Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Road To Character by David Brooks

In this book David Brooks gives what might be considered the longest, and best, commencement speech ever. He speaks personally, yet universally also. He is not just talking to college-leavers, but to any of us ready to embark on a new quest in our lives. He takes the reading, experience, and thought of a lifetime and presents us with what he considers to be more important than the pursuit of happiness: the pursuit of goodness, character, morality. Happiness comes as the byproduct of a moral life, of a life of striving to be good. We don’t have to actually become good, and free from error or ‘sin’. We have to strive to be good. As we strive, so we become. The process is as important as the goal.

It occurs to me that the framers of the U.S. Constitution, most of whom might be supposed to exhibit character, might have known that the Pursuit of Happiness was chimerical. That is, they may have believed that we citizens should be free make mistakes and to fail in our pursuit of happiness until we realized it comes from some inner depths more related to character than to immediate gratification. That, it strikes me, makes the men and our Constitution all the greater, and also makes it a laudable goal for a nation.

Brooks suggests that spending one’s life pursuing the “resume virtues” of wealth and fame may, sooner or later, leave us questioning ourselves and our lives unless we attempt to see and focus on something(s) outside of ourselves that needs doing that we are uniquely equipped to do. He suggests that finding and beginning and pursuing this outside goal may lead to satisfaction and happiness when focus on oneself cannot. Pursuit of this outside goal will lead to “eulogy virtues.”

What struck me about the examples that Brooks provides of people who have exhibited the eulogy virtues is that they were of either sex, and came from every century, every background (wealthy, middle class, or poor), every race, every political stripe. These people achieved eulogy virtues by different methods. The diversity of examples provided by Brooks distracted at times from his central point, but perhaps with more study this richness of exemplars would become reassuring rather than overwhelming.

We do not find what we were put here to do by looking within. We do not have the material with which to work at a young age. We find what we were meant to do by looking outside ourselves and using our natural inclinations and talents to pursue a larger goal than that of personal aggrandizement. In this way we can remain pointed in the right direction as the winds of change swirl around us, refashioning popular sentiment. Money, fame, and stature in society are insufficient to achieving lasting happiness and the virtue worth eulogizing, character.
"What the Victorians were to sex, [our generation] is to morality. Everything is covered in euphemism."
I am reminded of a book written by a young woman just out of school. Kathryn Schultz’s book called Being Wrong talks also of how embarrassed and agonized we are over errors we commit that come with being human. We can’t avoid errors, but we can improve our error rate by being humble, and by listening more than speaking.

Brooks encourages us to aim higher than self. Best of all, we can begin at any stage in our lives, rich or poor, experienced or not. We do not have to be college graduates or paid employees of a large firm. We can simply begin. It strikes me as the most insightful and useful graduation speech I’ve never heard.

For those of you who prefer to listen to the book read aloud, this nonfiction is very ably read by Arthur Morey with an Introduction by the author. Although what Brooks is saying often requires deeper thought, you can always rewind when one finds one's thoughts shooting off in another direction as a result of what he's written. Better yet, listen again.

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Wednesday, May 27, 2015

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

Atkinson returns to her theme of “What If” in this companion volume to Life After Life in which we met Ursula Todd and many possible iterations of her life. Ursula’s brother Teddy and his family take center stage in this novel and the generation gap is caught beautifully as Atkinson articulates the view from Ted and that of his only daughter, Viola. Viola’s son and daughter, Sunny and Bertie, exhibit an equal distance from understanding their own mother’s life choices and personality.

Kate Atkinson adds an Author’s Note at the end of this story which tells us much of what she was communicating in this novel. “It is about fiction,” she tells us. “We must imagine what we cannot know.” Atkinson chose to look at the Second World War, and makes her central character an RAF airman. Teddy, we wonder at the end, does he even exist? That’s the thing about fiction. All that attention, care, and love lavished, and in the end, they are only characters on paper. But Atkinson caught enough truth in her writing that we know these characters, Ted, Viola, Sunny, are real enough within each of us.

What I like best about Atkinson’s work is her sense of humor about the tragedies of human life. She is a wonderful storyteller on the order of a Bruegel painting: large canvas, detailed figures not all doing the good and great thing. She gives us history, and we see the now, but we also get potential for the future. She does not leave us feeling that the thoughtful or erudite must be gloomy or humorless. With this two-book fiction, she gives us enough distance to see possible outcomes of decisions made now, and we always have the sense that we can change the outcomes if we don’t like where we’re headed. Her characters are complex enough to exhibit the petty and the grand. Once again, we always have a sense of possibility: character is malleable! We can change.

