Archive for September, 2013

Sean B. Carroll’s “Brave Genius” — Albert Camus, Jacques Monod, and their Remarkable Friendship

Brave Genius Sean B. Carroll’s BRAVE GENIUS: A Scientist, a Philosopher, and Their Daring Adventures from the French Resistance to the Nobel Prize is  about two Nobel Prize winners — writer and philosopher Albert Camus, and scientist Jacques Monod.   As the title says, these two Nobel Prize winners both fought in the French Resistance — Camus edited the influential underground newspaper Combat at a time when his words and views were desperately needed to hearten spirits, while Monod (known as “Malivert”) was one of the highest-ranking men in France fighting against the corrupt, Nazi-appeasing Vichy government.

The strongest part of BRAVE GENIUS deals with Camus and Monod’s adventures while in the Resistance, when they did not know each other (except perhaps by reputation).  Both men were deeply principled atheists who nevertheless believed that the human spirit contains something extremely important that must not be muzzled. And both had something transcendent to offer the world — Camus in the field of letters and philosophy, while Monod worked with enzymes and simple sugars, trying to figure out why enzymes sometimes did one thing and sometimes did another.  (Being able to isolate why each aspect of an enzyme did what is the main reason Monod and his team eventually won a Nobel Prize.)  But at the time the Vichy government became ascendant in 1940, they both were little known, lightly regarded, and at the very beginning of their careers at absolute best.

Monod himself was a family man; his wife, Odette, was Jewish by heritage but atheist by temperament, yet of course the Nazis didn’t care that Odette wasn’t a practicing Jew.   Monod was in the French military before it disbanded after the Germans overran France in 1940, but continued to fight on as a member of the Resistance precisely because of how fearful he was that his wife and family would be taken, tortured and killed.  He urged his wife to “hide in plain sight” and then did his best to disappear into the Resistance in order to drive the Nazis out of the country.  Later on, he made sure that those appeasers who’d taken part in the provisional government in Vichy never again had any power whatsoever.

Monod’s spirit was great, so of course he was worried about all of France, whether he knew the people personally or not.  But his fight, ultimately, was driven by his personal belief system that the Nazis were utterly corrupt and that they must be driven out again.  Everything else — up to and including his own life, if it came to that — was subordinate to that need.

Camus, of course, was far more profligate than Monod ever was.  Camus in his prime was married and also had three or four lovers on the side.  (This book never does explain what Camus’ wife thought of his lovers, but she must have known about them.  Camus did not believe in dissembling.)  Camus was not well enough due to a past attack of tuberculosis to enlist in the French military in the same way as Monod.  But when the time came, he actively helped to resist the Vichy appeasers and the Nazi overlords, partly because Camus believed that the Nazis were evil — not just wrong, evil — and felt that the Vichy appeasers, who had to know that the Nazis were loathsome, vicious thugs, was somehow worse than most of the Nazis because the Vichys could’ve chosen to resist.

They just didn’t do it.

Anyway, both men made their stands.  Monod took part in various active efforts of the Resistance, helping to round up financing to buy guns, ammunition and other war materiel (such as bombs to blow up railways, a necessity that helped the United States when they landed on Omaha Beach in 1944), while Camus wrote stirring editorials and helped report the real news that the Vichy appeasers and the Nazi overlords wanted to suppress.

Then the War ended, and Camus was able to unveil himself.  The French people were overjoyed with relief, and their pleasure in Camus and his ideas cannot be overestimated.  (Monod’s involvement was not as well-known, and the French mostly overlooked it at the time.  It came to light later after Monod won the Nobel Prize.)  They eagerly went back and bought up The Myth of Sisyphus and The Plague (both published during the Vichy appeasement), then bought everything else Camus ever published.  And they loved Camus’ philosophy, later called “existentialism” (Camus himself never used this term and there’s evidence he actively disliked it), which, roughly stated, goes like this: “Human lives are short and perhaps they don’t matter.  But live like they do.”

