Category Archives: Authors

Reading with Fakename: Frank Sinatra In A Blender

This is the first novel by a writer named Matthew McBride, who is from Missouri (as is everyone on my father’s side of the family).
As often happens, I read his second novel first (“A Swollen Red Sun”), because Amazon pushed it on me relentlessly. But not to blame it on them…it did sound like the kind of book I’d like, and I did. That second book takes place in Gasconade County, Missouri, which was once known as the methamphetamine capital of the country.
Meth is the absolute scourge of the rural Midwest/upper South. I,in fact, recently learned that my favorite Missouri cousin from early adulthood is presently in prison on a conviction related to meth, and it isn’t the first time for him.
That book features meth cookers and dealers, crooked cops, murder, and overall desperation. McBride seems to know this world a little too well. His bio says he’s a former assembly-line worker turned writer, and that he writes about the people he knows. I wonder if he knows my cousin? I wonder if he’s in prison.
Frank Sinatra In A Blender’s main character is Nick Valentine, a private investigator in St. Louis who used to be a cop before his drinking got the best of him. Now that he’s been kicked off the force, he’s turned drinking into an art form. He always seems to order at least three kinds of liquor at a time. In a rare display of restraint toward the end of the book, he stops at a convenience store and buys a bottle of vodka, a bottle of orange juice, and a bottle of Mad Dog 20/20.
Usually it’s more like a White Russian, a shot of Maker’s Mark, and two Coronas with lime. That’s when he’s at his usual hangout, a strip club called Cowboy Roy’s Fantasyland. Nick’s creative use of alcohol is one of the ongoing gags in the book, and is part of what makes it so incredibly funny. Except, that isn’t really funny…is it? There is a lot of cognitive dissonance in both books. You find yourself laughing hysterically while all around you there is a mind-boggling level of violence and brutality and torture. Ha Ha, right? If you can stand to read it, the point does sort of creep up on you, that there is a certain level of immunity we’ve achieved when it comes to horror.
Frank Sinatra is Nick’s dog, a very macho Yorkshire Terrier. In good conscience, I can’t reveal to you whether or not Frank ends up in a blender (but if he did, he would fit in it).
The book is described by the publisher, and therefore on Amazon, as a “cult classic”. For whom, I wonder? In the past, this would be called a “hard-boiled” detective novel, because the detectives are always wry and sardonic and world-weary. This book updates the level of violence and adds modern elements (like meth) not dreamed of in the days of Sam Spade. Both books are brilliant, not least because you discover that you can, in fact, still be horrified.

Translating From the Scottish

(A subcategory of Reading With Fakename.)

I’ve recently finished all five novels by a Scottish crime writer named Craig Robertson, who is from Glasgow. Just to start with, that makes him a Glaswegian. What??? Shouldn’t that be Glasgowan?

There’s a saying, attributed to various Brits, that the British and the Americans are two peoples divided by a common language. The closest actual quote is from Oscar Wilde, who said, “We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language”.

Reading British writers, you get used to certain common terms, such as the fact that the trunk of a car is called a boot and the hood is called a bonnet. A multi-level parking structure is called a car park, not a garage. A garage is a place you go to get your car repaired. And so on.

Reading something by a Scottish writer adds a whole other level of separation. I’ve read all five of these books on Kindle. One of the things I like best about Kindle is that you can highlight passages you want to return to. And it has a built-in dictionary, so if you highlight only one word, it will bring up the definition. I absolutely adore this feature. While reading a book, you don’t have stop and interrupt your train of thought by going to the dictionary or online to look up an unfamiliar word; it’s right there at your fingertips. You don’t have to write it down to look up later, by which time you will have forgotten the context it was used in.

Except. The built-in dictionary is the Oxford American Dictionary. I’m sure you can see the problem here. If the dictionary doesn’t know the word, it pops up with a message, “No definition found”. I see that a lot. So I’m going to give you just a few “No definition found” words from Robertson’s 4th novel and let you try your hand at them. In the next paragraph, I’ll tell you the definition (because you can find the definitions online).

Gallus. (He uses this one a lot.)

There are other turns of phrase, such as this one: “Where were you, Stevo?” Answer: “I don’t know. I was drunk. I was out my face.” In another case, detectives wanted to know the answer to something, not from the outset or the get-go, but from the off.

