Sunday 26 November 2023

Invent Your Way Out

Here's a thing: I trust the label "classic." So when I saw the red spine of Bernard Malamud's The Magic Barrel, a collection of short stories first published in 1958, and republished in Penguin's Vintage Classics series in 2002, I happily plucked it off the library shelf and brought it home with me. Malamud is a very famous American writer, with a major short-story writing award named after him, but I had never heard of him.

The Magic Barrel by Bernard Malamud

Discovering his stories was marvelous fun, not least because they are well-crafted and wise. Take, as a delightful example, this conversation about writing between the two characters of "The Girl of My Dreams":

Olga reached into her market bag and brought out several packages. She unwrapped bread, sausage, herring, Italian cheese, soft salami, pickles and a large turkey drumstick. 

 'Sometimes I favor myself with these little treats. Eat, Mitka.'

Another landlady. Set Mitka adrift, and he enticed somebody's Mama. But he ate, grateful she had provided an occupation.

The waiter brought the drinks. 'What's going on here, a picnic?'

'We're writers,' Olga explained.

'The boss will be pleased.'

'Never mind him, eat, Mitka.'

He ate listlessly. A man had to live. Or did he? When had felt this low? Probably never.

Olga sipped her whiskey. 'Eat, it's self-expression.'

He expressed himself by finishing off the salami, also half the loaf of bread, cheese, and herring. His appetite grew. Searching within the bag Olga brought out a package of sliced corned beef and a ripe pear. He made a sandwich of the meat. On top of that the cold beer was tasty.

'How is the writing going now, Mitka?'

He lowered the glass but changed his mind and gulped the rest.

'Don't speak of it.'

'Be uphearted, not down. Work every day.'

He gnawed the turkey drumstick.

'That's what I do. I've been writing for over twenty years and sometimes--for one reason or another--it gets so bad that I don't feel like going on. But what I do then is relax for a short while and then change to another story. After my juices are flowing again I go back to the other and usually that starts off once more. After you've been writing so long as I you'll learn a system to keep yourself going. It depends on your view of life. If you're mature you'll find out how to work.'

'My writing is a mess,' he sighed. 'a fog, a blot.'

'You'll invent your way out,' said Olga, 'if you only keep trying.' (The Magic Barrel, pp 30-31) 

Inventing their way out seems to be something all of Malamud's characters do, in one way or another. The astonishing final story, 'The Magic Barrel', features a hapless rabbinical student, Leo Finkle, employing a matchmaker to find him a wife. To one of these prospective brides, Finkle explains his religious calling:

'I am not,' he said gravely, 'a talented religious person,' and in seeking words to go on, found himself possessed by shame and fear. 'I think,' he said in a strained manner, 'that I came to God not because I loved Him, but because I did not.' This confession he spoke harshly because its unexpectedness shook him. (The Magic Barrel, p. 164).

"A talented religious person," is a wonderful resonant phrase, and The Magic Barrel is full of moments like this. I recommend it.

Sunday 5 November 2023

Everybody loves a bonfire

Guy Fawkes

Humber Estuary: 1955

The last thing our Guy Fawkes will see
is the sea coming in to rescue him.
But the sea won't reach. The rockets
and Catherine wheels will reach,
but the tide is too low to douse a fire.
Shriveled to penny eyes and shells for teeth,
his ashes will drift to the estuary,
his wide mouth leak the oils and tars
of Sheffield's industrial froth.
Push-netters shrimping the shallows
might have helped if they had heard,
but they're ranters and levellers to a man.
bonfire at ocean beach
"bonfire at ocean beach" by maywong_photos is licensed under CC BY 2.0      
Everybody loves a bonfire.
Everybody loves to see Guy Fawkes burned.
The crowds will pay sixpence for fresh crab
and shrimps in brown paper bags.
The last thing our Guy Fawkes will see 
is the cocklers and inshore fishermen,
warm in tarred oilskins and sou'westers
pretending they are boys again,
shouting for the death of the straw man,
the fire of belief in their eyes,
the fists of the future in their hands.
a dance of screaming crowds in the sea.
~ William Bedford, The Dancers of Colbek (2020), p. 19

Sunday 29 October 2023

New Recipes of Exciting Times

If at the beginning of March you had asked me, 'Where do you see yourself in October?', my answer would not have been 'in a new country.' After twelve years in the UK, it's a surprise and delight to find myself in the Netherlands! At the beginning of September, I moved to Utrecht to start a postdoc on early medieval letter writing. So far so good--my colleagues and my work are wonderful, and the first two months have flown by.

