Review: State of Wonder

State of Wonder
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A letter arrives at Marina Singh’s pharmaceutical lab informing her company of the death of her co-worker, Anders Eckman. At the firm’s request he had gone to the Amazon to check on the research progress on a drug the company was funding, research being done by Annick Swenson. There are few details other than he died of a fever and was buried onsite. Marina’s boss (and lover), Mr Fox as he is known, and Anders wife (who still believes he is alive) both ask her to go to Brazil to find the truth. Marina can hardly say no, yet this trip brings to life her buried past. Before she studied pharmacology, she was an obstetrics resident under Dr. Swenson until she left the residency after performing an emergency C-section that resulted in a disfigured child.

"Ann Patchett 2012 Shankbone" by David Shankbone - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

“Ann Patchett 2012 Shankbone” by David Shankbone – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

As she journeys to Brazil, it is not a state of wonder we expect but a bad ending. She loses her luggage. She is stalled by a young couple, the Bovenders, who tend Dr. Swenson’s Manau apartment while she is in the jungle. Finally, she goes upriver with Dr. Swenson against her wishes into the heart of the Amazon rain forest if not the “heart of darkness”. Her arrival feels Conrad-esque, occurring at night, complete with natives who steal her belongings, and warnings of well camouflaged venomous snakes. She ends up staying with a deaf boy who had previously stayed with Eckman, Easter. Easter, at death’s door, was left with Dr. Swenson by a neighboring cannibalistic tribe.

Yet she survives and embarks on a journey of discovery that will involve a “descent into hell” (language used by Marina) at the end and yet also is filled with wonder. It turns out Dr. Swenson is only one of a number of researchers studying a small plot of trees visited by a unique species of moth and surrounded by psychedelic mushrooms. What’s more, the native women gnaw the bark every five days and continue to be fertile and bear children into their sixties and beyond. Dr. Swenson, experimenting on herself, is also pregnant at 73. But the compound they’ve isolated has other properties of global importance, which is why Dr. Swenson has stalled this research. Marina also confronts her past when she is called on by Dr. Swenson, debilitated by her pregnancy, to perform a C-section on a native woman facing a breech birth.

In the edge-of-your-seat climax, she learns the truth about Eckman, whose fate is wrapped up with that of the deaf boy, Easter. Like all of Patchett’s books that I have read, there were twists at the end, but I think ones that were better anticipated and coherent than in some of her works. And like all Patchett’s books, her writing is beautifully evocative and descriptive and her characters finely drawn in ways that explore the depths and complexities of the human condition. Of those I’ve read, I thought this one of her best.

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July 2014: The Month in Reviews

It’s happened again! I’ve read my way through another month and it’s time for my “Month in Reviews” post. This month included biographies of a baseball player and a World War 1 flying ace. I read a contemporary legal thriller and a classic Agatha Christie mystery. It included sermons from the Nineteenth Century and Dallas Willard’s last conference from just a couple years back. There was Joseph Conrad’s classic exploration of betrayal and some good contemporary theology on multifaith conversation, politics, and the influence of the Majority World church on Western Christianity. So here’s the list from July, with links to the full review post:

1. Under Western Eyes by Joseph Conrad. Conrad does for the crime of betrayal what Doestoevsky does for murder as he follows the wrestlings of a young student who betrays a comrade to save his own future in pre-revolutionary Russia.

2. Enduring Courage by John F. Ross. Ross tells the life story of a Columbus hometown hero, Eddie Rickenbacker. We trace his hardscrabble youth in the Brewery district of Columbus to his involvements in early auto-racing, and then flight, tracing his journey to becoming a World War 1 flying ace. The climax of the book is how he contributed to the survival for three weeks of an air crew on a secret World War 2 mission to MacArthur, that crashed in the Pacific.

Under Western EyesEnduring CourageNext EvangelicalismSupreme justice 2

3. The Next Evangelicalism by Soong-chan Rah. This is a challenging account of the growing influence of Majority World Christians not only in their own countries but in the West and how critical it will be to listen to and welcome that influence for the Western Church to break free of its cultural captivities.

4. Supreme Justice by Max Allan Collins. This legal thriller begins with the murder of a Supreme Court justice in a DC restaurant. But it doesn’t end there. A second justice is killed and it becomes clear there is an assassination plot afoot to change the makeup of the court. Joe Reeder, a retired Secret Service agent who took a bullet for an unpopular president, is called into an investigation where it becomes quickly apparent that this was an inside job and that he can trust no one.

5. Long Shot by Mike Piazza. This is an “as told to” autobiography by Mike Piazza, who describes the challenges he had to overcome to make the Major Leagues and become the player with the most  home runs for a catcher and a .308 lifetime batting average.

