Pod Review & Misc. September 10-23

It seems that this pod review post is going bi-weekly… at least for now, because of the necessities of life rather than an editorial choice of mine. Turns out September is a bit more eventful than I wished for and prepared for, as I had a small surgery earlier this week and am now on the mend, and off work for some days. Nothing serious (don’t worry), but just uncomfortable and… boring.

I’ve probably chosen the worst time ever to stop Instagram and Facebook, but then I would be on it way too much, so perhaps it’s for the best. My unread pile at the side of my bed is getting some serious attention, and I’m racing through books, so that’s a definitely good point of this whole adventure. Posting about it will take longer, because writing on my phone is not so convenient. Of course, podcasts are a great way to pass the time, and for some topics I listened in pairs (2 different shows on a similar topic). Here are the best ones:

  • Sorta Awesome #403 Who am I if I’m not this? Discussing life transitions when your role you identified most (professional, but also as a mother, or a person of faith, or a person with certain life choices) is shaken and needs to be reinvented.
  • Chinese Whispers: How the Cultural Revolution shaped China’s leaders today. Eye-opening, and a lot of historical propaganda that Chinese people get to assimilate without ever challenging.
  • Sinica: Yuen Yuen Ang on Xi Jinping, the Party bureaucracy and authoritarian resilience. A companion episode to the Chinese Whispers’ episode. It is depressing to have the confirmation that the Chinese regime believes in its own propaganda. I can remember how different it used to be…
  • Extra Awesome: Eating less meat and more plant with Kate Nixon. This episode was very open-minded, allowing for people who choose less meat for a variety of reasons, and don’t feel very confident. I can’t wait to try some of the recipes!
  • Science Vs. (from Gimlet) Vegans, are they right? Nicely paired with the previously listed episode. And full of nuances too.
  • Normal Gossip has returned with a season 3 that starts in a HOA, it’s quite juicy and full of surprises.
  • No Stupid Questions #113 How can you improve your mental endurance? A lot of very good points are made in this discussion, and not only about the title question. Enduring myths like the finite willpower stock (I was convinced it was true!), the mental fatigue of poverty, how the brain really works… fascinating!
  • Serial Season 1 episode 13: Adnan is Out. Yes!! As a complete fan of Serial from the very beginning in 2014, I could not believe my ears. The news made it in like 5 seconds of the French radio news program (but French people got on podcasts just a few years ago, so I guess nobody understood what it was referring to). My mind is blown that what the podcast discovered has actually been confirmed in court. I might re-listen to the whole season, if I am stuck in bed for much longer.
  • Your undivided Attention: #33 Mind the (Perception) Gap with Dan Vallone. A very, very interesting episode full of ideas on how to incentivize social media to reduce the polarization of opinions rather than benefiting from it and fueling it. This episode was from April 2021, before the Facebook leaks, but still, it’s balanced between bad news and solutions.

On the social media hiatus project, it’s getting better but it’s still not easy. Especially missing the dopamine hit when you’re otherwise anxious and have nothing else to do (think medical appointment’s waiting room). I can confess that at some point, I watched Instagram from my phone’s internet browser, but I stopped after 20 minutes. I suddenly have lots of time to read and do other things, and that’s nice too!

Happy weekend everyone!

Jane Smiley, A Dangerous Business (2022)

As soon as I saw Jane Smiley’s book in Netgalley, I knew I wanted to read it. A historical novel, a Western mixed with some mystery? Even better! I know that whatever setting or genre she chooses, Jane Smiley writes engaging stories and characters I’ll want to follow.

This is not the first book by Jane Smiley I read. Decades ago I read A thousand acres, I tried to read the Greenlanders but didn’t finish it. I think I read Moo but I don’t remember it, and this blog has a post about Duplicate Keys. I’ve not followed everything she wrote because at one point she was too interested in horses for my taste, but she’s definitely a writer I keep on my radar.

In this novel there are also horses, and beautiful coastal landscapes, but her interest is more women: strong and independent women making choices for themselves far from the social conventions.

