Les Misérables – Victor Hugo, translated by Julie Rose – George Guidall

My history with Les Mis: I was lucky enough to see the musical on Broadway with Colm Wilkinson in the lead role. Once that’s happened, you can’t settle for less. I did see it again more locally years later, and … kind of wished I hadn’t; I also finally watched the Hugh Jackman film a year or so ago, and while I respected it (and was tickled by Colm’s cameo), there is no comparison. I can’t remember last Tuesday clearly, but I clearly recall being bewitched by a segment in March of 1987 on 20/20 (God bless the person who posted in on YouTube), and co-director John Caird saying: “It was Trevor who said to everybody, ‘Well, that’s the prayer. And I told you … this show is all about God.’ And one of the actors said, ‘Yes, but you didn’t tell us you’d engaged Him to sing it!'” I was very susceptible at that age – had there been internet then I would have had the most passionate fan-blogs the world had ever seen – and I still have a visceral reaction to the music. Pavlov’s dogs salivated when they heard the bell; all the hair on my arms stands up and I become an instant emotional wreck when I hear that overture. I’ll sing paeans to Colm Wilkinson elsewhere, but the fact that Jean Valjean came to mean a lot to me is relevant, I think.

I don’t remember whether it was before or after I saw the show that I read the book. I think it was probably before; I remember reading it on the plane on the way to Newfoundland, and we usually went there in July; I seem to remember that the show was a birthday present, so we went in August. And I’ve always had a tendency to prepare for things; it makes a great deal of sense for me at that age to have decided to read the book prior to seeing the musical.

It’s always been something I wanted to read again, and then one of the Goodreads groups I’m part of chose it for a group read. I found George Guidall’s narration on Audible, and dove in. Since I get to listen at work, sixty and one half hours was a bit more doable than otherwise. It wasn’t the same gut-punch that the musical is, of course, but the depth and breadth and richness of the story is worth every digression, every history lesson, every excess in the writing.

Because Victor Hugo is never happy with one metaphor or example. No, there need to be at least three. And there is no way he’s going to simply introduce Valjean and start the plot rolling. No, first there have to be nearly three audiobook hours about (among other things) the bishop, Monseigneur Bienvenu. I made a note: it was at 2:59 that Jean Valjean’s name is first mentioned. (At just over an hour, the silver candlesticks enter the story.)

So Valjean is paroled, and makes his way into Digne, where that yellow card he is required to carry – along with his general appearance, and the waves of bitterness emanating from him – keeps him from finding so much as a place to lay his head. It was terrible to read – though I did make myself snicker by making the note “Man, Jean Valjean can’t get arrested in this town. Oh, wait.” And then the bishop changes his life. I love that the change is not instantaneous, but lands like a small, tenacious seed, stubbornly takes root, and slowly flourishes.

At five hours and twenty minutes, Fantine arrives on the scene – a happy Fantine, remarkably, though not for long. (It makes it all even worse that the SOB who fathered Cosette knew about the baby when he up and left. It was one of those “Who gets Humperdinck??” moments. No one. No one gets Humperdinck…) (Note to remember in case of Jeopardy: Cosette’s real name is Euphrasie.) And, a bit later, oh mon dieu the hideous Thénardiers … And at 7:30 comes the miserable (heh) righteous bast …er, bastion of the law Javert.

“The Asturian peasants are convinced that in every litter of wolves there is one pup who is killed by the mother because, otherwise, it would grow up to devour all the other pups.
“Give that male wolf puppy a human face, and you’d have Javert.”

It’s all so inevitable and so necessary. Javert requires justice to be meted out to him as he would mete it – has meted it out to others; to his mind, in the beginning, Monsieur le Maire refused him that, and negated anything good he had ever done. Then of course M’sieu le Maire morphed into Jean Valjean – just as Javert believed until he stopped believing – and of course he snapped.

I find it kind of amazing that Hugo was so deeply anti-Catholic. His description of Monseigneur Bienvenue is lovely. I found a quote, in response to his anti-clerical son’s protests against such a saintly priest character: “this Catholic priest, this pure and lofty figure of true priesthood, offers the most savage satire on the priesthood today.” It’s a point, but at this remove it becomes an indictment of today’s clergy, and the saintly priest is simply a saintly priest. Also, there is a really nice discussion of why nuns practice self–abasement and privation; I think it’s not widely understood nowadays. It was funny to be listening to this whole section about Jean Valjean in the convent – with its digressions on humility and really a very good exploration of why nuns do as they do – during Lent in the 21st century… I wonder if much of anyone now knows why they’re supposed to abstain from meat on Fridays, and why there’s a tradition of giving up something for Lent. If anything, all I hear is that they think it’s punishment of some kind – I’ve never heard any awareness of sacrifice, self–denial, penitence, et cetera… Victor Hugo was a better Catholic as someone who hated Catholicism than most Catholics today – or at least he knew what he was hating, where Catholics today barely know what they’re practicing. (Then again, the ignorance level of, for example, the people I work with is staggering, so I shouldn’t question.)

Marius, when he (finally!) comes on the scene, frustrated me deeply. He’s so … much, and yet so little. Example (and this is something I’ve grumbled under my breath about in many a fictional setting): he is deep in poverty, barely if at all able to keep himself fed – and he pays someone to sweep out his room and bring him breakfast. “To be a wage–earner! To lose his dignity!” Ass. And an ass in love is an ass trebled.

Reading Les Mis is like cracking walnuts … wrestle with the nutcracker to get the shell off, pick out the meat – then, finally, enjoy the nut! And then it’s gone, and you start over again. Several minutes’ work to get at a small kernel of enjoyment … lather, rinse, repeat. As I mentioned above, it’s hours in the audiobook before Jean Valjean’s name even comes up, and after a brief interlude in which the plot is advanced, off Hugo goes into a new digression. Then a little time is spent with the characters, and off again. It is worth it, in retrospect, but while reading (or listening) it’s an exercise in frustration that makes Marius look positively amiable in contrast.
It is a cracking story… and much more, because of the background and setting. One could read an abridgement, excising all the detours and excursions … but it would mean losing color and clarity.

This stern cloister was not so well walled off, however, but that the life of the passions of the outside world, drama, and even romance, did not make their way in. To prove this, we will confine ourselves to recording here and to briefly mentioning a real and incontestable fact, which, however, bears no reference in itself to, and is not connected by any thread whatever with the story which we are relating. We mention the fact for the sake of completing the physiognomy of the convent in the reader’s mind.

