Book Review: Life of Pi

Life of PiLife of Pi by Yann Martel
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What in the hell did i just read?

I picked this book up because it was available from the digital library and i was in the mood for something fun. I was expecting something like Cast Away with a tiger. I’ve never seen Cast Away, mind you, but i know that it involves Tom Hanks having conversations with a volleyball, so in my mind it’s generally a lighthearted story. Life of Pi turned out to be considerably darker than what i had in mind—not in an oh-the-humanity way, but in a weirder way.

I began reading with the Author’s Note at the beginning of the book. Thinking that it was Yann Martel’s actual introduction to the book and seeing that it was rather long-winded and narcissistic, i skimmed it. It described the author suffering a poor book reception, searching for new inspiration, taking his bag of money to India to do some writing (à la Elizabeth Gilbert), and happening to speak to a local there who told him a great story, which became the basis of the book i was about to read. The main character, Pi Patel, was a living, breathing human whom the author visited and interviewed. Ah, so this is a true story?! I thought. Well. I was misled.

But before i get into that, i want to mention that i almost didn’t make it through Part One of the book. Part One takes up about a third of the book and comprises Pi’s backstory, from childhood up until he boards the ship that was meant to take his family and part of their zoo to Canada but winds up sinking. Pi becomes fascinated with religions at an early age and adopts not just one, but three of them. And of no discernible consequence to the rest of the story is his near-sighted derision of atheists and agnostics. These snide remarks bubbled up several times, to no effect except to dare me to put the book down. They weren’t really even followed up later in the book. I’m still not certain what their purpose was.

So the book is set up as being a story about faith. Fine. Except… If that’s truly the book’s aim, it did a pretty terrible job of making me believe in God or even making a case for faith. I’m a tough cookie when it comes to those matters, i know, but i truly made an effort to be open-minded in this case. It’s only fiction, after all. But i just don’t see that this book is really even about God.

About halfway through, i checked Wikipedia (carefully, trying to avoid spoilers,) to see if this was indeed a true story. It isn’t. It’s billed there as a fantasy, which served to confuse me further. How is this book a fantasy, i wondered. It’s far-fetched, but not fantastic. I read on.

Stories of survival are fascinating to me (as long as they aren’t too brutal. I’m never going to read the story of that guy who hacked his own arm off. Nope. I’ll stick to the untrue survival stories for now). I love it when characters devise clever ways of staying alive, and there was plenty of that in this book, which i enjoyed a lot.

Then, at about 80 percent of the way through the book, the story became a very different story. It went from being a far-fetched but plausible story to being something that Jules Verne might have written. It got dark, and then it got weird, and then it got darker and weirder. It turned into a sci-fi. And then in the last ten percent it concluded with one of those maddening endings that sci-fi writers love to write that leave you going “so… WTF actually happened?” I like those and hate them at the same time. And it’s not really clever anymore. Too many writers have done this already.

So i’m giving this book three stars despite its beginning and its end, because the middle was pretty entertaining. And i actually liked the weird stuff toward the end quite a lot. If Part Three had been something that tied things up nicely rather than just sort of unceremoniously pulling back the curtain, i think the book would’ve been a lot stronger.

Now i’m going to have to watch the movie, in spite of the CG tiger.

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Book Review: The Golem and the Jinni

The Golem and the JinniThe Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Golem and the Jinni appeared on my to-read list sometime in recent months, having been recommended to me probably by Goodreads. It sounded interesting and it had a very high rating, so i thought i might read it some day. And then in a moment when i was trying to pick something to read, i noticed that my local library was going to be having a book discussion for this title in July. So i bought it, and the ebook happened to be on sale for two bucks, and i tore through all 500+ pages of it in a little over a week. The book discussion is tonight—i made it!

My reviews usually dive straight into whether or not i liked the characters in a book, because up until recently that has been my number-one criterion for reading enjoyment. However, I recently read an article in The New Yorker entitled “Would You Want To Be Friends With Humbert Humbert?” which really got me thinking about why i would require every book’s protagonist to be likeable. This particular line stuck with me: “If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities.”

As it happens, i did like the characters in this book quite a lot—not that i consider that to be of utmost importance anymore. I thought that the golem and the jinni were both somewhat frustrating and rather fun for completely opposite reasons, which of course is the crux of the story. I thought all of the supporting characters were well thought-out and fascinating as well, and i loved getting into their backstories and watching them intertwine with one another. There were close to a dozen characters who all played an important role in how the whole turn of events wound up, and it was all very neatly woven and played out. I was satisfied at the end, for reasons i would not have foreseen.

