Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables”

September 25, 2013

Last month, I let you relax, walk the beach, and regenerate your batteries. But now autumn is here, school is in session, and it’s time to lower the boom on you! It’s time for one of the world’s greatest heavyweights. Heavyweights indeed: depending on a number of variables, an unabridged copy comes to somewhere between 1400 and 2000 pages.

But remember this: Don’t ever waste your time reading an abridged copy of any book worth reading! I always wonder when I look at an abridged book, How can any human being have the gall to conclude that s/he knows more about what is important in a book than the person who wrote it?

So I expect you to read every word in the unabridged version. But I am not a Simon Legree: Because I want you to take the time to really savor the book, I am permitting you to take two months to complete it. There won’t be another Book of the Month until December. First of all, purchase an unabridged you can mark up, reason being Les Miserables is one of the most quotable books ever written. An additional word of warning: In recent years more and more publishers have committed what I call a crime: publishing abridged versions of classic books without indicating inside the book that it is incomplete. So, do your homework in this respect.

* * *

Victor Marie Hugo (1802-1885), French poet, novelist, dramatist, and leader of the Romantic Movement in France, lived life on the grand scale. Since his father was a Bonaparte general, Hugo’s early years were lived in luxury; but then came the fall of the Napoleonic Empire, and life got much harder. Suffice it to say that he is generally considered to be one of the towering figures in world literature.

Since it would take years to fully digest all that Hugo accomplished, I won’t even try, leaving such a fascinating journey to you. Most of the growth in my own life has resulted from just such side trips of discovery as I am suggesting to you now.

If you only tackle a few of Hugo’s books, I suggest you seriously consider The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Toilers of the Sea.

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Hugo spent fourteen years laboring on this monstrous book. I don’t want to deprive you of the pleasure of discovering the novel on your own, so I certainly won’t spoil your reading pleasure by giving away the plot of what is almost universally considered to be one of the greatest novels ever written. I might even go out on a limb by admitting I have yet to read a more powerful or deeply moving book than this. When I completed it for the first time, I wrote down this summation: I am numb. It is a book to go back to again and again, for it is inexhaustible and it is suspenseful—a great read!

I think the best summation of its power was penned by the English scholar and critic, Algernon Charles Swinburne:

Les Miserables is the greatest epic and dramatic work of fiction ever created or conceived. The epic of a soul transfigured and redeemed, purified by heroism and glorified through suffering; the tragedy and comedy of life at its darkest and its brightest, of humanity at its best and at its worst.

Vincent Hopper and Bernard Grabanier, in their two-volume Guide to World Literature (Barron’s Educational Series, 1952), declared that Les Miserables “is one of the most moving appeals ever made in the history of literature to our common humanity; only a great soul could have written it.” They also point out that it is more a collection of novels than just a novel.

Don’t be tempted to lose interest when Hugo appears to have forgotten what he was writing about, and wanders off in what will seem to be a totally irrelevant direction. Those side trips will all prove their relevance later on; and if you failed to carefully read them, I guarantee you will end up failing to internally capture the power of the novel! Indeed, those side-trips have developed world-wide fame on their own—especially the passages depicting the Battle of Waterloo, the sewers of Paris, the flight of Jean Valjean, the portrait of the Bishop, the drama of the candlesticks, and the description of the Benedictine monastery. Indeed, the book might aptly be likened to a vast mosaic or puzzle: as you read along you will keep slotting in images, many seeming not to fit in anywhere, but by the moving conclusions, all the pieces will finally be placed—and you’re left with the completed masterpiece. Interestingly enough, John Steinbeck, much later on, borrowed from Hugo in his own sidetrips in The Grapes of Wrath.

Welcome to one of the world’s greatest books. I look forward to hearing back from you after you return from Victor Hugo’s world, from experiencing first-hand the French Revolution.


September 18, 2013

Yes, that’s what Russ Schumaker, a Colorado State University researcher, is calling this storm of biblical proportions. Here is what happened: most of Colorado has been in a prolonged multi-year drought. The Colorado summer monsoons usually end by August. Early September was hotter than usual–a sweltering 97̊. But then monsoon rains blew east into the Front Range. The high pressure system that had brought the heat, shifted northeast, allowing the low pressure system to move in just as the rain arrived. The collision produced a giant stalled wet weather system, the energy from the cold front and the humidity from the monsoon created that rarity–the Perfect Storm.

