Book Review: The Other Alcott

Louisa May Alcott has been famous for hundreds of years as the other of Little Women. Not many people know that her younger sister, Abigail May (who went by May and is Amy’s counterpart in LW) had some success as an artist. May probably would have gone further in her career, but she died at the age of 39. The Other Alcott is Elise Hooper’s attempt to bring May’s story to the forefront.

The book begins just after Little Women has been published and the Alcott family receives the first reviews. Praise was high for Louisa’s book, but not so kind for May’s illustrations. May decided she needed more instruction, so she approached Louisa about living with her in Boston and taking art lessons there. After some curmudgeonly grumbling, Louisa agreed.

A few years later, Louisa, May, and another friend traveled to England, where Louisa wrote and May explored and took lessons. They were prohibited from traveling to Paris at that time due to war, but a few years later May traveled to Paris on her own and continued her studies. She met John Ruskin and several other “women artists languishing in the margins of the historical record.” She became friends with Mary Cassatt during the beginnings of the Impressionist movement. Mary eventually became a well-known Impressionist, but the movement was controversial at first. May continued along a more traditional route,  “Her paintings were exhibited in the Paris Salons of 1877 and 1879, major accomplishments for an artist of the era.” She wrote a book titled Studying Art Abroad, and How to do it Cheaply.

She met and married Ernest Nieriker, a Swiss tobacco merchant and violinist, in 1878. In November of 1879, May gave birth to a daughter named after Louisa by called Lulu. But May died seven weeks later, Wikipedia says from childbed fever, Hooper says from cerebral spinal meningitis. May wanted Lulu to be sent to Louisa in the event of here death. Louisa raised Lulu until her own death ten years later, when Lulu was sent back to her father.

I enjoyed learning more about May’s life. I had particularly wondered why her daughter was sent to Louisa, and this gave insight into that decision. It was interesting to read of the Impressionist movement’s beginnings.

May and Louisa seemed to be the most headstrong and spirited of the Alcott sisters. May’s burning of one of Louisa’s early manuscripts (an event that really happened and was portrayed in LW) gives a glimpse of the way they could clash. But I felt Hooper played up their differences and potential for butting heads a bit much. She admits in her afterward that the estrangement between the two in her book was made up for the story. I know authors may have to make up some details and dialogue in a fictionalization of a true story, but I felt this went too far. Hooper also portrayed May as resenting the way her book counterpart, Amy, was portrayed. I don’t know if this is true or made up or over-emphasized for the book. The book indicates Louisa was unhappy about May’s marriage and suspicious that her husband was really after Louisa’s money, but Wikipedia says, “Louisa Alcott called the day a ‘happy event’ and described Ernest as a handsome, cultivated and successful ‘tender friend’. Further, ‘May is old enough to choose for herself, and seems so happy in the new relation that we have nothing to say against it.'”

Louisa comes off as mostly grouchy in this portrayal. The author says of May, “Creating beauty through art made her happy. And being happy seemed to be her natural state.” But Hooper did not portray May as happy except during her courtship and early married days.

Hooper describes one scene where May finds herself in a class of all men sketching a male nude model who, when he sees May, acts lewdly toward her. Again, I don’t know f this scene is real or invented, but even if real, it went into more detail than needed.

So, I have mixed emotions bout the book, and reviews seem to be mixed as well. Though I did enjoy learning more about May, and I think the cover of the book is gorgeous, I don’t think I will be reading this author again.

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Book Review: Home at Last

 Home at Last is the last book in Deborah Raney’s Chicory Inn series. Link Whitman is the oldest and only remaining son of bed and breakfast owners Grant and Audrey Whitman. He’s 29 and single. He’d like to have a family like the rest of his siblings, but has been too involved with work and has just never found the right girl. He tries to avoid disastrous set-ups with relatives of his mom’s friends.