Looking back over what I've cooked this year, what stands out is my purchase of a slow cooker in the late winter, and the period where I was interviewing for my new job (March and April) and moving (August and September). Change is hard on one's desire to cook new things, but I'm starting to feel settled in to my new kitchen, and looking forward to seeing what I'll cook here.


  • Sabath masoor ki dal (brown lentils with onions, tomatoes, and ginger), Indian Slow Cooker
  • Rajma (red kidney beans), Indian Slow Cooker
  • Whole wheat spaghetti with roasted squash (source unrecorded)
  • Avocado Chocolate Pudding from Leite's Culinaria 


  • Hare moong ki khichdi (green mung beans and rice), Indian Slow Cooker
    Indian slow cooker: recipes for curries, dals, chutneys, masalas, biryani, and more
    I'd recommend this cookbook (as you can tell by the number of recipes I tried from it!)


  • Parsnip miso soup with sticky parsnip peel, Waitrose
  • Lime and miso dressing, Natural
  • Rosario Guillermo's Black Bean Charros, World Vegetarian
  • Chana masala, Indian Slow Cooker


  • Tembal Dolma (cabbage with rice and currants), World Vegetarian
  • South Indian Carrot and Ginger Relish, World Vegetarian
  • Swedish Limpa Bread, Heartland




  • Winter Squash Soup with Red Onion Crisp, Smitten Kitchen Keepers
  • Chickpeas Cooked in a Moghlai Style, World Vegetarian
  • Risotto with tomato and aubergine, World Vegetarian
  • Pumpkin with Sultanas, World Vegetarian
    World Vegetarian continues to be one of my favourite cookbooks!

Sunday 1 October 2023

A Diptych for Molly

I go down to the shore

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall —
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

~ Mary Oliver, A Thousand Mornings, p. 1 

a dock on the ocean with a bare tree and blue sky
20 December 2022

I ask Percy how I should live my life

Love, love, love, says Percy.
And hurry as fast as you can
along the shining beach, or the rubble, or the dust.

Then, go to sleep.
Give up your body heat, your beating heart.
Then, trust.

~ Mary Oliver, Red Bird: Poems via Words for the Year

2 September 2023 (A.C. Williard)

Sunday 23 July 2023

#AHA Reads 2023: The Illustrated History of Football by David Squires

One of the tasks I selected from the 2023 AHA Summer Reading Challenge was to read a graphic history. After searching my local library's catalogue, I selected cartoonist David Squires' The Illustrated History of Football, for the reasons that, 1) there were few options to choose from and 2) I know very little about sports history.

AHA Readings Bingo Card
#AHAReads Bingo Card

The Illustrated History of Football is a book by a football fan for football fans. The book focuses on major games, tournaments, and players, with just enough cartoons covering the state of the sport to give an overall sense of narrative. An example:

The British Empire stretched to all corners of the globe, generously freeing foreign lands of their natural resources and introducing native people to order, genocide, and a ruddy good dose of fair play. The British also gave the gift of football to the world. The world showed its gratitude by becoming really good at it and ritually humiliating them on the international stage every couple of years or so. It wasn't just jackbooted imperialists who were spreading the game though. Britain's wealthy industrialists were setting up global operations too, taking with them workers who enjoyed nothing more than a lunchtime kickabout. Teachers, bankers, engineers, dock workers, sailors, miners; all of them plying their profession overseas, all of them displaying the famed British work ethic of wiling away the working hours until they could piss about with their friends. (16)

I'm writing this post as the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup begins. You wouldn't learn that women watch, let alone play, football from The Illustrated History of Football. The one mention of women in the entire book is a joke about English football managers resisting the inclusion of women's toilets in stadiums, a single panel in a cartoon about the renovation of stadiums and skyrocketing of ticket prices in the 1990s (123). There's also joke about a female television anchor being a football fan in a later panel of the same cartoon. 

To be fair to Squires, it's meant to be a funny book and the harassment and abuse experienced by female football fans is anything but amusing. While a 2021 survey by the Football Supporters Association shows that fans' disapproval of sexist and misogynist behaviour has increased since 2014, recent reporting by The Athletic shows that the sport still has a long way to go. (I read the latter piece after it was recommended in the Longreads weekly newsletter earlier this year.) Kick It Out's statistics for the 2022-2023 season show a massive increase in reporting of sexist and misogynistic abuse, especially online.

