Evita, Thatcher and HRC walk into a glass ceiling…In this episode, John and Elizabeth are joined by MIT anthropologist Manduhai Buyandelger to discuss women in political power in Argentina, Mongolia, the UK, the United States and beyond. At the conversation’s heart: Manduhai analyzes the legacy of “female quotas” in Soviet-era politics, as well as the narrow “lanes” that women politicians are sorted into.
For starters, Elizabeth discusses Santa Evita, Tomás Eloy Martínez’s riff on what happened to Evita Perón’s body before and after her death, and how much she looked, eventually, like Grace Kelly.
John discusses old-school Marxist journalist Beatrix Campbell, who tells a compelling story about “why Women vote Tory” in her 1987 Iron Ladies; it includes a fascinating chapter on Margaret Thatcher’s mix of “moral authoritarianism and economic liberalism.” John also finds a Thatcherite strain in My Beautiful Laundrette.
Manduhai then unfolds the story of vocal tone-switching female politicians learn to deploy, in Mongolia and elsewhere. John relates that to a recent podcast exposé that criticizes Theranos mastermind Elizabeth Holmes for deepening her voice in college. Manduhai’s own article about how Mongolian female politicians present themselves is a brilliant introduction to how some of these questions play out elsewhere in the world. It includes some great political posters like this one:
Lastly, in Recallable Books, John recommends Hilary Mantel’s “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher,” Elizabeth recommends the ethnography Iron, Gender and Power by Eugenia Herbert, and Manduhai recommends Clinton’s Hard Choices, and then, for a shorter and less familiar pick, Jack Weatherford’s The Secret History of the Mongol Queens.
Mentioned in this episode:
Santa Evita, Tomás Eloy Martínez
Iron Ladies: Why Do Women Vote Tory?, Beatrix Campbell
My Beautiful Laundrette, dir. Stephen Frears
Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, dir. Stephen Frears
Hard Choices, Hillary Clinton
What Happened?, Hillary Clinton
Great Expectations, Charles Dickens (can’t believe it took until episode nine for this!)
“The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher,” Hilary Mantel
You can listen to the episode here:
Final note: Just before this episode dropped, we were saddened to hear about the death of Ranking Roger of the (English) Beat and General Public. Here he is performing their beloved anti-Thatcher anthem, “Stand Down, Margaret.” (Do you prefer it to Elvis Costello’s more vitriolic “Tramp the Dirt Down“? RTB is torn…..)
When Recall This Book started back in January, we modestly thought we might manage one episode per month.Instead, we bolted from the gate fast: eight episodes in our first two-and-a-half months.
That is a sprinter’s pace, when what we have in mind is a marathon. So: a slowdown of sorts…but with the prospect of some great upcoming items.
First, one goody that is available today, and another you barely have to wait for. As of this moment, you will notice a new page on our website, up there in the right-hand corner next to About Our Hosts. We are delighted to announce a partnership with Literature Lab, a fascinating podcast that features thoughtful intense conversations about topics like book history, the relationship between dance and theater, and the ways that poetry reshapes our experience of the world. Check it out, and let us know what episodes move you!
Next treat-to-come: Thursday (March 28th) you can hear Elizabeth and John’s conversation with the brilliant anthropologist of Mongolia Manduhai Buyandelger. Her fieldwork has been on the emergence of a new generation of female candidates in Mongolian politics, but the discussion covers all sorts of female political leaders: John reveals an unhealthy fascination with a certain British “leading lady,” while Elizabeth analyzes Eva Perón’s shifting hairstyles and Manduhai makes the case for HRC’s lasting influence.
After Manduhai, a brief silence falls. We are taking to the studio to speak with another anthropologist, taking to the road (taping conversations with SF authors and scholars in Edinburgh in April, Palo Alto in May) and taking the liberty of eavesdropping on a conversation about genesis and animals’ social lives between poet and translator David Ferry and biologist E. O. Wilson.
Expect those episodes and more in what we might think of as our Spring (as opposed to Winter) season: around half a dozen episodes that will be coming out before Midsummer’s Night. (Dreamy!)
Merry Equinox to All!
We frequently worry that we live in a “distracted age.” But perhaps the human condition is always to live “almost always in one place with our minds somewhere quite another” (Ford Madox Ford, “On Impressionism”). Join John’s conversation with Marina Van Zuylen of Bard College.
