Les Miserables–Capitulation

I have given up trying to read Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. I was a little over halfway through the book, and I simply couldn’t take it any more. Some part of me cared about Jean Valjean and Cosette, hoping things worked out well for them, but not nearly enough to slog through any more of Hugo’s lengthy digressions on French history, Parisian society, the Benedictine rule, or anything else. Les Miserables is not a book—it’s a lifestyle, and I had enough of it.

To those who love the book, I am truly sorry. It just wasn’t for me. I am reminded of something I read years ago in the book Great Books by David Denby. He was writing about the Great Books course at Columbia University. For many years, he wrote, the final exam for the course contained this essay question: What is your least favorite book we read this semester, and what is the flaw in your character that made it so?

Perhaps I am too impatient, too much a creature of the 21st century, and not willing to allow for the narrative expansiveness of long novels like Les Miserables. I do like for stories to be more focused. If Jean Valjean is being chased by the detective Javert and a platoon of police officers, I expect that chase to take fewer than five chapters—especially when the chapters include lengthy descriptions of buildings passed along the way.

Scottish poet James Thomson’s long poem The Seasons was the most popular and influential poem in England in the 18th century. It influenced literature and music—Haydn’s oratorio The Seasons was based on it—and countless paintings and sculptures, not to mention bits of decorative bric-a-brac were modeled on scenes in the poem. But who has heard of it today? Thomson’s poem is largely unreadable to a modern audience, too much of that ‘O Muse, do speak to me!’ and other stilted locutions.

Perhaps books like Les Miserables are the same. Or perhaps it just wasn’t to my taste. At any rate, I have moved on, and I feel a great weight has been lifted from my shoulders. I am now going to read Honore Balzac’s Cousin Bette. I like Balzac, and I hope I like it.

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Les Miserables–2

I am in part two of Les Miserables. The section is called Cosette. Cosette is the daughter of Fantine, whose story was told in part one. I am about fifty pages into part two, and there has been no mention of Cosette. There has, instead, been a long history of the Battle of Waterloo.

Is this frustrating? I don’t know. The ending of part one leaves the reader anxious to learn the fate of Cosette, for reasons it would too much of a spoiler to enumerate here. But you start reading part two, and work your way through this history. I am a huge fan of military history, and I found Hugo’s description of one of the most important battles ever to be compelling and exciting. But is it part of this story?

Long ago I read Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Tolstoy also finds occasion to write at length about the history of the siege of Moscow, about military strategy in general, and about his theory of leadership in war. Does this add to or drag down his story? It depends on one’s perspective. It seems that in large novels of the 19th century, lengthy non-fiction asides were considered normal: whether you enjoy that or not is a matter of personal taste.

Another classic example is Moby Dick, by Herman Melville. One can learn an awful lot about whales and whaling from the book. There are long sections that describe the whale hunt, processing of the carcass, even how perfume is made from ambergris, a by-product of whale processing. Do these drag down the story of Ahab’s maniacal quest to kill the great white whale? Suffice it to say, these parts were not included in the movie.

It’s interesting to note that both War and Peace and Les Miserables are set in the time of the Napoleonic Wars, which loomed massively over early 19th century Europe. How much more I need to learn about these wars while trying to find out what happens to Cosette and Jean Valjean is a question that time will answer.

 

Les Miserables–1

Each December the Tuesday Evening Book Discussion group takes a break, for one month I have no assigned reading, and so I choose a long, significant work of literature to read, one that I have not read before. In the past several years I have read James Joyce’s Ulysses, Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote, and other such tomes. This year I have chosen Victor Hugo’s masterpiece Les Miserables.

It’s funny, but when conversation turns to long books, the one people usually cite is War and Peace. But Les Miserables is a few hundred pages longer than War and Peace. In the version I am reading, a recent translation by Julie Rose, the print is very small as well. It is even a bit of a challenge, holding the book in one’s lap while reading in bed.

As people often say of long books, I had trouble ‘getting into it.’ Anyone who has seen the musical, or the movie based on it may recall that the story begins with an incident involving Bishop Myriel and Jean Valjean. That incident, in the movie, is dispatched in ten minutes of narrative storytelling. In the book, there are eighty pages about the life and character of Bishop Myriel before we hear anything about Jean Valjean.

That much ‘introduction’ is not characteristic of how stories are told these days. A creative writing instructor I once had was fond of saying that if the story is about a broken glass, you better break the glass on page one. But reading a long story from the mid-19th century requires a different sensibility, a different set of expectations. This is something I have to remind myself of each winter when I take up an older classic.

Now that I have adjusted my mind to the longer format of a 19th century novel, I plan to write a few posts here about the experience of reading Les Miserables. In the meantime, let me know—have you read the book? Did you love it or hate it? Did you pick it up only because you found the musical so wonderful? Any thoughts are appreciated.

Vacuuming Leaves

Mid-November, and driving around Webster Groves one sees bags of leaves lined up three and four rows deep on curbs everywhere. In some of the same yards where several dozen bags are present, it doesn’t look like the battle against fallen leaves is being won. Someone asked me yesterday how long it has been since the City of Webster Groves offered a leaf vacuuming service. Here is what we can learn from consulting our index of the Webster-Kirkwood Times.

An article on November 11, 1980 notes that the City’s leaf-vacuuming trucks made the rounds of neighborhoods every seven days from November until December 12th. Residents were asked to pile the leaves at the curb, not in the street, so as not to block stormwater.

