Monthly Archives: December 2011

The Tiger, by John Vaillant

The Tiger, by John Vaillant

Man disdains nature at his ultimate peril, individually and collectively. John Vaillant drives this home with elegant and unforgettable ferocity in The Tiger, his enthralling account of the hunt for a man-eating tiger in in a harsh, remote area of Russia’s Far East in the late 1990s.

The Tiger is a potent amalgam of different genres and subject matter, each one of which could stand on its own as an engrossing read. Vaillant has forged an unusual, suspenseful action thriller/murder mystery, pitting the intimidating but not unsympathetic presence of a powerful predator against first one man with whom he has specific grievances, and then against a growing team of trackers and investigators looking to halt the predator’s deadly rampage. Subtitling The Tiger “a true story of vengeance and survival”, Vaillant has commented in interviews that the uncanny ability of the tiger to single out specific people for its revenge – chiefly an unemployed logger turned poacher who has inadvertently stolen food from and injured the tiger – adds a “Stephen King” aspect to the story that makes it even more menacing. Coupled with detailed crime scene analysis and forensic procedural elements as the investigation and hunt commences, led by game warden and expert tracker Yuri Trush, The Tiger is a breathtaking true crime read unto itself.

The tale is immensely deepened, however, because Vaillant thoughtfully incorporates into it other investigations that transform the central tragedy into a touchstone for much more, symbolic of problems, challenges, but also hopeful opportunities on numerous levels. The Tiger is filled with vibrant character sketches of individuals striving to survive physically, emotionally and as a community and culture in an isolated area of the world alternately exploited and ignored by Russia, China and other international forces and influences. Vaillant also offers up a reverential National Geographic-calibre examination of a stunningly unique world ecosystem. That examination is stimulating and educational without being monotonously encyclopedic or pedantic. Finally, Vaillant melds it all into a environmental paean that is pointedly cautionary and can be applied universally, all without sanctimony.

The Tiger achieves many fine balances in its interplay of different types of storytelling. The reader will grieve for individuals, a community and a way of life that, while demanding and unforgiving, is still beautiful and stoically pastoral. At the same time, the reader will also cheer for the awesome (in the truest, purest sense of awe), magnificent tiger, who is also fiercely adapting and trying to make a life for itself in an exotic land encroached upon by waves of change triggered by political conflicts, technological pressures, economic demands, societal upheaval and more.

Having managed to grasp and skilfully weave so many thematic threads, Vaillant reminds us that the strength of memorable storytelling is fundamental to our human fabric:

For most of our history, we have been occupied with the cracking of codes – from deciphering patterns in the weather, the water, the land, and the stars, to parsing the nuanced behaviours of friend and foe, predator and prey. Furthermore, we are compelled to share our discoveries in the form of stories. Much is made of the fact that ours is the only species that does this, that the essence of who and what we understand ourselves to be was first borne orally and aurally: from mouth to ear to memory. This is so, but before we learned to tell stories, we learned to read them. In other words, we learned to track. The first letter of the first word of the first recorded story was written – “printed” – not by us, but by an animal. These signs and symbols left in mud, sand, leaves and snow represent proto-alphabets. Often smeared, fragmented, and confused by weather, time, and other animals, these cryptograms were life-and-death exercises in abstract thinking. This skill, the reading of tracks in order to procure food, or identify the presence of a dangerous animal, may in fact be “the oldest profession.”

This rousing tale affects us so profoundly both because it is so richly layered, but also because it is so elemental.

See/hear also:

John Vaillant reads from The Tiger

The Tiger, by John Vaillant (author video)

My reviews of other Canada Reads 2012 finalists:

Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu, by John Updike

Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu, by John Updike

Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu is a transcendent tribute to baseball and one of its most vivid and accomplished figures, as captured by one of America’s most legendary authors. As the author expresses it in tribute to the athlete, that truly “crowds the throat with joy” … and fills the heart and brings tears to the eyes, to boot.

On September 28, 1960, a young man in the early days of his life’s work – 28-year-old writer John Updike – attended the last appearance of another comparatively young man – 42-year-old all-star baseball player Ted Williams – at the end of what was truly his life’s work. Updike’s glowing fan’s notes were composed and edited over five days and published for the first time in the October 20, 1960 issue of The New Yorker. The original piece resurfaced in other Updike collections, as did a separate essay on the life of Ted Williams. The first bit of luminous reportage was finally joined with an updated version of the Ted Williams essay in a small, crisp volume published in 2010, touchingly prepared and additionally annotated by Updike just months before his death.

Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu is consummate sport literature and, in its way, epic poetry. The wordcraft is positively crystalline, with both an intimacy of physical detail and a grand scale of historical and collective emotional sweep to it that is difficult to isolate to just one perfect example. There are many. Here is one, as Williams steps to the plate for the last time:

I had never before heard pure applause in a ballpark. No calling, no whistling, just an ocean of handclaps, minute after minute, burst after burst, crowding and running together in continuous succession like the pushes of surf at the end of the sand.

Presaging Williams’ storybook departure from the game, Updike also gorgeously captures the eternal dream of every team, every athlete, every fan who commits and cheers them on:

Nevertheless, there will always lurk, around the corner in a pocket of our knowledge of the odds, an indefensible hope, and this was one of the times, which you now and then find in sports, when a density of expectation hangs in the air and plucks an event out of the future.

Some of the beauty of Updike’s prose is when it is at its most succinct – when an unbelievable play is still in motion …

It was in the books while it was still in the sky.

… and when a recalcitrant hero refuses to respond to his deliriously happy fans:

Gods do not answer letters.

There is only one off note in this exquisite tribute. It is neither a false note in Updike’s words, nor anything that Williams did or said in his lifetime that unduly tarnished his legend, but just a peculiar footnote to the Williams afterlife (perhaps literally) that is, well, just odd. Beyond that, this is sport literature and literature beyond classification or genre at its most poignant and very finest.

The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth, by Stuart Clark

The Sky's Dark Labyrinth, by Stuart Clark

In the 1500s, Danish nobleman Tycho Brahe dismayed his wealthy family by taking an avid interest in mathematics, astronomy and all things fascinatingly planetary. A preternaturally gifted observer of the heavens before telescopes were refined and in common use, Tycho’s passions for geometry and celestial study were so intense that they led him at times to equally passionate disputes, one of which escalated into a duel during which he lost part of his nose. Tycho inspired and welcomed other mathematicians, scientists, astronomers and more to his estate, where guests participated equally enthusiastically in stargazing sessions and lively parties attended by Tycho’s court jester and his tame elk, who was a bit of a tippler. Johannes Kepler, a famed astronomer who is one of two protagonists in Stuart Clark’s vivid The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth, was inspired by Tycho’s observational prowess, though somewhat less enamoured of his lively banquets.

That Tycho leaps from the pages of The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth with such Falstaffian verve is testament to one of the great strengths of Clark’s imaginings of the lives and work of the great astronomers: strong character development that allows the reader to relate to the real people behind discoveries and revelations that for many are shrouded in the mists of history, if known at all. German mathematician and astronomer Kepler and his contemporary, Italian physicist and astronomer Galileo Galilei, are vibrant, fully rounded characters, complete with egos and frailties, balanced by passion and commitment in the face of personal challenges, political and religious roadblocks and often dire threats to their safety and life. The friends, family members, colleagues and adversaries who aid and abet Kepler and Galileo on their missions are all brightly etched, no matter how brief or extended their presences are in this absorbing historical fiction rendering of real lives.

Another great strength of The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth is that the book distills the technical complexities of what Kepler and Galileo struggled with, decoded and brought to light, all without dumbing down or compromising the immensity of their discoveries. With a PhD in astrophysics, and as a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and a former Vice Chair of the Association of British Science Writers (1), Clark has the credentials to be both awe-inspiring in his knowledge, and potentially intimidating and obscure in how he conveys it. That he has taken that impressive pedigree and devoted it to science and astronomical journalism lays a foundation for The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth and its two planned follow-up novels (2) to be clear and accessible. That the book is also highly entertaining is a delightful surprise that also ameliorates how one retains the story’s technical underpinnings.

