july 2013 books.

We're still doing French books. We will continue doing French books until I go to France in September. After that, who knows?

The Count of Monte Cristo
Alexandre Dumas
This is quite possibly the longest book I've ever read. Not sure what that counts for, but it should count for something.

Everybody knows what this is about, right? A dude is imprisoned for something he did not do, is stuck for fourteen years in a dungeon, then escapes and gets his revenge on the fellows that got him arrested in the first place. As I mentioned last month, some consider this book a thriller. I can totally see that - there's lots of thrilling elements: Intrigue! Betrayal! Disguises! You know all along that the Count must have a plan, but he is playing such a long game that you can't really see how it's going to come out. He serves revenge ice cold.

It was also educational. The Count, before he becomes the Count, is imprisoned for being involved in the plot to return Napoleon to the throne. When the book starts, everyone's favorite short emperor is in exile on the island of Elba. Then he comes back and is all of a sudden emperor again, which would mean that yesterday's traitor is today's hero. But then after 100 days, they kick him out again and go back to the monarchy. None of this matters to our protagonist, who is in the dungeon anyway.

I did enjoy it, but I wish it had been shorter. I just got tired of hanging out with these fancy society people. There were some smugglers and bandits, too, and they were cool, but mostly it was a lot of going to the opera or listening to rich people talk about how much money other rich people made. The beginning was great, and the ending was totally worth it, but you really had to earn it.

A Very Long Engagement
Sebastien Japrisot
After slogging through Dumas, I wanted something modern and easy and light. Well, this was modern and easy, but it was about World War I, so not so much with the light. A woman's fiance does not come back from the war, but she is not satisfied with the official explanation of his death. The story is told with lots of flashbacks, interwoven with her quest to find out what happened. The way the story is told and the mystery unravelled is well done, and the ending is bittersweet.

The Handmaid's Tale
Margaret Atwood
I love Margaret Atwood. I mentioned this back in January, when I read another of her books. She wrote the only poem that I have memorized:
You fit into me
like a hook into an eye

a fish hook,
an open eye.
Oh, Margaret. I've read three of her novels now, and one non-fiction. I have several more of her books in my to-read pile. She always, always blows me away.

This is speculative fiction, which differs from science fiction in that all the things that happen could happen given our existing technology. Everything takes place after a religious revolution, where an extreme Christian faction called the Sons of Jacob have taken over the country. Roles are very strictly defined. Women are divided into wives, childbearers (handmaids), and domestic workers (Marthas). There are some other roles, like prostitutes, Unwomen, and econowives, who do all the work of a wife, childbearer, and domestic worker. Econowives are for the poor men. My poor husband has himself an econowife.

A character explains at one point that their former society died of "too much choice." Because when you're given a choice, you can choose wrong, I suppose. They make a distinction about the kinds of freedom. Formerly, in the free society, they had freedom to, but now they had freedom from. Liberty vs. Security.

We follow the life of a handmaid, Offred, whose sole purpose is to get knocked up by whoever she is assigned to have (procreative only) sex with. Due to pollution, birth rates are very low, and so continuing the species is of utmost importance. Offred has only another year to get pregnant before she is classified as Unwoman and shipped off to the colonies, where she'll have to clean up nuclear waste until she dies. It's revealed later that a lot of the problems with fertility are on the men's side, but the society only holds the women responsible. Women are no longer allowed to hold property, have jobs (other than their roles, which are more like assignments), read, or do anything that is not part of their role. The war continues, and there are frequent public executions of holdout factions, which are always religious groups of some kind. It probably was not supposed to be funny, but I got a kick out of reading about Baptist guerilla rebels. Go get 'em, guys.

A year or two ago, my sister-in-law invited me to their church's Girls' Night, which was basically a regular worship service, with special focus on things that might appeal to women. There were a lot of shopping jokes. As part of the sermon, the speaker, who was the preacher's wife, talked about their recent mission trip to Sweden. She said that Sweden is a socialist country, and that was horrible, because it meant everyone was equal. She said it was much better here, where women are "special equal."

I declined future invitations to Girls' Night.

This church preached complementarianism, and that's fine if you want to arrange your own household that way. But I get real mad when people say this is how the government should be arranged. The Handmaid's Tale reminded me of this, in that society claimed to be cherishing women, when really it was just controlling and isolating them. I do indeed want to be cherished by my husband, but I want respect from the rest of 'em (and my husband). Not special respect, but actual, listen-to-what-I'm-saying respect.

This was our book club book. Everyone loved it, of course they did. Gosh, if only there were a way to tell if books were going to be good or bad. Wait, there is. It's called TIME. If a book is thirty years old and people still say it's really good, then it probably is. Everyone found it to be very, very relevant.

The Plague
Albert Camus
I had been avoiding the Camus books in Josh's library, because I thought he only wrote philosophy. While I have been reading ambitiously lately, I am not ready for just straight philosophy. It makes me tired just to think about it. But then I found out that Camus wrote philosophical novels, and I was like, why didn't you say so! As long as the philosophy is spoken by characters who walk around and do stuff sometimes, then I can handle it. Bring it on!

This book is set in Oran, a town in French Algeria which has been hit by the bubonic plague. The town is put under quarantine, and the narrator examines the effect of pestilence and exile on the residents. Supposedly, it's an allegory for the German occupation of Franch during World War II. I can buy that, but I would say that it's a study of humans in extreme circumstances. There are those who sort of give in to it, represented by the priest who says that they're being punished by God. There are people who fight against it, such as the doctors. And there are those who use the situation to their advantage (akin to those who collaborated with the Germans).

There are themes of separation, exile, and community, but the most interesting to me was the various answers to the question of what to do in the face of pestilence.
The priest at first says that the plague is a punishment for lack of piety. Later, he begins to work with the sanitary squads to quarantine and treat the afflicted. For being a plague book, there is not that much description of people being sick. But there is a scene where they test a serum on a child, and then keep vigil over him. He dies horribly, and in fact the serum only served to prolong his suffering. The priest gives a new sermon then, about accepting God's will. He says that you have to accept awful things like the suffering of innocents, otherwise you will lose your faith. But you must still do what good you can. He calls it active fatalism.

The doctor is an athiest, so he has no explanation for the suffering, other than it being just the way life is. He knows that he fights a losing battle, but he fights anyway, because giving in is unthinkable. With or without God, both characters come to the same conclusion that we must fight as best we can.

Camus is associated with the philosophy of Absurdism, which states that our desire to find meaning in life is absurd, not because meaning is not there, but because it's beyond us. Between the volume of things that we do know, plus the unimaginable things we don't, there is just no way we'll ever find/figure it out. By recognizing this situation, we are free to define our own meaning.

Phew! That was hard to explain. Yet, I feel like I really understood it in the context of the story, much moreso than if I had just read the Wikipedia article. And that, my friends, is what literature is for.

A Battle of Nerves
Georges Simenon
I bought this book at a yard sale, only to come home and find out that the author was actually Belgian, not French. However, the book was set in Paris, so it still counts. Phew! For a second, I thought I had wasted twenty-five cents.

Simenon is known for his character, Inspector Maigret, a hard-boiled Paris detective. It's a very straight-forward crime thriller. And while I knew who the bad guy was before the end, I had no idea how or why. So, a very good detective story.

The only bad thing is that the book I had was very old, which mean that it was falling apart and it smelled like someone else's basement. But that is not M. Simenon's fault.

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