The wind in the palms

by Lorin Michel Thursday, November 7, 2013 10:13 PM

Like most people, I read The Wind in the Willows when I was young. It used to be required reading; I don’t know if it still is. I do believe that it should be, though, because it is a powerful book containing powerful symbols of tradition, purity, innocence and the unknown. I suspect that if I re-read it now, I would also find correlations to modern strife, perhaps politics, even the fight for gay rights. All of the characters in the book are, after all, male.

I remember the book as being somewhat dark, a twisting labyrinth of mysticism, adventure, friendship and discovery. I remember Toad Hall and the characters named only for their species. Rat, Mole, Badger and, of course, Mr. Toad. The book was published in 1908 by Kenneth Grahame, an English writer of Scottish descent, who wrote his most famous work as a series of letters to his son, Alastair, who had been born partially blind and thus became the inspiration for Mole. At least that’s the theory. The letters eventually evolved from a bedtime story into the beloved book we all know. It begins at the River Bank like this: 

“The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing. It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said “Bother!” and “O blow!” and also “Hang spring-cleaning!” and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat. Something up above was calling him imperiously, and he made for the steep little tunnel which answered in his case to the graveled carriage-drive owned by animals whose residences are nearer to the sun and air. So he scraped and scratched and scrabbled and scrooged, and then he scrooged again and scrabbled and scratched and scraped, working busily with his little paws and muttering to himself, “Up we go! Up we go!” till at last, pop! his snout came out into the sunlight, and he found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow.”

Just typing that makes me want to read it all over again. So much is said in that first paragraph; it just grabs you with its imagery. I can see Mole, a dirty little dude with an exasperated attitude, who has had it with everything. What he does is not wallow in the darkness of his fate but scratch and claw his way to the sunlight. The metaphor in that first paragraph alone is inspiring. I doubt I thought of it when I was 10, the first time I perused these fabulous pages, but I can see it now so clearly. The sunlight is there. The rollicking meadow is there. It’s a matter of getting to it and, with perseverance, it can be done.


Wind in the willows, by Maya Eventov

For some reason I was thinking about this book last night as I went to bed. My day had been extremely busy getting things ready for a client who was launching their crowdfunding campaign this morning. I started in the morning at about 7:30 and turned off my computer last night at 11:33. Yes, there were breaks. Of course there were, but when I work right up until the time I go to bed, I have trouble sleeping. My mind must first power down, and my body has to relax. I lay there, snug under the covers, listening to the roar of the wind outside. The palm tree fronds were flipping and crashing and thrashing. It sounded vaguely violent and oddly soothing at the same time. I went to sleep with that sound wrapping me up, the wind in the palm trees giving an odd kind of comfort to my otherwise chaotic day. Perhaps that was the point.

By this morning, the winds had calmed but The Wind in the Willows was on my mind. I was thinking about the river, probably the most powerful symbol in the book, something that seemingly represents the never-ending flow of life and the force of it all, without judgment but with reality. And the wind as it whispered through the book, through the willows. When I was young I didn’t understand its significance. I’m not sure I do now. But I think, perhaps, that it might be about the intangible, the unknowable, the idea that we can’t contain it anymore than we can contain the direction of our lives. The wind simply is and it’s OK. It, along with the sun, the moon, the stars, our loved ones, our pets, books, all let us know that…

“This is fine!”

Those were the first words Mole said as he lay on the grass in the sunlight. I’d say it’s all very fine indeed.

The great first paragraphs from "Sharp Objects"

by Lorin Michel Thursday, March 21, 2013 10:30 PM

“My sweater was new, stinging red and ugly. It was May 12 but the temperature had dipped to the forties, and after four days shivering in my shirtsleeves, I grabbed cover at a tag sale rather than dig through my boxed-up winter clothes. Spring in Chicago.

