Book Review: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo was published in 1831 but set in the Paris of 1482.

Quasimodo was a deformed child left at a place where foundlings were deposited for anyone who might want to take them in. He had so many physical issues that one of the gossipy women observing him declared it “must be a sin to look at such a thing.” A priest came by, saw the child, and adopted him.

The priest, Claude Frollo, had been a promising scholar when his own parents died. In compassion he took in his younger brother, Jehan, and raised him, and thoughts of what would have happened to Jehan if Claude had not been available compelled Claude to take in Quasimodo.

But several years later, Jehan became dissolute, preferring drinking and carousing to studying. Quasimodo, “From his very first steps among men…had felt himself, later on he had seen himself, spewed out, blasted, rejected. Human words were, for him, always a raillery or a malediction. As he grew up, he had found nothing but hatred around him. He had caught the general malevolence. He had picked up the weapon with which he had been wounded.” Quasimodo became the bell ringer for Notre Dame and loved the bells as he did no one else except Claude, but the bells made Quasimodo deaf. He was unable to benefit from the study Claude longed to impart. Thus, “Claude, saddened and discouraged in his human affections, by all this, had flung himself eagerly into the arms of learning, that sister which, at least does not laugh in your face, and which always pays you, though in money that is sometimes a little hollow, for the attention which you have paid to her. Hence, he became more and more learned, and, at the same time, as a natural consequence, more and more rigid as a priest, more and more sad as a man.” His insatiable thirst for knowledge led him to delve “further, lower, beneath all that finished, material, limited knowledge; he had, perhaps, risked his soul, and had seated himself in the cavern at that mysterious table of the alchemists, of the astrologers, of the hermetics.”

Further drawing Claude away from anything good and right was his lust for a gypsy girl named Esmeralda, who used to dance in the streets with her tambourine and have her goat perform tricks to earn money. Claude deemed that his unhealthy obsession for Esmeralda must be due to some sorcery on her part.

When Quasimodo was publicly punished for a crime that Claude put him up to, Esmeralda was the only person who took pity on him and offered him water. That act of kindness caused Quasimodo to love her, though he knew his love would never be returned.

Claude’s jealousy led to an assault for which Esmeralda was blamed. Quasimodo rescued her and hid her in the cathedral. But massive misunderstandings all around led to multiple tragedies.

My thoughts:

I have not seen any of the film versions of this book, but from what I understand, many of them twist the ending to be more upbeat. There is no happy ending in this book, except maybe for the playwright and the goat. In fact, it’s so dark and seemingly hopeless, I pondered for a long while what it was all for.

Some have said, due to the fact that the Hugo’s original title was Notre-Dame de Paris, and most of the action in the novel takes place in and around the cathedral, that it is the main character. One reason Hugo wrote this book was to call attention to the value of the Gothic architecture in the city and to rouse support for preserving it. Many of Paris’s buildings had been damaged over the centuries and new construction or repairs were not always in keeping with the Gothic style. One chapter in the book talks about how literature will “kill” architecture as a means of expression.

But on another level, this novel depicts a very human story. I can’t believe that it is all about the cathedral.

It could be about the destructive power of lust. Most of the tragedies that came raining down on almost everyone stem from Claude’s obsession with Esmeralda. Some of the others came or were exacerbated by a lust for power. Early in the novel, a playwright wanders into the wrong part of town and is put on “trial” by the riffraff of the city. Later, two different trials by the proper magistrates show themselves to be no more just than the underground kangaroo court. Even one scene involving the king shows his misplaced priorities.

It could be about the mistake of judging by appearances. Quasimodo, of course, was obviously misjudged from day one, which had an effect on his character. A captain, Phoebus is misjudged, but on the other end of the scale: because he is so handsome, people think he is good, when in reality he is a cad. Esmeralda is misjudged for her beauty but also for her ethnicity: gypsies were not respected, and she is constantly accused of sorcery or other crimes just because she is a gypsy. One of my favorite parts is a song Quasimodo sings outside Esmeralda’s window, translated by Project Gutenberg as follows:

Look not at the face, young girl, look at the heart. The heart of a handsome young man is often deformed. There are hearts in which love does not keep. Young girl, the pine is not beautiful; it is not beautiful like the poplar, but it keeps its foliage in winter. Alas! What is the use of saying that? That which is not beautiful has no right to exist; beauty loves only beauty; April turns her back on January. Beauty is perfect, beauty can do all things, beauty is the only thing which does not exist by halves. The raven flies only by day, the owl flies only by night, the swan flies by day and by night.

It could be about the nature of real love. Claude thinks he loves Esmeralda but his affection is dark, destructive, and self-centered. Esmeralda thinks she loves the captain, but her warm feelings are based on his looks and an act of kindness he rendered toward her. She’s totally blind to his real nature. Quasimodo, though not a good character, shines in his love for the bells and the cathedral – some say he is the soul of the cathedral, and without him, the building “seems deserted, inanimate, dead…like a skull which still has holes for the eyes, but no longer sight.” He loved Claude, but it was a love based on “gratitude carried to its extreme limit.” But his love for Esmeralda causes him to extend himself and sacrifice for her benefit. When he rescues her from the gallows, for the first time the mob sees him as “really beautiful,” at least for a time. Personally I like this view the best.