While we're on the subject of discrimination in football, a few comics in the book do highlight the long history of racism in football, especially in the 1990s, with the media response to Cameroon at the 1990 World Cup (118) and Jean-Marie Le Pen's bigotry towards France's 1998 World Cup team (141) held up as examples. The last cartoon in the book is from 2016, so more recent events, such as the 2020 European Championship are not covered.

While the experiences of female football fans might be hard to highlight in a cartoon history, the complete lack of mention of female footballers is surprising. Given that Squires wrote his football cartoons for the Guardian, this is baffling, but it also seems like a missed opportunity for poking fun at the outrageous, unjust or just plain ridiculous, something that Squires does elsewhere in the book. The British Ladies football association was founded in the 1890s, and the reporting about early women's football matches is unhinged. Jokes about newspaper reporting on early women footballers practically write themselves. Consider, however, fact that the largest crowd ever gathered in the UK for a women's football match was 53,000 people, and the match in question occurred in 1920. A year later, the Football Association banned women's football, a ban that was not lifted until 1971. The first women's World Cup took place in 1991--Squires' recent comic shows some of the highlights up to the present day.

These are all facts I learned from reading I did while writing this post; things I learned from The Illustrated History of Football itself include:

  • that football fanzines exist
  • an outline history of 1976 and 1978 World Cups
  • that Steve McMahon and Bruce Grobbelar had a "hip-hop battle [sic]", the "Anfield Rap," one of the worst sports songs even made 
  • that Columbian footballer Andrés Escobar was murdered after the 1994 World Cup 
  • that the US Department of Justice indicted multiple senior of officials of FIFA (Fédération internationale de Football Association) on corruption charges in 2015
  • that footballer Luis Suárez has bitten opponents, repeatedly, making him a gift to football cartoonists everywhere
In sum, this is book isn't an introduction to the history of football and isn't designed to be. If you have a father, brother, cousin, partner, or friend who is mad about football, this book might make a good present. I suspect that comics included have been selected make the book saleable to people who don't read the Guardian. While it did make me laugh in places, I'll keep looking for a book on the history of football the covers the larger social and cultural context that makes sports interesting to me.

Wednesday 7 June 2023

#AHAReads: 2023 Summer Reading Challenge

It's time for the second annual #AHAReads, a summer reading challenge for historians. Even though it took me a year to finish, I loved participating in the 2022 challenge. Despite what a busy summer ahead, I still want to participate in the 2023 challenge and write about what I read.

Here's this year's bingo card.

AHA Reads Bingo Card 2023
#AHA Reads: 2023 Summer Reading Challenge Bingo Card

Between 1 June and 4 September (Labour Day in the United States), one can complete the challenge by picking three of the following options:

  • Read a history written for young readers
  • Read a history of your local community or state
  • Read a graphic history
  • Read a history written by someone with a different background from your own
  • Free space: read a history that's been on your shelf too long (we all have one!)
  • Read a history published before 2000
  • Read a piece of historical fiction (novel, poem, story, play) set in the time or place you study
  • Read a history that has been challenged or banned
  • Read a history of a place you know little about

As I did last year, I'm setting the following additional guidelines:

  • No purchasing books for the challenge. Books must either be already in my collection, borrowed from my library, or loaned by a friend.
  • Print books only--summer reading challenges are supposed to be fun, and for me, reading an ebook is not.
  • Blog about what I read and finish writing all posts by 4 September.

So which challenges have I chosen and what am I reading?

My first choice is to read a history that's been on your shelf too long (we all have one!). Although there are many late antique and early medieval history titles I could choose, I'm going to go with Karen Harvey's The Impostress Rabbit Breeder, which has been on loan from a friend for over a year, and which I need to return before the end of August.
The Imposteress Rabbit-Breeder
The Imposteress Rabbit Breeder by Karen Harvey
My next choice is to read a history of a place you know little about. My choice is a book I've had borrowed from the library for awhile, Serhii Plokhy's The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine.

The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine (Paperback)
The Gates of Europe by Serhii Ploky

My final choice is to read a graphic history. Thanks to the incredible work of my University's fine art librarian, the library where I work now has a zine collection! I've been wandering by and flipping through them for the past few months but haven't made the time to sit down and read one properly. Plus, zine are usually pretty short, and I may not have a lot of time for reading this summer.
Which should I read first? Wishing everyone participating in the challenge a fun selection of books, and the time and space to enjoy them.

Saturday 3 June 2023

#AHAReads 3: Black on Both Sides by C. Riley Snorton

Last year I took part in the American Historical Association's first annual summer reading challenge. While I met my goal of reading and taking notes on three books between the first of June and the end of August, I didn't finish blogging about them. Until now!

