Book Reviews: Fall 2019

By Anna Faktorovich, PhD

Digressive, Pro-Christian-Biased Lectures on Dostoevsky’s Ideology… or Imagination

Joseph Frank. Lectures on Dostoevsky. $29.95. 248pp, 5.5X8.5”. ISBN: 978-0-691178967. Princeton: Princeton University Press, December 17, 2019.


Introductory lectures on great literary canons such as Dostoevsky’s can explain history, story structure, biography, and various other components of texts that gain power through close examination. As literature professors across various periods and regions, we can all benefit from reading books of lectures by an established lecturer such as Joseph Frank (1918–2013). Because he was distinguished both as a lecturer at Stanford and Princeton and published in-depth studies of Dostoevsky’s biography and criticism, these particular lectures are especially revealing. Most advanced literature courses cover several texts across a semester, but there are few textbooks about how these texts can be taught in a manner that benefits students. There are more textbooks on how-to teach composition or other common subjects. It is easy to assume as we start teaching that digressively chatting about our own and the students reflections on a text is sufficiently interesting and informative to carry a class, but lectures like Frank’s demonstrate that our lectures have to be layered with content that brings essential points to the study that students would have missed if they had read the texts without guidance. This book answers all students have as they commence reading foreign to English-readers authors such as Dostoevsky: what was his life like, and why is he an important author for international audiences? Unlike Cliff Notes of Wikipedia, the chapters on Dostoevsky’s main creations dive deeper into the construction and political and social significance of Poor FolkThe Double, The House of the DeadNotes from UndergroundCrime and PunishmentThe Idiot, and The Brothers Karamazov. The focus is in dissecting the “key characters and scenes” in their “context”. The included “Frank’s favorite” review of his Dostoevsky five-volume book by David Foster Wallace summarizes Frank’s scholastic style as a “bridge between two distinct ways of interpreting literature, a purely formal aesthetic approach vs. a social-dash-ideological criticism that cares only about thematics and the philosophical assumptions behind them” (188). Whereas these volumes are the full span of what Frank’s research taught him about Dostoevsky, this is abridged version of this information that can fit into a single college class. These notes have also been thoroughly edited by two scholars in this field to polish the natural digressions that occur in spoken lectures.

While there are some great components to this project, there are some points that are confusing to a researcher. The “Foreword” explains that he was accepted into University of Chicago’s PhD program without first receiving a BA; and this degree was from the Committee on Social Thought, rather than in comparative literature, which became his teaching specialty. Then, Frank focused on writing lighter review-type articles on a range of international authors before beginning the Dostoevsky biography in his final decade of scholarly activity beginning at 74. These biographical details are troubling because I am a native Russian speaker and completed a BA in Eastern European Studies, an MA in Comparative Literature and then a PhD in English literature, yet despite publishing a couple of literary studies scholarly books, I have never been invited to interview for a comparative literature or a Russian literature position; instead, when I have been teaching, I have had to teach predominantly introductory and developmental composition, a hellish course for those in-the-know given America’s lax standards for composition adequacy in high school. So, while I have been working through graduate assistantships and writing books, Frank was just given a PhD even without a BA, and was invited to teach Russian literature without specializing in this field other than writing a few reviews on it in publications such as Hudson Review and the New York Review of Books, both of which are known for sparse surface coverage. Was his male gender or Christian ethics (one of his awards was from a religious organization) a determining factor that convinced these top schools he was the best candidate even post 74? English translations of Dostoevsky tend to miss several turns-of-phrase and hidden subtext only revealed to those who can read the Russian original, but perhaps Cold War paranoia has prevented American universities from hiring Russians to teach a subject they are obviously best suited for.

The “Foreword” then offers a page-long quote from Frank’s book as an example of his proposed brilliance. While some parts of this book are indeed insightful, this quote offers just the type of cyclical, digressive nonsense the worst of literary criticism serves up. It chooses the phrase “underground man” and then digresses on these two words in a stream-of-consciousness style, jumping between Hamlet and Don Juan, to all of the “modern” cultural movements to the conclusion that Dostoevsky’s “notoriety” is born in “a good deal of misunderstanding”; yes, and this misunderstanding is brought about when scholars babble on about an “underground man” instead of focusing on the structure, linguistics, or other relevant and concrete elements of novels such as Notes from Underground (xi). I became infatuated with the study of literature when I was nine and reading books such as Robinson Crusoe, but sitting through this same style of digressive literature lectures across the following twenty years of schooling has been incredibly painful. The problem seems to be that lecturers such as Frank are never told they are saying nonsense; instead they win awards like Frank has and are published in the most applauded or most-read publications. I think instead of including the positive “favorite” review this book should have included the most negative review Frank has ever received across his century of publishing; now that’s a review I would have read with enjoyment.

My assumptions are re-affirmed in the opening “Introductory Lecture” that states that “Early Russian literature was mostly theological, controlled by religion and Christian ideas and varies derived from Byzantine Christianity” (3). Millions of Russian Jews died in the Holocaust and these Jewish populations had lived across Russia across the Medieval ages, so their religious imprint is also engrained in Russian literature. Summarizing Russian literature as nothing but Christian propaganda is also insulting to atheists who lost their religion during the Soviet era, or to members of the various other religious and ethnic minorities across the largest geographical boundary on the planet.

And the majority of the book avoids the facts of history in a similar generalizing style, and instead attempts to psychoanalyze fictional characters. Across the years I have taken classes that covered Dostoevsky, I noticed the heavy focus on the psychosis of Raskolnikov and the other psychological issues of the characters Dostoevsky presents, but such mental problems are not really as unique to Dostoevsky as these lecturers make them seem: Hamlet was dealing with similar psychotic rage to Raskolnikov: this type of anger is part of the natural human response to miserable social circumstances. And while an accurate clinical psychological analysis of these characters might help readers learn about psychoanalysis or the like, Frank exaggerates the disorders he accuses Dostoevsky’s characters of. For example, he writes that The Double paints “a brilliant picture of the gradually developing split in Golyadkin’s personality before it breaks into two separate entities. On the one hand, we see his obvious and ludicrous desire to pretend to a higher social station and a more flattering image of himself” (35). The insertion of “brilliant” is an example of a critic propagating for the greatness of an author to make his own analysis appear as better as a mirror of this greatness. How can the splitting of a personality be a “brilliant picture”: details are needed to understand how a writer might do a particularly good job rather than the mere conclusion that it is “brilliant”. The use of “obvious” is also misleading because it tends to be used in instances where a critic is far from certain regarding a drawn conclusion. And why is the attempt to rise in life “ludicrous”; it seems that Frank is speaking regarding his own low opinions of those who attempt to rise in life rather than regarding the specific challenges in character is in all seriousness attempting to overcome.

Then the second lecture on Crime and Punishment begins by denigrating the brief overview of “ideological” “issues” that was offered in the first lecture: “Dostoevsky is not writing a social-political novel in which people argue about or simply illustrate the various ideas of the 1860s, though there are dialogues in which he does parody such ideas… He began with them – but then thought these ideas through to their ultimate consequences in moral-psychological terms” (111). “Moral” is synonymous with “ideological” according to most theories of human behavior and philosophy, so these sentences are self-contradictory and add up to nonsense. Dostoevsky was writing a social novel and demonstrating these ideologies was the point of the imaginative incidents decorating this moralistic skeleton. Frank is spending precious lecture time in self-contradiction as if dealing with the meat of the subject is indigestible.

It remains my ideal dream to find a book of lectures on any literary canon that helps me become a better lecturer, but this project only explains what literature professors should avoid. Then again, knowing what not-to-do can be as significant for professional development as finding an example of one’s craft perfected.

Jefferson’s Virtuoso Lessons in Political Rhetoric

Thomas Jefferson. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 44: 1 July to 10 November 1804. James P. McClure, Ed. $150. 856pp, 6.125X9.25”, 8 color diagrams, 15 b/w illustrations, hardback. ISBN: 978-0691194370. Princeton: Princeton University Press, December 10, 2019.


Reviewing historical documents of great canonical writers is far more enjoyable than reading any modern or classical work of fiction. Authors who are building the illusion of reality in fiction tend to insert digressive babbling to make conversations and letters appear natural in style. Reading typical modern political letters and speeches, on the other hand, is painful because of the current anti-intellectual climate that means a typical letter sent from the White House might feature swears, invented words, misspellings, and insults against opponents and friends alike. History filters out the idiots, even if they attained the status of Presidents of the United States, so that scholarly presses do not attempt to dig into the archives of some of our presidents out of fear that their contents might be unreadable, and thus extremely difficult, if not impossible, to edit. Out of a hundred years of American history, there might be no more than a dozen writers (politicians, philosophers, and fiction creators) who are worthy of scholarly editions of their correspondences, and Thomas Jefferson is at the top of this short list of worthy historical composers, as the “Volume 44” in this subtitle attests; editors have remained interested in cleaning and presenting Jefferson’s correspondences across dozens of some of the thickest books produced internationally. These letters retain interest by focusing on the practical matters Jefferson needed to communicate to his friends and associates. Perhaps the process of writing by-hand or the expense of wasting physical paper made writers like Jefferson economize their words, so that there is something to be learned about the history, culture, economics, or other aspects of the lives Jefferson touched on every compressed page.   

Jefferson’s notes are not compelling because of an abundance of violence or sexual activity, but rather because of the curious details that help readers enter the essence of the world he faced on ordinary days. As the description explains: “Aaron Burr fells Alexander Hamilton in a duel at Weehawken, New Jersey, in July, but Jefferson, caring little for either adversary or for disruptive partisan warfare, gives the event only limited notice. Through the summer and into the autumn, he contends with the problem of filling the offices necessary for the establishment of Orleans Territory on 1 October. In this he is constrained by his lack of knowledge about potential officeholders. Meanwhile, a delegation with a memorial from disgruntled Louisianians travels to Washington. In August, the U.S. Mediterranean squadron bombards Tripoli. The United States has uneasy relationships around its periphery. Jefferson compiles information on British ‘aggressions’ in American ports and waters, and drafts a bill to allow federal judges and state governors to call on military assistance when British commanders spurn civil authority. Another bill seeks to prevent merchant ships from arming for trade with Haiti. Contested claims to West Florida, access to the Gulf of Mexico, tensions along the Texas-Louisiana boundary, and unresolved maritime claims exacerbate relations with Spain. Jefferson continues his policy of pushing Native American nations to give up their lands east of the Mississippi River. Yellow fever has devastating effects in New Orleans.” Historical fiction writers frequently choose the types of events covered here as their subjects, but the lack of detail in typical historical novels indicates that few of them dig through the engaging secrets compressed in these pages. A close reading reveals not only the motives for aggression against Native Americans, but also the psychological tensions between historical personalities such as Jefferson and Abigail Adams, who indicates her distaste for Jefferson in politicized or positive rhetoric that promises “affection” despite “esteem” for him having “taken its flight”; students of political double-speak can learn a good deal from these types of subversive chastisements. The grandeur of historical achievement in history books tends to ignore the humanity of a president attempting a “systematic, long-running record to manage his guest lists for official dinners.” These types of struggles are precisely where the next generation of politicians has to find lessons on what their predecessors succeeded and failed in to move America in a “greater” direction.

 The chronology, index and various other components make it easier to find specific parts of these stories relevant to a historian’s or a fiction writer’s unique project. The center of the book includes several elegant color drawings of the covered places, and personalities involving Pahuska (White Hair) and Abigail. A scan of a list of Jefferson’s dinner guests is nearly as long as some modern great-hall meetings, so they were probably incredibly stressful on the much smaller resources of the White House in this early period of American history.

This book is so engaging that as I begin reading portions of it, I am tempted to utilize bits of it in my own research, despite the fact that I am currently pondering Shakespearean England. The letter that drew this curiosity is addressed to Samuel Harrison Smith on July 19, 1804. Jefferson insists that he never “drew” or “signed” a paper Smith is accusing him of composing; Jefferson shifts blame for this questionable document onto “a very timid, honest man, long since dead… and passed the H. of Delegates of Virginia; but I do not recollect it with certainty, nor what part I took in it: but probably I opposed it with Patrick Henry, the Lees & the Masons as we all moved in concert” (118). This reveals a number of mysteries of history and political rhetoric. On the surface, this is a typical non-denial denial that suggests Jefferson does not recall a communication; but instead of leaving his reader confused by a lack of information, Jefferson supports this supposition by specifying a witness who sided with him in opposing this particular argument, adding that they were both forced to go along with the majority’s opinion on the matter in a political compromise. Either Jefferson is telling the truth, or he was a scholar of convincing deception. Jefferson was hardly a better human than even our current president as he persecuted Native Americans off their land, and committed various other inhumane atrocities, but perhaps the crimes of that era were so egregious the rhetoric used to defend them had to be structurally brilliant.

In a letter to James Monroe on September 25, 1804, he writes regarding their favorable “footing in the negotiation with Spain. I think she is much more interested than we in pressing an amicable arrangement of boundaries. The territory we now hold, puts her possessions pretty much at our mercy through the whole extent of the Sothern continent” (432). Jefferson and others across the nineteenth century managed to convince Europe that the current territory of the US could belong to our little upstart country. Hoodwinking the top minds of Europe and our neighbors required more than these surface summaries reveal, but the accumulation of ideas across this collection of letters reveals the various tricks Jefferson utilized to make this outlandish colonial argument. While modern politics are anti-colonial (as Russia’s annexation of Crimea was the first land-grab in Europe since WWII), there are many modern problems that might be similarly resolved rather than further complicated in the coming century if American politicians thought as deeply regarding improving humanity’s condition as they do regarding conquering or subduing it.

Each page in this collection is going to hit a reader’s private passions and intellectual interests. I thus highly recommend this book to both casual readers curious regarding Jefferson’s thought process and historians writing about the covered history. All academic libraries should have this entire 44-volume collection as a wide range of American studies researchers need these polished correspondences to find evidence that is hidden away in archives until these types of collections reveal it.

Kipling’s Early Experiments in Fiction

Rudyard Kipling. The Cause of Humanity and Other Stories: Uncollected Prose Fiction. 440pp, 6X9”, hardback. ISBN: 978-1-108-47642-3. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.


I began reading sections of this collection when I needed inspiration as I was editing my own short fiction stories. The best element in them is the density and complexity of the style, the type that is rare in modern fiction. However, these are lesser known stories of Rudyard Kipling’s and their lack of popularity appears to be due to their singular nationalistic themes. Many stories are propagating for Indian rights and describing corruption and social problems in India in a similar manner. Another repeating problem is the lack of coherent plotlines or something specific the stories are about. The narratives and dialogues are digressive, as if the narrators are stumbling along without needing to arrive at a climax or a point. Unlike some of my favorite stories such as London’s or O’Connor’s, this type of digression is tough on the reader’s attention. On the other hand, these do not offer enough complex philosophical insights like Poe’s stories; each story appears to return to the same philosophical question rather than surprising readers with unique perspectives. Thus, these stories are particularly useful to students of outstanding literary linguistics, or the utilization of complex structures, word-choice and other elements that welcomed Kipling into the echelon of top world prose writers.  

This collection is also useful to biographers, historians and literature theorists writing about Kipling because it compresses 86 otherwise difficult to access stories, a relatively high number for such collections. Whenever I read several stories by O’Connor in a row or most other writers, their themes begin to sound repetitive as well, so perhaps this is what gave me this impression rather than Kipling’s tendency towards repetition. Since Kipling was familiar with Indian society and wrote about it in 86 of these stories, it would be stranger if there weren’t echoes of the same ideas repeating across the book.  uncollected short fictions. Apparently, “some are” even “unrecorded in any bibliography; some are here published for the first time.” As the cover explains: “Most of them come from Kipling’s Indian years and show him experimenting with a great variety of forms and tones.” Yes, there are several curious structural experiments in these pages that attempt short newspaper notices, letters, and other modes of writing to carry a message across. These are basically the little experiments Kipling was attempting as he was developing his style for grander works such as Kim. “We see the young Kipling enjoying the exercise of his craft; yet the voice that emerges throughout is always unmistakably his own, changing the scene every time the curtain is raised.”

Here is an example of the type of frank language you will find in these pages. It comes from a letter addressed by the narrator to “Jack” in “A Hill Homily” (1888, Pioneer Mail): “You have put in two years of Indian service, and by this time, you should have sold some seven or eight ponies, screwed two or three more, written once at least to your father for an increase of allowance, lost your heart to several pretty girls – I trust, for your own sake, that they were girls – thought seriously about entering the Staff Corps, and backed a friend’s bill…” (210). This passage stood out in its intensity and inspired me to continue with my own story, so I left a few of my draft pages as a bookmark on this page. There are a few similarly intense sentences on nearly every page, so those seeking to understand Kipling and his world better will find these answers if they have the patience for it.

This book is also beautifully designed: the front cover text is in gold print. The flaps have leaves on them that are better seen in a darker room as they are similar to the black color of the background: making these as hidden as some of the subtexts in the stories.

Dramatic Philosophical Biography of an Advisor to the Prince

Niccolo Machiavelli. Niccolo Machiavelli: An Intellectual Biography. Corrado Vivanti, Ed. 262pp, paperback. ISBN: 978-0-691-19689-3. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019.


I was particularly interested in this book because my current research is on re-attribution of texts in the “William Shakespeare” canon, and this is an example of one of the better biographies of somebody from a similarly early period of European history. The quality of the scholarship of biographies of early modern historical individuals is in part apparent from the writer’s ability to acknowledge what is unknown, rather than their invention of fictions to fill these gaps. This particular author appears to meet this requirement of mine as, for example, Chapter 1 specifies that there are “only a few glimmers” of information regarding Machiavelli’s (The Prince) third decade of life (5). More importantly, all chapters begin with the facts that are known regarding different moments in history and from documentary evidence before moving towards theoretical or philosophical discussions of Machiavelli’s ideas later in the chapter. For example, the “Final Act: 23” chapter begins with the description of the Battle of Pavia and other European battles in these later years of Machiavelli’s life, with inserted quotes from his letters, including a curious accusatory note on Italian princes “‘who have all done everything to bring us here’” (180); this is an ominous warning to the possible reasons for the forthcoming abrupt end to his life, so this is a great opening section that should keep readers engaged. Later in this chapter, Vivanti speculates regarding the meaning of what Machiavelli is reported to have described to friends “shortly before he died” a dream of brilliant thinkers in hell, adding that he would rather be in hell with them than the “rabble” he was surrounded with; Machiavelli’s friends had just returned from an imposed exile after the conspiracy of 1522, so they were of a similar mind frame (190). Vivanti records the facts that Machiavelli appears to have died due to an illness that was “hastened” by a prescribed “drug”, and this together with the mentions of anti-government discussions in the days prior to this potential poisoning combine to suggest an assassination conspiracy without inventing it as a factual event given the lack of chemical analysis to confirm or deny this theory (189). To summarize, this is a very dramatic, exciting, interesting, informative and thorough yet brief enough to read at-leisure biography that I recommend to those interested in intrigue and philosophy as well as scholars of the history and personalities covered.

The publisher’s summary describes it as an “introduction to the life and work of” the “Florentine statesman, writer, and political philosopher, Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527).” Vivanti connects “Machiavelli’s thought and his changing fortunes during the tumultuous Florentine republic and his subsequent exile. Vivanti’s concise account covers not only Machiavelli’s most famous works — The PrinceThe DiscoursesThe Florentine Histories, and The Art of War — but also his letters, poetry, and comic dramas.” While this might appear as a given, the more such biographies I read the more I realize how rare such in-depth and breadth analysis is. Most of these letters and rare texts are difficult to access, translate, and understand, given the lapse of time that has made most ideas in them foreign to modern readers. While the well-known works have been thoroughly summarized by Cliff Notes or equivalent abbreviated versions, exploring minor works tends to reveal deeper and more surprising conclusions because fewer scholars have dug to these depths. It covers “his career in a variety of government and diplomatic posts in the Florentine republic between 1494 and 1512, when the Medici returned from exile, seized power, and removed Machiavelli from office; the pivotal first part of his subsequent exile, when he formulated his most influential ideas and wrote The Prince; and the final decade of his life, when, having returned to Florence”. The book also questions “Machiavelli’s cultural and intellectual background”, which are particularly difficult to assess in these early times because education records and the like are limited, “his republicanism, his political and personal relationship to the Medici, and his ideas about religion.” The author, Corrado Vivanti, taught across Europe, so he is personally familiar with the geography and culture of the continent through which Machiavelli travels.

This Is the Reason the “Shakespeare” Myth Persists

W. H. Auden. Lectures on Shakespeare. 398pp, 6X9”, softcover. ISBN: 978-0-691-10282-1. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019.


This is one of the worst books I have ever read. I am giving it two stars because it contains some research and it is not completely nonsensical. But it is worse than some of the books I would rate with a single star because while they do not pretend to convey logic, this is precisely what this collection attempts. I had to request this book when I saw it in the catalog because my current computational linguistics attribution project focuses on the “Shakespeare” canon, so I need to be aware of all recent studies on “Shakespeare”, so I can explain why the current attributions are wrong. The publisher’s summary stresses the status of the lecturer, Auden, emphasizing the validity of the content. However, a hint to the larger problem with this book lies in the note that Auden “draws on a lifetime of experience to take the measure of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets”. What is needed in Shakespeare studies is research rather than life-experience; in other words, lectures who rely on their “experience” talk about love and friendship in “Shakespeare’s” plots by giving examples or philosophizing from their own lives. This type of digression fails to enrich students, who are much better served if they know nothing about the biography of their lecturer and instead focus on studying the biography of the covered author. These lectures at the New School were advertised in the New York Times; while this seems grand, it is actually very strange: scholarly lectures are never allowed entire articles in this venue, which focuses on newsworthy stories of death and the like disasters. If this paper covered Auden’s lectures, there must have been an unexplained reason for such attention, and it couldn’t have been because Auden was more informative than all the other professors across New York’s universities. The cover explains this as due to Auden’s status as “one of the century’s great poets” who was discussing “at length one of the greatest writers of all time.” While Shakespeare is more popular than most dramatists with audiences that continue attending showings of Hamlet and Othello, lectures on any dramatist are hardly capable of drawing a significant crowd. And Auden is not the author coming to mind as I contemplate “the century’s great poets”: in fact, I have never heard his name before, but this type of hyperbole is precisely how myths of great authors are born. The editor who “reconstructed” these lectures (as apparently, they were in need of new construction) has published about Auden previously, so he is used to building the myth of his grandeur.

A few random examples will demonstrate the type of digressive, incorrect, illogical and non-specific content you will find if you attempt reading these lectures. “Richard really wants to be loved for himself alone – not for his beauty, if he had it, or his cleverness, but for his essential self” (19). This sentence begins with a cliché that can be applied to any human in any time period without having read the play in question. This is followed by a strange anti-aesthetic conclusion that Richard is shy about attention drawn to his “beauty”, before the following phrase questions if he has any such “beauty”; but, if he is ugly, what would the alternative be to being loved for “himself” since beauty is not an option? And if “cleverness” is not part of his “essential self”, this statement appears to state Richard wants to be loved for his soul, but such desires are rare in Shakespearean tragedies where Hamlet and Othello are more concerned with revenge than with finding women who perceive the purity of their souls.

How about this segment: “Shakespeare, at this time, is interested in various technical problems. The first is the relation between prose and verse in the plays. In the early plays, the low or comic characters – Shylock as well as Launcelot Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice, for example – speak prose. An intellectual character like Falstaff speaks prose, in contrast to a passionate character like Hotspur, who speaks verse” (160). First, this paragraph begins by claiming Shakespeare was a literary theoretician who was writing philosophical pamphlets about the art of composition; this is false: Auden is “interested” in these problems, not Shakespeare, so this phrasing is nonsensical. Then, he names the “relation between prose and verse” as one of these “problems”; the quantity of verse versus prose was not a problem, but rather a characteristic in the style of these plays. The percentage of verse to prose declines over the decades that plays are published under the “Shakespeare” name as tastes for versification declined. I use a study that evaluates the details of these numbers in my own research, but I won’t digress further on this matter here. Auden appears to be familiar with this pattern when he says in one sentence the word “early” in relation to the quantity of verse, but he implies the difference is due only to the “comic” characters; this is erroneous as the ratio of comedies to tragedies does not change much over time. Additionally, he is making a value judgment against comedy by calling these characters “low”, when there are plenty of tragic characters across this canon with short lines that also speak in prose. It is also absurd to separate “intellectual” from “passionate” characters when all of “Shakespeare’s” most dramatic character leads must be both passionate and intelligent to deliver the brilliant to-be-or-not-to-be-type speeches.

I can write at least a paragraph of ridicule for every sentence in this book. When I have this many negative things to say about nearly every phrase in a book, it is not suitable for public consumption.

Unethical Nonsense on Math and Language

John Jones and Lavinia Hirsu, eds. Rhetorical Machines: Writing, Code, and Computational Ethics. 280pp, 6X9”, paperback. ISBN: 978-0-8173-5954-6. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2019.


If this book was well-written and communicated the intended message, it would be of significant help to my current computational linguistics research; however, it fails tremendously in these regard as it leans towards cyclical nonsense. The publisher’s summary promises this book explains the relationship between “technologies and rhetorical practice”; computational linguistics lies at this intersection, so readers of this summary might conclude this is what this book is about, but this is not the case. This notion is further reinforced in the details of the summary that promises to address: “new approaches to studying computational processes within the growing field of digital rhetoric.” Then, it quantifies this promise with the note: “While computational code is often seen as value-neutral and mechanical, this volume explores the underlying, and often unexamined, modes of persuasion this code engages. In so doing, it argues that computation is in fact rife with the values ​​of those who create it and thus has powerful ethical and moral implications.” Now here is an important point that this book obviously fails to actually address. The main problem I have found with previous computational linguistics studies is that they refuse to disclose their raw data and the precise methods they use to arrive at their conclusions; these secrets have allowed these scholars to repeat conclusions regarding text attributions that were drawn before the computer age or in the nineteenth century if not earlier; readers believe the studies are genuine because they reinforce the attributions they have come to believe: for example, that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet and Defoe wrote Crusoe. A true attempt to examine the ethics of these computations would insist on these full disclosures. Instead, books like this one attempt to confuse readers by making it appear as if there are mystical “moral” faults with the machines rather than with the operators who deliberately skew these results. For example, if a company hired by the meat industry fabricates data or avoids showing data and offers the conclusion processed meat does not cause cancer (when an actual experiment and actual raw data and logical methods would have proven that it does), it would be absurd to blame the morality of the computer that in a convoluted byway is at fault for this “misunderstanding”. This is where these anti-ethical studies become extremely dangerous for all scholars as allowing any scholar to assist with other scholars’ fraud leaves a gash of amorality on academia as a whole.  

The main method these scholars employ to confuse scholars attempting to understand what exactly is wrong with computational ethics is the digression into cultural questions that belong on internet chatlines rather than in scholarly discussions. For example, this summary promises to cover Socrates’ condemnation of “writing” in general in Phaedrus, and “internet culture” or “how computation and rhetoric work together to produce social and cultural effects.” In other words, they propose to digress about anything related to math (computational) or the use of language (rhetorical), and they will discuss these fields in terms of how they are used by unspecified masses of humanity in a platform as random as covering the geography of all cities across the globe. Another clue of the nonsense inside is that the list of topics covered repeats “rhetoric” and “writing studies” as if they are separate fields. The authors even confess that there are three sections that are deliberately written by “chatbots”, and these algorithms attempt to explain these “questions” the authors apparently cannot figure out without their intervention; given the nonsense that dominates this book, I suspect more than these isolated sections are written by bots rather through intelligent human composition. The authors claim they are attempting to understand “human-machine interactions”; this might be a suitable question for a pop science fiction movie, but in scholarly studies, we have to know what machines are programmed to do, how they are programmed to do it, and there should not be any unexpected interactions that need scholarly contemplation; experimenters can create a chatbot that spews nonsense, but academic publishers should have rejected the outputs of this nonsense from publication (at least as long as there are hundreds of human-authored studies in their rejection pile).

For example, one illustrated chapter includes this note: “The interactions with Chris are the most telling; however, a player can just make Chris run straight through the village to the next cutscene without having any interaction with the villagers” (156). Imagine if similar nonsense was written about a random short fiction story composed by an amateur barely known writer, and a scholar was asking how readers would re-write the story and what a character’s complete inaction or lack of interaction in a scene would suggest: it would suggest that this is an unbelievably boring and uneventful scene.

I hope all who read this review will stay away from this book and that publishers will stop publishing books that are stifling academia and causing the world to fall into idiocy.

A Brisk and Insightful Overview of English Renaissance Tragedies

Goran Stanivukovic and John H. Cameron. Tragedies of the English Renaissance: An Introduction: Renaissance Dramas and Dramatists. 230pp, 6X9”, paperback. ISBN: 978-1-4744-1956-7. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019.


This is a compressed textbook that overviews the central topics students at undergraduate and graduate levels need to learn about to understand the Renaissance tragic genre. Unlike horrid books in this category, this book delivers precise information regarding theaters and companies, structural dimension and the covered writers and texts. It is also a great starting point for a researcher in this field, which gives an overview and ideas for further development in specialized journals or monographs. Since I have been researching Shakespeare-adjacent texts for a few months now, most of the information in these pages repeats what I have already learned, but if this was the first book I looked into, it would be a very smooth start to a project in a new period of English literature. 

The publisher is wonderfully timid in its description: this is great when compared with bombastic praises publishers of terrible books insert. After explaining the roots of this genre in Greek-Roman tragedy and Medieval European tragedies, most of it discusses “the development of tragedy as a dramatic genre from its earliest examples in the 1560’s until the closure of the theatres in 1642.” The start period echoes the start of Elizabeth I’s reign in 1559; my research has concluded that Elizabeth I hired ghostwriters to help her with her political correspondences, and since this helped her govern successfully, the ghostwriting project was expanded into propaganda writing through pseudonyms and the like by a group of ghostwriters, some of whom wrote under the “Shakespeare” name. All of the initial ghostwriters were dead by 1642, and their absence might have contributed to the otherwise strange closing of all theaters for two decades. Scholars tend to isolate this period as a peak of English drama because these writers achieved unprecedented heights because they were patronized by the king, queen, aristocrats, capitalist company owners and other parties that allowed them to make a full-time living from writing alone. Isolating the study of tragedies recently became particularly interesting for this study (so I will return to this book) because I spotted a pattern wherein two of the main ghostwriters behind the “Shakespeare” plays were split into one mostly writing tragedies (Anthony Munday) and the other comedies (John Fletcher), thus only considering tragedies from across Munday’s active period is a study of patterns in Munday’s compositions; at least some of the tragedies I tested were by Fletcher, but Munday wrote under several names that have survived to the present including Peele and Middleton in addition to Shakespeare, so it is curious to review a book like this for how texts in this canon differ from the others.

The publisher continues: “It traces the astonishingly diverse range of tragedies as they were influenced by the growth of public and private theatre venues in London. Tragedy was the most popular and the most diverse of theatrical genres during the English Renaissance; it was also the most disruptive and subversive.” While in later periods of English history satires were more likely to be prosecuted as treasonous libel if directed at the monarch or high-up aristocrats, this period saw imprisonments, censorship, and even executions over tragedies such as Sir Thomas More, which was blocked from production because of its politics. The state was indirectly sponsoring propaganda to bolster the monarchy’s hold on England when it was funding these ghostwriters, and while these writers usually followed their political instructions, the occasionally had independent agendas that they attempted to hide within plots to deliver subversive messages. “For Shakespeare and his contemporaries, tragedy reaches kings and queens and everyday person alike. Tragedy has rules, but these were rules that playwrights were ready to trouble and transform to meet changes in society and politics, in theatre venue, and in audience demand.” Since these were the early centuries for capitalism, the patterns of theater-going reflect early attempts to sell paid-for entertainments to the general impoverished public.

There are many secrets hidden in this century of English stage history that I am trying to uncover, and books like this one, while they repeat an erroneous narrative of these events that ignores the type of linguistic evidence I am utilizing, present the to-date known evidence in a compressed manner that allows researchers to find connections and to edit past imperfections of this narrative. I highly recommend all students of this genre and period to begin by reading this book. Academic and public libraries should carry it because reading King Lear without an overview like this one is a confusing and disorienting venture if done without assistance or misleading if otherwise assisted by Wikipedia and other surface-grazing websites.

An Enriching Resurrected Medieval History of Britain

David W. Burchmore, Ed. The History of the Kings of Britain: The First Variant Version: Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library. $35. 544pp, 6X9”, hardback. ISBN: 978-0674241367. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, November, 2019.


During my research into British Renaissance theater, I have realized how important the few histories accessible in English were for the writers who turned these facts into fiction. With barely any libraries and an education system that focused on studying Latin, English history was a subject mostly familiar to the wealthier aristocrats or to writers and scholars with access to the short print runs of treasures such as Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, “the earliest work to detail the legendary foundation of Britain by Brutus the Trojan and the life of King Arthur”. The inaccessibility of such evidence forced writers to create plotlines with main geographic, political and cultural details that were repeated across several plays and the like; this being the reason for repetitions of storylines when the same kings such as Richard III were covered. If any of these Renaissance writers came across this compact and brilliantly edited version in a single book of what used to be 11 separate sloppily printed books, they would have been ecstatic. It would have also helped students of Latin due to this edition being split into both English and Latin, allowing for readers to move between languages to check their own attempts at translation. The blurb advertises it as “among the most widely read books throughout the Middle Ages. Its sweeping account of the Britons began long before the Romans and challenged the leading histories of the twelfth century.” While it is easy to imagine that our most recent history books are more accurate than earliest attempts, every new history can insert fictions or mis-interpretations into the narrative, so all historians need to check originating texts for these storylines such as this book to understand how and why the initial plot has been since altered. “Merlin, Guinevere, Mordred, Yvain, Gawain, and other popular Arthurian figures first come to life in Geoffrey’s chronicle.” While many of these characters are myths that are being related as if they are historically accurate, the early date of these myths makes it more likely there is a basis of truth in these accounts over any later retellings. “It was the ultimate source of tales retold in Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, Shakespeare’s Cymbeline and King Lear, and Tennyson’s Idylls of the King.” This is just as I was saying: the British Renaissance fed on this particular book because so few early histories were available and this one was comprehensive on many curious and intriguing topics. The editor explains that the “History survives in hundreds of manuscripts in Geoffrey’s standard text. This volume presents the first English translation of what may have been his source, the anonymous First Variant Version. This shorter and less polished Latin version of the History is attested in just a handful of manuscripts. It belonged to and was probably written by Archdeacon Walter of Oxford, who died in 1151.” The employment of the earliest surviving edition is particularly useful for scholars of British history and literature: as I was noting, each re-print and editing layer can insert new characters, new words, or subtract points that become censorable as political preferences change.

This particular version of this history is special because it is the first translation of the “First Variant”. As I was reviewing the “Introduction”, I spotted this note: “On the basis of fundamental differences in vocabulary, syntax, and style, all scholars agree that Geoffrey himself did not write the Variant” (ix). This topic is picked up in a section called “Authorship”, which explains that Geoffrey’s name “appears in only a handful of documents between 1139 and 1151”. The alternative author proposed is Archdeacon Walter, who merely gave Geoffrey the Latin version of the book that Geoffrey translated (xv). This presents an interesting puzzle for my own attribution research, but I would imagine this would be an extremely difficult puzzle to solve. In my tests, the translator’s authorial signature is stronger than the original author, so checking the earliest English translation against potential authors might work, but there are so few surviving texts from this period that the number of alternative signatures is absurdly limited.

This book is written in a dramatic style, which explains its popularity with fiction writers over the ages. Here is an example from a midst of a surprise attack: “The Trojans rising up more boldly and much more sharply to avenge the death of Turnus, scattered the Gauls and butchered them everywhere without pause. Finally, the Gauls took flight and hastened to abandon the camp; the Trojans followed, striking them furiously all the way” (35). Those who enjoy modern war movies should enjoy reading this type of narrative casually; it offers similar emotional turbulence with enough detail for readers to visualize the different dimensions of these clashes.

There are several revealing histories compressed into these books. For example, King Lucius is described as the “first of all the kings of the Britons to earn for the name of Christ”, so that he solicited this knowledge from Pope Eleutherius, who “sent two doctors of religion, Fagan and Duvian, from his side to Britain to preach about the word of God…” (139). It is surprising to learn that professors were sent to spread Christianity rather than knights or other typical character-types who bring new religions in popular representations.

