State of Wonder

Ann Patchett’s novel, shortlisted for the Orange Prize for fiction has left me pondering. Wondering what it was I missed that caused others, such as Joanna Trollope to say:

Every so often – and that’s not, actually very often – I read something that makes me want to press fervently and evangelically onto everyone I meet. This has just happened with Ann Patchett’s novel State of Wonder

And Emma Donoghue who said:

The best book I have read all year. It made me laugh and weep and left me in a state of wonder

Marina Singh is a doctor working for a pharmaceutical company since switching from obstetrics to pharmacology near the end of her studies. Coincidentally, one of her female professors Dr Swenson also works for Vogel and is acting solo, outside her jurisdiction in the Amazon, observing a tribe whose unique development could have significant implications for the lives of women and humanity. This rebellious, unorthodox researcher and her unique way of working has been tolerated by the company, until a letter arrives informing the CEO Mr Fox of the death of a staff member he sent to report back. Marina is asked to follow-up and becomes drawn into the alternative universe of life in the Amazon jungle.

It is an interesting concept and a thrilling journey, one of the most moving and real parts for me being an encounter with an anaconda that almost had fatal consequences. However, throughout the book, I couldn’t shake off a sense of reluctance, of characters holding back; was Mr Fox being honest or was he hiding something? Why doesn’t Marina question or insist on answers?   It was hard to believe that the head of a large pharmaceutical pouring significant funding into a research project would tolerate the situation without acting in a more forthright manner.

Dr Swenson was definitely withholding, resisting, imbued with a sense of superiority that didn’t ring true or convince me. Ironically, as Marina begins to accept the way of life in the jungle I could very well see her becoming part of that environment which would have been interesting to pursue further, more so than the enigmatic Dr Swenson.

True, I was somewhat impatient to get to the Amazon itself and for that I blame an unquenchable thirst for adventurous travel and the fact that as far back as I can remember, the Amazon was the VERY first destination that my younger mind desired to visit. I remember it vividly even now, a feeling that grew after watching ‘The Emerald Forest’ (1985), a film that had a real effect on me, I fell in love with the wilderness of the Amazon and vowed that one day I would go there.

The film is based on the true story of a 7-year-old boy kidnapped by Indians, who disappear into the Amazon forest. The boy’s father, a Venezuelan engineer, spent every summer for the next 10 years searching the forests for his son and eventually found him.

It is quite likely then, that this memory may have had an effect on any impression this book could make, something that represents an unfulfilled dream for me and not one which involves pharmaceutical companies looking for a profit or scientists tampering with nature. So don’t let me stop you from finding out for yourself, it’s certainly one to discuss and as you can see from the quotes above, for some this book is a definite favourite.

In the Springtime of the Year

I seem to have been reading through the seasons this year, starting with Edith Wharton’s winter read ‘Ethan Frome’ then Susan Hill’s ‘In the Springtime of the Year’ and finally Wharton’s ‘Summer’. I don’t know yet what will appear for the one season that is missing but I am open to suggestions, is there a title that comes to mind for Autumn, the Fall? I am sure one must exist.

‘In the Springtime of the Year’ is a metaphor for existence, growth and renewal; after one dreamy year of marriage in which no one else but her husband seems to exist for the young bride, 19-year-old Ruth has become a widow, after Ben is killed in a freak accident. The pages carry us through Ruth’s grief, the calm, dormant stillness where she is frozen in her grief, unable to cry or speak, or be comforted by anyone. She doesn’t understand why they don’t understand this. While her husband’s family pour out their grief vociferously, they judge her silence as showing no feeling. Slowly her awareness returns and rises to the surface, she begins to see beyond her own immovable pain, to appreciate anew all that is around her, she is able to revisit the scene without suffering.

Susan Hill deftly captures each nuance of the young girl’s slow changing movement through her phases of grief, until like the branches of the tree that must eventually bud no matter how harsh the winter, she transforms and begins to emit a different vibe. She is witness to what she was and sees it anew; she develops an understanding for how others may have perceived her. She is able to make amends.

