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)

Chronicle in Stone by Ismail Kadare (Man Booker International Prize Winner 2005; Back When Prizes Were Given To The Good Books)

 

 

To say that I am discouraged because the recent Man Booker International Prize was awarded to A Horse Walks Into A Bar, is an understatement. As I stated on Twitter, perhaps the books written with satire (i.e. angry accusation) are the only ones the judges will choose lately. Consider Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, which won the Man Booker last summer.

But, let’s move on to Chronicle In Stone, winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2005, which is written in gorgeous prose. It is a book with incredible symbolism, subtle and sweet, whose elements of magical realism and personification make it more real to me than if I had lived in Albania in the 1940s myself.

“I thought about how the countless raindrops were gathering their rage down below, the old ones that had been languishing there so long getting together with the newcomers, the drops unleashed by tonight’s storm, plotting something evil. Too bad Papa has forgotten to move the pipe. The waters of the storm never should have been let into our well-behaved cistern to stir up rebellion.” 

What brilliant writing! What exquisite symbolism for the woe that Albania had faced, and would continue to face, in its violent existence as a country.

The difficulties in Albania’s history, of invasion by Greece, Italy and Germany, as well as civil unrest, are told through the perspective of a boy, an innocent boy who thinks it will be interesting to visit the slaughtering house in the city, and then upon seeing it covers his eyes and runs in horror. He loves the aerodrome, built in a field for the airplanes. He does not consider their purpose in war, and is baffled at his parents’ astonishment when he mourns their take-off.

The narrative is interspersed with sections entitled FRAGMENT OF A CHRONICLE, paragraphs which begin in the middle of a sentence, or leave off with the first two letters of the next word. They support the story with fact, being less imaginative than the young narrator’s point of view.

Early in the novel he finds a glass lens amidst his grandmother’s things, and when he holds it up to his eye things immediately sharpen. It is a perfect analogy for how his eyes will be opened as he matures in Albania, clearly seeing all the discord. The story begins slowly, evocative of youth and innocence, gradually becoming more real and therefore more horrific. For who can hide from the tragedies of war for long? Eventually our eyes are opened, and we must leave our innocence behind.

Truly, this is a magnificent novel.

Did You Ever Have A Family? (Book 7 for the (Wo)Man Booker Prize)

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Another book about family in the long list for the Booker. But, Did You Ever Have a Family? stands out as especially piercing. I thought I would be too vulnerable to read it, for the pain I’ve experienced in my life over losing my first husband; for the pain I’m enduring now while trying to help my son through a particularly rough patch in his life. That isn’t the case. Instead, I am fortified by the reminder that no family is perfect, and, in fact, many suffer. I’m strengthened by the story of June, the only surviving member of her family after they are lost in an explosion from the faulty stove.

“For most of that night I was awake, wondering at it all, the pattern that seemed to emerge when I laid out every fluke and chance encounter, puzzling through all the possible signs and meanings; but any trace of a design disintegrated when I remembered the chaos and brutality of the world, the genocide and the natural disasters, all the agony. I never felt so small, so humbled by the vastness of the universe and the fragility of life.” (p. 113)

I have lain awake like that, reviewing words said and deeds done, going back over them as if there were any chance they could be redone. That there could be a different outcome. The futility amazes me.

Did You Ever Have a Family? is not a futile story, though. Clegg offers us hope and forgiveness. Through our suffering we may be able to help others. Through that premise, our pain can be worked for good, which is such a redeeming factor.

 

Now off to read The Chimes by Anna Smaill. You can follow the Shadow Jury, if you choose, at #ShadowWoManBooker. The Man Booker short list is to be announced on Tuesday, September 15, for which I am already forming my top three favorites.

 

Satin Island by Tom McCarthy (Book 6 for the (Wo)Man Booker Prize)

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Frances loved it.

I could barely finish it.

