Pod Review Feb. 27 – March 5

Where did this week go? I’m not sure. Last weekend I cooked a lot, which is a favorite activity for podcasts, and I returned to old favorites. I was bracing for a new weekend lock-down order, but the government decided against it, because people are so exhausted and already restricted by the weekdays curfew (after 6pm we can’t leave home) that we still have our weekends free… for now. It’s really good news because the winter seems on its way out, and we don’t want to be cooped-up at home anymore, even if we aren’t seeing anybody or going anywhere else that in our little corner of the woods. No new shows this time, but just yesterday I have found a list of new shows I will tackle next !

  • This American Life #732 Secrets
  • Sorta Awesome #281 We’re obsessed; episode which sent me on a rabbit trail about hard-boiled eggs, and I also tried a new Youtube fitness program, Balanced Life with Robin Long
  • This American Life #731 What Lies Beneath; the part with the conversation between two coworkers, one who is very introspective and full of thoughts, and the other who isn’t, is quite hilarious.
  • 💙 Radiolab Red Herring
  • 10 Things to tell you by Laura Tremaine #103 Journaling for Grownups
  • Happier by Gretchen Rubin #314 Re-engage with your resolutions
  • Before Breakfast by Laura Vanderkam: Adventures in the time of coronavirus; because I wanted some fun, fresh ideas to fight the particular boredom of being stuck in my little corner of the universe
  • The Lazy Genius #198 How to lazy-genius your to-do list
  • NPR Throughline The Anatomy of Autocracy, Masha Gessen, released shortly after the events of January 6 on Capitol Hill

Throughline’s episode is very good, but also very depressing. I recommend you tackle it on a good day, because the Russian-born journalist Masha Gessen is applying some tough love on American democracy. There are numerous references to Hannah Arendt and how a country slides progressively into autocracy. I particularly liked that she didn’t put all the blame on the former POTUS.

Still, I can’t help but give my gold star to the podcast episode that made me laugh, gave me a big smile for the whole day and provided me with endless conversation starters with my kids (Bonus point, after you listen you will feel very intelligent 🤗). Have you ever thought about fish fart? Well, me neither before this week. Ever since I listened to Radiolab’s Red Herring, I am somehow a bit more knowledgeable about Swedish geopolitical history in the 1980s, about Soviet submarines, and… yes… fish fart.

Unread Shelf Challenge March Update

Sorry to hit you with the bad news first, there might be something like “reading challenge fatigue” just like Zoom fatigue or Covid fatigue. I’m not feeling so inspired by the challenge and the prompts. Don’t worry, I still want to stick to it because frankly, why buy books and let them gather dust on our (very small by US standards) home? Objectively I didn’t fare all that bad in February. I had picked 2 books I got for free. I read one of them fully (review soon), and I skimmed the other.

“Le Mystère Sherlock” by J.M. Erre is a laugh-out-loud kind of book, with OTT situations and zany characters all around. In a Swiss hotel called “Baker Street” is held a university convention of the top French Sherlock Holmes specialists. They have been all invited by the senior head of the university department who will designate his successor among the guests. But when the novel starts, a snow avalanche has been blocking all access, and when the firefighters get into the hotel, they discover all 10 guests dead.

Of course, this is a parody of Christie’s “And there were none”. We know what to expect from the start. It was fine to begin with, but the humor was a bit too much for me. A bit too… schoolboyish, even by French standards. I have already mentioned that humor books are a tough sell for me, and this one proved no different. I could take it in small quantities, but not for 300+ pages. The book is full of puns and jokes, and witty remarks on Sherlock Holmes fandom and university, but after a while it was bit repetitive, and each voice of the characters (who take turn to tell the story) was not very different from the others. I skimmed the second half of the book and I felt content with just that.

What about March? Whitney invites us to some (much-dreamed-about) travelling, she wants us to read a book we bought on a trip. Oh my, it made me so nostalgic about travel! I haven’t been traveling much or at all for more than one year, and the last book I bought on this last trip has been read and accounted for a while back. In the last few years I have purchased fewer books during our trips because either we didn’t find any bookshop in the small towns we went, or I had packed a full Kindle and I didn’t need any new reading material during our trip. With two kids and often no car, we have to keep our bags quite compact and paper books are a bit too cumbersome.

