Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Mister Pip

Walking into a bookstore can be a beautiful and exciting thing. Knowing that within the loving arms of the bookshelves you can find, read, and learn about anything or anyone, real or fiction. As wonderful as this is, it can also be very overwhelming. When you are surrounded by countless books, it becomes hard to chose just one. However, in most Chapters stores, they have a display wall of staff picks, local authors, and bestselling books, and on days when I don't have hours to pursue hundreds of books, or just don't have the patience, I find myself standing in front walls such as these. They display a handful of titles, you can see all the covers, and sometimes there are even brief reviews beside them. It was there, in front of the bestsellers, that I found myself standing this week.

One of the first books I picked up was the 2007 Commonwealth Prize winner, Mister Pip, by New Zealand author, Lloyd Jones. After reading the summary, I was pleasantly surprised and intrigued to discover that the book Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens, was going to be one of the main subjects within this Novel. Having previously read Great Expectations, I thought it would be interesting to look at it from another perspective. Mister Pip is a fascinating story, flawlessly told, of a young girl trying to live in the world of a book, where things make sense and fate is predetermined, and in the world around her, where lives are being destroyed and nothing is certain. It is brilliantly nuanced examination of the power of imagination, literature, and reinvention.

Jones presents himself as a master storyteller, using the tale and voice of a young girl named Matilda to narrate this beautiful story. Set against the stunning beauty of Bougainville in the South Pacific during the civil war in the early 1990s, thirteen-year-old Matilda is at a loss to understand the violence that has torn apart her tropical island. Her village, caught in the cross fire of the conflict between government troops and local armed rebels, has lost its teachers. The only white man to stay behind, the eccentric Mr. Watts, object of much curiosity and scorn, takes over the post as teacher and begins to read to the class from his favorite novel, a battered copy of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. And thus begins a voyage of imagination and translation. Initially flummoxed by the meanings of such alien words as frost and moors, Matilda and her classmates soon become entirely riveted by the story and identify so heavily with the orphan Pip that Victorian England becomes more real to them than their own hometown. Provided with firsthand evidence of the power of imagination, Matilda increasingly sees it as a way to survive and even thrive amid the chaos of civil war.

The theme of word choice present in the story is mirrored in the writing. Matilda and the other children acquire lists of new vocabulary from Mr. Dickens’ work, and they learn the importance of choosing the right word with the right meaning for each occasion. Matilda struggles to pick the right words with which to tell her story, to translate the tale of her life’s greatest lessons into language that all will understand, to make the reader conceive of how it was on the island, how it was to meet Mr. Pip and journey across time and space with him.

There is a fittingly dreamy, lyrical quality to Jones' writing, along with an acute ear for the earthy harmonies of village speech. People are "silly as bats" and "argue like roosters". While his characters embellish their stories readily, his own approach is more controlled. The simplicity with which he describes the atrocities that take place is devastating. But it is the great faith that Jones has in literature, to effect change no less than to offer solace, that gives this extraordinary book its charge.

Not only is Jones’ story an intriguing map of literary discovery on a remote island, it is a sparkling and eloquent homage to the power of storytelling. With its direct and graceful prose, and every word precisely chosen to present the story in a unique and consistent voice, the sophistication of its telling is staggering, as Jones addresses head-on the effects of imperialism and the redemptive power of art.

"You cannot pretend to read a good book. your eyes will give you away. So will your breathing. A person entranced by a book simply forgets to breathe. The house can catch alight and a reader deep in a book will not look up until the wallpaper is in flames."

Jones’ breathtaking novel shows what magic a child’s imagination makes possible, even in the face of terrible violence, and what power stories have to fuel the imagination. Books hold so much knowledge and wisdom, giving us the everlasting ability to learn about places, people, and ideas, but they can also provide a safe haven, a friend, and a sense of optimism. I find this idea overwhelming, but in such a marvelous way. And so my tip for this book is to never forget the power of the written word. No matter what book you read there is always something to learn, and take away from it, always a safe place to go, and sense of hope to obtain.

"Mister Pip is conjuring of the highest order. With a wave of the literary wand, we are transported - mystified, breath-taken - into the mind of a child discovering the power of words, imagination and Charles Dickens, for the first time. We do not know how we made this journey, but therein lies the illusion: we are reminded that books can be, as surely as Mister Pip is, magic."

