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Archive for the 'Featured Book' Category

Friday, September 1st, 2017

The Forgotten World of Communist Bookstores

Columbia Studies in the History of U.S. Capitalism

“As avowed anticapitalists, communists made for unlikely business owners. But as entrepreneurs, their objective was to promote ideology and cover costs, not maximize profits…. Their politics were also paradoxical. Unwavering supporters of Stalin abroad, American communists were relentless champions of democracy and civil liberties at home. And their bookstores helped them circulate a domestic agenda of racial and social equality.” — Joshua Clark Davis

This week, we are featuring two books from our exciting new Columbia Studies in the History of U.S. Capitalism series: Creditworthy: A History of Consumer Surveillance and Financial Identity in America, by Josh Lauer, and From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs, by Joshua Clark Davis. In today’s post, we are delighted to share an excerpt from Joshua Clark Davis’s article on communist bookstores in Jacobin Magazine. You can read the article in full at the Jacobin website.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of both books!

The Forgotten World of Communist Bookstores
By Joshua Clark Davis

Their names proclaimed a new age: The Modern. The Progressive. The New Era. The New World. Others looked to the past, evoking American political heroes like Thomas Paine and Abraham Lincoln.

They were targets of FBI investigations and congressional hearings on “un-American activities.” J. Edgar Hoover condemned them for selling publications that “indoctrinate . . . members and sympathizers” of the Communist Party and “propagandize the non-communist masses.”

While largely forgotten today, communist bookstores were one of the most important public spaces for Marxism in the United States in the twentieth century. Most Americans didn’t personally know a communist. But in cities across the country, radicals made their presence known at unassuming bookstores. Teeming with texts by Marx, Engels, and Lenin, these stores also stocked the Daily Worker and the latest publications by party officials from the United States, the Soviet Union, and other countries around the world.

Communist bookstores provided a critical public space for radicals, operating in virtually every major American city. Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York had several apiece. Smaller and ostensibly less radical locales such as Birmingham, Houston, and Omaha, had communist bookstores, too.

Decades before alt-right trolls viciously attacked left-wing writers online, right-wing extremists targeted communist booksellers, accusing them of the most insidious crimes imaginable. “Visit any Communist bookstore in the United States and you will find books printed in Moscow and Peking in English for one, two, and three-year-old babies,” warned Fred Schwarz, author of the 1956 redbaiting bestseller You Can Trust the Communists (To Be Communists). “The Communists want the children. They do not care so much about the adults whom they consider as already contaminated with the disease of Capitalism and consequently of little use to them.”

It’s not entirely clear when communists first sold books in the US. But almost as soon as they split off from the Socialist Party of America to form their own parties in 1919, communists opened their own bookstores, too.

Communist booksellers immediately became targets of state repression as they faced an intense postwar backlash against so-called subversion. In 1919, the New York legislature established a committee to investigate “seditious activities” in the state. As part of the investigation, a group of fifty state police officers and right-wing volunteers led by Deputy Attorney General Samuel Berger raided the People’s House bookshop of the Rand School of Social Science, then New York’s premier radical educational center. The investigators seized communist books and papers, but prosecutors eventually failed to convict the bookstore’s employees of sedition.

As avowed anticapitalists, communists made for unlikely business owners. But as entrepreneurs, their objective was to promote ideology and cover costs, not maximize profits. Red bookstores spread rapidly as the ranks of the consolidated Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) swelled during the Depression. By the end of the 1930s, roughly fifty communist bookstores were open for business. Their politics were also paradoxical. Unwavering supporters of Stalin abroad, American communists were relentless champions of democracy and civil liberties at home. And their bookstores helped them circulate a domestic agenda of racial and social equality.

Communists in the US were sophisticated marketers. International Publishers (IP), the official CPUSA publishing house operated by Alexander Trachtenberg, oversaw an extensive network for distributing communist publications in the US. Trachtenberg, a Ukrainian Jew who had fled Russian pogroms for the United States in 1906, managed IP since it was founded by the party and wealthy socialist A. A. Heller in 1924. The CP paid in advance for texts written by party leaders, typically placing bulk orders in the range of five thousand copies prior to publication but sometimes distributing as many as one hundred thousand. Every party branch across the country had an official “literature agent” that worked with the bookstores and IP to make sure that official texts ended up in the hands of party members (who received a discount of up to 60 percent on publications).

A 1941 advertisement in the Daily Worker suggests the CP’s sales priorities that year. The ad for the Workers Book Shop in New York announced “150,000 volumes to be sold” in “the greatest sale in our history.” In addition to classics like the collected works of Lenin and Marx and Engels’s writings on the American Civil War, the store offered less remembered (and more intimidating) titles like J. B. S. Haldane’s Marxist Philosophy and the Sciences, David Guest’s A Textbook of Dialectical Materialism, and Eugen Varga and Lev Mendelsohn’s New Data for Lenin’s Imperialism for as little as 49 cents apiece.

Despite these challenges, surviving communist bookstores enjoyed a small renaissance in the late 1960s and 1970s. The New Communist Movement — an ultra-left offshoot of the New Left — launched an array of Marxist-Leninist organizations and sought to radicalize existing unions in these years. But in the 1980s and ’90s, two unforeseen transformations overwhelmed this modest uptick in activity.

First, and most dramatically, nearly twenty Communist governments fell in a three-year-stretch. The Soviets had directed American Communists and overseen their bookstores for decades, so the Berlin Wall’s collapse and the implosion of state socialism — despite being a boon for free expression in the Eastern Bloc — had a deleterious effect on communist bookstores in the US.

