The Life of Pi – Yann Martel

Book #49

Reviewer: Naomi, of Create-Believe-Dream

Please welcome our newest reviewer, Naomi from Create-Believe-Dream.

Having just finished Martel’s somewhat harrowing book Beatrice and Virgil I wasn’t sure what I was getting into when a neighbour loaned me The Life of Pi. One thing I did know for sure is that it would be exceptionally well written; it was, and also, I think, deserving of a place on the 1001 books list.

The Life of Pi is the story of an Indian boy named Piscine Molitor Patel (Pi), who has an unusual interest in religion and whose father is a zoo-keeper. Pi enjoys an idyllic childhood in India, living on the grounds of a zoo and exploring Islam, Christianity and the Hindu faith before cultural and political unrest prompt his family to immigrate to Canada, selling all their animals and setting sail as the only passengers in a Japanese freight ship loaded with cargo bound for American zoos.

The ship sinks while at sea and Pi finds himself on a lifeboat with no-one but a Bengal tiger as company for 227 days. What follows is an extraordinary tale of survival, made all the more amazing by the prefix from the author that tells the reader the book is based on a true story.

The voice of the narrator Pi is beautifully written. His love of animals and God in all his manifest forms weaves in and out of the narrative giving it a fantastical almost mythical element. The relationship between Pi and the tiger is moving and heartfelt, full of pathos, fear, sympathy and humanity. His relationship with the tiger proves to be the saving grace for Pi, giving him the wherewithal, the motivation and the strength to deal with the despair of his situation.

Despite the bulk of the book being set on the lifeboat with not a lot of plot to move it forward, I was totally engrossed and finished the book in two days (admittedly I am a fast reader). The character of Pi is a times wise and innocent, brave and foolish, and almost accidentally resourceful. But always enchanting, imaginative and believable.

In the prefix a character tells the author that this story “will make you believe in God” and ultimately Pi’s unwavering faith in the face of his hopelessness and despair is what the book most palpably left me with.

Martel has written a story in the best tradition, juxtaposing the everyday with the divine, the magical with the horrifying and joy with tragedy. I would unreservedly recommend this book to any reader. It was an entertaining, illuminating and inspiring read.


The Old Devils – Kingsley Amis

Book #228

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily (first published 2010)

This is the 1986 Booker Prize winner and my second Booker book this month.
I guess I’m finally on a bit of a roll.
This is also my first reading of anything by Kingsley Amis and I have to confess that it may well be my last.
According to his Wikipedia entry:

In 2008, The Times ranked Kingsley Amis ninth on their list of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945.[2]

Frankly, if this is what gets you into the top ten, I’m not sure what it would take to get you in the bottom ten.  Can you tell it didn’t resonate with me?

The premise of the book is the return to their homeland of Wales by Alun and Rhiannon Weaver and the ructions this causes in their old circle of friends.
Alun is a writer in the tradition of Brydan, who must be Dylan Thomas fictionalized, and a professional Welshman, being called upon to speak on television and radio whenever a Welsh view is called for.
All the characters are 60-somethings and have had many relationships amongst themselves.  In fact, at one point you begin to ask yourself who might not have slept with whom.

I found the whole thing fairly unpalatable and unsympathetic.  There is humour to be found, poignancy too.  It could be seen as a haunting view of what retirement can bring to people – lots of daytime-to-nighttime drinking in order to fill in the time, a giving up of the idea of living the life you hoped for in your youth, and generally becoming so lethargic that you willingly put up with a spouse you are happy to cheat on.

Adultery and alcoholism permeate the book, as does a feeling of hopelessness.
It is only slightly relieved by cutting humour, and occasional light humour.

I have to also confess that it began to read better once I had indulged in a couple of glasses of sauvignon blanc myself.  Perhaps it was written for those who have the edge taken off their faculties?
Eventually I began to sympathise with a couple of the old codgers, and I do have to say that some of the actual writing was very well done.  There are a few one liners that bring a smile to the face and a few descriptions that are very evocative if unsavory.

Here’s one of my favourites, a description of part of the character Peter’s morning routine.  By way of explanation, Peter is very obese, and Muriel is his domineering wife.

Those toenails had in themselves become a disproportion in his life.  They tore the pants because they were sharp and jagged, and they had got like that because they had grown too long and broken off, and he had let them grow because these days cutting them was no joke at all.  He could not do it in the house because there was no means of trapping the fragments and Muriel would be bound to come across a couple, especially with her bare feet, and that was obviously to be avoided.  After experimenting with a camp-stool in the garage and falling off it a good deal he had settled on a garden seat under the rather fine flowering cherry.  This restricted him to the warmer months, the wearing of an overcoat being of course ruled out by the degree of bending involved.  But at least he could let the parings fly free, and fly they bloody well did, especially the ones that came crunching off his big toes, which were massive enough and moved fast enough to have brought down a sparrow on the wing, though so far this had not occurred.

