Monday, February 28, 2011

Beatrice and Virgil: Review and Giveaway

I haven't read Life of Pi but I've read so much praise for it that I jumped at the chance to read a newer novel by bestselling author Yann Martel. Published in 2010, Beatrice and Virgil sounded interesting to me in an offbeat way right off the bat. The main characters in the book are a writer named Henry, an elderly taxidermist, and two wild animals who speak, Beatrice, a donkey, and Virgil, a howler monkey. It may sound kind of light because of the animals, but the book features a very serious subject: the Holocaust.

Early in Beatrice and Virgil, Henry is excited about the book he's just finished writing. It's a book that's two books in a sense, a flip-book about the Holocaust; one part fiction and one part nonfiction. Henry believes that there's a lack of fiction about the Holocaust and that more stories about it will contribute to its preservation and meaning. Much to his dismay, though, his latest unpublished work is not well-received by his editors nor others, as he learns over a dinner of flavorless, over-refined foods in London.

Henry sets aside his book about the Holocaust and his writing career, and starts a new life in an unnamed city with his wife (who later becomes pregnant with their first child).

"During this time in the city, Henry's earlier existence as a writer was not entirely forgotten. Reminders gently knocked on the door of his consciousness in the form of letters. By the most roundabout routes, often months after their writers had posted them, he continued to receive letters from readers."
~Beatrice and Virgil, Yann Martel

Before too long, he receives a mysterious envelope that contains a short story by Gustave Flaubert, The Legend of Saint Julian Hospitator, along with a request for help. The request is from a taxidermist, also named Henry, who is writing a play called Beatrice and Virgil. Henry is soon drawn into a relationship with the taxidermist, and a new adventure begins.

Henry's visits to Okapi Taxidermy discomfited him, and at times this book perplexed me as well. I know Life of Pi also contains animals, but I don't understand why the author used animals in this story to tackle such a difficult subject. The Holocaust was a human event. Although Beatrice and Virgil kept my attention, I did not "get" the book at times; it was hard for me to comprehend the connection between the Holocaust or the "Horrors" and two talking animals, the characters in the taxidermist's play.

Maybe this ambitious author was trying to do too much in his latest novel: discuss literature and the writing world, create Holocaust fiction, talk about taxidermy, present a play in the process of being penned, and anthropomorphize personable animals who philosophize. If you ask me, that's a lot to tackle in a single novella! The Holocaust in and of itself is a major theme. I felt confused at times during my reading because there was so much going on, on multiple levels, and I was left with a sensation that I was missing something.

Despite my issues with the book, though, Beatrice and Virgil grabbed my attention from the first page, and I read it eagerly and quickly. The author has written a creative and highly original story that refers to works of literature, and features the writing of a play and a final chapter that could never be described as run-of-the-mill. Yann Martel believes, like Henry-the-writer in the book, that the Holocaust deserves more attention and that fiction is a way to give it a fresh and memorable voice, and this is exactly what the author attempts to do.

Random House is generously offering one copy of the book as a giveaway to a reader (U.S. only this time--sorry!).

  • To enter this giveaway for Beatrice and Virgil, simply leave a comment.
  • For an extra chance at winning, become a follower of this blog, or let me know that you're already a follower, or that you subscribe in Google Reader.
  • For an additional chance, post about this contest on your blog, Facebook, or Twitter.
  • For another chance, name a book about the Holocaust, either fiction or nonfiction, that has made an impact on you.

Enter by 5PM PDT on Monday, March 14. The winner will be chosen randomly and announced on Tuesday, March 15.


Special thanks to Lisa from TLC for sending me this book. For other reviews please visit TLC's Beatrice and Virgil book tour.

38 comments:

  1. Perhaps the author is contrasting man's inhuman treatment of his fellow man with the more loving attitude shown by the animals? Just guessing but the holocaust is an example of self destruction on a scale never seen in the rest of the natural world.

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  2. I must admit that I was not a fan of Life of Pi, so I can't imagine I'll ever read this one, particularly since it sounds pretty weird! Sounds like you enjoyed it (mostly), despite your issues with it, so that's good!

    Oh and no need to enter me in the giveaway, obviously!

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  3. I still haven't read Life of Pi. Aargh!
    I think this book has brought about a lot of mixed reactions. Not sure if it one for me, but brilliant review.

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  4. I liked the audio version of this book, but my favorite is Life of Pi...you must read that one.

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  5. I have a feeling the author felt a lot of pressure to come up with something very creative after The Life of Pi. This book seems to be getting mixed reviews. No need to enter me.

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  6. I'm really loking forward to reading this as I loved Life Of Pi. That said you mirror my concerns about the author jamming to many storylines into the one book. Thanks for a great review and good luck to all who enter this giveaway.

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  7. I have been wanting to read this book for a long time, so, I will indeed enter your contest! I also think that Martel is trying to do a lot in this book, and I am wondering what I would make of it. In my opinion, the anthropomorphizing of animals can go either very well, or come off as sort of shlocky, and the fact that this is melded with a holocaust story really has my attention piqued in some very strange ways. Excellent and thoughtful review, Suko.

