Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Stories with or without animals: Life of Pi

[Editor’s Note (JS):
Welcome to He Read/She Read.

The premise here is – a man and a woman read a book and write their reactions to that book.

I would like to be clever - but I'm falling asleep. So I'll just say "Thank you" to Pamela (from the dayton time) for guest posting with me today. And I'm not at ALL jealous that she was able to express herself so well in one page when it took three-and-a-half pages for me to (attempt) the same. D*mmit!

Without any further ado, let’s see what…]

He Read:

“…For this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth,” Jesus said. "Everyone on the side of truth listens to me."
"What is truth?" Pilate asked.
(John 18:37-38)
Once again the damnable burdens of Expectation have laid themselves upon a work of art under my consideration – with deleterious results. Well, to be fair, Life of Pi’s author, Yann Martel had a hand in placing this burden himself; by having one of his characters make the statement (within the first five pages of the book, mind you – in the Author’s Note!) that “I have a story that will make you believe in God.”

I call that a tall order. Not that he had to convince me – I already believe in God. But even in the mind of a Believer, this places a thought that the story you are about to read is so amazing that it will alter your world-view (or, at least, your God-view). And, in that regard, Life of Pi came up well short in this reader’s view.

Not that there aren’t a great many things to enjoy in this book. In fact, although my initial reaction after finishing the novel was to feel a bit let down (for reasons, that I will not reveal in great detail – in deference to those who have not yet read the book), those feelings have softened considerably during my preparation of this review. On reflection, I would describe Life of Pi as a flawed masterpiece; a book of great ambition which, despite generally fine writing, a compelling central story, and some exquisite moments, doesn’t fulfill all its ambition.

The book tells the story of Piscine Molitor Patel, born in Pondicherry, India (on the southeastern coast near Sri Lanka), younger son of Mr. Santosh Patel, the owner and operator of a zoo at the Pondicherry Botanical Garden. The boy adopts the nickname “Pi” on his first day at secondary school (equivalent to a combined Junior & Senior high school) in order to leave behind the hated nickname “Pissing” that had dogged him in childhood. Pi’s father decides to relocate the family to Canada in the face of Indira Gandhi’s near-dictatorial policies during the mid-Seventies. The zoo’s animals are sold or donated to other establishments – and many share the ship that will take the Patels from India to North America.

The novel’s central story is set in motion when the ship carrying sixteen-year-old Pi, his family and the animals sinks without warning on July 2, 1977, somewhere in the North Pacific between the Philippine and Midway Islands. Pi survives the next 227 days in a life boat that he shares (at least initially) with an injured zebra, a hyena, an orangutan – and a 450 lb Bengal tiger.

Or does he? Again, in the interest of trying not to spoil the book for those who haven’t already read it, I will say only that one of the Martel’s ambitions seems to be making the reader consider the nature of the truth – or, as Pi says it, what makes “the better story”. And the book is certainly successful in arousing such consideration (a worthy accomplishment in and of itself) – though I suspect that some readers will feel as Pi does following his long journey:

What a terrible thing it is to botch a farewell. I am a person who believes in form, in the harmony of order. Where we can, we must give things a meaningful shape. For example – I wonder – could you tell my jumbled story in exactly one hundred chapters, not one more, not one less? I’ll tell you, that’s one thing I hate about my nickname, the way that number runs on forever. It’s important in life to conclude things properly. Only then can you let go Otherwise, you are left with words you should have said but never did, and your heart is heavy with remorse.
This passage encapsulates both what I love about this book – and what troubles me. I love the language and perspective that Martel imparts to Pi’s first person narrative. But the “cleverness” of the surrounding presentation only detracts from his central story and themes. He actually separates the novel into exactly 100 chapters, but not in a way that demonstrates any particular belief “in form (or) the harmony of order” but almost like a trick. (As an illustration, the entirety of Chapter 97 reads: “The story.”)

