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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!

R&R 120 | The Poisonwood Bible

The Republic of the Congo's first elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, was assassinated on January 17th 1961, 40 years ago today.

Barbara Kingsolver
The Poisonwood Bible
Dutch: N/A
First published in: 1998
This edition: Faber and Faber, 2007
ISBN: 978-0-571-20175-4
Genre: drama, fiction
Pages: 614
Cover photograph: Marc Schlossman / Panos
Cover design: Faber and Faber

120-poisonwood-1000px

In a nutshell?

If you read a lot of books, surely there has been a time when you'd read one in particular, and almost have a feeling of regret. Not because you're reading that book. Not because you think it's a waste of time. But because you have wasted your time on other books. Because you didn't read this one sooner. My regret-book is THE POISONWOOD BIBLE by Barbara Kingsolver. My regret-book, I wish I'd read it prior to January 2011.

THE POISONWOOD BIBLE is an ambitious (and successful) family saga set in the Belgian Congo, starting in 1959 and spanning across three decades. Nathan Price, an evangelical Baptist, uproots his Georgian family and sojourns to a small village, Kilanga, with the intention of spreading the word of God and baptizing every single African in his vicinity. Wholly unprepared for a life in Africa, Nathan is setting himself and his family up for disaster.
His wife Orleanna and daughters (Rachel, twins Leah and Adah, and little Ruth May) all of whom narrate the story of their family's tragic destruction, each find themselves affected differently by their experiences in the Congo.

The moment I started reading this impressively sized novel, I figured it would take me some time to finish. It took two weeks. THE POISONWOOD BIBLE is darkly beautiful, the descriptions of the Congo and its people and creatures so mesmerizing, the frangipani flowers so tempting, "Mbote!"… there is much to take in. It took time, but I wanted it to. I savored this. The women in this book helped me to savor this. Kingsolver's girls, women, are so distinct. She has created their individual portraits vividly and brilliantly, with just the slightest touch of gentle wit.

Mysterious Orleanna, wife to a tidal wave of a man, full of regret and grief, a silent passionate and heartbroken voice begging for forgiveness.
Rachel, telling herself not to take things "for granite". Her malapropisms, at first endearing and later on simply hilarious, are unfortunate and apt – it distracts somewhat from her vanity, but only somewhat.
Ruth May, the little one, a force of her own: the adventurous toddler, playful and innocent.
Adah, Ada, crooked Ada, palindromes filling her silent world, Adah, Ada, left… behind. The hemiplegic half of the twins, Adah is the quiet one but also the one who screams the loudest on the inside, who rebels most against her father and his self-righteousness. ("Evil deed live.")
And then there's Leah, the other twin, at first the one who most admires her father and seeks his approval, later on the most admirable and brave daughter – the one who truly finds her own path.

I love them all for holding their own, in Africa, headed by an intolerant and abusive man. A self-proclaimed man of God, "a just man", who will use violence and terror as a hypocritical means to demand respect. Respect cannot be demanded. It needs to be earned. Nathan instead earns disrespect.

It was difficult reading about a man like Nathan. I despised him and in turn admired the women and girls all the more for it. It is what kept me reading: a solidarity as one who feels religion is a matter of free will; solidarity as another woman, or better yet, a human being.
This is one of the book's strengths, and you don't have to be female to feel this powerfully about Orleanna and her daughters.

I sometimes do wonder about Nathan. His exact motives. I get why Kingsolver opted for female narrators only; THE POISONWOOD BIBLE is not a feminist book but it does celebrate women and their independence. The wife and daughters cut themselves loose from Nathan page by page; it makes sense not to have him narrate. This story is not his, but his daughters'. Nonetheless, he is an interesting character who just gets lost in there. Perhaps I needed more than "he was in the war" to understand how this guy ticks. But again – I recognize and accept that this one is about the women.

