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What We Read This Summer

With the fall semester in full swing, Northwestern University Press staff members reflect on some of their favorite reads of the summer. 

Greta Bennion, Marketing Manager

We Should All Be Feminists by Chimananda Ngozi Adichie

With a toddler and an infant, I don’t have a lot of time to read these days, but I did just finish We Should All Be Feminists by Chimananda Ngozi Adichie. She is one of my favorite authors, for a number of reasons, and this book was a captivating quick read in her beautiful, engaging style. As a mother to a daughter, I also found it very inspiring and relevant to what is going on in our world today. I just started diving into A Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood. I’ve heard mixed reviews about it, but so far it’s pulling me in, and I usually love Margaret Atwood’s writing. So we shall see!

Jane Bunker, Director

Love and Trouble: A Midlife Reckoning by Claire Dederer

I loved this book because of its uncanny ability to summon the author’s fifteen-year-old self. I have an odd relationship to time (as we all probably do), and often feel as if I still am my fifteen-year-old self. That was a year of reckoning, as is fifty now. The author insightfully explores the choices we make and how we live with them. She’s great on marriage and intimacy. And she’s laugh out loud funny (because how could you not be if you’re that smart about those things?).

 

Anne Gendler, Managing Editor

Moonglow by Michael Chabon

It’s a novel that is written in the form of a memoir (or maybe the reverse?), loosely based on stories told by the author’s grandfather on his deathbed. The grandfather, who has always been the strong, silent type, talks candidly about his wife, a Holocaust survivor with a secret past; he married her after the war and became a father to the author’s mother. He also talks about his experiences in World War II, an obsession with the space program, and a late-in-life love affair that involves weekend snake hunting.

I also read The Essential Fictions, Val Vinokur’s new translation of stories by Isaac Babel and Kim O’Neil’s Fever Dogs, both forthcoming from NU Press.

 

Gianna F. Mosser, Editor in Chief

Flyboy 2: The Greg Tate Reader

While I am not someone who follows music criticism outside of the weekly piece in the New Yorker, Tate’s writing taken together is a powerful analysis of black cultural figures and their resounding inspirations for all different kinds of artists, especially writers.

Finally Got the News: The Printed Legacy of the US Radical Left, 1970–1979, ed. Brad Duncan

This photographic history doesn’t attempt to get at all revolutionary groups or legacies, but the survey provided gives a tactile and testimonial record for how social movements grew, organized, and intersected during this period. Not your average coffee table book!

Printer’s Error: Irreverent Stories from Book History by Rebecca Romney

I don’t know that anyone who isn’t an avid book lover and/or works in publishing would get the zany humor and air of archival mystery that this book’s anecdotes of infamous book mishaps conjures in me, but some of these stories felt like old wives’ tales of the book business. Fun and funny to see that many of them were really true!

 

Maggie Grossman, Acquisitions Coordinator

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

One of the best books I read this summer. It was recently shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and for good reason. Every time I dipped into it I was totally entranced by the gorgeous writing and the uncanny worldbuilding. It was an incredible way to think about contemporary issues of globalization, migration, and the refugee crisis. 10/10 would recommend.

 

Marianne Jankowski, Creative Director

The Book of Books: 500 years of Graphic Innovation, ed. Mathieu Lommen

This is one of my special books–made more special because it was a gift from a colleague—it’s beautifully designed and masterfully produced! It’s heartening to read that even in today’s digital age, readers and designers are still attracted to the printed book as an object of beauty and fascination. This book covers five hundred years of graphic design work—it’s concise, inspiring, and provides a look into the featured designers’ thought processes.

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

As a teenager, I was enthralled with Rebecca, an earlier book by du Maurier—filled with romance and mystery—I must have read it three or four times. The release of the movie My Cousin Rachel promped me to revisit du Maurier’s writing and eventually I will examine its faithfulness to the book. Du Maurier’s writing is bewitching—the suspicions and betrayals keep you guessing, and the ending is a shocker!

 

JD Wilson, Director of Marketing and Sales

Middlemarch by George Eliot

Said by many to be the best of all English-language novels, Middlemarch went to Cape Cod with me in the late ‘90s and a guest took it home before I read past the first few chapters. After a few hectic months of political reading during the winter (Shattered, Hillbilly Elegy, etc.), I indulged in a retreat to the nineteenth century to pick up what happened to ardent Dorothea Brooke and pedantic Mr. Casaubon.

