Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Another brilliant story from a man who was a master of telling a good tale, even if he is occasionally a tad wordy. I think if Dickens had had a good editor, his books would only have been half as long as they are.

Great Expectations is almost a reversal of the usual Dickens’ tale. Instead of beginning with a good, meek, kind-heated child who overcomes having been victimised by both his situation in life and the world around him, he starts with a young boy of lower class who has a decent, if poor home, good friends and love and turns him into an ungrateful being by providing him with unexpected and unmerited wealth. In this light, Great Expectations is a more mature, or realistic, work than many of his others. It is more likely that a child will become greedy than it is that he will remain good-hearted and meek regardless of being ill treated.

Pip is an average boy growing up in an average village with his sister and her husband Joe. He is expected to grow up and live the same sort of life as they, following in Joe’s footsteps at the forge. One night, entirely by chance and accident, the course of Pip’s life is changed when he meets an escaped convict out on the moors. Pip helps the convict by providing him with food and a file to remove himself of his chains. The point is, however, not how he helped him, but why. Pip didn’t do it out of pity or kind-heartedness, but out of fear. He was petrified of the convict and of the consequences of helping him out. Although his fear can be excused by the simple fact that he is a child, his actions having arisen from his fear and not from compassion for a fellow sufferer are pivotal for the development of the story.

After the convict is discovered and returned to the ship from which he escaped, life goes on pretty much as before. He eventually is sent for my Mrs. Havisham, who ostensibly needs him as a companion. In reality, she has designed Pip to grow up and love Miss Estella, who is destined by Miss Havisham to break Pip’s heart in revenge for her own jilting years before. Pip eventually realises what Miss Havisham is doing, but is still unable to avoid falling into the trap laid for him. His desperation at his unrequited love, his longing to break through the evil spell Miss Havisham has cast on both him and Estella, and his disappointment at not being able to do so all help to further focus Pip’s attention onto himself and his own misery.

Having set Pip up in the manner, Dickens suddenly ejects Pip from a life of toil without his beloved Estella into a life of idle luxury, when he comes into great expectations of wealth and property. He does not know who his secret benefactor is. He is only told that it will not be revealed to him until his benefactor deems it appropriate, thus Pip assumes it must be the only wealthy person he knows, Miss Havisham. Pip, grasping at straws, unknowingly uses his assumption to set himself up for even more heartache, namely by assuming that if Miss Havisham is his benefactor, that he must also be destined for Estella as well.

At this point the reader might assume that all will continue well for Pip, but his own fear, avarice and thoughtlessness take Pip on an entirely different course. Dickens sets Pip up like this in order to show that money alone will not cure social ailments, as perhaps some of his other works have suggested. Wealth can be its own curse and corrupter as well as being a boon, and Pip falls to it’s darker side. In this sense, Dickens’ title is apt. Expectations are after all, only expectations and not given facts. Just because a person is given the means to do good, does not mean that he will choose that course. As mentioned, Pip’s earlier experiences in life have already started to lead him down an entirely different path, which the introduction of wealth facilitates rather than changes.

It’s all actually quite clever when you think about it. Had Pip been another Oliver Twist who had absolutely nothing and no hopes of ever having anything, he might have been more kind-hearted and fallen less of a pray to worldly evils. He might have developed sympathy for others in the same situation as he. However, Pip was provided with the basics of life from the beginning and had people who cared about him. This paradoxically helped to make him the selfish creature he became instead of a second Oliver. It makes one wonder if Oliver would have been a less caring and happy creature had he had a different start to life or if it is his suffering and the resulting compassion that made him what he was.

Again, another good story with more good life lessons. Two thumbs up for Great Expectations.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

More Thoughts on Library Programs

Hilarie left the following comment on my last post:

I enjoyed your opinions on Shelfari and LibraryThing. I am fairly new to both communities and found your comparison interesting. I find Shelfair to be more user friendly, and the interface is less intimidating than LibraryThing. I do have to agree with you that I have been surprised at some books Shelfari has not recognized.

