{Book Review} Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

Les Misérables

Introducing one of the most famous characters in literature, Jean Valjean – the noble peasant imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread – Les Misérables (1862) ranks among the greatest novels of all time. In it Victor Hugo takes readers deep into the Parisian underworld, immerses them in a battle between good and evil, and carries them onto the barricades during the uprising of 1832 with a breathtaking realism that is unsurpassed in modern prose. Within his dramatic story are themes that capture the intellect and the emotions: crime and punishment, the relentless persecution of Valjean by Inspector Javert, the desperation of the prostitute Fantine, the amorality of the rogue Thénardier and the universal desire to escape the prisons of our own minds. Les Misérables gave Victor Hugo a canvas upon which he portrayed his criticism of the French political and judicial systems, but the portrait which resulted is larger than life, epic in scope – an extravagant spectacle that dazzles the senses even as it touches the heart. This Signet Classic edition is a new version translated by Lee Fahnestock and Norman MacAfee, based on the classic nineteenth-century Charles E. Wilbour translation.*

You might have wondered how come there are copies of Les Misérables out on the market with only 500 pages while there are others that are a staggering ~1500 pages long. What could possibly be in the unabridged version that only a third of the book remains for abridged consumption? I am not going to lie. I totally understand how a thousand pages could be shaved off and honestly, you could still get the meatiest parts of the plot. Victor Hugo has a knack for relating the histories of the most obscure things in painfully long paragraphs filled with meticulous details that you could live the rest of your life not knowing. There are whole chapters on battles (those were interesting for me), goings-on in secluded convents (slightly interesting), and sewers (not at all). It’s crazy and even the most patient reader could get a tad annoyed. If you are to read Les Misérables, though, I would still insist on reading the unabridged version. All 1463 pages of it, like my paperback version. In all its full glory.

Why?

(WARNING: As E.M. Forster would say: ‘One always tends to overpraise a long book, because one has got through it.’ So get ready.)

Les Misérables is one of the most thought-provoking, beautiful, and thorough books I have ever read. I know I use ‘beautiful’ quite a lot in my past reviews, but this is just a whole other level. It transcends beauty. I picked up the book expecting to read about some character’s life journey, because that’s the only way this book could reach that many pages, right? Wrong. I expected to get myself acquainted with the characters and their lives, but in the end I got their entire world. This goes complete with history, geography, politics, with bonus philosophy, and several others things thrown in that I certainly didn’t bargain for, but you know what? For all the difficulties reading those things gave me, I loved it.

Hugo’s (somewhat) helpful supplications of history and explanations gave me the background information I didn’t know I needed, making me appreciate the setting more. I felt like I lived within French society in the early 19th century because of the information I gathered that only a resident could possibly know.

And goodness, the characters. I cannot even begin to say how much I loved them all. Hugo’s detailed descriptions of their personalities, back stories, memories, thoughts, actions, and internal conflicts created a myriad of people with intersecting lives, making the main parts of the story very interesting. I particularly love Jean Valjean, Fantine, Gavroche, Enjolras, and Eponine, but honestly, you could like any character and I wouldn’t be surprised. They all had several facets in their personality that goes beyond your first impression of them. You couldn’t help but understand why they do what they do once you understand their motives. I really felt sorry for all their hardships, even the difficult ones, because you know they all need to survive, but only do them in their own ways.

I was lurking around Goodreads when I stumbled across this quote by Mick Foley:

“A big book is like a serious relationship; it requires a commitment. Not only that, but there’s no guarantee that you will enjoy it, or that it will have a happy ending. Kind of like going out with a girl, having to spend time every day with her – with absolutely no guarantee of nailing her in the end. No thanks.”

When you pick up Les Misérables, don’t expect to read something gripping that’s supposed to make you fly through the pages till the end. There are several books out there for that purpose, and Hugo never meant for it to be like that. Don’t expect happy endings. Sometimes a perfect ending is nothing you expect it to be. Don’t expect instant enlightenment. Like the characters, you would have to journey and think about it for a while. Do expect a commitment. It’s not going to be easy reading this book, but I promise, it will be worth it. Don’t leave it, and it won’t leave you. Do expect change. The two weeks it took me to read through this book turned out to be my own personal journey, because when I finished it, I honestly wanted to be a better human being. Really! I know it sounds preposterous and silly, but it’s true. I feel engulfed in a halo because I swear, the book changed me. I may forget some characters’ names, or some parts of the book, but I will never forget the emotions it got out of me and the way it has touched and inspired me in so many ways.

Les Misérables is a beautiful story of humanity in all its forms, good or bad, in all its beauty and filth, in all its problems and triumphs, as it goes through life in its constant struggle for redemption. Just please, please, please, read it and be inspired.

