Daphne Du Maurier, The Infernal World of Branwell Brontë (1960)

I was surprised to see that my library had this (non fiction) book among the translated novels of Daphne du Maurier (I rather think it’s a mistake as far as classification goes, but a chance for me since I wouldn’t have found it otherwise). As it totally fitted my goal to read more by Du Maurier and more non-fiction (two birds one stone yada yada), I decided to read it, thinking that I already knew a lot on Branwell Brontë. Or did I?

My understanding of Branwell Brontë came from Charlotte Bronte’s biography by Elizabeth Gaskell (read about 15 years ago, and probably skipped a lot) and from a lot of BBC documentaries and movies. I saw him as a useless alcoholic and madman next to his famous sisters, and that they spent way too much money, time and mental energy on him. Now, after reading Du Maurier’s biography, my understanding is a little more nuanced. I never took the time to see the world from his perspective. The brother and the sisters actually all started off in the same creative atmosphere, and they diverged due to… what? Bad luck or lack of stamina? To be pampered and cherished as a precocious genius during childhood, and then failing over and over at any job he could get, and then see his sisters succeed next to him? (Literally next, as they all worked and lived together in a rather small parsonage). No wonder he drank!

Patrick Brontë, the father, chose to not send Branwell to school, because he was too sensitive. That decision seems to have had a disproportionate impact on his whole life, because as much as it protected Branwell and enabled his imagination to run wild, it also cut him from the realities of the world. Yet he was expected as a boy, and a man, to make a living for himself, contrary to his sisters who were destined to be dependent, and therefore inherited money from their aunt.

The irony is that the sisters were better equipped to work and earn a living than he was. In the book we feel (and share) Du Maurier’s frustration at Branwell’s failures and immature behaviors, and then lying his way back to Haworth. It’s like he never grew up, and he seemed to hate this too. It’s not fiction, so I won’t spoil anything in writing about the false affair that Branwell pretended to have had with the wife of his one-time employer. I was really shocked that Branwell’s sisters really believed this and he probably believed his own lies too. He died at age 31, followed very soon by his closest sister Emily, then Anne.

After finishing this book, I’d love to rewatch the historical movie To Walk Invisible, and pay more attention to the brother’s character.

Amy Liptrot, The Outrun (2015)

The copy I have of this book is “The Outrun” and not “The Outrun: a memoir”, and this detail seems to have influenced my expectations and my feelings afterwards. I can’t exactly pretend that I approached the book naively, because I got it from my workplace little free library and the person who left it told me, it’s not too bad, if you enjoy those addiction stories. And still proceeded to give the book away, which should tell you something about his true opinion. (After all, you don’t go drop your favorite book ever at a little free library, do you?)

That’s the reason why I was hesitant for quite a while about reading the book, although it staid on my shelves because the cover is so pretty. During all the Covid lockdown periods, I couldn’t bring myself to read it (addiction? No fun reading expected. I heard that addictions exploded during lockdowns). But I finally took it in my luggage as we were going to the seaside, because for me it was a nature book and I wanted to read about a rocky, windy, stormy coastline from a suitable place.

Before reading The Outrun I was not familiar with Orkney islands but I was familiar with Shetland, due to BBC shows and to the Ann Cleeves’ series and its TV adaptation starring Douglas Henshall. I won’t probably ever set foot on Shetland or Orkney in real life, but I was eager to vicariously discover more of life and nature there. I really enjoyed the travel and nature part of the book, the birds, coastline, cold water bathing, stars and weather. But I’d say it’s only 60% of the book, and I wish there would be more of it.

The remaining 40% is Amy Liptrot and her alcohol addiction, and her slow way out (thanks to AA) after hitting rock bottom. I was not so invested in this and it made me skip some paragraphs. I’m not a big memoir reader anyway, but it surprised me how little she spoke of her parents (and brother, and boyfriend, and friends…) comparatively to her own experience. It came out as self-centered mostly, and it made me think that I probably wouldn’t be friends with Amy Liptrot in real life, even if we were on an isolated island.

