Saturday, May 26, 2012

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Life of PiLife of Pi by Yann Martel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I wasn't a fan of the film Cast Away. I like stories where the characters interact and Tom Hanks spent too much time alone in that film. So Life of Pie is a novel I might not have picked on my own. It's about a young Indian man who is the sole survivor of a shipwreck and ends up sharing a lifeboat with Richard Parker, a Bengal Tiger. It was a choice for my book club and I'm thankful for that. It is a fascinating read.

Of course, there is time spent on the basics of survival. Pi (the young man's full name is Piscine Molitor Patel) spends 277 days in the small boat, so he needs to set up rain catchers and floating stills to capture fresh water and he has to discover a way to catch fish and turtles for a food source. He has to provide for his own needs as well as those of his formidable companion. But he also spends time reflecting on his past life with his family- zoo keepers in India. The entire story is set up with Pi as an old man looking back on his life, so technically these reflections are within a larger reminiscence. What was important to me was that much of the book is about Pi's concept of the relationships of people with animals and with God. Yann Martel does not directly compare our role to God to the role of zoo animals to zoo keepers, but enough time is spent on those subjects to draw our own conclusions.

The book contains graphic violence at times because it draws an honest picture of nature's food chain, but one of its greatest strengths is the relationship between Pi and Richard Parker. Pi has to assert his dominance or he will be eaten. It is fascinating to follow the way he chooses to do that.

I loved two things about this book: its originality and Martel's simple, yet profound, concept of God. I won't reveal any of my conclusions in this review because to do so would spoil aspects of the book. But I will say it made me think.

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Sunday, May 20, 2012

Water for ElephantsWater for Elephants by Sara Gruen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Water For Elephants is a love story set in a depression era circus run by a brutal man (Uncle Al) and his equally brutal managerie boss (August). It is full of action, intrigue, lies, and deception. This portion of the book starts fast and keeps on going.

The circus story is written as a reflection on the life of the main character who is 90 (or 93) and living in an assisted living facility. The plot keeps moving back and forth between young Jacob in the twentieth century and old Jacob in the twenty-first century. The scenes in the home are as sensitive as the rest of the novel is intense. The format reminded me of The Notebook. Jacob is as much in love with the woman he once knew as Noah was in Spark's book, but in this case Marlena has died instead of suffering from Alzheimer’s and Jacob is alone.

I loved the friendships that developed in this story, both the ones between people and the ones between animals and people. Jacob was self-centered when it came to the woman he loved, a fact that ultimately cost him his two best friends. But that's how love works and it's what gives the novel authenticity. He wasn't as brave as he should have been when it came to his relationship with Rosie, the elephant, but ultimately he took care of her.

Sometimes Uncle Al wouldn't pay his workers, but they stayed with him because the depression had left them penniless. I was left with a good picture of life in a traveling circus and with life during the depression. But it was the love story that kept me turning the pages and that's timeless.

August, Marlena's husband, died during an act of violence that seemed justified. He was a character I had come to hate during my reading. I'm sure most of the other readers did as well, at least the animal lovers.

It has been more than a year since I saw the film, but I believe it was consistent with the book in most places. The differences seemed small to me. For example, Marlena was supposed to be dark haired in the print version, but I kept picturing her as the blonde Reese Witherspoon.

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Saturday, May 12, 2012

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

People of the BookPeople of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks is a fascinating novel centered around The Sarajevo Haggadah. The Haggadah is a jewish text that, according to Wikipedia, “sets forth the order of the Passover Seder.” During Passover it is common to read from the Haggadah as “a fulfillment of the Scriptural commandment to each Jew to 'tell your son' of the Jewish liberation from slavery in Egypt as described in the Book of Exodus in the Torah.” The Sarajevo Haggadah is an ancient copy of this sacred text that has been insured for a value of 700 million dollars. It is currently owned by the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Sarajevo Haggadah is beautifully illustrated and that fact has caused historians to rethink their belief that, in Brooks's words, “...the commandment in Exodus 'Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image or likeness of any thing' had suppressed figurative art by medieval Jews.”

Geraldine Brooks has created fictional stories that parallel the real history of this tremendous book. Her characters live their lives around the book in Spain during the Inquisition, among a small group of freedom fighters resisting the Nazis during World War II, in Muslim homes, and in the Bosnian War.

One of the aspects of People of the Book that impressed me the most was way the people of different faiths interacted throughout the book. There was bigotry, murder, and rape, but also, at other times, trust and compassion. The scenes at various points in our world's history were always rendered in an intricate and believable fashion.

Hannah, an expert in the conservation of medieval manuscripts, is the novel's main character. Her work is fascinating, but so is her relationship with Dr. Ozren Karaman, the chief librarian of the National Museum and with her own mother, whose distance while raising her has crippled Hannah's emotions. The novel is as much about the “People” as it is about the “Book.”

Anyone interested in history, especially religious history, should read this book.

Steve Lindahl Author of Motherless Soul.

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Saturday, May 5, 2012

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games (The Hunger Games, #1)The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Hunger Games is the type of novel that pulls a reader in and keeps the pages turning. It also has some depth and thought behind it concerning the fairness of economic systems that funnel all the wealth to select groups at the expense of the majority. At times the writing can be melodramatic and somewhat predictable, but there was enough justification behind those scenes to get through them without losing the emotion. I was always eager to find out what was going to happen to Katniss and pulling for her along the way.

The story is about Panem, a country that exists in the future where the US was once located. Panem consists of 12 districts that surround a wealthy capitol. There was once a rebellion that pitted the capitol against the districts. After the rebellion was put down, the leaders devised the Hunger Games as a means of intimidation designed to maintain the status quo. Each of the districts must select 2 children to go into the arena and fight until there is only a single survivor. This is designed to show the people of the districts that they cannot defend their own children. The economic system protects the children in the capitol and in the districts the poorest families have the greatest chance of having their children selected. I wonder if the plot was inspired by the chocolate industry.

Katniss develops a relationship with Peeta, the boy from her district who was also chosen as a “tribute” and with Rue, a young girl from district 11 who reminds Katniss of her sister, Prim. The story is written from Katniss's point of view, so it is her emotions that we experience. They are as complicated and confused as the feelings of most seventeen year old girls. This is compounded by the fact that Katniss must play to the audience of the Hunger Games. Any sponsors she wins can help her along the way.

This book is unique, exciting, and relevant. Now that I've read it I intend to see the film. I also intend to read the rest of the trilogy.

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