Front Table - 9/17/2020

September 17th, 2020

On our Front Table this week, explore the relation of lives and letters with a history of the Chicago school of sociology, a memoir of a writer's childhood in East Berlin, an account of a philosopher's engagement with literature, and a new biography of a long-overlooked Russian master. Browse anytime at

Addis Ababa Noir (Akashic Books)
Maaza Mengiste

Akashic Books continues its award-winning series of original noir anthologies, launched in 2004 with Brooklyn Noir. Each book comprises all new stories, each one set in a distinct neighborhood or location within the respective city. Addis Ababa is a sprawling melting pot of cultures where rich and poor live side by side in relative harmony—until they don’t. This collection includes brand-new stories by Maaza Mengiste, Adam Reta, Mahtem Shiferraw, Linda Yohannes, Sulaiman Addonia, Meron Hadero, Mikael Awake, Lelissa Girma, Rebecca Fisseha, Solomon Hailemariam, Girma T. Fantaye, Teferi Nigussie Tafa, Hannah Giorgis, and Bewketu Seyoum.

Angels and Saints (New Directions Publishing Corporation)
Eliot Weinberger

The celebrated essayist Eliot Weinberger has mined and deconstructed, resurrected and distilled centuries of theology into an awe-inspiring exploration of the heavenly host. From a litany of angelic voices, Weinberger’s lyrical meditation then turns to the earthly counterparts, the saints, their lives retold in a series of vibrant and playful capsule biographies, followed by a glimpse of the afterlife. Threaded throughout Angels & Saints are the glorious illuminated grid poems by the eighteenth-century Benedictine monk Hrabanus Maurus. These astonishingly complex, proto-“concrete” poems are untangled in a lucid afterword by the medieval scholar and historian Mary Wellesley.

Chicago Sociology (Columbia University Press)
Jean-Michel Chapoulie, translated by Caroline Wazer

Known for its pioneering studies of urban life, immigration, and criminality using the “city as laboratory,” the so-called Chicago school of sociology has been a dominant presence in American social science since it emerged around the University of Chicago in the early decades of the twentieth century. This book on the development and influence of the Chicago tradition, first published in 2001, became an immediate classic in France. Drawing on archival research and interviews with members of the tradition, Jean-Michel Chapoulie interrogates evidence with a historian’s eye. His study is a fine-grained and panoramic portrait of the complex and interlocking factors that gave rise to the research interests and methodologies that characterized the Chicago tradition in the 1920s and that contributed to rises and falls in its predominance in American sociology over the following decades. Now revised and available for the first time in English, Chicago Sociology provides a unique perspective on the history of social science in the twentieth century.

Duchamp Is My Lawyer: The Polemics, Pragmatics, and Poetics of UbuWeb
(Columbia University Press)
Kenneth Goldsmith

In 1996, Kenneth Goldsmith created UbuWeb to post hard-to-find works of concrete poetry. What started out as a site to share works from a relatively obscure literary movement grew into an essential archive of twentieth- and twenty-first-century avant-garde and experimental literature, film, and music. In Duchamp Is My Lawyer, Goldsmith tells the history of UbuWeb, explaining the motivations behind its creation and how artistic works are archived, consumed, and distributed online. Goldsmith describes how the site navigates copyright issues and the ways that UbuWeb challenges familiar configurations and histories of the avant-garde. The book also portrays the growth of other “shadow libraries." Goldsmith concludes by contrasting UbuWeb’s commitment to the free-culture movement with today’s gatekeepers of algorithmic culture, such as Netflix, Amazon, and Spotify.

Great Adaptations: Star-Nosed Moles, Electric Eels and Other Tales of Evolution's Mysteries Solved (Princeton University Press)
Kenneth Catania

In Great Adaptations, Kenneth Catania presents an entertaining and engaging look at some of nature’s most remarkable creatures. Catania sheds light on the mysteries behind the behaviors of tentacled snakes, tiny shrews, zombie-making wasps, and more. He shows not only how studying these animals can provide deep insights into how life evolved, but also how scientific discovery can be filled with adventure and fun. Catania demonstrates the merits of approaching science with an open mind, considers the role played by citizen scientists, and illustrates that most animals have incredible, hidden abilities that defy our imagination. Examining some strange and spectacular creatures, Great Adaptations offers a wondrous journey into nature’s grand designs.

Hitler's Northern Utopia: Building the New Order in Occupied Norway
(Princeton University Press)
Despina Stratigakos

Between 1940 and 1945, German occupiers transformed Norway into a vast construction zone. This building campaign, largely unknown today, was designed to extend the Greater German Reich beyond the Arctic Circle and turn the Scandinavian country into a racial utopia. Plans to remake the country into a model “Aryan” society fired the imaginations of Hitler, his architect Albert Speer, and other Nazi leaders. In Hitler’s Northern Utopia, Despina Stratigakos provides the first major history of Nazi efforts to build a Nordic empire—one that they believed would improve their genetic stock and confirm their destiny as a new order of Vikings. A gripping account of the rise of a Nazi landscape in occupied Norway, Hitler’s Northern Utopia reveals a haunting vision of what might have been—a world colonized under the swastika.

