One Read 2012
by Lauren Williams, Public Services Librarian
Originally published by Columbia Daily Tribune.
At the library's reference desk, when someone asks me, "So what's 'The Tiger's Wife' about?" my most common response is that this year's One Read selection is a story about storytelling.
Natalia, the young doctor who narrates Tea Obreht's richly complex work set in the former Yugoslavia, puzzles over the strange circumstances of her grandfather's death and explores tales from his past to understand the man he became. The range of One Read events planned for September offers ample opportunity to enrich your reading experience by exploring subjects as diverse as personal myth-making, medical volunteerism, humans' relationships to animals and different cultures' death rituals, as well as the history of the Balkan conflict itself.
"The human imperative to make and consume stories runs even more deeply than literature, dreams, and fantasy. We are soaked to the bone in story," said Jonathan Gottschall, author of "The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012). Those words speak to the core theme of "The Tiger's Wife" (Random House, 2011). Narrative is part of our genetic makeup—we are the stories we tell—and essential for coping with and resolving conflict.
Storytelling in the form of positive self-talk and visualization is one technique Wayne Anderson, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Missouri and a Tribune columnist, used during his work with survivors of the war in former Yugoslavia. In the very readable "My Trauma Work in Bosnia: Teachers as Therapists" (AKA:yoLa, 2010), Anderson shares his experiences as part of a team making multiple trips abroad to train teachers, mental health workers and doctors to treat children who suffer from post-traumatic stress. Anderson will be part of a panel presentation in September exploring attempts to provide health care and immunizations in war-torn or Third World countries.
Narrative also can make the causes and aftermath of war more understandable and relatable, particularly in an area of the world as historically complex as the Balkans. Originally published in 1941, Rebecca West's "Black Lamb and Grey Falcon" (Penguin) is an emotional, in-depth exploration of the people and politics of Yugoslavia. West started out writing a travel book, but the work evolved into a comprehensive study full of history, cultural observations and a detailed look at the varied ethnic groups that make up the region and the underlying reasons for its continued unrest.
More recent works of fiction also provide some insight into the complexities of conflict based on long-standing ethnic and religious differences and put a human face on the Balkan wars of the 1990s. "The Cellist of Sarajevo" (Riverhead Books, 2008) by Steven Galloway is the haunting, character-driven account of a musician who plays at the site of a mortar attack for 22 days to honor the 22 neighbors who lost their lives in the bombing. In spare language, Galloway explores what it means to be human under inhuman circumstances. Scott Simon's "Pretty Birds" (Random House, 2005), about the brutal ethnic cleansing of the Balkan wars, manages to be darkly witty as well as gritty and heartbreaking. Simon tells the story of Irena, a half-Muslim high school basketball star who is forced into hiding after the fall of Sarajevo, separated from her Christian best friend and transformed into a highly effective sniper.
War is inevitably accompanied by death, and Obreht's characters introduce us to various end-of-life rituals, including the observance of the 40 days of the soul and making offerings to a mora, a spirit that comes to the crossroads to collect the dead. Our own country's evolving relationship to life and death is explored in "The Mansion of Happiness" (Knopf, 2012) by Harvard historian and New Yorker writer Jill Lepore. Her essay on cryogenics alone might make other cultures' death rituals seem a little less strange. Focusing solely on the dead, Mary Roach's "Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers" (W.W. Norton, 2003) manages to be somehow both hilarious and respectful as it investigates the body's afterlife and its many scientific uses, from automobile safety research to cosmetic surgery practice.
Finally, a discussion of themes found in this year's One Read selection would not be complete without a tiger tale or two. Full of stunning visual images, "The Bedside Book of Beasts" (Nan A Talese, 2009) by Graeme Gibson collects poems, fables, myths, biblical texts, fictional works and more that examine the sometimes complicated and even mystical relationships between predators—including tigers—and prey. And the grandfather's well-worn copy of Rudyard Kipling's "The Jungle Book" (Macmillan, 1894) might inspire you to read this collection of classic adventure tales, the most familiar of which follows young Mowgli, a boy raised by animals in India, with the tiger Shere Khan among them. You can learn more about tigers and efforts to save the wild animals at two different programs in September—one in Columbia and one in Fulton.
We invite everyone in our community to join us for book discussions, storytelling events, panel presentations, art exhibits and more to celebrate another year of reading together. A full listing of programs will be available soon at www.oneread.org. Join us!