may 2013 books.

I wish I could say that I haven't been writing because I've been reading a bunch of books. I have read a bunch of books, but I haven't been writing for a far less noble reason: pure laziness. Anyway, on with the books! I'm still focusing on books about France or written by French people.

Rafael Sabatini
Sabatini was not French, but Italian. He was a polyglot, and he chose to write in English. I wish I were a polyglot, or even a biglot. However, this book's plot is all wrapped up in the French Revolution, so it counts as part of my France reading.

The book starts up right before the revolution and follows the fortunes of one André-Louis Moreau, a godson of a local lord. His friend Philippe is a priest who believes passionately in the rights of the common man, but Moreau is unconcerned. He says that the commoners are being told to revolt by the merchants, when it is the merchants who will really benefit from the overthrow of the nobility. And even if it happened, it would be just a new set of masters.

Has it ever occurred to you, Philippe, what it is that makes the rule of the nobles so intolerable? Acquisitiveness. Acquisitiveness is the curse of mankind. And shall you expect less acquisitiveness in men who have built themselves up by acquisitiveness? Oh, I am ready to admit that the present government is execrable, unjust, tyrannical - what you will; but I beg you to look ahead, and to see that the government for which it is aimed at exchanging it may be infinitely worse.

That is a fair point, sir.

But then! Philippe is killed in a duel. And André resolves to carry on his friend's fight. He still does not believe in it, but he's a smart guy and he can talk the talk. So he goes and riles up a couple of mobs with fancy rhetoric and gets people to write some demands. As a result of being such a trouble-maker, he's wanted by the law. He goes into hiding.

I'll quit now with the plot summary, but there is swash-buckling and adventure and romance, with generous bits of philosophy mixed in. I learned a great new word: spadassinicide. It's when you provoke someone into a duel (either you insult them so they challenge you or you provoke them into insult you so you can challenge them), and then you kill them because it turns out that you're really awesome at sword-fighting and they're terrible. There was a whole series of those going on in the Senate, because all the nobility had been trained in things like fencing, while the regular folks did not have that advantage.

There is a movie, which I saw a few years back. I do not remember it very well, other than it's famous for having a really long swordfight. Based on my vague memories of it, I have to assume that the film took some liberties with the material.

Once in Europa
John Berger
This book is the second in a trilogy about French peasant life. I read the first one, Pig Earth, a while back, before I started recapping things I've read. Each book is a series of vignettes with a common theme. The stories can be a bit harsh, because it turns out that peasant life is harsh. There's a lot of birth and death, with dirt and work in the middle. In an essay about peasants, he defines them as people who are concerned only with survival, because that takes all their time and energy. I think about that definition sometimes when I get too whiny about my first world problems.

This book is about peasants moving to the city to increase their chance of survival by finding jobs. There is nothing particularly French about it. Berger lived in the French countryside, so his inspiration comes from that, but there's no reason these stories couldn't happen anywhere.

Short stories are not my favorite medium. It seems like the story ends before I can get invested in it, and then I don't spend any time thinking about what I read because I'm on to the next story (all my fault, of course). However, I did write down a quote.

"If every event which occurred could be given a name, there would be no need for stories. As things are here, life outstrips our vocabulary. A word is missing and so the story has to be told."

This hits on something that Josh and I talk about a lot - how the limitations of words creates the need for metaphors (or as Berger calls them, stories).

A Series of Unfortunate Events
Lemony Snicket
Covered here.

Gone Girl
Gillian Flynn
This book has been everywhere, it seems. It's hot right now, I guess, which is probably how it ended up on our book club list. I'm going to spoil it, so if you want to read it, maybe skip this section. I ought to put that disclaimer up on all the books, but I guess I'm assuming you're not going out to pick up a copy of Scaramouche (though you should!).

So a dude's wife has gone missing. The first part of the book is interwoven chapters of him reacting to her disappearance and her old journal entries. The result is an interesting portrait of how miscommunication and circumstance can make a marriage go awry. It was interesting as a cautionary tale. I told Josh sadly that I was reading a book about married people who hated each other, and it was bumming me out.

However, the second part of the book just goes off the rails. It is no longer about the slow decline of a once-happy relationship, but about being married to a sociopath. And I was just not as interested in that. However, I no longer felt depressed about a broken relationship, because there are no sociopaths in my marriage, therefore this book is not applicable.

Man's Fate
Andre Malraux
I found this book in Josh's library, one more book that neither of us has ever heard of but apparently we own. We looked up Malraux, and on the basis of his Wikipedia article, I was super stoked to read his book. He sounded like a cool guy.

However, I was disappointed in the book, but I think it's probably my fault. Sometimes, when I am reading a book, I can sorta feel like I'm not getting it. I can follow the plot, but I don't necessarily get the point of the book. Nothing wrong with that, of course, not everyone will get every book right away or even ever. The thing is, I think I didn't get it because I did not read it closely and carefully enough. It's a nasty cycle where I am bored by something because I don't give it the attention it requires, and then my boredom causes me to give it even less attention. I think that's what happened here. I'm embarrassed to admit that it happens a fair amount. However, this is progress. I used to just blame it on the book.

This book is not much about France. It's about China, specifically a failed Communist revolution that happened in Shanghai in 1927. At that point, France had a little part of town that was theirs, called the French Concession. It was sort of like how Hong Kong was part of the United Kingdom before 1999. Just a little piece of France, hanging out in Shanghai. France officially gave up all its concessions in China after WWII in exchange for China pulling out of French Indochina. History is neat.

