Les Miserables is the Story of Grace and Redemption We Need

Librarian’s Pick
Les Miserables (2012 film)
Available on DVD at Aitkin Library

Victor Hugo authored Les Miserables in 1862. It achieved perfection 120 years later as a London musical production with music by Claude-Michel Schonberg and lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer. Tom Hooper brought it to the big screen in 2012. The epic tale of the downtrodden in post revolutionary France combines music, acting, and drama to achieve storytelling perfection. The archetypal characters, moral dilemmas, and sweeping melodies capture the highs and lows of the human condition and urge us to ponder unanswerable questions. 

In the Prologue, prison chants set the tone. Jean Valjean is serving 19 years as Prisoner 24601 for stealing a loaf of bread. His antagonist, the unforgiving prison guard Javert, issues Valjean his yellow ticket of leave but warns him that he will starve again unless he learns the meaning of the law.

Resorting to a life of crime, Valjean appears to be doomed to a life back under the lash and upon the rack until an act of grace by the saintly Bishop of Digne inspires him. By the witness of the martyrs and the passion of the blood, he has bought Valjean’s soul for God. The next time we see him in act one, he’ll have a new identity as the Mayor of Montreul.

“At the End of the Day” we meet little Fantine working in the Mayor’s factory. Through the singsong taunts of her vindictive coworkers, we learn she has an illegitimate child, the darling Cosette. Conspiring with the lecherous foreman, these 19th century Mean Girls push Fantine into the street. 

Our hearts break with her as she sings, “I Dreamed a Dream.” Anne Hathaway demonstrates how to win an Oscar in 4 minutes. With her big sad eyes and perfect face, she sings through her sobs like a fallen angel. It only gets worse for Fantine in “Lovely Ladies” where she sells her jewelry, hair, teeth and eventually her body and soul; ten francs may save her poor Cosette. 

Meanwhile, Inspector Javert is suspicious that the Mayor is the long lost parolee Valjean but he apprehends someone else in a case of mistaken identity. We find the Mayor having a crisis of conscience in “Who am I?”  If he speaks, he is condemned but if he stays silent, he is damned. While he tries to justify his silence to himself, he remembers the bargain he made with God. The music swells and we can feel the power of the holy spirit pumping through his veins and into his heart as he defiantly confesses to Javert that he is indeed Jean Valjean, the lost prisoner two.. four.. six.. oh.. ooooonnnne. He resolves his bargain with God and his identity with that high 8 beat G#. 

After a chaotic showdown with Javert, he redeems himself for his inability to protect Fantine and pledges to her that Cosette will want for nothing. We finally get a little comic relief when we meet the delightfully wicked Thenardiers who have been “caring” for her. The innkeepers and “Master of the House” who will charge ‘em for the lice, extra for the mice, two percent for lookin’ in the mirror twice.

In act two, Valjean and Cosette have started over in Paris and Cosette is now a young woman. She catches the eye of the student rebel Marius who finds love to be a tempting substitute for revolutionary zeal. “Red and Black” used to represent the blood of angry men and the dark of ages past but now, they’re the color of desire and the world if she’s not there. Ultimately, Marious can’t abandon his cause and “Do You Hear the People Sing” has the beating of our hearts echoing the beating of the drums as we march towards revolution with the young idealists.

In a heart wrenching sleight of hand, we discover the purest love is not the love Marius and Cosette have for each other or even Marius’s love for his doomed uprising. It’s young Eponine’s unrequited love for Marius. Her realization when she sings “On my Own” that Marius is blind to her love does not turn her bitter. Instead, her selfless actions reaffirm that true love doesn’t demand rewards. It is the reward.

The stories of Valjean, Javert, and the revolutionaries and the girls who love them converge on the streets of Paris. Hugo and Kretzmer tie these loose ends in a satisfying knot that sticks in our throats. Les Miz doesn’t give us the payoff we expect but the bittersweet one we need. It reminds us that grace and redemption exist and those moments of light will have us thanking the darkness for making them possible. 

Notice of Budget Hearing

NOTICE OF BUDGET HEARING AITKIN MEMORIAL DISTRICT LIBRARY The Aitkin Memorial District Library Board will hold a public hearing on the proposed library budget for fiscal year July 1, 2020 to June 30, 2021 at the Aitkin Memorial District Library, 111 N. Howard Ave., Croswell, Michigan 48422 on Thursday, May 28 at 7 p.m. Due to State of Michigan restrictions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, this meeting will only be accessible online via Zoom at this web location, https://zoom.us/j/98239794185 The property tax millage rate proposed to be levied to support the proposed budget will be a subject of this hearing. A copy of the budget is available for public inspection by request at the Library, 111 N. Howard Ave., Croswell, Michigan.

