusade against it. In an era in which presidential candidates are actually calling for free college and abolishing student debt, perhaps this is an idea whose time has come. And in the end Figer’s colleagues (rightly or wrongly) vote for him to chair their department back to its former glory.
Overall I would highly recommend this novel for anyone looking for a short, funny read that also grapples with some important issues about art, books, and where all this stuff is heading (Young Adult literature that sells for six-figures is a prominent presence, for example). Schumacher clearly has a good grasp of what she wants to say with the unctuous Fitger, and it comes across as he degenerates through the year and tries to redeem himself through tragedy.
Up next, as promised I’m taking a pivot into science fiction as I plunge head first into the manuscript re-writes (which are going pretty well, by the way): the legendary Robert Heinlein and his 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land. And there will be more updates in the Writing Life and on my book. Thanks for reading!
Hello readers and welcome to this installment of the (revamped) 2019 Reading List! I am continuing the trend of contemporary female authors, this time focusing on another recommendation: Katherine Dunn and her 1989 novel Geek Love. This work has taken on legendary status among a certain type of cult-ish book lover, and I had known about it for years but never sat down to read it until now. And I have to say this is one of the best books I have encountered in this portion of the experiment, right up there with The Secret History and Wise Blood from last year.
Since I’m taking more of a “review” tack this year I will eschew most of the plot points in the hope that readers who haven’t discovered this gem will want to spiral through the tale. But a quick summary: this book takes place over two separate time periods but covers the same family, the Binewskis and their traveling “Carnival Fabulon.” In trying to save their business, the family resorts to some unconventional and dangerous means for birthing “freak” children which then become the main acts of the show, eventually bringing about its downfall. Now I want to get down into just what this novel gets so right.
This is one of the best-constructed novels I’ve ever encountered. There is not a sentence out of place and this feels like a story that took a decade to write (which it did; various pieces of it were published in literary magazines throughout the Eighties). Even the few things that jumped out at me, such as an adverb here or there or a sentence ending with a preposition didn’t bother me as the writing is so phenomenal. This helps with the major themes, which off the top of my head could be: the body and its perceptions, the concept of “freaks” and “norms,” cults, carnivals, technology, telekinesis, the list is endless. And they are all covered in depth and with some of the best drawn characters I’ve ever read. Each individual of the family brings their own drama to the story, and each has a role to play in its undoing. And while there is a fair amount of content that may turn people off (incest is a theme that hovers if not technically present), I found that the more outrageous the plot became the more I enjoyed it.
I want to just briefly stop at the “freak” theme that I felt had reverberations in the sense that LGBTQ people are finally gaining acceptance from “norm” society. I also can’t help but see the continued media obsession with beauty paralleled with the later parts of the story, in which the narrator Oly works out a plan to save her own daughter from someone she fears will change her. This book was miles ahead of its time in commenting on this and I think it deserves a hell of a lot of credit for that.
I would definitely recommend this book to anyone wanting to know how to capture the most important elements of the novel. Next I’m going to take on another recent book written by a woman (Julie Shumacher’s 2014 novel Dear Committee Members) before I pivot into science fiction territory with my manuscript rewrite. Thanks as always for reading!
Hello readers and welcome to this installment of the (revamped) 2019 Reading List! Last time I took on a contemporary female author I meant to get to in the previous year; this time it was a similar circumstance as Edan Lepucki’s dystopian vision of the west coast has been on my radar ever since it got published in 2014. Readers may recall Lepucki was on the receiving end of the “Colbert bump” and received a lot of publicity for her debut, but after waiting so long to read this I couldn’t help but be disappointed by the many missed opportunities.
As should be known, part of taking a deep dive into these books is to see how they might stack up to my own work. And in the case of California, it is stunning to see the similarities. A world ravaged by climate change, people easily swayed by demagogues, the notion of how humanity might carry its next generations forward; all of these are themes present in my current science fiction manuscript. And yet each time Lepucki uncovers the most interesting parts of her world, she kept returning to the slower aspects of the story that didn’t move it along as well.
The story situates around a young couple (Frida & Cal) attempting to survive by themselves in the California wilderness. Unfortunately, except for a few brief mentions (hurricanes, a huge snowstorm in the Mideast, nothing about the rest of the planet) there is almost no reference to why the land is so barren, so devoid of humans or animals. When the family who was keeping watch over Frida and Cal mysteriously kill themselves, the couple decide to move on to the “Land,” one of many needlessly capitalized words that dot the book (the “Group,” a smartphone-esque “Device,” etc) that should have been better developed. It was almost as if Lepucki understood the bare outlines of how our society and political life was crumbling in the wake of climate catastrophe, but didn’t want to do more than provide a bare outline for the actual plot, which frankly breaks down toward the end. The primary antagonist, who turns up alive after purportedly performing a suicide bomb attack for the Group in Los Angeles, doesn’t seem to have a leadership-related bone in his body and yet the people on the Land look to him as their saviour when he rescues them from the “Pirates,” a roving band of marauders that again are barely developed and have almost no backstory.
If it sounds like I’m trashing this novel, I don’t mean to go that far. But after having a recent manuscript ravaged (rightly so) by my editor, I feel I am much more attuned to the important areas of world building, background and character development, and envisioning how the future might play out. All of these things are quite lacking in this book, and while the writing flows very well (Iowa Writers Workshop graduate Lepucki’s wheelhouse) there was so much about this world I wanted to know more about, and kept hoping would be revealed. The “Communities” are maybe the most dystopian aspect, are talked about for a huge portion of the book, and yet we just see them briefly in the last ten or so pages.
