14 October 2009

Life of Pi

I used to think that being stranded alone on a lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean would be the worst possible situation to be stranded in. After reading Yann Martel’s fascinating, surreal novel Life of Pi, I stand corrected. Being stranded on a lifeboat with a 450 lb. Bengal tiger in the middle of the Pacific Ocean is definitely the worst possible situation to be stranded in. And this is exactly what happens to Martel’s sixteen year old protagonist Pi Patel.

I love survival stories, but many of the more recent ones I’ve read have been so clich├ęd. (If I read another story about a band of egotistical teens that get stranded and learn the values of teamwork, I will scream.) Not so with Life of Pi. This is one of the most original books I’ve read in a long time. The plot is pretty outlandish (and at times a touch fantastical) but Martel always keeps it believable and interesting. (I didn’t want to put this book down!) I was really impressed with the skill Martel crafted his plot structure. He breaks the story down into three very different parts and alternates between settings and narrators. Many books I’ve read like this suffer from uneven pacing. (Yes, books suffer from this medical condition. Sadly, there is no cure.) I didn’t have this problem with this novel at all. The first section is a bittersweet, coming-of-age tale that only hints at what is to come. The second part is the meat of the story – Pi’s harrowing, psychological battle of wills with Richard Parker (the aforementioned Bengal tiger) which is intense, weirdly funny, and quite frightening. The third section is a short, sarcastic interview with Pi that calls into question the entire story of his ordeal on the Pacific. Martel weaves back and forth between these disparate elements of the story effortlessly, and each part more than stands on its own. Furthermore, this is one of the best written books I’ve read in a while. Martel infuses his scenes with so much humor, insight, and emotion. His descriptive scenes are wonderfully evocative and his narration often delves into philosophical territory about faith, fear, and survival, without ever being ponderous or cumbersome. This book is an emotional rollercoaster that has you laughing one minute and cringing in terror the next. (I don’t consider myself unduly squeamish, but there is one scene in here involving a hyena and a zebra that literally made me sick to my stomach. It takes an exceptional writer to produce that kind of an emotional response in a reader!)

As impressive as this book is, I think that Pi Patel stands out as Martel’s greatest achievement in this novel. Pi is intelligent, courageous, and sensitive – he always has your sympathy. I must admit: When I first read the plot description on the back cover, which explained that Pi was a practicing Hindu, Muslim, and Christian, I was a bit skeptical. I love to study religions myself, but I thought that sounded gimmicky. After reading the book, however, I realized that Pi’s novel religious beliefs fit him perfectly. One of the scenes that I ended up sympathizing with him the most was actually the one in which his parents and religious mentors desperately try to convince him that his unorthodox beliefs are impossible to reconcile. Many critics compared Pi to the protagonist of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. Pi reminded me more of Elie Wiesel in Night. I know that’s a strange comparison – Pi is an Indian castaway from the 1970s and Wiesel is a Romanian Jewish Holocaust survivor (and of course, Pi and Wiesel’s religious responses are polar opposites). But Pi’s maturity, wit, and wisdom (not to mention his distinctive, polished, conversational narration) reminded me a lot of Wiesel in Night.

Life of Pi is definitely one of the best contemporary novels I’ve read. Masterfully written, deeply thought provoking, and absolutely captivating, this book has become a modern day classic for a reason. You won’t soon forget Life of Pi.

P.S. Tis the season for Halloween this month, as I am sure that all of you know. I don't celebrate Halloween, but I enjoy being scared senseless and I was going to try to find something suitably spooky for you guys to read. However, I was perusing the Internet yesterday and found a great Halloween reading list on Shmoop that saved me the trouble. (What, you've never heard of Shmoop? *gasp* This is something I shall remedy! Shmoop is a website that features literature and history study guides. Their study guides are amazing [and hilarious.] Shmoop is a fairly new website, but they're adding new features constantly. I highly recommend them.) Shmoop's list features a wonderful assortment of classic horror novels (and poems!) which I either already love (Dracula, Frankenstein, anything by Poe), have been meaning to read and now really want to read (The Picture of Dorian Grey and The Turning of the Screw) or have never heard of and must read pronto (Browning's "Porphyria's Lover." You'll see why when you read the description.) So check out this great recommendation list and be afraid. Be very afraid.


Next Week: So far, I’ve been able to spare you guys one of my multiple choice teasers. Well, not this week. I have no idea what I am reviewing next week. I do know it will be either something by James M. Cain or John Le Carre or Lynne Truss's With One More Lousy Free Packet of Seed. I apologize for being so vague, but there is method to my madness. I anticipate that I am going to be attacked with a cruel and unusual amount of homework in the coming weeks, so I am trying to read some shorter novels (and review some of the books I’m reading in World Lit.), so that I can have things to post on and indulge in longer books (Discworld!) during my period of torture, I mean, studies. That’s the plan anyway. We’ll see how my strategy works out.


  1. Oh I really loved this book too. It was great, and yes yes yes to everything you said.
    Can't wait till your next review. Hang in there!


  2. Thanks, Scott! I am trying my best! :)

  3. I was thinking about reading this book, but was intimidated by all the previous survival books I've read where you are attacked with page after page of either mental ramblings or someone shivering in the snow. All with vivid descriptions of course. But after reading this I now concede that 'Life of Pi' is now on my reading list, Thanks for the review and I hope your homework isn't as brutal as expected : )

  4. Rebecca, You're welcome! Life of Pi is very intense at times, but it really does rise above the typical survival story's wallowing in suffering. Hope you enjoy it. Let me know what you think of it. :)

    Thanks! I hope it's not too brutal either!

  5. Zella, this was a fascinating review; I think that I will read the book! Stories like "Hatchet" are outdated and monotonous. (The "secret"?)
    And responding to your comment on my blog, why don't you review "Anthem" by Ayn Rand; it's a very short novel, (some 100 pages or so) poignant, and interesting? Yes, I am an enormous Ayn Rand and am now reading "Atlas Shrugged."(Hence the references!)
    And good luck w/ all of your homework; the trick is to manage your time wisely, and I think you will do just fine.

  6. Math Is A Plentiful Harvest, thank you for recommending Anthem to me (and the kind homework encouragement!). I was sort of pouting thinking I would have to wait a few months to get into The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged and We The Living. I will definitely check Anthem out. Thanks!

    And I think you'll like Life of Pi. It's very original.

  7. I loved Life of Pi! I agree with everything you said about the book.
    I love your blogs!

  8. Sana, thank you so much! And thanks for following! :)


  9. Hey! Im synchrogirl117 from sparknotes and I finaly recovered from my crippling laziness and made an account. (I thought I'd branch out and get a new username) Anyways nice blog! I'm reading Turning of the screw in Hon. English soon. And Porphyrias Lover is just so dang creepy!

    -laura k

  10. Laura, thanks for following me! I really appreciate the support!

    I was actually going to send a message to you through SparkNotes to tell you that I held The Hunger Games (There is quite the lengthy wait list for it at our library!), so hopefully I should be able to blog on it soon. :)

    I cannot wait to read "Porphyrias' Lover". It just sounds right up my alley!