bloodygranuaile: (plague)
 For my politics books club we decided on some light summer reading for June: Robert O. Paxton’s The Anatomy of Fascism, which explores the creation and expansion of different fascist movements for the purpose of arriving at a working sense of what fascism is based on how it has historically worked, rather than what its adherents said about it. 
As someone who got probably a pretty decent overview of both World Wars in high school by contemporary standards but has supplemented it with additional self-teaching in an extremely haphazard and piecemeal fashion (I like to read about very specific historical events like a single intelligence mission at a time), I felt like I had enough base-level knowledge to follow this without having to Google too many things, but it was also enormously helpful to have the subject set out in such an orderly manner. Paxton looks at different “stages” of fascism, of which only Mussolini’s and Hitler’s reigns both qualify as unambiguously fascist (rather than regular ol’ authoritarian) and went through all the stages he lists. 
I was expecting it to be a bit denser because some of the reviews I’d checked out said it was a bit dry, but while it doesn’t read in the novelesque way that some history books of more limited scope of subject manage to pull off these days, I really didn’t find it too dense or academic at all. It commits the occasional bit of academese, like “fascisms,” but it’s always quite clear what he’s getting at and overall I found it to be quite clear and straightforward. If you’re interested in the subject—which you should be, because otherwise why are you reading this book?—it should pull you along quite well; the prose style and the overall organization of the book just set everything out in a very plain and straightforward way. The content is terrifying without being either coy or gratuitously graphic. 
The book was written in 2004, and… well, I’d be quite interested in hearing Paxton’s take on current events. (ETA: I am a dumbass; he wrote an article about in in the May issue of Harper’s Magazine that I have just not gotten around to reading yet because I am a twit.) A lot of what he talks about regarding the early stages of fascism—it’s ideological incoherence, its poaching of grievances from the left, its roots in socialism and syndicalism even as it immediately became viciously anti-socialist, its alliances with conservative elites who thought they could use its energy for their own ends—sounds uneasily familiar to anyone following modern politics. But there are a lot of movements and regimes that are often called fascist and that may be sort of fascist in some ways but not in others. Paxton gives us a good rundown of unsuccessful fascist movements and of not-properly-fascist authoritarian regimes (I was perhaps inappropriately delighted at the section dedicated to the Perón regime in Argentina and the conclusion that it was not fascist, despite Perón’s ties to Mussolini. Musical theater is a helluva drug, apparently). 
This book doesn’t talk a huge amount about propaganda per se, which is something I would usually be disappointed with since propaganda is my favorite, but it does talk a lot about the appropriation of symbols, emotional manipulation, the slippery relationship between fascism and making any sort of coherent sense, and its anti-intellectualism, all of which is much fun, although it’s a bit terrifying to look at the legacy this kind of intellectual nihilism has left on mass politics in more recent years. It’s also terrifying when Paxton talks not about the internal properties of fascism itself but also about the political space that allows it to develop.
Though the book is short and is about 25% footnotes, I think we could end up having a very long book group discussion on this, especially if I come up with enough really good questions. It’s not for three weeks though so I’ll have to review it again when we get closer—and I’m really looking forward to doing so. 
Oh, and the book also contains a “bibliographic essay,” which basically is just a lifetime’s worth of book recommendations. Damn you, Paxton. Now I’ve got a TBR list I couldn’t hope to get through even if I turned into one of those doofy Stephanie Meyers vampires that never needs to sleep.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I was a bit worried that the third installment of Robin LaFevers’ His Fair Assassin trilogy, Mortal Heart, would be boring after the deep fuckedupness of Dark Triumph, especially since it follows the angelic Annith rather than the madness-prone Sybella. But it turns out that Annith’s secrets are just as screwed up as either of our previous protagonists’.

Annith was brought to the convent as a baby, and she doesn’t have some of the things the other daughters of Mortain have—namely a birth story, or any sign of the various gifts that each of his daughters usually display one of. What she does have is secrets, and more skill at every task the young assassins are taught than any of the other girls, in part due to starting so early, and in part because of her treatment at the hands of the Dragonette, the former Abbess.

In addition to the ongoing war with France, which has formed the main source of conflict through this series, most of the conflict in this book comes from Annith’s being denied the opportunity to go out and actually serve as an assassin—the only thing she’s ever wanted, and the thing she’s been trained for. Instead, the current Abbess declares that Annith, because she is so biddable and obedient, will stay at the convent and train as its new Seeress. Biddable obedient Annith—who has deliberately done her best to be the perfect novice so that she will be entrusted with an off-island assignment—promptly runs the hell away. Or not that promptly, really, but quite shortly afterwards, after doing some snooping around.

The dual threads of war with France and Annith’s uncovering of her own family secrets—and they are some seriously messed-up secrets—are woven together tightly, bound with a lot of mythology about Brittany’s nine pagan gods. Up until now we’ve mostly only known about Mortain, the god of death, but here we meet followers of Arduinna, protector of innocents, and hear a  lot of different versions of the story of Mortain and his ill-fated marriage with Arduinna’s sister Amourna. We also meet the hellequin, Death’s riders, earning penance for their misdeeds in life by escorting lost ghosts to the Underworld and hunting down malevolent ones. Annith’s romance with the lead hellequin, Balthazaar, seems somewhat obligatory and tacked-on for the first half of the book or so, but then plot twists happened and I changed my mind. Balthazaar has secrets too! Everyone in this book has secrets!