Second, there was the rise of bookstore chains. As stores like Barnes & Noble and Borders aggressively expanded in the mid-to-late 1990s, they began to sell many of the books that had once been the specialty of more radical independents — not only Marxist booksellers, but also black leftist and feminist bookstores. And as online booksellers like Amazon became household names by the end of the decade, Americans could purchase virtually any book with an ISBN number with a just few clicks of a mouse. Today, many bestselling communist texts are available for free online on sites like Marxists.org.

Some radical brick-and-mortar bookstores still operate today. Few identify strictly as communist, and even fewer are associated with the CPUSA, a party that has struggled in recent decades to reach even ten thousand members. Newer independent radical bookstores such as Red Emma’s in Baltimore and Bluestockings in New York’s East Village draw customers with cafes and frequent speaker events.

Venture into one of these shops and you’ll glimpse the legacy of a bygone era, one in which communist bookstores — despite facing considerable financial and political hardships — helped their customers envision radical worlds that were often otherwise unimaginable in America.

Read the article in full at the Jacobin Magazine website.

Wednesday, August 30th, 2017

Introducing Creditworthy

Columbia Studies in the History of U.S. Capitalism

“How did Americans become faceless names and numbers in an enigmatic network of credit records, scoring systems, and information brokers? How did financial identity become such an important marker of our personal trustworthiness and worth?” — Josh Lauer

This week, we are featuring two books from our exciting new Columbia Studies in the History of U.S. Capitalism series: Creditworthy: A History of Consumer Surveillance and Financial Identity in America, by Josh Lauer, and From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs, by Joshua Clark Davis. Today, we are happy to present an excerpt from the introduction to Creditworthy.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of both books!

Tuesday, August 29th, 2017

Introducing From Head Shops to Whole Foods

Columbia Studies in the History of U.S. Capitalism

“The title of this book serves two purposes. By using the phrase ‘from head shops to whole foods,’ I am referencing the wide range of businesses this book examines. But, more importantly, I am highlighting a marked transition away from the collective goals of political progress that some, although not most, activist enterprises made between the late 1970s and the end of the twentieth century.” — Joshua Clark Davis

This week, we are featuring two books from our exciting new Columbia Studies in the History of U.S. Capitalism series: Creditworthy: A History of Consumer Surveillance and Financial Identity in America, by Josh Lauer, and From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs, by Joshua Clark Davis. Today, we are kicking the feature off with an excerpt from the introduction to From Head Shops to Whole Foods.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of both books!

Monday, August 28th, 2017

Book Giveaway! Creditworthy and From Head Shops to Whole Foods

Columbia Studies in the History of U.S. Capitalism

“Lucid and packed with fascinating detail, Creditworthy is an essential guide to the intersection of finance and surveillance.” — Frank Pasquale

“[From Head Shops to Whole Foods] is critical for understanding contemporary companies that celebrate ethical practices and social change.” — Ibram X. Kendi

This week, we are featuring two books from our exciting new Columbia Studies in the History of U.S. Capitalism series: Creditworthy: A History of Consumer Surveillance and Financial Identity in America, by Josh Lauer, and From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs, by Joshua Clark Davis. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about both books and their authors on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

Friday, August 25th, 2017

Capturing the tone in the translation of City Folk and Country Folk

Enter the City Folk and Country Folk Book Giveaway here

City Folk and Country Folk

Welcome to the Columbia University Press blog! This week we are featuring Sofia Khvoshchinskaya’s City Folk and Country Folk, which has recently come out in the Russian Library series. Today Elaine Wilson, a PhD candidate in Slavic Languages and Literatures at Columbia University, explores some of the decisions Nora Seligman Favorov made in translating the book.

As a fledgling translator, examining the work of other, more experienced translators is consistently an informative and reflective exercise for me. Translating a work of literature is more complex than simple transmission of meaning across language, for a story is more than the sum of its parts. Often there are cultural and political stakes in the game, factors not easily separated and compartmentalized thanks to the curious way in which words and their arrangement bear the weight of multiple and varied ideas. Sofia Khvoshchinskaya’s novel, City Folk and Country Folk, is one such work that contains multitudes: It is a feminist novel, a satirical piece, a reflection on social change in nineteenth-century Russia, and, an entertaining read to boot. Nora Seligman Favorov is the first translator to deliver this literary gem to the English-speaking world, and she has done so with a keen ear for her Anglophone audience.

The beginning of a book sets the tone for the rest of the story. Any translator will tell you that the initial pages are crucial, that these early paragraphs introduce and establish both a sense of the author’s style from the original text and the translator’s stylistic sensibilities within the translation language. In City Folk and Country Folk, one of the first things a reader will notice is the narrative voice. At turns loving and sardonic, the third person omniscient narrator of Khvoshchinskaya’s novel tells the story using language that hints at familiarity. In the original Russian, the tone even feels conversational at times—Khvoshchinskaya practically concludes her opening paragraph with the colloquial “И что же?”, a Russian expression whose meaning, depending on context and intonation, can range from “so what?” to “big whoop” and “can you imagine?” This narrative style guides the audience with omniscient authority, but the tone conveys a figurative wink and a nod, the suggestion that the reader, like the narrator, gets it. Khvoshchinskaya employs the first person plural possessive “наш” (our)—a staple more of Russian speech than prose—to qualify the countryside, the climate, the food, and it ultimately invites the reader to consider these things from an internal perspective. The economic troubles of the day, the laughable habits and opinions of certain characters—these are presented to the reader as they might be to a friend or, perhaps fellow conspirator, and this implicit understanding between reader and narrator is what gives the novel so much of its charm.

