Saturday, July 30, 2011

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

This recently published work of non-fiction has elements of history, the politics of the cold war, ecology, biology, and botany all while spinning a terrific adventure story. None of this, however, gets bogged down in a morass of technical jargon, but the reader does become immersed in the mysterious and magical world of the “taiga” -- which is Russian for forest. This vast tract of evergreens has the distinction of being the largest biome in the world. It stretches across Eurasia and North America. The winters in the Russian portion drop as low as -60 degrees below zero. The summers are warm, rainy, and humid, with temperatures rising as high as 70 degrees. An enormous variety of insects invade the taiga in the summer, followed by a wide variety of birds to eat them. No roads, no buildings, no power lines – virtually nothing mars the landscape

The taiga also provides a home to wolverines, mink, sable, the lynx, and what most people know as the Siberian tiger, however, the “Amir” tiger is the correct name. The males frequently hover near 800 pounds, and 500 to 600 pound females commonly stalk this enormous forest.

John Vaillant, a writer frequently found in the pages of The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and National Geographic, builds his tale around a hunter in the taiga, Vladimir Markov and Yuri Trush, the squad leader of a SWAT team known as “Inspection Tiger.” This unit has the responsibility of dealing with crimes in the forest. Sometimes those crimes involve tigers – either because of poaching or attacks by tigers on humans in and around the edges of the taiga.

As the story opens, several friends of Markov find his remains in the forest. No doubt exists in their minds that he has fallen victim to a huge tiger. In fact, some of these tough, hard-bitten men, who live a life just barely out of the stone age, become physically sick at what they saw. They file a report with the local authorities, and Yuri Trush, part hunter, part policeman, part special forces soldier begins an investigation.

He assembles details of the last few days of Markov’s life by considering anecdotes from local hunters, loggers, and poachers, and most importantly, by tracking the tiger from the scene of the attack. Vaillant describes a tiger attack this way: “The impact…can be compared to that of a piano falling on you from a second story window. But unlike the piano, the tiger is designed to do this, and the impact is only the beginning” (270).

Some elements of the story stretch believability to extremes, but the stories of the men who know the taiga, the physical evidence, and historical records about the tigers, make for an interesting, fascinating, and exciting story. Vaillant does spend some time on the political and historical background of his unit and the taiga, but it did help my understanding of this wild and forbidding place. The last few chapters have a level of excitement far above anything I have read in a long, long time.

This story fascinated me from the moment I heard the author interview on NPR. The subtitle says all I needed to know: “A True Story of Vengeance and Survival.” 5 stars

--Chiron, 7/30/11

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

I Love a Broad Margin to My Life by Maxine Hong Kingston

An interview with Kingston aired on NPR, and I really wanted to like this verse memoir. A few of her poems had appeared in anthologies over the years, but none of them caused in me any over excitement. Her interview, on the other hand, sounded so interesting, I immediately went out and bought the book.

While the poem had its interesting moments, those were few and far between. Large sections slipped into stream of consciousness, compounded with some obscure cultural references. Some of those references are explained in a glossary, but some are not.

This example of such a passage might illustrate what I mean:

“Sleeping in public, jet-lagged, soul
loose from soul, body trusted itself to
the grass, the ground, the earth, the good earth,
and rested in that state where dream is wake,
wake is dream. Conscious you are conscious.
Climb – fly – high and higher, and know:
Now / Always, all connects to all.” (60)

However, I am not giving up on this book. I have really been busy with school and other projects, so I am going to set it aside and come back when I am in a calmer state of mind. 3 stars – for now!

--Chiron, 7/17/11

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Double Life of Alfred Buber by David Schmahmann

Undoubtedly, thousands of good novels find their way to bookstores every year, but the vast majority come from the big publishing conglomerates. Unfortunately, far too many really good novels pass almost unnoticed, because small and/or independent publishers issued them. Most of the time, the publicity for these novels comes as a result of gallons of sweat and struggle of those who labor in the marginalized world of the independent press. Permanent Press, as one example, has published a whole slew of interesting, well-written, and critically acclaimed novels. Yet…

Calls to the three major bookstores in Waco netted the following responses: “It’s not something we carry. We would have to order it. It would take 7-10 business days” (Barnes & Noble and Books-a-Million) and “That’s not popping up in my system at all” (Hastings).

Permanent Press has another winner on its hands. The Double Life of Alfred Buber by David Schmahmann – published in June – tells the story of a peculiar man who leaves his home in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) for an education in America. Alfred ends up in Boston and decides to go to law school. His father dies a couple of years later, and his mother packs up and moves to England.

From the first page, it is evident that Schmahmann has produced an interior monologue of the first order. While not as humorless as Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and only slightly below the prose of Nabokov, this interesting and eccentric character spins a tale which blurs the line between reality and fantasy, the rational and the ridiculous.

Alfred has built his life around a series of paradoxes. He constantly contradicts himself, and this self-confusion leads him down a path some might consider sordid. I happen to believe this quality interior monologue provides incredible insights into the workings of an eccentric mind. A few scenes in the “Star of Love Bar” provide the gritty and perilous nature of some of Alfred’s fantasies.

