I just finished “The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival” by John Vaillant in my journey through this year’s American Library Association Notable Books list. It’s a perfect example of great nonfiction, and perhaps also of a nonfiction book that many fiction readers would enjoy.
On the one hand, it’s the story of an Amur tiger in present-day Siberia, a tiger who has taken to attacking men. And now the tiger is being tracked.
On the other hand, it’s the story of Siberia, its geography, history, and culture, especially in terms of how the area has changed for wildlife.
And (would that be the third hand?) it’s the story of each man touched by the tiger, as well as those men who join together in the hunt.
Vaillant manages to weave all of this together without losing the narrative thread.
I learned a lot about tigers, of course, but also about the interesting cultural crucible that is Siberia. Plenty of native people live there, along with Russians and others. Their various views of the role of people within nature, combined with the recent history of Soviet government, rolled together with an immense nearby Chinese market, have created a place where poaching is common. It is a place where many people have next to nothing, other than their skill at the hunt.
I’ll recommend this to my friends who are intrigued by science, who are interested in the environment, who maybe have a particular interest in this part of the world, or who are just up for a fresh way of seeing a place, through the eyes of this remarkable tiger.
There should probably be a word for the thoughts that come after a blog entry is written.
When I wrote about Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit from the Goon Squad” yesterday, I didn’t mention the impact of a long chapter late in the novel that is written as a Power Point presentation. As I discussed the book a little with a friend on Facebook, I realized that this chapter was key–it broke my groove. It changed my sense of the book overall. On a purely personal note, the “Power Pointedness” of the selection led me to read very quickly. I had previously anticipated how much of the book was left, and suddenly at the end of the selection, fairly few pages remained. This seemed jarring somehow.
As you would expect, one result of it being Power Point was that while some pithy facts were revealed, they were not explored deeply. I realize that to some extent this was Egan’s intended impact. While I still enjoyed the book, I now pinpoint this one chapter as the place when the timing and pace seemed to get thrown, without enough book remaining to get back on track.
When I packed for my long weekend in Phoenix last week, I happened to stick Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit from the Goon Squad” into my suitcase. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t get to it, but you never know when a chaise lounge on a sunny patio will beckon.
Actually, I read it largely in bed and on the plane, but…loved it. And felt fairly virtuous reading it, since it allows me to check yet another Notable Book off of the list for this year.
“A Visit from the Goon Squad” is written as a series of short stories with inter-related characters. Someone who is a minor character in one chapter (story) becomes the focus of another. Eventually, several characters show up in more than one place, and many voices speak. The setting generally is the music scene, often in New York, from the 1980’s to the 2020’s (the final story is set in the musical future).
The first story is about Sasha, who is an assistant to a music producer. She’s talking with her therapist about her kleptomania, and about how she supposedly feels about it. My experience reading novels with multiple perspectives is that the first character sticks with me longer, and I tend to always seek that first character in the rest of the novel. Sasha does re-appear.
A primary theme of this book is “How did I get to be so old?” Another, “I know I’m not an especially good person.” Another, “Is THIS the life I want to live?” Those could create a sad novel, but I didn’t feel that happening here. Nor did I get the feeling of being worn out by clever stories of people who fail. I wanted to keep reading.
What makes it Notable? Egan’s ability to craft the connections throughout the book, and her sense of how people view their own and others’ shortcomings.
I’ll recommend this to people who love the music scene, who are willing to stick with the short-stories-as-novel format, and to those who connect with the sense of time passing. I’d like to have a conversation with others who’ve read it, too.
I continue to read my way through this year’s Notable Books List from the American Library Association.
Last night I finished “The Ten Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet” by David Mitchell. And I was sad to reach the last page. What an intriguing novel.
The story begins in 1799, on the island of Dejima, just off of Nagasaki, Japan. The island is where the Dutch are allowed, and just about the only place where they are allowed, to run the Dutch India Company. The closed-in society of just a few Europeans, their Japanese translators, and other officials, is the context for intense relationships. Many of the scenes happen aboard ship, another closed-in space. Must of the action happens in the first few years, but then Mitchell fast-forward to the end of Jacob’s life, back in Europe.