Favorov’s English rendering of the opening pages of City Folk and Country Folk demonstrates her sensitivity both to Khvoshchinskaya’s Russian style and conventions of English writing. She maintains the inclusive “our” to bring the English reader into a sense of communion with the narrator, but she adjusts the colloquial quality in search of a more traditional English literary style. Nastasya Ivanovna, a landowner, country resident, and the leading heroine to whom we are first introduced, prefers traditional Russian ceramics and mushrooms to their more fashionable, Western European counterparts. By the social standards of her day, such tastes are “unrefined,” but Nastasya Ivanovna is only somewhat conflicted about this.

“Грубых вкусов своих она не выражала при всех, но зато с людьми, которые были ей по душе, смиренная и откровенная, она каялась в этих грехах своих. Она сознавалась сама, без чужих понуждений; не ясно ли отсюда, что она была способна совершенствоваться?”

[“She did not admit her unsophisticated tastes to just anyone, but, humble and frank, in the presence of people with whom she felt at ease, she repented these sins. Nobody forced her—she confessed them freely. Surely this suggests she was capable of self-improvement,” (Khvoshchinskaya, 4).]

The final line of this excerpt, the matter of improving oneself, is posed as a question in the Russian original: “не ясно ли отсюда, что она была способна совершенствоваться?” In the form of a question, the issue is framed in doubt, but it is unclear on whose part. If Nastasya Ivanovna’s, the question implies self-examination, a bit of desperation in the face of her failings before society; if the narrator’s, it reads more as an inference into Nastasya Ivanovna’s constitution. Favorov’s English translation does away with the question entirely, rendering Nastasya Ivanovna’s self-awareness as a rather definitive aspect of her character: “Nobody forced her—she confessed them freely. Surely this suggests she was capable of self-improvement.”

The switch from interrogative to declarative is a conscious move on the translator’s part, one whose intent I understand to be a departure from the more personal, dialectic quality of nineteenth-century Russian literature. (If you’re hungry for examples, see War and Peace.) With the declarative, Favorov’s prose shifts towards the English literary style. And while the frequent comparison may be tired, it is valid—City Folk and Country Folk is reminiscent of the works of Jane Austen, and Favorov’s choice in this instance seems to embrace the comparison. Treatment of Nastasya Ivanovna’s dilemma with a statement through free indirect discourse lends the translation the kind of third person narrative authority with which Austen presents the opinions of her British characters. As a result, some of the underlying anxiety Nastasya Ivanovna feels with respect to her own potential for “refinement” in the Russian text falls away, but what the translation gains is greater Englishness.

Favorov’s careful attempts to honor Russian and English stylistic norms operates at the word level, too. In the very first paragraph, the reader learns that Nastasya Ivanovna qualifies everything that happened that fateful summer using the word “напасть.” This word can be translated in English in various ways; its meanings including “tribulation,” “bad luck,” and “disaster.” But “напасть” also contains implications of action and transitivity. It suggests assault or attack. Favorov renders this word as “calamity,” a choice that initially seemed odd. For me, “calamity” carries connotations of natural disasters, but it also calls to mind ironic, almost cartoonish imagery (i.e., “Calamity Jane” or dialogue in Looney Tunes set in the Wild West). The latter implication stems from the rarity of this word in modern spoken English. It feels hyperbolic, old-fashioned. But given these considerations, “calamity” is in fact a rather apt translation. It works to convey an old-timey feel and the meaning of an onslaught of misfortunes. Nastasya Ivanovna considers the events of the story to have happened to her, events that were out of her control. Khvoshchinskaya’s Russian text implies this with the word “напасть” and a character named Nastasya, as they appear together in the old Russian saying “Пошла Настя по напастям,” a version of “when it rains it pours.” For Nastasya Ivanovna, there was no calculated attack on her peaceful country life, but rather these events were fated. Favorov’s English underscores Nastasya Ivanovna’s exaggerated perception of the events as a string of disasters imposed upon her: “It is… a shame that fate did not earlier, before the events of last summer, send Nastasya Ivanovna someone who could have prepared her for these events, who could have warned her, for instance, that proclaiming a fight for one’s convictions to be a disaster and a punishment from God is far more shameful than blurting out a preference for local mushrooms over truffles” (Khvoshchinskaya, 4).* These words are, of course, dripping with irony, throwing the intended meaning of “напасть” against a backdrop of absurdity, and this shows the choice of “calamity” in a favorable light: its semantic shades bridge the gap between expressions of misfortune and the nonsense of the circumstances.

Favorov’s translation is full of potential for this kind of analysis, but the opening moments of City Folk and Country Folk demonstrate Khvoshchinskaya’s style. Her comic and astute observations illustrate and poke fun at her nineteenth-century reality, and so landing the narrative voice in the English is key. Our introduction to Nastasya Ivanovna, with her simple tastes and her bouts of anxiety, sets the stage for the story to follow, but it is also a proving ground for style. These early pages show Favorov’s thoughtful work; her translation captures Khvoshchinskaya’s wit and wisdom. And though reflective of traditional English literary conventions, in her translation the novel’s charm—its Russianness—shines.

*After writing this piece, I learned that Favorov finally decided upon “calamity” after consulting English translations of the Bible. A brilliant insight into her problem-solving process, this fact also bolsters what Nastasya Ivanovna wishes to convey, that she was subject to greater forces.

Thursday, August 24th, 2017

Thursday Fiction Corner: City Folk and Country Folk as a Feminist Novel

Enter the City Folk and Country Folk Book Giveaway here

City Folk and Country Folk

Welcome to the Columbia University Press Thursday Fiction Corner! This week Elaine Wilson, a PhD candidate in Slavic Languages and Literatures at Columbia University, introduces Sofia Khvoshchinskaya’s City Folk and Country Folk as a 19th century feminist novel.

