state of wonder cover

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett: An Unforgettable Book

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

“This was her moment, the perfect now.”
― Ann PatchettState of Wonder

The closest I’ve ever been to the Amazon was hearing stories from my husband about his adventures canoeing there as a young man – that was enough to make me understand the power of the river, and the prominence it plays in Brazil’s geography and culture. That is until I cracked open Ann Patchett’s 2011 novel, State of Wonder. This perfect novel took me into the ‘now’ of the life of two female scientists and left a story that lingers in my mind months after reading the last page.

State of Wonder
Started on the plane, couldn’t put it down.

What it’s about:

Everything magical and powerful and uncompromising about the Amazon wrapped itself around me and pulled me into the story of Dr. Marina Singh, a research scientist, who is reluctantly sent by her company to locate her mentor, Dr. Annick Swenson, in the deepest part of the Amazon. The unexpected strength of Dr. Singh hooked me into her story – how would an educated yet urban woman survive such a test of endurance, faith, and determination? It’s when she locates her mentor and begins to live alongside her in the jungle that the story comes into full bloom – Patchett creates two women of opposing points in life, both grappling with the idea of the fleetingness of time and the reality of our own mortality.

Why I liked it:

I ranked this a 5-star read on Goodreads – I only give top billing to books that I didn’t want to end and couldn’t stop reading. It took me only two days to buzz through all 353 pages, and when I closed the cover my head spun with Patchett’s mastery of language and characterization. My favorite characters, the doctors Singh and Swenson, offered a perfect contrast between the young woman full of hopes and dreams for a ‘conventional’ life of love, children and career and the woman in her last decades, still vibrant and quick yet realizing that some of her dreams are no longer able to be realized.

State of Wonder also made me think of the possibilities and limits of science and the ethics of going into a culture and forcing our ideas and opinions and lifestyles onto the people.Spending time in rural Nicaragua, I struggle with the idea of the ‘good life’ – is what I am accustomed to any better than the simple, slow pace of the Nicaraguan people?

state of wonder
Making tortillas over a wood stove, the simple life in Nicaragua.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of the plot to me was the idea of never ending maternity and the hazards of women being able to bear children in the last decades of their lives. How old is too old? How big a price would I pay to have a child, or to bear a child for another?

I know many women who struggle with the work-life balance, including myself, and I found that theme recurring again and again in the State of Wonder. Do women regret their choices to put career over family? Do we ever truly know the right choices to make for ourselves? At the end of my life, will I wish I had done more or less?

Words I loved:

One of my favorite aspects of Patchett’s writing is her dazzling use of language; from Bel Canto to Run to Commonwealth, Patchett’s novels keep me pausing to think with every page. Here are some of my favorite lines to ponder:

“He used to say we all had a compass inside of us and what we needed to do was to find it and to follow it.”
― Ann PatchettState of Wonder

“Never be so focused on what you’re looking for that you overlook the thing you actually find.”
― Ann PatchettState of Wonder

“The question is whether or not you choose to disturb the world around you, or if you choose to let it go on as if you had never arrived. That is how one respects indigenous people. If you pay any attention at all you’ll realize that you could never convert them to your way of life anyway. They are an intractable race. Any progress you advance to them will be undone before your back is turned. You might as well come down here to unbend the river. The point, then, is to observe the life they themselves have put in place and learn from it.”
― Ann PatchettState of Wonder

“One must not be shy where language is concerned.”
― Ann PatchettState of Wonder

Who should read it?

Everyone. State of Wonder is an exciting escape for the reader. While it’s a thrilling read, it shines with the complexities of themes of fertility, mortality, the ethics of science and the excitement of travel. If you’ve ever wanted to visit the Amazon, read this book. If you’ve struggled with relationships, read this book. If you’ve been intrigued with science and indigenous cultures and experimentation, read this book.

Above all, if you’re looking for a book that makes you think and lingers in your heart, you should read State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. And when you do, come back and let me know how much you loved it, too.

I review my favorite books approximately monthly. You can find past reviews here.

Jennifer Wolfe

Jennifer Wolfe, a writer-teacher-mom, is dedicated to finding the extraordinary in the ordinary moments of life by thinking deeply, loving fiercely, and teaching audaciously. Jennifer is a Google Certified Educator, Hyperdoc fanatic, and a voracious reader. Read her stories on her blog, mamawolfe, and grab free copies of her teaching and parenting resources.

