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Year of 52 Books #13: The Black Tulip

The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas, père

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I love the idea of gardening but I am an irredeemable plant-killer.

I can back up this assertion.

Ninth-grade biology was traumatizing in many ways (anyone else who took Mr. Ekberg’s class can attest to this), but one of the assignments I actually was looking forward to was the project for the asexual reproduction unit. We had to grow and tend an asexually-reproducing plant and keep it alive until it reproduced asexually (yes, I am deriving a disproportionate amount of amusement from typing “asexual” so many times. In some ways I might still be in ninth grade).

“If you’re not so great with plants,” Mr. Ekberg told us, “try a bryophyllum. They’re pretty much impossible to kill.” My ears perked up. My previous biology project—growing a flower from a seed—had failed spectacularly. Come to think of it, all my elementary school and primary class bean sprouts had met similarly sad fates. Bryophyllum sounded right up my alley.

For those of you who don’t know what a bryophyllum is, it looks a-like this:

Cute, right? All those little flowers on the edges are the asexually-reproduced new plants.

I marched up to Mr. Ekberg’s desk with the other students to get my bryophyllum starter. I cradled it carefully all the way home. This was going to be my first real, successful plant, I just knew it. I’d keep it alive until it reproduced and get an A on my assignment but then I’d also keep it alive FOREVER. This plant was going to come to college with me, just you wait and see. Hadn’t the teacher said they were impossible to kill? Yes. Yes, he had. He had even gone further: “If you can manage to kill a bryophyllum, you should probably just give up on plants altogether.”

Well, I did get an A on my assignment. Two days later the bryophyllum went from beautiful, A-grade flowering to brown, dry, dead practically overnight.

I pretty much gave up on plants altogether. Except in books. Because, as we know, the plants in books cannot die merely from being in my presence. (They may not have taught you that in biology, but I am here to share important tidbits like that.) This is part of the reason why I like books which feature gardens or plants or growing things.

So I was excited for this book. It was another book club read. Kristen already described it (aptly) as a horticultural thriller. It follows the efforts of a tulip breeder, Cornelius, to create a perfect black tulip and win the national prize. He must battle his neighbor’s jealous efforts to thwart Cornelius and steal the prize for his own. He must deal with false imprisonment. He must learn to balance his love of tulips with his love of Rosa, the prisonkeeper’s daughter. And he must not get too entangled in political drama. Can he do it? Will his fortunes and love affairs flower like a prize black tulip or wither like my ninth-grade bryophyllum? Will the reader accidentally learn some history on the way? Will good times be had by all?

This book moved much more quickly than the other Dumas works I’ve read, but felt slightly less richly developed. It was still an enjoyable read and I recommend it to anyone else who, like me, dreams of the flowers they cannot grow. Or, you know, who just likes a good horticultural thriller. Three stars.

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Year of 52 Books #10: Life of Pi

Life of Pi, by Yann Martel

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Surprisingly, this was not a re-read for me. I know this book has been around forever and I had been hearing of it for a long time. What may be more surprising, though, is that with all the buzz, I really didn’t know anything about the plot going into this book. I picked it up as a Kindle Daily Deal (oh, KDD, how I love thee!) because I like buying titles I recognize for cheap as free.

I feel that a little context is necessary for my review. The week before we made the big cross-country move, my husband was already in Florida getting things set up and starting his job. I was back in Utah packing up everything and taking care of our 18-month-old son, who decided to get RSV exactly eight days before we were scheduled to fly out and two days before my husband was supposed to come home to help me with the final arrangements and such. Long and harrowing story short, I ended up spending a very long and very bad night in the hospital as they monitored my son’s breathing and heart rate (fortunately they didn’t end up having to put him on oxygen and he was better enough to go home the next day). I got very little sleep, due to both the assorted blinking and beeping coming from the monitors and an overabundance of worry from various sources, listed here in roughly descending order: 1) my son, 2) the fact that my husband was out-of-state, 3) the fact that I didn’t have time for this emergency what with the tight packing schedule, 4) the fact that I was moving cross country soon, and 5) the fact that I was hungry and thirsty and suspected that the hospital staff had forgotten their promise to bring me some cheese and crackers and a cup of ice water.

To try and get my mind off of these various issues, I started reading a new book on my Kindle app on my iPhone, and happened to choose Life of Pi. Thus I did not start reading it in the most auspicious of circumstances, nor did I finish reading it in the most auspicious of circumstances. Turns out that a toddler with RSV tends to pass it on to you if he coughs in your face repeatedly because he’s too exhausted to turn his head away from you and is so sick and sad that you can’t put him down for more than 30 seconds at a time. So, three days after our hospital stay, I was fighting through RSV myself while packing up two moving pods. Fortunately my bout did not require any hospital time, but I did spend the bulk of the next day curled up with my iPhone on an air mattress, a lump of pathetic misery, finishing this book. (Needless to say, this move was not the smoothest or most organized one we’ve ever made.)

But as for the book itself: I liked it. It was able to distract me enough from the crappy situation I was going through and entertain and even uplift me. My favorite part was the description of the events leading to Pi’s becoming a devout follower and active practicer of three different religions at once (Hindu, Islam and Christianity). I loved his descriptions of his first encounters with other religions and how he came to love his two adopted religions as well as the religion of his birth. I wish that this theme had been kept up a little more throughout the section on the Pacific Ocean. Not that the Pacific Ocean wasn’t exciting and enthralling as well; but it didn’t have the heart of the book that I had fallen in love with at the beginning, the tripartite faith of this young man.

Like The Princess Bride, this book is written as a frame story, with the narrator ostensibly interviewing an older Pi about his life story. Since, as I said, I knew basically nothing about this book going in, and my Kindle edition didn’t specifically say “A Novel” on it, I wasn’t sure at first if this was fiction or non-fiction. It added another layer to the reading experience for me, wondering if it was actually true or not. I know that part of the point of the book is to look at what is or isn’t true and choose the story that means the most to us, but it still was sad to determine for certain that this book was fiction after I finished reading it, and I think that revelation made me like it a little less than I had. That’s not really fair to the author, of course; but that’s the way it is.

All in all, this book was a solid good read and a much-needed distraction for me during that last horrible week before the move. I don’t know if I would have liked it more or less if I’d read it in different circumstances, but as it is I can recommend it as a good book, as long as you don’t get too squeamish (certain of the lifeboat scenes are a bit gruesome). Three stars.

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