What does interest me is how Nathan is painted to be a villain for keeping his family (his children) in the Congo (and the reader judges him for it), yet when the same thing happens with another family in this book, it seems to be acceptable. Nathan's fundamentalist motivations are questionable, naturally, whereas the other family's intentions are based on solidarity with the Congo – but the possible consequences and dangers to the children are equal.

But I think that is Kingsolver's point exactly – Nathan was there for all the wrong reasons. I do respect that a lot of people involved in missions only want the best for Africa. My uncle-in-law, a monk, has spent decades in Ghana and continues to work there to help the region build up their own economy.
But not everyone goes on a mission for noble and honest reasons. Nathan completely ignores the fact that the people of the former Belgian Congo have – over the course of centuries – built up and honored their own customs, faith, rituals. Nathan proceeds to disregard their fears of having their children baptized in his precious (alligator-ridden) river.
Believe and let believe, is what I feel.

So much to feel because of this book. How terribly sad THE POISONWOOD BIBLE is at times. Despite the dark atmosphere and the foreshadowing, despite Orleanna's laments… some events in the book still were like a punch in the gut for me. I really couldn't keep it dry and will admit to getting choked up when I finished the book. "Perfect", I whispered to myself when I closed this book, and I sat there wondering how on earth I would describe my thoughts about this amazing novel. I have so many thoughts.

Much of this is due to the obvious political / social commentary nature of this novel, which is mostly present in the last third of the book, a strong section during which the women have gone their separate ways, the years flying by.

Kingsolver's work is fiction, but the background events are based on true events. The murder of an independent Congo's first prime minister, Patrice Lumumba, on January 17th 1961 (…40 years ago today), is an important theme in the book. The rumored involvement of Belgium and the CIA is not ignored and gives THE POISONWOOD BIBLE an edge.
Kingsolver, having spent some time in the Congo herself during her youth, is disgusted by many American and Belgian acts against Africa (and more); she doesn't hide which side she's on. And I don't think she should have to.

I don't know enough about the Congo and its history to know whether everything Kingsolver has written is completely true to history. I also do not know enough about evangelical baptism and do not know what is correct or not. (Some errors were probably made.)

But I know passion, I recognize it here, and that is what I respond to when I read a book such as THE POISONWOOD BIBLE. A book about the Congo, set in the late fifties and early sixties… of course it's going to be political. It should be. You cannot write a book about this subject specifically and deliver it with deadpan, empty prose. It wouldn't work; in fact, it would ring even more untrue to write a book about Africa and to skip over all of her troubles. You do not candy coat the Congo and what has been done to it.
You need heart for a book this ambitious, and Kingsolver's heart overflows. The reader needs to feel this story. The reader needs to feel Africa.

And I felt her.

In a nutshell

Pros:
– Skilled narration; five distinct and strong female voices tell the story
– Very ambitious, and successful
– The author is noticably passionate and opinionated about the subject (of both fanaticism and Africa); story not a meaningless shell
– I've savored all 614 pages of this book.

Cons:
– May be considered to be TOO political by and for some, though I personally appreciated this.

R&R 119 | My Sister's Keeper

Jodi Picoult
My Sister's Keeper
Dutch: Tweede Dochter
First published in: 2004
This edition: Hodder and Stoughton, paperback, 2005
ISBN: 0-340-83546-x
Genre: drama, fiction
Pages: 407
Cover photograph: only Getty Images is credited, not the photographer
Cover design: Tabitha King

book119-1000px

In a nutshell?

There was something that always held me back from reading anything by Jodi Picoult. I just didn't think Picoult's books would be interesting to me personally. But when I stumbled on a second hand version of My Sister's Keeper, I couldn't help but take a sneak peek at the description. I ended up getting the book, my first (and only) Jodi Picoult. Why? Because the story, while far-fetched, seemed really thought-provoking.

Anna Fitzgerald is a thirteen year-old girl from Providence, Rhode Island. She loves playing hockey. Her best friend is her older sister Kate. And she's suing her parents for medical emancipation.
Kate, at sixteen, has struggled with a rare form of leukemia for most of her life. If it weren't for Anna, Kate wouldn't be here today. Anna was literally designed and put on this earth as the perfect donor for Kate. With all the right genes. The right parts. It starts with the blood from Anna's umbilical cord. Some bone marrow. Some procedures in between. But now Kate's kidney's are failing. And the Fitzgeralds depend on Anna once again. Where does it end?