It’s a long book, so long I would not scorn anyone who chose not to take this 800-page journey with George Eliot (Marianne Evans). She makes frequent stops to offer Solomonic aphorisms about life, like “the sore palate findeth grit.” But in the end, I grieved finishing it. Ask someone if they’ve read Middlemarch, and those who have smile like they’re welcoming you into a secret confraternity.

Next, I cleansed my palate with Cather’s My Antonia. I imagine that while writing Middlemarch Marianne Evans asked herself what else she might add, while Cather asked herself what else she might take away. What’s left in My Antonia is austerely beautiful, somewhat romanticized but not sugar-coated story of a Bohemian immigrant girl’s life on the Nebraska frontier.

“Wonder of America and of the World”: The Great Chicago Lake Tunnel

By Benjamin Sells

I own one of the oldest sailing schools in Chicago, and for twenty years I have taken people out to see the water cribs off the Chicago shoreline. The water cribs are the intakes for the city’s water supply, and of the seven still in existence only two are in service today. My favorite has always been the Four-Mile Crib, which came into operation in 1892. It stands about 3.5 miles offshore, but when it was originally built it was 4 miles offshore.

The remarkable thing for me about the Four-Mile Crib is its beauty. Standing alone, milesSELLS_cov.indd from shore and appreciating eyes, the structure itself is at once imposing and lovely. Intricate brick-work and delicate curves are a testament to a time when craftsmanship and beauty were worthy goals in themselves, quite apart from accolades or awards. So after years of looking, I decided to find out more about these remarkable structures. In my research I became immersed in a story beyond my expectation that would become The Tunnel under the Lake: The Engineering Marvel That Saved Chicago. The cribs represent an existential struggle that has dogged Chicago from its origins, the dilemma of waste and water—what to do with the former and how to get the latter. 

Early Chicago was threatened in its infancy by a suffocating amount of human waste, garbage, and untold horrors dumped into its waterways by the burgeoning industries of the day. Chicago exploded onto the national scene, experiencing unprecedented population growth. And with that success came the looming specter of a city built too fast and unable to sustain itself.

In the beginning, Chicagoans got their water from wells and water carts. Later a rudimentary public supply was established that drew water from the nearshore waters of Lake Michigan. This was fraught with difficulty. Early narratives tell of turning on a tap only to have a minnow come wriggling into your glass. Unscrupulous bar owners were busted for watering down their wares when customers spied pickled minnows in the bottles. And things only got worse as the river and lake became, in the words of the Chicago Tribune, “the common receptacle for all the filth of the city.” Throughout the mid-1800’s Chicago endured repeated outbreaks of cholera because of its inability to supply its residents with clean drinking water despite being on the shore of one of the world’s largest supplies of fresh water.

Waste and water—what to do? To answer this question the city in 1855 turned to Ellis Sylvester Chesbrough, then city engineer in Boston. In Chesbrough the city found a man of singular vision and undaunted character. He first tackled the city’s waste issue by raising the city so that the first comprehensive sewerage system could be installed. His efforts to drain the city of its waste succeeded, but only at the expense of it waterways and nearshore waters. Chesbrough then faced the second horn of the dilemma—fresh water for a city in desperate need.

His answer was one of audacious simplicity, to dig a two-mile tunnel under the lake to a massive water intake crib offshore beyond the reach of the pollution. It would be the longest underwater tunnel of its kind, dug by hand and bricked up seventy feet below the surface and thirty-five feet below the seabed.

The naysayers were loud and many. The mere thought of having workers toiling beneath the waves was too much for those whose fear blinded them to Chesbrough’s carefully thought-out plans. But Chesbrough proved to be as talented in navigating the shoals of public opinion and Chicago politics as he was at being an innovative engineer. After years of cajoling and reassuring that his plan would work, it was approved and in March of 1864 ground was broken on what would come to be called the Great Chicago Lake Tunnel.

In the ensuing three-years the surveyors and diggers and haulers and masons pressed forward. They overcame challenges both scientific and human. A tunnel beneath the waves posed an unprecedented engineering challenge, as did the massive Two-Mile Crib at the tunnel’s eastern end. Nobody had ever conceived, much less built, a structure that was at once both a fortress and a ship, a structure the size of a courthouse that would be anchored to the seabed and have to endure the storms and crushing ice of Lake Michigan.

Like every great engineering project there were problems of a human kind too. Chesbrough had to deal with both the physical and psychological toil of the massive project. He would confront insanity and even murder among his staff and workers. But he never wavered, and in March 1867 the tunnel under the lake began providing the newly built Chicago waterworks with a supply of fresh water for a thirsty city.

