Saturday, April 27, 2013

Mommy, Tell Me a Story

My seventeen-year-old asked me to tell him a story. This was the best I could come up with based on the excitement of my day:

So many packing lists!
Once there was a Mel who was at work. 

She had many many bills to match up with their packing lists. Some bills and packing lists matched up perfectly. Some packing lists had no bills, and some bills had no packing lists. Those required separate investigation.

Not 12! 11!
But one particular bill had a packing list. The problem was, they 
didn't match. The bill was for 12 pieces of glass, but the packing list said Mel's company had only received 11 pieces of glass. 

Invoiced sizes - one of
these things is not like
the other!
Packing list sizes

Plus, the bill said 4 of the pieces were 34" x 21.75", but the packing list said they were only 31.125" x 21.75"!

 Mel had to make a phone call.

She called the vendor, who said Mel would have to talk to the person in Accounts about  it. But the Accounts woman was out to lunch. They asked if Mel could call back in 15 minutes.

Mel said okay.

Mel's Phone of Many Buttons
She waited and waited, and finally the 15 minutes were over, so she called back. But the Accounts woman was on another call.

The vendor asked Mel if she would leave a message for the Accounts woman, and Mel said okay.

So Mel left a message, quoting the invoice number and explaining that she needed to resolve a discrepancy with the packing list. The vendor said that the Accounts woman would call back that afternoon.

All the bills waiting to be
posted, missing their
comrade from the
glass vendor
But... she didn't.

So Mel still can't post the bill on the accounting system, which means the vendor is in danger of not getting paid for this bill on time. Oh, dear!

To Be Continued....

Friday, April 26, 2013

Losing Grace, Finding Comfort with Honor Bright

The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier
(E.P. Dutton & Penguin Audio, 2013)
Format: Audio CDs via library (narrated by Kate Reading)

From Goodreads: "Tracy Chevalier’s newest historical saga introduces Honor Bright, a modest English Quaker who moves to Ohio in 1850, only to find herself alienated and alone in a strange land. Fleeing personal disappointment, she is forced by family tragedy to rely on strangers in a harsh, unfamiliar landscape. 

In her new home Honor discovers that principles count for little, even within a religious community meant to be committed to human equality. 

However, drawn into the clandestine activities of the Underground Railroad, Honor befriends two surprising women who embody the remarkable power of defiance. Eventually she must decide if she too can act on what she believes in, whatever the personal costs."

I'm continuing the tour of "hey, Mel & Rob tromped over the same ground as this writer" with Chevalier's latest novel. (She was in the MA class a year behind me. Therefore, I, too, should have many best-selling & movies-adapted novels to my name. Alas. But, look, I have a blog!) This time, she's gone to her other collegiate stomping ground, Oberlin, and its history as a transit point of the Underground Railroad.

Honor Bright is just flat-out a wonderful character. Chevalier has superb skill at creating women who are interesting - smart, observant, out-of-place but determined despite the odds, willing to learn from their mistakes and see their flaws. And this is a complex world, ripe with opportunities for misstep - Honor has found herself essentially alone within a small Friends community just outside Oberlin, Ohio. Her family is all back in England, where at most she can hope to receive news that is only a couple of months out of date, and her dire seasickness on the crossing prohibits a simple return to them. But even more lonesome than Honor are the runaway slaves she encounters, trying to make it to Canada before new, harsher Fugitive Slave Laws go into effect. She befriends two more wonderful women - milliner Belle Mills, and freewoman Mrs. Reed - and I loved how, although neither was Quaker and both relationships were limited by the secrets they all kept, the three communed in a way over needlecraft. Honor keeps so much internal, but when her sewing resonates with that of another skilled seamstress, it allows them a sort of exchange of spirit, if not of words. Of course, sometimes the gist of that conversation is, "Honor Bright, you may be something special, but that doesn't mean that you understand this new land of yours. Sit back and learn before you judge too much, okay?"

I dove into this in audio, and while I know I'd have embraced it regardless, Reading's narration was spot-on. Her voices - particularly Belle and her slave-hunter brother Donovan - captured the spirit of each character, and whenever Honor mused on her connections to others, how she felt about that person was abundantly clear in Reading's tone.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Aren't Any Floors for Me to Sweep

Look at me, racing along on the Les Mis Project. This next section of Volume 2: Cosette in Victor Hugo's Les Miserables was a brief interlude. A little breath taken between the drama of Valjean retreiving Cosette from the Thenardiers, and... well, whatever comes next. More drama, indubitably. 

This is what I like: a true to text
scene from the book that matches
the part I'm posting about.
Book Fourth - The Gorbeau Hovel

Scene: Outskirts of Paris. Not the city, not a town, just an area with some buildings and some history. A house (numbered both 50 and 52, to confuse everyone) that looks like a shack, but is large inside. It used to be the residence of a lawer named Gorbeau, so that's the name that sticks with it. A dilapidated door and window huddle along the street, mismatched but both grim. "This door with an unclean, and this window with an honest though dilapidated air, thus beheld on the same house, produced the effect of two incomplete beggars walking side by side, with different miens beneath the same rags, the one having always been a mendicant, and the other having always been a gentleman." (p.296)

There are plenty of details about this house. An entire chapter's worth. Hugo deploys some more fun language:

  • "As a whole, it was not over a hundred years old. A hundred years is youth in a church and age in a house. It seems as though man's lodging partook of his ephemeral character, and God's house of his eternity." (p.296)
  • "Collectors of petty details, who become herbalists of anecdotes, and prick slippery dates into their memories with a pin...." (p.296) (Herbalist of Anecdotes is totally my new tumblr name.)
  • It's a dismal area. "As far as the eye could see, one could perceive nothing but the abattoirs, the city wall, and the fronts of a few factories, resembling barracks of monasteries; everywhere about stood hovels, rubbish, ancient walls blackened like cerecloths, new white walls like winding-sheets; everywhere parallel rows of trees, building erected on a line, flat constructions, long, cold rows, and the melancholy sadness of right angles." (p.298)
  • "Nothing oppresses the heart like symmetry. It is because symmetry is ennui, and ennui is at the very foundation of grief. Despair yawns. Something more terrible than a hell where one suffers may be imagined, and that is a hell where one is bored." (p.298)
Anyhow, this hovel, not surprisingly, is the nowhere haven that Valjean retreats to with Cosette. They have a

room, warm and safe, and Cosette sleeps a long, healing sleep, give or take an instinctive startle response (jumping up, searching for her broom) when there was a noise in the street. She wakes, accepts her new lot in life, plays with her doll, and is content. As is Valjean:

