Six Degrees of Separation from The Poisonwood Bible to …

I love doing Six Degrees of Separation, a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

This month the chain begins with The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, one of my favourite books. I’ve read it several times.

The Poisonwood Bible

Told by the wife and four daughters of Nathan Price, a fierce evangelical Baptist who takes his family and mission to the Belgian Congo in 1959, The Poisonwood Bible is the story of one family’s tragic undoing and remarkable reconstruction over the course of three decades in postcolonial Africa.

I bought The Poisonwood Bible in Gatwick airport bookshop just before boarding a plane to go on holiday. So my first link in the chain is to another book I bought in an another airport bookshop waiting to board another plane:

Fortune's Rocks

It’s Fortune’s Rocks by Anita Shreve. I had never heard of Anita Shreve, but I liked the look of this book – and the fact that it’s a chunky book of nearly 600 pages, good to read on holiday. It’s set in the summer of 1899 when Olympia Biddeford and her parents are on holiday at the family’s vacation home in Fortune’s Rocks, a coastal resort in New Hampshire. She is fifteen years old and this is the story of her love affair with an older man.

When I looked at it today, I saw that it’s written in the present tense. Recently I’ve been writing about my dislike of the present tense – but I obviously haven’t always disliked it, because I remember really enjoying this book.

Wolf Hall (Thomas Cromwell, #1)

Another book written in the present tense that I loved is Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, the story of Thomas Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith, and his political rise, set against the background of Henry VIII’s England and his struggle with the Pope over his desire to marry Anne Boleyn. Historical fiction is one of my favourite genres, which takes me to my next link, another book set in the reign of Henry VIII –

Lamentation (Matthew Shardlake, #6)

Lamentation by C J Sansom set in 1546, the last year of Henry VIII’s life. Shardlake, a lawyer is asked by Queen Catherine (Parr) for help in discovering who has stolen her confessional book, Lamentation of a Sinner. It evokes the people, the sights, smells and atmosphere of Henry’s last year and at the same time it’s an ingenious crime mystery, full of suspense and tension.

Barnaby Rudge

The next book also combines historical and crime fiction – Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens, set in 1780 at the time of the Gordon Riots.  It’s a story of mystery and suspense which begins with an unsolved double murder and goes on to involve conspiracy, blackmail, abduction and retribution.

Barnaby Rudge is a simple young man, living with his mother. His pet raven, Grip goes everywhere with him. He’s a most amazing bird who can mimic voices and seems to have more wits about him than Barnaby. Grip is based on Dickens’s own ravens, one of whom was also called Grip.

Ravens form the next link-

The Raven's Head

to The Raven’s Head by Karen Maitland, set in 1224 in France and England about Vincent, an apprentice librarian who stumbles upon a secret powerful enough to destroy his master. He attempts blackmail but when this fails Vincent goes on the run in possession of an intricately carved silver raven’s head. The plot revolves around the practice of alchemy – the search for a way to transform the base soul of man into pure incorruptible spirit, as well as the way to find the stone, elixir or tincture to turn base metals into precious metals.

And finally to the last link in this chain another book featuring alchemy –

Crucible (Alexander Seaton, #3)

Crucible by S G MacLean, the third of her Alexander Seaton books. Set in 1631 in Aberdeen Robert Sim, a librarian is killed. Alexander investigates his murder and finds, amongst the library books, works on alchemy and hermetics – the pursuit of ancient knowledge and the quest for ‘a secret, unifying knowledge, known to the ancients’ since lost to us. S G MacLean’s books are full of atmosphere. I think her style of writing suits me perfectly, the characters are just right, credible well-rounded people, and the plot moves along swiftly with no unnecessary digressions.

My chain this month has travelled from Africa to Scotland via America and England, and spans the years from the 13th century to the mid 20th century. It has followed a missionary and his family, a teenager in love with an older man, and looked in on power struggles in Tudor England, and the pursuit of the secret to turn metal into gold.

Links are: books I bought to read on holiday, books in the present tense, crime fiction and historical fiction (and a combination of these genres), ravens and alchemy.