Near the end of the book, the story becomes tragic as the Saxons take over Britain, while the Britons  lose “the crown of the kingdom” and withdraw “partly into Wales, where they hid for a long while, passing their time among the wild beasts, concealed among the mountains in forests and caves until, recalling their courage, they attempted to make repeated attacks against the Anglo-Saxons…” (391).

Lengthy notes on the various time-sensitive phrases, terms, names of places and the like accompany each of the books to guide modern readers into these strange times. Given the breadth of topics and times covered, the “Index” should help researchers searching for specific historical personalities or events to find them in this rich text.

There should be more books like this one that resurrect historical texts. Renovating an ancient castle or digging up dinosaur bones reveals fragments in comparison with the volume of valuable research enclosed in histories like this one. And whoever the writer was behind this project, he wrote this story to be read as he inserted excitement and passion into ancient history.

An Anti-Attribution Philosophy: On Feeling Bad for the Plagiarists

Tom Geue. Author Unknown: The Power of Anonymity in Ancient Rome. 362pp, hardback. ISBN: 978-0-674-98820-0. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019.


Given my current research into re-attribution of “Defoe” and “Shakespeare” texts, this book appeared to propose new methods for determining authorship even in the extreme obscurity of distant times such as ancient Rome. However, while the subject demands precision and standardized methods of comparison, this book is more digressive and speculative rather than practically useful. For example, while discussing the attribution of a poem, Laus Pisonis, Tom Geue moves away from the biography, and general “skill at composing poetry” of one of the proposed authors, and the patron this poet is flattering, Piso, to a long paragraph on the need for “contextualized” explanations. Yes, context is needed to explain why no specific attribution has yet been proposed, but not a page that questions if context is really needed. The style in which Geue is writing is deliberately intended to confuse readers rather than to hold their hand as he leads them through the clues in the mystery. For example, he writes: “The variation (mille modis) and simultaneity is exhausting. One piece turns hunted into hunter; another converts checked into checker” (153). If Geue defined these terms and explained how these meanings point to an attribution, this would have been useful. But commencing an explanation by confessing the author is exhausted by trying to understand it all himself repels readers from wanting to venture into this impassable jungle after a bewildered guide. The perfect example of how this book babbles on without really saying anything is this: “So the verse actually works well toward this end: the blanker, the better. Its value lies precisely in the fact that it doesn’t really tell us anything – and not knowing is what this early Apocol. is all about” (207). A value judgement between blank and non-blank verse is extremely subjective or a matter of personal preference: it is also irrelevant to the proposed subject of who wrote this text. And the second sentence, when taken in reverse, summarizes what is wrong with this book: it avoids saying anything through nonsensical circles around meaningless points; there is no “value” in saying “anything” without conveying meaning; it is better to refrain from publishing a book that says nothing as the silence would allow readers to research the subject for themselves.

Given these shortfalls, this book’s author convinced me to request it by its summary, so let’s consider how it fails to deliver what it promised. “An exploration of the darker corners of ancient Rome to spotlight the strange sorcery of anonymous literature.” The word “sorcery” should have been a clue that the subject of attribution is treated here as if it’s black magic rather than as scientifically solvable. “From Banksy to Elena Ferrante to the unattributed parchments of ancient Rome, art without clear authorship fascinates and even offends us.” Here is another clue: the digression into Bansky suggests the digressions to come inside; if the book’s title promises a focus on the ancients, the author really should have stuck to this specialty. And what about this note on “unattributed” art being offensive? What do personal feelings of the viewers have to do with the need to methodically solve the mystery of whodunnit? “Classical scholarship tends to treat this anonymity as a problem or game—a defect to be repaired or mystery to be solved. Author Unknown is the first book to consider anonymity as a site of literary interest rather than a gap that needs filling. We can tether each work to an identity, or we can stand back and ask how the absence of a name affects the meaning and experience of literature.” This is another great example of nonsense writing: how viewers experience literature might be of interest to psychotherapists, but literature scholars should avoid such speculations. What are the possible answers to this line of questioning? Can we feel pretty good about not knowing who wrote something? Are some of us pretty sad about it? Who cares? Geue knows nobody cares and that’s why so few reviewers of scholarly texts venture into books such as this one to explain why they are nonsensical and awful. Here are a few examples that appear to specify how these abstract topics will be handled: “Anonymity supported the illusion of Augustus’s sprawling puppet mastery (Res Gestae), controlled and destroyed the victims of a curse (Ovid’s Ibis), and created out of whole cloth a poetic persona and career (Phaedrus’s Fables).” This does indeed approach the main objective behind any scientific attribution study, but fails to deliver this in the text. Anonymity has allowed scholars and publishers to attribute texts to the authors who benefit their careers or books sales: for example, as “Shakespeare” became popular, publishers added this attribution to more and more texts, and same has been the case with “Defoe”, as the latter’s numbers keep increasing annually and have long surpassed 550, a number that represents an incredibly large portion of all texts written in Britain in Defoe’s lifetime. My research has uncovered that Dyer ghostwrote James I’s Daemonologie, which contributed to added falsely accused murders of “witches”; while this work was not anonymous, James I could follow this murderous course without closely researching the topic of the existence of witchcraft because a ghostwriter stepped in to cover this defining text. Believing these words came from their monarch pushed Americans and Brits to continue their witch trials, whereas if Dyer’s name appeared on the cover, this release might have gone unnoticed. I have also uncovered the use of ghostwriters by clergy and academics in Britain in the “Shakespeare” period; hiring ghostwriters to create their sermons and books allowed these wealthy people to advance to the highest academic and political offices. There is nothing good or worthy of preservation in these problems. Trump would not be America’s president today if Americans were not led to believe in his intelligence based on the books he has had ghostwritten for him. If parents are going to be prosecuted for paying to admit their children into Ivy League colleges, we have to finally stop the overwhelming volume of problems created by a lack of scientific attribution methods to spot ghostwriters and other attribution-related problems. Instead of understanding this as the point of all attribution research, Geue digresses into the questioning why scholars interested in scientific linguistics want to say these ancient authors were bad people: “To assume these texts are missing something is to dismiss a source of their power and presume that ancient authors were as hungry for fame as today’s.” It is idiotic to ignore that all authors still popular today from ancient times were not “hungry for fame”; fame is not accidental, but rather the result of propaganda and hyper-aggressive marketing across millennia. No, Geue, we must stop being accepting of “anonymity”, and we must indeed work “against it” when “it” has been used to assassinate and deprive incredible portions of humanity.

This book represents everything wrong with attribution scholarship today: its stated goal is to avoid attributing texts. Saying nothing is better than actively saying nonsense in the scholarly spaces that might otherwise be offered to scientific linguistic researchers that would actually solve these ancient mysteries for those among us who favor knowledge above the feelings of the privileged.

The Science of Language

Daniel Altshuler, Terence Parsons, and Roger Schwarzschild. A Course in Semantics. 226pp, hardback. ISBN: 978-0-262-04277-2. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2019.


This is one of the better semantics textbooks I have seen so far because it addresses specific concepts to explain elements that can be researched at more advanced levels through their applications. Taking a course in advanced grammar during my PhD studies helped me in my later linguistic attribution studies as concepts that seem self-explanatory in textbooks such as this one tend to introduce new ways of thinking about language that seeps into the subconscious and later presents ideas if one is tempted to return for closer looks into this particularly difficult to dissect field. This book is practical because it can be used either as part of a class or by independent researchers to practice the ideas it covers rather than digressing into what these ideas imply on philosophical levels.

“An introductory text in linguistic semantics, uniquely balancing empirical coverage and formalism with development of intuition and methodology.” While in most language studies “formalist” criticism implies nonsensical anti-formalism, in this case the book attempts just what the term is supposed to mean or formal analysis of language. The book proposes itself as intended for “undergraduates”, but I think it is a better fit for graduate students who are ready for more abstract contemplation of language. One of the drawbacks is that some of the text is too cluttered as it jumps around between definitions and ideas. A thorough edit might have helped to make it more digestible, especially if younger readers are expected to follow the assigned exercises after reading these explanations. It is puzzling to me how astronomy textbooks are clearer at explaining advanced physics, whereas books about language are more difficult to decipher despite their writers being professional scientists of the writing craft. A clue to these difficulties appears in the blurb as the book is said to help readers “form intuitions about a set of data, explain how well an analysis of the data accords with their intuitions, and extend the analysis or seek an alternative.” This intuition is the space where confusion enters the study of words and how they work together: intuition has created the random spelling variations in English, and it keeps writers from knowing the precise rules of correct usage. A textbook that sets “intuition” usage as its goal is building on a misleading foundation. And some of the main ideas covered are not those that linguists actually utilize in practice. One of these is “truth conditions”, which is explained in the relationship between truth, comprehension, and the rules that guide these concepts. On the other hand, the book covers concepts that are likely to help in future research including: “basic symbolic logic with negation, conjunction, and generalized quantifiers”. Other curious topics covered include: “quantification (scope and binding), adverbial modification, relative clauses, event semantics, tense and aspect, as well as pragmatic phenomena, notably deictic pronouns and narrative progression.” It is fascinating how language reveals strange mysteries in its labyrinth the more one reads about its building blocks. The exercises included are essential for lecturers who want to use this as their primary textbook, as coming up with equivalent exercises would consume more time than office hours allow. In contrast to these positives, while I usually enjoy when language textbooks become scientific, this one spends too much space on invented language or translating symbols into English, so that some pages look like advanced calculus. This book would have been helped if it was a bit longer and paragraphs began with introductory sentences, instead of jumping in by announcing without defining the terms: “Recall how variables work in SL.” The authors go on to remind readers the relationship between these variables, but these reflections do not soften the preparation of readers for the main term the paragraph is building towards defining at the end: “We will call it a context lexicon, and we’ll combine it with the fixed lexicon L…” They have invented a new term for a concept they are describing and the sentence that introduces it focuses on the fact that it is a new invention rather than on the definition for what it is. If I attempted to study this book as if I was taking a class in it, I bet my judgement of it would decline the more I attempted to follow its directions. But, making a complex subject more convoluted is not really a great fault in scholarly writing. In this instance, the difficulty a reader might have with comprehension are likely to enrich with a deeper understanding those who are patient enough to keep trying. All sentences and paragraphs are leading towards specific logical meanings, so this book achieves a high standard of scholarly communication.

The Letters of an Epistolary Writer

Samuel Richardson. The Cambridge Edition of the Correspondence of Samuel Richardson: Correspondences of Richardson’s Final Years, 1755-1761. Shelley King and John B. Pierce, eds. 280pp, 6X9”, hardback. ISBN: 978-0-521-83188-8. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.


Ideally, I should have requested the previous volumes in this collection as my research as part of the “Defoe” de-attribution project linguistically tested Richardson’s texts including the main works published in this series, Pamela, Clarissa and Sir Charles Grandison, as well as the letters Richardson wrote while he was writing these texts. This particular volume instead covers his final years, after all of these texts were behind him. While not directly useful to the completion of my “Defoe” book, when I return to reviewing this collection, I might discover revealing clues that will help me understand this puzzling writer. One of the more curious aspects I found about Richardson was his self-publication of the texts he is best known for. And I found myself arguing against the value of these novels in some of my chapters to contradict theories about his superiority that have been proposed by critical works such as Watt’s Rise of the Novel. These critics have sidelined the contribution to the building of the novel genre made by female authors such as Eliza Haywood in favor of male authors such as Richardson without closely reading his lengthy novels. These texts are epistolary rather than defining of the narrative arc structure we have come to associate with the novel form, so while the letters that compose these novels are curious experiments, they did not birth the formulas of the novel as Haywood’s romances did. Understanding Richardson’s relationship to his publishing and authorship in these letters, as well as his ideas about the genre he was concocting are just some of the reasons this book should be of interest to all 18th century British literature scholars. One curious feature in the back matter is the inclusion of a very lengthy will of Richardson’s. Shakespeare’s will has been used to prove there were no books or manuscripts he left behind and thus to object to the idea that Shakespeare wrote anything. In contrast, the length of this will matches Richardson’s digressive novelistic style. The quantity of things Richardson was leaving behind is also extraordinary; some of the things he is leaving stress how miserly he was: “To Tom and Elizabeth Lindsley my cousins I bequeath two Guineas each if living at the time of my Decease and Give them up their first Note of hand of Ten Guineas but not the 2nd borrowed we having been very kind to them kinder than their Brother or any body else…” (264) The explanation regarding money owed and stressing that he has been kind enough are pretty absurd details to place in a will, but they are the types of things that reveal a great deal to researchers. This collection of correspondences is also of interest because transcribing these letters and testing them against the letters in his novels will more accurately check if Richardson wrote his novels rather than merely checking the novels against themselves. A glance at these letters does show a similar digressive and flighty style that appears natural to his first-person female protagonists. In fact, these female and male correspondents are likely to have in part or more fully influenced the style Richardson engages in the novels that imitate correspondences by female characters. Smyth Loftus, a vicar of Coolock writes: “It is the business of all your friends to dissuade you from any close application to your studies…” before summarizing Fielding’s ideas regarding the “labour of the hands” leading to “good appetite, refreshing sleep, health, strength, and high spirits”, while the labour of the “head” has “effects” that are “almost always reversed”, he writes in a letter on November 12, 1756 from Dublin (96). These types of observations are insightful and very delicate; I have not seen letters with this type of a tone or content from any male author I have reviewed before… curious. It would be a lot more enjoyable to read this collection of Richardson’s and his friends’ actual letters rather than reading fictitious letters more closely that Richardson included in novels such as Pamela; it is difficult to fault researchers such as Watt with failing to even glance at this work given how repetitive these letters become when he is dumbing these women down rather than allowing them to have pithy remarks regarding hands and heads. One of the letters from Richardson to Reverend Mr. Lobb includes his speculations on the topic that dominates his applauded fictions: “Do we know that Love, were that, in the present case wanting (the contrary of which I hope and believe) is not to be forced?” (94) A forced marriage? These types of comments introduce a good deal of mystery for readers, so those who enjoy reading novels about personal relationships should find these to be engaging.

Libraries should definitely consider adding this set of volumes of Richardson’s correspondences as it is “the first complete edition of these letters”, and “many” of them are being “published for the first time”. Most of the letters are “with three very different young women, all seeking to find their voice within family and society while corresponding with a celebrated author and moralist. Sarah Wescomb and Frances Grainger, two young, unmarried correspondents, sought paternal advice from the middle-aged author and in the process contested stances taken in his novels. Laetitia Pilkington, an accused adulteress, offers poignant glimpses into an impoverished woman’s struggles to survive in Grub Street. The scholarly apparatus in this volume provides ample information about these three women’s lives and their milieu, giving fascinating insights into eighteenth-century English social and literary history.”

The context, careful editing, and the neat presentation of these letters are all scholars can hope for from a collection of correspondences such as this one. Anybody who is interested in the topic will find something surprising and revealing in these dense pages.

The Folktales “Shakespeare” Borrowed

Charlotte Artese, Ed. Shakespeare and the Folktale: An Anthology of Stories. $19.95. 392pp, 5.5X8.25”, softcover. ISBN: 978-0691190853. Princeton: Princeton University Press, October 15, 2019.


Just as the early history of Britain reviewed in this set of texts was a primary source authors took advantage of across the Renaissance, this collection is advertised as a source of fictional plotlines for works in this canon. Folktales have been advertised as inspiring to some of the world’s best writers; for example, Sir Walter Scott collected them prior to writing his Jacobite rebellion stories in the Waverley novels that cover not only history but also folksy stories of Scotland. A folktale is an authentic archive of what past storytellers viewed as especially valuable about their culture, so that it was repeated orally for generations; only the best of these tales were written down, and these are the stories collected in these pages. 

“Shakespeare’s” name in the title drew my attention given my current research interests, as well as the promise that these stories carry storylines mimicked in the “Shakespeare” canon. The Renaissance was a time of borrowing, but most of it looked back to ancient Greece and Rome, or from the grand propagandistic histories of the Empire. So, “Shakespeare” texts that “borrow from… traditional folktales” is particularly curious as they are likely to reflect moral philosophy beyond the interests of aristocratic patrons who were funding these authors. “The Merchant of Venice, for example, draws from ‘A Pound of Flesh,’ while King Lear begins in the same way as ‘Love Like Salt,’ with a king asking his three daughters how much they love him, then banishing the youngest when her cryptic reply displeases him.” Great authors are great imitators. While my research discovered a great deal of horrid and destructive imitation manifesting in this period via ghostwriting and other nefarious arrangements, borrowing moral plots from folktales is a great way to find unique and rarely used plotlines. By contrast, borrowing the plot from a rival playwriter would stifle creativity. By crossing into the folktale genre for these stories, a writer can find inspiration in how the basic conflict affects readers without copying the details that should be invented for each new work to make it into an original piece of art. “This… anthology presents more than forty versions of folktales related to eight Shakespeare plays: The Taming of the ShrewThe Comedy of ErrorsTitus AndronicusThe Merchant of VeniceAll’s Well That Ends WellKing LearCymbeline, and The Tempest. These… tales come from Europe, the Middle East, India, the Caribbean, and South America, and include stories by Gerald of Wales, Marie-Catherine d’Aulnoy, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Giambattista Basile, J. M. Synge, Zora Neale Hurston, Italo Calvino, and many more.” This list is a bit problematic: my dream list would include original written folktales that “Shakespeare” would have actually utilized rather than more modern retellings of these stories; it is difficult to believe “Shakespeare” would have relied on oral retellings; there must have been some books that narrated some of these stories. Hurston’s or the Grimm brothers take on these stories reflect their own modern times rather than the pure essence of the folk tradition. “Organized by play, each chapter includes a brief introduction discussing the intriguing connections between the play and the gathered folktales.” This breakdown and the explanations of what parts were borrowed by “Shakespeare” is very helpful for attribution scholars like me as well as for more casual students who want to understand how stories can be reborn in new genres.

The problem of modern versions failing to reflect the intended meanings of earlier incarnations is partially resolved by this collection’s presentation of a range of tragic-to-comic or happy or sad ending versions from cultures around the world. For example, one set of introductory remarks explains how the “heroine of the ‘Hands’ stories if often accused of bearing monstrous children, as in the German, Hungarian, and Russian versions included here, or of killing an infant, as in the Scottish and Russian versions. Lavinia endures no such calumnies…” (86). Some of the plot devices engaged in these stories are especially easy to spot as those echoed in the “Shakespeare” canon. One that stood out is the description of princess Ambika dressing in a “male disguise” prior to leaving Benares: “No one ever doubted that the princess had not remained in the choultry, for the morning doles had been regularly received, and now Devi and the other servants were mightily pleased at all the steps Ambika had taken for successfully retrieving her character” (197). Cross-dressing as a disguise to hide an identity and to achieve a desired goal repeats in Renaissance plays. This was a fitting subject since all of the male and female parts in plays were played by men and boys, as members of the female sex were not allowed to become actors. My research uncovered that this subject was also particularly revealing because two of the authors writing under the “William Shakespeares” name were Mary Sidney and Emilia Bassano, who were performing an authorial cross-dressing in taking on this persona to allow them to publish more readily in a time when Sidney became the first woman in Britain to publish a play.

While there is a wealth of information hidden away here for scholars, kids who enjoy a good tale will find a good deal to enjoy in these pages. Modern cartoonish books take the meat out and call themselves fairytales, if more kids read these types of dense folktales instead, the average reading levels might rise as a result as it is easier to read a dense story than a repetitive one.

Time Travel into Chaucer’s England

Ian Johnson, Ed. Geoffrey Chaucer in Context. 482pp, 6X9”, hardback. ISBN: 978-1-107-03564-5. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.


As part of my research into “Shakespeare”, I stumbled across a seemingly simple question: were people in this period normal-weight or underweight given the starvation rates and the heavy beer-drinking and bread-eating habits of the times and any other clues to human size? This remains an important question as I attempt to figure out if the Rose could have fit 2,500 people or more as estimates have concluded. At modern measures of the maximum number of people that can fit into a square meter, the available space could not fit this many people, so it appears this is an exaggeration. I attempted to ask a capacity mathematician to check these results, but he said that measuring the average weight or stomach circumference of humans in this period was necessary to reach certainty in a conclusion. I spent a few hours searching the web and scholarly archives for a piece of surviving clothing that might estimate girth or other indicators. While human height has been calculated as it changes through the centuries, thickness is harder to pin-down. The difficulty I faced in this search explains why books such as this one are essential for scholars of distant times. Most collections of essays I review tend to include too many digressive and nonsensical pieces that editors fail to screen out as they work with a large quantity of independent scholars. In contrast, this appears to be a more practical collections of essays that address the strange problems scholars of Chaucer might face as the explore his work and biography. In this context, the chapter that stood out to me is on “Dress” by Laura F. Hodges. Since Chaucer lived a couple of centuries earlier than Shakespeare, it is still less likely that any pieces of clothing have survived for a millennium intact. Given these limitations, Hodges has located various documents that offer clues to this cultural question. I have read a bit about Elizabeth I enacting laws to prevent those outside the aristocracy from purchasing more expensive or fancier clothing than this inner circle could afford; the merchant class was growing in power in Elizabeth’s time, so remaining the most sparkling object in the room really required laws to keep others in humbler appearance. Apparently, similar laws were in place hundreds of years earlier, according to Hodges. A law proclaimed that “people of Handicraft, and Yeomen” had to keep the cost of “their clothing and hosing” under 40s “for whole cloth… They must not wear ‘Stone’ (gemstones); ‘Cloth of Silk nor of Silver’…” (395). The list is lengthy, and it defines the fineries the aristocracy wore as it forbids these to commoners.

There are few rivals for Geoffrey Chaucer across the English Middle Ages; low literacy rates meant that only a handful of poets favored by the court could attain not only the education but the access to sources necessary for greatness in verse. While they were few in numbers, there is a chapter on “Chaucer’s Competitors”, which explains the strict versification standards they had to meet to publish in the pre-printing-press age: “each line has a minimum of four stressed syllables, two before and two after the caesura. Alliteration falls on the first three stressed syllables, serving to link the two halves of the line, while the fourth stressed syllable does not normally alliterate” (143). These types of strict required patterns were designed in part by Chaucer and his experiments, which were mimicked by these rivals (140). The chapter does not even mention many of these “rivals”, as the period is described as near-“undatable”, with a few other writers making a splash such as Wycliffite Bible and John Trevisa’s translations, and some anonymous texts (144). It is difficult to see how the only Middle Ages poet can be the greatest as well, but I guess this is a claim that cannot be contradicted by proving the greatness of an alternative.

These essays are indeed from “distinguished literary scholars” and “leading international historians”, as the cover promises. Even a chapter with a metaphysical name that threatens to veer into abstraction, is actually filled with practically-useful for researchers information. Valerie Allen’s “The Self” includes a chapter on the “Developments in mirror technology, such as a cold process of silvering glass”; these ideas are used to explain how the introduction of mirrors helped people to see themselves more as individuals; the narrative does digress from here to contemplations such as: “The convex mirror affords an exemplary model for imitation and self-correction; the plane mirror invites critique and self-objectification” (190). The idea that the type of mirror one uses changes a personality from pessimistic self-ridicule to a different type of self-hatred is absurd. Still, knowing that people prior to these centuries could not see themselves clearly in their mirrors helps researchers comprehend the cultural changes these people were going through.  

Despite these types of minor “mirror” digressions, this is an outstanding book that belongs in most international libraries: even if your resident Chaucer scholar does not request it, he or she wishes it was available without the employment of Interlibrary loan.

On Revision Revising or Revised

Hilary Havens. Revising the Eighteenth-Century Novel: Authorship from Manuscript to Print. 230pp, 6X9”, hardback. ISBN: 978-1-108-49385-7. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.


My “Defoe” research made this a required book to review especially since the word “authorship” is in the title. This short collection of essays also attempts to understand authorship in the period my findings cover, but it has an uplifting or cheering attitude regarding what I interpret as problematic. For example, the editor notes in the “Introduction” that while the eighteenth century began seeing the cult-of-the-author being born in interest expressed by readers in the authors penning the novels they were reading, authorship was still a collaborative process rather than an individualistic pursuit. I address this by pointing out specific intersections in linguistic signatures between many of the big-name authors from this period, showing that they worked as a group to create their texts, so that crediting some of them as “great” while others in their collective as inferior might be sidelining the authors, while the contractors hiring ghostwriters and thus putting their names of the “best” texts are viewed as the literary giants of the age. Instead here is how Havens describes this phenomenon: “authorship should not be restricted to a singular figure and should instead be viewed as a fluid network emanating from the central, recognized writer credited on his or her novel’s title page. This paragraph goes on to equate an “author” with an “actor”, claiming there are no authors outside of the “group” (11-2). My research proves this not to be the case: some authors in this period, such as Robert Paltock, the actual author of Crusoe and other genre-founding novels, has a very unique style that indicates he wrote his texts on his own; on the other hand Gildon, Curll and Pope have styles that indicate collaborations between them, so that many of their texts appear to be written by a somewhat shared and somewhat divergent linguistic signature. The facts are thus in conflict with the pro-collaborative philosophy critics such as Havens are propagating for. There have been several recent scandals in academia that have underlined the pressure editors and reviewers put on writers to cite their work or to pay them for editing input in order to be published; collaboration has really been about ghostwriting and purchasing social standing by hiring ghostwriters to make a rich person appear to also be intelligent to explain the political, clerical and other types of powers money can buy. While equally sharing in the creation of a text can enrich the process and the output, collaboration that disappears the actual writer as invisible, while granting the purse funding this effort as a great literary creator stifles the capacity of a generation to create truly outstanding texts; for example, readers now tend to assume a publication implies superiority without reading the texts, so contractors tend to minimize costs by hiring the cheapest rather than the best writers and editors. Havens has to digress from the grand statements about collaboration to abstract babbling about Bakhtin because there is nothing logical that can be said in favor of idiots winning awards for outstanding literary merit.   

While I wish this book delivered insights regarding the editing process of eighteenth-century novelists, these essays blame a lack of evidence for instead offering digressions on family-group editing and other abstract topics. For example, in the chapter on Jane Austen, the author keeps returning to the concept of “sensibility”, describing what type of “sensibility” ended up being portrayed in the final characters in the novel; for example, the author notes: “Sensibility, however, can be a deadly and dangerous thing”. What relevance does this general platitude have to editing or to a logical dissection of the elements of a novel? When it comes the “Revision” process for her novels, which the chapter title promises to address, this topic is sidelined because manuscripts or revision notes have not survived to prove what this process was like. Only towards the end of the section on this novel does the author finally arrive at known revisions for a second edition that stand out because they echo the criticisms offered on the first edition by The British Critic: “This review foreshadows and likely inspired many of Austen’s most significant changes to the second edition, something that has gone previously unnoticed” (93-100). This dramatic statement ends in a note, which explains at the end of the book that Claudia Johnson has alluded to this review to explain the changes Austen has made (198); in other words this is a hyperbolic statement and the changes made in this book have been made before even as the author attempts to make them appear to be original research.

I missed some of the fine points in the summary when I requested this book; re-reading it now, I can see how I had hoped this was a book about the science of revision, but it turned out to be an abstract philosophy of cyclical babbling. “Revisions form a natural part of the writing process, but is the concept of revision actually an intrinsic part of the formation of the novel genre?” This book would have been a lot better if Havens believed “revision” is “actually” an “intrinsic part of” the scholarly “writing process”. “Through the recovery and analysis of material from novel manuscripts and post-publication revisions, Hilary Havens identifies a form of ‘networked authorship’.” In Austen’s case, she merely discusses how Austen read her novels to her family and took their advice under consideration. “By tracing authors’ revisions to their novels, the influence of familial and literary circles, reviewers, and authors’ own previous writings can be discerned. Havens focuses on the work of Samuel Richardson, Frances Burney, Jane Austen, and Maria Edgeworth to challenge the individualistic view of authorship that arose during the Romantic period, and argues that networked authorship shaped the composition of eighteenth-century novels.” Perhaps the bits of relevant and useful information scattered across this book is what makes its faults particularly disturbing for a scholar reading it; one can be lulled into trusting the narrator to find an anti-moral or nonsensical paragraph that hurts the intellect.

This is a horrid book. Students should avoid reading it because if they attempt to quote it without re-researching these subjects, they might end up stating the opposite of what truth and facts indicate. Researchers will want to avoid it if they are not interested in being hired as a free editor to a sloppy author.

The Hidden Mysteries at the Intersection Between Medieval Law and Literature

Candace Barrington and Sebastian Sobecki, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Law and Literature. 220pp, 6X9”, paperback. ISBN: 978-1-316-63234-5. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.


From my undergraduate through my graduate studies the most helpful books for my literary research projects have tended to be one of these Cambridge companions. Somehow Cambridge can compress an incredible volume of useful information into these relatively short books that help researchers understand the multiple dimensions of a given topic. I tend to be inspired with ideas for directions of unexplored research byways, or to find solutions to vague problems that appeared incomprehensible before I began reviewing the contents of these particular companions. Thus, it would have been a great disappointment to me personally if I learned upon closer examination or in retrospect that there was something wrong with these compressed knowledge-factories. Happily, looking over this book confirms my life-long belief in this brand. It does indeed provide treasures about one of the most difficult to analyze (due to a lack of surviving evidence) literary periods: the Medieval age.

The blurb summarizes this companion as an “accessible introduction to this rich engagement in medieval and early Tudor England.” As my own research has moved backwards across England’s history from the nineteenth century to the sixteenth, I have come to appreciate the increasing significance of the law in the literary output. My findings regarding ghostwriting in Elizabethan England indicate that most of the texts published in this age were composed, edited and printed by approved propagandists; censorship of the press did not mean screening out merely outwardly rebellious or immoral texts, but rather all unsponsored-by-aristocracy texts and ideas; this allowed the government to retain a stranglehold on the people: such undemocratic publishing was necessary in an age when most people were on the edge of starvation, slavery and colonialism were enriching a handful while killing millions, and overall the policies of the monarchy in no way reflected the interests of the public who might have access to reading any texts that could be printed at a cost within their budgets. Thus, understanding the intersection between the law and the literature produced in these earlier times explains not only what the fictional characters are doing and why, but what the monarchy and its government were doing behind the publishing scenes to assure favorable publicity; this being just one among other revealing law-literature overlaps. This book is an overview of “medieval law with concise examples illustrating how the law infiltrated literary texts during this period. Foundational chapters written by leading specialists in legal history prepare readers to be guided by noted literary scholars through unexpected conversations with the law found in numerous medieval texts, including major works by Chaucer, Langland, Gower, and Malory. Part I contains detailed introductions to legal concepts, practices and institutions in medieval England, and Part II covers medieval texts and authors whose verse and prose can be understood as engaging with the law.”

The genres or types of texts that have survived from these ages are very foreign to modern audiences. Modern computing and digital printing makes it easy to digress on topics, but brevity was prized in the pre-press era. The chapter on “Treatises, Tracts and Compilations” is useful to those who are reviewing these types of documents as part of their research and are bewildered by their characteristics without some translation. This would be the case if a scholar was commencing modern legal research and did not understand the difference between law codes and legal case history. Many of the best early authors (i.e. Sir Walter Scott and Robert Paltock) I have been researching were lawyers because the law was a field that required comprehension and application of some of the most complex texts available; monarchs controlled the populace through the laws described in these codes, and they were deliberately complex to keep the public from being able to defend itself against unjust prosecution. Being aware of the laws could, for example, migrate somebody seeking a “legal remedy” from “seignorial and communal courts… to the king’s courts at Westminster and to county courts… One could thus avert archaic legal procedures, such as trial by battle in feudal disputes.” The courts grew in power as those in the legal profession increasingly collected fees for their services. Poorer members of the legal profession had to seek fee-based employment as clerks or other minor players without an expensive advanced education, while the rich could buy judicial offices. Curiously Don C. Skemer offers an example of the “first authoritative common law treatise” which has been attributed to Ganulf Glanvill, The Treatise on the Laws…, but adds that the works true author was more likely to be a more minor “contemporary judge or higher-level clerk” (66-7). In other words, the system of clerks writing most of the judges’ rulings we have today has been around since at least these medieval times.

Just another example of the insightful information offered in these pages is the example of a Latin “formulaic close rolls entry of Cecily Chaumpaigne’s 1380 agreement to release ‘Galfrido Chaucer from all charges related to ‘de raptu meo’”, which was only discovered in the nineteenth century, and scholars remained uncertain for a century if the accusation was for abduction, rape, both or something else; the claim was that the Latin phrases were confusing, but Candace Barrington argues the real problem appears to be a hesitancy in the literary establishment to call England’s greatest medieval poet a “rapist”, which stalled this fact from being publicized as such. Barrington explains that women “under assault” had extremely “limited legal options” in this period, and so this woman would have been forced with withdraw rather than choosing to do so (137). This explanation is the reason legal scholarship is necessary to decipher some of literature’s enduring “mysteries”. For example, I have been attempting to publish my findings regarding who really wrote “Defoe” and “Shakespeare”, but just as accusing these authors of “rape” would be suppressed, so is the accusation of ghostwriting and mis-attributions by the literary establishment. Such matters really should be handled as cold legal cases rather than as subjective topics that can be philosophically addressed. Philosophy can favor fictitious fantasy about the lives of writers, whereas the legal documents can reveal the factual truths regarding whoever they were and whatever wrongs they committed.

Everybody who is studying either medieval law or literature can be enriched by reading this book. Libraries should definitely carry it because Medieval times are not as removed from our own times as we like to imagine: we are still repeating many of the mistakes made in this age, and reading books like this might help us stop doing so.

Did Chaucer Have One Scribe or Many?

Lawrence Warner. Chaucer’s Scribes: London Textual Production 1384-1432. 232pp, 6X9”, hardback. ISBN: 978-1-108-42627-5. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.


While the title and the description of the book explain many things, the chapter titles in this book are very cryptic if read first: what can this be referring to: “Hoccleve’s Hengwrt, Hoccleve’s Holographs”? A larger portion of this book is composed of notes: too large I believe given its overall size. There are 21 figures inside the book in black and white of medieval texts that are incomprehensible even to most scholars of this early language. And a great deal of the book is spent in obscure and unscientific handwriting analysis such as the speculation if “readers might wonder” if all the cataloged handwriting data is due to “a change in the scribe’s habits over time” rather than to distinctions between authorial styles of distinct writers The elements summarized are “density of slashes-and-dots and snowballs, spacing, length of ascenders and descenders, use of wavy lines and decorated descending triangles, formation of y, h, W, T, H, L, K, ornamental A and initial R, curls above ascenders, presentation of Bastard Anglicana, and the rest” (50). On the one hand, this is all very curious, and I would like to pull up these documents to review the findings so I can improve my own ability to distinguish between handwritings, but on the other hand I am reminded of recently realizing how such handwriting analysis can be manipulated to reach a desired conclusion rather than the true one. The example I’m thinking of is the recent re-attribution of a lost translation manuscript to Elizabeth I; the problem is that the handwriting analyst acknowledged that the handwriting of nearly all of this work matched a handwriting closer in similarity with unnamed and unspecified secretaries at the court, and only corrections might be in Elizabeth’s hand, and these corrections appear near-identical to the main handwriting, only they are a bit sloppier (the sloppiness is used to prove it must be by Elizabeth). As I glance across the rest of the chapter, the details of how one “wavy” line is unlike another is not explained, but rather we are told about digressing subjects such as the various names of the scholars and studies that have attempted to solve these problems before, with repetitions of these terms but without explanations to guide readers to be able to find out enough to form their own opinions based on these documents (as they are likely to be digitized and publicly available) (46-7). If my own research necessitates me proving my re-attributions with handwriting analysis as well as with the quantifiable computational linguistics method I have been using, I will return to this book to figure out what exactly all these scholars have been doing, and how these processes have been corrupted or mistake. I wish they were accurate as this would help me solidify my findings, but given what I know of the field, I assume the worst.

