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Archive for September, 2012

Housekeeping matters: I am reading the Penguin Classics print edition, translated by Norman Denney. This edition lacks the scholarly introduction usually contained in the Penguin Classics editions, but does have a note from the translator, explaining his general theory of translation. This is the only edition I have ever read, so I am certainly not in a position to compare the Denney translation versus some of the other available versions, but I will say that I am very much enjoying this version. It is very fluid and readable. I also want to thank Tien for hosting this readalong. I am a bit blog challenged, and can’t figure out how to properly link, but if you are interested in checking out her blog (and I highly recommend that you do) she is on my blogroll.

The first volume of the book introduces us to two major characters: Jean Valjean and Fantine. It opens, however, by focusing on Bishop Myriel, who is a brief, but important, part of the book. Tien has provided us with some discussion questions, which I will deal with first, and then I will just post my overall thoughts about Volume I of Victor Hugo’s masterwork.

What do you think of Bishop Myriel? He’s definitely described as being truly saintly; I’m wondering if there’s any pessimistic reader out there?

I am not a pessimist about Bishop Myriel. I find it refreshing that Hugo has written such an unequivocally positive religious character. He appears to be, truly, a genuinely self-sacrificing man, who is doing things, not because it will make him look good in the eyes of his parishioners, but because he is genuinely altruistic. There was a great deal of hypocrisy amongst the church during this time period, but there must also have been men like Bishop Myriel.

I found the interaction between Valjean and Myriel very touching. It reminded me very strongly of the story of the prodigal son from the Bible. If he were asked, I believe that Myriel would consider the redemption of Jean Valjean to be one of his greatest (if not his greatest) accomplishments.

For those of you who are reading this for the first time, was there any assumptions you have made previously from whatever source which was just incorrect? Was there anything which surprises you from the past week’s readings?

My knowledge of this story was very basic before I began reading. I saw the musical years ago, but I actually remember very little about it other than the incredible music! I can say that my impression of Javert was very simplistic based upon his treatment in the musical version. He is a more complex character than I realized. In addition, Jean Valjean is not quite so simple either. He has a dark side that I’m not sure was really explored in the musical, and was very much a character in need of redemption. He could have gone either way at the moment that he was confronted with his choices, and going in the direction of good wasn’t a foregone conclusion. I like the fact that both of these characters are more complex and less cardboard-cut-out than I had previously realized.

What do you think of the contrast between Javert & Valjean?

This is sort of addressed in the prior paragraphs. Popular impression of this book is that Valjean is good and Javert is bad. The reality of the book is not nearly so simple.

What has been the high point for you this week? Any quote/s which bowled you over this week?

There were two high points for me in this section of the book: first, the scene between Myriel and Valjean, which I have already mentioned. I loved the part where that I remember best from that scene was where Myriel tells Valjean that he has bought back his soul.

The second high point for me was Hugo’s treatment of Fantine, and where he says: “What is the true story of Fantine? It is the story of society’s purchase of a slave. A slave purchased from poverty, hunger, cold, loneliness, defencelessness, destitution. A squalid bargain, a human soul for a hunk of bread” at page 180. This will lead me to some of the broader themes that I want to talk about.

One of the reasons that I love reading classic literature is that it explores important themes. That a book written and published in 1862 could be timely today is always something that astonishes me. And yet, this book is timely, and for two main reasons.

This era of French history was an era where society lacked any safety net for the poor, the impoverished, the “miserables” of society. Valjean provides a pointed example of this: he ended up serving a 19 year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread to feed children. It cannot be denied that the inequities of French society were great. In an era of increasing inequality and increasing assaults on the safety net in my own country, reading a book like this provides a reality check. Humanity is capable of tossing the weakest members out of the social compact. We must guard against losing our compassion, as society lost compassion for Fantine and for Jean Valjean. Their crimes were not so great that they deserved to be discarded as worthless.

As a woman, the story of Fantine is equally (if not more) important to me. The oppression of women is a constant theme in Victorian literature, and let us make no mistake about it: Fantine was punished as though she were a criminal for the “crime” of unchastity, while her partner was free to discard her without suffering any ill-effects whatsoever. There was no access to reliable birth control in those days, and women suffered for it. In my opinion, the single most important thing that separates modern women from the fate of Fantine isn’t our ability to vote, or our ability to own property. It is unrestricted access to reliable, personal, and private birth control, and our ability to chart our own reproductive destinies. I don’t want to go off on a political rant, but there are forces at work in my nation that want to change this, that would, perhaps not send us back to the fate of Fantine, but which would diminish our ability to decide if, and when, we have children. This theme is constant in the literature of the past because it is important. It is best to be reminded, frequently, how things once were because, as the saying goes: those who do not understand history are doomed to repeat it.

