Friday, 9 March 2018

Les Misérables The Descent/La Descent V1B5

At long last we really get to the meat and bones of Fantine's story- after all this first book is named after her. We've met her before and know some of her story- that she was orphaned, or possibly just abandoned, that she is beautiful, that she has been taken advantage of and then deserted by the bounder Tholomyès. That she has made some other bad choices, and that she has left her young daughter Cosette with the Thénadiers at their inn in a remote town.

In Book Five we encounter Fantine's story full on, but not before a little chapter "Story of an Advance in the Manufacture of Black Glass Jewellery", where we learn that Père Madeleine has built his wealth and influence from his ingenuity and innovation in the process of black glass by substituting shellac for resin, and so dramatically reducing the cost of manufacture. The whole town of Montreuil-sur-Mer benefited from this idea and his tremendous generosity and within five years Père Madeleine has been appointed mayor. 
Père Madeleine expected willingness of the men, respectability of the women, and honesty of everybody. 
In The Descent we begin to see some real differences emerging here between the musical versions and Hugo's original story. It seemed from the movie that the women in the workroom were sewing (although perhaps I just assumed that), I will have to pay more attention next time I watch it. Certainly, the way that Fantine loses her job in the factory is different. Here, the meddlesome Madame Victurnien seeks out to find Fantine's secret, and we are treated to some wonderful descriptions of her. 
The busybody who did this was a gorgon named Madame Victurnien, guardian and doorkeeper of everyone's virtue. Madame Victurnien was fifty-six and her mask of ugliness was overlaid with the mask of old age. Quavering voice, crotchety mind.
Hugo is not a big fan of idle, or  malicious gossip.
Certain individuals are malicious solely because of their need to talk. Their conversation, drawing-room chatter, boudoir gossip, is like those chimneys that burn wood fast. They need a great deal of fuel, and their fuel is their fellow human being. 
The Thénadiers greed grows exponentially and they ask Fantine for more and more money- allegedly for an ailing Cosette. I was interested in the use of the term miliary fever, as it's not one I'd come across before. There is a miliary form of TB (miliary meaning seed form as the chest X-ray appearance looks like millet seeds), but it does not seem to be this. Mozart apparently died of miliary fever, which William Osler described in 1892 as "an infectious disease of dubious nature... characterized by fever, profuse sweats and an eruption of miliary vesicles. The severe cases present the symptoms of intense infection: delirium, high fever, profound prostration and haemorrhage."

Fantine's descent becomes complete when she is forced into prostitution after her sacking from Monsieur Madeleine's factory.  I was most intrigued by the sentence: "The poor girl became registered as a common prositutue." In 1804, Napoleon (he's never far away) had ordered that prostitutes need to be registered and have twice weekly health inspections. This strict regulation continued until the 20th century. 

Fantine's fall is considered in the very next paragraph. 
What is the story of Fantine about? It is about society buying a slave. From whom? From wretchedness. From hunger, cold, isolation, neglect, destitution. A hard bargain. A soul for a morsel of bread. Society accepts what wretchedness offers. 
Quite a lot happens in this chapter, and there is a lot less philosophising than has gone previously. Although I enjoyed his considerations surrounding prostitution, curiosity and idleness. I think of curiosity as an asset, almost a virtue in our modern life. Hugo feels differently it seems. 
Curiosity is a form of gluttony. To see is to devour. 
In Chapter 5 we also encounter Javert once again and are shown much more of his background, and nature, and his growing suspicion for Monsieur Madeleine. Hugo compares Javert to a wolf pup that would need to be killed by it's own mother lest it eat all of his own litter mates. 
Javert was born in a prison of a fortune-teller whose husband was a convicted felon. As he grew up, he believed he was on the outside of society and had no hope of ever being let in. 
Yet Javert joins the police and by the age of 40 he has achieved the rank of Inspector, and has arrived in Montreuil-sur-Mer after Monsieur Madeleine had already become mayor. 
Javert was like an eye constantly fixed on Monsieur Madeleine. An eye full of suspicion and conjecture. 
At the end of the chapter Javert and Monsieur Madeleine clash over the fate of Fantine after she is arrested. Monsieur Madeleine wins this confrontation and becomes Fantine's benefactor. 
... I'll pay your debts, I'll send for your childe, or you shall go to her. You shall live here, in Paris, wherever you like. I'll take care of you and your child. I'll give you all the money you need. In regaining your happiness you'll regain your respectability. 

