Posts by David Maclean

Book Recommendations for the New Normal

Suggested reading for the fast-approaching U.S. Presidential Inauguration and our changing world politics

This Friday, real estate mogul Donald Trump will be sworn is in as the 45th President of the United States. Last month, Italy’s citizenry voted effectively for the resignation of its Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, in a referendum applauded by France’s right-wing, nationalist party leader Marine Le Pen, while another far-right conservative, Francois Fillon, is expected to win the French presidential election in May. Last summer, the world watched the historic Brexit vote, and Austrian presidential candidate Norbert Hofer, who ran on the promise of an Austrian Brexit, lost the nation’s vote by a very close margin last month.  

The political climate all over the west is profoundly changing, and those who failed to predict the current developments are scrambling to make sense of them. Book proposals by diplomats, pundits, and economists are flooding publishers’ inboxes, all claiming to have the most accurate analysis of the causes of Trump’s win or Britain’s isolationism. But a look at the past, and some past literature, suggests that perhaps we should be surprised at our own surprise. We gathered some book recommendations to prepare you for this Friday and the vast challenges ahead because—wait for it—knowledge is power (sorry!) and there are many already-published texts, many in the history category, with a wealth of relevant knowledge to impart.

Asymptote’s Marketing Manager David Maclean suggests you check out:

Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday , translated by Anthea Bell (Pushkin Press, 2013)

“As a great many political pundits have pointed out, the resurgence of nationalist and far-right movements throughout Europe has more than a passing resemblance to the initial rise of fascist groups prior to the Second World War. Disguised as an autobiography, Zweig’s The World of Yesterday offers a coruscating portrayal of the idealism of pre-war Europe and the European cross-cultural project, as well as the fragility of the ideals of Enlightenment in the face of (dangerously) cynical realpolitik, ignorance, and the fostering of prejudice. The nation cannot be loved above all else, warned Simone Weil, since it has no soul—and indeed it is the balkanization of Europe that Zweig portrays as a logical result of nationalist movements that propagate loyalty to the nation above all else. His book is also one of resistance, of the possibility for literature and art to resist the totalitarianism of thought imposed upon us through exercising our creative imaginations—an understated but underestimated daily act of resistance.”

The Word for World is Forest by Ursula le Guin (Tor Books, 2010)

“I had thought to include Rachel Carson’s seminal 1962 book The Silent Spring, which arguably thrust eco-criticism and global conservation into the mainstream debate, but since the United States’ president-elect seems intent on living in a fantasy world regarding man-made climate change, I decided to be magnanimous and stick with his chosen genre. The novella details a logging colony established on the fictional planet of Athshe by Earth’s military-industrial complex, which is slowly but surely denuding the planet of its primary resources and leaving vast swathes of it barren and lifeless. The novel hinges on a conflict of ideologies between the native population, which may be well be seen as a surrogate for nature, and ourselves (the Terrans) who view nature as a disposable resource for immediate consumption and have little to no regard for the long-term consequences. In the Athshean language, the word for “forest” is also the word for “world”, showing the dependence of the Athshean culture upon the forest, much as we all depend upon a fecund, hospitable world that continues to dance on the brink of ecological ruin.”

Blog Editor Madeline Jones found pertinent wisdom in:

The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to Present by John Pomfret (Henry Holt, 2016)

“We all know that the U.S. president-elect likes to make China a scape goat for basically whatever he thinks is unsatisfactory about American affairs that he can’t conceivably blame on Crooked somebody or Lyin’ somebody else. Of Trump’s targets of aggression now that he’s been elected, China perhaps comes in second only to FAKE NEWS (caps his). We’ve all heard the “Gina” jokes. His lack of understanding of diplomacy generally but particularly regarding China is near-comical, so it’s difficult to even wrap your mind around the implications of his attitudes toward the world’s largest economy, but it is vital that at least someone in his administration does. In the meantime, I decided to try to understand the nuances of the relationship better myself. This book is invaluable—and highly readable—to that end. It’s not short, but it’s a one-stop shop.”

The Fire This Time, edited by Jesmyn Ward (Scribner, 2016)

“Pointedly drawing inspiration from James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, Ward has gathered responses from her generation’s most eminent voices on race in the form of critical essays, personal reflections, and poetry. From Jericho Brown to Daniel Jose Older, Claudia Rankine to Clint Smith, the contributors make this a worthwhile read for its own, aesthetic sake, but it’s also an emotional and timely reminder of the ways in which society has not changed since Baldwin was writing, the areas in which there is still vital need for improvement. While newspapers and magazines have been praising J.D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy since Trump won the Republican nomination as the book to understand America today, I found Ward’s book to be an important counterargument to that narrative, especially given Jeff Sessions’s imminent confirmation by the Senate. Vance’s book has merit, certainly, but the current focus on “understanding the white working class” cannot be emphasized at the expense of a focus on race relations and the continued economic and privilege gap between white Americans and black and Hispanic Americans. Reading Hillbilly Elegy is a worthwhile exercise in empathy, but it’s no more important than reading Ward’s collection. Baldwin wrote, ‘You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read.’ There is plenty of pain and heartbreak in The Fire This Time, too.”

