Book Reviews for July
Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Alexandra Fuller
I gave up on memoirs awhile back because I had read a few really popular ones that I found to be badly-written. To me, just having an interesting story to tell doesn’t make one a writer. Also, it seemed that the memoirists were constantly trying to one-up one another with who could be the most outrageous. I’m not into being shocked if there’s no insight that goes along with it. Got it, Augusten Burroughs?
Well, Fuller’s book, about her childhood in Africa, is actually wonderful, so I thank her for bringing memoirs back to me. Her prose is fluid and poetic, and she doesn’t pile the anecdotes on top of one another. Things happen slowly, they evolve, and that pace helps to build onto the two great selling points of the story: the characters and the setting.
The characters are Fuller’s parents–white adventurers who persist in trying to be farmer-ranchers out in the African bush even while drought kills the crops and violent revolutions keep forcing them to move across the border again–and her siblings. The political context makes for some treacherous footing, because in every war Fuller’s family is on the side of the colonial oppressors (because, of course, their own ancestors were the oppressors themselves), and not the African revolutionaries. Fuller doesn’t gloss over their racist attitudes, but she also paints in enough of the picture that you can feel how rooted they are in the social and economic insecurity felt by the family.
The book is personal but not overly confessional. Fuller very delicately renders the people and the era and the place and demonstrates her own love for all of it. The African setting is crucial to everything that makes her family who they are–this is why they never leave, even though their lives are sometimes pretty dire there. It feels insightful without ever needing to make any big “I am now being insightful!” statements. In fact, it reads like a novel, which, coming from me, is the highest praise.
Life of Pi, Yann Martel
What a strange and interesting story.
I think its greatest contribution as a novel is the way religion and philosophy are woven into the story–both above and beneath the surface elements. This is one of those novels that tries to pierce to the heart of what makes man, man. I tend to connect more with fictions that address smaller, closer, more personal questions, so this was not an immediate selling point for me. However, the story is great on its own–even if you don’t care for Pi’s ruminations on whether civilization can exist in a lifeboat, we still get the incredibly compelling narrative of How Pi Eats, How Pi Survives.
I’ve mentioned before my weakness for that piece of Tom-Hanks-on-an-island-is-scintillating! cinema Cast Away. I would have it on DVD if TNT didn’t play it so faithfully every weekend. Anyway, Life of Pi was the same deal, only multiplied by five. Instead of desolate land under his feet, desolate ocean under his lifeboat. Instead of alone, alone with a damn tiger.
Warning: vaguely spoilery discussion follows.
Of course, the end of the novel changed the stakes considerably by suddenly casting doubt on the reliability of Pi as a narrator. Without warning, the story we had been told became (possibly) a cover for even more horrifying events. Of course, this dovetails beautifully with the whole question of how a human being copes with being reduced to his animal instincts. By telling stories to himself. And harnessing the potent power of denial.
It was a twist, an honest-to-God twist, one I did not suspect was coming, and which, rather than making me angry for the mislead, made me rethink the ninety percent of the novel that came before it. Well-executed, well-earned.