It could be about fate. In Hugo’s introduction, he describes “rummaging about” Notre Dame coming across the word “ANNAKE” inscribed on one of the walls. Later someone in the book defines the inscription to mean “Fate.” That did not make much sense to me, as the troubles in the book came often from wrong choices rather than outside forces. But Wikipedia defines the word as “a personification of inevitability, compulsion and necessity.” That makes more sense considering who inscribed it and why. The Wikipedia article also quotes Hugo in a collection of his poems, Toute la Lyre:

Religion, society, nature; these are the three struggles of man. These three conflicts are, at the same time, his three needs: it is necessary for him to believe, hence the temple; it is necessary for him to create, hence the city; it is necessary for him to live, hence the plow and the ship. But these three solutions contain three conflicts. The mysterious difficulty of life springs from all three. Man has to deal with obstacles under the form of superstition, under the form of prejudice, and under the form of the elements. A triple “ananke” (necessity) weighs upon us, the “ananke” of dogmas, the “ananke” of laws, and the “ananke” of things. In Notre Dame de Paris the author has denounced the first; in Les Misérables he has pointed out the second; in this book (Toilers of the Sea) he indicates the third. With these three fatalities which envelop man is mingled the interior fatality, that supreme ananke, the human heart.

I’m still sifting through what that means.

I chose The Hunchback of Notre Dame for the “classic that intimidates you” category of the Back to the Classics Challenge. It intimidated me due to its length, due to the fact that the subject matter didn’t naturally draw me, and due to Hugo’s penchant for rabbit trails. I have come close to reading it many times and then backed away, but Tarissa’s review encouraged me toward trying it.

There were fewer side discussions here than there were in Les Miserables, one of my top three favorite novels, and this book is not as long as Les Mis. But Les Mis ends triumphantly and beautifully even though it ends sadly. And even though darkness pervades Les Mis, light shines through. There’s little light in Hunchback. I was stunned to find much more sensuality in Hunchback, even though a major character in Les Mis is a prostitute. I thought Les Mis was fairly discreet, but Hunchback goes into much more detail in Frollo’s thoughts and in the captain’s nearly successful seduction scene. On the other hand, sometimes it sounds worse than it is: Esmeralda is described as “half naked” when she is taken to the gallows, but she is in a shift (something like a slip) with her legs uncovered: that hardly constitutes being “half naked” in our day, but it would have been indecent then.

So, I have mixed emotions about the book. I am glad to have read it, but it will never go down as a favorite. But I did enjoy the way Hugo developed the characters and their psychology. And, as most classics do, this book had me pondering different aspects of it for days after finishing it.

Forgive the lack of page numbers for the quotes: I listened to the audio version marvelously narrated by Bill Homewood. I got a paperback copy from the library to go over some parts, but it was a modernized translation. So I ended up using the Gutenberg version online to look up certain sections.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)

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Book Review: Villette

Villette was the last book written by Charlotte Bronte (another was published posthumously but was actually her first book). I had only recently heard of Villette, but since Charlotte penned one of my top three novels, Jane Eyre, I thought I’d give it a try.

Villette is a semi-autobiographical novel based on parts of Charlotte’s life. She and her sister, Emily, had taught for a time in a boarding school in Brussels, Belgium. They both went back to England when their aunt died, and Charlotte returned to the boarding house alone. Villette is a fictional town in France, but based upon Brussels. By the time Charlotte started writing this novel, she was the only remaining sibling of the original five in her family, and she well captures that feeling of being all alone in the world.

The story’s heroine is Lucy Snowe. After some unexplained tragedy in her family, Lucy was left totally alone and needing to make her own way in the world. She heard that some French families hired English-speaking governesses for their children, so she took what money she had and went to France though she knew almost no French and no one in the country. She met a young English girl, Ginevra, on the ship, who went to a French boarding school. After getting lost in Villette, Lucy found herself on the doorstep of the same boarding school run by a Madame Beck. Lucy begged for a job doing anything at the school. She was hired to take care of Madame Beck’s children, but eventually she was asked to teach English at the school.

Lucy on the outside seemed like a quiet, almost mousy person (someone called her a shadow), but inside her feelings ran deep. Charlotte named her Snowe on purpose (she was originally going to go with Frost) to portray how she seemed to other people.

In addition to the ups and downs at the school and encounters with the spoiled Ginevra, Lucy came across her godmother and his son in town, who, unknown to her, had moved to Villette. The son was a teenager at the beginning of the book but became a doctor. Later Lucy encountered a father and daughter she had also met at the beginning, and had several run-ins with an abrasive fellow teacher, M. Paul Emanuel.

One article I read said “Everyone loves Paul Emanuel.” I did not. He constantly criticized Lucy and tended to dominate, not letting her leave for lunch when he wanted to talk to her, locking her up in the attic to learn lines for a school play he was directing. Later he is shown to have several redeeming qualities, but I never got over the initial dislike.

Since France was primarily a Catholic country Lucy stood out as one of the few Protestants. M. Emanuel and a priest took it upon themselves to try to convert her, but Lucy stood firm. Lucy had no use for Catholicism (” the CHURCH strove to bring up her children robust in body, feeble in soul, fat, ruddy, hale, joyous, ignorant, unthinking, unquestioning”), but came to believe that “there are good Romanists.” She and M. Emanuel eventually came to an understanding that they both trusted in “God, be merciful to me, a sinner,” and they left each other’s religious affiliations alone after that. The priest, however, thwarted some of her interests later.

Though there are several aspects to the story, it’s primarily a psychological drama of sorts with Lucy’s highs and lows, known mostly just to herself. There are comic moments in Lucy’s asides to herself, especially in her conversations with Ginevra. But Lucy gets so low at one point, when she is left alone at the school during a long break with a mentally disabled student and then falls ill, that she has a breakdown. One passage that’s characteristic is Lucy’s encouraging of herself:

Courage, Lucy Snowe! With self-denial and economy now, and steady exertion by-and-by, an object in life need not fail you. Venture not to complain that such an object is too selfish, too limited, and lacks interest; be content to labour for independence until you have proved, by winning that prize, your right to look higher. But afterwards, is there nothing more for me in life—no true home—nothing to be dearer to me than myself, and by its paramount preciousness, to draw from me better things than I care to culture for myself only? Nothing, at whose feet I can willingly lay down the whole burden of human egotism, and gloriously take up the nobler charge of labouring and living for others? I suppose, Lucy Snowe, the orb of your life is not to be so rounded: for you, the crescent-phase must suffice. Very good. I see a huge mass of my fellow-creatures in no better circumstances. I see that a great many men, and more women, hold their span of life on conditions of denial and privation. I find no reason why I should be of the few favoured. I believe in some blending of hope and sunshine sweetening the worst lots. I believe that this life is not all; neither the beginning nor the end. I believe while I tremble; I trust while I weep.