The city never looked back and continued to grow exponentially, as did its need for fresh water. After enduring the catastrophic impact of the Chicago fire in 1871, the city built a second tunnel to the Two-Mile Crib in 1875. After finding that it needed to reach even farther offshore for unpolluted water, the city built the Four-Mile Crib and its tunnel that went into service in 1892.

When I began to research the Four-Mile Crib I thought I would learn a little about engineering and maybe a smattering of art and architecture. Where I ended up was with a story about an engineer and his remarkable ideas that saved Chicago from itself. More than the politicians and industrial magnates that tend to overshadow Chicago history, it was an engineer, and the tunnel hailed as “the wonder of America and of the world,” that made possible the Chicago we know today.

Woman Has Never Been a Cis Category

by Emma Heaney

new-womanThe Hemingway house on Key West is a sunny square house surrounded by a wrap around porch on both the ground and second floor. It was built in 1851 for a ship builder and wrecker who would become an ardent Confederate during the Civil War. I have visited twice: The first time was during high season for Florida tourism. On that visit all the tour guides and ticket takers were Hemingway look-alikes. Ours was a Hemingway in his white-bearded Papa phase. The second time was out of season and our tour guide was not a look alike.

Both tours emphasized Hemingway’s constitutional vigor and athletic prowess, telling his life story as an arc from his ambulance driving days during WWI to his later life as a fisher of big fish in Cuba and a hunter of big game in Utah. Both tours emphasized what a ladies’ man Hemingway was, a story that was woven through with comments about the necessity of moving from woman to woman as each spouse became a nag. The first guide mopped his sweaty brow and held up a flask that he told us was full of rum and drank a toast to Hemingway’s second wife, or as our guide addressed her in absentia “Pauline, you bitch” who, he informed us, had replaced the house’s ceiling fans with imported crystal chandeliers and consigned generations of her husbands’ doppelgangers to unnecessarily sweaty work.

Both guides also emphasized the close relationship between Hemingway and his youngest child, Gregory Hemingway, who, our guides told us, was also a “ladies’ man” and like Father Hemingway enjoyed sport and hunting. What our guide did not tell us is that this child was, in fact (and not in the Hemingway House’s revisionist fiction) a trans woman who often went by the name Gloria Hemingway and pursued and attained gender-affirming surgery shortly before her death in 2001. The fact that surgery came toward the end of Gloria’s life does not mean that her female identity was only revealed at that late point. Gloria Hemingway’s female identity was known to her father from the time of her youth and he experienced great anguish when faced with this fact. In fact, Pauline Hemingway died of an aneurysm while fighting with Ernest about the arrest of their then nineteen-year-old child for using a women’s restroom in a movie theatre in Los Angeles in 1951.

I bring up the Hemingway House tours as a segue into my newly published book, The New Woman,  because this experience helped me to identify the process of  the daily cultural erasure of the trans feminine existence. The trans woman has always been, for the entire duration of time that trans womanhood has been recognized as categorically distinct from cis womanhood, new. From the tones of discovery and disbelief in the sexological texts of the nineteenth century to the couches of Maury Povich and Ricki Lake: trans women’s existence has consistently been presented as a factor that disrupts a supposedly established set of rules concerning sex. The fact is, however, that what has been historically consistent is this routinized erasure, the insistence on the impossibility or nonexistence of trans women, which is the condition of that supposed universality of cis experience in history. This historical erasure makes the trans feminine available for cis people to discover again and again and imbue with totalizing meaning, again and again.

Modernist  literature was a particularly dense site for the process of erasure and rediscovery of trans femininity. Writers often posited a link between the formal and thematic newness of their work and the existence, posited as shocking and quintessentially modern, of trans femininity. Trans femininity as a new concept is made to represent a way of working out the ways sex and gender are changing, again a premise of newness that takes for granted that previously gender had been simple and fixed. Second, the experience perfectly reflects the fact that misogyny (Pauline’s status as a bitch) is often one of the social facts that trans femininity is evoked to investigate on the conceptual level: cis women have real experiences of denigration, so how can the idea of “a woman trapped in a male body,” of “sex change” help us to explore that claim on the conceptual level in the works of say, Joyce, Eliot, and Barnes?

The book also attends to things written by trans women—from the early twentieth-century memoirist Jennie June to Janet Mock’s recent writings—that have likewise been minoritized or erased, allowing these regular rediscoveries across the twentieth century. I hope my readings of trans feminine life writing and political writing from the early twentieth century and the late twentieth century will spark further investigations and shakings of archives to find more. Just as I went to The Hemingway House and found Gloria there, despite efforts to hide her from historical view.

