John's Picks

Oliver Twist Cover Image
By Charles Dickens, Philip Horne (Introduction by)
ISBN: 9780141439747
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Penguin Classics - April 29th, 2003

According to the Paris Review the definition of the term Dickensian is as follows;

“Dickensian can signify sentimentality, an attentiveness to the social conditions, a cast of comically hyperbolic characters, a reliance on plot contrivances, or even simply a book’s sheer length.

Charles Dickens has been dramatized both on stage and screen. His books have inspired a local festival, The Great Dickens Christmas Faire at the Cow Palace, that remarkably recreates a “Dickensian” London.

Before I get into the book recommendation let's talk about the phenomenon of Dickens within his own lifetime. Most of his work was published in episodes, a very lucrative and popular approach. There is a famous anecdote concerning Little Nell in the Old Curiosity Shoppe. As the boat from London pulled into the New York Harbour people yelled to those on board to ask if it was true that little Nell was dead. The only equivalent I can use for a similar modern phenomenon would be the Harry Potter installments and the fervor in which the public devoured the books.

Dickens was the most famous writer of his time. He also was a harsh critic of the Victorian world. One of the most prosperous times in the United Kingdom but like today the discrepancy between the rich and the poor was drastic. It is not lost on many today that our own society reflects the Victorian age in all its worst elements.

My review this week is Oliver Twist, a book you may think you know, but unless you have read it you will find some large gaps and discrepancies from book to screen. Like almost all of Dickens’ work we follow a straightforward main character who is surrounded by the fantastical characters Dickens creates. The eccentricities, wild behavior, bizarre speech patterns, and habits inhabit all of Dickens' work. I don't think anyone has been able to match him in painting with such a large brush, characters we immediately understand, and are drawn to despite ourselves. It is full of secrets eventually brought to light, justices restored and comeuppances dealt out.

Fagin, king of the pickpockets, is to have been fashioned on a real life criminal, Ikey Soloman. In later editions of the work Dickens had the word Jew stricken from the text.

Nancy, a former one of Fagin's gang and now a prostitute is barely 17. Bill Sikes, a hardened robber and killer is 50. This is not how we normally see these characters portrayed.

There are other surprises waiting for you; the fate of Mr. Bumble and his wife, and a whole host of complex stories, and practically as many deaths as Hamlet. SO, the story you think you know but might not,, Oliver Twist.

Dracula Cover Image
By Bram Stoker, Maurice Hindle (Introduction by), Maurice Hindle (Notes by), Christopher Frayling (Preface by)
ISBN: 9780141439846
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Penguin Classics - April 29th, 2003

We have seen many adaptations claiming to be a representation of the book. Most fall short, to the point the original story is unrecognizable from what is presented on the screen. The novel has launched a myriad of tales and films all claiming to be inspired by Stoker’s story, who sadly died bankrupt.

Stoker was a theatre manager as well as a writer of sensational fiction. At the time England was experiencing a sort of mania for invasion-based fiction, both natural and supernatural. The idea of the stalwart Englishman protecting his country from a foreign menace struck gold in the heart of Victorians. We know many things about what influenced his writing. It is noted in many examinations of the work and his notes that he studied European folklore and history for the novel. Vlad The Impaler as a veiled identity for Dracula, Dracul from his father which translates to Dragon.

We can fall down many rabbit holes discussing this book from Romanian history to the psychological ideas many feel are represented in the work. That is for you, the reader, to decide and follow.

I want to talk about the book itself. First off, this is an epistolary novel, a collection of journal entries, telegrams, letters, doctors notes, news clippings, and so on. This allows Stoker to switch the narrative voice with ease. We experience the fears and doubts of each character as they write them. Dracula’s words are therefore related to us through the eyes and ears of others; no documents of his own writing appear in the book.

Almost every contemporary adaptation makes the story somehow a love connection between Dracula and Mina; this is completely wrong. To do so is to destroy the key struggle within the book. The overlying relationship that faces challenges and perseveres is that between Jonathan and Mina. Steven Dietz’ adaptation for the stage featured in the Ashland Shakespeare festival stayed true not only to the gothic nature of the work but of the struggle between all characters.

It’s still a great read. The only hurdle is the dialect in which Van Helsing is written in. It takes some getting used to. Other than that, a great romp. So turn down the lights and curl up with the saga of the vampire fiction that launched a thousand spin offs, but be careful for “the dead travel fast.”

Brideshead Revisited Cover Image
ISBN: 9780316216456
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Back Bay Books - December 11th, 2012

The story follows Charles Ryder as he is seduced into the Marchmain family’s drama and passions. The book starts as a reminiscence while he is stationed at the Marchmain estate (based on Castle Howard in York) towards the end of WW2, and he begins to relive all the things that brought him there.

I am a fan of Waugh’s style and his use of dialogue, at times witty and biting, and at others, beautifully reflective. His style of writing reflects many other authors from this period. There is always a great sense of banter and play.

This was one of my first exposures to a literary queer character, Sebation Flyte, and the unspoken relationship between him and the main character.

Waugh destroyed all of his college journals before his death, and many point to this work as semi-biographical. The themes are love, religion, and being seduced by tragedy. If you feel like cheating, the Masterpiece Theatre version with Jeramy Irons is the best adaptation going. I have seen it and read the book, and both are worth a look. It's a great escape from our own time and place and he paints the era perfectly. --John

Middlemarch Cover Image
ISBN: 9780198815518
Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 Days
Published: Oxford University Press, USA - July 1st, 2019

Elliot, unlike Dickens, gives us a realistic and non-romantic view of life for women and the lower classes as they struggle with their lives. The book covers caprice, self importance, class, crossed lovers, entailments, and politics.

Dorthea, one of the main characters in the book, is a well-educated woman looking to have some form of purpose in her life. In many novels by women of this time period, and earlier, we see what that struggle is truly like.

“Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Alexander broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

Elliot also tackles the reform act of 1832, as well as addressing new ideas in medicine, (the sterilization of instruments and the dispensing of medicine). The world was changing for the Victorians on almost every front and Elliot wanted to reflect how those changes affected people's lives. She isn't regarded in the same way as Dickens. She is less fantastical and more introspective. Her world is a world that makes sense to a modern reader. Her characters resonate and allow us to see the world from their vantage point. A fascinating woman and an excellent writer.