Great Expectations

Ms. Havisham
Ms. Havisham

by Charles Dickens; narrated by Mark Smith for

I only read one Dickens book before I started on the “1000 books to read before you die” project.  And while A Tale of Two Cities is pretty great, in High School it was just a book to read.  But now I’ve read both Great Expectations and Martin Chuzzlewit, and enjoyed both immensely.

Great Expectations tells the story of a young man, a blacksmith’s apprentice, who comes into the eponymous inheritance from an anonymous benefactor and proceeds to learn important lessons about friendship, life, and love.  Delightful.  Some additional thoughts:

  • Now that I’ve read this, I’m going to have to return to Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series to discover the army of Havishams again.  Her creepy, disturbing, pitiful existence doesn’t come through very clearly if you, ahem, don’t get the references.  And by the way, the table full of rotted food with creepy crawly bugs all over it … YUCK.
  • Once again, I’m surprised by the humor sprinkled throughout the book.  It’s not as overt as the humor in Chuzz, but Pip’s descriptions of his interactions and his understated way of saying he dislikes things work really well.
  • Dickens often gets flack for his constructed stories, the way that nearly every character who appears will later be very important.  One might call it an over-reliance on deus ex machina.  But I’m reminded of formula detective shows like Bones or Castle.  The biggest flaw in these shows is that for the mystery to seem both mysterious and satisfying, the suspect needs to be someone we don’t suspect while still being someone we’ve encountered before.  So most of the time, the villain is the first or second witness they interview, someone beyond suspicion early on.  Dickens uses this strategy, bringing back characters from early in the narrative to play important roles later.
  • I’ve commented before on the fact that audiobooks created an association between the book and the place or activity where you read them.  I read the last half of this book while painting my house over the weekend (long story).  I’ll associate the big reveals in the last chapter with slopping Killz on my old-as-dirt window sills.

And Mark Smith does a great job with the book, just as he did with Captain’s Courageous.  My only complaint (and it’s a pet peeve more than anything) is that he says domain with the stress on the first syllable, DO-main, rather than on the second syllable, do-MAIN.  Otherwise, his characterization, diction, pacing, inflection, and emotion are all excellent.  Particularly good in this reading were his voices for Joe and for Wemmick.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Roger Ackroyd
I'm not sure what spilling red liquid has to do with this book

by Agatha Christie

The only Christie novel to make the 1000 books you must read before you die list, Ackroyd serves as a metonym for every Christie novel, or at least every Poirot novel. It’s skillfully written, with a wide net of characters, an intriguing puzzle mystery with plenty of side distractions (affairs, debts, scoundrels, liars), and a great resolution. I won’t comment much on the plot because I want you to read it eventually and I don’t want this to be a spoilery review. A couple extra thoughts:

  • One of the biggest problems the scientific movement faces in the era of the Internet are “Google degrees,” people who spend a few hours reading information on line and presume themselves to be experts (or capable of speaking on equal footing with experts). This phenomenon occurs often in the anti-vaccination movement, but is a regular part of the interaction between experts in any field and amateurs. The lesson from How to Think About Weird Things is thus “There is good reason to doubt a proposition if it conflicts with expert opinion.” Christie crafts a scene in which a denizen of the 1920s Internet, a gossip who knows everything about the village, argues with her brother’s (a doctor) analysis of a corpse.

    “Mark my words, James, you’ll see that I’m right. That Russell woman was here that morning after your poisons. Roger Ackroyd might easily have been poisoned in his food that night.”

    I laughed out loud.

    “Nonsense,” I cried. “He was stabbed in the neck. You know that as well as I do.”

    “After death, James,” said Caroline, “to make a false clew.” [I love the way they used to spell “clue” — BR]

    “My good woman,” I said, “I examined the body, and I know what I’m talking about. That wound wasn’t inflicted after death–it was the cause of death, and you need make no mistake about it.”

