The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obrecht

View from this book:

One day last summer, I was scheduled for a patrol day where I got to spend all day hiking; since I’d just hiked 30 miles in the past 3 days, I wasn’t too keen on going up a mountain, so I decided to take an easier stroll.  Since it was only 10 miles from the visitor center where I work to my house, I decided to spend the day hiking home.  After working for a few hours at the visitor center, I set out, chatting with visitors and gave out bear safety messages as I went.  It was a good 6 hours into my workday by the time I got to a place called Sky Ranch where a few of my coworkers live, which has a magnificent porch with an even more magnificent view.

Sky Ranch - a pie-in-the-sky place to live

Sky Ranch – a pie-in-the-sky place to live

I decided to take a good, long lunch break, and sat and read this book.  Three gripping hours later, I went back on the clock and hiked the 2 hours home.  Lucky me, now I live at Sky Ranch, and can have my pie-in-the-sky view every day for lunch:

Sky Ranch Porch View

Sky Ranch Porch View

The Book:

Who doesn’t love magical realism?  Who doesn’t love stories that wrestle with legacies of war and grounded human emotions?  Who doesn’t love oodles and oodles of descriptive adjectives and a tapestried focus on many different characters?  OK, I can actually think of a lot of readers who get very tired very quickly of too much description and too many minor characters.  I, on the other hand, am the type of reader who was ABSOLUTELY ENTHRALLED by books like, say, Redwall.  (Nectar-filled acorn cups, anyone?)  The Tiger’s Wife had an enchanting level of detail on a number of subjects that didn’t seem to ever further the plot, but I still ate it up.

Oh, yes; there is a plot.  I almost forgot.  Our narrator is Natalia, a modern woman in the Balkans, who leads us through many interweaving, overlapping stories surrounding her beloved grandfather.  Natalia’s grandfather is a storyteller himself, and we hear his story of “the tiger’s wife” in fable form, told through Natalia’s understanding, until some of the fable starts to seem like reality.  Meanwhile, Natalia travels as a doctor across newly-minted international borders to inoculate orphans—orphans created by “her people’s” soldiers.  Stories of the modern-day Balkans are layered on top of the old fable/histories, until Obrecht’s tale “reveals the continuity beneath the clangor” (as the NY Times put it) in Yugoslavia’s long history.

This book is cram-packed full of detail and history and wars and relationships and stories, and I would not recommend it if you enjoy sparse prose and clean lines.  Much of this book is blurry, messy, and sometimes even ponderous, but if you thumb through the first chapter and get hooked, I promise you’ll love the ride the whole way through.  8 out of 10.

The Tiger's Wife

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The Earth Speaks by Steve van Matre and Bill Weiler

View from this book:

Rangering around in Grand Teton National Park during the summer of 2012.  Every visitor center in Grand Teton has this book either in their library or bookstore, and it is treated by most rangers as a coveted relic of Earth Wisdom.  One of my roommates gave me a copy of The Earth Speaks as a going-away gift at the end of the summer of 2011, and I waited until I’d gotten back to the mountains during the following summer to treat myself to this beautiful collection.

The book:

O, Nature!  What are men compared to rocks and mountains?  What are mountains compared to the odes literary men have composed to them?  This beautiful book is bursting with quotes and poems encouraging us all to fall in love with our Mother Earth.  It functions marvelously as a literary anthology and as an almanac of words to live by.  I have composed an entire ranger program around this book, and here’s one of the quotes that has so inspired me:

“This grand show is eternal.  It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never dried all at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor is ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.” —John Muir

8 out of 10.

The Earth Speaks

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

View from this book:

I read bits and pieces of Lolita over several months, often snatching borrowed time by reading on the bus on the way to school.

The Book:

Reading Lolita on the bus gives you two reasons to be disturbed: 1) pedophiles, and 2) motion sickness.  (Another reason to be disturbed: People in Portland like to comment on what their bus neighbors are reading.  I know everyone sees me reading Lolita.  I know it’s a classic that everyone should read at some point in their lives.  That doesn’t stop me from wanting to hide it far, far away from my bus neighbors’ prying eyes—shoot, now I’m talking about it like it’s porn—it’s just that it’s narrated by a pedophile who has erotic plans for his stepdaughter, ok YUCK YUCK YUCK I’m stuffing it into my backpack.)

