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Review: ‘Beatrice and Virgil’ by Yann Martel

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.

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Review: ‘Blood and Ice’ by Robert Masello

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.

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Review: ‘Nikolski’ by Nicolas Dickner

I have recently published a review of this year’s ‘Canada Reads’ winner, to read it please go to my Examiner page.

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The best of Alice Munro

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. . .

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E. L. Doctorow’s ‘Homer and Langley’

Homer and Langley by E.L. Doctorow. Random House, 2009.

What would cause two brothers to fill their home with over 100 tons of refuse and clutter?

Doctorow has based his latest novel on two brothers who were notorious recluses in Harlem, New York City. It was widely publicized in 1947 when the Collyers were found dead in their brownstone underneath heaps of newspapers and debris. A quick google image search will come up with photographs of the crumbling home with stacks of garbage rising to the ceiling. Even today, the term ‘Collyer’s mansion‘ is used by many fire departments to describe a home is dangerous and a fire hazard due to hoarding. How do two brothers end up living in such conditions? Why had they shut themselves off from the outside world? Why did they hoard so many items, including no less than fourteen pianos?

It is easy to see why Doctorow felt compelled to write about these men and try to answer some of these questions.

Although based on their actual lives, Homer and Langley, is a work of fiction. Doctorow creates his own characters out of the real people and develops plot out of these characters. He extends their lives; has them become gurus to a group of hippies. Doctorow adds auxiliary characters that move in and out of the Collyer mansion while the brothers themselves remain stationary. One can imagine that the lives of the real brothers were even more isolated and tragic.

Doctorow is able to delve into the forces that make people withdraw from society. The reader almost understands why Langley is compelled to collect and hoard such a variety of items. But you still find yourself wanting to yell at these characters, to tell them not to hide from the world. As a reader you become frustrated and unsure if Doctorow has done this purposefully, or if this is a fault in the novel. It seems that he has not gone deeply enough into their movitations and reasoning.

Perhaps part of this frustration comes from the fact that the narrating brother is blind. The reader feels as if they have to be missing part of the picture, seeing the brother’s lives through unseeing eyes. It becomes stifling, but maybe this is part of the brilliance of Doctorow’s writing; how else would a blind man surrounded by towers of newspaper feel?

In the end, Homer and Langley is a good, short read. The ending of the book captures the horror that many people must have felt in 1947, when the brothers’ bodies were discovered. It is not Doctorow’s best work, but it is worth reading. Partly because it is based on such a sad true story, these characters within will resonate with the reader long after the book is finished.

For more about the real Collyers, click here.Photo: Random House

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Review: Douglas Coupland’s ‘Generation A’

To go to my review on the Examiner.com site, please click here.

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Review of William Styron’s ‘The Suicide Run’

To go to a link of this article on Examiner.com, please click here.

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