Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Les Misérables A Good Man/Un Juste V1B1

I am so excited to be participating in the Les Miserables Chapter-a-Day Read-Along this year. Rather incredibly Les Mis has 365 chapters, making a year long read of this rather massive tome utterly enticing and even a sensible, ordered approach to such a whopper of a book. And it turns out that we're right on trend! Apparently now there is Slow Reading, in the way of Slow Food, Slow Fashion and the many other slow movements

I was rather surprised to find that the grand sweeping saga of Les Miserables starts with a 57 page, 14 chapter study of Monseigneur Bienvenu, a character that I see as a rather small figure in the scheme of things- an expectation that is only based on viewings of the film and stage show. But it was so beautifully written and translated, and I was never bored, only impatient for the story proper to start.  Those 19th century readers must have been much more patient than folks of today- binge watching everything with attention spans of goldfish.

This long buildup, a 57 page preamble, about what the good, kind nature of Monseigneur Bienvenu is presumably so that we are not surprised with how he interacts with Jean Valjean later, and feel that it is completely within his nature, and we will even expect him to behave as he does.

Monseigneur Bienvenu lives a somewhat spartan existence himself so that he can do even greater work for the poor. He swaps his large bishops residence for the overcrowded hospital next door. He lives on a very modest budget, eating simple meals ("his usual meal consisted only of boiled vegetables and soup with oil") so that he can give most of his stipend to charity. His "winter drawing room" is the cow shed. 
Since he made his cassocks last a very long time and did not want anyone to notice, he never went into town without his purple quilted coat. This was a little uncomfortable in summer. 
His one luxury is eating off the silverware that are relics of his past, six silver forks and spoons, and the two large candlesticks that were an inheritance from a great aunt. Monseigneur Bienvenu is a simple man, acting with charity. He does not philosophise. "He did not study God, he yielded to the radiance of God." A man of "No abstract theories, many practical deeds".
Suffering everywhere was an opportunity for kindness always. 
Hugo of course discusses the church. 
A wealthy print is a contradiction in terms. The priest ought to remain close to the poor.... The first proof of charity in a priest, in a bishop especially, is poverty. 
And there is even an atheist senator. 
Did I exist before my birth? No. Shall I exist after my death? No. What am I? A little dust bound together by an organism. What am I to do on this earth? I have the choice: to suffer, or to enjoy myself. Where will suffering get me? To non-existence. But I shall have suffered. Where will enjoyment get me? To non-existence. But I shall have enjoyed myself.... After that, however long you manage to keep going, the grave-digger is there, the Panthéon for some of us, but all end up in the great hole in the ground. 
Victor Hugo himself did end up entombed in the Pantheon. He is in a crypt with Émile Zola and Andre Dumas.

There is just so much within these pages, every page is quotable. Not a word wasted, even though there are so many of them. Although I did wonder at the purpose of Chapter IX The Brother as Described by His Sister, except perhaps to show that even those closest to him felt the same way about him as our omniscient narrator. 

Victor Hugo wrote his masterpiece with a stated aim of social change, even in these early pages we see mention of the Revolution on the first page, and Napoleon on page 2. Indeed it is a chance meeting with Napoleon that transforms Monsieur Myriel to Monseigneur Bienvenu. Hugo in his rather humble foreward:
As long as through the workings of laws and customs there exists a damnation-by-society artificially creating hells in the very midst of civilisation and complicating destiny, which is divine, with a man-made fate; as long as the three problems of the age are not resolved: the debasement of men through proletarianization, the moral degradation of women through hunger, and the blighting of children by keeping them in darkness; as long as in certain strata social suffocation is possible; in other words and from an even broader perspective, as long as there are ignorance and poverty on earth, books of this kind may serve some purpose. 
There certainly is still a modern purpose for Les Miserables. Indeed many. 
Let it be said in passing, success is a fairly hideous thing. Its false resemblance to merit deceives men. 
Occasionally a word struck me as particularly modern, perhaps out of place. 
He considered these magnificent conjunctions of atoms that lend appearances to matter, reveal forces by putting them into effect, create individuality within unity, proportion within the continuum of space, the numberless within the infinite; and produce beauty through light. 
Atoms? Victor Hugo wrote of atoms? But yes, yes he did. 
Il considérait ces magnifiques rencontres des atomes qui donnent des aspects à la matière, révèlent les forces en les constatant, créent les individualités dans l'unité, les proportions dans l'étendue, l'innombrable dans l'infini, et par la lumière produisent la beauté.
I was very interested in the mention of Louis XVII (son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette), and I remembered my visit to La Basilique de Saint Denis in the summer of 2013. Louis XVII died a child, aged 10, and his heart is on display at Saint Denis. Every little conversation, every paragraph of Les Miserables is loaded with meaning. 

