Blood and Love and Dickens

Dear Reader:

I’m going to kill two memes with one post today, participating in Fig and Thistle’s 200th Dickens birthday read and Broke and Bookish’s Top Ten Tuesday by answering the question: What Top Ten Books Would You Recommend To Someone Who Doesn’t Read Romance Novels?

#151) A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (hard copy)

So, I think this is the first real Dickens book I’ve read as an adult.  I believe I read Great Expectations as a teenager for English class (it was OK, kind of long and boring) and I think I’ve read the Christmas Carol story.  It is hard to grow up in an English speaking country and not know a lot of his stories.  One of the first films I saw was Oliver!, I’ve seen countless portrayals of A Christmas Carol, and at least one Great Expectations movie.  So even though I haven’t read a lot of him, it FEELS like I know a lot of his stories, which probably isn’t fair.  Save for A Christmas Carol which I think is frequently filmed fairly faithfully (ooo, the alliteration!), perhaps even using a lot of language right from the story, I’m sure that all these films are rather truncated and dramatized versions of his books.

Dickens is definitely on my list of authors I’d like to read pretty thoroughly over the next 30-50 years.  Maybe not this year since I have so many people I want to keep reading: Eliot, Whipple, Hull, Cather, and Bowen.  But still, I was very excited to get motivated to read A Tale of Two Cities in order to celebrate his 200th birthday.

I’ve written before about how Tale seems to be a love it or hate it book – Dickens lovers tend not to like it, non-enthusiasts seem to point to it as the only Dickens they really like.  Suggesting that it is stylistically? or in some other way, different from a lot of his other books.  I know I didn’t feel like I was reading Dickens – and I think of Dickens as (perhaps unfairly) a caricaturist – filling his pages with character actors with funny names, appearances, and either good or evil senses of ethics.  Tale isn’t like that.  Again, I am maybe less than fair, given how little other Dickens I’ve really read.

To me, Tale is a fairly straightforward telling of a story.  The main characters are: Lucie Manette (the purely good daughter of Mr Manette) and Mr. Manette (her father and a man who was held unjustly in a French prison for 18 years).  The major supporting characters are: Mr. Lorry (the Manette’s friend and Tellson’s bank staff); Charles Darnay (Lucie’s future husband); and Mr. Carton (a slithery guy with a heart of gold – my favorite character).  The story takes place around 1775 and moves between London (or its outskirts) and Paris as France is breaking apart under its citizen revolution.

All the main characters are pulled back and forth between the countries due to conflicts and challenges.  Many of the characters in the book are fairly complex, like the DeFarges who, in the grief of losing a child are moved to become central to the revolution and in the course of it, in most ways, lose their humanity although early on they were very sympathetic characters.

I think the thing that struck me most about the book was Dickens’ portrayal of the revolution.  I didn’t know a lot about it before I read the book (and I wouldn’t say I feel like an expert on it after) but I guess Les Mis had made me somewhat sympathetic to the peasants.  Given how populist Dickens was, I was interested to learn his view on it and I would have guessed he would have been more of a supporter.  But I don’t think it is clear that he did support it (and I bet he wrote Tale partly to head off revolutionary foment in late 19th Century Britain – although Dickens hated the horror and injustice of economic and political inequality in his time in Britain, I don’t think he believed that a communist revolution was the answer).  And what I got out of the book is a real sense of the horror of innocents caught up and destroyed by the revolution.  Certainly he clearly shows the awful injustice and sheer arrogance of the French royalty and powerful leading up to it.  But, if anything, he also shows that the revolution was a more awful tragedy.  There is no sense from the book that it solved much.  And every sense that people became bloodthirsty and uncaring during it.

Overall, I quite enjoyed this book.  I found it interesting in an historical sense.  It was satisfying to be reading Dickens as I was reading Victoria Glendinning’s WONDERFUL biography of Trollope who was a contemporary and erstwhile friend of Dickens – I’ve wound up working my way through a book or two and biographies of major Victorian writers (Trollope, Eliot, Dickens) all of whom knew each other well.  And I quite enjoy being able to have some context for them and to compare them.  Dickens wrote very well – clearly he wouldn’t have been the smash success that he was with, I presume, a very broad swathe of British society if he wasn’t.  I’m looking forward to reading some more of his work.

