Happy Birthday, Monsieur Montaigne

Michel de Montaigne, b. 1533.

Advice for bloggers from Montaigne:
Don’t discuss yourself, for you are bound to lose; if you belittle yourself, you are believed; if you praise yourself, you are disbelieved.

When I am attacked by gloomy thoughts, nothing helps me so much as running to my books. They quickly absorb me and banish the clouds from my mind.

It is more of a job to interpret the interpretations than to interpret the things, and there are more books about books than about any other subject: we do nothing but write glosses about each other.

It is good to rub and polish our brain against that of others.

There were never in the world two opinions alike, any more than two hairs or two grains. Their most universal quality is diversity.

He who has not a good memory should never take upon himself the trade of lying.

I speak the truth, not my fill of it, but as much as I dare speak; and I dare to do so a little more as I grow old.

The Castle Behind Thorns by Merrie Haskell

“Child, you do not forgive because the person who wronged deserves it. You misunderstand the point of forgiveness entirely. The only cage that a grudge creates is around the holder of that grudge. Forgiveness is not saying that the person who hurt you was right, or has earned it, or is allowed to hurt you again. All forgiveness means is that you will carry on without the burdens of rage and hatred.”

What a lovely parable about forgiveness and friendship and compromise and negotiation. And it’s all built upon the framework of the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale. When Sand wakes up in the cold fireplace of the Sundered Castle, he has no idea how he got there. Nor can he understand why everything, every single thing, in the castle is torn apart: floors, doors, furniture, linens, tools, everything. It couldn’t be the result of an earthquake, the story that Sand has heard all of his life. Earthquakes don’t tear both hammers and heavy iron anvils in half.

Now Sand finds himself trapped inside the Sundered Castle with a hedge of vicious thorns all around, and he does the only thing he knows how to do. He begins to use the forge and his skills as the son of a blacksmith to mend what has been broken.

This reworking of the story of Sleeping Beauty is aimed at middle grade readers, but it works for older children and adults, too. Orson Scott Card’s Enchantment is more for adults, and Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose is a YA adaptation. It’s good to have such a solid Sleeping Beauty story for the younger set.

The book does use the idea of medieval Catholic “saints” as semi-magical figures who offer guidance and answer prayers. This depiction of mythical saints may be uncomfortable for both Catholics who believe in praying to real saints and Protestants who are uneasy with the entire concept. However, if you don’t mind a couple of fictitious saints inhabiting the pages of the fairy tale, then The Castle Behind Thorns is uplifting and authentic at the same time.

Links and Thinks: June 4, 2013

'Book Exchange' photo (c) 2012, oatsy40 - license: booth transformed into a library. What a wonderfully British idea! I wish I had a telephone booth to metamorphose into a little library.

June 4th is Aesop’s Day.

Also, on June 4, 1989, approximately 300-800 Chinese students and others died. Do you know what happened on this date?

Paris Books for Kids. Chapter books set in Paris, and picture books set in Paris. I love lists like this one. In fact, I’d really like to publish a follow-up to my Picture Book Preschool curriculum, called Picture Book Around the World.

Traditional Marriage Movement Sweeps through France. Who would have thought? “Their mouths overflow with the words ‘equality of man and woman.’ But why should marriage not be a place of equality, too, so that a child will be raised by man and woman? What a strange idea!”

The Resurrection and the Life

I thought I’d post a few times today and tomorrow about the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ and what it means to me and to some of the authors and fictional and actual characters that I have on my bookshelves. I’m going to take turns blogging and house-cleaning and see how that goes.

I first read Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities when I was in ninth grade. Three of us—Christina, Teresa, and I— wrote a chapter-by-chapter summary of the entire book, making our own little study guide to the novel as a school project. We did this before the age of personal computers and before any of us knew how to type. I can’t remember exactly what the finished product looked like, but it was a lot of work.

The themes of death, burial, imprisonment, rescue and resurrection are woven throughout Dickens’ tale set during the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror. Doctor Manette is rescued from a living death inside the Bastille. Jerry Cruncher is a “resurrection man” who digs up dead bodies to sell them. Charles Darnay is rescued and recalled to life twice during the novel, once when he is on trial in England and again when he is headed for guillotine in France.

