Thursday, January 31, 2013

Meet the Best Innkeepers in Town

Three cheers for me - I caught up (thanks largely to this short 4th book) to my Les Mis Project schedule, and can now go on for a bit about the fate of poor Fantine's baby. With little ado, let's see what's next in  Victor Hugo's Les Misérables (Volume 1: Fantine.) (I sure have a lot to say about this bit, but Hugo is so snarky and Cosette is so pitiful. It's a good post, I promise, despite its length.)

Now that we're seeing more of
little Cosette, it's time for
the classic waif cover art.
Book Fourth - To Confide is Sometimes to Deliver into a Person's Power 
With that rather ominous title, we see what Fantine's been up to in the ten months since Tholomyes left. Well, first we see a pretty little scene outside the Thenardier's cook-shop, with Madame overseeing her two toddler girls swinging on the chain of an old truck in the street. (Hugo's typical drollery asks, "Why was that fore-carriage of a truck in that place in the street? In the first place, to encumber the street; next, in order that it might finish the process of rusting." (p.112)) Madame is "watching them carefully, for fear of accidents, with that animal and celestial expression which is peculiar to maternity." (p.112) It's all quite sweet.

So, in the ten months since that summer day when the guys abandoned their mistresses, the other women have gone off to find new paramours. Fantine "found herself absolutely isolated, minus the habit of work and plus the taste for pleasure. Drawn away by Tholomyes to disdain the petty trade which she knew, she had neglected to keep her market open; it was now closed to her." (p.114) So she's broke, illiterate, and solo parenting a growing girl. (Hey, did you know that Cosette was already around when Tholomyes took off? I always interpreted "her father abandoned us, leaving us flat" after "a summer by my side" as his taking off while she was pregnant, maybe before he knew about the baby. Nope. What a tool.

She sends him a couple of letters, which he ignores, and meanwhile she "heard the gossips say, as they looked at her child: 'Who takes these children seriously! One only shrugs one's shoulders over such children!' " (p.114) So very Gallic, no? Fantine gives up on Tholomyes and, with no other recourse, heads for her hometown, though she can't get work there if they find out about the baby and the whole mistress thing. (FYI, before Cosette's daddy goes out of the picture entirely, we find out that he becomes a rich, successful, influential, jolly man. Jerk.)

Anyway, down the road walks Fantine with the sleeping Cosette in her arms, and sees this tableaux of mother with swinging little girls, and of course (the naivete is still in full force) interprets it as a good sign and bargains with them to take care of Cosette for six months while she finds work. After pretty much fleecing her, the Thenardier's agree and off Fantine goes. Cosette (who, BTW, isn't really named Cosette - that's a nickname for Euphrasie. "But out of Euphrasie the mother had made Cosette by that sweet and graceful instinct of mothers and of the populace which changes Josepha into Pepita, and Francoise into Silette. It is a sort of derivative which disarranges and disconcerts the whole science of etymologists." (p.116) - Hugo being funny again.) is a gorgeous baby, almost 3, and settles in well.

Unfortunately, the Thernardier's aren't exactly loving foster parents. In addition to the constant increases in the amount they asked from Fantine, they quickly started dressing her in too-small cast-offs from their daughters, and feeding her scraps under the table along with the family pets, and other such delightful maltreatment.

Turns out that in addition to whatever innate grossness the Ternardier's possessed, some of the blame can be placed on romance novels! You see, "the female Ternardier was nothing but a coarse, vicious woman, who had dabbled in stupid romances. Now, one cannot read nonsense with impunity. The result was that her eldest daughter was name Eponine; as for the younger, the poor little thing came near to being called Gulnare; I know not to what diversion, effected by a romance of Ducray-Dumenil, she owed the fact that she merely bore the name of Azelma." (p.118) So, apparently I should listen to my sons when they chastise me for reading "those novels." Or I should feed them out of the dog bowls.

As Cosette aged, her foster family grew meaner, though they certainly treated their own daughters well. "It is sad to think that the love of a mother can posses villainous aspects. Little as was the space occupied by Cosette, it seemed to her as though it was taken from her own.... This woman, like many women of her sort, had a load of caresses and a burden of blows and injuries to dispense each day. If she had not had Cosette, it is certain that her daughters, idolized as they were, would have received the whole of it; but the stranger did them the service to divert the blows to herself." (p.119)

Here's a wrenching scene, if ever I've read one. (It almost makes me tolerate the intolerable Castle on a Cloud song.) Check out how this book ends:

"It was a heart-breaking thing to see this poor child, not yet six years old, shivering in the winter in her old rags of linen, full of holes, sweeping the street before daylight, with an enormous broom in her tiny red hands, and a tear in her great eyes.
"She was called the Lark in the neighborhood. The populace, who are fond of these figures of speech, had taken a fancy to bestow this name on the trembling, frightened, and shivering little creature, no bigger than a bird, who was awake every morning before any one else in the house or the village, and was always in the street or the fields before daybreak.
"Only the little lark never sang."


Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Me Before You

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
(Penguin, 2012)
Format: hardback via library - and thanks to my sister-in-law and niece for the recommendation!

From Goodreads: "Lou Clark knows lots of things. She knows how many footsteps there are between the bus stop and home. She knows she likes working in The Buttered Bun tea shop and she knows she might not love her boyfriend Patrick.

What Lou doesn't know is she's about to lose her job or that knowing what's coming is what keeps her sane.

Will Traynor knows his motorcycle accident took away his desire to live. He knows everything feels very small and rather joyless now and he knows exactly how he's going to put a stop to that.

What Will doesn't know is that Lou is about to burst into his world in a riot of colour. And neither of them knows they're going to change the other for all time."

Oh, joy. Joy and sadness. Louisa and Will are both stuck, in vastly different ways (a past trauma isn't comparable to suddenly facing life as a quadriplegic, obviously), and when Lou finds herself working as a companion to Will they are drawn together in unexpected ways. They initially dislike each other, but the longer Lou spends with Will, the more her unique attitude breaks through his walls. Although they will spend much of their time at cross-purposes, the way they come to care for each other and push each other is a deeply affecting tale of the value of looking beyond yourself. Moyes's dialogue is consistently witty and her characters so fully inhabit their locations that the scenes are vivid. Her style is easy and clear and, while I wish I'd gotten just a little more force behind the 'whys' of Lou's juxtaposition of quirky, forthright gal in public with an excessively banked inner fire, I was very much with this story to the bittersweet end. Well worth the read.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
(Random House, 2012)
Format: audio download from library (narrated by Jim Broadbent for Random House Audio)

From Goodreads: "Meet Harold Fry, recently retired. He lives in a small English village with his wife, Maureen, who seems irritated by almost everything he does, even down to how he butters his toast. Little differentiates one day from the next. Then one morning the mail arrives, and within the stack of quotidian minutiae is a letter addressed to Harold in a shaky scrawl from a woman he hasn’t seen or heard from in twenty years. Queenie Hennessy is in hospice and is writing to say goodbye.

Harold pens a quick reply and, leaving Maureen to her chores, heads to the corner mailbox. But then, as happens in the very best works of fiction, Harold has a chance encounter, one that convinces him that he absolutely must deliver his message to Queenie in person. And thus begins the unlikely pilgrimage at the heart of Rachel Joyce’s remarkable debut. Harold Fry is determined to walk six hundred miles from Kingsbridge to the hospice in Berwick-upon-Tweed because, he believes, as long as he walks, Queenie Hennessey will live"

Harold's modern pilgrimage, a late-life crisis combined with a search for atonement, becomes a deep dive into the self, the kind that you emerge from a wholer, better person. Harold is a silent, steady type. He does what's expected, without expressing himself in much of any way, and has done so all his life. The few occasions where his emotions break out, he then buries, and it is only on this pilgrimage that he begins to see it all in a pattern, and to understand himself and his life. And Life, too, when you get right down to it. Nothing like spending hours per day heading north on foot, no cell phone, no change of clothes, only chance company, to get reflective.

It's easy to put yourself in Harold's increasingly-downtrodden shoes. And as he nears Queenie's hospice, and the story winds tighter and tighter around the moment of crisis that defined all of their lives, the quiet tension involved feels as momentous as a far bigger tragedy.

Jim Broadbent's quiet, clear, indefatigable narration is perfect for this novel. He makes me feel each step, the hills and the valleys, at times relentless and at times buoyant. I was so pleased by this pairing, because my mental image of Harold would have looked a heck of a lot like Broadbent, even without the aural clues.

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Dead Shall Not Rest

The Dead Shall Not Rest by Tessa Harris
(Kensington, 2012)
Format: audiobook download via Audiobook Jukebox (narrated by Simon Vance for Blackstone Audio)

From Goodreads: "In the bestselling tradition of Caleb Carr's 'The Alienist,' Dr. Thomas Silkstone returns in this stunning mystery that combines the intrigue of 'CSI' with a fascinating 18th-century historical setting."

I was excited for this one. I enjoyed the first of the Thomas Silkstone mysteries (The Anatomist's Apprentice) and I may or may not have mentioned my partiality for Vance's narrations. And I did like it, definitely. But not unreservedly. The narration, sure, that was great. As engaging as possible, ideal inflection and pacing, the delightful warm tone. And Harris's main character, Dr. Thomas Silkstone, is terrific. His forays into the developing science of forensic anthropology are fascinating, and the recurring characters surrounding him are solid. My issue with this book was that the mystery itself wasn't particularly gripping. There were several interesting layers, with eunuchs and dwarfs and giants and evil barbers swirling through them, but not a lot holding them together. I lost interest too early in who-done-it, which isn't really ideal in a mystery. Silkstone's personal issues and Vance's narration kept me going. I want to see more from this series, but hopefully with a stronger internal structure.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

He Spent a Summer By My Side, But He Was Gone When Autumn Came

A nice classic cover,
perfect for the section
about cads and prostitutes.
Wooo! - this gets me to 10% completion on this novel. I'm almost as happy as when I'm on the elliptical and it lets me know I'm at 80% completion of my workout. 

