Just Read ~ Life of Pi, Yann Martel (2001)

January 31, 2013 § Leave a comment

Life of Pi, Yann Martel

 

It’s been a while since I last posted something and it’s already been a few weeks since I finished this book, and already my memory of it has dimmed. This is probably because Life of Pi felt to me like a lightning bolt, tearing through darkness. Once it’s over, only the essence of the light is left at the back of your retina, and already your brain has forgotten how bright it really was. You forget how intense this book really was and you have to move on, return to the comfort of objects and people around you; of walls, roofs and daily routines. And you have to be very brave to consider opening this book again.

Let me explain: Life of Pi makes you go through the most extreme nothingness and despair. You are, for as long as you read the book, alone, in the immensity of a blue ocean and a blue sky, unprotected, cold, hungry, hot, tired, in pain, scared, desperate. The story is an unusual one and has many facets; one of which I particularly enjoyed since, as a critic said, it is a homage to the beauty and complexity of the animal kingdom. I will never think about zoos or the notion of freedom in the wild in the same way. All these informative passages make for a good read in themselves.

But what truly left me stunned and dizzy was the author’s meticulous descriptions of what it is like to be left to your own devices in the middle of Nowhere, at the mercy of unfriendly tides (not to mention a tiger). Putting myself in that boat as I read, I suffered from the vertigo of imagining myself surrounded by nothing but sky and water in every direction. Try it. It’s terrifying.

The whole debate on whether this book is about converting its reader and giving him faith is, to me, irrelevant. Faith here is about survival. It is the only thing that’s left. Faith is what you decide to do when there is no food, no drink, no repose, no escape, and only madness, lurking at the corners of your brain. This book is about human resourcefulness and courage. And about feeling very very small, tossed around by much greater forces.

The ending? Let’s not spoil it. Everyone can interpret it as they choose. Surprising? Yes. And clever. And if, like me, you believe that this book is about stories, about the perception of reality when all the elements of your reality are gone, then it won’t change your mind about the rest of the book one bit. If you don’t come out of this having faith in God, it’ll certainly give you faith in the power of stories.

‘The world isn’t just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no? And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no? Doesn’t that make life a story?’

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Just Read ~ The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy (1997)

December 21, 2012 § 2 Comments

the god of small thingsAll the people I talked to about it loved this book. I’m usually the book-lover and I hate being the book-skeptic but I have to say, just this once, I’m not entirely convinced. I love the title, I love the cover, but there’s this little something that stops me from saying I love this book. And it’s the kind of book I wish I could say I loved.

Some of the topics described here are more than heavy and I found myself feeling nauseous for quite a few days after reading some passages. Not that I haven’t read books dealing with tough subjects before (say for instance, in Toni Morrison or J.M. Coetzee), and not that difficult subjects should be banned from literature – on the contrary – but somehow, in this case, it was more than disturbing – it was disgusting. My previous encounters with ugly truths were usually done through a style imbibing a certain humble grace into the subject, a certain degree of – maybe not modesty because they were still quite crude and made me shiver and hurt, but rather perhaps colder, clinical sentences that, whilst dispensing the horror of the fact, gave it a clean varnish.

Roy is in the corporeality of the body, in its ugly ‘humours’, its waste that people tend to modestly hide. Sometimes beautiful and soft, it is generally unashamedly alive, producing sweat, feces, semen. Even in moments of tenderness, the body is something that lives, with stretch marks bearing witness to past pregnancies and kisses that leave spit on your skin. So much more could be said on this subject, and it would certainly make for a very interesting read – it might reflect a will to show us a place where the body is a lot more part of people’s lives, accepted and not hidden away under clothes and impeccable hygiene like in western societies today. But nevertheless, whether it be pedophilia, physical violence or the decaying, dead and living body, after reading some bits I had to close the book for a while. Be warned.

That is not to say that some passages are not beautiful. There are moments of rare beauty but they are spoiled – voluntarily by the author, I would argue – by the everyday, the passing of time, the disappointments of life. There is one fleeting moment, and then it’s gone. Some images strike exactly the right chord and she captures that peculiar voice or way of thinking of children very well. But something else bothers me. Some have talked about her style as ‘exuberant’; I am sorry to say that at times I would have called it forced. Her use of unusual metaphors can be very powerful and touching but it sometimes almost feels like it’s too much, like she’s trying too hard to have a peculiarly distinct voice. Don’t get me wrong, unusual metaphors are great – in fact, usually, unusual metaphors are the ones I like best. I’ve talked about this before. But perhaps one needs different points of reference, a language that is out of the ordinary to convey what is so terribly hard to understand.

Maybe it all makes sense at the end, when all the knots are tied, when the patterns weaved throughout, repeatedly, in what was barely understandable at the time, finally come together to form an – almost – coherent whole. Roy is a seamstress, weaving many, many threads at a time, and somehow, she never seems to forget where each one comes from or where it is going. It reappears, every once in a while, with its purpose, its place in the larger piece of cloth. This puzzle-like story is hard to describe and only makes sense as you read it – this patterning is so subtle and yet is the very fibre of which the work is made. One has to give her that. Roy can weave. Perhaps in a way similar to Woolf. Infinitesimal details that matter, that might be at the root of everything instead of the big things – so small and unimportant and yet absolutely axiomatic. This book is about the Small Things.