Rambling along in its quiet way, poetic line by line, Ruth’s perceptions change so subtly that when there is an actual event, it seems all the more dramatic for its contrast with the inner world we have been languishing within.

I first read of Susan Hill in a profile interview in Mslexia Magazine in January 2011, she had just published ‘A Kind Man’ and while visiting Daunt Books in London that same month, I spotted the slim hardback, which thanks to the lovely G and an approaching birthday came home with me along with Jenny Erpenbeck’sVisitation’. Since ‘A Kind Man’ I have equally enjoyed ‘The Beacon’ and ‘The Woman in Black’ and recognise that it is her style of writing that appeals so much.  This book was originally published in 1974 and has been rereleased in this Vintage edition.

All the books are situated similarly, in a small, poor village in rural England where not much happens except that we become witness to the inner transformation of characters after an event.  I would not suggest you read this however, if you’re looking for action, pace or plot, this is an inner journey. And it’s perfect as it is.

Summer by Edith Wharton

If ‘Ethan Frome’ is winter, so this, its companion novel is ‘Summer’, though ironically there is less a sense of the season and its metaphoric meaning; perhaps ‘The End of the Summer’ might have been a more apt title.

Edith Wharton was worldly and wealthy, speaking four languages and entertaining future American heiresses in her Paris home, her latter years lived in France. Yet as the range of her works testify, from rural Ethan Frome’  small town New England ‘Summer’ to the more social aspiring ‘House of Mirth’ and ‘Age of Innocence’ she understood and had empathy for those whose lives were lived at the opposite end of the spectrum of her own.

Charity Royall, an eighteen year old girl from the Mountain up there beyond, has been raised by a childless couple from town; she lives with her guardian Mr Royall, now a widow. She knows little and remembers nothing of her parents or that frowned upon community no one ever mentions.

Until the bold, young Architect Lucien Harnus appears, unafraid to ask questions. The more she learns while listening to Mr Royall respond to him, the more insecurity creeps into her being, though there is little outward sign of this change.

Initially we witness her wilful attitude, with which she succeeds in claiming the post of librarian against all other eligible girls in town, despite little interest in the actual job itself. She appears intelligent, adept at identifying opportunity, her questionable ancestry all but obliterated. However, she lacks a female role model and is barely on speaking terms with My Royall after his own near lapse with regard to the carnal instinct. In matters of love and the feminine, Charity is at a disadvantage. Her first experience with a young suitor is telling.

Her heart was ravaged by life’s cruellest discovery: the first creature who had come toward her out of the wilderness had brought her anguish instead of joy. She did not cry; tears came hard to her, and the storms of her heart spent themselves inwardly.

Without giving anything away of the story, the young man wins her over and she will have her summer of joy, but naïveté and a reluctance to assert herself in matters of the heart will compromise her position in this society that values and rewards tradition over love. She considers returning to her people:

There was no sense of guilt in her now, but only a desperate desire to defend her secret from irreverent eyes, and begin life again among people to whom the harsh code of the village was unknown.

It is a tragedy, as we have the impression that this is a young woman rescued from a life of little promise who could have made something of it, who should have, if she had been warned; she is as much a victim of the era she lives in as the lack of a female role model. I couldn’t help thinking about a possible sequel, one where she defies the odds and proves everyone wrong, because that is just the kind of girl she was.

In this respect the story differs from ‘Ethan Frome’ in which we are provided a glimpse into the future regarding what happens next, here Wharton has chosen to either leave that to the reader’s imagination, or her final act will be seen as sufficient evidence to predict a conventional outcome. You decide.

‘Summer’ has recently been adapted to the stage by Julia Stubbs Hughes and the play will focus on the three central characters of the novel, exploring the discovery of love and attraction in a society that restricts both.