As the novel reaches its conclusion, Alfred’s fantasies confuse him further as his double life is revealed. Recently published, you will most likely have to order this novel, but it is more than worthwhile – even with a great deal of effort. Amazon carries it, and you can get it in a couple of days. I need to do even more of my shopping there and stop wasting gas around here. 5 stars

--Chiron, 7/11/11

Friday, July 08, 2011

When She Woke by Hillary Jordan

I had the good fortune to have Ms Jordan "visit" my book club when we read Mudbound a couple of years ago. She told us about her next novel, which then had a working title of Red. Needless to say, I have been anxiously awaiting its release. The Summer ALA Convention netted me an uncorrected proof, now titled When She Woke. I immediately moved it to the top of my TBR pile.

When I finished part one, I was nervous. I thought the main character’s name, Hannah Payne, a bit too obvious parallel to Hester Prynne, but I liked Reverend Aidan Dale's name. I hoped the name Pearl would not pop up, but when it appeared, I realized the single use of “Pearl” represented a turning point in Hannah’s life. All my trepidations about the parallels with Hawthorne melted away.

My list of dystopian novels I really admire runs pretty thin: Handmaid's Tale is the gold standard. Atwood really gets into Offred's mind. McCarthy’s The Road is a close second. Updike's version of The Scarlet Letter in three parts represents a rare retelling of a classic I love and admire. But, as I approached the final chapter of When She Woke, I knew Jordan measured up to these standards. I could hardly put it down.

Hannah Payne has committed what her family and church view as an unspeakable crime. With the death penalty abolished, convicted criminals are “chromed” the color of their crimes. Hannah has, in society’s view, murdered an unnamed child, and thus, when she wakes, she is entirely red. She will serve only 30 days in prison for a period of acclimation. When released, she will reenter the world as an outcast, a pariah of the worst sort. She will get no sympathy – even from her own mother, and she will be barred from employment and residence in most places. Businesses will refuse to serve her, and strangers will treat her as a wild, rabid animal. Hannah will have virtually no protection from, or recourse for, such treatment.

Jordan has created a setting in Texas, which is chillingly similar to the way far too many people I know would like Texas and the United States to be -- submissive women, all reproductive freedoms squashed, and fundamentalist Christians ruling most aspects of people’s lives. One character moves to Washington to join the president’s cabinet as the Secretary of Faith! I had a creepy feeling when Crawford, Austin, Dallas, Plano, and the fortunately fictional “creation museum” in Waco were mentioned.

Into this disturbing landscape, Jordan has planted several orchids -- scenes of quiet, gentle, pleasant intimacy that carried me above the horror of the society which entrapped Hannah.

As the novel progressed, the tension and the excitement mounted. It literally took me four hours to read the last 60 pages – fear struck me about possible endings I did not want to see. When I finally reached the last page, I closed the book and cried.

After my experience with Mudbound, I did not think Jordan could match that novel for the sheer power of the story, the wonderful characters, and the setting. I was prepared for disappointment – but secretly, I hoped for another triumph, and she has done it.

Unfortunately, I cannot quote from an uncorrected proof, but the novel is due for publication in October. I will buy a copy and insert some quotes into this review and re-post. This will definitely be at the top of my list for best reads of 2011. I cannot imagine anything better.

--Chiron, 7/8/11

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

If someone set out to write a book that would frustrate all believers in the “Rule of 50,” this book would win the prize. A friend recommended this book, and she has a good track record with me, so I decided to read it. I struggled past the first fifty pages with characters I did not like, and a story line I had difficulty following because of all the bungie jumps through time. Only occasionally did a clue appear hinting at a time shift.

Another annoying habit of Egan’s involved her suddenly telling the reader what would happen to a character in the next 20 or 30 years. She often dropped these as an afterthought at the end of a chapter.

Egan wrote one chapter entirely in second person. A cheap trick and a tired gimmick, if you ask me. Chapter 12 took the form of a power point with flow charts and pie graphs. Like the form in its usual incarnations in business meetings, this chapter had “No power and no point.” I could not even begin to tell you what ideas this chapter tried to convey. All I got out of it was a well-scratched head.

The characters who populate this story had not one ounce of charisma – except for a few women characters drooled over by some of the men. Second-hand charisma is phony.

A Pulitzer Prize? Give me a break. A Visit from the Goon Squad doesn’t even come close to any book awarded the Booker Prize.

This novel is gimmicky and not worth the read. 1 star

--Chiron, 7/4/11

Friday, July 01, 2011

To Kill A Mockingbird [Theater Version] by Christopher Sergel

A member of our club directed this play at my college, so we thought it would be fun to read the script and talk about the play. Of course we had all read the book – several times in some cases – so the comparisons to the book and the play became inevitable.

Personally, reading plays does not appeal to me in the least. Plays were meant to be heard and acted out. I only enjoyed this because I am so familiar with the book, and I could fill in gaps. Most of the important ideas from the book were captured, but I much prefer Harper Lee’s voice providing description and background than Miss Maudie.

In our stage version, the character providing the background was an older Scout reminiscing. That seems much more appropriate to me, since the story is Scout’s and her coming of age and understanding about racism in the South.

I gave this version less than five stars, only because it is not the book. A reader who enjoys reading plays will undoubtedly score it higher. 4 stars.

--Chiron, 6/30/11