It’s such a beautifully constructed story – and part of that construction is what makes the author’s digressions integral to the story. A man almost incidentally saves an officer at Waterloo. The officer’s son, believing the rescue to be what it should have been, is confronted with the man many years later and forced to make a terrible choice. When there are no more kings, there will be no more war … The 20th century will be wonderful, peaceful, idyllic… It was as though the young men at the barricade expected to be remembered forever, to make the difference between then and the future – but … But.

It’s hilarious when Hugo grows coy, averting his – and the reader’s – eyes from displays of affection. “Cosette and Marius saw each other again. How this meeting went, we will refrain from saying. There are things we should not try to depict – among others, the sun.” Avert your eyes, reader.

I took another look at my review of The Count of Monte Cristo, and it’s so interesting to compare Dantès to Valjean… The former is companioned through dark days (literally) by Abbé Faria, who tries very hard across a span of many years to teach the young man to put aside vengeance and hatred and get on with living his life as a better man, but the lessons don’t take. Dantès can’t do it – despite everything his life becomes solely about vengeance, and all the good the Abbé tried to instill seems to wash away.

And then there’s Jean Valjean. In the course of – what, two days? – the Bishop gets a crowbar into the shell that has grown up around his mind and heart and cracks it open, and lets light in. And love.

Something I wondered about was – well, here: “If a solitary person had aided him in any way, perhaps his determination on vengeance would not have been so hard and unyielding.”

Then again, it doesn’t hurt that where Dantès discovers his True Love has been untrue, Valjean is given a young child to care for. To live for.

It’s a shame there wasn’t the time and space to do more with Gavroche in the musical. He’s amazing. He deserves a musical all to himself, does that lad. “Nothing is small, actually”, says the narrator, and indeed, petit Gavroche is lion-hearted, a force to be reckoned with. And it must have been almost physically painful for the original librettists to excise the Elephant. That would be spectacular onstage. And Gavroche is a hero throughout.

The wrap-up is as gradual as the beginning was, and eminently satisfying as every single character (except Gavroche, I think) gets the most perfectly appropriate ending. Javert, a staunch right–winger suddenly discovering his inner bleeding heart liberal, reacts in the only way such a devastating revelation allows. I was completely shocked by where Thenardier went after the events of the book – and then had to say, “Of course he did.”

I’m honestly not sure I would have read this again in the near future without the audiobook option. And George Guidall – with whom I now feel I’m on a first-name basis, after over sixty hours – did a tremendous job. I highly recommend him for a long book; it was a pleasure to spend that much time with him in my ear. One small hitch in listening to the book, though – L’Aigle sounds like Legolas. Just saying.

The translation, by Julie Rose, had a huge impact on the book’s readability (listen-to-ability). It’s very colloquial – in spots almost jarringly colloquial, using current slang and contractions all throughout. For example, “geezer” is used liberally, and feels completely wrong for 1815-1832. Now and then a turn of phrase would pique my interest, and for at least one I checked another source for another translation because I couldn’t quite believe it.

Google Books – “It’s beastly cold in this devil’s garret!”
Julie Rose “It’s as cold as a nun’s nasty in this dump of a place!”

I’d love to know the original French line.

In the end … I want to be more Gavroche, less Jean Valjean. And not at all Javert.

*** *** ***
A quote that should be heeded by ALL writers:
“We have indicated Toussaint’s stutter once and for all – please, permit us not to dwell on it any further. We draw the line at musical notation of a disability.”

A quote I plan to use next time it applies:
“Gavroche: ‘It’s raining again! God almighty, if this continues I’m canceling my subscription!'”

Other necessary quotes:
“Books are remote but reliable friends.”

“Joy is the backward surge of terror.”

“To err is human, to stroll – Parisian.”

“He looked like a caryatid on holiday.”

They have a look in their eyes, and this look is trained on the absolute. The very uppermost among them has the whole sky in his eyes; the lowest, no matter how enigmatic he may be, still has the pale glow of infinity in his sights. So no matter what he does, venerate whoever bears the sign of starry eyes.
Dead eyes – that is the opposite sign.
Evil starts with dead eyes. Faced with someone whose eyes see nothing, think carefully and be afraid. The social order has its starless miners.
There is a point where digging any deeper means being entombed, and where the light is completely extinguished.

Magnificent egoists of the infinite, unruffled onlookers of pain, who don’t see Nero if the weather’s nice

There are people who observe rules of honour the way you and I observe the stars – from afar.

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Inauguration Day

In 2004, I wasn’t very interested in politics. I’m still not, I should add, but then? Much less so. But I watched the speeches and other events out of duty. It only makes sense to be informed – to, dare I say, pay attention.

So there I was the day the Democratic National Convention was aired on tv, July 27, probably bored solid and puttering at other things while people talked and talked and … then. And then. A young black man took the podium. It took me months for his name to fix itself in my memory for some reason. It was the keynote speech for the convention, and it blew me away. (Wikipedia says that the speech was not carried by commercial broadcast networks – I must have had PBS on?) There has been such a dearth of eloquence in American politics for so, so long that this speech had me utterly enthralled. “Magnificent” is not a word that can be used very often about … anything in these sad and pitiful days. That was a magnificent speech.

Again, from Wikipedia: “Following the speech political commentator Chris Matthews rightly predicted ‘I just saw the first black president'”. Me too. I would have voted for him then and there – or at least that November.

And when he did run four years later, I was elated. There has never been a candidate who made me diverge from the “not voting for A, but against B”, until Barack Obama. I was for him. His is still the only campaign I have ever contributed to. (My bumper sticker mysteriously disappeared while I was working for that rabidly Republican boss I’ve mentioned before; it could have been natural causes, but I still think it was murdered.)

Election night was beautiful. Inauguration Day was beautiful. (Both times.)

I forget which campaign used the question “Are you better off now than you were four years ago” as a catchphrase. The answer to that in that case was meant to be “no, so elect me”, of course. So – am I? Maybe. In some ways. The ways in which I am not have nothing to do with the politics of the nation. The country is better. Look at the numbers – gas prices, while edging up, are still three-fifths of what they were eight years ago. Unemployment rose – but then plummeted. Despite the evisceration by Republicans, the Affordable Care Act is valuable. We are (relatively) at peace; we have regained respect throughout the world; there has not been even a whiff of scandal relating to Barack Obama, his wife, his children, his vice president… No one vomited on any foreign dignitaries, or shot any elderly lawyers, or was known to be sleeping with anyone they oughtn’t to. The biggest controversy I remember was over whether the dog the family adopted was really nonallergenic. (Spoiler alert: it’s not.) Barack Obama’s effectiveness was blocked at every step by the Republican majority – maybe that’s the scandal that I should point to – but he has done everything possible, and maybe a bit more.

