Bernard Maris, L’Avenir du Capitalisme (2016)

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book about business or economics since I finished my university degree more than 20 years ago. Not that I’m allergic to the topic, but I much rather consume that kind of information through the press, radio or magazines. When I saw this very, very thin book (a mere 80 pages) by Bernard Maris, whom I used to listen to in the French national radio, I thought that I could go out of my comfort zone, but that wouldn’t be too difficult a stretch.

Bernard Maris is well-known in France for sad reasons. He was an economist but also a journalist and he was one member of the staff of Charlie Hebdo who were assassinated by terrorists in Jan. 2015. The book is the published version of a speech he made. As you can guess from his working at Charlie Hebdo, he was indeed not a conservative. In this book he highlights the way capitalism has changed the way people lived and worked since the beginning of times: it changed the way people consider time, labor, technique and nature. He goes back to the origin of history, before capitalism, and shows that trade and labor existed before capitalism, but were deeply impacted by it. The essay is short but full of concepts and reflections, full of references like Max Weber, Freud, Nietzsche, etc.: indeed Maris’ conception was larger than just economy.

It’s hard to have a critical position with such a short text: either you were already convinced or you were not, but this opus will not make you change your mind. I enjoy how Maris’ train of thoughts flows and jumps from one fact or theory to the next, how the continuum of human history becomes meaningful thanks to his concepts. I also appreciate that he explains different possible future for capitalism, and not all of them negative, which I was not expecting. Yes, Maris is rather pessimistic about capitalism, but he still keeps the door open.

I enjoyed this short foray into economic theory. Some time ago, I had borrowed from the library a much more ambitious liberal economic theory: Thomas Piketty’s Capitalism in the 21st century, but it was clearly beyond my grasp (and almost 1000 pages!) and I returned it unread but for the first chapter. As I start to think about next year’s reading goals, should I try and read something in the middle?

Nicole E. Williams, This Is How You Vagina (2021)

I chose this book on Netgalley to challenge myself with a non-fiction book, and a science one even. Exactly the kind of reading I never do, even though I’m a big fan of science podcasts in general. I don’t have much comparison, but it did sustain my interest through and through, making it close to a page turner! The tone is friendly and matter-of-fact, not patronizing at all nor too chummy. I believe that getting the tone “just right” (like Goldilocks) is most important when a science writer tries to teach, convince and dispel some prejudices or popular myths, while avoiding that the reader feels pushed around or treated like a child.

As a 40-something woman, I should probably know all about my vagina, but the truth is, I don’t! Or more precisely, I knew the basics by Dr. Nicole Williams taught me quite a lot about my own body! Well, not my whole body. The author is very precise when she talks about vagina, and she doesn’t approximate it with the whole reproductive organs in general. That’s why the pregnancy and birth part is very light, which surprised me at the beginning. She’s also very much against calling it with endearing / coy terms like vajayjay, which I have a bit more difficulty in practice than in theory.

A huge benefit of the book is normalizing talking about vaginas at any season of life, without shame or embarrassment, while acknowledging that this organ is culturally loaded. She not only addresses the medical aspect, but she also talks about the cultural and racial ideas about vaginas (newsflash: old ideas were almost all very negative). She is very good at highlighting how vaginas can be all very different and that there is not one better than the others. She adresses a wide variety of topics including menopause as well as the recent passion for plastic surgery (alarming to me! I had no idea!). It should be a required reading from high-school on.

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

Caitlin Moran, More than a Woman (2020)

I haven’t read anything by Caitlin Moran before this one, but my husband did (How to be a woman), and he enjoyed them both a lot. He practically pushed this book into my hands, but I had plenty to read at the time (when have I not?). When I found the book on my nightstand over and over again, I knew my husband wasn’t going to take no for an answer. I had heard him laugh out loud several times, so it was a good sign, wasn’t it?

Did I laugh? A little bit at the beginning, because apparently Caitlin Moran and I share a list problem, and it rang very true! We also put things on the stairs expecting the 3 men in my household to take them upstairs without me having to nag (it doesn’t work, nor does it for her, so I’m just… normal). We have roughly the same age, a husband and kids and a never-ending to-do list. Caitlin Moran argues that it’s the same for every woman in her forties, and I’m not so sure about it. A lot of the book reads like one of those internal monologues I have when I am stressed out and overwhelmed, but perhaps it’s just because I’m in the same demographics as the author and nothing more. I feared that the book would be another of those men-are-shit books, but it’s more intelligent than that. Caitlin Moran encompasses everything in a middle-aged woman’s life experience, from the shallow (the neck, à la Nora Ephron, the hangover, a very British topic imo…) to the deeply moving, from the joys, to the outrage and the social and political aspects.

