Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

  
My second Dickens of 2016! I first read this when I was a teenager, though I now realise it was an abridged version. I also realise how much the musical and TV versions have become muddled in my head with the novel.

Before I read this, I would have said, “Yeah, it’s a good story but I find Dickens bit heavy weather.” Not now! It is a fantastic story which really keeps the pages turning. For me,  Dickens doesn’t quite capture the characters of children as well as, say, Charlotte Bronte, but this is plot driven story about the fate of the orphan, Oliver Twist. Through the story of Oliver’s life Dickens  offers a harsh critique of the Victorian welfare system  and the corruption of the officials who direct Oliver’s fate first through the workhouse system, then into a brutal apprenticeship. When Oliver runs away he is recruited into a gang of London pickpockets led by Fagin, an old and corrupt villain who exploits boys to his own criminal ends. Dickens refers to him as the Jew, which does grate, reading this in the twenty first century! Oliver is an unsuccessful pickpocket though his failure happily leads him to a kind stranger who takes him in as an adopted son, until he is dragged away by Nancy, another member of Fagin’s Gang and put to work in the criminal world by Bill Sykes. All this happens in the first third of the book! 

The remainder of the story keeps moving at the same place as Oliver seeks to escape the clutches of Sykes and Fagin. Sykes is a wonderfully created villain with no redemptive qualities even when he commits the darkest of deeds. His fate at the end of the novel is a heartstopping piece of writing. Most of the characters in this story are simply ‘on the make’ looking to exploit others to gain wealth or influence for themselves. But not all of the villains are unchanged by the events of the story, though not all who wish to change are able to escape their circumstances, such as Nancy, whose demise Dickens used to portray in his live readings.

I did find the references to Fagin as a Jew difficult to take. That is my only reservation about the story and I recognise the shifting historical contexts. Everything else about it I loved and I’m now just wondering which Dickens to tackle next, maybe Bleak House? Any suggestions welcome! 

Book Club Read, March: Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans.

  This book was chosen by vote at February’s meeting. I didn’t vote for it! Judging it by its cover I had decided it wasn’t my ‘thing’. Having said that, I was pleasantly surprised. It’s actually an entertaining story of the start of the Second World War, the fate of evacuees and the opportunities the war offered to ‘make a quick buck’.

The story opens with a boy of ten, Noel, coping with his godmother’s dementia as he tries to deal with the early demands of the war, blackout blinds and ration books, whilst his school is closed and his classmates evacuated. Eventually, his godmother’s dementia overwhelms her as the conditions of war remind her of her imprisonment as a suffragette and he is ultimately forced into evacuation in St. Albans. This is where he encounters the ‘crooks’ in the crooked heart. The family who take him in are engaged in small time crime, profiting from the war. The son, Donald, a man of nineteen has a heart murmur and has failed his medical. He now takes medical examinations on behalf of men wanting to escape conscription. His mother shakes collecting tins for fake charities and pockets the profits. They are nor portrayed as bad people, just people eking out a subsistence living on the fringes of crime. 

Noel arrives in this family, intelligent and insightful but also a little out of place. He sees the flaws in the plans of his foster mother and begins to help her maximise her profit through statistically examining charity returns in the local papers. As the story is told, the reasons why the family dabble in small crimes become clear and Noel begins to find some affection in his adoptive family.

The story really gets going as things unravel in the two scams and Noel finds himself adrift in a very different London to the one he knows, huddled in air raid shelters, he experiences kindness, the genuine terror of an air raid and eventually finds a path to a new life.

This isn’t great literature but it is a good read which tells an enjoyable story.  Definitely a recommended ‘light’ read, great for a journey or a holiday, not a keeper but one I will pass on to another friend to pass a holiday week.

The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks

  
This book was bought for me as a present. It’s always interesting to get books as gifts because it shows the sort of reader people think you are. Though I’m from the North West of England and grew up in an ‘agricultural setting’ I know little about sheep, and can honestly say I’ve never thought of being a shepherd, so why did they buy me this book?

This is an autobiography about how a man finds his vocation, real vocation. There is no doubt Rebanks is called to the land, to his fell farm in the Lake District and to the work of sheep farming. The book is told as a tale of the seasons, the first season, the summer of his childhood, growing up learning the work of his grandfather and father, the hard graft and satisfaction of a farming life. He describes how unsatisying school life is and the sense of disconnect between the Lake District of Wordsworth and Wainwright and the landscape he inhabits. The next season, Autumn, follows the death of his grandfather and the slow implosion of his childhood world view. As Rebanks realises the farm of his childhood is not the summertime landscape of his adolescence, his relationship with his father is defined by anger and he knows his life will be one of, ‘drinking, shagging, fighting’ he escapes into the bookcase of his unknown maternal grandfather and finds a different version of the world. 

Camus, Salinger, A.J.P. Taylor, Orwell. It turns out my grandfather had impeccable taste in books. And I lucked out because they ended up in front of my hungry eyes at just the moment I needed them. 

From this, Rebanks begins an unusual, unlikely, but successful journey through night school to Oxford university. Still returning to the farm, to the fell and the sheep as often as he can. Though one summer he is away and realises why National Parks matter to everyone, how places like the Lake District offer escape, a breath of fresh air, to people who live and work in an urban landscape. 

Winter then follows with the Foot and Mouth epidemic which swept Britain in 2001. Rebanks gives a vivid picture of what it is like to loose the herd, to be a shepherd without sheep. Bloodlines bred through the farm over generations are wiped out and they are left devastatingly at leisure. Rebanks is also one of the few writers, who acturately describes snow in the North West. The cold and wet that penetrates to your core and having to keep going to feed the sheep, to bring the flock down from the fell to safer ground where they won’t be entombed in the snowfall. Now when people ask me why I don’t like snow, I can just say, “read this”.