Link is not above a little flirtation now and then, however. On his way to the bakery on cold morning for his mom, he anticipates seeing Shayla, the cute girl who works there. But right in front of the bakery, suddenly a young girl runs into the street. Link has trouble stopping on the icy road, but manages to swerve his pickup and miss her. Then Shayla comes running out, terrified and angry with him. At first he thinks the little girl is Shayla’s daughter, but finds she’s the niece – but a niece that Shayla is responsible for.

This incident sets Link and Shayla off on the wrong foot. But overcoming this rough start proves easier than handling their more serious differences. Shayla is of mixed race, with neither set of grandparents approving her parents’ marriage. Her mother has died, her brother is in jail, and her father is bitter and disillusioned. She thinks there are too many obstacles and issues that Link would never understand.

But Link wants to try and convinces her to go out with him – along with her niece, Portia. The path isn’t easy, with misunderstandings and misconceptions on both sides. Will they overcome them or give up trying?

I enjoyed this last visit with the Whitman family and felt Deborah handled the issues involved with sensitivity and understanding.

Book Review: Wuthering Heights

For years I avoided reading Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. I had seen a couple of film adaptations and did not like them. But every year when I chose books for the Back to the Classics Challenge, Wuthering Heights came up as a possibility. This year, I took into account that books are usually better and fuller than their movie adaptations, and there must be some reason so many people love this story. So I put the book in my queue.

The story begins with a Mr. Lockwood taking possession of a house rental. He goes to see his landlord at a neighboring house, Mr. Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights. Being a solitary man himself, Mr. Lockwood rejoices to find out that Mr. Heathcliff seems to be of the same disposition. But on this and a subsequent visit, he discovers Mr. Heathcliff and his whole household are not just loners: they’re strange and surly, even cruel.

Wanting to find out more about the household, Lockwood asks his housekeeper, Nellie Dean, for more information. She tells him that she was housekeeper for the Earnshaw family who used to live at the Heights. They had two children, Hindley and Catherine. On a business trip, Mr. Earnshaw found an abandoned child and brought him home. The rest of the family thought the child a gypsy and did not like him. Earnshaw took Heathcliff’s part against Hindley, which incited Hindley’s further mistreatment of Heathcliff. Finally Hindley was sent away to college and Heathcliff and Catherine became close.

When Earnshaw died three years later, Hindley came back, married now, and assumed the role of master of the house. He treated Heathcliff as a common laborer.

One night Heathcliff and Catherine headed over the the neighbor’s house at Thrushcross Grange, where they peeped in the windows and made fun of the two Linton children.Then the family’s dogs came after them, biting Cathy. The family rescued and took Catherine in, sending Heathcliff back home. Cathy spent five weeks recuperating at the Grange. When she returned home, she was no longer a wild young, at least outwardly. She had seen another side of life which tamed and refined her, and she and Edgar Linton had feelings for each other. Eventually Cathy and Edgar married, and Heathcliff left.

Hindley and his wife had a son, Hareton. Hindley’s wife died and Hindley checked out of life, drowning in drink and gambling. Nellie took care of Hareton.

After three years Heathcliff returns with wealth from an untold source. He wants to renew his relationship with Cathy, who advises Edgar to allow it against his better judgment. Edgar’s sister, Isabella, falls in love with Heathcliff, despite Cathy’s warnings against him. Heathcliff only encourages Isabella’s interest out of revenge. A series of arguments result in Catherine becoming gravely ill and Heathcliff and Isabella eloping. Catherine has a daughter, Cathy, and dies.

Heathcliff returns and sets himself up at Wuthering Heights, lending money to Hindley only to ensnare him in debt. When Hindley dies, Heathcliff owns the Heights.

The rest of the book details Heathcliff’s manipulation and revenge carried out in the lives of Cathy’s daughter and his son.