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Being Normal

Sometimes I wonder if I’m the only one who feels the pain of being in two worlds at one time. I remember thinking when I was in my twenties that finding a job with dyed green hair wouldn’t be easy-so I got a job as a barista, long before Starbucks surfaced. When I started teaching middle school, I learned how to balance my school persona with my “real” self, and although the green hair was gone, the green haired girl wasn’t. When I tell this story today most people don’t believe me. I’ve been wildly successful at wearing my teacher hat and keeping that other girl quiet when I’m at work. But those who know me well often get a glimpse at her- she surfaces when I see injustice, discrimination and sexism and has a hard time shutting herself up

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But at least I don’t forget her. I remember her when I look into someone’s eyes that I’m trying to understand. I remember how much I wanted to have someone understand me, to think about the girl inside me who didn’t want to be ‘normal’. I think about all the masks women wear every day, and all the back stories that lurk behind our lashes. Green-haired girl is there, reminding me not to judge, not to assume, not to for a moment presume guilt before assuming innocence.

My quirky side pays off when I find myself in situations where I’m the “other”. Green-hair girl can show her courage and surprise me with her fortitude. She can connect with the unconnected, and sometimes even know the right thing to say when someone- usually a teen- needs it most.

Being normal, for me, is feeling like I’ve got both slices of myself at odds, and my fingers in too many things at one time. It’s normal to be juggling teaching and mothering and marriage and self, and not sure which one is going to take control. Being normal, today, is remembering that girl, the one who lingers inside, and letting her out once in awhile.

Jennifer Wolfe

Jennifer Wolfe, a writer-teacher-mom, is dedicated to finding the extraordinary in the ordinary moments of life by thinking deeply, loving fiercely, and teaching audaciously. Jennifer is a Google Certified Educator, Hyperdoc fanatic, and a voracious reader. Read her stories on her blog, mamawolfe, and grab free copies of her teaching and parenting resources.

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True Beauty

“Now we make you ugly, my mother said. She whistled. Her mouth was so close she sprayed my neck with her whistle-spit. I could smell beer. In the mirror I watched her move the piece of charcoal across my face. It’s a nasty life, she whispered.”

~ from Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement

What is the definition of true beauty? I’ve often written about beauty; the beauty found in nature, the beauty of motherhood, and the beauty of simplicity populate this blog on a regular basis. I find my soul searching for beauty in the everyday moments of life, my heart clinging to those images that I fear will be simply flashes in an overly full life. Beauty, in my world, is found in the landscapes that surround me, the spirit of my children, and the thought that right now, this moment, is everything it needs to be.

But after reading Prayers for the Stolen, the opening quote above has lingered in my mind. What does true, human beauty look like, and how does it influence how we see the world, and how we interpret the moments of our lives?

Mary Wollstonecraft believed that “Taught from their infancy that beauty is woman’s scepter, the mind shapes itself to the body, and roaming round its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison.” Does physical beauty hinder a woman’s ability to be seen as an entity onto herself, trapping her in some sort of self-imposed prison? Our media would certainly have us believe the contrary; daily we are barraged by messages of power and strength born through a beautiful exterior, with intelligence and inner fortitude taking second place to air brushed images of ‘real women’ on our social media feeds.

A few years ago I wrote about Iran’s banning of the Barbie doll, and in some ways, I agreed with their attempts to squelch the stereotypical image of westernized beauty – in my own home, I had experienced a similar ‘banning’ of Barbie for my own daughter. Although not a fan of censorship in any form, their alternative to Barbie did seem more physically realistic. As a mother, I’ve attempted to create a home where strong, healthy bodies are honored and valued over what type of clothing or make up we adorn those bodies with. I’ve hoped that these words for my own daughter echo those of Eckhart Tolle when he reminds us that ‘If you get the inside right, the outside will fall into place.” I want my daughter to harness the power of her inner beauty,blooming into a woman who is seen first as a beautiful human from the inside out.

I hold onto the hope that together, we can teach our girls that physical beauty is not the end goal of womanhood, and also that physical beauty doesn’t have to hinder us or force us into fallacious roles adopted out of some perceived societal expectations. I hope that our daughters will learn that true beauty burns from within, that beauty is no indicator of intelligence, and to truly grow into woman hood, as Mary Wollstonecraft reminds us, “[I]f we revert to history, we shall find that the women who have distinguished themselves have neither been the most beautiful nor the most gentle of their sex.” Beauty, in my world, has no bearing on success, happiness or an ability to chase our dreams. True beauty, in my world, comes from the inside out or the outside in. It really doesn’t matter how we get there, as long as we eventually find it.

