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.

Anime Review: Space Patrol Luluco

Anime Review: Space Patrol Luluco

Luluco is a normal middle-school student who is trying to live a normal middle-school life in the decidedly abnormal town of Ogikubo.  It’s the one place on Earth where aliens are allowed to mix freely with humans.  Luluco’s father Keiji is a Space Patrol officer who helps dispense justice in the city, but when he’s incapacitated, Luluco is forced to step up and join the Space Patrol herself.  So much for a normal life!

Space Patrol Luluco

Luluco is a 13-episode animated series from Studio Trigger, each episode being under eight minutes long.  Despite the short length and limited animation style, the story is full of twists.  Luluco is soon joined in her adventures by handsome transfer student Alpha Omega Nova and bad girl Midori Save-the-World.  The threats just keep getting bigger and bigger, until a big twist that reveals what the villains were after all along.

The fast pace and over the top drama make this show very funny, even if it’s kind of shallow and the logic doesn’t bear thinking about.  It helps to have seen Studio Trigger’s other work, as they cross over with multiple other series, including Kill la Kill (which is reviewed elsewhere on this site.)  There’s a couple of touching moments, and an examination of first love from both the down and up perspectives.

There’s cartoony violence (including gunfights between Luluco’s parents) and a bit of rude humor.  Parents of actual middle-schoolers might want to screen the show before letting their kids watch it, but teens on up should be okay.

A good palate cleanser between more serious anime shows.

Manga Review: Vinland Saga, Book Five

Manga Review: Vinland Saga, Book Five by Makoto Yukimura

Warning: This review contains spoilers for the first four volumes of this series, so you may want to read the reviews for those if you are new to Vinland Saga.

It has been a few years since the end of Thorfinn’s quest for vengeance on the man who killed his father.  In the aftermath, he has become a thrall (slave) to Ketil, a Danish jarl (wealthy landowner.)  He is joined by a young man named Einar, a Norse-Briton who is not happy about having been enslaved.

Vinland Saga, Book Five

Ketil is, as slaveowners go, a fairly decent fellow.  If Thorfinn and Einar can clear enough farmland and grow crops on it in addition to their other tasks, they may eventually be able to buy their freedom and become small landowners in their own right.  There’s a former slave that’s done just that who is employed by Ketil.  It also helps that our young men take the fancy of Sverkel, Ketil’s elderly father, who gives them a hand in return for them doing extra work in his garden.

But don’t let that fool you into thinking that slavery is an okay thing.  Einar and Thorfinn are still property, and if Ketil’s son needs to kill someone to prove his manhood, there’s no law against him destroying his own family’s stock.  And then there’s Arnheid, who is Ketil’s bedservant, and has no chance of ever buying her freedom.

There’s trouble stirring in Ketil’s household, with one son useless at farming but too cowardly to be a warrior, and the other a ruthless raider who begins to think that his war hero father is going soft in the heart.  The mercenary guards may have their own agenda, and the karls (free farmers) have a hate on for the idea that slaves could rise above that station.

Back in England, King Canute is consolidating his rule,  He does it with as little battle as possible, much to the disgust of Thorkell the Tall, now one of his generals.

Believe it or not, it is only in this fifth volume that we are starting the main plot of the series.  While many events swirl about him, the main arc here is Thorfinn finally shaking out of the apathy that he’s been in since the death of Askeladd.  “Being empty means that anything can fit inside you.”  But what is to be his future course, without vengeance to guide Thorfinn’s steps?

This volume continues to be fascinating, even as the main focus switches from battle to farming.  There’s still plenty of violence, though.  And some nudity in a sexual context, but no on-panel sex.   (Ketil’s relationship with Arnheid isn’t exactly consensual on her part, although he has real affection for her.)  Einar’s approach to religion (pray to any and all gods in the hope that one will deliver) might offend some readers.

There are hints of tragedy on the horizon, but we may have to wait a while to see what they are as I am told production on these hefty volumes has been delayed.  Still an excellent buy if you are interested in this sort of thing.

Book Review: Hell-Bent

Book Review: Hell-Bent by Jason Ryan

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  My copy was an advanced reading copy, and changes will be made in the published version, due out November 2014.  In particular, the end notes and index were not yet finished.

Hell-Bent

Hawaii’s reputation as a tropical paradise vacation destination tends to gloss over the fact that it’s inhabited by fallible human beings, who have the same problems there as anywhere else.  In particular, during the 1970s, it had a skyrocketing crime rate, with far too many unsolved murders.  But this wasn’t the exotic crime you’d see on Hawaii Five-O, but mundane crime like drugs, prostitution and gambling.  And not clever locked room mysteries but thuggish mob hits.

This book centers its narrative on the murder of Charles “Chuckers” F. Marsland III, a nightclub bouncer, and its effect on his father Charles F. Marsland, Jr.  Mr. Marsland, an attorney, was galvanized into desiring the eradication of organized crime from Hawaii, and eventually became the Chief Prosecutor of Honolulu.

The history of Hawaii is briefly sketched from the first time it was contacted by outsiders, through the loss of its sovereignty, and becoming a state.  Thereafter, it concentrates on the matter of organized crime, why it became such a big issue, and who the major players were alleged to be.

While many of them were convicted of crimes, one of the people mentioned most in the book has never even been indicted, much to the frustration of Marsland and others who believed him to be the “godfather” of Hawaiian crime.  The fact that he’s never been proved a criminal is repeatedly brought up, often after a direct quote from someone accusing him of crimes.

Mr. Marsland was apparently, like many driven people, a difficult person, often accusing people who did not completely follow his program of being soft on crime, or actively corrupt.  While he made great strides at bringing down the crime rate, he eventually lost re-election to a more reasonable-sounding prosecutor.

Hawaiian politics play some role in the book, as does the entertainment world.  Many of the criminals had gone to school with people who’d made good, so odd-seeming friendships were not uncommon.

There will be a photo section, bibliography, end notes and an index when the book is fully published.  There’s also an essay by the author on his sources, who he could and could not get information from.

The writing is okay but not gripping.  I’d recommend this book to true crime readers, and people with an interest in Hawaii beyond the tourist destinations.

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