Atkinson tells us that this novel is “about fiction…and the Fall of Man from grace.” She indicates many references in the novel to Utopia, the Garden, the Way and then the falling, rising pattern of the characters, birds, planes correspond to what she is trying to convey. War is a fall from grace. And no matter how we frame the argument, innocents become victims. Atkinson reiterates that she is not a polemicist so wants her characters instead to express doubt and insecurity about the notion of the efficacy of war.

The thing about Atkinson’s fiction is that it is capacious enough to include the traditions of the past with the irresistible freshness and piquancy and social criticism of now. She does a marvelous job of telling a rip-snorting story at the same time she is urging caution. She was always a wonderful writer of fiction. She is in the process of becoming a great one.

A word about the audio production of this title: Hachette Audio did a brilliant job of producing this audio, read with terrific understanding by Alex Jennings. It is highly recommended. However, if one is familiar with Kate Atkinson's work, one will note that Atkinson has a tendency to move easily and quickly forward and back in time and between outlooks of various characters. One shift that was particularly difficult for me to catch in the audio was the story of Augustus. At the end, when I realized the importance of Augustus, I had to admit I didn't understand where he fit in. One glance at the paper copy set things straight for me since Augustus' story is set in different type in paper.


I recently listened to the NYTimes podcast of reviewer Tom Perrotta and Ruth Franklin talking about this book and I was struck by their insight that this book, in contrast to Life After Life, is about people who don't change very much at all: Viola, especially. Even though we know now that we can rewrite our lives, even our history, Viola holds on to old resentments and punishes herself and her family. Sunny seems to have taken the lessons of the earlier possibilities to heart, however.

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Sunday, May 24, 2015

One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway by Åsne Seierstad translated by Sarah Death

Åsne Seierstad is a nonfiction writer and foreign affairs journalist who had never written about her native Norway before she was asked to cover the case of Anders Breivik, on trial for mass murder in the city of Oslo and on the island of Utøya. She found herself uncertain how to explain the Breivik phenomenon after listening to ten weeks of trial testimony and decided to go deeper.

To Breivik’s story she adds those of three Breivik killed (Simon Sæbø, Bano Rashid, Anders Kristiansen) and one he did not kill (Viljar Hanssen). The only thing missing from this history are photographs, which I try to supply here.

Anders Kristiansen & Simon Saebo

Seierstad goes into great detail about Breivik’s personal upbringing which may be of use to some who think they can find a key to his behaviors as a 32-year old man. I am no expert on these things, but it didn’t help me to understand: what I did conclude is that family or community might be a more of a curb to deviance if they just spoke to the individual about their observations or concerns about their more anti-social behaviors. But this path may suppose those family or community members to have a well-developed sense of self, and of right and wrong.

Bano Rashid

Breivik spent a great deal of time and money organizing and preparing for his big moment. He rented a farm, had tonnes of fertilizer delivered, and purchased many items online. It took months. He wasn’t stupid, exactly—he just didn’t listen to opposing views. The novelist Karl Ove Knausgård points out in a recent New Yorker article that the bonds, constraints, differences and fellowship of ordinary community around the world are breaking down and allowing folks to feel themselves distanced from neighbors, countrymen, fellow humans.

Viljar Hanssen

Knausgård argues that Breivik was not exceptional in any way: “Breivik’s history up until the horrific deed can more or less be found in every life story…he was and is one of us.” Seirestad says that this is a story of community: “this is also about looking for a way to belong and not finding it.” Breivik found groups he liked and who liked him throughout his development but gradually he was dropped from their ranks. So he made up his own international “Knights Templar Europe” of which he was Commander. All alone by himself.

Island of Utøya

Having just finished a remarkable novel by Christie Watson, Where Women Are Kings , about severe child abuse and the damage it wreaks, I am inclined to think parenting may be the most important thing we should do well if we are going to participate in the world. It is not enough to have one’s own career and provide food and shelter. Even the indigent and refugee communities can do that now with government help. It takes more, much more, to create a home, or to run a school.

