Sunday, March 31, 2013

Introspective Narration and Perfect Butlers

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
(Originally published 1989, this version Tantor Media, 2012)
Format: Audio download via library (narrated by Simon Prebble)

From Goodreads: "The Remains of the Day is a profoundly compelling portrait of the perfect English butler and of his fading, insular world in post-war England. At the end of his three decades of service at Darlington Hall, Stevens embarks on a country drive, during which he looks back over his career to reassure himself that he has served humanity by serving 'a great gentleman.' But lurking in his memory are doubts about the true nature of Lord Darlington's 'greatness' and graver doubts about his own faith in the man he served."

Claim to fame: The hubby and I went to the same grad school writing program as Ishiguro. (Probably this means one of us will at least be shortlisted for the Man Booker soon.) (Not me, though - darn Americanness. But Robert is in with a chance.) Anyway, I love his work, and devoured The Remains of the Day a couple of decades ago. It stuck with me, and I found it just as fresh and engaging listening to Prebble's narration, which is up for an Audies award in Literary Fiction. 

Prebble is the second Simon in my audio-loving-heart, but it's not a large leap between the two. He's got quite the aristo quality to his voice, which suits all of the Stephanie Laurens Regency romances he reads to me, as well as this tale of Stevens the butler who wants, above all things, to be the paragon of his trade. (Indeed, Stevens goes into some detail about cultivating his accent, which differentiated him from his butler father, whom he otherwise held up as a shining example of the role.) This is one of those books where a hell of a lot more happens inside the protagonist's head than in his actions, although it is due to the journey Stevens undertakes that he is finally reflecting on some aspects of his life and career.

It is 1956, and Stevens has been butling at Darlington Hall for several decades. His new employer is an American gentleman, but most of his service was to Lord Darlington, who was a big name on the international political stage between the wars. Unfortunately for Stevens, his sympathies weren't the ones that the rest of the country ended up holding. One of the things Stevens has to negotiate within himself is the extent to which he can feel that he was a Great Butler, given the ignominious cloud under which Lord Darlington died. Stevens also struggles with recollections about his relationship with his father, and with the former housekeeper he's on his way to visit. Very small moments resonate for years, and as Stevens begins to understand them in a different light, he also begins to settle into some new ideas about himself. It's absolutely full of subtle tension and heartbreak.

Prebble imbues each moment with those quiet emotions, carrying us along Stevens's road all the way. I loved how fully inhabited he was in Ishiguro's voice, how completely present he was in the narrative. This was a great pairing of book with narrator, and I'd recommend it to, like, everyone.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

An Enchanted Reading of Enchanted

Enchanted by Alethea Kontis
(Harcourt Children's Books, 2012)
Format: audio CDs from library (narrated by Katherine Kellgren)

From Goodreads: "It isn’t easy being the rather overlooked and unhappy youngest sibling to sisters named for the other six days of the week. Sunday’s only comfort is writing stories, although what she writes has a terrible tendency to come true.

When Sunday meets an enchanted frog who asks about her stories, the two become friends. Soon that friendship deepens into something magical. One night Sunday kisses her frog goodbye and leaves, not realizing that her love has transformed him back into Rumbold, the crown prince of Arilland—and a man Sunday’s family despises.

The prince returns to his castle, intent on making Sunday fall in love with him as the man he is, not the frog he was. But Sunday is not so easy to woo. How can she feel such a strange, strong attraction for this prince she barely knows? And what twisted secrets lie hidden in his past—and hers?"

Okay, remember last year when I couldn't shut up about the brilliance of Katherine Kellgren's narration of L.A. Meyer's Bloody Jack series? And I said she would be the winner of the Audie award for Teen audiobooks? And how I was right? Well, that just shows you two things: Katherine Kellgren is a great narrator, and I know what I'm talking about. 

Now that we've established that, and keeping in mind that this year Kellgren is up against Kate Rudd's gorgeous reading of John Green's The Fault in Our Stars, I am all about this particular Audies contender. (Except the cover. Not the audiobook's fault, but really, this cover is belch, right? How is her position natural or comfortable?)

Oh, Sunday! Such a classic misunderstood youngest sibling with a secret. She's the 7th daughter of a 7th daughter in a kingdom where magic is fairly commonplace, so really she shouldn't need to pour out her troubles to the frog at her local fairy well to make herself feel better. (But then again, I knew I had secret magic powers, and plenty of siblings, but it didn't stop me from turning my cat into my confidant.) Nevertheless, Sunday does end up sharing her diary with Grumble the talking frog, who they both know is enchanted, but who doesn't change when Sunday kisses him. Until, one day, he does, but she doesn't know it. She just knows that Prince Rumbold is "requesting" all eligible young ladies in Arilland to a series of balls, and her fairy godmother is on hand to assist her and her sisters in getting ready. Kontis plays with more fairy tales than I can count (or know, I'm sure) - in her household alone is a woman with many offspring living in a shoe, a tall tower with just one window at the top, a changeling son, a cursed spindle, a handful of magic beans, and, of course, birds that help with chores so Sunday will be ready in time for the ball. But nothing is straightforward, and Kontis wraps everything up in a coming-of-age framework that leaves me pondering the nature of story and the oral tradition. And pretty eager for October's publication of the second in this series, to boot.

Kellgren, of course, is perfect for this title. She has an entrancing story-time voice that gives full weight to emotional moments while never slackening the pace of the adventure. I find myself envying any children to whom she might read bed-time stories, but sorry for her, too, because I'm sure those kids would never let her go without repeatedly begging for "just one more" book. But I don't mean it's treacly or insipid in any way - and she definitely knows how to tap into a dark side for all those moments of evil and danger.

Not to be totally cheesy about it, but I was truly enchanted throughout.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Affairs! Colin Firth! (Sorry, Got Carried Away There)

The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
(Originally published 1951, this version published 2012, Audible, Inc.)
Format: Audible download (narrated by Colin Firth)

From Goodreads: Graham Greene’s evocative analysis of the love of self, the love of another, and the love of God is an English classic that has been translated for the stage, the screen, and even the opera house. Academy Award-winning actor Colin Firth turns in an authentic and stirring performance for this distinguished audio release.

