American Notes for General Circulation – Charles Dickens (1842)

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This volume does not seem as well-known as Dickens’ other works, but despite its low profile, this was one of the funniest and most enjoyable reads that I’ve had this summer (and certainly from amongst my reads of other Dickens’ titles). (Not that I am a Dickens scholar of any kind…)

Dickens had already become a publishing sensation when he arrived on American shores, having successfully published The Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist, The Life and Times of Nicholas Nickelby, and then immediately upon his return to England, the release of A Christmas Carol. And so, in terms of the times, Dickens was a publisher’s dream and somewhat of a superstar. His trip was not going to be unnoticed by any means, despite what he writes in the pages of American Notes. (There is extremely little mention of crowds or readings or any of the other trappings of a celebrity visit, although in other sources, he does mention getting tired of the crowds around him at times and not being able to blend in when he travels.)

Dickens at his desk in 1858.

Dickens at his desk in 1858.

So – to the trip. It was Dickens’ first trip to America and he travels across the Atlantic by boat (along with his wife and probably some unmentioned servants). As the sea goes by, Dickens writes some of the most entertaining descriptions of the other passengers and the significant travail it was to remain in good spirits during this slow progress. (Brownie Guide’s honor: His writing is as entertaining as Bill Bryson during this step of the voyage.) (Compare this to his description of the ship journey on the way home at the end of the trip: likes horses heading back to the stables, my friend.)

Once reaching land, Dickens and his entourage embarked at Boston to large crowds and then traveled mostly down the East Coast with an occasional foray into the Great Lakes area of both the U.S. and Canada. (Dickens adored Niagara Falls, btw, calling it (poor paraphrase here) the closest place on Earth to heaven. Along the way, he made a point of visiting public institutions such as prisons, mental hospitals, and hospitals for the disabled (including the Perkins Institute where Helen Keller went later on).

Due to Dickens’ hard childhood, he was passionate about the underclass and was continually on the hunt for any institutions that were effective and kind (such as the Perkins Institute above). However, for the majority of his visits, he found the prisons and mental hospitals to be inhuman, filthy and cruel. Additionally, he was very critical of how absolutely filthy many of the large cities were, and gives an extremely entertaining description of Washington D.C.:

As Washington may be called the headquarters of tobacco-tinctured saliva, the time is come when I must confess, without any disguise, that the prevalence of those two odious practices of chewing and expectorating began about this time to be anything but agreeable, and soon became most offensive and sickening.

Americannotes-title_pageHis description of the U.S. Congress meeting that he attended (and the numerous other gatherings) where the gentlemen in the building were spitting their tobacco juices (right word?) all over the floor whether there was a lovely carpet down there or a spittoon available two inches away, was both very funny and disgusting (perhaps because people still do this to an extent in Texas and other places and it’s still vile.)

However, it’s not all fun and games as Dickens writes seriously at times about the issues that he cares about – the justice system, slavery, poverty et al. Although some of these more serious chapters may be pretty heavy-handed, that was the Victorian way and Dickens was slap in the middle of Queen Victoria’s reign. (According to Wiki, the young Queen Victoria apparently stayed up until midnight reading Oliver Twist and then kept some of her staff up as she wanted to discuss it further with someone! Just an FYI for ya.)

The book ends with a passionate call against slavery, and includes heart-rending excerpts from various American newspapers that Dickens had gathered on his travels, all detailing some of the horrible ways that slaves had been (and were treated). This trip to the U.S. was slap in the middle of slavery (especially in the lower states). The slave literature of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Twelve Years a Slave was published just a few years before whilst The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass was released only a few years later, so Dickens was hitting the cause right as it was building up in the U.S.. (U.K. abolished slavery in 1833 whilst America sort of dragged its feet and didn’t do any real anti-slavery legislation until 1863 (with the Emancipation Proclamation) and 1865 with the 13th Amendment ending slavery in the U.S..) So — it would be a several decades until substantial legal change would be made for those who were victims of the slave trade.

What Dickens saw was the real thing with regard to slavery and he hated it. This last chapter is so full of passion to what something that Dickens sees as incredibly wrong that by the time you get to the end, you feel the power of his anger as well.

