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Archive for the ‘Classics’ Category

East of EdenI’m a big fan of John Steinbeck. He’s a great blend of philosophical content, strong storytelling, intriguing characters, and an awareness of the effect of the natural world on people. He’s a great and important novelist, with all that implies, but he’s also still entertaining to read. Until recently, my list of favorite Steinbeck would have been 1) Cannery Row; 2) Of Mice and Men; and 3) The Grapes of Wrath. Now I have a new favorite: East of Eden.

East of Eden re-tells the biblical story of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, but moves the action to California. It starts in Connecticut just after the Civil War, where young Adam Trask goes through a difficult childhood with a domineering father and a violent brother. He eventually marries Cathy, a woman whom he wrongly idealizes. Something isn’t right in Cathy–a modern person would call her a psychopath.

Adam takes Cathy, against her desire, to northern California’s Salinas Valley. There she gives birth to twins, Cal and Aron, but then deserts the family and assumes a much different life, working in and ultimately running a brothel. His fantasy marriage obliterated, Adam flounders, but is ultimately saved by contacts with a neighboring family, the Hamiltons, and particularly with Lee, a Chinese-born man of high intelligence who hides behind a facade of the stereotypes people want to see in a Chinaman. The boys grow up, at first believing their mother dead, then each slowly discovering the family history in their own ways. Cal is the stand-in for Cain, and Aron is Steinbeck’s Abel.

That’s enough plot. Ultimately, one can overstate the allegorical nature of this story. It’s certainly there, but one could enjoy the book without knowing the bible story. Steinbeck adds additional elements to the tale, but is more sympathetic to Cal and his struggle to do good things than he is to Adam or Aron and their sometimes unconsidered idealism. The result is an epic moral tale, but a fun book too, with elements of romance, suspense, and humor.

I loved the characters in this novel, especially the neighboring patriarch and inventor Sam Hamilton and the slyly wise servant Lee, who becomes such an important part of the Trask family. Cal’s internal struggle is fascinating, and even Cathy, for all her evil, becomes something different to a modern reader, an intelligent woman trapped in a world made for men.

Another strong point here is Steinbeck’s love for the natural world of California. It shines through in his writing, even as he recognizes that the natural world can be cruel.

The library owns two film versions of this story as well, both entertaining, but neither quite as good as the book. The 1955 James Dean film is a classic, and still great fun to watch, but it condenses the story somewhat to make it fit into the length of a feature film. There’s also a 1981 miniseries, which does cover the entire book, if less vividly.

Check the WRL catalog for East of Eden

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armsI frequently confess in these pages my bypassing of the great works of Western literature, of which A Farewell to Arms is undoubtedly one.  In this case I think I have a good reason: my best friend in high school became a Hemingway fanatic, quoting from Carlos Baker’s collection of Hemingway letters, insisting that we couldn’t use straws to drink our Coke because that isn’t what a “Hemingway man” would do, pulling non sequiturs from the stories into our ordinary conversations.  I dutifully read The Sun Also Rises for English class and completely didn’t get it, but I also knew I’d have to come back to Hemingway eventually.  Then Stephen Colbert’s Book Club “did” A Farewell to Arms (satirically making the most of the same Hemingway cliches my friend was guilty of misunderstanding) and it reminded me of my long-standing obligation.

The book is set during the endless stalemate along the Isonzo River. Along with the unusual setting (few people paid attention to the Italian front), Hemingway took a further step into unexplored territory by giving his main characters a kind of ironic immunity to the war.  Frederick Henry, a semi-autobiographical figure, is an American in the Italian ambulance corps, a witness to but a kind of bystander to combat.  Catherine Barkley is a British volunteer nurse, physically protected from the worst of combat’s random destruction.  Neither is unaffected by the war, but they don’t have the emotional patriotism that binds and drives the Italians.

Combat catches up with Henry, though not in the heroic manner he might have hoped.  Catherine transfers to the hospital where he’s being treated and the two become tender and enthusiastic lovers. Then Catherine gets pregnant and the rehabilitated Henry is sent back to the front just as the Italians are routed in the Battle of Caporetto.  Henry decides to desert to Switzerland, which proves a healing refuge for the two. Then both Catherine and the baby die in childbirth, and Henry learns that his “farewell to arms” does not render him immune from heartbreak and loss.

Superficially, this is a quick read.  Hemingway’s famously terse language is on display, even in the most intimate moments between Henry and Catherine.  His use of the word “fine” covers everything from Henry’s quarters to the wine they drink to Catherine’s idea of herself as wife and lover.  Critics have written this off as Hemingway’s ideal of the taciturn alpha male and a docile female in his thrall, but it seems to me more an inability for either of them to articulate the depth of their love for each other because the war has taught them that their world is a tenuous place.  But a passage where Henry describes taking Catherine’s hair down is rich in imagery and desire that he couldn’t have expressed aloud.  I also doubt that a misogynist detached from his emotional life could have written it.  A fast reader would miss the import of those flashes.