This is what made Camus’ reputation — his service in the Resistance — and if it matters, it shows that Malcolm Gladwell was right in OUTLIERS (reviewed here) in that sometimes you have to be the right person at the right time and get the right breaks in order for your ideas to be seen to have worth and value.  You also must persist, mind you — Camus certainly had to persist during the Vichy government, as Camus disagreed profoundly with everything they did and wasn’t shy about saying so, either — but without having all of the right skill set plus being in the right place at the right time, Camus’ ideas might’ve died with him.

Instead, Camus won a Nobel Prize and was considered one of the strongest moral thinkers in the 20th Century.

Jacques Monod’s life was far less dramatic than Camus’, partly because Monod lived longer, partly because Monod was a family man and Camus just wasn’t, and partly because most people just don’t understand what scientists do very well.  What was understood was this — after Camus’ early death in 1960 at age 46 due to a car accident, Monod became the strongest voice French intellectuals had to combat the creeping tide of Communism, the remnants of Fascism, and the problems of pseudo-scientific bunk like Lysenkoism (basically, Lysenko believed that things would happen, genetically, just because Lysenko thought they would, and that’s nonsense, which Monod said far more eloquently than I just did right now).

So in that sense, Monod became Camus’ spiritual heir, which would’ve amused Camus no end as Camus was, of course, an atheist — as was Monod.

Monod also later published what might be the most unlikely bestselling book of all time, CHANCE AND NECESSITY: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology.  This book is a naturalistic look at biology, and discusses how important it is to come at science honestly — without preconceptions, without undue moral bias (not to mean that you should directly proceed to an immoral bias, mind you — just don’t have any biases at all if you can help it), and only that way can we as a species really learn anything worth knowing.

Now, this book isn’t exactly an easy read, even though Monod did tone down his academic jargon quite a bit and the English translator did even more to make things as comprehensible as possible.  Still, this book sold like a house on fire, and was on the bestseller list of more than one country, which just goes to show you the power of ideas can sometimes win out over just about anything, providing that particular idea’s time has come in the first place.

For whatever reason, I kept thinking about Malcolm Gladwell, though, when I read BRAVE GENIUS.  These two men were forged in the fire of the French Resistance, and without that, it’s unlikely their ideas would’ve come to fruition in the same way or perhaps at all.  So without that precipitating event, it’s unlikely either one of them, Monod or Camus, would’ve had a life that people still celebrate today, long after both have gone to dust . . . yet because of that event, and because of their responses to that event, their ideas have stood the test of time.

Overall, BRAVE GENIUS is a very strong and very entertaining book.  It’s better when it comes to the World War II descriptions — those live and breathe, and the suspense even at a sixty-plus year remove is palpable — but the scientific breakthroughs Monod and his team discovered are well rendered and probably would’ve been standouts in their own right if not for the absolute vitality of the depictions of the French Resistance.  (This is not altogether a surprise when you consider that Carroll is a scientist himself and is particularly good at explaining science to the layman.)  And the reasons that Monod and Camus became friends after the War — the compelling, heart-rending reasons — are thrown into sharp relief that resonates long after the book has been finished, as are the ideas that these two influential and important men propagated during their lifetimes.

Bottom line?  This is a book that everyone who loves writing, philosophy, science, or World War II should read — and it contains perhaps the best nonfiction treatment I’ve ever seen of the French Resistance, much less why it was so very important that the French continue to resist up until the Allies finally liberated France.

So what are you waiting for?  Go grab this book and settle in — it’s not a light read, and it will take time, but BRAVE GENIUS is a book that will reward your efforts.  Guaranteed.

Grade: A.

— reviewed by Barb

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Katharine Eliska Kimbriel’s “Night Calls” is Excellent, Rousing YA Fantasy Adventure

Katharine Eliska Kimbriel’s NIGHT CALLS is about magic on the American frontier.  As such, it’s both an alternate history and a fantasy.  And as its protagonist is the young Alfreda Sorensson, it’s a story that’s meant for all ages.