And now our definitions:
Gallus. Gallus is a term for a rooster. In Scottish usage, it means daring, confident, cheeky…in other words, cocksure.
Carnaptious. Bad-tempered, quarrelsome, snappy. This one I could have guessed from its similarity to “fractious”.
Lairy. Behaving in a loud, excited manner.
Blootered. This is probably the easiest one to guess. It means very drunk. Obviously related to the American “blotto”.

Thanks to Craig Robertson for this trip down Vocabulary Lane. As for a quick review, his first book (“Random”) is excellent, as is his last book (“The Last Refuge”). The ones in between are decent. The first four books take place in Glasgow; “The Last Refuge” takes place in the Faroe Islands, making it a fascinating virtual journey into a part of the world few people venture into (or want to). Speaking of definitions, it’s pretty much the definition of “desolate”.

Reading With Fakename: The Orphan Choir

I’ve mentioned before that the way I choose books is varied, and one of my methods is simply to go to the library and cruise the shelves of “new releases”. Unfortunately, since I live in a small city where few resources are allocated to the public library, “new releases” usually means “things that were published last year”. If I want something truly new, I have to buy it from Amazon.
But that’s okay. If I haven’t heard of it, it’s new to me, right?
So it is with The Orphan Choir. When choosing a book this way, I go with a combination of how intriguing the title is, and what it says about the book and the writer on the inside cover.
The writer in this case is Sophie Hannah, who is British, writes “psychological thrillers”, and has recently been commissioned by the Agatha Christie estate to write a new novel featuring Hercule Poirot. I thought that was enough recommendation for me.
In the book, Louise Beeston and her husband Stuart live in a four-story (counting the basement, I believe) house in Cambridge. Their seven year-old son Joseph is away at school at Saviour College. Because he’s in the choir, he is required to board there, and can only come home on holidays, not even on weekends. Louise is consumed with grief, missing him. Her husband is obsessed with having the outside of their house cleaned of the 100-year old grime and coal dust that coats the brick.
Louise has a different problem, which is noise. Their next-door neighbor is driving her crazy playing loud music, and always the same songs. She calls the Environmental Health Council (these are the people who apparently respond to noise complaints, rather than the police), and they send over a woman named Pat Jervis who is surprisingly sympathetic to her. She starts keeping a diary of when the noise occurs, and a strange thing happens. Suddenly she starts hearing choral music at odd times. Not Queen, not Dolly Parton, but choral music that sounds as if her son is singing with the choir.
When her husband insists on going through with the cleaning of the exterior of the house, she insists on buying a second home to escape to. This country home is Paradise…except you know something is wrong. The rules require absolute quiet. Children, for example, are not permitted to jump into the swimming pool, because it would make a splash that might offend others. Louise seems to be heading toward “Be careful what you wish for”.
At first though, it’s idyllic. And then, Louise starts hearing the choral music again, far from the city and from her obnoxious neighbor. What can this mean?
The end is not at all what I expected and is a little jarring, and I would have said, not quite my style, but 24 hours later, I still find it haunting. So I will probably read more of Sophie Hannah.
I love accidentally discovering these little gems.

