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Book collection update

tbr-final-dareMy performance with challenges has proved less than stellar over the years but I’m doing much better with the TBR Triple Dog Dare sponsored by James at James Reads Books. The Dare asks participants to read only books that they already have during January, February and March. With only a couple of more weeks to go I’m feeling rather elated about how well I stuck to this plan. The magic key to why this one works and all other TBR challenges I’ve tried have not, is that I can still buy as many books as I want. I just can’t read them yet.

Of the 12 books I’ve read so far this year only two were not already on my TBR. That isn’t bad going for one who usually has the staying power of a mayfly. And there were good reasons for both misdemeanours.

The first slip from the straight and narrow path came in the form of A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale which was the book club read at the start of the year.  I wish I could say that my stray from the path was worth it but this was a lacklustre read. You can see why in my review.

Happily my most recent lapse was all in a good cause. I requested My Name is Lucy Barton  by Elizabeth Strout from the library last year. Finally it came through last week and I’m the first borrower. Ideally I would have liked to hold onto it until the end of the dare on March 31 but there are now so many people waiting for it that the library service is blocking any renewal options. So I had to read it. But it was absolutely no hardship. The book is a joy to read and of you havent got to it yet, dont hang around too long.

But it’s read and returned and I am back on track with the dare, reading Brooklyn by Colm Toibin as part of Reading Ireland Month. Another beautifully constructed novel which, after a similarly rewarding experience with Nora Webster, is making me want to read more of Toibin’s work. Anyone care to make a recommendation on which of his books to read next?

Emboldened by my success to date I might stretch it for another month.

Not all at sea with Iris Murdoch

TheSeaTheSeaMy experience with Iris Murdoch’s work has not been a happy one. Maybe I just chose the wrong titles but I found her a bit impenetrable. Hence why I have procrastinated for more than three years about reading her Booker winning title The Sea The Sea. I knew I would have to tackle it at some point as part of my Booker project. But every time I picked up this fairly big book (538 pages of very closely typed text) I found an excuse not to get further than page 5.

The reactions of Andy Miller in A Year of Reading Dangerously compounded my feeling this would be a slog and one maybe I should delay getting to for as long as possible.  In essence he said it was a long book with a distasteful protagonist, in which nothing much happened but there were many descriptions about meals (inedible concotions often) and the sea. None of which exactly had me racing to the shelf.

But me and Murdoch have finally squared up to each other.

And you know what? It’s nowhere near as bad as I was expecting.

What’s more – I am actually enjoying it.

Yes it does, in Charles Arrowby, have a narrator I would dread finding sat next to me on a long train journey. But Murdoch makes him deliciously awful, a wonderful satire on a totally self-satisfied, pompous and deluded man. Arrowby has left his glittering career as a theatre director to live in seclusion in a creaky, run-down house by the sea. He spends his days swimming, watching out for sea monsters and making rather disgusting meals. In between he deals with past lovers and  encounters his first love, Mary Hartley Fitch. He decides she must still be in love with him. Her  marriage must be an unhappy one. It must be his duty to rescue her.

As you’d expect from the title, the sea plays a major role in the book. It’s always beautifully described. As are some of the ridiculously comic scenes when Arrowby’s past loves descend on the house.

Iris, I fear I have wronged you.

Long road to the end of 2015

sundaysalonEvery time I enter the under-the-roof cupboard where I keep my TBR stash, there is one pile of books that looks at me rather accusingly. This is the pile of those I pulled the front intending to read before end of this year. They’re  mixture of  titles remaining from my TBR Challenge and books I received last Christmas that I feel guilty I still have not read.

From the TBR Challenge I have:

The Sea,The Sea by Iris Murdoch
Dr Thorne by Anthony Trollope
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
Abyssinian Chronicles by Moses Isegawa
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

And on the Christmas gift pile I have:
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink

I do want to read all of these. But most of them are big fat books. Nothing like the length of Vickram Seth’s A Suitable Boy which according to this infographic comes in at 593,000 words or Bleak House at 360,000 words. But they’re still rather sizeable. The Sea, The Sea is 560 pages  and Abyssinian Chronicles 512 pages (though the type is very small and dense). And that’s causing me to procrastinate and vacillate and end up choosing shorter works.

I don’t normally have any issues with novels over 500 pages long, sometimes they are my favourite reads because I can get fully absorbed the characters in a way that isn’t always possible with short novels. But right now I don’t feel I have the energy for the effort I suspect it will take.

I could of course just take the plunge and decide to make slow but steady progress by reading just one chapter a day. Or give myself a good talking to for being such a wimp. But dear readers, you may have a better strategy to recommend? Do tell me if you have any issues with longish reads and how you overcome them.


Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Life of PiYann Martel would be a good person to have on your side if you ever have to play one of those true/false party games. On the strength of his 2002 Booker prize winning novel Life of Pi, he would be able to spin a tale that would keep people guessing and keep a convincingly straight face in the telling.

