Review: Rereading Great Expectations

Engraving titled “Pip waits on Miss Havisham” by Marcus Stone.

A month or so ago I reread Great Expectations in the hopes that it would provide me some nice juicy quotes to pair with chapters of the travel memoir I was writing. That ended up kind of working, but in general I just found myself loving the book, as it more than lived up to my fond memories of it. I actually did review the book on this blog awhile ago, in a What I’ve Been Reading post,  but I only spent a few paragraphs on it, and a lot of stuff struck me that I didn’t really notice the first time around, so here goes.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens is narrated by Pip, an orphan living in a small town in southeast England, presumably near the Thames Estuary, as he multiple times describes “the marshes” and the sight of “hulks”—prison ships. Actually, the Pip who’s narrating things is an adult, looking back on his life, mainly focusing on his boyhood, adolescence, and early adulthood.

The book is broken into three volumes, and each one is really it’s own little universe, with its own specific goals and style.

The first volume mainly focuses on Pip’s boyhood. Pip is raised by his much older sister, the abrasive, violent Mrs. Gargery, and her husband Joe Gargery, a kind, gentle, infinitely likable blacksmith. Pip is given a taste of wealth and status when Ms. Havisham, an old, reclusive noblewoman, calls him to her house to attend on her, and play with her daughter, Estella. And with that little taste, and with his sudden love for Estella, Pip quickly grows distasteful of his low, common life.

That’s really what the first volume does beautifully—it paints a portrait of the steady development of self-loathing, even of disdain for Joe, in this commoner boy. It shows the growth of his unhealthy desire to be a “gentleman,” to escape the profession of blacksmith. One terrific quote comes as Estella and Pip are playing cards:

“He calls the knaves, Jacks, this boy!” said Estella with disdain, before our first game was out. “And what coarse hands he has. And what thick boots!”
I had never thought of being ashamed of my hands before; but I began to consider them a very indifferent pair. Her contempt was so strong, that it became infectious, and I caught it.

Towards the end of the volume though, Pip learns of a mysterious benefactor, who wishes him to go to London, and who has granted him great expectations—expectations meaning, by a now archaic definition, an inheritance. Although the benefactor works through an intermediary, not revealing their identity to Pip, all signs point to it being Ms. Havisham. These expectations only drive Pip further apart from Joe, and the volume ends with Pip setting off for London.Read More »

Trump as Described by Dickens

It occurred to me that Donald Trump is such a Dickens character. Incredibly wealthy, incredibly self-centered, incredibly ironic—and, the final flourish, his name. His name is absurd. “Trump,” like a trump card. Also like a blaring trumpet.

So I wrote a little thing.

Donald Trump, as Charles Dickens might describe him

Mr. Trump was a tall man with a tall face and a long mouth, which seemed to have swollen out to accommodate the volume of his voice. Having been successful in the circuits of reality television, Mr. Trump made some small adjustments to his line of work, pinned a flag to his lapel, and transitioned into that other marvelous form of American entertainment, politics.

Just as a trump card, though less qualified in every aspect than a superior card, will beat any ace or king simply because it is a Trump, Mr. Trump battered down his opponents not by his qualification, but by his massive, star-spangled Trumpitude. Though he had no political experience to rival the royalty of the King Bush, or even the Jack Rand, and his business prowess did not match the Queen Carly (Mr. Trump had filed for bankruptcy more often than he’d filed for divorce) he would slap his brand across his opponents as a gambler would slap down a card, and declare, “I’m a winner. I have experience in winning.”

What I’ve Been Reading, January 2016

Here I go again, with a Victorian novel, a sci-fi novella, and a dramatic play.

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens – The last book I read for my Dickens class, and the last book that Dickens completed. The plot is hard to pin down. The “mutual friend” described in the title is definitely a big part of it, but he’s not the only part, or even the biggest part. There’s the typical Dickens ensemble of characters that ranges from villains to saints and paupers to aristocrats, but they’re not all connected by a common plot. They are connected through themes, the big ones being death and wealth. The mutual friend is the heir to a fortune, and he fakes his own death to live a humbler life—which really ties the two big themes directly together. More than that, it’s difficult to say. I imagine each reader gets a different impression of what the most noteworthy aspect of this book is, and there’s a lot to choose from.

