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01-18-12: Tea Obreht Conjures 'The Tiger's Wife'

The Grammar of Vision

Language circumscribes our vision of the world, of our lives and ultimately of ourselves. The prose voice that tells our story is comprised of words and grammar, syntax and style. Reading, then, allows us to immerse ourselves in another's life and vision as we immerse ourselves in their words. As readers, we need not realize that the author's vision has informed the words we read. Indeed, the author him or her self may not realize this. The words they choose, that we read may flow from the tip of their pen or be wrestled from blocks of prose, but those choices become our vision of the world as we read.

The best prose stays with us, the most powerful grammar infects our speech and ultimately, they tweak our vision of the world. Téa Obreht's vision of the world as a complex spiritual landscape, full of promise and premonition, intimation and terror informs and powers the stories that become ours in 'The Tiger's Wife.' It's a novel that builds with each word a new world for the reader.

Obreht's novel opens as it immerses us in Natalia's earliest memory of her grandfather; a visit to a zoo embedded in an ancient fortress, where they witness true wonder clothed in terror. It's a memorable scene, and an omen of what is to follow in the novel. The ominous, or numinous, depending on your perspective, aspect of the scene is the reader's gateway into a story informed by stories and visions. Often they are one in the same as this incredibly talented writer moves effortlessly from reportage to folklore, easily erasing the boundary that supposedly separates the two.

We soon learn that Natalia's grandfather has died in circumstances that are muddied by the remnants of a war that has literally torn the unnamed Balkan country in which it is set into fragmented countrysides and cityscapes. Those remaining scratch the surfaces around them, trying to wrest a living from what seems to be dirt, rock, concrete and weeds. Natalia, who has followed in her grandfather's footsteps and become a doctor, and her friend Zôra, are on a mission to deliver medicine to children. Natalia is also on a mission to understand her grandfather's life and his death.

Obreht tells much of the story anecdotally, as Natalia recalls the stories her grandfather told her, particularly those of the "Deathless man," he met in his travels round the country as a doctor. The myths join the forensic evidence she finds and the difference becomes moot in the brutish world she encounters. Her grandfather is from the get-go a towering, intense, but never overdone presence, balanced by Natalia's brittle strength. These characters compel the reader to join them on a journey through a landscape both mythic and madly modern.

Matching the power of the characters and the stories, fables, tales and anecdotes that layer into the arc of this fine novel is the prose itself. It's the core osf a visionary journey that does not seem visionary, but gritty and real. Obreht's grammar is truncated and rough. Her word choices are odd and memorable. Reading the book is like driving downhill on a dirt road covered with rocks and potholes. We're pulled relentlessly forward, but we feel every bump, every contour, every grain of dirt and every crumbling slope falling away beneath us.

'The Tiger's Wife' is one of those novels that are replete with elements of the fantastic that never seem fantastic. Totemic animals rend flesh or clump quietly down empty streets. A family seeks the bones of a lost loved one to stop the curse that is striking those who remain down with sickness. A man who merely cannot die but arrives during an epidemic of tuberculosis is mistaken for a vampire. The visions of the characters are more real to the reader than our own understanding of the world. To us, vampires and the undead are the stuff of genre fiction good and bad; in this world, they are as real as a bucket of oleander soup, and just about as dangerous. Given the publisher and the prestige deservingly accorded to this novel, you're going to find it with literature, but it could be just as happily shelved next to the work of Jeff VanderMeer and China Miéville as it is with that of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

'The Tiger's Wife' is well worth looking for. You may be glad you won't have to look too hard, but as you read this gorgeously written novel, you'll understand your world anew. You'll see that the steps you take on the driveway and the drive to the grocery store have their own omens and their own myths. Obreht's language will infect yours. You will find that as you employ her rough grammar to wrestle the world into shape, your journeys now have a wild, terrible and strange beauty.

01-17-12: Archive Review: Randall Sullivan Becomes 'The Miracle Detective'

Investigating a Spiritual Journey

Editor's note: My recent archive review of 'Marpingen' could not help but bring this fascinating, powerful and ever-relevant book to mind. And I must say that I will never forget the interview with Randall Sullivan. It was one of those encounters with a personality both powerful and in the midst of powerful change. His forthcoming book is 'Untouchable: The Strange Life and Tragic Death of Michael Jackson.'