But this book doesn’t just use secrets for shock value—the whole book, at its core, is a surprisingly thorough exploration of how people can be bent to one another’s will—through secrets and lies, through promises and praise, through coaxing and tricking and teaching them into effacing their own wills voluntarily. Though Annith certainly has enough reasons to complain on her own—she’s been treated abominably and robbed of the expected payoff that had been her reason for putting up with it—it’s her concern for the other girls being lied to and manipulated in the same way that allows her to really become a powerful moral force.

I also love that (and here there be spoilers) in this book about assassins, the final climactic “assassination” that saves Brittany involves shooting someone—with love! Love saves the day, huzzah! But also shooting by a teenaged assassin nun! Idunno, I thought it was great.

Putting all three of the together, this trilogy is one of the strongest YA trilogies I’ve read in years—and you know how much I love YA and how many trilogies there are! Usually one of them is weak; either the middle book has Middle Book Syndrome or the last one is rushed and just falls apart. But this series, along with Sarah Rees Brennan’s The Lynburn Legacy, is really just stellar all the way through. With some surprisingly thoughtful themes lurking behind the main action of war, mayhem, and glorious medieval nonsense, it’s really everything I want in a YA fantasy.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
In a most timely boon from the library gods, Dark Triumph, the second book in Robin LaFevers’ His Fair Assassin trilogy, became available just in time for a weekend bookended by four-hour bus rides between Boston and New York, where me and some of my lovely friendesses were going to check out some awesome Gothy New York things, like the “Death Becomes Her” Victorian mourning fashion exhibit at the Met, and a trendy foofy cocktail bar called Death & Co.

Dark Triumph is considerably darker than Grave Mercy, and Grave Mercy was already about assassins, betrayal, and threat of sexual violence. To this, Dark Triumph adds heaping helpings of child abuse, incest, infanticide, spousal murder… you know, basically everything.

The protagonist of this book is Sybella, a secondary character in the first book, who arrives at the convent in the middle of a full-fledged psychotic breakdown from the goings-on of her previous life. In this book, she’s been sent to infiltrate the family of the sadistic Count d’Albret, a man who already has six dead wives to his name and has repeatedly threatened—and in one case, attempted—to rape thirteen-year-old Duchess Anne if she doesn’t keep the marriage contract that was made on her behalf when she was very young (one of many such contracts). Sybella’s ability to infiltrate this family and spy for the convent is made easier, from the convent’s perspective, but harder, from Sybella’s, by the fact that Sybella is the daughter of Count d’Albret’s fourth wife. And Sybella’s family makes the Lannisters look like the Brady Bunch. Sybella spends a good deal of the book, particularly at the beginning, being near-suicidal, kept going only by the hope of getting permission to kill her supposed father (as an assassin of this particular convent, Sybella’s actual father is Death).

Things start to look up, for a pretty messed-up definition of looking up, when Sybella springs the injured Beast of Waroch from d’Albret’s jail. Beast is a big ugly berserker dude who is nevertheless super friendly and awesome when he is not in the grip of battle rage, and who is a staunch ally of the Duchess. Additionally, the Beast’s sister was d’Albret’s sixth wife, leading to many feelings and much tragic backstory for everybody. Their romance, though of necessity pretty angsty, especially on Sybella’s part, is pretty sweet, in a dark sort of way, with both of them coming to terms with their own darkness and tragic pasts and all that stuff and supporting each other, and generally being heartwarmingly messed up.

Despite all the deeply disturbing stuff, which is really quite disturbing indeed, Dark Triumph still manages to be fun in a way that a story about medieval teenage assassin nuns cannot help but be fun. It’s action-packed, vivid, twisty, fast-paced, sometimes witty, and full of rich characterization and richer intrigues. I highly recommend the bejesus out of it.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
One of the many, many book clubs I am (at this point, rather half-assedly) in is Gail Carriger’s online book club. I haven’t participated since reading Blood and Chocolate, a YA werewolf novel that, despite being about werewolves, brought me back to my adolescence in the worst way. But I’d already bought a copy of Robin LaFevers’ Grave Mercy, the first installment of the His Fair Assassin trilogy, in one of those Kindle Daily Deal things a while ago, so I figured I might as well read it. It did, after all, have a lot of things about it that seemed right up my alley, like teenage girl assassins and medieval Brittany.

Grave Mercy is the story of Ismae Rienne, a novice at the convent of St. Mortain, patron saint/old god of Death. Like everyone at the convent, Ismae is supposedly one of Mortain’s actual children, and therefore has a number of odd death-related gifts, including the ability to see the “marques” of Death on her targets.  She also has a couple of gifts that are less common among the convent’s occupants, such as immunity to poison.

Despite many misgivings by many parties on a number of subjects, Ismae is sent off to the court of the young Duchess Anne of Brittany, in the guise of the cousin-but-probably-mistress to Anne’s half-brother, Gavriel Duval. Her actual role is to spy, and to assassinate anyone who needs assassinating. But there are layers and layers of plots afoot, and Ismae develops suspicions that maybe the people she’s assigned to spy on might not be the people she really needs to be spying on. As the threats to Brittany’s independence build and the young but awesome Duchess is betrayed by various power-grubbing nobles, Ismae’s doubts grow and she has to set herself to some serious learning—about the plots surrounding her, about the nature of Mortain and her service to him, and about her pesky feelings for Duval.