So, Whitney’s challenge left me in a quandary, and I decided to partially respect the prompt, and to ad-lib the rest: if she wants us to travel, I’d choose a book with a faraway destination. Here’s what I choose:

Maigret Goes to School by Georges Simenon, which is a book I bought on a whim last summer while we were visiting my parents on a socially distanced basis (and we were on a road trip to be independent, so no luggage worry, therefore the impulse purchase). It was one of these books you get for free when you buy a magazine, and Simenon always seemed like a good idea. Of course I haven’t even cracked the spine open yet. After Fécamp, where will Simenon take me this time?

My second book is Midnight in Peking, by Paul French, a book which sat on my wishlist for quite a while, since 2015 actually, and which I recently bought (more about that later). Peking in 1937 seems distant enough in time and geography to make me forget for a while our own present troubled times. The subtitle runs: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China. I’m quite ready to be haunted!

Do you enjoy buying books while on a trip? (Remember trips?) What faraway destination do you like reading about?

The One with Greater Non-Human Powers

Octavia Butler, Collected Stories, from Library of America (2021)

I jumped on the opportunity to read Octavia Butler’s short stories when I saw this Library of America volume on Netgalley. I rarely read true science fiction (I do some fantasy, some time-travel and some post-apocalyptic novels, but aliens and flying saucers? No thank you!), yet Kindred had been such a memorable book for me in 2019, and I couldn’t pass the chance to read short stories of this author. I was sad to learn that she has published so few short stories, preferring to publish bigger volumes and even series. I enjoyed this compiled edition edited by Gerry Canavan, and with an interesting preface by Butler’s friend Nisi Shawl, although the barebones ARC format makes it difficult to go back and forth within the volume. I didn’t read Fledgling, although I intend to come back to it one day.

The book collects all seven stories from Bloodchild collection, as well as Childfinder (from Unexpected stories). The themes and genres are very wide, and none are related to Kindred. Each story is followed by a short afterword by Butler who presents the context of the story, or why she chose this theme. I liked the Utopian vision of The Book of Martha, where God addresses a female writer (Octavia herself?), so that she would chose the destiny of humans. It was by far the lightest story of them all, and readers should be warned that the worlds Butler creates are often dark and disturbing. I was awed by Butler’s imagination in Bloodchild, when she imagines a sort of love relationship between a human young man and a powerful creature. Speech Sounds is more like a standard postapocalyptic book, but I liked the metaphoric themes. Childfinder felt more like an excerpt of a complete novel. And The Evening and The Morning and The Night dealt with the consequences of a rare genetic disease.

In all those stories, I could not help but wonder at the unique point of view that Butler takes. A bit like Ken Liu, humans are often weaker creatures who have little choice but to obey to greater alien powers, but the relationship with others is not just a confrontation, there are complex feelings on both sides and plot twists that are voluntarily uncomfortable for the reader.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley. I received a free copy of this book for review consideration.

Pod Review February 20 – 26

I was still basking in the glow of the vacation for the first part of the week, but then I had to get back to work and I had a lot less time… I’m still glad that we went somewhere (safely and with proper social distancing) for a few days, as we might get some restrictions by the next weekend if Covid continues to grow fast in our area. We went to Fecamp, the fishermen’s small town that is the setting of Simenon novel that I read in January. It is still an active fishing harbor with many boats going in and out, and we rented a perfect apartment in front of the docks, and above a fishmonger that sold us delicious seafood platters! Mmmh, yes, I’m still going to talk to you about podcasts, don’t you worry. During our stay in Fécamp, I got addicted to the BBC true crime podcast Hometown, and I finished it very fast. It was good, but still not as good as Serial Season 1.