So, as you can see, the highlights are not really that high.  I do have to wonder if it is just me, but I can’t see enough in this book – either theme or writing style – that really warranted it being a prizewinner.

Not highly recommended at all.

Schindler’s Ark – Thomas Keneally

Book #275

Reviewer: Beth, of Beth’s List Love (first published March 2012)

In 1980, Thomas Keneally was in LA looking for a briefcase. A Holocaust survivor named Leopold Pfefferberg, may or may not have actually sold him one, but he gave him something much more valuable, a tale of holocaust heroism of which he had been one of thousands of fortunate participants. Pfefferberg introduced Keneally to others who had been a part of the story, and took him to the locations critical to the tale. The result was this novel, Schindler’s Ark also known as Schindler’s List, and the movie which we have probably all seen (and should see, if we haven’t).

Most books on the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die list aren’t there for the plot. They are there for the amazing prose, the literary innovation, the depth of psychological insight. This one, while its prose is fine, is there for the plot. So if you know the plot, since you’ve seen the movie, do you really need to read the book? Yes. Definitely, yes. The book contains the level of documentation and detail, in novel form, but not fictionalized, that helps a reader begin to fully grasp the immensity of what Schindler’s miraculous acts of heroism involved. The book does not paint a saint. Among other things, Schindler was an unapologetic philanderer. According to Keneally, “sexual shame was, to him, a concept like Existentialism, very worthy but hard to grasp.” But Schindler committed years and immense sums of money to protect over a thousand Jews from starvation, abuse, and death, all via an absurd con–a munitions factory that never produced a useful shell.

Schindler walked a high wire, using bribes, charm, and an incredible instinctive ability to read the characters of others, all to protect the Jews in his care and even to rescue his women workers from the bowels of Auschwitz when they were waylaid there on the way to his factory in Moravia. The question you have to ask yourself in reading this book is “Could I have had the courage to act in this way? Faced with Schindler’s choices and risks, could I have been a Righteous Person?” I wish I could confidently answer yes. I am certain of this: reading this book can only make that “yes” more likely.

In A Free State – V.S.Naipaul

Book #356

Reviewer: Ms Oh Waily (first published 2010)

This is the 1971 Booker Prize winner by V.S.Naipaul, who sounds like quite an interesting character in his own right.

Having visited his Wikipedia entry, I now have a better understanding of this work.  I was a bit perplexed by it at the beginning, but at least two of the five sections make a great deal more sense.

Okay, let me begin at the beginning.

This is a book in five parts.  There are three separate stories bookended by two, supposed entries from the author’s own journals, although more likely to be in the voice of a narrator.  I found the bookends odd.  The first “journal entry” sets the tone for the next two stories, One Out of Many and Tell Me Who To Kill.   The narrator is travelling on a ship to Egypt and relates the story of the short voyage, in which a very odd passenger is noted and eventually tormented by his three room-mates.
If you are an aspiring writer who wishes to learn the skill of writing menace then you can find no better example than this volume.  I cannot give Naipaul enough praise for the ability to convey menaces and fear in the written form.

Following on from the initial journal entry is One Out of Many which conveys the story of an Indian manservant brought to the United States and Washington D.C. by his employer – a minor government official. The fear of differences, cultural and societal are touched on in this story.  There are some funny moments, when viewed as an outsider, but there is the ever present sense of fear, menace and just waiting for the shoe to drop.  The ending of the story is not what I expected at all, and while unconventional it was not wholly satisfying either.  It almost left me with more questions than answers about the changes in the lead character’s inner life. 

The second story is nothing but menace, fear and ultimately sadness.
It is the tale of two brothers from the Caribbean and their experience living in England.  The older brother is the narrator of the story, telling it in slices of flashback mixed with current events.   In current time he is travelling to his younger brother’s wedding.  He is accompanied on this journey by a man who’s relationship to the narrator is never openly acknowledged or clearly expressed.  He is named, and discussed in small snippets but you know that there is something amiss with the relationship.
In flashback you are taken through the emotional ups and downs of a very poor family’s relationship with their “better off” cousins, and then on to a poor, illiterate immigrant’s experience in England.  And, as a West Indian in the late 1960s and early 1970s, this clearly would not have been a positive one.
Many aspects of this story are pitiful, sad, poignant and downright annoying.  But, once again, the overarching sensation while reading is fear, menace and waiting for the axe to fall.  I was too dim to make the connection at the time of reading the story, so the ending was vaguely unsatisfactory.  It makes much more sense to me now, once I connected the narrator to his travelling companion in the manner the author intended.

