The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival – John Vaillant (2010)

This was, unusually for a reread, another great all-encompassing reading experience which managed to allow me to travel to the far eastern reaches of Siberia to follow the events that happened in a small struggling village deep in the forest. It’s what happens when humans and predators (of the animal sort) have to overlap due to reduced natural environment and resources, and it’s what can go extraordinarily wrong when this situation occurs. 

Vaillant is a well-respected journalist with work printed in prestigious outlets such as The New Yorker and The Atlantic, and his writing demonstrates his skill in how he handles the text. He was born in the U.S., but has lived in Vancouver for some time now, and most of his books cover current topics with a focus towards the natural environment. 

As mentioned, I’d read “The Tiger” before (preblog), and, being a little fed up with the never-ending sun and heat of the West Texas summer, I was searching for a read that would take me to a cooler location, even if it was only in my head.  Combine excellent writing and wordsmithing with an amazing true story, and you’ve got me. 

John Vaillant

The narration is mostly placed in eastern Siberia, in the area known mostly for logging. It’s sparsely inhabited (with ref to humans) and is a very harsh environment with temperatures regularly falling deep below freezing for weeks and months at a time. Only the hardy survive. 

Logging has been significantly reducing the forest (called the taiga) and there is widespread poverty amongst those who live there. Limited resources make people and animals desperate and the shrinking wild land makes it much more likely that human activity will necessarily overlap with natural boundaries already well established. 

It’s because of this growing overlap that Vaillant can write this riveting story. Amur tigers used to be quite a frequent sight in this region, but their numbers had been falling over the years. Already a predator, one of the local tigers had attacked and killed one of the villagers. But why? After decades of living quite peacefully together, each in their own world, what happened for the tiger to attack the man? And why did the tiger not only kill the man, but rip him to shreds, much more than would be necessary just to make sure he died? Absolute shreds.

When another villager has a similar hair-raising encounter (but this time he survives), the local nature reservation agents become alarmed. When the tiger starts behaving as though he (or she) has a personal vendetta against particular villagers, the occasion starts to take on a new level of importance. The villagers live deep in the forest and they would have little chance of staying alive without venturing into the surrounding forest for food and fuel… And why was the tiger suddenly paying attention to them? 

The book covers quite a short space of time, calendar-wise – perhaps one month or so – and through Vaillant’s careful and descriptive reporting style, you as the reader are taken along on the journey as local experts try to combine modern-day science with years-old traditional folklore to try to understand why the intricate balance has been thrown off between these two otherwise fairly symbiotic parties. 

By the time that I turned that last page, I was full of admiration for everyone involved: the tiger himself (who was only doing what years of evolution has taught him to do – plus a little personal vendetta-ing combined), the villagers (again, desperate straits) and the nature agents who were brought in to solve the conundrum. It was an extremely fraught situation but with climate change continuing to worsen at this point, I would bet that these sort of natural world overlaps will become more and more common as resources shrink. 

Quite an amazing story – even for a reread! Now, I’m adding Vaillant’s other work to my other TBR… 

Who loves their library? I do.

Happened to pay a visit to the local library the other day, although heaven knows why as I have loads of books at home. It’s that Hunting and Gathering instinct or something. 🙂

Picked up a mix of both NF and F, but mostly NF. From bottom to top, here is what I brought home with me:

  • DK EyeWitness Books: Buildings. (Just love these books.)
  • Does This Make Me Look Fat? The Definitive Rules for Dressing Thin for Every Height, Size and Shape – Leah Feldon (NF – fashion/style?)
  • The Jaguar’s Children – John Vaillant (F) I really enjoyed his book about an Amur Tiger (post to come) and then saw that Vaillant had also published a novel about life in the borderland… We’ll see if his NF talent translates to the F world.
  • Crossing to Safety – Wallace Stegner (F)
  • Africa in my Blood: An Autobiographic in Letters: The Early Years – Jane Goodall (NF) about her time in Africa studying the chimpanzees..
  • Sweetness and Light: The Mysterious History of the Honeybee – Hattie Ellis… about bees…
  • How to Get Dressed: A Costume Designer’s Secrets for Making your Clothes Look and Feel Amazing – Alison Freer (NF) – fashion/style.

Swabbing the Decks – End of Summer Edition

swab_decksWell, classes on campus start this week which means that summer is now dusted and over, at least in terms of (no) job responsibilities etc. The really hot temps are going to be around for at least another two months (if not more), and the weather forecasters warned this morning of temperatures around 106 and 109 this week. Crikey. That’s a bit too hot for me. (ETA (later the same day): It was up to 115 degrees in my car today. Wah.)

