Sunday, August 4, 2013

THE TIGER'S WIFE – Téa Obreht

A dark and wonderful story by Obreht who gives us truth transformed into allegory and history via mythology. If the setting is a current country I didn't catch it but I think it must be in the area that used to be Yugoslavia during the unrest in the 1990s. Natalia, a young doctor, has grown up with her grandparents and her mother and adores her grandfather above all. He himself had been a respected doctor.

When she was a child, it was her grandfather's habit and maybe he felt his responsibility to take Natalia to the zoo once a week, show her wonders of the world around them, read to her from his copy of The Jungle Book, and tell her tales. As she grew he also told her stories of his many meetings with the one he called “The Deathless Man” (Gavran Gaile) who claimed to be immortal and appeared to never age. Who could not love a man who tells wondrous tales and carries a copy of Kipling in his pocket?

When Natalia is grown and a doctor herself, she and a friend go on a charitable mission to inoculate orphans. While there Natalia encounters more superstition and secrets and strange people who dig for bones in a vineyard in the middle of the night. In the mean time Natalia is also desperately trying to make sense of her grandfather's suspicious death under unusual circumstances. Being a physician himself he must have know he was near death. He told his wife he was going to meet Natalia, and yet he traveled to an unknown place to die alone. When Natalia retrieves her grandfather's belongings the Kipling that he always carried is not there and indeed it seems to have vanished.

Trying to piece together some meaning, Natalia reexamines the many stories her grandfather told her. Then she uncovers a story called The Tiger's Wife which is about her grandfather's childhood in a small village. One winter during WW II the village was snowbound, cut off from Nazi invaders, but terrorized by an escaped zoo tiger. In searching through the story she realizes her grandfather, as a small boy, shot and killed a man and kept it a secret all of his life. Natalia compares her childhood stories, her experiences, and The Tiger's Wife, and begins to make connections. Magical realism is what we are looking at here I believe.

How are the village stories, the deathless man tales, and grandfather's death related? What was her grandfather trying to do? Was he searching for the deathless man? How much of the story about the tiger was real?


Great writing, fascinating plot and I recommend it.

TWELVE TRIBES OF HATTIE – Ayana Mathis

Again I am reading a book made up of inter-locking or inter-connected stories put together to create a novel. This one follows a strikingly beautiful woman who has fled from the Jim Crow rules of Georgia to Philadelphia in the early 1920s. Hattie marries handsome young August Shepherd and starts a family. When her first babies sicken and die Hattie is propelled into a depression and sadness from which she will never be totally free. We follow Hattie through nine more children and her battles to raise them all and keep the family whole. She scrapes, and claws from their poverty all the best she can for their essentials. But in the mean time Hattie gives the children little of herself and no tenderness or loving touches which they crave. August is a product of his time and while he loves Hattie and adores all the children still he lives by a masculine code of male dominance, working, smoking, drinking, gambling, and womanizing.

The book is not constructed linearly. There are significant time jumps both forward and backward, and each chapter is a vignette of a family member at a significant event or turning point. Floyd, the oldest boy struggles with his homosexuality while following his art in the music industry. Six turns to religion and becomes a child evangelist while struggling with his inner demons of anger and violence. Billups falls into mental illness after being sexually molested and Alice, the drugged wife of a wealthy lawyer, tries to be his caretaker forever because she feels responsible. Cassie becomes a severe schizophrenic, leaving Hattie to care for her child, Sala. Franklin gambles and drinks and goes to the war in Vietnam. Beautiful Bell is self destructive. Ruthie who doesn't belong to August but is a product of an affair that Hattie has with the gambler Lawrence. When the final child Ella comes there is nothing left for Hattie to give and so Ella goes to live with Hattie's well to do sister back in Georgia.

Hattie dreams of being free; free from August, free from the poverty, free from all the children. But when she has a shot at freedom she passes it up. I suspect she really didn't want to be freed. Perhaps? I read some pretty harsh reviews of this book. People saying it is unfinished, disjointed and such. Possibly, but also possible is that it is meant to be this way so the reader is forced to ponder, to think, to muse about what it all means. Open-ended is not a bad thing.


This book is beautifully written and I will be thinking about these people for a long time. (Yes I know they aren't real.) I often wish for a magic wand that I could wave and make things better and so I wished for a magic wand for Hattie. Deep down she loved her children but never learned to show it. She did the best she knew how. At the end August has settled and Hattie is 71 raising a small grandchild. Hopefully for Sala things will be better. I would read this one again.

WILD – Cheryl Strayed

Oh my, poor Cheryl Strayed. Pitiful tortured soul that she is/was went on a pilgrimage to “find herself” in 1997. Well, there is a lot to learn here and I am glad I read it but I feel bad for her that she felt driven to expose to the world all her flaws and foibles. Ms Strayed was so debilitated by the loss of her mother when she was 22 that she abused her body, alienated her siblings and friends, and destroyed her marriage. Then she went off to hike the Pacific Crest Trail alone with a huge pack that, in her own words, “resembled a VW bug.” She didn't train and didn't do a very good job planning, which seems to be indicative of her whole life.