Some article I read herald the novel’s “feminism” and Lucy’s independence, but here she shows a longing for a “true home,” someone “dearer to me than myself.” I read that she wanted to write a sad and unfulfilled ending, but her father (and I think perhaps others) urged a conventional happier one. The ending is a little ambiguous, so readers can interpret it whichever way they like.

There are several parallels between Villette and Jane Eyre. Both protagonists are women alone; neither would be considered beautiful; each has a rather unconventional romance with an unlikely suitor. There is even a bit of gothic mystery in both: Jane’s Mr. Rochester is found to have a mad wife locked up in an unused part of the house; Villette’s boarding school has a legend of a dead nun who haunts the place, which Lucy encounters a couple of times (though later a logical explanation is found for the appearances).

One downside to Villette is that much of the conversation is written in French with no translation. That posed a problem for me to listen to the audiobook since I know almost no French. Thankfully I found an annotated copy of the novel at the library with translations and other notes, but it was disjointing to have to look up passages later after reading them.

I listened to the audiobook wonderfully read by Davina Porter. Though I enjoyed the novel, Jane Eyre is still my favorite Bronte work.

(Sharing with Carole’s Books You Loved, Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday)

 

Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge

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Tarissa at In the Bookcase hosts the Louisa May Alcott Reading Challenge this month. You can find details and prize information here.

I’d like to read at least two books for the challenge.

  • A biography,  Invincible Louisa by Cornelia Meigs
  •  A Long Fatal Love Chase by Louisa. This was one of her “sensational novels” that she, like Jo in Little Women, wrote for quick money. It was recently rediscovered and printed. It will be interesting to see that side of Alcott.

I may also try to listen to Little Women again. I have read it several times and listened an audiobook of it at least once. I recently watched the new PBS remake, and I know they arranged some parts out of order, but for others I am not sure if I am remembering the book or the 1994 film. At any rate, I am hankering to go through the book again. I am making good time on my Back to the Classics challenge, so I think I have time for a detour. 🙂 But we’ll see.

Book Review: Adam Bede

Adam Bede Adam Bede is a solid, hardworking, salt-of-the-earth kind of man in the novel that bears his name by George Eliot (aka Mary Ann Evans, sometimes seen as Marian Evans). He lives in a pastoral community known as Hayslope in 1799 England. Adam is a carpenter and lives with his mother and brother, Seth. His closest friends are the Poysers, who run the nearby dairy farm, and Arthur Donnithorne, the young squire just coming of age who will inherit the estate when his grandfather dies. Adam is so well regarded at the carpenter shop that the owner not only wants Adam to take over when the owner retires; he also wants Adam to marry his daughter, Mary.

Adam, however, is in love with Hettie, the Poysers niece who has been living with them since she was orphaned. Sadly, Hettie is not the girl Adam thinks she is. She’s pretty, but she is also shallow, selfish, and vain. She wants out of her boring lifestyle. When Arthur visits the dairy and flirts a little with her, she begins to think that perhaps he will fall in love with her and make her a fine lady one day.

Seth, meanwhile, is in love with Dinah, a niece of Mrs. Poyser. Dinah doesn’t plan to marry, though, because she feels her calling is to preach God’s Word. Dinah and Hettie are set up as opposites. One night in their adjoining rooms, Hettie is trying on earrings and a shawl, parading up and down her room, admiring herself in a mirror, while Dinah is looking out the window, admiring the landscape and then praying. Dinah tries to befriend Hettie, but without success at first.

Brief descriptions of the book hint at a tragedy that occurs as a result of the love triangle, but it’s not the tragedy I was expecting. My jaw literally dropped at what happened. Some descriptions also mention the word “seduction,” which made me a little wary of the book. But I liked Eliot’s Daniel Deronda and Middlemarch so much, I decided to take a chance. I am glad I did. There is not a seduction per se in the novel. It’s more like an unwise falling into temptation. Elliot is quite discreet about it: similar to David and Bathsheba’s sin in the Bible, there are no sordid scenes, just the tragic results.

Arthur, in fact, is kind of a study in a lighthearted, likeable man who drifts into temptation by excuse:

No young man could confess his faults more candidly; candour was one of his favourite virtues; and how can a man’s candour be seen in all its lustre unless he has a few failings to talk of? But he had an agreeable confidence that his faults were all of a generous kind—impetuous, warm-blooded, leonine; never crawling, crafty, reptilian. It was not possible for Arthur Donnithorne to do anything mean, dastardly, or cruel. “No! I’m a devil of a fellow for getting myself into a hobble, but I always take care the load shall fall on my own shoulders.” Unhappily, there is no inherent poetical justice in hobbles, and they will sometimes obstinately refuse to inflict their worst consequences on the prime offender, in spite of his loudly expressed wish.

He could no more believe that he should so fall in his own esteem than that he should break both his legs and go on crutches all the rest of his life. He couldn’t imagine himself in that position; it was too odious, too unlike him.

