Thanks, Oprah

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Reading Challenge: A book from Oprah’s book club

This was a reading challenge item that stumped me for a while. I mean, have you seen Oprah’s book club list? If you’re going to be in her book club you’d better be a fan of family dramas/melodramas, or, creepily enough, kids’ books by Bill Cosby. There were a few on the list I’d read before, but most of the ones I hadn’t looked like a slog. Or I would have had to wait 9 months for at the library.

But then it occurred to me that I can do Dickens. Some people might find Dickens more challenging than Anita Shreve or Chris Bohjalian, but not everyone was raised in a family of anglophiles, watching Masterpiece Theater if we watched TV at all. Dickens is long-winded as only a Victorian novelist can be long-winded (it turns out he was not actually paid by the word, which is an urban legend that makes a lot of sense viewed from this century), but he speaks a language I was raised with. I’ve read a decent amount of Dickens, but it turns out I’ve actually never read Great Expectations. Also, bonus, it was available for free and I could read it on my phone.

I don’t think there’s anything I could possibly say about this book that hasn’t been said a million times before. It’s iconic. High school students by the millions have been assigned it. Pip and Magwitch may not be household names, but I think we can all agree Miss Havisham is floating in the cultural ether. That may also be why, at least in recent years, she’s been portrayed by a big-name actress while leads Pip and Estella are roles given to young unknowns or lesser-knowns. Miss Havisham, creepy, creepy Miss Havisham, you are famous.

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So, like I said, I couldn’t possibly add anything to the cultural narrative around this book. But I can tell you why I liked it. Dickens was a guy who generally wrote his heroes, and especially his heroines, to be pure and selfless and obedient and uncomplicated. This is a huge pity because he did such a great job writing people who are flawed. The most interesting characters, the ones we remember, are the Miss Havishams, the Bill Sykeses, the Lady Dedlocks, the Sidney Cartons, and of course, with Christmas coming up, I have to mention Ebeneezer Scrooge.

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I love the Muppet Christmas Carol more than words can say.

Anywho, this is a roundabout way of saying that I liked Great Expectations for its darkness. Pip is such a pompous little twit – that this is mainly the fault of the adults around him is clear, but it’s a reason, not an excuse – and he learns some hard lessons and falls a very, very long way before he comes out at the end. Estella, the beautiful and cold, also learns her lessons, but throughout the book has significantly more insight than Pip into why she is the way she is. She also doesn’t suffer the standard fate of complicated Dickens women and actually survives the book, so that’s a plus. And there are some delightful secondary characters: Wemmick and his Aged, for example, haven’t quite hit the mainstream, but I enjoyed them a lot and admired Wemmick’s skillful if drastic self-care routine. As far as the plot goes, sure, it relies heavily on coincidence (the convict is Estella’s father! The housekeeper is her mother! Miss Havisham has the same lawyer as the convict! NOT TO MENTION ORLICK…), but, you know, Dickens. It was a different time. Every era has its narrative conventions.

Now I think of it, I would happily welcome the return of the stupid coincidence if it meant we could do away with the gritty reboot.

After finishing the book I’m naturally curious to see one of the numerous adaptations (I saw the 1999 BBC adaptation back when it first aired, but as much as I’ve always enjoyed Justine Waddell she is all I remember about that version). I also felt, hey, this WOULD be an interesting story to adapt for contemporary times, but then I watched a preview for that 1998 version and changed my mind. The idea’s good, but the insistence on casting Ethan Hawke in things, not so much. Also 1990s Gwyneth Paltrow was beautiful but had this noodle-like quality that I can never get over. There are at least two more recent versions, though, and one or both of them may be worth a watch.

So we’ll see if I decide to venture into the film versions of this story, but now I’m just glad I read the original. Thanks, Oprah.

Recommended pairing: Oskar Blues Old Chub has a nice Dickensian sound to it, doesn’t it? Plus, Scottish Ale, very good for cold weather.

