7 Deadly Sins (of Reading) Meme

I saw this meme pop up on my friend Lynn’s blog recently, and thought it would be a fun one to take for a spin!

GREED – What is your most inexpensive book?

That’s hard, because I regularly go to the Library Warehouse Sale to buy books for 50 cents…  Here’s one, not actually the most inexpensive but the most jaw-dropping “it’s really that cheap?” purchase: A Window in Thrums by J. M. Barrie, 1897 edition, with the lovely handwritten inscription “For Grandmother from Mary Eunice, December 25th 1898,” sold online for the ridiculously low price of…$2.62.  !!!

I kind of feel like Greed should really ask about my most expensive book…which is a massive, two-volume set on my favorite artist, William Bouguereau, one volume of which is almost entirely images of his gorgeous paintings…and it cost me $300.  It was a moment of madness in a museum gift shop–but I’m pretty sure this is THE definitive book on his work.  And I haven’t regretted it yet!

Now I just need to muster up the courage or madness to drop another $300 (or so) on a signed J. M. Barrie.  Signed L. M. Montgomery, sadly, is FAR out of my price range.

WRATH – What author do you have a love/hate relationship with?

Edgar Rice Burroughs comes to mind.  I love reading his books–I have over fifty of them!  But I sigh a lot about his pathetic heroines, a few of his books have some pretty appalling racism in them, and after reading a biography…yeah, I’m pretty sure Burroughs and I could not have been friends.

GLUTTONY – What book have you devoured over and over with no shame?

I Want to Go Home! by Gordon Korman.  I think by the time I was twelve, I had read it twelve times–and it stayed just as funny.

SLOTH – What book have you neglected reading due to laziness?

I neglected finishing Winston and Clementine, a collection of letters between Winston Churchill and his wife, for years.  And there’s no excuse, since I loved the first part that I read–then got distracted–and didn’t get back to it. But I finally got it read as part of my chunkster challenge last year.

PRIDE – What book do you talk most about to sound like an intellectual reader?

But I never name-drop books to sound intellectual… 😉  Actually, I really don’t, mostly because all my friends like fantasy and sci fi and we have too much shared reading experience to impress each other.  Although if I was going to name-drop, Les Miserables would probably be my best bet.

LUST – What attributes do you find attractive in male or female characters?

Give me a green-eyed book hero and I am lost.  Which is funny, because I don’t particularly look for that in actors or, you know, real life!  It’s strictly a book thing.  I also have kind of a thing for brooding heroes with hearts of gold (in books.  Ahem).

ENVY – What book would you most like to receive as a gift?

Yeah…I don’t know.  I have an Amazon wishlist, but nothing particularly jumps out as MORE desired than any other.  I’d actually really like the soundtrack of Once Upon a Forest, because I love the one song on the soundtrack that Michael Crawford sang but, um, I can’t quite bring myself to spend $25 for basically one song (well, three, I like two of the others…)  I’ll probably do it eventually, I’m just working up to it…but that’s not a book.  Though kind of on the subject, I’d be over the moon if someone gave me an autographed J. M. Barrie book!  And autographed L. M. Montgomery–I would be your best friend for life!

But I’ll feel friendly towards you too if you leave a comment with your answer to any of these questions! 🙂

Esmeralda of Notre Dame

Hunchback of Notre DameI’ve been working on intimidating books this year…and diving into shadowy mysteries and Gothic literature for RIP…so September was clearly the month for The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo.  I enjoyed it quite a lot–I had been thinking I might take a break and read something else in the middle.  Instead, I ended up being so engaged that I didn’t stop after all–even though I had the new Jacky Faber book arrive while I was reading (but that’s a topic for another review).

The copy I read mentions on the jacket flap that Hugo despised the title The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which only arrived for the English translation.  Hugo called it Notre Dame de Paris–1482.  Not so catchy, but more accurate.  The Hunchback is just one member of an ensemble cast, and if I was going to pick one character as the lead, it would have to be the gypsy Esmeralda–hence the title of this post!  Because it really is centered around Esmeralda…and the men around her.

After my experience with Les Mis, I felt comfortable skipping or skimming when Hugo seemed to be off-plot, which happened a lot in the first hundred or so pages.  In fact, the main character of the first section of the book (if there even is one), is Pierre Gringoire, a destitute poet, and the story didn’t really pick up for me until he reached the Court of Miracles, where live the gypsies and vagabonds of Paris.