The Aitkin Memorial District Library Board will provide necessary reasonable auxiliary aids and services, such as signers for the hearing impaired and audio tapes of printed materials being considered at the meeting, to individuals with disabilities at the meeting upon 5 days’ notice to the Library Board. Individuals with disabilities requiring auxiliary aids or services should contact the Library by writing or calling the following: Marty Rheaume, Library Director, 111 N. Howard Ave., Croswell, Michigan, 810-679-3627.

Hamilton: Original Broadway Cast Recording

Hamilton: Original Broadway Cast Recording
Written and Composed by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Atlantic Records: 2015
Available at the Croswell Library as a 2 Disk Set (coming soon)
Review by Marty Rheaume

From the opening title track to the tragic end, Miranda uses the allure of music to form a palpable connection with our forefathers and the birth of our country. The fist pounding, foot stomping revolutionary spirit reverberates through every track on Disk 1. Hamilton’s impending doom hangs over Disk 2, creating a reflection on political intrigue and family drama. Taken together, they deliver a cinematic musical experience that demands attention and rewards the astute listener.

“Alexander Hamilton” sets the tone with a rousing introduction to the bastard, orphan, son of a Scotsman who lands in New York to be a new man. It’s sung by Alexander (Miranda) and the rest of the cast, including historical heavyweights George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Marquis de Lafayette, King George the III, and Hamilton’s scheming antagonist, Aaron Burr.

“Aaron Burr, Sir” is a glimpse into the polemical relationship between the idealistic Hamilton and the opportunistic Burr, establishing Burr as the central narrator and villain. It’s followed by “My Shot,” a brash meeting of revolutionaries and a continued refrain throughout the production.

We meet Hamilton’s lovely wife Eliza and her sophisticated sister Anjelica as they tantalize us with the intriguing love triangle that characterizes the relationship between them in “The Schuyler Sisters.” They make repeat appearances throughout the show and never fail to add heart and soul.

“You’ll be Back” provides comic relief as King George III plays the role of the spurned monarch who will send a fully armed battalion to remind us of his love. Meanwhile, General Washington is outgunned, outmanned, outnumbered, and out planned so he recruits the young scrappy and hungry Alexander to be his “Right Hand Man.”

The Revolution comes to a victorious end in “Yorktown,” another rebellious fist pumper, as Washington, Lafayette, and Hamilton defeat the British. King George III responds to the cocky upstarts by asking “What Comes Next?” in a petulant send off to his former colony.

Disk 2 commences with Jefferson’s grandiose return from France and flows right into the newly arrived Secretary of State’s “Cabinet Battle #1” with Treasury Secretary Hamilton. The rivals go head to head and toe to toe with ruthless style and mic dropping moments.

When Hamilton is not battling the Virginian duo of Jefferson and Madison, he’s trying to balance the roles of young father and young Founding Father and fails when he’s seduced by the siren song of forbidden desire in “Can’t Say No to This.”

After the fallout from Hamilton’s indiscretion and a catastrophic family tragedy, the album loses the triumphalism of Disk 1 and grapples with the challenge of leadership, the struggle of betrayal, and the emptiness of loss.

It culminates in America’s most infamous duel and the bittersweet ending of “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?” For Hamilton, it’s the wounded Eliza poignantly immortalizing her Icarus of a husband with her works and his words.

Hamilton delivers top-notch songwriting and gripping storytelling. Refrains repeated throughout the production contribute to the pacing and cohesiveness of the show while shifting meaning and morphing with the context. Miranda expertly employs them to foreshadow events and recall earlier moments, keeping the audience engaged and aware. The denseness of lyrical content and the melodic hooks were made to listen to on repeat. Hamilton captures the American story in all its messy glory in a way that’s never been done before.

Book Review: Columbine

Columbine
Hatchette Book Group, NY: 2010; 2016
by Dave Cullen
Book Review by Marty Rheaume
Available at the Croswell Library

Columbine haunts us with sobbing teenagers, grieving parents, and dead students who endure in our collective consciousness.  April 20, 1999 wasn’t the first school shooting but it is the one that created a cult of theatrical violence preaching terror and narcissistic loathing. Astonishingly, acolytes embraced the sermon and spread it, wreaking havoc for the next couple of decades, while the rest of us wonder why the nihilistic message appeals to so many.

Cullen uses 400 plus pages to illuminate that day and the deranged minds that orchestrated it. After being one of the first reporters on the scene, he spent the following ten years on the book. With a well-paced narrative, he alternates between the years leading up to that day and the fallout that resulted from it. We meet the victims, their families, the killers, their parents, and the overmatched law enforcement officials trying to make sense of it. Poignant moments of strength and forgiveness abound but this is no feel-good book.

