Oliver Twist, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations

Yesterday I wrote a short review of the last two Toni Morrison novels I read last year, today I’m writing one for the last three novels by Dickens (before I start forgetting even more of the details than I already have – I really should write up my thought on the books I read a lot sooner).

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So, Oliver Twist. I’m pretty I’ve read it before, but I couldn’t really remember anything except that scene where Oliver Twist asks for more. That whiny Oliver, I’m sure it’ll be a bore – that’s what I thought. Oh so wrong! Oliver, an orphan (as we all know), badly cared for by the parish he was born in, had a hard lot and was rather plucky. It was a miracle he survived his infancy at a nasty “baby farm” (we get a lot of Dicken’s social criticism about the treatment of orphans during the Victorian Age – it was horrific and serves as a reminder that while the age may have spawned a lot of great classics, it wasn’t the greatest time for working class or destitute people).

Oliver had to start working as a child of eight and the parish basically sold him as an apprentice to an undertaker (he just avoided being apprenticed to a chimney sweep and having to climb up inside chimneys to clean them, a very dangerous trade). When he ran away from the undertaker because of ill-treatment, he ended up in London in the clutches of the infamous Fagin, who wanted to turn Oliver into a criminal street child at the instigation of a mysterious character… Oliver escapes, is caught again by Fagin’s crew, and escapes again, managing to keep from turning criminal, a point that is very important for the eventual happy end of the novel, where Oliver finds a new family and is set up for life while the villains get their just deserts.

The evil Jew Fagin is one of the worst depictions of antisemitism in English literature (together with Shakespeare’s Shylock). In another, later novel, Our Mutual Friend, Dickens created the character of Mr. Riah, a kindly Jew who helps one of the young women in the novel and who gives a moving speech about how Jews are routinely despised. I actually read this novel in December 2019, as the first of the novels of my Dicken’s project, and was struck by the positive characterization which appears to have been a reaction by Dickens to the criticism he received for his antisemitism as embodied by Fagin. There’s an interesting article about Fagin on Wikipedia.

The other main villain in Oliver Twist (apart from the mysterious stranger) is one Bill Sikes, a robber and a murderer, whom Oliver is forced to accompany on one of his criminal endeavours. Sikes has a dog, and as a dog-lover, I’m sorry for the poor animal who comes to a bad end along with his master. Nasty masters make nasty dogs, but it’s not the dog’s fault.

All in all, while not my favourite of Dickens novels, I enjoyed Oliver Twist.

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A Tale of Two Cities, a historical novel about the French revolution, was a reread for me and I definitively remembered liking this one when I first read it. I still love it. It consists of three parts set in 1775, 1780, and 1792. The first part is centered on Alexandre Manette, a French medical doctor who had been imprisoned in the Bastille without a trial for almost twenty years. He is very infirm and has become an obsessive shoemaker, as that was his only occupation all those years in his dark cell. He is set free and reunited with his daughter, Lucie, who had thought him dead, and builds up a new life with her in London.

At the beginning of the second book, a French immigrant, Charles Darnay, is acquitted of treason against Britain with the help of one Sydney Carton, his doppelgänger. Charles is apparently the nephew and heir of the Marquis St. Evrémonde, a stereotypically evil French aristocrat, who is murdered by the father of a child he had killed by recklessly driving his carriage through the narrow Paris streets. Charles renounces his uncle and stays in London where he marries Lucy. In 1792 he travels to Paris to help one of his uncle’s servants who had been looking after the estate and was imprisoned by the French revolutionaries.

In the third book, Charles is also imprisoned for being an emigrated aristocrat. His family travel to Paris to somehow save him from prison and death, but instead he is put on trial for crimes his uncle committed and sentenced to the guillotine. He is saved by Sydney Carton, who had been in love with Lucie and who saved her husband for her sake.

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The novel is very thrilling, full of gothic elements, murder, imprisonment, madness, revenge, daring and last-minute escapes. What’s not to like! We see how the cruel subjugation of the French citizens by the aristocracy was one of the causes of the French Revolution. How the desire for justice became corrupted into a desire for revenge, leading to the Terror of the French Revolution (as shown by Dickens; I’m sure that the historical causes where more complicated, varied, and nuanced).

