Thursday, June 30, 2016

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Title: Life of Pi
Author: Yann Martel
Publisher: Random House of Canada (2001) 

I take full responsibility for this month's pick. Life of Pi is my favorite book. I've been wanting to add it to our series for a few years now but never could bring myself to watch the movie. Finally, I asked if it was ok to add it even if I had no intention of ever watching the movie. Michael, ever a generous friend and partner in crime, readily agreed and here we are.

I remember first hearing about the rights being sold (many, many years ago now; long before the movie was ever filmed) and thinking how? HOW?? It's not possible! But beyond my limited ability to imagine an adaptation of this story what it really came down to is the fact that Pi, his view of life, and his incredible journey are fully alive in my mind. The connection I have with this book is the perfect expression, embodiment even, of my connection with Books. When a story comes alive in the mind it is the greatest, most satisfying, link between artist and consumer. It's the lightening we're all trying to catch every time we open a book. This is my lightening in a bottle. I sincerely hope you, Dear Reader, have one as well (here's a list of my faves; maybe you'll find one there:).

For those that are new to our monthly series, this is when Michael reviews a film adapted from a book which gets a review here.

Click here for Michael's film review of Life of Pi 
at It Rains... You Get Wet

Truly, I was going to try to do a proper review with attempts at objectivity yadda yadda yadda but since this is my favorite book all attempts merely spiraled into a love letter to one of my favorite reads so, um, hope you enjoy anyway? NB: I usually aim to keep my posts spoiler free but beware


Pi Patel, devotee of God/s and religion (and take backer of his name) is immigrating with his family to Canada in the 70s. The ship carrying them and some animals destined for new zoos (the former family business is zookeeping) sinks in the Pacific. Pi finds himself on a lifeboat with some very aggressive castaways. This book is the story of his survival. 

Brother, there's something I forgot to mention.

My love of this book is not limited to story and character. I think it's an amazing piece of craft. The writing is exquisite and the voice is impeccable. The richness of the writing is as layered as the story it tells.

I was more afraid that in a few words thrown out he might destroy something that I loved.

Pi is at once naive and keenly observant of the world. I think it's the secret to his resilience and what makes him uniquely suited to surviving his ordeal at sea.

The obsession with putting ourselves at the centre of everything is the bane not only of theologians but also of zoologists.

I'm particularly fond of this line as my enjoyment of this book has a lot to do with putting me and my interpretation at the center of it. Seems fitting. But I suspect a serious streak of self-consciousness in Martel, as well.

There are always those who take it upon themselves to defend God, as if Ultimate Reality, as if the sustaining frame of existence, were something weak and helpless.

Also a compelling line, not only for its relevance to the theme of the book but because, unlike the reviewer at The New Yorker (according to the backcopy anyway) I do not think the book is "an impassioned defense of zoos" but an impassioned defense of religion. It's why I didn't just say that Pi is a devotee of God/s. He is also quite drawn to religion. I think he finds as much satisfaction in the ceremonies and meditation of devotion as he does in simple faith. In fact, I'd argue that God/s without religion would not appeal to Pi at all. He might even call that "dry, yeastless factuality."

I mean compared to other animals, of course. Next to Richard Parker, I was deaf, blind and nose-dead. 

I distinctly remember first reading this book and thinking "Pi, what is wrong with you? Why are you hitting Richard Parker over the head instead of helping him?" And then, "Wait, what?" as I flipped back through the book wondering how it was I never noticed Richard Parker was a zoo animal and not a school friend. It's very nicely done subterfuge because it makes no difference to the story if you did think Richard Parker was a tiger (and I'd be curious to know how many readers weren't fooled) and, more importantly, it prepares the reader for what is to come. Things are perhaps not what they seem. Pay attention. It's a beautiful set-up.

There couldn't be both a hyena and a tiger in such a small space.

No, indeed, Pi there couldn't. If you've read this book only once I highly recommend reading it again. The book is filled with these gorgeous lines of double meaning. But, thankfully, this is not a coy piece of work. Each well-chosen word speaks to the situation at hand but a re-read shows that there is more at hand than one at first suspects.

