July Reading Recommendations – Part 1

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Nuala Caomhanach

Acknowledging the intellectual endeavours and demands of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ within cultural institutions is often countered with a “parental-control” reaction–now is not the time, it takes time to do this right, that’s not a top priority, you need to be patient, such-and-such has that covered.  As spaces of public engagement, cultural institutions play pivotal roles in shaping views on humans and the (un)natural world. Time is a contributing factor in silencing conversations on decolonization. As Leo Tolstoy wrote in War and Peace “[T]he most powerful warriors are patience and time”, institutions built on native invisibility, racism, genderism, and elitism are aware that it falls back to them to engage in the uncomfortable histories and ongoing legacies of such -isms. For many museums, however,  “[T]ime waits for no one” (Folklore, 1225) as pressure–internal and external–force change that may otherwise be shelved. Decolonization of cultural institutions calls for something more complex and subtle; a decolonization of the mind and an openness to really listening and hearing, to expand not only the intellectual endeavours, but to contest the boundaries of intellectualism, a realm situated within whiteness.  

Derek Owusu’s debut novel That Reminds Me is the story of K, a boy born in London to Ghanian parents, from birth to adulthood. Across five chronological sections, a narrator introduces each section by making an enigmatic declaration to Anansi, the trickster of western African folklore. The Anansi jumps from the page as they discuss the pleasures and challenges of storytelling. Each section is made up of fragments that weave together to tell K’s complex story of identity, sexuality, addiction, religion, and family as he battles budding neurosis. Oswusu’s novel implicitly challenges the boundaries of the field of history as the reader pieces together all that goes with memory, clipping and achronological experiences, and information.  Owusu’s intimate narrative of mental health issues contrasts with another aspect of Black culture cast aside by history and contemporary political discussion; the black woman as theorist and political strategist. 

Ashley Farmer’s Remaking Black Power is a comprehensive history of black womens’ engagement in Black Power ideals and organizations. Farmer argues that female activists fought for more inclusive meanings of Black Power and social justice by contesting the boundaries of black womanhood and developing new tropes for women of color. Farmer’s compelling book explores a variety of new tropes, such as “Militant Black Domestic”, as women within the Black Power movement debated over the centrality of gender to its political ideologues. Farmer argues that black feminism, as a modern phenomenon, was an emergent property rooted in urbanization and black women’s domestic work. Farmer contextualizes the radicalization of Black women and shows how internal debates forced many of the era’s organizations to adopt a more radical critique of patriarchy. 

A few titles that stare at me from my bookshelf (or book list!), rolling their eyes, as soon as I turn on the television to watch a Disney movie. Samuel R. Delaney’s Dhalgren calls me to read, however, everyone who knows this science-fiction book defines it as “difficult.” Perhaps it is time to read about Bellona, a fictional Midwest city cut off from the rest of the world by some unknown catastrophe. Donna J. Drucker’s Contraception: A Concise History traces the development  and future of contraception through an STS analysis. From the technological perspective she describes contraceptive methods available before and after  the pill. Drucker examines the shifting power struggles between non-hormonal contraceptives favoured by the Catholic Church and women aiming to gain autonomy over their bodies. Drucker argues that the concept of reproductive justice is at the centre of these conflicts. Additionally, I am very excited to read Loud Black Girls: 20 Black Women Writers Ask: What’s Next? by Yomi Adegoke, Elizabeth Uviebinené once published. 

Jonathon Catlin

The recent death of the great Israeli historian of fascism Zeev Sternhell at the age of eighty-five has occasioned a number of timely reconsiderations of his work. Born in Przemyśl, Poland in 1935, he escaped that city’s ghetto during the Holocaust, studied in France, and taught for nearly four decades at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His Big Ideas were that fascism had a longer and broader prehistory in reactionary currents of European thought than was commonly recognized, that fascist movements constituted a forward-looking (counter-) “revolutionary right,” and that many of these phenomena could be traced back to France. As a young scholar writing in France in the 1960s, his work challenged the popular idea that France was “immune” to fascism—a founding myth of the French Fourth Republic—at a time when discussing Vichy and French antisemitism was still taboo. His most influential works include Neither Right nor Left: Fascist Ideology in France (1986); The Birth of Fascist Ideology (with Mario Sznajder and Maia Asheri, 1994); and The Anti-Enlightenment Tradition (2009).

