april 2013 books.

I read some books this month. Since we are going to France this year, I went through my giant to-read pile and picked out books set in France or written by French people. I figured this would be a good way to enrich my trip. I found that I enjoyed having a theme, as the books sometimes related to each other in unexpected ways.

Map of Another Town: A Memoir of Provence
MFK Fisher
Years and years ago, I read a long and flattering article about MFK Fisher, who is known primarily as a food writer. Since then, anytime I see a book by her, I pick it up. I did most of this collecting without ever having read any of her work.

This book is not about food, but some general reminiscing about her life while living in Aix. She is a good writer, but her style is a little quiet for my tastes. She paints a picture more than she tells a story. It must have been a good picture, because I did want to go to Aix. I have another of her books about living in France (in Marseille, I think), but I had to take a break from her voice for a while.

Maybe the lesson here is that I should've started reading books by the person who wrote the article about MFK Fisher. It was really good.

Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children
Ransom Riggs
This was the book club selection for last month, and it has nothing to do with France. I was a bad book clubber due to getting married, but since I had already bought the book, I read it.

The author collected old photographs from thrift stores and flea markets and such. He gathered a bunch of these, and then wrote a story around them. It's a cool idea, though the execution of it was a little flat for me. It is meant for young adults, so it's pretty plot-driven, and there are lots of supernatural stuff like magic powers and time travel.

The story is about a kid whose grandfather dies. Grandpa used to tell crazy stories about this orphanage where he grew up that was full of children who had special powers - levitation, invisibility, that sort of thing. The kid realizes at some point that it was all made up and he becomes disillusioned with his grandfather. Then Gramps dies and the kid is left to find out about his secret past by travelling to the orphanage.

Maybe I just haven't read a good one, but I do not find books about secret pasts very compelling. They are filled with this urgency - SECRETS! LIES! HISTORY! - but I never feel it. It mostly seems to consist of the characters running around and demanding that they have a right to know. Maybe I just cannot relate to the experience of a shocking family history. Once I found out that my mom used to own an accordian and she got rid of it, and I was kinda pissed about the accordian I could've had, but I never went on a quest to find out about my mom's lost accordian career. I did not go to Kansas music shops, slam my fist on the counter, and tell them that I had a right to know.

Does that fact that a relative did something before they were your relative mean that you have a right to know about it? I mean, curiosity is fine. But a right? Driving isn't even a right, so I don't see how knowing about your grandfather's secret past can be one.

Anyway, the book was fine. Sometimes the book club discussion changes how I feel about a book, but I guess we'll never know how I might have felt about this one.

Émile Zola
This is the kind of book I pick up because I've heard of the author, but know nothing about him, so I assume it's important. And Zola was important. He wrote the J'Accuse! letter that appeared in the newspaper and accused the government of anti-semitism. Rather than sit down and think about what they had done, they prosecuted him for libel. Also, he wrote a whole lot of books and invented a style of literature called naturalism.

But before all that, he wrote Germinal. This book is about coal-mining! I know, aren't you excited already? Sign me up for some coal mining. French coal mining.

More generally, this book is about the inevitable conflict between Capital and Labor. It shows coal miners living in abject poverty in rented Company housing. Children work in the mines, as do young women until they are fifteen or so when they start having babies. Everyone is sick, from the combined forces of various miner's diseases and malnutrition. It's basically awful.

The Company is experiencing a downturn due to various factors (it mentions the Americans mining their own coal now), and so it is cutting corners, specifically wages. Unfortunately, the people are already starving. The miners refuse to go down into the mines at the urging of a travelling young socialist. The strike goes on and on, and both sides suffer. The Company stakeholders don't get as much money and the miners have to sell the wool in their mattresses. As this continues, formerly sensible people become warped by suffering. The miners go on a riot and vandalize a neighboring mine that belongs to a different company.

This was a great story. There were a lot of characters, and I admit to getting them mixed up from time to time (stupid French names). This is not a socialist novel per se. Your sympathy cannot help but being with the miners because of their destitution, but Zola does not take sides. It's more that you can see how each person ends up behaving the way they do, no matter what side they are on. Each plot development ends up seeming inevitable because of the characters and the situation. And there are characters on each side that represent different facets of that argument. So there is what we might call a Union man, who is in favor of strikes as a way of negotiating better conditions for the workers. Then there is a socialist, who sees the strike as the first step to the people becoming the masters. Finally, there is an anarchist, who also wants the people to become the masters, but he thinks the only way for that to happen is to burn the world down and start over. There are sympathetic characters on each side, though many of them become less sympathetic as the strike wears on and they become more entrenched in their position.

There is a lot of sex in this book. It's treated as the only way that the miners have any pleasure at all (they also drink and gamble when they can afford it). The fields around the mines are often just filled with couples canoodling in the grass. Sexual morality is not something they can afford. Their freedom is mildly shocking, though the descriptions are not graphic. Everything is treated as matter of fact, or at least matter of life. And that is naturalism!

I just want to say that I feel like a Grade A Smart Person, because I have an opinion on Zola. And all I had to do was read a 500-page novel about coal mining.

Defending Jacob
William Landay
This month's book club selection. I was not enthusiastic about reading it, and I did not enjoy it.