While I found McCarthy’s style initially resembling the satire and wit of Edward St. Aubyn, I quickly tired of his pedantic prose. Oil spills, conglomerates, parachuters who die because their strings have become unattached, all the metaphors for business as usual in a world gone awry. For me, what could have been endlessly fascinating fizzled to a firecracker which wouldn’t explode.

And now I’m reading The Chimes, a book with beautiful, melodic phrasing. So far.

You can follow our progress at #ShadowWoManBooker should you choose.

The Illuminations by Andrew O’Hagan (Book 5 for the (Wo)Man Booker Prize)

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Another book about family. Written beautifully, to be sure, but like Anne Enright’s The Green Road, not worthy of the Booker.

An old woman named Anne, suffering from dementia and the loss of her life long love, Harry. She speaks to a rabbit, who isn’t real, and heats up tins of soup for him in the microwave.

Her grandson, Luke, who is a Captain with his troop in Afghanistan, led by the Major into a wedding feast which goes horribly wrong.

Her daughter, Alice, an aloof woman with some validity to her attitude as we come to find out at the conclusion of the novel.

The illuminations refer to more than the beautiful lights in Blackpool. They also refer to how we discover who we are, often with great pain. They refer to the peeling back of shadows under which we live our life in apparent illusion.

I like the concentric circles on the cover. I like how they indicate that we come from a core which is our family, imperfect at best. I liked this book. But, I didn’t love it. (Quite possibly nothing after A Little Life will be able to affect me in such a powerful way.)

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (Book 4 for the (Wo)Man Booker Prize)

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And it wasn’t until a few weeks after that that I was able to open the letter he had left us on his table. I hadn’t been able to bear it earlier; I wasn’t sure I would be able to bear it now. But I did. It was eight pages long, and typed, and it was a confession: of Brother Luke, and Dr. Traylor, and what had happened to him. It took us several days to read, because although it was brief, it was also endless, and we had to keep putting the pages down and walking away from them, and then bracing each other–Ready?–and sitting down and reading some more. (p. 717)

If you asked me where I’ve been the last twelve days, I would tell you that I have been wrapping my mind around a new school year. Preparing for the twenty-eight children who will walk into my classroom next week. And I have been reading A Little Life in bits and pieces, as much as I can bear until I must set it down again, for it is the most tragic book I have ever read.

I thought that last year’s winner of the Man Booker Prize, The Narrow Road to The Deep North, by Richard Flanagan, was tragic. It is a deeply moving book about atrocities committed to men during war. But, A Little Life is even more moving, about the atrocities committed to an abandoned boy during childhood.

With each page that I read, I wondered how I could continue, and indeed I could not had Hanya Yanagihara not offset the story with hope offered by those few who knew how to love unconditionally. Their love to Jude was deep, and loyal, and faithful. But how can it overcome the damage which the evil from his childhood had done to him?

It is late tonight, for me. I am exhausted from the emotions which this novel wrung from where they had long been tucked away, for it uncovered many fears I unwillingly hold tight.

A Little Life is a book I have long avoided. The cover alone made me turn from picking it up when reviews starting popping up upon its publication. I did not know how I could bear the story contained within such a painful image. I still don’t know how to bear it. But, turning aside does not allow us to face that which frightens us. In fact, some of the very best literature is that which causes us to confront fear and sorrow within our lives, while remembering the good that has been offered.

That is what Hanya Yanagihara has done brilliantly. That is what makes me ultimately glad that I have read this novel through the tears it made me weep.

(Find thoughts from other (Wo)Man Booker shadow members here: Shelf Love, Of Books and Bicycles.

The Green Road by Anne Enright (Book 3 for the (Wo)Man Booker Prize)


I’d like to say I liked this book. That it deserves its place on the Man Booker long list. But, for me? It was another look at family, which while well written, had nothing particularly fresh to say.

There’s an overly dramatic mother, who favors one child over the others. There’s a conscientious oldest sister who tries to make everyone happy. There’s a son who goes overseas to help the poor and downtrodden. There’s a younger daughter who says she wants to be an actress, but all she really wants is to drink.

