Oliver Twist critiques abject poverty from the mean streets of 17th century London

Oliver Twist tells the story of abject poverty from the mean streets of London, England in the early 1800s. Published in serial form from 1837-1839 by Charles Dickens, the story focuses largely on the abuse of indigent orphan Oliver after his years of mistreatment in a private workhouse. Oliver flees the workhouse after being beaten in response to a rebellion among the malnourished orphans. In that request for proper quantities of food, Oliver was chosen by the orphans to ask for more food to ease his famine level hunger.

Oliver Twist 2 (Oliver asking for more food)

Oliver Twist is a largely autobiographical piece written from the point of view of characters with dark and cruel intentions towards the poor and downtrodden. The major action after leaving the orphanage are especially true of Dickens‘ background, though much of the adventure was contrived for the serial reader. Think of the novel as having been written for an audience of television viewers in a time before there was television.

Oliver Twist 3 (Charles Dickens)

Much of the action for this novel occurs when Oliver is roughly 10 to 12 years old. The moralizing that Dickens aims for was to challenge the Victorian age notion that the poor were born to their lot from birth, were essentially born in a criminal status owing to this, and to challenge the injustice of this societal treatment of the poor. Many will recognize this theme from other works of Dickens, with the novella A Christmas Carol as seen on stage and in movie format across many adaptations.

In Oliver Twist, Oliver joins company with John Dawkins, The Artful Dodger, and Fagin, the head of a group of criminals who teach Oliver to act as a common criminal by picking pockets. Oliver goes out with Charles Bates and the Dodger, struggling with his conscience as he is forced by necessity to act in a thieving, morally objectionable way.

Oliver gains his freedom when rescued by a benefactor, Mr. Brownlow, who notices a resemblance that Oliver bears to a portrait of a young woman in Brownlow’s home. This happenstance bears fruit much later in the larger narrative of bringing the tale to resolution. In the meantime, Fagin has set his crew locate themselves in a new headquarters. Fagin elicits the help of Nancy Sikes to bring Oliver back to the band of criminals in order to continue in this ignoble trade.

Oliver Twist 4(Nancy helping capture Oliver)

Eager to get Oliver completely in his power by entangling the child in deeper aspects of their criminal activity, Fagin convinces Bill Sikes to use Oliver in a major burglary. Taken west of the city, Oliver is used to gain access to a house that is to be robbed through a window. In the resulting scene, Oliver is shot in the confusion of the event while those responsible for the planning make their escape. Oliver is left for dead, though through happenstance survives long enough to be granted assistance by those he would have robbed. Before this assistance, the malfeasance of even these well-to-do benefactors is called into question.

Fagin makes inquiries after Bill Sikes when the above details are revealed. He then has an ominous meeting with a person called Monks, who is angry with Fagin, who he claims has failed in his obligation to ruin Oliver by tricking him into a lawless life. In my opinion, it is here that some modern day readers might lose Dickens. Following the many hustles and motivations tend to lose some folks. Keep in mind that were you to read this more like binge watching a television series, some of that confusion would be alleviated.

Fagin later discloses some double-dealing Nancy takes on behalf of Oliver, owing as her heart has sympathy for Oliver’s goodness in battling against evil. Meanwhile, Mr. Brownlow has been searching for Monks since the Oliver’s disappearance at Nancy’s hands.

With the help of Nancy’s change of heart and some discoveries Nancy herself made in service of Brownlow for Oliver’s benefit, Brownlow learns of Monks’ vindictive conspiracy with Fagin to destroy Oliver. Faced with this and other revelations of Monks’ criminal behavior, plus Brownlow’s reminder of Monks’ complicity in the murder of Nancy by Bill Sykes, Monks agrees to disclose the truth in exchange for immunity. Monks makes restitution to his brother (Oliver) in accordance with the terms of a will in the death of a wealthy relative of both Oliver and Monks.

Oliver Twist 5(Portrait of Agnes Fleming)

You might ask who was in the portrait that struck the fancy of Mr. Brownlow earlier in the book Oliver Twist. The image was none other than Oliver’s mother, Agnes Fleming.

I like classics by Charles Dickens. My rating is 4-stars out of 5.

Matt – Sunday, May 21, 2017

The Year of Magical Thinking offers personal grief and mourning

The Year of Magical Thinking offers personal grief and mourning following the cruel reality of Joan Didion‘s loss of her husband and fellow author, John Gregory Dunne, just as the new year was due to turn from 2003 to 2004. This came on the heals of their daughter, Quintana, having taken seriously ill just before Christmas that same year. The Year of Magical Thinking represents Didion‘s taking this deeply personal series of events, and the year that followed, to mourn, then grieve, and really to reflect through the blows that these big real things in their full magnitude meant to her, her feelings of love for her husband and daughter, and mixtures of feeling responsible, abandoning, abandoned, and the many steps of reconciling to her new reality over the course of the year that followed.