Columbine is most gripping when it explores clinical psychopathy through the twisted mind of Eric Harris along with Dylan Klebold’s sycophantic relationship with him. Harris’s calculating cruelty is so foreign to the empathetic reader, it’s impossible not to be intrigued by his alien thought process. Meanwhile, examining Klebold’s tortured soul gives the reader a different feeling. His relatability lends some humanity to the pair and makes him the more tragic figure.

The juxtaposition of the two perpetrators gives the book a dynamic energy that keeps the pages turning and the mind searching for answers. Harris wanted to watch the world burn. Moreover, he wanted to light the match. Klebold was a disillusioned young man whose frustration with a fallen world led to violent outbursts. We watch their relationship develop into a runaway train fueled by animosity, resentfulness, and spite. Cullen frustrates us by illustrating various opportunities local authorities had to derail that hate train. Most gut-wrenching was an affidavit to search Harris’s house that inexplicably slipped through the cracks, despite linking him to a homemade pipe bomb found in the neighborhood. The results were fifteen dead, a nation scarred, and a darker world.

Twenty years later, we must admit that Eric Harris won. He got everything he wanted: terror, infamy, a legacy of fans, and copycat killers. He let an evil genie out of the bottle and now he’s laughing in Hell as we blame each other for the destruction.

Book Review: The Lone Wolverine

The Lone Wolverine: Tracking Michigan’s Most Elusive Animal
Elizabeth Philips Shaw & Jeff Ford
University of Michigan Press: 2012
Available at the Croswell Library
Review by Marty Rheaume

Michigan is the Wolverine State. It’s been our unofficial state motto since our southern neighbors discovered that we were the ugliest, meanest, fiercest creatures of the North. Rather than hide from the insult, we embraced it as a symbol of northern toughness. Curiously though, no living wolverine had ever been documented in Michigan. For almost 200 years, we had been the Wolverine State without proof of a wild wolverine ever stepping foot on our soil until one winter day in 2004 in the most unlikely of places.

Of course, there had been “sightings” of wolverines in Michigan, along with UFOs, Bigfoot, and Elvis in Kalamazoo. As the first calls of a wolverine sighting came into the DNR office on that cold February morning, the conservation officer took it about that seriously. Eyewitness testimony is slightly better than useless, except when it’s worse. People mistake raccoons for bears, dogs for wolves, and housecats for cougars. It’s easy to imagine the officer patiently rolling his eyes as the first call came in and becoming annoyed as the phone kept ringing but when the call came claiming the wolverine had been treed a few miles south of Bad Axe, it could no longer be ignored. The DNR got there just in time to officially document the first wolverine sighting in the history of the Wolverine State.

This mysterious wolverine sighting in Michigan’s Thumb provoked more questions than answers. For Deckerville science teacher and track coach Jeff Ford, the mystery became an obsession. After surviving a family tragedy as a young child, Ford developed an intense bond with the rhythms of the natural world. The solitude and the potential for discovery and connection animated his youth, while allowing his psychological trauma to scar over. He continued to be an avid outdoorsman as an adult, publishing his writings in various outdoor magazines. By 2010, he had earned the title, “The Wolverine Guy” for his work documenting the story of the Michigan Wolverine.

How did a wolverine end up in the heart of Thumb, hundreds of miles from the nearest known population? “The Lone Wolverine” tells of Ford’s relentless search for the answer. He pursued it through muck and snow and pushed his ailing heart to the limit. He paid the price for the obsession with time, debt, and familial strain.  For six years, he haunted the Minden City Swamp in search of its most famous resident; tracking her, photographing her, collecting DNA samples, and ultimately falling in love with his “pretty gal,” the lone Michigan Wolverine. We’re all richer because of it. Thank you, Mr. Ford.

Book Review: Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy
J.D. Vance
Published by Harper Collins in 2016
Book available at Aitkin Library
Discussion to take place Thursday, March 29 at 2:30 pm at Aitkin Library

In Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance documents his cultural migration from an impoverished Appalachian Hillbilly in southeastern Ohio to a law student in the hallowed halls of Yale. Having one foot in each of those worlds puts him in a unique position to elegize the cultural ecology from which hillbillies spring. He chronicles poverty and addiction, honor and obligations, and the troubled heart of rural America. Credited for having his fingers on the pulse of the Trump phenomenon, Vance wrote one of 2017’s most celebrated books.

