Tuesday, July 23, 2013


Those who know me well know that I am a serious lover of The Teaching Company's The Great Courses.  Over the years I have checked out virtually every course, on either video or audio, that my local library has in their collection.  For those of you unfamiliar with what these are, they are series of lectures, each episode a half an hour in length, about a given subject.  Some have as few as six or eight installments, but others have more than thirty, varying dependent upon the scope and complexity of the subject being discussed.  Although the lectures are presented by some of the nation's top college professors they are very accessible, geared towards the adult who seeks to be a life-long learner.  I have also used many from a variety of subjects, with great success, in our homeschool.

The breadth of topics is staggering.  There are courses for virtually any era, event, or major personage from history.  If the arts are your thing you can learn about music from the age of Gregorian Chant to Stravinsky or painters from Fra Angelico through the post-modernists.  Want to learn more about a given author, some of the great classics, or how to get more out of your reading?  Perhaps you want to learn how to do mental math, learn games to make numbers fun, or help a student with their trigonometry.  There are courses for all of those as well.  If you want the concrete facts of science, or the more indeterminate studies of philosophy and religion, courses abound in their catalog.  If you want practical application there are courses in leadership, finance and economics, health and nutrition, communication skills, and critical thinking to name a few.

I have, over the years, posted reviews on some of these courses, even though they are not regular audio books per se.  What has prompted this blog post is the fabulous fact that these courses, at least the ones that are available in audio format, are now available from Audible, an audio book subsidiary of Amazon.  I make it a pretty firm tenet not to outright peddle products or endorse any companies-that is not what my blog is for, and I think my readers don't want to be advertised to-but if you are interested in these courses, you will not find a better source than Audible (who is not paying me either cash or products for this blog post).  Members of Audible pay a monthly fee of about $15.00, and for this you get a monthly credit.  Each credit will pay for one course; I looked up some of the longest courses that I knew of, and none were more than one credit.  Considering that most of these courses cost between $35-$60 if you are a non-member, if you are seriously interested in them, I would recommend joining as a member.  In addition, Audible often offers the opportunity for members to purchase three credits for about $35, making your savings even greater.  You can buy from Audible without committing to a monthly membership, but your costs will be higher than a member's, because in addition to their monthly credit, members also get better deals on items they choose to purchase if they do not have credits available.  Whether you are a member or not, Audible is still the best deal for The Great Courses.  Let me
give you an example.  The course entitled The American Civil War is regularly priced $249.95 on The Teaching Company's website; even on the short once yearly sale you would pay $64.95 (and not every course goes on sale every year).  Audible offers it for $52.95 for non-members and $37.06 for members choosing not to expend a credit.  However, if you are a member you can get it for your monthly credit price of less than $15.00, or a bit more than $11.00 if you are using extra credits you bought on special.

So why, you might ask, should I buy these courses at all if they are readily available from public libraries?  I guarantee you that you will want to listen to them many times over.  They are so information dense that it will take that to truly absorb everything that they have to impart.  And they are so enjoyable that listening more than once is a pleasure.  When we have checked them out from the library I have also had difficulty finding time to listen to the longer series before they are due back, and invariably there is someone with a hold on them so that they cannot be renewed.

If you are interested in learning more about Audible's offerings, here is their URL:


If you want more information of the courses themselves, beyond what is given on Audible's site (it is not very extensive), the URL for The Teaching Company is here:


Exploring The Teaching Company's site is also a great way to discover more about those lecture series that they have available on DVD, which you might want to look for at your library.  Or likewise, you can learn more about the audio versions even if you decide not to purchase them from Audible but choose instead to try to procure them from your library.

I hope that my many reading friends, especially those of you who enjoy non-fiction, choose to give The Great Courses a try.  There is something for everyone, and you will, I guarantee it, enjoy every minute you spend with these top scholars as they share their enthusiasm for their various fields of specialization.

Friday, May 31, 2013

THE SENSE OF AN ENDING by Julian Barnes ✰✰✰✰✰

In 163 pages author Julian Barnes sketches a most insightful book on the passage of time and life history.  Using a plot line that begins with four adolescent friends and a few supplemental characters, and telling the tale with the first person intimacy of one of the young men, an evocative reminiscence takes the reader through school days and into late middle age.
Tony Webster is in his sixties when he is left, from an unexpected source, an unusual bequest which causes him to reexamine his life.  In doing so, he brings the reader along through what on the surface seems to be a very ordinary chronicling of a very ordinary life.  However, the reader quickly discovers that while Tony gives all the commendation for life’s deeper moments to others, he is far more discerning than he gives himself credit for.  Through Tony, Julian Barnes funnels some of the most profound components of the human journey, including the lesson that life is seldom as transparent as it appears to be on the surface.