The Year of Magical Thinking 2

This personal telling of the shock of instant mourning and reluctant grieving begins with the awareness that Dunne and Didion had just come from the hospital where their only daughter Quintana had just been placed into a medically induced coma. This necessity had been the result of septic shock having resulted a runaway pneumonia infection. Didion and Dunne had been discussing whatever trifle had been between them over dinner. Per this recounting from The New York Times, “Dunne slumped in his chair with one hand raised, dying so suddenly that for a moment his wife mistook the event for a failed joke.”

Despite the really heart wrenching subject matter of losing her husband like this, and subsequently coping with the coma and numerous complications of her daughter’s condition, could lead you to surmise that The Year of Magical Thinking was a downer of a tale. While dealing in heaviness, Didion uses much of her experience as an accomplished writer to bring forth a much more real, matter-of-fact, and understated yet expressive and personal accounting of the true feeling that underpins these experiences.

The Year of Magical Thinking 3

As the October 2005 account from Robert Pinsky of The New York Times indicates, Didion‘s:

“manner is deadpan funny, slicing away banality with an air that is ruthless yet meticulous. She uses few adjectives. The unshowy, nearly flat surface of her writing is rippled by patterns of repetition: an understatement that, like Hemingway’s, attains its own kind of drama. Repetition and observation narrate emotion by demonstrating it, so that restraint itself becomes poetic[.]”

The effect is to share a deeply personal story of trying to process her new, sudden, and real experience. Didion aims to process her reality, and shares examples of facts she must have come into contact with yet didn’t process until much later. The processing experience for Joan Didion was partly to write to really discover, through that process, what she thought, felt, indeed feels (in the first person of a person in 2005) about her new, raw, and unanticipated reality. The deeper qualities of those feelings are revealed with an intelligence that I truly appreciated.

Back to The New York Times:

“In relation to her daughter’s life-threatening illness, involving a second coma and crisis after one recovery, Didion reflects on the class of very successful people who believe “absolutely in their own management skills,” the power of telephone numbers: the right doctor or donor or politician. This language of privilege that knows its resources, too, becomes at a certain point an evasion: everyone alive, all of us, are at best temporary kings.”

It isn’t an obvious conclusion from The Year of Magical Thinking that, for the year following her husband’s death or her daughter’s ongoing illness, that the new reality of Joan’s singular existence without John, or in the effort to bring about Quintana’s restored health, that Joan has not really completed the grieving process. She certainly has started to come to grasp with her circumstances, and still feels some sense for impractical responsibility for things she clearly couldn’t have controlled. She has made headway in actually understanding components of her husband’s death that will have set her, Joan, onto the path of recovery.

The Year of Magical Thinking 4

Not really having read other narratives of mourning and grief, it is a hard field to hoe for me to really say that I wanted more or less from this first person account. The spare writing style was personally gratifying, and I appreciate the feelings reflected in this forthright narrative. The material is emotionally hard, though not in the graphic sense. I appreciate the direct style of this more than some others might.

My rating is 4-stars out-of-5.

Matt – Sunday, May 14, 2017

God Help the Child by Toni Morrison provides a striking narrative

God Help the Child by Toni Morrison provides a striking narrative into the generational pains of race, intimacy, parenting, love, responding to the injustices of life, and varying degrees of assuaging guilt over life’s sometimes cruel lessons. The moral of this tale is something akin to “children remember what you did to them growing up.”

I am a male in my forties, married without kids, “parent” to a well-mannered dog. In reading Ms. Morrison, there are parts of the struggle that I intellectually recognize as difficult. I may lack some life experience in really feeling what motivated characters in God Help the Child.

timothy 7

My instincts tend toward seeing Sweetness as a product of an environment skewed towards depending excessively on self in a world bent on beating you down. I see here tacit acceptance of a racist construct dictated by when and where she lived. I saw Sweetness passing the cynicism of her experience onto Bride (Lula Ann) as a means of toughening Bride to a place of self-reliance in a world that offered less love than is right.

I feel sympathy for the cultural lot given Sweetness by the larger culture as well as Bride’s father, subject to the same forces and an inflicting force of the self-reliance ethos of Sweetness’ experience. My view is that you love those you’ve loved, in the face of the larger forces of history that may be working against you. I recognize irony for some that could point out that my life experience affords me that privilege.

