Is there Life After Pi?

Life of Pi
Life of Pi

Author Yann Martel could be forgiven for wondering if there would be life after Pi, given the smash success of his book Life of Pi.

Almost everyone loved Life of Pi – it has even been made into a blockbuster film. I say almost everyone, as truth be told, I was not that much of a fan. And a shared rite of passage road trip with my husband (watching the film of the book on a tiny screen on a bus jolting from Pnomh Penh to Siem Riep in Cambodia) didn’t do it any favours either. It was a trip as far removed from cool waters and tigers as it was possible to be. To this day there are small pockets of Cambodian dust nestled in my luggage. I can picture us still, sitting jammed into seats designed for daintier people, with our individual thought bubbles whimpering “We should have flown. We should have flown”.

The High Mountains of Portugal
Life After Pi

So I was ready,  in a clean-slate kind of way, for Martel’s next offering The High Mountains of Portugal. Devoid of tigers, small boats and large oceans, Martel has instead turned his prodigious story-telling talents to include three interlocking tales, all set in Portugal and all involving love, loss and the meaning of life. It is at one and the same time an intricate, yet mesmerising read. If I do not allow myself to become too distracted by certain wierdnesses (take backward walking, the Jesus Christ/Agatha Christie connection and the Iberian Rhinoceros for example), I would sum it up as follows:

  • In any life, there will be some bad times of loss and heartbreak
  • You will need to be able to ask for help
  • You will need to be specific with your requests for said help
  • Help will also come from unexpected quarters
  • Always read the instruction manual carefully
  • A lot of your problems you will have brought upon yourself
  • While you yourself are hurting, you are still capable of inflicting great harm on others

One hundred years of solitude

It is such a rare read, that in the end you may find yourself falling back on prior reading connections to make any sense of it all. It reminded me of the magical realism of 100 Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez) and the poem Kindness by my favourite poet Naomi Shahib Nye. But mostly what it did not remind me of was the author’s previous novel, Life of Pi.

And one final point – nowadays we are all keen to trumpet what great films certain books would make. I can tell you with absolute certainty that I do not believe The High Mountains of Portugal will ever be made into a film.

You are going to have to read it!

Three sides to every story

9780751563375They always say there are two sides to a story, but in this case there are three.

In 1987 Betty Mahmoody published her famous bestseller Not Without My Daughter, the story of her life as a prisoner of a violent man and an alien culture and her subsequent escape.

Recently her daughter has published her own book My Name is Mahtob telling what is billed as the ‘whole story’ of imprisonment, escape and her life after fleeing Iran.

Not to be outdone,  the ex-husband has now published his side of the story, Lost Without My Daughter.

Lost Without My Daughter is a cultural and political history of Iran, from the revolution to the present day. Perhaps more than anything, it is an exercise in truth, the last-ditch attempt of a father desperate to reach his daughter, to let her know that he is not the monster he has been portrayed to be.

So read all three and come to your own conclusions.

Headscarves and hymens: Why the Middle East needs a sexual revolution

Mona Eltahawy by Personaldemocracy. cc by-sa 2.0

Over the years I’ve had ambivalent feelings toward feminism.

However, this has changed markedly as I’ve encountered the work of people like Egyptian-American journalist and feminist commentator Mona Eltahawy, whose book Headscarves and Hymens states the case for “why the Middle East needs a sexual revolution”…and arguably a reformation.

This book came up on my radar because some argue it’s a key feminist work! And such works are important because they bring feminist issues to the forefront of the simple male mind, making me much more sympathetic toward the feminist movement and forgiving feminism’s sins against me…

After all, as a child, I blamed feminism for mother forbidding me to play with the muscular toy figurine G.I Joe, the plastic embodiment of the American military industrial complex.

Mother didn’t want me corrupted by a perverted depiction of masculinity, which promoted jingoistic American nationalism and war.

However, as I’ve grown older, and gotten (somewhat) educated, I came to realize that feminism is critical to the evolution of civilisation…

For most of history, the “fairer sex” has been subjugated by wicked men like G.I Joe, who deprive women of their civil liberties and sit on the couch in their horrible underwear, with their feet on the Ikea coffee table.

Which bring’s my trivial childhood recollections to an end, because sadly, the political, economic and social circumstances many women endure the world over are harsh and lamentable… such as those depicted in this read…

Headscarves and HymensIn this book, Eltahawy argues that throughout most of the Middle East, women experience on-going political, economic and social subjugation. She claims this is a region which doesn’t uphold plurality, individuality, autonomy and tolerance: the principles which underpin Women’s Rights in various countries.

