Literary Corner Cafe

Monday, December 19, 2011

Happy Holidays!

Happy Holidays to all the readers of this book and writing blog. I hope you all have a wonderful and blessed holiday season. I'll see you in 2012 with new books and new blog posts and book reviews.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Book Review - Mysteries - Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny

Bury Your Dead, Louise Penny’s follow up to The Brutal Telling, takes place in and around Québec City during Carnival. This book is a little different in structure from most of Penny’s books since it revolves around three separate and distinct story threads.

As the book opens, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec is recuperating from physical and emotional wounds at the home of Emile Comeau, his former boss and longtime mentor. While he’s in Québec, Gamache, with his lovable dog, Henri, decides to do a little historical research at the local Literary and Historical Society, the library that holds all of the books and papers that detail the history of Québec’s tiny – and dwindling – English speaking community. It’s this research, as well as the Society’s elderly librarian, that lead to Gamache’s unofficial involvement in the murder of an eccentric historian who spent most of his life searching for the burial site of Samuel de Champlain, Québec’s founder.

About the same time Gamache becomes involved in the murder surrounding the Literary and Historical Society, he begins to doubt that the resolution of his last “Three Pines” case, told in the book previous to this one, The Brutal Telling, is correct. In fact, thinks Gamache, there is a man sitting in prison, convicted of a crime he didn’t really commit. Jean Guy Beauvoir, Gamache’s colleague, is also on leave and recovering from injuries sustained in the same tragic incident in which Gamache, himself, was injured. The Inspector sends a reluctant Jean Guy to Three Pines to try to ferret out anything the team might have missed earlier.

The third story strand is the retelling of the tragic events that led to the injuries sustained by Inspector Gamache and Jean Guy Beauvoir. This story strand is told mainly through Gamache’s remembered conversation with another of his colleagues. It’s one of the saddest stories ever associated with Inspector Gamache, and though the reader doesn’t learn the details until late in the book, he or she, with mounting horror, can pretty much guess what they are, even while hoping against hope that his or her suspicions prove to be entirely wrong.

Though I love Three Pines, the little village where most of the “Inspector Gamache” mysteries are set, I also loved the fact that this book, for the most part, was set in Old Québec City. I almost felt like I was following Gamache around the city and seeing the sights through his eyes, and it was very enjoyable and made me want to visit Old Québec sometime very soon. (I've visited several times, but it’s been years.) I also enjoyed the history provided by Penny, much of it unknown to me prior to reading this book. Some readers felt Penny included too much of the history of Québec; I thought she included just the right amount. I didn’t know the animosity between the English and the Francophones ran so high (still), so that was an eye-opener for me, among other things.

I do agree with reviewers who found the pace of the novel leisurely and rather slow moving, though this leisurely pace didn’t bother me at all. At any rate, I don’t usually enjoy novels with a fast, breakneck pace. I like my mysteries to be slow-simmered and fully developed, and this one filled that bill nicely. I do think the braided plot served to slow the pace down quite a bit, though Penny does a wonderful job moving from one story strand to another and making Gamache’s flashbacks real to the reader. I felt very emotionally involved in the book, from the very first page.

Penny’s characters – most of them recurring – are, to my way of thinking, at least, fully developed, whether we like them or not. Personally, I like Armand Gamache, and I’m glad Penny chooses to fill us in on his life outside of work and doesn’t write him as a “static” character the way Agatha Christie wrote Hercule Poirot. I enjoy all the denizens of Three Pines and all the people associated with the Sûreté du Québec. I enjoy spending time with them and getting to know them better.

Thankfully, Penny’s “good guys” are always a bit tarnished, and her “bad guys” have good qualities as well, though it’s very difficult-to-impossible for me to “like” a person – even a character in a book – who cold-bloodedly kills another. Still, even though I don’t necessarily like Penny’s killers, I do understand their motivations, thanks to their creator.

