Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Tea Obreht's The Tigers Wife

It seems we only have room in media for one writer per year. It is a hard and fast quota, and rarely deviated from, and has little regard for the quality of their work. Last year it was Jonathan Franzen, as much for his rightly hailed Freedom as for the controversy over its praising. Steig Larsson came the year before him. JK Rowling actually took three years, shutting out almost everyone else except for literary villain James Frey. This year will undoubtedly be looked at as the year of Tea Obreht, who, while not quite making magazine covers, has been the center of much literary attention. Earlier this month, Obreht was awarded The Orange Prize for her extraordinary first novel, The Tiger’s Wife, capping off a year of acclaim and wild press coverage. The Orange Prize celebrates “excellence, originality and accessibility in women's writing from throughout the world,” as has previously been given to such major talents as Marilynn Robinson and Zadie Smith, who, incidentally, was the writer of 2000. Obreht’s award is not only notable because she is a first-time novelist, but for her age. She is currently 25 and the youngest writer to have won the award, which only adds to her allure as a new story. Zadie Smith makes for fine fellow-award-winning company with Obreht. Smith experienced massive acclaim leading up to and following the publication of her first novel, White Teeth, and was hailed as the a great talent to watch at the age of 21. Obreht, who also made news last year as one of The New Yorker’s “20 under 40,” has received a near unprecedented amount of attention, much of it before her novel’s publication. While the hype for the “Next Big Thing” usually follows a predictable rise and fall course, beginning with lauds and ending with a fizz-out of disappointment (Smith’s The Autograph Man was met with skepticism and poor reviews, but was quickly reversed after her luminous On Beauty), Obreht is the real deal. Her novel, about a young Balkan woman’s search for the cause of her grandfather’s death, mixes the horror of a war torn country with magical realism, an initially eye-rolling concept. Anyone who suffered through Jonathan Safron Foer’s Extremly Loud and Incredibly Close knows the dangers of getting invested in such a precocious concept, and can be forgiven for ignoring the attention The Tiger’s Wife has received. What sets Obreht’s novel apart, however, is the remarkable maturity of her writing. Obrech packs her novel with zoos, stories within stories, escaped tigers, and an immortal figure known as “the deathless man,” but never once does the novel feel cloying. Obreht is a story-teller at heart, but exudes such command and control over her prose as to never allow that story-teller’s impulse for the fantastical to take over. Her novel is grounded in its weight, and the magical elements she conjures serves the novel’s story, and not the other way around, a trap another “20 under 40” writer, Karen Russel, got caught in earlier this year with her also-hyped debut Swamplandia! Russel’s novel is the story of a young Florida alligator wrestler who is trying to keep her family’s dying amusement park alive. Like The Tiger’s Wife, there are elements of the fantastic, such as the ghost-human love story that centers the novel. But while the novel is charming and Russel is a fine writer, Swamplandia! fails not because Russel is unable to handle the magic realism she describes in the Florida Everglades, but because those elements push the novels’ already quirky premise over the edge into near absurdity. (A review in Bookforum called Swamplandia! a “YA novel disguised as literary fiction,” a statement that must have been fun to write, but grossly unfair and elitist.) That absurdity is nowhere present in The Tiger’s Wife. The reader wholly accepts Obreht’s fictional plot of land, and the dead and undead that lie therein. She is so successful in this regard that complaining about the novel’s several small structural flaws seems irrelevant. It is easy to forgive the small quibbles after becoming so deeply entrenched in Obreht’s elegant and masterful voice. The Tiger’s Wife is beautifully constructed, layering its rich theme of the stories we tell ourselves to survive with perfect tone. Obreht knows character, and is able to earn our sympathies for even the cruelest of characters. She captures the joys and sorrows of each of her characters so exquisitely that it can be easy for the reader to find sympathy with even the most heartless of characters, such as Luka the Butcher, an abusive husband at the center of the novel. Luka’s story, one of many in a novel of individual stories, is the clearest example of Obreht’s talent. Deviating from the main plot of the story, the butcher’s section is rich, heartbreaking, but not too much of spectacle as to become a distraction. Each of her characters are given tremendous care, and nowhere does the novel feel overburdened with excess, something a lesser writer would not be able to accomplish. Did I mention she was 24? Other writers may make news this year, but The Tiger’s Wife is a novel to truly celebrate.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

When Superheroes Attack

The summer assault begins quietly, in early spring. A vague logo on a poster outside of a theater, a flash of movement and color on the television during sweeps week. And then, before anyone has a chance duck, flee, or seek refuge, the superheroes are everywhere. Flying over buildings, swinging through the air on webs, using their green lanterns and iron jet packs to make sure everyone knows without a doubt someone spectacular will be there to save the world every other hour at any Multiplex one can find, all in glorious IMAX/3D. Superheroes seem to thrive in the heat like exotic plants, wary of the cool and prestige of fall and winter. They cover soda cans and beach blankets, give a person double miles on Amex cards. Thrill rides are named in their honor, rides which can only be enjoyed in sun-drenched logo-print t-shirts and caps. Superman, Batman, Spiderman, Captain America, the Hulk, Thor, Green Goblin, Green Lantern, all the X-Men (along with a few X-Women) and tons and tons of other brightly suited lunatics dominate the summer movies, on a super mission to gather your money, time, and most importantly, your undivided attention. And like all good summer fun, these superheroes, who can fly and glow and upturn streets of cars without abandon, are utterly weightless. Their wisdom is meaningless. (“With great power comes great responsibility.”) Their actions inconsequential. Their faces interchangeable. (“Who is playing Batman this time?”) And we eat them up to the sum of billions and billions of dollars.