Nora Seligman Favorov’s translation of City Folk and Country Folk is the first of its kind—never before has this story been accessible to a strictly Anglophone audience. And yet it feels familiar to the English-speaking reader, for its headstrong heroines speak their minds and engage their male interlocutors with Jane Austen-esque confidence and wit. It would be unfair to qualify the heroines of this story as simply Russian interpretations of an English literary model, however, as the words—and actions—of the Russian characters have grand implications beyond the events of the story. City Folk and Country Folk is a feminist work. The women central to Sofia Khvoshchinskaya’s novel do not fit the docile, domestic gender stereotype of their century. The youngest heroine, Olenka, makes no secret of her disdain for society’s expectations. The ease with which she rejects men of ostensibly superior social station and her desire to live a life in accord with what she—not social mores—finds to be appropriate, make Olenka a rather unnatural 19th century literary heroine, but a very relevant one in our modern world.

While limiting, the Austen connection is not a casual observation; Olenka’s stubborn, sometimes insolent nature and easy laughter in the face of urban socialite and occasional, albeit hopeless, suitor, the “enlightened” Erast Sergeyevich Ovcharov, recall aspects of Austen’s willful Marianne Dashwood. But unlike Marianne, Olenka never finds herself wounded by a man she loves. In fact, Olenka never even falls in love. Khvoshchinskaya’s female leads are more empowered than their fictional British counterparts most notably because they neither act nor reflect on their actions with regard for male opinion.

In Snetki, a village situated in a rural province outside of Moscow, the arrival of an eligible bachelor (the aforementioned Ovcharov) means different things to the female inhabitants of the small town—humorous curiosity, opportunity for hospitality, and even a means to assume a position of self-righteous indignation—but at no point does Ovcharov’s arrive incite any romantic story arc. What would have held romantic possibilities (or at the very least, possibilities for marriage) in Austen’s writing exists as a more of a nuisance for Sofia Khvoshchinskaya’s heroines. Much of the comedy of City Folk and Country Folk comes from Ovcharov’s multiple frustrated attempts to ingratiate himself with the female residents of Snetki. He is more pest than protagonist; from his insistence upon a strict diet of thin soup and whey to his desperate epistolary cries for attention, Ovcharov is weak and needy to the point of absurdity. Khvoshchinskaya’s prose flaunts this absurdity as a direct response to the literary models of femininity written by her male contemporaries: women as fragile and emotional creatures, frequently victimized by men. City Folk and Country Folk turns this stereotype on its head. One of the most telling scenes of Khvoshchinskaya’s refutation of the delicate 19th century Russian woman takes place in chapter eight. Ovcaharov repeatedly insists that he carry Olenka across a dried up stream bed measuring only a few inches across. An exasperated Olenka, with “coarse candor,” rebuffs these pathetic suggestions of chivalry: “What on earth are you doing? I’m stronger than you are. If you like, it might be better for me to carry you.” (98).

Khvoshchinskaya doesn’t just undercut traditional gender roles through Ovcharov’s inferior strength, she also shows him to be fashion-conscious, emotional, and impetuous. When Olenka laughs at his “magnificent” panama hat, Ovcharov’s inner monologue is instantly petty: “The little fool—she failed to appreciate how stylish it was.” (155). Self-conscious to a fault, “despite all of his European courtesy,” when Olenka laughingly dismisses his flirtation, Ovcharov is “unable to control himself.” (98).

When Katerina Petrovna, a Moscow socialite and former acquaintance arrives in Snetki, Ovcharov agonizes when she does not contact him immediately. His emotional distress manifests as a childish cry for attention:

“Erast Sergeyevich Ovcharov most humbly requests the most venerable and kind Katerina Petrovna to explain to him why she so ungraciously saw fit to fail to remember him this morning when he had the pleasure of seeing her carriage in the village of Snetki at the home of Madame Chulkova.” (110).

Katerina Petrovna’s reply is slightly (and understandably) defensive, but overall the inverse of Ovcharov’s irrational correspondence:

“If I was so ungracious as to fail to remember you, as you put it, Mr. Ovcharov, it was only because you seem to have arranged things so that your friends would not remember you. Please pay me a visit, and then you will be convinced of the unfailing and devoted friendship of yours truly, KPD.” (153).

As an aristocrat of considerable reputation, Katerina Petrovna’s acknowledgment signifies a great deal to Ovcharov, as it would grant him the thing he values most: validation of his own bloated sense of self-worth. He seeks validation of his philosophical and political opinions, both from potential publishers of his writings, and in his attempts to enlighten Olenka and her mother through written and verbal lectures on gender roles and the means of women’s education. The reader never learns how the publisher reacts to Ovcharov’s treatises, but Olenka and her mother are generally indifferent to both the lessons and the man.

And that is one of the most remarkable aspects of this novel—indifference to men. Ovcharov is the story’s lead male protagonist; the other principle masculine characters, at least, those who physically appear within the story, are limited to four: Father Profirii, a timid, non-confrontational priest; dull and portly Simon, the potential match for Olenka; George, Katerina Petrovna’s young son; and Fyodor Fyodorovich, Ovcharov’s surly German servant. These men play their supporting roles in near silence, exerting little to no influence on the protagonists. Their existence and activity are important relative only to the principle female characters. Ovcharov’s role is the most self-determined, though the only thing of consequence he manages to fully achieve is to get in the way.

Conversely, the women in this book—even the villains—exercise control over their own affairs independent of any male influence: Olenka rejects Katerina Petrovna’s manipulative plan to marry her off and maintains her right to choice; her mother, the widowed Nastasya Ivanovna, is a careful landowner and effective manager of the family estate who tries to keep the peace and finances in order; Anna Ilinishna, an opportunistic spinster, masks her social ambitions with false piety and secures herself a series of benefactresses; Katerina Petrovna, separated from her gambling addict husband and refusing to “live for the children alone,” maintains a reputation she built for herself by orchestrating financially and socially advantageous marriages.