After – what, sixteen years of being embarrassed by my president, I have had eight years in which I could be proud. He’s young and attractive. He’s funny. He’s smart – no, he’s flaming brilliant. He’s classy – he and his family exude effortless class. We have had the chance to rebuild relationships with the world, with a leader other countries respect and like. Perfect? No. But good. Really good.

All of that is about to disappear with a flushing noise. Obama’s speeches make me cry because he moves me, and makes me proud. The new president’s speeches make me cry for … other reasons.

I want to fling myself at the legs of Obama – any Obama – and cling to them – don’t leave us… This week every ounce of class is leaving the White House.

God, I’m going to miss them. Miss him.

I am  at work right now (this post is scheduled). I’m wearing all black. I’d be wearing an armband if I thought anyone would have a clue what it meant. I am not crying. I’m not. I probably have earphones firmly stuck deep in my ears and am probably listening to … I don’t know, I’ll find something comforting. I’ll probably stay late. After, I will go and see my mom. Then I will spring for something fattening and delicious and comforting for dinner. I will go home and not put the tv on. Not even for Jeopardy. If I get online I will open only one tab, for Hulu or Amazon or something, and watch … something comforting. Star Trek. Doctor Who. Oh! The Princess Bride. I will try to do something creative – draw or write or something. I am going nowhere near Twitter or Facebook; the moratorium on them and tv will be for the whole weekend, at least; I’ve successfully managed to avoid the news for the most part since November 8, and intend to continue that, except for local weather.

I’ve been listening to the wonderful, loopy, supportive Says Who? podcast, and they asked people to call in to say what they’ll be doing instead of watching the … proceedings, and there were a lot of people talking about heading for the marches and protests today and tomorrow. And I started to wonder about past inaugurations, so I did a search. Representative quote: “When Obama took office, the few protests surrounding his swearing-in were directed mainly at outgoing President George W. Bush.” I’m looking forward to learning how significant this week’s protests are.

OK. Time to pull up my socks and … face the new reality. I need to do something good with this year; I’m looking at art classes, but I need to find a way to be useful. And, like Maureen of “Says Who?”, maybe look at some survival manuals. Get that passport.

We have survived bad and embarrassing presidents before. We have. And we can do it again.

Yes we can.

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The Native Star – M.K. Hobson – Suehyla El-Attar

In a lot of cases, it’s incredibly helpful to be able to listen to a sample of a book on Audible before buying. It often makes all the difference in whether or not I’ll commit to a book. Unfortunately in this case the sample was completely misleading. It was terrific – it was creepy and fascinating, and brought in the Civil War and my goodness what are these terrible men up to? So I bought it, and, still looking for a good fantasy set in the period, listened to it. The problem was that the sample was part of a prologue; the book proper skipped from South Carolina to California, from the mysterious happenings in a haunted barn to an unpleasant young woman casting a love spell. And it is with this young woman, Emily Edwards, that the story stays until the epilogue.

She is not a likeable character. It is excused as extreme pragmatism, the tendency to set aside everything else in favor of what is necessary. For example, though she does not want to do it, and in fact dreads the consequences, she determines to place a love charm on a young man of decent fortune in order to keep herself and her adopted father from the depths of starvation they have recently endured. She’s snappish, stroppy, and closed-minded. She’s racist, too.

Harassing her and her Pap is Dreadnought Stanton, a wizard who keeps trying to instruct them in how things ought to be. Now, it’s a common enough trope that the hero and heroine bicker until they inevitably become lovers (and usually after). Sexual tension is shown through sparring, when an author can come up with no better way to do it. However, this guy is introduced so negatively, with so much apparent malice, that it’s very, very difficult to stomach it when these two do, inevitably, become a couple. And, of course, bad as he is, she’s even less pleasant. It’s not believable.

The onomatopoeia was excessive. Every action in the book makes a sound, and every sound is conveyed.

There were holes in the story that were immediately obvious. How does a hick farmer in the nineteenth century Midwest know that glucose is sugar? How is Miss Magic-Negator Emily supposed to ride in a magic-driven biomechanical device? And if it’s not magic-driven, what does keep it together? The bad guy – with an incredibly awful accent – gives Our Heroes something to drink before they realize who he is, and then he brags about how he slipped in a compulsion potion. Everyone ends up with at least a mouthful, and it has obvious and bad effects on Stanton – and it seems to take forever for anyone to worry about what that sip might have done to Emily.

It didn’t take long for me to recognize a sort of a pattern in the book: O no terrible danger what will they ever do … oh. Never mind. Not so much. O no Stanton’s been injured again he’s bleeding … oh. Never mind. Not so much. He’s fine. O no … etc. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Unfortunately, a weak narrator did not help a weak book. Pronunciations were all over the place, and drove me crazy – everything from mispronunciation of common enough words like “vestibule” and “impudence” to a mangling of “trompe l’oiel” that made me, a former art student who took an entire course painting one trompe, grit my teeth. “Black Maria” is pronounced as though it had something to do with Natalie Wood’s character in West Side Story. Some of the trouble is the usual misplacement of emphasis in sentences; it’s as though narrators can’t hear what they’re saying, and “narration” overrides natural speaking patterns. And what a shockingly bad Italian accent for “Grimaldi”. And an even worse Russian one.

One very brief bright moment in the narrative was a line which – unfortunately unintentionally – made me smile, because of its absurdity: “Get yer goldurn hands offa my cockatrice.” Second place in unintentionally hysterical lines goes to: “Miss Edwards – will you bring out the nut?”

But about three quarters in I swore that if I had had to hear “carissima mia” one more time I would scream. And very shortly after I made a note:


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History of Rock and Roll in Ten Songs – Greil Marcus – Henry Rollins

Ringo Starr isn’t in the R&R Hall of Fame as an individual? Who do I write to about that?

The reason I bought this book is the narrator, Henry Rollins. I’m not a fan of punk music, so I didn’t know him from the band Black Flag (and – sorry, darlin’ – still not a fan). My introduction to him was the History Channel’s series “Ten Things You Don’t Know About…”. I started watching it because I took it as a challenge (I don’t know these things? Yeah? Try me.)(They were often right.) I kept watching the show because he is awesome. There is nothing more attractive – in every sense of the word – than honest enthusiasm, and Henry has that by the truckload: he is genuinely, passionately, intelligently enthralled by US history. And it’s marvelous. Watch the episode on presidential assassinations: his eyes are on fire, and his voice rises – he is honestly angry. I love it. I’ve become very fond indeed of Henry Rollins, a little to my surprise, and whither he goest and all that. (Except for his music. Sorry.)

If you can get past the introduction of this book, you should breeze through the rest. In that intro there is a six page sentence, and a lengthy roll call. It grows a bit tedious.

