Here is a small space to discuss independent bookstores, Indie Next List selections, Indie bestsellers . . . and, most essentially, the stories that permeate our literary lives.

As (1) an employee of an independent bookstore,--namely Beehive Books; check out our blog here--(2) a self-proclaimed localvore, and (3) a lifelong reader, I believe that independents are vitally important to their surroundings, that their significance extends far beyond the volumes they vend.

Bookstores--especially the funky, idiosyncratic, locally supportive (indie)pendent ones--are community catalysts.

They are messy, organic, lovely homes for books, yes. But they also house, and inspire, the words we speak to one another about such books; they so naturally invite conversation, interaction, dialogue, relationship. The trenchant Elaine Showalter says that "What keeps literature alive, meaningful to read, and exciting to teach isn't unstinting approval or unanimous admiration, but rousing argument and robust dispute." Written words are beautified by the spoken words that surround them. The most beautiful library, or collection, is one that pulses with the dialogue of its readers--and independent bookstores are one of the purest examples of this truth.

And here is where I'd extoll the virtues of the independent book business itself. But as I am only a humble but fierce admirer/apprentice (and a dangerously longwinded one, at that), I'll now refer you instead to IndieBound--your online connection to independents everywhere. Read their concise answer to the question "Why Shop Indie?" and join their community, if you wish.

In my small nook of the indie world, I offer reviews of notable books in the independent community. I focus on current Next List selections and indie bestsellers, but I'm always open to books that find me in my literary life--whether a customer at Beehive recommends an obscure title; a co-worker passes me a childhood favorite, or a small press sends us a fresh gem. I'm always on the lookout for ARCs (Advanced Reader Copies), and I have a penchant for children's literature, especially middle readers, so you'll see some of those here, too. That said, my readership will only grow richer through yours--all comments, debates, and reading suggestions are more than welcome. Let's create our own unique nook in the indie book community!

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Tiger's Wife

The Tiger's Wife is currently number four on the Indie Bestseller List (Hardcover Fiction), and it was the main selection for the March 2011 Indie Next List.

Mystery, quest, folktale, poetry. Tea Obreht's The Tiger's Wife is a novel of superb scope and nuance, told in rich, lyrical prose.

Natalia, a young pediatrician forestalled in mourning her grandfather's death by its strange circumstances, seeks out the story of his final days in a Balkan country still reeling from years of conflict. Traveling to an orphanage in Brejevina with her best friend, Zora, in order to administer innoculations, Natalia meditates on the two folkloric stories entrenched in her grandfather's life: the Tiger's Wife and the Deathless Man. In the present, Natalia's own story takes her to places as deeply embedded in superstition as the characters peopling her grandfather's chimerical tales. Ultimately, Natalia's quest, and her historical research into her grandfather's life and the stories that shaped it, all coalesce to comprise The Tiger's Wife--a truly multi-layered, polysemous achievement.

An added boon to the novel's succulent prose is its perfect yoking to the story's folkloric structure. Obreht's transitions, from Natalia's narrative to her grandfather's twin sagas, are both seamless and stunning. Yet her language, magical though it may be, refrains from turning syrupy; though the novel progresses via shifting narratives--requiring a kind of virtuosic balance--Obreht remains in complete, flawless control of its movement and its imagery.

Tea Obreht is a young author--The Tiger's Wife is her debut novel--born in 1985 in the former Yugoslavia. But her age, rather than limiting her wisdom, seems to work as but another strength of the novel. I found her ability to render the war in Yugoslavia digestible absolutely striking. She directly addresses the conflict so infrequently that when it is centralized, the effect is both childlike and trenchant: "The war had altered everything. Once separate, the pieces that made up our old country no longer carried the same characteristics that formerly represented their respective parts of the whole" (161). Obreht ponders, too, the very nature of conflict: "When your fight has purpose--to free you from something, to interfere on the behalf of an innocent--it has a hope of finality. When the fight is about unraveling--when it is about your name, the places to which your blood is anchored . . . there is nothing but hate" (283). Far from oversimplifying, Obreht's handling of the war through Natalia's account is one of the book's greatest strengths, both on a literary and a human level.

My only quibble with the novel is its occasionally wayward literary experimentation--i.e., a sudden shift to second person, an odd temporal leap, or a penchant for backstory extending even to objects, such as the blacksmith's musket. But it may certainly be argued that these techniques are germane to the novel's content. Also, either the experimental variety lessened as the book progressed . . . or, I was simply too charmed to notice it anymore.

In essence, this is a true delight for the literary reader. Peruse The Tiger's Wife and bask in Obreht's lush descriptions, her folklore on the cusp of magical realism, and remember its sequence of stories as one recalls a vivid dream: green, lush, and strange.

Summer Reading Advisory: My parting bit of advice is to read The Tiger's Wife slowly--it is to be savored--and remember the opinion of the people of Brejevina: " . . . [If] you are making your journey in a hurry, you are making it poorly" (98). This book catalogues a murky passage of time, perfect for summer languor. Find a patch of sunshine and sip its words like nectar.

However . . . before you get too serious about that summer reading stack, check out Tea's contribution to the New Yorker's Books, Interrupted.

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