Friday, February 1, 2008

Charles Dickens

Yes, that's right. Charles Dickens, the author of A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist, straight out of the period of the Industrial Revolution and the reign of Queen Victoria. You're probably thinking, "What? That's serious literature! And it's so old-fashioned and wordy, and the books are so long, how is li'l ole me supposed to choke them down?"

Well, you got through Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, didn't you? And if you're an American reader, the number of British expressions you would have to look up is only slightly higher in Dickens. And, as I've said time and time again, the similarities between J. K. Rowling and Charles Dickens are not to be sneezed at.

Actually, Dickens was a very popular author, and really he still is. His works fall into a category you could call "romantic melodrama" with a touch of moralizing satire on the social conditions of his time. He wrote his books in the form of installments in weekly or monthly magazines, which did very well in subscriptions (well, most of them), and only later came out in book form. The public followed the serial adventures of his heroes with bated breath, much as today's readers slaver over the next installment of Harry Potter. [EDIT: When this was written, only 4 Harry Potter books were in print.] He was hounded by fans to do public readings of his own works (he had a theatrical streak, though). And highbrow literary types always looked down their nose at him as a popular hack, a mere entertainer. But, he is that much more beloved, and his books are still well loved.

The typical Dickens novel is a broad, sprawling panorama of eventful plot lines, dotted with entertaining pieces of poetry, song, and folk tale, populated by a rich cast of distinctive characters, and focusing on (usually) one small, young, innocent person's efforts to overcome the obstacles thrown in their way by many bigger, older, nastier people. He created so many great characters that to this day, many common "types" in book, stage, and film, can be traced to the likes of Fagin, Steerforth, Pecksniff, Carton, Mrs. Sparsit, Sam Weller, etc.--all his proud creations.

Fans of Harry Potter will be particularly taken by the stories of orphan boys, disadvantaged in every way, who pull themselves up by their bootstraps (more or less): Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, and Nicholas Nickleby. The plight of under-appreciated, hardworking young women also makes good reading in Dombey and Son, Little Dorrit, and Hard Times. For a farcical adventure in the English countryside, see The Pickwick Papers. For a bittersweet tragedy of breathtaking power, see A Tale of Two Cities. For a young artist's tale of unrequited love, see Great Expectations. For a scathingly sarcastic depiction of Selfishness and its effects, see Martin Chuzzlewit (which features scenes in America so harsh in their satire that Dickens had to publish a disclaimer). Other Dickens masterpieces include Bleak House, The Old Curiosity Shop, the historical novel Barnaby Rudge, and Our Mutual Friend.

These stories are very accessible to modern readers, even ones who have never mastered such masterworks as Moby Dick or The Scarlet Letter. (Those two aren't by Dickens, by the way.) References to people, events, and literature that was better known in Dickens' day than in ours, and expressions lost in time (or, for non-British readers, expressions that simply never made it across the Pond) may require some explanation. So I recommend the Oxford Classics edition more for British readers, and the Penguin Classics edition for American and non-British readers, because of how thoroughly the endnotes explain these useful expressions. And keep a spare bookmark in the endnotes for easy reference.

David Copperfield
by Charles Dickens
Recommended Age: 14+

Some call him Mas'r Davy bor, some call him Trot. Don't even ask why. You'll find out, hopefully before you've read far in this book, that it is not about the magician with the creepy eyes who used to do things like make the Great Wall of China disappear. It isn't that kind of a parallel to Harry Potter.

This one is about an English orphan boy who struggles to make a life for himself, in spite of a hideous stepfather and his spinster sister, a spell working in a sweat-shop, a spell under the rod of a cruel schoolmaster, associations with people who spend time in debtors' prisons, the care of an extremely eccentric Great Aunt, apprenticeship under a rather dishonest attorney, a friendship that leads to betrayal, shame, and tragedy, and the malice of a villain who has the bad taste to be called Uriah Heep. And young David doesn't make things easier, by marrying the wrong girl in the heat of passion, and seemingly blowing his chance with the right girl.