It will be showing at the Jack Studio Theatre in South East London from 8 – 26 May 2012 if you happen to be in London. Further details can be found at ‘The Summer Project’.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Meet 'Noisette' our mischievous cat

This book was chosen by a local book club, although I didn’t make it to the discussion, but I like to read along anyway especially as they introduce me to books that I am often not aware of; so far it is thanks to this group that I read La Seduction – how the French play the game of life, and Abraham Verghese’s wonderful Cutting for Stone’
one of my favourite reads this year. Next month it is ‘Death at Chateau Bremont’, which is going to be a rather special read as it is set here in Aix-en-Provence. The author M.L. Longworth is from Toronto but now works between Paris and Aix, how she arrived in France is also an interesting story.

Jamie Ford’s debut novel ‘Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet’ is a wonderful story of childhood friends in Seattle, second generation immigrants caught up in the brutal reality of being perceived as untrustworthy, having the skin of an enemy. The discovery of personal effects of Japanese families in the basement of an abandoned hotel, stir up memories for Henry and lead him on a search into the not quite forgotten past.

It seems there is unavoidable suffering, whether due to ethic origin or some other thing that cast children as being different from their peers. Henry is one of those stuck in the middle, not like his parents and not like his peers; he’s an in between, a third culture kid. He wears a badge his father gave him that reads ‘I am Chinese’, what it really means is ‘I am NOT Japanese’ for it is 1942 in Seattle and anyone who looks Japanese is being sent away to a special ‘camp’.

This little badge actually existed and belonged to the author’s father; inspiring him to write this story after learning his father wore it following the bombing of Pearl Harbour. Equally, The Panama Hotel still stands today, at the heart of what was once the thriving community of Nihonmachi, Seattle’s Japantown.

Jamie Ford depicts Henry’s friendship with Keiko and the jazz player Sheldon with understanding and compassion. Whether it is facing bullies at school and in the street or the emotional demands of his well-wishing parents, Henry exhibits both courage and stubbornness, leaving the reader content that he is not to become one of life’s victims, he makes choices and will find his way.

An interesting insight into what how it is be from your own country but not look like your fellow countrymen and women. A fascinating and thought-provoking read.

Orange Prize Shortlist

From the longlist of 20 books, today a shortlist of five has been announced, for the 17th annual Orange Prize for women’s writing.

Set up to acknowledge and celebrate women’s contribution to storytelling the Award celebrates excellence, originality and accessibility in women’s writing throughout the world. It is awarded to a novel written by a woman in the English language.

Last year the award was won by Téa Obreht for The Tiger’s Wife and previous winners have included Barbara Kingsolver for The Lacuna, Andrea Levy’s A Small Island and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for Half of a Yellow Sun, which is currently being made into a film.

This year the shortlist includes:

Esi Edugyan                 ‘Half Blood Blues’           Canadian      2nd Novel

Anne Enright               ‘The Forgotten’                Irish             5th Novel

Georgina Harding      ‘Painter of Silence’             British         3rd Novel

Madeline Miller         ‘The Song of Achilles’         American      1st Novel

Cynthia Ozick              ‘Foreign Bodies’              American      7th Novel

Ann Patchett              ‘State of Wonder’             American      6th Novel

Short Synopses and Biographies can be read here.

The winner will be announced at an awards ceremony to be held at the Royal Festival Hall in London on 30 May 2012.

I haven’t read any on the list yet, but I have Ann Patchett’s ‘State of Wonder’ on the shelf and I have been eyeing up ‘Half Blood Blues’ for some time.

And you? Have you read any of the titles from either the short or the long list yet, or planning to?

India My Heart

Over the long weekend I read the lengthy ‘Shantaram’ by David Gregory Roberts set in Mumbai (Bombay). I have never been to Bombay, but I did spend a month travelling in India in 1995 and the experience remains imprinted in my heart and memory, for me the country and its people have no equal. I love it. It is at the very top of my list of destinations, experiences and insights.

The first pages of this extraordinary story are reminiscent of many travellers’ journeys to India, the assault on all the senses, the welcoming committee, the brick of rupees, the taxi rides.

the glimpse of the suffering street brought a hot shame to my healthy face.”