  • "Some new thing had come into his soul. Jean Vlajean had never loved anything; for twenty-five years he had been alone in the world. He had never been father, lover, husband, friend. In the prison he had been vicious, gloomy, chaste, ignorant, and shy." (p.300)
  • "When he saw Cosette, when he had taken possession of her, carried her off, and delivered her, he felt his heart move within him." (p.300)
  • "It was the second white apparition which he had encountered. The Bishop had caused the dawn of virtue to rise on his horizon; Cosette caused the dawn of love to rise." (p.300)
  • "Nature, a difference of fifty years, had set a profound gulf between Jean Valjean and Cosette; destiny filled in this gulf. Destiny suddenly united and wedded with its irresistible power these two uprooted existences, differing in age, alike in sorrow. One, in fact, completed the other. Cosette's instinct sought a father, as Jean Valjean's instinct sought a child." (p.300)
So, happy families time. They didn't do a whole lot - stayed in, let the portress take care of shopping, took the occasional walk. He taught her to read, and "remembered that it was with the idea of doing evil that he had learned to read in prison. This idea had ended in teaching a child to read. Then the ex-convict smiled with the pensive smile of the angels." (p.301) The theory is that, if not for Cosette, that re-incarceration would have undone all the good that the Bishop had done for him, and Valjean would have ended up even more of a bitter and angry wretch than he'd been after his first 19-year stint. After all, it was by doing good (saving Champmathieu from hanging in his place) that he'd been thrown back in prison. Plus, he'd seen Fantine's slow and miserable death, which didn't help his outlook any. But then he found Cosette. "He protected her, and she strengthened him. Thanks to him, she could walk through life; thanks to her, he could continue in virtue. He was that child's stay, and she was his prop. Oh, unfathomable and divine mystery of the balances of destiny!" (p.302)

On their walks around the neighborhood, since Valjean was still wearing the poor old coat that the Thenardiers had so disparaged, sometimes people offered him a sou, assuming he was poor. He always accepted kindly. And then, of course, he gave more than was given to him to actual beggars. "This had its disadvantages. He began to be known in the neighborhood under the name of the beggar who gives alms." (p.302)

His portress was a suspicious sort, and spied on him one day as he removed a 1000 franc note from the lining of his coat. He asked her to change it, claiming it was his quarterly income, but it didn't stop her from gossiping with the neighbors. She also took the opportunity to feel the lining of his coat one day, and was a little taken aback by how many bank notes there seemed to be within."She also noticed that there were all sorts of things in the pockets. Not only the needles, thread, and scissors which she had seen, but a big pocket-book, a very large knife, and - a suspicious circumstance - several wigs of various colors. Each pocket of this coat had the air of being in a manner provided against unexpected accidents." (p.303)

Now some drama: there was a beggar who sat by a well near Valjean's church, and Valjean gave him coins regularly. One evening as he handed over the alms, the beggar looked up at him and Valjean freaked the heck out. He didn't say anything, but even though he looked at him carefully the next day and was reassured it was the same guy as usual, the terrible feeling stuck with him that it had been, that once, his old enemy Javert under those rags.

Later in the week, as he and Cosette were reading together, Valjean heard a strange, heavy footfall in the corridor. He hushed Cosette and sent her to bed, then hunkered down for the night with his back to the door, because he could tell someone was at the keyhole, looking in and listening. (He did briefly think it could be the portress, because "there is nothing which so strongly resembles the step of a man as that of an old woman." (p.304)) 

In the morning he heard the footfalls approaching again, and looked out the keyhole to figure if it was an old woman or a booted man freaking him out. It was a man. He couldn't see very well, but "the formidable neck and shoulders belonged to Javert." (p.305) The portress claimed it was just some random guy named Dumont or something, who was renting a room down the hall. No big deal. But Valjean had the heebie-jeebies good now, and that evening he collected his cash, scoped out the street, took Cosette by the hand, and walked out. 

I presume they're bugging out of town, but we shall see in the next exciting installment!

Thank You Both for Cosette / It Won't Take You Too Long to Forget

So, I'm still a month behind schedule in my Les Mis Project (that would be my madcap scheme to read Victor Hugo's Les Misérables over the course of a year, and post about it here.) But now that I'm past some of the introductory stuff that the musical, I suppose, conveys via music, I'm looking at the plot of the book v. that of the musical, and I see that the action of this section (into the second half of Volume 2: Cosette) covers the events of the 10th and 11th songs on my London Cast Album (which has 30 songs total.) In other words, I'm about 30% of the way through the novel, and much the same with the novel. I think this means several long pages of historical context in my future.

Aw! Look at poor little Lark.
What that girl needs is a
savior - any volunteers?
But, to action! Book Third - Accomplishment of the Promise Made to the Dead Woman

While we've been contemplating Waterloo and forest-dwelling devils and large ships at harbor, our Cosette has been huddled under a table at the Thenardier's inn at Montfermeil. When she's not getting up first thing to sweep the streets, changing linens for the travelers, taking care of their horses, etc. And always watching for the next, inevitable torrent of abuse from Madame Thenardier.

Now, one of the deals with Montfermeil is that there isn't a lot of water flowing through the town, so if you run out, or the enterprising guy who gets up early to fetch it and sell it door-to-door (what a business opportunity!) is done for the day, you have to go through the deep, dark woods to the spring to get it yourself. And obviously, running the inn, the Thenardiers go through a lot of water. Even though the bucket is just about as big as eight-year-old Cosette herself, she's the one who has to fetch it. And Cosette is terrified of the dark.