Louis XVII is mentioned in contrast with another Louis, not a royal Louis, but Louis Dominique Bourguignon, known as Cartouche, a French highwayman of the Robin Hood type, robbing the rich to give to the poor. Cartouche's brother, Louison, a boy of 15 was hanged for being the brother of Cartouche. The deaths of these two young boys are debated. A dying member of the Convention that Monseigneur Bienvenu visits says:
'Come now! Who is it that you mourn? The innocent child? In that case, very well, I mourn with you. Is it the royal child? I need to think about that. For me, Cartouche's brother, an innocent child hanged by the arms until dead in Place de Grève for the sole crime of being the brother of Cartouche, is no less cause for sorrow than Louis XV's grandson, an innocent child martyred in the tower of the Temple prison for the sole crime of being the grandson of Louis XV.'
The absolute hardest thing about reading A Good Man, was not reading ahead. I was so keen to start Les Mis that I just wanted to keep going, and some of the chapters are particularly short- one to two pages that it's very tempting to say "Oh, just one more".

Slow Reading en français: My progress in French is even slower. Indeed I am stalled at Chapter Two, mainly because I've been enjoying a fabulous summer break in Sydney, and have barely had time to read in English let alone French. I will begin again when I get home. 

I'm hoping to do a wrap up of each book as we progress throughout the year.

Friday, 5 January 2018

But You Did Not Come Back

I must really have wanted to read this book because I've managed to buy it twice in the past few months. Though each purchase was during a buying frenzy at Basement Books. Entirely explainable. A French sounding author name, and once you pluck this tiny morsel from the shelf you see the cover picture of Paris (a wintry shot of Place de la Concorde by Robert Doisneau) and a blurb from Le Parisian.

One of the most beautiful books of the year ..... you will read it in one sitting.
And on a day when I'm casting about looking for three books I'm guaranteed to finish to reach my Goodreads goal for the year, then this is the time, this is the moment to read But You Did Not Come Back. It was a great, if sobering choice. I did read it in one sitting, albeit somewhat broken by a nap. 

But You Did Not Come Back is a letter written to her father. Marceline and her father were transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944. A father she lovesHer father wrote her a note whilst in the camps and managed to have it delivered to her. But Marceline can only remember a few words of what he wrote "I try to remember and I can't. I try, but it's like a deep hole and I don't want to fall in."

Marceline lives to return to France after the war, but her father does not, fulfilling his words of prophecy.

"You might come back, because you're young, but I will not come back."
Decades later Marceline is writing to her beloved father. Marceline describes the unimaginable horrors of Nazi concentration camps.
From my cell block, I could see the children walking to the gas chambers. I remember one little girl clinging to her doll. She looked lost, staring into space. Behind her were probably months of terror and being hunted. They'd just separated her from her parents, soon they'd tear off her clothes. She already looked like her limp, lifeless doll. 
More surprising to me perhaps was her account of returning to France. That she needed to sleep on the floor because she couldn't stand the comfort of a bed. That her family did not survive her father not returning, that her siblings and friends died from the camps without ever having been there. Marceline herself fought so hard to stay alive during the war and yet after she was to attempt to end her life twice. 