Les Miserables is the history of France, but it is also the history of the world.

Anyway, I am very much enjoying Les Miserables. Victor Hugo was an unrepetant critic of human society. I look forward to the section on Cosette.

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In addition to the various readalongs and the classics I’ve been reading, I read some newer books. September was a phenomenal month for new releases in the Young Adult category. I am lucky enough to have a group of close friends who share a book club account on amazon, to which we each contribute a $25.00 gift card every month. This gives us an enormous amount of buying power. Each participant has the opportunity to pick one book for purchase, no questions asked, and then we propose, discuss, negotiate, and select the rest of the books we are going to buy through a process in a goodreads group that is almost as much fun as reading the books themselves.

So, a couple of rapid recaps: Shadowfell by Juliet Marillier, which was released on September 11, was my September pick. I love Juliet Marillier – her books manage to be both fantastical and familiar simultaneously. I think that it is her use of Celtic legend and ancient Irish/Scottish settings that provides that sense of dreamy familiarity, but whatever it is, I love it. Shadowfell is not her best work, but it is still a well-told tale with an appealing heroine, and a strong and compelling hero.

Marillier’s stories often have elements of chaste romance, and this was no exception. Neryn, the main character, and Flint, the male lead, have a lovely developing relationship that is sure to be further developed in the forthcoming additions to the series. Marillier is an auto-buy for me at this time, based in large part on her gorgeously written retelling of the Six Swans fairytale, Daughter of the Forest, which begins her Sevenwaters series. Daughter of the Forest and Son of the Shadows are exceptional books. The downside to buying and devouring the first in a series upon it’s release is the waiting that ensues upon setting the book down after finishing it!

I also read Masque of the Red Death by Bethany Griffin, which had been on my kindle for a while. The cover is absolutely gorgeous, and it is a retelling of the rather famous, albeit very short, story written by Edgar Allen Poe. This one had a lot of potential: elements of horror, steampunk, and dystopia, all wrapped in a fairly glittery YA package. It rather failed in the execution, though, in my opinion. Not a bad book, but it dragged in places, the main character wasn’t particularly likeable, and Ms. Griffin fell into the must-write-a-YA-love-triangle trap that seems so ubiquitous at this point. I have gotten to the point of really hating the YA love triangle because it is so overdone, and, in this book, neither of the love interests were particularly compelling. The villain, Prince Prospero, was also one-dimension of evil.

I had not read Poe’s famous story before reading this book, but I picked up a Poe anthology after reading it so I could compare it to the source material. The Masque of the Red Death by Poe is a very short story, about 5 pages long. It did have a lot of potential as something to mine. The book by Ms. Griffin seemed almost to be a prequel to the story. I am not sure that there was enough content to the Griffin book to sustain a series. It wasn’t a bad book, but it also wasn’t a great one.

Four more September releases waiting for me on my kindle! I love Maggie Stiefvater, and The Raven Boys is up next

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The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was originally published in 1900 by L. Frank Baum, and is the first in his Oz series.

What was happening – literarily – in 1900? Oscar Wilde and Friedrich Nietzche died, Zelda Fitzgerald and Margaret Mitchell were born, and Winston Churchill wrote a memoir of his experience in the Boer War.

This book is one of the few books that is actually less complicated than the film it inspired. Most people have likely seen the movie, commensurately fewer of them have actually read the book. Reading the book is interesting after having seen the movie. First, the iconic items from the movie – the ruby slippers – aren’t ruby at all in the book. They are silver. A second important talismanic object that figures in the book is a golden cap, which doesn’t come into the movie at all (maybe it would’ve messed up Judy Garland’s hair?). Dorothy is ten, a child, and not a young woman on the cusp of adulthood, as she was depicted in the movie.

The most important distinction between the movie and the book, though, is that in the book, Oz is not a fevered figment of Dorothy’s imagination. The book does not delve into Dorothy’s psychology. There are no parallels between characters from Kansas appearing in Oz – the witch is just a witch, not a mean neighbor, and the scarecrow is just a scarecrow, not a counterpoint to the hired man who is a friend of Dorothy’s. At it’s core, it is a children’s story about a world apart to which she is carried by a tornado.

I’m not saying that the book isn’t meaningful. It was among the first American books published for specifically for children. Dorothy, 10 years old, had British counterparts in Alice and Wendy Darling from Peter Pan, but the Wizard of Oz is more simply a fairy story for children than either Alice in Wonderland or Peter Pan. It is delightful to read – Baum’s imagination is prodigious, and Oz is a wonderful place, a vividly rendered counterpoint to the grey Kansas that Dorothy left behind but yearns to return to. It is a book about love, and about the fact that love is what makes a place lovely.

