Book review: “The Life of Pi” by Yann Martel

This has been on my TBR list for years – it was a sensation when it was first published in 2001, went on to win the Man Booker Prize in 2002 and was adapted for film in 2012, winning four Academy Awards, including Best Director for Ang Lee (though critical reception of the film was mixed). However, my life at that time was rather dominated by small children – these were what I call my ‘lean years’ of reading, of adult books anyway! I determined to read Life of Pi this summer because my elder daughter thought it was brilliant and has been harassing me to read it for months. I will put my cards on the table straight away – I thought it was extraordinary. The best thing I have read since The Overstory by Richard Powers, which I finished in January.

The Life of Pi imgThe story is well-known: a young Indian boy, Piscine “Pi” Patel (a name he adopts to get back at the school bullies who taunt him with the nickname ‘Pissing’) grows up in the territory of Pondicherry where his parents own a zoo. The first part of the story gives us a detailed account of the family’s life there, including enormous detail about life for the animals in a zoo setting (I was fascinated by this and it changed my perspective on zoos). We learn in particular about the fierce Bengal tiger, Richard Parker, who is the zoo’s prized possession. I love the use of ‘naming’ in this book – the story of how Richard Parker came to be given this name is brilliant and a sign of the author’s ingenuity and creativity. The other important feature of this part of the novel is that we learn of Pi’s deeply philosophical nature, his decision to adopt three religions (Hinduism, in which he has been brought up, Islam and Christianity), much to his family’s dismay, because he can see benefits in all of them.

Difficult political events in India lead his parents to make a decision to move to Canada, taking their most precious animals with them, in order that they can start a new zoo. Shortly after leaving port, however, the Japanese freighter in which the family is travelling sinks. All souls are lost, except Pi, who escapes in a lifeboat, with, as he will soon discover, four animals – a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan, and Richard Parker, the Bengal tiger. The first part of the journey is gruesome and terrible; the zebra has broken its leg in the fall and is soon brutally and graphically finished off by the ravenous hyena. The hyena then attacks, kills and eats the orangutan. This is not for the squeamish! Pi believes he is going to be next on the hyena’s list until he discovers they are sharing the lifeboat with the tiger, who has been hiding under a tarpaulin for days, suffering with severe seasickness! When he does emerge, the hyena is no match for Richard Parker, who summarily kills him. This undoubtedly saves Pi’s life but it is out of the frying pan and into the fire as he wonders if he will be Richard Parker’s next meal.

What we are treated to next is many months of a precarious symbiotic existence on the lifeboat – boy and tiger trying to survive. It is a quite extraordinary feat that the author can make 227 days on a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean such edge of the seat reading. First we have Pi’s incredible ingenuity, the powerful survival instinct which enables him to stretch the meagre rations in the lifeboat’s emergency pack, and utilise all the supplies available. Second, there is the way he manages Richard Parker to ensure that he, Pi, becomes the alpha animal – he uses all his zoo knowledge, plus his exceptional courage, to teach the tiger submissiveness and this enables them both to survive. Third, there is the incredible storytelling, the highs and lows of shipwreck (at one point they land on a lush island, only to discover that it is dominated by deadly carnivorous plants) plus Pi’s account of his own mental health.

We know that Pi will survive – the novel begins with the author meeting the older Pi in Canada, and Pi promising to tell him his story – but this makes the account no less tense, so close to peril do the pair exist. There is a brilliant twist at the end, which I will not disclose, but it kind of leaves you breathless. Untethered!

I found this a profoundly fascinating book that you can read on so many levels. It is a philosophical tract about the nature of the divine. It is a book about the triumph of the human spirit when faced with adversity. It is a book about the relationship between man and beast. It is also, quite simply, a brilliant yarn about that most traditional of stories, the shipwreck and the survivor.

Absolutely brilliant, loved every second of it, highly recommend it, can’t believe it took me so long to get around to it!

I’d love to hear about a book on your TBR list that you loved once you finally got around to reading it.

