Category Archives: Book reviews

A ripping yarn from Dickens

Victorian drawing of the cluttered old curiosity shop.

The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I like to settle down with a novel by Charles Dickens every couple of years. I find his sprawling, fantastic tales a comfort, particularly when life is unsettled. His villains are awful, his heroes virtuous, and his complicated plots fun to unravel. You also get a vivid sense of life at another time, however cartoonish he can sometimes make it.

The Old Curiosity Shop has largely been forgotten now, but it was hugely popular when it was first published in Dickens’ weekly serial, Master Humphrey’s Clock, from 1840 to 1841. The book begins with a first person narrator describing how he meets a lost girl, Nell Trent, as he walks the streets at night. He brings her back to the old curiosity shop in which she, an orphan, lives with her doting but daffy grandfather. For two more chapters, he learns more about this curious couple before abruptly saying, “And now that I have carried this history so far in my own character and introduced these personages to the reader, I shall for the convenience of the narrative detach myself from its further course, and leave those who have prominent and necessary parts in it to speak and act for themselves.”

From here on, the novel is told in the third person, floating freely between different characters. The primary story concerns Nell and her grandfather’s flight from London through areas that vary from darkly industrial to pastoral. Christopher Nubbles (“Kit”), who is Nell’s loyal servant, has his own troubles back in London as he worries over Nell’s fate. Both their hardships are orchestrated by the maliciously evil Daniel Quip, who is a somewhat painful caricature to the modern eye. The most interesting character in the book is probably Dick Swiveller, a friend of Nell’s older brother, who undergoes a transformation over the course of the novel to become an unlikely hero.

Along the way, there are numerous minor characters, such as Quilp’s grovelling attorney and his hard-hearted sister, along with their servant, who plays a key role in unraveling their nefarious plans. Nell and her grandfather run into a diverse cast that includes industrial workers, puppeteers, professional gamblers, the owner of a wax museum, and a compassionate schoolmaster who tries to rescue them.

This is a fairly early Dickens book that lacks some of the depth of his later novels, but he interweaves the numerous story lines deftly and keeps the plots chugging along like a network of well-oiled trains. The underside of capitalism and industrialization are vividly exposed, as is the maltreatment of children in England at the time.

The novel tends to be a little too sentimental, even for my romantic tastes, with Nell and Kit laughably innocent and virtuous and Quilp stunningly malicious, to the extent that he regularly beats the figurehead of an old ship he’s salvaged with a poker because he thinks it looks like Kit. While I wouldn’t say this is one of Dicken’s best novels, it’s fast and easy to read and, ultimately, a fun and satisfying yarn.

A novel for our times

Cover of The Oppermans with an illustration of police holding back a crowd

The Oppermanns by Lion Feuchtwanger

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

The Oppermans is a sprawling novel centered around a wealthy Jewish family, the Oppermans, in Germany during the rise of the National Socialist Party (aka the Nazis). Lion Feuchtwanger wrote this book in Germany between the spring and fall of 1933 and was, in large part, documenting what he saw and heard around him.

Although Feuchtwanger dips into other people’s lives in the Opperman’s circle, most of the novel concerns the family members, who together own a successful furniture empire in Germany and, for various reasons, become targets for National Socialist propaganda. Feuchtwanger’s depictions of the attitudes in Germany toward this rise of the “barbarians,” as many call them, is chilling. He shows both the frustration of the lower classes with the direction Germany has been taking that drives this movement and the laughter and derision that the upper classes have toward their “Leader,” with his ridiculous ideas and imperfect German.

The novel is gripping and terrifying as it races along, jumping from one person’s perspective to another. This was written well before Hitler’s “final solution to the Jewish question,” but it exposes how deeply cruel and inhumane things were in Germany long before that for Jewish people, those with mental illness, and others who were deemed inferior.

What’s maybe most chilling about this novel is that the social forces that powered this movement are very strong at this very moment throughout the world, and the attitudes of the various characters, particularly the wealthy class, still hold true. The Oppermans shines a light on the politics of 2023 as much as it does on that of Germany in 1933.

