Book Review: “Oliver Twist” by Charles Dickens

“There are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts.”

Oliver Twist is not one of these books but it is not one of Dickens’ best.

Oliver Twist
Bull’s Eye on the cover of Oliver Twist

The story of Oliver Twist is possibly the most well-known of all Dickens’ novels, partly because of the hit 1968 musical Oliver!, starring Ron Moody, Oliver Reed and Shani Wallis. For many Oliver Twist or Christmas Carol are our gateway drugs into the Dickensian world.

This novel is perhaps most famous for the infamous scene in the parish workhouse, in which the young Oliver – egged on by his fellow half-starved waifs – politely asks for more gruel.

Please, sir. I want some more.

This scene comes very early in the book, it is part of the second chapter of 53. Oliver soon leaves the workhouse and walks from his local parish to London. (The subtitle of the book is ‘The Parish Boy’s Progress’.) There, of course, he meets the Artful Dodger, Charley Bates (mischievously referred to as ‘Master Bates’ throughout), and the rest of the gang of pickpockets, led by Fagin (who himself is under the thrall of the criminal mastermind, Bill Sikes).

This is Dickens’ second novel, the portrayal of Fagin as a despicable and ugly Jew with “a countenance more like that of a snared beast than the face of a man“, is rather unsettling, the anti-semitism of Dickens was largely redeemed by his later writings, notably in “Our Mutual Friend” where Mr Riah is a Jew and a very sympathetic character. In the first 38 chapters, Fagin is often referred to simply as “the Jew”.

If you are only familiar with the 1968 film, you will think of Fagin and Sikes as the two main villains, but in the book the principal villain is Monks, whose scheming tries to keep Oliver in abject misery.

The character of Oliver, I found a little insipid, he doesn’t seem like a real child. Dickens later wrote much better child characters such as David Copperfield, Pip and Jenny Wren. Even in Oliver Twist, Jack Dawkins AKA “The Artful Dodger” is a more interesting and engaging character than young Oliver, who cries and swoons an awful lot.

P1090375 (2)
Oliver is taken on a pickpocketing trip with the Artful Dodger and Master Bates

Dickens is wordy, the lengthy descriptions of the squalour of the less salubrious parts of London are fantastic. Dickens balances the dark descriptions with lighter humorous scenes, Dickens wanted to critique the Poor Law of the times but knew to reach a wide audience he would need to entertain them. Throughout his novels he creates wonderful, memorable characters.  Oliver Twist holds together as a novel better than Pickwick Papers, the many plot threads running throughout the tale are brought together neatly at the end. In the preface to the novel’s third edition, in 1841, Dickens writes that he “wished to show, in little Oliver, the principle of Good surviving through every adverse circumstance, and triumphing at last.” Maybe this is why the character of Oliver is so dull, the darker characters like Sikes, Fagin, the Artful Dodger and Nancy are more engaging. The plot is too reliant on coincidence to be credible, but Dickens is a fantastic writer and many features of the tale recur in subsequent stories: orphans, misers, the underbelly of London society, transportation, adoptions, the River Thames etc…

My rating : 4 out of 5

 

My progress through Dickens’s novels

Charles Dickens left us fifteen novels, and in an ideal world everyone would read all of them. I am slowly working my way through Dickens’ novels:

I read Pickwick Papers (1836) in 2019, his first novel.

Hard Times — (1854), I read this in 2016, unusually for Dickens this was set away from  London in a fictitious mill town in the north of England called Coketown.

A Tale of Two Cities (1859) I reread this in 2016, it is a historical novel and lacks a lot of Dickens’ usual humour.

Great Expectations  (1861). Many lists rank this as the greatest of Dickens’s novels. I read it in 2006, when I was a member of a book club in Worcester (UK). I loved it.

Our Mutual Friend (1865)… I read at the beginning of the year, so far it is my joint favourite along with Great Expectations.

The Old Curiosity Shop (1841) I read in 2019. Like Oliver Twist it is rather un-PC, the principal villain Quilp being a hideous dwarf.

I still have eight left to read:

Nicholas Nickleby (1839)

Barnaby Rudge (1841)

Martin Chuzzlewit (1844)

Dombey and Son (1848)

David Copperfield (1850)

Bleak House (1853)

Little Dorrit (1857)

The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870) (six of twelve numbers completed)

Which should I start next?

COVID-19: Thoughts

“The only way out is through, and the only way through is together.” John Green

covid19h
Georgia 49 cases (22 March 2020)  Source: https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/

This is a novel situation for me, being affected by a global pandemic. At the moment Georgia has relatively few cases, but looking at what has happened in other countries, the situation will probably change and change quite rapidly.

As a species it is our collective knowledge that has made us so successful.

This is the first global pandemic of the globally connected generation. We have so much information at our fingertips, but it can be difficult to discern what is good information. I don’t fear the virus so much as the panic around the virus and the unknown. The situation has escalated dramatically in the past week.

How have I been affected professionally?