Duval is pretty much not an asshole, even though they do the classic romantic comedy bit of getting off on the wrong foot and getting mad at each other a lot, so that’s pretty good for a romance. The romance subplot is at least actually tied in pretty closely with all the fun stuff, since the main plots are dependent on questions of people’s loyalties and principles, that sort of thing, so it doesn’t feel tacked on, even if it is pretty obvious right from the beginning.

There’s a lot of historical detail here, and fairly little magic—all the magic that we see is deeply religious in nature, having to do with Ismae’s service of her god and her relationship with him as his daughter. But much of it is historical-fiction sort of stuff, and pretty heavily researched, which is completely OK by me. I like all the snooping around and trying to untangle plots and remember everybody’s family history, and am also 100 percent OK with there only being a couple of major action scenes. This book also doesn’t dick around with how limited women’s roles were in the late middle ages/early Renaissance, especially when there’s nobody to put any sort of check on the most power-hungry men.

My biggest issue with the book is that there is one small plot hole that I made into a much bigger OH NO than I think most people would. At one point, Ismae makes plans to meet with her convent sister Sybella, who may have News about Betrayal and Shenanigans and all the general badness that’s going on. On her way to meet Sybella, Ismae is interrupted by having to have a scene with the Duchess and one of the villains. And then… there is no follow-up to her missing her meeting! Sybella does show back up, but there is no acknowledgement that they had a meeting and missed it, and Ismae doesn’t go to any effort to make contact with Sybella again or wonder what information Sybella was going to give her that she now doesn’t have or freaking anything, like she completely forgot she had ever been supposed to meet with Sybella at all. I kept waiting for this to come back up because I thought missing the meeting was going to be important, and it just… didn’t.

The second book in the series is from Sybella’s point of view, and I think I’d like to read it, since Sybella was one of the best characters despite having little screen time.

This is the sort of book that would make a really fun movie if it was done properly and had any sort of budget, but if it were adapted, would probably be done improperly and with many stupid budgeting decisions and would at best end up as bad trashy fun like the Queen of the Damned movie or something.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Though I have a bunch of other stuff I “should” be reading, I checked out the ebook of Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamour in Glass, the sequel to Shades of Milk and Honey.

Glamour in Glass has a little bit more social heft to it than the first, I think—Jane and Vincent go on a trip to the Continent, where Jane observes many differences in the societal rules governing French women versus English women. There is also some stuff about war and politics and Napoleon, and, my favorite of all military-related endeavors, espionage. The title plotline involves a new development in “recording” glamour that Jane and Vincent are trying to perfect; while this development turns out to be quite useful in its part in the main plot of saving that which needs saving, it’s mostly a device through which we explore the emotional core of the book, which is Vincent and Jane adjusting to working as at team.

A huge thread in the book’s core plotline, however, concerns pregnancy—and it’s one of the best-done pregnancy plotlines I’ve read in ages, actually. The main conceit here is that it’s dangerous to do glamour while one is pregnant, so Jane has to give it up for a couple of months until after her confinement. Since so much of Jane’s identity is wrapped up in being a good glamourist—and now that her job is actually to be a professional glamourist along with her glamourist husband—Jane finds herself struggling with feelings of inadequacy, uselessness, restriction, etc., and wondering if Vincent really still loves her, particularly as Vincent seems to be having some difficulties adjusting to working as a team and also might be hiding something from her. A decent chunk of the book is Jane and Vincent working through their insecurities and trust issues; the rest is stuff like cross-dressing and throwing shoes at people. It’s an inordinate amount of fun for a pregnancy book, actually! I also found myself not minding as much that this clearly just isn’t going to be a comic series—it has its moments, but it’s not the genre—since it seems to be developing more away from trying to be Jane Austen plus magic, and more  into being its own thing. As much as I enjoyed the first one, I really think this one is a lot stronger, and it has me much more inclined to keep reading out of actual enjoyment rather than “my brain is dead and I need something that won’t tax it”-ness or “I heard the fourth one has pirates and I want to get to the pirates”-osity. It’s still a fast, light read, though, although the Thing that happened right at the end was quite unexpected for this sort of story—I feel like it’s something that’s not usually done because structurally it’s hard not to have it come off as a fakeout but here I think it actually really worked.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
This. THIS is why I joined my classics book club. BIG FAT OVERWRITTEN NINETEENTH-CENTURY FRENCH NOVELS. I love them but they’re also work enough that I rarely read them if somebody doesn’t make me. My book club doesn’t actually read that many of the really big fat long ones, due to time constraints, but it looks like once every summer we give people a head’s up a few meetings in advance if they want to take up a big psychological doorstopper.

This summer’s brick français was Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, a vaguely satirical novel about a judgy and ambitious young peasant who seeks to obtain worldly success by deliberately adopting all the hypocrisies of Restoration-era France. This mostly seems to involve becoming a priest even though he’s not religious, sleeping with his employers’ female family members, and keeping up an internal running commentary about how much everybody sucks. He is a worshipfully committed Bonapartist, a fact which he constantly has to hide from his rich employers and the rich ladies he has seduced and all their rich friends, while he wows them with his obedient pious little abbé act. His main actual talent lies in memorizing things, closely followed by lying.