But before we get more into that, Hugo wants us to get a clearer picture of the delightful Thenardier couple:

  • "Our readers have possibly preserved some recollection of this Thenardier woman, ever since her first appearance, - tall, blond, red, fat, angular, square, enormous, and agile...." (p.261)
  • "Cosette was her only servant; a mouse in the service of an elephant." (p.261)
  • "[T]he idea would never have occurred to any one to say of her, 'That is a woman.' This Thenardier female was like the product of a wench engrafted on a fishwife. When one heard her speak, one said, 'That is a gendarme'; when one saw her drink, one said, 'That is a carter'; when one saw her handle Cosette, one said, 'That is the hangman.' One of her teeth projected when her face was in repose." (p.261) (A Wench Engrafted on a Fishwife is totally going to be the title of my poetry chapbook.)
  • "Thenardier was a small, thin, pale, angular, bony, feeble man, who had a sickly air and who was wonderfully healthy.... He had the glance of a pole-cat and the bearing of a man of letters." (p.261)
  • "As for his prowess at Waterloo, the reader is already acquainted with that. It will be perceived that he exaggerated it a trifle." (p.262)
  • "Every new-comer who entered the tavern said, on catching sight of Madame Thenardier, 'There is the master of the house.' A mistake. She was not even the mistress. The husband was both master and mistress. She worked; he created. He directed everything by a sort of invisible and constant magnetic action. A word was sufficient for him, sometimes a sign; the mastodon obeyed." (p.263) (Side note: never realized that mastodon had two 'o's in it before. Hugo = educational!)
  • "This woman was a formidable creature who loved no one except her children, and who did not fear any one except her husband. She was a mother because he was mammiferous. But her maternity stopped short with her daughters, and, as we shall see, did not extend to boys. The man had but one thought, - how to enrich himself." (p.263) (Mammiferous! - my forthcoming bawdy musical.)
There's some delightful moments when Thenardier explains his philosophy of inn-keeping to his wife, which the Master of the House lyrics cover more than perfectly (the only deviation coming from anything that suggests Madame is anything but obedient to her husband.)

The Thenardier daughters dressed prettily and played with their toys and dolls. And "Cosette ran up stairs and down, washed, swept, rubbed, dusted, ran, fluttered about, panted, moved heavy articles, and weak as she was, did the coarse work." (p.264) It was Christmas-time, and some vendors had set up stalls up and down the town to sell gift items, and there was a toy shop right outside the Thenardier tavern. In the best tradition of shop-keepers everywhere, a gorgeous huge doll was prominently displayed for all to covet, and covet those girls all did.

One dark and moonless night, a traveler needed water for his horse, and the inn was out. Madame, of course, sent Cosette, who reluctantly started out, but was arrested by the vision of the big doll. "With the sad and innocent sagacity of childhood, Cosette measured the abyss which separated her from that doll." (p.266) Madame saw her and yelled, so she scampered off as well as an undernourished eight-year-old burdened by a huge wood bucket can scamper. After fifteen minutes of moving further and further from the lights of town, Cosette stood at the edge of the dark woods through which lay the spring.

"She set her bucket on the ground, thrust her hand into her hair, and began slowly to scratch her head, - a gesture peculiar to children when terrified and undecided what to do." (p.267) Much as she wanted to avoid the dark forbidding trees, she was more scared of Madame Thenardier. "What was she to do? What was to become of her? Where was she to go? In front of her was the spectre of the Thenardier; behind her all the phantoms of the night and of the forest. It was before the Thenardier that she recoiled." (p.267)

Cosette headed into the woods, and found the spring. Of course, when the bucket was full, it weighed
way more, plus - winter. Very cold water, slipping and splashing out of the pail with every struggling step. No stockings, just some wood shoes, so a little girl with cold wet feet, water spilling down her dress, taking ages to head back to the lights of town. Pathos, people. Pathos.

But just as she cries piteously out to God, the bucket stops weighing so much. A giant hand has reached out of the darkness and taken hold of the handle. Some big dark stranger. "This man, without uttering a word, had seized the handle of the bucket which she was carrying. / There are instincts for all the encounters of life. / The child was not afraid." (p.270)

Hugo is coy a little here, describing this stranger. Dressed poorly but with something wealthy about his carriage and expression. Carrying a cudgel-like walking stick, a little bundle of clothes, and not much else. We get a little history of this stranger evading some guards, entering the forest, examining certain trees and arrangements of stones, leaving the woods, and encountering Cosette. Once they walk a little in silence, they get to chatting, and of course he learns that she's not the most well-cared for of children, that she serves the inn-keepers, and that her name is Cosette. Stranger-man tags along to the inn, where he is well-received, once his money makes an appearance. He settles in with a drink to observe the life in the public rooms, where Cosette had gone to sit under a table and knit stockings for the Thenardier daughters. (They, meanwhile, sit nearby playing with a doll, ignoring her.) This is what Stranger-man sees in her:

  • "Her entire clothing was but a rag which would have inspired pity in summer, and which inspired horror in winter. All she had on was hole-ridden linen, not a scrap of woolen. Her skin was visible here and there and everywhere black and blue spots could be descried, which marked the placed where the Thenardier woman had touched her. Her naked legs were thin and red. The hollows in her neck were enough to make one weep. The child's whole person, her mien, her attitude, the sound of her voice, the intervals which she allowed to elapse between one word and the next, her glance, her silence, her slightest gesture, expressed and betrayed one solo idea, - fear." (p.276)
Eventually the Stranger-man pays Thenardier for Cosette's time for the night, so she can stop knitting and start playing. Her only toy is a tiny dagger, which she wraps in a scrap of cloth to pretend it's a doll. When the daughters get distracted, she sneaks over to play with their doll, until she's caught and screeched at. Observing the fracas, Stranger-man heads out and returns shortly with the magnificent doll from the stall, and hands it to Cosette. She just stares at it, and at him, and retreats under the table. "She no longer cried; she no longer wept; she had the appearance of no longer daring to breathe." (p.282)

The Thenardiers can't figure this guy out. He only eats bread and cheese and accepted a 'room' in the stable, but he pays up front and buys an extravagant doll. Thenardier is all about making money (especially as he has a giant 1500 franc debt looming over him), so he plays nice and encourages Cosette to say thanks and go off and play. Cosette will only do so once his wife grants permission (pathos!) but eventually the kids are all abed and the inn-keepers open up their finest room for Stranger-man. (They call it 'reposing' because "a chamber where one sleeps costs twenty sous; a chamber in which one reposes costs twenty francs." (p.284))

Stranger-man doesn't 'repose' right away - he heads down the hall and sees that Cosette is sleeping on a dirty pile of straw in a space under the stairs. The daughters, of course, are in lovely twin beds in their lovely room. They, along with Cosette, had put shoes on the hearth, because it was Christmas Eve and the good fairy drops cash in children's shoes that night. The 'fairy' had already visited, so the daughters were all set, but Cosette's wooden shoe was, of course, empty. Stranger-man took care of that, with a giant gold coin. Then, to bed.

