“Orphans: Essays” & “When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain”

A LitStack Rec

by Lauren Alwan & S.B.

In this LitStack Rec, we’ve got two captivating books just for you. Dive into the world of “Orphans: Essays” and experience the thrill of “When the Tiger Came Down The Mountain.” Get ready to embark on unforgettable literary adventures that will keep you hooked from beginning to end. Let’s get started!

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A Writer's Notebook and Dangerous Women
Orphans and When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain

Orphans: Essays, by Charles D’Ambrosio

Hold a copy of Orphans in your hand, and its singularity is apparent. With its small format and the slender ribbon bookmark, the book can easily be tucked into a pocket, kept close to be read anywhere. Published in 2005, Orphans has since become a cult classic. Originally a small-run edition from a Portland-based indie press, Clear Cut Press, the book quickly sold out and was never reprinted. And while you can still find copies online, you might pay a premium, but in my view, it’s worth it.

D’Ambrosio is the author of two story collections, The Point and The Dead Fish Museum, and Orphans includes essays previously published in The StrangerNestHarper’s, and The New Yorker, and take on a range of topics. A breaking news-variety stakeout by police and television crews. A fundamentalist haunted house in Texas. An eco-village outside Austin. A visit to an orphanage in Svirstroy, Russia. Each investigation applies a persistent questioning of language—especially language used to examine the public sphere—and a lonely and steadfast connection to place.

“Seattle, 1974” tracks the young writer’s youthful ambition and the nagging displacement of life in a provincial and isolated town. Seattle before the tech boom is a place known for a sitcom (Here Come the Brides), with wet weather and isolation and a singularity of things (“one dog a-barking, one car a-cranking”). Seattle—in fact the Northwest—doesn’t fit the dream:

Anyone born in geographical exile, anyone from the provinces, anyone for who the movements of culture feel rumored, anyone like this grows up anxiously aware that all the innovative and vital events in the world happen Back East, like way back, like probably France, but before expatriation can be accomplished in fact it is rehearsed and performed in the head. You make yourself clever and scoffing, ironic, deracinated, cold and quick to despise. You import your enthusiasms from the past, other languages, traditions . . . Pretty soon the word Paris takes on a numinous quality and you know you won’t be silent forever. Someday you’ll leave.

But in time Seattle wins out, and though the city becomes prosperous and hip, the vanished place remains inside the writer. This absence produces a yearning, one that’s probably familiar to anyone who’s seen a place change. If you’ve lived long enough, you can walk down a street you grew up on and all you see are absences, the buildings and streets razed to make way for the new, and the loss serves to make the place more your own.

Orphans
Charles D’Ambrosio

This sense of dislocation runs throughout Orphans. In “Brick Wall,” all that remains of an uncle’s Chicago bar is the wall of the title. The essay is a rumination on change, and the brick used to build Big Shoulders Chicago describes time, destruction and loss. In “Modular Homes,” D’Ambrosio tours the staged interiors of model properties, a “tableau vivant” of plastic food and ersatz framed photos. “All these houses,” he says, “are waiting for a future to come and haunt them.”

The collection’s title essay ventures into similar territory. D’Ambrosio visits an orphanage outside St. Petersburg, and the children he meets there are fixed in time and place, living apart from their history and the world beyond the orphanage. The life that lies ahead is unreal and largely abstract, as is the past, which for many of the children is so thin as to seem mythological. They collect and trade throwaways, old batteries and such, objects which in this institutional setting carry more weight than money: “The absence of ‘real’ money, fiat money, is essentially the absence of a future.”

There are other questions in Orphans, such as, how is it you can go to a place where for centuries whale has been eaten, but there’s none to be had? Or, what do the tableaus of death in a fundamentalist haunted house achieve in a morally confusing world? Or, how does a group of orphaned children find meaning in a world premised on loss? Sometimes the answer isn’t found in words:

Maybe more than the building itself, the land around the orphanage and the elaborate network of footpaths create for the kids a sense of place. There are trails through the birch and pine, across fields where, every spring, the kids burn leaves and work the ash into the soil and plant potatoes, trails that lead to the river, to the school, to the village, to ponds and creeks and springs flowing up from beneath the ground with cool, drinkable water, trails that are a story in themselves, worn by wandering feet over fifty years, worn by joy and hope and habit and need, trails like a sentence spoken, each a whisper about the surrounding world, a dialogue with doubt or desire that’s ultimately answered by a destination.

