This is the first edition of my weekly email newsletter in which I comment on five publications or events that I find noteworthy. If you’d like to subscribe (or unsubscribe), please email me at email@example.com and let me know. I’ll never share your email address.
Time Shelter: A Novel by Georgi Gospodinov (Norton 2022). I haven’t read all of this yet but I am delighted by it thus far and find it strikingly radical. Set mainly in Bulgaria, the protagonist narrates his collaboration with an old friend, Gaustine, who invents a unique method for treating people with Alzheimer’s and other age-related memory disorders: he opens clinics with rooms that are perfect replicas of those that existed at a time that had been happy for them. Some contain the furniture, appliances, and even foods and smells of the 1950s; others reproduce those of the 1960s or 1970s, etc. Gaustine discovers that spending time in these rooms helps patients recover some cognitive capacities and feel comforted in their final days. This leads to an expansion of spaces devoted to the therapeutic use of the past. Era-specific rooms become floors and then building complexes and then cities. Even nations try to console themselves by returning to days gone by (while fighting over which past to recreate). Of course, nostalgia is a familiar topic in literary fiction, but Time Shelter is not so much about nostalgia as the idea that we might be able to force time and space into a complementary symbiosis. To make that happen, how would we construct space and history and how would they interact? It is these questions that make the novel feel radical and somewhat utopian. The book reminds me of WG Sebald’s Austerlitz, which also explores the compensatory use of architecture, although Sebald tends toward anxious resignation, whereas Gospodinov is playful and aggressive, which suggests that he thinks that we might be able to untangle the riddles of being and becoming. Communism plays an important role in the work, a function of the Bulgarian context, which underscores that our views of history are innately political. This brought to mind The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera. Unlike Kundera, whose reflections on memory can seem indulgent and celebratory—”aren’t our problems majestic?” he seems to ask— Gospodinov is punk rock and austere. Hopefully the book’s concluding chapters won’t disappoint.
There are few more important questions in the movement against mass incarceration than this one: to end it, do we mainly need to elect better politicians (so that they can enact better policies) or is it so deeply implicated in our society that we need a social revolution? In his smart essay, “Busting the Myth,” Brad Haywood provides support for the latter position. He argues that the strategy of electing progressive prosecutors has failed to produce the desired results because the justice system, as a system, typically prevents reformist prosecutors from producing better outcomes. It’s here: https://inquest.org/busting-the-myth-progressive-prosecutors/
The successful recall of Chesa Boudin, San Francisco’s anti-carceral DA, hit the local left hard. When trying to make sense of this, commentators typically (and correctly) note the moneyed interests mobilized against him and their webs of lies and misinformation. This is true of Sage Mace’s helpful piece, “How San Francisco’s criminal justice reform became undone.” However, we should acknowledge that the recall is not just a defeat for Boudin but also for a strategy of challenging state violence by electing radical DAs. Boudin was unable to mobilize enough public support to beat back the recall and there is little reason to suppose that another person would have had (or will have) more success. Sage Mace’s article is here: https://eltecolote.org/content/en/how-san-franciscos-criminal-justice-reform-became-undone/
When Mexico’s left-wing president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), leaves office in 2024, his many unfulfilled promises will cast a long shadow over future attempts to push the country in a more egalitarian direction. Whereas most accounts of his failures focus on his public safety and economic records, in “The Mexican Health Care System Under the Administration of AMLO,” Carole H. Browner and Gustavo Leal Fernández unpack his unsuccessful attempt to socialize Mexico’s crumbling health care system. Their analysis is here: https://nacla.org/mexican-health-care-system-under-administration-amlo
I love finding traces of older urban systems. For me, reminders that cities operated differently in the past affirms that they could work differently in the future—change is possible. Aaron Goldstein’s tours of water tank towers explore a great instance of this. These towers, which exist throughout Berkeley and Oakland, were constructed to hold water that was drawn from ground wells and later flushed into buildings with gravity. Those that remain have long since been converted to different purposes, but they are difficult to unsee once you start noticing them. You can read about Aaron and his tours here: https://www.berkeleyside.org/2022/03/27/berkeley-architect-tracking-the-east-bay-backyard-water-towers and here https://aarongoldstein.us/about-aaron.
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