Here we are, 3 books into Volume 1: Fantine of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, and finally we meet Fantine. For those of you following along with your cast albums, we've had the Prologue (without Javert's bit), What Have I Done?, and after this Book, more detail about the "when I was young and unafraid" parts of I Dreamed a Dream

Book Third - In the Year 1817
We meet four young bucks about town - Parisian students, living the high life, which, naturally, includes even younger women to keep them company. Well, first you have to get through a chapter of historical context, but let's bypass that and go straight to the people behaving badly part of things, shall we? (Hugo disapproves of this, put a whole thing about it being important at the end of chapter I, but ha, ha, he's dead, I can do what I want.)

Two Grisettes by Constantin Guys
(Grisette = Prostitute, FYI)
  • "These young men were insignificant; every one has seen such faces; four specimens of humanity taken at random; neither good nor bad, neither wise nor ignorant, neither geniuses nor fools; handsome, with that charming April which is called twenty years." (p.95) But one of them, Felix Tholomyes, is not only Fantine's bloke, but also a bit of an instigator when it comes to self-serving actions.
  • They hook up with "four ravishing young women, perfumed and radiant, still a little like working-women, and not yet entirely divorced from their needles; somewhat disturbed by intrigues, but still retaining on their faces something of the serenity of toil, and in their souls that flower of honesty which survives the first fall n woman." (p.96) 
  • Fantine was the most naive of this group, and a bit of an outsider because of it. "We will confine ourselves to saying that the love of Fantine was a first love, a sole love, a faithful love.    She alone, of all the four, was not called 'thou' by a single one of them." (p.97)
  • So, after a summer by her side, while the gals were pressuring the dudes for a 'surprise,' and with the families of these dudes pressuring them to settle down respectably, "Tholomyes lowered his voice and articulated something so mirthful, that a vast and enthusiastic grin broke out upon the four mouths simultaneously...." (p.98) If you think dudes behaved impeccably 200 years ago, this'll prove you wrong.
  • The guys take the gals out for a long summer day's idyll in the countryside, sightseeing, playing games, dining out, being charming and looking attractive to all passers-by. "Beautiful women waste themselves sweetly. They think that this will never come to an end. Philosophers, poets, painters, observe their ecstasies and know not what to make of it, so greatly are they dazzled by it." (p.101)
  • Over a long meal, Tholomyes waxing philosophical about life and beauty, adds, "I say nothing of Fantine; she is a dreamer, a musing, thoughtful, pensive person; she is a phantom possessed of the form of a nymph and the modesty of a nun, who has strayed into the life of a grisette, but who takes refuge in illusions, and who sings and prays and gazes into the azure without very well knowing what she sees or what she is doing...." (p.106) I mean, if I was an impressionable girl who'd been on my own my whole life, no known parents, not even knowing where my name came from, and Mr. Life of the Party said stuff like that about me, I'd probably fall head over heels, too. Poor kid.
  • So the girls ask for their surprises, and Tholomyes and the rest kiss their gals on the forehead and tell them to wait there a bit, the surprise is coming. In case I haven't made it clear, these guys? Not nearly as awesome as they think they are. They leave the gals sitting around for an hour, then a waiter brings the "Surprise" note, which explains about ma and pa not being keen on light-skirted daughter-in-laws, so the poor guys have to desert them in the inn. And this awesome bit: "For the space of nearly two years we have made you happy. We bear you no grudge for that.... Postscriptum. The dinner is paid for." (p.111)
  • Fantine pretends to take this as lightly as the others. But. "An hour later, when she had returned to her room, she wept. It was her first love affair, as we have said; she had given herself to this Tholomyes as to a husband, and the poor girl had a child." (p.111)
On that cheerful note, this book ends.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Beautiful Ruins

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
(Harper, 2012)
Format: audio download via Audible (narrated by Edoardo Ballerini for Harper Audio)

From Goodreads: "The story begins in 1962. On a rocky patch of the sun-drenched Italian coastline, a young innkeeper, chest-deep in daydreams, looks out over the incandescent waters of the Ligurian Sea and spies an apparition: a tall, thin woman, a vision in white, approaching him on a boat. She is an actress, he soon learns, an American starlet, and she is dying.

And the story begins again today, half a world away, when an elderly Italian man shows up on a movie studio's back lot--searching for the mysterious woman he last saw at his hotel decades earlier.