This got me to thinking about Shelfari again and about why one person finds it more user friendly than another and I think I might have the answer. Shelfari is a fairly simple program. It does what it says and gives most people what they really need. The Library Thing is a bit more complicated. I think the reason I like complicated more is because it's what I'm used to. We have a company data base at work that's getting more and more and more complicated all the time. This has its drawbacks, particularly in lack of user-friendliness, but also it's advantages. It's advantages are that you can do so much more with the data. Create a filter here, there and everywhere to filter out data so you can complete tasks more quickly and give faster, better answers to customers. Use it once, and the next time something pops up, you turn to it again and create a new filter for more information gathering. The more you use it, the more you start to rely on it being there. I think that's why I had such a difficult time with Shelfari. I spent ages looking for things that aren't there, like how do I search my own collection? That feature's not available, but I couldn't even fathom not having it, so I spent quite a while looking for it and became quite frustrated with A, it's not being obvious where to find it and B, it's not being available at all. The Library Thing is more complicated, but has more features, like better searches, more references, more viewing options etc. This is what I'm used to, so it's what I like. Someone else who just wants a list of their books with a friendly community would be better off with Shelfari.

I'm also sure that the list of books both programs recognize will grow in future. The Library Thing does recognize more at the moment, but that's because it offers searches for many more databases. Again, this is important for me because I buy books from virtually every Amazon available (usually Germany, England or France), or from book stores here in Switzerland, who in turn purchase their books from all over the world. Shelfari doesn't offer this at the moment, but if you purchase all of your books in the US, that's not going to make a difference for you.

So basically, it's really just a question of needs and taste. I think there's a place for both programs, and if it's like the rest of the net, many people will be using both anyway. e.g., how many blogs do you have? :P

Friday, 22 May 2009

Library Programs

My library consists of nearly 700 books and I often have a difficult time remembering what I already have and/or don't have. I have Bookpedia on my computer and I love the program. It's helped me keep track of everything. however, it's not on on-line program, so all of my data is at home, where I have no access to it if I'm abroad. This is why I recently joined a couple of on-line library programs, namely The Library Thing and Shelfari. The Library Thing looked good to me, what with it's import program and the way the data base is set up. On the other hand, I had several friends on Shelfari and I didn't want to miss anything there. Seeing as how Shelfari is free, I thought, why not.

Now that I've worked with both of them a bit, I've decided I like The Library Thing a lot better. It's easier to use, has more and better features and it's faster. Now, I'm not knocking Shelfari. It's a good program if you're looking for a freebie (The Libraray Thing is free only up to 200 books). However, it's import program is poor, it didn't recognize over 100 of my titles/ISBN nos., it slow to react when you search for something, it lacks a search in your own library (necessary when you have 600+ books) and there are few tools and is just generally not as easy to use as The Library Thing. However, it is free and you can keep in contact with friends. I think I'll continue to use it for that reason, but not as a main source. I'll update what I buy and keep up with groups, but I'm not going to bother going back to fill in the gaps from my import.

Does anyone else have any thoughts on this?

Thursday, 14 May 2009

A Dangerous Fortune by Ken Follett

Before I discovered audio books, my reading range had shrunk to books I considered to be safe, or books I was fairly certain I would like. I don’t really have a whole lot of real reading time, so when I did get the chance to read, I wanted it to be as good as possible. Audio books have changed this. Since I have more time, I feel I can be a bit more adventurous. I’ve always sort of stayed away from the more mainstream novelists like Grisham and Baldacci because I was afraid of (in my humble opinion) mediocre thrillers eating up my time. I prefer good mysteries to a thriller any day. Besides, I’d read the Da Vinci Code and loathed it and then I proceeded to throw all of the best sellers into the same category. This is neither fair to the authors, nor to myself, since they aren’t all Dan Brown and are potentially good authors.

Thus, I decided to try an author I’d always heard of, but had never read. My choice fell to Ken Follet’s A Dangerous Fortune. The novel begins at a boarding school in England which caters to wealthy businessmen’s children. Several boys decide to defy detention and go swimming in the local quarry. They all fear the punishment of a whipping by the head master with his cane, yet decide the hot weather makes it worth the risk. Little did they know that this would be the least of their problems before the day was done. That day indirectly decided the course of their lives for many, many years to come. Even as they grow up and enter into the world of business, banking for most of them, they are tied to that day like it’s a sack of lead weighing them down and keeping them from ever coming free of the taint. It begins an entire lifetime of blackmail, oppression, indebtedness and servitude for all of them.

