Review: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

Victor Hugo’s achievement with Les Miserables is in stunning and breath-taking. Not only is the story superb, realistic, and moving, but it is complemented by aspects of French philosophy, history, and politics. When beginning this novel, I had no idea that I would be exposed to, and learn so much about, French history and culture. Napoleon Bonaparte, Waterloo, Louis VIII, the Guillotine, European relations, the gamins, prisons, crime and punishment, religion, morality – all of this is examined with a literary microscope; meanwhile, love, poetry, song, revolution, family, and society are all exposed to the scrutiny of an expelled patriot. The story of Jean Valjean is heartbreaking and vindicating. Cosette and Marius, lovers despite the odds. Javert, the intensely dutiful (to a fault) inspector, and his tragic revelations. Gavroche, the beautiful underprivileged. Fantine, the lost and compromised woman, taken advantage of while trying to care for her daughter. Eponine, Fauchelevent, the Nuns, the Gillenormands, all minor but telling characters – described incredibly and delicately by Hugo. What most impressed me is how Hugo described the history and purpose of each detail, to demonstrate it’s importance. Chapters of the novel are devoted to explaining seemingly insignificant points of detail, such as the prisons, the chain gangs, the slang language – all of which come into play during the story, but become active and live characters on their own merits, because of Hugo’s attention to them. I cannot say enough about this novel – it is truly a masterpiece and I can’t wait to see the musical.

Review: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway is hit or miss, for me. I fell in love with A Farewell to Arms. I found The Old Man and the Sea a bit sluggish (though, admittedly, this is the point). I have thoroughly enjoyed some of the short stories, and wondered why in the world I bothered to read others. The Sun Also Rises was, for me, a book I could have skipped. I know Hemingway is one of the great American authors. I think he is brilliant at times, but for most of this novel, I found myself “laughing out loud” at all the uses of words like “grand,” which called to mind my favorite author, Salinger, and his enormous dislike for phonies. Now, I’m not saying Hemingway was a phony, by any means. In fact, I think it a testament to his art that he succeeded, after being a journalist, so extraordinarily, in spite of criticism from some of the other expatriates, such as Gertrude Stein. Alas, The Sun Also Rises was no A Farewell to Arms. I don’t think it even rivaled The Torrents of Spring. I was not at all intrigued until the final 40 pages or so, when the story moved to Spain and the bullfights. Here, in the deepest, darkest, and most romantic portion of the novel, Hemingway was masterful, and I couldn’t tear myself away. I just wish the first 60% of the novel was just as inspired.

Review: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

“It wasn’t until after the first book (50 or so pages) of A Tale of Two Cities that I finally began to sink into the story and to appreciate what Dickens was developing. While there wasn’t as much opposition between London and Paris as I had expected (after all, the title and the history of the book make it seem that this is a story about the battle between, or at least the differences of, the two), the contrast between freedom in London versus persecution in Paris is obvious. It is also ironic that, while the Parisian “revolutionists” were espousing freedom and liberty, they were actually the cause of a great oppression of the French people and, particularly, of emigrants and nobles. Dickens does a masterful job of presenting this irony in a serious way. He allows the reader to sympathize with the plight of the peasant, while also condemning the over-zealous and destructive reaction of the lower class. The story itself reminds me – strikingly – of Les Miserables. The two main characters in both novels are an odd, prisoner father and his chaste, innocent-to-the-point-of-naiveté daughter. In A Tale of Two Cities, The daughter’s future husband reaches an epiphany about his father-in-law which allows the strange man to grow inestimably in character for the spouse; in Hugo’s Les Miserable, the young spouse is at first mistrustful of the ex-convict father but he also eventually reaches an understanding which brings the man into an almost saintly status. Also, in both, there are characters of unrelenting, spiteful yet understandable fervor. In A Tales of Two Cities, it is Madame Defarge, the vindictive wife of a wine-shopkeeper whose family was wronged in her youth and who will stop at nothing to avenge them, even if it means bringing down the innocent. Her counter-part in Les Miserables is Javert, the inscrutable police inspector who epitomizes absolute justice, regardless of man’s ability to change, grow, and make amends. Both novels are brilliant and, while I prefer Les Miserable on the whole, Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities is a more real description of the beginning of the French Revolution and it’s horrors, while Les Miserable largely takes place after the fact, during the reformation. In all, I would have to say that, once one gets through the rather clumsy introduction to the storyline and its characters in Book One, the tale then picks up and is rather impossible to put down.

Review: The Centaur by John Updike

I just finished reading The Centaur and I am both enamored and confused. The interwoven tale of Chiron, the Centaur, and Caldwell, the human teacher, is fascinating – especially from Caldwell’s son’s perspective; however, I found much of the story to be disjointed and confusing. This did, in all honesty, add to the overall appeal of the novel for me. I do plan on re-reading the book at some time, to determine whether or not I can understand it better on the second try, knowing what to expect. The characters were brilliant. The moments of Greek Mythological confusion were stunning, beautiful, and terrifying. All in all, quite fantastic.

Review: Screwed up Life of Charlie the Second by Drew Ferguson

Cute, witty, and honest to a fault. Ferguson’s epistolary novel about the (rather graphic) goings-on of a seventeen-year-old gay boy is fun, fast-paced, entertaining, sad, and smart. I will agree with some other reviewers who mentioned that one of the novel’s downfalls is its abrupt ending. Not much seemed to be resolved – friendships were made and unmade quite quickly, and a so-called “love” was replaced in the course of one short train ride from the western suburbs into Chicago; however, when one recalls the superficial yet “every moment is THE most important moment of my life” high school days, it becomes easier to accept Charlie’s emotions and escapades as sincere, if not a bit over-the-top (even for a gay teen!). I read this book in one day, but it’s certainly something I would recommend to friends, especially those open to the idea of exploring the inner-thoughts (and the inner-bedroom, classroom, bathroom, etc. activities) of a gay teen. If you’re a reader who is easily embarrassed by sexual exploration or honesty, this one is probably not for you. If you’re a gay man or teen who’d be interested in a novel which exposes openly and honestly all the truths you may have had to keep hidden – pick it up and pass it on. I quite enjoyed it.

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