Want to read with me? Follow this link to view the list and pick a book (or a few!) to read along with me. I'd love for this project to be collaborative, and will post anyone's thoughts beside my own.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Slaughterhouse-Five is a story of many different things. The main character (I suppose we'll call him that) is Billy Pilgrim, and the story chronicles his life from his adolescence to his death and back again. Billy Pilgrim travels through time, so we see snapshots of various points in time, some during the second world war (as a prisoner of war and then in Dresden during the bombing), some in outer space (after he's been abducted by aliens and transported to the planet Tralfamadore to live in a zoo exhibit), some in hospitals where Billy may or may not be going crazy, and some in Ilium, New York, during his time as an optometrist. The story begins before Billy enters the scene; the narrator during this part is ostensibly Vonnegut himself. He tells (satirically, of course) the story of how he came to write his book on the bombing of Dresden. He travels back in time himself (not quite as literally as Billy) and returns to Dresden with an old war buddy of his. He discusses the verity of the events in the novel, asserting that they are, for the most part, all quite true. The whole book is written with a constant stream of actually funny and funny-because-it-hurts kinds of moments. Vonnegut deals with some very dark territory in world history; when he compares the bombing in Dresden with Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Dresden has almost as many casualties as Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. Billy Pilgrim has a few friends along the way - on Tralfamadore, he mates with Montana Wildhack (amusingly I had to go back in the book to check that I'd gotten her last name right, and I hadn't - I called her Montana Wildsack. heh. heh.), and at home in Ilium, he's married to Valencia - and most of his family thinks he's totally batshit crazy because he's constantly traveling in time (although I think only his mind travels, not his physical body, though he has a body in other dimensions). He befriends a weird science fiction author, Kilgore Trout, after meeting him in Ilium. When Billy is first in the war (before he becomes a POW) he travels with a man named Roland Weary, who very disgruntedly (whatever, I want it to be a word so it is) and begrudgingly (aha! I stumbled on a real word!) drags Billy along through the battle field, despite Billy's constant stream of "Leave me behind"'s. The book ends just after Dresden has been bombed and Billy (along with the other POWs) is set free and helps begin to clean up the city after the disaster.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Excuse me if that plot summary was rather frenetic and scatter-brained. The book, after all, is written that way. That's not to say that it doesn't have a great point or climax (in fact it has several) but just that they don't necessarily come in a traditional order within the "accepted" literary structure.

I really enjoyed this book. I don't know if I would have enjoyed it when I was a teenager - some of the humor is quite dark, and some of the jokes are pretty raunchy for a Bible belt teenager - so I'm glad that I read it now and not then, and that I get to make up my mind about it as an adult reader.

I admit this book also read like something of a novella after War and Peace and Les Misérables. A mere 275 pages? Practically a tone poem! Here are my thoughts on the book, in no particular order and in fact, perhaps in an intentionally different order than I experienced them:

- Vonnegut has one of those narrator voices that just sticks to you like glue. Maybe it helps that the beginning of the book feels like he's telling it directly to you (which he sort of is) or maybe it's more of a contemporary narrative voice (although Joyce has a similar way about him and he's definitely before Vonnegut) but I just felt like it wasn't even really Billy pulling me along in the tale, it was the nameless, unidentified narrator.

- "So it goes" is the catchphrase of this novel. It generally follows something completely horrific or tragic. I guess this is the satire - treating the horrific as the banal - although I admit sometimes this type of humor escapes me. I circled it in my book every time. I'm not sure why. I knew it was coming, and I knew what it was supposed to mean, but I circled it each time anyway. Maybe to give each seemingly unimportant moment more meaning. Maybe because I like circling things.

- Vonnegut's narration in the beginning reminded me very much of Stephen King's style of narrating in his book On Writing. I haven't read any other Stephen King novels (I do think one is on this list) but I loved loved loved On Writing when I read it as a senior in high school. I wonder if King was a Vonnegut fan. One of the funniest moments in this intro is when Vonnegut says he laid out the story of Slaughterhouse-Five with his daughter's crayons on a piece of wallpaper. "One end of the wallpaper was the beginning of the story, and the other end was the end, and then there was all that middle part, which was the middle." In some ways, I found this mini-novel beginning to be even more enjoyable than the rest of the story. I'm not sure why Vonnegut chose to start it off that way - maybe to help the reader to understand that while his protagonist was comical in some ways, and the story was funny in some ways, the situation was real and the events were serious and had a disturbing impact. I don't know. Sometimes I don't like to get too into the why, and I just like to enjoy what is.

