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: Classic American Short Stories

Book Review: Classic American Short Stories compiled by Michael Kelahan

This book is more or less exactly what it says in the title, a compilation of short(ish) stories written by American authors, most of which are acknowledged as classics by American Lit professors.  The stories are arranged by author in roughly chronological order from the early Nineteenth Century to the 1920s to stay safely in the public domain.

Classic American Short Stories

The fifty-one stories included begin with Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle”, a tall tale about a henpecked husband who drinks ghostly beer and sleeps for twenty years, right through the American Revolution.  The book ends with “Winter Dreams” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  A young man from Minnesota finds great success in the laundry business, but heartache when the woman he loves cannot settle for just him.  In between are ones that are very familiar to me, like “The Telltale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe (a murderer confesses his crime in an effort to prove his sanity) and stories that were new to me, like “The Revolt of ‘Mother'” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (a New England woman, tired of an unkept promise, takes matters into her own hands.)

There’s a wide variety of genres represented, from “realistic” slice of life stories through mystery and fantasy to outright horror.  The chronological order highlights the changing social attitudes depicted in the stories, particularly the two Edith Wharton stories about divorce.  Women are reasonably well-represented, and there are a couple of writers of color as well.

Of course, just because a story is “classic” does not mean it will appeal to everyone.  I found Henry James’ novella “The Aspern Papers” (literary buff infiltrates the household of a famous poet’s ex-lover in an effort to gain any memorabilia she might have of him) tedious and predictable.  I am not alone in this, but many other readers have found it fascinating.

Content issues:  Many of these stories have elements of period racism, sexism and classism; sometimes it’s dealt with within the story itself, but other times it pops up as a nasty surprise.  “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather, about a boy who wants the finer things in life without the tedium of putting in decades of hard labor to get them, deals with suicide.

This is a Barnes & Noble collector’s edition, and is quite handsome and sturdy, with a leather binding, gilt-edged pages and a silk bookmark for a reasonable price.  However, the fact that it has a “compiler” rather than an editor is telling.  There are scattered typos; I do not know if they were caused by errors in transcription, or if the sources were not scrutinized carefully enough.  The author bios at the end are not quite in alphabetical order, and miss out Washington Irving altogether.

Overall, most of these stories are worth reading at least once, and many are worth rereading over the years.  Highly recommended to people who don’t already have their favorites from this collection in a physical book, or are curious about the stories they haven’t read yet.  It’d also make a nice gift for your bookworm friend or relative.

Book Review: Justicariat

Book Review: Justicariat by Nathan Bolduc

In an alternate history, the newly-formed United Nations created an extra-national force called the Justicariat.  Its members, the Justicars, hunt down and kill those they believe to be criminals, not bound by any authority or law higher than themselves.  They have absolute immunity from local laws or regulations, though many will cooperate with/commandeer local law enforcement when it is convenient for them.

Justicariat

Two North American Justicars, Brian Galan and Noriko Tachibana, are assigned to a multi-jurisdiction operation when it’s learned an international syndicate has acquired what appears to be a doomsday weapon.   Shortly after they arrive on the remote island, the mission goes south, and it’s unclear just how many enemies the Justicars actually have.

In the early part of the novel, we see both Justicar Galan and Justicar Tachibana on more typical operations, Galan tracking down a cop killer in Detroit, and Tachibana dealing with a mob boss in Las Vegas.  Both of these end with considerable collateral deaths, although only Tachibana receives a mild reprimand; Galan faces no repercussions for straight up murdering a police officer for daring to punch him.  We are assured that the Justicars themselves deal with Justicars who have gone wrong.

I’d expect there to be more suspicion of the Justicariat among the general population, but they seem to be generally admired, and the problem of potential corruption from their legal immunity is handwaved with intensive and selective training.

This is closest to the “military SF” subgenre, I think, with lots of loving description of weapons, emphasis on tactics, and stuff blowing up.  There’s lots of action in here, with a climax out of a James Bond movie.

