Now it's time to report on three books I've read that have earned themselves enthusiastic followings.
Let's begin with Ann Patchett's “State of Wonder.” I loved her “Bel Canto.” I gave copies of it as gifts and recommended it highly to anyone who would listen. Of course, the fact that the protagonist was a diva with a magnificent voice didn't hurt. I liked the situation in which the characters found themselves, and I thought the writing was as clear and as lovely as a bel canto voice. So I approached “State of Wonder” with great anticipation.
Now let's be fair: The book has received outstanding reviews. It tells us about a researcher at a pharmaceutical company, Dr. Singh, who is sent to Brazil to search for a colleague, Anders Eckman, who, we learn, has been reported dying very quickly and being buried very quickly. His widow can't accept that. But perhaps information can be gleaned from Dr. Swenson, who has been there in Brazil working for the pharmaceutical company but getting harder and harder to locate, much less learn of her findings. Guess what: Our Dr. Singh at one time had been a student of Dr. Swenson.
Anyway, our Minnesota-born heroine braves the jungle, even swims in the Amazon, though not happily. She loses cellphones and luggage and fights vines and heat and insects and reptiles and everything the Amazon has to offer, including very uncivilized tribes in which the women successfully have children way into their 50s. Dr. Swenson is busy proving the efficacy of the bark they chew on. The descriptions leave nothing to one's imagination. I perspired profusely and the dampness didn't help my arthritis, and I marveled at Patchett's ability to create the very unappetizing, formidable atmosphere. There are some characters I enjoyed knowing. There are surprises. And there are people who loved the book. I prefer “Bel Canto,” thank you.
Tina Fey's “Bossypants” is something else. At first I thought the humor was a bit sophomoric, but all of a sudden I got caught up in it and sometimes I even laughed out loud. If you're a Liz Lemon fan you'll cherish the book. You can begin to appreciate what goes into the making of “30 Rock.” If you are a “Saturday Night Live” regular, you know about her gigantic talent.
In this book you get to know and admire Fey. She takes you through her girlhood in which she felt awkward and an outsider, but so did many of us and we didn't turn out to be Fey. We follow her to Chicago and Second City, with its huge list of famous alumni. You fight with her for the chance to do what she knows she can do. And there she is, in all her glory, with a husband and a child and a huge success. Yes, of course, she writes about the Sarah Palin bit, but there's much more.
The third book is “In the Garden of Beasts.” It's written by Eric Larson, whom you know from “The Devil in the White City.” This book tells about William Dodd, a history professor at the University of Chicago, and his family, especially his attractive daughter Martha. Todd is asked by President Roosevelt to be the American ambassador to Hitler's Germany. Hitler is just beginning to accumulate his power. He has surrounded himself with characters we know because of their effect on history.
Todd feels his role is to look out for American interests but without the flash and extravagance many diplomats have used. No limousines for him! However, he does rent a rather grand house; the owners live on the fourth floor. Imagine! Actually, he feels the State Department should be more “democratic.” He seems to be quite na´ve, unable to be alarmed by the persecutions that are reported to him. He accepts the explanations and apologies offered to him and he seems – for a long time – to be unaware of the feeling of dread that is increasingly permeating many circles.
He does not completely trust all his staff, and his reports to Washington do not reflect the alarm many of his staff communicate back home, especially about the attacks on Jews and the laws forbidding their participation in German life. He may even have harbored some anti-Semitic feelings of his own. He knows that back home the government is deeply concerned about the Great Depression and the evolving Dust Bowl with its threat to the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans. The time is 1933.
In the meantime, Martha Dodd is having quite a life. She is enamored of the attractive young German men and the life and partying they are engaged in and now include her. True, she also falls hard for a young representative of the Soviet Union, so now there's a communist in her life. The family also consists of Mrs. Dodd and their young son, but those two are not making the gossip columns on a regular basis.
Larson builds up the terror. We wonder what if – what if Hitler had been stopped by France and Great Britain and other countries, including our own across the ocean? Suppose President Hindenburg had not become ill. Suppose, suppose, suppose. And then came the purge in June 1934. The author has written a comprehensive picture of what life was like. This is a picture of one phase of that life. I hope you find it as gripping as I did.