I also read Great Expectations back in October 2020 and didn’t get around to writing up anything about it, but I loved it best of these three. It also has very gothic elements, an orphan (Pip, the main character) who gets an inheritance from a secret benefactor. This turns him into an egoistic little shit, but he is humbled when he finds out whom he has to thank for his windfall. It’s a tale of escaped convicts, lost or misguided loves, petrified lives, and a dawning understanding of what’s important in life. I’m afraid I’m too lazy to write a more detailed review after all these months.

Here’s my final ranking, after having read all of Dicken’s novels:

  1. David Copperfield
  2. Bleak House
  3. Great Expectations
  4. A Tale of Two Cities
  5. Barnaby Rudge
  6. Our Mutual Friend
  7. Little Dorrit
  8. Nicholas Nickleby
  9. The Old Curiosity Shop
  10. Oliver Twist
  11. Hard Times
  12. Martin Chuzzlewit
  13. Pickwick Papers
  14. Dombey and Son

December Reading

In December I had to work up to and including the 23rd (very busy I was, too. It was dreadful). Afterwards I had lots of time for reading, but I also got some books read before Christmas.

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Poetry:

  • Patrick Crotty (ed.), The Penguin Book of Irish Poetry
    I got almost to the half-way mark in this amazingly good anthology. It’s a big hardcover and I didn’t feel like lugging it to Bavaria, so I read some other poems while I was there (from December 10 to 31).
  • Janet E. Gardner et al. (ed.), Literature: A Portable Anthology. 4th Edition
    This anthology contains 200 poems and I didn’t quite manage to finish all of them while I was in Bavaria. They were a good selection and I posted a couple of poems during December that especially struck me. I’ll finish these poems next time I’m in Bavaria. A lot of them were more modern than most of the other poems I read this year. I think I would like to read an anthology of modern poetry sometime this year.

Non-Fiction:

  • James Boswell, The Life of Johnson (1791)
    I started this on Christmas and almost finished it by the end of the year (had 150 pages left and finished it in the first days of 2012). It’s huge, around 1000 pages with quite small print in my Penguin Classic edition. Between Christmas Eve and the New Year, I did almost nothing except read this book, eat cookies and take Curious Dog for his walks. I loved it. It’s very lively and makes both the writer (Boswell) and subject, Samuel Johnson, come alive. I will write a review.
  • Bella DePaulo, Alone: The Badass Psychology of People Who Like Being Alone
    This was a disappointment. A publication of a lot of blog posts, very repetitive and seemed superficial. This was the worst book I read all year. I won’t be writing a review. Luckily it was a very cheap Kindle version.

Novels:

  • Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist and A Tale of Two Cities
    My November and December final Dickens novels. Both were good but I preferred AToTC and I still plan to write reviews, although I’m rather behind with them.
  • Toni Morrison, Home and God Help the Child
    My final two Morrison novels. Good, as always, and also still waiting for their reviews. They were both short novels.
  • Ernest Cline, Ready Player One and Ready Player Two
    The first was a re-read, the second had just been published. I liked them both.
  • Elizabeth Wein, Code Name Verity
    A very well-written Young Adult spy novel set in WWII. I had to read it for my book club and quite enjoyed it but found it too constructed. Everything fell into place like a completed puzzle, no open ends, no missing pieces. Everything was explained, there was no ambiguity (well, there was ambiguity, but it was too obvious). Too pat for me. Although, I probably would have liked it a lot as a teenager. I think it succeeds very well at what it set out to do but it didn’t do much for me, except that I learned that there were women pilots in WWII (not in the British Air Force itself, but in supporting positions). That was fascinating and new to me.

I managed to read more than half of the books I had planned to read by the end of 2020, as posted here. All the ones that I didn’t get to are still on my TBR-pile for 2021. One I have already read in January, but that will be part of my January Reading post.

I hope to get all the reviews from December done by the end of January. I should probably have made a goal that I shouldn’t start a new book before I’ve written a review of the one just finished (if I want to write a review).

Keep safe, world.

November Reading

It doesn’t really make much sense to do my normal post about my monthly reading for November, as I only read one book, but I’ll do it anyway for completeness sake. I’m looking forward to tallying up my yearly reading at the end of December. I won’t have met all my goals, I don’t think, but I didn’t do too badly.