Overall I can’t say I would recommend this novel, but am going to keep reading contemporary female authors as they should be promoted and read. Next up will be another female author: Katherine Dunn’s well-regarded 1989 book Geek Love. And I still hope to get some of the other series (How to Write a Book, What Writers are For) in gear later this year. Thanks as always for reading.
Hello readers and welcome to the second installment of the (revamped) 2019 Reading List! Last time I took on another of my editor Libby’s recommendations: Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder. This was another book written by a contemporary female author that I must admit, has completely changed my opinion about today’s publishing landscape. If something this good can still be cranked out by a major house, there is hope for us all.
As you know, this time around I’m taking a more deep dive into each work, which apparently is making me less effective at turnaround as I’m barely clearing a book per week. I am fine with that, however, when the reading is this good. For years I thought Hemingway was the epitome of a stunning, clipped, American sentence. Not so much anymore. Cline’s prose is so well put together I felt lost in her world of alternate 1969 for days on end. Alternate in the sense that this is a reimagining of the Manson family, a peculiar curiosity from that time, one of many my wife has gotten me into over the years. The main character is the only member of the cult not to go to jail, to live her life on the periphery of things, to see it from the author’s perspective, and it is a powerful ride. I had a few quibbles with parts of the prose but let me state flat out that the story itself more than compensates for any issues I had. The framing used, seeing the main character as an old woman, is incredible. You can tell from early on something very bad is going to happen in these people's’ lives, and that tension is threaded intricately throughout.
That being said, I did have a couple of items, both of which could have been caught by her editor. First, there is a luminous couple pages of paragraphs where Evie first encounters “the girls” (meaning those outside her world of high school privilege) which are set right at the beginning of the text. We revisit the scene pretty early in the book, which left me wondering why the decision was made to excise that little bit of text and put it in the front. That’s fairly petty, but my next critique is a bit more substantial. While Cline is presenting a master class in how to use language and metaphor, she does overuse the simile form a bit too much. The word “like” especially becomes overused at times, but I must stress the writing is overall so good I didn’t notice very much.
This was an amazing, dark book and shows reams of potential for this author. Her website lists a bunch of other stuff she’s published, and looks similar to mine (I shudder when looking at my “events” which took place four years ago…). I eagerly anticipate what else she publishes and would highly recommend this book for anyone who has (like me) been discouraged with the state of contemporary fiction. Up next, I’m on to another female author, Edan Lepucki and her 2014 debut California. Thanks as always for reading!
(I should add I am now able to devote my full break at my day job to reading non-fiction, so hope to compile some of those titles here for those who may have interest. First down the hatch was one I have wanted to read for at least a decade: Alan Weisman’s landmark 2007 thought experiment The World Without Us. A major help for my current sci fi/dystopian manuscript.)
Hello readers and welcome to the first installment of the (revamped) 2019 Reading List! Alright, so it’s technically the third month into the year but who’s counting? I’ve spent the last few months wrapping up the 2018 Reading List, reflecting on it, and posting a re-worked short story to the blog. Then I did a close read of the first book on this year’s list: Ann Patchett’s 2011 novel State of Wonder.
This book was (actually!) recommended to me by my editor, and I can see why. Patchett’s luminous sentences, coupled with radiant scene description and phenomenal character interactions (Annick Swenson was one of the best fictional people I have encountered in some time) made this a very fascinating read. The story follows Dr. Marina Singh as she travels to the Amazon region of Brazil for a large pharmaceutical company in search of her lost (and presumed dead) lab partner and friend, as well as the aforementioned Dr. Swenson, who is working on a fertility cure derived from a compound in the jungle. While it takes about a hundred pages to get to that point, once the narrative settles it is quite compelling, and Patchett throws in a few plot twists at the end I have to admit I did not see coming. The story does just seem to “end” and while I’m not sure the resolution is quite earned, it is interesting to see the end result of Dr. Singh’s journey. Now I’m going to delve into what I didn’t like about the novel before giving my ultimate recommendation.
While the story was good enough on its own merits, the gorgeous sentences were overwhelmed at times by a complete and utter over-use of adverbs. For a piece of advice that I thought was well known (still the number one thing I remember from Stephen King’s On Writing), Patchett seems to have never heard of it, making worse some lines (and speaking parts) with needless “ly” modifiers. There were also some confusing structural issues, involving Dr. Singh recalling bits of her past when I wasn’t quite sure we had shifted back. But this may have been a function of me not picking up the clues as well as I should have. The largest issues I had with the novel were the times the plot did tip-toe up to the “white savior” line. As Conrad before her, Patchett seems not to have much of a place for the native Indians of her story, except to show them using the fertility cure, braiding hair, or giving birth. Even Dr. Swenson, who has been studying the Lakashi people for most of her life is treated like a deity rather than a researcher. This all being said, Patchett also does a good job weaving in thematic notions of “Big Pharma exploiting the rainforest,” which in real life has turned into a bit of a plunderous game and is worth writing and speaking about in public.
So would I recommend this title? Overall I’d have to say yes, because it was a great read. (And while I’m not supposed to be veering in this direction anymore, there are some good lessons for writers within this novel as well.) If you can get past some of the issues in the prose you will be rewarded with a great story and characters. I hope to read another of Patchett’s books in the future.
Up next I’m continuing in the contemporary female author way by getting to a title I didn’t make time for last year: Emma Cline’s 2016 debut The Girls. Stay tuned to this here blogspace for more of the (revamped) 2019 Reading List!
John Abraham is an author and freelance journalist located in the Twin Cities, where he lives with his wife Mary and their two cats. This blog is his attempt to catalog all the events that culminate a local writer's life.