Genre: Utopia/Dystopia (I cannot decide)
Main characters: Jonas
Time and place: the far future
First sentence: “It was almost December, and Jonas was beginning to be frightened.”
Verdict: Four and a half stars.
Jonas is a eleven year old boy who lives in a society where everything is regulated. The quality of life is high, and if one would ask them the people there would say they do not lack anything.
As Jonas turns twelve, he is chosen to become a Receiver of Memory, the most honored role in their society, one that implies having access to all the memories of their forefathers. It is this way that Jonas gets to find out about how things once were, and realizes how not-so-utopic the society he lives in actually is.
I have no idea what I was expecting this book to be, but it took me completely by surprise. In a good way, of course. It’s one of those books that made me think, and I love those. I am quite looking forward to reading the sequels (although I understand that they are set in totally different worlds).
For me, the world building was the best part. It had elements that are unmistakably 1984-esque, such as the speakers in everyone’s homes, speakers that could not be turned off and that chastised children/people who did something untoward. And, of course, the feeling that someone, somewhere, is always watching.
There are also some main differences though, because this world is, at least on the surface, quite friendly to its inhabitants, or at least those of them that do obey the rules. Lying to one another is forbidden, and children are taught from an early age not to be rude with others. People’s path in life (their jobs, their marriages, their kids) is assigned to them by the Elders, but great care is taken for these choices to fit the individual they were imposed on (“Matching of Spouses was given such weighty consideration that sometimes an adult who applied to receive a spouse waited months or even years before a Match was approved and announced. All of the factors — disposition, energy level, intelligence, and interests — had to correspond and to interact perfectly“). There are also mandatory rituals that are supposed to relieve people of their daily stresses: the evening ‘telling of feelings’, when people shared their feelings with their ‘family unit’ and were helped to deal with them, and the morning sharing of dreams, which was pretty much the same.
Everything is very well regulated. A ‘family unit’ always has a mother, a father, one boy child, and one girl. There are precisely 50 babies born and entrusted to families every year. The children are all given names that are unique in the community (only when someone dies his or her name may be used again; unless the person did something particularly reprehensible so the name is forbidden to reuse), but they also have numbers, according to their age and the number they had on the list on the day they were ‘assigned’ to their families. And so on and so forth.
The obvious question that this raises is: would building a carefree life like that justify the loss of choice? The answer, in the context of the world in a book, is a resounding yes. And that is because those people (with the exception of Jonas later on) had no idea they were missing anything, as no one had ever told them there could be such a thing as free will. It takes one of us, people living under a different regime, to be horrified at the immensity of their loss. Although to be fair I do think that the idea of having someone always making the best decisions does have its merits for the society as a whole (a society where no one makes the wrong choices has no way to go but up, right?). However, from an individual point of view this would be nothing short of a catastrophe — we grow by learning from our mistakes, we gather strength by surpassing obstacles; it is this very growth that makes us who we are.
But I digress. Back to the book :)
This is a short book with plenty of world-building, so the characters are not developed beyond a few basic brush strokes. We don’t even know most of them’s names.
I liked Jonas a lot. I thought his transition from a child of his own society — taking things for granted, playing by the rules, and never thinking for himself beyond the basics — to the one who knew and understood things was quite believable and well done, albeit a bit short in pages (it did take about a year in ‘real-time’). I liked the way he found some answers to the questions no one ever thought of — such as what are animals (they used the word, but had no idea of its actual meaning), what the children’s plush toys represented (each ‘newchild’ was given a plush ‘comfort object’, with a strange name — hippo, elephant, bear — and shape), or what some of their games had their roots in. Even deprecated words, like ‘love’, become full of meaning for Jonas. The memories change him irrevocably, and for the better.
I feel like I should say something about the Giver too, but I only see him as a means to an end. Basically he is there to provide the information Jonas needs, we rarely if ever get any insights in his own mind. We know his task is very brave, taking on everyone’s memories and relieving them of their burden, but I do not know whether to read too much into that since it was a task imposed on him and not one he chose himself. I imagine him as an older version of Jonas, with the same courage and same willingness to do the right thing.
