REPRISE: The movie is here — but you should still read the book!

This picture of doomed Fantine’s orphaned daughter, Cosette, appeared in the first edition of Hugo’s novel, and would eventually become the icon for the Broadway musical. Source: Wikipedia

This was originally publised on September 18, 2012. The movie version of Les Miz opened in the U.S. on Christmas Day.

I was almost forty when I first managed to read Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables for the first time (It’s pronounced “Lay Me-zur-AHB”— but if you just want to make it through a conversation, say “Lay MIZ.“). Frankly, just looking at a book that was almost 1,400 pages long was daunting, and so I never got around to it until later in life. As it turned out, it was a good thing. It takes some living to appreciate the intensity and the many themes that are represented in this novel. Also, the incentive for reading this was the appearance on Broadway of a musical based on the novel, the soundtrack for which I had purchased (on casette tapes), the beauty of which made me curious about the story.

What I wouldn’t give to have these comics available now for my grandkids! Image source:

So, I opened the novel and started reading. It took me two weeks to finish it, reading just in the evenings; but when I was done I realized that I had just experienced something special.

Hugo was no stranger to me, as I had read an abridged version of Notre Dame de Paris (better known as The Hunchback of Notre Dame) in high school, and as a kid I had read the Classics Illustrated version. I was also familiar with the movie version starring Lon Chaney as Quasimodo, the misshapen and abandoned orphan whose love fo the gypsy Esmeralda ended with both of them lying side by side for eternity. While that was a fascinating story, Les Miserables touched me in a very different way. The way Hugo intended it to. He wanted to pluck our heartstrings and make us come face to face with the way human beings live beneath the facade of civilization. And that way is filled with poverty, pain, and death. Hugo may have been the first bleeding heart liberal, but sometimes our hearts need to bleed for our fellow man, or woman.

A few years after reading the novel, I finally saw the musical when I was in New York on business. I attended with several friends, one of whom was a former cop whose physical presence and no-nonsense approach to business was intimidating (no doubt why the insurance company he worked for hired him!). Early in the play, a young woman named Fantine–beaten down by cruel fate and even crueler humans, desperate, and rapidly approaching the end of her sad life–sings that song that most people have heard by now, “I Dreamed a Dream.” As she sang, I felt the tears rolling down my cheeks; and, when I turned to look at the tough, burly ex-cop sitting next to me, I saw his tears glistening in the soft stage light. I looked at him very differently after that.

A few years later, my wife and I saw a production at Springfield’s Sangamon Auditorium. As it happened, we attended on the very night that our troops were deployed in the first war against Iraq under George H. W. Bush.

There is a scene in which Jean Valjean kneels over a wounded boy named Marius (a boy who was in love with Valjean’s “daughter” Cosette) and sings a prayer to God begging for the boy’s life:

He is young

He is only a boy

You can take

You can give

Let him be

Let him live.

That very night the twenty-something son of one of our closest friends was in an airplane bound for Iraq. You can’t imagine the impact those words had on us at that moment in time.

That is the power of Les Miserables.

It is said that this novel was in the backpack of soldiers during the Civil War. The Confederates particularly enjoyed it, and towards the end of the war when all hope was vanishing many of them referred to themselves as “Lee’s Miserables.” No doubt, those Southern boys could identify with the men who fought a losing battle from behind the barricades for a cause they believed in. By the end of the war, they knew that they were about to be overcome.

This Christmas, a long awaited film version of the musical is coming out. This is one I am not going to miss.

If you haven’t seen the musical (it has been to Springfield, St. Louis, Champaign, Chicago, and St. Louis on numerous occasions), I urge you to see the movie. However, read the book first. Not an abridged version! I know, it’s tough to do, it’s tough to find the time. But if you do, you will find that the musical version thoroughly captures the power and you will understand how, and why. You may even cry. I did.

If you start reading now, you can be done before the movie hits the theaters. I promise you, it will make the experience that much more meaningful!

Watch the official trailer to the movie, due out at Christmas.

Copyright 2012 Isaac Morris

REPRISE: “Nobody expected this kind of . . . mess.”

He felt a quiet manhood, nonassertive but of sturdy and strong blood. He knew that he would no more quail before his guides wherever they should point. He had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death. He was a man.

Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage


A mother’s son lies dead. Source:

War is hell.

War is personal.

These two points hit you like a sledge hammer in Jeff Shaara’s novel, A Blaze of Glory: A Novel of the Battle of Shiloh (Random House, 2012). A Blaze of Glory is to the battle of Shiloh what Saving Private Ryan is to D-Day—a shocking dose of reality for anyone who clings to romantic notions about war in any age.

It began 2 months after the union army and navy under General Ulysses S. Grant took out Forts Henry and Donelson, thus opening up Tennessee to northern armies and driving confederate forces to the south. General Albert Sydney Johnston took his army south towards Corinth, Mississippi. Grant’s army moved south, intent on besieging the rebels there. But General Johnston had other plans.

Johnston was one of the South’s most lauded generals, and historians to this day debate what might have been the outcome had he and General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson not died early in the war. Our country might be a very different place today.

Johnston wasn’t going to wait for the union army to hit him in Corinth. Instead, he marched some fifty thousand of his men north and surprised about the same number of Grant’s men while they were camped around a little building known as Shiloh Church, a few miles from the Tennessee River and a place called Pittsburg Landing.

The attack caught the union completely by surprise, and during the first day soldiers under Generals Sherman and Grant were brutally driven back to the river and nearly overcome. It was only the death of General Johnston that saved them: his successor in the field, Pierre Beauregard—the “hero” of Fort Sumter—decided as dusk fell that he could rest his men, so certain was he of victory. He was reviled ever after for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. During the night, union forces were reorganized and reinforcements arrived. The following day, the rebels were driven back to Corinth over the remains of the thousands who died the day before.

To say “war is hell” is almost a cliché . We know that already, right? No. We think we do—but unless you have been there you can’t possibly understand. The American civil war is one of those engagements we think of as shoot ‘em up Westerns on television—exciting, romantic, colorful, and filled with adventure. Every summer, hundreds of civil war re-enactors in their blue or grey wool uniforms, accompanied by a bevy of belles in their hoop skirts, travel around calling forth the atmosphere of the 19th century. Even central Illinois, where there was never a battle fought during the war, is host every year to Civil War encampments such as General Grierson Days in Jacksonville, which feature mock battles with deafening cannon, cavalry charges, and infantry engagements. All in good fun.

But as Shaara clearly conveys, there was nothing fun about it. Nothing Dante conjured in his Inferno could approach the horror of Shiloh.

About one hundred thousand Americans faced off along the Tennessee River on April 6-7, 1862. The battle moved towards the river on day one, and then on day two the union drove back against the confederates. Body parts lay in the field, men lay screaming and moaning. On the second day, soldiers were forced to walk over the dead and dying, and the smell made many retch as they walked on piled up corpses, slippery adipose tissue, and insect-covered carcasses to kill even more men. When the smoke cleared, about four thousand were dead, sixteen thousand had been wounded (horrifically, many with the loss of limbs), and several thousand were simply unaccounted for (a good number skedaddled!). In all, one quarter of the armies was dead, mutilated, or missing.

There were not a lot of photographers there to capture what took place at Shiloh: had there been, readers around the country would likely have clamored for an end to it the way we did when we saw pictures of what was occurring in Vietnam. As it was, the horror became little more than headlines for most of the country—so mothers never pictured what their children went through and the slaughter continued for three more years. By the time it ended, about six hundred thousand Americans would be dead.

Shaara makes this hell personal.As he did with Gods and Generals,Shaara tells the story from the point of view of the participants—among them Generals Grant, Sherman, and Johnston, a cavalryman who rode with Nathan Bedford Forrest, and an infantryman with the union army. Each man could only see a small part of the battlefield, could only see the man or men immediately in front of him, men who threatened, men they shot or sliced with bayonet or saber. The omniscient view of battle was for Gods and generals alone—but even the generals couldn’t fathom what was going on in time to stop one of the most horrific slaughters in American warfare up to that time.

