Tag Archives: Charles Dickens

Hard Times by Charles Dickens

Hard_Times-GradgrindAnyone who has read more than two Dickens novels knows what they’re going to get from all the rest.  Just like every John Grisham novel has a morally-upstanding lawyer, every Dickens novel will have a society in disrepair, at least one poor wretch dying before his/her time, and at least 15 characters.

Hard Times was published in the 1850s. Unique for Dickens, it is not set in London. It’s set in fictitious Coketown, a stand-in for all of the industrial towns of the North. Defined by its factories and the working people that file in and file out all day. As is always the case with Dickens, there are very rich characters. Mr. Grandgrind, a mansplainer if ever there was one, runs the local school. He is a utilitarian, and pushes his own children and his pupils to live a life based only on facts. Not on feelings or art or morality, but only and specifically on fact.  His friend, Josiah Bounderby, is a manufacturer/entrepreneur and a very rich man. He makes it a point to tell everyone he meets that he has pulled himself up by his bootstraps. He grew up in a ditch without mother or father, love or affection. Or so he constantly says. Gradgrind’s son, Tom, works for Bounderby, and his daughter, Louisa, marries him. Loo and Tom are about as happy and well-adjusted as you would imagine they are. They are miserable, in other words.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are the poor characters. Cecilia Jupe comes home from Mr. Gradgrind’s school to find her father has deserted her. She must choose to either follow the circus (of which her father was a part) when they leave town, or stay and go to Mr. Gradgrind’s school. She chooses to stay because her father wanted her to be educated. And it’s good that she stays, because everyone in Mr. Gradgrind’s family needs a kind person amongst them.

There’s also Old Stephen, the Tiny Tim of this piece. He is an honest man, a hard worker, shackled to a constantly-drunk wife. She reappears in his life periodically to sleep on his bed and trade his belongings for gin when he’s at work. He gets fired from his job, loses the support of his fellow workers (for not agreeing to join their union), is accused of robbing the local bank, and falls down a mineshaft. He dies. Typical Dickens.

It’s a short book, for Dickens. His shortest, in fact. And I think it lacks a little depth, compared to his real masterpieces like Bleak House. The whole story, and all its characters, relate to this idea of Fact vs Fancy. Gradgrind starts the novel explaining that he only believes in Facts. There’s no room in his world for amusement, art, fiction, creativity, morality. And in the end? His daughter is a nearly-soulless automaton, and his son? He robbed the back.  Gradgrind tries to get his son out of the country, so that he won’t face consequences for his actions. But one of the students of his school, not in the least confused by notions of emotion or frivolity, captures the sun before he can escape.  The whole book shows how a ‘Utilitarian’ society can be corrupt and terrible. I think the whole book is a little obviously manipulated. Coincidence, in fiction, is a delicate thing. Dickens is always walking the line, and I think with this one he steps over it. To manipulate the story into one that punishes Grandgrind and humiliates Bounderby, he sacrifices verisimilitude. And you also get the sense that he’s not as fluent in the lives of the North Country folk. It’s a new world, the North of England in the 19th century. It makes sense to set this novel in the North, but it was a little like taking a tour led by a non-native. For a better account of the North, and labor unions, read North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell.

 

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The books of Jasper Fforde

fforde_setI just finished reading yet another Jasper Fforde book, I think the 9th one I’ve read.  While not a household name, Fforde has a very devoted following among certain sects of peculiar readers.  The sort of people who can read Bronte and Dickens, then switch over to Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett without batting an eye. His books are often re-workings of classic stories, fairytales, even nursery rhymes. He has no fear when it comes to taking well-known characters and stories, and changing them.  It’s the sort of thing that might be posted on a fanfiction website in a strange corner of the internet, if it weren’t actually in book form.

While not Nabokov or Proust, Fforde has a few qualities that make his books extremely interesting and very different from what you normally find on the bookshelf.  For one thing, he’s a world-builder.  Like J.K. Rowling, he can introduce a new set of rules and parameters, a new way of looking at a familiar place. There are always rules to his worlds, and they make sense in your brain.  Suddenly, you begin to think it could all be a possibility, the same way you think, maybe if you stand in the right place in King’s Cross, you can see someone disappear into Platform 9 3/4.  His most famous character, Thursday Next, becomes part of a police force that operates inside books.  Jurisfiction, it’s called.  Thursday can travel inside books, right into Netherfield or Manderley or Thornfield Hall.  Of course, if I had this ability, it would be straight to Hogsmeade for me.  But I digress.  Fforde is very good at establishing these worlds, their rules. Just strange and nonsensical enough to be new and exciting, just familiar and rational enough to make it relatable. Fictional characters can easily jump from their own books to visit others.  But if someone is reading their book, they have to stay put and play their parts.  Apparently, a 1st person story is much harder on the protagonist, since it demands that his/her words, actions, and thoughts match those written in the book. A 3rd person story allows the characters much more freedom. It’s like an acting job they can never quit, in that sense.  Very interesting way to think about it.

