Category Archives: books

What I’m Reading on the Bus: A Review of Life of Pi

This book was not what I expected it to be. I’d heard about it here and there, and the plot synopsis while simple, was intriguing enough to make me pick it up. It’s about an Indian boy who finds himself lost at sea, adrift in a rowboat with a 450 pound tiger as his only shipmate. I also knew that it deal with issues of religion and spirituality. I was expecting an allegorical tale, probably peppered with a fair amount of magical realism. I’m not sure why exactly, but I had it in my head that the tiger and the boy would talk and that the carnivorous castaway would impart some spiritual wisdom on the protagonist while they were at sea. Something like the The Old Man and The Sea meets Ishmael perhaps. That will teach me to go into a novel with expectations.

Yann Martel plays it straight. He gives us a few opening scenes with Piscine Patel growing up at his family’s zoo in India. Pi, as he prefers to be called, is a devout Hindu. He is also a devout Muslim. And a devout Christian. Everyone seems to have a problem with his polyrelgiosity except for the boy himself, who sees nothing contradictory in his faiths. After a few chapters of Pi’s theological musings, the story gets moving with his family and all the animals from their zoo setting forth on a sea voyage to Canada. The ship goes down, and Pi finds himself thrown in a life raft with a giant tiger named Richard Parker. The bulk of the book, then, is Pi learning to survive on the open water with a ferocious beast. The tiger does not impart any wisdom, and the journey is a straight adventure story lacking any overt weirdness (until a possibly hallucinated sequence near the end).

Indeed, the novel is chiefly concerned with the minutiae of survival. Martel goes into painstaking detail about the life boat and the supplies, and the steps that Pi takes to stay alive. The result is something very much like the Old Man in the Sea, but lacking much of it’s depth. For me, there was too much emphasis place on the “boy’s own adventure story” and not enough placed on character development. The text goes back to the well of survival account specificities again and again. If you have a particular affinity for the word gunnel, or read disaster stories religiously you will be drawn in more than I was.

It’s hard to get too angry with the novel simply for not being what I thought it was going to be and I have made a good-faith attempt to judge it on it’s own merits. I still didn’t like it. Not that the prose was lacking, but the overall plot was too intensely focused on the blow-by-blow of fishing, rationing, and harvesting water. Richard Parker, the feline companion, functions both as an additional obstacle for Pi to deal with and a symbol of everything he left behind. I like the fact that Pi decides he needs to keep Richard Parker alive despite the danger he presents. It’s a hint of the deeper themes that the novel mostly chooses to ignore.

***Spoilers Below***


Then, at the end of the novel, after a surreal trip to a mysterious living island (probably hallucinated) Pi comes ashore in Mexico and Richard Parker escapes into the wilderness. While Pi answers the questions of some investigators, Martell tries to pull a switch and intimates that the entire thing was a fabrication created by Pi to deal with the tragedy of losing his family at sea. It happens in just the last few pages and solidly derails the work. What is supposed to be an “Aha!” moment just feels flat. The author leaves it up to you take away the version of the story that you like best, but it just feels like a cop-out. Rather than adding depth to the preceding chapters, it feels like the author is trying to be deeper than the novel indicates. All in all, the novel wasn’t terrible, but it was a disappointment.

Other Bus Readings:

The Disappointment Artist


Where Three Roads Meet

Three-Dimensional Floating Sinew


Or something like that. There’s a fairly rave review up at the Book Covers Blog for the packaging to the new Chuck Palahniuk book I mentioned earlier. While I generally adhere to the whole “not by it’s cover” school of judging a book, I must admit that this one looks pretty damn cool. Granted, I know next to nothing about graphic design. But my time as Barnes & Noble wage slave has given me rigorous training in recognizing cool covers that are worthy of an end-cap. I’ve just started the actual novel, so there’ll be a full review when I finish. For now just enjoy the pretty picture. In fact, you should go check out some similar and equally pretty pictures at the artist’s website. None are quite as human-body oriented as the Rant cover, but they all have the free floating, 3-d cross-section look.