This is one of those books that’s worth sticking with, though, as it really does improve as it goes (with a few side diversions into history or cultural background…but that’s Hugo).  Gringoire has an interesting adventure or two, then disappears for most of the book as we finally focus on beautiful Esmeralda, terrifyingly sinister Frollo, sad hunchback Quasimodo, and surprisingly awful Phoebus.  For all the cultural weight and the number of pages, it’s essentially a story of unrequited love: Frollo wants Esmeralda who wants Phoebus who doesn’t value her–and no one wants Quasimodo, who was struck to his core by one act of kindness Esmeralda showed him.

Esmeralda is the center of the story, in that all the other characters circle around her and the plot is mostly driven by how they feel about her.  I couldn’t get much sense of Esmeralda herself, though.  She’s something of a will o’ the wisp, always flitting about but we don’t get into her head much.  She almost irritatingly enamored of Phoebus, and it’s a shame that that becomes such a driving part of her character.  She could be fascinating, as an independent woman who makes her own way in the world, on her own terms.  In a sense Fantine of Les Mis is independent, but her life fell apart; Esmeralda is actually getting along fine.  We don’t get much of that, though.

I was also rather disappointed by the lack of relationship between Esmeralda and Quasimodo.  She does show him kindness once in an extreme situation, but later on she’s still deeply uncomfortable around him.  Oh well, I should have known Disney would make it all rosier!

And on that subject–for a man named after the Sungod, Phoebus was horrible!  I deeply missed Disney’s courageous, noble captain, when Hugo gives us instead a philandering cad who can’t actually remember Esmeralda’s name…

This may be weird, but I think I was most fascinated here by Frollo.  Hugo’s heroine may have left a bit to be desired, but you can trust him to provide a complex villain.  It shouldn’t be surprising that we descend into the depths of his sordid obsession and twisted desire for Esmeralda.  I mean, even Disney didn’t manage to clean that up entirely!  I was more surprised by how openly sordid and at times sensual the book was, considering the time of the writing…maybe I’m just used to restrained British Classics, and it’s different when the French were writing them?  🙂

So how about the not-actually-title-character?  Quasimodo reminded me SO much of Leroux’s Phantom.  And I think that was just me and my particular, um, interests.  Hugo’s Quasimodo is dark, at times hostile, but also coming from a place of deep sadness.  His hostility towards the world is founded on the world’s rejection of him and that makes me feel so very bad for him.  I love his love for the cathedral, and I was thrilled to see a line where he’s talking to his favorite gargoyle statue…and it’s heartbreaking that that line is, “Why can’t I too be made of stone?”  Sad sad sad.

And he’s also like Leroux’s Phantom in that I think they both had authors who didn’t realize what they’d created.  Leroux spent far more pages on Raoul than he did on the much more interesting Phantom, and Hugo could have given us more of Quasimodo and less of some others…but what we got was very good.

This is only about half as long as Les Mis (so, 500 pages…) and some parts require a bit of wading, but on the whole I thought it was an excellent, very readable story with extremely engaging characters–even if some were less likable than I had hoped!  Once the book gets into its stride, it’s also hugely exciting.  I read the last hundred pages straight-through.  And, of course, the ending is deeply tragic.

I’ll probably still watch the Disney movie more often than I’ll read Hugo 🙂 …but I did thoroughly enjoy reading the original.

Other reviews:
My Turn to Talk
The Yellow-Haired Reviewer
A Good Stopping Point
Anyone else?

Buy it here: The Hunchback of Notre-Dame

Saturday Snapshot: Quasimodo’s View of Paris

I’ve been reading The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo this week, so naturally I have the cathedral on the brain.  I already shared some photos in a previous Saturday Snapshot, though, so I had to come up with a new angle…like the view.

Notre Dame Views (2)The Seine and the Eiffel Tower, from one of Notre Dame’s towers.  I got lots of pictures of the Eiffel Tower and walked under it–I didn’t go up in it, because I was already planning to get the view from Notre Dame.

Notre Dame Views (3)This may look like a complete muddle of rooftops, but look for the gold statues near the center, with the blue dome behind them.  That’s the Opera Garnier, and what photography doesn’t manage to capture is how gloriously those statues seem to shine, even from a distance, even on a cloudy day.

Notre Dame Views (1)And this is not a view from the towers, but it is on a street a block away…  I wonder what Victor Hugo would think?

Visit West Metro Mommy for more Saturday Snapshots.  Have a great weekend!