The End of the Affair, set in London during and just after World War II, is the story of a flourishing love affair between Maurice Bendrix and Sarah Miles. After a violent episode at Maurice’s apartment, Sarah suddenly and without explanation breaks off the affair. This very intimate story about what actually constitutes love is enhanced by Firth’s narration, who said 'this book struck me very, very particularly at the time when I read it and I thought my familiarity with it would give the journey a personal slant.'

Mmmm, Colin Firth. 

Okay, fine, I'll make the review more substantive than that. This is up for the Solo Narration - Male category of the Audies awards, and it's my sacred duty as an #ArmchairAudies reviewer to give you the skinny on why I kept forgetting to do my job so I could listen to this book. (Good thing it was only 6.5 hours long.)

My husband (follow him on Twitter!) is a big Greene fan, so I've picked up on the guy through marital osmosis, but I can't say that I've set out to read him independently before. Mistake on my part, as it turns out. Smart, subtle writing, and such deceptively complex characters. You think they're one easily-graspable thing, but the deeper Greene goes (and deep he does go), the more each layer unfurls. And breadth as well as depth! Don't dismiss the rationalist as just a plot obstacle for Bendrix, he'll come straight at you from left field. And did you see what happened there, with Sarah and her mother and God? You had no clue, did you? 

And I could sense Firth's enjoyment, especially of Bendrix. He approached the narration with a calm, almost under-stated attitude that really suited the overly-introspective Bendrix. But the passion for Sarah, the agony of their separation and uncertainty when they met again - it was all there. Obviously (you may not know me well, Dear Reader, but you can believe that at any given moment I'm as likely to be watching the BBC adaptation of Pride & Prejudice as I am to be doing anything else, bar reading. Or, like, my job, sleeping, that stuff) I am a Firth fan. I think he can do with his voice what Maggie Smith can do with her face - barely alter it but load each micro-change with macro-importance. He can play broad, too, a sweeping comic or dramatic turn, but this book was narrow, quiet, intense, passionate, and gorgeous.

Yep. I liked it, very much.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

'M'sieur le Mayor', You'll Wear a Different Chain

At last, the final book in Victor Hugo's Les Misérables - Volume 1: Fantine. 

When last we left them, M. Madeline had just confessed to the Assizes that he is, in fact, the criminal Jean Valjean. Everyone was too stupefied that the famous, beloved mayor of M. sur M. was speaking up in court for the convict Champmathieu that he just gave up on them reacting, and went home. 

And thus, the dawn rises on Book Eighth - A Counter-Blow.

A classy cover with some
nice sober black for
the end of Fantine.
After the trek home, Valjean (we get to call him that now, instead of any of the aliases - it's okay, Hugo said so) heads to the hospital to visit still-barely-living Fantine. The nursing sister is startled by the sudden whiteness of his hair, which Valjean hadn't noticed. Fantine, meanwhile, has gone gray with illness.

She's convinced Cosette is on the way - that it's the explanation of Valjean's absence. So she asks him about it, and they all hedge a little, until the doctor says the kid is there, but has to be kept away because it makes Fantine too excitable. She argues about it for a while (a chapter or so) but finally something stops her:
  • "...her face, which had been radiant but a moment before, was ghastly, and she seemed to have fixed her eyes, rendered large with terror, on something alarming at the other extremity of the room." (p.205)
  • Valjean "turned, and beheld Javert." (p.205) It turns out that shortly after Valjean left the court, everyone shook themselves back to this new reality, and although the D.A. tried to convince them to still convict Champmathieu, he was "visibly at variance with the sentiments of every one, of the public, of the court, and of the jury." (p.205)
  • The case against Champmathieu was dismissed. "Nevertheless, the district-attorney was bent on having a Jean Valjean; and as he had no longer Champmathieu, he took Madeline." (p.205) So they sent an express to Javert, which he got first thing in the morning, instructing him to collar the deceitful mayor.
  • "Any one who did not know Javert, and who had chanced to see him at the moment when he penetrated the antechamber of the infirmary, could have divined nothing of what had taken place, and would have thought his air the most ordinary in the world. He was cool, calm, grave, his gray hair was perfectly smooth upon his temples, and he had just mounted the stairs with his habitual determination. Any one who was thoroughly acquainted with him, and who had examined him attentively at the moment, would have shuddered. The buckle of his leather stock was under his left ear instead of at the nape of his neck. This betrayed unwonted agitation." (p.206) (I adore this. I can just SEE Javert, always impeccable, just the slightest bit disarranged, and that being a massively telling detail to those in the know.)
  • "The instant that Madeline's glance encountered Javert's glance, Javert, without stirring, without moving from his post, without approaching him, became terrible. No human sentiment can be as terrible as joy. / It was the visage of a demon who has just found his damned soul." (p.206)
  • Javert's probity and determination to serve the law makes him rigid, and able to find pure joy from the successful pursuit of his duty. "Without himself suspecting the fact, Javert in his formidable happiness was to be pitied, as is every ignorant man who triumphs. Nothing could be so poignant and so terrible as this face, wherein was displayed all that may be designated as the evil of the good." (p.207)
So Javert stood there, in face-off mode, while Valjean reassures Fantine that she has nothing to worry about.

And finally he advances into the room, and takes Valjean by the collar, which makes Fantine freak the hell out, especially since Valjean doesn't try to do anything about it. He does ask for a private word (calls him "Javert," which manages to piss him off: "Call me Mr. Inspector.") Javert's having none of it - makes him speak up about this super secret need of his:
  • Valjean "said very rapidly and in a very low voice:- 'Grant me three days' grace! three days in which to go and fetch the child of this unhappy woman. I will pay whatever is necessary. You shall accompany me if you choose.' " (p.208)
  • Now Fantine knows she was lied to about her kid being there. She flips, and Javert snarls at her that there's no such dude as Madeline the Mayor, there's only some dirty convict called Valjean. This doesn't soothe Fantine's agitation.
  • "...a rattle proceeded from the depths of her throat, her teeth chattered; she stretched out her arms in her agony, opening her hands convulsively, and fumbling about her like a drowning person; then suddenly fell back on her pillow. / Her head struck the head-board of the bed and fell forwards on her breast, with gaping mouth and staring, sightless eyes. / She was dead." (p.209) (I'm loving Hugo's descriptive language here.)
  • "Jean Valjean laid his hand upon the detaining hand of Javert, and opened it as he would have opened the hand of a baby...." (p.209) - just to remind us how preternaturally strong Valjean is - and then he accused Javert of murdering Fantine. Javert just kind of stares at Valjean while Valjean moves to Fantine's side, speaking inaudibly to him and kissing her hand. Once he achieves that moment of peace with her, he rises and puts himself at Javert's disposal.
Now they've stuck the mayor in jail. Scandal! Gossip! Sensational commotion! "We are sorry that we cannot conceal the fact, that at the single word, 'He was a convict,' nearly every one deserted him." (p.210) They don't actually have any details, those gossipy townspeople of M. sur M., which doesn't of course stop the speculation. (As it ever was, so shall it ever be.) The gentry in particular - who he's never mixed with, preferring to spend his time doing good works over fancy dinner parties, are all, "Well! I suspected as much. That man was too good, too perfect, too affected. He refused the cross; he bestowed sous on all the little scamps he came across. I always thought there was some evil history back of all that." (p.210)

