Here is the second installment of some of the books that the Blog’s editors have lined up for summer. From art history to critical theory, from fiction to poetry, we’ve got you covered if you’re looking for something to pick up during the academic off season. Look out next weekend for the third & final installment!
It seems that every other book I pick up about the contemporary political scene, especially those like Melinda Cooper’s Family Values attempting to develop a conceptual framework for the intersection of neoliberalism and social conservatism, draws in a fundamental way on Wendy Brown’s States of Injury. The book is now more than twenty years old and I should have read it long ago, so a goal for the summer is to sit down with it and also Brown’s more recent work.
Another scholarly monument I hope to move out of the “ought already to have read” category is Istvan Hont’s Jealousy of Trade. For different reasons, this is a summer of doing Enlightenment reading for me, and Hont fits into this. I am particularly interested again for contemporary reasons in getting to think a bit differently about nation-states and their historical functions and reasons.
I’ve started the summer returning to George Eliot. Middlemarch is perhaps the first (capital L) Literary novel I picked up on my own as a teenager and was really swept up by. Now I am part way through Adam Bede, and am reading this novel—featuring Methodists and skilled craftsmen—with much more E.P. Thompson in the back of my head than I had as a younger person. It is delightful, although the human sympathy with which Eliot approaches so many of her characters takes on a different hue when, after all, it is not given to all of the characters.
I finished (and passed!) my qualifying exams three weeks ago. On the shelf above my desk is a skyscraper of paperbacks looking down at me as a Cheshire Cat would beckoning me to give into temptation, and now I surrender. My reading list for the summer, thus, draws from this tower of books as I try to explore the themes of memory, experience, violence and the criminal underworld for my own dissertation.
In Petina Gappah’s The Book of Memory (2015) the narrator reveals how writing and recollection interact and produce non-linear snapshots as her own life as it is held in the balance of the Zimbabwean legal system. The narrator, playfully named Memory, is an albino woman in the Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison in Harare. She is convicted of the murder of Lloyd Hendricks, a wealthy white professor. As she waits for the results of her appeal Memory is asked to write her own story from the townships to the suburbs of Harare. Gappah’s book intersects with Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak Memory (1951) who also tried to capture, like his butterflies in a net, remembrances of a life not yet completed.
I return to D.M. Thomas’s White Hotel (1981) that I had read years ago for a history course. I recall the horror that my fellow students viscerally experienced, not due to the violence in the book, but the erotic sexual fantasies of the main character, Anna G. The book is divided into three parts beginning in 1919. Anna G. presents herself to Freud as suffering from hysteria. Ultimately his analysis of her judges Anna G. as an unreliable narrator of her own past. He is unable to see that she is actually envisioning her own future, the Holocaust. Thomas presents a blistering analysis of the 20th century as he weaves scientific case history and fantasy to locate the individual within the contingency of historical fate. These themes resonate in Juliane Okot Bitek’s 100 Days (2016). This book of poetry brings the reader through the towns and villages in Rwanda, as the world looked on helpless and in shock, as a televised genocide took place.
Journalist Martin Dillon explores the “Troubles” (1960s-1990s) in Northern Ireland in The Dirty War (1990). The author describes the ideology and the methods of the British security forces to infiltrate, destabilize and destroy the Provo’s (Provisional Irish Republican Army). The reality of imprisonment, torture, blackmail are also imprinted on Abdelilah Hamdouchi novel echoing the underworld of Dillon’s in Whitefly. A crime novel about drug dealers, traffickers and smugglers in Morocco offers an insight into police culture in a post-colonial space. My desire to understand the everydayness of violence brings me to Anne Nivat’s treatment of the Russian war with Chechnya in Chienne de Guerre: A Woman Reporter Behind the Lines of the War in Chechnya (2009). In 1999 she travelled illegally into the war zone by disguising herself as a Chechen woman. For six months she moved amongst the protagonists and some antagonists to listen to their experiences. Her ethnographic-style of journalism records the confusion, loss and disruption for Chechens as they became foreigners within their own homeland.
