Iraj Pezeshkzad‘s My Uncle Napoleon is a slapstick and at times goofy love story, but it is also in the best tradition of sly anti-imperial satire. Scholar Pardis Dabashi came to it late, but she has all the convert’s zeal as she links it to a literary tradition that’s highly theoretical, but also delightfully far-flung. Plus, it makes her parents laugh….
Humanities Podcast Network: Recall this Book is a founding member of a new organization designed to bring together scholars teachers and students who think that the future of the humanities is oral and aural. If you have always dreamed of starting your own podcast, or if you are an educator who has thought about using podcasting in a classroom–either by teaching episodes or by encouraging students to make their own!–please consider attending our inaugural Humanities Podcasting Symposium this October 15-16.
Upcoming episodes: In two weeks, Elizabeth sits down with Brandeis’ own Elizabeth Bradfield and her fellow poet Sean Hill to chew the lyrical fat.
Later in the summer comes a new series, which stems from our conversation with Thomas Piketty about the surprising political weakness of what he calls the “Brahmin Left”: parties that no longer command the allegiance of the working class or underclass, but instead rely on a highly educated base of support. Is this a fatal political error, a new development that holds potential for progressive politics, or something else altogether? We speak with experts on the left/right divide of both American and European politics, among them Matt Karp (This Vast Southern Empire) and Jan-Werner Muller (What is Populism?).
Elizabeth’s B-side was a paean to Elizabeth Bishop’s delightful translation of the Brazilian diary in which “Helena Morley” (a pseudonym for Alice Brant) looks back to her childhood in a dusty provincial mining town. In our RtB conversation, she explains that part of the joy in rediscovering the book came from feeling that she, like Bishop herself, was looking back at forgotten childhoods. And yet, her first encounter with the book came during her time in present-day mining towns, where she felt surrounded by potential future Helenas, thinking their thoughts and living their lives.
Caleb Crain, celebrated novelist, waxes eloquent about a complete comic novel written by Daisy Ashford, age 9. Truly, 9. And for our final Recall This B-Side, Pardis Dabashi on a quirky Iranian extravagance that my remind you of Tristram Shandy.
RtB loves the present-day shadows cast by neglected books, which can suddenly loom up out of the backlit past. So, you won’t be shocked to know that John has also been editing a Public Books column called B-Side Books. In it, around 50 writers (Ursula Le Guin was one) have made the case for un-forgetting a beloved book. Now, there is a book that collects 40 of these columns. Find it as your local bookstore, or Columbia University Press, or Bookshop, (or even Amazon).
Like our podcast, B-Side Books focuses on those moments when books topple off their shelves, open up, and start bellowing at you. The one that buttonholed Merve Emre (Oxford literature professor and author most recently of The Personality Brokers) was a novella by the luminous midcentury Italian pessimist, Natalia Ginzburg. And if you think you know precisely why a mid-century Italian writer would have a dark and bitter view of the world (already thinking of the Nazi shadows in work by Italo Calvino, Primo Levi and Giorgio Bassani) Ginzburg’s The Dry Heart will have you thinking again.
Merve started her piece by asking that age-old question: “When should a woman kill her husband?”
So, you won’t be shocked to know that we actively seek out other ways to amplify those whispers from the stacks. For about four years now, John has been editing a column called B-Side Books at the journal Public Books. If you’re old enough to recall buying those little 45 rpm records (say, “Salad Days” by Minor Threat, in memory yet green) then you know the column is named after the obscure “flip side” that accompanies the song marketed to be a hit.
Over the years, around 50 writers took up the challenge, naming a forgotten book and making the case for, well un-forgetting: Ursula Le Guin was one and you will never guess what Scottish writer she plugged….. Thjis month sees teh publication of an elephant-covered book that collects 40 of these columns. We hope you will consider buying it for yourself or a fanatically book-loving friend–the person who only thinks they’ve read everything…
The podcast has accordingly devoted June to a series on 4 conversations with authors of those pithy and profound articles on lost great books .Recall This B-Side starts June 3 with Merve Emre (author of that great recent book about the Myers-Brigg test, now an HBO movie) praising an Italian novel about the joy, and the occasional necessity, of shooting your husband.
Later June weeks include conversations with RtB’s own Elizabeth Ferry, and the brilliant American novelist Caleb Crain. Tune in, won’t you?
