Les Misérables (Book Review)

Image result for les miserables bookFirst Lines: In 1815, M. Charles-Francois-Bienvenu Myriel was Bishop of D–  He was an old man of about seventy-five years of age; he had occupied the see of D– since 1806.

So since like February, this has been on my summer to-read list.  I knew I’d need a large chunk of free time to dig into this and the school year was not it.  In May, I checked it out from the library so I would have it at my house when I was finally ready to start.

I know a lot of you are familiar with the storyline, but I’m going to just go over it a little.  We follow Jean Valjean, an escaped convict determined to leave his past behind and start a new life as a respectable member of society.  But his attempts are always under threat: from Inspector Javert, from Valjean’s own conscience, from others he has crossed paths with in the past.  Now, it’s not enough for Valjean simply to be free–he’s sworn to protect a young girl, daughter of Fantine.  And he will do anything to protect her when he couldn’t save her mother.

I was pretty sure going into this that I knew the story and the characters. Not only was I familiar with the musical, but I’d watched the 6-part mini-series starring Dominic West and David Oyelowo based on the book as well. Between the two, I figured I knew it all.

I didn’t.

Granted, the big events are there. But the characters all felt wrong.

Initially, it seemed spot on. Valjean is an ex-con on parole, reviled by society and treated abysmally. His anger was palpable. And then, once Monseigneur Bienvenu ‘saved’ him, he completely changes. And it’s this change that I don’t think any of the movies or shows does justice. Valjean, as Monsieur Madeleine, is kind to everyone. He goes out of his way to show them all kindness. And it’s this that gets cut because it doesn’t add to the plot. But even when he’s kind, he still has a darkness in him. There’s a point in the story where he flat out hates someone and thinks, “Good, he’s dying.” It was certainly human nature, but it didn’t fit the other versions of him in media.

On the subject of characters, Marius was not what I expected. I knew him better from the mini-series (his characters is so different from the musical), but he still was far more complex than I knew. And he’s actually, even though he’s definitely a dreamer, far more grounded than shows make him out to be. He’s got a good head on his shoulders, though he does sort of creepily stalk Cosette for weeks and doesn’t get the hint that it’s weird. There is that.

I could go on and on about the differences between the shows and the book, but I’ll try to limit that.

When I first started reading and the book started with Monseigneur Bienvenu rather than Valjean or even Fantine, I kind of sighed. I was like, “Here Victor Hugo goes again, being his wordy self and talking about nothing of importance.” But it was actually good. It helped set the climate of France at the time, how people had completely turned their backs on anything and anyone having to do with the Revolution. However, later on, Hugo did get wordy. I’m not sure I needed 30 pages of breakdown of how exactly Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo, nor did I need 15 pages about how terrible the sewers under Paris were or how poo is a great fertilizer they were just throwing away. Seriously. Like 15 pages about how they were wasting millions of dollars worth of poo.

While I did certainly start to skim over some of that (it wasn’t intentional; I’d start reading it and by the end of the next page realize I didn’t remember any of it but I wasn’t going back), Hugo did have some very interesting and spot-on observations about people, countries, religion, politics, and so much more. There would be little nuggets of it sprinkled around everywhere. It was always a moment where I was reading and kind of had to stop because it was still true 150 years later. (Also, his name dropping of John Brown, the abolitionist who got himself caught at Harper’s Ferry, really threw me. France paid attention to that? I feel like most of America didn’t even pay attention to that.)

Female characters. They were pretty typical for the time (and, arguably, something that still happens). Women were either angels or demons with really no middle ground. Fantine and Cosette are always played as these adorable, angelic, innocent women, even after Fantine falls on hard times. She’s still revered. Clearly in the demon category was Madame Thenardier, who lacks nearly all motherly affection for her children and is merely her husband’s puppet. Even Eponine falls in this category, no matter how much we’re supposed to pity her. The way Hugo writes her is still quite unsympathetic, even at the barricade. He gives her negative motives to even her best of intentions. It was a little hard to swallow at times, how demure and submissive Cosette was because it’s so antithesis to now.

Speaking of Cosette, I just have to say that the romance in this story was actually romantic.  I’ve gotten so used to every other form of this story feeling like obsessive love (Marius sees her, instantly knows he loves her and wants to marry her, etc.) that when this story actually did their love justice, I was baffled.  In a good way.  Sure, they look at each other and are instantly attracted (and yeah, Marius goes a little too far), but their love story timeline is over a year in length.  I was pleased by that because it felt more realistic.

As for the structure of the book, the chapters are fairly short. I was not expecting that. It’s all broken into 5 books, mostly named after characters (Fantine, Cosette, Marius, and Jean Valjean) and there are chapters inside those that run from 10-60 pages. But inside of thoseare chapters broken apart with Roman numerals. Those were often 2-3 pages but sometimes longer. It was actually really great for giving me a solid stopping place when I needed it but also a way for me to feel like I was making progress.

