CIPS Special: What We Are Reading During Lockdown

CIPS Special: What We Are Reading During Lockdown

As a break from our normal – more serious – fare we asked CIPS‘ distinguished members to tell us about books they’re currently reading. We asked for one academic book and one novel. Some of our members also included recommendations for children’s books.

Rita Abrahamsen: Director of CIPS and Professor of Public and International Affairs

As part of my research for the Global Right project, I recently read Returning to Reims by the French sociologist Didier Eribon. This remarkable book is both memoir and class analysis at one and the same time, as Eribon struggles to come to terms with his inability to understand how his working-class family turned from supporting the Communist Party to voting for the National Front. Beautifully written, the book’s insights are relevant well beyond France. This is highly recommended for anyone interested in understanding the rise of the radical right.

Allow me two novels:  At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, I re-read The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. It’s a magical book, like a great, big hug and a reminder of the small pleasures in life.   I also just finished House of Stone by Novuyo Rosa Tshuma. This is a debut novel, set in contemporary Zimbabwe.  From the mystery of a missing teenage son, Tshuma weaves a powerful story about love and loss, about history and identity, and about the importance of remembering and forgetting in the process of nation formation.

Stephen Baranyi: Associate Professor in International Development and Global Studies

Je me permets de partager un aperçu d’un roman que je viens de boucler, d’Arturo Pérez-Reverte, intitulé Deux hommes de bien. C’est l’histoire de l’amiral Don Pedro Zárate et le bibliothécaire Don Hermógenes, deux membres de l’Académie de la langue espagnole qui se retrouvent à Paris juste avant la Révolution, à la recherche d’une édition originale de l’Encyclopédie écrite par d’Alembert, Diderot et compagnie. A la fois une étude des débats entre les forces libérales, conservatrices et radicales à l’époque, c’est aussi le portrait d’une amitié qui se tisse entre les protagonistes (ainsi qu’entre l’amiral et la « libertine » sophistiquée Madame Dancenais …) sur un fond de danger imminent. Ce livre est un bijou! Aux francophones et francophiles qui apprécient les romans historiques, je vous le recommande sans réserve.

My last academic read was Stuart Kauffman’s At Home in the Universe, his classic contribution to complexity theory and evolutionary biology. There is much food for thought for a social scientist, here, even for one who was quite skeptical about complexity theory and its relevance for understanding our issues.

Jacqueline Best: Professor in Political Studies

My academic read is Melinda Cooper’s Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism. The title says it all: Cooper looks at why neoliberal policymakers seem so often to combine a belief in individualism with a socially conservative attitudes to the family and gender roles. Our current combined public health and economic crisis – brought about by COVID-19 – places disproportionate pressure on women and families who are suddenly being required to do all (rather than simply most) of the social reproduction. As we look to see whether neoliberal economics manages to come back from the dead once again or finally recognizes its failure (not to mention its responsibility for inadequate social safety nets and public health infrastructures), it will be interesting to see just how a belief in free markets and in traditional families gets recombined – or rejected once and for all.

For my personal reads, I have been rereading all of Hilary Mantel’s novels on Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall, Bring up the Bodies, and The Mirror and the Light. They are beautifully written and historically fascinating. I have also just bought Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments, from my favourite bookstore, Octopus Books. I love and teach The Handmaid’s Tale, but to be honest I’m not entirely sure I’m reading for dystopian fiction right now (see my academic read for why).

I’m absolutely delighted to say that my kids are finally big enough for me to read them Harry Potter as a bedtime story! We have been having a wonderful time reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. They also love the Dog Man series, which is slightly less gross than the Captain Underpants series.

Errol Patrick Mendes: Professor in the Faculty of Law

For my academic book I have just finished reading Erik Larson’s In the Garden of the Beasts. Even though it gives a riveting account of the rise of the Nazi regime, this book is relevant today as it discusses how sycophants can assist the rise of dictators.