Ongoing projects:

  • Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
    Done, already in October. This year’s read along with one of my best friends brought to a triumphant conclusion. It was a great read, and I hope to get around to writing a report on in. Next year we are going to read The Tale of Genji, by Murasaki Shikibu, a Japanese classic
  • Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy
    This one I’ve given up on (for now), but it was only a tentative goal.

Poetry:

Patrick Crotty (ed.), The Penguin Book of Irish Poetry
I did read my daily poem (or more) each morning in bed in November. Actually, I started this collection in October and forgot to mention it. It’s very good. I’m already almost halfway through and am really loving it.

Short stories:

Complete fail. No short stories were read in November.

Non-fiction:

For non-fiction November I read Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia by Rebecca West and it completely derailed the rest of my reading. But no regrets. It was a stimulating read!

Graphic novel:

Total fail. I’m still not feeling like reading graphic novels. I bet I’ll have missed this goal.

Novels:

None. I started reading Oliver Twist, but didn’t continue once I started BL&GF. I started it again in December and have now finished it, but it was a fail for November. No Toni Morrison either.

I didn’t meet my goals in November, but as the one book I read had 1232 pages, I’m quite happy.

Another Foggy Day

Today is the fifth day in a row without any sun. Just a lot of whitish fog that only lifted slightly during the day. Walking with Curious Dog in the woods was still pleasant. One could listen to the dripping of the water that condensed on the remaining leaves, pine needles, and branches of the trees. It wasn’t bad, I like the atmosphere, but it was a bit clammy and cold although it got slightly warmer today, at 6°C. Yesterday it was only 4°C. It looks like we might get some sun by Friday.

Today was again fairly uneventful. Curious Dog and I had lovely walks in the morning and late in the afternoon (it was already getting dark). I had a nice gossipy call with a work colleague who’s also a friend and a few less pleasant meetings. Boring as usual these days – I need to pull myself together and generate some enthusiasm. In between calls I did some quality checks and answered some emails. Not very exciting, but at least there’s only one workday left in my week, tomorrow. So basically (and thankfully), it’s almost the weekend for me. Oh the joy of not having to work on Fridays!

I manage at last to get through to my Mum’s physician to cancel that appointment. I tried on Monday and Tuesday and didn’t get through, but today, after 13 minutes spent listening to their awfully loud music while I was stuck waiting for a free slot, I managed to cancel the appointment in 60 seconds.

In the afternoon, a shepherd with a large herd of sheep and goats came along the valley. That was the most exciting thing that happened all day. These sheep come by once or twice a year. They and the goats are supposed to keep the slopes of the hills from becoming overgrown with bushes and trees. We have juniper grasslands on some of the slopes of the valley, with just grass and a few junipers. These grasslands are full of rare plants and insects, but they need to kept clear by the grazing sheep and goats.

I’m looking forward to doing some reading tonight. Still reading Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West and being bemused by some of her weird opinions. She likes Yugoslavia because it is a “world where men are still men and women still women” (Penguin, p. 207). But she also writes about the country’s history and landscape; about culture and art and the people’s way of life. It’s good.

And, when I’ve had enough of West, I go on with Oliver Twist, which is coming along nicely. It’s one of Dickens earlier novels and so far doesn’t seem to have such a convoluted plot as some of his later works.

I’m watching the antics of Trump in the U.S. with disgusted disbelief. When is he going to admit that he lost the election? He’s acting more like an authoritarian dictator than ever. The world (at least the democratic world) will be glad to see the back of him. I’m also still appalled that so many people voted for him, despite his racism, his nepotism, his corruption, and his complete failure to deal with Corona. Corona is still raging in Germany but not nearly as badly as in the U.S. as our politician are doing their best to mitigate the economic repercussions and to keep our health system from being overwhelmed. We do also have crackpot Corona-deniers but at least they don’t have much to say. The situation in the U.S. is really worrying; I hope Trump won’t use his last days in office to create even more havoc. Seems like a vain hope.

Keep safe, world.

October Reading

In October I had two weeks’ vacation. The first week was spent on the Baltic coast with my Partner, my cousins and Curious Dog, so not that much time for reading. The second week was at Mum and my place in Bavaria (with Curious Dog, of course) so quite a bit of time for my favourite activity. Let’s see if this had an effect on the number of books read.