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Late Nights on Air

Being a Canadian, I have read a deplorable amount of books written by Canadian authors. I seem to have this idea that things coming out of the United States are better some how. Whether it be music, television shows, movies, or books, I assume Americans are better at creating them. So this week I decided to help prove myself wrong, at least when it comes to novels, and read Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay. The Ottawa born author writes about the power and intimacy of radio, and how we can fall in love with certain voices. The story is elegiac, exquisite, and creates enormous spaces with few words, making the reader party to the journey, listening, marveling, breathing, fearing.

In Late Nights on Air, the barren, treeless tundra of the Far North serves as a kind of reckoning ground for a clutch of characters. They're not visionaries, but all seekers in some way. The story is set among a group of people working at a small Yellowknife radio station in 1975. After being fired from his latest television job, a disgraced Harry Boyd returns to his radio roots in the northern Canadian town, as the manager of a station no one listens to, and finds himself at the center of the station's unlikely social scene. New and enigmatic, Dido Paris, both renowned and mocked for her Dutch accent, fled an affair with her husband's father, only to be torn between Harry and another man. The young and fragile Gwen came to learn radio production, but under Harry's tutelage finds herself the guardian of the late-night shift. And lonely but steadying force, Eleanor, wonders if it's time to move south just as she meets an unlikely suitor. Relationships are entered in and out of, while loyalties shift in surprising ways. Each of these characters come with their own unwavering back stories, and point-of-view shifts between them with such fluidity. Similarly the story moves back and forth in time in a way that feels only natural, demonstrating Hay's remarkable skill without actually making us aware of her at all.

As we come to learn about each characters history, and watch as they build and struggle with relationships, we also learn about the struggle in the north. The city is becoming divided over a proposal to build a pipeline that would cut across Native lands, bringing modernization and a flood of workers, equipment and money into sacred territory. This underlying event helps to provide a clear picture of the townspeople motives and morals, bringing some closer together, while others become strangers, as each person fights for what they believe to be right.

Late Nights on Air is as much about the how the characters relate to each other, as to how they relate to their environment. The final third of the book tells of four friends embarking on a six-week canoe trip where the evocation of the tundra - its emptiness, silence, and delicate beauty - is stunning, almost a new species of erotica. Hay beautifully portrays the tender bonds that are forged, and broken in such wild a place. I honestly didn't know how captivated I would become as the characters portaged and canoed for days, sometimes seeing no other living creature but a single ptarmigan or a caribou.

Indeed this is the True North, but not like we might imagine: "It was north of the sixtieth parallel and shared in the romance of the North, emanating not mystery but uniqueness and not right away. It had no breathtaking scenery. No mountains, no glaciers, in the winter not even that much snow." Sound, not sight, becomes the salient sense, which is natural with the radio, and Hay creates this effect beautifully. Admirably too, for it is hard to write sound. And not just those voices in the night, but also snow crunching underfoot, paddles in the water, crackling fires and birdsong. Truly, this is the most audible novel I have ever read.

"On the road below, a small man in a black beret was bending over his tripod just as her father used to bend over his tape recorder. Her father's voice had become the wallpaper inside her skull, he'd made a home for himself there as improvised and unexpected as these little houses on the side of the rock - houses with histories of instability, of changing from gambling den to barbershop to sheet metal shop to private home, and of being moved from one part of town to another since they had no foundations. All the little and large efforts of settlement intrigued her" This was one paragraph that stood out to me, but Late Nights on Air is filled with phrases and images that will capture your imagination, and take you to another place entirely.

Hay provides crystalline prose, keen details and sharp dialogue that sculpt the isolated, hardy residents of Yellowknife. A character in Elizabeth's book describes good script writing as having "simplicity, directness, and intimacy", and Late Night on Air achieves all three. Whether you love or hate the characters by the end of the book, you know them as well as our own skin. This book with teach you to respect the north; its timeless fragility, and its ability to both save and destroy those who venture there. Psychologically astute, richly rendered and deftly paced. It's a pleasure from start to finish.

