Miscellaneous

Classics Club Spin #24

Yay for another Classics Club Spin!! So I’ve noticed that most clubbers double up on numbers to increase their odds of having a certain book picked. So this time, I will only have 10 different books on my list, rather than 20. These are all chunksters because I want to get them off my TBR. They take up much room in my apartment.

1-2 The Aeneid by Virgil (trans. Allen Mandelbaum)

The Aeneid of Virgil, 35th Anniversary Edition by Virgil ...

3-4 East of Eden John Steinbeck

10 Books to Read: "East of Eden" — DIG MAG

5-6 Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens

Barnaby Rudge

7-8 The Odyssey by Homer (trans. Emily Wilson)

Amazon.com: The Odyssey (9780393089059): Homer, Wilson, Emily: Books

9-10 A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman

Amazon.com: A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century eBook ...

11-12 La Chartreuse de Parme by Stendhal

La Chartreuse de Parme (French Edition) - Kindle edition by ...

13-14 Ecclesiastical History of the English People by Bede (trans. Leo Sherley-Price)

Ecclesiastical History of the English People (Penguin Classics ...

15-16 Jehan de Saintré by Antoine de la Sale (trans. Michel Quereuil)

Jehan de Saintre (Ldp Let.Gothiq.) (French Edition): De La Sale, A ...

17-18 None Died in Vain: The Saga of the American Civil War by Robert Leckie

None Died in Vain: The Saga of the American Civil War: Leckie ...

19-20 Angel in the Whirlwind by Benson Bobrick

Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution by ...

These American histories are old enough that I will count them as classics in the history genre. I might be stretching the rules a bit…

Have you read any of these?

Miscellaneous

My All-Time Favorite French & Francophone Books

I realize that I have never posted a list of my all-time favorite French and Francophone works. As a PhD student in French literature, this is a huge oversight. These books are in loose, chronological order (by century). My favorite book, though, will always be Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. I made videos for The Knight of the Cart, The Regrets, Montaillou, and The Red and the Black. The other links are to written reviews on this blog.

1. Aucassin et Nicolette (Aucassin and Nicolette) by Anonymous [12th/13th c.]
2. Yvain, ou le chevalier au lion (Yvain, or the Knight of the Lion) by Chrétien de Troyes [12th c.]
3. Le Chevalier de la charrette (The Knight of the Cart) by Chrétien de Troyes
4. Abraham sacrifiant (The Tragedy of Abraham’s Sacrifice) by Théodore de Bèze [16th c.]
5. Les Regrets (The Regrets) by Joachim du Bellay [16th c.]
6. Le Cid (The Cid) by Pierre Corneille [17th c.]
7. Dom Juan, ou le festin de pierre (Don Juan) by Molière [17th c.]
8. Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (The Bourgeois Gentleman) by Molière
9. Phèdre (Phedrus) by Racine [17th c.]
10. Le jeu de l’amour et du hasard (A Game of Love and Chance) by Marivaux [18th c.]
11. Lettres persanes (Persian Letters) by Montesquieu [18th c.]
12. Père Goriot (Father Goriot) by Honoré de Balzac [19th c.]
13. Le Colonel Chabert (Colonel Chabert) by Honoré de Balzac
14. Le Rouge et le noir (The Red and the Black) by Stendhal [19th c.]
15. Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand [19th c.]
16. Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry [20th c.]
17. Terre des hommes (Wind, Sand and Stars) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
18. Journal d’un curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest) by Georges Bernanos [20th c.]
19. Le Grand Meaulnes (The Lost Estate) by Alain-Fournier [20th c.]
20. L’Amour, la fantasia (Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade) by Assia Djebar [20th c.]
21. Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to the Native Land) by Aimé Césaire [20th c.]
22. La Place (The Place) by Annie Ernaux [20th c.]
23. La Symphonie pastorale (The Pastoral Symphony) by André Gide [20th c.]
24. Montaillou by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie (history) [20th c.]
25. Réparer les vivants (Repair the Living / The Heart) by Maylis de Kerangal [21st c.]