Naturally she talks a lot of life and death. 
As children, we knew about death and its rites: the black flag, the hearse that moves slowly down the street. We would encounter death and respect it, we were much stronger than people are today, they're so afraid of death...
After the war Marceline marries twice, her second husband is prominent Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens. She becomes a film maker too, which gives her life a purpose.  
But in order to live, the best thing I could find to believe in, to the point of obsession, like my uncles before me, was that it was possible to change the world. 
Her thoughts on the current world situation are sobering.
I know that anti-Semitism is an eternal given; it rushes in waves along with the crises in the world, the words, the monsters, and the means of every era. Zionists like you predicted it: Anti-Semitism will never disappear. It is too deeply rooted in the world.
She talks of the creation of Israel, 9/11 and the troubled world in which we now all live. 
... I'm changing. It isn't bitterness, I'm not bitter. It's just as if I were already gone. I listen to the radio, to the news, so I'm afraid because I know what's happening. 
Which makes me even happier with my decision to stop watching the news nearly two years ago. It doesn't help. And all of which makes her opening words even more astounding to me.
I was quite a cheerful person, you know, in spite of what happened to us. We were happy in our own way, as a revenge against sadness, so we could still laugh.
An image of Marceline supported by her beautiful smile in her author photo on the back of the dust jacket.

Translated by Sandra Smith

Wednesday, 3 January 2018

A Year in Books 2017

It's time to look back at another year in books. Happily I did a bit better with my reading in 2017 than I did in 2016.

In 2017 I read 17, 894 pages in 100 books. Not a bad effort. Up from the 11, 075 in 2016, but not at the dizzying heights of 2015 (20,061).

That 100 books in 2017 is no small coincidence. I had set my Goodreads target to 100 for the year, and for most of the year I was keeping up and on track but things unwound a little in the last few months of the year, and I had to make a concerted effort in late December to get to that magical 100. I did it with 50 minutes to spare! A close call indeed.

I wasn't particularly great at rating or reviewing books in 2017. Some of these I did give 5 stars at the time, some have just really stuck with me.

Scrappy Little Nobody. Anna Kendrick. Audio.

Florette. Anna Walker

The Remarkable Secret of Aurelie Bonhoffen. Deborah Abela. Audio

Maggot Moon. Sally Gardner. Audio. My Book of the Year. 

Don't Call Me Bear. Aaron Blabey

The Weight of a Human Heart. Ryan O'Neill

The Hidden Life of Trees. Peter Wohlleben. Audio

Tuck Everlasting. Natalie Babbitt

The Hate U Give. Angie Thomas

Burial Rites. Hannah Kent. Audio

Moonrise. Sarah Crossan

Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls. Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo

12 of my 100 reads were 5 stars.

5 Aussie books. 

4 Adult reads.

2 Picture Books. 

1 Verse Novel.

5 Audio Books. 

3 Nonfiction/memoir.

10 Female Authors.

3 Male Authors

9 New to Me Authors!

The Weight of a Human Heart had a big impact on my reading aspirations being the first short story collection that I've read in many a year. I have now amassed quite a number of short story collections (quite a number), I hope that more will be appearing in the best reads of 2018. 

Also interesting that 5 of my top 12 were audio books. I really have taken to them with gusto. I really loved all of those audio books. Maggot Moon was particularly stupendous of course, but the others are all fabulous. Burial Rites was magnificent and beautifully read, and it was wonderful to hear the Icelandic names and places pronounced rather than stumbling over them every time whilst reading. Noone could be more surprised than I was to actually listen to a celebrity memoir (it's not my thing) and then enjoying it so much. And The Hidden Life of Trees really changed how I view and think about trees. Did I even think about trees before? Not nearly as much. 

Rather incredibly I appear to have not read any Jackie French in 2017 so she can't make an appearance in this list. This is the first time that this has happened since lists began to be compiled. I shall have to rectify this terrible omission in 2018. 