In the morning, the Thenardiers were chuckling over the outrageous bill for the lodging they were going to give Stranger-man, and complaining about Cosette. He showed up and offered to take her away, and also didn't gripe about the bill. Thenardier wasted no time expressing various reservations about how he'd miss the darling little tyke and how even though she's always sick and costing him cash, he just adores her like his own kids, and Stranger-man just eyes him throughout. Thenardier points out that he'd feel better if he saw Stranger-man's passport and knew where Cosette was going, so he could check in on her periodically, but Stranger-man doesn't fall for that, and lets him know that once they leave, Thenardier would never see them again.

Now, Stranger-man had been observing a lot about the inn-keeper and his family, but he wasn't the only one with open eyes. "While drinking with the carters, smoking, and singing coarse songs on the preceding evening, [Thenardier] had devoted the whole of the time to observing the stranger, watching him like a cat, and studying him like a mathematician." (p.289) So Thenardier has a good inkling about how to handle Stranger-man, and finally puts his cards on the table: he needs 1500 francs to pay this
debt of his. And he got it.

Stranger-man gives Cosette a set of mourning clothes he'd carried in his little bundle, and with that and the giant doll in hand, they leave. It doesn't take long for Thenardier to realize he could have probably gotten more out of Stranger-man, so he tracks them down as they sit in a secluded spot off the road. He says he's taking back Cosette, because he'd miss her too much. Plus, he'd promised Fantine to take care of her, so what proof did he have that Stranger-man really was legit? Stranger-man took out his wallet, and Thenardier was giddy about the inevitable payoff, but instead Stranger-man produced a letter from Fantine instructing Thenardier to hand Cosette over to the bearer. Ha! Take that, Thenardier!

Thenardier was briefly inclined to attack Stranger-man for his clearly abundant stores of cash, but Stranger-man made it clear, via body-language with his cudgel/cane, that it wouldn't be wise. He went back to his tavern.

Now, finally Hugo decides to let us in on this giant secret: "Jean Valjean was not dead." (p.294) (Duh.) After he "fell" from the Orion while rescuing the topman, he swam under the ship and found a boat to hide in until that night, whereupon he made his way to shore and got himself clothed in civvies. A little sneaky travel through France got him to Montfermeil and Cosette. And once he had her, he took her hand and they walked off into a new life together.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

In Russia, Books Read (to) You

The House of Special Purpose by John Boyne
(Blackstone Audio, 2013)
Format: Audio download via's review program (narrated by Stefan Rudnicki)

From Goodreads: "From the author of The Absolutist, a propulsive novel of the Russian Revolution and the fate of the Romanovs.
Part love story, part historical epic, part tragedy, The House of Special Purpose illuminates an empire at the end of its reign. Eighty-year-old Georgy Jachmenev is haunted by his past—a past of death, suffering, and scandal that will stay with him until the end of his days. Living in England with his beloved wife, Zoya, Georgy prepares to make one final journey back to the Russia he once knew and loved, the Russia that both destroyed and defined him. As Georgy remembers days gone by, we are transported to St. Petersburg, to the Winter Palace of the czar, in the early twentieth century—a time of change, threat, and bloody revolution. As Georgy overturns the most painful stone of all, we uncover the story of the house of special purpose."

What? Another Boyne audiobook? Didn't I just do one of those? Yep, and I was pretty taken with it, so when I got the chance to listen to this one, I grabbed it. And what did I say about Boyne last time? He loves to explore people in crisis and identity and the difficulty of changing your role in the world. And history. And boy, howdy, does he do it this time, too. This time, his subjects are the Romanovs and WWI and an unassuming kid named Georgy who ends up leading, for a time, a pretty extraordinary life. 

That extraordinary time - working in the Winter Palace as guard/companion to young hemophiliac Tzarevich Alexei while still a teen himself - marked Georgy for the next five or six decades as he and his wife make a life together in Paris and later in London, where he worked for years for the British Library. (This is what we call a clue to the fact that we should side with this guy. He delves into books.) And he's pretty great - intuitive, intelligent, devoted, often swept along but never without trying to analyze his place in the flood. His wife is more of a cipher, but since Georgy loves her, that's fine. Their grandson is the most dynamic character, a spark who weaves in and out of the narrative whenever it's in the present day.

I enjoyed the atmosphere Boyne presented of life in Russia a century ago - it is a world both strange and familiar. I mean, I had a few tidbits in my brain about the Romanov dynasty, the connections to other European royalty, the mysterious princess Anastasia, that weird Rasputin dude. But it isn't something I've read a lot about, and I liked the way Boyne drew them.

Still, with all the good, there was something just a little distancing me from this book. It didn't fully make sense to me until the last line, at which point I thought, "Oh, he just wanted to write that line, so he constructed a novel to support it." Which isn't the worst way for an author to envision a book, but the underlayers in this case weren't quite stable enough. I wish there'd been more to Zoya besides constant tragedy, and that some of the subplots that were clearly intended to provide emotional resonance had been fleshier.

The audio - well, one thing for sure: Rudnicki has a lovely Russian-accented baritone. Unfortunately it was too slowly paced for me - I didn't relish the idea of listening to that deliberate hitting of accents for 15 hours, so I opted for 1.5x speed playback, which was better. (Still slow, though.) His females were all pretty much the same voice, and there wasn't a lot of differentiation between Georgy's narrative and his dialogue, which is one of my audiobook pet peeves. It's not so awful or anything, but it wasn't the kind of narration I was itching to get back to, and combined with a similarly non-itchy book, this wasn't the biggest of successes for me. Alas.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Pardon Me While I Gush

Ghana Must Go by Taiye Selasi
(Penguin, 2013)
Format: library book

From Goodreads: "Kweku Sai is dead. A renowned surgeon and failed husband, he succumbs suddenly at dawn outside his home in suburban Accra. The news of Kweku’s death sends a ripple around the world, bringing together the family he abandoned years before. Ghana Must Go is their story. Electric, exhilarating, beautifully crafted, Ghana Must Go is a testament to the transformative power of unconditional love, from a debut novelist of extraordinary talent.  