The novel tells each of the children’s stories in a chapter of their own, beginning with Rosaleen (their mother) taking to her bed when she hears that Dan wants to become a priest. Their lives are portrayed perfectly, I think. We can imagine each person in his or her surroundings, we can fully accept their thoughts as believable and even, in places, aligning with our own.

It is on Christmas Day that everything comes to a head. The five are gathered, with a spouse and grandchildren of the oldest daughter, and as so often happens during the holidays, a lovely dinner turns frantic. Rosaleen has suddenly left in her little Citroen, without any advance warning, to travel down the green road. True to form, she seems to think only of herself, and when the children finally roust themselves to come looking for her, indeed in a panic, they find themselves truly a family for at least that evening.

The Green Road reminded me vaguely of A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler. But where I feel that Anne Tyler returned to her magically told stories, I feel that Anne Enright portrayed far more power in her novel The Forgotten Waltz.

Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy (Book 2 for the (Wo)Man Booker Prize)

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Jarmuli radiated outward to Asia, the world, the solar system, the universe – it was every child’s incantation in school, and even now, when he wanted to be out of the reach of his aunt and uncle, he dreamed of living on Jupiter and sleeping under its many moons. When his teacher had told their class it had sixteen moons he had wanted to ask her if this meant that there was a full moon on Jupiter every night. Or were there crescent moons and half moons and round moons all at once in that other sky?

Sleeping on Jupiter. It’s a rather odd title, perhaps. But if your life has been so harshly effected by those around you, if every day means pain and suffering, Jupiter may be the very place you long to go for respite.

How brave it is, then, for Nomi to back to the place which caused her the most pain in her life. For it is in the ashram run by Guruji that she is told one thing, but lives another.

“You think you have nobody,” his voice said over my head, and I could feel its vibration enter my body. “That is not true. I am your father and your mother now. I am your country. I am your teacher. I am your God.”  He said it like a chant, as if they were words often repeated, and always the same…”I have prayed for you. Whenever you are frightened, think of my face. I will keep you safe. You have come to my ashram now.”

How can a young girl, whose father was brutally murdered in the family’s hut, whose mother and brother have disappeared in their attempt at escape, not believe these words of hope? How can she know that they are lies? She is hopeful, at first, until the actions of the Guruji prove who he really is.

Interwoven with her story are those of several others. There are the three old friends, Vidya, Latika and Gouri, who meet Nomi on the train from Calcutta to Jarmuli. They are bewildered by her hair wrapped in beads, multi-colored thread, and braids. They cannot imagine how such a person looks this way, especially as they struggle with the day to day lives of their own which are so different from hers.

And there is Johnny Toppo, an old man who runs the tea stall by the beach in Jarmuli, offering customers tea with ginger and cloves, tea with lemon, tea with milk and sugar, and if they wish, sweet or savory biscuits. (The care with which he takes to make his tea caused me to long for a cup so badly that I had to go to our local Deccan Spice for a cup of my own.) But his name has not always been Johnny Toppo, and he has not always operated a little tea stall to serve those who come to the beach.

There is Suraj, son of Vidya, who has unbeknownst to her also come to Jarmuli in order to report on the temple for the television company which employs both him and Nomi. He carves little boats every year, as his father and he would do when he was young, and set them off to go where they may. He can barely contain his temper, or his drink; his emotions threaten to overcome his reason nearly every day.

But, it is Nomi’s life which is the focal point. Nomi’s life which caused me to highlight passages again and again in my kindle. Her courage to face her past, to triumph over the tragedy that her childhood was, is a fascinating story. And while I may say to myself, “This is just one little girl’s story, one little girl who lived in India under the cruelest conditions,” I find that Anuradha Roy has made her heroine’s life one for us to relate to. The elegance and beauty with which she writes takes my breath, and causes me to realize again how rare it is to find a book whose writing, story and relevance are equal in excellence.