But the most vivid representation of death and resurrection comes at the end of the novel when the reprobate Sydney Carton gives up his life to save Charles and Lucy Darnay and to ensure their future together. Carton is walking down the street when he remembers these words from Scripture read at his father’s funeral long ago:

“I am the resurrection, and the life, saith the Lord: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me, shall never die.”

Now, that the streets were quiet, and the night wore on, the words were in the echoes of his feet, and were in the air. Perfectly calm and steady, he sometimes repeated them to himself as he walked; but, he heard them always.

The night wore out, and, as he stood upon the bridge listening to the water as it splashed the river-walls of the Island of Paris, where the picturesque confusion of houses and cathedral shone bright in the light of the moon, the day came coldly, looking like a dead face out of the sky. Then, the night, with the moon and the stars, turned pale and died, and for a little while it seemed as if Creation were delivered over to Death’s dominion.

But, the glorious sun, rising, seemed to strike those words, that burden of the night, straight and warm to his heart in its long bright rays. And looking along them, with reverently shaded eyes, a bridge of light appeared to span the air between him and the sun, while the river sparkled under it.

The strong tide, so swift, so deep, and certain, was like a congenial friend, in the morning stillness He walked by the stream, far from the houses, and in the light and warmth of the sun fell asleep on the bank. When he awoke and was afoot again, he lingered there yet a little longer, watching an eddy that turned and turned purposeless, until the stream absorbed it, and carried it on to the sea.- “Like me!”

A trading-boat, with a sail of the softened colour of a dead leaf, then glided into his view, floated by him, and died away. As its silent track in the water disappeared, the prayer that had broken up out of his heart for a merciful consideration of all his poor blindnesses and errors, ended in the words, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

On Good Friday, when we are in the midst of death and sin and darkness, it does sometimes seem a if “Creation were delivered over to Death’s dominion.” A blogging friend sent out a tweet earlier today saying that he had “difficulty ‘pretending’ on Good Friday that Jesus is dead.” Of course, Jesus isn’t dead, but as far as imagining the feeling of despair and “being delivered over to death”, I have no trouble whatsoever. Sometimes things in this world are very dark, and the hope of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and our eventual resurrection with Him is all that keeps from utter despair.

Thank God for Resurrection Sunday!

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

Victor Hugo’s epic novel is divided into five volumes:

Volume 1: Fantine
Volume 2: Cosette
Volume 3: Marius
Volume 4: Saint-Denis
Volume 5: Jean Valjean

In January I read, or rather re-read, the first two volumes, but I’m sort of stuck. I first read the entire novel when I was in college. This reading was back in the Dark Ages, before the stage musical, before any movie versions that I was aware of, certainly before the most recent movie musical version starring Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway. I didn’t know what would happen to Cosette, Marius, and Jean Valjean. This burning desire to know how the story would turn out explains why I stayed up until two in the morning once upon a college dorm room, reading Les Miserables even though I had an eight o’clock class that same morning. I had to finish; I had to know.

Now I already know. And although I am enjoying my re-read thirty-plus years later, I no longer have the suspense pulling at me to finish the novel. So, I’m not sure when I will get the motivation to go ahead and read the rest, but here are a few observations on the first two parts.

The first part of Book 1, like the first part of the musical, actually focuses on Monseigneur Bienvenu, the Bishop of M., who first shows Jean Valjean what grace and mercy look like.

Of M. Bienvenu: “He did not study God; he was dazzled by Him.” Brown Bear Daughter thinks the good bishop is too good to be true, but I have met people who, having put their past behind them (and it is implied that M. Bienvenue may have a past of some sort), are veritable saints.

However, Jean Valjean does not immediately become good after his life-changing encounter with the bishop. Even after he is shown mercy, in the book Valjean robs a child on the road, out of habit(?) or dullness or ingrained hopelessness. He only sees himself in his own sin after this shameful act that cannot be excused by “the law is too harsh” or “I had to help my sister and her children by stealing a loaf of bread.” When Valjean sees himself in all his wickedness, then he is given even more grace to go ahead and “become an honest man,” sort of, or at least a useful and respectable man.

