what i'm reading: mr pip, and others to follow

I'm in the middle of a surprise novel, something not plucked from my endless To-Read List, but that Allan included in my birthday loot: Mister Pip, by New Zealand author Lloyd Jones. The story is told by a 13-year-old narrator and involves Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. Teenage narrator? Dickens? Good call.

Mister Pip won the Commonwealth Prize in 2006, and was nominated for the Booker Prize the following year. In my experience, both those awards mean excellent books. I'll read any book that won either a Commonwealth or a Booker, and I've never been disappointed.

This is no exception: an excellent book. The main story involves a girl discovering the power of fiction - for solace, for escape, and to understand her world. Matilda also discovers an unexpected teacher and a father-figure, and her relationship with her mother begins to change. Those are standard elements for a teenage-narrated book, but Jones is subtle and skillful, and his young narrator's voice rings true for me. (I'm very tough that way. If it doesn't really feel like a teenager is narrating, I can't read the book.)

The coming-of-age story is set against a backdrop of war and terror. Most of that is hidden from Matilda and the other young people on their South Pacific island, but what seeps through - what their parents can't protect them from - sears their memories, and it sears the readers' mind, too. A few images go a long way.

* * * *

As Matilda discovers Charles Dickens, I find myself compelled to re-read Great Expectations.

In university, I was an English major (of course) and 19th Century British was my strongest area of interest, especially Dickens. Later on, out of school, I made an interesting observation. If I read something by Dickens in a public place - on a bus, or in a park - or was just walking around carrying a Dickens novel, people would ask if I was in school. "What are you reading? Oh, is that for a class?"

After seeing a PBS production of Martin Chuzzlewit, I wanted to read the novel. I was teaching at the time, and all my colleagues made the same assumption. "Why are you reading that, are you school?"

Dickens is the only author this has ever happened with. Interesting.

Recently, one night after work, I caught a bit of a Masterpiece Theatre production of Little Dorrit, a Dickens novel I've never read. I only saw one episode but I was instantly hooked, and bought a copy.

So now I feel a Dickens binge coming on: I want to read both Great Expectations and Little Dorrit. The start of grad school and a big schedule change looms in September, so I'm not sure how realistic this is, but after Mister Pip, I'll start and see how it goes.

I picked up a used copy of Great Expectations in Stratford, only to discover I already owned a copy at home. The copy I bought was nicer, and only five bucks, so I'll donate the extra copy to the Mississauga Library for one of their many book sales.

* * * *

A couple of years before we moved to Canada, I discovered these wonderful little editions of Shakespeare plays published by Pelican.

I love the cover designs, each play with a different abstract painting, and a similar icon on the spine. There's an excellent series introduction and the intro for the specific play is usually very solid. And they're $5 each! I usually buy them in the US, but even in Canada, they're not more than $7.

Finding these books in 2003, I decided to use them as an excuse to collect and read all 36* plays - to re-read the ones I've already read, and read the rest for the first time. (I have a Complete Shakespeare, but that tome is hardly conducive to a pleasurable reading experience.)

It's a project I forget about for huge periods of time, but then come back to and read another one or two. I've only read nine plays since making this decision, which isn't much. But on the other hand, that's a quarter of the full 36, and a lot more than I would have read without the project.

In Stratford we saw a bunch of Pelican Shakespeare editions, used and in good shape, and scooped up a handful. I used to keep a list of what I already owned on my iPAQ, for just this reason. Now I see I'd better add that to my Blackberry, because one of the four we bought was already on our shelf. So the Mississauga Library will get another Winter's Tale along with Great Expectations.

* I'm not counting the "lost plays," Pericles and Two Noble Kinsmen, but I might get to those, too.

No comments: