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“Reading is projection. An escape valve.” @OxUniPress #myreading #dickens

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As I hinted in my post on Friday, the book I want to talk about today is another which is playing havoc with my reading plans! It’s one of a new series from Oxford University Press with the overall title of ‘My Reading’, the premise being that an author explores the writings of another author who’s had a significant influence on them. The one I chose to read is by Annette Federico who explores her feelings about Charles Dickens under the subtitle ‘But for you, dear stranger’.

The concept is an interesting one, providing (on the evidence of this volume) a deeply personal look at a writer we might perhaps take for granted. Federico, a Professor of English at James Madison University, lets her thoughts roam over four of Dickens’ works – Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Little Dorrit, and A Tale of Two Cities – and brings much insight into their impact, as well as revealing how they’ve related to her life.

Federico has taught Dickens and her experiences doing so, particularly throughout the pandemic, making fascinating reading. How do you get modern young people, dealing with massive world events, to engage with a voluble Victorian author? Perhaps, as she discovers, by relating to the characters; Dickens’ focus is always on the people about whom he’s writing, their feelings and their dreams, and this is at the root of his storytelling.

And as Federico explores these elements of Dickens’ writing, revisiting and re-reading him at difficult times of her life, she digs much deeper than her original, more casual readings of his work had been, finding much to learn from him about love, hope and life itself. Her attempts to teach her class during the pandemic eventually led to her undertaking a slow and rewarding reading which seems to have been an intriguing exercise for Federico, as it’s clear she hadn’t necessarily recognised before the significance of Dickens in her life.

“But for you…” is a book which ranges far and wide, drawing in Jung, issues between classes and societies, the autobiographical elements Dickens wove into his works, Federico’s relationship with her parents and partner, prisons, Dickens’ use of melodrama, how and why we read – well, I could go on, but as you can see, for a shortish book (151 pages) this really does cover a lot of territory.

You might have guessed that I absolutely loved this book; I think very highly of Dickens anyway, and to see his work explored like this was fascinating. And as I hinted in my post on Friday, it’s had a very bad effect on me! You see, of the four books covered by Federico, I’ve only read A Tale of Two Cities and I’m afraid her narrative has made me desperately want to pick up some Dickens and get reading him!!! Alas, that may have to wait for a while, as I am embroiled in a number of other books at the moment – but a Dickens reading project would be rather lovely one day!

If “But for you…” is any indication, the My Reading series is going to be a winner; the other books in the initial batch cover Beckett, Balzac, William James and King Lear, with more titles promised for 2023. If you want a personal, thought-provoking and fascinating look at Dickens and the effect he can have on the reader, this is definitely a book for you!

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!

 

A belated round up of some short Christmas reads! 🎄🎄📚📚

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Christmas 2021 seemed to come and go very quickly, although it was lovely while it lasted; and I did manage to squeeze in a few festive titles which I thought I would round up briefly in one post. One was an old favourite book, one a favourite author making a polemical point, and one a lovely gift I received – let’s take a look!

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

I might as well come straight out with it and say that this is one of my favourite, desert island books. I’ve read it so many times it’s ridiculous, and I’ll watch pretty much any adaptation of it (I’m even convinced by the Muppet Christmas Carol!) So during a particularly trying time over the festive period, I picked it up and re-read it in one sitting and loved it all over again. Unforgettable characters, wonderfully creepy ghosts, such a clever narrative and completely unputdownable. A nasty protagonist who gets redemption and a second chance – what’s not to love? I think I need to re-read this every Christmas!!

A Christmas Tree and a Wedding by Fyodor Dostoevsky (with spoilers!)

Still in the mood for something Christmassy, I saw this get a mention on Brona’s Books, and discovered that I have a copy in the nice chunky collection translated by Constance Garnett which I picked up recently. Truth be told, it’s not really that warm and cuddly (well, you wouldn’t expect that from Dostoevsky, would you?) The story opens with the narrator attending a Christmas party; something of an observer rather than a participant, he particularly notices a beautiful 11 year old girl who eschews the boisterous play of the rest of the children and goes off quietly to another room to play with her doll. However, she’s attracted the attention of an older business man (particularly as her family are rich) and in a toe-curling scene he follows her to the other room and attempts a mild kind of flirting. My skin crawled, I must admit, and even more so when five years later the narrator sees the young girl being married off to the same man in a society wedding. This is something which has come up before in Russian literature, and the famous painting “Unequal Marriage” by Vasili Pukirev (which I’ve mentioned before on the blog) exemplifies the issue. An uncomfortable and unsettling read, and evidence of Dostoevsky’s social concerns.