“In my gunny-covered cubicle I sat staring at the computer screen. My story for the day was a limp sort of evil. Four kids, ages two through six, were found locked in a room on the South Side with a couple of tuna sandwiches and a quart of milk. They’d been left three days, flurrying like chickens over the food and feces on the carpet. Their mother had wandered off for a suck on the pipe and just forgotten.  Sometimes that’s what happens. No cigarette burns, no bone snaps. Just an irretrievable slipping. I’d seen the mother after the arrest: twenty-two-year-old Tammy David, blonde and fat, with pink rouge on her cheeks in two perfect circles the size of shot glasses. I could imagine her sitting on a shambled-down sofa, her lips on that metal, a sharp burst of smoke. Then all was fast floating, her kids way behind, as she shot back to junior high, when the boys still cared and she was the prettiest, a glossy-lipped thirteen-year-old who mouthed cinnamon sticks before she kissed.

“A belly. A smell. Cigarettes and old coffee. My editor, esteemed, weary Frank Curry, rocking back in his cracked Hush Puppies. His teeth soaked in brown tobacco saliva.”

These are the great first lines of Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects. In it, a reporter named Camille Preaker is forced to confront her troubled past when she travels back to her hometown in Missouri to cover the murders of two pre-teen girls. While there she must deal with the neurotic, hypochondriac mother she’s hardly spoken to in eight years and a half-sister she barely knows. She chooses to stay in her family’s Victorian mansion. She’s haunted by the childhood tragedy she’s spent her whole life trying to forget, and as she works to unravel the clues of the murder, she also begins to unravel her own past to confront what happened to her years before. It’s the only way she can survive her homecoming.

Gillian Flynn’s latest book is called Gone Girl and it’s another psychological twister, and a huge success. Sharp Objects is where she began, after years spent writing for Entertainment Weekly magazine, largely as a film critic and lastly as a television critic. Her prose is crisp and creepy, her characters real and driven. The disturbing story moves along at a fast pace and it takes you along for the ride.

I remember reading this book a couple of years ago. I like books like this, books that are atmospheric and moody and creepy and stunning and interesting and different. Thrillingly real and sharply written. If you’ve read Gone Girl and like it, read Sharp Objects. It’s chillingly good.

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The great first paragraphs from "Seabiscuit: An American Legend"

by Lorin Michel Wednesday, October 3, 2012 10:33 PM

“Charles Howard had the feel of a gigantic onrushing machine: You had to either climb on or leap out of the way. He would sweep into a room, working a cigarette in his fingers, and people would trail him like pilot fish. They couldn’t help themselves. Fifty-eight years old in 1935, Howard was a tall, glowing man in a big suit and a very big Buick. But it wasn’t his physical bearing that did it. He lived on a California ranch so huge that a man could take a wrong turn on it and be lost forever, but it wasn’t his circumstances either. Nor was it that he spoke loud or long; the surprise of the man was his understatement, the quiet and kindly intimacy of his acquaintance. What drew people to him was something intangible, an air about him. There was a certain inevitability to Charles Howard, an urgency radiating from him that made people believe that the world was always going to bend to his wishes.

“On an afternoon in 1903, long before the big cars and the ranch and all the money, Howard began his adulthood with only that air of destiny and 21 cents in his pocket. He sat in the swaying belly of a transcontinental train, snaking west from New York. He was twenty-six, handsome, gentlemanly, with a bounding imagination. Back then he had a lot more hair than anyone who knew him later would have guessed. Years in the saddles of military-school horses had taught him to carry his six-food-one-inch frame straight up.” 

These are the great first lines from the 2001 blockbuster book Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand. The ultimate underdog story, it tells the true tale of an unlikely champion named Seabiscuit, a horse with crooked legs, a sad little tail and a coat the color of mud. For two years, he floundered at the lowest level of racing, misunderstood and mishandled, slow and a loser. Then he came into the company of Tom Smith, one of the depression-era’s horse whisperers, Red Pollard, a half-blind prizefighter and too-big jockey who had been living in a horse stall since being abandoned at a racetrack as a boy, and Charles Howard, a bicycle repairman who made his fortune by introducing the automobile to the West. Howard bought Seabiscuit, hired Smith and Pollard and this remarkable threesome turned a nothing horse into one of the most spectacular and charismatic performers in history. This little colt came along at a time in history when the country definitely needed a winner, needed something to feel good about, something to celebrate.