Julian Barnes’s writing is so fabulous that I think I wrote more quotes in my journal than I have from any other book.  Here are a few of my favorites:

He had a better mind and a more rigorous temperament than me; he thought logically, and then acted on the conclusion of logical thought.  Whereas most of us, I suspect, do the opposite: we make an instinctive decision, then build up an infrastructure of reason to justify it.

But time...how time first grounds us and then confounds us.  We thought we were being mature when we were only being safe.  We imagined we were being responsible but were only being cowardly.  What we call realism turned out to be a way of avoiding things rather than facing them.  Time...give us enough time and our best-supported decisions will seem wobbly, our certainties whimsical. (ellipses included in original text)

When you’re young-when I was young-you want your emotions to be like the ones you read about in books.  You want them to overturn your life, create and define a new reality.  Later, I think, you want them to do something milder, something more practical: you want them to support your life as it is and has become.  You want them to tell you that things are OK.  

It is a very, very infrequent occurrence that I say that I think a book is destined to become a classic, but this one bears many of the hallmarks.  The themes of friendship and love, the slide of time that cannot be held in check, and the life elements universal to every generation make this a read that will feel just as relevant to my grandchildren as to me.  I loved this book and recommend it for all readers high school and older.

Monday, April 29, 2013


Generally, I do not read books that revolve around religious issues unless they are written by a member of that faith.  I have zero tolerance for faith bashing, no matter who the target may be.  As a member of a faith frequently under fire (I am a Mormon), my thought is that people develop many misunderstandings about my faith from reading writings of those outside it, and while some of them are amusing, the majority of the time they are very derogatory.  I hope people choose not to read those types of books on my faith, and in exchange I refuse to read books that injure the reputation of other churches.

After reading two excellent reviews of Kevin Roose’s book, which chronicles his experience as he becomes a sort of “foreign” exchange student on what he terms his “semester abroad”, I decided to add this book to my TBR, given that both reviewers mentioned how nonjudgemental and evenhanded his writing is.  Kevin was three semesters into his English degree at Brown University, a bastion of liberal thinking, when he decided that he wanted to embark on a bit of an ethnographic experiment and spend a semester at Liberty University, the school affiliated with Christian evangelical Jerry Falwell, a school at the polar opposite of his liberal upbringing and education.  He went into the experience knowing that he wanted to write a book about his semester.

Right from the beginning it is very apparent that Kevin is very willing to be open-minded, wholeheartedly engaging personally in all aspects of Liberty students’ religious and campus culture.  The book is very funny, without ever being derogatory; it easily passes my litmus test for that criteria.  It is readily apparent when the author disagrees with his classmates and professors on issues, but his handling is such that as a reader I never felt that he disparages people, just respectfully questions their beliefs as being different from his own.  A very tough road which time and again he handles with aplomb.

All aspects of life at an evangelical Christian university are covered.  The reader follows Kevin in all of his coursework; Liberty is a full curriculum liberal arts university, but Kevin chose to take all religious themed courses while he was there.  In addition, life in the dorm and the friendships he built there (some very close ones), extra-curricular activities, dating and sex, spring break in Daytona Beach (not the usual variety), church attendance, and other related topics are discussed.

Several factors make this book well worth a read, chief among them being how honest Kevin is about his own thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors and how he is affected by being immersed in a culture so foreign to his own.  In the end, because he is so open-minded, he produces a thought-provoking look at life on the other side of the liberal/conservative and faith divide.

My one warning about the book would be that it is not really appropriate for an audience younger than college age, as there are discussions about specific sex acts to which some parents might hesitate to expose younger children.