In trying to gain love from Sweetness, I can understand though not condone Bride’s in childhood attempt to gain the affection of a mother through accusing an innocent woman of a terrible crime. It is a class and color anxiety that strains the life experiences between Sweetness and Bride, with Bride’s journey being the largest narrative of many Morrison articulates.

Booker and Bride have an oddly tense relationship fueled less by class or color tension than by a tension over a difficulty coping with child abuse. Bride, as a dark-skinned black adult of an emotional age similar to a “bone white” child of a prostitute named Rain, grows and receives catharsis in her relationship with Rain. Booker, like Rain, experienced the violence of childhood abuse. We see Booker cope with unhealthy outbursts against those he sees as perpetuating abuse against children he encounters as an adult.

Booker and Bride parent a child together. Unlike Bride’s parents, the promise of these two is to raise the child together as a couple. Sweetness, in learning of the pregnancy yet not the intended relationship, offers a judgment of the pending childhood that echoes the subject seen at least four times in this novel. It is Sweetness that clarifies that inability of the adults to take responsibility for the outcome of children when she summarized her assessment of the pending parenthood: “God help the child.” It is in this that she surmises the cycle of abuse, the overwhelming cynical cycle of abuse, will be repeated for the child of Booker and Bride.

Overall, I give the book 3.5-stars out of 5.

Matt – Monday, May 8, 2017

Hearing the President Elect of Toastmasters speak…in person

Does seeing the President Elect of Toastmasters International speak sound interesting to you? What if I said that the leader of an organization of more than 345,000 people in 142 countries was coming to speak? Might you listen to that?

Would you want to see this gentleman speaker from the island country of Sri Lanka? What if I mentioned that this man would speak about how his country gained independence from Great Britain after World War II? Perhaps he will talk about how Sri Lanka recently freed itself of the ugliness of a 30-year Civil War in less than ten years ago. Would hearing about his experiences surviving the Indian Ocean tsunami and earthquake of 2012 interest you?

President Elect of TM 3

Today, I get to hear Balraj Arunasalam, Distinguished Toastmaster and president of an organization serving almost 350,000 others and me speak in my community about leadership, communication, service, and possibly some of the life experiences that formed his passion for all three of those interests.

President Elect of TM 2

Today’s events bring Mr. Arunaslam from Sri Lanka to my midwestern US community. For a volunteer organization in 142 countries, you can imagine that visiting us is a significant event. In addition to a keynote speech of more than an hour, Mr. Arunasalam will perform another hour of education for our club. Other educational events will be included in the day. A minting of Distinguished Toastmasters occurs today, as does a pair of contests for an area serving more than 100 of the over 15,000 clubs in the larger Toastmasters organization.

As a person that has spoken about Toastmasters International before, today is an exciting day.

Matt – Saturday, April 29, 2017

At the Mountains of Madness with The King of Weird, H.P. Lovecraft

Howard Phillips Lovecraft never amounted to much during his life spent mostly in Providence, Rhode Island. His tombstone reads “I am Providence,” as is readily apparent in the link I’ve attached with his name in the first sentence. The 2015 Philip Eil penned piece in The Atlantic, which aligned to the 125th anniversary of Lovecraft‘s birth, offers you insight into the down-and-out pulp fiction writer of “cosmic horror” that was never appreciated for his craft until after his death. Perhaps that is fair in the face of his reputed racism, though Lovecraft’s work has influenced a notable writer or two.

A recommendation of Lovecraft‘s book At the Mountains of Madness by Stephen King brought me to Lovecraft‘s writing about six weeks ago. I wasn’t quite two-thirds into the book when I discovered how effusive King was about Lovecraft. Consider a December 1995 piece written by Curt Wohleber for American Heritage. In the in-depth article provocatively titled “The Man Who Can Scare Stephen King,” the contemporary King shares the power of Lovecraft‘s influence.

“Now that time has given us some perspective on his work,” says Stephen King, “I think it is beyond doubt that H. P. Lovecraft has yet to be surpassed as the twentieth century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale. …. it is his shadow, so long and gaunt, and his eyes, so dark and puritanical, which overlie almost all of the important horror fiction that has come since.”

In The Atlantic piece, Eil tells us that

“Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine Lovecraft faced such poverty and obscurity, when regions of Pluto are named for Lovecraftian monsters, the World Fantasy Award trophy bears his likeness, his work appears in the Library of America, the New York Review of Books calls him “The King of Weird,” and his face is printed on everything from beer cans to baby books to thong underwear. The author hasn’t just escaped anonymity; he’s reached the highest levels of critical and cultural success. His is perhaps the craziest literary afterlife this country has ever seen.”

A crazy, weird afterlife of a literary perspective following a poverty and obscurity partly derived from shying away from selling himself and his talents. Part of this issues arguably of the man himself.

