We Don’t Know Ourselves

After The Best of Myles made me realize how little I knew about Ireland, Fintan O’Toole was a guest on one of my favorite podcasts to discuss his new book, We Don’t Know Ourselves. I put a hold on it at the library while I was still in the middle of Philosophy in the Fleshexpecting it to take a couple weeks for such a doorstopper to be available, but lo and behold it was ready to take home a couple days later.

In other words, May was an intense month of reading for me!

We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Ireland Since 1958 takes an approach to a rather broad topic (twentieth century Irish history) that resembles the one Christle uses in The Crying Book. Like Christle uses her grieving process to lead the reader through historical views on crying, grief, and “hysteria,” O’Toole ties his own life to larger events happening in Ireland at the time: a discussion of his parents’ wedding photo transitions into a brief explainer on Irish city planning in the 50s, an early job at a department store segues into Ireland’s economy in the 90s. Unlike Christle, however, O’Toole structures his personal history in discrete, concrete sections: each chapter covers a specific topic and focuses, more or less, on a single year. (The departure point is 1958, the year he was born.) He also returns to the idea of “unknown knowns”: the open secrets in Irish culture, at the local as well as national level, that shaped the arc of many of the events covered in the book. So many things, according to O’Toole, happened in plain sight but nonetheless were never bluntly stated in polite conversation. Hence the title of the book.

We Don’t Know Ourselves is a doorstopper of a book but it’s breezy reading that goes fast. Usually in books with this kind of scope I get lost in all of the names, but recurring figures are contextualized and grounded well enough that I had no problem keeping track of all of the threads. Will I remember everything I read? Of course not. Do I have a better context and bird’s eye view of contemporary Ireland and how it’s situated in European politics? Definitely.

I still wouldn’t count on me to know the answers to any pub quiz questions, though.

Den högsta kasten

This was the second book for the local library’s newly established book circle. (The first being Educated.)

It was also the first time I found myself formulating my responses to a book in Swedish rather than in English, which I think is because Den högsta kasten is such a niche Swedish (and Stockholm) interest. I vented a lot of spleen about it in Swedish but trying to talk about the book in English just leaves me feeling indifferent. Maybe because an English review is the most pointless thing I can imagine. Is there anyone who would simultaneously be interested in Sweden’s culture and arts figures of the mid-90s and unable to read a word of Swedish? Not likely.

Yet onward shall I soldier!

Den högsta kasten is the story of a dissipated year (or less, maybe just a few months) in Carina Rydberg’s life. The book is officially categorized as a novel, as fiction, but all of the people in it are real people and the discussion around Rydberg and the book has always been based on the understanding that it’s not aspiring to be fiction or even a roman à clef, but actually true events. Maybe publishing it as a novel was a way for the publisher to dodge legal liability. Who knows!

My first problem with the book is that its marketing and reputation are entirely misleading. I went in expecting a Dorothy Parker style takedown of rich snobs. Instead, the book pulled a bait-and-switch and made me spend half of the page length with Rydberg in India, which I wouldn’t have minded if she were a gifted travel writer instead of another white European who’s constantly explaining how she’s not like the other tourists, she gets India. When she’s not doing that, she’s locked in a really toxic and unpleasant dynamic with two of her fellow travelers or padding out the lack of content with random childhood memories about beauty and exclusion.

I thought things would improve in the second part, but no. Back in Stockholm and hanging out at PA&Co in Östermalm, Rydberg does not have a particularly keen eye or insightful understanding when it comes to her fellow bar patrons. Instead she latches on to another man, has a few months of some kind of ambiguous connection to him, and then finally declares him a jerk when he refuses to lend her a fair chunk of money. The book ends with Rydberg deciding to turn the whole debacle into a book.

It’s also rich for a book to claim that the “unwanted” would ever be among the regulars at a posh bar in the swank neighborhood of Östermalm alongside all the media moves and shakers, which is exactly how the back text markets itself. It occurs to me that maybe that was an attempt to paint Rydberg as the “unwanted” one, but I highly doubt it.