Penny’s prose is vintage Louise Penny. Yes, she still uses the maddening phrases that I find so jarring and jolting. I have no idea why she writes in this fashion unless it’s for emphasis. I think her books would be better served by foregoing the awkward phrasing and writing elegant sentences instead, but that’s not my call to make. Even though the phrases, more often than not, make me want to hurl the book across the room and slam it into the far wall, I find the plots interesting enough (so far) to keep on reading. The awkward phrasing didn’t seem quite as awkward or egregious in this book as it was in this book’s predecessor, The Brutal Telling, but make no mistake, it was still there.

This story takes place in the midst of winter, and Penny uses the cold, snowy weather very effectively in the story. I can’t imagine it taking place in summer, though of course it could have taken place at any time of the year, and both Three Pines and Québec are charming in both winter and summer. A quote from the book might help to show how important winter is in this novel:

And, when the winter sun set on a Québec forest, monsters crawled out of the shadows. Not the B-grade movie monsters, not zombies or mummies or space aliens. But older, subtler wraiths. Invisible creatures that rode in on plunging temperatures. Death by freezing, death by exposure, death by gong even a foot off the path, and getting lost. Death, ancient and patient, waited in Québec forests for the sun to set.

Bury Your Dead is the story of people who can’t, or who have great difficulty, in letting go of the past. Indeed, the entire province of Québec shares the characters’ obsession with holding onto the past – for good or for ill – in its quest to find the burial place of Samuel de Champlain. I loved this theme, and I thought Penny did a marvelous job of exploiting it. Many of her characters are haunted by their past, many have trouble forgiving themselves for things they couldn’t help, many are deeply flawed, and all are deeply human. Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, especially, is a man who is forever changed by a random act of violence he mistakenly believes he should have been able to prevent.

While I very much enjoyed reading this “Inspector Gamache” mystery, for me, it wasn’t the strongest book in the series, though there’s no denying it packed an emotional punch. If you’re new to the series, I don’t think this book, or even the book immediately preceding this one, The Brutal Telling, is the best place to begin. I would begin with “Book One” and read through in order, though all the books were designed to be “standalone” mysteries. The characters, however, grow and change and develop, and this is best experienced by reading the books from “Book One” to “Book Seven” in chronological order.

I’ve read, in the past, that Penny was only planning four “Inspector Gamache” mysteries, however, to date, she’s written seven. Personally, I don’t know if there will be any more or not. I hope so.

Books in the “Inspector Gamache” series of mysteries, in chronological order are:

Still Life
A Fatal Grace/Dead Cold
The Cruelest Month
A Rule Against Murder/The Murder Stone
The Brutal Telling
Bury Your Dead
A Trick of the Light

You can visit Louise Penny’s Website at


Recommended: Fans of Louise Penny can’t miss this book, and I expect most of them have already read it. New readers of the “Inspector Gamache” series should, in my opinion, start with “Book One,” Still Life, though each book is written to stand alone. I like this series very much, though it’s not nearly as complex, convoluted, or dark as the “Inspector Lynley” series from Elizabeth George, which remains my all time favorite.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Book Review - Bestsellers - State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

While she’s in no way a “romance writer,” novelist Ann Patchett seems to love a little romance in her novels, and she seems to like that romance to flower between the unlikeliest of characters. In Bel Canto, for example, possibly Patchett’s best known and most loved book, opera soprano, Roxanne Koss has an unlikely romantic adventure with an older Japanese gentleman, only to marry an even more unlikely younger one. In her latest book, State of Wonder, the protagonist, Dr. Marina Singh, is involved with a man eighteen years older than she is, the CEO of the pharmaceutical company where she works, and it’s a relationship that’s not without its problems.

Forty-two-year-old Marina Singh is a pharmacologist and research scientist at Vogel Pharmaceutical Company in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. Her work for Vogel revolves around some fairly routine research into the lowering of blood serum cholesterol with drugs called statins. In this way – as well as in several other ways – Marina differs from another of Vogel’s researchers, Dr. Annick Swenson. Dr. Swenson is a brilliant rogue scientist who is now “somewhere on a tributary off the Rio Negro” deep in the jungles of Brazil researching the miraculous post-menopausal fertility of the women of the Lakashi tribe, a fertility that allows them to routinely bear children well into their seventies and eighties. Unlike Marina’s research, the research of the very difficult Dr. Swenson, who is an ethnobiologist turned gynecologist turned immunologist, is so valuable to Vogel that she enjoys an open checkbook, with no questions asked. Her research could someday provide many women, now infertile, with a seemingly “magic” answer to their problems and provide Vogel with a substantial fortune. As Marina’s longtime lab partner, Anders Eckman put it, it could become a “ ‘Lost Horizon’ for American ovaries.”

