Front Table Newsletter 4/5

April 5th, 2024

On this week's Front Table, explore the lives of uncommonly brave men and women--saints, philosophers, artists--who have used their own wounded or stigmatized bodies to challenge society's mores and entrenched power structures, examine hopeful solutions for just how we can come together in a common purpose for criminal justice and racial justice reform, and explore the magical threads that run through our daily lives. Also, throw yourself into a novel that plumbs mortality and how it changes everything, except possibly love, and dive into the history of one of the most significant films of the twentieth century, sparked by Chicago's Second City. Find these titles and more at 

Bite Your Friends: Stories of the Body Militant
(Europa Editions) 
Fernanda Eberstadt

"I bite my friends to heal them."--Diogenes the Cynic, c. 350 BCE
From a Roman amphitheater where 4th century martyrs are fed to wild beasts to the S&M leather bars of New York in the 1970s, this sinuous and illuminating book by novelist and cultural critic Fernanda Eberstadt explore the lives of uncommonly brave men and women--saints, philosophers, artists--who have used their own wounded or stigmatized bodies to challenge society's mores and entrenched power structures. The Greek Cynic philosopher Diogenes who lived "a dog's life," sleeping, teaching, having sex in the public square; Saints Perpetua and Felicitas, two early Christian martyrs; twentieth-century prophets of bodily freedom like filmmaker-poet Pier Paolo Pasolini and philosopher Michel Foucault; Russian punk feminist group Pussy Riot; the political artist Piotr Pavlensky, who nailed his scrotum to the pavement of Red Square to protest Vladimir Putin's tyranny; these are the outrageous, uncommon, but deeply committed activists featured through original interviews and careful case studies in Eberstadt's immensely readable book, which is part political treatise, part manifesto, part memoir. Running through her narrative of the Body Militant is Eberstadt's own story and the story of her mother, a New York writer and glamor figure of the 1960s, whose illness-scarred body first led Eberstadt to seek connections between beauty, belief, and the truths taught through the body. Eberstadt asks crucial questions for our time: what drives certain individuals to risk pain, disgrace, even death, in the name of freedom? And, what can we learn from their example to become braver ourselves?

Get Off My Neck: Black Lives, White Justice, and a Former Prosecutor's Quest for Reform
(MIT Press) 
Debbie Hines

In Get Off My Neck, Debbie Hines draws on her unique perspective as a trial lawyer, former Baltimore prosecutor, and assistant attorney general for the State of Maryland to argue that US prosecutors, as the most powerful players in the criminal justice system, systematically target and criminalize Black people. Hines describes her disillusionment as a young Black woman who initially entered the profession with the goal of helping victims of crimes, only to discover herself aiding and abetting a system that prizes plea bargaining, speedy conviction, and excessive punishment above all else. In this book, she offers concrete, specific, and hopeful solutions for just how we can come together in a common purpose for criminal justice and racial justice reform. Get Off My Neck explains that the racial inequities in the prosecutorial system are built into our country's DNA. What's more, they are the direct result of a history that has conditioned Americans to perceive the Black body as insignificant at best and dangerous at worst. Unlike other books that discuss the prosecutor's office and change from inside the office, Hines offers a proactive approach to fixing our broken prosecutorial system through a broad-based alliance of reform-minded prosecutors, activists, allies, communities, and racial justice organizations--all working together to end the racist treatment of Black people. Told intimately through personal, family, and client narratives, Get Off My Neck is not only a deeply sobering account of our criminal justice system and its devastating impact on Black children, youth, and adults but also a practical and inspiring roadmap for how we can start doing better right now.

In the Shadow of Diagnosis: Pychiatric Power and Queer Life
(University of Chicago Press)
Regina Kunzel

In the mid-twentieth century, American psychiatrists proclaimed homosexuality a mental disorder, one that was treatable and amenable to cure. Drawing on a collection of previously unexamined case files from St. Elizabeths Hospital, In the Shadow of Diagnosis explores the encounter between psychiatry and queer and gender-variant people in the mid- to late-twentieth-century United States. It examines psychiatrists' investments in understanding homosexuality as a dire psychiatric condition, a judgment that garnered them tremendous power and authority at a time that historians have characterized as psychiatry's "golden age." That stigmatizing diagnosis made a deep and lasting impact, too, on queer people, shaping gay life and politics in indelible ways. In the Shadow of Diagnosis helps us understand the adhesive and ongoing connection between queerness and sickness.