My thoughts:

Wuthering Heights has had mixed reviews since it was first published. Respect for it has risen over the years: it even ranked as the number one love story in a poll several years ago. But others were shocked at it: one recent reviewer referred to it as a hot mess. Not a lot is known about its author, Emily Bronte, except that she was a very private person and she loved the moors, where the book is set. She died at the age of 30, a year after the book’s publication.

The introduction to the audiobook I listened to said one reason the book shocked people was because it had no moral. But I don’t think it needed to have a stated moral to convey the cruelty and futility of revenge. At first the reader feels sorry for Heathcliff’s being mistreated by everyone on the planet (including even Nellie and Catherine at first), and that treatment certainly contributed to his character. But his revenge exceeds normal bounds, wanting to ruin, control, and even annihilate the people and property connected with those who wronged him (near the end, when he has both houses, he speaks of arranging his will and wishes he could destroy both properties rather than let anyone have them).

Plus, I don’t think what Heathcliff and Catherine had was love. An unhealthy obsession, maybe. They both seemed motivated by selfishness than concern for each other’s good.

Also, there’s almost no “good” character. Joseph, the one religious character, curses and complains. Nellie shades the truth and outright lies. Even Lockwood takes a hand that has reached through his window and presses it against the cut glass. The daughter Catherine is better than most, but still motivated by self-will more often than not. But at least she does seek the good of her father and her cousin at times.

Still, there’s a strange fascination with the book — maybe it’s partly motivated by wondering how all these odd people and situations will end up. I had not known until a recent reading of one of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s books that “wuthering” meant a strong, even fierce wind. There is something strangely drawing about the wildness of the setting and story.

And Emily was a skilled writer. I loved how the characters revealed themselves by their conversation. Even in the opening paragraphs, Lockwood tells much about himself in his little asides and observations. Emily mastered “showing, not telling” even then.

I listened to the audiobook nicely read by Joanne Froggatt (Anna in Downton Abbey) and read over some passages in the online version. I chose this for the “Classic Tragic Novel” category of the Back to the Classics Challenge.

The Little Women Treasury

The Little Women Treasury by Carolyn Strom Collins and Christina Wyss Eriksson is aptly named: it’s a treasure trove for Little Women fans.

The authors give an abbreviated history of author Louisa May Alcott’s life and share pictures of her and her family. Another chapter gives a brief description of each of the four March sisters, an illustrated family tree, and a brief overview of their lives as traced through the books about them: Little Women, Little Men, and Jo’s Boys.

Other chapters include details about Orchard House, the Alcott family home (they only lived there for nineteen years, but that’s where Louisa wrote Little Women); details of the March family life; a time line of world history dovetailed with incidents in the Little Women books and sequels; recipes, some from the book and some common to the era (I was glad to learn what blancmange was); activities from the books that readers can try (how to make a “work basket,” “mark” handkerchiefs like Beth, make a mailbox, etc.); fashions of the era; and gardening and floral crafts from the era, with a mention of each of the March girls’ garden plots.

The illustrations and embellishments are lovely and in keeping with the era. I thoroughly enjoyed this treasury.

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Tarissa at In the Bookcase hosts the Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge every June to encourage reading or listening to books by or about Louisa or about her family. I’m thankful she let me know about this book! There’s still time to join in the challenge.

Book Review: Close to Home

 Close to Home is the fourth in Deborah Raney’s Chicory Inn series, where empty nesters Grant and Audrey Whitman have transformed their big, rambling home into a bed and breakfast. Each book focuses on one of their five children. This book, however, tells the story of daughter-in-law Bree. Bree had been married to their youngest son, Tim, who had died a solider in Afghanistan. Bree had issues with her own parents and drew close to the Whitmans. They, in turn, considered Bree as one of their own.

It’s been five years since Tim’s death. Bree’s coworker, Aaron, has shown an interest in her, but she’s just not sure she’s ready to date again. Yet she decides to go out with him just as friends. She enjoys him and the relationship, yet something isn’t right. Is it that Aaron isn’t the right one, or that Bree doesn’t want to lose her relationship with the Whitmans?