Overall, this is a very well-written, tightly edited look at a sensitive topic handled with candor, wit, and grace.  I definitely recommend this one for all adult readers.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

ROOFTOPS OF TEHRAN by Mahbod Seraji ✰✰✰✰

As a westerner, when you think about the word “romantic”, the image of red roses might come into your mind, and you might smile and think of candlelight and proposals and happily ever after.  To a Persian, the word has a vastly different connotation.  Romance to Persian sensibilities is something which is worth giving your life for, something bigger than yourself.  That is what the rose stands for to the Persian.  And that is the premise around which Mahbod Seraji built his lovely debut Persian “romance” novel, Rooftops of Tehran.
Told in the first person, through the eyes of Pasha, a seventeen year old Iranian, the novel takes the reader into the heart of Tehran on the brink of revolution, as discontent against the Shah is roiling. The reader will meet the inhabitants of one neighborhood and feel how their simple lives are impacted when one of their own becomes a target of the feared and hated SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police.
A love story, the book explores the Persian cultural practices regarding courtship and marriage through several families interactions, but primarily in a love triangle involving Pasha and the girl he loves, Zari, and the man she has been engaged to since childhood, as well as in the relationship of another couple, Pasha’s best friend Ahmed and his girlfriend.

The greatest aspect of this novel, I think, is how much it has to teach about the beautiful Persian culture.  Whether the discussion is marriage, dealing with death, extended families living under the same roof (Including those just graduated teens that Persians think it so odd that we cast out when they need our guidance the most.), education, or medical practices, the reader will find ethnic lore woven seamlessly throughout the tale.  This book made me pull out my copy of Hafiz poetry and take a fahll, a delightful indulgence I haven’t done in a very long time.  Hafiz is a very famous Persian poet, and a fahll is a tradition in Iran and practiced by Persians everywhere, where you make a wish or ask a question and then open your copy of his poems, and whichever verse your eye lands on, that is the answer to your problem.

There are times when the writing in the novel, given that it is a debut novel, is a little rough (that is what cost it a fifth star from me), but the plotting is excellent, the characters are fairly sound, and the cultural aspects outstanding.  Overall, I definitely recommend this one, and would like to thank my reading friend Regina for her strong recommendation of this one for me.  You were right, Regina, this was a great book for me!  I am happy to report that although the author is currently working on something else, he does plan to write a sequel at some point in the future.

I CAPTURE THE CASTLE by Dodie Smith ✰✰✰✰

Mr. Mortmain had it all.  He was the celebrated novelist who had written the thinking man’s novel, the innovative “it” novel that everyone wanted him to come and lecture about, even in America.  The problem is, that was more than a decade ago.  And he hasn’t written anything since.  And the writers block has driven him into hiding in a castle in the English countryside with his artist’s model wife, young son, an adopted young man, and two teenage daughters.  
Royalties have dried up and genteel poverty really isn’t so very genteel when you are a teenage girl.  Narrated through the eyes of Cassandra, the middle child and youngest daughter of the family, who aspires to be an author and keeps the book we are reading as a journal (although it doesn’t read as dated journal entries), we follow the sorry plight of the Mortmains as they struggle to put food on the table and inspire Dad to write again through whatever means, fair or foul, they can devise.

To further complicate their lives, their landlord dies; so enter their young (of course) and handsome (what else?) new property owner on the scene to inspect the premises and meet the tenants.  Cassandra’s sister, Rose, and step-mother, Topaz, are quickly hatching a plot to marry Rose off to the new landlord (Did anybody think to ask his opinion?) and solve all their financial woes in one fell swoop.  Romance (?) and hilarity ensue.  Never fear, there is romance for our own dear Cassandra as well.

This book has a plethora of plot twists and turns to keep the reader engaged and delighted, but the one element that I like the best is that the ending is not all tied up in a bow.  There are enough hints given that if a reader wants to make assumptions you can, but if you choose not to go that way, you do not have to.  I enjoy that aspect of the novel, that after crafting so many machinations in the plot Ms. Smith isn’t afraid to leave the ending just a tad bit nebulous.

After reading the book, I decided to watch the movie as I had heard that it was quite well done.  My feelings are mixed.  Much of the nudity and innuendo in the movie seem to me to be purely gratuitous and avoidable-unfortunately they took a humorous 1950s family read and twisted it into an R-rated 21st century movie.  That said, it is quite a decent rendering of the novel into film for an adult audience, albeit with a bit too much emphasis on the hormones for my taste, and for what I believe the novel really implied.  The acting, characterizations, costuming, etc., are all very fine, as one would expect from a BBC production.

This is a fleet, poignant, romp of a read that is appropriate for all ages middle school and up.  A wonderful modern classic that I definitely recommend.  As for the film, you might want to save that for the grown-ups in the household.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

NORTH AND SOUTH by Elizabeth Gaskell ✰✰✰✰

With her novel North and South, Elizabeth Gaskell, a contemporary and friend of Charles Dickens, attempted to take on many of the same themes that he addressed in his own novels.  However, if you have tried and found Dickens to be daunting, don’t let that put you off Gaskell.  I would class her work as something of a cross between Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, although I found her prose somewhat easier to read than Austen’s, and I would call her social philosophizing “Dickens lite”.