Ongoing Projects:

  • Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
    Done! This year’s read along with one of my best friends brought to a triumphant conclusion. It was a great read, and I hope to get around to writing a report on in. We’re considering which book to read next year.
  • Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy
    Total fail again, as usual. I’m going to come up with a new plan to get through it next year (or maybe make a two-year plan). We’ll see. Or maybe I should just sit down and read it in a couple of weeks? Probably not. I do think it’s good for sampling in small doses.

Poetry:

  • Daniel Karlin (ed.), The Penguin Book of Victorian Verse
    I finished this magnificent collection. It was great, and I’m sure I’ll be rereading this one often. What struck me was that at least half of these poems are about death or death-in-life. Some of them are quite dark.
  • Thomas H. Johnson (ed.), Final Harvest: Emily Dickinson’s Poems
    I didn’t feel like dragging the big Penguin collection along on my vacation, so I read a few of Dickinson’s poems during that time. I’m very fond of Dickinson and should read this entire collection (which I was gifted by one of my university professors) and then I should get her complete poems. They are so great…

Short Stories:

  • Jay Rubin (ed.), The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories
    Again, I continued reading these short stories and enjoy them. I’m at about the half-way mark. I didn’t read a short story per day in October, as I was reading other things.
  • Gardner Dozois (ed.), The Year’s Best Science Fiction: First Annual Collection
    I only read a couple of these, but they are good.

Non-Fiction:

  • Jenny Harley (ed.), The Selected Letters of Charles Dickens
    Very interesting. I only dipped into these letters every now and then and have only read about a fifth of them but will definitively keep going.
  • A. N. Wilson, The Mystery of Charles Dickens
    Shows how Dickens’ life left distinct traces in his books. Some of my comments are here.
  • Claire Tomalin, The Invisible Woman
    A fascinating biography of Ellen Ternan, Dickens’ lover. I wrote a few thoughts here.
  • Mary Seacole, The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands (1857)
    A BookTube inspired Victober read, very good. A kind of alternative Florence Nightingale autobiography, which I still want to write a review on. This one I finished while on the Baltic. A slim book.

Three and a bit non-fiction books read in October, not bad at all.

Graphic novel:

Total fail. I’m still not feeling like reading graphic novels.

Novels:

  • Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop
    The first of my October Dickens’ novels. It wasn’t bad, but not one of my favourites. Here’s my review.
  • Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
    The second novel by Dickens read in October – in honour of Victober. I absolutely loved it but have yet to write a review.
  • Toni Morrison, A Mercy
    Another one of Morrison’s historical novels, set far back in the 1690s, during early slavery times in America. Shows how slavery affects the lives of a Dutch couple and their three slaves. Also shows how similar to slavery indentured servitude was. I will write a review; just finished it yesterday.
  • Russel Kirk, Old House of Fear
    A book club read, not bad, but not as good as expected. The gothic horror elements are sadly underdeveloped and what’s left is an atmospheric adventure set on a fictional island of the Hebrides. Not bad, a quick read, but not great (like, for instance, the short stories by M. R. James).
  • Michel Faber, D: A Tale of Two Worlds
    A Dickens-inspired work of children’s literature. An imaginative adventure by a lovely heroine, Dhikilo, a young girl from Somaliland who lives with her adoptive English parents in an English sea-side town. The fantastic creatures she meets in a second world (to which all the letters “D” are being abducted with dire consequences for our world) are all based on Dickens characters, but reinterpreted. The fantasy story is full of suspense, but fairly gentle, suitable for children but also lovely for adults – I especially liked identifying the Dickens’ characters the fantastic characters are based on. Also well done is Dhikilo’s experience as a person from Somaliland in an English setting. A quick and enjoyable read.

Well, that was a nice number of books read, even though I had a hellish two work weeks after my vacation. Guess I got most of my reading done in the second week, when I was on vacation, but staying home in Bavaria. Over Christmas, when, I reckon, I’ll be taking my usual three weeks off, I’ll have a longer stretch of reading time (if nothing comes up). Looking forward to it already. I didn’t read many short stories, and no graphic novel, but everything else was very satisfying.

