Thursday, 12 April 2018

Before I Let You Go



Before I Let You Go is quite a departure from my usual reading tastes. I'd never heard of Kelly Rimmer before I saw the publicity for this book, despite the fact that we live in the same, small Australian town. There are a few reasons for this, as I said it's not a book that I'd usually pick up, and Kelly has had a really interesting path in publishing. She has written four books previously, but these have only been available digitally (at least in Australia, and I think worldwide). But she has achieved extraordinary success along the way. She has sold more than 600,000 digital books, and been translated into 20 languages! And now she is being sold in print for the first time. Obviously her star is on the rise which is fabulous news. I was lucky to be able to attend a local launch, meet Kelly, and get a signed copy. 

Before I Let You Go is the story of two sisters, Lexie and Annie, told in alternating first person voices. The sisters had a difficult upbringing after their father died and their mother remarries. The older girl, Lexie, leaves as soon as she can at 16 and goes on to become a doctor. Annie grows up to a very different life, she is to become an intravenous drug user. Then she becomes pregnant, which is the start of the story. These circumstances would be difficult enough anywhere, but Before I Let You Go is set in Alabama where a law regarding Chemical Endangerment of a Child was enacted in 2006. The law was originally intended to keep children out of meth labs, a completely reasonable aim, however the scope was broadened to include pregnant women using drugs, and babies who test positive to illegal drugs, which is not reasonable, not sensible and in fact dangerous.

I enjoyed the alternating first person voices. This was never confusing as the chapters were clearly named, and different fonts are used for each sister. Annie's sections were written in a journal format style in italics as opposed to Lexie's more conventional narrative. For all of her bad choices, Annie was a warmer, more likeable character, while I found Lexie more difficult, full of anxiety, hand wringing, and burdened by the weight of her own expectations. 
You love like that only once in a lifetime - you can love from a place of innocence only once. 
Both Lexie and her fiancé Sam are doctors, and I had quibbles with some of their characterisations at times. There were also some medical errors which grated, but that is probably something that most readers wouldn't necessarily notice- a "BP monitor" on a forefinger, and two doctors ignoring a fever in a neonate. Fevers in babies less than three months are a big deal, and not just ascribed to being a "first cold".

However, I was really disappointed to find that my Australian copy which proudly proclaims BEST SELLING AUSTRALIAN AUTHOR on the front cover was indeed full of Americanisms. There was no attempt whatsoever to modify the language for Australian publication- and every time I read Mom, acetaminophen or diaper my blood pressure rose. This is a particular hobby horse of mine, I realise that, and yes, I know that this is an American story, but it was printed for an Australian audience, it should be published for us. 

My library now has print copies of all four of her previous books (and they are being heavily borrowed which is great to see). All of those prior books are set in Australia, I will certainly be interested to take a look at one of them.


http://australianwomenwriters.com

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Chat 10 Looks 3



I came rather late to worship at the Chat 10 Looks 3 altar- but boy am I there now! I'd heard about it a little bit somehow over time but really leapt into it late last year when it was announced that a live show would be near me in May. So I immediately bought tickets. And then I looked out for the podcast- not really understanding what podcasts where at that stage but I wanted some background so I could really enjoy the live show.

Chat 10 started in late 2014 as a somewhat erratically timed podcast, it's basically just friends Leigh Sales and Annabel Crabb chatting about things they've been doing. They are both keen readers and consumers of modern entertainments- movies, Netflix shows and other podcasts. They also love to cook (and eat) and discuss what they've been making for dinner, or for pudding. Which I realise sounds a bit unprepossessing, but it's fantastic. It's like having a couple of intelligent, chatty friends round for dinner and you can't get a word in. 

I've now gone back and listened to every single episode. And loved every minute of it. Well occasionally they did delve into American politics a bit much. Every episode is chock full of wondrous chat, it's intelligent and humorous. I laughed out loud more than once whilst out walking the dogs. 