Friday, 16 February 2018

The Hate U Give

I don't think it's hyperbole to call The Hate U Give the YA book of 2017. It was at number one on the New York Times Best Seller list for more than six months, and I don't think it has fallen below #2 since. It has deservedly won lots of awards already and two categories of the Goodreads Reader Awards 2017. I read it in August/September last year because I was going to seeAngie Thomas speak at Melbourne Writers Festival.

The Hate U Give is the story of Starr Carter who lives in a poor black area, Garden Heights, but attends a predominantly white school across town. Her life straddles the divide between the two. 

As long as I play it cool and keep to myself, it should be fine. The ironic thing is though, at Williamson I don't have to "play it cool" - I'm cool by default because I'm one of the only black kids there. I have to earn coolness in Garden Heights, and that's more difficult than buying retro Jordans on release day. 
Early on in the book Starr witnesses her best friend Khalil be shot and killed by a police officer during a traffic stop.
Khalil stares at the sky as if he hopes to see God. His mouth is open like he wants to scream. I scream loud enough for the both of us. 
The rest of the book is about the fallout and repercussions of Khalil's murder. 

The Hate U Give is a really powerful story and addresses the issues of race, drugs, poverty and injustice for black people in America really well, but I was surprised that the American gun culture wasn't really addressed specifically. 

"Always some shit," he mumbles. "Can't have a party without somebody getting shot."
Starr is 16 and she's seen two of her friends shot. Outside of a war zone I can only imagine one country where this is even possible. 
When I was twelve, my parents had two talks with me. One was the usual birds and bees...... The other talk was about what to do if a cop stopped me. 
Momma fussed and told Daddy I was too young for that. He argued that I wasn't too young to get arrested or shot. 
Wow, that is a talk that I would never even had considered with my son. Or that it could ever be necessary. But for Starr, and all the black kids like her, it is. 
I'm used to gun shots, but these are louder, faster.
In this PBS interview Angie talks about how she set out to make the political personal, and that growing up in Mississippi she didn't she any authors who looked like her. Angie Thomas has written a moving Author's Note at the end of the book outlining her motivations to tell this story, and its origins as a  short story she wrote at university. Angie learned of Emmett Till when she was a young girl, but half a world away I've only heard of him in the past few years. Of course young black American men are still being killed in extraordinary numbers and in extraordinary circumstances. Black Lives do Matter. 

Because of my advanced age there were a number of pop culture references that puzzled me.  Right from the first page "Some rapper calls out for everybody to Nae-Nae.." So I texted Master Wicker. He knows it of course, and is mortified by my asking. "It's so horrible and so old". Ah yes, so old, so 2015. There was a bit of vocabulary that made me feel old and out of touch from time to time, but it in no way interfered with my enjoyment of the story, even if it did sound like another language at times! And I'm clearly not the only parent confused by such things.

I'm somewhat mortified that it has taken me so long to finish this post, but am glad of the push from #Femmeuary to get it done. 

Friday, 9 February 2018

Les Misérables Entrusting Sometimes Means Giving Away/Confier, c'est quelquefois livrer V1B4

Book 4 is a tiny morsel in a giant tome. Three short chapters, a mere eleven pages. I inhaled it in one gulp one afternoon. Book 4 introduces us to both Cosette and the Thénadiers.

From the reading of Book 3 it seemed that Tholomyès wasn't aware of Cosette when he left, but we quickly realise that Cosette is a toddler now, just ten months later, so he was well aware that he was walking out on his partner and child with his "surprise".

