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Life of Pi Review.

Thursday, January 3rd, 2013

Life of Pi

Life of Pi Review.

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Life of Pi Description:

The son of a zookeeper, Pi Patel has an encyclopedic knowledge of animal behavior and a fervent love of stories. When Pi is sixteen, his family emigrates from India to North America aboard a Japanese cargo ship, along with their zoo animals bound for new homes.

The ship sinks. Pi finds himself alone in a lifeboat, his only companions a hyena, an orangutan, a wounded zebra, and Richard Parker, a 450-pound Bengal tiger. Soon the tiger has dispatched all but Pi, whose fear, knowledge, and cunning allow him to coexist with Richard Parker for 227 days while lost at sea. When they finally reach the coast of Mexico, Richard Parker flees to the jungle, never to be seen again. The Japanese authorities who interrogate Pi refuse to believe his story and press him to tell them “the truth.” After hours of coercion, Pi tells a second story, a story much less fantastical, much more conventional–but is it more true?

  • Amazon Sales Rank: #505 in Books
  • Published on: 2003-05-01
  • Original language: English
  • Number of items: 1
  • Binding: Paperback
  • 326 pages

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I Once Caught a Bengal Tiger This-s-s-s Big5
With over 1250 reviews already registered for LIFE OF PI, I first thought there could be nothing more to say about this marvelous novel. But after scanning the most recent 100 reviews, I began to wonder what book many of those reviewers had read. Had I relied on 98 of those reviews, I would have expected a far different book than the one I actually read.

Let’s begin with what LIFE OF PI isn’t. It’s not a Man against Nature survival story. It’s not a story about zoos or wild animals or animal husbandry. It’s not ROBINSON CRUSOE or SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON. It’s not a literary version of CASTAWAY or OPEN WATER, and it’s not a “triumph against all odds, happily ever after” rescue story. To classify it as such would be like classifying THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA as a story about a poor fisherman or MOBY DICK as a sea story. Or THE TRIAL as a courtroom drama, THE PLAGUE as a story of an epidemic, HEART OF DARKNESS as a story about slavery, or ANIMAL FARM as an animal adventure.

Martel’s story line is already well-known: a fifteen-year-old boy, the son of a zookeeper in Pondicherry, India survives a shipwreck several days out of Manila. He is the lone human survivor, but his lifeboat is occupied by a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, an injured zebra, a hyena, and an orangutan. In relatively short order and true Darwinian fashion, their numbers are reduced to just two: the boy Piscene Molitor Patel, and the tiger, Richard Parker. By dint of his zoo exposure and a fortuitously positioned tarpaulin, Pi (as he is called) manages to establish his own territory on the lifeboat and even gains alpha dominance over Richard Parker. At various points in their 227-day ordeal, Pi and the tiger miss being rescued by an oil tanker, meet up with another shipwreck survivor, and discover an extraordinary algae island before finally reaching safety.

When Pi retells the entire story to two representatives of the Japanese Ministry of Transport searching for the cause of the sinking, they express deep disbelief, so he offers them a second, far more mundane but believable story that parallels the first one. They can choose to believe the more fantastical first one despite its seeming irrationality (Pi is, after all, an irrational number) and its necessary leap of faith, or they can accept the second, far more rational version, more heavily grounded in our everyday experiences.

LIFE OF PI is an allegory, the symbolic expression of a deeper meaning through a tale acted out by humans, animals, and in this case, even plant life. Yann Martel has crafted a magnificently unlikely tale involving zoology and botany, religious experience, and ocean survival skills to explore the meaning of stories in our lives, whether they are inspired by religion to explain the purpose of life or generated by our own psyches as a way to understand and interpret the world around us.

Martel employs a number of religious themes and devices to introduce religion as one of mankind’s primary filters for interpreting reality. Pi’s active adoption and participation in Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity establish him as a character able to relate his story through the lens of the world’s three major religions. Prayer and religious references abound, and his adventures bring to mind such Old Testament scenes as the Garden of Eden, Daniel and the lion’s den, the trials of Job, and even Jonah and the whale. Accepting Pi’s survival story as true, without supporting evidence, is little different than accepting New Testament stories about Jesus. They are matters of faith, not empiricism.