Van Zuylen, the author of The Plenitude of Distraction, makes the case that some aspects of distraction that are far more positive than they initially appear. Kierkegaard’s image of saving yourself from a boring philosophy lecture by watching sweat trickle down the speaker’s face is one highlight; her story about her real-life brain scan is another.
John, drawing on his recent book Semi-Detached, approaches the topic via George Eliot’s ideas about what it means to get lost in a novel–and by discussing the deadpan comedy of Buster Keaton.
The conversation begins with the sublime, as Marina and John discuss acedia, the “noonday demon” that attacked medieval monks when they had spent too many hours in the study.
But it ends up much closer to the present, as they debate the merits of iPhone usage and the distracting powers of the telephone.
The event was hosted by Dean (and noted Art Historian) Robin Kelsey at Harvard’s Mahindra Humanities Center in November 2018. Our podcast presentation of it has been edited and condensed for clarity; a video of the full event is available on their channel.
Books mentioned in this episode (and in the longer video discussion):
The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevsky (don’t speed read it)
Charles Darwin’s Journals
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Laurence Sterne
Treatise on Human Nature, David Hume
The Principles of Psychology, William James
The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot
The Tragic Muse, Henry James
A Time to Keep Silence, Patrick Leigh Fermor
Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life, Kathleen Norris
Don Quixote, Miguel de Cervantes
“Boredom,” Siegfried Kracauer
The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard
24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, Jonathan Crary
My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Ottessa Moshfegh
Dakota, Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries (Ezra Pound’s Cantos as a Flash-player experience)
Autobiography, John Stuart Mill
Luminous Airplanes, Paul LaFarge (the one with the links)
The Female Quixote, Charlotte Lennox
Listen to the episode here:
Fresh on the heels of our conversation with Madeline Miller, author of Circe, John Plotz has a talk with Samuel Delany, living legend of science fiction and fantasy. You probably know him best for breakthrough novels like Dhalgren and Trouble on Triton, which went beyond “New Wave” SF to introduce an intense and utterly idiosyncratic form of theory-rich and avant-garde stylistics to the genre. Reading him means leaving Earth, but also returning to the heady days when Greenwich Village was as caught up in the arrival of Levi-Strauss and Derrida to America as it was in a gender and sexuality revolution.
RTB loves him especially for his mind-bending Neveryon series: did you know that many consider his 1984 novella from that series, “The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals,” (set both inside the world of Neveryon and along Bleecker Street in NY) the first piece of fiction about AIDS in America?
He came to Wellesley’s Newhouse Center for the Humanities to talk about Afrofuturism, but also carved out two little chunks of time for this conversation.
Discussed in this episode:
The Neveryon Series, “Racism and Science Fiction,” Triton (also referred to as The Trouble on Triton), “Aye, and Gomorrah,” “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones,” Samuel R. Delany
“The Science Fiction of Roe vs. Wade,” Palmer Rampell
Library of America Volumes, Ursula K. Le Guin (Delany disses them!)
A Little Earnest Book Upon a Great Old Subject, William Wilson
The Fifth Season Novels, N.K. Jemisin
The Making of Americans, Gertrude Stein
Listen to the conversation here:
Bonus: If you can’t get enough Samuel Delany, listen to LeVar Burton reading one of his stories here.
In Episode 1 of Recall this Book, sculptor and Brandeis professor Tory Fair, John and I discussed minimalism. We were just starting out, and I felt a little out of my depth, not only with podcasting but also with the topic. Both Tory and John know a lot about work in their fields that describes itself as (or more often, is described as) minimalist, and they work in fields where the idea of minimalism has a clear definable life, even if artists, critics and others can’t necessarily easily define what it actually is.
I broke ranks and kind of broke the rules by describing the migration of the term minimalism into the realm of “lifestyle.” Broke the rules, I mean, because at first glance it seems that Donald Judd and Samuel Beckett have little more than a name in common with Real Simple or Simplify magazine or the blog Minimalist Baker. It feels a bit like comparing the discipline of anthropology and that store with the clothes made from cool fabrics that don’t seem to fit anyone quite right. I could feel John’s non-nominalist hackles (and mine too, if I’m being honest) ready to rise.
Nevertheless, we threw Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up into the mix. And adding that book did add to the conversation. Kondo’s version of minimalism, though different in many, maybe most, ways from the other examples in the episode, helped us to talk about things like the intentions of the artist, the experience and sensations of the viewer or reader, ideas of what art is or isn’t supposed to do, and the recategorization of the everyday. In the spirit of the podcast, we were able to use the book as a switch point or maybe a pinball bumper (or maybe a spark?) for a conversation that didn’t necessarily go in the directions that even we expected, and that for that reason, we hope, felt a little fresh and unpredictable.