Sadly, little is done with the alternate history aspect of the story–there do seem to be more serial killers and terrorists than in our timeline, or perhaps the regular governments have left them to be taken care of by the Justicars since they don’t have to care about human rights or actual proof.  I was reminded of Judge Dredd and how it’s made clear in that series that the Judges are part of the problem as well as the makeshift solution.

Torture is indulged in by both villains and nominal good guys, and rape is mentioned but does not happen on screen.  Several people die in horrible ways beyond just violence.   It’s mentioned more than once that mercy is a weakness, and forcibly demonstrated.

To be honest, the Justicariat creeps me out, so I wasn’t as sympathetic to the main characters as I suspect I was supposed to be.  It’s a battle of very dark grey vs. absolute black.

From  a writing aspect, there are multiple viewpoints (none from the bad guy side), and there’s a fair amount of redundancy between the characters’ accounts and dwelling on minutia–I think this novel could have been a good ten percent shorter with nothing of importance lost.

Still, if you are looking for science fiction action starring people who don’t have to deal with pettifogging regulations when  they eliminate criminal scum, you could do worse.  The end has a strong sequel hook, and that book is in the works.

Book Review: Twin Cities Noir: The Expanded Edition

Book Review: Twin Cities Noir: The Expanded Edition edited by Julie Schaper & Steven Horwitz

Like the previously reviewed USA Noir, this is a collection of grittier crime stories from Akashic Books with a regional focus.  In this case, the cities of Saint Paul and Minneapolis in Minnesota, and the surrounded metro area, plus one up north in Duluth (“Hi, I’m God” by Steve Thayer; a teenager drowns in Lake Superior…or does he?)

Twin Cities Noir

This is the “expanded edition” released in 2013 with three new stories, bringing it to a total of eighteen.   The new ones are conveniently all in the front in the “Star of the North” subsection, starting with John Jodzio’s “Someday All of This Will Probably Be Yours”  about a speed dating scam gone wrong.  The other sections are “Minnesota Nice”, “Uff Da” and “Funeral Hotdish.”

Each of the stories is set in a particular neighborhood, several of which I’m familiar with.  One scene takes place less than a block from where I live!  This makes it easy for me to picture the action in my mind.  This may not be as evocative for non-locals, but will please readers in the Twin Cities area.

Some standouts:  “Skyway Sleepless” written and drawn by Tom Kaczynski takes place in Minneapolis’ extensive skyway system.  The art uses the rectangular boxes of the skyway to indicate the maze-like architecture of the story, as people are found filling chalk outlines and no memory of how they got there.

“The Brewer’s Son” by Larry Millett is a period piece set in 1892 Saint Paul, and starring his series character, saloonkeeper and amateur detective Shadwell Rafferty, acquaintance of Sherlock Holmes.  The title character has been kidnapped, supposedly by the Black Hand, and Mr. Rafferty is called in by the concerned father.  This is noir, so expect some darkness.

Mary Logue’s story “Blasted” takes place in upscale Kenwood, as a police officer tells her daughter about a domestic dispute call that was the most frightening experience of her life.  The officer is still alive, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t good reason for fear.

The final story is “”Chili Dog” by Chris Everhart.  A small time crook stops in downtown Saint Paul for lunch, and things go very wrong for him.

As a crime story anthology, there’s a fair bit of violence, one story features domestic abuse, and there’ mention of suicide.

If you are local to Minnesota, or have lived here in the past, highly recommended.  The book’s pretty good if you’re not local, but you might miss some of the nuance.  Akashic may have a volume set in your area; check their catalog.   If you own the previous version, you might want to save money by going with the e-book, so you can check out the new stories without shelling out the big bucks.

Book Review: The 36 Ancient Chinese Strategies for Modern Business

Book Review: The 36 Ancient Chinese Strategies for Modern Business by Lan Bercu

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

The 36 Ancient Chinese Strategies for Modern Business

Beginning some time in the late 1970s, when it became obvious that Japan had become an economic powerhouse, American businesses began taking an interest in Asian philosophies that might explain why companies from those areas were doing so well, especially in industries where America was faltering.   Thus, books for business explicating on The Five Rings, The Art of War and so forth have been written and often sold well.