Moving with great elegance through time and place, Ghana Must Gocharts the Sais’ circuitous journey to one another. In the wake of Kweku’s death, his children gather in Ghana at their enigmatic mother’s new home. The eldest son and his wife; the mysterious, beautiful twins; the baby sister, now a young woman: each carries secrets of his own. What is revealed in their coming together is the story of how they came apart: the hearts broken, the lies told, the crimes committed in the name of love. Splintered, alone, each navigates his pain, believing that what has been lost can never be recovered—until, in Ghana, a new way forward, a new family, begins to emerge."

You guys. I literally - like, actually, physically, inexplicably - had to stop myself from taking a bite of this book. My desire to devour it, to internalize it and at the same time, to curl up in it and be surrounded by it, was that strong. 

So, Kweku, the father of four, brilliant surgeon, loving husband, and then - none of those things, abandoning the roles without actually leaving them behind in his heart. Sixteen years after he left Boston and his family behind, he dies suddenly, leaving his ex-wife and children with too many things unsaid. They have continents of mis- and non-communication within them, for a group that started out so solidly as a nuclear family - but Kweku's leaving burned deep scars into them all.

But, whatever. A plot device - this long-delayed bringing back together of once-close family members, complete with sad revelations and falling into old patterns and tears (and tears) and joinings. It's good stuff, undoubtedly, and Selasi balances each of the five survivors with delicacy, weaving their stories just tightly enough to hold while still seeing their individual, lovely shades.

The magic is in the writing. Follow the ways color-attuned and monochromatic sensibilities speak about each character. Delve into the truths about identity and self-perception and heritage. Reel with the truths about your own reactions to universal v. individual tragedies (Fola, the ex-wife, has a brief but powerful moment of recall about the death of her father, and her anger that it is so easy - 'another African dying in ethnic conflict' - to dismiss as rote where another death would have brought her true sympathy and kept the individuality of her father intact.) Admire the use of dialogue and the silences within dialogue. See the emotions transparent in the empathic guts of the Sai family. Discover the terrifying beauty of Selasi's writing, and after you've read it and re-read it, come back and tell me how damn right I am.

(But if it's a library book, don't actually chew on the novel. It's bad form.)

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

And When She Was Bad....

And When She Was Good by Laura Lippman
(Harper Audio, 2012)
Format: audio CDs via library (narrated by Linda Emond)

From Goodreads: "Heloise considers it a blessing to be a person who seldom attracts attention. In her suburb, she's just a mom, the young widow with the forgettable job, who somehow never misses a soccer game. In the state capital, she's the redheaded lobbyist with a good cause and a mediocre track record. But in discreet hotel rooms throughout the area, she's the woman of your dreams - if you can afford the hourly fee.

For more than a decade, Heloise believed she was safe, managing to keep up this rigidly compartmentalized life. But her secret life is under siege. One county over, another so-called suburban madam has been found dead in her car, an apparent suicide. As forty looms and her son enters adolescence, Heloise is facing a mid-life crisis with much higher stakes than most will ever know. With no formal education, no real family or friends, Heloise has to remake her life - again. Disappearing will be the easy part. The trick is living long enough to start a new life."

This is the first stand-alone Lippman I've read, though I'm totally caught up with her Tess Monaghan detective series. Her writing, her Baltimore, have grown so steadily on me - I'm always slightly afraid that I'm going to end up deeper into the dark underbelly of life than I want, but somehow she balances it just right. Serious stuff, often thought-provoking, but lightly shaped and never far from intelligence and humor. 

Heloise isn't an immediately likable character. Very bristly, defensive about her life (her public life and her very very private career life), and full of actions even she questions. But Lippman layers on more and more about Heloise, and I found myself way more in her shoes than I'd thought possible. And I was caught up in the slow wrapping of Heloise in binds that are going to make it vital and also terrifying for her to take action to change her life in ways she can't imagine. I just hoped she'd manage to do it in time.

Emond is a skilled narrator, and I always feel I can just relax when she's reading the book. (Is that a strange thing to look for? It may sound like it, but it's pretty great to know there are narrators you can trust to just get out of the way, and let the text speak for itself.) She's definitely alert to the text she's reading - pacing, inflection, voices all strong - but she manages it in a way that I can forget, audio to audio, what she herself sounds like. And yet, when I read a Reichs or a Lippman on paper/ebook, her voice has lurked in my head. It's just in a far quieter way than with such narrators as, say, Kellgren or Porter or (you knew I'd say it) Vance. This particular audiobook was nominated for an Audie in the Mystery category, which I'm listening to for the Armchair Audies project. I have no qualms about it being nominated, but am not yet sure how it will stack up against a strong field.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Keeping Watch in the Night

Still waiting for the
waif named in this
volume to show up....
Book Second - The Ship Orion of Volume 2: Cosette in Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, here I go. The Les Mis Project is unwieldy and getting a little out of my control, but I'm determined to wrestle it into leg irons. Plus, I'm 26% into the book and still having fun.

It watches over me, is why.
First off, you should know that Orion is my favorite constellation. Not for any textual or contextual reason. Just so you know. I realize I'm probably far from alone in this - it's like saying Pride and Prejudice is my favorite Austen. Doesn't make it less true.

Anyway, we quickly learn that Valjean's imprisoned again, though Hugo feels that "the reader will be grateful to us if we pass rapidly over the sad details." (p.250) Suffice to say that there was a certain amount of scandal in the newspapers. If it'd happened now, #24601 would be trending. 