    Caroline merely continued to look omniscient, which so annoyed me that I went on:

    “Perhaps you will tell me, Caroline, if I have a medical degree or if I have not?”

    “You have a medical degree, I dare say, James–at least, I mean I know you have. But you have no imagination whatever.” (229-230)

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

  • The cover art I’m seeing on line oscillates between hilarious vagueness and preposterous imagery. The first cover listed there shows someone spilling a drink. There aren’t any spilled drinks. The copy I read (at right) is even stranger. I have no idea why it features a knife in a cucumber. The house and blue envelope and even the knife itself make sense. But the cucumber?
  • Another appearance of Crippen. You’ll remember the story of Dr. Crippen–detailed in Erik Laarsen’s Thunderstruck–the British pharmacist who murdered his wife and ran away with his lover, but was caught because the ship had a newfangled Marconi device. BOOM. Technology all in his grill. Dr. Crippen was the O.J. of his day, and thus appears in a bunch of books and stuff. To whit, Dr. Sheppard’s sister says “I knew he’d try to get away to America. That’s what Crippen did.” (228)
  • Finally, I think there’s some potential for some awesomeness in using the relatively rare name of Ackroyd to write a parody of the story called “The Murder of Dan Ackroyd.” At the same time, I wonder how Dan Ackroyd would feel if he read that story. Kind of like John Malkovich must have felt when first encountered Being John Malkovich, or Paul Giamatti with Cold Souls.

A lesson about myself from Antigone

Antigone is the rebellious sister who wants to bury her brother. Ismene wants to toe the line and follow the rules. I admire Antigone:

Make straight your own path to destiny

But find myself reflected better in Ismene:

Extravagant action is not sensible.

Miss Lonelyhearts

Miss Lonelyhearts
Miss Lonelyhearts

by Nathaniel West

There seems to be a distinct slice of fancy-pants literature in which mopey people mope about, do mopey stuff, and generally bemoan the lack of motivation that leads them to mopery.  I’m thinking here of The Magus and The End of the Affair.  In this case, West’s novel focuses on the eponymous hero, an advice columnist beset by depression under the weight of the letters he receives daily.  He slumps around, unable to do what he thinks right, and stuck in the rut of drinking, joyless debauchery, and did I mention moping around?

West certainly wields an entertaining descriptive power, with solid, entertaining metaphors and similes.  His secondary characters, particularly the brutal and sarcastic editor, Shrike, bring some jauntiness to the story, but usually at the expense of any hope Miss Lonelyhearts might foster.

The discussion of the novel in my 1000 books you must read before you die suggests that the protagonist struggles with his Christianity, but I found that to be an ambiguous proposition at best — it’s completely unclear to me whether he cares about Christian views at all.  He’s mocked for them by Shrike, but he doesn’t really buy into them either.  And he makes terrible decisions.  Terrible.

So in the end, I have trouble understanding the fuss.  Thinking about this post and the one I wrote yesterday, I’m inclined to wonder if there’s something in my critical faculty missing.

The Chuzz

Martin Chuzzlewit
Martin Chuzzlewit

The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit
by Charles Dickens; narrated by Debra Lynn for Librivox

I haven’t read a ton of Dickens in my day, but the humorous title and description of this book made it a good one to dive into. It was a long one, though. The audiobook was divided into 75 chapters of roughly 30 minutes each. With stopping to listen to my other podcasts occasionally, it took me something like 3 months to get through this book.

