Thursday, September 9, 2010

Back again. With a tiger.

I tried to post this on my old blog... and realized how much I don't like the Tripod blog tool. So, here I am!

Amanda Earl's kicked me into action with a great short rant on her blog about the lack of coverage of literary events in Ottawa. How come a town that's so booming in very cool indie publications covering the arts, fashion, culture and theatre somehow manages to get less publicity for the literary side of things? Not no publicity, but somehow tangibly less. It's a little more lackluster.

I might argue that maybe the literary scene is more insular, but I don't really think that's the case. Maybe all the poets already know each other, and so don't think to promote? Or maybe, as Amanda suggests, people see the word 'poetry' and assume, well, that can't be cool? (and in this case I'm talking about page poetry, since the spoken word scene is booming, and 'cool' is pretty much the word everyone involved in it would use to describe poetry.) 

Don't know. But Amanda said, get out there and blog. So, with my fire lit again (and sadly, just before I'm about to be eaten by the Writers Festival) I'm going to try to get back to blogging.

Although, the Festival is about to eat me. The first event is next Friday, and, coincidentally, I've been wanting to write about it. It's a book launch for John Vaillant's book The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival. It's usually pretty hard for me to read all or even most of the books that we feature at the Festival, but I've been giving it a try this season, and I lucked out with The Tiger. It took me only a few days to read. Can I use the word 'gripping' without sounding like a cheeseball?

The book follows a series of actual events in the far eastern corner of Russia, an area called Primorye, which is sandwiched in alongside Mongolia, and is a surprisingly alien place. His descriptions of the land make it sound like the Genesis planet: his coinage for it is 'boreal jungle,' the sort of place where it's 30 below but there are tigers and jaguars alongside the wolverines and caribou, and where the native population, who share a lot of physical traits with the Inuit, are sharing their space with emigrated ethnic Russians from the western end of the country.

The book starts with a hunter who is killed by a Siberian tiger, the world's biggest cat, and with a group of men who are, essentially forest rangers, although out here most of the forest rangers are ex-military, as are a lot of the poachers they deal with. It follows the tiger, which is not just hunting people, but destroying them, leaving virtually nothing behind, and even going after their cabins and destroying those as well, and it follows the men whose job it is to hunt the tiger down and kill it. Along the way it takes in the history and biology of the Siberian tiger, the way in which tigers and humans might once have shared the same ecosystem more or less peaceably, the economic and social dissolution of eastern Russia that forces the local people to poach tigers for the Chinese market, and the psychology of the sort of people who can live in a place as barren and forbidding as Primorye.

The landscape is a character. The cold is a character. The tiger - both the actual tiger and the mythical, mystical, psychological tiger - is definitely a character. And the way in which the story slowly follows the hunt for the tiger, with elegant, graceful side detours into the history of Russia, the lives of the people involved, the local ethnography and mythology, and the harsh realities of the landscape, kept making me stop with my jaw dropped. How did he do that? I'd think to myself, and then dive back in. It was like listening to a really good jazz musician improvising for ages while never really losing the arc of the whole tune.

Admittedly, I also have a certain fascination for survival, for the kinds of people who can accomplish the kinds of physical and mental and emotional feats that these people can, and I love reading about completely unfamiliar places. Score on all counts.

And I've just come across this review from the Seattle Times which says everything I'd like to say, and also had the insight to compare him to John McPhee (albeit they call him "John McPhee on steroids," which makes me giggle, and sort of kind of nod in agreement - especially about the virtuosic and seemingly effortless amount of stunning background detail.) 

Can't wait to hear him read next Friday. (It's at Nicholas Hoare Books, at 7:00, and it's free! Wine and cheese, and blood freezing on the snow. Awesome.)

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