There is a catalogue of personal experiences and statistics which Eltahawy refers to in order to buttress her impassioned claims.

Her travels into Egypt’s social and political cocktail of unrest gave her a multitude of insights into what many female citizens face there: simply walking through public spaces and riding trains means enduring a gauntlet of ungoverned, regular and almost casual sexual harassment. Women have no recourse against this because the Egyptian state doesn’t seem to care about this sexually violent culture.

Further to this, Eltahawy was arbitrarily imprisoned, sexually assaulted and beaten by Egyptian police after she partook in protests there.

Eltahawy argues thousands of women share these kinds of experiences throughout the entire Middle East every day.

She details how women have little economic and legal mobility in the region. Custody disputes over children, domestic violence, divorce and succession etc are regulated and determined by laws derived from archaic religious statutes, which favour men and almost completely deprive women of any control over family or assets.

Even basic privileges are denied, such as driving, participation in sports, wearing make up (because it “prompts sexual harassment’), and travelling alone without a male family member. Much of which is overseen by religious police throughout the region.

Elathawy argues this totalitarianism is the result of ultra-conservative Wahhabist and Sunni Islamic doctrines which are espoused throughout much of the Middle East and North Africa.

Critics have argued that her views are analytically shallow – that the Middle East is not culturally and theologically homogeneous, and that she posits mono-causal explanations that are borne out of her own Western-centricity which is covered by a misguided feminist veil.

However, that being said, a fact check on Pew, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International websites seem to support her claims.

In any case, this book has shone a light on my own white, male privilege, reminding me that feminism is a critical movement for humankind, and not just a force which wants to send young boys to school in Roman sandals.

Have a read and see what you think – of course your amazing Christchurch City Libraries network has copies you can borrow.

Our blog is a forum for public debate and as such we welcome your comments and feedback on our posts. Opinions expressed in posts and in the comments are not necessarily those of the organisation. 

Happy Hanukkah!

“Monica, Monica, have a happy Hanukkah!” I’m a tad ashamed to say that, yes, the first thing that comes to mind when I hear the word Hanukkah is Phoebe’s holiday song in Friends.  I suspect that I may not be alone in my limited awareness…

Beth El Synagogue, Christchurch [1901]
Beth El Synagogue, Christchurch [1901], CCLPhotoCD 6, IMG0079
Yet Hanukkah is one of the most popular Jewish religious holidays and people with Jewish heritage have played an important role in New Zealand since the first days of European settlement.

As the book Jewish Lives in New Zealand points out, Auckland alone has had five Jewish mayors. New Zealand’s first woman doctor, Emily Siedeberg, and first woman lawyer, Ethel Benjamin, were both Jewish.  Similarly, Jewish families, like the Keesings, de Beers, Ashers, and Hallensteins, were and are still prominent in the business community.

So what is Hanukkah? Traditionally it celebrates the rededication of the Holy Temple in 165 BCE, when, after a three-year struggle led by Judah Maccabee, the Jews in Judea defeated Antiochus IV, the Seleucid king who had invaded Judea.

The celebrations last 8 days and involve lighting candles each night in the menorah, a special eight-branched candelabrum. Scriptures are read each day and a special hymn is sung.

Cover of Jewish Holidays CookbookAnd what would  a celebration be without special food? Potato pancakes (latkes), doughnuts, and other treats fried in oil take the starring role at Hanukkah. Children receive presents and gifts of money (Hanukkah gelt), which may be the real thing or chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil.

Today is the last day of Hanukkah for 2015, so Happy Hanukkah to all who are celebrating!

If you do observe Hanukkah, why not share some of your family’s traditions?

Cool stuff from the Selectors

Art, fashion, religion, sport with a touch of history and death thrown in for good measure.  Check out some cool stuff from the selectors this month.

Art and Fashion: Collaborations and Connections Between Icons

Cover of Art and Fashion: Collaborations and Connections Between Icons

Spanning numerous eras, men and women’s fashion, and a wide range of art mediums, these 25 collaborative projects reveal the astonishing work that results when luminaries from the art world (such as Pollock, Haring, and Hirst) come together with icons of the fashion world (including Saint Laurent, Westwood, McQueen).  A good book for flicking through admiring the pictures, but also includes thoughtful essays for those of you who like a bit more detail.

Art and religion in the 21st Century

Cover of Art and Religion in the 21st CenturyThis book shows how religious themes and images continue to permeate the work of contemporary artists from across the globe.  Some exploit the shock potential of religious imagery, but many also reflect deeply on spiritual matters. Each of the ten chapters opens by introducing a theme, followed by a selection of works of art that develop that theme. The book encompasses a wide range of media and genres, from sculpture to street art, and considers faith in its broadest sense from Islam and Christianity to Aboriginal mythology and meditation.

