ComPost Live with Alexandra Petri

May 28, 2013

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Howdy all! Okay, I'm going to arbitrarily declare this Summer Reading Chat, since we can officially wear white and sit on the beach and consume colorful beverages with zigzag straws shaped like flamingoes and et cetera.

I've been reading Les Miserables, since I embarrassingly hadn't and I've seen the musical far too many times for that to be acceptable. So far, as beach reading, I cannot recommend it. It is heavy, and people pelt you with beachballs, shouting, "You can't get knowledge from books!" I am not making this up. So, what's better?

You're not only up against a Gene update, but that other humor chatter, Dear Prudence, is on at noon today.

What I want to know is, how do the people with the really bizarre family configurations or oddly specific ethical dilemmas know to seek Prudence out? They seem to find her unerringly.

Looks like you've got some summer reading to do!

And we've already got one!

And by "And we've already got one" i mean "That's the first summer reading suggestion" not "I have my copy downloaded and ready."

You could compare it to the original.

I had to read the DaVinci Code for class in high school (I swear high school was otherwise not a complete and total joke) and it was pretty page-turner-ish. It was sort of like a crossword; on the whole, relaxing, but you had to spend some time puzzling at it.

How abridged is it? I mean, you're not reading the whole thing, are you? It's usually published with some abridgement since the book is practically cubical.

I've heard it affectionately referred to as The Brick by people who venture into it. I've got the update of the Wilbour translation, which bills itself as The Only Complete And Unabridged Paperback. I like it, because Victor Hugo likes to repeat himself and sometimes say the same thing twice, often in the same sentence, using lots of commas, and sometimes will even go so far as to use six or seven ways of saying an absolutely identical thing, but it's so nicely phrased that you forgive him a lot. It feels very conversational, which it might not without all the rambling. I like books where you feel kind of taken hostage by someone else's mind for a period of weeks and it's been scratching that itch admirably.

On the other hand, people probably walk by and say "she's reading Les Miserables. Must be Alexandra Petri."

That would explain why they pelted me with beachballs.

It seems like most of the advice letters (not just to Prudence) are of the form "someone I know is doing something I would never do. Isn't that outrageous?" 75% are variations on "My sister-in-law sleeps in her flip-flops. Should I tell her that's bizarre and dangerous and she'll warp her children or butt out?"

That's true, come to think of it! Carolyn at least is pretty good about saying, "Obviously I don't know the situation but it really sounds like you're the problem here" or "Why is this your business?"

Audio books! You plug something into your phone and carry it around all summer. Plus you can close your eyes at the beach and still enrich your mind without eyestrain.

But how will I get sand into it?

I just read "Gone with the Wind." Get the Pocket Books edition; its trashy bodice-ripper cover makes it look like a Harlequin novel, and its heft satisfies your desire to tote a ginormous paperback, containing enough pulp fibers to dry off multiple family members, to the shore.

This seems like an excellent call.

Are they afraid of Carolyn Hax, or what?

But I mean if I were someone who, to take a random example, just discovered that My Husband Had A Secret Vasectomy, how do I suddenly gravitate towards Prudence? It seems like she gets everyone who's had a secret vasectomy. Maybe there's a mailing list of some kind.

He's a plotter. He needs to get someone else to do the actual writing, though.

He does parody criticisms of his writing in this latest one, though, I hear.

I hate these spoilers on Twitter. Now "Attested Development" has been ruined when those who have watched all the episodes already told the world that twist where Kristin Shepard kills Lady Sybil.


When people ask me my favorite book I always say Tristram Shandy, though I never managed to get through the whole book. Maybe if they had chapters/sections available for reading on the Metro, the old 'serialized / way station' method I could manage.

I feel as though an incomplete reading of TS is something Sterne would completely approve of!

I've always wondered how you clean those straws. I mean, do you really want to re-use them if they're clogged with colorful beverage?

Pipe cleaner, maybe? Seems like more trouble than it's worth. Perhaps Hints From Heloise, if there's a chat...

Was he paid by the word, or did he just have really long contracts for serials?

He actually went back and kept adding big chunks that weren't there before he finally published the whole thing, but I think it was originally serialized in ten chunks. I also like that it came out in 1862, and a lot of Civil War luminaries were reading it. There's a whole joke where some fellow approaches a Southern woman to ask what she thinks of Les Miserables and she responds, "Well, they're just as good as Grant's miserables!" 