And maybe the rawness has to be there to understand how utterly shattered one can be – one’s mind and one’s body, like a glass jar dropped on the floor. Maybe the horror and the pain have to be there to delineate the beauty of a moment, so short, but worth it all? I still wonder.  Maybe I haven’t loved this book. But maybe it’s not the kind of book that can be loved. Perhaps that’s not even what they meant when they told me they ‘loved’ this book. And maybe I’m starting, as I write about it, to realise what it is that they meant.

Just Read ~ To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee (1960)

November 25, 2012 § Leave a comment

My first encounter with To Kill a Mockingbird was a sad one, at school, when my English wasn’t good enough to understand the beauty and importance of this book. I soon gave up and forgot about it on the shelf (please don’t tell my English teacher). But after reading Their Eyes Were Watching God over the summer and The Help recently I decided that it was time. It was time to make peace with it and give it another chance, because I knew that it was more than worth it.

And, fellow readers, believe me, it was. Of course, praising To Kill a Mockingbird is safe – more people than I can count place it in their top-ten list. Nothing new here. But it’s always new when you’re the one making the discovery. So humour me, and share my wonder.

I am astounded at Harper Lee’s capacity to convey Scout’s voice as a child, her voice as an adult, Atticus’s thoughts but also what has been left unsaid, all in one. It is a difficult subject to write about but the author masters her words and where injustice is uttered and prejudice remains, little gestures or phrases hint that there’s something else growing in the dark, waiting to be felt and understood, by Scout, but also by the slowly evolving town.

Because it is famous and so much has been written about it more eloquently than this, I will focus on the passage that makes me shiver every time I think about it – because it is so painfully moving, so simple and because someone managed to write it so powerfully. It takes place in chapter 19 during the trial when Tom Robinson is being questioned by the lawyer, Mr. Gilmer, and gives an ‘unsatisfactory’ answer.

‘Yes suh. I felt right sorry for her, she seemed to try harder than the rest of ’em -‘

You felt sorry for her, you felt sorry for her?’

Three little words in italics. And everything is said.

There are books that make you swell with anger and bring bitterness into your throat at the ache and horror they describe. To Kill a Mockingbird does more than this – it also carries the salve that allows you to hope that perhaps, despite the sorrow and the waste, the personal battles of some men were not fought for nothing. So if you haven’t done so already, do yourself a favour and go read this book.

Just Read ~ The Help, Kathryn Stockett (2009)

September 30, 2012 § Leave a comment

Penguin Books, 2010

Recently, I’ve decided that my time commuting between my classes and my flat and my time before going to bed would be dedicated to reading something for myself, that has nothing to do with what I’m studying. Well, when I started reading The Help, not only did I read in the metro, but I also started doing so whilst walking the chunk between the metro station and my house and then a long time before I started going to bed until, a couple of afternoons, I ended up doing nothing else.

I found this book unputdownable. Because the story is gripping but also because, despite the harshness of the environment it is written in, I found myself yearning for more of the descriptions of these women’s daily chores, their pride in a job well done, their affection for the children they take care of and the people they love, their courage to make it through another day, almost unscathed. I wanted to hear more about the Mississippi weather and the gossip going through Jackson. Whilst the overarching theme was serious, the story was lively and even funny. It is perhaps wrong for me to say that, but I longed to be in this Jackson of 1962, to be able to actually have a conversation with Aibileen, Minnie, Skeeter and all the others. And because of that, I think Stockett succeeded. She made the environment she wanted to discuss palpable to the extent that I felt part of the issue she was addressing. I found myself truly caring for the characters and what they stood for and I wanted their project to work – I also wanted to know the impact it would have on either side of that town.

There is a profound humanity emanating from this book. Perhaps it comes from the author’s own doubts about ‘saying too much’ and ‘saying too little’, all at the same time. Perhaps it is because of the complexity of showing things as they are, without trying to make up excuses whilst also striving to justify how and why some things came to take place. Stockett manages to make you understand these characters’ different points of view – even the politically incorrect ones – in a quiet, modest yet powerful way. She doesn’t need to put a name on things, she just shows them to us. What I take with me is the deep, coarse beauty of the details in this book that end up pointing to where the crux really lies: the way Stockett writes about Lines, the unselfish way Aibileen loves Mae Mobley, the second Minnie finally pats Skeeter on the shoulder, the meaning of sitting next to someone at a table and sharing a cup of tea. The importance of noticing things.

The few lines where Stockett talks to her readers at the end (it really does feel like a conversation, or a confession) are crucial to the book – as crucial as Skeeter’s inclusion of Constantine’s story in her own – showing us how personal the subject is, but also how important it is for her to share it with others. There is something truly haunting about the prose of authors like Toni Morisson or Zora Neale Hurston. If Stockett was scared that she might be ‘crossing a terrible line, writing in the voice of a black person’, her style certainly has that same haunting quality. And like after reading these authors, I leave this book feeling humbled, deeply moved, and grateful that someone else had the courage to speak up.

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