Pod Review May 22-28

Last Saturday I had my first shot of Covid vaccine, I’m so glad! It went quite smoothly, I went to a community center converted in vaccination center in Paris. I didn’t feel too bad afterwards, just tired. It means that we will be able to have more peace of mind from now on, and smooth holidays this summer. Kids here in France have school until the beginning of July, so it’s still a long way off, but it is such a relief! We slowly start to go back to “normal”, whatever it is, although we’re still cautious. The country is progressively opening back up. As a book lover I should perhaps say that I look forward to going back to bookshops and libraries, but those have not closed down in the last lock-down period, so what I look forward to is more frivolous: movies, date night, a lunch with the girlfriends at the restaurant and perhaps a fancy pedi and massage? What about you, what are/were you most eager to return to?

  • Edit Your Life Podcast #234 “Editing Out Stress around Hobbies”: I loved this episode! Hobbies should not be about competition and perfection, and I needed that reminder that while we learn new hobbies it’s normal and even fun to mess around!
  • This American Life #737 “The Daily”. Mmh, not their most memorable show.
  • The First Draft Club [new-to-me] #38 “The Four Notebooks Method”. I heard about this podcast through Tsh Oxenreider’s newsletter. This method is just about writing stories by hand. I love to hand-write my journal, but for stories, I like to go back and forth with a computer. Otherwise my paper version is just a huddled mass of words.
  • The First Draft Club #37 “Let me guess, the idea was better in your head?” I enjoyed the first show I tried so I took a second helping, and it was really good and comforting.
  • Sorta Awesome #297 “Awesome Haul, women-owned businesses!” A solid show that made me want to buy some pretty things, although most are not available for overseas shipping. I should say that I am still faithfully downloading Sorta Awesome’s Friday episodes, but I don’t really care for their newest additions, it feels way too much for me.
  • Hidden Brain: “Afraid of the wrong things”. Good science about the human being’s skewed estimations of risks. I learnt a lot, but I’m afraid the tone was a bit too subdued for me to remember all the facts. On that subject, I’m rather partial to Science Vs. show, whose tone is a lot more punchy. But I still quite enjoy this new addition to my science pods.
  • The Best Advice Show [new-to-me] “Writing joyful lists with Sylva Florence”. I heard of this very, very short podcast on the Daily Good newsletter, and it is amazing! Only 5 minutes packed with wisdom and good words.
  • The Best Advice Show “Pooping with Kira Newman” as you can see, this show has the weirdest topics ever! I won’t spoil it for you, but it is indeed good and sane advice. I also listened to “Leaving with Max Linsky” and “Repurposing Food with Zoe Komarin”.
  • Retire Sooner with Wes Moss [new-to-me] “Building Exceptional Relationships with Carole Robin”. I heard of this podcast through Gretchen Rubin, and I must say that at first I was a bit reluctant about this show, because the title seemed a bit… gimmicky, but the content was actually awesome
  • Part-Time Genius [new-to-me] What are the secret rules the Royal family has to obey? This show was also a recommendation from the Daily Good newsletter (because it comes daily, it churns out a lot of great content!). This episode was absolutely adorable, I guess I will tell all these weird anecdotes to my kids and my friends.
  • Part-Time Genius: “9 Surprising things invented by women” – loved it too.
  • Rough Translation: “Welcome to the Vaccination Club” Interesting take about how to entice people into getting their vaccine shots, but it’s from March, focused on Israel, and it already feels a bit dated. How fast things go!
  • Change ma Vie by Clotilde Dusoulier: #191 “Devenir le vent” (to become the wind… of change)

This week I tried no less than 4 new shows and all were great! This quest for fresh content is really bringing me some nice rewards. We are lucky to live in a period where the podcast contents are so rich and varied. There’s so much out there that I feel less guilty to let go of shows that aren’t as fulfilling anymore.

The One with the Tokyo Esperanto Poet

Tessa Morris-Suzuki, The Lantern Boats (2021)

I have been lured to this book on Netgalley by the gorgeous cover and the historical setting: Tokyo 1951. I had understood that it was a murder mystery (someone indeed dies), but it was a misunderstanding (all my fault): it’s mostly a thriller, albeit a slow one. And I’m not saying this to discourage you from reading it: it was quite a good read and an engrossing story, held together by good characters and a solid historical background.

In this novel two points of view in this novel alternate but barely intersect in the same streets of post-war, US-occupied Tokyo. One is Kamiya Jun, a young man, orphaned from a fishing community not far from the Soviet empire, a survivor from the war and other hardships, a man who has worked for many bad guys and can only count on his own resources. Kamiya is given a dangerous mission, then another, and then he’s given a rather simple task: follow a woman and report on her to his masters.