Reading With Fakename: Poppet

This is a book by Mo Hayder, whose work is generally, I believe, classified as “horror”, but could also fall into the milder category of “mystery” or “crime”. She has won the Edgar Award.
Horror isn’t a category that attracts me, although in my twenties, my friends and I were nuts about Stephen King, and read every book of his as soon as it came out. In fact, he couldn’t write fast enough for us. Kind of a Harry Potter phenomenon. But, I got bored with it eventually.
A few years ago I picked up Mo Hayder’s book Pig Island during one of my random cruisings of the “recently released” shelves at the library. I was so literally horrified by this book that I swore I would never read another of Hayder’s books. But…it was well-written and suspenseful. And original.
I’m often tempted by good book covers. In the case of Poppet, it shows a picture of what appears to be a doll. It has a very smooth face that looks somewhere between the face of a baby and the face of a cat. Its “hands” also look somewhere between the hands of a baby and the paws of a cat. It’s dressed in something lacy. But its very large, wide-set, blue eyes are unmistakably human. There is something very creepy about it.
The book takes place mostly in Beechway High Secure Unit in Bristol, England. This is a psychiatric hospital for the criminally insane and those who are so in danger of harming themselves they cannot live in the outside world. Recently there have been two deaths and an episode of self-mutilation (a resident named Moses dug his eye out with a spoon in the dining room). The residents attribute all these events to a creature they call The Maude.
In its past, Beechway was a workhouse for the poor. As legend has it, Maude was an actual employee of the workhouse, a nun and dwarf who would sit on residents’ chests as punishment for perceived infractions of right thinking, mostly thoughts involving lust. Maude’s grave is alleged to be somewhere on the grounds, so this is apparently her ghost creating all the mayhem.
There are many, many characters, who are revealed somewhat slowly. But the first person we’re introduced to in any detail is AJ.
AJ is a nurse who has only recently been promoted to supervisor. AJ is a gentle soul, who lives with his Aunt Patience and his little dog Stewart (Stewie). But AJ begins to suspect there is more to what’s happening than some supernatural intervention by this mass delusion called The Maude. He involves the police.
If you’re like me, in the beginning you’re thinking, Oh no, not another one of those. Ho hum. A murder in an insane asylum. But that would be to diminish Hayder’s skills. I wonder if she didn’t deliberately choose this kind of setting to take you down an entirely different and original path. It was masterful.
If you read classic mysteries, like Agatha Christie, you will find yourself slapping your forehead for not figuring out who committed the crime. However, if you look back, you’ll find that many clues were omitted.
In this book, all the clues are there. In fact, I suspected I knew “who” very early on, and I turned out to be right. But I wasn’t 100% certain, and I didn’t know “how” or “why”. Just a great book. Now that I’m over my aversion after reading Pig Island, I’ll read more of Mo Hayder.

Reading With Fakename: John Le Carre

Presently I’m reading the latest book (published this year) by Le Carre, titled “A Delicate Truth”. No offense intended, but I thought John Le Carre was dead. But he isn’t. He’s 82 and still writing, and writing well. How marvelous is that?
A little about the book: The story is about an “incident” that takes place on the Isle of Gibraltar, which is a British territory, much to the annoyance of Spain. There is a very hush-hush mission to capture a “high-value target” (read: terrorist) who is on the island to purchase weapons from an arms dealer who is a British informant. The mission goes horribly wrong, although some of the participants don’t learn this for years.
In some ways the book is as suspenseful as anything else Le Carre ever wrote. And while it may seem dated now, “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold” should be on every list of the top 100 books ever written. The problem is, this book suffers from poor editing. It shifts from one person talking to another person talking or from back then to right now, with no warning. It should be a new chapter, or at the very least, a little division like ****** at the bottom of a line. So you often find yourself having to go back two pages to catch where the direction changed. Very annoying.
One of the other challenges, although I find it kind of charming, is the language. It’s British English, which I don’t speak very well, although I’m getting better at it. A bonnet, you say? Isn’t that something you wear on your head? No? In keeping with that, there is the British “habit” I guess…I don’t know how else to describe it…of asking a question at the end of a statement. I specifically noted this passage, which I swear I am repeating word for word, to illustrate this “habit”.
Referring to a retired diplomat: “He’d got as high as they’d let him go, mind you. Reached his ceiling, hadn’t he?–as far as they were concerned. Nobody’s going to give him the top billet, not after what happened in Hamburg, are they? You’d never know when it was coming home to roost–well, would you?”
I wonder if this happens because Britain is too close to France. French syntax is of course all backward as far as English speakers are concerned, but it seems to have a way of rubbing off. Prime example: Cajun and Creole speech in Louisiana. Say you’d like to make a statement: “I’d like some French fries”. How you speak it is a question. “I could have some French fries?” (My unspoken response was always, Well, you could, but you’d have to ask for them.) Or you really want to emphasize a statement. You don’t say “I really don’t like French fries”. You say, “I don’t like French fries, me”. We now know for a fact that it is you personally who doesn’t like French fries.
None of this takes away from Le Carre’s grasp of his subject matter or his ability to tell a story. And without saying so outright, he asks moral questions. Where do you draw the line between secrecy and accountability? Between good intentions and the bad results of those intentions?
It’s a very timely story. Arabic terrorists. Edward Snowden. I’m almost finished, and at the moment, I’m fearing for the survival of both the main characters. We shall see.