Here is how the publisher introduces this book: “The 2004 announcement that Chaucer’s scribe had been discovered resulted in a paradigm shift in medieval studies. Adam Pynkhurst dominated the classroom, became a fictional character, and led to suggestions that this identification should prompt the abandonment of our understanding of the development of London English and acceptance that the clerks of the Guildhall were promoting vernacular literature as part of a concerted political program. In this meticulously researched study, Lawrence Warner challenges the narratives and conclusions of recent scholarship. In place of the accepted story, Warner provides a fresh, more nuanced one in which many more scribes, anonymous ones, worked in conditions we are only beginning to understand. Bringing to light new information, not least, hundreds of documents in the hand of one of the most important fifteenth-century scribes of Chaucer and Langland, this book represents an important intervention in the field of Middle English studies.” This is, as I feared, a propagandistic spin on the fresh bits of truth modern science has managed to gleam of this period. The handwriting samples across this book look identical to an untrained eye. 2004 scholarship proved that there was a single ghostwriter behind Chaucer. Instead of embracing these findings, Warner fights logic by finding convoluted and deliberately incomprehensible reasons to continue believing the period was dominated by “many more scribes”. The conflict over the single or multiple Chaucer ghostwriters is not one about our history, but rather about our present. The College Admission scandal is only one of the signs there is something amiss in our world as literacy is declining despite twelve years of mandatory, free education; this international stupidity is linked to the ease with which kids can purchase papers online as well as with the other nefarious anti-intellectual practices, which are all connected to who is ghostwriting for whom.

This is not a good book. Somebody needs to write a textbook on handwriting analysis intended for undergraduates that would allow all researchers to become experts in this field, and thus for all researchers to be able to spot if evidence by handwriting “experts” is being corrupted by political, cultural or economic interests.

The Science of Measuring Truth

Hans V. Hansen, Fred J. Kauffeld, James B. Freeman, and Lilian Bermejo-Luque. Presumptions and Burdens of Proof: An Anthology of Argumentation and the Law. 306pp, 6X9”, hardback. ISBN: 978-0-8173-2017-1. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2019.


This book strangely echoes a question I have been contemplating since I wrote a few years ago a book called, The Burden of Persuasion. I borrowed this title from the legal standard of the “burden of proof”; in the case I describe, a woman is tortured by members of the legal and medical establishments, but lacking sufficient proof, has to take murderous actions as filing the case in court is not an option. Obviously, I am curious to find out what scholars have said about this “burden” over the millennia. The collection in these pages is inspiring as it starts with Aristotle and precedes to cover both historical and contemporary changes in this concept. As is usually the case, Aristotle (Topics) might to a better job of handling this question than all later authors, as he breaks down the “demonstration” of what is “true” into those verifiable with “premises” and “dialectical” “reasons from opinions that are generally accepted” (19). It is easy to slip into these types of puzzles, so readers interested in philosophical contemplation will find this to be an interesting read. The introductory sections that explain these pieces are pretty brief, and most of the text is just taken up with these respected scholars’ takes on the topic. The modern section is full of practical examples and explanations that should help lawyers preparing for a trial to gather evidence that meets this burden. One of these examples describes the logic one follows when determining the likely location of the main actors in a crime given what is known and unknown about their whereabouts (227). While we can imagine that we all know what “truth” and sufficient “proof” looks like, when the freedom or the lives of those accused are at stake, a scientific approach is needed to really measure the evidence on a scale rather than guessing if an interpretation appears believable. We need “general principles regulating the use of presumptions and burdens of proof” (186).

The blurb introduces it as: “Two of the most central concepts of argumentation theory are presumptions and burdens of proof. Their functions have been explicitly recognized in legal theory since the middle ages, but their pervasive presence in all forms of argumentation and in inquiries beyond the law—including politics, science, religion, philosophy, and interpersonal communication—have been the object of study since the nineteenth century. However, the documents and essays central to any discussion of presumptions and burdens of proof as devices of argumentation are scattered across a variety of remote sources in rhetoric, law, and philosophy.” This collection includes “the locus classicus chapter from Bishop Whately’s crucial Elements of Rhetoric as well as later reactions to Whately’s views.” From the perspective of this book, legal proof rests in how the evidence is phrased or in the rhetoric utilized by the lawyers rather than in the type of evidence it is describing.

A lawyer who makes the mistake of ignoring legal standards of rhetorically making a convincing logical argument can fail in a case as a result even when a lawyer skilled in this art would have won. A good deal of classes in law school today focus on having students recite evidence from past cases they read, but they might not be taught the science of the language they should be using to go beyond repeating past opinions and arguments to dissecting these to apply winning rhetorical strategies to future real-world cases. With this in mind, this book should definitely be on the required reading lists in law schools.

The Collection of Greek and Roman Tales We All Need to Read

William Hansen, editor, translator. The Book of Greek & Roman Folktales, Legends & Myths. $35. 550pp, 6X9”, hardback. ISBN: 978-069117015-2. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019.


This book invites both adult and younger readers by the inclusion of illustrations and dramatic tales with historic significance. I also reviewed in this set the collection of folktales that influenced “Shakespeare”, but while that collection was of tales across a variety of time periods, this one focuses on original ancient narratives. Many of the stories take up a single page, so an extraordinary quantity of ancient plots has been compressed into this single volume. If the “Shakespeare” authors had access to this book, they would never have repeated the same plotline or covered the same historic character, as they would have had more material and potential plotlines to explore than publishers were capable of putting in print. These stories are separated into moralistic sections on topics such as “trickery”, “seducers”, and “artists”; this would also be extremely helpful to writers searching for inspiration, as they can find sections that fit the history, or the theme they are inspired to write about to check how these types of stories have been handled by ancient writers to create drama or tension between characters. The specific notes that accompany these stories explain just the details that are likely to leave modern readers confused, such as the note on alternatively more ratcheted “up” tensions in versions of the “Damon and Phintias” story, which caused “people” to flock “together in suspense to see if the condemned man would return…” (199). In other words, this book delivers precisely what it promises and should be delightful to scholars of these works and casual readers who are bored with the relatively slow and lengthy modern novels.

The publisher sells it thus: “Captured centaurs and satyrs, talking animals, people who suddenly change sex, men who give birth, the temporarily insane and the permanently thick-witted, delicate sensualists, incompetent seers, a woman who remembers too much, a man who cannot laugh—these are just some of the colorful characters who feature in the unforgettable stories that ancient Greeks and Romans told in their daily lives.” These are the “oral stories” that survived through the millennia. A distinction is made between some of these being mythology” and those that are “heroic legends, fairy tales, and fables to ghost stories, urban legends, and jokes.” From their perspective, “mythologies” were the religious texts of these times, whereas the other genres cover various other types of creative storytelling. Myths for modern readers were religions to Greeks and Romans; these myths are now called pagan, and those who still believe in them are called witches. These terms for old religions were coined as Christianity was conquering the minds of the world; the Devil was necessary to create a separation between Judaism and Green and Roman religions and the new doctrine. The Bible was interpreted as factual in a manner that would have probably been strange to Greeks and Romans, who might have had a symbolic appreciation for their religious stories. These ancient stories demonstrate this difference as they depict the complexities of human lives rather than dictating what humans should do in both the “myth” and the “urban legends”. The summary above is more accepting of sex-changes and insanity than our modern scholars.

While I had a sense that this is a unique collection, it is actually rarer than I perceived as this “anthology presents the largest collection of these tales ever assembled. Featuring nearly four hundred stories in authoritative and highly readable translations, this is the first book to offer a representative selection of the entire range of traditional classical storytelling.” I spent a good portion of my youth reading “mythology”, folktales and other strange stories from across history: I would have read this book cover-to-cover if it was in my library.

“Set mostly in the world of humans, not gods, these stories focus on figures such as lovers, tricksters, philosophers, merchants, rulers, athletes, artists, and soldiers.” This means that scholars who are researching these ancient times will find evidence in these pages of what the culture and daily lives of these diverse individuals were like. This type of multi-level comprehension is necessary for a scholar of literature, history, biography and other such fields to enter a foreign world and to describe it to others from this internal perspective.

“The narratives range from the well-known—for example, Cupid and Psyche, Diogenes and his lantern, and the tortoise and the hare—to lesser-known tales that deserve wider attention. Entertaining and fascinating, they offer a unique window into the fantasies, anxieties, humor, and passions of the people who told them.”

I want to travel back in time and give myself this book as a gift for summer high school reading; if I read it back then, my writing style and comprehension of the human condition might have been greatly improved. I strongly recommend this collection for all academic and public libraries and for anybody with time and money for these types of intellectual luxuries.  

A Scholar Proves Research Can Make a Mountain Out of a Color

Michel Pastourea. Yellow: The History of a Color. $39.95. 242pp, color paintings, hardback. ISBN: 978-069119825-5. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019.


The only other mention of “yellow” in this set of reviews is one regarding “yellow fever”, and yet here is an entire book dedicated to this color. This book is part of Princeton’s series dedicated to the various colors in art. The portrait of a reclining man in yellow on this particular cover drew my attention more than others. The man’s attitude might match my own reverie more than I’d like to admit, though his might be induced by smoking, while mine has been brought about by excessive reading alone. I looked through every page earlier when I was writing a few fiction stories and needed visual inspiration. When I was younger, I would go to parks or travel to different cities or landscapes for inspiration, but now I find that much more active inspiring is achieved by studying art or researching books accessible without spending time and gas on the road. As I was browsing through the pictures searching to details that might color my story, I observed that there really is a great deal of scholarly discussion that can be applied even to a color such as “yellow”. The heavy use of “yellow” in abstract art and ancient Egyptian wall paintings are curious, but then there is the use of yellow gold, which made me ponder if a psychological preference for this color has made this into a metal more highly prized than silver or metals of other less radiant colors. It is mesmerizing to look at Egyptian tombs made entirely of gold metal (28): it would be odd if modern humans spent this much money and labor on a single burial box, even if the occupant was a billionaire, though why billionaires do not bury themselves in golden crypts today is puzzling as well. I have used some of the medieval European and ancient Chinese paintings with gold elements on some of my designed book covers, and these are indeed some of my more attractive covers. As the text explains, across the ages, colors gained religious significance in rituals and in religious laws. Some religions such as Judaism forbit the depiction of humans, while others such as Christianity developed rules regarding the required and forbidden utilizations of various colors: thus, most of us use black for burials and white for weddings today (even if these do not reflect medieval symbolisms). Michel Pastoureau writes: “beginning in the ninth century, gold and brilliant, saturated colors made their appearance into the rich fabrics and garments used for worship”, making yellow less symbolically-specific than white and other defined colors (78). Even without reading these details, this is a beautiful book to behold. In fact, I think I’ll leave it open by my wall to serve as a decoration on the page that depicts a gold-laden anonymous portrait called, “The Family of Henry VIII” (1545) (142). It was drawn two years into his last marriage, after he had killed or otherwise disposed of his first five wives. So, here is his last wife, Chatherine Parr, who outlasted him by apparently looking downwards and enjoying the gold she was given. This should be a useful reminder for me to glimpse as I contemplate the relationship between “servant” authors such as Fletcher and Munday and monarchs such as Elizabeth I and James I.

Michel Pastoureau is celebrated as “a renowned authority on the history of color”: if I knew this was a career option, I might have majored in the study of color. Pastoureau’s previous volumes in this series covered: blue, black, green, and red. This historically explained collection of paintings is “Focusing on European societies, with comparisons from East Asia, India, Africa, and South America. The changes of this color’s significance are recorded with an explanation for how social, cultural and political changes altered its utilization or lack thereof in “art, religion, fashion, literature, and science.” The significance of this particular color is pumped up from its current low standing: “In antiquity, yellow was almost sacred, a symbol of light, warmth, and prosperity. It became highly ambivalent in medieval Europe: greenish yellow came to signify demonic sulfur and bile, the color of forgers, lawless knights, Judas, and Lucifer—while warm yellow recalled honey and gold, serving as a sign of pleasure and abundance.” During a brief period when I was interested in “pagan” religions or witchcraft, I remember studying these types of symbols closely. And during my Hassidic Judaic education, I recall being lectured regarding the colors suitable and unsuitable to female modesty, so these ideas resonate with my subconscious fears and attractions. “In Asia, yellow has generally had a positive meaning. In ancient China, yellow clothing was reserved for the emperor, while in India the color is associated with happiness.” The parts of this book that explain how only the monarchy was allowed to wear purple in England, and these other laws over color are particularly curious. There are similar rules that favor the rich today, but they appear normal to us; considering these obscure color rules of the past stress how wrong these modern discriminations are. Sleeping in a tent in the middle of a national park for free for a wealthy person is perfectly legal, but sleeping in a tent on a street in San Francisco has been criminalized with up to a misdemeanor, and the likely loss of said tent and all other worldly possessions. Is this really much better than not being allowed to wear yellow clothing in front of the king? “Above all, yellow is the color of Buddhism, whose temple doors are marked with it.” This is a curious perspective: modern companies choose sets of colors as their brand-identity, but I guess religions as well as states are much better in this game, as they have retained proprietary rights to their preferred color-codes for centuries if not millennia.

This book features one of the most elaborate and “striking” designs of all of the books I have reviewed. The paper and printing are so elaborate, it makes the images appear as close to the originals as they would look from across a gallery floor. The language describing these meanings is designed for the general public and if you do not speak English, it is also available in “more than thirty languages.” If you are contemplating going to a museum, or purchasing a painting for millions for your private collection, this book is going to involve less gas or less investment, and the outcome might be more nourishing.

Reflection on How We Write History

Christopher S. Wood. A History of Art History. 458pp, 6X9”, 24 b/w illustrations, hardback. ISBN: 978-069115652-1. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019.


Since I frequently jump between centuries in my research, I can imagine how difficult it was for Christopher Wood to compile this comprehensive history of art history from the period between 800-1400 to 1950-1960 in the last chapter. The leaps require as much research perhaps per chapter as a scholar focusing on a single period might do for an entire book. And the research compiled here does not stumbled into abstractions that the topic invites, but really delivers an accurate history of the changes in this culture-defining field. Having read many histories, and several art histories, it is curious to see these two fields combined. The combination is strange enough that this book is really needed, whereas a repetition of either of these two fields alone would not add much to scholarship. The overlap between these two fields demonstrates how politicians, cultural institutions (such as universities), intellectuals, and other powers have changed what the public perceives as great versus inferior art. When art historians fail, they command bananas that sell for hundreds of thousands because of nothing other than this monetary value. Other impactful fails of art history include the exclusion of all human depictions based on religious laws. Ever greater fails occur every year as art historians fail to find the best art that is never sold or published in favor of pop or highly-priced art, even if the latter is artistically, intellectually and otherwise inferior. Thus, understanding how the study, criticism and the narratives of art history have been executed previously can help us alter our trajectory from our current course headed for fields of rotten bananas to one that future historians might recognize as beneficial for humans that follow us.    

The blurb reaffirms my assumption that this study is “the first of its kind in English”. Wood commences by “synthesizing and assessing a vast array of writings, episodes, and personalities”.

It “shows that the pioneering chroniclers of the Italian Renaissance—Lorenzo Ghiberti and Giorgio Vasari—measured every epoch against fixed standards of quality. Only in the Romantic era did art historians discover the virtues of medieval art, anticipating the relativism of the later nineteenth century, when art history learned to admire the art of all societies and to value every work as an index of its times.” This is a curious premise, but I don’t know if it is an example of progress in this field. I personally wish art critics would return to defined “standards of quality”. This might be difficult to achieve given the capacity of photography to capture a far more precise image than the best painting techniques. If art is not a matter of precision, as it was in part in the Renaissance, what can be used as markers of quality? Originality and experimentation clearly have to be rewarded, but how can something untried before be quantified against old technique that approaches perfection after centuries of adjustment? Every page in this book inspires similar reflections on what art is all about and what makes it great. “The major art historians of the modern era, however—Jacob Burckhardt, Aby Warburg, Heinrich Wölfflin, Erwin Panofsky, Meyer Schapiro, and Ernst Gombrich—struggled to adapt their work to the rupture of artistic modernism, leading to the current predicaments of the discipline.” I took a course in art history in college and I recall that the instructor held “modernism” in high regard as did most of the critics we read, so it would be interesting to read a few critics that find “modernism” to be as morally and artistically bankrupt as it has started to look to me. The author, Wood, is part of the art scholarship establishment as he teaches at NYU; he does appear to share some of my own negative perspectives as his past books have been about “forgery”, “replica”, and the “origins of landscapes”; it is difficult to contemplate the same types of rectangles modern artists repeat without questioning if replication has come to the extreme, and every year brings new forgery scandals that even the top museums barely manage to notice. Wood’s interests underline that he has some experience with practical evaluation of art rather than mere academic observation of it; the more one looks at art’s realities, the more one develops suspicion there is fraud on every canvas.

Aside for the philosophical and theoretical implications of these histories, the facts of what forgotten artists have done are also interesting to read, especially if no other evidence other than historical descriptions have survived. For example, Wood describes Zhang Yanyuan ‘s hyper-specific “account” of “famous artists” with “dates” and “anecdotes that reveal the character of the artists; he names more than 350 artists and man notable works; he describes the sculptors and painters’ techniques and the different kinds of metals, stones, bricks, and pigments…” (60). It is engaging to read more about these artists as “dark ages” without documented proof suddenly have the light of knowledge shown on them. Given the centuries this book covers, these 350 artists might be the equivalent of the best-known and appreciated artists today, who in a thousand years might be equally strange and unknown. Jumping to the latest century, the narrative changes as for example, the “1930-1940” chapter begins by explaining the growth of academic departments dedicated to art history in Germany and Austria, noting: “A quarter of them were Jews”, which caused them to lose these relatively new positions as the Nazis took over running their institutions (329). Some passages digress into abstract ponderings without practical usefulness or clear logic, such as the ponderings on the “neo-annalistic approach that” implies “reversals of historical perspectives, to the pastoral or ironic switching of the signs, the parodies… on the grand scale…” but on the “local… scale there is plenty of historical consciousness” (388). History is not something that disappears due to the approach applied to the study of art, so this is a very convoluted bit of nonsense in the middle of very useful factual lectures. I think the problem here is Wood is attempting to attain the “Conclusions” the chapter title promises, but the breadth of the subject does not allow for simple conclusions. Either one ends up making very radical statements about this history, or one can digress into abstractions to avoid these radical outcries, and it seems Wood decided on the latter. The chapter’s end reinforces this conclusion by finishing on these digressions: “protecting the troubling unknown from a premature translation into a narrower existence” (408). Is “existence” narrowing or is the “unknown” the problem? I think there is a chasm in modern art criticism; as Wood mentions elsewhere publicists have been allowed to direct what art the public is led to believe in superior in our modern world. The “unknown” artists are those poor, starving artists that can never purchase the services of these publicists and thus remain obscure, while we are fed the inferior hack-jobs of the class-privileged “artists”.

Before Dictionaries, Teachers Could Not Mark Students as Just Wrong on Their Spelling

Simon Winchester. The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary. $14.95. 298pp, paperback. ISBN: 978-0-19-881439-9. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.


The front matter of this book is highly engaging as I have spent a few minutes reading it before I could pull away to begin writing. While I was searching for a specific date when the Oxford English Dictionary was first put together, I learned about the various types of international dictionaries that have defined their times in the background. This curious conclusion stands out: “neither Shakespeare, nor any of the other great writing minds of the day – Francis Bacon, Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, John Donne, Ben Jonson – had access to what all of us today would be certain that he would have wanted: the lexical convenience that was first noticed by name in the late 15th century”, but only appeared as a book in 1538, “a dictionary”, edited by Sir Thomas Elyot (20). I have been thinking about problems related to this because many attribution studies question if “Shakespeare’s” authorial signature can be deduced from spellings such as “them” versus “‘em” or the utilization of strange words that “Shakespeare” invented or that do not appear in texts from this period by other authors. The reason Renaissance literature is particularly difficult for modern readers to comprehend is because of its spelling irregularities and strange varieties of meanings applied even to the same words. This irregularity persisted in part for at least a century beyond “Shakespeare’s” time as the debate was renewed by the authors in the “Daniel Defoe” circle, who argued for a language Academy like the one in France to police the language and keep it regulated and standard. They did not win this battle and there are still many irregular oddities in the English language. But the battle over the “dictionary” was won, and this tool allows modern writers to be able to figure out precisely what literary critics are saying. It is difficult to comprehend some “post-structuralism” or “formalist” theories because critics in these fields attempt to cloud the readers’ attention by the utilization of an extraordinary quantity of rare words, but if one looks up every one of them, the nonsense can be fully deciphered thanks to the precision and consistency of modern dictionaries. In other words, the study presented here of this particular dictionary really covers in part all of these sub-questions of authorship, individuality, and standardization.  

Since I agree the construction of this dictionary was a grand endeavor, I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to commence this book’s blurb thus: “‘The greatest enterprise of its kind in history,’ was the verdict of British prime minister Stanley Baldwin in June 1928 when The Oxford English Dictionary was finally published. With its 15,490 pages and nearly two million quotations, it was indeed a monumental achievement”. This history covers the “hundreds” of “people” who achieved this task and the logical and philosophic problems they faced as they attempted “to catalogue the English language in its entirety.” The biographies covered include “Frederick Furnivall, cheerful promoter of an all-female sculling crew, to James Murray, self-educated son of a draper, who spent half a century guiding the project towards fruition.” The note ends with the mysterious question for readers to anticipate an answer to: “why Tolkien found it so hard to define ‘walrus’.”

There are engaging surprises throughout. For example, Oxford University Press left the design of the dictionary to its “printers” because as was explained in The Periodical: “‘The variety of type used, the many languages involved, and the multiplication of ‘arbitraries’ have demanded technical knowledge and minute accuracy to an extent probably unequalled in any other work’” (120-1).

The “Epilogue” includes some examples of complex type and design from Robert Cawdrey’s early attempt at the dictionary in the Table Alphabetical (1604) as well as from the Samuel Johnson Dictionary of the English Language (1755) (240). The latter is most commonly referred to when the “first” English dictionary is mentioned.

Another revealing section describes the difficult living and working arrangements early makes of the Oxford dictionary faced: “There was only just enough room for the eleven Murrays, let alone for the assistants – eight of them, eventually – who were required for the project”. The tightness of the quarters led them to build a “new Scriptorium”, and this turned out to be a bureaucratic nightmare due to the aesthetic shortfalls of the simple structure required that clashed with the more delicate architecture of the neighborhood (164). This description is explained by the picture of a monastic Murray with a long beard, in all black and amidst a room covered on all sides with sheets and books (165).

Those who are interested in publishing and want to imagine the most difficult publishing project that can be attempted will find what they seek in these pages. Too many youths complain about the tediousness of reading the dictionary, but without dictionaries it would be far more tedious to figure out what other writers are trying to say. Thus, this book is essential for all public and educational libraries in case researchers or students want to gain an appreciation for the labor involved in building a language.

A Bit of Racism Amidst Digressive Nonsense About Realism, or Something Unlike It

Elaine Freedgood. Worlds Enough: The Invention of Realism in the Victorian Novel. $35. 184pp, 5.5X8.25”, hardback. ISBN: 978-0691193304. Princeton: Princeton University Press, October 15, 2019.


The title of this book is problematic because according to my recent research, there was no invention of the novel that materialized in Britain’s eighteenth century, and “realism” was not a new discovery founded by Victorians. The depiction of reality is as old as the written world. Critics insistence on calling truthful portrayals of the world “realistic” is a modern invention that was designed to juxtapose thousands of years of reality against the sudden shift towards the absurd and nonsensical. There had been wild fantastic myths and religions created by writers of the past, but modern versions of anti-realism are far more detached from what humans can comprehend or find interesting to read cover-to-cover. After the commencement of communism in Europe and the USSR revolutionary change, “realism” has become politicized as if “socialist realism” is the first thing readers imagine when they hear of any type of realism, and this “socialist realism” is equated with evil or with totalitarianism rather than being seen as the ability of the poor and disenfranchised to be dramatized in highbrow literary achievements. These anti-realist theories have brought about our current anti-literary, nonsensical or surface-only or abstract literatures that win awards despite being bereft of the one thing all past great fiction was built on: reality.

The blurb for this book does address some of these troubling questions but from a different angle. “Now praised for its realism and formal coherence, the Victorian novel was not always great, or even good, in the eyes of its critics.” It has recently been troubling me that the simple paragraph-summaries of periods, genres and national literatures that most students of fiction learn in school reflect a tiny fraction of the full range of works created or published in these categories. Then again, critics take advantage of the impossibility of naming every text published to exclude the texts that fail to fit the desired narrative. I read an essay that took a unique take on this in relation to Watt’s rise theory: this critic explained that Watt’s theory of the “novel” rising in eighteenth century Britain has been accepted by the establishment because this “rise” hypothesis has similar dimensions with popular novel plots: like the heroes of these pop novels, this fictitious specter of the novel rises from obscurity, through tensions and to victory. However, the scholarly study of fiction cannot itself be fictitious; logic, truth and reason are essential for our interpretation of literary changes to be a positive contribution to humanities intellectual development.   

The summary continues: “As Elaine Freedgood reveals in Worlds Enough, it was only in the late 1970s that literary critics constructed a prestigious version of British realism, erasing more than a century of controversy about the value of Victorian fiction.” Something horrid happened to literary criticism and to many other academic fields between WWII and the present moment. As I read studies prior to around 1939, there is a coherent history that repeats, even if it is biased and erroneous. But after this date, scholars have begun “inventing” new histories and literary theories, which in retrospect have built a false history and a deliberately convoluted and misleading interpretation of this history.

“Examining criticism of Victorian novels since the 1850s, Freedgood demonstrates that while they were praised for their ability to bring certain social truths to fictional life, these novels were also criticized for their formal failures and compared unfavorably to their French and German counterparts. She analyzes the characteristics of realism—denotation, omniscience, paratext, reference, and ontology—and the politics inherent in them, arguing that if critics displaced the nineteenth-century realist novel as the standard by which others are judged, literary history might be richer. It would allow peripheral literatures and the neglected wisdom of their critics to come fully into view.” And this horrid thing that has been happening is happening here as well. “Omniscience” or all-knowingness is at the center of reality? “Paratext”, the interpretation of texts, is a characteristic of realistic texts? What? The interpretation is a characteristic of the thing being interpreted? And what does the inferiority or superiority of British against other national literatures have to do with logical literary interpretation of the British variety of this genre? Obviously, most of British literary criticism has been propaganda that has puffed up all British authors as superior to all other national literatures, but only a few isolated critics have pointed out better examples in these specific rival literatures. Instead the French and German critics have been puffing their own literatures with equal propagandistic fervor. But is this author implying these countries are the “peripheral literatures”? As the lingua franca, English and its literature is winning in this battle of publicity-stunts at the academic level, but what does any of this have to do with the realist novel?  

Then, the summary veers into still deeper nonsensical waters: “She concludes by questioning the aesthetic racism built into prevailing ideas about the centrality of realism in the novel, and how those ideas have affected debates about world literature.” “Aesthetics” is the study of beauty. What does beauty have to do with racism? Put together into a binary word as they are here, they mean “beautiful racism”? And whatever this concept is supposed to mean is to be applied to if there should be any reality in the novel? Well, my “critical reception” of this book is that it’s one of the worst ideas I have reviewed so far in this set of reviews. The publisher promises this set of ponderings will suggest “how we can rethink our practices and perceptions about books we think we know.” The point of all scholarship is to offer some new thinking on topics somebody knows something about… To restate this generality in the few words that fit into a cover is bewildering.

The interior confirms the worst this summary anticipates. For example, one paragraph describes how: “Few of the major characters in Kim are indigenous to South Asia, or even native. Kim is Irish; the lama is Tibetan. But Kim, in a typical imperial fantasy, ‘passes’ for native…” Later “lama… wants a cure for her sick son. Kim tries to defend the lama against performing such an act, which is unholy.” Then the “woman” calls Kim an insulting name before defining and explaining the meaning of this “parrot”-equivalent racist insult. The paragraph ends there without any reference to “realism”; I guess racism is mentioned, but it is also practiced as the insult is given a full paragraph to grow on the reader (90).

I hope my description will help readers to avoid buying or borrowing this book, unless you are in the mood to write a social media posting about racism in literary scholarship.

A History of Life-Writing That Reveals State Secrets to Those Who Read It Attentively

Alan Stewart. The Oxford History of Life-Writing, Volume 2: Early Modern. 412pp, 6X9”, hardback. ISBN: 978-0-19-968407-6. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.


Here is a book that manages to deliver the ambitious goal it promises, and does so with the polish and precision that most of Oxford’s histories are known for. This particular volume in the series on the “Early Modern” period matches my current research, so I am glad it came out this year and was available for review. I will return to this book after these reviews are finished because it covers at least one of the individuals my “Shakespeare” research touches on, Sir Thomas More and his depiction in the play with this name that was attributed to Munday, and was censored out of production. It “explores life-writing in England between 1500 and 1700, and argues that this was a period which saw remarkable innovations in biography, autobiography, and diary-keeping that laid the foundations for our modern life-writing.” The line between “life-writing” and fiction was blurred across this period and through the eighteenth century; only towards the end of the eighteenth century did scholars begin establishing distinctions between what could be claimed in history against defined standards of “truth”, even if these truths were established myths. One of the main push-backs against fictitious biographies prior to this point was the ability of insulted aristocrats to file libel lawsuits if a presented history clashed with their self-perception. Given these developments, it is very revealing to study early examples of “life-writing” in England, as they can be infused with drama and exaggeration that modern life-writing does not dare to attempt.

“The challenges wrought by the upheavals and the sixteenth-century English Reformation and seventeenth-century Civil Wars moulded British and early American life-writing in unique and lasting ways. While classical and medieval models continued to exercise considerable influence, new forms began to challenge them. The English Reformation banished the saints’ lives that dominated the writings of medieval Catholicism, only to replace them with new lives of Protestant martyrs.” This is a great example of politics and religion utilizing publicity offered by printed texts to turn history into his-story or the story that their leaders want to convince the world is the truth about the world’s or their country’s creation. Since propaganda and double-speak is currently bringing about international conflict via its outcome in the Trump presidency, understanding how the great propagandists of England and America convinced the masses is particularly relevant to the present moment.

“Novel forms of self-accounting came into existence: from the daily moral self-accounting dictated by strands of Calvinism, to the daily financial self-accounting modelled on the new double-entry book-keeping.” The note regarding this book providing salvation via Calvinism reminds me of my Hassidic schooling, but it is a curious turn. “This volume shows how the most ostensibly private journals were circulated to build godly communities; how women found new modes of recording and understanding their disrupted lives; how men started to compartmentalize their lives for public and private consumption.” These are all very general concepts, but they are handled concretely in the text: the author is just trying to build a mystery to encourage readers to dive into the text. “The volume doesn’t intend to present a strict chronological progression from the medieval to the modern, nor to suggest the triumphant rise of the fact-based historical biography.” This is a great relief given my earlier notes on the “rise” theory. “Instead, it portrays early modern England as a site of multiple, sometimes conflicting possibilities for life-writing, all of which have something to teach us about how the period understood both the concept of a ‘life’ and what it mean to ‘write’ a life.” Again, too abstract for me, but if I was pretty tired after writing a long book and was asked to say something vague and abstract about all the facts I describe, I might state something similar.

The section names have humorous colors: “That Huge Dongehill of Your Stinking Martyrs” The Catholic Backlash”: this also explains how religion is treated in opposition rather than from the perspective of one side judged to be superior (68). There is also a strange phallic drawing of a “pillar” from the diary of Michael Wigglesworth (260), which might have been included because of its sexual implications rather than as an architectural example.

The contents of most of these writings are abstract even if Alan Stewart strives to find the details that bring the culture of these times into realistic detail for modern readers. After quoting from Brief Discourse by Katherine, Stewart concludes: “The effect is to abstract Katherine from such local English surroundings as dancing greens, markets, and public assemblies, and place her in a timeless biblical setting of tents and tabernacles” (154). These types of narrative bridges supply the texture of these times even if they are hazy in these early texts.

These distant topics are brought into conversations we all are currently pondering, including “fake news”: “It was broadcast in broadsheets and pamphlets that Dangerfield had been charged for impersonating James Scott, duke of Monmouth, the eldest illegitimate son of the late king, Charles II… constantly rumored to be gathering Protestant forces to invade England and oust his Catholic uncle, James II…” (284). According to my recent research, English monarchs like Elizabeth I, James I and probably James II hired writers to ghostwrite stories that exaggerated the threat from rebellion in order to allow them to execute the imagined foes based on these speculations if enough of the public believed in them. Executing rivals or imagined contestants for the throne could inspire a real rebellion, but winning the public over and convincing them a spy or a pretender was being fought against by English spies has historically led to a long term on the throne for the monarchs practicing these techniques.

On all counts, this is a useful, thoroughly researched, relevant, and interesting to read book for scholars and history enthusiasts alike.

An Inventive Autopsy of the Odyssey

M. L. West. The Making of the Odyssey. 316pp, softback. ISBN: 978-0-19-881019-3. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.


There is no greater mystery for literature scholars than to discover how writers at the dawn of the written word composed their earliest compositions. Humanity has remembered or preserved so few texts from some periods that archival evidence trickles down to zero the further back one moves in time, unless the author is a monarch or a pharaoh or an author who was of great celebrity in his day. Even in our modern anti-intellectual times, almost all humans on the planet have heard of the Odyssey. What we think of today and films and novels have structures that originated thousands of years ago in Greece and Rome and these places inherited these structures from earlier oral traditions of civilizations they conquered. Because humans have been treating earliest surviving widely-distributed books like templates for much of the texts that followed, understanding their manner of composition and the reasons for their particular structures also answers similar questions scholars ask when studying the literatures of international regions across the centuries that followed. Thus, this is a brave attempt to conquer the origins of this hero’s journey narrative. 

The publisher offers a great succinct summary: “The book is a close study of the background, composition, and artistry of the Homeric Odyssey. Following a preliminary investigation of the traditions that lie behind the poem (the origins of the figure of Odysseus as a trickster figure, and his association with folk-tales such as those of the One-eyed Ogre and the Returning Husband), it is placed in its late seventh-century context in relation to the Iliad, other poetry of the time, and the contemporary world. A detailed portrait of the poet is drawn, showing him to be a flawed genius, wonderfully inventive and imaginative but slapdash, often copying verses from the Iliad or from himself without close attention to their suitability. The composition of the epic is examined section by section, and the second half of the book is an analytical reading of it from beginning to end, following the poet’s moves and his changes of plan and explaining his procedures.”

The first chapter is curiously called “Conclusions”, and rightfully so as it begins by summarizing the findings detailed in the rest of the book. This type of summary is extremely helpful to reviewers in particular (like myself) who need to understand where the book is heading even if short on time to explore it fully. Many curious revelations are made in the first pages that surprise me because I took a class in Greek history where I read this book closely together with the Iliad. Apparently, there was much our teacher did not know as this research appears difficult to come-by or could not share in the abbreviated course. Odysseus was really called “Olysseus” in “much of Greece”. And the Odyssey we accept as a solid text today “is descended from” a “proto-Odyssey”, an earlier version “that had nothing to do with the Trojan War”. This is curious for my research into ghostwriting and related hidden authorship habits. I previously read about Judaism and other modern religions borrowing from oral “mythologies” that came before them, but the myth in literary studies is that Homer is one of the world’s best authors as the creator of two remembered epic works. It is almost blasphemy to accuse Homer of stealing lines from the Iliad and most of the storyline from a predecessor, but it is a needed blasphemy as the manner in which great authors compose their works should be known to those who read them, even this manner is distasteful. West argues two different authors wrote the original Iliad and the final Odyssey: “Like the Iliad poet, he made many insertions in what he had already written in a few places adding a whole scene. Recognition of this fundamental fact about the Homeric epics is the key to solving many of the critical difficulties that scholars have identified over the last two centuries” (2-4). I have stumbled across the same strange incongruities in the last couple of years in “Defoe” and “Shakespeare” studies, and similarly organizing and dissecting the surviving evidence with modern computing and access to digital archives has also solved very old mysteries. Without finding solutions to these types of incongruities, every new scholar feels as if something is amiss in their field, or as if they are lying when they repeat past assumptions or contradictory fictitious conclusions. Thus, books like this one are of primary importance for literary criticism to progress as a field.