Next month  (June 2, 2018), we’ll begin with  Malcolm Gladwell’s debut (and best seller), The Tipping Point, a book and author I’ve never come across before.

The Classics Club Spin Result

Classics Club

The spin number in The Classics Club Spin was announced yesterday. It’s number …

3

which for me is Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens. The rules of the Spin are that this is the book for me to read by April 30, 2018.

Little Dorritt

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. As it’s on my list I do want to read it – sometime – maybe not right now.

I know very little about Little Dorrit, just that it’s long and my copy is one of the Wordsworth Classics in a very small font. I stopped watching the TV adaptation with Tom Courtney as William Dorrit – such a dark and dreary production with him in the Marshalsea debtors’ prison. The blurb on the back cover says that Dickens’ working title for the book was Nobody’s Fault. Well, it’s his fault for writing it – and mine for for putting it on the Spin List – oh, yes and the Spin God for spitting out number 3.

I just hope I enjoy it!

Here’s the blurb from Amazon:

Little Dorrit is a classic tale of imprisonment, both literal and metaphorical, while Dickens’ working title for the novel, Nobody’s Fault, highlights its concern with personal responsibility in private and public life. Dickens’ childhood experiences inform the vivid scenes in Marshalsea debtor’s prison, while his adult perceptions of governmental failures shape his satirical picture of the Circumlocution Office. The novel’s range of characters – the honest, the crooked, the selfish and the self-denying – offers a portrait of society about whose values Dickens had profound doubts.

Little Dorrit is indisputably one of Dickens’ finest works, written at the height of his powers. George Bernard Shaw called it ‘a masterpiece among masterpieces’, a verdict shared by the novel’s many admirers.

A ‘masterpiece‘ – that makes it sound OK – doesn’t it?

Did you take part in the Classics Spin? What will you be reading?

The Classics Club Spin Result

The spin number in The Classics Club Spin was announced yesterday. It’s number …

4

which for me is Martin Chuzzlewit by Charles Dickens. The rules of the Spin are that this is the book for me to read by December 31, 2017.

I’m pleased with the result as I’ve been meaning to read this book ever since I saw a TV version. I’ve just checked and it was shown in 1994 with Paul Scholfield as Old Martin Chuzzlewit – that’s 23 years ago! It really is time I read it.

Here’s the blurb from Goodreads:

While writing Martin Chuzzlewit – his sixth novel – Dickens declared it ‘immeasurably the best of my stories.’ He was already famous as the author of The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist . Set partly in America, which Dickens had visited in 1842, the novel includes a searing satire on the United States. Martin Chuzzlewit is the story of two Chuzzlewits, Martin and Jonas, who have inherited the characteristic Chuzzlewit selfishness. It contrasts their diverse fates of moral redemption and worldly success for one, with increasingly desperate crime for the other. This powerful black comedy involves hypocrisy, greed and blackmail, as well as the most famous of Dickens’s grotesques, Mrs Gamp. 

Did you take part in the Classics Spin? What will you be reading?

The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens

Note: I’ve found this hard to write about without giving away some spoilers.

I’d listed The Old Curiosity Shop in my Classics Club Spin,  but was really hoping to get one of Thomas Hardy’s books. Without this push from the Classics Club this book would have stayed on my TBR list for a long time because all I knew about it was that it’s the book in which Little Nell suffers a melodramatic death and I feared it would be too sentimental for my liking. And much to my surprise I have finished it in time for the deadline for reading our Spin book this Friday, even though it’s such a long book.

Well, it was and it wasn’t. It’s not just a sentimental, melodramatic story. It’s also full of weird, grotesque and comic characters, a mix of everyday people and characters of fantasy. It has elements of folklore and myth, as Nell and her grandfather, go on an epic journey, fleeing from the terrifying dwarf, Daniel Quilp and travelling through a variety of scenes, meeting different groups of people on their journey. There are numerous allusions to the Bible, Shakespeare and popular songs of the day. There are long passages where Nell doesn’t feature and is hardly mentioned, so it’s by no means a totally sentimental tale.