Poems

Analysis of Mallarmé’s 1885 sonnet “Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui”

1885 Sonnet

Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd’hui
Va-t-il nous déchirer avec un coup d’aile ivre
Ce lac dur oublié que hante sous le givre
Le transparent glacier des vols qui n’ont pas fui !

Un cygne d’autrefois se souvient que c’est lui
Magnifique mais qui sans espoir se délivre
Pour n’avoir pas chanté la région où vivre
Quand du stérile hiver a resplendi l’ennui.

Tout son col secouera cette blanche agonie
Par l’espace infligée à l’oiseau qui le nie,
Mais non l’horreur du sol où le plumage est pris.

Fantôme qu’à ce lieu son pur éclat assigne,
Il s’immobilise au songe froid du mépris
Que vêt parmi l’exil inutile le Cygne.

My favorite English translation is Elizabeth Cook’s: https://litallover.com/2016/09/28/le-bel-aujourdhui-a-translation-walkthrough-of-mallarmes-le-cygne/ However, my commentary will be based on the original French.

Introduction
As with all of Mallarmé’s poems, his 1885 sonnet resists a straightforward reading. The rules and expectations of classical poetry are put aside. Words and images rarely conform to reader expectation. Reversals and contradictions abound. Therefore, I will not attempt a clear, unequivocal reading of this poem. My reading is one of many possible readings. The sonnet’s words guide and circumscribe my commentary.

In his 1897 prose poem “Crise de vers”, Mallarmé writes,

L’œuvre pure implique la disparition élocutoire du poète, qui cède l’initiative aux mots, par le heurt de leur inégalité mobilisés ; ils s’allument de reflets réciproques comme une virtuelle traînée de feux sur des pierreries, remplaçant la respiration perceptible en l’ancien souffle lyrique ou la direction personnelle enthousiaste de la phrase.
[The pure work implies the disappearance of the poet speaking, who yields the initiative to words, through the clash of their ordered inequalities; they light each other up through reciprocal reflections like a virtual swooping of fire across precious stones, replacing the primacy of the perceptible rhythm of respiration or the classic lyric breath, or the personal feeling driving the sentences] (trans. Barbara Johnson, in Divagations, p.208).

Mallarmé announces the death of the poet – prefiguring Roland Barthe’s death of the author. The reader of Mallarmé’s poems is invited to privilege words over everything else, to notice the patterns and ruptures produced by the poem’s very words. According to Mallarmé, poetic language should distinguish itself from the language of journalism. He believed that words had been cheapened by the rise of mass media. The creation of poetry was therefore an act of resistance. The reader of Mallarmé’s poetry cannot be a consumer. A multiplicity of readings emerges from our sonnet’s ambiguity of meaning and syntax, but only if the reader allows the words to speak for themselves.

Analysis
The overall structure of the poem is a sonnet (2 quatrains and 2 tercets). It has an enclosed rhyme scheme (ABBA for the quatrains and ABA for the tercets).

In the first stanza, a wing breaks through the icy surface of a hard lake. There is a tense shift between lines 2 and 4 (“va-t-il nous déchirer”/ le transparent glacier des vols qui n’ont pas fui”. The grammatical tense of “va-t-il nous déchirer” is the near future (futur proche). It suggests a finality. The subject (“le vierge, le vivace et le bel”) is going to tear us apart. Here, the three elements are represented by the third person singular pronoun “il”.

The first word of the second stanza (“cygne”) recalls the wing and flights of the first stanza. The only other time that a swan is mentioned by name is in the final tercet (“l’exile inutile le Cygne”), yet, bird imagery is the most prominent imagery in the sonnet (“pour n’avoir pas chanté”, “à l’oiseau qui le nie”, “où le plumage est pris”). It’s perhaps noteworthy that the swan is only mentioned by name in the second quatrain and the second tercet.