What unfolds is a dazzling, yet deeply human, roller coaster of a novel, spanning fifty years and nearly as many lives. From the lavish set of Cleopatra to the shabby revelry of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Walter introduces us to the tangled lives of a dozen unforgettable characters."

I abandoned this novel after a couple of pages and only went back to it because it's on the 2013 Tournament of Books list. Since a couple of people had mentioned the quality of the audio, I used one of my Audible credits for it, and gave it another try. Boy am I glad I did. Let that be a lesson to me about judging too soon. 

So, there's the innkeeper Pasquele, who's the driving force, the pure-hearted guy with a couple of not-so-pure moments in his past. His encounter with the actress Dee, though only a couple of days in their lives, affects them both profoundly for decades to come. And not just them - there are webs radiating out across continents, in their gentle but insistent ways. There are multiple time frames and story lines here, and they play together nicely. I kept wishing the different characters could impart their lessons to each other, even if they were no where near each other in time or space, which was an interesting game to play as I read. (Listened. Whatever you want to call it.) It all pulled together into a rich, fun, smart tale that touched on desire, identity, heritage, memory, ambition, beauty, and loss. Just lovely.

Ballerini is a new-to-me narrator, and I enjoyed him ever so much. The Italian accents were charming, and his handling of many different Hollywood types (producer, writer, actors) felt spot-on. I do think that if I'd given the print version another chance, I'd have devoured Walter's novel for its own sake, but this is one of those narrations that truly enhances the experience of the book.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The Round House

The Round House by Louise Erdrich
(Harper, 2012)
Format: ebook via library

From Goodreads: "One Sunday in the spring of 1988, a woman living on a reservation in North Dakota is attacked. The details of the crime are slow to surface as Geraldine Coutts is traumatized and reluctant to relive or reveal what happened, either to the police or to her husband, Bazil, and thirteen-year-old son, Joe. In one day, Joe's life is irrevocably transformed. He tries to heal his mother, but she will not leave her bed and slips into an abyss of solitude. Increasingly alone, Joe finds himself thrust prematurely into an adult world for which he is ill prepared.

While his father, who is a tribal judge, endeavors to wrest justice from a situation that defies his efforts, Joe becomes frustrated with the official investigation and sets out with his trusted friends, Cappy, Zack, and Angus, to get some answers of his own. Their quest takes them first to the Round House, a sacred space and place of worship for the Ojibwe. And this is only the beginning."

Did y'all know that I got a double major in college? Yep. Literature with an emphasis on creative writing, and American Studies with an emphasis on Native American Studies. That was, you know, years and years (and years) ago, but Erdrich was big on my list then, and has remained there ever since. Every word, people. I read every word she writes.

(I'm such a liar. I haven't read much of her poetry.)

Anyhow, it's not like I wasn't going to like The Round House, is what I'm saying. I didn't need the acclaim or National Book Award sticker to convince me to give it a try. But if it helps any of you decide to pick it up, excellent. You'll find yourself in a deeply complex and beautifully realized world, connecting with everything about Joe. He is on the brink between childhood and adulthood, and the attack on his mother shoves him firmly in the adult direction. The freedom of a teenage summer, time with friends, first jobs, biking and exploring and experimenting in ways I'll pretend my own teens would never consider, slammed up against a world full of darkness. Terror and pain and emptiness and loss, plots both immediate and far-reaching. Joe has to learn who to trust, and how to handle trust that is broken. He has to navigate the often irrational-seeming strictures of reservation life, learning why laws on one side of a line apply differently than laws on another. He looks to his father, to traditions, to the church, to his friends, in his attempts to stabilize the ground beneath his feet that fell away when his mother was attacked. And it's neither a smooth nor a straight road. But it's a journey you'll be glad you took at his side.

You Were Lodging Here Last Night - You Were the Honest Bishop's Guest

I would so happily give up
three hard-earned nickels
to have this version!
On to Book 2 of Volume 1 (Fantine) of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables. (To page 92 of 959, or 9%, according to my Kindle version.)

Book Second - The Fall
So, after a day of walking, a bedraggled 40-something wanders into town - first stop, the fountain for a drink, second stop, the town-hall where he registers himself. He's - you guessed it - Jean Valjean. (Love this: '...his father was called Jean Valjean, probably a sobriquet, and a contraction of viola Jean, "here's Jean." ' (p.71) - get your Ed McMahon voice ready, y'all!) He betakes his weary self to the nice inn and is about to settle in for some food and a room when the innkeeper gets the word about the newly-paroled prisoner who has just registered his presence. Word spreads quickly, to the 'kids throwing rocks as he walks down the street' point as he finds a grottier tavern. But he's turned out there, too. He tries at a house to ask permission to sleep in the barn, but the father there has heard the rumors and sends him away. It's late, and dark, and he tries what looks like an abandoned hut, only to be chased out by the resident dogs. Finally he curls up on a stone bench, only to have a kind passing woman point out M. Myriel's door when he claims to have tried every place in town. The Bishop's sister and servant have heard the rumors, too, and are suggesting that, just for the night, they put a bolt on the front door, because it's never secure, and "Monseigneur has the habit of always saying 'come in'..." (p.64), which, of course, is the cue for the 'tolerably violent knock on the door,' and the Bishop's inevitable, "Come in."