I liked it for what it was – a simple fantasy story about a girl who is lost and has to find her way home. I’m not sure that I’ll ever read the sequels, but I’m not sorry that I read this one.

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Weekend Update

As I had hoped to do before starting the Les Miserables readalong, I finished The Pickwick Papers. One of my R.I.P. VII reads is done & blogged. I have finished my reread of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s stone for the Harry Potter read along, and am ready to move on to Chamber of Secrets.

I did start Les Mis this morning, reading the very brief introduction from the translator (really more “notes on the translation” than anything else) and got started on the first few chapters. I am also ready to start on my second classics list & have my 1900 book ready to go: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. This should be a good one to read along with Les Mis, since it looks to be much lighter.

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I want to party with Pickwick

From Goodreads:

Few first novels have created as much popular excitement as The Pickwick Papers – a comic masterpiece that catapulted its twenty-four-year-old author to immediate fame. Readers were captivated by the adventures of the poet Snodgrass, the lover Tupman, the sportsman Winkle and, above all, by that quintessentially English Quixote, Mr Pickwick, and his cockney Sancho Panza, Sam Weller. From the hallowed turf of Dingley Dell Cricket Club to the unholy fracas of the Eatanswill election, via the Fleet debtor’s prison, characters and incidents sprang to life from Dickens’s pen, to form an enduringly popular work of ebullient humour and literary invention

Discussion

Dicken’s first novel was published in 19 serial installments from March, 1836 through October, 1837. It was wildly popular, and in many ways transformed serial publishing in England from a type of fiction in which the picture plates took priority, to fiction where the narrative gained precedence.

The Pickwick Papers is, above all, good, clean fun. It is more or less plotless, a roaming, picaresque adventure story of the titular Pickwick and his friends, Nathanial Winkle, Tracy Tupman, and Augustus Snodgrass, and their exploits as they take a number of trips out of London into the countryside. Chapter 10 introduces Sam Weller – he of the reversed “w” and “v” (it’s wery, not very, and Veller, not Weller) – who ends up being much more than merely a manservant to Mr. Pickwick.

The Pickwick Papers is sort of like Victorian comfort food. One of my first experiences with Pickwick occurred through reading Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. The four March girls are, apparently, great fans of Dickens and the Pickwickians and there is a scene in Little Women that has each of the sisters playing one of the four primary characters, with Jo, of course, as Mr. Pickwick himself.

In The Pickwick Papers, Dickens either ignores many of the more serious aspects of his later works, or treats them lightheartedly. Mr. Pickwick spends time in a debtor’s prison, but the reader scarcely realizes that it is an unpleasant place, as he emerges more or less unscathed from his time there. The legal system, which is skewered and satirized in his later works, especially Bleak House is, in this book, shown to be ridiculous through the action at law brought against Pickwick by his landlady, who alleges a breach of promise of marriage. But again, this is a lighthearted treatment, without the scathing undercurrent of deep discontent and even anger that the later Dickens novels display.

I will probably do an entirely separate post on Dickens and the names of people and places in his books. Few writers in the history of literature have had such a facility with names, aside from – perhaps – J.K. Rowling, who obviously owes an enormous debt to Dickens. In The Pickwick Papers, we have Muggleton (which does beg the question of whether or not Ms. Rowling took this word from Mr. Dickens) and Eatanswill, both towns visited by Mr. Pickwick and friends. Alfred Jingle is, sort of, the villain of the piece: a duplicitous actor and teller of tales. There is a young man by the name of Mutanhed, who is deserving of the appellation as he is very much muttonheaded.

I do want to make a brief mention of the food and drink in this book. It is easy to want to party with the Pickwickians, as they seem to be continually eating and drinking. At some point this weekend, I’m planning on writing a follow-up post to this one that goes into more detail about this aspect of the book. Dickens is a descriptive writer, and his descriptions of the food and drink of the Victorian era are, to say the very least, appealing.

Reading The Pickwick Papers is fun. It is a relatively easy introduction to Dickens, although, because it is a bit meandering, I did find myself bogging down from time to time.

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This was my first RIP VII read, and I loved it! Sarah Waters is an amazing author – I am so excited to have found someone with a fairly significant backlist to explore (especially because she is firmly amongst the living, so I can anticipate new books being released by her as well).

