Book Review: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Book Review: The Hunchback of Notre Dame by  Victor Hugo

The Year of Grace 1482 is going to be the big one for Pierre Gringoire; he just knows it!  The poet, philosopher and would-be playwright is debuting his new mystery play for the Cardinal of Bourbon and the Flemish ambassadors on January 6th, the Day of Kings and Feast of Fools.  A good reception will net him rich rewards and fame.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Poor Gringoire!  First, the important guests are delayed coming to the Hall of Justice, and the audience nearly riots to get the play started on time.  Then a cheeky beggar heckles the audience for spare change.  Then the Cardinal and crew finally arrive, drawing all attention from the stage.  The Flemish ambassador pans the performance, and starts the election of the Pope of Fools.  And the few audience members left are drawn away by the mysterious La Esmeralda!

Gringoire is in for even more suffering tonight, but he is not the fellow the book is named for, but just one of the many characters who live near the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.

Victor Hugo wrote two great novels that still inspire adaptations today; Les Misérables and Notre-Dame de Paris.  The latter got a title change in English to focus on the most memorable character.  Quasimodo isn’t the protagonist either; the closest to a central character is La Esmeralda (“the Emerald”, named after her necklace), the beautiful dancer and goat trainer.  All the important male characters are defined by their relationship to her.

The 15th-Century date seems significant, a decade before the discovery of the New World would change everything, and so the characters behave as though the Old World will always be.

It’s interesting to me how the changing fashions in literature affect some of Victor Hugo’s story beats.  In the Nineteenth Century, the tall, brave and handsome warrior on a horse was almost invariably the hero of books, while a deformed or disabled or ethnic minority character (Quasimodo is apparently Roma by birth) is cast in a villainous role.  The partial reversal of roles between Phoebus (who is only interested in La Esmeralda for sex) and Quasimodo (who defends La Esmeralda even though it’s clear she is revolted by him) was shocking at the time.  Nowadays, there’s more variation in who gets to be the hero of stories.

And then there’s Frollo, the Archdeacon of Notre Dame and very much the villain of the story.  A teen genius and rising star in the religious hierarchy, he loved his little brother Jehan and had good intentions when he adopted Quasimodo.  Claude Frollo was a loving (if excessively stern) adoptive father to Quasimodo, and the local expert on alchemy.  Until he saw La Esmeralda dance, and for the first time had sexual feelings he could not pray away.

With no experience of how to deal with women, and bound by a rigid set of personal and religious codes, Frollo chose to interpret the girl’s effect on him as witchcraft, and began the rapid mental decline that ends with him seeing La Esmeralda hang rather than be with anyone else.

Between this book and Les Miz, I get the distinct feeling that Victor Hugo was not a fan of the French legal system.  Every time a character comes up against the courts and law enforcement, injustice is what ensues.  This is most symbolized by the auditor (assistant judge) who is deaf, and cannot hear that Quasimodo (who is also mostly deaf) isn’t responding to his questions.  He condemns the bellringer based on what he imagines Quasimodo might have said, and increases the punishment when someone tries to convey the truth to him.

The representation of Quasimodo as a person with disabilities is pretty good for the time when the novel was written.  I can’t say the same for the representation of the Roma people, called “Gypsies” or “Egyptians” here.  They’re depicted as a thieving, superstitious lot who hang out with the other worst elements of society.  Part of establishing La Esmeralda as a good person is the reveal that she’s adopted.  (As part of the “stolen by gypsies” myth.)

Mr. Hugo often takes the opportunity to spend a chapter talking about architecture, geography or how technology changes culture.  This can be fascinating, but may irritate people who just want to get on with the story.  He also uses some contrived coincidences to move the tale along.  (In particular, one moment towards the end of the book would in a normal melodrama have been the end of Frollo’s scheme and La Esmeralda’s triumph.  But it is ultimately useless.)

Definitely worth reading if you’ve liked any of the movies and are ready for more moral complexity.

Here’s a bit from the 1939 Charles Laughton film:

Book Review: Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology

Book Review: Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer

As the subtitle of this volume indicates, it’s a collection of 29 short stories written from a feminist perspective. There are selections from the 1960s through the 2000s–SF, fantasy, horror and a couple of stories that seem to be included out of courtesy because of “surrealism.”