“It is too hot to think,” is the message we send with our entertainment money. “Dazzle us and leave us be,” we demand. And not just with movies. Our television hours are dedicated to endless amounts of talent competitions and reality feuds. Our music tastes veer to silly pop and endless jams. And our book tastes become simply horrendous, “beach reads” with the nutritional value of styrofoam. I will admit to being excited about the latest Batman. I cannot get enough of Nene Leakes and all her “Real” Atlanta housewives. And Gaga is on a endless loop on my iPhone. But I draw the line a summer reading. Leisure time is not where I need to catch up on the latest adventures of a vampire heroines who fall for the boy next door, or vampire heroes who struggle with their inner lust for square-mouthed girl in gym class. Keep your Austen Zombies and your Bin Laden-tracking-CIA agents off of my Kindle, away from my nightstand, out of my beach bag. Give me something with depth, I demand, something that will keep my brain from turning into mush after being stomped on by too many psychopaths in spandex and eye masks.

So, here you go, a summer reading list to get anyone through the KABOOM and POW of the summer’s heat, brain intact:

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. By Peter Biskind

Biskind, arguably one of Hollywood’s greatest chroniclers, interviewed almost everyone who is anyone in Hollywood for this book, which tells the story of the artistic rise of American cinema in the 1970s. Starting with Dennis Hopper’s Easy Riders and Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, Biskind takes the reader on a cocaine-fueled run through the greats of the era, including Coppola’s The Godfather, Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Altman’s Nashville, and Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show. More than just a behind the scenes look at the making of these films, Easy Riders offers anecdotes and analysis, enough gossip to send you to confession, and a true understanding of how mainstream American cinema, for at least a brief moment, found the perfect way to blend art and entertainment. With a fall just as spectacular as its rise (Popeye, anyone?), Easy Riders is film school disguised as a Vanity Fair article, and just as epic as any movie produced in that era.

Super Sad True Love Story. By Gary Shteyngart.

Set in a future New York in which everyone’s actions, credit score, and “hotness” are cached by an iPhone-like device called an apparati, Shteyngart’s novel, the tale of sad Russian Jew Lenny Abramov and his even sadder Juliet, twenty-four-year-old Korean American Eunice Park, is as thrilling and scary as anything Mr. Orwell ever dreamed up. Told through Lenny’s hand-written journal and Eunice’s text conversations, Super Sad gives us a future without books that will make one think twice about that Kindle. What sets this book apart, though, from other bleak and desolate visions of the future is the way Shetyngart infuses his novel with as much heart and emotion as he does with dystopian dread. The novel is as super sad as the title suggest, but also incredibly soulful and even moving. (Watch the hilarious "trailer" in the link above.)

The Orchid Thief. By Susan Orlean.

The New Yorker’s Susan Orlean’s nonfiction romp through the Florida everglades in search of the elusive Ghost Orchid with dreamer/schemer (and criminal) John Laroche is packed full of history, obsession, and strange delight. Based on her essay “Orchid Fever,” The Orchid Thief tells a tale that is so off-kilter, yet intoxicating, it almost seems unreal. In Laroche, Orlean has found the ultimate real life character, a man whose obsessions for beauty leads him to ignore everything from the law to his own health. And the deeper he gets into his obsession, the more believable he becomes, thanks to Orlean’s clear and simple writing. An added bonus to the book is the equally wondrous film version, Adaptation, a movie as strange and unique as Laroche himself.

Flannery. By Brad Gooch.

Brad Gooch’s fully-fleshed biography of Flannery O’Connor presents a fascinating portrait of one of America’s finest writers, peacocks and all. While at times it is a little too comprehensive, Gooch is clearly enamored by his subject, and paints her as not the troubled artist one might expect from her fiction, but as an approachable yet devout individual. Most illuminating is her time spent at the prestigious Iwoa Writer’s Workshop, and her secretive (to us only) correspondence with Betty Hester, long rumored to be Flannery’s lover. (Gooch easily dispels this rumor.) Even if her life does not live up to the eruptions of violence that populate her most famous short stories, the view into Flannery’s life is invaluable for any fan.

The Keep. By Jennifer Egan.

The Keep, Jennifer Egan’s gothic third novel, centers on Danny, a New York hipster who flees his life after being chased by mobsters. Addicted to technology, Danny disappears into an Eastern European castle at the request of his wealthy cousin, who is rebuilding the place. Cut off from all technology, Danny thinks he has found the perfect escape. The cousins, of course, share a secret past, which may or may not come back to haunt poor Danny. As tawdry as this sounds, Egan, one of the most experimental mainstream writer working today, knowingly pulls it off with a twist that sounds gimmicky on paper, but works amazingly well in the novel. (Think her Powerpoint Prestnetation in A Visit From the Good Squad, only more meta.) To say too much would ruin the surprise, which is half of the fun of the novel. A perfect vacation read.

Infinite Jest. By David Foster Wallace.

Wallace’s behemoth of a novel, published in 1996, and chocked full of endnotes, roving hamsters and one mind-blowing film, is a full summer’s worth of reading. In fact, clocking in at well over 1,000 pages, it works best in pieces. I read it two summers ago, carrying it around like a totem. It is frustrating, exhilarating, even boring for long stretches, but utterly valuable. Its scope, like its plot, cannot be easily summarized, nor should it be. And while it sometimes feels like work, it is immensely readable, unlike, say, Delillo’s Underworld. If completing it seems like a daunting task, there is even a reading schedule online for support. Read it for nothing else to say you have at a dinner party.

There you go, a full summer of reading, no vampires or superheroes needed. You will not be sorry for reading any of these books. What am I reading this summer? Justin Cronin’s The Passage, an apocalyptic story of a young woman battling government engineered…vampires. Sorry, it is summer. I need an escape.