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The Green Life: Book Roundup Wednesday: Wild Fiction

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April 27, 2011

Book Roundup Wednesday: Wild Fiction

Book roundup Every Wednesday, we review a selection of new and upcoming books addressing a specific aspect of environmentalism. Today we're recommending books that feature the wilderness as a main character.

When the Killing’s Done (by T.C. Boyle, $27, Viking, Feb. 2011): With his vividly eccentric style intact, T.C. Boyle embarks on a fictionalized retelling of the struggle over the fate of California’s Channel Islands. Pitting the National Park Service against animal-rights activists in a tale of gunslinging and invasive species in the New West, he presents diverse perspectives on the morality of meddling with nature. He’s well-versed in the region’s cultural and natural histories, and endows this modern-day epic with meticulous details from the lives of its characters — old-time shepherds, federal biologists, and dreadlocked PETA fans — to create a complex, compelling portrait of the havoc we wreak without assigning blame. Readers are offered the opportunity to judge for themselves. 

Caribou Island (by David Vann, $25, Harper, Jan. 2011): Set on Alaska’s forebodingly mercurial Kenai Peninsula, Vann’s depiction of a marriage disintegrating as a husband and wife attempt to build a life in the wilderness is engagingly dark. The discrepancies between expectation and reality loom as Gary and Irene become increasingly isolated, and the harsh landscape serves as a mirror for a family’s long-simmering discontent, turning characters inside out to expose the source of each unhappiness, but offering no apparent resolution to the perils of internal wilderness.

Swamplandia! (by Karen Russell, $25, Knopf, Feb. 2011): Working in Carl Hiaasen’s humid, backwoods milieu, Russell tells the story of a family that runs an unusual amusement park on a secluded island in Florida’s southwestern keys. When matriarch and master alligator-wrestler Hilola Bigtree dies, it’s up to 13-year-old Ava to gather her siblings and resurrect the family business, called Swamplandia! Unique prose and plausibly strange details of life in the swamps keep an often surreal storyline grounded, though the drift between worlds is at times a bit fantastical.

West of Here (by Jonathan Evison, $25, Algonquin, Feb. 2011): The fictional town of Port Bonita sits on the Olympic Peninsula, a stand-in for so many Western towns defined by settlers’ struggles to overcome the many inhospitalities facing them. A hundred years after those settlers built a dam on the Elwha River and settled in the misty green wilderness, a restoration project is slated to break the dam down, to let the salmon run again. This epic piece of historical fiction traces the stories of those who helped  shape Port Bonita, who either held back or broke ground as the town dealt with the conundrums and complications of a modernizing world.

The Tiger’s Wife: A Novel (by Tea Obreht, $25, Random House, March 2011): Part myth, part memoir (however fictitious), the debut novel of 25-year-old Tea Obreht deftly ties together a dizzying number of threads to form a numinous story of family mystery. In wartime, a tiger escapes from the zoo in an unnamed Balkan town after German bombs destroy the city. He makes his way to the hills beyond, wending his way into the village at night to accept offerings from the ostracized and abused butcher’s wife. As her protector, the tiger becomes a local legend. Decades later, Natalia, whose grandfather loved this striped interloper and carefully imparted this respect to her, must unravel this and other mythologies to understand the circumstances of his death. It’s a story told in metaphor, however one may choose to interpret it, of how fiction may be stronger than fact.

--Zoë J. Sheldon

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