  • Hometown Episode 5. The Shame / 6. The Death Threats
  • Sorta Awesome #280 Confessions: weird new habits, lice battles, book heartbreaks and more! Have a giggle with the girls…
  • Madness Madness #2 Synanon vs. NXIVM; it was fun but when I’m not in vacation I rarely have time for 1,5 hours long podcasts…
  • Edit Your Life podcast #221 Home Optimizations for Pandemic Living; plugs, lights, alternative working space, gyms in the laundry room. I must say that homes with European standards are a lot smaller, so I didn’t feel I could fit any of these ideas in my small home.
  • 💙 Radiolab: More Money Less Problems
  • 10 Things to Tell You by Laura Tremaine; Bonus episode: Moms don’t have time to… with Zibby Owens. I’d never heard of Zibby Owens before, but this woman is working so hard with so many of her things!
  • Throughline The Lasting power of Whitney Houston’s National Anthem

After our vacation I returned to beloved old favorites like Radiolab and Throughline. I sometimes forget how good they are, and it’s a pleasure to discover some topics that I had never really thought about, explained by specialists who make complex knowledge accessible to laypeople. Throughline made me want to listen to Whitney Houston all over again, but the most fascinating episode was Radiolab’s about the creation of money. Can the government just create money out of thin air? If you’re curious, just head to this episode.

The One with the Disappeared Girl’s Secrets

Patrick Modiano, Dora Bruder (French 1997, English 1999)

It’s not the first Modiano I get to read, but I can safely say that it’s the best one (so far?). I’m glad that I started with some other of his books to get used to his very peculiar writing style, the slowness, the melancholy, the meandering, repetitive walks through Paris. All these elements are present in Dora Bruder, but they take it to a higher level and take a whole new meaning.

Other books were more clearly fictions, interwoven with the narrator’s voice which may – or may not be – Modiano’s himself. So whenever we readers were made to walk through Paris and reflect about the past of a particular address, it sometimes felt artificial, as the whole genealogy of a building, or the anecdotes about a street or a neighborhood in Paris might all be fictional. But in Dora Bruder, Modiano is looking for a real young girl who lived in Paris. And his quest for information all across town, so difficult and fragmented, fully justifies the meandering and repetitive pace of the book.

Modiano discovers Dora Bruder while reading an old newspaper from 1941. Dora Bruder’s parents have put a classified ad in the newspaper to inquire about their daughter’s disappearance. She is 15 (as described in the ad) and Jewish (which is not apparent). Dora is totally unknown to Modiano but his curiosity is awakened and he investigates. He sees parallels between Dora’s life and his own father’s, who also survived as a Jew in Paris by hiding and doing illegal activities. Dora’s parents, both from Eastern Europe, live in a room in a poor Paris neighborhood and work small jobs. They are not in hiding and must wear the infamous yellow star. They have sent their daughter to a Catholic boarding school, but Dora runs away several times (which is when her desperate parents put the ad), and at one point, she is arrested by the police who will identify her as Jewish and send her to the Nazi camps where she is killed, in Auschwitz in 1942.

Modiano is on a quest to know all there is to know about Dora’s life (which is not much), and he also wonders about what she saw and felt, if only by citing how cold or rainy one particular day was, but she remains a ghost. He doesn’t put words in her mouth and doesn’t speculate about psychological reasons why she ran away. It is a mix between a biography and an autobiography, as he tells us about his emotions during his investigations and his memories linked to his childhood in the 1960s and his father.

It is a richly layered book set on bare-bones facts (what could be smaller than a few lines of a classified ad in a newspaper?), and it can move you to tears with melancholy and tragedy. It’s not surprising that this book has been assigned to all high-school students in France. They must write essays about it and some even have exams on it, but I hope they can still perceive the full emotional and historical value of this wonderful book.