Radio has become a such a common thing in our lives, that we don't even think about the marvel of it. With radio, we are able to share our thoughts, ideas, music, news, and communicate with people all over the world. Just the other night I watched the movie Pirate Radio. Although the vibe of Pirate Radio and Late Nights on Air are very different, they are both perfect examples of how radio can uplift people and truly effect peoples lives. My Tip for this book is listen to the radio. We all have our favorite stations, but try to listen to something new. You will expose yourself to new music, new voices and ideas, and will give yourself with the opportunity to grow as a person, building depth to your knowledge and versatility.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Wuthering Heights

The other day I came across some disturbing statistics on reading. According to a Jenkins Group, 42% of college graduates will never read another book. Since most people read bestsellers printed in the past 10 years, it follows that virtually no one is reading the classics. Although it’s unfortunate that the intellectual heritage of humanity is being forgotten we can use this to our benefit. By reading the classics to improve your mind you can give yourself an advantage. You will gain a bigger vocabulary of more uncommonly used words, therefore setting yourself apart. A larger arsenal of words enables you to express yourself more eloquently. You’ll be able to communicate with precision and create a perception of higher intelligence that will give you an advantage in work and social situations, and your writing and speaking ability will improve as a result. Ever notice how quotes, and character and plot references continue to come up in recent books, movies, and conversations? Having actually read the classics, will enable you to fully understand those many references, and will likely bring a clearer understanding of the bigger picture at hand. We like to believe, in our modern arrogance, that technology has changed everything. In truth, it feels the same to be alive today as it did a thousand years ago. The lessons of the classics carry as much weight as ever. They contain information that is directly applicable to your life. Reading the classics develops an understanding of the human condition and a deeper appreciation of modern problems.

"Somebody who reads only newspapers and at best the books of contemporary authors looks to me like an extremely nearsighted person who scorns eyeglasses. He is completely dependent on the prejudices and fashions of his times, since he never gets to see or hear anything else. And what a person thinks on his own without being stimulated by the thoughts and experiences of other people is even in the best case rather paltry and monotonous.

There are only a few enlightened people with a lucid mind and style and with good taste within a century. What has been preserved of their work belongs among the most precious possessions of mankind.

Nothing is more needed than to overcome the modernist’s snobbishness."
-- Albert Einstein

The whole point of my journey through literature is to read a great variety of books from different authors, genres, and eras in order to gain understanding, and therefor grow as a person and an intellectual. To read nothing but the classics would be as foolish as completely ignoring them. The aim is to combine the wisdom of the past with the innovation of the future, as the two are inextricably linked. This week I chose to read my second classic, Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte's only novel. It is the recounting of a tragic love story, and of happiness redeemed through the next generation. It's a fantastic, un-Victorian and imaginative work that is embedded in English folk-tradition and literature.

Wuthering Heights, is a harrowing tale of destructive passion and tragedy. This gothic book entwines romantic and eerie threads to unfold a story of relationships, set in the rustic northern English moors, a place of unpredictable weather and countryside. This story is narrated by Mr. Lockwood, a gentleman visiting the Yorkshire moors where the novel is set, and of Mrs. Dean, housekeeper to the Earnshaw family, who had been witness to the interlocked destinies of the original owners of the Heights. In a series of flashbacks and time shifts, Bronte draws a powerful picture of the enigmatic Heathcliff, who is brought to the Heights from the streets of Liverpool by Mr Earnshaw. Heathcliff grew up with, but remained socially beneath the other inhabitants of Wuthering Heights, forming complex and emotional relationships with the father and his own children, Catherine and Hinton. Heathcliff and Catherine become passionate, headstrong, and unpredictable soulmates, who remain separated by pride and social class, and after the death of Catherine, Heathcliff becomes increasingly isolated and alienated from daily life, experiences visions as he longs for the death that will reunite him with Catherine. It is only when Catherine's daughter, Cathy, and Hindley Earnshaw's son, Hareton, finally join happily in a loving relationship, that the winter of Wuthering Heights becomes the spring of Thrushcross Grange.

Unlike most novels, Wuthering Heights' protagonists are anti-heroes; the very antithesis of what a hero is supposed to be. Instead of compassionate and heroic, Heathcliff and Catherine are selfish and petty. Instead of being blissfully in love, Catherine marries someone else and breaks Heathcliff's heart. Too proud to tell each other their true feelings, they fight, storm and rage against each other, destroying themselves in the process. Most people dislike this novel, for its gloomy perspective, tragic outcome and psychological drama. However, Catherine and Heathcliff are perhaps more realistic than most other novel characters claim to be. They not only make mistakes, they cause debacles, completely devastate both people and places and ruin it all by blaming solely themselves.