The “Resourceful Odysseus” chapter explains the prototypical character types that Homer borrowed from earlier templates: this might be of interest to fiction writers who are attempting to mimic the heroic-journey narrative plot. “The Odyssey in Context” explains that both the Iliad and the Odyssey have similarities with the Akkadian classic, the Epic of Gilgamesh. Another section in this chapter offers several examples of mimicked or copied sections that repeat between Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days and the Iliad and the Odyssey: for example, he offers a line that is “identical” with the note, “except that the nouns are there in the accusative. The verse fits perfectly in the Hesiodic context, the list of Eris’ offspring, and is less natural as an appendage to the wild animals represented on Heracles’ baldric” (32-3).

Just as scholars and publishers today are adding new attributions to “Shakespeare” and “Defoe” annually (the latter having had over 550 texts attributed to him a few decades ago and growing), the attribution to Homer of both the Iliad and the Odyssey was made by a group that was profiting from performing these works: “like the Iliad,” the Odyssey “was taken up by the Homeridai, a guild of travelling rhapsodes based on Chios. They deemed both poems to be the work of their legendary ancestor Homer”, a century after the Odyssey’s composition (43). The absence of this type of information from history books has led to its repetition. The same assignment of “Defoe’s” name was made by the first publisher who placed it in the byline of a collection of anonymous novels decades after Defoe’s death, displacing their true author, Robert Paltock, from his due appreciation from the public. Both Defoe and Homer were popular names that increased these works publicity and public respect, whereas the names of the initial authors were either unknowable (in prior centuries) or insignificant in terms of social standing. It is delightful to know that we can finally perform an autopsy on texts such as the Odyssey to uncover the signatures of their authors, even if the names remain as Q, as West calls him, or anonymous. Imagining an impoverished and obscure scribe as the author of a great work gives me personally more hope for the majority of humanity than if a pop-star like Homer wrote it.

This is one of the best scholarly books published this decade because it makes many new discoveries instead of repeating past findings. This book should be locatable in any public or academic library so that those reading “Homer’s” texts can consider the true context behind the patchwork of stories they are appreciating.

Scholarship Commodified: Nonsense Wins

Jonathan Paine. Selling the Story: Transaction and Narrative Value in Balzac, Dostoevsky, and Zola. $45. 336pp, 6X9”, hardback. ISBN: 978-0674988439. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, August 6, 2019.


This book would have been a brilliant scholarly contributed if it refrained from veering from the economics of authorship into absurdist philosophies of critics such as Roland Barthes, a quote from whom opens the “Introduction”. As it stands it is an uncomfortable blend of fact and fiction: of the facts of how these three writers have been selling their stories, and digressive speculations on the nature of selling, or ponderings on commodification as a concept. Barthes and other critics have for decades been attempting to prove there is no difference between the great texts of the nineteenth century and the factory-produced pop novels released today from the Big Five publishers. These theories tend to say a great deal, but the subversively hidden message is that they believe all texts are commodities worth as much as the paper they are printed on, and authors are factory workers that replicate the same plots and edit machine-generated descriptions. Narratives like this one tend to demonstrate how authors of the past we have come to respect as literary critics are as evil as the worst of modern hacks because they too worked to sell their wares rather than monastically being only interested in the creation of great art.

The ill-suited mix of content is explained by the author, Jonathan Paine’s mixed career as a “literary scholar and investment banker”, though the blurb claims the book attempts pure “economic criticism” rather than economics mixed with post-structural absurdism. It further grandly declares that these pages will be “dramatically changing the way we read these classics and proposing a new model for how economics can inform literary analysis.” I have seen a similar nonsensical mix attempted in most post-x-field studies as scholars take logical, scientific fields such as economics and psychology and burden these with digressive, cyclical philosophy about nothing in totality. The book attempts to equate pop with canonical fiction by declaring: “Every writer is a player in the marketplace for literature.” If this was a statement of fact, it would be a waste of letters to say it as obviously writers who publish their texts enter the “marketplace”. So, the intended meaning is that all writers who sell their textual products are qualitatively equal; and this contradicts the laws of originality and invention. 

“Jonathan Paine locates the economics ingrained within the stories themselves, revealing how a text provides a record of its author’s attempt to sell the story to his or her readers.” In other words, instead of looking for the difficult to locate documentary proof of how these authors sold these stories (something that would be practically useful to authors who read this project and would like to figure this out), Paine takes the fictions and reports their falsities as facts. This is one of the worst mistakes a critic can make: taking fiction to be true. A character might sell tomatoes in a novel, but this does not mean the author sold his or her novel in a manner similar to the tomato-seller’s.

“An unusual literary scholar with a background in finance, Paine mines stories for evidence of the conditions of their production.” Once again, the author’s dual knowledge is stressed instead of moving ahead in this blurb to explain what actual new information is presented in these pages. The “conditions” of the “production” of any story are not to be found in the fiction (unless it is a story about how the author produced the story), but rather in the documents that show where the author worked, who sponsored this work, if the author held other jobs, and other questions that actually address these “conditions”.

“Through his wholly original reading, Balzac’s The Splendors and Miseries of Courtesans becomes a secret diary of its author’s struggles to cope with the commercializing influence of serial publication in newspapers.” Selling a commodity by repeating that it is a “great” commodity despite proof to the contrary is a lesson in the commodification of texts, but it is presented as a flaw of the author of this study, rather than something this author is going to explain. And it is not a “secret” if an author publishes a diary. Calling Balzac mentally ill because one of his characters is impoverished or struggling with selling products is a damaging stretch of reality. This is hardly an isolated incident of these types of mistakes as too much of the body of literary criticism we have inherited makes similar conclusions regarding the biographies or lives of authors based on the apparent mental illnesses or oddities of their creations. This is how out of a few specs of documentary evidence, hundreds of book-length biographies of authors such as “Defoe” and “Shakespeare” have been written. One difference between these and Balzac is that Balzac died in 1850, and this latter age is known for its record-keeping, leaving us with photos of precisely how he looked and numerous other documentary pieces that fill in biographical details. To discover how Balzac felt regarding “commercialization” we can search the digitized collections of his far more “secret” letters, including The love letters of Honoré de Balzac, 1833-1842 on Hathi Trust and Letters of Mounsieur de Balzac on Early English Books. Looking over the notes from the commencement of the Balzac chapter, no letters or biographies are cited. The volumes of Balzac’s works are grouped into a single entry. Most of the other sources are secondary and primarily in French, despite the author’s lack of a degree in this language. These other sources are described with broad generalizations such as: “Examples of the more generalist critical literature of the 1960s have been referenced in the Introduction” (269).

The Brothers Karamazov transforms into a story of Dostoevsky’s sequential bets with his readers, present and future, about how to write a novel.” What does gambling have to do with teaching readers about writing? “Zola’s Money documents the rise of big business and is itself a product of Zola’s own big business, his factory of novels.” Now here we are getting somewhere: a ghostwriting factory? No. This chapter accuses Zola of being a workaholic and writing too many books. A section is called “Zola as Promoter of Story and Book”: authorial promotion did not “rise” in Zola’s time; as the previous review on “Homer” demonstrated, authors or those who took advantage of their names have been promoting stories since before the printed word. This section begins with a citation from the blatantly titled article of Zola’s called, “Money in Literature”. Instead of getting on with summarizing Zola’s theory, Paine is mesmerized by the fact that it was first published in Russia, before being reprinted in France; Paine draws from the Russian publication that Zola had a “relationship with its  publisher, Mikhail Stasyulevich, which started in 1874, Zola was a relative unknown and Stasyulevich’s terms, both economic and editorial, were far more accommodating than anything he had been offered in the French market”. If Paine was not repeating “Russian” three times in a few sentences, this might be random, but given the current political climate the implication was that this “relationship” was improper and that Stasyulevich gave Zola better terms for nefarious reasons rather than merely because Stasyulevich read Zola’s texts closely and judged their value before the French caught on. Paine does not even attempt to prove this insinuation before digressing into the propagandistic reason for mentioning this piece at all: “Zola emphatically rejects Saine-Beuve’s arguments that the commercialization of literature has impaired its quality”, as the profit-motive encourages writers to enter the field (200). The paragraph ends with a quote from Zola that he is disgusted with the misuse of writers by the publishing industry; Paine is clearly calling Zola hypocritical by suggesting that he was corrupted by a Russian before reciting Zola’s criticism of this type of corruption (201). The subversive message repeats the thesis behind the book: there are no “great” authors or “great” texts, and modern factory-produced, ghostwritten texts are of equal value with authors past critics judged to be of superior quality. This is one of the most insidious anti-intellectual theories polluting our libraries.

The same point is reinforced here, by stating Paine’s book “shows how the business of literature affects even literary devices such as genre, plot, and repetition.” Modern plots are hyper-repetitive as one romance is near-identical to another; by showing the presence of repetition (even if to a far lesser extent) in the classics, Paine hopes to bring these categories to the same plateau. “Paine argues that no book can be properly understood without reference to its point of sale: the author’s knowledge of the market, of reader expectations, and of his or her own efforts to define and achieve literary value.” This is a logical fallacy: the reader is accused of impropriety if he or she does not follow the crowd that apparently believes a book’s worth is in its “sale” rather than literary quality. There is a different indeed between “literary value” and “quality”: one can be monetary, while the other is judged by rhetorical and structural rules of authorship. Books can and have been understood without figuring out if their author knew of one publisher or many or if the author queried readers regarding their “expectations” or not.

It is disturbing to ponder a book like this one. Scholars who attempt to read it closely will feel great unease that builds into repulsion and perhaps stronger feelings and ideas from there. We live in the times of free speech, so scholars are free to argue for junk-fiction, but do so directly instead of putting on a saintly robe and attempting to pass for a seeker of truth.

The Confession of a Corrupted Spy

James M. Olson. To Catch a Spy: The Art of Counterintelligence. 234pp, 6X9”, hardback. ISBN: 978-1-62616-680-6. Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2019.


While I believe too often those accused of espionage have not been guilty of this crime, an entire book dedicated to explaining how these types of cases are made and specific case studies that exemplify these strategies is a brilliant addition to scholarship. I have previously reviewed books by spies who discuss their efforts abstractly as if they are relating a novel, focusing on their feelings and personal lives, but this book really just presents the facts or the biases that lead to these convictions from a CIA insider. James M. Olson “served for over thirty years in the Directorate of Operations of the Central Intelligence Agency, mostly overseas in clandestine operations. In addition to several foreign assignments, he was chief of counterintelligence at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia.” The previous book I read by a CIA agent specified the author was not allowed to mention her own name or the details of her cases, so it is curious that Olson has been granted clearance to detail his cases, perhaps the cases he describes are a couple of decades in the past. He might have asked for special permission to discuss them as an academic as he has been teaching as a Professor of the Practice at the Bush School of Government and Public Service of Texas A&M University.

The approach this book takes on the caught spies is exemplified in the case of “Chi Mak”. The section opens by stressing that Chinese “intelligence operations” are marked by “predictability”. In other words, agents make biased conclusions regarding what type of people are likely to commit espionage: also known as profiling. Predicting patterns of criminal behavior is an important part of law enforcement, but overvaluation of one’s capacity for prediction tends to be a great weakness, as an erroneous guess convicts an innocent or even worse somebody who was fighting on the investigator’s side. Olson goes on to offer a biography of Mak’s immigrant past, stressing the improbability that an immigrant might have attained a top engineering position in America for reasons other than his connections to Chinese intelligence. Then he mentions a conversation he had while he was the “chief of counterintelligence at the CIA” with a former CI colleague and now a boss at the Power Paragon company the CIA was investigating: “I asked him a question that I knew was politically incorrect but that made sense for a counterintelligence officer: ‘How many of your engineers with access to our sensitive programs are naturalized US citizens born in China?’” The answer was “hundreds”, but Olson did not do anything about this apparent breach at this point in the “early 1990s”. Instead he waited, and then in 2003, the FBI finally “became aware that sensitive US Navy technology was being leaked from Power Paragon to the Chinese”. The investigation immediately chose Chi as their subject and two years later they arrested him after breaking into his files and locating “40,000 pages of work-related documents” that another engineer from this company said did not contain anything beyond what would be “‘found in graduate-level textbooks’”. After the government spent two more years on prosecuting the case, Chi was convicted of “conspiring to violate export control laws” and sentenced to twenty-four and a half years in prison (132-6). The facts of this case stress the flaws in America’s current counterintelligence operations, so Olson has succeeded in delivering useful materials by frankly reporting these details. What were these mistakes? Hundreds of Chinese immigrants were still working for Paragon in 2003 and all of them might have been taking their work home with them. In fact, the CI friend, who Olson asked about this decades earlier, was more likely to have access to the actual secret materials if he was at the managerial level rather than a minor engineer among hundreds doing parts of a larger project. If Olson is disclosing the full picture, why is he excluding the detail that drew suspicion onto Chi? It is far more likely that Chi was one of the only people at the plant innocent of sending the information to the Chinese, as he was merely storing these books at home so he could study engineering in this free time. Those who were really responsible, including probably the manager the CIA had confided in, would have wanted to use Chi as a patsy to avoid being blamed for these leaks. Because a culprit was prosecuted (even if in the end the case proved it did not explain who had caused the leak that started it), the CIA or America’s intelligence community had received four years of positive coverage regarding them actively pursuing spies. Meanwhile, the propaganda these types of cases spreads has meant that every time I have applied for or started a job, every contact asks me where I’m from and rolls their eyes knowingly after I say “Russia”. It is far more difficult for Chinese and Russian refugees to secure employment due to biases this environment creates, but while there are plenty of studies and laws regarding affirmative active for most discriminated minorities, groups from communist countries are as disposable in scholarship as the Japanese Americans were during WWII. By mentioning his premonition regarding the Chinese refugees, Olson is making the case the breach could have been avoid by excluding all refuges from employment with this company even if they were the best-qualified hires for these jobs. The true leaker was far likelier to have been somebody at the top of the company who had enormous wealth from selling secrets such as this one and enormous power, both of which have been corrupted in America. The Chi case exemplifies how America has been shifting blame for the corruption of its political and economic processes by its own members (going up to the president’s office) onto foreign “interference” from Russia, Ukraine, China and other villains in these fictions. Anti-propaganda or the finding of villains to cover villainy has been practiced by CIA-equivalent agencies for centuries. My research into Elizabeth I and James I uncovered that one of their ghostwriters, Dyer, wrote pamphlets both by Martin and against Martin under anonymous names (the linguistic signatures of texts on both sides match); he escaped detection by accusing other writers of being Martin, and then acting on behalf of the government sponsoring his efforts to prosecute these imagined guilty parties. Dyer or the CIA are not the hero in these stories; they are the villains that have always escaped with wrongful prosecution to further their own corrupt interests. Typically, they refrain from writing memoirs or reports on their misdeeds, but in this modern age, so much money can be made from publishing a book on espionage, that this confession from Olson might finally stop the repetition of this repetitive plot.

 The blurb commences by warning: “The United States is losing the counterintelligence war. Foreign intelligence services, particularly those of China, Russia, and Cuba, are recruiting spies in our midst and stealing our secrets and cutting-edge technologies.” Given the admissions of widespread scholarly fraud among reviewers that trade positive reviews for citations of their own work, and the stealing of the college admission system by wealthy Americans, the level of intellectual theft in America by Americans is so enormous today that any attempts by international agents are a spec in this vortex of evil. In response to this misdirected threat, Olson “offers a wake-up call for the American public and also a guide for how our country can do a better job of protecting its national security and trade secrets.” Yes, indeed: and this message is xenophobic and accuses immigrants of being nefarious spies. Olson then lectures on the methods he has employed in “running double-agent operations and surveillance.” In other words, he has placed in China or other foreign countries just the type of double-agents that the CIA has accused Chi of being; it is mind-numbing how this can be seriously stated in a book cover. Double-agents are committing the same type of crime as regular spies; they are just doing this work against a different country; to argue that American-purchased counter-agents are right to steal foreign secrets, whereas Chinese-purchased agents are evil for stealing American secrets implies that good and evil is a matter of us-versus-them rather of standardized international laws. The “‘lessons learned’” section that follows Chi’s case states just what I assumed its intent was: “The Chi Mak case highlights the importance of applying good workplace counterintelligence to defense contractors as well as to government employees.” In other words, US companies should ban all refugees from employment to maximize their counterintelligence strategy. This would be a racist and xenophobic policy to pursue verbatim, so Olson has phrased this in a light that suggests he might be referring to some other secret strategies the FBI, DOD and CIA train contractors about left out here (136). I am technically one of these government contractors: the problem for me has been that all government contracts in the US are corrupted by a few agencies with family or bribe-linked connections that helps them win such contracts; it is impossible for a small business like my own to access trillions of funds that the US collects from me and other Americans in taxes prior to unfairly dealing it out to its “friends”. One of the only “strategies” I have encountered in this process to keep things secret is a previous requirement for me to pay $200 annually or so for a special password system that identifies my specific computer’s location rather than merely trusting me to enter the correct password; I was required to purchase this service to gain access to advertise my services. I will not be winning any contracts prior to the expiration of my two-year allowed term without meeting minimum annual sales, so I will have spent $400 and an enormous volume of work to be allowed to advertise my services for $0 return. Meanwhile, the corrupt company that won this special password service made my $200 and millions more from others with similar hopes that America offers equal opportunities for the non-corrupted as for the corrupt.  

If as you read this, you are wondering if you have been a victim of unfair espionage or corruption by members of the American government, this is one of the best books for you to buy as it is a confession (if you read it skeptically) of just what they have been up to.

Shifting Blame on the Enslaved

Laura T. Murphy. The New Slave Narrative: The Battle Over Representations of Contemporary Slavery. $30. 320pp, softcover. ISBN: 978-0-231-18825-8. New York: Columbia University Press, September 17, 2019.


This book promises to deliver a needed text that covers a tragic turn back towards enslavement in modern America. Slavery was abolished a couple of hundred years ago, but it has been growing despite its illegality. The change in the past decade or so is that this problem has become more visible not only because of reporting on the subject, but also due to the publications of authentic memoirs or slave narratives. When scholars refer to the “slave narrative” in their discussions, they almost always are referring to the slave narratives that were popularized in the decades surrounding the Civil War. The book commences with a chapter dedicated to “A Note of Language” because the terms such as “slavery” or “sexual enslavement” are indeed politicized today, and consistency is necessary to distinguish between specific criminal acts referred to. The rest of the book is handled with a similar precision, as specific evidence is presented from the past and the present, as well as from American and international examples.

The publisher reports: “survivors of contemporary forms of enslavement from around the world have revived a powerful tool of the abolitionist movement: first-person narratives of slavery and freedom. Just as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, and others used autobiographical testimonies in the fight to eradicate slavery, today’s new slave narrators play a crucial role in shaping an antislavery agenda. Their writings unveil the systemic underpinnings of global slavery while critiquing the precarity of their hard-fought freedom. At the same time, the demands of antislavery organizations, religious groups, and book publishers circumscribe the voices of the enslaved, coopting their narratives in support of alternative agendas.” The last note is a curious approach that is particularly unique. It is uncharacteristic of a publisher to voice this type of doubt in other publishers’ intentions or corrupting influences. Civil War-period slave narratives have been claimed by many scholars to have been ghostwritten by white writers or publishers who altered not only their linguistic styles, but also some of the more radical intended meanings. Given how little time in the news and effort among law enforcement has actually been applied to this massive problem, clearly any “alternative agendas” that are preventing the exact truth and the interests of the enslaved to reach the public are at fault of assisting the guilty. “Laura T. Murphy argues that the slave narrative has reemerged as a twenty-first-century genre that has gained new currency in the context of the memoir boom, post-9/11 anti-Islamic sentiment, and conservative family-values politics.” It is typical of politicians to shift blame from failures of domestic policing onto imagined evil terrorists overseas. And those who purport extreme religiosity have always been one-and-the-same as those who are at the front rows of witch-burnings and victim-blaming. “She analyzes a diverse range of dozens of book-length accounts of modern slavery from Africa, Asia, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Europe, examining the narrative strategies that survivors of slavery employ to make their experiences legible and to promote a reinvigorated antislavery agenda. By putting these stories into conversation with one another, The New Slave Narrative reveals an emergent survivor-centered counterdiscourse of collaboration and systemic change that offers an urgent critique of the systems that maintain contemporary slavery, as well as of the human rights industry and the antislavery movement.”

One of the problems with this book that I note as I read sections of it more closely is that it lingers too long in abstractions rather than presenting the facts, and offering solutions. Modern slavery is not a subject for philosophical digressions: victims of slavery have no freedom and are at constant risk of losing their lives without hope of their enslavers being caught. Given this urgency, why are sentences such as the following being wasted as they repeat across several pages of cyclical pondering: “Read together, the new slave narrators redefine freedom as a multifaceted, elusive, psychological, and political project, grounded in substantive, cosmopolitan freedoms” (97). There is no need to “redefine freedom”: freedom is a legal term; if a person cannot go or do where or what he or she wants, this person is enslaved, and not free. Elusive? Yeah. It is difficult to escape from slavery and to gain freedom: why is this fact being twisted into something beyond the facts of a criminal case against enslavers? While enslavement must leave psychological scars, being free is not a psychological problem as this sentence suggests. With the other words removed, this sentence is saying that freedom is redefined as international freedoms. This is just nonsensical. It hurts the anti-slavery movement if books like this are published that introduce the idea that this fight is innately nonsensical and incomprehensible. In contrast, if this book focused on the facts of known enslavement cases and on strategies citizens or policing agencies who observe signs of enslavement can take to rescue their fellow humans, this book would have truly shown sympathy for the afflicted.

This cyclical digressive style dominates most of the book with only a few factual glimpses. For example a paragraph that is over a page long begins by promising to describe a “cacophonous symphony of competing ideological constructs” and then keeps cacophonously babbling about the “slavery paradigm” and the psychology “of personal experience and degradation” without a single specific example of what an enslaved person suffered: those enslaved are cast into the irrelevant background, while the clever philosophy of the writer is given unbridled space. Leading to sentences like this: “They briefly link their personal enslavement to a larger community of oppressed people through the language of commodification and disposability, but the narratives, shaped as they typically are as memoirs or self-help books, consistently return to the question of personal recovery from exploitation” (168). It would be impossible for a general reader to read this far into this nonsensical narrative, as following even a single sentence either enrages or confuses, and typically both, making one want to put this horrid production down. In this particular sentence, the slave narrators are accused of selling out and being disposable because they structure their narratives to mimic self-help books. This is just one sentence and yet it is a pile of garbage that is perhaps the most insulting thing that can be said about a memoir of enslavement.

This is a horridly dangerous book: it approaches being pro-slavery as it subversively cycles around accusing survivors who publish books about their experiences of commodifying their suffering. A book about modern slavery is desperately needed to counteract nightmarish books like this one that deliberately disguise its dimensions and remedies to it.

A Serious Explanation of Tragic Propaganda

Robert J. Shiller. Narrative Economics: How Stories Go Viral and Drive Major Economic Events. $27.95. 384pp, 6X9”, 18 b/w illustrations, hardback. ISBN: 978-0-69118229-2. Princeton: Princeton University Press, October 1, 2019.


The explanation given in the preface for the main argument in this book is that good and bad economic events such as the Great Depression are triggered by “stories, misperceptions, and broader narratives” that are outside mathematical models (x). Robert Shiller avoids bringing this point home, but he is really referring to the employment of publicity campaigns by government agencies, interested businesses or individuals to steer the market in a beneficial direction through spreading propaganda or anti-propaganda that shifts the market in the desired direction. If there are observable “narratives” behind all such events, then they are all artificial creations of their beneficiaries. But it is a bit paranoid to go this far, so Shiller cautiously remains in the known facts about such phenomenon. This is fair enough as much can indeed be learned from how propaganda or panics spread: if not to make laws to prevent such manipulation, then so that researchers can explain how it happened.

“In a world in which internet troll farms attempt to influence foreign elections, can we afford to ignore the power of viral stories to affect economies? In this groundbreaking book, Nobel Prize–winning economist and New York Times bestselling author Robert Shiller offers a new way to think about the economy and economic change. Using a rich array of historical examples and data, Shiller argues that studying popular stories that affect individual and collective economic behavior—what he calls “narrative economics”—has the potential to vastly improve our ability to predict, prepare for, and lessen the damage of financial crises, recessions, depressions, and other major economic events. Spread through the public in the form of popular stories, ideas can go viral and move markets—whether it’s the belief that tech stocks can only go up, that housing prices never fall, or that some firms are too big to fail.” Most of us have heard these near-verbatim references in popular movies, news reports and the like: paid-placements of this type of content would explain how the same talking points infiltrate into our viewing in times when we imagine we are safe from being unfairly influenced. Similar manipulation goes into meat-industry sponsored news articles arguing that processed meat is safer to eat than vegetables, and other similarly hurtful falsities packaged as if they are factual or delivered from friendly clowns.

“Whether true or false…” it continues. I pause here because obviously, the author is attempting a middle-ground on this problem: if a story changes history, it had to have been false when it was originated, and became true when it achieved its objective; for example, the story that a housing crisis is coming can be false when it is whispered in talking-points to an anchor and it comes true if it spreads virally and leads to the forecast housing crisis. So, these stories are apparently “transmitted by word of mouth, by the news media, and increasingly by social media” and “drive the economy by driving our decisions about how and where to invest, how much to spend and save, and more.” Because the author believes the influence of propaganda has been ignored by participating propagandists, this book attempts to break this pattern of silence by explaining “how stories help propel economic events that have led to war, mass unemployment, and increased inequality.” For example, when Trump actually followed a minor point in his campaign promise by withdrawing troops from Syria, US news agencies and politicians cried out together than an ethnic minority we had been bolstering against its foe, Turkey, will now be crushed – the same liberal newscasters that had been arguing for the end of America’s new endless wars, were now saying that we should return to Syria and strengthen the number and power of our troops there and elsewhere. Thus, the troops were returned backhandedly and the endless war continued. The deliberate confusions regarding who is benefiting from war in the stories told about war are propaganda that helps fund the world’s largest military, which must meet its contracted obligation to fight against something by killing thousands of foreign people in so many distant lands Americans have difficult remembering who we might be protecting when we slaughter their enemies…

“The stories… about economic confidence or panic, housing booms, the American dream, or Bitcoin—affect economic outcomes.” Shiller proposes to “begin to take these stories seriously.” I hope seriousness does the trick, but perhaps no publisher would have agreed to publish Shiller’s still more honest version of this book that really hit at the tragedy behind such rhetorical manipulations. While this is a good start, I am waiting for the book that traces if all news anchors, reporters, and editors who are funded by mysterious donors or billionaires who don’t care if the newspaper business collapses due to an access of free content online because they profit from steering panic or boom to match their investment portfolios.

Instead of proposing to monitor blackmail, bribes and the like incoming to producers of fiction and news, Shiller spends his concluding remarks on proposing a massive “data-collection effort” to trace the routes taken by what he suggests is mindless gossip of the masses. This data would include questioning socioeconomically diverse citizens on their economic outlook, “databases of sermons” (I agree here: the spread of nefarious messages is definitely partially the clergy’s fault), and “Historical databases of personal letters and diaries, digitized and searchable” (281-5). The last point proves that Shiller means the opposite of what he claims. He deliberately proposes extreme privacy-invading measures to convince readers that monitoring of these propagandistic narratives would be illegal. Shiller offers documentary proof that Ronald Reagan was utilizing the same talking points in a 1986 speech  as a 1967 opinion in the Chicago Tribune by Walter Trohan; however, instead of seeing this parallel as both talking from the same plot given to them by somebody benefiting from propagating this point, Shiller concludes: “Thus the quip was already known in 1967. But it needed a celebrity to make it truly contagious, and Ronald Reagan was the celebrity who did just that” (51). Scholars and pop media anchors alike do not shy away from describing YouTubers as benefiting from “celebrity endorsements”, but proving that elections in America are won by anti-tax advocates who donate money to candidates who voice their lines remains so taboo scholarly books have to dance around these “serious” points.

“Friends” of a Celebrity Remember Him Unkindly

Jim O’Loughlin, Ed. Kurt Vonnegut Remembered. 242pp, 6X9”, hardback. ISBN: 978-0-8173-2011-9. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2019.


This is a collection of biographical notes from those who knew a popular author that is unique among literary biographies. I have never seen a collection like this one before. Many authors have left memoirs before, and biographies might include quotes from letters or the like from those the author knew, but an entire series of dozens of essays about a single author collected in one book is extraordinary. If for no other reason, this is an important primary document that offers an enormous volume of evidence for future scholars writing about Vonnegut. On the other hand, I am not a fan of this particular author, so as I read the “Introduction” and his biographical summary in these pages, I am questioning why he is celebrated by this many famous people themselves who willingly published these eulogies. It reminds me of the volume of eulogies Mary Sidney put together upon the death of her brother Philip Sidney: she was not allowed to publish under her own name previously, but publishers finally made exceptions to allow her to publish eulogies to her brother; this later allowed her to publish unrelated texts, as having entered the popular dialogue and becoming a known author her gender became irrelevant. What motive did all of these individuals have for eulogizing Vonnegut. In his professional life, he dropped out of college, and became a reporter before turning to a lengthier career in public relations for General Electric. As he maintained this corporate position, he began publishing short stories that paid him extraordinarily large quantities of money, and then published critically-ignored novels, then he founded a writing collaborative, and suddenly managed to completed Slaughterhouse-Five, whose reviews were immediately positive, garnering Vonnegut enormous wealth and fame (the latter is proven by adoring female fans that eventually forced Vonnegut’s wife to divorce him) (1-3). Who in this narrative could possibly have something to eulogize about this guy? His fame was unnaturally spontaneous and looks more like a GE publicity stunt than like the hard-working conclusion of a life of literary toil. Here some snippets out their reflections. Dan Wakefield (rival author) writes, “I had let my hair get long, all right, down over my ears. His comment didn’t seem critical, just observational…” (87-8). This is more like a roast than a eulogy. A fellow member of the 106th Infantry Division, Bernard V. O’Hare Jr. writes, “because neither of us understood maps nor had any sense of direction, we were put to work as reconnaissance scouts” (15). Was this really a suitable position for two youths illiterate in regard to map-reading? One example of Kurt’s commitment to “random acts of kindness” offered by Todd Davis, a Penn State professor, who constantly asked Kurt for help with his own publishing and publicity efforts without success, is this: “I invited him to give the commencement address at our college, he declined…” Davis attempts to prove Kurt’s letter about how he hates crowds was a kindness, but seriously… (181-2).

For those who have not read Slaughterhouse-Five recently, here is a quote from it: “It was his housekeeper’s day off. There was an old typewriter in the rumpus room. It was a beast. It weighed as much as a storage battery…” (34-5, Dial Press, 1999 edition). Why were the reviews positive? The style is simple: the average length of sentences and words is at a first-grade level. The perception of fame attracted those who hope to profit off the famous, and this gave the allusion of fame, which built more fame and thus the marketing campaign succeeded. While it was on Time’s best-100 novels of the century list, it has not won any major awards. So, why did so many people want to contribute to this collection or gave interviews about Vonnegut especially since most of what they have to say is subversively negative? The reason might be that fame attracts fame. Americans have such a short attention span in terms of media coverage and popular culture that one of the only ways a professor and a soldier alike can ever be interviewed on national TV or be included in a book from an Ivy League press is if they write about what their famous friend did or said. While this fame-mongering is tragic, there is an extraordinary volume of evidence regarding how people tolerate the worst in celebrity friends in these revealing pages. 

The publisher describes this project differently: “A collection of reminiscences that illuminate the career and private life of the iconic author of Slaughterhouse-Five.” While I believe his style is one of pop-fiction or anti-literary, the publisher describes his writing career as coming out of “popular magazines” with “both literary aspirations and an attraction to genre fiction.” While it seems to me that his linguistic and structural style is based on “genre fiction” rules, the “literary” part is that instead of writing a formulaic mystery or romance novel (the bestselling among the top-selling genres), he wrote a military pop story with time-travel elements that are more like psychedelic digressions than serious attempts to contemplate the boundaries of time in Slaughterhouse-Five. “His conspicuous refusal to respect literary boundaries was part of what made him a countercultural icon in the 1960s and 1970s.” More realistically, the low reading level needed to read this particular novel allowed barely literate members of the mass public to read it, and their purchases helped Vonnegut to invest in a broader marketing campaign that lifted it into an “icon” or a hyper-advertised commodity. Even his “mid-eighties suicide attempt” is utilized to bulk-up Vonnegut’s persona as instead of focusing on the two wives he abandoned, it stresses his “inner troubles”. Instead of quoting some of the lines from “friends” I found on a browse, the summary calls him “generous” towards “many”, as proven by the fact that he wrote a great many correspondences. Apparently, some of these stories are “from those met him only once”. Many of the writers I reviewed mention how little he said when they finally managed to get him on the phone, so the single or sparse meetings were the norm. Despite these incongruities, the Editor Jim O’Loughlin has indeed done a splendid job of presenting “biographical notes on Vonnegut’s relationship with each of these figures”, which briskly explain who these unfamiliar writers are and why he honored them with familiarity. It is sad that O’Loughlin refrained from interpreting these biographical notes for the critical remarks that they are, and instead argues that Vonnegut’s “best self” is not in “his public persona”, but rather in “his performance as” a “humane figure” in relation to the presented speakers, who narrate stories that imagine Vonnegut as “a better person than he ever felt himself to be”. If this was a “performance” and if Vonnegut himself did not believe in the veracity of this act, perhaps we should all trust in Vonnegut’s own self-evaluation.

Inspiring Nature Art to Calm the Modern Nerves

Janice Neri, Tara Nummedal & John V. Calhoun. John Abbot & William Swainson. 240pp, color illustrations, hardback. ISBN: 978-0-8173-2013-3. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2019.


It is incredibly uplifting to view and read the pure goodness of naturalist drawings from the nineteenth century that have never been published before. The “Introduction” explains that these drawings were commissioned by one artist-naturalist, William Swainson, from another, John Abbot. The pair collaborated and published their art and science separately in other collections, but despite their great number and beauty these particular drawings have been lost in an archive until this belated publication.

This is an “archive of never-before-published illustrations of insects and plants painted by a pioneering naturalist. During his lifetime (1751–ca. 1840), English-born naturalist and artist John Abbot rendered more than 4,000 natural history illustrations and profoundly influenced North American entomology, as he documented many species in the New World long before they were scientifically described. For sixty-five years, Abbot worked in Georgia to advance knowledge of the flora and fauna of the American South by sending superbly mounted specimens and exquisitely detailed illustrations of insects, birds, butterflies, and moths, on commission, to collectors and scientists all over the world. Between 1816 and 1818, Abbot completed 104 drawings of insects on their native plants for English naturalist and patron William Swainson (1789–1855). Both Abbot and Swainson were artists, naturalists, and collectors during a time when natural history and the sciences flourished. Separated by nearly forty years in age, Abbot and Swainson were members of the same international communities and correspondence networks upon which the study of nature was based during this period. The relationship between these two men—who never met in person—is explored in John Abbot and William Swainson: Art, Science, and Commerce in Nineteenth-Century Natural History Illustration. This volume also showcases, for the first time, the complete set of original, full-color illustrations discovered in 1977 in the Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington, New Zealand. Originally intended as a companion to an earlier survey of insects from Georgia, the newly rediscovered Turnbull manuscript presents beetles, grasshoppers, butterflies, moths, and a wasp. Most of the insects are pictured with the flowering plants upon which Abbot thought them to feed. Abbot’s journal annotations about the habits and biology of each species are also included, as are nomenclature updates for the insect taxa.” This blurb is accurate and highlights just the positive elements that need to be noted to advertise this great book.

The images are not only scientifically enriching, but also elegant artistic compositions worthy of museum walls. For example, earlier in this set of reviews, I covered a book called Yellow, which featured various praised pieces of art with yellow as their primary; “Plate 20: Barred yellow, Eurema daira (Godart), on partridge pea, Chamaecrista fasciculata (Michx.) Greene” rivals some of these images as the yellow butterflies echo the shapes and colors of the delicate flowers they are imitating, and the two are outlined with the black in the wings and the brown in the stem. Why would a Greek wall-painting of yellow-coated marchers be superior to this elegant and balanced composition? Some of the tiny details such as the leaf beetles and the ladybird beetles on toughleafed dogwood and milkwort in “Plate 2” remind me of the ladybugs I scavenged my country garden for as a child. Their small size for the large page stresses their vulnerability in a manner contrary to grand art masterpieces, but perhaps there should be some masterpieces that are understated and communicate life’s fragility rather than its mastery. Another piece with an artistic statement is the giant, ultra-fat (perhaps corn was a lot fatter in the 19th century than its modern industrial reincarnations) “ear of corn” and the contrasted tiny bugs called “corn earworm moth” on “Plate 53”. The corn’s patch of dry skin and the texture of its leaves are realistic, and yet also abstract in their middle bulge and delicate closed-flower tip. Even a picture that depicts one of my current nemesis, the “clippedwing grasshopper” on “Louisiana sedge” in “Plate 7” brought me to the admiration I felt for the songs and movements of these creatures in my youths; my second thought was about the two-inch-long, muscular grasshopper that managed to fall through my ceiling ventilation pipe and down onto my stove a few months ago; his life ended under the pot I had just been cooking in on that stove; the ability of this simple drawing to elicit both reverence and horror and afterwards an appreciation for the artist’s balance and artistic talent. A similar calm contemplation comes over me when I listen to great classical music: everything is just as the artist meant it to be; the artist has reached a peak in his or her skill and we can take in the result with pleasure.

