Monday, January 24, 2011

The Third Bear, a Review

Jeff VanderMeer's The Third Bear has been on my TBR pile for quite a while now. I've never read anything by the author, though his highly acclaimed novel Finch has garnered a load of attention. Likewise, his collection of bizarre short stories contained in The Third Bear has collected lauds and nods from nearly every review I've read. The book has a strange type of magic that charms the reader and takes him on a journey like never before.

So I made preparations to read this book, curiosity piqued. The library purchased it on my suggestion, and then when the book arrived, I promptly forgot about it. Too many other things to read. Carl (of Stainless Steel Droppings, check out his fantastic blog) posted a review last week on this book, and his eloquence reminded me about my library request. That very day I went and picked up VanderMeer's work. I was immediately stricken.

There's really no good way to describe this book. It defies genres. It defies expectations and normal thinking, subverting tropes and typical story-telling methodology for something unique and unforgettable. There are some stories that, upon completion, I couldn't bring myself to describe coherently, even if the tale was spectacular. This holds true for many of the stories, the inability to put into words what you just read, but it only serves to make the reading experience all the better.

For this reason, there's no way I could give reviews to each story in this collection. I don't know if I could pick my favorite, as nearly all have their own speciality, but a few of my favorites are below.

The titular tale, "The Third Bear," is a dark and somewhat familiar story. It reads like an old fairy tale, and the growing sense of dread throughout makes for an unsettling read.

"The Situation" is baffling. Part office-life, part post-apocalyptic, part Idon'thaveaclue, this story sealed the deal for me. I read it after reading "The Third Bear" (which I recommend you do as well, even though it doesn't follow the story in the layout of the book) and noticed a few coincidences that I could not ignore. I'm not sure at all how to describe what's going on in this story, but I highly recommend you read it.

"Errata" is possibly the weirdest piece of fiction I've ever read. I daresay fiction because the story is about a writer named Jeff VanderMeer and he's working on a story around Lake Baikal. The thing reads as a letter written by VanderMeer to an editor and seems to be taken as a true story. Suffice it say that this story unfolded beautifully and still lingers in my mind.

"The Surgeon's Tale" is probably the longest piece in this collection, but one of my favorites. It's reminiscent of Frankenstein, but it's also much more. This tale was emotional and beautifully written. I could smell the sea salt on the pages. I could watch the sargassum dance beneath the surface. The protagonist's longing was tragic, but his love was uncanny.

And lastly is "Appoggiatura," a story so twisted and confusing, so different, so essential, that it practically begs to be re-read immediately. Reading this was like catching glimmers of the City out of the corners of my eyes, almost as if I myself were somehow involved in the rich tales collected in the book.

I think one of the main reasons I enjoyed The Third Bear so much is because Jeff VanderMeer knows his craft. It's like taking a Salvador
DalĂ­ and transmogrifying it into prose.  His voice is strong; his imagery is top-notch; his creativity is uncapped. I'm tempted to say I've never read a work that evokes more imagery in the mind than this book (see the remarks regarding "The Surgeon's Tale"). His prose is fluid, flowing through the surreal landscapes he's created with ease, making the reader feel both comfortable and lost. He takes little-to-no time explaining himself, but instead leaves what he's told as fact and we're to accept it and go on. There's no reasoning why the rabbit can talk in "The Quickening," it just can. Once these weird truths are accepted, the stories shine like a reappearing sun after an eclipse, bright and glorious.

After finishing "Appoggiatura" and the Author's Note, I felt the desire to return to some earlier tales, though I resisted this urge. Some other day.

Am I gushing? Perhaps, but The Third Bear is worthy of it. The book was so unlike anything I've ever read that it has me wanting to read the rest of VanderMeer's catalog immediately. If you're in a rut and tired of reading the same thing over and over, check this book out. Or, if you're just wanting to experience the thrill of Vandermeer's magical oddity, do yourself a favor and read The Third Bear. I can't recommend it enough.

Oh, and do check out Carl's review (here). Some of these stories are available for free online, and Carl's got all these links collected for your viewing pleasure.

10 comments:

Carl V. said...

Great review! I'm so glad you enjoyed it as much as I did. These stories truly are unique and different from the genre stories that I typically read. I read an interview with Vandermeer the other day and he mentioned that the back cover copy was wrong and that this is actually his fourth collection of short stories, so I'm going to have to track down the others.

And speaking of Vandermeer, you should check out this post he wrote about the stories in The Third Bear:

http://www.jeffvandermeer.com/2011/01/23/the-third-bear-the-lives-of-short-stories/

I'm always happy to know that my gushing is echoed in the responses that other people have to the same work.

Abbie Josephsen said...

Very interesting! Thanks for the review :) I'll have to check it out :)

contemplatrix said...

my library doesn't have it! will have to request it, or hunt it down by other means.. but they have "Finch" (2009) and it looks kinda interesting, so I might try that in the meantime.. and of course follow some of Carl's links.

great review!

~L

David Wagner said...

Man, my "to read" list just keeps on growing. Consider this book added. You done good, mr. Reviewer!

logankstewart said...

@Carl: Thanks for reminding me that I've been meaning to read it. Great stuff.

@Abbie: Thanks!

@L: Oh, do request. My library doesn't have Finch, but I'm thinking of requesting it now.

@Dave: I think you'll like it, friend.

Carl V. said...

Finch is a good choice. It was my first experience with Vandermeer and it sold me. Very different, but very engaging and solid storytelling. Will be unlike anything you've read, with perhaps the exception of The Situation, which you've read in this collection.

Okie said...

I've only vaguely heard of this book but reading your review has me thoroughly intrigued. I'll have to see where I can pick up a copy. Might just have to order it.

Thanks for the great review.


As a heads up, I have just awarded you the "Stylish Blogger Award" over on my blog.

Woo-hoo! :)

logankstewart said...

@Carl: Finch will be requested for the library to purchase, or at least I hope they buy it...

@Okie: Oh, an award! Thanks! And I hope you like this book. It's fantastic.

Kristopher A. Denby said...

Dang, Lo, you should be a salesman, because I'm sold. I guess I'll be buying this and giving it a try.

Great review, and thanks for showing me something new. I've heard Niall over at The Speculative Scotsman mention Vandermeer before, but I never really knew what he was all about.

The way you describe this, it sounds right up my alley.

Thanks!

The Sound and Fury of Kristopher A. Denby

logankstewart said...

@Kris: It's easy when the source material is so good. Hope you like the book!