State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

Narrator: Hope Davis

Publisher: Harper Audio (2011)

Length: 12 hours 25 minutes

Author’s Page

Set mostly in the Amazon jungle of Brazil, this tale follows Dr. Marina Singh as she searches for answers. The pharmaceutical company she works for is concerned about the secretive research Dr. Annick Swenson is involved in. Just recently, another colleague, Dr. Anders Eckman, has died while searching for the same answers. Now Marina is dually tasked in discovering the status of Swenson’s research and digging up the details of Eckman’s death.

Where to start with this book? It was intense and kept me riveted to my audiobook player. Let’s start with Dr. Swenson. She once worked at a hospital and taught interns some of the finer points about birthing babies. Marina was once such a student but a mistake changed the trajectory of her career and she ended up in pharmaceuticals. Throughout most of this story, she has vivid dreams where memory and fears collide and some of those concern Dr. Swenson and her opinion on Marina’s worthiness. Dr. Swenson is a terribly blunt person who has high standards for everyone, including herself. This makes her rather abrasive. Yet the fact that she’s often logical and correct makes her a fascinating character. Nearly all her actions and words are calculated without giving a fig for people’s feelings.

Then we have Marina. She starts off a bit timid. She’s in her 40s and her past mistakes seem to haunt her and cause her to question her decisions. She also seems to be a bit of a pushover, letting the company boss ship her off to Brazil in this quest for answers. Yet it is there in the heart of the jungle that she gains confidence and becomes a stronger person for it. I really enjoyed her story arc.

This book made me question some of my assumptions about medical ethics. This tale shows me that what is right in a modern hospital with sanitary conditions and a pretty universal understanding of the most basic medical ideas isn’t always applicable in a jungle field office where there isn’t a mutually understood language. There were several great scenes where Dr. Swenson, who has been working with this jungle tribe for decades, is doing what she’s been doing for decades and Marina questions the ethics of the situation. The punch comes when Swenson calmly lays out the facts and why what they are doing is the best choice. It was hard to disagree with Swenson.

Now there is Easter. He’s perhaps 12 and he comes from a neighboring tribe that is rather combative to any outsiders. Swenson treated him when he was very young and now acts as his surrogate parent. He’s deaf but can make verbal sounds (though he usually only does so when he has a nightmare). He’s clever and Dr. Eckman taught him the very basics of the alphabet. Easter knows something of what happened to Eckman but Marina isn’t sure she will ever get answers about Eckman’s passing.

The medical mystery they were researching was interesting as well. The women of the local tribe stay fertile well into their 70s or 80s. Plus there is a side mystery that Swenson is very excited about and that involves a possible vaccination for malaria. The story has just enough science and medical talk to add to the story but not enough to leave the non-science person scratching their heads.

All around, it was a most excellent novel. It does wrench the emotions out of the reader later in the book. I loved that it made me question some central medical ethics. The characters were also very interesting. Ah! Easter!

The Narration: Hope Davis was just fabulous! She had distinct character voices and was great at switching between them swiftly and clearly when the characters were in conversation. She also had believable male voices. Her Dr. Swenson was clipped and brutal in her speech, just as I expect she would be in real life.

What I Liked: Jungle medical ethics; the mystery of what Dr. Swenson is really up to; Dr. Eckman’s death; Marina’s strange dreams; Easter!; great narration; makes me question how universal medical ethics are; wrenched some emotions out of me by the end.

What I Disliked: Nothing. This was a very interesting book.

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The Terranauts by T. C. Boyle

Narrators: Lynde Houck, Joy Osmanski, Charlie Thurston

Publisher: Harper Audio (2016)

Length: 20 hours 53 minutes

Author’s Page

Set in the 1990s just outside of Tucson, Arizona, E2 awaits! It’s a big glass dome that houses a complete ecology and acts as a model for possible future biodomes on other planets. That’s if we can just get it consistently right here first. Linda Ryu and Dawn Chapman are best friends, at least until one of them is picked over the other to actually go live in E2. Ramsay Roothorp has a libido that may be his undoing.

I went into this book with pretty high hopes. I read reviews and I also had my own fascination since teen years with biodomes. Unfortunately, this book fell short. It wasn’t bad but it was more about the messed up relationships these folks have than about any science that goes into the biodomes or the survival skills of the terranauts. I really wanted it to be more balanced but instead it was just one character or the other grumbling, scheming, or being bitchy. There was little else going on yet the author had this perfect set up to tell a great story.

OK, so while I didn’t love it, I obviously liked it well enough to finish it. The story started off strong with the 16 candidates all training together in the various skills – from swimming to farming to animal slaughter. They not only have to be good at any job that needs to be done inside a biodome, they have to be able to get along with their team mates in the most difficult of circumstances. Think of all those team building work retreats times 10. While everyone know this is a competition to be one of the history making 8 that actually gets to go into the biodome, they still have to act like they get along with everyone and really want all their team mates to be successful.

Great set up. But once we get the 8 packing up to go into E2, nearly all the science goes out the door and enter the bitchy, scheming side to all the characters. At first, I was OK with this because I thought it was going to be a phase for some of the characters and that things would come back around to more interesting stuff. Alas, no. The story just stays in that phase for the rest of the book. Because of that, I felt that most of the characters were pretty superficial. We saw how their characters could develop but then the author didn’t get them past this jealousy phase.

Anyway, there is one big twist towards the end of the book and that gives us a few little twists off of it. Plus I like all the references to tacos. Food was often on the main characters’s minds since those in E2 had a limited menu and limited calorie intake. Definitely makes me think I can do a better job of creatively cooking up the contents of my kitchen cupboards.

The Narration: The narration was really good. Each of the ladies, Joy Osmanski and Lynde Houck, did a great job. I don’t which lady took which main character (Dawn Chapman and Linda Ryu) but they were each distinct and each did a great job getting the catty behavior across. Charlie Thurston was a really good sex-obsessed Ramsay Roothorp. I could clearly feel the character’s frustrations with how things turned out for him.

What I Liked: Biodome!; Great set up in both the science and characters; the twist near the end of the book; great narration. 

What I Disliked: The characters were like emotionally stunted children as the development only went so far; very little science after the first set up.

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