Paris: Biography of a City – Colin Jones

This was a much better book than that other French one.  For me anyway, this was an excellent city biography.  Sometimes these things get a little too arty (Robert Hughes’ Barcelona) or in love with their own thematic schemes (Peter Ackroyd’s London).  What I wanted here was something that told a straightforward history – how Paris came to look the way it does, hopefully to get a better understanding of various arrondissements came to have their individual character.  Jones’ book pretty much gets the job done on this score.  Unlike the Price book, it did not unduly privilege the recent past over the more distant, and it was altogether a more helpful guide to understanding the city than Eric Hazan’s The Invention of Paris, which IIRC (this was 2014) is a little 19th C-specific and Haussmann-obsessed.  And it was in some ways a better guide to French history overall than Price as well, mainly because it gives you a feel of the flow of history without getting bogged down in which Head of State and which cabinet minister did X or Y.

It’s not must-read history.   But that said, I’d recommend it to anyone going on a trip to Paris.  It makes the whole city more comprehensible and a visit there more enjoyable (for the historically-minded, anyway).



Concise History of France – Roger Price

I was in Paris last week.  Thought I would bone up a bit on French history before going.  This was not the right book to read.

I mean, first of all, if you’re going to do a survey history, you probably should make some attempt to cover different eras in a more or less equal fashion.  This one doesn’t.  Everything up to 1789 gets 90 pages; post-revolution gets the other 400.  Which I was not thrilled about since frankly it was the medieval and early modern stuff I was after anyway.  Second of all, it’s not written in a particularly engaging style.  It’s competent enough but dull.  Covers the bases.  A survey text-book, basically, if the survey were chronologically lop-sided.


Minor Angels – Antoine Volodine

This is a weird one, a recommendation from the astonishing M.A. Orthofer (whose blog and book The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction are must-reads for anyone seriously interested in literature).   It’s a series of post-apocalyptic vignettes, only it’s not our world, not really, what with the months-long boat voyages through the streets of Paris, and the indestructible 300 year-old crones who collectively give birth to a child stitched together from cloth.  Told in 49 individual, interacting short stories (or “narracts” as Volodine somewhat onanastically prefers), Minor Angels gradually tells the story of humanity on the brink of an extinction, with the vigilante crones desperate to succeed in their mission of wiping out “predatory, mafioso capitalism” even – seemingly – at the cost of the extinction of humankind itself.

The politics of the book are fundamentally pretty uninteresting.  The prose, on the other hand, is ghostly and evocative.  This is a very strange world, revealed in dream-like snippets, some realistic and some hallucinatory (which I think is pretty impressive for a work in translation).  It’s worth reading for that alone I think.

Fire and Fury – Michael Wolff

It’s the book everyone is reading so I thought I would get to it early.

Masha Gessen’s critique is mostly correct – the only reporting that is really new here is the stuff about election night and the transition, and most of that has been excerpted in various places already (along with the Bannon quotes about the 9 June 2016 meeting being treason which is neither true nor news, exactly).  And there is a lot of sloppy reporting in here.  Sheryl Sandberg was never in the Obama administration, for instance.  Wilbur Ross is Commerce Secretary not Labor Secretary.  Stuff a decent editor could and should have caught.

But where I think the book is useful – and why I think it’s worth reading despite any qualms you may have about Wolff’s unreliable narrator status – is in helping to understand the sources of dysfunction within the Trump administration.   The central feature of the opening six months of the Trump administration was the continual infighting between Priebus (who was trying to be Chief of Staff to a Paul Ryan presidency), the Jared Kushner/Ivanka Trump axis which Wolff drapes with the awkward portmanteau “Jarvanka” (trying to be Chief of Staff to a Bloomberg presidency) and Bannon (trying to be Chief of Staff to a Bannon presidency).  They hate each other.  They have staffs who are paid to leak against each other.  Indeed a number of the journalistic breaks in the Russia investigation are believed to come from the Bannon camp.

Much of this may be known to insiders, but the pattern displayed here – the sheer extent of the trench warfare over six months and how critical it has been to preventing Trump from doing the kind of damage he is capable of and which so many of us feared – to my knowledge has never been laid out before in this kind of detail.  And FWIW, I believe this stuff.  Details of meetings aside, the big picture reads true.

