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.

Recommendation: The Accidental Terrorist

If you submit to enough short fiction markets and read the guidelines, you’ll see the phrase “Standard Manuscript Format” over and over again, and almost as often you’ll see the name “Shunn.” This is because the science fiction author William Shunn has done an excellent job over at his website, Shunn.net, explaining and giving clear examples of what Standard Manuscript Format looks like, as well as some of the finer details of it. SMF may as well stand for Shunn Manuscript Format, because probably half the submission guidelines I see provide a link to his website as an example.

So when I was first getting the hang of submission, and didn’t have SMF memorized as I do now, I was constantly checking Shunn’s website. I went there so frequently, I eventually started to stray from just the formatting stuff, and I found a podcast with a strange title, The Accidental Terrorist. The title was especially strange because I didn’t know the reference. I gave it a listen, and was instantly hooked. The podcast is an autobiographical account of WIlliam Shunn’s time as a mormon missionary in Canada. It’s completely immersive, giving an inside look at mormon practices and beliefs, the typical lives of missionaries, and rural Canada. That’s what I love most about the podcast, but it also provides a cast of characters who showcase various aspects of the faith and mission work. The fact that it’s about a young sci-fi writer also hooked me—and it does develop to a pretty compelling narrative thread, eventually. The whole “Accidental Terrorist” thing isn’t just a goofy pun.

If this review sounds lacking in details, it’s because it isn’t really a review. I was going to listen to the podcast for a third time, but I decided against it when I saw that William Shunn would be putting out a hardcover, much-revised edition of the memoir this fall. Instead of relistening to it, I’m going to wait until fall to experience the story once again through a completely different medium. I’ve enjoyed the podcast for free so far, so I figure the $27.95 to pre-order and get a signed copy is well worth it. I’d recommend you do the same—though you don’t have to take my word for it. That podcast is still up, completely free. You can see how wonderfully humorous and enthralling the story is for yourself, and then support a terrific writer with a unique and fascinating story.