Reading With Fakename: Lawrence Anthony

Lawrence Anthony wrote three books.  In order they are “Babylon’s Ark”,  “The Elephant Whisperer”, and “The Last Rhinos”.

Anthony was a South African conservationist who started his career in the insurance business, moved on to real estate, then more or less in mid-life, he purchased a 5,000 acre nature preserve called Thula Thula.  Thula Thula sat on one side of numerous other nature preserves owned by the Zulu, and he made it his life’s work to be able to “drop the fences”, creating one gigantic nature preserve that would come close to creating the kind of space in Africa that wildlife used to enjoy.

The politics of negotiating with the Zulu, as well as with the various competing conservation agencies were mind-boggling.  It’s a miracle any animals are left alive in Africa.  In between these efforts, he is hands-on taking care of a number of wild species and fighting poachers.

His books are a bit out of order.  The Elephant Whisperer should have been first.  This was his life’s work, at Thula Thula, and  the other two are excursions he made from there.  Babylon’s Ark is about saving the Baghdad Zoo, shortly after the U.S. invasion.  Once the largest zoo in the Mideast, by the time he got there, there were only 35 animals left.  The others had either been blown up, or captured by the locals for food.  Some of them had eaten the others.

The Last Rhinos is similar.  He learns that the last wild population of Northern White Rhinos is in an abandoned park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has been in a civil war for 20 years.  There are only 15 animals left, but he knows of 4 captive Northern Whites in a zoo in the Czech Republic.  He hopes this will be enough to keep the sub-species viable, though it is highly unlikely.  His attitude is, “We have to try”.

I read The Elephant Whisperer last.  This is where it all began for Anthony.  One of the first things he does is take in a semi-rogue herd of elephants, nine individuals in all.  If he doesn’t take them, they will all be shot.  He wants them to be wild, but it doesn’t work out.  Contrary to popular opinion, he grasps that he must make “friends” with the matriarch, Nana.

As the matriarch goes, so goes the herd.  In fits and starts, he does it.  He makes friends with Nana’s Deputy Matriarch, Frankie.  At night, Frankie is in charge because Nana has developed a cataract in one eye.  He makes friends with Mnumzane, the aspiring alpha bull who is really too young for the role at 14.

At last he begins to disengage.  More babies are born and the herd is becoming wilder.  Yet they seem to have an uncanny sense of when he will return from traveling and gather at the fence to his home compound.

On a lighter note, Anthony introduced me to the word “tokoloshe”.  I’m thinking of adopting a little feral kitten, assuming the owner will give him up.  That remains to be seen.  She was very keen on the idea when he was first born, but now he’s three weeks old and has his eyes open.  His mother has moved him to the back porch where he can be picked up and cuddled regularly.  My cat (and my dog) are getting old.  I’d like to have this little guy.  My cat is the most maternal being on the planet, and would make him feel at home.  Stormy the current cat would cuddle and groom a mouse if it would stand still long enough.

So if I do get him, I’m naming him Toko, short for Tokoloshe.  Tokoloshe is a Zulu word for little demon spirits that come out at night to do mischief.  The example Anthony gave is that the Zulu keep their beds up on bricks.  If you don’t, the Tokoloshe crawl under your bed at night and jump up and down, just to wake you up.  There has never been a better name for a kitten.

But back to Anthony.

In March of 2012, Anthony died of a heart attack at home.  That night, and for the next week, the elephant herd silently gathered at the fence before his compound.  They knew.  You can see this vigil on YouTube.

It doesn’t matter what you ascribe this to–they knew.  It’s a phenomenal sense of smell and hearing, but it’s more than that.  Somehow there is emotion there.  When you see elephants handling the bones of their dead, you know there is something more going on there than we understand.

Say That Again?

Greetings, WordPress friends!  It’s been three weeks since I posted here and my excuse is, I’ve been sick.  I’d tell you why, but I don’t know.  It’s something gastrointestinal, and I’m about to embark on the rounds of visits to specialists and no telling what kind of evil procedures.  So, more later. 

Meanwhile, I have of course been reading up a storm and watching a lot of National Geographic on TV, so I have all sorts of fodder for Reading with Fakename and Fakename’s Animal Planet.  This is more generic than that, it’s about language. 

