Summer Reading – What I Learned from Yann Martel

Life of Pi - Simply Laughable, Andrea Offermann
Simply Laughable by Andrea Offermann via Nucleus Gallery

 The stars were eager to participate; hardly had the blanket of colour been pulled a little than they started to shine through the deep blue. The wind blew with a faint, warm breeze and the sea moved about kindly, the water peaking and troughing like people dancing in a circle who come together and raise their hands and move apart and come together again, over and over.

The Life of Pi, pg 220

  Did you just read that word picture? Did you? Cause I read it. And then I read it out loud to my friend Brian. And I was still enamored by it. The rest of that chapter was so beautiful. There’s a lyrical quality, an intelligent lyrical quality to the novel. Martel is verbose, he uses diction that is above average, but is not incongruous with his narrator.

Middle aged Pi recounts the story to the fictional Martel. With italicized breaks the fictional author provides glimpses of the settled, relaxed Pi. It’s a tricky style choice. Some might say that the breaks draw you out of the narrative. But they are subtle, and decrease as the novel develops (or to put it another way – as the reader gets used to Pi’s voice and style).

Here’s the thing, I’m early days in developing the habit of reading Introductions and Author’s Notes, but man(!) are they illuminating. Basically, it’s the key to understanding The Life of Pi. It also establishes that the italicized voice is to be trusted and makes it less obnoxious when it interrupts Pi’s story.

The novel also dealt with some interesting elements – nautical, survival, zoological. The research necessary for all three was convincing for me. And now we’re back to the fancy language. You see, though there were very intellectual, philosophical, religious, and academic notions the novel doesn’t come across as too dense. It’s a fine line to walk Mr. Martel. I’m proud.

And now we can talk about that twist. See, I suspended belief enough to take the story just as it was. The twist totally caught me off guard. I don’t want to explicitly give it away here because I feel bad spoiling entertainment for people. But whew. I mean it’s not the first time animals have been used as metaphors for people and it’s definitely not the first story with “layers” that I’ve read. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised considering how many religious texts and miraculous stories he references. And yet, I found myself bamboozled by the “story” Pi saved for the very end.

Did you see what I did there? I used the word “bamboozled”. It’s a fun word, you should employ it.

Another interesting style choice was telling Pi’s story in exactly 100 chapters. The chapters had no real standard length. Sometimes they spanned pages, other times a chapter was only a few lines. Again, it can be a frustrating stylistic choice. In places it gave the narrative a choppy, disconnected feel.

The thing earlier, about the word-pictures, it happens in patches in the novel. There are other places that evoke the language and thought processes of a castaway stranded at sea. The varying lengths of the chapters helped break up these narrative shifts in a palatable manner.

I haven’t quite hit the place in my career that Martel mentioned in his Author’s Note. I don’t have a successful novel under my belt, but inspiration does sometimes wander away from me. Could I tell the story of a life in 100 chapters? Fill it with the same elements of suffering and trial? And then flip the whole story on it’s ear? Maybe… The only way to answer is to start practicing I guess.

You may or may not have noticed that the order has sort of switched around this week. That’s because there’s a special Harry Potter themed poem going live tomorrow and I felt it was more fitting for the 14th. Hope you like it.


Summer Reading – The Help, pt. 2

So, this book has been collecting a lot of rave attention. And like I said Monday I couldn’t believe how much I loved reading it and what I felt I learned from Kathryn’s writing style.

Here are the things that I loved:

-The heat of Mississippi, at points you feel like you’re sweating along with Skeeter, Minny, and Aibileen. The scene where Skeeter shorts out the electricity at her house after turning the AC up to 3 is wonderful in its heartbreaking revery.

-The “Mean Girls” quality – I always love that moment when a character realizes there’s more to their existence than how they’ve previously gone about things. Skeeter wakes up slowly, but once she’s there her life is very different.

-The diction, guys, is incredible. Let’s just pause for a minute and talk about how KS was able to write three separate women. Actually, I’d be very curious to hear from people if they found it as easy to determine who was speaking as I did. Especially in comparison to that book by Keith Gessen. I don’t know if it’s because I share the same gender as these narrators or what but I could follow them so much better. Well, ok there were a couple hints – sections started with their names and you’d stay with that narrator for a few chapters, and the diction thing helped a lot, and their settings were all very different. In comparison, Keith, Sam, and Mark are pretty much all three the same dude, going through the same stuff, and their struggles are not heroic, more symptomatic. Skeeter, Minny, and Aibileen are fighting in THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT ya’ll. They all three face bodily harm if they are found out before the project is completed and once it was the probability of their being attacked, injured, or killed increased. I mean that’s significant. This novel is about more than just finding one’s place in the world (though all three of the women make those discoveries) it’s about the truth and worth of human life, sacrifices for the greater good, making changes when it seems impossible.

The Author’s Note at the end illuminated much about the inception of the novel. She quotes a line from an article written by Howell Raines. I just read “Grady’s Gift“. That man can weave some words and make you feel. Kathryn did, in my opinion a great job of inserting me in the midst of that story she needed to tell. There could have been more, sure, there always can be, but that’s the beauty of writing – some things you leave to your reader’s imagination. I felt immersed in the world of 1960s Jackson. She used real historical markers (though a few were anachronistic) that reminded me this was reality for people.

My parents were children in the midst of all this, children raised in the south, children raised in the middle of racial struggles. At this point I feel like I’m just repeating myself, but I so greatly admire the fact that Kathryn Stockett made the place and people so real. I’d like to tell a story so well it becomes real. I think Mrs. Stockett did that. She wrote a book because she felt compelled to answer a question, she found a true answer. I’m a fan. Go read it. Pay money for it. It’s worth it.

And now we’ll just wait til the movie comes out 🙂