We’re in 1851 in Monterey, California and the story is told by Eliza Ripple, a young widow who works as a prostitute in a brothel. This is no tear-jerking sad tale of misery and exploitation. Eliza is rather satisfied of her job, her life is better and safer than when she was the abused wife of a no-good adventurer. When he died in a bar fight, she didn’t consider returning to her religious parents, who had preferred seen her married to this man than with an Irish Catholic she loved. Now, under the rule and protection of the madam, Eliza provides a service to lonely men, sailors, ranchers and has no qualms about it.

Eliza is a very likeable character, something that some readers might feel a bit weird given her sex worker status. She does not feel ashamed or victimized. She’s curious and plucky. In her free time she likes reading detective novels like those of Edgar Poe’s Dupin mysteries, but she’s also very matter of fact. The sex scenes in the book are neither heaven nor hell, it’s just part of her life.

I can’t say that the book is perfect, especially when it comes to the mystery itself. But I really enjoyed the atmosphere of Gold Rush Monterey, an unusual take on that period (with allusions to the coming Secession war) and a far cry from the clichés of the Western prostitute. And it makes me want to revisit other books by Jane Smiley.

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

Maggie O’Farrell, Hamnet (2020)

This book should be sold with a big box of tissues, because I challenge you to read it to the end and remain unmoved. At first I didn’t want to read it (plague! death of a child!), and so I waited for the pandemic to calm down to consider it, and for summer to really start (yes, it’s still part of my #20BooksofSummer, I’m just late posting!). I’m glad I did, because there’s no telling how I would have reacted if I’d read it in March 2020 (when it was released) or in the winter 2020-2021: I would probably have been devastated!

It’s been years (almost a decade! 😱) since I read anything by O’Farrell, but it doesn’t matter, as this novel is very much unlike the ones I’d read before. I’m glad of this turn that she’s taken! I could not avoid the huge publicity about the book, and therefore I knew a little bit about it, but I didn’t expect to love it as much.

I also feared that I would miss out because I don’t really know much Shakespeare, but I didn’t feel left out. I understand that Maggie O’Farrell used some real factoids about Shakespeare’s family and weaved some fiction around it. Probably some deeper knowledge of Shakespeare’s life and works would have made the experience even better but it’s not a must. I took it like a wonderful story with great research about daily life in England’s 16th century.

I enjoyed O’Farrell characterization, especially Agnes, who is always walking a fine line between the magical, mythical world and the real one. The way the two could coexist in peace in that period of history is quite convincing. I also loved the writing: some people might find it too ornate, but I liked the rhythm (at times almost an incantation) and the vividness of the images. Thanks to its (numerous) metaphors we can feel with 5 senses the world of Agnes, its colors, scents and textures. It also reminded me of the best pages of Wolf Hall, but in a more lyrical way.

I’ve heard of Maggie O’Farrell’s 2022 novel: The Marriage Portrait, and I’ve added it right away to my wishlist!

Pod Review August 27 – September 9

Every news of the world seem to have been put on hold with the passing of Queen Elizabeth… that even I need to mention it here, even though it doesn’t have anything to do with books and podcasts. I suppose it is in my mind because it signals the end of an era, or the signal that nothing is forever. Well, I didn’t mean to abruptly pass from weekly to bimonthly on my podcasts posts, although last time I expressed some… let’s say overwhelm. So much has been going on in my real life (with the return to school and other time-sucking personal worries) that I just didn’t post. But I’m definitely not going on a hiatus.

The fact is that I decided on the last minute to go cold turkey off Facebook and Instagram for the whole month of September, and the weaning off of social media on my phone is waaaay harder than what I’d expected, a tell-tale sign that I was waaaay more addicted than I admitted to myself. I’m 9 days into the experiment, and I still reach for my phone when I want some relaxation, but what do I find there? A language app, the WordPress app, my photos, my emails and Google. (Fine print: I still can reach for Facebook on my computer, but it’s not the same, and i don’t feel the pull).

