Book Review: Oliver Twist

Book Review: Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

An anonymous woman stumbles into a village about seventy-five miles from London, heavily pregnant and with her shoes in tatters.  She collapses in the street, and is taken to the parochial workhouse.  There, she gives birth to a boy and then perishes, seemingly leaving no clue to who she was.

Oliver Twist

The boy is named Oliver Twist, the surname being because he is the twentieth nameless foundling in the parish since Mr. Bumble, the parochial beadle (a sort of petty law enforcer) took up the office and started using alphabetical naming.  He is shuffled off to an “orphan farm” to be neglected until old enough to start picking oakum in the workhouse.  At the workhouse, Oliver is labeled a troublemaker when he dares ask for more gruel.   Is it possible for things to get worse?  Probably.

This was the second novel length work by Charles Dickens (1812-1870).   He moved from the straight-up comedy of The Pickwick Papers to a dramatic plot with comedic undertones.  Much of what happens to young Oliver in the early parts of the book is drawn from what Dickens remembered from his own poverty-stricken childhood.  In the preface to the Third Edition (the one used for the reprint I read), Mr. Dickens defends his use of what we’d call “gritty realism” compared to the usual treatment of poverty and crime in that time’s literature.    Then he admits to toning the language way down to avoid having the book be banned for cuss words.

Once the adults in the charity system have decided that Oliver is a bad child, they proceed to behave as though this is the case while completely ignoring the lad’s actual behavior and character.  (Consistent with the general treatment of poverty as being the result of moral failings, and therefore the poor being undeserving of better treatment, and indeed an excuse to treat them horribly.)

The first adult we see even momentarily show some concern for Oliver is a magistrate that refuses to apprentice the boy to a chimney sweeper that routinely works his apprentices to death on the grounds that Oliver is clearly terrified by the man.   The workhouse managers blame Oliver for failing to look properly grateful.  A second apprenticeship application by undertaker Mr. Sowerberry goes better.

Mr. Sowerberry cannot be described as a good person; there’s too much petty greed and schadenfreude in his character.   But he’s not actively hostile to Oliver and sees a way to make the boy useful and good for the business.  Unfortunately, Mrs. Sowerberry,  older apprentice Noah Claypole, and serving girl Charlotte are hostile and make life miserable.  Noah, whose living circumstances are barely above Oliver’s, has always wanted someone to punch down at.

Oliver finally snaps after one too many insults to his dead mother, and punches Noah back.  This gets Mr. Bumble called in, and it appears that Oliver will be sent back to the workhouse, if not prison.  Understandably, Oliver decides to run away.  Life is not easy for a penniless child alone on the road, but a day’s coach ride out of London, Oliver meets someone who likes the cut of his jib.

This is Jack Dawkins, known on the street as the Artful Dodger.  A bit older than Oliver, and good-natured for a hardened criminal, the Dodger brings Oliver home to meet a gentleman who would be willing to teach Oliver a trade.  This gentleman is Fagin, a “kidsman” who trains children to steal for him.  At first, Fagin pretends that he teaches the boys hanging out in his shelter how to make handkerchiefs and wallets.

Oliver learns the truth when he’s sent out on his first mission with Jack and his amiable partner Charley “Master” Bates.  When he sees the pair steal an old man’s silk handkerchief, Oliver runs away from them, making it appear that he is the pickpocket.  The victim, Mr. Brownlow, quickly realizes the truth and does not press charges, instead taking the seriously ill boy home to tend him.

Mr. Brownlow realizes that Oliver Twist looks a lot like someone he used to know, but keeps that information to himself to avoid raising the boy’s hopes.   The lad grows well again, and for the first time in his life experiences enough to eat and decent clothing.  (Fagin provided minimal food and shelter.)  Unfortunately, Fagin’s gang, including Nancy (whose job is mentioned in the preface as prostitution) and Bill Sikes, a brutal burglar, have managed to track Oliver down.

The very first time Oliver is alone outside the house, he is abducted by the gang.  Fagin worried that Oliver might be induced to give evidence to the police, and also has been engaged by the mysterious Mr. Monks to make sure Oliver returns to a life of crime.  After they think that Oliver’s will has been broken enough, Sikes bullies Fagin into giving him the boy for a job in the country.

This crime goes south quickly, and things look bad when Oliver is shot.  But this is where Oliver’s fortunes truly turn, as he is taken in by generous householders, one of whom feels a certain kinship towards him.