- Vonnegut likes to play with time. Billy's life is told to us in fragments, but even the beginning of the book skips and stops and starts. I love this line - "And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep."

- In case you were wondering, the name of the book comes from the place Billy Pilgrim and the other prisoners are eventually taken to. They are supposed to do hard labor in the old slaughterhouse, and they're told to memorize their address in case they get lost or need to find their way back. Slaughterhouse-Five.

- Billy is innocent and confused, bewildered by war and his surroundings; he represents the iconic child-soldier Vonnegut wants us to realize was actually fighting World War II. I don't know whether Vonnegut was that child-soldier, too, or if he just found himself surrounded by them, but I think it's definitely still true today that the men and women we allow to fight and die for us are so much younger than we think they are.

- Vonnegut describes Dresden post-bombing as the "face of the moon". I can imagine feeling that the wreckage didn't resemble anything previously witnessed on earth.

- Billy's dad tells him to keep the shortened form of his name into adulthood because (1) it will help people to remember him and (2) it will make him seem slightly magical, since there aren't any other grown Billys around. ("My dad's Billw. I'm billwy!")
- There are many more magnificent moments (like my alliteration?) in this book, and I want you to discover them for yourself (if you haven't already) so I won't keep detailing them here. I will share a few of my favorite sentences, though.

- "Through the valley flowed a Mississippi of humiliated Americans."
- "There was an old typewriter in the rumpus room."
- "Barbara celebrated frustration by clapping her hands."
- "It jazzed and jangled Billy's skin without thawing the ice in the marrow of his long bones."
- "A moment went by, and then every cell in Billy's body shook him with ravenous gratitude and applause."

This book felt a bit like a Glee-style mash-up. Here are the books I felt either fed into or out of this book:

-The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (which I have started 3 times and still haven't finished)
-The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger (which has a similarly off-putting time-jumping aspect to it)
-Ulysses by James Joyce (which basically defined the "stream of consciousness" idea)
-Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (a later satirical war book that I also felt I understood about 70% as well as I wanted to)

Well, I'm off to the antebellum deep south for a much earlier war during my last few days before I'm inundated with policy lessons and statistics graphs. Time for "Lost with the Hurricane." Or was it, "Away with the Breeze"? Oh, you know what I mean.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

If I did not know that you were so good, I should be afraid of you.

