BOOK REVIEW: The Gospel in Dickens ed. by Gina Dalfonzo

The Gospel in Dickens: Selections from His WorksThe Gospel in Dickens: Selections from His Works by Charles Dickens
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book captured my attention because (I must confess) I’m delinquent when it comes to the writings of Charles Dickens. I’ve only read “A Christmas Carol” and that is admittedly sad given the profound impact of (and masterful storytelling in) Dickens’ work. The challenge confronting me is that (excepting “A Christmas Carol”) the works of Dickens tend to be huge bookshelf-cracking tomes, and so I’m seeking a strategy by which to approach his publications – given the time investments involved. Because this is a book that largely consists of excerpts from his various works, I figured it might help me devise a plan of how to tackle Dickens (figuratively.) I believe it did help me in that regard.

The book’s theme is how biblical teachings feature in the works of Dickens. While my own reading objectives tend toward the secular, I figured that knowing about the moral conundrums and growth, or lack thereof, of characters would be a good way to understand Dickens’ canon as stories and not only as reflections of religious attitudes. Moral dilemma is, after-all, a central element of storytelling — universally, and not just with regards to religious or mythological contexts. I feel I was correct in this regard, as well. I did learn about which stories were most likely to appeal to me.

I do believe the book was as much about how Dickens (not by himself, by any means, but as part of an artistic and societal movement of the day) influenced the nature of Christianity (both in his time and beyond) as it was about how the Gospel influenced Dickens. I’m not saying this with intent to blaspheme. It’s just that the nature of the problems and how they were approached is very different between the time of ancient Rome and Dickensian London. So, one has a kind of general teaching of being charitable and kind to those less fortunate and it is applied to policy questions that were nonexistent at the time of the Bible or that individuals in the Bible were silent upon.

There are three chapters or section to the book. The first looks at attitudes toward the poor. If one knows anything about the works of Charles Dickens, it’s that they virtually all deal with down-and-out characters having to make their way through worlds controlled by (often uncharitable) wealthy people. This was true of my beloved “A Christmas Carol,” but I know it’s also a major feature in “Oliver Twist,” “Great Expectations,” “Bleak House,” “The Old Curiosity Shop,” and others. This first section takes up about half the book. The second section involves the issue of redemption, and it’s about a quarter of the book. The final section is also about twenty-five percent of the book and it looks at living a good life. Each of these chapters has a series of excerpts. Generally, there is a short paragraph of editorial input before each excerpt to explain any necessary background as well as to provide some insight into why the excerpt is included (i.e. how it relates to the book’s theme.) While most of the excerpts come from Dickens’ major novels, it should be pointed out that there are some that come from other works (i.e. nonfiction and short fiction.)

There are some artistic drawings that are congruous with expectations of a Dickens book. Otherwise, there’s not much in terms of ancillary matter, though there is a Forward. I didn’t feel anything else was particularly needed (though a timeline of publications and / or an appendix with concise plot summaries might have made the book a bit easier to use.)

If you’re interested in learning more about the works of Dickens, I’d recommend this book – particularly (but not necessarily exclusively) if you have interests at the intersection of literature and religion.

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BOOK REVIEW: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

A Christmas CarolA Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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There’s a famous quote that has been attributed to various individuals, including both Mark Twain and Blaise Pascal. The wording varies, but the gist is: “Sorry for writing you a long letter, I didn’t have time to write a short one.” While it’s a witty comment, the humorous subversion of expectations doesn’t mean there’s not an underlying truth. It takes work and / or brilliance to convey an idea persuasively with few words. “A Christmas Carol” is an outstanding example of a tight story that powerfully conveys its theme.

Ebenezer Scrooge is a cranky banker who wants nothing to do Christmas. He won’t give his employee, Bob Cratchit, time off so that Cratchit can spend the holiday with his family—including his ailing son Tiny Tim. He chases off charities. He won’t even accept an invitation to attend the Christmas party thrown by his nephew, Fred. Then one night, he’s visited by the ghost of his recently deceased business partner—Jacob Marley. Marley, who was as cheap and crotchety as Scrooge, is burdened with horrifying chains, and the ghost warns Scrooge that if the old man doesn’t change his ways, he—too—will end up wandering through eternity in a similar set of chains. Before disappearing, Marley tells Scrooge to expect visits from three more ghosts.

The three subsequent visits with the famous ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future don’t require much discussion. First of all, the names of the ghosts (e.g. Ghost of Christmas Past) are self-explanatory. Secondly, this story is iconic in pop culture and it’s been remade in every medium in every way imaginable from modern adaptations (e.g. “Scrooged”) to “Simpsons” episodes. At any rate, the first ghost shows Scrooge that there was a time when he wasn’t such a curmudgeon while reminding him that he once had an employer, the beloved Mr. Fezziwig, who was a much better to Scrooge than Scrooge is to Bob Cratchit. The second ghost takes him to see the Cratchits and their meager but blissful Christmas festivities and then to his Nephew’s party as well. The final apparition, The Ghost of Christmas Future, takes Scrooge to the end of his own line. In the wake of the four ghost visits, Scrooge makes some changes to avoid the fate he’s been shown.

The Puffin Classics version that I read has an introduction by Anthony Horowitz and some artwork. That said, I don’t think it matters much what version one reads. It’s about the story.

I’d highly recommend this book for all readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: Dodger by Terry Pratchett

DodgerDodger by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book’s protagonist is based loosely on the Artful Dodger character from Charles Dickens’ novel “Oliver Twist.” Pratchett’s Dodger is a brave scamp with a gift for plunging into the middle of precarious situations. One such situation occurs when he rescues a young woman who’s being battered one night on a London side street. The girl, known only as Simplicity, we later find out was attempting to escape an arranged marriage to an awful chap who’s a member of a foreign royal family. Her husband has no intention of letting her go peaceably, and has power, resources, and goons at his disposal. The story is an attempt to resolve this issue in a way that is satisfactory to the girl, for whom Dodger grows fond.

Dodger is a tosher, which is one who scavenges in London’s sewer system in search of wedding rings that were washed down drains or coins that rolled into storm drains. The fact that he’s mostly collecting lost items may make him more palatable / likable than the pick-pocketing Dodger of Dickens’ work. That said, this version of Dodger isn’t above absconding with valuables that seem to be “lying around”–even if they happen to be “lying” on the owner’s desk in the owner’s house. However, it’s clear from the outset that Dodger has a working moral compass. His liberties with earthly possessions don’t interfere with his understanding of what is right and wrong when it comes to treating others as you would like to be treated. This makes for a character who seems more mischievous than felonious.

Like many modern works that are based on Victorian era fiction, this book not only borrows fictitious characters but also individuals from the real world. Pratchett weaves Charles Dickens, Benjamin Disraeli, Henry Mayhew, and Angela Burdett-Coutts into his novel. (If the latter two names don’t ring bells, the former among them was an advocate for the poor and the latter was the wealthiest woman in England at the time, a woman who opened schools for impoverished children.) Except for Dickens [and to some extent Burdett-Coutts], these characters don’t play major roles, but more help to make the reader feel they reside in the world of the novel. [However, the book is dedicated to Mayhew.] There are also other fictional characters, most notably Sweeney Todd—the butcherous barber of penny dreadful fame.

This novel displays generous helpings of Pratchett’s humor and skill in setting the reader into a world that would otherwise feel foreign. One needn’t have read “Oliver Twist” [or any other works] to make sense of the book. It stands alone. [It may be easier if you haven’t read “Oliver Twist,” because you won’t have an ingrown sense of the character.]

I’d highly recommend this book for readers who like light-hearted historical fiction. It’s funny and engaging.

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