This new edition from Simon & Schuster, put together by Joshua Cohen, includes both the original ending and an alternate ending that was written by Feuchtwanger later at the prompting of his friends, who called the original ending “romantic,” “kitch,” and “false.” I agree, and much prefer the alternate ending. Cohen’s introduction and notes are also very helpful.

As a work of literature, I’m not sure the ultimate focus on the naive writer Gustav was really the best choice, but perhaps that was in part a self reflection for Feuchtwanger. Gustav becomes preoccupied with a phrase from the Talmud, a collection of ancient rabbinical teachings: “It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you free to neglect it.” But Gustav’s recollection of this is somewhat different, “It is upon us to begin the work. It is not upon us to complete it.”

Gustav’s experiences as a result of his quest are painful on many levels. But for a novel of such weight and importance written in such a short time, it’s really hard to criticize this book. The Oppermans is highly recommended reading for our times.

A solitary life

Book cover of Hotel du Lac showing a woman walking along by a lake

Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

In Hotel du Lac, Edith Hope has retreated from her life in London to a luxury hotel in Switzerland for reasons we aren’t told at first. A writer struggling with her new book, she spends her time observing the follies of the other guests and serving as an audience to the wealthy patrons there while slowly reassessing her own life and trying to decide her next steps.

I find Anita Brookner‘s wistful, introspective novels oddly comforting. In my review of Brookner’s Visitors, I mentioned that I saw that novel as a descendant of the thoughtful, observant work of Virginia Woolf. Here, Edith is told by more than one person that she looks like Virginia Woolf. As in that novel, Brookner deftly depicts the shifts in her character’s thinking as she comes to realizations about herself and the life she’s chosen, and questions whether she should radically change it.

Hotel du Lac is a novel about life choices, regret, and the passing of time. Each character is carefully tuned to resonate with the decisions the main character faces. Brookner is a master of depicting the subtle problems we face as we age, and this a graceful, insightful, and wonderful novel.

A work unfinished

Cover of Kafka Library edition of The Castle by Frank Kafka

The Castle by Franz Kafka

My rating: 2.5 of 5 stars

I very much liked both The Metamorphosis and The Trial, both of which I read years ago. Franz Kafka sadly died of tuberculosis before The Castle was complete, and it reads very much like a first draft. While my edition and other sources cite Kafka’s explanation for how the book would end, that’s only one part of what it takes to complete a novel. This book is unfinished on numerous accounts.

The Castle concerns a man known only as K. who arrives in a remote village claiming to have been hired as a land surveyor, which may or may not be true. Stubborn and abrasive, K. is an unlikable protagonist, and it’s hard to feel for him and his ever more difficult predicament. It’s little wonder that the townspeople are, for the most part, completely turned off by his inane efforts to accomplish a goal that’s never defined.

Will and Edwin Muir, the translators for the edition I read, attempted to imbue the work with some religious meaning, hinting at a sort of parable about faith and the hope for salvation, but it came across to me more as a satire of an entrenched bureaucracy and the fool who inexplicably chooses to go head to head with it. Frieda, the barmaid whose heart he improbably wins for a time, urges K. to flee with her to make a life elsewhere, but he refuses, insisting on staying to fight the Castle for a reward that remains unclear.

The Castle does has a creative setup and interesting elements to it, but it frequently drifts without any seeming aim. Many of the conversations include circular, incoherent rambling and pointless arguments that go on for pages. It reads largely like a writer pouring out all his ideas with the intention of going back later to shape it. In the end, The Castle doesn’t come close to the other Kafka works I’ve read. If he hadn’t died at the young age of 40, he might have crafted a much finer, more focused novel, but as it is, The Castle is strictly for fans that want to see how he began to put together his brilliant work.