Meanwhile, the town of M. sur M. We remember, of course, that as citizen, businessman, and mayor, Valjean had been some sort of paragon. Since his capture:

  • "...everything was gone on a small scale, instead of on a grand scale; for lucre instead of the general good. There was no longer a centre; everywhere there was competition and animosity. M. Madeline had reigned over all and directed all. No sooner had he fallen, than each pulled things to himself; the spirit of combat succeeded to the spirit of organization, bitterness to coordination, hatred of one another to the benevolence of the founder towards all; the threads which M. Madeline had set were tangled and broken, the methods were adulterated, the products were debased, confidence was killed; the market diminished, for lack of orders; salaries were reduced, the workshops stood still, bankruptcy arrived. And then there was nothing more for the poor. All had vanished." (p.251)
Another random plot point: people 'round those parts thought the devil was fond of burying treasure in
the woods. Only problem being that if you stopped him at it, or dug it up, or even looked for it, you were basically signing your death warrant. Still, this road-laborer, Boulatruelle, had taken, in the days preceding Valjean's re-incarceration, to wandering the woods in the evening, shovel in hand. Some folks laughed at him, some looked askance, but some - and our old pal Thenardier was one of them - thought the guy might have a non-demon-based reason for his actions.

Thenardier and the schoolmaster started plying Boulatruelle with wine and prying bits of info out of him. Eventually they deduced that Boulatruelle had seen an old acquaintance from the galleys (for Boulatrelle is yet another ex-con in this narrative) carrying a coffer into the woods along with some tools. "Now, the coffer was too small to contain a body; therefore it contained money." (p.254) But no matter where he looked, Boulatruelle couldn't find the thing. 

Now we jump again, this time to the ship. Orion had a long history, blah blah blah. More stuff about wars, political unrest, Bourbons, etc. I'm fascinated, truly. Whatever. The ship was at sea, now for whatever reason it's in the port at Toulon. (That's the same town where Valjean's galley ship was, back when he was #24601. He's #9430 now, which is way more boring and wouldn't trend at all.) I do like Hugo's musings about the awesomeness of ships:

  • "A ship of the line is one of the most magnificent combinations of the genius of man with the powers of nature.  /  A ship of the line is composed, at the same time, of the heaviest and the lightest of possible matter, for it deals at one and the same time with three forms of substance,-solid, liquid, and fluid,-and it must do battle with all three. It has eleven claws of iron with which to seize the granite on the bottom of the sea, and more wings and more antennae than winged insects, to catch the wind in the clouds. Its breath pours out through its hundred and twenty cannons as through enormous trumpets, and replies proudly to the thunder. The ocean seeks to lead it astray in the alarming sameness of the billows, but the vessel has its soul, its compass, which counsels it and always shows it the north. In the blackest of nights, its lanterns supply the place of the starts. Thus, against the wind, it has its cordage and its canvas; against the water, wood; against the rocks, its iron, brass, and lead; against the shadows, its light; against immensity, a needle." (p.256)
So it's a pretty impressive sight. Big and full of mysterious power and stories yet to be told. When it came to port, crowds of people came out just to watch the Orion sitting there. Like a reality show. And
The main topsail yardarm is that top crossbeam
on the middle spar, so: really, really high up.
this time, something truly exciting happened! The topman was up in the main-top-sail's upper corner, when he lost his balance and ended up dangling upside-down from the foot-rope, swinging back and forth above the abyss. It was way dangerous to go to his aid, and he was getting weaker. "[H]is exhaustion was visible in every limb; his arms were contracted in horrible twitchings; every effort which he made to re-ascent served but to augment the oscillation of the foot-rope...." (p.257) Basically, everyone was on death watch, riveted but half-turning away so as not to see the awfulness of his fall.

And then what happened? Tune in after this commercial break....

  • "All at once a man was seen climbing into the rigging with the agility of a tiger-cat; this man was dressed in red; he was a convict; he wore a green cap; he was a life convict. On arriving on a level with the top, a gust of wind carried away his cap, and allowed a perfectly white head to be seen: he was not a young man." (p.258)
  • So this convict, while everyone was first freaking out about the topman, went to an officer and asked if he could risk his life to save the guy, and the officer agreed. The convict "had broken the chain riveted to his ankle with one blow of a hammer, then he had caught up a rope, and had dashed into the rigging: no one noticed, at the instant, with what ease that chain had been broken;  it was only later on that the incident was recalled." (p.258) (suspicious!)
  • "In a twinkling he was on the yard..." (p.258) and everyone on the dock held their breath while he looked over the situation and began to walk along the yard (that's one of the big beams that holds up sails, not, like, your back garden or whatever, FYI.) He tied a rope to the yard, "then he began to descend the rope, hand over hand, and then,-and the anguish was indescribable,- instead of one man suspended over the gulf, there were two." (p.258)
  • "Ten thousand glances were fastened on this group; not a cry, not a word; the same tremor contracted every brow; all mouths held their breath as though they feared to add the slightest puff to the wind which was swaying the two unfortunate men." (p.258)
  • The convict gets to the topman surely in the nick of time, since the sailor was clearly about to lose his grip. He held on to one rope while he tied the other securely around the sailor. The convict climbs back up, dragging the sailor behind him, takes a moment to catch his breath then picks up the sailor and carries him to where he can be safely handed over.
  • "At that moment the crowd broke into applause; old convict-sergeants among them wept, and women embraced each other on the quay, and all the voices were heard to cry with a sort of tender rage, 'Pardon for that man!' " (p.258)
I mean! Such tension! Such drama! But it's not done yet:

  • "In order to reach [the detachment on deck] more speedily, he dropped into the rigging, and ran along one of the lower yards; all eyes were following him. At a certain moment fear assailed them; whether it was that he was fatigued, r that his head turned, they thought they saw him hesitate and stagger. All at once the crowd uttered a loud should; the convict had fallen into the sea." (p.258)
  • "Four men flung themselves hastily into a boat; the crowd cheered them on; anxiety again took possession of all souls; the man had not risen to the surface; he had disappeared in the sea without leaving a ripple, as though he had fallen into a cask of oil: they sounded, they dived. In vain." (p.259)
This book ends with the newspapers again: "Nov. 17, 1823. Yesterday, a convict belonging to the detachment on board of the Orion, on his return from rendering assistance to a sailor, fell in to the sea and was drowned. The body has not yet been found; it is supposed that it is entangled among the piles of the Arsenal point: this man was committed under the number 9,430, and his name was Jean Valjean." (p.259)

Talk about gossip-worthy!