Probably Dickens' most autobiographical novel, it is told from David's first-person point of view, taking in all the events from just before he is born until he finally finds true happiness. It's a pretty bumpy journey, and you can sympathize with him for many of the same reasons you love Harry Potter. Only in this melodrama, magic isn't the solution to the young man's problems. Simply put, love must triumph over hatred, forgiveness over vengeance, virtue over vice, and goodness over greed.

The characters are stunning: Handsome, easy-going, back-stabbing James Steerforth...the harsh, puritanical Murdstones...the angelic Agnes Wickfield...the girlish Dora Spenlow...the tragedy-ridden family of Pegotty...the debt-ridden family of Micawber...the absent-minded linguist Dr. Strong, and all their family connections...the slightly mental Mr. Dick...the more than slightly evil Heep...the strong-minded yet tender-hearted Aunt Betsey...Martha, and Emily, and Ham, and "lone, lorn" Mrs. Gummidge...and the deadly storm at Yarmouth, which becomes almost a character in its own right. When you finish this book, you may feel that you have really lived a whole life in its pages.

David Copperfield was the author's all-time favorite among his own novels. Maybe it will be yours too. Give it a shot! [IMAGE: Daniel Radcliffe as David Copperfield!]

Dombey and Son
by Charles Dickens
Recommended Age: 14+

Many great writers and creative artists are said to go through different "periods" of artistic development. Dickens is no exception. Not to bore you with the details, his early novels had their weaknesses, and his later novels might come off a bit pessimistic. But in between there was a stretch of masterpieces, in which Dickens was at the top of his art. One of those middle-period masterpieces is called Dombey and Son.

The title comes from the name of an import-export firm which has been passed from father to son through many generations of the Dombey family. So naturally the current Dombey is very impatient to have a son to inherit the firm after him. Perhaps because of this--at least partly because of this, to be sure--Paul Dombey Sr. doesn't have much love to spare for his daughter Florence, or his wife. Also, he has conceived an unjust resentment toward his daughter, whom his wife loves more than she loves him, and (after his wife dies giving birth to their son, Paul Jr.) who also seems to steal little Paul's love.

Things are not helped when, in one of the all-time most heartbreaking passages I have read, the sickly boy dies in Florence's arms...or when, having married a haughty young noblewoman for reasons other than love, Dombey finds that his second wife prefers Florence's company as well...until the tragedy sown by Dombey's injustice to his devoted daughter, finally bears fruit in a bitter harvest. The scene in which Dombey drives Florence from his house is the epitome of crushing, tragic climax. But it is also a redemptive turning point.

Thrill to such descriptions of characters as "he had a complexion like Stilton cheese, and eyes like a prawn"...chill to depictions of pure evil, like the "good mother" who abducts Florence in her childhood...and share the joys and sorrows of such salt-of-the-earth characters as the woman whose love for Paul Dombey (Sr.) is never returned...the awkward Mr. Toodles whose love for Florence is equally unrequited...the puppy love between Walter Gay and Florence Dombey...the unjustly-fired nanny whose son Robin becomes a pawn of evil...the virtuous couple who live in shame (because of past sins) while their self-righteous brother commits very present crimes...and my favorite of all, poor Captain Cuttle, who loses everyone he loves and gets them back again, and who lives in mortal fear that his widowed landlady will force him to marry her.

All this is wonderful, but it is nothing compared to the suspense that builds as the immovable object and the irresistable force, matrimonially speaking, put ever greater pressure on each other in the marriage of Paul and Edith Dombey. All while sweet, innocent, loving Florence--the pattern of all Dickens' angelic heroines, based on the memory of a beloved sister-in-law who died young--while Florence, who only wants her father to love her as she loves him, suffers most of all.

This is a powerful story. It isn't as well known, outside the mysterious circle of "well-read people," as say, A Tale of Two Cities or Great Expectations. But that's only because Hollywood hasn't discovered it yet. I hope you discover it soon. [EDIT: Dombey and Son has been adapted for film three times - a silent film in 1917, and two TV miniseries, in 1969 and 1983.]

