Tag Archives: Thomas Piketty

France, Taking the Pulse

 I spent the past week in Paris and it has opened my eyes.  Several widely-held opinions and ideas struck me:
1. I am not Charlie
I met NOBODY who evinced support for Charlie Hebdo – now with the killings in Denmark, there has been a revival of that “let’s defend freedom of the press” mood, but it is sure to soon pass away. The Charlie Hebdo cover that came out a week after the murders caused everyone to tell me, with emphasis on the “not”, “I am not Charlie”.

You may wonder who I met and to what extent the people I talked to were representative of French people at large. I can’t prove it but I am convinced that they were in fact very representative.

First, everyone in the French opposition to the French President François Hollande felt that way. Even the most rabid supporter of the French government were upset that taxpayer money was used to finance what they saw as a “dirty sheet” (my opinion too, I never bought it) – one that just went ahead and produced yet another disgusting caricature in bad taste, profoundly disrespectful of another religion. And that means about half the French feel that way. If not more: you need to add all the Catholics of France who ave heard Pope Francis exclaim from the Philippines (where he was traveling at the time), that every religion should be respected.

2. The Légion d’Honneur is Not What it Used to Be


I discovered that the very people you’d expect to respect (even admire) the Légion d’Honneur, the top decoration in the country – and I am talking about top diplomats, lawyers, business managers – felt that the Légion d’Honneur was increasingly misused: in fact, the Légion d’Honneur is not what it used to be. They mentioned to me (with ill-disguised disgust) that it is given to athletes because they run faster or jump higher, to celebs because their smiles  go viral on Internet, but it is no longer given to “for the right reasons” to people “who deserve it”. In their view, Thomas Piketty was right to refuse it.

3. The United Nations No Longer Counts

This, to me, is very upsetting, considering that France has historically always been a great supporter of the United Nations since its inception – and France is one of the Five Big Powers at the UN Security Council with veto power (along with the US, UK, Russia and China). I came across this conviction when I listened to a conference given by Ambassador Jean-David Levitte in a private circle – a fellow of the Brookings Institution in Washington, Mr. Levitte is a top French diplomat who was French Ambassador to the United Nations (2000-2002) and Washington (2002-2007) and served as Diplomatic Advisor to two Presidents, Chirac and Sarkozy. He talked knowledgeably (of course!) about world politics and the changes since the foundation of the United Nations in 1945, evoking the way ahead, particularly in connection with the on-going Ukraine and Syria crises.
He sees the world as totally changed since World War II. In his view, the United Nations no longer counts. The way ahead, in his opinion, is through setting up  ad-hoc mini coalitions of committed and involved countries, preferably a mix of one or more of the UN Security Council Five Big Powers, the P-5,  plus interested countries.

For example, the way forward for the Syria crisis, he suggested, would be to get together the P-5 plus Germany and include those countries in the region that are most directly concerned: Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia. He noted that, while they didn’t “like” each other, they ought to understand that it was in their best (and immediate) interest to see the Syrian situation resolved.

As to Ukraine, the mini coalition, he reminded us, is already at work: Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine (Kiev) with the East Ukraine rebels on the outside and the US benevolently looking on. As he told us that night, he fully expected that when Putin, Merkel, Hollande and Poroshenko met in Minsk, they would “stop the clock” to ensure they would reach an agreement for a cease-fire. Now we know he was right, and they did: they worked all night Thursday 12 February – a full 16 hours, something unheard of for heads of state and government chiefs.

4. Stopping the Clock


Now let me say something about this gimmick of “stopping the clock”. I know it well, because my uncle worked on the EU Common Agricultural Plan in the 1960s, and I remember he used to work all night long and I’d often meet him after breakfast, walking in his garden and musing about the future of Europe before returning to the (clock-suspended) meeting.  This gimmick was repeatedly employed by European high-level functionaries -including ambassadors – who thus hammered out all the basic agreements needed to build the European Union. Let me emphasize: Functionaries used to do this, not top level politicians. But diplomacy is no longer what it used to be either, and now diplomatic work has been taken over by the likes of Putin, Merkel and Hollande. Personally, I think it’s a mistake: if you discuss at top level you don’t allow yourself the chance of saying, “I must refer back to my capital” which is an elegant way of stalling and gaining time before figuring out the next best move.

