Sara June Woods' Wolf Doctors Book Review by Jessica Thompson

WD_coverIn addition to being an editor for weirderary, I am an editor for Saw Palm, an MFA student, and a graduate instructor. When I read for the lit mags, I’m trying to decide whether to accept or reject—fairly quickly, if possible. When I read my students’ and classmates’ work, I’m looking for suggestions for improvement. For this end, I’ve had to develop mental checklists, shortcuts that help me make snap judgments.
When I first read Wolf Doctors by Sara June Woods for pleasure, I enjoyed it. I felt the excitement I used to feel as a child and teen when I’d stumble upon a book that resonated with me, that I couldn’t put down. At the same time, I felt unsettled because I couldn’t articulate why I enjoyed it. The critical part of my brain badly wanted to know how to categorize the book. I had an urge to know which genre conventions to hold it against so I could critique it the way I often do lit mag submissions and workshop pieces. Was I facing poetry that had beautiful language, but maybe a few too many abstractions, or flash fiction with intriguing plot lines that could use more character development? Surely everyone would agree it was experimental, but was it experimental for a reason?
Recognizing this critical urge and my impulse to read through the lens of writing “rules” scared me. Is obtaining an MFA making me a more rigid reader, and as a result, making reading less enjoyable for me? I decided to push aside this critical focus and face the page with the same open mind I had prior to obtaining formal creative writing education. Why should I care if a piece of writing is considered fiction, poetry, experimental, hybrid, or something else? Isn’t how it makes me feel and what it makes me think what matters? Didn’t my friends and I start a lit mag almost entirely based on this idea of taking risks and pushing boundaries?
I reread Wolf Doctors, this time with an open mind, without any desire to categorize or critique. Instead, I desired to allow the writing to be what it was, and to allow myself to respond to it intuitively and emotionally rather than intellectually or according to any type of rules. The experience was awesome. This will surely sound like hyperbole, but reading and rereading this book made me both a happier and more laidback reader. It reminded me to focus on the spirit of a piece, rather than how closely the piece adheres to technical conventions.
Wolf Doctors is a very funny book. The first section opens with, “I am always having a party. When I am in the shower in the morning, shampoo party. This is how I live. Everything I do is a party. A funeral? That’s just a party with a new ghost.” This piece takes a turn toward sadness, but continues with the same playful tone, which is carried throughout much of the book. It often feels darkly comedic, as if the author wrote the book in a spirit of playfulness, cleverness, and humor, and that spirit shines through even when the author deals with depressing content.
There were several points in Wolf Doctors at which I laughed aloud. Sometimes it was hilarious imagery. For example, “I want to have dogs for arms. Dog-arms. I want to open my dual dog-mouths like fists and watch them eat Science Diet,” on page forty-three. Other times, it’s a play on expectations: “There are three times as many cats in this room as I would like for there to be. There are eight cats in this room, and I would like for there to be two and a bloody third of a cat, still a little bit alive,” on page sixteen. Other times, I would not be able to articulate what it was that made me laugh. I could just, again, sense that the author wrote with a sense of playfulness.
But, this is weirderary, not funnyerary, so you’re probably wanting to know what else makes Wolf Doctors unusual. It immediately sets itself apart by its unique form. Instead of being organized by chapters, each section begins with a short “writing prompt” that relates thematically to the short pieces within that section. My favorite description is probably “writing prompt #2,” which reads, “This is a poem. This is me shooting you in the face from point blank range with a t-shirt gun. This is a poem.” The form feels clever and playful, as if it is both celebrating and lightly mocking writing prompts at the same time.
Another nice thing about Wolf Doctors is that the book cover is lovely to touch. It’s smooth in a way most book covers are not. When I publish my first book, I’m literally going to bring the publisher this book and say, “I want my book to feel like this.” I think on a subconscious level, the more enjoyable tactile experience of holding the book would make people want to hold it longer, and share it with more of their friends. I’m sure that sounds like a superficial thing to mention, but after you buy it (from Curbside Splendor for only $9.95) and have it in your hands, you’ll understand.
Jessica Thompson is a Chicagoan currently living in Florida. In addition to writing fiction and creative nonfiction, she edits weirderary and hosts the monthly live lit event, First Draft. Her work has appeared in theEEEL and revolver.

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