If you are looking for some contemplative moments or for examples of simplistic and yet brilliant art to inspire your own art, this is a great book for your library. The libraries frequented by those who cannot afford purchasing a giant hardcover, full-color artbook should definitely add it to their collection.

Compressed Scholarship on the Intellectual Activities of a Century

Gregory Claeys, Ed. The Cambridge Companion to Nineteenth-Century Thought. 270pp, 6X9”, paperback. ISBN: 978-1-107-69614-3. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.


As with the other Cambridge Companion in this set of reviews, this one thankfully is unsurprisingly brilliant. It compresses the culture, literature, economics and history of a century into a tiny book with useful and enlightening information on every page. There is no room for digression if a critic is contracted to compress the entirety of one of these fields into a chapter and to include over a hundred notes to prove from which sources these details came from. Anybody writing about any one of these fields and this period should check this reference if they have broad questions that are only minor components in their projects. For example, if you are writing about a specific capitalist outcome such as monopolies in this period, you have probably already read most of the cited sources or you need to read them; in this case a compressed list of sources such as this one can be a good bibliography for you to consult as you write your own list. If you cite this summary in your research, fellow scholars might look down at it as too undergraduate, but whenever a scholar enters a new age, place or field, we really need to consult an encyclopedic source so a foreign world becomes rapidly familiarized. Writers who are in the greatest need for these types of companions are those who have to include a pithy remark on the political motives for the French Revolution and their teacher forbade them from citing Wikipedia. The “Index” includes dozens of pages that mention this event in chapters that cover various dimensions of its significance. More advanced researchers need guidance from companions because after you leave graduate schooling, there are no professors you can comfortably ask what exactly “phrenology” means beyond its dictionary definition: what exactly is the context for this term’s application? Companions do not judge the gaps all of us have that prevent us from knowing everything. If you see yourself in any of these or their adjacent situations, you can benefit from locating the companion suitable for your dilemma in your local library.

This book describes changes across the century in “science, technology and industry” through the relevant “influential concepts and debates within philosophy, history, political thought, economics, religion and the social sciences, as well as feminism and imperialism.”

The chapter that draws attention because of its strange perspective is “The Origins of the Social Sciences” by Mike Gane. This is a strange turn-of-phrase because I have also thought of Plato and numerous other philosophers and social engineers between him and the start of the nineteenth century as social scientists. The first paragraph explains that the French Revolution made people realize the task of “social construction was unfinished”, and in response they set about developing a social science to “guide this progression”. The next section isolates Auguste Comte as the inventor of this “New Science of the Social”, who is credited with guiding “the transition between theology and the social order to come”. The third section honors Herbert Spencer for adopting Adam Smith’s “political economy” to the newer problems of his day, with “its concepts of division of labour, specialization and national wealth”. I would object that if Spenser was borrowing from Smith, he was hardly birthing a new science, but this remains a curious interpretation of the history of thought. And the last section is dedicated to Emile Dukheim and Max Weber for their ideas on “Darwinian… selection by elimination” or their studies on suicide rates and the links between Protestantism and capitalism that apparently were “foundational… for modern sociology” (72-87). I am usually dumbfounded by new interpretations of histories I believe I know pretty well, but while across most of the books I read, I walk away feeling as if the authors I just reviewed are idiotic in their false believes, whenever I finish a Cambridge Companion, the strangest ideas end up convincing me that perhaps I was wrong and this is basically how the world came into being. Who really knows what is true? In fact, I believe there is something ethically and fundamentally wrong with modern sociology, psychology and political economy; well, if I follow these ideas to their sources, I might end up figuring out more precisely what went wrong in the nineteenth century that brought about the social sciences we have inherited. I might believe social economic science was founded millennia earlier, but if the majority of scholars today agree with Gane, I have to examine how he came to this belief if I am going to enter the debate to prove Gane and the others wrong. If you are similarly unconvinced, this book is meant for you more than for those who read this summary and find that they are in complete agreement with Gane.

It is a relief when there are some scholarly series that are consistent in delivering useful information. With each new set of reviews, I try to figure out which books are likely to be great before I request them, and just scrolling to the Companion section is one way to expedite a portion of this search.

The Science of Repetition and Divergence

Peter Mack. Reading Old Books: Writing with Traditions. $35. 256pp, 6.125X9.25”, 1 b/w illustration, hardback. ISBN: 978-0691194004. Princeton: Princeton University Press, September 24, 2019.


As species of animals move to distinct continents, it might take them millions of years to switch to divergent styles of singing, nest-building, or other habits that depend on learned behavior. Human language has partially expedited this process of growing uniqueness that becomes possible either on an individual or on a community level. New languages can be born artificially in weeks, for example if they are designed for television series. On the other hand, humans currently have an enlarged sense of individualism. We imagine that each of us can invent a new genre, or a new surgical procedure, or a new drug, or a new musical instrument. Students are taught that originality is expected in their essays, and that repetition or plagiarism will be punished. But those who repeat well-trod footsteps in school and in their subsequent careers succeed as they meet expectations. On the other hand, those who fight to invent and innovate almost always hit obstacles: corporate monopolies interested in continuing their standard methods of operation, publishers telling them their original ideas do not “fit”, or students rebelling via negative evaluations when their professors fails them for their plagiarism now that they are in the authoritative role. Writing a suspense thriller novel today that fits precisely with the formula utilized by one of two 2017 best-sellers, James Patterson’s Cross the Line (homicide detective follows clues with wife in D.C.) or John Grisham’s The Whistler (legal thriller with a female investigator into Native American casino crimes), while being careful to alter these plots and details just enough to avoid plagiarism charges is likely to garner high sales. On the other hand, an actual investigator writing an honest take on policing, even if it is far more surprising and revealing, would flatline in sales. While these thriller formulas have the appearance of newness as they reflect modern problems such as spousal relations in the workplace or legal gambling on reservations, the structure of stories in this genre has been repeated for hundreds of years. Changes in the title of the category in literary studies has allowed critics to have a narrative of literary change or of the novel rising, but a tragedy has more things in common with a thriller than scholars make them seem. Our computer age has made it easier for writers to access and compare texts from across periods and genres to enhance individual capacity for innovation, but those who do so are faced with defending their creations against the absurdist and experimental movements of the past century that have made innovation seem erratic, crazed, nonsensical and destructive. Given these difficulties, we need books like this one that take a step back and review how we have been talking about past literary patterns or traditions. Popular media is constantly pushing messages that are derisive to “old books”, constantly selling the newest releases as the best under the presumption of innovation. In reality, the quality of books has been declining across the past century, as corporate publishing giants have been pushing out small competitors as they have been mechanizing their writing processes to reflect the most profitable formulas from past years rather than those that express new ideas. While experiments that venture into untried territories might be startling to readers, exploring old books and forgotten traditions in search for what deserves renovation is less shocking and more likely to attract intellectual readers who would appreciate the reference to a respected past. This book is designed for scholars who want to understand genre evolution, devolution and stagnation theory rather than for writers who want to find bestselling plots to mimic. Scholars who are striving to explain this infinitely complex field to students at all levels need help from texts such as this one as a defense against anti-intellectual and anti-innovation forces.

“In literary and cultural studies, ‘tradition’ is a word everyone uses but few address critically… Peter Mack offers a wide-ranging exploration of the creative power of literary tradition, from the middle ages to the twenty-first century, revealing in new ways how it helps writers and readers make new works and meanings… The best way to understand tradition is by examining the moments when a writer takes up an old text and writes something new out of a dialogue with that text and the promptings of the present situation. The book examines Petrarch as a user, instigator, and victim of tradition. It shows how Chaucer became the first great English writer by translating and adapting a minor poem by Boccaccio. It investigates how Ariosto, Tasso, and Spenser made new epic meanings by playing with assumptions, episodes, and phrases translated from their predecessors. It analyzes how the Victorian novelist Elizabeth Gaskell drew on tradition to address the new problem of urban deprivation in Mary Barton. And, finally, it looks at how the Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, in his 2004 novel Wizard of the Crow, reflects on biblical, English literary, and African traditions. Drawing on key theorists, critics, historians, and sociologists, and stressing the international character of literary tradition, Reading Old Books illuminates the not entirely free choices readers and writers make to create meaning in collaboration and competition with their models.”

My current research is focusing on Spenser out of this list of authors: my computational linguistic analysis of 134 texts from his period led me to conclude that the Spenser-signed Faerie Queen was actually written by Emelia Bassano. These two authors received similar pension stipends of £40/50 from members of the Elizabethan government, but Bassano’s has been interpreted as a payment made to a lover, whereas Spenser’s is assumed to be for his poetic output. While Bassano’s is the strongest authorial signature in this poetic composition (so that 8 out of the 14 works in her group match it on 10 or more tests), there are also single-text 10 matches to Dyer and Mary Sidney. This indicates that it is likely these two authors helped Bassano edit or wrote small portions of this composition. There are similar collaborative overlaps between nearly all of the best-known texts from this period in English literature. I have found similar collaborations across a group of writers in the eighteenth century as well while researching the “Defoe” attributions, but there were several un-overlapping authors who wrote by themselves in the eighteenth century, and few with this type of individualistic power in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries. Earlier in this set of reviews, I looked at the making of the Odyssey and how at least one writer took over a text from a predecessor and re-wrote it to fit a new age, leaving both of their linguistic and structural signatures on the output text. There are different types and degrees of collaboration or individual creation, and scholars should not be afraid to call out works created in collaboration even if they have been thought of as the work of single “great” authors for hundreds of years. We might lose some museum-houses that used to belong to theater managers such as Shakespeare, but writers and teachers will comprehend the divergent roads in the science of textual creativity.

Shocking New Social Engineering Maps

Kollektiv Orangotango+, Ed. This Is Not an Atlas: A Global Collection of Counter-Cartographies: [transcript]. $40. 352pp, maps, hardback. ISBN: 978-3-83764-519-4. New York: Columbia University Press, September 3, 2019.


Over my years of schooling, I have always appreciated graphs, tables and other visuals that summarize a key point in a manner that clarifies the argument. And now whenever I read the news or even scholarly essays, it is a relief to find a visual that expresses what the numbers or text alone cannot express with greater speed. For example, earlier today, I searched for statistics on which genre is the top-seller and instead of reading long article on this subject, I found graphs that demonstrated the suspense thriller novel has a very high lead over its competitors. Geography has been of background but repeating interest in my life: I have traveled to dozens of conferences aside from moving between a couple dozen US states and abroad. Every time I plan a visit or a migration, I look at the relative location of the place in connection with its closest cities, the type of terrain, the traffic, the cost of living in different neighborhoods and other measures, all of which are best summarized on a map that displays the relevant information. On most occasions, I become curious about something that does not have an existing visual for an answer: such as, a map that shows the relative cost of housing to the amount I would spend on the commute to my intended workplace. This is where specialized maps help a lot of people solve a diverse range of problems. The first map that stood out to me in this collection is one that shows the correlation between “Airbnb Listings and Evictions, 2016” in San Francisco and Oakland; I might have seen this map before during my research on the idea of moving to this area: my conclusion was that it is too expensive to live in this region even on an executive salary. More importantly this map has been used for political reasons to prove to officials that people in the region are being evicted so that landlords can charge $200 or more for Airbnb nightly rates, rather than the much smaller monthly rates for the same spaces. Without seeing these numbers as color variations on a map for these two trends, it is difficult to convince busy officials action is needed. Another map shows the Oakland “unlawful detainers and foreclosures” (43-5).

On the other hand, some of the maps are more like pieces of street art than revealing visual pieces of scholarship. For example, the “Oakland Community Power Map” has sticky notes with barely legible personal notes on magic-marker main street lines (46-7). The next image is of a group of kids drawing “A New Social Cartography”, but I don’t think having kids map the Amazon is realistically helping the problem. There have been too many movements lately that are being led by children. Greta Thunberg, a Swedish 16-year-old, just became the Time personal of the year. Honoring a child for skipping schools to take a boat trip or to give speeches (probably ghostwritten by organizers) is absurd and appears to be a subversive anti-environmental measure by the right. Proving that the left is led by children is one method to delay changing laws as the issue of environmental crisis can be perceived as childish or immature by those on the right who otherwise benefit from selling gas and other pollutants. There are plenty of mature artists who would have contributed a complex artistic narrative to this collection, but instead at least a dozen drawings in the book are either drawn by children or by adults imitating a childish style (53). Other maps have not been sufficiently edited to be fully legible in print; for example the “Beija-Flor I Indigenous Community” map is a blurry screenshot of Google Earth that has most of its text and house locations obscured by the dark color of the forest (52). The book would have benefited if its editor was a bit more critical and willing to change these types of imperfections; admiring a work because of its social message is one thing, but leaving it in an illegible style means those seeking practical, specific information in reviewing it in this book will not be able to comprehend its disguised meanings; the point of these types of images is to clarify a question rather than to obscure it further.

Each of these maps has a unique political objective. One map by Kartographische Aktion was translated from German just for this book: it lists Nazi rally points and counter-actions with indicative stars and circles across two pages (76-7); this type of a map is useful in cases where there are several conflicting rallies or social actions in a single city as finding meeting points in relation to each other for rallies is particularly difficult when moving between them. One might use a street address for a business at the start point, but if the march has moved on by a few blocks, it is easier to catch up to the moving objects with a map like this as no concrete point of reference can be offered. Another practically useful map is “Living Lots NYC”, which includes markings for lots that represent vacant public land, private land opportunities, and where people have access to the land, or are organizing (80). It would be helpful if these types of maps were available uniformly for the entire world; when I was searching for land to buy to build my tiny house, I had to contact and research maps for hundreds of distinct counties, districts and states, and few of them were color-coded. The map of global “Environmental Conflicts and Spaces of Resistance” is shocking for the commonality of this problem across every continent on the planet (94). While knowing where these conflicts are can help shift aid towards regions most in need, most of the projects depicted are more artistic than useful, but then again what’s wrong with a bit more art in our lives: for example a group of people are shown constructing the “Floodwall(s) or an enormous blanket with colors representing flood regions that was hung up on a fence to signify a community’s flood vulnerability (106-8). A map like the one of sexual harassment in Egypt (128-31) would have been helpful if there was one for the Dubai-adjacent region where I was considering teaching for a university at one point; I decided against going in part because their laws favor the abuser rather than the victim, so I would not have a remedy if I was assaulted; if I had a map like this one, I might have been able to figure out where assaults are most likely to happen to feel better regarding living or working in safer neighborhoods. Yet another really useful map is one of the locations of arrests, road blocks and militarization of roads across Colombia (136-7); if I had a similar or even more precise map of Mexico, I might have taken a few trips over the border when I lived a mile away from it in Brownsville, Texas. A good portion of the book explains how these types of maps can be used in education or how communities can create maps that fit their purpose. The inclusion of children’s art is explained as welcoming users to utilize this book to make workshops for kids or adults to casually draw maps together. I think the book could have been more helpful if it explained methods for drawing more professional maps in this collection with the cheapest available tools by designers who want to help; community drawing is more useful for bonding rather than for making the map accessible and comprehendible online to the largest possible quantity of people. The “Squatting Movements in Berlin” map is pretty frightening when I think about it as a potential future landlord (228-9); imagine if your city had a squatting map and when you leave your house for a month on vacation, it gets added to the map and because it’s historic, it remains on this listing even if you eventually manage to evict the first squatters; on the other hand, if there are houses in a city where there are no known landlords or a house is otherwise open for squatting, I guess this can be helpful to the homeless, but I would imagine inviting everybody to come would create extremely dangerous crammed and unsanitary conditions… The “Imaging Homelessness in a City of Care” set of maps includes several notes on places where the homeless are abused across this region (272-5). However, the handwriting style of this notes and them being crammed together makes them extremely difficult to read. And the organizers choosing to make this map on paper has meant that it has become fully filled with notes, and those who later come to it cannot add their input. To be helpful to a specific city’s homeless a map like this has to be digital and allow the homeless to write a 10-page letter in posted electronic note that is color-coded on the map to allow others to check the various postings for a given location to determine if they should go there. Just as there are reviews for hotels, there should be places to post reviews for homeless shelters. When I was homeless in Los Angeles, I was harassed in a myriad of ways in each of the shelters without any support from the staffs or city officials. At one place, all of the possessions I had brought in with me (hair brush etc.) were stolen, and when the police came, the matter was dropped because nobody in a hyper-crowded shelter with 50 people sleeping on the floor of a single room said who had taken my bag of items in plain sight. The same story might have repeated with the thousand other homeless people that visited that shelter after me; a hand-drawn map stored in a community building is useless in contrast to a map accessible and searchable from any public library.  

This is a collection of “more than forty counter-cartographies from all over the world.” It “shows how maps are created and transformed as a part of political struggle, for critical research, or in art and education; from indigenous territories in the Amazon to the anti-eviction movement in San Francisco; from defending commons in Mexico to mapping refugee camps with balloons in Lebanon; from slums in Nairobi to squats in Berlin; and from supporting communities in the Philippines to reporting sexual harassment in Cairo.” The reason for the inclusion of not particularly useful but rare maps is explained as an attempt “to inspire, to document the underrepresented”. It attempts to reach a broad audience of everybody in the world rather than only the designers among us: “to be a useful companion when becoming a counter-cartographer yourself.”

The authors and mappers who created this project, “kollektiv orangotango+ has grown from a decade of experience in critical mapping in Europe and Latin America. As activists and academics, the collective engages in critical research, popular education, and emancipatory struggles.”

I had to keep reading this book nearly from cover-to-cover at least in terms of the images because each of them is shocking in different ways. So, if you are just curious about this topic and you are in the fields of visual arts or community organization, you might just enjoy browsing through it for inspiration.

About Random People Doing Random Stuff

T. H. Breen. The Will of the People: The Revolutionary Birth of America. $29.95. 272pp, 6X9”, hardback. ISBN: 978-0674971790. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, September 17, 2019.


I misinterpreted what this book is about when I requested it. I am always interested in reading histories about revolutions because my research keeps returning to rebellions, overthrows, uprisings, sedition, libel and free speech even as I hope between geographical regions and centuries. Even if I begin researching linguistics or novel structure, it inevitably becomes impossible to explain a group of authors’ choices without covering the tensions between radical change and continuity of authoritative government. The title suggests this particular book will describe the American Revolution, and even if my current research is centered on the British Isles, understanding how and why America broke away from England would be very useful at this juncture. For example, I am studying writers in Britain from the eighteenth century that include Daniel Defoe, who was a merchant and thus heavily impacted by international trade, including the tensions that led to the American Revolution. Instead of finding research that might have solved some of the puzzle pieces I have yet to place, this book is a rhetorical anti-research project. The first clue to this is the unrevealing chapter headings, which include “Justice” and “Betrayal”, or two emotions or general concepts that do not reveal what part of the Revolution they might be alluding to. Flipping across the interior one is hit by waves of nonsense, propaganda and religious sermons. In a long section on Reverend Dan Foster, who was a “pastor for a small Connecticut congregation”, the author dives into a lecture on Christ and the Church with statements such as these: “The Jews would have the king they desired.” The question of monarchic rights is dimmed as the paragraph ponders about the Jews’ strange ideas regarding “a king supreme”. On the next page: “God did not care one way or another if the people deposed a corrupt monarch. That was their business” (60-3). While a discussion on how Christians and Jews came to accept a king’s rights in terms of what the Bible said on the matter might be relevant, the insertion of the cliché “their business” aside as well as other digressions prevents any of this from making coherent sense to readers. This type of general, lacking in evidence babbling dominates the book: “Other New Jersey communities joined the expanding effort to save the nation’s economy.” From this opening sentence, the paragraph goes on to quote from a specific county’s price-setting efforts but in a manner that fails to allow for a grasp on the point. Saving an economy can include anything from giving charity to the poor to lowering the interest rate, and yet here price-fixing is the saving tool (186)? The lack of a clear opening sentence appears to deliberately confuse readers from being able to spot this lack of congruent sense across the information lopped together in the paragraph. These types of sentences are not abnormalities but dominate the majority of the text: you can find out for yourself by opening to random pages. Thus, this is an unreadable book.

The blurb inflates the author’s standing in the first words as if aware that only be this bloating might the publisher explain why this book was chosen for publication while hundreds of coherent books were rejected. The author is labeled as a “prize-winning historian”. Meanwhile, the reasons for inserting unrelated stories about random preachers and a general lack of logical organization is explained as “introducing us to the ordinary men and women who turned a faltering rebellion against colonial rule into an unexpectedly potent and enduring revolution.” Price fixing and anti-Jewish sentiments turned the tide? “They policed their neighbors, sent troops and weapons to distant strangers committed to the same cause, and identified friends and traitors.” All of these might have been interesting to read about, but these are not the main topics of discussion in these pages. “Without their participation there would have been no victory over Great Britain, no independence. The colonial rebellion would have ended like so many others—in failure.” I am deleting a few of the repeating sentences in this summary, but these two repetitions demonstrate the author’s style across the book; the same general ideological points are repeated in slightly different phrasings without conveying historical facts to support these grand conclusions.

“In villages, towns, and cities from Georgia to New Hampshire, Americans managed local affairs, negotiated shared sacrifice, and participated in a political system in which each believed they were as good as any other.” It is mystifying how digressive historians such as this author manage to read minds to figure out what people believe not based on documented proof but on their power of deep-think. And what does superiority or inferiority of these small players have to do with what exactly they did that affected the revolution; self-confidence or lack thereof is irrelevant when it comes to launching a revolutionary war.

This book should be withdrawn from publication, rather than sold to libraries or students. If anybody has to read this book for a class, they might start a local rebellion that aims to prove they could have written a better book themselves.

Dramatic Confessions About Tyrants

Pier Cardido Decembrio. Lives of the Milanese Tyrants: The I Tatti Renaissance Library, 88. Gary Ianziti, translator, Mssimo Zaggia, editor. $29.95. 400pp, hardback. ISBN: 978-0-674-98752-4. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, September, 2019.


In contrast to the lack of clarity in the chapter titling in the previous book on this list, this book’s contents are extremely specific as they help to guide readers to the parts of these tyrants lives that are of interest to their specific research projects, or curiosities. For example, the first tyrant’s life, Filippo Maria Visconti, has sections on his origins, ancestors, birth, beginnings as a ruler, individual wars fought, and sections on how he was perceived by his generals and soldiers. This detail of sub-section headings was popular across many ages, and it really should return to popularity as the current popularity of abstract chapter titles that fail to describe what a chapter is about is neither useful nor artistic. As is typical with this series from Harvard, the introduction offers precise information about the tyrants covered, about the text and other matters a general reader or a researcher needs to understand prior to diving deeper into these texts. While the type of philosophizing that dominates this text tends to be handled badly by modern authors, because this is a historic document, the approach Pier Candido Decembrio takes to these explanations of the drama related help to explain the culture of his own time for close-reading historians.

This is a collection of “two biographies by the most important Milanese humanist of the early fifteenth century. Pier Candido Decembrio (1399–1477) served as secretary and envoy to the bizarre and powerful Filippo Maria Visconti, Duke of Milan.” As I have been researching authorial attributions in the last couple of years, I have discovered that the authorial signature of the “secretary” or the “secret secretary” of a powerful administrator tends to match the boss’ style as the term “secretary”, especially between Medieval times and the eighteenth century in Europe appears to have primarily meant not only a transcriber, but also a composer of letters, speeches and other documents the ruler or administrator then broadcast as his or her own work. Thus, rather than seeing Decembrio’s position as a “secretary” as an insignificant menial labor, the modern equivalent would be a ghostwriter to the president; if his patron came across as “bizarre” according to my research it is likely he was a drunkard, womanizer or barely literate and his ability to govern depended whole on his “secretary”, who would have thus garnered unique power that would have bolstered the reception of his biographies of tyrants, as his boss would have wanted to return the favor of his extraordinary service. “As a member of the duke’s inner circle, Decembrio was in a privileged position to write what historians agree is a unique masterpiece of Renaissance biography, based on his decades of direct experience.” From my perspective, Decembrio would have been the one who truly made the decisions and political maneuvers his boss was credited for, so his experience with these matters were equivalent to if he had been a tyrant himself; obviously, a book about tyrants written by a tyrant is guaranteed to be a revealing confession into decisions that appear arbitrary in the polished histories of the same events. “Also included in this volume is a work of homage to Visconti’s successor, Decembrio’s flattering account of the deeds of the most successful mercenary captain of the Renaissance, Francesco Sforza, who secured for himself and his heirs the disputed position of Duke of Milan through guile, force, and willpower. Both works are translated into English here for the first time from new Latin texts prepared specially for this edition.” This late translation from Latin into English is due to the fact that England’s schools across the Renaissance (when this book was popular there) were taught in Latin, so students were assumed to be capable of reading it in the Latin original. Obviously, by contrast, there are too few readers of Latin and too many readers of English in our modern world, so these types of translations of these classics are essential for us to benefit from the lessons of history that have been disguised by language barriers.

The text is addicting to read because every sentence is shocking as if it compresses an episode out of a war-series into these tight quarters. Here is an example at the start of a tyrant’s war efforts: “He then captured Giovanni himself by luring him like a wild animal into a vain effort to save his son” (17). These compressed stories should inspire a historian to seek more detailed sources to explain what went on. Casual readers might just enjoy the dramas being depicted at this rapid pace. Elsewhere, Decembrio almost writes from first person as if describing his own secretarial work: “Next Filippo would attend to his correspondences, if there was anything that required his attention, or he would grab someone to babble to, walking and talking at the same time. His conversation was mostly about war, or about his dogs, or about the qualities of various birds and horses, or it veered into light banter” (103). Details such as these are useful to those who want to understand the culture and habits of these distant times, as well as to somebody who is basing a novel or a film on this source, as a scene already comes into focus from these two sentences. The text does not shy away from ridiculing tyranny, as rebellion is offered similar consideration to these tyrants’ ability to reign in power and rule unmolested; however, the tone in descriptions of rebels is more negative and ridiculing as this section shows: “And with the citizenry thus divided, the plebeian masses, entirely ignorant of the true meaning of the word liberty, but adopting it as their slogan, launched an unprincipled hate campaign against the city’s nobility, confident of total mastery” (225). I wish this text was available when I took an AP philosophy class back in high school; it would have been very enjoyable to read this book cover-to-cover. It is difficult to imagine a test on this jumpy patchwork of information, but discussions on the larger points raised should be very stimulating in history, philosophy and politics classes. Thus, this book is a great fit for course material at undergraduate and graduate levels, as well as for placement in all types of libraries.

Inspiration for Artists: Blake’s Life and Works

Martin Myrone and Amy Concannon; Alan Moore, afterward. William Blake. $55. 224pp, 9X10.5”, 200 color illustrations, hardback. ISBN: 978-0691198316. Princeton: Princeton University Press, October 29, 2019.


This is another dream book of mine. Owning a giant collection of a canonical artist’s creations was something I fantasized about as a youth drawing pictures. I would open painting collections in libraries and imagine what a fresh, unused and un-scribbled collection would smell and look like on my shelf. If I remain a self-employed publisher, it is very likely that I will never be able to spend $55 on a book unless it is required for a course; this must be what the poor in the fifteenth through eighteenth centuries felt regarding buying even the cheapest of books when its cost was so large nobody in the lower class could spend this sum out of their paycheck. In fact, William Blake (1757–1827) himself was in this impoverished group as a son of a hosier who apprenticed to an engraver in his youth for a sum that was equivalent to slaves obtaining a place to sleep and food in exchange for their labor; apprentices were bound to their masters in a manner similar to slaves for several years, and only the lucky ones survived this ordeal to become a master engraver themselves. Blake survived but he remained obscure, barely scraping by as he drew the delicate pieces included in this collection. Blake’s biography really needs to be juxtaposed next to his art as it is in the pages of this book because his “Independence and Despair” echoes between the events he suffered and the mournful style of these drawings. These engravings might have been under-appreciated because they are not as large or grand in scope as Leonardo’s creations, but they represent a leap in the art of engraving that gradually evolved into sophisticating art printing practices and later photography. The industrial reproduction of art through engravings revolutionized publishing, and Blake played a crucial technical as well as an artistic role in this movement. His water colors are dim or shy in attitude, but their lack of brightness attracts viewers to follow the emotions and the narrative of the presented story instead of being mesmerized. Some of Blake’s pieces, such as “24. Richard Earlom, King Lear”, are incredibly detailed in a style approaching Venetian masters of old, so that his less detailed drawings, such as “22. Tiriel and his Children”, seem to be deliberately abstracted to highlight the desired emotional expression rather than the robes and bodies of the characters presented. I recall being startled by the combination of simplicity and passion in Blake’s drawing and handwritten writing of “The Tyger” poem in my AP English textbook, “38. Songs of Innocence and of Experience”; just like Emily Dickinson’s simple and yet convoluted poetry, this poem took me on an imaginary adventure and an intellectual quest for understanding of Blake’s intentions and meanings. And I still recall my reaction to seeing a drawing such as “140. The Body of Abel found by Adam and Eve” in my undergraduate art class on a huge slide in front of an auditorium of students; we might have just been viewing the Mona Lisa, but the image of Adam running in horror sticks to memory because it is symbolically more powerful. Better than any art book, a collection like this one should inspire young art students to create innovative art of their own. It is not pretentious or threatening as some art is; one looks at some great artistic masterpieces and becomes petrified of failing as an artist; but looking at Blake’s art nourishes the imagination in an inviting and non-judgmental manner. These pieces seem to say to art students: learn the craft and then do your best at not so much duplicating reality as expressing your suppressed ideas and feelings.

The publisher explains Blake “created some of the most iconic images in the history of art. He was a countercultural prophet whose personal struggles, technical innovations, and revelatory vision have inspired generations of artists. This marvelously illustrated book explores the biographical, artistic, and political contexts that shaped Blake’s work, and demonstrates why he was a singularly gifted visual artist with renewed relevance for us today. The book explores Blake’s relationship with the art world of his time and provides new perspectives on his craft as a printmaker, poet, watercolorist, and painter. It makes sense of the profound historical forces with which he contended during his lifetime, from revolutions in America and France to the dehumanizing effects of industrialization. Readers gain incomparable insights into Blake’s desire for recognition and commercial success, his role as social critic, his visionary experience of London, his hatred of empire, and the bitter disappointments that drove him to retire from the world in his final years. What emerges is a luminous portrait of a complicated and uncompromising artist who was at once a heretic, mystic, saint, and cynic.”

International libraries should make this book available to the public so that artists and art historians out there can find visual and biographical reasons to pursue these professions in our often anti-artistic times.

Subversive Anti-Equality Rhetoric Bordering on Psychotic

Jonathan Rothwell. Republic of Equals: A Manifesto for a Just Society. $29.95. 384pp, 6X9”, 72 b/w illustrations, hardback. ISBN: 978-0691183763. Princeton: Princeton University Press, November 5, 2019.


This book appears to be dense with research into the state of international inequality, and has the guise of being written as pro-justice propaganda without subversive intentions to help the other side. Books that promise to describe the problems the poor of the world face tend to be either digressive, or so bombastically repetitive that their hidden message appears to be against this type of liberal rhetoric rather than for it. And sadly, this book falters as well in this regard.

“Political equality is the most basic tenet of democracy. Yet in America and other democratic nations, those with political power have special access to markets and public services.” I have been observing problems in this category more than usual in the last couple of years. Scandals keep revealing how the elite are giving government contracts to their relatives or themselves. ObamaCare penalizes the poor who cannot afford to pay for insurance and yet make enough to exceed the lower-class exemptions. Meanwhile, government officials making over $100,000 annually receive much better free government-sponsored healthcare. Just the other day, I saw a comedy show about how generals are forcing subordinates to waste money on things like camouflage uniforms for forests in the middle of desserts, while they are selling false narratives of success in the Afghanistan War, the longest in US history. The fact that this is the longest war reinforces the main point of this book: the ability of Americans to stop corruption on all fronts is so low at this point that we are enduring our longest war as if we are suffering daily robberies with zero police-response. Many of these topics are addressed somewhere in this book as it flutters between a wide array of arguments to convince readers of the inequality all but the top 1% of Americans are suffering today. It “traces the massive income inequality observed in the United States and other rich democracies to politicized markets and avoidable gaps in opportunity—and explains why they are the root cause of what ails democracy today.” While I believe outright election fraud and corruption are our main anti-democratic ailments, addressing the more blatant barriers to opportunity might be an easier approach to begin the change. It relies on the “latest empirical evidence from across the social sciences to demonstrate how rich democracies have allowed racial politics and the interests of those at the top to subordinate justice.” The reference to “racial politics” as equivalent to the interest of the rich is inflammatory… The economist author explains this strange turn by blaming “the rise of nationalism in Europe and the United States, revealing how this trend overlaps with racial prejudice and is related to mounting frustration with a political status quo that thrives on income inequality and inefficient markets.” It has become common for news anchors to blame the growth of nationalism and racism. But the reason for this link is rarely explained for what it is. Trump and other racist politicians have for centuries been shifting the white-majority public’s attention away from their need for welfare and self-preservation to hatred of the “other” or of minorities; the argument has been that keeping other races in lower economic status will put the poor white in a relatively superior position; meanwhile, the policies keeping any one race down also hurt all other impoverished people, while the politicians and the rich corporate owners sponsoring them rob the country of its taxes for personal enrichment. The great corrupt theft of a nation’s resources is achieved by maintaining a constant state of hatred between sub-groups not only racially but on various other levels. For example, the hatred of “geeks” by the “jocks” might be as responsible for school shootings and this hatred does not spontaneously materialize but is repeated constantly in popular American entertainments. Advertising shootings when they do occur only feeds this loop, and keeps most of the nation too petrified of neighbors and classmates to rebel against unfair inequality that prevents those in the lower class from rising upwards.

The practical materials offered for those who are interested in upward mobility include a table of the “Occupations that represent at least 1 percent of the top one percent” (27). Another table, “The financial health and most important financial problems facing different income groups”, demonstrates how many Americans have a false sense of how well they are doing… well, actually the problem with this table is that the lowest-income group represented are those “below $50,000”, whereas those who are really struggling closer to the poverty line are not separated to show just how much more desperate their situation is (38). It seems that the further I read in this book the more I believe it is one of those subversive books arguing for inequality indirectly. A clue to this is the presentation of evidence of IQ tests with this conclusion: “the best state-of-the-art research on genetics with over one million people of European ancestry shows that genes directly explain 11 percent to 13 percent of the variation in educational attainment and a similar amount of variation in IQ” (143). I am absolutely sure these tests were falsified by racists. It is unbelievably absurd to conclude in a scholarly book that one’s ethnicity or genetic markers unique to distinct groups define one’s IQ. Arguments like this suggest that some students cannot learn due to their genes even they invest the same amount of energy as other students. There must have been other social markers that created these distinctions. What logical purpose can these types of numbers have in arguing for methods to decrease inequality. These findings state that inequality in IQ is inherited in the genes, and there is no way to escape from genes. Later on, instead of finding fault with corrupted elections or self-enriching monopolies, the author blames “local homeowner associations”, arguing for their elimination by “higher levels of government” (282). The whole self-cancelling argument comes together in statements that blame the poor in wealthy countries for complaining and thus jinxing their ability to gain wealth: “High income inequality, presumably, is the chief explanation for why such a high percentage of U.S. residents do not feel comfortable with their living standard, despite living in such a rich country” (305). In truth, the perception of being “rich” is what is a false illusion that Americans have as a country: the unemployment numbers are falsified by forcing people off unemployment after a few months, and then judging the half of the country that is not employed and also not on paying unemployment insurance to be not “unemployed”; thus, the “unemployment” rate can reach 0 with 100% of the country without any employment. This is why the number of homeless people across all major city centers has been steeply climbing as politicians have been claiming a disappearing unemployment rate and a fantastically wealthy economy. Books like this one contribute to blaming the poor for disliking their homelessness, starvation and other problems, to assist the government in fully eliminating even food stamps for the unemployed. Even PhD-holders and the most skilled Americans might not be able to find work in America today due to extreme “inequality” and monopolizing to the point of killing most small business ventures. So, a complete lack of a safety net or welfare for this growing majority of people who are prevented from working by inequality approaches Nazi-level cruelty as watching people starve in the streets might be worse than locking them up in communal housing and feeding them enough for some of them to survive until the end of the Holocaust. And amidst this financial disaster, books like this one are subversively arguing that we are on the right track and some ethnic groups genetically have lower IQs. It is disturbing to read this type of propaganda when it is published by Princeton…

A Rare History of the Genre-Setting Welsh Literature

Geraint Evans and Helen Fulton, eds. The Cambridge History of Welsh Literature. 826pp, 6X9”, hardback. ISBN: 978-1-107-10676-5. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.


