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R&R 130 | Girl in Translation

…well. That took a while. I've been busy getting my photography butt back into gear, working with models a lot, so that's a good reason. Another is that I've been having a few issues with my computer; now I have a new one and I'm ready to continue this project properly. I've been focusing on reorganizing my office and thus largely, my life. That's going well.
I haven't been reading a lot the past few months, photography & work – yup, I've got a job now apart from taking my photography to the next level – got in the way of that. I kind of gave up on my resolution to read 75 books this year, just to allow myself to use my spare time to get organized and get moving on what I want to accomplish in the next year. But in 2012 I will challenge myself properly and keep it up, though 75 won't be doable for me I'm afraid, haha. Enough yapping. Book review time. That's what you're here for after all 😉

Jean Kwok
Girl in Translation
First published in: 2010
This edition: Penguin, 2011
ISBN: 9787-0-141-04274-9
Genre: coming of age
Pages: 290
Cover photography credited to Getty Images. C'est tout.

rr130-girlintranslation-1000px

In a nutshell?

I needed a book to save me this summer. Save me from my inability to connect phrases and words, my failed attempts to grasp a story. I found it in Jean Kwok's debut GIRL IN TRANSLATION, a book that for a while now had been on my list of books I knew I would love, a book that I knew I would enjoy.

Kimberly Chang is but eleven years old when she and her mother emigrate from Hong Kong to the United States, New York to be exact. Neither speaks a word of English, and their shocking state of poverty – their apartment without windows, freezing cold in winter; their few square feet of space shared with cockroaches – only adds to the feeling of alienation in their new country. Kimberly, however, is as determined as she is smart; she quickly realizes that school is the answer. Giving her all, during the day Kimberly strives to improve her grades and learning the language, while at night she helps her mother by working in their aunt's sweatshop.

This book was everything I needed this summer: a well written and moving story. A book that would leave a mark on me, not easy to forget. A book to get lost in.

Kimberly inspires, deeply. She's a wonderful narrator, one to fully root for, which you do. This young immigrant, I admired her greatly for her fight to change the lives of herself and her mother. I didn't want to put this book down. I wanted to know Kim's story, fully.

It's not just the story which captivates; Kwok's writing technique is, although simple in style, very commendable as it adds to the story in many ways. The English dialog is put down as Kimberly would have understood it, with misunderstood words and phrases printed in Italics. (Example: tuition is understood by Kim as "twosheen", and Kwok spells it this way, phonetically.) Sentences look a bit off-key at times, and the reader has some puzzling to do every now and again, but it's a very helpful way for readers feel what Kimberly struggles with. This technique helps bring us closer to Kwok's narrator.

Kwok applies this for translations of Chinese dialog, as well, by literally translating what is said by Chinese characters in English and having Kimberly explain them to us. (An example from page 191: "'You have one big gall bladder.' He meant I was brave.")
This play of words and phrasing, this mix and match of understanding and misunderstanding, stresses what it's like to live between two cultures, to find yourself juggling two languages.

While Kwok tells her story well by writing it well, there's a far more important element which makes Kim's story well told: it is authentic. Without prior knowledge of Jean Kwok's personal life, I recognized that Kwok speaks, through Kimberly, from experience. Upon further research I learned that, while GIRL IN TRANSLATION is not a memoir, it does bear similarities to Kwok's own life story, as she herself has emigrated to the US with her family, lived in poverty despite hard work, and applied herself in school to improve her and her family's circumstances. Kwok was five years old at the time, spoke not a word of English, and worked hard, earning herself early admission to Harvard.

And while I'm applauding Kwok for her accomplishments, and congratulating her for her skill in writing a story in a genuine voice, I also can't help feeling saddened. Reading this story shed a light on what I have to be grateful for. A lot. I'm also somewhat ashamed of myself for "being shocked", so to speak, at Kimberly's story. Was I actually surprised, "shocked that this can happen", or was it simply me finally opening my eyes, turning them towards the truth instead of looking away? A bit of both, I suppose, but mostly the latter. I'm sure this wasn't Kwok's intention, but in ways I did feel confronted with my own willful ignorance. But I think that's a good thing; another reason why this book is valuable. It does have a message, and it's not trivial. It's important. Open your eyes.