If you like Dickens though, you’ll love this book. The writing is complex and entertaining, and the characters and their relationships are a constant source of fascination. It’s a recombination of many of Dickens’ tried and true motifs, characters, and plots, but a perfection of them that kept me engaged enough to read through the last two hundred pages in a day.

“The Citadel of Weeping Pearls” by Aliette de Bodard – This novella, which I read in the October/November issue of Asimov’s, is set in Bodard’s Xuya universe—a world where China discovered the Americas first, and Southeast Asian cultures goes on to be much more influential. In this novella, it is the space age, and the Dai Viet Empire is facing threats from the Nam Federation. To counter these threats they desperately need to find the Citadel of Weeping Pearls, a space station to which the rebellious princess and heiress fled thirty years ago, and which disappeared without a trace.

The novella is similar to Our Mutual Friend in the way all the characters are tied together by themes, if not plot. That’s not entirely true, because the characters converge much more tightly in “Citadel” than they do in Our Mutual Friend, but that convergence isn’t really crucial or meaningful, it’s just useful for keeping things focused in a short novel. The recurring struggle of these characters is retrieving something that’s lost. The empress wants to reunite with her daughter, who she last saw when she was trying to attack the citadel. An engineer attempts to build a portal into the citadel so she can see her mother again, who was onboard the citadel when it disappeared. The younger princess feels disconnected from her daughter, who was turned into a mindship to be used by the empire.

Though the story opens strong with a fantastically large and interesting world, the characters, and their relationships and struggles, are what ended up engaging me the most. For them, “The Citadel of Weeping Pearls” is worth reading. Currently it’s only available in the issue of Asimov’s in which it was published, but I’m guessing it will be published by itself some time down the line.

Oleanna by David Mamet – Oleanna is a short, two-person play by David Mamet. The characters are a college professor and a student of his. The first act is dominated by the professor spouting long philosophical lines about the failures of higher education, under the pretense of helping his student understand the class. The second act flips things around, as the audience discovers that the student has used sexual harassment claims to threaten the tenure of her teacher.

The play is fascinating. It changed my mind many times throughout reading it, but not because of ambiguity or a withholding of information—just because the characters and the questions raised are so challenging, and so well-explored. It even has a sound, decisive conclusion without crowning a victor, without establishing a right and a wrong. It’s a play that I’m definitely going to re-read, and watch the first chance I get. The only problem is that both the characters seem to be empty, sterile Mamet puppets, mere vehicles for the clashing ideas without much other content (the professor has a house, a wife, and kids, but that’s about all we get. I’m not even sure what the class was really about, or what degree the student wanted to get.) There were times when the lack of personality made me feel distant, and less engaged. I don’t know that the play would be improved with the inclusion of more character development though. Part of why it’s effective is how bare-bones it is. Plus, I didn’t see two flesh and blood actors performing it, so maybe it’s a problem exclusive to the written form of the play.

Regardless of that minor quibble, I highly recommend reading or watching Oleanna.

EDIT: Ennh, or not. At the time I read this I didn’t see it as an attack on political correctness and a denunciation of assault allegations, as one work in a long line of bullshit campus plays and novels. I mainly read it as an exploration of student-teacher power dynamics existing in a vacuum, and I dunno, if you can read it like that maybe you can enjoy it. But I think it pretty clearly was not written in a vacuum, and it’s just another fuckin campus play. As I said in the above review, I actually empathized with the student, which the text is like, not trying to get the audience to do? I’ve never reread or watched Oleanna, and I don’t intend to.

So, that’s what I’ve been reading. I also read Foundation’s Edge and Don Quixote. I thought Foundation’s Edge was alright, but I didn’t talk about it here because I wouldn’t recommend it. The only reason that I’m mentioning it at all is that I mentioned it last post, and I want to clarify that I’m not going to write about it in one of these. You know, in case you’ve just been on god damn tenterhooks since my last What I’ve Been Reading post. Don Quixote I’ll probably write about in a separate review, because there’s a lot to write about.