City Folk and Country Folk is a feminist novel confronting the oppressive sexism of the 19th century, but it is also a work that resonates very strongly in the 21st century. Austen’s heroines shine with their witty repartee, but for all their self-assuredness, even the Dashwood girls and Lizzie Bennett are moved by the words and waning attentions of the men in their orbit. Khvoshchinskaya’s Snetki heroines never need to prove themselves to any man, nor do they feel the desire to do so, as the stakes are never romantic. These women are confident, carving paths for themselves with no aid or validation from husbands or suitors. Olenka’s character might have developed through a romantic story arc, but the sexual tension is purely one-sided, suffered by Ovcharov alone. Sex and romance aren’t unrealized potential—Khvoshchinskaya doesn’t allow it a meaningful place in her character’s lives—but rather shapes them into strong-willed intellectual creatures. And while Ovcharov feels acutely Olenka’s absence from the carriage, she does not “[give] him a moment’s thought.” (209).

Tuesday, August 22nd, 2017

The Russia of City Folk and Country Folk

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City Folk and Country Folk

Welcome to the Columbia University Press blog! This week we are featuring Sofia Khvoshchinskaya’s City Folk and Country Folk, which has recently come out in Nora Favorov’s translation in the Russian Library series. Today Elaine Wilson, a PhD candidate in Slavic Languages and Literatures at Columbia University, delves into the historical backdrop against which the novel plays out.

“Can a woman be a good mother and a good housekeeper if she spends half the day in a bureau or office filled with men, where liaisons are inevitably formed and demoralization occurs?” –Count Pyotr Andreyevich Shuvalov, counselor to Alexander II

The concept of separate spheres—distinct realms appropriate for male and female sexes, public and domestic, respectively—was widely accepted in the 19th century western world, Russia included. Still, in contrast to many European societies at this time, the number of rights guaranteed by law to Russian (upper class) women was rather significant; even prior to the reforms enacted by Tsar Alexander II, women of the privileged classes could exercise economic independence, own and manage property, issue lawsuits, engage in business transactions, and even file for divorce (Pushkareva). But while Russian women enjoyed more rights and protections than their European counterparts, they were far from privileged citizens. One need only look to the language of the Code of Laws to understand these rights were granted within a larger socio-political framework that ultimately upheld the idea of a woman’s separate sphere and her limited ability to participate in society. The role of the judiciary was to “protect the honor and tranquility of women” from “insults” and free them “from responsibility for some obligations in which they could become involved because of inexperience and gullibility” (Pushkareva). Such language matches the sentiments of Count Pyotr Andreyevich Shuvalov, counsellor to Alexander II during the 1860s and 70s and author of the quote above. But while Shuvalov’s remark is indicative of the predominant patriarchal attitude at the time, it is also reactionary to another question that occupied Russia with increasing urgency amidst the reforms of the mid 19th century: what roles could and should women play?

The answer—and society’s approach to the question—were evolving, right along with ideas regarding other kinds of social and political issues. It is within this changing climate that Sofia Khvoshchinskaya lived and wrote, and these shifting social and political attitudes shaped the characters and circumstances that appear in her works and provide important context for her novel, City Folk and Country Folk.

Under Alexander II, Russia experienced many significant changes, from the abolition of serfdom and greater investment in infrastructure and industry to reforms within the judiciary and educational system. These renovations were steps toward modernization, facilitated in large part through the establishment of local assemblies, or zemstva, which saw to the administration of regional affairs and local welfare. Alexander II’s new policies were generally considered to be a means of enlightening the countryside, though their reach was sufficiently broad that Russian society as a whole underwent a paradigm shift.

The abolition of serfdom in 1861 brought centuries of feudal agricultural practices to a halt and sparked new social and economic realities; in the 19th century, the majority of Russian subjects lived in rural areas, and four fifths of that rural population consisted of serfs and the peasantry (Curtis, 34). The serfs, newly freed, were obligated to pay the government for the land they received (most often a portion of the land they had always worked) through a series of “redemption payments” over the course of forty-nine years. In 1860s Russia, agriculture was not sufficiently advanced to accommodate large scale farming, and only a small percentage of land was truly arable. Even when they were still legally tied to an estate, most peasants had only survived through subsistence farming. Upon emancipation, this limited agricultural output posed a problem, both for the peasantry and the government. Peasants began their lives of freedom deeply in debt with no recourse for stability, much less economic growth; the government, which had hoped the peasant farmers would use their land to feed themselves and cultivate food for export, found itself still unable to pay off foreign debt and burdened with new economic complications (Curtis, 34).

Landed nobles likewise suffered financial losses. Many members of the aristocracy who owned homes in the country did not live on these provincial estates, but rather maintained the land and its properties as distant assets, entrusting their management to someone else. With the abolition of serfdom, these landowners (many of whom infrequently visited their estates), effectively lost a portion of their assets. The government issued bonds to landowners whose serfs were freed, but as the peasants failed to make redemption payments and the government accrued more debt, the value of these bonds fell dramatically. Those landowners who could neither farm nor manage their estates sought to shed their losses and sell their country holdings.