Fantine is 22 as she leaves Paris on foot to return to her home town of Montreal-sur-Mer to look for work. She has had no work since Tholomyès has abandoned her and fallen on very hard times indeed.
As for the mother, she was a poor and sorry sight. She was dressed like a seamstress reverting to peasant again. She was young. Was she beautiful? Maybe, but the way she was dressed it was hard to tell. Her hair looked very thick but was austerely hidden under an ugly, thick-woven, close fitting coif tied under the chin, with one blond lock escaping. Laughter shows off beautiful teeth if you have them, but she did not laugh. Her eyes looked as if they had not been dry for a very long time. She was pale. She seemed weary and a little unwell. 
Fantine makes the hasty decision to leave Cosette with the Thénadiers, strangers to her, after a very brief interaction, being transfixed by the two Thénadier daughters laughing on a swing fashioned on a chain under a logging trailer. Victor Hugo is not at all subtle in telling us what to think of the Thénadiers. A chapter entitled First Sketch of Two Shady Characters is a big clue, and then just in case we had any doubts, he takes particular glee in describing them. 
They were of that stunted nature that easily turns monstrous if some dark passion is by chance kindled in them. There was in the woman the essence of a bully and in the man the makings of a scoundrel. Both were most highly susceptible to the sort of hideous progress that occurs in the development of evil. There are souls like lobsters, continually retreating into the shadows, retrogressing rather than advancing through life, using experience to add to their monstrosity, becoming ever more wicked and ever more imbued with an intensifying foulness. This man and this woman were such souls. 
And Madame Thénadier has a fondness for the romance novels of the time. 
Madame Thénadier was just intelligent enough to read books of this kind. They were her staple diet. She steeped in them what brain she possessed.
Once again there is mention of the naming of children. "Now, nonsense cannot be read with impunity", and so the Thénadier girls are Éponine and Azelma, who "the poor little thing was very nearly named Gulnare".
It is not uncommon nowadays for the young cowherd to be called Arthur, Alfred or Alphonse, and for the vicomte- if there are any vicomtes left- to be called Thomas, Pierre or Jacques. This displacement whereby the 'distinguished' name is given to the common man and the rustic name to the aristocrat is nothing other than the stirrings of egalitarianism. The irresistible penetration of the new spirit is in this as in everything else. Behind this apparent discrepancy there is something great and profound: the French Revolution. 
I believe that the Thènadiers play a bigger part in the book than is apparent from the movie or stage adaptations. But they play a particularly important role in the musical adaptations, being a comedic foil to the drama and tension. I do so love the rousing Master of the House. 

We also quickly learn what happens to Cosette at The Sergeant of Waterloo, the Thénadier's inn. They sell off her fashionable clothes, and dress her in "the little Thénadier girls' cast-off petticoats and chemises, that is to say, in rags."
They fed her on everyone's scraps - a little better than the dog, a little worse than the cat. In fact the cat and the dog were her habitual dining companions. Colette ate with them under the table, from a wooden bowl like theirs. 
Cosette essentially becomes a slave.
It was a heart-breaking thing to see in winter, this poor child, not yet six years old, shivering in her tattered old rags of coarse cloth, sweeping the street before daylight with an enormous broom in her tiny red hands and a teardrop in those big eyes. 
 Which of course is one of the most iconic of the still images of Les Miserables, by Emil Bayard. 

Injustice had made her resentful and misery had made her ugly. 
All quotes are from the 2013 Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, translated by Christine Donougher. 

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Les Misérables In the Year 1817/ En l'année 1817 V1B3

So much history crammed is into Chapter 1- The Year 1817. So much. We are given five pages of seemingly random facts, yet knowing with Victor Hugo that these are certainly not random facts, and indeed he tells us directly.

