september 2013 books

I did not get a lot of reading done this month, or rather, I did not finish as many books as usual.

Gargantua and Pantagruel
Fran├žois Rabelais
In The Music Man, the Iowan townsfolk complain about the kind of smutty books kept in the town library and promoted by the librarian there. They specifically complain - in song, of course - about Rabelais. All of the authors they sneer at are undisputed classics, and so you're meant to roll your eyes at the silly uneducated people who don't understand what literature is about. I have to say, though, that this book is bawdy. Hands down, the dirtiest book I have ever read. Everyone is always drunk and having sex and drowning people in their urine. Next time someone complains about the coarsening of society, I'll just hand them this book from the 16th century. Rabelais could teach them a thing or two about fart jokes.

Okay, I did not finish this book. I read Gargantua, and got maybe a fifth into Pantagruel before I just gave it up. Not that I was offended, but really, so much of the book is devoted to the bawdiness that I was simply not enjoying it. With 400 pages to go, I concluded that I would rather put Rabelais on hold and read something else. Don't take that as me agreeing with the prudish ladies of Iowa. The humor was clever, the satire pointed, and I can't dispute Rabelais' contribution to language and literature. I just don't want to read it at this point in my life. Maybe someday I will be ready for Rabelais.

Penguin Island
Anatole France
This was a very strange (and good!) book. I don't think I've ever read one like it. It is a historical text of the inhabitants of Penguin Island. It starts with a creation story, which includes a scene in Heaven where God and various saints and theologians throughout history discuss what to do about the penguins. See, they're actual penguins, but this pious and half-blind monk accidentally baptized them. This caused a crisis in heaven, which God solved by giving the monk the power to ensoul the penguins and make them people. Then the penguins start wearing clothes and killing each other over property, just like regular people.

After the creation story, there are histories that deal with saints and dragons, geneaologies, stories of the great kings, a revolution, and a couple attempts to restore the monarchy. Each episode is written in a different sort of style, as if written by a different author in a different era. The creation story is told like a legend, parts of it are straight-forward histories, and other parts are more like journalism. The various events parallels real events that happened throughout European history. While the penguins are taken to be a single group of people, their history could be the history of all humans. A thoroughly fun and strange little book.

Little Lord Fauntleroy
Frances Hodgson Burnett
This book is not set in France, nor is the author French, though she is named Frances. But this book is not part of my study of France through literature. Since the trip is over, I can go back to reading whatever I want. I packed this one for the trip because it was light. A bit too light, as I finished the whole thing on one train ride.

The title character is synonymous now with fancy velvet suits and ruffled collars, and being called a Little Lord Fauntleroy now would not be so complimentary. While the character did dress that way, his defining trait was his sweet nature. The book is about an American child who finds out that he is to inherit an earlship, so he goes to his ancestral home to live with his grandfather, the current earl. The old man is very grumpy and bitter after having lived a life of selfishness, but through his interaction with Little Lord Fauntleroy, he learns to love and becomes a much nicer person.

I've read A Little Princess by the same author and have seen the movie for The Secret Garden, and while the plots are different, the messages are basically the same. Be kind and loving and good things will happen to you. Be a jerk and you'll be miserable until someone kind and loving comes along to redeem you and teach you to be kind and loving. Sometimes the characters are sort of impossibly good, which makes me despair that I can ever be so kind and so loving. But they do provide a model that I want to strive toward. Besides, they never say that Little Lord Fauntleroy wasn't a jerk sometimes when he was having a bad day. That just wasn't in the book, and I'm sure he felt real bad about it afterwards.

And that's it for this month. I also started reading Tristam Shandy, but then Josh ran out of books to read on the trip, and he took it (after reading Little Lord Fauntleroy). He then kept it, so I guess I'll get back to it when he's done with it. I have not yet come up with some sort of theme to use to pick my next books. I used a country before, which worked pretty well. I could do that again, or go with subject matter or even time period. Suggestions welcome.


the boneyard.

I had a strong aversion to doing anything that involved standing in a line in Paris. All of the big sites have outrageous lines. Sometimes there are two lines - a ridiculously long one and then a slightly shorter line for people who bought their tickets ahead of time. Instead, we spent a lot of time in places where there was no line at all. Some of them were even free! When there are free things with no waiting, you can see how I'd look at a line of people and then just keep walking.

However, there was one place where we waited in line for two hours in the rain. We really wanted to go to the catacombs.

I know, you are admiring how romantic we are. A honeymoon in Paris! That's gotta be all candlelight and accordion music and cruises on the Seine right? Or whatever people in Paris do for romance. I have no idea, because we were walking around in tunnels looking at bones.

Besides an afternoon walking around and eating bread, another vacation event that has really affected the way I travel is my visit to Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. Since then, I have been much more interested in what you might call dark tourism. The prison was dark and sad, but strangely beautiful. I could not get the experience out of my head.

I don't seek out dark stuff intentionally. I just don't avoid it. I want to see something interesting. I want to have my mind blown.

Underneath the city of Paris run a series of stone mines, where they got the rock to build the city. In the late 18th century, dead people were getting to be a problem. The cemeteries in the city did not have room to expand, so they started making mass graves. But soon these got full. There were charnel houses which also held the remains of people who had been previously buried and then exhumed to make room for the more recently deceased. It got pretty gross.