Hard Times
by Charles Dickens
Recommended Age: 16+

Dickens' shortest novel is set in the age of the Industrial Revolution, when industrialists made their fortune while the laborers who worked for them slaved in dangerous and unhealthy conditions. It is set in the Age of Reason, when the prevailing philosophy of the day held that the only motive that really mattered to people was Self-Interest, and that the only thing people should be allowed to believe in from the cradle upward is pure, unadulterated Fact.

Enter Mr. Thomas Gradgrind, who has raised his five children along these strict, utilitarian lines. The choice results of his experiment are Louisa, who marries a blustering tycoon she does not love and is tempted within an inch of adultery by an immoral playboy; and Thomas Jr., also known as "the whelp," who sullenly exploits everyone for his own pleasure, and who finally brings the deepest shame and heartbreak on the family.

Tightly plotted, with an economy of words, incidents, and characters that is not typical of Dickens, Hard Times is partly a critique of a political and economic movement that was taking England by storm in the 1850's, and partly a demonstration of Dickens' belief that children need wonder in their lives--fairy tales, make-believe, fancy--and that the hard-working people need recreational pursuits to beguile their time off and relieve the tedium and stress of their workaday lives. This pitted Dickens against temperance (anti-alcohol) activists and Sabbatarians (who demanded that nothing should be allowed to go on, on Sundays, except church services). He also bashes both sides in the corruption-contest between organized labor and their industrialist employers, and lambastes the unjust system that made divorce legal only for the very rich.

For such a socially conscious, agenda-driven book, it is also a surprisingly human story about the blighted hearts of Louisa and Tom, and the saving grace of the abandoned clown's daughter Sissy Jupe. You will pity and love Rachael and Stephen, not to mention Sissy. You will loathe and despise Bounderby, Harthouse, Bitzer, and Mrs. Sparsit. You will be stunned by the death scene of Mrs. Gradgrind, thrilled by the revelation of Mrs. Pegler's true identity, and moved by the final scene between the honest workman who was unjustly accused of a bank robbery, and the woman who loved him. And finally, you will laugh out loud at Mr. Sleary of the horse-riding circus, who is both screamingly funny and deeply touching. Sleary provides both the comic relief this story so desperately needs and the final proof in evidence that people need amusements and popular distractions, diversions for reality, play and fun and "wonder"--to use, not abuse--in order to be the best students, the best workers, the best citizens, and the best human beings they can be.

This flies right in the face of uppity literary critics and downity religious fanatics, who would like nothing better than to squash the Harry Potter phenomenon. So, all the more reason for J. K. Rowling fans to become acquainted with Charles Dickens!

Little Dorrit
by Charles Dickens
Recommended Age: 14+

Towards the end of his life, when Dickens was without dispute the master of his craft, he wrote this rich, compelling, many-layered story about life in a debtor's prison...and out of it. The "shadow of the Marshalsea" falls on William Dorrit, who takes his family with him to the notorious debtor's jail in which Dickens' own father spent some time. How the experience alters him and his children, both during and after their years in the place, are the central thread of the story.

Also woven in is the melancholy journey of Arthur Clennam, the 40-something bachelor who has not been well-served in love, and who seems oblivious to his chance for true happiness with young Amy Dorrit--the title character of the novel. But also standing in the way, or at least complicating things for the couple, are a ridiculous ex-fiancee who talks nonstop (Harry Potter actress Miriam Margolyes (Professor Sprout) won awards for portraying this character in a British film); a worthless rival suitor for a pretty girl's hand; a couple of women who live to be contrary to everyone including themselves; a bitter, paralytic old lady who has means and motive for keeping both Amy and Arthur as miserable as can be; the aptly-named Barnacle family who uses their stranglehold on government patronage to obstruct progress of any kind; and worst of all, a wily, dastardly Frenchman who stands a chance of ruining everything for everybody.

And if that isn't enough to fill one very thick book, I might also mention the tragedy of Amy's sister Fanny, who marries a complete doofus because she wants to put down her haughty mother-in-law...the embezzler who takes his own life along with the fortunes of many others, good and bad...a developmentally disabled adult who becomes so attached to the industrious young figure of Amy Dorrit that she calls her the "little mother"...a rent-collector who is constantly made to resemble a steam-engine in one of the crowning examples of extended metaphor in all English literature...and the hopelessness of contracting a happy marriage between a family of poor nobles (who want money) and a family of rich commoners (who want family connections). But most of all, I want to mention the fact that if you read the first chapter of this book, you will be so hooked that you won't have any trouble reading the rest of it. I don't think I have ever read a more perfect opening chapter. Let me quote in part:
Thirty years ago, Marseilles lay burning in the sun, one day.