It’s a bit odd; I followed along with the book on YouTube, looking for all the performances cited. (And they made me go watch Kelly Clarkson singing at the second Obama inauguration. Damn, girl.) And some of the conjunctions between the descriptions and the realities (or at least the videos of the realities) didn’t always quite jibe, or in some cases a disconnect between his thinking and mine. A band that reunites for PBS is described as “all bald” – but one wears a hat throughout all the video I saw. Well, maybe he takes it off in later footage. Then the description of Beyonce at Obama’s inauguration doesn’t match footage (and boy does the author not like Beyonce). In “Money (that’s what I want)”, I definitely don’t hear what the author hears. Maybe music interpretation and review is just not my forte. I know I would never have chosen to describe a song as “…A crawling version of Viva Las Vegas by Shawn Colvin singing as a hooker just after being pushed down the stairs from an escort service to the street.”

But I learned a lot. The relationship between Bing Crosby and Robert Johnson was unexpected and kind of awesome. I watched videos and listened to songs I might not otherwise have sampled – the Flamin Groovies? Not my cuppa. And again I didn’t always see what the author was talking about as he spoke about what he pulled from the videos.

One thing I absolutely did see eye to eye with him about: “Why is happiness considered shallow and worthless? Why does it have to be all about pain and loss?” I have always wondered that. All forms of art seems to abide by that philosophy: without conflict and pain there is nothing worth talking about. But every now and then isn’t it nice to just celebrate?

It’s a little late, but I’m still going to post this, a song which made Irving Berlin smile. (Be advised that the sentiments expressed within the video are not representative of those of the reviewer posting it, who would be delighted to never see another storm outside a snowglobe for the rest of her life.)

But – seriously? No Ringo? I’m appalled.

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The Book of Beloved – Carolyn Haines

This is probably going to be one of those negative reviews on which people feel some compulsion to leave chastising comments for being too critical. Two words: Don’t. Bother. It looks like quite a few other people loved this book.

I did not.

I made it about halfway, and finally decided to give it up as a lost cause. And this surprised me, because ages back I read at least a couple of the author’s cozy mysteries and enjoyed them greatly. Either I was less cranky then, or the period setting here hurt the author’s style.

Dialogue was stilted – I can’t actually imagine someone, even in more florid 1920, saying “Ten thousand soldiers, mostly Confederates, died in that ill-conceived battle.” The author just doesn’t seem to trust her reader, hammering home her points – “The hair on my neck tingled, as if a chill wind had blown against me, but there was no wind.” “Casualties were so high the dead were held upright by the press of bodies. There wasn’t room for the dead and wounded to fall down.” Redundancy is the rule.

And it was thoroughly annoying that every time Raissa wanted to get information from her acquaintance at the soda shop (which she returns to over and over for Coca Cola like an addict – was there still cocaine in Coke in 1920?), she had to spend a page wheedling her into talking. Better, it seemed like every time she got the girl to the point where she’d tell whatever it was she was meant to tell, they’d be interrupted, and then the whole process would start all over again a couple of chapters later.

There are many examples of apparent non sequiturs: a marble statue is “lifelike and alive”; a mockingbird’s song reminds main character Raissa of Hansel and Gretel (why?); questions batter at her forehead “like the wings of a moth against a streetlight”; someone is butchered and killed, in that order. Someone was seen to fall through a window, “seemingly without provocation”, which wouldn’t have been my choice of words. One or two or even a few incidences wouldn’t have been impossible to overcome, especially if there had been no other problem, but the constant stream was tiresome.

There’s more, actually; the time period felt like a very uncomfortable fit – like someone trying to wear clothes tailored for another person. Exclamations like “bee’s knees” and – heaven help me – “hotsy totsy” pop up here and there, and they stand out like polka dots. They don’t blend. I’ve said it a million times: when I trust a writer they can get away with murder. When a writer loses my trust I’m going to give the stinkeye to anything remotely questionable. And here, in this period setting, I looked askance at things like “hacks me off” and referring to a man as “gay”. I’m not going to take the time to look them up – I’ve had to do it before for the latter, and I’m fairly certain that “gay” was not commonly used as a synonym for “homosexual” until decades after this book takes place. I could be wrong. But it doesn’t feel right.

And it’s the context of those last things I’m complaining about, too. Both come from Raissa’s mouth, and the way she is drawn seems counter to slang like “[that] hacks me off” and casually calling someone gay. Would she, a “gently” brought up young lady, growing up in comfortable means in a time period in which women were sheltered and protected from anything her menfolk might think was ugly or inappropriate, even know about homosexuality in 1920, much less identify a gay man based on nothing more than his style, much less have no hesitation talking about him in 20th century slang with a man she barely knows? No – it was all off.

(I’m assuming that simple errors – like the excerpt from a letter dated in December and then immediately mentioning that it’s November, and the fact that that’s not how a caul … works – will be picked up at some point. I hope.)

So the writing was less than enjoyable; that was one major drawback. Bigger, though, was the fact that I began to develop an active dislike for Raissa. She comes off as much younger, less mature than she describes herself. The voice in which she speaks is much more that of a teenager than of a woman in her twenties who has been married, lost her husband in the Great War, and has been earning her living as a teacher for some time. She describes herself as an aspiring writer, and talks about it a great deal, but little of her process is shown to the reader, and somehow it just doesn’t feel credible. She’s …

She’s kind of a twit.

Her goal in life is to write Poe-esque tales of horror and the macabre, and so – for the experience – she goes off to a séance. The medium’s assistant greets her with some basic information about herself (she and her companions have come on a journey because of an interest in spirit communications!), and she responds with a childishly eager – “thrilled” – “Are you psychic? Did a spirit tell you?” Uh, no. You’re at a séance, so the interest can kinda be assumed, and the tickets were booked in advance by someone from another state. She’s so moronically credulous in this entire scene that I wanted to slap her – and it puts a dent in her credibility elsewhere in her claims of seeing the handsome ghost that traipses about her uncle’s grounds. (Of course the ghost is handsome. And the one the uncle sees is a beautiful woman. Naturally.)

Some of it might have come off better if the book had been in the third person. As it is, though, with Raissa telling the story, it just made me a little embarrassed for her that she so obviously showed herself the best possible gull a medium ever had. She’s going to buy anything any con artist tries to sell her, and pay top dollar. Also, it just seemed highly improbable that what was incredibly, blatantly, ridiculously obvious to me – to wit, that she immediately attracted not one but two suitors in the first pages of the book – was a complete surprise to her. She is just astonished that her uncle’s lawyer, Carlton, is drooling over her – but when she realizes it she almost immediately decides that he’s a bit of all right himself.