My major problem with becoming a Chatter is that it makes me want to read, watch or listen to (and of course eat) everything they talk about. And I just don't have the time for it all. The website is just loaded with links. There's a Facebook group that can chew up a lot of time too, but it's an amazing community, and incredible things can happen there. 

So far I have also listened to Alone: A Love Story, a Canadian podcast by journalist Michelle Parise that documents her marriage and the breakdown of her marriage. It's so honest, brutally raw and powerful especially for those who have recently been in a similar place.

I've started watching Chef's Table on Netflix, and I am a few episodes into Series One of The Crown. I've bought Season 1 of VEEP, but am yet to load the disc into the player.

Podcasts are great to listen to whilst out walking the dogs, driving the car, or lounging about at home.
They're certainly having a moment now. I find it rather amusing that what is essentially portable radio programming is the big new thing in the modern world, when we have so much more amazing technology and visual mediums at our beck and call. But they're so very beguiling, and there seems to be podcasts for every taste, and on every subject. True crime seems to be a major theme though. Serial (2014) probably lead to the rise of the podcast. I still haven't listened to it. But now that I'm up to date with Chat 10 I can now cast around and find more. Leigh and Annabel have of course given me lots of great ideas to go on with.

I may be likely to listen to these sooner rather than later:
Conversations
Dirty John
S-Town
The Dollop

Or there's plenty of great podcast lists out there.

Wired UK List of Best Podcasts

Esquire's 20 Best Podcasts 2017

Time's The 50 Best Podcasts to Listen to Right Now

The 101Best Podcasts for 2018

And once you conquer the world of English podcasts there are lots available in French.

10 Awesome French Podcasts for French Learners

15 Advanced French Podcasts You'll Absolutely Love

SBS French


Leigh and Annabel discuss their childhood reading
at the Wheeler Centre

Friday, 6 April 2018

Les Misérables The Ship Orion/Le Vaisseau Orion V2/B2



The Ship Orion is only a short book, a mere three chapters, but it marked quite a special event- we are now a quarter of the way through the #LesMisReadalong. It's gone quite quickly really in some ways. It's been a great journey, and I'm so glad to be part of such a wonderful online community. 


The Ship Orion comes as quite a break after the history lesson of Waterloo. We delve straight back into the story in a rather dramatic fashion.



Jean Valjean had been recaptured. 

And Victor Hugo uses some different technique with the inclusion of two newspaper reports regarding the scandal of a small town mayor actually being an ex-convict in breach of parole. He is known to have withdrawn a large sum of money from his bank. 


Suddenly near Montfermeil we have a man, Boulatruelle, another ex-convict, a road-mender and drunkard who leaves his work to go and dig up the forest scaring old ladies. Thenadier sets out to find out what he is up to. 'Let's put him to the wine test,'...