In the people whose points of view we encounter we sense fear, confusion, rage, hunger, and an idealism that is hard for us to understand today. An idealism that would allow men to march into fusillades that would decimate their lines, only to line up again and continue on. The stakes were of the most radical and epoch changing. North and South were, truly, two different cultures and the civil war was, in the eyes of many in the South, a battle to see which culture would survive. Shaara sums up this attitude in a speech by an officer named Isham Harris, formerly Tennessee governor and, at Shiloh, an officer in the confederate army:

The South is one nation. We share so much, our beliefs, our culture, and we are willing to wage war for the right to hold to that, to preserve everything that we are. The North . . . they are mixed breeds, a mongrel dog beside a purebred hound. They share nothing that we share, no identity, no culture. They farm in Illinois and they run factories in Boston. If I go to Charleston or Atlanta, I know what I will find, how the people will regard me. I am the same as the man I see. But if a man in Minnesota travels to New York or Boston, he is in another world, isolated. What cause do they share? It is not possible they have a common bond. And now, because they outnumber us, they elect a president who does not represent anything of the South, and instead of reaching out and finding common ground . . . instead of being a leader, he orders his generals to bring their soldiers to our towns, to force us to become . . . them.

It has been a while since I have read four hundred plus pages with such intensity, and I can’t recall reading a book that made me cringe over descriptions of the horrors of the battlefield as this one does. But along with the horror, we witness the humanity. We are touched by these young men who launch headlong into fire and smoke, touched when they turn in terror and run, touched when they are forced to kill and then regret having done so. When Albert Sydney Johnston falls from his horse and exsanguinates from a wound that a tourniquet could have prevented, his aides find in his pocket a half-eaten sandwich that had been fixed for him by a woman in Nashville who admired him as a Southern gentleman. We sense the panic as soldiers from Sherman’s divisions drop their weapons and flee for the river, some never to be seen again. And we look on with admiration as Nathan Bedford Forrest leads a cavalry charge to stop pursuing Yankees, only to find that he is suddenly alone facing several thousand infantrymen. Still, he rides on—and lives to talk about it.

Some might complain that this isn’t history–it is fiction. Perhaps. Shaara’s voluminous research notwithstanding, one has to admit that the dialogue is the stuff of imagination. But it is plausible. It is grounded in original sources. History only tells us the facts. For the humanity of it all, fiction is the most viable vehicle.

A Blaze of Glory is to be the first in a trilogy. I eagerly await the next installment.

Rating (4/5)

Copyright Isaac Morris 2012

REPRISE: A rare experience for the soul (assuming, of course, that you have one)

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED MAY 15, 2012. This is a spiritual journey suitable for a Christmas day.

I’ve read many good books, many bad books, and many mediocre books over the course of my lifetime. There is a fourth category, however, which I call “Books-That-Stir-Your-Soul” (BTSYS). You know, the ones that start something warm coursing down your chest, speaking to you in a way you never knew possible, and making you conscious in a new way. Books in this category are few, but include Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, Faulkner’s Light in August and As I Lay Dying, and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Your list will probably differ, but you get the idea.

There is now an addition to my BTSYS list, a novel by Marilynne Robinson called Gilead(Picador, New York, 2004). This is not a new book, but I only encountered it upon reviewing Marilynne Robinson’s recent book of essays, When I Was A Child I Read Books.  In the process, I found myself in awe of Ms. Robinson’s ability to express the ineffable with words that wrap themselves around you and then pull tight the knots of meaning in an unforgettable way.

Marilynne Robinson teaches at the Iowa Writers Workshop. Gilead won her a Pulitzer, and her latest book — When I Was A Child I Read Books — has been reviewed on this site. Her message goes against the grain in a society that only believes what it can verify empirically.

The book’s title refers to a place, a small community in Iowa, not far from the Kansas border. The time frame is the early 1950s. The narrator is a man named John Ames, a seventy-six (soon to be seventy-seven) year old Congregationalist minister. The entire book is a letter to his six-year old son.  John’s heart is giving out, and he will soon die. In the letter, he is telling his young son—born of a late-in-life marriage to a much younger woman—about himself, his life, his family, and his faith.

In this letter, Ames confronts his family’s history. He is the son of a preacher, whose grandfather was an abolitionist preacher during the years of “Bloody Kansas.” His grandfather hovers over this story and reminiscences abound about how the old man rode with John Brown and how he sometimes stood in the pulpit with a pistol and bloody clothing. These were the stories John Ames heard from his father, but all he remembered about Grandpa was the way the old man would look at him, as if knowing what was in his mind, and how he had a habit of just taking stuff from other people. The people around Gilead just came to accept the old man’s idiosyncrasies.