And then there’s the other man who has eyes for her, Robert, for whom she gives every sign of falling head over heels. Then he, shall we say, passes out of the story, and she finds out some unsavory things about him, and has no problem changing her mind and forgetting she cared in less time than it takes to write it.

I think what played the biggest part in my decision to drop the book was a basic difference in opinion between Raissa and me regarding fake mediums. “What he did—giving information on departed loved ones—brought comfort to those he ‘read’ for. While it might be slightly unethical, it was not cruel or mean.” I could not disagree more. I work with people who have suffered terrible losses, and who have spent absurd amounts of money going to a psychic who landed them like gaffed salmon. If someone can easily spare the money, and the process gives her comfort, then I wouldn’t want to be the one to pull open the curtain to reveal the real Wizard of Oz – but in my opinion taking advantage of people in this manner is reprehensible. Part of what outrages me is that it’s all designed to bring someone back to see the medium over and over, and that not everyone can spare the money easily – some people just need some kind of reassurance so badly they’ll do things they can’t really afford to find it. And the odds are pretty strong that it’s all a tissue of lies. I find that offensive. False hope is an ugly thing – and false comfort is just as unpretty. Basically, there’s a very special place in hell for someone who fleeces grieving people out of their money. Toasty.

*hops off soapbox*

So …all in all… DNF. The only reason I would have finished the book was to see if that title – and that really odd series title (Pluto’s Snitch?) is ever explained. But I can live without the answer.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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2016 in books, and stuff

And suddenly the first month of 2017 is half over, and I never did this. So here we go.

In 2016, I had a goal on Goodreads of reading 160 books; I hit 159.

According to my estimates (which all depend on which edition you take as reference for Kindle or audio versions), I read 51,049 pages (or the equivalent). The shortest book was an audiobook I received from the author: Dee, a City Sidhe Story, written and read by Gwendolyn Druyor, which was 34 pages (yes, I counted it); the longest was Les Mis, also audio, clocking in at 1,463 pages (which was why I felt ok counting Dee). Even with a few shorties in there, my average page count was 321.

Of the 159, a whopping 79 were audiobooks of one sort of another. Wow. That’s kind of amazing; as long as Goodreads has had the challenge I’ve set my goals at about 150-175, and it’s only in the past couple-three years I’ve segued over to listening as much as, you know, reading. It’s nice to be able to mess about on the computer and listen – multi-tasking ftw. I’ve been listening to books on CD in my car; at about an hour a day round trip since the office moved in April, and sometimes bringing one indoors when I can’t wait to hear more, I can get through a book in a couple of weeks, usually: it looks like only ten books. I’ve been complaining for a long time about the noise level at work – people just can’t shut up, and one insists on not only having the radio in the middle of the office blaring but also listening to the radio on her computer (a different station) (she occasionally sings along), and the only solution I was ever given was to wear earphones. I was supposed to be provided with noise-canceling headphones, but that never quite happened, so I stick my earbuds in and alternate between podcasts and books from my Audible library and other neat things: that’s 45 books which were, on the whole, listened to at work. I really shouldn’t complain about my job, I guess… I’ve never been able to “read” at work before. Let’s see, what else: six were Librivox books – oh, and I discovered a new amazing narrator in Helen Taylor. One book was a six-hour adaptation of The Nine Tailors on the BBC Radio website. Four of the digital listens and three of the above-counted CD’s were provided by the publishers, authors, or narrators through LibraryThing, Audiobookboom, or directly.

(The remaining audiobooks were, shall we say, obtained in a way frowned upon by the publishers. Of which I will say no more.)

The audiobooks ranged from about an hour and a half for a Jodi Taylor short story and Dee (see above, re: counting them) to over sixty hours for Les Miserables. They ranged from amazing non-fiction – Destiny of the Republic, Alexander Hamilton – to old friends – Tolkien and Dorothy L. Sayers and E. Nesbit and Christopher Morley and L.M. Montgomery – to more wonderful adventures with the team from St. Mary’s; I’ve never technically read a book by Jodi Taylor (though that’s about to change), because I refuse to miss out on Zara Ramm’s narration.

Weirdly, I read fewer than a dozen books off my own bat, so to speak – books I just wanted to read, just because. One was the book that came before a Netgalley book – Stag Lord, which came before Unholy Blue. So good.

Nine books were either received directly from the publisher (other than from Netgalley) or won from LibraryThing giveaways, and of those were the only two actual dead tree books I read all year – how bizarre is that? It’s just so much easier to use the Kindle. For one thing, I don’t have an overhead light in my bedroom, but since I have the backlit Kindle I don’t need it. (Two years after moving into my apartment, most of my books are still in a storage unit. I never would have believed it.)

I thought the string of Netgalley books would be as long as my list of audiobooks, but there were 65. Some were good; some were meh; some were awful; some were spectacular – like The Sand Prince by Kim Alexander.

Of my 159, I read (for which read “or listened to”) 28 books I class as straight (vanilla) fiction; 39 mysteries; 26 non-fiction; and 66 f&sf books. 23 were rereads, which … actually, I thought that would be lower. I used to reread all the time, and this year mostly went for good old friends in audio format. In a way, they were mostly new reads, because except for I think three I’d never listened to audiobook versions before. For fun, I tried to read the alphabet, at least one book starting with each letter; I think I only missed “X”.

I like that Goodreads tells me my “most” and “least popular” books of 2016 – To Kill a Mockingbird was the most popular, with almost three and a half million other people listing it as read, and least popular was A Death at the University, which deserves to be.

I rated 4 books at one star; 18 got two; 27 got three; 57 got four; and 53 got the very happy five – my average rating was 3.9. Not bad. The year as a whole was truly terrible – but the year in books was not half bad. Here’s to a better 2017 in every way.

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Happy birthday, Professor Tolkien

While I’m happy that Goodreads sent me an email this morning, as part of their daily quote thingy, to remind me that it’s Tolkien’s birthday today (b. January 3, 1892) … I am not happy that the quote they chose for the email was part of the smarmy speech from Peter Jackson’s … misguided version of The Two Towers. I went alone to the theatre to see the very first showing, because the first film had some wonderful moments and I was optimistic. And then things went wonky. Suddenly Frodo and Sam and Faramir were in Osgiliath (?!), and I was sitting there muttering “But…”, and then Sam gave … that speech. Now, I know a lot of people love it. As I sat there I heard people sniffling with emotion all around me. Me? I was livid. I was seething. I wanted to get my hands on Peter Jackson and leave him whimpering – because that speech was such a corruption of Tolkien’s words, in a scene that was a complete mess, in a departure from the book’s storyline that was offensive … Anyway. Ill done, Goodreads. Google is your friend. Use it, next time.