Thursday Next has starred in 7 books so far: The Eyre Affair, Lost in a Good Book, The Well of Lost Plots, Something Rotten, First Among Sequels, One of our Thursdays is Missing, and The Woman Who Died a Lot. During that time, she alters the ending of Jane Eyre, her brother Mycroft becomes Sherlock Holmes brother, and Thursday spends some time in a half-written, long-forgotten novel, stored in the Well of Lost Plots, inside the ‘Great Library’, where all the books are stored.

Another series Fforde has written/is writing, is called the Nursery Crime series.

148809A detective named Jack Spratt (who could eat no fat; his wife could eat no lean) investigates the deaths of nursery rhyme characters. His first case, called The Big Over Easy is the apparent suicide of Humpty Dumpty, who took a fall. His next case involves the death of Goldilocks, and is called The Fourth Bear.

These plots sort of mirror the Thursday Next series, delving into the world of fictional characters and finding new ways to look at old stories.

The book I just finished was called Shades of Grey. Not to be confused, ever, with 50 Shades of Grey. This book takes place in a world where human beings can only see one color, rather than the entire spectrum. The social hierarchy is entirely dependent upon what you can see.  Purples rule the roost, because they fall at the good end of the Roy G Biv color spectrum.

shadesofgreyGreys are colorblind, and are the serfs of this society.  The society is also very 1984, with a pretty serious, if totally nonsensical, set of rules. No new spoons can ever be made–that’s probably the weirdest one. No one can marry a complimentary color (red/green), I believe because of the fear of any offspring being Browns.

Fforde’s other enduring quality is his humorous turn of phrase.  It reminds me of Douglas Adams, but not quite as wonderfully strange–but no one is quite as wonderfully strange as Douglas Adams. He does have a quirky way of looking at the world.  Here are a few quotes from his books:

Books may look like nothing more than words on a page, but they are actually an infinitely complex imaginotransference technology that translates odd, inky squiggles into pictures inside your head.

there is no problem on Earth that can’t be ameliorated by a hot bath and a cup of tea.

the Real-World was a sprawling mess of a book in need of a good editor

In my opinion, the key to enjoying a Fforde book is a pretty extensive knowledge of literature in general.  These books were written for book lovers.  If you can’t appreciate a reference to Miss Havisham’s yellowed wedding gown or understand why Heathcliff won the ‘Most Troubled Romantic Lead’ award without some googling, you won’t get these books. They aren’t for you.  They’re for people who would, let’s just be honest, prefer to live in the world of a book than to live anywhere else. Shades of Grey doesn’t rely as heavily on that sort of book knowledge, which might make it easier for a beginner Fforde fan to get into.  On the other hand, I didn’t enjoy it as much as the others, partially because there weren’t so many winks and nods I felt pleased to understand.

I mentioned the adoring Fforde ffans, yes?  They’ve started a quasi-yearly event in Swindon (Thursday Next’s home, near London), called the Fforde Ffiesta. Fforde shows up and gives readings, but mostly people re-enact strange customs from his books. Favorites include ‘Spot the Lobster’, ‘Celebrity Name that Fruit’, and speed reading of Hamlet. I’m not quite that extreme (look, if I’m going all the way to the UK, I’m not going to go to Swindon), but I think it’s all quite lovely that people a-read his books, b-like his books, and c-embrace the strangeness of his imagined worlds so fully that they want to make it real.  As someone with a wand and a Ravenclaw scarf, I can comprehend that idea all too well.

 

The Black Country by Alex Grecian

the Black CountryPeople who own stock art of foggy Victorian landscapes with ominous men in hats must be making a fortune due to this surge in recent Victorian era historical fictions.  Here’s another one! This is a sequel to the book I reviewed earlier this year, The Yard. I believe this will be an ongoing series.

To refresh your (and my) memory, The Yard is about the first real homicide department in existence.  It takes place soon after Jack the Ripper haunted London’s streets, and deals with truly heinous crimes, the gritty city at its worst, and the beginnings of forensic science.  There are a lot of peripheral characters, but a few main characters.  Walter Day leads the new murder squad, and Nevil Hammersmith is his second-in-command, and Dr. Kingsley is their one-man CSI unit.  Day straddles the line between a middle class existence and a living earned in the foulest places you can imagine. Hammersmith was raised in a coal mining village (he happily escaped) and is routinely drugged or knocked unconscious.  Kingsley is your typical Holmes-esque forensic expert. More comfortable with the dead than the living, devoted to science, a bit lacking in tact.