I felt a bit uneasy at the unlikely mix between the public, universal vindication for women’s rights, and the private, intimate confession of her daughter’s eating disorder. The laughs from the first few chapters turn into tears as we readers progress into the book. I hope that her daughter was/is on board with this part of her mother’s memoir, because otherwise it would be very disturbing. Women in the 40s are indeed the sandwich generation, and this book is a moving witness account of the terrors, glory and power of this stage of life. It reminded me of Judith Viorst‘ poetic vignettes of the 40s (How Did I Get to Be 40 & Other Atrocities) and later years, which is a compliment in my mind. I appreciated that she ended it with a note of hope.

Philippe Sands, The Ratline (2020)

I started by listening to the BBC podcast series, but it was so rich and fascinating that I thought listening (while cooking, taking the train or doing chores) was not good enough. I wanted to learn more about it, so I bought the e-book, which is a bit unprecedented for me. I usually buy books I hear about on podcast about books, never before had I bought a book that was the exact object of the podcast. The title is a bit misleading, because it’s not really about the Ratline, but it is so engrossing that I can easily forgive this. It kept me turning the pages during September, and for those who have read this blog for a while, that hardly ever happens to me for nonfiction books.

The Ratline is the story of two people, Otto Wächter and his wife Charlotte, Austrian citizens born at the beginning of the 20th century and who were early ardent supporters of the Nazi movement. We are so used to have Nazis made into cardboard evil characters in movies that it’s hard to read about “normal” people being genuinely enthusiastic about this ideology and adhering to this way of life. Wächter tried to overthrow the Austrian liberal government and suffered a momentary setback, but a few years later as Austria was absorbed into the Nazi empire there was almost no limit to the social climbing of these two. Wächter became a SS General, the Governor of the district of Kraków Government (in Poland) and then of the District of Galicia (in Ukraine nowadays).

Charlotte became the wife of the governor and the mother of his children, and because of his rank and career she got to choose any kind of available villa she fancied when Jews were expelled from the country, and she got to choose any kind of paintings in the museums of the district his husband ruled over. And she did it without qualms, and even with glee, as we see in pieces of her diaries and letters. She had fun, and no regrets whatsoever, and probably remained so until the end of her life. Little by little we get to see the heartless monstrosity of their attitudes but they never seem to realize it.

It’s rare and a bit of a surreal experience to get a glimpse of what Nazi rulers’ daily life. That part of the book was well before the Ratline (i.e. the escape route to South American Nazi officials found after their defeat thanks to friends and sympathizers, among which high-ranking prelates of the Catholic church) and this makes up for about half of the book. Wächter escaped at the end of the war, went into hiding and took false identities, making his way to Rome with the hope to find this route abroad. But money was lacking and connections didn’t fully deliver on his hopes, and he died in 1949 in Rome. The book takes a sharp turns when Sands ponders the causes of death, going into CSI-like details of post-mortem etc. Was Wächter death natural or suspect? If so, who would have killed him?

The book also explains how Philippe Sands came to this very strange investigation project. Otto Wächter’s and Charlotte’s younger son Horst collaborated with Sands to an extraordinary extent, while remaining convinced throughout the book that his parents were fundamentally decent, good people. He gave Philippe access to private papers and information even though the rest of the family didn’t agree. Philippe and Horst have a weird relationship throughout the investigation, going to the same places his parents lived and seeing radically different things. This book is a fascinating combination of biography, spy novel, scientific and historical research, and so evidently it is rather long (400+ pages), but I am convinced it is worth every minute of it.

Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit (2003)

Mr. S. bought me this book for my birthday after he saw it on my Goodreads wishlist for years (2017 to be precise). In retrospect, I’m surprised how much of a reference this book is. I didn’t know Twyla Tharp’s choreographic work before I started reading, I had never seen her dance or any of her shows. I knew that her book was universally recommended on creativity, and sometimes assigned in courses. I was expecting something similar to Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott, one of my favorite books, because they are often listed together.