Also, it approvingly mentions John Brown as a contemporary bearer of the Spirit of 1789. It's strange thinking of John Brown as a contemporary example of anything.

I often wonder whether the people writing to her have ever actually read her advice, since they so often start out with "how do I make someone..." when Carolyn's cardinal rule is "you cannot make anyone do anything. Ever."

That's the one wish genies won't grant!

The Passage and The Twelve by Justin Cronin. The first one is so huge that it is better to read the second right away so you remember all the details. When the final in the trilogy is written/published, I might have to reread the first two before I read it.

Oh, are those the vampire ones? I've read some very enthusiastic reviews!

How is it that we decide to commemorate and hail as a great author, indeed raise our glasses and toast to their literary glories, perchance exalt their skills as authors and wordsmiths and communicators of their ideas, to those who repeat themselves over and over and over and over and over and over again as if there is greatest to be found not in the minimalist writing style but in the dragged out repetitious style of Victor Hugo, first name Victor, last name Hugo, middle name irrelevant, and thusly we find a wealth of words for the same idea expressed by presentation after presentation of the same information?

That's exactly what I was trying to say earlier, so let's include it and seven more paragraphs just like it! Well played, sir or madam.

If you like dogs, add "The Art of Racing in the Rain" and "Echoes thru the Snow". In the former, the dog is the narrator, so it's got a pretty unique (and at times laugh out loud funny) perspective. The latter combines some post-Revolution Russian with some modern-day US and effectively ties them together through dog sledding/sled dogs.

Any books narrated by cats?

I think I heard someone had plans to get a cat to narrate a book, but the cat kept getting up in the middle of recording and saying, "Later, later, you're boring me" and napping and finally they had to publish the whole thing as a series of poems.

The Anatomy of Melancholy, What it is, with All the Kinds, Causes, Symptoms, and Several Cures of it. In Three Partitions, With Their Several Sections, Members,and Subsections, Philosophically, Medically, Historically Opened and Cut Up.

We could, I feel, as a chat, have the most depressing, yet snobby, beach party of all time!

I'll bring the flamingo straws.

One of the many factors consigning this talented performer to the ash heap of history is that the musical landscape no longer values musicians who don't play "their own music." It used to be that you could prove your worth by performing distinctive versions of standard songs -- for instance, both Sinatra and Crosby had hits with "Try a Little Tenderness," and lots of people had hits with Gershwin or Berlin tunes -- but now it has to be "your" song or it doesn't get played. Liberace wasn't a composer, but a pianist, so we don't remember him much. Elton John was a lesser pianist but composed and recorded his own songs, so he gets remembered.

That's an interesting point! Is there some restriction on covers when it comes to airplay, or is this just a matter of preference/people's insistence that a Dizzying Array of Novelty Always Dance Before Our Eyes?

Also, Elton John is still alive!

answering how to clean the tubes after a secret vasectomy.

I guess I should have expected those two questions if allowed in close enough proximity would breed and spawn something like this.

To dream of bacon, perchance to sleep with bacon, how could that be immoral, aye, where is the Carolina rub for my brisket, I chance a thought of bacon, and cry out, MacBeth, MacBeth, MacBeth, where have the hidden thine bacon? My horse meat for some bacon, I beseech the! The world is askew until bacon is mine.

Well, that was definitely Bacon, not Shakespeare.

Don't forget that Boswell is also happening right now. I am sure there are a lot of people who overlap between the two chats -- the kind of people who want to know whether Bryce Harper has read Les Miserables.

How's Bryce? Does he still have that adventurous haircut? Can we send a messenger to bring us back tidings?

Wow, sorta like the Congressional Record, where senators & congressmen can go back and put in stuff they didn't really say but wish they had thought of at the time.

L'esprit de l'Congressional Record?

Too bad, since he was actually a contemporary bearer of the Spirit of 1793. He was a Reign of Terror guy, not a simple revolutionary concerned with taxation without representation. Or, as the late great Barbara Holland put it, "his mother, grandfather, and three uncles were all raging certified lunatics and this might have made some people stop and think before they had nineteen children, but not John Brown."

Well put!

He had that distinctive Yeah In Retrospect The Neighbors Would Not Be At All That Surprised By News That You Claimed To Be A Prophet And Did Not Successfully Foment A Rebellion- look in his eyes.

Whose books would you rather have if you were stuck on a desert island? (Was Hugo saner than Hemingway?)