“The street at the front of the building was crammed with people and vehicles, and the sound of voices, car horns, and commerce was like a storm of rain on wood and metal roofs.”

“there were beggars, jugglers, snake charmers, musicians, astrologers, palmists and pimps and pushers”

India is where you are introduced to your wits. Until I travelled there, it was a mere expression ‘make sure you have your wits about you’. In India, they rise up within you from some deep, slumbering place inside and become a living, breathing extra sensory force, providing a necessary equanimity and alert, their reward, insight.

Shantaram’ is the story of an Australian fugitive, posing as a New Zealand traveller who arrives in Bombay and unlike most travellers who stay only long enough to experience the city and plan their next destination, he stays.

Without exception, those who stay are escaping something and what that is, seems to have a direct relationship to how deep they become involved in the city’s underworld activities. Roberts stays out of trouble to begin with and provides a delightful insight into his blossoming friendship with Prabaker, who truly does represent India’s heart. Due to misfortune he moves to a slum where he spends his days working from his well-stocked first aid kit, providing rudimentary medical treatment to the inhabitants as he becomes part of the fabric of the slum community.

The two friends spend some months in Prabaker’s home village with his family and these are chapters are my favourite, portrayed with humour, a sensitive understanding and compassion. It is the calm before the storm and a period that I didn’t want to end.

Prabaker told me that family and his neighbours were concerned that I would be lonely, that I must be lonely, in a strange place, without my own family. They decided to sit with me on that first night, mounting a vigil in the dark until they were sure that I was peacefully deep in sleep. After all, the little guide remarked, people in my country, in my village, would do the same for him, if he went there and missed his family, wouldn’t they?”

However Robert’s luck changes when he is arrested one night and discovers he has unknown enemies with unknown motives and the experience of prison will unleash the darkest aspect of his character. When he is finally released he goes to work with the Bombay mafia, delving into the world of black market drug, currency and false document dealings all the while awaiting that future moment where he can exact revenge against his enemy.

This book draws you into a frightening and fascinating world that I am not sure whether we are better off knowing of or remaining in blissful ignorance of. I guess it is no worse than being subjected to the news media every evening with its plethora of images and reports of violence, oppression, corruption and greed, something I waver between wishing to avoid (and often do) and needing to have a balanced and informed awareness of.

What I perceive is the oft dreadful consequence of a genetic predisposition combined with early life tragic event that leads to a kind of corruption of the soul, I am reminded of Jonathan Ronson’s dip into the characteristics of a psychopath in The Psychopath Test which describes someone charming and influential who lacks empathy, and has an intense need to be liked. I don’t think the character in this story is a psychopath, but many in his circle survive precisely because they are not beleaguered by the emotional constraints of sympathy or empathy whether they were born like that or have become that.

Chilling indeed, though more than offset by that other extreme, a city of people whose smiles are in the eyes which broaden to encompass their whole face and being to cross that divide between people of different cultures and leave us with a warm, perplexed feeling. How is it that among such poverty, despair and ruthlessness exist the happiest people on earth?

And to know the answer to that one can only go there, experience it and ponder it oneself.

Second Person Singular

It is likely that there will be different perceptions of Sayed Kashua’s  ‘Second Person Singular’ not only due to the literary devices he uses, but on account of ‘where we are coming from’ and perhaps too, where we come from.

I am intrigued by the questions it raises, which require some discussion to make sense of, which may never be resolved or agreed upon because of that earlier dilemma, perspective. They concern how identity affects behaviour and opportunity, the interactions of and between people who possess subtle differences, some of which are merely perceived and not necessarily seen, a surname, religious preference, education.

The story concerns ‘the lawyer’, an educated and ambitious man regarded as one of the most successful Arab criminal attorneys in Jerusalem. One day he picks up a second-hand copy of Tolstoy’s novella ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’, recognising it as a volume his wife has mentioned in the past with enthusiasm, only to discover what he perceives as a love letter between its pages, in his wife’s handwriting. Discovering the name Yonatan on the inside cover, between bouts of violent and paranoid thoughts regarding his wife, he sets off to hunt the culprit down.