Along with being a symbol of the poet in classical poetry, “cygne” (swan) is also a homophone of “signe” (sign). The sterility and agony of ice and winter also evoke the blank page. “Le plumage”, a pen.

But let’s return to the dynamics of the poem. The first stanza shifts between future and past, hope and disappointment. A wing will break through the frozen lake, yet in the last line we discover that some flights didn’t escape from beneath the transparent ice (“le transparent glacier des vols qui n’ont pas fui”).

There is also a mix of tenses in the second quatrain: past and present. The swan of another era (“d’autrefois”) remembers (“se souvient”) and delivers itself (“se déliver”), yet notice that “vivre” is not conjugated. It is a pure action. The final line of the second quatrain can be read in two different ways (in my mind): “Quand du stérile | hiver a resplendi l’ennui” or “Quand du sterile hiver | a resplendi l’ennui”. In the first, winter sparkled boredom (Baudelaire’s Spleen) out of sterility (“du stérile). In the second, boredom sparkled from a sterile winter. In either case, there is a contradiction in connotation between the verb resplendir and the words “stérile” and “l’ennui”. “Resplendi” is an explosion / a rupture, not unlike the presence of an infinitive in a stanza of conjugated verbs. Therefore, despite the swan’s apparent regret for not having sung about his region, the second quatrain is not without hope.

The two tercets are entirely in the present or future tenses. There is no past tense anywhere.

In the first line of the first tercet, the swan’s collar will shake off this white agony. The futur “secouera” evokes hope. But there is something that he will not be able to shake off: “mais non l’horreur du sol où le plumage est pris”. The final line of this stanza evokes the imagery in the final line of the first stanza (“des vols qui n’ont pas fui”). The feathers caught in transparent ice will continue to haunt our swan.

Horror returns in “Fantôme”, the first word of the final stanza. Its presence is also an explosion. It’s a pure burst of energy. If “cygne” sounds like “signe”, “assigne” in line one of the final tercet sounds like “à signe”. What is this phantom that disrupts sign/language? It remains frozen before the “songe froid du mépris” that the swan wears. “Vêt” (wears) goes along with “col” (collar). The swan will shake off the white agony (perhaps snow) that weighs it down but it will always be haunted by the past. Between sign, swan, and poet, “le Cygne” is a liminal image. It represents the tension between poetic freedom and the conventions of classical poetry.

The swan must take up the pen. His exile is useless. Yet he will always be haunted by the failures of past poets as well as of his own. He will always be haunted by the transparent ice “où le plumage est pris”.

The swan acts and is acted upon. The mixture of pessimism and optimism suggests to me that the swan’s regrets are productive. His regret, disgust, and boredom will contribute to his future. A ghost represents the past (the spirit of the dead) but it appears among the living so as to influence future behavior.

My conclusion
Mallarmé’s 1885 sonnet describes the conflicting feelings of a poet caught between a desire to liberate poetry from classical conventions and sterility and a feeling of powerlessness in face of his own fragility and the failures of past poets/poems.

Djebar, Assia, Literary Fiction

Review of L’Amour, la fantasia by Assia Djebar

Amazon.com: L'amour, La Fantasia (Le Livre De Poche) (French ...L’Amour, la fantasia [Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade] by Assia Djebar is a book about the female Algerian experience. It is just as much about colonialism as it is about patriarchy. The book is divided into movements, like a musical fantasia. The sections alternate between an account of the 1840s colonization of Algeria by the French, the involvement of women in the Algerian Revolution of the 1950s (which ended in 1962), and the author’s own childhood during the Revolution. Djebar’s prose style is also varied. Some parts are in prose poetry while others are in more traditional prose.