Sisters of the Revolution

The anthology begins with “The Forbidden Words of Margaret A.” by L. Timmel Duchamp, an account of a journalist’s meeting with a woman whose use of language is considered so dangerous that a Constitutional amendment has been passed to specifically ban those words. The journalist has a photo-op with Margaret A. in the prison that woman is being held in, and the experience changes her. It’s an interesting use of literary techniques to suggest the power of Margaret A.’s words without ever directly quoting them.

The final story is “Home by the Sea” by Elisabeth Vonarburg, in which a gynoid in a post-apocalyptic world returns to her mother/creator to ask some questions. The answers to those questions both disturb and give new hope. Like several other stories in the volume, this one deals with the nature of motherhood, and the mother-daughter relationship.

There are some of the classic stories that are almost mandatory for the subject of feminist speculative fiction: “The Screwfly Solution” by James Tiptree, Jr. (men abruptly start murdering people they’re sexually attracted to, mostly women but the story tacitly acknowledges homosexuality); “When It Changed” by Joanna Russ (a planet with an all-female society is contacted by men from Earth after centuries of isolation–it originally ran in Again, Dangerous Visions, an anthology for stories with themes considered too controversial to be published elsewhere, times have changed); and Octavia K. Butler’s “The Evening the Morning and the Night” (a woman with a genetic disorder discovers that she has a gift that fits her exactly for a specific job, whether she wants that job or not.)

The anthologists have also made an effort to include stories that are “intersectional”, providing perspectives from other parts of the world. “The Palm Tree Bandit” by Nnedi Okorofor tells the story of a Nigerian woman who defies a sexist tradition and starts one of her own. Nalo Hopkinson’s “The Glass Bottle Trick” is a retelling of the Bluebeard story in modern Jamaica (this time the women avenge their own), and “Tales from the Breast” by Hiromi Goto, wherein a Japanese-Canadian woman discovers a solution to her breastfeeding problems.

Some other standouts include: “The Grammarian’s Five Daughters” by Eleanor Arnason (a fairy tale about language); “The Fall River Axe Murders” by Angela Carter (one of the stories that really doesn’t feel like speculative fiction, but is really well-written, set in the moments just before Lizzie Borden is about to get up and kill her parents) and “Stable Strategies for Middle Management” by Eileen Gunn (how far would you go to fit into the corporate culture? Would you let them shoot you up with insect genes?)

Tanith Lee’s “Northern Chess” is a fantasy tale of a warrior woman infiltrating a castle cursed to be a deathtrap by an evil alchemist. It’s exciting, but the ending relies on a now-hoary twist. Still worth reading if you haven’t had the chance before.

Most of the other stories are at least middling good. The weakest for me was “My Flannel Knickers” by Leonora Carrington, which falls into the surrealist category and seems to be about a woman who has rejected conventional beauty standards. Probably.

Rape, sexualized violence and domestic abuse are discussed; I’d put this book as suitable for bright senior high schoolers, though individual stories could be enjoyable by younger readers.

Recommended for feminists, those interested in feminist themes, and anthology fans.

Comic Book Review: Corpse on the Imjin! and Other Stories by Harvey Kurtzman

Comic Book Review: Corpse on the Imjin! and Other Stories by Harvey Kurtzman edited by Gary Groth

In later years, Harvey Kurtzman was better known  for his humor work, among other things being the first editor of MAD.  But while he worked at EC Comics in the early Fifties, Mr. Kurtzman was also known for some very impressive tales of action and warfare in Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat.  He was a pioneer in the area of more “realistic” war comics, ones that didn’t treat the enemy as subhuman or inherently evil.

Corpse on the Imjin! and Other Stories by Harvey Kurtzman

This book reprints many of those stories, divided into two sections, those Mr. Kurtzman illustrated himself, and those done by other artists from his layouts.  (He was notoriously unhappy when those artists deviated from his vision, and as he was also the editor of the books, those artists usually didn’t get invited to work with him again.)

The volume opens with “Conquest!”, a story set during Spain’s expansion of its empire into Central and South America.  Captain Juan Alvarado and his conquistadors initially have great success against their under-gunned native opponents, but their lust for gold undoes them.

The final story (with art by Reed Crandall) is “Memphis!” about a battle between Union and Confederate gunships on the Mississippi River during the Civil War.  The enthusiasm of the spectators, especially the children, is contrasted to the horrific cost of the battle.