So you’re to be pardoned if you think, “Well, Barb, come on!  What’s so special about that?  You’ve already reviewed Patricia C. Wrede’s THE FAR FRONTIER, haven’t you?  Isn’t that the same thing?”

Well, yes and no.  It is the same type of novel, for certain.  But Ms. Kimbriel did it first, as the paperback edition of NIGHT CALLS first came out in 1996 . . . which means that if we’re about to have a showdown as to one-upmanship (really, do we need one?), Ms. Kimbriel would come out the winner even though both authors are well worth the reading.

But I digress.

More importantly than what specific type of novel NIGHT CALLS is — is it dark fantasy?  Is it alternate history?  Is it YA?  Is it all of the above?  (Yes, yes, yes, and yes . . . ) — you need to know one thing, and one thing only.

It was written by Katharine Eliska Kimbriel.  So it’s extremely good.

The plot itself is compelling, mind you.  Alfreda starts out at the tender age of eleven thinking she’s much like other girls, even though it’s clear from the start that she isn’t.  She has a few friends, she loves to read, she loves her family, but a crisis that’s precipitated by a werewolf thrusts her magic into the picture far earlier than she would’ve liked.  When her brother’s life is lost due to the werewolf, she wonders what good magic is — this mostly is subtextual, mind you, but it’s real and it’s there — which points out that no matter how much power you have, life is something that cannot be taken for granted.

This one thing helps to ground the novel from the start, and is a welcome change from many other contemporary dark fantasy novels.  (Yes, Stephanie Meyer, I’m looking squarely at you.)

Alfreda’s adventures as she grows into her young womanhood — some quiet, some decidedly not — are excellent and rousing.  She is not the type of young woman to sit on the sidelines and wait for men to do her work for her — no, she’s going to do for herself, thank you.  And as she learns and grows, she also becomes more and more herself and happy to be so, which is why I found reading NIGHT CALLS to be both life-affirming and something that lifted my spirits no end.

Look.  I know this sounds like I’m laying it on thick, but I’m not.  Alfreda, for all her strengths — and she has many — is no one’s Mary Sue.  While she’s exactly the type of young woman every parent would like to have, being resourceful and intelligent, she still has some weaknesses as she skews like a real person.  And while she obviously has magic, she sees it as a responsibility, partly because she’s a farm girl at heart and is used to doing all sorts of chores.

So there’s the value of hard work.  There’s the value of personal sacrifice.  There’s the value of human dignity.  There’s a good deal about religion and spirituality, discussed in a quiet, calm way that I found particularly appealing.  And there’s a rousing action-adventure going on throughout that makes you forget about all of the above until the book is over and you start thinking about how wonderful it all was before you turn back to read it all over again.

Bottom line?  NIGHT CALLS is excellent.  Truly, truly excellent.  It’s a can’t-miss novel with heart, style and wit that will please all ages.  Guaranteed.

Grade: A-plus.

— reviewed by Barb

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Romance Saturday — Fine and Funny, “The Lady Most Willing . . . ” Does Not Disappoint

It’s Saturday, so longtime readers of Shiny Book Review know what that means — what could be a better time for a romance?

Today’s selection is the three-part novel THE LADY MOST WILLING . . . (yes, complete with an ellipsis) by novelists Julia Quinn, Eloisa James and Connie Brockway.  The novel starts off with four young women of marriageable age being kidnapped while at a ball by an overeager, drunken Scottish Laird named Taran Ferguson, who wants each of his two heirs — cousins Byron, the Earl of Oakley, and Robert “Robin” Parles, the Comte de Rocheforte — to pick one of these women and marry her.   Unfortunately, Ferguson’s men also carry off the Duke of Bretton by the simple expedient of stealing Bretton’s carriage while the Duke himself happened to be sleeping inside it, which means that there will be competition for at least one of the women once they all get to Taran’s deserted Scottish castle.

The four women who’ve been stolen are two Scottish heiresses, Marilla and Fiona Chisholm, an English heiress, Lady Cecily Tarleton (kidnapped at her own ball, no less), and one young lady without any fortune at all, Catriona Burns.  Marilla and Fiona are half-sisters who each have a sizable dowry, while Cecily and Catriona are only children.  Because each one of these women has either a fortune or very doting father behind her, it is a certainty that Taran’s heirs will only have a very short period of time in which to win their intended brides.

