The Tiger by John Vaillant – Mini Book Review

The Tiger by John Valliant
Published by Vintage, an imprint of Random House

From the publisher:

It’s December 1997, and a man-eating tiger is on the prowl outside a remote village in Russia’s Far East. The tiger isn’t just killing people, it’s annihilating them, and a team of men and their dogs must hunt it on foot through the forest in the brutal cold. As the trackers sift through the gruesome remains of the victims, they discover that these attacks aren’t random: the tiger is apparently engaged in a vendetta. Injured, starving, and extremely dangerous, the tiger must be found before it strikes again.

As he re-creates these extraordinary events, John Vaillant gives us an unforgettable portrait of this spectacularly beautiful and mysterious region. We meet the native tribes who for centuries have worshipped and lived alongside tigers, even sharing their kills with them. We witness the arrival of Russian settlers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, soldiers and hunters who greatly diminished the tiger populations. And we come to know their descendants, who, crushed by poverty, have turned to poaching and further upset the natural balance of the region.

Wow, does Valliant ever weave a fascinating story. He includes the history of Russia and the region, ecology, human evolution, animal psychology … basically every branch of science – whether hard or social – that can in any way inform  our knowledge of exactly what happened. In some ways, this story could have been told in a long essay and it would have felt complete. However, the additional background and character sketches that Vaillant adds in make this into a greater story, about the way life is changing in Russia’s Far East, the ways that people are attempting to scrape by and are occasionally sacrificing long term safety and happiness for the ability to put food on the table in the short term.

Whether you are reading it for the social history or the natural history, John Vaillant’s The Tiger is an absorbing read. Recommended.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Library.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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Winged Obsession by Jessica Speart – Book Review

Winged Obsession: The Pursuit of the World’s Most Notorious Butterfly Smuggler by Jessica Speart
Published by William Morrow Paperback, an imprint of HarperCollins

As a new agent at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Agency, Ed Newcomer is determined to make a name for himself and thus is initially disappointed when his first major assignment has to do with butterfly smuggling. Bugs? Really? He can’t be assigned to protect bald eagles or something? Quickly, though, Newcomer realizes that this could be a very major case, that Hisayoshi Koshima, the man he is investigating, is perhaps the world’s top smuggler of butterflies and might just be a target that Ed can take down. From there, the story gets increasingly strange, as Ed finds himself pulled into Yoshi’s butterfly smuggling world and works to build a case against him.

Winged Obsession is a very interesting work of narrative nonfiction and a fascinating peek inside the U.S. Fish and Wildlife agency. The story seems to falter a bit early on, mostly because the writing is not initially as smooth as it might be, but Speart is a good enough storyteller that before too long her narrative takes over and the reader becomes enmeshed in Newcomer’s fight to stop Koshima’s devastating trade in butterflies while at the same time trying to hold together his marriage. Particularly interesting is the look at how the U.S. Fish and Wildlife agency operates and just how much they try to do on a tiny budget. The budgetary constraints tie the hands of the agents frequently, Newcomer had trouble even getting set up with an undercover cell phone for his operation.

Although the writing is slightly weak initially, Speart is quickly able to draw the reader into her story of high-stakes butterfly trading. Her research was thorough, which helps bring the story vividly to life. Recommended.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Publisher.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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Paradise Lust by Brook Wilensky-Lanford – Book Review

Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden by Brook Wilensky-Lanford
Published by Grove Press, an imprint of Grove/Atlantic

When Brook Wilensky-Lanford learned that a relative of hers had, in his younger days, searched for the Garden of Eden on Earth, she was a bit perplexed. After all, her family definitely did not subscribe to Biblical literalism. As she began to dig a little further into his motivations, however, she found an entire subculture – both religious and secular – dedicated to the discovery of the Garden of Eden. Soon Wilensky-Lanford was on a quest of her own, to discover the breadth of the mania for Eden.

Paradise Lust is a comprehensively researched look at humankind’s desire to return to an Edenic paradise – whether that paradise represents unity, civilization, or progress to any given supplicant – mixed with just a hint of humor and sarcasm. The subjectivity of humor could be a problem in a nonfiction book such as this, but Wilensky-Lanford does a fabulous job of separating the historical record from her own opinions.

It is simply fascinating how many different motivations have driven people to search for the Garden of Eden, particularly the fact that there were secular, not only religious ones. Similarly fascinating is the number of Eden-seekers who have placed paradise in the New World. Columbus, for example, believed he located the Garden in Venezuela, and more than one group has claimed its existence in middle America.

Wilensky-Lanford is an engaging writer, and brings a great deal of clarity to the profusion of quests for Eden. That people continue to search for the Garden on Earth is not an idea that would have ever occurred to me, but regardless, Paradise Lust makes for an intriguing read. Recommended.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Publisher, via NetGalley.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
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The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson – Audiobook Review

The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson, narrated by Jon Ronson
Published in audio by Tantor Audio; published in print by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin

Synopsis:

Known as a journalist who gets things done, Jon Ronson is called quickly when neurologists all over the world all receive the same baffling book. Ronson uncovers the perpetrator with little difficulty, but his involvement in the hoax gives him an insight into another phenomenon: the impact of madness on our every day lives. During the course of his investigation, Ronson meets neurologists who deal with psychopathy and becomes particularly interested in the theory that nearly every aspect of our lives is shaped by the influence of psychopaths, particularly those who seem to be in positions of power in disproportionally large numbers. Armed with Bob Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist, known in many circles as the Psychopath Test, Ronson ventures out among a variety of people, all with apparently psychopathic tendencies to see what he can learn.