Another plotline in this book is that feisty Grandma Ceecee has been having some issues that make Grant and Audrey wonder how much longer she can live alone. Ceecee has already said she would not go to a nursing home. Yet it’s seeming less safe than ever for her to be on her own. And with the inn, they don’t think they can manage caring for her at their home.

As soon as one character from a previous book showed up, I had a feeling which way the plot would go. But I enjoyed the journey nonetheless. I have not been in Bree’s situation, but I could sympathize with her dilemma. And, as many of you know, we have dealt with a parent needing care, so I could empathize with the characters in that situation as well. As always, I enjoyed the time with the Whitmans. Though they have their squabbles and irritations, they they love each other, support each other, and pull together.

Previous books in this series (linked to my reviews):

Book Review: The Returning

In the novel The Returning by Ann Tatlock, Andrea has loved her husband John since they were teenagers. She knew he did not love her and only married her because he had to after she became pregnant. But she hoped that his heart might change someday.

Now John has just been released from prison, where he spent the last five years after accidentally killing a man while driving drunk. Andrea is not sure how everything will work after the adjustments of the last few years.

Their youngest daughter, Phoebe, was just a baby when John left, so she doesn’t remember her father and is afraid of him. Teenage daughter Rebekah is angry and rebellious. Only their oldest son with Down Syndrome, Billy, seems genuinely happy to have John home.

John knows he has a lot to overcome. His brother-in-law gave him a low-paying job, but he needs to find something better. He needs to rebuild his relationships with his family. And he needs to tell them what happened to him in prison when he committed his life to Christ. His biggest need, though, he doesn’t even realize yet: he needs to get grounded in his faith and grow. When he succumbs to temptation again and again, he begins to wonder if Rebekah is right in her accusation that his faith was just “jailhouse religion.”

A friend went through this scenario with a husband returning home after several years in prison, though the details were different. Even with all parties wanting to heal and put the family back together again, they faced difficulties. I thought Ann showed this struggle tenderly and realistically within the framework of the Sheldon family’s circumstances.

Ann says in her acknowledgements page that Billy’s character was inspired by Down Syndrome actor Chis Burke. Chris and his mother read Ann’s manuscript and offered feedback. She also talked with local parents and others who work with people with Down Syndrome.

My only difficulty with this story is that Rebekah is into some pagan-ish, New Age-y practices along with her best friend. I don’t have a problem with this being in the story, as people do turn to these things (and, spoiler alert, Rebekah finds they give her no peace or answers). But I’ve found I am sensitive to this kind of thing, so when Rebekah was performing her rituals, I had to skim through those pages.

But overall, I enjoyed the story very much. I ached along with each character in their difficulties and rejoiced with them in their victories.

(Sharing with Booknificent Thursday)

 

Book Review: Promises to Keep

In Ann Tatlock’s novel, Promises to Keep, eleven-year-old Roz Anthony has just moved with her mother, older half-brother, and younger sister to a small town in Illinois in the 1960s. Roz’s mother, Janis, was compelled to leave her abusive husband, and her father helped set her family up in a new home.

After just a few days, though, they found a stranger sitting on their porch, reading their newspaper. She was a rather large older woman named Tillie Monroe, and she said this was her house. She had helped build it with her own two hands along with her husband, and no matter what the paperwork said, it was her house. All she wanted was to die in her home, but she had fallen and broken her hip, and her kids whisked her away to a nursing home. But now she’s better, and she wants to live in her own home

About that time, Tillie’s son drives up, apologizes profusely, and takes his mother back to the nursing home.

But a few days later, Tillie is back on her . . . er, their porch. Janis invites her in for coffee. Another time Janis comes home to find Tillie cooking dinner for them.

This happens so often that Janis is relatively sure that Tillie is safe and invites her to stay. The relationship is mutually beneficial as Tillie watches the children and helps out around the house while Janis works.