So, a kid is accused of murdering a classmate who used to tease him. The story is more about his parents. There was a whole tangent about the grandfather's hidden past (gah), and then it's just legal thriller until we get deus-ex-gangster. The book tries to say interesting things about parenthood, but they were not interesting enough.

At no point did I care whether the kid did it or whether he was found guilty. Needless to say, I did not care about the grandfather's hidden past.

Satori in Paris
Jack Kerouac
The neat thing about picking a wide open theme like "France" is that you can go from Zola to Kerouac.

I have mixed feelings about Kerouac. I read On the Road in my teens, because I liked the kinds of boys that like Kerouac. I related to exactly one character in the book, someone's wife who basically stood to the side, tapped her foot and looked annoyed. That was me, tapping my foot and looking annoyed at these dudes who wandered around getting drunk and acted like they were being deep. About this same time, unknown to me because he was unknown to me, Josh also read On the Road. His reaction was to decide that he wanted to go to Columbia University and then drop out, just like Kerouac! And he did! Dreams do come true.

Later, he found out that Kerouac went back to school. What else did Kerouac do? Drank for about 30 years straight and then died. Pick your mentors carefully, kids.

On the surface, the book appears to be just a retelling of Jack drinking his way around Paris and Brittany. It must have been a very expensive trip, between the booze and the replacement tickets he had to buy for the planes and trains he missed by being drunk in the middle of the day. Jack comes to a realization somewhere in the book, though he makes clear that he's not sure when it happened. He implies it has something to do with a cab driver, but his interaction with the cab driver is very limited and consists of going to the airport and drinking. He makes the flight at least. Maybe that's what was special about the cab driver. Can you hear my foot tapping?

The guy does know how to use his words. He also knows a whole heck of a lot. I would periodically get a reference, and I found them to be obscure. For instance, he talks about Judas being the one that Satan "chooses to chew," which is a reference to Dante's Inferno, where Judas is in the center of Hell, being eternally gnawed on by Satan. I appreciate the wordplay, and I felt smart for getting the reference to a classic piece of literature (an epic poem, no less), but it made me realize that the book was probably stuffed full of such allusions that I missed completely.

Josh calls this a problem of being overeducated. It's great that you are using your nice Ivy League education, but do you expect the majority of the population to read this and appreciate it? Are you writing to communicate something or just to impress us? I guess you don't have to get the references enjoy the book, and that sort of stuff is in there for the people who study literature line by line. At least, that's the most generous explanation I can come up with. My other reaction was to say "Shut up, Jack, you're not saying anything."

Josh, who has recovered from his youthful crush, says that Kerouac is better in shorter forms. He has things to say and the words to say it, but he lets himself get in the way, thus we end up with these trainwreck of thought type novels. Apparently his very short poems are the best. I can't speak for that, but after my grumpy dismissal of one of America's classics, I thought it would be nice to include the opinion of someone who gets the appeal of this guy.

I'm sorry. I don't get Kerouac. Maybe someday.

The Lily of the Valley
Honoré de Balzac
This book was terribly wordy. I know, it's a couple hundred years old and French, but reading it was sort of a slog. After I finished, though, I discovered that I liked it. The ending in particular was great and made the rest worth it.

The bulk of the book is in the form of a very long letter from Felix to his fiancee, Natalie, describing his life and loves to her. Most of it is taken up with a love affair with a Countess. He sees her at a party and is so overcome with love that he bites her on the neck. Then, he figures out who she is and shows up at her house in the country, with the aim of wooing her. They end up becoming very close friends.

The Countess, Henriette, has an awful husband. He is frequently ill with something nebulous that may not actually exist. He is supposed to run an estate, but he has no head for business. His wife basically runs the place, though she has to do it through him. He occasionally doesn't like her ideas, rants and raves about them, and then when they work, he takes credit for them. The Count will periodically scream awful things at his wife while she sits there, takes it, and works on a tapestry. Just because someone is hurling generalized insults about women at you doesn't mean you can't get a little work done.

Felix declares his love for her, but she is a virtuous woman. She really, really, really wants to drop the Count like a hat and run off with Felix, to be happy and loved, not to mentioned treated like a human being. But she stays for the sake of her children. She forces herself to think of Felix as a son, since if she allows herself to consider him as a lover, her virtue will not hold up. Felix promises to be faithful to her, even as he cannot actually have her (Spoiler alert: he breaks his promise).

I was really impressed with Balzac's ability to create such full and rounded characters, particularly Henriette. For most of the book, we are treated to Felix's perspective of her, which is adoring to the the point of being almost idolatrous. But there are a couple of letters from Henriette included, and it shows her a much more complicated person than one might suspect. Also, I was impressed with the recognition of the very frustrating position of women at the time.

Since we're talking about styles of literature, I'll mention that Balzac is considered a founder of literary realism in Europe. Zola was influenced by him!

There was a little history scattered throughout. At one point, there is a statement about the "events of the 20th of March," and I had to go look that up (Wikipedia is so awesome, because you can look up a date and see what happened on that day throughout history). I found out that March 20 is when Napoleon came back to power after exile. The characters, being part of the aristocracy, were somewhat affected by the larger goings-on in France, though I think being in the country shielded them from too much. I started reading a bit about the Revolution and then Napoleon, got confused, and decided that I needed some books with characters dealing more directly with French history. So that's coming up soon.  I know you can't wait.

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