For my novel I have enjoyed the opportunity to marvel at the multidisciplinary mind of Leonardo da Vinci, a book that is a gift for the whole family during our period of isolation, leafing through Walter Isaacson’s tome on this amazing genius from time to time, is profoundly inspirational.

Nadia Abu-Zahra: Associate Professor and holder of the Joint Chair in Women’s Studies at the University of Ottawa and Carleton University

The Slow Professor, by Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber, was a kind gift. Taking as a given the corporatization of university or “academic capitalism”, the authors challenge society, especially professors, to slow down and enjoy learning, research, and life. The book is part of a movement, inspiring many to push back against incentives to compete, choosing instead to cooperate and to opt out of the race to “succeed” in metric terms. Less prominent in either the book or movement is the notion of transforming learning, not only — as the book says — to restore joy, but also far beyond that — questioning the perverse effects of grading, antiquated notions of knowledge transmission (pre-dating Socrates, who said, “Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel”), and the practiced exclusions and hierarchies that not only hinder learning but also cause harm. While the book is therefore sating a thirst, it feels like drinking salty water. For those searching for more, or reeling from the COVID-induced hyper-speed switchover to online learning, may you find succour in the Human Restoration Project, the Digital Pedagogy Lab, and the Hybrid Pedagogy journal, blog, book, and network.

In an effort to share with the next generation a love of novels written in the last century, I read (aloud) some library cast-offs. Enid Blyton is a master of adventure and mystery for children, famous for her endearing characters. Unfortunately, she is famous today for other things that I only realize now, reading books that I never saw in my childhood like Adventure of the Strange Ruby and The Mystery of the Vanished Prince. I have so far managed to continue reading — unlike Old Yeller, the Newbery Honor Book taught in schools across the United States, which I had to discontinue on page 2, where it reads, “They taught their folks what to do in case the Indians came off the reservation or the coons got to eating the corn or the bears got to killing too many hogs.” For both Old Yeller and the Enid Blyton books, I have taken the chance to explain racism and colonialism in the present, and their manifestations and effects. It was not what I was anticipating in our bedtime reading, and there are so many lessons I am learning. Perhaps first lesson: take a longer time reading and reviewing when buying library cast-offs… Time for some Homemade Love by bell hooks.

Marie-Eve Desrosiers: Associate Professor in International Development and Global Studies

I just finished Jason Stearns Dancing in the Glory of Monsters, after having started it years ago, then left it for another time… which never came, until now. This isn’t an academic book per se, but a popular press account of the two Congo wars in the 1990s. It is, however, written by an academic. It begins with an account of the Rwandan genocide, as background to events in Congo in the 1990s. Full disclaimer: I can’t say I found the ‘Rwanda’ part of the book very convincing. But, since Rwanda is my entry point to the African Great Lakes region, consider that part of a querelle de clocher. Dancing in the Glory of Monsters is, however, for the most part, an extremely meticulous and rich account of the two Congo wars. Stearns draws on a vast number of interviews and encounters to allow us to see the events through the eyes of those orchestrating the violence and those living it, from warlord, to foot soldier, to local citizens. It is at time a very rough read, given what took place in the country. But Stearns never writes the violence in a way to attract the foreign eye through shock and revulsion, which is too often the case with work on the Congo. There is a degree of agency and nuance when Stearns retells the story of those he meets that makes the book a fascinating read.

As for my novel, I am almost done reading Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee. The novel takes place in the late 1990s in South Africa and tells the story of an older white male university professor of English literature who pressures his student into a sexual relation. He then resigns, unwilling to take part in ‘contrition measures’ proposed by his university, and leaves the city to go live on his daughter’s small, struggling farm. This has to be one of the most disturbing, yet fascinating books I have read in a long time. The entire story is retold through the eyes of the professor, an unashamed misogynist and racist, an intellectual, who tells the story as he sees it, never really looking to make excuses. The book never turns to caricatures of boastful bravado or the contrite abuser. Reading the book at a time of #metoo and Ghomeshi and Weinstein, it is painful to hear these thoughts on power relations, the structures that undergird them, and in a sense the very banality of the process by which the professor abuses. Taking place in South Africa in the late 1990s, this is also a larger reflection on power and race relations at a turning point in the country’s history; of this man’s place in the country. In short, it makes your skin crawl to listen to this man and to be in his head, but at the same time we rarely get a chance to hear the ‘perpetrators’, outside of pleas and contrition. Not an easy exercise.