PS
I feel the need to mention the highly successful musical and film adaptations here. I loved them so, so much. I am pretty much still reeling from watching Les Misérables in the cinema last night. If you loved them, I promise you, you will love the book. It’s all really beautiful.

PPS

Day 6: Or, it’s already been six days since you finished the book. Just get over it already. To which my heart says: No.

In a nutshell…

Rating: 5/5

1463 pages
Author: Victor Hugo
Original Language: French
Published: 1862
Genre: Classic, Drama

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{Book Review} Life of Pi by Yann Martel

Life of Pi

Life of Pi is a masterful and utterly original novel that is at once the story of a young castaway who faces immeasurable hardships on the high seas, and a meditation on religion, faith, art and life that is as witty as it is profound. Using the threads of all of our best stories, Yann Martel has woven a glorious spiritual adventure that makes us question what it means to be alive, and to believe.

Growing up in Pondicherry, India, Piscine Molitor Patel — known as Pi — has a rich life. Bookish by nature, young Pi acquires a broad knowledge of not only the great religious texts but of all literature, and has a great curiosity about how the world works. His family runs the local zoo, and he spends many of his days among goats, hippos, swans, and bears, developing his own theories about the nature of animals and how human nature conforms to it. Pi’s family life is quite happy, even though his brother picks on him and his parents aren’t quite sure how to accept his decision to simultaneously embrace and practise three religions — Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam.

But despite the lush and nurturing variety of Pi’s world, there are broad political changes afoot in India, and when Pi is sixteen his parents decide that the family needs to escape to a better life. Choosing to move to Canada, they close the zoo, pack their belongings, and board a Japanese cargo ship called the Tsimtsum. Travelling with them are many of their animals, bound for zoos in North America. However, they have only just begun their journey when the ship sinks, taking the dreams of the Patel family down with it. Only Pi survives, cast adrift in a lifeboat with the unlikeliest of travelling companions: a zebra, an orang-utan, a hyena, and a 450-pound Royal Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

Thus begins Pi Patel’s epic, 227-day voyage across the Pacific, and the powerful story of faith and survival at the heart of Life of Pi. Worn and scared, oscillating between hope and despair, Pi is witness to the playing out of the food chain, quite aware of his new position within it. When only the tiger is left of the seafaring menagerie, Pi realizes that his survival depends on his ability to assert his own will, and sets upon a grand and ordered scheme to keep from being Richard Parker’s next meal.

As the days pass, Pi fights both boredom and terror by throwing himself into the practical details of surviving on the open sea — catching fish, collecting rain water, protecting himself from the sun — all the while ensuring that the tiger is also kept alive, and knows that Pi is the key to his survival. The castaways face gruelling pain in their brushes with starvation, illness, and the storms that lash the small boat, but there is also the solace of beauty: the rainbow hues of a dorado’s death-throes, the peaceful eye of a looming whale, the shimmering blues of the ocean’s swells. Hope is fleeting, however, and despite adapting his religious practices to his daily routine, Pi feels the constant, pressing weight of despair. It is during the most hopeless and gruelling days of his voyage that Pi whittles to the core of his beliefs, casts off his own assumptions, and faces his underlying terrors head-on.

As Yann Martel has said in one interview, “The theme of this novel can be summarized in three lines. Life is a story. You can choose your story. And a story with an imaginative overlay is the better story.” And for Martel, the greatest imaginative overlay is religion. “God is a shorthand for anything that is beyond the material — any greater pattern of meaning.” In Life of Pi, the question of stories, and of what stories to believe, is front and centre from the beginning, when the author tells us how he was led to Pi Patel and to this novel: in an Indian coffee house, a gentleman told him, “I have a story that will make you believe in God.” And as this novel comes to its brilliant conclusion, Pi shows us that the story with the imaginative overlay is also the story that contains the most truth.

From the Trade Paperback edition.*

Let it be known that I love tigers. In fact, tigers are my favorite animals. I have stuffed toy collections of them, and up until high school, I slept with them all around me in the belief that they will scare away whatever evil being that plans to visit me in the night. To be honest, that was the thing that drew me to this book, above all. It all began when I was 11, and my class had a field trip to Subic. My friends and I dared to take a picture with a tiger cub named Eo (the size of which was too big for a cub, in my opinion), and I was the one who fed it. Its paws were heavy and resting on my arms, and I fell in love. Lookie, a picture!

I'm in love with the tiger, but I think the tiger's in love with my hand.

I’m in love with the tiger, but I think the tiger’s in love with my hand. On another note… well, this is embarrassing. (By “this,” I meant my face, haha!)