The portress at his building is still loyal to the mayor, so much so that she habitually puts his key out in the evening, even though he's in jail. She's pretty startled when a hand reaches for that key, though! Javert was lax enough to forget Valjean's strength, it seems - so he broke a bar in the window, escaped, and went home for a bit. He asks the portress to fetch Sister Simplice from the infirmary.

While he waits, he heads up to his rooms, where he wraps up the Bishop's silver candlesticks and leaves the money he'd stolen from Little Gervais with a note on the table. When the Sister arrives, he hands over instructions about paying for his trial and for Fantine's funeral, giving the rest to the poor, which she is to deliver to the Curé. (That gentleman does as instructed, but gives Fantine a pauper's burial, in order to have more cash for the poor.)

Before much more can be said, they hear the portress swearing to Javert and his men downstairs that no one is inside. Javert sees the light, and heads up, where he encounters the nun praying by feeble candlelight in Valjean's room. "It will be remembered that the fundamental point in Javert, his element, the very air he breathed, was veneration for all authority." (p.212) He knew the nun wouldn't sin. He started to just automatically remove himself from the room (where Valjean, FYI, was hiding behind the door, just out of sight), but his duty to his job makes him ask her if she's alone in the room.

  • "A terrible moment ensued, during which the poor portress felt as though she should faint." (p.212)
The nun looks at Javert and says she's alone. Javert swallows the lie readily enough, but again his duty leads him to ask if she's seen Valjean. Again, the nun lies. Javert excuses himself respectfully.
  • "O sainted main! you left this world many years ago; you have rejoined your sisters, the virgins, and your brothers, the angels, in the light; may this lie be counted to your credit in paradise!" (p.213)
An hour later, a solitary man was leaving M. sur M., walking towards Paris. That's the end of Madeline, and the end of paupers-grave Fantine, and the end of the Volume bearing her name.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Being There

Being There by Jerzy Kosinski
(originally published 1970, this version Audible, 2012)
Format: Audible download (narrated by Dustin Hoffman)

From Goodreads: "Jerzy Kosinski’s clever parable of a naive man thrust into the modern world is more pointed now than ever. Academy Award winner Dustin Hoffman (Rain Man, The Graduate), perhaps best known for his portrayals of vulnerable characters and antiheroes, gives an understated and exemplary performance of this satiric look at the unreality of American media culture.

Chance, the enigmatic gardener, becomes Chauncey Gardiner after getting hit by a limo belonging to a Wall Street tycoon. The whirlwind that follows brings Chance to his new status of political policy advisor and possible vice presidential candidate. His garden-variety political responses, inspired by television, become heralded as visionary, and he is soon a media icon due to his unknown background and vague, yet appealing, conversational nature. Being There was adapted into an Academy Award-winning film, starring Peter Sellers as Chance, in 1979."

Oh, humor. You crack me up.

In this case, my teen and I both cracked up, repeatedly - like, pause the book so we could laugh freely cracking up, throughout the 3 hours of this audio. Kosinski's deadpan portrait of Chance's life is relentless in its take-down of media and politics. Chance himself is that naive blank slate that suits the Pooh/Tao template so well (we listened to this right after the Hoff book, and a more 'Taoist by default' character I've rarely seen.) (Except for every other time someone creates a character with little agency of his own so we can see the world act upon him and thereby learn something about ourselves. I'm looking at you, Forrest Gump.)

I haven't seen the Sellers movie in a long while - the library will help me take care of that soon - but from what I remember, it's very faithful to the book. (Makes sense, given that Kosinski did the screenplay.) In other words, it's funny, too.

Hoffman's understated affability suited the narration brilliantly. He has a friendly, trustworthy tone - "laconic and matter-of-fact," as a reporter describes Chance - and leaves the listener free to snap up the parody throughout. I wish his voices were a bit more differentiated, but it wasn't ever hard to follow. Still, the few times the text moves out of Chance's proximity, I would have liked a shift to show the sharper minds at play. Otherwise, this is a vivid reading, and a guaranteed good time if you're at all fond of satire.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