The Korean War was going on during the run of these comic books, and the majority of the stories concern that conflict.  Several of these are top-rate.  “Rubble!” is about a Korean farmer building a doomed house, with step-by-step coverage of the hard labor he puts in–the art in some panels reminds me of WPA heroic friezes.  “Air Burst!” is the tale of a Chinese mortar squad as they try to survive a UN attack, their numbers dwindling.  “Corpse on the Imjin!”  was one of Mr. Kurtzman’s favorites, about two soldiers fighting to the death near the title river, with narration that’s deliberately poetic.  And “Big ‘If’!” is a meditation on the randomness of death that focuses on one soldier considering the choices that have led him to this place, sitting facing five “devil sticks.”

Some of the stories are not quite as good–“Contact!” about a U.S. patrol looking for the North Koreans and finding them ends with a patriotic speech straight out of Hollywood propaganda.  And “Bunker!” (art by Ric Estrada) about two disparate units trying to take a heavily-defended hill, has some unfortunate exaggerated features on the black soldiers that would not fly today, despite the well-meant message of the story.  But overall, most of the stories are solid to excellent.

The stories are reprinted in black and white, which favors the strong inking skills of Mr. Kurtzman, but there is also a color cover gallery that shows off his sense of color design and the work of Marie Severin as a colorist.

The volume is completed with several essays about Mr. Kurtzman’s work and EC Comics in general.

While the violence level is high as you might expect from war stories, these tales don’t lean on the gore as some of EC’s horror titles did–even visible blood is rare.

Highly recommended to EC fans, war comics buffs and those studying the Korean War and how it was seen at the time.

Book Review: The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt

Book Review: The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt by Kara Cooney

Hatshepsut lived about 1500 B.C.E. to circa 1458 B.C.E.  The daughter of Thutmose I, she was married to Thutmose II, her half-brother, when he ascended the throne of Egypt.  As the God’s Wife of Amen-Re (king of all the Egyptian gods) and King’s Great Wife (like many kings of the period, Thutmose II had several wives, of which she was the most important), Hatshepsut helped run the country.  But Thutmose II was sickly, and died young.  Hatshepsut had only produced a daughter, and Thutmose III, her nephew and the crown prince, was only a toddler.

The Woman Who Would Be King

Hatshepsut was made regent for the infant king, and seems to have done a good job.  But she realized it would be many years before he was ready to rule, even if he lived, and the Egyptians did not at that time have a word for “queen.”  To keep the country stable, Hatshepsut had to become king.  Even if that meant transforming her public identity to match the masculine image the job seemed to require.

Kara Cooney is an Egyptologist and associate professor at UCLA who has done extensive research on the subject of Hatshepsut, with the result being this book.  According to this volume, early Egyptologists took the destruction of many of Hatshepsut’s statues and the erasure of her name to indicate that she was an usurper who abused her power, fitting a narrative that women are unfit to rule.  But more recent research has shown that the erasure mostly took place a good quarter-century after her death, towards the end of Thutmose III’s reign.

Professor Cooney attempts to build a narrative of Hatshepsut’s life; this is difficult because the ancient Egyptians had a strong tendency not to mention anything personal or negative about their rulers; even regicide was only referred to obliquely.  Plus, of course, most of the records vanishing after a couple of thousand years.  What does seem to emerge from the available information is that Hatshepsut was a competent ruler, faithful to her gods, and adding to the prosperity of her kingdom with many building programs.

She seems to have tried as hard as possible to adapt to the role of king, rather than trying to make the role of king fit her, as seen by her statues slowly taking on more masculine attributes.

Mind, by modern standards, the conquering and enslaving of neighboring countries would be considered a negative character trait.

If there were any difficulties between her and Thutmose III, her co-king, they did not enter the records.  What seems to have prompted her later erasure was that Thutmose III wanted to ensure that the male line of succession was maintained, so rewrote history to make it seem that he had become king immediately after his father with no woman at the helm.

Her chief steward, Senemut, on the other hand, seems to have fallen from grace immediately after Hatshepsut’s death.  The remaining traces of him suggest that he was one of those people who boasts in public about how tight he is with the king, and once she was gone, his enemies made their displeasure known.

There’s a lot of “might” and “maybe” and “probably” in the text here, and the extensive footnotes cover alternative interpretations of the evidence.  This makes the narrative rather dry, and best suited to college-level readers.  There is a chronology of the Eighteenth through Twentieth Dynasties, an (incomplete) family tree of Hatshupset, a center section of black and white photos, a bibliography and index.