This book, however, is not just about tigers. Tigers are only part of the equation, and trust me, this book is beyond the sum of its parts. Pi, contrary to what I originally thought as the tiger’s name, was actually the interesting nickname of an Indian boy who happened to be shipwrecked with a tiger and some other animals to begin with. It was a ridiculous and at the same time incredible situation. The book is separated into three parts, and the tell-tale tiger on several book covers does not get much exposure (literally and figuratively) until the second part. You would have to endure Pi’s musings on his name, religion, and zookeeping, among others. Thankfully, they weren’t too dragging for me so it was okay, but then I was also reading Les Miserables alongside it, whose meanderings are even longer than those of this book (but that is for another entry). Try to bear with it if you aren’t fond of draggy bits, because after that, things get more interesting.

The whole reading experience could be likened to a sojourn into the ocean. A fun thing to do, theoretically, but no matter how much you prepare for it, you’re not really ready. You get used to it, and you calm down. Life goes on, but then you catch sight of land, and you try to go there, and you feel safe. A few feet from shore, however, a huge wave comes up from behind you and lashes down. Couple that with the vertigo of walking on a steady surface, and you get the unpredictable nature of this book. I mean, I was calmly reading it and feeling enlightened and pretty much basking in the glory of so much wisdom when suddenly, something happens and you see the book in a whole new light. Everything changes. Drastically. You are then left to choose what to believe. You can choose to read it like the atheists. Pi believed that “like [him], they go as far as the legs of reason will carry them – and then they leap.” Or you can read it like the agnostics, who will find the logical explanation and miss the better story. After all this, in the end, you will realize that Life of Pi’s not just about a journey with a tiger. It says as much about you as it does with Pi Patel, and possibly even more, if you think about it. It is a very unique experience, and more than you can possibly expect for less than 400 pages.

The thing is, better story or not, you cannot deny each version’s individual beauty and wisdom, parallels though they may be. That is what I love about this book. On the one hand, you have a story that is fantastical and memorable, heartwarming and brought on by faith. On the other, you have a story rife with symbolism and the brutal honesty of reality. You don’t lose anything whether you believe in one story or the other. It’s a win-win situation.

This is the first book I finished and my first 5-star rating for this year. I’m very excited to see the movie version. Before I do so, I have to say this: Read this book. Deciding whether to let go and believe, or listening to what makes actual sense, will probably prove to be a challenge (like it was for me), but it will be worth it. You will know how you see the world and you will understand why people need faith. And that, in itself, is a beautiful and rewarding experience.

In a nutshell…

Rating: 5/5

356 pages
Author: Yann Martel
Original Language: English
Published: 2001
Genre: Literary, Philosophy, Cultural

2013 Reading Resolutions and Required Reading for January!

It’s already 3 days into 2013, but I’m going to say this anyway: Congratulations for surviving the “apocalypse” and the roller coaster that was 2012 (for me, anyway)!! *throws confetti* And because it’s the first post of the year, I think it would be fun to join a reading challenge that will add some spice into my reading adventures for the year. Are you ready? This year, I’m finally going to join this! 

Required Reading: January

It’s a challenge hosted by the awesome-possum Tina over at her blog. She explains it best, so I’m going to ~*casually*~ lift the mechanics from her blog entry about it:

Required Reading is a reading challenge that is really about getting some books off the Mt. TBR. Just as the name of the challenge meant, Required Reading is about choosing some books that must be read within the month. It doesn’t have to be the only books you read in a month, but they should be read (or at least, started) before the said month ends.

I had some rules on this last year that really applied to me, but in case other people want to join me, here are the rules:

  • Books chosen for the challenge should be in the current TBR pile as of the month of the Required Reading post. So if you decided to join at March, the books you choose for the month should be in your TBR pile as of February.

  • Galleys and ARCs can be included.

  • Posting reviews aren’t necessary (but don’t you want that out of the way, too?).

  • I’ll be posting a theme every month but you don’t have to follow that. You can choose a theme for yourself if you want to — what’s important is the books that you put there are books that you want to get to reading.

  • Lastly: have fun. If you don’t finish a book, it’s okay! If you finish it, then…feel free to reward yourself with something. Like a new book. 😀

I think I’m going to enjoy doing this, because despite my abysmal powers of organization, I actually like planning what I’m going to read ahead of time. Even though I often like to wing it and just read whatever I haven’t read yet on my shelf, there is always that one book (or two, or three) that I personally need to read. That’s my reading resolution for this year, by the way – to make sure to read what I plan to read, no matter what other book I spontaneously pick up. Oh, and also to try everything within my power to not fall into a blogging slump (as in, at least post something per month!). I know the following year will be challenging for me time-wise, what with thesis stuff coming up, but I’m taking baby steps to being more organized. I even made spreadsheets and everything, inspired by my super organized bookish friend Angus

So what’s in my list for this month? There are only two:

  and 

                           Les Misérables by Victor Hugo                                               Life of Pi by Yann Martel

I don’t think I’ll be following a theme monthly, but based my picks this month, the theme would have to be Film Adaptations. Then again, I just realized that I always scramble to read the book before the movie anyway, so maybe this will be the recurring theme after all!