As far as readers go, I didn’t (and still don’t) believe that most high school students have the intellectual and emotional capability to understand the issues that writers like Hemingway wrestled with, and my high school friend was a perfect example of that.  It is only in subsequent years as he’s experienced deep love and the loss of that love, death, disappointment, and the unexpected beauty of a world he did not know as a teen that I think A Farewell to Arms could have the emotional power I as an adult first-time reader experienced.  I hope he finds that same power in the books he’s reading now.

Check the WRL catalogue for A Farewell to Arms

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Spectator BirdWallace Stegner was one of the great American writers of the twentieth century. You can’t really go wrong with his books, which are all a little different, but always center on characters that are hard to forget. Angle of Repose and Crossing to Safety seem to be his most often mentioned titles, and both deserve the attention, but there are more gems in Stegner’s canon.

Narrator Joe Allston is the “spectator bird” of Stegner’s title. He’s a retired literary agent, unhappy both with the circumstances of his retirement and the way in which he conducted his life. He feels as though he was always watching the parade of life, for instance serving as an agent to writers instead of doing the writing himself. His circumstances don’t help, as he has retired to rural area outside of San Francisco where he sees few people but his wife, whom he loves immensely but but whose familiarity he has come to find overpowering.

When he receives a note from a Danish acquaintance in the mail, Joe retrieves his journal and begins to read about the fateful trip that he and his wife took to Denmark back in the years shortly after World War II. His wife insists that he read the journal aloud, as she didn’t know he kept it. Although it’s about an awkward time in their relationship, he complies. He has put aside most of what happened on that trip for the sake of his marriage, but now it all comes burning fresh into memory.

I don’t want to give away too much of the tale, but there’s a mad scientist theme, Hamlet allusions, dilemmas of wartime loyalties in an occupied country, and plenty of surprises in the plot, something the reader might not see coming in a book that at first seems to be a subtle character piece about the cruelties of aging. Joe might be a curmudgeon, and he might be a spectator, but his life hasn’t been uninteresting, even if he chose not to follow every opportunity. This book is about the choices we make, even if we make them by not choosing.

I also recommend this book in the audio format, where it’s read by the talented actor Edward Herrmann (perhaps best known to modern audiences as the grandfather in The Gilmore Girls) whose intelligence comes through every sentence delivered by a pleasing baritone voice.

Check the WRL catalog for The Spectator Bird

Or try it as an audiobook on compact disc

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dickens-1Each winter I try to read something from the 19th century that I have not read before. These sprawling, character-laden stories seem to be just the thing for reading the winter blues away. I had intended to get started on something over the Christmas holidays, but circumstances prevented me, so in January, on the recommendation of a colleague  ~ thanks, Penelope ~ I dove into Our Mutual Friend.

Dickens’ last finished novel is, in some ways, a recapitulation of many of his earlier themes; poverty, social climbing, unscrupulous lawyers, and loving families all make appearances. It is also typical Dickens in its many plot lines that run in parallel for so long that you cannot see where they are ever going to intersect or even resolve. And, to be honest, they do not always resolve cleanly; some plots just seem to drift away and are never heard from again. Nonetheless, the story is a fascinating one, and it is worth the time to read through it.

Like Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend concerns an inheritance, in this case, one gone oddly wrong. Young John Harmon, on his way back from abroad to take up the profitable “dust” business left to him by his estranged father, is thought to have been murdered by a local boatman, and a body found floating in the river confirms that suspicion. The will stipulates that John only inherits if he marries Bella Wilfer. Needless to say, the body in the river is not John, and the story, or one of the stories, revolves around Harmon’s efforts to prove the boatman innocent of his murder, to woo the girl that his father’s will would have forced him to marry, and to come to his rightful inheritance. I told you things got complicated.

There are a lot of other tales here too: the pursuit of Lizzy Hexam, whose father supposedly killed John Harmon, by a lawyer and a schoolmaster; the trials and tribulations of the Veneerings, who are seeking to rise up in society; and the ups and downs of the delightful Mr. and Mrs. Boffin. Written in serial form, abrupt shifts of scenery, plot, and cliffhangers abound. But Dickens manages to wrap everything up at the end, pulling together the various strands of the story in sometimes surprising ways. I was delighted to meet several new characters here who will stay with me–Jenny Wren, Noddy Boffin, Mr. Riah, and Reginald (R.W.) Wilfer among them. They can join company with any of Dickens’ better-known creations.  Our Mutual Friend is an excellent novel to start with if you are new to Dickens, and if you enjoyed others, you will find much to like here too.

Check the WRL catalog for Our Mutual Friend

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classicsVolume 22 of the Graphic Novel Classics series contains twenty-three stories and poems written by famous early black authors and poets, including Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and W.E.B. Du Bois, among others. Each tale is then adapted and illustrated by notable contemporary black writers and artists including Jeremy Love, who wrote and illustrated the stunning Bayou graphic novel (review here), Trevor Von Eeden, who wrote and illustrated the two-part graphic biography The Original Johnson about the early boxer Jack Johnson, and Mat Johnson, who wrote the graphic mystery Incognegro (review here). With such a talented group of contributors, I had high hopes as I turned the pages of the first story, and I was certainly not disappointed.

