Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Travels by David Thompson

A quick jump into the world of non-fiction for me (well, not really quick, the book took me over two weeks to read). This fall, the Champlain Society released a new edition of David Thompson’s Travels. This is intended to be the first in a three volume set of David Thompson’s writings. Travels was originally written in the late 1840s and into the 1850s (there are a few versions; this one replicates the 1850 version). It was never published while Thompson was alive. Later Joseph Burr Tyrell (another famous explorer and discoverer of dinosaurs) edited Thompson’s work and published it through the Champlain Society in 1916. This new edition is edited by William Moreau and contains an excellent introduction (and very useful explanatory notes throughout the text).

For those not familiar with David Thompson, he was a cartographer and explorer in early Canada. Although born in London (1770), he left at the age of 14 to come to North America and never looked back. Thompson worked first with the Hudson’s Bay Company and later with the North West Company. He learned surveying only after an accident left him bed ridden. And survey he did- Thompson traveled vast amounts of land, becoming one of the earliest explorers to cross to the far side of the Rockies. Thompson was a contemporary of Samuel Hearne and Alexander Mackenzie, the former famously quipped that Thompson had surveyed in a short time what would have taken anyone else a lifetime to do.

Although, Thompson is known as the first European to travel the length of the Columbia River; his true legacy is in his maps. Thompson’s maps were used (largely unaccredited) into the twentieth century. His most impressive work, known as the Great Map (1814), spent many years hanging in the headquarters of the North West Company at Fort William. Having seen the Great Map in person (many times) it is impressive even today. First of all, it is massive (probably 12-15 feet long and 5 feet high) and secondly it is incredibly detailed and accurate- even 200 years on. I think Thompson is one of the most underrated ‘great men’ of Canadian history, so if you don’t know who he is head to Wikipedia ASAP.

Enough about Thompson, onto his book: Travels is definitely worth the read, particularly if you are interested in exploration or early Canadian history. It is a slow read and the writing can get a bit dense (he was a surveyor, not a writer after all). He devotes an enormous amount of detail to wildlife, geography, surveying, etc, but also provides many anecdotes about traveling in the New World and some acute observations on Native Canadian life and mythology. Thompson married Charlotte Small, a British-Cree woman, and always had an enormous respect for the people he encountered (note: his travels were in the late 18th and early 19th century, so obviously his bias was towards the ‘British way of life,’ but he remained much more respectful towards the land he was tromping through and the people he encountered than other explorers and fur traders).

If your interest in early Canadian history is fleeting, this might not be the best book for you. It takes some dedication to get through, especially if you have spent the last six months reading nothing but fiction, but the picture that Thompson paints of Canada is unbeatable.

Right now I am reading Don Gilmor’s novel Kanata, which has Thompson as a fictional character, so look forward to some compare and contrast.


Tuesday, April 13, 2010

And one against Life of Pi

I thought I should respond to Tory’s post below, as she calls me out for disliking Life of Pi. Before I begin my defence, I have to say I read the novel years ago, shortly after it received the Booker. I was working at a bookstore at the time and I remember (what must have been) Christmas 2003 we only sold two books- Life of Pi and Paris 1919. For my part I tried my hardest to push for Paris 1919 (so if you haven’t read it, head to your local library NOW). That being said it has been over 7 years, so you will have to forgive me if I misplace some details. I should probably re-read it before passing too much judgement, but what fun would that be?

On with the show- Why didn’t I like Life of Pi? Well, in a way I did like it, at the beginning anyway. I was intrigued by the character of Pi, particularly his curiosity about religions; his unusual circumstances; his humour. And then he was on a life boat with talking animals. I have nothing wrong with this in theory; but in practice it just didn’t work. I felt as though I lost all the things I liked about Pi. As the days on the boat progressed and the tiger ate the other animals I felt less and less like I cared. I just didn’t buy into it. It wasn’t believable (not in the do I believe that this would happen in “real” life, but do I believe that in this fictional world, these characters that had been created for me would do this). The whole middle section seemed incongruous with the first part of the novel.

And then the ending, the twist (or not twist)- were they animals or humans? I didn’t mind this part, in a way I felt as though it tied into Pi’s wrestle with the various religions at the beginning. Pi started the novel by exploring truths and we finish the novel exploring the true story. But it was too late, I had lost interest and it wasn’t that surprising of a twist. As the whole story felt as if it was meant to be a fable or metaphor (not a bad thing) that Martel chose to lead us to such an obvious ‘what if’ bothered me. I have complained before about authors not letting me find my own way and Life of Pi fits into that complaint.

All in all, I felt like Martel had a great idea for novel and just didn’t execute it well. When it came out that the idea wasn’t really his (see Max and the Cats by Moacyr Scliar) I moved Life of Pi firmly into the not like category.

I have placed his new novel on hold at the library. I am 406th in line, but once it gets in I will try my best to be unbiased.


Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Life of Pi

Alright, I know I am years behind the times, but I just finished reading Life of Pi by Yann Martel. Really, the timing turned out well since his new book is scheduled to be released very soon. So think of this as a reminder. I didn’t read Life of Pi when it was very popular after it won the Booker Prize because my sister told me it wasn’t worth it.

Well she was wrong. I loved it.

The story is about a young boy, Piscine "Pi" Molitor Patel, who has grown up in Pondicherry India, but is moving to Canada. The novel is really in two parts- first, there is some background/character development in India with Pi, then the second part takes place on a lifeboat when the ship carrying Pi and his family (along with their zoo animals) overturns in the middle of the ocean and he ends up the sole survivor, besides a very large tiger named Richard Parker. There is a third part, much shorter, that ends the story with Pi telling the story of his time on the boat to investigators from the company that owned the boat that sunk.

I think I liked the book so much because of the way Pi is created. His character is so well developed through stories and anecdotes in the first part that when he finds himself alone on a boat with a tiger, it doesn’t seem so far-fetch that he is able to survive. In fact, the only part of the book I didn’t like was the end, when the investigators question the truth of his journey. I felt it unnecessary and undermined his story telling. I get that the end was important for closing the religious metaphor, but I still was not that fond of it.

Pi’s day-to-day life on the boat is so well described, so thoughtful. Martel is truly a great storyteller.

Now, a quick note about Martel. He also writes a blog- it is based around an idea he began a few years ago. Here is how he describes it:

“For as long as Stephen Harper is Prime Minister of Canada, I vow to send him every two weeks, mailed on a Monday, a book that has been known to expand stillness. That book will be inscribed and will be accompanied by a letter I will have written. I will faithfully report on every new book, every inscription, every letter, and any response I might get from the Prime Minister, on this website”

And so he goes- right now he is at 78 books. Only once has the Prime Minister replied. And by PM, I mean his assistant replied, not Mr. Harper. However, recently, Mr. Martel received a letter from President Obama! The letter says he read Life of Pi with his daughter and they loved it. Take that Katy. Even though you don’t like the book, Barack Obama does :)

Next up- another non-fiction, The 100 Mile Diet- I am a good chunk in already, so won’t be too far off.