In late June, 1982, the City Council voted to eliminate free leaf vacuuming service from the budget for 1982-1983. The move, recommended by then City Manager John Morrison, was estimated to save nearly $40,000, decreasing a projected operating deficit of over $100,000. The City still made leaf vacuuming available to residents as a paid service. Councilmembers John McCarthy and Malcolm Holekamp opposed the measure. They said that because trees were a large part of what made Webster Groves a desirable community, leaf-vacuuming was an important service, and that moving to a paid service constituted a hidden new tax on residents.

By January, 1988, the paper reported that residents were still paying for the City’s leaf vacuuming service, but that there were problems with it. Because the service was by appointment, and trucks ran once for a few weeks in November and again for a few weeks in December, piles of leaves might have several weeks to sit by someone’s curb. Rain, snow-melt and refreezing could render those piles nearly solid, and when the trucks arrived, workers needed pitchforks to pry the mess from the ground—actually vacuuming was out of the question. Cases were cited in which nearly an entire day was required to collect the leaves from one residence. Since the flat rate of $15 for the first visit and $10 for the second visit did not begin to cover the cost of the work, all residents were subsidizing the service for the few who used it. It was noted that in 1987, the City had collected $24,075 from residents for leaf-vacuuming service, and spent $89,700.

Sometime after 1988, the City discontinued its leaf vacuuming altogether, but in October 1994, newly-elected mayor Terri Williams reinstated it. She told the Webster-Kirkwood Times that throughout her campaign, she had heard from citizens who were very interested in seeing a leaf-vacuuming service. The City contracted with a third-party vendor, Top Care Lawn Service, who charged residents who wanted the service $40 for the first seven minutes and $5.50 per minute thereafter. The leaves collected were turned into mulch which was made available free of charge to residents at three city parks.

However, an article in the Times from March 24, 1995 reported that disappointingly few residents availed themselves of the service. It had been estimated that as many as 2,000 would use it; only 129 did—less than 1% of families in town. The leaf-vacuuming service did not come close to breaking even. Mayor Williams was optimistic about the eventual success of the program, hoping that more and better publicity would help. It didn’t.

In August, 1995, acting on a recommendation by City Manager Milton Matthews, the Council voted to get out of the leaf-vacuuming business altogether, deferring totally to private companies to provide the service to residents. Leaf-vacuuming, as a municipal service in Webster Groves, is not mentioned again.

Passports & ID Requirements

For several years, Missouri legislators have been fighting with the federal government over the REAL ID act. This was legislation put into place after 9/11 to require enhanced identification to board airplanes. The upshot of the ongoing dispute was that come this January, Missouri residents would not be able to board an airplane using their drivers licenses as ID. This would have led to everyone boarding a plane in Missouri needing a currently valid passport–even for domestic flights.

Finally, last spring, the Missouri legislature relented and passed a law implementing a plan to move towards federally compliant ID’s. How exactly the state is going to go about replacing everyone’s drivers license with a new, more secure license is a big question. But the important thing for now is that the state has been granted a nearly year-long waiver on implementation of the new ID requirement.

In the meantime, Webster Groves Public Library is a passport acceptance agency. We can accept your passport application and send it in for processing. The wait time at present is about 6 weeks, 3 weeks if you pay the additional $60 fee per passport. If you are considering any sort of travel over the next year, it’s a good idea to apply for a passport as soon as possible.

For more information about what one needs to apply, and the fees associated with getting a passport, the best place to check is the Department of State’s Website at travel.state.gov.

 

New County Agreement

The Board of Trustees of Webster Groves Public Library recently approved a new agreement with St. Louis County Library, allowing residents of Webster Groves free access to County Library locations.

The change was spurred by County Library’s decision, taken at its September board meeting, to eliminate the transactional fees associated with reciprocal borrowing agreements, and allowing the provision of free library cards to all patrons of St. Louis Public Library, St. Charles City-County Library, and the nine Municipal Library Consortium member libraries.

In 2014, Webster Groves Public Library withdrew from a previous reciprocal borrowing agreement, citing the associated fees and the high cost of maintaining it. Since that time Webster Groves residents who wanted to use St. Louis County Library locations have been asked to pay a $50 annual non-resident fee. The new agreement will be effective as of January 1, 2018.

New Books, Old Books

There is kind of a prejudice among library users to always look for new books. They enter the library and head straight to the new book shelves. But there is an old saying among librarians: Every book is new until you’ve read it. Among 50,000 books in the library, aren’t there some older ones that you haven’t read and yet might be interested in?

Recently I have been doing some research about music. In pursuit of that I found a book from 2012 that I had not seen when it came out all those years ago. It is called The Story of Music: from Babylon to the Beatles, How Music Has Shaped Civilization, by Howard Goodall. The author is an English musicologist, and though his learning and knowledge are very evident, his prose style is casual, welcoming and informative.

I have never read a book which, in the course of just a few hundred pages, taught me so much about how Western music developed, from the simplest flutes, drums, and stringed instruments to the full symphony orchestra. It deals with how notes, chords, harmony, and finally concerto and symphony form developed. It also helps you understand why people you may not have heard of, such as Guillaume de Machaut, Josquin des Prez, and Arcangelo Corelli may be more important in the development of musical form than Mozart, Beethoven, or Tchaikovsky. And the author takes us right up to modern times, with examples of popular song composition from Adele, the Beatles, Sting, and more. A highly recommended read.

So the next time you’re in the library looking for something to read, remember—the new shelves are only about 1 or 2% of our collection. Every book is new until you’ve read it!