Book Review


By Victor Hugo

I read this book primarily because someone claimed it was their favorite and I was kinda skeptical. it seemed an unlikely choice. but, committed to trying to get to the “classics” I read it. this review is written with the assumption that the reader has also read the book. i do not usually do so, but in this case it was a bit of a book report so i was commenting more on the underlying themes than on exposition. if this is confusing or unpleasant, you have my apologies.

It was difficult, I will admit, for me to at first discern how this book could be anybody’s favorite. Well written enough, and interesting in that it provided a vivid picture of Paris at a particular time in history, it lacked a sense of dynamism I would expect from something that had commanded the imagination in such a way as to be termed a favorite.

The book begins with Hugo’s witty and amusing tour of Paris. A love of new places would be helpful in enjoying this meandering, as would a particular, if not pronounced, fondness for architecture as an intellectual discipline. Hugo’s thorough coverage of the topic could certainly have fed somewhat to enjoyment of the novel.

His irreverence for the church offered a similarly feasible, but incomplete suggestion as to the book’s appeal. Well written and by all accounts informed, Hugo does much to ridicule the church in subtle but pointed ways. His contempt for those who would blindly submit to authority is apparent. His disdain for the absurdity of the hierarchy of the church itself likewise.

And. It’s funny. So, there’s that.

It wasn’t til I had made it further along into the book that a clearer and more convincing sense of how anyone could find it so compelling began to emerge. This is not simply a walking tour of Paris with a bit of socio-religious commentary thrown in for good measure. Indeed it is an examination of much deeper and more profound themes; how righteousness can all too easily foster hypocrisy, the lack of justice in the social structures of church and monarchy, how zealotry leads to obsession, obsession to madness. Hugo touches on the absurd nature of love; how it is born, how it endures, despite all reason, evidence, and opposition. He lingers long on the role of fate, or at least, on the inevitability of suffering. Even in Sanctuary, there is no real relief…

I began to wonder at one point, that the book was called the Hunchback at all, so little does Quasimodo appear in its pages. We are told about his deformity, meant to loathe him for all his strangeness, and then he goes largely unmentioned for a goodly portion of the tale. At most he is the dogsbody of Claude Frollo; an object of pity and fear. Though it is through his actions that Esmeralda is initially “saved” from the gallows, it seems his role is mainly to provide a warped and distorted mirror to Esmeralda herself. His own love for her is as misguided and shallow as her love for Phoebus. In both cases it is based on one incident of kindness proffered by a person of great beauty thence followed by nothing but cruelty, disregard, and contempt.

Quasimodo brings Esmeralda to his eyrie because it is sanctuary. She can escape her fate at the end of a hangman’s noose, if she consents to stay put within the walls of Notre Dame. A prison perhaps, but one filled with light rather than darkness, with a loving if grotesque companion, and with the freedom to gaze upon Phoebus should that suit her fancy. It is no wonder the escape is qualified in this way, for it is always the perception of the subject which decides if sanctuary is indeed refuge or cage. The cost of escape is not overlooked, then.

And who decides the cost of refuge here is of course La Esmeralda. Esmeralda presents herself as a compelling character from the first. She is proud despite her low social station, she is self-assured though she is in possession of no wealth or the protection of family, she is content with her gifts as a dancer and the companionship of her little goat. She is searching for her lost mother, but is confident in her ability to find her. She is capricious, but good natured. She takes pity on the philosopher who is cast at her feet, but in no way entertains his advances. It is not until she is abducted and threatened by Cluade Frollo’s designs that we begin to see a side of her nature that is more complex. Though it is perhaps understandable she be grateful to her rescuer, the handsome and valiant soldier who frees her from Quasimodo’s clutches, her immediate and irrevocable attachment to Phoebus is all out of reckoning with the scope of his actions. She is still capable of asserting herself to come extent, as she displays remarkable compassion for Quasimodo in the pillory even after he has seized and terrorized her. However, as soon as she comes into contact again with the much lauded Phoebus, she is instantly reduced to a creature who seems to have no will of her own but to love her Pheobus. Even as he is attempting to seduce and defile her, when she becomes sensible to this as his aim, her regard for him never wavers: indeed, she reviles herself;


“Oh, take me. Take all! Do what you will with me, I am thine. What matters to me the amulet, what matters to me my mother. Tis thou who art my mother since I love thee! […] My soul, my life, my body, my person, all is one thing-which is thine my captain. Well, no! We will not marry since that displeases thee; and then what am I? A miserable girl of the gutters, whilst thou, my Phoebus, art a gentlemen. A fine thing, truly! A dancer wed an officer! I was mad. No Phoebus, no. I will be thy mistress, thy amusement, thy pleasure, when thou wilt; a girl who shall belong to thee. I was only made for that, soiled, despised, dishonored, but what matters it beloved? I shall be the proudest and most joyous of women. […] Meanwhile, take me! Here, Phoebus, all this belongs to thee, only love me! We gypsies only need air and love.”


