Just Beneath the Surface


I’ve been considering the various explanations of the film, “Life of Pi” and its meaning. My first impression was that this was a prototypical example of magical realism. Ang Lee’s direction captured the novel elegantly. The use of CGI was not distracting – the tiger and orangutan were portrayed believably. Then my friend, Mark, introduced me to his metalinguistic view – that Pi is a story about the power of story-telling. “Life of Pi” shows what happens when a writer who, after recently abandoning a novel he’s worked on for two years, interviews a man named Pi who tells the writer a strange, disturbing tale that is also wonderful but thoroughly implausible. The Writer does not fully believe. So Pi tells an “alternate” story based on the same events as the first, but which is not as fanciful. Pi then asks the writer, “Which story do you prefer?”

The first story is a fantasy about a boy and a tiger, shipwrecked and sharing a lifeboat in the Pacific for 277 days. The boy experiences strange events, visions of beauty and horror in the depths of the ocean and floating among the stars; he briefly stays on a floating, carnivorous island inhabited by thousands of meercats. Eventually, the boy is washed ashore in Mexico where he recovers. While in the hospital, the ship’s investigators question him about his lifeboat experiences. They don’t believe his story of sharing the lifeboat with a starving tiger so he tells a second story which is more realistic and also more troubling.

The writer, when asked which story he prefers, answers, “The one with the tiger.” Pi then responds, “so it is with God,” suggesting to the writer and the viewer that God prefers to communicate with fanciful, meaningful stories, even if the stories are not literally true. The power of Life of Pi owes more to imagination than to verisimilitude. The fundamental idea is that we humans are emotional creatures who respond to stories that resonate in us, whether fact-based or not.

A further consideration about the religious message in Life of Pi, and the truth of God and his interventions in our lives, considers all three faiths that young Pi explores. The Writer character, promised a story that would make him believe in God, questions adult Pi about the influence of each one. Pi struggles to reconcile the differences between faith interpretations – specifically Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam, acknowledging each contains valuable elements, even as they tell different stories. What he knows is that faith elements helped him survive his ordeal at sea.

Pi does not believe that any of the world’s religions have cornered the market on the truth and his intention is not to proselytize a specific dogma. Rather, his stories are intended to help the Writer consider which version of the world he prefers. Is it the version where he makes his way, without regards to the mystical, or the other where he can accept a presence greater than himself? That writer, like the Japanese investigators and we viewers, choose the latter.

Setting aside the story’s religious elements, an alternative theory takes a psychological perspective. And, as a psychologist, this perspective resonates with me. The characters in both stories, animals and people, represent various elements of the self – the brute, the innocent, the seeker, the protector. It is the raft, something Pi constructs himself and where he must retreat in order to save himself from the malevolent tiger, that represents faith. Does Pi truly co-exist with the tiger for those 227 days? Or is the animal story a defense mechanism that allows Pi to survive the rescue? To be able to live with the memory of the horrors he experienced with the others who survived, only for awhile?

Life of Pi is a moving story. And it is effective in its ability to reveal without showing, those elements of faith and survival that lie for all of us, regardless of our disparate experiences, just beneath the surface of our told stories.


Hollywood’s legendary Chateau Marmont


I’m reading “Life at the Marmont: The Inside Story of Hollywood’s Legendary Hotel of the Stars, Chateau Marmont,” by Raymond Sarlot, the hotel’s owner from 1975 – 1991, and Fred Basten, an accomplished chronicler of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Together, Sarlot and Basten explore its history, dispel its myths, and flesh out the legends of the incomparable Marmont Hotel. The book was originally published in 1987. In the 2013 Penguin Books edition, Basten provides an afterword that brings the Marmont Hotel’s elite guest list up to date.

As you might expect, the book contains a treasure trove of celebrity stories and gossip, from the 1930’s through the 21st century. Hundreds of people were interviewed for the book, including former guests Lauren Bacall, Yul Brynner, Richard Chamberlain, Glenn Ford, Louis Malle, Robert Osborne, Lynn Redgrave, Ginger Rogers, and Donald Sutherland. The authors also share stories about the hotel itself, its renowned decor, long-tenured staff, and less well known, private playpens that existed outside of public view. Chateau Marmont overlooks Sunset Boulevard, but the views that these authors reveal are much more intriguing than the Los Angeles skyline.