Another troubling element for me is the abrupt shift of tone in the last section of book, where he introduces two characters from the Japanese Ministry of Transport in an attempt at Abbott and Costello comedy relief. Not only is the shift in tone unnecessary – but the stuff isn’t very funny. Although this section of the book is crucial to the overall impact of the story, the execution does not fit with the rest of the novel. It reminds me of a trap that many films seem to fall into these days; where the filmmaker wants to include the full range of human emotion within a story – even though some of those emotions don’t fit in (I call it the “Mrs. Doubtfire effect”). Even much of Pi’s dialogue in this section of the novel doesn’t seem to fit the character we have come to know in the preceding 350 pages. It’s not that the rest of the book doesn’t have funny moments – but the humor in this end section seems quite forced.

[Note: This next section is improved if you can easily lapse into a fake French accent a la John Cleese in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.]

Despite these missteps, Life of Pi has wonderful moments – like the meeting of Mr. Kumar (Pi’s favorite teacher who both a Communist and atheist – take that you provincial American pig dogs!) and Mr. Kumar (the humble Muslim baker who introduces Pi to Islam – and again you capitalistic sniffers-of-other-person’s-bottoms!) at the zoo. It is the baker who firsts arrives on the scene at Pi’s invitation. There is a sublime section (that I will not attempt to excerpt) where Pi frets over trying to recognize Mr. Kumar in the crowded street outside the zoo – and he is greatly relieved once they make their way in.

It was with great pride that I waved the ticket collector’s hand away and showed Mr. Kumar into the zoo.
He marveled at everything, at how to tall trees came tall giraffes, how carnivores were supplied with herbivores and herbivores with grass, how some creatures crowded the day and others the night, how some that needed sharp beaks had sharp beaks and others that needed limber limbs had limber limbs. It made me happy that he was so impressed.
He quoted from the Holy Qur’an: “In all this there are messages indeed for a people who use their reason.”
We came to the zebras. Mr. Kumar had never heard of such creatures, let alone seen one.
While they are observing the zebras, the other Mr. Kumar arrives on the scene. Both Mr. Kumars feed a bit of carrot to a zebra.

Mr. and Mr. Kumar looked delighted.
“A zebra, you say?” said Mr. Kumar.
“That’s right,” I replied. “It belongs to the same family as the ass and the horse.”
“The Rolls-Royce of equids,” said Mr. Kumar.
“What a wondrous creature,” said Mr. Kumar.
Life of Pi is also filled with wonderful ideas. Martel eloquently contradicts much criticism of zoos (as prisons for wild animals) – with his argument that what animals desire most is predictability and routine. But, unfortunately, he undermines his own argument almost immediately with the following illustration:

If you went to a home, kicked down the front door, chased the people who lived there out into the street and said, “Go! You are free! Free as a bird! Go! Go! – do you think they would shout and dance for joy? They wouldn’t. Birds are not free. The people you’ve just evicted would sputter, “With what right do you throw us out? This is our home. We own it. We have lived here for years. We’re calling the police, you scoundrel.”
Don’t we say, “There’s no place like home”? That’s certainly what animals feel. Animals are territorial. That is the key to their minds. Only a familiar territory will allow them to fulfill the two relentless imperatives of the wild: the avoidance of enemies and the getting of food and water.
Although this illustration is intended to show how wrong-minded people are who want to return zoo animals to the wild, isn’t the reverse true as well? Isn’t an animal, now living in the wild, being “evicted” from his house if he is captured and moved into a zoo – whether or not living in the zoo might be better or easier long-term? I bring this up, not because I believe zoos should be abolished, but because Martel’s desire to be clever once again blunts the overall impact of an idea that (I think) he wants to make in the book.

The novel does a better job dealing with its spiritual themes. As a boy, Pi is drawn to spiritual devotion. Not content with only his native Hindu, he goes on to practice as both a Christian and Muslim too. Martel shows respect for each one of these systems of belief – but Pi’s secret triple-life is finally exposed when the priest, the patel and the imam of the town all happen upon the Patel family during a Sunday afternoon stroll. The scene reveals how ridiculous it is when followers of these religions focus most of their attention on the superficial differences in their spiritual practice – rather than be reconciled with one another by greater devotion to the central truth they all share. When the young Pi is told that “he can’t be a Hindu, a Christian and a Muslim” and asked to choose only one, he responds:

“Bapu Gandhi said, ‘All religions are true.’ I just want to love God.” I blurted out, and looked down, red in the face.
My embarrassment was contagious. No one said anything. It happened that we were not far from the statue of Gandhi on the esplanade. Stick in hand, an impish smile on his lips, a twinkle in his eyes, the Mahatma walked. I fancy that he heard our conversation, but that he paid even greater attention to my heart. Father cleared his throat and said in a half-voice, “I suppose that’s what we’re all trying to do – love God.”
So I leave you with that thought (a mighty good one – maybe enough to justify reading a 400-page book). If that thought appeals to you, pick up a copy of Life of Pi and make up your own mind. If not, this may not be your cup of tea.