These three main characters are transplanted from their London homes for this sequel, set in the eponymous Black Country, aka the west Midlands.  This is the area around Birmingham, a little past halfway between London and Liverpool. Instead of the bustling London city with its heinous East End slums and glamorous Hyde Park apartments, the three of them are looking for a missing family in a tiny coal mining town, precariously perched on top of those same mines.  Every building in the place is in constant danger of toppling into the ground. Every person is hiding something, is superstitious and secretive, is overwhelmed with a bleak and destitute life.

A husband, wife, and their young child have been missing a few days time when the officers arrive.  The couple’s remaining children have something to hide, but we know not what.  Someone drug’s Constable Hammersmith (not the first time). A mysterious illness has sprung up in town and infected the majority of the townspeople.  An old wives’ tale about ‘Rawhead and Bloody Bones’ has convinced the citizens of Blackhampton that evil lurks in their mist. The Londoners dismiss it as tosh, until Walter Day sees a man with half his cheek missing, his teeth visible through the side of his face.

Like The Yard, this isn’t an overcomplicated book. It’s a mystery, easy breezy and interesting.  I think the pace was a little slower, which meant it took me a bit longer to finish.  But there were enough red herrings and multiple plot lines to keep me interested.  The scenes are very readable; it’s never too taxing.  On the other hand, there were a few flaws.  For one thing, just as with the Yard, I figured out the answer to the mystery with 40-50 pages left to go.  That’s a long time to slog through when you already know what’s happened.  There was one surprise at the very end, but for the most part I was not surprised by whodunnit.

Another problem is that a lot of the scenes described were very physical–lots of searching through forests or mines, or scenes of sifting through a destroyed building.  There’s nothing wrong with writing scenes like that, but I had a very hard time picturing the action in my head.  Alex Grecian is a comic book writer, which means he hasn’t had to rely on describing action in the past.  That may be why his descriptions weren’t always clear enough for me to grasp.  I found it bothersome just because if you can’t picture the thing in your imagination, it takes you out of the action. I tried to read through again to get a better handle on those scenes, but it didn’t work. I just wasn’t given enough information to construct the physical place in my head.

Finally, there were a few plot pieces that never got tied up.  One of the local police officers is killed soon after the Londoners arrive, and there’s hardly a mention of him again.  Once or twice, people inquire after his whereabouts, but that’s it.  No one finds his body, no one seems inordinately worried about him or why he isn’t assisting with the investigation. I found this bothersome. I expected his body to be found at the end, or some other bow to be wrapped around that storyline, but it was just left that way.  Similarly, no mention at the end of what will/does happen to the legions of sick townsfolk. But it’s a series…maybe that will be addressed in the next one?

There’s an American man involved in all this, and we see his history, we see why he’s there, we see him die, but we never find out his name or his story.  Maybe Alex Grecian didn’t think it was particularly important, but I was bothered by the lack of information. There are snippets about him, but after he died I was expecting some revelation about his identity, and nothing came. Nor did we learn much about the man he was trying to kill. I wanted more info!

Compared to The Yard, the Black Country has a pretty miserable ending. A lot more people die, a lot more people are swallowed by grief during the course of the book. It’s darker. Pretty incredible, considering the Yard dealt with male bodies being found in trunks at the train station. The books are a light read, but the subject matter is nowhere near light.

Coal miner towns are such an amazing thing to think about, particularly back in the pre-union times of the 19th century.  I can’t imagine a worse existence, particularly when you consider the fact that people still go down there.  But back in the 19th century, children were down there, men, women, ponies, canaries.  Everyone.  For incredibly long shifts for criminally low wages.  No chance to ever escape that life.  It had never occurred to me that the coal mines, the tunnels they dug, would actually endanger the towns and structures above. It makes sense, obviously, but the idea of the entire town plunging slowly into a sinkhole and the residents casual acceptance of that fact…is hard to comprehend. I’ve read some other things about coal mining towns, particularly by Dylan Thomas, and those accounts can be incredibly moving. This book didn’t aspire to that level of grim realism about the people in those situations, but I think it missed the mark a little even with modest expectations.  It seems more like a 21st-century story transplanted to the past (a mystery is much easier without cell phones and heat sensors) than a story grown from that era.  Understandable, but not all historical fiction has to be that way.  Stories can seem at home in the past.  Mark Twain wrote about King Arthur’s Court, Charles Dickens wrote about the French Revolution.  Someone who understands human nature can put themselves in the shoes of everyone, present or past.  It might be bizarre, it might be difficult, but it’s possible.  With this book it just wasn’t really done.  With The Yard, I think I had almost the identical problem. The difference between the two is that the Black Country seemed a little more tedious to me, and a little less satisfying at the end.  I’m hoping the next one will be back in London, and will be a bit faster-paced.