Philippe M. Frowd: Assistant Professor in Political Studies

My literary consumption has been limited in the last few weeks. I’m currently making my way through Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah. I am enjoying this story of African mobility: in both the diaspora/return sense and in the sense of social mobility. I’ve also just finished Leïla Slimani’s non-fiction book Sexe et Mensonges. It’s a series of vignettes, told through individual Moroccan women’s experiences of sex, love, family, politics, religion and more. The overall narrative around repression and societal hypocrisy is uncomplicated (in the positive and negative senses of the term) but there is some welcome nuance in the short individual stories.

In terms of academic reading, I’m tackling James C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Governed. Perhaps social distancing has affected this choice somewhat: we’re faced with the brute facts of state power in the name of public health, I’ve been drawn to work like his on state-building and evasion. Scott’s main thesis about a vast space of ‘refusal’ of state-making projects across southeast Asia (‘Zomia’) is presented in his usual very readable style. I’m not fully persuaded by the argument about Zomia, but it is a helpful thinking tool for similar spaces around the world. I am far away from my usual fieldwork in West Africa, but cannot help but make links between Scott’s theory-building in southeast Asia and some similar spaces in the Sahel-Sahara periphery.

Peter Jones: Associate Professor in Public and International Affairs

For non-fiction, I am presently reading Max Hastings’ Vietnam: An Epic History of a Tragic War. Hastings is an award-winning journalist who has covered conflicts around the globe and written many best-sellers on them. I can’t say it’s a properly ‘academic’ book, but it is a very good account of the conflict and makes an effort to cover the North Vietnamese side as well (and none too flatteringly for Hanoi). What strikes me most powerfully, though it is hardly new, is the fact that the successive US Administrations knew the course they were on was unwinnable and unsustainable, but they couldn’t bring themselves to find a way out.

The internal politics and empire-building that went on were breathtaking, and often had very little to do with the supposed reasons the US was in Vietnam. Hastings is also particularly good in covering the terrible relationship between the US and the government of South Vietnam – the oft-forgotten player in the conflict. The latter was hardly a puppet but had its own internal struggles and conflicts. The only thing it seems able to be highly adept at was ‘gaming’ the US. Indeed, from beginning to end, the US barely knew anything at all about Vietnam or the Vietnamese people and based incredibly consequential decisions on a deadly combination consisting of its own internal ideological and bureaucratic squabbles, and a superficial understanding of the actual situation. The lessons for our understanding of US actions in Iraq and Afghanistan are sobering.

For fiction, I have recently read Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Her portrayal of life in India for those who do not ‘fit’ into society, and who have been broken by the hardship of their lives, is heartbreaking, but also full of hope. The book reminds us that the cruelest fortunes can be changed by small and random acts of kindness

Patti Lenard: Associate Professor in Public and International Affairs

Every year, my mother sends me the Booker and Giller nominees, and that is my year’s reading list. So, I just finished the Booker Prize winner this year, Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo, which is quite possibly the best book I have read in my life. As a proud Canadian patriot, I had been delighted when Margaret Atwood was given the prize this year; and then, having read Evaristo’s brilliant book, I am angry on her behalf that she had to share the prize. The book tells the stories of black British women from all walks of life, their victories and the challenges they face – nothing is resolved by the end. I’m now reading Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities, which is delightfully written from the perspective of a spirit that guides a Nigerian poultry farmer’s daily life (and, though I’m only 50 pages in, I think, also love).