Last week, I was working pretty much as normal, for those of you who don’t know I am an English teacher. This week, I have given my first lessons online using Skype, on Saturday I gave my first group lesson using Zoom, this is all very new to me. Online tutoring is something I used to think I might give a try sometime, now it has been forced on me suddenly by circumstances out of my control. This will be a steep learning curve.

Following the news

I have been following the progress of the Virus on the news, I get most of my information from the BBC News on the Internet, I have also been looking at the WHO Coronavirus updates. When it mostly affected China, it was concerning but not too worrying personally, but when the numbers started going up rapidly in Italy and then in other European countries the fear really hit home.

In Tbilisi

Here in Tbilisi, there are people wearing masks and the metro is less crowded than usual, the supermarkets are still well stocked but people are buying more pasta, toilet rolls and sugar than usual. The schools have closed, the minibuses have stopped operating, my stepdaughter has been laid off (she worked in a hotel), so now instead of three people in our flat (two adults and one child) we now have six (three adults and three children). The flat feels noisier and more cramped, as we are here almost 24/7, just going out to get provisions and returning quickly to wash our hands and distance ourselves physically from the rest of society.

P1090209
Cabin Fever

Encouraging news

All is not doom and gloom, there is hope. The virus was identified quickly (unlike HIV) and a test was developped very rapidly, too. Scientists the world over are looking for vaccines and treatments. A team of infectious disease experts at the University of Queensland in Brisbane say they have seen two existing medications manage to wipe out COVID-19 infections. Chloroquine, an anti-malarial drug, and HIV-suppressing combination lopinavir/ritonavir have both reportedly shown promising results in human tests and made the virus ‘disappear’ in infected patients. If this is true, it is great news, these are existing drugs so they have already been tested as safe, they won’t need the extensive testing required by new drugs.

I wonder how long we will be directly affected by the virus. In China and South Korea the number of new cases has diminished significantly, which is encouraging. New cases are still surging in the rest of the world. At first many national leaders were talking of putting things on hold until April… now it seems the crisis will last much longer… some suggest 10 to 14 weeks… some even suggest  a year, expecting a second surge in the winter months. I’ve just seen that Glastonbury has been cancelled and that was scheduled for June. There is a lot we still don’t know.

I have seen the Washington Post explanation of how pandemics spread, shared by many: Washington Post Link

Here is a video explaining the need to “flatten the curve” so our health care services aren’t overburdened with too many cases at once: Flattening The Curve of Coronavirus Infections

Here in Georgia (the country not the state),  priests have been going around in pick ups spraying holy water about to combat the virus. I guess it can’t hurt.

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said  “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”

This virus could act as a wake up call to us all. We are all in this together. The terrible air pollution in China has been slashed dramatically. Maybe we can learn from this and look after ourselves and our planet better.

COVID-19 is a sad and serious situation but there are some upsides:

  • Having time to rest, decompress and stop all the crazy running around
  •  Learning that working from home works and saving all that commuting time and stress:
  • Starting new things such as writing a book or article, taking up art, finally learning Georgian…
  •  Counting our blessings and realizing we do not need half the things we think we do;
  •  Truly appreciating health care workers, public servants, and social support programs;
  • Taking nothing for granted and valuing our health more than anything else;
  • Seeing we can come together when facing a common enemy;
  • Savouring time at home with the family getting to know our children and grandchildren better and them learning about us
building a card tower
the two youngest grandchildren building a card tower

We need to listen to the health advice dispensed by public health officials.

In case you haven’t yet got the message:

1. Wash your hands…a lot…with soap and water….for at least 20 seconds

2. Avoid touching your face

3. Stay away from sick people

4. If you are sick stay at home

So, let us find ways to work with and for one another, to help one another, especially the most vulnerable among us. Let us make it out the only way we can, together. Stay safe.

“Together” by John Green

 

Book Review: “Tolstoy Selected Stories” by Leo Tolstoy

I found Tolstoy in translation much easier to read than Vazha-Pshavela in translation, sadly I am as yet unable to read either author in their original language. Tolstoy Selected StoriesA collection of 20 morality tales of which 2 really stand out :The Story of Ivan the Fool and The Death of Ivan Ilych
Ivan Ilyich is a decent man. He has all of the trappings of a “successful life”: respectable family, respectable job, respectable home. He is by all intents and purposes content with his position in life.

But has he truly lived? Socrates said that an unexamined life was not worth living.

Tolstoy describes Ivan Ilyich’s failing health in such a way that the reader can almost feel what it was like for him. The gnawing ache in his side, the pain… unrelenting, demoralizing… every simple facet of existence plagued by torturous, insufferable, incurable pain. It’s agonizing. He cannot escape it. Ivan Ilych’s awakening comes through the realization of death which ignites within him fear, anger, contemplation and eventually acceptance. The story is probably the best account of the physiological and psychological panic, a man feels when so close to his own death.

Some of the other stories read like biblical parables and included bible verses and even the occasional imps and angels. Count Lyov can certainly tell a good story.

Book Review: “Three Poems” by Vazha-Pshavela

Three poems by Vazha-Pshavela translated by Donald Rayfield. The three poems are Host and Guest, Aluda and Snake Eater.

