I always feel a bit apprehensive when reading a book like Yann Martel’s Booker Prize-winning Life of Pi which has been read by so many people and seems to divide opinion so much. Would I love it or would I hate it? I was actually expecting to hate it, since I did try to read it a few years ago and gave up after a couple of chapters. After deciding to give the book a second chance and making it to the end this time, I was surprised to find that I had the exact opposite reaction – I loved it and was completely captivated by it from start to finish. Now I’m annoyed with myself for waiting so long before giving it another try!
Pi Patel’s father runs the Pondicherry Zoo, so Pi has grown up surrounded by animals. However, this still doesn’t prepare him for what happens when he and his family decide to emigrate to Canada, taking several of their animals with them to be traded to other zoos. When they are shipwrecked in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Pi finds himself trapped in a lifeboat with a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan – and a Bengal tiger called Richard Parker.
I remember that when I first tried to read Life of Pi I struggled to get through the opening chapters, but this time I found them much more interesting. Not much actually happens in this early section of the book, but the scene is set for the rest of the story. We learn a lot about animals and how they are treated in zoos. We also see how Pi explores various religions and the benefits of each, before deciding to be a Christian, Muslim and Hindu all at the same time. But it wasn’t until the shipwreck scene and Pi’s subsequent discovery of the tiger sharing his lifeboat that I really became absorbed in the story. The account of Pi’s battle for survival and his relationship with Richard Parker makes for fascinating and compelling reading. It’s hard to believe that a story which takes place mainly within the confined space of a small lifeboat can be so enthralling!
Which brings me to the final section of the book. At first I hated the way the book ended and I did feel cheated – I expect a lot of readers have felt the same way, which will be one reason for the love/hate divide – but then I found that I couldn’t stop thinking about it and how clever it was. I have rarely come across a book with such a thought-provoking and ambiguous ending. I’m so glad I decided to give Life of Pi a second chance, as after my first attempt at reading it I had thought it just wasn’t for me.
Have you ever been surprised by a book after giving it another chance?
One of my personal challenges for 2010 was to read more short stories. So far I haven’t been making much progress, but I made up for it this week by reading two very different short stories: The Brazilian Cat by Arthur Conan Doyle and The Drover’s Wife by Henry Lawson.
The Brazilian Cat by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
I don’t use any real method in choosing which short stories to read. At the rate I’m reading them (only six so far in 2010!) there are enough available online to keep me busy for years, so I’ve just been selecting one or two pretty much randomly. As I’ve never read any of Conan Doyle’s works other than some of the Sherlock Holmes books, I decided to try one of his stories from Tales of Terror and Mystery (published 1922).
The Brazilian Cat, one of the “tales of terror”, is a quick, easy read. Marshall King, heir to Lord Southerton, has been invited to stay at the home of his cousin Everard, who has recently returned to England from Brazil. Everard has brought a menagerie of animals and birds back to England with him, including a peccary, an armadillo, an oriole…and a Brazilian cat.
“I am about to show you the jewel of my collection,” said he. “There is only one other specimen in Europe, now that the Rotterdam cub is dead. It is a Brazilian cat.”
“But how does that differ from any other cat?”
“You will soon see that,” said he, laughing. “Will you kindly draw that shutter and look through?”
What exactly is a Brazilian cat? Why does Everard’s wife seem so desperate for Marshall to leave Greylands Court? And why is Everard receiving so many mysterious telegrams? You’ll have to read the story to find out.
As a short horror story I wouldn’t say it was terrifying, but it was suspenseful with the tension building at a steady pace throughout the story. There’s nothing very deep or profound about The Brazilian Cat, nothing complex or thought-provoking, but it’s entertaining and worth reading if you have a few minutes to spare.
The Drover’s Wife by Henry Lawson
Henry Lawson has been described as one of Australia’s greatest writers but until now I had never read any of his work.
The Drover’s Wife (1892) is the story of an unnamed woman who lives in the Australian bush with her husband and four young children. Her husband is a drover and spends very little time at home; at the time of our story he has been away for six months. When the children spot a snake slithering into the house, their mother makes a bed for them on the kitchen table and sits up all night watching over them. During the long hours of darkness she reflects on her life “for there is little else to think about”.
Although the story is very short and contains very little action, it manages to leave a lasting impression of the hardships, obstacles and overwhelming loneliness faced by a woman living an isolated life in rural 19th century Australia. The drover’s wife’s lifestyle has made it necessary for her to become independent, brave and resourceful. As she sits in the kitchen waiting for the snake to emerge, she remembers all the times in the past when her husband has been absent – on one occasion she had to fight a bush fire on her own; on another she fought a flood. She has also had to defend herself and her home from “suspicious-looking strangers” and “crows and eagles that had designs on her chickens”.
And yet the drover’s wife has grown accustomed to being on her own and is making the best of her lot in life:
“All days are much the same for her; but on Sunday afternoon she dresses herself, tidies the children, smartens up baby, and goes for a lonely walk along the bush-track, pushing an old perambulator in front of her. She does this every Sunday. She takes as much care to make herself and the children look smart as she would if she were going to do the block in the city. There is nothing to see, however, and not a soul to meet… But this bushwoman is used to the loneliness of it. As a girl-wife she hated it, but now she would feel strange away from it.”
I recommend reading this story as it’s an important piece of Australian literature. Having read some of the essays and analysis online however, it seems there’s more than one way to interpret the story. Some people consider it to be anti-feminist because it implies that all of the drover’s wife’s pain and suffering is caused by the absence of her husband. This is interesting because on my first reading I had seen it as a straightforward portrayal of a woman’s courage and bravery; yes, it would have made things easier if her husband had been around to help her, but she was doing the best she could to take care of herself and her children – husband or no husband. I can see I’ll have to give it some more thought. Have you read the story? What was your interpretation of it?