The book follows several characters who are involved with the revolution - the organizer, an arms dealer, a Russian revolutionary, and a terrorist ("The sons of torture victims make good terrorists." Yeesh.). The title, Man's Fate, refers to death, which Malraux equates with man's dignity. The people's oppressors have taken away their ability to live with dignity, and so their only way to regain it is to die. Each character is fighting something different, even as they are on the same side - the organizer is fighting for the idea of Communism, while the revolutionary is fighting for the actual workers. The terrorist is fighting against the oppressors. These characters face their mortality by trying to make their lives (and deaths) count. However, the arms dealer has no cause greater than himself. He likes to drink and gamble and he sells things to facilitate his lifestyle. And...he survives, while the other characters die in various awful ways (cyanide, boiled alive, and blown up, respectively).

See, now that I've thought it out, I wish I'd paid more attention when reading it. Someday I'll be good at this.

There is a reason that this book is considered one of the best ever. After the apocalypse, when all the copies of Gone Girl have been destroyed and no one's Kindles work anymore, someone will still have a copy of Candide.

This book is terrificially funny and absolutely horrifying. It pokes fun at lots of things (religion, the government, the military, etc), but one target in particular is optimism, the idea that ours is the best of all possible worlds. This idea came from Leibniz (better known to me for independently inventing calculus), who used it to solve the problem of evil in a world created by an all-powerful, all-knowing, and benevolent God (an attempt to solve this problem is known as a theodicy, a word coined by Leibniz). This answer does not sit well with Voltaire, who noticed that if this is the best of all possible worlds, it still sucks a lot of the time. So you have a few characters traipsing through life and really, really, really awful things happen to them. Here's a sample of the awfulness: forced enscription, flogging, war, rape to the point of disembowelment, syphilis, shipwreck, earthquake, tsunami, fire, the Inquisition, torture, being sold into slavery, having a butt cheek cut off to so someone else can eat it...

I'll stop. That is just the first third of the book. I'm sorry that you had to read about all those awful things, but it was Voltaire's fault. Everything is told very matter of factly, as if he were describing a stroll in the woods instead of a life of terribleness. At the end, our hero gives up his philosophy of optimism and takes up gardening, concluding that the world is an awful place and the best you can do is work hard on your own little piece of it.

Despite all the doom and gloom, this really is a marvelous book. The style is similar to Gulliver's Travels - short chapters where the characters have various adventures in far-off lands. And it is really very funny. There's a great scene where Candide is in South America, has killed a priest, and taken his robes. He gets captured by some natives, who are planning on eating him because the missions have been exploiting the locals rather than helping them ("Let us eat a Jesuit!"). But then he tells them he's not a priest, he's just killed one and taken his robes. So he doesn't get eaten, and they all celebrate together.

Well, I thought it was funny.

Claudine at School
This book is the first in a series of Claudine books. Her further adventures, judging by the titles, include going to Paris and getting married and having a friend named Annie. This installment has her telling about her last year in school. She lives in the countryside with her loving, but distracted father who studies mollusks. At fifteen, she straddles the lines between sophisticated and crude, worldly and naive, woman and child. Everyone in the town thinks she is crazy, but mostly it seems like she just doesn't give a crap what the rest of them think. The stories are simple and provincial, the major events being local doings like final exams and a visit from a government minister.

It sounds like a nice little book, right? Like a French cousin of Laura Ingalls Wilder, or something.

Well, it's not quite. There is kind of a lot of lesbian stuff in this book. At first, when Claudine is developing a close friendship with a young female schoolteacher, I just figured all the breathless compliments and hugging and kissing were, I dunno, French or something. But then a couple female schoolteachers start all the hugging and kissing, and later we discover that they share a bed. The book is not erotic or anything, but I was mildly shocked. I think the French reading public of 1900 was, too.

I am not sure if I'm going to explain this very well, but I noticed a difference in the treatment of the relationship in the book and how such a relationship is commonly seen now. Now, we would see two women being together, and say, oh, they're gay, because gay is now an identity that you can claim. You can be gay without even ever having had a same-sex relationship. This was more like a relationship without the identity. There was never an indication that anyone saw these women as being somehow different from other people for being in a same-sex relationship. They just happened to sleep together for now and would probably go off and marry men someday (since there were not a whole lot of options for women anyway). There wasn't a concept of being gay, even if people were doing things that we would say indicated they were gay now. There were no homosexuals (people attracted to the same sex), just homosexual acts (you know). I think there are people who still see it that way now. Some industrious soul has probably already traced the concept of gayness throughout history.

I don't know if that made any sense at all. Anyway.

It's not all scandals, and even the teachers' relationship is told more like gossip (it seems more scandalous that they are open about it, rather than the fact that it happens at all). Claudine makes a charming narrator, quick-witted and daring. My favorite scene may be where she gets bored waiting for a final exam to start and goes and falls asleep in an abandoned courtyard. She comes to the exam late, with twigs in her hair. Oh, that Claudine.

Claudine at School is the first book written by Colette, though it was published under her first husband's name. The books are thought to be autobiographical. My familiarity with her other work extends as far as the movie Gigi, which was also charming and mildly scandalous. I enjoyed reading this book, and I have all four Claudine books in one volume, so I will probably read those, too.

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