Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “Brazil”

Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #30: State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

State of Wonder is a challenging  book, which begins with a simple mystery to solve but ends up enmeshing the reader in a host of moral questions which resonate long after the story ends.

Patchett’s novel begins in the state of Minnesota, where researcher Marina Singh is doing useful but plodding work for a pharmaceutical company, having a secret affair with the company’s much older CEO Mr. Fox, and generally treading water and waiting for something interesting to happen to her. That comes, shockingly, in the form of a short and unsentimental telegram from Brazil, announcing the death from an unidentified fever of her close colleague and friend Anders Eckman. The married-with-kids Eckman had been sent to a research site deep in the jungle just a few months earlier, on orders from Mr. Fox to scope out the progress of a company-funded project under the direction of the brilliant but fiercely independent ethnobotanist Dr. Annick Swenson. Dr. Swenson had stopped responding to company queries and was effectively unreachable, while the company’s shareholders were anxiously awaiting news of the miracle drug that would allegedly give post-menopausal women back their childbearing years, and make a fortune in the process. Eckman’s wife demands confirmation of her husband’s death and Mr. Fox wants the elusive Dr. Swenson to deliver his miracle drug, and so Marina is packed off to the heart of Brazil to get answers.

It is here where Patchett’s writing earns its keep, for the novel at this point provides the author much juicy material to play with in the form of lush and dangerous surroundings, exotic tribal customs, science with a sci-fi twist, and most importantly, the complex enigma that is Dr. Swenson herself.  The fact that Marina Singh and Dr. Swenson have a history which no one else knows about provides an extra level of tension to a story already replete with anaconda attacks, cannibal encounters, biblical-style deluges and supersaturated air dense with insects and unknown bacteria. There are a host of other characters—some more finely drawn than others—in this novel, but it is the driven Dr. Swenson, who has never lost her fundamental core of humanity, and Marina, who slowly emerges from her chrysalis in the course of the story, who I thrilled to.

But where the story is especially fascinating, in my view, is where it raises fundamental ethical issues such as: should human beings be made into unwitting guinea pigs in the development of drugs for the betterment of humanity, and should drugs be developed because of their profitability or because of their value to mankind? Patchett does not propose to answer these questions for the reader, and indeed presents both sides as equitably as she can. Nonetheless, the pharmaceutical company is not let off lightly in State of Wonder but then, neither is the reader.


Valyruh’s #CBR4 Review #18: Nemesis by Jo Nesbo

As a devout fan of the well-constructed murder mystery, I found Nemesis by Norwegian author Jo Nesbo quite intriguing. Of course, the hero is yet another alcoholic police detective who is as dogged in his pursuit of criminals as he is vulnerable in both his personal and professional lives. But this is a very convoluted murder mystery, with multiple plot twists, parallel stories, a huge cast of colorful characters, and a seemingly endless number of possible bad guys.

Detective Harry Hole is in what appears to be his first ever healthy relationship with a mature and loving woman and mother, but she is out of the country fighting a child custody battle with her ex during the course of the story. Hole succumbs to the lure of an old and highly unstable flame and spends an evening with her, only to end up in his own apartment building in the middle of the night, apparently stinking drunk and not remembering a thing. The next day, the old flame is found with a bullet in her head and Hole must cover up his involvement with the victim while pursuing her murderer.

At the same time, he is assigned to investigate a heist in which a cold-blooded bank robber murders the cashier-hostage when her boss is six seconds too slow in emptying the till. The investigation leads in multiple directions: to prison, where robber-king Raskol, a clever gypsy with a reputation for having criminal networks throughout Europe, has turned himself in to serve time; to a small town in Brazil which serves as a haven for international criminals and where the killer from the bank heist may be hiding out; and back to Hole’s own personal investigation, as Raskol turns out to be the uncle of Hole’s murdered lady friend. Chaos ensues as the two mysteries intertwine, each suspect Hole pursues ends up dead, and he starts to get creepy emails from someone who knows about his involvement with the dead woman.

Finally, complicating the story even further—if possible—is the tragedy of the unsolved murder of Hole’s former partner Ellen, which weighs heavily on Hole’s conscience and which he is determined to solve. We are shown in the course of Nemesis who in fact was behind Ellen’s murder, and watch with horror as this same individual targets an unsuspecting Hole while stalking his new partner Beate.

I pride myself on often solving mysteries before the author does, but must admit to being totally and repeatedly lost in the maze of Nesbo’s multiple and thickening plots. The end is clever and surprising, but by then I was so confused by who was doing what to whom, and why, that I think I was more relieved to get to the end of the novel than I was satisfied by a mystery well and truly resolved. Nesbo’s books are reportedly all the rage in Europe right now, but I don’t think I’ll be picking up another Hole mystery any time soon—at least, not until my head stops aching from this one.

ElCicco#CBR4Review#05: Daytripper by Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba

Daytripper, a graphic novel published by Vertigo in 2010, is a charming story that presents deep reflections on life and death, love and art. Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba are twin brothers, so perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that the words and images compliment each other so well. They tell the story of Bras de Oliva Domingos, son of a famous writer who is trying to write his own book while making a living as an obituary writer in Brazil. At various important stages of his life, Bras dies and composes short obits for himself. This unique conceit inspires reflections on life, death and the importance of dreams, particularly for artists.

One of the first vignettes revolves around Bras at the age of 21. He and his friend Jorge, a photographer, have gone on a vacation together, and Bras meets a beautiful young woman who is very much like a woman from his dreams. To learn more about her, he asks what she does for a living. This leads to a conversation about how one can really only know people through their dreams. She says to Bras (regarding Jorge): “I don’t know where he works or what he does, but I know he’s living this moment and absorbing all that this place has to offer him. I can tell that he’s not taking pictures because it’s his job or because he was told to. That’s who he is…. It’s through his photos that he tells us his dreams. So… what are your dreams?”

Jorge is not afraid to change plans, make bold choices and do what feels right instead of what he is “supposed” to do. Bras is more timid about making choices and struggles with writers block. I think that “choices” and “death” go hand-in-hand in Daytripper. Bras “dies” at times when he has made an important choice (to run back to the bakery to meet that pretty young woman, to look for his missing friend). For me the implication is that when we make a choice, we have closed off some other path and the other person we might have become dies. But then a new life is open to us, with new dreams and possibilities. An older Bras says, “… what my dreams really show me is what my life can be once I open my eyes. My dreams tell me who I am,” and “Even when he was awake, he would carry his dreams with him. They reminded him of who he is and what he wanted out of life.”

The story line in Daytripper is nonlinear. We go from Bras as a 21-year-old, to Bras 10 years later, Bras as a boy, etc. I think the nonlinear arc is a further representation of dreams, which can be disjointed and jump from point to point, but I also think it is linked to family relationships, which are also essential to the story. Bras’ family, past and present, have formed who he is. His childhood may be decades past, but his memories of that childhood and weekends spent with extended family are current; his father may be dead but that doesn’t prevent him from having conversations with him as a younger man and as an old man. Time is fluid because all of our memories are with us. As Bras says, “We carry our family inside of us. It’s who we are.” Bras experiences death as major changes come to his family, too — death of his father, birth of his son. He doesn’t have a choice as to when birth or death occurs, but these events change him.

While I think Daytripper can be read as an explanation of how art is created and the struggles of artists everywhere, the core message applies to all: We are our family. We are our dreams. We are our choices. And our life starts anew with every choice we make. The message of Daytripper is positive and uplifting. It’s a fine reading choice for a Sunday afternoon.


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