In the end, however, LIFE OF PI takes a broader view. All people are storytellers, casting their experiences and even their own life events in story form. Martel’s message is that all humans use stories to process the reality around them, from the stories that comprise history to those that explain the actions and behaviors of our families and friends. We could never process the chaotic stream of events from everyday life without stories to help us categorize and compartmentalize them. Yet we all choose our own stories to accomplish this - some based on faith and religion, some based on empiricism and science. The approach we choose dictates our interpretation of the world around us.

LIFE OF PI bears a faint resemblance to the movie BIG FISH, also a story about storytelling and how we understand and rationalize our own lives through tales both mundane and tall. Martel’s book is structured as a story within a story within a story, planned and executed in precisely 100 chapters as a mathematical counterpoint to the endlessly irrational and nonrepeating value of pi. The book is alternately harrowing and amusing, deeply rational and scientific but wildly mystical and improbable. It is also hugely entertaining and highly readable, as fluid as the water in which Pi floats. Anyone who enjoys literature as a vehicle for contemplating the human condition should find in LIFE OF PI a delicious treat.

Exciting (if gruesome) story in shallow theological waters3
This work of fiction has two distinct aspects, either of which has the potential to be relished for its own sake. On the one hand, it’s a grim adventure story about an adolescent shipwreck survivor. On the other, it’s a fable with overt religious overtones and a Message.

And what a premise for a story! A young boy trapped on a lifeboat with the oddest assort of castaways in literary history: a zebra, hyena, orangutan, and a Bengal tiger. The result is an enjoyable, brisk, nearly believable, often gruesome romp, in straightforward (but never pedestrian) writing style equal to the best “young adult” fiction available today. The first section introduces Pi living in India with his zoo-keeping family. Part horror story, part fable, the major portion of the book recounts his (mis)adventures at sea. It’s the final pages that throw readers for a loop, as the story steers from magic realism to a post-modern finale in which Martel tries to wrap up his point.

While the plot will remind readers of “The Old Man and the Sea,” “Lord of the Flies,” “Robinson Crusoe,” and even “Gulliver’s Travels,” the thematic underpinnings of the book, unfortunately, flirts with the “feel good,” New-Age banality of “Jonathan Livingston Seagull.” Some readers might find the ideas worth contemplating, but I suspect an equal number will realize that Martel’s message disintegrates after serious reflection. These faults deserve discussion, but I will avoid disclosing any of the plot’s surprises.

Some of the book’s metaphysical elements rise to the challenge, especially when Martel approaches the subject with a sense of humor. But the basic argument is rather trite, and the author stumbles when he offers an alternative explanation for Pi’s experiences–a story that is cynical and stark and a lot more realistic–and then challenges the reader to choose: the “better story, the story with animals” or “the story that will confirm what you already know.” Martel’s Big Message: Faith in God is belief in “the better story”; atheism is picking the story you already know, and agnosticism is refusing to choose.

The most obvious flaw in this line of reasoning is that Martel has set up a false dichotomy: believers can choose from hundreds of “possible” stories for any narrative–not just two. The second problem is sheer chutzpah: The “god” of this story is the Author, not God, and its world is entirely the Author’s Creation. There’s no way around the fact that Martel, in effect, compares belief in fiction to belief in God. Furthermore, if we believed in every story because it was better or prettier, many of us would still “believe” in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, or Zeus and Hera, or Alice and the Mad Hatter. A third, related issue: since the author invents the story, he is able to manipulate the reader. Another author/god writing this book could easily turn the tables, ending the book with Pi committed to an asylum, unable to care for himself, and uselessly babbling his story to his caretakers. Which is the “better story” then?

