September 6, 2011

State of Wonder

I have just finished a book I think you should try, and there are problems with the recommendation. I will list them.

1. The title and the design of the book are uninspiring beyond what I can emphasize. The expression "You can't tell a book by its cover" may or may not be true (I'd say it's one of those expressions that sounds so true, people generally believe it without evaluating it for trueness), but this book's cover misleads: the title is dull and unmemorable and non-evocative of the contents (even after reading the book, I can't call the title to mind without peeking); the cover is pretty but dull and unmemorable; BUT THE BOOK IS NEITHER DULL NOR UNMEMORABLE.

State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett (photo from Amazon.com)


2. There are some distressing scenes of the sort I would feel betrayed by if the book had been unqualifiededly recommended to me. Have you read The Poisonwood Bible? Remember the various jungle horrors? Snakes, vines, endless insects, malaria, hallucinations, contaminated water, determined zealots, dying children? It is not as bad as that. But there is some similar material. Here is the REAL major problem: if I had read it unwarned, I would have felt betrayed when I read it---but if I HAD been warned, I would NOT have read the book. AND I WANT TO HAVE READ THE BOOK.

3. There is a very tense labor/c-section scene. And another. There is a scene where things look dramatically grim for a child. There is an injury to an infant. I want to give you spoilers, because I would myself have wanted spoilers. But I don't know if YOU would want spoilers. I've heard that for some people, spoilers spoil a book, rather than allowing them to read it without dying.

4. If I'd read the inside of the book jacket, I would have had NO INTEREST in the book. NO INTEREST. The second sentence would have made me all but certain I wasn't interested; the third sentence would have sealed it. I HATE this kind of book. Or so I'd thought. If I tell you what the book is about, you might think, "Bleah, I hate that kind of book." You might not read it. You might read it but indeed not like the book. WHAT IF YOU DON'T LIKE THE BOOK?? What if you WOULD have liked it, but because of something I say you don't read it??


This book was a problem for me, because it had already been my turn on the hold list but I'd run out of time to read it and had had to return it unread. I put myself reluctantly back on the hold list, my number came up again, but I couldn't get to it until only a week of the check-out period remained. I thought, "I will just START it. It looks so dull, I probably won't like it. Then I'll be able to return it and let the next person read it." I got three pages into it and said to Paul, "I have bad news. I think it's a great book. I will have to finish it."

Luckily I was able to finish it in three days. When I finished reading it, I burst into tears and I cried for a couple of minutes. I will try to define the type of crying, because this sort of thing seems important: it was crying for a wonderful book, for a wonderful story, for a complete package that worked from beginning to end, and for an author who PULLED IT OFF. It was also crying for what a STUPID title and STUPID cover, which MIGHT HAVE MADE ME MISS IT ENTIRELY. It was great crying, and I wanted to do more of it but Paul finished the dishes and took off his headphones and I didn't want to be crying in front of him.

Er, not to oversell it. Which brings me to the last problem:

5. One crucial element to my enjoyment of the book was that I went into it not even remembering why I put it on my hold list, not knowing what it was about, and not expecting to enjoy it. I looked at the cover, I looked at the title, I didn't bother to read the inside of the jacket, and I thought, "Let's get this over with." You can't recreate that experience after I've told you about it like this. I have ruined it by recommending it.

42 comments:

vanessa steck said...

Ann Patchett is one of my all time favorite novelists. I don't think this is quite as amazing as Bel Canto, but it is at least as good as Run. She is seriously, seriously, no joking, good. I mean, really, really good. Read it.

Hilarity in Shoes said...

I loved this book; my favorite so far in 2011. I want to read a book like this every day, with people surviving and trying to understand and control a harsh environment. I adored Poisonwood Bible.

And the ending of this one shocked me, which is hard to do.

Fun fact: the Bovenders are named for a couple who won the right to have characters named after them in an auction.

Alice said...

i used to do A LOT of reading based exclusively on what Looked Good or Caught My Eye while i was at the library, and i can unequivocally say this would Not Have Caught My Eye. that being said, i now want to read it :)

M&Co. said...

I read this this summer and loved it! But I love everything Ann Patchett writes, so I was fully expecting to love it. If you've not read some of her other stuff, I don't think you will be disappointed.

Whimsy said...

"I have ruined it by recommending it."

Oh, I do love you, Swistle. And now I'm going to put the book on my library list.

Jessica said...

I added it to my hold list and am #92 (the library has 14 copies, though), so I'll probably have forgotten why it was on my list by the time I get it. Don't remind me:)

Elle said...

I love Ann Patchett, and somehow missed that she has a new book out. I'm so excited to run out an get it!

Sam said...