The style of this book is peculiarly modern at times and a billiondy trillion percent pure nineteenth century in others. The classical novel habit of describing everybody and everything as “beautiful” or “charming” instead of telling you what it actually bloody looks like is still in full effect, as is the focus on foreheads as a part of the body that one pays a lot of attention to in order to determine how attractive somebody is (foreheads: the cheekbones of the 1800s). People speak and think in long convoluted formal sentences, most of the time, full of oh!s and ah!s and going into “transports”, which can mean anything from ranting to having an orgasm, apparently. Other bits are just… well, snarky is really the only word for it. Stendhal himself is the snarkiest character, frequently breaking the fourth wall to remind us not to get offended at how stupid the characters are because they’re fictional, or to tell us about a fight he had with his publisher about whether or not he should include the actual political discussion going on at the supar sekrit political meeting Julien attends, or just to inform us about how nice he’s being by skipping stuff. The politics we do get are a bit murky and confusing since I am not all that up on my 1830s French political history, but I think I managed to figure out that the Ultras are the monarchical right-wing party and the Liberals are the sort of squishy, conceptually-kinda-leftist-but-still-pretty-elitist bourgeois party—basically, the Liberals are liberal the way the New York Times is liberal? And then I’m not sure how Bonapartism fits into it except that the ultras totally hate it. Even without really understanding the politics, though, the way Stendhal uses political bickering to characterize his petty provincials and smug Parisians is hugely effective, so that even at the distance of nearly two hundred years the reader recognizes That Guy in his various flavors of Oh My God, That Guy, I Hate That Guy-ness.

So, the simple version of the plot is that Julien, a peasant who is the son of a carpenter but who has been graciously taught to read by some old guy, goes to work as the tutor to the children of M. de Renal, the mayor, and has an affair with his wife, Madame de Renal, and then he goes to seminary and has kind of a bad time but is a great student, so then he goes to work as the secretary for a Parisian blue blood named M. de la Mole, and has an affair with his daughter, Mathilde de la Mole. Madame de Renal is basically the only character in the book who’s not a scheming terrible person; Mathilde de la Mole is chronically bored and idealizes medieval heroism in a completely ghoulish, bonkers way that I sort of sympathize with even though it’s also really kind of terrible. Pretty much everyone else is just plain stupid, except for some of the priests. Then everything suddenly gets really action-packed and weird at the end and there is shooting and a trial and everybody dies tragically and I fucking love French novels.

There really is quite a lot to unpack in this novel, despite its seeming silliness and melodrama and generalized griping, and I’m probably going to save the serious unpacking for book club. Oh, how I wish I were still in school and could write a paper on this! There must be some fabulous crit of it out there. Alas, I am not in school and I don’t have the time to find ten secondary sources and craft a six-to-ten page paper by Sunday. But there is a lot of stuff about ambition and opportunity and class, and of the absurdity of Restoration society, and of all the stupid and convoluted feelings and thoughts and drives that aren’t love but that manage to drive people to having affairs anyway. There’s also the accomplishment of having us sympathize with—if not always root for—a thoroughly cranky and ambitious hero who is deliberately hypocritical and often stupid. Julien Sorel is definitely a Special Snowflake Asshole Genius Antihero sort of character, but luckily his author doesn’t take him too seriously and doesn’t really expect us to either, so it’s less obnoxious than that type usually is even today (and specifically I mean that the text isn’t obnoxious; the character is definitely obnoxious).

This book also contains most of the points brought up in The Toast’s excellent Every French Novel Ever post, although not necessarily in the same order.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Back in January, my Classics book club read La Princesse de Cleves, by Madame de La Fayette. I did not read it at the time, since the meeting was the same weekend as Arisia. Instead, I began reading it in Paris, on the train to Versailles. Sadly, my Kindle died during the plane ride home, so I had to take a break from reading it until I could buy Kyle’s old one off him (thanks, Kyle!). I have finally finished the damn thing.

La Princesse de Cleves (or, in English, The Princess of Cleves) is one of the great French romantic novels, and a very early specimen thereof, having been first published in 1678. It is one of the first, if not arguably the first, psychological novels, most of the page space being dedicated to recording the various characters’ thoughts and emotions, and occasionally dialogue. There is fairly little action, although people do die a lot, mostly of vague illnesses that seem to be brought on by strong emotions.

The story takes place about a hundred years before its publication, in the 1550s, during the reign of Henri II. The French royal court is still based squarely in Paris, at the Louvre. Historical figures such as Diana de Poitiers, Catherine de Medici, and Mary Stuart  run around, although it is frequently difficult to figure this out, since everybody is referred to only by their titles at all times, which is doubly confusing when people’s titles change (at one point, the king dies, and is succeeded by his son, the king). I couldn’t tell you what the hell Catherine de Medici actually does in this book because I can’t remember if she’s the Queen, the other Queen, or the Queen-Dauphin.