I have loved Tolkien since I was twelve. He has had a tremendous impact on the way I think, and the way I write (my faults are not to be ascribed to him in any way), and the way I read. And for several years I belonged to a Tolkien message board about which I will only say … it sparked my creativity. And I wrote a lot of what we called parody, which others call filk.

Like this.

(I don’t know if this is a better way to celebrate The Professor’s birthday than a Peter Jackson quote, but at least it’s heartfelt.)

He Didn’t Mean To Adventure
– The story of The Hobbit, singable to the tune of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire”

Bilbo is respectable in Bag End Under Hill
Till “Gandalf tea Wednesday”and a rune scratched on his door.
Fili Kili Ori Óin, Dori Nori Bombur Glóin
Bifur, Dwalin, Bofur, Balin – are there any more?!
Yes: Thorin especially; Gandalf makes fourteen
An Unexpected Party, and a burglar with no choice.
Green Dragon, Bywater, Trolls consider slaughter:
Bert, Tom, and William – Gandalf throws his voice.

I didn’t mean to adventure
Minding my own business,
Then all things went amiss
I didn’t mean to adventure
Taken from my doorstep
Now with Gandalf I schlep

Heading on to Rivendell, Elrond’s House where elves yet dwell
Moon runes, Elf tunes, but it’s not long before:
Thunderstorms, giants swarm, misery is uniform
Captured by the Goblins, but Gandalf comes through once more
Goblin King, a missing Ring(!), Bilbo makes good use of Sting
A game of Riddles in the Dark, Gollum’s bite’s worse than his bark
Balin is sharp-sighted, the party’s reunited,
Bilbo appears, Dwarves cheer, Gandalf is delighted.

I didn’t mean to adventure
Wish that singing was my kettle
Not Elves in fine fettle
I didn’t mean to adventure
Almost served like mutton
Then lost all my buttons

From the frying pan of Goblin fray to Wargs and wolves, ya harri hey
An eye-opener and no mistake, racket keeps Eagles awake
A night spent in an eyrie, Beorn’s house is more cheery
Ponies serve up honey-cake, with dogs and rams – no chops or steak
Beorn gives good advice (maybe should’ve told ‘em twice)
Black squirrels and butterflies, cobwebs and insect eyes
White hart frustrates, Bombur is a dead weight
Vanishing feast agonize, all lose their heads (no real surprise)

I didn’t mean to adventure
I don’t think I’m an asset –
Are we nearly there yet?
I didn’t mean to adventure
The Road goes ever on
That’s why I’m woebegone

Bilbo’s nearly caught in webs : courage peaks as daylight ebbs
Attercop, Attercop, monster spiders nearly get the drop
Thorin caught by Woodelves, the rest made prisoners themselves –
Butler and guard drink till they drop; barrels float, Bilbo atop
Bilbo starts to cough and sneeze; Fili says No apples, please!
Desolation of the Dragon, now it’s all up to Burglar Baggins!

I didn’t mean to adventure
Hope I come in useful
Not look too much a fool
I didn’t mean to adventure
Once I blew smokerings
Now I’ve got this joke Ring”

Bilbo ‘thags you very buch’ old black snail-cracking thrush
Smaug rises in fire, off to Laketown venting ire
But now the dragon’s Not At Home, I’ll just take that Arkenstone
Goblets they found there for themselves, and harps of gold where once they delved
Mithril vest, did Smaug go west? Lake Town is put to the test
Grim-voiced Bard, black arrow last, a little bird speaks as Smaug flies past
Smaug goes down in clouds of steam – Bard should be king, the Dale folk deem
Dalemen and Elf array marching northward straightaway

I didn’t mean to adventure
I miss my good old arm-chair
Once back I won’t leave there
I didn’t mean to adventure
Don’t care how much gold’s strewn
Can I be going home soon?

Old Roäc, son of Carc, reports Bard’s arrow hit its mark –
That’s the good news; bad remains – Thorin sends him off to Dain
Dueling ballads, Elves and Dwarves – Thorin’ll sit on gold and starve
The Clouds Burst, Bilbo’s cursed, after Dain comes the worst –
Goblins led by Azog’s son – wolves and Wargs behind them run
Disagreements disappear – so does Bilbo, thinking clear
Goblins offer no reprieve, then Thorin turns the tide at eve
And Bilbo sees a welcome sight – Eagles are coming! To join the fight

I didn’t mean to adventure
I’ve a helm and hard skull
Of adventure chock-full
I didn’t mean to adventure
Didn’t expect warfare
Eagles, Dwarves, Wargs, Elves, bear

Bilbo comes to once more – Thorin’s passing grieves him sore
And Fili and Kili, body and shield, defending Thorin died before
Under the Mountain Dain’s now King, Even dragons have their ending
Chest of silver, chest of gold, Yule-tide with Gandalf in Beorn’s hold
Bilbo’s Took blood grows more tired the closer he comes to the Shire
Rivendell – the first of May, and Elves’ lullabyes at break of day
Auction ended, SB’s offended, reputation gone and won’t be mended
Thus ends the tale, how beyond all ken, Bilbo journeyed There and Back Again.

They didn’t start the story
There’s this certain round thing
Which became a “found”thing
They didn’t start the story
Isildur took the Ring and
Part of Sauron’s right hand

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Dragon Bones – Patricia Briggs – Joe Manganiello

Patricia Briggs is an old favorite of mine – I’ve loved her from page one of the first book I ever read by her. Which might well have been this one – not my favorites among her work, the Hurog Duology, but (as I always say) that’s like saying “not my favorite chocolate”. In hunting out books on CD to listen to in the car, I came across Dragon Bones on MP3 CD for a surprisingly low price ($5! I think it was on sale), and while I didn’t love the sample I went with it.

Note to self: don’t do that. It’s not worth it. It doesn’t really matter how cheap something is if you’re going to spend several commutes sighing over it (in a not-good way) – or yelling at it.

The book is excellent. I remember the last time I re-read it, a couple or three years ago, and I remember finishing it with happy sighs. I love the characters, and I love the setting and worldbuilding, I love Patricia Briggs’s style, I love this book.

The narrator …

The narrator is an actor. His voice wasn’t too familiar, so I did the Google Image thing, and went “oh, right”, and then shuddered over that picture of him with the cornrows. (Damn, I used up my brain bleach after my coworker got back from a weekend with her ex.) And for parts of the book he’s just fine. He is not, in the main, unpleasant to listen to. I found it a little annoying that the voice of the main character, Wardwick, is deeper than the first person narration, but Ward spends most of his time trying to sound dumb, so it’s kind of an assumed voice. Fortunately for the sake of the audiobook Ward’s sister is mute, so I didn’t have to worry about how that characterization would come out.