Did I compensate with podcasts? Strangely enough, no. My mind is still distracted, and only the very best podcasts are able to capture the jumping squirrel of my attention span. Among those I’ll mention:

  • Sinica Podcast: Is China’s bubble finally about to pop? A conversation with Bloomberg chief economist Tom Orlik. Two very current topics were addressed: the real estate bubble and the zero Covid policy. Orlik had not only ideas on the diagnostic but also about strategies and solutions
  • No Stupid Questions #112 is it okay to hate highbrow culture? It was a light-bulb moment that explained to me some fundamental differences between the US and Europe.
  • Normal Gossip, the bonus episode called “Telephone Game“, it was simply a hoot!
  • Radiolab 9-Volt Nirvana: about a weird brain experiment, where you activate some parts of your brain with electricity (sounds icky!!) with totally mind-blowing effects.

Contrary to what I announced last week, I did try yet another podcast, Time Out with Eve Rodsky and Dr. Aditi Nerukar, because I’d already downloaded the episodes on my phone and I was still curious. I am interested in the topic of division of labor, but I didn’t like the confrontational tone of the podcast. Luckily I’m not in crisis mode where it comes to division of labor in my own home, and other women will probably benefit from the hard truths that are dispensed in this podcast, but I was not the right audience for it.

Eventually, I rejoiced in the traditional back-to-school episodes of my favorites podcasts, especially Sorta Awesome. One great tip has been stored in my mind: freeze cookie dough balls… 🍪🍪🍪

Now that does sound like a plan! I do need a good recipe. Anyone else for freshly baked cookies while listening to podcasts? Happy weekend everyone!

Malachi Whitaker, The Way Home and other stories (2017)

When I pick up a Persephone book I always know I’m going to discover some little-known secret, and if it’s a short story collection, that each of them will have been picked with care. That’s exactly what I felt for this book, although the stories are rather on the low key part. They do not shout for attention, they rather whisper into your ears before surprising you with some twist and leaving their mark in a subtle way.

Malachi Whitaker, from what I learnt in the Persephone introduction, is exclusively a short story writer, she wrote many of them, nothing else, and then none at all. By the 1930s she had stopped writing. Her stories are often sad, even heart-breaking, often about working class people from Northern England (she lived in Yorkshire). It’s not really the uplifting kind of stories, so it should be picked at the proper time (summer holidays weren’t ideal). Several stories are told through the eyes of children, and the voice was impeccable. Grief, unexpected pregnancy, illness, jealousy, family relations, lies, sibling relations, accidents… There’s nothing she seems to *not* write about, in her down-to-earth, unassuming way. I can’t list all those I enjoyed but as they are fairly short (a few pages) it was a treat to read one or two every day (so as not to get depressed).

Now I want to read another Persephone book for the fall! I seem to read one per year but I decided that’s really not enough!

Christopher Huang, Unnatural Ends (2023)

This ARC seemed intriguing and promised Agatha Christie style mystery, I was sold immediately! It’s set in 1920s England, in a Gothic manor, whose lord has been brutally murdered (in his library of all places). Now, to differ from the Clue game, there was no guest called Colonel Mustard in the living room with a chandelier… But there are 3 heirs on a mission to identify the killer.

Alan, Roger and Caroline are young adults with each their own career after the World War (engineer, archeologist and journalist), living far away from their parents but still under the influence of their strict and domineering father. Upon his death they are called to the manor for the funeral, and discover an unusual twist to their father’s will: the bulk of his fortune will go to the first to find who killed their father.

It’s hard to know where to stop in the story summary without spoiling anyone’s fun. It is a good book and has plenty of good ideas, but it also has some flaws. The three heirs have interesting personalities and their own plots and character developments so that’s on the plus side. I liked how the author makes sibling relationships deep and real. The atmosphere and the themes are also interesting. But the pace is uneven, the father’s figure way too black and white, which makes the whole story too unbelievable. And because it was unbelievable, then it becomes just an intellectual puzzle without caring too much about the characters. That’s the reason why I could figure out the solution halfway through. From Goodreads I gather that it’s not due to my exceptional intelligence (I wish 😉), others have guessed it too, even earlier than me.

In short, the book wasn’t bad, but it would have benefitted from a lot more editing and tightening. And the marketing reference to the great Lady Agatha doesn’t do it any favor.