And finally, the scandal surrounding the book itself seems to have missed the mark when it comes to the content. It seems (based on my cursory reading) that people were clutching their pearls because Rydberg was talking a lot of trash about Important People, how rude, but the only people who really come off as dirtbags here are her lover in India (director Kaizad Gustad) and the lawyer she meets at PA&Co, known only as Rolf or Roffe. Maybe spilling the tea about Rolf’s affair with Harry Byrne’s wife was bad form, but for all I know that was public knowledge before the book came out.

Far more off-putting to me is Rydberg’s complete lack of self-awareness throughout the whole thing. Men treat her like garbage, or at least not like how she wants them to treat her, but she continues to follow after them like a puppy. Are we supposed to understand that there’s a connection between her embarrassments in childhood and her behavior now? Maybe, but in a book that’s otherwise hellbent on interpreting itself for the reader, she refuses to signpost that connection at all. Other times it’s obvious that Rydberg is inferring a whole lot about people’s motivations, mixing it with a heaping helping of wishful thinking and presenting it all as Objective Fact when there’s no way she can know one way or the other. “He was talking so loudly at the bar because he wanted me to hear him, even though we weren’t talking to each other anymore, I just know it.” Rydberg comes off as the most clueless person on earth.

My second problem with Den högsta kasten was that it’s a structurally incoherent book. The two parts have nothing to do with each other. In the second part, Rydberg tries to draw connections between what happened to her in India and the people around her now in Stockholm, but it always feels like either a very naked attempt to foist cohesion on a book that has none or to bully the reader into liking the first part. On more than one occasion she tells us that after hearing about her trip to India, so-and-so tells her, “Wow, what a great story, you should turn it into a novel.”

I wonder how often Rydberg failed to detect the note of sarcasm in people’s voices.

My third problem is with the content itself. In addition to not living up to its reputation, Den högsta kasten reads to me like a book that could be written by the people in my life who later turned out to be, to put it bluntly, stalkers. Specifically, I’m thinking of two people I knew who, beyond being obsessed with a crush, invented entire relationships out of whole cloth and then villainized the other party for not returning their feelings when faced with undeniable reality. Talking trash about movie directors or broadcasting a couple’s marital troubles for all the world to hear is one thing; ruminating in a thought pattern that could well lead to violence or other drastic consequences is another, and that’s probably what made Den högsta kasten so unappealing for me.

Philosophy in the Flesh

“There are two major contemporary philosophical traditions,” my professor told the class on our first day of a survey of contemporary philosophy course, the third such survey course required for the degree. “You have analytic philosophy and continental philosophy. If you were studying in Europe, you’d be studying continental philosophy at this point. But in the US and England, we follow the analytic track instead.”

Not an exact quote, but the gist of it. That class was a slog, not through any fault of the professor’s but because the material was deeply frustrating and not the kind of thing any starry-eyed teenager is excited about when declaring their major. Boo on analytic philosophy, in other words. What a surprise, then, that Lakoff and Johnson have a whole chapter in Philosophy in the Flesh dedicated to dunking on on it!

I was originally interested in the book for entirely different reasons, however. Somehow or other I’d been pointed in the direction of Lakoff and Johnson’s earlier book, Metaphors We Live By, and I loved it and wanted a deeper dive into the topic. Philosophy in the Flesh is just that: a comprehensive look at the mechanics of brain studies carried out to investigate their points, a summary of the larger organizing metaphors in English, “primary metaphors” to use their terminology, and an examination of some of Western Philosophy’s Greatest Hits through the lens of these metaphors. All of this is in support of their thesis that the human mind (and other minds as well) arise from being embodied, and that sensory input from existing and moving in the world fundamentally shapes our thinking, even for the most abstract discussions. They claim that the idea that we can use a purely disembodied reason completely abstracted away from physical experience and the body, à la Cartesian dualism, is at odds with the evidence we now have about how the brain works. A section-by-section summary is available through the archives of the NYT. The claim seems pretty well argued to me, though I am a mere layperson unqualified to fight in the Linguistics Wars. I only have two disappointments/criticisms, and they pertain more to the presentation rather than to the actual content.

