Four Books For the Price of One!

… and we’re back! 

So, how’ve you been?  How was your summer? How are the kids?  What have you been doing?

Michigan, despite being beautiful, is not known for its fantastic weather and it was a hot summer.  Hades hot.  Don’t wear makeup hot.  Sit inside and read hot.  In my case, however, it’s been walk your dog early in the morning or late at night and listen to your mp3 player or lay in bed and read with my Nook hot.   So I was able to get quite a bit of reading done.  

When I looked at the books that I’ve either read or listened to for the past couple of months, they all, except one, had one thing in common – they weren’t set in the United States.  Was this Freudian on my part?  Do I secretly long to travel around the world and visit other cultures?   

The answer is yes, of course.  However, this method of travel is way cheaper and less hassle.  Plus, I don’t have to come home to a messy house.  Don’t laugh- that is a consideration.

So, here we go.  We’re off to the Balkans, Brazil, England, Ireland.   Come on along and enjoy the ride – don’t forget your toothbrush.  Maybe you’d better bring along a phrase book too.

The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obrecht

Did you read “The Life of Pi”?   I did.  Then I threw it across the room.

I didn’t throw this book across the room because I might have broken my Nook and that would have been bad.  However, I was just as frustrated. 

The reviews about “The Tiger’s Wife” were remarkable.  They were glowing.  Téa Obrecht is considered one of the finest young authors to debut this century.  I was urged to read her literature and bask in its power. 

I will concede that she is talented.  In fact, there were a few passages that I actually highlighted because they were so lovely (did you know you could do that with an eReader? I found that out by accident when I was falling asleep with my Nook propped up on my stomach and my finger slid down the page instead of turning it.)  Her descriptions were beautiful and I could imagine the terrain of the Balkans before war and hatred tore it into bits. 

However, her stories were confusing and her characters were hardly developed.  I did not do my homework and read Salman Rushdie, which, apparently, was essential homework for understanding her stories.   I didn’t know that Salman Rushdie was going to factor into my summer reading or I would have glanced at his work.  Maybe. 

In the end, what I really wanted to know was where the hell was this book was supposed to take place, how the main character was supposed to be a doctor when the descriptions of the country were so third world and why I couldn’t determine which tales were real and which were ‘deftly woven’ into the story.  Just like The Life of Pi.  Which I threw across the room.  Which I really wanted to like too.

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

I absolutely loved Bel Canto.  That was one of my very favorite books and it stayed with me for weeks. I still am amazed how opera, the jungle and a cast of characters from around the globe could make so much sense together.  I also loved the book Run.  Another unlikely combination of adopted children, ichthyology and Boston, but it worked and I still think about that book too.

So, given that her other books were so deftly woven, Time of Wonder, a book about drug companies, Minnesota, Brazil and missing persons shouldn’t be such a stretch for Ann Patchett, right?  Sorry, I’m going to have to say wrong.  Very wrong.  I’m not sure that it worked at all.   I’m not sure why she wrote it and I’m certainly not sure what it was all supposed to mean. 

Marina Singh a ‘damaged’ doctor and Minnesota native who works for the drug company, Vogel, bravely goes to Brazil to search for the body of her missing co-worker Anders Eckmann, who was reported to have died from a fever.  The report is written by Dr. Annick Swenson, who has been working on a fertility drug for years but who doesn’t think that it’s important to give weekly memos regarding her progress.  In fact, she doesn’t even give yearly memos, much to the chagrin of her supervisor, Mr. Fox (we never know his first name.  This bothers me). 

While in Brazil, Marina has to deal with toxic malaria pills, the creepy Australian couple who try their best to keep anyone from finding Annick Swenson and ‘bothering’ her, hideous creepy, crawly reptiles and insects and, most disturbing, the truth. 

I would love to tell you all about the ending of this book.  Actually, I think that you would find it most fascinating and you would be in a ‘state of wonder’ just like I am.  I am wondering why Patchett wrote this book, why her characters were so unlikable and why she ended it like she did.  I am wondering why I didn’t read the review, which likened it to “Heart of Darkness” and run in the other direction. 

However, I cannot spoil it for you.  You really have to read the entire mess and then decide for yourself what it’s all about.  State of wonder indeed.

Blackout/All Clear by Connie Willis

Now, let’s go back about 70 years to England.  Well, actually, let’s go forward around 40 years and then we’ll travel back over 100 years to World War II, Connie Willis style.

Connie Willis, queen of the science fiction time travel, is back and bigger than life.   Her two book series, Blackout and All Clear, have to be her biggest project to date.  Many of the characters from her book The Doomsday Book (not reviewed but highly recommended) are back in 2060 and planning to send several historians to World War II.  Mike, Elaine and Polly are all sent on their missions to the beginning of World War II to research life in a country under siege.   There they experience the horrors of blackouts, the difficulties of rationing in addition to the general uncertainty of living in a country at war in the 20th century.  They also experience a very different kind of fear when their ‘drops’ (or portals to the 21st century via time travel) don’t open and they are stuck in a very different world than their own. 

Since Connie Willis is one of my favorite authors, I am going to give her credit where credit is due.  She did an enormous amount of research for these two books, but therein lies the problem.  She made this storyline into two books.  It was longggggg…  too long.  ‘Where was her editor?’ long.  ‘I can’t keep this story straight!’ long.  ‘She could have chopped half of this story!’ long. 

In the end, Willis did tie up all the loose ends quite nicely.  There were even a few, ‘Ah ha!” moments, which is always fun.  I am also going to even suggest these two books if you are a WW II buff (plus, they did win the 2011 Hugo Award for best novel).  Just keep in mind that you’ll have to wade through an awful lot of unnecessary details to get to the heart of the story. 

The Princes of Ireland by Edward Rutherfurd

Hopping the pond to the Emerald Isle, Rutherfurd gives a history lesson of the Irish people by tracing the roots of several generations of families.  Readers follow the most ancient of Celtic families through the landing of the Norsemen, the travails of Brian Boru, and living conditions under English rule.  It was fascinating to learn the origins of many Irish surnames, and to get a sense of why the Irish are still such a proud people to this day. 

So, now that I’m back in the good ‘ol USA, I’ve picked a book set right here in Michigan.  Very Bad Men, the sequel to Bad Things Happen by Harry Dolan is right on my bedside table, even as I type.  So far, it’s fantastic, and I only had to travel to Ann Arbor for this one.   There really is no place like home.

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