In Sofia Khvoshchinskaya’s fictional village of Snetki, many of the country estates have been accordingly affected by agricultural reforms. The novel’s principle male protagonist, Erast Sergeyevich Ovcharov, “had not looked in on his property for many years, and upon arriving he discovered that he could not possibly live there. The manor house had long since been sold and carted off to town” (Khvoshchinskaya, 7). His walk through the village reveals that many of his neighbor’s homes have met similar fates:

“The cluster of houses was devoid of life. He walked past one of the manor houses built right on the road. The house, its windows boarded up, was gray and utterly lopsided. Of course, it had once been surrounded by outbuildings, but now it sat amid wasteland; only crumbling brick rectangles, overgrown with wormwood and nettles, hinted at the foundations of past structures.” (Khvoshchinskaya, 10)

Ovcharov’s initial impressions upon his return to Snetki are set in stark contrast to the vibrant, idyllic recollections of the summers of his youth. But these estates which have fallen into ruin also underscore the success of Nastasya Ivanovna, the sole remaining landowner in Snetki whose careful management has allowed her house and its inhabitants to maintain a comfortable life. Upon entering Nastasya Ivanovna’s foyer, “Ovcharov noted that it was clean, whitewashed, and orderly. Unlike nine-tenths of rural entrees, it was not cluttered…. This cleanliness made a pleasant impression on Ovcharov, who rightly concluded that the rest of the house and Nastasya Ivnovna’s entire estate were kept in a similar order” (Khvoshchinskaya, 16).

Nastasya Ivanovna is not the only female character notable for her success in a changing era. The Malinnikov sisters—whom we never see—are former Snetki residents who have taken to supporting themselves through translation and writing stories and articles. These women serve as a kind of novelistic cameo for the author and her sisters who worked as authors and translators themselves. But in the context of the story, the hushed tones and subtle sense of scandal surrounding the mademoiselles Malinnikov aren’t just a playful bit of self-effacing humor—Khvoschchinskaya uses this autobiographical nod to illustrate the absurdity of the moralizing attitudes of the era.

“Mademoiselles Malinnikov—one is thirty, the other thirty-five years old—and they are both writers.”
“And at this point, they won’t be getting married,” Nastaya Ivanovna lamented.
“Why not, Nastasya Ivanovna?” Ovcharov asked, noting that his hostess’s verdict had less to do with the ages of Mademoiselles Malinnikov than their vocation. (Khvoshchinskaya, 23)

Absurdity is a common component of many scenes in the novel. At times the characters engage in discussions so silly that they could pass something out of a Monty Python sketch (see the conversation regarding the relative virtues of Swiss and Circassian whey in Chapter 1).

All characters are not unaware of the absurdity, however; Nastasya Ivanovna’s seventeen-year-old daughter, Olenka, rarely makes an appearance without a smirk or a laugh. Young and willful, Olenka embodies the growing sense of independence and choice among women of her century, a foil for the pseudo-intellectual and arrogant Ovcharov, a man with pretensions of “liberating” the women of Snetki through the newest, most fashionable spin on centuries-old misogyny. Indeed, all of the characters of City Folk and Country Folk can be said to represent one of the prevailing attitudes of the changing social reality of 19th century Russia. It is helpful to keep in mind then, exactly what kinds of external factors helped to shape them and the changing landscape of their world.

Curtis, Glenn E. Russia: A Country Study. Library of Congress, 1998, 34.

Khvoshchinskaya, Sofia. City Folk and Country Folk. Translated by Nora Seligman Favorov, Columbia University Press, 2017, 7.

Pushkareva, Natalia. Women in Russian History: From the Tenth to the Twentieth Century. Translated by Eve Levin, Routledge, 2016.

Monday, August 21st, 2017

Book Giveaway! City Folk and Country Folk, by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya, translated by Nora Seligman Favorov

City Folk and Country Folk

“Favorov’s brisk translation and helpful notes make the novel very accessible to present-day readers. This consistently delightful satire will introduce readers to a funnier, more female-centric slant on Russian literature than they may have previously encountered.” –Publishers Weekly (starred review)

This week, our featured book is City Folk and Country Folk, by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya, translated by Nora Seligman Favorov. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

Friday, August 18th, 2017

It Is an Entire World That Has Disappeared

Extinction Studies

“Did they have an intuition of what was and what will have been? That the sky had become a desert? That to be ten, or even a hundred, means to be alone when you are a Passenger Pigeon? Did they know, from their ancestors’ memories, that the land, forests, and fields, seen by few eyes, no longer resembled anything, and that their patterns and colors, so familiar and recognizable when the eyes are many, had become incomprehensibly foreign and senseless for theirs—like a painting by an artist gone mad?” — Vinciane Despret

This week, our featured book is Extinction Studies: Stories of Time, Death, and Generations, edited by Deborah Bird Rose, Thom van Dooren, and Matthew Chrulew, with a foreword by Cary Wolfe. For the final post of the feature, we are happy to present Vinciane Despret’s afterword to the book, translated by Matthew Chrulew.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Extinction Studies!

Thursday, August 17th, 2017

Telling Extinction Stories

Extinction Studies

“And yet, despite this central responsibility, people are involved in extinction in varied and ambivalent ways. We eat animals, log their forests for housing, cull their numbers for convenience, destroy and transform their homes and lives through unyielding systems of development and security. In this context, many people find themselves overwhelmed with the depressing inevitability and crushing finality of extinction. It is all the more astonishing, therefore, that along with sadness there is hope, along with seeming inevitability there is resistance.” — Rose, van Dooren, and Chrulew

This week, our featured book is Extinction Studies: Stories of Time, Death, and Generations, edited by Deborah Bird Rose, Thom van Dooren, and Matthew Chrulew, with a foreword by Cary Wolfe. Today, to start the feature, we are happy to present the introduction, cowritten by the book’s three editors.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Extinction Studies!