Opioid epidemics, unemployment, broken homes and despair plague shrinking towns and cities of the Rust Belt from Appalachia to the Great Lakes. It wasn’t always this way. For years, the American Dream was within reach for people with little formal education. People migrated from agricultural jobs in the South to industrial jobs in the North and made a proud living. Americans soon took this Post-War industrial boom as our birthright until globalization and automation interrupted our blue collar prosperity. CEOs shipped jobs to Mexico as they discovered Mexicans are also capable of working hard jobs but at a fraction of the wages. Robots work twice as hard and complain half as much. Politicians from Bill Clinton, to Barrack Obama to Donald Trump tell us they can solve our problems. We’ll put tariffs on the countries that are ripping us off. We’ll raise the minimum wage so fast food workers can support their families. We’ll make drugs illegal so people stop doing them… On and on they promise as the Rust Belt gets rustier and health and financial trends that had been on an upward trajectory for centuries are now on the downhill slope of the race to the bottom.

Against this narrative backdrop, Vance shines the spotlight on rural culture. How did the culture of people who developed a reputation for hard work become a victimhood culture of learned helplessness? How is it the government’s fault that husbands are leaving their wives and single mothers are smoking meth? How can schools educate kids who subsist on Coke and Pop Tarts? How can people be trained to work if they’re unwilling to clean up their yards, brush their teeth or take care of their own dogs?  Unlike the politicians with their promises, Vance doesn’t talk about grand solutions. He doesn’t suggest an easy trade war to solve the problems or more government spending. It’s not about Left versus Right. It’s not a self-help book either. There are no step by step solutions to getting us out of poverty but getting our own houses in order is a fine place to start.

First Tuesday Concert: Lost Cuzzins

Lost Cuzzins
Harmonies and Humor
Tuesday, June 5 @ 6 pm
Croswell Library

THE CUZZINS music is a mixed-bag including folk, classic rock, country, newgrass and folk-rock. Add a bit of their humor and you get a lively entertainment package. Harmonies are a strong point. Guitars, dobro, mandolin, bass, keyboards, tin whistle, they play them all.

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging

Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging
by Sebastian Junger
Published by Hatchett Book Group (134 pages)
Available at Aitkin Library in hardcover and  downloadable audiobook
Book Review by Marty Rheaume

In Tribe, Junger explores the social phenomenon of tribal membership. By diving into our psychological need for belonging, Junger discovers our most horrific experiences have a mysterious allure. In the aftermath of adversity, war, and national disaster, people look back nostalgically at the bonds they built and the intensity of being alive in the midst of threatening environments. This observation provides the canvas to trace these paradoxical feelings back to our tribal roots and show how our lack of connection and purpose manifest themselves in neurotic and pathological behavior.

Many of us suffer the ennui of modern life. Our basic needs are met with little direct connection to our daily tasks, so it can be hard to find meaning in our work. Families are spread out across the state, country, and globe disrupting familial bonds. Our human interactions are often reduced to social media and work, leaving people dissatisfied, lonely, and empty.  Ironically, when fate interrupts and we’re put in a position of survival where we work with a small group of people, we find these experiences enrich our lives with meaning, despite the trauma we also experience.

Viewed through the perspective Junger provides, so many of our curious modern conditions make sense. The partisan bickering, racist resentment, addiction, depression, mass shootings, suicide and everything else can be viewed as failures in man’s search for meaning. People are looking for their tribe and looking for meaning.  Even though societal affluence grows, we’re afflicted with alienation and angst, because our instincts and muscle memory are telling us to search for something that’s rapidly disappearing.

The allure for connection and meaning still has immense pull on our psyches. It helps explain human fascination with war. War acts as a pressure cooker for creating meaning and intimate bonds. As horrific as it can be, those who go through war can develop an attachment or even addiction to the intimacy, adrenaline, and sense of purpose war offers.  Returning veterans are challenged with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and a struggle to assimilate back into civilian life.  As horrible as war is, at least they had a purpose and each other.

Junger uses his own experience, studies, anecdotes and statistics to support his observations. His narrative makes intuitive sense to the reader. Most of us can remember the camaraderie of a sports team, along with the feelings of pride we held after our collective suffering or the impromptu barbeques after a big storm when the power goes out. We’ve witnessed this in our own lives, and he makes it easy for us to extrapolate these observations onto society. He doesn’t provide us with any answers, but he holds up a mirror, so we can observe our intense search for meaning and connection. Maybe it’ll help us form our own tribes.

Ourselves in Concert

Ourselves in Concert
Sweet and Sour Irish Love Songs
Aitkin Library Donovan Room
Tuesday, October 3 at 6 pm

We’re excited to present Ourselves in an acoustic concert event in the Donovan Room. You’ll hear sweet and sour Irish love songs. Get in the spirit and tap your feet and sing along to the upbeat folky sounds from the Trio. Ourselves features local musicians Lynn Surbrook, along with Walt and Tom Schlicting.