And then after finishing the book I confess that I looked her up on Instagram and her feed made me warm up to her the way her book hadn’t. I now feel that her aloofness that I felt in the book was not the result of a feeling of superiority but probably more of youthful immaturity and insecurities. (Duh, of course, an alcoholic young woman would have insecurities, but that part was not clear to me in the book).

As a memoir it was not really for me but as a nature book it was interesting and well written. I just wished she could have written more about the people who live on the islands.

Arlette Farge, La révolte de Mme Montjean (2016)

Mrs Montjean’s Rebellion is a history non-fiction book that reads like a novel, albeit an unfinished one. Arlette Farge is a well-established French historian focused on 18th century daily life, especially on lower-middle class, before the Revolution. In her research she came across a journal held by a man who wrote down his tumultuous relationship with his wife. It’s a very rare document, and not everything about the context is known, but Farge is taking this as a base to see larger trend in the pre-Revolution society.

Mrs Montjean is the normally busy wife of a tailor, but after she visited her hometown for “holidays”, she returned with a new mood. She no longer wants to work; she wants to have fun, eat fine food and spend money earned by her husband. She apparently developed a taste for libertine relations (kinky? We don’t get many details) and she is no longer content with being a respectable business partner. She aspires to a lifestyle closer to courtiers of Versailles, even if she doesn’t have the means and status.

From the unhappy accounts of Mr Montjean, who sees his previously quiet life explode in overspending, overdrinking, neglected kids, unwanted guests at home every night (his wife’s new male friends) and gossiping servants and neighbors, Farge is painting a portrait of French people who are on the verge of change. Mrs Montjean no longer accepts the hierarchy of social castes determined by birth. Mr Montjean loves his wife, but people around tell him that he should put her into a convent, which is an antiquated solution to marital discord.

The frustrating part of the book is that the journal stops without any resolution and we don’t really know what happens in the Montjean household. Indeed this should be expected from an archival document, but it still makes the book less accessible to common readers.

Sonia Feertchak, La Vérité Tue, Agatha et la Famille (2021)

During the Christmas holidays we spent a quiet, lazy afternoon doing a jigsaw together and listening to the French public radio, with a long interview of the writer Sonia Feertchak on Agatha Christie. A few weeks later I found at the library the same book among the new acquisitions: the universe was indeed trying to tell me something.

The author has read most if not all the novels by Agatha Christie and seen that out of 66 mysteries, 50 are crimes within the family. (How come hadn’t I noticed it? 😳 I’m kinda vexed). Making an inventory of all possibly toxic family relationships in there, and drawing links between the novels and Agatha Christie’s life, Feertchak provides a new way of reading the beloved mysteries.

Feertchak does not have anachronistic expectations, and surely Agatha Christie does not qualify as a feminist in the contemporary sense of the word. But because she is a keen observer of relationships and how some people exert power unto others, lie their way to whatever they seek (inheritance money, for example), Christie reports faithfully how some women are victims of emotional or physical abuse. It doesn’t mean that they are not able to plot a murder to escape the situation, it implies that at the heart of these mysteries there are dysfunctional families and abuse. There is also complicit silence from other members of the family, for often the abuse is known or hinted at.

Christie also tells what heavy price some people pay for speaking up, especially powerless women such as maids, as they are often secondary victims of the principal crime. In light of #me-too and #me-too-incest (especially in France in the last few years) Feertchak is highlighting parts of the books I read with a new perspective and I enjoyed it quite a lot. Now all I want is to go back to read some more Agatha Christie’s!

Michel Onfray, La Religion du Poignard (2009)

Charlotte Corday is a well-known name in the history of the French Revolution, but her whole life, ideas and fate must have been summed up in maximum 3 sentences in most of the history textbooks. Charlotte Corday is the young woman who has killed Marat with a knife while he was in his bath. The painting by David is so famous that any student who has passed the history class knows it.