Since we recorded that episode in October 2018, Marie Kondo has provoked lots more conversations, because of her new Netflix show “Tidying up with Marie Kondo” and the waves of backlash and defense of her method, her approach to books, and her notion of sparking joy, referred to by novelist Anakana Schofield as “woo-woo nonsense.” By now there have been scores of articles about the show, the KonMari method , the Marie Kondo haters, and haters of the haters.
One thing that really seemed to tick people off was the idea that Kondo tells people not to have more than 30 books. In her takedown of Kondo, Schofield writes that “Tidying guru Marie Kondo advises us to ditch reading we don’t find joyful. But one’s personal library should do much more than anthologise warm feelings” and “Art will be around far longer than Kondo’s books remain in print. Art exists on its own terms and untidy timeline.” Others picked up the Save our Books banner; “Keep your tidy, spark-joy hands off my book piles, Marie Kondo” is the name of one Washington Post article.
These responses now seem to be unwarranted in a couple of ways. First off, it seems that her signature phrase “spark joy” comes from the Japanese tokimeku, which translates more accurately as “throb; palpitate; pulsate; pulse; beat fast.” And when I learned this I was reminded of Tory’s description of a sensation of levitating, ever so slightly, when she walked into a room of paintings by Agnes Martin. At a more elementary level, Marie Kondo doesn’t actually tell anyone how many books they should have. She only says that this is how many books that she has ended up with.
In recent weeks, an evolving discussion touches on whether the criticisms of Kondo are racist or ignorant and dismissive of Japanese culture, as is argued in an article titled “‘Marie Kondo isn’t coming for your books, you’re just being xenophobic” and another “Marie Kondo’s haters are lowkey starting to get ‘racist'” . Indeed, I happen to agree that some of these criticisms seem to be at least surprisingly vitriolic and a little snobby.
That isn’t to say I think The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is a very good book, though I stand by what I said in our conversation: I am fond of it. For example, I love her description of socks that are grateful and relieved at finally being folded the way they have wanted to be folded all along. I like a world with those socks in it.
My point, however, is not to claim The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up as a great book, but to show how it, like many other books in the world and in our podcast, makes conversations happen, about an unexpectedly wide range of topics—about race, class, gender, about reading, trash, families, the decline of U.S. global dominance, the liveliness of things and the anxieties of consumption—and not always in ways that we expect.
From its origins in clay tablets to its future on digital tablets, Martin Puchner has thought about writing in all its forms. In this episode, John and Elizabeth talk to Martin, the Byron and Anita Wien Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Harvard. They begin with a discussion of a very early writerly text–the epic of Gilgamesh, a version of which has been Englished by Elizabeth’s father. They discuss the different stages of world writing–from the time of the scribes to the time of great teachers like Confucius, Socrates and Jesus Christ, who had a very complicated relationship to writing. Are we on the cusp of a new transformation in the way in which writing occurs in the world?
This transformation might have to do with coding, with the resurrection of the tablet and the scroll, or with the culture of curation that has arisen in a new era in which the ability. to write has been (significantly) democratized.
In Recallable Books, Martin recommends the fan fiction website Wattpad; Elizabeth recommends “No Reservations: Narnia,” in which Anthony Bourdain goes through the wardrobe. John feints at recommending Dennis Tenen’s book on the writing within coding before recommending the Brautigan Library.
Come for the discussion of writing, stay for the impressions of Gollum!
Discussed in this episode:
Gilgamesh: A New Rendering in English Verse, David Ferry
“No Reservations: Narnia,” Edonohana
Plain Text: The Poetics of Computation, David Tenen
Listen to the episode here:
Public Books recently ran an article called “Our Drugs, Ourselves” by Susan Zieger, that touches on several of the issues that John, Elizabeth, and Gina discussed in our second episode about addiction. Zieger analyzes “the slimy lie at the bottom of ‘drugs’…the false belief that my natural experience is more authentic and valuable than your artificial one.” Zieger looks at this premise in High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us about Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence by Michael Pollan, and My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh. Zieger argues that community, and the practice of sharing experiences, are what need to undergird the use of drugs in order to prevent them from being demonized or fetishized. While the Pollan’s and Hart’s take up real-world concerns about addiction and experience of the sort that John, Elizabeth and Gina discussed, I am particularly interested in a phenomenon that Zieger traces in Moshfegh’s novel: the use, in recent(ish) fiction, of fictional drug brands alongside real ones.