Another reason for labeling it a thousand-year-storm is that a 150-mile-wide stretch of the Front Range [the Colorado foothills that divide the high country of the Rockies from the Great Plains to the east] producing this much torrential rain (most in 48 hours) statistically wouldn’t happen again in a thousand years.

Let me give you a bird’s-eye view of what it was like to experience it. We were lucky: perched at 9700 feet in elevation near the top of Conifer Mountain, we weren’t likely to be troubled by rising floodwaters.

The rain began last Tuesday–and it just kept raining, eventually totaling over six inches at our house, but that was nothing compared to how much fell elsewhere. A number of areas were flooded by ten to fifteen inches of rain in six days (as much as their normal yearly total). Boulder, at last count, received 18.55 inches (most of it in 48 hours)! Almost every river and creek from Pueblo to the Wyoming border flooded and creeks swelled to river-size: Fountain Creek, Rock Creek, South Platte and North Platte rivers, Bear Creek, Coal Creek, Boulder Creek, St. Vrain River, Big Thompson River, and Pouder River–they all went into demolition mode.

In Lyons, water rose in the black of night, around 2 a.m. sirens blared, people pounded on doors, as citizens were warned to flee the rampaging St. Vrain. High up in the mountains, at 2:27 a.m., in Jamestown, townspeople awoke as water and boulders roared down a usually mild-mannered creek. Both towns were soon all but cut off from the world. Same for the resort community of Estes Park. Not since the terrible Big Thompson flood of 1976 when 144 people had perished by a tidal wave of water thundering through the canyon had anyone seen the like. It didn’t take much time before the torrent washed out roads and bridges along a seventeen-mile stretch, scraping off everything on the riverbed down to bare rock. Since Estes Park was cut off from the world, with no cell coverage, the only way out was to escape over the 12,000 foot high Trail Ridge Road down into the Frazer Valley, and then find a crossing into Wyoming. Both Loveland and Longmont were cut in two by raging streams.

The City of Boulder got far more than its share of the cataclysm. Residents were both mesmerized and terrorized by epic rainfall and engorged creeks that tore away roads and ripped homes off their foundations. According to the Denver Post, “Boulder Creek turned into a roiling, coffee-colored beast, smelling of sewage, carrying tree branches and swamping parks.”

Bear Creek in Evergreen was flowing at such a pace that people down below in Bear Creek Canyon feared for their lives should the dam give way below Evergreen Lake, which would have also inundated the City of Evergreen. All traffic through the town ceased.

Boulder Creek usually flows at a rate somewhere between 100 and 300 cubic feet per second; at its flood peak it was moving at a mind-boggling 4,500 cubic feet per second! The City of Boulder, including the University of Colorado, spreads out over 25 square miles. By Friday, it was awash in 4.5 billion gallons of water. At one point, 280,800 pounds [140 tons] of water a second were roaring through, at a velocity equal to a class IV rapid. To get that force in perspective, in flash floods, it only takes two feet of water to wash away a car; car engines can flood when the water is half way up its tires, much less than that if the car is moving, because the water then surges up. Just six inches of flood-strength water can knock a full-grown man off his feet.

The news has been full of stories of thousands of people stranded, trailer-houses floating away with pets in them, livestock caught in rising waters; because of contaminated water, people being unable to drink water, use their toilets, take baths, etc.; marooned children in youth camps have had to be either bussed out of Estes Park over the Divide or helicoptered out of Jamestown. Thousands of people have been rescued by helicopters since hundreds of roads are now closed, washed away, or bridges washed out.

The Big Thompson hits flood-stage at six feet; it now reached 10.55 feet, higher than the 9.3 feet in 1976.

No one yet knows how many people have died. So many other towns and cities remain flooded, it is going to take a very long time for Colorado to recover!

But, in times like these, the human spirit shows its resilience, and people realize that things are but things; as long as they still have each other, health, sweet life, and God, everything else is expendable.

SOURCES: The Denver Post, Sept. 13, 14, 15, 16, 2013


September 11, 2013

No law was hated more during the long sway of the Roman Empire than the one that forced all citizens to shoulder the burdens of any Roman soldier for an entire mile. Back in those days of iron armor and weaponry, carrying such a burden in the hot Mediterranean sun would have been a real ordeal. Whoever lived in the empire, citizen or not, had no option: if asked to carry such a load, they had to comply! Or else. And it was an “else” that no one in his right mind would want to face.

