The month was April – the delicious autumn, and from the shelves, falling like their leafy brethren, came even more non-fiction. One of my goals this year has been to reach for these types of books more, and god knows they have made it easy to stick to the resolution. Alex’s Adventures in Numberland was hours of fun and A History of Magic made me squirm with happiness. I also discovered that Life of Pi knows me better than I am capable of knowing myself, and Spiderweb reassures us that what we think we know about relationships is actually useless amidst the swallowing void of human evil.
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Five years ago, I had Life of Pi thrust onto me by someone who hated the thing and wanted to get rid of it. At the time, I didn’t want to take it—I wasn’t interested in reading about a boy on a life boat who talks to a tiger. No! I wouldn’t have it! Absolutely not!
This didn’t take one bit.
It didn’t matter if I wasn’t interested in it, I was the book person and had to take it anyway! Try telling someone that books and people just don’t work that way…. I threw it into a very high up place on my shelf where I couldn’t see it or think of it, and promptly forgot about it for five years.
Well, imagine my surprise one day, when I realised that ‘boy on life boat with tiger’ would actually make for a great novel. In fact, that now seemed like a marvellous idea! How new! How mesmerising! And even more brilliant—imagine, after all my fuss over not wanting to read it, actually giving it five stars!
Life of Pi is the Man Booker Prize winning novel that lunged into my heart, wrapped its arms round for a cuddle and held me resolutely until I was okay with being let go. For the ocean and the castaway, Yann Martel has provided an indispensable service. The novel would be a good companion read next to something like Robinson Crusoe or Moby Dick; the similarities between these three novels seem striking. Life of Pi even has the characteristic lists that are prevalent in Crusoe, it has the detailed passages about zoology that make up the cetology chapters in Moby Dick, and they all capture something of the beauty and sublime in that shifting oceanic mass that takes up the world with us. The conclusion is far more contemplative than Defoe’s, however. Martel makes it feel as if we have reached the weight at the bottom of a string. The dialogue in this section is one of my favourite things about the novel. It is quick, funny, and Oscar Wilde-ian—it creates a different pace that we recognise from the few macabre scenes we’ve witnessed on the life-boat (and leaves us with about as much dread).
More than anything, I was struck by Martel’s brevity, which is something I am always a little suspicious of— he can tell you about the flight patterns of birds, how wild cats have been trained for the circus, or why zoo animals take to their space in their enclosures and stay there. These are just a few examples among many, and I kept asking myself how Martel could know all of this? Is he even a human being with faults and insecurities? Suspicion about its superficiality is the only way I can cope—he makes me blush with envy! If it actually is superficial, he masks it well, or I must love it enough not to find fault with it.
It’s true; this book is a book about a boy on a boat. There is no jazzing it up. If the idea doesn’t appeal to you now, I can only say this: the appeal won’t just creep up on you, it will pounce. And it will attack with a weight that rivals a sharp-clawed, long-fanged, 450-pound Bengal Tiger.
History of Magic by The British Library
Perhaps the most extraordinary thing we can do nowadays is to wait and see what the Harry Potter production team will release next. It’s something that I and many others enjoy following, as if the information can be traded like floor specialists at the New York Stock Exchange. Among the plays and film scripts that have been unleashed at us like arrows from a bow, is a brand-new text—A History of Magic. This one hits the centre of the target.
The book is a Potterhead’s guide through the curation of magical (and muggle) artefacts that have been on exhibition at the British library. I like the book for the same reason that I like other museum guides—the curated items are picked artfully and all of them are invaluably rich and fascinating. A History of Magic has something more. It has Jim Kay illustrations, deleted manuscript excerpts, essays by prominent and prolific journalists, pictures of ancient magical texts, and endless stories that sparkle with the same whimsy of Rowling’s magic system in the books.
This is my favourite thing that the Potter Group Pty Ltd has given us; a fabulous non-fiction in its own right, and more than capable of making me smile from ear to ear.
Alex’s Adventures in Numberland by Alex Bellos
Popular maths is a genre that is hard done by in the publishing industry, so I am truly grateful that Alex Bellos has managed to cajole Bloomsbury with his wonderful literary title. Alex Bellos studied mathematics and philosophy at university—the combination could not physically be closer to perfection. Alex’s Adventures in Numberland is a book about maths for anyone who fancies numbers at any level. Why? He describes mathematics through telling stories.
Throughout the book, Alex travels to meet people who have something to say about glorious phenomena in mathematics—he meets children in Japan and discusses their remarkable dexterity for solving six-figure multiplications using the abacus, he meets the guy who has a vast collection of log scale slide-rulers, the woman that crochets non-hyperbolic surfaces, and he discusses everything from the wonderful mathematical art of origami to the Kelly method for gambling which inflicts the least ruin. Alex also paints a picture of the prominent figures who have come before— the cultural aspects of mathematics, born through the scientific revolution, are a fascinating part of our history and left entirely untapped in our humanities classes at school. The discoveries that some of our mathematicians made are so revolutionary that they are still reverberating today. This book will satiate the reader who gets giddy over names like Euclid, Riemann, Cantor, Gauss and Leibniz—they are talked about in spades, and Alex Bellos is likely the biggest fangirl of us all.
Spiderweb by Penelope Lively
Spiderweb by Penelope Lively presents the same idea about people that a lot of post-modernist novels do. In fact, the feeling is shared by a lot of contemporary English novels… Much like The Casual Vacancy and White Teeth, Spiderweb is a burning thriller which tells us that all people and all relationships are hell in constant perpetuity.
Stella is a retiring anthropologist who hasn’t made a home in any place for longer than a year. Career driven and solitary, she decides to settle down in a secluded cottage in Somerset— a beautiful, ambling, undulating landscape with pink soil and a wide-open sky. This is the dream novel for nearly all of us, but very few writers can pull it off even half so well as Lively. Now, don’t gasp too loudly when I tell you, prepare yourself for the horror—the idyllic west country town is home to the sort of struggling, angry, bitter and despondent people commonly known as ‘The Middle Class’. Mr and Mrs Hiscox and their two teenage sons are anarchy itself. Anger explodes from every artifice without reason, and their presence makes for a marvellous suspense driven narrative. Truly!
The book focusses on time and memory—some of Lively’s forever friends, and they play wonderfully into the structure of the novel. Stella’s narration is fragmentary, and we begin to understand the present-day woman through glimpses of her investigative field work, through love affairs and an old school friend, Nadine, who has passed away before the novel begins. The narrative feels like it has been created from a multi-media patch-work quilt. It just feels so clever.
Lively is not out danger yet though. She’s caught the modernist cold known as the Woolfing cough, and it has made the dialogue between her characters absolutely robotic. They sound like the type of people you’d do anything not to be friends with. Their conversations are short, rigid and passive aggressive without any cognizance of its being so. The sentence structure adopts this stream of consciousness style as well: “Went out. The door slam made the bungalow shake. Into the tractor and off.” It’s the same type of vein-scratching writing I found last year in Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. I hope to get used to it at some point if I am to dip my toe into hundreds of other 20th century novels. For me, the writing, unlike Lively’s innovative structure, is doing something too loud and obvious. Spiderweb isn’t a novel where the voice in your head reads to you; it shouts.