The first is that I felt like the level of universality they were ascribing to their primary metaphors was unclear. While Lakoff and Johnson emphasized that the metaphors they were proposing were not all necessarily universal across languages or cultures, they didn’t provide enough details about exceptions or variations from these primary metaphors to really drive the point home. More comparison between two distinct, relatively unrelated languages/cultures would have been helpful, for example English and Navajo.

The other was the near-complete lack of attention given to AI. Lakoff and Johnson aren’t the first to tackle the mind-body problem—it’s a tale as old as time and all that—but the cognitive science they bring to bear, thanks to new studies we can carry out regarding human cognition, is above and beyond the usual hot takes on Cogito ergo sum and sets the ground for some potentially formidable criticism of strong AI. (Related reading: Nicholas Humphrey’s A History of the Mind.) But Philosophy in the Flesh came out in 1999 and in a very different technological context. The concerns we had about AI were pretty well summed up in The Matrix; we had no DALL-E, no ChatGPT, no LaMDA, and we were still over a decade away from automatically generated sports journalism. The discussion of embodied minds seems more relevant than ever now, so reading this book in 2023 is a bit frustrating in that regard. The points that Lakoff and Johnson raise have a lot of juicy implications for people working with AI, and for anyone in jobs that might be affected by the introduction of AI, but those implications aren’t discussed because the text is simply too old.

But just because AI looked different in 1999 doesn’t mean it didn’t exist, and the topic still feels underexamined and overlooked. Funnily enough, Lakoff and Johnson take the time to dissect John Searle’s famous Chinese Room argument against the possibility of AI, but only to point out the network of primary metaphors underlying Searle’s thinking—they leave the actual topic of AI well enough alone. We can hope that an updated edition will come out and give the discussion the space it deserves, I guess, but that seems unlikely. Philosophy in the Flesh hasn’t been updated since its original publication, perhaps because these days Lakoff appears to be more focused on politics and policy than academia. (For comparison, 1996’s Moral Politics has been updated twice; a third edition that came out as recently as 2016.)

But those are small nitpicks for an otherwise fantastic book. I’ll probably eventually splurge and buy a copy of for myself. Not only would it be handy to have their list of primary metaphors at hand to occasionally ponder and review, but there’s no way you can take in everything a 600-page book is saying in just one reading.


On a whim I decided to join a bokcirkel at the local library, and the organizer cheerfully informed me that the next book would be Tara Westover’s Educated.

Much like the neighborhood book club, I’d signed up in hopes of reading Swedish books, rather than Swedish translations of American bestsellers, but here we are! Not to mention that Educated was one of those phenomenon books where, thanks to everyone talking about it, I felt like I had read it by osmosis. Having now actually read it, I can indeed confirm that the experience of hearing everyone talk about it is enough to really get the gist of the book. Westover has an incredibly isolated and traumatic childhood, decides against all odds to go to college, comes to terms with her childhood trauma and by the end has become a history scholar. No surprises there.

My hypothesis is that part of the reason Educated made such a huge splash was that by 2018, Mainstream Liberal America had realized that Hillbilly Elegy was Bad, Actually and saw in Educated an attempt to make amends for hyping up Elegy. Obviously I can’t exactly prove this, and J. D. Vance didn’t complete his face heel turn until 2022, so who’s to say. (Go give the If Books Could Kill podcast episode a listen for more on Hillbilly Elegy.)

This is not to throw shade on Educated. Westover overcame tremendous obstacles to be where she is today and for that she deserves accolades. And unlike Vance, she’s not trying to make a larger political point or diagnose the ills of large swathes of the American population. If you grow up Mormon, you’ll end up talking about other Mormons in your memoirs, but Educated never feels like an explainer on Mormonism, or like a critique or an apology. The book itself is…fine? I think it was probably an essential part of Westover’s recovery process to write the whole story out and to present it to a public after spending several years being gaslit by her family about her own memories.

