Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Catch a Tiger

All great novels, a professor once announced to class, are about sex and death.  Argue that such a view is reductive, if you will, but it’s helped me to understand many difficult works in the past. The Tiger’s Wife tilts toward the death end of this polarity, with a sprinkling of interspecies sex to lighten the passage.

I read this because I am on a mythos kick lately, favoring novels that interweave legend and fairy tale into our ordinary, drab world.  Tea Obreht’s novel  offers a rich reading experience for readers like me, as it braids two myths—The Deathless Man and the Tiger’s Wife—with the story of a young female doctor’s search for what happened following her beloved grandfather’s death.

Because I am a writer and not a book critic, I will offer here two contrasting views of the novel.   Writing for Salon.com, well known literary critic Laura Miller said that “the plain truth is that “The Tiger’s Wife,” while certainly entertaining and of considerable literary merit, is too rich for its own good: Obreht would have been well-advised to parcel out its constituent elements as stand-alone stories.”

By contrast, Michiko Kakutani, in a glowing review for The New York Times, praised how, ”Ms. Obreht creates an indelible sense of place, a world, like the Balkans, haunted by its past and struggling to sort out its future, its imagination shaped by stories handed down generation to generation; its people torn between ancient beliefs and the imperatives of what should be a more rational present. In doing so, Ms. Obreht has not only made a precocious debut, but she has also written a richly textured and searing novel.”

Bloated or blazing?  Who has the tiger by its tail?  (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)  The truth probably runs a split between these two views.  I loved the myths interwoven in this novel, but found the present day rendering of the war in the Balkans to be bleached out in comparison, a pale yet subtly enchanting experience in its own right.  That it is to say that it was lovely to read, but because the author is so intent on avoiding anything smacking of melodrama, the result is that these scenes don’t evoke as much emotion as they should. That’s a small complaint in what is otherwise a wonderful novel.

My own verdict:   It’s a damn good book.  It would be easy to hate Tea Obreht since she is not yet even thirty years old and has a written a work that will live for the ages.  Don’t believe me?  Read “The Laugh” which was also featured in Best American Short Stories, 2011:  http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/08/the-laugh/7531/

It’s an absolutely chilling story.  You will not like hyenas at the end, in case you were a fan of this animal species before reading it.  We read this story in my intro to creative writing class and I can remember after reading aloud the endnotes how surprised my students were that Tea Obreht had never been to Africa. 

“Cheater!” one student exclaimed.  Like I said, it would be easy to hate her.  If you are inclined to such feelings, go ahead.  As for me, I intend to read all of her work.  I will conclude here with my usual technique, typing out my favorite passages from the novel.   Here’s a cool scene set:

“North of Brejevina, the road was well paved, stark and new because the scrubland had not grown back up to it, the cliffs rising white and pitch and pocked with thorn trees.  A wind-flattened thunderhead stood clear of the sea, its gray insides stretching out under the shining anvil…”

Here is the grandfather, and a little of the death theme.  Please note that the grandfather is most fully present in this novel through the telling of his mythology:  “You are going to see what it is like someday, being in a room full of the dying.  They’re always waiting, and in their sleep they are waiting most of all.  When you’re around them you’re waiting too, measuring all the time their breaths, their sighs.”

Here is one of my favorite passages as the Deathless Man explains his reason for existence:   “You and I are misunderstanding one another,” he says…”The dead are celebrated.  The dead are loved.  They give something to the living. Once you put something into the ground, Doctor, you always know where to find it.”

“I want to say to him, the living are celebrated too, and loved.”

Yes, it’s a melancholy work, but I love melancholy.

And here is a passage from Darisa, the bear hunter.  One other thing I really loved about this work was how fully fleshed out even minor characters were.  Darisa has just lost his epilectic sister, his charge, to a deadly seizure:  “Young boys are fascinated by animals, but for Darisa the hysterical dream of the golden labyrinth, coupled with the silent sanctuary of the trophy room, amounted to a much simpler notion:  absence, solitude, and then, at the end of it all, Death in thousands of forms, standing in that hall with frankness and clarity—Death had size and color and shape, texture and grace.  There was something concrete to it.  In that room, Death had come and gone, swept by, and left a mirage of life—it was possible, he realized to find life in Death.”

To find life in death.  Yes.  For me that gets to the core of what art should do.

Early News for Little Wolves is Good!

Two of the best friends of any beginning writer are independent bookstores and librarians, so this prepub alert about my forthcoming novel, Little Wolves (due for release in January, 2013), is good news.   In this piece, Library Journal editor Barbara Hoffert says the novel promises "smart thrills" as she recommends it.

This makes me both hopeful and excited!  See here for more:  http://reviews.libraryjournal.com/2012/07/prepub/fiction-previews/fiction-previews-jan-2013-pt-3-bauermeister-maltman-and-anonymous-behind-the-scenes-at-a-tv-talent-show/

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Review of Salvage the Bones

The short of it:  the best book of 2011, a stirring evocation of race, poverty, and Hurricane Katrina, Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones should have won the Pulitzer.

The long of it:  This is a lean, lyrical and visceral work, but what I truly admired was how skillfully Ward weaves the vicious Greek myth of Medea into Esch's thoughts, her unrequited love for Manny, father of the child she carries.  Mythos--the world of spirit and legend--is one of the four pillars that Aristotle said supports great drama, and it's one often neglected in contemporary literature.  (The other three are ethos, pathos, and logos.)  I won't say much more here, but just want to log in two of my favorite quotes from the novel:

"The sun will not show.  It must be out there, over the furious hurricane beating itself against the coastline like China at the tin door of her shed when she wants to go out and Skeet will not let her.  But here on the Pit, we are caught in the hour where the sun is hidden beyond the trees but hasn't escaped over the horizon, when it is coming and going, when light comes from everywhere and nowhere, when everything is gray.

"I lie awake and cannot see anything but that baby, the baby I have formed whole in my head, a black Athena, who reaches for me.  Who gives me that name as if it is mine:  Mama.  I swallow salt.  That voice, ringing in my head, is drowned out by a train letting out one long, high blast.  And then it disappears, and there is only the sound of the wind like a snake big enough to swallow the world sliding against the mountains.  And then the wind like a train again, and the house creaks.  I curl into a ball.

"Did you hear that?"

It is Skeetah;  I can barely see him.  He is only a wash of greater darkness that moves in the dark opening of the hallway"  (Ward 219).

----2nd quote---

"I will tie the glass and stone with string, hang the shards above my bed, so that they will flash in the dark and tell the story of Katrina, the mother that swept into the Gulf and slaughtered.  Her chariot was a storm so great and black the Greeks would say it was harnessed to dragons.  She was the murderous mother who cut us to the bone but left us alive, left us naked bewildered as wrinkled newborn babies, as blind puppies, as sun-starved newly hatched baby snakes.  She left us a dark Gulf and salt-burned land.  She left us to learn to crawl.  She left us to salvage.  Katrina is the mother we will remember until the next mother with large, merciless hands, committed to blood, comes"  (Ward 255).

In those two quotes you see the weaving of myth, the motifs of snakes and mothers, puppies and babies, and all of it wrapped in this fierce and violent world, every bit alive.