 

What We’re Reading

Diverse and eclectic book choices from Northwestern University Press staff. 


JD Wilson, Director of Sales and Marketing

What book(s) are you reading this week?

Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was

How did you come to read this/these book(s)?

I’m a voracious reader of periodicals, and I saw this book mentioned as an aside in one. I don’t remember which. “Times Literary Supplement” maybe? I found the book at the Northwestern University library. I had no idea the book was so new. Cudos to the NU libraries for acquiring a copy so fast.

Describe what you like about the book in 25 words or less.

I’m grateful that the NYT’s Pamela Paul came out as a “slow reader.” I’m one too, and it makes me appreciate slim novels like this one. This is an Icelandic novel by a writer named Sjón, a frequent collaborator of Björk’s. It’s an imagined year in the life of an Icelandic teenager in the late nineteen teens around the 1918 flu epidemic. It’s not a plot-driven novel, but Sjón’s crisp, detailed images will transport you back to Reykjavik.


Greta Bennion, Marketing Manager

What book(s) are you reading this week?

I’m currently reading Horse Heaven, by Jane Smiley.

How did you come to read this/these book(s)?

I picked it up at the Printers Row Lit Fest this past June. Jane Smiley is one of my favorite authors, and the book looked interesting to me because it centers on the horse racing world, something I know very little about.

Describe what you like about the book in 25 words or less.

I love how the book revolves around so many different characters, and Smiley does such an amazing job at bringing them to life. I feel like I’m right there next to them, experiencing what they’re going through.


Anne Gendler, Managing Editor

What book(s) are you reading this week?

I’m reading Hadji Murat by Leo Tolstoy and Syria Burning: A Short History of a Catastrophe by Charles Glass.

How did you come to read this/these book(s)?

I’m reading Hadji Murat for my book group and Syria Burning Glass because I realized I was confused about what was really going on in Syria, which is in such a humanitarian crisis.

Describe what you like about the book in 25 words or less.

Hadji Murat is a short book with an extremely contemporary story of Russians fighting Chechen rebels in 1851. Based on firsthand accounts that were known to Tolstoy, it’s almost like a journalistic piece of creative nonfiction. He wrote it late in his life, and it came very easily to him.

Syria Burning is a brief recap of changing motives and alliances in the region is a helpful guide to sorting it out.


Liz Hamilton, Intellectual Property Specialist

What book(s) are you reading this week?

I’m reading The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr.

How did you come to read this/these book(s)?

I’ve read Mary Karr’s books all out of order; I started with her second volume of memoir, Cherry, and loved it so much that I immediately read Lit, the most recent installment of her story. Now I’m circling back to find out how it all started, instead of trying to piece together allusions from the later volumes. Note to potential readers: maybe begin at the beginning.

Describe what you like about the book in 25 words or less.
The writing is gorgeous, the characters are already familiar, and I can’t wait to read what happens next.


Marianne Jankowski, Creative Director

What book(s) are you reading this week?

Perfectly Imperfect: The Art and Soul of Yoga Practice

How did you come to read this/these book(s)?

I was a yoga junkie in my 20s—then came kids, home and job responsibilities, and my yoga ritual faded away. Ever since, my attempts to return to the same degree of mind-body practice have failed, most recently due to my own body restraints.

Describe what you like about the book in 25 words or less.

I luckily ran across this book and find that I have merely reached a plateau, my true north has always been with me—it was my attention and energy that have drifted away and I only need to bring myself back, begin again, and ‘be’ again.


Maggie Grossman, Acquisitions Coordinator

What book(s) are you reading this week?

This week I am reading the Saga series. I just finished Book One, which collects issues #1-18.

How did you come to read this/these book(s)?

I have been exploring the world of comics and graphic novels over the last couple of years and I pretty much couldn’t go any longer without reading Saga

Describe what you like about the book in 25 words or less.

Saga is a Hugo Award-winning series penned by Brian K. Vaughan and inked by Fiona Staples.– it’s a modern classic of the genre. I love the depth and originality of the story, the art is breathtaking, and the concept of two eternally warring peoples whose conflict has taken over an entire universe – without anybody questioning the premise of the fight – is just mind-blowingingly brilliant. Looking forward to picking up the next installment!


Gianna F. Mosser, Editor in Chief

What book(s) are you reading this week?

I am reading Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra.

How did you come to read this/these book(s)?