It was 1938 and Seabiscuit – Pops, as Red Pollard, his jockey, called him; Biscuit, as Mr. and Mrs. Howard called him – represented hope. It’s a great book made into a surprisingly good film. It makes me feel good every time I read it, see it and think about it. 

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The great first paragraphs from "Desert America: Boom and Bust in the New Old West"

by Lorin Michel Sunday, August 12, 2012 8:16 PM

“Snow in the desert

“Long before the boom of the aughts, long before the bust, I made a pilgrimage to the desert. When I arrived, snow suffused the sand, icicles hung from the yucca spikes. It was late 1997, the beginning of an El Niño winter.

“I’d come running from Mexico City and stopped in the Mojave because it was close to Los Angeles, my hometown, and because that’s where people from L.A. – in trouble with the law, their lovers, their creditors, themselves – go to hide out, lick their wounds, end the affair, bury the body.

“I went because my friend Elia was there. She, along with a small crew of L.A. expatriates, optimistic bohos, was creating a life for herself in the village of Joshua Tree, at the edge of the famous national park. Their presence unwittingly helped set the scene for a full-blown art colony and a season of wild speculation in the mid-2000s.

“Me, I was simply trying to save my life.”

These are the great first lines to Rubén Martínez’ new book Desert America: Boom and Bust in the New Old West. As regular readers know, I’m a huge fan of the desert in all of its unforgiving beauty. It is capable of both majesty and terror, making it both a hero and a villain. Perhaps that’s why I’m so fascinated by it. I suspect, though, that it’s only one reason. Equally, I suspect that the major reason for my love of this most brutal of climates is that it is truly a haunting and haunted place, one of mystery and the ultimate wild creature, made even more so than by humans’ incessant need to tame it. My husband and I fall victim to that ourselves, with our love of Tucson and our own piece of desert land.

When I heard of Mr. Martínez’ book, just today in the book section of the Los Angeles Times, I knew I had to go to Barnes & Noble and buy it. I did. He writes unflinchingly of what happened to areas of the desert southwest, the land populated by cactus and sand, scorpions and snakes, when the economy boomed in the 1990s and early 2000s, and then chronicles the devastation that was left when the bubbles burst. There is both politics and demographics at play, outrageous wealth and destructive poverty, beauty amid the ruins. 

He candidly discusses his own battles with drug addition – a habit he moved to northern New Mexico in order to beat and ironically ended up right in the middle of an the epidemic of addiction that flourishes in the shadow of some of the country's richest zip codes.

From the publisher: In Joshua Tree, California, gentrification displaces people and history. In Marfa, Texas, an exclusive enclave triggers a race war near the banks of the Rio Grande. And on the Tohono O'odham reservation, Native Americans hunt down Mexican migrants crossing the most desolate stretch of the border.

With each desert story, Martínez explores his own encounter with the West and his love for this most contested region. In the process, he reveals that the great frontier is now a harbinger of the vast disparities that are redefining the very idea of America.

I can’t wait to finish this book.

The great first paragraphs of Desert Solitaire: A season in the wilderness

by Lorin Michel Sunday, July 8, 2012 11:32 PM

“This is the most beautiful place on earth.

“There are many such places. Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary. A houseboat in Kashmir, a view down Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, a gray gothic farmhouse two stories high at the end of a red dog road in the Allegheny Mountains, a cabin on the shore of a blue lake in spruce and fir country, a greasy alley near the Hoboken waterfront, or even, possibly, for those of a less demanding sensibility, the world to be seen from a comfortable apartment high in the tender, velvety smog of Manhattan, Chicago, Paris, Tokyo, Rio or Rome – there’s no limit to the human capacity for the homing sentiment. Theologians, sky pilots, astronauts have even felt the appeal of home calling to them from up above, in the cold black outback of interstellar space.