The subject is quite loaded, and I knew what I was getting myself into. I knew this book wasn't going to be pleasant. I knew there would be no happy ending.

Picoult persuades most of her readers to be courageous and continue. Because Anna, whom you can't help but side with from the start even though you do understand the motives of everyone involved, is brave too. So I continued, and for the two days I've needed to read this book, it and its characters (mostly Anna and Kate, and their parents) have been in my thoughts. I've had to put it down a few times to take it all in.

Yes, Picoult manages to evoke all kinds of feelings. The emotion that outweighed all others when I finished the book, however, was anger.

You know how sometimes you read people's reviews, stating they had felt the urge to throw a book across the room? Well, let's just say that by the time I reached the final 20 or so pages, My Sister's Keeper got to know a wall of my living room up close and personal.

I'm not the type of reader to fuss over endings; they don't need to be happy to be good. Usually I trust an author's decision to go in a certain direction, because all things considered it's usually the right way to go, as long as the integrity of the rest of the book remains intact.
Jodi Picoult completely failed to take the rest of her book into account when she wrote her ending, and she did not consider her readers, her characters and most importantly her protagonist. I loathed the ending of My Sister's Keeper. It was slightly disappointing around 50 pages to the end: everything that had made this book brave and controversial was already crumbling apart. But that was somewhat understandable, I could accept this turn of events. The plot was still daring enough at this point. But the last 20 pages… Wow. I never felt screwed over by a book before, until then.

This book forced me to think about the subject of life and death – and who decides over either. It's not easy to be confronted with something like this. It's just not easy. Before reaching the end, I applauded the book for being about choices and free will. But Jodi Picoult has taken such an easy way out of this one; free will be damned. It's hard to explain without giving the ending away. I could describe the feeling as such: imagine being part of a debating panel, and having all your arguments figured out after hours and hours of work and energy, and then the debate is canceled. Neither pro or con have a chance to work this one out. End of discussion. Jodi Picoult canceled the debate.

Knowing this book would affect me profoundly, I wanted to be 'brave' and continue it. I wanted Picoult to be brave, too. Writing a shocking ending is one way of definining courage in an author. It isn't my definition, not here. I define a courageous author as someone who takes a stand, who bloody well sticks with it and who trusts her readers to have it in them to accept this. At least that way, it wouldn't have felt as if the rest of those 400 pages don't even matter anymore. I felt cheated out of thinking for myself.

I wouldn't even care so much that MY SISTER'S KEEPER isn't very well written had Picoult not messed up the ending.

MY SISTER'S KEEPER manages to be both simplistic and too perfect, too spelled out – at the same time. Picoult likes to rotate narrators, but they all sound alike. Anna didn't always sound like a thirteen year-old (but too mature). The story itself is far-fetched and highly dramatized.
Picoult included several useless subplots. There's the rekindling of high school sweethearts: Anna's lawyer and guardian ad litem. Anna's lawyer's dog. Jesse's pyromania. Tactics to get a better understanding of the different characters, yes.
But when faced with a subject as loaded as cancer, donation, dying, living – a family being ripped apart at the seams – I don't really care much about whether Campbell and Julia get back together or not.
I didn't care that much about any of the above.

What I did care about, was Anna's right to decide over her own body. Despite all of its flaws, I would have given this book a reasonably positive review had Picoult not ruined that part, the most important part, of the book. Instead, hard decisions and 400 pages are rendered moot by easy solutions. Picoult chickened out.

In a nutshell

Pros:
– Thought provoking
– the first 350, 375 or so pages of the book, but only if you skip that ending

Cons:
– Most likely to evoke rage upon finishing
– Ending ruins the entire book
– Irrelevant subplots as filler