The second point of view comes from Elly, a Scottish Japanese woman who is married to a British journalist. Elly is a nice housewife who wished for a baby but couldn’t get pregnant. Her husband spends a lot of time out, and Elly begins to suspect that he has more than a professional interest for the woman he’s interviewed several times, a Japanese poet who has chosen an Esperanto name for herself, Vida Vidanto, and who has spent the war in China with Communists.

The book is original because there are none of the expected Japanese clichés. The author doesn’t shy away from the complex situation of histories and her characters are all rather unusual. Elly has a mixed culture and hardly fits into the traditional Japanese society or among the expat crowd. Kamiya also is a loner and an outsider. At some point we get to meet a Japanese-American soldier, but rather than going all patriotic, he confesses that his family was sent to one of those infamous US internment camps during the war. Kamiya seeks refuge in a Korean boarding house in a slum, literally with the outcasts of Japanese society. And Vida Vidanto herself, who comes from a privileged Japanese family, has turned her back away from them and chosen a life with Communists and other marginalized communities.

The book is fascinating as it brings to life a rather murky period of Japanese history and shows many little-known facts about the American occupation and the Cold War. Learning from the postface that some parts of the story are based on historical facts really gave me even more appreciation for this book.

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

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.

Pod Review May 15-21

My computer is not cooperating tonight, argh! Too bad, because I was in a good mood before that, as I scored this morning an appointment for the Covid vaccination for tomorrow! I say “scoring”, because it was a whole adventure: checking the official website every hour since last weekend (no luck), then asking for tips to everyone around, trying some official phone number three times a day… It’s a big race these days as the whole country is slowly reopening and everyone wants to have the double jab for summer! The vaccination centers are still prioritizing people over 50 and people with medical conditions, but anyone above 18 can try to snatch the leftover slots… and I’m not the most patient person when I saw all my friends abroad getting theirs a while ago. So tomorrow is my turn, and I’m a bit nervous knowing that it’s the first time I take the train and metro inside Paris since… March 2020. Wow! I plan to load my phone with plenty of podcasts to accompany me and ease the uneasiness. Here are the shows I spent my last week with:

  • Invisibilia S7E3 The Chaos Machine: Wrathful Lord. The second half of the story on fake news. Who is disseminating them and why?
  • Serial: The Improvement Association, Chapters 3, 4 and 5. I finished the whole season, which deals with election fraud in North Carolina. This is not the most optimist of shows, as it proves that no matter if the election fraud is proven real or proven false, the climate of suspicion alone is enough to pervade the whole atmosphere and to modify deeply the voters’ attitude and the election results, which in turn changes the community itself and the trust in democracy. Don’t venture there if you’re feeling sad or if you’re in a hurry.
  • Edit Your Life #233 Small but powerful home edits. Yes I need to buy duplicate things I always forget downstairs when I am upstairs.
  • Floodlines: Episode 5 Exodus; Episode 6 Reckoning; Episode 7 Destiny. This series still maintains a very high standard episode after episode. Basically, all I know about Katrina was false. Revelations about the levees left me really shaken. As they say in the episodes, Katrina was not a natural disaster, it was very much man-made.
  • Sorta Awesome #294 Our favorite indulgences and escapes
  • Happier by Gretchen Rubin #324 Learn from the wisdom of teachers, How to have difficult conversations…
  • Lazy Genius #209 How to keep your surfaces clear. Yes, I want that!

Floodlines is definitely my favorite podcast, for the second week in a row, and I have still an episode left. Will it be “nominated” for the third time next Friday? Stay tuned, as they say…

The One with the Unexpected Voices of the Steppes

Simon Wickhamsmith, Suncranes and other Stories, Modern Mongolian Short Fiction (2021)

I pride myself of being curious and always ready to try new things, especially when it comes in short fiction (probably because I feel that I don’t commit too much time and energy if it’s bound to be over in 25 pages). But perhaps I am now getting to my limits. Talking about treading out of my comfort zone, this short story collection has been really challenging and puzzling.

I don’t think it’s the editor / translator’s fault, but I found very little to relate in any of those short stories. Wickhamsmith tries to give a large overview of the diversity of Mongolian writing throughout the 20th century, and he does it quite well in 27 stories that are very diverse in topics as in style. The English translation reads effortlessly, and there’s a useful glossary on Mongolian terms, but I could understand most of it from the context anyway. We get a bit of poetic / allegoric, a creepy ghost story, some love stories, some about family relationships… There’s also a very useful postface on each author and his/her context, but I really would have preferred to have it in a preface as most of the book felt like jumping in the pool feet first without really knowing how to swim.