As a result… I can’t tell you what our protagonist’s name is. She starts off as the Mademoiselle de Chartres, a superlatively beautiful and sweet and witty young noblewoman in a France predictably full of beautiful sweet witty young noblewomen. (At least Madame de La Fayette doesn’t pull a Tolkien on us and individually introduce every female character as “the most beautiful and with the best hair” like that’s supposed to differentiate them from the others; she just introduces The Court as being a place full of fabulous attractive people, straight up.) Mademoiselle de Chartres catches the attention of pretty much everybody, but the person whose attention she catches first, and who is the only one who pursues her, is the Prince de Cleves. Since her mother had only brought the virginal innocent sixteen-year-old(!) Mademoiselle to the den of vice that (apparently) was the Court in order to make her an advantageous marriage, and since Mademoiselle has no experience fancying people at all and is a little vague on what it’s supposed to be like anyway, but like the Prince perfectly well enough as a friend and a person, the Prince’s suit is rewarded and Mademoiselle de Chartres becomes Madame de Cleves.

The Prince, who is passionately in love with his wife, keeps trying to Win Her Heart, and Madame keeps being like “Sorry? I like you just fine, honey, I’m sorry it’s not more… whatever you’re on about” but other than that things are great until the Duc de Nemours returns from wherever he’d been faffing about, probably something to do with the Italian war. The Duc de Nemours is apparently the ideal man, from  French romantic perspective—in addition to being rich and titled and intelligent and brave and dashing and honored in battle, he is so terribly handsome that everybody falls in love with him, and so terribly kindhearted that he can’t help being kind and sweet and attentive to anybody that wants his attention, and is fond of pretty much everybody, and doesn’t have any macho douchy attitudes about women, instead genuinely liking their company and conversation, with the attendant result that he’s happily a giant slut. There’s enough Duc de Nemours for everybody! At least, there is until he meets his best friend the Prince de Cleves’ new wife.

Predictably, the Duc falls passionately in love with the Princess, and the Princess falls passionately in love with the Duc, which confuses her dreadfully and also makes her feel bad because she’s already married to a kind honorable man who is her very dear friend and who she genuinely holds in quite high esteem. The Duc keeps trying to find ways to see and speak to the Princesse without being obvious about it or compromising her virtue; the Princesse alternates between trying to find ways to see the Duc without being obvious either and deciding to stay away from him in order to get over him. Eventually she confessed to her husband that she’s in love with someone else and feels terrible about it and wants to stay away from Court, but she won’t tell him who it is. The Duc, who is HIDING IN THE GARDEN EAVESDROPPING BECAUSE WHAT THE HELL (apparently in the days before Facebook you had to actually stalk your unrequited crush in order to torture yourself mooning unproductively after their lovely visage, at least until you can steal a copy of their portrait, which you will actually do if you’re the Duc de Nemours), overhears this confession, and is so joyous (and so certain it’s about him) that he runs and wibbles about it to one of his friends, who tells somebody else because nobody in the French court can keep a secret (except Madame de Tournon, who has a subplot that starts with her death), and eventually it gets back to the Prince and Princess, each of whom thinks the other told the Duc. Then there’s some crazy business with a letter that was addressed to somebody other than the Duc but the other dude is trying to get the Duc to pretend it’s his so he doesn’t get into trouble with the Queen or the other Queen or the Queen-Dauphin, I don’t even know. ANYWAY. A bunch of stuff happens, the King dies in a joust, the Duc de Nemours blows off the opportunity to maybe marry Queen Elizabeth of England, one of the French ladies gives the world’s most fucking hilarious summary of the sage of Henry the Eighth and his wives I have ever heard in my life, and a lot of people fake being ill, mostly the Princesse de Cleves.

At some point, the Prince sends his manservant or somebody to follow the Duc de Nemours, and the dude follows the Duc right into the Prince’s garden outside Paris, where the Princess is shut up in an attempt to avoid Court and all its gallantries and nonsense, and to avoid the Duc. While in actuality the Duc is just hangin’ around in the gardens spying on Madame de Cleves like a creeper, the poor woobie Prince thinks that the Duc and the Princesse are sleeping together, and gets so jealous that he falls deathly ill. Madame de Cleves is distraught by this and is very attentive and stuff and eventually they actually talk out what the Prince thinks is going on and what was actually going on, but it’s too late, and the Prince dies. Of jealousy,  apparently. The Princesse is still passionately in love with the Duc de Nemours, but also basically figures that he killed her husband by skulking about in the garden and causing jealousy, instead of keeping the fuck away from her like she’d been trying to keep the fuck away from him, so when the Duc shows up all declaring his love and proposing marriage, she declares her love back but declines the marriage, and moves out to the Pyrenees and joins a convent until she dies. THE END. No happy ending. Just guilt and virtue and overthinking the shit out of everything. The Princesse seriously needed some Captain Awkward in her life. The Duc probably did, too. And the Prince. And… the entire French court, really.
Predictably,  I loved this novel. I always say I’m not super big on love stories, but I make an exception when the psychology is really good (i.e. spelled out every step from first principles for idiots like me who won’t understand it otherwise) and when there’s a shit-ton of drama and intrigue and ridiculousness. This book hits ALL those buttons. Much of it is genuinely moving, and a great psychological portrait of someone who has no idea what’s going on and no idea what to do except to refuse to get involved. It’s also just straight up wacky as hell. The Princess spends like half the book faking being ill and half of what’s left actually being ill, people talk in long involved paragraphs to the point where the conversations seem less like conversations and more like taking turns making speeches,  random scandals pop up and have to be discussed in detail, except that everyone uses vague euphemistic terms for everything so it’s impossible to tell who’s having sex and who’s just making mutual cow eyes at each other. Madame de La Fayette’s method for describing people is the opposite of the modern laundry list of physical characteristics, nobody is ever given a hair or eye color or even so much as a height; they’re just comely and graceful and well-formed and other glittering generalities that tell you absolutely fuck-nothing about what anyone looks like except that you’d totally find them attractive, I promise. Also she tells us a billion times that the Duc de Nemours is a brilliant conversationalist but any time when she actually transcribes his words (like, in quotation marks and that sort of thing) it’s really not all that impressive.