Without a doubt, the stories are still as powerful today as when the words were first put onto paper. Sometimes sober, sometimes funny, and always heart-searing, even without the artwork this volume would stand alone as a fantastic collection of literature. But it is the illustrations, framing and woven into the lines of words, that really make the selections shine. Each artist brings their own unique style of lines and coloring to their work, which helps separate the stories from each other in tone and pace. Authors who have multiple contributions have their work drawn by different artists, and the contrast of styles give each piece a different life.

I would be hard pressed to select an absolute favorite among the works, but The Two Americans starts off the book with a powerful, wrenching emotional blow. In contrast, The Negro is simple, beautiful, and cosmic in its elegance. Each of its mere six panels could be justifiably framed and put on a wall as standalone art, something you don’t often get from a graphic novel.

Recommended for readers of poetry, short stories, and/or with an interest in American culture presented by the unflinching voices of those who experience it’s ugliest side.

Search our catalog for African-American Classics.

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wrinkleThe 1963 Newberry-award winning novel, A Wrinkle in Time, was a favorite of mine as a child. There was something so gently compelling about the storyline and I could relate so deeply to main character. Teenager Meg Murry doesn’t fit in, in school or seemingly anywhere else. She’s smart but stubborn, and fiercely protective of her family, even with its complete lack of normalcy. She is especially combative when anyone speaks badly about Charles Wallace, her youngest brother, who is definitely an odd child. Their father is missing, and his unexplained disappearance haunts the family, and leads Meg to be even more belligerent as she struggles to deal with the loss and the emptiness of not knowing what happened to him.

Although it has been many years since I last read A Wrinkle in Time, I was immediately swept back into the adventures had by Meg, Charles, their neighbor Calvin, with the Misses Whatsit, Who, and Which guiding them along their journey throughout the universe to save Mr. Murry from the terrible blackness that envelops him. The story, to use the words of Mrs. Murry, requires a willing suspension of disbelief, but the relationship between Meg and her brother Charles Wallace is poignant, and the storyline flows smoothly and quickly.

This work, adapted and illustrated by Eisner Award-winning artist Hope Larson, is the first time the iconic story has been presented in a graphic novel format. The illustrations are deceptively simple, and use a limited color palette of black, white, and sky blue. The blue hue serves to soften the starkness of the images, giving a dreamlike mood to the rapidly shifting number of worlds that they visit. Night and day have no definition here, as fighting the darkness without losing yourself or those you love is the only thing that matters.

This book is appropriate for all ages, but is especially recommended to fantasy readers and anyone who wants to revisit an old favorite from their childhood.

Search the catalog for A Wrinkle In Time: The Graphic Novel

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soldierIn one life, Mark Helprin is a writer of fantasy; in another, the writer of fiction that alternates between overwrought and stunning. A Soldier of the Great War is a wonderful realization of the latter.

The story of Alessandro Giuliani, a 70-year old veteran of World War I, is told by the old man himself to a much younger companion. Like the Wedding Guest, Nicolo Sambucca finds himself in company with The Ancient Mariner (although through the Mariner’s charity), where he receives an education in Italian history, politics, and the wonderfully indeterminate study of aesthetics. It is Alessandro’s own story, told by him for the first time as the two trudge across the Italian hills to their separate destinations.

The child of privilege, Alessandro took advantage of every opportunity to immerse himself in art and literature in school, while making time for mountain climbing and horsemanship.  From an early age he also took risks, and each risk prepared him to face more difficult challenges. As he enters his young manhood, he also extends that risktaking to courting women, with whom he falls in love easily.

Since the story takes place in the first part of the Twentieth Century, and since the title references The Great War, we know that Alessandro is headed into the maw of World War I. Although he joins the Italian Navy, he winds up serving both in trenches and on mountaintops, and fighting against both the Austro-Hungarians and his fellow Italians. Blown by the winds of fate and battle, he travels from the Mediterranean to Vienna, from lonely outposts to crowded hospitals, and through despair, love, rapture, and loss before finally returning to his beloved Rome.

But Alessandro’s destiny is not always as random as it seems.  Back in Rome, a twisted dwarf named Orfeo Quatta is pulling strings that affect Alessandro’s life and the lives of hundred of thousands of men. The senior clerk in the Giuliani family law firm, he was displaced by the typewriter but wound up at the Ministry of War, where official documents are still executed in skilled penmanship. But Orfeo is the only person who sees the originals, so he changes the texts to suit his whims, and his revised orders extend the war and increase the suffering of soldiers and civilians.