Poems to think over

Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Night Sky with Exit Wounds is a challenging but very rewarding book of poems. Some poems, like “Aubade with Burning City,” about the evacuation of Saigon in 1975, are more straightforward and powerful. But this collection is best read slowly to give you time to think, reread, and digest the meaning of each poem before moving on. Each is rich, and I certainly didn’t fully understand all of them. I’d read Ocean Vuong‘s semi-autobiographical novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous recently, and it certainly helped me understand some of the allusions he was making. But with or without that background knowledge, these poems evoke strong feelings and emotions–of lost love, of cultural alienation, of a difficult family life. To borrow from “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong,” these poems pass through you like wind through a wind chime. Except Vuong is talking there about dead friends. It’s one of many sad and wonderful poems in this collection.

The underbelly of industrialism

Maggie: A Girl of the Streets by Stephen Crane

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I picked up Maggie: A Girl of the Streets largely because of Paul Auster, who was doing the rounds singing the virtues of Stephen Crane when Burning Boy: The Life and Work of Stephen Crane was published. I’d read The Red Badge of Courage many years ago and enjoyed it. Maggie: A Girl of the Streets was Crane’s first novel (or novella), published in 1893. It’s about the poor working class in the Bowery in New York City.

You know that Maggie has little chance from the start. If that’s not clear from the title, it is from Crane’s sardonic tone about the hopeless situation Maggie has been born into, in an impoverished neighborhood with violent parents who have serious alcohol problems. No one seems to care for Maggie or help her in any way as her hopes for a better life fall apart.

At the time it was published, this book’s focus on the underbelly of industrialism must have been shocking. However, reading it from a modern perspective, what stands out as a narrative is what’s missing: Maggie. The title character amounts to little more than a receptacle for the cruelty and negligence of others. Much of the drama in her life isn’t depicted in any detail or even at all, only spoken about, including what ultimately happens to Maggie. This could be partly because of the times; publishing a book that depicted Maggie’s sordid slide from her perspective would have been very difficult, if not impossible. The resulting narrative style is innovative, circling around Maggie and her misfortunes to focus your attention on the callousness of all those who judge Maggie but repeatedly fail to help her. Their attitude reflects the general approach of a society high on progress, unconcerned with the suffering of those who were being harmed by the massive social upheavals going on.

That said, it’s not a particularly rewarding book to read from a modern perspective. It’s hard to feel much for Maggie, since you don’t really know and understand her, as Crane keeps mostly out of her thoughts beyond those meant to make you pity her. The following century of American literature brought plenty of biting social realism that surpasses this book in both insight and emotion. But someone had to do it first, and you can certainly admire Crane’s courage in centering a story around such a character when most of society at the time just wanted to forget about people like Maggie.

The dead and the living

The Dead and the Living by Sharon Olds

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sharon Olds‘s The Dead and the Living is an excellent collection of poems. After a brief section called “Public,” which deals with outside events, its focus turns to the personal, from traumas inflicted during upbringing to often unsettling musings about her children. Olds’s style is direct and accessible, but these free verse poems are thoughtful and beautifully crafted, dealing with the complicated emotions that can arise from abuse, neglect, and just plain living. The consistency in quality is remarkable. Standouts for me included “My Father Snoring,” which manages to be both threatening and empathetic, the wistful “35/10” about youth and aging, and the wonderful homage “The Elder Sister,” which opens:

When I look at my elder sister now
I think how she had to go first, down through the
birth canal, to force her way
head-first through the tiny channel,
the pressure of Mother’s muscles on her brain,
the tight walls scraping her skin.
Her face is still narrow from it…

Making sense of a strange world

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Piranesi is the kind of book I usually love. The main character lives in a world that makes no sense, a world of endless halls and statues, with tides coming in from different directions and the only reference to a broader world in the artwork itself. The best way to describe the book would be as a cross between Flowers for Algernon and The Woman in the Dunes.