Fantine is another character who is more multi-dimensional in the novel than in the musical/movie. She is certainly “more sinned against”, abandoned by Cosette’s father, cheated by the Thenardiers, and driven into debt, prostitution, and slavery by her situation. However, she also nurses hatred and pride in her heart as she thinks of how she lost her factory job and as she continues on to a life of prostitution instead of appealing to M. Madeleine to give her job back. And she, like Valjean, needs and receives redemption and mercy.

Part 2 does introduce us to Cosette, and we watch her grow into a young lady as Jean Valjean grows in his ability to love and to sacrifice himself for another. He becomes Cosette’s true father.

Girl Detective enjoyed reading all 1231 pages of Les Miserables, but she complains, as do most people, about the long digressions and says the book begs to be abridged. I understand and have some sympathy for the abridgment position, especially when it comes to the name-dropping, political sections when Tholomyes and later Marius and his friends talk about people and political situations that we latter-day readers have never heard of and don’t need or want to know about. The political/historical parts where Hugo writes about people who add no value to the story are skippable. But the sewer and the cloister chapters are actually quite interesting to me anyway, and they set a tone for the setting of the story that I think makes it richer and more intense. (Not sure those are the right adjectives? Maybe “deep” or “vivid”.) Yeah, you can skip those and the whole battle of Waterloo, except the part where Thenardier rescues somebody, and the argot chapter and it’s OK, but I would argue that at the least there is good writing (essay and historical writing) there, too.

If the digressions bore you, skip them or get an abridged version. If you’re like me and you enjoy ponderous chapters full of information about arcane subjects, chapters that interrupt the action but do something that I can’t put my finger on exactly for the tone and development of the story, then go ahead and read them. I can’t say that you miss anything, really, by skipping, or that there is any virtue in being able to say you’ve read the entire, unabridged version. Just read it in some version. My favorite novel ever.

By the way, I loved the movie, except for the one part with Santa and various other vulgar vignettes in the Thenardiers’ inn, a scene which begged to be abridged, cut, censored and never even thought up in the first place. Drunken Santa Claus, at least, makes no appearance in Victor Hugo’s novel.

Novel Views: Les Miserables by Jeff Clark. These charts and graphs are fascinating. Did you know that, other than character names, some of the most common words used in Les Miserables are: bishop, love, mother, child, gamin, Paris, old, right, war, barricade, sewer, man, day, street, city, wall, door? And each character has characteristic verbs that are used to describe his/her actions.
Jean Valjean fell, condemned, concealed, stood, robbed, slept, caught.
Fantine coughed, sighed, sang, shared.
Cosette gazed, grew, developed, fetched, noticed, woke, loved.
Marius lived, fixed, paid, launched, fell, reflected, heard.
Javert pinioned, killed, permitted, bound, hunted, recognized, yielded.
Thenardier screamed, unmasked, growled, shook, lied, cast, thrust.
Gavroche muttered, sang, scratched, climbed, shrugged, pushed.

Emotional Detachment and Les Miserables by Michael Sacasas at Mere Orthodoxy. This article asks if some critics of the new movie and of the story itself are disturbed by “having been brought dangerously near the edge of feeling again what had been assiduously suppressed by reflexively deployed irony or cynicism.”

Les Miserables book study at the blog Mommy Life. Barbara Curtis, the blogger at Mommy Life has gone on to be with the Lord, but her blog lives on in cyberspace. Her comments and thoghts on Hugo’s opus are full of insight and Christian theology.

Magistramater gives us some quotations from Volume 1 and from Volume 2.

Amy’s rambling thoughts on Les Miserables at Hope Is the Word.

I started this blog post a couple of weeks ago, and now I think I’m about ready to get back to Les Miserables and finish it. I’ll try to check in again when I’ve finished Volume Three, Marius.