One interesting tidbit from the notes:  apparently, the word that would become “Pharaoh” came into use about this time to mean “the person in the palace” for those who didn’t want to use the male “king” for Hatshupset.

This book is recommended to scholars interested in ancient Egypt, and people who want to read about another woman who ruled Egypt besides Cleopatra.

Disclaimer:  I received a free copy of this volume from Blogging for Books for the purpose of this review.  No other compensation is involved or requested.

Book Review: The Good, the Bad, and the Mad

Book Review: The Good, the Bad, and the Mad by E. Randall Floyd

American history is full of offbeat people, some downright weird.  The author was (like many a lad) fascinated by their stories when he was young.  Then he got to interview Erich von Daeniken (Chariots of the Gods) and decided to make writing about unusual people a full-time hobby.  This book is one of the results.

The Good, the Bad, and the Mad

It contains 37 mini-biographies of interesting people in American history, arranged alphabetically from Jane Addams (social worker and pacifist) to Wovoka (Native American mystic and the leader of the “Ghost Dance” movement.)  There are the really obvious candidates, like “Emperor” Joshua Norton of San Francisco and Nikola Tesla (eccentric inventor.)  But there are also more obscure figures, like Giacomo Beltrami, who didn’t quite discover the source of the Mississippi, and Bernarr MacFadden (health nut.)

The writing is okay, but these are very short biographies, and some of the subjects have had entire (and much better) books written about them.  There are no illustrations, no citations or bibliography, and no index.  Your college professor isn’t going to accept this as a source!

While written for adults, I think this book would best serve as a gift to a bright teenager who can then look further for more information about any person that catches their fancy.  It’s a good book for a quick read, and some interesting historical moments.

Book Review: Twin Cities Noir: The Expanded Edition

Book Review: Twin Cities Noir: The Expanded Edition edited by Julie Schaper & Steven Horwitz

Like the previously reviewed USA Noir, this is a collection of grittier crime stories from Akashic Books with a regional focus.  In this case, the cities of Saint Paul and Minneapolis in Minnesota, and the surrounded metro area, plus one up north in Duluth (“Hi, I’m God” by Steve Thayer; a teenager drowns in Lake Superior…or does he?)

Twin Cities Noir

This is the “expanded edition” released in 2013 with three new stories, bringing it to a total of eighteen.   The new ones are conveniently all in the front in the “Star of the North” subsection, starting with John Jodzio’s “Someday All of This Will Probably Be Yours”  about a speed dating scam gone wrong.  The other sections are “Minnesota Nice”, “Uff Da” and “Funeral Hotdish.”

Each of the stories is set in a particular neighborhood, several of which I’m familiar with.  One scene takes place less than a block from where I live!  This makes it easy for me to picture the action in my mind.  This may not be as evocative for non-locals, but will please readers in the Twin Cities area.

Some standouts:  “Skyway Sleepless” written and drawn by Tom Kaczynski takes place in Minneapolis’ extensive skyway system.  The art uses the rectangular boxes of the skyway to indicate the maze-like architecture of the story, as people are found filling chalk outlines and no memory of how they got there.

“The Brewer’s Son” by Larry Millett is a period piece set in 1892 Saint Paul, and starring his series character, saloonkeeper and amateur detective Shadwell Rafferty, acquaintance of Sherlock Holmes.  The title character has been kidnapped, supposedly by the Black Hand, and Mr. Rafferty is called in by the concerned father.  This is noir, so expect some darkness.

Mary Logue’s story “Blasted” takes place in upscale Kenwood, as a police officer tells her daughter about a domestic dispute call that was the most frightening experience of her life.  The officer is still alive, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t good reason for fear.

The final story is “”Chili Dog” by Chris Everhart.  A small time crook stops in downtown Saint Paul for lunch, and things go very wrong for him.

As a crime story anthology, there’s a fair bit of violence, one story features domestic abuse, and there’ mention of suicide.

If you are local to Minnesota, or have lived here in the past, highly recommended.  The book’s pretty good if you’re not local, but you might miss some of the nuance.  Akashic may have a volume set in your area; check their catalog.   If you own the previous version, you might want to save money by going with the e-book, so you can check out the new stories without shelling out the big bucks.

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