Also, as I pointed out in my review of the Yard, a bobby actually says ‘wot’s all this then??’ while approaching a crime scene.  Anxious not to let down every stereotype we Americans have of the British police, Grecian has had another bobby say it in this book.  I mean, really?  Did Grecian get his copper talk from this list of stock British phrases? Cor, blimey!

Book Review: NW by Zadie Smith

Zadie Smith hasn’t had a new novel since 2005, so I was anxious to read this book.  I read On Beauty for a Contemporary British Fiction course I took at university, and read White Teeth just a few months ago.  I really like her writing style. Similar to Salman Rushdie, who I just read, she teeters on the edge of stream-of-consciousness, without making that annoying jump.  She is playful and engaging, sometimes traditional and sometimes challenging. I always enjoy the process of reading her books.

I have to say, unfortunately, that I was very disappointed with this one.  Maybe my expectations were too high.  After all, I like her writing so I expected to enjoy the writing.  I did enjoy the writing, the word choice, the playfulness, the scavenger hunt of dropped clues that gave hints of context, setting, and time. Her endings were never great, but I still enjoyed her other books.  Plus, as with White Teeth, this novel is set in Northwest London (hence the title), which is where Smith grew up.  It is also where I lived while I was in London.  This shouldn’t particularly matter, but I must admit I get a kick out of reading about characters wandering down Finchley Road or through Hampstead Heath, because I can picture it precisely in my mind.  I lived off of Finchley Road.  That area of London, as Smith herself points out, isn’t mentioned much in the history of English literature.  I’m paraphrasing horribly, but she says something like ‘Occasionally, Dickens would wander into that area, and (as I recently discovered) Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White meandered past the Heath.  It’s different from reading about Regent’s Park or Oxford Street.  It’s not as common and for whatever ridiculous reason, it’s special to me.

So maybe my expectations were just too high.

But the plot!  Her previous books were both well plotted, though the endings were iffy to me.  She doesn’t like to put too neat a bow on her works at the end, because life isn’t like that.  I can respect that.  But the other two novels followed the basic tenets of novel-writing.  This one, not so much.

Most obviously in the form of structure.  There are four parts to this book.  The first is about Leah, a young woman living in a council-provided (i.e. government assistance) flat with her husband.  She is depressed and lonely and being pressured to have a baby she doesn’t want.  She has a dog, Olive.  Spoiler***The dog dies.  Do not read this part while on a train. Part 2 revolves around Felix, a man trying to get and stay clean and improve his life. He has no interaction with Leah or any of the characters previously mentioned.  Part 3 is about Natalie/Keisha, Leah’s oldest friend.  This part is the longest, and it covers a period from the girls’ early childhood through present day.  Natalie/Keisha grows up, becomes a lawyer, gets married, has kids.  She seems to have it together from the outside, but up close she is a total mess.  Part 4 weaves the other parts together, sort of.  It’s not wrapped up much at all, and I was left with a lot of questions.  Smith doesn’t lay everything out for you, and that’s fine.  But by the end, I was wondering why we were given this glance into Felix’s life, especially considering what happened to him later.  And why did that happen to him? Since I’m given an intimate look at his life, I feel I should be able to answer it. But I can’t.

There’s also the actual structure, as in the paragraphs and chapters themselves.  Part 1 is Leah’s world, and the narration of her thoughts is told in traditional paragraphs. Dialogue, on the other hand is inset and bolded, single spaced.  Maybe this signifies the fact that her obvious depression means she is swallowed up by her internal thoughts and conversations with others take up less of her mental space.  Interesting idea, but hard to read, to be honest.  Parts 2 and 4 are the most traditional and easiest to read for that fact.  Part 3, Natalie/Keisha’s story is the strangest.  Each little segment of her story (usually 1-3 paragraphs) is told in a numbered sub-chapter, and there are over 180 of them. In them are sometimes little clues to tell you how old Natalie is, and what year it is.  It might say ‘this is the year everyone started saying …’ and you remember (if you’re old enough) that it was the mid-nineties.  Often the title of the sub-chapter is the key to its meaning and place in time.  I have a hard time reading titles–they tend to just not register with my brain.  So I would read the paragraph, and then if it didn’t make sense, go back and reread the chapter.  One chapter was about a musician dying and teenagers being devastated. I looked up at the title to see it was called Nirvana.  Ah, Kurt Cobain then.  early ’90s.  Another sub-chapter was about an incredibly gifted British singer, a woman with remarkable talent.  Title was ‘Beehive’.  This took me a minute, but of course, Amy Winehouse.  It’s almost like a game, a scavenger hunt.  If you were alive, you can piece together the slang or the events that are dropped surreptitiously into the mix and figure out where the story is in chronology.  I enjoyed this part, like a puzzle.  But I found that I was enjoying the game more than the story.