Regardless of what the Four Big Guys said to each other in Minsk, Hollande and Merkel came back triumphantly saying (some sort of) an agreement had been (somehow) reached. Whether it will hold up is anyone’s guess. The first cease-fire back in September 2014, as we all know, didn’t last beyond a few days…

5. Mini-coalitions of “Willing Countries” Have Yet to Prove that they Work

As of now, and I am sure that if Mr. Levitte is reading me he would agree, the “mini-coalition” model has yet to prove itself. It works in the short run, but does it work in the long run? It allows for quick decision-making and fast on-the-ground moves, notably in Iraq when Bush and Blair steamed ahead in 2003 and more recently yet, in Libya, with the French-English attacks to dislodge Gaddafi. But what about the aftermath? Iraq, as we all know, dissolved in chaos with ISIS taking over a big chunk of both Iraq and Syria. As to Libya, it’s an on-going chaos, with militia vying for power. Libya, if nothing is done, is going the way of other failed states, like Somalia.

Mr. Levitte suggested that Libya should be “accompanied” on the road to state-building by yet another mini-coalition of willing countries – presumably, he was thinking of France and Italy plus a handful of Arab countries, maybe Qatar?

The question comes naturally: why not strengthen the UN Mission in Libya and give it (for once) the means to operate instead of resorting yet again to a phantomatic coalition of countries whose interests and commitments must necessarily waver with every new election at home and thus vanish overnight. Only the UN can ensure long-term commitment, provided it is given the means to function (i.e. sufficient budget and manpower – the UN has a proven track record of state-building in East Timor and Cambodia – and it has a long experience in electoral assistance the world over).

6. Paris in the 21st Century: the Louis Vuitton Foundation

After all these discussions, it was a pleasure to relax and visit Paris’ latest museum for Contemporary Art, Frank Gehry’s new, stupendous construction, the Louis Vuitton Foundation’s, on the outskirts of the Bois de Boulogne. It occupies a corner of the old Jardin d’Acclimatation – a sort of rural, botanical garden with pigs, ducks and sheep and a Guignol show, great for children. And, seen from the Jardin, the Gehry building looks like a weird, disjointed, alien sailing ship that crashed from the sky:

Within that array of “sails”, there are some terraces you can walk on that give you surprising vistas on Paris – very much a 21st Century town with its skyscrapers of the Defense lining the horizon:

My only regret was the inside of the museum: big rooms, yes, but most without direct light. No attempt is made to take advantage of those “sails”. As a result, the rooms display art very much in the way other museums do, with flat walls and rectangular floor plans. So why bother so much with the outside and not the inside? I had expected to see weird-shaped rooms, things that would leave me gasping…Maybe another time, somewhere else, an architect will surprise us with both the outside and the inside.

I highly recommend that if you go and visit the museum, take your time to stroll in the Jardin d’Acclimatation next door (your ticket buys you entrance to both): a pleasant walk in nature after so much steel and stone…

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What Makes for an Expert Book Review

The joy when a reviewer “gets” your book!

This morning it happened to me and I wanted to share this joy with you. It concerns my latest book, Forever Young, my climate fiction set in the near-future – well, not so near, 200 years from now because that’s the time I figure it will take for mankind to face extinction on Earth. Contrary to most science fiction and climate fiction that set environmental and societal catastrophe at some 40 to 50 years ahead, I wanted to give my novel a chance to be plausible: I really believe this final disaster will require about 200 years to mature…

So here is what Australian author Alana Woods wrote (that’s her picture – not me!):