Clark also lays out the social, religious and political minefields into which Kepler and Galileo interjected their theories. That both astronomers were also men of their respective churches (Kepler was part of the burgeoning Lutheran church, Galileo was Roman Catholic) highlights the struggles of conscience they both faced to bring forth the fruits of their intellectual labours. One church official observes the fundamental constraint with which both astronomers had to contend with the mere suggestion that the Sun and not the Earth was the centre of the universe:

“We cannot go rearranging the heavens. God placed the orbs just as he placed each and every one of us in our correct stations. After our lifetime of faithful service, we receive our reward in Heaven. If we start rearranging the planets, what’s to stop people rearranging their lives? No one will know what to believe. There will be mass panic. Society will break down. What will prevent the peasants demanding land or riches? They could reject our authority altogether. … Even if these observations are correct, we must suppress them. There’s no sin in concealing a truth if it serves a higher purpose. The simple folk will not know how to interpret this.”

As Kepler later responds:

“Though it’s hard to believe at the moment, there must be harmony in the world; God’s perfection cannot allow it to be otherwise. It must be a harmony so grand that it reduces all earthly woes to triviality.”

As Clark so convincingly captures Kepler and Galileo as forthright but very human individuals simply striving for and wishing to share knowledge, so their struggles to convey that knowledge in the face of such at times monolithic resistance, opposition and threat is that much more moving. The reader most assuredly will come away from The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth with eyes more widely opened and perhaps gazing to the heavens with refreshed curiosity, respect and awe

Thank you to Polygon, Ruth Seeley and the author for providing a review copy of The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth, by Stuart Clark.


1. Stuart Clark’s Universe –

2. Volume II, The Sensorium of God, features Isaac Newton and Edmond Halley. Volume III, The Day Without Yesterday, recounts the story of Albert Einstein, Edwin Hubble and George Lemaitre.

See also:



Skeptically Speaking – Science as Fiction – a podcast in which, by the way, the interviewer also expresses her admiration for the lively Tycho!

Prisoner of Tehran, by Marina Nemat

Prisoner of Tehran, by Marina Nemat

The Penguin paperback edition of Prisoner of Tehran offers a subtle but arresting feature that I hope is part of the original and any other editions of this fine book. You can see Persian emblems or motifs in spot varnish when you tip the book cover in the light. Curving over the book spine and extending to the back cover, you can feel their faint imprint as you’re holding the book – which you likely won’t do for long, because the book is a compellingly swift read. It’s a lovely, pervasive reminder of the book’s cultural underpinnings. The emblems also hauntingly resemble snowflakes – imagery that recurs to surprisingly powerful effect throughout this unforgettable story.

Author and protagonist Marina Nemat quickly ushers you into a riveting account of her terrifying experiences during the Iranian revolution of the early 1980s. Her voice has the flat affect of someone battered and shell shocked, but strikingly determined to survive. While that voice is at times so strangely modest and understated as to be almost unnerving, you are irresistibly drawn into her harrowing tale of being arrested at the age of sixteen for acts so tenuously seditious to the regime of Ayatollah Khomeini as to be ridiculous. It is that ridiculousness that makes the physical and mental tortures she endures that much more nightmarish and incomprehensible. The terms by which she negotiates – if it could be dignified to call it such – and the circumstances by which she navigates her eventual freedom, after over two years of prison life, are almost inconceivable and border on the surreal. Nemat’s prenaturally calm voice throughout it all helps you to stay with the twists and turns – sometimes heart pounding, sometimes heart wrenching, sometimes grindingly banal – that she and the other young women with which she is imprisoned face almost daily.

Raised as a practicing Christian in a middle class, fairly secular and unashamedly Westernized family, Nemat and her family and friends, and by extension many fellow citizens are exposed to repression and extremism that will be starkly eye-opening to many Canadian readers. After all that happens to her, including the familial alienation she confronts when she returns from her ordeal, Nemat somehow musters the astonishing and instructive grace to offer a bittersweet meditation on what hatred and outrageously wielded power can do to human decency.

A surprisingly redemptive theme and sequence of imagery recurring through the book binds Nemat’s story together, figuratively and literally. It starts in the early pages:

It took me five minutes to get to the church. When I put my hand on the heavy wooden main door, a snowflake landed on my nose. Tehran always looked innocently beautiful under the deceiving curves of snow, and although the Islamic regime had banned most beautiful things, it couldn’t stop the snow from falling.