Crossover Month continues with a scintillating Australian fiction episode from Novel Dialogue, a new podcast hosted by the awesome Aarthi Vadde of Duke, and RTB’s own JP. If you like what you hear, please share the love by recommending it to friends, tagging @noveldialogue in your tweets, and subscribing to it via Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Stitcher.
Helen Garner sits down with John and Elizabeth McMahon, a distinguished scholar of Australian literature. Helen’s novels range from the anti-patriarchy exuberance of Monkey Grip(1977) to the heartbreaking mortality at the heart of The Spare Room (2008). She has also authored a slew of nonfiction, plus screenplays for Jane Campion’s Two Friendsand Gillian Armstrong’s wonderfully Garneresque The Last Days of Chez Nous. After a reading from John’s favorite, The Children’s Bach, the trio discusses Garner’s capacity for cutting and cutting, creating resonant, thought-inducing gaps. Garner connects that taste for excision, perhaps paradoxically, to her tendency to accumulate scraps, bits and pieces of life. She relates her father’s restlessness to her own life-total of houses inhabited (27). “Why wouldn’t I write about households?” asks Helen, “They’re just so endlessly interesting.”
Who shaped her writing? Raymond Carver: packed with power, but the pages white with omissions and excisions. Helen offers an anecdote about her own pruning that ends with her “ankle-deep in adverbs.” That’s how to escape the “fat writing” that stems for distrust of the reader. She thoughtfully compares the practical virtues of keeping notebooks for the “music” of everyday life to the nightly process of diary-writing (more analytical). John raises the question of pervasive musical metaphors in Helen’s writing, and she reports her passion for “boring pieces” and the “formal” side of Bach, which makes a listener feel that there is such a thing as meaning. “There’s something about shaping a sentence, too, which can be musical.”
Crossover Month continues with something completely different, and only a little bit incestuous. Novel Dialogue is a new podcast hosted by the awesome Aarthi Vadde of Duke, and RTB’s own JP. John and Aarthi serve as the third wheel (or if you prefer the social lubricant) for a scholar and a novelist who sit down each week to explore the making of novels, and what to make of them. If you like what you hear, please share the love by recommending it to friends, tagging @noveldialogue in your tweets, and subscribing to it via Apple Podcasts Spotify or Stitcher
In Novel Dialogue’s second episode, critic and scholar Bruce Robbins sits down with Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk. They have taught classes on the political novel together at Columbia for years, and it shows. They ask how the novel can ever escape its roots in middle-class sensibility and perspective: Joseph Conrad comes up, and so does modern Brazilian film. Then they discuss the demonic appeal of Russian novels—and why retired military officers produced so many great Turkish translations of Russian novels.
We hear tantalizing details about Pamuk’s forthcoming pandemic novel, Nights of Plague. He discusses his move away from “highbrow ironical postmodernist” fiction and reveals his affection for talking about politics–along with his distaste for what the consequences of speaking out may be. “I am not shy about talking…but there are consequences!”
Kim Adams and Saronik Bosu share an office at the English department of NYU–and now they also share High Theory a podcast where you can “get high on the substance of theory.” Their lovable podcast always identifies a single manageable topic and asks three magic questions (what is your quest? is not one of them). Today that topic is “the pastoral”; in a role reversal, John asks the three questions of Saronik and Kim.
Topics covered include the joys of sharing an office, and the irony that podcasts mimic the very social face-to-face intimacy that they actually displace. John admits RtB’s informal motto, “After the conference, the bar” is blatantly cribbed from the cry of the Paris ’68ers: sous les pave, la plage (under the pavement, the beach).
Why did we invite him? John thinks nobody is better than Piketty at mapping and explaining the nature and origin of the glaring and growing inequality that everywhere defines wealth distribution in the 21st century—both between societies and within them. His recent magnum opus, Capital and Ideology. ask what sorts of stories societies (and individuals within those societies) tell themselves so as to tolerate such inequality—and the poverty and misery it produces. Or even to see that inequality as part of the natural order of things.
We first heard from the sociologist of American racism David Cunningham in Episode 36 Policing and White Power. Less than a week after the horrors of January 6th, he came back for an extended conversation about “asymmetrical policing” of the political right and left–and of White and Black Americans. His very first book (There’s Something Happening Here, 2004) studied the contrast between the FBI’s work in the 1960’s to wipe out left-wing and Black protests and its efforts to control and tame right-wing and white supremacist movements. That gives him a valuable perspective on the run-up to January 6th–and what may happen next.