That is also an interesting part. People are no longer capable of love, or perhaps they have just discarded it as unnecessary. Since a ‘family unit’ is brought together by the authorities, they have no real blood ties and no actual attachment to one another, other than mere familiarity. Sure, parents are proud of their children’s achievements, but only because they reflect on themselves and their parenting style. Children are well cared for, but that is because this is the way things are supposed to be done. The parent-child interactions are stilted and formulaic, using pre-established sentences. A far cry from the way Jonas interacts with the Giver himself, asking all the questions he needs and being given answers, even when those answers are not easy ones.
The most obvious example of the general lack of feeling is Jonas’ family reaction to baby Gabriel: they took him in, because if he didn’t make it it would reflect badly on Jonas’ father performance as a Nurturer. They all took care of him for about a year, and yet they never bonded, they were absolutely indifferent when told they have to let Gabe go.
What I liked
My absolute favorite thing by far was the part related to colors.
I also liked the way the author has imagined the childhood stages of the people in that community.
First, there is the Ceremony for the Ones:
Each December, all the newchildren born in the previous year turned One. One at a time — there were always fifty in each year’s group, if none had been released — they had been brought to the stage by the Nurturers who had cared for them since birth. Some were already walking, wobbly on their unsteady legs; others were no more than a few days old, wrapped in blankets, held by their Nurturers.
There is a similar ceremony for each age up to twelve, marking the passing from one particular stage to another.
For example, when one became a Seven one was allowed (requested actually) to wear a front buttoned jacket for the first time.
Fours, Fives, and Sixes all wore jackets that fastened down the back so that they would have to help each other dress and would learn interdependence. The front-buttoned jacket was the first sign of independence, the first very visible symbol of growing up.
At Eight, one got another jacket, “with smaller buttons and, for the first time, pockets, indicating that she was mature enough now to keep track of her own small belongings“. At Nine, each kid got a bike (the only means of transportation allowed), “the powerful emblem of moving gradually out into the community, away from the pro-tective family unit“. At Ten their hair was shortened, and at Eleven they got new clothes again, “different undergarments for the females, whose bodies were beginning to change; and longer trousers for the males, with a specially shaped pocket for the small calculator that they would use this year in school“. The last important step was becoming Twelve, when one was assigned to their future job. After that, people usually no longer kept track of their age.
I think nothing makes more obvious the Sameness of everything than the idea of these stages. Everyone wore the same clothes, everyone wore their hair the same way, and so forth. I find it quite an original idea and I salute the author’s imagination for thinking about it.
What I did not like
Not a fault of the book’s per se but I was confused to find out that there still was snow and animals still existed in that world. Seeing that no one knew about them other than the Giver, I would have expected them to be long gone/extinct. And they weren’t even that far away, since Jonas only had to travel a few days to find them. Although now that I think about it, this too — the fact that people had no idea of the things in their vicinity — could be a sign of how isolated, closed, and self-sufficient the community was.
Thoughts on the title
“The Giver” is one of the central characters of the book, so the title is very apt. I also like how it comes with a touch of mystery — I used to try to imagine what exactly is that the giver in the book is giving. I never had a satisfactory theory about that, but even if I did I don’t think I would have guessed in a million years what the actual answer is :)
Thoughts on the ending
I can’t stop thinking about it.
Recommend it to?
Anyone. It is an interesting read and also quite short (I read it in a single sitting).
Genre: Travel Fiction
Main characters: Summy Skim, Ben Raddle, Jane Edgerton
Time and place: 1898-1899, Canada (mostly Klondike)
First sentence: “On March 16, in the antepenultimate year of this century, the letter carrier whose route included Jacques Cartier Street in Montreal delivered a letter addressed to Mr. Summy Skim, at house number 29.”
Summary: Summy Skim and Ben Raddle are two cousins living in Montreal. When they find themselves, out of the blue, the owners of a claim in Klondike, the adventurous side of Ben takes over. He manages to convince Summy, and the two of them travel together to the place where Ben hopes he will become a rich man. But the river floods their patch of ground and everything seems hopeless… until one day when they rescue a man that, with his dying breath, left them instructions to reach a place where a volcano filled with gold was to be found.
This is my third time reading this book (I’ve read it twice as a child). I have come to it with a bunch of expectations, given that I already knew I was going to like it, because, of course, I had already read it. Twice. Well, as it happens when it comes to expectations, I was wrong. I simply couldn’t believe this was a book I have actually liked. Everything seemed cardboard-like, the situations, the characters, everything. So disappointing.