In this COVID-19 world, my first deadline is to produce a Stanford Encyclopedia Entry on “culture”, and in doing so I have just completed Alan Patten’s Equal Recognition, which is an attempt to explain why cultures (and which cultures) are entitled to recognition by others. For those among you who know about the multicultural literature, you will know that it has largely stagnated in the last 10 years and what is amazing about Patten’s work is that he manages to offer a new take on some familiar questions. He calls his account of culture a “social lineage” account, which means that cultures are defined in large part by their members shared subjection to institutions over time. It emphasizes the ways in which cultures have managed to control its members too much (or rather, it defines cultures as those who have managed to control their members well) for my taste – this control is what historically has led to the undermining of women’s rights for example – but I appreciate a new way to think about culture, which is no easy feat!

My eight year old recommends all the Harry Potter books, A Boy Named Queen, by Sarah Cassidy, which explores the way in which a grade five class responds to a gender non-conforming new arrival to their class; and My Life as a Diamond by Jenny Manzer, which tells the story of a 10-year-old trans boy baseball pitcher. These latter are excellent for answering questions that kids may have about gender variance, and my kiddo and her parents recommend them fully.

Kevin McMillan: Associate Professor in Political Studies

Right now one of the books I’m reading is Herbert Weisberg’s impressive and very wide-ranging Willful Ignorance: The Mismeasure of Uncertainty. It is an analysis and critique of the exclusive role that mathematical probability plays in our (scientific and practical) assessments of uncertainty. It is also a historical narrative about the 350-year intellectual process through which we came essentially to define probability in purely quantitative terms, and what we lost along the way. For Weisberg, uncertainty has dual irreducible aspects: doubt and ambiguity. Certainty refers to the absence of both doubt and ambiguity. Mathematical probability ignores the very question of ambiguity in order to attempt to quantify degrees of doubt. Techniques of quantifying probability necessarily involve “willful ignorance” – purposely ignoring a great deal that we know about the phenomena of interest, or could find out about them, in order to range our uncertainty about them along a single (real-valued!) dimension in which our degree of confidence that an event will happen becomes precisely identical to our lack of confidence that it will not happen. It fundamentally relies on an analogy, almost never concretely spelled out in practice, between the mechanics of the phenomena of interest and classic games of chance or lotteries.

None of this is logically forced on us. The problem – and the resulting knowledge gap – is most obvious in “clinical judgement” where strategies are required to deal with single cases. But it seems to me that Weisberg sees this problem as extending to generalisations as well. Keynes and Knight famously rejected this narrowing of the very meaning of probability; but Weisberg shows that early probability theorists lacked crucial parts of it as well, and had a richer notion of epistemic probability (“chances”) than we possess today. Weisberg’s view is that mathematical probability has brought some remarkable practical benefits, but we are now at the point where the insistence (presumption) that statistics and probability theory exhaust the rigorous evaluation of uncertainty is responsible for increasingly obvious stagnation in the biomedical and social sciences.

Costanza Musu: Associate Professor in Public and International Affairs

My picks for a children’s book are from the really good ’Who was’ series. My daughter’s favorites are Who was Harriet Tubman? and What was the Underground Railroad? both are by by Yona Zeldis McDonough and are difficult but essential reading.

I just finished Inheritance by Dani Shapiro, and have moved on to another memoir by the same author, Slow Motion. I found Inheritance fascinating. The premise of the book is the casual discovery, through an Ancestry DNA test, that the author’s father is not her biological parent. From there starts a quest to understand one’s identity, the importance of biological ties, the importance of “nature” and “nurture.”

For my non-fiction reading I’ve been focused on material on how to teach online and how to change your ’Zoom’ background. After some consideration I think I will go for a Hogwarts background. I also indulged in the purchase of a Kindle Oasis, and have now a ridiculous amount of books queued up for reading. Considering the PM has talked about at least one year and a half before we go back to “normality” maybe I will end up reading at least some of them.

