Don’t Judge a Book by its Weight: Les Miserables

Title: Les Miserables

Author: Victor Hugo

Favorite Line: “‘Forget not, never forget that you have promised me to use this silver to become an honest man.’

Jean Valjean, who had no recollection of this promise, stood confounded. The bishop had laid so much stress upon these words as he uttered them. He continued solemnly: ‘Jean Valjean, my brother: you belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God!’”

(I could have picked a great many incredible quotes; however, this one best sums up the overall theme of the book, I think)

When people ask me what my favorite book is, I tell them it’s like picking a favorite child. However, if pressed — and if you’re asking about fiction specifically — I would answer with Les Miserables.

When I was in 7th grade, somehow or another I got a free copy of the original Broadway cast recording. I knew nothing about the story (and this was pre-Google days), but the CD came with a lyrics sheet, so I could see who all the characters were and what parts they sang. I wanted so badly to be Eponine on Broadway. Again, I had no idea what the play was even about, but her solo parts were in my vocal range, and so I sang all of her parts with gusto. It wasn’t long before I had the entire track memorized.

For Christmas when I was in 9th grade, my dad bought me tickets to see Les Miserables at the Orpheum Theatre the last week of January. To date, it’s one of my favorite Christmas presents. I was over the moon, especially because I’d never been to a real theatre before.

However, I did know by that time that the play was also a book. And I had a standard habit of always reading a book before I saw the movie. Did the same apply to plays? I decided I would try.

When we went back to school after New Year’s, I went to my school library to see if they had a copy. When I pulled it off the shelf, my eyes nearly popped out of my head. I was an insatiable reader, but 1,200 pages? Up until that point, the longest book I’d ever read was the Bible, but I did that in almost a year. The play was in three weeks. I couldn’t possibly read 1,200 pages in three weeks.

Well, I decided, I would try. I would check it out, give it a shot, and if it really wasn’t going to work out, I’d return it to the library and just go enjoy the musical without having read the book. No harm, no foul.

Needless to say (since I’m writing a blog post about it), I devoured that book. In less than a week. Every spare minute I had when I wasn’t doing schoolwork or didn’t have practice, I was reading. It’s a beautiful story of love and second chances, sacrifice and mercy. When I finished it, I had to go back and re-read some scenes again because they were just so beautiful.

And, of course, I enjoyed the play. I’ve since seen Les Mis six times, including once on Broadway. I fan-girled so much because I never thought I would have the privilege of going to NYC, much less seeing a show on Broadway…and my all-time favorite show, which I’d thought had long been off Broadway (I got to see the revival version). The play is spectacular…but still, the book is even better. The play uses the story from the text; they don’t much alter it, which I do think is what makes it so great. However, they had to cut *a lot*, even to make it a 3-hour run time. So, there’s a ton of complexity that gets lost. For example, Eponine and Gavroche are actually brother and sister. There’s a third sibling, too, who is completely eliminated from the play. That doesn’t take away from the brilliance of the show, of course. Just to say that your enjoyment of the show might be enhanced by reading the book.

If 7th grade me with a free cast recording could have only known how much this book would impact me, I think I would have viewed that CD as magic or fate or Providence. My one big final regret is that I will probably never play Eponine in a cast production–even though I first felt an affinity for her solos, reading the book endeared her to me even more. Well, I can still dream, I hope…

If you’ve seen the play, but never read the book–or never done either–I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Have you read it? Seen the play? Love it as much as I do? Let me know in the comments!

 

Twists and Turns: The Thief

Book: The Thief

Author: Megan Whalen Turner

Favorite Line: “When Pol told [Sophos] to hold the hand back up, he did, but he jerked it backward and Pol’s second blow barely touched him. It was a simple lesson that my father had taught me years ago. If you think you are going to be hit, at least try to move out of the way. My father taught it to me with the flat side of his sword.”

The sarcastic wit of that line pretty much sums up why this is one of my all-time favorite books.

As you can probably tell from the picture, this book has a history. In fact, it’s practically falling apart at the binding. This is because, of all the books I own, this is one of the most re-read books on my shelf. It’s also a lesson in “don’t judge a book in the bargain bin.”

I found this book when I was a senior in high school. I didn’t have much money, but I had a lot of time to kill, so I went to the local bookstore, just to look, knowing I probably couldn’t buy anything. Then, just because, I went searching through the bargain bin. ‘There’s never anything good in a bargain bin,’ I thought, but for some reason, the cover of this one stuck out to me. I picked up and read the back blurb. Honestly, there is nothing special about the blurb on this particular copy. The last line even sounds a bit cliche–“But Gen has some ideas of his own.”

Okay…well…I would expect that from a protagonist. What’s the hook?