What did truly shock me, was how Kim and her mom are treated by Aunt Paula. She exploits her own family (as it's her sweatshop they have to work in to pay off their "debt" to her), and wishes for them to accomplish nothing, to be nothing, to have nothing. I'm aware of Chinese values with regards to family, and understood why it is hard for Kim and her mom to speak up (at the risk of being ungrateful). This only frustrated me more though: I was shocked at Paula's pettiness, HER lack of loyalty towards her family.

Yes, this is definitely a strong book about an immigrant overcoming hardships and unusual obstacles other teens don't necessarily have to deal with. GIRL IN TRANSLATION is a tale of personal triumph – but perhaps even more, it's an inspiring story about a girl growing up. A girl, being a girl with her own flaws and naiveté. I cannot relate to Kimberly in that I've been brought up in a home with a functioning radiator, in a home where I had everything and should have wanted for nothing. That doesn't mean that I couldn't understand her and root for her. Of course I did. Kwok made sure of that, as I've established earlier.

But I could relate, very much, to her coming of age. Being an outsider in school, being bullied and teased. Laughed at and feeling that no one gets you, and that you're alone. Feeling… less than pretty, going through puberty. All the awkwardness involved with starting to like boys for the first time. In many ways, this book is also recommendable for young adult readers.

Kwok focused a lot on Kim's coming of age, which I didn't mind. But I would have loved additional insight into Kim's (and her mom's!) day-to-day life, or read about more interactions with other immigrants – aside from those with a love interest. But I must admit I did expect this book to be about a young girl first and foremost, and an immigrant second.
I am glad the novel was not overly dramatized for drama's sake. The book doesn't weigh too heavily. There's optimism. I don't need to have everything spelled out to me, either, so Kwok did well in allowing us to realize for ourselves certain details.

I'll be keeping an eye on this author. I think GIRL IN TRANSLATION is utterly charming, but I have a feeling that Kwok has more to give.

In a nutshell

Pros:
– A breeze to read; unputdownable which is exactly what I needed
– Great play with language
– Relatable coming of age story
– An endearing, sympathetic character
– Genuine, authentic voice

Cons:
– Somewhat predictable at times
– Very much coming of age, focus is mostly on Kim; would have appreciated more insight into Kim's mom's and other immigrants' lives

R&R 126 | Playing with the Grown-Ups

Sophie Dahl
Playing with the Grown-Ups
First published in: 2007
This edition: Bloomsbury, 2007
ISBN: 978-0-7475-7777-5
Genre/keywords: fiction, coming of age
Pages: 285
(beautiful) cover design: Sarah Morris

R&R 126 | Playing with the Grown-Ups

In a nutshell?

Kitty wakes up. It's that dreaded phone call in middle of the night. Something's happened to Kitty's mother Marina. The phone call causes Kitty, who's about to become a mother for the first time herself, to revisit significant moments in her early adolescence, growing up as the daughter of free-spirited Bohemian Marina for a mother.

PLAYING WITH THE GROWN-UPS is about a mother-daughter relationship spiraling out of control – although I doubt there ever even was any control. Marina's behavior has tragic consequences, as Kitty at a very early age begins to take after her mother, dabbling in drugs and sex, effectively growing up too fast – or basically feeling as though she should, because Marina encourages the behavior of her daughter.

The relationship definitely reminds me of White Oleander's, another stunning novel – and a personal favorite – about a toxic mother-daughter relationship, about a daughter trying to break free. While a younger Kitty allows herself to be more influenced by her mother, I do see similarities between Kitty and Oleander's daughter, as they are both very strong and inspiring characters.