The last season of the book, Spring, tells how the farm restocked and recovered and it is in this part Rebanks really becomes a shepherd, choosing to rear Herdwick sheep, breeding prizewinning tups, raising his own family on the fell side farm, his own father now the grandfather. He also works for UNESCO, which he just drops in as if this is a job everyone does! Book number two?

This is a book about farming, about families, about how we push against our purpose until we find our way and reading it teaches you a little about sheep. I would give it a rare 10/10. There is one character I would like mention, Helen, Rebanks girlfriend, then later mother to his children. They meet when quite young (late teens?) and she is always there just out of focus. The Shepherd’s Wife, perhaps book 3?

February’s Book Club: The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett

This was sold to my book club as ‘sliding doors meets one day’. It wasn’t. I did not like it one little bit.
It was a bit like a cake where I like the ingredients, but not their combination – though some people in the club did enjoy it, different tastes, I know.

The basic premise of the book is three different versions of the lives of two characters, Eva and Jim based around the choices they make on one day when they are students at Cambridge. It is a well structured and well written story, with three plausible versions of different lives. I didn’t actually care what happened to them in any version, they were not interesting characters and their internal lives seemed to remain the same in each version. Perhaps that was the point. There was nothing I could identify with, empathise with or even really hate! The main characters felt very two dimensional and often selfish. Because the minor characters were sketched in, they can’t really develop in three different versions of the same tale, the story had no flesh, just the bones of one rearranged into slightly varied skeletons.

Barnett is obviously a very able writer, but this one was just not for me.

  

The Lie Tree

There are some among my friends who curled their lips when I said I was reading ‘The Lie Tree’ because it is a YA book. They were wrong. This is a great story, original and exciting with a plot that twists and turns whilst questioning the place of women in science and in society in a way which is relevant in the contemporary world as well as the late Victorian setting.
The basic plot is a prestigious palentologist Vicar moves his family to a new dig where he has been invited as he is simultaneously fleeing bad press, exposing his fossil discovery as a fraud. The story centres around his brilliant daughter, invisible because of her sex, who works out what her father has really been hiding all along. The characterisation is excellent as is the evocation of the historical setting. The story slowly comes into focus around the female characters as they grasp for survival in the lower middle class man’s world of the small island community. As well as being a great story the book asks questions about how we believe things, through evidence and enquiry. It explores the very nature of truth and how we are capable of believing lies more than truth when it suits our purposes and it is belief that brings a lie to life.
I want to keep the plot under wraps because this is a story really worth reading, spend a lazy Sunday afternoon curled up reading this book. Then wonder how much I’m telling you the truth…

  

A Tale of Two Cities.

imageI’ve republished this from a little earlier in the year. It seems very appropriate today, as Brussels comes to terms with a terrorist attack, to remind us that terror is not new. It is our ability to love, forgive and empathise with the sufferings of others that redeems us, just as Dickens’s wrote about two different cities.
It’s ages since I read some Dickens, so one of my reading challenges this year is to re-read some I haven’t looked at for a long time and then read some I have never quite got round to, like Martin Chuzzlewit. This has been partly inspired by the BBC’s production “Dickensian”, which reminded me how vividly Dicken’s draws his characters and evokes Victorian London. So,why did I begin with one of his novels that is not set in his own time, but one of his historical novels. Well, one reason is that it was on my shelf. The Penguin Random House cloth bound classics are a guilty pleasure and I do buy a few each year, by a few I mean six- or seven. Book addicts probably underestimate the extent if their habit too. The other reason was because the lady who runs the book club I attend said she hated it as a novel and had never got to the end. The last time I read it I was a teenager and I wondered if the romantic, historical glasses I had worn from the age of twelve had clouded my judgement and memory of the story.

Being honest, it took me a while to get into the story. The first few chapters felt to drift along until Dr. Manette is finally reunited with his daughter and we meet Mr. & Mme. Defarge. I did at times put the novel down and read something a little less weighty, just to let the story sink in. I suspect that this is how it was read when first published as a magazine series, a little at a time. However, once the scene is set and all the characters introduced, I was hooked. Dicken’s ability to immerse the reader in the Terror of the French Revolution whilst showing how life goes on, bakers bake bread, pharmacists trade, wine sellers stay open and bankers hide assets, is almost like reading a first hand account of a war zone. His characters move between strength and failure, especially Dr. Manette whose personality shows the fragility of the human mind when hope is gone. Dicken’s does not demonise the Redcaps even though they threaten to end the life of his hero Darney, but identifies the failure of justice for the common people. Even the bloodthirsty Mme. Defarge is proved to have a motive for her vengeance though it remains ultimately un-sated. Of course, the real hero of the story is Sydney Carton whose self sacrifice for the love of Lucie gives the book one of the greatest of closing lines.

Though, reading the book later in life, I felt he also had a redemptive ‘awakening’, if not a religious conversion, a conversion to live his life differently, erasing the years of alcoholism. As it is nearly Valentines Day as I write this, I think a quote of his love for Lucie is needed.

I wish you to know that you have been the last dream of my soul.

Often, critics comment that if Dickens were writing today he would be writing for T.V. This book is long overdue for a TV adaptation. This is where the BBC should go after War and Peace, the French Revolution ( maybe followed up by a non musical Les Miserables?).