Friday, April 12, 2013

Bibliophilia, or, The Book So Nice I Paid for It Thrice

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
(St. Martin's Press, 2013)
Format: so many formats. I used an Audible credit (narrated by Rebecca Lowman & Sunil Malhotra), then I bought it in paper. That's right: paid for it twice. (Three times if you include the one I bought as a gift.) Cause why? Cause I love it, that's why. Also because she signed this awesome book plate for me, and I had to have something to put it in, right? 
From Goodreads: "Bono met his wife in high school," Park says.
"So did Jerry Lee Lewis," Eleanor answers.
"I’m not kidding," he says.
"You should be," she says, "we’re sixteen."
"What about Romeo and Juliet?"
"Shallow, confused, then dead."
''I love you," Park says.
"Wherefore art thou," Eleanor answers.
"I’m not kidding," he says.
"You should be."

Set over the course of one school year in 1986, ELEANOR AND PARK is the story of two star-crossed misfits – smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try. When Eleanor meets Park, you’ll remember your own first love – and just how hard it pulled you under.

So, look. I told you last year to read Rowell's first novel, Attachments. Remember? When I said it was super funny and right and that she knew people inside out? Well, turns out that wasn't a fluke. Because now we have Eleanor, who is permanently lodged in my heart, and Park, who, dude. Just send me back to 1986; I was a sophomore in high school then, too. I'd totally have fought Eleanor for him.(Well, I wouldn't have. I was too introverted. Unlike now, clearly. Hello, all you dear friends who I talk at but not face-to-face, thanks for stopping by.) I'd have watched them and been jealous, though. Because Eleanor & Park together - oh, so right. Even when they're breaking my heart because the world is a sucky place sometimes, they're oh, so right. Heartbreakingly right. 

(I'm a little broken by this book.)

Also in this book: music, comic books, too many kids sharing one measly room, the politics of who sits where on the school bus, excruciating gym clothes, more music, the difficulty in affording batteries for your soul-saving walkman when you're very poor, veterans as parents, an Impala, and Shakespeare. Every bit of it as glorious as the last bit.

My oldest kid & I listened to the audio while we did our spring break college visit road trip. Here's me: let's hit the road! Time to put on E&P! Here's him: wait, where's the pause button? I just have to find this song they're talking about. Cue me, pretending to care about whatever, lyrics, rhythm, yeah sure, but not-so-secretly impatient to get back to the text. (I'm not nearly as musical a person as - well, anyone else in my family.) (Did you know some people use their time in the car to listen to music instead of audiobooks? Weird, right?) Lowman was the bomb - she could make me tear up with, like, half a syllable (hello, strange hilly dark Virginian roads! You don't need me to see as I navigate you, do you?) - I'm thinking she was absorbed in the story as I was, and she very beautifully accessed Eleanor's agonies and ecstacies. I also enjoyed the other character voices she used. Malhotra was a lovely Park, wry and shy and able to make me cry. My son in particular was put off by his voice for Park's mom, which was pretty extremely accented for a woman who'd been in the U.S. for twenty or so years. Other than that, I'm all about this audio - the pacing and production were great. Oh, wait, one more thing - I do agree with my son that it would've been great if they'd been able to include some of the music E&P shared during the audiobook. But Rowell made a playlist page on her site, so you can listen along, too, even if you go for the print version of this super A+ I'll be raving about it for years book. (Mom, I'll loan you one of my copies.)

Monday, April 8, 2013

No Thanks for the Memories

The Absolutist by John Boyne
(Doubleday, 2011 - audio Tantor Media, 2012)
Format: Audio CDs via library (narrated by Michael Maloney)

From Goodreads: "It is September 1919: twenty-one-year-old Tristan Sadler takes a train from London to Norwich to deliver a package of letters to the sister of Will Bancroft, the man he fought alongside during the Great War. But the letters are not the real reason for Tristan's visit. He can no longer keep a secret and has finally found the courage to unburden himself of it. As Tristan recounts the horrific details of what to him became a senseless war, he also speaks of his friendship with Will-from their first meeting on the training grounds at Aldershot to their farewell in the trenches of northern France. The intensity of their bond brought Tristan happiness and self-discovery as well as confusion and unbearable pain. The Absolutist is a masterful tale of passion, jealousy, heroism, and betrayal set in one of the most gruesome trenches of France during World War I. This novel will keep listeners on the edge of their seats until its most extraordinary and unexpected conclusion, and it will stay with them long after they've finished."

John Boyne (The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, etc.) loves war. Well, okay, that's unfair. He loves to explore people in crisis and identity and the difficulty of changing your role in the world. And history. So war is a great venue for his writing, what with the undiscriminating nature of bullets and the pressure cooker applied to teenage personalities, and all that. Plus loss and sorrow and decades of memory for the survivors.

Another thing about Boyne: like Ishiguro (and my husband and I) he went to UEA in Norwich for a Masters in creative writing. (We were a lot more contemporaneous with Boyne.) Somehow I didn't know that, but as soon as Tristan starts wandering around Tombland and drinking local brews and watching shoppers in the rectangle of awnings at the open-air market, I suspected. It was a lot of fun to revisit those streets with Tristan (I wish he'd made it onto the Unthank Road at some point. Because: a road named Unthank!) 

Okay, that walk down Memory Lane aside (and could I be more literal? R & I were talking just the other day about our early courtship walks along the Unthank Road), there's a lot for the non-Norwichian to enjoy in this novel. Tristan is at once knowable and intriguing, a man struggling with his identity, his actions, his relationship with his family, and his place in the war. He's only 21, but after enlisting at 17 and serving several years in the trenches "over there," his soul is an old man's. But his heart is still as precariously confused and frightened as it was when his father kicked him out at 16 for transgressions that clearly have to do with his unreciprocated feelings towards his best friend. Once he joins the army, he meets Will, whose death eventually leads Tristan to meeting Will's sister Marian in Norwich. The army training camp friendship becomes both a trial and a joy to Tristan. Will, meanwhile, is struggling with entirely different but equally soul-shattering issues, and his combination of courage and callousness makes him a pretty absorbing guy to get to know. One of the many interesting angles in this novel are the overlapping but not identical portraits of Will as explained by Marian and by Tristan. I love the slight shifts and the gaps.