As the book opens, Marina is just receiving the news that Anders Eckman, who was sent to Brazil a few months previously to find Dr. Swenson and report on both her location and her activities, has died from a fever. Curiously, it’s Dr. Swenson who writes the letter informing Mr. Fox, Marina’s CEO lover, of Eckman’s death. “We chose to bury him here in a manner in keeping with his Christian traditions,” writes Swenson. “I must assure you it was no small task. As for the purpose of Dr Eckman’s mission, I can assure you we are making strides.” Vogel’s CEO, however, isn’t going to take Dr. Swenson’s word for it.

It’s the sixty-year-old Fox, who informs Marina of Eckman’s death and tells her that she, herself, being his “Plan B,” must now travel to the Amazon, just as Eckman did, to report on those very valuable activities of Dr. Swenson. And, it isn’t long before Marina is on a pontoon boat, sailing “down a river into the beating heart of nowhere,” armed with only a volume of Henry James, a back issue of the “New England Journal of Medicine,” and a high-tech, GPS-enabled cell phone.

Only four or five pages into the book, the reader realizes that the premise of State of Wonder seems to bear a great resemblance to Joseph Conrad’s wonderful novella, Heart of Darkness. Both books feature protagonists who journey into the heart of the jungle, and Dr. Annick Swenson, a researcher who fails to communicate with the very people who are funding her research, may be mad, just as Kurtz was mad in Conrad’s masterpiece. For me, this was a welcome proposition since I love Conrad’s book, and the possible similarities caused me to read on with much anticipation.

This won’t be the first time Marina has come into contact with Dr. Annick Swenson. The unapproachable doctor was one of Marina’s medical school professors, one who was so difficult she caused Marina to change direction as far as her career was concerned. As Marina heads to the Amazon to do battle with Dr. Swenson, she’s flung into a world of memories, and she must do battle, not only with external forces, but with her own inner demons as well.

The daughter of a white mother and an Indian father who abandoned the family, Marina grew up feeling like an interloper in her own home. She was the girl with “all those translucent cousins who looked at her like she was a llama who had wandered into their holiday dinner.” Searching for her roots, the young Marina traveled to Calcutta to visit her father, and it was on that trip that she first took the anti-malarial drugs that cause her to suffer nightmares on the long flight to Brazil. (Why didn’t she just take doxycycline? It’s a safe anti-malarial.)

Although the beginning of the book is interesting, State of Wonder doesn’t hit its stride until Marina’s plane touches down in South America, and the “state of wonder” referred to by Patchett can be felt by the reader. Arriving in Brazil, Marina imagines that “every insect in the Amazon lifted its head from the leaf it was masticating and turned a slender antenna in her direction.” And the reader finds he or she can agree with Marina.

As Marina’s journey progresses, we learn more and more about this quiet, and somewhat repressed, woman. And, as I wrote in the previous paragraph, it’s interesting. But interesting as learning about Marina is, I wanted to get on with the story and felt the pace of the book dragged a bit at times, especially during Marina’s time in the Brazilian city of Manaus, where she waits for the boat to take her into the jungle.

It isn’t until Marina comes face-to-face with Annick Swenson that State of Wonder finally finds its center. While Marina puzzles out just what, exactly, is happening in the jungle (and it’s a bit more than initially thought), the reader gets to know Dr. Annick Swenson, and Dr. Annick Swenson, I think, has certainly been worth the wait. A sharp-tongued, sharp-witted eccentric, Annick Swenson is the best-realized character in the book, though I suspect that may only be because Marina Singh is a little more quiet and reserved and a lot more “normal.” I liked Marina, and I didn’t particularly like Dr. Swenson, but I have to admit, it was Swenson who lit up the pages.