Valjean, rough and sinister, in the doorway, freaking the womenfolk right out, blurts out the whole 'convict - nineteen years - yellow passport - no room at the inns - can you feed me?' story. Bishop says sure, but Valjean doesn't believe him, repeats the whole spiel, and Bishop tells the women to make up a bed for him, too. Valjean is befuddled that he's being received, being called sir, out of the weather, and so forth. He babbles in disbelief, until the Bishop (who Valjean thinks is a simple priest, because Bishops are too high and mighty to feed the hungry) answers him:

  • "You could not help telling me who you were. This is not my house; it is the house of Jesus Christ. This door does not demand of him who enters whether he has a name, but whether he has a grief. You suffer, you are hungry and thirsty; you are welcome. And do not thank me; do not say that I receive you in my house. No one is at home here, except the man who needs a refuge. I say to you, who are passing by, that you are much more at home here than I am myself. Everything here is yours. What need have I to know your name? Besides, before you told me you had one which I knew."                                                                                                              The man opened his eyes in astonishment. "Really? You knew what I was called?"                       "Yes," replied the Bishop, "you are called my brother." (p.67)
So you see, he really did give the silver to Jean Valjean! I mean, sort of. In a way. Poor Jean, his parents died when he was young, and he was raised by his sister, who was widowed with a seven small kids, so Jean had to become breadwinner to them when still a young man himself. And though he was super-strong and agile, making him a good tree pruner, the work wasn't always there. And the sister's children were starving. And the baker's house had a tempting loaf of bread in the window. (I believe you know the story here - five years for what he did, the rest because he tried to run.) He actually had three escape attempts, often as he was nearing the end of his previous sentence:

  • 'Jean Valjean's successive and obstinate attempts at escape would alone suffice to prove this strange working of the law upon the human soul. Jean Valjean would have renewed these attempts, utterly useless and foolish as they were, as often as the opportunity had presented itself, without reflecting for an instant on the result, nor on the experiences which he had already gone through. He escaped impetuously, like the wolf who finds his cage open. Instinct said to him, "Flee!" Reason would have said, "Remain!" But in the presence of so violent a temptation, reason vanished; nothing remained but instinct. The beast alone acted. When he was recaptured, the fresh severities inflicted on him only served to render him still more wild.' (p.76)

While he was in prison - well, Hugo explains it best (duh): 

  • 'Jean Valjean had entered the galleys sobbing and shuddering; he emerged impassive. He had entered in despair; he emerged gloomy.' (p.74)
  • '...he was no longer even Jean Valjean; he was number 24,601. What became of his sister? What became of the seven children? Who troubled himself about that? What becomes of the handful of leaves from the young tree which is sawed off at the root?' (p.72)
  • 'From suffering to suffering, he had gradually arrived at the conviction that life is a war; and that in this war he was the conquered. He had no other weapon than his hate. He resolved to whet it in the galleys and to bear it away with him when he departed.' (p.75)
  • He went to the prison school to learn the 3 Rs, and '...felt that to fortify his intelligence was to fortify his hate.... Thus during nineteen years of torture and slavery, this soul mounted and at the same time fell. Light entered it on one side, and darkness on the other.' (p.75)
  • 'To sum up, in conclusion, that which can be summed up and translated into positive results in all that we have just pointed out, we will confine ourselves to the statement that, in the course of nineteen years, Jean Valjean, the inoffensive tree-pruner of Faverolles, the formidable convict of Toulon, had become capable, thanks to the manner in which the galleys had moulded him, of two sorts of evil action: firstly, of evil action which was rapid, unpremeditated, dashing, entirely instinctive, in the nature of reprisals for the evil which he had undergone; secondly, of evil action which was serious, grave, consciously argued out and premeditated, with the false ideas which such a misfortune can furnish.' (p.78)
And it's this second kind of evil action that comes next. Because after a few hours sleep on the unaccustomed luxury of a soft bed, Jean wakes up and fixates on those silver forks and stuff he saw being put away at bedtime, in the Bishop's room. Right next door. In the silence of the night, he devises an escape route, tiptoes in to see the Bishop sleeping a just and innocent sleep while Jean's conscious beats up on him some, and heads out into the garden with the basket of silver. He hightails it over the wall, making for a very amusing scene the next morning when the Bishop is wandering his garden. Madame Magloire 'in utter consternation' asks if he knows where the silver basket is, and he says yes, here you go (picking it from the flower-bed and handing it over.) She points out that it's empty. ' "Ah," returned the Bishop, "so it is the silver which troubles you? I don't know where it is." '(p.85) (The Bishop would be a very amusing if occasionally exasperating guy to share a house with.)

