Audiobook Review: Life of Pi

Can you be a better person because you read a book?

This is a story that I have been digesting for a few days.  I finished it almost a week ago, and am still enthralled by the question that is left with the reader. Yann Martel’s literary accomplishment has been widely recognized for years, with stellar reviews and the Man Booker Prize.  I’m a little late to the game. Shame on me for taking so long.

Life of Pi is many things.  It’s zoology… it’s adventure… and most importantly, it’s faith.

I’m sure you already know that Life of Pi is the story of an Indian teen who survives the sinking of a ship as it’s moving the boy and his family from India to Canada.  Indian political unrest forced the family’s move, and the family of Zookeepers from Pondicherry chooses Winnipeg for their new home.  They sell many of their Zoo’s animals, and decide to transport several with them on their voyage.  The ship sinks.  Pi manages to board a life boat… and winds up at sea with a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and an enormous Bengal tiger.  The zebra, orangutan and hyena do not survive.  Pi, and the 450-pound tiger, do.

The two are at sea for 227 days.  They have emergency water and food on the lifeboat, but not enough for their length of time as castaways.  Pi learns to fish, and he also manages to clean seawater with the provisions on the boat. He manages to keep himself and the tiger alive, but barely.

The lengths that Pi goes to to keep the tiger alive beg the question, why? Why sustain this on-board predator, when he consistently represents such a threat? The answer is crystal clear while you’re reading the story.  The tiger, also known as Richard Parker, is kept alive by Pi for the company that he provides. The threat of solitude is more frightening than death.

Pi, an incredibly spiritual youth, is a devout Hindu, Christian, and Muslim.  Why all three?  He discovered at a very early age that he just “wanted to love God.”  Who could argue?  Pi’s devotion to God, and his extraordinary intellect make him one of the most fascinating characters I’ve encountered in a very, very long time.  It’s impossible not to feel affection for Pi, his plight, and his hope.  Martel created a character so human, so complex, and truly — so innocent, he will warm your heart.

The adventure on the Pacific cannot be summarized in a paragraph; I won’t even attempt it.  In order to appreciate the suffering, and the triumph of the survival, it needs to be read.  I can say with certainty that there are scenes that will make you grimace because of the ferocity, and scenes that will make you swoon because of the beauty.  It’s all there.

Martel has a gift when it comes to the art of description.  Thanks to his prose, you will see radiant sunsets at sea, will feel nourishment when edible algae is discovered, and will experience the discomfort of saltwater on your skin.  There wasn’t a scene that lacked detail.  Everything was communicated with grace and exemplary imagery.

A friend highly recommended the Life of Pi audiobook, and I’m so glad that I listened!  (Pun intended – sorry.)  Jeff Woodman reads the bulk of the novel, and his range is astounding.  He effortlessly moves between the accents of an Indian youth, to a French Cook, to a Japanese investigator.  His tones are beautiful, subtle, and they bring great joy to the story.  Hats off to Mr. Woodman for an incredible narration, and for breathing life into each and every character.

Overall, what struck me about this novel the most was the potential for the reader to miss the boat, so to speak.  I’d like to think that I didn’t, but perhaps this is a boastful claim.  I’d like to think that I heard Martel’s message loud and clear, and that his symbolism and the meaning behind his characters were not lost.  This is a story that needs to be read with an open mind, and an open heart.  Simply put, you’ll get out of Life of Pi what you put into it.  The question at the close of the book will either confuse you, or will inspire you.

Will you believe one story, or the other?

Will you lean toward the lyrical, or the rational?

Personally, I’m going with the lyrical.

And I’m giving it 4 stars.

Parting thought: Life of Pi will be released as a feature film in December 2012. I’m not sure how the film will properly encapsulate everything in the book, but judging by the photo below, it will certainly be worth a look.

The Divinity Gene

So this is my first foray in to reading a collection of stories. And oh what a wonderful collection this was! Very much enjoyed reading these!

I feel that Publisher’s Weekly captured these stories nicely in this description/review:  In Trafford’s debut story collection, he reveals a satirical 21st-century Gothic sensibility as his protagonists struggle to come to terms with grief: a boy is forced by his abusive father to watch the dissection of a mermaid; angels descend from heaven to go clubbing in Brooklyn; a rotting corpse joins a group of men on a camping trip. In “Thoracic Exam,” “iFaust,” and “The Renegade Angels of Parkdale,” bereaved protagonists navigate a surreal world whose bizarreness reflects and even mocks their sadness. Meanwhile, in “Past Perfect” or “Forgetting Helen,” Trafford attempts a Joycean correction of literary tradition, making room for the experiences of gay men who love and suffer, even if the Western canon neglects their lives. Despite very similar characters, Trafford’s work is formally innovative, such as in “Victim Services,” which takes a kaleidoscopic view of a school tragedy and its aftermath by means of gerunds and long, descriptive, appositive phrases. While Trafford’s experiments risk becoming gimmicky, the collection is saved from pretentiousness by his persistent wit, which punctures the abundant pessimism and heartbreak. Disturbing and perhaps too self-consciously literary, this series of thought-experiments is nonetheless eminently readable, shot-through with moments of genuine pathos and even brilliance.

