Posts Tagged ‘Les Miserables’

not just jane book darwins

In the wake of my NYC trip and the presidential transition, here’s what I’ve been reading lately:

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, J.K. Rowling
Multiple secret plots, Horcruxes, Quidditch and so much snogging: I love this sixth installment of Harry’s story. It is, in many ways, his last chance to be a teenager. The ending makes me weep every single time, but it’s still so good.

The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables, David Bellos
I adore Les Mis: I fell head over heels for the musical as a teenager and loved the book when I read it a few years ago. Bellos chronicles the inspiration, writing process and publication of Hugo’s masterpiece, with fascinating asides about language, color, coinage, politics and more. Accessible and interesting for Les Mis fans. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 21).

The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog, Adam Gidwitz
An engaging, often funny medieval tale of three French children with unusual powers – plus a greyhound who just might be a saint. Fun, clever and moving. (Also: best subtitle ever.) Recommended by Liberty on All the Books!.

The Satanic Mechanic, Sally Andrew
Tannie Maria van Harten, who writes the recipe and love advice column for her local newspaper, gets drawn into a police investigation when she sees not one, but two, men murdered before her eyes. An engaging mystery set in South Africa, which is as much about Tannie Maria’s life and relationships as it is about catching the killer. Lots of Afrikaans words and delicious food descriptions. To review for Shelf Awareness (out March 28).

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling
The final, grim, heartbreaking, wonderful installment of a story I adore. It felt astonishingly timely, and as usual, I didn’t want it to end. Lupin’s words on Potterwatch struck me particularly this time: “Everything for which we are fighting: the triumph of good, the power of innocence, the need to keep resisting.”

Not Just Jane: Rediscovering Seven Amazing Women Writers Who Transformed British Literature, Shelley DeWees
Everyone knows about Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters – and they are amazing. But before (and concurrently with) Jane and Charlotte, there were other groundbreaking British writers who were female, feminist, wildly talented and generally badass. A fascinating, highly readable account of seven such women. So good. Also recommended by Liberty on All the Books!.

Links (not affiliate links) are to my favorite local bookstore, Brookline Booksmith.

What are you reading?


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les-mis-penguin-coverI’ve loved the story of Les Misérables for a long time – ever since my friend Kate played part of the musical’s soundtrack for me, one afternoon when we were in about eighth grade. I fell instantly in love with Jean Valjean and Fantine, Eponine and Cosette and Marius, and that plucky, saucy urchin, Gavroche. Then and now, the opening chords of “Do You Hear the People Sing?” send chills up my spine.

Back in January, after seeing the new film version (which made me weep), I picked up a beautiful hardcover edition of the book. At 1232 pages, it’s too bulky for subway reading, so I’ve been reading a few pages before breakfast nearly every morning for the last six months. And as of July 8, I am finished.

(Warning: major spoiler alert if you haven’t read the book or seen the musical or film.)

My husband asked me, early on, if the book was quite different from the musical adaptation, and at the time, I answered, “Not really.” Reading about Valjean, Fantine, Cosette and the Thenardiers, Javert and Marius and Enjolras and all the others, felt like revisiting old friends. The outlines of the plot, from Valjean’s initial encounter with the bishop to his death at the end, were familiar.

Part of the joy of reading the book was tracing the story arc I already knew. I felt a prick of recognition every time I came across a familiar detail: the silver candlesticks; Fantine cutting off her hair; the ABC Cafe; the red flag Enjolras holds up before his death. During the scenes that also appear in the musical, I could hear the songs playing in my head. (Yes, I am a serious musical theatre nerd.)

However, over 1200 pages, Hugo (obviously) has much more room to roam than the writers and producers of the musical. He uses quite a few of those pages to recount the Battle of Waterloo, muse on argot, the dialect of Paris’ criminal underworld, and explore the structure and history of Paris’ sewer system. (The latter was a low point, in several senses.) Although the subjects of the digressions are all at least distantly related to the story, I found myself wishing frequently for a red pen. The man needed a good – and ruthless – editor.

