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.

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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?

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.

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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.

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

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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…

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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.

Book Review: “American Gods” by Neil Gaiman

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American Gods…the bear doesn’t have much to do with the book but it does sport an American flag

“I’m a has been. Who the fuck cares about me?”
Shadow said softly, “You’re a god.”
Wednesday looked at him sharply. He seemed to be about to say something, and then he slumped back in his seat, and looked down at the menu and said, “So?”
“It’s a good thing to be a god.” said Shadow.
“Is it?” asked Wednesday…

Neil Gaiman spins a far fetched tale of old gods and new gods, preparing for a battle in America. The old gods like Odin, Anubis and Mad Sweeney, a leprechaun, had been brought to America by various settlers over the eons. Our mythologies set the boundaries of our culture, and paradoxically, as our culture changes, our gods sacrifice their immortality. The new gods come out of new obsessions like the Internet, media, wealth and conspiracy theories. We no longer sacrifice animals or our fellow humans but we do sacrifice our time.

At the beginning of the story, the central character, Shadow is released early from prison because his wife, Laura, had been killed in a car crash. She maybe dead but she is still an important character as she appears from time to time in the narrative.

“Normally people who die stay in their graves,” said Shadow.
“Do they? Do they really puppy?…” (p70)

It is a tough book to review the book because the tale meanders so. One reviewer, David Monroe wrote, “Anybody who tells you that the book is about old and new gods, or about a man named Shadow, or about coin tricks, or about having one’s head smashed in for losing a game of checkers, is selling you a line, because those are just details, not the story itself.” There are many vivid images created in the story, this is the first book of Neil Gaiman’s that I have read and I am impressed by his prose. An old car is put out on the frozen lake of Lakeside, and the inhabitants put bets on when they think it will fall through the ice. Shadow bets on a morning in late March.

Shadow soon meets up with Wednesday, who it would seem is an incarnation of Odin, the Norse god (not the young girl in the Addams Family), brought over in pre-Columbian times by Viking explorers. Shadow is employed by Wednesday as a gopher.
This is a fantasy tale that bleeds into many genres, there is a roadtrip feel, exploring the mid west states of Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana. There are elements of horror, too and mystery.
The book could have had some stronger female characters, the only female characters of great interest are Laura, the dead wife, “Sam” Black Crow,a hitch-hiker Shadow picks up and Easter.

There are a number of interludes describing how some of the settlers arrived with their various gods from their old lands. In the eighteenth century an Irish convict woman brings her belief in the little folk, leaving out a saucer of milk as is her tradition. African slaves bring their gods. The first Americans who came across the icy Bering Strait from Siberia brought their gods.
Our mythologies set the boundaries of our culture, and paradoxically, as our culture changes, our gods’ influence on us wanes. They become in Wednesday’s words “has-beens”.

On a personal note; this is the first novel, I have read which mentions Shy Bladder Syndrome (on p178 and then again on p370), this is something I embarrassingly suffer from and would like to explore in a future blog post. I also found myself searching YouTube videos for coin tricks, as Shadow is often palming coins or practising tricks throughout the narrative.
This may not be a five star review but I definitely want to read more Neil Gaiman books after having read this.

Book Review: “Our Mutual Friend” by Charles Dickens

“No one who can read, ever looks at a book, even unopened on a shelf, like one who cannot.”

This took a while to read, I began it way back in June 2019 (shortly after finishing The Old Curiosity Shop” and finished at the beginning of February – on the palindromic 02 02 2020 (granted I was reading other books concurrently). My copy weighed in at a hefty 777 pages. It is the first book where I have had both the paperback copy and a Kindle version. I read a lot when I am travelling the city (Tbilisi, not smoky old London) and the paperback seemed a bit bulky to lug around. Aside from the issue of weight, the paperback (Wordsworth Classics Edition) is preferable as it includes notes and some charming illustrations absent in the free Kindle version I have. It was easier finding my place when I switched to the Kindle version than when I switched back to the paperback, the Kindle having a handy search engine.