Federico Finchelstein wrote on Sternhell’s continued relevance the same week that Donald Trump gave an incendiary Fourth of July speech at Mount Rushmore that griped about “angry mobs are trying to tear down statues of our founders,” warned of “a new far-left fascism that demands absolute allegiance,” and referred to “cancel culture” as “the very definition of totalitarianism.” As Finchelstein puts one of Sternhell’s greatest insights, “fascism was ‘neither right nor left’ in the traditional sense but rather an extreme right-wing appropriation of both.” At the same time, he acknowledges the common criticism that Sternhell’s intellectual-historical approach “did not pay sufficient attention to how fascist movements spread chaos, violence, and political unrest or the role of leadership cults in fascist regimes.” An outspoken public intellectual and founder of Peace Now who also professed himself a “super Zionist,” Sternhell did not shy away from criticizing contemporary currents of exclusionary nationalism, including in his own country, as seen in his 1996 book, The Founding Myths of Israel: Nationalism, Socialism, and the Making of the Jewish State. One of his last articles is entitled, “Why Benjamin Netanyahu Loves the European Far-Right.” For his political engagement he was attacked in 2008 by a right-wing extremist with a bomb that exploded at his doorstep.

Following Sternhell’s death, Enzo Traverso updated a 2013 essay on him for Jacobin. As Traverso cites Sternhell’s most influential thesis, “The national socialism without which fascism would never have been born emerged in the 1880s, and the tradition perpetuated itself without break, up till the Second World War.” Fascism, he continued, “thus made its appearance before the Great War, without having any direct relation with it.” In the so-called Sternhell Controversy in the 1980s, Sternhell’s critics alleged that his view went too far and crudely inverted the French “immunity” myth into its opposite, representing France instead as the paradigm of fascism. As Traverso explains, “Sternhell recognized the limits of his approach: in order to defend the idea that fascism had French origins he was compelled to exclude Nazism from it.” 

Traverso also situates Sternhell as a peculiar “platonic” historian of fascism, calling him a “declared conservative” in methodology who was committed to the “autonomy of ideas” and a staunch critic of the contextualist Cambridge School approaches of Quentin Skinner and J. G. A. Pocock as well as the “irrationalist” linguistic turn. He relatedly held the social history of the movements he studied to be derivative and secondary to their ideological core, and for Traverso thus neglected the decisive role of the Great War and ensuing social and political crises. Sternhell’s heroes of the Enlightenment tradition—Ernst Cassirer, Raymond Aron, and Arthur Lovejoy—were even in his time already quite dated, and he rather cursorily dismissed Adorno and Horkheimer’s criticism of the “dialectic of Enlightenment.” Still, it is these unique methods and commitments that explain Sternhell’s enduring impact: “Here lay the paradox of a scholar who could revitalize history writing by deploying an old-fashioned conceptual arsenal.”

Brendan Mackie

Between my dissertation, my podcast, and caring for my seven month old daughter, I get precious little time to do any extracurricular reading. But I have to tell you about the books of Sandra Boynton. Especially the book that I consider her masterpiece, Blue Hat, Green Hat.

You might—as I did—dismiss Boynton as yet another author of cute board books, peddling simple stories of obolid dogs and unthreatening hippopotamus to impressionable babies. Boynton began her career as a greeting card illustrator, and the pleasing accessibility of her draftsmanship is sometimes reminiscent of those dumb cards your grandma gets for you that you only care about because your grandma got them for you. Cheesy. Mawkish. A representative Boynton card just has a picture of a cartoon chicken on it. Inside it reads BEST OF CLUCK. It is the simplest card on the planet. And yet I challenge you not to smile when you see it. And the reason why it works is that Boynton has a real genius to her, in her buoyant draftsmanship, and her real mastery of the simple joke. Having read her books hundreds of times to my daughter I’ve come to realize that her work is profoundly funny. Not funny for a board book, but funny in its own right—truly funny—so essentially funny that it can teach us about the very nature of what being funny is all about.