30 Things You Don't Need to Tell Me During this College Tour

  1. You have a Blue Light system for safety (but you've never even heard of anyone needing to use it.) The campus is very secure and insulated from the town.
  2. The town, though, is a great resource and will make your university years more engaging.
  3. You'll barely remember to go to town since campus is a 24/7 joyride of activities.
  4. Anyone interesting who comes to town will go to campus and you can hear them speak/perform for free.
  5. There is a free shuttle that goes anywhere you need, even late at night from local hot spots.
  6. You can call the extremely efficient and omnipresent campus police for an escort for any reason, even if it's just because you're too cold or lazy to walk somewhere yourself.
  7. Your campus has a lot of great, fun traditions. (Don't say party school. Never say party school.)
  8. Greek life is around, and a delight, and non-exclusionary, but no pressure - everyone has friends both in and out of the Greek system.
  9. Greeks and non-Greeks alike spend a lot of time on service opportunities, because community spirit and volunteerism are strong core components of campus life.
  10. There are hundreds of clubs and organizations, but if you can't find what you like (which seems impossible!), you can found one yourself really easily.
  11. One of those clubs is Quidditch.
  12. Speaking of which, people often compare your dining hall and/or library to Hogwarts.
  13. Speaking of which, you can buy coffee at the library cafe.
  14. The library has social areas on the ground floor and gets more studious the higher you go up.
  15. The library has millions of volumes, but if you need something it doesn't have, ILL will get it for you within mere days.
  16. The professors are accessible practically constantly. They even Skype!
  17. The professors will hook you up with amazing internship and research opportunities, even if you're just a freshman.
  18. Many people do research or internship work as part of their study abroad.
  19. Study abroad credits transfer very easily. 
  20. Study abroad is the most fun anyone's ever had.
  21. At the same time, when you come back for your senior year, you'll wish you had another few years to spend on campus, since it's so awesome.
  22. However, 97% of students graduate in 4 years.
  23. They all go on to good jobs (thanks to the strong community of past graduates and the career center's experts) or get into their first choice grad schools.
  24. Many of them double-major, which is easy to do thanks to the expert advisers and desirable because of the vast opportunities on campus.
  25. Even if you don't major in music/theatre/dance/stand-up comedy, you will have plenty of opportunities to get involved in the performing arts on campus.
  26. Maybe you'll be in the marching band! Then you'll really be able to show your school spirit.
  27. Everyone here has school spirit and they all love going to the games, even if they aren't sporty-types, because cheering on the (insert mascot here)s is such a blast.
  28. All of the athletes on campus are scholars first, because academics are so important to us.
  29. We will give you every academic opportunity you could ever desire, be it one of the majors for which we are famous, or be it your own interdisciplinary invention.
  30. Make sure that your application essay isn't generic.
(Spring Break College Visit Trip scorecard: 8 tours taken, 3 flights, 1 train trip, 2 rental cars, 5 hotels, 2 friends' spare beds, 3 & 2 1/2s audiobooks enjoyed, and more waffles and biscuits than I can count.)

Friday, March 15, 2013

Just Being Pooh is Grand

The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff
(1982) (This version, Tantor Media, 2012)
Format: Audible download (read by Simon Vance)

From Goodreads: "Winnie-the-Pooh has a certain Way about him, a way of doing things that has made him the world's most beloved bear. In The Tao of Pooh, Benjamin Hoff shows that Pooh's Way is amazingly consistent with the principles of living envisioned by the Chinese founders of Taoism. The author's explanation of Taoism through Pooh, and Pooh through Taoism, shows that this is not simply an ancient and remote philosophy but something you can use, here and now. And what is Taoism? It's really very simple. It calls for living without preconceived ideas about how life should be lived-but it's not a preconception of how life-it's.... Well, you'd do better to listen to this book, and listen to Pooh, if you really want to find out."

You guys! I found something Vance did that I don't love! Not the book, I'm fine with the book, but something about his narration. 

Okay, fine, that's not the sweetest way to begin this post, but as my regular readers know, I am devoted to Simon Vance's work as an audiobook narrator. Until yesterday, I would have said he could do no wrong, no matter how hard he tried. And this title was nominated in the Solo Narration - Male PLUS the Personal Development PLUS the Inspirational/Faith-Based Fiction categories for an Audie Award. I took it for granted that I'd be as impressed as always by Vance's narration. And for 98% of this book, I was. His pacing - his comic and tension timing - is notably brilliant. It's practically impossible not to listen to him tell you a tale, because he spins it out in such a way that you're hanging on all the words, no matter what those words are. Naval battles in Napoleonic times, the adventures of 007, Cromwellian intrigues, and the intersection of Chinese philosophy and stuffed bears - all are gripping. 

So what's the problem? What could possibly disconcert me? Well, you'll laugh at me, but it bothered me each and every time it was used. It was his Piglet voice. 

Pooh was slow and thoughtful and very-little-brained. Eeyore was gloomy. Rabbit was bossy and manic. Roo was enthusiastically adorable. But Piglet - sigh. Piglet was irritating. He was inconsistent - sometimes too close to the Pooh voice, sometimes chirpier, but not the squeaky, breathy voice Vance hit on once in a rare while for Piglet that worked best. Granted, if I didn't rely on his ability to suit voices to characters so consistently, this wouldn't have been so jarring, but I do, so it was. And I wasn't looking for Disney-informed versions of the 100 Acre Woods crew - Vance didn't go there for the others, and that was just fine with me. The whole book is under 3 hours, and while Piglet is in every chapter (probably), he doesn't speak up all that much. I wish that when he did, I'd been able to enjoy him.

Okay, that mountain of a molehill aside, this was a good production. There were a couple of moments between sections that I would have liked a half-second's pause, just to differentiate, but otherwise it was easy to follow and fun to hear.

Hoff's book has been out for 20 years, and I remember flipping through it once in a while, but I'd never gone front to back with it before. It's interesting, and cleverly assembled to make points about Taoism using the familiar tales of beloved Pooh Bear. Rescuing Roo from the river, finding the "North Pole," hunting heffalumps, and just being with Piglet and Christopher Robin all serve to illustrate the benefits of not over-thinking life, taking it as it comes, and trusting that solutions to problems will surface when needed. It was fun to imagine what Hoff would make of our digital age, given his screeds against mechanization and hyper-busyness in 1982, and interesting to look for ways to apply Taoism to my life. Of course, as with all things that tout the virtues of the simple innocents of the world (and we listened to Being There immediately after this just to reinforce this point), I am left wondering why proponents of these philosophies can't give me illustrations of people who are consciously choosing Taoism instead of embodying it by default. We all rightfully love Winnie-the-Pooh, and admire his ways of love and happiness, but get Rabbit to learn some Taoism. When I see him adopt it, I'll be more apt to see how to apply it to my own life.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Please, Sir, I want Some More (Discworld)

Dodger by Terry Pratchett
(Harper Collins, 2012)
Format: audio download via library (read by Stephen Briggs for Harper Audio)

From Goodreads: "Dodger is a tosher - a sewer scavenger living in the squalor of Dickensian London. Everyone who is nobody knows Dodger. Anyone who is anybody doesn't. But when he rescues a young girl from a beating, suddenly everybody wants to know him. And Dodger's tale of skulduggery, dark plans and even darker deeds begins."