The Human Cosmos: Civilization and the Stars (Dutton Books)
Jo Marchant

For at least 20,000 years, we have led not just an earthly existence but a cosmic one. Our innate relationship with the stars shaped who we are–our art, religious beliefs, social status, scientific advances, and even our biology. But over the last few centuries, according to Jo Marchant, we have separated ourselves from the universe that surrounds us. Marchant’s spellbinding parade of the ways different cultures celebrated the majesty and mysteries of the night sky is a journey to the most awe inspiring view you can ever see–looking up on a clear dark night. That experience and the thoughts it has engendered have radically shaped human civilization across millennia. To show us how, Jo Marchant takes us to the Hall of the Bulls in the caves at Lascaux in France, the summer solstice at a 5,000-year-old tomb at New Grange in Ireland, and more. The cosmically liberating, summary revelation is that star-gazing made us human.

Merleau-Ponty's Poetic of the World: Philosophy and Literature
(Fordham University Press)
Galen A. Johnson, Mauro Carbone, Emmanuel de Saint Aubert

Merleau-Ponty has long been known as one of the most important philosophers of aesthetics, yet most discussions of his aesthetics focus on visual art. This book corrects that balance by turning to Merleau-Ponty's extensive engagement with literature. From Proust, Merleau-Ponty developed his conception of “sensible ideas,” from Claudel, his conjoining of birth and knowledge as “co-naissance,” from Valéry came “implex” or the “animal of words” and the “chiasma of two destinies.” Literature also provokes the questions of expression, metaphor, and truth and the meaning of a Merleau-Pontian poetics. The poetic of Merleau-Ponty is, the book argues, a poetic of the flesh, a poetic of mystery, and a poetic of the visible in its relation to the invisible. Ultimately, theoretical figures or “figuratives” that appear at the threshold between philosophy and literature enable the possibility of a new ontology. What is at stake is the very meaning of philosophy itself and its mode of expression.

Not a Novel: A Memoir in Pieces (New Directions Publishing Corporation)
Jenny Erpenbeck, translated by Kurt Beals

Jenny Erpenbeck’s highly acclaimed novel
Go, Went, Gone was a New York Times notable book and launched one of Germany’s most admired writers into the American spotlight. On the heels of this literary breakthrough comes Not a Novel, a book of personal, profound, often humorous meditations and reflections. Not a Novel provides a glimpse of growing up in the GDR and of what it was like to be twenty-two when the wall collapsed; it takes us through Erpenbeck’s early adult years, working in a bakery after immersing herself in the worlds of music, theater, and opera, and ultimately discovering her path as a writer. There are essays about her literary influences, reflections on the forces at work in her novels, and scathing commentaries on the dire situation of America and Europe today. With deep insight and warm intelligence, Jenny Erpenbeck provides us with a collection of essays that take us into the heart and mind of “one of the finest and most exciting writers alive” (Michel Faber).

Our Malady: Lessons in Liberty from a Hospital Diary
(Crown Publishing Group)
Timothy Snyder

On December 29, 2019, historian Timothy Snyder fell gravely ill. As he clung to life, he found himself reflecting on the fragility of health, not recognized in America as a human right but without which all rights and freedoms have no meaning. And that was before the pandemic. We have since watched American hospitals buckling under waves of coronavirus patients. Our system of commercial medicine failed the ultimate test, and thousands of Americans died. In this book, Snyder traces the societal forces that led us here and outlines the lessons we must learn to survive. In his investigations, Snyder finds glimmers of hope and principles that could lead us out of our current malaise. Only by enshrining healthcare as a human right, elevating the authority of doctors and medical knowledge, and planning for our children’s future can we create an America where everyone is truly free.

Philosophy Smackdown (Polity Press)
Douglas Edwards

Pro wrestling has a unique place in popular culture. Part sport and part theater, the impressive antics of its larger-than-life characters have captured the imaginations of generations of fans, and prompted endless speculation about behind-the-scenes machinations. With humor and insight, philosopher and wrestling fan Douglas Edwards shows that pro wrestling is fertile ground for reflection on fundamental human issues, such as reality, freedom, identity, morality, justice, and meaning. He explores these through pivotal events in pro wrestling, from the eighties’ heyday of Hulkamania to the recent emergence of AEW. This book will delight fans of philosophy and pro wrestling alike.

Vasily Grossman and the Soviet Century (Yale University Press)
Alexandra Popoff

If Vasily Grossman’s 1961 masterpiece, Life and Fate, had been published during his lifetime, it would have reached the world together with Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago and before Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag. But Life and Fate was seized by the KGB. When it emerged posthumously, decades later, it was recognized as the War and Peace of the twentieth century. Grossman (1905–1964) was among the first to describe the Holocaust and the Ukrainian famine. His 1944 article “The Hell of Treblinka” became evidence at Nuremberg. Grossman’s powerful anti-totalitarian works liken the Nazis’ crimes against humanity with those of Stalin. Because Grossman’s major works appeared after much delay, we are only now able to examine them properly. Alexandra Popoff’s authoritative biography illuminates Grossman’s life and legacy.

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