Clearly, something is very off here. The mystery of what this world is keeps you reading and, without giving any spoilers, the explanation is a fascinating and clever idea. But while Susanna Clarke has crafted an original fictional world, I was disappointed with the frankly silly action and resolution. It causes this thoughtful book to feel more like a straightforward genre work, which it’s really not. Maybe if this hadn’t fallen into some genre conventions, it wouldn’t have found the audience it has, so I can’t fault them for making what might have been a wise practical choice. Still, I would have enjoyed the book a lot more had the action resolved in a way that was more consistent with the tone that Clarke had established. It also felt a bit bloated overall, as if an excellent novella had been given some extra padding.

That said, the ending was quite sweet. This was one of those novels that can get you looking at the world in a new way, and I expect many, particularly young adult readers, would absolutely love it.

I’m thinking of what the heck just happened

Cover of I'm thinking of ending things

I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

I’m Thinking of Ending Things is one of those books that plays with your perception of reality and keeps you unsettled throughout, and Iain Reid does a brilliant job. In one sense, it’s a meditation on the themes of memory, perception, and our sense of reality, as well as on loneliness and our need for others. But the setup is so brilliant, and Reid’s writing so crisp and efficient, it reads like a taut thriller.

The book starts with the the title, the thought of an unnamed narrator who admits to herself as she’s traveling with her boyfriend, Jake, to meet his parents for the first time that their relationship isn’t going to last. The brief first chapter ends with the thought, “Maybe I should have known how it was going to end for us. Maybe the end was written right from the beginning.” Like much of the long conversation in the car on the way to his family’s remote farmhouse, this is a hint to what’s actually going on in the book.

There’s a conversation later on that, to me, seems key to understanding what Reid is trying to do. Jake is talking about why examples are used in philosophy, “how most understanding and truth combines certainty and rational deduction, but also abstraction.” He explains, “We don’t just understand or recognize significance and validity through experience. We accept, reject, and discern through symbols. These are as important to our understanding of life, our understanding of existence and what has value, what’s worthwhile, as math and science.” This is both an argument for the importance of fiction and a description of his approach as a novelist.

Although I found the end somewhat simple and disappointing, I enjoyed this book immensely. Interspersed throughout the narrative is a conversation between two unnamed people about something horrible that has happened. Without revealing spoilers, what actually happened isn’t absolutely clear by the end. In fact, what the very narrative you’ve been reading is isn’t certain either. There’s a pat explanation provided, but it’s not fully satisfying. On the other hand, that’s all in keeping with Reid’s musings on thoughts, memories, and reality.

All in all, this was a fun and very thought-provoking read. Note that Charlie Kaufman made a movie version of the novel. The first two-thirds of it is wonderful, brilliantly capturing the tension and ideas of the book. Unfortunately, the approach Kaufman takes in the third act is farcical, and it completely falls apart. To be fair, the last act is probably unfilmable, and he did take a creative approach, but it’s pretty terrible–one of the worst endings spoiling a great movie that I’ve ever seen.

A life without choice

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Ann Jacobs

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Seven Years Concealed is the first book I’ve read about slavery that was written by someone who actually was a slave. While fiction like Kindred definitely packs a wallop, I found it particularly unsettling to read a firsthand account of slavery that I knew was true. Harriet Jacobs, who wrote as Linda Brent to protect herself and others, tells her story in a direct, matter-of-fact manner that’s disarming. It’s as if you’re sitting in the room with her and listening to her harrowing recollections.

Harriet was never beaten, but her horrific stories belie the outrageous myth of the well-treated slave that some people still bring up. While she may have been physically better off than the plantation slaves, once she falls into the hands of a doctor who lusts for her, the psychological pressure on this poor, powerless young woman becomes stifling. Although she is his property, Harriet will do anything to elude the doctor’s lechery and the revenge of his jealous wife, including seven years in a cramped, oppressive hiding place that leaves her permanently impaired.

After she escaped, Harriet Jacobs became involved in the abolitionist movement, and in her narrative she deftly uses her experiences and observations to highlight political and societal issues beyond the experience of slavery, including the hypocrisy of many Northerners and the evils of the Fugitive Slave Act, which required Northern states to capture and return escaped slaves. Hers is a perspective into U.S. history that everyone should read.