In his travels, Alessandro meets many people, but Helprin succeeds in creating in each a layered character who instructs Alessandro in his search for beauty. Despite the senseless violence, cruelty, and degradation of the war, Alessandro’s search for beauty, and for the God he sees in beauty, continues. Helprin captures Alessandro’s life in an effusion of language rich in imagery and philosophy, layered with drama and irony, creating a love story with a hero in love with life and with being in love.

Check the WRL catalog for A Soldier of the Great War.

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MansSearchforMeaning

“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.”

“The meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour.”

If you feel your life is short on meaning, a book club might help. Book clubs are great. I trust the members of my book club to recommend books that sound wonderful— for example I realize I really like character-driven, women’s, historical fiction and I am always keen to hear about the new titles they suggest. But my book club may be even better for getting me off my chuff to read things that I wouldn’t have gotten around to otherwise. Man’s Search for Meaning is a book that may have intrigued me enough to pick up in the library, but it would have sat unread on my bedside table for weeks if not for my upcoming book club meeting.

It is a dense and sometimes disturbing read, but my head was bursting with ideas after getting through it. And then after discussing it with my book club, my head and heart were even closer to bursting. The cover of the copy I have says that there are over 12 million copies in print, so it is a book that has spoken directly to millions of people.

The author, Victor Frankl, was a psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor who attributed his survival in part to his abiding belief that, even in a concentration camp, his life had meaning. He wrote Man’s Search for Meaning in nine days in 1945 and it is remarkably without bitterness for a book written so soon after the horrific events that he describes. Viktor Frankl developed a form of psychoanalysis called logotherapy, which literally means the therapy of meaning. This is a book whose message can be interpreted in religious terms, but it is also extremely meaningful to people without a stated belief or formal religion. In modern times, perhaps more than ever in human existence, we are expected to be happy all the time, and increasingly if we are not happy, then we are seen as ill. To this idea Viktor Frankl said:

I would strictly deny that one’s search for a meaning to his existence, or even his doubt of it, in every case is derived from, or results in, any disease. Existential frustration is in itself neither pathological nor pathogenic. A man’s concern, even his despair, over the worthwhileness of life is an existential distress but by no means a mental disease.”

Man’s Search for Meaning is a book that I recommend for everyone. At some time or another most of us suffer from some form of existential angst and this is a wonderful book to put things in perspective. It is dense and full of weighty philosophical insights, but it is very readable, and if you are lucky, you may even have a book club to discuss it with.

Check the WRL catalog for Man’s Search for Meaning.

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knightFirst, a series of confessions.  This book isn’t in the library’s collection, so I don’t have a link to it.  I’ve written about Jones’ take on Chaucer before, so I may be replowing the same field.  And, even though my wife doesn’t understand it, Terry Jones makes my heart race.

Like his work with Monty Python’s Flying Circuses, Jones takes a flying leap feet-first into a settled world and turns it on its head.  Chaucer’s Knight was almost universally praised by Chaucerians.  After all, look at how Chaucer begins his description:

A Knyght ther was, and that a worthy man,
That fro the tyme he first bigan
To riden out, he loved chivalrie,
Trouthe and honour, fredom and curteisie.

Along with calling him “a verray, parfit gentil knyght,” there was, in the minds of literature scholars, little else that Chaucer could have done to hold the Knight up as the noble ideal in a journey filled with rogues, moneygrubbers, and climbers.  Not only an ideal of the nobility, but a brave crusader who fought for the Christian faith, and who embarked on his pilgrimage to Canterbury immediately on his return from overseas. Pious, courageous, humble, courteous – except for his long-winded tale, he truly is a role model for the ages. What could Jones possibly object to?

His career, for one. Line by line, Jones goes through the list of places Chaucer and the other travelers hear that the Knight has been–from Egypt to Spain and up to Russia–and shows that it is actually a catalog of atrocities and brutal warfare not at all characteristic of the noble Crusader.  If fact, in some of the places the Knight has been, the fighting was between Christian and Christian; in others he served Muslim rulers during their internal battles. His signature victory at Alexandria was marked by the massacre of innocent civilians, looting of the city, and the immediate retreat of the English knights, leaving their commander to lose the prize to the returning Muslims. His record of jousting violated every norm of that “sport,” in which the death of a combatant was considered a crime. And in a time when England was under near constant threat from France and internally, and in which desperate battles were fought, the Knight was conspicuously absent, even in direct violation of King Edward III’s order that warriors could not travel abroad.

From his career, Jones follows Chaucer’s description of the Knight’s income, his conduct, his retinue, his horse, and his dress.  At every turn, he cites the writers and mores of the time to demonstrate that Chaucer was satirizing the conduct of a man who could only have been a mercenary fighting wherever money was to be made, booty to be seized, or a reputation for upholding his contracts could be made. The problem for modern readers is that the definitions of the words Chaucer uses have changed over the centuries so that we have taken them at face value rather than studying the context Chaucer’s listeners would have implicitly understood. He also digs into that interminable story of Palomon and Arcite the Knight tells, pulling out the details that show the Knight was more comfortable with the language of battle and despotism than the courtly language of love a true nobleman would have used to tell the story.  How many generations of undergraduates would have paid good money to learn that it was a parody designed to be laughed at?