Still, I’m ready for school to start and to get back into that routine. I really enjoyed the summer though and wouldn’t turn down a few more days of doing-not-much if it was offered to me! We have a week or so of school, then it’s Labor Day and then we’re back into the academic calendar for realz.

Seeing as it’s going to be sooooo hot this week outside, I foresee quite a lot of staying inside the house in the AC, so perhaps a jigsaw puzzle may be in order over the next day or two. I have a couple in the cupboard that I could finish and I haven’t done a puzzle for quite some time.

This semester, I’m scheduled to teach the same class but this time only having the lecture class. (So me talking to about 60 students about the topic). In previous years, I’ve typically had a lab as well as the lecture, which means that I get 20 of those 60 students mentioned above, but in a smaller computer classroom with lots of one-on-one time and lots of grading. But – no lab for me means no grading which means more extra time which is a nice unforeseen bonus. What to do with the extra time…? 🙂

Reading-wise, I seem to be over the lassitude of late summer (and fatigue from summer school) and now I’m reading up a storm. (Reviews to come.) I’d like to start picking up some more POC reads. Since the demise of Toni Morrison, perhaps I should read one of her titles? Haven’t read her for quite some time. (In case you’re curious, here are my thoughts on Sula, Beloved, and Jazz…)

Movies? We saw the latest Tarantino one – “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” which is a slow-burning movie but pretty good overall. Tomorrow, I think we’re off to see the British movie, “Blinded by the Light” which has 90 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Curiously, the movie is also set in 1980s Luton, a small town close to where I grew up in England and a town where nothing much ever seemed to happen. Despite that, this year I’ve read a fiction book set there (The Thrill of it All) and now this movie… Who knows what will happen to that metropolis in the future? The world is its oyster, right now.  🙂

Hit the back-to-school sales for some new back-to-work clothing, but it’s far too hot to wear anything that is remotely related to autumnal sartorial choices. Right now – we’re probably going to hit the outside pool this weekend. (Wear your sunscreen, folks. A free PSA for you.)

Hope your seasonal changes are going smoothly as well!

The Illustrated Man – Ray Bradbury (2012)

I am rather a FanGirl of Ray Bradbury’s work (see Fahrenheit 451, Dandelion Wine, Farewell Summer, The Martian Chronicles…) and knew that this would probably a really good solid read. It’s short stories, mostly speculative fiction (my favorite type of scifi) and all written to the close-to-perfect Bradbury standards.

Interestingly, unlike other collections of short stories that I’ve read, this one didn’t seem to have any particular weak stories in it. (Hard to believe, I know, but he’s such a great writer that perhaps it’s not that tough to swallow.) I did learn an important lesson about how to read such an anthology, and that is not to read the stories back-to-back for ages. If you do that (or least this happened to me), the stories lose their special a bit by blending together, so my suggestion (learned from experience) is to space these stories out over a few days, just reading a few here and there with something else in-between.

I faced just that problem in the middle bit, and so when I reread this collection (which I will at some point – too good not to!), I’ll know not to binge on them.

If you’re familiar with Bradbury’s work, you’ll know what to expect: expert writing craftsmanship with a sci-fi set up but with a domestic and unexpected twist. You know – they remind me of that old British TV series called “Tales of the Unexpected” (who featured short stories written by Roald Dahl). The story is moving along a fairly predictable narrative arc until right at the end, there’s a helluva twist to wake you up.

The stories featured in “The Illustrated Man” were published between 1948-1981, so a wide breadth of influences but all with a common theme of space: aliens visit earth, earth humans visit Mars and so on – but usually with an overlay of larger societal issues (such as racism and other characteristics of the human race). I just loved it. (The mention of the Illustrated Man (in the title) is a rather tenuous connection tool to link these disparate stories together. The collection doesn’t really need it or use it though.)

Favorite stories? Ohh. Hard to pick because, really, all 18 of the stories were thoroughly enjoyable reads. There were some scary (to me) stories in the middle, so had to stop reading that patch at night, but then, when I next picked it up, either I had got braver or the stories were less scary. But so good!!

Luckily, Bradbury was a prolific writer and has loads of other works out there for me to track down. I can safely say that I’m an even stronger FanGirl than I was. 😉

The Lady and the Panda – Vicki Constantine Croke (2005)

Subtitle: The true adventures of the first American explorer to bring back China’s most exotic animal.

