November 4, 2014KR BlogNewsletter

Knox Reads Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder

patchett-photoReaders joined the celebration of The Kenyon Review’s 75th anniversary as the annual Kenyon Review Literary Festival took place in Gambier from October 23rd to the 25th. It might have been the magazine’s birthday, but the Review was the one giving out gifts: book giveaways in Knox County, poetry and prose readings by award-winning writers, and a keynote lecture by this year’s recipient of the Award for Literary Achievement, Ann Patchett.

knoxreadsThis year’s annual celebration of literature began in September, when dozens of free copies of Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder were given away at the Mount Vernon Farmers’ Market. At this first event of Knox Reads!, local shoppers and vendors picked up their copy to tuck in their baskets between the seasonal gourds and fresh fruit. Armed with Ms. Patchett’s novel, many members of the Knox County community then made their way to our book discussions in Mount Vernon over the following weeks. On October 1, Janet McAdams, Robert P. Hubbard Professor of Poetry at Kenyon College, kicked off these discussions by leading a brown bag chat at the Mount Vernon Public Library. McAdams, KR Editor David Lynn, and KR Associate Editors Natalie Shapero and Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky spent October posting their thoughts about State of Wonder each week as part of an online book discussion on the KR blog, and then took this discussion off-line to local classrooms and reading groups. Marveling at “the way the book solicits such a wide variety of responses to its central characters and the ethical questions it raises,” Professor Lobanov-Rostovsky gives some of the highlights of the public conversations he led:


I’m interested in what assumptions and associations about the Amazon readers bring to the book, so I started by asking them what responses the idea of a trip to the Amazon inspired in them. I got everything from “Let’s go! Right now!” to “Aaagh, giant spiders!” When I asked them their response to Dr. Swenson, I’d get some quick responses along the lines of “She’s a monster!,” followed by people saying, “Now, wait a minute. She’s trying to find a malaria vaccine that could save the lives of 800,000 children a year!” I was interested that while the high school students tended to see Dr. Swenson as a scary teacher, or even a scary mother, the members of the Mount Vernon Library book group, who tended to be older, were more sympathetic to her emotional pain at the end of the novel, seeing her as a woman who had made profound sacrifices for what she saw as important science and a life-saving advance in the malaria vaccine. Several of those readers also identified with the novel’s vision of a woman having to fight against the male assumptions about the value of a drug that extends women’s reproductive lives, as embodied in Dr. Fox and his shareholders. They saw some justice in Dr. Swenson manipulating the men who make profits by manipulating women’s reproductive rights, which raised a fascinating side discussion about the recent decision by several high tech companies to pay for their female employees to have their eggs harvested and frozen.

What was most interesting to me in these discussions was the way that the same book can evoke these very different responses. I found myself using the image of the grove of Martin trees, which share a common root system, to talk about how Patchett has managed to plant this complexity of character, imagery, and ethical questions that can elicit such disparate reactions from readers.

For our younger readers, the Kenyon Review offered the tools to make “collage poems” at our table at the Harvest Festival. Our table was a flurry of cut-and-paste poems about nature as well as erasure poems using passages from State of Wonder. Ann Patchett’s words, from her novels and nonfiction works, were a staple around the campus as well: students and KR Associates papered the college with her writing in anticipation of her visit.

The kickoff event of the Festival was a celebration of the old and a heralding of the new. Cake, crows with party hats, and friends of the Review were present to celebrate its 75th birthday and watch as David Lynn introduced this year’s KR Fellows and unveiled the new timeline and cover design for the magazine. Fellows Jamaal May and Melinda Moustakis treated everyone to excerpts from their books and generated excitement for the many readings to come.

booksaleThe day of the Literary Festival was wonderfully familiar: community members coming in from Knox County, avid readers trekking from all over the States, and Kenyon students and faculty enjoying a day of diverse events. The Bookstore was buzzing with a sidewalk sale, autographed copies of Patchett’s books, and a panel discussion on the future of independent bookstores. Patchett spoke about her Tennessee store, Parnassus Books, sharing the stage with Llalan Fowler from Main Street Books in Mansfield, Ohio, Lois Hansen from Paragraphs Books in Mount Vernon, and Kate Schlademan from The Learned Owl in Hudson, Ohio. Strictly literary activities, like writing workshops and a panel discussion of State of Wonder, were paired with interdisciplinary events like “Arias and Excerpts,” in which students read a passage from Patchett’s Bel Canto while other students sang excerpts from the operas mentioned in the novel. After a packed day, Patchett’s keynote address was refreshing and inspiring. Emphasizing that all good writing is based on hard work, Patchett won both laughter and rapt attention as she gave an inside look at what it really means to be a writer. Realistic and gentle, Ms. Patchett urged both writers and nonwriters alike to work hard, do their best, and most importantly, to forgive themselves so that they can move forward, always ready to enter a state of wonder.