Two Old Women by Velma Wallis

Read: 18 July, 2017

This was a beautiful little story about two old women who are left to die during a famine, but who work together to survive and thrive.

It’s a well written story with great flow. The two old women have distinct personalities and the narrative does a great job of bouncing them off each other. My only nitpick is that the two old women had to prove their worth by surviving in harsh conditions in order to buy back their place in their tribe. While they came to be respected for their wisdom after this, the underlying idea that their wisdom should be valued because they managed to survive implies that their accumulated wisdom and experience would not have had worth if they had been but a little older or a little sicker.

But values aside, this is a lovely story of resilience and mutual support, and the moral lesson at the forefront is that all members of the tribe are valuable – not just the “productive” ones.

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World War Z by Max Brooks

Read: 14 June, 2012

I’ve been reading a lot of zombie stuff recently, so I picked up World War Z after a YouTuber (I think it was Hank Green?) made a comment about being really freaked out by the book. So, knowing absolutely nothing else about the book, I decided to check it out from the library. The result was that I went on vacation with three books in my bag, two about zombies (Rise of the Governor and World War Z) and one about bunnies (Watership Down, which my dear gentleman friend has decided to read). Only slightly embarrassing.

All zombie stories that I’ve read/watched to date have followed the Rise of the Governor model: Small group of people are hit by the zombie apocalypse, and the story follows their efforts to survive. From the subtitle of WWZ (“An oral history of the zombie war”), I assumed that it would follow the same general format from the perspective of a character narrating her/his survival story from some point in the future.

That’s not what WWZ is about at all.

Rather, WWZ is presented as the “human stories” behind a report written by the United Nations Postwar Commission. These are presented in a collection of first person accounts, written by a wide variety of people from all over the world, offering a global perspective of the zombie apocalypse.

Because each POV character gets only a couple pages, the reader doesn’t have the chance to bond with them. This directs the focus more towards a sense of shared humanity that, in some ways, made the tales even more emotionally powerful.

I really can’t stop raving about WWZ. It was alien yet relatable, entertaining yet thought-provoking, horrifying yet uplifting. This isn’t just an excellent zombie book, it’s an excellent book, period. I ended up buying a copy as soon as I got back from vacation, and I highly recommend that you do the same!

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Earth’s Children #2: The Valley of Horses by Jean M. Auel

Read: 19 June, 2010

Cast out from the only people she’s ever known, Ayla heads north in the hopes of finding the people she was born to, the Others. But when she finds no one after weeks of travelling and she feels winter approaching, she makes a new home for herself in a sheltered valley.

Loneliness soon sets in and, after killing a mare and discovering the orphaned foal, she is inspired to adopt an animal for company – something that no human has ever done before. Whinny becomes her trusted companion and hunting partner, and the two are joined by Baby, a cave lion cub. Meanwhile, Jondalar sets off with his brother to take a journey, following the Great Mother River all the way to its end. The two brothers are attacked by a cave lion, and Jondalar is saved by Ayla’s control over the animals.

Though not nearly as good as Clan of the Cave Bear, Jean Auel’s meticulously researched second novel is still fairly interesting. There’s a lot to learn about the Ice Age and its inhabitants (both human and non).

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Earth’s Children #4: The Plains of Passage by Jean M. Auel

Read: 23 May, 2011

Ayla and Jondalar continue on their journey back to Zelandonii lands, a journey that takes them just over a year. On the way, they revisit the Sharamudoi from The Valley of the Horses, meet a tribe that has enslaved its men, and have various other adventures.

For nearly half the book, Ayla and Jondalar are travelling alone. Rather than simply skip ahead to more interesting bits, Auel made the interesting choice of narrating two people walking for hundreds of miles. I’m not sure that I’ve ever read anything quite so boring. Perhaps sensing that “two people walk a really long distance” does not an interesting story make, Auel decided to splice in a sex scene every couple pages. They come in such rapid succession and are so gratuitous that even the most ardent romance novel fan couldn’t help but feel some burn-out.