GROWN-UPS is more tragic; Marina is a character we loathe because she's irresponsible, and the epitome of "A Bad Mother", but we pity her as well: she does love her daughter, very much. (But in the wrong way.) Kitty's childhood and early adolescence are marked by her mother's bad influence, and while she's growing up too fast by necessity, it isn't until Kitty learns to break free from her mother that she really matures and comes of age.

Despite her various levels of experimentation, Kitty – to the reader – remains innocent, not only because of her youth and naiveté, but also because her character is well developed enough for us to believe "this isn't her". It's her voice, Dahl's writing, that does it. The main character, Kitty, grows on you; as Kitty comes of age, the reader learns to like her. She's a calm and collected voice, a sweet person.

Kitty's gentle personality helps to keep this novel from being too loaded. This kind of material could weigh heavily on a reader, but Dahl keeps it fresh and light, careful to never treat the subject itself like it's unimportant. She allows for wit and subtle humor, and writes an ultimately uplifting novel.

I only wish that this book would have had more body. The ending seems rushed and the characters could have been fleshed out more. I feel I would have loved the book if Dahl had spent more time on it, had developed the story and characters even further. I liked the book, but as I read and review it I keep having this lingering feeling that it had more potential. GROWN-UPS doesn't fail at being a good book, but – and there is that but – it could have been great. More memorable, in any case. It's beautiful, and I wanted more.

GROWN-UPS autobiographical elements to it, and whereas some reviewers (I'm talking about the big shots here) have found this bothersome in some way, it did not trouble me whatsoever. In fact, I found it to be valuable to the story, in that it makes the story more believable and realistic, and easier to connect to Kitty and the book. ("To write well, you have to write what you know.") Plus it isn't as obvious in my opinion: Kitty was a character to me, inspired by Sophie Dahl but not interchangeable.

Sophie Dahl, like Kitty, also has Norwegian grandparents, her grandfather being Roald Dahl, famous author of numerous books including some of my favorite childrens' books. I grew up with his novels – The Big Friendly Giant, Matilda and The Witches being the ones I read most dearly. So naturally when I heard Sophie Dahl, former model, had forayed into writing, I was concerned that perhaps she was writing because she's a Dahl-and-thus-could, but as it turns out she does live up to the last name. She's not riding on her grandfather's fame as an author, I honestly don't feel. I didn't expect to like this book as much as I ended up doing. While GROWN-UPS has its flaws, I would read more of Dahl's work.

GROWN-UPS is mostly a very gently written book, and it's that soft storytelling, that delicateness in both the prose and the plot itself, that makes me vouch for Dahl as a very capable writer in her own right.

In a nutshell

Pros:
– Beautifully written; airy and gentle feel to the prose, so light…
– …but never in such a way as to make the subject matter seem unimportant
– e.g. well balanced 😛
– Kitty is a character to root for, very sympathetic

Cons:
– Would have liked more development/detail

R&R 125 | The Hunger Games

This review took a while. The weather has been amazing here the past few weeks and I've been enjoying it 🙂

Suzanne Collins
The Hunger Games (The Hunger Games trilogy, #1)
Dutch: N/A
First published in: 2008
This edition: Scholastic, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-439-02352-8
Genre: post-apolcalyptic, dystopian
Pages: 374
Cover design by Elizabeth N. Parisi / Phil Falco; illustration by Tim O'Brien

R&R 125 | The Hunger Games

In a nutshell?

Yes. I am very late to the party. But at least I made it. Much like our protagonist Katniss Everdeen, one cannot escape THE HUNGER GAMES.

THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins is a gripping trilogy set in a future where today's North-America is no more; the Capitol rules the 12 districts of Panem, and to punish them all for defying the Capitol once in an uprising (so violent, the thirteenth district was eradicated) every year the Capitol organizes The Hunger Games, a nightmarish Survivor type scenario set in an arena, where no one gets kicked off the island exactly, rather is murdered by another contestant, a "Tribute". All this to remind the 12 remaining districts that the Capitol reigns supreme.