I’ll try to make more progress with this personal challenge and post my thoughts on some more short stories soon!
Pictures of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry Lawson both in the public domain
I first read Watership Down when I was about 10 years old. It immediately became my favourite book and I re-read it many times. However, it’s been a long time since my last re-read and I wondered if I would still love it as much as I used to.
I know some people may consider a book about talking rabbits to be silly and childish, but Watership Down is not really a ‘children’s book’. It’s one of those books that can be enjoyed on different levels by people of all ages. In fact, the writing style and vocabulary used in this book is of a higher standard than many ‘adult’ books. It’s also not just ‘a book about rabbits’ – it’s a book about friendship, leadership, freedom, adventure, happiness, sadness and so much more.
Hazel and his brother Fiver are two young rabbits living in the peaceful Sandleford Warren. When Fiver has a premonition that the warren is going to be destroyed, he convinces Hazel and several of their friends to embark on an epic journey to find a new home. During their search for Fiver’s ‘safe, high place’, they encounter a number of problems and dangers including humans, predators and even other rabbits. The biggest obstacle of all, however, comes with the realization that as the group consists solely of male rabbits, they urgently need to find some females – this leads to a daring attempt to rescue some does from the overcrowded enemy warren of Efrafa…
Hazel and his friends are not cute little bunnies. They are intelligent, resourceful animals capable of solving almost any problem that is thrown at them. When faced with having to cross a river, for example, they observe that a plank of wood is floating on the surface of the water and they figure out how to use it as a raft. The rabbits are given such human thoughts and emotions that you can easily forget they’re actually not human! However, from a physical and behavioural point of view, they always behave like real wild rabbits. Richard Adams used R. M. Lockley’s The Private Life of the Rabbit as his reference.
Each rabbit has their own individual personality – Hazel is the leader, Fiver the sensitive prophet, Bigwig the fighter, Blackberry the brains, Dandelion the storyteller, Bluebell the clown, and so on. This allows every reader to identify with at least one rabbit and to choose a favourite (mine was always Bigwig, who at the beginning of the book was overbearing and aggressive but learned some important lessons during the journey to Watership Down and ended as one of the most highly respected rabbits in the warren).
One of the things I love about this book is the way Richard Adams has created an entire rabbit world. This includes:
- A rabbit language, known as Lapine. Even before I began my re-read of the book, I could still remember that hrududu is the Lapine word for car, that a lendri is a badger, and Elil means enemies.
- A rabbit religion. Rabbits are taught that Frith created the world and is represented by the sun. Inle is the word for moon, and the Black Rabbit of Inle is a grim reaper-type character who appears when a rabbit is about to die. The rabbits often talk about “ni-Frith” – noon – and “fu Inle” – after moonrise.
- Rabbit folklore. The rabbits love to listen to stories about their hero, the legendary El-ahrairah, ‘the Prince with a Thousand Enemies’.
I think the author’s wonderfully detailed descriptions of the English countryside also deserve a special mention. As almost all of the places he writes about – the farms, hills, valleys and meadows – are places that really exist, it would be possible to follow the rabbits’ journey on a map or even to visit them yourself.
So, did I still enjoy this book as much as I did when I was 10? Yes, of course I did. No matter how many other books I read, Watership Down will always hold a special place in my heart. I’ll leave you with a favourite quote from the book:
“‘Animals don’t behave like men,’ he said. ‘If they have to fight, they fight; and if they have to kill they kill. But they don’t sit down and set their wits to work to devise ways of spoiling other creatures’ lives and hurting them. They have dignity and animality.’”
Genre: General Fiction/Pages: 478/Publisher: Penguin/Year: 1972/Source: My own copy
This review is part of my Great Books series.
I received a review copy of this book from LibraryThing Early Reviewers. Willy Vlautin is the lead singer and songwriter with the band Richmond Fontaine and Lean on Pete is his third novel. I’ve seen a lot of other reviewers comparing him to John Steinbeck, though I haven’t read enough of Steinbeck’s work to know whether that’s an accurate comparison.
Charley Thompson is a lonely fifteen year-old boy who lives with his irresponsible single father. The book begins with their arrival in Portland, Oregon, where Charley’s father has been offered a new job in a warehouse. Charley is desperate to get a job of his own so that he can earn enough money to put food on the table but the only work he can find is at the Portland Meadows race track with a disreputable horse trainer called Del. Portland Meadows has seen better days and is now home to hundreds of old, tired horses and second-rate jockeys who can’t get work anywhere else. It is here that Charley meets Lean On Pete, the racehorse who becomes his only friend and companion.
Willy Vlautin uses very simple prose with no flowery descriptions and no big words. As the story is told in the first person from the point of view of fifteen year-old Charley, this writing style is very effective – he uses the kind of language that Charley would realistically use. Despite his miserable home life, Charley comes across as quite a sensible, likeable person, and I really wanted to see him survive and be happy. I did get a bit bored with constantly being told exactly what he had to eat for every meal (usually cheeseburgers, if you’re interested), though I suppose for a teenage boy fending for himself with no money, it was probably quite important!
Almost all of the other characters we meet are drug addicts, alcoholics, or living in poverty, painting a portrait of a side of society we don’t often read about. Most of these people show Charley some kindness, but aren’t really in a position to be able to help him – Charley and Pete are completely alone in the world and there’s a constant atmosphere of sadness and loneliness that hangs over the entire book.
Lean on Pete was a big step away from the type of book I usually read, but I didn’t regret the couple of days it took me to read it.
Genre: General Fiction/Pages: 288/Publisher: Faber & Faber/Year: 2010/Source: Received from LibraryThing Early Reviewers