He was getting in love with Hetty—that was quite plain. He was ready to pitch everything else—no matter where—for the sake of surrendering himself to this delicious feeling which had just disclosed itself. It was no use blinking the fact now—they would get too fond of each other, if he went on taking notice of her—and what would come of it? He should have to go away in a few weeks, and the poor little thing would be miserable. He MUST NOT see her alone again; he must keep out of her way…He wondered if the dear little thing were thinking of him too—twenty to one she was. How beautiful her eyes were with the tear on their lashes! He would like to satisfy his soul for a day with looking at them, and he MUST see her again.

No man’s conduct will bear too close an inspection; and Poyser was not likely to know it; and, after all, what had he done? Gone a little too far, perhaps, in flirtation, but another man in his place would have acted much worse; and no harm would come—no harm should come, for the next time he was alone with Hetty, he would explain to her that she must not think seriously of him or of what had passed. It was necessary to Arthur, you perceive, to be satisfied with himself. Uncomfortable thoughts must be got rid of by good intentions for the future.

It was the last weakness he meant to indulge in; and a man never lies with more delicious languor under the influence of a passion than when he has persuaded himself that he shall subdue it to-morrow.

No man can escape this vitiating effect of an offence against his own sentiment of right, and the effect was the stronger in Arthur because of that very need of self-respect which, while his conscience was still at ease, was one of his best safeguards. Self-accusation was too painful to him—he could not face it. He must persuade himself that he had not been very much to blame; he began even to pity himself.

Though the love triangle forms the main plot and conflict, there are a plethora of other unique characters and subjects that come up during the course of the book.  One subject is the nature of religion. Adam views using one’s gifts to do one’s best at one’s work as an act of worship and a practical display of faith. He preferred the pastor who was not the best preacher, but had a heart for his people, as opposed to a later minister who excelled at “doctrines and notions” without warmth and personal care of his church. It’s sad that Eliot later rejected Christianity: she seemed to have a good understanding of its main points here.

Another major theme is the effect of suffering. A couple of times Adam stoutly rejects the notion that good can come out of bad. But his suffering does soften him from the good but hard and slightly proud man he was to a more kindhearted and sympathetic version.

Eliot’s strength is getting into the minds of her characters and revealing them to us. Even though this was her first novel, she displayed that skill well. I ached along with several of them.

A few favorite quotes:

What greater thing is there for two human souls, than to feel that they are joined for life–to strengthen each other in all labor, to rest on each other in all sorrow, to minister to each other in all pain, to be one with each other in silent unspeakable memories at the moment of the last parting?

We must learn to accommodate ourselves to the discovery that some of those cunningly-fashioned instruments called human souls have only a very limited range of music, and will not vibrate in the least under a touch that fills others with tremulous rapture or quivering agony.

Her little butterfly soul fluttered incessantly between memory and dubious expectation.

In a mind where no strong sympathies are at work, where there is no supreme sense of right to which the agitated nature can cling and steady itself to quiet endurance, one of the first results of sorrow is a desperate vague clutching after any deed that will change the actual condition. Poor Hetty’s vision of consequences, at no time more than a narrow fantastic calculation of her own probable pleasures and pains, was now quite shut out by reckless irritation under present suffering, and she was ready for one of those convulsive, motiveless actions by which wretched men and women leap from a temporary sorrow into a lifelong misery.

Mrs. Poyser, known for speaking her mind, when asked by the squire why she was leaving his grandson’s birthday party so early:

Oh, Your Honour, it’s all right and proper for gentlefolks to stay up by candlelight—they’ve got no cheese on their minds. We’re late enough as it is, an’ there’s no lettin’ the cows know as they mustn’t want to be milked so early to-morrow mornin’.

In chapter 17, the narrator or author addresses the reader directly on the issue of why one character was not drawn more ideally.

Certainly I could, if I held it the highest vocation of the novelist to represent things as they never have been and never will be. Then, of course, I might refashion life and character entirely after my own liking; I might select the most unexceptionable type of clergyman and put my own admirable opinions into his mouth on all occasions. But it happens, on the contrary, that my strongest effort is to avoid any such arbitrary picture, and to give a faithful account of men and things as they have mirrored themselves in my mind. The mirror is doubtless defective, the outlines will sometimes be disturbed, the reflection faint or confused; but I feel as much bound to tell you as precisely as I can what that reflection is, as if I were in the witness-box, narrating my experience on oath.

She goes on to say that in real life, there are people with whom we have to do who are flawed in major and minor ways, and the novelist does us a disservice by creating an ideal world when what we really need is to better view and interact with our real one:

These fellow-mortals, every one, must be accepted as they are: you can neither straighten their noses, nor brighten their wit, nor rectify their dispositions; and it is these people—amongst whom your life is passed—that it is needful you should tolerate, pity, and love: it is these more or less ugly, stupid, inconsistent people whose movements of goodness you should be able to admire—for whom you should cherish all possible hopes, all possible patience. And I would not, even if I had the choice, be the clever novelist who could create a world so much better than this, in which we get up in the morning to do our daily work, that you would be likely to turn a harder, colder eye on the dusty streets and the common green fields—on the real breathing men and women, who can be chilled by your indifference or injured by your prejudice; who can be cheered and helped onward by your fellow-feeling, your forbearance, your outspoken, brave justice.

I listened to the audiobook wonderfully narrated by Nadia May. If I have a choice of narrators, and May is one, I choose her! I also dipped into the written text online at Project Gutenberg and through a library copy.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ

Ben-HurTwo young men sat in a garden in first century Judea. They had been close childhood friends, but now they realized they must come to a parting of the ways. Their culture, religion, education, and training pitted them against each other. One was a Roman, Messala; one was a Jew, Judah Ben-Hur.