I don’t know how formal Chaucer scholars received the work, except in a few cases where his interpretation was dismissed. As a medieval historian at Oxford, Jones acquired firsthand knowledge of both the work and of the contemporary writers with whom Chaucer would have been familiar, and it seems to me that his view from outside the specialty may give him insight into the work. As a comic writer himself (and I quote a friend of mine who says, “Smart people aren’t always funny, but funny people are always smart”), he has a built-in eye for the fun Chaucer poked at each of the other pilgrims. And although the work is a serious piece of scholarship, it never bogs down.

Last confession: I learned about this book from a professor I had in college, and I dearly wish I could remember his name. The pebbles he dropped in his classroom continue to ripple to this day–that’s the mark of a good teacher.

Sorry, can’t check the WRL catalog for Terry Jones’ Chaucer’s Knight. If you are interested in it, try interlibrary loan.  Any decent university library should have it.

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blackstallionThe Black Stallion is one of my all-time favorite films, and it stuns me to encounter individuals who have never heard of it, which sometimes happens when I suggest it to families looking for movies that will entertain viewers of all ages.  It often shows up on lists of great movies and also on lists of films containing minimal dialogue. The film is based upon Walter Farley’s children’s novel of the same name.

Visually mesmerizing, it’s also a great title for those learning the English language. The opening segment of the film is perfectly scored to music, especially a scene where the music is timed with the patient attempts of the boy to encourage “the Black” to join him in the sea so that he can finally ascend the horse’s great height to sit on his back and ride him. The reflections of light in the tropical waters, the endless sky, contrasted with the horse’s intense darkness and the pale yet sun-freckled flesh of the lonely shipwrecked boy are unforgettable. I admit, however, that at home with my DVD it is often during this scene that I find myself drifting off to sleep due to the relaxing atmospheric quality of the cinematography. It is for this reason that I always pop in The Black Stallion if I’m having trouble settling down for a good night’s sleep. It may work wonders for your rambunctious young ones when they’re in need of being calmed.

Check the WRL catalog for The Black Stallion DVD.

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ozDoes the Wizard of Oz need a plot summary? Thanks to Hollywood, everybody knows how the story goes. For many people, the 1939 movie has become the seminal adaptation of the work: singing munchkins, ruby slippers, a yellow brick road, an evil, water-phobic witch, and those monkeys. Creepy, creepy, flying monkeys.

When I heard that there was a new graphic novel representation of the original book I picked it up with a thrill of expectation tinged with fond nostalgia. I quickly found out how little I knew about the actual story. Shanower faithfully returned to the original text, which is darker and more involved than the movie portrayal. The munchkins don’t sing and there are a lot more winged monkeys. The famed ruby slippers are also nowhere to be found, with the original silver shoes taking their rightful place in the story. But Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, Cowardly Lion, and even Toto are all here, quickly joining together for their journey.

It was a daunting task for Eric Shanower and Skottie Young to take a story that has become so enmeshed in our cultural history and remake it. The introduction to this volume, written by Shanower, describes his lifelong passion for the works of Baum. This goes a long way towards explaining why he is so successful in his rendition. Only someone who so loves and respects Oz and the creatures that inhabit the world could pull this volume off. Young’s artwork is fantastic and his interpretation of the characters is both whimsical and humorous, which helps ease the scariness of some of the darker passages. The lion in particular is wonderfully puffy and squishy looking, and his face makes some of the best expressions as he vacillates between fearsome and frightened.

There are four volumes in this series so far, with a fifth being published in November. The series won Eisner awards for Best Limited Series and Best Publication for Kids. Recommended for children, teens, and any adult for whom this title is a fond link to their childhood. Especially recommended for people who didn’t like the movie’s (creepy, creepy) flying monkeys. They’re still hair-raising, but when their story gets told they are less sinister. One might even feel a bit sorry for them.

Search the WRL catalog for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

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Les Miserables

Les MiserablesI’m in the final week of rehearsals to play a dream part: Thenardier, the innkeeper and thief who, with his wife, serves as both villain and comic relief in the musical Les Misérables. It’s a show that I’ve always loved and I’m excited to be part of bringing it to audiences at Peninsula Community Theatre in Hilton Village, Newport News. Great performers are cast in iconic roles like the bread-thief-turned-guardian-angel Jean Valjean, the letter-of-the-law Inspector Javert, the tragic young mother Fantine, and the young love triangle of Marius, Cosette, and Eponine. I thought I’d use this post to review some of the versions available from WRL.

I’m not going to address Victor Hugo’s original novel. Good but long, many find that they can’t work up the impetus to finish 1,400 pages of a story they may have already encountered in several forms. If that’s your cup of tea, by all means read it, but I’m going to tighten my focus.

