Wednesday, 21 January 2009

A Christmas Carol and Other Stories

Again another work by Dickens. I’ve already reviewed A Christmas Carol, so I won’t go into it again. The other novels were interesting in their own way, but much less Christmassy. The lacked a certain something, but I can’t really pin point what. Scrooge just made a better subject to write about. Having said that, I did quite like The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain. I suppose that might be because he’s a more Scrooge-like character than the rest. It’s interesting to see the effects of the bargain he struck with his ghost, especially as regards the effects of his new coldness on others. It kind of reminds me of the driver’s education videos we saw during my driver’s training courses where they show how one person who reacts kindly while driving causes others to react the same way, whereas the nasty ones make everyone miserable. He’s also given the chance for redemption, which he happily embraces and the story has a nice ending which gives you a warm feeling.

The other stories in the collection sometimes seemed a bit wordy and obscure, but I may re-read the book at some point, just to see if I can get a better grasp on them.

Little Dorrit

This is another one of Mr. Dickens epic works. I read it in audio book format, which ran 47 hours, so it’s not for people who like to finish books quickly.

I liked this book for many different reasons. It seemed a bit gentler than many of Dickens’ other works in that there wasn’t an out and out villain, as in Oliver Twist or Nicholas Nickleby. Even Rigaud wasn’t as evil as I was expecting him to be. I think Dickens was wise to tone down the exaggerations in his characters, otherwise they threaten to become quite boring in their wickedness.

It was, on the other hand, a more complicated story than the other books and I had to read many passages over again just to make sure that I had understood them correctly. Of course, the government at the time, especially its legal and financial departments, was anything but transparent. Even the people who should have known how it functioned had either given up trying to decipher it, or never bothered to try in the first place. Had he made the story too easy to understand, it would have detracted from that particular point, so I can forgive him for it.

What I particularly liked about the story was its portrayal of the debtor’s prison, the Marshalsea. The description is fairly vile, but Dickens makes a few good points about it. The first of which is that while Mr. Dorrit really isn’t happy to go to prison, the very act of being shut away brought him a sense of peace. He no longer had to live in dread of what would happen to him, he no longer had to fear his creditors and he was basically taken care up at public expense. His relief at being locked away, safe from the public brings to light the contradiction of locking a man up and paying for his bare minimum, when he could be out working to pay for himself and to pay off his debts. Debtor’s prisons were, in fact, a sort of governmentally sanctioned kidnap of the person in order to ransom him for the sum of his debts since the aim was to move his family and friends to pay the debtor’s debt for him. In a case such as Mr. Dorrit’s, where no such means were available, locking him in prison was pointless and only served to make his children idol and base by not allowing them amongst people who might set better examples.

Typically Dickens, was the presence of kind-hearted people throughout the story who were willing to help the Dorrit family, and later Mr. Clenham, out in their state of dire need. Both inmates and non-inmates alike were there to help Little Dorrit out in her bid to keep her family from falling apart completely. Basically, there was enough goodness to go around to help balance out the enmity of life, so the all around tone of the book was a positive one.

Of course there were the silly characters one loves to hate like all of the Dorrits, except Amy, Mrs. Clenham, and Flora, who were all annoying to one extent or the other. There were also the villains like Rigaud and Flintwich to spice the story up a bit, so it never got boring despite not keeping up with the pace of Oliver Twist. I quite liked this book and can recommend it to anyone.

Friday, 9 January 2009

A Christmas Carol

I should have reviewed this book ages ago, but completely forgot.

What can I say? It’s one of my all-time favourite books and I read it every year at Christmas time. It’s a little on the kitschy side with Scrooge’s utter reversal of characters, but it’s cheery and Christmassy and it’s nice to think that there was a happy ending for all. I found out just this year that this work was responsible for a Christmas revival in England. Apparently many Christmas traditions had been dying out and the season was becoming a rather dreary one, but Scrooge helped turn it around and make Christmas a festive season again. It’s fantastic that one book, one written to pay off debts no less, is responsible for doing so much.