Eventually, the city opened three new cemeteries that were outside the central city, and then they decided to turn the old stone mines into an ossuary, a holding place for skeletal remains. It took two years to move all the bones. At first it was just a big jumble of bones, but someone got creative and organized them so they looked nice. Well, you know. Nice for a bunch of bones. They added tombstones and other decorations to give a bit of dignity to those interred there.

After descending a long spiral staircase, we walked around in some of the tunnels. There was a well of crystal clear water and a place where an old miner had carved a city into the rock. Finally, we came to a doorway, which said "Arrete! C'est ici l'empire de la Mort." Stop! Here lies the empire of Death.

And then it's bones, bones, bones. The tunnel walls are bones - femurs stacked on tibias, with layers of skulls in between. There were designs made of bones, from stripes to hearts and crosses. The bones were stacked about shoulder-high, and behind them was the rest of the skeletons, all piled together. The remains of six million people are in these tunnels. I can't say for sure if I'd ever seen a real human bone before, but I've seen a lot now. I saw the lines where the different bones of the skull meet. And I saw where other dark tourists had written their names on the skulls. I'd apologize to the dead for that, but they used to be people, too, and some of them were probably the type to deface an anonymous skull.

I realized later that what we had seen was a mass grave. Usually, our context for a mass grave is mass murder, where a group is seen as less than human and eliminated. Putting them all together in one big hole, nothing to identify or distinguish them completes the dehumanization. Yet here is a mass grave with no horrifying event to account for all the dead. No massacre, no battle, no plague. Just a solution to a logistical problem in city planning. It's downright banal.

I think what bothers us about mass graves is how thoroughly anonymous they are. There is no registry somewhere that lists the six million names that accompanied those skeletons. They're not even separated into individuals. So one person might be spread out all over the tunnels - an ulna here, a patella there, here a phalange, there a phalange. There is nothing to distinguish anyone from anyone else. Supposedly, Rabelais, one of the founders of modern literature, is down there, but you'd never find him amongst the blacksmiths and the millers and the bakers. From our modern, highly-individualistic society, it hurts the ego to think that we might end up all jumbled together with random people, nothing to commemorate our lives.

Except they're just bones, the only parts of us which survive decomposition. They are not us, because our bodies were never us, and a granite stone with an epitaph wouldn't change that.


home again, home again.

I just got back from France, and boy, are my arms tired. Plus my eyes, from all the looking, and my feet, from all the walking, and my jaw, from all the eating. Also my nose, because I caught a bonafide Parisian sinus infection. So really, my arms had it easy.

We spent a week in Paris, took a day to hop over to Amsterdam, and then another week in a little village outside Lyons. Our destinations were chosen on the same basis: we knew people in those places. Knowing the locals is a great way to travel, because they can take you to the cool spots. Plus, sometimes they can provide you with a bed/futon/tent, which helps on expenses. If they really like you, they may feed you.

We like to keep a loose schedule when we travel. I've been on trips where everything was scheduled down to the minute, and it seems like you spend more time thinking about the schedule than you do enjoying whatever you're actually doing. The fun happens when you let your trip be a journey, rather than a series of destinations.

I've been to France before, back when I was thirteen years old. We'd come from an overnight flight, and were waiting in a train station for a train to Rome (we'd spend time in Paris later in the trip). We were all sleep-deprived and hungry. I think I was kinda delirious actually, past the whiny stage, and basically just a walking zombie. We had hours to sit in a train station, but we decided to go take a walk instead, because there was Paris outside. So we left the Gare du Nord and strolled the streets of the 10th arrondissement. We went to a bakery and ordered a baguette and ate it by tearing off big chunks with our teeth. It was just what we needed. And it was seriously one of the best moments on the whole vacation. That memory has guided my trip planning ever since. I research things to do, and then we decide what we do when we're there. We don't get to everything, and we find things we didn't even know about.

Josh has never been to France; in fact, he'd never been to any foreign country. When we were thinking of things to do in the city of light, I was ho-hum about doing the touristy things: the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame. I don't like being told that there are things that I have to do. It makes a vacation seem little more than a checklist. But I worried that it was because I had already done those things and that Josh would feel he would be missing out. But we talked it out, and he said that if all we did was sit at a cafe and drink wine the whole time, he'd be happy. That's Josh, being a good traveler (and a hearty drinker). He enjoys what he does instead of wondering about what he's missed. That's how I see it, too. If you spend a week in Paris and come home bemoaning the things you did not do, then you are looking at it the wrong way.

Travelling can be a real test on a relationship. Being out of your element, not to mention possibly sleep-deprived and stressed, many of your deep and less civilized traits can rear their ugly heads. You have to really like each other in the first place if you want to come out as friends in the end.

There were a couple times during the trip when Josh looked at me and said, "You're not a good traveler." Well, no, when we are about to miss a train and someone stops to take a picture of the security camera which looks like an eye, then, no, I am not a good traveler. There seems to be two parts to being a good traveler: being where you need to be when you need to be there, and then being easy-going about the things that will happen to you. Josh and I are both good at exactly one of those two things. It seems to work out. I get him on the train, and he keeps me calm. I pad the schedule so that he can stop to take pictures of security cameras, and he doesn't fight me when I say we need to go or we will miss the train.

Anyway, we took a honeymoon to France and came back still married. I'll tell you all about it.