Now, this is a funny book. And I like Pratchett, what I've read of him (listened, really - mostly to the Tiffany Aching books, also narrated by Briggs.) I'm not totally immersed into Discworld and all that entails, but I know Pratchett to be a clever, quick teller of tales, and go into his novels expecting a romp both silly and smart. And Dodger is a superb character. I want to live in a world where I can encounter Dodgers at the most unexpected and delightful times. He's not Dodger out of Dickens - he's Dodger as Pratchett imagines his imagined Dickens might encounter and be inspired. (It makes sense, I promise.) He's got street smarts and under-the-street smarts, is king of the sewers and is pleased to have all he needs. And pleased not to need the collections of knick-knacks and fancy useless things that fill the homes he begins to visit after he rescues the mysterious Simplicity from her abusive captors one day. (It's possible he encountered those useless knick-knacks when he wasn't invited into the fancy homes, too, but his roommate and mentor Solomon prefers to think he's moved on from those impulses.)

There's really everything to like about Dodger, which makes spending 10 1/2 hours in his company during the audio a joy. And I liked what Pratchett did with Dickens and the newspapers and even Sweeney Todd. But I felt that the plot of Dodger's adventure wasn't fully baked - just a little squidgy in the middle. Simplicity is too simple, too much of a pretty vessel for Dodger's dreams. And far too often the historical figures are the most lifeless of the bunch. I just coudn't dive into the ins and outs of the plans that centered around helping Simplicity, and kept wishing for more of the well-imagined subplots.

Still, it's not flat, by any means. (That's kind of a discworld joke. Amn't I funny?) (My Irish husband uses the word 'amn't' at times, and I love it. Why shouldn't 'am not' have a contraction, after all?) Pratchett could probably write engaging characters in his sleep. I just wished for something a little more out of the plot.

What I did get was a great audio. Briggs is sharp and wry, a great great pairing with Pratchett's style, and his dialects are, to my ear, top-notch. There's no doubt it's a great contender in the Audies Teen category, and I'm very glad I listened to it.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Who Am I? I am Jean Valjean!

Yes, I'm running behind schedule. But! It builds the tension, no? 

When last we saw them, Fantine was withering away in a hospital bed, longing for Cosette, still being held by the money-grubbing Thenardiers, despite the cash M. Madeline keeps sending them. Meanwhile, Javert has confessed to Madeline that he suspected him of being some scumbag named Jean Valjean, but has just found out that the scumbag is, in fact, being held for trial in nearby Arras, having stolen some apples. Not the most major of crimes, but due to his past record, failure to abide by parole, and probable theft from that excellent Bishop M. Welcome, it'll be back to the galleys with him. The mayor pretended not to care, but in reality....

Welcome to Victor Hugo's Les Misérables, Volume 1: Fantine, Book 7. Cue the swelling music.

Probably this scene is from later
in the novel, but I can't
resist the garish colors and
the pathos. Oh, the pathos!
Book Seventh - The Champmathieu Affair
Fantine, as we've seen, is winning over the Nursing Sisters but not faring well. She lives for Madeline's daily half-hour visits, when she can bask in his kindness and ask him about Cosette. But Madeline, in the wake of Javert's news about that scumbag Champmathieu who is really Jean Valjean, is a little preoccupied. He heads to a guy named Scaufflaer to ask about the guy's fastest means of transport for hire. After some haggling, Scaufflaer agrees to have his fastest horse and cabriolet at the mayor's door at 4:30 the next morning. 

Madeline spends an hour with Fantine, then heads home, in a bit of a daze. He commences to pacing all night long. Then! The delightfully-titled chapter "A Tempest in a Skull" opens with these 'well, yeah' words:

  • "The reader has, no doubt, already divined that M. Madeline is no other than Jean Valjean." (p.159)
  • We also see, after much moralizing, that after we last saw him as Valjean, "but little" happened to make him Madeline. "From that moment forth he was, as we have seen, a totally different man. What the Bishop had wished to make of him, that he carried out. It was more than a transformation; it was a transfiguration." (p.160)
  • "He succeeded in disappearing, sold the Bishop's silver, reserving only the candlesticks as a souvenir...." (p.160) Then he became brilliant successful factory-owner turned mayor Madeline.
  • And he thought that "he lived in peace, reassured and hopeful, having henceforth only two thoughts, -to conceal his name and to sanctify his life; to escape men and to return to God." (p.160)
  • Despite the desire to conceal his name, though, he found himself putting God first often, which accounted for the candlesticks, the rescue of the guy under the cart, the searching for his sister's family, and the attempts at restitution for stealing a coin from a little Savoyard kid he ran into right after he got the Bishop's candlesticks. (I may not have mentioned that earlier. It was the final straw that showed him he had to turn his back on the man he'd become in prison.)
But this whole deal with a look-alike going to the galleys in his stead had a bigger risk-to-reward ratio. It didn't seem all that easy to do the Godly thing and ensure his freedom without the ultimate failure of his quest to conceal his name. Hence the night of pacing in his room. After a while he chose to pace in the darkness, because "It seemed to him as though he might be seen.   By whom?   Alas! That on which he desired to close the door had already entered; that which he desired to blind was staring him in the face,- his conscience." (p.161) A.k.a., God.

In fact, this:

Why should I save his hide
Why should I right this wrong
When I have come so far
And struggled for so long?
If I speak, I am condemned
If I stay silent, I am damned!
I am the master of hundreds of workers
They all look to me
How can I abandon them, how can they live
If I am not free?
If I speak, I am condemned
If I stay silent, I am damned!

just about sums up what's going on with Valjean throughout his night. Of course, Hugo has a lot more detail about Valjean's torment, the many pro/con lists that run through his head, the excuses both craven and noble as well as the denials of those excuses, the idea that "it is Providence which has done it all; it is because it wishes it so to be, evidently. Have I the right to disarrange what it has arranged? What do I ask now? Why should I meddle?" (p.163) So God wants him to feel secure from the wolf Javert, to have peace as reward for the good works he does, he doesn't need to ask the local priest for advice because clearly it's wrong to mess with God's plan!