One problem is that Mr. Manganiello has a bad case of Misplaced Emphasis Disorder. Stressing one word over another, obviously, indicates how the sentence should be interpreted by the listener. When the stress is on the obviously wrong word, it changes the meaning of the sentence and acts as a huge distraction from the story. “So he thought” is completely different from “‘So,’ he thought”, and they’re both completely different from “so he thought”. I would expect an experienced actor to have a better sense for that – or for there to be a director on hand somewhere saying “hold on, try that again”. And then there’s an irritating sharp “S” now and then. I’m just grateful I wasn’t listening to it with earphones.

I would also expect a sentence like “they’d improved a bed before the fireplace” to be fixed. How did no one catch that and get it fixed to “improvised”?

But in the end the book prevails over the reader. Ward is a wonderful, wonderful character, surrounded by wonderful characters. I always say about Barbara Hambly that you could take any secondary character, or even any background character, and there is enough to them that you (she) could turn around and write a book centered on that character. Patricia Briggs comes very close to that as well. Ward’s sister is terrific. His allies in the household are well-rounded – and are presented believably as people who have learned not to provoke their ruler, who have known Ward as damaged and slow for years and have to adjust to his real self. The evil – Ward’s father, the king, the one that betrays Ward – is a bit “evil-for-evil’s-sake”, but they’re frightening and effective. But Oreg is a rich character who could support any number of books on his own.

The setting is wonderfully realized, as well. And I enjoy the fact that Ward and his folk are the barbarians of their world; they aren’t necessarily expected to eat with utensils and speak in complete sentences. And I think it’s pretty marvelous that Ward takes advantage of that, and of his own appearance, to make his way in the world as needed. He’s … just a great character.

So, no, while this and its sequel aren’t my favorite books by Patricia Briggs, I love them.

The audiobooks? Not so much.

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After Glow – Jayne Castle – Joyce Bean

After I listened to the audiobook of the first book in this series, I looked at the icon for the second book on my computer and figured it was as good as anything to listen to while doing other things. So I queued it up. I do silly things like that now and then.

And there they all were, the issues that annoyed me in the first book: repetition galore, long moments and lost weekends even moreso, one fluffy creature standing in for the entire native fauna of a planet, and rezzing. So much rezzing. And rezzes. Hey, look, I can do a search through Google Books: there are rez-shrinks and mag-rez locks and para-rez and rez-jazz and rez-screens and instincts going into high rez and oh lord what does that even mean? Oh, and rez-tea, for heaven’s sake. It’s as though instead of actual world-building the author decided to just add “rez-” to everything. Dinner rezzes on the stove. Characters rez a lock or the ignition of the stand-in for a car or the stand-in for a tv. (The latter two things are absolutely indistinguishable from plain old televisions or cars. Again, what’s the point?) All the rezzing irritated me more in this outing. Obviously.

The word “munch” is wildly overused, too. Somebody needs to use a word cloud or something.

The writing in general annoyed me more in this one. Dialogue is simultaneously stilted – how many people really say things like “I clutched it”? – and too current; this book takes place in the very, very distant future, since it’s over a thousand years after the curtain closed between here and there, and the curtain opened somewhere around now. And yet someone names an off-limits place “Area 51″… and as I mentioned in my review of the last one otherwise the whole thing could easily take place in 2016 Milwaukee with just a few simple changes.

Characters have a habit of asking questions that were answered about a minute ago – “They found [so-and-so’s] body…” “Dead?” Yes, that is usually what that means. And Captain Obvious is an unbilled star … as, for example, when the explorers come across thousand-year-old skeletons. Lydia: “I remember them. They were here last time.” WERE THEY?? So – you were there within the last thousand years, then? Got it.

There’s no point in arguing the finer points of writing with these books; they’re meant as pure popcorn. As someone in a podcase I listen to said a while ago, “popcorn fare” keeps the muscles warm, but doesn’t give your brain a workout. My mistake is trying to make things make sense – like why this is supposedly set so far away in space and time when the writer obviously doesn’t feel like making much effort at incorporating that into her world or writing. Or why characters are so insta-jealous with absolutely no cause – they just are, maybe because the author finds it entertaining. I must remember to put these books on my just talk to each other shelf, because the diffident “I’m not worthy” nonsense coming from the heroine and the primal “my woman, other men must stay away or I will kill them” crap coming from the hero is … nonsensical crap.

So these two books killed a few hours, and perhaps a few brain cells, and my patience. I don’t quite regret the time spent listening to them. But they are sure as sure can be the last books by this author I ever try. (Note to self: investigate writer’s pseudonyms in order to avoid them.)

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Something in the Blood – David J. Skal, James Patrick Cronin

I was glad to receive this audiobook from the publisher on CD, because using the CD player in my car makes what is for me a long commute that much easier. This book in particular wasn’t much of a boon, however; I pass on my audiobooks to my boss, whose commute is twice mine. This one went with the warning that, given the sometimes plodding writing and the near-monotone of the narrator, it might be a driving hazard. I don’t think the narrator will literally prove to be a soporific – but then again, this might be a good thing to pop in the CD player on those nights I suffer from insomnia. James Patrick Cronin was not by any means a terrible narrator – but… well. Oh dear.

Knowing next to nothing about Bram Stoker (apart from his appearance in the too-short-lived “Houdini and Doyle”), and despite the book description on LibraryThing, I was a little surprised by the prevalence of the author’s concentration on Stoker’s sexuality. Gay? Straight? Bisexual? It’s a little funny, really, because the answer to any or all of those questions could be yes. Or no. Or maybe. Or “Depends”. We don’t know. Without the man around to question, we have no way of knowing. Of course, even if we had the man here we might not get any answers without thumbscrews and constant repetition of the song “Easy Street”.

For a big chunk of the early part of the book Skal dwells on how children’s gender was blurred for a big chunk of the 19th century (and back to the Renaissance), how until the age of seven or eight boys and girls both wore skirts and long ringleted hair and whatnot, with “breeching” – putting boys into breeches, of course – happening around the same time a child would be moved out of the nursery. This obviously had an effect on Bram Stoker’s sexuality, along with the fact that he was immobilized for several of his earliest years by some mysterious illness.

And, see, here’s the thing. I don’t buy his take on all of this. Boys wore dresses up to a certain age; that was the way it was. For everyone, or at least everyone of a certain class and above. It would have been impactful to a boy’s psyche or whatever if they diverged from the custom, wouldn’t it? From anything I’ve seen, it wasn’t so much that boys were looked at as girls when they were small; boys and girls were simply dressed the same. And after all, no one in the children’s spheres would have been looking at them as something unusual because they were small boys wearing dresses, since this was the universally accepted custom. I think I can safely say that millions of boys who wore dresses when little grew up to be psychologically well-adjusted and certain of their sexual preferences.

