Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch

This is one that was short listed for the 2011 Booker eventually losing out to The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes.

I picked it up because of its intriguing title and rather droll cover. Don’t you love a book with a great cover? It’s a good read, although at times the descriptive prose tended to excess. It took me a while to get used to the author’s style and her often abrupt prose. It suits the subject matter fine though which for the most part deals with sailors and their voyages. She’s cleverly woven a coming of age story into a sailing background, which is very reminiscent of Life of Pi. But while Life of Pi has a surreal quality to it, what with the charismatic Richard Parker, this book is firmly rooted in reality. And reality is so often ugly, an ugliness that Birch describes with vivid, if occasionally noisome attention to detail.

There are parts of the story which were extremely tough for me to read, softie that I am! The ship-wreck and its aftermath, the dragon hunt & escape, the whale-killing – all very graphic, disturbing and yet imbued with a strange and terrible beauty. The other parts I enjoyed, especially her character descriptions. The description of Jaffy’s early days, his drive, his ambition and his early naiveté were very endearing. His friendship with Tim and Ishbel, his joy at working at the Menagerie and the descriptions of the animals themselves along with the emotions they might have been feeling were spot on. It was easy to understand how young Jaffy was enamoured of the animals and especially the birds, because through her prose, the author made me fall in love with that rather seamy, chaotic place too. I could smell the smells and see the looks as it were!

I enjoyed the descriptions of ‘life-at-sea’ too. Birch paints pictures with her vivid prose. Descriptions are obviously her forte. So it’s easy to imagine a ship leaving harbour, peopled with seasoned sailors, their eyes wise & sorrowful, and young boys out for an adventure, eyes bright and unafraid, untouched and unclaimed as yet by the wily sea. Easy to see her pitching on the high seas as her crew struggle for survival and battle the ocean in all its fury. And easier still to watch her anchored in a calm harbour where the beaches are lined with palm trees and where at last land offers respite, refuge and recreation. Especially loved the description of three hurricanes that dance on the water before all hell breaks loose and a definitive scene early on in the book that I’ll simply call ‘Jaffy & the Tiger’! Brilliant stuff!

But it’s not all about the descriptions, there’s a story here too, of love and friendship, of courage and sacrifice, of leaving and being left behind, of forgiving and being forgiven, of humanity and animals and whether they are as different as we like to think. I was a little confused by the choice of title, especially when the said Menagerie is absent for a good part of the story, until I realized that this is indeed a Menagerie, literally of animals and symbolically of humans, all thrown together by fate and circumstance to get along as best they can or die trying.

Although I cannot but help compare it to Life of Pi, which was for me an easier read and remains my favourite book on a similar subject, Jamrach’s Menagerie is absorbing, intelligent and thought-provoking. In short it’s everything a great read should be!

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

My Edition

I finished re-reading this book last week, while in my cotton-headed state. Perhaps it’s what prolonged that state of being for a while…the book is wont to have that effect!

I remember feeling confused, moved, restless and uneasy after reading it the first time. It was unsettling then and it is unsettling now. It is one of the few books that will haunt me forever, never leave my consciousness, probably because of the way the author deals with issues that interest me – the resilience of the human spirit and its will to survive in the face of gargantuan odds, the power of faith, the intricacies of the human mind, boundaries in the physical & ethical world, and the healing power of love that allows us to survive the worst of our nightmares, whether physical, mental or spiritual.

Love the flying fish on this one!

There are so many things I treasure about this book; it’s hard to know where to begin. An excellent story, fascinating characters and a strong interplay of science and religion (my favourite), all make for an amazing read, but if I were to start at the very beginning, I guess I would start with Pi – his name and how he got it! Piscine Molitor Patel – with a name like that, it’s almost criminal to expect a life on the straight and narrow. A name like that begs adventure, excitement, a life less ordinary! I love the author’s descriptions of the diverse environments in which the story is set. Pondicherry & the Zoo. The Sea. The Human Mind. With minimum fuss and deft strokes, he sketches each to perfection! Love the Zoo and its animals – how they live, interact and survive their cages. He explodes many myths about zoo animals, especially with regard to their need for freedom and I love how every animal story he tells (and there are many) has a lesson for us humans in it! Great writing!

I also enjoyed reading about Pi’s forays into religion and the fact that he does so more out of curiosity rather than compulsion, interested me. I appreciated the way the author has approached the subject, keeping his language, Pi’s motivation and the followers of different faiths that he encounters, simple and clear and almost one-dimensional, rather true to life I thought. Loved the nonchalant way his parents react and the dialogue that follows between them and the representatives of the three faiths that Pi has espoused, after the outing of his ‘multi-religiousness’, is delicately yet superbly done. The author manages to avoid offending sensibilities by keeping the dialogue matter of fact and to the point and I like that he doesn’t let Pi back down in the face of societal prejudice. It is one of the high points in the book for me.