The One with the Devon Island’s Guests

Pierre Bayard, La Vérité sur Les dix petits nègres (2019)

Let’s start with the totally inappropriate use of the N word as the title of this book. It refers to Agatha Christie’s bestselling mystery “And then there were none”, which was originally published as 1939 as “Ten Little Niggers” in the UK, as the killing of 10 guests on a deserted Devon island is based on an eponymous British (or American) nursery rhyme. It is interesting to note that right from the start it was published in the US under the title “And then there were none”, because it was offensive, and the rest of the world has been catching up ever since. This title has finally been recognized as unsavory (to say the least) by the mid-80s in the UK, and the outrage has just arrived recently to the shores of France (which is often very reactionary in this area, sadly), so that most French people have only heard of this book under the N- word title.

I have been on a Pierre Bayard binge ever since I was reminded of his existence by a recent podcast. (I had read him first in the post-baby haze, a billion years ago). So I had to borrow everything from Bayard that my library had, and then I had to order some more (2 titles should actually be coming in the post soon). Bayard is a professor of literature and a psychoanalyst. He is influenced by structuralists but don’t be intimidated by his pedigree: reading his books is actually a lot of fun!

The book is told by an unnamed narrator who plays with us readers. He starts by complaining that Agatha Christie didn’t bring the right solution to this mystery and prides himself of having committed the perfect crime. He also insists that he doesn’t even want to tell us if he’s male or female so all the sentences use s/he or his/her. After summing up the main events as told in Christie’s book, he explains why the traditional resolution is not the real one. And then he ends up explaining his own version.

Of course, if you want to go along with this book, you have to be comfortable with the idea that books characters have a life of their own outside of the pages. Which is what Bayard calls integrationism (structuralist theoreticians have created a language of their own), as opposed to Bayard’s segregationists who believe that characters are purely limited to what their creator has written down. As a writer of several short stories I am actually quite the integrationist, even before being aware of it!

It’s the perfect book for Christie’s readers who like to play amateur detectives. Christie herself said that all the elements of the solution were present in her books, but I don’t know how she would have reacted to Bayard’s books. Of course, you need to have read the original novel first, but beware, Bayard is very liberal with spoilers of other Christie’s books too.

Pod Review February 13 – 19

My list this week is extra long because I have had a few days off, and I did some serious catch up on my podcasts! What better way to unwind than listening to something fun or engrossing while looking at magazines or doing some easy cross stitch project, with a hot beverage on the side?

  • Asian Glow up #15 Lunar New Year traditions, probably recommended by the Daily Good newsletter. Because, duh, CNY and 恭喜发财! I enjoyed that this podcast presented diverse Asian cultures (Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese) but boy did that podcast made me feel old!
  • Where is George Gibney? (BBC) 1. It happened in the summer, as recommended by a fellow true crime podcast enthusiast 746 books.
  • Where is George Gibney? 2. We’ve been expecting you. There was nothing wrong with the series, but I felt it was too similar to Believed, on Larry Nassar and his victims in the youth sports circuit. But at the end of the episode they advertised Hometown, another BBC true crime podcast…
  • Sludge, an American healthcare story: Uterine fibroids with Kenice Mobley; I was deeply uncomfortable with this episode, angered by all the perversions caused by the private healthcare in America, and the unfair, dismissive treatment of women, especially Black women by (male) doctors. At the same time, I felt that the interviewed woman expected an instant cure for all the money she’d spent on her issue, and I understand that fibroids are a long term issue with no easy fix for all…
  • Edit your life podcast #223 Elevating small comforts
  • Sorta Awesome #278 Ladies celebrating ladies for Galentine’s day!
  • Hometown (BBC) 1. The shooting. A Pakistani British young journalist comes back to his hometown, only to discover that the small peaceful town of his childhood has turned very dark indeed…
  • Sinica: Rana Mitter on the reshaping of China’s World War II legacy. Very interesting
  • Sorta Awesome #279 The Enneagram explains your reading life. Still unsure which number I am, so it didn’t quite work for me…
  • Madness Madness Ep. 1 Krishna consciousness vs. the FLDS. As recommended by Sorta Awesome, I wouldn’t normally choose a 1,5 hour long podcast, but this one was hilarious.
  • Science Vs. Orgasms, come for the science. A lot of scientific facts I had never heard of, but certainly a subject to listen to with headphones…
  • Hometown 2. The father / 3. The grass / 4. The verdict. You can tell it’s quite addictive, can’t you?