Yet these details, wrongly called trivial- there is no trivial fact in the affairs of man, no trivial leaf in the vegetable world- do serve a purpose. The features of the years are what the face of the century is composed of. 
Many of the details overwhelmed me, I felt ignorant, and uneducated, not knowing about so many of the events or personalities. I do wonder how contemporary French readers would have fared, but Les Miserables was published in 1862, and these events take place almost a generation before in 1917. But some names leapt out at me. Napoleon (of course), David, Dupuytren...
Dupuytren and Récamier had an argument in the amphitheatre at the School of Medicine and threatened to come to blows over the divinity of Jesus Christ. (Initially I thought this was the intriguing Juliette Récamier, but it was the more predictable Gynaecologist Joseph Récamier)
Madame Récamier - Jacques-Louis DAVID
I've seen this at the Louvre
I'm learning more about art history than I expected to!
and some of the details were just too delicious, and caused me to pause in my reading.
At 27 Rue St-Dominque, Chateaubriand stood at his window every morning in leggings and slippers, his grey hair in a madras head scarf, staring into a mirror and with a complete set of dentist's instruments laid out before him cleaning his splendid teeth while dictating to his secretary Monsieur Pillage drafts of 'The Monarchy according to the Charter'.
I was very excited to meet Fantine finally and also discover her background which isn't really dealt with in the stage or movie versions that I've seen. Much is made of Fantine's beauty. She is blonde, which was surprising to me, as I've seen Fantine played by brunettes on stage and screen. 
Fantine was beautiful, and remained chaste as long as she could. She was a lovely blonde with splendid teeth. She had gold and pearls for her dowry, but her gold was her head of hair and her pearls were in her mouth. 
Fantine was born in poverty, possibly orphaned, or abandoned at least, she went into domestic service at ten, and went to Paris to 'seek her fortune' at fifteen. Unfortunately for her she finds and love Tholomyès. What a cad Tholomyès is. 
A conquest for him, for her the love of her life. 
An hour later, back in her room, she wept. He was, as we said, her first love- she had given herself to this Tholomyès as to a husband. And the poor girl had a child. 
I found his desertion of her bizarre. 

There is much to astonish in In the Year 1817. Firstly there was a rollercoaster in Paris!
At about three o'clock the four gleefully terrified couples were rattling down on the coaster ride, a curious structure which then stood on the Beacon heights and whose serpentine loops could be seen outlined above the trees on the Champs-Elysées. 
Picture source
Rollercoasters have a rather fascinating history, from Russian monarchs forwards, and much lengthier than I expected. 

As someone very interested in names I was fascinated by several references to character's names in Chapter 2, Two Foursomes. Names were fashionable even in the 19th century. 
The pure English style would not prevail until later, as the first of the Arthurs, Wellington, had only just won the battle of Waterloo. 
And Fantine? An unusual name then and now. 
She was called Fantine. Why Fantine? She had never been called by any other name. At the time of her birth the Directoy was still in existence. No family name, since she had no family; and no baptismal name, since the Church was gone. 
I wonder if she was given a novel name to emphasise her aloneness? No family, no friends, not even someone else in the world with the same name as her? The reference to the Directory is intriguing, but I can't find anything specifically about them and names. Did they have an official list of sanctioned names at that time? I need to do further research.

I launched myself down another rabbit hole of research with the mere mention of a white flag. 
The white flag, faintly pink in the sunset, fluttered above the dome of the Tuileries.
A plain white flag was indeed the flag of France from 1814 to 1830. The famous tricolour flag of France was (re)designed by Jacques-Louis David (him again) in 1794! to display colours of equal stripes, an earlier design by Lafayette, had increasingly large stripes, blue then white then red. As an aside, blue and red were the traditional colours of Paris, during the storming of the Bastille the attackers wore red and blue cockades. White was added as an ancient French colour.

Tuileries Palace was of course still standing in 1817. It was later destroyed by arson in 1871 and then demolished in 1882. There has been modern day talk of rebuilding it, making the Paris skyline look like this:

And how gobsmacking to find an anti-sugar rant delivered by Tholomyès:

Well, that's as may be, but remember this, my dears: you eat too much sugar. You have but one fault, O women, and that's nibbling sugar. O rodent sex, your pretty little white teeth adore sugar. Now, listen carefully, sugar is a salt. All salts cause dehydration. Sugar is the most dehydrating of all salts. It draws the blood fluids out of the veins. Hence, coagulation, then solidification of the blood. Hence, tubercles in the lungs. Hence, death. That's why diabetes is little short of consumption. So don't crunch sugar and you'll live!