Then Christ, according to Matthew (in Chapter 5, verse 41), added insult to injury by declaring that if you are forced to carry such burdens for a mile, carry them for two miles. That had to be about as welcome as two foxes in a henhouse.

But that was His point: We ought to go far beyond the letter of the law: Only as we give more than the law demands of us, can there really be a gift at all.

* * *

With this historical preamble, let’s turn to today’s world. The norm, at least in America, is not only to avoid if at all possible the demands of the law but to hire lawyers to help you find legal loopholes so that you don’t have to pay any of it.

Who among us has not ruefully discovered (usually after the fact) that something we thought we had (protection, coverage, product, amenity, etc.), the legalese in the contract—which we didn’t read because we couldn’t fully understand the murky legal gobbledygook anyway—took away all or most of what we thought we had.

No matter what, rare is the case when weasely legalese doesn’t take away the very protection and coverage (think insurance) we conscientiously paid for so that we and our loved ones would be safe in cases of loss or disaster. Our howls of outrage get us nowhere: “if you were naive enough to believe our contract, you deserve to be taken to the cleaners.”


I’ll have to admit I was more than a bit suspicious of Tony Perry when he guaranteed his body shop really stood behind its word. Especially was I gun-shy after a recent experience my brother-in-law had with a well-known new car Denver automobile agency, for after he purchased a used car from them, and paid for extra guarantee protection, the agency fiercely fought him when he later discovered problem areas that were clearly defined—he thought—in the extra guarantee protection he paid for. And that is but the most recent case of disillusion where today’s business world is concerned.

Another has to do with insurance: you may faithfully pay insurance premiums to a certain company for ten, twenty, thirty, forty years without a claim; then dare to submit two claims within a three-year period, and they threaten to cancel your insurance! It does make you a cynic about current American business, doesn’t it!

So, when one of our vehicles spun out in black ice and turned over on its side, near Evergreen, last winter, I checked around among our friends to see what people had to say about area body shops before I accepted Tony Perry’s bid at Morse Evergreen Autobody. Since we loved our 2002 Oldsmobile Bravada (the company now sadly extinct), we decided to pay whatever it cost to restore it to original condition rather than merely total it. We gulped at the price-tag, but paid for it.

It took some time to repair it; since Oldsmobile no longer exists, body parts were hard to come by. But finally, it was done. All cleaned and shined up too. So much so that people said on seeing it, ‘Oh, you bought a new car!”

There were a couple of minor problems afterwards. Morse fixed them, and charged us nothing.

But there developed a peskier problem: an original piece of Oldsmobile molding on the driver’s door insisted on warping over time. I brought Cosette (my name for the SUV) in and showed them the problem. They fixed it, no questions asked.

Almost half a year later, the perverse piece of molding warped again. This time I was embarrassed to bring Cosette in, for Morse had been so faithful to their word. Surely, there had to be an expiration point to a guarantee, verbal or paper. So when I brought it in this time, I pointed out how much time had passed, and said I’d gladly pay for whatever it cost to fix the problem.

Well, a couple of weeks ago, I was told to come pick it up. They’d really beaten that piece of molding half to death hammering it into shape. It was beautiful once again. Same for the paint job. It was even detailed, washed, and looked brand new!

“No charge! It was the original problem, not something new—so it’s on us.”

Thus, we are faced with a graphic refutation of what has become all but standard in America today: Not standing by one’s word.

I’m having a hard time getting over it.

All we can say is this:



September 4, 2013

What triggered this blog is Mark Goldblatt’s column, “Welcome Back, My Ungrammatical Students” in the September 3 Wall Street Journal. Mr. Goldblatt teaches English at State University of New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. Set off in bold type is this jolting line: Unlike your friends, who will excuse your errors, your college professor may or may not like you.

Goldblatt, in his very first line, leaps into the heart of the matter: “The fall is mere weeks away, another college semester either under way or soon to be. If you’re one of thousands of freshmen nationwide, you’ve just discovered you’ve been placed in a remedial English class.

“‘How can this be?’ you’re asking yourself. ‘I got straight A’s in high school! I love writing stories and poems! I’m good in English!’”

Needless to say, Goldblatt postulates that it does matter whether or not a student uses correct English.