It was a big award nominee when it came out in 2006, and I have had it on my list of postcolonial novels to get to when I had a good chunk of time. This tome is almost 900 pages and the type is pretty small!

Describe what you like about the book in 25 words or less.

What I like about the book is that it is framed as a detective thriller but it really works as novel invested in social critique. The caste system, local politics, the legacy of Partition, and organized crime all mix to keep readers guessing about who is at fault, only to postulate that perhaps everyone is culpable.

Netflix announced this year that they will sponsor a series based on the novel, which didn’t influence my decision to read it, but it’s notable nonetheless!  


Emily Dalton, Digital Content and Systems Coordinator

What book(s) are you reading this week?
The Blizzard by Vladimir Sorokin

How did you come to read this/these book(s)?
I read The Big Green Tent by Ludmila Ulitskaya last winter and wanted to find another contemporary Russian book. This probably could not have been more different.

Describe what you like about the book in 25 words or less.
The Blizzard might be the weirdest book I’ve ever read. It’s a genre bending Russian allegory that I don’t think I fully understand, complete with tiny horses and a hallucinatory drug that comes out of a pyramid. What’s not to like?

Parneshia Jones, Poetry Editor

What book(s) are you reading this week?

The Light of the World: A Memoir by Elizabeth Alexander

How did you come to read this/these book(s)?

What does it mean to speak the ones we’ve lost? How do we carry their light forward? In a quest to reckon with my own personal reveries about a singular, paramount soul suddenly becoming an ancestor, I turned to Ms. Alexander’s memoir about the sudden death of her artist husband to find solace and symmetry with my own feelings and writing.

Describe what you like about the book in 25 words or less.

Elizabeth Alexander is a conjure poet who let her poet-self expand in opulent lines of prose. She buoyed my search of how we can evoke and celebrate our lights whom now live amongst the stars.  

AAUP Blog Tour: People in Our Neighborhood

A cozy Midwestern town with touches of New England sailboats and lighthouse charm, the eight square miles of Dutch elms and sycamores are home to seventy-five thousand Evanstonians.

One
of the most accomplished citizens of Evanston was Charles Gates Dawes,
recipient of the 1925 Nobel Peace Prize and Vice President of the United States
under Calvin Coolidge from 1925–‘29. A banker, politician, and military general,
Dawes was something of a Progressive Era Renaissance man known for his mercurial
wit and for the salty language he used in Congressional hearings. He and his
family occupied a lake-facing home just south of the university. Built in the chateau
style—though in its rural form—the home was donated by Dawes to the university
with the understanding that it become the home of the Evanston History Center (EHC).

This
year, Northwestern University Press has enjoyed a growing partnership with the
Evanston Historical Society, centered around the publication of Charles Gates Dawes: A Life, the
definitive biography of America’s thirtieth vice president. Annette Dunlap, the
author of a biography of first lady Frances Folsom Cleveland, penned the book.

Throughout
2016, the EHC has organized a series of events aimed to restore wider
recognition of Dawes’s contributions to the history of the city, nation, and
world. As part of this “Year of Dawes,” the EHC held a twilight gala titled Melody in August at the Dawes home where
North Shore history buffs feted the release of the book.

The cooperation
between EHC and the press that facilitated the creation of the book fostered multiple
new points of contact between the two organizations as well as fresh momentum
to find new ways to collaborate. In 2017, EHC is planning a series of events
titled “Meet the Press.” Bringing together the press, the EHC, and the public,
the events will create new opportunities for Evanston’s avid reading community
to engage with literature, reading, and ideas.

Get a Free Copy of YOU MAY SEE A STRANGER

Head on over to Goodreads, the world’s largest site for readers and book recommendations, and enter to win a copy of Paula Whyman’s debut short story collection that Publishers Weekly called “honest and sharply observed.” 

In You May See A Stranger Miranda Weber hoards duct tape to ward off terrorists, stumbles into a drug run with a crackhead, and—frequently—endures the bad behavior of men. Miranda can be lascivious, sardonic, and maddeningly self-destructive, but, no matter what befalls her, she never loses her sharp wit or powers of observation, which illuminate both her own life and her strange, unsettling times.

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Goodreads Book Giveaway

You May See a Stranger by Paula Whyman

You May See a Stranger

by Paula Whyman

Giveaway ends May 31, 2016.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

https://www.goodreads.com/giveaway/widget/186096

Find the Perfect Gift for the Thinking Woman’s Mother’s Day

Looking for a book to gift to mom on mother’s day? Here at Northwestern University Press we’ve got a number of titles that will make the perfect gift for the thinking woman in your life. Here’s a list of staff favorites and bestsellers that celebrate and explore the complexities of motherhood, parenting, and family.