Not for the first time, I’ve been musing about how provincial we in the U.S. must seem, since the majority of us speak only one language–English–and our ability to do that adequately is often in doubt.  An increasing percentage of the U.S. population, however, is Hispanic, and they are generally bilingual.  Not always, though. Maybe 40 years ago, the “English first” movement held sway and Hispanic children were not allowed to speak their native language in school.  This led to some awkward situations, where children were fully “assimilated” in school, but couldn’t understand a word being said to them at home.  We had already done that to native Americans, so we’d had plenty of practice. 

I’d say that almost nothing is more soul-killing than taking away a person’s language. 

That said, there is good reason for immigrants to learn English.  It’s the language of business, of aviation, and in many cases, of science (unless you count Latin).  It’s hard to thrive in a country where you don’t speak the prevalent language.  You end up being confined in sort of language ghettos, and surviving on menial jobs that don’t require much public interaction.   You miss a lot–jokes, pop culture references, etc. 

I only speak one language–English, with the aforementioned caveat about whether my English is adequate or not.  It isn’t that I didn’t try.  I took French in high school.  I wanted to take Latin, because all my friends were, but my mother flatly refused to allow me.  She thought playing the piano and speaking French were the epitome of culture.  Ergo, I took French. 

When I graduated from college, I went to Paris.  I brushed up on my French beforehand.  I bought a copy of Albert Camus “The Stranger” in French.  I packed an English/French dictionary.  The first time I tried to use my French was in a shop dedicated to selling chickens (I think there’s a name for that…) and the shopkeeper did a dramatic eye roll and immediately began speaking English to me.  I later learned that in the countryside, the French are more appreciative of your feeble attempts to speak their language, and are glad that you’re trying–but not in Paris.  Those people are hard-core. 

In college, I took German.  Much easier.  So my next attempt at speaking a foreign language in another country was in the former Yugoslavia.  My friend Art and I were driving endlessly somewhere in the Balkan mountains, lost, starving, and running out of gas.  We picked up a hitchhiker–the first human being we’d seen in ages–and he understood my pidgin German.  With a big smile, he directed us to a town called Mitrovica, where we dropped him off at the gas station and he melted into space after pointing out a restaurant nearby. 

After getting gas, we repaired to the restaurant where there were a lot of Muslim men concealing themselves behind newspapers, and the only sound was from the overhead ceiling fans.  We were not served, or acknowledged.  Dense as we were, a feeling of unease set in and we hightailed it out of Mitrovica and the whole of Yugoslavia.  It turns out, in the hierarchy of human need, gas is more important than food. 

I later learned two things.  First, the reason our hitchhiker understood German was that after WWII, the Germans virtually kidnapped and enslaved people from the Balkans in order to rebuild Germany.  They spoke German, and hated Germans with a blinding passion.  Second, we were in one of the most dangerous parts of the world without knowing it.  Today, Mitrovica is part of Kosovo. 

Art and I learned one very important lesson.  Wherever we went, we said, “We’re Americans”.  I’m not sure how well that would work today. 

In the reading department, I’m on a kick of reading Kate Atkinson. I first read her latest novel “Life After Life” and just finished “Started Early, Took My Dog” (the title of which is from a poem by Emily Dickinson).  Kate is either British or Scottish, but that wouldn’t matter much would it?  There are so many references I don’t get (British TV shows) and words, just for example, the parts of a motor vehicle.  (See?  In the U.S., we don’t say “motor vehicle” anyway.)  There are boots and bonnets and car parks, lorries and trams.  There are mysterious foods (which are probably something like “peanut butter”). 

So you just have to limp along, divided by a common language.  Atkinson is so brilliant, it’s worth it.  In “Started Early…” there is an aging actress in the early stages of dementia, and Atkinson’s description of it is heartbreaking.  “Tilly” keeps losing words.  She wants a cup of tea, but can’t remember the name of the thing you boil the water in.  Is it a…kitten? 

Language is who we are. 

Reading With Fakename: Dreams of Joy

By Lisa See, who also wrote (among other things) “Snow Flower and the Secret Fan”.  Dreams of Joy takes place in China during the “Great Leap Forward”, and from what I’ve read subsequently, it accurately depicts the conditions in China during that period.

