Reading Notre Dame

Vision of Notre Dame: a sketch by Victor Hugo

It has to be the worst possible reason to have a bestseller. In the wake of last week’s devastating fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel Notre Dame de Paris – perhaps better known to English speakers as The Hunchback of Notre Dame – has climbed to the top of the charts.

One unforgettable passage in particular has grown more even more poignant. As the cathedral doors are stormed by would-be-pillagers far below, the hunchback Quasimodo lights a bonfire high atop the tower, heating molten lead. What follows is one of the novel’s most terrific moments:

“All at once… a howl …rose among them. Those who did not cry out, those who were still alive, looked. Two streams of melted lead were falling from the summit of the edifice into the thickest of the rabble. That sea of men had just sunk down beneath the boiling metal, which had made, at the two points where it fell, two black and smoking holes in the crowd, such as hot water would make in snow. Dying men, half consumed and groaning with anguish, could be seen writhing there. Around these two principal streams there were drops of that horrible rain, which scattered over the assailants and entered their skulls like gimlets of fire.  The outcry was heartrending. They fled pell-mell, hurling the beam upon the bodies, the boldest as well as the most timid…

All eyes were raised to the top of the church. They beheld there an extraordinary sight. On the crest of the highest gallery, higher than the central rose window, there was a great flame rising between the two towers with whirlwinds of sparks, a vast, disordered, and furious flame, a tongue of which was borne into the smoke by the wind, from time to time. Below that fire, below the gloomy balustrade with its trefoils showing darkly against its glare, two spouts with monster throats were vomiting forth unceasingly that burning rain, whose silvery stream stood out against the shadows of the lower façade. As they approached the earth, these two jets of liquid lead spread out in sheaves, like water springing from the thousand holes of a watering-pot. Above the flame, the enormous towers, two sides of each of which were visible in sharp outline, the one wholly black, the other wholly red, seemed still more vast with all the immensity of the shadow which they cast even to the sky.

First page of Hugo’s manuscript, which resides in the Bibliotheque Nationale.

Their innumerable sculptures of demons and dragons assumed a lugubrious aspect. The restless light of the flame made them move to the eye. There were griffins which had the air of laughing, gargoyles which one fancied one heard yelping, salamanders which puffed at the fire… And among the monsters thus roused from their sleep of stone by this flame, by this noise, there was one who walked about, and who was seen, from time to time, to pass across the glowing face of the pile, like a bat in front of a candle.

Without doubt, this strange beacon light would awaken far away, the woodcutter of the hills of Bicêtre, terrified to behold the gigantic shadow of the towers of Notre-Dame quivering over his heaths.”

Victor Hugo, savior of Notre Dame.

For Hugo, this desperate defense of the ancient edifice was of more than historic interest. His novel sought to promote the value and preservation of the great cathedral, at a time when the ideals and excesses of the French Revolution had stripped bare much of the building’s gothic majesty, and many favored razing Notre Dame, an unwelcome relic of a bygone age. Hugo’s efforts led to a massive restoration project, which included that magnificent wooden spire that toppled in flames before the stunned eyes of millions last week. The novel is itself a powerful testament to the power of architecture, not to be missed by any fan of vivid historical fiction.

       ~ posted by David W.

If You Liked Where the Crawdads Sing

With its lyrical descriptions of nature and tempestuous love story, Delia Owens’ evocative debut novel Where the Crawdads Sing (a current Peak Pick selection) has taken the literary world by storm. If you enjoyed it, or if you’re still waiting for your reserve copy to arrive, here are some similar titles you might enjoy.

Aldo Leopold’s classic A Sand County Almanac is one of the books that Owens says inspired her to write her novel: “After university, I spent much of my adult life studying wildlife in some of the most remote regions of Africa. Living in those far reaches of the earth inspired me to wonder if I could write a work of compelling fiction against the backdrop of a wild and wonderful place. To combine Leopold-inspired nature writing with a (hopefully) page-turning plot. Where The Crawdads Sing is my attempt at such a dream.” Continue reading “If You Liked Where the Crawdads Sing”

The 2019 Lambda Literary Awards Long List is here!

What good are awards? Do they really mean anything? Are the winners truly better than other books, or is it just a popularity contest? We’ve known readers who only read award winners, and others who actively avoid them, on the theory that award winning books might be more admirable than enjoyable. But there is definitely one aspect of book awards that is a big help to readers: the full lists of nominees – or long lists.

We regularly pore over the longlisted books for the Booker Prize, the Carnegie Medal, the Edgar Awards, the National Book Awards and others, looking for titles that both passed their judges’ muster and capture our own individual interest. One of the best – and longest – long lists each year is the LAMBDA Literary Awards (or Lammys), now entering its 31st year of recognizing excellence in LGBTQIA literature. Lammy winners will be announced on June 3, but you can enjoy their long list, spanning a vast array of categories, right now! It is hard to imagine a better way to get in touch with some of the most interesting LGBTQIA narratives and talented authors writing today. And for your convenience, we’ve posted extensive lists of the finalists for fiction & poetry, non-fiction and graphic novels, and books for youth, right there in our library catalog. Continue reading “The 2019 Lambda Literary Awards Long List is here!”

New Fiction & Non-Fiction Roundup, April 2019

On the first of every month, we usually publish our roundup of new fiction & non-fiction releases for the month ahead, but this month there are so many fascinating titles coming out, we’ve decided to spread the wealth across two days of posts. Here’s a quick preview of books released just today.

4/1: Harold Runs Amok, by Thomas Hairless. In the tradition of Wicked and Mr. Timothy, this provocative sequel to Harold and the Purple Crayon reveals Harold’s darker side: not for the squeamish. Continue reading “New Fiction & Non-Fiction Roundup, April 2019”

Seattle Rep’s A DOLL’S HOUSE, PART 2 – Beyond the Theater

Have you ever wondered what became of a beloved or engaging literary character after the last page turns, or the curtain falls? What happens next? In his award-winning play A Doll’s House, Part 2 – playing at the Seattle Repertory Theater from March 15 to April 28, 2019 – Lucas Hnath applies this curiosity to one of the most startling and provocative endings in all of theater, when Nora Helmer walks out on her husband and family in Henrik Ibsen’s epochal 1879 play A Doll’s House, slamming the door behind her. Continue reading “Seattle Rep’s A DOLL’S HOUSE, PART 2 – Beyond the Theater”