While Roz adjusts well to all the changes and even provides a humorous narration, she misses her father. She tries to focus on the good memories, but the bad ones creep in. She feels if her father could just stay the good dad and leave off the Dr. Jekyll bad side, they could all be together again.

Meanwhile, Roz faces a new school with trepidation. But she finds a friend in a black girl named Mara. She soon learns that Mara has her own daddy issues, secrets, and dreams. They girls decide together to pray for their secret dreams.

Though the family was healing and readjusting after all they had been through, the first part of the book seemed lighthearted and fun as the family interacted with Tillie and as Roz observed and processed her world. One sub-plot line could have worked out for good or bad, and Ann reeled out the tension and information skillfully. The dramatic climax was a surprise to me — I was expecting something, but not what happened.

I’ve enjoyed all of Ann’s books that I’ve read so far, but this will be a favorite. Roz and Tillie are a couple of my favorite characters.

(Sharing with Booknificent Thursday)

Book Review: How to Understand and Apply the New Testament

I had several reasons for getting How to Understand and Apply the New Testament by Andrew David Naselli. I very much enjoyed his book about the conscience. We attended the same church (though several years apart) in SC (in fact, I’m pretty sure I knew his wife and her parents when she was a little girl). He has respect for two men from that church whose exposition I trust more than anyone else’s. And the book I am writing discusses understanding and applying the Bible, among other things, so I wanted to use this book as a reference.

As I perused the table of contents and flipped through several pages, however, I wondered if perhaps I was in over my head. But I gleaned much that was beneficial for this average suburban homemaker. Even when the author used terms unfamiliar to me, he explained them in a way that was easy to understand.

Naselli starts by explaining the difference between exegesis — drawing the meaning out of the text — and eisegesis — reading meaning into a text. And of course we want to do the former: we want to understand what God said and meant in His Word, not project our own thoughts onto it.

Naselli then details several ways to exegete a text. First you have to consider the genre. For example, poetry has different characteristics from the law and prophecy, etc. Then he advocates comparing the manuscripts or copies of the original text, studying Greek grammar, and comparing translations. He shows different ways to trace the process of thought through a passage. He advocates studying any passage both in its historical and cultural context as well as its literary context (how it fits within the particular book of the Bible). He recommends word studies to help understand words and phrases in the text more clearly. Then he considers different theological aspects: biblical theology, how the passage relates to the Bible and its progression as a whole; historical theology, how Bible scholars have understood the passage through history; systematic theology, how a passage fits into the teaching of the rest of the Bible; and practical theology, how to apply the text to ourselves and others. He devotes a chapter to each of these topics. He doesn’t check all of these off as a list each time he studies, but they each factor into his study to varying degrees.

Admittedly, some of this is beyond many of us. Most Christians don’t study Greek or know how to navigate textual criticism (although he explains textual criticism very well). We rely on a good study Bible to help us out with some of these categories. Nevertheless, there were good points to consider in every chapter. And Naselli ends every chapter with a list of resources for further study and commentary on each one, like which he considers the best, which is more scholarly and which is more accessible, etc. And, as he notes in the chapter about Greek grammar, “at the very least, this chapter can help you better appreciate grammatical issues that interpreters wrestle with” (p. 82). That applies to some of these others issues as well and should motivate us to pray for our pastors, and for ourselves, as we study.

Though I have myriad places marked, one of my biggest takeaways from this book was what he calls argument diagram: not an argument as in a fight, but as in a debate: discerning the line of thought in a passage. We tend to read isolated passages rather than tracing the flow all through a given book and within particular passages. As he says:

The New Testament is not a list of unrelated bullet points. It’s not pearls on a string. No, the New Testament authors argue. They assert truths and support those truths with reasons and evidence. They attempt to persuade others to share their views. Their arguments are always profound and sometimes complex. Connectives such as but, therefore, and because can be hugely important to understanding what an author is arguing. Tracing the argument is not dull. It makes your heart sing” (p. 123).