What Are You Reading, Spooky September Edition

What Are You Reading SpookyI’ve begun properly plunging into spooky reads for Readers Imbibing Peril, and you can expect the reviews to start multiplying over the next few weeks!  I reread Catherynne Valente’s Fairyland books which I madly love, and collected several more dark and shadowy tales from the library.

I recently finished A Tale Dark and Grimm by Adam Gidwitz, a rather dark and, well, grim retelling of some more obscure Brothers Grimm tales.  Next, I’m midway through Doll Bones by Holly Black, which has been decidedly creepy so far!  I’m also reading a play version of The Phantom of the Opera–not the Webber one, but a different musical.  It was made into the Charles Dance miniseries, but without the songs, so I was curious to see the original script.

And then I have my big intimidating book of the month, The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo.  It’s actually relatively short, compared to Hugo’s Les Miserables…though most books are “short” relative to Les Mis!

Meanwhile on the screen, I’ve been indulging in lots of Hitchcock, continuing the spooky mood!

Have a wonderful weekend–and let me know what you’re reading.  🙂

What Are You Reading, RIP Edition

What Are You Reading RIPThis past week saw the launch of the latest reading challenge from Carl at Stainless Steep Droppings: the Readers Imbibing Peril autumn reading experience.  This one focuses on the darker side of books, like mysteries, gothic and horror.  Read my launch post here.

I expect my reading to get a bit more shadowy in coming weeks…though not so much just yet, because I have to get some of my shadowy reads from the library still!

Right now I’m midway through The Professor by Charlotte Bronte–because it’s Charlotte Bronte and I madly love Jane Eyre.  So far, I’m not quite sure if I like The Professor, but I like reading it…if that makes any sense!  There’s just something about how Bronte puts words together, and I can’t explain it beyond that.  I’m also reading Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain.  It’s a little heavy on the science but is still very readable and has really interesting insights, particularly about how society tends to favor the extrovert ideal…which may not be the right fit for all of us who like curling up alone with books!

Next up I plan to reread the wonderful, amazing, incredible The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, to be followed by its sequel, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There.  This, of course, is to prepare for the release of Book Three next month: The Girl Who Soared Above Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two.  I LOVE those titles!!  I’m counting these books for RIP too, with a creepy autumn scene in the first and lots of shadows in the second.

If it arrives soon enough from my library, I think I’ll read Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame in between the two Fairyland books.  I’ve been wanting to read it ever since I went to Notre Dame to see Quasi’s gargoyles–and even more since reading Les Miserables.  It’s another good one for RIP too, and for my goal to read more long and intimidating books!

A Hidden Magic by Vivian Vande Velde (new) and The Chessmen of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs (reread) are a couple I have on my shelf that I’ve been meaning to get to–and which ought to keep me busy if I finish the others while still waiting on the rest on my library’s hold list.

Speaking of which–I’m up to #44 in line for The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman.  I was #125 when I joined the list, and it’s since grown to 266…not that I’m keeping track or anything.

So much for me!  Visit Book Journey for other What Are You Reading posts.  And…what are you reading?

Les Miserables on Tour

Les Mis Musical (2)A few weeks ago, Les Miserables came to town.  I bought my ticket six months ago, because I was definitely not going to risk missing it!  The production was wonderful, and I’ve been meaning ever since to write up some thoughts.  Who knows–it might be coming to your town next!

Come to think of it, maybe this is an appropriate week for this review.  Wrong revolution, but…  🙂

I’ve previously reviewed the book by Victor Hugo (Parts One, Two and Three), the recent movie, and the London stage production.  I’m not actually obsessed with this story, just…fond of it.

In case you don’t know the plot at all, here’s the brief description I wrote for the London review: The plot is complex, but basically we’re following Jean Valjean, a former convict (for stealing a loaf of bread) who broke parole to try to remake his life, but is still being sought by Inspector Javert.  Valjean’s path intersects with Fantine, a woman who’s driven to prostitution in order to provide for her daughter.  Valjean ends up raising Fantine’s daughter, Cosette–whose path in turn intersects with Marius, a student who is in with a group of young revolutionaries, determined to rise up on behalf of the poor and downtrodden of France.

It was fascinating to see the stage production again, after seeing the movie and reading the book.  I felt like I was much more informed about some of the choices that were being made, or the extensive backstory addressed in just a few lines in the play.  It was also funny how vividly the London production came back to me while I was watching.  I was much farther back from the stage this time, so I found my mental pictures filling in the actors’ faces from London.