Assia Djebar is considered the greatest female Algerian writer of the 20th-century, and for good reason. L’Amour, la fantasia is a powerful exploration of a female Algerian identity shaped by cultures, languages, and religions. Although Djebar writes in the language of the oppressor, she interrogates the accounts left by the French conquerors of Algeria. The French language is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because it provided the author with educational opportunities; Djebar was the first Muslim woman to graduate from an école normale supérieure (essentially the French “Ivy League”) in France. A curse, because the effects of colonialism continue to be felt both in Algeria and in France.

This book is challenging in both its form and its content. The novel assumes a knowledge of people and places that the Western reader probably does not have. I believe that this is a deliberate strategy to de-center the European gaze. Postcolonial fiction, such as L’Amour, la fantasia, is always challenging for those of us who are unfamiliar with its history. Since reading this book, I have been inspired to learn more about both the conquest of Algeria and in the Revolution. I also hope to read more from Djebar in the coming months.

L’Amour, la fantasia is one of my 20 Books of Summer for 2020.

Miscellaneous

20 Books of Summer

20 Books of Summer is hosted by Cathy @746 books. All of the French-language books on this list are on my PhD exam, which I will be taking at the end of August. You will also notice that there are two major themes in this list: the history of the Reformation and racial justice. My research is on accounts of heresy trials and massacres in 16th-century France and Geneva (pleasant, I know). The books on racial justice will help me understand the current moment. Since reading The New Jim CrowI’ve been very interested in learning more about racism in the US justice system. As you can tell, I have a broad interest in justice systems, whether in 16th-century Europe or in 21st-century America.

1. Les Tragiques by Agippa d’Aubigné

Les Tragiques by Théodore-Agrippa d'Aubigné

An epic of the Wars of Religion, written by a Calvinist soldier.

2. Notre-Dame de Paris by Victor Hugo (currently reading on by Booktube channel)

Notre-Dame de Paris - Victor Hugo - Payot

I need to know how this story differs from the Disney version. I expect a radically different plot.

3. The Architect’s Apprentice by Elif Shafak

The Architect's Apprentice: Amazon.co.uk: Shafak, Elif ...

Historical fiction set in 16th-century Istanbul. I have never read a story that takes place during the Ottoman Empire. Indeed, I don’t know very much about the Ottomans.

4. W ou le souvenir d’enfance by Georges Perec

W ou le souvenir d'enfance | Fahrenheit 451

An imaginative autobiography of Georges Perec. It’s an experimental work.

5. L’Amant by Marguerite Duras

L'AMANT de MARGUERITE DURAS – DOIT-ON DECLARER SON BAGAGE CULTUREL?

I’m not usually into love stories, but The Lover is super famous, and it’s on my exam list.

6. Le Bleu du ciel by Georges Bataille

Le Bleu du Ciel | Lisez!

I don’t really look forward to this one since there are evidently some unpleasant sex scenes, but it’s on my list.

7. L’amour la fantasia by Assia Djebar

L'Amour, la fantasia (Le Livre De Poche): Amazon.de: Djebar, Assia ...

Djebar was an Algerian writer whose novels explored the female Muslim experience in Algeria.

8. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: Adams, Douglas ...

This will be a fun, escapist read. I really look forward to this.

9. Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Just Mercy: a story of justice and redemption (English Edition ...

Bryan Stevenson was the defense attorney for an innocent Black man on death row.

10. Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools by Monique W. Morris

Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools: Amazon.co ...

1/3 of all girls arrested at school are Black. This book explores this phenomenon.

11. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – ESCA CancerSupport

Cell research has saved lives, but science can be racist. Henrietta Lacks was a poor Black woman, whose cells were taken without her permission and used to generate the first human cell cultures. Her cells have transformed genetics, but they were acquired without her consent.

12. The Armenian Book of Prayer (a.k.a. The Book of Lamentations) by Gregory of Narek (trans. Thomas J. Samuelian)

The Armenian Prayer Book of St. Gregory of Narek: Narekatsi, St ...