But I must confess I am a tad grateful I’m now a full-time writer rather than being an English
teacher barraged by poorly written essays that have to be daily evaluated and responded to. But I put in my time–34 years worth. However, no English teacher is ever permitted to escape his/her calling. Just ask any English teacher this question: “What’s it like when your introduction to a group of people includes this line, —is an English teacher.” What do you get? How right you are: dead silence. The ultimate example of clamming up. And it’s even worse if you happen to be an “English Professor.” To be an English teacher is perceived to be at least human; but to be an English Professor is perceived to be someone possessing grammatical infallibility. Whatever you do, don’t even talk to such a sage–you’re sure to get zapped!

But there are other downsides to being an English Professor, chief of which is the sadistic delight people–especially one’s former students–take in catching grammatical mistakes you may occasionally make. Case in point, my last week’s blog. By the time I got to the last line, I was too tired to re-check the exact meaning of a word I’d used before. Sure enough, here came a zinger from my dear friend and fellow writer, Elsi Dodge, chortling with glee that she’d caught me confusing “enervating” with “energizing.” What could I do but grovel and promise to mend my ways?


Goldblatt, in referencing “grammar,” does so in these words: “to refer to the overall mechanics of your writing, including punctuation, syntax and usage.” And he negatively singles out those who don’t know how to put sentences together in ways that clarify, rather than cloud, what they’re trying to say.

Permit me to approach this issue pragmatically. The inability to write or speak correctly is not likely to hurt you too much among your peers and friends. Not in the short-term, that is. And especially not if you are charismatic, cover-girl-beautiful, or a candidate for sexiest man alive hunkhood. If you’re perceived to be one of these “golden ones who seemingly can do no wrong, you’ll suffer little more than winces from such disasters as “me and Joanie were like, wild about like see’n Tony.” But, in life, there are such things as fuses. When one’s proverbial “fifteen minutes of fame” are over, and the long descent takes place; when you are no longer drop-dead beautiful or headturningly handsome, what then? You may have been hired because your looks and contours were impossible to ignore, but inevitably there will come a day when your looks can no longer make up for your embarrassing mistakes in writing and speaking. When one more mangled syntax, misspelled word, or misplaced punctuation mark costs the firm one of its most valued clients—and out you go.

The problem is this: there is no one-day-seminar that can possibly fix such deficiencies. It is anything but an easy fix. Even if you memorize Strunk and White’s timeless masterpiece, Elements of Style, you’d only be part way there. Only by reading widely, reading selectively, and avoiding slangy, slovenly, poorly structured prose whenever possible, can you begin to improve the quality and enhance the power of your writing and speaking.

Which is a good time to reference another Goldblatt zinger: “While there definitely is such a thing as good writing, there’s no such thing as good grammar.” I agree 100%. One does not become a good writer by simply mastering grammar. Untold thousands of potentially significant writers have lost their love of writing because teachers sold them a bill of goods: that, unless they mastered grammar first, they’d never become good writers. Which is only partly true. They are on far safer ground if they are encouraged to write, write, write, even with occasional grammatical mistakes, and deal with one problem area at a time, not all of them at once. As problem areas–one at a time–are called to their attention by wise and empathetic mentors, who value substance over grammatical correctness, and, most important of all, consider the individual’s God-given one-of-a-kind voice sacrosanct, and not to be tinkered with, they can, over time, become “great” writers. Here I must qualify “great,” for I often say and write, “There are no great writers–there are only great stories.” By this I mean that no writer ever “arrives,” but rather we continue, as long as we live and breathe, to be works in progress. If we take too much time off–at any age—inevitably we lose our edge and become irrelevant and not worth reading any more.

So in conclusion, I invite each reader of this blog, to take grammar seriously. By so doing, you will avoid devaluing the substance of what you have to say. Recognize that effective communication is the key to success in almost every area of endeavor one may think of. Believe me, today’s world is almost desperate in its searches for men and women who are capable of writing coherent, persuasive, and interesting sentences and paragraphs.

What none of us want is a long-fuse, a ticking time-bomb, that is guaranteed to explode down the line. And let’s face it, if you are someone who is afraid to open your mouth or write an opinion on a piece of paper, then you do a grave disservice to the God who created you to do less than your best in correcting the problem–in becoming all you can be.

If this describes your condition, make today the first day of the rest of your life; if you are one who is already there, why not mentor someone who is not?