Honestly, that was a wonderful synopsis of these stories. My very favourites from this collection were: PAST PERFECT (just lovely and sad);  iFAUST(I’m a total sucker for old men writing to their dead wives, consulting, asking advice, etc. Trafford captures this in such a compassionate and loving way, just broke my heart wide open! The irony about religion was not lost on me either.); GUTTED  (this is the “mermaid” story and was deeply disturbing. What a disturbed father this poor boy has! This passage really pulled at me, because I knew that the father had lost all touch with anything remotely based in reality:

“Tomorrow’s the big day, son,” my father said, wiping his brow. “They’re going to send someone out from the university to take a look at what we got here. So make sure you clean up good before you come down here tomorrow. If you behave, I might let you be in the picture with me.

FORGETTING HELEN (I thought this was simply beautiful. I loved the approach to this story about his unexpected discovery of his sexuality and felt it was also a tender story about needing to break out and see more of the world, and experience it for oneself:

She reached into the bag for a pinch and shot her arms into the air, releasing the powder in a cloud. It swirled around me like a small cyclonel then the wind took it, dispersed the particles in all directions and blew them through the city. “We cannot protect you from the heartbreaks of the world, but you will always be welcome and safe in the place you were born,” Maria said, “When the library is too far from you, scatter this powder wherever you are, and the safety and comfort of this place will come to you. Now, wherever the wind blows in this city, you will be at home.” I clutched the bag to my heart.

VICTIM SERVICES: Wow, I was blown away by this one! Wished it could have gone on for longer! Unique, thrilling and disturbing and oh again, I wished I could read more…

I also got a kick out of THE DIVNITY GENE and the way it opened as though reading a Wikipedia page. 🙂

Just a tremendously enjoyable and wonderfully written collection of stories. There were really only two in the bunch that weren’t the greatest for me, but overall, I so thorougly enjoyed reading this collection. Looking forward to more from Matthew!

The opportunity to speak to Matthew J. Trafford happens on March 27 as part of the Opinionless online book club. I definitely want to ask him why he wrote himself in as a character in CAMPING AT DEAD MAN’S POINT?

You can find more about Matthew here from the publisher’s site.

Here is a review for The Divinity Gene that appeared in the National Post. I quite like it and he delves more in to story “The Divinity Gene” which was also wonderful. And probably gives a much better review than myself here. Oh you know, the whole collection was great, just read them all for yourself.

Now I’m intrigued to read more story collections.

Jackie says The Red Garden, by Alice Hoffman is a collection, and Amy Tan has just released her first writing in over 6 years, and it too is a collection of short stories.


Review: American Dervish

Since both Penny and Jackie read American Dervish for our Wink 3 Book Club, we decided to provide our reviews under the same post. Let’s see if we are of the same opinion.  🙂

Synopsis (From Goodreads) Hayat Shah is a young American in love for the first time. His normal life of school, baseball, and video games had previously been distinguished only by his Pakistani heritage and by the frequent chill between his parents, who fight over things he is too young to understand. Then Mina arrives, and everything changes.
Mina is Hayat’s mother’s oldest friend from Pakistan. She is independent, beautiful and intelligent, and arrives on the Shah’s doorstep when her disastrous marriage in Pakistan disintegrates. Even Hayat’s skeptical father can’t deny the liveliness and happiness that accompanies Mina into their home. Her deep spirituality brings the family’s Muslim faith to life in a way that resonates with Hayat as nothing has before. Studying the Quran by Mina’s side and basking in the glow of her attention, he feels an entirely new purpose mingled with a growing infatuation for his teacher.
When Mina meets and begins dating a man, Hayat is confused by his feelings of betrayal. His growing passions, both spiritual and romantic, force him to question all that he has come to believe is true. Just as Mina finds happiness, Hayat is compelled to act — with devastating consequences for all those he loves most.

Penny’s Thoughts on American Dervish: Wow. And I think that can sum it up entirely. Wow. Or another one: Intense. Very intense. It was intense and powerful and wonderful too. I am going to give it 5 stars. I thought, hmmm, 4.5? But no, let’s just go ahead and assign the full 5 here. According to our new and improved rating system, it reads that a 5 star is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Okay, so a 5 star may be strong, but this was seriously one intense book and I really really liked it a whole lot. It left me breathless, anxious and a few times I had to put it down, get up and walk around to shake it off.

Remember those sayings about taboo subjects for conversation? As in the only safe conversation is about the weather? And you never ever bring up religion or politics? Well, Mr. Akhtar here brings that point home with crystal clear clarity. Wow, does religion ever stir up so much emotion, controversy and intensity.

There are so, so, so very many passages in here that have my sticky notes attached, passages that I wanted to include here, but I’m afraid I would make this review 3 pages long and Jackie wouldn’t have any room left! I don’t want to do that to her. But honestly I’ll just advise you to read the whole book yourself. You will not be disappointed.