“For myself I’ll take Moab, Utah. I don’t mean the town itself, of course, but the country which surrounds it – the canyonlands. The slickrock desert. The red dust and the burnt cliffs and the lonely sky – all that which lies beyond the end of the roads.”

The opening lines of Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, a book written in 1968 chronicling his life as a park ranger in southeastern Utah, in the desert. It’s both a bit rude and incredibly sensitive; thought-provoking and mystical as is the desert itself. Abbey, an author, essayist and anarchist, had written three novels prior to this tome but writing about the desert elevated him to near cult status. He wrote of the problems of the US Park Service, he angrily indicted the evils of technology masquerading as progress. He praised the great wilderness while attacking those who would exploit it and destroy it for profit. He saw the desert as a symbol of strength but he also saw it as cruel. He didn’t romanticize it but wrote of its harshness as representing “a harsh reality unseen by the masses.” It is this harshness that makes it “more alluring, more baffling, more fascinating.” It’s a place completely indifferent to life and yet it vibrates with the wonder, the inhumanity and the spectacle that is exactly what life is all about.

I haven’t read Desert Solitaire since I was a kid, when I first became captivated by the desert. I can’t tell you why I became captivated. I had never visited the desert; had only seen it in Lawrence of Arabia. But there was something about its starkness, captured so fiercely by David Lean that made me begin to dream. There is a solitary nature to its beauty, a haunting power in its loneliness. I’m drawn to it. Perhaps it’s the possibility it represents; it’s the singularity of it. It is a game of solitaire played on an endless, brutal scale.

I am a desert rat. I am married to a desert rat. And this book makes me want to go back again and again and again and again and …

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great first paragraphs

The great first paragraphs from “The Year of Magical Thinking”

by Lorin Michel Friday, June 1, 2012 1:47 AM

“Life changes fast.
Life changes in the instant.
You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
The question of self-pity.

“Those were the first words I wrote after it happened. The computer dating on the Microsoft Word file (“Notes on change.doc”) reads: “May 20, 2004, 11:11 pm,” but that would have been a case of my opening the file and reflexively pressing save when I closed it. I had made no changes to that file in May. I had made no changes to that file since I wrote the words, in January 2004, a day or two or three after the fact.

“For a long time I wrote nothing else.

“Life changes in the instant.

“The ordinary instant.

“At some point, in the interest of remembering what seemed most striking about what had happened, I considered adding those words, “the ordinary instant.” I saw immediately that there would be no need to add the word “ordinary,” because there would be no forgetting it: the word never left my mind. It was in fact the ordinary nature of everything preceding the event that prevented me from truly believing it had happened, absorbing it, incorporating it, getting past it. I recognize now that there was nothing unusual in this: confronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell, the routine errand that ended on the shoulder with the car in flames, the swings where the children were playing as usual when the rattlesnake struck from the ivy. “He was on his way home from work – happy, successful, healthy – and then, gone,” I read in the account of the psychiatric nurse whose husband was killed in a highway accident. In 1966 I happened to interview many people who had been living in Honolulu on the morning of December 7, 1941; without exception, these people began their accounts of Pearl Harbor by telling me what an “ordinary Sunday morning” it had been. “It was just an ordinary beautiful September day,”  people still say when asked to describe the morning in New York when American Airlines 11 and United Airlines 175 got flown into the World Trade towers. Even the report of the 9/11 Commission opened on this insistently premonitory and yet still dumbstruck narrative note: “Tuesday, September 11, 2001, dawned temperate and nearly cloudless in the eastern  United States.”

 

The great first lines from Joan Didion’s chronicle of the unexpected and instant death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, from a heart attack on December 30, 2003, in The Year of Magical Thinking. They had just come from the hospital where their only daughter was near death. They sat down to dinner, and while Joan was in the kitchen, he had a massive coronary. By the time the paramedics arrived, he was gone.