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  8. When I saw this book come out I was so eager to read it and then I started reading reviews and thought, nah doesn't sound like my kind of read. It does sound confusing and if your confused, I think It would be way over my head !
    I think I better pass entering the giveaway. :0)
    Natalie

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  9. I haven't read this, but I'm assuming the relevance is the killing of animals which turns into mindless bloodlust in the hunt in Flaubert's retelling of the story of St Julien. So taxidermy is therefore a way of ensuring that animals didn't die with no attempt to preserve or remember them?

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  10. Deborah, you are right about what occurs in the short story, but what happens in the book concerning the taxidermist is another matter (I can't say too much here or I could end up spoiling the book). Thank you all for the comments.

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  11. Great review of a book that's definitely challenging to wrap your arms around.

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  12. Thank you for the very thoughtful review! It sounds like a highly original and multi-layered story but with maybe too much going on. Thank you so much for being on the tour.

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  13. It does sound a bit confusing, like there is too much going on in the plot. I do want to read Life of Pi. Great review Suko. No need to enter me, as my TBR pile is taking over my home...lol....but I'll definitely post about this giveaway this week :)

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  14. I was a HUGE fan of Life with Pi (and I would suggest that you read it ... the use of animals in that book is very well done and it has a terrific "what the heck" ending). I've heard not so good things about this book. In fact, I've not heard one all positive review yet. It sounds like he tried to do a little too much in this book. I hope you do read "Life of Pi" -- it is such a good book.

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  15. It does sound like the author is taking on quite a bit here. I usually like books that use animals to tell a deeper story. One of my favorite books is Watership Down and not just because I like bunnies.

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  16. I definitely want to read Life of Pi, perhaps more than ever now.

    I appreciate all of the comments.

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  17. Great review. I've heard so much about this book and Life of Pi, which I do have on my shelf. I think I'll read that one before this one. Don't enter me.

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  18. The question of Holocaust and Fiction was asked in France 2 or 3 years ago, when Jonathan Littell published "Les Bienveillantes" ("The kindly ones").
    As often in France the debate was exaggerated...
    I think that fiction is a way to learnt about Holocaust, if the novel is good !
    I didn't like too much "Les Bienveillantes", but this novel helped me to know important things about Holocaust and I thank for this Jonathan Little !

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  19. In reply to the question you left on my blog re: hghlighting - The highlighter stuff is really easy to do. When yo are typing your posts in the draft box instead of making the type a contrasting colour to your blog background simply type the words you want concealed in the same colour as your blog backgound. So in the case of my blog I typed the words to be concealed in white. I hope this helps.

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  20. I think I'm the only person on Earth who disliked Pi so much I discarded it (if you know me, that's something I never do, being rather OCD about completing what I start). This, however, sounds like I should give him another try.

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  21. As always Suko, thank you for this great review!
    Mervat.

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  22. I am one of the few who enjoyed this book, although I had to ponder for a few days, but the art drawings of Beatrice and Virgil at the end of the book was very moving for me, and, it tied the story so beautifully for me.

    One of a few things I don't love about stories are endless repetitive plot, that was Life of Pi for me.

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  23. I have Life of Pi on my Wish List. I'm really looking forward to this series. Please count me in. Thank you!

    nfmgirl AT gmail DOT com

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  24. Children of the Flames: Dr. Josef Mengele and the Untold Story of the Twins of Auschwitz by Lucette Matalon Lagnado was a book that really got to me.

    nfmgirl AT gmail DOT com

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  25. Tweet:
    http://twitter.com/#!/nfmgirl/status/44044918179631105

    nfmgirl AT gmail DOT com

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  26. BookQuoter, my version of the book does not include the art drawings you mention (although there are a few small drawings of a hand gesture for the actors on page 142).

    nfmgirl, thanks for the tweet.

    And thanks to all for commenting.

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  27. No need to enter me in the giveaway.

    Just stopping by to say great review. Not sure if this book is for me but I've been wanting to see I review of this book and I think you really summed up a lot about it and whether or not I would want to read it.

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  28. I adored Life of Pi and I was absoluely blown away by Beatrice and Virgle. I cried...it made my brain hurt I thought so much about it for days and weeks afterwards. I thought it was a fantastic book! It was full of such feeling and intensity. I think the fact that it was written in animal allegory was an intriguing way to examine all those strong emotions. I think Yann Martel is an absolute genius, and can't wait for his next offering.

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  29. This really was unique and I liked the writing. I didn't have that "angry" problem with the ending that so many have had, and I did like being surprised but it felt a bit abrupt.

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  30. This book has been sitting on my shelf for ages. I've been so hesitant to read it because of the negative reviews. I'm glad to hear you couldn't put it down even though it might be overly ambitious. Great review!

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  31. I would love to read Beatrice and Virgil! Please enter me in this giveaway.

    bookloversarah1 at yahoo dot com

    Sarah E

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  32. Follow via GFC.

    bookloversarah1 at yahoo dot com

    Sarah E

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  33. Tweet:

    http://twitter.com/BookLoverSarah/status/46973428460290048

    bookloversarah1 at yahoo dot com

    Sarah E

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  34. A book about the Holocaust that made an impact on me was Gertruda's Oath by Ram Oren.

    bookloversarah1 at yahoo dot com

    Sarah E

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  35. Follower! And the best book ive read about the holocost is the nazi officers wife. It was awesome.

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