The unveiling of the truth behind the note, is revealed before the end and what follows is a dissection of the two male characters behaviours, as we await the final confrontation. The lawyer, whose name we never learn , lacks emotion and seems aloof, suited to his role, until the discovery of the letter when it is revealed just how delusional and extreme his emotions can be, left unchecked by reality. The culprit, in some ways is similarly deluded, but in a more intriguing and interesting way.

As a reader I found the characters of more interest through their observations of the city and society they worked within, the villages they lived in and the consequences of their identity. It is this that would generate an interesting discussion, particularly as the two characters the story follows represent different faces of that same society.

They are Arab-Israeli’s, non-Jewish Israeli citizens whose cultural and linguistic heritage is Arab. A matter of geography and politics, those who live in the Occupied Territories (otherwise known as the West Bank and Gaza) are of the same ethnic origin but refer to themselves as Palestinian, they of the same family as Arab-Israeli’s, they just carry a different legal status, which affects their education and employment opportunities and much more.

Creating strict country borders is a relatively modern idea and none more controversial than this ever-changing one, the enforcement of borders then gives rise to terms such as immigrant and refugee. The lawyer and other young educated men like him from villages in the North upon becoming doctors, lawyers and accountants in Jerusalem move to a suburban part of the city, where they were referred to by locals as immigrants, they are in fact the emerging middle class and we are given an interesting insight into what this means and how it manifests for this new generation of young people.

Perhaps it is a consequence of language and therefore thinking processes, but it reminds me that here in France the word for country ‘pays’ is the same word as region, so we can begin to understand how someone might be regarded as an immigrant in their own country.

Much of what this novel leaves me thinking about is how identity, borders and names can shape and influence opportunity and destiny, a universal dilemma for many or if we are fortunate, chances that we don’t even realise are so much more of an advantage than what some must confront by virtue of birth.

An interesting story and an exceptional insight into a world few really know or understand.

Note: This book was an Advanced Reader Copy (ARC), provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Eden’s Garden

If you plan on taking a holiday in Cornwall or Wales in the near future I can think of no better accompaniment than Eden’s Garden. If not, don’t hesitate to immerse yourself in this delightful, intriguing tale which unravels family secrets while celebrating women returning to the creative work they were born to do – and I refer not just to the female characters in the novel but to the author Juliet Greenwood who fulfilled a lifetime dream in writing this, her second novel, leaving the bright lights of London behind to immerse herself in gardening and writing projects in a country cottage nestled between the Isle of Angelsey and Snowdonia, Wales.

Eden’s Garden follows Carys in the present day back to her childhood village to attend her mother who is convalescing from a broken hip; she has little choice being the unmarried sister though the unplanned return stirs some long dormant memory in her, pulling her back towards the estate of Plas Eden, it’s garden, the mysterious statues, the old farm house and David Meredith, the young man she left for a career many years before.

The two become involved in researching a possible family link that takes them south to Cornwall and another garden leads them on a shocking search through a piece of Victorian history that will leave you grateful to be living in the 21st century (especially if you are a woman).

Ann we meet in 1898 on a bridge overlooking the Thames at a low point in her life, seeking refuge at a Charity Hospital. Greenwood keeps the mystery of this intriguing character alive all through the book, we know there is a connection but she leaves few clues to allow forward predictions, cleverly increasing the tension and desire to know both her past and her future.

Within the first few pages, we are drawn into Carys’ experience as if it were our own, that not so comfortable feeling of returning to a childhood environment as an adult, without the husband and/or children that society expects, and on the verge of heartbreak. However, the suspense of a family secret soon replaces the discomfort of village gossip and Greenwood keeps up the pace and intrigue all the way through.

Driving through Wales

For me this was not only a wonderful and engaging read, but one that brought back fond memories of driving through the Welsh countryside and witnessing many of the memorable landmarks of Cornwall.

‘The Importance of Being Ernest’ at the open air Minack Theatre, Cornwall