If you want to listen to something fun, I would recommend Madness Madness, where the two hosts compare notes on two different cults, in order to pick one in a pseudo scientific way. It’s a bit long to my taste but I found myself giggling all by myself. Don’t worry I have no intention to join a cult anytime soon!

If you’re in the mood for true crime, I strongly recommend Hometown. I’m more than halfway through the 6 episodes mini series. The influence of Serial season 1 is strong, which is for me the gold standard of this genre. Before podcasts were a thing, I listened to the BBC a lot, and I’m glad that they are coming now strong on the podcasts too!

The One with the Difficult Right Diagnostic

Ambrose Parry, The Art of Dying (2019)

This novel is the second after The Way of All Flesh, and I don’t think it even makes sense if you haven’t read the first one before. In this novel, you will find again young doctor Will Raven, who has worked as an apprentice to famous Dr. Simpson, and Sarah who used to be a maid but got so interested in women’s medicine (Dr. Simpson is an obstetrician) that she found a special place in the practice. But without knowing what went between those three before, you’d miss out a great deal.

The first book was all about the discovery of chloroform as an anesthetic. This one is a bit more difficult to pigeonhole. There’s Sarah who is now married and still continue to work at Dr. Simpson’s practice. There’s Will who is jealous of Sarah’s husband. There’s Dr. Simpson whose reputation is tarnished by rumors led by competing Edinburgh doctors. There’s a killer who speaks about her personal background in alternate chapters. There’s some money missing at Dr. Simpson’s. And lots of other things going on.

In short, I found that this novel tried to run after too many horses and ended up catching none very well. The mystery (which is why readers would seek this book out I suppose) was not very interesting to me because of the alternate chapters using the first person narration. I guess very fast the main lines of that plot and I was very impatient that Will and Sarah should reach the truth.

Sarah’s storyline is interesting, as we are meant to reflect on the unfair treatment of women who wanted to have a career or an education beyond child rearing and angel of the home. Still, I kept reminding myself that the story takes place in 1850 and that a lot of Sarah’s reflections seem slightly anachronistic. One major twist of the plot involves her but I’m not going to spoil it, just to mention that it infuriated me because it was so predictable.

The plot line that kept me reading was definitely the medical one. Doctors in this novel are heroes, and it’s a good parallel with our Covid times. They selflessly treat people and try to save them, but they also face unknown diseases, with unexplainable sources, and they constantly look for new solutions, new treatments, new explanations. This quest for discovery and knowledge is balanced by the importance of reputation, the need to respect medical colleagues’ opinions even though they might not even accept some ground-breaking procedures, the ignorance amongst those who are supposed to know better, the petty jealousies amongst a tightly knit community. These were themes that the two authors addressed with a lot of wisdom and nuance, I guess because this is close to their hearts.

I was a bit disappointed by this new episode, in part because my expectations were quite high after the first opus. But it was still worthwhile for its historical research and insight into medical history.

The One with the Blue-Blood Runaway

Jean-Christophe Portes, La Disparue de Saint Maur (2017)

I’m still grieving for Nicolas Le Floch’s interrupted series after the passing of his author Jean-François Parot in 2018. But this series is a serious contender to be the next best thing when it comes to mysteries set at the end of the 18th century. Le Floch’s last mystery was set in 1787, two short years before the start of the French Revolution. Jean-Christophe Portes’ mysteries start in 1791, with the “Mystère des Corps sans Tête”, and this one, the third in the series, is set in the winter of this same year. Two years have passed since the beginning of the Revolution and already the enthusiasm and idealism of the first events have been replaced by more cynical strategies. Nothing is black and white anymore. Some want the war with the neighboring countries, some find it a folly and while some want to make good business out of it, others are manipulated by British spies. Catholic convents and monasteries have lost their privileges, and while some of them were nothing more than prisons for young women, it also means that unscrupulous businessmen can throw the nuns out and buy lands and buildings dirt cheap.