Soon enough, the gendarmes show up with Jean Valjean, all sarcastic about the silver. (Tell his Reverence your story. / Let us see if he's impressed. / You were lodging here last night / You were the honest Bishop's guest.) Before they can even suggest that he stole the silver (and before Valjean can process the fact that his host was a Bishop, not a mere priest), M. Myriel jumps in to ask about the candlesticks (You forgot I gave these also. / Would you leave the best behind?)

Valjean's a little stumped, especially when the Bishop says, "Do not forget, never forget, that you have promised to use this money in becoming an honest man." (p.86) and adds, "Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I buy from you; I withdraw it from black thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God." (p.87)

So that's a pretty swift change from the nineteen years lessons, which leads, as you undoubtedly suspect, to a bit of what have I done, but only after he dashes around dazed and confused for a while, giving into the first, instinctive evil action for a moment (stealing from a poor kid! aw!) Once he comes out of his stupor, Jean Valjean ends the Book back on the Bishop's doorstep, weeping, realizing that Things Will Now Change for him.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Look Down, Look Down, Sweet Jesus Doesn't Care! (Or Does He?)

I love the internet!
There are so many
awesome Les Mis book
covers out there.
I'll start with this classic look.
Thought I forgot, didn't ya? Well, no, but I am already behind schedule. Never mind, it's fun, and I'll catch up soon. 

So, Book 1 of Volume 1 (Fantine - who has yet to make an appearance) of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables. (This gets me to page 55 of 959, or 5%, according to my Kindle version.)

Book First - A Just Man
Introducing the Just Man himself, M. Myriel, Bishop of D--- (also known as Monseigneur Welcome because he is so, well, just, and welcome), who has made quite the example of himself. Gave up the palace and carriage and money, lives in a little single-story house that used to be the overcrowded hospital, except M. Myriel noted that the patients would fit better in the palace, and he and his sister and her servant would fit better in the house. Likewise, the riches that tended to accompany bishops would better serve the needy, and whenever he manages to get more money, he finds someone to pass it on to. And not only that, but he uses wit and kindness to show others how to make similar sacrifices:

  • Meeting the mayor of a nearby city while riding on an ass, much to the startled amusement of the citizenry, he says, "...I perceive that I shock you. You think it very arrogant in a poor priest to ride an animal which was used by Jesus Christ. I have done so from necessity, I assure you, and not from vanity." (p.22)
  • When setting off to visit a remote village through an area where brigands (lovely word!) have been roaming, he refuses escorts so as not to endanger them. He is begged not to go, because he is risking his life, and replies, " that really all? I am not in the world to guard my own life, but to guard souls." (p.34)
  • Monseigneur Welcome's general disposition and constant philosophy - 'There are men who toil at extracting gold; he toiled at the extraction of pity. Universal misery was his mine. The sadness which reigned everywhere was but an excuse for unfailing kindness. Love each other; he declared this to be complete, desired nothing further, and that was the whole of his doctrine.' (p.54)
So, this is the extraordinary man with an exalted rank who lived a simple life of goodness. His 'dwelling... was exquisitely clean from top to bottom. This was the sole luxury which the Bishop permitted. He said, "That takes nothing from the poor."
'It must be confessed, however, that he still retained from his former possessions six silver knives and forks and a soup-ladle... [which] glistened splendidly upon the coarse linen cloth....
'To this silverware must be added two large candlesticks of massive silver, which he had inherited from a great-aunt.' (p.31)

(Are you humming, "You must use this precious silver..." yet? Slow down! That's the next Book!)

The Light Between Oceans

The Light Between Oceans by ML Stedman
(2012, Scribner)
Format: audiobook via library (narrated by Noah Taylor for Simon & Schuster Audio)

From Goodreads: "After four harrowing years on the Western Front, Tom Sherbourne returns to Australia and takes a job as the lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, nearly half a day’s journey from the coast. To this isolated island, where the supply boat comes once a season and shore leaves are granted every other year at best, Tom brings a young, bold, and loving wife, Isabel. Years later, after two miscarriages and one stillbirth, the grieving Isabel hears a baby’s cries on the wind. A boat has washed up onshore carrying a dead man and a living baby. 

Tom, whose records as a lighthouse keeper are meticulous and whose moral principles have withstood a horrific war, wants to report the man and infant immediately. But Isabel has taken the tiny baby to her breast. Against Tom’s judgment, they claim her as their own and name her Lucy. When she is two, Tom and Isabel return to the mainland and are reminded that there are other people in the world. Their choice has devastated one of them."

