Sunday, April 21, 2013

The fantastic voyage

I'm getting ready for another European walking trip in a couple of weeks so I've been putting on the miles, which means that I'm listening to books at a very rapid (for me) clip: I'm up to about a 12-hour book a week.  Last Sunday, I wound up Ann Patchett's State of Wonder as I was on the last steps of the eight miles I had clocked that morning. Today, I finished another book about three-quarters into my route, which made for a very awkward transition in time, place and writing.  I'm glad I'd had a little time to process the wonders of State of Wonder.

This is one of those titles that "everyone" has already read/listened to, so there's no need for a long synopsis. Marina Singh, mixed-race Minnesotan and pharmaceutical researcher, is sent on a (ridiculous) mission to the heart of (Brazilian) darkness by Mr. Fox, her boss and lover: Find out what Marina's former (and feared) mentor Annick Swenson is up to in her research with the Lakashi tribe in the Amazonian jungle (and that Vogel Pharmaceuticals has been paying for).  Marina goes also to see if she can discover what really happened to her colleague and friend, Anders Eckman, sent by Mr. Fox on the same errand six months earlier, whose death has been reported by Dr. Swenson in a terse letter that provides more questions than answers.

What Dr. Swenson is up to is quite horrifying actually, but it's just one of many unsettling situations in which Marina finds herself upon landing in Manaus. As the book's heroine, she's got to make that journey into the heart of darkness and -- naturally -- she doesn't return unchanged. I enjoyed the gently humorous fish-out-of-water sequences as Marina ventures well beyond her comfort zone (she's a Minnesota homebody at heart), and I so appreciated the casual way she got used to life in the jungle.  I didn't mind when the novel made a turn into the preposterous, because ... well, because it was kind of preposterous to begin with. Patchett's descriptions of both the wide Minnesota prairie and the dense, humid, danger-filled jungle have a you-are-there quality, that made me long for a warm sweater and insect repellent. And Marina's antimalarial Lariam™-filled nightmares of separation are vivid and disturbing.

The actress Hope Davis reads the novel. Her soothing voice with the hint of a lisp seems ideally suited for Marina's story -- quiet and responsible, Marina is a person who seems like the calm center of a world seething with emotion and messiness, but inside she is roiling with fear, wonder and dismay herself. Davis captures Marina's contradictions with variations in pacing and by raising the level of her voice to near hysteria upon occasion.  The cast of characters are international in scope and Davis manages to invest each with the flavor of their origins, including Australian, African English, Brazilian and Amazonian Indian.  The command in her voice when reading Dr. Swenson's dialogue leaves no doubt as to the forcefulness and authority of this woman, who expects nothing less than complete obedience from everyone she encounters.

Davis seems initially to be unable to decide how to pronounce Marina's name, before finally settling on what I thought was incorrect all the time I was listening. I'd pronounce Marina Ma-REE-nah; Davis goes with Meh-RAIN-ah.  I wish I could say that I eventually let go my annoyance at this, but I never did.

My nit-pickiness didn't matter to the voters of the 2012 Audies, who named Davis the winner in the Literary Fiction category.  Here's the list of Audie nominees for 2013.  I don't pay much attention to these, mostly because I'm not much of a must-read-the-latest/hottest/bestest-book right now (and because I limit myself mostly to what's available at my library... look at all those titles published by Audible).  And I gotta say, I've got issues with any organization that thinks that Bill O'Reilly is an audiobook narrator worth listening to.  Really?

[Marina takes the Rio Negro to find Dr. Swenson and the Lakashi. The photograph of the river was taken by Ymichael and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
Narrated by Hope Davis
Recorded Books, 2011.  12:25

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