Aparna Gopalan (news editor): Recently, I’ve been talking to my therapist about how the coming of the summer evokes intense feelings of “fomo,” or fear of missing out. Everything outside comes into bloom, but I’m still stuck indoors doing paid work, or house work, or care work, or just catatonic after all the working. But this year, I found myself with two weeks of precious personal time right before I (re)started at Currents, just as warm days were beginning to outnumber cold ones here in Boston. “How do I make the most of this time?” I asked my therapist. And like any good mental health practitioner, she helped me problematize my desire to optimize even this period of rest, asking me to explore the origin of the imperative to craft the perfect staycation. But along the way, she also gave me a decidedly mundane piece of advice, one that ultimately helped more than all the rest: get a guidebook. After all, what better way to assure myself that I would not miss any of the “best” spots to bike, walk, hike, eat, or lounge?
As soon as she suggested it, I knew the book I would get: A People’s Guide to Greater Boston by Boston natives and urbanists Joseph Nevins, Suren Moodliar, and Eleni Macrakis. While it’s still a guidebook—it’ll give you directions to Fenway Park, the Boston Harbor, and the Revolutionary War monuments that plague the city—A People’s Guide offers a very different experience of the Boston area than your standard tourist handbook. The authors seek to look at the city “from below,” in a perspective that privileges “the desires, hopes, and struggles of those on the receiving end of unjust forms of power.” To that end, even when the guide takes you to the usual tourist haunts, it’ll help you look at those spots differently.
So when I found myself once again at Boston Common, a park in the heart of downtown Boston, I walked in knowing the struggles that had forged the space. The Common was where Quakers, witches, and criminals were executed; it was also where 45 Native Americans were killed when 17th century English settlers annexed their land. Alongside religious and racial repression, the park was a site of class policing: working people who picnicked, gambled, and beat rugs at the Common throughout the early 18th century were soon driven away by the area’s wealthier inhabitants, who wanted parks to be for civilized leisure, not the lowly processes of social reproduction. Nevertheless, the rabble did not retreat quietly—the Common remained the place they gathered to protest the high cost of bread and the profiteering of merchants, and after the French Revolution, the streets around the park witnessed the largest victory celebrations anywhere outside Europe (much to the chagrin of the city’s ruling elite).
Despite my initial misgivings, I found that seeing the city through A People’s Guide didn’t just serve to depress me and make me hate all the spots I would otherwise have enjoyed (although it did so some of that—it’s hard to pick seashells on Castle Island, a beachy peninsula in south Boston, knowing that its titular “castle” was a prison for dispossessed Native Americans who were en route to enslavement in the Caribbean). Instead, the stories in the guide served to root me in place, and give me the sense of traversing time as well as space. I read the guide’s history of each spot on the train or bus ride over, then wandered around looking for signs of that past, and read the aftermath once I left: things like, that abolitionist meeting house is now a hotel; the bookstore that printed that bestseller of its time is now an office plaza; a parking garage now stands atop the headquarters of that socialist newspaper. Some of the places my eye would have just slipped by in the present seemed to have teemed with possibility once, and that made even a walk down a standard commercial street interesting.
I was only semi-faithful to my guidebook—ultimately, there were times I just wanted to get on a bike path and fly through the soft summer breeze for 10 miles without a thought in my head. What the guidebook did, though, was make the city around that bike path a mystery to me, something to wonder about and return to rather than just zoom by, a future destination rather than just scenery. One day, I’m going to do the book’s thematic tours to unravel some of those stories. There’s the “One Percent Tour” devoted to taking you to the shittiest rich people and places around (the stock exchange, Harvard Business School, art museums full of loot); on days you’d rather not be furious, you could opt for the “Bread and Roses Tour” of working class history landmarks, or the “Malcolm and Martin Tour” of the civil rights past and present, or the “Nature Tour” where you’ll see wooded trails as well as the city’s worst polluter (Logan Airport) and its most evil agro-capitalist enterprise (United Fruit Company).
I finished my staycation as much more of a Bostonian than I had been at the start, which (to my surprise) is a change for the better. And thankfully, this is not just a resource available to Boston residents! There’s A People’s Guide to New York City, of course, and there are guides to the Bay Area, Los Angeles, Orange County, and even Central Virginia. Whether you’re just visiting and want directions, or are looking to deepen your rootedness in time and place, these guidebooks are well worth a try.
Alex Kane (senior reporter): One of the key subplots in Israel’s horrifying bombing campaign in Gaza is Israeli officials’ insistence that their target is not Hamas, but rather another, smaller Palestinian militant group called Islamic Jihad. Nevertheless, in an attempt to project political and military importance, Hamas, the ruling party in Gaza that is currently responsible for collecting taxes and providing services, is emphasizing that they are in fact full participants in this round of fighting, even though they don’t appear to be firing any rockets. Hamas seems to want to have it both ways—by allowing Islamic Jihad to lead the firefight, they avoid direct retaliation from Israel, and by taking credit for participating in armed struggle, they preserve their own political legitimacy as the vanguard of the Palestinian armed resistance.
To the average American Jew who only pays attention to Gaza when there’s an armed conflict, this dynamic might be bewildering. American Jewish leaders have spent years calling Hamas an antisemitic terrorist group bent on Israel’s destruction. But this kind of rhetoric does absolutely nothing to further understanding of who Hamas is, the social context from which they emerged, and the political reasons for which they may be sitting out the fight right now.