What’s a picture worth? How about the picture that allows scientists to grasp what’s actually going on in a cell–or on the spiky outside of an invading virus? Gael McGill, Director of Molecular Visualization at the Center for Molecular and Cellular Dynamics at Harvard Medical School is founder and CEO of Digizyme and has spent his career exploring and developing different modes for visualizing evidence.
For this scientific conversation, John is joined once again by Brandeis neuroscientist Gina Turrigiano (think ep 4 Madeline Miller; think ep 2 Addiction!). And because Gael’s work proves that a picture can be worth far more than a thousand words, our RTB post is more picturesque than usual. Start by checking out Digizyme‘s image of the spike protein attaching the SARS-CoV2 virus to a hapless cell and fusing their membranes:
Or maybe you’d rather click through to watch a gorgeous video Gael and his team have created?
What do children love most about books? Leaving their mark on inviting white spaces? Or that enchanting feeling when a book marks them as its own, taking them off to where the wild things are? To understand childhood reading past and present, Elizabeth and John talk with the illustrious and illuminating book historian Leah Price. They explore the tactile and textual properties of great children’s books and debate adult fondness for juvenile literature. Leah asks if identifying with a literary character is a sign of virtuous imagination, or of craziness and laziness. She also schools John on what makes a good association copy, and reveals her son’s magic words when he wants her to tell a story: Read it!
Sometime around the turn of the millennium, the concern about distinguishing between juvenile and adult books seemed to shift from moral panic about speeding up sexual maturity to worry about turning back the clock on what we now call adulting through the mainstreaming of young adult literature.
racism, mass incarceration, Southern plantation economy,
and W.E.B. Du Bois
Do we understand racism as the primary driving engine of American inequality? Or do we focus instead on the indirect ways that frequently hard-to-discern class inequality and inegalitarian power relations can produce racially differentiated outcomes? Adaner Usmani, Assistant Professor of Sociology and Social Studies at Harvard and on the editorial board at Catalyst joins Elizabeth and John to wrestle with the subtle and complex genealogy of Southern plantation economy and its racist legacy.
“My subject was not my inward self, but…the worlds within me.”
Sanjay Krishnan, Boston University English professor and Conrad scholar, has written a marvelous new book about that grumpiest of Nobel laureates, V. S Naipaul’s Journeys. Krishnan sees the “Contrarian and unsentimental” Trinidad-born but globe-trotting novelist and essayist as early and brilliant at noticing the unevenness with which the blessings and curses of modernity were distributed in the era of decolonization. Centrally, Naipaul realized and reckoned with the always complex and messy question of the minority within postcolonial societies.
He talks with John about Naipaul’s early focus on postcolonial governments, and how unusual it was in the late 1950’s for colonial intellectuals to focus on “the discomfiting aspects of postcolonial life….and uneven consequences of the global transition into modernity.” Most generatively of all, Sanjay insists that the “troublesome aspect is what gives rise to what’s most positive in Naipaul.”
Our Recall This Buck series began by speaking with Christine Desan of Harvard Law School about how key ideas—and the actual currency, physical coins and bills— underlying the modern monetary system get “invisibilized” with that system’s success, so that seeing money clearly is both harder and more vital. Today, illustrious Princeton historian Peter Brown narrates the emergence, in the 3rd and 4th century AD, of striking new ideas about charity and how to include the poor inside a religious community.
Although she “came of age in an era of extreme contextualism” Daston is anything but time-bound. She starts things off in John’s wheelhouse with Henry James, before moving on to Pliny the Younger–no, not the scientist, the administrator! Then she makes a startling flanking maneuver to finish with contemporary Polish poetry. John puffs to keep up…
Beth Blum, Assistant Professor of English at Harvard, is the author of The Self-Help Compulsion (Columbia University Press 2019). Learn how self-help went from its Victorian roots (worship greatness!) to the ingratiating unctuous style prescribed by the other-directed Dale Carnegie (everyone loves the sound of their own name) before arriving at the “neo-stoical” self-help gurus of today, who preach male and female versions of “stop apologizing!” You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll either help yourself or learn how to stop caring.