Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Christmas Train by David Baldacci

The Christmas Train was a very light read and perfect for the holiday hustle and bustle time when trying to concentrate on something more literary would be onerous. Tom Langdon, an international journalist, who has been forbidden to fly for two years by the TSA, boards a train in Washington, D.C. bound for California where he will meet his girlfriend, Leila for the Christmas holidays.

Of course, on the train is a plethora of characters, all of whom will get some attention. There is the tarot card reader, the retired priest, a couple who plans to marry on the train, the movie producer, train attendant, a bartender - Elvis impersonator, and Eleanor, a woman whom Tom loved with all his heart a few years ago, but who had broken off the relationship. It almost seemed like a Love Boat, but set on a train. To add a bit to the adventure, there is a thief on board who is pilfering object from the passengers. Think Murder on the Orient Express except this is theft. Trains are great backdrops for crime!

The train wends its way across the country and the characters form those kinds of bonds that happen when traveling in a group. From Chicago on, Baldacci begins foreshadowing a vicious storm that threatens the Rockies. It is inevitable that it will impact this trip. The reader must suspend belief a bit to think that meteorologists with today's instruments can be so far wrong in the prediction of a major weather event.

The book is certainly not a piece of serious literary quality, but was a fun read for the holiday season.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

Selected by as one of 2011's Best Books of the year, State of Wonder is reminiscent of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness with female characters. Thankfully, it lacks the savagery while at the same time exploring indigenous tribes of South America as well as the heart and soul of two very complicated women physicians.

As the novel begins Marina Singh, a pharmacologist for the Minnesota based Vogel Pharmaceuticals, receives an aerogram from the Amazon jungle that informs her that her colleague, Anders Eckman has died and been buried in situ. Sharing it with Mr. Fox, head of the pharma company, the two prepare to deliver the news to Eckman's wife Karen. The distraught widow does not believe her husband has died and Marina agrees to travel to South America to discover what exactly happened, find his body, and return with it and his possessions. She goes, also, with the charge from Fox, to check on the progress of Dr. Annick Swenson's research on a revolutionary new drug - the reason for Eckman's trip.

Much of Marina's life is explained and told in flashback technique as she experiences hallucinatory side effects from taking the drug Lariam as a precaution to guard against malaria. The reader learns of her life in India, the daughter of a prominent physician, and her medical school experience at Johns Hopkins where she worked under Dr. Swenson. Her trepidation in embarking on the journey to the jungle and becoming reacquainted with her mentor is painfully revealed.

With all the background as a prelude, the adventure becomes engrossing upon Singh's arrival in South America. Swenson's research involves the development of a drug that allows women to bear children into their 70s. (Who would want to is beyond me !!) She has witnessed this first hand among the Lakishi tribe. There are enough adventures in the Amazon to keep the readers' interest as Marina struggles to get to the bottom of the story. On her journey memorable characters provide insight and guidance. Who will every forget Easter, the deaf boy, who is in tune with his surroundings and the people who have adopted him. One of the most harrowing times involves an anaconda that throws everyone into a panicked situation. 

Meeting Ann Patchett (11/21/11)

Marina adjusts to her new surroundings and as she does she becomes closer to the memory of Anders. Although foreshadowed, the stunning twist at the end of the book leaves the reader taken aback. Adding to this ending was a revelation added by Ann Patchett herself in her Literary Evening's Lecture at Carnegie Music Hall.  Patchett is a gifted speaker - at ease and extemporaneous - and was a real pleasure to meet and hear. State of Wonder is an excellent read that delves into so many topics and situations. The commentary, tho somewhat masked, about large pharma, the relationships between and among the characters, and the self-reflection of her characters give the reader plenty to think about even after the last page is read.