june 2013 books.

From Here You Can't See Paris
Michael Sanders

The author took a year to move to rural France to learn about working in a restaurant. I'm not sure why he couldn't have stayed home to do that, but maybe I should look into this writing thing. I would like to write a book about flea markets, so to be really thorough, I'm going to need to spend a year in France. Now I require money to do so, which will obviously include a stipend to buy things at French flea markets. For research.

Anyway, his year abroad turns into research about more than just a restaurant, which is entirely unsurprising.

While the profiles of various old French people were interesting, I think I most enjoyed the pure informational parts of the book. For instance, I learned about making foie gras and growing truffles. Foie gras is already illegal in some areas due to the methods used to make it. The ducks are raised normally, but during the last two weeks of their ducky life, they are force fed ridiculous amounts of food, that will then get stored as fat in their livers. They take a feeding tube, stuff it down the duck's throat and funnel corn down there every day. The duck then stumbles off, slightly maimed in the throat region and in a kind of food stupor. It just seems sort of mean and unnecessary. I'm sure it makes their livers quite delicious, but there are other delicious things in the world. The rest of the duck, for instance. Mmmm, duck.

The book mourns the loss of the rural way of life, lamenting old agricultural techniques, neighborly sharing, and simple living. I have a hard time getting worked up about that - the world changes, some things will be lost, others will be gained. But one of the differences is that living in the country requires more of a community mindset. Everyone's got to work together to survive, because they can't just go down to the store. The city is full of individuals, while there are none in the country. Of course, that's not quite true. An individual can have his basic survival needs met in the city without relying on anyone else, but he still has a need for community (and since he's in the city, he can find that). To mourn the loss of something that we required to keep from starving is only something we can do because we are no longer in danger of starving. It's nostalgia for something that didn't really exist.

Jacques the Fatalist and His Master
Denis Diderot
Diderot! Another guy whose name was familiar, but I had no idea what he ever did in the world. He was an editor for the first French encyclopedia, back when encyclopedias were a new invention. He got into some trouble, because the encyclopedia treated it as common knowledge that men are equal and have a right to free expression, which was a controversial topic in pre-Revolutionary France. As a result, Jacques the Fatalist was only published posthumously, because Diderot didn't want to piss anyone off.

This is a novel, but it is not like any other novel I've ever read. Whatever the first novel was, in the centuries since then, a lot of novels have been written. There was probably some great age of the novel, and then of course, people started fiddling with the format. Jacques the Fatalist reminds me of those books in that it is recognizably a novel, but the author clearly does not feel bound by rules of what a novel should be. It made me realize that fiddling with the format is not only something that happens once a form is established and writers get bored by it and want to rebel against the establishment. People have been fiddling with the format since the first one, and fiddling is how the novel developed and became what we think it is. In the beginning, there was nothing that fated the novel to become what it did. That's just the way it happened, as different writers experimented with it through the ages and explored what worked. Maybe if Diderot had published his book earlier, things would have been completely different.

Or maybe it had to happen that way, if you are a fatalist.

Anyway, Jacques the Fatalist. The story is that Jacques and his master are travelling...where? Well, we don't know. Every time the narrator continues the story, saying that they were on the road, he is interrupted by another character, called the Reader. The Reader asks where they are going and the narrator rolls his eyes and doesn't tell us. He tells the Reader that he is too curious, and then expands into a dissertation into whether any of us ever know where we're going. At some point, we get back to the story of Jacques and his master travelling (to someplace, still don't know where). Jacques is telling a story about his loves, but he is repeatedly interrupted by people they meet on the road or himself, telling a different story. There are multiple stories going on at once, being told by various characters who interrupt each other to tell more stories, and it gets a little tricky to keep up.

Does this book sound crazy to you? It's pretty crazy. I thought it was wonderful.

And in the meantime, they're also discussing whether people have free will (because novels turn out to be a great way to explore ideas!). As was indicated in the title, Jacques the Fatalist is, well, a fatalist. He says that what happens does so because "it was written up yonder." So it doesn't matter what we do, or what we think we are doing, because everything has already been written up yonder and that's just the way it is.

[Jacques finishes telling a story about some dudes, who had finished their adventures and then gone to Lisbon.]
The Master: And what did they have to do in Lisbon?
Jacques: Look for an earthquake that couldn't happen without them - be crushed, swallowed up, burned, just as it was written up yonder.

An earthquake that couldn't happen without them. That just slays me. The earthquake in question was the Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which inspired a lot of writing and was the first earthquake to be studied scientifically. It came up in Candide, too. Diderot was not afraid to reference other writers all over the place, including Voltaire, but he heavily referenced Laurence Sterne's Tristam Shandy, which made me want to read it. Unfortunately, it turned out to be probably the only book that Josh does not have. Luckily, I found it at a yard sale the very next week for fifty cents. It must've been written up yonder.

