Whether judging this work as a personal biography, as a historical text or as a political thriller, it resonates on every level. The facts have been thoroughly researched and documented, and the prose is worthy of the man for whom poetry was as important as physics. It’s a long, slow read, but engagingly strung together by a mix touching, incisive, hilarious and enraging anecdotes. The portraits that emerge are that of a flawed and ambitious man who loved his country almost to a fault and of a country that loved and resented his genius in equal measure. The book and Oppenheimer’s story remain relevant as a window into the tortured relationship between science and America’s government.
Once I started, it took about seventy pages for me to decide I wanted to finish this book, but the writing was just engaging enough to get me through the dark, extremely depressing start. Readers should be warned that Shelby, the protagonist, is at rock bottom as the story begins, having gone through not only a car accident that left her best friend in a permanent coma, but also prolonged sexual assault at the hands of an orderly at a the mental hospital where she goes following a breakdown brought on by her extreme case of survivor’s guilt. As Shelby emerges from rock bottom, almost in spite of herself, the book, too, finds a lightness that makes it easier to get through. The story is full of those coincidences that only seem to happen in New York stories, and Shelby inspires both sympathy as well as frustration, as she makes her way through despite her low self-esteem and penchant for self-sabotage. What saves the book—and Shelby—are her relationships to the women in her life and to the animals she rescues along the way. This is a book for dog lovers, no doubt, and for those looking to understand the importance of forgiving yourself.
I’m not a super religious person. I used to be, but I’m not anymore. Well, I don’t know that I was ever SUPER religious. I only ever did slightly more than the bare minimum of what was required. What I mean to say is that religion—or rather, adherence to the tenets of one—used to be more important to me than it is now. I like to joke that I am a recovering Catholic. But this post isn’t about the complicated (and not so complicated) reasons I left the church or even about what I believe (and don’t). This post is about why I still pray.
I always forget that Ann Patchett is among my favorite authors until a read another novel and remember. Her work doesn’t stake an emphatic claim on your mind or heart from the moment you turn the first page, but rather wins you over slowly and for weeks and months after you’ve finished. At least, that’s how it happens with me. Bel Canto is my favorite of her works, and though I read it years ago, I still sometimes find myself thinking about characters and moments in the story as if I put down the book yesterday.
State of Wonder feels like that same kind of slow-burn story, full of purposeful prose, starring a large, intriguing cast of characters and providing as many questions as answers from beginning to end. (The “State of Wonder” may refer to the state Patchett leaves us in at the novel’s conclusion about what may be next.) Like Bel Canto, this novel takes us to South America, this time the Brazilian Amazon, where a pharmaceutical researcher, Marina Singh is sent to find out what happened to a colleague who is reported dead after being sent to find out the status of a long-awaited miracle fertility drug another doctor was sent to extract from the mysteries of the jungle.
The seeming simplicity of this premise belies the complicated web of relationships that get more so the deeper Marina ventures into the jungle. Patchett doesn’t necessarily untangle them all, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Marina is an interesting protagonist in so far as there are open questions about where her life is and where it is going, but she’s too pragmatic a person (she’s a scientist, after all) to dwell on the uncertainties of her own life and of life in general even in light of the discoveries, literal and figurative, that she makes along the way.
Her journey unfolds deliberately, sometimes ploddingly, but there’s comfort in her steady nature amid the unknowable recesses of the jungle, nature and science. It’s a slow read, but one with the potential to stay with you.
My first real memory associated with Prince does not involve listening to his music. First, I should point out that I am a child of the ’80s so Prince’s music (and Michael Jackson’s and Whitney Houston’s—both also gone from this earth) was playing in the background everywhere as I grew up. The kind of stuff that you recognize the moment it comes on the radio, that you know, even when you don’t KNOW. And I didn’t KNOW Prince until this particular moment.
It was 1987. I had moved to the United States from Colombia with my mom that year. We lived in upstate New York, in a small town called Watertown, where we knew exactly one family when we arrived. The dad, an American whose name I don’t remember, had worked with my mom in the past and was married to a Colombian woman. He had two children from a previous marriage. Both of them were blond and blue-eyed and looked to me exactly like what gringos were supposed to look like. The younger of the two was Dusty. He was 12, I think. Older than me (I was 9) but not so much older that he was too old to play with a 9-year-old girl who barely spoke his language. We got along fine for the short time we knew each other, though I bet he probably doesn’t remember me the way I remember him. His older sister was a teenager. I can’t remember her name. Or how old she was exactly. I have a single memory of her, but it’s a vivid one.
The memory is this: We are in their dad’s car, going I don’t know where. Dusty and I are in the back seat, and she’s in the front. I’m behind the driver’s seat, so I can see her face when she turns toward her dad. At one point, he asks about the music she is listening to on her Walkman and she turns and looks at him with the kind of surly look only teenagers are capable of and spits out, “PRINCE!”
I know that I had heard his music before that moment, but I didn’t KNOW who Prince was, what he was and what he gave to young people. At 9, I was too young to get it, but in retrospect, it’s easy to see why that memory—of all possible memories to have of the first friends I remember mom and I having in the United States—has stuck with me for almost 30 years. Prince, his music, his persona, his artistry—all of it is freeing. Listening to him makes you just want to let go in the best possible way.
I think of that memory now and I think of a girl asking to be left alone to listen to music that lets her be herself by herself. And I think, “Leave her alone, dude, it’s PRINCE.”
Some time later, while we were still in Watertown, Gary Shandling hosted the Grammys. He did so for several years in a row, and at one point, he told a joke about the accountants who tally the votes. The accountants were standing on stage smiling and awkward, and Gary Shandling says, “Accountants all over the country are saying right now, ‘Those guy are hot!'”