I’m not going to sit here and say that I adored the book. That’s putting it a bit too strong. But I liked it. I liked getting to understand the characters and the events better and I thought the story was full of wisdom, but boy were there parts that were a slog.  (It took me just under 2 weeks to read it all!)

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Courting Darkness (Courting Darkness Duology, #1)

Image result for courting darknessFirst Lines: As I stand on the battlements of the besieged city, looking out at the disarray before me, it is clear the god of Death has taken to the field.  While this could be said of any battle–death and war are old friends, after all–today He rides a black horse, a pale-haired rider hunkered down in front of him.

It’s been a few months ago now, but when I found out that this book was coming out, I pretty much lost any composure I had at the time.  His Fair Assassin series is one of my favorites (I reread it constantly) and this being a continuation on that series, you’re darn tootin’ I was going to read this.  (I’m not entirely sure where I just pulled “darn tootin'” from…my apologies.)

Sybella, a daughter of Death, has worked hard to serve Him as his hand of justice.  In accompanying the duchess of Brittany to France, they’re always surrounded by enemies–something Sybella is more than used to.  But Sybella has a new mission: protect her younger sisters from having the same abusive childhood she had.  With this taking up so much of her time and energy, Sybella needs help to protect the duchess.  Her only hope is two novitiates that have been buried deep in the French court for the last five years–if she can figure out who they are.  Genevieve has been at court for so long that she barely remembers who or what she’s supposed to be fighting for.  Her only friend of late is the prisoner that everyone else has forgotten about.  When tragedy strikes Genevieve’s world, her only recourse is to take her fate into her own hands, even if it means ignoring the convent that raised her.  As Sybella and Genevieve’s lives move ever closer, everything they hold dear could be lost if their timing is even just a little bit off.

This was pretty much what I had hoped it would be. Most of our favorite characters are back (with Sybella and Beast being the two we see the most of), but we also get to meet Genevieve, a novitiate who has been biding her time in the French court for the moment her first assignment would reach her. And in the meantime, she finds a man close to death in a dungeon…because that’s what these daughters of Mortain do more often than not.

For as much as I do genuinely like Sybella and Beast, I was more desperate for Gen’s story once we got started. I liked the novelty, the newness of it all. I liked seeing her background and how that made her who she is. That’s what I loved so much about the other books–we saw their distinct personalities and how their lives had shaped them into what they were. We already knew who Sybella was, so that wasn’t as much fun initially. Though I will admit her story got a whole lot more interesting after about the halfway point.

It took a little while for me to really get into this story, and not for lack of interest. It was just that, between two narrators (Gen and Sybella), it took a long time to get both of their stories rolling. It’s the nature of the beast. Two narrators means two stories in one.

In all, though, this contained everything I love about this world/series.  It plays on the idea of gender roles, since we have female assassins who are more than capable of taking care of themselves in a fight and don’t appreciate anyone telling them what to do.  But we also have lead men who respect this–in fact, most of the time they even encourage this independence.  It’s the minor characters (both male and female) who try to make our assassins fit the typical mold.

If you enjoy drama, court intrigue, suspense, and a little bit of romance, this is the book and series for you.

I absolutely adored this. This story was awesome and I’m really excited to see what the next book brings. I have high hopes for it.

Compare This! Beauty and the Beast (2017) vs. La Belle et La Bête (2014)

Hey guys!  So I was at the library the other day and I saw this movie on the shelf called Beauty and the Beast, but it was a version I’d never seen before.  When I looked at it closer, I realized it was a French movie and I thought to myself, “Hmm.  The fairy tale is originally French.  I wonder how it compares with our English/Disney versions.”

Look, I’m one of those literature/language/English nerds who loves seeing how stories evolve with each retelling.  Because every storyteller/generation is going to put their own spin on things.  And I absolutely adore seeing what those changes are.  This is just one of the first times I’m able to compare a comparable story not across the ages, but across the sea.

So this is my Compare This! Cultural edition.  I’m going to do this a little differently than usual because I’m just really going to assume that you’re familiar with either the 1991 and/or 2017 Disney versions of the same name.  So let’s go!