Mothers and Daughters: Women of the Intelligentsia in Nineteenth-Century Russia

Barbara Alpern Engel

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The first psychosocial study of the female intelligentsia in Russia, Mothers and Daughters explains how and why women radicals of the nineteenth century diverged from their male counterparts, describes the forces that led women to rebel, and discusses their legacy to future generations. Throughout, Engel brings nineteenth-century women to life, humanizing history as she presents a case study of how the personal became political in a time and place different from our own.

The Distance Between Us

Valerie Sayers

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Franny Starkey is a married mother of three that  no longer turns heads the way she used to. Sayers creates an engaging novel that follows Franny’s path from her early, poverty-ridden days to her hedonistic college life to her longings for an artistic career while changing diapers in a Brooklyn apartment. The constant in her life is Steward Morehouse, a well-to-do nerd from Due East, South Carolina who loves Franny. When Stewart and Michael, Michael, her drug-dependent playwright husband, collaborate on a play, the lives of these three become more complicated than Franny could have imagined.

Watercolor Women / Opaque Men: A Novel in Verse

Ana Castillo

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Watercolor Women / Opaque Men is a wild and raucous narrative of a single, working mother, the daughter of Chicano migrant workers, and her struggles for upward mobility. Watercolor Women / Opaque Men contains episodes that range from the Mexican Revolution to modern-day Chicago and reflects a deep pride in Chicano culture and the hardships immigrants had to endure. With a remarkable combination of tenderness, wicked humor, and biting satire, the main character, Ella-or “She”-moves toward establishing her sexual identity (she has affairs with both men and women) and finding her rightful place in the world while simultaneously raising her son to be independent and self-sufficient.

Hemisphere

Ellen Hagan

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The poems in Hemisphere explore what it means to be a daughter and what it means to bear new life. Ellen Hagan investigates the world historical hemispheres of a family legacy from around the globe and moves down to the most intimate hemisphere of im¬pending motherhood. Her poems reclaim the female body from the violence, both literal and literary, done to it over the years.

Women with a Thirst for Destruction: The Bad Mother in Russian Culture

Jenny Kaminer

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In Women with a Thirst for Destruction Jenny Kaminer examines how the typically noble and self-sacrificing image of Russian motherhood  is destabilized during periods of dramatic rupture in Russian society. Kaminer investigates the aftermath of three key moments in the country’s history: the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the fall of the Communist regime in 1991. She explores works both familiar and relatively unexamined: Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin’s The Golovlev Family, Fyodor Gladkov’s Cement, and Liudmila Petrushevskaia’s The Time: Night, as well as a late Soviet film (Vyacheslav Krishtofovich’s Adam’s Rib, 1990) and media coverage of the Chechen conflict. Kaminer’s book speaks broadly to the mutability of seemingly established cultural norms in the face of political and social upheaval.

The Gift

Florence Noiville

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In this novel, Florence Noiville draws the portrait of a grand and unforgettable lady, loving and unable to love at once. As the narrator heads home after a meeting regarding her inheritance her mother looms large in her psyche. Labeled “eccentric” or “Italian,” her mother in fact suffered from what was later found to be manic depression. Without understanding the disease, the fam­ily treated the unpredictable ups and downs of her condition as they struck. During periods of paralyzing depression she was hospitalized, and the family felt abandoned. During periods of manic productivity and overdrive, she was a dedicated pharmacist, an exemplary home­maker, and an unusually knowledgeable gardener.

Remembering Imre Kertesz

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We are saddened to announce the passing of Imre Kertesz who died on Thursday at his home in Budapest. Kertesz was imprisoned at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, and later worked as a journalist and a playwright before publishing his first novel, Fateless in 1975. Northwestern University Press is proud to have introduced his work to the English-speaking world with its translations of two of Kertesz’s novels, Fateless in 1992 and Kaddish for a Child Not Born in 1997.

Fateless is the story of 14-year-old George Koves’s experiences in German concentration camps and his attempts to reconcile himself to those experiences after the war. In the camps, George maintains a precarious semblance of normalcy by imputing human motives to his inhuman captors in a response to his situation that is curiously ambivalent.  Lacking emotional or spiritual ties to his Jewish heritage and rejected by his country, he ultimately comes to the conclusion that neither his neither his Hungarian nor his Jewish identity was at the heart of his fate: there are only “given situations, and within these, further givens.” The Washington Times called Fateless “an ornate and honest testimony to the human spirit.”