P1090081 (2)
Vazha-Pshavela is one of the giants of Georgian literature. I often ask my Georgian students who their favourite writer is and Vazha Pshavela comes up in more responses than any other writer. I wanted to see what the fuss was about, so I was happy to find this English translation of his poems at Dry Bridge Market. This was published in Soviet times in 1981. Unfortunately, the translation didn’t inspire me, I don’t know why. It may be that Georgian is so difficult to translate meaninglfully into English, particularly when it comes to poetry. Donald Rayfield has translated many Georgian writers and written books on Georgian Literature, he is an expert on the subject.

IMG_3819
My wife and friends in Khevsureti

Maybe, I will just have to learn Georgian, so I can appreciate the original words. The three poems are about the Khevsurs and their conflict with the Chechens set against a backdrop of the Caucasus Mountains . It is about heroes and shows the problems raised by the interaction of the individual with a mountain society. In the Snake Eater , Mindia, a captive attempts to kill himself by eating a snake: “Mindia thought, if he ate the snake he would be free of his troubled life.” but instead of dying he gains occult powers: “from that day on he understood what birds sang, plants and animals spoke when they were glad or suffering.” Vazha-Pshavela is also writes idiosyncratic and evocative depictions of Nature – for which he felt a deep love. In Host and Guest , Joqola, a Muslim and Zviadauri, a Christian meet by accident as they are hunting in a damp forest. Joqola invites his new companion to his home to celebrate their kill but this hospitality flouts the tradition of enmity between the two tribes and Musa, the rabble rouser, turns on Joqola:

You headstrong fool, we’ll tie you too, if you defy the common voice. How dare you mutiny against that which we decree is right?

Book Review: “10 lb Penalty” by Dick Francis

P1090060 (2)

It has been a while since I previously read a Dick Francis novel, I went through a spate of reading them in the early nineties, my fiance at the time was crazy about horses and had lots of them (Dick Francis novels not horses…). This was one I missed at the time, because I see it was first published slightly after this time. It brings back memories, the central character, like the author, is connected to the horse racing world and tries to get to the bottom of some mystery and is often beaten up or falls off a horse part way through the book and slowly recovers.

He landed in a heap throwing me off forwards. I connected with the ground in one of those crunching collisions that tells you at once that you’ve broken a bone without being sure which bone.

Here the protagonist is Benedict Juliard, whose father is a hotshot politician. Ben wants to race horses but his father is keen for him to study at Exeter University first. Ben is helping his father get elected, when someone takes a potshot at them in the town square, later there is a mysterious fire, where they are staying. Ben is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery. Ben is younger than the typical Dick Francis protagonist at the start of the book he is just seventeen. It is a quick page turning read as Dick Francis takes us into the murky world of politics. Oddly, the names of the political parties are not mentioned and Ben’s father is running for election in a fictitious Dorset town called Hoopwestern.
The 10 lb penalty of the title is the maximum a rider might carry with him to slow him down “in practice a 10 lb penalty is the most a horse will be faced with.”

Book Review: “The Loss of El Dorado” by V S Naipaul

This is the best book I have read on the history of Trinidad, but then it is the only book I have read on the subject…

The Loss of El Dorado (2)
The Loss of  El Dorado

Imperial uprooting of populations don’t make for a smooth organic tale writes V S Naipaul halfway through the narrative, I would concur. Naipaul won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001. He has written many novels but this was a departure from his fiction. The book is well researched, he spent two years working on it. The Loss of El Dorado is an attempt to draw out an older, deeper history of Trinidad, one preceding its commonly taught history as a British-run plantation economy of slaves and indentured workers. The history focuses on two important historical figures, Sir Walter Raleigh and Francisco Miranda. In 1595 Raleigh made a raid on Port of Spain, in Trinidad, a port established by the Spanish as a base for their delusional search for El Dorado, a mythical city of gold.

The first part of the book focuses on Raleigh’s exploits in the New World, the second part is dominated by the handling of Trinidad at the time of the Napoleonic wars. The British, French, Dutch and Spanish all had interests in Trinidad, control frequently changing hands.   Basically whatever gunboat was in the harbor was the ruling entity. Trinidad was officially Spanish until 1797, largely settled by French colonists, then it was administered by the British using Spanish law until 1814 when it fell officially into British hands by the Treaty of Paris (1814).

It is a rather dry history of colonialism. Lots of names and specificity that are important for history but got me bogged down. In 1797 there were 159 sugar estates, 130 coffee estates, 60 cocoa estates, and 103 cotton estates. The black slaves throughout the book are referred to as “Negroes”, there is much detail of their punishments and poisonings, which makes for grim reading.  Empire viewed up close is often petty as cruel. There was no El Dorado to be found and apart from a few sparks Trinidad in the nineteenth century fell into being a colonial backwater of little interest. The highly localized narrative of a small colonial island is, unfortunately rather dull. What rescues the readers from boredom is the lucid and artful depiction of the events, suffused thoroughly with dry humour.

This is the first book I have read relating to the history of the Caribbean. Previous histories I have read have tended to be related to Europe or Australia. I would be interested to read some of Naipaul’s fiction.

My rating 3 out of 5.