Oh, the delight of the manufactured good, the man-made device, the created thing!

Did I mention that lovely voice? This book is filled with horrors but you're as likely to laugh and smile as despair. The tone is absolutely dead-on and I think I've never seen such excellent use of exclamation marks (Yep, I've just praised the punctuation, I told you this was a love letter!).

I will tell you a secret: a part of me was glad about Richard Parker. A part of me did not want Richard Parker to die at all, because if he died I would be left alone with despair, a foe even more formidable than a tiger.

I've never looked it up but I really hope there is a survival manual out there as shown in the book.

Only one important topic was not addressed: the establishing of alpha-omega relationships with major lifeboat pests.

What I can't help wondering is at what point did Pi start telling this story? I suspect it's right around:

I have survived so far, miraculously. Now I will turn miracle into routine. The amazing will be seen every day. 

I've said already that I think this is an impassioned defense of religion (which, by the way, has yet to be effective for this reader) but I've never been able to reconcile that with its comparison to zoos. Perhaps that's part of the expression of Pi's naivete. He seems to think it makes no difference to go with "the better story" but the sad fact of life is that it does. Stories, better or otherwise, do not exist in a vacuum but in societies. What society does with a story matters.

I continued to disbelieve my eyes. But it was a thrill to be deluded in such a high-quality way.

Now about that movie... Don't forget to check out Michael's post. 
My much read and beloved copy

rating: 5 of 5 stars

Coming up next:  
52 Pick-up by Elmore Leonard

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Shahnameh genealogy (a start anyway)

I’ve been participating in The Shahnameh Reading Project 2016, with Tessa Gratton & Kate Elliott. (It’s never too late to join. Click that link and get in on this epic.) It’s been great fun but there are quite a few people to keep track of in the stories. I did some searching but had no luck finding any family trees.

To better understand the connections between the noble families in Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings (and because I needed a break as I was pissed at Garsivaz) I flipped back to the beginning and started taking notes in the hopes of putting together a genealogy. As it happens, a character can be around for quite some time before it’s mentioned that they are a prince (I’m looking at you, Tus) - or maybe it just takes me a while to figure it out - so I started lists of nobles and warriors, as well. Below, with some commentary, is what I have through The Legend of Seyavash. In the Dick Davis translation we are reading that’s p. 1 through p. 280.

I plan to continue building this as the readalong progresses. Any feedback/corrections most welcome.

A wee legend for my trees:

Feraydun’s ancestors:

My only issue with this one was that Faranak was a bit vague with how many father-sons were between Abetin and Tahmures.

Feraydun’s descendants:

I was a bit puzzled by the origins of Zav and Kay Qobad. When they were first chosen as kings (Zav because Nozar was beheaded and Kay Qobad because Zav died) I assumed it was because Persia wanted to be ruled by Feraydun’s descendants through Iraj’s line so they went searching for even the most obscure relatives. So, yeah, it’s a bit annoying we have heard nothing of them during all the drama but that’s ok, I can adjust. However, my mind was totally blown to discover that Tus is Nozar’s son. (How did I miss this? Was it really not mentioned? I still haven’t found a mention of it previous to what we are about to start reading if you don’t count the Glossary of Names at the end of the book.) Tus is Nozar’s son and is around and yet he’s not wanted for the throne? Anyway, the genealogical point is that I didn’t think there was any justification for linking Zav and Kay Qobad to Iraj directly.
Quick side note: Did anyone else notice that King Sarv hung around to fight for descendants that are not from his daughter’s line? I thought that was interesting.

Kay Qobad’s descendants:

Pretty straightforward except for Fariborz. I was going to assume he was Sudabeh’s child but he just seemed too old, what with the battles and all. The timing of Fariborz, Seyavash, Sohrab, and Sudabeh’s “young children” is still a bit fuzzy for me. I’m going with the suggestion already put forth that Sohrab happened during Seyavash’s fostering and I’m personally hypothesizing that Fariborz is older than all of them (sorry that’s not really reflected by where I put him in the tree).