They did their utmost to get the old road-mender drunk. Boulatruelle drank an enormous amount and said very little. He combined with admirable skill and in masterly proportion a guzzler's thirst with the discretion of a judge. 
We soon have another digression into war, much shorter than that of Waterloo. I presume that Hugo's contemporary readers would have known of the war of 1823- I had to resort to the Notes and to Google. 
In 1823 France intervened on the side of the royalists in the Spanish Civil War (1820-3), with the result that liberal gains were reversed and Ferdinand VII was restored to the throne as absolute monarch. 
Naturally Victor Hugo has some opinions on this. 
The war of 1823, an outrage against the brave Spanish people, was at the same time, therefore, an outrage against the French Revolution. 
And there are more magnificent quotes. 
An army is a strangely contrived masterpiece by which force results from an enormous amount of powerlessness. This is the explanation of war, waged by humanity against humanity despite humanity. 
And the gorgeous prose I've come to expect. 
A ship of the line combines the heaviest and lightest of components because it operates at one and the same time with the three forms of matter, solid, liquid and gas, and must contend with all three. It has eleven iron claws to grab the granite sea-bed, and to catch the wind in the clouds it has more wings and feelers than any flying insect. Its breath is expelled from its one hundred and twenty cannons as from enormous bugles, and proudly answers thunder. The ocean tries to lead it astray in the frightening sameness of its waves, but the vessel has a soul, its compass, that guides it and always indicates north. On dark nights its lanterns act as substitutes for the stars. So against the wind, it has rope and canvas; against water, timber; against rock, iron, brass and lead; against darkness, light; against immensity, a needle. 
Even while describing the Mediterranean fleet Victor Hugo's social conscience is never far away. He tallies up the wasted cannonballs used by the military every day. Two hundred years later we are still having essentially the same discussions on military spending. 
It has been calculated that in salvoes, royal and military honours, exchanges of courtesy volleys, ceremonial signals, harbour and citadel formalities, sunrise and sunset salutes every day by all forts and all ships of war, port openings and closings et cetera, the civilised world was discharging around the globe every twenty-four hours one hundred and fifty thousand unnecessary cannon shots. At six francs per cannon shot, that comes to nine hundred thousand francs a day, three hundred million a year, that go up in smoke. This is just one small detail. Meanwhile the poor are dying of hunger. 
At the end of this book Jean Valjean performs another heroic rescue and saves the life of sailor caught in the rigging of the ship. 
At a nod from the officer, with one blow of a hammer he had broken the chain riveted to the shackle round his ankle, then grabbed a rope, and leapt up into the shrouds. No one noticed at the time how easily that chain was broken. It was only later that people remembered. 
Clearly Jean Valjean had been biding his time, waiting for his chance, and we can now reflect on the chapter title- The Ankle-Chain Must Have Been Worked on Previously, to Break at a Single Hammer Blow.

After his daring rescue in the rigging of the ship Jean Val Jean "seemed to falter and teeter" and falls into the sea. 
He had vanished into the sea without causing a ripple, as though he had fallen into a vat of oil. They searched, they dived. It was to no avail. The search continued until nightfall. They did not even find the body. 




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

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Verse Novels

 It was way back in 2014 that Steven Herrick showed me how great verse novels could be. I've really come to love them since, which I don't think could surprise anyone more than me. Because I haven't learnt to like poetry yet. But many of these verse novels would count as some of my favourite books of the past four years or so, or ever. .

I thought I would group together the verse novels I want to read, and those that I have read. A lot of these books are middle grade or YA, but I've started to read some adult verse novels too- although I think that there aren't as many of these about- or perhaps I just haven't found them yet.

And in a random act of coincidence that almost looks like planning April is National Poetry Month (in the US at least).


After the Kiss - Terra Elan McVoy

Aurora Leigh - Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Brown Girl Dreaming - Jacqueline Woodson (see my review)

Bruiser - Neal Shusterman

Bully on the Bus - Kathryn Apel (see my review)

By The River - Steven Herrick (see my review)




Cinnamon Rain - Emma Cameron (see my review)

Crank - Ellen Hopkins

Enchanted Air - Margarita Engle

Freakboy - Kristin Elizabeth Clark

Glimpse - Carol Lynch Williams

Home of the Brave - Katherine Applegate

I Heart You, You Haunt Me - Lisa Schroeder

Inside Out & Back Again - Thanhha Lai (see my review)

Long Way Down - Jason Reynolds

Love That Dog - Sharon Creech

May B - Caroline Starr Rose

Moonrise - Sarah Crossan (see my review)

October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard - Leslea Newman




One - Sarah Crossan (see my review)

One of Those Hideous Books Where the Mother Dies - Sonya Sones

Out of the Dust - Karen Hesse

Paper Hearts - Meg Wiviott

Pookie Aleera is Not My Boyfriend - Seven Herrick (see my review)

Red Butterfly - A.L. Somnichsen

Sister Heart - Sally Morgan (see my review)

Somewhere Among - Annie Donwerth-Chikamatsy

The Crossover - Kwame Alexander

The House on Mango Street - Sandra Cisneros




The Lost Marble Notebook of Forgotten Girl & Random Boy - Marie Jaskulka

The Monkey's Mask - Dorothy Porter

The Realm of Possibility - David Levithan

The Red Pencil - Andrea Davis Pinkney

The Simple Gift - Steven Herrick (see my review)

The Sugar Mile - Glyn Maxwell

The Watch that Ends the Night - Voices From the Titanic - Allan Wolf

The Weight of Water - Sarah Crossan

Two Girls Staring at the Ceiling - Lucy Frank

Street Love - Walter Dean Myers

We Come Apart - Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan (see my review)



I will add to this list as I come across new books, or lists of verse novels. I do like to keep track of verse novels.