A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote

My final Christmassy read was a real treat in the form of a lovely gift from my blogging pal HeavenAli. A Christmas Memory is a beautiful little hardback collection of five stories by the great Truman Capote, none of which I’d read before, and they made the perfect companion to New Year’s Eve!

The five titles are A Christmas Memory, The Thanksgiving Visitor, One Christmas, Master Misery and Jug of Silver. The first three stories are autobiographical tales based on Capote’s childhood, with the young boy Buddy standing in for the author. Basically abandoned by his parents to live with relatives in the country, he had a strong bond with a much older cousin who he calls Miss Sook. Despite the vast difference in their ages, the two are mentally sympatico and very close; and two of the stories explore their Christmas rituals, the comfort she provides when he’s bullied and the deep love which exists between them. The third Christmas story tells of Buddy’s reaction to spending one holiday season with his father in New Orleans; the stark contrast to his normal life unsettles him, as do the glimpses of the adult world, but the book still ends on a moving note. All three stories are beautifully written, capturing so vividly Buddy’s life in the country which although hard, still seems idyllic to him, spending his time making and flying kites, and going off on adventures with Sook and their dog Queenie. The title story in particular is an American classic, and I can see why – it’s beautiful and poignant, and a reminder (if I needed it) of what a very great author Capote was.

The other two stories in the book are standalones; Master Misery is a strange and disturbing little tale of a young woman struggling to make a living in winter-time New York, who ends up selling her dreams to a mysterious man; it’s dark and intriguing with a very unsettling end. And Jug of Silver is set in the country again, where a kind of Christmas miracle takes place, and again Capote brilliantly captures his setting and characters. I loved the whole book – thank you Ali! 😊

So that’s it for Christmas reading for a while (or at least until December this year!) Three very different but all very interesting books, and I enjoyed them all in different ways. Now, it’s onward into the new year and some non-seasonal reading! 😀

#1944Club: we made it to the end – but where next….?

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Well, what a week of reading that was!  I don’t know about everyone else, but I read some absolutely fantastic books from different genres, as well as revisited some old friends, and it’s been marvellous fun! Thanks to everyone who posted, commented, shared bookish thoughts and got involved (and thanks to Mr. Kaggsy for his guest post, which did take the pressure off a bit during a particularly hectic week at work while I was trying to juggle the blog and real life…) Only six months to the next Club…

On the subject of which, Simon and I were having a chat about the picking of the next reading year, and he came up with the idea of throwing things open to our readers/commenters/participants! So – what year do *you* think would be a good one to feature for our next Club? We’re not even restricting this to decades, though to be honest Simon and I both seem comfortable with the period between 1920 and 1979  so if your year is in that bracket we would probably be more favourable…. 😀

So leave a comment and make a suggestion, either here or on Simon’s blog. We’d like you to make a case for your chosen year, rather than just giving us a date, as we’d love to know why you want everyone to read books from a particular year. How will we choose the ‘winner’? That remains to be seen, but we look forward  to hearing your nominations!

In the meantime, after all last week’s intense reading and reviewing and posting, I ought to have a lie down really – but there are plenty of books vying for my attention and I’m not quite sure what I’ll pick up next. I shared this image on Instagram recently, and certainly any of these would be particularly appealing:

There are also a reasonable number of review books lurking, and then there’s a little idea I have in the back of my head…. As has been obvious on the Ramblings over the last year or so, I’ve developed quite an interest in iconoclasm and the French Revolution (ahem!) A chance glance at a newsletter from Oxford World Classics recently brought “The Scarlet Pimpernel” to my notice, and an idea sort of began to germinate… What if I curated my own French Revolutionary *fiction* reading list? Could it be a project? Are there enough interesting titles? Do I *dare* set myself another challenge and then just fail? Of course, I read “A Tale of Two Cities” back in the day – but since this idea first popped into my head, the pile of possibles in the house has grown a little… (gulp)