One of the more horrible (and horribly funny) portions of Seirestad’s account was how the police reacted to news of what they thought was the first major terrorist attack on Norwegian soil. A reader is simply undone by the Keystone Cops manner of their response. The police, living as they had in a civil society unused to such horrors, were extremely polite with one another and inefficient in the extreme. Every moment they delayed, another child was being shot. We are left with a vision of ten heavily armed police in a dangerously overloaded red rubber dinghy attempting to motor three kilometers to Utøya but getting stuck after a couple hundred meters offshore because the motor gave out when the craft was swamped. Rescued by a local holidaymaker, the dressed-to-kill warriors then overloaded the rescue craft.

We must realize, once again, that our protection must rely on us, the body politic. And I don’t mean we should arm ourselves. What I mean is that we are responsible for teaching the children about the meaning of community.

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Friday, May 22, 2015

Where Women Are Kings by Christie Watson

Christie Watson’s intensely moving second novel Where Women Are Kings is so beautifully executed that one comes away with a sense of awe at her mastery of imagination and writing skill. Watson gets inside the experience of being a Nigerian immigrant to London and illuminates a disconnect within the mind of a seven-year-old foster child.

Watson takes on an important, fraught, and difficult to understand human social issue—severe child abuse—and shares it with us with an intelligence and assuredness that gives us all grace. She is as careful with us, her readers, as a mother is with an at-risk child, talking us around the issue until we feel safe enough to look at it straight in the eye. We would not gravitate to this difficult subject were we not led there by a careful and steady guide.

Watson chooses a complex narrative structure with which to tell the story and in so doing, leads us to gradually comprehend how such hideous crimes might be committed by loving parents. There is a hard-won compassion everywhere apparent for all parties in this story, but not a hint of sentimentality. It is remarkable.

A seven-year-old boy of Nigerian descent has been kicking around the foster care system for some years before he is chosen by a biracial couple for adoption. He is considered at-risk because there is some question if he was involved in a fire set at his last foster home. The story is told partly from his point of view, and partly from that of his adoptive mother. Interspersed throughout the narrative are letters written to the boy, Elijah, from his birth mother. We sense the voice of the child Elijah and that of his birth mother are imaginative reconstructions, yet they have a compelling logic. The voice of the adoptive mother is so fiercely intelligent and defended that it feels positively lived.

Watson writes fiction that doesn’t feel like fiction, and yet all the elements of great fiction are manifest. The characters are unique, complex, recognizable. The story never gets out of Watson’s grasp. Her skill in the presentation keeps us rapt to know if and how the life of a seven-year-old can be saved. We believe in the folks she introduces who spend their days (and nights) wrestling with these issues. She makes them heroes.

There are no extra pieces in this novel. Every word works to the goal of our understanding and the development of our compassion. The story of the biracial household with a really tough, almost insoluble, problem is told with a naturalness that allows us to focus on big issues like whether or not love is enough.

At a time when the importance and relevance of fiction is being questioned, along comes a writer of such skill that we cannot but put aside that challenge for another day. Kudos to Watson.

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Sunday, May 17, 2015

Blanche Cleans Up (Blanche White #3) by Barbara Neely

Barbara Neely only wrote four Blanche books, but each one addresses issues central to life in America, and highlights the effect of these issues on the lives of America’s black folk. Blanche White, name notwithstanding, is a large woman with skin "on the extreme edge of blackness" who works as a "domestic." If you ever wanted to know what your maid or cook was thinking when they answered "Yes, Ma'm" with eyes cut off to the side, you're going to get your chance here. This woman is going to surprise and delight you. She has smarts and attitude to burn, and she has got three teens to take care of--so don't waste her time, sit down, and let her tell you how it plays.

Blanche struggles to navigate a dangerous world that doesn’t concern itself with her needs or those of her family. She is an amateur sleuth, which gives her plenty of latitude to indulge her curiosity about other people's lives. She is wily, but she is also strong and salty, blunt and clear. She is funny. She is an indispensable guide to looking at and discussing critical matters of concern to all Americans with regard to issues of race and class in our racially diverse neighborhoods. Neely chooses important social issues and has big black Blanche tell us all about sensitive issues she faces every day.