And that leads to the novel’s biggest failing: Martel never convinces the reader why it’s important to choose at all. The book is less a brief for belief in God than a denunciation of agnosticism. In press interviews, for example, Martel exposes his own prejudices, referring to agnostics as “doubters” or “fence-sitters,” and that he has greater respect for atheists. Pi argues similarly in the novel, “To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation.” Yet this metaphor makes no sense: one doesn’t always have to be on the move or even commit to a single mode of transportation. If life presents hundreds of possible stories, why must we choose one (or even a few) to the exclusion of all others? Or, as an agnostic might ask, why not remain open-minded rather than close-minded?

Nevertheless, the reader who finds Martel’s philosophical ramblings unappealing or incoherent or unsatisfying or shallow (or all of the above) can still sit back and take pleasure in the story. For all its theological misfires, “Life of Pi” might yet join a tradition of works (like, say, “The Chronicles of Narnia” or “The Fountainhead”) that stand on their own, regardless of what you might think of their underlying themes.

Definitely Worth A Read4
I passed this book up perhaps dozens of times in the bookstore, before finally relenting. From the description on the back of the dust jacket, it just did not seem like a story that would interest me. Plus, several of the review snippets on the book — essentially praising the author for making a book with such a spare story into a great novel — seemed to me a little like damning with faint praise.

As it turns out, I was half right. I didn’t like the story very much. Well, actually, I very much liked the first hundred pages or so, which took place on land and described our protaganist; a young Indian son-of-a-zookeepper. But I found the story thereafter that took place at sea to be a little too slowly paced for my tastes. And some of the gore — particularly the detailed discussion of the butchering of various sea fish and animals — was too repetitive and, well, gross.

But, it turns out, the story of a boy on a boat with a tiger is not really what the novel is “about” at all. Instead, it’s a novel that uses its backstory to ask a straightforward question: Do we need stories and fables to believe in God? (Spoilers follow.)

At the end of this novel, we are confronted squarely with enduring questions about the limits of faith. How can we believe in God when a wonderful, kind, vegan, pious boy endures tragedy for no good reason? How can that boy continue to believe in God when he witnesses, first hand, how human nature emerges in its cruelest form as 4 castaways on a life boat essentially turn into animals in less than 24 hours. How can he believe in God when he watches helplessly as his mother is brutally murdered for no discernable reason? And how can any of us believe in God when extraordinary measures turn this gentle, pious boy into a murderer himself? Can we find God, this novel asks, solely in the “dry, yeastless, factuality” of this everyday world, where God seemingly refuses to intevene?

The answer, the boy decides, is that we cannot. We need the stories, the fables. So the boy spins a yarn that we are told, “will make you believe in God” — a phrase that seems filled with hope and faith in the book’s first chapter but drenched in irony in its final chapter.

It is interesting to read the other Amazon reviews — many of which are simply outstanding. But it appears that many of you take away from this novel a sense of spirituality and view it as a faith-reaffirming book. I must respectfully disagree. In fact, it is a book that is very pessimistic about faith and about the legends that various faiths use to help themselves believe. Not that it is entirely bleak about faith; as Pi tells us, to ignore or doubt the fables and doubt the existence of God, “is to miss the better story,” and to live a life that, at least in Pi’s view, is hardly worth living. (And Pi practices what he preaches — actively observing multiple faiths even years after his horrible experience.) Still, the final message — that “the story with the animals is better,” and “so it goes with God” is, in some senses, heartbreaking, and hardly faith-affirming.

Still, a novel that makes you think about such things is difficult to criticize merely because its conclusions might be somewhat pessimistic. And if you’re afflicted with the type of mind that likes to continue to mull books over after you’ve put them down, this one will not disappoint.

Or, maybe it’s just a book about a boy and a tiger on a boat, in which case it’s probably not worth reading. (Insert smiley face.)