This is the latest book in that tradition.  The author was born and raised in Vietnam, where The 36 Strategies, a text on warfare believed to have been compiled during China’s Warring States period, is read by schoolchildren.  She has since found the information included helpful in her career as a speaker on business and international matters.

The main text is divided into thirty-six short chapters, one for each strategy.  Each starts with a short story about ancient Chinese warfare, then one or more examples of how modern businesses have implemented these strategies, whether by name or by chance.  This is followed by translation into more basic tips, and questions for the business to ask itself based on the strategy.

Some of the strategies have poetic sounding titles, like “slough off the cicada’s golden shell” or “borrow a corpse to resurrect a soul”, while others are more plain-spoken, like “kill with a borrowed knife.”   The strategies themselves, however, tend to be simple to understand, if sometimes difficult to apply to a given situation.  That last bit is why they’re arranged by type; some are better when you have a clear advantage, others when you’re on the defensive or in a losing position.

It should be noted that the more literal applications of some of these strategies to business, such as “replace the beam with rotted timbers” and “deck the tree with false blossoms” may be considered unethical, and in some cases are outright illegal.  The author points out that businesses (and customers) should be aware of these strategies anyway, to help defend against them.

The short chapters and copious examples make this a good read for the busy person on the go; this is one time I would suggest buying the e-book version.  The book comes with an ad for the author’s services, bibliography and an index.

The utility of this book will depend on whether you already have another of the books relating the 36 strategies to business.  If so, you may not need this one.  This book also has a lot of synergy with The Art of War, so you may want to invest in one of the business books that concentrate on that text as well.

In war, do not repeat the tactics that have gained you one victory.  Rather, let your methods be determined by the infinite variety of circumstances. — Sun Tzu

Book Review: Blood Aces

Book Review: Blood Aces: The Wild Ride of Benny Binion, the Texas Gangster who Created Vegas Poker by Doug J. Swanson

Disclaimer:  I received this book as part of a Goodreads giveaway in the expectation that I would review it.  This was an Advance Uncorrected Proof copy, and there will be changes to the final product.

Blood Aces

As the subtitle indicates, this is a biography of Benny Binion, who was born in a tiny town in Texas in 1904 to a horse trader’s family, and rose through moxie, violence and crime to be a beloved fixture of Las Vegas.  Like many gangsters, Mr. Binion’s life makes for colorful reading, full of narrow escapes, famous names and death.

The picture painted of Dallas in the 1930-40s is not a flattering one.  Mr. Binion started in the numbers racket, and eventually managed to break into the lucrative and more “respectable” dice gambling world.  He was perhaps a victim of his own success.  That and somebody kept trying to kill one of his major rivals,  Herbert Noble, and everyone was pretty sure Mr. Binion was behind it.

So Benny Binion had to light out for Las Vegas, where gambling was legal and eventually became the owner of the Horseshoe casino, best known for its “no-limit” dice games.   Later he also became the founder of the World Series of Poker.

Like many gangsters, Benny Binion was a good friend to those he liked, and generous to the disadvantaged.  But get on his wrong side, and he did not stint on the anger.  As he got older,  the people of Las Vegas preferred to remember his good side.

Since Mr. Binion tended to lie a lot, and quite a few allegations were never proved, the author has had to rely on secondary and unreliable sources for much of the story.  After lighting out for Las Vegas, the only thing Mr. Binion was ever convicted on was tax evasion.  But there sure were a lot of people he didn’t like that wound up dead under suspicious circumstances.

There’s also asides on various people who also affected circumstances in Dallas or Las Vegas, such as Howard Hughes, who almost inadvertently changed the way casinos were owned just so he could hole up in his room in peace.

There are black and white photos at the beginning of the chapters, end notes sourcing the quotations, and a selected bibliography.  The index is not in the uncorrected proof, but should be in place for the final product (scheduled for August 2014.)

I did not know about most of the information in this book, particularly the bits set in Texas.  It’s a good book for true crime fans, and will have local interest for people in Las Vegas and Dallas.  it certainly makes a change from Chicago gangsters!

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