It's been the hope of many a rational investigator that irrational phenomena will reveal the clockwork within when looked at with a dispassionate eye. The most inscrutable mysteries are supposed to melt under the calm gaze of systematic investigation. Start simple, get the facts, write everything down, and even the most complex conundrums will unfold into a series of simple cause-and-effect steps.

But it was a physicist, that most rational, that most disciplined of scientists who put the lie to this assumption. Werner Heisenberg suggested that the observer affects the observation. He was talking about particle physics, and called his idea The Uncertainty Principle. But it's one of those simple scientific laws that have a much broader application.

As he began to write 'The Miracle Detective', Randall Sullivan planned a simple, straightforward investigation into how the Catholic Church investigates miracles. He'd interviewed a woman who had experienced a miracle. The Blessed Virgin Mary had appeared in a cheap painting in the trailer where she lived with her parents. She had video, and the testimony of hundreds of witnesses.

Sullivan was intrigued, and even more intrigued by the bureaucracy the Catholic Church employed to investigate such events. He proposed the title of book to his publisher, who jumped at the chance. A visit to Rome would follow, and then to Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina. A series of simple steps would reveal the clockwork behind the Catholic Church's investigation and inevitably result in a better understanding of the Church, the beliefs it espoused and those who believed them.

More than ten years later, Sullivan's book is completed; his investigation is ongoing. 'The Miracle Detective' tells a number of stories. It's tricky and complex, just like the phenomena it describes. As Sullivan starts his journey, he's a confident reporter for one of the most respected publications in the world, sure of himself and rational. But as he's immersed in the immensely complex situations that serve up these apparitions, he finds that what he is observing is affecting how he is observing. The feedback loop between the investigator and the investigated becomes a fascinating phenomenon in itself.

'The Miracle Detective' is a book packed with dense, intense action from beginning to end. Sullivan pops off information that boggles the mind so regularly it almost becomes overwhelming. When he's in the Vatican, for example, he learns that the arm of the Church tasked with investigating modern day miracles is an outgrowth of those who conducted the Spanish Inquisition. Nobody expects that; and that's only the beginning. Once Sullivan gets to Bosnia-Herzegovina, he finds himself in a maelstrom of horror and wonder, terror and joy.

The circumstances that yield up an instance of Blessed Virgin Mary apparitions worthy of close attention are fairly well understood. The apparitions at Medjugorje offer a textbook example and prove to be the most thoroughly investigated supernatural events in history. Sullivan arrives nearly 15 years after their inception, and they are still going strong. His immersion in the world of Medjugorje is utterly compelling reading. He meets the seers — there are six of them — and finds them full of conviction and utterly convincing. From his descriptions, it seems that most readers would as well. He puts you on the ground in a city surrounded by death, in countryside so devastated that it looks as it a nuclear bomb has been detonated.

But even as he observes the scene at ground zero, so to speak, he begins to affect his own observations. Like John Keel in Point Pleasant, Virginia, investigating the Mothman Prophecies, he finds himself immersed in supernatural experiences of the sort he once thought to be investigating from and objective point of view. Surrounded by events that do not yield to easy explanation, Sullivan's simplistic point of view begins to shift. He's no longer hoping to simply interview the miracle detective; he has become the miracle detective.

As the book shifts from an investigative report to a spiritual journey, Sullivan becomes despondent. He returns to the United States, depressed and confused. There, he decides to look into a series of Blessed Virgin Mary apparitions in Scottsdale, Arizona. The voyage from the sacred to the seedy is disturbing reading. The events in Scottsdale have none of the ring of truth that those in Medjugorje have. The seers are busy writing books and producing videos. None of the rigorous scientific investigations are made, and the few desultory attempts yield nothing to redeem the visionaries.

By this time Sullivan actively wants to believe. His own experiences in Medjugorje have left him thirsty for more. But the Scottsdale apparitions read like the K-Mart version of those in Bosnia-Herzegovina. This is easy for the reader to see, and Sullivan does a great job of laying himself bare so that the reader is free to judge the veracity of all that he reports. Sullivan cleverly finishes the book in a series of conversations with Father Benedict Groeschel, who provides a balancing influence for both the reader and the writer.

Like 'The Mothman Prophecies' by John Keel, 'The Miracle Detective' depicts an investigator of the supernatural (events influenced by beings or realities beyond human ken) and the paranormal (abilities of the human mind not yet discovered or documented by science) who becomes a part of his own investigation. It's packed with details and a fascinating, apocalyptic portrait of a so-called tiny war that literally tore a country apart.