The novel is set in 1850s England, originally in the south, both in London, where Margaret Hale was raised with her cousin Edith, and in the quiet country parsonage home of Margaret and her parents, where she returns to live after Edith’s marriage.  However, Margaret’s father comes to the decision that he can no longer in good conscience continue as a minister, and so he gives up his living and moves their family to the manufacturing town of Milton, in the north of England.  Here the reader is introduced to many new characters on both sides of a clearly written social divide, laborers and masters, as Margaret and her family struggle to adapt to the drastic changes in the viewpoints between the northerners and their own southern way of seeing things, and as the Hale family wrestles with trying to find their own social standing in this new society.  As the novel progresses bridges are built, between people of different classes, between men and women, and between a grieving man and his enemy’s children.

Character development was the absolute high point of this novel for me.  Characters who began proud and inflexible slowly evolved into something utterly changed, but in such a way that it was completely believable.  Other characters remained true to form, and yet that seemed right for them.  I felt that Gaskell picked her evolving characters well.  I also loved the plot: there was romance, a social message, a couple of legal entanglements, and a great deal of suffering (which was realistic for the era and place).  At the end of viewing the mini-series my kids were ticking off on their fingers all the characters who died, and ultimately they decided that given how many of them there were they could put up with the main characters at least getting to kiss in the end!  Kids not being into the “kissing parts” you know! :-)  Very generous of them.

What cost the book its fifth star was a very slow beginning-it took me almost a hundred pages to get into the story.  However, in the book’s defense, it might have been the mood I was in when I read the print version, because when I listened to the audio it did not strike me as being quite as tedious as my initial impression. 

In addition to reading this novel in print, I also purchased a copy of the audio book.  The Clare Wille narration had come recommended to me, but when I listened to a sample on Audible I found the sound quality to be very poor-rather tinny sounding.  Since there was another version available from one of my very favorite narrators, Juliet Stevenson, I unhesitatingly went with that one and can recommend it without reserve to all listeners.  Each voice was differentiated; Mrs. Thornton was given a wonderfully in character, lower tone; and the northern accents were spot on and distinctive among the classes.

I also highly recommend the BBC mini-series to all who have read Gaskell’s work.  Fine performances are turned in by Daniela Denby-Ashe (Margaret Hale), Sinead Cusack (Mrs. Thornton), and Brendan Coyle (Nicholas Higgins), but Richard Armitage does no less than breathe John Thornton to life out of the pages of the novel-an absolutely masterful performance.  

Whether you choose the print or audio, follow this one up with the mini-series; it does take some liberties, but the characters are very true to the novel, and it is just a wonderful way to round out your Gaskell experience.  Invite your family to join you-all of my kiddos watched the movie and enjoyed it.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

HOUSEKEEPING by Marilynne Robinson ✰✰✰✰

Ruth and Lucille experience a rather severe lack of parenting, losing first their father, who abandons them, then their mother, who after leaving them on their grandmother’s porch proceeds to drive off a cliff (no spoiler-this is on the back of the book).  Unfortunately for them, their situation doesn’t greatly improve.  Despite her love of them, the grandmother’s advanced age shortens her time in their lives and soon leaves them in the care of two aged great-aunts, who, feeling out of their league, and not the least interested in raising two young girls, track down, post-haste, the girls’ transient-living (for that read a nice way to say “hobo”) aunt and prevail upon her to return to her hometown and do her duty by her sister’s daughters.  Within a day of the aunt, Sylvie’s, return, the elderly aunts decamp, leaving the young girls abandoned to her less than exemplary, if willing, care.

Through beautiful prose Marilynne Robinson paints a picture of two sisters who come to see in their aunt a picture of who their mother might have been, and some of the demons that might have haunted her.  It is clear that Sylvie is mentally unstable, and the narrator of the tale, Ruthie, seems to feel and show some leanings in that direction as well.  As the story progresses, Lucille craves normalcy and strikes out on her own to find it, but Ruth loyally cleaves to family and the memories that surface for her of her own mother when she is with Sylvie.

There are so many gorgeous quotes in this book, but here are a couple examples:

“To crave and to have are as like as a thing and its shadow.  For when does a berry break upon the tongue as sweetly as when one longs to taste it, and when is the taste refracted into so many hues and savors of ripeness and earth, and when do our senses know anything so utterly as when we lack it?”