Smith hasn’t lost her ability to write, in any way shape or form. There’s beauty in all her writing, and there’s a fun in it that you won’t find in most writers of ‘literary fiction’. What I will say is that she’s taken another step toward being too-experimental to be comprehensible (to my limited abilities, anyway).  She’s venturing out of the Beatles and into the Plastic Ono Band, and if she continues, I’m not sure I can follow her.

Book Review: Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White

This isn’t a book that I think I ever planned to read.  It was known (derisively) as a sensational novel, in its day.  Sensational, not in our modern understanding of the word, but meaning provoking intense and myriad emotions.  Collins more or less invented the genre, combining the overly dramatic elements of the French Gothic style popularized in the 19th century with local (re: English) settings.  The formula is pretty simple: Take a helpless maiden, pure and innocent, and put her in some hideous danger. Add at least one lunatic asylum, a deteriorating castle, and at least two false identities.  Write in a manner that will provoke the most clutching of pearls and dropping of monocles.
But seriously, the point of the novels was something akin to a modern soap opera, or miniseries like the Thornbirds. You were meant to go through a range of emotions, from desperate sadness to fear, to hints of the salacious, and usually they end happily.  Or they end in complete ruin.

This book is about a drawing/painting master, Walter Hartright, who goes to the country to teach two half-sisters, Laura and Marion. Walter falls for Marion, but she is already promised to another man.  I don’t want to give up the secrets to this one, because it is a book you read in order to figure out what’s really going on.  In fact, I don’t really feel comfortable saying much else. I will add that the eponymous woman in white is named Anne Catherick, and she escapes from a mental institution in the first pages of the novel, and stumbles upon Walter Hartright as she does so. From then on, a lot of the action revolves around her, though she only wanders dazedly into and out of the book a few times throughout.

I think that much of the ‘sensational’ qualities of the book don’t really hold the test of time, because we are just less likely to clutch our pearls these days. Someone having an affair with a housemaid isn’t going to send me for my smelling salts. I imagine it would have been far more shocking back then, however.

So, my 21st century impressions of the book are as follows:

Collins is very inconsistent when it comes to characterization.  We get to know, very well, the characters of Marion Halcombe, Walter Hartright, and Count Fosco.  Everyone else is a bit flat, and occasionally pretty unfathomable.  I believe the major difference is that we spend large quantities of the narrative being told of events  (through written diary entries & etc.) from the voice of those three characters. We are never admitted into the thoughts of Sir Percival Glyde or Anne Catherick. Even, after all is revealed, we do not fully understand their motivations in some of their actions. It’s strange to me that Collins can provide such a convincing and full account in the first person, but each narrative fails when it attempts to draw the personalities of the other people involved.

The book is interesting, but it is not entirely rewarding.  Add to that, it’s really long (616 pages, for this edition), and it’s not the best value for the time invested. It’s too evil in its evilness, too good in its goodness.  I understand why it would appeal to women in the 19th century, because women were often shielded from emotion over ridiculous notions about their delicacy.  Note to men from 200 years ago: women aren’t that delicate if they aren’t wearing corsets. They don’t faint all the time if they aren’t wearing corsets.

I liked the book for the picture it drew of mid-Victorian era England, because I always want to know more about life in that period. I learn from books like these about things like train schedules, and food, and rampant xenophobia, and distrust of legal procedures.  It’s all going to help me write my novel.  But! If I was not obsessed with Victorian England, and was not researching for a novel, would I find it worth reading?  Hmm.  I hesitate. There are moments I really enjoyed it, and despite my best efforts I could not predict all of the twists and turns–and there is plenty of time to think when you’re reading a 600+ page book.  In that way, it was worth reading.  And I liked the shifting narrative style–we start with the story told by Walter Hartright, but as he exits the action, other narrators take his place. I thought it would annoy me, but it is done seamlessly and does add to the suspense of the piece. All things considered, if given the choice to get the time back, I would still read the book. It’s worth the time, if suspense, the Victorian era, or helpless maidens appeal to you. But…you’d be better off with Dickens.