I love the cover of this book. I think it does a great job of hinting at the story contained within the covers, and as embarassing as it is to admit, I am attracted to a pretty covers. It is sometimes unfair, judging a book by it’s cover, but in this case, I definitely got what I expected. The image of the crumbling mansion, with the gloomy backdrop definitely provides a sense of atmosphere and foreboding.

Rather than providing a traditional review, I just want to talk a bit about the book, and what I liked about it. I’m not a big horror reader, but I do love a story with gothic attributes, which this one had in spades. I also love the time period of this book, which is set in postwar England during a period of intense social change, where the traditional divisions in English society are rapidly collapsing.

To start, Sarah Waters can write. Her sentences are often a thing of beauty, and her descriptive passages can be simply wonderful. She has an unerring sense of how to build suspense in the book as a whole, but also in smaller increments, in scenes within the book. There was a scene where we, the readers, are aware that something terrible is going to happen at a dinner party because the narrator had told us so in the chapter before the dinner party actually began. Ms. Waters expertly described the dinner party in all of it’s mundanity, while still managing to leave me on the edge of my seat as she built almost unbearable suspense as to when the terrible event would actually occur.

There is also the aspect of the unreliable narrator, Dr. Faraday. I often have very mixed emotions about the use of unreliable narrator, and sometimes feel that it didn’t really work for the story. In this book, though, the unreliable narrator works perfectly. Dr. Faraday is definitely not what he seems, and he is definitely not telling us the unvarnished and objective truth about the events at Hundreds Hall. And because she weaves him so convincingly, even at the end of the book, the reader is left a bit confounded. Rarely am I required to go back through, and think about a book, looking for the trail of breadcrumbs that was dropped by the author. With this book, I feel that I must put some distance between myself and the book, and then I am going to reread it and look, again, for all of those hints that I know Sarah Waters left me – some of which I caught, and some of which, I am certain I missed.

So, The Little Stranger is a simple ghost story. Or it isn’t. The Little Stranger is a psychologically compelling study of a madman. Or it isn’t. The Little Stranger is a description of a series of brilliantly executed murders. Or it isn’t. And that is what makes this book so amazing – any of these possibilities is left open (although I, of course, have my own opinion as to who, or what, The Little Stranger actually was) for the reader to think through at the end and come to his or her own conclusions.

A worthy read for R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril, indeed.

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Description from Goodreads:

Tragedy befalls the Carter family following an eventful visit from a Russian prince and a scandalous blackmail letter. The murder of Wally Carter is a bewildering mystery — how does one shoot a man crossing a narrow bridge without being near the murder weapon when it is fired? The analytical Inspector Hemingway reveals his unnerving talent for solving a fiendish problem.

My review:

Last year during the month of August, Sourcebooks put all of the electronic versions of Ms. Heyer’s books on sale for $1.99 on Smashwords, which Amazon quickly price matched. As a result, I ended up buying around 30 books. A number of them were her Regency style romances, but included in them was some historical fiction and two separate mystery series of 4 books each. I read some of the romances, then got sidetracked until last week, when I was looking for a mystery novel to read while I was working through The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens, from my classics club challenge.

No Wind of Blame is my first Heyer mystery, and is also the first in her Inspector Hemingway series. Overall, I enjoyed it, although I don’t think that her mysteries are as charming as her regencies, and I don’t think that she meets the standard of quality of some of the other writers of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, most particularly Dorothy Sayers.

But, in any event, this is a very light-hearted book. There is a murder that occurs about a quarter of the way into the book, and then Inspector Hemingway himself isn’t introduced until about halfway into the book. It is in the English Country House tradition of books, with a puzzle solution that has to be unraveled by our fine inspector from Scotland Yard. Because Inspector Hemingway is introduced rather late in the book, he remains a bit of a cipher. There is definitely not the same type of character development of the main detective in this book as would be seen in a book featuring Hercule Poirot or Peter Wimsey.

Many of the common themes from this era of detective fiction are found in this book. There is foreign royalty (a Russian Prince), a spendthrift, unfaithful husband, an unethical hanger-on, and a flighty drama queen. There is also a side story related to a romantic attachment between the handsome and somewhat staid young solicitor, Hugh, and the heroine of the book. Ms. Heyer does do a bit of bait and switch with this storyline, although it is fairly easy to see that coming. I would actually have liked to see more of the romance, since I really liked Hugh. The solution of the mystery is clever, but not very realistic.

This book would be good for fans of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, and although I can’t say that it is quite up to their standards, I did enjoy it enough that I followed it up by reading Envious Casca, Heyer’s second Inspector Hemingway mystery.

Star Rating: 3 stars

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