Migration Letters
(Beacon Press)
M. Nzadi Keita

In 55 poems, Migration Letters straddles the personal and public with particular, photorealistic detail to identify what, over time, creating a home creates in ourselves. Drawn from her experiences of being born in Philadelphia into a Black family and a Black culture transported from the American South by the Great Migration, M. Nzadi Keita's poetry sparks a profoundly hybrid gaze of the visual and the sensory. Her lyrical fragments and sustained narrative plunge into the unsung aspects of Black culture and explore how Black Americans journey toward joy. Propelled by the conditions that motivated her family's migration north, the poems pull heavily from Keita's place in her family, communities, and the world at large. They testify to her time and circumstances growing up Black in Philadelphia on the periphery of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. Each poem builds upon an inheritance of voices: a panoramic perspective of an Easter Sunday service in a Black church gives way to an account of psychic violence in a newly integrated school; the collective voices of a beauty salon's patrons fragment into memories of neighborhoods in North Philadelphia that have faded over time. Migration Letters strives to tell a story about Black people that radiates across generations and testifies to a world that, as Lucille Clifton wrote, "has tried to kill [us] and has failed." They interrogate how one's present begins in the past, what we gain from barriers and boundaries, and what notions of progress energize our journey forward. Keita's poems intimately reveal how Black culture can be inherited and built upon complex relationships where love and pain are inextricably linked.

The Magick of Physics: Unocovering the Fantastical Phenomena in Everyday Life
(Simon & Schuster) 
Felix Flicker

An award-winning Oxford physicist draws on classic sci-fi, fantasy fiction, and everyday phenomena to explain and celebrate the magical properties of the world around us.If you were to present the feats of modern science to someone from the past, those feats would surely be considered magic. Theoretical physicist Felix Flicker proves that they are indeed magic--just familiar magic. The name for this magic is "condensed matter physics." Most people haven't heard of the field, yet more than a third of physicists identify as condensed matter researchers, making it the most active area in the subject--with good reason. Condensed matter is the solids, liquids, and gasses that surround us--and the more exotic matters--which dictate every aspect of our present existence and hold the keys to a brighter future, from quantum computing to real-life invisibility cloaks. Flicker teases out the magical threads that run through our daily lives. Condensed matter physics allows you to create anything abiding by the laws of reality--and often, we find that those laws can be bent. Flicker explains how to create new particles that never existed before, how to make crystals shoot out of such intense light they can cut through metal, how to separate the poles of a magnet, and more. The book's endearing conceit is that you are an aspiring wizard whose ability to cast spells (i.e. to do science) is dependent on your grasp of the fundamentals of our universe. This book contains no equations or charts--instead, it's full of owls and mountains and infinite libraries, and staffs and wands, and martial arts and mythical islands ruled by sage knot-makers. Part of the book's magic is that, for all these fanciful trappings, it still feels practical and applicable. The Magick of Physics will open your eyes to magic that surround us everyday.

The Blues Brothers: An Epic Friendship, the Rise of Improv, and the Making of an American Film Classic
(Atlantic Monthly Press) 
Daniel de Visé

"They're not going to catch us," Dan Aykroyd, as Elwood Blues, tells his brother Jake, played by John Belushi. "We're on a mission from God." So opens the musical action comedy The Blues Brothers, which hit theaters on June 20, 1980. Their scripted mission was to save a local Chicago orphanage. But Aykroyd, who conceived and wrote much of the film, had a greater mission: to honor the then-seemingly forgotten tradition of rhythm and blues, some of whose greatest artists--Aretha Franklin, James Brown, John Lee Hooker, Cab Calloway, Ray Charles--made the film as unforgettable as its wild car chases. Much delayed and vastly over budget, beset by mercurial and oft drugged-out stars, The Blues Brothers opened to outraged reviews. However, in the 44 years since, it has been acknowledged a classic: it has been inducted into the National Film Registry for its cultural significance, even declared a "Catholic classic" by the Church itself, and re-aired thousands of times on television to huge worldwide audiences. It is, undeniably, one of the most significant films of the twentieth century.The story behind any classic is rich; the saga behind The Blues Brothers, as Daniel de Visé reveals, is epic, encompassing the colorful childhoods of Belushi and Aykroyd; the comedic revolution sparked by Harvard's Lampoon and Chicago's Second City; the birth and anecdote-rich, drug-filled early years of Saturday Night Live, where the Blues Brothers were born as an act amidst turmoil and rivalry; and, of course, the indelible behind-the-scenes narrative of how the film was made, scene by memorable scene. Based on original research and dozens of interviews probing the memories of principals from director John Landis and producer Bob Weiss to Aykroyd himself, The Blues Brothers illuminates an American masterpiece while vividly portraying the creative geniuses behind modern comedy.

It Lasts Forever and Then It's Over
(New Directions Publishing Corporation)
Anne de Marcken

The heroine of the spare and haunting It Lasts Forever and Then It's Over is voraciously alive in the afterlife. Adrift yet keenly aware, she notes every bizarre detail of her new reality. And even if she has forgotten her name and much of what connects her to her humanity, she remembers with an implacable and nearly unbearable longing the place where she knew herself and was known--where she loved and was loved. Traveling across the landscapes of time and of space, heading always west, and carrying a dead but laconically opinionated crow in her chest, our undead narrator encounters and loses parts of her body and her self in one terrifying, hilarious, and heartbreaking situation after another. A bracing writer of great nerve and verve, Anne de Marcken bends reality (and the reader's mind) with throwaway assurance. It Lasts Forever and Then It's Over plumbs mortality and how it changes everything, except possibly love. Delivering a near-Beckettian whopping to the reader's imagination, this is one of the sharpest and funniest novels of recent years, a tale for our dispossessed times.