To understand the full context behind why Hamas isn’t firing rockets, I recommend turning to Tareq Baconi’s 2018 book Hamas Contained: The Rise and Pacification of Palestinian Resistance. The book is a deeply researched chronicle of Hamas’s rise from Islamist social movement to a pioneer of armed resistance against Israel and manager of a Gaza under blockade. Well written, concise, and informed by a political commitment to justice and freedom for all, Hamas Contained provides an antidote to the American Jewish establishment’s hysterical renderings of Hamas and returns the group to the realm of politics, showing how Hamas is caught between the desire to hold on to power in Gaza and the necessity of being seen as a resistance movement. As more than two million Palestinians in Gaza continue to suffer from a devastating Israeli blockade that has only entrenched Hamas’s rule while further dividing the West Bank and Gaza from each other, these are critically important dynamics to understand. Baconi’s work is one of the best ways to start getting a grasp on the complicated entanglement of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Israel, and what it means for Gaza.
Cynthia Friedman (operations manager): I’m a big fan of cartoons. If I’m being honest with you, I’ll admit that I spend most of my lunch breaks rewatching episodes of a handful of shows that I’ve seen dozens of times over. Of late, I’ve been enjoying The Lucas Bros. Moving Co., streaming on Prime Video. Created between 2013 and 2015 by Kenny and Keith Lucas, two Black identical twin brothers who are comedians in Brooklyn, the show follows two Black identical twin brothers who are furniture movers in Brooklyn, also named Kenny and Keith Lucas. Each episode of the show’s two seasons is only 11 minutes long, and starts off in the regular world, such as in their truck, at their friend Jerrod’s bar, or out and about in the neighborhood. Then, over the course of the story, things get increasingly more otherworldly and fantastical. For example, in one of the initial episodes, a haunted AC unit turns their apartment building into an icy tundra, and they need to find a way to turn on the furnace in the basement to melt the ice.
The animated Kenny and Keith often move in lockstep rhythm together, and they are very chill. In dangerous situations or moments where a positive outcome seems hopeless, they are still level-headed and have made peace with any outcome. Even if this may in part be because they’re stoners, it’s honestly instructive to have an example of what it could look like to remain steady and calm—and even have a laugh—in the midst of a crisis. And across twists and turns, the show always lands them gracefully on their feet.
This is far from the only TV show—or the only cartoon show—in which the majority of the characters are Black: the leads, the side characters, and the “extras” who populate the background. But for the specific joy of its style of animation, its focus on insignificant, everyday encounters, and its casual forays into the mystical, The Lucas Bros. Moving Co. is a rare find and a lovely watch.
Mitch Abidor (contributing writer): As I grow older and older, and believe less and less in anything possibly changing for the better, I am more and more drawn to books on the heroic period of the Comintern—or more specifically, on the men and women who devoted themselves to the Third International. These radicals, believing global revolution was imminent, devoted their lives to the communist cause, traveling wherever they were ordered, plotting and organizing, training and leading expeditions and military forces. How glorious they were in their youthful madness, compared to the draining, hopeless slog of politics today.
Christian Salmon’s The Blumkin Project: A Biographical Novel is the sweeping tale of the short but fascinating life of the Russian Jewish revolutionary Yakov Blumkin. The book—based on years of research Salmon did after being inspired by mentions of Blumkin in Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary—makes clear that Blumkin’s path was a dizzying one. He started out as a yeshiva bocher and student of the Yiddish writer Mendele Mocher Sforim, but by his mid-teens he had become a member of the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries. At 18, after the iniquitous Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, he and a comrade assassinated Germany’s ambassador to Russia. Here his life became truly bizarre: Lenin told the Germans that the Bolsheviks had executed Blumkin, but in fact they had shipped him to safety. One day, he appeared in a café in Moscow; upon seeing him, the great poet Vladimir Mayakovsky exclaimed, “Zivoi!” (“He’s alive!”)—which became Blumkin’s nickname. (He was a friend of many of Russia’s finest poets, and a mediocre one himself.)
Blumkin became a member of the Cheka—the first Soviet secret police, led by the inflexible Felix Dzerzhinsky—and during the Russian Civil War he traveled in Leon Trotsky’s armored train, serving as his aide. But even this wasn’t enough activity. He attended the first Congress of the Peoples of the East in Azerbaijan, crossing paths with American journalist John Reed, author of the classic account of the October Revolution, Ten Days That Shook the World, just before the latter’s death from typhus. And on a mission to Turkey in 1929, Blumkin went to the island of Prinkipo, near Istanbul, where he visited the now-banished Trotsky and agreed to deliver a message to his family. After Blumkin’s lover informed on him that same year, he became one of the first to meet his end by way of a bullet in the back of the head in the cellars of the Lubyanka, the headquarters of the secret police.
Near the book’s conclusion, Salmon explains his interest in Blumkin, offering a moving tribute and a sad diagnosis: “I know now that I was clinging to Blumkin in an era that was so unheroic, the 1980s, an era of abandonments and betrayals of socialism’s ideals. That’s why this book is also the story of a failure: that of a generation, my generation, that wanted to change the world.”