The last thought he pulls from a letter of C. S. Lewis, in which Lewis speaks of studying

. . . the general drift of whole epistles: short passages, treated devotionally, are of course another matter. And yet the distinction is not, for me, quite a happy one. Devotion is best raised when we intend something else. At least that is my experience. Sit down to meditate devotionally on a single verse, and nothing happens. Hammer your way through a continued argument, just as you would in a profane writer, and the heart will sometimes sing unbidden (p. 123, from The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis).

Naselli then explains and provides examples of several ways of tracing an argument through a passage: arcing, bracketing, and phrasing. I had never heard of any of these, but they all look beneficial. Phrasing appeals to me the most.

A few quotes that stood out to me:

The Bible doesn’t contradict itself. So a sound principle is that we should interpret less clear passages in light of more clear passages. We shouldn’t zoom in on just one text and interpret it without reference to the rest of the Bible. That’s what heretics do (p. 16).

Don’t view English Bible translations as a competition–in which you choose one as the best and then look down on the rest as inferior in quality. Good Bible translations are incredibly helpful resources, and English readers should benefit from more than one of them. It’s both-and, not either-or (p. 60).

Grammar matters because God chose to reveal himself to us with grammar (p. 82).

Sometimes a New Testament author may write a command to prevent an error rather than to counteract a present error. When you see a command or prohibition in a text, you shouldn’t automatically assume that this reflects a present problem in the church that the author addressed (p. 172).

The beautiful thing about the Bible is that it never gets old. You can read it every day and make connections that you hadn’t made before (or remind yourself of details and connections you had forgotten!). It’s a special book–a book like no other, a book God himself wrote. And we have the pleasure of reading it at this time of salvation history: Jesus the Messiah has come, and he is coming back to consummate his rule. So read every part of the Bible in light of the whole (p. 239).

Christ-centered teaching and preaching is not eisegesis. It’s exegesis that requires biblical theology. It doesn’t creatively make stuff up to imaginatively get to Jesus. It follows themes and trajectories that are right there in the text if God gives you eyes to see them. And when you do see them, you worship God for his wisdom. He breathed out Scripture through individual men who didn’t always understand every nuance of typological trajectories to which they were contributing. And the entire finished product brilliantly coheres (p. 238).

I have no patience for suggestions that preachers need to dumb it down. Preachers need to be clear, and they need to be able to explain things in understandable ways. But human beings do not need the Bible to be dumbed down. If you think that, what you really think is that God the Holy Spirit did not know what He was doing when He inspired the Bible to be the way it is. Not only does the suggestion that the Bible is more than God’s people can handle blaspheme God’s wisdom; it also blasphemes His image bearers. People are made in the image of God. Human beings are endowed with brains and sensibilities of astonishing capacity (p. 258, from a quote from James M. Hamilton Jr.’s Text Driven Preaching: God’s Word at the Heart of Every Sermon).

As you can surmise, this is not a cozy, warm fuzzy type of book. It’s more of a “gird up the loins of your mind” book. But that’s exactly what the Bible tells us to do. And, as the author quotes B. B. Warfield as saying, “pitting doctrine against devotion is a false dichotomy because God intends them to go together” (p. 9). He quotes Warfield further from “Spiritual Culture in Theological Seminary”:

I have heard it said that some men love theology more than they love God. Do not let it be possible to say that of you. Love theology, of course: but love theology for no other reason than that it is THEOLOGY–the knowledge of God–and because it is your meat and drink to know God, to know him truly, and as far as it is given to mortals, to know him whole (p. 10).

