Tuesday, December 6, 2011

How Did The Book Club Discussion Go With The Tiger's Wife?

I headed into reading The Tiger's Wife with a weekend ahead of me. My plan is to read Friday morning, Saturday evening, Sunday morning, Monday morning. I quickly realize by Tuesday (when I am working instead of having a day off) that I have packed the weekend with Boswell activities, from school programming to a library talk to several events and a market. I don't need to tell you about this; it's already well documented in a blog.

The problem is that Téa Obreht's novel is not one you can rush through. I fead it, but I fear I read it closely enough that I can really offer too much to the conversation. At this point, my best hope is that my fellow book clubbers would bring it on.

Obreht herself came to the table with a lot of baggage--a place at the New Yorker's 20-under-40 table with a number of stories, but without a published book to her name. And the buzz had been amazing on the book. By the time The Tiger's Wife came out early this year in hardcover, the hum of anticipation was deafening. And I just want to note here that this trite metaphor is well below the standards of Obreht herself.

The book was awarded the Orange Prize for literature, with Obreht being the youngest winner of the award ever. And by fall, the book was in paperback. Despite the anticipation of further awards, such as the sales-friendly inclusion on the best-of lists of The New York Times Book Review, the personal list of Michiko Kakutani, the National Book Award finalist slot, and more to come, Random House decided that it would be better to speed up the paperback. Apparently this is an attempt to prop up paperback sales as much as give up on hardcover; there's a lot of disagreement over which is being hurt more by the growth of ebooks. We complained for a while that The Tiger's Wife didn't seem gift-worthy to some of our customers in paperback. Having come off a decent hardcover pop for The Help, despite a paperback release, we just went back for more hardcovers.

There wasn't a truly negative voice to be heard, partly because our most negative attendee, who shows up occasionally and has yet to like a selection, but it was certainly a story that benefitted from a little discussion. Natalia is a young doctor, travelling with her friend Zóra, both on a mission to inoculate orphans in the Balkans (in a place where the border moved, and is thus now out of the country), who learns that her grandfather, also a doctor, has died.

Woven into the story are two stories of a more fantastic nature. The first is about the deathless man, who can be drowned or shot at or any number of things without long-term affect. He also meets folks for coffee before mass killings (not that unusual in Balkan history). And the second is of the tiger, first escaped from the zoo, who roams the village and winds up taking up with a deaf-mute woman.

Caroline noted that the store is almost completely about death, yet it the story is about hope and resilience. One might say that is represented by the tiger. And the bear, another character? Well, especially in war, there has to be some sort of opposing force. But one of the things that Obreht does is camouflage the opposing forces a bit, with the city unnamed, though at least one reviewer posited that Natalia and her grandfather are likely Serbian. We had a great discussion on whether wars based on religious differences are really generally about religion, or more about struggles for power and land, with the people on each side riled up to take sides. I think this was touched on in a previous book club selection, Aleksandar Hemon's The Lazarus Project. In many cases, it's the person's name that determines whether someone is friend or foe; how random is that?

In a sense. the structure of the story reminded me a bit of another book club selection, Rabih Alameddine's The Hakawati. Though that novel took place in Lebanon, it was also before and after a conflict, and a dying patriarch's story was interspersed with a mythical tale and another of historical legend. As one attendee noted, it is pretty rare for us to read a straightfoward narrative in the club; we've either got multiple narratives or chopped up structures. Anything to keep us on our toes.

In preparation for the talk, I did read about a dozen reviews and interviews, from Michiko Kakutani's rave in The New York Times to Ron Charles's nod (a positive but not about-to-explode-with-delight take) in The Washington Post. With all the anticipation of The Tiger's Wife, I expect to find an angry review that slammed the book, and I found one in The New York Observer. This critic's major complaint (you can search yourself--I don't feel like linking to it) was that the book was more of a young adult novel, I think in the end, because it had no sex or satire or absurdity. I would have been interested to read a negative critique of the book but this one seemed itself trying to hard, and I like a sense of humor as much as the next shmo.

Perhaps this quibble was based on the story's roots in fairytales. The Jungle Book roots are clearly stated, but Beauty and the Beast and
The Arabian Nights are also called to mind. Judy also noted a book about dragons, but I left my notes elsewhere.  We found a copy of The Jungle Book in the store and brought it out to find some points of reference. Being that it was a very nice package at a very good price of $9.95, Gloria bought it.

In the end, I wish I could have been Suzanne, who read the book twice and planned on a third reading when one of her other book clubs (she's in four of them) reads the book in February. It's the old Brookfield Schwartz group, and they now meet at a community center in Elm Grove, by the way.

In this popular interview in The Rumpus, Obreht notes that the three strands of the story were once separate until she realized that they worked even better woven together. Dan Chaon said the same thing about his last novel, Await Your Reply. And yes, there were other bits that were left out. And yes, she wrote an entire backstory about Luka the butcher in order to humanize him and not make him simply the villain.

In the paperback, there is a great conversation with Jennifer Egan, where she talks about writing part of the book in the Syracuse Zoo. If you read the book in hardcover, which I don't think has the conversation, it's really worth reading, unlike the discussion questions that are plopped in the back of most paperback fiction books. And it's pop up first on your search, but that PBS Newshour interview is great too.

And here's Mike Fischer's write up of The Tiger's Wife. It's one of his top picks of the year.

So you know I always say it's not a bad thing for folks to disagree on whether they like a novel; it makes for a more spirited conversation. But in this case, everybody can love The Tiger's Wife and there is still plenty to talk about. It's no wonder that Obreht's novel is one of our top-selling titles, and should be through the holiday season.

Our next selection is How to Read the Air, by Dinaw Mengestu, on Monday, January 2, 7 pm, the story of an Ethiopian-American man who returns home.

And I'm not sure yet what we're reading after that, but I'm pretty sure we're moving up the date to Monday, January 30, 7 pm.

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