Thursday, February 28, 2013

February Reading - The Life of Pi

(If you are on the e-mail list and are receiving this a second time, apologies. I accidentally hit "Publish" when I meant to hit "Save" while drafting this, and you received an incomplete version.)

Image from Indie*Reader. It's got a great article on this book.
The image shows what my cover looks like.

# of pages: 319
Publication date: 2001
Publisher: Harcourt (Originally published in Canada by Random House)

This one was in a bag of books my bff V------- got me for my 19th or 20th birthday, all from some lovely secondhand bookshop.  I never read it - never thought I would. I'd heard a lot of great things about it, but I hated the cover (before you people jump all over me on it, this strategy has worked zillions of times for me) and it just didn't look interesting at all. Nothing about it said, "Brilliant story about a boy and a tiger but it's also about faith and the perseverance of the human spirit." That was nowhere on the back cover. I looked.

But one day back in January while I was cleaning, I picked it up.

When I clean - particularly when I'm dusting or vacuuming in the living room - I drift over to my bookcase and have a conversation with my books. Some I haven't read in ages, some I haven't read at all or haven't finished, etc. I run my fingers over them to say hello, see how they're doing; I pick them up and flip through them and see if anything jumps out at me.

So I picked up Life of Pi and generally didn't like the back cover or front cover or inside covers. Started reading the prologue/preface and became intrigued with the author's story of how he was in India working on a novel that didn't work out and then started looking for another story to tell. This search led him to Canada and a man named Pi Patel, who grew up in the Pondicherry Zoo in India. Dusting forgotten, I sat in my great-great-grandmother's rocking chair and started reading. Then I had to get up and find a pen so I could basically underline the entire first 10 pages.

I don't often read books with religious themes, overtones, undertones, etc. I kind of quit that after my first year of high school. (I have recently gotten back into religious literature, but with a more discerning taste.) But there was something about the clarity, the honesty, the simplicity of Pi's religious experience that was so poignant to me.

Here are a few of my favorite passages:

From page 6:
"The reason death sticks so closely to's envy. Life is so beautiful that death has fallen in love with it, a jealous, possessive love that grabs at what it can.  but life leaps over oblivion lightly, losing only a thing or two of no importance, and gloom is but the passing shadow of a cloud."
From page 12, talking about the zoo:
"It was a huge zoo...though it seemed to get smaller as I got older... Now it's so small it fits in my head."   
See the hint of magical realism there? SEE IT!?

From page 28:
"I was more afraid that in a few words thrown out he might destroy something that I loved. ... What a terrible disease that must be if it could kill God in a man."
From page 47:
"We are all born like Catholics, aren't we -  in limbo, without religion, until some figure introduces us to God?"

From page 50:

"Hindus, in their capacity for love, are indeed hairless Christians, just as Muslims, in the way they see God in everything, are bearded Hindus, and Christians, in their devotion to God, are hat-wearing Muslims. ... First wonder goes deepest; wonder after that fits in the impression made by the first.  i owe to Hinduism the original landscape of my religious imagination, those towns and rivers, battlefields and forests, holy mountains and deep seas where gods, saints, villains and ordinary people rub shoulders, and, in doing so, define who and why we are."
I truly wish I could hand you my copy and let you flip through the pages and see all the beautiful imagery I underlined, more passages about his understanding of God in the universe and the world and nature and the ocean. I'd love to share with you all the illegible little things I scrawled in the margins and all the dog-eared pages of my well-loved copy. You'll have to make do with this slap dash review instead. Sorry. 

Life of Pi movie review
The ocean at night. From this review.
The stories of Pi growing up in India were definitely my favorite part of the novel. Unfortunately, they were also only at the beginning. I'm not the world's greatest fan of survival, man-vs-nature adventures. I really enjoyed the beginning of this one, though. Granted, the narrative of the shipwreck was a bit rushed - the pacing gave me whiplash and I had to read it several times to fully understand it. But the rest of it, the tidbits about the nature of wild animals in a lifeboat, the attempts at training Richard Parker, the survival information about water, the details about the fish and sharks and sea turtles and currents... All of that was extremely well-written and some of it even incorporated aspects of magical realism which made my inner lit theory nerd squeal in delight. 

But after a few (hundred) pages that got a bit dull. And in a way I understand that maybe he was trying to convey the absolute never-ending boredom of being lost at sea in a lifeboat with a tiger, I dunno.

The island, though. The cannibal island. Just, wow. WOW. I loved that part. I actually accidentally flipped ahead and read that whole section after I read the first 3 pages, but when I got there in "real time" (reading all the way through like a proper person), it was still brilliant and fresh and incredible. And terrifying.

But then it got boring. Or I lost interest. I'm not really sure. I just remember he was in the ocean for a long time and then washed ashore in Mexico, was taken to a hospital, then to Canada.

The part with the Japanese investigators, though. Where he changed the story. It broke my brain. On the one hand I loved it, but on the other...It devastated me to think of what kind of mental state he must have been in to believe he was with a full grown Bengal tiger if he wasn't. Or was he?

The theme driven home by that part is the idea of our lives being stories, and we should make them good ones. Pi asks the Japanese investigators (this is fiction, folks, he was using an interview as a plot device to structure a frame narrative) which story was true: the story with people, or the story with the tiger. They chose the story with the tiger. "And so it goes with God," he replies. Because our stories are good. Stories with God are better. 

Pi sees the Universe. From Empires and Mangers
The movie: The movie was actually a really, really well done adaptation. There were things in the beginning that were different, and a few things toward the end that were left out, but all the main stuff was there. All the things that made it such a great story. The cinematography was great, and the part where he sees the entire universe in the ocean... The way they portrayed that on film was so beautiful - just the way I imagined it when I read it.

Recommended Reading Level: 14+ (Only because some of the religious themes might be difficult to grasp for younger readers.)

3.5 out of 5 Stars - The beginning was brilliant and most of the imagery is fantastic. It loses points because after a while the ocean was boring and the author's voice is incredibly annoying. The narration by Pi is perfect and wonderful, but when the author starts talking or doing his little side narrations, I wanted to smack him. He comes off as pompous, arrogant, pedantic, and irritating. Like Draco Malfoy in the first 3 HP books - just a snotty toerag. But his narration as Pi... It saves him.

Who I Recommend it To: People who like stories about faith, people who like stories about human beings surviving nature's brutality, people who like a bit of magical realism, people who like fantasy adventure stories, people who like stories about India or even Canada, people who like stories about animals, people who have stronger stomachs than me and can handle reading about a tiger almost drowning without crying thinking about their silly house cat because I'm pitiful like that.

Overall, read it. The rich imagery alone is worth it, and I dare you not to get caught up in Pi's mind, in his history. Let him light a match in your dark head.