“There is so little to remember of anyone-an anecdote, a conversation at table. But every memory is turned over and over again, every word, however chance, written in the heart in the hope that memory will fulfill itself, and become flesh, and that the wanderers will find a way home, and the perished, whose lack we always feel, will step through the door finally and stroke our hair with dreaming, habitual fondness, not having meant to keep us waiting long.”

This is a lovely work, laden with pathos; you watch these two young lives slowly spiral downward, and you ache for them.  I highly recommend reading it in one undisturbed sitting (it is a fairly short novel-a little over 200 pages), allowing the complete flow of the narrative to spin.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee ✰✰✰✰✰

This is my third time reading this outstanding modern classic. My first trip through was in my teens, and I was most taken with young narrator Scout’s first person account of her small town depression era life as a lawyer’s child in Alabama, as she weathers not only the spite of the members of the white community, but also the outright dangers, as her father takes on the defense of a black man accused of raping a white woman.  I enjoyed seeing how Scout and her brother were raised by an entire community of people, both black and white.
Later, I read the book as a young adult, and I saw more clearly the social issues which the book highlighted.  There was the obvious racial issue, of what would happen when a black man in the 1930’s found himself in a compromising situation with a white woman, and it was his word against hers, but many other issues struck me as well.  I noticed issues such as feminism beginning to take hold in characters such as Miss. Maudie in her independence and in Scout herself.

This read, being much older and a parent myself, the overriding theme for me was that of parenthood, and so I enjoyed following Atticus, who is the lawyer featured in the story and the father of the story’s narrator, and Calpurnia, who is the family’s black housekeeper and nanny to the children.  These two, through some truly harrowing experiences, show great wisdom.  Atticus often expresses doubt in his own decisions as a parent, but I for one think that he is spot on.

When I read Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, I said that I felt that Jean Valjean was one of the most honorable men in all of literature.  I think that Atticus Finch is another.  In a time in America’s history when a white man could scarcely be found to speak behind a closed door in a black man’s defense, Atticus Finch dared to stand in a court of law and speak for a black man against a white man, revealing that man to be a liar and a fool.  When his community spit on him and his children and came at them with clenched fists, he and his children kept their heads up and their hands loose, and in so doing took the higher ground and set an example that startled and shamed and got the message across.

I won’t tell you, of course, the outcome of the court case.  For that you must read the book. You will most likely pick up this book for the social issues, but it is the characters that you will never forget.  This is not the book to reach for if you are wanting stunning prose or an original plot.  It is about character’s that you will dwell on and issues that will swill in your brain long after the book’s cover is closed.  

Saturday, January 19, 2013

EXIT THE COLONEL by Ethan Chorin ✰✰✰✰

After my review of Tamim Ansary’s Games without Rules: The Often-Interrupted History of Afghanistan (If you haven’t read it yet, you really, really must-it was my number two nonfiction book for 2012.), the publisher gave me the opportunity to review this work on Libya.  One would think that given the amount of media attention that Libya gets there would be a plethora of books on the subject, but as I began this book I realized that despite having read well in excess of a hundred books over the years on the Middle East and political Islam, a good history of Libya had slipped through the cracks of my reading list.
Ethan Chorin explained why.  Western journalists had always been rather thin on the ground in Libya during the Gaddafi regime, and therefore, modern histories of Libya are a very new literary phenomenon-literally since the fall of Gaddafi.  Chorin’s book, which came out in late October of 2012, and covers material he gathered as late as that summer, gives some of the most up-to-date information that readers can find in book form.

There are other books out there that will give you a more comprehensive history of Libya-that is not his intent.  Chorin does give some history-essentially what you need to know to understand how Gaddafi was able to maneuver himself into power from a cultural standpoint.  He does an excellent job explaining the duality of Libya as a country, the divisiveness that those of the eastern half and those of the western half have always felt towards one another, and the powerful effect that this has in her politics (not to mention her soccer matches-we are not talking friendly rivalries here!)

Obviously, politics plays a huge part in this book, and there is a massive cast of players; I would dearly love a roster at the front of the book listing them all.  That said, mine is a pre-publication manuscript, so it is possible that one was added at publication time.  A good deal of ink is spread detailing the role not only of Gaddafi, but also of his second eldest son, Saif al-Islam, who was believed by many to be the son whom Gaddafi most wanted to succeed him in power.  In addition, many power brokers on the Libyan, U.S., and European fronts are discussed.  If you don’t know about Gaddafi’s dealings with Tony Blair and Nicolas Sarkozy, this book will be rather enlightening for you.  Mr. Chorin briefly explains the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, which inspired the Libyan rebellion that finally brought down Gaddafi after forty-two years in power.  He then goes on to cover about seven months after the fall of Gaddafi in October of 2011, and so the book includes the first faltering steps of the Transitional National Council. 