6. The First and the Last by George R. Sumner. Summer focuses on how Christians might constructively engage a pluralistic context without becoming religious relativists through a strategy of holding to “the final primacy” of Christ.

People PleasingLiving in Christ's PresenceFirst and LastMike Piazza story 7. Living in Christ’s Presence by Dallas Willard. This is essentially the transcript of a conference in which Dallas Willard and John Ortberg give alternating talks that explore what might be called “the essential Dallas Willard”.  A highlight comes with the interaction between these two thoughtful Christian leaders at the end of nearly every presentation.

8. People-Pleasing Pastors by Charles Stone. People-pleasing is especially a peril of pastoral ministry but Stone helps any of us recognize these tendencies in our lives and proposes a seven step strategy summarized by the acronym PRESENT to counteract these tendencies.

9. After the Funeral by Agatha Christie.  Richard Abernethy has been ill and died, rather sooner than expected, in his sleep. When the family gathers for the reading of the will after the funeral, oddball niece Cora questions, “but he was murdered, wasn’t he?” only to be murdered herself the next day with a hatchet. Hercule Poirot is called in to investigate whether the murders are connected only to discover a family where all are suspects.

10. The Good of Politics by James W. Skillen. In an age where people question whether any good can come of politics, Skillen surveys the Bible, church history, and the contemporary scene and articulates the conviction that we are political creatures from creation, not simply post-fall, and that believing people can participate in the process and have a redemptive influence.

After the funeralgood of politicsgreatest sermons

11. The World’s Great Sermons, Vol. 4 by various.  This is part of a digitized ten volume collection that a reading group I’m in chose to get a sample of Nineteenth Century preaching in both the U.S. and the U.K. This volume included examples of Lyman Beecher, William Ellery Channing (an early Unitarian), Horace Bushnell, Alexander Campbell and others that typify the preaching landscape of this era.

What’s coming in August? Look for reviews of Rich Nathan and Insoo Kim’s Both-And and Thomas Piketty’s, Capital, along with reviews of a Wallace Stegner novel, a book on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a treatment on the theme of the preaching of the doctrine of hell in antebellum America. Don’t want to miss these reviews? Sign up to follow the blog! And let me know what some of your favorite summer reads are for this summer.

Review: Under Western Eyes

Under Western Eyes
Under Western Eyes by Joseph Conrad
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Betrayal. It’s an ugly idea, that someone you trust would, behind your back, act against you. What Dostoevsky does with the idea and act and subsequent guilt of murder in Crime and Punishment, Conrad explores here around the idea of betrayal.

Joseph Conrad (from the National Portrait Gallery, a public domain photograph by George Charles Beresford)

Joseph Conrad (from the National Portrait Gallery, a public domain photograph by George Charles Beresford)

Our main character, Razumov, is an orphan sponsored silently by Prince K___, of the Russian nobility, as a student. Dark, quiet, studious, and a listener, he finds himself entrusted with the safety and escape plans of a fellow student, Victor Haldin, who has just assassinated a Russian official. He shares none of Haldin’s revolutionary presentiments, and sees his hope of a successful career vanishing to be replaced with a prison sentence in Siberia. Failing to arouse the peasant worker Ziemianitch to transport Haldin out of Russia, he decides to go to the authorities and betray the location where Ziemianitch was to pick up Haldin. Haldin is arrested, and executed, and it would seem that Razumov could resume his life.

Conrad reveals how betrayal comes at a cost. For one thing, there is the “phantom” of Haldin that dogs Razumov’s steps throughout the story and the repeated effort to “step on” the phantom, to obliterate him. Then, because Razumov was never identified as the betrayer (and the remorseful death by hanging of Zemianitch suggests that it was he), Razumov is recruited to infiltrate the revolutionary circles abroad because he is assumed by them to be a friend and revolutionary associate of Haldin’s, indeed the last to see him living. He succeeds in insinuating himself into their circles, but as he does so, he comes in contact with Haldin’s sister Nathalia under whose “gray, trustful eyes” he falls, and those of her mother, shattered by the loss of her son. He also comes under the eyes of the English (hence Western) narrator who is Nathalia’s English teacher.

The plot tension surrounds whether Razumov will be able to keep up the ruse, and betray yet more of these revolutionaries to the Russian authorities (betrayal leading to yet more betrayal) or whether the knowledge of what he is done and the duplicity he is practicing will become too great for him.

The device of the western observer who tells this story seems awkward and somewhat extraneous to the plot movement. Otherwise, this is a fascinating study of the psychology of betrayal. It also chronicles czarist Russia’s corrosive abuses of power that led to the Marxist revolution. In the variety of characters in the revolutionary circle Conrad also gives us a portrait of the mix of the noble and venal and violent qualities of the regime that took its place.

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