Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Les Miz Part 1: Introduction

Because Les Miserables is Quite A Book, it deserves an in-depth post (read: very very long). Therefore, I have decided to split this post up into two parts (possibly three). I will, in the course of the next few days, write about the actual book (aka Les Miserables), the Broadway show (aka Les Miz), and the 2012 film (aka The Les Miz Movie, or, simply The Movie). They will most likely not be in that order - they will intertwine with one another in the following posts.

 As you may remember from my previous post, Les Miserables is in my “Excellent” category of books. I consider it one of the greatest examples of characterization ever. I could talk about the characters of Jean Valjean, Javert, Fantine, the Thenardiers, Gavroche, even the Bishop, Monseigneur Bienvenue – oh, the list goes on and on. Every single character is so fully developed, so deep, so thorough. The excellent writing, characterization, and plotting gives me such excitement I could burst of it. (Seriously. This is how I feel about good books.)

I first read Les Miserables when I was about fourteen years old, and I loved it almost as much as I love it now, except I thought that the really long bit (19 chapters!) about Napoleon and Waterloo could have been done away with, as only the last chapter of that Book had to do with the plot.

[Side Note: Les Miserables is split up into five Volumes (Fantine, Cosette, Marius, The Idyll of the Rue Plumet, and Jean Valjean), and each of these is further split up into Books, which are further split up into Chapters.]

I reread Les Miserables last winter, and loved it even more than before. I hoped I had matured enough to fully appreciate Hugo’s digressions on Waterloo, Slang, and the Sewers of Paris, but unfortunately, they were just as boring for me at seventeen as they were at fourteen. Oh well.

The translation that I read was the one authorized by Victor Hugo, the author. The translator was a fellow by the name of Lascelles Wraxall, and was a friend of Hugo's. Here is the massive tome:

My mother tells me it used to have a box it went in (it is a "Heritage Club Edition"), but where that box is, I have no idea. 
On the front is a nice little sketch of Inspector Javert continually pursuing Jean Valjean. This is basically what the story revolves around, if you want to strip it down to the utter bare bones. 

These sketches on the front were done by the same artist who sketched the drawings inside the book. They were done in the 1930's by Lynd Ward, and he created a small detailed sketch for the beginning of every single chapter, and a complete page drawing for each of the five Volumes. There are also a bunch of smaller sketches to fill up white space at the end of chapters. 
Look at the picture above this one again. See how big this book is? Think about how many sketches Lynd Ward had to draw. I find that extraordinarily impressive.

Cosette, Book III, Ch. 6

When I write about movie adaptations to books of this scope and depth, you will find that I tend to be lenient towards the film versions, even though they may not be very similar to the original book. This is because I sympathize with the folks involved in the film-making process. What looks good on paper, in a novel, may not look good on the screen. Film is practically all dialogue, so it's sometimes hard to transfer the thoughts and backstory of a character to the screen, especially within less than three hours. 

I think I'll end right there with this post. Discussion on Javert next time.


Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A Small Hiatus

Dear Readers,

Tomorrow I will be flying out of the country - to Costa Rica, with lots of sunshine, lots of greenery, lots of flora and fauna, and no internet. Therefore, I will not be able to provide posts for the ten days that I will be there.
I have a crazy long post on Les Miserables that I was attempting to finish before leaving, but now I see that that is rather an ambitious undertaking. Therefore, that post (or posts - I may split it up into a few) will come when I return on July 28th.

So come back here somewhere around the beginning of August - there will be tons of new material then!

See you in ten days!


PS Because I feel bad about leaving you so abruptly, here are some pictures that have to do with books:

And on this one, replace "movie" with "book:"

And lastly:

Friday, July 12, 2013

Divergent by Veronica Roth // Not The Hunger Games

I'm a little wary about the new SciFi/Fantasy sub-genre that I call Apocalyptica that's starting to take hold among Teen Literature. (In fact, I'm a little wary of Teen Literature in general, but that's a post for another day.) One of the most well-known examples of Apocalyptica is probably The Hunger Games, which I have read, and have nothing much to say about. It's not Bad Writing - but it's not Great either. And anyway, so many reviews of it are being written lately that I feel that everything about it has been said. I must say that I am surprised that The Hunger Games has swept the US as is has. It's nothing spectacular. (But then I remember Twilight, which swept the US even more. Seriously, how did that even happen?)