This book is every bit as much the story of Oscar Wilde as it is of Bram Stoker. I have in the space of listening to it gone from absolutely no association between the two men to hardly being able to think of one without the other. And, too, in its latter half the concentration is almost as much on Henry Irving, who was Stoker’s employer and object of worship for decades, as on Stoker himself.

Skal also dwells on some of Stoker’s poetry, in which viewpoint is ambiguous. Is he writing from a woman’s POV? Is he writing as a gay man? Is it significant? I grew a little annoyed with this part, because – in part – to me it means that the author has never listened to much Irish music. I have listened to a lot of Irish music – and I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard male singers performing songs that tell a woman’s story in the first person, and vice versa. It’s not quite the same thing as writing something, but growing up on (if you will) androgynous music might well make it something that a young man might try out.

Also … I mean, I’m seriously considering writing a book about Benedict Arnold, and who knows – I might want to couch it in the first person. That doesn’t make me a male 18th century Loyalist, or even remotely similar to one.

Or he might have been a deeply closeted gay man writing to a poet who showed every sign of being homosexual. There’s no way to know.

I smiled when I heard the following:

And he could hardly be the only literary man in London taken aback when The Picture of Dorian Gray was hauled into court and used against the author. Never before or since has a work of fiction – supernatural or not – been presented as evidence in a nonliterary criminal proceeding. There was a ghostly surreality to the notion that imaginary characters, having no substance beyond the words and ink with which they were constructed, might be called to testify about events in the real world. The idea itself was the stuff of a weird tale.

Because in so many ways this sort of “evidence” is heavily relied upon throughout this book. (It also made me think of how Shakespeare’s writing is “called to testify” about who really wrote the plays and poems.) It’s not a court of law or a criminal proceeding, but Dracula and all the other brainchildren of both Stoker and Wilde are held up to the light and examined minutely, but only with the lens of looking for hints of their authors’ sexual orientation. Flailing about for a way to put it into words, I finally remembered the parable about the blind men and the elephant. Skal, groping within the pages, puts his hand in something wet and sticky and thinks something other than blood: aha, he says, I know what an elephant is now.

It’s not that the subject is the concentrated focus of the book; there is no concentrated focus of the book. It’s extremely scattershot. Ellen Terry, and Henry Irving’s wife, and Oscar Wilde’s mother, and the entire history of the Lyceum Theatre, the transcriptionist for Stoker’s work, and a good many other people and places and things in Stoker’s periphery each get a great deal of attention. It seemed like each CD I slid into the player was half Stoker, half … everything else.

There is a bit about the origins of Dracula, and whether inspiration really was taken from Vlad Tepes or not, and so forth. (Answer, unsurprisingly: maybe.) And – Spoiler Alert: there is no final conclusion reached in the book as to Stoker’s orientation, as is to be expected given the entire sparsity of evidence. However, as the narration went on my irritation grew. What passes for evidence for Stoker’s homosexuality was … specious. To wit:

– He was dressed as a girl for much of his boyhood, and this marked his outlook.
My complaint: See above.

– He loved Walt Whitman’s poetry and wrote the poet a passionate fan letter, including some thought-provoking phrasing.
My complaint: When he first read the poetry and wrote to Whitman he was in his early to mid-twenties. It’s not inconceivable that he was experiencing a turbulent period of questioning who and what attracted him – but to my mind it’s also not inconceivable that he was just extremely passionate, as people of that age are prone to be. Lord knows I wrote some passionate stuff around then. And it’s possible to love Whitman without being a gay man, isn’t it? I mean, I’m pretty fond of Uncle Walt, and, as Uhura once said, “sorry – neither”.

– After the birth of his son, he and his wife seem to have had a sexless marriage.
My complaint: Well, that’s really not so unusual for the period. Florence Balcombe Stoker was a difficult woman, who never quite forgave the universe for letting her marry the mildly famous Stoker instead of the wildly famous (albeit all but openly gay) Oscar Wilde. She was never warm and cuddly at the best of times, with anyone, and physicality apparently troubled her; the whole business of pregnancy was disgusting to her. In a vacuum, it’s just as plausible that avoidance of further pregnancies was the reason for avoiding sex as anything else; in fact, on the whole she’s more likely the one who nixed sex than Bram. In fact, how do we even know for certain they didn’t have sex, all the time? It’s not like they blogged about it, after all; this was a time when “private life” lived up to the label.

– He apparently died of syphilis.
My complaint: This is the worst of all. First, there’s no concrete evidence that he had syphilis. One of the most common symptoms of syphilis is that syphilis has no common symptoms – it can manifest in all sorts and kinds of ways, which is one of the reasons it comes up so often in historical forensic explorations. Over a hundred years after his death, we have absolutely no way in the world to know for certain without time travel whether he did or did not have it. (And if I were able to travel in time, this question would not be high on my list of Things To Find Out.)

And anyway, say he did have the disease. Apparently a horrifying percentage of the British population had it, male and female. It was, after all, a time when the prevailing attitude was that the wife was for running the household and providing an heir. Sex was to be found elsewhere. And those who weren’t wealthy enough (or ballsy enough, so to speak) to keep a mistress went to prostitutes. And the very definition of prostitute means someone who has sex with many people. Any one of those people might infect a prostitute, who would in turn then infect – oh, my search history can get colorful, remind me to clear my browser history – 30-60% of those she (or he) had sex with, and so on. So he could have gotten it from, literally, anyone who had slept with anyone else: male friend; female prostitute; male prostitute; heck, if we want to think creatively he could have gotten it from his wife. Anyone.

It’s intensely frustrating that this book says, at the same time, both “this is so” and “we can’t possibly know”. What with the Victorian tendency to edit their correspondence (i.e., burn anything that might be remotely intriguing to future historians), the Victorian oddness about actually keeping private things private, and the other Victorian tendency toward bowdlerization and euphemism, “we can’t possibly know for sure” is true for just about everything. In the end, I don’t really feel I “know” Bram Stoker any better than I did when I began this.

What kept popping into my mind as the author pulled this bit or that out of Dracula and Stoker’s other writing – and Wilde’s, and so many others – was, simply, “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”. (Quote, correlating Dracula and Oscar Wilde: “Both depended on the bodies of the young and the vital to procure the fluids that satisfied their unconventional appetites.”) There doesn’t always have to be an underlying meaning, intentional or not. Another quote, this time from Tolkien: “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence.”

Why can’t Dracula just be about a bunch of people trying to kill a vampire?

I received this audiobook from the publisher via LibraryThing for review.

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