Old Sparky: The Electric Chair and the History of the Death Penalty

Cover of Old Sparky: The electric Chair and the History of the Death PenaltyOld Sparky covers the history of capital punishment in America and the “current wars” between Edison and Westinghouse which led to the development of the electric chair. It examines how the electric chair became the most popular method of execution in America, before being superseded by lethal injection. Famous executions are explored, alongside quirky last meals and poignant last words.

The Rugby World Cup: The Definitive Photographic History

Cover of The Rugby World Cup the definitive photographic historyA visual history of rugby’s greatest sporting event, this beautiful photographic book is a chronological exploration of the matches, teams, heroes and surrounding stories of the tournament. Each chapter covers a Rugby World Cup, starting with the inaugural competition in 1987,  the historical 1995 Rugby World Cup in South Africa after the end of apartheid, through to England’s win in 2003 breaking the southern hemisphere’s dominance and up to the 2015 qualifiers.  A handy reference guide to keep you awake for those early morning starts!

Why I still love reading fiction

Cover: Uppity Women of Medieval TimesYou have to worry when several of your favourite friends stop reading fiction and switch their allegiance to biographies. I’ve racked my brains and can honestly say I don’t believe I have ever  read an entire biography. If they don’t have pictures, I don’t even start. If they have pictures I only look at those. And if I do struggle through a couple of chapters, I always feel that, even if  truth is stranger than fiction (and I can so dispute that), it is not always very well written.

The closest I have got to a biography recently is a small non-fiction book on Julian of Norwich entitled Revelations of Divine Love. She is famous for this quote:

All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.

She is less well known as the first writer of English who can be identified with certainty as a woman. And this in 1373. Translated from Old English, this is an uplifting, poetic read. Emboldened by this success, I moved on to the arrestingly entitled Uppity Women of Medieval Times by Vicki Leon. Fascinating, but not a biography and still not a patch on good fiction.

Cover: Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour BookstoreFiction is like the little girl with the curl right in the middle of her forehead: when it is good, it is very very good, but when it is bad it is horrid. Freed from the constraints that truth telling imposes, fiction remains heartbreakingly creative, brave and full of surprises.

At exactly this point, a long awaited fiction hold came my way – Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Book Store by Robin Sloane. With a quirky main character, an eccentric book store, weird customers who read bizarre books that have been written in code, and a playful mysteriousness, it pushes the boundaries of fiction writing just as good fiction writing should.

Both books sat on my bedside table. I dipped into the Julian of Norwich but finished the day with a read of Mr Penumbra. I don’t know why, but I woke about twenty minutes later. The room had an eery glow that came from my bedside table. In my befuddled state I thought I might be having a religious experience. But no. It was Mr Penumbra’s fluorescent cover gleaming in the dark.

So now I can legitimately say (and I have waited a long time for this moment):  this book will leave you with a glow. It will light up your life.

Just as good fiction so often does.

Reach for the stars

Search the catalogue for AstronomyI’ve been doing a lot of navel gazing lately. You know the stuff – Who am I?, What am I doing with my life?, Why am I here?, etc, etc, etc. I guess it’s all to do with my age (isn’t it always) and the fact that I’ve come through a massive great earthquake and lived to tell the tale. One of the DIY self-help books I read recently made me pause for thought. It asked, “If money was no issue and you had all the time in the world, what would you do for work?”

Now, I’m a very happy and contented librarian but there is a small part of me that yearns to know more about astronomy. I visited the Mt John Observatory last year and was overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of space. If I had my time over, I’d conquer my irrational fear of physics and study the stars.

However, it’s never too late to learn and Christchurch City Libraries has many resources for those of us who want to explore new boundaries and expand our extragalactic knowledge.

It seems the more astronomers discover about space, the larger and more complex it becomes. No one believes there’s much chance of bumping into Vulcans or Klingons by traveling at warp speed to the next galaxy any more. Now we’re talking of globular clusters, cosmic strings, and quasars kiloparsecs away. The search for the meaning of life continues in a universe vast beyond measure.

Although poles apart in dimension, it seems to me that self-engrossed introspection and extraterrestrial investigation have a lot in common. Both ponder the mystery of time and existence. It’s only the scale that varies.

Did you hear about Fat Tuesday?

My mother would tell me there  is “nothing new under the sun” which is her way of telling me that nothing I do surprises her anymore! Oh dear. It  also tells us that everything has its own history and terms we all take for granted have a much richer context than we realise. A fantastic example of this is the term Mardi Gras. When I think of Mardi Gras I think of New Orleans and Jazz music but all is not as it seems.

