Drinking Coffee While Reading Books: Penguin Island & The Confessions of Young Nero

Welcome to “Drinking Coffee While Reading Books,” a  new column at Mirabile Dictu. Here is an opportunity for me to chat about books without writing a full-length post.

And so here goes!  I AM JUST FINISHING:

The  Nobel Prize-winning French novelist Anatole France’s Penguin Island, a whimsical satire published in 1908.  When we passed this hilarious novel around in school, I chortled over it.  Now I am astonished by the radical lampooning of politics, which I took for granted the first time.

The history of the Penguins begins when the nearsighted monk, Mael, baptizes a group of penguins he mistakes for humans.  The Lord and the saints have a comical theological debate about the muddle.

When the baptism of the penguins was known in Paradise, it caused neither joy nor sorrow, but an extreme surprise.  The Lord himself was embarrassed.  He gathered an assembly of clerics and doctors, and asked them whether they regarded the baptism as void.

And the Lord decides to change the penguins into humans.

The historian narrator’s distance from these comical bird-people makes this feel like a charming fable.  He starts with the origins of myths and legends, and how they become  history.   Perhaps the most influential legend is the story of the Eve-like Orberosia, a slut who feigns virginity to “defeat” a dragon (her lover has worn a dragon costume so as to steal chickens with impunity).  She is later deemed a saint, with a cult that goes in and out of fashion.  I laughed at the tactics and strategies of Orberosia and the later characters, but as the book goes on the Penguins become more believable and politics become  horrifyingly realistic:  there is even a satire of the Dreyfuss Affair, incited by prejudice against Jews on the part of the Christian clergy and the government.

Very witty and sometimes prescient.    A must-read!  Dover has reissued it in an attractive paperback, with the original illustrations.


The popular historical novelist Margaret George’s The Confessions of Young Nero.  I have a weakness for historical novels set in ancient Rome, and this one is well-written, fast-paced, and fun. As George says in the Afterword, “This novel is my mission to rescue a gifted and remarkable young ruler, who was only sixteen when he became emperor, from what historian David Braund… calls ‘the extensive fog of hostility, which clouds and surrounds almost all the historical record on Nero…'”