She Read:

If we citizens do not support our artists, then we sacrifice our imagination on the altar of crude reality and we end up believing in nothing and having worthless dreams. (Yann Martel, Life of Pi)
A good author makes you want to believe what the author is telling you. A really good author makes you believe. The Life of Pi was easy to believe, too easy perhaps, and I was completely drawn in to the plight of Pi Patel. I read the entire novel in one day, which is really saying something, as I ought to have been taking care of my children, ages 6, 4, 2, and 7 months.

[Please note: They survived.]

There comes a point with some fiction, both written and spoken, when you simply cannot believe any longer. There are signs, of course, that you are approaching that point, but if you’re like me, you brush those signs aside, even without knowing that is what you’re doing. Eventually the burden of the indicators tips the scale and the reader is forced to reevaluate what is truth.

Incredible things happened to Pi; that is the truth of the story. It is a story of survival, adaptability, and strength; that is undeniable. But what really happened? Pi tells his story twice, the first version is bizarre and lovely, the second is crude and horrific.

Pi asks his audience which story is better to believe, and because some actions are less reprehensible when performed by animals, rather than humans, the audience prefers the bizarre and lovely version. In real life, we humans so often believe the crude and horrific over the bizarre and lovely. We do not take into consideration which is the better story to believe, and we are rarely given the opportunity to choose which truth to believe.

Martel finds truth in religion, and fortunately for him, there is no shortage of truth touted by religious folk. In the beginning of the novel, Pi hungers for God, diligently studying three religions, and practicing each with great reverence. A character in the book makes the claim that Pi’s story will cause a person to believe in God. My counterpart believes this statement to be difficult to achieve; I believe the statement to be an Agnostic antagonizer. Throughout the novel, Martel clearly takes issue with believing nothing, which makes the question “which is the better story to believe?” even more loaded.

I asked myself that very question about ten years ago when I realized I needed to make my mind up about God. I’m not really the kind of person to live in the grey area, I’m more of a black-or-white, it-is-or-it-isn’t kind of girl. I chose to believe.

Regardless of your religious beliefs or thoughts about God, Life of Pi is a fascinating, well-crafted novel chock full of beautiful imagery that will inspire your imagination.

[Hope you found today's reviews at He Read/She Read to be enlightening. Please leave us a comment with your feedback including any suggestions or constructive criticism.

Thanks again to the lovely Pamela for being my review partner today. Please take a minute to stopy by the dayton time and share some comment love.

Keep in mind that your participation is what helps make He Read/She Read a special place. If you:

- Have a book you would like to see reviewed on He Read/She Read
– Are interested in being a guest writer for one of our featured reviews
– Would like to do your own mini-review (100 words or less?) of a book previously reviewed here (I would love to offer a summary of feedback from readers as a complement to the featured reviews - and I KNOW some of you out there have already read this book.)

Then: Please use your comment to share that info or send me an email using the link somewhere above. Let your voices be heard!

Next time on He Read/She Read:

I have no idea.

If I can't find anyone interested in teaming up for a review, I may fill in with the Stories That Stick meme.

Remember: Keep Reading – it’s good for you. And helps you get a good night's sleep.]

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

"The horror, the horror...":
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

[Editor’s Note (JS):
Welcome to He Read/She Read.

The premise here is – a man and a woman read a book and write their reactions to that book.