Several of the characters stand out for me, Quilp is an obvious choice. He takes delight in inflicting pain and suffering on others. He’s scarcely human, grossly wicked, hideous in appearance, full of lust, ferocious, cunning, and malicious. A fiend who

… ate hard eggs, shell and all, devoured gigantic prawns with heads and tails  on, chewed tobacco and water-cresses at the same time and with extraordinary greediness, drank boiling tea without winking, bit his fork and spoon until they bent again, and in short performed so many horrifying and uncommon acts that the women were nearly frightened out of their wits, and began to doubt if he were really a human creature. (page 47)

Other characters who stood out are Dick Swiveller and the Marchioness. Dick at first appears as a profligate friend of Nell’s brother, Fred but takes on a larger role later in the book. Working in a law office for Mr Brass and his sister, Sally Brass, he befriends the small, half-starved girl who is a servant locked in the basement, calling her the Marchioness. He rescues her and also Kit, Nell’s friend, when he is wrongly accused of robbery.

There are many more I could mention, including the people Nell and her grandfather meet on their travels – wonderful scenes  of the travelling Punch and Judy show; Mrs Jarley’s wax-work figures, over a hundred of them that she takes around the countryside in a caravan; the gypsies who take advantage of Nell’s grandfather’s addiction to gambling; the poor schoolteacher who take in Nell and her grandfather; and the Bachelor who they meet at the end of their journey.

I also liked the description of the landscape as Nell leaves London, the change from town to countryside, then later through the industrial Midlands with its factories, furnaces and roaring steam-engines where people worked in terrible conditions. Nell and her grandfather spend a night in one of the furnaces, sleeping on a heap of ashes.

In a large and lofty building, supported by pillars of iron, with great black apertures in the upper walls, open to the external air; echoing to the roof with the beating of hammers and roar of furnaces, mingled with the hissing of red-hot metal plunged in water, and a hundred strange unearthly noises never heard elsewhere; in this gloomy place, moving like demons among the flame and smoke, dimly and fitfully seen, flushed and tormented by the burning fires, and wielding great weapons, a faulty blow from any one of which must have crushed some workman’s skull, a number of men laboured like giants. (pages 334-5)

Nell, herself, is a sweet, self-effacing and innocent character, who is left to look after her grandfather as he fails to overcome his gambling addiction. She goes into a decline and her slow death is, I suppose inevitable, although thankfully it is not described by Dickens. Child death is one of the themes of The Old Curiosity Shop as Nell’s death is not the only one.

The Old Curiosity Shop was written in 1840 – 1841 and serialised weekly in Master Humphrey’s Clock beginning on 4 April 1840 and ending on 6 February 1841. During this period the circulation of the periodical rose to a staggering figure of 100,000. It was Dickens’ fourth novel, influenced by the early death of his sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth, in 1837, which had profoundly shocked him. His work on The Old Curiosity Shop, particularly as he came to writing the end, revived the anguish he had experienced on her death.

The Old Curiosity Shop
The Old Curiosity Shop

I read the Penguin Classics e-book which has the original illustrations by George Cattermole, Hablot K Browne (‘Phiz’), Daniel
Maclise and Samuel Williams.

TOCShop furnace
The furnace

Despite the sentimentality I did enjoy reading The Old Curiosity Shop and it has made me keen to read more of Dickens’ books.

As well as being my Classics Club Spin, this book also qualifies for the Mount To Be Read Challenge and the Victorian Bingo Challenge.

Wondrous Words

wondrous2Wondrous Words Wednesday is a weekly meme run by Kathy at Bermuda Onion’s Weblog where you can share new words that you’ve encountered or spotlight words you love.

These are some words from Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens:

Usquebaugh – ‘what does my noble captain drink – is it brandy, rum, usquebaugh?’

This is obviously a drink of some sort, but I didn’t know what. Usquebaugh is Gaelic meaning “Water of Life”, phonetically it became “usky” and then “whisky” in English.