The Old Curiosity Shop

is one of the Dickens novels I read in October. I had heard that it is supposed to be over-the-top sentimental and felt like I would probably not like it much, but that wasn’t the exactly the case. True, it’s not one of my favourite Dickens novels, but it was enjoyable, because to offset the plot-line with the sentimental parts, Little Nell’s story, there are a lot of other plot-lines that are very amusing with memorable characters and dastardly dealings. I’m putting the review, as usual, under the cut, as it contains some spoilers.

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Barnaby Rudge

A Tale of the Riots of ‘Eighty is the Dickens novel I read in September and one of his two historical novels. It is about anti-Catholic Gordon Riots that took place in London in 1780. It also contains a murder, a Romeo and Juliet kind of romance, the titular Barnaby, a simple man and his pet raven, Grip. I enjoyed it very much and can heartily recommend it. The rest of the review is under the cut, as it contains spoilers.

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September Reading

September was very busy with work and I didn’t read as much as usual. Also, at the start of the month my cousins stayed with us for a long weekend and I didn’t do much reading then. Now, rather late, my reading report:

Ongoing projects:

  • Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
    138 pages, my quota for September ̶ one more month and I’ll be done.
  • Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy
    Total fail again, as usual.

Poetry:

Daniel Karlin (ed.), The Penguin Book of Victorian Verse
I’m really enjoying this collection and am almost done.

Short stories:

  • Jay Rubin (ed.), The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories
    I continued with some of these. They are very interesting, but some of them are very intense, so I’m getting ahead rather slowly.
  • Gardner Dozois (ed.), The Year’s Best Science Fiction: First Annual Collection
    These are fun to read. I’m planning on eventually reading my way through all the annual collections.

Non-Fiction:

  • Redmond O’Hanlon, In Trouble Again: A Journey Between the Orinoco and the Amazon
    Very good, see my report here.
  • Carol Ann Lee, The Murders at White House Farm
    Don’t know why I read this, see my report here.
  • Laura Cumming, On Chapel Sands: My Mother and Other Missing Persons
    Also excellent, see my report here.
  • Helen Bevington, The Third and Only Way: Reflections of Staying Alive
    A memoir about life in old age, when one’s loved ones are already dead. What keeps one alive? I like reading about how people go through old age. It’s coming for everyone and, who knows, maybe it will be helpful. It’s a quiet reflection, with lots of vignettes and musings on books and life experiences. I enjoyed it a lot and may read some this author’s other books.
  • Thomas Mallon, A Book of One’s Own: People and Their Diaries
    So far, I’ve only read about two thirds of this book. I found a reference to Bevington in it, which lead me to read her memoir. There’s lots of other reading inspiration in the book. I’ll be returning to it again and again, I believe, to find diaries and memoirs to read. And maybe it will help me to keep up with my own blog/diary. I wrote up a few blog entries in September about the chapters I’ve read, too many to link.

Graphic novel:

Total fail. I’m currently not feeling like reading graphic novels.

Novels:

Charles Dickens, Barnaby Rudge
One of Dickens’ two historical novels. I liked it a lot and mean to write a review.

Toni Morrison, Love
Also a very good read, as usual. Somewhat disturbing, but then, all Morrison’s novels are disturbing. Will write a review.

Lots of non-fiction this month and only two novels. No graphic novel. Not too bad, but I’ve had better reading months.

The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit

by Charles Dickens. I quite liked this novel, but it wasn’t as good as some of the other Dickens novels that I’ve read this year. I found it really quite astonishing that part of the novel is set in America and Dickens criticized and satirized America in a way that really seems to fit to our current times (the novel was written from 1842 to 1844).

He was the greatest patriot, in their eyes, who brawled the loudest, and who cared the least for decency.

Chapter 16, Martin Chuzzlewit (1844), by Charles Dickens, p. 266

They’ve such a passion for Liberty, that they can’t help taking liberties with her.

Chapter 17, Martin Chuzzlewit (1844), by Charles Dickens, p. 275

I couldn’t help but think of Trump while reading these and other passages. Hope he doesn’t get a second term in office.

Dickens based his critical view on a visit to America in 1842. Dickens was against slavery and angry about the pirating of his work. Notably, he changed his mind during a later visit to America and printed a postscript to Martin Chuzzlewit to document this change of opinion.

My summary of the novel is under the cut as it contains spoilers.

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