Saturday, March 2, 2013

Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomalin




Last year was the bicentenary of Dickens' birth, and there were a slew of books published about Dickens -- I can't remember how many I added to my to-read list, but still haven't read (I did celebrate Dickens by completing three of his works in 2012:  Martin Chuzzlewit, Our Mutual Friend, and Barnaby Rudge.)

I bought this book just after Christmas, but kept avoiding it.  Big fat nonfiction books tend to scare me, which is a little stupid.  Some of my favorite reads last year were nonfiction, and one of my favorites was a biography, Becoming Queen Victoria by Kate Williams.  However, I realized it was available in audiobook format, and last year I submitted it to the "Suggest A Purchase" feature on the library's website.  They did buy it, and after months of waiting, it finally arrived in January.

I really, really enjoyed this book -- I used to think biographies were dry and boring, but either I was reading the wrong books, or they've gotten much better lately.  This was fascinating stuff.  I knew the basics about Dickens' life from bits and pieces I'd picked up after reading his books, but to learn about his life from start to finish was quite fascinating.  Of course, many readers know now that he was forced to work in a blacking factory as a child after his father was sent to debtor's prison, the inspiration for his favorite novel, David Copperfield.

I loved learning about Dickens, and having read most of the novels, it was interesting to place them into the context of his life.   Though I've enjoyed most of his books, and absolutely love some of them, I learned some things about him that I didn't like very much.  He was a complicated person.  His childhood was difficult, his father was terrible with money, and even though Dickens seemed to work tirelessly, he was constantly faced with demands for financial support from his father, his brothers, and his own children, most of whom were not terribly successful.

Dickens definitely had faults -- his now-famous liaison with a much-younger actress Nelly Ternan is pretty scandalous, and it seems like he was pretty cruel to his wife, and sometimes his children.  But Tomalin obviously did amazing research and puts it all together in a way that's easy to follow.  Just reading his handwriting alone is a triumph -- I've seen some Dickens' original letters and manuscripts in exhibits, and he's nearly indecipherable.

I think listening to something challenging makes it a little bit easier.  For me, it's a little less intimidating if I start with an audio of a book that scares me.  I can take it in bits and pieces, and then I'm not as scared to tackle the print copy.  In this case, I listened to it a little bit every day while driving to and from work in the car, and I really enjoyed it.  I always try to have an audiobook in the car because the radio here in my city is just dreadful.  (I like NPR but I can't listen to the news too much because I find it too depressing).   Also, I usually have a print copy so I can read the book at home (and sometimes a second library copy at work) -- otherwise I'd sit in the driveway listening!   However, then I find it takes me forever to find my place in the audio when I get back in the car.  This time I resisted because I was really enjoying the audio version.  I listened to almost the entire book, except when I got to the end of the three-week checkout period and I couldn't renew it because there were holds on it.

Anyway, I was sorry when it ended and now I want to read lots more biographies, more books about Dickens, and most importantly, I'm determined to finish the rest of Dickens' novels.  I have three left:
The Pickwick Papers, The Old Curiosity Shop, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood.  Which one should I read next?  Which other books about Dickens are must-reads?  And how do you feel about audiobooks?

18 comments:

  1. I struggle with audiobooks because I find it so much harder to concentrate on listening than reading. An audio version also seems like someone else's intepretation of the story, especially with what I think are overly-dramatic readings of novels, or when actors try too hard with voices. But that would be less of a problem with non-fiction, now that I think about it.

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    1. I agree, the reader can make or break a story. There are some audiobook narrators that I love and some I avoid like the plague.

      Some of the non-fiction nowadays has such a great narrative that it's almost as good as fiction.

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  2. I like audio books but I typically only use them to “re-read” books. I read the Claire Tomalin bio last year and really enjoyed it as well. It was an excellent “warts and all” look at Dickens, that is for sure. My only issue with the book is that it gave away some of the plot lines to the novels and I haven’t read that many yet.

    I can’t give you any further reading suggestions regarding Dickens and I haven’t read any of the three novels you have left (so jealous!...I have 8 or 9 to go!), but I can recommend Drood by Dan Simmons. It is a fictional account of Dickens’ relationship with Wilkie Collins set during the last years of Dickens’ life. It isn’t a perfect book, but I really loved it.