The shipwreck, is so clinically described, that for a while, like Pi, I almost disbelieve that it has indeed occurred! The events that follow are gruesome, tragic and surreal, making for an awesome read, if you’re not squeamish. The description of the Sea in its various ‘avatars’, is fascinating and only fitting I thought, in a tale where it is a major, if not ‘the’ major character. At the end, when Pi hits landfall at last, is when the geography really hit me. He’s drifted from somewhere near Manila to Mexico! Incredible, unbelievable, astounding! Without giving the story away, suffice it to say, that my reactions mirrored those of the men that Pi tells his stories to in Mexico, and the fact that they did taught me something about myself, while offering important insight into the machinations of the human mind and the extreme measures it can take to ensure survival. This book reaffirms my belief that humanity is geared to survive. It is our strongest instinct and though most of us thankfully will never have to go through such extremes as Pi did to know it exists, nevertheless, it’s what keeps us going through all the petty trials and tribulations of our everyday lives.

Love this cool illustration of Pi & Parker 🙂

And so I come to Richard Parker, one of my favorite characters in literature, brilliantly imagined and written, and for me, the single reason (if I had to pick just one) this book is extraordinary! In turns abhorred and beloved, in turns friend and foe, in turns devil and savior, in turns tiger and man – he is unforgettable! Enough said 🙂

This book will offer fresh insights every time you read it. It is a many-layered story that will engage your imagination and intellect on many levels. Yet it is neither over-written nor over-thought and at its core, it is still about the universal battle of ‘good versus evil’ and relationships…with self, the rest of the world and the Almighty.

A must read!

A Headful of Cotton!

Captain Cottonhead!

It’s how I’ve been feeling these last two days!

Periods of light-headedness, with buoyant, wispy-white thoughts floating in my head; alternating with times when my head feels weighted down, heavy,  bound by thick strands of worry. It could be one of several reasons – my body is pumped full of antibiotics for a cold that has now lingered far too long; PMS (Uugh!); subconscious fears of Ishaan starting play-school and how that whole scene will play out; general ennui after a period of intense, happy activity (the recent wedding I attended); reading too much of Ms. Blyton and the Famous Five off having adventures on Kirrin island, eating all that delicious food, that made my life and meals seem oh so dull & ordinary; the weather (rain – of that irritating on again, off again variety) and many more.

I lay in bed, two nights ago, somewhere on the cusp of sleep and wakefulness, thinking about stuff (I detest cusps, astrological and otherwise! They just seem like a fancy way of saying you’re neither here nor there, you’re in Limbo, which is where exactly?), what next and other such existential questions when the phrase just popped into my head. I said it out loud to myself, unheeding of snoring hubby, and I thought, “Interesting title for a blog post!”, never mind what about! That can come later…that’s what happens when you have a headful of cotton, you don’t make any sense until all the strands and threads are woven neatly into a fabric, no loose ends. And that can take a while or forever or may never happen, for all I know. Luckily, I still remembered it in the morning. Why cotton? your guess is as good as mine! I don’t think the nature of the fabric really matters, or does it? A headful of silk or nylon or rayon just doesn’t seem right. Wool is good and applicable, but I didn’t think of it, perhaps ‘coz I’m a woman of the tropics. Cotton on the other hand, aside from linen is my favorite fabric (again, it’s a tropical thing) and just seemed at that moment to define how I felt. I held on to the line for two whole days, during which I didn’t do much at all, except think about all the stuff I have to do…trust me my to do list is beginning to read like a short story, if not a full-blown novel! I just don’t seem to be able to find the motivation to get started, to get going…sigh…

Maybe that’s what led me to re-reading Life of Pi. (Another of my life-mantras, ‘When in doubt, reach for a book!’ If nothing else, they give you a valid reason to procrastinate longer.) And so I picked two books, Life of Pi and The Silmarillion (not that strange a combination when you think about it!), took them upstairs, and began to read. I decided to start with Life of Pi, simply because I really wanted to start with the other! I’ve read both before and the latter several times and I knew that if I started on it again, I would never get around to Life of Pi. My choice has reaffirmed my belief that when in need, fate leads you down the path you need to take. This is the exact book I needed to get me out of my funk and cotton-fields and back to the real world, which is weird (or maybe not), because the story is so surreal and requires suspension of all disbelief! All I can say is Richard Parker, in all his glorious orange magnificence, did for me, exactly what he did for Piscine Molitor Patel – yanked him out of stupor and into action.

Hence this post…after two days of dawdling I finally sat myself down and forced myself to write. This is the result…can’t say it’s about anything in particular ‘coz nothing in particular is happening at the moment. But next week will bring one of Goa’s major festivals, Ganesh Chaturthi‘, the festival of the Elephant God which is celebrated in almost every household, including ours, and that will be an exciting if stressful time. This is Ishaan’s first Chaturthi and I’m looking forward to his reactions 🙂 We have 3 houses to visit this year, ours, my Mom’s and my Granny’s!

So there, that wasn’t too bad was it? Now, off to finish Pi. Will post review when I’m done.

And it is the weekend isn’t it? Happy week-ending People 🙂