The novel takes place in the later half of the 19th century and revolves around the fortune of the great Pilaster Bank and the new generation of bankers in the making. This sounds rather dull and might have been had it not been for Aunt Augusta, the self-appointed matriarch of the Pilaster family. She ruthlessly rules and manipulates the family and her social circle according to her own personal goals, delighting in the downfall of anyone who gets in her way.

In many ways, this book felt like Charles Dickens meets I, Claudius. Augusta is basically a 19h century Livia and her son, Eduard, Caligula. The prose and dialogue are well written, the plot realistic and the action believable. As a result, the characters have the power to evoke strong emotions and the reader is pulled into the story. The plot is also never dull, despite the financial setting. There’s always some sort of intrigue going on that keeps you on the edge of your seat wondering what will happen next and how the characters are ever going to get themselves out of their problems.

This book is more than just a mere thriller. It offers up quite a few interesting subjects for thought, despotism, the unintentional destruction caused by jealousy and avarice, both the evil and the good of power, just to name a few. Follett even inserts an element of social conscious and justice of which even Dickens would have approved. You could discuss it for days if you felt so inclined.

Two thumbs up for this one.

Monday, 11 May 2009


Ivanhoe is the fourth of my Classics Challenge novels and one I was looking forward to. In this particular case, I wish I had chosen to read the written version as opposed to listening to it as an audio book. I'm afraid I didn't care for the narrator. I think had it been better read, it would have been a fantastic book. As it was, I listened to parts of it on the faster setting, just so I didn't have to spend more time than necessary listening to the narrator. Often he made the characters sound like bad robots instead of actually infusing emotion into the reading as I'm sure was intended. This is just my opinion, mind. I know there are people out there who liked the narrator, so it's a question of personal taste.

The story is brilliant. There's intrigue, murder and bloodshed enough to keep just about anyone interested. It ought to be a must in schools to get children interested in the classics. Even though it is fiction, it still paints a fairly accurate picture of history and how life must have been at the time, although certain aspects may have been exaggerated or romanticised in order to make the story more palatable.

One of the less pleasing aspects of the novel is Scott's portrayal of the Jews and their treatment by the English people. It was all quite shocking to read. Most people wouldn't dare publicly profess such opinions of any race/creed these days, but in that era, it was quite common and this is a good reminder of that, and also of how far we have come in that respect. I thought Scott did this well, even if it did shock me. he didn't use the opportunity to "preach" to the reader, nor did he heavy handedly portray the Jew and his daughter as innocent victims while completely vilifying the Christians. Not all of the Jew's actions were commendable and not all of the Christian's reprehensive. That kept the narrative believable and prevented it from becoming ridiculous.

Scott himself billets the novel as a romance, and it is, but not quite in the manner we think of romances today. He uses the desired liasons as catalysts for the rest of the story, when in reality, much of it has to do with politics and power, as is usually the case when more than one man with a sword is present, or even when there is only one man and a sword. That is to say that more fighting and less love making take place as the story unfolds.

I particularly liked the ingenious way that Scott integrated the popular story of the honourable Robin Hood into the action. It was intriguing to hear all of the references to come up as the did and to try and guess what would happen next based on the knowledge of the Robin Hood tales. It made it all the more interesting.

This was another good book that I can recommend to anyone who likes a little action in their classics.

The Grave Maurice

I rarely, very rarely, allow myself to not finish a book that I've started, but The Grave Maurice is one of those times. On the one hand, the characters were intriguing and the setting was good. However, on the other hand, I found the dialogue often confusing and the early hints of preaching animal rights made me wary. I gave up when I reached the point where it was no longer possible to wonder if the book was going to turn into a Message. Grimes obviously had an agenda with this one. It's not that I don't agree or that I don't want to hear what's being said, it's that I get enough of reality all day, every day. I don't need to be confronted by it and preached at in my down time as well. I read fiction because I want non-reality and simple enjoyment. If I want to read about animal rights or watch programs dedicated to it, I do so with intent. I don't want to have it force fed me in books I'm reading for pleasure. That just sort of defeats the point of reading for pleasure as far as I'm concerned. Thus, after reading a good half of the book, I closed it and won't pick it up again. Sad, but true.