I've occasionally read two books of the same genre that I found so similar that I could hardly believe that the second wasn't a rip-off of the first. (Eragon, anyone?) And at first, when I read Divergent (by Veronica Roth), I thought it was a well-masked rip-off of The Hunger Games.
Both are Apocalyptica.
Both have strong, fearless, headstrong, female protagonists.
Both are written in first person, from the point of view of the abovementioned female protagonist.
Both are in the present tense.

But then I realized that other than these similarities, Divergent was really nothing like The Hunger Games.

First of all, Tris (the protagonist in Divergent) isn't immediately faced with a corrupt government. Katniss is. And because of how books generally work, we know that eventually Katniss will be an instrumental part in the downfall of the corrupt government. In Panem, things are definitely not going well. There is inequality and oppression.In Tris's world (which is basically just an apocalyptic Chicago), everything is quite dandy. There are  five factions, each of which values a different virtue, and places it above all others, but it all seems to be going well.  In pseudo-Chicago (which is what I am now going to call it), everyone seems to have basic freedoms. There is no one faction higher than the others, and there is no sort of supreme dictator like President Snow.
[Of course, this is just in the beginning of the book. But I'm not giving any spoilers!] 

Another major difference between the books is that there is no love triangle in Divergent. After Twilight, which was basically all love triangle and nothing else, it seemed like every single Teen book had to have a love triangle in it. Divergent refreshingly does not. And yes, Four is pretty awesome as love interests go. Roth describes a good amount of the kissing, which isn't exactly to my taste, since I like literary love simple and sweet. But of course it's still all very clean and not at all inappropriate, so no worries. :-)

Ok, let's talk about present tense. What's with the present tense? I have a few theories.
One reason people may write in the present tense is to promote a sense of urgency. They want you to feel in the moment, to experience the story, to participate in the story like it's happening to you, right now.
Or they are just trying to be all avant garde and different.
Somehow reading in the present tense bothers me. What if a story was written in the future tense?
"The rain will be pounding on the roof when I wake up, and I will drag myself to the window to stare at the grey cloudy fog that covers the landscape. What a great day, I will think to myself, a sarcastic smirk on my face. I will get dressed, then will rush down the stairs. I will smell the breakfast that my mom will be cooking, and will plop down at the table next to my little brother.
"'Are you ready for school?' My mom will ask. 'You don't want to miss the bus.'"
What about a fight scene:
"I will jump aside from the blow he will strike towards my legs. Taking a deep breath, I will run full force towards him, ramming him in the chest with my outstretched fist. He will double over, groaning in pain, and will fall to the ground."
It sounds like battle plans!

But seriously, how different is this from writing in the present tense? A story is supposed to be a retelling of past events, and it can only be that if it is in the past tense.
Call me old fashioned, but reading stories in present tense makes me slightly uncomfortable. And when reading makes me uncomfortable, that is not a good sign.

This fact that Veronica Roth writes in present tense is probably the only major complaint I have with Divergent. Otherwise, I consider her writing style even better than Susanne Collins', and her plotting to have more twists than the Hunger Games. I, who have a hard time thinking up even more than one twist for my stories, always appreciate it when I can't predict where a novel will go. I had my guesses for The Hunger Games. I didn't have as many for Divergent.

Overall, it was a good book (and it's sequel, Insurgent, was pretty decent as well). Not at my tippity top, with my Excellents (this is reserved for the likes of Les Miz, Narnia, LOTR, and Sherlock Holmes), but definitely a solid Good. (I must add that it's very hard for a contemporary book to get into the Excellent range for me. Very hard. It needs to be more than exceptional, and I haven't read one yet that is.)

By the way, you might have noticed that I managed to squeeze almost all the really famous contemporary Teen books into this post. The one missing is Harry Potter, and I have nothing to say about it because I consider it better literature than any of the others.

Still not quite Excellent though.


Thursday, July 4, 2013

Brits, Yanks, and ... Greeks?