This is a book on many, many 'best of 2012' lists, and for good reason. I was instantly plunged into Stedman's world. I think I could navigate my way from the harbor to Isabel's house, and happily while away my days on Janus Rock, tending the light. It's so very vivid, and appealing. No wonder baby Lucy has such a happy toddler-hood with Tom and Isabel. Of course, if I didn't connect with them so, I would probably not have spent most of the second half of the book in tears, which was hell on my sinuses, but worth it.  

Love, parenthood, loss, regrets, duty to country, duty to God, duty to fellow-man. Tenderness and sense of self, sacrifice. It all swirls throughout this novel, and it all feels so very real, so natural. I second-guess them when they're second-guessing themselves, without any hint of authorial manipulation. It just is, and therefore, like life, it just is heartbreaking.

Noah Taylor has a knack for voices, but not one for narration. His non-dialogue reading just ate the words too much, beyond what was natural for his Australian accent. (My Australian pal is way easier to understand, so I know it's possible.) (Hi, M! Love ya!) I was (obviously) so absorbed by this book, and wish I'd not been pulled out of it by the narration. Stick to the non-audio versions, but, y'all, read this.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
(2012, Ecco) 
Format: ebook via library

From Goodreads: "A ferocious firefight with Iraqi insurgents at "the battle of Al-Ansakar Canal"--three minutes and forty-three seconds of intense warfare caught on tape by an embedded Fox News crew--has transformed the eight surviving men of Bravo Squad into America's most sought-after heroes. For the past two weeks, the Bush administration has sent them on a media-intensive nationwide Victory Tour to reinvigorate public support for the war. Now, on this chilly and rainy Thanksgiving, the Bravos are guests of America's Team, the Dallas Cowboys, slated to be part of the halftime show alongside the superstar pop group Destiny's Child.

Among the Bravos is the Silver Star-winning hero of Al-Ansakar Canal, Specialist William Lynn, a nineteen-year-old Texas native. Over the course of this day, Billy will begin to understand difficult truths about himself, his country, his struggling family, and his brothers-in-arms--soldiers both dead and alive. In the final few hours before returning to Iraq, Billy will drink and brawl, yearn for home and mourn those missing, face a heart-wrenching decision, and discover pure love and a bitter wisdom far beyond his years."

I went into this not really knowing what to expect, and came out of it with a totally new perspective on the experience of soldiers returning from war. Billy and his squad are thrust into a limelight far more odd and unsettling, in some ways, than the war itself, if only because there is very little in the way of a goal to it all. They are props to the people they meet, a cell phone photo op as significant as a flag pin or yellow ribbon, as far as the impact on their own lives. Because when the media tour is up, unless the producer they've been matched with manages to chase down the dream of a film deal out of their firefight, it's back to the status quo (such as it is) of daily service in Iraq, and the world will go back to not really knowing much of what their lives are like. 

The Bravo Squad men are the most compelling and vivid of Fountain's characters. Having these young men - many of them still in their teens - standing beside Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, rich businessmen, Hollywood dealers, roadies, and pop stars points up the vast difference an experience of warfare gives. Billy's outlook is changed, and his fellow soldiers are the ones who understand that, in ways that no cheerleader or family member back home can. So while I might have looked for a little more dimension from the civilians, I can also appreciate the reversal that it's the soldiers who become real while the people back home are the props in their strange post-fame trip.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Tell the Wolves I'm Home

Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt
(2012, Random House) 
Format: ebook via library

From Goodreads: "In this striking literary debut, Carol Rifka Brunt unfolds a moving story of love, grief, and renewal as two lonely people become the unlikeliest of friends and find that sometimes you don’t know you’ve lost someone until you’ve found them.

1987. There’s only one person who has ever truly understood fourteen-year-old June Elbus, and that’s her uncle, the renowned painter Finn Weiss. Shy at school and distant from her older sister, June can only be herself in Finn’s company; he is her godfather, confidant, and best friend. So when he dies, far too young, of a mysterious illness her mother can barely speak about, June’s world is turned upside down. But Finn’s death brings a surprise acquaintance into June’s life—someone who will help her to heal, and to question what she thinks she knows about Finn, her family, and even her own heart."

Sweet, intense as only teenage emotions can be but wise and transcendent as well, this is another "YA" novel that blurs lines as it sharpens focus on an unforgettable character. I want to have been June's best friend, but then again, if she had had me, she wouldn't have needed her Uncle Finn in the same way. And her friendship with and devotion to him is the fire that forged June. When AIDS kills Finn (this is among other things a book that gets exactly right the attitudes towards HIV in the late 80s), June can only see what that means for her. Experience is only through her prism, because she is a grieving 14 year old, and the shattering of that prism is the novel's arc. She has to come to accept the parts of Finn she never knew - not only his fame as a painter, but his relationship with a long-time lover she never suspected, and how that relationship colored his relationship with her mother. In so doing, June confronts her myopia about Finn but comes to an understanding of him - and of herself - that enriches the reader as well as the characters. It's an exceptionally well-paced narrative journey, and Brunt is brilliant at creating deeply true interpersonal relationships. 