Summy Skim for example. He loves quiet life (so mostly he complains about wanting to go home), but he also has feelings for one of the girls (so wherever she goes he goes too). Loves hunting, he’s a good shot, that’s about it. Nothing deeper than that. Edith is simply gentle and good at keeping everything in order. Ben Raddle is an engineer who wants adventure, and Jane is almost his female counterpart (just as adventurous yet shallow as he is, with a dash of feminism blended in). As for the antagonists, they felt more like literary devices than fully fledged characters, as they are two vicious people with no background and no qualities at all.
Mr. Verne is mostly famous for his “Extraordinary Voyages” series, and I believe this book is one of those. The characters are uprooted from their familiar environment (Montreal), and brought at the (almost literal) end of the world. Some say Mr. Verne’s descriptions of travelling in cold weather are very well-done, making one feel like he/she were actually there. Unfortunately all I can say about it is that even those parts seemed bi-dimensional to me.
As a bit of trivia, I have read this book in my native lanaguage (Romanian), and, while I own two separate translations, both of them have the same opening sentence, which differs from the one in the English version in two places: the date in the English version is March 16, when in my versions it’s March 17; the century is “this” instead of “the previous” one. I have checked Google books and found a copy of the original French book, and it was the same as the English one. However, the fact that I have two translations I think implies the fact that somewhere out there there’s also a French text with March 17 instead of March 16 — but why would that be? At least the case is a bit more obvious when it comes to the century issue, since the book was released in 1906, if I remember correctly (post-1905, anyway), so “the previous century” is by far the correct version, rather than “this”. But why is there a French version of the book with “this century”, when it all happens in 1800s, but the book was published not in that century but the next?
After a bit of digging I have found out the explanation for the century dilemma (but not for the date change, which is what has intrigued me the most). The version published in 1906 was a post-mortem one, heavily edited by the author’s son. I already knew that, but what I did not know is that the original version of the text, originally finished in 1899 (the same century as the events in the book), was also published in 1989 (yup, 90 years after). I have first read this book, in its Romanian translation, with March 17, far before 1989, which means that my copy is a translation of the initial version, the edited one (waaaah!), while the English version is straight after Jules Verne’s.
The differences between the original version and Michel Verne’s are very important (hence my adding Michel as a co-author): show spoiler
So many things I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t searched for the first sentence of the book in English :P
Thoughts on the ending: Predictable and somewhat unlikely, but nice :) show spoiler
What I liked most: It was interesting to find out about the meridian marking the border between Canada and Alaska, and a bit of what the search for gold entails — about rockers (a cradle-like piece of equipment that could be rocked like a cradle to sift sands through screens) and sluice boxes (sluices that have transverse riffles over a carpet which trap the heavy minerals) for example. I knew a bit about them before but I had no interest in them before (not that I have any grand interest now but I did spend about an hour clicking around Wikipedia in search of information regarding gold mining back then :) ).
What I liked least: The character that annoyed me the most was Naluto, a guy who never gave a decided opinion on anything. His answers to questions were something like “It’s [something]… unless it’s not” and “There are probably twenty miles ’til there… or more… or perhaps less”. Each and every time he talked like this and it became mightily bothersome after a while. To think that this is a character written in by Michel especially for comic effect! Ugh.
Recommend it to? I didn’t much like this book so I do not particularly recommend it to anyone.
Also written by Jules Verne
(The Extraordinary Adventures of) Foundling Mick
Main characters: Miss Rachel Verinder, Mr. Franklin Blake; Mr. Gabriel Betteredge, Sergeant Cuff
Time and place: 1799, India; 1848 – 1849, London and Yorkshire
First sentence: “I address these lines—written in India—to my relatives in England.”
Summary: The Moonstone is a large diamond, originally stolen from an Indian shrine and said to be cursed. Brought in England by a soldier of noble birth, John Herncastle, it is bequeathed by him to his niece, Rachel Verinder, on her 18th birthday. When she receives it she is childishly delighted by it — but the precious stone disappears over night and no one knows what to make of the disappearance. A famous detective, Sergent Cuff, is summoned from London, but his enquiries meet with resistance in the area he would have least expected, as Miss Rachel herself seems to be opposing the inquest with all her might.