While 'The Miracle Detective' is non-fiction, it has a lot to offer readers who enjoy mysteries, fantasy, horror and general fiction; and if you're interested in writing about the topic, it's a great place to start reading. It offers insight into the depths of religious fervor and the heights of the human imagination. It's not devotional, worshipful or evangelical.

Glory gives way to the tawdry; revelation morphs into self-deception, and there's no easy line that's crossed, so simple rules to tell where one ends and the other begins. 'The Miracle Detective' might result in more questions than it answers. But it amply, entertainingly demonstrates that asking questions alters the mind every bit as much as finding the answers.

01-16-12: Michael Gazzaniga Asks 'Who's in Charge?'

Dream Lives of a Narrative Species

The question is not new. But every year, every day, every hour, every minute, every second of our lives the framework within which we ask it shifts: Are we in control of our own minds? Aristotle and Plato differed on the seat of the soul and whether the mind survived death. Centuries later, René Descartes pronounced that the mind was not a physical substance; it was something separate from the brain. By the early 20th century, Einstein famously declared, "...the concept of a soul without a body seems to me to be empty and devoid of meaning."

In the 21st century, with the aid of fMRI technology, we can actually see the mind at work, but we're no closer to settling that ancient dispute. Logic and neuroscience tell us — to a degree — that we are just walking machines of meat, a sustained chemical reaction that eventually and predictably will peter out. Logic be damned. Everyone human has, and likely always will feel very differently about it. "I am not a number — I am a free man!"

Michael Gazzaniga is a neuroscientist, but he's no prisoner of the science he practices. He asks the question about our minds that is always at the back of our minds in 'Who's in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain,' and comes up with a book-length answer to the literally ageless question. Surprisingly, he mostly steers clear of the high tech, and turns in a dense, entertaining look at the logic with which we can divine the divine within ourselves. The power of language and storytelling, especially as used in this book, prove to be the ultimate tool with which we have hope of finding an answer to a question that is not nearly so simple as it first seems.

Gazzaniga's book takes readers on a journey through our understanding of our own minds, and it's a fascinating tour. Asked to speak on the topic for the Gifford Lecture series in Scotland, Gazzaniga decided to review what we knew at a variety of levels, from sub-atomic physics to social interactions. Up front, he offers a very definitive answer to the ageless question; the italics are his: "We are personally responsible agents and are to be held accountable for our actions, even though we live in a determined world."

What this works out to for the reader is a gripping and literally mind-boggling reading experience. The "reading experience" phrase is important, as this is a book about your mind that will change the view of your mind on your mind even as you read it. It's the Ouroboros of neuroscience, a story about the importance of storytelling to our mind's ability to understand itself.

Gazzaniga writes in clear, simple prose and makes complex ideas approachable. He's entertaining and informal, often quite funny. Given the import of storytelling in this book, it's good that he proves to be adept at it himself. Whether he's parsing the logic of divided brains or splitting atoms, he keeps the reader along the ride. And given the huge amount of time and concepts he covers, the book is admirably brief. It's a smart argument for the soul of the writer.

Readers who enjoy both science fiction and mysteries will find a lot to like in this book that ponders the frontiers of our mind both legally and scientifically. The legal implications of Gazzaniga's book are of particular interest to those in the legal profession as well. Gazzaniga's informed speculations and questions will lead many readers to see the legal codes we create in a new a startling and very consequential new light.

One expects a large proportion of fMRI and other scan data to support all this, but Gazzaniga goes one better. He's the brilliant man, who as an undergraduate (italics mine this time around), devised a series of logic and perception tests for split-brain epileptic patients that have literally soul-shaking implications. As we learn the mechanics of the brain — and yes, there are mechanics — the mystery does not become clearer. We know more about what happens, and yes, there is a deterministic view in all this, but we know less about how to put it all together. Gazzaniga manages the unique task of telling us we don't yet have the words to exactly even form the question, let alone provide a firm answer, even as he himself does both. We are walking paradoxes.

The term "we" also proves to be important to Gazzaniga, who is willing to take unanswered questions to the next level, as he explores what happens to consciousness when it is not alone. This proves to be the scientist doing what he does best; asking questions that nobody has asked in the quite the manner he has, so that as he explores the answers, our reading minds put together the story and follow along. Humans are indeed a narrative species, and it's easy for each individual storyteller to get caught up in his or her own narrative. We must remember that, as a narrative species, our stories require more than storytellers; they require an audience, unpredictable and unknowable until we encounter them.

New to the Agony Column

09-18-15: Commentary : William T. Vollman Amidst 'The Dying Grass' : An Epic Exploration of Simultaneity

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with William T. Vollman : "...a lot of long words that in our language are sentences..."

09-05-15: Commentary : Susan Casey Listens to 'Voices in the Ocean' : Science, Empathy and Self

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Susan Casey : "...the reporting for this book was emotionally difficult at times..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 213: Susan Casey : Voices in the Ocean: A Journey into the Wild and Haunting World of Dolphins

08-24-15: Commentary : Felicia Day Knows 'You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)' : Transformative Technology

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Felicia Day : "I think you have to be attention curators for audience in every way."

08-22-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 212: Felicia Day : You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost)

08-21-15: Agony Column Podcast News Report : Senator Claire McCaskill is 'Plenty Ladylike' : Internalizing Determination to Overcome Sexism [Incudes Time to Read EP 211: Claire McCaskill, Plenty Ladylike, plus A 2015 Interview with Senator Claire McCaskill]

Agony Column Podcast News Report : Emily Schultz Unleashes 'The Blondes' : A Cure by Color [Incudes Time to Read EP 210: Emily Schultz, The Blondes, plus A 2015 Interview with Emily Schultz]

08-10-15:Agony Column Podcast News Report : In Memory of Alan Cheuse : Thank you Alan, and Your Family, for Everything

07-11-15: Commentary : Robert Repino Morphs 'Mort(e)' : Housecat to Harbinger of the Apocalypse

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Robert Repino : " even bigger threat. which is us, the humans..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Robert Repino : Mort(e)

07-05-15: Commentary : Dr. Michael Gazzaniga Tells Tales from Both Sides of the Brain : A Life in Neuroscience Reveals the Life of Science

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Michael Gazzaniga : "We made the first observation and BAM there was the disconnection effect..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 208: Michael Gazzaniga : Tales from Both Sides of the Brain: A Life in Neuroscience

06-26-15: Commentary : Neal Stephenson Crafts an Eden for 'Seveneves' : Blow It Up and Start All Over Again

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Neal Stephenson : "...and know that you're never going to se a tree again..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 207: Neal Stephenson : Seveneves

06-03-15: Commentary : Dan Simmons Opens 'The Fifth Heart' : Having it Every Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Dan Simmons : "...yes, they really did bring those bombs..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 206: Dan Simmons : The Fifth Heart

05-23-15: Commentary : John Waters Gets 'Carsick' : Going His Way

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with John Waters : " change how you would be in real life...”

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 205: John Waters : Carsick

05-09-15: Commentary : Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD and 'Shrinks' : A Most Fashionable Take on the Human Mind

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : "..its influence to be as hegemonic as it was..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 204: Jeffrey A. Lieberman, MD : Shrinks: The Untold Story of Psychiatry

04-29-15: Commentary : Barney Frank is 'Frank' : Interpersonally Ours

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Barney Frank : "...while you're trying to change it, don't ignore it..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 203: Barney Frank : Frank: A Life in Politics from the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage

04-21-15: Commentary : Kazuo Ishiguro Unearths 'The Buried Giant' : The Mist of Myth and Memory

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro : ".... by the time I was writing this novel, the lines between what was fantasy and what was real had blurred for me..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 202: Kazuo Ishiguro : The Buried Giant

04-17-15: Commentary : Erik Larson Follows a 'Dead Wake' : Countdown to Destiny

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Erik Larson : "...said to have been found in the arms of a dead German sailor..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 201: Erik Larson : Dead Wake

04-15-15: Commentary : Peter Bell Reflects 'A Certain Slant of Light' : Strange Stories of Modern Scholars

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2014 Interview with Peter Bell : "...I looked up some of the old books..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 200: Peter Bell : Strange Epiphanies and A Certain Slant of Light

03-14-15: Commentary : Marc Goodman Foresees 'Future Crimes' : Exponential Potential

Agony Column Podcast News Report : A 2015 Interview with Marc Goodman : "...every physical object around us is being transformed, one way or another, into an information technology..."

Agony Column Podcast News Report UPDATE: Time to Read Episode 199: Marc Goodman : Future Crimes: Everything Is Connected, Everyone Is Vulnerable and What We Can Do About It

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