The love story between Ames and his wife, who showed up at a service on a Pentecost and who seemed to be taken by the much older man’s kind and gentle ways, is the reredos behind the story: the curtain is parted only slightly in his portrayal of the woman, but she remains largely a mystery to us. We do know that she loved John enough to give him a child in his old age and to fill his life with love long after he lost his first wife and child. When the ne’er do well son of his closest friend, a Presbyterian minister he grew up with, arrives back in Gilead John begins to notice that his wife and son seem taken by the younger man and John’s creeping mortality begins to work on his fears for the future.

The themes that streak though this novel include respect, something people had for one another in earlier times; and light. Images are constantly appearing about the light, and it intrudes upon life in the most unexpected moments, such as when his young son and a friend are playing in the sprinkler:

The sprinkler is a magnificent invention because it exposes raindrops to sunshine. That does occur in nature, but it is rare… I’ve always loved to baptize people, though I have sometimes wished there were more shimmer and splash involved in the way we go about it. Well, but you two are dancing around in your iridescent little downpour, whooping and stomping as sane people  ought to do when they encounter a thing so miraculous as water.

The phrase “in the way we go about it” refers to the fact that John’s denomination baptizes by sprinkling, not immersion. This issue and many other religious questions pop up in his letter, only to make very evident that there is a real difference between his faith lived and that same faith observed from outside. This is why atheists as well as Christians should read Gilead. Much of what those who attack Christianity base their attacks on are misunderstandings. For example, when confronted with a sincere question about salvation, particularly the famously Calvinist notion that God has pre-determined who is saved and who is damned before they are born, John addresses this question with a startling lack of dogmatism and comes down decidedly on the side of a merciful God.

John Ames is not a man who bases his life on dogma. He is a believer who understands the intricacies of faith and does not rest on its supposed certainties. And, in spite of the fact that Christianity is often seen as a life-denying faith, John’s statement in this letter to the child he will not see grow up makes it quite clear that his faith is anything but. In fact, faith is the element in his life that adds the sparkle to existence.

“Remembering my youth,” writes John, “makes me aware that I never really had enough of it, it was over before I was done with it…Oh, I will miss the world!”

This is a book to ponder, to read and re-read, and to carry through life as we grow older and find ourselves feeling the need to explain why we are the way they are to those we are about to leave behind. Most people don’t really think about it, however. What a shame. Letters like this from parents a just might help to make our children better human beings.

Unfortunately, the notion of what a “better human being” is may seem strange to a world that demands empirical demonstrations for every concept. If you are among those, don’t read this book. Unless you want to rethink some of your basic assumptions.

Rating (5/5)

Copyright Isaac Morris 2012

REPRISE: Illinois crooks and politicians: an interview with Taylor Pensoneau

Author Taylor Pensoneau and his wife, Elizabeth March Pensoneau,


Mention bootlegging in Illinois and Al Capone immediately comes to mind. Few people realize how widespread the activity was, or that some of the bloodiest battles over who controlled the practice in Illinois took place not on Chicago’s North Side, but in southern Illinois. A decade ago, author Taylor Pensoneau published Brothers Notorious: The Sheltons – Southern Illinois’ Legendary Gangsters (Downstate Publications, New Berlin, IL, 2002). Writing in his crisp, journalistic style, Pensoneau related how the Shelton brothers (who made the James boys look like kids in somebody’s choir) engaged in bloody combat, using armored trucks and, in one instance, an aerial assault, in and around downstate Williamson County. The book continues to sell well and surprise readers when they learn that the worst criminals weren’t found in the big cities but right down the road.

Pensoneau grew up in Belleville, Illinois, and early in life decided that he wanted to write. After graduating from the University of Missouri at Columbia (“Mizzou”) with a degree in journalism, he went to work at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (PD) and soon became a political writer. His success earned him an assignment as PD bureau chief in Springfield, Illinois where he made many important contacts. Those contacts later led to biographies of some of Illinois’ most famous—and infamous—politicians like Governors Richard Olgivie and Dan Walker.