Read Blue Hat, Green Hat with me to see what I mean. It won’t take more than a minute or two. It’s only 14 pages. The set-up is simple. There are a series of animals, wearing various items of clothing. Red Shirt. (Elephant.) Blue Shirt (Dog?). Yellow Shirt. (Moose.) Then there’s the turkey. The fucking turkey. The turkey is wearing her shirt on her legs. OOPS.

Turkey wears her shirt on her legs. OOPS. Her hat on her feet. OOPS. Her pants on her head. OOPS. Thing is, she’s always so proud of herself—so dead certain she has it right. Ready to plough head first into the world, completely wrong about everything. Certain that this time it’s not an OOPS. But it is an OOPS. Every damned time.

Then you get to the punchline, the last two pages. I actually laughed out loud when I read it—it is the perfect joke. Turkey has finally gotten her shit together. She’s got her whole outfit on. Yellow hat on her head. Green shirt on her torso. Blue pants on her legs. Purple socks on her feet. And red shoes, too. She’s ready to go! NOW she has something to be proud about. Now she’s going to go plough head first into the world, completely and properly dressed. No more OOPS. You can just see the pent up satisfaction in turkey’s goofy little face.

Next page. She’s jumping in a pool. Fully clothed. The rest of the animals look on in embarrassment, dressed properly in their swimwear. OOPS.

I laughed out loud when I first read this final OOPS and I still laugh when I read it to my daughter. And my daughter laughs when I read it. And to tell the truth, I’m smirking with joy writing about it. I hope that you smirk, too. That turkey can never catch a break!

What makes the joke so funny? In the same way that Boynton draws the perfect cartoon chicken in her greeting cards, in Blue Hat Green Hat, she’s made the perfect joke. She sets up an expectation—the animals wear clothes, but the turkey wears them wrong. Then she subverts our expectation—the turkey finally wears the clothes correctly! But then she subverts her subversion—the turkey has worn the improper clothes properly. OOPS on top of OOPSES.

But there’s something incomplete about that explanation. Why should the book be funny again and again? I know that the turkey’s going to make a big OOPS in the pool. It doesn’t surprise me anymore. I expect the subversion of my expectation. And yet it’s still funny. Maybe even funnier now that I expect it.

And maybe that’s it—humor isn’t just about subverting expectations, but doing so in a familiar form. It’s about having a pattern to the breaking of pattern, about having a ritual to your chaos, about controlling the OOPS of life in the form of a joke. It’s why my daughter likes us reading the book for the four hundredth time, because the turkey’s oops happens in a familiar nighttime ritual of bath, bedtime book, and song. That ritual makes the oopses something we can laugh about, because they are made safe by the form, their setting in a predictable pattern.

This is so different to the scary, the truly unexpected, the actually deviant—the stuff that makes my daughter and me truly afraid. Those things go against our expectation, but without the comforting form of a joke, without there being a structure that can make the subversion of expectation make sense. The truly scary stuff is profoundly unexpected, and its chaos is not confined by form, by ritual, by boundaries. Watching the news these days subverts our expectations of how things go, but it is terrifying, not funny, because we don’t know when the subversion will stop. We have no grounding, no stability, no form.

BEST OF CLUCK.

Pranav Jain 

Alice Kaplan, Looking for the Stranger: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic (Chicago, 2016) 

Alice Kaplan’s recent book is a phenomenal study of the life of one of the most famous works of fiction published in the 20th century. It is clearly written and, despite having no background in French literature of any sort, I was still able to follow the more intricate parts of the book and thoroughly enjoyed her almost forensic investigation into how Camus came to write the book and what it has meant to its many readers over the decades. Kaplan is especially adept at explaining what makes Camus’s writing so effective. For instance, in examining the climax of the novel and its aftermath, she writes of “a sense of heat and sweat so elemental that when Meursault tells an examining magistrate that the sun made him kill, the reader understands exactly what he means.” The book is similarly peppered with vivid descriptions of the many political twists and turns of the twentieth-century that shaped Camus and his world. Also welcome is the thorough analysis of the initial critical response to the novel. A richly rewarding read! 


Find more reading suggestions in our July Reading Recommendation Part 2.


Featured Image: Michelangelo, Sistine Chapel (detail). Musei Vaticani.

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