Friday, April 27, 2012

Contemporary Fiction: Life of Pi by Yann Martel

This is one of those books that, since it first appeared in book stores in 2001, has been put on summer reading lists over the last several years and displayed on well though-out table displays in bookstores. I eventually read it myself (pretty sure I picked it up from one of the aforementioned tables) and immediately fell in love with it.

The Situation: Piscine Patel, or Pi, has enjoyed a fairly affluent life in India where his father owns a zoo. He is a fairly normal young man with the usual issues and an above average understanding of animals, but at 14 years old he decides to follow Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam. He sees benefits in all three and does not wish to choose just one, and, according to the narrator, he continues to follow all three into his adult life. Pi's father eventually decides to sell the zoo and boards a ship to Canada with some of the animals on board. However, the boat sinks, but Pi manages to commandeer a small life boat and survive the sinking of the ship.

The Problem: A Bengal tiger named Richard Parker (weird, I know) also manages to make it onto the life boat with Pi. And if that wasn't crazy enough, so does a hyena, an orangutan, and an injured zebra. After a few days, only Pi and Richard Parker remain...I won't say how as it is pretty horrifying, but most readers could probably take a pretty good guess.

Pi and Richard Parker are then stuck together aimlessly floating for 227 days. Both must fight intense fear (obviously mostly on Pi's side), and of course starvation and also a little insanity from being on the endless open water for so long. Personally, because I have a thing about large cats, I would have probably felt better chancing it in the water...and I can't swim.

Genre, Themes, History: For certain this is a novel of survival, but that is not all it is. There is also a good amount of animal psychology, discussion of religion and the idea that sometimes we choose what to believe in the face of awful and terrifying truth.

The name "Richard Parker" was, of course, chosen for a purpose. There are a number of men in history who were named Richard Parker that ended up being the victim of cannibalism after being shipwrecked. Also, in Edgar Allan Poe's adventure novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, the character named Richard Parker is the only mutineer on a ship that isn't killed or thrown overboard. Instead, he is kept alive to help run the ship.

My Verdict: I pretty much recommend this book to almost everyone I meet looking for a good book to read, especially when going on a trip. It isn't a heavy read, but it isn't pure fluff either. The tension between Pi and his desire to live versus his desire to not be alone and therefore keep the tiger with him on the life boat is extremely well done. It is pretty hard to sell most people on a book that mostly takes place out on the open water and centers on the fate of a tiger and teenage boy stuck on a life boat together (I have been trying to get my mom to read it for YEARS), but trust me on this is so worth it.

Favorite Moment: Not to spoil anything, but my favorite moment is near the end when Pi offers up an alternative version to all that has happened.

Favorite Character: Although he scares the crap out of me, my favorite character eventually becomes Richard Parker. But again, a lot of that has to do with Pi's alternate story.

Recommended Reading: I would recommend Martel's latest novel Beatrice and Virgil, but I actually felt that one to be a massive let down, so instead I'll go with another one of those books that is always on a display table next to Life of Pi: Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife. A completely different kind of book, but I think it is almost as good.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Classic Fiction: The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye is one of those books I feel like everyone read in high school or college...except me. Somehow, this one and 1984 I completely missed. So I read it, and this is what I think of it.

The Situation: Holden Caulfield is a 17 year-old boy who attends Pencey Prep in Agerstown, Pennsylvania. The novel is told entirely from his point of view. He is incredibly cynical and alienated, and typically does not do well in any school subject except for English. He has one older brother who lives in Hollywood as a writer, and one younger sister who still lives at home. He had another brother, Allie, who died of leukemia. Holden talks like a 17 year-old boy, acts like one, thinks like one, the whole deal. The novel follows Holdens day-to-day life for a few days in December of 1949.

The Problem: Holden has been officially expelled from Pencey Prep, and this is not the first school that has kicked him out. Apparently, this has become a reoccuring theme in Holden's life. Naturally, Holden is not too thrilled about his parents finding out about this. He is scheduled to return home soon since everyone is about to go on Christmas break, but his parents will also receive a letter from the school explaining the situation. The novel follows Holden during this weird limbo/waiting period between when he leaves Pencey and few days early, but before he returns. Meanwhile, Holden provdies a running commentary about how pretty much everyone at his school, including the teachers are phony, something Holden just cannot stand. Even after he leaves Pency and heads to New York, Holden continues to have issues with "phonies," among other things. There is a run in with a pimp; old professors that try to set him on the right path; old girlfirends; his incredibly likeable little sister; and he even manages to get blind drunk at a bar despite being too young to be served. Oh yes, and the chain much smoking.

Genre, Theme, History: It is a novel, but as far as any other kind of classification, I got nothing. There are many running themes, especially in the was Holden speaks. As I mentioned before, there is much talk about his dislike of people who are phony. But the thing is, it becomes incredibly obvious that Holden doesn't really like much of anything. Some things he does find funny as the "kill him." But there is also plenty that "depresses the hell out of him," and these things usually involve anything that reminds him of his current situation and how he really isn't advancing in his life, at least education-wise. Holden also has excuses for everything and why he has not been successful in his life so far. And by the end of the novel, it seems that Holden has not matured or prgoressed at all. He does not even want to say he will do better at his new school in the fall because he doesn't know what he'll do until he does it. In other words, he probably won't do any better and hasn't changed at all.