MC tells the story of two title characters, the cranky old man who comes to see the error of his cranky old ways, and the eponymous grandson who comes to see the error of his ways too. Throw in a conniving genteel architect, some scheming relatives, and a knave named Jonas, and you’ve got everything you need for a decent Dickensian saga. A few thoughts:

  • Dickens and his names. Some of the names in this book: Misters Pecksniff, Slime, and Pinch stand out. The characters speak in an overwrought way that must have made conversation achingly slow sometimes.
  • The book has numerous side plots that all weave into the main story by the end. No long-lost missing wealthy relatives show up in Tom Pinch’s life, though. (Pinch is the Cratchett of the story.)
  • At one point, young Martin and his friend Mark (who thinks there’s honor to be found in being cheerful under dire circumstances) take a trip to the United States, where nearly everyone they meet acts the boor and brags about the value of being American. I wonder if old Charlie took a grim trip to the U.S., or if his impressions were mostly created by tourists in England. Either way, not too flattering.
  • Dickens constructs a masterful heaping of schadenfreude on the villains of the book, and after all their skulduggery, we lap it up. The biggest burst balloon is, of course, the self-righteous and conniving Mr. Pecksniff, who brings all manner of trouble down on his house through his pious self-aggrandisement and cruelty to the characters we like. But he saves plenty for the other villains as well.
  • Debra Lynn does a solid job reading the book for Librivox. While not as evocative as some other readers (she doesn’t do voices, for example), her steady tone and clear pronunciation works just fine.

My favorite moment comes near the end of the novel, when honest, upright Tom Pinch has been cruelly abandoned to his fate and life looks grim. He laments to his sister that things don’t always work out like they do in books:

‘You think of me, Ruth,’ said Tom, ‘and it is very natural that you should, as if I were a character in a book; and you make it a sort of poetical justice that I should, by some impossible means or other, come, at last, to marry the person I love. But there is a much higher justice than poetical justice, my dear, and it does not order events upon the same principle. Accordingly, people who read about heroes in books, and choose to make heroes of themselves out of books, consider it a very fine thing to be discontented and gloomy, and misanthropical, and perhaps a little blasphemous, because they cannot have everything ordered for their individual accommodation. Would you like me to become one of that sort of people?’

Of course, things work out mostly in Tom’s favor. But he doesn’t get the girl.

The Scarlet Letter

by Nathaniel Hawthorne; narrated by Dick Hill

This post resides firmly in spoiler city.
The Scarlet Letter

  • Somehow, this is the first time I’ve read this book. I didn’t see the movie, either. In my high school, there were multiple “tracks” of literature that meant one group of students read one set of texts (I read 1984, A Tale of Two Cities) and not others (I didn’t read The Scarlet Letter, Brave New World). Nonetheless, I felt like I had a pretty solid popfinition of the book. I knew going in, for example, that Hester Prynne had to wear the letter for having committed adultery. I also knew Reverend Dimsdale was the other half of the adulterous pair.
  • I did not know what the plot of the book would be. I assumed it would involve the fall from grace and betrayal of Hester Prynne by Rev. D. I thought the scarlet letter would be the denouement of the book, not the opening salvo.
  • Plot question: How early in the book are we supposed to figure out Rev D. is Pearl’s pop? I knew all along, but I tried to figure out when the book wanted us to know. To no avail.
  • I liked Hawthorne’s introduction about his time working at the customs house and the old men who do nothing there. Plus, I always enjoy intimations of authenticity like the one Hawthorne uses.
  • I spent most of the book trying to figure out what kind of book it was to be. First, I thought it would be a tragedy. Then, once we saw the A, I thought it might be a mystery (who’s the baby’s daddy?!) with Roger Chillingworth as the detective. Nope to that one too. Then, I thought it might be a revenge tale ala Othello, but for all RC’s bluster, it seems like his revenge mostly consisted of enjoying watching Rev. D. squirm. In the end, I’m not sure how to classify the book.

I oscillated between boredom and interest pretty evenly throughout. Dick Hill did a solid job with the narration, but the ponderous prose just doesn’t translate to the spoken mode as nicely as it could. At least, not for me.

Finally, from Chapter IV, a worthy quote:

I–a man of thought–the book-worm of great libraries–a man already in decay, having given my best years to feed the hungry dream of knowledge–what had I to do with youth and beauty like thine own?