And if you are intrigued and even just a little bit swept up in “Dickens fever” you must give a read to this past weekend’s New York Times editorial “The  Whirling Sound of Planet Dickens” by Verlyn Klinkenborg who writes occasional editorial pieces for the paper (and I never fail to enjoy his writing very much).  One of his main points is what an amazingly broad and energetic person Dickens was.  Clearly, he wrote prolifically (though not as prolifically as Trollope), but he was also constantly doing a million other things – producing plays, supporting social reform, socializing and walking TWELVE miles! a day.  My first thought was, gosh, he sounds manic depressive (hasn’t nearly every powerful 19th century figure been retrospectively diagnosed with this? [and/or syphilis – I read recently that an amazing number of people suffered from the disease in this era]) and a quick internet search just showed me that, indeed, Dickens is thought to have been manic depressive.  And on a related note, this supports my (new to me) sense of how much more satisfying it is to read good biographies of writers or at least to learn something about them at the same time as reading their work.  I get so much more out of their books understanding how they lived.  And now I’m on to Kathryn Hughes excellent biography of George Eliot: The Last Victorian – but that’s another post!

On to the meme!

What Top Ten Books Would You Recommend To Someone Who Doesn’t Read Romance Novels?

Ok, so the romance novels bit isn’t hard – much harder for me to recommend anything to someone who does read them.  But I thought it would be great fun to think about the various lives I’ve lived (or live or should I say various passions I have?) and recommend books from my shelves for each.  So, here goes:

1) Best all around, hands-on gardening book?

Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot Gardening.  As long-time (as in six month!) readers know, I used to be a hard-core gardener.  Mel’s the person I used starting out and throughout – especially for my soil enrichment recipes.  He’s an organic gardener.  This book provides the basics to ALL your questions: composting; what to grow?; how to grow them; how to start seeds indoors, etc. etc.  Don’t worry so much about his 12 by 12 inch system (unless it appeals to you).  I used it in a crude way – with garden squares instead of rows.  This is just a really nice, readable, usable, practical gardening (particularly veg gardening) guide for the new gardener.

2) Best Gardening Memoir?

As mentioned in another post, after exhausting practical advice books about my passions, I tend to move on to a new genre: memoirs about my passions.  Gardening was no exception.  I have at least five tomato-themed (or at least tomato-titled) gardening memoir books alone!

I loved Scott Chaskey’s The Common Ground.  Scott runs a CSA (community supported agriculture) farm out on the tip of Long Island in New York State.  This is the story of how they got going, adventures with deer exclusion, and how to manage “helpful” CSA subscriber-volunteers who come out to weed.

3) Best Knitting Book?

I’m a fair weather (or really, “poor” weather) knitter these days.  Some years, I’ve knitted year-round (like the 72 pairs of socks I knitted for myself the year I went up for tenure).  But most years, my knitting, bread and yogurt making, cooking, and general nesting, impulses kick in around November.  I’m pretty much a small thing knitter (socks, mittens, hats, scarves), I like bright colors, sparkles, Norwegian patterns.  My knitting “memoir” phase was fairly limited.  🙂

I loved Robin Hansen’s Fox & Geese  Fences and Flying Geese & Partridge Feet books.  This book consolidates her favorites from those books.  Robin lived in Maine and set out to chronicle and learn the fast fading northern Eastern US  and Canadian seaboard mitten knitting traditions.  The earlier books tell more lengthy stories of the people who knitted the patterns.  Those stories are briefer here – and I probably would have favored one of the prior books, but I don’t own them – I checked them out (time and again) from our local library.  The patterns are fairly simple and definitely cool.

4) Single Best Book about China Today?

I spent a couple months earlier last fall reading and blogging about China.  I read a lot at that time and I’ve read a fair amount about China over the years.  But the single best book that gives you, IMHO, a quick overview of the issues in China today?

China Wakes: The Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn.  Many people know Kristof from his global social justice columns in the New York Times.  This is a book he and his wife, both journalists for top US newspapers, wrote about their experiences living in China for years.  My impression is that Kristof kind of cut his teeth on China.  If you want the inside scoop on the corruption, violence, and authoritarianism in China then (published in 1994, but still very true today), as well as a sense of the wonderful humanity and graciousness of ordinary Chinese, this is a great book with which to start.  Interesting, sensitive, and very well-written, it remains a terrific chronicle of the obvious and hidden in this huge, complex country.