I am particularly excited about today's reviews - because one of my personal blogging heroes, Captain Dumbass from Us and Them, and my personal wifey heroine, the Middle-Aged Woman from Unmitigated, have joined forces today in a special Halloween Horror presentation. Sensing that I could not sustain the blistering of pace of posting here on three consecutive weeks without some help from (semi-)professionals, these Juggernauts of the Blogsphere are on-hand to take this thing up to a whole new level - with their reviews of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (the Jane Austen classic - with some good, old-fashioned zombification added by Seth Grahame-Smith). I promised that today's post would include (little or) no Jim Styro content - so without any further ado, let’s see what…]

He Read:

A few months back Middle Aged Woman from Unmitigated asked if I would like to do a book review with her for Pride & Prejudice & Zombies. I immediately jumped at the chance since I had been waiting for the book to come out and it gave me an excuse to go out and buy it. After setting aside everything else I was reading and quickly working through the book, I immediately ground to a halt. A book review? When was the last time I'd done a book review? Junior high? Elementary school? Panic set in, but it was quickly replaced by the relaxed absence of any thought at all. My mind is quite adept at making uncomfortable situations disappear. Tra-la-la-la-la. But then MAW kept emailing and Twittering and leaving troll-like comments on my blog. What the hell, woman? You're making it very difficult for me to ignore you. Sigh. So what can I say about this book? I think this one passage can best sum up Pride & Prejudice & Zombies for me:

She remembered the lead ammunition in her pocket and offered it to him. "Your balls, Mr. Darcy?" He reached out and closed her hand around them, and offered, "They belong to you, Miss Bennett."
Early 19th century angsty love, the crossing of social boundaries, sexual innuendo and the walking dead, what more could you ask for? I'm sure it's a close rendition of what Jane Austen would have written if not tied down by the rigid boundaries of society in the early 1800's. If you've never read an Austen book or seen one of the multitude of movie adaptations but felt that you should, this is a good place to start. Seriously. Author Seth Grahame-Smith has done a fantastic job of adapting the original book into something very entertaining and easily read. Aside from the additions of a zombie plague, Grahame-Smith kept to most of original text but cleaned it up in a way to make it friendlier to readers in the here and now. Not that the minutia of two hundred year old pre-Victorian romance isn't riveting, but this adaptation makes things a little more understandable and humorous for readers who would never have thought of picking up a Jane Austen novel. The thing I admire most about this work is the simplicity and adaptability of the idea. You could do this to literally ANY story. Granted, rewriting an entire book is a serious amount of work, still, at the same time it sings to the laziness inside me. For example, The Odyssey by Homer

"Sing to me of the zombie, Muse, the zombie of twists and turns driven time and again by hunger, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy. Many cities of men he ate and tasted of their minds, many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea, starving once his comrades were but bone."
War & Peace by Leo Tolstoy:

"Well, Prince, Genoa and Lucca are now no more than hellish estates of the un-dead. No, I warn you, that if you do not tell me we are at war, if you again allow yourself to palliate all the infamies and atrocities of this Apocalypse (upon my word, I believe it is), I don't know you in future, you are no longer my friend, no longer my faithful slave, as you say for you will join them. There, how do you do, how do you do? I see I'm scaring you, do sit down and talk to me."
And, from the New York
Fate of White House Counsel Is in Doubt After Bruising Fights
By PETER BAKER Published: October 21, 2009

"WASHINGTON — Every morning, Gregory B. Craig, the White House counsel, sits at the conference table of the Roosevelt Room with the president’s depleted senior staff. The one issue that does not come up? Mr. Craig himself. As President Obama’s top lawyer, Mr. Craig has been at the center of thorny decisions on halting the transfer of zombie plague victims (ZP's) to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, revising interrogation and detention policies and simply executing them, problems that have bedeviled the new administration and generated fierce battles inside and outside the White House. And for months now, he has endured a spate of speculation in print and around the White House about whether he himself has been infected by the plague."
Song lyrics, commercials, children's books... once you start, it's hard to stop. I don't think I'm going out on a limb here when I say that as a book review, this would probably be handed back by the teacher with an awful lot of red ink and the sixth letter of the alphabet in prominent display, but you know what? That teacher can suck it. Bottom line, Seth Grahame-Smith has attached his name to a literary classic just by adding some zombie horror to it. I sincerely hope he's making a boat load of money off this.

She Read:

If you have long loved Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, you may rest assured that Elizabeth Bennet is still a thoughtful, strong heroine, mortified by her mother, Mr. Darcy is still brooding and proud, and Mr. Collins is still an ass.