What makes me uneasy about Educated is where it lands in the book market and the reasons the reading public has for latching on to it. It’s not quite circus sideshow gawking, but it’s not quite not circus sideshow gawking, either. However, the fact that I read this in order to discuss it with a group of Swedes (and that I’m already anticipating being asked to give an impromptu “US History and Culture” lecture) might be coloring my reaction here. There’s also a part of it that feeds into the collective American obsession with rags-to-riches “bootstraps” stories, where a particular kind of reader might point to Educated as proof that America really is a meritocracy and that if you’re not succeeding you’re just not working hard enough.

Again, I don’t think Westover is deliberately writing to pander to either of those instincts. How the public responds to a book and where one particular life story falls in the general ideological fabric of a culture is kind of beyond the scope of an author’s consideration. There’s something to said about a publisher saying “yes” to this particular life trajectory but “no” to others.

Also, unrelated to anything, but a huge content warning for pretty frank descriptions of gruesome accidents of all kinds: serious burns, head injuries, gashes, you name it. I’m squeamish so those were sections I just skimmed through. A significant portion of the book also focuses on the abusive behavior of one of Tara’s older brothers, again with pretty frank descriptions of bullying and violence.

The Best of Myles

Fresh out of college, I read At Swim-Two-Birds at the recommendation of a friend who went on a bit of an Irish literature kick after studying at Trinity College Dublin. Not long after that, I stumbled across The Best of Myles on a visit to The Strand in New York City; so well disposed was I to Brian O’Nolan that I added it to my basket. Plus it was an old, possibly original hardback edition (and pretty beat up at that), and I’m a sucker for old books.

And then it languished in my collection for something like thirteen years!

Push came to shove when an Irish co-worker moved into a new apartment. “Wouldn’t that make for a reasonably appropriate housewarming gift?” I thought. And then later, as I read it: “It certainly makes more sense in his library than in yours.”

Not that I didn’t enjoy it, or that it’s not funny, but I’m not Irish and I have yet to do an obsessive deep dive into Irish history*, so a good portion of the references were beyond me, including the occasional section written in Irish. Hardly surprising, considering that O’Nolan’s “Cruiskeen Lawn” column anthologized in the collection was written in both English and Irish.

An overall fun read, and a reminder that I should dip my toe back in the pool of O’Nolan’s novels. There aren’t that many, after all, so might as well read the entire collection.

*The universe seems to have heard my request in this matter and brought Fintan O’Toole as a guest on one of my favorite podcasts. I immediately put a hold on We Don’t Know Ourselves at the Stockholm library.

Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow

Sometimes the books we read transcend their mere bookishness in the world and become something akin to life milestones, mementos of a particular point in our lives. Under the Net is a fantastic book on its own, made all the more fantastic for me because I bought it at the now-defunct “What The Book?” in Seoul and read the bulk of it in Gimpo airport, hoping against hope that a seat would open up after I missed my initial flight to Jeju. (One did. I had a great time.) Naturally that specific copy that I own, with the handwritten note to the previous owner and a What The Book? receipt still in it, immediately transports me to South Korea in July 2012. But any discussion of that book in general, or Iris Murdoch generally, will also bring along memories of that time of my life.

Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow and Jerome K. Jerome is similarly of a specific time for me, though in a grimmer way. An acquaintance recommended it (another left field book) sometime in 2019 and close on to winter I was reading a free ebook version from Project Gutenberg on the subway to work. I remember closing the ereader app and pocketing my phone as I came up the stairs of Hötorget, dawn only just getting started, everything still half-dark. I remember pulling my phone out on my way home in the evening and dashing off a quick message to them to say, Thanks for the rec, this is hilarious! before opening the ereader app back up for the return trip.

And then I didn’t have many commutes for a long time after that, for some reason!

I also forgot about Idle Thoughts for a long while, though whether that’s because of Covid or because of my own distractability is hard to say. Here I am, three years later, and I finally finished it, and now the book has become emblematic of my journey through coronatider.