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

Spoiler Alert: Plot Summary
Les Misérables is a story about love, redemption, revenge, devotion, loyalty, commitment, and yes, misery. It takes place in France during the years from 1815-1832. The story centers around two main characters: Jean Valjean and Cosette. Jean Valjean is a convict who was imprisoned in the galleys for stealing bread to feed his family. He attempts to escape from prison several times, and each attempt adds more years to his sentence. After spending somewhere between 30 and 40 years in jail, he receives unexpected kindness from a man named Monsieur Bienvenu. Jean Valjean steals candlesticks from Monsieur Bienvenu, but after receiving forgiveness and even having Monsieur Bienvenu cover for him with the police, Jean Valjean decides to turn his life around. He slowly but surely develops a great fortune in manufacturing, and he becomes a well-respected mayor in a small town. Cosette's mother, Fantine, a lower-class woman who is abandoned by her lover/Cosette's father, ends up working in the same town where Jean Valjean is the mayor. Fantine leaves Cosette in the care of an innkeeper and his wife, the Thénardiers, because Fantine can't care for Cosette and work to keep her clothed and fed at the same time. Fantine sends money to the Thénardiers to support Cosette's existence, but the Thénardiers abuse Cosette and milk Fantine for all she has. Fantine eventually gets very ill and is fired. Here's where the story gets complicated. Javert, the police chief in Jean Valjean's town, suspects that Jean Valjean is really an escaped convict. Meanwhile, Jean Valjean is known to his town as Monsieur Madeleine. Javert tries to arrest Fantine for being on the street and being disorderly, but Jean Valjean takes her in. Javert tells JvJ (we'll abbreviate from here on out) that he knows who he is. JvJ denies it. Then Javert tells JvJ (a little later) that he's found the real JvJ, and that he is going to Paris to try this real JvJ for his crimes. JvJ now has a crisis of conscience, and decides that even though he's turned his life around, he can't let an innocent man go down for his crimes, so he leaves the very ill Fantine in the care of his servants and heads to Paris. He tells the court that he is JvJ, and at first they don't believe him, but two witnesses corroborate that he is the real JvJ, and after JvJ gets back to town, Javert comes to arrest him. JvJ asks for just a few days to go and retrieve Cosette (as he as at this point realized the Thénardiers are not good guardians, and Fantine has died when Javert comes to arrest JvJ) but Javert laughs at him and arrests him just the same. JvJ breaks out of the city prison and manages to get to Paris and take his large fortune out of the bank and hide it (but we don't know where). JvJ then gets retaken and ends up back in the galleys. During a crazy event on the galley ship, JvJ is presumed dead. At this point, he finds Cosette, takes her from the Thénardiers (who are NOT pleased to have lost their source of income and their little slave) and he travels to Paris with her. They live a very small existence in a very hidden, very poor corner of Paris, until JvJ recognizes Javert (who didn't believe JvJ was dead and was still hunting for him) and they manage to escape into a nunnery. They stay there for awhile and live a very private existence, after which they move on to a slightly nicer area. They are still very secretive, and can't be too obvious. At this point, they've become Monsieur and Mademoiselle Fauchelevent, the name of a man who took them in at the nunnery. Now Marius enters the story, a young boy who falls madly in love with Cosette after seeing her in the Jardin de Luxembourg, walking with JvJ. He basically stalks them for awhile, and eventually he and Cosette end up having a very tame nighttime-rendezvous-in-the-garden relationship. A situation happens where Marius is living next to the Thénardiers and the Thénardiers try to milk JvJ for all he's worth and trap him but Marius intervenes with the help of Javert and the Thénardiers all go to jail except Éponine, Azelma, and Gavroche, their kids. Éponine is in love with Marius, but he just wants her help finding Cosette, and she helps him track her down. Thénardier escapes from prison and inadvertently tries to rob JvJ (doesn't know it is him) but Éponine, who has been watching Cosette and Marius each night, threatens to get her father caught, and he has to go away. Eventually Éponine gets upset about their relationship, and she sends JvJ a secret note telling him to "Remove immediately." JvJ freaks out, thinks his identity has been compromised, and immediately takes Cosette to a different place and prepares to move them to London. Marius had heard that they were going to go, and he planned to follow, but they move so quickly that he hasn't time to find out where they're going. Totally in despair, he joins up with his friends who are launching the June Rebellion, a very short and ill-fated attempt by some students to re-launch the republic of France and revolt against the current power. JvJ finds out that Cosette is in love with Marius and freaks out, because he has basically lived only for Cosette for the last 15 years or so. He thinks about killing Marius, but ends up going to the building where Marius is fighting and helping out. Javert ends up getting taken hostage by Marius's friends because they think he is a spy. Éponine resurfaces dressed as a boy at the rebellion and tells Marius she loves him as she dies from a bullet meant for Marius. Marius still basically has a death wish since he thinks he's lost Cosette, and he ends up with some pretty serious injuries. Eventually, all of Marius's friends die. JvJ is charged with killing the spy (Javert) and he takes him outside where no one can see. He sets Javert free, tells him that after the scuffle is over he can be found at such and such an address and Javert can come to arrest him (which confuses Javert) and then takes a shot in the air; everyone thinks he has killed Javert, but Javert escapes. JvJ escapes with a possibly dead Marius to the sewers of Paris. Unsure of whether Marius is dead or alive, but now committed to returning his body to his grandfather (with whom Marius is estranged, as they fought over French politics), JvJ trudges miles and miles through the sewers, not knowing whether or not he is going the right way or whether Marius is dead or alive. He eventually reaches the end of the sewer, where, as it turns out Thénardier is hiding. Thénardier does not recognize JvJ, but thinks he has killed Marius and is trying to dispose of the body. He has a secret key for the sewer grate, but he knows that Javert is on the other side, as he had been caught in the act of trying to steal something and jumped into the sewer to escape. Thénardier tricks JvJ into giving him all of Marius's money, and he tears off a piece of Marius's coat as he's looking for more money. He then unlocks the grate. JvJ emerges triumphantly, only to find himself face to face with Javert. He tells Javert he is his prisoner, but begs Javert to let him take Marius to his grandfather's house. Javert assents, and the two men take Marius to his family. Marius is in very poor health for several months, but eventually recovers. JvJ then asks one more favor of Javert - to let him go home. Javert assents, and when JvJ looks down to see if Javert is waiting to take him to prison, Javert is gone. Javert has a crisis of conscience, because JvJ has saved his life, and he doesn't know what to do if he can't uphold the law and arrest him, and he ends up drowning himself in the Seine. JvJ visits Marius each day, and eventually Marius makes up with his grandfather and gets engaged to Cosette. They get married, and all is about to end happily ever after, but JvJ reveals to Marius that he is a convict. Marius (who has this whole time been looking for his mysterious savior from the sewers - he doesn't know it was JvJ, and JvJ hasn't told him) is horrified, and JvJ basically offers to sacrifice spending time with them and living with them because if he were to get caught one day while out with them in public, it would ruin their reputation and horrify Cosette. Marius tells JvJ he can come to visit her each day, so JvJ visits each day, but will only be seen in secret, in the basement. Marius refuses to accept JvJ's enormous fortune, which JvJ bequeaths to them, because he thinks that JvJ has stolen it from a man named Monsieur Madeleine. Eventually, JvJ stops coming entirely, because he thinks it is best, and he falls quite ill due to severe depression. Thénardier resurfaces and tries to tell Marius that JvJ is an assassin and an impostor(telling him the story of the sewer and showing him the ripped off bit of jacket and talking about him calling himself Monsieur Madeleine) but Marius finally realizes that JvJ is the one who saved him and that he didn't rob Monsieur Madeleine, he was Monsieur Madeleine. He immediately takes Cosette to see JvJ (she has been asking after him, wondering where he is) and they apologize profusely for abandoning him. He is ecstatic at their return, but too ill to recover, and after telling them how best to maximize their fortune, he dies with Cosette and Marius at his side.
Spoiler Over: Continue Here