Ever since first opening the book I was amused at the shape it way written in: letters and descriptions of events by various characters, in order to record a certain story “in the interest of truth“. The very same way The Woman in White was written, and, as I liked that book, I readily prepared to like this one in turn. At first it started out a bit slowly, but once things got rolling I could hardly put it down.
Were I to name a most amusing narrator, I would certainly choose Miss Drusilla Clack, a single woman dedicated to her faith and her charitable causes, so much so that she became a caricature of such a character instead of a multifaceted human being. Among her quirks we should note the fact that she considered sympathy for the sick a very un-Christian reaction and takes pride in giving tracts to people because that’s her idea of doing them good. A funny scene involving her is when she tries to force Lady Verinder into salvation by hiding books on religious topics all around the Lady’s house (and then she goes home so convinced she did good that she feels like a young girl again).
Another narrator that I have liked was Mr. Gabriel Betteredge, Lady Verinder’s house stewart. Despite his age (somewhere around seventy and eighty) he takes pride in doing his job well and he treats the people under him as kindly as they deserve. In the course of the book he has quite a few fits of the “detective fever”, as he calls it, but always in the company of someone better acquainted with the situation and more likely to make discoveries (it can be said that Betteredge would make a wonderful Watson while never being capable of being a Sherlock Holmes himself). Although I have mostly liked him he did have at times moments of feeling superior to other people (usually women), and then I usually got annoyed at him. But then I remembered his most interesting quirk (he believed the truth, the life and everything was to be found in the pages of Robinson Crusoe) and it made me smile again.
Here’s one of his “superior” quotes, just to form an idea:
“[...] it is a maxim of mine that men (being superior creatures) are bound to improve women—if they can. When a woman wants me to do anything (my daughter, or not, it doesn’t matter), I always insist on knowing why. The oftener you make them rummage their own minds for a reason, the more manageable you will find them in all the relations of life. It isn’t their fault (poor wretches!) that they act first and think afterwards; it’s the fault of the fools who humour them.”
Looking back I realize I have only mentioned things I have found amusing in the book. Don’t expect this to be a funny volume though — on the contrary, it is a very serious one as the happiness of the members of a whole family is at stake. Not any members of any family, but a cast of characters that the reader grows to like and root for, and as such their happiness becomes important (or at least that’s what happened with me). The atmosphere of the book is also rather gloomy, what with everyone suspecting everyone else of theft, with even a few deaths and illnesses thrown into the bargain. It is not a happy reading in any way, but it’s definitely a captivating one.
Here is a quote from the book’s preface by the author, illustrating an interesting side of the book:
“In some of my former novels, the object proposed has been to trace the influence of circumstances upon character. In the present story I have reversed the process. The attempt made here is to trace the influence of character on circumstances. The conduct pursued, under a sudden emergency, by a young girl, supplies the foundation on which I have built this book.”
The young girl in question is, of course, Miss Verinder. She is a complex character, young, pretty, gentle, kind hearted, but with an easily excited temper. A temper that made me actually dislike her at first (way too overexcited by everything around her for my taste), but as the story progresses her strong nature begins to shine through, and the book ended with her as my favorite character of them all. As far as her way of seeing things influences the narrative, it is obviously after a while that her decisions influence the book throughout, but I think the mystery would have been just as complete even without her acting in a certain way. But, of course, I agree that the author knows best so I will say no more.
Last but not least, T.S. Eliot called this book “the first, the longest, and the best of modern English detective novels“. It is hard to believe in this day and age, when detective novels are everywhere, that a little over a century ago the genre almost didn’t exist. And then Wilkie Collins appeared on the scene. While not entirely original (parts of it are inspired from real life), the book established the cornerstone of the genre, and some of its elements are still used to this day (large number of suspects, amateur detectives, the person who did it was the least likely of all, a local policeman who does a bad job at solving the case and more).
What I liked most: There is a certain scene where Rachel has a heated conversation with the guy she’s in love with. It’s my favorite scene and I liked Rachel at least twice as much afterwards.
What I liked least: I was less than enchanted by the “medical experiment” that helps solve part of the mystery. I found it quite hard to believe despite Ezra Jennings quoting from official (and I supposed real life) books. Sure, the author assures us in the preface that he had make sure this is what it would have happened, by consulting “not only [...] books, but [...] living authorities as well“. I do believe him of course, and yet that part of the narrative was decidedly the one I liked least.
Recommend it to? Anyone who likes classics and/or good mystery books.