It’s hard to know where to begin.  Essentially it tells the story of the Great Leap Forward through the eyes of one family.  Nineteen year-old Joy lives in Los Angeles with her mother and her aunt, and their husbands.  Personally traumatized by the suicide of her father, and idealistically radicalized by her time at the University of Chicago, she decides to move to China, to help build the New China.  From the moment she jumps into action, nothing goes as planned or expected.

While accompanying her real father (this is a long story) on a trip to Green Dragon village in the countryside, she falls in love with, and marries a peasant named Tao.  She has a baby she names Samantha, although her husband cynically says he and his family will call the baby Ah-Fu, meaning “Good Fortune”.  This is actually a cruel joke, since all girl babies are considered misfortunes.

To condense quite a bit, things begin to deteriorate in the countryside.  First they’re forced into small communal associations (private property had been outlawed, though for a time, families were still allowed to care for what once had been their property).  Eventually they are forced into ever larger communes, and Green Dragon becomes a member of a commune with 4,000 members.

Mao was an ignorant, egotistical, and competitive guy.  At first, his model was the Soviet Union, but then he decided China, with its greater population, could do it better and faster.  His goals were to produce more crops and more steel than any other country in the world.  He introduced methods to accomplish this that had no basis in reality.  For instance, he introduced “close planting”, the planting of seed crops far closer than was sustainable.  He required ordinary people to begin bringing all their metal to the steel furnaces.  They brought such things as cooking utensils.

The end result was predictable.  Crops were failing, and they no longer had implements or pots to cook in, even if there had been food available.  The peasants, whom Mao had so glorified, began to starve.  He’d been right about one thing:  the peasants were the backbone of the country, and he was killing them off.  Internal travel became severely restricted.  He didn’t want starving peasants to show up in the cities, and he didn’t want people from the cities traveling to the country where they could see people starving.

Eventually there was a country-wide famine. Some estimates place the number of dead at 32 million.

In the book, Joy and her husband and his family are starving too.  Joy leaves Samantha in the care of her husband’s sister while she goes to visit the commune leader.  When she returns, her mother-in-law is outside their hut, boiling water.  She goes inside and finds a baby on the table…who is not Samantha.  This is when she learns of a practice called Swap Child, Make Food.  Mothers switch their infants, who are dying of malnutrition.  When they die, they eat them.  The Swap Child, Make Food practice meant you didn’t have to eat your own child.

This sounds like make-believe, but it isn’t.  I found it the most horrifying situation in the book, but there are many others.  It isn’t surprising what starvation will do to morality.  It’s also a cautionary tale about running a country on slogans.

In case this makes you not want to read the book, let me say, it has a happy ending, but it’s quite perilous and you never know whether all the characters you’ve grown to care about will survive.  I may have ruined the ending for you, but it’s still worth reading as a picture of China at that time.  And I can’t help but add, yes, Samantha survives.

Reading With Fakename: The Age of Miracles

By Katherine Thompson Walker.

The main character in the book is Julia, an 11 year-old girl who is in the sixth grade. An only child, Julia lives with her mother, a teacher, and her father, a doctor.  Julia plays soccer and takes piano lessons, has a crush on a boy named Seth, and is painfully sensitive to acceptance or the lack thereof by her friends.  She is lonely.

In the midst of this adolescent trauma, something happens:  the earth begins to slow its rotation.  Rotation refers to the rotation of the earth around its own axis.  The earth continues to revolve around the sun at the same pace.  “The slowing”, as they will come to call it, lengthens the days.  At first, no one notices.  By the time someone does, a day has lengthened to 25 hours and 37 minutes.

This is actually happening.  A day is now 1.7 milliseconds longer than it was 100 years ago.  It will take hundreds of thousands of years, if not millions, for Earth to stop revolving altogether.  But in the book, the process is dramatically escalated.

Most countries, including the U.S. decide to remain on “clock time” with a day that is 24 hours long.  “Time” becomes unhinged from “day” and “night”.  You can wake up in what seems to be the middle of the night to go to work or school, and the sun will “rise” at maybe 2:00 in the afternoon.  It’s very disorienting.  Unlike what you think might be the case, prolonged periods of darkness aren’t the problem.  It’s the prolonged periods of light.

The first thing that happens is that birds start dropping out of the sky.  It’s assumed that gravity is increasing.  People are getting sick too, and it’s initially called “gravity sickness”.  Eventually they just call it “the Syndrome”.  It gets worse.