Somehow, the snow is both beautiful, but also unstoppable – delicate, enduring, but sometimes heartbreakingly ephemeral:

One morning in August 1972 when I was seven, I picked up [my mother’s] favourite crystal ashtray. It was almost the size of a dinner plate. She had told me a million times not to touch it, but it was beautiful, and I wanted to run my fingers over its delicate patterns. I could see why she liked it so much. In a way, it looked like a giant snowflake that never melted.

That beautiful object is all too soon shattered, presaging other things that will shatter with the same vulnerability:

His eyes were blank, as he, like me, tried to understand the devastating, lonely gap that death had left behind, the terrible falling from the known into the unknown and the terrifying wait to hit the solid ground and shatter into small, insignificant pieces.

Cumulatively, though, those fragile snowflakes can collect to cool, cleanse, comfort and ultimately offer regeneration, which Nemat clearly and deservedly yearns for after all she has suffered:

It was a perfect summer day, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, but I wished for snow to cover the earth; I wished for its cold and honest touch to embrace my warm skin. I wanted my fingers to lose their sense of touch in deep frost and ache. I wanted all the shades of green and red to disappear under the weight of winter and its shades of white so I could dream and tell myself that when spring came, things would be different.

As Nemat simply observes about the place in the world that would finally provide her and her new family with haven and solace: “I liked the name ‘Canada’ – it sounded far away and very cold but peaceful.”

Throughout Prisoner of Tehran, Nemat deals in grief and loss of myriad kinds, in which the destruction of books and writings marches in sorrowful lock step with the death of loved ones. She takes on courageously how one faces different kinds of oblivion, including the shame, silence and denial of friends and family when she re-emerges from imprisonment. That her inspiring tale of singular resilience culminates in her seeking a new life in Canada, where she eventually gets the support she needs to tell this story, is both stirring and gratifying.

I love my country already, but Marina Nemat has given me yet another way to articulate what is wonderful about it. Prisoner of Tehran is a strong and deserving choice for all Canadians to read, to appreciate from a startling new perspective just how sweet this country is.


My reviews of other Canada Reads 2012 finalists:

Join us for a Canada Reads challenge

Canada Reads 2012

Take a look here for the challenge details

… and then join us here!

Julie Wilson (aka @BookMadam) and I recently exchanged our Canada Reads predictions in sealed envelopes:

As part of the exchange, we described to each other the charitable causes we were supporting as part of this exercise (see below). We then had an intriguing chat about the rationale for our predictions, without giving our choices away. It’s an interesting way to defend your choices, without giving them a way – try it!

Julie has selected Books With Wings as her challenge charitable cause.

Books with Wings is a literacy project which provides new picture books for First Nations children residing in isolated Canadian communities. The organization is currently working with Abraham Beardy school in Shamattawa, Manitoba. The school is located approximately 1300 km north of Winnipeg, and the children there are in great need of literature. The project currently receives support from Toronto nursery schools, where books are collected, and from other philanthropic organizations committed to improving literacy rates in First Nations communities, such as the Dreamcatcher Fund, the Canadian Children’s Book Centre, First Book, and Books With Wings’ corporate sponsor, Hugo Boss. Books with Wings has recently expanded to other First Nations schools in the NWT and in BC, and hopes to one day achieve national scope.

You can learn more about Books With Wings via their web site ( and their Facebook page.

I’ve selected Neighbourhood Link as my challenge charitable cause.

Neighbourhood Link Support Services is a non-profit social service agency working to help people primarily in the east Toronto community to live independently and with dignity. Since 1975, with the assistance of staff and volunteers, they have helped more than 20,000 people annually across a range of ages and groups, including seniors, new Canadians, children and youth, employment seekers and the homeless. Reading and literacy are vital components of many of Neighbourhood Link’s programs and services.

You can learn more about Neighbourhood Link via their web site ( and you can follow them on Twitter.


On February 10th, 2012, Julie and I did our Canada Reads predictions reveal.

Our predictions scoring system accounted for the order in which the books were voted off, with a bonus for predicting the winner. The accountants at Price Waterhouse determined that although our Canada Reads predictions differed, Julie (aka @BookMadam) and I scored a … tie! That meant that both of our charities – Neighbourhood Link & Books With Wings – won our Canada Reads challenge. Neat, eh?