Whew! This plot was quite tricky! This book was a really interesting reading experience. I hated about the first 250 pages, and I thought the book was going to be about nothing but misery and despair. Every character introduced had some sob story, and I just didn't feel any connection with the characters. I didn't think JvJ was a bad guy, but I really had no interest in what happened to him. I almost stopped reading the book.

I didn't, however, as my blog stipulates a 'cover-to-cover' effort, and I am so glad I didn't! The book had a stark turnaround for me, and I went from total lack of interest to not being able to put it down. The various stories finally came together, and the June Rebellion and a few other events brought the action to a climax. I suddenly found myself quite concerned about Marius, Cosette, and JvJ's fates, and when Javert had his crisis of conscience, I was seriously moved.

By the time I got to JvJ's sacrifice and his slow decline, I was tearing through each page, waiting and hoping for Marius to find out the truth! In the end, I certainly understood why the book was titled Les Misérables, but each character's misery was to a proper degree and made sense with the rest of the story and in balance with the eventual bliss of Marius, Cosette, and Marius's family.

This was truly an excellent novel in every sense of the word. The characters were well drawn, the plot was moving, and the descriptions and sentences themselves were beautifully constructed. Victor Hugo, I am well pleased!

The title of this post is a line Cosette says to JvJ during one of their meetings in the basement. I think it perfectly sums up JvJ's character in the book; he is frightening in a lot of ways - powerful, an amazing impostor who leads a double life for most of his life, frighteningly strong, fiercely protective of Cosette - but as we come to know him throughout the book, we are bombarded again and again by his good deeds and his humility after each one.