Oh gosh. I think Hemingway would drive me up the wall. I love him, but I wouldn't want to be stuck with Only Hemingway Voice for any length of time. I haven't read the entirety of either of their oeuvres, but I'm leaning Hugo.

Because we're all tired of having Hemingway held up as the example of the Greatest American Writer. Give me Melville any day. "I get sick of civilization sometimes. Went to New Bedford to sign onto a whaler. Had to sleep with a cannibal. Scary."

Yeah but in his defense he at least awkwardly married the cannibal first.

To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, how can you tell?

He performed at Rush Limbaugh's wedding a while back, I think.

You can't do better than Roger Zelazny's "A Night in the Lonesome October".

I haven't read this, so I hope it's not narrated by a nice old lady whom I'm inadvertently insulting by posting this!

"Three Bags Full." Not narrated by a cat, but by sheep. And they're detectives solving a murder. A truly charming, surprisingly good book

And here's the book on tape.


Every time I read Les Miserables I think 'Dear God, Victor Hugo needs an editor'. By now I know which bits to skip (much like the poetry in Lord of the Rings).

Dillo dillo dillo. Dillo?

"...And Ladies of the Club" by Helen Hooven Santmeyer. She wrote it as an antidote to "Babbitt," although it wasn't published till the early 1980s when she was by then very elderly -- but still mentally sharp enough to be the subject of news stories about her unlikely best-seller. Through the eyes of members of a local book club, the book covers multiple generations of an Ohio town from just after the Civil War until the early years of the Great Depression (when -- SPOILER ALERT -- the last of the ladies in the title book club dies).

But, but -- I'd only just heard about this book, and now you've ruined the ending!

"I recommend the Harry Potter series. It's the one where Snape kills Dumbledore."

I'm reading both; you're getting in three witticisms/questions while Boz is composing his statistical/analytical masterworks. But maybe someone can find out what Bryce Harper would do for beach reading if he ever got to go to the beach?

I think it would be funny if we forced him to read The Sorrows of Young Werther, but there has to be a better suggestion.

If they are breeding and spawning, the vasectomy didn't work. Another problem for Dear Prudence.

Get her over here!

If John Brown really had 19 children, surely some enterprising journalist could track down some of his descendants, to see whether they've followed in the rabble-rousing steps of their infamous forebear.

Zoiks, he had twenty total, accoring to the NPS, but lost 9 in childhood. Of the 13 he had with his second wife, only 4 outlived him.

But that would be a good story! Noted.

Mark Twain, every single time. He's chatty like Hugo, though not as tendentious; direct, but not as ostentatiously brief as Hemingway. And eminently suitable for the beach.

Hear, hear.

Clown question, bro.


Is it really ruining the ending of a book that covers nearly 70 years, to divulge that the main young adult characters at the beginning of the book eventually die? Seems pretty anticipatable to me, unless you were expecting a bunch of frisky (or otherwise) centenarians.

No, I was kidding, because of the prominence of the "SPOILER ALERT." I think it's more akin to saying "Read Anna Karenina, the one where that lady jumps in front of a train."

He doesn't read beach novels between Memorial Day and Labor Day. He is working. If he does beach reading, it's in December.

Oh, true. No beach for him.

The Science of Hitting by Ted Williams

Aw, but that's taking work home.

Reading this on the recommendation of a friend but not sure what to make of it so far. Stephen King likes it, too, which also constitutes a recommendation, for me at least.

Absolutely! I'm a fan of Stephen King, if only for the way he used to completely wreck the Average Income of Writers curve back when we saw charts of average income by profession in elementary school, thereby making it sound like a lucrative career. Oops. Anyone else know what to make of Life After Life?

City, by Clifford Simak, is dog lit worth reading. Talking Dogs are always entertaining, as YouTube attests I believe Dr. Johnson had something to say about them, too.

I hear they're excellent female preachers.

If you record a cover, you have to pay royalties on the sales. If you record your own song, you and you alone get ripped off by the record company.


Dolly Parton, for instance, went to the bank with Whitney Houston's "And I Will Always Love You."

Thurber, if you're tired of Twain. And if you're reading PG Wodehouse and get tired of the repetitive humour plots, you can switch to HP Lovecraft and get repetitive horror plots.

Hey, sounds ideal!

I've probably read a greater percentage of Thurber's output than of Twain's, truth be told. Then again, he's sort of like Benchley in that they were both cranking out so much all the time that when you think you've neared the end, there turn out to be volumes and volumes more.

