Monday, May 23, 2011

The Tiger - A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant


I am sitting here in my fully adjustable office chair in a large, environmentally controlled dwelling listening to one of thousands of songs that I have downloaded instantly over a high speed network connection. The cursor on the LCD monitor in front of me flashes rhythmically, awaiting my next thought. Ready to serve my whim. It is all ready to serve my whim. For I am Homo Sapiens, winner of the millennial-old battle for biologic supremacy on planet earth. Master of the iPod, social network and internal combustion engine. There is nothing that nature provides that is not mine by right. It is all mine and I am legion.

This is precisely the sort of illusion that is eviscerated -violently, and explosively- in John Vaillant's true story of the Russian far east and the tigers that live there in fragile co-existence with dirt-poor subsistence villagers and indigenous people.  Predatory big cats, like the one central to this story have been our partners in evolution. They are, as John Vaillant so eloquently argues, the reason that we hide in caves when the sun goes down and have an abiding fear of the dark that still exists in our collective, primeval minds. 

Much like his first book, The Golden Spruce, there is a focus here, but it is not a very tight one. Mr. Vaillant uses the central narrative as a nucleus from which he spins arguments about conservation, political and social injustice and, at one point, one of the most fascinating philosophical discussions on the nature of empathy I've ever come across.

The Tiger is a perfect illustration of the "truth is stranger than fiction" principle. It is a horror story, a love story, and a Shakespearian tragedy of monumental proportions. We eat. And we are eaten. A more epic story of man's place in the natural order has not been penned since Grendel came knocking on Beowulf's keep. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Admitting Defeat


T.S. Eliot was onto something when he declared April "The cruelest month". It is a stagnant month of schizophrenic weather. Old Man Winter says a long goodbye and steps out the door only to realize that he`s forgot his hat. So he comes back, and hey, he might as well have one more for the road. The bastard. It has also been my worst reading month in recent memory, as evidenced by the complete lack of bloggerific content here of late. I'm not going to apologize for that because I suspect the three of you who read this don't really care about my lack of motivation.

So instead I will appeal to your boundless sympathy. It is a strange phenomenon, reading. Strange how it gets a little harder to do as we get older. I don't have any hard data to back up that claim, but I have seen it happen with my own eyes. My father, for example is one of the most avid and voracious readers I know but lately he seems unable or unwilling to dive into a book and see it through to completion. Maybe it's due to a certain inflexibility of the mind that upsets us when a book doesn't conform to familiar paradigms, maybe it's because we are busy with other things, or, hell, maybe it's just a dry spell. Whatever the case, here are the books that have defeated me since I last shouted my love of The Wise Man's Fear from this little rooftop...

1. The Sentimentalists by Johanna Skibsrud

I lurched to the end of this one feeling like I've been through a more traumatic experience than the central character who watched villagers get slaughtered during the Vietnam War. Mrs Skibsurd can not finish a thought without lapsing into at least three asides, making everything feel like disjointed fluffy nonsense. It's too bad because the idea is interesting, it just gets hamstrung by an overly poetic style.

2. You Are Not A Gadget by Jaron Lanier

I made it to page fifty two. Fifty two out of two hundred and seven. I think I was enjoying it, but I'm not really sure. The topic of information technology bulldozing the intuitive power of human creativity is of profound interest to me (It's one of the reasons behind my exodus from Facebook) but this book was the square peg being forced through the round hole of my reading appetite. I was in the mood for something else when I started this. It was a bit like eating broccoli for desert. I will revisit you at another time Mr. Lanier. After I have some cheesecake.

3. The Piano Man's Daughter by Timothy Findley

This was meant to be my cheesecake; and for a while it was. Timothy Findley's reputation as a master word-smith is on full display. The characters are wonderfully drawn and comfortably relatable. It is four hundred and ninety four pages long. I made it to one-sixteen. You might be wondering at this point what the hell my problem is. Well, aside from a mysterious and uncomfortable outbreak of acne on the back of my neck, I really can't say for sure. Let's just say that this was chocolate cheesecake. I wanted strawberry. Also, I was intimidated by all the piano stuff. Pianos make me uneasy.

Never fear, loyal readers! I am currently neck-deep in a truly awesome book that is re-igniting my passion for the pastime. I've got the review coming soon, as well as a list of good summer beach reads. Until then, I'll see you at the library. That's right, The LIBRARY. If I'm not going to finish it, I'm not going to pay for it.