12 YA Books in Verse You Need to Read

9 Books in Verse You Need to Read ASAP

Michael Symmons Roberts Top 10 Verse Novels

And for when I run out of these books there are 100 Must-Read YA Books Written in Verse!

Sarah Tregay has created the motherlode of all verse novel lists split into age!

I need to put these lists down- I just bought 6 verse novels over at Bookdepository! Oops.

Monday, 2 April 2018

Eleanor Oliphant is Totally Fine


Eleanor Oliphant is having a bit of a moment, as well she should. Ever since the release mid last year Eleanor has been everywhere. There's been so much buzz, everyone is reading it, she's already won some prizes (big ones like the Costa First Novel Award) and been nominated for even more (big ones like The Womens Prize). Eleanor is even spear heading a new genre, Up Lit, "novels of kindness and compassion".

One detail that I wasn't aware of before I started reading is that Gail Honeyman is Scottish and Eleanor Oliphant lives in Glasgow. Eleanor is 29, and she lives what most of us would consider a sad and lonely life. She lives alone, she is an accounts receivable clerk at a mid-size graphic design firm, and she lives a regimented, regulated life.
From Monday to Friday, I come in at 8.30. I take an hour for lunch. I used to bring in my own sandwiches, but the food at home always went off before I could use it up, so now I get something from the high street. I always finish with a trip to Marks and Spencer on a Friday, which rounds off the week nicely. I sit in the staffroom with my sandwich and I read the newspaper from cover to cover, and then I do the crosswords. I take the Daily Telegraph, not because I like it particularly, but because it has the best cryptic crossword. I don't talk to anyone- by the time I've bought my Meal Deal, read the paper and finished both crosswords, the hour is almost up. I go back to my desk and work till 5.30. The bus home takes half an hour. 
She is fully aware that she is separate.
It often feels as if I'm not here, that I'm a figment of my own imagination. There are days when I feel so lightly connected to the earth that the threads that tether me to the planet are gossamer thin, spun sugar. A strong gust of wind could dislodge me completely, and I'd lift off and blow away, like one of those seeds in a dandelion clock. 
Yet Eleanor appears to have accepted her difference, accepted her solitary life.
I have always taken great pride in managing my life alone. I'm a sole survivor- I'm Eleanor Oliphant. I don't need anyone else- there's no hole in my life, no missing part of my own particular puzzle. I am a self-contained entity. That is what I've always told myself, at any rate. 
Although the 2 bottles of vodka each weekend would argue against this happiness with her life. One day things change as Eleanor sees a man collapse on the street and she assists him with a colleague, Raymond from IT.

I like books in a Quirky first person voice, and Eleanor certainly has that. Perhaps a bit much at times though. Eleanor is socially awkward, she has stilted speech, and a literal understanding of the world so of course there are a number of fish-out-of-water scenarios.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is a meditation on loneliness, on friendship, on social mores.
If someone asks you how you are, you are meant to say FINE. You are not meant to say that you cried yourself to sleep last night because you hadn't spoken to another person for two consecutive days. FINE is what you say. 
I quite enjoyed Eleanor Oliphant is Totally Fine, but didn't love it as much as almost everyone else seems to have. Sometimes Eleanor's naiveté and quirkiness seemed forced to me, she's intelligent, well read and yet so oblivious to so many things. Still it a fascinating debut novel from Gail Honeyman, and I'll certainly read her next book whenever that comes. 
The character grew, Honeyman explains, out of a newspaper article she read years earlier about the problem of loneliness. “At the time it was something that wasn’t discussed much and when it was, it was usually in the context of older people who are widowed or whose families have moved away.”
Reese Witherspoon has apparently bought the film rights, and I do think that Eleanor will make a great film handled right, although I really hope that her Scottish context is preserved, but fear that it won't and it'll ruin the movie like they did with The Girl on the Train. 