Flip – ‘every man … put down his sixpence for a can of flip, which grateful beverage was brewed with all dispatch, and set down in the midst of them on the brick floor; both that it might simmer and stew before the fire, and that its fragrant steam, rising up among them, and mixing with the wreaths of vapour from their pipes, might shroud them in a delicious atmosphere of their own and shut out all the world.’

Another intoxicating drink, I thought. Flip is eggnog, a drink of eggs and hot beer or spirits. I was interested to see it came in a can! Canning food was invented by a French chef in 1795 to preserve military food for Napoleon’s army. Barnaby Rudge, although written in 1839-41 when sealed cans similar to those we use now would have been in use, is set in 1775 and 1780 so Dickens was probably using the word to mean a container for holding liquid – or it’s an anachronism?

Poussetting – ‘Joe Willet rode leisurely along in his desponding mood, picturing the locksmith’s daughter going down long country dances, and poussetting dreadfully with bold strangers – which was almost too much to bear ...’

Poussette is simply a figure in country dancing when the couples hold hands and move up or down the set changing places with the next couple. And by the way Joe describes it he was thinking the locksmith’s daughter was being too familiar with strangers.

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens

It’s hard to know just what to write about Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens. The General Introduction to the book advises that you enjoy the book before reading the Introduction (which I did), so I have tried not to reveal any spoilers in this post.

  • It’s Dickens’s last complete book, first published in 19 monthly instalments from May 1864 to November 1865. It’s meant to be read at a leisurely pace.
  • It’s a long multiplot novel, with a multitude of characters.
  • In it Dickens comments on the ills of contemporary society.
  • It concerns mysteries, lost identities, hidden wills, corruption and violence.
  • It’s varied in style, sometimes comic, other times serious, sometimes sombre and dark and at others ironic and flippant.
  • It’s written in both the past and present tense and from the characters’ differing perspectives.

Brief synopsis (from the back cover of the Wordsworth Classic edition)

The chief of its several plots centres on John Harmon who returns to England as his father’s heir. He is believed drowned under suspicious circumstances – a situation convenient to his wish for anonymity until he can evaluate Bella Wilfer whom he must marry to secure his inheritance. The story is filled with colourful characters and incidents – the faded aristocrats and parvenus gathered at the Veneering’s dinner table, Betty Higden and her terror of the workhouse and the greedy plottings of Silas Wegg.

My view

Although it nows reads like historical fiction, in the mid 1860s Our Mutual Friend was modern up-to-date fiction, beginning with the words:  ‘In these times of ours’, in case there was any doubt in the readers’ minds.

The opening chapter reveals a darkly atmospheric scene on the River Thames, a modern scene for its first readers,with a macabre story of a boatman, Gaffer Hexham and his daughter, Lizzie, searching the Thames for human corpses:

Allied to the bottom of the river rather than the surface, by reason of the slime and ooze with which it was covered, and its sodden state, this boat and the two figures in it obviously were doing something that they often did, and were seeking what they often sought. (pages 3-4)

In direct contrast in the next chapter Dickens moves to the nouveau-riche setting of the Veneerings house:

Mr and Mrs Veneering were bran-new people in a bran-new house in a bran-new quarter of London. Everything about the Veneerings was spick-and-span new. (page 7)

Just like their name the Veneerings are all show, all surface, without any depth. They collect people as well as objects. Their standing in society is dependent on their wealth – just as Gaffer Hexham’s is at the other end of the financial strata. And there is a great emphasis on money, wealth and poverty in Our Mutual Friend.

There are some wonderful characters, such as the Boffins, Silas Wegg and Jenny Wren to name but a few. As John Harmon is presumed to have been drowned in  the Thames (the body found by Gaffer Hexham), it is his father’s faithful servants, Mr and Mrs Boffin who inherit the miserly and incredibly wealthy ‘dust’ contractor’s fortune. This pair are at first unchanged by their good fortune and take in Bella Wilfer, the socially ambitious young woman who would have married Harmon, had he lived. Through these characters Dickens shows the effect that greed in all its forms can have.