It’s a wrenching story, a memoir of the year that followed as she struggled to come to terms with his death, to help her daughter and to learn how to live without him. I’ve never been a fan of either Didion’s or Dunne’s but this book was so lyrical, so clear, so heartfelt that I found myself weeping. It’s powerful and powerfully honest. A good read.

Interestingly, Didion’s daughter died shortly before the book was published. It’s not discussed in the book but she has written another, released just recently, entitled “Blue Nights” that discusses, just as honestly, the loss of her only child. I haven't read it yet; I think I will.

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great first paragraphs

The great first paragraphs from "The Reader"

by Lorin Michel Thursday, April 26, 2012 10:28 PM

“When I was fifteen, I got hepatitis. It started in the fall and lasted until spring. As the old year darkened and turned colder, I got weaker and weaker. Things didn’t start to improve until the new year. January was warm, and my mother moved my bed out onto the balcony. I saw sky, sun, clouds, and heard the voices of children playing in the courtyard. As dusk came one evening in February, there was the sound of a blackbird singing.

“The first time I ventured outside, it was to go from Blumenstrasse, where we lived on the second floor of a massive turn-of-the-century building, to Bahnhofstrasse. That’s where I’d thrown up on the way home from school one day the previous October. I’d been feeling weak for days, in a way that was completely new to me. Every step was an effort. When I was faced with stairs either at home or at school, my legs would hardly carry me. I had no appetite. Even if I sat down at the table hungry, I soon felt queasy. I woke up every morning with a dry mouth and the sensation that my insides were in the wrong place and too heavy for my body. I was ashamed of being so weak. I was even more ashamed when I threw up. That was another thing that had never happened to me before. My mouth was suddenly full, I tried to swallow everything down again, and clenched my teeth with my hand in front of my mouth, but it all burst out of my mouth anyway straight through my fingers. I leaned against the wall of the building, looking down at the vomit around my feet, and retched something clear and sticky.

“When rescue came, it was almost an assault. The woman seized my arm and pulled me through the dark entryway into the courtyard. Up above there were lines strung from window to window, loaded with laundry. Wood was stacked in the courtyard; in an open workshop a saw screamed and shavings flew. The woman turned on the tap, washed my hand first, and then cupped both of hers and threw water in my face. I dried myself with a handkerchief.”

 

The great first lines of Bernhard Schlink’s book The Reader, a novel that is actually a parable dealing with the difficulties that post-World War II Germans had comprehending the atrocities of the Holocaust. It was published in Germany in 1995 and specifically written to the generation called the Nachgeborenen, or those who came after, and explores how post-war generations should approach the generation that took part in, or witnessed, the atrocities committed by the Third Reich. It’s sparse, icy and full of metaphors for the literate and illiterate of Germany and how that affected their participation in the “final solution.” Ultimately, it’s a study in humanity and human nature. Fascinating and haunting. 

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The great first paragraphs from "The Milagro Beanfield War"

by Lorin Michel Wednesday, March 28, 2012 10:44 PM

“Many people in the Miracle Valley had theories about why Joe Mondragon did it. At first, the somewhat addlebrained but sympathetic sheriff, Bernabe Montoya, figured it was just one more irrational manifestation of an ornery temperament, of a kid, now almost middle-aged, with a king-sized chip on his shoulder, going slightly amuck. The Frontier Bar owner, Tranquilino Jeantete, said (with a sardonic wink) that Joe did it because he was hungry for an enchilada made from honest-to-God Milagro frijoles, with some Devine Company cojones mixed in. Nick Rael, the storekeeper, figured Joe might have done it because he could not pay the ninety-odd dollars he owed the store; or else maybe he did it just out of sheer renegade inbred spite, hoping to drive up ammo sales at the same time he put Nick out of business. The chief perpetrator of the Indian Creek Dam, Ladd Devine the Third, who held Milagro’s fate in his hand like a fragile egg, considered what Joe did a personal assault on his empire, on the Indian Creek Dam, and on that egg. And the immortal old man, Amarante Cordova, who lived on the west side of the highway in the ghost town neighborhood, believed Joe did it because God had ordered him to start the Revolution without any further delay.