Well, that’s a bit melodramatic. I have a good memory for a lot of things, but I would be hard pressed to summarize the entire collection and tell you which essays I finished before Covid, which during, and which after (if you want to say that there’s an after, which is debatable). Another book that needs no review, no introduction, no hype; Jerome has earned his place in English literary history. But for all of that historicity, reading Idle Thoughts today feels surprisingly fresh and relevant. Plus ça change.

Debt: The First 5,000 Years

Here’s the rare “book off the TBR” win! Of course, Debt: The First 5,000 Years was a relevantly recent TBR addition that has not undergone the shameful, years-long limbo that other titles have, but any progress is progress.

If you look back at the non-fiction I read in 2022 (especially the non-fiction I read and enjoyed in 2022), you can see something of a common denominator:

A small collage of book covers that I rated 5/5 stars during the year.

Caliban and the WitchJakartametoden and Handels: Maktelitens Skola all go a very long way towards explaining how capitalism as we know it came to be and how its current norms and structure are maintained. Project Censored’s State of the Free Press 2022 is reportage often aimed at critiquing those norms and structure and, if you want to stretch the conceit, ancient Rome is where we like to start the story of Europe, and it is Europe from which springs everything else the other selections touch on. (Temples of the Sky is the odd one out, a niche hobby read.)

Whether this trend is due to the natural progression of my interests, the years I’ve now spent absorbed in financial reports, the turbulent times we live in, or some other constellation of factors, who can say. Regardless, it continued straight away into 2022 with Debt.

I’m not lucid enough a thinker to provide a pat nutshell summary of my own, so I’ll lift the one on the book’s Archive.org page:

[Debt] explores the historical relationship of debt with social institutions such as barter, marriage, friendship, slavery, law, religion, war and government; in short, much of the fabric of human life in society. It draws on the history and anthropology of a number of civilizations, large and small, from the first known records of debt from Sumer, in 3500 BC until the present.

And then the one from the back of the book itself:

Before there was money, there was debt. For more than 5,000 years, since the beginnings of the first agrarian empires, humans have used elaborate credit systems to buy and sell goods—that is, long before the invention of coins or cash. It is in this era that we also first encounter a society divided into debtors and creditors—which lives on in full force to this day.

So says anthropologist David Graeber in a stunning reversal of conventional wisdom. He shows that arguments about debt and debt forgiveness have been at the center of political debates from Renaissance Italy to Imperial China, as well as sparking innumerable insurrections. He also brilliantly demonstrates that the language of the ancient works of law and religion (words like “guilt,” “sin,” and “redemption”) derive in large part from ancient debates about debt, and shape even our most basic ideas of right and wrong.

We are still fighting these battles today.

This is the best kind of nonfiction: written by a knowledgeable academic for a lay audience without insulting their intelligence or devolving into jargon and obscure terminology, with a heaping helping of works cited at the end.

In many ways, this is the less crackpot-y, more grounded and more academic answer to Sacred Economics, which I read a few years ago and which helped keep me oriented in Debt. A lot of what Eisenstein describes as “gifts” seems to overlap with what Graeber describes as the favors that, with the advent of currency, turn into debt. Neither of them mention each other, however. Both books came out in 2011*, so I’m not sure whether it’s Graeber or Eisenstein who should be referring to the other. (Graeber might have felt that Eisenstein wasn’t nearly academically rigorous enough to cite and too out-there to be worth engaging with otherwise, and I can’t say I would have blamed him.) They definitely draw from at least a few of the same sources, such as Marcel Mauss.

I expect I will end up re-reading it later in the year, as it’s so dense with information and argumentation that there’s no way you can absorb it all at once. (Maybe you can. I can’t.) For now, time to give my brain a bit of a break.

*I think. It’s hard to tell, precisely, with Sacred Economics beyond “before 2012.”

The Big Balloon (A Love Story)

I decided to get an early start on some classic New Year’s resolutions like decluttering and ending long-term toxic relationships by having an emergency gallbladder removal two days after Christmas!

Medical drawing of a gallbladder
This one does not spark joy!