Mira’s Diary: Lost in Paris by Marissa Moss

Time travel at its most historically teach-y. I learned a lot about the Dreyfus affair, but the time travel elements of this story were too unbelievable. Mira keeps traveling back and forth from our time to various times in the late nineteenth century, and she meets many of the same people at different key points in their lives: Degas, Monet, Mary Cassatt, Emile Zola. The problem is that none of these people seem too surprised or inquisitive when she stays the same age, but shows up at five and ten year gaps in their nineteenth century lives.

There’s a bit of romance thrown into the mix when Mira gets a crush on Degas’s assistant, Claude, but this element, too, is spoiled by the time lapse time-traveling that Mira does. Claude gets older Mira doesn’t. Her main mission, to find a way to motivate people to defend Dreyfuss and nip French anti-Semitism in the bud meets with mixed success at best, probably because history didn’t really turn out that way, did it?

Marissa Moss is the author of the very popular Dear Amelia series of diary/graphic novel/picture books for younger readers. This diary, the first in a projected series, is for older middle grade young people, and the fact that it has a Jewish protagonist is refreshing. However, I don’t think I can get my middle grade readers to try this one on the basis of their love for the Amelia books. It’s just too different, even though it does have some drawings included in the text since Mira is an artist. The sequel to Mira’s Diary: Lost in Paris is Mira’s Diary: Home Sweet Rome, due out in April, 2013. In this second one, Mira goes time-traveling again and meets the sixteenth century artist Carvaggio, so the art theme carries on through the series.

The Summer of Katya by Trevanian

A couple of weeks ago when we played Book Tag with the theme of Summer Setting, Summer Reading, Debbie at ExUrbanis recommended this novel, saying that is was “part mystery and part love story.” So I borrowed a copy from the library.

And it is part mystery and part love story with a bit of psychological thriller and a ghost thrown in for free. The setting is the summer of 1914, just before the outbreak of World War I in southern France, near Basque country. Our narrator is a middle-aged Basque doctor who is recalling, in 1938 on the eve of yet another war, the days of his youth before he went off to fight in the Great War.

Dr. Montjean is a faithful and trustworthy narrator, but he doesn’t really understand the events and people he chronicles. There are lots of twists and surprises here that I certainly didn’t see coming. And the dialogue and the descriptions were both quite well-written, enough so that I eschewed my usual bad habit of skimming over long narrative passages.

Trevanian, the author, lives in the French Basque mountains, so the setting should be true-to-life. The description of a traditional Basque festival, complete with dancing, drinking, fighting and semi-pagan ritual is worth the reading of all the events leading up to it. Then there’s the Freudian, early twentieth century atmosphere that makes this novel just the right medicine for a good summer read.

Advanced Reading Survey: Eugenie Grandet by Honore de Balzac

I’ve decided that on Mondays I’m going to revisit the books I read for a course in college called Advanced Reading Survey, taught by the eminent scholar and lovable professor, Dr. Huff. I’m not going to re-read all the books and poems I read for that course, probably more than fifty, but I am going to post to Semicolon the entries in the reading journal that I was required to keep for that class because I think that my entries on these works of literature may be of interest to readers here and because I’m afraid that the thirty year old spiral notebook in which I wrote these entries may fall apart ere long. I may offer my more mature perspective on the books, too, if I remember enough about them to do so.

Author Note:
Honore de Balzac, son of an officer in Napoleon’s army, was greatly influenced and impressed by the great emperor’s career. He once wrote, under a picture of Napoleon, “What Napoleon could not do with the sword, I will accomplish with the pen.”
Balzac wrote at an incredible pace throughout his life, and although much of his work was of negligible value, stuff written solely to support himself and pay his creditors, he did manage to turn out a few masterpieces, including Eugenie Grandet and Le Pere Goriot. Balzac died in Paris in 1850 at the age of 51, possibly weakened by his intense writing schedule and his incessant coffee drinking.

Gustave Flaubert on Balzac: “What a man he would have been had he known how to write!”
Victor Hugo: “Balzac was one of the first among the greatest, one of the highest among the best.”
Henry James: “Large as Balzac is, he is all of one piece and he hangs perfectly together.”
Marxist Freidrich Engels: “I have learned more [from Balzac] than from all the professional historians, economists and statisticians put together.”

