Sunday, June 11, 2017

My Reading Life: Mr. Pip (Jones)

Mister Pip (Jones) crossed my path a bit ago on a readers' forum. This phrase caught my attention: 

 So, I thought, a story about a book's influence. I was interested – always interested – in books about books, and it was available on PaperBackSwap.

The next little hook was the epigraph. Whenever an author chooses a quote from an author or a work I already have a connection, that hook sets a little deeper. Author Lloyd Jones’ epigraph of Mister Pip:
“Characters migrate."
 Umberto Eco
Eco I was familiar with, especially his quotes about books and reading, plus I’d read his The Name of the Rose last year. The quote itself I would not understand until I read the book.

The story reads like a juvenile level book at first (I guess today they don’t term it “juvenile” but “young adult” instead) and seems suited for the adolescent audience since the protagonist is thirteen year old girl.  But then the brutality of soldiers, the “redskins,” enters. Though brutality is a reality, I personally do not think it altogether advantageous for an author to be too descriptive to adolescents, especially in a fictional work. Old-fashioned thinking, maybe, but this is the reason I think the book might be listed to a little bit older reader.

Charles Dickens' Great Expectations is introduced in the story before page 20, and my first flagged quote is “I had never been read to in English before. Nor had the others. We didn’t have books in our homes . . . . When Mr. Watts read to us we fell quiet. It was a new sound in the world. He read slowly so we heard the shape of each word.”  Now, how lovely is that!? “To hear the shape of each word.

Then, “By the time Mr. Watts reached the end of chapter one I felt like I had been spoken to by this boy Pip. This boy who I couldn’t see to touch but knew by ear. I had found a new friend. The surprising thing is where I’d found him – not up a tree or sulking in the shade, or splashing around in one of the hill streams, but in a book. No one had told us kids to look there for a friend. Or that you could slip inside the skin of another.   

I read an interview with New Zealand author Lloyd Jones who said that Great Expectations was the first adult book he read which had this effect on him.

The unfamiliarity of words and ideas introduced to these Indonesian children through Great Expectations were explained to them by Mr. Watts. “Mr. Watts talked about what it was to be a gentleman. Though it meant many things, he thought the word gentleman best described how a man should be in the world. A gentleman is a man who never forgets his manners, no matter the situation. No matter how awful, or how difficult the situation. . . . A gentleman will always do the right thing.’” Little did they realize, nor I, the feet those words would be given as the story developed. 

 “For a long time the two of them stood clinging to one another over the small plot of piled dirt. [He] said they stayed like that until after night fell, and they had no more tears, and their tongues were idle because there were no words. No one, he said, has yet invented words for a moment like that. . . . Grief. . . .”   Ah, yes. There are no words for grief.

As I read, I was curious if any of the story was based on real events. That rabbit trail answer was yes, the Bougainville Civil War of the 1990s on Bougainville Island of Papau New Guinea.

As I rabbit-trailed after I finished the book, I found that a film with Hugh Laurie as Mr. Watts has been made based on the book and entitled Mr. Pip rather than the book’s title of Mister Pip. Netflix has Mr. Pip streaming, so we watched it. Viewers had rated it only two stars, and I can see why. I would have been lost had I not read the book first, but even so, the storyline was still somewhat hard to follow.

Quotes I liked:
“We listened . . . to the ocean shuffle up the beach and draw out.”

“I miss sea horses too. . . . You will never find a more wise eye anywhere than in a sea horse. This is true. I made that discovery when I was younger than you. And I discovered something about parrot fish. They stare at you in their hundreds and actually remember you from the day before and the day before that one.”

A new use of a favorite bird name: 
Spread before me were all the fragments of life 
that had gone into the making of Great Expectations
I could magpie* through all his personal papers.”
 * scavange

Friday, May 12, 2017

My Reading Life: The Burning: Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley (Heatwole)

Several times a year, I drive from southern Virginia up through our beautiful Shenandoah Valley to Pennsylvania. And each time, I always think about the devastation that occurred here a little over 150 years ago. 

Each time I picked up The Burning: Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley, I spent more time than I intended pouring over the maps Heatwole included and orienting myself to many of those places I know in this modern world. And with every reading, I would recall how many times I'd heard how much the Confederates hated "those Yankees" and could now realize why. Such terrible destruction.

Even when orders were given to limit burning to barns or crops, enough known of human nature tells me that there were those soldiers who were tender in carrying out the orders -- like when the soldier would tell the woman of the house that he had to set the barn on fire but it would be a small fire and he would leave immediately so she could put it out -- and there were those who sought revenge through greater destruction than ordered. It is the results of the latter which grieve my heart and make me want to know no more. Yet these women who had sole responsibility for their farms while their husbands or fathers were away in the war had more vigor and fortitude and courage and foresight than I think I have or would have.

The hardships endured by the southern families --and on the Confederate soldiers themselves-- are more than I think I could bear:
"We were repeatedly robbed . . . by the Federals during Sheridan's encampment around town. We had to do our cooking after dark, as the smoke from the chimney was an invitation for the enemy to raid our kitchen and larders."
"Our hearts ached at the horrible sight . . . our beautiful Valley almost a barren waste and we with an army so inferior in numbers as to render success almost hopeless.
"The Federals were consuming all the forage that time would allow, and the rest was being carried off or destroyed."
"By eleven the atmosphere was stifling with smoke; the livid flames, that shone in the early morning from river to mountain, were obscured by the increasing pall of darkness that rested on the once beautiful landscape."
"The Confederates were slow to move on this day, probably because many of their horses were breaking down. The Federals were destroying all of the forage within their grasp -- they burned what they could not feed to their own mounts."
And in the end, "Emergency rations were made available by the very government that sanctioned Sheridan's campaign against the Valley."

I found this new and interesting regarding the Mennonite church: "In those days it was the custom to let the Lord select new deacons, ministers, and bishops. This was accomplished by placing a slip of paper into a prayer book and mixing the book with others, one for each candidate. Each man selected a book, and the one who found the slip of paper inside became the new church official." I guess this method was drawing straws glorified.

The name Sheridan has left a smoldering distaste with me.