This week I found this fabulous Khan Academy video of the historical background to Les Miserables (it does contain some spoilers for those wanting to avoid them).

There is so much more to Les Mis than just the story (which of course is fabulous in and of itself). 

All quotes are from the 2013 Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, translated by Christine Donougher. 

Friday, 2 February 2018

#24in48 Readathon Wrap-up January 2018

I hadn't heard of the 24 in 48 Readathon until very recently. Twitter can get me in a bit of reading trouble it seems. The idea is to spend 24 hours of a 48 hour period reading. That seemed easy enough!

Anyway, last week I made a spur of the moment decision to join in. For the first time ever the gods of International Time Zones shone on Australia! Joining in in real time, #24in48 starts at 4pm on a Saturday afternoon, and when you have two more weeks of holidays, and don't have to work on Monday-then the question is why not? 

I perused my shelves and made a quick TBR. Some of it plundered from my #summerreadingstack.

And I started reading at 4pm Saturday. Then I spent a goodly portion of the first two hours napping. 

Still by Hour 3 (and 1h40 of actual reading) I had read my first book. 

Hour 5 (2h10 reading) I finished my second. See my review

In a moment of reading serendipity both of my first two choices were set inside libraries!

I also read some more of my current 1001 read, The Complete Blinky Bill. 

It was late in the evening by this stage, and I wanted something lightish, no heavy nonfiction for me near midnight.

And so I started on my third book. I've been meaning to read it for ages, the movie is coming out next month, and it seemed like the right time. 

It was the perfect book to start, although I was asleep reasonably soon. 

Hour 22 (Sunday 2pm)
5h 38
Lets face it I'm not going to make 24. 

I've had a lovely morning. I'm half way through Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda.

I walked my reading assistants while listening to the Moby Dick Big Read. I've been going for some months, but I'm 60% through now! I read my chapters to keep up with #LesMisReadalong

And I've been allowing myself time to blog too. I've found that frustrating in previous readathons. Rush, rush, rushing with the reading doesn't give me enough time to process what I'm reading, and then I don't enjoy it so much.

I forgot to update after that. Ah well, no system is perfect.

All up I read for 12h50 minutes. I'm pretty happy with that. It was a lovely relaxed weekend. I got quite a bit of reading done. I finished Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda. I finished Blinky Bill. And made a start on The Monkey's Mask. My first adult verse novel.

I'll definitely be joining in for 24in48 again.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

The Legend of Spud Murphy

Eoin Colfer is wonderful, an Irish writer, with a particularly strong case of that amazing Irish sense of humour. His sense of humour is on full display in The Legend of Spud Murphy. I saw him speak at a conference a few years ago, it was more a comedy performance than an author talk. I have been in his thrall ever since. 

Spud Murphy is one of his earlier books, published in 2004. It is a chapter book for younger readers. It is particularly funny. Will and Marty Woodman are the oldest of five boys. One summer holidays they are forced against their will to join the local library. A terrifying thought because they are very frightened of the local librarian, Mrs Murphy. Mrs Murphy runs a tight ship and is said to have a spud gun behind her desk. She is a fearsome, Trunchbull-like character. 
You're probably wonder what we were so scared about. I bet you're thinking that we were a pair of gutless chickens who would have been better off at home sewing our names on to handkerchiefs. But that's because you think libraries are happy colourful places, where the librarians actually like children. That may be what most of them are like, but this one was different. It was a place where serious men read serious books and nobody was allowed to show even a glimmer of a smile. A smile could get you thrown out, a titter could get you spudded. And if you laughed aloud, you were never seen again. 
Naturally the boys are not keen to spend their summer afternoons in the library. 
We had no choice but to go inside. It was just as I feared. There was nothing in there but books. Books waiting to jump off the shelves and bore me silly. 
Mrs Muprhy has some fabulous tricks to keep boys in line in the library, and it is all very funny.
We couldn't fight, we couldn't shout, we couldn't make loud bodily noises. All the things young boys live for. Oh the boredom! My head felt like it would fall off and spin across the wooden floor. I tried everything to entertain myself. Watching movies in my head, following the pattern in my carpet prison, eating strips of paper from the books. But most of all, I just dreamed of freedom. 
"Then one day something strange happened."