This post was inspired by the novel Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement.  Ladydi was grew up in rural Mexico, where being a girl is a dangerous thing.She and other girls were “made ugly” to keep protect them from drug traffickers and criminal groups. Join From Left to Write on February 18 we discuss Prayers for the Stolen. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.

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Jennifer Wolfe

Jennifer Wolfe, a writer-teacher-mom, is dedicated to finding the extraordinary in the ordinary moments of life by thinking deeply, loving fiercely, and teaching audaciously. Jennifer is a Google Certified Educator, Hyperdoc fanatic, and a voracious reader. Read her stories on her blog, mamawolfe, and grab free copies of her teaching and parenting resources.

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On the Corner of Dream Ave. and Believe St.: Stepping Out Of Our Comfort Zone

“To the degree we’re not living our dreams, our comfort zone has more control over us than we have over ourselves.”

                             ~ Peter McWilliams

comfort zone
From angelvillanueva.com

What is on the other side of change?  How often, when we find ourselves happily cruising down the  road of life, do we stop and think about what’s next? The superstitious among us might not want to jinx a good thing-why think about what might be around the next bend? Why not just keep on chugging forward? Don’t rock the boat? The grass isn’t always greener on the other side, right?

I’m wondering if maybe it actually is.

As Peter McWilliams, author of Do It! Let’s Get Off Our Buts and Life 101: Everything We Wish We Had Learned About Life in School—But Didn’t says, if we really want to live our dreams, perhaps we should think what’s just beyond the horizon or around the corner. Pushing ourselves outside our comfort zone means a momentary loss of control-scary for some of us, exhilarating for others.

Living in our comfort zone is safe.  We know what to expect, and we often feel guaranteed of the outcome.  That is, well, comforting.  Whether it’s the salary we earn from a job we don’t feel passionate about, or a relationship we are used to, a weight we feel is ok, or a dream we think we’ll never achieve, staying put is only a guarantee that the part of life that is comfortable will likely stay the same.

But is that living our dreams? Are we simply designed to be content, with only the renegades among us willing to take a risk?

12 7 iNDONESIA TRIP 110Last summer, I traveled to Indonesia-a place I never considered as part of my life travel itinerary. That experience propelled me to take dozens of risks, including getting incredibly cozy with a Komodo dragon. I remember the palpitation of my heart, the baby steps I took, first touching the back, the tail, and them finally getting close enough to his face to brush my lips to his scales.  Recently, the Jakarta Globe’s story of a Komodo attack that left two people in the hospital prompted discussion among our travel group: were we courageous, or simply stupid?  I say, courageous.

I think of the pioneer women who traveled across the west without any clue of what lay before them. They stuffed their wagons full of all the comforts of life, sure that their china, linens, furniture and even their beloved piano would not only safely make the trip, but also provide the much desired civilization they left behind.  Leaving their comfort zone often meant following their husband’s dreams, not their own. But they went anyway, knowing they might never go back. I’m sure komodo dragons weren’t on their worry radar, but undoubtedly the fear of the unknown, the fear for their children, and their second guessing of their decision as they huddled over a campfire for the hundredth time must have seriously tested their strength.

The curveballs life throws today’s women is similar.  Many of us follow expected gender roles, marry, have children, and put our careers second to raising the family.  Others forgo the traditional route, choosing instead to follow their dream job at the expense of what our mother’s generation could barely fathom.  Still other women try to balance both, exhausting themselves between juggling babies, bosses and never feeling wholly present in both worlds. Like the pioneer women, we ruminate over our choices, wondering if we’re on the right path.

Stepping out of our comfort zone, regardless of our social, marital or work status, requires a leap of faith; sure that our future can be more than this, that our life is ours to create.  It requires courage, determination, and often, a bit of impracticality.  Taking calculated risks that push us towards our boundaries, to find out what is on the other side of change, is scary.  Like a rocket shooting off into the darkness of the universe, sometimes we must trust that the plans have been laid, but the process might bow,flex and bend us into places we least expected to land.

Power-shift
Power-shift (Photo credit: Brett Jordan)

With all our feminist advances, women today have no guidebook to navigate motherhood, marriage and the myriad of opportunities in front of us. I say that’s a good thing.

Consider that your comfort zone is perfect for where you’ve been and where you are right now. Consider going at your own pace, placing opportunities in front of you like a master chess player, sometimes hoping that the risky move won’t be noticed by the opponent and will propel you to the win.  Prepare for the setback, the capture, and the ultimate possibility that the grass really is greener on the other side. Think of the words author Neale Donald Walsch wrote, “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” Where do you want your life to begin tomorrow?