Monday, 1 January 2018

Les Mis Chapter One Monsieur Myriel

I am so super excited at starting the Les Miserables Chapter-a-Day Readalong! I couldn't wait to start, so, soon after midnight in Australia I was delving in. I've had the 2012 Penguin Cloth Bound edition of the 1976 Norman Denny translation on the TBR for some time, and always figured that I would read it in my dotage (whenever that happy time comes). I ended up buying the more recent (2013) Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition Christine Donougher translation in the lead up to the read-along so I now have the two translations to chose from. 

Last night I read Fantine Chapter One Monsieur Myriel from both versions to see which one I favoured and which I will read. Both books are whoppers of course, both extremely difficult to manoeuvre whilst reading in bed. One hard back, one paper back. The hardback Denny has a nice ribbon, but feels more chunky in the hand. Both have smallish fonts but the Donougher feels easier on the eye, which is important given that it is 1416 pages long- making it the second longest book I've ever attempted- I did a short lived attempt at a read-along of the 1533 pages of Clarissa one year. Naturally I'm much more hopeful of success with Les Mis. 

And what of the translations themselves? Well there are obvious difference in style between the two, although the basic information conveyed is the same. The opening paragraph:

CD: In 1815, Charles-François-Bienvenu Myriel was bishop of Digne. He was an old man of about seventy five. He had been bishop of Digne since 1806.

ND: In the year 1815 Monsieur Charles-François-Bienvenu Myriel was Bishop of Digne. He was then about seventy-five, having held the bishopric since 1806. 

From the original French according to Project Gutenberg.

En 1815, M. Charles-François-Bienvenu Myriel était évêque de Digne. C'était un vieillard d'environ soixante-quinze ans; il occupait le siège de Digne depuis 1806.

The CD translation seems the more direct, while ND uses a more formal style perhaps. 

A random sentence:

CD: Monsieur Myriel had to undergo the fate of every newcomer to a small town where there are plenty of tongues given to wagging and very few minds given to reflection.

ND: He had to accept the fate of every newcomer to a small town where there are plenty of tongues that gossip and few minds that think. 

I think I feel inclined to continue with the more recent Christine Donougher translation at this stage. It reads more smoothly to me, and brings out the humour more. That view may change of course. I will miss the ribbon.

Given that the first book is entitled Fantine I find it somewhat unusual that the first chapter of Fantine and indeed the entire work is about someone else entirely. I realise he's setting the scene but it seems an odd place to start. Although it is reassuring that the Revolution is mentioned on page 1 and Napoleon just over the page on page 2. Napoleon always comes up. I asked a Parisian taxi driver about the taxi system once and he started talking about Napoleon!

In my somewhat bleary New Years Day early morning state I confused Digne with Dinde! Which means that I googled dinde. Dinde of course means turkey (the bird), I had been wondering why Monsieur Myriel would be the bishop of Turkey, but he is the bishop of Digne, and digne means worthy, so he is in fact the bishop of worthy, which is no doubt obvious to French readers. 

Whilst googling I found a great article from The Telegraph about the various French locations that Victor Hugo used in Les Miserables. I remembered my own visit to Musée Victor Hugo, and learnt that the 2012 movie was filmed in England. 

Even given that turkey confusion later today I'm going to give Monsieur Myriel a go en français! And also check out the audio version at Librivox (which is a rather old translation, 1887! by Isabel Florence Hapgood). Allons-y!

Sunday, 31 December 2017

I Am, I Am, I Am

I grabbed I Am, I Am, I Am off a bookstore shelf when I was in Melbourne in August. I'd never heard of it then. But I was drawn in by that gorgeous cover, and the subtitle: Seventeen Brushes with Death. I Am, I Am, I Am is Maggie's first memoir after having seven novels published. I'd never heard of Maggie O'Farrell at that stage either, but I Am, I Am, I Am is so beautifully written that I'll certainly seek out her fiction when I can. 