I loved it. LOVED IT. But I think the cover is beautiful and I like the title. I've always liked Ann Patchett, but not in a "I have to read everything she's written" kind of way. If anything, I have enjoyed her memoir Truth or Beauty SO much that I like it best of all - until now. Currently, I'm reading Bel Canto, which people just rave about. I do like it but it's nowhere near as readable or compelling as State of Wonder. It's just a different sort of book, more of a slow movement.

As for The Poisonwood Bible, oh that's so much worse. I mean, I love the book, but it often made me want to throw it against the wall.

Elsha said...

Well now I want to read it, but I'm totally wary because of your "I have ruined it by recommending it" statement.

I love Poisonwood Bible, but I have not read it since I became a mother. Now I wonder if I would be much more put off by all the danger to children.

Hotch Potchery said...

It's on my Kindle wish list!

Shoeaddict said...

You totally changed my mind about this book. I've seen mentions of it in magazines this summer but was pretty uninterested in it based on those reviews. BUT after reading that you were "meh" about it but then loved it... I was like this about The Hunger Games too. I thought it was not my type of book(s) but I read and loved them!

Karen L said...

Lines like these are among the great joys of reading Swistle:

"I've heard that for some people, spoilers spoil a book, rather than allowing them to read it without dying."

"I will try to define the type of crying,"

"It was great crying, and I wanted to do more of it but Paul finished the dishes and took off his headphones and I didn't want to be crying in front of him."

Also, re: "One crucial element to my enjoyment of the book was that I went into it not even remembering why I put it on my hold list, " I LOVE seeing a movie or reading a book with no preconceptions whatsoever. like not even knowing the genre. I'm more malleable to the author/director. But it backfired big time with Anna Karenina. I bought it because I felt I needed more famous authors in my reading diet. He set the scene so well and then spent pages and pages (and pages and pages) developing the one interesting character in the whole novel. I was expecting historical fiction. I was expecting a suspenseful revolution. I got a soap opera. with central characters who I could not even disdain because I cared not about them. not at all. I wanted to warn the world not to waste their time when later Oprah put it in her book club.

Sam said...

1) too lazy to read all comments
2)Costco sells boiled and peeled eggs. I find them odd. My husband thinks they are amazing.
3) yes, new eggs impossible to peel. Old eggs better. We buy store eggs for boiling, use our own chickens' eggs for other purposes.

HereWeGoAJen said...

Good, I needed something new to read on our trip.

Tess said...

I loved this book too, and I agree that the title makes NO SENSE WHATSO. I mean, NONE. Even if I squint REAL HARD, I cannot fathom why that title seemed appropriate.

Groovymarlin said...

I'm not at all surprised you had this reaction, just based on the fact that Ann Patchett is straight up amazing. Have you read "Bel Canto?" It was life-changing, and I'm not exaggerating. A book that I never thought I'd find interesting, but I couldn't put it down once I started. I read another of her books, about an aging magician and his assistant, and it wasn't nearly as good. I'm happy she's back to form with this one and it's on my Kindle wish list.

Shelly said...

I could not agree more! I would not have touched this book with a ten foot pole if it hadn't been written by Ann Patchett. I LOVE LOVE LOVE Bel Canto, and have really liked most of the rest of her books, so I had to read this one, even though I HATE books set in jungles. Anyway, I really liked it.

Leeann said...

Ok. I'm going to put this on my list. You recommended Death Match and I did like it, so I'm trusting you here!

Kristina said...

I don't think you ruined it at all. Even if I don't like it as much as you did, I still love to hear about people's reactions to books, especially one that is as powerful as yours. Can't wait to try it!

Josefina said...

It doesn't FEEL ruined, probably because I still have no idea what the book is about. I think I will try to read it. Thank you for the recommendation!

Pickles and Dimes said...

I went to put this on my request list at the library only to find out it's already on there. Whew!

Right now I'm reading Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, and due to some unfortunate Book Request Bonanza (where about 7 books came in at the same time), I only have 3 days to finish it. And it is such a GOOD book that I want to savor it. If you haven't read it, I totally recommend it. The language is simply beautiful and the story is captivating.

Ellen said...

I loved this book! Listened to the audio version, and it was wonderful.

Swistle said...

Groovymarlin- I haven't read Bel Canto, and you know why? Uninteresting, non-evocative title! Subject I thought I wouldn't be interested in! So I have it on my library list now!

Tina G said...

Swistle- I am going to read this- you should write book reviews- I love your thought processes : )

lar said...

Well, you've convinced me. I liked the last one you recommended (Lincoln something? can't remember) so this one will go on my hold list.

Carolyn said...

Ann Patchett has become a guaranteed good author for me. I see her name and automatically know the novel will be worth reading.

