Monthly Archives: July 2012

The Old Curiosity Shop

A while ago I wrote an article for another blog I contribute to about an event held at UCL (University College London) to celebrate Charles Dickens’ 200th birthday. You can read the article here. At the end I made a very personal confession which is that although I’ve tried several times I’ve never actually read one of Dickens’ books all the way through. So considering that this year is his bicentennial and since the event got me all fired up and looking at the great novelist in a new light I promised that by the end of this year I would have read one of his books all the way through.

This post is in recognition of the fact that I’ve made good on my promise. I did a bit of research to find out what people thought the best book for a beginner like me was and one of the names that came up again and again was The Old Curiosity Shop. Now I had no idea what the story of OCS was although the name little Nell rang a bell but since it seemed popular I decided to give it a go.

I duly ordered a copy from Amazon and was shocked to find out that it was quite a hefty tome when it arrived. This revelation did not fill me with glee and I put off starting it for a good month or so.

Eventually the point arrived where I didn’t feel I could delay any more (partially because I’d run out of other books but partially because I was feeling guilty about my rash promise) and so I picked up the weighty chronicle and headed off to the tube.

By the time I reached my final destination my whole opinion of Dickens had changed. In the past I’ve found his novels to start slowly and drag on through endless descriptions of weather (Bleak House anyone?) but this was completely different. The story is actually funny and had me interested and relating to the characters from the get-go. This is the point where I tend to struggle with some of the classic writers (see my earlier post on Jane Austen) but I didn’t have any such problem with OCS. I expected to find Nell whiny and annoying but she was nothing of the sort, while she wasn’t exactly my favourite character she did endear herself to me throughout the story and I didn’t feel my heart sink when the tale returned to her after concentrating on someone else.

The most unexpected aspect was the sarcasm Dickens writes with: his descriptions of the behaviour of the Garlands’ pony were hilarious and made him my firm favourite (closely followed by Dick Swiveller, not just because of that name). It is a mark of real skill that there is barely a bad thing written about a single one of the characters (including the foul Quilp) instead and insults or detractions are wrapped up and twisted about in flowery language and double negatives. Although this is a trait that would usually grate on me before long I enjoyed the skill of the wordplay so much that I barely noticed until I got towards the end of the book.

The story itself is multi-layered with a large number of characters both minor and major, perilous happenings and a twist at the end which I only just saw coming. It really does have something for everyone and I was stunned by just how much I enjoyed it.

So I would like to end by thanking UCL wholeheartedly for persuading me to give Dickens another chance and I now look forward to embracing more of his work, especially those on that list I’ve strayed from for so long!

One cautionary note for anyone who doesn’t know the story and is going to give OCS a try, if you read the Wordsworth Classics edition, be very wary of the notes: a couple of them late on in the book give the end away and no one likes spoilers!

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Peaches for Monsieur le Curé

To follow on from my previous post here’s a quick review of the book I read while on the Métro: Peaches for Monsieur le Curé by Joanne Harris.

Peaches is the latest novel in Harris’ repertoire to feature Vianne Rocher, the lead character in Harris’ most celebrated book Chocolat. Vianne reappeared in a 2007 publication entitled The Lollipop Shoes of which I have to say I wasn’t a fan.

In Chocolat Vianne is a character we grow to love, we celebrate the relationship between her and her daughter Anouk and we understand her and her history. Lollipop Shoes takes all the emotions we feel towards Vianne and turns them on their head as we view her through the eyes of an older, more cynical Anouk and a new-comer Zozie. I hate when books do this because it changes everything, your perceptions of a character and the way in which you view the world they inhabit. So I hope you can see why I was worried about revisiting Vianne and Anouk in this latest offering.

I needn’t have worried. Peaches follows the example set by Chocolat and is told from the perspective of Vianne and her old adversary, Monsieur Reynaud, the titular Curé. Times have changed in Lansquenut-sous-Tannes when Vianne returns at the bidding of an old friend and trouble is brewing. As we would expect Vianne throws herself into village life once more, bustling around trying to solve everyone’s problems at once and dispensing chocolate once more. But she is an older version of herself and has clearly been affected by the events of The Lollipop Shoes so is a slightly more complex person than she once was.

Harris has aged her characters well, the marks of the past lie on them believably and I found myself warming to them in a way that I never did in the second book. The one off-colour aspect here is Vianne’s relationship with Roux but since he is absent for most of the book that isn’t much of a problem. I also found the secret that Joséphine is hiding difficult to swallow but otherwise this book restored my faith in Lansquenet and its inhabitants.

I will however be extremely dubious of any future offering. I have the feeling that this book was designed to win back fans who may have been put off by The Lollipop Shoes as it followed the outline of Chocolat; the characters may have been different but the storyline was distinctly similar. Perhaps it is time to leave Vianne where she is.

Books on the Métro

I was lucky enough to enjoy an (almost) all-expenses paid trip to Paris last week and so I spent the weekend traipsing around the sites. Needless to say my feet got pretty tired and so I resorted to taking the Paris version of the tube – the Métro.

Admittedly I was using it during the weekend and (once on Wednesday lunchtime) but I was shocked to see an absence of books on the trains. There wasn’t even a newspaper to be seen! Now the weekends are relatively book-light in London as well, something to do with the reduced volume of commuters I suspect, but there are always one or two dotted around the carriages. And failing that there is always a forgotten copy of the Metro (newspaper in this context!) or the Evening Standard which make an appearance. But there was none of this across the channel.

I did see two books being consumed on my travels but one of these was English and I have reason to believe that it’s reader was heading for Gare du Nord and possibly the London Underground.

Double-decker bridge!

Double-decker bridge!

So what’s going on? Why do the Parisians not feel the need to distract themselves from their subterranean travels in the same way as us Brits? Part of the Metro is outside it’s true; line 6 is especially exciting as the section that crosses the Seine is actually on a double-decker bridge (Pont de Bir-Hakem), but still the majority of travel is in the dark.

Some other differences between the tube and the Métro:

  1. Vending machines on platforms! Although it’s probably for the best that there aren’t any on London platforms, I’d only spend a fortune.
  2. The price. A single trip in the Paris area costs 1.70€ (£1.35) compared to an equivalent trip in London which is £4.30 (5.40€)
  3. And finally, the quality of the trains. Actually there’s not much difference here, it seems to vary by line on both sides of the channel but I think London trains are very slightly nicer. Also the seats are arranged better in London, no awkward sets of four taking up all the space. Well London had to win something didn’t it?!