Monday, 29 June 2009

Y is for Yann Martel

I can't believe I'm on Y already. This year has disappeared - nearly half way through 2009...

Anyway, my Y book is Yann Martel's "The Life of Pi". I've read this once before, about six years ago.
For those of you who haven't read it, it's the story of a boy called Pi (Piscine Molitor Patel) who finds himself stuck in a boat with a 450 pound Royal Bengal tiger. The obvious irony is that he's called 'Swimming pool' in French and a large part of the story's spent in the water, but actually that didn't irritate me at all.
I don't want to tell you a lot of the plot, as I hate reviews that give away too much. However, I will say a couple of things.
Firstly, a lot more of the book is on land than I remembered. In fact, the whole first part is in India, where the reader gets to know Pi and his family life, as well as his love of God in his many forms.
Secondly, you know what happens to Pi from the beginning of the book, as his adult self narates the story. This takes the tension out, but it's intriguing to know how he conquers the tiger, and stays alive on the ocean for so long.
I found the character arc to be brilliantly written. Pi is forced by circumstance to inhabit a brutal role, one where he kills whatever he can to keep him and the tiger alive.
The imagery in these sections is breathtaking. When Pi kills a big fish, he describes how the colours of it's skin change rapidly, through all of the camouflage it knows. Pi likens this to 'killing a rainbow', an incongruent metaphor that drives home the brutality of his actions while maintaining the 'Pi' character.
Apart from Pi, the rest of the 'cast' are colourfully rendered and well rounded - surprising in a story which is about a boy and a tiger, trapped in a boat.
Pi is deeply religious, and follows Hinduism, Islam and Catholicism to the point where he is the subject of an argument between three holy men. This underlying faith runs through the whole book, allowing the reader to question and believe to a point where they ultimately make the same leap of faith as Pi does.
It was my birthday last week, when I read Life of Pi. I looked up Yann Martel in good ol' Wikipedia, only to find that his birthday is the same day as mine! Just as in the book, life contains strange coincidences that you can either put down to life, or make that leap of faith which elevates them to miraculous.
Next week, I'm reading White Teeth by Zadie Smith. I've tried reading it before, and it's pretty hefty, so wish me luck!
Have a great week, lovely readers.

Monday, 22 June 2009

X is for Xiaolu Guo

My X is for Xiaolu Guo. 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth is the second book I've read by this young Chinese author, and the second one where I've read it as if written by a man. It's strange how it affects how you read books when you don't know who's written it (ah, Barthes will be having a field day) in the same way as you watch films differently when you don't know anything about the actors/actresses in it. I for one, am wholeheartedly with Daniel 'James Bond' Craig, when he says that he prefers his private life to be kept private.

When I read Shopgirl, I said it was difficult for me to divorce what I knew of Steve Martin, funnyman and Oscars host, from what he was telling me as the writer.

The other book of Xiaolu's I've read is A Concise Chinese-English dictionary for lovers, where part of the joke was that the title is obviously not concise. For both books, the main characters are female, and I was going to applaud the author for managing to express himself in a feminine voice, without reverting to standard male tactics to prove how sensitive they are. Of course, that backfired on me because I didn't check first.
Perhaps I should commend her instead on how well she writes as an emotionally detached woman - modern and sometimes shocking in her language, without being needy and dramatic. No Jimmy Choos or Louboutins in sight!

In 20 Fragments of Ravenous Youth, Fenfang moves from her village to Beijing at seventeen. She then writes in snapshots of her life as she encounters boyfriends, cockroaches and menial jobs. It's written beautifully - it's stark and startling at times. One episode sees Fenfang visit her parents, and the journey takes her three days and three nights. It's then that the magnitude of China itself, and Fenfang's decision to come to Beijing, sinks in properly. I enjoyed that you don't see every twist and turn, every lights out or first meeting for Fenfang. People come and go without fanfare - just as in real life. At the end of the novel she is ten years older - physically and mentally.

Her time in Beijing has been difficult, but somehow you feel that she is better for it - more fulfilled than she would have been if she'd stayed in the village she grew up in. Incidentally, in the book she describes this as so small it's not even on the map, but she mentions that it's home to thousands. It's the little comments that mark the location out as different, and yet Fenfang wants the 'shiny' things in life - just like the rest of us.

I would recommend this to people who enjoy Murakami - it's definitely the 'lite' version, but has the same minimalist feel to it. It's also really quick to read - this took me a couple of hours on the train to read.

W is for Wilkie Collins

Okay, okay - I haven't finished this one either (see V) but as soon as I do, I'll replace this placeholder with a proper review. Apologies, dear readers - I have been reading other things though! x

V is for Virginia Woolf

Okay, okay. You've got me. I haven't finished this yet. I'm about halfway through, and as soon as I do finish, I'll replace this with a proper review.


U is for Usrula Le Guin

My U is Ursula Le Guin, legendary fantasy and science fiction writer. I wanted to read The Dispossessed, but the library didn’t have a copy of that, so I ended up reading Buffalo Gals, and other animal presences instead.
Buffalo Gals is an anthology of short stories and poetry, centred around animals and their effect on us humans, along with our impact on them. The first story is the most intriguing, and tells the tale of a young girl who finds herself alone and injured after the plane she was in crashes. A coyote takes her under her wing, and treats her like one of her own cubs. In the course of the story, the girl sees the coyote as human and not as a wild animal. When they go to the coyote’s house, the other animals who live nearby also appear to her as humans, but with animalistic traits and characteristics. The owl, for example, is wise, while the small mammals like the rabbits have lots of children. The other stories and poems range from a tree observing the development of roads and cars to rock sonnets. I mean, actual rocks, not like : rawk sonnets. Speaking of music, thanks to my love of It's a Wonderful Life, I couldn't stop singing Buffalo Gals for the entire book. That's not a bad thing, but it is still six months from Christmas. Boo.

Ursula K Le Guin, as she is sometimes known, was born in 1929 and has written countless numbers of books, poems and papers on a variety of subjects. According to her biography on her website, she’s also been winning awards since 1968. Now nearly eighty, she has yet to see a satisfactory adaptation of her work on the small or big screen. Sometimes I think that this is the mark of a great writer. The purpose of writing is to express something that can’t be expressed (which is probably why there are so many love songs) and ultimately, cannot be translated visually or as everyone has envisioned it. Roald Dahl has ‘enjoyed’ lots of adaptations of his work, but I have yet to see something that comes even close to capturing the spirit of his books. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory comes close, but still no cigar.
Some of you may remember the Studio Ghibli film Tales of Earthsea, which is an adaptation of Le Guin’s series of Earthsea books. She reportedly agreed yo this as she had seen Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro. However, being the curmudgeon that she appears to be, the fact hat Hayao’s son, Goro, did it instead, did not hold well and she expressed “mixed feelings towards it”

I’ve never managed to read a whole Le Guin book before – I find them to be a bit dense and impenetrable. I’ve tried reading Earthsea, but it’s quite long, the text is quite small and her love of science fiction peppers the prose with unintelligible vocabulary. Like most authors, though, there’s a rhythm to her writing which is rewarding and almost soothing, once you get used to it. Once this challenge is over, I would like to begin with A Wizard of Earthsea. It’s strange and a bit unknown, but after reading Buffalo Gals I want to explore the world she’s written over the last forty years.

What about you? Is there a prolific writer that you’ve never read anything of because one thing put you off? Are you a Le Guin lover and have recommendations to ease me in gently?