OK, I’m now safely back in my own room, where I can write whatever I want about a book, whether it has pedophilic protagonists or not. And, truly, Lolita is a very good book.  Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you probably know the plotline.  If you haven’t read it yet, prepare to be absolutely drowned in gorgeous writing and picture-perfect depictions of America, while being creeped out of your socks.  (Look at that book cover. Think stepfather. Creeped out yet?)  Because of this book’s shock-factor, you (dear reader) end up reflecting mightily on societal mores and social expectations, which is like Lolita took a page from The French Lieutenant’s Woman, then decided to go on crack.

And the writing really, truly is excellent.  A lovely quote by Nabokov about the book: “…an American critic suggested that Lolita was the record of my love affair with the romantic novel.  The substitution ‘English language’ for ‘romantic novel’ would make this elegant formula more correct.” Various snippets of comments online show how critics have just drooled over this book over the years: “a tour-de-force of style and narrative” and “wantonly gorgeous prose” (the amazon.com review http://www.amazon.com/Lolita-Vladimir-Nabokov/dp/0679723161  is beautiful in its own right).  The writing is beautiful, the narrator is fantastically unreliable and could serve as a model for any creative writing class to strive for, and you are tugged along, unable to put the book down, even as the bus halts at your stop.  8 out of 10.

Lolita

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

View from this book:

Flying back to school, work, and rain in Oregon after a long spring break in SE Asia.

The book:

Man, oh man.  (Or, as my roommate says, Woman, oh woman.)  This book is incredibly, brutally powerful, and narrates a journey so despairing and joyous that you’ll cry for America.  Walker explores themes of race, misogyny, poverty, incest, rape, motherhood, heteronormativity, religion, creativity, and love, just to name a few.  If there’s any book from your shoulda-read-in-school pile that you really should dive into, this is it; Walker is an incredible, courageous author, and I think I’m running out of superlatives that describe just how intensely poignant, enraging, and heartbreaking it is to read this muy heavy book.  To finish off my gushing, here’s an interview with Walker on BBC with fascinating stories about how she went about writing the book as well as discussions of the world’s reception to it.  9 out of 10.

The Color Purple

The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver

View from this book:

I went adventuring all day in Borneo in a silly, fun sit-on-top kayak:

It started out like this.

It started out like this.

And then it ended up like this.

And then it ended up like this.

Which was awesome.  After I got back to the hostel and drip-dried (cheap hostel = hose shower + no towel), I flopped down on the camp bed and cracked open this book.

The book:

This is a warm story about the beautiful absurdity of life, about mothers and daughters, and about the human condition.  This book reminded me of many magical realist short stories; there is a sense of bemused amazement that permeates the book that’s infectious.  We follow the characters through life’s unexpected twists and turns, and fall in love with all of them along the way.  Mini-synopsis: The heroine begins with giving us readers a clear-eyed account of Kentucky and her desire to leave it.  She eventually does, driving West and searching for a new place to begin.  Somewhere in Oklahoma, somebody gives her a baby.  In a blurb like this, saying “somebody gives her a baby” just sounds trite and soap-opera-y.  Kingsolver, wordsmith extraordinaire, is anything but trite, and this baby turns out to be the most central, most joyous part of the whole book.  This new ersatz-mom stops driving in Tuscon due to other random circumstances, and there her new life (+ baby) begins, and she starts to learn about the mixed misery and joy that humans put each other through.  8 out of 10.

The Bean Trees

 

All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy

View from this book:

Ohmygoshyouguys.  Cormac McCarthy blew my mind and I haven’t found all the pieces yet.  After spending a heady week in Singapore, I decided I couldn’t take the city any more, and I hopped on a cheap-o plane to Malaysian Borneo to see the rainforest before it’s gone.  I stayed in the cheapest hostel I could find (like, $6 a night) and I went kayaking and hiking and exploring and it was glorious.  It was also very lonely.  I was traveling completely alone, and I wasn’t really in the mood to befriend other hostel people, so I mainly stayed in my room and read books.  All the Pretty Horses was the first book in the stack I’d brought, and I was sucked in the moment I picked it up.

The book:

It’s Cormac McCarthy, so of course it’s fucking awesome.  Duh.  8 out of 10.

All The Pretty Horses