And on the Other Hand…

You have stuff like the Bulwer-Lytton Contest:

“Like an over-ripe beefsteak tomato rimmed with cottage cheese, the
corpulent remains of Santa Claus lay dead on the hotel floor.”

“On reflection, Angela perceived that her relationship with Tom had always been rocky, not quite a roller-coaster ride but more like when the toilet-paper roll gets a little squashed so it hangs crooked and every time you pull some off you can hear the rest going bumpity-bumpity in its holder until you go nuts and push it back into shape, a degree of annoyance that Angela had now almost attained.”

link (via The Dutch Oven)

It Was a Dark and Stormy Opening

Guy Dammann has an article up over at the Guardian Book Blog about his favorite first lines (but since he is British, he spells it “favourite”). This is something I’ve always thought about. For many, the first line is the most important part of a novel. It’s the hook that has to make people want to keep reading. I have often stared at the open white space on the screen and watched my cursor blink as I tried and tried to come up with a poetic, resonant opening.

“Some openers are so prescient that they seem to burn a hole through the rest of the book, the semantic resonance recurring with the persistence of the first theme in Beethoven’s fifth symphony. The effervescent, pitiless bleakness of Camus’ The Stranger is like that: “My mother died today, or perhaps it was yesterday.” Others ease you effortlessly into their world: “In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing,” begins A River Runs Through It. Like a trout, you’re hooked.”

The Stranger is one that has always stuck with me. I’ve read many novels in my time on this earth. Even keeping with a conservative estimate of three books a month, that’s 36 books a year for, let’s say, 15 years. That’s 540 books so far (and that is a definite lowball). Of those, I can remember maybe handful of opening lines. The above-mentioned Camus is one. The rest? I’m glad you asked:

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”- Stephen King, The Gunslinger (The Dark Tower, Book 1)

“Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead bearing a bowel of lather on which a mirror and razor lay crossed.” -James Joyce, Ulysses

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”- Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

“In a sense, I am Jacob Horner. —John Barth, The End of the Road

“Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.”- Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

“In a hole in the ground, there lived a Hobit.”- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

“Call me Ishmael.”- Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” —William Gibson, Neuromancer

“It was love at first sight.” —Joseph Heller, Catch-22

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”- George Orwell, 1984

The American Book Review has their list of the top 100, which I only consulted after compiling my list. Most of mine were on there, at least the big canonical ones. I must confess that A Tale of Two Cities is there chiefly through cultural osmosis, since I have never read it. I also see that I got Slaughterhouse-Five wrong. Now that I look, I see that I was mentally skipping over the preamble of the first chapter and jumping right into the narrative.

What does this mean? What is it about these first lines that made them stick in my consciousness while the other 531 or so have slipped through like sand in a sieve? They are poetic, to be sure. But is that all it takes? The list has many equally poetic openings that I have read but that just didn’t resonate with me. These lines not only roll off the tongue with an impressive artistry, but they plant you within the narrative immediately. They incite curiosity as much as they inspire repetition. In what sense is he not Jacob Horner? Who is Ishmael? Why was it love at first sight? Striking thirteen? WTF?

But that can’t be all it takes, either. I don’t necessarily care about Buck Mulligan, no matter how plump or stately he happens to be, and his progress down the stairs is none of my business. But Joyce’s way with language keeps me reading. It’s a mystery, an alchemy that I am still trying to understand.

This Is The Other Thing I’ve Been Doing Instead of Posting…

It’s another paper. This one is about how the Canterbury Tales can be read as a postmodern text. If you read it (and why would you?) you’ll notice a few shared concerns with the other one, but not really. The main point of correspondence is that I like John Barth.

