March 19th, 2012

_The Tiger's Wife_, Tea Obreht

First, I'm going to say that I'm suspicious of this book. Obreht fictionalized all the places, so you can't do any of the did-she-get-it-right stuff that one might do with a historical novel or a memoir. However, there is one pseudo-checkable item dead center in the book and it has an error so conspicuous I really have to wonder what happened.

Starting on page 150 in the hardcover, a story is told about the grandfather being called in from a party he and the grandmother were throwing at the lakehouse. Tons of medical people at the party, but grandfather is sober when someone calls at the house saying he's needed to help someone. He goes and learns "The patient, of course, was the Marshall himself."

Why is "the Marshall" spelled with two ls? You can say, sure it isn't supposed to be Tito -- this is a fictionalized Balkans. But how do you get around what is obviously a military title, in English -- but spelled incorrectly? There's no alternative spelling in American or British English (I _checked_ -- I got out paper dictionaries including an OED.) IS NOT. IS WRONG. What the fuck happened in this book?

The remainder of the story about granddad saving not-Tito's life is about as hoary as Korean war vets telling about running machine guns so long the barrels melted.

The not-magical portions of the text fall not entirely cleanly into two categories: very, very old anecdotes (like the appendicitis story) that have been dressed up, the way a grandfather or an uncle might dress up a funny story he heard one day and claim it as his own to entertain his grandchildren or nieces and nephews, and spectacularly dull description of people doing very ordinary, slightly stressful things (like, pulling off on a road trip to respond to a page and the bathroom being really shockingly deteriorated, type of thing). They don't separate cleanly, because the detailed description of the lakehouse burning (dressed up story, in this case not funny) includes dull description of people doing ordinary/stressful things (wearing a pot on their head for protection).

The magical portions of the text fall not entirely cleanly into two categories: stories of exotic animals in and out of a zoo during two different wars that could be loosely interpreted as Balkan nations in and out of the Soviet empire, and stories about a guy named Gavran Gaile, who is a Death-from-Discworld sort of assistant and may or may not also be the doctor who ran off with the woman Luka intended to faux-marry, and supposedly is cursed to not die (sort of like flying in Hitchhiker's is failing to hit the ground). Again, they don't separate entirely cleanly, because of things like the young woman doctor following the guy who picks up the jar at the crossroads and discovering he's (probably) Arlo's dad, and because Gavran (probably) married the titular character's older sister.

The plot as a whole is, if not incoherent, at least highly interrupted. And what you _can_ describe as the actions of the plot, again, is really kinda boring. Young woman tries to figure out why her grandfather went off somewhere to die. Jungle Book is involved.

Which leads me to my final complaint. The Jungle Book? Really? Is that plausible? And watching 'Allo, 'Allo with her grandfather every night for twenty years? Seriously? Does this make sense in the Balkans?

Characters: dull.

Plot: Confusing, assuming it is unitary. Boring, if it is multiple.

Larger theme (analogy): Meh. If I'm right about the zoo analogy, it could have been awesome. But I might be wrong -- or it might just not have been particularly well developed.

Large theme (penance/guilt): Double meh. What if it weren't fictionalized, and you realized this was all about a couple of Serbs spending extra money so that other people won't figure out they are Serbs when they cross the border to check out their old vacation home -- maintained by a neighbor named Slavko (which I recognize is a legit name, but come on).

Names: Pretty much after Hassan Effendi, I was reading in search of more things to complain about. Never a good sign. (Again, I _know_ it is a legit name.)

On the plus side, I managed to finish the damn thing, which is more than I was able to do for several of the recent book club picks (you don't seriously think I'm so masochistic as to pick something like this out on my own, do you?). If you like to read words strung together, there's a decent enough momentum to probably keep you going. Some sections are so amazingly well written, it's jarring (part of what makes me suspicious about this book -- it feels like the kind of pastiche novel that all too often lately has been exposed as plagiarism), but for the most part, it's just one thing after another.

ETA: A better review, written by a better reviewer:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/mar/12/tigers-wife-tea-obreht-review

Worth noting: this reviewer spells "the Marshall" as Obreht does. Everyone assumes it is Tito, which is extra special wackado with sauce, because Tito's appendicitis story is funny in a whole other bunch of ways (if random googling around the internet is to be believed and I am by no means sure it is. Sample: http://fadinghistory.net/serbian-historian-argues-that-document-confirms-assassination-attempt-on-tito-stalin/).

This review, however, corrects it to "the Marshal".

http://www.seniorwomen.com/news/index.php/the-tiger-s-wife-and-henrietta-lacks

Glenn Fleishman and Gawker on Mike Daisey

http://www.macworld.com/article/1165948/daisey_revelations_sad_but_not_surprising.html

This is worth reading. I worked with Fleishman, and I'm sure he found me an enormously frustrating and infuriating person to have to deal with. But he's a good guy, and he's smart and he works hard and conscientiously at whatever he does. When he says he saw this coming, it's not 20/20 hindsight; it's the real deal.

I, too, had all kinds of problems with Daisey's description of Amazon back in the day, but whenever I tried to express them, I got shot down hard, because my experience was regarded as not-representative.

Gawker is trying to crowdsource a general purpose takedown of Daisey's oeuvre, which seems like a worthwhile project.

http://gawker.com/5894525/what-else-has-mike-daisey-lied-about

What I'd like to see is a world in which blowhards are treated as blowhards: entertaining, if you like that sort of thing, but _not_ to be treated as a valid source.