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Book review: “On a Shoestring to Coorg” by Dervla Murphy

I selected this book for my June reading challenge. June was a slow month for reading for me – half term, plus running my son to and from school for exams ate into my time. So, it took me a while to get through this book. That said, I think it’s genuinely a slow book to read, rather like the unhurried travelling that takes place within the pages. I was very specific in my challenge for the month, which was to read a literary travel book, not a guidebook. I am somewhat perturbed by the preponderance of ‘pack as much into as little as possible’-type travel guides that I see all over the bookshops: the 48 Hours in… series is popular, but the New York Times now has a range of 36 hours in… various European capitals! I’ve spent longer than that in the railway stations and airports of various European cities on my travels in the past! Art imitates life, it is true, and that is the nature of life these days. I feel sure this will be to our detriment, ultimately, but perhaps the pendulum will swing the other way at some point.

On a Shoestring to Coorg imgIf, like me, you find yourself a little nostalgic for an era when travel meant slowing down, getting to know a place and its people  (rather than just taking a selfie with a local and posting to Instagram), and immersing yourself in the new environment, then Dervla Murphy could be the travel writer for you. In On a Shoestring to Coorg, Murphy travels for the first time with her five-year old daughter, Rachel. They travel scarily light (I would take more stuff on a day out when my kids were younger!) with very little money and are dependent on the kindness and hospitality of people they meet, including a number of British ex-pats, who have made India their home in the post-colonial era.

Murphy confesses at the outset to being not especially enamoured of India generally, and openly expresses what she sees as the hypocrisy implicit in Hinduism and the caste system which she feels keeps so many in poverty and destitution. (You have to remember this was written in 1976). However, she and Rachel fall in love with the tiny region of Coorg (in southern India), with its continued observance of many traditions (which she sees as an indicator of the society’s wellbeing), the warmth of its people and the beauty of the landscape.

“Seldom in the 1970s is folk-dancing performed for fun – not self-consciously, to preserve customs, or cunningly, to please tourists. But my pleasure can never be unalloyed when I chance upon such fragile and doomed links with the past. One knows that before Rachel is grown even Coorg will have opted for that pseudo-culture which ‘kills time’ (grimly significant phrase) but leaves the sprit starving.”

They travel further south to Kerala, which Murphy also loves. As the book progresses you get the sense of Murphy settling into the journey more, as she adapts to travelling with her young companion where, previously, this very unusual and idiosyncratic traveller was accustomed to being alone and not having anyone depend upon her. She writes more and more of the landscape:

“Beyond the palmy islands across the bay the sun was sinking in a red-gold sky and when it had gone – so swiftly – a strange amber sheen lay on the water and I felt very aware of the drama of day and night: something that passes us by in the twilit north.”

On a Shoestring to Coorg img 2

It is a meandering but engaging read, where you very much travel with the author and her daughter and feel the pace of their journey. This is a way of travelling that most of us no longer do. It feels very much like a bygone era and yet is only 40 years ago. The pace of change in all our lives all across the globe has altered so dramatically in that relatively short time. It felt good to slow right down with this book. If you fantasise about long slow travelling (with or without your children) you will find this an interesting read and after reading it you will definitely want to go to Coorg!

Do you have any travel writers to recommend? Are there any young contemporary travel  writers you enjoy who take the ‘slow’ approach?

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The Oscars – literary references

You will no doubt have picked up that it’s the Oscars this weekend; they start somewhere in the middle of the night (UK time) on Sunday 26th. I’m not a huge film buff so I’ve never stayed up for them, but I’ve become interested in recent years as an increasing number of the top movies, it seems to me, have been based on works of literature. The ones that spring to mind are Life of Pi (2013), 12 Years A Slave (2014), No Country for Old Men (2007) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008). Last year was particularly rich in literary reference with The Danish Girl, Carol, The Revenant and Room all big winners based on books. (I was so struck by this that I read three of the books and posted about it not long after I started this blog. You can read my post here)

hidden-figures-imgThis year, literary references are a little thinner on the ground, but I want to tell you about a couple that have caught my eye. My children were on their half term holiday last week and I took my youngest daughter (aged 10) to see Hidden Figures. It is based on a true story, but the film was inspired by a book of the same name by Margot Lee Shetterly. You will  no doubt have seen the trailers, but, to summarise, it tells the story of three exceptionally talented mathematical minds whose contribution to the US space programme in the 1960s went largely unacknowledged…because they were African-American women working at a time when racial segregation was still in place. It is a remarkable story, very moving and very well told.