The third story, and the namesake of the book, In A Free State is set in some anonymous African country after the colonial power has gone.  This story went on and on and on and on, with seemingly no real point.  Perhaps I missed it.  Perhaps I need to be an African to understand it.  As bad as I found reading Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible I would still find her discussion of post-colonial Africa and the mess that was made there far more understandable and palatable than this rather vague story.
The only “free” state that seems under discussion here is that of whose bed you prefer, and why that is so much easier to do in an African expatriate community.  The world around the main character here seems barely trimming on his lifestyle and that of his travelling companion.  Perhaps I’m of the wrong generation, wrong upbringing, or just plain dim.  I didn’t get it.  I didn’t get the point.  I didn’t even really enjoy the writing of this piece.  The previous two were much more evocative and created great mood, even though I have no connection to India or the West Indies either.

Frankly on the back of In A Free State, I’m damned if I know how this got a Booker.  On the back of the first two – I do get it.  Great writing, taking you in to the characters and their inner lives and thoughts, even so far as to draw you into their fears.  The rest of it…  uh, no.  Not a prizewinner from where I sit.

If you’ve read it, I’d love to know what you thought about it.  What did I miss in my understanding of the writer’s objectives?

So this one I’d have to call a half-and-half.  Half great stuff, half “what the??”
Tackle it if you dare.

Possession – A. S. Byatt

Book # 183

Reviewer: Tall, Short & Tiny

It’s 1986, and self-proclaimed “failed” academic Roland Michell is doing some routine research work into [fictional] poet Randolph Henry Ash. He stumbles upon some previously-unread drafts of what sound like a love letter – written to someone other than Ash’s wife. As he tries to unravel the mystery behind the letter and the woman it was meant for, Roland realises that this could change the way people think about the poet, his works, and his private life. As other academics become aware of the existence of the letter, Roland is caught in a race to discover the full story, which will alter the face of academic research forever.

I had no pre-conceived ideas about this book, having heard nothing about it before, and therefore didn’t know what I was expecting…but it certainly wasn’t this. It took me a while to really get into it; I found the characters insipid and uninspiring, and the setting of the background information seemed to plod along at snails’ pace. Then suddenly, a quarter of the way through, it became a compulsive read; the plot suddenly became captivating, intriguing, beguiling…it was like reading a crime-thriller novel, and I was desperate to turn each page. I found myself – on numerous occasions – foregoing a sleep-in so I could continue reading, and my bedside lamp was turned off later and later at the opposite end of the day.

The central theme of Possession is…well…possession, in various forms – the need for people to own something, or someone. There’s the idea of possession between lovers (present in the parallel and complementary love stories in the two separate centuries – each pair seem to struggle with morality, expectation and the need for individuality, which serve to highlight their need for clarification on their position within each relationship); the need for a researcher to feel some kind of ownership over their subject (each of the main academics is desperate to be the one to unravel the story, to gain more insight into their chosen subject. They all seem to become obsessed with their missions, and in many cases, I guess obsession and possession go hand-in-hand); and the concept of ownership when it comes to historically significant discoveries – do they belong to the person who found them, or to the country in which they were found, or to the person for whom they were intended (and therefore their descendants), or to the highest bidder (this is explored throughout the entire novel – the power struggle between the academics moves beyond simply the desire for information, to the desire to possess the artefacts that are uncovered. In the end, it comes down to the law, and the resignation by all that the information can belong to only one)?

Byatt intersperses the story with chapters consisting solely of Victorian-esque poetry, all of which she wrote herself, as well as letters between the lovers and journal entries from the various 19th-Century characters. I enjoyed the first few, but then found myself flipping through these chapters to find where the story re-started – unless you have a strong liking for Victorian poetry (a la Browning and Tennyson), these seem to me to be superfluous to the central story, as the meanings are ultimately explained by the 20th-Century characters. However, her talent as a writer and as a poet are undeniable, and these poems certainly showcase that.

There were moments of predictability, but these were the result of logical thought rather than following any sort of typical formula. As the story unfolded and more information came to light, the mysteries unravelled further and it became easier to see a few steps ahead. The ending was certainly not a surprise, which gave the novel the perfect 19th-Century tie-up-all-loose-ends feel.

After some initial trepidation, I thoroughly enjoyed Possession in the end, and would be more than willing to seek out further works by Byatt for future reading. My advice to others tempted to pick up this book? Persevere, if you find it starts off slow – it’s worth it in the end.