One area in which this book really shines is tracing Libya’s economic journey, both before Gaddafi, through his regime, and after.  Ethan Chorin has excellent sources, both inside Libya and outside, and he shows how Libya affects and is affected by global trade.  It is interesting to note that in Libya, unlike in Afghanistan and many other countries where the United States and her allies are involved in trying to assist in establishing democratic governments and stabilizing economies in the wake of civil unrest, we are dealing with a country that is well able to pay her own way, as Libya is very rich in natural resources and has the know-how and infrastructure in place to exploit them.

My one major quibble with this book, and the factor which kept it from earning a fifth star has to do with a writing and not a research element, which bothers me to no end, because I feel like it could have been solved so simply.  This book makes the most ridiculous overuse of acronyms I have ever encountered.  To the point that it renders the book almost unreadable.  I quite literally had to begin a crib sheet that I kept in the cover of my e-reader, because I could not remember them all.  These are not the acronyms that we all know, such as WMD for weapons of mass destruction-some of these were obscure acronyms for organizations that the average reader of this book is not going to have in their working vocabulary.  And the acronym was not just used several times within close proximity of each other; several chapters later an acronym might pop up again-one time out of the blue.  Without my crib sheet I would have been lost.  Seriously?  Would it really have been that difficult to type out the words?  It drove me crazy, and it was so unnecessary because simply typing out the unfamiliar names would not have been overly repetitive, as the list of acronyms was MASSIVE.  It almost felt like the author put in all the acronyms during his research process, as a form of short-hand, and then in the editing process everyone neglected to go in and write them out for the reader.  Or failing that, at least give the reader a list at the beginning of the book with all the acronyms and their interpretations.  So, reader, just be aware from the beginning, unless you have a prodigious memory for acronyms, I highly recommend making a list as you go along.  I must say, this is the oddest reason I have ever withheld a star from such an excellently researched and written book!  

On a more positive note-you needn’t take my word on the merits of this work-Professor Dirk Vandewalle, unarguably the most highly respected scholar regarding Libya, and a professor of government at Dartmouth, says of Chorin’s work, “Chorin's book will undoubtedly remain the best analytical work on Libya and its revolution for a very long time.”  Coincidentally, there is a first rate article written by Professor Vandewalle and published in the November/December 2012 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine, entitled “After Qaddafi: The Surprising Success of the New Libya”; it makes the perfect epilog to Ethan Chorin’s book.  On the advice of both Professor Vandewalle (you cannot get better than his, really!), and my own feelings from my reading, I recommend this one to serious readers of nonfiction political history.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo ✰✰✰✰✰ and a ♥

After a bit of a challenge from a friend, I decided to finally take the plunge and reread Les Miserables.  I last visited this work some twenty odd years ago and could scarcely remember the basic rudiments of the plot, only knowing that I had to have read an unabridged version because the infamous Waterloo chapter had been included in my version-in all its lengthy glory.
In the event that there are readers unfamiliar with the plot (movie hype does miss some people), Hugo’s iconic novel is said to be the quintessential tale of forgiveness and redemption.  The story revolves around Jean Valjean, who begins life as a simple peasant, a young man struggling to help his widow sister care for her family.  He steals a loaf of bread and is caught, sentenced, and imprisoned.  Due to multiple escape attempts, his original sentence compounds into nineteen years imprisonment, and a bitter man with a crushed soul is the result.  After release he finds the world a cruel place to an ex-convict, until he meets one gentle bishop; baffled by his kindness, Valjean steals the bishop’s silver.  When Valjean is caught by the police and brought to confront the bishop, the bishop’s response changes the direction of Valjean’s life forever.  Valjean goes on to live a successful life, raising an adopted daughter, who loves a young man who becomes involved with the battle at one of the Paris barricades in 1832.  As the reader follows Valjean through the novel, you watch a convict turn from hate and bitterness to the deepest kind of love and honor.  There really is no greater example in all of literature than Jean Valjean for a broken man made whole through the example of another man’s love and kind example, who then goes on, through the strength of his own character to become a man of honor, and who never falters, no matter how dire the circumstances become.

