Canterbury Bells

Canterbury Bells
Canterbury Bells represent Gratitude in the Language of Flowers

Thursday, August 30, 2012

When you see the photo of Ann Patchett on the book jacket of her latest book, State of Wonder, it’s hard to believe someone so lovely and feminine could write a book describing some horrific images.  I guess that is the power of imagination and skillful writing which she has proven in her previous books, most notably Bel Canto. (2001 Winner of PEN/Faulkner Award).

The main character in State of Wonder is Dr. Marina Singh, a 42-year old research scientist who does what has been described as “unremarkable” cholesterol research for a large pharmaceutical company in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. She is also having an affair with the company’s CEO, Mr. Fox, who comes across as bland as her tedious research.  In the opening paragraph, Mr. Fox informs Marina that her research assistant, Anders Eckman, has died mysteriously in a remote part of Brazil. Eckman was sent  there to report on the progress being made by Dr. Swenson in her quest for a fertility drug that could make the company billions.

After Marina and Mr. Fox visit Eckman’s widow to tell her of her husband’s death, (by way of a very brief letter and no explanation) Marina, with great trepidation, succumbs to Mr. Fox’s request that she go to Brazil to determine how Eckman died.  The widow’s plea for an explanation and the sight of his three small boys, as well as concern for her former research partner, causes Marina to accept the assignment she feels totally unsuited for. And with that her unremarkable life takes a twist and turn she could never have imagined.

In a small tributary of the Amazon, the state of wonder kicks in as she begins a vivid and emotional trip.  Actually, even sooner as her plane lands, 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.” As one reviewer comments, “Ms. Patchett’s true genius is her ability to write about situations that truly stretch incredibility but you end up believing every word.”

In order to understand the circumstances of Eckman’s death, Marina must first find Dr.Swenson and here a sub-plot develops. We discover that Marina and Dr. Swenson have a history dating back to Marina’s medical school days—a traumatic history Marina has tried to forget but now it resurfaces with a vengeance.  Dr. Swenson does not welcome any visitors but she comes to trust Marina with her closely guarded research of  the Lakashi tribe in which women continue to ovulate until their death, producing children well into their 60’s and 70’s.  Patchett’s natives are only semi-human; they don’t possess civilized language but make sounds less like words and more like the call and answer of fish.  But deep in the jungle we finally discover the secret of their fertility—a visual image that may continue to haunt you long after you read the book.

Meanwhile, not far up the river in another tributary is the tribe of sinister cannibals who present yet another if the cloud of insects, snake-infested rivers and malarial swamps are not frightening enough.  The suffocating atmosphere is integral to the story where the jungle could be considered a character in itself.

This has been called a novel of darkness to light as Marina tries to find answers for Eckman’s family while navigating her inner personal journey with as many twists and turns as the Amazon itself.  If you like adventure, something out of the ordinary and great escape this might be the book for you.

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love praises Patchett, saying, “Her moral code after all thrums throughout her novels—where characters are often called upon to summon up their decency, take a bold action and shift forever some stale old paradigm of power.”   Marina certainly achieves that in State of Wonder.

Ms. Patchett lives in Nashville Tennessee where she is co-owner of  Parnassus Books.  For more information and a list of all her books, visit

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

If you’re looking for a new author with a continuing mystery series, you might consider Canadian Louise Penny. She creates a fascinating world in the fictional setting of Three Pines, a rural Canadian village south of Montreal, just kilometers from the Vermont border. 

As Penny describes it, “The tiny fieldstone houses were built by the early settlers who cleared the land and yanked the stones from the earth. But most of the homes around the village green were made of rose-hued brick, built by the United Empire Loyalists fleeing the American Revolution, desperate for a sanctuary, hiding from a war they didn’t believe it.”  Named for the three stately pines in the center of the village, present day Three Pines of her novels appears idyllic with no police force, no traffic lights, no sidewalks, no mayor.  The place doesn’t have ordinary crime...just the worst possible crime... murder ...and on quite a regular basis.

The first murder to shatter the inhabitants of Three Pines occurs in Still Life, first book in her series (2005) which won numerous prestigious awards, such as The New Blood Dagger, the Arthur Ellis, the Anthony, the Barry Award and Dilys Award.

It is here that where we meet the interesting residents and characters who continue to evolve in future books.  Artist Peter who is often struggling with jealousy...not of a lover, but the with realization that his wife Clara may be the true artist in the family, Myrna who runs the used bookstore, Sarah and her delicious Boulangarie, Ruth Zardo, the poet who is always good for a laugh with her inappropriate comments and insults and Bistro owners, Gabri and Olivier.  (Caution: if you read all eight books straight through you will probably add a few inches to your waistline as the descriptive meals coming out of the bistro are tantalizing).  Hungry or not, your taste buds will be awakened. For example, fettuccine with shrimps and scallops sautéed in garlic and olive oil or a rich cheddar and apple soup, or a fruit-stuffed Rock Cornish game hen, done on the spit, or the seafood buffet with herring roe on kelp, pepper-smoked salmon, crab cakes, halibut, with bread fresh from the boulangerie. It appears that crime solving in Three Pines involves a lot of pondering over café de lait and warm croissants. 

And that brings us to Chief Inspector Armund Gamache of the Surete du Quebec and his unique approach to solving a murder.  “To catch a killer, you don’t necessarily move move back. Into the past. That is where the crime begins.  Some event, perhaps long forgotten by everyone else, has lodged inside the murderer.  And begun to fester. What kills can’t be’s not a gun, a knife or a fist. It’s an emotion. Rancid, spoiled, gone wild and waiting for a chance to strike.”  As Gamache tries to uncover the source of that emotion, he befriends the villagers who often supply more evidence than fingerprints or DNA.  Gamache, of course, has his own demons and fears.  As his assistant Beauvoir says, it is because of his own human frailties that Gamache is able to recognize them in others.

On a deeper level, the crime provides a means for Penny's unusually empathic, all-too-fallible lead to unearth truths about human passions and weaknesses while avoiding simple answers.

I had the pleasure of meeting Louise Penny about six years ago as she was promoting one of he early books at the Poisoned Pen Bookstore in Scottsdale. She is charming and genuine, often with self-deprecating humor which perhaps explains one of the reasons she is able to create and develop such fascinating three-dimensional characters. As one reviewer says, “The books go beyond just being murder mysteries and become more about how we interact with each other and how we deal with things like ambition, fear, love and death.”  And I might add there’s some very funny stuff and clever dialogue too.

Now, eight books into the series  she never disappoints but seems to become a more skillful writer with each book. Perhaps this quote from her daily blog (which I recommend to anyone who wants to write as she laboriously details her process), explains why she continues to receive accolades and awards with each book:

“There are times when I'm in tears writing. Not because I'm so moved by my own writing, but out of gratitude that I get to do this. In my life as a journalist I covered deaths and accidents and horrible events, as well as the quieter disasters of despair and poverty. Now, every morning I go to my office, put the coffee on, fire up the computer and visit my imaginary friends, Gamache and Beauvoir and Clara and Peter. What a privilege it is to write.”

And what a privilege it is for us the readers to enjoy this Three Pines world Penny has created.

Her titles in the order they are published are as follows:

Still Life  2005
A Fatal Grace  2007
The Cruelest Month  2008
The Brutal Telling    2009
A Rule Against Murder  2009
Bury Your Dead    2010
A Trick of Light    2011
The Beautiful Mystery 2012 (August 28 release)

Although each book can be read on its own as a mystery, I recommend starting with the first one to fully understand and appreciate the development of the recurring characters.