Indeed, the first 300 or so pages could have been cut out without losing any story. There are a couple interesting incidents, but these could easily have been strung together with far less padding in between.

As a result, it took my nearly two months to read the first half of Plains of Passage. Once I passed that hump, however, and our travellers started meeting people, I read the rest in a mere two weeks – leaving me ready for the next instalment. Like a junky, I just keep coming back…

The point of the novel, beyond simply getting Ayla back to Jondalar’s people so we can deal with that drama, was for her to confront her past with the Clan and make sense of the relationship between Clan and Others. Like in The Mammoth Hunters, her heritage is outed a couple times and she must deal with the prejudice that brings. When the travellers meet the S’Armunai, they see what happens when Clan gender-specific roles are corrupted and brought into an Other society. Later, Ayla gets to actually meet a few members of the Clan (and a half-breed).

I very much enjoyed the interactions with the Clan, particularly the Clan encounter itself. I had a feeling that the book was moving toward a Clan encounter (even without cheating and looking at the map) and I was eagerly awaiting it. Of course, it didn’t happen until nearly at the very end, but it was well worth it.

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Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Read: 2005

Piscine Molitor Patel (known to all as Pi Patel) is the son of a zoo owner. He’s an exceptionally bright young man and shows his maturity quite clearly when it comes to religion. He’s a Muslim, a Hindu, and a Christian, all at the same time. But soon, political discontent drives his family out of India and towards Canada. The zoo is sold, the bags are packed, and the whole family (including several animals on their way to American zoos) board the Tsimtsum, a Japanese cargo ship with a Taiwanese crew.

“The ship sunk,” begins Part II. From that point on, this is a story of survival against amazing odds. Not only does Pi Patel survive 227 days in the Pacific Ocean, but he does it in the company of an adult male Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

The thing I love most about this book is the fact that you can read it once and interpret the story one way, but then you can read it again and see everything differently. The revelation of Part III is certainly really good food for thought. There’s the literal interpretation of seeing the boy on a life-raft with a tiger. Then there is the alternative story given at the end of the boy on a life-raft struggling with his inner beast while trying to keep his humanity. Then, of course, there’s the third possibility that the entire story is complete fiction and is just about a boy maturing and struggling with the different influences in his life. It’s easy, especially as an English major, to really read too far into books and see things that just aren’t there. But I think Yann Martel makes it quite clear that all three of these interpretations are intentional. Heck, he even gives us two of them up front!

Another thing I loved about the story was the three part system. Part I deals with introducing Pi and the society he is coming out of. I found that what I read in Part I really brought Pi to life and let me identify with him enough that I really cared about what happened to him in Part II. I had bonded with him enough that when he suffered in Part II, I suffered as well. When he started to lose touch with his humanity (like when he suddenly notices that he’s eating like a tiger), I really feared for him. Thank goodness Part I ends with the message: “This story has a happy ending.” I think it would have been very difficult and painful to read otherwise. Part II is his struggle on the raft. Part III is his interview in which he explains what happens. I found this to be a really important part. It’s also a very interesting part in its function. It serves not only to ridicule the idea that the concept of the book (a boy surviving that long in the pacific with a tiger) is preposterous, but also serves to introduce a whole new perspective and the possibility that none of it might have happened at all (I mean that within the book’s fictional world).

Several people I have spoken to have said that the transition is too abrupt. Of course, it would have to be since that’s exactly what it was for Pi Patel: abrupt. But I’ve heard many times that there’s too much character development at the beginning to wade through before getting to the meat of the story. To each her own, I suppose.

One final fantastic point I just want to bring up in relation to the two possible stories offered by Martel is the idea that the more interesting story is more important than the story that is true. So that’s what Martel leaves us with: “Which is the better story, the story with animals or the story without animals?” Which is more important to you, a good story or the truth?

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