The third and final book I read for #AHAReads 2022 was C. Riley Snorton's Black on Both Sides: A Racial History of Trans Identity, which was inspired by the prompt to read a history of an identity group you don’t belong to.

The book blurb reads:

Black on Both Sides identifies multiple intersections between blackness and transness from the mid-nineteenth century to present-day anti-black and anti-trans legislation and violence. Drawing on a deep and varied archive of materials, Snorton attends to how slavery and the production of racialized gender provided the foundations for an understanding of gender as mutable.

Cover of Black on Both Sides by C. Riley Snorton

From the start of the book, Snorton makes it clear that he is not writing a traditional historical study.

 'Organised around a series of events that provide occasion for bringing both signs--blackness and transness--into the same frame, Black on Both Sides is not a history per se as much as it is a set of political propositions, theories of history, and writerly experiments." p. 6

Non-traditional methods of analysis, he asserts, require non traditional structures (p.11-12). As a reader, I found these experiments thought-provoking and persuasive. The author's use of literary theory, trans theory, black studies, and theories of history, is that of an expert, and seeks to engage an audience able and willing to keep up. As a non-expert in any of these areas, I found it challenging, and worth it. As Snorton express it at the end of the book, 

'theory, at its best, is nothing more than "dreams/myths/histories" aimed at giving expression to ways of seeing and ways of being in the world.' (p. 185)

My main takeaway from the introduction and the first chapter was that, when blackness and transness coexist, this creates the possibility of flexibility in gender. Or as Snorton puts it,

'Together this chapter and its companion, "Anatomically Speaking" (chapter 1), explore how transness became capable, that is, differently conceivable as a kind of being in the world where gender--though biologized--was not fixed but fungible, which is to say, revisable within blackness, as a condition of possibility.' p. 59

The book's five chapters are presented in three parts. The first chapter focuses on James Marion Sims' surgical experiments on enslaved black women, as way to examine how nineteenth century scientists categorised physical attributes of the body to create and support racial hierarchies. Snorton points out that, Sim's 'patients', as enslaved women, were fundamentally unable to consent to his experimental, unanesthetized surgical procedures (p. 24), yet his discussion of how Sim's autobiographical writings, and the nineteenth century medical establishment's responses to his work, focus on the experiences and perspectives of Lucy, Betsy, and Anarcha, and the unnamed enslaved women who were his experimental subjects and unacknowledged surgical attendants. Anarcha's experiences, in particular, lead into a discussion of the relationship between odour and disgust; Snorton raises the possibility that enslaved people may have deliberately use body odour for protection (p. 27). In discussing the limits of what we can understand about the experiences of enslaved women, Snorton uses Evelyn Hammond's work, particularly her  formulation of "black holes" in our evidence, to argue that historical analysis should be "attuned to the effects of an undetectably present thing" (p. 43)

The chapter serves to establish our understanding of the relationship between race and gender in nineteenth century America, which builds into the second chapter, discussing the ways that free Black people, and slaves seeking freedom, used mutability of gender. While an overseas slave trade became illegal in the United States in 1808, domestic slavery was legal until 1865, leading local and federal laws to 'articulate a grammar rife with euphemism to disavow the violent processes by which land and persons would find primary legal expression as property' (p. 56). One of the chapter's case studies is of the lives and writings of William and Ellen Craft. The Crafts fled enslavement in disguise--Ellen, who could pass for white, dressed in male clothing; her husband pretended to be her slave. Snorton describes the couple's different kinds of transition--between black and white, male and female, enslaved and free--as 'transubstantiation', and also explores the transformations wrought by their nineteen years of residence and activism in England, where they published an autobiography, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom. Their book, Snorton argues, plays with audiences understandings and perceptions of racial characteristics.

'Speaking to a transnational audience of abolitioinists and others, whom he hoped to persuade to an antislavery position, Craft frames the 'cruelty' of American whiteness in terms of its particular species' characteristics.' (p. 85)

As Snorton makes clear, William and Ellen Craft's story is complex: their activism in England included support for British colonial expansion into Africa, and the educational and Christianizing projects that were part of this (p. 95). 