The villains, however, are still at large, so Oliver’s trials are not yet done.

The last third of the novel moves the focus away from Oliver as the various schemes and plans of the adults in the story play out for good or ill.  Only at the end do we return to the boy as his true heritage is revealed.

Good:  Dickens had a way of language, and a saucy narrative style.  One character has the habit of exclaiming “I’ll eat my head!” and the narrator points out that even if science devised a method by which eating one’s own head was physically possible, the appendage in question is too large for him to devour in one sitting.

Many of the characters are comical even while being horrible, as with Mr. Bumble, who talks up his virtuous charity while doing nothing of the sort.  Bill Sikes is a notable exception, with no punches pulled as he abuses pet and lover alike, before slipping into outright murder.

Plus, Mr. Dickens was good at pulling on heartstrings.  Thus it feels earned at the end when the good people mostly are rewarded, while the bad people tend to meet stickier ends.  (Though I do kind of hope that the Artful Dodger makes good in Australia.)

Not so good:  Mr. Dickens was paid by the word in monthly installments, and you can spot passages where he’s using more verbiage to fill out his pagecount, and plot twists thrown in where the monthly installment would have ended to make sure the readers would come back.

And then there’s the antisemitism.  Fagin really gets hit with the stereotype stick in earlier editions, in addition to being referred to as “the Jew” in the narration.  Mr. Dickens claimed that he hadn’t done this because he thought Jews were criminals, but because he was given to understand that the type of criminals that Fagin was tended to be Jewish.  But that doesn’t change that the entire Jewish representation in the book is Fagin (a fence and pimp who exploits children), Barney (a henchman of Fagin’s with a speech impediment) and an unnamed rag dealer who does business with Fagin.

Later in life, after Charles Dickens actually met some Jewish people and got to know them better, he revised the book to lessen the emphasis on Fagin’s Jewishness and excise a few of the physical stereotypes.

There’s also some period sexism, with the villains sliding into outright misogyny.  Mr. Bumble falls afoul of the down side of patriarchy for men when he learns that the law will consider him responsible for the crimes of his wife.  (“The law is a ass.”)   The actual women in the story range from saintly (Rose) to wicked (Mrs. Bumble).  It’s worth noting that Nancy, despite her never-explained day job and criminal behavior, for which she feels she can never atone, is still a better person than say Mrs. Sowerberry, who never breaks the law, but has no charity in her heart.

And of course, there’s some pretty contrived coincidence involved, as Oliver just happens to run into the only two people in England who have personal reasons to help him…and the only person in England who has personal reasons to make sure he never reaches adulthood.

This is a classic novel which has had considerable influence on popular culture, and is well worth reading once.

And a trailer for the musical, perhaps?

Book Review: Three In One

Book Review: Three In One edited by Leo Margulies

According to the introduction by the editor, this book came about because there were three long science fiction stories in the to-publish pile, too long for short-story collections but too short to be their own paperback.  The cover by Emsh is a good choice with the three intelligent species cooperating in some vacuum-suited endeavor.  It doesn’t precisely match any of the stories inside, but gets across the ideas of “three” and “science fiction” nicely.

Three In One

“There Is No Defense” by Theodore Sturgeon takes place in a far future when the races of the Solar System have devised a weapon so fearsome it is only known as the Death.  This won the war against the Jovians, but so horrified everyone that there is now a complete ban against it, sponsored by the interplanetary Peace organization.

Now an invader ship has entered the system.  It will not communicate.  Its movements are seemingly random, as are its attacks with the power to slag small moons.  Its defenses seem to make it immune to any normal weapon, and it retaliates instantly and overwhelmingly to any attack.  And this is just one ship, presumably a scout for the main invasion.

It appears that there is no choice but to un-ban the Death, regardless of the damage to the Peace movement’s ethical standing.  But what if the invader is immune to the Death?  What then?

The story fudges on the difference between pacifism and passivism (as a lot of stories not written by pacifists do), but does show respect for the pacifist’s point of view.  The invader’s secret will be more easily guessed by modern readers than the characters in the story, I think.

“Galactic Chest” by Clifford D. Simak is contemporary to 1956, when it was published.  A Midwestern reporter chafes at his daily assignment of writing puff pieces for the Community Chest (a charity organization, forerunner of United Way; you may have seen the Monopoly cards.)  He wants to become a foreign correspondent and cover international stories!

