Books in brief: 'Life of Pi' is exhilarating castaway tale

Did you hear the one about the 450-pound Bengal tiger that got away?

With prose as pristine as the tropical waters he writes about, Canadian author Yann Martel sets up a survivalist chess game between a pious Indian boy named Pi and a Royal Bengal tiger named Richard Parker — both adrift in the Pacific Ocean. Shipwrecked while transporting a menagerie of zoo animals, the two coexist in a raft no longer than 26 feet. As Pi says, "To be a castaway is to be a point perpetually at the center of a circle."

Pi's identification with circles began with school. Taking the first two letters of his first name, Piscine Molitor Patel draws a large circle on the chalk board, then for good measure, adds = 3.14. He writes: "In that elusive, irrational number with which scientists try to understand the universe, I found refuge."

Pi's circle soon expands into the realm of interspecies and a phenomenon called "zoomorphism," defined as when an animal takes a human being or another animal to be one of its kind. Martel gives the example of a whip-snapping lion tamer who must enter the ring first to show dominance. Yet, through 227 days of sun, storm and squall, 16-year-old Pi must conquer his own fears and match wits with Jupiter-headed Richard Parker.

Each chapter is a well-polished pearl. After the first 93 pages of Pi's education as a zookeeper's son, the story moves from religious devotion to a mind in motion, an exhilarating story of gut survival, of strange islands with people-eating trees and flying fish that appear like manna.

For all survivalists, escapists and thinkers alike, losing yourself in this novel is virtually guaranteed, or if anything, it will put all the tropical colors of the sea into your soul.

— David Flood

"Ariel's Crossing"
by Bradford Morrow
Putnam, $25.95

Bradford Morrow has a gift for capturing the thoughts of his utterly believable characters — the runaway teenager who creates a new identity for herself and acts it out with aplomb; the once-wild-child Vietnam vet aging thoughtfully into later-life rebellion. Morrow is also skilled at placing his novels' multigenerational inhabitants into overlapping, intriguing story lines.

His latest book builds on characters introduced in the earlier "Trinity Fields" (just out in paperback from Penguin, $14) but does so in a way that does not require familiarity with the first book.

A reader who values these strengths will find Morrow's new book worthwhile, even as he or she is frustrated by frequent difficulty in navigating narrative that is too long and dense, leaving one unmoored and reading along rather worriedly until the clouds lift or a familiar landmark reappears.

"Ariel's Crossing" will, however, appeal to other writers who labor to use multiple points of view to examine a conflict or period of change within an extended family. Morrow creates myriad personalities and differentiates between their thought processes in subtle ways. Parsing his methods provides much food for thought.

One of his best character studies opens the book: "Dona Francisca de Peña never believed in ghosts, and even after she became one herself she couldn't help but have her doubts." Morrow writes of his ghost-lady: "One thing she missed, however, was the raw tactility of her former waking life. She never bruised or bled now. Drought didn't make her thirsty. Winter frost failed to chill her. She walked the fields unable to feel the sharp stalks of corn or bulbs of purple garlic. Raindrops in their hurry to reach the ground passed through her body." Such finery is found throughout the book, but better editing would have smoothed out the whole cloth into something more enjoyable.

— Kimberly Marlowe

"A New World Order"
by Caryl Phillips
Vintage, $14

Four years ago, Caryl Phillips' lawyer asked him a rather grim hypothetical question: In the event of his death, how did Phillips want his body disposed of?

One can understand the lawyer's confusion. Born in St. Kitts, raised in England and writing in New York, Phillips has ties to at least three geographical areas. Phillips, however, did not hesitate to reply. " 'I wish my ashes to be scattered in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean,' he said, 'at a point equidistant between Britain, Africa, and North America.' "

In "A New World Order," Phillips navigates this triangle with a series of essays on the lives of writers and artists who share his sense of exile. In the first section, he examines the careers of Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Marvin Gaye, all of whom left America because of its racism only to encounter it in different forms elsewhere. The second part features a terrific essay on V.S. Naipaul, in which Phillips attempts to understand why the Trinidad-born novelist has clung to "displacement like a floating buoy." The third and final segments feature rigorous investigations into the novels of J.M. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer and Zadie Smith, among others.

Although some essays in "A New World Order" have a rushed, work-for-hire quality to them, the pieces come together nicely as a whole. In focusing on the lives of artists, actors and writers, Phillips captures their anguish of being "of, and not of," the countries they inhabit, places they can never truly call home.

— John Freeman

"The Idea of Perfection"
by Kate Grenville
Viking, $24.95

Kate Grenville's new novel "The Idea of Perfection" is dedicated to the proposition that perfection is in the mind of the beholder. No clearer illustration of the point exists than the novel itself, gracefully written, flush with empathetic insights, winner of the Orange Prize, said to be one of Britain's most valuable literary awards. And yet I found myself slogging through it, out of sympathy and out of patience with its characters.

Grenville makes her point by contrasting two women: Harley Savage, a rawboned, stony-faced widow come to help a small town (pop. 1,374) set up a heritage museum, and Felicity Porcelline, the beautiful blond banker's wife, who avoids smiling because it causes wrinkles. Enter Douglas Cheesman, a shy 55-year-old engineer with jug ears, who has been sent to oversee replacement of the town's "bent bridge," whose piers shifted downstream during a flood. The townspeople like it curved. To them, an old bridge bent into a curve is perfect.

Grenville catches each of the three in private moments, plagued by loneliness and alienation. Felicity lusts after the town butcher, who stirs her because he is Chinese. The book's highlight surrounds her unflagging denials of what she is doing even as she is doing it. Cheesman lusts after Harley Savage, whom he woos by lecturing her on the properties of concrete. "The thing no one seemed to really appreciate about concrete was the way it was a kind of negative. It just took up whatever space was left vacant for it. You could say it revealed the shape of the imagination."

Harley makes gray quilts, and tries to avoid feeding the dog who has adopted her. The self-absorption is staggering. By the time they ultimately got together, I had ceased to care.

— Deloris Tarzan Ament

"Life of Pi"

by Yann Martel
Harcourt, $25

Yann Martel will read from "Life of Pi" at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Seattle's University Book Store, 206-634-3400, and at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co., 206-624-6600.

Author appearance

Bradford Morrow will read from "Ariel's Crossing" at 8 p.m. Monday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co., 206-624-6600.