I know this cheating, but you’ll just have to live with it until I feel like writing something for the old Drift. I’ll probably show some pretty pictures later, or maybe abuse youtube again. In the meantime, here’s this:

Storial Thynges: Postmodern Chaucer


Can we read The Canterbury Tales as a postmodern text? It is at first disconcerting to imagine a poet who wrote centuries before the pre, much less the prefix-less Modern age, as somehow being part of the postmodern tradition. Continue reading…

This Is What I’m Doing Instead of Posting…

It’s a paper. Read it if you like John Barth, Freud, or Existentialism and Nihilism expressed as an Academic Love Triangle. If you do like those things, God help you…

    Nothing stays buried. This is the central lesson of psychoanalysis and the most important thing Freud has to teach us about the way the human mind works, especially as it exists in fiction. The characters we have discussed think that they can banish those things they do not want to deal with from their thoughts and so from their lives. But all they have done is to remove them from the immediate vicinity. These unacknowledged drives and unspeakable desires will continue to lurk just outside their awareness, like an unruly man whose “ill-mannered laughter, chattering and shuffling with his feet” cause him to be forcibly removed from a lecture hall, and like that banished lecture-goer they will continue to make a ruckus that disturbs the mind until they can be reconciled with the other aspects of the characters’ psyches.”[1] Continue reading…

I am Jack’s Inflatable Moose Head…

Well, I got some bad news this past weekend…


After some navigational woes caused me to miss the reading in San Francisco this past Friday night, I was forced to head out to Berkeley to catch Chuck Palahniuk on Saturday. He is one of my favorite authors, and has been since I read the first line of Fight Club. I went on to read his entire oeuvre, and every book has been, if not a masterpiece, then a solid chunk of writing with a distinctive voice and flair for language. He is on the road to promote his newest effort Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey.

I’ve never seen him in person before, and I didn’t know quite what to expect. It turned into a very cool evening. The first thing he did was distribute fake cigarettes to the audience, little plastic cylinders with fake little cherries. They were loaded with chalk powder, so that you could simulate a cloud of smoke if you blew into them. He apparently had them shipped here, along with several boxes of goodies. The cigarettes featured prominently in the first story he read, an unpublished short story he keeps just for readings like this one. It made me feel exclusive and cool to think that so few people would ever get to hear “Death Nest.” He also read several letters that he received, and another unpublished story “Cold Calling.” They were both great stories, written in the inimitable Palahniuk style.

In between, he solicited questions from the crowd. I had two things I wanted to know about him, and luckily they were both asked. The first had to do with the little facts and instructions that pop up in his writing, things like the automotive insurance stats in Fight Club, the medical mnemonics in Choke, and the etiquette/housecleaning stuff from Survivor. I always wondered if he has a research assistant or something, or if he finds out all those bizarre bits of knowledge for himself (its the latter). I also wondered about his recent shift to multiple points of view. Most of his books are written in the first person, and the one criticism I have is that they can (kinda sorta) sound alike. After a while all his narrators end up sounding a bit like Chuck Palahniuk. That’s not necessarily a bad, thing but I was glad to see him branching out into other forms of narrative. he did it in Haunted,he did say that was a conscious choice, and with Rant, he wanted to explore a Rashomon-style retelling of the same event from multiple points of view. So I got my questions answered even if I wasn’t the one who asked them. Everyone who asked a question got a bouquet of flowers tossed to them by the man himself.


He alternated the Q and A with trivia questions, grilling us with bits of esoterica from his novels. Those who answered his questions correctly were rewarded with an inflatable moose head, signed by the author. And guess what:


I named him Tyler.

That’s right, dear reader. I won a prize. It was actually the only one he asked that I knew, so I lucked out. What bit of trivia enabled to bring home this majestic moose? The question had to do with Choke. “Why couldn’t Victor read his mother’s diary?” Because it was in Italian, of course. Having proven my mettle, I settled down for the rest of the reading. It was a great experience, and he told some killer stories. He knows some fucked up people, and cited them as his source of fucked-up stories. The coolest was the story of the initiation of French veterinarians, which in a typical display of Gallic strangeness, involved being sewn inside a dead horse and crawling your way out.

I was really struck by the way he said that every story he tells is a way of dealing with loss, and that every single novel could be traced back to the death of someone he loved. It was heavy, and it made me realize how little emotional weight my own writing has. I’m way better at reviewing comic book movies than contextualizing pain and achieving catharsis. Anyway..