Friday, 30 March 2018

Les Misérables Waterloo V2B1


I wasn't really expecting quite such a history lesson when I took on reading Les Mis this year. But Waterloo certainly gives us one. Even though Hugo tells us "It goes without saying, we have no intention of writing the history of Waterloo in these pages". Which is odd given that he spends 18 chapters doing exactly that. Not that I minded all that much. What did I know of Waterloo? Not much. That 44 years later still not that many people can carry off blue satin knickerbockers?



I really enjoyed this history lesson that isn't. I hope to long remember that I only need to think of a capital A to imagine the layout of the battle ground, and that Waterloo itself was nearby but not really the scene of the battle. 
Waterloo did nothing and remained over a mile away from the action. Mont St-Jean was shelled, Hougomont was set ablaze, Papelotte was set ablaze, Plancenoit was set ablaze, La Haie-Sainte was stormed, La Belle- Alliance witnessed the embrace of the two victors. These names are scarcely known and Waterloo, which made no contribution to the battle, gets all the credit. 
There are always many little acts of fate that conspire to bring about a certain end. 
What we admire above all in a conjuncture such as that of Waterloo is the amazing ingenuity of change. Night rain, the Hougomont wall, Ohain's sunken road, Grouchy dead to the cannon, Napoleon deceived by his guide, Bülow reliably informed by his- the entire disaster is wonderfully orchestrated. 
In modern thinking about error management we call these small actions or events within a system the Swiss Cheese Model. Hugo chose to invoke a higher power. "Napoleon ..... was an inconvenience to God."

I think we can forgive Victor Hugo this lengthy diversion given the import of Waterloo. Both as a political and historical event.
Waterloo is the pivot of the nineteenth century. The demise of the great man was essential to the advent of the great century. 
What is Waterloo? A victory? No. A lottery. A lottery won by Europe at France's expense. 
And the scope of the human tragedy.
Of all pitched battles Waterloo is the one with the smallest front in relation to the number of combatants. Napoleon, three thousand three hundred yards; Wellington, two thousand two hundred yards; seventy-two thousand combatants on each side. It was from this density that the carnage resulted..... One hundred and forty-four thousand combatants; sixty thousand dead. 
On a single day! Nearly as many as those who died instantly when the atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima in 1945.

And like all great classics there are always passages that leap off the page with their eternal relevance. Here talking of Napoleon of course:
The inordinate weight of this man was disturbing the balance of human destiny. This individual alone counted for more than the rest of the world put together. These excessive quantities of human vitality concentrated in a single person- the world going to one man's head- would be fatal to civilisation if it were to continue. 
And England.
But this great England will be annoyed by what we say. After her own 1688 and our 1789 she still cherishes the feudal illusion. She believes in heredity and hierarchy. 
I think Victor Hugo does his most beautiful writing in passages like these, when he is giving background, and not really developing the narrative. 
The darkness was serene. Not a cloud in the sky above. So what, if the earth is red- the moon stays white. Such is the indifference of the heavens. In the meadows, branches of trees broken by shelling but not brought down with their bark still holding, swayed gently in the night breeze. A breath of air, almost a sigh, stirred the scrub. There were quivering in the grass, like souls departing. 
He really describes the horrors of combat in the 19th century.
Where there had been the agonised moans of that dreadful calamity, all was silence now. The hollow of the sunken road was filled with horses and riders inextricably piled on top of each other. A terrible jumble. There was no embankment any more. The corpses ha levelled the road with the plain, and came right up to the brim like a well filled bushel of barley. A heap of dead bodies on top, a river of blood below, such was this road on the evening of the eighteenth of June 1815.
It's fascinating to know that Waterloo is one of the very last sections Hugo wrote, just before Volume 2 was published. Digressions such as this were very common in 19th century literature (and one of the major reasons I couldn't get through Anna Karenina), Buttontapper pointed out that digressions form up to 25% of Les Mis. A great article came our way from the Paris Review whilst we were reading Waterloo, stating that the publication of Les Misérables is still "widely regarded as the biggest publishing coup of all time." I can't wait to get to reading David Bellos' The Novel of the Century. 