A blazing sun upon a fierce August day was no greater rarity in southern France then, than at any other time, before or since. Every thing in Marseilles, and about Marseilles, had stared at the fervid sky, and been stared at in return, until a staring habit had become universal there. Strangers were stared out of countenance by staring white houses, staring white walls, staring white streets, staring tracts of arid road, staring hills from which verdure was burnt away. The only things to be seen not fixedly staring and glaring were the vines drooping under their load of grapes. These did occasionally wink a little, as the hot air barely moved their faint leaves.

...The wide stare stared itself out for one while; the sun went down in a red, green, golden glory; the stars came out in the heavens, and the fire-flies mimicked them in the lower air, as men may feebly imitate the goodness of a better order of beings; the long dusty roads and the interminable plains were in repose--and so deep a hush was on the sea, that it scarcely whispered of the time when it shall give up its dead.
Do you see what I mean? Though not as widely-known as Dickens' other books such as A Tale of Two Cities or Oliver Twist, Little Dorrit is as good as any of them. If these excerpts have intrigued you, I assure you, the book is worth your time!

EDIT: Besides the 1988 film referenced above, Little Dorrit has been the subject of films in 1913, 1920, and 1934, the lattermost in German, and a TV miniseries currently in development. IMAGE: Alec Guinness as William Dorrit.

Martin Chuzzlewit
by Charles Dickens
Recommended Age: 16+

Americans occasionally complain that there aren't any American characters or American episodes in Harry Potter. Now if they would only read Dickens, they might not make that complaint. When Dickens took his characters across the Atlantic Pond and deep inside the American interior--and those were frontier days--well, what he had to say didn't sit well with some Americans. But, to be fair to the Great One, he only did to American institutions and manners what he always did to British ones. He displayed their virtues and vices, and savagely ridiculed their conceits, in hope of correcting the vices and strengthening the virtues.

The vice that principally comes under attack in Martin Chuzzlewit isn't only, or even primarily, a British one. That vice is the love of Self. And most unusually, the title character and hero of the story is, at first, an extremely unattractive young man because of this very thing. But his sojourn in America changes him for the better. Meanwhile, back in England, Martin's grandfather (also called Martin Chuzzlewit) is fighting his own crusade against the selfishness in other people, while failing to recognize it in himself.

Nevertheless, neither of the Martin Chuzzlewits of this book come close to Seth Pecksniff--who, in terms of the amount of the narrative given over to him, is probably the real main character. No one can touch old S. P. when it comes to hypocrisy and self-serving conduct, he is simply the Grand Dragon and Lord High Poobah of the arts of dissembling and cunning.

And yet even Pecksniff isn't the worst villain of the story. For that you have to go to another Chuzzlewit named Jonas, who...well, I don't want to give away too much, but your heart will bang against your ribs when you read about it.

To make a long story short, Martin Sr. thinks all his relatives are out to get his considerable fortune, and he is quite right. He is disgusted with self-serving people who, if they had half a chance, would have him put away in an institution and declared "of unsound mind" until he made out a will in their favor. Though suffering from physical ailments and, apparently, declining mentally as well, Martin Sr. obstinately sets himself against all such people, and takes refuge in the company of a disinterested girl named Mary.

Meanwhile, Martin Jr. has fallen in love with Mary, and because of his obstinacy (combined with Martin Sr.'s ditto), the two Martins have a falling out. Martin becomes, for a while, an apprentice to a distant cousin and architect named Pecksniff, who uses his skill at hypocrisy to bring the elder Martin under his influence...and to send the younger Martin packing on the hard road to self-discovery.