(this was exceedingly difficult to read. For it is, in the main, precisely how I feel.)

Hugo causes this creature, once proud and glorious, to submit entirely to her love, yet even in her moment of supplication, she remains undespoiled. For just as she has consented to be taken, Pheobus is struck by the hand of the envious priest. She thus engenders that which is most desirable in love; utter purity willing to debase itself completely.

Her great beauty, her will and fire, are all now subjugate to this love. She cares for none of it and nothing in the wake of losing the object of her love. She longs not for light, nor life, nor respite from her suffering as long as she believes Phoebus to be dead. When the priest comes to her with the offer to relieve her pain and abjection if only she will consent to his will, she refuses, preferring the darkness and misery to any other pursuit.

And so we turn to the priest. He offers such a fascinating mix of traits. He is wise but capable of great folly, he is a man supplicant to the church, but defiant in his workings within it. He subjects himself to no authority other than his own intellect and reason, but who abandons both in the wake of a dark obsession. He arouses sympathy with his humane treatment of Quasimodo, his misguided but affectionate care of his younger brother. His actions on their behalf allow him to think quite well of himself, and his self-righteousness is profound. He sees his devotion to the church and to these two unfortunates as a chief example of his worth, and he ceases to examine himself much further in the wake of this self-assurance. Most fascinating is his complete inability to detach himself from the notion that he must utterly and completely possess the object of his desire or destroy it completely. I was stunned, time and again, at the total selfishness of his “love” for Esmeralda. Both she and the hunchback have some sense that if at least their love is alive and happy, that they themselves can be at peace knowing that to be the case. Claude Frollo has no such capacity. He is utterly consumed by his need to dominate and keep her captive only to him. He views even the kindness of Quasimodo as a threat to his ownership of this girl and repeatedly seeks her ruin in the face of her refusal to submit to him. Even after he believes she is dead more or less at his hand and regrets the actions he undertook to see it done, he immediately puts her back in harms way when he realizes she is alive and continues to resist him.

It seems Hugo has but two conflicting, though equally tragic, views of love; that it is either totally self-serving, dominating, and obsessive or that it is utterly self-abasing, unwarranted, and obsessive. So, at least he’s consistent on that last point…

This story unwinds itself in typical tragic fashion. A series of misunderstandings and quirks of fate leave the gypsy (which of course she really isnt) back in the clutches of the hangman. She discovers the woman who has most reviled her is in fact her own lost and lamented mother, and the mother who has sought her so long, has the joy of finding her only to lose her again immediately. At least the old woman dies herself before she is forced to watch her daughter perish.

Quasimodo’s attempts to save Esmeralda are of course to no avail. He finally sees the treachery of Claude Frollo and rises from his reconciled subservience to dispense justice for Esmeralda. A blow he would never strike on his own behalf is easily dealt when Quasimodo sees the effects of the priest’s treachery. Ah, the power of love. Ultimately, the hunchback contents himself with stealing Esmeralda’s corpse and being united with her for eternity, since no other earthly love awaits him.

And that of course, is ultimately, what this novel is about; it is a meditation on love and all its follies. Why we love as we do, how such love can be our undoing, and the way that the world has of being utterly indifferent to our suffering in its service.

recommended

By Curtis Sittenfeld

went away without a book to read and plucked this off the shelf where i was staying. i finished it in less than 24 hours and it left little impression on me. i have the distinct feeling that if i were to fail to write this review promptly, i would forget what i thought altogether.

having attended public school for the length of my primary education, i can’t speak to whether this portrayal of a private boarding school back east really captures what it is like to attend one, but i can say this with utter surety; i was most definitely at one point a teenage girl, and i do not feel this novel in any way even captures a glimpse of what it was like to have been one.

i was actually turned off from the opening line, which is trite to the point of pain;

I think that everything, or at least the part of everything that happened to me, started with the roman architecture mixup

 

this novel is a first-person account given by one Lee Fiora the adult of her time at Ault, a boarding school outside Boston. while i am usually a fan of this first person voice,  the narrative in this case  seems self-indulgent without the concomitant indulgence. none of what happens to this character takes on any color, texture, or temperature. there is a strange sense of both being unable to see past the end of Lee’s nose, but there being nothing of consequence going on behind it.the fundamental premise is that Lee, a heretofore successful public-school student from a working-class family has managed to win a place and scholarship to a school that would otherwise be socially and financially far beyond her scope. once she arrives she is totally unprepared, academically, personally, and emotionally for the experience. while the plot lacks much in imaginative originality, handled properly it could still have been a rich vein through which to explore alienation.