My biggest beef with this book is some weird stuff about the translations; the titles are translated or not translated really haphazardly, so sometimes our protagonist is Madame de Cleves and sometimes the Princesse de Cleves and sometimes the Princess of Cleves, her husband is usually the Prince of Cleves but her love interest is usually the Duc (or Duke) de Nemours, and once I noticed it became really jarring. And there’s a lot of use of “you was,” which is just dated for English; I don’t care what the French was there, you done translated it wrong. This is supposed to be Court French, not gamin argot.

Other than the translation issues, it was glorious. It was everything I love about overwritten old novels. And everything I love about over-everything ancien regime France. I recommend it highly.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
So, while we were in Paris, this being my third trip to Paris, the third time really was the charm and I finally got to visit the catacombs. Me being me, this should probably have been Stop #1 on Trip #1, but I’m not sure my dad would have been able to stand up straight in them.

After our utterly awesome and creepy foray through the catacombs, both the quarries and the ossuary, we went to the gift shop, where I proceeded to splurge on dumb stuff like a skull wine bottle stopper, but also bought a copy of the English-language version of The Catacombs of Paris by Gilles Thomas. I read the whole thing on the plane ride back home, as my Kindle decided to die an hour into the flight. (Thanks, Obama.)

This book might have been more useful to me when I was still within the catacombs, as my French is a bit iffy and the ossuary in particular is full of gloriously morbid, severe limestone plaques with quotes about death inscribed on them. The quotes represent all the best in Serious Death Talk that Western civilization has to offer, including quotes by Greek and Roman philosophers, French poets, and the Bible. (Everyone else, apparently, can go hang. But silently.)

Despite being about 120 pages long and slightly smaller than a DVD case (maybe the size of a Blu-Ray case? I am not sure, as I do not have Blu-Ray), this book is solid gold. It gives a pretty solid and up-to-date overview of the current visitor’s itinerary, walking you through everything you actually walk through but with much more information than is available on the wall plaques on the tour. (Another reason I think this books might have been better to have with me in the catacombs.) It also gives a ton of tantalizing glimpses into some of the other several hundred miles of catacombs beneath the city that the visitors cannot walk through, and an excellent brief history of the catacomb system as a whole. The first half of the book is mostly about the quarries, both in the past and present, as is the first half of the tour. The second half of the book, like the second half of the tour, is where things get grim, which is where we get into the ossuary.

The ossuary, despite being viscerally creepy because it is literally miles and miles and miles of stacked human bones, is not nearly as creepy as the stories behind why the ossuary was needed, and particularly the gruesome, stomach-churning accounts of the noxious public health hazard that was the Cimitière des Saints-Innocents, a cemetery that had been in use for 700 years and held the remains of over two million Parisians before turning into such an untenably disgusting pit of half-rotted medical waste that the city was forced to empty it and pave it over. The bones of those two million Parisians, plus an additional four million bones from the dozens of other cemeteries that had developed around Paris over the course of its two thousand year history, were all transferred to the empty caverns of the old limestone quarries that had once been safely outside of little baby Paris, and were now underneath it.

While this little book does not have the room to go into quite all the gory detail, it doesn’t pull any punches about what it does report, giving us photos of the ossuary, contemporary  artwork of old Paris cemetaries, bone transfers to the ossuary, various important happenings in the ossuary’s history (it’s really weird for me to think that just the ossuary is nearly as old as the United States when it was created basically as a result of Paris getting too old to keep its whole past around), and a lot of awesome quotes from all kinds of historical primary sources. Most importantly, it has a “further recommended reading” list at the end, so morbid weirdos like me know where to get additional fixes of Weird History With Skeletons.

Overall it’s got quite a lot packed into for a short slick touristy kind of publication; I think my biggest criticism of it is that there are a few places where the English translation kind of falls down on the job—not enough to interfere with comprehension, but enough to make you break concentration and have to read the sentence a second time. I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in the Catacombs, if you can get a copy (I don’t know if it’s old outside the Comptoire), and I would definitely recommend it to anyone who actually goes through the Catacombs, both as a souvenir as an enhancement to the tour experience.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
In my Classics book club, we are continuing our theme of reading works derived from other classics (a theme I am beginning to tire of, honestly). First there was Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which was quite amazing; then, some short stories about Kafka, by Haruki Murakami and Lydia Davis. This time around, we are reading Flaubert’s Parrot, by Julian Barnes.