I could say that I know nothing about Mongolia but that would be lying. The extent of my knowledge comes from my Asian studies and a summer internship program in 1997 where I was supposed to be churning out reports on Mongolia, but on that fateful summer Hong Kong returned to Mainland China and the Asian financial crisis hit many (other) Asian countries and my interest went far away from Mongolia. My understanding is that from the Chinese point of view, Mongolia is the poor hillbilly neighbor, although in historical terms the countries’ fate were intertwined (Genghis Khan was from Mongolia and Mongol dynasties rules over China for centuries) – and in economical terms, Mongolia depends very much on China. That I knew, but I had somehow missed the part where Mongolia had been heavily influenced by the Soviet Union, its other powerful neighbor.

That is why many stories in the beginning of the collection lean heavily on the socialist realist vein, and are clearly influenced by the later Russian literature. It’s hard to get passionate nowadays about stories speaking of production quotas and five-years-plan, although having read the equivalent Maoist stories I could get my bearing, if not my enthusiasm.

I was favorably impressed by the importance of nature in many of those stories. Pastoral nomadism is shown in its beauty and its hardships equally, and that’s the part I enjoyed the most. Other stories didn’t resonate with me at all, and I could not even get what I was reading. But again, this is entirely my fault. So this collection is a hit-and-miss for me, but I don’t regret trying.

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

Pod Review May 8-14

A lot about disinformation, fake news and lies in my podcast feed this week. Once I started to see this theme I saw it everywhere! In Invisibilia, in Your undivided attention, in Floodlines, in Hidden Brain etc. It’s a bit of a coincidence really, but I guess it’s revelatory of the current obsession.

  • Best of both worlds #196 Q&A episode
  • Invisibilia: The Chaos machine, an endless hole (part 1)
  • Best of both worlds: Teens & tweens, exploring a new frontier, a bit misleading as the hosts don’t have real teenagers just yet.
  • Your undivided attention: Disinformation then and now
  • Throughline: Chaos. The section on the real Lord of the flies is well worth a listen. Contrary to popular belief, moments of hardship don’t tend to bring out the worst in people. The kids stranded on a desert island didn’t kill each other but cooperated to survive.
  • The Lazy Genius: A new way to think about money with Rachel Rodgers. The episode highlighted the gender prejudices around money, which I’m already convinced of. It made me want to listen to some other money podcasts.
  • Floodlines episode 3: Through the looking glass
  • Floodlines episode 4: The bridge
  • Hidden Brain: The fake bride [new to me] I heard about this show through Gretchen Rubin, and I enjoyed this episode. A weird case of manipulation to oblige someone to lie.
  • Crime Show (Gimlet on Spotify) better take some shovels part. 1 True crime with a huge cliffhanger, I’m eagerly waiting the second part but I resent having to listen to it on Spotify only.
  • This American life #735 Bloody feelings; I enjoyed the part with the physical therapist sent to Covid wards to draw blood, and the theatrical part where a woman talks with her fibroids. The open heart surgery was a bit too much for my overly imaginative ears.

Floodlines is such an impressive podcast. It’s heartbreaking because of the lasting impact of such a violent natural disaster, but the series show how the biggest damages were caused by human actions or inactions, and by the racial prejudices. I remember the events, or at least the version of the events I had been fed, and this series show how many lies the media spread out. So many years afterwards I had kept the impression that there were armed looters in New Orleans attacking cops. I was floored to learn that not only was it untrue, but that policemen shot people and covered it up, and that the rumors actually stopped the relief operations. It is really eye-opening.

The One with the Workers’ Paradise City

David Young, Stasi Wolf (2017)

I can’t believe it’s been 5 years (five! I would have sworn 3 maximum!) since I read the first book of this series. I still remember it quite well, which is a testament to David Young’s skills. I had quite enjoyed this foray into the world of the German Democratic Republic and its criminal underworld, especially as I am old enough to remember it. Young has created a believable character, Karin Müller, full of nuances. She is a police officer with crimes to investigate and murderers to catch, as expected, but her job is way more complicated in a country where crime is not supposed to exist, and where political surveillance applies to all including the police force itself.

This second book picks up a few months after the end of the first one, and I must say that, contrary to many mysteries, I strongly recommend to read the first one before. Karin has refused to work for the Stasi and she’s been punished with a boring cop job in Berlin admonishing rebellious youth. But she’s given another opportunity, away from the capital, in a town where two babies have recently disappeared. Her mission is to lead the investigation to find them asap, without telling any civilian that there actually was a crime. Halle Neustadt (aka Ha-Neu in short, pronounced like the Vietnamese capital) is supposed to be a model Communist town where model industry workers live an ideal life in modern apartments with all the modern amenities (toilets! fridges!). The disappearance of babies has no place in the propaganda, especially as Communist brother leader Fidel Castro will soon come for a visit.