Wednesday, August 16th, 2017

Book Giveaway! Extinction Studies

Extinction Studies

Extinction Studies collects haunting and haunted multivoiced stories that echo together in a vibrant plea for an ethic of care, lucidity, and obstinate, stammering hope. We need such stories to make us feel and think with the unraveling of a world we inherit and share together with innumerable entangled forms and ways of life. We need them also to repopulate our devastated imaginations and to help us escape the twin easy temptations of nihilist despair and blind confidence.” — Isabelle Stengers, author of Cosmopolitics

This week, our featured book is Extinction Studies: Stories of Time, Death, and Generations, edited by Deborah Bird Rose, Thom van Dooren, and Matthew Chrulew, with a foreword by Cary Wolfe. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

Wednesday, August 16th, 2017

Dreaming of Energy Otherwise

Energy Dreams

“Like a magic wand, energy is a kind of thing that makes all other things (indeed, everything and everyone) possible. With the caveat that, in its current form, this terrible wand burns, evaporates, brings to naught, or otherwise destroys whatever and whomever are already in existence in order to fuel the realization of our desires. The problem is, perhaps, that we conflate energy not only with its types but also with power lacking any inherent ends.” — Michael Marder

This week, our featured book is Energy Dreams: Of Actuality, by Michael Marder. Today, we are happy to provide an excerpt from another article by Michael Marder, originally published at The Philosophical Salon. Read the article in full here.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Energy Dreams!

Dreaming of Energy Otherwise
By Michael Marder

We are preoccupied, at best, with many types of this desired object: chemical, kinetic, potential, solar, nuclear… We sift through countless examples of energy structuring our existence, yet we are at a loss when it comes to pointing out what characterizes energy itself. Numerous unexamined assumptions are, to be sure, built into our relation to it, and one of these has already popped up here, namely the assertion that energy is a “desired object.” It is treated as a resource, an apple of discord at the heart of geopolitical conflicts and ecological concerns. But are we justified in reducing energy to its objective dimension? Is it not equally a subject, that is to say, an active or animating force flowing through and in us? Are we not transported to a place beyond straightforward oppositions between activity and passivity when we say in the grammatical passive voice we are energized, invested with the capacity to be capable?

Like a magic wand, energy is a kind of thing that makes all other things (indeed, everything and everyone) possible. With the caveat that, in its current form, this terrible wand burns, evaporates, brings to naught, or otherwise destroys whatever and whomever are already in existence in order to fuel the realization of our desires. The problem is, perhaps, that we conflate energy not only with its types but also with power lacking any inherent ends. As a result of this conflation, our theme is imbued with abstract negativity promising to gift us with everything we are dreaming of on the condition of devouring the world of actuality as a whole. (more…)

Tuesday, August 15th, 2017

The Meaning of “Clean Energy”

Energy Dreams

“Environmentally destructive and shockingly shortsighted as these methods of energy production [(nuclear power and fracking)], are, they are not surprising in light of the prevalent conception of energy that involves breaching into and laying bare the depth of things (of the atom, of the earth…) and drawing power from this violent and violating exposure.” — Michael Marder

This week, our featured book is Energy Dreams: Of Actuality, by Michael Marder. Today, we are happy to provide an excerpt from an article that Michael Marder wrote during the recent global conference on climate change in Paris, originally published at The Philosophical Salon. Read the article in full here.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Energy Dreams!

The Meaning of “Clean Energy”
By Michael Marder

As the global conference on climate change is taking place in Paris, it is time to contemplate the meaning of “clean energy.” In the West, the word energy is marked with the force of deadly negativity. It is assumed, for instance, that energy must be extracted, with the greatest degree of violence, by destroying whatever or whoever temporarily contains it. More often than not, it is procured by burning its “source,” in the first instance, plants and parts of plants whether they have been chopped down yesterday or have been dead for millions of years, the timescale sufficient for them to be transformed into coal or oil.

Without giving it much thought, one supposes that the only way to obtain energy, whether for external heating or for giving the body enough of that other heat (namely, “caloric intake”) necessary for life, is by destroying the integrity of something or someone else. Life itself becomes the privilege of the survivors, who celebrate their Pyrrhic victory on the ashes of past and present vegetation and other forms of life they commit to fire.

Seeing that, for Aristotle (who still maintains a strong hold on energeia, a word that he introduced into the philosophical vocabulary), the prototype of matter is hylē, or wood, the violent extraction of energy paints a vivid image of the relation between matter and spirit prevalent in the West. A flaming spirit sets itself to work by destroying its other and triumphs over the wooden matter it incinerates. The price for the energy released in the process of combustion is the reduction of what is burnt to the ground. And, unfortunately, the madness of metaphysical spirit, which sets everything on its path aflame, tends to intensify.

It is not that plants are exempt from the general combustibility that, for Schelling, defined the very living of life. They release oxygen, and so provide the elemental conditions of possibility for the burning of fire. But the vegetal mode of obtaining energy — especially that of the solar variety — is non-extractive and non-destructive; the plant receives its energy by tending, by extending itself toward the inaccessible other, with which it does not interfere. That is one of the most important vegetal lesson to be learned: how to energize oneself, following the plants, without annihilating the sources of our vitality. (more…)

Monday, August 14th, 2017

Introducing Energy Dreams

Energy Dreams

Energy Dreams—the title came to me all of a sudden, as they say “out of the blue,” when I least expected it. It surprised me and, just as swiftly, energized my thought and swathed me in its opacities.” — Michael Marder

This week, our featured book is Energy Dreams: Of Actuality, by Michael Marder. To start the feature, we are happy to present an excerpt from the book’s first chapter.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Energy Dreams!