(Sharing with Booknificent Thursday, Literary Musing Monday)

Book Review: All the Way Home

Home In the novel All the Way Home by Ann Tatlock, Augie O’Shaughnessy‘s father has died by his own hand in the 1930s. Her mother takes what money they have left and moves her family in with her reluctant brother and his family. But Augie’s mother checks out and seeks respite in alcohol. Augie’s uncle is short-tempered and harsh; her aunt is a little more caring, but busy and distracted. Augie is mostly left to herself.

One day Augie wanders down to a park and meets a Japanese girl named Sunny, who invites Augie home. Augie becomes close with the whole kind and loving Yamagata family, spending more time with them than her own family. She even comes to consider herself Japanese.

Then Japan bombs Pearl Harbor, and the Yamagatas are sent away to an internment camp.

And Augie’s brother comes home from a Japanese prisoner of war camp and is never the same.

Fast forward twenty years, and Augie is a journalist specializing in civil rights stories. She has been asked to travel to Carver, Mississippi, to find out why no Negros have registered to vote even though the law allows them to. She finds more surprises than she bargained for.

I’ve read many WW2 novels, but none of them have touched on the Japanese internment camps. I had not known many details about them. It was interesting, but sad, to learn what happened to them. The fear was understandable: many experienced a similar fear of Middle Eastern people after 9/11. Like young Augie has to wrestle out for herself, no race of people is all good or all bad.

I’d like to tell him that there is no such thing as “they” or “them.” That there are only individuals with layer upon layer of experience, ideas, hopes, dreams, beliefs. That there are some Japanese who are really Americans, some whites who are really Negroes, some Irish-German-Americans who are really Japanese at heart. And that in spite of what a person appears to be or not to be, it’s the heart and not the face that matters.

I could begin again to differentiate, to see the faces of individuals rather than the blur of one large group. The Yamagatas had the eyes but not the soul of the people who had destroyed my brother. And that was what made them different.

Some of the civil rights era stories were both brutal and sad as well. Ann captured the struggles of everyone in the story in a realistic and heartfelt way. Her writing shines as well in a couple of turns of phrases I particularly liked:

I was already well aware of a hollow place inside of me, like an air bubble caught in a pane of glass.

Her painted eyelids were two blue robin’s eggs in a nest of clotted mascara.

The music filled what we would otherwise not have recognized as our parched souls, helping us realize the beauty that we longed for only when we heard it.

This book was a Christy award winner, and I can see why. A very good read.

(Sharing with Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent Thursday)

 

Book Review: The Pickwick Papers

Charles Dickens was 24 when he was asked to contribute brief anecdotes to go along with some serial illustrations about a club of men falling into comic misadventures hunting and fishing. He didn’t know much about hunting and fishing, but he took up the idea of a men’s club. Before long the stories surpassed the illustrations in the public interest, and Dickens began asking the artists to come up with sketches for his own work. Thus The Pickwick Papers , Dickens’ first novel, was born.

Samuel Pickwick is a kindly older gentleman and the head of the club bearing his name. He decides he and three fellow club members will travel and report their findings and activities back to the club. The other Pickwickians are Nathaniel Winkle, Augustus Snodgrass, and Tracy Tupman. Part of the humor comes from the men’s circumstances not lining up with their reputations. Mr. Winkle is supposed to be a sportsman, yet botches any sportsman-like endeavors. Snodgrass is poet but never produces any verse. Tupman thinks himself something of a lady’s man, yet gets into all kinds of trouble in his romantic endeavors.

The men meet many good folks in their travels, and some of those people provide stories that make up some of the chapters. One story is spooky, another a suspenseful tale of revenge, another full of pathos involving a prodigal son.

And the men get themselves into various fixes. They find themselves right in the middle of opposing forces in a military demonstration. A fellow traveler who turns up in some of their locations cons them in various ways.  A case of mistaken identity leads to the challenge of a duel. A widow misunderstands Mr. Pickwick and thinks he is proposing, and when he doesn’t follow through, she sues him for breach of promise.

