It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book that included pictures but I may start incorporating more of them into my reading repertoire after this. Whoever started the rumor that picture books were only for kids anyway? Clearly Elena Mauli Shapiro didn’t get the memo because, although this is a graphic novel, it’s not the kind for children, if you get what I mean, wink, wink, nudge, nudge. Also, how awesome is her name, the title, and this cover art? I picked this book as next on my list based on the cover alone. It wasn’t one I had previously heard about or read any reviews, but saw it on a stand in the library and it spoke to me on a couple levels. Firstly, this is exactly what I look like after a particularly strenuous soccer match. And secondly, my car is named Theresa. How could I not?
Normally when I am first alone with my next novel conquest I treat her like a lady should be treated and take the time to get to know what other authors have said about her behind her back cover, or learn more about her story from the synopsis she wears on her sleeve. I get a feel for her past through her dedication message and previous publications. I get to know her mind before I crack open her spine and devour her body. I sound like the praying mantis of books. What I don’t give a damn about is the biography of the author. What does it matter to me where this person grew up or what prestigious ivy league school they attended as long as they can keep me entertained with their words. That said, halfway through reading this book I happened to glance at the back inside jacket information About the Author and realized this is based on a true story. Or at least on a true box of someone’s belongings left behind after passing away at “13 rue Therese” in Paris, where the author happened to live as a girl. This completely changes how you read and feel about the book. Except that I still read pretty much every book in a British accent even though you can tell as early as the title on the cover that this one takes place in France. Half the novel is written in French for F sake. (Pardon my French.) But this is no longer pure fiction. This is someone’s imagination run wild while rifling through someone’s personal mementos and drawing some pretty racy conclusions from lacy gloves and love letters. I couldn’t help but wonder if someone who knew the real-life Louise Brunet has come into possession of this novel and taken offense at her being penned for immortality as a sex crazed adulterer just because some box made it seem like she lost her soul mate (aka cousin, aka disgusting) in the war and was second best-ing it with a man of her father’s approval.
For about half the book I was convinced Louise was an imaginary character full of mischief and music and someone you wanted to befriend. Granted she was pretty much made up as Ms. Shapiro knows Louise existed in name only, it somehow makes the whole experience more intimate knowing these mementos actually exist. That each one carries a story of its own. Imagine someone went through your pockets or purse at this very moment and wrote an entire book based on the findings? Mine would mostly be about lint and lip gloss, but Ms. Shapiro gave a personality and a life to a tin of trinkets and tells an amazing tale with only a few photos, letters, and coins to go on. Of course Louise couldn’t have made things easier and just left behind her diary. But this author creates fiction from artifacts using both poetry and prose, English and French, (don’t worry, the French is translated for those of us who don’t use it unless we’re singing the lyrics to a Moulin Rouge song) and intertwines a tale of love and passion with the bloodshed and tragedy of war. She pieces together sentences using Louise’s pieces of sentiment.
The author has carried around this box of souvenirs for so long that each object has become a part of her, just like one of the main characters, an American named Trevor, who is tasked with translating a record of all the findings becomes so closely entrenched in his work that he begins to pop up in the lives and deaths of these characters who existed before he was even born. Yeah, it gets weird. But good weird. Like the French.
Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve beaten the system. The library system that is. Down the man. I figured out that if you put a hold on a large print format of the book you’re requesting you get it in less than half the time it takes to get the people with normal vision version. Of course I could be skewing national statistics on the visually impaired, but in my mind’s perfectly capable eye, I’m winning. I was only about 10th on the blind person’s list for Ann Patchett’s “State of Wonder”, where I would have been over 70th if I didn’t use my powers of evil genius to obtain it. I can’t even mathematically calculate how much waiting time I just saved myself. But I’ll try. About 60 odd people each hoarding their copy for 3 weeks, give or take a few days, adjusting for the multiple copies owned by the library, factoring in the time it takes to deliver the book to my preferred branch, carry the one, multiplying by pi as the limit approaches infinity … that’s gotta be like 4 years of waiting I just saved myself. And the book was good, but no offense Ann, it wasn’t worth waiting out my early 30’s for.
The book was good. And then it got better. It had a lot of twists and turns, not unlike the Amazonian river where the bulk of the story took place. It starts off, as every good book should, with a pharmaceutical murder mystery. I thought the book took place in Sweden because the main characters’ names were things like Anders Eckman, and Dr. Swensen, which is basically the word “Swedeners” itself scrambled up in a word jumble, but turns out it’s Minnesota. If they had have had a heroine named Mrs. Ines Odah I would have got it. You don’t learn a whole lot about the multiple characters as they first come into the story, but over time Ms. Patchett has a way of making you care about each and every one of them, even the one that doesn’t utter a single word for the entire novel. Which is saying something. Pun intended. She makes boring scientists and their boring study on the effects of female fertility in the Lakashi tribe somewhere in the jungle in Brazil actually interesting. You also don’t learn a lot up front about the mission of the main character as she’s sent by her lover/employer into the depths of man-eating tribes in the Brazilian jungle but I believe this is for the best. The people she meets and befriends and the adventures she has are better left as a surprise.