The entire drama is a destruction of a human soul; how love can save and damn one man. Bronte brings in a whole new perspective on love. It isn't the epic ballad in tales, or the beautiful quiet bloom between spouses; this is rampant, tragic and interbred with other less desirable qualities until it is no longer recognizable until the very end. 


After reading and struggling with Dickens' Great Expectations, I was reluctant to read another classic. However, after having been reminded of how important that era of literature is, I was encouraged in reading Wuthering Heights, which proved surprisingly easier to read than my first classic. I found I was able to understand the plot and character development, as well as most of the dialogue. There was one character, however, that I struggled to understand any time he stepped onto the page. Joseph, the lifelong servant of Wuthering Heights, spoke with a broad Yorkshire accent that was incomprehensible to me. While reading Shakespeare in high school, our books had a translation of the lines on the opposite side of the page, making it much easier to understand and appreciate the writing. Remembering back to this, I found a website that translated Joseph's dialogue throughout the book. So if you struggle in understanding him as I did, my Tip is try out this website, or one similar, so that you receive all the details of this exceptional book.

"It is as if Emily Bronte could tear up all that we know human beings by, and fill these unrecognizable transparencies with such a gust of life that they transcend reality." --Virginia Woolf 

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future

As I mentioned in my last entry, I was heading to New York when I decided to read Wicked, and this weeks book, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future. I have to be completely honest when I say that the biggest reason I chose this book was because it weighs in at just over 100 pages, and I knew I would not have much time to read on my trip. This tiny volume, barely bigger than a Pop-tart, only took about a half-hour or so to read, and made for a much more enjoyable plane ride home. Author Michael J. Fox of television and movie fame has penned this classic little book for graduates, and it's chock full of insight, humor and interesting stories from his life.

Fox abandoned high school to pursue an acting career, but went on to receive honorary degrees from several universities and garner the highest accolades for his acting, as well as for his writing. In his new book, he inspires and motivates graduates to recognize opportunities, maximize their abilities, and roll with the punches, all with his trademark optimism, warmth, and humor. In A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future, Fox draws on his own life experiences to make a case that real learning happens when "life goes skidding sideways." He writes of coming to Los Angeles from Canada at age eighteen and attempting to make his way as an actor. Fox offers up a comically skewed take on how, in his own way, he fulfilled the requirements of a college syllabus. He learned Economics as a starving artist; an unexpected turn as a neophyte activist schooled him in Political Science; and his approach to Comparative Literature involved stacking books up against their movie versions.

The writing is witty, and entertaining, and the overall impression is of a grateful and self-deprecating man with hard-won wisdom, writing with a light touch. Fox has a firm grasp of the hardships of life, but in spite of (or as he says because of) these hardships, he is one of the brightest and most positive influences in the world today. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Future is a surprising realistic and yet wonderfully inspiring and funny motivational memoir, proving that ultimately lessons learned in life, are more lasting than anything learned in school.

Even though it's indicated that this book is for recent graduates, I think that people in any phase of life can learn, and be inspired and uplifted from Fox's words and anecdotes. This is the kind of book that you can read a couple pages while waiting for the water to boil, or before turning in for the night, so my tip is pick it up, and just have it around the house so that you can turn to it when your in need of some optimism, or just a simple smile.

Monday, June 7, 2010


While getting ready for a trip to New York City, I began thinking about the books that I would read during my travels. I wanted to read something that would somehow connect with my trip, perhaps a story set in the big apple, or a biography of a native New Yorker. I finally settled on the perfect book as I was deciding on the shows and Broadway productions I was planning to attend. Having heard many great things about the Broadway version of Wicked, and like so many others, only knowing half of the story of the Wicked Witch of the West and her quarrels with Dorothy, I decided that reading the book by Gregory Maguire, and seeing the show would be a divine fit. This book is richly textured, and fantastically real, and after reading it, you will be unable to see the Wizard of Oz in the same way again.