Jacob is an honest man, which doesn’t serve his career well. He falls in love with a fascinating woman, a midwife with a burned face. He secretly proposes to her, not realizing that the messenger he’s chosen is in love with her too. She’s kidnapped away. He endures. He becomes renowned for his courage when he stands firm in an observation tower while a British ship’s cannons attack Nijima.
David Mitchell crafts this very powerfully–I’ve been trying to think of how to describe this. The plot is one thing, but the machinations of the people, the ways that they must operate when communication can’t be direct, create all kinds of confusion and bewilderment. The cultures collide in countless ways. Into the mix come the distance from home, and fierce hopes for success.
Following up on my complaints about long books, I should note that I didn’t sense any sagging in the middle of this book’s 479 pages. It holds up well.
I salute David Mitchell for his ability to write such varied stories. I’d forgotten that he wrote “Black Swan Green,” a lovely Notable Book from 2007, a book about a contemporary British boy. His “Cloud Atlas” was also “notabled” in 2005. Really, his books are quintessential Notables. They are one-of-a-kind stories, with almost nothing predictable, and with plenty that deeply resonates and resolves.
I’ll recommend this to people who love literary fiction, who are interested in history or in Asia, and to readers who yearn for something uniquely good.
I was sick last weekend. In fact on Saturday for most of the day I was too sick to read. But on Sunday I got to do one of my favorite things–start and finish a book in one day. “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea” by Barbara Demick is included in the nonfiction portion of this year’s Notable Books List from the American Library Association. Full of people’s stories, it reads quickly.
“Nothing to Envy” chronicles the journey of several North Korean people who defected out of the country, all of them from the area around Chongjin, a northern industrial city. Demick uses them as examples of the many ways in which life is difficult in North Korea.
Their stories typically begin with a life that while difficult is predictable and seems safe. As the Communist world changed in the late 1980’s, the aid that the North Korean government received from other governments also changed or stopped completely. Eventually, factories didn’t function. People had no work. They had no way to receive food. There was no food. The descriptions of people’s resourcefulness in finding something to eat on the one hand, and the agony of starving on the other, will stay with me from this book.
I’ve had many conversations with people about why we read “difficult” books. I’d describe this as “difficult” even though most of the stories are remarkably hopeful. I’d say that for those of us who have grown up in the United States in the midst of peace and (at least relative) prosperity, we need to be aware of how different life can be. I’ll recommend this to readers who want to know about the world and to those who look for the stories behind what we see on the news. There’s also an appeal to the stories of people who have suffered and prevailed, and that is the power behind “Nothing to Envy.”
I also recently finished a title from the fiction portion of the list, “Nashville Chrome” by Rick Bass. This novel is based on the life of The Browns, a family musical group from the late 1950s and 1960s. Maxine, Jim Ed, and Bonnie Brown grew up in hardscrabble Arkansas, their father a lumber miller. That life was a hard one, with accidents in the mill amputating fingers, hands, and worse. Their father functioned with just one leg.
But the children had a remarkable gift for singing the kinds of tight harmonies that some country songs are known for. People could not believe how they could sing. Chet Atkins took up producing their records, and he made the most of their distinctive sound. Eventually, though their gift remained, their audience waned, and they broke up their singing group.
Bass tells this story in bits and pieces, moving through times and places. Bass often waxes into poetic prose about their sound, their surroundings, the sense of the people. But largely he works through Maxine, the oldest. He frames it with many scenes of an elderly Maxine, still grasping for success, still believing in a comeback.
I tend to prefer a nonfiction book that straightforwardly tells about people, over biographical fiction. I feel the same way about biopic movies–just give me a documentary, please. But in this case, Bass does a great job with the material. While he bases the novel clearly on these people’s lives, he adds so much, goes so deeply into their hearts and minds, shapes their stories into one coherent piece, that he creates a whole new thing.
I’ll recommend this to people who are interested in music, to those who are patient through ample description, and to those who can stand to see a good thing come to an end.