It’s only a little pile at the moment, and I’m sure there are plenty more titles that could be added to the list…. (no! no! I do *not* need to buy any more books!!!) We shall see – I may or I may not. Watch this space to see what turns up next! 😀

…in which I find myself unreasonably amused by some literary parodies…

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Pistache by Sebastian Faulks

After reading “Locus Solus” I felt I definitely needed a change of pace, and browsing through the Christmas arrivals I decided to pick up this little volume of pastiches. I have to confess that this is actually the first book by Faulks I’ve ever read, and it obviously isn’t typical of his work; but it does show him as a very clever writer with strong literary awareness! Pleasingly, the book carries the pastiche element all the way through to the author biography on the inside jacket flap, the acknowledgements and even the book title itself!

Now, I love a good spoof; I have a wonderful volume called “The Faber Book of Parodies”, and I’ve been known to laugh like a drain for hours at some of the great joys it contains, like “The Skinhead Hamlet”, much to the annoyance of anyone within hearing distance… So really, this was likely to be the ideal read for me, and it was – I devoured it in a couple of sittings and had I had more spare time I would have read it in one go.

Faulks obviously knows his literature, and the book contains a mixture of short poetry and prose pieces, each a take on some famous author or literary group. The titles on their own are pretty amusing; such as “Kingsley Amis has a shot at a female narrator”, “Jane Austen steps out with an American Psycho”, “Samuel Beckett writes a monologue for Ronnie Corbett” or “T.S. Eliot reflects that it might have come out better in limericks”. Each piece is just the right length to make its point, as there’s nothing worse than an over-extended joke, but I was actually left feeling I wanted more and I could happily have read a collection of these which was twice as long.

Of course, I did have some particular favourites! “Charles Dickens has a shot at being concise” is an absolute hoot, with a weather report which could simply have been rendered in the words “it was raining” treated to an ornate paragraph or two of Dickens’ wonderfully long-winded prose. “George Orwell confronts the real 1984” captures the real year surprisingly well; and as someone who remembers it, I can recall how much our view of 1984 was coloured by our thoughts of the book, but we actually had little idea at the time of how the world really *was* going to go down the road of Orwell’s visionary work. “Hilaria Holmroyd offers an exclusive extract from her new literary biography” features extracts from a spoof Bloomsbury-style work (presumably of the type purveyed by Michael Holroyd…) and is spot on about the ridiculous complexities of their personal lives. As for “Philip Larkin prepares lines in celebration of the Queen Mother’s 115th birthday” (which the book’s spurious blurb claims was banned and cut by the BBC!) this manages to mix wit with surprising pathos, and is a real winner.

Some guy who writes very funny parodies….

I have to say that “Pistache” had me snorting away merrily in many places, which did have a slightly irritant effect on OH (who was being a bit sniffy about the book). The book also has some lovely line illustrations by George Papadakis, which add to the jollity. It probably helps if you know a bit about the writing style of the authors being sent up (and possibly you need to have a particularly British sense of humour), but even if you don’t, it’s wonderful, silly, clever fun and a great way to lighten a gloomy January day! I think I may just have to dig out my old copy of that Faber book and be a bit more irritating…. 😉

The Unfinished Mystery

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The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens

There’s something about Dickens and December that go hand in hand; so perhaps it’s not surprising that I spent a fair chunk of the end of last year submerged in “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” and marvelling at the genius that was Charles Dickens!

And let’s face it, he’s an author that really needs no introduction. As Wikipedia reminds us, not only is he regarded as the greatest Victorian novelist (why just Victorian? why not one of the greatest novelists ever??) but he created some of the most memorable characters in the English language – there must be few English speakers who haven’t at least heard of Oliver Twist, for example! I first read Dickens’ work in my teens when I discovered “A Christmas Carol” and although we didn’t study him at school – I guess maybe he was out of fashion in the 1970s! – I went on to read others of his works, with “Bleak House” being a huge favourite. However, it’s a while since I read anything new by him, despite the fact that OH presented me with a beautiful set of his novels for a wedding anniversary, and so when the urge took me recently to read “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”, I went with it!