The story of the Marmont parallels the evolution of early Hollywood, through its heydays in the 40’s and 50’s, and the studios’ challenges from radio, television and digital media. The book links the past with the present in a steady stream of intriguing episodes. Yes, it’s gossipy but the authors are respectful; for example, they handle to unfortunate death of John Belushi with care and compassion. Its stories aren’t limited to actors, either. Sarlot and Basten include events that featured writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, studio chiefs like Harry Cohn and Louis B. Mayer, and musicians like Edith Piaf, Mick Jagger, and John Lennon.

This book contains all of the glamour, the fantasy, and the dishy-ness that any Hollywood Babylon junkie could want. It’s a fun read and I recommend it whole-heatedly.

Repurposing books

I’m interested in ideas about repurposing old books and I’ve seen some clever ones, but I’m ambivalent about the process. Most of the ideas involve dismantling the books, scooping out their insides and using the covers. Or cutting pages and photography into interesting shapes and reusing them for art projects or decor. That’s hard for me to consider doing. It’s not as if I have a limited supply of old books with yellowed pages to use. There’s just something about cutting away pages from bindings that troubles me.
Still, no one wants these old books. They’re so yellowed they’re barely readable. The best thing about them are their bindings. So, here are a few of the projects I’ve considered.
book planter [PLANTER]
cookbook [KITCHEN CADDY]
book purse [HANDBAG]

Dear readers, have you used books in unique ways?

Summer Reading

Ah, summer. When serious readers can indulge their guilty pleasures. Mine includes the serial crime novels of James Lee Burke. This summer, I’m reading #20 in the Dave Robichaux novel series, “Light of the World.” Burke’s novels are very popular summer reads. Their publication dates frequently occur in July. He’s won the Edgar Award twice for Best Crime Novel of the Year. Early in his career, Burke was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and NEA grant, and was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Two of his Robichaux novels have been made into films.

“Light of the World” received mixed reviews this summer but I’m undeterred. I’m a fan, not just of the writer but of his characters, Dave and Cletus. I’m willing to suspend disbelief, despite the fact that both of these former New Orleans cops and Vietnam vets are, by my calculation, well into their 70’s and yet still capable of tramping through wilderness and lugging heavy armaments when needed.

Burke’s plots are fairly straightforward. It’s character development that emerges as his great strength as a crime novelist. I find myself coming back with each new novel to join these compelling characters in their world of victims and villains, heroes and anti-heroes. I’ve dabbled in other crime series, including Sue Grafton’s alphabet series and Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware, but none have captured my imagination like James Lee Burke.

The Line of Beauty

While on vacation I read Alan Holinghurst’s “The Line of Beauty,” his Booker prize winning novel from 2004. Last summer, I picked up his 2011 novel, “The Stranger’s Child,” which was famously passed over for the same prize. I chose it knowing nothing about the British author or the controversy that resulted from the Booker oversight. It reminded me of an updated E. M. Forster story…a bit of “Howard’s End” with gay characters.

It was Holinghurst’s prose that captivated me last summer but I read the novel like a starving woman at a banquet, too greedily. This year, I worked backwards in his oeuvre, reading slowly, savoring his enchanting cadences for all their beautiful antiquarianisms, with plans to read his 1994 book, “The Folding Star,” next.

Hollinghurst is an Oxford educated Brit whose prose garners high praise for its lyrical qualities. He, like his narrator, is Jamesian in way he turns phrases. This prize-winning novel is set in London in the 1980’s during the rise of the Tories under Margaret Thatcher. It follows a young, gay Oxford graduate pursuing his doctorate, whose thesis focuses on Henry James, as he navigates London’s gay community as it slowly emerges from the shadows. The novel also explores the era’s changes in class and status in London’s ruling class, along with the emergence of AIDS and the burgeoning drug trade.

Holinghurst’s novels are frequently explicit in describing gay sex. James Woods’ 2011 review of “The Stranger’s Child” described the novel as “circling around the suppressed and repressed gay experience.” In “The Line of Beauty” Holinghurst describes its narrator, Nick, coming of age in London in the 1980’s directly, without much circling.

The real story, though, explores class distinctions. Nick’s romantic partner is flush with new money, as well as political connections. He gets tut-tutted when he contracts AIDS but by contrast outsider Nick (think Carraway) gets bloodied so to speak – except that no one wants to touch him. The Tory MPs and Peers feel entitled to blame him, curse him and evict him. It’s the daughter, Old Puss, who ultimately tips the apple cart.

The theme of indulgence and self-indulgence runs through the novel, including every one of the main characters. But ultimately the outcomes for the aristocrats are temporary, like the parties and the travel they enjoy, while Nick and Leo, his working class lover, suffer fatal consequences.