All I knew about Yann Martel’s third novel Life of Pi before I opened it was that it involved a shipwreck and animals (an element in novels that usually has me shuddering) and relied upon magical realism (a style that doesn’t light my fire). To say therefore that I wasn’t exactly thrilled at the prospect of reading it, would be an understatement. But it was on my list of Booker novels yet to be experienced and I was about to take a trip on a boat so bizarrely thought the book’s setting made it an appropriate reading companion.

What a delightful surprise to find it was a huge shaggy dog story; one that borders on implausibility but never completely tips over the edge and leaves you with a big question mark at the end.

The novel tells the story of Pi Patel, a 16-year-old Indian boy who is shipwrecked in the Pacific. The sole human survivor, he has to share his lifeboat with a hyena, a zebra, an orang-utan and a seasick Bengal tiger. It seems impossible that he can survive but Pi is a resourceful and determined boy: “I will turn miracle into routine. The amazing will be seen every day.”

Martel cleverly makes this a plausible scenario by establishing Pi’s character well before we get to the shipwreck. For the first hundred pages of the book we’re introduced to Pi and his zookeeping family, the origin of his odd name (he was initially named Piscine to reflect his grandfather’s love of  swimming pools but shortened it to the mathematical symbol Pi to stop school mates calling him  “pissing” ); and his early conversion to three faiths. We learn a lot about animal behaviour, the hierarchy between different species and the predator-prey relationships which will become part of Pi’s survival tactics while at sea.  He has to recreate within the confines of the boat, the atmosphere and rituals of the zoo,  convincing the tiger that he is the master by marking out his territory with urine and fierce stares and alternating punishments with treats.  The relationship begins as one of  control and the exertion of authority but shifts to one of interdependency and ultimately to love and respect as Pi comes to view the tiger not as an enemy but as a companion that he cherishes and whose continued presence is necessary to his survival.

Martel’s novel can be read purely as an adventure story, one that is well seasoned with the typical elements of storms and emergencies, of the ship that doesn’t spot the boat, of the ingenuity required to find food, collect and purify water and to shelter from the fierce sun or torrential rain.

However, there is much more to the novel than pure adventure. Ultimately this is a story about identity and faith. During Pi’s 227 days at sea he undergoes a radical change in his nature, abandoning his vegetarian habits in favour of eating raw fish and turtle, gaining confidence enough to tame the tiger and adopting some of the behaviours of an animal.  The previously devout disciple of three religions grapples with his faith in God before concluding that it is his faith not his reason that enables him to survive.

I was alone and orphaned in the middle of the Pacific hanging onto an oar, an adult tiger in front of me, sharks beneath me, a storm raging about me. Had I considered my prospects in the light of reason, I surely would have given up and let go of the oar, hoping that I might drown before being eaten.

Pi’s refusal to consider his predicament “in the light of reason” enables his faith to flourish, and ultimately to  help him overcome his fear.

The novel also explores a very different meaning of faith by testing our ability as readers to believe what seems unbelievable, to suspend our disbelief.  It would be astonishing enough that a young boy could survive 227 at sea alone, that he does so in the confined space of a lifeboat occupied by a tiger and then is beached at floating island of carnivorous algae stretches at the borders of credulity. Martel plays on this at the very end of the novel where Pi, having been rescued, is interviewed by investigators who want to determine what caused the ship to sink. They refuse to believe his story, so Pi offers them an alternative version “…that won’t surprise you. That will confirm what you already know. That won’t make you see higher or further or differently. ” And having done so, offers them a choice of which is the better story, pointing out that neither can be proven. Their choice is thus not based on reason, but on belief.

It was this ending that sealed my view that Life of Pi is an extraordinary novel. Concluding a novel in a way that leaves readers to make their own decision between reason and faith was audacious. I instantly forgave Martel for all the times he had strayed into details about how to drink the blood of turtles or to catch flying fish. And I immediately turned to page 1 and read the opening all over again.


End notes

Life of Pi was the dark horse choice for the 2002 Man Booker award given the competition included Carol Shields, Tim Winton and Rohinton Mistry. Not everyone was as fulsome in praising it as the Booker judges. The Daily Telegraph praised it as being ” full of clever tricks, amusing asides and grand originality” but felt overall that “it never really comes alive in the emotional sense”. Critics in the USA were more positive however. Publishers Weekly said it was  “a fabulous romp through an imagination by turns ecstatic, cunning, despairing and resilient.” The New York Times concluded it “could renew your faith in the ability of novelists to invest even the most outrageous scenario with plausible life.”

Something I learned while doing some research on Martel is that between 2007 and 2011 he sent the Canadian prime minister a book with an accompanying explanatory note. In total he sent 100 notes. All the selections and correspondence were turned into a book What is Stephen Harper Reading? 

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