Books about our modern world are far more dishonest than histories of past centuries. After every responsible party for a massacre is dead, historians finally find documents proving whodunnit. If the world is seen in the contrast between modern accounts and past histories in any period, it always seems as if things have rapidly progressed for the better in the lifetime of those around the world in the present. This illusion of progress is merely the cloaking of horrific current events with propaganda. As these events retreat into history, they become mere dramatic stories like fiction meant to entertain with their terror and tragedy. New tyrants appear to read such stories to figure out how to cause new mayhem rather than to avoid past mistakes. Given my personal sense of helplessness to change things for the better in the present, I enjoy retreating into these truthful accounts. In these pages I suddenly understand replicated scenarios playing out in the news. If I just watch the news, it all appears mystifying: who is causing all these wars and inequality? Then, that same evening, I read a history about the Inquisition or about the Witch Trials, and the answers are blatant. No, Trump is not suffering a Witch Trial or the Inquisition; he is putting all Americans through equivalently horrifying trials with his anti-human policies and corruption. Thus, I now come across this stress-relieving history of Welsh Literature from the much-admired “Cambridge History of…” series. I have recently realized I have a gap in my knowledge when it comes to Wales among the British Isles; I studied Scotland and its literature for my PhD dissertation, and English literature across most of the rest of my education. But authors from Wales appear less likely to advertise this origin than those from Scotland or Ireland, places with more pronounced nationalistic literature traditions. Always afraid to be embarrassed by being found out not to know something, I enter this book with hope for enlightenment.

Given the universal ignorance regarding Wales, the book thankfully begins with a glossary of Welsh literary terms and a series of maps representing geographic changes in this region over the centuries. The “Introduction” explains that the previous version of this book called A History of Welsh Literature was released in 1955, and just as I have been pondering, it was corrupted by current political events that prevented it from honestly describing what should be an apolitical history of fiction (i). The long gap between that volume and this one indicates that Welsh literature scholarship really has been relatively dormant: explaining my own cluelessness in this field. These introductory notes are followed by a detailed chapter on the early history of the region. Then a chapter by Helen Fulton details “The Earliest Writing in Welsh” beginning with its Latin tradition, and onto the earliest surviving texts in the Welsh language: The Black Book of Carmarthe, The Book of Aneirin, and The Book of Taliesin: I have never heard of any of these and I believe myself to be widely read. These are the “four ancient books” referred to by Skene, which represent “early poets” “composing in Welsh before the Normal conquest”. This text was written in sections “between the ninth and twelfth centuries” by a group of distinct scribes and authors (28). This is very interesting for my current “Shakespeare” project, so I will put this book aside to read it more closely for clues to solve these later puzzles. How was collaboration viewed in these early texts: why were so many writers editing a single text rather than starting their own compositions?   

Every page of every chapter is dense with similar insights in a variety of different fields of study. For example Diana Luft’s chapter describes similarities between early texts and the roots of the Bildungsroman as they are also “charting the main character’s development from ‘nice but dim’ into a wise and successful leader… or is it simply a joke that someone so lacking in common sense is called ‘Pwyll’ (literally ‘sense’)” (74)? This type of self-questioning is a sign that a critic is disclosing the true ambiguity in interpreting any text that was composed nearly a millennium ago. While some compilations of essays by different authors can leave a few rough essays that fill space with nonsense, it seems all of the participating authors are aware of the great task before them and have taken the challenge to heart.

The publisher summarizes it thus: “The literature of Wales is one of the oldest continuous literary traditions in Europe. The earliest surviving poetry was forged in the battlefields of post-Roman Wales and the ‘Old North’ of Britain, and the Welsh-language poets of today still write within the same poetic tradition. In the early twentieth century, Welsh writers in English outnumbered writers in Welsh for the first time, generating new modes of writing and a crisis of national identity which began to resolve itself at the end of the twentieth century with the political devolution of Wales within the United Kingdom. By considering the two literatures side by side, this book argues that bilingualism is now a normative condition in Wales. Written by leading scholars, this book provides a comprehensive chronological guide to fifteen centuries of Welsh literature and Welsh writing in English against a backdrop of key historical and political events in Britain.”

Linguists, literary scholars and historians will find material to aid their research in these dense pages. The translations of Medieval Welsh alone would be sufficient to fill an average book. While I have been studying the literature of the British Isles for a couple of decades, it is amazing how ignorant I remain of Welsh literature; this reinforces the need not only for me to read this book more closely, but also for members of the general public with a blind spot in it to review these pages to improve their comprehension of the British islands and their distinct literature cultures that have only recently been artificially merged. Given the rarity of books about Welsh literature, all libraries definitely need to acquire this history to fill this oversight. And courses on British literature should incorporate either this history of some of the texts discussed herein, or otherwise they risk being blamed of really being courses in English literature…

Fictitious Biography of a Dark Period

William E. Wallace. Michelangelo, God’s Architect: The Story of His Final Years and Greatest Masterpiece. $29.95. 336pp, 6X9”, hardback. ISBN: 978-0691195490. Princeton: Princeton University Press, November 19, 2019.


The “Preface” explains that the author, William E. Wallace had previously written two books on Michelangelo’s biography and had a sense of completion until having put the second work down he realized the final couple of decades of the artist’s life had not been adequately researched by past scholars, setting him on this present project. Wallace is a Distinguished Professor of Art History at Washington University. He starts “Chapter 1” just as all biographies should start with a detailed videographic description of the place where Michelangelo lived at the onset of this story. Without these details, I would imagine how he lived in worked in Rome very differently. When I visited Rome a couple of decades ago it was one of the busiest cities I had ever encountered and I grew up on Moscow and New York City trains. Amidst the ruins, modern Rome is crowded with residences. In contrast, Michelangelo lived in a two-story house with work studios on the ground floor, pantry and cellar in the basement, and a bedroom for him and another for his servant on the second floor, with fewer furniture and clothing items than I have, and I live in a tiny house. There was a little farm in the back with a mini garden, vineyard, chickens and nag. Apparently, he lived on a street known as a kind of butchery, as the local butcher and greengrocer lived on it. And it might have been as noisy despite the farm-style components as it is in Rome’s business districts today. And somebody kept shitting on Michelangelo’s door: “as if nobody who ate grapes or took laxatives ever found anywhere else to shit.” Wallace quotes a more delicate way of putting this from Michelangelo, but I think his own summary does it more justice. This was how the great artist lived while designing the dome of St. Peter’s, one of the greatest archeological achievements humanity has produced (ix-9). It seems humanity values artistic output because of its monetary capacities, but not the living artists who create it; this seems to be especially the case for the best rather than for the worst artists.  

While this is a great bit of writing, there are a few digressions and imagined conversations across the book. For example, we are told what Michelangelo is thinking or that the pope, Paul, keeps remaining silent amidst this imaginative conversation in italics on single-sentence or single-word lines across Chapter 3 (66-70). There are several other imagined conclusions or value judgements that are not supported by documentary claims across the book, such as when Michelangelo relinquishes work on a statue “to his sympathetic assistant. The young man, whom Michelangelo much admired, did his best to repair the damage and salvage the group. Although Clacagni has received little credit for his effort, the measure of his success is to be found in the number of visitors who admire the sculpture in Florence’s Museo” (142). First, there is no way of knowing if this assistant was “sympathetic” or “admired”, or that he really did “his best”. It is possible he was not sympathetic of his elderly client. Michelangelo might have disliked him. And the youth might have attempted to sabotage the project. And what does “little credit” mean: either he was or he was not credited; if the latter, why mention him? The only seeming fact here is “the number of visitors” viewing the sculpture in question, but no actual number is given, so there might be two of them annually or a million. These types of uncertainties make me question if the author imagined rather than researched the types of house where Michelangelo lived in Rome, and if the “shit” on his door is an exaggeration. This is troubling because I don’t want to read a novel about Michelangelo: I want to know precisely what documentary proof has verified regarding his living situation and all other parts of his life. A single “imagined” detail, if it is not specified to be such, is very likely to be picked up and repeated by the next biographer as a fact with a quote to the earlier source without checking if any source supporting it might exist. If there was no “shit” on my favorite artist’s door and now whenever I write about him in my own scholarship I return to visualizing this shit, neither I nor what I write under false beliefs have benefited from reading this book.   

“As he entered his seventies, the great Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo despaired that his productive years were past.” Now, I’m even doubting this statement. Was Michelangelo depressed or is Wallace projecting his own ennui onto him. “Anguished by the death of friends and discouraged by the loss of commissions to younger artists, this supreme painter and sculptor began carving his own tomb.” While carving one’s tomb is a bit morbid, on the other hand, all artists and scholars alike are in a way carving their own tombs as they attempt to finish works that will last for decades if not millennia after they are dead. A tomb on Michelangelo’s dimensions was probably a massive undertaking that would have been admired by those who came to his grave. If Michelangelo was otherwise impoverished, having the luxury of building a tomb as massive as those of top aristocrats of his time, this is not a sad note, but rather equivalent to a modern artist commencing work on a pyramid building with statues for an afterlife: more of a self-aggrandizement than a woeful depression. “It was at this unlikely moment that fate intervened to task Michelangelo with the most ambitious and daunting project of his long creative life.” Blaming “fate” for what must have been Michelangelo’s active solicitation of new work presumes religiosity instead of explaining how this came about. Any imaginings made in this book are particularly troubling because it is “the first book to tell the full story of Michelangelo’s final two decades, when the peerless artist refashioned himself into the master architect of St. Peter’s Basilica and other major buildings.” Did the author find primary evidence nobody else has uncovered before to compose this strangely undiscovered couple of decades, or did he guess what might have happened based on feelings, premonitions, or other supernatural revelations? Will biographers repeat these guesses as facts for thousands of years to come because of the lack of similar guesswork on this timeframe? “When the Pope handed Michelangelo control of the St. Peter’s project in 1546, it was a study in architectural mismanagement, plagued by flawed design and faulty engineering. Assessing the situation with his uncompromising eye and razor-sharp intellect, Michelangelo overcame the furious resistance of Church officials to persuade the Pope that it was time to start over.” If one steps back and considers the matter objectively, when is it ever a logical idea to discard everything a predecessor built and to start over? Imagine if an architect comes around 10 years into building a tunnel through the center of Boston, after the previous architect dies, and proposes abandoning the old tunnel and beginning a new tunnel that is near-identical in a parallel location, and then spending the next 20 years on it and failing to build it before he himself dies; if the decision to start over was right in the first instance, what if a third architect comes along and says Michelangelo’s tunnel is garbage, and starts a third identical tunnel in parallel to the two, and this keeps going until all traffic in Boston comes to a complete and final stop. Why are historians always excusing the actions of geniuses as faultless, while the actions of their rivals are always idiotic? This type of genius-bias is blocking honest scholarship that reports pure facts rather than emotion-based ideologies of perfection of a few, and the complete lack of value in the creations of the rest of humanity.

“The challenge of building St. Peter’s deepened Michelangelo’s faith, Wallace shows. Fighting the intrigues of Church politics and his own declining health, Michelangelo became convinced that he was destined to build the largest and most magnificent church ever conceived. And he was determined to live long enough that no other architect could alter his design.” Even in that early-medicine age, Michelangelo would have known that living in Rome in these conditions was likely to shorten rather than lengthen his life and health, so all of this is conjecture or fictional conclusions by Wallace rather than reflective of Michelangelo’s proven perspective. And “faith” contradicts “Church politics”; either Michelangelo had blind belief in the Church, or he was fighting it because he lacked faith in it to get what he wanted.

I desperately want to read a great biography that does justice to the known evidence of Michelangelo’s life because reading this account would help me understand how past artists have achieved great heights. But if any of this narrative is from the imagination of a modern historian, by following these examples, I will be mimicking the dreams of a history teacher, rather than the footsteps of a mastermind.

Did Food Processing Improve or Destroy the World?

Guy Crosby. Cook, Taste, Learn: How the Evolution of Science Transformed the Art of Cooking. $26.95. 208pp, photographs, hardback. ISBN: 978-0-231-19292-7. New York: Columbia University Press, December 10, 2019.


While I reviewed a book on bread-baking a few years ago, I baked my first loaf of bread a few weeks ago. My local stores usually have slightly moldy and stale bread, but then I purchased a loaf that was dangerously seeped in mold, but I love bread so much I tried to over-bake it into hard moisture-less pieces that might be safe, saturating the air of my house with mold. Fearful of repeating this incident, I purchased baking ingredients for pumpernickel whole wheat bread and have made a couple of experiments with it so far, as I attempt to approach the type of hard-shelled dark bread I enjoyed eating back in Russia. After I went vegan there was at least a year when I refrained from eating all breads; I returned to bread after having some very well cooked vegan and whole-wheat bread from a Portland grocery store; then, I discovered in my bread experiments that I had to consciously exclude milk and milk-based products out of recipes with substitutions, so that store-bought bread probably includes some dairy. Well, this is a great book for me to review given my new found interest in the history and varieties of cooking. The first section I turned to is titled, “Explaining Gluten”, which summarizes that gluten is formed when flour mixes with water and that my vigorous mixing and the greater quantity of water needed to make whole wheat flour with the nuts and other additives I insert pliable increases the quantity of gluten; on the other hand, gluten is just a protein, and the sports-gurus keep saying we need more protein, so unless one has an allergy to gluten (and this can’t be the case with me since there are days when I eat a couple of giant loafs), eating it just adds a bit more muscle-energy to the diet (22-4). I already learned something useful from this book: thanks!  

The rest of the chapter that covers gluten discusses the incredible population boom that agriculture and the oven-baking of bread out of grasses like “wheat” promoted. Gluten, in fact, is what makes “leavened bread” or compact bricks of food possible. Once yeast was added a bit later, the technology of bread baking was solidified and has not changed much until the present (26). The entire book provides extremely intricate and scientific research into topics such as why water is necessary in food (28), and why a scientist first added butter to a lobster recipe (60). I won’t read the latter section because as a vegan both butter and lobster are temptations I try not to think about. Another especially catching section is on how Napoleon Bonaparte contracted a food scientist to design a food preservation method using heat for the troops to be fed on non-perishable food during the Napoleonic Wars (72-3). The details offered regarding what makes meat juicier and the like are designed for cooks who need to improve their method and for scientists who want to understand their casual cooking. While most of the book is inspiring in a positive manner, the last section on the past century is glum as it explains how we came to have 3,500 flavor compounds that are engineered in combinations that maximize profits rather than health (94). It is also troubling that after this, a good deal of attention is offered to dialogues with Julia Child on cooking being both “art” and “science” in glorifying terms: she is known for denigrating fitness and health in favor of “beautifully conceived meals”. Child died of kidney failure, which can result from diabetes, though Child never discussed her health to the press. Another chef who shared Child’s liberal food philosophy, Paula Deen, has recently openly revealed that she has Type II diabetes. There has been a backlash against Deen for this confession, but nobody is questioning how Child could have managed to avoid it given the diet she advertised. The section on Child is unusually digressive for Guy Crosby, as he covers the need to listen to “famous artists” in cooking and his own assistance to Andrea Geary in the creation of a chocolate brownies recipe for America’s Test Kitchen that “adapted” “crystal structure of fat” for maximum chewiness (112-3). As if becoming self-aware by all this fat-talk, Crosby then includes a section on “Cooking Healthy Food”, which refers to studies that have been critical of food processing, and the positive value of fresh food. However most of this section cites sources to be found elsewhere rather than stressing that refraining from cooking or eating raw fruits and vegetables might actually be far healthier than anything one does to food through scientific cooking (118-9). Well, he does mention that even boiling vegetables leads to a loss of nutrients (120). Alright, he convinced me of his good intentions: there is a section called “Fighting Cancer with Cruciferous Vegetables” that explains the DNA damage caused by consuming animals and the studies that have shown positive results for vegetable eaters (122-3). It is amazing how much research has gone into most paragraphs, including the one about the benefits of beans and how to cook them to avoid their gas-producing qualities (140). My unconscious appreciation of oats for breakfast and pumpernickel bread is partially explained by Table 7.1, which has these two foods as the two with the most “resistant starch per 100 grams of food”, as opposed to cookies potatoes or plain whole wheat bread on the other side of the range; resistant starch has been proven to feed the “good bacteria” in out “large intestine”, aiding digestion (146). The book concludes with a section that states that the only bad protein is gluten, a problem for which scientists have designed gluten-free bread… The same section suggests that cooking meat traps or makes inaccessible some of the protein, but then manages to come to a re-assuring conclusion that no, only bread has bad protein, but meat and eggs have great protein: this is troubling, but given the fact that the author, Guy Crosby works as an adjunct associate professor for the Harvard School of Public Health, he is probably so fully funded by industry that the positive things he has squeezed in about vegetables probably lost him a couple million.

The publisher’s blurb is shorter than most: “Crosby offers a lively tour of the history and science behind the art of cooking, with a focus on achieving a healthy daily diet. He traces the evolution of cooking from its earliest origins, recounting the innovations that have unraveled the mysteries of health and taste.” Crosby’s industry background is confirmed in his bio: “he spent thirty years in the food industry at FMC Corporation and Opta Food Ingredients, Inc.” He also mingled with the film industry as the science editor for America’s Test Kitchen. He has published several other books on this topic.

This is a good middle-of-the-road book that presents both sides of the food debate. It is beautifully illustrated and is a great place for cooks and food science students to find a bit of inspiration for further study.

You Do Not Understand Second-Person

Evgenia Iliopoulou. Because of You: Understanding Second-Person Storytelling. $40. 250pp, paperback. ISBN: 978-383764-537-8. New York: Columbia University Press, September 17, 2019.


The first problem that comes to mind with this project is that the “Prologue” explains it to be an unedited “dissertation”; as most scholars who submit their dissertations to Ivy League presses find out: these are rejected there even if they are heavily edited; it basically has to be a brand new book for an acceptance. Rather than attempting some editing, this author has kept the project in a format specific to the dissertation genre with sections titled “Methodology” and an introduction that attempts a review of the literature. Other oddities include two separate parts called “Observations Regarding…” to separately observe Part 1 and Part 2 of the book, as well as an “Overview” of the whole. In my experience, this type of conclusions-within-conclusions style suggests an avoidance of getting to a point, especially in case where the author has failed to understand his or her own point… And the opening section after the “Prologue” is titled “The Second-Person Enigma”, setting up the book as a nonsense mystery about an undefinable thing called “second-person”. I requested this book because I need to understand the specific structure of second-person narratives better, so that I can compare these in my “Shakespeare” and “Defoe” attribution studies. There are no second-person texts among those I reviewed, but occasionally the pronoun “you” overtakes “he” and “she” in the most frequent word category in a few of the Renaissance dramas. But this author sets out by announcing that she does not know where her tour is headed, nor how to get there, nor if we are going to commence going wherever it is that we might be going. The section on the “Enigma” makes broad unsupported statements such as that “man authors have reported problems getting their books published due to the employment of the second person technique in the past,” but “lately” this “seems to be completely reversed” (16). The only proof offered of this grand shift is a few names of books that employed this “experimental” person. Then, it digresses into obligatory over-citations of all the possible theorists that could be named, including the nonsense-king Gerard Genette, who is discussed at length despite only “devoting just  a few lines to” the second person; these few lines are expanded and stretched without getting much sense out of them, but the process fills the rest of the section. At the end, a surprise awaits readers: the “enigma” “will not be solved in this project” because all these narratives are so different the author cannot see any connections between them (22-33). Why write a book about patterns in second-person narratives when you know in the first chapter you cannot find a single pattern worth mentioning? Many pages are filled by at least half with long quotes that are inserted into the notes in the bottom half of the page, when there are equally long or longer quotes on the same topics in the body of these same pages. Basically, when the author is not philosophizing nonsense, she is inserting pages of other people’s nonsense for readers to dissect for themselves (74). The only breaks from utter confusion come in narrative or plotline summaries of what happens in the novels covered: these summary paragraphs include almost no reference to the second person or explanations what the connection between this person and these stories might be (125). The observations on the second section or the end of the concluding remarks ends with a digression that finally realizes that the two German texts reviewed are by female authors, while the two French ones are by male authors, and the hope is offered that any resulting patterns from this might be examined in future studies (244). It is mystifying what this has to do with wrapping up the points this book has raised on the thing it promised to discuss: second person…

The blurb stretches the topic into infinity and yet again refrains from saying what the book is about: “Second-person storytelling is a continually present and diverse technique in the history of literature that appears only once in the oeuvre of an author.” The reference to an author is vague so that it can be suggesting every author uses the second-person or only one specific author. “Based on key narratives of the postwar period, Evgenia Iliopoulou approaches the phenomenon in an inductive way, starting out from the essentials of grammar and rhetoric, and aims to improve the general understanding of second-person narrative within literature.” Her aim is anything but adding to “general understanding”; a better way of phrasing her intention is that she hopes to add to the general confusion about a topic that should be straightforward. “In its various forms and typologies, the second person amplifies and expands the limits of representation…” While this sounds grand, it is nonsense: the switch to second person limits what one can represent rather than expanding it because the author has to refer to “you” when he or she could have been describing specifics about the characters he sees before him; in other words, I do not know anything about you, my dear reader. If I had to address this description to you, and explain the world from your perspective, when I don’t know what it is, I would not manage to get as much information across as if I utilized the clearer first or third person. If the second person merely expands representation this is not an enigma, but rather an exaggeration. Yet, the blurb insists that it is “…thus remaining a narrative enigma: a small narrative gesture – with major narrative impact.” The term “small” here is nonsensical: in this single sentence the concept of the second person is said to be grandiose and insignificant, and both extremes are oversimplifications of the range of possible applications of the second person in experimental fiction.

This is a horrid book. If I had been assigned this book in graduate school (and I was assigned many similar books), I would have wished my instructor was fired for inflicting such nonsense on my and my fellow students. I hope if you read this review and you are considering bringing this woe onto your subordinates, you will remember your own experiences with nonsense-reading.

Babbling About Nothing That Lasts Forever or for a Short Time

Jens Herlth and Edward Swiderski, eds. Stanislaw Brzozowski and the Migration of Ideas: Transnational Perspectives on the Intellectual Field in Twentieth-Century Poland and Beyond. $60. 360pp, 6X9”, paperback. ISBN: 978-3-83764-641-2. New York: Columbia University Press, September 17, 2019.


This is one of the first books I have received for review from a publisher that I did not request. I could not have requested it because I have never attempted researching Polish literature and a title with an abstract reference to “the Intellectual Field” is more repelling than… almost any other concept that might fit into a title’s lines. My worst fears upon seeing this book in my pile are realized when the “Introduction” includes the phrase “Presence and Absence” in reference to Brzozowski in “Poland and Beyond”. This type of a chapter title is at the outer limits of absurdity as it cannot be any more unspecific: it is not even about this author being in Poland, but rather about him not being there, and not only in Poland but across the world. What does any author being anywhere have to do with why a book is being dedicated to this author: as this statement of purpose is what belongs in the introductory remarks (7). The blame for making this salad of nonsense is spread across a couple dozen writers, usually indicative a complete abandon of editorial oversight, especially when each chapter has cryptic titles that do not demonstrate what pattern of organization there might be between them. One of these chapters makes the mistake of starting without a capital letter because it commences in the middle of a quote line: “‘…actually speaking, this man converted me’: Jerzy Liebert, Brzozowski, and the Question of a Modern Religious Poetry”. This suggests the chapter merges post-modern mis-capitalization with Medieval over-religiosity: a combination worthy of a nightmare. The conclusion of this chapter re-stresses this combination as it proposes “monastic life in the world” filled with “‘drunken[ness] from grace’” or an “‘energetic’ form of the Church.” The confusion ends in this nonsense sentence without a clear reference for the “he”: “But as a converted poet he would himself fill this form.” Basically, these men are in the Church, but also not in the Church, monastic alcoholics, and they are converting each other to whatever yes-and-no uncertainty this might be referring to. This type of mis-interpretation of doctrine is both heretical and religiously dogmatic in the worst sense of these extremes (270). This is a book designed by an idiot signifying nothing.  

Here’s how it’s being sold: “As a writer, critic, and philosopher, Stanisław Brzozowski (1878–1911) left a lasting imprint on Polish culture. He absorbed virtually all topical intellectual trends of his time, adapting them for the needs of what he saw as his primary mission—the modernization of Polish culture.” Unless he was God, He did not absorb “virtually all” of the available intellectualism in Poland. “The essays in this volume reassess and contextualize Brzozowski’s writings from a distinctly transnational vantage point.” In other words, some of the writers ignore where he’s from and suggest he’s really from elsewhere. “They shed light on often surprising and hitherto underrated affinities between Brzozowski and intellectual figures and movements in Eastern and Western Europe.” This signifies that the writers accepted into this collection were free to babble about any unrelated subjects in any field of study as long as they mentioned Brzozowski’s name somewhere. “Furthermore, they explore the presence of his ideas in twentieth-century literary criticism and theory.” This specifies not that Brzozowski has been discussed in literary criticism, but that concepts such as plot or dialogue or the like that all authors and critics have to mention at some point have also been mentioned by some critic elsewhere, and these theorists are going to stretch time and space to stick these together specifically to create nonsense.

Nonsense About Dialogue or Something Else in Hundreds of Years of Fiction

Elizabeth Alsop. Making Conversation in Modernist Fiction. 188pp, 6X9”, hardback. ISBN: 978-0-8142-1407-7. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2019.


Once again, I am on a quest to understand a basic literary concept, dialogue, but instead of finding a structural breakdown of it in these pages, I am faced with double-talking nonsense. Early clues of this emerge in the “Introduction” when the author states that the point of “framing [i.e. constructing] dialogue as poiesis… [i.e. making something new] is to position it as an expressive affordance [i.e. property defining its use] of the author, or ‘maker’” (5). Translation: Building new dialogue means making it into a definition of the Author-Maker. Does this sentence make sense to you if the terms few people are familiar with are defined? No, it looks like what it is: nonsense. But because few people understand these terms, they assume the author is making a wise point because they would rather skip trying to understand it over taking out the dictionary and looking up half of the words in this deliberately convoluted sentence. The reference to the “author” as the “maker” drew my attention to explore this sentence more closely because it is a telling sign of extreme nonsense when a critic uses a kindergarten term to define a first-grade term.

Every single page of this book includes dozens of sentences I can similarly break down, but the introductory comments tend to be more convoluted whereas such nonsense critics become looser with their phrasings in the middle of the book as in this example: “Yet a closer analysis of both the texture and the organization of discourse in the novel may not support such a singularly pessimistic reading and, in fact, suggests that Faulkner is dramatizing something more nuanced than the dangers of dogma.” To what pessimistic thing is this referring, well, the previous paragraph ends on the note that the “majority” of “white, landhold[ers]” has “successfully conolize[d] and monopolize[d] the voice of a ‘minority’” (109). The critic acknowledges that it appears Faulkner is demonstrating economic racism but immediately cancels this conclusion not because of evidence to the contrary but because this idea is too “pessimistic”. A translation of what this critic is saying is: Some sad people believe Faulkner is depicting economic racism, but we shouldn’t believe party-poopers because racism is a downer. And to what texture is this referring? We are supposed to be discussing dialogue not general textures and sensations. The judgement that the dogma of racism is insufficiently “nuanced” for Faulkner is outlandishly insulting to those who study racism. I cannot read any further as I would be correcting a paper that has already passed the maximum number of errors I allow before giving a book an F.

I am not shying away from reviewing even this horrid book because negative reviews are occasionally more important for the progress of literary scholarship than positive ones. One of the blurbs from fellow nonsense writing critics, Jeremy Hawthorn, on the cover of this book suggests that it “is set to become essential reading for narratologists and others concerned with the complex and changing role of dialogue in fiction.” Before this book is even released, all these friends have come together and agreed to purchase each other’s nonsense books to force graduate students to read them in their classes. “Carefully argued, with theoretical claims backed up by convincing textual analyses, it is a groundbreaking work and a real pleasure to read.” I would like to sit over Hawthorn’s shoulder as he attempts (with pleasure) reading a single paragraph out of this book, and explaining to me precisely what he believes each of the sentences in it means.

The term “close analysis” has become equated with digressive nonsense as critics are now too lazy to manage to read the many texts they promise to have devoured for these types of projects; for example, this book promises to have reviewed: “The Ambassadors, The Sun Also Rises, “The Dead,” The Sound and the Fury, Absalom, Absalom!, The Waves, Between the Acts, “Melanctha,” and Cane”. Do you know what these works have in common or perhaps are particularly divergent on to warrant mixing their study together? Well, the summary claims they are “some of the most canonical British and American modernist authors”; in other words, a set of random texts were chosen from both sides of the ocean because their authors were famous rather than because of any observable pattern between them.

It goes on: “If historically dialogue had been treated as a subordinate element in fiction—a tool for developing character or advancing plot…” No, dialogue was never “subordinate”: it is the dominant portion of most fiction, taking up more than half of plays and other dialogue-heavy genres. But this author has to make it sound as if the repetition of this old topic is original because it has never been criticized before. It goes on to claim that dialogue is a “poetic structure in its own right” and that “modernist writers ‘make’ conversation in radically new ways…” While modernist conversations tend to be more airheaded and nonsensical, modernists and their critics have not revolutionized talking in fiction, but merely degraded it.

A Study About the Evil Americans and the Exotic Orientals

Janna Odabas. The Ghosts Within: Literary Imaginations of Asian America: [transcript] Lettre. $45. 264pp, 6X9”, paperback. ISBN: 978-3-83764-449-4. New York: Columbia University Press, September 17, 2019.


This is at least the second title out of this set that I could not have possibly requested. It is nice that publishers are starting to send books for review even without my direct request of them, but I have negatively reviewed these types of books before, so it is puzzling why a repetition of my tirade against nonsense is necessary. Still, I have a policy of reviewing every single printed book an academic publisher sends my way, so I proceed. I could not have requested this project because even the title hits on a few of my trigger-points. First, the allusion to ghosts is bordering on racist in this context: “ghosts” have various meanings in the divergent religions or mythologies of the Asian continent; juxtaposing Asia with Ghosts suggests this is a theological study. But the term “literary imaginations” suggests that all Asian religions are being lumped together into fictional texts or imaginings. The title is broad enough for other interpretations to be possible, but since I am from Eurasia (Russia), this title kind of lumps Judaic spirit myths with the rest of Asia and then promises to generalize about the bunch of it in terms of Asian American or immigrant perspectives. Why would second-generation Asian Americans retain the ghost-related beliefs their ancestors had on the Asian continent? If the title did not strike you as frightfully nonsensical, I hope I have helped to guide you towards this conclusion.

The chapter titles immediately strike me as having the same editor labeling them as in the Brzozowski book, as for example, the first chapter also begins with a quote commencing with a small letter: as if repeating a stylistic mistake in every book one edits is going to eventually change other scholars belief this is an error. Another chapter’s heading includes a common breaking into parts of a word but in a nonsensical manner; “Dis-ease” is split in half: this refers to “Ghost Figures”; typically when words are thus split in half, part of the word has to have an equal but distinct meaning to the whole, but in this case, splitting the two leaves us with a diss, ease and disease: all unrelated to each other and to the study of literature.

The discussion of plots inside this book raises eyebrows: “It is but one example of the way in which the American presence causes death and suffering…” (154) What? Americans being around causes these Korean Americans “death and suffering”? This is a story about anti-American hatred? Then there are sections that take a random object, like a train, to argue that is an “emblem of colonial modernization” in Laakhan’s stories (194). So, the first reference was to all Americans being murderers and now their trains are colonizers? Neither of these have been about ghosts, so this sentence stands out as matching my conclusion in this regard: “In contrast to the book’s title, the novel’s plot is not driven by ghost figures” (224). It’s as if this essay’s author chose a story to study because it had “ghost” in the title, and after writing the essay about it, this author is tragically reporting that there are actually no ghosts in the story after all. What a horrid book. I hope I’m its last reader, just as I would hope a ghost haunting me will not pursue the rest of humanity.

Here is what the publisher intends readers to believe this book is about: “The ghost as a literary figure has been interpreted in a variety of ways: spiritually, psychoanalytically, sociologically, or allegorically.” This assumes that all Asian cultures believe in ghosts, but I really don’t think Confucians or Sikhs believe in spirits or ghosts, the latter viewing spirits as the making of an individual’s imagination. This is an example of the absurdity of studying fictional patterns in a literary theory book about any entire content. “Following these approaches, Janna Odabas understands ghosts in Asian American literature as self-reflexive figures. With identity politics at the core of the ghost concept, Odabas emphasizes how ghosts critically renegotiate the notion of Asian America as heterogeneous and transnational and resist interpretation through a morally or politically preconceived approach to Asian American literature. Responding to the tensions of the scholarly field, Odabas argues that the literary works under scrutiny openly play with and rethink conceptions of ghosts as mere exotic, ethnic ornamentation.” No. This book does precisely what it is saying it is avoiding: it is generalizing the idea of “ghosts” as an “exotic” cultural ornament, instead of closely reviewing the unique traditions that shaped each of the analyzed texts.

Outstanding History About the Failures of Roman Totalitarianism

Michael Kulikowski. The Tragedy of Empire: From Constantine to the Destruction of Roman Italy. $35. 424pp, 25 color photos, 14 maps, hardback. ISBN: 978-0674660137. Cambridge: Harvard University Press: Belknap Press, November 19, 2019.


This book is full of brilliant color illustrations representative of the wide range of nations and cultures this sweeping history covers. These are definitely needed for readers to identify these places visually with the divergent things they represent. For example, there are pictures of “Monastic Saints from Coptic Egypt” that are carrying books with Hebrew lettering and crosses at their sides. Another image presents the castle-styled “Anthemian Wall of Constantinople”, in Russia. Another image is of a recognizable Christ painting closer to those we might see in a Roman church today, but it comes from a Sinai monastery. An artistic mosaic map of Madaba includes Cyrillic lettering. And a couple of ancient-looking coins from “Alkhan ‘Hun’” represent this distinct tyrannical order. The “Sao Cucufate” structure from Portugal shows the colorful style of this region’s rulers. Just the captions needed to explain these curious images take up a dozen pages. The book is neatly organized into chapters that cover distinct regions and rulers, so that all these cultures are not mixed together haphazardly, but rather explained via their unique patterns of behavior. I am sure I will return to read this book more closely because I frequently stumble in my studies into trying to understand rebellion and subversion and “Empire” is the flipside of these extremes; if Empires were not tragic, there would be no need for people to rebel against them. While the breadth of this subject in a single book might have confused some writers, Michael Kulikowski has done a splendid job of relying on heavy research and heavy editing to discover facts and present them in an orderly fashion.

