Sunday, January 1, 2017

Book review: A Wolf in the Soul

Hi friends, not much today for the New Year, no long thoughtful posts on resolutions or the meaning of the year or anything. I just thought I'd recommend you the book I'm re-reading.

Do you enjoy the strange? Would you like to learn about an unfamiliar culture through a novel packed with humor, strange coincidences, and an unpredictable plot? Or do you perhaps already have a particular interest in or familiarity with Orthodox Judaism... or werewolves?

If any of these apply, pick up A Wolf in the Soul. Gregor Samstag (pun intended) finds an unexpected transformation occurring in his body and his soul. Strange dogs follow him throughout the city... he falls asleep unexpectedly in public places and dreams of hunting down elk and eating them raw... also his parents' marriage is falling apart and it's very complicated for him. And his new roommate at Columbia is the weirdest and refuses to eat animal products unless they're invertebrates. Eventually the "animalistic forces" pursuing Gregor catch up with him: he's bitten by an actual werewolf and begins to transform, and it's up to him to conquer the transformation by re-connecting with his Judaism and finding the right path to connect the animal with the spiritual & bring wholeness to his life.

I may not be representing that last bit quite right; I'm halfway through my re-reading and don't quite remember what really does it for him. I do remember there's a thoughtful exploration of the difference between self-discipline and legalism (legalism makes the wolf problem worse instead of better) and of the meaning of civilization and wildness. On that second count there are definitely some flaws--some of the descriptions of wolf life that he sees in his dreams are definitely inaccurate, like a wolf father physically attacking his son's family to the point of killing his own grandcubs, which I'm positive wolves never do--and this goes along with (or stems from?) an overly negative view of wildness. Still, it's a thoughtful and compelling book with realistic and striking characters, and I find it really fascinating how it has a definite religious perspective (or even agenda?) yet doesn't have anything like the heavy, cloying feel that agenda-driven Christian fiction tends to have.

Also for those interested in such things, there is apparently a genuine Jewish tradition about werewolves. I barely know anything about it so I won't try to inform you, but what I do know is that Benjamin is supposed by some to have been a werewolf. Yep! Gonna leave it at that because that's all I know. Also this book has some kabbalah references but I only know that because it says so on the back.

I partly picked this up because "Jewish werewolf novel" sounded way too interesting, and partly because I've been trying to explore traditional & Orthodox Judaism for the past couple years, ever since I established that a major character in A Flame in the Night, my work-in-progress, is a very observant Jew. I'd heard some criticism about the Jewish characters in my first book, How Huge the Night, and on reflection it was very true: I didn't know enough, treated their faith very generically, and didn't try deeply to understand their own experience of it. Christian familiarity with the Hebrew Bible does not equal familiarity with Judaism, but we too easily assume that it does. So I've gone on a deliberate quest to do better in this one. I've gone to non-fiction sources for facts, of course, but I've been trying to look at Jewish fiction as well, and well... combining learning with werewolves? I couldn't pass that up, and I'm glad I didn't.

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