I also won’t spend much time on the non-musical films based on the story over the years. Fredric March squared off against Charles Laughton as Valjean and Javert in a great 1935 film. Michael Rennie and Robert Newton are less remembered by film fans, but their 1952 offering is not bad. The French tackled the story themselves in 1958. The library also carries successful versions with Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush from 1998 and John Malkovich and Gerard Depardieu’s 2000 television miniseries.

To me however, Les Mis is made something more by the anthemic music of Claude-Michel Schönberg. It’s a moving marriage of bombastic, heart-stirring music with a tale that’s every bit as over the top. Here’s where we might have to agree to disagree: to me the 2013 film fails to take advantage of this music. Director Tom Hopper goes for intimate stagings and actors with smaller voices, where the songs are meant to stir audiences in big houses, to be sung to all creation, to stand your hair on end with power, not to be sung in a tight close-up on the anguished features of an emoting actor. Although I know many loved the film, it didn’t work for me. If you don’t believe me, compare the film’s soundtrack to any of the versions below.

I’m all about the musical as presented on stage, and there are many fine recordings and concert films available for others like me. The original British production was iconic, the first in English, with Colm Wilkinson as Valjean, Michael Ball as Marius, and Patti LuPone as Fantine, but the orchestrations for the music hadn’t quite found their ultimate form. There are some synthesizers where other versions use orchestral instruments. When this CD wore out recently, I replaced it with something different.

The first Broadway cast recording is one of my favorites. Wilkinson is still in place as Valjean, but Terence Mann is a powerful foil in the role of Javert. The orchestrations are stronger, making this a grade-A recording.

Most recordings of Les Mis sacrifice material to fit the show on two discs, but for the full experience, including the best symphonic recordings of the music and an all-star cast including Gary Morris as Valjean, Philip Quast as Javert, Barry James as Thenardier, and Michael Ball back as Marius you have to get 1999′s complete symphonic recording. Many versions have great singing, but this is the one if you want to hear the orchestra in detail.

Of course the full Les Mis experience includes visuals, and for those, you have options beyond the recent film. Two anniversary concerts deserve attention, with fine performances in concert stagings. The 10th anniversary concert filled the Royal Albert Hall with a dream cast: Wilkinson, Ball, and Quast, plus Alun Armstrong as Thenardier, Ruthie Henshall as Fantine, Judy Kuhn and Lea Salonga as Cosette and Eponine, and Virginia’s own Michael Maguire as Enroljas.

It didn’t seem possible, but the 2011 25th anniversary concert, staged at the huge new O2 arena in London, is even bigger than the 10th anniversary. It introduced the world to Alfie Boe as Valjean, and featured musical theater mainstays like Norm Lewis as Javert, Lea Salonga, this time as Fantine, and Ramin Karimloo as Enroljas. The Thenardiers are hilarious and larger than life. Samantha Barks, who gave one of the best performances in the film as Eponine, shows she has chops enough for the stage too. The only misstep is teen heartthrob Nick Jonas as Marius, whose voice is a bit overmatched by the surrounding cast.  At the end, dozens of performers who have appeared in Les Mis productions join the fun, including five Valjeans.

So start exploring, and get ready for the 2014 revival on Broadway. With a little listening and watching, you too can join the ranks of those who love being “misérables.”

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Dandelion WineSomewhere out there, a retired teacher is laughing.

My first encounter with Dandelion Wine was in a high school creative writing class. The teacher, not the kindest I ever experienced, wanted us to read Ray Bradbury’s novel (actually more a collection of linked tales)  about growing up during a summer in Greentown, Illinois in 1928. It was 1984, my friends and I were far too sophisticated and modern to be interested in nostalgia for small-town America in a simpler time, and besides, it was a creative writing class and we wanted to write, not read. We read as little of the book as we could get away with, perhaps not any of it.

Jump forward a few years, and I’m participating in the National Undergraduate Literature Conference, reading a paper that I’d written. The guest of honor for the conference is none other than Ray Bradbury. He’s funny and engaging and friendly and I have great intentions to read more of his work. But I’m also a college student, busy with studies and intercollegiate debate and pining after girls that didn’t want to give me the time of day. So my intention to read Bradbury goes by the wayside.

Well since then, I’ve put my life in a different order, and part of that is time for reading. I’ve enjoyed other Bradbury titles, classics like Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles, but Dandelion Wine is still sitting on the shelf, teasing me. One day, sadly the day that Bradbury died after a long and productive writing life, I finally decide it is time to go back to Greentown.

It turns out, of course, that I love the book. The predominant themes are the passage of time and aging, that I’m perhaps more prepared at this point in life to appreciate. Other tales address our youthful sense of wonder, the power and spread of fear, and the pursuit of happiness. In one particularly memorable tale, an old woman tries to convince the neighborhood children that she was young like them once. They laugh at her. She produces memorabilia to prove her argument, and they accuse her of stealing it from other children and take it from her, ultimately goading her into burning a box of her most precious mementos. It’s a perfect example of how Bradbury can blend horror and nostalgia and wonder and philosophy all into the same little tale.

