May 8, 2012

Rip Roarin' & Snortin' Good Reads

It seems every woman around me is in the throes of the x-rated 50 Shades of Grey (I've read a few  Facebook comments that made me cringe and think TMI, girlfriend. T. M. freaking. I),   It's like the suburbs' new Wifey, for the 21st century.  Do you remember being a kid and seeing your mom and aunts exchanging "that smirk" over Wifey?  Meanwhile, over here I've been all chaste and keeping my hands above the covers, tearing through a couple of excellent reads.  (I sound like such a prude:  I get my kicks above the waistline, sunshine.)

First was Ann Patchett's State Of Wonder.  I have to hand it to Patchett, she really is such a solid, reliable writer of great lit-fiction novels.  State of Wonder was a page turner; from the first paragraph onward I was sucked into the world of research scientists, pharmaceutical intrigue, and a remote tribal village in the Amazon. I loved the protagonist, Marina Singh, and found her such an interesting, strong character. I suppose it's a sort of device to set up her as "conflicted," being a dark-skinned woman of Indian descent, who loves the chilly climate of her native Minnesota, but she was a great, complicated character.  This was a book with lots of interesting, strong women: Marina, her old mentor the mysterious Dr. Swenson, and even Karen, the wife of Marina's research partner, Anders, who has died on a fact-finding mission deep in the Brazilian Amazon.
The plot centers around Marina's journey, sent by her boss at the pharmaceutical company, to dig up the truth about what exactly happened to Anders in the Amazon.  Anders himself was originally sent to a remote village in the Amazon to check on the progress of the brilliant and difficult Dr. Annick Swenson, who is being funded by the drug company to develop a top-secret new drug.  So there's travel to an exotic locale, and intrigue as the reader learns only through Marina's eyes of the true nature of Dr. Swenson's long-term drug research. It's all very vivid: the terrible heat, the insects, the total pitch-blackness of the jungle at night. The last few chapters had me totally in thrall, and I slammed the book shut with satisfaction: that was rip-roaring! I said out loud.  I can't remember the last time I was so overall pleased by a book.

Next was the debut publication from blogger Kyran Pittman.  As I said before when I bought the book, I've been reading Kyran for several years now, and was thrilled when she won earned a book contract.  Let me say up front, I loved her memoir Planting Dandelions: Field Notes from a Semi-Domesticated Life but it took me a few chapters to get into the swing of things.  From reading Pittman's blog, I know she's a talented writer who thinks deep, and can go deep and illuminating in her writing.  So that's what I was expecting of the book: an involving, linear memoir of her life, from being the child of free-thinking, artistic Canadian parents, to a bit of wild party girl, to becoming a suburban mother of three boys in the American South.  But Planting Dandelions isn't a memoir in the standard narrative form, but a series of linked essays, that could easily stand alone as articles, rather than chapters building upon the previous events.
And that's fine -- it just took me a few chapters, or essays, for that to dawn on me, and to adjust my expectations.  The structure of the book may be women's magazine-article essays , but these essays are also damn funny and insightful.  I mean, really funny.   I may be a little odd in that I don't adore David Sedaris -- his books are amusing, but I rarely laugh out loud, and he's supposed to be "hysterical."  But I found myself snorting, chuckling, and laughing out loud numerous times reading Planting Dandelions.  Maybe it's a mom thing. 

There's a whole lot I can relate to in this book -- as a child of a non-traditional household, I also view the white-picket fence as exotic territory, and not necessarily the place I expected to land.  Like Kyran, I spent time in my 20s hanging out in seedy bars, wearing short-shorts, smoking cigarettes and playing a part -- and like her, I mourn and struggle with coming to terms that nobody wants to see an over-40 mom in Daisy Dukes.  (Even if they still fit.)

But even if you were raised in a "normal" household, even if you fit just fine into your adult role, whatever that may be, there's insight and illumination -- and depth, too -- in this witty, thoughtful book about marriage, motherhood, and overgrown lawns.  

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