Thoughts on the story:

The title of The Psychopath Test is ever so slightly misleading. Ronson is not truly exclusively interested in psychopaths, but in madness and how it shapes the world, and our reactions to it – the case that led him to this topic did not directly involve a psychopath at all, in fact. However he finds over the course of his investigation that psychopathy is the most influential of madnesses, so it fittingly takes a place of prominence in his research and the resulting book.

The study of psychopaths truly is fascinating. At one point, another psychologist complains that Bob Hare – of checklist fame – speaks of psychopaths almost as if they were a separate species, Homo psychopathis, or something. There were many times throughout the book when the same thought occurred to me, not as a criticism, but as something that sent shivers down my spine. Still, though, by the end of his research, Ronson has learned not only a respectful fear of psychopaths, but a healthy dose of skepticism about our method for identifying them. Contrary to the ‘separate species’ remark, psychopathy is not an all or nothing proposition, but instead it is a spectrum. At what point are you a psychopath? For most intents, someone who scores a 30/40 on Hair’s checklist is so classified, but what about someone who scores a 29? Is that so far from a 31?

One thing I do wish had been addressed by Ronson and his research, even if only fleetingly, is the prevalence of male vs. female psychopaths. Unless I am much mistaken, each of the people in whom Ronson and others diagnosed psychopathic tendencies was male. We know that psychopaths comprise approximately 1% of the population, but it would have been interesting to see how that breaks down on gender – and other socioeconomic – lines. Is the faulty amygdala primarily a male defect, or did Ronson merely have a faulty sample?

Thoughts on the audio production:

In The Psychopath Test, Ronson narrates his own work. His voice does take some getting used to, but he is not half-bad, as narrators go. He is perfectly capable of inserting appropriate excitement and emotion into the text. Particularly attractive is his narration of his own anxieties, oftentimes nearly crippling. Because he inserts himself so completely into his narrative, it makes complete sense for him to do the actual narration when the text is translated into an audiobook. The experience is made that much richer by his familiarity with the text and ability to impart the full range of emotions he felt during this period of research.

Overall:

The Psychopath Test is a fascinating work of extremely narrative journalistic nonfiction. Readers and listeners alike will be more than a little horrified by the psychopaths who lurk everywhere around us, mimicking our emotions though they feel none themselves. I would recommend The Psychopath Test in either print or audio, but be prepared to begin measuring everyone you meet against the Hair Checklist.

Buy this book from:
Powells: Audio/Print*
Indiebound: Audio/Print*

I’m launching a brand-new meme every Friday! I encourage you to review any audiobooks you review on Fridays and include the link here. If you have reviewed an audiobook earlier in the week, please feel free to link that review as well. Thanks to Pam for creating the button.

Source: Tantor Audio.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
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The Dead Beat by Marilyn Johnson – Audiobook Review

The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries by Marilyn Johnson, read by the author
Published in audio by Harper Audio, published in print by Harper Perennial, imprints of Harper Collins

Synopsis:

There exists some nonfiction that I have a difficult time explaining in a concise manner while still making it sound somewhat interesting. “The Dead Beat” is one of those books. If put on the spot to describe the book, I would probably say, “it is about obituaries.” When pressed for more detail, I might be able to come up with, “it is about obituaries and the people who write them and, to a lesser extent, the people who read them.” Since that doesn’t sound the least bit interesting, I’m going to do something I do irregularly and provide you with the publisher’s description.

Marilyn Johnson was enthralled by the remarkable lives that were marching out of this world—so she sought out the best obits in the English language and the people who spent their lives writing about the dead. She surveyed the darkest corners of Internet chat rooms, and made a pilgrimage to London to savor the most caustic and literate obits of all. Now she leads us on a compelling journey into the cult and culture behind the obituary page and the unusual lives we don’t quite appreciate until they’re gone.

Ah yes, that’s much better.

Thoughts on the story:

I was morbidly fascinated by “The Dead Beat.” Not so much by all of the obituaries, but by all of the people who are themselves so morbidly fascinated by obituaries. Seriously, people, the obituarist (yes, that is a real word, at least as per this book and yes, my spell checker thinks I’m lying about it being a real word) convention was begun by a group of enthusiasts. Enthusiasts! About obituaries! I’ve heard the trope about elderly people reading the obituaries because it is where they can see their friends and know that the obituaries are many famous people are filed with newspapers well ahead of those people’s deaths just in case something should happen, but I had no idea how beloved obituaries are by so many.

I’m not entirely sure why I thought I would want to read (or listen to, in this case) this book, actually, because I’m pretty sure that before picking it up I had never in my life read an obituary of any sort. Even so, Johnson not only kept me entertained and got me educated, she almost made me want to start picking up obituaries and reading them. And, really, what higher praise can I give an author of nonfiction than to say that she kept me interested in something in which I have no inherent interest?

Thoughts on the audio production:

I thought that Johnson was actually a very good choice to read her own book. She didn’t necessarily have a huge range of emotion in her reading but the texts wasn’t such that needed a huge range, other than from somber to humorous to ironic. The fact that she knew well her subject and the people she was interviewing so well made her narration a net positive for the audiobook.

Overall:

Definitely an interesting book, I think I would recommend it in either print or audio.

Buy this book from:
Audible: Audio
Powells: Print*
A local independent bookstore via Indiebound: Print*
Amazon: Print*

Source: Publisher.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.