It also left me with three and a half days of nothing to do but chip away at my ebook collection; I didn’t take my purse and its ever-present paperback with me to the ER, as I fully expected to return home the same day. Well, well, well. Fortunately my phone is a miniature library of obscure and half-forgotten ebooks and I could keep myself distracted in the long waits between ultrasounds and discussions with surgeons. Most of that time was spent with the back half of Rick Berlin’s The Big Balloon (A Love Story), which up to that point I’d been reading on my morning commute.

I’m not hip to the Boston art scene, I didn’t know who Rick Berlin was before I bought the book, I’d never heard of any of his musical projects. But he put out an ad for the book on one of my go-to podcasts and since the premise sounded unique, or at least interesting, I decided to give it a try. I feel that’s only worth mentioning because someone who’s either a fan of Berlin, or familiar with his artistic milieu, will probably have a different response to it than I did.

Out of every possible Pandemic Project or Pandemic Novel, The Big Balloon is maybe the only one I can imagine that will be at all tolerable to revisit in more normal times (if we ever have more normal times). Even though the book is the direct result of COVID-19, it’s never about COVID-19. The conceit is simply this: The Big Balloon is a collection photos of items around Berlin’s home and reflections, stories and reminisces related to each item. Each little essay is entirely self-contained, with no attempt to impose chronological or thematic order on the collection (aside from organizing it into chapters based on rooms). The result is like a literary version of a Cubist portrait, where different years of Berlin’s life and different aspects of himself are presented simultaneously—or as close to simultaneously as you can get in something you read. Something about using the limitations of lockdowns to open up a vast interior world, etc. etc.

The Big Balloon worked well for commute and hospital reading because each essay was never especially long, so I could dip in and out according to subway arrivals or morphine-addled focus. And that was precisely the intended effect:

There is no linear structure to this book. No over-arching narrative. Each entry is self-contained. One piece can relate to another, but it isn’t necessary to make that connection. The reader can pick it up, crack it open anywhere, read a section and put it down. The ‘chapters’ are just the rooms in my house.

It could be said that I chose this odd-ball format for bathroom reading. For those with short attention spans. On the other hand, much as I love the twists and turns of a full blown story, the Haiku simplicity of disparate entries exposes Berlin as if opening the paper window flaps of a Twelve Days Of Christmas holiday card in no particular order.

The highly personal nature of the material also, in a way, made up for the fact that I wasn’t allowed to have any visitors. I wasn’t exactly starved for social contact generally, between the two other patients sharing my room and chatting with the nurses doing their rounds, but that’s not the same as time with your nearest and dearest in the darkest, coldest days of the year. The next best thing was Berlin plunging right to the depths of his own psyche to share with me, and the rest of his readership:

The Big Balloon is super personal. Most art, at least the art I love best, is personal. From another’s truth one extrapolates one’s own echo, wisdom, embarrassment and laughter. That’s what I’d hope for you, dear reader. That you’d laugh or at least find something self-relevant in these independent passages of my peculiar life.

A creative not-so-little undertaking that makes me want to ask the same of my friends, or save up for a dry spell on the ol’ bloggo. “Choose ten things around your house and write an essay about each one of them.” Maybe make that an additional step in the KonMari method.

Happy New Year!

Handels: Maktelitens skola

I have no end of studying to do for Kammarkollegiets Auktorisation exam, which means now was the perfect time to dig into a completely unrelated 500-page sociological tome on the Stockholm School of Economics (hereafter just “Handels”). Trust me, that’s actually 5D space chess levels of expert studying strategy. It has nothing to do with the fact that the cover caught my eye when I was in the library to pick up Kammarkollegiet study material.

The best kind of nonfiction books answer a question you would have normally never asked, and answer it so thoroughly that you’re left wondering why you would have never asked it to begin with. With Handels that question is, “Why do business schools exist?”

If you’d asked me that question a month ago I would have said something like, well I guess they’re just kind of a natural outgrowth of an already-established scholastic tradition. We add new fields of study all the time in other disciplines, after all. And then they spin off and form their own highly specialized institutions for any number of reasons, and that’s how we have Handels.