The newspaper editor (nicknamed “the Barnacle”) doesn’t seem to be helping, sending our protagonist off on a series of stories that seem to be wild goose chases.  Finally told point-blank by the Barnacle that good reporters find their own stories, the reporter looks again at those and other incidents and notices a pattern.  A pattern reminiscent of brownies (the creatures, not the confections.)

This light-hearted story is closer to fantasy than science fiction, just substituting aliens for elfin creatures.  A couple of the “helpful” things they do come across as disturbing (they are okay with euthansia), but overall it’s a happy ending.  The main characters drink heavily (a bartender supplies a clue to what’s going on), and it’s strongly implied that the reporter and his love interest engage in hanky-panky before marriage.

“West Wind” by Murray Leinster is set in Eastern Europe of the then near future, though country names are very carefully not used.  Igor is a proud citizen of a small, militarily weak country.  They have atomic power plants, true, but their neighbor to the east has actual atomic bombs, enough to turn Igor’s country to glass.  The country to the east is large and militarily powerful, and has already bullied Igor’s country into ceding over one of its provinces to them.

Now the eastern nation has demanded another border province.  The President of Igor’s nation has agreed to cede this province as well, without a shot fired, just all the citizens evacuated.  The President did warn that any soldier entering the province would be doing so at their own risk, but that was a bluff, right?

Igor is incensed.  He knows full well that the aggressor nation will not be satisfied with this bite of territory; they will soon find some excuse to demand more, or even invade outright!  Igor decides to hide from the evacuation teams with a radio transmitter (he’s a news broadcaster by profession) so that he can send messages back to his people to shame them into resisting the invaders.

Igor doesn’t even get one broadcast off before he’s caught by the invaders and arrested as a spy.  As the only living resident of the province, the eastern nation believes he must know something about what the President meant in his speech.  Igor makes up some stories under torture, but he has no clue whether or not the veiled threat was a bluff, or what trap could possibly have been laid.  The only comfort he has is an old nursery rhyme about the West Wind protecting his homeland.

There are some evocative scenes in this one, from the solitude Igor faces in the abandoned province, to a chilling calculus as the eastern dictators decide how many of their own troops need to die to make their planned invasion look like a fair fight.

The reveal itself seems unlikely given advances in our knowledge of that field of science; to quote Morbo, “it does not work like that!”

This is mid-level work by a trio of excellent authors, worth looking up if you are a fan of any of them.  It doesn’t seem to have been reprinted recently so try used book stores and libraries.

 

Open Thread: Bloggers Get Social

Open Thread: Bloggers Get Social

Last Wednesday, I went to an event titled “Bloggers Get Social”, which was held at a Davanni’s in Edina.  Getting there was the first hurdle, as it started at 5 P.M. and I got off work at 4:30 several suburbs away.  I found an express route that worked on paper, but when I got to the bus stop, discovered I’d left my paper with the route number and the address of the Davanni’s back in the office.  Fortunately, I was able to work out which express bus out of the dozen that serve that stop it was by elimination.

Created for me by Indigo Caldwell; please do not reuse without permission.
Created for me by Indigo Caldwell; please do not reuse without permission.

Next problem:  When I got on the bus, I discovered that there were no schedules for the route on the bus–I knew one of the cross-streets where I had to get off, but not the other.  And everyone near me was firmly attached to their headphones except one lady who had no idea where that cross-street was.  The good news was, it was the very first stop  the express made in Edina, and the Davanni’s was clearly visible from the side of the bus I was on.  I was there only about fifteen minutes late!

Of course, that meant that the other attendees had already clumped up into tight groups at tables, so I was at a loss at first.  Good news, though, Davanni’s put on a nice spread for us, showcasing their variety of party foods.  Their party room space is also very nice.  https://www.davannis.com/location/edina/

The organizers of the social night were the folks from the MN Blogger Conference, which next meets at Concordia University in Saint Paul October 16th, 2016. http://www.mnbloggerconference.com/ After the owners of the Davanni’s gave a nice speech about the history of the restaurant and how their employees have helped build their menu over the years, a couple of other latecomers joined my table, and the organizers reminded everyone to switch tables every so often so that we would meet different people.