Today, we Americans celebrate Independence Day, so I thought I'd do a themed post on something patriotic. Since our national anthem started out as a poem, it seemed related enough to literature and writing to merit a deeper probe into it's history for a blog post.
As any American knows (or should know) "The Star Spangled Banner" was written by Francis Scott Key. He wrote it in 1814 after the Battle of 1812 - nothing to do with July 4th, 1776. It was decreed the national anthem of the US in 1931.

We usually only sing the first verse, so I definitely didn't know that there were actually four verses. And it's original name was "Defence of Fort McHenry."
Here is the poem in it's entirety:
Oh, say can you see by the dawn's early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars thru the perilous fight,
O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

On the shore, dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:
'Tis the star-spangled banner! Oh long may it wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion,
A home and a country should leave us no more!
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps' pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war's desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heav'n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: "In God is our trust."
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

Francis Scott Key
And where did the melody come from? Well, for some reason, our two most famous patriotic songs, "Star Spangled Banner" and "My Country, 'Tis Of Thee", both borrowed British melodies. You may know that the melody of the latter is actually identical to that of the British national anthem, "God Save the Queen."

The melody of our national anthem is actually an old song titled "To Anacreon in Heaven," the anthem of an 18th century gentlemen's club of amateur musicians in London. It is commonly called a "drinking song" because of it's bawdy lyrics, but as any American can tell you, the range of the song is rather large, and it is difficult to sing sober, let alone drunk. (I, however, think that the high notes make it a fun song to sing!)

Anacreon was an ancient Greek who loved "wine, women, and song." Excessively.
Here are the original words of "To Anacreon in Heaven:"

To Anacreon in Heav'n, where he sat in full glee,
A few Sons of Harmony sent a petition;
That he their Inspirer and Patron wou'd be;
When this answer arrived from the Jolly Old Grecian;
"Voice, Fiddle, and Flute,
No longer be mute,
I'll lend you my name and inspire you to boot,
And besides I'll instruct you like me, to intwine,
The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus's Vine."

The news through Olympus immediately flew;
When Old Thunder pretended to give himself airs.
If these Mortals are suffered their scheme to pursue,
The Devil, a Goddess, will stay above stairs.
"Hark", Already they cry,
"In transports of joy,
Away to the Sons of Anacreon we'll fly.
And besides I'll instruct you like me, to intwine,
The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus's Vine."

"The Yellow-Haired God and his nine lusty Maids,
From Helion's banks will incontinent flee,
Idalia will boast but of tenantless Shades,
And the bi-forked hill a mere desert will be.
My Thunder no fear on't,
Shall soon do it's errand,
And damme I'll swing the Ringleaders I warrant,
I'll trim the young dogs, for thus daring to twine,
The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus's Vine."

Apollo rose up and said, "Pry'thee ne'er quarrel,
Good sing of the Gods with my Vot'ries below:
Your Thunder is useless"--then showing his laurel,
Cry'd "Sic evitable fulmen' you know!
Then over each head
My laurels I'll spread
So my sons from your Crackers no mischief shall dread,
While snug in their clubroom, they jovially twine,
The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus's Vine."

Next Momus got up with his risible Phiz
And swore with Apollo he'd cheerfully join-
"The full tide of Harmony still shall be his,
But the Song, and the Catch, and the Laugh, shall be mine.
Then Jove be not jealous
Of these honest fellows,"
Cry'd Jove, "We relent since the truth you now tell us;
And swear by Old Styx, that they long shall intwine,
The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus's Vine."

Ye Sons of Anacreon then join hand in hand;
Preserve Unanimity, Friendship, and Love!
'Tis yours to support what's so happily plann'd;
You've the sanction of Gods, and the Fiat of Jove.
While thus we agree,
Our toast let it be:
"May our Club flourish Happy, United, and Free!
And long may the Sons of Anacreon intwine,
The Myrtle of Venus with Bacchus's Vine."


File:Anacreon - Project Gutenberg eText 12788.png
Anacreon 563-478 B.C.

If you've made it all the way to the end, I congratulate you! That is a lot of poetry to read through. :-)
If you're from the US, may you have a great Fourth! If you're not - may you have a great day as well!