Fouad Laroui The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers (2016) takes up the task of the realities of what it means to be foreign as he follows his main character Dassoukine from Morocco to Belgium. Joseph Cassara’s debut novel The House of Impossible Beauties (2018) narrates the drag ball scene in 1980s New York during the emergence of HIV/AIDS. Cassara’s novel is about queer life and the ways in which the protagonists deal with their own family history and the pressures to conform to heteronormative ideals of masculinity and femininity. Another debut novel I discovered of late is Tendai Huchu’s The Hairdresser of Harare (2010). The blurb describes it as a “delicious and devastating” black comedy of political manners in the Zimbabwe. The book follows Vimbai, the best hairdresser in Mrs. Khumalo’s salon. When the slick Dumisani shows up one day for work with his impressive skills with the scissors Vimbai becomes uncomfortably competitive. The tension between these two characters reflects the rapidly changing social and economic structures of Zimbabwe in the 21st century.
Reading these types of novels always brings me back to the historian’s craft, especially in dealing with how we map and interrogate contemporary climate change and history. Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (2013) and Jasbir K. Puar’s The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability (2017) are path breaking books that aim to disrupt categories of disability, violence and liberal state. As I am never-endingly drawn to all things “sciency” I wait with great anticipation for Rob McCleary’s Too Fat To Go To The Moon” (or, “Gay Sasquatch Saved My Life”) scheduled for publication in 2019. In lieu of this book, I will read his short story Nixon in Space. I will pair this with Minsoo Kang’s Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: The Automaton in the European Imagination (2011) in tracing how the automaton has captured the Western imagination. Kang uses this trope as a lens into the human/machine and nature/culture binaries. In mapping the origin of these ideas and how they penetrate into cultural, artistic and intellectual spheres Kang’s synthetic work will bring the reader on quite the intellectual adventure, from ancient Greece to mechanistic philosophy and nineteenth century fantastic literature.
Last, Nick Hopwood’s Haeckel’s Embryos: Images, Evolution, and Fraud (2015) and Kirk Wallace Johnson’s The Feather Thief. Beauty, Obsession and the Natural History Heist of the Century (2018). Hopwood maps the story of the infamous drawings of embryos by the Darwinist Ernst Haeckel. The drawings show humans and other vertebrates as begin identical in embryo-form but eventually diverge toward their diverse adult forms. Upon its publication in 1868, Haeckel’s colleague alleged fraud and Hopwood examines how this charge has been repeated numerous times ever since. Johnson, however, tracks a more unusual “fetish” of sorts. In 2009, twenty-year old American flautist Edwin Rist broke into the Tring Museum, a suburban outpost of the the British Museum of Natural History. Once inside, Rist removed hundreds of rare bird skins from their shelves into his suitcase, and sold them to interested buyers. Many of these desiccated birds were tagged 150 years earlier by the naturalist, and close colleague of Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace. Johnson immerses himself into this fascinating illegal trade to understand the characters that risk their lives for these feathered trophies.
Considering the myriad nineteenth-century works of literature that might be refashioned for our day, I wasn’t eagerly awaiting a new rendition of Irish-American playwright Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon (1859). In its day, though, from its first performance at the famous Winter Garden Theatre in New York, the melodrama was a hit. Unsurprisingly, it conformed neatly to the confines of that genre, and more specifically the trope of the tragic mixed-race female protagonist–often a quadroon, of one-fourth black ancestry, or in this case one-eighth. Despite its considerable popularity during those years, it is not well-known. It certainly is more so now. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ ingenious and compelling reinterpretation of Boucicault’s original premiered at the Soho Rep in spring 2014. It has since made the rounds among US and UK theaters, including Berkeley Repertory Theater, where I saw it (and then had UC Berkeley students of mine watch) this past summer. There’s too much in the play to laud or that has been lauded. The play enthralls, and I think its strongest accomplishment is to both mock the melodrama it is based on while compellingly using that genre to meditate on racial relations in the US today. The audience is made uncomfortable, scripted as participants in a slave auction and, more subtly, prompted to laugh at a variety of minstrel antics and dialect echoing the very blackface minstrelsy that delighted audiences in the antebellum US. I would recommend reading and viewing side-by-side, beginning with Boucicault’s play and looking out for Jacobs-Jenkins An Octoroon: it plays in Chautauqua later this month, Fort Worth late summer, and right now in London at the National Theatre’s Dorfman Theatre (I’m sure there it’s running elsewhere too, or will be soon).