Around page 200 was when the liberal sticking of sticky notes began to fly! I honestly had to get up and walk around the room and take a break because the intensity with which the story was progressing was incredible and again intense. It’s a word I can’t stop using to describe American Dervish. And around this page 200 is when you clearly realize that Mr. Akhtar has very harsh, furious and sharply critical things to say about devote Muslim men and their “sheep-like” following of their religion. And that he casts a clearly sympathetic viewpoint towards Jews and women.

The interpretation of the Quran by the men is harshly criticized and written to show their interpretation as ignorant and cruel, yet Mina’s teaching of the Quran to Hayat is done in a beautiful magical way, more to demonstrate the underlying beauty of its teachings.

Mina says to Hayat repeatedly, “Remember what I always told you. Intention. That’s all Allah cares about.”

These conflicting interpretations are what Hayat agonizes over and results in an event that changes Mina’s life forever and is one that Hayat feels is entirely his fault and everyone’s undoing is entirely because of his actions. He is deeply confused by the two varying interpretations.

Just as Souhef had said Jews were. So ungrateful that it made him blind to the very truth he had heard that afternoon and that could have saved him. What I was seeing before me, I thought, was the very reason that Allah turned his back on Bani Israel. The Quran is right, I thought. They will never change.

Akhtar does not let the story peter out in the final chapters either, oh no, he’s just getting started here! It becomes an (again here comes that word) intense flurry of cruelty and emotion and superb storytelling.

It’s an amazing journey we take with Hayat and it’s one that I can’t get out of my mind.

Recently, a story in our own city, and university (shamefully) took place that demonstrates these underlying emotions religion can evoke. You can read the story here.

Jackie’s thoughts on American Dervish: Well, I just closed the book and still have a tear to wipe from my eye! Yes, this was an extremely powerful book! Very intense and very eye-opening. Add Ayad Akhar to the growing list of authors whose first novel has turned out just FANTASTIC. I will definitely be interested in reading more from this guy!!

What I loved most about this book was the balance. Akhar was able to perfectly illustrate how there can be both beauty and ugliness in the religion of Islam– just as there can be in any organized religion when taken to the extreme. The Quran, like the bible, was written by man, with man-made ideas and interpretations– most often benefitting man himself and not the “god” they supposedly worship. Both the Prophet Muhammad and Jesus Christ lived their lives on earth spreading the message of love, peace and tolerance– how that message ever got twisted into violence, abuse and persecuting others that don’t share the same beliefs is a mystery to me!

Remember what I always told you. Intention. That’s all Allah cares about. ~Mina

The character of Hayat illustrated so well that the idea and intention of religion is complex. He starts out with a childlike vision of god and heaven from his beloved Auntie– that learning the Quran would help him to find love through Allah in everyday things and if he truly followed the teachings he would be guaranteed a spot next to her and his parents in the afterlife. He hears a totally different version of its interpretation at the mosque and within the Pakistani community– one that is much more full of hatred and intolerance. This leaves Hayat to question which version is right. When he is made to feel a fool publicly because of his interpretation by “leaders” of the community and sees the suffering his Aunt has to go through because of her beliefs Hayat’s bubble is so sadly burst that he abandons the religion he has loved so much for a long, long time to come.

Apart from the religious turmoil in Hayat’s life I also had to feel sympathy for this boy’s rocky family life. His parents’ constant fighting and their insistence of putting him in the middle just broke my heart! I could feel sympathy for his mother for living with the philandering ways of his father but I could not STAND the way she would go over every detail with her son! To force a child to divide loyalties between parents makes me completely sick! I know way too many people in real life who do this sort of thing and then wonder why their kids have trouble coping. Sad, sad, SAD!

This was really a great read! It was just long enough to evoke the proper emotion but it was not too long to that you started to skim to get to the end– you wanted to savour every word! (I was so glad to see Nathan again at the end– even tho not all was revealed, it did provide a great closing to a great story!) I can agree with Penny on the rating– I was going to say 4 but can easily bump it to a 4.5 and then round up to a 5– how’s that for a mathematical and logical overall rating?? LOL. Read. This. Book.

Here’s that book again!

So you may remember a few posts back when I took the Oprah quiz as to what  I should read next and this book appeared…

Well, here it is again!, appearing in NPR’s “You Must Read” listing…

When I first saw the description of the book after taking the quiz, I was scratching my head since this really didn’t seem to be something that would interest me in any way.  However, NPR has given this brief tidbit to mull over, “If you’re in search of a genre-bending, perspective-shattering read, look no farther than Victor LaValle’s crime thriller Big Machine. Author Dolen Perkins-Valdez says the kaleidoscopic novel deftly weaves crime with dynamics of race, class and religion in an explosion of utter originality.” Hmmmm….now reading further in to it’s fuller description from NPR (see link above) I actually DO see myself potentially reading this. A twisting collage of crime? Check. Race, class and religion? Check. Summoned to a library? Check. A quirky group named Unlikely Scholars? Well, hmmmm, sign me up!

I do have to say, however, that I’m growing a tad weary of this tag of “genre-bending” term though, but I won’t let it get in the way of a potentially good read.

So, it seems, that perhaps Oprah was right? Oh Oprah! ☺