David Petrasek: Associate Professor in Public and International Affairs

My first recommendation is Winner Takes All, the Elite Charade of Changing the World, by Anand Giridharadas. This book is an account of the so-called philanthro-capitalists, those billionaires and the private foundations they support who give billions to good causes, but in quite directed ways (indeed, modelled on the venture capital method). Anand argues this is not only ineffective, but subversive of democracy and of citizenship, building public support for the idea that the private trumps the public. This could be an easy take down, polemical and dismissed as an anti-capitalist diatribe, but it’s not. He builds the bulk of the book on detailed interviews with those caught up in at all, and shows real appreciation for the trade-offs and compromises. But he is unforgiving in his conclusions. And why shouldn’t he be? In the midst of our current predicament, Richard Branson announced the launch of a cruise ship line, investing $1b to start.

My second is Ramachandra Guha’s magisterial biography – Gandhi. If you’re like me you think you know the basics, and Merchant/Ivory filled in sufficient details to give us a compelling story. But there’s so much more. Guha’s warts and all account draws on all Gandhi’s papers (he wrote several letters every day, all were copied and kept), to fill out the picture of a truly world-changing figure. And he situates it within the context of an epic anti-colonial struggle with Gandhi as masterful, revolutionary leader. He’s been attacked by both left and right over the years, but Guha’s book makes Gandhi so much more interesting than the parameters of that debate allows.

Nisha Shah: Associate Professor in Political Studies

My fiction pick is The Night Diaries by Veera Hiranandani. Written from the perspective of a young girl who, in a series of diary entries, documents the epic journey of a family forced to flee and define and redefine family and home during ‘Partition’ of the creation of modern day India and Pakistan. It is marketed as a young adult novel, though it is pretty heavy. A chilling account of lines in the sand drawn by a stranger’s hand.

For non-fiction, I would recommend, The Politics of Annihilation – A Genealogy of Genocide, by Benjamin Meiches. What is genocide? Apparently, the concept and its implications are not clear cut, and the various efforts to distill its meaning have implications for what does and does not count as mass atrocity and violence. An incisive – and ironically – definitive genealogy of a concept, whose elusive meaning has implications for which human beings are worth of being saved.

Scott Simon: Professor and holder of the Co-Chair in Taiwan Studies

The first was The Wake of Crows: Living and Dying in Shared Worlds by Thom van Dooren. He is a rare “field philosopher,” who bases his reflections on interviews and experiences in the real world, which makes him somewhat of an ethnographer. In this book, he looks at human-crow relations in conservation efforts in Australia, Hawai’i, the Netherlands, the Mojave Desert, and Rota, Mariana Islands. I was most interested in Rota, which is also Chamorro territory and just north of Guam. I was intrigued by his insights about linkages between conservation projects and sovereignty. I also find it creative to extend ideas of recognition and diplomacy beyond states, and even beyond peoples (the usual stuff of anthropology) to relationships between species.

I just passed the half-way point in Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phénoménologie de la perception. There has recently been a renewal of interest in Merleau-Ponty and phenomenology in anthropology. I will have a better understanding of what our graduate students are reading. And, perhaps these views can also help me better understanding what is going on between Taiwan-China-Japan-USA. It is about how humans perceive the world; so it certainly can provide insights on how humans perceive their own political environment and the actions taken by other states.

Srdjan Vucetic: Associate Professor in Public and International Affairs

The Amazonification of the economy is accelerating and the political consequences are massive. Large delivery-based businesses are assuming a de facto public policy role, while tech giants are talking to governments about the best way to build a digital pandemic surveillance state. The book I am currently reading to make sense of this phenomenon is Nick Srnicek’s Platform Capitalism. The author, who is a Canadian teaching in London, offers a thought-provoking Marxist analysis of what we can now refer to as the old normal.

N.K. Jemisin’s The Stone Sky, the final book in her Broken Earth trilogy. For those who like ‘crit’ sci-fi but are tired of Margaret Atwood, this is a must-read. A glimpse into a world utterly wrecked by a human-induced climate change – a scenario in which earthquakes, giant volcanic eruptions, acid rains, poisonous algal outbreaks and horrible famines occur on a regular basis, yet civilization somehow endures – Broken Earth invites us to ponder all the right questions about society, culture and human authority over nature. (I should like to add that I remain grateful to Larisa Kurtovic, a political anthropologist teaching here at uOttawa, for introducing me to Jemisin.)