The Blanche novels are classified as mystery, but the murders are not the most interesting thing about this series. In this novel, what pins us to the page is what Blanche thinks about as she goes about her day as a cook in the household of a wealthy Boston couple, one of whom has put in his bid to be governor. There is plenty of intrigue surrounding the death of two young black men who used to work at the house, and then there is the death of a woman famous in her Roxbury neighborhood for knowing everything about everyone. The mystery "who-done-it" is a vehicle for Blanche to air her concerns.

Those concerns include protecting her family from the corrosion of bad influences, either from the sense of entitlement white and/or wealthy people have as a birthright, but also from the bottom-feeders in her own mostly black neighborhood. There is plenty of danger everywhere—from lead poisoning, for instance—and Blanche has got her hands full keeping body and soul together and caring for three teens. What struck me about the murders is that though two young black men and a black woman are killed, the official investigations never came close to discovering the culprit(s) and no one seemed to expect it. Blanche did her own investigations but never considered bringing what she learned to the police. Eventually the culprits were brought down by wrongdoing in another arena.

Blanche has a refreshing intellectual honesty. She feels jealousy, rage, hurt, but she works it out on the page, expressing feelings we've all had, and working it around until she admits she may have gone too far, or should be less possessive, or that she can't control what other people think or decide to do. She also expresses feelings of love, lust, and tenderness and can tell the difference between them.
“She’d stopped expecting life to be fair when she was about eight years old and had yet to be proven wrong. Still, that didn’t mean she couldn’t try to even things out a bit.”
The Blanche books were originally published by Penguin Books in the 1990s, and are now being reissued in ebook format by Brash Books. The third book in the series is just out in Kindle format with the fourth due in August this year. Those who want to be reacquainted with the smart and salty tongue of Blanche in Boston need wait no longer but can start reading today.

Author Barbara Neely has a Masters degree in Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Pittsburgh and set up a community-based housing program for female felons in an area of Pittsburgh called Shady Side. She knows all about poor choices and failures of will. She knows what despair looks like. Somehow she keeps her sense of humor, and shares it with us in the Blanche books.

Diana Reese writing for The Washington Post published a review of the Blanche books and portions of an interview with Barbara Neely in January 2015. And the U.S. Embassy in Prague conducted a video interview of Barbara Neely on the occasion of the books being translated into Czech by high schoolers. The covers of those translations are especially fabulous. That short video is posted below.

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Saturday, May 16, 2015

Dry Bones by Craig Johnson

It is not only kids who are interested in dinosaurs, especially when evidence of the largest Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton ever discovered intact is located on the land of an Indian rancher in Wyoming. Johnson helpfully puts the Acknowledgments for this novel right up front so we can see the degree to which his fiction parallels the actual case of the largest T. rex skeleton ever found, Tyrannosaurus SUE, discovered just over the border in South Dakota. The actual case and the fictional case both become worldwide sensations.

The fact of the dinosaur led me back to this series of novels by Craig Johnson, basis for the long-running TV series called Longmire playing on A&E. Johnson continually surprises me with what he chooses to highlight. In his hands there is an inexhaustible well of stories from which to draw life in Wyoming for us. Johnson bridges the continental divide and makes life in Wyoming vivid to city folk who barely remember that there is country outside their city limits. Better yet, Johnson brings us the mysticism of ordinary life among America’s indigenous population by including unexplained visions and voices that keep his head turned to face danger.

This novel really began for me when Henry Standing Bear made his appearance. He somehow brings with him a calm center that reveals justice. Lots of things happen to ‘the old dinosaur’ that is Longmire. He acquires scars like most folks get haircuts. His emotions sometimes carry away his humor. But Henry Standing Bear, with his careful language (no contractives) and considered responses, is a safe place for me. I suppose his spirit would make a good ghost, were he to be hurt.

But there is time to go before that unthinkable thing. This novel, like others before it, give hints to what is coming, and we are anxious to know how it will turn out. If I had advice for a genre writer, I would point them to the Longmire books and say: study this.

Craig Johnson has to be the hardest working genre writer out there: just look at the promotion schedule for his new book printed below. Every day, a new city. Along with overseeing the TV series and producing short stories and novellas for the season, every year Johnson continues to surprise us with a new installment in the unexpected adventures of Longmire, Vic, Henry Standing Bear, and now Cady and Lola. Reading their adventures is like greeting an old friend.