Also entering the narrative are Pecksniff's daughters, Mercy and Charity--both of whom are as dreadful as their father, at first, and one of whom eventually repents. Then there is the wonderful character of Tom Pinch, the angel of this story, who along with his delicate sister Ruth undergoes more injustices and tear-jerking disappointments than any single soul should have to endure. You will also enjoy the character of John Westlock, who of all characters in the book seems to be the "romantic lead," and of Martin Jr.'s outrageous servant Mark Tapley, whose goal in life is to be a miserable as possible so that, by "coming out strong in trying circumstances" he can really earn credit for being jolly.

And finally, among the many, many notable characters who cross the stage in this tale, I must prepare you for Mrs. Gamp: the extremely talkative, tippling nurse who in Dickens' public readings of his works, was one of his most popular characters. I believe her characterization led to reforms of the private nursing industry. Oh yes! And almost every Dickens book has a character with a name so outrageous that you just have to laugh. May I have the honor of introducing you to Chevy Slyme, Esq.?

There is so much stuff crammed into this huge book--and so much of it is bitingly, acidly sarcastic--that reading it may be a daunting project. Perhaps too daunting even to begin. So let me make one more suggestion. Read it the way it was published: serially. Modern editions such as the Oxford and Penguin Classics indicate the breaks between the "numbers" in which the novel first appeared in monthly magazines. What a way to write a book, eh! But the dramatic rise and fall of each "number," while it can lull you over a long haul, can make a very satisfying and do-able reading experience if you go one number at a time. Each number is about 25-40 pages long and consists of two or three chapters, usually; a good night's reading, before going to bed! And the climax of the book is a "double number," just right when you've reached the point where you can't put the book down.

But first, I urge you...pick it up! [IMAGE: Paul Scofield as Martin Chuzzlewit Sr.]

Nicholas Nickleby
by Charles Dickens
Recommended Age: 14+

Roald Dahl apparently considered this a book every child should be familiar with. He mentions it in more than one of his stories for the young. I second that opinion. Of all the young heroes whose struggles form the meat of Dickens' novels, I personally like Nicholas Nickleby best. It may not be his strongest novel, from any technical standpoint, but young Nicholas is definitely his strongest hero. No pale, sickly waif this; touch this young man where his honor (or his family's honor) lies, and he will touch you back! Okay, he's not perfect, he's not altogether wise and self-controlled, he is a bit headstrong--but he is a hero to cheer for!

Nicholas' father dies, leaving him at age 17 the head of his family, with nothing but debts to their name. So he, his mother, and his younger sister Kate betake themselves to London to seek help from his father's moneylender brother, Uncle Ralph. But Ralph Nickleby is as cruel as he is stingy, and he takes an instant dislike to Nicholas. Consigning him to a miserable teaching job in the Yorkshire school Dotheboys Hall (run by the despicable rogue Wackford Squeers), Ralph takes advantage of the lad's absence to put Kate in, er, socially compromising positions. Some of these involve a world-class cad named Sir Mulberry Hawk and an ill-fated dupe with the hard-to-forget name of Lord Verisopht.

But you can't keep a good Nickleby down. After memorably beating the Yorkshire schoolmaster with his own cane, Nicholas runs away with a consumptive boy named Smike who forms a deep attachment to him. The two join the outrageous acting troupe of Vincent Crummles for a while, then return to London to save Kate and Nick's mother from the nefarious designs of Uncle Ralph. The siblings try their hands at other means of living, revealing more of the foibles of British society at the time. Meanwhile, the vengeful Ralph tries other ways of hurting Nicholas: through his heart.

In a climax that involves Ralph's alcoholic secretary, a dark secret from the past, a beautiful girl and her debt-prone father, and a pair of twin brother philanthropists named the Brothers Cheeryble, the good Nicklebys are finally sorted out from the bad, everyone gets their just desserts, and a bright future dawns for the little family led by our impulsive young hero.

After you read this book, and love it of course, look out for the excellent American-made (!) film of this book, recently released on video with Christopher Plummer as Ralph Nickleby, Jim Broadbent as Squeers, and Nathan Lane as Crummles. The perfect cast also includes Timothy "Wormtail" Spall and David "Filch" Bradley. As for the book itself, which was only Dickens' third full-length novel, Dickens' portrayal of Squeers actually led to reforms of the Yorkshire schools. Some readers (including essayist G. K. Chesterton) say Nicholas Nickleby is the book that marked Dickens' real entry into the brotherhood of Great Novelists. See for yourself!