Jonathan Lethem has written recently in the New York Times a set of fictional drugs used in fiction. Drawing a kind of history of these drugs, from the otherworldly psychedelics of Philip K. Dick and Frank Herbert to Moshfegh’s medicine cabinet, Lethem notes an epochal change: “the current generation of fictional drugs, rather than bubbling up from nature’s underworld, parachute into stories and novels from the corporate-technological top down. The recent nightmare drugs–for they are, exclusively, nightmares–are pharmaceuticals.” Which is to say: they have branded names. More than the variegated but simple names that the natural drugs, even when fictional, had (nicknamey abstractions like “spice”), the branded pharmacopeia promises at some level a narrative: a top-down story, with bits of at least feeling if not sense put together to help the drug tell its story. This is true of drugs here in the real world (OxyContin’s continuous release) and the fictional world (George Saunders’s Verbaluce, which makes you verbose and lucid).
There is a distinction to be drawn between the plausibility of these drug names, and the frequent uncanny attribute of ersatz fictions. I think of the run of titles produced by Nabokov’s Sebastian Knight–The Prismatic Bezel, Success, The Funny Mountain, Albinos in Black, The Back of the Moon, Lost Property, The Doubtful Asphodel–all of which share a an ineffable quality of seeming, to me, to be at most 85% real. (Except Success, which turned out, later, to be a book by Martin Amis). I don’t know what, besides familiarity, makes Look at the Harlequins! and King Queen Knave seem more like objects we could find here on this earth than The Doubtful Asphodel, but it nevertheless seems like a keener family resemblance than the one that separates Klonopin from Don DeLillo’s Dylar.
Like fake books, though, the function of these imaginary brands within narratives can serve to direct our own desire for the story–told by a fake drug or a fake book–to make some sense. Aslan, the drug in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, “optimizes”: it “optimizes in sixteen chemical directions,” says Enid’s doctor; “but guess what. Optimal for a person enjoying a luxury cruise isn’t optimal for a person functioning in the workplace. The chemical differences are pretty subtle, but if you’re capable of fine control, why not offer it? Besides Aslan ‘Basic,’ Farmacopea sells eight custom blends. Aslan ‘Ski,’ Aslan ‘Hacker,’ Aslan ‘Performance Ultra,’ Aslan ‘Teen,’ Aslan ‘Club Med,’ Aslan ‘Golden Years,’ and I’m forgetting what? Aslan ‘California.’ Very popular in Europe.” What this list demonstrates, besides Franzen’s being funnier than his reputation as a dour defender of birds would suggest, is that the drug can be sorted into different narrative contexts, and affect the user accordingly.
But it also has a particular effect on readers of The Corrections–the way that the drug appears in the book seems to unite the novel’s relatively disparate threads in a way that nevertheless does not quite cohere. Aslan shows up in multiple other guises in The Corrections–it is also called Mexican A, when Enid’s son Chip encounters it, and her other son and daughter realize that some of the work their father has done in his work as a chemist might give them access to the profit it generates. The more famous literary Aslan–the Christ-like lion–also shows up, in one of Enid’s grandkid’s favorite book series, The Chronicles of Narnia. This operates similarly to DMZ in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest: the drug occurs seemingly more often than it should, and one hopes that this new, unexplained drug–a brand suggesting the demilitarized zone, a place lacking definition–might have as much eventual power to sort things out as the godlike Aslan in The Corrections. The same too could be said of other fictional drugs that blur out the experience of their users, but whose effects we readers hope to eventually understand and sort out their narratives, such as Deborah Eisenberg’s Vexnix, in “Your Duck is My Duck,” and Moshfegh’s Infermiterol.
Ultimately, these fake brands of drugs–slowly revealing what they can and cannot do, structuring the narratives in which they appear–serve to put together meaning for their stories, just as Zieger describes Pollan attempting to do in How to Change Your Mind. The drugs of fiction seem more aware, though, of the potential for abuse: according to his biographer, Wallace considered not marijuana or pills, but television, to be the “real” addiction that he faced in his life. The way that these fake drugs dole out meaning by slowly revealing their effects, their terms, even holding out in Franzen or Wallace the promise of explaining much more–this itself can generate a compulsive, even an addictive readerly experience. As with their chemical analogues, these narratives can prove sites of either overinvestment or neglect, and are therefore best approached–as Zieger notes of drugs–communally. (Approached as, if one were to use a phrase, public books).