In fact, some of the things that usually satisfy me at the end of a book were missing from this one. We don’t know exactly where the characters are headed. We know that the two main characters have fallen in love, but they’ve never said it outright and never physically acted on it. Not even a kiss! And i wouldn’t say that the resolution of the main problem(s) was entirely satisfying, either. I had hoped for a more reassuring fate for each of them. And yet somehow, i’m not disappointed. The way things happened for each person involved was pretty interesting.

This story has a lot to do with issues of culture and immigration and religion and tradition, but nothing too harrowing happens in order to spotlight those things. Which is to say, i was glad to be able to observe and think about those issues without being suckerpunched by them, which is the way i feel a lot of literary fiction likes to handle things. Fantasy is usually a lot lighter than literary fiction, which is why at this stage in my life i prefer it. I’m sensitive. This was a nice blending of the two styles; a look at reality through a slightly fantastic lens. That’s an approach that i very much enjoy, and i hope i can find other well-researched fantastic historical/literary fiction novels.

I liked the historical tidbits about New York at the turn of the century. I liked pondering (and even getting confused by) the cultural differences. I loved the way the two fantastical creatures from two different cultures were crafted into these perfect opposites, and the way that each of them was an exaggeration of human nature. Their trysts in the city in the middle of the night were pure fun. Even their mundane mock-human lives were entertaining to read about. And the great ethical challenges they faced—to be or not to be?—were fascinatingly tragic, yet hopeful.

Helene Wecker’s writing is very neat and nice and well done. The whole book is well done. I definitely enjoyed this one, and i’m looking forward to seeing who else in the neighborhood enjoyed it, too.

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Book Review: I Am Legend

I Am LegendI Am Legend by Richard Matheson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was a great book. I found myself wishing i could still be reading it after i had finished. It’s very short, but other than that i would say it’s pretty much flawless.

I’m not even sure why i liked it; it’s a bleak story. The protagonist Robert Neville is presumably the last man on Earth after a disease infects everyone and begins to turn them into vampires. Yes, vampires, although they’re more like what we know as zombies. It isn’t a fantasy book; Neville slowly unravels the mystery of the disease and discovers that vampirism isn’t something mystical, but a set of symptoms that are attributable to the disease. I enjoyed that part a lot. Neville is a champion of skeptical, scientific inquiry. His struggles with self-discipline and motivation to tackle the problem at hand made a lot of sense to me, as did his relentless desire to discover the truth.

Something about survival stories is so much fun to read. I’ve enjoyed that ever since i first read The Boxcar Children, i think. I shy away from anything that’s too brutal though, so i don’t read very many survival stories, but this one was just right for me. It’s riveting to hear about someone working diligently to take care of himself, and doing an admirable job of it. That’s the kind of work people were meant to do.

I don’t want to give the ending away, but it’s pretty amazing. Unless you’re much cleverer than i am, you don’t really understand the title of the book until the very last page. And then you get it, and it blows your mind.

And, by the way, they had no business using this title for the Will Smith movie. It doesn’t fit. They took many, many liberties with the story, but the main thing they changed was the ending. I don’t particularly care that they changed the things they did, but i just think it’s silly that they used this title for it.

So, probably you should read this book, whether you liked the movie or not. It’s a classic.

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Book Review: The Magicians

The Magicians (The Magicians, #1)The Magicians by Lev Grossman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book gets three stars solely because it started out so strong. I was telling people that i loved it and i thought i would surely end up giving it five stars for the first third or so of the story. The writing was delightfully descriptive and the story was dense but not dull, which i think is perfect, and the system of magic was really interesting and intricate and challenging and fun. The Beast was such a creepy cool thing that happened early on. And i loved all the references both direct and indirect to the other huge fantasy stories: Narnia, Harry Potter, The Once and Future King, Lord of the Rings, even Dungeons and Dragons and Star Wars. It’s a fantasy book for fantasy nerds who have read it all, and bits of it are quite funny. But large chunks of it are not amusing at all.

This is certainly a different kind of fantasy story. It was billed to me as an adult Harry Potter with sex and alcohol and such, but it’s more like… The Chronicles of Narnia meets St. Elmo’s Fire. Or the kids in Traffic or Garden State, or some other drugged-up privileged modern white kid movie that i haven’t watched because who would want to watch that crap? It’s a bunch of worthless scumbag young american adults doing magic for no real reason and getting endlessly intoxicated. These are supposed to be the smartest of the smartest kids, and they just do a series of increasingly idiot things because they’re bored and have been given large sums of money that they’ll never have to actually earn. And the smartest of the smartest of the smartest, supposedly, is Quentin, the main character of the story, who is also the uncontested king of the douchebags.