Taylor and his wife, Elizabeth—a former magazine editor—live in New Berlin, Illinois, where together they operate their own publishing company, Downstate Publications.

A popular speaker in the area on issues relating to writing, Taylor Pensoneau is man who takes his craft seriously. He is also very much a gentleman.

What follows is an interview I conducted recently with Taylor about his career, his books, and his fascination with crooks and politicians.

Morris Chair: You started your career as a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.  How did the experience help you achieve your goals as a writer?

Taylor Pensoneau: My writing in books and for other venues has been governed almost entirely by the writing style demanded of reporters at the Post-Dispatch.  The editors insisted on succinctness in articles or stories in which clarity was attained through minimal wordage getting right to the point.  As I gradually progressed to lengthy news analyses on the editorial pages, some deviation from the norm was permitted.  However, flowery lingo never was tolerated.  Interestingly, reviewers of my books often have noted that I write like a journalist.  Some mean this as a compliment, a few not so.  Whatever, I guess I write like a journalist because I am a journalist.

MC: Your only work of fiction, The Summer of ’50, features an iconic, hard-boiled newspaper reporter named Jake Brosky. Is Jake your secret alter ego?  Did you imagine, when you were younger, being a hard-boiled tough guy who dug deep and dangerous to get a story?  Be honest now.

TP: Honestly speaking, the answer is yes.  I did envision as a young reporter being a callous digger who’d stop at nothing to bring investigative disclosures to the front page.  Jake Brosky was a compilation of older reporters I observed at the Post-Dispatch.  The main model, though, was Ted Link, one of the premier investigative reporters in the United States.  And believe me, he was hard-boiled.  I think he even carried a pistol.  Now, as for yours truly, I had some notable successes in investigative reporting involving Illinois government, results of my penchant for deep digging.  But, I never reached the unfeeling, ruthless stage of some in the business.  Through it all, I still coveted, deep inside, being regarded as a nice guy.  Too, I sometimes had mixed feelings about the outcome of a successful probe.  The satisfaction part of it might be tempered by the not joyous realization that I had caused damage to the career of a person or persons in Illinois government.  It was like wanting to burn a candle from both ends.

MC: Your career turned to politics, quite unexpectedly, early into your newspaper career through the opportunity to come to Springfield.  Tell us a little about that.

TP: I had no inkling ahead of time that the editors of the Post-Dispatch were to select me to man a reactivated P-D bureau in the pressroom in the Illinois Statehouse.  However, having one’s own bureau away from St. Louis was a big deal at the paper, and it offered an unlimited opportunity for me to make a name for myself.  I couldn’t have been more excited about the move.

MC: How did you adapt to the world of politics, with its ever-shifting allegiances and agendas, and also to the personalities encountered in Springfield?

TP: Let me say right off the bat that, when the newspaper moved me to Springfield, I knew more about Missouri politics than those in my home state of Illinois.  At the time, the only big political names in Illinois familiar to me were Alan Dixon, Paul Powell, Paul Simon, Governor Kerner and Mayor Daley.  Nevertheless, I hit the ground running in the Illinois Capitol, utilizing my zeal and open-mindedness in a sort of crash course to bring myself up to snuff.  The home office gave me incredible freedom and time to get my bearings.  Not all reporters coming to Springfield enjoyed that kind of break.  Developing sources was not that difficult.  Many downstate—or at least central and southern Illinois—politicians and officials welcomed a Post-Dispatch presence in the Statehouse.  I was an automatic magnet for liberals because of the P-D’s liberal editorial policy.  And, it was amazing how quickly reformists and do-gooders sought me out.  Few reporters in the Statehouse not from Chicago were engaging in investigative or other reporting that went beyond the norm.  I benefited greatly from that, especially in view of the fact I was not sent to Springfield to duplicate the wire services—all of which my paper subscribed to.  I was free to separate myself from the rest of the downstate reportorial pack.

Former Illinois governor Dan Walker: “…a fascinating and complicated individual.” Image source: NC Times

MC: Dan Walker.  Need I say more.  Bring him up in a crowded room and you will start an argument.  “He was the worst thing ever to happen to Illinois,” is frequently heard.  But, some who worked with him think that he walked on water.  Your book about him is aptly titled “Dan Walker: The Glory and the Tragedy.”  What is your take on the guy?