According to Credo, Mardi Gras comes from the French for ‘Fat Tuesday’! This comes from  the custom of using up all the fat in the household before the beginning of Lent (which started on Wednesday 13February this year). It represented the last opportunity for playing up and  indulging in food and drink before the solemn season of fasting. Hence the carnivals (from the Latin ‘to take away meat’) in many parts of the world, including Italy, Brazil and of course New Orleans.

It seems in my ignorance I have been practicing ‘Fat Tuesdays’ and Lent for a while –  I am forever gorging myself on food and then entering a period of repentance. Unfortunately my motives are not derived from a need to seek forgiveness but to just get back into the same pants I was wearing this time last year. The sin of gluttony and vanity are upon me so perhaps I should concentrate less on the festival aspect of life and more on the denial of Lent!

Best names in a novel. Ever.

Cover: The Elephant Keepers' ChildrenDo you remember Danish author Peter Høeg’s hugely popular Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow? I’ve just finished reading his latest novel The Elephant Keepers’ Children and what a rollicking good read it turned out to be.

To begin with, let’s just settle the little matter of the title. No Elephants were harmed in the making of this book. The Keepers are a pastor and his organist wife, and it’s their Children who steal the show.

Peter and his sister Tilte have lost their parents, who have quite simply disappeared. Set in Denmark and translated from Danish, the story is narrated by Peter. The elephant in their parents’ room is that:

They want to know what God really is. That is what they live for.

Enter a cast of eccentric characters from almost every religion in the world as the two precocious children set out to rescue their parents, who in Peter’s own words are:

beyond the pale and have now ventured out into the field of miracles.

But it is over the naming of the characters that I want to throw down the gauntlet here: this novel has the most creatively named characters that I have encountered in an adult fiction book in a long, long time. Other than a smattering of Dickens characters and some of the names created in Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast Trilogy, this is the first time in ages that the names given to characters have made such an impact on me. They roll off the tongue and they beg to be said out loud; here’s a sample:

  • Alexander Beastly Flounderblood
  • Bishop Anaflabia Borderrud
  • Professor Thorkild Thorlacius-Claptrap
  • Leonora Ticklepalate (an expert in Information Technology!)
  • Einar Flogginfellow
  • Sinbad Al-Blablab

It made me wonder – were I a character in one of Peter Høeg’s books, what name would I be given? How about – Robertina Blogabit-Talkalot?

But here’s what I’m building up to: how important is the naming of characters in novels and have you got any great examples you’d like to share with us?

Stepping lightly into twenty thirteen

Cover: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold FryWhen country singer Patsy Cline went out walking after midnight, we can be fairly certain she wasn’t after getting from A to B, nor was she looking to slim down and get fit. No, Patsy was after some soul searching. And walking for the soul has just hit its bookish straps. This is a soul walking blog with no mention  made of pedometers or lycra. Just strap on your metaphorical hiking boots and let’s get spiritual.

Many moons ago when I had long permed hair, listened to Woodstock Festival music and wore floaty tie-dye dresses, I read The Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananada. It was all mind blowing, but I remember best the descriptions of spiritual walkers (lung-gom pa) who could take giant steps and sort of fly over the Himalayas. I wanted to do that so badly.

More recently I have stumbled on book after book where the main character just ups sticks and walks off into the wide blue yonder. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce is a lovely, gentle read about a man who walks the length of England to make a long overdue apology, and in The Lighthouse, by Alison Moore, the main character, newly separated from his wife, goes on a “restorative walking holiday”. Both books made the 2012 Man Booker Prize long list. Is that a sign of the times or what?

But wait, there’s more … In The Year of the Hare  by Arto Paasilinna, a man involved in a minor car crash walks away from his career, his marriage and his friends and wanders around Finland with a hare in his pocket. All the men in these novels learn a lot about themselves, to the dismay/rage of their left-at-home wives.

Walking for the soul has a long history that shows no signs of dying out. In fact, it’s starting to look as if we are hardwired to want to do it. For example, the popularity of pilgrimages to locations such as  Santiago de Compostela has increased over time and the library has many resources to inspire pilgrim hopefuls.

How about you, have you ever wanted to walk out of the house – alone – and keep going until you can go no further? Have you wanted to slow right down and think your thinks while placing one foot in front of the other? And, most importantly, have you remembered to arrange for your significant other to come and fetch you when you have had enough?

If any of this has crossed your mind, maybe 2013 will be the year when we all seriously decide to walk the walk.