In showing this world, D’Ambrosio applies what he calls aesthetic pressure, and the result is a singular connection to place, one that undoes the familiar meaning of the word orphans. “The difference between the truth and a cliché is the difference between what we really know and what we’ve all heard about,” he says. Answers don’t always provide truth, but aesthetic pressure does. It brings us into contact with meaning—or to use the author’s infinitely more apt words, “the rich supple instrumentation of language that makes it an encounter with reality.”

Read more about the book, and the author, here.

—Lauren Alwan

Other Titles by Charles D’Ambrosio

When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain, by Nghi Vo

In March of 2020, Nghi Vo wrote an imaginative fantasy novella, The Empress of Salt and Fortune, which kicked off her debut series, The Singing Hills Cycle. This slim work garnered many awards and landed on numerous “best of” lists, incorporating the feel of Asian period drama, and centering around the power of storytelling and women’s voices.

The series continues with When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain, published in December. Once again, the vehicle for the tale is cleric Chih, who is tasked with documenting stories – and therefore history – for the Singing Hill abbey. This time, though, Chih must use their storytelling acumen to stave off danger in the form of three hungry tigers.

Nghi Vo (Author of The Empress of Salt and Fortune)
Nghi Vo

Chih has employed the services of young scout Si-yu and her mammoth, Piluk, to transport them through a northern passage before storms hit. But at the waystation halfway there, they are beset by a trio of tigers (who first present as women), who have already taken down the guard stationed there. Were it not for Piluk – who even for a young mammoth, is still intimidating to tigers – all would have been lost. But with quick thinking and astute riding skills, Chih and Si-yu are able to grab the unconscious man and take refuge in a small, open barn while the tigers – three sisters – languish just outside, waiting for opportunity – or increasing hunger – to overtake the travelers.

To keep the tigers engaged and docile, Chih barters their survival for a night of storytelling. The tigers do not agree to the freedom but do acquiesce to listening to their offered story of the marriage of Ho Thi Thao, the fiercest tigresses of all, to the human scholar Dieu. The night is spent with Chih relating the story as humans know it, and the chiding of Ho Sinh Loan, the elder tiger sister, as she condescendingly corrects the cleric, occasionally deigning to share the true story as tigers know it, demanding that they make a note of it in their journal, “so that they will find it after we eat you.”

This amazing small volume is episodic storytelling at its best; spare yet lush, imaginative yet based in folklore and reminiscent of epics such as One Thousand and One Nights. The legend of Ho Thi Thao – both human and tiger versions – is expansive, but it is the small details that surround the three tigers, the cleric, the scout (and even the mammoth!) that truly make this novella shine.

As Jake Casella Brookins says in the Chicago Review of Books: “One of the many points of brilliance in When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain is the space and voice Vo gives to the non-human, in how she lets them be tiger enough. Yes, they talk, may walk upright for now, but, like Waterson’s Hobbes, they never hesitate to remind us that humans’ real purpose is to be tiger-food; the tigers voices’ ripple with fierce and catlike hunger, arrogance, and territoriality. The centrality and authenticity of that non-human reality anchors the fantastic elements of the world, from mammoths to fox spirits.”

I found this second novella to be even more engaging than The Empress of Salt and Fortune; more personal, more dangerous, more immediate. Both, though, are unique and precious in this time of worldbuilding on a grand scale; Vo’s stories are contained in the throw of a campfire’s light rather than the brilliance of a thousand suns. But they shine as brightly, as good stories always do.

When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain is listed as “Volume 2 of 2” in the Singing Hills Cycle; I hope that Nghi Vo changes her mind and continues with the journeys of Chih and their storytelling. I, for one, am not ready to be finished with them yet.

—S.B.

Other Titles by Nghi Vo

Other LitStack Resources

Be sure and look at our other LitStack Recs for our recommendations on books you should read, as well as these reviews by Lauren Alwan, and these reviews by Sharon Browning.

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A Writer's Notebook and Dangerous Women

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