Les Misérables

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Okay, guys.

I did it. I finished Les Misérables. I convinced my mom to buy me this book just after we went to see the musical. In 2013. I literally got this book before I even started dating my husband. We have a baby now. This book took me 3 years to read. It is long. It is wordy. It is incredibly dense, complicated, and detailed.

And it was totally worth it. There are some books that I’m like, “Well, yeah – I read it because it’s a classic.” And I probably wouldn’t have finished it otherwise. (The Sound and the Fury, I’m lookin’ at you.) There are other classics, like Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, that I finally just said to heck with, and took back to the used bookstore. I only have one life to live. I don’t need to spend it pretending to like Walt Whitman. But I read The Hunchback of Notre Dame once upon a time, and it was amazing, so I stuck it out with Les Mis. And it was totally, 100% worth it.

Victor Hugo tells so much, so well, and with such beautiful prose, that it astounds me. This man had no “delete” key. As far as I’m aware, he didn’t even have an eraser. And somehow, he manages to have a side-story for every single extra character in the entire book (which is nearly a thousand pages), and just when you think you’re never going to see that person again, you realize they’re pivotal. It’s incredible.

He writes romance in an extremely sappy way, but makes it somehow bearable and even (gasp!) romantic. (For me, this is a big deal. I usually gag when I read romance.) He writes war and general violence incredibly well. He writes poverty so well you can see the fleas jumping off of people. If you loved the musical, or you love France, or you love poetic or romantic literature, read this book.

Having said that, don’t read this book if you don’t like long books. Because it’s crazy long. Also, I need to learn a lot about French history before I go rereading it. I know nothing about the historical context here.

Also don’t read this book if you find yourself disliking Hugo’s writing style. The entire reason to stick around is because of his style. Granted, the first 60 pages or so are a little slow and almost irrelevant – so don’t judge it right off the bat. But don’t force yourself through 900 pages of someone you don’t like.

I would give this book 5 stars, but only recommend it to someone who is willing to wade (and wait) through a lot of good writing. ♥

 

The Turn of the Screw

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The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James, is a classic horror novel. For some reason, I always thought it was a book about torture, similar to Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum.” I think I was taking the title a little too literally… and morbidly.

At any rate, I picked up a copy while wandering at Pioneer, read the back cover, and discovered that it was actually a ghost story – and it looked like a good one! Awesome! I ignored the 80’s illustration on the cover and bought the book anyway.

The Turn of the Screw turned out to be a very suspenseful, fast-paced horror story about a governess who starts seeing strangers around the house. Then she finds out the strangers used to work at the house… until they died. Then she realizes that the children can also see the ghosts, but they don’t want her to know that, which means the children actually want the ghosts to haunt them. And the children keep doing weird things to arrange private meetings with the ghosts (and without their governess.) Complicating all of this, the governess was instructed that she was never to communicate with her employer, under any circumstances. Also, she couldn’t really tell him anyway, because the kids won’t admit they see anything, so everyone would just call her crazy.

The book has a good balance of suspense, horror, and what-the-crap-is-going-on. It also does a good job of keeping the question open: is she haunted, or is she crazy?

SPOILER ALERT – here’s the problem: the “plot twist” at the end is that you never find out whether she’s haunted or crazy. That’s it. That’s the only plot twist. I mean, I was reading this, thinking, “Oh, man. Maybe the ghosts are gonna get the kids. Maybe the ghosts are good, and that’s why the kids want them. Maybe the kids killed the ghosts, and that’s why the ghosts are haunting them. Maybe the kids are gonna help the ghosts kill the governess. Maybe this other maid lady is dead, too, but nobody’s telling the governess. Maybe- maybe- maybe”…. I had a million maybes. And the problem is that all of my maybes were more interesting than the actual end of the book. Maybe I read too much weird horror. And maybe I just expect too much from a plot twist. But seriously – I could rewrite the last three pages of this book about 7 times, and come up with 7 better ways to end the book.

It’s kind of like riding a roller coaster slowly to the very top of the theme park, looking down over the precipice, feeling your breath catch in your throat, and then having the ride stop and the operator telling you to get out. Not because the roller coaster was broken – just because the entire ride was the suspense. You never actually get to experience the rest of the roller coaster.

I would recommend reading the book I’m considering writing based on this book. Once I figure out which ending to put in it. Sheesh. I understand why it’s popular – but the ending is a drag. ♦

Surprised by Joy

I love C.S. Lewis. I loved The Chronicles of Narnia, I loved The Abolition of Man, I loved Mere Christianity, and I picked up his autobiographical conversion story because I love the way he views Christianity – surely, I would love hearing about his conversion.