Obviously, the abduction is nothing but an author’s convenience.  Taran is a bumbling idiot, while his men mostly go along with him to shut him up so they can go back home and drowse for a few days by the fire as it is nearly Christmas.  And, of course, there’s a very convenient snowstorm that’s going to cut off the party from everyone else.  Which is why it’s clear from the get-go that this particular novel is a farce — and quite a good one, at that.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Anyway, the first third of THE LADY MOST WILLING . . . is about the Duke of Bretton and Catriona Burns.  The Duke is lonely, restless, and really upset about being abducted while inside his own carriage, so he isn’t exactly in the mood for a romance.  Yet Catriona can’t help but charm him; she’s down to earth, friendly, a good sport about everything, and genuinely likes the Duke more and more as she gets to know him.  Catriona believes she’s the type of woman who no one will ever marry as there are younger and prettier women available — or at least women who have much more money than she does, as she has no dowry worth mentioning — which is why she’s able to form a friendship with the Duke nearly immediately.

Besides, the Duke decides very early on that he wants no truck with the sex-crazed Marilla, and needs to make common cause with someone.  Fiona is definitely out — even were she not Marilla’s own half-sister, the Duke would not be inclined to spend time with her because Fiona has a small blemish on her reputation (more on this in a bit).  And while the Duke obviously admires Lady Cecily, if the Duke had been interested in her in the first place, why would the Duke have been asleep in his own carriage while at Cecily’s ball?  So the romance will be with Catriona, whether Catriona knows it or not, and half the fun is figuring out just when Catriona is going to catch on.

The second part of the story is about Fiona and Byron, Earl of Oakley.  Fiona’s reputation took a beating when her then-fiancé fell off a trellis and died while trying to ascend to her bedroom window.  Everyone assumed that Fiona must’ve wanted her fiancé to do this rather remarkably stupid thing (perhaps because no one wants to think ill of the dead), which is why even though nothing whatsoever happened, Fiona is believed to be a “fallen woman.”  Fiona believes she will never marry because of all the stories being told about her, and tries to console herself with the fact that as she’s a woman of means, no one can turn her out into the street.

The reason she takes to Byron is because they both love books and can’t stand to be around Marilla, whose abiding passion mostly seems to be marrying a man with a title — any man will apparently do.  (After the Duke gave Marilla the right-about, Byron as an Earl was the next obvious target.)  And because they’re away from society, some things happen that make it clear to the Earl that Fiona’s reputation has been ruined for no reason whatsoever — so all the Earl has to do is convince Fiona that he really does, indeed, want to marry her.

Again, reading along to figure out just when Fiona’s going to realize that the Earl really does intend to marry her is half the fun.

The third romance — and the third part of the book — is about Lady Cecily’s romance with Robin, a gazetted rake who mostly seems to be known for how many women he’s slept with.  However, Robin’s reputation seems to be a bit overblown; as he says many times, he’s only slept with bored, married women or bored widows, and does not waste his time with innocent maidens like Cecily.  Yet there’s still something about Cecily that intrigues Robin to the point that they have several conversations, which leads them to a further understanding.  This despite the fact that Marilla, once again, tries to horn in on another woman’s happiness as Robin still has a title and she’s all about titles.

So you might be wondering — “Hey, Barb.  There’s four men, and four women.  You’ve told me about everyone save Marilla and Taran.  What’s going on with them?”

Well, in some ways, Marilla’s own story — seen only in fits and starts through the other characters’ eyes — is the most interesting of all.  The only man left to partner Marilla is the fortysomething Taran, whose only claim to fame is his deserted castle and the fact that his men are loyal enough to him that they’re willing to carry off four women on his say-so even when they all obviously find it completely asinine.  And while Taran has a few good points — love of his heirs and loyalty to his men being two — he’s not exactly the man every woman dreams about marrying.