The title actually comes from a song the Holden misquotes (Robert Burns' Comin' Through the Rye). Holden imagines himself as the guardian over children playing in a rye field at the edge of a field and as they fall off, he is the catcher that saves them and puts them back. Holden would like to spend the rest of his life saving these children from falling out of the rye field.

My Verdict: Meh. Not quite what I was expecting. I guess I was hoping to be blown away and think "How come I never read this?!" But alas, that did not happen. Oh well.

Favorite Moment: My favorite moment is probably when Holden has his first conversation with his little sister, Phoebe, and she basically tells him what the reader has already figured out, and Holden has a hard time refuting it.

Favorite Character: The little sister, Phoebe. It is easy to see why Holden cares for her so much, and despite his many flaws, she genuinely seems to care for him too. She seems to be a pretty smart and wel-adjusted little girl, and while Holden actually likes talking to her, she likes talking to him too, but also isn't afraid to tell him what he may not want to hear, even though it is true.

Recommended Reading: It may be strange, but I think I'll go with Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. They both have the alienation thing going for them and first-person narrators that are completely unreliable and mildly irritating.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Historical Fiction: A Mercy by Toni Morrison

In anticipation of her latest novel, Home, which is scheduled to hit bookstores on May 8, 2012, I have decided to cover Toni Morrison's most recently published novel, A Mercy. This is the fourth Morrison novel I have had a priviledge of reading and she has yet to dissapoint. Morrison writes the type of stories that, while extremely powerful in the initial reading, always have he potential of revealing even more when they are discussed with others or revisited in the future. A Mercy is actually a fairly short novel (compared to others, such as Song of Solomon), so I do recommend it to anyone who has not had previous exposure to Morrison's writing.

The Situation: Jacob Vaark decides to take on s small slave girl in 17th century America has payment on a debt. Jacob objects to the slave trade, but decides to take Florens on to at least recover some of his lost money. Jacob then returns home and continues to attempt to amass his own fortune and build up his own personal empire. Lina, a Native American who works and lives on the Vaark farm helps take care of and raise Florens among her many other duties, which also includes taking care of Sorrow, another younger girl who lives there but is described as wild and often uncontrollable. Vaark decides to build a newer, bigger, and better house, and with the aid of a free African blacksmith, that dream can become a reality.

The Problem: Vaark soon succumbs to smallpox and dies, leaving his wife, Rebekkah, and their servants to struggle through disease hardship alone. Also, Florens has fallen madly in love with the free blacksmith and is no longer any help on the farm because of it. Lina fears she may end up worse off than Sorrow, who pregnant herself by someone unnamed (as far as I can tell) and often talks to her imaginary twin more than anyone else.

Oh yeah...Rebekkah has almost been driven crazy by the many children that have been born to her only to die. It doesn't help her much that Sorrow is pregnant.

Also, almost every character has been uprooted from their homeland, or a place familiar to them, in some way. Vaark was himself an orphan; Sorrow was given to him; Lina is one of the last to survive a smallpox epidemic in her tribe; Rebekkah left England in order to marry Vaark, whom she had never met; and Florens was sold to Vaark at the suggestion of her own mother. Now Lina has left again in order to find the blacksmith once more so that he can help save Rebekkah, who is now suffering from smallpox. And this journey ends up changing her life.

Genre, Themes, History: I decided to label this as a historical novel as it deaks with slavery in early America. There is a constant sense of loss and displacement, but I also thought there was also a sense of a determination to survive, especially in Lina. In the beginning, although Vaark detests the slave trade, he agrees to take Lina as part of payment on a bad debt from a Portuguese landowner in Maryland. Many times throughout that part of the story, Vaark proclaims his displeasure of dealing with the Catholic plantation owner, as he is Anglo-Dutch and looks down on their way od doing business.

The title seems to suggest that perhaps what Florens' mother did in giving her away was in fact "a mercy" to her daughter, and not necessarily an act of neglect. There are many more actions in the novel that, on the surface, seem to be harsh and cruel, but Morrison seems to challenge the reader to wonder of whether those actions were actually for the better, as the harsh circumstances cause the charatcers to make difficult and heart-breaking decisions.

My Verdict: While this isn't my favorite Morrison book, I still highly recommend it. It isn't as hard to read as Beloved or The Bluest Eye, and it may not have as many layers as Song of Solomon, but it is still an excellent picture of early America and the effects of the slave trade.

Favorite Moment: When Sorrow is about to have her baby, instead of running to Lina to notify her that the baby is coming, or even going to Rebekkah, she simply goes down to the riverbank with a knife and a blanket and hopes that two other characters, Willard and Scully, are in their usual spot fishing and will help her deliver the baby. Fortunately they are and they do and the both baby and mother end up doing just fine.