Blog Editor Hanna Heiskanen recommends:

The Establishment: And How They Get Away With It by Owen Jones (Penguin, 2014)

“British journalist and writer Owen Jones (b. 1984) hasn’t made a secret of his political inclinations (very left-wing, in case you haven’t heard), and he was a staunch critic of Donald Trump throughout his election campaign. His 2014 book, The Establishment: And How They Get Away With It, which was met both with great praise and criticism, zooms in on the power structures of British society and is now more relevant than ever. Owen claims that while the people continue voting in elections, behind the scenes, a network of the unelected, unaccountable, and immensely powerful advisors and diplomats control our lives and steer decision-making. Though Jones’s book focused on the UK and some of its seemingly unique features, such as the grooming of the new ruling class at top universities, or the privatisation of public services, its fundamental premise applies to almost any country you could point to on the map. Whether you grew up in a Nordic welfare society or listening to stories about the American Dream, this makes for a relevant, albeit depressing, read.”

The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1848, 2015 Penguin)

“It might be old, and many would say old-fashioned, but the grand ideologies of the 19th and 20th centuries, capitalism and communism, continue to have an undeniable impact on our societies and politics. Many have explained the rise of the far-right and nationalist sentiments around the world with the collapse of traditional industries that would have supported generations of working families who now feel unnecessary or displaced. Now, with the rise of China as a world power, as well as a future in which robots will take over an increasing number of tasks from humans, Marx’s writings suddenly don’t seem as outdated anymore.”

And literary critic Harold Bloom offered:

“The only thing I can think of right now is Yeats’ ‘The Second Coming’.”


Read More Book Recommendations:

A Moveable Feast: A Year of Reading Women in Translation

In a genre that prides itself on celebrating diversity and shining a light on marginalised voices, women authors have consistently been overlooked.

This August marked the third anniversary of #WomenInTranslation month, a much-needed attempt to redress the balance between male and female authors within translated fiction. In a genre that prides itself on celebrating diversity and shining a light on marginalised voices, women authors have consistently been overlooked by publishers. The numbers paint a rather depressing picture, since according to Three Percent’s database, translated literature makes up approximately 3 percent of the literature published in English-speaking markets, and women make up a fraction of that — a mere 30 percent, or 0.9 percent of the literature that makes it to stores.

In this respect, #WIT Month is a fantastic way of highlighting women’s voices through the power of social media – demonstrating that not only are these books read, but that there is a large audience with a voracious appetite for literature in translation penned (and translated) by women. But I suspect that, like many others, once the dust has settled and we roll into Fall, my reading habits fall back into routine. The culture industry reflects the character of the society that it markets to, and the fact remains that it is considerably harder for women to get their work to appear to English than their male counterparts. If the problem is to achieve any sort of resolution, #WIT Month needs to first inspire a recognition of the gender biases within the industry and reading habits at large, and to introduce readers to women authors that end up being overlooked or that they might not otherwise have heard of — in short, WIT Month should become a moveable feast.


An Interview with Eleanor McDowall of Radio Atlas

Finding a way to understand the language without destroying the poetry of its delivery seems key to me.

Radio Atlas is an exciting new project gathering together subtitled audio from around the world – introducing listeners to a whole slew of inventive, genre-bending documentaries, drama and sound art made in languages that they may not necessarily speak.

Eleanor McDowall is an established radio documentary maker and producer with Falling Tree Productions, an independent production company based in London. She has helped to pioneer “animated radio” productions at home in the United Kingdom, and produces BBC Radio 4’s much-lauded series,‘Short Cuts’, with the British comedian, Josie Long.


David Maclean: Can you give me a brief history of Radio Atlas, i.e. how it came together and its origins?

Eleanor McDowall: Radio Atlas emerged out of a desire I had for a platform that didn’t exist—an easy, accessible way of engaging with interesting audio in languages I didn’t speak. I’d had a lot of experience listening to documentaries with big wads of paper on my knee, flicking through a translation as the audio played out, and desperately hoping that I hadn’t lost my place. A few years ago I saw an early event by the wonderful In The Dark where they played a Norwegian audio documentary in a cinema with subtitles and I was struck by how natural the experience was. This was the first time that I got away from feeling I was ‘reading’ a documentary and felt like I was really ‘hearing’ it. Radio Atlas is an attempt to make the most sympathetic subtitling experience I can for the audio—so hopefully you stop thinking about the text and start listening.