But their parting signaled more than the loss of friendship. A procession of the Roman governor and his guard passed by Judah’s house one day. As Judah and his sister leaned over the parapet to watch, his hand accidentally loosened a roof tile, which fell and hit the official, knocking him off his horse. The guards stormed the house, and Judah was accused of attempted assassination by none other than Messala. Judah’s mother and sister were seized and taken away, the Hur home was confiscated by the Roman government, and Judah was made a galley slave in a Roman ship.

In Judah’s third year as a galley slave, Quintas Arrius took over the ship to combat pirates. Arrius noticed Judah and asked about him. He was stunned to learn that Judah was the son of someone he had known, a prince in Judea. When a sea battle wrecked the ship, Judah saved the life of Arrius. Arrius adopted Judah as his son, had him trained in Roman fighting, and left him all his wealth.

Judah had two aims in life: to find his mother and sister, and to exact revenge on Rome in general and Messala in particular. He found opportunity to face Messala in a chariot race.

In his travels, Judah heard of a man named Jesus who was the source of much controversy. Some thought Jesus was the promised Messiah, arrived to set up his kingdom. Most thought the kingdom would be an immediate physical one, unseating and defeating the Romans. A few thought the Messiah’s kingdom would be a spiritual one. Judah threw all his influence and training into getting an army ready for the day Jesus would announce himself as King. But Judah also pondered Jesus’s teaching and wonders who he really was.

The subtitle of Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace is A Tale of the Christ. Although Christ is physically in the plot a short amount of time, He is a subject of consideration for much of the book. The story actually begins with three wise men meeting in the desert, discussing their backgrounds and how they came to faith in the one true God and were led by a star. Then they journeyed together to find the newborn king. Some twenty years later, the lone surviving magi, Balthasar, came back to Judea to see the now adult King take His place. This was the first novel with Jesus as a major character, and though Wallace made up scenes, descriptions, and actions involving Christ, as an author he respectfully did not put words in Jesus’s mouth. The only words Christ speaks in the story come from the Bible.

This story was spurred by a conversation Wallace had on a train with noted atheist Robert Ingersoll. Though Wallace wasn’t particularly religious, he felt Ingersoll was wrong. Wallace felt ashamed that he did not know more. He decided to research Christianity, eventually came up with the idea of framing the story and teaching of Jesus in a novel, and became something of a believer himself in the process. His novel became an all-time best-seller.

Many are familiar with the 1959 film starring Charlton Heston as Ben-Hur. The book, of course, goes into much more detail, and there are a few differences in some plot details between the two. (One interesting tidbit – but don’t read if you don’t want too much of a spoiler! In the film, Messala cheated in the chariot race by having spikes on his wheels with which he attacked Ben-Hur’s chariot. In the book, however, it was Ben-Hur who clipped Messala’s wheel in a slight action unnoticed by the crowd, causing the latter’s chariot to wreck. Though Ben-Hur was out for revenge, this isn’t treated as cheating in the book – in preparing for the chariot race, Ben-Hur noted the need to be alert to the Romans’ tricks. In fact, earlier in full sight of the crowd, Messala used his whip to strike Ben-Hur’s horses, causing them to leap forward. So it seems like this kind of thing was part of the race and not penalized.)

One of my favorite passages in the book comes after Messala tried to upset Ben-Hur’s horses and throw them off course:

The four sprang forward affrighted. No hand had ever been laid upon them except in love; they had been nurtured ever so tenderly; and as they grew, their confidence in man became a lesson to men beautiful to see. What should such dainty natures do under such indignity but leap as from death? Forward they sprang as with one impulse, and forward leaped the car. Past question, every experience is serviceable to us. Where got Ben-Hur the large hand and mighty grip which helped him now so well? Where but from the oar with which so long he fought the sea? And what was this spring of the floor under his feet to the dizzy eccentric lurch with which in the old time the trembling ship yielded to the beat of staggering billows, drunk with their power? So he kept his place, and gave the four free rein, and called to them in soothing voice, trying merely to guide them round the dangerous turn; and before the fever of the people began to abate, he had back the mastery.

Ben-Hur’s time rowing as a galley slave, which he probably thought of a lost period of his life, gave him the strength and training to handle this.

I watched the film and read the book some years ago. I enjoyed reading it again, although I found it rather wordy and overly descriptive (naturally, since it was published in 1880), which I don’t remember thinking the first time. But I enjoyed it, though I wouldn’t take my theology from it, especially the frequent grouping of “love, faith, and good works” as a way to “win heaven.” Wallace did a lot of research and explained a lot of history, and he gives a realistic description of the Jewish and Roman cultures and what Jews in that day might have been expecting. There is an interesting article here about Lew Wallace’s life and career.

I mostly listened to this audiobook version but read parts in the Kindle version. The narrator sounded a little bored in places, but did a good job in others. I listened to samples of other narrators, but none of the others sounded any better. The sound quality is one of the worst I have ever received in a book by Audible – there are several places where it sounds like it was a recording of a cassette tape that had been pinched or bent in places.

I recently learned that Wallace’s granddaughter, Carol, read his book for the first time and enjoyed it, but thought it needed to be rewritten in less “stilted” language, so she did so. I’d be interested to read that some time.

A 2016 remake of the film changes the plot in many places (making Ben-Hur and Messala adopted brothers, for instance), so I am not interested in seeing it.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: He Fell In Love With His Wife

He Fell In Love With His WifeI first encountered He Fell in Love With His Wife by Edward Payson Roe at Carrie’s review at Reading to Know (which is currently offline, so I can’t link to it just now.) It sounded so good that I got it when it came up for free on the Kindle, but I just got to it the last several days.

This is the sweetest story – not in a syrupy or cloying way. It’s the first book in a long time that had me trying to squeeze in extra minutes to read and missing the characters when I finished.

