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on 19 September 2015
Excellent book
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I rarely review books, confining myself to classical music but as soon as I'd finished this I felt compelled to register my vote. Like many a previous reader and reviewer, the only reason I a) bought this book, b) persevered with reading it was because I had read, taught, studied and admired "Life of Pi". I have never encountered such a dour, pointless, tedious farrago of nonsensical ideas in my life; the novel is all the more incomprehensible for being written by such a talented author. A previous reviewer has it right by characterising the book as 95% boring and 5% shocking; the grinding, right-on relevance of the message is appreciable only "retrospectively" after you have been repulsed and shocked by the moments of graphic brutality, hideous cruelty and gratuitous violence. Yes; of course I know that is what typified the Holocaust and that evil is inevitably banal compared with the transcendence of goodness - but the reiteration of wickedness and banality does not a work of art - or indeed a tolerable novel - make.

Even worse is the author's ultimate insistence on hitting you over the head with the "message". Rather than being content with providing an intelligent reader with subtle clues, towards the end Martel elaborates a literal, clodhopping explanation of how to decode the novel. We get it, OK? The earnestness with which he does so just about negates any appreciation I might have had for his craft.

Certain critics and pseuds are falling over themselves to hail this as a profound masterpiece; I can only suggest that you obtain a copy - for heaven's sake don't waste money on it as I did - and read for yourself if you suspect me of poor judgement, prejudice or ignorance. I assure you I wanted to like the book, having been so impressed by "Pi". Try, by all means - but don't say I didn't warn you.
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on 27 April 2017
Weird but clever. Read it if you've read the rest!
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 11 July 2014
This book has similarities to the Canadian author’s 2002 Booker Prize-winning ‘Life of Pi’. 5* to Martel for pushing the boundaries of the novel, or – in this case – the novella.

The main character, Henry L’Hote, is an award-winning author who has worked for five years on his next book, about the Holocaust. In order to express himself most effectively, Henry decides on a ‘flip-book’ format, one part novel, the other an essay. Not entirely unexpectedly his publishers do not see a great deal of commercial or literary gain in this project and, as a result, Henry gives up writing. He and his wife move away, and he spends his time learning the clarinet, acting in an amateur theatre group and working in a chocolatería.

One day Henry receives a package in the post containing Flaubert's tale ‘The Legend of Saint Julian Hospitator’, described in the book, and the opening part of a play involving two characters, the eponymous Beatrice and Virgil. Intrigued, Henry tracks the sender down and finds that he is the owner of Okapi Taxidermy, named after the animal in the window, and is also called Henry. In the course of their conversation, it transpires that Beatrice is a donkey and, on her back, is Virgil, a Howler monkey [‘We do not use the word “stuffed” any more since it is simply not true. The animal that meets the taxidermist is no longer stuffed like a bag with moss, spices, tobacco or whatnot. Science has shed its practical light on us as it has on every discipline. The animal is rather “mounted” or “prepared”, and the process is scientific.’]. Henry I offers to help Henry II with his play, after having some it read to him.

Henry I bears considerable similarity to Martel and, as the novel proceeds – interspersed with dialogue, lines from the play and even a drawing – we find the play centring on the ‘Horrors’, obviously the Holocaust. Some reviewers have rejected Martel’s treatment of this topic in such an apparently flippant manner. However, the same could be said of Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel ‘Maus’ from 1991, a book that is now highly regarded.

The play is soon understood as an allegory on the Holocaust, the animals representing its victims. In such a short book, less than 200 pages of generously-spaced text, Martel takes almost 30 pages to establish the character and background of Henry I. Whilst this is necessary to explain what is coming, it means that the descriptions of the meetings between the two Henrys becomes overly compressed. Similarly, there are digressions into taxidermy that, whilst interesting, are not relevant to the author’s main aim. There are also some rather obvious inclusions, for example the animals live in a land called ‘Shirt’, which is striped, whilst the play itself is called ‘A 20th-Century Shirt’.

The book ends with 12 questions, ‘Games for Gustav’, one box to each page, that pose moral dilemmas, beginning with ‘Your ten-year old son is speaking to you. He says he has found a way of obtaining some potatoes to feed your starving family. If he is caught, he will be killed. Do you let him go?’ This switches the focus from the Horrors to the Holocaust and leaves the reader to consider dramatically serious questions from the real world that exists beyond the Henry II’s front door.