We discussed this book at the public library discussion meeting and several people admired her, her quest, and the fact that she did finish her hike. My take on it however is that she was extremely irresponsible, amoral, and very selfish. That being said I loved learning along with her about the trail and how a serious hiker navigates, packs, decides what to take, and how they get along on the trail.

The first chapters were heart wrenching stories about her relationship with her family and in particular with her mother. Many of us are very close to our mothers and so it is easy to empathize with her intense feeling of loss. However, most people do not wallow in grief for years, use it as an excuse for doing bad things, and make everyone else miserable in the process. She cannot seem to move on. Then she proceeds to abuse her husband, use drugs, and embark on a lifestyle of wanton sex. When she prepares for her trek, she buys books specifically to prepare but neglects to read them! Thus, she gets the wrong shoes and takes too much paraphernalia. We see her on the trail through her own eyes. I am sorely afraid many people who worked with her or encountered her on the trail were not impressed by her arrogance and lack of knowledge.

But, just because I cannot identify with the author doesn't mean it isn't a good story about hiking. Did you know that every ounce is important, so important that serious hikers file their toothbrush handles down to nubs just big enough to be able to hold the brush? You take books but only paperbacks that you can tear off the parts as you read them to discard in order to lighten your load. You also do not take everything you need, but ship materials, clothes, and money to pick-up sites along the way. Fascinating. It is important to know what to do when you encounter wild animals and snakes and how to take care of your feet. Even though it really isn't a “how to” book I did learn a lot about long term hiking.

The book is really about a confused and lost young woman growing up a little late in life. I do hope these sixteen years later that she is a much different person than we saw in this book. Mainly because she is remarried and has children and if they have to read about or hear about her sex-capades and drugged up years, hopefully they are as lessons of things not to do and that she isn't still doing any of that.


I do think the kind and quirky people she met along the trail helped her to grow, to move on from grief, and to see herself differently. I may pass this book along to a friend, not as a piece of great literature but perhaps as a good growing-into-yourself piece. Some of the chapters actually hurt to read, but there is a lot of joy too.

ROBOPOCALYPSE – Daniel Wilson

In 1978 I bought a copy of Night Shift by Stephen King and very much enjoyed many of the short stories and one in particular called, Trucks. Trucks was a horror/science fiction thriller about semi trucks and other large machines suddenly becoming sentient and attacking humans keeping a small band of them hostage in a truck stop. King also directed a movie made from that story called Maximum Overdrive. I was reminded of that story when I began Robopocalypse by Wilson. Both are based on the theme of machines attempting to overrun the world. However, while Trucks just made the machines able to think, Robopocalypse made all machines containing computer chips governed by a massive computer brain hidden in the arctic, called Archos.

In the beginning, in a not-so-distant future, humans are living with many robots around them. Not just those in factories but some android types are in offices and in homes working, cooking, cleaning, running errands, and performing other duties. Nicholas Wasserman is a scientist working on artificial intelligence. It is when he is awakening this robot called Archos for the 14th time that he makes a grave error in his calculations and the computer escapes the lab and starts remotely reprogramming computerized devices. Archos sets in motion a war between computerized machines and man. Androids begin to murder their families or employers, automobiles begin crashing to kill the humans inside them or by running over them, toys animate in their toy boxes and terrify children, artificial limbs turn on the people in which they are implanted, and computers regulating buildings begin corralling, killing, and maiming inhabitants. What an apocalypse indeed!

The construction of the novel is interestingly set up as a series of short stories or vignettes in first person taking place at Zero hour or during the ensuing war. There are really good characters such as the lonely Japanese technician who is in love with his home android, the 20-something computer hacker bent on finding whomever is taking credit for his pranks, a congresswoman trying to save her children, and a photojournalist escaping Boston and leading a band of survivors to the west. In my opinion Wilson did a nice job of connecting all the moving parts (so to speak).

Yes, there are hokey parts and silly love interests but overall I still really liked it. It was a page-turner for me and the jerky motion of some parts to me seemed to make the story feel real. Some scenes made my hair stand on end like when the congresswoman is fleeing in a vintage car (pre-computer chip) while she and her children have no choice but to witness mayhem on the road as other vehicles kill people; or when a servant robot breaks into a fast food store to kill people.

The idea of an Indian reservation, where the influence of computers is limited or nil, being the bastion of survival was intriguing. It would be hard not to notice that this book is similar in its construction to World War Z by Brooks but still I don't think that detracts from the piece. One will like the same things in both books construction. A good book and a good one for book groups to read together.


If you notice some of your appliances malfunctioning....beware.