Friday, October 30, 2009

Life of Pi

Last year, my mom and I had the following conversation:

MOM: I read a good book - Life of Pi, and I think that I get it. The boy was the tiger, and the sailor was the zebra, and the cook was the hyena...
ME: So what was the religious theme of the book?
MOM: What?
ME: I thought there was some religious theme to it.
MOM: I don't know. I guess I will have to re-read it.

I've been hearing about Life of Pi for a long time. And I have been avoiding it. First of all, I don't like to read popular books. I don't want people to think that I'm someone who jumps on a bandwagon; someone who reads Faulkner because Oprah told me to. I ADORE Faulkner (despite our initially contentious relationship), but I would have purposely NOT read him during the time that he was Oprah's book club pick. Unless, of course, I could wear a shirt that said, "I LOVED FAULKNER BEFORE OPRAH." Books with buzz tend to scare me away.

I have been avoiding Life of Pi for the other reason as well: it's religious theme. It's a book that is supposed to make you believe in god. Oh boy, one of those books. No thank you.

But then, there are people whose opinion of books I take seriously, mostly because we have such similar tastes. So, I have finally given in and read it.

First of all, the key to this book is in the author's introduction. You have to read that first, or like my mom, you will miss the point. Martel gives us two stories: one is fantastical - unbelievable. A boy is on a lifeboat with a tiger for almost a year and the tiger doesn't eat him? The second story is the believable, and probably true one. But which one is the better story? Which one makes life more interesting? Obviously the fantastical one. The religious theme, of course is that we can choose to believe the religious stories - that god created us special, and a baby was born to a virgin in a stable, and angels and shepherds, and wise men, and all the other religious stories, or we can believe the "real" story. You can take your pick. God is the better story.

Now in the previous paragraph, I only listed the Christian story. But Life of Pi is not exclusively a Christian story. Pi is also a Hindu and a Muslim. So it doesn't matter if your story is Kali and Shiva and the turtle - or is it an elephant? - holding up the world, or whatever stories it is that Muslims believe (I admit my inexcusable ignorance of what is in the Koran), or if you believe in the baby in a manger. Martel is just saying that the better story is the fantastical one...the one that it's hard to believe but is more beautiful...or more exciting, or something.

I'm not really sure about that though. They are good stories, some of them at least. But isn't the story of the natural world just as interesting, just as worthy of awe? Go on youtube and listen to some of Neal DeGrasse Tyson's talks on the universe and you'll see what I mean.

All in all, Life of Pi wasn't bad. It's not the greatest thing I ever read. But for being popular, it was a pretty decent read.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Booking Through Thursday

I'm a week late on this one. Oh well.

If you could ask your favorite author (alive or dead) one question … who would you ask, and what would the question be?

This one is easy. I would ask Jack Kerouac if he drank himself to death on purpose. This question has plagued me for years...almost a decade now. In the documentary What Happened to Kerouac, someone (I never remember who she is, but she was a friend of his) says that he told her that as a Catholic he couldn't kill himself, so he intended to drink himself to death. Which he succeeded at admirably. However, this woman is not included in any of his biographies - I've checked the indexes. And in general, the possibility that Jack was drinking with the intent to kill himself isn't even discussed. Did this person, whose novels exude an enthusiasm for life, commit a slow form of suicide on purpose, or was death just a consequence of drinking in order to escape the realities of what fame (or infamy) had brought him?

Friday, October 16, 2009

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

I have been meaning to read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close for a long time...either since it came out, or since I read Foer's other book, Everything is Illuminated - I don't remember which happened first. I LOVED Everything is Illuminated. It's one of the best books I ever read. It was funny, moving, quirky, terribly sad. And it was awesome. So obviously I was looking forward to EL&IC, but also a little afraid...I was afraid it would be like my "relationship" with F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby absolutely blew me away when I read it in 10th grade, and since then I have read other Fitzgerald novels, but none of them are as good. He knocked it out of the ball park with Gatsby, and how could you rival that? So I have been timid about Extremely Loud - what if it just wasn't as good...then I would be disappointed.

But EL&IC did NOT disappoint. Within the first dozen or so pages I was laughing out loud: "Succotash my Balzac, dip shiitake!" But as I said, there is a pervasive sadness, centered around 9/11. This isn't my first 9/11 novel. It seems to have become like my Holocaust novels - I keep reading them. Their sadness is different from other tragic books, because you know what happens. From the very beginning, I knew how Oskar lost his father. You know what is going to happen, what the narrative is circling around. And it doesn't even need to be stated. Foer didn't need to say, "those messages were left on the phone on September 11th." It needn't be said - we know. It's not a novel about 9/11, but rather a novel in the shadow of 9/11.

It takes a lot for a novel - or anything really - to move me, especially to move me to tears, and this one did - and more than once. This book gave me "heavy boots." I finished it yesterday, and I can still feel its weight.

I know that Foer often gets mixed reviews, but I think that he is my favorite contemporary writer. The more I read, the more I like. Tragicomedy must be my thing. With EL&IC, I would definitely recommend having read Grass's The Tin Drum first. It's certainly not necessary, but there are a lot of parallels, which really enhance the reading.