The book is called Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life, and the version I picked up has some of the weirdest cover art illustrations I think I’ve ever seen (and I work for a bookstore!) But hey – never judge a book by its cover, right?

surprised by joy

Seriously – who designed this?

It started off a little dry, talking a lot about his early childhood, how much he loved solitude and reading, and how hard it was to get along well with his father, who was a well-meaning man but a bad listener. I muscled through.

Then he talked about his boyhood days at a boarding school, which was miserable, and then his teenage days at another boarding school, where apparently they were required to play sports (which he hated) and some of the boys pimped themselves out to those who were most sexually frustrated (which he sees in retrospect as sinful, but apparently isn’t concerned about abuse at all).  I muscled through.

Then things got Classical. Lewis spent a lot of time obsessed with Norse mythology, (about which I know little more than the Avengers has taught me), learning Greek and Latin (I once took a Latin class and nearly failed out of college), and a whole lot of classics I’ve never even touched. Some of them I haven’t even heard of. At this point, Lewis felt “joy” – a kind of beautiful longing for something spiritual – but didn’t really understand it.

Then things got Philosophical. At this point, I completely had no idea what the man was talking about anymore. I feel like I got plunged into a think tank full of classical literature professors – the kind who keep lapsing into medieval Latin phrases and making punny jokes in Greek – and I never got a chance to come up to the surface and breathe.

Here’s the problem: the book is about Lewis’s conversion to Christianity. But his conversion, as far as I understand it, came through a series of classroom experiences where he kept comparing philosophies and realizing they all came short. And I simply haven’t taken the prerequisites to understand this process. And he seems to assume that everyone else has taken the prerequisites.

To be fair, he was educated in Britain in a very Classics-heavy time period, and I was educated in modern American public school. I can type 100 wpm, but don’t ask me about the Aeneid.

Still – the thing was so obscure that I can’t tell you why C.S. Lewis became a Christian. He apparently had some philosophical journey that resulted in a belief in God, then a belief in Christ. Most or all of it was logical. Little to none of it was emotional. My religious experience is completely different from his, because my personality is completely different from his.

The biggest takeaway message I took from this book was this: I love Lewis’s essays. He explains Christianity to others so well it’s ridiculous. But we would not have gotten along on a personal level. In fact, I don’t even know if we would have had a clue what the other was saying.

I highly recommend any other book by C.S. Lewis. But not this one. ♦

Dracula

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If you haven’t read Dracula, go smack yourself in the head. Then take a long, hot bath and rethink your life. And while you’re at it, bring a copy of Dracula to read in the bathtub.

Dracula is the reason I can’t take Twilight seriously. Because every time someone says a vampire is “hot,” “sexy,” “dreamy,” or any other synonym for “attractive,” I’m like, “Right, but brutal, abusive, hypnotic serial killer. Did you forget those adjectives?”

Because those adjectives are really what vampires are all about. Food. Vampires are about food. And food is blood. Human blood, to be precise. And any attachment a vampire might have to a particular victim is more of a farmer/pig mentality: if I keep you alive longer, you’ll make me more blood. Any sympathies you might have for vampires go out the window pretty early on in Dracula, when the Count throws his three “wives” a bag with a human baby in it for dinner. And then the baby’s mom comes wailing to his doorstep, demanding her baby back, so he sics the wolves on her and they rip her to shreds, because who has time for whiny women banging on your door? He doesn’t even bother eating her.

This vampire is decidedly a villain.

Also, this vampire is one of the first to join English literature (I think technically Carmilla came first). And he’s definitely the best-known. So if you like horror, pick it up. It’s one of my favorites. ♦

Uncle Remus

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I found Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus at the thrift store, for cheap-as-free, and picked it up. Then I put it down for a few months before I really got around to finishing it.

Here’s the thing – I remember reading Uncle Remus stories when I was little, and they were great! Brer Rabbit somehow always outfoxed Brer Fox, and I loved looking at the illustrations. What I didn’t know was that Uncle Remus has been redone over and over and over again, and what I was reading was a translation of the original.

The original Uncle Remus caught me by surprise – I thought it was downright racist at first. After reading a little more about Joel Chandler Harris, however, I realized this is more along the lines of Grimm’s Fairy Tales than a racial stereotype – Harris recorded the stories as he heard them, from the mouths of former slaves. And while a White-recorded book of Black mythology is going to have a bias, I feel like this collection is still historically important.

But, for heaven’s sake, get a new translation. I had to read each story painstakingly out loud (which included some foul language on accident), because Harris spelled things phonetically… sort of. It’s all written in Ebonics – but it’s 150 years old, so there’s a lot of phrases, pronunciations, and customs that just don’t make any sense. My recommendation: find a nice, well-illustrated copy that’s written in plain English. ♦

Bad Book Descriptions

For a few months while I worked as an editor, my sole job was to come up with book summaries. You know the kind – like the blurbs on the back of the book that are supposed to convince you to buy it by telling you what it’s about, but without any spoilers. And since the ones I was working on were going to be used in even smaller spaces, they were usually only a few sentences long.

