The Names of Things by John Colman Wood

The Names of Things by John Colman Wood is the journey of an anthropologist through the grieving processes he documented among the Northeast African Dasse nomadic camps following the passing of his wife sometime later.  Beautifully written in alternating time frames from the anthropologist’s past field work that helped him create two books on the nomadic lives of these people and their grieving rituals and the present when he returns to the African Chalbi Desert to cope with his wife’s passing.  Wood also includes excerpts on the tribe’s grieving rituals throughout the book, which help to anchor the story in Africa, and help the reader learn how the tribe has named the unnameable — a task the anthropologist must learn.

The prose of this novel is hypnotic and carries the reader into the desert with these people as the anthropologist gains their favor and begins to feel at one with the community.  Wood not only raises questions of an academic nature about the role of an anthropologist, but also whether his presence has polluted the natural dynamic of the community by introducing foreign ideas and culture into their community.  But the presence of the anthropologist among this community also raises questions of how well he can integrate into the community and understand their rituals, feelings, and perspectives, especially since he always remains mostly an outsider to their customs and their grief.

In many ways, the protagonist observes and hangs on the outside not only of the lives of the African tribe, but also of his own life.  His artist wife, who accompanies him to the desert, is left to her own devices as he gallivants through the desert with the tribe and conducts his research.  While she paints and sketches and carves out a routine for herself in which she sits with the sick in the city hospital and does menial tasks, her husband is not with her and he seems to not even think of her much until he returns to her side.  What’s even more curious about these characters is that they seem well paired in that they both need to be alone to complete their work, though their philosophies about the privacy of notes/sketches are very different.

“What I think is interesting, she went on, is that for the list to be interesting you have to bring something else to it.  You have to want what’s on it, and that isn’t a matter of accuracy.  It’s not about the place but about you.”  (page 221-2)

John Colman Wood knows the best way to write about the research anthropologists conduct, while at the same time maintaining the reader’s engagement in the story of his protagonist and his wife.  Even though the research separates them, and the anthropologist seems indifferent to his wife’s suffering, it is clear that he understands her artistic nature and her need to be alone to observe.  However, these characters (who do remain nameless throughout the book) are separate but together on their journeys of observation, with only one of them truly connecting with something outside themselves.  Although The Names of Things is about how to define and deal with the grief that inevitably comes when we love, belong, and need one another, it also is about how we interact with those around us and how much a part of the community we become or not.  A well-written and paced debut novel that will surprise readers with its journey into the customs that bind us together and how they are shaped by the people that create them.

About the Author (Photo credit: Carol Young Wood):

John Colman Wood teaches at the University of North Carolina at Asheville. His field research with Gabra nomads of northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia has been funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the National Geographic Society, and the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology. His fiction has appeared in Anthropology and Humanism, and he has twice won the Ethnographic Fiction Prize of the Society for Humanistic Anthropology.

This is my 67th book for the New Authors Reading Challenge 2012.

Mailbox Monday #167

Mailbox Mondays (click the icon to check out the new blog) has gone on tour since Marcia at A Girl and Her Books, formerly The Printed Page passed the torch. This month’s host is Diary of an Eccentric.

Kristi of The Story Siren continues to sponsor her In My Mailbox meme.

Both of these memes allow bloggers to share what books they receive in the mail or through other means over the past week.

Just be warned that these posts can increase your TBR piles and wish lists.

Here’s what I received this week:

1.  What It Is Like to Go to War by Karl Marlantes, which I bought.

In 1968, at the age of twenty-three, Karl Marlantes was dropped into the highland jungle of Vietnam, an inexperienced lieutenant in command of a platoon of forty Marines who would live or die by his decisions. Marlantes survived, but like many of his brothers in arms, he has spent the last forty years dealing with his war experience. In What It Is Like to Go to War, Marlantes takes a deeply personal and candid look at what it is like to experience the ordeal of combat, critically examining how we might better prepare our soldiers for war. Marlantes weaves riveting accounts of his combat experiences with thoughtful analysis, self-examination, and his readings—from Homer to The Mahabharata to Jung. He makes it clear just how poorly prepared our nineteen-year-old warriors are for the psychological and spiritual aspects of the journey.

Just as Matterhorn is already being acclaimed as acclaimed as a classic of war literature, What It Is Like to Go to War is set to become required reading for anyone—soldier or civilian—interested in this visceral and all too essential part of the human experience.

2.  The Names of Things by John Colman Wood for review in May from Ashland Creek Press.

The anthropologist’s wife, an artist, didn’t want to follow her husband to the remote desert of northeast Africa to live with camel-herding nomads. But wanting to be with him, she endured the trip, only to fall desperately ill years later with a disease that leaves her husband with more questions than answers.

When the anthropologist discovers a deception that shatters his grief and guilt, he begins to reevaluate his love for his wife as well as his friendship with one of the nomads he studied. He returns to Africa to make sense of what happened, traveling into the far reaches of the Chalbi Desert, where he must sift through the layers of his memories and reconcile them with what he now knows.

3.  The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng for review in March from Myrmidon Books.

It’s Malaya, 1949. After studying law at Cambrige and time spent helping to prosecute Japanese war criminals, Yun Ling Teoh, herself the scarred lone survivor of a brutal Japanese wartime camp, seeks solace among the jungle fringed plantations of Northern Malaya where she grew up as a child. There she discovers Yugiri, the only Japanese garden in Malaya, and its owner and creator, the enigmatic Aritomo, exiled former gardener of the Emperor of Japan. Despite her hatred of the Japanese, Yun Ling seeks to engage Aritomo to create a garden in Kuala Lumpur, in memory of her sister who died in the camp. Aritomo refuses, but agrees to accept Yun Ling as his apprentice ‘until the monsoon comes’. Then she can design a garden for herself. As the months pass, Yun Ling finds herself intimately drawn to her sensei and his art while, outside the garden, the threat of murder and kidnapping from the guerrillas of the jungle hinterland increases with each passing day. But the Garden of Evening Mists is also a place of mystery. Who is Aritomo and how did he come to leave Japan? Why is it that Yun Ling’s friend and host Magnus Praetorius, seems to almost immune from the depredations of the Communists? What is the legend of ‘Yamashita’s Gold’ and does it have any basis in fact? And is the real story of how Yun Ling managed to survive the war perhaps the darkest secret of all?

4. A Demon Does It Better by Linda Wisdom, which I won from Peeking Between the Pages.

After more than a century, Doctor Lili Carter, witch healer extraordinaire, has returned to San Francisco and taken a job at Crying Souls Hospital and Asylum, where something peculiar and wicked his happening. Patients are disappearing, and Lil wants to know why. AND DOUBLY DANGEROUS FOR A DEMON… Lili finds herself undeniably attracted to perhaps the most mysterious patient of all-a demented but seriously sexy demon named Jared. What’s behind the gorgeous chameleon demon’s late-night escapades? Before long, Lili and Jared are investigating each other-and creating a whole new kind of magic.

What did you receive this week?