Weather Forecast


Dave Wood's Book Report, Nov. 18, 2009

"Charles Dickens," by Michael Slater (Yale University Press, $35) is due out on Nov. 30.

It's a long-awaited full-sized literary biography of the amazing writer who gave us "David Copperfield," "Great Expectations," and many more memorable Victorian novels.

My first brush with Dickens was purely accidental. Back when I was a kid a company in Racine, Banta, published thick little volumes called "Big Little Books."

I traded three of my Batman comic books for one old and worn "Big Little Book," a condensation of "David Copperfield" studded with pictures from David O. Selznick's movie of the same name, a movie starring W.C. Fields as Wilkins Micawber, Freddy Bartholomew as Davy, Basil Rathbone as the evil stepfather and Lionel Barrymore as Captain Peggoty.

Gol, how I loved that book! I read it over and over.

My own mother had died when I was Davy's age and so I empathized with his troubles. Later, I got to college and Dr. Roland Lee assigned us to read the Real Thing, all 500-odd pages of it. I'm not certain, but I think the assignment was why I switched my major to English.

Enough of that. Let's get to the new book. Slater brings to his task impeccable credentials. He's a professor emeritus of Victorian Lit at Birkbeck College, University of London and past president of the International Dickens Fellowship.

Slater's earlier books on Dickens have examined his journalistic activities, which, like his novels, was voluminous. Slater integrates these lesser efforts with Dickens development as a writer, as a speaker, as an advocate for the rights of the poor and downtrodden.

Past biographers have posited various stories about the novelist's life and his psyche to the exclusion of his work. Slater concentrates on the work as it reveals the author's personality. Dickens had a passion for order, but was fascinated by disorder, as witness life in the outrageous Micawber household.

This book is indeed a treat for avid Dickensians and any reader interested in the writing of compelling fiction.

The literary community will survive, come hell or high water, I'm sure of it. Despite the mergers of the big publishing houses, despite the fact that the Germans own most of the American companies, I just received evidence that despite the efforts of capitalism to think only of the bottom line.

One of the most beloved bookstores in the Twin Cities has been the south Minneapolis store called Once Upon a Crime, purveyors of quality crime fiction for years. When one of the owners, Gary Schulze, came down with leukemia, crime writers from all over the country, nay, the world, chipped in to put together an anthology to honor Schulze, called -- you guessed it --Once Upon a Crime.

And they found a publisher, not in New York City, but here in Flyoverland. The publisher was the amazing Norton Stillman, former co-owner of The Bookmen wholesale house and longtime supporter of good writing at his Nodin Press.

"Once Upon a Crime," introduction by Vince Flynn (Nodin Press, $16.95) is a glorious tribute to the bookseller whose leukemia treatments are now over.

Twenty-five well-known writers from Minnesota, the United States, Ireland an even South Africa contributed this anthology subtitled "An anthology of Murder, Mayhem and Suspense."

You'll recognize famous local authors like National Book Award Winner Pete Hautman, four time Minnesota Book Award Winner William Kent Krueger, Mary Logue who writes a lot about Stockholm, Wis., where she spends her summers.

Hautman has an especially poignant and subdued story, "Why I Write Mysteries by Gordon Matthews," in which a man remembers how his father took the family around Minneapolis to pray for citizens who had recently been murdered.

Dave Wood is a past vice president of the National Book Critics Circle and former book review editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Phone him at (715) 426-9554.