I was impressed by the staging and the set design, which in some ways felt like the biggest differences from London.  In London, it was largely minimalist and sometimes (as in the beginning with the convicts) settings were suggested more by pantomime than anything else.  It’s the exact opposite of what I’d expect–you’d think a play that’s permanently in one theater could have far more elaborate sets than a touring company!  Instead, this production had more present scenery, including buildings and backdrops and a dramatic landscape for the convicts to be working in.  There was just one staging decision I did not agree with at all…but I’ll get to that later on in the story.

Peter Lockyer as Valjean was…fine.  Which makes me feel like I’m damning with faint praise, but really he was…perfectly good in the role, he just oddly didn’t resonate with me.  He was quite good in “Who Am I?” which is one of my favorites, and otherwise, I find myself without any comments.

Andrew Varela as Javert, on the other hand, was excellent.  I especially loved “Stars.”  They staged it on the bridge over the Seine (from which he eventually jumps…), so I spent the whole time loving the layers of symbolism.  And he just delivered the emotion of the song so beautifully.

Fantine (Genevieve Leclerc) was absolutely wrenching in a completely different way than Anne Hathaway.  In fact, I noticed she sang “I Dreamed a Dream” very loud and dramatic, which I almost suspect was in deliberate contrast.  Very different–equally effective.  Her descent seemed particularly painful, somehow, maybe because it was so rapid–the space of one song, basically.  Something about having it on stage, no scene cuts, as she keeps stumbling on and off and comes back more disheveled and desperate each time…wow.  Heart-breaking.  And her first “customer” was the factory foreman, which was so subtle and so hideous and SO brilliant (and not done in London–I watched for it).  I feel like Fantine’s journey was possibly the most powerfully presented one, in this production (and I wouldn’t say that’s universally true).

Moving on ahead to second-half characters…Marius (Devin Ilaw) and Cosette (Julie Benko) got an interesting portrayal, as I felt like they were played to some extent for comedy.  Cosette had a kind of puppy-like eagerness in spots, and when Marius sang “I’m doing everything all wrong”–he meant it.  Since the Marius/Cosette romance is usually kind of a non-thing for me (in the play; the book is better), I’m all for getting some comedy in with them.

Eponine (Briana Carlson-Goodman) was another who just didn’t resonate.  No idea why–she’s one of my favorite characters, absolutely loved her in London and the movie, but have no real comments this time around.

Les Mis Musical (1)On the plus side, little Gavroche (Gaten Matarazzo) was absolutely splendid.  Cheeky, adorable, and present so often…it really conveyed the idea that he has his eyes on everything that’s going on, and he’s the one who really knows what’s what.  Enjolras (Jason Forbach) was excellent leading the revolutionaries.  Dramatic, impassioned, always ready with the fist-pump or raised rifle when the song needs that final dramatic push.  And I swear, I predicted the actor when I was looking at the program.  I was 0n the page with all the actors’ pictures (see photo) but no roles identified, and Forbach just looked like Enjolras to me.  I think it was the sweep of curly hair.  He’s in the middle, third row down.

I was also hugely impressed by Grantaire (Joseph Spieldenner).  He was only called by name once, so I had to look up character descriptions to make sure I had the right revolutionary!  He’s the cynical one, often drunk, ragging on Marius for his puppy-love and pointing out that they’re probably all going to die.  In a way he’s the sour note in the revolutionary fervor, but I find I have to love him for it.  He’s the voice of practicality–and he still stands with them when it counts.  And, he’s the one who’s close with Gavroche, and there was some really nice pairing of the two of them during crowd scenes.

This, I find, brings me to my one objection to the staging.  The barricade didn’t turn.  Those unfamiliar with the play will have no idea why this is important; those familiar with it, I hope you understand the problem!  (Spoilers here on…)  Incredibly important things happen on both sides of the barricade.  We have to see the revolutionaries behind it (which we did).  But in London, we also got to see Gavroche clamber over it, stealing ammunition from fallen soldiers–and falling himself.  Hearing it is just not the same.

The one redeeming aspect of the non-turning barricade was that, while we’re hearing Gavroche on his mission, we see Grantaire.  His reaction, falling to his knees as Gavroche’s song goes silent, almost sold me on the staging.  So, huge appreciation for Grantaire at that moment.  …but I still think it would have been better to turn the barricade.