I can see why these books are so widely read. Their subject is unusual. But what makes THE HUNGER GAMES actually defiant of convention, is that these Tributes, these 24 people chosen to fight one another to the death until only one of them remains, are between the ages of 12 and 18. Children, one boy and one girl per district, forced to kill or be killed. The whole thing is televised, a twisted Truman Show for the Capitol's pleasure… while it is required viewing for the 12 districts, forced to watch their children survive by killing one and other in an arena, for entertainment.

THE HUNGER GAMES's first book of the same title introduces us to Katniss, 16 years old, from the poverty stricken Seam in District 12. She spends her days hunting the forest (illegally) to take care of her mother and younger sister, Prim. Thankfully, she's good with bow and arrows, finding regular game to trade or bring home to the table. 'Thankfully', she knows how to be hungry, how to survive.
'Thankfully', because on the day of the Reaping, the unexpected happens: Katniss, in taking the place of Prim, becomes one of the two Tributes for the 12th district.

Nothing about this one is politically correct. It's a wake-up call unlike anything else. That is its appeal. Collins is very daring.1
THE HUNGER GAMES is very, very violent, but Collins does a good job showing, not telling. She doesn't describe in endless detail what happens to the kids. It's not all gore and muck.

A lot of THE HUNGER GAMES actually deals with solidarity and conscience. What matters are those precious tender moments (Rue's song). Rebellion, caring for others, sacrifice – in life or death situations. THE HUNGER GAMES is about senselessness, and it's a hard read, but it's not without hope. The book is really is about survival and strength.

Another major strength of THE HUNGER GAMES is how well the dystopian world is developed. I loved Katniss' descriptions of District 12 and life there (The Hob, hunting with Gale, her mother's medicine). What I found to be equally alluring is how the Capitol's people look: magenta hair, turquoise skin, golden tattoos all over. A great dichotomy: the Districts bleak, poor, colorless; the Capitol a colorful and greedy extravaganza.

Panem and its districts are more than sufficiently detailed to make a convincing impact on the reader. I could picture it all only too well, and while it's a scary thought, it's a necessary one. Humans, we're bent on self-destruction. I sometimes worry about the world 100 years from now. Naturally this book is a criticism of how we conduct ourselves. A possible outcome. Dystopias are by definition harsh, but this one is the cruelest I've ever read about. THE HUNGER GAMES affects the reader tremendously due to the glimpse Collins offers us. A glimpse into something horrible, something self-created.
(A lot of this is my interpretation of it; the book is geared towards a younger audience, and thus doesn't get philosophical, doesn't criticize as obviously or as directly.)

THE HUNGER GAMES also criticizes the media, in a sense. The Games, televised as they are, is an utter media circus: Gladiators of the future. Kids are being sent to their death, but they're going (out) in style: Katniss has a team of stylists, and there's all kinds of prepping for interviews and what not. This irritated me at times, but then I realized, of course, that it's supposed to irritate me.

Naturally, there is a love triangle between Katniss and two boys, one of whom is in the Games with Katniss. I found this to be a little bit unnecessary personally. The reader instantly senses which one it's going to be.
Furthermore, Katniss and Peeta, the male district 12 Tribute, engage in a faux relationship as a tactic for the games. I'll probably be in the minority here when I say that this whole set-up is utterly ridiculous. (I'll use one of my favorite words: cringeworthy.) Collins went too far with their "made up love affair", and it took away from the real moments, which were there but which were tainted. Everything became forced, except perhaps Peeta's feelings. I was convinced of their genuineness throughout. But it wasn't quite enough.

Katniss and Peeta as a couple (real or fake) underwhelmed me, but as individual characters they are very strong, especially Katniss. Her voice is very collected as she describes the horrors she and others endure. Katniss has to be one of the most admirable young female heroines that we've had in fiction for a while. I do wish she'd been more emotional at times – any reaction to the situation – but she's trying to be brave and hold it together, and I can accept that. Katniss really takes you with her into that arena. The use of the present tense is most effective in that sense, and well played by Collins. It only increases the build-up of tension; you want to know what happens next, all the time.