This was different from what I expected. It was more like an autobiography and an explanation of Twyla Tharp’s own method to keep creating new shows year after year, decade after decade. She sure does give examples and some exercises at the end of each chapter but it’s really not a how-to guide. The subtitle “Learn it and use it for life” is clearly misleading. But the title itself is very meaningful: creation is not seen as the produce of miraculous inspiration (where’s the muse?), but the result of hard work and ingrained habits. Conclusion which I wholeheartedly believe in, but it wasn’t really ground-breaking for me.

I appreciated that Twyla Tharp gave examples from a wide range of arts and creators. I much too often limit myself to writers, and I’d never thought about creative habits when it comes to visual arts or physical arts like choreography. I also liked the idea of “spine” that would support a whole creative project (to find what the spine is would help to build the rest of the work).

But I didn’t really fall in love with the book, in the way that other books about creativity seemed to reveal themselves to me. I believe that’s because I didn’t really learn much, which I’d be able to use for myself. And secondly, the tone of the book was a bit harsh and condescending to my taste – probably because dance is a very exacting discipline. The tone of the book wasn’t full of kindness and compassion. For that, I’d refer you to my two favorite books: Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott, and Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert.

J.C. Renoux, The Art of Telling Stories (2005)

L’art de conter: la pratique et le répertoire du conteur

I borrowed this book on a whim at the library and it was like an Internet rabbit hole, but on paper, which is way more cool in my perspective. I don’t even know where to start for my American readers, but perhaps I should explain the title of the book and it would make its purpose clearer.

“Conte” in French is more ancient than stories, it could be translated as fairy tales but the fairies are not always present. We include myths, legends, folktales from the antiquity to the contemporary period. And “conteur” is a professional storyteller. How does one make a living being a storyteller in France, you may ask? One tours the libraries and try to get subsidized to run community projects at primary schools (schools in France start at 3, the perfect age for hearing stories) or in family-friendly fairs. I’ve taken my kids to such performances, indoors and outdoors, and I love them. (I suspect that it is really tough making good money on this line of business, don’t idealize it…)

The author of this book is such a professional, operating in the South of France (which has a long oral tradition) and he insists that his art is not like an actor’s (although I do think that the ones I saw were probably actors of street theater doing this as a side gig). The storyteller works with existing myths and he knows about the structure of traditional tales, but he can use these tools to create new stories on his own or with kids.

This is where Renoux pushed me hard down into the rabbit hole: there were pages about the structure of myths and the categorization of stories done by 20C researchers. I learnt quite a bit about the Aarne Thompson index, which literally blew my mind… (inserted several hours into Wikipedia) I knew that people had collected stories, but I had no idea that people had indexed them! (I have never studied anthropology or sociology but those domains fascinate me). Apparently when a storyteller is pitching a performance to customers, he refers to this index (is that for real? I have a hard time imagining the job interview: “are you doing mostly ATU 300? We were looking for ATU 100 or 200 at most…” Or maybe that’s the way it goes?).

The book also showcases a few tales by Renoux or others (and how they fit into one or several categories of the ATU index), and some stories that he created together with some classes.

I had to give the book back early to the library because of our summer trip but I’ll dig in deeper coming fall. It also interests me as a writer, to be able to recognize patterns (one would say tropes? or is it differen?) and structures in traditional stories. In the past I have invented many stories at bedtime for my sons (often because we had finished all the available books) and I know for a fact that it’s not so easy to find a satisfactory pace and balance in a story even if you have the “right” ingredients (the prince, the dragon and the evil witch…).

Pierre Bayard, Aurais-je été résistant ou bourreau ? (2013)

Would I have been a member of Resistance or a henchman? (French, no English translation)

I continue my explorations of Pierre Bayard’s unconventional non-fiction books. In this one, he tries to answer in the most rational way (shall I say scientific?) the question that everyone (?) has wondered when watching movies about WW2: what would I have done if I had lived at that period? I always find it way too convenient and optimistic when people assume they would of course have done the “right thing” and joined the Resistance. Indeed, hindsight is always 20:20. But in reality? I personally do believe most people are in the middle and wait it out.