So with the other three, it’s obvious that there’s some mutual regard going on along with sheer lust.  But Marilla seems to be all about lust — or at least, all about titles.  Taran Ferguson is the equivalent of gentry, sure, but she’s not exactly marrying up — in fact, it’s the reverse.

Because most of Marilla’s story is not told, directly or indirectly, it’s not entirely clear why Marilla doesn’t just wait out the snowstorm, pack her bags and go home to her father rather than marrying Taran alongside the other three couples.  While I’m sure that it would look really bad in 19th Century parlance to be abducted and held in a deserted castle for several days, reputation-wise, the fact is that Marilla still has a considerable fortune.  She certainly does not have to marry Taran.

Bottom line?  THE LADY MOST WILLING . . . is an excellent comic romance with great laughs, charm, wit, and sensuality to spare despite the fact that two of the three main romances are all but chaste.

Grade: A-minus, mostly because I would’ve liked to see more of Marilla’s story.

— reviewed by Barb

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William Hazelgrove’s “The Pitcher:” A Novel Worth Cheering About

William Hazelgrove’s THE PITCHER is the story of young Ricky Hernandez, whose main goal is to make his high school baseball team.  Ricky has an arm, you see, and a fastball that’s much better than his peers.  But as he’s extremely poor, Ricky probably already would’ve dropped out of baseball competition except for one thing: his mother, Maria.

You see, Maria is a force of nature.  She’s the mother we all wish we would’ve had, growing up.  She’s an assistant coach on Ricky’s summer baseball team, not because she cares about the game, but because it’s the only way she can assure that Ricky will get any playing time.   Maria’s main drawback as a person is that as she’s so focused on her son, she’s not very good at treating her own health (she has lupus).

When THE PITCHER opens, it’s about three months until high school baseball tryouts.  Ricky avidly wants to make the team.  He knows he has the talent.  But he hasn’t had the advantages of most of the other players (especially an obnoxious kid named Eric); his only real coach is his mother, who has learned all she knows about baseball from books.  She mostly tells Ricky things like “Take a deep breath” — a good, albeit generic, thing to say — which cannot get to the bottom of why Ricky’s aim is poor and his concentration isn’t where it should be, either.

Enter “the Pitcher:” His name is Jack Langford, he pitched in the majors for 25 years, and in Hazelgrove’s conception, was the hero of the 1978 World Series as a member of the victorious Detroit Tigers.  (As a baseball fan, I have to admit that I wish the Tigers would’ve won over the real 1978 American League and World Series champs, the New York Yankees.  They were fifth in the AL Eastern Division; my favorite team, the Milwaukee Brewers, was third.  But I digress.)  Langford was a successful pitcher, but since he finished his career life has taken a major turn for the worse.  Langford’s wife died, and after that, Langford felt life wasn’t worth living and turned to drink to help himself cope.

At any rate, Maria wants Langford to help her son learn how to pitch (rather than merely throw with no control), so Langford starts helping Ricky out.  It goes in fits and starts, though, partly because of Langford’s alcoholism, partly because Ricky’s mother’s health, and partly because of Eric’s nasty mother, who will do anything she can — even calling Ricky an “illegal alien” — to keep Ricky away from the high school baseball team.

There’s a lot of plot here that I simply don’t have time to discuss — including a rather low-key romance between Maria and Langford — but suffice it to say that everything works well in this novel.  There are many, many plot elements, but the balance is right, the tone is right, and we can’t help but root for all of the major characters — Ricky, his pitching coach Langford, and his mother, Maria.

So, will Ricky make the team?  Will Maria’s health ever improve?  Will Langford stop drinking?  Or will Eric’s mother win the day despite the nastiness of her tactics?  All of these questions will be answered by the time you finish reading THE PITCHER.

Bottom line?  THE PITCHER is a book that’s more than the sum of its parts.  It’s an excellent baseball story that gets all the issues right, it’s fun to read, and it’s a book that all ages should enjoy.

Grade: A.

–reviewed by Barb

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