First off, my enjoyment of this book is likely severely compromised by my not having read any of Flaubert’s novels. I certainly want to read Flaubert’s novels, now, especially Madame Bovary, although to be honest, what I know of it now makes it sound suspiciously like Fantine’s plotline in Les Miserables, or any of another dozen works written by white dudes about fallen women which have gotten themselves classed as Great Literature. Although the ones I’ve read are usually pretty good; I suppose there’s probably a couple hundred or thousand other books written by white dudes in the nineteenth century about fallen women which have not gotten classed as Great Literature, and perhaps those are the bad ones.

This is a thoroughly postmodern novel—or at least, it is a postmodern book; whether or not it is a novel is somewhat debatable. Technically it fits the definition of being a long-form work of prose fiction, although the chapters only loosely flow together into an kind of storyline, so one could well make the cases that it is more of a short story collection—several short works of prose fiction, all roughly about Flaubert or about doctor and amateur historian Geoffrey Braithewaite’s obsession with Flaubert and attempt to find the parrot he kept on his desk when writing Un Coeur simple. The book was often funny, although I often found myself not particularly liking Braithwaite as a narrator; he seemed trying a bit too hard to ape his hero Flaubert’s chronic pessimism, and to be honest, if I want to hear some dude going on resolutely shitting on every single thing anyone says at great length and with a defensive air of superiority, there are like fifty million nerd events in the Boston area I could be attending at any given time. Much of Braithwaite’s narration is also written in second person, but, since the character of the man he is talking to is not well developed (which is an absolute must for second person writing, I think) I ended up feeling fairly defensive myself; like, dude, I haven’t said anything, stop trying to debunk the stupid opinions I never expressed. Also, stop misgendering me.

Due to the loose structure it’s hard to judge this book as a whole: some chapters were quite well-done and others seemed pointless and rambly; some were stories and some were listicles; some were about Flaubert and others were about other people. I think the chapter from Louise Colet’s point of view was excellent; the chapter about why Braithewaite hates critics (it is because of exactly one dumb thing that exactly one critic said, apparently) is mostly just grating. The stuff about the quest for the parrot really was quite interesting; Braithewaite’s amateur detective work brings us into a bunch of museums and through a lot of historical records and that sort of thing.

Overall this was not a bad book, but I was a bit disappointed with it; I think probably because I didn’t have quite the background knowledge to really appreciate it, but also I think it was just one of those times where it wasn’t really what I wanted to be reading—and I have been most fabulously busy lately, so having it on my to-do list (“…and I have to find time to read this damn book before the meeting!”) meant I approached it with less than a relaxed mindset.

Recommended for people who have read some Flaubert and are not in a big hurry.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I joined a book club and the first book we read was Swann's Way, the first volume of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time. Here is the entirety of what I knew about Proust before reading this book:

I didn't even know there was something about madeleines.

Anyway, it turns out Proust is, in fact, pretty awesome! He's much funnier than I expected, largely because his characters are all idle wealthy people who have nothing to do except play absurd status games, and they are specifically nineteenth-century French idle wealthy people and the nineteenth-century French were some of the most batshit people ever. Proust is also very good at following the finer points of overthinking things, including the exact thought and emotional processes of talking oneself into and out of opinions. It's *embarrassingly* psychologically astute. My favorite bit is when the narrator is all like "I read all these awesome deep philosophical books and I wanted to be a writer! A writer of deep philosophical meaningful books! And so I tried to think of a properly philosophical subject for my great literary work, and... I got nothin'." Which is basically exactly how one occasionally goes about not getting ideas for books! Luckily for the narrator, one day he is riding a cart through the countryside and he sees some awesome picturesque steeples, and then he writes a descriptive passage about the steeples and it's pretty good, and the narrator "was so happy... as if I myself were a hen that had just laid an egg", which I think is a fabulous turn of phrase.

Anyway, Swann's Way  is split into three books. The first is Combray, which is the name of the country town the narrator grew up in, and it's essentially a bunch of recollections about his childhood, including his own thoughts and habits and feelings, but also a lot of great little sketches about the people around him--like his bedridden aunt Leonie, the judgy maidservant Francoise, his two other aunts who are so afraid of vulgarity that they never come right out and say anything directly and then nobody knows what they're talking about, his grandmother who likes going out in the rain, and a large collection of neighbors. The second book, Swann in Love, is the most like a regular story with a clear narrative arc, and it tells the story of Swann, the narrator's family friend, and his affair with a woman named Odette, who has a sketchy past and whom Swann doesn't actually seem to like very much or have much in common with but with whom he gets totally obsessed anyway. The third bit, Place-Names: The Name, tells a very short story about the narrator becoming the playmate of Swann's daughter Gilberte and developing an adorable crush on her, and which really does a fascinating job of chronicling all the circular thoughts one has when in the throes of a terrible crush, and particularly all the things that aren't normally very interesting but become SUPER IMPORTANT AND INTRIGUING when they get in the line of fire of crush-feelings.