Pierre Bayard creates an alternate life for himself where he would have been born in the 1920s rather than after the war. He models some of his options on his father’s and assumes he would have fled to the south of France at the start of the war like so many people. He doesn’t see himself as having enough convictions and awareness to join De Gaulle in London in 1940. He also highlights how luck played a decisive role in many people joining the early Resistance. Sometimes doing what now is “the right thing” was just crazy. Sometimes it was totally out of character for those who did it. He rather guesses that he would have followed his studies in a similar way that he did in his real life, but would the Nazi regime and the French collaborationists have made him angry enough to actually do something?

Along the way he cites the Milgram experiment, the French village of Chambon-sur-Lignon that saved many Jews during the war as well as the most recent genocides where a few dissenting voices rose to defend the victims: Rwanda and Yugoslavian war. I expected those examples but they still taught me many things in trying to find a common thread among those few courageous people (many of which refuse to consider themselves as heroes). Bayard also refer to Louis Malle’s movie “Lacombe Lucien” (the script was written by Modiano, which I didn’t know), where a man turns into a collaborationist just through an unfortunate random event.

If you come to the book expecting a clear-cut answer to the title question, you might be disappointed. The path that Bayard imagines for himself is rather weak and average, not glorious nor infamous, but it is statistically possible, I’ll grant him that. He explains that from 1943 Resistance gained much more traction as people calculated that the odds of the Nazis winning the war were now really low, which explains a lot (even if it didn’t make resisting the Nazis any less dangerous)

The book’s intention is laudable, but I still believe that you can’t know how you’d react by thinking about it rationally and abstractly like Bayard does. Like 2020 showed us, you can’t tell how you’d react to a global pandemic before living through one every day for more than a year (and WW2 was 6 years long!). The friends or neighbors who took risks, the first ones who wore masks, the ones who were prudent at first but then who could bear another round of confinement, the ones who confessed that they’d washed down all the groceries and the ones who couldn’t be bothered, the ones who cheated to get the vaccines first and the ones who waited until the last minute… They were certainly not the ones I’d expected. I can also say that I’m rubbish at reading people or that I didn’t know them intimately enough, but I still wonder if 2020 would make Pierre Bayard think twice about his book’s theories.

Well, what about writing an alternate version to Pierre Bayard’s alternate life? 😜

Jen Sincero, You Are a Badass (2013)

As a non-native English speaker (or ESL apparently), I got stumped for some time with the word “badass”, because it doesn’t seem to have a French equivalent. It has a swear word in it, but people obviously use it as a praise. So much so that French teenagers have adopted the American word and are now using it all the time (or is it only my teen? Most probably not). But what it really entails remains elusive to me: at least the book presented me with some good picture of Jen Sincero, a self-proclaimed badass writer: carefree, unafraid of what the others may think of her, taking bold choices to achieve big success. I get that part of the appeal is to be unafraid to write down swear words, but when the swear words are not in your own language, I wouldn’t try it for fear of a misunderstanding.

This book was on my wish list for a number of years (since it’s out? it’s possible), but it seems that I waited for too long and this one went past its use-by date. I read it quickly (but with long interruptions in-between) and I wondered all the way if it was worth my time. The answer is: “probably not”. I’m all about cheerleading books, and mood-boosting books that motivate me towards trying new things out of my comfort zone. French people are not known to be very positive and are also rather conservative so I could use all the American help that I can get. But really, most of the book is a mashup of ideas that I’ve read elsewhere. It would have been interesting if I hadn’t heard of them before.

Still, there are aspects of the book that I couldn’t accept, especially in 2021. This whole vibration / manifestation thing is really a pet peeves of mine (not only me surely!), especially when a person speaks from a place of privilege. How can one say after Covid that if you want something hard enough, you’ll get it? (speaking of luck, money and success in particular). Well, the world just set about to show us little humans that there are forces out there that don’t care less about what we wish for and how we work on vibration. Also, if you live in a racist and sexist society, no matter how hard you’ll wish for success, cards are clearly stacked against you.

I have really nothing against living an awesome life, I’m trying to every day. But I’m not sure that people who are broke will benefit from reading that they should buy a very expensive car and live their life as if they had money because wealth will come to them. It reminds me of the whole Rachel Hollis thing and not in a good way. I’m probably not a badass, but I guess I’m fine with that.