After he ended the reading by tossing plastic severed feet and giant hamburgers into the crowd, I got my copy of Rant signed. I haven’t read it yet but it apparently has to do with a man who spreads rabies and runs an underground demolition derby. (Hence the stamp on my autograph page, and the reference to giving me head refers to Tyler the Moose, you pervs.) I also had a picture taken, but in a another bit of authorial quirk, he would only take pictures like this:


That’s not normally what I wear when I go out, even in San Francisco but who am I to say no? It was fun, and you can see if Chuck is coming to your town here. If so, I suggest you shell out the eight bucks. You won’t be disappointed and you might get a moose head.

Don’t be so coy…

Oh, Newsweek. Who are you trying to fool? I know you won’t really leave me, no matter how many letters you send to the contrary. You keep telling me it’s my last chance, and if I don’t give you what you want ($21.95 annual subscription fee) you claim that you’ll stop coming over to my house but I just don’t believe you anymore. We’ve had some good times over this past year, ever since my Mom introduced us as a gift. You were never my favorite magazine, not as deep or interesting as some others but not entirely without charm. But you just don’t stimulate me anymore. It’s always been a little dicy, but I’ve started seeing someone else and I get more from that relationship than anything I ever had with you. Not to mention all the action I get online. I know this hurts. And right now I’ve even stopped turning to you for a quickie when I’m alone on the toilet. I just don’t respect you anymore, yet you still keep coming. You’ve sent me lettr after lettr, each one claiming that it was my last chance and you were really done this time. But you always come crawling back, curling up in my mailbox every Thursday. I just throw you out now. So go ahead. I dare you. Make it my, no our, last issue.

The Lexi-Sean: Improving the English Language One Word at a Time

Swive- verb, 1. To copulate with.

“Did you hear about Captain Ceebas? He was too busy swiving the scullery maid to steer around the rocks. Ran aground.”

“Was that Rachael Ray I saw coming out of your bedroom this morning? Yeah, she totally made me a spinach fritata after I swived her all night.”

This is an awesome word that I totally wish had made the jump from Middle English to the common parlance. Geoffrey Chaucer was pretty fond of this little verb, and I believe John Barth shares my appreciation for it. He once bemoaned modern English’s lack of an equivalent. It means to have sex with, but it is a full robust word with significantly more vigor and pop than our pedestrian synonyms. Wouldn’t you rather be caught swiving a pretty lass than banging a chick? The difference is semantic, but swive has less of a vulgar connotation than words like “fuck,” “bang,” or “rail.” I suppose “do” would be close, but it has 30% less je-ne-sais-quoi and only 1/10th of the joie-de-vivre. The next time you’re telling a ribald story, be sure to say you were swiving the object of your affection. They’ll thank you for it.

20/20 Hindsight

I’ve been maintaining radio silence on the whole Virginia Tech tragedy, and there hasn’t been too much else to talk about. The tragedy is still fresh in everyone’s mind and I haven’t had anything to say about it that wasn’t painfully obvious. But Salon has an article up about how teachers of creative writing deal with disturbing and violent images in student work. Many out there hold the teachers who read Cho Seung-Hui’s work and didn’t see this coming responsible. It turns out that more than a few of his instructors had been concerned, more from his demeanor and behavior than from his actual writing. I read his plays that have been flying through the ether since they came to light. While not good by any stretch of the imagination, I don’t see them as the stark cries for help that many do. Richard Beefheart in particular is certainly no more violent than, say Hamlet. Fiction is fiction, and as a long-standing veteran of creative writing classes I can say that I have seen some seriously twisted stuff come from the meekest and most sane of students. I’ve personally been in student workshops on stories with rape, torture via piano wire, and people having their eyes gouged out with crucifixes. None of them were particularly pleasant, and they were of varying levels of quality but not one of those students ever hurt a soul, much less went on a two-gun kill spree. It is the exception far more than it is the norm. I think, and the Salon writer seems to agree, that Cho Seung-Hui’s behavior was far more telling and it was that that drove his instructors to try to get him help. People can read, watch, and yes, write violent things without being violent.
This article also caught my eye because they mentioned several Bay Area schools. Of the ones they brought up, I work at one and attend another. Small world.

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