(Warning: it gets mildly spoiler-y here.) I never felt any sympathy for Quentin, and by the middle of the book i flat-out hated him. He’s a worthless, cowardly, self-centered, powerless, utterly disappointing failure. He’s no magician; he never becomes the hero of the story. And the worst part is that he never really redeems himself for the dumb things he does along the way. He just moves beyond his starry-eyed self-pity into a defeated numbness. I’m not convinced that he ever even truly took responsibility for his own actions, or that he intends to atone for them in book two. At the very least, he could’ve had some existential epiphany and become a much better person. But, nope.

I think the point of this book is to be a philosophical exercise rather than a good story. Grossman could have written a good story, but that would’ve been too easy. He had to write something strange and uncomfortable instead. I was kind of baffled by the parts of it that actually resembled a plot, especially the main conflict at the end. I don’t understand why that had to happen at all. The whole message of the book seems to be this: chasing happiness is pointless because no matter where you go, you’ll never catch it—but anything is better than working a nine-to-five and leading a normal life. I expected that last bit to be proved wrong at some point, but it definitely wasn’t (so, fuck you, Grossman). But the most telling part of the book, to me, is what isn’t in it: none of the characters find happiness. They’re so sure they know where not to find it, but they don’t really have a clue how to attain it, even at the end.

There’s a lot here to ponder, so i think this book was worth reading. But, damn. I don’t think i’ll be reading the rest of the series, because i just can’t stand these characters.

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Book Review: The Catcher in the Rye

The Catcher in the RyeThe Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If i could, i think i’d give this 3.5 stars. I certainly didn’t hate it, but i don’t feel like i quite grasp what people love so much about it.

I probably waited too long to read it. I could see my younger self really loving Holden and the conversations he tries so hard to have with people. My younger self who didn’t even have an intimate knowledge of the life he feared so much just yet. I feel for the guy; i understand his frustration with all the phony people, and i was amused by all of his swearing and blundering. I get it. I think i’m still trying to finish growing up and learning to understand and forgive people for being so fake and figure out what’s really real, myself.

I do think there’s a lot of meaning within the story, but it would’ve been more impactful for me if it was also a really good story. It helped to picture Holden as young Jason Schwartzman and think of the whole thing as a quirky indie movie. But even then, it could’ve used a little more quirk and fun. A little more Wes Anderson. Maybe this is the precursor to that kind of film. Maybe the big deal about Salinger is that he was one of the first people be able to show this sparkling beauty in super-ordinary people & situations.

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Book Review: The Fault In Our Stars

The Fault in Our StarsThe Fault in Our Stars by John Green
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Um. Like, whatever, or something. [Insert half-relevant literary quote here.]

Let me preface this by saying that i cry at everything. Every movie makes me cry, from Disney movies to romcoms, and everything in between. I don’t even watch dramas anymore, because i just can’t handle it. The feels. It gets me right there, and i never recover.

I cry pretty often when i read books, too. And i often avoid books that sound like they’re going to make me cry. Which is why i hadn’t read this one until now, when one of my fellow book club members has chosen it as her pick. I readied myself for it; i saved my last serving of Ben & Jerry’s and strategically waited to finish it until my husband would be out of town and i could just spend the evening alone, feeling sad.

But… i didn’t even cry. I think there was one moment early on when i almost did, and toward the end my eyes got a little moist, but no actual tears were shed.

Nor did i laugh, mind you. I mainly did a lot of eye-rolling. I know one of the points of the book was that most people are just ordinary people even if they die young, and glorifying someone who dies doesn’t do all the other schmucks a lot of justice. And so the characters in the book were meant to just be ordinary, flawed people. But i get irritated when “flawed” characters are nothing but annoying. Hazel is an unappreciative, cynical brat, and Gus is smarmy, arrogant liar. And they have these conversations throughout the book that are half uber-teenager, half Gilmore Girls. Zero real people talk like that. I don’t buy it.

And the insufferable author VanHouten that they interact with, he just felt to me like an altogether odd character to have in this book. He’s there so that there’s a story, but it’s a weak one. It’s a short book, and the little adventure they go on is weird, and the twists that happen near the middle are predictable and don’t hit with much impact. And the end isn’t wrapped up very neatly—or maybe it’s too neat. It should’ve gone farther in one direction or the other.

Kids dying of cancer is of course sad, and the philosophizing they do is mildly interesting, but this just wasn’t the great impactful life-affirming story that i was expecting after all the heaps of praise it’s gotten. At the very least, though, it’s a semi-relatable look at life and mortality from the point of view of nonreligious people. So i do appreciate it for that.

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