I have no idea what I’ll review next. Probably it’ll be words.

What I’ve Been Reading, November 2015 (Dickens Edition!)

Here it is, another post about what I’ve been reading. Mostly Charles Dickens, because I have a lit class on him, and one other book that I mentioned awhile ago.

Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens – This is the second book we read in my Charles Dickens class, and it’s another massive one. It follows the story of the Dorrits—William Dorrit, the father, has spent decades in a debtor’s prison. His youngest daughter (“Little Dorrit”) was born in prison, and his son is constantly in and out of debt and the prison as well. At the same time, the book follows a few families in the aristocracy, among them Arthur Clennam—a middle-aged man without any direction in life, who befriends Little Dorrit. By interweaving the two worlds, Dickens satirizes the aristocracy as well as the British bureaucracy, and notions of gentility and wealth. While I enjoyed the humor of this one as much as I do with any Dickens novel, I was a little bored by the lack of agency these characters had. More often things happen to them rather than any of them doing things, and most of their actions are reactions. It was still an excellent character study, though not a book where I was eager to get to the climax.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens- This book, on the other hand, develops the main character’s motivations very well. It’s clear that Pip, the poor, orphan protagonist, is striving to be a gentleman—and while this is a rather arbitrary, subjective goal, that’s the point, and it doesn’t make Pip any less compelling. He is by no means a purely good protagonist, and watching his corruption and challenges is fascinating. Really, almost all the characters are like this, and I loved seeing good characters make bad decisions, and bad characters reveal good intentions.

As usual, the book does a wonderful job satirizing gentility, but specifically life in the big city, London. This quote I particularly loved:

“We spent as much money as we could, and got as little for it as people could make up their minds to give us. We were always more or less miserable, and most of our acquaintance were in the same condition. There was a gay fiction among us that we were constantly enjoying ourselves, and a skeleton truth that we never did.”

I’d highly recommend the book. If you don’t have time to sit down and read it, this librivox version of it by Peter John Keeble is excellently performed, and I listened to it for some chapters.

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens – While this book doesn’t provide such a clear protagonist to latch onto as Great Expectations, the cast of characters and the development of setting is really engaging. The book is a grim look at the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror, showing the madness and bloodlust of the revolutionaries, and thrusting a family into the midst of it—and, of course, paralleling this to mob aggression in London. The family we follow is that of Alexandre Manette, once wrongly imprisoned in the Bastille. Also his daughter Lucie, and her husband, the emigrated French marquis Charles Darnay. A hundred other characters are attached to them as well, each working toward their own motivations.

I was captivated by this book. The fuse is long, but once it’s burnt down, the story really explodes. It’s the way that relationships and characters change and mirror each other throughout the book that makes it so interesting, and so entertaining. Like I said, there isn’t as much of a main character, so I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as Great Expectations, but it’s still an excellent read—and a particularly action-packed one for Dickens.

The Accidental Terrorist by William Shunn – The only non-Dickens book this time around. I mentioned this book earlier, when it was up for pre-order. Now, a few months later, I’ve read it, and it’s available in hardcover and paperback here. And I still recommend it.

The book is about sci-fi writer William Shunn’s experiences in Alberta, Canada, serving his mission for the Mormon Church. What I love is the combination of highly entertaining characters and stories with detailed information about the Mormon Church—its history as well as the its practices at the time Shunn was a missionary. I value any book that can give an up-close look at something most people only vaguely know about, and this book delivers for missionary work. Who knew some missionaries used golf balls to produce a crisper, louder knocking sound when proselytizing? I do, now.

And the other elements, the ones I’d look for in any fictional book, are there too. Shunn describes a wide range of missionaries—brown-nosers, slackers, sinners—showing a full picture of the Mormon church that isn’t just silly magic underwear or straight-laced morality. And, once the story really gets going, it’s incredibly compelling. Less so because I already knew it, but still entertaining, full of twists and tension.