“Some time ago I read Nougat’s short story compilation Death on Facebook, Short Stories for the Digital Age and was impressed with the range of stories and the skill with which they were presented. One that caught my imagination was I will not leave you behind, the futuristic story of a 122 year old woman who is part of an elite program that keeps you young until you die. In FOREVER YOUNG Nougat has taken that short story and woven its premise into a four-part series of short novels I enjoyed reading very much.
     The over-arching theme is the approaching doom of Earth from climate change. The story is set 200 years into the future and what becomes apparent very quickly is that humankind never did learn the lessons of what it would take to save the planet. Everyone, including big business, is still only concerned with the present and what they can get out of it for themselves. People are still divided into the have’s and have not’s, only now the have’s—called the OnePercenters—can afford to have old-age and illness permanently eliminated right up until death, whereas the have not’s—the 99PerCenters—continue to struggle as we struggle in this day and age.
     The story and struggle is told through three characters who all aspire to be a OnePercenter, highlighting the fact that even in Earth’s extremis we’re still only concerned with what advantages we can garner for ourselves.
You can come away from reading this series feeling a great despair for where we’re heading. The alternatives that the author presents, that of leaving Earth to inhabit a new planet and starting again, or remaining and hoping Earth regenerates itself, are stark contrasts.
     A thought-provoking, confronting read.”
      The review came as a total surprise and most welcome after I had received an awful review sarcastically titled “the future isn’t futuristic”. For this reviewer, my book “didn’t work at all” because “many of the same technologies that we use today are still prevalent. How many things popular 200 years ago, even 30 years ago are still in use today? It was not a forward-thinking, imaginative conception of the future and I just didn’t buy it.”
      Not a “forward-thinking” conception of the future? I was crushed, I felt totally misunderstood. How could this reviewer not see that this was the whole point of my book? The “future” she yearns for does come in Forever Young for the ultra rich but only for them because they are the only ones who can afford the advances of science. Alas, it does not come for the rest of mankind, no one can afford the technological innovations the rich are enjoying!
      Is that so unrealistic? I don’t think so. Consider further the argument she makes that many things “popular 200 years ago” are no longer in use today. Quite frankly, that argument doesn’t hold water. Anyone who has travelled in the Third World knows how the poor live, in conditions that are barely better than those prevailing in medieval times, no electricity, no running water, no public transport and only wood or dung to cook.  And billions of people live that way, nearly half of the world’s population lives on less than $2.50 a day, and according to UNICEF, 22,000 children die each day due to poverty.
Collecting millet in Darfur (this woman has 5 children) UN photo library
     This is why Alana Woods’ review was so welcome, she “got” it, that social difference between the poor majority and the rich minority – a trend that I think will only be exacerbated if we continue on the road of income inequality on which we have embarked (and I’m not the one saying it, Thomas Piketty is, in his Capital in the 21st Century – I highly recommend reading it).
     What fundamentally differentiates Alana Woods’ review from the other one is this: it’s not a customer review that simply states “likes” and “dislikes” (unsubstantiated phrases like “I didn’t buy it”) but a carefully thought-out review that examines the book’s premise and follows how it was developed, critically analyzing it.
     I also deeply appreciate Alana’s review for another reason: she is a demanding critic and, as she puts it on Amazon, “I like to choose the books I review.” In this case, she certainly chose my book, I was surprised when she told me she was reading it (she’d picked up the first book in the series for 99 cents) – I was surprised and pleased. Because she is truly a professional writer who knows the art of writing. She is the author of a guide to writing good fiction, chock-full of good advice:
     Jason Mathews considers it “the best guide for indies” and hosted her on his site to discuss it with two other authors, Lisa Grace and Samantha Fury:

 
     Alana Woods is not only an excellent literary critic but a remarkable writer in her own right, “the queen of intrigue”. Three of her books are currently available on Amazon, two award-winning literary suspense novels and an intriguing collection of short stories:
 
Visit Alana Woods on Amazon, click here
     If you are wondering why she hasn’t published more books, that’s because she is very demanding of herself. As she puts it: “I’m a storyteller from way back but not a prolific producer like other authors. It can take me years to be satisfied with the quality of a story and my telling of it.”
     Right.
     To take years to be satisfied with one’s manuscript is the mark of  a careful, professional writer but also of one who respects her readers. It think that’s remarkable and I believe more indie authors should take Alana as an example and think twice before publishing. There are times when I wish I hadn’t rushed into self-publishing and waited for my books to “ripen” until they were ready. 
      Good writing takes time, and now (I think) I have learned my lesson and no longer publish too soon. How about you? Has it ever happened to you to publish a book only to discover six months later that it could have been better? Have you ever had the urge to revise it and upload a new, better edition?  I plead guilty to having done that and would love to know whether you’ve done it too! 
 

 

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A Writer’s Life: Can Blogging Help You Sell Your Books?

Conventional wisdom has it that blogging helps to sell books, and the more successful your blog, the more books you will sell.


Not so.

Yet, marketing gurus and hugely successful bloggers like Adrienne Smith maintain that with blogging you can “make a living” (see here).

Perhaps you can if you sell something else than books.

And here is why (in my humble opinion). There are two factors at work: (1) market saturation and (2) TV competition for your free time.