5) Best overall dog training book?

OK, even new readers have probably learned that one of my great current passions is DOGS!  I own three (yes, I use the word “own”) wonderful dogs who are the light of my life.  They are nearly 2, 14, and 15.  The elderly ones are rescues I adopted within the past two years.  My young one is a golden retriever I bought from a carefully chosen breeder.  I’ve spent thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours rehabilitating three wonderful, elderly rescue dogs with serious health issues (predominantly untreated arthritis) and trained two pups within the past three years – the first, a beloved german shepherd, Gilly, I chose to (heartbreakingly and after a ton of consultation and work) euthanize due to his aggression toward kids, men, and unknown women.

I’ve spent hundreds of hours and quite a lot of money training my golden Gus and he is my dog of a lifetime, loves everyone and everything (although he did get rather ferocious with a blowing leaf today), is a passionate licker (hmmm, I guess I’ll leave that – somehow it just sounds wrong but I’ll trust you to take it the right way), and is pretty well-trained (although he sometimes jumps on people and doesn’t reliably recall from proximate dogs or particularly luscious deer droppings or carcasses).  I believe deeply in giving dogs wonderful, interesting lives, with excellent health care to reduce their pain and increase their enjoyment; lots of fun: hikes, dog parties with other dogs, interactions with people of all ages, food puzzles (toys you put treats into making the dog figure out how to extract them), a wide variety of toys; clear expectations of their behavior; lots of exercise; and tons and tons of affection.  And I’ve read literally hundreds of dog-related books in the past five years since I started having, as an adult, my own dogs.

There are philosophical rifts among hard-core dog-oriented people that rival debates about abortion in the United States.  Guardian or owner?  “Warehousing” (keeping dogs and cats in a shelter for as long as it takes to get them adopted out) versus “no kill.”  Dominance theories of dog drive versus scientifically-based animal behavior theories of dog drive, leading to aversion based-training with “light”rewards (praise only) or reward-based training? Adopting from a shelter versus buying from a breeder?   On and on.

So, when I recommend a dog training book, it is one that reflects my beliefs about dogs: that unscientific “wolf-based” (but wrong even about wolves) aversion and dominance-oriented theories don’t work and destroy more dogs than they save; that dogs deserve high quality lives with lots of positive human contact; that dogs are mostly about pleasing themselves (and that’s OK); and that I’m not a dog-mom or a guardian – I’m an owner with all kinds of requisite responsibilities.  Apologies to any of you I’ve alienated – I respect any approach to caring for dogs that has their best interests at heart and recognize that there are lots of great ways of thinking about them that differ from mine.  If you like the idea of being a dog parent, I’m happy that you love your dog so much and glad that they have such a great home.

So, with that in mind:

Katz on Dogs by Jon Katz.  This isn’t the most nuts and bolts dog training book you’ll find.  But it is very readable, couching his overall training recommendations within the stories of dogs that he has known or owned.  If you read it, you’ll have a good understanding of the a good, effective, and practical general approach to training dogs.  I’ve read most of Katz’s books that are the stories of his many dogs and loved every one of them.  For a bit more nuts and bolts oriented training books, anything by Patricia McConnell (and she has published a ton of general training, but especially specific issue – such as aggression, anxiousness and so on – books through DogWise Press which is an excellent place to look for dog-related books and toys).

6) Best Dog Memoir

OK, staying with the same author, I found Patricia McConnell a few years ago and began devouring most of her dog books (and I’ve corresponded with her a bit – she is a faculty member – animal behaviorist – at the University of Wisconsin and has a dog training business in Madison, Wisconsin).  I love her stories about her dogs and the dogs she has worked with through her consulting business.  And the fact that she is a scientist who has thought a lot about dog behavior and how it compares to primate behavior (i.e. us) fascinated me.  She loves dogs, believes deeply in giving them a rich life, and sees dogs as dogs – animals with particular drives and orientations.

To be fair, The Other End of the Leash is probably less of a memoir than some of her other books and more about her philosophy and understanding of dogs.  But as she is explaining her ideas, she uses so many stories of dogs, and especially her own dogs, that you end up learning a lot about her life with dogs.

7) Best Overall Vegetarian Cooking Book?