Saturday, 27 January 2018

Les Misérables The Fall/La Chute V1B2

Finally after 57 pages of buildup, 57 pages of beautiful, wordy preamble we meet Jean ValJean! The story proper, well at least as told in the musical versions can now start.

We are treated to quite a description of Jean Valjean.

It would be hard to come across a more wretched-looking passer-by. He was a man of average height, stocky and robust, in the prime of his life. He might have been forty-six or forty-eight years old. A cap with its leather peak pulled down partly concealed his weather-beaten face streaming with sweat. His shirt of coarse yellow cloth, fastened at the neck with a small silver anchor, revealed a glimpse of his hairy chest. He wore a rolled-up neckerchief, threadbare blue drill trousers with one knee faded to white and a hole in the other, a ragged old grey overall patched on one elbow with a bit of green cloth sewn on with twine, a soldier's knapsack on his back that was stuffed full, firmly buckled and brand-new; a huge knotted stick in his hand, hobnailed shoes on his stockingless feet, a shaven head and a long beard. 
We are warned several times that he is an untrustworthy, dishevelled looking man. 

The sweat, the heat, the journey on foot, the dust, added an indefinable disreputability to this shabby outfit.  
Jean Valjean has been released from his sentence, given a yellow passport and has to report in to town halls on his route. 
Release is not freedom. You are let out of prison, but you continue to serve your sentence. 
On the day after his release Jean ValJean finds a days work unloading bales outside an orange flower distillery in Grasse. I doubt that his day's work was anything like this video, and it's interesting to contrast a world needing orange blossom water for perfume manufacture as the same world that has just incarcerated and tortured Jean Valjean for his poverty for 19 years.

Even though Jean has money to pay for food and lodgings he is turned away from every door in Digne, after news spreads like wildfire that he is an ex-convict, until it is suggested that he knock on the Bishop's door. 

Here of course he is welcomed warmly, he offered a meal and shelter for the night. And finally after 25 chapters, 25 days of reading, we have a real plot point! Some action. 
He raised his iron candlestick as though to force the lock. The key was in it. He opened the cupboard. The first thing that met his eyes was the basket of silverware. He took it, and throwing caution to the wind strode across the room not worrying about the noise, reached the door, re-entered the chapel, opened the window, seized his staff, climbed over the ground-floor window-sill, put the silver into his knapsack, threw away the basket, crossed the garden, leapt over the wall like a tiger, and fled. 
It was so, so tempting to read the last two chapters at this stage, to gobble them up and be ready for Book 3. I was forced to distract myself with housework (ugh) and trying (but failing) to catch up in my French reading , and writing this post (much more delightful diversions). I was unable to resist the temptation though on the second last day, and read two chapters so that I could finish Book 2. 

In the very final chapter we see Jean Val Jean hit rock bottom. Not only has he stolen from the kindly bishop (who has then not turned him in), he has come so low as to steal from a child, and for no apparent reason. 

His past life, his first missed, his long expiation, his outward brutalisation, his award hardening, his release celebrated with so many plans of vengeance, what had happened to him at the bishop's house, the latest thing he had done- stealing forty sous from a child, a crime all the more craven and all the more monstrous coming after the bishop's pardon- all this came back to him, he saw it clearly, and with a clarity such as he had never seen before. He beheld his life and it looked horrible, he beheld his soul and it looked dreadful.

Victor Hugo gave us some spiriting, suspenseful passages in these latter chapters, and it bodes well for all the action to come.  

Slow Reading en français: I'm sad to report very little progress, well actually none, mainly because I've been gadding about the place on holidays. I'm planning on better progress next chapter.