“Whatever the case, if there were mixed opinions on the matter, there were also mixed ideas about what the consequences might be. “What’s that little half-pint son of a bitch want to cause so much trouble for?” some said. Others quietly intoned: “I’m not saying it’s good, I’m not saying it’s bad. Let’s just wait and see what happens.” Still others on both side of the Indian Creek Dam question armed themselves and prepared for war, while the governor and the state engineer down in the capital chewed their fingernails, wondering how to maintain their own untenable positions.”

 

The great first lines of John Nichols’ The Milagro Beanfield War, a book that discusses the effects of big business coming into a small community, of injustice and inequity, as well as sacrifice, all existing with just a bit of magical realism. The book was written in 1974, but there seems to be something very relevant about it today. Its themes of the little guy versus the big guy, about politics and about perseverance are timeless, making it both incredible and a little bit sad.

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A master storyteller turns 200

by Lorin Michel Tuesday, February 7, 2012 9:27 PM

He is generally thought of as one of the greatest storytellers of all time. His novels wove intricate plots easily in and around a cast featuring dozens of characters, some of whom we have come to know well. His honest and straightforward depiction of the early and mid-19th century working class are known for being both poetic and comedic. He was always able to capture the everyday man or woman, and create real people to whom any reader could relate. Each individual was believable and vividly physical. His friend John Forster described this as “characters real existences, not by describing them but by letting them describe themselves.”

I speak of one of my all time favorite writers, the eloquent and effervescent Charles Dickens who was born 200 years ago today in Landport, Portsea. He lived with his eventually eight brothers and sisters and parents John and Elizabeth in Bloomsbury and then in Chatham in Kent. He was a voracious reader, especially the early picture novels of Tobias Smollett and Henry Fielding, words and pictures that would eventually influence his own writing. When his father lost his job as a clerk in the Navy Pay Office, they moved to Camden Town, and John Dickens was eventually imprisoned in a debtor’s prison in Southwark, elements of both appearing in Charles Dickens’ most famous story, A Christmas Carol. Charles himself worked from a young age, even leaving school, and working 10-hour days at a blacking, or shoe polish, warehouse earning six shillings a week (just over $2) pasting labels on the cans. The conditions, which were both difficult and often nasty made an impression on him, forming his writing about socio-economic reforms and labor conditions.

An 1839 portrait of the young author

Here’s how Dickens described it: “The blacking-warehouse was the last house on the left-hand side of the way, at old Hungerford Stairs. It was a crazy, tumble-down old house, abutting of course on the river, and literally overrun with rats. Its wainscoted rooms, and its rotten floors and staircase, and the old grey rats swarming down in the cellars, and the sound of their squeaking and scuffling coming up the stairs at all times, and the dirt and decay of the place, rise up visibly before me, as if I were there again. The counting-house was on the first floor, looking over the coal-barges and the river. There was a recess in it, in which I was to sit and work. My work was to cover the pots of paste-blacking; first with a piece of oil-paper, and then with a piece of blue paper; to tie them round with a string; and then to clip the paper close and neat, all round, until it looked as smart as a pot of ointment from an apothecary's shop. When a certain number of grosses of pots had attained this pitch of perfection, I was to paste on each a printed label, and then go on again with more pots. Two or three other boys were kept at similar duty down-stairs on similar wages. One of them came up, in a ragged apron and a paper cap, on the first Monday morning, to show me the trick of using the string and tying the knot. His name was Bob Fagin; and I took the liberty of using his name, long afterwards, in Oliver Twist.”

Over the years, he would use many real people as characters in his books, including his first love Maria Beadnell as Dora in David Copperfield, a largely autobiographical novel; sister Mary whose death was fictionalized as the death of Nell in The Old Curiosity Shop; James Henry Leigh Hunt an English critic and poet, written as Harold Skimpole in Bleak House; and even real people like the prostitute Nancy in Oliver Twist.