My 2015

Sometimes there are books that you leave the store reading and can’t put down, and there have been quite a few of those this year.

It’s been a fantastic year for literature and, consequently, not such a stellar year for my bank balance as all these purchases have begun taking over my apartment. I recently discovered that there is a word for this condition in Japanese, “tsundoku”; letting books pile up unread as you buy new ones to add to the literary Tower of Babel rising ever higher in your apartment. But sometimes there are books that you leave the store reading and can’t put down, and there have been quite a few of those this year.

Jonathan Bate’s Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life was one such book, a lucid and meticulously researched biography of the late poet, who also acted as a champion of translation and literary internationalism through Modern Poetry in Translation (MPT), the magazine he co-founded in 1965 with Daniel Weissbort, through the founding of Poetry International in 1967, and through his own efforts at translation. Most notable of these efforts were his translations of Hungarian poets during the 1960s and 1970s, living in ‘the Other Europe’ of the Cold War era.

In what might well be a q-memory, I recall coming across Ted Hughes’ poem ‘The Thought Fox’ at an early age within an anthology of British poetry owned by my great-granddad. Though I wasn’t to know it at the time, The Hawk in the Rain would later become a touchstone during my teenage years in rural North Yorkshire. Coming from a similarly unremarkable background, Hughes was someone who didn’t forget his countryside roots, but was in fact sustained by them; in short, he was one of us. Though there has been a huge amount of press around the book for its more scurrilous content, an unavoidable consequence of the ever-profitable ‘Plath industry’, Bate successfully puts Hughes over as someone who lived and breathed for his art; contained it within the marrow of his bones, and pursued an unwavering, unforgiving dedication to his art that brought terrible costs to his life off the page.

After featuring in our summer issue, I quickly snatched up a copy of Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth when Christine MacSweeney’s wonderful translation hit the shelves of my local bookstore in September. Shortly after beginning the novel, it becomes obvious that Luiselli is sitting comfortably on the edge of greatness; uproariously funny and scathing in its critique of the absurdities and banalities of modern life, the book was just a delight to read from beginning to end. For lovers of the adroit wordplay of Joyce and the ironic farces of Ionesco, this book will make a perfect stocking filler.

Another translated work that has stuck with me throughout the year, particularly in light of the refugee crisis in Syria and the ongoing debates around military action against the self-styled Islamic State, has been Mary McCarthy’s translation of Simone Weil’s seminal essay, ‘The Iliad, or the Poem of Force’. A meditation on the nature of war and violence, it shows, on the one hand, why the classics are still relevant to our understanding and navigation of the issues thrown at us in the modern world. On the other, it reaffirms warfare and violence as a dehumanising force that strips both victim and aggressor of all humanity. Written on the eve of war in 1939, it remains one of the most moving literary essays ever written.

David Maclean is a freelance journalist and writer based in Manchester, United Kingdom. He is a Marketing Manager for Asymptote and Editor of Angle Grinder Magazine. Their inaugural issue, “North,” will be released in January 2016.

Theatres of Conflict: A Conversation with Susannah Tresilian of Project ARIADNE

"Because we all learn from role models, and these are women who are worth following and learning from and who are eager to pass that on."

Project ARIADNE is a revolutionary global arts movement promoting woman-led theatre in current and former zones of conflict. Their mission is to provide a stage to women across the world making theatre either because of the wars they have lived through, or in spite of them.

Susannah Tresilian is a founding member of the project and its current Artistic Director, collaborating with theatre-makers around the world, including Hope Azeda (Rwanda), Dijana Milosevic (Serbia), Frédérique Lecomte (Burundi), Iman Aoun (Palestine), Patricia Ariza (Colombia) and Ruwanthie de Chickera (Sri Lanka).

Her corpus of work focuses predominantly on the promotion of gender equity within international theatre. Recently, her work has seen her collaborating with the Belarus Free Theatre in London and Minsk on Soul Power: The Opera. The Belarus Free Theatre is an underground theatre troupe banned in their home country by the presiding Lukashenko regime, often described as the last dictatorship in Europe. The artistic directors of the group are currently in political exile in London, and are residents of the Young Vic Theatre. The Arts Council offers a bursary for actors and theatre-makers to travel to Minsk and work with the troupe in lieu of their exiled members. Tresillian is covertly working with them, enabling other actors and theatre-makers such as Jude Law, Michael Attenborough, and Sam West to make the journey.