Other phrases in contention for the title:
"Should I spare myself more than others?" - this is what JvJ asks himself as he decides whether or not to go to Paris and admit he is the real JvJ, but it is also a question he asks himself over and over again. He saves Marius when he really wants to kill him, because he knows he loves Cosette and she loves him, and he stops seeing Cosette and cuts himself out of her life to protect her, even though it literally kills him.

"I am going, since I am not arrested. I have many things to do." - JvJ says this after revealing he is the true JvJ and no one believes him at first. I think this is a great moment; JvJ is like, seriously? no one believes me? okay, fine, I've got shit to do. Peace!

"The highest justice is conscience" - Javert says this early in the novel, and it's really what he struggles with as he decides whether to arrest JvJ or kill himself.

"Great perils have this beauty, that they bring to light the fraternity of strangers." - JvJ goes into the battle planning to kill Marius, but he ends up leaving it with Marius on his back and trudging through the nastiest muck for hours and hours across the underground network of Paris to save him. He finds this fraternity with Marius during the battle.

"I should not come often. I would not stay long." - JvJ says this to Marius after he asks if he can come to visit Cosette. It is so painfully sweet. JvJ has just offered to give up the one thing he cares most about in the world, and he can barely bring himself to ask to visit, so he says, beseechingly, that he would only come for a moment every once in a while. This is so tender, it broke my heart.

"I will wait here for you." - These are Javert's last words to JvJ, and ones he ends up going back on. His departure and eventual suicide was one of the book's really big surprises for me. I was shocked when he threw himself into the Seine, and I thought Hugo's description of Javert's mental anguish was exquisite.

Some scenes you should really re-read or pay close attention to if you haven't read it:
-The crazy way that JvJ gets into the nunnery (there's a buried alive scene - it's NUTSo!)
-Marius' borderline stalking of Cosette (I think it would seriously be considered restraining-order-worthy in current days, but it's sort of adorable here) and how he comes to think her name is Ursula. (hiLarious)
-The crazy scene with the Thénardiers trying to take JvJ prisoner. Really well written.
-The scene where Marius reconciles with his grandfather. It is adorable and endearing and one of the happiest moments I've ever read in literature. So cute! (By Jove! I decree Joy!)
-June Rebellion battle scene - Marius is crazy in this, but it is so intricate and complex and rife with emotion and turmoil. Really really good stuff. Reminded me of Helm's Deep in the Two Towers (yes, I know, LOTR nerd, so sue me!)

Hugo really is a lyricist. He has an incredible way with words that I found riveting. Reminiscent of Steinbeck, though I admit I found Hugo's plot more interesting. Here are a few examples I really enjoyed, keeping in mind that I read this in translation, so some kudos is definitely due to the translator and Hugo's words may be even better in the original French:

-Jean Valjean had one of those rare smiles which came over him like the aurora in a winter sky.
-A certain oscillation shook the whole horizon of his brain, a strange internal moving-day.
-The evening had that serenity which buries the sorrows of man under a strangely dreary yet eternal joy.

Cosette's character has a fascinating trajectory. She goes from being this unloved and unlovable wretch to a loved but homely foundling, to a captivating beauty, to a devoted lover and a borderline spoiled rich girl who's still really good at heart. I loved this whole journey of hers and not knowing where exactly she'd end up on the spectrum of poor and rich, good and bad.

I like that JvJ takes Cosette out of the nunnery, despite the fact that, like many fathers, he'd rather keep her away from men forever, because, as he says, "This child had a right to know what life is before renouncing it." This is so true, and I often feel that things are foisted on children before they're old enough to make their own decisions about it (religion, for one). I really respected JvJ as a parent after this moment.

I'll end with some of JvJ's last words to Cosette and Marius - "There is scarcely anything in the world but that; to love one another." So go about your lives, read this book if you haven't (can't speak to the musical, so cast that aside for now and check out the original) and love one another.

Off to read the killing fields 17. Or is it animal death 21? Oh right, Slaughterhouse-Five.