Mikael Holmqvist goes on a deep dive into the history of Handels, from the original motivations behind its establishment through the administrative decisions made throughout the century up to how it operates today. The short version of the argument that Holmqvist makes is that Handels, like other business schools at the time, was founded to lend an air of academic authority and social prestige to the growing business class in society and to the field of economics generally. This particular task now a fait accompli, Handels occupies a normative role in our neoliberal society: creating an “employable” pool of people for a specific industry by imbuing them with specific ideologies and personality traits that are compatible with neoliberal market values. News to me, but not to anyone who makes a career out of studying this sort of thing, I suppose. Similar arguments have been published by anglophone academics, including several books cited by Holmqvist (most notably Debra J. Schleef’s Managing Elites: Socialization in Law and Business Schools). I don’t know that there’s an English translation in the works for Handels; I don’t really know what the point would be? But on the other hand it appears that there’s an English version of Holmqvist’s previous work on the neighborhood of Djursholm so maybe there is some kind of niche demand for this kind of thing in English.

My tone sounds a bit “damned by faint praise,” though, and that’s not my intention. This was one of those books where I had to stop three or four times per chapter to send a quote to a friend, along with my own comments, in order to pick their own brain on the topic. (Deep appreciation to those friends for indulging me and my not-always-well-lit photos of walls of text.) Likewise, I found myself wishing there already was an English version that I could share with my policy nerd friends who can’t speak Swedish. (“Aren’t you a translator? Surely it wouldn’t be hard to toss off your own translation of a couple paragraphs?” The cobbler’s children has no shoes, my friend.)

If you can read Swedish, Handels is absolutely worth your time. If it comes out in English I’ll certainly be recommending it to a very particular subset of nerdy policy people that I hang out with. Until then there’s a very thorough works cited I can dig through to find the best and most interesting English equivalent.

La Gloire de mon père & Le château de ma mère

Marcel Pagnol’s Souvenirs d’enfance were burned into my memory at some point during my French studies—I watched Le Gloire de mon père for class, and I had an abridged or otherwise simplified edition of the book for course literature (that I don’t think I ever actually read, and that I definitely didn’t hold on to). Trying to track them down at the library or at the handful of international bookstores I knew of in Stockholm never got me anywhere. Nor did I think to check at Språkbokhandeln, the absolute treasure trove nestled in Lund, when I was there in 2020. It all worked out, though, because I can’t think of a better souvenir (hah) from Paris: one book from each bookstore we visited!

I packed both books for vacation and assumed that would keep me well occupied, but to my surprise I absolutely tore through each book in little over a day. Usually my reading experiences in French require frequent dictionary breaks just to follow what’s going on (George Sand, Simone de Beauvoir), but Pagnol did me favor and kept it relatively simple—even with all of the terminology for wildlife and hunting, I could keep up with the story. Dictionary breaks could wait until a re-read.

La Gloire de mon père was also a welcome counterbalance to the despair in Världen av i går. Pagnol was Zweig’s junior by fourteen years or so; reading the two alongside each other meant I was getting a bit of a Cubist portrait of turn-of-the-century Europe, two different perspectives presented simultaneously.  The years in Berlin and Paris that Zweig writes about with the nerves of a young man were merely the warm and happy days of Pagnol’s childhood in Marseilles.

I got too cocky, though, and rushed ahead through Le Château de ma mère, which is just as drenched in sunshine and nostalgia as its predecessor…until the very last chapter, which is when it collides with the grim realities Zweig depicts in Världen av i går. A lot of crying, this vacation! Turns out I didn’t really pack as much light reading as I thought I had.

According to English Wikipedia, Pagnol is considered a bit old-fashioned and passé these days, but since I’m not French that context was completely lost on me. To an extent it’s also pretty on brand for me, anyway, considering I’ve been well behind the times for basically my entire life.

The two are collected in a single volume, both translations from Rita Barisse that were more or less contemporary with the original publication in French. Have there been more recent ones? Is it any good? Who knows!