Beauty and the Beast vs. La Belle et La BêteImage result for beauty and the beast Image result for beauty and the beast french

Similarities:

  • At the risk of sounding like Captain Obvious, both heroines are named Belle.  (Hey, it’s not always that way!)  And both men are, well, beasts.
  • Both tales involve fantastical creatures/a healthy dose of magic beyond turning a man into a beast.
  • Both follow the general well-known story arc: Girl attempts to save her father, sacrifices herself to the Beast, girl and beast fall in love.
  • Belle’s personality is generally the same.  She’s well educated, independent, and stubborn.  Oh, and when her merchant father goes out of town, the only thing she requests is a rose.
  • Both stories created characters to fit their needs.  In Beauty, Gaston and LeFou are Disney creations to give Belle another suitor/villain.  In La Belle, the villain is named Perducas.  He’s a thief and has unquenchable greed, along with a suspicious, superstitious streak.

Differences:

  • La Belle is actually more in line with the original tale, even though there are still many many differences.  In La Belle, Belle is the youngest of six (two sisters, three brothers).  Her mother died while giving birth to her and, in some ways, her family holds that against her.  Also in line with the original tale, Belle’s father was a wealthy merchant who lost all of his money suddenly when his ships sank.
  • The Beasts are actually quite different in personalities.  In Beauty, the Beast becomes a beast because he’s vain and selfish.  In La Belle, it’s because he’s greedy and destroys an old magic for his own gain.  So whereas the Beast in Beauty comes to love Belle when he realizes he cares for someone more than himself, in La Belle, it happens when he covets Belle for himself, though he’s learned a bit from his last mistake.
  • The villain’s sidekick is a very different role in both.  We’re pretty familiar with Gaston and LeFou here, but Perducas’s sidekick is a fortuneteller named Astrid, who reads Tarot cards for him.  (Perducas trusts nothing if the cards don’t tell him it first.)  In a way, Astrid loves Perducas, even if he can’t truly love her back.  So it’s a different dynamic than Gaston and LeFou.
  • La Belle is definitely not a musical.  Unfortunately.
  • La Belle, for being French, was incredibly unromantic.  I mean, there was a dance scene but it was not at all like the sweeping dress, “tale as old as time” dance we’re used to.  It just happened out of the blue.  And their entire love story seemed to come out of nowhere.

Thoughts

I appreciated being able to see another version.  And in the beginning, I was totally into it.  I loved giving Belle siblings.  I loved that that made her more fierce because sacrificing herself to the Beast took on more meaning when it meant protecting her siblings as well.  It has some beautiful shots of the landscape, intricate designs, and nuanced characterization to make the siblings all feel different.

But once Belle got to the castle, it got weird.  The Beast was incredibly angry all the time and refused to let Belle look at him.  He would hover behind her shoulder and once he watched her sleep, which ranked really high on my Creepy! meter.  With his claws (and a scene where he kills and eats a pig raw), he’s actually incredibly dangerous as well.  He also came off to me as almost abusive at times in the ways he would treat Belle.  Not that he ever hit her or anything, but more like emotional abuse.  I’m not really sure what it was.  It just unsettled me watching it.

Which made the “I love you’s” really awkward because I didn’t see that coming at all from their previous interactions.

I did like the twist about how the Beast became a Beast, with how his greed blew up in his face.  And the ending had some really awesome action sequences.  But the context surrounding them was hard to understand if I was missing things through dubbing (I watched it in English) or if it was a cultural thing.

So while it was fun once, I think I’m good sticking to Disney.

Just For Fun: Reading Harry Potter in French

So…I can feel a number of you already questioning my sanity.

Since like, April, I’ve been working on learning French.  While I do not claim to be great at it, I can read it better than I can speak it or hear it.  I’ve watched a few movies in French and I can more or less follow along with what’s happening 60-70% of the time.  Those seem like pretty good numbers.

It just so happened that my very lovely library system had Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, my favorite of the books, in French.  I’d been wanting to try my hand at reading a book in French for a while now, and there was no question it had to be a Harry Potter book.  It was a story I was familiar with enough to understand what was supposed to be happening and also popular enough that I stood a chance of having access to it without buying it.

It’s been slow progress.  I’ll start it and twenty minutes later have only read 4-6 pages.  But it’s a challenge that’s kind of fun.  (Not to mention the looks I get from coworkers when I tell them what I’m doing.  I swear, half the stuff I do like this is 50% my own satisfaction and 50% for their reactions.)

What’s kind of funny is how some of the words get changed across different languages.  Those of you who are bilingual already know this, but I’m new to this and it’s entertaining.

For example, Hogwarts is rechristened Poudlard.  That threw me for a loop when I first started.  And, while I’m not to Harry starting Hogwarts (excuse me, Poudlard) yet, I’m pretty sure Snape name has been changed to Rogue.  I’m not even making this up.  I thought it was a little heavy-handed, since Snape does actually go rogue on Voldemort, but then I learned that rogue in French translates to “arrogant” and I decided it was a lot heavy-handed.

But you want to know the best translation?  They don’t have a word for “wand” in French, so “wand” is known as baguette magique.  Every single time, I picture Harry brandishing a baguette when casting spells and it’s worth it.