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

Summer Reading Challenge Update

Summer ’22 was a good time for books, people! As the month is getting to its end I wanted to recap this challenge, hosted by the delightful Cathy from 746 Books, as I am starting to think about the next season. I did reach the 20 books mark, yoo-hoo! (more on the below) and I (almost) didn’t stress about it. (I did have a short moment of worry mid-July, where motivation was wavering, but I trusted the maths). I did 3 substitutions, which seemed to me significant, until I discovered that last year I also did 3 substitutions as well.

The trick I used was to define books “goals” not by exact title but by authors. I wanted to read something by Modiano, or by Du Maurier, but I wasn’t fixated on a title in particular. Which allowed me to take my time at the library to browse among available copies to see what fitted my mood of the moment. I am totally unapologetic about mood reading, and I intend to take it to the next level for September onwards.

When I say I have completed the challenge, this needs a bit of legal finicking. I have finished 19 books out of 20 (3 reviews still to come, the rest is listed on the recap page here), and the last one is a non-fiction I will definitely take my time to complete, as I am 70% in and I want to think about it more deeply. Therefore I am counting it fully into my book count. The book in question is The Whole Picture, by Alice Procter, and talks about museums, what is in museums, and what is not, and how everything, from the objects selected to the layout, are deeply political. This is indeed a challenging read for someone who has been taught to visit museums regularly and to absorb what they say instead of critically challenge them.

Is it time to give out prizes for the Summer reads yet? Out of 20, there were a few duds or “meh”, a few solid entertaining or intriguing reads and 4 titles were really great (in no particular order):

  • Rue des boutiques obscures, aka Missing Person by Modiano
  • Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell (post to come!)
  • The Secret History by Donna Tartt
  • The Scapegoat by Daphne Du Maurier

What about your summer reading? What books did stand out if you look back over 3 months?

Pod Review August 20-26

I am back home, but as the kids are still away with the family, I still had plenty of quiet time by myself… with podcasts! As the school season is quickly approaching (over here, kids start on Sept. 1), I am trying to plan the rest of the year and reflect on how to keep my calm and safeguard my energy for as long as possible. September is for me like the New Year all over again, with a chance to reset goals and make better decisions until the year end (and stationery ❤ !). As in other areas of my life, I hope to make some adjustments about podcasts too.

Last week, I tried a podcast that was pushed to me by my podcast app: This is actually happening. I tried 2 episodes, and… It didn’t work for me. The respective situations of the narrators were tough, emotional (a person discovers a family secret about her origin, and another person’s father was delusional and abusive) but I felt like the story was engineered to push all my buttons. The lack of editing was also a problem. Not any tear-jerker is worth my limited free time.

In the self-help department, I really enjoyed the Lazy Genius podcast #273 How to Cross the Summer Finish Line (because that’s exactly where I’m at right now), and I plan to follow her advice.

I listened to a few different podcasts that highlighted political division (in the US, but it’s not much better elsewhere, sadly), in Pantsuit Politics (episode Why they did it with Tim Miller) and in Your Undivided Attention (episode How political language is engineered with Drew Westen and Frank Luntz). I really like when different podcasts address the same theme through different lenses.

I also learnt about the #Cleangirl trend through ICYMI (always quite fun and informative, but I feel old when I listen!) and about what Martha Stewart represents in pop culture and for women (in the 1990s and 2000s culture but even now) in You’re Wrong About. Maintenance Phase made me laugh about the dieting bestseller French Women don’t get fat (I would know if it was true).

Altogether, I found that I’ve been going a bit overboard with podcasts this summer. It’s time for me to limit the time I spend with my earbuds and be more selective. I tend to have this as background noise but I know my mind is elsewhere. The few new podcasts I tried recently were not quite a success, and even for podcasts I enjoy, I need not download every single episode just because. But I still plan to keep a weekly post to highlight the awesome things I’ve learnt through the podcast world. Have a great weekend everyone!

