BNBC · mini-review · stuff I read

Where’d You Go, Bernadette

Summary from Goodreads:
Bernadette Fox is notorious. To her Microsoft-guru husband, she’s a fearlessly opinionated partner; to fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she’s a disgrace; to design mavens, she’s a revolutionary architect, and to 15-year-old Bee, she is a best friend and, simply, Mom.

Then Bernadette disappears. It began when Bee aced her report card and claimed her promised reward: a family trip to Antarctica. But Bernadette’s intensifying allergy to Seattle–and people in general–has made her so agoraphobic that a virtual assistant in India now runs her most basic errands. A trip to the end of the earth is problematic.

To find her mother, Bee compiles email messages, official documents, secret correspondence–creating a compulsively readable and touching novel about misplaced genius and a mother and daughter’s role in an absurd world.

I read this with my Literature by Women group.  A weird and crazy-snarky novel.  I really liked the construction of Bernadette’s life and how she feels completely out-of-place in the private school world, caught between high art principles and suburban mom-hood.  Great use of the supporting “documents” and the structure of the book (also: totally a warning about using one of those “assistant” services on the web, yikes!!). Loved the section headings (Runaway Bunny!). Bee was an excellent protagonist.

But I feel that halfway through the book the author didn’t quite know how to get out of her plot situation so the ending felt half-baked and a wuss-out.  Some of the secondary characters felt very cliched; not sure if that’s because most of the book is told from the viewpoints of Bee and Bernadette or if the author just didn’t flesh them out.

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BNBC · mini-review · stuff I read

State of Wonder

Summary from Goodreads:
In a narrative replete with poison arrows, devouring snakes, scientific miracles, and spiritual transformations, “State of Wonder” presents a world of stunning surprise and danger, rich in emotional resonance and moral complexity.

As Dr. Marina Singh embarks upon an uncertain odyssey into the insect-infested Amazon, she will be forced to surrender herself to the lush but forbidding world that awaits within the jungle. Charged with finding her former mentor Dr. Annick Swenson, a researcher who has disappeared while working on a valuable new drug, she will have to confront her own memories of tragedy and sacrifice as she journeys into the unforgiving heart of darkness. Stirring and luminous, “State of Wonder” is a world unto itself, where unlikely beauty stands beside unimaginable loss beneath the rain forest’s jeweled canopy.

I am always hazy about Ann Patchett books. I like them, like the words, the way she makes sentences, but I get an odd feeling that I was expecting something else. I can’t quite put my finger on it.

The premise of State of Wonder is really interesting (even if it reminded me of the movie Medicine Man in basic outline at the beginning).  Brilliant/difficult researcher goes incommunicative while on a big R&D contract with a pharmaceutical company.  The first person to try and find her falls ill and dies prompting the company to send Dr. Marina Singh who has a lot of personal baggage to deal with (not to mention a) why the company sends two cholesterol researchers after a fertility specialist and b) Marina has been sleeping with her boss and it’s a weird relationship).

There is a lot of beauty in Patchett’s descriptions of the Amazonian rainforest as Marina heads deep into unknown territory and the whole thing takes on a lurid quality due to the hallucinogenic dreams induced by Marina’s anti-malarial medication.  The research lab environs are meticulously created in the reader’s mind, the relationship between Marina and Dr. Swenson is developed to a very fine detail.  But…there is a part of Marina that I don’t quite understand and she makes some decisions that don’t seem to make much sense to me.

There is a great value in the medical ethics brought up, turned over, and examined throughout the course of the book particularly in the value (or lack thereof) the “bottom line” of the pharmaceutical industry.  It’s a multi-billion dollar business, very risky, and often will forgo the development of more “humanitarian” research in leiu of that which will benefit the western medical establishments who can afford the cost of questionably needed drugs.

Dear FTC: I purchased a copy of this book.

BNBC · stuff I read

DNF: Three Seconds

After slogging through about 100 pages of this as an ARC for BNBC’s First Look program, I put it down.  Everytime I look at this book, it makes me heave a sigh of resigned “I really must finish this” sentiment.

Sadly, I have no desire to finish this – no sympathy for any of the characters, no identification, and I think the undercover-prisoner-drug-smuggler plot is far too nuts for my to follow.  I have so many books to read that I have to let this one go because the thought of reading it no longer brings my joy.  Just drudgery.

And that isn’t very fun when I have shelves and shelves of books I would rather be reading.