Our Mutual Friend
my paperback copy

The River Thames, shown on the front cover, plays an important role in the novel. The novel opens with Lizzie and Gaffer Hexam, a waterman, dragging a corpse out of the river, identified as John Harmon. “But it’s well known to water-side characters like myself, that him as has been brought out o drowning, can never be drowned.” Our Mutual Friend is Dickens final complete novel, it is complex and echoes themes of earlier Dickens work. It is critical of child exploitation, three of the characters: Pleasant Riderhood, Jenny Wren and Lizzie Hexam are daughters looking after abusive fathers. There are complicated romances alongside a social and an economic critique and satire of the times. Dickens is kinder to Jews this time around; Mr Riah, a Jewish moneylender, is frequently slandered by his evil Christian master Fascination Fledgeby, but is shown to be a very sympathetic character, looking out for Jenny Wren, the fascinating doll’s dressmaker.

‘Do you not, sir—without intending it—of a surety without intending it—sometimes mingle the character I fairly earn in your employment, with the character which it is your policy that I should bear?’ Mr Riah pleads with his employer Fascination Fledgeby

There are many strong and intriguing female characters, Lizzie Hexam, for example,  goes against expectations when she refuses to marry Bradley Headstone. Lizzie is a strong independent woman, who worked in a paper mill. Headstone would have been an excellent match for her by social class, according to norms of the time, however, Lizzie does not love him. Bradley Headstone is a schoolmaster, with a very dark side.

Our Mutual Friend Miss Wren and Riah
Mr Riah and Jenny Wren, two of the more sympathetic characters in the tale.

John Harmon, whose corpse was supposedly fished out the Thames, was returning to England for his inheritance, his father having made a fortune out of dust, literally. The Harmon estate had mounds and mounds of dust accumulated over the years. The fortunes of the estate go to two faithful servants of the Harmons, Mr and Mrs Boffin. Mr Boffin is ill educated but known as the “Golden Dustman” because of his newly gained wealth. This wealth attracts those who may have earlier shunned the Boffins. There is a lot of hypocrisy about and Dickens coins a term “Podsnappery” – an attitude toward life marked by complacency and a refusal to recognize unpleasant facts, epitomised by his character Mr Podsnap. Like latter day Brexiteers, the Podsnaps look down on foreigners  who can’t speak English well ‘Our Language,’ said Mr Podsnap, with a gracious consciousness of being always right, ‘is Difficult. Ours is a Copious Language, and Trying to Strangers.”

There is a wonderful array of truly Dickensian characters. There are also lovely descriptions “the staring black and white letters upon wharves and warehouses ‘looked,’ said Eugene to Mortimer, ‘like inscriptions over the graves of dead businesses.’ Dickens would famously take long walks like Eugene Wrayburn in the novel, around the London streets after dark and this undoubtedly inspired his writings.

The novel is both dark and comic, like the best of Dickens works.

“Being an orphan of a chubby conformation, he then took to rolling, and had rolled into the gutter before they could come up.”

London is dark and foggy, like in the Sherlock Holmes films: Even in the surrounding country it was a foggy day, but there the fog was grey, whereas in London it was, at about the boundary line, dark yellow, and a little within it brown, and then browner, and then browner, until at the heart of the City—which call Saint Mary Axeit was rusty-black.

There is something for everyone in Our Mutual Friend, as a collector, I enjoyed the passages where Mr Boffin and Bella would search out books on misers; he pursued the acquisition of those dismal records with the ardour of Don Quixote for his books of chivalry. I made a post about this in another blogpost: Collecting Mania and Charles Dickens
Katie Lumsden, who is an avid reader (she read an incredible 194 books, last year!), particularly of Victorian literature, has a YouTube channel entitled Books and Things. She gushes about “Our Mutual Friend” being her favourite book of all time.

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) This was the only Dickens novel I read in school, 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.

The Old Curiosity Shop (1840),  I finished in May 2019 just before starting Out Mutual Friend.

I now have nine left to read:

Oliver Twist —(1839)

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 do you suggest I read next?