I have a pretty large cookbook library and most of my life I’ve been a vegetarian or at least eaten meat only rarely.  I have three bookcases of cookbooks, one and a half for veggie cookbooks alone.  I love spicy Mexican, Indian, Thai, etc. etc. vegetarian food and when I’m really cooking, that’s mostly what I cook.  But the book that continues to impress me is more inspired by French cooking, using good, basic ingredients, and fairly simple recipes.

This book was published in the 1990s and Madison set out to create a Joy of Cooking for vegetarians.  She spends early chapters focusing on basic cooking techniques, like stock making.  She discusses stocking your pantry and your kitchen shelves with key utensils and pots.  It is the book you could give a vegetarian kid going off to college that would take them from A to Z.  And her recipes are fairly simple, not generally spicy, ingredient-focused, and delicious.  She has more in common with the Alice Waters (a Bay Area neighbor) French=inspired cooking than, for instance, my favorite Indian/Asian cookbook author, Madhur Jaffrey.

8) Best Whole Grain Bread Cookbook?

As mentioned above, particularly in the winter, I bake a lot of yeast bread, nearly all of it whole grain.  I also bake a fair amount of quick breads: muffins and corn breads and for awhile, I experimented with baking flat breads: tortillas, injera, and the like.

The Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book: A Guide to Whole-Grain Breadmaking by Laurel Robertson with Carol Flinders and Bronwen Godfrey.  Time and again, I come back to this bread book (and you may know that this crew also wrote one of first major US vegetarian cookbooks: Laurel’s Kitchen).  These folks know what they are doing, their recipes work (always nice when making bread), and they are delicious.

9) Best Whole Grain, Lowfat Muffin Book?

Yes, you know you need one!  For years, most Saturdays I made 12- 24 muffins.  For a long time, I would then meet my friends for a hike or a snowshoe or a ski at 9 AM with a batch of different kinds of muffins.

Gloria’s Gourmet Low-Fat Muffins: Easy-to-Make, Easy-to-Bake by Gloria Ambrosia.  This cookbook has the distinction of being the only one I own out of which I’ve cooked almost every single recipe (I skipped some of the few savory ones after learning that I don’t really like them much).  Double chocolate?  Chocolate and mint?  Cherries and cream?  Apricots?  Coconut?  I don’t remember a single dud recipe out of about 75 different kinds of muffins.  Generally, the ingredients are easy to find ones you can get in any large supermarket.  Occasionally, she calls for more obscure flours or flavorings – these are things I have access to and often use, but I’m just as likely to fudge one of her recipes.  I’m a big substitutor, oriented to using up something that I have.  Within reason.

10) Best Mystery?

This was a hard one and, honestly, I like a bunch of (mostly northern European) mystery writers about equally.

Don’t Look Back by Karin Fossum.  Fossum’s pretty well-known as far as Scandinavian mystery writers go, but not as much as Henning Mankell, several of whose books I’ve discussed here.  I would have talked about Fossum’s books but I didn’t have any new, unread ones lying around and there’s that 20 book pledge thing.  Fossum is Norwegian and writes dark, delicate rural mysteries featuring Inspector Sejer who has a sense of humor, a very large dog, and lives alone.  I don’t think he has either a noticeable drinking problem, major conflict with his daughter, or huge problem with authority.

11) Best Short Stories?

You didn’t think I’d really stop at 10 did you?  Ah, this one was hard.  Alice Munro?  Flannery O’Connor?

Chekhov’s stories are absolutely breathtakingly beautiful.  He writes little rural vignettes with wonderful, intricate understandings of human beings at their center.  You learn a lot about rural Russia in the 19th Century as you work through his books.  I really think (and many agree) that he was the best short story writer ever.  More than one reviewer has favorably compared Alice Munro’s wonderful stories to his.  The Chekhov Omnibus contains many of his stories – translated by Constance Garnett, who was an early, very respected translator of his work.  I like her work.