Karin is highly frustrated by all the hindrances the secret police and the party are putting on the investigation, but if she doesn’t toe the line, her desk job awaits her back in Berlin. Soon enough, she suspects that the case is more than a simple disappearance. Her past is catching up with her too, as Ha-Neu is close to her childhood home, where difficult questions have been left unanswered.

I was fascinated by the setting of Ha-Neu and the book sent me right down the rabbit hole of archives photos to see how this socialist city was supposed to be back then and how it still functions now… or not. (Google Ha-neu only if you have some spare time ahead!). I didn’t enjoy the plotting structure as much as the first book, as Young alternates chapters from an unknown voice and chapters with Karin’s investigation, and there’s a lot of back and forth in time. Still, there was enough red herrings (in a red city, sorry-not-sorry for the bad pun) and twists to keep me hooked until the end. I was interested to learn more about Karin’s childhood and back story but it was a bit too easy to guess what was coming on that side.

[Spoilers ahead] The ending made me roll my eyes more than a little. There are far too many coincidences with the personal life of Karin… The poor detective has to give birth to twins with an emergency C-section and then hop out of bed, ride a car, a helicopter and God knows what else to save the day. Sorry but at that point the plausibility was stretched way too far! The research about history may be impeccable, but Young could have asked any woman having had a C-section (which is admittedly way easier than historical research) and she would have pulled down this part of the book before it went to print. It might be a solid digression, but it made me think of the male gaze and of the lack of women in the publishing industry (I would hope that a female editor would have objected too).

Despite its obvious weaknesses I am willing to give the series one more chance to redeem itself, because the setting and the main character are worth it. I am awfully late to the series (which is now at #6!), so have you read the next one(s) and does it remain as enjoyable?

A Sunday in Paris

I don’t often blog about anything else here but books and podcasts, but I guess you’d enjoy a small treat and a rare visit to one of Paris’ literary landmark: the Shakespeare and Co. bookstore, a few steps away from Notre Dame and the Seine.

It’s been 4 months since we ventured to Paris, and now that the strict lock-down has eased up, we could enjoy a visit to this favorite place!

It was weird to see Paris without its cohort of tourists, and Shakespeare and Co was not its usual elbow-to-elbow jam-packed old self. It was both sad and precious. For once, I could really look at the books and take my time to watch and remember. I attended the Other Writing Group there for several years until the birth of my first son. At that time, George Whitman was still in his apartment next to the meeting room (he died in 2011 at 98). Despite the lack of tourists the bookstore is still open and busy, and I hope that it remains so for long years to come!

The One with the Nosy Krakow Socialite

Maryla Szymiczkowa, Mrs. Mohr Goes Missing (Polish 2015, English 2019)

When I first heard of a historical crime fiction set in Krakow, I was immediately intrigued. It’s not that often that Polish literature translated to English (or French) gives us some entertaining mysteries. At least, I haven’t heard of many. So I immediately added the book to my wishlist… and did nothing. Until Mr. Smithereens took the matter in his own hands (or rather my wishlist) and bought it for me as a Christmas present.

As the novel starts, Zofia Turbotinska is annoyed… and annoying. She’s the wife of a university professor (God forbid if you should forget it or state the wrong title) in 1893 Krakow. Not a very brilliant professor, to Zofia’s regret, but rather a shy little man who enjoys his dinners on time next to a beautiful wife in a beautiful home. And who will do anything to keep her happy, in the limits of what he deems proper for a woman. Zofia has already maneuvered (without him being aware) to get him the coveted professor title, but she wants more. And she’s bored.

Because she’s bored, she’s insufferable with her maids, and she tries to find any pretext to approach aristocratic ladies, including visiting some of them in a Catholic retirement home. When she gets there, an old wealthy widow has disappeared, found dead a few days later in an attic. While the authorities are quick to dismiss this death as due to old age, Zofia’s interest is awaken. She sees herself a detective as in the novels she enjoys reading and she pesters everyone around to answer all of her questions.

It’s a mystery full of humor, led by a main character who is a force of nature no one can resist. Zofia takes a little time to get used to, because she really comes off as an unpleasant snob at first. Fortunately, we get to understand the sources of her frustration and we get to see more than just a social climber and a name dropper. And Zofia Turbotinska is so much more interesting to follow when she has a mystery to solve than when she has nothing to do! I guess that might turn off some readers. The story itself is interesting and full of twists, although pacing was a bit sluggish in the middle. I kept wanting to understand more about the sociopolitical situation of Krakow at that period, because there are many allusions to historical events and real famous Polish people, but I didn’t find the chance and it didn’t hinder my reading.