Initially, for me, there wasn’t one. And yet, something told me I should buy it. It was a 1997 Newberry book, and I love Newberry books (this is not the last one you’ll see on this blog). Plus, it was $2.99 in the bargain bin, and I think I had $5 to my name. I opened to the first page–“I didn’t know how long I’d been in the king’s prison.” Hmmm…now, that’s intriguing.

So, I bought it, just expecting a quick read, worth two dollars and ninety-nine cents, and not much more.

I would say I’ve definitely gotten my money’s worth out of this one. When I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down. When I finished reading it, I immediately re-read it. And, as I mentioned, I’ve re-read it a good many times since then, most recently just this past month. As a reader, I loved the intrigue the book offers–the ability to let me try and put some pieces together, while still offering surprises in the end. As a writer, I use this book as a template for how to do reveals–giving the reader the right information at the right time, and also how to hide information in plain sight. Without giving away anything from the book, I can tell you this book, as a first person narrative, is intricately woven.

The worldbuilding is also deep, and I felt I lived the world of Sounis, Eddis, and Attolia as I read. The characterization is similarly well done, especially the narrator, Gen. He’s witty and sharp, but also, when necessary, business-like. He’s a thief, and takes that seriously, but little else, so it seems. Getting to know him was a fun adventure.

I will admit, I was beyond excited when I learned there were sequels to this book. However, none of the sequels quite satisfy me the way this one does. I own two of them (The Queen of Attolia and The King of Attolia), but I’ve never read either of those more than once.The narrative voice just wasn’t the same, and the plot wasn’t quite as intricately woven. However, The Thief is a terrific novel as a stand alone, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

My take-aways from this one: Don’t judge a book in the bargain bin, and hide your plot twists in plain sight. And never trust a thief.

 

Portal to New Worlds: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

Book: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

Author: C.S. Lewis

Favorite Line: “What’s that? Yes, of course you’ll get back to Narnia again someday. Once a King in Narnia, always a King in Narnia.”

Honorable Mention: “Bless me, what do they teach them at these schools?”

This seems like the perfect first book for my blog. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is the first chapter book I ever recall reading on my own, and boy did it ever shape my future. If you only could have told six-year-old me what an impact this book would have on my life, I’m not sure I would have believed you. Yet, it did.

For one, I began an obsession with England. I’m pretty sure I was convinced that if I could visit London, I’d find Narnia.

In second grade, we had to pick a country and do a presentation on it. We were even supposed to wear clothes and serve food from that country. No contest, I picked England. I wore a flower-print dress and served “tea and crumpets.” Well…sort of. My poor mother didn’t know what a crumpet was, and these were the days before Google, so it was actually tea and sugar cookies. However, we had this silver tea service in the family that I got to polish up and use, so I felt very, very British.

And every day after school, I wanted afternoon tea. But we lived down South, so it was sweet tea and cookies. Or Kool-Aid and cookies. Whatever we had around the house. (I later discovered Early Grey and English Breakfast, as well as loose leaf tea and tea kettles. Crisis averted.)

In third grade, we learned about the American Revolution, and I had a crisis of conscience. Whose side was I supposed to be on? I was American, but I loved England. For third grade me, it was a real moral dilemma.

When I finally visited England in 2009, it was everything I’d hoped it would be. I also tried as many doors as I could, but sadly, none of them opened the portal to Narnia. Of course, as the book says, it’s no use trying to get there at all…sigh

This book has left an everlasting imprint on my life, sparking my early obsession with England which, of course, led to my love of British literature, which allowed me to have an amazing experience studying abroad and, eventually, teaching British literature. But more importantly, this book introduced me to the world of C.S. Lewis, who is one of my very favorite authors. People who know me well tease that I can’t get through a social media post without a Lewis quote. This is certainly not the last time you will see his name on this blog. And Lewis, of course, led me to Tolkien and Chesterton and Dorothy Sayers and oh so many other incredible authors.

So, in a way, I did find that door to other worlds. And there are so many worlds left to explore…But this is why we read, isn’t it? As Lewis himself said (in An Experiment in Criticism), “But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”

 

My Bookshelf

Bookshelf

This is my bookshelf. Obviously, it isn’t all of the books I own. Some are behind the closed doors at the bottom, some are laying around my apartment, and a few are in my classroom at school. Sadly, there are a precious few lost to the ether (ironically, my copy of Paradise Lost was, um, lost during my last move…). However, I will start this blog with the books you see here. Series will often be treated as a complete set, except, perhaps, in cases where I feel a single book from a series deserves more weight. Should I run out of books on this shelf, I will move to the books lying around my apartment, and then to those books who live at school.

I hope you get some good reading suggestions from my list; more importantly, I hope you share some of your favorite books with me! This way, we’ll always have something new to read, and new worlds to discover!