Which is why, when one of them gets hurt badly, or worse, we need to remind ourselves that this is fiction, and characters are at the disposal of fiction. That happened in this novel to me. I was hurt more than I should be, perhaps, when one of the characters suffers a devastating loss. Somehow it reminded that me that crime novels are about crime and maltreatment when suddenly the jokey manner and friendly folk seem at odds with the subject.

Humor may be a way through the thicket that is life. The wisdom in the novels remain: we learn the value of kindness, fairness, and love, whether between friends, family, or the populace at large. If evil can’t be beat, it can be doubled back on and laid very low…lower than happiness in the order of things.

This story is not so much about dinosaurs as about the response of humans to the possibility untold wealth as a result of dinosaurs. Pity. We already know about greed. What we have still to learn is tied up with the dinosaur.

Events for Craig Johnson’s DRY BONES Tour:

Tuesday, May 12, 12Noon Tome on the Range Las Vegas, NM
Tuesday, May 12, 6PM Collected Works Santa Fe, NM
Wednesday, May 13, 7PM Tattered Cover (Colfax) Denver, CO
Thursday, May 14, 7PM Old Firehouse Bks/Midtown Arts Fort Collins, CO
Friday, May 15, 5:30PM Sunriver Bks & Music/ SHARC Sunriver, OR
Saturday, May 16, 2PM Powell’s (Cedar Hills Crossing) Portland, OR
Sunday, May 17, 2PM Sunrise Mountain Library Phoenix, AZ
Monday, May 18, 12Noon Clues Unlimited Tucson, AZ
Monday, May 18, 7PM Poisoned Pen Phoenix, AZ
Tuesday, May 19, 7PM Book Passage (Corte Madera) San Francisco, CA
Wednesday, May 20, 7:30PM Book Shop Santa Cruz Santa Cruz, CA
Thursday, May 21, 7PM Book People Austin, TX
Friday, May 22, 6:30PM Murder by the Book Houston, TX
Saturday, May 23, 3PM Barnes & Noble Lincoln Park Dallas, TX
Sunday, May 24, 2PM Mechanicsburg Mystery Bks Philadelphia, PA
Tuesday, May 26, 7PM Chester County Books Philadelphia, PA
Wednesday, May 27, 7PM Left Bank Books St. Louis, MO
Thursday, May 28, 7PM BookSmart/ Circle Cinema Tulsa, OK
Friday, May 29, 7PM Books & Co. Dayton, OH
Saturday, May 30, 11AM McIntyre’s Fine Books Pittsboro, NC
Sunday, May 31, 3PM Quail Ridge Bookstore Raleigh, NC
Monday, June 1, 6PM Watermark Books Wichita, KS
Tuesday, June 2, 7PM Once Upon a Crime Minneapolis, MN
Wednesday, June 3, 7PM Mystery to Me / Hotel Red Madison, WI
Friday, June 5, 7PM Anderson’s Bookshop Chicago, IL
Sunday, June 7th, Time TK Printers Row Lit Festival Chicago, IL
Monday, June 8th, 7PM Barnes & Noble Billings, MT

Events for Craig Johnson’s Outlaw Motorcycle Tour:

Sunday, June 14, 2PM Red Lodge Book Red Lodge MT
Sunday, June 14, 4PM Red Lodge Library Red Lodge MT
Monday, June 15, 12 PM Elk River Book Livingston, MT
Monday, June 15, 7PM Country Bookshelf Bozeman MT
Tuesday, June 16, 7PM Fact & Fiction Missoula MT
Wednesday, June 17, 7PM Polson Public Library Polson MT
Thursday, June 18, 7PM Auntie's Bookstore Spokane WA
Saturday, June 20, 12 PM Seattle Mystery Bookstore Seattle WA
Sunday, June 21, 4PM Paulina Springs Books Sisters, OR
Sunday, June 21, 6PM Paulina Springs Books Redmond OR
Monday, June 22, 12PM Burns Public Library Burns OR
Tuesday, June 23, 7PM Betty's Books Baker City OR
Wednesday, June 24, 7PM Rediscovered Books Boise ID
Thursday, June 25, 6PM Haley Public Library Haley ID
Friday, -June 26, 4PM Dubois Public Library Dubois WY
Saturday, June 27, Time TK Mtn Spirit Habitat Groundbreaking Cody WY

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Thursday, May 14, 2015

All That I Have by Castle Freeman, Jr.