however, this character displays a degree of ambivilence about her life and surroundings i found utterly disingenuous.  teenagers may feign this much detachment, but i have never known one that actually felt it. especially not when they are surrounded by so many people so fundamentally different from themselves, and completely without a social network of any strength.

what’s more, the way Lee interacts with her peers seems to fly in the face of expectations. she holds on to a strangely aloof demeanor, despite her professed loneliness. she regards all friendliness on the part of her fellow students with bewilderment. not a healthy skepticism, which would at least seem more reasonable, but rather a complete lack of comprehension about any gesture made toward her other than open hostility. what’s more, she seems to lack any real sense of herself in a way i also find somewhat difficult to understand. i may not have been the most self-aware person out there, but i certainly had a self-image, even if it wasn’t accurate or nearly complete. this character almost never mentions how she views herself; not the complicated question of her place at Ault or what things she has going for her, nor even the most mundane sense of how she looks or feels about her appearance in anything more than the most cursory way. i usually have at least some sense of the physical attributes of my main character, but in this case i barely have a sense of what her insides are like, let alone her outsides.

a disproportionate amount of time is spent remembering the first half of freshman year and the last half of senior year whereas the rest of Lee’s time at Ault seems to pass in a indistinct haze. what’s more, the promise of that oh-so-trite first line is never actually realized; nothing really happens to Lee. she goes to school, she makes a handful of friends, though only one of any real import, she performs with a remarkable lack of distinction academically and fails to create much of an impression of her time at Ault, or of Ault itself.

there are any number of leading comments that would seem like foreshadowing, except that the author follows up on none of them. any reference to her adult self is utterly self-contained and discrete. no real hints about Lee’s future are contained in these asides, but they are frequent enough to become somewhat pestiferous when details about her actual thoughts and feelings and impressions of Ault seem so sparsely populated and lacking any vibrancy.

the author’s description of Lee’s lone passionate preoccupation, one Cross Sugarman, also lacks a certain veracity. she experiences a fleeting and totally unconvincing infatuation with a girl in her freshman year and then becomes indistinctly obessed with Cross after a strangely tender, but wholly isolated encounter at the local mall. though her intensity of feeling for him seems genuine enough, her behavior as a lover defies logic. teenage girls are not well known for their self-control or for their willingness to accept being nothing but a sex object for a person who shows up at random in their dorm room one night after 3 years of having virtually no contact. perhaps the strangest part is that Cross himself seems willing to genuinely like Lee, but her own lack of sensitivity seem to undermine any possibility that she could sense or accept this on any level apart from being receptive to his sexual advances.  and just at the moment she might begin to want more from him than a fumbling encounter in the spare dorm room up the hall, he disappears. unaccountably she becomes suddenly but sporadically emotional enough to seek him out for the very first time, (the only action of hers in this entire scenario that resonates with any sense of truth) only to recoil when he is on the verge of telling her that he cares about her more than she seemed willing to let him.

all of this happens in tandem with a somewhat sudden plot development the subtext of which, very much in bright red letters was “this is meant to be the climax of the story, and it is DRAMATIC!” Lee is asked because of her status as a scholarship student to consent to an interview with a reporter from the NYT. the interview is conducted by a caricature of a latina reporter with a chip on her shoulder who through hard work and spunk made her own way through Harvard! this character has an agenda that is painfully transparent to everyone except Lee, who then says a variety of things which are then used in an article which humiliates her and Ault and everyone there.

or, at least, that’s what we are expected to believe. but her dramatic and embarrassing behavior results in a completely passionless reaction from almost everyone and has no discernible consequences other than that the people who already didn’t like her very much, now they like her somewhat less.

i found this novel dull, flat, and lacking in any emotional resonance or intellectual veracity.

boo.

by Stephen Hunt

i would like to start out by saying; this book fucking tricked me.

it was a snatch & grab on the way through the fantasy section at Powell’s. by the look of this cover i was expecting a somewhat whimsical tale about orphans travelling around in a hot air balloon that they procured in some no-doubt-amusing manner and all the hilarity that would ensue as they floated around about the landscape all willy nilly. tra-la-la!

no-eh.

this is instead, a dark, scary, complex politico-philsophical rant of epic proportions.  it’s kinda like Dune, but with hot-air balloons instead of the Guild. plus also a lot less good.