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Of course, any reader embarking on “Drood” has to do so with the knowledge that there won’t be any resolution to the story, as Dickens died before he could finish it. And because of the way he worked, producing sections at a time to be serialised in publications, there is no way of knowing what his intentions were. The introduction from Matthew Pearl (author of “The Last Dickens”, which is about “Drood”) helpfully explains that although Dickens had notes for each section of his serialised books, these were prepared *after* he had written it as an aide memoire. So there were no plans left for “Drood” and nobody knows what he intended.

With that in mind, I started reading. I’ve attempted the book once before, but gave up in disgust after a couple of chapters, because actually I find the title character completely insufferable! He’s arrogant, pompous and condescending and in the chapter which we meet him spends all of his time referring to his betrothed, Rosa Bud, in a most patronising, babying manner, as “Pussy”, as if she was some kind of dumb pet animal. However – putting that aside, I got going. Rosa Bud and Edwin Drood are both orphans and their fathers, firm friends, had stated a dying wish that their children should marry. Therefore, the two have been betrothed for years, until they come of age. Rosa attends a woman’s college in a cathedral city named as Cloisterham, taking music lessons from one John Jasper, choirmaster at the cathedral, uncle and guardian to Edwin and opium addict! Jasper is quietly besotted with Rosa, who can’t stand him, and Edwin simply swans around taking his fortune and his betrothed for granted – he *really* is annoying!

This being Dickens, there is a quite wonderful array of characters: the Minor Canon, Mr. Crisparkle, who lives with his mother, is a particular joy; Mr. Grewgious, Rosa’s guardian, who was secretly in love with her late mother, is another wonderful and engaging man. Then there is Durdles, who engraves the headstones; Mr. Sapsea, the mayor; Deputy, an appalling child with a habit of stoning anything he fancies; Neville Landless and his sister Helena, more orphans who both have differing interests in Rosa; Tartar, an ex sailor, who seems to be becoming very important to the plot as the book develops; and Dick Datchery, a mysterious white-haired man who appears to be investigating events, but whose character never has enough time to develop…

Because of course there is a mystery to investigate; the disappearance (thank goodness!!) of Edwin Drood, and his possible murder. His watch and chain are found by the river after a storm and the last person who is believed to have seen him is Neville Landless, with whom he had quarrelled. However, the more intelligent amongst the other characters, particularly Mr. Crisparkle and Mr. Grewgious, have suspicions elsewhere…

So let’s consider John Jasper, then: a much darker and more interesting character than his nephew. Addicted to opium, obsessed with Drood’s betrothed, he stalks through the book like a malevolent presence. If anyone is a candidate for the murder of Edwin Drood, it is surely he – but is that too simplistic a solution? And are we even sure that Drood is dead? This being a Charles Dickens novel that is possibly only a quarter of the intended size means that the reader could have expected many twists and turns before the resolution and although it seems obvious that Jasper killed his nephew in a fit of mad jealousy, we can never be sure. Certainly, when he finds out that Drood and Rosa had broken off their engagement just before the disappearance, a fact Jasper had been unaware of, his reaction is so dramatic as to be remarkably self-incriminating.

The book ends with Rosa having fled to London to her guardian, new friendships being made and others rekindled, while Datchery investigates away in Cloisterham and Jasper broodingly pursues Rosa. There is of course great frustration in not knowing what Dickens intended to happen, but that doesn’t stop me finding this one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in a long time. And to be fair to poor Edwin, who I’ve much maligned, he does become a little more sympathetic when the engagement is ended and he grows up a little, realising what he’s lost. Nevertheless, he has a remarkable blind spot regarding Jasper!

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Dickens was such a truly great writer; he can conjure up character, setting and atmosphere so brilliantly and his books are never anything less than involving.

The red light burns steadily all the evening in the lighthouse on the margin of the tide of busy life. Softened sounds and hum of traffic pass it and flow on irregularly into the lonely Precincts; but very little else goes by, save violent rushes of wind. It comes on to blow a boisterous gale.