I still think I missed about half the bloggers there, but did manage to give out all the business cards with my blog info on them.  Not everyone had cards, but I did manage to get some.  In no particular order:

Faces of TBI:  This site is about people who have suffered Traumatic Brain Injury, both survivors and those who have passed on.  The author is Amy Zellner, writer of Life with a Traumatic Brain Injury: Finding the Road Back to Normal.  Her most recent blog post is an appearance by Dr. Bennet Omalu (played by Will Smith in Concussion) coming up in Saint Louis Park, Minnesota.  http://facesoftbi.com/an-evening-with-dr-bennet-omalu-minneapolis/

Stacie Sayz So:  A lifestyle blogger, a lot of her posts seem to be about beauty products from an affordable perspective.  But Stacie’s not just about product reviews!  Her most recent post is photography tips to enhance those pictures that come with your blog posts (I mostly cheat and just scan the book cover.)  http://www.staciesayzso.com/2016/02/how-i-stepped-up-my-camera-game-for-my.html

Kale & Ale:  Another lifestyle blog, this one about healthy eating and drinking.  Lots of recipes and gardening tips!  The latest post by author Valerie Dennis is about her trip to Old San Juan, Puerto Rico and the nice places she found to eat there.  http://kaleandale.com/2016/02/15/old-san-juan-puerto-rico/

Jen Jamar is a content strategist and social media manager, which is the kind of person I want to consult if I ever try to monetize this blog.  (Read me now while there’s still no ads 🙂  Her latest post is about a recent social media management tool update that looks scary, but probably is nothing to panic about:  http://www.jenjamar.com/yoast-3-0-1-heres-what-to-do-instead-of-freaking-out/

Donna Hup writes about small town Midwestern life: cooking, entertainment, travel and especially trucking!  Her most recent post is about a…unique…charity run she participated in for the Children’s Tumor Foundation.  Lots of fun pictures! http://donnahup.com/my-first-cupids-undie-run/

Paul Lundquist doesn’t have a blog as such, but is an advertising and commericial photographer if you can afford to commission the best pictures of stuff for your blog.  You can find a portfolio of his work at http://paullundquist.com/

I also remember a fellow doing something called Lifemap which will be a site that allows members to put pins in maps of places they’ve been and write about their experiences there.  I don’t think it’s in full production yet.

Davanni’s handed out gift bags, which contained Davanni’s glasses and a do-it-yourself Valentine treat kit.  Their regular dessert bars with small pots of frosting and sprinkles so you could customize them for your sweetie.  Thanks, Davanni’s!

I got a ride back to the big city from a fellow who works for Blackeye Roasting, a cold press coffee brewer.  He was giving out samples of their product.  Alas, I don’t like the taste of coffee, but here’s their website anyway: http://www.blackeyeroasting.co/about/

Sadly, I got a raging cold the next day, and hadn’t felt up to writing about the experience till now.

Please visit some of these folks, and in the comments, mention your favorite blog that needs more visitors!

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents Super Friends

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents Super Friends by Various

Back in the 1970s, there was a Saturday morning cartoon titled Superfriends.  It featured several superheroes from DC Comics,, plus “Junior Super Friends” Wendy and Marvin, trainee superheroes with their pet Wonderdog.   Each episode taught valuable life lessons to kids across America.  While reruns of the cartoon continue even today, younger fans may not be aware there used to be a tie-in comic book as well.

Showcase Presents Super Friends

Because the Comics Code of the time was surprisingly less restrictive than the Standards & Practices Board that governed children’s broadcasting, the writers of the comic book had more flexibility to put in story elements that explained how the team worked, and the full range of the heroes’ powers.  The book took place in a close parallel of the DC universe, so other superheroes could guest star.

Now, I said the writers could be more flexible than the TV show, but I am still amazed that they got away with mass murder as a plot point in the third issue.  Some of the deaths even happened on panel!  And they weren’t even reversed by the end of the story.  To explain, a mad scientist captures over a hundred supervillains (none of whom were established characters) and disintegrates them to create the World-Beater, which has all their powers combined.

After a few issues, the comic book explained (as the show never did) the change from the first season’s Marvin and Wendy, to the later Wonder Twins, aliens named Jan and Zayna.   This was a truly epic plot which also introduced a slew of international superheroes who later joined the mainstream DCU as the Global Guardians.  (It also gave the comic some much-needed ethnic diversity.)

Many creators worked on the series, but the distinctive art of Ramona Fradon is perhaps most representative.

Aside from the mass murder, this is a kid-friendly title; there are some dated attitudes that parents might want to discuss with their children.  The writing is typical for the time period, and certainly better than the television show.

Recommended for fans of the Superfriends cartoon and nostalgic comics fans.

