This fulfills half of my African requirement for the 2010 Global Reading Challenge. The author was born in Nigeria and the book is about a fourteen-year-old boy who has left his hometown in West Africa to fight behind enemy lines in Burma in WWII.
Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel, Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.
Coming after the success and critical acclaim of Life of Pi, winner of the Man Booker prize in 2002, Yann Martel must have felt extreme pressure when he sat down in front of his laptop to begin his next novel. I must begin this review with a disclaimer that shows my bias; I have a cat named Richard Parker, after one of the characters in Life of Pi. It was with great eagerness and excitement that I picked up Martel’s newest work.
Beatrice and Virgil begins with Henry, a writer who, like Martel, has written a successful novel and has just finished a follow-up. Henry’s new book is about the Holocaust and is a novel and an essay together in one volume; it is deemed unmarketable. Disappointed and depressed, Henry and his wife move to a new city where he tries to move past his failure. From descriptions of Henry’s previous novel, It is quite obvious that the character is based on Martel himself.
Within his fan mail, Henry receives an envelope containing a short story by Flaubert and a request for help. He tracks down the sender, a taxidermist who is an odd, unemotional, older man who is attempting to write a play. The main characters of the play are Beatrice, a donkey, and Virgil, a howler monkey. Spurred by the desire for an outlet for his urge to write and eager to begin a new project, Henry decides to help the man finish his play. Martel intersperses the main plot with snippits of the play.
Both the play within and the novel itself have depth and multiple facets. Similarly to Life of Pi,Beatrice and Virgil uses animals to tell a difficult story. The weakest part of Beatrice and Virgil is the climax which seems abrupt, unexpected and slightly confusing. Martel is known for taking risks and crossing new boundaries of storytelling. His first novel, Self, is a strong example of this as it follows a main character who changes gender. His newest release has the same imaginative force as his previous work, but does not have the same energy and is not quite as satisfying. The most endearing characters of this book are the ones that give it its title and it leaves the readers wanting to read more of the taxidermist’s play.
One of the most memorable yet lighthearted parts of the fictional play is an eight page description of a pear. This segment was entirely captivating and it is likely that more than one reader purchased a pear immediately after reading that section. As always, Martel’s writing style is brilliant; somewhat understated, filled with vivid yet never flowery description.
The very end of Beatrice and Virgil raises a series of questions that cut to the core of human nature. Martel succeeds in his goal of using fiction as a new way of looking at an historic event. It contains everything that one has come to expect from Martel; depth, delicacy, and inventive storytelling. Creating the follow-up to Life of Pi must have been a daunting task, but he has done an admirable job.
Blood and Ice by Robert Masello. Bantam, 2009.
Blood and Ice has everything it needs to be a great thriller; a desolate and isolated setting, a main character with a tragic past, a mystery, a love story and a creepy secret.
The main character, Michael Wilde is a journalist who has traveled to Antarctica both to write a piece for his magazine and to try to get away from his own troubles. He is a strong leading character; likeable and interesting. A few days into his assignment he goes on a polar dive and discovers two bodies frozen deep within a block of ice, a man and woman. Immediately he connects with the woman’s frozen image and becomes protective of the body as it is taken back to the research facility and the ice begins to melt.
The story flips between following Michael and his own flashbacks, and the mysterious couple, their lives during the 1800’s and how they became entombed within the sea. This keeps the reader interested in both of the story lines and prolongs the suspense; but it also seems to slow the pace of the novel.
The writing style is full of cliches and flowery descriptions; Masello seems to be suffering from an excess of adjectives. Even though the novel was partly set in the 1800’s, there is still no excuse for the use of the word ‘bosom’. Perhaps that is my own personal aversion from reading too many overwrought romance novels in my youth, it is impossible to read that word without picturing a heroine clasping something. In any case, you don’t pick up a book like this for the depth of the prose, you read it because you can’t put it down. And at that it generally succeeds. Even though it was predictable, it was still captivating enough to keep the pages turning late into the night. However, the first two thirds of the novel are a lot stronger than the remainder. Once the secrets have been revealed the plot loses its focus and heads towards an incredibly far fetched and unsatisfying ending. But, as a whole, it was worth reading.
The first book that I have read and reviewed for the 2010 Global Reading Challenge is ‘Kitchen’ by Banana Yoshimoto. It was translated from Japanese to English by Megan Backus. To read my review, please to go my Examiner article.
I have recently published a review of this year’s ‘Canada Reads’ winner, to read it please go to my Examiner page.
The book Crocheting Adventures with Hyperbolic Planes by Dr. Daina Taimina has won UK magazine The Bookseller‘s Diagram prize. For more about the prize and a list of previous winners with even more bizarre titles, please go to my Examiner article.
I just finished reading Alice Munro’s My Best Stories, a collection of short stories picked by the author. I wrote a book review that I posted on Examiner, but found that I had more to say about the book than I wanted to share in a review.
I enjoyed reading this collection, and found that I connected with many of the stories contained within. One I connected with more strongly than I would have liked. The first page of one of the stories (Friend of my Youth for anyone who is curious) described a woman who dreamed about her deceased mother and all of the emotions that this dream brought to the surface. I felt that I could have written this passage, it described my own feelings going through this exact situation. I had to put the book down and cry, at which point Scott threatened to kick Alice Munro because she upset me. He made me laugh, but I found that I was slightly angry as well, she hit a nerve and I wasn’t expecting it so I could not be prepared. On the other hand, at the same time I felt grateful. As hard as this section was to read, it was also deeply touching and reassuring to hear another person reacting to these dreams in the exact same fashion I had, even if it was a fictional character.
So, I am curious, has anyone else ever been punched in the face by a book like this? The book does not have to have brought up feelings of sorrow; have you ever read a passage that was so similar to your own experiences that you could have written it yourself? I will be interested to read any comments. . .