Seth Grahame-Smith's transformation of the Jane Austin classic is absolutely seamless. It's as if the novel was written this way in the first place by a precognicient Austen to appeal to the early 21st century fascination with the undead.

What's up with that, by the way? When did reanimated corpses in search of brains become hilarious? You can find knitted zombies on Etsy now, for pete's sake.

My reviewing partner, Captain Dumbass once featured these on his blog.

Zombies used to be scary. Now they are the butt of our jokes. This one is by Dennis Culver.

Back to the review. Austen's tale is about the Bennets, a family in 19th century England who, because they have five daughters and no sons, will lose their estate and income, upon the death of their father. Mr. Bennet is a bit of an absentee father, as he is a very sensible man who has found it easier to withdraw to his study than to argue with his very insensible wife. Mrs. Bennet is very eager to see the girls married well (and by that she means to someone wealthy). Pride and Prejudice is the tale mostly of Elizabeth, or Lizzie, the strong-willed second daughter, who is sensible like her father, and her relationship with the cold, proud Mr. Darcy. Of course they start off disliking each other very much, and end up in love against their will, paving the way for the plot of every Harlequin romance ever written.

In Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, 19th century England is overrun with "unmentionables" whom Lizzie and her sisters have been trained to dispatch by Shaolin monks, at the insistence of the very sensible Mr. Bennet. In this version, the haughty Lady Catherine is admired, not for her connections at court, but for her martial abilities. The dreadfully absurd Mr. Collins refers to her this way as he proposes to Lizzie:

"...I do not reckon the notice and kindness of Lady Catherine De Bourgh as among the least of the advantages in my power to offer. You will find her powers of combat beyond anything I can describe; and your own talents in slaying the stricken, I think, must be acceptable to her, though naturally, I will require you to retire them as part of your marital submission."

There are occasional vignettes that are entirely added by Grahame-Smith. When the Bennet girls and Mr. Collins undertake the walk to Meryton where they will meet the villain Mr. Wickham, along the way they find trouble. The carriage of a young girl they know has been overturned in a gulley and set upon by zombies. To prevent the spread of the scourge, Elizabeth snatches the pipe from the mouth of Mr. Collins, "a gift from her ladyship," and tosses it down into the gulley, fire being one of the ways in which unmentionables are dispatched.

In a turn I found particularly satisfying, Lizzie's best friend Charlotte, who marries the insufferable Mr. Collins, is stricken, as she calls it, after having been grabbed and bitten on the ankle by a zombie trapped under the coach. Her words to Elizabeth, "I don't have long, Elizabeth. I only hope that my final months will be happy ones, and that I be permitted a husband who will see to my proper Christian beheading and burial."

What every girl dreams of.

With the successful transformation of Pride and Prejudice, one can only imagine the possibilities for other famous works in the public domain.
Dickens, anyone?

[Hope you were terrified by this special Halloween Horror edition of He Read/She Read. Please leave us a comment with your feedback including any suggestions or constructive criticism.

Special thanks to Captain Dumbass (from Us and Them) and the Middle-Aged Woman (from Unmitigated) for bailing me out sharing their thoughts on Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. A little bird told me there are several other books which trash the classics spice up these musty old tomes by adding assorted monsters and mayhem - perhaps we can convince these two to join forces again some time soon. Please take a minute to visit their blogs and share some comment love. I hear that the Middle-Aged Woman is even giving away a prize to some lucky winner at Unmitigated!!

Please keep in mind that your participation is what helps make He Read/She Read a special place. If you:

- Have a book you would like to see reviewed on He Read/She Read
– Are interested in being a guest writer for one of our featured reviews
– Would like to do your own mini-review (100 words or less?) of a book previously reviewed here (I would love to offer a summary of feedback from readers as a complement to the featured reviews)

Then: Please use your comment to share that info or send me an email using the link somewhere above.

DON'T FORGET: Next week, Jim Styro returns - aided and abetted by

the lovely Pamela from the dayton time - to review
Yan Martel's Life of Pi

Spread the word.
Tell your friends. Tell your enemies.
Tell complete strangers.

Remember: Keep Reading – it’s good for you. And the more pages you turn, the more calories you burn.]