Classic Creeps

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

Reading Challenge: A classic from the 20th Century

This was one of the books I was surprised to realize I’ve never read. I read a lot of Agatha Christie when I was younger, mostly Poirots, and this one is such a classic. In fact, And Then There Were None has inspired so many books, movies and episodes of TV shows, I figured maybe reading it would be kind of predictable. “Oh, yeah, and then they find another body, ho hum, SEEN it.” I was wrong.

This book is creepy as fuck.

The plot is familiar at this point: strangers invited to an island, confronted with their past crimes, slowly killed off one by one, and the killer is among them. I did not guess who it was, although I wasn’t surprised when I found out.

I think what makes this book work so well (and be still so creepy) is that it avoids a lot of the cliches you see in horror. The characters react to their situation in a logical way (freaked out but trying to keep their heads) rather than panicking and shouting at each other the second someone dies. The setting is isolated but the house is well-lit and comfortable. Later, yes, all of this starts to deteriorate, but it happens over time instead of INSTANT TERROR YES WE’RE GOING TO KEEP UP THIS HUGE LEVEL OF TERROR THE WHOLE TIME.

Fun fact: while I was reading this home alone, someone knocked on the back door of the apartment. The back door, by the way, doesn’t open: it’s painted over, locked, there’s a bar over it and the cat’s litter box is right in front of it. NO ONE HAS EVER KNOCKED ON THE BACK DOOR. I was so scared I didn’t move. There was another knock. I grabbed my keys, walked out the front, and found out that it had been the lady who cleans the halls, offering to clean the apartment, too, if I wanted, and handing me her business card. I think she could tell she’d freaked me out, too, because she apologized about ten times.

Now granted my baseline mental state right now is totally frazzled (ditto about half the country right now) due to certain monumentally horrific election results, but I’m pretty sure I can chalk my overreaction up to this book about 85%. It’s creepy. It’s a quick read. It definitely is a mystery classic.

Recommended pairing: The brandy, as long as it was an unopened bottle and you know nobody poisoned it.

Familiar Ground

Even Dogs in the Wild by Ian Rankin

Reading Challenge: A book set in Europe

Everyone should be a fan of at least one prolific author. It’s like having a nice long-standing friendship with someone who lives on the other side of the country. Maybe you don’t see them for a year or two (or more frequently if your favorite prolific author is Nora Roberts or Joyce Carol Oates), but when you do see them you know you’re going to have a nice time and you probably have a good idea what you’ll talk about. I have a few of those authors. Ian Rankin, and his Inspector Rebus, is one of them.

You really should try these books if you haven’t already. You can start on the later side if you want (I think the first one I read was Standing in Another Man’s Grave, #18) and you’ll probably figure out who these people are. Rather than running out of steam, Rankin gets better as he goes. I can’t always remember the plots after I finish these books, and there are a whole host of interchangeable (as far as I can tell) male characters in each book with Scottish names and I never can recall if they’ve turned up before.

The lead characters, though, are solid. There’s Rebus himself, an old-school and not-so-clean cop who frequently serves justice through whatever means are at his disposal, who drinks too much (natch), loves classic rock and holds his cards close to the vest at all times. There’s Big Ger Cafferty, Rebus’s long-time adversary and occasional ally, with both men facing their own mortality at this stage. There’s Siobhan Clarke, Rebus’s former protege, who might very well be turning into a younger, female version of Rebus. A more recent addition is Malcolm Fox, who starred in his own two books before moving over to the Rebus series, a former Complaints detective with a lot to prove, generally the most level-headed of the three but with his own impulsive moments (and when he gets impulsive, man, Fox is a “go big or go home” kind of guy).

With characters like these, who needs plot? But there’s plenty of it (“plot we’ve got/quite a lot” to quote Danny Kaye), and it involves murder, corruption, politics, a cover-up or two or three, an undercover cop possibly gone rogue, a couple of gangsters who might or might not be about to start a war, and Rebus and co. right in the middle of it. It’s entertaining and fast-moving, but won’t leave you feeling like you’ve just imbibed the literary equivalent of potato chips.

Recommended pairing: Belhaven Black, but really any Belhaven if you can get it.