Learning a new language is hard.  I’m terrible at conjugating verbs.  (That’s the entire reason I struggled with Spanish in school.)  But by listening to the language and reading it, I feel like I’ve been learning it a little faster than I would be if I were in a classroom setting.  I’m setting my pace, I’m doing what I’m interested in doing, and I’m developing a pretty good understanding of their grammar and syntax, not to mention the etymology of where a lot of our English words come from.

Anyway, I thought I’d bring a little levity to all of this.  We’re into our final days and it could get a little sappy as I look back on this past month.

Weekly Obsessions #3

Welcome to another week of Things I Found Interesting!  This one’s probably going to take a little explaining because my quirks are becoming more evident…

French

Ok, so when I was in high school, I took Spanish because that was practical and I was more familiar with it than French.  (Also, our French teacher was terrible.  I had her for Econ and literally all we did the week before Christmas was write letters to Santa, watch It’s a Wonderful Life, and eat crepes.  It was a waste of time.)  But a few years ago when I started doing family research (genealogy), I discovered a huge chunk of my family was actually French.  I always liked the way French sounded, so I wanted to learn it.

Image result for french

Well, when I started last year, it was miserable.  Every time I thought I was finally figuring it out, I’d start getting mixed up.  The grammar didn’t make sense.  I couldn’t figure out which words were feminine and which were masculine.  (If you’ve never studied foreign languages, most languages that I’ve seen have masculine/feminine designations for nouns.  English obviously doesn’t.)  So for a while, I kind of quit.

A few months back, I downloaded an app called Duolingo onto my phone and tried again.  Since I knew some of the basics (Bonsoir.  Comment ca va?  Etc.), it went a lot better.  My Duolingo streak is currently somewhere around 46 days.  On top of that, I checked out a book from the library about learning French, which is also helping.  (The Duolingo app, for all of its great qualities, tells you absolutely nothing about the grammar or why you sometimes need to have t in front of phrases like Óu est t-il?)

As a way to practice hearing French, I like to watch my favorite movies in French.  It helps because I generally know what the dialogue should be at certain points, so I can figure out what the words should mean.  (I read French better than I hear it, so subtitles are a must.)

Anyway, so Monday night, I watched the new Beauty and the Beast with Emma Watson in French (La Belle et La Bête).  Oh my God, that was great.  They changed some of the character’s names to be easier to pronounce in French.  Let me give you some examples.  Chip becomes Zip and Mrs. Potts becomes Madame Samovar (which is some kind of thing that assists in making/serving tea, but I think it’s Russian).  But by far, the best one was Cogsworth.  This dude becomes Big Ben.  I’m not making this up!  The first time I heard it, I wasn’t sure I’d heard it right.  But even during sentimental moments, Lumiere was still calling him Big Ben.  I kind of love it.

Genealogy

It’s kind of hard to explain what’s so fascinating about genealogy to me.  I mean, it’s history, which I love anyway.  I’m the person who would absolutely do someone else’s genealogy just because.  But it’s real.  Not that history isn’t real, but this feels more tangible in some way.

I had no idea where my family came from beyond some family members shrugging and going, “Well, our last name’s kind of German, so we’re probably that.  And maybe French.”  So about 3 years ago, I started doing my own research over summer break.

Image result for genealogy

Now I have extensive records with over 21,000 names.  My current project is turning that into something manageable for my family to digest, since they aren’t history people.  So I’ve been creating a book-type thing with only their direct ancestors, who they were, where they came from, when they came to America, etc.  I did this for one of my grandmothers and it was 70 pages long.  But to be fair, there are some good stories deep in that one.  Salem Witch Trials, wealthy land owners who owned basically half of the state of Maine, in-breeding (like…more than I want to admit to.  Apparently first cousins were all the rage in the early 1800s).

*Shakes it off* You never know what you’ll find, after all.  Anyway, on Monday I spent hours working on the book for my maternal grandfather, only to discover a new lead I’d never seen before.  Apparently one of his ancestors, who I had never been able to trace out of Delaware, was descended from people who came from Switzerland.  Since my grandfather’s side is heavily German, this was exciting because it was different.

Yes, I legitimately spend hours upon hours sitting in front of my computer compiling this information and something as small as discovering I’m part Swiss is incredibly exciting.  If only I could get my masters degree in my family’s history.  I’d have it three times over already, based on the hours I’ve worked on this.

Oh, and the other big research surprise I learned?  My paternal grandmother had a sister than none of us had ever heard of before.  She was listed in her father’s obituary and like, my grandma has never ever mentioned her.  I haven’t talked to my grandma yet to even know if she’s aware of this sister.  I would think she would have to be, right?

We’ll have to see what other surprises I find!