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
François 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.

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