July 19, 2012

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

A very good summer read! The gentle title of this novel doesn't say much about it - it's a spellbinder (I took that word off the back cover) set in the Amazon jungle and there's hardly a dull or gentle moment in it.

The characters are mostly doctors who work for an American pharmaceutical company. As the story opens, a report comes to the company that one of their researchers has died in Brazil, and the company sends another researcher to find out the circumstances of his death and to report on the elusive and reclusive head researcher and the progress of the project.

The stunning thing about this book is its character development. "Well-rounded" doesn't begin to describe almost every character in the book. Some books I read right through to the end still trying to figure out who was who, but in this book there's no doubt. There are at least seven or eight highly distinctive main characters, and they're far from caricatures. Each has many facets and surprises, all fitting in believably into a fascinating and human whole.

The advertising on the book makes much of a previous novel, Bel Canto, which I will try to get, and Patchett has apparently written at least seven other books.

July 4, 2012

The Olive Route by Carol Drinkwater

This is a very beautiful book by a writer who is passionate about olive trees. It sounds like an odd passion and by the time I reached page 320 of this fairly fat book, it still seemed odd, but I kind of "got it" and even found myself excited about her next discovery of a 4,000-year-old olive tree or an ancient olive press depicted on a Roman coin.

The author takes a tour around the Mediterranean, searching out the history of olive cultivation and the effect it had on the culture and economy of the area over the millenia. She herself has an olive farm in Provence, and her trip takes her through Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Malta, Tunisia (fascinating), Libya, Greece, Crete, and finally she comes almost full circle to Israel, where she stands and looks over no man's land to Lebanon, but of course can't cross over to complete the circle because the border is closed.

She does a lot of speculating - there are a lot more questions than answers. This is not a truly political, historical or archaeological book but it delves into all those areas. The highlight of reading it for me was really the travel writing aspect. She writes beautifully, in my humble opinion. Normally with this level of detail I'd do some skimming and scanning, but with this book I found myself going back and reading paragraphs twice because I liked them so much.

Of one man she meets, she says, "He...had longish dark hair that hung like a fringe from his bald pate. His left eye was permanently closed as though locked in calculation. He looked as though someone had pressed on the top of his head with a heavy weight and squashed him." But after she's talked to him for a few hours, her summary is, "He had a dishevelled appearance, yet his fingernails were immaculately manicured and I had the feeling that, like his artwork, the inner man was impeccable, precise in thought and detail." She writes equally lovely descriptions of other people, nature and the villages and cities she travels through. She strikes me as a mature person who is realistic about some of the considerable hardships she encounters, but foregoes moaning about them. The book rings true.

I was delighted and amazed to see that she has written three other books about her life in Provence: The Olive Farm, The Olive Season, and The Olive Harvest. I thought Lucy and I had long ago discovered every one of these, but apparently not. Good reading ahead!