But what I loved about Les Mis – what kept me going through five parts, 1200-plus pages and all those digressions – was the deeper insight into these characters I already knew.

Rich though the musical is, it contains polished-up versions of several characters (Grantaire, Eponine, Marius), and its portraits of others, particularly the Thénardiers, often slide into stereotype. The book contains the full history of these characters, presenting them in all their complexity, filling in the broad strokes of the musical with plenty of shadow and depth.

For example, we find out what happens in the nine-year gap between Valjean’s rescue of Cosette and the rumblings of revolution in Paris (the gap is briefly mentioned midway through Act I in the musical). Hugo serves up a generous helping of political and social context for the 1832 uprising (never mind that I hadn’t heard of half the politicians he mentions). Marius’ grandfather Monsieur Gillenormand (who does not appear in the stage musical) holds the key to understanding Marius himself, and we learn vital information about all the characters, including Gavroche’s parentage, Fantine’s ill-fated love affair (which produced Cosette), and the telling fact of Javert’s birthplace (a prison).

Besides feeling virtuous for tackling such a hefty classic, I was moved by the novel’s themes of grace, hope and redemption amid squalor and despair. I loved peeling back the layers of these characters whose songs have lived in my head for years. The musical and the book are separate but intertwined entities, and I’m glad to know them both now.

Have you read or seen Les Mis? Do you feel the need to seek out the book when you see a theatrical or film adaptation of a story?

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Like millions of fellow fans, I recently saw Les Miserables in the theatre. Despite a few flaws, I loved the film – I teared up half a dozen times, and both my husband and I wept at the end. (I fully expected to do so, but he never cries at movies.) But as I stood in the darkened theatre afterward watching the credits, I was thinking about Kate.

les miserables 10th anniversary concert soundtrack

(Image from Barnes & Noble)

Kate lived down the street from me when we were growing up, and she and her big sister, Brooke, introduced me to (among other things) Ace of Base, Rent, Chinese food, and Les Mis. When Kate played Brooke’s copy of the soundtrack for me one day, I was enthralled by the story of Valjean and Fantine and Javert. I begged to borrow the double CD, and kept it for weeks, even taking it on the youth group ski trip over Christmas break. I spent hours on the bus with my Discman in my lap, staring out the window, absorbed in the music, swept up in its power.

Later, I bought my own copy of the soundtrack: the same version Brooke owned, the 10th anniversary concert at the Royal Albert Hall. (This means I was thrilled to see Colm Wilkinson, who plays Jean Valjean in that performance, reappear as the Bishop in the film.) During my first semester in Oxford, two girlfriends and I squeezed into a box in a London theatre and watched the stage musical, leaning over the edge to catch every word.

The story of Les Mis is powerful in its own right. But it takes on additional significance when I remember how I came to it in the first place, who introduced it to me, the memories associated with hearing and seeing it for the first time. It’s inextricably tied up with dear friends, a city I love, and that delicious sense of discovering a story you can live in.

Not all my favorite stories have such specific memories attached to them: many of them simply came to me from my parents or were discovered at school or in a bookstore. But I’ve talked at length about how Valerie was responsible for my introduction to Harry Potter. My dad, and the first brilliant film, catapulted me into a deep love of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I found an advance copy of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society in an Oxford bookshop, before I really knew what advance copies were and before the book became a fan favorite. And a dear friend handed me Winter Solstice at just the right time, six Christmases ago.

When I write my frequent book roundups, I find myself noting where I discovered a book, or who told me about it, or whose review convinced me to pick it up. I believe those “origin stories” can deepen our enjoyment of books and films and music, while we still appreciate the things for themselves. My attachment to Les Mis began, and has certainly been enriched, because of Kate and Brooke, and that long-ago afternoon lounging in Kate’s room, listening to the people sing.

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