TV Review: Racket Squad

TV Review: Racket Squad

First, a bit of news:  I have completed my coursework for an Associate’s Degree in Business Management, and should soon have the official recognition.    It’s been a rough couple of years, so I am relieved.

Racket Squad ran on television from 1950 to 1953, telling fictionalized versions of actual cases where confidence artists and other racketeers bilked Americans of their money.  Reed Hadley played Captain John Braddock, who narrated the episodes and provided tips on how to spot con games.  (He would go on to star in the previously-reviewed Public Defender, which had a very similar format.)  Each episode opened with a “City Police” car pulling up to “City Hall” and a police dispatcher intoning “rrRacket Squad!”

Racket Squad

I watched six episodes on DVD:

  • “Kite High” stars a funeral director whose odious mother-in-law is poisoning his wife against him.  In fairness, he’s the kind of dope who goes off to a convention, changes hotels without telling his wife, and then decides to go hunting with a buddy for three days after the convention, also without notifying his wife.  Rather than try to hash things out with his spouse (her mother is living with them due to a mild disability), he goes off to Las Vegas.  While there, he is snookered into playing at a “private” casino that alters (“kites”) the checks he uses to pay for chips to much higher amounts.  Once he figures this out, the funeral director confronts the racketeers and it goes badly for him.   Just as he’s about to be killed, the Racket Squad just happens to bust in, as they were pursuing related leads.
  • “The Bill of Sale Racket” involves two men that “buy” gas stations for far more than they’re worth, using a thirty-day promissory note.  They then turn around and sell the stations at rock-bottom prices to third parties who are unaware that the bill of sale has been received fraudulently.  A man whose wife was taken advantage of this way while he was off in the Korean War sets a trap for the conmen, and there’s an extended shootout in which no one actually gets hit.  (Surprisingly realistic!)
  • “Desperate Money” focuses on a aging tailor with fading eyesight who’s having a bad season.   Faced with eviction, he turns to a loan shark operating out of a boxing gym.  When the bad season lasts two weeks longer than expected due to hot weather, the loan shark starts ramping up the interest and getting increasingly violent.  The tailor is not stated to be Jewish, but there are really unsubtle clues.  Also notable in that the bartender who steers the tailor to the loan shark doesn’t realize how violent the man is, because he’s always made his payments on time.  He learns the hard way when he asks the shark to have mercy on the tailor.
  • “The System” has a man on vacation meet an attractive young woman and her invalid father.  Several weekend dates later, the father reveals that he, his daughter and their manservant live comfortably because the father has a near infallible betting system.   Using a trick to confuse the mark about the time, the con artists make it look like they can predict the outcome of horse races.
  • “His Brother’s Keeper” is a tearjerker of a story about a bum named Longshot who hits upon pretending to be deaf to beg for money for his gambling habit.   This works great, except that it turns out all the deaf beggars in the city have been co-opted by a fake charity that sends them out to beg, then confiscates their earnings in exchange for miserable bunks and thin soup.  Initially, Longshot just plans to hide enough money away to escape on, but when one of the actual deaf people becomes ill due to the poor treatment, Longshot decides he has to step up and help Captain Braddock smash the racket, regardless of personal cost.  One of the villains also played the loan shark in “Desperate Money”, and there’s a particularly good transition shot from the beggars’ miserable fare to the fine steak that the head of the “charity” enjoys while urging his henchman to cut expenses.
  • “Take a Little, Leave a Little” involves a particularly smooth operator that poses as an oil geologist.  That is, he uses the name of a real geologist with a good record, so when people do credit checks and backgrounds on him, they find the good news and are more likely to believe his story about a rich oil deposit near town.  He’s so slick, in fact, that his victims don’t technically lose money, and thus usually won’t call the cops.  However, under RICO, if it’s possible to prove a pattern of racketeering behavior, that’s enough to catch you on, and he goes to the well once too often.

While some of these scams are dated and wouldn’t work as well any more, others have been able to adjust to modern times.   Altering checks has given way to altering credit card charges.  Payday loan offices do much the same work the loan sharks did.   And some rackets work the same as they ever did.  As Captain Braddock often reminds us, “It could happen to you.”

“Kite HIgh” relies heavily on old-fashioned stereotypes about marriage and mothers in law–younger viewers may find the family’s behavior baffling.  The most affecting story is “His Brother’s Keeper,” thank goodness it’s much easier for deaf people to get work these days.  It’s a well done series for its time.

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