There should be a term for novels that reflect life in the hills and valleys of the eastern United States just as we have a term for novels set on the plains and mountains of the West. Of course, the term "western" encompasses a sense of yearning for new and undiscovered terrain while "eastern," if this book is any guide, might carry a sense of holding in and holding on to old ways of doing things.

The cover copy on this book tells us that Castle Freeman, Jr. is the author of three books but the website Goodreads tells different story. Freeman has been spinning yarns for years and many of his stories get published one way or another…in magazines, in collections, between covers all his own. One thing is sure: Freeman’s the real deal, the genuine article. Backwoods eastern is laconic as the day is long and it takes that long sometimes for someone in his novels to come up with a retort to something said, inferred, or done.

Lucian Wing is the sheriff of a small town—small collection of towns, I should say: seventeen towns with a few people and lots of trees, hills, and room for maneuver. Wingate, Wing’s mentor and sheriff before him, picked Wing as deputy in the time-honored way—by promising a wage cut and little excitement. Wingate sensed Wing was a sheriff at heart; that is, Wing knew the difference between being a sheriff and being a cop.

Freeman paints so well the collection of folks one finds in small eastern towns and gives them words to speak that have us choking with laughter and recognition. Some kids are dumber n’ rocks and will always be that way—figuring the world is there to confound them. They’ll get themselves in trouble for sure but the sheriff’s job is to keep them out of trouble, which is why the sheriff has to be ahead of them every step of the way. People are going to do what they are going to do. Sheriffing is about letting people do what they’re going to do and then clean up afterwards.

Lucian Wing is married. He loves his wife and his wife loves him, but sometimes things get a little off track. At those times, his wife shows him her back and Lucian sleeps on the couch. This little book tells us about the man who can weather those nights on the couch and what he thinks about as he’s doing it. It’s a little like sheriffing.

A portrait photographer comes to town and takes pictures of the local bad boy. Lucian sees the portraits the woman has taken and realizes that the bad boy could be anywhere, in any situation, and he would always carry the same understanding about the world. Which is to say, nothing. The portrait photographer draws a line from the local bad boy to Sheriff Wing and claims they are similar types of “internal” men. Wherever you go, there you are.

This is a slim novel big with ideas and that deep humor that comes with knowledge of the human condition. One could place it beside the work of another author who writes about a sheriff in a town with few people, Craig Johnson writing the Longmire series set in Wyoming, and see parallels and consistencies. This has less action but just as much sheriffing going on.

Castle Freeman, Jr. came to my attention when his novel Go With Me was published. I bought several copies of that book and passed them out to friends and family. I still consider it a classic of its type. Almost all dialogue, it resembles this novel for its observations of humans in their habitat—doing what they’re going to do. I have just learned that that book was recently made into a film starring Anthony Hopkins, Julia Stiles, Ray Liotta, and Hal Holbrook and is due out this year. Read the book. See the movie. It doesn’t get much better than this.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo: A New Translation by Christine Donougher

Christine Donougher’s new translation is brilliant. That the novel is a classic, we knew. What Donougher does is make it fluent to our ears and eyes and as thrilling to us now as it must have been in 1862 when it was published for the first time. The relevance of this story to our world cries out to us, and the simplicity of the language makes it accessible even to a schoolchild. The time it must have taken both the translator and the publisher (Penguin Classics) to complete this gorgeously-produced novel is staggering to contemplate but they have allowed us to marvel at Hugo’s work once again.

What astonishes me is that by the time Hugo wrote Les Misérables, he was already a widely respected poet and author in France. Hugo began as a poet and was in his late thirties when he wrote The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Twenty years later, Les Misérables was published. Part I was published first, and sold so well that subscribers lined up for the rest of the work. How could Hugo create characters as heartbreakingly complete as the young Gavroche, as recognizable as the teen-aged Cosette, or as good as the Bishop of Digne? Hugo created an entire world with this huge novel, and we believe him about the bleak penury and poverty. But how did he know it?

Hugo is so supremely sure of his audience that two hundred and fifty pages into the novel he takes fifty pages to lead us on a tour of the old battlefield of Waterloo, recounting for us every strategy of the generals and how their plans went awry. “Let us go back now--it is one of the narrator’s privileges,” he says, knowing we would follow him wherever by this time, we are so anxious to hear about the child Cosette who was left with exploitative foster parents Thénardier and is now being sought by the again-fugitive Valjean. It turns out that the Battle of Waterloo is not just discursive after all, but tells us of the first meeting of Pontmercy and Thénardier.