Kertesz received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002. He was 86.

Benjamin’s Displaced Jewish Tradition

In his forthcoming book Postsecular Benjamin, Brian Britt analyzes Benjamin’s engagements with religious traditions as resources for contemporary debates on secularism, conflict, and identity. Below is an excerpt from “Benjamin’s Displaced Jewish Tradition ​that originally appeared as part of The Future of Benjamin, 7+2 Articles, edited by Nitzan Lebovic with Commentary  by Howard Eiland and Michael Jennings. 

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Scholars who disagree sharply over the importance of Jewish tradition in Walter Benjamin’s work tend not to explore what Jewish tradition means for him. The publication of Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life presents an opportunity to revisit and reframe this question.1 One thing Jewish tradition could mean is observant Jewish practice, which even casual readers of Benjamin realize does not apply. Consider how the story of his abortive attempt to attend Rosh Hashanah services in Berlin Childhood Around 1900 reveals a “suspicion [Argwohn] of religious ceremonies” and also somehow contributes to his sexual awakening (SW 3:386). For Benjamin, Jewish tradition, and tradition in general, survives in modernity through what I describe as mechanisms of displacement, the numerous ways in which traditions change and survive, even in the face of modern denials of tradition.

Secularist scholars typically consider religion, even Judaism, as a belief or faith, meaning, I suppose, a doctrine or set of doctrines.2 As a scholar of religion, I have always found this idea confusing, because I do not know how to observe or understand religion as belief: it could mean a public statement of belief, like a creed, but is that by itself a meaningful indicator of a person’s identity? Or it could mean some kind of lasting mental state. But even there I get lost: how do you hold a belief about invisible, supernatural realities in your head for any length of time? It reminds me of a magician who says, “Think of a card.” I think of a card, I hold the idea, the image, and the name of that card in my consciousness. But then my mind wanders—I think of a joke, an old friend, or my next meal. Will my attention deficit spoil the trick, or my religious identity?

Jacob Taubes argues for the idea of religion as belief when he argues that when Benjamin said Messiah he meant Messiah: “[T]here is a Messiah. No shmontses like ‘the messianic,’ ‘the political,’ no neutralization, but the Messiah.”3  Of course, defining religion simply as faith misses the point of Judaism and other religions, even Christianity. If religion means anything at all, it has to involve belief and action. But even belief and action together do not encompass Jewish tradition for Benjamin, whose thinking on tradition includes the kinds of subtle, displaced phenomena included in the category of displacement. Tradition survives through displacement in spite of modern intentions, as Gershom Scholem’s well-known letter to Franz Rosenzweig on modern Hebrew shows.4

Far from passively inheriting Jewish tradition, Benjamin theorizes the inheritance of tradition. This inheritance can be framed in terms of displacement, the shifting and transformation of religious beliefs and practices he identifies in his early and late writings.5 Drawn from Freud and Benjamin, the idea of displacement means that traditions change rather than go away, but the inheritance of tradition does not conform to simple grand narratives of decline, progress, or eternal recurrence. Writing from his German Jewish vantage point, Benjamin consistently engaged the problem of tradition, pushing against these grand narratives and affirming tradition even as he immersed himself in modernist of art and culture. Benjamin’s studies of language, thought, and culture restlessly disclose modern displacements of tradition.

German Men and Women (Deutsche Menschen, 1936)

The case of German Men and Women poses a paradox: here is a collection of letters from the 18th and 19th centuries celebrating German writers and thinkers, all of them non-Jewish, but when he inscribed copies for his sister, Scholem, and Kracauer, Benjamin described the book as a Jewish ark written when the fascist flood began to rise. And he published the book under the pseudonym Detlef Holz to conceal his Jewish identity. I’ve explored this puzzle elsewhere6, but I would only say here that the case of Deutsche Menschen makes it very difficult to disentangle German from Jewish identity, something Paul Mendes-Flohr, Georg Mosse, and many others have shown; in fact, Benjamin’s book inscribes their combination, even in 1936, as a kind of quixotic hope. But this mixing of German and Jewish identity only continues the centuries-long entanglements of Judaism and Christianity theorized by Daniel Boyarin and others. This hybridity need not be schizophrenic or divided in any way; as Benjamin and the Berlin Jewish Museum show, this is a positive historical identity no more or less authentic or complete than any other. To quote a popular saying about cultural trends: “It’s a thing.”