Gregory of Nark was an 11th-century Armenian Christian. His Book of Lamentations is a spiritual bestseller among Armenian Christians. I first heard about him when he was canonized by Pope Francis in 2015. Evidently, his poems speak a lot about suffering. Sounds appropriate.

13. Racial Justice and the Catholic Church by Bryan N. Massingale

Racial Justice and the Catholic Church: Massingale, Bryan N ...

I want to read Fr. Massingale’s book on racial justice in the Catholic Church before watching his interview with America magazine.

14. Fugitive Saints: Catholicism and the Politics of Slavery by Katie Walker Grimes

Fugitive Saints: Catholicism and the Politics of Slavery ...

Canonization is political. It’s not just a statement about a person’s sanctity but a call to imitation. Official Saints are canonized because they embody certain Catholic values. However, Grimes insists that some of these saints promote a White savior narrative at best and perpetuate racial injustice at worst.

15. Toussaint Louverture: A Revolutionary Life by Philippe Girard (reading in June)

Amazon.com: Toussaint Louverture: A Revolutionary Life ...

In 1791, Toussaint Louverture led the only successful slave rebellion in history. Thanks to his leadership and the courage of his fellow slaves, Haiti gained its independence from France in 1804. This book is a biography of Toussaint Louverture.

16. Don’t Call Us Dead by Danez Smith

Amazon.com: Don't Call Us Dead: Poems (9781555977856): Smith ...

This is a poetry collection about racism, anti-LGBTQ+ policies, and police brutality. Danez Smith is a nonbinary Black poet. I don’t often read modern poetry, but this collection has been almost universally praised for its rawness.

17. Trent: What Happened at the Council by John W. O’Malley

Trent: What Happened at the Council: O'Malley, John W ...

I need a run-down of the what happened at Trent. John W. O’Malley, my favorite Jesuit historian, has me covered.

18. War Against the Idols by Carlos Eire

War Against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to ...

Iconoclasm was religious and political. It was particularly widespread in Switzerland (first in Zurich, then in Berne and Geneva). Taking down statues is nothing new. Indeed, it is one of the oldest means of protest.

19. Darwin’s Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution by Rebecca Stott

Darwin's Ghosts: The Secret History of Evolution: Stott, Rebecca ...

Isaac Newton said that he stood on the shoulders of giants. So did Charles Darwin. Rebecca Stott tells the story of those who helped plant the seeds of Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection.

20. The Death and Life of the Great Lakes by Dan Egan

The Death and Life of the Great Lakes: Egan, Dan: 9780393246438 ...

I am from the Great Lakes region (Cleveland). Non-Ohioans love refering to Cleveland as the “mistake on the lake”. But why was the Cuyahoga River on fire? The lake may not be as visibly polluted as it once was but Dan Egan reminds us that environmental degradation is a widespread problem in the Great Lakes region. Invasive species (such as Zebra mussels) have decimated native populations and destroyed the ecosystem.

Reflections

Write the Synopsis First | Academic Writing

academic writingIn the past few months, I’ve been obsessed with AuthortTube (the writing community on YouTube). Although I do not write fiction, so much of what authortubers talk about applies as well to academic writing. Most recently, I came across a series of videos about the process of writing a synopsis. The synopsis is a 1-2 page summary of your book’s plot.

Most writers only prepare a synopsis when they are ready to query agents. Academic writers may even skip this step entirely. But what if we wrote our synopses first? What if, instead of figuring out our arguments while we write, we were to write a 1-2 page summary of our articles or book chapters?

If I cannot summarize my argument in 1-2 pages, I will not be able to do it in 20. For the past few years, I have found organizing my papers particularly challenging. I worry that I have strayed from my original argument. I don’t always know why my argument is important or how it fits in the existing scholarship.

Therefore, I will begin my next academic writing project with a 1-2 page synopsis. I hope that this exercise will make writing the article that much easier.

