Friday, February 18, 2011

Trees More So Than Tigers

I just read John Vaillant's The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival. I'd heard good things about it, and I loved his earlier book The Golden Spruce, so not liking this book was especially disappointing.

It's half about a tiger that killed a couple guys in Siberia in the mid 90's, and the other half is your typical popular non-fiction smorgasbord of history, science, and Malcolm Gladwell-quality pseudo-science. In the end I found the story of the main tiger pretty underwhelming. The tiger is built up as a super-intelligent being that sought out revenge against those who had previously wronged it. Except in real life the tiger only killed two people, one of which might have shot at it or stolen meat from one of its kills previously, while the other clearly hadn't.

The other half of the book is not amazing either. It jumps back and forth (too) frequently between history, geography, ecology, economics, and anthropology of the Russian Far East, some of which is fascinating, but after a while it got quite tedious, and I was especially unimpressed with long sections about native animist beliefs regarding tigers that were then related back to clearly contradictory modern scientific analysis of tiger behavior. "One random guy I talked to [for ten pages] who isn't even an authority on the subject said he believed tigers did X. Science shows tiger do 'not X.' Another guy I met in a bar said he once heard that tigers do Y. Science shows tigers do 'not Y.' I guess we'll never know whether tigers do X or Y. Tigers are mysterious and wonderful."

Don't get me wrong, tigers are pretty f---ing badass and I think their preservation is extremely important, but if you want to build up suspense in a tiger-based story, you could at least be internally logically consistent within the space of a single chapter. So I think the book slightly oversells its particular story, and instead of starry-eyed speculation about supposedly widely held beliefs about tiger-mysticism, could have better focused on the facts that this mysticism causes, i.e. the illicit market for tigers and the worldwide effort to protect the species.

Anyway, that's enough grumpiness for today. It's an OK book. I liked it for about the first third or half, then it dragged. Go read Golden Spruce instead.

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