Tuesday, October 26, 2010

"Don't Ever Assume Anything With Tigers": Book Recommendations, Plus One Film

So I've been taking some reading cues from the Giller Prize shortlist, and from CTV's "CANADA AM" host, Seamus O'Regan. Seamus had Vancouver nonfiction writer
John Vaillant (pronounced Valiant) on a recent show to promote the author's book, The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival (Alfred A. Knopf, 2010).

Valliant was previously awarded the GG for NonFiction for his book The Golden Spruce. The new book concerns a Far East Russian poacher, Vladimir Markov, who exists in a "poach or starve" environment. Markov was attacked -- or rather, threshed -- by a Siberian tiger, and the story is told in large part from the perspective of Yuri Trush, a Russian game warden who leads a team to investigate
the massacre.

In between advancing this dramatic story, the author writes of politics, local characters, animals, perestroika, etc. This is top-notch writing, readers, and the way the book's structured is genius.

I appreciated how Valliant used disparate quotes – many of them from literature, incl. the Bible – to open each chapter. I enjoyed learning Russian words, like Luchegorsk, which means “Light City.” Tayozhnik is "forest dweller," and my favourite matrushka, gives an exotic ring to "mother."

The man's a poet, too. He writes of “a hatchwork of forest” ... “those cross-hatched branches wove a spangled basket against the sky and somewhere inside it was the tiger, hunting.” “Here and there, along the road, were birch trees bent double by heavy snow, their forked branches plunging earthward like lightning bolts frozen in mid-strike.” Shadows are described as “ragged and confused”.

More examples of fine writing:

“ ... and then there was no sound but the dogs: a series of shrill and urgent calls and responses that ricocheted between the houses, each one trailing a faint echo behind it like a sonic shadow.”

And what a delicious vocabulary. I ate these words (and more) up:

decadal – consisting of tens (no duh)
rhombus – “a rhombus of a house” - quadraliteral, in which all 4 sides have the same size “It is hard to say if these are shamanic devices or exercises in bricolage ...”
frangible – “When it is extremely cold there is an almost frangible quality to the air; even the trees seem frozen hard as crystal, so sounds move differently, becoming sharper and more percussive.”
herring – a field dressing soldiers used in the Afghan war to close a wound .... strip a tin from say a can of fish, pinch the wound together, bend the strip in half, place over the wound, and clamp

Interesting Russian expression: “'Somebody else’s family is like a dark forest.’”

There's an anecdote about baboons that were attacked by a pride of lions, and how the former were so terrified, they ran directly toward their attackers. (This happened in Kruger National Park, and is included in the memoir by George Rushby, a legendary British elephant-hunter-turned–game warden, in his book No More the Tusker.) “The baboons were apparently too terrified even to try to escape up any of the surrounding trees,” wrote park warden Stevenson-Hamilton, “and hid with their faces in their hands while the lions simply struck them down right and left with blows from their paws.” (Stevenson-Hamilton witnessed this massacre).

After the description Valliant writes: “The most painful detail in this anecdote is the baboons’ resignation: with no hope of escape, they fashioned a refuge of last resort from the darkness in their own hands.”

Here’s how descriptive the author can be in describing place:

“The town proper is a battered collection of urine-stained apartment blocks placed at irregular intervals along pot-holed, grave-strewn streets. In some cases, these slab-sided, wire-draped five-story buildings are arranged around grassy commons littered with butts and pieces of playground equipment so badly damaged that they look as if they had weathered some kind of natural catastrophe.”

And describing the forest and snow:

“The day they were given was crystalline, brittle, and bitterly cold. The taigo was at its winter finest and seemed made for the eyes alone: the sunshine was so brilliant, the snow so pristine, the sky so depthless, the stillness of the forest so profound that speech or motion of any kind felt like an intrustion. Here, even the softest sounds carried an echo, and the search party’s presence, announced by the irksome, eightfold squeakig of their boots, seemed out of place, an affront to the exalted silence all around them. Burdened as they were by their dark concerns, these men were stangers here.”

“But the snow missed nothing: a meticulous record keeper, it captured the story and held it fast.”

And how about this piece of trivia: “The brandname Viagra is derived from vyaaghra, the Sanskrit word for tiger.”

I read this book in Edmonton and Vancouver, Sept-Oct 2010, in a damn hurry because I could only have it for one week, due to high demand.

Reading good books teaches us so much about writing. I read this, and the books below, and thought how entire writing workshops could revolve around one good book.

Now to a few poets, all nominated for the prestigous Giller Prize.

John Glenday (b. 1952). His book Grain (2009, Picador Poetry) is his 3rd book of poetry. Glenday's a Scottish poet who also works as an addictions counsellor. It’s a slim book with some phat lines.

Good lines: (from “Stranger”):

“How simple it is to become a ghost ¬—
just one word, one gesture, and we slip

through the fretwork of other people’s lives
as easily as water through a stone.”

And he writes well of snow, as in his poem “Silence the Colour of Snow” which includes:

“You know, they used to say that
if every tongue in the world were stilled at once,
the common silence would translate itself

to a snow that even our summer winds
could never drive away.”

His best poem is a translation from the Hungarian. It is excerpted below:

The Uncertain

from the Hungarian

A white moth falls, dying,
like a torn scrap of paper,

or paper burned to ash,
or dogged summer snow,

or a petal from a mountain rose
discarded by a love-sick girl,

(Please find the book to read the entire poem; it's worth it)

Another Giller nominee I read was Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin – The Sun-Fish - poetry, 2009, The Gallery Press, Ireland. On first read I disliked the book, then I picked it up again, got beyond the capitalized first word of each line and the formal stanzas and read it closely -- for the content -- and wow, it’s great.

Get these lines: “A grange of luxury. The silk scarves\Came flying at her face like a car wash,” (“The Witch in the Wardrobe”)

Fron “the Liners’ (“...and the moon skating to her door.”

I adored the following poem, excerpted below:


I laid myself down and slept on the map of Europe,
It creaked and pulled all night and when I rose
In a wide hall to the light of a thundery afternoon
The dreams had bent my body and fused my bones
And a note buzzed over and again and turned for the night.

We advanced to the window: the square frame showed us
Everything, where we had washed up, above rolling domes,
A splash of talk reaching us; behind us we could not hear
How the dark oil-paint slid down the wall

Fantastic stuff. The poet was born in Cork City in 1942 and teaches at Trinity College, Dublin. It doesn't get much better than this, IMO.

The film recommendation (again, thanks Seamus) is "Never Let Me Go," based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. Brit Carey Mulligan rocks the screen, but Keira Knightley and Charlotte Rampling might initially bring viewers to the theatre. What a concept: the story's told in the 1970s - 1990s, but we're told at the outset that medical history has been made (ostensibly an end to cancer), and what follows could easily be classified as medical sci-fi. Thus, the film is slightly historic\contemporary\and futuristic. It's a directorial coup. Though not the feel-good movie of the year (hell, I wouldn't like it if it was), I do recommend seeing it.

Final note for this post: pips to the manager of The Garneau Theatre in Edmonton, who personally asked film-goers what they thought of the movie as they were leaving, and took the time for discussion. Most impressive. And I'll be back.

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