Valjean is recaptured and sentenced to a chain-gang. The ingenious method of his escape this time is both breathtaking and heart-warming--he saves a working sailor from the deep--and we find ourselves mad for love of him. As we progress further in this magnificent novel, we begin to mull over why it is so remarkable: what qualities make it a classic? The scope and relevance of the work we find immediate even today (“the poor will ever be with us”) and…Hugo plays us. By his characterizations he captures something in us which wants to believe in goodness, in heroism, in fairness and the right for something better. He involves our every sense, our every emotion. Even the wicked are making sense of their cruel world and therefore can be seen as humorous, or forgivable. We are on the barricades, waving the red flag and singing. What a brave book.

In the Production Notes of the latest Oscar-nominated version of the film starring Jackman, Crowe, Hathaway, Redmayne, Carter, and Cohen, all the actors praise the set for making them feel like they were in 19th Century Paris. When the Set Designers were asked where they got their inspiration, they said they had done a little bit of research, but most of what they constructed came from the descriptions in the novel itself. The book is a self-contained world. We have everything we need to draw each character and know them intimately. Every bow is tied, every thread followed.

I have seen at least three different film versions of Les Miserables and I have to say that Tom Hooper’s version stays with me the longest and best, while at the same time recognizing that I will always think of Gerard Depardieux as Jean Valjean. Tom Hooper’s ability to make song the natural mode of communication was unlike anything I’d seen before. That skill, along with the actors’ skills, paired with the Claude-Michel Schönberg score and the Herbert Kretzmer lyrics, together make such a brilliant work that one really is cheated unless one hears the score sung. Hugo would be proud.

The book is such a huge work that directors must choose what they will show, and Hooper changed his scenes from the stage presentations because he had more latitude. I so appreciate that he showed Éponine taking a bullet for Marius just as it is in the text. The story itself is an unwieldy thing and moving from the story of Jean Valjean to that portion that incorporates Marius is a big obstacle for directors and readers. Hooper manages it adroitly by choosing the telegenic and enormously compelling Eddie Redmayne to play Marius and Hugo manages it by making his work more interesting than anything else we could be reading. I can hardly imagine someone reading or listening to this story in the nineteenth century and what a miracle it would have seemed, with so many moments of riveting tension, chatty background, and characters real enough to paint.

Hooper, the director of the most recent film version, abridged the work so well and while I questioned the appearance of Marius’ uncle hovering in some scenes, I can see why Hooper wanted to include him. In the book the uncle is a creature of huge emotional regrets and it must have seemed impossible to leave him out entirely, though I don’t think it played well in the film.

By the same token, Hooper and Crowe made the death of Javert a much more emotional moment for us than it was for me when I read it. Crowe so inhabited the character of Javert we found ourselves actually caring for him at the same time we feared him. That is a complicated response. But I liked the way Hugo managed Javert's slipping away from the front door of Valjean's house with no words or sense of moment. That was Javert's moment of greatness, and it was so quiet and small, almost nonexistent. What a thing to write!

This translation by Christine Donougher is magnificent. She makes Hugo once again seem completely relevant and current through her use of language, accentuating Hugo’s great gifts. I am so grateful I had the opportunity to see the differences between the work itself and any attempts at stage play. Hugo was a great storyteller and while I wish I could have heard the clamor when the work was published that first time in 1862, I feel lucky to have experienced it in 2015.

Here is a wonderful review and discussion of Victor Hugo's life and writing that goes some distance to answering the questions that the novel raises.

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Monday, May 11, 2015

Bring Up the Bodies (Thomas Cromwell #2) by Hilary Mantel

This second volume in Mantel’s proposed trilogy has fear and trepidation woven into the very sentences. Cromwell has moments of prescience when he can see that his tendency to go “all in” on support for the people he works for will bring him grief and destruction in the end. But, you know, I like him better for it. The man who could rewrite Machiavelli and teach him a thing or two has, at heart, a heart.