Bradbury captures the wonder of summer vacation for an American child perfectly, especially if you can remember the days when kids played games like kick-the-can in their neighborhoods until after dark, a time when the biggest thing to fear was the scary stories that we frightened each other with in the night. He captures the lengthy twilight hours, the warm nights where anything seemed possible. Looking back, my childhood in the 1970s and 1980s had more in common with the childhood of the 1920s that Bradbury describes than contemporary childhood, with all its technology, its early exposure to  adult concepts, and the real and perceived dangers that keep most kids in their houses.

While he’s often shelved in the fantasy/science fiction section, Bradbury is a writer for all readers. Yes, his work touches on speculative fiction, but he’s more about finding the wonder and magic in everyday life. Whether his setting is future Mars or bygone American small towns, his real subject is about the wonder of what it is to be human.

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7GablesIn old New England, scheming Judge Pyncheon craves a piece of land owned by poor farmer Matthew Maule. When Maule refuses to sell, he is suddenly accused of being a witch and condemned to die. On the scaffold he curses his persecutor, Judge Pyncheon. “‘God,’ said the dying man, pointing his finger, with a ghastly look, at the undismayed countenance of his enemy, ‘God will give him blood to drink!’” So begins the story of the Pyncheon clan and the curse that blights them down through the generations as they live in their house with seven gables built on land wrongly and ruthlessly appropriated from an innocent man.

First published in 1851, Hawthorne’s novella may be off-putting for modern readers with its lack of action and obvious symbolism, but stick with it. The story is intriguing and eventually you come to care about the characters, especially lonely old spinster Hepzibah. As befits a gothic novel, it’s very much a mood piece with the oppressive decay of the house and its dark history overshadowing everything. Hawthorne’s Victorian writing style is also quite interesting because the dense, highly literate prose, emphasizing psychological insight, is so different from modern popular fiction, which focuses on fast-paced plotting and snappy dialogue. The House of Seven Gables will not appeal to everyone, but if you’re tired of low-brow pop culture and looking for a classic good read, give it a try.

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TheRights of the ReaderReading should not be torture.

I’ll take a stab, and guess that you, today’s Gentle Readers, who are perusing a blog about books, created by a public library, are a special bunch. You, like your faithful librarians, are all enthusiastic and heavy readers. So, for all of us, it is difficult to imagine reading as torture. But, on the other hand, do we all remember that one book at high school that was cruel and unusual punishment? Maybe it was a book that you came to appreciate later, but wasn’t really suitable for school? I don’t know on which planet The Great Gatsby will excite middle schoolers, but I doubt it is this one.

Daniel Pennac is from France and I am not sure if French middle schoolers have The Great Gatsby forced on them, but  they obviously get similar treatment because the author dedicates his slim, humorous book with the admonition to “Parents, teachers, librarians, please on no account use these pages as an instrument of torture.”

The Rights of the Reader is divided into dozens of very short chapters, some only a few sentences long, interspersed with Quentin Blake’s quirky and appealing illustrations. This makes it great for dipping into. And “dipping in” is one of the rights Daniel Pennac assigns to readers in the last section of the book. He enumerates ten rights and I like them all, but they are not all universally acknowledged, even by librarians. For example, Number 4, “The Right to Read it Again.” I love to revisit old books, but sometimes we are encouraged to constantly read new books as life is short and so many great new books are being published.  But since life is short I want to keep the prerogative to go back to The Secret Garden simply “for the joy of being reunited with it.”

I recommend this book for everyone. In our library The Rights of the Reader is shelved in the “Parents Corner” with books for parents and other adults about raising children. It definitely has utility for parents, but is also a manifesto for all readers. There are many reasons to read, and sometimes we should read for information, or to learn, or to better ourselves, but as in many aspects of life everyone has to allow time to read for sheer pleasure. For today’s gentle blog readers, this may be obvious, but I don’t think it hurts to be reminded.

Check the WRL catalog for The Rights of the Reader.

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Approximately five years ago, I read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as well as her other five novels after receiving an all-in-one collection as a gift. Having only truly read Pride and Prejudice once (I can’t count the Cliff Notes I used in high school), it’s a wonder that I am reviewing this festive micro-history which delightfully illustrates why Jane Austen’s perfect Regency romance has remained so untouchable since its publication in 1813, even as her style and subject matter are profusely imitated, now more than ever!  

Reading Susannah Fullerton’s pleasant homage to the timeless novel upon its 200-year anniversary provided me with all sorts of intriguing details, historical background, and gossipy tidbits about its creation and legacy that enhance my appreciation of the novel.  Fullerton, president of the Jane Austen Society of Australia, effectively demonstrates the reasons for the novel’s perfection and its ever-increasing appeal for readers of either sex, of all ages, in nearly every community worldwide. She cheerfully describes her analysis of individual characters, Austen’s style, and the famous opening sentence on which an entire chapter is devoted.