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    1. I think fear of spoilers was one reason I waited to read it. I only had the three left to go, and there were times when I just turned the volume down so I wouldn't learn too much about the plots of those three. I am aware of the outcome of someone from Old Curiosity Shop, it's pretty hard to avoid.

      I also have a copy of Drood, but I think I'll wait until I finish Dickens' book before I start it.

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  3. I love audiobooks. Like you, I always have one on the go in the car &, as my office has just moved, I now have an extra 10 mins to listen. On the way home, I like to listen to the news & see what's happened in the world but I often switch off & go back to my book if the news is boring or depressing. I've read the three unread Dickens & enjoyed them all. I recently reread Edwin Drood & loved it. Pickwick was much better than I thought it would be. I was afraid the humour wouldn't have lasted well but I enjoyed it very much. OCS was my least favourite of the three. Also loved the Tomalin bio. Have you read Tomalin's Invisible Woman, about Nelly Ternan? Even better than her Dickens, I think.

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    1. I'm dreading OCS a little, it sounds so dreary. Pickwick sounds fun and I love a good mystery, so I'm looking forward to Drood.

      I haven't read anything else by Tomalin except bits of her bio of Jane Austen. I've heard good things about The Invisible Woman. There's a new Michael Slater book about the Ternan scandal and a couple of other new ones, Dickens in Love and also one about his children. I could easily OD on the Dickens mania!

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    2. I really liked Tomalin's biography of Thomas Hardy although I didn't much care for her portrayal of his first wife. But she did an excellent job of making her readers want to read more Hardy. I'd read several of his novels in college, but none of his poetry. Thanks to Tomalin, he's become a real favorite of mine, especially the poetry and shorter works of fiction.

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    3. I'm a little scared of Hardy -- I've only read Tess, which I didn't care for, and The Mayor of Casterbridge, which was better but still underwhelmed me. Maybe I should read the Tomalin biography and I'd appreciate his work more.

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    4. I absolutely was enthralled with The Invisible Woman by Tomalin--definitely well worth reading!

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  4. I LOVE audiobooks... mysteries, literary fiction, classics, nonfiction -pretty much everything. They allow me to fit so many more books into my life. My experience with scarier classics and nonfiction is similar to yours. A good audio production makes it much more approachable and, once I get the rhythm of the narrative, find it's very easy to switch back and forth from print to audio.

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    1. I love audio because it makes the drive go faster and lets me get ahead in my enormous TBR pile - even if it's just a few pages a day. There are just so many books I want to read!!

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  5. I haven't read The Pickwick Papers or The Old Curiosity Shop but I loved The Mystery of Edwin Drood, though of course it was frustrating that it was unfinished and nobody knows how it was supposed to end!

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    1. Someone told me the murder was obvious, but since I haven't read it I've no idea. I was pretty surprised by the murderer in Bleak House, so you never know.

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  6. I have read both Pickwick Papers and Edwin Drood. I have to confess that I did not really like Pickwick Papers, though I did read it all. That was a long time ago. It is a lot less serious than his other books.

    Edwin Drood is great, and it seemed like it would have been a great novel if he had lived to finish it. It is a very quick read, but very frustrating since it is really only the start of a novel. It is story without a middle let alone an end.

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    1. People seem to really love Drood. Such a shame it was never finished!

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  7. Dickens was a complicated person, no doubt about it. I really enjoyed this bio also, and while I still felt he had flaws in abundance, I think Tomalin did a good job in making him a sympathetic figure, nonetheless. After years of avoiding him after reading Ackroyd's bio, Tomalin's actually made me warm to him again.

    If you haven't read Pickwick, you must do so post-haste. It's fun, and it's from a time when the world was rosy for young Mr. Dickens.

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    1. I haven't read Ackroyd's bio but I have Michael Slater's which I bought before Border's folded. I've heard it's good but I'll probably wait awhile before I read it.

      Pickwick does sound like fun! I wish my library had that one on audio as well.

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  8. I used to have similar trepidations about nonfiction, but recently I've seen the error of my ways. I bought this biography over the holidays and can't wait to read it. I've only come across rave reviews.

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