I really love the way the book is designed and organised. Each of the seventeen brushes with death is a separate chapter, each a short story almost, named after the body part threatening her life and illustrated with gorgeous historic anatomic drawings. 

I don't often talk about my day job here (in fact I studiously avoid it), but I see life and death on a daily basis. It informs my outlook on the world, it is the lens through which I view the world, life and humanity, and must of necessity encase my reading of this book (well all of my reading actually, but particularly this type of book), and indeed was one of the reasons I was so drawn to it to start with. Seventeen brushes with death, seemed an almost improbable, unwieldy claim. Can anyone really be that unlucky? I tallied up mine- one definitely, maybe a few others. 
There is nothing unique or special in a near-death experience. They are not rare; everyone, I would venture, has had them, at one time or another, perhaps without even realising it. The brush of a van too close to your bicycle, the tired medic who realises that a dosage out to be checked one final time, the driver who has drunk too much and is reluctantly persuaded to relinquish the car keys, the train missed after sleeping through an alarm, the aeroplane not caught, the virus never inhaled, the assailant never encountered, the path not taken. We are, all of us, wandering about in a state of oblivion, borrowing our time, seizing our days, escaping our fates, slipping through loopholes, unaware of when the axe may fall. 
Some of Maggie's near-death experiences were more near than others, and sometimes she doesn't realise when death may have been near. 
She asks if I'll write about having septicaemia and I say no. I don't remember it. I was too young. And also I don't think I was in danger of dying, was I?
The chapter about her miscarriage is astonishing. Gut wrenching. 
It will be hard, every time, not to listen to the internal accusations of incompetency. Your body has failed at this most natural of functions; you can't even keep a foetus alive; you are useless; you are deficient as a mother, before you even were a mother. 
Maggie wonder why when "losing a baby, a foetus, an embryo, a child, a life, even at a very early stage, is a shock like no other" we don't talk about it more as a society. 
Why don't we talk about it more? Because it's too visceral, too private, too interior. These are people, spirits, wraiths, who never breathed air, never saw light. So invisible, so evanescent are they that our language doesn't even have a word for them. 
Maggie to this day deals with the ongoing consequences of a severe childhood illness and it is fascinating and humbling to read her words about that. 
You yourself know that a near-death experience changes you for ever: you come back from the brink altered, wiser, sadder. 
I Am, I Am, I Am ( a quote from The Bell Jar) is about much more than near-death, it is also about Maggie's life. Her childhood, her travels, her education ("an unremarkable degree in English literature"), her loves, her marriage, her family and friends. It is beautifully written. 
Something is moving within me, deep in the coiled channels of my stomach, something with claws, with fangs, with evil intent. It is gaining strength, I can feel it, drawing it off me. It is as though I have swallowed a demon, a restive one that turns and fidgets, scraping its scales against my innards. I must fold into myself, breathe, grip my hands into fists until the spasm passes. 
Although if someone in reality described their pain to me in that way I wouldn't be sure if the pain was in their belly, or in their head. Maggie is a tea abstainer as I am, and we both worked cleaning hotel rooms when young, although I was never to describe it as poetically as she does in the first few pages, making me gasp with recognition. 
All morning, I sift and organise and ease the lives of others. I clear away human traces, erasing all evidence that they have eaten, slept, made love, argued, washed, worn clothes, read newspapers, shed hair and skin and bristle and blood and toenails. 
I loved learning that anaphylaxis was "discovered" and named by French researcher Charles Richet during experiments on dogs in 1901. He was awarded the 1913 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work. Sadly he was a man of his time and was also president of the French Eugenics Society. 

Saturday, 30 December 2017

We Come Apart

I was vaguely aware of this book when it was released earlier in the year, although I can't quite remember where I heard about it or saw it specifically. It caught my interest because it is a verse novel, and I do honestly enjoy them, but also because it has two authors, which is rather unusual. I bought it when I was in Sydney in November and snapped it up at Basement Books on sale. 

