Maira's Books

In January of 2005 I started this blog as a record of books I’ve read as I was afraid I would forget what I have read. I have often referred back to my own blog to remember a book's contents or see what I have read by an author. I have enjoyed passing my books on to friends or recommending books to read. I know I have missed recording some, but in general I try to keep up with what I have read or listened to.

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Location: Kalamazoo, MI, United States

I am a librarian at Waldo Library at Western Michigan University.

Saturday, April 09, 2016

The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel (2016)

From the author of Life of Pi another strange, but touching novel. This one tells three or actually four seemingly disjointed stories that somehow connect to the high mountains of Portugal and a chimpanzee appears in each one way or another.

The first story is from 1904, when Tomas, a Lisbon library/archive employee, finds a diary from a 16th century priest who ends up in Africa. (I consider this the fourth story.) The priest is disappointed and works on a religious artifact that Tomas thinks ended up in a village in northeastern Portugal, an area called High Mountains, though it turns out that they aren't really mountains, just boulders. To get there, since he only has 10 days off from work, his rich uncle gives him one of his cars, a Renault (remember, we are in 1904). I found the car to be one of the most colorful characters in the book - all the difficulties in driving an early car - having to oil it in numerous places, feed it water, gas - which of course wasn't available in many towns, he had to buy lice medicine that had the same ingredients. 

The second story is in 1938, where a coroner is working late, his wife comes in and goes into a long monologue on her take on the Bible (maybe the author's view) and then there's a really strange sequence with a old lady from the high mountains who wants him to autopsy her husband.

The last story is from 1980's about a man who was born in Portugal, but his family moved to Canada when he was a toddler. When his wife Clara dies, he feels lost, and when work sends him to Oklahoma, he visits a primate research center and feels a connection with one of the chimpanzees. The two of them end up in the high mountains of Portugal. Here was one more intense human - animal relationship like Pi Patel and his tiger. This man learns to live more simply and appreciate life from the chimp. And in a way, all the stories are brought together in the end.

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness (Emma) Orczy (1905)

I read this as a child, as my parents subscribed to Reader's Digest Condensed books for me. I usually read a couple of the 4-5 books in each volume, which provided me with some exposure to classics and contemporary literature. This is one of the few I remember, though not in detail, so I thought it was time to reread the whole thing. I just remember that it was about the French Revolution and that the Scarlet Pimpernel was an exciting spy or something.

Actually, the Scarlet Pimpernel (named after a small flower in England) was an Englishmen, who in daring disguises helped French nobility escape the guillotine in 1792. (I now am curious about how many of the aristocracy were killed and what happened with the rest. Did they stay in England and other countries? Wikipedia gives the number of up to 40,000 civilians killed, but that was anyone who seemingly opposed the revolution.) We then get the story from the viewpoint of a French woman  Marguerite, who is married to slow witted Sir Percy Blakeney and who is forced to try to discover the identity of the Scarlet Pimpernel by threats against her brother. Once the characters started appearing on the scene, I remembered who was the audacious rescuer of French aristocrats. But it was still a fun story and gave a bit of an insight into the French revolution and how it was viewed from the English side. Marguerite was a bit much - supposedly sharp witted, but dim in ways, putting people around her in danger. But then I have to remember that the book was written over 100 years ago - and by those standards, she was quite an adventurous woman. I guess I liked the book back in childhood, because it was probably one of the first secret identity, thriller type books I read. The genre has evolved since then, but I was always able to recognize the Scarlet Pimpernel reference, though the book itself has not crossed my path for decades until now. I like these circles of life.