Michael Williams: Professor in Public and International Affairs

My recent reading explores two very different takes on America. The academic book is Christopher Caldwell’s The Age of Entitlement, which provides a conservative view of the transformation of the United States since the 1960s. In Caldwell’s view, it is not a pretty picture. While the left tends to see the 60s as an era initiating liberal progress, Caldwell sees it as the era when racial, judicial and administrative activism began to divide the country into ‘old’ and ‘new’ views of the Constitution, and into radically opposing groups on each side of that divide. It is an uncompromising view from the Right, but for anyone seeking to understand the ideas behind that style of American conservatism it is a revealing read.

My fictional book also takes the 1960s as its starting point. However, the focus is not the Great Society programs of domestic reform, but the rather the other epochal event of the decade: the Vietnam War. Viet Than Nguyen’s The Sympathizer is a brilliant tale of a Viet Cong infiltrator who leaves Vietnam with his fleeing compatriots and continues to report on their activities from California. Filled with mordant humour and keen observations about the United States, life as a refugee, and the impact the war, it combines the intrigue of a thriller and with the insights of history to provide a striking counter-point to Caldwell’s account. Together, the two books provide a window into the diverse tensions running through contemporary America.

 Conseillé: Seul un changement de régime peut sauver l’Iran

Christoph Zuercher: Professor in Public and International Affairs

The first one is Things Fall Apart, a novel written by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. I wanted to read it ever since I read the works of the brilliant Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, especially her novel Half of a Yellow Sun, which is perhaps the best description of how the “ethnic” in ethnic wars comes to be. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said that she became a writer after she read at the age of 10 Things Fall Apart. The book also inspired Robert H. Bates’s book similarly titled When Things Fell Apart, which is the economist’s account of state failure in Africa in the 1990s. So many reasons to read Things Fall Apart.

Things Fall Apart was published in 1958 and describes pre-colonial life in the south-eastern part of Nigeria and the arrival of the Europeans during the late nineteenth century. It is seen as the archetypal modern African novel in English and it is required reading for Africanists. I can see why it is an important book, but a page turner it is not.

The other book is Bury the Chains, a non-fiction book by Adam Hochschild that was first published in 2005. The book traces the history of the late 18th- and early 19th-century anti-slavery movement in the British Empire. The story centers around a group of British abolitionist campaigners and traces their campaign from its beginnings until full emancipation for all British slaves was legally granted in 1838. I am fascinated by how an idea about what is right was powerful enough to win a political fight against massive, deeply entrenched economic interests. It’s a very well written book, thoroughly researched, full of original sources and never ever boring.

Randall Germain: Professor of Political Economy at Carleton University

For my part, I am currently reading Daniel Dafoe’s Robinson Crusoe, which might at first glance appear odd, but I have found it amazingly topical: a story about how an individual copes with total isolation! I have found it fascinating, and I have just reached the part where he encounters another human being, so I am excited to see how this guy will reintegrate himself with human society (no need to comment on the timeliness of this process…!).

I have also recently read The Globalists: The end of empire and the birth of neoliberalism, by Quinn Slobodian. I found this to be as riveting a read as is possible in our trade. Slobodian provides a global history of one slice of the neoliberal intellectual pedigree, linking Austrians with German Ordo-liberals, English liberals, and American conservatives (who of course were liberal in the European fashion). It is nuanced and catholic and chock-full of little but compelling details; I found it absolutely fascinating.

Gabrielle Bardall: Research Associate at CIPS

As part of a long-standing resolution to read more work by international female authors, I’ve been reading The Forty Rules of Love by Turkish feminist author Elif Shafak. It recounts the story of 13th century Sufi mystic Rumi through the parallel narrative of Ella, modern-day suburban Jewish housewife.