Sarah and Brian talk about collaborating

I was aware of both authors before this book. I've read a few of Sarah Crossan's books before. One (see my review). The Weight of Water. Moonrise, definitely my favourite so far (see my review), which means that Sarah has released two amazing verse novels this year. Brian Conaghan wrote The Bombs That Brought Us Together which I've bought (twice), but not yet read. 

We Come Apart is set in North London. Jess Clarke lives with her mother and stepfather, there are troubles at home and Jess has just been caught shoplifting and is ordered to attend a reparation scheme for 3 months of community service. At community service she meets Nicu Gabor, a Romanian boy who has recently come to London with his parents who has also been caught shoplifting. It's rather a grim life for both of them. 

I bet they don't live on grey estates
and eat Mars Bars for breakfast. 

The story is told in alternating chapters of Jess and Nicu's voices. It's really well integrated, really well done. Although I'm not sure about Nicu's voice. Naturally, Nicu doesn't have perfect English, and his chapters are written in stilted and incorrect language, which feels authentic but which made the reading voice in my head sound like Borat (yes I know, he's from Kazakhstan). 

Many peoples with much miserable in their heart,
many peoples with little monies,
all walking
up down
down up
smoking in huddle group,
chatting in small circle.
Everyone watching everyone do same things. 
Peoples with no place to go for laughing and be
Same as my old village.
The atmospheres, buildings and peoples 
in London North
is like giant rainbow. 
not beautiful colours
with golden treasure at end.
Is the rainbow with
white to grey to brown to black. 

But that is a minor quibble perhaps - even though it does make up half the book. Nico has a kind heart. The story swept me along and I read it in a few short days, even reading some before succumbing to the somewhat inevitable nap post Christmas lunch. 

We Come Apart has lots of great themes. Domestic Violence. Bullying. Hopelessness. Racism. Friendship. Love. Family obligation, and the differences of family expectations in different cultures. 

I can't put on a brave face and pretend that 
at the end of this 
things will be different.

Maybe for him they will be.

But for me 
they won't. 

Nothing's ever going to change. 

Of course Nicu does change things for Jess, but not in the way she, or I, expected. We Come Apart is Highly Recommended. 

Monday, 25 December 2017

Sour Tales for Sweethearts

I'm currently in a sprint to the finish to make my Goodreads goal for the year. I don't think I finished it last year. This year I really want to complete it. Sour Tales for Sweethearts is my 96th read for the year, so I have four to go to hit my target of 100. Desperate times call for desperate measures. So when my friend brought this pamphlet sized morsel along to bookgroup I knew I needed to read it. 

And I knew I was in for something different when I read the first line of The Hand. 

A young man asked a father for his daughter's hand, and received it in a box. 
Okay then. 

I've never read any Patricia Highsmith before. Of course I'm aware of some of her stories, but only through movie adaptations. I saw The Talented Mr Ripley whenever it came out, and never since, and I saw Carol at the movies recently- but that's it. I'd heard that she was a clever, good writer so I wasn't really prepared for my disappointment with this book. 

Sour Tales for Sweethearts is four short stories (most are really, really short), extracted from Little Tales of Misogyny, a collection published in 1977. 

The Hand

The Invalid, or, The Bed-Ridden
The Fully-Licensed Whore, or, The Wife
The Female Novelist

All are tales full of bizarre, nasty people doing bizarre, nasty things. And I didn't like any of them. I certainly didn't find any of the stories funny as the cover blurb suggested. Yes I can see what she is doing taking a literal view of asking for a daughter's hand in marriage, women who want to get married for spurious reasons and then do in their spouse. 

Now she could become a professional, with protection of the law, approval of society, blessing of the clergy, and financial support of her husband. 

But I can't understand how she ever sat down to write these stories. What was her inspiration? Well maybe The Hand. What if I take an expression literally? I didn't like the narrative style of The Hand, it seemed to have words missing, I got confused and I had to reread some of it to work out what she meant. 

Sadly I think it will be quite a while before I have another go at Patricia Highsmith, this was not a good taste test for me.