I liked The Patron Saint of Liars a lot, and loved Bel Canto.

Jenny said...

Well, just to be ornery I'm going to say that while I thought Bel Canto was very beautifully written, I disliked it so much that it made me actually angry. So I've been avoiding State of Wonder, despite all the raves, because I very much feared that I would have the same problems with it that I had with Bel Canto. You're pushing me a little farther toward the try-it-and-see camp, but I'm still not there.

vanessa steck said...

Jenny--why did you dislike Bel Canto? Feel free email me at vsteck at gmail dot com if you don't want to spoil everyone. you are literally the first person I've heard say anything negative about that book so i am curious.

Deanna said...

Putting it on my to-read list...but I will pretend I'm very uncertain about it and I won't look forward to reading at all. Think that will work?

Love your reviews!

anne said...

Your review makes me want to read it. HOWEVER, I did NOT like Bel Canto.

Erin said...

Best book review EVER. I'm definitely reading it, fully realizing the book has already been ruined by your review.

Nicole said...

Oooh. I like spoilers. I really do. I want to KNOW if something horrible is or is not going to happen, you know? Same with movies. I am not good with elements of suspense.

Jennifer said...

Wow. I LOVED Bel Canto and was excited to read this one but it was, well, meh. I was relieved it was over, had no emotional attachment to any character except the singular child in the book, and well, I won't offer more spoilers but I would love to correspond with you or anyone else about the book. I have no one to discuss it with and I have so. much. to. say. And I think maybe if I talk to someone who really liked it perhaps I will be a little swayed by the reasons they liked it and well, I hate to be contrary but I am so curious about what it is that I MISSED.

vanessa steck said...

Jennifer I WILL TALK ABOUT IT WITH YOU! vsteck at gmail dot com.

Erin said...

I liked Bel Canto okay, but I wasn't totally in love with it like some people were. I think I'll give this one a read. And if it's anything less than mind-blowing, I'm sending you a strongly worded email.

Swistle said...

Jennifer- I hate this, too, when I read a book EVERYONE LOVES and I'm not only "meh" but even kind of annoyed by it. I'm like, "WHAT AM I MISSING??" Like, I WANT to be swept up in it like everyone else.

I'm noticing a possible thing in the comments section, which is that it seems like people loved EITHER Bel Canto OR State of Wonder. I wonder if I'll feel meh about Bel Canto?

clueless but hopeful mama said...

Oh! I loved this book, too! I also loved Bel Canto- for similar reasons. I found her writing style engaging and effortless to read. I believed in her characters and I believed in the plot(s), not easy things to do when one is going pretty far afield from my life experiences.

And the ending of this book! Just perfect, I think. PERFECT. Stunning really.

Shelly said...

I would love to discuss Bel Canto or State of Wonder with y'all, too! Feel free to add me to your emails - sm_rl@hotmail.com.

fairydogmother said...

Is it wrong that I actually love that you ruined it by recommending it? Because you just crossed something else off my massive to do list before it even went ON my to do list yet. I don't have the time or energy these days to even read the books I definitely have been looking forward to for months, much less try to decide if I would want to read a book I would have been uncertain about because of all the reasons you describe so perfectly. So, thank you! I feel like reading this post has taken something off my plate these days and given me a bit more breathing room, even though I know it sounds totally crazy.

Can you tell I'm (slowly) working my way through google reader lately? ;)

SCV said...

Longtime reader, first time commenter. I had to de-lurk to add my $.02. I had mixed feelings upon completing SoW, but the more I thought about it, the better I liked it. Without spoiling anything, at first I thought the ending seemed abrupt, not enough explanation of what happened AFTER. I'm the sort of person who likes things stated explicitly. But, the more I asked myself, "what exactly did you want to know?" the more I saw that I really did know everything that I wanted to know about. It wasn't always explicitly stated, but all the data was there to draw a conclusion. The title is a mystery, but I do remember at one point Marina was musing that something was in a state of something and I was thinking, ooh, I hope she later extrapolates that into the title. Never happened, but maybe I'm again requiring too much explicit stating of conclusions I've already drawn

Michelle said...

i read the book on your recommendation! loved the book. hated the ending. WHY??? I mean I guess I kind of get why. and you could maybe write a whole thesis on why, but it left me hanging in an unpleasant way.

Anonymous said...

I like that Patchett writes books that are both comforting and unexpected (have you read Bel Canto?) (which also has an ending that's ... controversial? see Michelle's comment). I actually happened to listen to State of Wonder as audiobook, and would strongly recommend it, even as a reread--it's very well done, and I find that listening lets me absorb the language, which in Patchett can get absorbed by her plot.