The novel covers the years from 1815 through 1832; however, Hugo refers often to the barricade insurrection which occurred in 1848, and finally toppled Louis-Philippe, the monarch at the time of the barricade insurrection which is fought by the novel’s characters in June of 1832.  Until I understood that this was actually a projection into the future and out of the plot and context of the novel, I found this very confusing, so I mention it here hoping to save others the same issues that I had.  This “novel” very often has the feel of two books, one a fiction story with the characters about whom Hugo is writing, and another, in which he extemporizes upon various nonfiction subjects, as an author to his reader, from religious communities to the structure of the Paris sewer system.  In addition to complete chapters and sections set aside specifically for this purpose, he often expounds upon his subject matter and thoughts within the text of the “novel” portions as well.

So how do you decide whether the abridged or the unabridged translation is right for you?  Ask yourself, “Am I reading this book because I loved the musical or the movie and I want to know a little more about the characters, or do I want to go much, much deeper?”  Hugo was given to bouts of philosophizing, lengthy histories, and tangents that at times could get very off topic.  That said, if you are willing to follow where he leads, you will experience some of the most beautiful prose, conveying some of the most truly profound sentiments.  As a writer, Hugo was able to break down society to its most elemental level and serve that up to his readers, giving us, a century and a half later, a clear picture of the political and social milieu of Paris in the early nineteenth century.  I am not saying that taking on the unabridged version doesn’t tax the reader’s patience at times.  It most certainly does.  There are definitely things that could stand to be edited out, or clarified, or better integrated into the flow of the plot.  However, sometimes baring with his eccentricities pays off later on, when the added knowledge the reader has gained helps to clarify and enhance your enjoyment of further sections of the novel.  Perhaps the knowledge was not one hundred percent necessary, but it does add in some way to the overall picture.

I do not regret a single one of the 1,232 pages that I read.  For this read, I read the Norman Denny translation, which I highly recommend, as the prose is gorgeous, and scholars say that reading Denny is very close in tone to reading Hugo in the original French.  It is an unabridged version, but two sections have been moved into appendices in the back of the book; they are clearly marked so that the reader who wishes to may easily flip to them and read them at the place in the novel where Hugo intended them to be read.  Interestingly enough, the online classics group in which I am a member is going to do a group read of Les Mis over the coarse of this year.  For that read through, I am going to read Julie Rose’s translation, which appears, according to my research, to be a little more “letter of the law” in her translating, so not quite as flowing, but which includes extensive footnotes, which Denny’s version does not contain.  Footnotes would be a great benefit in this novel, as Hugo was constantly making references to historical figures and events with which I am not familiar.  I will come back here after reading that version and give a comparison of the two translations.

This is definitely not a book for everyone, at least not in the unabridged format.  It is a wonderful story, and if you love the movie and musical and want to get to know the characters better, but do not want to get really vested in a great deal of history and philosophy, I strongly urge you to read the abridged version (gasp!...did I really just say that?!!).  Hugo offers fabulous rewards, but I just do not know that everyone is willing to put up with what you have to put up with to mine for the diamonds.  I loved every minute of the book, even his tangents, because the sheer beauty of the language and my fascination with all the history carried me through when he wandered down the mine shaft.  Only you can know if you are willing to strap on a head lamp and go down that shaft as well.

I highlighted like crazy in this book, but here are just a few short passages (These are from Norman Denny’s translation/Penguin Classics):

“Darkness afflicts the soul.  Mankind needs light. To be cut off from day is to know a shrinking of the heart.  Where the eye sees darkness the spirit sees dismay.” (pg. 350)

“The sceptic clinging to a believer is something as elementary as the law of complementary colours...Grantaire, earthbound in doubt, loved to watch Enjolras soaring in the upper air of faith.” (pg. 565)

“A calm but passionate unknown, who seemed ready to take refuge in death, had sent to his absent beloved the secret of human destiny, the key to life and love.  He had written with a foot in the tomb and a finger in the sky.  The lines, falling haphazard on the paper, were like raindrops falling from a soul.” (pg. 806)

“Insurrection is a thing of the spirit, revolt is a thing of the stomach.” (pg. 889)

“What a sorry aim and sickly ambition it is merely to enjoy!  The animal enjoys.  To think, that is the real triumph of the spirit!” (pg. 1210)

“Are the duties of the historians of hearts and souls less exacting than those of the historians of external fact?  Has Dante less to say than Machiavelli?  Is the under side of civilization less important than the upper side because it is darker and goes deeper?  Can one know the mountain without also knowing the cave?” (pg. 1217)