In Mantel’s novel I often got the notion that Cromwell directed the King’s attention towards Jane Seymour. That Cromwell mistrusted Anne Boleyn, I don’t think there can be any doubt, though he supported her until her jealousies and scheming became too much for even Cromwell to stomach. It doesn’t make any sense for Cromwell to put Henry and Jane together unless he suspected all along Anne’s tendency to plot would be her epitaph.

In the BBC production starring Mark Rylance, however, we get a slightly different interpretation: in Rylance’s performance we see Cromwell’s surprise, uncertainty, fear, and a growing knowledge that Henry would throw off the yoke of marriage once again, and entreat Cromwell to "fix" a divorce for him. Cromwell himself had always been attracted [either sexually or simply as a father figure] to the young, silent Jane Seymour and notes with consternation how Jane drew the King’s eye. With his knowledge of the King, he surely fears for anyone coming unprepared into the King's orbit.

Either interpretation deepens the character of Cromwell, though one is far more scheming and less attractive. I think Mantel meant us to recognize the humanity in Cromwell, though she has him serving up the coldest dish of long-held revenge we have perhaps ever seen. Cromwell hates the young Master of the Privy Chamber Harry Norris for his role in a play which humiliated the memory of Cromwell’s beloved Cardinal Wolsey. Cromwell bides his time but eventually finds a way to unseat Norris.

The title, Bring Up the Bodies, refers to the trial of five court regulars who were thought to be intimates of Anne Boleyn: Harry Norris, George Boleyn, Mark Smeaton, Francis Weston, and William Brereton. There is still an open question as to whether the queen slept with them while she reigned. Hard as it is to believe, it may not be out of place today, which is why we even entertain the notion. Anne Boleyn was married to King Henry only three years. It seemed to have been a trial for both of them.

Mantel did meticulous research so we can assume the portrait of a petulant monarch who does not deal well with failure or challenges has basis in fact. Certainly looking at his decisions alone might lead one to think in that direction. But it is Cromwell that is the central character in this drama, and Mantel does not let our eyes or thoughts stray far from the man. Mantel's chapter headings toll the years, and if the reader already knows Cromwell lived only four years beyond the death of Anne Boleyn, each chapter heading rings sonorous, ominous.

At the end of this novel we are treated to how his contemporaries view him, and it is not a flattering portrait. They wonder Cromwell won’t go after the King next. We’d like to be able to defend him, but know he is simply doing what is necessary for himself—he has an unquenchable appetite for the hand to hand combat that is his life.

I look forward to how Mantel deals with the end of Cromwell and the story she has made her own.

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Monday, May 4, 2015

Being Wrong by Kathryn Schultz

Schultz' review of H is for Hawk in the New Yorker magazine this spring really made me take notice not only of Macdonald's book but also of the art of reviewing. Schultz's review was as gorgeous and thoughtful as Macdonald's book. I set out to see what else Schultz wrote.

I really like Schultz' premise on this one: we feel badly when we make mistakes, but everyone does it. As Schultz points out, before Descartes ("I think, therefore I am") was St. Augustine ("I err, therefore I am" or "To err is human"). The thing is, while some errors are small ones, or funny ones (and Schultz gives examples)some folks make big ones (like Bush and his weapons of mass destruction or putting the wrong man in jail for life).

What is clear from our own experience is that being wrong is so painful that we often just carry on as though we were right after all. We stick to our guns, as they say, and harden our position. Schultz points out that only with long experience in living do we come to the "wisdom" phase..."no one can be right all the time," so we should embrace error as the path to perfectibility.

This discursive work is filled with anecdotes and case studies, experiments and examples. I think it is for this reason that I leapfrogged through it. Wrong of me, no doubt. I had to go back now and again to pick out useful pieces that encapsulated her thoughts. And this is where I found the problem, at least for me: I like examples pointing to conclusions, but the conclusions were less finely drawn than I would like and the examples perhaps too many and divergent. But we do get conclusions at the end, and it brings to mind Shambhala studies and democracy.
"Here, then, are some ways we can try to prevent mistakes. We can foster the ability to listen to one another and the freedom to speak our minds. We can create open and transparent environments instead of cultures of secrecy and concealment. And we can permit and encourage everyone, not just a powerful inner circle, to speak up when they see the potential for error."

Kathryn Schultz gave two TED talks to great acclaim after the book was published. Of the two of these, I vastly prefer the one on Regrets. That hit a chord, or played me a symphony, more like.

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