Martel has so many ideas that they are difficult for the reader to assimilate. The excerpts from the play are not very well written, as would probably be the case for Henry II, who is repeatedly shown to be a poor communicator. However, this causes problems for the reader and, ultimately, causes the novella to lose its focus.

This book fails in its overall aim but it is still worth reading as an example of, to use a horrible metaphor, a brave author ‘thinking outside the box’.
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on 19 February 2016
To sum it up - A pear and most likely a tear.

I normally only leave reviews if I find the book painfully bad or heavenly good. Well, this one is neither…perhaps painfully good (i.e. I was left with really mixed feelings…).
Not surprisingly with Martel, you really can tell sparks of genius glitter throughout the text like fairy lights, but the symbolisms are sometimes a little far-fetched, although by the
end most puzzle pieces fall into place, or rather, the threads are interwoven together in his Shirt-land.

I will not describe the plot as others have done that, and in any case, the plot largely seems irrelevant, since the whole novel is heavily focused on the play. I was genuinely moved
by many sentences and details, especially the deep “humanity” given to the 2 animals. Most notably, although it might sound trivial, I found the description of a pear (which I take
to symbolise food, a happy life, perhaps even the notion of freedom) amazing. I have never thought of a fruit in such terms. It immediately makes you yearn for a pear and think
of it as a mini-miracle. Also, the “Games for Gustav” section at the end is indescribably heart-wrenching and stays with you for days. I cannot think of a more poignant and tragic
way to describe the Holocaust in just a few bare words.

So…overall, a dark masterpiece laden with symbolism, but not everyone will find it to their liking. That pear though…I still crave it! 
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on 28 July 2010
Free copies of this book has been sent out by the publisher to many book clubs, so my book club leader told us. The response from the 8 of us was resoundingly negative. You can easily substitute Henry, the main character who, after a first award winning novel, fails to come up to grade with his second book. His publishers scoff at his first attempt and he moves away to 'find himself' or some such thing. The secondary character (also called Henry?) quotes heavily from another book (now out of copyright) in his 'play' about Beatrice and Virgil. The ending gave us more questions than answers as it rips you away from the story that is only just starting to develop and off on a tangent.

The book, thankfully, is short. My favourite books are the ones that make me stay up in the early hours because i can't drag myself away from the pages. This was not that sort of book. Let's hope that putting a sticker on the front refering to the Life of Pi, will lead people to read it, as the content won't. We also noted that the back cover which details all the fabulous things reviewers have said sneakily refers, not to this story, but to Pi.
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on 3 May 2011
I find some of the negative reviews of this book quite surprising, especially the people who said it is not an easy read. I found that it was a real page turner and I read it in a couple of days. I liked the several different texts / stories within the main story of Beatrice and Virgil, a technique which is often employed by Paul Auster who is one of my favourite writers. I wouldn't say Beatrice and Virgil is as good as Life of Pie but I did actually find B and V easier to read from the onset (I found that it took me a while to get into Pi before it became unputdownable!). When I first saw the animals on the book cover I thought Martel may just be cashing in on the success of Life of Pie, and maybe that was Martel's initial reason for choosing to use animal characters again, however I must say that this book is an altogether different beast (with beast being the operative word). I think Martel achieved what he set out to do in respect of using animal characters instead of humans, in that I think it added to the horror of the ending of Beatrice's and Virgil's story (the play) which I found really quite harrowing and shocking, probably more so than if Martel had used human characters in a more straight-forward holocaust novel (which there are of course so many of already). I felt genuinely upset after reading this book and actually contemplated skipping some scenes because they were so distressing. There was the occasional humorous moment too, especially when Henry's wife makes a "Winnie the Pooh meets the holocaust" comment (it's rare that a book has me in hysterics!). On the whole I found B and V enjoyable and interesting and the type of novel that will no doubt play on my mind for some time.
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Like Yann Martel himself, Henry is a Canadian author whose second book - which features wild animals - has become both a critical success and a wildly popular bestseller. He then struggles for five years with his next book, which is about the ways that the Holocaust is represented in literature. He thinks he has found a fresh approach to tell the story, but his publisher, editor and agent unanimously reject it. Henry and his wife move away and he takes a break from writing. He starts working in a café, takes up the clarinet and joins an amateur theatrical group. One day he receives a package containing a short story by Flaubert (in which many animals are killed) together with an extract from a original play featuring a discussion between two characters: Beatrice and Virgil. An accompanying note reads: "I need your help". This prompts him to track down the author, an elderly taxidermist (also named Henry) who lives in the same city. Taxidermist Henry has been working on his play for 40 years, but isn't satisfied with it. At this point the plot slows down, and the play becomes the focus of the story.