This book is hard to categorize, as all the best books are.  It isn’t science fiction exactly, it isn’t apocalyptic exactly, it isn’t a coming-of-age story exactly.  It’s provocative, and makes you think, What if you really WERE living in the “end times”?  The best explanation is from the book itself:

“It still amazes me how little we really knew.

We had rockets and satellites and nanotechnology.  We had robot arms and robot hands, robots for roving the surface of Mars.  Our unmanned planes, controlled remotely, could hear human voices from three miles away.  We could manufacture skin, clone sheep.  We could make a dead man’s heart pump blood through the body of a stranger.  We were making great strides in the realms of love and sadness–we had drugs to spur desire, drugs for melting pain.  We performed all sorts of miracles:  We could make the blind see and the deaf hear, and doctors daily conjured babies from the wombs of infertile women.  At the time of the slowing, stem cell researchers were on the verge of healing paralysis–surely the lame soon would have walked.

And yet, the unknown still outweighed the known.”

A very powerful and haunting book.

Reading With Fakename: Life of Pi

Yes, I know I’m behind.  The book came out in 2002, and won that year’s  Man Booker Prize.

Okay.  Let’s try this again (editing).  “Pi” is short for Piscine Molitor Patel.  Piscine Molitor is the name of a swimming pool in Paris that Pi’s uncle is crazy about.

At the time of the story, Pi is 16.  He lives in Pondicherry, India, where his father owns the local zoo.  His father becomes disenchanted with the political climate in India, and decides to immigrate with the family to Canada.  Specifically, to Winnipeg.  He sells all the animals he can, except for a few of the more exotic ones he takes with him to sell in either Canada or the U.S., where he can get a better price.

The family sets off in a Japanese cargo ship.  Shortly after leaving Manila, there is an explosion onboard (possibly a boiler), and the ship sinks.  Pi is the only human survivor (or is he?)  He finds himself in a lifeboat with a zebra who has broken its leg in the fall to the lifeboat, an orangutan, and a hyena.  In the first few minutes, Pi sees a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker swimming toward the boat, and is desperate to save it.  He throws it a life ring, which the tiger grabs onto, and Pi begins pulling the rope attached to the ring toward the boat.  As the tiger gets near, Pi suddenly comes to his senses and says “What am I doing?  I must be crazy”, and starts trying to beat the tiger off with an oar, to no avail.  Richard Parker climbs aboard.

Pi is on the lifeboat for 227 days, along with Richard Parker.  (The zebra, the orangutan, and the hyena don’t make it.)

At last, they land in Mexico.  Representatives from Japan come to question Pi in the hospital, in an attempt to understand why the ship sank.  Pi tells them his story.  They say they don’t believe him.  He says, “Oh, you don’t like this story?  You don’t think it’s true?  Well, what is truth?  Reality is always altered by our perception of it.  So I’ll tell you another story, one you’ll maybe like better.”

When he tells the alternate story, suddenly you question everything you read before.  I absolutely did not see this coming.  It’s a brilliant book, completely brilliant.

The posters I saw when the movie came out made it look like a Disney movie.  Then Ang Lee won the best director Oscar for the movie, and I said Hmmm.  Ang Lee and Disney don’t go together in the same sentence.  There must be more to this movie/book than meets the eye.

The Man Booker website describes it as a “fantasy/adventure”.  Well, not really.  It’s a parable.  It’s “about” the nature of reality, how we perceive it, and how the human mind copes with unimaginable stress and loss.  Which sometimes includes coming unhinged.

Early on in the book, I was somewhat put off by its religious elements.  Pi is a very spiritual boy.  Raised as a Hindu, he elects to be baptized in the Catholic Church as well as study at a mosque.  In a memorable encounter between Pi, his parents, his priest, his Imam, and his Hindu teacher, they are all fighting about who he is.  The priest says, “He’s a Christian!”  The Imam says “No way!  He is a good Muslim boy!”  The Hindu teacher says “You are a Hindu!  You must reject these outside religions which have nothing to do with you!”

Pi says…haven’t you all told me that all religions are true?  I just want to love God.  And even that aspect of the book plays a role in the outcome.  It has jumped to the top of the list of my all-time favorite books.