I am proud to say that my young daughter was incredulous at the level of discrimination that prevailed – why didn’t these very clever women get the credit for the work they did? Without them, John Glenn may not have made it into space, let alone come back in one piece! I’d be interested to read the book, if only because the film is at times a little sentimental (though this takes nothing away from the achievement of the central characters) and I’d like to  understand which facts have been sugar-coated for pictorial effect and which are true. And which bits they left out! I would highly recommend the film though, so take your daughters. And your sons!

lion-img

The other film I’m desperate to see this year is Lion, which has been nominated for six Oscars, and is based on the book A Long Way Home by Saroo Brierley. This book is also a true story and is a personal account by the author of how he became separated from his dirt-poor family in India at the age of five. He found himself on the streets in Calcutta and then ended up in Tasmania. At the age of 30 he set out to try and find his family and the book (and the film) is the story of that journey.

 

 

 

I’m starting to build-up a long ‘to watch’ list, alongside my ‘to read’ list, but at least the ‘to watch’ list is merely a page of notes at the back of my diary and doesn’t haunt me every time I walk into a room in my house and am confronted by a very real large pile of books! (Yes, there is one in every room!) Roll on the March reading challenge, which is to tackle a book from the ‘to read’ pile.

Have you seen any films recently that you would recommend?

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And now for something a little lighter?

In my last couple of blogs I’ve reviewed books that have been rather emotionally challenging: H is for Hawk is about grief and the loss of a parent; The Optician of Lampedusa is about a particular tragic event in the ongoing European migration phenomenon. Both books were harrowing in parts, although in different ways.

Today I’m posting about a book by Meera Syal, which, given her background in, and huge talent for, comedy, you might think would be somewhat lighter. Well, it is and it isn’t; there are certainly some quite heavy themes here, but there is also resolution to the issues raised and I certainly did not find the book as harrowing.

So, my review follows. If you have read this or Meera Syal’s other books, I would love to hear what you think.

house-of-hidden-mothers-img This was one of the books I took on holiday last year, but which I didn’t manage to read. I finally got around to it when we read it in our Book Club in December. I’d been really excited about it; I love Meera Syal (Goodness Gracious Me, The Kumars at No. 42), she’s such a talent and a fantastic role model. She has written two previous novels, both published in the 1990s, neither of which I have read.

The novel centres on Shyama, who, in her late forties, is desperate to have a baby with her (somewhat younger) partner Toby. Shyama has a teenage daughter, Tara, from a previous (unhappy) marriage and lives close to her Indian parents, Prem and Sita. The action takes place in both London and India.

When all other options for having a child of their own seem closed to them, Toby and Shyama decide to go to a clinic in India where a surrogate will bear a child they can later formally adopt. In their case, it is planned that the child will be created from Toby’s sperm and a donor egg. There are two sub-plots to the novel. Firstly, there are Shyama’s parents; some years previously, they bought a flat in India where their families still live, and where it was intended they would spend part of the year, once they retired and had the opportunity to escape the UK winter climate. Their plans were thwarted, however, when Prem’s nephew illegally occupied the property. The now elderly couple have spent years and a small fortune battling in vain with the chaotic Indian legal system to get him and his family out. The other plotline is that of Shyama’s daughter, Tara, who is unhappy about her mother and Toby’s desire to have a baby. In the course of the novel Tara is sexually assaulted by a university acquaintance.

Continue reading “And now for something a little lighter?”