Maguire has re-created, and populated Oz with the power of his own imagination. His strange and inventive postmodernist fable uses L. Frank Baum's Wonderful Wizard of Oz as a springboard to create a tense realm inhabited by humans, talking animals, Munchkinlanders, dwarfs and The Wizard of Oz himself, emperor of this dystopian dictatorship. While we were first led to believe that Oz is filled with happiness, joy and color, we learn that it is in fact not a place of fairy-tale, but a dark, oppressive police state full of political machinations. It's a land where Animals, who are sentient and have voices, souls and minds, are persecuted and exiled. It's a place where you are wicked if you are different; if you tell the truth.

Maguire's fantasy world in Wicked is sketched vividly enough to change the way we look at Oz. For starters, the Wicked Witch has a name: Elphaba, and she is not wicked, but insecure and unfortunately green. We are Introduced to the Wicked Witch at the very beginning of her story, her consummation. The free-spirited Elphaba is born to a giddy alcoholic mother, and a hermit-like father who transmits to her his habits of loathing and self-hatred, both parents being challenged in loving rather than taunting her. We come to know about her tumultuous childhood, and her journey to Shiz University, where she is forced by circumstances to become roommates and eventual friends with an unlikely candidate, Glinda, the Good Witch.

Elphaba, unlike the figure of our childhood fantasies, is not a person who dreams of inflicting devilish deeds on the world that refuses to accept her. She is a zealous Munchkinlander who fights for tolerance and who's willing to take the necessary steps to put an end to the tyrannical rule of the Wizard of Oz. She grows up to be an anti-totalitarian agitator, an animal-rights activist, a nun, a nurse, and a lover. Elphaba is smart, sassy, honest, and compelling. She is an intellectual, an activist, and a bit of a revolutionary, who is often misunderstood and not accepted, and who will make you question the nature of morality.

The eminent Dorothy, who we have all grown up to love, appears only near the novel's end, as her house lands on Elphaba's sister, the Wicked Witch of the East, in an accident that sets Elphaba on the trail of the girl from Kansas, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodsman, the Lion, and the infamous red shoes that hold so much sentimentality and and symbolize a lifetime of yearning to be loved as her sister was.

Maguire fills Elphaba's story with liberal amounts of dark humor, sociopolitical satire, honesty, sympathy and earnestness. The detailed and complex religion, culture, and government of Oz are revealed, and help to supplement the narrative beautifully, adding a great deal of depth to the story. Maquire creates real and complex, three dimensional people out of the original characters, while introducing a new cast to help fill in the blanks of Elphaba's past. The combination of puckish humor and bracing pessimism in this fantastical meditation on good and evil, God and free will, shall captivate devotees of fantasy for many years to come.

I have great respect for people who come up with their own original ideas, and bring them to life. I love Maguire's idea of learning about the rather mysterious wicked witch. What really mesmerized me was the way he fit together the story in this novel with the context of the original Oz book, however I found a good portion of the book hard to read. I found that some things were unnecessarily described to no end, while other situations, people, or places were not described at all, making it hard to obtain more than a skeletal idea of what was going on. The beginning and end, however, were enchanting and made the slight struggle worth while.

There are so many details included in the pages of this book, and like I said, some are not described to a point that you become familiar with them, so my tip would be to read this books rather quickly. Try to resist giving into the possible desire to put the book down when the story starts to lag a little in the middle, as you will forget all the details, and the end will not be as impacting. If you can find a period of undistracted time, you will have the reward of reading a story of richly detailed characters, brought together by an intriguing and insightful plot you surely will not soon forget.

As I mentioned at the beginning, I decide to see the broadway production of Wicked. During this lag of the trip I was with my mom, and one of my close friends, and we were wildly anticipating our evening at the theater. After running back to our hotel from Times Square in a mild torrential downpour, we arrived with puddles in our shoes, and pools of water trailing behind us, and slowly came to the heartbreaking realization that our tickets were for the Thursday night of the previous week. After taking a moment to be disappointed, and filled with a melancholy like non other, we raced to the theater to try and find tickets. After almost an hour of roller-coaster emotions, we managed to find three tickets and made our way to the extremely welcoming red velvet seats. Even the fact that we were cold, and still wet, could not take away from the extraordinary show. Although the musical diverted from the book, it follow the basic story and provided me with an even greater understanding of Elphaba. The story was brought to life beautiful by a cast of extremely talented actors and singers, and I am so thrilled I was able to experience that on my trip. If you ever have the chance to see this production, I highly recommend it.