Barb Caffrey's Blog

Writing the Elfyverse . . . and beyond

Just Reviewed “Brave Genius” at SBR

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Folks, I’ve rarely read such an entertaining, interesting, thought-provoking piece of nonfiction as Sean B. Carroll’s BRAVE GENIUS: A Scientist, a Philosopher, and Their Daring Adventures from the French Resistance to the Nobel Prize, which is why I reviewed it this evening over at Shiny Book Review (SBR for short, as always).  Carroll’s conception is this — if not for the French Resistance, would we even know about Albert Camus or Jacques Monod?  Would they be the same men?  Would they have the same drive?  And without them, would the Resistance have been anywhere near as effective?

Everything else in BRAVE GENIUS, including Camus’ sterling accomplishments as a writer and philosopher and Monod’s work with enzymes (and Monod’s later accomplishment as the writer of perhaps the most unlikely bestseller in the history of mankind, CHANCE AND NECESSITY), is subordinate to this premise.  And Carroll makes a very good case as to why this was so, to the point that I compared his case a few times to Malcolm Gladwell’s OUTLIERS.

Here we have two men who were at the beginning of their careers in 1940 when the French government fell to the Nazis.  (Carroll calls this “leading ordinary lives,” but I don’t really think any life is ordinary.  I’d rather say that they were still important, driven men who hadn’t yet found their voices.)  They were forged in the fire of the French Resistance, and without their efforts — Monod as “Malivert,” one of the top fund-raisers and activists in all of the French Resistance, and Camus as the then-unknown editor of the influential underground newspaper Combat — would everything have taken the same course at the end of World War II?

The World War II historicity here is palpable.  The suspense is still there, sixty-plus years after all of Monod’s and Camus’s efforts.  And it’s by far the standout part of the book, which it needs to be as this is Carroll’s central premise.

Overall, I think BRAVE GENIUS is one of the most interesting, most compelling pieces of nonfiction I’ve read all year.  It’s not 100% perfect (which is why I gave it an A rather than an A-plus), but it’s riveting, especially in those World War II sections.  Literally, if you open this book up and start reading, you won’t want to stop, even though some of Camus’s ideas (not to mention Monod’s research) takes more than a bit of thought to plow through.

That said, I think you definitely should continue on with BRAVE GENIUS no matter how long it takes you to finish it, precisely because those ideas are so important.

Really, if you’ve ever cared why existentialism as a philosophy matters (even though there’s evidence Camus hated the term and probably would’ve come up with another one, given time), or wondered what the French Resistance actually did during the Vichy appeasement besides the simple term “resist,” this book is for you.  And if you want to know why Monod’s research was so important, or more about Monod’s book CHANCE AND NECESSITY (not an easy read to get through, but a book with more compelling ideas per capita than most), or simply want to know more about what these two important, influential men were like as people, this book is for you.

I couldn’t recommend this book more highly, in short . . . so go grab a copy of BRAVE GENIUS (from your local library, if nothing else) and start reading as soon as you can.  Then come back here and let me know what you thought.

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Written by Barb Caffrey

September 29, 2013 at 12:20 am

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