we have: robot-people, crustaceous folks, the Fey-breed (ironically named since their traits are due to environmental exposure and not genetic in nature), worldsingers who ostensibly keep the Fey-breed in line cause they (the Fey) have scary magic-type powers and would run amok wanting… like freedom otherwise, the aristocracy, the guardians, the titualar court of the air, wolftakers,  a vallianous force to the south the “Cassarabians”, and an armless king. and i’m definitely forgetting some stuff. oh yeah, the scary locust guys who can only come through a tear in the fabric of reality when people start eating each other.

lost yet??

i will admit, the book was pretty engrossing in parts. in other places, it was just gross. like where we encounter the underground fields of people been grown for food. soylent green anyone?

mostly, it was top heavy and too ambitious for its own good. i feel like this was an epic in three parts smooshed into one overlong novel of questionable absorbability. i found myself getting to the middle of the page and saying “whaaa?” not because i couldn’t keep track of the 18 simultaneous plot lines, but because i just wasn’t interested enough to bother trying.

also, it is very clear that this author REALLY REALLY thinks socialism is a BAD THING. also, religion. and government in general.

i did make it through the whole thing, but it really became about showing this book who was boss, not because i had any real desire to see how it all turned out. and perhaps unsurprisingly, nothing really got resolved and there was a clear implication that more was to come. mercy.

this book would have been vastly improved to have lost about 9 or 12 of the subplots and just stuck to the 6 or 7 reasonably interesting main-ish plots. complexity of tale does not automatically = epic in the way that was clearly intended. creating an unnecessarily byzantine network of politico-religio-philisophic-psycho-sexual happenings & characters does not make you seem like a more gifted author capable of vision of enormous scope. it just makes you seem like you are trying REALLY HARD to look like one.

thumbs down

this was a random “snatch off the endcap at the library” book. i have very spotty luck with this approach. this time, however, i was most pleasantly gratified by the results of my choice.

an engaging blend of strange elements, this novel is amusing and poignant, visually interesting and a tactile treat. i am a great sucker for the heft of a book in the hand, and this one was a winner. the pages are heavy with a sensuous weave. the typeface is not only pleasing to the eye, but has a voice of its own within the tale. moreover text, type, form, and content are all characters in this strange and moving tale. i found myself utterly absorbed and completely entertained.

nominally the first person narrative of an ad-man circa 1960 (Mad Men: The Zeitgeist) it is also social and literary criticism and a work of art. one that is utterly self-conscious, but no less artful for that.

an easy read that was wholly rewarding.

recommended.

By David Ebershoff

enjoyable to read, capably written, this novel approaches the history and present of multiple marriage within the LDS church.

a fan of historical fiction, i appreciated the extensive research and attention to detail the author afforded his subject matter. while the mormon church enjoys a wealth of documentation due both to its relative youth as an organization and its doctrinal position that keeping records of heredity and history are critical functions of the church, these records are not usually available to “gentiles” and the more controversial the subject matter the more difficult these records become to access. Ebershoff even uses this circumstance as a literary mechanism within the context of this interestingly structured novel.

the book is portioned such that there are really three threads running concurrently throughout. there is the reconstructed memoir of Ann Eliza Young, the notorious 19th wife of Brigham Young, there is the modern-day murder mystery set in the backdrop of the sect of the LDS church which still practices polygamy, and interspersed are vignettes in the form of recreated newspaper articles, personal letters, and archived documents pertaining to one tale or the other.

the stories herein are interesting enough to have kept me entertained, if not especially inspired. the novel was well-constructed but lacking a certain resonance of tone considering the powerful emotional themes broached therein. themes of faith, human dignity, and the dangers of theocracy are approached, but not plumbed.

overall a fair piece of historical fiction. worth reading, especially for those with any curiosity about this particular aspect of the Mormon historical record.

By William F. Buckley

plucked this one off of an endcap at the library and was hoping for better.
written in an approachable, easygoing tone, this novel took a different tack than the typical Washington Scandal Book, most of which are rigid, intense, and gripping. here instead we had a scandal, cover up which resorts to arson and murder, and the ruination of a presidential candidacy all discussed with a remarkable lack of engagement or urgency.
this lackadasickal emotional approach translated into a rather unengaging read. action was interestingly conveyed, but improbably casual. even the reactions of many of the characters to the circumstances in which they found themselves seemed disingenuously detached and unemotional.
the end comes rather suddenly and without the drama one would expect from the events as they unfold. i expected to find at least 3 or 4 more chapters after the last page and was left feeling a little perturbed. not so much because i was so interested in the story as to long for its continuation, but because i was incredulous that it would end with such percipitance.
i felt like the underlying plot was interesting and could have made for a gripping Washington Scandal Book but was poorly handled and incompletely developed. ( )