But who she is she and why she did that is not clearly explained in high school class because it is way too messy. Class lessons focus on why monarchy was bad, why the country was at the end of their tether, why the dead end of privileges, corruption, inequality and frustrations led to a change of regime. They also insist on civil liberties and new positive values. But how the Revolution and Lumieres descended into darkness and Terror is not a topic high school teachers like to dwell upon.

I had not known how despicable Marat was. A big mouth, yes, a populist man easily outraged and prone to push violent opinions, yes. But a crook, a liar, a plagiarist and a failed courtier? The French Wikipedia has him as a physician, writer and scientist but Onfray says this is not true. What’s for sure is that Marat called for mass executions of whoever supported the King, even for the moderates who would have gladly turned to a British style constitutional monarchy with a Parliament and a mostly powerless king.

Charlotte Corday is not a monarchist as I’d thought. She’s from a privileged background but she definitely supported the 1789 revolution at the beginning. Onfray describes her as a courageous, virtuous young woman who decided to act on her belief. She believed Marat to be a tyrant and that if she sacrificed herself the whole Terror would topple. She was wrong indeed, as the bloodbath continued.

But the thing is that Onfray is highly controversial. Adored by some, detested by others. Nothing written by Onfray is neutral and he is known to have his agenda as he chooses his topics. As French essays go, there are no footnotes and factual explanations to support his views. Was Marat really that evil? Was Corday so pure? The short book is so black and white that I have my doubts. What I’m sure, now, is that nothing in the Revolution is as simple as textbook lessons.

Sigmund Freud, Reflections upon War and Death (1915)

I will readily agree that this book is probably the least appropriate and gloomiest possible blog post to publish during the week between Christmas and New Year. Have you celebrated with family? Have you had something special to eat and perhaps a nice gift or two? Now let’s forget about it and turn our thoughts towards Thanatos, the death instinct of humanity…

I’ve been wanting to read something by or about Freud for a while, just to revisit an author I very much enjoyed during my teens. When I first heard about the psychoanalytic method, the unconscious and the repression of feelings, it was a huge revelation… Before Freud I was pretty much a kid who couldn’t understand why people thought one way and acted another way. A decade later, I came to realize that Freud was also problematic and that perhaps all he said was not to taken as true and pure. And also, I started to realize that it had aged a lot and that lots of his books were kind of stuffy and pompous theories not all based on real science. In brief, I grew up and moved on.

And so I downloaded this book on my Kindle from Gutenberg.org, because it was sort of short and I had never read it before. I had not really investigated the context and had no preconception of the content. I probably should have, and I hope this post will serve as PSA. The context is 1915, more than a year into the first world war, and Sigmund Freud is depressed. His sons are on the front, and bad news are coming in every day. Countless young men die and the war is not this glorious fast demonstration of courage and power. It’s dirty and long and painful and uncertain. Before the war, Europeans had entertained the idea that they stood at the pinnacle of civilization, that European people were the most refined and the less barbaric ever, thanks to progress and science and culture etc. How hard is the disillusion!

What didn’t surprise me is that Freud has a dismal view of humans. People have a barbaric instinct and given the chance this instinct rises back from the unconscious to manifest itself into real life. What did surprise me is the contrast between the old sunny (younger) Freud of my memory, the one who dissected individual cases of patients and tried to find why they suffered and how they could get better (perhaps my memory is wrong), and the dark, depressed (older) Freud who makes massive assumptions about society as a whole and basically despairs about the future. As a teen I don’t think I ever read any of his later works.

Both essays were nothing as eye-opening as my first experience of Freud, but i’m definitely curious to plunge back into psychoanalysis, its history and criticism, in 2022.

ps. my post was eventually not so gloomy, wasn’t it? Wait until I tackle child’s death and murder tomorrow, eh?

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.