I particularly like Dickens’s depiction of Wegg, who is employed by Mr Boffin to read to him what he calls the ‘Decline-And-Fall-Off-The-Rooshan-Empire.’ Wegg is a hard, rascally character, out for anything he can get. His wooden leg reflects his nature:

Wegg was a knotty man, and a close-grained, with a face carved out of very hard material, that had just as much play of expression as a watchman’s rattle. … Sooth to say, he was so wooden a man that he seemed to have taken his wooden leg naturally, and rather suggested to the fanciful observer, that he might be expected — if his development received no untimely check — to be completely set up with a pair of wooden legs in about six months. (page 43)

Wegg is one of the characters that Dickens also uses to inject some humour. He is obsessed with his lost leg and goes to Mr Venus’s shop to see if he can find it for him – Venus is an articulator of skeletons and a taxidermist, who has great skill in piecing things together. He boasts:

Mr Wegg, if you was brought here loose in a bag to be articulated, I’d name your smallest bones blindfold equally with your largest, as fast as I could pick ’em out, and I’d sort them all, and sort your wertebrae, in a manner that would equally surprise and charm you. (page 77)

Wegg is positive that he doesn’t want anyone’s bones:

… I tell you openly I should not like – under such circumstances, to be what I call dispersed, a part of me here, and a part of me there, but should wish to collect myself like a genteel person. (page 77)

It’s not just social injustices, the class system, the importance of money, property, greed and materialism that Dickens highlights, but also family relationships – in particular that of fathers and daughters and the position of women. He also concentrates on instances of violence, through drownings and physical assaults.

There is so much in this novel, more that I can explore in this (long) post. I haven’t even touched on the majority of the major characters.

This Wentworth Classics edition includes the original illustrations by Marcus Stone. The one shown below is ‘The person of the house and the bad child‘ – this shows ‘Jenny Wren’, the dolls’ dressmaker, whose back is ‘so bad‘ and whose legs are ‘so queer‘, and her drunken father, who she calls her ‘bad child‘ and treats him as such.

  • Paperback: 832 pages
  • Publisher: Wordsworth Editions Ltd; New Ed edition (1 Jan 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1853261947
  • ISBN-13: 978-1853261947
  • Source: my own copy
  • My Rating 3.5/5

August Prompt – A Classics Challenge

This year I am taking part in a Classics Challenge hosted by Katherine of November’s Autumn. The goal is to read at least seven classics in 2012 and every month Katherine is posting a prompt to help us discuss the books we are reading. This month we are asked to share some quotes from our current read.
Rather than a questions August’s prompt is to share a memorable
Quote… or a few of them from what you’re currently reading. Try to select ones that are not so well-known but, of course, if you can’t help yourself share it too!

This month I’ve been reading Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens. There are many passages I could quote. Here are just a few:

“Has a dead man any use for money? Is it possible for a dead man to have money? What world does a dead man belong to? ‘Tother world. What world does money belong to? This world. Can a corpse own it, want it, spend it, claim it, miss it,? Don’t try to go confounding the rights and wrong of things in that way. But it’s worthy of the sneaking spirit that robs a live man.” (page 6)

“No one who can read, ever looks at a book, even unopened on a shelf, like one who cannot.” (page 18)

“And this is the eternal law. For, Evil often stops short at itself and dies with the doer of it! but Good, never. (page 95)

“I have made up my mind that I must have money, Pa. I feel that I can’t beg it, borrow it, or steal it; and so I have resolved that I must marry it.” (page 302)

“This reminds me, godmother, to ask you a serious question. You are as wise as wise can be (having been brought up by the fairies), and you can tell me this: Is it better to have had a good thing and lost it, or never to have had it?” (page 410)

“And Oh! there are days in this life, worth life and worth death. And Oh, what a bright old song it is, that Oh, ’tis love, ’tis love, ’tis love, that makes the world go round!” (page 636) (From a popular song usually sung to the French tune ‘C’est l’amour’.)