No question, of late, the ebook market has become saturated. If you have an e-reader, I bet it’s full of books you haven’t read, books you uploaded when they went free. 

Over the past three years, there has been a frenzy of giveaways to “gain new readers”, and I confess that I joined the crowd and made my books free several times, with decreasing success each time. Gone are the days of 10,000 downloads (at least for me)! Of course, now 99 cents (the launch price of an ebook) is the “new free” – I plead guilty, I’ve done it too, all the first book of my series are priced like that. 

The end result is the same: way too many books around.

Because the truth is, you’re never going to read all those books you’ve stored up in your Kindle (or elsewhere). 

Another major reason is that people don’t feel like reading novels the way they used to

Don’t get me wrong, the desire to be entertained is as strong as ever – who doesn’t like to unwind at the end of a hard day’s work in front of the TV with a drink in hand? So TV series like House of Cards or Game of Thrones replace long evenings of reading novels.

People read fiction only when there’s a blockbuster around, 50 Shades of Grey and the like. 

Otherwise people prefer to read non-fiction (if they read at all). This is why Thomas Piketty‘s book, Capital in the 21st Century, is immensely successful, in spite of forbidding reams of statistics and a title reminiscent of Karl Marx. 

Ditto for the worldwide success achieved by Karl Ove Knausgaard, an unknown Norwegian writer. His novel,  bizarrely called My Struggle which translates to “Mein Kampf” in German, reminiscent of Hitler’s famous book, is less a novel than a huge memoir thousands of pages-long that traces his “growing up”, his “struggle” to understand the world around him. Book 1 starts off with a witty observation: people love to watch death on TV – war reports from the Middle East, volcanic eruptions, fires,  floods etc  – but turn their eyes away whenever someone dies around them. The corpse is immediately covered with a blanket and whisked away in an ambulance, bodies are stacked in cold storage rooms etc Why, he asks, are we afraid to see a corpse in reality when we spend our time doing so on TV? Good question.

In general, books that express a personal point of view are big successes – much more so than novels that are often seen as fantasy and therefore a “waste of time”. How else do you explain the global success of Eat, Pray and Love, the story of a woman wounded by love who goes in search of herself across the world, from Italy to Indonesia? Elizabeth Gilbert has since written other novels, like, for example, “The Signature of All Things“, that in spite of its intriguing title and subject matter, hasn’t met with the same success – probably because it didn’t give off the same whiff of personal intimacy.

And herein lies the cause of the success of such memoir-like books: they don’t read like fiction, they are one man or one woman’s exploration of their own lives. Mind you, these are people who haven’t done anything remarkable; they have just lived their lives as someone’s child, lover, parent.  

In short they are like you and me and that’s why people are curious. Such books are “literary selfies“.

So if your fondest hope is to be the author of a break-through novel, write a “selfie”…and don’t bother with blogging!

I’ll tell you a secret. Contrary to what you might think, I’m not blogging in order to sell you my books (if you’re curious, you can see them displayed in the sidebars, if not, just ignore them). I only blog because I enjoy it, I simply like to share my ideas with you and hear what you think.

So tell me, how about you, why do you blog? Have you seen a connection between your book sales and your blog traffic?

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CLI-FI – A DISCUSSION WITH AUTHOR CLAUDE NOUGAT

If this is a good interview, you should thank best-selling author Bob Rector, he had really good questions!

CLI-FI – A DISCUSSION WITH AUTHOR CLAUDE NOUGAT.

Bob Rector

Some of the books discussed:

– New York under water:

Monarch butterflies invade a small corner of the Appalachian mountains causing a scary “flight behavior”:

Climate fiction also includes climate change deniers: in this book climate activists are described as “eco-terrorists”:

If you think cli fi is recent and strictly linked to climate change, think again! This is the first cli fi book published and it came out in 1962!

But what is really going to change life on earth over the next few centuries can be traced back to (1) globalization and (2) industrialization and both are the result of a new, growing divide between the rich and poor, the One Percent vs. the 99 Percent, and now the data is in – the divide is not the result of someone’s sick imagination:

And of course(!) my own cli fi novel:

Available on all e-platforms, for Amazon click here: http://www.amazon.com/Forever-Young-Part-One-Gateway-ebook/dp/B00JU99LS4/

Available on all e-platforms, for Amazon click here: http://www.amazon.com/Forever-Young-Part-One-Gateway-ebook/dp/B00JU99LS4/

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