This novel surely deserves its place on the Man Booker long list. And as so often happens to me when I read from such a prize list, the first book I read is the one that wins. I would not be surprised, nor disappointed, if Roy took the prize for 2015. My thoughts on it here can not possibly do it justice.

(Sleeping on Jupiter was first published in Great Britain in 2015 by MacLehose Press. It has been long listed for the Man Booker Prize this year. My thanks to Quercus Books for a review copy of this book.)

The (Wo)Man Booker Prize Shadow Panel as Assembled by Frances

While I walked through the Art Institute of Chicago with my mother this morning, admiring the Degas exhibit and alternately checking my iPhone for a call from my ENT, I noticed a message from Frances. She proposed a very happy reading idea, in that we read the nominations for the Man Booker Prize before September 15, 2015. Having read them, we can review and choose our favorites before the prize is officially announced on October 13, 2015. Ah, some of the best reading I do all year is that which I do with others, and how I long to begin the following list which was announced yesterday:

Did You Ever Have A Family by Bill Clegg

The Green Road by Anne Enright

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami

Satin Island by Tom McCarthy

The Fisherman by Chigozie Obioma

The Illuminations by Andrew O’Hagan

Lila by Marilynne Robinson

Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy

The Year of The Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota

The Chimes by Anna Smaill

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

So keep tuned in, for thoughts from the (Wo)Man Booker Prize readers: Frances, Teresa, Nicole, Rebecca, and I.

Who might be so busy reading I won’t have time to teach this fall.

The Narrow Road To The Deep North by Richard Flanagan

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For an instant he thought he grasped the truth of a terrifying world in which one could not escape horror, in which violence was eternal, the great and only verity, greater than the civilisations it created, greater than any god man worshipped, for it was the only true god. It was as if man existed only to transmit violence to ensure its domain is eternal. For the world did not change, this violence had always existed and would never be eradicated, men would die under the boot and fists and horror of other men until the end of time, and all human history was a history of violence.

After every page I read, I wondered how I could go on. The brutality with which the prisoners were treated in a Japanese POW camp during World War II was almost more than I could bear. Yet, Richard Flanagan’s writing is so compelling it was impossible to turn away.

I finished the book late last evening, and I was unable to sleep for most of the night. The images of ulcerated sores and amputations, lice and filth, shit-running streams of mud and one gray rice-ball for lunch whirled in my vision. Underneath it all was a tender beauty which I will not soon forget.

The prisoners became family as they endured their imprisonment. One small rice ball was shared among two after a prisoner slipped and dropped his. The men banded together as men should, regardless of difference in age or strength; they suffered identically and silently vowed to be courageous as one.

More significant to me, though, was a parallel story to the one involving the camp led by a Japanese Colonel who knew he must preserve his honor by building a railroad from Siam to Burma under any condition. This parallel story was of Dorrigo Evans, the doctor who loved Amy with the red camilla in her hair.

Why is it that the loves which are felt most passionately are destined to be crushed? We marry who we marry, and make peace with what is proper and solid and right. But the one with whom our soul is most intricately linked is never the one with whom we can live.

I don’t know why that is.

I don’t think Flanagan proposes an answer, either. He just tells us of characters whom we feel we know, and the sorrows we feel that we, too, have endured, with a master’s hand.

Some favorite quotes:

“Virtue was vanity dressed up and waiting for applause.”

“It wasn’t really the great poem of antiquity (Virgil’s Aeneid) that Dorrigo Evans wanted though, but the aura he felt around such books–an aura that both radiated outwards and took him inwards to another world that said to him that he was not alone.”

“The day their talk turned to him and Amy was the day their private passion would have transformed into public tragedy.”

“…love does not end until all its power is exorcised in misery and cruelty and obliteration as much as in goodness and joy.”

“Without love, what was the world? Just objects, things, light, darkness.”

Find more thoughts here, here, here, here, and here.