A couple of days ago I finally finished reading Victor Hugo's Les Miserables. With very little hesitation, I placed it at the top of my "50 Best Books" list.
Why? Well, as far as I'm concerned, Les Mis is a literary masterpiece. It has elements of what I consider to be every aspect of good writing. It is informative, intellectual, intelligent, and inspiring, but it is also emotional, entertaining, and endearing.
The book has an excellent mix of dramatic hooks and diligent high-mindedness: the essays that begin each section, covering such topics as the life of the Paris street urchin, the Battle of Waterloo, the history of social revolution in France, or the complexities of the Paris sewers, are thorough and educational, though I can understand how some readers might not like having so much non-fiction sneak its way into their fiction.
Les Mis also conveys a strong social and moral message. The most obvious of its messages is the concept of redemption, as Jean Valjean, an ex-convict, is redeemed by sacrificial charity and becomes a paragon of virtue. But the themes of the book extend a long ways beyond that. Les Mis is, ultimately, a romantic novel. I don't mean that in the sense of romantic love: I mean it in the literary sense, meaning that it is a novel of ideal types, i.e., theoretical extremes. Jean Valjean is the strongest man you've ever met. The bishop who saves him is the most pure-hearted and charitable character you've ever read about. Marius and Cosette's love is the epitome of high-minded romance. Thenardier is a black-hearted, remorseless snake with no redeeming qualities. Everything is an extreme: that is Hugo's style. But that does not mean that everything is cliché; far from it. Hugo uses see extremes to drive home his moral perspectives (he values honour, loyalty, merit, purity, asceticism, and so on) and to highlight his social comments. Painting certain elements of life in bold strokes of black and white allows us to more easily see the colours and the grays that would otherwise blend more dimly into the background, and Hugo's grays are vibrant.
What more can I say? Les Mis is, by turns, heartrending and uplifting, sometimes within the space of a single sentence. The tragedy that Hugo is capable of creating is exquisite--read The Hunchback of Notre Dame for more of that--but the joyous moments that he allows us to share are sweeter because of the depths that we have experienced. This, I feel, imitates life, but, as with the rest of the novel, it is pressed to an extreme.
Not everyone will enjoy or appreciate Les Mis. It's almost 1,300 pages long, which is enough of a deal-breaker for a lot of people. The essays slow the pace of the book, but there may be abridged versions out there if that's a significant problem for you. The vocabulary level, at least in the translation I read, is quite high, which to me supplements the romanticism of the book--poetry and poetic language are the natural home of literary romance--but this can make reading certain sections of the book a bit difficult. I found having a dictionary handy (in the form of my iPhone) to be very useful.
But enough with the disclaimers. Les Miserables is, at this point, the best novel I've ever read.
Next, I'm reading Peter Pan by JM Barrie.
This may not be my most popular blog post ever...
I found District 9 really disappointing. A little bit of my disappointment can be blamed on the glowingly positive opinions I heard about it from friends who saw it in theatre and recommended that I watch it. I was told it was a mix of sci-fi, social commentary, and allegory. The parallels with South African apartheid were supposed to be really strong and, I was told, set District 9 apart from other sci-fi fare or action movies.
So I was ready for a really intriguing, thoughtful movie. And I got that. For about fifteen minutes.
The movie started off strong with an intriguing concept and some insightful character building and social/political commentary, but then it apparently lost confidence in its premise and decided it might make more money as an action flick. The mix of documentary-style footage, newscasts, and commentary really pulled me in. The world-building was going great. I thought I had something special here.
But then there was kind of a quick and indistinct transition from documentary-style, acknowledge-the-camera shooting to normal, there-is-no-camera cinematography. I wasn't sure exactly where the transition took place, or what I was supposed to think about it. There are ways to do those kinds of transitions that don't leave the viewer disoriented... I wasn't particularly impressed with that.
More significant, though, was that from that transition forward, District 9 decided it was bored of being creative in its cinematography, its characters, and its setting, or maybe those things were just too hard for it, and it decided, instead, that it should take its world and its characters and spin them into a generic, violent, average sci-fi action movie.
Ultimately, District 9 felt, to me, like it was a fantasy world dreamed up by an independent soul who, like so many creative teenagers before him, decided it would be cool to set a story in his world, without really worrying about how well the story and the world fit together. Even having forgiven the immaturities in the construction of the world (the clichés, the stereotypes, the tropes, the... cat food, seriously?), the original concept had a lot of good things going for it--I thought Wikus van de Marwe was a really unique and useful character, at first--but District 9 didn't capitalize on its opportunities, and because of that, I found it very disappointing.
I recently finished reading Executive Orders, by Tom Clancy.
This was the longest book I've read in a while, at approximately 1,400 pages. It covered a lot of time and a lot of ground. It took me a while to really get into it, because it started off a bit dry. I can't really say it started slow, because the very beginning of the book (or rather, the very end of the previous book in the series, which flows directly into this one) deals with a massive event, but the first few chapters, which deal with the fallout of that event, didn't really grip me right away. I read a bunch of the book, then put it down for a while, but when I eventually picked it back up and read a bit further in, the politics and the spy drama began to get my attention.
I like that Clancy paints a world of politics and foreign policy that feels believably complex and realistic. Not having been inside the White House during international crises, I can't really speak to the actual authenticity of the way Clancy writes it, but I'm definitely able to suspend my disbelief with Clancy's writing. It doesn't feel like a dramatized, simplified, dumbed-down narrative. He draws together a broad variety of factors and weaves them into an escalating series of events that feel like what happens in real life, where unforeseen circumstances interact in unpredictable ways.
It's obvious, and always has been, that Tom Clancy is a conservative, and he writes his politics, economics, and international affairs accordingly. He provides right-wing solutions to a host of problems, and in his world, they tend to work. I've heard this pointed out as a criticism, and I don't think that's fair. Everyone writes from their own perspective. It's only fair to grant Clancy his own angle on things, whether you agree with his approach or not.
All told, I wouldn't necessarily say this was my favourite Clancy novel, but it's one of the most diverse and ambitious ones I've read so far. Its mix of politics, terrorism, spy drama, and warfare won't be for everyone, especially at over 1,400 pages, but it's a worthwhile read, in my books. (Ha.)
I went back and forth between reading A Tale of Two Cities or Les Miserables next, but I've decided to go with Les Mis. It's long, and some of it, I'm sure, will be a bit of a slog, but it's been on my shelf waiting for me for a long time, and I have to get it done. Hopefully it won't take me more than a few months.
I just finished Without Remorse, by Tom Clancy. It's about one of Clancy's more regular characters, John Clark, and is essentially an origin story.
I enjoyed the book overall, though I wouldn't say it was his strongest. It focussed more on low-level events and characters, rather than overarching plots and events, which was kind of neat, and somewhat similar to Patriot Games.
Some of the stuff that happens in the book doesn't quite make sense, and seem a bit convenient, rather than character-driven. This is especially true in the first couple chapters and the last couple chapters. But it's worth overlooking those things to get at the themes and morality questions that are involved.
One thing that did really strike me about Without Remorse is that it could be adapted into a really great movie, in my opinion. So just now I did a search for it, and lookie here. Could be interesting, if it happens!
I'd recommend reading the book, but you should read the books that were written earlier first, probably.