Christopher Bishop: Research Associate at CIPS

I would recommended Two Innocents in Red China by Pierre Trudeau and Jacques Hébert. Although Trudeau has been criticized for glossing over the failures of Communist rule in this account of his 1960 visit to China – then in the midst of the Great Leap Forward and the ensuing famine – this is one of the few Western travelogues of China at a key point in its history. It also reveals some of Trudeau’s thinking about China in the years before he became Prime Minister and began negotiations to recognize the People’s Republic.

I have also been reading The Singapore Grip, by J.G. Farrell. A wry and funny piece of historical fiction focused on a British family in Singapore just before and during the Japanese occupation in World War II, beautifully written by Booker Prize-winning author J.G. Farrell.

Marion Laurence: Research Associate at CIPS

My non-fiction reading is not research-related at the moment, but I’ve just started Stalin’s Daughter: The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyeva. It tells the fascinating story of Joseph Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana, who grew up in the USSR in the 1930s and later defected to the United States during the Cold War.

My copy of Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light has not arrived yet, but I will second the vote for Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies, two of my all-time favourites. Another recommendation would be Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach. It’s beautifully written and follows a young woman from Brooklyn who works for the US navy during WWII and becomes a professional diver in one of the naval shipyards. Of late, I have also been reading Goodnight, Gorilla and Oh No, George! 6-8 times per day. Both stand up quite well to repetition.

Farhad Rezaei: Research Associate at CIPS

I am currently reading the fourth edition of the Contemporary Politics in the Middle East, a book which I deem useful for the course that I am going to teach at York University, the Politics of the Middle East and North Africa. The book is a comprehensive guide to the history and politics of the Middle East, one of the vastly important regions of the world and the most complex one at the same time. It provides readers with a working understanding of the complexities of the region at the historical, economic, political, and religious levels. The author, Beverley Milton-Edwards, has reviewed the history of the modern Middle East from the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the difficult birth of the modern Middle East, the British-French colonial rule and partition of the Middle East, the Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Balfour Declaration.

The book has also incorporated a set of themes including economic underdevelopment in the region, tribalism, nationalism, the Palestinian conundrum, Jews vs. Palestinians, authoritarian legacy, factionalism, modernization and secularization, and the radical transformation of the region since the so-called Arab Spring. I believe reading this book is essential for those who want to gain insight into the politics and history of the Middle East.

Anoush F. Terjanian: Assistant Vice-Dean, Partnerships and Research Network Development

Nicole Loraux’s, La Tragédie d’Athènes. La politique entre l’ombre et l’utopie has been sitting on my desk in the VDRO since January; the last time I sat there was Thursday, March 12. And that’s the last time I saw it. A special text, it was published posthumously—a brilliant Hellenist, Loraux died too soon. It’s heavy-handed but true to say that she led a feminist, philological, contextualist, and psychoanalytic questioning of the legacy of idealisation of Athenian democracy. Here we get to glimpse at her meticulous and multi-dimensional working through of what she teaches us to be the constitutive role of conflict in that polis. I’m (still) only half-way through (alas!), but it was offering stark and rich context and theory and language for my thinking and writing about the ‘bewilderment paradigm’ we witnessed after the 2016 election.

That weekend certainly shocked me out of the woods about Covid-19. It took me a while to remember to read fiction. I finally finished my Xmas read, Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island. It left me thirsty as the French say; I devoured the Ibis trilogy but here the romp through Bangladesh, Venice, and human trafficking felt a disappointing mix of Dan Brown and Human Rights Watch talking points. My expectations were too high—I was in Venice when he was writing it—and this return to reading fiction from proper books got bound up in all the heightened expectations about how we’re supposed to respond to our new reality, I suppose. Pachinko was next; Min Jin Lee’s saga about the life of Koreans in Japan, which opened my eyes to a world I knew nothing about and this time allowed me to sink into the melodrama, perhaps because unknown. And as of Wednesday, I’ve turned to Rachel Kadish’s The Weight of Ink, mixing the 17th-century world of Ghosh with the family saga of Lee. I can already feel that it will make me miss the archive, what always felt like a lonely place but now conjures longing for stroppy conservateurs, a community of silent and focused strangers, the smell of old paper, dust.

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