A few chapters in, Mr. Pickwick finds a man named Sam Weller working at an inn and hires him as a manservant and assistant. Their relationship has been likened to Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. I didn’t see much of Quixote in Pickwick, but Sam’s “street smarts” and worldly wise ways did seem quite similar to Sancho.

In one section of the book, Pickwick goes to prison rather than pay the damages in a lawsuit. Though there is humor here as well, there’s much more satire over the prison and legal systems, foreshadowing themes that will be developed more fully in Dickens’ future novels.

The comedy of errors is not my favorite humorous style, but I really enjoyed some of Dickens’ wry side comments:

‘Mr. Pickwick!’ exclaimed Mr. Magnus, lost in astonishment, ‘what is the meaning of this, Sir? What is the meaning of it, Sir?’ added Mr. Magnus, in a threatening, and a louder tone.

‘Sir,’ said Mr. Pickwick, somewhat indignant at the very sudden manner in which Mr. Peter Magnus had conjugated himself into the imperative mood, ‘I decline answering that question.’
___

Here Mr. Peter Magnus indulged in a prolonged sneer; and taking off his green spectacles—which he probably found superfluous in his fit of jealousy—rolled his little eyes about, in a manner frightful to behold.
___

[He saw] his venerated leader at some distance off, running after his own hat, which was gambolling playfully away in perspective. There are very few moments in a man’s existence when he experiences so much ludicrous distress, or meets with so little charitable commiseration, as when he is in pursuit of his own hat.

Mr. Pickwick gazed through his spectacles for an instant on the advancing mass, and then fairly turned his back and—we will not say fled; firstly, because it is an ignoble term, and, secondly, because Mr. Pickwick’s figure was by no means adapted for that mode of retreat.

Dickens’ warmth also manifests itself:

Christmas was close at hand, in all his bluff and hearty honesty; it was the season of hospitality, merriment, and open-heartedness; the old year was preparing, like an ancient philosopher, to call his friends around him, and amidst the sound of feasting and revelry to pass gently and calmly away. Gay and merry was the time; and right gay and merry were at least four of the numerous hearts that were gladdened by its coming.

He saw that men who worked hard, and earned their scanty bread with lives of labour, were cheerful and happy; and that to the most ignorant, the sweet face of Nature was a never-failing source of cheerfulness and joy. He saw those who had been delicately nurtured, and tenderly brought up, cheerful under privations, and superior to suffering, that would have crushed many of a rougher grain, because they bore within their own bosoms the materials of happiness, contentment, and peace. He saw that women, the tenderest and most fragile of all God’s creatures, were the oftenest superior to sorrow, adversity, and distress; and he saw that it was because they bore, in their own hearts, an inexhaustible well-spring of affection and devotion.

“I’m afeered I’ve not done by you quite wot I ought to have done; you’re a wery kind-hearted man, and I might ha’ made your home more comfortabler. I begin to see now,” she says, “ven it’s too late, that if a married ‘ooman vishes to be religious, she should begin vith dischargin’ her dooties at home, and makin’ them as is about her cheerful and happy, and that vile she goes to church, or chapel, or wot not, at all proper times, she should be wery careful not to con-wert this sort o’ thing into a excuse for idleness or self-indulgence. I have done this,” she says, “and I’ve vasted time and substance on them as has done it more than me; but I hope ven I’m gone, Veller, that you’ll think on me as I wos afore I know’d them people, and as I raly wos by natur.”

I also enjoyed seeing in seed form what would become classic Dickens: memorable characters, highlighting of the needs for social justice and reform, sweet reunions, comedy and tragedy. He had also already developed a knack for setting up the ends of chapters to foster eagerness for the next.

I listened to the audiobook superbly narrated by Simon Prebble.

While Pickwick doesn’t surpass A Tale of Two Cities and David Copperfield as my favorite Dickens novels, I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would. Mr. Pickwick, Sam, and some of the others will live on in my memory as some of Dickens’ most endearing characters.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent Thursday)