So, that’s what I’ve been reading. I’ll probably talk about Don Quixote next, and the last couple Dickens books we’re reading. See you then.

Did the Author Really Mean That?

Today in my Dickens class, though in a roundabout way, the question was asked.

Did Dickens intentionally use all of the rhetorical devices that we analyze throughout his writing? (The actual question was how long it took Dickens to write his books, assuming that the more time he spent the more likely it was that his subtext was intentional.) This is a question I’ve heard in classes throughout my education—Did the author really mean that? Is it really possible that the author consciously layered in so much meta-textual meaning, or are we looking too hard? The paradox that jumps out at me most is the fact that a person can spend more time analyzing a sentence than the time it took to write the sentence—how do we reckon that?Read More »

What I’ve Been Reading, September 2015

Hey look! My first ever review-type post. Maybe I could review these book-by-book, and dedicate entire posts to each, but I don’t feel like it. Here’s what I’ve been reading.

The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams – I have mixed feelings about this book. I loved Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and I was eager to see how the story would wrap up in this one. I’m not going to recap what these books are about, because you should already know, and it doesn’t matter.

Like the first one, the book is hysterical, full of wonderful pithy gems and subversive creativity. It’s also full of casual nihilism and comic brutality, which I so enjoyed in the first one. The repeated plot device of mortal peril was tiring though, and the randomness became dull. The characters are very reactionary, but don’t take action on any of their own desires (whatever those are, I couldn’t get a firm sense of it for any of them.) It’s definitely worth a read though, and I’m definitely going to read the next one some time—just not as solid as the first book.

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor – This book excels in every way I’d hoped, and in ways I didn’t even expect. The world is one I haven’t seen, complicated, surprising, and beautiful. Attempting to explain it wouldn’t do it justice, so I’ll just name three items found within it: camel racing, eleventh-year rites, and juju. The protagonist is terrific as well. There’s a tendency in fantasy books to have a Strong Female Character—and no matter how well developed, you can sense that the point of her is to be a Strong Female Character who Breaks Expectations. Onyesonwu, the protagonist of this book, is not that. She’s driven, arrogant, impassioned, and incredibly human. The book is in first-person, and her voice and personality are gripping.

The narrative, driven by that character, keeps a good pace, and twists and turns wonderfully. The book is a hero’s journey, but one that rebukes cliches, and feels fresh. On top of all this, the book is unrestrainedly honest. Even in a section of the book where Onyesonwu comes across a wholly different society, one that’s almost utopic, the sorcerer of the town is still a sexist. I adored this book from start to finish, and can’t wait to pick up more from Okorafor.

Dombey and Son by Charles Dickens – Dombey and Son is a difficult book to review, because it covers so much dramatic ground in its 900 plus pages. The books chiefly follows Paul Dombey, his son, and his daughter—Dombey being the head of the firm Dombey and Son—but there are a lot of other characters and subplots. Rather than tell you what it’s about (I’m not sure I could pin it down precisely), I’ll tell you that the book has both a shakespearean cast of characters and shakespearean plotting, wrought epically across 52 chapters, in which the most minor side-scenes and persons all eventually come to fruition.

Dickens’s style is, as with any classic writer, striking. At times it’s incredibly descriptive, at others dryly hysterical, and most often it’s both. The minor characters had me constantly laughing as well, while the major characters were compelling, and thoroughly examined. The treatment of these characters, their development, and the journeys they go on are as emotionally moving as the best written plays. Have I made enough theatrical references? It’s because this book handles characters as well as theatre does, which is as high a mark as saying a book handles action as well as a graphic novel does. There were certainly chapters that dragged, or twists I found a bit hard to buy, but overall I had a great time reading the book.

So, that’s what I’ve been reading. Since I read a ton of books at once, I’ve actually been reading more than this, but this is what I’ve finished recently. Next I’ll probably talk about Little Dorrit—another Dickens book—Foundation’s Edge by Isaac Asimov, and maybe Don Quixote by this obscure guy you’ve probably never heard of.