As the book heads toward its climax and resolution, the fate of Marina Singh, the truth surrounding the mysterious death of Anders Eckman, and the future of the Lakashi all become entwined. Was the ending an ending worthy of Conrad? No, definitely not, and I’m not quite sure how I feel about the rushed ending Patchett crafted. On the whole, I feel it’s a little too loony to be taken seriously, and it undermines all that went before.

Some reviewers have said this book is worth reading for Patchett’s prose alone. While there’s no doubt that Patchett does write lovely prose, I’ve never read a book for its prose alone, though bad prose has caused me to abandon several. There’s no doubt that Patchett’s descriptions of the jungle are real standouts. One example can be found when Marina finds herself in the jungle during a thunderstorm, when there was “a single, nuclear flash of lightening that was followed some milliseconds later by a clap of thunder that could have cracked the world in half, and then, because these things come in threes, there was rain.” Another beautiful description tells the reader about Marina’s first sight of stars from her position in the jungle. She sees a “textbook of constellations, the heroes of mythology posing on fields of ink.” My favorite, however, takes place while Marina is still in Minnesota: “It wasn’t a bright day but what light there was reflected off the snow and cast a wide silvery band across the breakfast table…Pickles leaned up against Marina now and…she reached down to rub the limp chamois of his ears.”

Still, as beautifully written as this book is, there are times when Patchett resorts to cliché: jungle insects come “down in a storm,” an encounter with an indigenous tribe brings poison-tipped arrows “raining down,” and the jungle, itself, is filled with “screeching cries of death and slithering piles of leaves.” At other times, Patchett is vague, as when Marina tries to reflect on the jungle, but keeps being brought back to her own past, instead: “She kept still, looking out through the top of the hammock…She thought about medical school, the fluorescent halls of that first hospital, the stacks of textbooks.” That’s okay. It’s not bad, but for someone with Patchett’s imagination, I just didn’t think that was good enough.

The characterization of Dr. Annick Swenson was wonderful, and though I liked Marina Singh and often sympathized with her, I found her a weaker character than her one-time mentor. Marina’s intentions are better than those of Swenson, but even so, Marina seems unable to put those good intentions into practice. For example, she finds the Lakashi language too foreign to even learn the names of natives with whom she interacts. Unlike Swenson, Marina remains an outsider, despite her intentions, one who’s unable to empathize with the native people of Brazil or with their problems. To a point, I could forgive Patchett her rather confused characterization of Marina Singh. Marina Singh, after all, is a confused and inhibited woman, who, for most of the book, doesn’t really know what she wants or even what she believes in.

What I found more difficult to forgive was Patchett’s characterization of the Lakashi. Patchett renders the Brazilian natives a little less than human. Beings that don’t even possess a true language (I guess Marina can be forgiven for not learning to speak with them), and who make sounds “less like words and more like the call and answer of birds.” Dr. Swenson describes them like this: “They are an intractable race. Any progress you advance to them will be undone before your back is turned. You might as well come down here to unbend the river.” Patchett’s indigenous people fail as characters because their creator constantly holds them up to Western “standards” of “excellence,” and allows her other characters to summarize the Lakashi in the clichéd terms of B-movies. Strangely, Patchett does the same thing with the entire southern hemisphere. Although her jungle descriptions are, as previously stated, beautiful, she is constantly comparing the southern hemisphere to the more familiar (to her characters) northern, and it’s the northern that always seems to be “right.”

Some reviewers have said that State of Wonder is Patchett’s most mature book to date, and in terms of theme, I suppose it is, and that’s all to the good, I think. However, the book lacks the emotional drive, and the heart, of some of her previous books. A weighty theme can be very important, but in the end, it isn’t more important than good, solid, character motivation. People are, first and foremost, curious about other people.

There was much about State of Wonder that I liked, and there were several things I didn’t care for at all. All in all, I feel it’s an uneven book, and even though I did enjoy spending time with Marina Singh, I felt the book definitely lacked the magic that infused Bel Canto. State of Wonder is a book I enjoyed, but it’s not a book I found memorable.


Recommended: Patchett fans will love this book and will rave about it. Others will probably like parts of the book and not like other parts. If you’re new to Patchett, this is not the place to start. Bel Canto, though not perfect, is a better book, and would be a better bet.