Harper Paperbacks (2008), Paperback, 288 pages

by John Updike

i realize this is meant to be a modern classic, but dudes, this is a weird little novel.

into what would otherwise be a poignant and well written character study, Updike has entwined strange tendrils of Greek mythology.

the opening scene is exemplary of this trend; we have our main character, a high school teacher, shot with an arrow by one of his students through the leg and trailing a bloody hoof.see, he’s a centaur, apparently. once he reaches aid in the form of a mechanic able to cut the arrow, he goes back to class and struggles to complete his lecture under the jaundiced eye of his in-school nemesis, the vice principal.

the point of making any of these characters mythical creatures is completely lost on me and the execution seemed inconsistent from both a psychological and practical sense. a centaur that drives? how many legs do they have again?

to my mind this choice distracted from what would have otherwise been a solid, if somewhat gray, snapshot of a father-son relationship captured over the course of a handful of wintry days.

not bad per se, a little bizarre. perhaps just not to my taste.

Ballantine Books (1996), Paperback, 320 pages

(Bantam Spectra Book) by Neal Stephenson

i’ve had quite a few people prod me to read this novel and finally over one weekend, i did. thank you prodders.

i consider myself tech fringe; by which i mean while i am not a tech person myself, so many of my loved ones and friends ARE that i am relatively comfortable with broad concepts, and a fair amount of jargon. i’m pretty good with jargon. as such, i found this book easy enough to immerse myself in despite its rather techie bent.

set in an indeterminate future where capitalism has finally unraveled the fabric of government and where society calls upon “franchulates” to provide the services and protection we would normally expect to receive from an administrative body. not strictly dystopian in feel, there is certainly a simultaneously chaotic and invasive feel to the way society has drifted. there are not, precisely speaking, laws to provide the structure one typically encounters in culture. however, there are certainly mores and norms which seem based on whatever sub-set of values each person chooses to buy into. in the most literal sense.

written in a rollicking and energetic prose, this is a novel for the intellectually curious and spiritually unbiased. for interwoven into a wry and playful examination of the effect of technology and consumerism on human society, is a reflection on how spirituality can be fundamentally invested in these expressions of culture. how we find transcendent meaning in technology, and how this can easily be corrupted. i found it utterly refreshing to see this subject taken up by an astute participant in a socio-techological dialogue. attempting to convey a cerebral experience of modern life with room for the unexplained and mystical is remarkably difficult, and often leaves one unable to confidently communicate understanding of either. this work does so convincingly and with a deft command of language.

recommended.

By Kurt Vonnegut

rather a standard, i came late to reading this novel. having enjoyed other offerings of Vonnegut, i was fairly well prepared for a bantering tone, even about what was an admittedly grim subject.

but rather than focusing solely on the tragedy at Dresden, Vonnegut makes a study of a man outside of time and place who is inexorably drawn back to that scene in time and mind. rather than living through it once, and relating the experience in a linear narrative, our Billy Pilgrim is cast about seemingly at random, to live and relive the moments of his life.

part parable, part memoir,  part science fiction farce, this novel does embody the classic Vonnegut voice.

Dial Press Trade Paperback (1999), Paperback, 288 pages

my initial moments reading this book were filled with eager anticipation and mild confusion. i owe this both to the skill of this first-time novelist at capturing the particular and compelling timbre of a corporate creative environment with uncanny accuracy, and the peculiar manner which he employed to do so. once i was able to comprehend the mechanism of the “first-person-plural” narrative voice, and stopped waiting for the narrator to identify as a singular individual, rather than what i like to call “the global we” i was better able to settle to the meat of the story.

never having been a corporate creative type, i do count some of my closest friends among them, and i can easily sense the rightness of Ferris’ portrayal of this group of people and their surroundings. the petty alliances and betrayals, the contempt and dependence grown from too much familiarity, the currents and eddies of myriad social and occupational entanglements; all of these resonate with a genuineness and authenticity one can judge even without having experienced it firsthand.

Ferris deftly captures the crawling unease amongst the characters caused by the drift of layoffs and quiet corporate calamities mounting around them. the responses of this group to these pressures are fascinating and absurd. they turn on each other with a mixture of scorn and compassion that is singularly convincing. moreover the array of individual reactions are fascinating, unpredictable, and utterly compelling. all this told with the unabashed lack of objectivity in vaguely stream-of-consciousness meandering, complete with temporal shifts, repetitions of scenes and exchanges that perfectly depict the storytelling style of the consummate office gossip.

amusing and well-told, fundamentally interesting and poignant in its honesty.

recommended.

 

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