Thursday, January 3, 2013

2013 Challenges

In 2012 I failed to make about half of my challenges, but I learned something about myself along the way.  For one thing, I learned that I set way too many challenges for the number of books that I can possibly read in a given year!  Also, I learned that I use my challenge lists more as "selection" lists than as "I am going to complete these lists by the end of the year" lists.  For example, at the end of the year, I could have read a couple of very short, fluff books that were both on my physical shelf and published in 1995, and thus completed both my Pick a Year and my Trim That TBR Challenges.  Instead, I chose to read the 560+ page All Soul's Rising, off my Randomizer Challenge, which I didn't stand a chance of finishing, and finish a rather heavy nonfiction work on Libya that I had promised to review for a publisher.  In essence, I want my "challenge" lists to serve me, not to be my master.

With those thoughts in mind, I am still going to set many of the same "challenges", but with the idea that they will serve as my "selection lists" throughout the year.  I keep a virtual shelf of books on the online site "Shelfari"; my dream list there of book that I would like to read currently exceeds 1,100 titles, so having a smaller selection of books here to pick from is helpful when I am pondering that ever present query, "What shall I read next?"  So, here are my "challenge" lists for 2013:

Share-A-Shelf Challenge: (read 5 books selected off from each of the Shelfari shelves of four different friends-20 books total. This is the one challenge which I really intend to view as a "challenge" as opposed to a "selection" list.  These great reading friends invested a fair amount of time in helping me to put together these lists.  You can see all of their great comments and their suggestions for books that didn't make the cut on my Personal "To Be Read" Shortlist blog page.  Michelle and I are still working on her list at present.) (completion dates will be annotated)

My list from BooknBlues's Shelf:

Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia by Michael Korda
The Places in Between by Rory Stewart
Doc by Mary Doria Russell 
The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson
River of Doubt by Candice Maillard 

My list from Mary B.'s Shelf: 

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte
A Room with a View by E.M. Forester
The Traitor's Wife by Susan Higginbotham
The Greatest Traitor by Ian Mortimer
Four Queens by Nancy Goldstone

My list from Michelle G.’s Shelf: (these are tentative-still discussing with Michelle)

The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton
Canada by Richard Ford
Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes

My list from Regina's Shelf: 

Desert Queen by Janet Wallach
The Girl from the Coast by Pramoedya Anantya Toer
Rooftops of Tehran by Mahbod Seraji
Birds without Wings by Louis de Bernières
The Kitchen Boy by Robert Alexander

Randomizer Challenge 2013: (These books are selected by taking the number of books on my virtual "To Be Read" shelf on Shelfari and entering it on random.org.  I matched the first thirty numbers generated with my books in list format on Shelfari, and these were the titles.  It is doubtful I will get all of them read, but it gives me a nice selection to choose from over the year.) (completion dates will be annotated)

The Wreath by Sigrid Undset
An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
Harlot’s Ghost by Norman Mailor
The Titled Americans by Elizabeth Kehoe
Them by Jon Ronson
The Children’s Blizzard by David Laskin
Unnatural Selection by Mara Hvistendahl
Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
Beauty by Robin McKinley
Slaughte-House Five by Kurt Vonnegut
The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun by J.R.R. Tolkien
Making Toast by Richard Rosenblatt
The Measure of Our Days by Jerome E. Groopman
The German Mujahid by Boualem Sansal
The Memory Chalet by Tony Judt
Factory Girls by Leslie T. Chang
Whiteman by Tony D’Souza
We Are All Welcome Here by Elizabeth Berg
In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson
I am the Messenger by Markus Zusak
Sukkwan Island by David Vann
Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant
McKinley Station by Tom Walker
Spies of the Balkans by Alan Furst
The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant
No More Words: A Journal of My Mother by Reeve Lindbergh
Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
A River Runs Through It by Norman MacLean
Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh
Wingshooters by Nina Revoyr 

Long Book Challenge: (I would like to read at least 4,000 pages in books 600 pages or longer.)

Classics Monthly Group Read: (I would like to read all 6 group reads)
Jan/Feb North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell (will fill in date when completed)

PBT Monthly Tag Read: (I would like to read at least one book for each monthly tag-if I read more, I will only record the first one here.)

This will be the format for my challenges page, which will be found as a tab from now on at the top of the blog.  I wish all of you the best of luck in your reading challenges and selections this New Year!