The story opens with James Holcroft at a low point. His only ambition was to enjoy a quiet life on the farm where he grew up. He had married a quiet, sensible girl he had known since childhood, and though their relationship wasn’t a highly romantic one, they had “something that often wears better—mutual respect and affection.”

But his wife had died a year before, and on top of missing her, he found he was having a hard time working the farm alone. He was just about to give it up, but he decided to try hiring a housekeeper. The two he tried, however, made his life much worse.

He decided to sell his stock, went into town for that purpose, and stopped to talk with his friend who ran the poorhouse. His friend told him of a woman there, Alida, who was in dire straits. She had been deeply wronged and felt horribly ashamed and feared town gossip, even though her troubles were not her fault. She currently had almost nothing to her name.

Holcroft’s heart went out to the woman after he heard her story, and eventually he devised a plan to help them both. His previous housekeepers were older widows, and one had a daughter, so it was acceptable for him to employ them at his out-of-the-way farm. But Alida was near his own age, so he suggested that they have a “business” marriage in name only.  She could help him on the farm, and he would provide for her, and the marriage would protect her reputation. The quietness and remoteness of his home appealed to her, and he seemed a kind man, but she was afraid the stain of her background would taint him. After a lot of discussion, though, they agreed.

Of course, the title tells what happened. This isn’t the first story of a “business” or arranged marriage where the couple truly came to love one other. But this avoids silly, flighty romance and portrays a mature story of two wounded souls finding healing and respite, and for Holcroft, a faith he thought he had lost.

Some parts, especially with the first two housekeepers, are quite comical, but the rest of the story is full of warmth and pathos. Since it’s written in an older style (it was published in 1886) it’s more descriptive than current books, but to me the story flowed nicely without getting bogged down as some older narratives do.

Just to forewarn some of you, there is one expression in the book that today is considered quite vulgar, but I think it can’t have meant then what it does today, partly because Roe was a Presbyterian preacher, and partly because I hadn’t heard the term myself until the last few years. I don’t usually read or listen to much where I know I am going to come across vulgar terms, so I am sure it has been around longer than I was aware. Still, nothing in the character of the book would lend itself to thinking it was used then as it is now. Plus Holcroft reacts to some rabblerousers  in a way we’d consider violent today, but it seems to have been taken in stride then.

I wasn’t sure if this book would count as a classic: I wanted to include it for my Back to the Classics challenge under the category of a “classic by an author that is new to you,” but, just because a book is old doesn’t mean it is a classic. However, according to Wikipedia, Roe’s books were “very popular in their day,” and they are still being read for enjoyment today, so that sounds like a classic to me!

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: Where the Red Fern Grows

Red FernI had seen the 1974 film version of Where the Red Fern Grows when my two older boys were elementary-school age, some 25 or so years ago. I enjoyed the film, but I don’t remember if I knew then it was based on a book. I wish we had read it back then! But I was glad to finally listen to it via audiobook this month.

The book begins with an adult Billy Coleman leaving work and coming upon a dogfight. When he sees the dog being attacked is a hound like one he used to have, he rescues it, takes it home, feeds it, and lets it rest, then releases it. That stirs up memories of the dogs he used to have.

Billy had grown up in a poor family in the Ozarks. There was nothing he wanted more than a dog to go coon hunting with – but not just any dog. He wanted hounds. His parents could have gotten him a mongrel dog, but they could not afford a special breed, no matter how much Billy pleaded.

I suppose there’s a time in practically every young boy’s life when he’s affected by that wonderful disease of puppy love. I don’t mean the kind a boy has for the pretty little girl that lives down the road. I mean the real kind, the kind that has four small feet and a wiggly tail, and sharp little teeth that can gnaw on a boy’s finger; the kind a boy can romp and play with, even eat and sleep with.

One day Billy found a magazine some hunters had left behind at their campground and found an ad for two Redbone Coonhounds for $50. Without telling anyone, he performed odd jobs, dug up and sold worms for bait, picked and sold blackberries, and did anything he could think of to earn money. It took him two years, and when he finally showed his savings to his grandfather and told him what they were for, his grandpa helped him order the dogs. But the dogs would be shipped to a town more than a day’s journey away. Billy took off on foot alone to pick up his dogs and bring them back, helped by a kindly station master.

The dogs were a brother and sister. Billy named the brother, who was strong and quick to react, Old Dan. The thoughtful, intelligent girl dog was named Little Ann.

Billy went to work training his dogs to hunt coons, selling coon hides and giving the money to his father, and having many adventures with his dogs. Tragedy struck a couple of times, the second occurrence shaking Billy’s faith.

This is a wonderful “boy and his dogs” and coming of age story, even if readers are not all that interested in hunting. Strong themes of loyalty, perseverance, family, and faith undergird the novel. There are a couple of gruesome parts (one boy has a hunting accident with an ax, a dog in a fight with a mountain lion is severely injured), and the author tells them realistically but not gratuitously. The ending is sad but ultimately hopeful.

People have been trying to understand dogs ever since the beginning of time. One never knows what they’ll do. You can read every day where a dog saved the life of a drowning child, or lay down his life for his master. Some people call this loyalty. I don’t. I may be wrong, but I call it love-the deepest kind of love.

Wikipedia shares the interesting background story of how Wilson Rawls wrote the story, destroyed his manuscript, then wrote it again at his wife’s urging. I also enjoyed reading 12 Things You Might Not Know About Where the Red Fern Grows. Though Rawls wrote for children, his first publisher oddly marketed the book to adults. Sales were slow until Rawls spoke at a conference for teachers and librarians who took the samples of his book back to their schools and libraries, where children loved it.

I listened to the audiobook wonderfully read by Anthony Heald. I didn’t know until just now that there was a 2003 remake of the movie. Some day I would like to see it.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: Frankenstein

I had always associated Frankenstein by Mary Shelley with the black and white horror movies of my childhood. Since I don’t really care for horror movies, I never had an interest in reading it. But in recent years I’ve heard several people say that the book is different from the movies, that the movies provide more of a caricature than a reflection of the story. So I decided to give the book a try.