Plays, Racine

Classics Spin #23: Review of La Thébaïde by Racine

La Thébaïde by RacineI did it! I finally completed a Classics Spin book. My pick for this month’s spin was a play: La Thébaïde by Racine.

La Thébaïde, ou les frères ennemis by Racine follows the bitter war fought between the two sons of Oedipus and Jacosta: Étéocle (Eteocles) and Polynice (Polynices). At the start of the play, we learn that Eteocles’s term has ended. According to Oedipus’s decree, it is now his brother’s turn to rule Thebes. Unfortunately, Eteocles refuses to share the throne with Polynices. Although Antigone initially supported Polynices’s claim to the throne, she can no longer stand by and look on while her brothers fight each other. Thus, she and her mother arrange a meeting with the two men, in hopes that they might finally lay down their weapons and come to a peaceful agreement. Why don’t Eteocles and Polynices rule together? But waiting in the wings is their uncle Creon, who insists that only one man should be king. The law must be respected, even if the people are unhappy. Jacosta is convinced, however, that Creon wants the throne for himself.

Racine was one of the three greatest playwrights of 17th-century France (the other two being Corneille and Molière). He is best known for his tragedies — a genre that appears to have lost its appeal in the 21st-century. As you might expect from the character list, La Thébaïde is a tragedy. Nothing good can come from an incestuous marriage:

Tu ne t’étonnes pas si mes fils sont perfides,
S’ils sont tous deux méchantset s’ils sont parricides :
Tu sais qu’ils sont sortis d’un sang incestueux,
Et tu t’étonnerais s’ils étaient vertueux.

Jacoste, Act 1, Scene 2

Although this is not Racine’s best play, it is not terrible (he also wrote it when he was 25!). The dialogue is brilliant even if the characterization is lacking. My favorite character was Creon because he had layered motives. Despite knowing that Creon aspired to the throne, I was often struck by how reasonable he sounded. I also enjoyed the tension between passion and duty. The play gave me many story ideas…

I don’t know how many English versions there are of this play. I suspect, not many. But if you have enjoyed other plays by Racine and you come across a copy of La Thébaïde, I recommend you give it a try. I will certainly be reading other plays by Racine in the near future. The only other play by him that I have read is his most famous: Phèdre.

politics

Review of Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick

Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick book coverI first heard about Mayflower when my brother was still in high school. He claimed that it was just about the most boring nonfiction he’d ever read. Not exactly high praise! But I found the first two chapters riveting. Perhaps, it’s my background in academic nonfiction that made me enjoy Philbrick’s style. Academic writing is often dry and opaque. Philbrick’s journalistic style drew me into the lives of the Separatists and their new Indigenous neighbors.

Nevertheless, I didn’t finish Mayflower until now because U.S. History was my least favorite subject in high school. Consequently, I have an embarrassingly poor knowledge of my own country’s history. It’s not my teachers’ fault that I didn’t pay attention in class. I only learned the dates and the President names for the test. I much preferred European history. But with U.S. politics the way it is, it’s about time I learn. Having already enjoyed two other books by Philbrick (Away Off Shore and Into the Heart of the Sea), I figured that Mayflower would be a good place to begin.

Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick is the story of the Separatists – religious fundamentalists and dissidents – who voyaged to the New World so that their children might remain English. Although they enjoyed religious tolerance in Holland, the Separatists nevertheless considered themselves English. In the New World, the Separatists could practice their faith on their own terms.

But as the Separatists discovered, the New World wasn’t new for the indigenous people of modern-day Massachusetts (the state is named after the Massachusetts tribe). At first, the Separatists were on friendly terms with the Pokanokets and their sachem Massasoit. The first generation of settlers embraced diplomacy. But subsequent generations did not have the same goals as their parents. They desired the land that belonged to the surrounding Native tribes. Furthermore, Massasoit’s son Philip had his own political ambitions. The Separatists discovered that the tribes had their allies and their enemies. Philip and the Separatists manipulated this landscape to further their own interests.