Daphne Du Maurier, The Scapegoat (1957)

I knew I wanted to read a Daphne du Maurier novel over the summer, but I had no title in mind. I let myself be guided by whatever was available in promotion on my Kindle (which is the equivalent, I guess, to choose at random or to let unbridled capitalism exploit me). It was rather a lucky find! Very soon after starting I could not let it go and was thinking about it during my day.

I find the title a bit misleading, or confusing when we start the book, or at least a good starting point for a (book club?) discussion after finishing the book. It’s the story of a switch. John, a middle-aged British history professor on summer break, going through a mid-life crisis of sorts, finds himself in the French back country (French history is his specialty) contemplating a monastery retreat to fill the void in his life. But as he wavers, he gets face to face with his doppelganger, Jean de Gué, a family man, a man with several women around him, an impoverished aristocrat, living in a chateau and owner of a mostly failing glass factory. The man is unpleasant, cunning, but he’s also everything that the narrator isn’t. They have several rounds of drinks together, and next thing he knows, the British man wakes up with a huge hangover in a hotel room, with the other man’s clothes and bags and not a single thing belonging to him.

He could possibly go to the French police and try to convince them of the switch, but he’s tempted to try and live his doppelganger’s life for a moment, convinced that everyone will see through the switch and call him out. But as he’s getting out of the hotel room, everyone calls him “Monsieur le comte”. So over the following days, he gets more and more involved in this other life, tries to understand who the other man is, and then make some changes, involuntary or voluntary.

Although the book starts rather slowly, there’s a very titillating sense of suspense throughout the book (will he be discovered? what should he do? what will his actions cause?) but also psychological analysis and moral dilemmas. The Count himself is like a dark nemesis of Jean. Jean takes his place and plays it like a theater role at first. He discovers who Jean is through the eyes of the persons around him, but when he finds himself a cheating, lying, irresponsible, mean person, he can’t accept that persona and changes the course of actions that Jean would have taken. So the influence goes really both ways. The intrigue gets more complex as the novel advances, and the conclusion is not all black and white.

Just like The House on the Strand took me into a really unexpected territory of time travel and drug, this story is unique and unexpected. I loved it and now want to read yet another Du Maurier very soon!

If you’re curious about Doppelgangers, there’s an article in the New York Times just a few days ago.

Patrick Modiano, Rue des Boutiques Obscures (1978, Eng: Missing Person)

I don’t remember exactly where I read that this book was considered one of Modiano’s best, on par with Dora Bruder. I’m not always in agreement with these ratings but here I totally agree! It also won the Prix Goncourt in 1978, the most prestigious book prize in France. I’m at this stage where I enjoy reading more and more by the same authors, to contrast and compare, and Modiano is particularly adapted to this approach, as his favorite themes are the traces of memories.

Contrary to other of his books where we’re not sure if it’s fiction or non-fiction, this book is a story told by his fictional narrator Guy Roland. We follow Roland in search of his own past and his own identity. A victim of amnesia, Roland was employed in a PI agency in Paris but when his boss retires, he turns his investigation skills towards himself.

The beginning is quite vague, as Roland only follows intuitions (for lack of any concrete lead) and ends up following the guests at a Russian wedding in Paris. He stares at names, at faces in old photos, every time wondering: is it me? what if it was me? Or someone who knows me? The approach is puzzling to the reader too, as we get a bit lost among those names and addresses. Roland meets people and gets vague answers that then take him to new people and new hypothesis. At moments it seems to be getting nowhere, but it actually creates a memory landscape by accumulation of details.

About halfway through we start to see people and circumstances emerge from the fog. It has to do with the war (the second world War in France, the Nazi occupation and the persecution of Jews and foreigners). No wonder people might have had several identities, changing addresses and jobs, making dubious answers or ignoring what happened to their friends.

It is probably easier to read than other Modiano books because it’s a mystery of sorts, with a PI, a quest, leads and red herrings, but it opens up on the reconstruction of a certain wartime atmosphere, and at its widest it even interrogates memory itself, what is left behind after a person or a place has disappeared. It has the trademark Modiano melancholy and style, and more of something approaching a resolution than his other books.

A very interesting analysis of the book (in French, but on Youtube) can be found here