It still makes me laugh. He still makes me laugh. He’s also dead.
Celebrity deaths hit harder now because the ones dying now are ones I recognize, ones whose work I know and sparks a flood of memories and emotions. I remember the accountant joke, but what’s worse, I also remember laughing about the joke. And I remember how the laughter felt, which makes me remember being a child. I can still go back to the memory. I can still watch old episodes of The Gary Shandling Show or The Larry Sanders Show. I can still remember Gary Shandling bantering with David Duchovny at the Emmy Awards. I can still listen to Prince or David Bowie (or Whitney Houston or Michael Jackson). I can still watch Hans Gruber fall in slow motion on YouTube. I have every Harry Potter movie and could rematch every “ob-viously” Alan Rickman ever uttered until I wear the DVDs out. So in effect, I haven’t lost anything. They are all gone, but I didn’t lose anyone I knew personally. I still have them in my life in the same form the existed in before they died.
So why do their deaths make me sad? Because I don’t exist in the same form I existed in when they were alive. That’s what I’ve lost. The piece of me that they made a little bit more alive is only a memory now. All I have left is to be grateful that they made me laugh and dance and be a little bit more myself.
Once again, my initial reaction to completing a book by Megan McCafferty is one of frustration that she can’t seem to encapsulate or tie off a narrative appropriately in a single book. Seriously, even when you know there will be sequels, books in a series should be self contained and END rather than merely STOP.
All that said, I was really taken by her conceit: That a fertility-killing virus has turned a society that once treated teen sexuality as anathema is now systematically coercing kids not just to copulate but to procreate. Bumped doesn’t exactly feel like the futuristic/post-apocalyptic Divergent or Hunger Games, but it’s certainly in the same school and feels much more plausible and, therefore, scarier than those two.
The protagonists, Melody and Harmony (I know it’s silly, just go with it) don’t always feel fully formed—especially Melody—but this is partly owing, I think, to the fact that Melody doesn’t know who she is. Neither does Harmony, and neither one figures out that she doesn’t know who she really is until the story reaches its climax in the final hundred pages. And that’s maybe why, in the end, I enjoyed this one. I’m a sucker for a young woman on the verge of finding herself. And once that happens here, the girls and the narrative feel more whole.
There are what feel like plot holes and questions left unanswered, but maybe they’ll be settled in the sequel, which I’ll be starting in 3, 2, 1 . . .
I’m emerging from my almost year-long blog hibernation for a short memory in honor of tonight’s live performance of The Wiz. (Well, live for the east coast, anyway.)
I moved to the United States when I was nine years old, a few months before I started fourth grade for the second time. (The first time was back in Colombia, where I was so smart, I was a year ahead of where I was supposed to be in school.) About a month (or was it a week?) after I started fourth grade, three girls came over to the apartment mom and I lived in for a sleepover. One of them became my best friend. Her name was Trilbey. She was into music and acting, and played Annie in the local community theater’s production of Annie when we were in fifth grade.
Also in fifth grade, she was the only kid in our class to vote for Michael Dukakis over George H. W. Bush in the class election. Now that I think about it, there may have been two Dukakis votes. I can’t remember. This was upstate New York, so everybody was Republican. Everyone except Trilbey’s parents. Naturally, she followed suit. It was supposed to be secret ballot, but everyone knew who everyone was voting for and from what I remember, she didn’t mind that people knew. (I voted for Bush for no other reason than everyone else was. Politics and what it all means wouldn’t come into my life for a long, long time.) Anyhoo, Trilbey was cool in a way that was wholly impossible for me to be at the time. We were friends until 7th grade, which was when I moved away. I was sad about the move when it happened, but it was just as well because when I left she was well on her way to becoming one of the popular girls at our school, something else that was impossible for me to be at the time, so we were likely going to drift apart eventually. We wrote for a few years, and then she moved also. At least, I think she did.
So what does my childhood best friend have to do with The Wiz? As I said, Trilbey was into theater. Once, we went to see the local high school’s production of Pippin. Totally her idea. I had no idea what Pippin was, and to be perfectly honest, that didn’t change much after having sat through the show. Our houses were about a mile apart in the town we lived in and like most kids who grew up in the ’80s, we were allowed to walk alone a lot. When we did, she used to sing “Ease on down the road.” I didn’t know where it was from. (I didn’t know a lot back then. Everything, pretty much, was new to me, and it took many years of living in the United States before that changed.) But for years after, I would sing that song to myself without thinking about it. Sometimes without realizing it. When I did I would think of her and smile.
I hope wherever she is she is smiling too.
Reading this book felt like wrapping myself up in a warm fleece blanker. From the moment Eleanor steps on the bus for the first time, everything about it felt familiar and just as I’d lived it, even though Eleanor and Park’s experiences turned out to be very different from mine.
At a time when fiction about young people is mired in the dystopian and fantastical (some to great effect, some less so), it was wonderful to read a story about the sometimes painful, sometimes humiliating, sometimes even joyful normality of adolescence. No time is wasted describing a world we don’t recognize (however alien the 80s may seem to today’s youth), setting up the overly convoluted plot or explaining the thing from which the protagonist is going to save us. Instead, Rainbow Rowell spends her time living inside of each of the two main characters and letting us into their disparate worlds and hearts in a way that feels fair and compassionate, not indulgent or overly intrusive. I came to love both Eleanor and Park as individuals and as a pair and, being many years removed from my teen years, felt eager to protect them from everything they go through in the book and everything that I know comes after.
It’s been a long time since I’ve been moved by a work of fiction with so few moving parts. Nice to know that a setting we know so well and that has been explored so thoroughly (high school) can still surprise us.