EDIT: Of this book there have been 8 movies, including 4 made for TV. Compare that to Martin Chuzzlewit's 4 movies, 2 of them for TV; or, on the other hand, David Copperfield's 15 movies, 8 of them for TV. IMDB them yourself (he said grumpily). IMAGES: Jim Broadbent as Squeers; Charlie Hunnam as Nicholas Nickleby.

Oliver Twist
by Charles Dickens
Recommended Age: 14+

For some reason this is one of Dickens' best-loved and most-enacted stories, after A Christmas Carol. I really don't understand this, because among the great one's novels that I have read so far, this was my least favorite. I can't speak for everyone, however. But it was only Dickens' second novel, after all; and it has the structural weaknesses that can often beset a beginning novelist, even after his first success (The Pickwick Papers). All the same, it is full of the variety of vividly portrayed people and emotionally intense happenings that lovers of Dickens have come to expect.

What keeps a reader ploughing through a book so thick is, usually, a great conflict that rises to a big climax and is finally resolved at the end. My main complaint with Oliver Twist is that the real conflict of the story seems to resolve itself too easily and too early. However, the characters will captivate you right to the end, as you will long to find out what happens to Fagin and the Artful Dodger and the vicious criminal Bill Sikes. Not to mention the love story between Henry and Rose, the fate of Noah Claypole, and the secret of little Oliver's mysterious parentage.

Born in a workhouse for the poor, to a mother who staggered out of nowhere and died in childbirth, his origins unknown, young Oliver is brought up from infancy under the cruel Poor Laws which Dickens helped to make notorious, and which finally got repealed in part because of this book. After the notorious incident in which the liveried Beadle finds the child's request for more porridge scandalous, he is apprenticed to a very unpleasant undertaker. Soon little Oliver runs away to London to try his luck there. He is soon taken in by a band of thieves who are determined to destroy Oliver's virtue...or destroy him. But with the help of some good people, Oliver makes his escape and helps bring the villains to justice.

Not the most perfect novel by the master who published his books serially in magazines under the pseudonym "Boz" (wait till you see the original illustrations by "Phiz"!), Oliver Twist is still a story to awaken your pity for a very gentle, vulnerable child who needs all the help he can get to grow up good and strong...and who cannot get that help from the state. It is a story to awaken your outrage at laws and philosophies that put hypocrisy in place of charity, and above all, a story to inspire needy and suffering children with the view that crime is not the only way out of a tough neighborhood...or even the best way.

As long as you can believe in a character like Oliver, who puts his virtue on the same level of importance as his very life, you can believe in the possibility of a better world. I think Harry Potter does the same thing. But he owes something to Oliver Twist.

EDIT: Out of literally dozens of films and TV programs based on this novel, including a musical that won the Oscar for Best Picture, the one I personally recommend is the 2005 version directed by Roman Polanski. IMAGE: Barney Clark as Oliver Twist.

The Pickwick Papers
by Charles Dickens
Recommended Age: 14+

The actual title is The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. This is the first novel Dickens wrote. Some would argue that his first real novel was, say, Nicholas Nickleby, but let's not split hairs. The idea came about in an interesting way. He had published a number of articles in various magazines, and a publisher approached Dickens with the proposal of doing a series of satirical "sporting pieces" that would, essentially, pull the nose of all the gentlemanly pastimes of contemporary (1836-7) England.

There wasn't supposed to be a real plot line running through the series; the thread connecting them would be simply a set of farcical characters centered around Samuel Pickwick, a well-to-do amateur anthropologist who goes out into the countryside to observe different kinds of recreation such as shooting, cricket, journalism, and Parliamentary elections. And each piece was supposed to be written to go with an illustration by a certain artist who was well established in the trade, and thought that he was in control of the creative collaboration.

Well, the illustrator soon found out how wrong he was. He soon found that the literary genius of Charles Dickens wanted an illustrator to cater to it, not vice versa. And as a result, the illustrator literally blew his brains out after only one "number." A few months after this tragedy Dickens established his lifelong creative partnership with illustrator Hablot K. Browne, and the two wrote and sketched under the respective pen-names of Boz and Phiz.