So Beatrice and Virgil is a strange combination of what seems to be a highly autobiographical memoir with a not-very-compelling mystery, that centres on a play about a donkey and a howler monkey living on a striped shirt - which is itself a fairly laboured and obvious metaphor for something else. And that's the biggest issue for me. When I started reading the book I felt that it was stimulating, riddled with clues and associations, that it was operating on so many levels. But as I read on, I increasingly felt that I was being bludgeoned with the same heavy-handed metaphors over and over. I don't want to give away too much about the ending - which comes abruptly - other than to say that I found it both heart-breaking and blatantly manipulative.

This is a hard book to rate because it's difficult for me to separate my emotional response from my intellectual one. My emotional response is that I didn't like it - I loved the beginning, but hated it by the end - and yet, I still think it has impact and merit. It's interesting and ironic for me that a book which is about an author who wants to write a new and meaningful take on the Holocaust but fails, ultimately becomes a failed attempt to write the very same thing.

Having said that, many parts of the book are beautifully written and are a pleasure to read. Martel has a gorgeous turn of phrase - for example, there's a lovely description early on about the German language and how it differs from the English language.

Beatrice and Virgil would be a perfect book for bookclubs because it's a quick read, it has so many layers and almost everyone is likely to have a strong response - whether positive or negative - to it. There's plenty I'm sure that I didn't "get" - including why the two central characters share the same name.
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on 18 January 2014
tries to be clever but fails miserably by perpetuating old myths an to add insult to injury doesn't understand Beckett either!
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I barely know where to start with this book. I actually finished it over a week ago but wanted to wait a while to collect my thoughts about it and see if they are any clearer after some consideration. They aren't: I am just as confused.

I was so desperate to get my mitts on this book: Life of Pi is one of my all-time favourites and I have developed a huge crush on tigers since reading the book. When I saw the cover and the blurb for Beatrice and Virgil I was practically cartwheeling round the room in anticipation of my my brand new crush on donkeys and howler monkeys. It's by Yann Martel. It's got animals in it. What's not to love?

I will attempt to describe the plot now: There is an author called Henry who has had two really successful books out and he has just written a third which gets panned by his publishers. In the first 20 pages of this book I learned more about flip books than I ever realised I cared (and am assured that I still don't). Henry throws his toys out of the pram and moves to another (unamed) city to live off his previous royalties and do things like join an orchestra and a drama group without writing another thing. One day he ets a strange letter from a man also called Henry. The letter contains a chapter of a play that Henry #2 has written and asks Henry #1 for help. Coincidentally, Henry #2 lives in the same city where Henry #1 has just moved to so Henry #1 decides to pay him a visit and finds that Henry #2 lives and works as a taxidermist. The rest of the book flits between the play that Henry #2 has written which is about a donkey called Beatrice and a howler monkey called Virgil who live on a striped shirt, and the two Henry's meeting to discuss the play.

I have to be honest that if I hadn't loved Life of Pi so much I'm not sure that I would have wanted to carry on reading after the first 50 pages. I say wouldn't have wanted to, but even so I probably would have as I felt strangely compelled to keep reading. The play with the animals was a very obvious metaphor for the holocaust and there were times when I felt like I was being beaten over the head with them. The ending too: I can't decide whether I was being blatantly manipulated or whether Martel has just done a really good job of making me feel what the holocaust was ultimately all about - I was heartbroken at the end, both with the ending of the play and with the Games for Gustav which was a series of "Sophie's choice"-like questions about what would you do in this situation?

I think that this is possibly the first time I have been so unsure how to score a book. It certainly wasn't a book I necessarily enjoyed but was it a good book? I really don't know whether it's complete trash or absolute genius. Having said that, I do still keep thinking about it.
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