The idea of displacement fits Benjamin’s orientation to tradition, which opposes the modern secularist narrative of progress, traditionalist visions of decline, as well as Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence. For Benjamin as for more recent “postsecular” thinkers like Talal Asad,7 tradition never just goes away; even the most iconoclastic modernisms bear the afterlife and traces of the past. The inversions, paradoxes, and formal experiments of Benjamin’s thought identify the displacements of tradition in ways that open space for critical thought, and, I would argue, agency.8

Against the grand historical narratives of progress, decline, and eternal recurrence, the displacement of traditions preoccupies Benjamin from his early studies of literature to his late work on modern culture. If his work insists on critical awareness of the complexity, multiplicity, and contexts of cultural forms, it reflects the complexity of his life, which no biographical formula (tragedy, heroic tale, mourning play) or simplistic label (Marxist, aesthete, theologian, melancholic, Jew, German) can capture. It is ironic that scholarship on Benjamin so often resorts to such formulas and labels when he devoted a substantial part of his work to their critical examination. It takes a Critical Life like the biography of Eiland and Jennings, one that resists generalizations, embraces complexity, and reads the life with the work, to recognize more fully the significance of Benjamin’s thought.9

Endnotes

1 Walter Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014).

2 See Beatrice Hanssen, Critique of Violence: Between Poststructuralism and Critical Theory (New York: Routledge, 2000), 23.

3 Taubes, The Political Theology of Paul, trans. Dana Hollander (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), 70.

4 Scholem, “Thoughts About our Language (1926),” in On the Possibility of Jewish Mysticism in Our Time and Other Essays, ed. Avraham Shapira, trans. Jonathan Chipman (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1997), 27-29.  Dipesh Chakrabarty makes a similar point in Habitations of Modernity: Essays in the Wake of Subaltern Studies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 115-137.

5 I derive the idea of tradition as displacement from Freud and Benjamin in Biblical Curses and the Displacement of Tradition (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2011), 191-212.

6 Britt, “Identity and Survival in Deutsche Menschen,” Benjamin-Studien 3 (2014): 83-104.

7 Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003).

8 This is the argument of my forthcoming book, Postsecular Benjamin: Agency and Tradition (Northwestern University Press).

9 Eiland and Jennings lament how selective previous studies of Benjamin have been:  “The result has all to often been a partial or, worse, mythologized and distorted portrait” (Eiland and Jennings, 7).

Postsecular Benjamin: Agency and Tradition is available for preorder here.

Women Warriors of ‘Ghostbusters’ and Revolutionary Europe

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Ghostbusters fans have lit up social media with reactions to the new Ghostbusters movie. The film, which features an all-female lineup of phantom fighting comedians, opens this summer and the controversy over the cast’s gender has grown bigger than the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. According to Julie Koser’s new book Armed Ambiguity: Women Warriors in German Literature and Culture in the Age of Goethe a film featuring female ghost fighters opening during the most disruptive and divisive presidential campaigns in recent memory is more than a coincidence. Whether you love or hate the idea of female Ghostbusters, this isn’t the first time that depictions of female warriors have coincided with periods of political uncertainty. The destabilizing political environment produced by the French Revolution led to “reestablishment of clearly defined gender roles as a form of social control” in nineteenth-century Germany. In her new book, Julie Koser examines tropes of the woman warrior constructed by print culture and how women’s bodies became a semiotic battleground for competing social, cultural, and political agendas in one of the most critical periods of modern history.

In the wake of the French Revolution … depictions of women and violence embodied the climate of apprehension, uncertainty, and instability that held western Europe, and German-speaking territories in particular, captive at the beginning of the nineteenth century. A full contingent of women warriors of page and stage triggered persistent anxieties as well as powerful fantasies about women’s use of violence—and forms of “perceived” female transgression more generally that destabilized the status quo of entrenched structures of power. Evoking simultaneous feelings of aversion and attraction, women warriors, as the embodiment of female transgression writ large, appear at once as ghastly prospect and feminine ideal, deceitful criminal and valorous patriot, deviant villain and sacrificing heroine, bloodthirsty hyena and defender of the domestic good, paragon of love and repository of unregulated passions, aberration of nature and emancipatory fantasy.

So whether she is depicted as an Amazon queen wielding a sword or a funny lady with a  proton pack the woman warrior has long been a harbinger of political anxieties. Though it does not outwardly carry any political message the new Ghostbusters movie reflects the unease of our time in the same way: by making women’s bodies the site of the struggle for power.

Armed Ambiguity: Women Warriors in German Literature and Culture in the Age of Goethe is available for preorder here.

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