Dauterive is called to the suburbs of Paris to investigate a missing young woman, but the family isn’t keen to help. Local aristocrats, yet very poor, with two unmarried daughters still at home in their 30s, they keep away from the villagers and don’t want a policeman from the new regime to poke around. After one week they are ready to consider their daughter dead. Dauterive finds it very suspicious, but he soon has to abandon his investigation, as his mentor and master La Fayette sets him on another mission. He is to go to London to confirm a suspicion that the future Mayor of Paris would be a British intelligence asset. The trip to London proves a lot more dangerous than expected, and while Dauterive’s life is at stake, his friend Olympe de Gouges is taking up the investigation on the young runaway.

I really enjoyed the detailed atmosphere of Paris during the Revolution. It helps if you have some ideas about the general events of the period, but Dauterive, as a young and rather naive (increasingly less so) bystander, serves as a witness and participant to the historical events and he also shares his private interrogations. I’m not a specialist of the period but it feels really true, down to smells, clothes and architecture details. (Compared to Parot, Portes seems less inclined to detail whatever the characters had to eat 😉). Portes, just like Parot, likes to mix facts with fiction, and there’s an useful postface to the novel that helps distinguish the two for those who are so inclined.

I had some reservations in mixing two plot lines that are so radically different within the same book (the London trip is really a spy thriller, and the missing woman takes more of a socio-political drama mixed with a classic whodunit intrigue). But it works somehow and the pacing is good, so that it’s a real page turner! This book was part of my January selection for the Unread Shelf challence, because I had high expectations, and I was not disappointed. I really look forward to reading the next one in the series.

Pod Review February 6-12

Last week I had been a grumpy Goldilocks who could not find anything completely to my taste… So this week I mostly stuck to serious journalism / professionally edited shows, or to other old time favorite like Sorta Awesome. I was starting to get a bit discouraged with my goal to try new shows; until I listed all those new shows in my bullet journal. Looking at my list, I’m not doing so bad after all, and it is also completely normal that all the shows I try and get recommendations about (from various blog posts or newsletters) are not insta-love! I will definitely keep trying and add to that list. If you want to recommend me a podcast, don’t hesitate!

  • Sinica: Censored, Molly Roberts on how China uses deterrence, distraction, and dilution to control its internet (a June 2020 episode); I learnt so much in this episode!
  • Sorta Awesome #277 Sharing our stuff (a reunion episode)
  • Throughline: Everybody knows somebody; about the Violence Against Women act. I had actually listened to it before, but I’d forgotten about it and it’s still a good story (although very American, as the logics of legal argumentation and federal system conspire to make something that could be simple a very intense legal battleground)
  • 💙 How to Save a Planet (Gimlet): If Miami will be underwater, why is construction booming? A new-to-me podcast, a very good episode which is actually a chapter from a non-fiction book of essays from women fighting climate change.
  • Radiolab: Smile my ass. On the show “Candid camera”, and how the line between fact and fiction is blurred, and how people hesitate between wanting to keep their life private and wanting to be seen. I’ve never enjoyed this show anyway.
  • Throughline: What happened after civilization collapsed. About the end of the Bronze age, why it collapsed and what happened next. Mmmh, I sort of expected more out of this story.

This episode from How to Save a Planet about Miami really addressed a question that I’d asked myself for quite a while, and it did provide good answers. People stay in Miami out of a wide range of reasons, from the cynical person who plans to only stay 5 years, to the person who really wants to delude herself, to the people who just can’t leave, to the lies that politicians and realty owners say to convince people that rising water is not an issue. I enjoyed the writing and the psychological analysis beyond the climate argumentation. The concept of blue-sky floods seems terrifying, and although Miami is far away from where I live, it is a question that European coastlines need to address better too.

I love most things Gimlet, and How to Save a Planet has a lot of interesting topics that I want to explore. In the previous paragraph I said that it was new-to-me, but after some verification, I had tried it once before and I had been a bit disappointed by a misleading topic (no, not misleading, it’s just that my expectations didn’t match with the way the show addressed a topic). A good reminder that I should give a show more than one chance to impress me.