Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Books of the Week: Life of Pi, The Art of Racing in the Rain, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

In the last two weeks I managed to read three entirely different books that all involved animals in some crucial way. Totally not planned, but there it is.

Interestingly, each week that I review my two books, they seem eerily alike in some fashion, although completely different in story, plot, style, character, theme, or even genre. I theorize that you can take any two random books and find something alike in them!

So onto this week...

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Summary: The peripatetic Pi (ne the much-taunted Piscine) Patel spends a beguiling boyhood in Pondicherry, India, as the son of a zookeeper. Growing up beside the wild beasts, Pi gathers an encyclopedic knowledge of the animal world. His curious mind also makes the leap from his native Hinduism to Christianity and Islam, all three of which he practices with joyous abandon. In his 16th year, Pi sets sail with his family and some of their menagerie to start a new life in Canada. Halfway to Midway Island, the ship sinks into the Pacific, leaving Pi stranded on a life raft with a hyena, an orangutan, an injured zebra and a 450-pound Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. After the beast dispatches the others, Pi is left to survive for 227 days with his large feline companion on the 26-foot-long raft, using all his knowledge, wits and faith to keep himself alive. (From Publishers Weekly)

My Impression: I added this to my reading list because it was on several college lists as modern classic literature. I found it in the classic section of my local bookstore. So I was surprised to find out it was published in 2002.

This book is broken into three parts. The first part is a meandering musing from the point of view of the main character on animals and religion. It' s by no means fast paced, and there were times I wondered what the point of it was, and yet I loved the use of language. It was the first book in a long time that I wanted to read with a highlighter in the my hand. I think I muttered the word "profound" more than once, and tortured my husband reading "just one more" passage.

The second part is the longest, and the majority of the book. It's about his trip across the ocean in a lifeboat with the tiger names Richard Parker. Although you know from the start that Pi makes it alive, it is still fraught with tension and suspense. There are certainly some strange parts in the story: he goes blind temporarily and, while floating adrift in the ocean (the ocean!!) he happens to bump his liferaft into another temporarily blind man also adrift from some other sunken boat. Also, there is the much-talked about island that seemed at first to be idyllic, and then turns out to be full of carnivorous trees. Creative for sure.

The third part is after he has made land and explains his story to the officials who come to find out how the ship he was on sank. I won't go into this part other than to say that in the span of a few pages, you realize that perhaps everything you just read was not entirely the way it was. It was a gut-punch moment, frankly, that made the book for me.

That all said, I found myself most of the time wishing I was reading one of my other real-life on-the-sea survival books that I love so much. In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbreck for one. Or Albatross by Deborah Scaling Kiley. I suppose I have long loved the real survival stories, and so this one, while well written, left me a little empty just for the loss of knowing it wasn't true.

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

Summary: Enzo is a lab terrier mix plucked from a farm outside Seattle to ride shotgun with race car driver Denny Swift as he pursues success on the track and off. Denny meets and marries Eve, has a daughter, Zoƫ, and risks his savings and his life to make it on the professional racing circuit. Enzo, frustrated by his inability to speak and his lack of opposable thumbs, watches Denny's old racing videos, coins koanlike aphorisms that apply to both driving and life, and hopes for the day when his life as a dog will be over and he can be reborn a man. (From Publishers Weekly)

My Impression: I was hooked from the first line, dragged through the book with the inability to put it aside, all the while weeping embarrassingly on the crowded metro and laughing out loud in my empty house.

Enzo the dog is entirely lovable, and his personality and voice are the clear stand-outs in this book. But the book is really not about Enzo, as much as everyone else would like to declare it is. Enzo is the unique narrator who is, nonetheless, telling a story that is as much about someone else as is it him. Because he's a dog, he really has no pull or push on the plot. He's an observer, and as such, the story itself is really about his family, specifically his owner Denny. And what a story that is.

