Monthly Archives: February 2012

5) 13 Little Blue Envelopes

By: Maureen Johnson

Date Finished: 02.18.12

By Maureen Johnson

“I always thought that I could only do things with you, that you made me more interesting.  But I guess I was wrong.”

A shy high school girl is led across Europe by thirteen letters, to be opened at specific points along the way.  The adventure is orchestrated by Ginny’s “Runaway Aunt” who is the quintessential free-spirited artist.  Ginny’s journey is a string of random encounters that carry her far from her comfort zone, but she follows the instructions as faithfully as she can.  As it turns out, Ginny is retracing the steps her aunt Peg took some months earlier.

There’s so much good stuff in this book, it’s hard to know what to talk about.  I found the characters extremely relatable — which wasn’t difficult for me since I’m a rather shy member of the theatre community and therefore saw quite a bit of myself in both Ginny and Aunt Peg.  I trust an outgoing athlete or engineer could enjoy the story, but not to the same extent.  Plus, the whole concept is exhilarating.  How exciting would it be to take a vacation where your only guide is a set of letters?  How much fun would it be to do that for someone else?  There’s something inherently magical and terrifying in actually following such a plan, and Johnson brilliantly captures both aspects.  Yes, the idea of wandering around Europe is romantic, but Johnson never lets us forget the reality of the situation.  On your own, it can be downright scary, and Ginny has to tackle some pretty big (and reasonable) insecurities to do what she does.

The writing is smart and honest.  Johnson doesn’t waste a word or an image or the reader’s time.  Everything matters.  It’s thrilling to see that kind of writing in action.  What I liked best (even though it sounds a bit mundane) are her character descriptions.  As a necessity of the plot, Ginny meets many strangers in a succession of cameos.  Each new person has a short paragraph, a snapshot really, dedicated to their looks and demeanor.  The introduction is brief, yet you knew the person immediately.  It’s sheer craftsmanship.

I try to talk about the book, but my thoughts keep spinning off toward more grandiose topics (such as The Role of Art in Daily Life or the Practicalities of Life As an Artist).  I think the simplest review is this: I am the target audience.  Maybe less in the archery sense, but more in a Venn Diagram sense — Johnson’s audience could be in any of three circles and I happen to touch all three (something like that).  I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for a book club or anything, but it sure provoked a lot of thought in me.

At the end of the day: For me.

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4) Life of Pi

By: Yann Martel

Date Finished: 02.17.12

By Yann Martel

“A boy of many faiths.  A 450-pound Bengal tiger.  A shipwreck.  A lifeboat.  The Pacific Ocean.”  That is the full description on the back of the book.  Word of mouth speaks favorably of the book, so I suppose there’s not much more to be said.

I’d say Life of Pi has been romanticized (and understandably so) where most people have forgotten the experience of reading this book.  For a long time I worried that I would reach the last page and not know where the exposition had stopped.  Then, like flipping a switch, the story began.  And the actual boy-tiger-shipwreck-lifeboat-ocean story was a pretty good one.  To be fair, I was grateful for a degree of the background information, but it takes resolve to make it through the slow opening.  In contrast, the last page did not provide much of an ending.  The front cover features a quote from the San Francisco Chronicle that says, “It’s difficult to stop reading when the pages run out.”  In the early days of my reading, I scoffed at the idea, but it’s true.  Nothing about the last lines feel final.

Other than the dragging exposition and the abrupt ending, I truly enjoyed the writing .  Pi’s voice is distinctive and comfortable to listen to.  His storytelling is just the right mixture of linear antidotes and leaps from one thought to another.  I loved the way the chapters are laid out — a patternless cadence of short, moderate, and very long chapters.  My favorite is “CHAPTER 97  The story.”  Only one other chapter is a single sentence, a thought outside the immediate situation, yet vitally important — it is the most profound chapter in the book.  This unsteady rhythm and the shifts in subjects kept me engaged in the story.

Is it possible for pacing to both kill and save a book?

Reading this, I discovered that I don’t care much for survival stories.  Give me magic, fantastical beasts, or even a useless fairy.  If nothing else, give me a nice mystery with funny and/or clever people.   But the necessary components of a survival story — particularly the alone-ness of the protagonist and the monotony of the circumstances — simply do not appeal to me.

At the end of the day: A one-time read