Favorite Character: Lina. I am really big on quiet strength and Lina seemed to be just that.

Favorite Quote: "to be given dominion over another is a hard thing; to wrest dominion over another is a wrong thing; to give dominion of yourself to another is a wicked thing."

Recommended Reading: Beloved, also by Toni Morrison. I will warn you though...this book is hard. However, Morrison does the most brilliant thing but causing the reader to have sympathy for someone who does one of the most detestable things imagineable to her own children.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Contemporary Fiction: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The Night Circus is the debut novel from Erin Morgenstern and I got turned onto it thanks to the good people from Austin's own indie bookstore, BookPeople. It is a highly enjoyable read, rich in description, and reminded me of many fairy tales with larger than life characters and events that are beyond belief and make you curious to know more, and yet something about them makes you happy to know that you can close the book at any time and keep them from reaching out and making you a part of their creepy little world.

The Situation: Celia Bowen is born with the ability to do magic. And we're not talking just little card tricks or taking a rabbit out a hat. I mean she can stab a knife through her hand and then put her her hand back together. When someone drops a glass of wine, she can put the glass back together and put the wine back in it...thoroughly capturing it from the carpet or dress it was spilled on. She gets this ability from her father, who trains her as she grows up, and ends up being an attraction in The Night Circus. While the patrons just believe she is an ordinary magician as they marvel at what she can accomplish on the stage, she knows that the "tricks" she is doing are very very real. 

The Night Circus is only open from sunset to sunrise (hence the name) and is full of acts and attractions just as amazing as Celia herself. The circus travels around the world and everything within it is either black or white - from the tents, to the ground, to the way the employees dress.

The Problem: This circus that the patrons fall so in love with, is not just a circus. It is the venue for an epic duel that is going on between Celia and her opponent Marco. Here's the thing though: the battle really isn't even between them. It is between Celia's father, Hector, and Marco's teacher, the enigmatic Mr. A.H. But for the Hector and A.H, losing the battle would only really mean losing their pride and bragging rights...for Celia and Marco, losing the battle means losing their lives. Sure, Hector would lose a daughter, but as the novel goes on it becomes apparent that she is not his first concern.

Oh, and while Celia and Marco are dueling each other, other participants in the circus and some patrons are also affected...the two magician's are not the only ones whose lives are in danger.

Genre, Theme, History: I will go ahead and classify this as a fantasy. Like I mentioned before, to me it reads much like a fairy tale in that there are scenes that Morgenstern describes so beautifully that make me wish I was there, but at the same time I am really glad I am not. I guess like every circus, real or imagined, this one has that same slight element of creepiness to it that makes you want to hold your mother's hand the whole time you're there. And it takes place only at night too? Weird.

The novel is set around the turn of the 20th century, and mostly takes place in London and other parts of Europe, although the circus does also go to other continents. The novel also follows an American boy named Bailey and his encounters with the circus and some of its characters when it visits his hometown on the East Coast. What bothered me about this though (*literature major pet peeve alert*) is that while this is set roughly between 1890-1910ish, there is no mention, whatsoever, of any race issues, up to and including slavery. Now, I get it, I do...people are sick of reading about race issues...I know I am and I'm African American. And while I hate to be *that person* we can't just ignore them like they aren't a big part of our history, along with class issues, which were also strangely absent in this book. But it isn't just the absence of race issues that bothers me (wow, never thought I would be typing out that particular sentence), but just the general lack of diversity among Morgenstern's novel. Aside from the Japanese contortionist, I don't think any other character is anything other than white. Just saying it is kind of strange...and somewhat annoying.

My Verdict: I am certainly glad I read it and thought the descriptions of the actual circus were beyond exquisite, but overall I was slightly disappointed. Especially with the ending. With the setting of a circus that only happens at night, and is ultimately the venue of two dueling magicians, I felt like there was so much that could be done. And during the bulk of the novel, Morgenstern does a great deal with this setting. But with the ending things seemed to just unravel and I felt like the author was desperately reaching for a way to end this thing when the possibilities seemed endless and there were so many characters to play with. It could very well just be me, but I guess I just expected more.

Favorite Moment: When attending a dinner party, Celia is wearing a dress that takes on whatever color the person sitting next to her is wearing. She picks it when she cannot decide what else to wear. Haha! Brilliant...and I want one.

Favorite Characters: I adored Widget and Poppet, the fraternal boy and girl twins that were born the night the circus first opened. The each have a shock of red hair that stays hidden when they are performing with their trained kittens. And while Widget is able to read the past on people, Poppet can see the future in the stars.

Recommended Reading: This is the strangest thing, but I really want to recommend Bram Stoker's Dracula after reading this. I don't think for a second that this book could hold a candle to Stoker's classic, but I guess they both made me feel similar things. Obviously Dracula is much more terrifying, and I would never want to be involved in hunting him down. Even so, I feel like it would be a good follow-up...or I may be crazy. Who knows?