It was especially amusing to learn of all the various editions, versions, translations, sequels, retellings, mash-ups, adaptations, film interpretations, and other assorted Austen-inspired endeavors that have fueled a sort of Pride-and-Prejudice mania. Darcy-mania culture took off on the tails of the sexy 1995 BBC film version, starring Colin Firth (of the infamous lake scene), and kindled much new interest in the reading of the novel.

Fullerton pretty much concludes that no sequel author or film producer has ever really matched Jane Austen’s masterful style and that what lovers of the novel should really ever do is just keep reading and re-reading Pride and Prejudice. I agree that the masterpiece stands alone, but Austen did very effectively infect most of her readers with a desire to continue knowing Elizabeth and Darcy and to learn ever more about each well-drawn character’s future. Imagine if she’d lived long enough to write her own sequels, or to taste the fame her novels eventually gave her!

Check the WRL catalog for Celebrating Pride and Prejudice : 200 years of Jane Austen’s Masterpiece

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NicklebyEach winter for the past several years I have gone back to the late 19th century to read one of the classic novels of that period–Dickens, Hardy, Trollope. Last year my book of choice was Bleak House (thanks, Charlotte, for the great suggestion). This year while browsing the Dickens shelves, Nicholas Nickleby caught my eye, and I am glad that it did!

Like all of Dickens, Nickleby is a sprawling story that shifts from London to Yorkshire to Portsmouth and back. Originally published in serial form, the story moves briskly for all its length, with short chapters alternating between the trials of the various characters. And what characters they are. How could you not be drawn in to a story populated by such folk as Wackford Squeers (a despicable schoolmaster), Lord Verisopht (a naive nobleman who redeems himself at the cost of his life), Charles and Ned Cheeryble (twin brothers involved in international trade who assist Nicholas), the miserable Smike, who finds a friend in Nicholas, and many others.

The story is common to Dickens in that it follows the ups and downs of a young man (in this case also those of his sister and mother) who is orphaned and left to fend for himself in an unforgiving society. Nicholas and his sister Kate can expect no help from their rich uncle Ralph, who seems to delight in making their lives as difficult as possible. Unexpected friends turn up and some apparent friends turn out to be less than they seem. What makes this story particularly appealing though is that Nicholas refuses to let himself be simply a victim of fate. Over the course of the story, Nicholas works as a teacher in a dreadful school for boys, as an actor in a traveling company, as a French tutor, and finally as a bookkeeper. At each step along the way he makes decisions that affect his life. He is no passive pawn.

There is a great deal of humor here. Nicholas’s time with the traveling players is delightful, and Dickens clearly had some experience with actors from his portrayal of the Crummles family, including “The Infant Phenomenon,” and their colleagues Miss Snevellicci, Mr. Folair, and Mr. Lenville. And as always, Dickens does not spare the tragic. The death of Smike from tuberculosis and that of Lord Verisopht in a duel defending the honor of Kate Nickleby both show Dickens at his most moving.

I think that what keeps me coming back to Dickens each year is the obvious affection he has for his characters and his great compassion. Oh, and the character’s names. I look forward to the next trip to Dickensian London.

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OldPossumCoverTo continue last week’s leitmotif of books of cat poetry, I have gone back to what many people consider the original and the best. Rather than a series of poems from the cats’ own perspective, like I Could Pee on This, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats is a series of narratives and how-tos about cats. It was first published in 1939 and has been in print ever since. Our library owns several versions with black and white drawings. We also have a winsomely illustrated version with only three of the poems called Growltiger’s Last Stand.

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Cats is based on Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. I have never seen the musical and can’t quite picture how it would work as a musical, but I know it was hugely popular on the stage and is available at our library to borrow on DVD.

In some circles T.S. Eliot is most famous for his serious poetry like “The Waste Land” or “The Hollow Men.” Many students of English literature are familiar with these poems (willingly or not). And many of these same students of literature are surprised that the mind that produced the dark and cynical lines of his serious poems could also produce his light and lilting poems about cats.
Compare this gem from “The Waste Land”:

“I think we are in rats’ alley
Where the dead men lost their bones.”

And from “The Hollow Men”:

Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

To the rollicking:

Macavity’s a mystery cat: he’s called the Hidden Paw –
For he’s the master criminal who can defy the Law.
He’s the bafflement of Scotland Yard, the flying sqad’s despair:
For when they reach the scene of crime — Macavity’s not there!

And

Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer were a very notorious couple of cats.
As knockabout clowns, quick-change comedians, tight-rope walkers and acrobats

T.S. Eliot’s skill and dexterity with language show through in both cases, lilting or dark. These are great read-aloud poems that roll off the tongue. Some of our copies of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats are shelved in the children’s section, and the poems are certainly suitable for and loved by children, but I also recommend them for cat lovers and lovers of language.

Check the WRL catalog for Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.

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