The Life of Pi: A movie review

What you’ve heard about this movie is true: it’s the tale of a boy who winds up in a lifeboat in the Pacific with a Bengal tiger. It’s also true that most critics have praised The Life of Pi. I’m with them; this is a magical film.

Pi Patel livess an idyllic childhood in Pondicherry, India.  His father owns a zoo, and Pi develops a love for the animals as well as a spirituality that embraces the Hindu gods, Jesus, and Allah.

As he tries to practice all three faiths, his father, convinced of the supremacy of reason, warns that “If you believe in everything, you will end up not believing in anything at all.”  Pi’s father also demonstrates graphically that tigers are not your friend, a lesson that shakes Pi’s trust in nature.  The real blow falls after economic hardship forces Pi’s family to relinquish the zoo.  They sail for Canada with all the animals on a freighter, but a storm sinks the vessel, and Pi is the only human to survive.

What god do you pray to and what do say when your way of life and your family are suddenly gone, and you’re alone in a lifeboat with a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and a tiger named Richard Parker?  Initially, there is little time for prayer in the struggle to survive.  Soon it’s just Richard Parker and Pi.  There are cans of water and boxes of biscuits for 30 aboard the lifeboat, as well as a book on survival and a pencil that Pi uses to journal in the margins.

An optimist, Pi’s spirituality returns with expressions of gratitude and surrender as the ocean moves through her various phases, with deadly storms, cornucopias of fish and rain, and scenes of unearthly beauty.

Einstein once said the only important question is whether or not the universe is a friendly place. The adult Pi, who narrates the tale, believes it is. Was his ocean a friendly place or not? Both and neither, his story seems to say; it’s far more vast than that.

The western fantasy of objective truth leads us to believe there are true stories and false ones. The eastern view, shared at least in part by novelists and movie makers, is that our stories create our realities.

What does your heart say?  What does it lead you to believe?  That’s the question the grown-up Pi seems to asks us with his story and a half smile on his face.  It’s the same enigma the ocean and Robert Parker put to him.

Fan Fiction on the Radar

A year ago, I wrote a post on Harry Potter fan fiction,  My information came from an article in Time on the occasion of the release of the final Potter movie.  I had no idea how popular fan fiction had become, since my only prior experience was with its 20th century incarnation as cheaply printed fanzines on the magazine racks at Tower.  I sometimes skimmed but never bought.

All of that has changed.  The genre was featured last Friday in a Wall Street Journal article, “The Weird World of Fan Fiction.”  No wonder the Journal took notice.  E.L. james, author of the Fifty Shades of Gray erotic trilogy, which sold 15 million copies in three months, got her start writing fan fiction based on the Twilight Series (Edward as a powerful CEO and Bella as his sex slave).

The article mentions other well known writers whose first work was fan fiction. Meg Cabot, author of The Princess Diaries began writing Star Wars stories when she was 11.  Naomi Novik, author  of the Temeraire series, which has been optioned by Peter Jackson, continues to write fan fiction.  For her it is play, and she has more than 400 stories online, set in the worlds of Star Trek, Sherlock  Holmes, and The Avengers.

In addition to fan fiction writers who have broken into the mainstream, some have gathered huge numbers of online readers at sites like or  One story based on The Hunger Games has been read two million times.

Fan fiction isn’t new.  Conan Doyle fans in the late 19th century wrote their own Sherlock Holmes stores as authors continue to do.  The theme for an upcoming TV series with a female Watson appeared first on  One can argue that both Homer and Shakespeare in his histories, created stories akin to fan fiction; they used pre-existing worlds, situations, and characters.

The Journal gives a sense of the wild playfulness of fan fiction authors.  There is Pride and Prejudice in Space. We have Alice and the Mad Hatter battling zombies, and The Lord of the Whiskers, which populates Middle Earth with cats.  Male-male romance appears to be common, with Kirk and Spock, and Harry and Draco among readers’ favorite couples.  There are character cross-over stories too, like characters from the TV series, Glee, winding up in Middle Earth.

Published authors are mixed in their response.  Some, like J.K Rowling and Stephanie Meyer welcome the spinoff stories.  Others like George R.R. Martin and Anne Rice are dead set against fan fiction, and threaten lawsuits, though suits are seldom launched except when fans try to move borrowed worlds into mainstream publication.  Orson Scott Card was initially opposed to fan fiction but has come to embrace it.  This fall he will host a contest for Ender’s Game fan fiction.  Fans can submit works to his website, and the winning stories will be published in a anthology.  “Every piece of fan fiction is an add for my book,” Card said.  “What kind of idiot would I be to want that to disappear?”

I understand the draw of fan fiction.  My first real literary effort was a sequel to The Wind in the Willows that I wrote in the fifth grade because I didn’t want the story to end.  In college I was seized with great, “What am I going to do now?” angst when I finished Lord of the Rings.  One of the things I did was work with a group of independent filmmakers on a 20 minute epic entitled, Billy the Kid Meets the Wizard of Oz

The word, “amateur” comes from the Latin, amare, to love.  With that in mind, I look forward to checking out some of the web sites where these amateurs post their work.

Of Football and Family

I’m anything but a diehard sports fan, but I’ve noticed over the years that certain sporting events become unforgettable when they mark key moments in my life or our collective life.  Do you remember how moving the Super Bowl was in Feb., 2002?  Our nation was still hurting after the 9/11 attacks, but here was proof that we were not going to let anyone stop us from celebrating life.

I thought of my father yesterday.  Football was one of the ways he and I connected.  Thirty years ago, he and I talked on the phone with growing excitement as the season progressed, and this new quarterback, with the unusual name of Joe Montana, led the formerly hapless 49ers to their first ever Super Bowl victory.  The best game of the season, however, was the Division Championship game. Montana won it with an 89 yard drive after the two minute warning, and a justifiably famous touchdown pass to Dwight Clark with less than a minute to play.  This wasn’t just a persona moment; it set the entire region on fire after a difficult decade.

Montana to Clark, with 59 seconds in the game, Jan, 1982

My father moved up here to be with us in 1999, after he was diagnosed with a wasting illness. Mary and I spent most of our Sunday afternoons with him during football seasons. First lunch and then the afternoon game. My father died in 2007, and we haven’t watched much football since. Until this season. Until our “formerly hapless” 49ers took off so dramatically you couldn’t help but notice and want to follow along.

Yesterday it happened again, 30 years later, almost to the day. The niners won the Division Championship game with another spectacular drive and touchdown pass, this one with only seconds left. Another on-your-feet, unforgettable moment. Hopefully, something to rouse all of northern California after a difficult decade. My father would have loved this game.

Smith to Davis, with 9 seconds in the game, Jan, 2012

I don’t go in for sentiments like, “Maybe he was looking down from heaven.” Hopefully those in the afterlife have better things to do than peer over our poor shoulders. But I do believe – and I’ve heard various spiritual teachers hint at this – that the ancestors and those who are gone can pick up our prayers and love and kind thoughts. That’s a pretty good deal. And if football is the occasion, there is nothing wrong with that.

As the poet Lu Yu put it (quoted in The Tao of Pooh):

The clouds above us join and separate,
The breeze in the courtyard leaves and returns.
Life is like that, so why not relax?
Who can stop us from celebrating?