While some of the illustrations appear more modern while others seem ancient, they all come from only “two centuries that led to the demise of the Roman Empire”. The story is a coherent whole because despite touching Portugal and Egypt, it returns to the empirical links between them. It “begins in the late fourth century with the reign of Julian, the last non-Christian Roman emperor, and takes readers to the final years of the Western Roman Empire at the end of the sixth century.” The images shift rapidly between “pagan” or Roman styles and Christian ones because the empirical rulers who controlled this enormous Empire propagated cultural and theological changes in extreme and rapid fashion; the Nazi cultural symbolisms come to mind: if the Nazis won WWII and enforced their swastika symbols on their Empire within a generation, the art from pre and post this conquest would have been similarly drastically changed. “One hundred years before Julian’s rule, Emperor Diocletian had resolved that an empire stretching from the Atlantic to the Euphrates, and from the Rhine and Tyne to the Sahara, could not effectively be governed by one man. He had devised a system of governance, called the tetrarchy by modern scholars, to respond to the vastness of the empire, its new rivals, and the changing face of its citizenry. Powerful enemies like the barbarian coalitions of the Franks and the Alamanni threatened the imperial frontiers. The new Sasanian dynasty had come into power in Persia.” This explains the retained regional stylistic divergences: the relatively tiny Roman army ruled through fear rather than military might, and by giving regional power to despots allowed to enforce the style of government their people were familiar with. Perhaps, the Nazis failed much sooner in part because they did not listen to this lesson from history, and attempted to dress the world in their own ideology and clothing. The tragedy is not only in this Empire’s over-extension, but in part the relative failure of the West ahead of the East: “the Western Empire ceased to exist while the Eastern Empire remained politically strong and culturally vibrant. The changing structure of imperial rule, the rise of new elites, foreign invasions, the erosion of Roman and Greek religions, and the establishment of Christianity as the state religion mark these last two centuries of the Empire.” Perhaps, Christianity’s teachings (inherited from the rebellious, anti-Pharaoh Judaic tradition) allowed for rule via a Pope in Rome, but not for a Christian Emperor in charge of most of the “civilized” world.

I recommend this as a textbook for political science and history classes, as students will come away with a deeper comprehension of a concept that is too often cited in common conversations, but is infrequently understood in its implications and realities.

Analysis of the Elements of the Modern Fantasy Genre

Ann Swinfen. In Defence of Fantasy: A Study of the Genre in English and American Literature since 1945: Routledge Library Editions: Modern Fiction. 254pp, hardback. ISBN: 978-0-367-33680-6. New York: Routledge, 2019.


This book considers either very or mildly popular fantasy fiction, including Narnia and Lord of the Rings. The opening chapter explains that the genre’s popularity and its introduction recently into “English Literature Courses” are some of the reasons for its study. It further argues that too many of the past studies have been considering fantasy’s “great” authors, as if they were fan-fictions honoring these makers. Instead, Ann Swinfen sets out to evaluate the structure of the fantasy genre in its varied types and how it differs from the “realist novel”. Then, Swinfen discusses the relevant sub-genres and offers the perspectives on them from their creators (1-11). The chapters are logically divided by sub-genres or by elements groups of these novels have in common that can be critically evaluated for patterns between them. These include chapters on stories featuring beasts. Most of the chapters are about more abstract concepts such as symbolism, fantastical worlds, and idealism. Given the vast number of texts reviewed, a good portion of the book is summarizing the plots of these novels, or the references to individual quotes and details would be harder to connect. While I wish this study was a pure, detached structural analysis of the elements, Swinfen does often digress into the emotional impact of these stories and the emotional lives of the characters, such as when she writes about how “Stuart never comes to terms with his mouse body, but remains painfully divided between his physical limitations and his human mind and soul” (25). These types of abstractions cannot really be proven as either truthful or false, and they are mostly empty words; this sentence, for example, covers the body, mind and soul in a manner that can apply to any text where all three are present. In other sections, the criticism does pick a specific element and examines and compares it closely between the texts; for example, a section on the application of language to fantastic worlds, a review is offered as to how the Prydains speak “one language” but their “spells and enchantments” are in a different language; on the other hand, the “enemies of the Minnipins speak a different language, but the language of the Minnipins themselves is treated as English” (85). These types of comparisons are extremely useful for writers and critics who are searching for patterns regarding good practice in such matters. A novel can slip into racism, or unfair representation if it creates an us-versus-them division between white English-speakers and the “other” foreign aliens who are speaking a made-up nonsense language. Reading about how past writers have approached a problem like this one is very useful for improving future fictions. Theorists also have not approached topics such as this one, choosing instead to repeat the few symbolic or thematic conclusions that past critics have made regarding these fantasies. Another section addresses how “martial virtues” when mishandled can slip into “suggestions of sadism and masochism” (156). Each chapter and paragraph appear to begin with logical opening paragraphs and sentences that guide readers to understand the topic about to be covered instead of clouding comprehension with digressions into irrelevant subjects in these critical moments. The approach to spirituality and theology appears to be objective: this is much better than some books that sound like Christian doctrine or subversively anti one or another of the foreign religions covered. Here is an example: “Spiritism is gradually revealed as a sham religion, its seances and the public pronouncements of its Seers serving as convenient tools in manipulating the populace” (210). It is particularly important for scholarly books about the fantasy genre to achieve this kind of a critical interpretation of fictional religions because mixing “real” religious rhetoric and believes with those propagated in fantasy implies the critic believes the fictions are relating truths, and this is a delusion that taints a critic’s ability to step back and observe the fictitious culture created by the authors.  

The summary presents the book thus: “The modern fantasy novel might hardly seem to need a defence, but its position in contemporary literature in the 1980s was still rather ambivalent. Many post-war writers had produced highly successful fantasy novels, some phenomenal publishing successes had occurred in the field, and an increasing number of universities throughout the English-speaking world now included the literary criticism of fantasy as part of their English Literature courses. None the less some critics and academics condemned the whole genre with a passion that seemed less than objectively critical.” I wrote a book myself in which I analyzed the structure of fantasies, romances, mysteries and other modern popular genres, but while I was attempting to remain objective, I discovered that my hatred for some of these works did include as I read more and more of them and noticed the repetitions of the same plot elements, character types, and even types of facial descriptions between them. But I don’t think these types of flaws are a reason to avoid studying something; if there is horrid literature out there, critics are needed to offer their honest negative opinions. Without negative criticism, authors might not realize that repetition is a fault.

“In this book, originally published in 1984…” Ah, this is interesting: this is a critical classic: this explains why it is better than most of the recent genre-studies I have been reviewing. Also curiously, perhaps there is a correlation between critics ability to be objective regarding this genre and the quality of the texts this earlier period produced; there are few works equivalent to Narnia and Rings across the past couple of decades. “…Dr Ann Swinfen presents a wide-ranging and comprehensive view of fantasy: what it is, what it tries to achieve, what fundamental differences distinguish it from mainstream realist fiction. She concentrates on the three decades from 1945, when a new generation of writers found that Tolkein had made fantasy ‘respectable’.” The blurb stated earlier that critics still don’t find fantasy to be respectable, but this is a hopeful sentiment. “Her approach is thematic, rather than by individual author, and she brings out the profound moral purpose that underlies much modern fantasy, in a wide range of works, both British and American, such as Russell Hoban’s The Mouse and His Child, C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy.”

This book is of interest to a few unique groups of readers. First, modern genre fiction theory classes would be well-served by including it on the syllabus. Second, fantasy writers should read this book or another like it at some point, so they can consider the options of the genre in a compressed theoretical format. Third, book review writers in the fantasy genre would benefit from reading a book like this to enrich their opinions with more diverse perspectives. And finally, given the diverse nature of these groups, libraries of all types internationally should include it in its collections in case somebody in their community finds a use for it.

The Best Film Theory from a Tiny and New Field

Chistopher Kul-Want, Ed. Philosophers on Film from Bergson to Badiou: A Critical Reader. $35. 368pp, 6X9”, paperback. ISBN: 978-0-23117-603-3. New York: Columbia University Press, October 15, 2019.


After writing this set of reviews, I am going to compose a series of essays for my Cinematic Codes Review that analyze the films I have been watching in the last few months. I have written these sets of deeper contemplations previously only once before, in contrast with my and my contributing writers’ shorter reviews. The standard in scholarship is that for something to be an article or an essay rather than a review it has to include citations of what other secondary sources or others scholars have written about the topic one is covering. While it takes a brisk search for the word “Shakespeare” to uncover thousands of scholars’ opinions on the matter, the same search in the same database returns mostly newspaper reviews or cyclical nonsense when a modern filmmaker or film are searched for. The founding philosophical texts in fields such as film studies tend to be much more limited in their citations as the authors are assumed to be knowledgeable enough on the topic to discuss it without referencing every relevant study. In fact, we are reading their work to gather their theoretical conclusions rather than for an overview of the field. The problem with these most often cited film philosophy texts, such as those in this collection, is that they come from between the 1950s and the 1990s, only four decades in comparison with the four centuries scholars have been writing about “Shakespeare”. And by the time “Shakespeare” plays were released, plays as a genre and mode of creation had been around since before the oldest surviving Greek play, The Persians, from 472 BCE, or for two millennia. Critics were repeating the same style and format of criticism regarding the format of the play across this stretch, so parroting these same themes, observations, and critiques sounds to other critics as linguistically fitting for the occasion. In contrast, the movie with claims to be the first ever made is the few seconds of the “Roundhay Garden Scene” from 1888, with the first feature breaking the hour record in 1906, sound being introduced in the 1920s, and color in the 1930s. Since critics do not consider anything written in the past two decades to be worthy of anthologizing, the four decades covered in these pages are the extent of the life of color film when it has been under critical scrutiny, or 1.6% of the time humans have had to ponder about the theater. And most theater criticism has been about the plot and the characters of the textual plays or the political or ideological ideas they represent. Few readers of theater criticism have scene the plays discussed performed, but nearly all readers of popular film criticism have seen the major releases critics are likely to judge as worthy of discussion, and we can pull up the piece under discussion and freeze the frame on the moment being reviewed to consider the validity of the critic’s interpretation. And discussing merely the textual script of the plot and characters in a feature film without observing the artistic design, the actors’ performance, the special effects, and the various other dimensions compressed into cinematographic moments would be absurd. The raw scripts pale in comparison with Renaissance plays as most award-winning films might have a few groans and a few insults on a script page overcrowded with action descriptions. The other crew members being paid to make the movie in the arts, casting, martial arts and the rest are all clamoring for their parts to stand out as award contenders; script writing becomes just another menial task. Renaissance playwriters called themselves servants and indeed they were also mere hacks of the aristocrats and capitalists running the theaters, but while they had access to fireworks, horns and to painting a backdrop, the things the actors would be saying was the central element to draw the attention of the crowd. This need to compress drama into the words in the plays gave critics enormous volumes of brilliant play text that they could merely quote to elicit appreciation from readers of their critical observations. By contrast, if a modern film critic attempts relying mostly on textual evidence from top award-winning films, the resulting criticism would read as if the critic gathered coarse insults and threats from a playground or a construction site and regurgitated them into an essay. Including a visual still barely helps in this regard as first readers are likely to have seen the whole film. Secondly, a still is a black-and-white moment when action is frozen on the imperfections of a shot that is intended to be moving rapidly enough for these flaws not to be observed. Thirdly, if readers have not seen the film, the still might be as illogical and truncated as a random phrase out of a play: the plot and the visuals around it have to be described in detail for it to be understood.

These are the difficulties not only I but all modern film theorists face as they set out to describe the multi-sensory components of cinematic productions. We all need secondary sources to help us push off from a relevant theoretical concept to our contemplations on the subject. Lacking this support, we slump into repeating the plotline or commenting on how mean or nice a character is. This is the gap collections such as this one is intended to fill. The task before the first deployed troops of film philosophers is overwhelming, but the rewards approach zero unless one finds a patron among the filmmakers, but then one’s criticism turns into incoherent puffery in honor of the best-selling films of the year. Academia certainly does not reward the pursuit, as film studies departments tend to be housed in the film schools where they focus on production rather than evaluation, or if they are under the literature umbrella, a university serving 50,000 students might have a single full-time film theory professor, and this guy might have a harder time applying for tenure than his literature rivals as his work is undervalued as reflective of the vapid pop culture.

So we have returned to this particular reader, edited by Christopher Kul-Want, who reports having been given a “term” sabbatical to write the introduction and the opening sections describing and placing in their context each of the pieces included. As I guessed, he teaches MRes Art: Theory and Philosophy at the University of the Arts, London, or for an art school that focuses on film’s visuality rather than on its textuality. His previous project with Columbia was a postmodernist art philosophy reader, and this book is advertised as its “companion”; in other words this book is strongly leaning towards art criticism over literary analysis.

The focus on art explains the inclusion of the first essay in this set “Creative Evolution” by Henri Bergson (1907). While one can find elegant quotes out of this text that make the author sound intellectual and high-minded, most of it is dissecting the simple movement of objects in time on a basic strip of film. If we recall that the first feature film was only released a year earlier, just the fact the little soldiers could be marching on the screen was mind-blowing for Bergson. Leading to sentences such as these: “A thousand incidents arise, which seem to be cut off from those which precede them… Our attention fixes on them because they interest it more, but each of them is borne by the fluid mass of our whole physical existence” (37). Bergson repeats similar ponderings on stuff moving, fleeing, stopping, remembering, and enduring (37-9). Basically, it seems as if Bergson set out to describe everything that comes to mind related to images and motion and he did not edit the irrelevant or repetitive bits out. One can quote some of these in film criticism to give the allusion of being cultured, but unless one is writing about cyclical nonsense or the first silent films, none of this is practically applicable.

The second work included is one I have read a few times in my studies as it can apply to various modern arts and to Marxist economics rather than only to film, Walter Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility” (1935). The introduction of color to film appears to have prompted these speculations that art has been devalued when it can be replicated for the masses. One of the reasons art criticism was historically a chasm away from literary criticism is because works of art before this age of “reproducibility” were mostly stored in private collections of the artists’ patrons or inheritors of patrons. Just as common people were forbidden from wearing more expensive dresses than Elizabeth I, they lacked access to even view the classic works of art we can see via a basic internet search today. The invisibility of art to the public raised its value, and made churches and other places where art was displayed for public consumption appear mystically powerful. The first public art museums became available as early as in the eighteenth century in parallel with the spread of the popularity of printed books. While the demand for quality or for great literature and art remained high among the majority of the population in the years when the world began approaching universal literacy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the introduction of reproducible color film appears to have turned a faucet of cheap, junky but maximized in the death-threat and sex-reward popular culture artifacts. Around the year of this essay’s release, 1935, various other critics began clamoring about art and literature as commodities just like soap. Their social value dropped, so that the best achievements have been rejected from publication or from access to film production because they fail to appeal to all of humanity’s lowest class, which critics have been assuming wants what the barely-literate are capable of comprehending. Instead of literature and art challenging readers and viewers to improve their comprehension, the growth of mega corporations selling mass-produced art, film and literature has meant that it is easier for them to produce and sell products that reproduce last year’s fictional formulas rather than promoting the invention of original compositions in any of the genres they monopolize. While Elizabethan playwriters also plagiarized each other, repeated the same “author plot” lines, or had to write within the prescriptions of the comic and tragic genres, they managed to compress intricate wisdom into a few theatrical hours. But an average modern action movie or a family drama outpaces these by miles in terms of unoriginality and repetition as identical plots and dialogue lines are repeated with only the actors or talking-heads changing, and even these actors keep re-appearing because of their puffed-up “fame”. But to return to Benjamin’s essay: he blames all this on the “capitalist mode of production”, which is causing the “exploitation of the proletariat” forced to produce “art under the present conditions of production”. Art is said to be capable of manipulating “the political struggle”. But under capitalism the “traditional concepts – such as creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery…” now “allow factual material to be manipulated in the interests of fascism” (51-2). While this appears to be as pessimistic as a critic can sink, the conclusion dives lower: “Its self-alienation has reached the point where it can experience its own annihilation as a supreme aesthetic pleasure. Such is the aestheticizing of politics, as practiced by fascism. Communism replies by politicizing art” (71). When these sentences are reviewed with detachment, they are really saying that both fascism and communism equally employ art in propaganda to convince the public through subversive means of their ideologies. In other words, capitalisms utilization of all art forms for the pure pursuit of monetary reward via payments from the viewing masses, is contrasted with the political capital being sought by communists and fascists. While we might imagine that capitalism has won in our modern western world, the utilization of art in propaganda for left (communist) and right (fascist in the extreme) leaning causes has remained as dominant in cultural production as it was in Medieval times when fictional fairy tales about witches helped to convince the public to burn independent women. Instead of making any of these points, Benjamin hides behind suicidal pessimism, as if this gloom will prevent readers from the desire to change both the utilization of art for the sake of propaganda and for pure capitalist gain into a return to valuing above the rest “creativity and genius” and the “mystery” that comes with anti-formulaic or innovative artistic creations. All of the essays in this collection inspire a desire to write criticism in me, but not because of their mastery, but rather because of how little ground they cover in a field that demands critical attention.

The publisher summarizes this project as: “an anthology of writings on cinema and film by many of the major thinkers in continental philosophy. The book presents a selection of fundamental texts” with a note “that places the philosophers within a historical and intellectual framework of aesthetic and social thought. Encompassing a range of intellectual traditions – Marxism, phenomenology, psychoanalysis, poststructuralism, gender and affect theories – this critical reader features writings by Bergson, Benjamin, Adorno and Horkheimer, Merleau-Ponty, Baudrillard, Irigaray, Lyotard, Deleuze, Kristeva, Agamben, Nancy, Cavell, Ranciere, Badiou, Stiegler, and Silverman. Many of the texts discuss cinema as a mass medium; others develop phenomenological analyses of particular films. Reflecting upon the potential of films to challenge dominant forms of ideology, the anthology considers the ways in which they can disrupt the clichés of capitalist images and offer radical possibilities for creating new worlds of visceral experience outside the grasp of habitual forms of knowledge and subjectivity.” The blurb writer appears to have fallen asleep at this point; I sympathize after a day of cleaning shopping; but I still have the energy to object. The phrase “reflection upon…. ideology” or the like is very common in criticism; it suggests a casual and digressive pondering, and this is not a good sign for readers. On top of this, the idea that films might or might not be capable of toppling ideology returns to the question I mentioned earlier regarding propaganda art and its capacity to convince the public better than rhetorical speeches; art’s “potential” to be misused by propagandists is not in question though; art has definitely been utilized in propaganda campaigns since before Greco-Roman times; the statues of ruling tyrants and pharaohs that dominated the ancient world were patronized or sponsored by these rulers or their dynastic families as part of their propaganda campaigns. And all of the award-winners and popular films since the genre’s inception has been riddled in the language of clichés and sponsored or created by corporations that are the winners of the capitalist game; most of these films include ads for foods, equipment and other items these corporations are also selling; thus, no films discussed in this collection are capable of disrupting capitalism; they are its propagandistic products. And then the writer claims that the world’s popular films offer animalistic narratives instead of the prior text- and knowledge-based modes of expression? This is true, but the rest of that part of the sentence proposes that this type of body-over-mind victory is “radical”; this would only be the case if it is radical for humans to devolve into apes, eventually losing our ability to speak in a new object-full world. “Ranging from the early silent period of cinema through the classics of European and Hollywood cinema to the early twenty-first century, the films discussed offer a vivid sense of these philosophers’ concepts and ideas, casting new light on the history of cinema.”

I predict that this book will be adopted by most of the film theory classes out there, and this is rightly so, as it is one of the best collections I have seen so far. I will examine its contents more closely when I will write the CCR essays.

Insulting, Troubling and Unfocused Philosophy for or against Asexuality

Ela Przybylo. Asexual Erotics: Intimate Readings of Compulsory Sexuality. 198pp, 6X9”, paperback. ISBN: 978-0-8142-5542-1. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2019.


When I was running for Mayor of Quanah, Texas some months ago, I discovered that all of my competitors listed being in a marriage with children under the obligatory question regarding family asked by the town newspaper. Every time I enter a conversation with a group of people, I am inevitably asked about my familial or sexual ties. For example, I was once in a writing group, pitching my publishing services, and the entire group took a break from their meal and authorial concerns to grill me regarding the reasons for my anti-sexuality and complete lack of friendship and familial connections. One of them said in response to my insistence I have found sex to be repelling and disgusting that “It’s warm!” This is a nicer way of putting it, but I think I have heard every insult listed on page 9 of this book in a cartoon full of “denial narratives”, such as, “So what you’re saying is that you’re gay, you just don’t want to admit it.” It is possible that I have never seen an American film that did not include some reference to sexual or family relationships. This suggests to me that men control nearly all filmmaking and this is a sign they cannot stop thinking about sex. It is pretty natural for the females of various species in the wild to not pursue sex, but rather to be “receptive” once a year or the like; being not into sex is the normal female condition as far as I can tell. And yet I have never questioned with deep concern or ridicule why these women I am meeting are seriously signing up to be penetrated daily without procreational aims across most of this stretch. Even Thoreau, a man, needed a couple of years to live in the woods alone to find equilibrium and time to write his masterpiece. While it would be extremely comforting to find in these pages some theoretical or philosophical logically described sympathy, the inclusion of this insult cartoon and several photographs of “lesbian” beds jointly suggests the author is echoing the cartoonish “you must be a lesbian” insult in sections that compare lesbian relationships to asexuality. Most of the chapter titles are similarly troubling. “Lesbian Bed Death…: An Erotics of Failure” suggests asexual women suffer from the loss of sex, a pursuit assumed to be a sign of the “good life” one that is “coupled and reproductive” (64). Masturbation with erotic modern toys is far more likely to lead to a positive and prompt conclusion for a woman: so it is likely an anti-sexual woman like me might reach these conclusions with more frequency than married women that have to expand energy on satisfying husbands who do not believe or want their spouses to climax. The percentage of women dying in child birth in America is rapidly climbing; at 38, I would be putting my life in danger if I now attempted an AMA pregnancy. These types of arguments are not presented in this book, which is focused on repeating the insults I hear enough of in casual chats with ignorant people in America. “Growing into Asexuality: The Queen Erotics of Childhood” begins with an anecdote of an insensitive joke the author made regarding her nieces behind being exposed to other children; she argues that offense was taken at this joke because she is “queer” rather than because referring to it as “moon rising in the sky” actually offended the parties in question. From here she covers topics such as this child’s desexualization and subjecthood, as the bum is called “a site of the child’s pleasure”. Then she spends most of the chapter on summarizing Freudian ideas on sexuality, and then covers Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts to question what “an asexual development narrative looks like” and how to make it “tangible without desexualizing childhood” (89-99). Perhaps because I covered modern slave narratives in one of the books in this set of reviews, all of this is extremely troublesome from my perspective. The US defines a “child” as anybody under the age of 21. Without specifying a different age-range, this chapter is referring to some “children” who are in college and perhaps might already be married with a child since they gained the right to do so several years earlier. And if she intended to refer to prepubescent children, their sexualization by adults or their fellow playmates is a form of criminal pedophilia. Even consensual sex at this age is illegal, be it homosexual or heterosexual. Thus, by these legal definitions, prepubescent children are obligated to remain asexual until they leave this protected age. The discussion regarding illegal-aged children experiencing sexualized “pleasure” regarding their bodies or in interactions with others might have been appropriate a century ago when Freud recorded his ponderings, but America has enough problems with sexual abuse across all age groups, that it is really in all of our best interests to desexualize childhood, even if we have to require girls to cover all of their skin to remain safe from tempting moon-gazers. “Erotics of Excess and the Aging Spinster” argues that rather than older adults losing interest in sex, they are “willed into nonsexuality” (113). I have seen similar arguments in many TV programs, which tend to propose that older men and women have desires as well that they need to explore by pursuing sexual relationships. This approach helps corporations sell drugs to impotent men to keep them physically capable of performing the sexual act, but does it really help the elderly, many of whom catch sexually transmitted diseases in these sexualized nursing homes at a time in their lives when a small infection can lead to serious medical complications? At some points of the chapter, the author seems to be supporting the asexual choices of the characters she describes, but she still describes a friendship between women without sexual interest as an “asexual perversion” that is viewed as an “inability and unwillingness to conform” to the normalcy of capitalist work or a “hetero-coupled formation” (135). Perhaps because the author mostly talks in the first person when she describes stories that happened and refrains from stating her exact position on these theoretical conflicts, the reader is left confused regarding where the narrator stands; she keeps repeating that she is queer, but not that she is asexual, leaving the likely possibility that she resents asexuals because she is lumped with them if she fails to self-sexualize. Something is wrong with the way this book has been handled, but the lack of clarity throughout is preventing me from spotting what it is.   

The publisher’s summary: “Challenging what she sees as an obsession with sex and sexuality, Ela Przybylo examines the silence around asexuality in queer, feminist, and lesbian thinking—turning to Audre Lorde’s work on erotics to propose instead an approach she calls asexual erotics, an alternative language for discussing forms of intimacy that are not reducible to sex and sexuality.” She does not achieve this goal in the bulk of this book though; in the examples I cite, there is a note regarding female intimacy of friendship, but most of the text is describing alternatives of sexualization. “Beginning with the late 1960s as a time when compulsory sexuality intensified and became increasingly tied to feminist, lesbian, and queer notions of empowerment, politics, and subjectivity, Przybylo looks to feminist political celibacy/asexuality, lesbian bed death, the asexual queer child, and the aging spinster as four figures that are asexually resonant and which benefit from an asexual reading—that is, from being read in an asexually affirming rather than asexually skeptical manner.” But her discussion of the moon-baring child refers to children having a right to be sexual? Perhaps this point can still be made if she returns to re-write this book to offer direct and clear opening paragraphs and sentences that offer her intentions.

“Through a wide-ranging analysis of pivotal queer, feminist, and anti-racist movements; television and film; art and photography; and fiction, nonfiction, and theoretical texts, each chapter explores asexual erotics and demonstrates how asexuality has been vital to the formulation of intimate ways of knowing and being. Asexual Erotics assembles a compendium of asexual possibilities that speaks against the centralization of sex and sexuality, asking that we consider the ways in which compulsory sexuality is detrimental not only to asexual and nonsexual people but to all.” Reading over her conclusion, I think I understand where this book went wrong. Przybylo jumps from one quote or summary of a text to the next without tying these points together into a coherent whole. When she does not frame portions of these reflections as referring to specific characters and how authors have handled these subjects badly she appears to be inhabiting a hatred for asexuals herself as she makes hateful statements in this regard, even if they are intended to be things the authors she is ridiculing are saying. I would like to read a great book on asexuality in the future, but this one is not going to help the matter. If the problem is ignorance, confusing the ignorant will not decrease their hatred.

The Pressure to Taste Baijiu Again: Bullying Co-Workers and World Markets

Derek Sandhaus. Drunk in China: Baijiu and the World’s Oldest Drinking Culture. $29.95. 320pp, 6X9”, 1 timeline, 1 appendix, 1 map, hardback. ISBN: 978-1-64012-097-6. Lincoln: Nebraska University Press, November 1, 2019.


When I spent a semester teaching at Shantou University in China, I became extremely ill and eventually had to resign. One of the most difficult things to do while I was this ill was going on a required mountain-climbing expedition followed by a night spent at a motel. I was feeling so bad there that I did something uncharacteristic and purchased a few bottles of alcohol, all of which I tossed out prior to leaving the motel except for the couple of shot glasses I managed to drink. At the obligatory communal dinner that evening the table was stalked with Baijiu, a distilled grain sorghum-based traditional Chinese drink. My supervisor pressured me to try it despite my preference to drink a sweet beverage I had not tossed yet. After trying it, and being questioned on my opinion on it, I had to confess it was as if somebody had started to but failed to finish distilling vodka. I might have only had alcohol once in the six years since leaving China, so this is a vivid memory. I probably requested this book right after I reviewed a TV series about a man who travels around the world in search for unusual alcoholic drinking beverages and cultures; he did a great job selling the distinctions between seemingly similar variations on fermentation, so I have been curious to learn more regarding what people drink internationally and how these are prepared.

The opening “Notes on Language” section explains that the term “baijiu”, after which this book is titled, refers to “white alcohol” or “spirits”. The types of this colorless liquor are divided into categories by their “xiang xing” or their “aroma style”; if there was an aroma to the beverage that I tried it was soapy, so this is mysterious. The “Time Line of Alcohol in China” shows that the “oldest known alcoholic beverage” was “created “at the Jiahu settlement near the Yellow River” in 7000 BCE. This line does not specify if this is the oldest beverage across the world or just in China, but an online search demonstrates that this is a world record. This alcohol was rice mead: if the type is known in some sources, it is strange that this is not included to help readers. Signs of mead in India were found in 4,000 BCE followed by Hebrew wine in the following few hundred years. The 3000-year gap is pretty unusual in world culture that tends to spread more rapidly, but China’s vast geography and the mountains blocking easy entrance to India might have caused this break. According to the timeline, distillation was invented in the eight century in the Middle East. Distillers in China created the “modern-day” equivalent version of baijiu between 1338-1644. The last date on the list is 2012: “Xi Jinping assumes leadership and enacts anticorruption measures, barring government officials from excessive alcohol spending with public funds.” The entire trip to the mountains and the housing of a hundred university employees in a hotel as well as the provision of alcohol at the tables in 2012-3 that I observed seems to contradict this rule. Curiously, the “Introduction” begins with the recounting of the author drinking baijiu with English teachers in Shanghai in an echoing celebration-meeting to my own experience (1). Derek’s experience was much more positive than my own: for example, he records “a biting, fragrant aroma.” He explains this is the world’s most popular drink: I am guessing part of its popularity is in the propaganda for it from the Communist Party that controls the world’s most populous country with 1.4 billion residents. Derek confirms this assumption as he writes that “99 percent” of this drink’s sales are made in China. Just like chop sticks, folks are ridiculed for not blending in if they fail to state they like baijiu. Derek ends this story thus: “If I never tasted baijiu again, it would be too soon” (3). But he clearly did taste it again, as he has composed this entire book about it. Then again, later in the book he describes a day writing a “speech about protecting the environment for an oil executive” that made him long for “an honest day’s work promoting smooth and healthful U.S. tobacco” (29). While this is pretty digressive, other sections describe the link between “monkey beer” and earliest Chinese drinking cultures, and the science of fermentation (46). Then in the middle of another page, there is a note that “nineteenth-century liquor sellers in Beijing were notorious for cutting their products with arsenic and pigeon dung” (81). Given how sick I became while in residence in China, these types of practices might still be around and not just when it comes to liquor. Then, it seems Derek explains that while he never wanted to drink baijiu again, he was forced into it because in China the “strength” of “the compulsion to drink” by peer pressure or bosses beyond the point that “is necessary or desirable” is more intense than elsewhere in the world (187). My open criticism in 2012-3 of baijiu might have made an indirect impact, as in 2014, a U.S. corporation was allowed for the first time to create a “flavored” rink “for nightclubs” with baijiu. The government also “began drafting more stringent quality standards to allay customer health concerns” (256). The final words in the book digress into enlightenment and alcohol as a mirror to the self as the author appears to have imbibed a celebratory drink for the conclusion of this writing venture (260-1). While this book is difficult to pinpoint given the diversity of topics covered without a clear organization, all of it presents curious information that explains Chinese drinking culture and business to the rest of the world.  

The publisher’s summary: “China is one of the world’s leading producers and consumers of liquor, with alcohol infusing all aspects of its culture, from religion and literature to business and warfare. Yet to the outside world, China’s most famous spirit, baijiu, remains a mystery. This is about to change, as baijiu is now being served in cocktail bars beyond its borders…” This is “Derek Sandhaus’s journey of discovery into the world’s oldest drinking culture. He travels throughout the country and around the globe to meet with distillers, brewers, snake-oil salesmen, archaeologists, and ordinary drinkers. He examines the many ways in which alcohol has shaped Chinese society and its rituals. He visits production floors, karaoke parlors, hotpot joints, and speakeasies. Along the way he uncovers a tradition spanning more than nine thousand years and explores how recent economic and political developments have conspired to push Chinese alcohol beyond the nation’s borders for the first time. As Chinese society becomes increasingly international, its drinking culture must also adapt to the times.”

This book should be particularly useful to westerners taking jobs in China. It is important to read a book like this prior to departing to minimize the culture-shock. While immunizations and basic culture guides might also help, this offers deeper insights into the strange elements that might lead to brisk departures, like my own. Perhaps if I was aware of these elements, I would have known to say “no” to the job to begin with, saving the culture and me a lot of grief and money. Those who study the science or the culture of alcohol should also benefit, though they would have to work through the more general ponderings to access the relevant facts.   

The Blinding Corruption of Warfare by Fictitious Terrors

Peter C. Herman. Unspeakable: Literature and Terrorism from the Gunpowder Plot to 9/11. 212pp, 6X9”, hardback. ISBN: 978-0-367-24897-0. New York: Routledge, 2019.


My PhD dissertation was on the rebellion genre in British nineteenth century literature. I discovered that I had to distinguish between categories within this genre, but then found it difficult to place texts within these categories. The basic problem in this regard is that a country’s history tends to name the same types of acts committed by enemies, terrorism, whereas their own equivalent acts are labeled warfare, defense, rebellion, revolution or other words with positive conations. For example, the American Revolution might have looked like a series of terrorist acts to Britain. Imagine if Texas began fighting a war against the rest of the country for separation. The Civil War is an example of another attempted separation, but because it failed the side that attempted separation is portrayed as a villain. Not that they weren’t, but did they have a right to expect to be granted independence if the whole country could attain this “right”? Slavery as the reason for the separation has become the main cultural meaning of this conflict, but was it really the impetus for the war when the fighting started? Meanwhile, American troops have assassinated or bombed the complexes of thousands of Middle Eastern leaders who we either investigated and found to be guilty of violations, or that happened to be in hot locations suitable to be targeted. The release of the surveillance tape of neutral journalists being shot from an American drone as the American soldiers say to each other they don’t know who these guys are, and then laughing as they die is an example of far more questionable moral terrorist middle-ground. Shooting unarmed civilian journalists indiscriminately is as much an act of terrorism as any jihadist entering a crowded space with a suicide vast; in fact, the latter is a morally less troublesome act as the killer barriers the guilt of the act by taking his or her own life. All current empires, including United Kingdom and America, have survived countless rebellions and terrorist acts to maintain power. Calling enemies “terrorists” or treasonous has allowed these giants to execute rivals to avoid overthrows. In contrast, several countries across the world have seen successful coup d’états that overturned their ruling structures, including the long-lasting Russian and Chinese revolutions and subsequent communist regimes, or the brisker and less impactful coups in Oman, Uganda, Tajikistan, Cambodia, Congo, Fiji, Egypt, Thailand, Yemen and Zimbabwe, where the winners still rule today. The west has accepted some of these overthrows as pro-democratic, while others are ruled as terroristic without a measurable standard of distinction; all coups involve some violence during the overthrow, and most lead to the military commander in charge of the battles to take the reins of the new government (be it “democratic” or authoritarian). The vocabulary one uses to distinguish between these political events does only impact a country’s humanitarian aid or trade relations, but also humanity’s definitions of human rights and justice.

Within this context, this book’s title labels both the Gunpowder Plot and 9/11 as “terrorism”. The reference to the Gunpowder Plot sent me on these ponderings because I am currently exploring this event in my “Shakespeare” project. My linguistic research demonstrated that Dyer composed texts on both sides of the Marprelate debate regarding religious doctrines in Britain, including Almond Parrot (1590), and he was also responsible for writing the James I-signed Daemonologie (1597) against witches or rather independent women. Historians have long suspected that Robert Cecil was responsible both for provoking and discovering the Gunpowder Plot in 1605. Since Cecil’s letters also match the Dyer linguistic signature, it is a near-certainty that Dyer did design the plot and then shifted blame onto Robert Catesby in other Catholics pursued for this Plot against James I. If Dyer convinced a group of religious zealots to collect gunpowder due to threats that he himself composed against Catholics, and then turned them in prior to the action, subsequently watching these rebels be hunted down as he retained power with James I, who is the “terrorist” in this plot?    

Returning to the book in question. Here is its proposed plot: “explores the representation of terrorism in plays, novels, and films across the centuries. Time and time again, writers and filmmakers including William Shakespeare, Joseph Conrad, Henry James, Gillo Pontecorvo, Don DeLillo, John Updike, and Steven Spielberg refer to terrorist acts as beyond comprehension, ‘a deed without a name,’ but they do not stop there. Instead of creating works that respond to terrorism by providing comforting narratives reassuring audiences and readers of their moral superiority and the perfidy of the terrorists, these writers and filmmakers confront the unspeakable by attempting to see the world from the terrorist’s perspective and by examining the roots of terrorist violence.