I don't want to spoil too much. I didn't know very much about this book when I began it, and I think that was a plus. Each page is filled with conflict, something else going horribly wrong in Denny's life, and there were characters I wanted to hate with a passion, and others I wanted to take into my arms. It was an emotional book. A fast read, and one that, at the end, makes you feel good... and want to go rub the belly of a puppy.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

Summary: Late one night, Christopher comes across his neighbor's poodle, Wellington, impaled on a garden fork. Wellington's owner finds him cradling her dead dog in his arms, and has him arrested. After spending a night in jail, Christopher resolves--against the objection of his father and neighbors--to discover just who has murdered Wellington. He is encouraged by Siobhan, a social worker at his school, to write a book about his investigations, and the result--quirkily illustrated, with each chapter given its own prime number--is The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. (Summary written by Jack Illingworth)

My Impressions: I seem to have gotten into a string of books with unique narrators. Like Room, which is a five-year-old boy and The Art of Racing In the Rain, told by a dog, this narrator gives the book an entirely different voice than if it were told by a common third person. The narrator of the book is a 15-year-old autistic boy who doesn't eat brown or yellow foods, does complicated math in his head to calm the terrors he feels, flies off the handle when others touch him, and would not for the life of him understand the phrase "flies off the handle" as anything other than exactly what the words mean - that someone is literally flying off the handle of something.

This book was fast and easy to read, full of illustrations and examples done by Christopher, and with a simple but heart-breaking plot. This dead dog that Christopher finds begins not just a detective job but ends up unraveling his whole life. Secrets about his family are exposed, and Christopher, sure he is not safe, takes off on his own in a journey that is even less safe give his inability to deal with his surroundings.

The book itself is very good. I'd definitely recommend it. That said, the choice of an autistic narrator has its quirks. For one, because autistic people often have a hard time connecting with others, I had a hard time connecting with this narrator. I wanted to love him, feel protective of him, and yet I felt always held at arm's length from him. I think this is truly a triumph of the author, but I wonder if the cost is worth it.

What about you? Read any great books lately?


  1. I read the curious incident a couple years ago. I can't help but think about the difficulty involved in writing this book. I also wonder if that arm's length feeling is totally intentional. I felt the same way about the narrator as you did.

    Can't believe I haven't read Life of Pi yet. The author is Canadian and that book has been Huge here.

    Can you imagine what those query letters looked like!?

    I'm reading Lamb by Christopher Moore right now. It's kind of brilliant.

  2. I was recommended to read Life of Pi shortly after its release, but just didn't feel compelled to. And still don't, now. :) Most recently I read "A Mother's Hope" by Francine Rivers for our book club. Great story, and Rivers has a big following. I do find there is not enough 'meat' for me in her writing although I will still read her. I like a bit of high brow, literary stuff, or at least a metaphor, similie, or symbolism somewhere in the crafting of a story. I also completed One Day. I did like it, and it was crafted very well.

  3. Heidi - I'm sure the arm's length was probably very intentional. I really want to connect some way with the narrator or characters in a story. Even if passionately angry at them. But this felt totally devoid of emotion, and so I felt that way too. I'm not sure that's a very good by-product of the craft!

    Lamb looks interesting, but a book I'd probably not enjoy. Let me know what you think when you finish it!

  4. Lynn - I didn't feel enriched after reading it. It was good. The end was definitely thought provoking. But I really felt kind of eh about it all.

    I've only read one Francine Rivers book, and I loved it... but I haven't gone out to find any others, so I'm not sure what that says.

  5. I've heard of all these books, but have never been much of a pet person so I wasn't too interested. The last one sounds interesting, though.

  6. I've read the first and last and enjoyed them both, but haven't read The Art of Racing in the Rain. It sounds wonderful. I'm going to have to put it on my TBR list.

  7. Wow, Heidi. Do you sleep? Or has that part of your day been taken up by reading?
    I mean, I read a lot, but WOW.

    The most recent book, that I loved, was Harmonic Feedback. Written from a 16 year old with Aspergers. But there's a lot going on. More for story than writing but a great story.

  8. Life of Pi was unforgettable, and you are sooo right, definitely a gut-punch reveal!

  9. I LOVED Curious Incident and recommend it frequently. I started Life of Pi and I was so bored I couldn't get past the first third of the book. Do I have to love dogs to like Racing in the Rain? Sorry I haven't commented in so long...I've been neglecting my reading!