So for anyone outside the Beltway: yes, it’s worth a read.  It probably won’t be remembered five years from now, but it will probably be source material for historians trying to recapture the feeling of what the early trump administration felt like (for Canadian readers: if you can remember Claire Hoy’s Friends in High Placesit’s a bit like that).


Elmet – Fiona Mozley

So, Elmet was one of the many 5th-7th century British kingdomlets which sprouted between the time the Romans left and the Vikings showed up, more or less in the vicinity of modern-day Leeds.  The story takes place in Elmet but in the modern day.  The reference (I assume) is to the elemental, ancient nature of the countryside and its people.  Because this is a fairly medieval novel, at least in the Ving Rhames sense of the word.

Some might quibble with this book getting a Man Booker short-listing because it’s not a great novel.  The narrator is a nothing character.  The villain is a bit two-dimensional.  The whodunnit (it’s not a whodunnit but contains one anyway) is transparently obvious.  The word “Daddy” is used about 6,542 times too many.  And I’m not convinced the flitting back and forth between two time perspective actually works all that well.  But Jesus, if they can give a Man Booker to DBC Pierre for the enormous hunk of shite that was Vernon God Little, then this surely is at least short-list territory.

And anyway, Mozley is a 20-something who wrote the book to relax during her comps – that’s a genius-level accomplishment in itself.  The ear for dialogue is good.  The character of Cathy is one you’re very unlikely to ever forget.  The prose hits the right balance between poetry and get-the-fuck-on-with-it (in general books are too long these days but this one isn’t), and because the story packs a punch (that’s a joke – you’ll see).

Early days yet but I’d be surprised if this didn’t make my top ten in fiction for the year.  Thumbs up.

Christ’s Samurai – Jonathan Clements

Ok, I admit I bought this book solely because it’s about Japan and has a super-cool coverCSamurai

Maybe not the smartest idea ever.

So, the Shimabara rebellion happened in the 1630s, not far outside Nagasaki.  Combine an ambitious nobleman who overtaxes his peasants, some bad harvests, some goon-ish tax collectors and the dying embers of an idiosyncratic Catholic community looking for martyrdom, and you have the recipe for a rebellion.  Not a very coherent or successful one: the rebellion consisted of attacks on three castles (two of them repelled) and then a siege of a fourth when the rebels holed up in an abandoned fortress of their own.  The whole thing was over inside of about a hundred days, and most of that was taken up by the final siege.  But it’s a rebellion whose ambiguity and strange man-child of a leader (Jerome Amakusa) can, even centuries later, still act as a kind of empty vessel, into which people can pour whatever meaning they want.  Class war?  Sure.  Romantic youthful rebellion? Yup. Christian Jihad?  Why not?

222 pages is a lot of ink for a relatively short tale.  It’s not a bad book.  Just…thin.

January Reading

One of the ways I get myself to read more is to actually set at least a loose schedule for reading about a month in advance.  I don’t follow it religiously, but by organizing a month at a time, I can make sure I am juggling different types of books (fiction v. non-fiction) and genres/subjects so I can balance specialization with variety. And I can target a consistent number of pages per month (roughly 5000, if I can manage it)

Might not work for everyone (probably almost no one, actually), but it works for me.  Anyways, my tentative list for January is:


China in Revolution: The First Phase 1900-1913 – Mary Clarbaugh Wright, ed

Christ’s Samurai – Jonathan Clements

Shogun: The Life of Tokugawa Ieyasu – AL Sadler

Elmet – Fiona Mozley

The Mandarins – Simone de Beauvoir (have decided to try to read a half-dozen prix Goncourt winners this year – let’s see how that goes)

Oxford History of the French Revolution – William Doyle

A Concise History of France – Roger Price

Hard to Be a God – Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

The Spoilt City – Olivia Manning (vol. 2 of the Balkan Trilogy)

Battlecry of Freedom: The Civil War Era – James McPherson (part of the Oxford History of the US – I really enjoyed the two volumes that bookended this one, as I noted back here)

Mission Forsaken: The University of Phoenix Affair with Wall Street – John Murphy

Building The Intentional University: Minerva and the Future of Higher Education – Stephen Kosslyn and Ben Nelson (this book is getting zero notice despite it being a fascinating subject and I’m not sure why)


If you can think of any similar books to the ones listed here which you think are better on the same subject, would love to hear about it.  (comments below, or y’all know how to hit me on twitter)