I got to thinking this morning (in the shower, of course. All good thinking happens in the shower) that you could completely ruin a story by accurately describing just the wrong parts of a book. For example, Beauty and the Beast is a beautiful story about finding love beneath the shallow appearance of a person. Unless you make it about Stockholm Syndrome. Then it gets pretty creepy pretty fast.

So here’s what I came up with today.

Twilight
A high-schooler goes to prom with an old man.

Jane Eyre
A teenage girl falls in love with her employer, but flees when he tries to make her his polygamous wife. All ends happily after his first wife sets herself on fire.

Dracula
A real-estate agent and his wife consult professional help in their fear of close contact with a dead body.

To Kill a Mockingbird
A group of children learn about rape and make fun of a handicapped man, who stabs a man with an aversion to giant ham.

Lord of the Flies
English schoolboys form rival gangs and beat each other up.

The Outsiders
High school students team up to hate each other collectively.

Hamlet
A man fakes insanity in an unsuccessful effort to solve his family problems.

Romeo and Juliet
Two teenagers fall in love and then die.

The Awakening
A repressed woman dies of feminism.

A Christmas Carol
Vivid hallucinations greatly improve the character of an old miser.

Peter Pan
Vindictive pirates fight the perpetually immature.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame
An ugly man falls in love with a 16-year-old, who is killed for refusing to sleep with a clergyman.

Of Mice and Men
A man shoots his best friend after promising to buy him a rabbit.

Frankenstein
After refusing to act as a wing-man, a scientist finds his family at the mercy of a serial killer.

The Count of Monte Cristo
A man ruins his life to get back at the man who ruined his life.

Winnie-the-Pooh and Some Bees
An unsuccessful thief is shot at by his friend after getting high as a kite.

The Little Prince
A stifled artist discovers that imagination is more valuable than desert survival skills.

Alice in Wonderland
A little girl follows a rabbit through a series of near-death experiences.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
A young man decides to burn in Hell rather than return to school.

Moby-Dick
A crippled sea captain refuses to learn from his mistakes.

The Hunger Games
A teenage girl beats the government system by dating her rival.

The Lord of the Rings
A group of old men overcome racial differences to take on the world’s most powerful jeweler.

Jurassic Park
Futuristic zoo owners learn the value of a good electrician.

The Three Musketeers
Vigilantes embark on a murderous spree to protect the reputation of an unfaithful woman.

1984
A man pursues an illicit love affair and narrowly escapes being eaten by rats.

The Scarlet Letter
Guilt causes a miraculous skin condition in an adulterer.

The Scarlet Pimpernel
All of France is fooled by terrible disguises and thinly-veiled poetry.

The Giver
A 12-year-old misfit realizes he is not colorblind and steals a baby to escape the dangers of Communism.

Beowulf
Drunken revelers kill off an endangered species.

Holes
A desert harlot starts a slave-labor camp.

Ender’s Game
8-year-old commits genocide.

Sherlock Holmes
Eccentric drug addict makes condescending remarks to policemen.

What are your favorite books? ♥

Beowulf

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I found out only recently that my dad used to tell me stories from Beowulf when I was a kid. Like, three. He told a three-year-old about Beowulf ripping the arm off of a monster. I don’t remember these stories, so either I was tougher than I make myself out to be, or I just blocked out the memories. Either way, I turned out functional, right?

I recently found a Perma-Bound version of Beowulf at a thrift store for only a dollar, and I bought it on the spot. And read it over the next two days or so. I was surprised – I had always grown up hearing, in and out of English class, that Beowulf was the oldest English poem we had, that it was this great epic poem, yadda yadda yadda… I assumed it would take me months to finish. But it turned out to be around 150 pages in all, in fairly readable verse. It was an easy read.

My copy was translated by Burton Raffel, by the way. It was extremely readable, and beautifully poetic. Check out a few lines about setting King Shild’s funeral boat afloat:

“High up over his head they flew
His shining banner, then sadly let
The water pull at the ship, watched it
Slowly sliding to where neither rulers
Nor heroes nor anyone can say whose hands
Opened to take that motionless cargo.”

That’s good poetry! Anyways. I cheated (?) and skipped the introduction and afterward, which were chock-full of the kind of details about translation, rhyme, rhythm, and meter from all those English classes that had me convinced that this was going to be a ridiculously hard read. But the story itself is a good adventure full of monsters, dragons, and derring-do. And it only took a few hours to read, in total. ♦