Many of his stories and characters have also taken on lives of their own. To call someone a Scrooge is to call them a miser. Call someone a Pip, and they’re thought to have made something better of themselves. The Artful Dodger rightly describes someone who is crafty. The phrase “Merry Christmas” actually became popular after A Christmas Carol. He even has his own time period, called Dickensian, and used to describe Victorian society and the Victorian age from 1837 to 1901. But Dickens’ novels took place as early as the 1770s on through 1860, so the characterization is incorrect.

Dickens painted by Ary Scheffer, 1855. Dickens wrote of the experience: "I can scarcely express how uneasy and unsettled it makes me to sit, sit, sit, with Little Dorrit on my mind."

Over the years, I’ve read most of Dickens’ books though not all. He was prolific, writing 15 novels, five Christmas books, four short story collections, and several non-fiction books, some poetry and even a play or two. I have a special place in my heart for A Christmas Carol. I collect old editions of it, and know if fairly by heart. Next on the list would probably be Great Expectations, followed by David Copperfield, The Pickwick Papers and Bleak House.

Charles Dickens used the power of his talent to highlight the lives of the poor and disadvantaged. He wrote of them with such care and detail that readers took notice. Slums were razed, debtor’s prisons like the one his father spent time in were eventually closed. Dickens depicted exploitation and oppression and condemned public officials. He brought the plight of those less fortunate front and center, in a society that chose to ignore and look the other way. We could use a bit of Charles Dickens’ today.

Dickens suffered a stroke on June 8, 1870 and died the next day. He was buried against his wishes in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey. He had requested to be buried at Rochester Cathedral in a strictly private manner. His epitaph read: “To the Memory of Charles Dickens who died at his residence, Higham, near Rochester, Kent, 9 June 1870, aged 58 years. He was a sympathizer with the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed; and by his death, one of England’s greatest writers is lost to the world.” His own last words were reported as being: “Be naturally my children. For the writer that is natural has fulfilled all the rules of art.”

Today I celebrate Charles Dickens. I highly recommend it in the best of times and even more so during the worst of times. It’s hard to find a better storyteller. 

The great first paragraphs from “Unbroken”

by Lorin Michel Tuesday, January 17, 2012 9:25 PM

“All he could see, in every direction, was water. It was late June 1943. Somewhere on the endless expanse of the Pacific Ocean, Army Air Forces bombardier and Olympic runner Louie Zamperini lay across a small raft, drifting westward. Slumped alongside him was a sergeant, one of his plane’s gunners. On a separate raft, tethered to the first, lay another crewman, a gash zigzagging across his forehead. Their bodies, burned by the sun and stained yellow from the raft dye, had withered down to skeletons. Sharks glided in lazy loops around them, dragging their backs along the rafts, waiting.

“The men had been adrift for twenty-seven days. Borne by an equatorial current, they had floated at least one thousand miles, deep into Japanese-controlled waters. The rafts were beginning to deteriorate into jelly, and gave off a sour, burning odor. The men’s bodies were pocked with salt sores, and their lips were so swollen that they pressed into their nostrils and chins. They spent their days with their eyes fixed on the sky, singing “White Christmas,” muttering about food. No one was even looking for them anymore. They were alone on sixty-four million square miles of ocean.”


The great first lines of Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand. She’s the amazing writer, very forthright and true, who previously penned Seabiscuit. In this book, she tells the incredible true story of a man name Louis Zamperini, an Air Force lieutenant in World War II whose plane crashed into the Pacific Ocean one May afternoon. He had been a runner at the Berlin Olympics, but when the war came, the athlete became an airman, and then, after that crash, a prisoner of war in a brutal Japanese camp. He survived, and this book, tough to read but impossible to put down, tells his story through World War II and beyond. It’s a true testament to the power and shear force of will of one man’s body, mind and spirit. 

 

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