And with any translation – who translated it can be very important.  Good translation is very much an art.  There was a wonderful New Yorker article about this “The Translation Wars” by David Remnick specifically about translators of the big Russian authors.  He discusses Garnett and others, but mostly the article is about the couple many consider to be the greatest translators of Russian literature: Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.  She is Russian, he doesn’t speak it.  She translates the language, he breathes life into the stories.  They translated the second book in my photo, but it is of Chekhov’s novellas (also wonderful) not his short stories.  I don’t have one of their translations of his short stories (assuming they’ve done them).  Their translations are great.  Honestly, between them (please don’t make me type their names out again!) and Garnett, I can’t say I notice a huge difference, but maybe I would if I read their work side by side.

11) Best Novel?

Ah, last, but not least.  Very tough.  I’m tempted to put one of Dorothy Whipple’s books here or Heat Lightning by Helen R. Hull that I just discussed.  But I fear that that would be an act of current passion, rather than long-standing reason (and passion).  So, I’m going with:

The Hotel by Elizabeth Bowen.  This was the first Bowen book I read – I didn’t blog intensively about it because I read it years ago.  But it is was got me started on Bowen.  This 1928 book is the story of a group of people thrown together at a hotel.  It has a flavor of Agatha Christie (idle, modestly rich people with lots of time on their hands) but is much more astute (not to mention it is not a mystery and neither Hercule nor Ms. Marple – how I love her! make a showing).  This book is far funnier than her funny later books (she made a conscious choice to be a bit more serious), but it has the same wonderful insight into human nature and gorgeously drawn characters.

And in Conclusion…

Whew!  What a long post.  But fun.  If you’ve stuck with me this far (and I didn’t lose you on the euthanasia or not a dog-mom thing) – what books would you recommend to someone who is just getting started with one or your passions or just wants a good story?

Happy Reading, Ruby



  1. chris

    Hmmm, I have to admit, as much as I like Chekhov, I prefer Munro (probably my Canadian bias.) A couple of other Canadian writers I like – Farley Mowat has made me laugh so hard…while Margaret Atwood’s short stories – like a really rich dish – need to be eaten slowly, savored, and allowed to digest. (Don’t tell anyone but I prefer her short stories to her novels.) Also very much enjoyed W.O Mitchell’s Who Has Seen the Wind, and Lucy Maude Montgomery.

    There is also a rich tradition of First Nation Writers in Canada, a few examples: Maria Campbell, Shelia Thompson, Basil Johnston, George Cluetsi, John Enrico, Zebedee Nungak, and George Amabile.

    Ah, the list could go on and on….

    Thank you for prompting a little walk down memory lane 🙂

    • Hi Christy: You probably told me you are Canadian, but I forgot. I read a fair amount of Farley Mowat as a kid and enjoyed him a lot and I enjoy Atwood. Munro is amazing! I have not heard of W.O. Mitchell. I very much enjoy Montgomery’s stories, although I have to admit, I think I’ve only encountered them through tv series – I know I would have adored them if I’d had access to them when I was young. It is great to see such a lengthy list of first nations authors – I confess that I haven’t read a lot of American Indian or First Nations authored work, but I also haven’t deeply enjoyed that which I have read… I’ve enjoyed more the work coming from marginalized folks in other countries (India, Nigeria etc.) than from North America. Thanks, Ruby

  2. wcs53

    I’ve been toying with the idea of square foot gardening for a few years as something to try with our children. I’ve also been a vegetarian for almost 3 years and would like to grow a lot of my own food. So maybe I’ll check out #1 and #7 as catalysts for getting on and doing something about it! Thanks for sharing these.

    • Hi WC: Thanks for stopping by! I think square foot gardening would be perfect for kids – they can reach things and would find those little 12 by 12 inch plots lots of fun. Ruby

  3. Your Top Ten Tuesday is very clever and oh so interesting!! I wish I had thought of it. A brilliant book from a genre can convert anyone – well done!! Thank you for stopping by my blog 🙂

    • Hi Terri: Thanks! and Thanks for stopping by! That’s part of the fun, isn’t it, seeing everyone’s creativity – it seems like there were infinite approaches to following this meme. Happy reading, Ruby

  4. I’m starting to feel a bit late to the party, as I haven’t read a Dickens novel yet this year! I guess I’ll be celebrating his belated birthday.

    • Hi Sarah: THANKS for stopping by! Well, maybe if you get him a present he’ll forgive you – I bet he’d love an ipad… Happy reading, Ruby


  1. The List « A Year of Actually Reading My Own Books
  2. Challenges: Am I Up to It? « A Year of Actually Reading My Own Books

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