As for the novel itself, it gradually coalesced into a true novel with an actual plot, and characters that developed into more than they were at the beginning. This unexpected development turns The Pickwick Papers, by degrees, from a series of raucously funny sketches, into a full-blown novel that is as emotionally powerful, at its climax, as almost anything Dickens wrote.

Full of stories and songs, ridiculous descriptions of social foibles, and the awesome presence of Pickwick's cockney servant Sam Weller, this book falls into the literary category (here I go again) known as picaresque. In case I didn't scare you off just now, that word means that it's a satirical story in which you get a guided tour of the real world, guided by a Wise Fool who is only wrong when he's sure he's right, and who is most right when he seems most wrong. Sometimes Pickwick is your guide, but most of the time Sam Weller is. Even if you have never loved a fictional character before, you will love Sam Weller. And for the reasons he loves Samuel Pickwick--ridiculous as Pickwick seems, at first--you will come to love Pickwick too.

So many things happen in this book that I fear I would ruin your enjoyment by giving any of them away, but just to whet your appetite, there is the melodrama surrounding the nefarious "adventurer" Alfred Jingle...the story of a man who gets locked out of his boarding-house naked in the middle of the night...a man who finds himself fighting a duel because someone else wearing his clothes caused a scandal...the fat boy who is always either eating or sleeping, except on unlucky occasions when someone is hoping not to be observed...and the whole legal nightmare that develops when Pickwick's landlady mistakes his request for a new manservant as a proposal of marriage, which ultimately becomes the core of this novel.

What more can I say of a book in which a man hears that his worst enemy has gotten married, and replies: "Serves him right!"

A Tale of Two Cities
by Charles Dickens
Recommended Age: 16+

A friend of mine says that he could never read this book because the first paragraph ("It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...") did him in. If you feel the same way, then for God's sake skip the first paragraph. For otherwise you are missing out on one of the most powerful novels in our language.

I won't promise that this is an easy book to begin, but once you really begin it, it is a hard book to put down. It was the first book by Dickens that I read and, on the strength of my love for it, I made it all the way through Oliver Twist (which I did not like so well). It has that kind of power.

Some would say that if you know what's going to happen too early on, the suspense is gone and the fun of reading it is spoiled. I say that if you've read A Tale of Two Cities, you know better. This book is so well-crafted that, from the half-way point at the very latest, you will probably know exactly how it is going to end. Yet you will be drawn, through agonizing suspense and reams upon reams of Kleenex, to the very last sentence. After which, if anything on a printed page can touch your heart, you might sit with the book closed on your lap and just cry for a while.

This is both a historical romance novel (set in the French Revolution at the turn of the 19th century) and a strikingly realistic character novel, written in a style ahead of its time. Nothing else that Dickens wrote, as far as I have read to date, comes close to this. I cannot begin to express how important it is that you forget what you saw on Hallmark Hall of Fame and read this book for yourself.

Only then will the closing sentences of this book ("It is a far, far better thing...") hit you with their full, ballistic power. Only then will the preposterous idea on which the whole plot turns, become so sublime that you would sooner disbelieve the laws of gravity than question whether Sidney Carton would--or could--really take the place of Charles Darnay. Only then will you truly understand how low the hatred of Madame Defarge can pull you down, or how high the love of Lucie Manette can lift you up. Only then, after reading this surprisingly short novel, will you understand why Charles Dickens is not just a great entertainer, but one of the great artists of English fiction.

This is a story of love and sacrifice, of heroism in a time of terror, and of the way a seemingly worthless and insignificant person can stem the tide of events and, perhaps, even redeem himself. Themes like this should resonate with Harry Potter fans, I think. But if you like reading, and if you want to care about the people you read about, this is simply a novel you must read. Before, after, or even instead of any and all of Dickens' other books, I recommend A Tale of Two Cities.

EDIT: Here is IMDB's list of A Tale of Two Cities film adaptations. And just for good measure, here is what The Pickwick Papers turned up.

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