TP: Walker is a fascinating and complicated individual.  At the time I am answering these questions, he is nearing his ninetieth birthday.  We talk by phone several times a month.  He says I am the last confidant in his life, and I believe him.  The only person I’ve understood better than Walker has been my own father.  My insights into his mindsets, frailties, psyche and, yes, brilliance, extend even beyond what I brought out in my biography of him.  And the book delved into a lot.  Walker certainly did not walk on water.  Yet, it is ridiculous to say he’s the worst thing to happen to Illinois.  Blagojevich may be a candidate for that assessment.  Remember, Walker broke the Daley machine’s stranglehold on the state’s Democratic Party.  Considering his poverty-stricken upbringing, there is much about the Walker story that is inspiring.  Prison or no prison.  And don’t forget, his federal conviction had nothing to do with being governor of Illinois.

MC: The book for which you perhaps are best known is Brothers Notorious: The Sheltons, the saga of the Shelton gang in southern Illinois.  What drew you to this story, and why do you feel it is important?

TP: I was inevitably drawn to the Shelton book.  As I grew up in Belleville, people talked about the Shelton brothers all the time.  At the Post-Dispatch, older reporters who’d covered the Sheltons related their experiences to me.  Later, in covering politics in southern Illinois, I encountered people still infatuated with the Sheltons’ criminal dynasty.  When I was asked after my Governor Ogilvie biography came out late in 1997 to consider a book on the Sheltons, I was surprised to ascertain that one had not been written.  As to why I feel the book is important, I say the following.  The Shelton exploits make for darn good reading.  That’s one thing.  Moreover, the Sheltons ruled downstate crime in Illinois during the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression and World War II.  As I relate the Shelton story, I put into context the culture and other ingredients of downstate Illinois life while the Sheltons rode high.  Consequently, the book fits to some extent into a historical genre.

MC: Politicians and crooks.  They seem to attract you.  Any comment about this?

TP: I field questions about this all the time.  My attraction to or interest in politicians is easy to figure.  Coverage of political news was a major part of my job.  In fact, my byline identified me as the Illinois political correspondent of the Post-Dispatch.  Going back further, I always was interested in government and public policy issues.  As for the crooks, I developed an early fascination with the fabled lawless period in southern Illinois during the first half of the twentieth century.  There was more to it than the Shelton gang.  I absorbed all I could on the subject.  Another facet of my attraction to criminal history is that books on the black sheep in society sell very well.  So I admit to a commercial consideration in my writing on gangsters.

MC: It is obvious that your wife Liz has played a major role in your success as a writer.  Could you comment on this?

TP: Most definitely.  We are a team.  The role of Liz in my books is two fold.  First, Liz, a retired editor of a magazine, edits my writing.  This is a real boon for me, having a great in-house editor.  Secondly, Liz oversees the business end of Downstate Publications, the small firm we set up to publish some of my books.  This is a demanding task because of the detailed paperwork involved in dealing with Barnes & Noble and other retail outlets.  Frankly, I would be lost without her.

Copyright 2012 Isaac Morris

Top Ten Posts of 2012

Ever wonder what people are reading? Here are my top ten reviews, based on site-clicks, for 2012. The first one–the Queen of Darkness is Back–had more than 1,700 views. 

The Queen of Darkness is Back — With a Difference

Review: Professor Hardiman’s “Godot” makes waiting worthwhile

REPRISE: Lincoln in the Oval Office. Oh! Maybe Not! Never Mind!

Asshole management — a practical use for philosophy

The Righteous Mind: a paradigm-shifting look at how we behave ethically

Ray Bradbury (1920 – June 5, 2010) “We are a democracy of readers.”

What do we really know about Mitt Romney’s religion?

The House of Disorder – Who Hasn’t Lived There?

College teachers, take notes


Anne Rice’s “The Wolf Gift” review was # 1 




Thank you for your support during my first complete year of The Morris Chair.

May this Holiday Season bring new light into your life, and happiness into your heart.

The Morris Chair will resume after the New Year.

Meanwhile, I will reblog some of my favorite reviews during the week to come!

Have a wonderful holiday season!