This is another in the Audies category of Solo Narration - Male, and my first experience of Michael Maloney's narration. I wasn't wowed. He was good for Tristan, other than my wish for a touch more emotional vulnerability when discussing the events of his early teens, but every word out of Marian's mouth grated on me. Not that the character wasn't somewhat brittle and acerbic, but the text made it clear that she was also quiet and tender at times, and you'd never guess it from Maloney's tone. I also had problems with the sound mixing in this - listening to the CDs in a couple of environments (home and car) I constantly had to adjust the volume and the bass to make up for inexplicable variances. It so rarely happens that I need to do anything like this that it bears mentioning now, and it made me question the nomination in this case.

Great, great book. Read it (on paper.)

Friday, April 5, 2013

Beggar at the Feast!

I mean, it's not as if Hugo had the advantage of a catchy Abba song to encapsulate his point, but geez, man. We get it. Waterloo = bad for Napoleon. Also, inevitable, because: God said so.

This is not the way to encourage me to catch up with my Les Mis Project. But never mind. Here we are - Volume Two: Cosette of Victor Hugo's Les Misérables. And to start it off, 

Oddly enough, none of the Les Mis
covers out there depict the
Battle of Waterloo. But
here's a candle, which is
almost the same, right?
Book First - Waterloo 

So this whole thirty-page section goes like this:
Waterloo - I was defeated, you won the war
Waterloo - Promise to love you for ever more
Waterloo - Couldn't escape if I wanted to
Waterloo - Knowing my fate is to be with you
Waterloo - Finally facing my Waterloo

Or similar, anyway. There's a field. It's near Waterloo, in Belgium. There are armies amassed along various points of a triangle. It rained the night before, so Napoleon has to wait for the ground to dry out or his heavy artillery will sink in the mud, and he's an artillery-heavy fighter. The battle doesn't start until 11, because of the mud, which means by 4, blah blah blah. Ravines and hollow roads and some tussock or another. People who know they will die fighting, but it's for the Emperor, so, maybe that's okay. Or maybe it isn't, but it is what it is. And thanks to the rain delay, even though Napoleon thought he had the whole campaign wrapped up, Wellington was reinforced by Blucher, and the Emperor was dethroned.

It's not that Hugo doesn't do justice to the drama of the day. It's just that I read a lot of historical romance, and I've pretty much got all the military details down. At least insofar
as I care. But here's a taste for y'all anyway, because after all, I read this so you don't have to, but if I have to read about the carnage, so do you:

  • "Bauduin, killed, Foy wounded, conflagration, massacre, carnage, a rivulet formed of English blood, French blood, German blood mingled in fury, a well crammed with corpses... three thousand men in that hovel of Hougomont alone cut down, slashed to pieces, shot, burned, with their throats cut,- and all this so that a peasant can say to-day to the traveller: Monsieur, give me three francs, and if you like, I will explain to you the affair of Waterloo!" (p.218)
  • "If it had not rained in the night between the 17th and the 18th of June, 1815, the fate of Europe would have been different. A few drops of water, more or less, decided the downfall of Napoleon." (p.219)
  • Lots and lots of detail about the plateau of Mont-Saint-Jean, which, actually, was pretty cool because it seems it really makes a difference if the ground drains well or if there's a slight hill over on one corner: "Two hostile troops on a field of battle are two wrestlers. It is a question of seizing the opponent round the waist. The one seeks to trip up the other. They clutch at everything: a bush is a point of support; an angle of the wall offers them a rest to the shoulder; for the lack of a hovel under whose cover they can draw up, a regiment yields its ground...." (p.221)
  • The equipment! So much equipage: "We perceive the vast fluctuations in the fog, a dizzy mirage, paraphernalia of war almost unknown to-day, pendant colbacks, floating sabre-taches, cross-belts, cartridge-boxes for grenades, hussar dolmans, red boots with a thousand wrinkles, heavy shakos garlanded with torsades...." (p.222)
  • And then there was the Emperor himself. "Composed half of light and half of shadow, Napoleon thought himself protected in good and tolerated in evil. He had, or thought that he had, a connivance, one might almost say a complicity, of events in his favor, which was equivalent to the invulnerability of antiquity." (p.229)
  • Despite all that, and the earlier assertion that a bit of rain made all the difference: "It was time that this vast man should fall. The excessive weight of this man in human destiny disturbed the balance. This individual alone counted for more than a universal group.... The moment had arrived for the incorruptible and supreme equity to alter its plan." (p.232)
  • "He embarrassed God. Waterloo is not a battle; it is a change of front on the part of the Universe." (p.232)
  • "Napoleon and Wellington. They are not enemies; they are opposites. Never did God, who is fond of antitheses, make a more striking contrast, a more extraordinary comparison. On one side, precision, foresight, geometry, prudence...; on the other, intuition, divination, military oddity, superhuman instinct, a flaming glance, and indescribable something which gazes like an eagle, which strikes like the lightning...." (p.241)
  • "Waterloo is a battle of the first order, won by a captain of the second." (p.242) (Hugo has some funny things to say about Wellington's not quite deserving the plaudits he has today, but the English soldiers having earned lots of praise.)

Anyway, the battle is over, France is going to change mightily, and one thing about war? Some of it's noble, skanky. (Okay, "hideous features" is Hugo's phrase.) "One of them most surprising is the prompt stripping of the bodies of the dead after the victory. The dawn which follows a battle always rises on naked corpses." (p.246)
but a lot of it is a bit

Who would do such a thing? Who would scamper through the night, in a big floppy overcoat concealing large pockets, happily tromping through the mud and blood overlooked by a woman sitting on a laden cart? No one we've met, surely.

Oh, except for that one guy. Hugo plays it out a little, but I'll just tell you: Thenardier.

Plot points: Thenardier is skulking around collecting trinkets from the dead. He grabs a gold ring off a hand sticking up from a pile of corpses. The hand grabs him back, which makes Thenardier laugh and investigate further. He drags the corpse out from under the pile and discovers a silver Legion of Honor cross, a watch, and a purse full of cash.

The action of this hauling and pawing wakens the officer, who, let's face it, would probably have died under the weight of all the other dead men. Sergeant Thenardier hears the English approaching, and the officer (Pontmercy) tells him to take the watch and purse. Thenardier says they're gone already, such a shame, and before he scuttles off, he and Pontmercy exchange names.

Something tells me we haven't seen the last of Pontmercy, and now that Waterloo is over, I think we soon will see a great deal more of Thenardier.