No turning means we also lost Enjolras falling across the barricade with his flag.  Enjolras draped over the barricade, Gavroche lying below–that moment in London is so vivid in my mind.  They tried to compensate a bit here by having a moment of Javert looking at Enjolras and Gavroche as a cart carried their bodies away.  It was a moving moment–but just not the same.

All right, so much for that.  After the barricade, heading on towards the end, there was beautiful staging for “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables.”  All the revolutionaries came back to stand around Marius, each one holding a candle, and I can’t tell you how much I love it that Grantaire and Gavroche were walking together.  Love.  That.

And I love that theater is never the same twice.  This was my second experience with the live musical, and it really was different this time around.  Some parts were better in London, other parts I absolutely loved what they did here.  But for all the pros and the cons, if Les Mis comes to your town…go see it!

Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables – Parts IV and V

Les Mis (2)We’re coming down to the final stretch in Les Mis.  If you missed them, you can go back and read the first and second reviews.  Today, I’ll be looking at the last two volumes, when the barricade arises.

This section begins with romance and then moves to revolution.  Marius and Cosette’s relationship takes leaps forward compared to the previous section–by which I mean they actually start talking to each other!  After a blissful interlude, however, circumstances separate them, seemingly forever, and Marius decides that he has nothing to live for.  Conveniently for him, a very good opportunity to get himself killed comes swiftly along.

The revolutionaries finally come into their own in this part of the book.  Paris rises in rebellion and the book focuses in on Enjolras and his band, building and holding the barricade at the Rue Saint-Denis.  They rally around to fight the good fight, while Marius turns up mostly by accident and plunges in.  Inspector Javert is in the midst, revealed as a police spy, and before too long Jean Valjean joins in too…for reasons I felt were never adequately explained.

This is certainly the bloodiest part of the book, and probably the most exciting (although it gets stiff competition from an earlier sequence when Javert was stalking Valjean).  Hugo demonstrates his ability to make even inaction interesting, as they wait on the barricade for each next engagement–and the engagements come with all their drama too.

A few spoilers here, although nothing that the musical won’t tell you…  Gavroche’s death is almost identical in the book as in the musical, and is heartrending in both.  Eponine’s death in the book was more of a disappointment to me.  It’s quick, and it’s largely ignored by everyone, including Hugo.  At pretty much every point of Eponine’s arc, I prefer what the musical did.

But the rest of the barricade sequence is excellent, and I didn’t even mind that they retreated eventually into the cafe.  The movie made it look like a pell-mell retreat, but in the book they fight every inch.

After the barricade falls and a few more trials are gone through, there’s a brief interlude where we actually seem to be heading for a happy ending.  But I didn’t trust Hugo to take us there…and he didn’t.  I won’t get into the particulars but the last section is heartbreaking, and I think the blame falls largely on the heads of Valjean and Cosette.

I love Valjean–he’s a wonderful man–at least until the last hundred pages or so, and then I just don’t know whether I want to cry over him or shake him.  He has a very strong streak of self-sacrifice throughout the entire book, and most of the time it’s immensely admirable.  At the end, though, it begins to approach the point of masochism, self-denial for very little purpose.  There’s an argument for what he does, but it’s flimsy.

Valjean clearly grasped two thirds of the “greatest commandments.”  He has “Love thy God” and he constantly demonstrates “love thy neighbor,” but he never got the idea of that last phrase, “love thy neighbor as thyself.”  The concept of self-forgiveness seems to have escaped him.  I still love him–but Hugo maybe takes it all just a little too far by the end.

As for Cosette–I don’t love Cosette.  She’s such a flighty, childish little nothing.  She has nothing to do in the musical, and scarcely anything more to do in the book, long as it is.  She’s sweet and she’s pretty and Hugo (and Marius) keeps referring to her as an angel, but she never does anything demonstrably angelic.  Cosette has all the refinement to present herself well, and appears perfectly demure and modest and all that, but that’s the extent of her talents.  I suppose if the ability to modestly lower one’s eyes makes one an angel, then by all means, call her that.  But by criteria of actively doing good for others…I find Gavroche far more angelic.

Heartbreaking (and somewhat frustrating!) as the end of the book is, this is still a wonderful read.  I spent longer on this book than I’ve spent on any one book in years, but it was absolutely worth it.  The characters and the world they inhabit are vivid and alive and drew me in completely.  Highly recommended–if you have some time! 🙂