The complexities of race and self-representation are explored in the next section, 'Transit', which contains a single chapter focused on the "female" (the quotation marks are Snorton's) in books anthologised in Three Negro Classics (1965): Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington, The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B Du Bois, and The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man by James Weldon Johnson. Once the chapter's theoretical groundwork has been laid, Snorton's focus is on exploring the figure of the black mother. 'The black mother's gender is vestibular, a translocation marked by a capacity to reproduce beings and objects. But one should not mistake her figuration for the real.' (p. 107) The importance of keeping the differences between literary representation and reality is one that the authors Snorton examines emphasized to their audiences. As Snorton demonstrates in his analysis of the Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois explores

'how racism produces myriad institutional impediments for black artists while also undermining a myth of meritocracy, which would suggest that those black people who have been successful have done so because their work is so exceptional as to transcend race or racial prejudice...the popularity of black artists does not indicate more positive conditions for black people.' (p. 114)

These third and final section of the book, Blackout, focuses on the journalistic representations of trans stories. Snorton's methodology in engaging with the news as a source is to recognise midcentury framing and its purpose (which was to make those profiled seem like jokes), refrain from adding a 'conventionally satisfying ending' to stories that do not have one, and avoid including birth names or deadnames or accounts of trans awakenings, in favour of trying not to 'perform gender as teleology' (p. 145). The chapter focuses on reporting on the stories Black trans women, including Lucy Hicks Anderson (145-151), Georgia Black (151-157), Carlett Brown (157-161), and Ava Betty Brown (161-166), in the midcentury Black press. Reporters often reached for the story of Christine Jorgensen, a white trans woman, as a point of comparison, which in turn enables Snorton to analyse the role of race in reporting on trans stories. A key difference, as Snorton shows in the case of Ava Betty Brown, was the importance of 'black sociality'--Ava Betty Brown's friends, acquiantances and business associates all saw her as a woman, and as she said in court "If I am a man, I don't know it." (p. 162). The chapter concludes with a discussion of the story of James McHarris / Annie Lee Grant (162-174); a reporter's use of the word 'restive' sparks a thoughtful investigation of McHarris/Grant's gender fluidity. As Snorton writes,

'There is a growing consensus in transgender studies that trans embodiment is not exclusively, or even primarily, a matter of the materiality of the body. Where one locates a 'transsexual real,' whether phenomenologically, in the practices (social, legal, medical, and so on) of transition, in  narrative, via the cinematic, or even in the unspeakable and unrepresentative aspects of imagining transness, shifts in relation to racial blackness. In apposition with transness, blackness, as, among modes of valuation through various forms, producing shadows that precede their constituting subjects/objects to give meaning to how gender is conceptualized, traversed, and lived.' 175

The final chapter brings together investigations of the intersection of transness and Blackness by examining reporting and film-making about the1993 murders of Brandon Teena, Philip DeVine, and Lisa Lambert. Despite the journalistic fever around Christine Jorgensen, Brandon Teena, after his murder, was characterised in the news 'as America's first glimpse into the world of transgender people.' (178-180) In the film Boys Don't Cry (1999), and other formulations of what Snorton calls 'the Brandon archive', Philip DeVine, who was Black and disabled, is left out of the story. Snorton stresses that the chapter does not aim to add Phillip DeVine back into the story or pull on the heartstrings. Instead, 'this chapter, following Sylvia Winter's work, asks, What aspects of DeVine's figuration, as a matter of sociogenesis, constitute a usable history for more liveable black and trans lives?' (p. 183). The final section of the chapter looks at the Black Lives Matter, Trans Lives Matter, and Black Trans Lives Matter movements, and how to create a future where 'all of these lives will have mattered to everyone' (p. 198). Learning from and listening to the past, as Snorton has done in Black on Both Sides, is hopefully one step towards that future.

Further Reading

Black on Both Sides was the subject of an African-American Intellectual History Society online roundtable, found on their blog, Black Perspectives. Each of the chapters is the subject of an essay, and the roundtable concludes with an author's response. Highly recommended if you want to see expert perspectives on this book--after reading it, it's clear to me that I missed or didn't follow a number of important points.

Professor Snorton was interviewed for UChicago News; it's a great read and includes discussion of Black on Both Sides.

There is also further reading in the book's endnotes. Jacqueline Dowd's idea of the long Civil Rights Movement seems very important to think with; it helps 'unsettle the version of linear progression that the previous chronology implied.' (p. 233) The notes also cites Tavia Nyong'o's Essay about Caster Semenya, which links contemporary panics about Semenya's gender and athletic performance with journalistic reactions to other people with 'non-normative gender presentations', like Peter Jones; there is a later version as a journal article here.

#AHA Reads

The rest of my #AHAReads posts can be found here:

The AHA has just shared the 2023 challenge and I'm looking forward to taking part and blogging about what I read.