Also, if I manage to squeeze in another book after these two, I would read The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick. I’ve read the synopsis, and it got me interest. Also, I actually really want to see the movie for this too. 

I’m pretty sure these books will keep me busy throughout the month, but since I originally planned to read 75 books this year, I hope I get to read some more, too. If not, well, there’s always the sem break to look forward to, for catching up. 

Looking at my books this month, I’m actually pretty excited. I think this will be another marvelous year of reading for me, don’t you think? January always gives me so much hope and excuses to start something new. I love it!

So, what’s on your list? 

{Book Review} After Dark by Haruki Murakami

After DarkA short, sleek novel of encounters set in Tokyo during the witching hours between midnight and dawn, and every bit as gripping as Haruki Murakami’s masterworks The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore.

At its center are two sisters—Eri, a fashion model slumbering her way into oblivion, and Mari, a young student soon led from solitary reading at an anonymous Denny’s toward people whose lives are radically alien to her own: a jazz trombonist who claims they’ve met before, a burly female “love hotel” manager and her maid staff, and a Chinese prostitute savagely brutalized by a businessman. These “night people” are haunted by secrets and needs that draw them together more powerfully than the differing circumstances that might keep them apart, and it soon becomes clear that Eri’s slumber—mysteriously tied to the businessman plagued by the mark of his crime—will either restore or annihilate her.

After Dark moves from mesmerizing drama to metaphysical speculation, interweaving time and space as well as memory and perspective into a seamless exploration of human agency—the interplay between self-expression and empathy, between the power of observation and the scope of compassion and love. Murakami’s trademark humor, psychological insight, and grasp of spirit and morality are here distilled with an extraordinary, harmonious mastery.*

It was the last week of 2012 before I realized that I had blog challenges for myself. While I have given up the 2012 Debut Author Challenge for naught, I remembered that my personal challenge to finally read a Haruki Murakami book once and for all still has hope. I happened to have a copy of After Dark ready, and because I was sick for a couple of days, I had all the time in the world to devour all 191 pages of it.

Managed to cram a review in before 2012 ends! Which is in, like, 9 hours. (Philippine time, GMT +8)

 

So how was my Murakami experience? The first and only word that brands itself in my mind at the moment is surreal. This is a story set after hours – after the sun has set and dissolving as the sun’s rays penetrate the horizon. Unlike what you would expect for a book set in this time frame, though, the pace is rather slow. Murakami has a way of weaving strange curiosities into his writing, making you feel like an entity that is invisible, and everywhere all at the same time. I don’t know if this was brought on by being in my sickbed, but reading the whole thing felt like a dream. Details and such just floated beyond me, and what remained was an odd mixture of desolation and a burning desire to understand what was going on. I felt like I belonged to the world of Mari and Takahashi and the other characters, people who seemed so mysterious and fascinating in the veil of night, wandering as everything is cloaked in impenetrable darkness dusted with the light of the moon.*

One of my favorite quotes from this book was by Mari Asai:

“You know what I think?” she says. “That people’s memories are maybe the fuel they burn to stay alive. Whether those memories have any actual importance or not, it doesn’t matter as far as the maintenance of life is concerned. They’re all just fuel. Advertising fillers in the newspaper, philosophy books, dirty pictures in a magazine, a bundle of ten-thousand-yen bills: when you feed ’em to the fire, they’re all just paper.”

There’s a darkly whimsical element in the book that kept me curious all throughout. This wasn’t even a plot-driven kind of book, but because of Murakami’s skill, I enjoyed it in all its passiveness and floaty quality. Honestly, I still don’t know what to make of it. I still couldn’t understand the deal with Mari’s sister, Eri, and her peculiar sojourn into the television set, among other things. However, I’m choosing to just go with the flow and accept my inability to understand, so that I can appreciate the way it was written, and because it is beautiful.

*Aaaand here was my attempt to sound poetic. Forgive me. I had Moonlight Sonata playing in the background and I somehow got into the zone.

In a nutshell…

Rating: 4/5

191 pages
Author: Haruki Murakami
Original Language: Japanese
Published: 2000
Genre: Fantasy, Magic Realism