The Precincts are never particularly well lighted; but the strong blasts of wind blowing out many of the lamps (in some instances shattering the frames too, and bringing the glass rattling to the ground), they are unusually dark to-night. The darkness is augmented and confused, by flying dust from the earth, dry twigs from the trees, and great ragged fragments from the rooks’ nests up in the tower. The trees themselves so toss and creak, as this tangible part of the darkness madly whirls about, that they seem in peril of being torn out of the earth: while ever and again a crack, and a rushing fall, denote that some large branch has yielded to the storm.

Not such power of wind has blown for many a winter night. Chimneys topple in the streets, and people hold to posts and corners, and to one another, to keep themselves upon their feet. The violent rushes abate not, but increase in frequency and fury until at midnight, when the streets are empty, the storm goes thundering along them, rattling at all the latches, and tearing at all the shutters, as if warning the people to get up and fly with it, rather than have the roofs brought down upon their brains.

Still, the red light burns steadily. Nothing is steady but the red light.

I’ve read criticism of his characterisations, but I found the people in this book to be real and alive and many of them perfectly loveable. The Minor Canon, Mr. Crisparkle, was one of my favourites and I can see that Dickens loved him too, portraying him as an ordinary man, but a good man:

Good fellow! manly fellow! And he was so modest, too. There was no more self-assertion in the Minor Canon than in the schoolboy who had stood in the breezy playing-fields keeping a wicket. He was simply and staunchly true to his duty alike in the large case and in the small. So all true souls ever are. So every true soul ever was, ever is, and ever will be. There is nothing little to the really great in spirit.

And the characters are *people* – real people with their loves and hates, their dreams and aspirations; and despite Dickens’ tendency for exaggeration and parody, they have the same characteristics as nowadays. Take his description of the young ladies at Miss Twinkleton’s college preparing for their holidays, and see if you don’t recognise the girls and the atmosphere:

Miss Twinkleton’s establishment was about to undergo a serene hush. The Christmas recess was at hand. What had once, and at no remote period, been called, even by the erudite Miss Twinkleton herself, ‘the half;’ but what was now called, as being more elegant, and more strictly collegiate, ‘the term,’ would expire to-morrow. A noticeable relaxation of discipline had for some few days pervaded the Nuns’ House. Club suppers had occurred in the bedrooms, and a dressed tongue had been carved with a pair of scissors, and handed round with the curling tongs. Portions of marmalade had likewise been distributed on a service of plates constructed of curlpaper; and cowslip wine had been quaffed from the small squat measuring glass in which little Rickitts (a junior of weakly constitution) took her steel drops daily. The housemaids had been bribed with various fragments of riband, and sundry pairs of shoes more or less down at heel, to make no mention of crumbs in the beds; the airiest costumes had been worn on these festive occasions; and the daring Miss Ferdinand had even surprised the company with a sprightly solo on the comb-and-curlpaper, until suffocated in her own pillow by two flowing-haired executioners.

Reading “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” was a real delight; I loved getting to know these characters and watching the plot unfold. Even though there is no definitive ending, the richness and beauty of the language and Dickens’ skill in transporting you back to Victorian England, make it worth reading for that alone. Charles Dickens was such a good writer that I think I could happily spend a year reading no-one else – if only I had done so when I was a little younger! 🙂

Some Dickens For December

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2012 has of course been the bicentenary of the birth of one of the UK’s greatest writers, Charles Dickens. There has been much celebration and the Beauty is a Sleeping Cat blog has come up with the wonderful idea of Dickens in December.  One of the great man’s best-loved works is “A Christmas Carol” so this does seem entirely appropriate!

Much as I would love to embark on one of Dickens’ longer works – especially as Other Half presented me with a lovely new set of the novels earlier this  year and “Our Mutual Friend” is calling to me! – I think I will want to restrict myself to shorter works once I have finished the current chunkster.

Fortunately, I do possess three lovely little Hesperus volumes which will probably fit the bill:

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Very appropriate for this time of year, and featuring Mrs. Gaskell and Wilkie Collins too, I believe.

Then there is this:

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which will be great for more seasonal spookiness.

I also have this one which, though it is not so seasonal, may still be quite fun to read:

lazy tour

So although I can’t follow along with all of the Dickens in December deadlines, I shall certainly make sure I enjoy some of the great man’s work during the month!

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