BNBC · stuff I read

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Anne Bronte often seems like the “other” Bronte sister.  Not as prolific as Charlotte, not as sweepingly Romantic as Emily.  But while we chew our nails and involve ourselves in the swirling stories of Jane and Cathy and Rochester and Heathcliff, Anne takes a different tack in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.  She tells the story of Helen and Gilbert and Arthur “straight” and it’s subject matter was all the more shocking to Victorian England for that reason.

In short, their story is one that seems entirely contemporary:  a young man meets a mysterious new neighbor – a widowed woman and her little boy – and grows to love her but comes to learn that she is in hiding from an abusive husband.  For us, this is a story for the newsfeeds but for Victorians it was more like rudely airing one’s dirty laundry.  Women’s rights, spousal abuse, and alcoholism are all brought forth over the course of the novel.  Helen refused to have sex with her husband, an act that a husband was entitled to whenever and wherever he chose

The novel sold out its first printing in six weeks, selling better than Wuthering Heights, even though the critical opinions were mixed.  Several magazines, though, warned women to avoid reading the book because of its fixation on coarse language and scenes of debauchery.  Anne wrote a Preface to the second edition – one in which she states she did not write to amuse but to tell the truth – but Charlotte suppressed further printings after Anne’s death.  The precise reasons are unknown but in a letter she though Anne’s subject matter poorly chosen.  (I did a great deal of research on the Brontes for a Victorian poetry course, so know most of this first-hand, but the Wikipedia article on the book sums it all up nicely, with references).

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall doesn’t flow nearly as well as Jane Eyre or Shirley or Villette having a somewhat convoluted storyline like Wuthering Heights.  The book starts with a letter from Gilbert to his brother-in-law explaining how Gilbert met his wife (the “frame” of the letter gets a bit long in the tooth and we have to assume it is supposed to be multiple letters).  Gilbert’s “letter” recounts his life from the time “Mrs. Graham”/Helen moved into the old Wildfell Hall until the point she gives Gilbert her old diary to explain why she can’t marry him.  The “letter” proceeds to recount word-for-word the diary of a young woman swept off her feet by a dashing rake she thinks just needs a good wife to reform him.  Bollocks to that.  The diary section of the novel is quite long.  It does get a bit far-fetched when Helen’s entries are pages long and contain many conversations but there aren’t very many ways to give such a large backstory to the reader.  At the end of the diary pages, the letter reverts back to Gilbert’s point-of-view and he finishes out his tale.

Helen is a remarkable character and for her creation during an era when married women were treated more as objects by law it says a great deal about Anne’s thoughts on the matter. Gilbert is a somewhat annoying character. His pursuit of Helen begins to border on the obsessive. Arthur, as Helen’s drunken rake of a husband, is the kind of dastardly character for whom comeuppance doesn’t come nearly soon enough.  I quite liked the book and found it very readable.  Not as moving as Jane Eyre with respect to the actual writing nor as wildly imaginative as Wuthering Heights but an excellent realist Victorian novel.

After I finished the book I watched the 1996 BBC miniseries with Tara FitzGerald (Helen), Toby Stephens (Gilbert), and the always-yummy Rupert Graves as the reprobate Arthur.  A very good adaptation of the book, well-acted and costumed, a good costume-drama as expected from the BBC.

BNBC · music notes

May 2011 at Literature by Women

Please join Literature by Women in May as we read and discuss Anne Bronte’s controversial novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.  We’re taking five weeks for the discussion so it doesn’t become too compressed.

In other news, I am the proud possessor of a new piano courtesy of a once-in-a-lifetime deal at West Music.  I love it, LOVE IT!  I can’t wait to dig all my piano music out of my parents’ basement (although, I’m afraid mom might have appropriated a few due to weddings, etc., and I think a few of my favorite pieces are actually hers…le sigh) and I ordered my first new book of music in fifteen years – Harry Potter!

BNBC · stuff I read

Cranford

Cranford is a little town, a quiet village (I’ve been re-watching Disney’s Beauty and the Beast lately) filled with quiet middle-aged ladies.

Although the ladies only appear quiet.  They are in fact very busy, visiting one another, writing letters, worrying over the proper way to address a visiting, recently-widowed Scottish baronet’s wife and whether it would be proper for more middle-class ladies to visit her.

Cranford is a series of reminisces from a young lady’s visits to Cranford thinly disguised as a novel.  Gaskell gives us a very good picture of the lives of upper-middle class/slightly shabby due to lack of money women in an era when gentlewomen frowned on work of any kind.  It’s a household novel, full of domestic details you won’t find in an Austen, although still a novel of manners in many ways.  Very sweet and a great introduction to Victorian literature.