Although after 18 chapters of history lesson we do eventually get back to the narrative arc..... "after the victors come the thieves". "The day after a battle always dawns on naked bodies." We have met this "flying rat" before, it is none other than Sergeant Thénardier, who unwittingly saves a life whilst robbing the dead. 
"I shan't forget that name," said the officer. "And you remember mine. My name is Pontmercy."
I do know from listening to a BBC Radio Dramatisation (do beware of that link, my review contains many rather large spoilers) that the Thénardiers are a much bigger part of the story than is indicated in the musical versions. If you already know the broad story of Les Mis then Pontmercy is a familiar surname. I'll be intrigued though to see how this story line pans out- it is not one included in the stage adaptations. 


Thursday, 29 March 2018

Victor Hugo Introduction


I've had a few Graham Robb books in the TBR for some time. Chunksters like Parisians and The Discovery of France. I knew that he'd written a chunky biography of Victor Hugo, and while I was somewhat interested because of my Francophile nature I was never brave enough to pick it up. Well, my participation in the year long #LesMisReadalong this year has changed all that. You may have noticed that I'm really loving it. A few weeks ago I found myself ordering a copy of Victor Hugo, and tonight I picked it up. 

I'm really not much of a reader of chunky books. I'm such a slow reader that they take me months and I find it endlessly frustrating, and I lose interest long before I'm anywhere near finished. But once you're taking on a 1416 page Les Mis then a 682 page biography of its author can seem like a relative doddle. It helps that Graham Robb already displays such a light touch.
The present biography was intended primarily to provide its author with an excuse to spend four years reading the works of Victor Hugo. 
I think I'm going to enjoy this. Tonight I read just the seven page Introduction. Already there is so much there. So much food for thought.  So much worthy of quoting starting with the very first sentence. 
Wherever one looks in the nineteenth century- there is Victor Hugo....
While I'm no expert on the nineteenth century certainly wherever I go- there is Victor Hugo. Naturally I've visited Musée Victor Hugo in Paris (see my blog post) which really helped me start to understand what a phenomenon he really was. I've visited his final resting place at the Pantheon (several times), and somewhat randomly found the Maison de Victor Hugo in Vianden, Luxembourg in 2010. There was even a link to my recent trip to Cambodia(!) when I discovered that Victor is seen as a saint by the Vietnamese Cao Dai religion, although sadly I didn't get to visit the Cao Dai temple whilst in Phnom Penh.

Victor Hugo was such a prominent nineteenth century figure that many grand statements can be found about him just within the introduction:
By the time he fled the country in 1851, Hugo was the most famous living writer in the world...
His influence on French literature was second only to that of the Bible. 
I was astonished to learn that only two-thirds of Victor's work was published during his lifetime, and 3,000 words were published about him every day- in 1997- probably that would be even more now, with people like me wittering on in our own little way. Given that, it's also surprising  in 1997 at least, there was no "complete, scholarly edition of his works and letters" published in France. 

This was the first time that I have heard of L'Homme Qui Rit, and obviously I immediately thought of La Vache Qui Rit! Really? Is that really a cheesy Victor Hugo reference? Seems I'm not the only person who think so... Oh, and there is a Maison de la Vache Qui Rit! Straight to the wish list. Oh and the 1928 silent movie version The Man Who Laughs inspired The Joker!

It seems that even in the twenty first century Victor Hugo is still everywhere! I can't wait to read on. 

Through the magic of the internet we can still watch Graham Robb speaking about Victor Hugo in 1998. It's worth listening to.