However, the author has left this reader puzzling about the reason why she chose the title, “State of Wonder”. Sometimes titles are very literal in describing the theme of the book and some are purposely too abstract to even waste brain cells on trying to figure them out, but the meaning behind “State of Wonder” just hovers slightly beyond the reach of my fingertips. Which is ironic because that is also where I have to hold the large print version of it so I can make out the words like I’m at the optometrist’s office reading an eye test chart. Please read this book and get back to me on your thoughts of why this title was chosen and save me from my own personal state of wondering.
Someone once chuckled while telling me they could not picture me watching a documentary. I took offense to this comment. I’ve seen Disney’s “African Cats”. I’ve seen “March of the Penguins”. Or was it “Happy Feet”? Does “Never Say Never” count? I’ve even eaten a Quarter Pounder with Cheese Meal while watching “Super Size Me”. Beat that. But it wasn’t until I started to read my first Biography novel that I might just have to swallow my pride, along with those non-decomposing frites, and agree with that hurtful joker. I’ve always been secretly fascinated by powerful women of long ago so when I saw Stacy Schiff’s “Cleopatra” on the Must Read shelf, I thought “Well who am I to disobey a Librarian.” Except that who I am is someone who does not find reading fun when every second sentence you’re flipping between the inside cover to that sand colored, hand-drawn map of countries and regions that don’t exist anymore, and the back cover genealogical chart to jog your memory of whether it was her aunt Berenice, her sister Berenice, or her daughter Berenice who killed her own husband/brother/father. Ex. Haus. Ting.
Ms. Schiff saw a need to uncover the truth about this Queen of the Nile as there’s not a lot known about her and because of this she gets a bad rep from Shakespeare and Shaw’s colorful imaginations turned historical feats of literature. This intriguing young girl managed to man handle (if you know what I’m saying) two of the most prominent and feared Romans of her day; Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. With this kind of name-dropping you would think fact would be as entertaining as fiction. Not so. Give me the Elizabeth Taylor version any day. Or a re-make with J-Lo as Cle-o. (Don’t even try to tell me you didn’t think of her when I mentioned Mark Antony.)
This blog post is short lived, not unlike my patience with this book. I don’t make a habit of not finishing books I’ve started but the fact is, at this rate, you, my faithful readers, could build a pyramid in the time it would take me to read this cover to cover (quite literally) and then write basically what I’ve said above stretched across another 2-3 paragraphs. There may have even been a map. See? Ex. Haus. Ting.
It used to be a source of amusement for me that my parents could go to the video store, return home with their pick, pop it in the VCR, and 5 minutes into viewing realize they had already seen this exact movie only months before. It’s only because karma is a huge bitch that this same phenomena is now happening to me with books.
I read the jacket on the inside cover of “A Reliable Wife” and was instantly taken with the plot. Not to mention my obsession with novels that have the word “wife” in the title. (If you’ve been reading my previous blogs you already know this tidbit about me and if not, catch up, you’re missing some good shit.) So I said to myself, “I mustn’t delay in securing my spot in line for this literary masterpiece, post haste”. Yes, that is how I talk to myself in my head. Especially when I’m in a library. After waiting months for my turn on the dance floor with Robert Goolrick’s fiction I promptly realized I was taking my own sloppy seconds for a spin. And I knew it the second I laid eyes on the main character’s name. How is it that I can remember a single character name over a New York Times #1 Best Seller title? Maybe author’s should just name their books after the main character and save me this problem in the future. I mean, who can forget that they’ve previously read Jane Eyre, Moby Dick, or The Hungry, Hungry Caterpillar?
I have to admit I didn’t re-read the book once I realized the duplication. But I do remember loving it. Sure, now my remember-er is working. I remember liking how Mr. Goolrick doesn’t come right out and tell you what’s going on but through the feelings and conversations between the two main characters he paints a vivid picture. Since I did dive right in to the beginning of the book I can attest that it starts with a splash. Lonely Mr. Ralph Truitt has placed an ad for a simple, honest wife to take care of him and his household as they both age, but gets duped by the woman who responds as she is anything but. The seductive, and slightly evil, Catherine Land has plans to poison poor Ralphy and make off a wealthy widow. And then there’s like 275 more pages! As each twist and turn of truth shows itself in the novel you flip flop over who you sympathize with, until you feel like you’re the one who’s been poisoned. This book has everything you could ask for; passion, obsession, madness and murder. Everything you could possibly want in a wife.
I believe it says something about this reader that even though I may be suffering from old timers disease (an early onset I assure you) at least I can still rely on my same great taste in books.