Needless to say, I could not for the life of me stop reading this. I started, stayed up until well after 2AM, which is when my eyelids protested heavily against my adamant reading session. I picked it up immediately the next day, and didn't stop until I was done. This book completely swallowed me up, that's how enthralled I was. I instantly regretted not having the other two books in the trilogy handy. I of course ordered them straight away, then. Good thing too, because while THE HUNGER GAMES does have somewhat of an ending, it's obviously part 1 of a bigger story. So if you're going to read THE HUNGER GAMES, you might as well get the box set. Trust me on this. It doesn't much matter if the other books are better or worse. You don't want to be left hanging.

In a nutshell

Pros:
– Daring; children killing each other
– Has meaning: critiques our need for self-destruction and power
– Well detailed; a world and future created very clearly. Loved this especially
– Strong characters, especially the narrator
– Readable for teens, adults as well
– Excellent pacing. Can't put it down.

Cons:
– Romance is forced
– Wouldn't say this Scholastic book is suitable for really young kids

NOTES:
1. After I read the whole trilogy, I learned about a novel called BATTLE ROYALE, which covers a lot of similar ground. Very similar. BATTLE ROYALE was written in '99, prior to THE HUNGER GAMES, and Collins has been accused of ripping off BATTLE ROYALE. But I don't know the facts. I won't jump to conclusions. I haven't read BATTLE ROYALE. I've read THE HUNGER GAMES, and I've never read anything like it. And that is how I will review this series.

DISCUSSSSSS:
THE HUNGER GAMES is being adapted into a movie. Of course. It will star Jennifer Lawrence (WINTER'S BONE) as Katniss, Josh Hutcherson (THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT) as Peeta and Liam Hemsworth as Gale. I personally was rooting for Lyndsy Fonseca (for Katniss) and Hunter Parrish (WEEDS; for Peeta), but think Lawrence can pull it off and I'm willing to give Hutcherson the benefit of the doubt after seeing him in THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT.
Thoughts? Opinions?

R&R 123 | Mister Pip

Lloyd Jones
Mister Pip
Dutch: N/A
First published in: 2006
This edition: John Murray, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-7195-6994-4
Genre: fiction
Pages: 219
(Beautiful) cover illustration by Petra Borner
Great Expectations cover: detail from Chichester Canal by JMW Turner

book123-misterpip-1000px

In a nutshell?

Those of you familiar with Charles Dickens can hazard a pretty good guess from the title of Lloyd Jones's 2006 novel what the book could be about. MISTER PIP is, somewhat, about the novel GREAT EXPECTATIONS, published in 1860-61. It's about reading this classic (set in Victorian England, telling the story of an orphaned white boy named Pip) when you're a 9 year-old black girl living on an island in the Pacific during a civil war.Matilda is that girl, and along with other children on the war-torn island she is taught about Pip's world by their teacher Mr. Watts, the only white person on the island.

I figured when I got MISTER PIP that by the time I'd read it I would have long since read GREAT EXPECTATIONS. That's a negatory. I haven't read it, even though I do own a copy (which is the oldest unread book on the TBR-pile). Dickens just isn't my bag. Maybe when I'm older, better read than I am now… but until then…
When I read MISTER PIP anyway, I did find myself wondering at times if I shouldn't have waited until I'd read – in a future far far away – GREAT EXPECTATIONS.
Because MISTER PIP wasn't easy to read. I couldn't always find that click with this story, and while this improves as I continued on, I asked myself: had I been going about this one the right way?

While I didn't get all of the references to GREAT EXPECTATIONS, I eventually realized that it's not about GREAT EXPECTATIONS itself as it is about the general reading experience which we, readers, have. Not having read GREAT EXPECTATIONS did make me feel closer, actually, to Matilda. We were both new to this book, both discovering the story and getting to know Pip.
There's a fabulous meta element to MISTER PIP, as Mr. Watts gives these children something very precious; the gift of reading, the gift of stories. He allows his pupils to do what a lot of readers do: escape into different worlds, times and lives. Matilda escapes in Victorian England, Matilda escapes in a boy named Pip.
…and I in turn escape in Matilda, in Mr. Watts's class in Bougainville.