One aspect I like about the story is that it shows not only what Scrooge has become, but what he once was as well. When introduced to people and characters with negative attitudes or mean dispositions, we often assume this is the way they have always been. It’s like imagining that your mother was once young and careless, which seems so impossible when she’s become the complete opposite in the meantime. Scrooge was once a happy person who knew how to laugh and celebrate. He became, or let himself become, what he was as a result of his experiences and disappointments in life and not because he was born dour and mean. It’s a warning to us all not to let ourselves become our own enemies. Fred has it right when he says that Scrooge is the one suffering for all his misery and not the people around him. Looked upon in that light, Scrooge could be considered to be damned twice over, once in life and once after death.

Of course, you could argue that had Scrooge never known what it was like to be happy and make others happy, his “cure” would never have worked. It was all more of a revival of his old self than the creation of a new man. Again, this ties in with the revival of the Christmas spirit in the time. It was once and just needed to be revived.

Finally, I think this book must say quite a bit about its author. Dickens was apparently quite an odd man and possibly not as moral as he should have been, but he must have been an intrinsically good, compassionate human being to have been able to write a book out of which so much good came.

An easy and enjoyable read for all ages. Love it.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

I read this book for two reasons. The first being that as a child, I thought the title sounded interesting, but nearly keeled over when I saw the shear size of the book. The second is because a friend told me I would like it. Oh yes, and a third reason is that I used an Audible credit to buy it and 48 hours of book is a lot of book for one credit (yeah, good reason, I know).

I was a little worried that it would be one of those depressing ones where the suffering is never ending. Fortunately, Dumas didn’t let that part of the book go one for too long. There were also several features of the story that helped sidetrack one from the misery of the situation. - Just thinking of rotting in jail for all of those years is bad enough. I can’t imagine living through them. It’s horrible to think that things like this did actually happen. Guilty or not guilty, some things just shouldn’t be allowed. –

The second “part” of the story returns Dantés to life outside of the Château D’Ife and fortune seems to be making up for all his years of misery. However, simply returning to life was really not enough for Dantés and he is provided with the means to both reward his friends for their faithfulness and punish his enemies for their evil acts against him. What seems quite natural, leaves quite a lot of room for discussions of morality. Is revenge evil? If not, how far is too far? Dantés often seems like he’s teetering on the edge of a moral downfall which would ultimately put him on the same level as his persecutors. Even though he’s the hero of the story and the reader’s sympathies are directed towards him, he often reaches a point where he is about to lose respect rather than gain it. In some instances, he actually does lose my respect, e.g. when he believes he is justified in allowing all of Villefort’s family to be poisoned. Yes, he is punishing Villefort, but should a Valentine or her brother, who has yet to prove his ultimate worth as a human, or the completely innocent Sante-Mérans, be allowed to die for Dantés revenge? Granted, his father did die of starvation, but by putting himself in a position to decide that one death deserves another, or two or three others is tantamount to playing God.

Ultimately, Dantés does realize that he has gone too far with his vengeance. He’s has become so consumed with the thought of other’s destruction, that he no longer has time to seek happiness for himself. It makes one wonder if all the years of plotting and planning revenge were worth it. Surely he did many things with his life, and surely he was able to live in wealth and luxury, but when you look back on his life, there isn’t much there which wasn’t dominated by either treachery or revenge. Obviously he must have suffered and that would take it’s toll on a person, however, spending your life fixed on revenge instead of in the pursuit of happiness does seem to double the sentence of suffering and pain rather than alleviate it. This might not be the conclusion Dumas was looking for when he wrote the book, but despite the relatively happy and possibly justified ending to his characters, he does give cause to think about whether there wouldn’t have been another, better route to happiness and tranquillity.

There are a million things you could discuss with this book – it’s a long book, if he didn’t introduce several topics, it would have become rather boring – so basically there’s something in it for everyone. It can be read either as food for thought or just as an adventure story and be equally rewarding for either type of reader. The one thing I will add, is that the ending is really, really sappy and I had to put the playback speed on fast (quicker pace of reading, but still comprehensible) just to get through it without becoming instantly diabetic from the sugar sweetness of it all, but then, I’ve never been one for sappy romance.