When six Indian elders were executed for the murder of a friend to the Separatists, the new Pokanoket sachem declared war on the English. Thus began what came to be known as King Philip’s War. I can understand why readers might find the chapters dedicated to this war boring. It’s just one battle scene after another. Yet, Philbrick argues that King Philip’s War was a turning point in English-Indian relations. I don’t know if there is a more engaging way to tell this story. War is monotonous in its ugliness. I also like how Philbrick highlighted the agency of the Native people. Squanto was friendly to the Separatists so that he might steal the sachemship from Massasoit and his family. Alliances are always political.

As a history of the Mayflower settlers and their relationship with the surrounding tribes, Mayflower is a solid popular history. It may not be as entertaining as Into the Heart of the Sea – which is about the shipwreck of the whale ship Essex – but I recommend Mayflower to anyone who, like me, needs to brush up on their early American history.

I will certainly be reading Philbrick’s American Revolution trilogy next. Popular nonfiction may not be as nuanced and up-to-date as academic nonfiction but it will always be more engaging.

Social Justice

Review of The Address Book by Deirdre Mask | Nonfiction

The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and PowerStreet addresses are something most of us take for granted in this digital age, even though most forms still ask us where we live. For many, street addresses are a privilege. They are markers of wealth and poverty. They are also the first thing employers learn about a job candidate. Before reading The Address BookI had little considered the significance of my street address. I knew that gentrification was a problem in Cleveland and Philadelphia (especially West Philly) but it never occurred to me that employers might discriminate against job candidates based on their street addresses or that people without street addresses might not be able to apply for a job. I didn’t know that there are regions of the United States where homeowners don’t have addresses.

In The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power, Deirdre Mask reveals how important street addresses are to our personal, social, and legal identities. Beginning in West Virginia, where hundreds of residents refuse to adopt street addresses, Mask explores the advantages and disadvantages of having a legal and traceable address. If some West Virginians fear the interference of the government in their neighborhoods, Indians living in the slums of Kolkota wish they had traceable addresses so that they could obtain government-issued IDs and register for social services. And then there’s the question of street names. What should communities do about streets named after Nazis or Confederate leaders? How do street names figure in the social visions of revolutionaries and totalitarian regimes?

For the past year, I have been living in Geneva, Switzerland, where streets are named after famous figures of Swiss history. There are streets named after Protestant Reformers, scientists, doctors, comic artists, and past mayors. In Paris, where the majority of streets are named after men, feminist activists have informally renamed street signs to better reflect the diversity of French history; the names of famous French women are scribbled over the official names.

Each chapter in The Address Book explores a different region of the world – Haiti, India, West Virginia, South Africa, Paris, Philadelphia, New York, Vienna, Germany, Japan, and Iran. Through a series of stories, Mask shows how street addresses and layout reflect the political concerns of those respective regions. She interviews activists who favor the changing of street names or work to give addresses to the homeless. Her writing is dynamic and personal. Mask does not hesitate to share her own personal views on a particular question, but only after she has given voice to the people directly involved in the politics of street addresses.

I flew through this book in a few sittings. If you are looking for a book that opens your eyes to the way people live around the world and has a strong voice, look no further than The Address Book. My only criticism is that chapters on a certain region were not always dedicated to that region. Paris, for example, features in several chapters despite those sections being about other nations. Perhaps, there should have been an earlier chapter dedicated to the influence of Paris on street addresses around the world.

The Address Book came out on April 14, but I read a review copy requested from NetGalley.

—Favorite Passages—

“Lots of people claim to want to go off grid forever, to seek out their own version of #vanlife. But the people Sarah interviewed desperately wanted to be on the grid with all that the grid entails: homes, bills, bank accounts – in essence, everything required for modern life.”

“We all have the need to confront the past, memorialize it, struggle with it, do something with it. That something often involves street names.”