The One of the Last Minute Before

Florian Illies, 1913: Der Sommer des Jahrhunderts (German 2012, English: The Year before the Storm, 2013)

This is a funny book about a time that was all too serious. It borrowed it on a whim from the library, and I must say that I went in and out of it rather than reading it from the first page to the last. The premises of the book are easy: to recap month by month, day by day, what happened to people (famous ones, or people who would have some reasons to be famous later) on that innocent year of 1913, a bit more than a century ago. Of course, this is a literary ploy, as the book was ready to be read in 2013 exactly. But even if I missed the mark by… 8 years (!), it’s still very interesting.

We see Marcel Proust writing La Recherche du temps perdu, but we also see some guy learning to play the trumpet, a boy named Louis Armstrong. We see Kafka being miserable after a failed marriage proposal. We see a guy named Hitler painting rather badly. It’s a lot of anecdotes, some silly, or mundane, some marked by melancholy and a sense of foreboding. The tone is ironic and the anecdotes pivot from one to the next on a pun or a mere coincidence. And coincidences run aplenty. Famous people cross each other’s path, they go to famous painting exhibitions, react to scandalous new art performances (Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring), admire each other or insult each other.

It is a geological section of the world on any given year… and what a year! To enjoy this book, you need some knowledge about German writers and painters from that particular period, otherwise I’d say that it would seem rather mundane and even pointless… or you’d need to spend a lot of time on Wikipedia (well, that might be a choice for the weekend, but consider yourself warned). At that period, everyone was keeping a detailed journal, or so it seems, and so some famous writer’s toothache is reported alongside an intellectual dispute over the meaning of life, since they happened the same week of 1913. It really sent me down a rabbit hole of thoughts. In 1913, there was only 1,6 billion people on earth, now we humans are probably 7,8 billions, what kind of a book could be written about 2020, or rather 2019, if we take the same approach? What anecdotes would make it to a book written in 50 years’ time with perfect hindsight? I wonder…

The weakness of the book is that it’s awfully Germano-centric. The whole world of 1913 happens between Berlin, Vienna, Prag, and Paris. America is seldom mentioned, and Africa, Asia, South America, the Pacific are not mentioned at all. But still, it was a lot of fun.

If you want an audio companion to this book, try Radiolab’s episode: Dispatches of 1918, which looks at a special year across the globe (in Germany, but not only there), to see the aftermath of the war and of the flu epidemic. To think that this episode happened only 5 years later than the book sent me to a whole other rabbit hole… 🐰

The One with Obsessive Journalism

David Grann, The Devil & Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness & Obsession (2010)

This book was among the new acquisitions at the library and the name Sherlock Holmes was enough to make the book jump into my arms. Since my teens I’ve been a sucker for all things Sherlock, and while I’m very aware that this is totally fiction (I know that some die hard fans may not be aligned) the idea that these were real investigations related to Sherlock Holmes was fascinating to me.

In truth, the title is rather attention-seeking and even misleading. Only one story is related to Sherlock Holmes and the others stray rather far away. The common link is about quirky, often intense people stuck in weird, life-engaging situations. And the author dives into each case with an engagement bordering on obsession.

There’s the scientist who wants to find the giant squid (or raise its babies) even if it means fishing nights and days in a storm and getting bankrupt. There’s the Haitian military leader in exile who has committed violent terror against its fellow countrymen, but has been supported by the US and even allowed to settle down in the US. There’s an arson expert who might save or damn a prisoner on death row. There’s an astonishing case of faked identity. There’s this Manhattan firefighter who miraculously survived 911 but who is consumed by guilt and grief because he can’t remember how he saved his life. There’s this group of workers and engineers who work underneath New York to keep the water network flowing (engineering stories may seem boring from the outside but this one is positively hair-raising – also, claustrophobic please abstain). There’s this Polish man who might be a genius avant-garde writer, or just a sociopath killer who could not resist writing the story of his crime into a book.

Not all stories sucked me in but most did have a page-turner quality: it was a great new reading experience for me, as I read little non-fiction and that such in-depth investigations printed in tiny fonts in The Atlantic or the New Yorker or similar periodicals where they were initially published can’t sustain my attention.

Make no mistake, when the subtitle speaks of tales of murder, madness, and obsession, the obsession is as much for the journalist himself as for the subject of his investigation. All in all, I found that David Grann could well be a modern day Sherlock Holmes. I will certainly look into investigative journalism with a lot more interest.