What was slightly weird was that the chapter before this one was a nice gentle round-up of his boat journey arriving back at Liverpool and how happy he was to see England again. I was all English summer roses and green rolling hills, and then BAM! There is a final chapter detailing quite a few reports of the heinous that individual slaves had suffered. So this anti-slavery chapter rather took me by surprise as I had thought the book was finished. Very powerful chapter though.

So this was a really good read and I found it to be an honest but respectful description of a fairly young nation and the people who lived in it. (It’s not all complimentary, but after having lived here for oodles of years, I would say that some of both the good and the bad still ring true in some cases and places — as they would anywhere, really.)

I enjoyed this travelogue immensely. It was also pretty interesting that I’d only just finished the 1939 book Saddlebags to Suitcases by Mary Bosanquet, also a travelogue by a Brit who travels across Canada on horseback. (More to come in the future on that one.) Both pretty funny looks at this side of the ocean and the Dickens especially is highly recommended. Truly funny.

Playing Catch-Up….

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So – time for a general catch-up with reading and life in general. Work continues at warp speed and so I’m still not quite back to full-tilt reading, but I’m reading when I can.

I’m in the middle of a fantastic read by Gerard Woodward (whose book August I loved and reviewed a while back). His publisher got in touch with me about his newer title, Vanishing, which is great and I am finding that I look forward to every moment that I can find to read that story. More in-depth review to come, but suffice to say, Woodward is a great author!

book450I wanted to read another classic (specifically by Dickens), so I picked his non-fiction travel writing about his first visit to America called (strangely enough) American Notes. Well, I’ve heard Dickens’ writing called a lot of things, but truth be told, this book is actually very very funny in parts and has frequently made me laugh out loud when I’m reading it at the gym. I had no idea that Dickens had this dry sly sense of humor, but he does and there’s plenty of it in this book. There are, I admit, a couple of chapters which are heavy-handed (typical Victorian) writing about the state of prisons in the U.S., prison reform, slavery and disability rights, but they’re not too long and he did have a point. (The prisons were dreadful at the time and Dickens was a big advocate for changing that – especially solitary confinement – and the justice system in general.) However, once he returns to the world of travel, the tone returns to very witty commentary about his journeys. (Honestly, if I was a betting person, I would bet that Bill Bryson has read this Dickens book at some point because they both take the same tone about traveling around. If you like Bryson, you’ll like this particular Dickens. Just don’t be put off by the prison reform bits. The rest of it is really pretty funny for the most part.) Anyway, longer review to follow, but this is a good travelogue of early American life. (WARNING: It’s not always complimentary towards America/Americans but it does have grains of truth to it.)

book451Did a quick read of the graphic novel bestseller called Ghost World by Daniel Clowes. Not one of my favorite reads as both of the two lead characters are hard to like, swear like sailors and have an extremely jaded approach at life. I know a lot of people really like this read of these two disaffected teenaged friends, but I rather wish that I could take that hour of reading time back to use on something else. But it’s good to know what people are talking about when they mention Ghost World now.

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When I haven’t been reading, we’ve caught a couple of really good movies. “This is Where I Leave You” is a movie adaptation of a novel of the same name by Jonathon Tropper (both good). (My book review is right here.) The plot focuses around a family of adult children and mother who all share close quarters for a week as was the final wish for their newly deceased father. It’s poignant and funny, and I think it’s one of the most honest representations of what life would probably be like if grown-up siblings were forced to spend a whole week together after years of having their own independent lives. Bitter-sweet and an overall really good movie.

movie2Another movie we viewed was an indie flick called “In a World”, fictional drama about the world of high-level voice-over artists vying for a gig doing the voice-over for the trailer of a huge blockbuster trailer about to be released. Again, grown-up siblings closely interacting, their lives not running according to plan (because whose does, really?) and some very sly humor. Not a comedy, but more of a poignant drama which was extremely satisfying and will be added to my list of top ten fav movies. (As will the Tropper movie above.)

Still watching the fantastic series, “The Wire” – wow. Talk about unpredictable plot twists and now we’re in Season Three, we’ve got a strong background in the characters and who they are etc., so it’s always a good watch. Good for when you want a serious hard-hitting drama and a nice replacement for House of Cards (although a very different take on the world).