I read this for a book club and we talked about it for about two hours but now I cannot remember all the things I had to say, or that other people said. Samuel Beckett had a lot to say about Proust, and we read some of it, and one thing he pointed out was that there was a LOT of talk about plants but almost no talk about animals (except chickens, which Beckett seems to have forgotten; there's quite a few references to chickens, namely that line about feeling like he'd laid an egg I already quoted, and there's a weird bit about the maidservant Francoise slaughtering chickens for dinner, where she gets all worked up about it and calls them "Vile creature!" while chopping their heads off). And there are indeed lots and lots of plants! Particularly hawthorns! There's an awesome bit where the narrator had been gotten all dressed up and carefully groomed to have a photograph taken, and then he went outside to hug all the hawthorn trees goodbye before going in to Paris, and messed up all his clothes and hair, and his mom basically thought he was nuts. (It is much more moving when Proust tells it.)

I may have to actually go read the next six books. (Help!)
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I read The Runaway Queen, the next installment of The Bane Chronicles, this one by Cassandra Clare and Maureen Johnson, whose stuff I have not read but probably should.

This one is a bit less overtly silly than What Really Happened in Peru, although it does have its humorous bits, such as all of Magnus' clothes, and the time he accidentally winds up with a pet monkey and names it Ragnor.

Basically, Magnus gets roped into an attempt to help the royal family escape from the Tuilieries during the French Revolution, due to the amazingly attractive Count who pitches the job. On the same night, Magnus also has to attend a vampire party, otherwise he'll piss off the Paris vampires, and you do not want to piss off Paris vampires. Due to the royal family's general inability to get anything right, there end up being some problems with the escape plan.

Hot air balloons also feature heavily in this story.

I would say more but my head is terribly stuffed up so I'm not doing so great on the thinking front today. But this is a good story! I promise I read it and decided it was good before getting sick.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
These past coupla weeks I've been reading a book I picked up at the doctor's office last year: The Pirate Hunter: The True Story of Captain Kidd, by Richard Zacks.

Captain Kidd, as you may have heard, has become a rather legendary pirate; known for making one of the biggest pirate hauls in history (a ship spelled variously as the Whydah or Quedagh Merchant) and burying treasure all up 'n' down the eastern coast of the Americas, which nobody has yet found, but a hell of a lot of people have looked for.

This picture is almost entirely false. For starters--and this is gonna blow your mind, until you remember that money is the root of all evil--Captain Kidd wasn't even a pirate.

There is totally a pirate involved in this story, a clever, charismatic douchebag named Robert Culliford, whom history has mostly forgotten. (Note to self: Write movie about Robert Culliford.)

The situation was more or less like this: Captain Kidd was hired by a bunch of très riche Lords (plus one very bad-tempered, gouty, perennially broke Lord named Lord Bellomont, who would later be Governor of Massachusetts) to hunt pirates and French ships. His mission was (a) secret and (b) a bit shady, because it contained legally iffy clauses that any goods recovered from pirates would *not* be returned to their owners, but be considered revenue for the mission (ie, it would go to the Crown, the investors, and some would become shares for the crew, etc.). Kidd hired on a crew in what was then the very small walled city of New York, most of them pirates or former pirates. The first, like, two years of the mission were fantastically unsuccessful, and involved Kidd pissing off a lot of East India Company representatives and other hotshots who snottily decided that he must be a pirate because he was insufficiently deferential. His crew mutinied or threatened to mutiny several times. They did not meet a single pirate or French ship.

Near the end, Kidd made some great hauls, including the capture of the Quedagh Merchant, and so did Robert Culliford, now not on Kidd's crew anymore, due to all sorts of complicated logistical shenanigans that I will not recount for you now because I do not remember them properly.

By the time Kidd got back to the Americas with his booty, he was Wanted with a capital W as a Notorious Pirate (or Pyrate, or Pyratt, or pirouette... they hadn't really got the hang of inventing spelling yet), his secretive lordly backers pretty much hung him out to dry, Lord Bellomont was super cranky that Kidd did not end up bringing back quite as much treasure as he'd hoped (because he'd hidden some of it, but also because he'd traded quite a bit of it away), and he was shipped off to Newgate and eventually (he was held without being charged for a VERY long time, like two years) tried and convicted as a pirate and murderer in an absolute farce of a trial, which was pretty much the standard sort of trial.

ANYWAY. The best bits of this book are all the Wacky Historical Tidbits, as far as I'm concerned. I learned about why Wall Street is called Wall Street (it used to be along the city wall at the outskirts of NYC, when NYC was a tacky pirate haven with a populaton of 5,000), and that it was already the investment hot spot in New York, because it was full of taverns where ship captains would hire crews/pirates/smugglers and trade shares of voyages. I learned some really gross stuff about Newgate Prison and the church-going fashions of late seventeenth century Dutch New Yorker women. I learned that the first citywide shutdown-and-manhunt in Boston's history was in November of 1699, for the pirate James Gilliam, who had sailed under Kidd. (The shutdown was because it was the Sabbath and Boston used to always shut down on the Sabbath. Also, the city was a lot smaller then.) I learned that some ships used to use logs painted black to appear more heavily armed than they were, and these dummy cannon were known as Quakers. I learned so many things!

Also, all the old-timey spelling is hilarious, particularly from less-educated people, or people who were in a big hurry. Some of it is nigh incomprehensible! It is like a little game, trying to figure out what in the blazes they were on about. (Turns out, usually death and money.)

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in pirates; it's very well-researched and very readable, and it's one of those cases where the truth turns out to be a better story than the legend.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Eight pages of FEELINGS )


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