Plot Summary:
Eugenie Grandet falls in love with her cousin, Charles, but her father is a miser who refuses to allow her to marry a penniless man. Eventually, Eugenie becomes wealthy and miserly herself, following in her father’s footsteps.

Monsieur Felix Grandet: an old miser
Madame Grandet: His wife
Eugenie Grandet: the daughter
Nanon: the family’s only servant
Charles Grandet: Eugenie’s cousin

“Innocence alone can dare to be so bold. Once enlightened, virtue makes her calculations as well as vice.”

“Flattery never emanates from noble souls; it is the gift of little minds who thus still further belittle themselves to worm their way into the vital being of persons around whom they crawl. Flattery means self-interest.”

Other reviews:
Beyond Assumptions: “As it turns out Balzac has penchant for good story-telling and a fine eye for writing interesting and humorous characters.”

Wuthering Expectations: “Eugénie Grandet has some of Balzac’s best descriptive passages, and three or four really fine characters, and a snappy story. But it’s the combination of the characters, and the structure, and the details of the house and town that amaze me.”

Constance Reader: “every character in this novel is fully fleshed out and fully-realized, including secondary characters like the family housemaid and even tertiary characters like the village butcher, whom we only see once. The result is that you get a perfect idea of what life in a little town was like, at that time, from the top to the very bottom.”

The Music Man:
Maud: I shouldn’t tell you this but she advocates dirty books.
Harold: Dirty books?!
Alma: Chaucer
Ethel: Rabelais
Eulalie: Balzac!

For Freedom: The Story of a French Spy by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

“This book is written as fiction but tells a true story.”

Suzanne David Hall was thirteen years old in 1940 when the Germans invaded France, and she later became a spy for the French resistance. While training to become an opera singer, she relayed messages that helped bring about the Allied invasion of Normandy. The 2003 novel For Freedom: The Story of a French Spy by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley is based on interviews with Hall.

The novel is quite exciting, and the tension builds as Suzanne is called on to deliver her messages more and more frequently and as the spy network in which she works becomes smaller and smaller when the Germans capture the spies one by one. Suzanne is a brave girl, and she continues her work even though she knows the Nazis will torture or even kill her if she is found out. The prose in the story is simple and straightforward, and the pacing is mostly good, although the novel does start out a little slowly. The book is halfway through before Suzanne’s spy adventures start.

For Freedom is a good introduction to so many World War II topics: Dunkirk, Vichy France, the French Resistance, German occupation of France, daily life under German occupation, the Allied invasion of Normandy. But it’s not just a nice “salad” accompaniment to the main course of the history of World War II. The story carried me along and made me feel how difficult it must have been to be involved in the Resistance, never knowing from one day to the next whether this day would be the last before you were captured by the Germans.

Isn’t that what courage is? Courage: to keep doing right, to persevere in the face of uncertainty and even valid reasonable fear. If I were doing something that I knew would lead to disaster, if I were certain that I would be caught and killed and unable to complete my mission, it would be foolish and useless to persist. But if it’s only very likely that I might be arrested and if what I was doing was likely to help many people if I could continue, then bravery would be required. Suzanne was a brave young woman, “a hero of France.”

1916: Art and Entertainment

On May 20, 1916, artist Norman Rockwell publishes his first cover for the magazine Saturday Evening Post. The picture was called Boy With Baby Carriage., and it shows a boy who is having to push a baby in her carriage while his friends go off to play baseball.

Also, during 1916 and until his death in 1926, Claude Monet continues to paint his murals of water lilies even though he develops cataracts on his eyes and is unable to see as clearly or paint in such detail as he was in his earlier work.

Christina Bjork (b. 1938) is author of the beautiful book, Linnea in Monet’s Garden. In the book, Linnea, a young girl, and her neighbor, Mr. Blom, get to visit Paris and Giverny and see the places where Monet created his paintings. The book is a wonderful introduction to impressionist art and to the work and life of Claude Monet.