I was quite surprised! While I would never call Frankenstein nor this type of book a favorite, the story was much more compelling than I originally thought it would be. It was conceived as a result of a gathering with Mary, her lover Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and others, when they were telling ghost stories and decided to see who could write the best scary story. Mary started this story when she was 18 and it was published anonymously when she was 20. Later editions featured her name as the author.

Frankenstein is often erroneously thought to be the monster’s name: it’s actually the name of the creator. The monster is never named.

The story actually begins with a Captain Robert Walton on a voyage writing home to his sister. He has a thirst for knowledge, a penchant for the “marvelous,” a desire to accomplish something great, and a longing for a true like-minded friend. While in an icy region Walton’s crew spies a gigantic creature driving a sledge guided by dogs across the ice. The next day they come across a man “in wretched condition” on another sledge on an ice floe. The crew brings the man onto the boat and Walton tries to help him. As they talk, the man, who introduces himself as Victor Frankenstein, recognizes in Walton the same ambition and thirst for knowledge that he’d had, so Frankenstein tells Walton his story as a warning.

Victor’s story is recorded in his own words. He had been raised by a good family  in Geneva and had an interest in the sciences. Early in his life he had come across books on alchemy (not the study of turning metals into gold, but “finding a universal solvent and an elixir of life.” according to Dictionary.com). His university studies increased his knowledge to the point that he discovered “the cause of generation and life; nay, more, I became myself capable of bestowing animation upon lifeless matter.”

With feverish excitement he decided to test this knowledge, assembling a new being from body parts of corpses he had been studying. But once the creature was made alive, Victor was repulsed and horrified.

The monster escaped and Victor fell ill. When Victor finally got better, he learned that his younger brother had been murdered, so he went home. While walking alone, Victor saw the monster and felt immediately that the monster was responsible for the murder.

In a later confrontation, the monster told Victor his own story of becoming aware, learning about himself and his world, and being met by fear and hatred from other people. He finally found an abandoned building where he could take shelter. The building was close enough to a small family that he could see their interactions, hear them, and learn from them. He grew to care for them and even did them little favors like chopping wood and setting it beside their cottage. He felt if he could introduce himself to the old, blind father and gain his sympathy, then the father could smooth the monster’s way with the rest of the family, and the creature would finally have someone to love and belong to. But that plan went awry and resulted in the monster’s being driven away.

So the monster found Victor, requested that he make a female monster, and promised that he and his mate would go away and not bother anyone. If Victor refused, the monster would take vengeance on all whom Victor loved. Victor vacillated: he was loathe to make another such creature, but if he did, he would be rid of them. But what if the female refused to go away quietly, and the two monsters wreaked havoc on the rest of the country?

I’ll leave the rest to you to discover what happened. I think my favorite section was the monster’s narrative of being nearly a blank slate and discovering his own impulses, like hunger, learning how to take care of what he needed, having a kindly attitude toward nature and mankind, feeling hurt by rejection which finally boiled over into hatred.

I was surprised to find that Victor was not a scientist as I had always thought, but a student. That explains a little bit why he didn’t have the maturity to think through his actions or to take responsibility for the monster.

Throughout the book both Victor and the monster take refuge in the beauty of nature. That’s not unusual in itself, but it is mentioned so often that I think it has to be Shelley’s contrast between the goodness of the natural and the evil of the unnatural. The fact that the final scenes take place in an icy, barren, dangerous area seems to indicate that both Victor and the monster had progressed far past the comforts of the beautiful, good, and natural.

Writing a scary story may have been Mary’s only purpose. But she may have been commentating on the dangers of pushing the boundaries of the technology of the day and the foolishness of judging by outward appearance. The original subtitle was The Modern Prometheus: in mythology, Prometheus formed humans out of clay, gave them life, and gave them fire though Zeus had forbidden it. For punishment Zeus had Prometheus chained to a rock where an eagle ate his liver: since he was immortal, every day the liver regrew and the eagle ate it again.

A new edition was published in 1831 with a new preface. Schmoop says, “Shelley wasn’t the same bright-eyed 21 year old she’d been in 1818. By 1831, she had lost her husband and two of her children, and the revised edition has a grimmer tone. In the 1831 text, nature is a destructive machine; Victor is a victim of fate, not free will…” This is the version most people are familiar with.

I had a hard time choosing between the audiobooks read by Dan Stevens (Matthew of Downton Abbey) or Derek Jacobi. I finally went with Jacobi’s narration, because I had listened to audiobooks wonderfully read by him before, and he did a superb job with this. I don’t know that I will ever read or listen to this story again, but if I do I’d like to try out Steven’s version just to hear how he handled it. The text is also available here.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: The First Four Years

One time when Laura Ingalls Wilder was asked why she didn’t write more books, she replied that the money she received from them cost her more in taxes. “She never found taxes on those who had labored their way to prosperity to be an incentive for even more labor.” But another time she said that if she wrote more, she’d have to get into some of the sad times of her life (I Remember Laura by Stephen W. Hines, pp. 102, 97, and 122).

The First Four Years was not originally part of the little House series, according to the introduction. The manuscript was found among Laura’s papers when she passed away, written on the same kind of tablets on which she had written her other books. Her daughter, Rose, entrusted it to her friend and heir Roger Lea MacBride. After Rose passed away, Roger met with Laura’s editors, and they discussed and thought over the issue and decided that, considering what Laura, Rose, and Laura’s fans would want, the manuscript should be published as is.