Strolling around the library bookshelves, I happened upon the biography section and then within that, the biographies-which-include-animals-somehow section. Oh happy times. I’m always up for an animal read, but combine that with the life story of an interesting woman doing exploring during 1930s Shanghai? You had me at hello.

This is the joy of browsing at the library. I had no idea this book (or topic combination even existed)… I’m psyched to go and dig around and find more treasures the next time I visit there.

So – about this title. As the subtitle briefly mentions, it’s a biography of American Ruth Harkness, who went to China to bring back to the U.S. its first live baby giant panda. At this time in the world, giant pandas were just being brought to the fore for the general public across the world, but the few pandas who had been brought to the West by (male) explorers had been killed for their skins. No one had even considered the possibility of bringing a live giant panda, let alone a live baby one. Add to that, the story of a neophyte female explorer traveling through bamboo forests without much support, financial or otherwise. There lies a fascinating tale…

Harkness with two of the young giant pandas she traveled with. (Credit: Mary Labisco.)

Some background: Harkness, quite a wealthy socialite, had met her husband at parties in NYC and he had been swept up in the exploring craze of the time. The hubby had planned several long trips to faraway places, including China, but on one of those trips, he became ill and then died.

Harkness had only been married a couple of years by then, but with her money, newly widowed and rather at a loss for something to do, Harkness picked up the exploring reins left behind by her husband – much to the horror and disbelief of her well-heeled friends and family. (Plus – she was a woman! Who had ever heard of such a thing?)

This tracks Harkness’s preparations (what little there were) for her first exploration trip. China at that time, was not that well-known by a lot of the West and so Harkness’s choice to travel to this mostly-unknown destination by herself to finish up what her husband had started was hard to believe for many people.

It’s really a fascinating story. Harkness doesn’t really seem like such a likable person, but she was determined, she didn’t know what she didn’t know yet and so in her view, this was just another adventure to a new place. This lack of knowledge really helped her, I think, as she wasn’t aware of some of the major difficulties that would lie ahead. Ignorance is bliss.

And she wasn’t the only Western explorer racing to bring back a live giant panda to worldwide zoos. There were other more-experienced and more well-funded men who were also in the race, so not only was this a project running against time and resources, it was also a gender-based race as well. The odds were heavily against Harkness.

Harkness appears to have been one of the few Western explorers who truly respected China and its people. Once she was there, she felt as though she had arrived home, and this connection pulled her through some of the more-challenging parts of the months-long journey. She also really cared about the well-being of the actual giant pandas that she found (compared with the other explorers who saw them only as a product, dead or alive).

It’s a fascinating read since it covers so much: the Jazz Age, Shanghai (from both the expat and the native perspective), the cultural mores of the time, and the numerous moving pieces that make up a lengthy exploring venture.

Croke is a sympathetic author and has done her research. She uses a lot of primary sources as reference material along with interviewing various Harkness relatives, even traveling with some back to China to retrace Harkness’ travels and to walk some of the same paths.

There are a few patches when Croke crosses over into FanGirl territory, but to be honest, Harkness was an admirable person in many ways so there’s not much wrong with that. Besides, the enthusiasm is well-balanced with less-savory aspects of Harkness so it worked for me.

This was such a good read about an interesting person at a time when much was changing across the globe. Add baby giant pandas to the mix, and it was a fun title to dig into this summer.

Recommend it.

Random note: I happened to be using a bookmark from the World Wildlife Fund, and their logo is a panda. Worlds colliding! 🙂

New summer arrivals at JOMP

A few new titles have slid in past the goalie in the past few weeks so thought I’d give you the deets on those:

Vacationland – John Hodgeman (NF). (From a good write-up over at What’s Nonfiction? Super-good NF blog.)

Birdie -Tracey Lindberg (F) – Bought in Vancouver and by an indigenous author.

Writing without Bullshit – Josh Bernoff (NF). Bernoff was a speaker at a work conference I attended earlier this summer. Made some excellent points about professional writing/editing and I was impressed enough by what he had to say to fork over some money for his book. (That rarely happens…)

From Holmes to Sherlock: The Story of the Men and Women who Created an Icon – Mattias Bostrom (trans. Michael Gallagher). Not quite sure where I found this title, but I’m a Sherlock fangirl so looking forward to this NF title.