This book obviously sets the stage for a series: I would be happy to read Zofia’s next adventures, as I guess the weaknesses of this first volume can easily be mended in the next ones.

Another tidbit of information is that Maryla Szymiczkowa is the pen name of two writers Jacek Dehnel and Piotr Tarczynski, who are both openly gay and in fact married to each other. I was a bit surprised to see it mentioned on the back cover of the book (after all, the marital status of a writer has never been a criteria for good literature), but seeing how gay rights are routinely trampled over in Poland, I’m rather glad to support these writers by reading their book… and the next?

Pod Review May 1-7

My impression of last week is rather blurry, but I’d say I didn’t spend a lot of time on podcasts. I was so busy with work and bad weather curtailed any time outside. Still, I tried two new-to-me shows and I was boosted by good news: one of my favorite show, Invisibilia, returned for a new season! Of course I had to download the first episode right away. Sadly, it was a bit disappointing, especially as they started by saying that the episode would feel uncomfortable to some. Basically, it was about racism causing wealth inequalities, and the idea of redistribution and reparations. Sorry, but as a European this caused me a massive eye-roll. So some folks in Vermont re-invented wealth tax, and also discovered that building it from scratch on a voluntary basis isn’t a miracle cure for poverty among black people? Mmh, I’m not shocked. But I remain a faithful fan of Invisibilia and will report soon about the next episode of the new season.

  • Counterjam by Food52: Breaking the Bento Box with Yumi Nagashima, G Yamazawa and Dan the Automator [new to me] I enjoy being thrown into a totally fresh area of interest. I’d never heard of those artists, and I enjoyed hearing about their Asian-American experience, especially in the context of recent racist events. (but that’s not the point of this episode at all)
  • 10 Things to tell you by Laura Tremaine: #114 How to feel like You (when you don’t) – a great encouraging episode if you feel discombobulated (don’t we all? At least, I do)
  • Science Vs. by Gimlet: Screens are they ruining our brains and mental health and eyes? I loved that episode as it debunked so many guilt-inducing myths! Strong recommend for parents.
  • Invisibilia S7E1 Eat the Rich – i’m so sorry Invisibilia
  • Radiolab The Septendecennial Sing-Along; a fascinating first sequence where a musician and a bird play music together.
  • 💙 Sorta Awesome #288 You need personal policies (here’s why). I have them, I need them, I love them.
  • Be there in Five by Kate Kennedy: Rachel Hollis and the Rose-colored Glass ceiling [new to me]
  • Science Vs. by Gimlet: Coronavirus, how scary are the variants? Lots of reassuring facts, but my fears aren’t yet fully assuaged by this show (I should get a second scoop of science… while impatiently waiting for my first shot of vaccine)
  • Best of Both Worlds by Laura Vanderkam and Sarah Hart-Unger: Email Extravaganza. Really, I didn’t learn much in the episode, I was curious to see how other professional women dealt with the massive influx of daily emails, but… hey, I guess I’m just normal and I deal relatively well, considering.

My favorite show this week is Sorta Awesome, where Meg Tietz and Rebekah Hoffer explain why personal policies are saving their sanity in many circumstances. I have started to use this concept last year or even 2 years ago, when I started to say “in our family, we…” (insert anything, from the lowly details of how to choose TP to sacro-saint screen-less dinners principles). At the onset of the pandemic, I used it to justify to my colleagues that I would no longer eat with them at the crowded canteen (that was in February 2020, a lifetime ago, back when I went somewhere to work 😉). The show gave me new ideas and I really want to implement them!

New-to-me shows: I heard of Counterjam through the Good Trade newsletter. It’s a show about food and music, and I never really thought about those two topics together! I’ll get back for more.

As for Be there in five, it’s quite another story. The show was recommended by Laura Tremaine on IG (they’d do a show swap) and at first I was willing to try, as I was curious about the Rachel Hollis debacle. Let’s just say I’d never been a Rachel Hollis fan from the start. But then, after starting the episode, I noticed that the show ran over 2 hours, and that there were 3 episodes of them! It goes against my personal policies to dedicate so much of my limited free time to long shows. For me, an ideal show runs about 45 minutes. And I don’t believe that Rachel Hollis deserves 6 hours of my time, sorry. Going through the backlist, I can’t see many topics by Kate Kennedy that interest me. I don’t think I’m in her target audience at all, so I’m going to pass.