  • "He confessed to himself that all that he had just arranged in his mind was monstrous, that 'to let things take their course, to let the good God do as he liked,' was simply horrible; to allow this error of fate and of men to be carried out, not to hinder it, to lend himself to it through his silence, to do nothing, in short, was to do everything! that this was hypocritical baseness in the last degree! that it was a base, cowardly, sneaking, abject, hideous crime!" (p.164) (Nice use of adjectives, Hugo!)
  • "For the first time in eight years, the wretched man had just tasted the bitter savor of an evil thought and an of an evil action.   He spit it out with disgust." (p.164)
  • "Had he not another and a grand object, which was the true one-to save, not his person, but his soul; to become honest and good once more; to be a just man? Was it not that above all, that alone, which he had always desired, which the Bishop had enjoined upon him-to shut the door on his past? But he was not shutting it! great God! he was re-opening it by committing an infamous action! He was becoming a thief once more, and the most odious of thieves! He was robbing another of his existence, his life, his peace, his place in the sunshine. He was becoming an assassin." (p.164)
Thus resolved, he sets about tidying up his affairs. A letter to his banker, a packet of papers and cash to carry on him, and then - second (third, fourth, fifth) thoughts. Surely the Champmathieu guy was no good, what with the apple stealing and all? And anyway, the courts wouldn't send him to the galleys if he did confess, since everyone knew how nice he was now. But in that case, he may as well confess and save Champmathieu from galleys or death. But what about Fantine! She needs him, him personally, no one else was around to help her in her suffering! And all the factory workers! And all the other good works! If he keeps his name a secret, he can do a hundred times more good in the future with the millions he'll make - so many people need him to be free!

It's actually MORE selfish to confess - yeah. That's it. The desire to confess would cause untold misery and economic privation to a whole country-side. And any time he feels bad about the deception, he can just do even better for others, thus mitigating the sin almost entirely. Whew!

  • "Diamonds are found only in the dark places of the earth; truths are found only in the depths of thought. It seemed to him, that, after having descended into these depths, after having long groped among the darkest of these shadows, he had at last found one of these diamonds, one of these truths, and that he now held it in his hand, and he was dazzled as he gazed upon it." (p.167)
At this point he realizes that if he's going to make a break, it has to be a clean break, so he goes to the hidden cupboard in his wall and removes the clothes he'd worn out of the galleys, and the bag and stick he'd carried as he passed through the Bishop's town, and tossed them in the fire. As they burned, he saw that forty-sou piece he'd stolen from Little Gervais the Savoyard. Valjean left it in the ashes.

And then he looked at those candlesticks. The wonderful Bishop, M. Welcome, had given them with the hopes that he'd become a Godly man. And they proved, as much as anything, that he was Valjean.

He threw them in the fire.


So then a voice within him started ranting at him, among other things, pointing out: "there will be around you many voices, which will make a great noise, which will talk very loud, and which will bless you, and only one which no one will hear, and which will curse you in the dark. Well! listen, infamous man! All those benedictions will fall back before they reach heaven, and only the malediction will ascend to God." (p.169)

Candlesticks, back out of the fire.

As Valjean continues his pacing, he notices his stuff. The table he likes to write at, the books he loves to read, the coffee he drinks each day. And there's the intangibles - the smiles of the children he gives toys to, fields full of chirping birds and sunshine, townspeople who admire and appreciate him. Instead, he would have ankle chains, convict clothes, random body searches, disrespectful address, and people who would point him out as the former mayor fallen low. Whippings. Derision. Toil.

  • "And do what he would, he always fell back upon the heartrending dilemma which lay at the foundation of his reverie: 'Should he remain in paradise and become a demon? Should he return to hell and become an angel?'    What was to be done? Great God! what was to be done?" (p.170)
Then he sleeps a little, and has a dream, which I'm skipping in my eternal protest against meaningful dreams in literature. Eventually his doorlady (I assume that's what a 'portress' is) wakes him to say a horse and cabriolet await him, which confuses him. What are they for again?

Oh, right.

The trip to confession. (Well, at this moment he's telling himself that there's no reason not to go to Arras, just to see the guy for himself. Purely so he can make a fully informed decision and all. It wouldn't endanger him just to go there.)

The next chapter is titled "Hindrances" and I'm going to try to catch all the things that interfere with Valjean's simple trek to Arras, which he thinks will take just a few hours:

  1. On the way out of M. sur M. the mail-wagons wheel spikes hit his wheel, which doesn't really bother him for the first five leagues, but two spokes and the hub are too damaged for him to continue.
  2. It would take all day to fix the wheel, no matter the financial incentive offered.
  3. There are no replacement wheels that will fit the axle in town.
  4. No one in town has an alternate cabriolet he can borrow, rent, or buy.
  5. The only spare vehicle would take two horses, and all the horses in town are in the fields and unable to be pulled from that work.
  6. He can't just ride the horse he got from M. sur M., because it's notoriously freaked by riders.
  7. Right after he figures that Providence is trying to stop him after all, an old woman comes up to say she has a rickety old spring-cart he can use. It's uncomfortable and damp and slow, but it works, so off he goes (failing, for once, to be generous with his tips to the kid who brought the old woman to him.)
  8. Carrying this cart is harder on the horse, and it's almost dark, and he has five leagues to go when he's told nope, it's actually seven. Road works mean he has to detour.
  9. He can't deal with the detour since he doesn't know the way and it's dark - maybe Providence wants him to give up again! But no, a stable-boy goes with him to show him the way.
  10. It's pitch dark and the horse is exhausted. The roads are horrible.
  11. The whiffle-tree on the harness? cart? (I dunno what a whiffle-tree is, but it sure is fun to say!) breaks, and the stable-boy suggests giving up, but Valjean fixes it with a branch and some rope.
  12. As he hears a clock strike seven, with an hour to go, it occurs to him that he doesn't even know what time the hearing was to take place. Probably it'll be over when they arrive.
  13. After 14 hours on the road, he stables the poor exhausted horse and sets off through the town, but not really knowing the way to go. So he wanders about, then asks a passing guy with a lantern, who happens to be headed just past the court-house.
  14. Normally the Assizes finish up by six, so probably he's too late. But look! It's after eight, and they're still in session.
  15. He asks a lawyer who says the case is closed, the prisoner got life! But it turns out that was a woman. Another case, of an apple thief, started just a couple of hours previously. (The lawyer notes what a criminal face Champmathieu has, BTW.)
  16. There's a massive crowd, so probably he can't get into the room to watch.
  17. The usher tells him there's no chance, standing room only.
  18. Except, well, actually behind the Président (who presides over the hearing), there are a couple of spots. But only public functionaries can sit there.
  19. Valjean turns away, starts to head off, but his inner voice prompts him to give a note with M. Madeline's name on it to the usher.
  20. "Although he did not suspect the fact, the mayor of M. sure M. enjoyed a sort of celebrity." (p.188) Therefore the Président is quick to admit this nice guy whose bounty is being spread far and wide in the area.
  21. The usher sticks him in an ante-chamber and says to just head through the next door to see the Assizes. "The supreme moment had arrived." (p.189)
Valjean stares blindly at the walls, paces, sweats, staggers, paces, heads in the opposite direction, is generally blind and deaf and dumb, but ends up back in the ante-chamber, looking at the knob to the court-room door. "He gazed at it as a lamb might gaze into the eye of a tiger." (p.190)

And in he went.