Monday, August 14th, 2017

Book Giveaway! Energy Dreams, by Michael Marder

Energy Dreams

“Energy is something that pervades all our concerns from ecological to libidinal: we dream about clean renewable energy, condemn fracking, gain strength through energy drinks. Michael Marder’s Energy Dreams moves beyond these topics and asks a more fundamental hermeneutic question: what understanding of energy is presupposed in our mundane concerns? He demonstrates brilliantly that we need a new philosophical paradigm and that only in this way will we be able to properly confront all the practical problems in our dealings with energy. Marder’s book makes it clear that only a deeper theoretical reflection will enable us to solve our most ‘practical’ problems—a lesson needed like daily bread in today’s world, which more and more abhors authentic thinking.” — Slavoj Žižek

This week, our featured book is Energy Dreams: Of Actuality, by Michael Marder. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

Thursday, August 3rd, 2017

Writing The Diagnostic System

The Diagnostic System

“On the one hand, many people would point out what a success the DSM has been, how it had consolidated an otherwise unmanageable scholarly field. Even when offering some qualifications about certain diagnostic criteria, these folks were clearly supportive. On the other hand, it was not uncommon for me to encounter people who vigorously criticized the DSM, root and branch, finding very little validity in its definitions or even much of value to the manual as a whole. To them, we might do just as well to get rid of it altogether and replace the DSM with something else.

It seemed to me they both had a point. ” — Jason Schnittker

This week, our featured book is The Diagnostic System: Why the Classification of Psychiatric Disorders Is Necessary, Difficult, and Never Settled, by Jason Schnittker. Today, we are happy to present part two of an excerpt from the book’s introduction. You can read part one here.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of The Diagnostic System!

Writing The Diagnostic System
By Jason Schnittker

I wrote this book as a way to understand something I regularly encounter at academic meetings. I study psychiatric disorders, including what causes them, what consequences they have, and what people believe about them. The DSM has long played an important role in my life as a scholar, just as it has for virtually everybody else in the field. I provides us with a sort of lingua franca. I attend meetings with sociologists, like myself, but I also attend meetings with psychiatrics, physicians, and historians. We all study the same thing and have similar interests, but it was not uncommon for me to encounter two very different kinds of voices when it came to the DSM. On the one hand, many people would point out what a success the DSM has been, how it had consolidated an otherwise unmanageable scholarly field. Even when offering some qualifications about certain diagnostic criteria, these folks were clearly supportive. On the other hand, it was not uncommon for me to encounter people who vigorously criticized the DSM, root and branch, finding very little validity in its definitions or even much of value to the manual as a whole. To them, we might do just as well to get rid of it altogether and replace the DSM with something else.

It seemed to me they both had a point.

So I wanted to write a book that took a step back and asked why the classification of psychiatric disorders was always so fraught, and to offer arguments for why and how it might be controversial when we get around to writing DSM 6, 7, or 8.

The latest edition of the DSM is DSM-5. As with the editions before it, there has been a lot of controversy surrounding the latest edition. What I think is especially remarkable about DSM-5, though, is how much more information its authors had in front of them when they wrote it. We know a lot more about psychiatric disorders today than we did in the 1970s, around the time DSM-III was being written. We know more about what causes psychiatric disorders, what psychiatric disorders look like at a neurological level, and some of the genes that put people at risk of developing a disorder. We also know a lot more about basic demographic patterns, including age and sex differences. DSM-5 was written by real experts. With all this as background, it was possible DSM-5 could have been a revolutionary change. But it really wasn’t. And, at least to me, it’s unclear how we can parlay our immense scientific knowledge about psychiatric disorders into better diagnostic criteria. (more…)

Wednesday, August 2nd, 2017

The Contested Ontology of Psychiatric Disorders, Part Two

The Diagnostic System

“This book seeks to answer three related questions: why the classification of psychiatric disorders is so difficult, why it is necessary to classify in the first place, and what problems (and solutions) follow from the kinds of classifications we create.” — Jason Schnittker

This week, our featured book is The Diagnostic System: Why the Classification of Psychiatric Disorders Is Necessary, Difficult, and Never Settled, by Jason Schnittker. Today, we are happy to present part two of an excerpt from the book’s introduction. You can read part one here.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of The Diagnostic System!

Tuesday, August 1st, 2017

The Contested Ontology of Psychiatric Disorders, Part One

The Diagnostic System

“Perhaps because the symptoms of mental illness are so common and explanations so easy to grasp, the concept of mental illness invites controversy. When everyone knows something about sadness—about what it feels like, about what causes it—claims of authority, even with respect to official diagnosis, can appear unnecessary or dubious.” — Jason Schnittker

This week, our featured book is The Diagnostic System: Why the Classification of Psychiatric Disorders Is Necessary, Difficult, and Never Settled, by Jason Schnittker. Today, we are happy to present part one of an excerpt from the book’s introduction.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of The Diagnostic System!

Monday, July 31st, 2017

Book Giveaway! The Diagnostic System

The Diagnostic System

“In an area too often marked by advocacy and polemic, The Diagnostic System provides a well-informed, judicious, and, in fact, invaluable guide to a complex body of scholarship and controversy. Perhaps most important, it addresses those complex interrelationships between individual experience and the social, cultural, and institutional circumstances that in part constitute that experience. It is an important book on a foundational if elusive set of questions.” — Charles E. Rosenberg, Harvard University

This week, our featured book is The Diagnostic System: Why the Classification of Psychiatric Disorders Is Necessary, Difficult, and Never Settled, by Jason Schnittker. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

Friday, July 28th, 2017

Horror, Disbelief, and Shame

Struggle on Their Minds

“Rather than simply humanize black Americans as did Du Bois, Wells described how black dehumanization was less an a priori truth and more a meticulous white supremacist social construction. Highlighting the intensity and methodical accuracy with which they dismembered Hose’s body piecemeal also reflected the wish to excise black people from humanity. Publicly destroying black bodies communicated white anxiety about black equality.” — Alex Zamalin

This week, our featured book is Struggle on Their Minds: The Political Thought of African American Resistance, by Alex Zamalin. For the final post of the feature, we are happy to present an excerpt from Zamalin’s chapter on Ida Wells and the antilynching movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway for a chance to win a free copy of Struggle on Their Minds!