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Announcing Mel's Les Mis Project!

I picked up my holds from the libraries today. And this is only the paper books - I have 4 on CD in my car. They are being added to the pile of previously checked out ebooks, audios, and paper books. All those 'best of 2012' lists came out at the same time! What's a gal to do?

I dreamed a dream....

So, back in my youth (that was a LONG TIME ago, but let's not digress...), I saw the London production of Les Misérables, and I've been listening to the 1985 London original cast album ever since. As I type, Colm Wilkinson is declaring that Jean Valjean is nothing now. So obviously I pre-purchased Christmas Day tickets to the Tom Hooper-directed film, and dragged my family along. That, too, I loved (not as much as the theatrical version, but more than enough to make me happy.) But afterwards, as my son Wikipedia'd the plot of Victor Hugo's 1862 novel, I realized how remiss I've been. I've never even tried to read it, and as I think we established, I am fond of reading. My husband had the idea of reading it over the course of a year.

Now, there are 365 chapters (from 950-1500 pages in translation), so I was going to do a chapter per day, but it's also broken into five volumes, each with several books. After spreadsheeting the thing (my other favorite hobby) (stop laughing at me), I broke it down into 12 sections of 4 books each, or 4 books per month. My plan is to post each week about one of the books, giving myself a couple of weeks leeway to get through the whole thing in a year. I downloaded the free version for Kindle and would be delighted if any of y'all want to read along with me. I'm just about done with my first assignment: Volume I: Fantine, Book 1, which is all about the priest with the silver candlesticks, and I am thoroughly enjoying it. Hugo writes with a lot of human insight, and wit, and ease. It's an incredibly easy book to read - so far. 1/48th of the way through. 

Interested? Go on, download it, it's free! You don't need a Kindle, though you may need to get a Kindle app or something. Here's the breakdown of my intended reading schedule, January in orange, etc.:

Vol 1: Fantine Book 1
Vol 1: Fantine Book 2
Vol 1: Fantine Book 3
Vol 1: Fantine Book 4
Vol 1: Fantine Book 5
Vol 1: Fantine Book 6
Vol 1: Fantine Book 7
Vol 1: Fantine Book 8
Vol 2: Cosette Book 1
Vol 2: Cosette Book 2
Vol 2: Cosette Book 3
Vol 2: Cosette Book 4
Vol 2: Cosette Book 5
Vol 2: Cosette Book 6
Vol 2: Cosette Book 7
Vol 2: Cosette Book 8
Vol 3: Marius Book 1
Vol 3: Marius Book 2
Vol 3: Marius Book 3
Vol 3: Marius Book 4
Vol 3: Marius Book 5
Vol 3: Marius Book 6
Vol 3: Marius Book 7
Vol 3: Marius Book 8
Vol 4: St. Denis Book 1
Vol 4: St. Denis Book 2
Vol 4: St. Denis Book 3
Vol 4: St. Denis Book 4
Vol 4: St. Denis Book 5
Vol 4: St. Denis Book 6
Vol 4: St. Denis Book 7
Vol 4: St. Denis Book 8
Vol 4: St. Denis Book 9
Vol 4: St. Denis Book 10
Vol 4: St. Denis Book 11
Vol 4: St. Denis Book 12
Vol 4: St. Denis Book 13
Vol 4: St. Denis Book 14
Vol 4: St. Denis Book 15
Vol 5: Jean Valjean Book 1
Vol 5: Jean Valjean Book 2
Vol 5: Jean Valjean Book 3
Vol 5: Jean Valjean Book 4
Vol 5: Jean Valjean Book 5
Vol 5: Jean Valjean Book 6
Vol 5: Jean Valjean Book 7
Vol 5: Jean Valjean Book 8
Vol 5: Jean Valjean Book 9
Nothing to it, right!? I'm looking forward to rewarding myself in December for a job well done. 

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Happy New Reading Year!

Welcome to the glories of 2013, y'all. I'm upbeat about this one - cause why not, right?

Here's the delightful breakdown of my 2012 reading. It's a lot to sort through and there are so many reasons to love so many different things. So here's the deal: if I posted it, I generally loved it (sometimes I was posting about challenges, review works, etc.) But if you threaten to tickle my feet until I name ten books I'd force on anyone, they'd be:
A Land More Kind Than
Home by Wiley Cash
The Sisters Brothers
by Patrick deWitt

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

The Fault in our Stars
by John Green

The Orphan Master's Son
by Adam Johnson

The Silence of Trees
by Valya Dudycz Lupescu

(Leaving out anything that was part of a series made this a lot easier, I have to say.)

Whatcha got lined up for 2013's reading? I've got a silly project I'll post about later, plus, well, lots and lots of books. At the moment I'm working my way through the Rooster tournament picks, and filling in various things from other people's 2012 lists, but there will be much more to come, I'm sure.