Corn-flowers ARE blue.
Take that, violets!
(Meanwhile, back in the hospital, Fantine is fretting mightily that M. Madeline didn't show up for his usual visit. The sisters try to keep news of his absence from her - no one knows where he's gone, just that he expected to travel 20 leagues - but she finds out. She's overjoyed because she's convinced he's gone to fetch her daughter. Oh, poor Fantine.) (And she starts singing plaintive songs, not, as you'd expect, about castles on clouds, but "Roses are pink, corn-flowers are blue, I love my love, and corn-flowers are blue," which will be on all my Valentine's from here on out.) (Fantine expects to die the next day, but she'll have seen Cosette first, so she's calm about it.)

Valjean can't help looking instantly at the convict. "He thought he was looking at himself, grown old; not absolutely the same in face, of course, but exactly similar in attitude and aspect... full of hated, concealing his soul in that hideous mass of frightful thoughts which he had spent nineteen years in collecting on the floor of the prison." (p.190)

Now he's getting courtroom flashbacks, and contemplating the horror of becoming like Champmathieu again. Champmathieu, meanwhile, is putting forth his story that he was in Paris making wheels all that time, that's why no one local knew him during the time Valjean was in the galleys, and also he hadn't jumped over the wall and broken the apple tree, he'd just found the branch of fruit lying in the road, which wasn't stealing, and no one can prove otherwise, so the whole thing should be dismissed. The prosecution is having none of that, and brings back in the three convicts who had IDed him as Valjean. He wants to bring back Javert, too, but that good man had been dismissed to return to M. sur M. after his initial testimony. The prosecuting attorney is full of incredulity at Champmathieu's denials. He reads off Javert's statement swearing how evil a monster Valjean is, and asserting that the prisoner is Valjean. The court is clearly sympathising with his side.

  • "At that moment there was a movement just beside the Président; a voice was heard crying:- 'Brevet! Chenildieu! Cochepaille! look here!'  All who heard that voice were chilled, so lamentable and terrible was it...." (p.198) Everyone looks, and see Madeline standing there.
  • He's not quite as he was: "his hair, which had still been gray on his arrival in Arras, was now entirely white: it had turned white during the hour he had sat there." (p.198)
  • The three convicts are as befuddled as the rest of the courtroom. 
  • "M. Madeline turned towards the jury and the court and said in a gentle voice:- 'Gentlemen of the jury, order the prisoner to be released! Mr. Président, have me arrested. He is not the man whom you are in search of; it is I: I am Jean Valjean." (p.199)
The court officials communicate in the stunned and disbelieving silence, then ask if there's a doctor present. (My son's scout troop claims that if you have a heart attack on an airplane and there's no doctor or nurse on board, they'll intercom for an Eagle Scout. Maybe one of them could have helped Valjean at this point?)

Valjean says thanks but no thanks to the mad-house idea. "God, who is on high, looks down on what I am doing at this moment, and that suffices." (p.199) He says that although he's tried to be a good man, he is indeed the same guy who stole from the Bishop and Little Gervais, didn't register his papers at M. sur M., etc. He makes a speech pointing out that society is also to blame, not just for his criminal past but for that of others, since the only difference between the wretch Valjean and the beloved Madeline is the opportunities presented to them, the galleys vs. God's grace. Frankly, I think he's wasting his breath, since mostly everyone is still stunned and not really taking it all in.

After bemoaning that Javert is gone, he prompts the three convicts with info only the real Valjean would know about them, and gets them to make the positive ID. "The unhappy man turned to the spectators and the judges with a smile which still rends the hearts of all who saw it whenever they think of it. It was a smile of triumph; it was also a smile of despair." (p.200) (also, 20% of this book complete!)

No one remembers their jobs, their duties, the proper course of action to take. It's all too unreal. Still:

  • "...the whole crowd, as by a sort of electric revelation, understood instantly and at a single glance the simple and magnificent history of a man who was delivering himself up so that another man might not be condemned in his stead. The details, the hesitations, little possible oppositions, were swallowed up in that vast and luminous fact." (p.200)
  • Silence, so Valjean says, "I shall withdraw, since you do not arrest me. I have many things to do. The district-attorney knows who I am; he knows whither I am going; he can have me arrested when he likes." (p.200)
  • The crowds part, the door opens for him, and the newly-discovered Valjean makes his exit. 
  • Champmathieu is released, "in a state of stupefaction, thinking that all men are fold, and comprehending nothing of this vision." (p.201)
Wow. Big move, Valjean.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Building and Shifting and Rebuilding Again

Building Stories by Chris Ware
(Pantheon, 2012)
Format: it's a box. filled with 16 different, interrelated graphic booklets. mostly different formats. Anyway, I bought it, because sometimes, a gal's gotta spend hard-earned cash on her reading material. (her hard-earned gift card from her awesome friend.) (Thanks, A!)

From Goodreads: "Building Stories imagines the inhabitants of a three-story Chicago apartment building: a 30-something woman who has yet to find someone with whom to spend the rest of her life; a couple, possibly married, who wonder if they can bear each other's company another minute; and the building's landlady, an elderly woman who has lived alone for decades. Taking advantage of the absolute latest advances in wood pulp technology, Building Stories is a book with no deliberate beginning nor end, the scope, ambition, artistry and emotional prevarication beyond anything yet seen from this artist or in this medium, probably for good reason."

So, it's safe to say I'd never have picked this up if it weren't for the Tournament of Books. I do like graphic novels sometimes, but I don't seek them out - I just get them when strongly recommended. And this isn't a normal graphic novel. There's no explicit method of reading it - the books, fold-outs, broadsheets, etc. are packed in order of size, but of course as soon as you unpack them, you have to play with them and flip through to see all the variety and generally make a mess of it all, so it's not like you can keep them in order that way. 