Before I Go To Sleep
SJ Watson
This was our book club selection this month, and before you assume that means I didn't like it, I will tell you that I found it to be okay. The plot is that a woman has amnesia, but it's that kind of amnesia where you wake up everyday thinking it's twenty years ago, freak out, but then forget everything again when you go to sleep at night. I don't know if this amnesia exists in real life or if it only comes up in books and Adam Sandler movies. In any case, I don't think this book would stand up against scientific scrutiny.

But it wasn't bad. The main character starts keeping a journal to help her retain things she's learned on previous days. This is a thriller, so she is not sure who she can trust. I don't think I'm much for thrillers. It's entirely possible that the ones that come up in book club are not shining examples of the genre, so maybe I should pick up something that has stood the test of time (Note: consulting this list of the best thrillers, I see that The Count of Monte Cristo is on there, which I happen to be reading - and enjoying - right now. Booyah.).

There is a lot of discussion about memory and how much we derive our selves from it. If you can't remember something, is it the same as it never having happened? Or does it change you, whether you remember it or not? I thought these were pretty interesting ideas, and I love fiction that has ideas, but I wish I'd enjoyed the story more.

A Tale of Two Cities
Charles Dickens
I read A Christmas Carol for seventh grade English class, and the only thing I remember about it is that there were long passages describing food. So I expected Dickens to be long-winded; he was famously paid by the word for part of his career. But the difference in reading A Christmas Carol and reading any other Dickens book is that I haven't already seen the Muppets adaptation, so I don't know the plot (or big chunks of dialogue). And so I had to go slow and actually read, because otherwise I had no idea what was going on. I am a champion skimmer, but I could not do it with this book. I had to go back and read a chapter because I'd skimmed it, and it turns out that I needed to know some things that Dickens had hidden in the words. Sneaky Charles Dickens. I eagerly await The Muppets Tale of Two Cities, though I think the subject matter might be a little dark for felt.

Anyway! Turns out, one of the eponymous two cities is Paris, which is why this book qualifies for my current France-related reading curriculum. The first part is before the Revolution, and there are many unflattering comparisons between Paris and London (the other city), as to the lives of the poor. Dickens is obviously sympathetic with the Revolution, as the aristocracy has seriously gotten out of control. A Marquis in his carriage runs over and kills a kid in the street, and his response is to toss a gold coin out the window at the kid's parents. It's really no wonder the people got tired of that nonsense. Also, they were starving.

You know how things can be Dickensian? I have no idea what that means, except maybe British and kinda grimy. These characters are vivid, but they're flat - they each represent one thing (my favorite was the villainous Madame Defarge). The narrative is pretty plot-driven. Josh referred to it as a "page-turner," because of the way the chapters end on a cliffhanger which makes you want to read on. That word, as applied to Dickens, made me laugh, because of the kind of books we read at book club which are described as page-turners. But he's right; the writing style is just different (and by different, I mean better, because it is Charles Freaking Dickens). There is also a notable amount of religious imagery and language. I guess that's not surprising from the guy who brought us The Spirit of Christmas Past.

There are several long passages where he describes a scene, and I found these to be really beautiful prose. They don't necessarily advance the plot, but they are vivid and set a mood very effectively. There is a great scene where a wine cask is dropped and broken, and all the people stop what they are doing and start drinking wine off the street. Then a guy takes the wine and writes "BLOOD" on the wall with his finger, because the people are fed up. Chilling.

Anyway, I'm going to read more Dickens. And Tristam Shandy. But only after I'm done with the French books. So much to read!

L'Amante Anglaise
Marguerite Duras
I read another book of Duras', The Vice Consul, and it frustrated the crap out of me. I read it, I felt like I understood everything that had happened, but I did not see what the point of it was. Frequently, I finish a book with the feeling that there is some deeper meaning just outside my grasp, like a dream you can't remember. But this was different. I had nothing. I went and looked up a bunch of literary criticism about it. Turns out, I had caught most of the major ideas, but the story is told in such an odd manner that I hadn't been sure. There are lots of ways to tell a story and lots of ways to make a point, and I had to conclude that me and Marguerite were just working on different wavelengths, because the way she communicates is not the best way to ensure my understanding. That's a long and complicated way of saying that I really hated that book.

So I was not looking forward to more Duras, but this one was much more straightforward (though the format was unusual). It's a series of interviews about a horrific murder that has just taken place in small town France. The murderess is widely thought in the town to be crazy, though the reader is left to come to her own conclusions (mine: probably crazy). After the murder has occurred, the characters wonder whether it was inevitable, whether this mentally ill person would have eventually killed someone no matter what (more fatalism!). There's a great quote by the maybe crazy lady: "Perhaps when you get down to it the real cause of most crimes is opportunity."

This book was okay, though it was so short it was hard for me to get invested in any of it.

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