Of course they are. Carolyn focuses on people who complain about others' issues while remaining blind to their own issues. Her logo should be a pot and a kettle.

I bet Nick has drawn something hilarious on this subject.

Perhaps John Brown should have had a secret vasectomy?

I think this chat has reached its pinnacle and has nowhere left to go.

May I mention this ad for a JC Penney tea kettle that supposedly looks like Hitler?

Okay, maybe now we've reached our pinnacle.

Just read P.C. Doherty's first ever novel, The Death of a King, which really rips the conventional wisdom re Edward II's death to pieces. So, it's like Josephine Tey's mystery about Richard III, the Daughter of Time, only waaay more obscure assuming you're American.

You assume correctly!

I had to read Victor Hugo in college, in an advanced French class I took my senior year. The endless repetition made my life much easier--my French was still shaky so Hugo's style of writing made it possible for me to get the general gist of what was going on without having to understand every word perfectly. If I didn't understand something the first time around, he'd rewrite it, and then provide another iteration of the same thing so eventually I'd get what he was saying without ever having to pick up a dictionary.

See, there are advantages!

"The Birth of the Modern: World Society 1815-1830" by Paul Johnson. Big fat historical tome, but written in a fun, racy style, full of good anecdotes. (Laudanum! Arsonists! Royal mistresses! "Frankenstein"! Peterloo riots! Sexy revolutionaries! Lord Byron! Oh wait, that's redundant.) It's available in paperback (important for the beach) and is told in a modular style, so you can dip in and out of topics between swimming and volleyball. (Also important for the beach.)

This sounds like a lot of fun!

That only proves that it is possible to put four impossible things into the same sentence.

Wait, I can only get to four by counting the "I think"!

And no, not ihis cookie-cutter Italian art mysteries. Read "An Instance of the Fingerpost." Riveting. It's what Dan Brown wants to be but isn't.

Another one for the pile!

Excellent dog narration by Chet, partner to the down-on-his luck PI Bernie, in the series by Spencer Quinn. Chet's intuition is much better than Bernie's, so they make a good pairing. For a more offbeat set of detectives, check out Three Bags Full, the story of a flock of sheep who investigate their shepherd's untimely demise. Off-beat premise, but it works (translated from German, too)

Dog-narrated books seem to be a whole chat of their own.

She shares this clarity of insight with the great Miss Manners, who, along with Carolyn, is an education in critical thinking and issues analysis.

Yes, one of my favorites is Dear Miss Manners: "What should I say when I am introduced to a homosexual couple?" Gentle Reader: "How do you do?" "How do you do?"

Who brews that?

I'm always surprised by how much lemonade is in there.

I would going to slip in a plug for my own writings, yet I do believe that would be morally wrong, so by no means will I mention that people should buy my book "Stray". Just kidding, I am not Monica Hesse, and I would never pretend to be her to suggest people buy my, I mean, her book.

People, buy "Stray" for the YA in your life! And for yourself!

Um, that was me. Sorry. You looked squirrelish and I didn't have my glasses.

Squirrel Bopper!!

If you're in the mood for gentle academic satire, I recommend the four "Professor Dr von Igelfeld Entertainments" by Alexander McCall Smith.

Another for the list! You all are a font of recommendations!

Come on down here to Sanibel. Nary an interruption, given that our few visitors this time of year are German. Plus, you can read all morning and then go inside when the afternoon rains come. Nothing beats reading by candlelight after the power goes out.

I would argue that at least one thing does: reading by fluorescent light with the power still on.

But this is why I am never a great success at camping.

Has anyone heard of this new book "50 Shades of Grey". Is it about photographic color techniques?

Well, it wouldn't be a Compost chat without some mention of this book.

On that note, have a grand week! Summer! Keep reading the Compost and feel free but unobligated but uncompelled but whatever Victor Hugo would say to follow me on Twitter.

In This Chat
Alexandra Petri
Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost, a lighter take on the news and issues of the day, and she contributes to the Post editorial page. Her work has appeared in venues such as The Huffington Post, The Week,,, Collegehumor, and The Harvard Crimson. She has appeared on Jeopardy!, Showbiz Tonight and Canadian radio, and she has performed at Boston's Comedy Studio and Comedy Connection. She would love to be on your TV show, radio show, Daily Show, HBO special, or to be an honored guest (or regular guest) at your Bar Mitzvah. She is the author of two books (unpublished, but contact her!), two screenplays, three plays, one musical, and one memoir (Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast.)
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