The great champions of Persia are pretty important so I made them their own tree:

And we wouldn’t want to forget about the Arab kings (shoulder snakes!):


That’s it for the trees but since you never know where another Tus might be hiding here is a list of Persian nobles and warriors. The passage of time and generations is very fluid but I did try to list them across columns as time/reigns pass.

Then since Seyavash spent so much time in Turan (and even married Farigis) I did a list for their nobles and warriors, too.

And that’s it (well, almost. I have a Mazanderan list, too;). Again, all feedback/corrections welcome. I hope this helps other readers. It was quite enjoyable for me and has really enhanced my connection with the entire epic.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Deliverance by James Dickey

Title: Deliverance
Author: James Dickey
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Co (1970)

So, funny story. This month's pick is Michael's (obviously it is, it's from the 70s;) and I hadn't read or seen it before but I'd certainly heard of it and was even looking forward to it as it'd been a while since I'd read a Western. Yeah, you saw that right; for some reason I had it in my head that this was a classic Western. Yes, the look on my partner's face when I said it was about a canoe trip and not a Western was priceless. He hasn't actually seen the whole thing either but he definitely knew this very famous story wasn't a Western. How do these ideas take hold in one's mind? It's like The Untouchables all over again. I assume I just get the titles confused on different movies but, still, a Western? Well, anyway...

For those that are new to our monthly series, this is when Michael reviews a film adapted from a book which gets a review here (**contains mild spoilers**).

Click here for Michael's film review of Deliverance 
at It Rains... You Get Wet

Four dudes from the 'burbs decide to go on a canoe trip down a hard to access river to get a break from the routine of city life. The weekend does not go as expected.

...but the promise of it that promised other things, another life, deliverance.

When I first read that line I thought the title was ironic or satirical. But by the time I finished the book I wasn't so sure. I'd be willing to wager a hefty sum that Dickey and I see this story quite differently. 

What works:
The intimacy of the narrator. Whether or not you want to hang out with Ed Gentry and his friends for the weekend you can't help but fall seamlessly into Ed's head. 

The hilarious drive to the river. I defy anyone to not laugh at the route and Lewis' cat-like "of course that's what I meant to do all along" attitude.  

What doesn't:
Oh dear, this list is so long. I'll try to keep it on the technical side of things rather than the personal. There's an extremely heavy reliance upon "hillbilly" stereotypes. (For anyone who, like me, wasn't quite buying the convenient countryfolk are always suspicious of cityfolk - probably because of moonshine - excuse here's a really interesting link on the history of moonshiners in North Georgia.) I just couldn't really believe the things Ed was doing physically. In fact, I just couldn't really believe these guys were all that far outside of a metropolitan area. They weren't exactly rushing to get out there on Friday and they were going to be back by Sunday? Also, you stuff some dirty cloth into a serious wound (whilst rummaging around in a wilderness) and there are no side effects to this?

It reads an awful like like the author has put a lot of himself onto the page. I always cringe when I feel that way when reading as I think it says more about me than the author but I went for a little surf on the interwebs to read some interviews with Dickey and I'm starting to suspect I'm right. Not a huge deal as when can art ever not contain some of the artist? But that's when all that personal stuff I avoided talking about comes up and can ruin a reading experience. 

From this interview:
I wrote the right book at the right time. People were caught up in a savage fable of decent men fighting for their lives and killing and getting away with it. 

I like that Dickey describes this as a fable. It explains all the technical hiccups that make it a hard-to-believe story. But if it is a fable (sans the animals) it's certainly not a classic fable as there doesn't seem to be much a moral lesson in it. Or, if there is, then I'd need to re-do that "What Doesn't" section and delve into the personal. Maybe in the comments... if the mood strikes. 

(format h/t: AW)

Now about that movie... Don't forget to check out Michael's post. 

rating: 2 of 5 stars

Coming up next:  
Life of Pi by Yann Martel