Life of Pi by Yann Matel (winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2002)

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The reason death sticks so closely to life isn’t biological necessity – it’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. (p. 6)

The first time I picked up The Life of Pi, I abandoned it for being ridiculous. I did not recognize the beauty of the writing, nor the ethereal qualities of magicial realism. I was a very concrete girl, and thus at times, a foolish reader. A boy is named Piscene Molitor Patel after a swimming pool in Paris, because his family’s good friend loved swimming there the best? It was not an auspicious beginning to me.

Skip to the part where Pi’s father decides to leave Pondicherry, India for Winnipeg, Canada. The ship they are on, carrying several animals from the family’s zoo which has been sold, sinks. All that is left is Pi, an orangutan, a zebra with a broken leg, a hyena, and a Bengal tiger. A tiger who has been named Richard Parker, after the befuddled intervention of a shipping clerk who got the papers mixed up between the tiger and the hunter who had found him.

But this time through, I am utterly entranced. I feel as if I am on the boat with Pi struggling to live. First, he has to go through the realization that his parents and brother are lost to him. Then, he has to figure out how it is that he can survive. Not only must he find food and water for himself, in the middle of the sea, he must find it for Richard Parker. He must be certain that he is not dinner for the tiger.

The way they survive is quite graphically depicted. Pi eats fish, and whatever he pulls from the ocean, raw, of course. He tears apart turtles, and exists on dorados, flying fish, and the water he can obtain from rainfall or flimsy stills which turn sea water into fresh.

When I place myself in his position, mentally, I am overwhelmed by the abundance in my life compared to the absence of practically everything required to live in Pi’s. Of course there is the trouble of finding enough food and water, but so much more is lost to him: family, human companionship, baths, entertainment of any sort. He reads the survival manual he has found perhaps a thousand times, for the lack of any book. Yet he is determined to live. His perseverance is one of my favorite things about him.

Near the conclusion of the novel, we come upon two very bizarre things. One, is the encounter that Pi has with another man. Pi has become temporarily blind, but he communicates with this voice on board his lifeboat. Until Richard Parker eats this man, and Pi recovers his eyesight to behold a dismembered body without a face, we are unsure if he exists at all.

Even more bizarre is a forest of floating trees, resting on seaweed and algae rather than earth. Pi and Richard Parker tentatively step out onto this island, and feel quite comfortable there with the pools of fresh water and fish which lie therein. But when Pi discovers a tree, and climbs it in hopes of enjoying its fruit, he finds that the ‘fruit’ is really a light ball, the contents of which is a human tooth. There are, in fact, all the teeth of a human skull inside each ball, and Pi comes to the conclusion that he cannot stay safely on this island as he had hoped; it is a carnivorous island which devours what comes its way.

Like the very best of animal stories, this one is ultimately about dealing with extreme loss, overcoming fear, testing one’s endurance, and being courageous beyond what one thinks he is capable of being. And for those who scoff at Pi’s story being true? I leave you with this quote:

“If you stumble at mere believability, what are you living for? Isn’t love hard to believe?”

“Mr. Patel-”

“Don’t you bully me with your politeness! Love is hard to believe, ask any lover. Life is hard to believe, ask any scientist. God is hard to believe, ask any believer. What is your problem with hard to believe?” (p. 297)

The Silent Wife by A. S. A. Harrison

I like the setting in Chicago with all it’s familiar places such as the Loop, Navy Pier, Printers Row,  and the Drake Hotel.
I like the backdrop of psychology not only in the heroine’s profession, but also in the exploration of Adler’s three life goals. “That Adler’s school is pragmatic and socially atuned is nowhere quite so evident as in his three main life tasks, which he identified as hallmarks of mental health: 1) the experience and expression of love, 2) the development of friendships and social ties, and 3) engagement in meaningful work.” (p. 130)
I like the way the reader is a casual, but engaged, observer. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl felt like it was constantly playing tricks on me for the sake of keeping me guessing. A. S. A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife has a crescendo slowly building to a completely unexpected, but believable, conclusion.
I like reading about strong women and seeing how they’ve coped with life’s adversities. Even if it is in a way I wouldn’t choose for myself.
I first heard of The Silent Wife when I read about it on Nadia’s blog, A Bookish Way of Life. Our reading likes are so compatible, and this book which came highly recommended by her is no exception. Read it for a thriller, read it for its multi-layered plot, and read it to see all the ways in which this wife is silent.

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

Amazing to me, how Margaret Atwood can take the wife of Odysseus straight out of the Greek myths, and by giving her a personality, as well as a voice, remind me of the women in my very favorite book of hers, The Robber Bride. For to me, as much as anything, The Penelopiad is about the wiles of Helen of Troy against the faithfulness of her cousin, Penelope.

Because Helen ran off with Paris and wouldn’t, or couldn’t, come back, Odysseus fulfills his oath and goes after her. Twenty long years he is gone; ten years in pursuit of Helen and ten years in pursuit of his own pleasures. Meanwhile, Penelope fends off her Suitors, promising that she will choose one when the shroud she is weaving is completed. Every night, she unravels a bit more to stave off the fulfillment of her promise.

Odysseus returns, disguised as a beggar. Penelope recognizes him, but fails to give up his identity. The twelve maids are hung, though they were raped by the Suitors to whom they were given because Penelope refused to defile her marriage bed.

Surely in all these ways the story Atwood tells follows what the myth has told. But her interpretation, the tension she creates between Penelope and Helen, is what fascinates me. Anyone can tell a myth; it takes Margaret to explore the complexities of women who betray other women.

‘Oh, Penelope, you can’t still be jealous,” she says. “Surely we can be friends now! Why don’t you come along with me to the upper world, next time I go? We could do a trip to Las Vegas. Girls’ night out! But I forgot-that’s not your style. You’d rather play the faithful little wifey, what with the weaving and so on. Bad me, I could never do it, I’d die of boredom. But you were always such a homebody.”

Helen mocks, and teases, and belittles, never admitting the fact that she was the impetus for Odysseus leaving in the first place. She believes in her beauty, her ability to attract men, her flippant style, and she gives little care to how it affects those around her. How it has cost the twelve maidens their lives, and Penelope her marriage, but for her faithful allegiance.

No man will ever kill himself for love of me. And no man ever did. Not that I would have wanted to inspire those kinds of suicides. I was not a man-eater, I was not a Siren, I was not like cousin Helen who loved to make conquests just to show she could. As soon as the man was grovelling, and it never took long, she’d stroll away without a backwards glance, giving that careless laugh of hers, as if she’d just been watching the palace midget standing ridiculously on his head.

I was a kind girl-kinder than Helen, or so I thought. I knew I would have to have something to offer instead of beauty. I was clever, everyone said so-in fact they said it so much that I found it discouraging-but cleverness is a quality a man likes to have in his wife as long as she is some distance away from him. Up close, he’ll take kindness any day of the week, if there’s nothing more alluring to be had.

For those of you who’ve only read Margaret Atwood’s futuristic novels, such as The Handmaid’s Tale, or Oryx and Crake, I beg you to read The Robber Bride. It is similar in so many ways to The Penelopiad, in that one woman is able to wreak havoc on all those around her and apparently come out unscathed. Who, then, is left to suffer?

The faithful one. Like Penelope.