At the Mountains of Madness 2

Lovecraft tends toward a professorial air in the writing that I have seen, which is specifically the novella At the Mountain of Madness as recommended by King. The book itself gets into other wordly beings far more intelligent then man coming to earth millions of years ago in order to enslave humanity. That notion gives way to main characters approaching the world with scientific or psychological curiosity. Many die while others losing control of their own actions in the present or future. The characters sense psychological well-being, or physical well-being, slipping away while finding themselves powerless to change course.

The main characters in At the Mountain of Madness were educated, rational, and without a spirituality beyond stepping back, recording their impressions scientifically without emotion, philosophy, or a religious fervor beyond their assumed objectivity, their assumed skill in discernment and interpretation and planning, and their overly proper infatuation with an articulation and air that seemed overly formal yet correct.

At the Mountains of Madness 3

For writing from the era between Edgar Allan Poe and the contemporary Stephen King, H. P. Lovecraft gave America a quintessential voice for horror the ostensibly bridged the path between the two behemoths of the American horror style. I am hesitant to pick up another Lovecraft book currently, which might be more a statement of the writing style of the time Lovecraft lived in rather than Lovecraft‘s writing itself. I enjoyed reading At the Mountain of Madness, though I am not sure that I would recommend it. 2.5-stars out-of-five.

Matt – Sunday, April 16, 2017

Love is a fire burning in The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Love is a fire burning in The Road in Cormac McCarthy‘s rendering of the book carrying this name. The Road is a book about the dark, burnt, nuclear wasteland of what is left after an unnamed, unfathomable, yet detailed nuclear oblivion that occurred.

The tale that is The Road is overwhelmingly a dark, desperate tale of two unnamed characters on a journey to the ocean. Where this tale takes place, what ocean the characters aim to visit, or any sense of purpose beyond survival and the desolate, dependent love of father for son, and son for father, is beyond the point. The unflinching connection, mutual support, and need to keep moving for the sake of love and survival, is the story of The Road. The father and son live in the here and now with nothing but to get to tomorrow. The father wants to pass along the behaviors of survival before all else, with a steadfast focus on love for his son; the son wants to give his decency and humanity in the face of nuclear winter, dead humanity, cannibals on their trail, and other enumerated horrors.  The son is motivated by a bigger love that, as yet, isn’t as beaten down by life.

The Road 2

The Road focuses on survival strategies, cunning, and remembering loss. Lost empathy for the rest of humanity is the tug between father and son throughout the tale. The son survives his father at the end of the tale, yet ultimately doubts whether a larger morality, or God, exists. The message Cormac McCarthy leaves us is the thought that God is a highly personal concept that one experiences through heart and mind; for the unnamed son, he ends the journey at stories end bereft of place, time, people, community, and the tangible, day-to-day comfort of his father. The caregivers who will support this child, on the road and beyond the end of the tale, give the boy the wisdom of experiencing God through his memory of his father. After all, McCarthy says, how else do we experience God than through each other?

My rating for The Road by Cormac McCarthy is 3.5-stars out-of-5.

Matt – Sunday, April 9, 2017

Useful metaphor and concrete language in Emotional Agility by Susan David

In Emotional Agility: Get Unstuck, Embrace Change, and Thrive in Work and Life, Susan David offers useful metaphor, specific concepts, and concrete language with suggested actions to take for acknowledging and engaging your emotions.

An early metaphor includes the notion of a baited fishing line of emotional treachery; when hooked by thought blaming, anticipatory thinking / arguing, old and outgrown ideas, or wrongheaded righteousness, people that are hooked act against their own values because they are stuck. David gives examples of emotional hooks, with techniques to overcome them throughout the book.

David singles out joy, anger, sadness, fear, surprise, contempt, and disgust as emotionally relevant emotions. The point that as many as six scale towards unpleasant or uncomfortable is important. That surprise can be closer to joy, or the other emotions, is tied to context.

Emotional Agility 2

An emotionally agile person who is unstuck tends to show up and step out on all these emotions. Six techniques for stepping out are offered in Emotional Agility, which is as thorough a thought process as I have seen in one place.

A second useful metaphor surfaces in Chapter 6 and deals with “walking your why.” To walk your why indicates “living by your own personal set of values.” Concrete detail for spelling out the concrete values in statements like this is something Susan David did quite well.

Bringing in the notion of changing habits through tiny tweaks, the notion of balance in the Teeter Totter Principle, and then applying emotional agility to work and raising kids were all practical means for impacting life and work. Closing Emotional Agility with the suggestion to become real brought the core message of the book home in a cogent, well-rounded manner that I appreciated.

My overall rating is 4-stars out-of-5.

Matt – Saturday, April 8, 2017