And it’s been raining, raining, raining a lot for this semi-arid place we live in. It is the rainy season, that’s true, but this has been a chilly and wet start to summer for these parts. Next stop: Home Depot for ark-building materials. (Certainly not complaining about the rain though. We need the moisture in these here parts.)

www,photostock.am (Fotolia.com)

www,photostock.am (Fotolia.com)

The Polysyllabic Spree – Nick Hornby (2004) and other thoughts

book451This is a short collection of some of Nick Hornby’s brilliant book review columns from The Believer magazine, these ones from 2003 and 2004. Well, after reading these (and laughing out loud at the gym several times), Hornby has now made it on to my evergreen Literary Dinner Party Guest List.

If you’ve only read Hornby’s fiction (Like a Boy, High Fidelity et al.), then get ye to a bookshop and buy any of his volumes of his book review columns. His fiction can be a bit patchy, but his columns are little nuggets of gold all tucked into each two and half page entry of his book. I have to say (and I don’t say this very often, mind you) that I thoroughly enjoyed every single page of this collection.

Hornby looks at books in exactly the same way as I (and probably as other voracious booklovers do comme ça) and so this read was like sitting down for a cuppa tea or coffee with a friend and then just nattering away about things. His columns always start with a list of “Books Bought” and “Books Read”, each column varying from month to month (as they do for many of us), and he’s upfront about his book-buying (and book-receiving) habits and why his “Books Read” list rarely matches his “Books Bought” selections. (Hmm. Nope. Never happens to me. No sirree bob.)

In one of the columns, I came across this sentence:

“All the books we own, read and unread, are the fullest expression of self that we have at our disposal…”

and then this one (actually taken from one of his other collections but along the same lines: there are sometimes:

“…unusual attempts at reinvention that periodically seize one in a bookshop…”

For some reason, I was so struck by this thought as it really resonated with me. It’s true that with some titles I purchase or bring home from the library, I am saying to myself “I’m really going to read this time,” or “I should really read this title – it’s so *important* to be well read,” or perhaps something along the lines of “I’ve always meant to read this,” or “Ooh goody. I’ve been looking for this…” and then the new acquisition gets home and is promptly put on a more inaccessible bookshelf for that “one day…”

(And here, I’m not berating myself (or anyone else) about this whole “not reading what you’ve bought” thing. (That’s part of the fun of being a reader, don’t you think?) It’s more of an observation, and I think it’s pretty funny to contemplate. I mean who hasn’t done this with at least one book that’s been brought into the house at some time?)

Thinking about it, I’m not sure what the impetus for these admittedly far-reached reading dreams may be – perhaps I read about it on a blog somewhere or via a book review, perhaps it was bought up in casual conversation with a booky friend or maybe it was just drudged up from the long-ago past and I just happened to be reminded of the title as I browsed one of the shelves. It is as others have said many times (and this is an incredibly vague paraphrase here), “…for where is a heart so weak as in a bookstore [or other booky place]”…

So, I decided to take a look along my own particular bookshelves to see if I had an inordinate number of Titles of Shame – sad volumes who, through no fault of their own, have remained untouched and unmoved off their shelf, watching other books be chosen (or not as the case may be). Which regrettable titles (although obviously thought worthy at the time of purchase) would be found during this observation?

(…Time passes…)

passing_timeIt wasn’t too bad. I’m pretty good at getting rid of books that aren’t of interest any more so I don’t have that many Failed Dream titles hanging around. I did have two books about foreign languages, one for French and one for Spanish, but I still hold out a fragile hope for those two titles. I even think I have one for Latin, but I’ve already tried that and crossed it off the list. (Oh my god. The declensions, the conjugations, the tenses!)

(Oh, and Superhero suggested that I add all the cookbooks to the Failed Dream title group as well, but I pretended not to hear that.)

I think if I had looked closely at my infinite TBR list(s) that they would more closely mirror my intended self. They are pretty wide-ranging in scope and, I would have to admit, even a touch optimistic in places, but I say “aim high.” The old “Ad astra per aspra,” right?

For myself, I’m going to keep the hopeful fire of Hopeful Dream Titles burning. There’s nothin’ wrong with that.

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The Country Diaries: A Year in the British Countryside – Alan Taylor (ed.) (2009)

“Diarists create by accumulation, putting into print what they see and hear and think daily.”

Alan Taylor, editor.