Bougainville, the story's location, is the biggest of Papua New Guinea's islands. As I read MISTER PIP, I found myself eager to learn more about this place and its history – specifically that time during which Matilda's story takes place, in the 1990's. Jones made it that interesting.
Despite finding out about some of the specifics such as time and place, MISTER PIP has a certain timelessness to it, a nostalgic feeling. It could take place any time, really. Jones has a flair for creating a fitting atmosphere, a beautiful one.
Add to that the classroom sessions – quirky, cute and endearing – and you've got a jewel of a book, setting wise.

But Lloyd Jones reminds you, "don't get too taken by this place. Understand that these children are children, naive beings. The real place is harsh, it's cruel." He keeps dropping hints; a heavy sense of foreboding is woven into the story. But the magic of Matilda's world, of her Pip, they distract you. I was taken by Mr. Watts's classes, his teaching methods and his regard for the children, their regard for him. MISTER PIP is not overly sentimental, nor is it one of those typical "teacher teaches, children overcome and triumph" stories. Mr. Watts is a self-appointed teacher, the best alternative to a real teacher that these kids even have. There's the mutual regard. Matilda clearly respects Mr. Watts (and Dickens).
Endearing scenes like having the mothers share island tips, like how to predict what the weather will be like by how crabs are using their hidey-holes (covered in sand, halfway in), only charm you further.
Until the redskins interrupt your reverie and you're reminded again of where we're at. An island in the middle of a civil war.

Even though I was completely mesmerized at times, I did have (obvious pun) greater expectations regarding the plot and story itself. And perhaps also the writing. I've read THE BOOK OF FAME, a book on sports, and Jones's prose impressed me more, there.

The story generally couldn't always hold my attention as well. There were moments I was completely taken by the writing, moments where I felt my grip on the story was wavering. Or, the story's grip on me.
Maybe because of the matter-of-factness in which Matilda tells us her story, leaving little room for emotion. I often felt it was narrated in a very detached manner. On the other hand, more emotion could have easily made MISTER PIP overly sentimental – and I do prefer to "feel things for myself" at times. This book does allow you, after all, to feel a lot despite its tone.

I don't think not-having-read GREAT EXPECTATIONS had anything to do with the trouble I had with this book sometimes. I think it was because of what I mentioned some paragraphs ago: "the redskins interrupt your reverie".

The subject just <i>is</i> hard to read. How can it not be? (Would I have preferred it to be easy? No.)

…some events really knock you off your feet; they're unexpected because the rest of the book is so, so gentle. Some scenes are highly upsetting. But those scenes – and the unexpected turn(s) of events, the effect of being hit in the gut upon reading them – make the book good.

Often I'd read reviews of people who'd judge a book as "horrible, ugh, one star tops!" because it made for uncomfortable reading, or it had an unhappy ending, or the reader would take offense at curse words. That's not how I judge a book. If a book hits me, if I still think about it sometimes after finishing, if feel joy or fear for "my" characters… That's when I feel a book – despite discomfort, despite cruelty – has a good chance of being dubbed "a good book" by yours truly. Other things factor in too, of course.

MISTER PIP's most valued factor is those classroom moments with Mr. Watts and the kids. Their interactions, their love of reading kept me reading as I struggled through some of the pages. It's the regard these particular characters had for one and other, that affected me, that I take with me. It's the love of reading and being reminded of the endless possibilities that make me say that MISTER PIP, despite its bad events, despite discomfort, despite an occasional wavering in my attention span, is a good book.

In a nutshell

Pros:
– Beautiful setting; timeless feel to it
– Interactions between characters Mr. Watts & pupils wonderful
– Doesn't shy away from describing events related to civil war

Cons:
– Narration a bit detached at times; hard to 'feel' the story sometimes.

–//–

Update took a while, had to prioritize photography clients 🙂
Next up for review: Generation X by Douglas Coupland and The Hunger Games part 1 by Suzanne Collins!