A fairly short book at 134 pages, it’s also straightforward, and it’s easy to imagine that Laura would have filled in and fleshed it out a bit more than this first draft. But it is still a great story, covering the first four years Laura and Almanzo were married.

They had a rough go of it those years, and I imagine this is what Laura was alluding to when she talked about getting into the sad times of her life.

The story opens just before their wedding, with Laura saying she didn’t want to marry a farmer. She did want to marry Almanzo, however, so she encouraged him to do something else for a living. After debating about the problems and benefits of farming, Almanzo proposed that they give it a three year trial, and Laura agreed.

They had a very simple ceremony, no honeymoon, and on Laura’s second day of marriage, she had to make a meal for all the threshers who came to help with that work. But she was happy to be in her own home. “Laura found doing work alone very different from helping Ma. But it was part of her job and she must do it, though she did hate the smell of hot lard, and the site of so much fresh meat ruined her appetite for any of it” (p. 30).

They enjoyed horseback riding in the warmer evenings and sitting by the fire on cold ones. They dealt with larger dangers of Indians and blizzards and smaller domestic ones of neighbors borrowing and not returning equipment. Soon baby Rose came to them, and Laura discovered “there was a good deal to taking care of babies” (p. 75).

But trials came, too – lost crops, against which they had borrowed money, diphtheria for Laura, a stroke for Almanzo, the loss of another baby, fire, ever-present debt.

Though these things took their toll, and they grieved, there was nothing else to do but pick up and go on. Almanzo seemed characterized by optimism, and though Laura struggled wondering how everything was ever going to work out, eventually she concluded “it would be a fight to win out in this business of farming, but strangely she felt her spirit rising for the struggle” (p. 133).

Once again I marvel at that pioneer spirit. Any one of these trials would send a modern person into depression and counseling for years (please know that I am not making light of depression or the need for counselors). How did people cope then with so much loss? It seems it was just accepted as a part of life. Everyone had struggles, not just the Wilders. Has our relative ease weakened us? I don’t know. But here and there we still find those whose “spirits rise for the struggle,” who overcome overwhelming odds.

I’m so thankful this book was found and published. I enjoyed the peek into Laura and Almanzo’s first years and am inspired by their example.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved)

Book Review: Journey to the Center of the Earth

Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne opens in Hamburg in 1863, where Professor Otto Lidenbrock has just come home with a prized Icelandic runic manuscript which he is eagerly showing to his uninterested (but pretending to be interested) nephew, Axel, who is also his ward and assistant. The professor’s enthusiasm is diverted, however, when an old piece of paper falls out of the book and is discovered to have a message in code from “Arne Saknussemm!…another Icelander, a savant of the sixteenth century, a celebrated alchemist.” After hours of trying to decipher the code, and asserting that neither he nor anyone else in the house will eat until they have figured it out, he darts out of the room in frustration. Axel works on it a bit, and, to his own surprise, figures out the message – but then determines that his uncle will never know it lest he act upon it. Suffering from hunger, however, Axel finally yields the message, which is:

“Descend, bold traveller, into the crater of the jokul of Sneffels, which the shadow of Scartaris touches before the kalends of July, and you will attain the centre of the earth; which I have done, Arne Saknussemm.”

And act upon it the professor does, immediately preparing for himself and Axel to go explore an extinct volcano called Sneffels (or Snæfell) in Iceland. Part of the professor’s interest is his regard for Saknussemm, but in addition there is a raging controversy about whether the center of the Earth is cold or hot, and this will be his chance to prove his thinking is right. They hire a quiet but handy hunter named Han as a guide, and their adventure begins, fraught with both excitement and danger.

My thoughts:

I have to admit I didn’t like this story nearly as well as the two other Verne books I have read, Around the World in 80 Days and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I think part of it was that the scientific aspect was so improbable, but also the characters don’t change or grow much at all. There is some suspense in determining whether the Professor is an intrepid explorer contrasted with Axel’s neurotic cowardice, or whether Axel’s is the voice of reason vainly opposing the professor as a mad scientist. I did read somewhere that Axel is a teenager, which would make his behavior make more sense, but I tried to find that in the book and couldn’t locate it.

I listened to the audiobook pretty well read by Derek Perkins. My only quibble is that even though Axel is the narrator of the story, Mr. Perkins uses a different voices for him as the narrator or the character, when they should sound the same. The German accent only comes out when Axel the character is speaking.

I looked through the Project Gutenberg version online while searching for Axel’s age, and was surprised by some subtle humor I had missed in the recording. Usually it’s just the opposite: usually I catch nuances in listening that I miss while reading. I don’t think I’ll be revisiting this book, but if I ever do, I’ll read it next time and see if that makes a difference.

There are a variety of translations of this book, and one, for some reason, changes the names of the professor to Hardwigg and Axel to Harry or Henry and rewrites portions of the book. I’d avoid that one. Wikipedia has information on other translations as does this post.

I also would not have considered this a children’s book, and Common Sense Media says, “Verne was writing in an earlier era for a mostly adult audience, presumed, if they were literate enough to be reading novels for pleasure, to be very well educated. The vocabulary is advanced, the descriptions lengthy, and the scientific and literary references removed from the experience of most young readers. Experienced teens will enjoy it, and younger experienced listeners may enjoy hearing it read by an adult with the patience to stop often for explanations.” However, Wikipedia says it was originally published in a boys’ magazine.

Wikipedia also says, “The genre of subterranean fiction already existed long before Verne. However, the present book considerably added to its popularity and influenced later such writings. For example, Edgar Rice Burroughs explicitly acknowledged Verne’s influence on his own Pellucidar series.” So it has its place in literary history, and it was probably a lot more believable then, or, if nor believable, at least enjoyed as an adventure story.

Have you or your children ever read Journey to the Center of the Earth? What did you think of it?

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