Book Thoughts: Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow

Working in a public library as I do, I’m often reminded of how much has already been written. Occasionally I look around at the shelves full of books and think “It’s all been done already. We can all stop writing now.”  But I’m happy to report I’m consistently proved wrong.

For instance: Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow. A werewolf novel written entirely in verse. Epic verse isn’t new, of course. And werewolf novels are everywhere right now. But a combination of the two? I couldn’t not read it, figuring it couldn’t be mediocre; it had to be completely terrible or really, really good.

I count the book a success on all counts. It works as a novel, with engaging characters and an intriguing plot. There’s love and life and death and power plays and vengeance, and confused characters muddling through life caught up in it all. And it works as poetry, the choice of words and meter striking the place in you where poetry strikes, and still keeping the story flowing.  Example: “At night he lies down on the benches and contemplates/ the deception of starlight, long dead suns making small lights/ almost bright enough to guide the way.”

Barlow gets the balance right, sacrificing neither the fiction nor the poetry aspect in the cause of the other.

Is it obvious how much I liked this book? It’s so nice to come across something fresh, a reminder that we humans are endlessly creative. And it’s nice to see a writer following his own vision and making it work. I’m thinking of all of those writing conferences where authors are asking what editors are looking for at the moment, and nobody ever answers “Werewolf poetry.”

I have one warning for the squeamish. Though not gratuitous because it does serve the story, some of the violence is quite graphic.

Book Thoughts: Payback by Margaret Atwood

I knew that, in addition to her mind-blowing fiction, Margaret Atwood also writes some pretty decent poetry.  And now I come across her non-fiction book, Payback (Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth.)

The book is as thought-provoking as I assumed anything by Atwood would be. (Okay, that sounds a little too  much like “How much wood would a woodchuck…) The book has nothing to do with managing your finances and everything  to do with examining the meanings and origins of the concept of debt.  What do we owe each other and why do we think we owe it? 

Of particular interest to fiction writers will be chapter three: Debt as Plot, which made me think that there aren’t even four basic plots. Perhaps there’s only one, and it is debt. Who owes what to whom, how did they get into that debt and how are they going to get out of it? She begins the chapter by saying “Without memory there is no debt. Put another way: without story there is no debt.”

She goes on to examine the story of debt in various works of literature, her rather obvious starting point being Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. Some whopper of a debt there. She also discusses A Christmas Carol, Vanity Fair and, a less obvious choice, Wuthering Heights. Think that last title is about romance and affairs of the heart? Well, Atwood would have us know that the heart keeps a balance sheet.  Then too, Heathcliff uses financial debt to control those around him. 

After reading Payback I find myself examining many of my assumptions about life and human relationships. I also find myself reading fiction with a new eye. Want to  unravel the plot? Follow the debt.