What are you waiting for? Where do you want to go in life? What have you got to lose?

Take that leap.  Step outside yourself. Take control of your dreams. Experience a little discomfort-it means that life is happening.

Let me know what changes.

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Jennifer Wolfe

Jennifer Wolfe, a writer-teacher-mom, is dedicated to finding the extraordinary in the ordinary moments of life by thinking deeply, loving fiercely, and teaching audaciously. Jennifer is a Google Certified Educator, Hyperdoc fanatic, and a voracious reader. Read her stories on her blog, mamawolfe, and grab free copies of her teaching and parenting resources.

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When Life Doesn’t Turn Out The Way It’s Supposed To

We met when we were only eighteen and nineteen; I, a three-semester college girl, he a high school graduate.  It was love at first sight. Our parents were thrilled we had found someone that would love us, piercings, dyed hair, dreadlocks and all.

Nine and a half years later, we married.  Probably one of the wiser decisions we ever made-no teenage elopement or early pregnancy.  College graduates, employed, and homeowners when we finally took our vows, but edging closer to that magic number: 30.wedding photo

After dating for so long, my goal was to be 30, married and pregnant.

Despite my non-conformist lifestyle, something inside me knew that I needed to make this milestone.  My twenties were chaotic at best, but eventually had smoothed out and created a life path that I had planned: marriage and motherhood.  I was of the generation growing up after the women’s movement, but before many of our mothers followed an nontraditional path. I knew how it was supposed to go.

I made my goal, and after that, nothing went as expected.

Turns out, working and mothering are an excruciatingly hard combination.  What I thought I could handle ended up rocking my world upside down and sideways.  Navigating an infant, a breast pump, a husband and a classroom full of fifth graders proved to be…challenging.  Full time motherhood and full time teaching didn’t seem to be a great fit. I wanted them both. I felt my dreams crumbling away.

jen and lily in kitchenThe next year I took a chance and changed jobs, thinking that 80% employment would be better.  I was right; working with my more familiar middle school aged kids allowed me to focus less on the curriculum and more on my baby, but…there was still no free time, no long nap times to get papers graded, and the household responsibilities were still there, waiting.  The 12:30 baby handoff allowed us to escape childcare, but our couple time disintegrated into late-night dinners and frantic eye-contact while trying to rock the baby to sleep.  This wasn’t how it was supposed to go. I grew frustrated that I couldn’t handle it all: job, marriage, motherhood.  Didn’t I have exactly what I’d always dreamed of?

Sixteen years and one more child later, I’m learning that actually, it went exactly as it was supposed to.  That’s how life is.  I learned I am living out my dreams.  I have what I wanted, and actually, much more. But more importantly, I’m learning that women like me, all throughout history, have and continue to walk this line of confusion in the search for their ideal life.

While we share the same desires and dreams for the milestones in their worlds – love, family, success, fulfillment, and comfort – today’s women face challenges like never before.  The centuries of liberation which benefited women have come with a price, and today’s we’re charting a new course. We have more options, more choices, and more demands than ever.  We try to balance it all, while maintaining that sense of what women are supposed to do with what we know we need to do.  Our mothers and grandmothers had no idea what a blessed curse they were bestowing on their daughters and granddaughters as they fought for equal rights, and with them, the absolute blossoming that would come decades and centuries later.

Today’s women push non-conformity in interesting, dynamic ways, all the while grapping with what happens to women who bend today’s rules of propriety and customary behavior? We wonder how we will have to pay for blurring the lines between what is expected of us as wives, mothers, and women and the urge to have it all, to do it all, and to blossom into what we were meant to be? Can we chart the course for our own daughters, who themselves will be past the image of stay-at-home moms as the norm?

Sixteen years ago, I had no idea this is what life had in store for me.  Sixteen years from now, will my baby girl blossom into a kind of woman I could never imagine?

I certainly hope so.

This post was inspired by Saturday Night Widows by Becky Aikman. After being kicked out of her widow support group for being too young, Becky creates her own support group with an unusual twist. Join From Left to Write on February 14 as we discuss Saturday Night Widows. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes. Click here to purchase your copy of Saturday Night Widows at Amazon.

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Jennifer Wolfe

Jennifer Wolfe, a writer-teacher-mom, is dedicated to finding the extraordinary in the ordinary moments of life by thinking deeply, loving fiercely, and teaching audaciously. Jennifer is a Google Certified Educator, Hyperdoc fanatic, and a voracious reader. Read her stories on her blog, mamawolfe, and grab free copies of her teaching and parenting resources.

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