Amazon.com Review
Yann Martel’s imaginative and unforgettable Life of Pi is a magical reading experience, an endless blue expanse of storytelling about adventure, survival, and ultimately, faith. The precocious son of a zookeeper, 16-year-old Pi Patel is raised in Pondicherry, India, where he tries on various faiths for size, attracting “religions the way a dog attracts fleas.” Planning a move to Canada, his father packs up the family and their menagerie and they hitch a ride on an enormous freighter. After a harrowing shipwreck, Pi finds himself adrift in the Pacific Ocean, trapped on a 26-foot lifeboat with a wounded zebra, a spotted hyena, a seasick orangutan, and a 450-pound Bengal tiger named Richard Parker (”His head was the size and color of the lifebuoy, with teeth”). It sounds like a colorful setup, but these wild beasts don’t burst into song as if co-starring in an anthropomorphized Disney feature. After much gore and infighting, Pi and Richard Parker remain the boat’s sole passengers, drifting for 227 days through shark-infested waters while fighting hunger, the elements, and an overactive imagination. In rich, hallucinatory passages, Pi recounts the harrowing journey as the days blur together, elegantly cataloging the endless passage of time and his struggles to survive: “It is pointless to say that this or that night was the worst of my life. I have so many bad nights to choose from that I’ve made none the champion.”

An award winner in Canada, Life of Pi, Yann Martel’s second novel, should prove to be a breakout book in the U.S. At one point in his journey, Pi recounts, “My greatest wish–other than salvation–was to have a book. A long book with a never-ending story. One that I could read again and again, with new eyes and fresh understanding each time.” It’s safe to say that the fabulous, fablelike Life of Pi is such a book. –Brad Thomas Parsons

From Publishers Weekly
A fabulous romp through an imagination by turns ecstatic, cunning, despairing and resilient, this novel is an impressive achievement “a story that will make you believe in God,” as one character says. The peripatetic Pi (ne the much-taunted Piscine) Patel spends a beguiling boyhood in Pondicherry, India, as the son of a zookeeper. Growing up beside the wild beasts, Pi gathers an encyclopedic knowledge of the animal world. His curious mind also makes the leap from his native Hinduism to Christianity and Islam, all three of which he practices with joyous abandon. In his 16th year, Pi sets sail with his family and some of their menagerie to start a new life in Canada. Halfway to Midway Island, the ship sinks into the Pacific, leaving Pi stranded on a life raft with a hyena, an orangutan, an injured zebra and a 450-pound Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. After the beast dispatches the others, Pi is left to survive for 227 days with his large feline companion on the 26-foot-long raft, using all his knowledge, wits and faith to keep himself alive. The scenes flow together effortlessly, and the sharp observations of the young narrator keep the tale brisk and engaging. Martel’s potentially unbelievable plot line soon demolishes the reader’s defenses, cleverly set up by events of young Pi’s life that almost naturally lead to his biggest ordeal. This richly patterned work, Martel’s second novel, won Canada’s 2001 Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction. In it, Martel displays the clever voice and tremendous storytelling skills of an emerging master.
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal
Named for a swimming pool in Paris the Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel begins this extraordinary tale as a teenager in India, where his father is a zoo keeper. Deciding to immigrate to Canada, his father sells off most of the zoo animals, electing to bring a few along with the family on their voyage to their new home. But after only a few days out at sea, their rickety vessel encounters a storm. After crew members toss Pi overboard into one of the lifeboats, the ship capsizes. Not long after, to his horror, Pi is joined by Richard Parker, an acquaintance who manages to hoist himself onto the lifeboat from the roiling sea. You would think anyone in Pi’s dire straits would welcome the company, but Richard Parker happens to be a 450-pound Bengal tiger. It is hard to imagine a fate more desperate than Pi’s: “I was alone and orphaned, in the middle of the Pacific, hanging on to an oar, an adult tiger in front of me, sharks beneath me, a storm raging about me.” At first Pi plots to kill Richard Parker. Then he becomes convinced that the tiger’s survival is absolutely essential to his own. In this harrowing yet inspiring tale, Martel demonstrates skills so well honed that the story appears to tell itself without drawing attention to the writing. This second novel by the Spanish-born, award-winning author of Self, who now lives in Canada, is highly recommended for all fiction as well as animal and adventure collections. Edward Cone, New York
Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information, Inc.