I started with the one that's like a game board / blueprint of the building, then flipped around some of the smaller stuff, then wisely picked the one modeled on the Little Golden Books, which was, naturally, earlier source material about the woman with one leg who appears in most of the stories. She's the often-depressed-and-lonely woman who struggles with forming attachments, finding fulfilling work, and other 'lives of quiet desperation'-type issues while her downstairs neighbors fight (and make up) and her landlady sits quietly with a lifetime of secrets unshared, and the flowers by the front stoop grow and cross-pollinate and grow anew.

Some of these stories end a little hopefully, and many of them wrap around tragedies large and small. They focus on interior lives, the fictions we knowingly perpetuate, the futility of striving, the moments of happiness which are all too fragile. It's all very cyclical - when the building is knocked down, taking with it the stories of all who have lived there, another will arise and the lives within will be formed from the same building blocks as those who have come before. And that's a little grim, in its way, but also, sometimes, a comfort.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Baghdad Bureaucracy and Grim Humor

Fobbit by David Abrams
(Grove Press, 2012)
Format: Audio CDs via library (read by David Drummond)

From Goodreads: "Fobbit \’fä-bit\, noun. Definition: A U.S. soldier stationed at a Forward Operating Base who avoids combat by remaining at the base, esp. during Operation Iraqi Freedom (2003-2011). Pejorative.

In the satirical tradition of Catch-22 and M*A*S*H, Fobbit takes us into the chaotic world of Baghdad’s Forward Operating Base Triumph. The Forward Operating base, or FOB, is like the back-office of the battlefield – where people eat and sleep, and where a lot of soldiers have what looks suspiciously like an office job. Male and female soldiers are trying to find an empty Porta Potty in which to get acquainted, grunts are playing Xbox and watching NASCAR between missions, and a lot of the senior staff are more concerned about getting to the chow hall in time for the Friday night all-you-can-eat seafood special than worrying about little things like military strategy.

Darkly humorous and based on the author's own experiences in Iraq, Fobbit is a fantastic debut that shows us a behind-the-scenes portrait of the real Iraq war."

War is fun! Okay, perhaps war isn't fun. But Abrams sure is. He took his experiences in the Iraq war and swirled them in a layer of sarcasm, a sprinkling of humanity, and leavened it with all the absurdity at his disposal. And it's yummy. A bitter trifle, sweetened by excellent comic timing and a plot that grows, almost without the reader noticing, to one of those perfectly constructed moments of ironic narrative inevitability.

Two things about the characters: the primary narrative voice, Gooding, is far from foible-free, making sympathy with him something he really has to earn; and the secondary characters are deep enough, even the deeply flawed ones, to avoid caricaturization and blanket ridicule. Everyone has someone who loved him once, or the intention to behave properly, or something real and redeeming about him. And as much as the grunts outside of FOB Triumph dealing with daily life on the streets of Baghdad might look askance at the Fobbits in the air conditioning of Saddam's former palace, Abrams gives the back-office set enough of a purpose to somewhat balance the often ridiculous bureaucratic shell game they tend to be playing, day in and day out.

Some readers might tire of the constantly sarcastic tone, unless they're listening to Drummond's narration, when they will instead be laughing, then laughing, then laughing some more. Each character's distinctive, carefully planned (I have to presume) and perfectly gauged voice is a gem. He's also finely tracing, with his tone, the journey from, for example, writing an early press release about a KIA soldier, with all the fresh horror of the danger outside the gates and gruesome photos in the in-box uppermost, to the ennui of the third or fourth such report in a shift, when it's all about carefully parsing how much of a presence the Iraqi forces should be reported as having in the latest incident. Drummond and Abrams are one of those perfect narrator-author pairings, and I'm so glad I listened to this title as I tackled the Tournament of Books. Much as I gobbled up Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, I hope that Fobbit beats it into the play-in round, because I'd love to engage in more conversations about it. (I haven't read the 3rd option, Kevin Powers's The Yellow Birds, so I kinda also hope that makes it, which would give me a push to move it up my TBR list.) (Not that my TBR list isn't a megalith dominating my bedside already.) (But enough about me. Get Fobbit on audio. Enjoy!)

Friday, March 1, 2013

Disappearing Genius and Suburban Warfare

Where'd You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple
(Little, Brown & Company, 2012)
Format: audio download via library (narrated by Kathleen Wilhoite)

From Goodreads: "Bernadette Fox is notorious. To her Microsoft-guru husband, she's a fearlessly opinionated partner; to fellow private-school mothers in Seattle, she's a disgrace; to design mavens, she's a revolutionary architect, and to 15-year-old Bee, she is a best friend and, simply, Mom. 
Then Bernadette disappears. It began when Bee aced her report card and claimed her promised reward: a family trip to Antarctica. But Bernadette's intensifying allergy to Seattle--and people in general--has made her so agoraphobic that a virtual assistant in India now runs her most basic errands. A trip to the end of the earth is problematic. 
To find her mother, Bee compiles email messages, official documents, secret correspondence--creating a compulsively readable and touching novel about misplaced genius and a mother and daughter's role in an absurd world."

(Sorry, Empty Child reference - favorite Doctor Who quote of my sons & mine. Kind of a fun echo between the gas mask kid and the book cover, though, right?)

This is so readable a compilation of the source documents young Bee compiles in her efforts to find out where, exactly, her mother (the titular Bernadette) has gone. Bee's voice is on the line of naiveté, but her gradual awakening to a broader understanding of her doting, almost coddling parents is her internal journey. Her actual journey - the family trip to Antarctica that was the straw that broke Bernadette's hold on what she tried to call normalcy - is a hard-won and significant journey, as well. I loved the way Semple (via Bee) arranges all of the emails, invoices, memos, articles, and other documents to tell the Fox's story, which builds to unexpected and fun places.

It's hard to put down, it stays with you, and it has a lot to say about genius, identity, community, and family. Plus, sarcasm. Lovely, lovely sarcasm. Not that I've ever had cause to make slightly snarky comments about über-parents in the suburbs or anything. (Love you all! Thanks for all you do to make our schools shine! But you scare me some.) And the payoff between Bernadette and her self-appointed arch-enemy Audrey takes the sting out. Somewhat.

Wilhoite gives Bee a touch too much lisp and verve at times, but also the wry tone that suits the teen. I really like what she does with the adults, especially Bernadette and Audrey. Bernadette's ennui regarding her community clashes brilliantly with Audrey's self-satisfaction.