A day-by-day year-round anthology of diaries from writers whose lives revolve around the life of the British countryside (so not just England). This is a fascinating trip across fields and centuries from 1672 to the early 2000’s, and covers all social classes from rather poor (via literate curates) to stinking rich so the collection covers the gamut of life. With such a wide range of description of the appreciations of country life, it would be easy for the editor to choose the sort of bucolic “Cider with Rosie” descriptions, but he has included both the highs and the lows of everyday life.

Admittedly, this is a collection of (mostly) white males, but I would bet that that is due to the sample of available writing more than any bias of the editor. Female diarists include Beatrix Potter (who is truly hilarious in places), one Elizabeth M. Harland (who was first published in 1950 – not heard of her), Emily Smith (1817-1877, a contemporary of Thos. Hardy and not heard of her before) and one Alice Dudeney, all of whom were pretty prolific in their writings. I will definitely be searching for some of their work if I can track it down.

Reading about inclement weather when it’s been a really hot August in West Texas was a real treat, and I had quite forgotten how short British summers could be – and how wet! Day after day of rainy weather, chilly temperatures and cloudy skies – pretty much the opposite of here and fun to contrast the two… It also took me back to English childhood and adolescence, a time that seems so far away and yet also seems to have happened yesterday in some cases…

Two rather funny excerpts:

30 April 1830, Radnorshire.  Rev. Francis Kilvert.

“This evening being May Eve I ought to have put some birch and wittan [mountain ash] over the door to keep out the “old witch.” But I was too lazy to go out and get it. Let us hope the old witch will not come in during the night. Young witches are welcome.”

11 November 1799, Somerset. William Holland (rector).

“Rain last night too and the morning not very promising, tis surely dreadful weather. Briffet is here to kill the sow.  A horrible looking fellow, his very countenance is sufficient to kill anything, a large hulky fellow, a face absolutely furrowed with the small pox (a very uncommon things in these days of inoculations), two ferret eyes and little turned up nose with a mouth as wide as a barn door and lips as thick and projecting like two rollers of raw beef bolstered up to guard against, as it were, the approach to his ragged rotten teeth. However, he is a good pig killer.”

(Back-handed compliment, methinks. :-))

Remember, Remember: Everything You’ve Ever Wanted to Know about British History with all the Boring bits taken out – Judy Parkinson (2009)

An intriguing book that my sister gave to me last Christmas, this was, quite honestly, the perfect re-introduction to British history from way back to the Vikings through to the close of World War II. Obviously not an in-depth look at these historical events, but it does do exactly what it says on the tin: “a comprehensive overview that gives you all the key facts without any flab.”

As any British schoolchild will know, there is just so much history to cover when you learn British history, that it all ends up as a jumble of dates, kings and queens, and various wars. The editors developed this book as an answer to all the gaps we have in our heads from school day history lessons. There are 150 entries, each about 250 words long, and with just enough information for you to get the facts. Obviously, there is a lot more detail to the history, but to give you a taste of things, this was great.

For example, at my old school, we covered Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Romans, some Vikings, the history of Native Americans (why?) and women’s emancipation (obviously a biggie for a large private girls’ school from Victorian times). So, I don’t know if teachers were “teaching to the test” as they do here in Texas or just how the time periods were selected but it seemed very random and unconnected to me.

“Remember, Remember” is divided into several different time periods: Roman Britain, the Dark Ages, the Middle Ages, Tudor Britain, Stuart Britain, Georgian Britain, Victorian Britain, Edwardian Britain, WWI, the Interwar Years, and WWII. There is an easy to access list of Monarchs (lots of Edwards, Henrys and Georges for some reason), and a time line of the larger events. What worked so well, actually, was the logical chronological order of one event leading to another so you could see the flow and continuity of history, as different monarchs had different areas of interest.

I also found it interesting to see how long the battle between the Roman Catholic church and the Church of England (CofE), and how it all played out over time, Additionally, it cleared up my confusion over the Northern Ireland/Ireland division and who the IRA were and how it all fit in. I was a school girl during the 1970’s, and we grew up with regular bomb threats, bomb drills, avoiding left luggage etc, but not completely understanding what was really going on. Now it’s a little clearer.

I might be gushing a bit, but this was one of the most fascinating (and helpful) books that I have read in a long time. Now, I wonder if there is one for post-WWII to the turn of the century. I have some gaps there as well….

Added later: I found one in the series that covers US history, so will delve into that when it arrives in my post box. 🙂