The manner in which terrorism is handled in literature has been under censorship since long before “Shakespeare’s” time. For example, Sir Thomas More, a manuscript of a play attributed to Munday, was never performed because censors barred it due to its sympathetic depiction of a rebel or terrorist. By choosing to focus on plays such as Macbeth, with minimum rebellious content, over plays such as More, categorized as subversive, the author of this study, Peter C. Herman, is siding with propagandists’ political agenda regarding suppressing descent by portraying rebellion in a negative light in fiction. Furthermore, my describing terrorism as “unspeakable” or “beyond comprehension”, Herman hits at the central element that separates successful revolutions from failed rebellions or terrorist acts. Nationalist historians are paid to come up with explanations to support a winning revolutionary’s political agenda with puffery. In contrast, the losing side of a minor rebellion is either entirely decimated, leaving nobody to explain what it was trying to do, or its manifestos and the like are destroyed or censored from public consumption as treasonous. I have reviewed several books that similarly suggest terrorist acts are indescribably and unexplainable, but such generalities do not belong in scholarship. Why write a book on a topic where there is a gap in knowledge? The latter part of the blurb clashes with the title and the first part, as it proclaims the book will attempt to see these terrorist acts from these terrorists’ perspective. While historians can leave out a terrorist’s characteristics and motives, a fiction writer presenting a terrorist on the page or on the screen has to give this individual some dimensionality unless it is vapid action film, where the terrorists are killed indiscriminately and without dialogue.

Dyer created work for himself and his spy-network, including ghostwriters and crooks who tempted the innocent into crime. This group’s profits are microscopic when they are compared with how much money American contractors have made on the War of Terror in the past two decades: fabricating a thrilling fiction of enemies lurking abroad has been granted $38.2 billion by Obama in 2015 and $47.5 billion by Trump in 2019. When, as Herman’s introduction states, the FBI’s website states its “highest priority” is “not domestic crime”, but rather “terrorism”, in reality, this means that human slavery, murder, rape and all other national statistics indicative of extreme desperation have been climbing without any serious attempts by the nation’s bureau designed for such investigations to stop them (1). I have made complaints to the FBI a few times myself, and have never seen them attempt to lift a finger towards a resolution. The FBI is in the US. They have no authorization to work outside of it. So, they have to say they are hunting terrorists within the US; but if it is rare to find somebody so outraged with a country as to commit acts of terror, they have had to improvise by accusing the innocent through self-invented evidence. This is similar to interpreting the storage of files as espionage, as in the Chi case I discussed in the earlier CIA book review. According to the Washington Examiner, the US alone (with the rest of the world also making significant contributions) has spent $5.4 trillion so far up through 2019 on post-9/11 conflicts; this number is over a fourth of U.S. total $20 trillion gross domestic product. If there is indeed a similarity between the Gunpowder Plot and this War on Terror… contractors who are likely to be manipulating the War on Terror to be as endless as possible have robbed the U.S. taxpayers of nearly all of its tax investment, so much so that America has just cancelled its food stamps program for those who cannot find employment, condemning the poor not merely to homelessness and impoverishment, but to death from starvation. While those in the military are receiving some of these funds in return for their service, they make up a significant portion of America’s capable population, who might have started businesses or otherwise contributed to growing the economy if they had not been sent into conflict.

Herman argues that the “first act” to reach the level of “unspeakability” worthy to be called “terrorism” because of how dramatic or surprisingly horrifying the scheme was is the Gunpowder Plot. If this is a correct assessment, the element Gunpowder and the current Warn on Terrorism have in common is their fictitious fabrication. As Herman points out, there were plenty of assassinations, and overthrows of British monarchs prior to this point. The change at this juncture was that the propaganda campaign led by Dyer invented a racket that forced rulers to pay them trillions in ransom for a war they were imagining to prevent future terrors rather than to fight ongoing conflict. Terrorizing a monarch with invented assassination plots can increase a spy agency’s budget that is dispersed by this monarch; meanwhile, terrorizing the public with dramatic terrorist schemes can allow thieves to eventually escape with the entire GDP. Since when one examines what “terrorism” means one comes up with the type of logic I am presenting, historically tyrants have escaped being labeled terrorists by banning free speech. It appears the effort to prevent an outcry in the US required a quarter of the GDP so far, but this volume of stolen loot has succeeded in reinserting Medieval laws against treason via speech that has sent some “suspected” but unproven “terrorists” into decades of incarceration. As Herman writes and quotes from 1970s political theorists, Zulaika and Douglass: “Considering the terrorist point of view is literally ‘forbidden… There must be no common ground between terrorist Unreason and political reason.’” Herman then explains that Conor Cruise O’Brien refused to “understand” the IRA because “‘know thine enemy’ may be a first stage in giving in to him’”. Herman argues similar “examples” are to be found in the War on Terror (7). In the Macbeth section, Herman clarifies that in this play’s plot, Macbeth has no political motive, “just nihilistic will to power”, echoing James I’s policy of refusing to discuss the desperate motivations for the Gunpowder Plot in the execution or exclusion from public participation of Catholics prior to its enaction (23). My linguistic testing indicated Macbeth was written by Munday, who had been accused of writing the more directly rebellious More even though he was not actually the dominant author on that project (it falling to Drayton). Herman summarizes that most “literary treatments of the Gunpowder Plot”, similarly to recent post-9/11 cultural representations, “tended toward mindless patriotism rather than intelligent complexity”, naming “Thomas Dekker’s The Whore of Babylon, Barnabe Barnes’ The Devil’s Charter, and Milton’s Gunpowder Plot poems as examples of “demonizing” of Catholicism and the remand for revenge (29). My tests of Dekker’s style proved it to match Samuel Daniel’s, one of the seven main ghostwriters in this period; this suggests that just as Dyer’s double-sided ghostwriting was intentional propaganda to stir conflict, these other depictions of Catholics as inhuman were also carefully plotted pro-Protestant and anti-Catholic creations, rather than spontaneous portrayals that happened to favor the government’s preferred narrative regarding the Gunpowder Plot.

While at first this book appeared chaotic and counter to observable reality, upon closer examination it succeeds in describing the problem with the current anti-intellectual approach to studying or rather to blindly fighting terrorism. If the world is going to sacrifice the likely starvation of its poor, we all need to invest a portion of all this to understanding the enemy. Negotiation and conflict resolution would be possible if extreme corruption was not benefiting from endlessly building unspeakable terrifying enemies.

An “Uneducated Leader” Cannot Govern Themselves

Plutarch. How to Be a Leader: An Ancient Guide to Wise Leadership. $16.95. 416pp, 4.5X6.75”, hardback. ISBN: 978-0691192116. Princeton: Princeton University Press, November 5, 2019.


The first thing that stands out about this book are the two other texts included in this collection aside for the one the book is titled after: “To an Uneducated Leader” and “Should an Old Man Engage in Politics?” While the main essay sounds inspiring, these two seem more useful for our modern leadership vacuum. The introduction to the first of these essays from the editor restates a note from the previous book in this review set regarding terrorism. Plutarch admonishes those who jump into leadership merely to “exercise power”, viewing such leaders “as insecure and afraid of the people they govern. Educated leaders, conversely, are primarily concerned with the welfare of their constituents, even at the expense of their own power or safety” (1). Elizabeth I and James I need for ghostwriters and advisors was an outcome of their gaps in education; the same lack allowed Dyer to persuade them of invisible enemies including witches and religious zealots. If they were capable of independent research and writing, they would have uncovered Dyer’s deceptions, but instead he stressed that they were retaining power as proof of his strategy’s success. Our current world has become so corrupt that we have had uneducated puppets at the helm even when they purchased degrees from Ivy League universities that appeared to reflect an education. Plutarch argues that by “letting go of the excessive and absolute character of his office, he escaped envy and so avoided danger” (7). If “Reason” guides a leader, he or she can avoid rebellion by sharing power and wealth to help the greater good; but if “paranoia” or terror guides actions, the leader attacks friends and foes alike to instill fear of tyrannical power in others. It is mesmerizing that Plutarch makes these direct accusations against foolish leaders thousands of years ago, and just the other day I heard Republican politicians saying that the FBI calling Trump stupid in the communications means they are biased and their investigation cannot be trusted. If investigators call a leader idiotic after a close analysis of the facts: only seeing the same idiocy in yourself can prevent a politician from conferring. Plutarch stresses that “most leaders” think “that the greatest benefit in governing is the freedom from being governed themselves”, but the “ungoverned” cannot “govern” (12-3). Then, Plutarch explains how Reason is a type of god that guides great leaders by instructing them on what is logical as well as what is moral. In contrast, he concludes the piece by explaining that it is “impossible for vices to go unnoticed when people hold positions of power…. Fortune… after elevating uneducated and unlearned people to even slight prominence through some wealth or glory or political office, immediately makes a show of their downfall” (37). The increase of corruption cases across America is a reflection of this growing stupidity at the top because the fame that comes with power draws the attention of scholars or reporters who describe these vices for a living. Trump has been suffering from this “downfall” since shortly after he inherited his wealth and then promptly mis-invested it; he has just been surviving despite constant descent to new levels of depravity and misery by unprecedented levels of corruption, including financial and electoral fraud. The statement that “presidents are not kings” echoing in the press lately is particularly suitable because while a tyrant can attempt to retain power by increasingly psychotic murderous reign, a president will leave office in no more than eight years, and at that point he or she would be facing the death penalty or life in prison if his belief in his own “freedom from being governed” exceeded the limits of the written law.

The second of these curiously titled essays is referring to men who are over fifty, and answers in the affirmative that they make particularly good leaders because of their wisdom and a great interest in the needs of the people they govern (191-3). The fifty cut-off point is very different to our current election where all of the top runners are in their seventies; while the average lifespan has increased so that this is now the point where we consider the cut off for a man to be “old”, the capacity of men over fifty versus over seventy to perform logical tasks has remained significantly different, so that Plutarch might have adjusted his essay to exclude the senile…

The central essay in this collection is a lecture addressed to Plutarch’s student, Menemachus, at the start of this political career, but unwilling as Plutarch was advising to “apprentice to an experienced leader” for guidance; instead, Plutarch decided to offer examples from several good leaders in this essay that Menemachus might read to learn similar lessons in a more expedited timeframe and without having to serve under another. “Topics… discussed include personal integrity, the importance of friendships, how best to persuade one’s fellow citizens, how not to provoke one’s superiors, and the dangers inherent in rivalry and envy” (41-2). Plutarch warns against entering “public affairs as a money-making occupation”: a good lesson for Trump’s continuing attempts to divert government funds to his private businesses (51). Plutarch also stresses that “those who create personas for themselves to enter political contests and early glory, as actors do for the theater, are guaranteed to suffer a change of heat, either because they have become enslaved to the people they thought they would rule, or because they have clashed with the people they wished to please” (53). Trump has managed to climb into his deep well via this type of theatrical acting. My research into “Shakespeare’s” and Defoe’s” ghostwriters demonstrates how the separation between the logical thinkers drafting the words a ruler is saying (similarly to Trump’s ghostwritten books) and the actor dressed as a ruler who delivers these speeches creates a fatal flaw when the actor goes off-script and acts like him or her self; for example, after Dyer’s death Playfere appeared to go insane as he was no longer capable of delivering logical sermons, but this madness was the result of his loss of the ghostwriter who had been feeding his content. And in the eighteenth century, my “Defoe” study uncovered that Curll got his government-agent patron fired by the Queen in part because he composed scathing reports regarding a court lady’s overspending without realizing that his patron had been spending still more irresponsibly and was also a womanizer and a drunkard; if the two were one and the same, the critical note either would not have been written, or he would not have been overspending, and both of these outcomes might have helped to maintain power.

According to the publisher, this collection is by and about the “ancient biographer and essayist Plutarch”, who wrote more extensively on “the leadership qualities of the eminent Greeks and Romans he profiled in his famous—and massive—Lives, including politicians and generals such as Pericles, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Mark Antony. Luckily for us, Plutarch distilled what he learned about wise leadership in a handful of essays, which are filled with essential lessons for experienced and aspiring leaders in any field today… Plutarch explains the characteristics of successful leaders, from being guided by reason and exercising self-control to being free from envy and the love of power, illustrating his points with memorable examples drawn from legendary Greco-Roman lives. He also explains how to train for leadership, persuade and deal with colleagues, manage one’s career, and much more.”

Having gradually read philosophy since high school, these ideas seem very familiar, but perhaps my love of knowledge in this regard is not shared by the majority of modern leaders. But if these leaders are inheriting a fictitious War on Terror that has killed over 800,000 people directly and around 3.1 million indirectly according to a 2019 Brown University study, a reasonable leader would stand in direct opposition to the interests of those involved in this and other corruptions. WWII, the deadliest conflict on earth yet killed 70-85 million, but this total was split between the warring countries, whereas the War of Terror has only claimed around 6,797 American soldier casualties or .2%. An equivalent might be if after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and after all of the forces on the other side officially surrendered, the US kept killing millions because while they were continuing this killing a few of their own soldiers were being retaliated against by those afraid for their lives. There was much more to be terrorized by in the Nazi’s indiscriminate murders in concentration camps, so why did the U.S. stop being afraid of a Nazi resurgence enough to stop active warfare? Whereas Germany was shortchanged in land and resources after WWI (this being blamed for its entrance into WWII), it was fairly dealt with in WWII; so, if we look at this conflict with reason, what is preventing a similarly peaceful end to warfare in these new wars. Only absolute corruption explains the stubbornness of condemnation of the “other” without “understanding”. Well, Plutarch has helped me understand our modern politics a bit better, so perhaps he will have individual lessons to teach all students who approach him for free lectures despite the timing of his death.

Spontaneous Mass Silence: The Omission of Censorship from the Critical Narrative

Elizabeth Outka. Viral Modernism: The Influenza Pandemic and Interwar Literature. $35. 344pp, 6X9”, paperback. ISBN: 978-0-231-18575-2. New York: Columbia University Press, October 22, 2019.


This book begins with the factual omission of the 1918-9 influenza pandemic that killed 50-100 million people globally; despite the extraordinary power of this event and the direct impact it had on the writers it killed and damaged, this disease is not mentioned in a significant way at all in modernist literature of the period. In particular, Elizabeth Outka writes: “D. H. Lawrence, Katherine Anne Porter, the poet H. D., and Edvard Munch barely survived; W. B Yeats nursed his pregnant wife through her almost fatal brush with the virus… Thomas Wolfe lost his brother, T. S. Eliot feared his brain was damaged by his case of the flu…” (1). Outka searches for symbolic or hidden clues of allusions to this pandemic in the “fragmentation and disorder” that emerges “as signs of delirium as well as shrapnel; invasions become ones of microbes and not only men; postwar ennui reveals a brooding fear of an invisible enemy” (3). The chapters focus on a few of these directly affected authors including Porter, Thomas and Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, and W. B. Yeats. The themes covered are on the rise of the dead, the apocalypse, the wasted landscape, illness and warfare. The obvious reason for a lack of texts about a disaster that struck every professional writer on this list is government and publishing-level censorship that rejected works about the outbreak from being accepted for publication or from distribution. In fact, this list of impacted and reviewed writers matches a list of modernism’s earliest and best-known or canonized leaders. I have recently been pondering regarding the nonsensical nature of strains of modern and post-modern literature and criticism; perhaps Outka is onto something here; the cyclical digressions into random topics that flee away from describing the world as it is and instead confuse readers with symbols-layered-on-symbols might be the result of a major censorship campaign that encouraged writers that it was better to write about nothing or something that summed up to nothing rather than describing how incapable human governments were at controlling extreme disasters. An equivalent case might be if the plague returned to the world today and killed a similar quantity of people; the government would either have to admit its incompetence or wage a disinformation campaign; the only difference would be the capacity of citizens to voice their opinions on social media, but the overload of information on these platforms makes it difficult to spot the truth. Nearly all of the writers who suffered in WWI and II wrote about their experiences, so these same writers silence on an epidemic suggests a public relations reason for abstaining rather than a communal psychosis that forced all of them to repress their memories of the event. As this book stands, it reviews the modernist movement and attempts to skew all of its oddities as blamable on the epidemic.

For example the section on “Spiritualism” explains that it began “well before the pandemic”, but then takes stories such as Challenger’s to “echo” “the struggles of doctors during the pandemic”; the author is presumed to be blaming himself in his language even though the pandemic is not mentioned; the section ends on the dire note that doctors switched from fears of exposure to “the guilt of being alive at all after 1918” (202-10). Letters from doctors blaming themselves might have been the types of facts necessary to draw a conclusion such as this one, but instead we are offered a fiction and the author’s interpretation of what it is really saying. This interpretation stretches the narrative in the story. This is precisely what happened to modern authors if there was a massive disinformation campaign that blocked coverage of the epidemic: they could only discuss feelings, fears, dread and unrelated problems, and this left them incapable of coherent and frank communication. The realist and naturalist movements that preceded them were all about being honest and direct in describing poverty (Maggie), disease (McTeague) and rebellion (Barnaby Rudge), but since this “modernist” turn nonsense or failing to arrive at one’s point is the fashionable type of novel most likely to be titled “literary”.

The blurb advertises the book thus: “the United States suffered more casualties than in all the wars of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries combined. Yet despite these catastrophic death tolls, the pandemic faded from historical and cultural memory in the United States and throughout Europe, overshadowed by World War One and the turmoil of the interwar period… Outka reveals the literary and cultural impact of one of the deadliest plagues in history, bringing to light how it shaped canonical works of fiction and poetry. Outka shows how and why the contours of modernism shift when we account for the pandemic’s hidden but widespread presence. She investigates the miasmic manifestations of the pandemic and its spectral dead in interwar Anglo-American literature, uncovering the traces of an outbreak that brought a nonhuman, invisible horror into every community… [L]iterature and culture represented the virus’s deathly fecundity, as writers wrestled with the scope of mass death in the domestic sphere amid fears of wider social collapse.”

Outka is approaching a revelation regarding the power of censorship at the publication level that can wipe away the world’s deadliest pandemic. But instead of blaming this rightful culprit she joins the lunatics and writes a digressive modernist treatise on the psychosis that resulted in mass-hysteria, which in turn caused mass-silence about the cause of their raging hysteria. This book should not be read by students of literature, as it is likely to mislead them. Instead, it is best-read by fellow scholars who might come upon the same problems I am encountering with this project and might offer a more truthful explanation in their own research.

Brutal, Humorous and Insightful Lessons from a Practicing Architect

Reinier de Graaf. Four Walls and a Roof: The Complex Nature of a Simple Profession. 514pp, 6X9”, paperback. ISBN: 978-0-674-24146-6. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019.


This project proposes to present “a candid account of what it is really like to work as an architect” instead of the typical hyperbole all professions use to aggrandize themselves. “Drawing on his own tragicomic experiences in the field, Reinier de Graaf reveals the world of contemporary architecture in vivid snapshots: from suburban New York to the rubble of northern Iraq, from the corridors of wealth in London, Moscow, and Dubai to garbage-strewn wastelands that represent the demolished hopes of postwar social housing. We meet oligarchs determined to translate ambitions into concrete and steel, developers for whom architecture is mere investment, and the layers of politicians, bureaucrats, consultants, and mysterious hangers-on who lie between any architectural idea and the chance of its execution.” I am watching Rachel Maddow’s show on “Wilbur Ross at Nexus of Donald Trump Russian Deal” from November 27, 2017 on a break from writing this essay and the parallel between the Russian oligarch’s strange mansion re-sale to Trump and this discussion of billionaires and politicians fit curiously together. Ross is one of the only cabinet members who are still in office among the majority who have been fired or have stepped own from offices in this cabinet and surrounding it. While it is unlikely that Graaf covers this particular deal, as if he was involved in a major money laundering scam of this magnitude, it is unlikely he would have written a book about it; the ideas that Graaf offers on this subject from less ostentatious cases is likely to be of help to investigators who are otherwise unfamiliar with the business of architecture.

The book further describes “a profession buffeted by external forces that determine—at least as much as individual inspiration—what architects design. Perhaps the most important myth debunked is success itself. To achieve anything, architects must serve the powers they strive to critique, finding themselves in a perpetual conflict of interest. Together, architects, developers, politicians, and consultants form an improvised world of contest and compromise that none alone can control.” In other words, this book discusses more legal and only slightly nefarious and artistically bankrupt activities in architecture, rather than the extremes of depravity these problems are capable of manifesting.

Given the last few reviews, my attention initially travels to an article titles, “Bloody Fools!” The conclusion explains this outcry as having been uttered by John Bancroft the idealistic architect of the Pimlico School as it was being demolished shortly before Bancroft’s death in 2011. Graaf adds to this sentiment that this demolition was symbolic “definitive end of a short-lived, fragile period of naïve optimism before the brutal rule of the market economy became the common denominator” (27). Bancroft had built the school without a significant financial reward for the sake of social good in the 1970s, and this spirit of communal well-being was being demolished in the 2010s.

Then in an article called “A Spanish Tender” I oddly find a story about construction in Russia. He relates how he is approached by a Russian called Sasha who fails to clearly explain if he is interested in hiring Graaf personally or as a member of his architectural firm. Then, this Russian alludes to a government project that is going through an international competition in Moscow, hinting he is familiar with the members of the jury and inviting Graaf to join this group. At this point, Graaf realizes that his office already considered applying for this contract as his contact described it as “‘big money, big names, and big government backing’ – three indispensable ingredients without which nothing in Russia moved”. Since he now knows he is going to apply as a contractor for the bid, he tells Sasha he cannot also serve on the jury, but Sasha says the two are not mutually exclusive.

This is only the beginning of the saga. This narrative is probably the longest piece in this collection. The dated narrative interrupted by year-title blank pages. The story ends several years later when ISIS changes its approach leading “thousands of Yazidis” to take “refuge on Mount Sinjar”, and since this population is threatened Americans begin an “aerial bombing campaign”. As a result, despite receiving word for the first time earlier that day that they had “definitively been award the job”, and are now “invited to make a contract proposal”, their “commission” stops being a “priority” and “is put on hold” (280). The note regarding them being only invited to send a proposal after an acceptance note echoes my own experiences with government bureaucracies. It seems they escape with corruption by flooding the legitimate players without corrupt intent with busy-work, so that they lack the time to investigate the matter further, especially if they are repeatedly told that they would definitely win in this corrupt game if they just hung on a bit longer (rather than filing official complaints regarding the inappropriate elements they observe).

Well, if this is just a couple of the essays in this collection, this is definitely a book all young, ambitious architects need to read. It might save them decades waiting to hear about a Russian contract, or a bit of emotional pain at seeing their most idealistic creation knocked down for fiscal reasons.

Seen Green: The Corruption of Computational Linguistics by Nonsense

J. R. Martin, Karl Maton and Y. J. Doran, eds. Accessing Academic Discourse: Systemic Functional Linguistics and Legitimation Code Theory. 316pp, 6X9”, paperback. ISBN: 978-0-6367-23607-6. New York: Routledge, 2019.


This project claims to explain “the nature of academic discourse” to help the public “access, shape and change this knowledge… to supporting social justice.” It joins “sociological and linguistic approaches”, focusing on fields including “Systemic functional linguistics (SFL)”, a “long-established and widely known approach to understanding language.” It also utilizes “Legitimation Code Theory (LCT)… a younger and rapidly growing approach to exploring and shaping knowledge practices.” I had to delete a good part of the above summary because the original repeats the same points several times. The publisher claims the authors include “the foremost scholar of SFL and the creator of LCT.” This is where I sense what went wrong with this compilation: this book is an advertisement vehicle designed to help the founders of SFL and LCT attract funding for their labs. Linguists in fields that intersect with the interests of industry tend to be interested in private and public contracts worth millions rather than in academic validity or invalidity of the articles they publish. And the founders of any school are the gatekeepers preventing others from entering these narrow fields and checking for potential errors in their work. For example, Watt contributed essays to collections of essays about Watt; as the founder of the “rise of the novel” theory, it was an ethical violation for Watt to basically openly write positive reviews about himself under his own name, but if you are the founder of a school, you can insist on your own inclusion even if it is contrary to academia’s moral code. “Chapters introduce… guidelines for shaping curriculum and pedagogy to support access to academic discourse in classrooms.” The book is said to be aimed broadly at “appliable and educational linguists, as well as scholars and practitioners of education and sociology.”

Since my current research is in computational linguistics, I had to request this book if not to learn from it, then to understand its faults. Some of these faults become obvious after creating an abridged, less repetitive version of the summary above. It promises to explain how academic discourse assists “social justice”. While helping justice is a very nice thing to do, it is absurd to argue that all clear academic discourse leads to justice; for example, a professor might be teaching an anti-justice or an anti-rebellion or a union-breaking course, in which case the whole point of the academic communications presented would be to prevent “justice” for the many in favor of the new owners or monarchs or the like. In general, if the author of a field is still alive and contributing to your essay collection, the field is not sufficiently old to call it “long-established”. It seems this reference is made merely to excuse the extreme newness of the other field; perhaps the latter was created the day before this group started writing this book… And the convoluted nature of the sentences across this summary contradict their claims the goal of the style of discourse presented is designed to enhance “access”, which is typically tied to comprehension of clarified content rather than confusion over convoluted content.

As this description warns, the interior is equally nonsensical. A section on LCT: Semantics states it is a tool to fight “knowledge-blindness” by acknowledging that “knowledge” is “real”. On the next page it defines are less absurd and more concrete term, “semantic density” as “the degree of condensation of meaning within practices, whether symbols, terms, concepts, phrases, expressions gestures, clothing, etc.” While this appears clear enough, this type of “density” cannot be logically linguistically evaluated in a consistent manner. Linguistic density can be measured by counting numeric values such as words-per-sentence or syllables-per-word. In contrast, one has to not only offer “semantic” value in a newly invented computer program to every word in the dictionary, but also to their relative values and to the various shades of meaning that come from the possible combinations or intentions of the author. Computational linguistics is a mathematic field: since it is logistically impossible to calculate this “Semantic” value, a discussion of this philosophical-exercise term does not belong in this study (62-3).

Another essay seemingly sets out to prove the very thing I was just arguing against in the LCT essay. Doran’s essay on “Seeing values” attempts to dissect the words utilized in a single text to establish if they have positive or negative connotations or evaluative values. In other words, the experiment is attempting to judge if the author has a positive or negative attitude regarding the subject under discussion. The researchers create an absurd quantity of tables that take words out of the text and compare them in how they are utilized in various contexts in positive and negative ways; obviously, if these words can have double-meanings on both sides of the spectrum, the outcome of the experiment is that it cannot be determined if the author is positive or negative on the subject, and the lack of conclusions throughout this essay confirms this to be the case. While this entire experiment is useless and nonsensical, the concluding sentence attempts to make it sound logical and as if it has uncovered a new scientific discovery: “From such a map, we can begin to see the values systems that organize our communities, the highly implicit affording attitude that invokes these values systems, and where appropriate, teach these to students learning new intellectual fields” (151-74). To judge value systems in a community, one needs to read the various philosophical, political, news coverage, and a spectrum of other types of texts and perhaps do in-person interviews with the members of the community. The title of the chapter is moronic because one cannot see values, but rather understand them in a complex network of conflicting stated values. For example, what somebody states he or she values might be a lie, and thus one is capturing what people are willing to put in writing regarding their values, rather than their true values. Searching for a few potential meanings of a value-laden term and categorizing these subjectively as positive or negative introduces an incredibly large selection bias, as one can choose between millions of value-laden texts in any given community. Searching for positive or negative connotations is a curious exercise for new language learners who have difficulty grasping the distinctions between specific words, but, no, this in no way assists researchers with seeing a value system. And no, this nonsense should not be taught to students in any field.

I explain my purely number-based computational linguistics method for author attribution in the “Defoe” and “Shakespeare” studies that have been under review for a couple of years now and have not yet been accepted in any scholarly journal or press. The rejections I received indicate that these “leaders” in these fields have hijacked computational linguistics review venues and they favor this type of uncalculatable nonsense of the logic Plutarch said is superior thousands of years ago.

Collection of Scholarly Essays About Victorian Literature

Dennis Denisoff and Talia Schaffer, eds. The Routledge Companion to Victorian Literature. 540pp, hardback. ISBN: 978-1-138-57986-6. New York: Routledge, 2019.


This companion is a straightforward history and theoretical study of the various types of literature written across the Victorian period. The essays appear to offer compressed and useful information. They are separated into clearly defined parts and sections that cover the likely fields somebody studying this field will encounter as they commence their research. It appears to be carefully edited and otherwise put together in a manner to aid students’ comprehension rather than to confuse them.

The publisher’s summary specifies that it “offers 45 chapters” that address “political, cultural, and theoretical issues” relevant to “Victorian literature today.” These essays not only review the main works in the different genres and the history and culture of these times, but also offer overviews of the “scholarship” or secondary sources that theorists have written on these subjects. The genres covered include “the novel, poetry, and drama”. The issues addressed are “gender, social class, and race in conversation with subjects like ecology, colonialism, the Gothic, digital humanities, sexualities, disability, material culture, and animal studies.” In other words, some chapters juxtapose odd combinations of fields to offer strange conclusions that are uncommon when one only considers gender or digital humanities as a point of reference. Just as in the previous book I reviewed, this project protests-too-much that the scholars and scholarship included represent “the most significant critical approaches in Victorian studies, often written by the very scholars who helped found those fields.” Anybody who seriously claims to have invented gender theory or post-colonial theory must be lying about their achievements: Greco-Roman philosophy is full of gender theory, and the first post-colonial articles were written by opinion journalists and scholars as the empires were falling and in the fall’s aftermath. If everybody in these fields keeps repeating that their founder is a living person who invented them in the past few decades, they are as believable as scientologists arguing Hubbard was a god. The reason for this type of hyperbole might be the inclusion of the more absurd or nonsensical theories that have been troubling me recently as I have been examining them more closely: “narrative theory, formalism, historicism”. Formalism is not really about a formal evaluation of structure, and narrative theory is not really about the concrete elements that make up narrative. Less abstract topics covered include “economic theory, as well as Victorian models of subjects such as anthropology, cognitive science, and religion.” The presence of these solid social sciences means that scholars will find essays that communicate clearly and directly if they just ignore the ones that fail to do so. Reading is assisted with “lists of key works…, cross-referencing, extensive bibliographies, and explications of scholarly trajectories”. Just as the cover claims, I believe a wide range of undergraduate through graduate students and scholars venturing into a new field will find useful starting-points here.  

One example of this relatively straightforward approach is that the chapter on “Victorian Digital Humanities” addresses practical subjects such as the potential for future created of Braille texts, audio-transcription and the like in its conclusion. It also notes the difficulties of solo scholars working to digitize distinct projects in Victorian studies are likely to fail to have their work rewarded in academia, and might be disoriented by the size of the undertaking. The rest of the essay presents a couple of examples, where databases were organized successfully. Thus, those who are considering creating a database or using one for their research, should find some information to grasp the dimensions of this field (136-7). Given the difficulty I have had with finding any digital humanities studies that offer coherent information, this is a marvel.  

A Watt-Supporter Disguised as a Watt-Reprimander

Jordan Alexander Stein. When Novels Were Books. 272pp, hardback. $39.95. ISBN: 978-0-674987043. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, January 7, 2020. 


One of these chapters draws my attention first, “Conclusion: The Retroactive Rise of the Novel.” I am glad I started here because it summarizes that the main point of this project is the revision of Watt’s theory of the rise of the novel in the eighteenth century. When I submitted an essay that discussed the illogical elements of Watt’s theory, I was asked to add a review of the scholarship about Watt since the publication of his too often quoted book. I had to write an entirely new essay to complete this task, which has not yet been published (and perhaps never will be). In it, I answer the precise question Stein asks in his conclusion: “If this revised history is true, why don’t we already know it?” My answer is that as the leader of the “rise” school, Watt has been directly or indirectly in charge of helping accept essays for publication in journals that support his perspective, and rejecting those that offer counter-rise evidence (my own essays on this topic being an example: I have received viruses from some reviewers on top of insults). But, Stein avoids these types of answers, even (as I demonstrate) there is plenty of textual evidence in published texts related to this subject. Instead, Stein blames the “ironies of historical transmission”. Here Stein stumbles so far from the facts of the case that he ends up in nonsense: historians might add lies to their version of history, but the process of “revising” history for the sake of propaganda, personal or political gain or other motives is not “ironic”, but rather deliberate and destructive. If Stein’s conclusions disguise the truth in rhetorical wordplay, it is unlikely that the rest of the book is trustworthy (165-6).

 Similar surface attempts to dissect the structure of novels are prevented with the insertion of generalities and irrelevant information when Stein attempts distinguishing the “kinds of figures who appear in novels” from “other kinds of characters”, for example, those found in plays. He suggests that “novelistic character” has a greater “psychological depth and detail”, so that they attain a “personhood” or “individuality” beyond the capacity of other genres. Then he sites several scholars who have repeated this sentiment, but these quotes are clichés and fail to contributed an explanatory meaning; an example is this quote from a too-often-cited critic, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick: “‘People are different from each other’” (22). On a surface first reading, this all appears logical enough, but looking deeper it proves to lack substance. The “personhood” proposed can only be measured in the imaginations of readers rather than on the page. A great play is likely to condense far more personhood defining details into dialogue and truncated to-the-point actions, whereas there are bad novels out there that are devoid of personhood as they repeat the same formulaic descriptions of how the characters look, how they kiss, and even what they say in conversations almost verbatim across several novels (many of these cross authors, which has led to several plagiarism lawsuits in genres such as the “romance”). If individuality or personhood is counted as the number of unique words related about a character out of the total quantity of words, most plays and even poems tend to be denser in these than novels that tend to include too many irrelevant repetitions about the sunny morning or the brown eyes. Stein is repeating the same ideas about personhood from the Watt-adjacent canons, even using quotes from this scholarship, to repeat the same conclusions rather than to truly shift away from the “rise” narrative. The promise of achieving something I would very much like to see in scholarship, a full rejection of the Watt theory, makes the apparent deception or misdirection in the reinforcement of this theory with the majority of this text makes this book particularly troubling. Scholars can now be told that Watt has been debunked already, so there is no need to write a study that actually debunks him (as I have been told several times).

The blurb states: “A literary scholar explains how eighteenth-century novels were manufactured, sold, bought, owned, collected, and read alongside Protestant religious texts.” This is a strange turn-of-phrase as Catholic texts, as well as non-fiction pamphlets and all other genres are excluded in an unparallel manner. “As the novel developed into a mature genre, it had to distinguish itself from these similar-looking books and become what we now call ‘literature.’” Also very strange: I just reviewed a Routledge companion that calls poetry, plays and the rest literature, so why this conclusion that only the “novel” is “literature”? “Literary scholars have explained the rise of the Anglophone novel using a range of tools, from Ian Watt’s theories to James Watt’s inventions.” This sentence does not rebuke Ian Watt, but rather names him as a distinguished theory-founder. “Contrary to established narratives…” it claims the novel “was not born secular, national, middle-class, or female.” The last word subverts or reverses the meaning in a misleading way, and other words in this brief summary are also troubling. Watt’s “established” narrative is in agreement to this “contrary” perspective of Stein’s rather than in opposition to it: Watt’s specified that male authors rather than female ones founded the genre. Watt also did not believe the novel was “secular”, but rather that it had Protestant roots. Instead of explaining these contradictions, Stein continues: “For the first three centuries of their history, novels came into readers’ hands primarily as printed sheets ordered into a codex bound along one edge between boards or paper wrappers. Consequently, they shared some formal features of other codices, such as almanacs and Protestant religious books produced by the same printers. Novels are often mistakenly credited for developing a formal feature (‘character’) that was in fact incubated in religious books.” This is pure nonsense: characters have been around in fiction since long before Greco-Roman plays. The one point that Stein seems to raise against Watt is: “The novel did not emerge all at once: it had to differentiate itself from the goods with which it was in competition.” On the other hand, Watt described stages in the novel’s development as well from Defoe to Richardson and the like; so this also re-states Watt’s gradual evolution theory rather than debunking it. And equating the novel with “goods” suggests it is a lowly commodity that can be treated as a commercial product rather than judged for the relative quality of its execution.

This is a dangerous book because a wolf has disguised itself as a wolf-hunter.

A Racist Series of Digressions on Slavery and Other Stuff

Mario Klarer. Mediterranean Slavery and World Literature. New York: Routledge, November 1, 2019. VBID: 978-1-351967570.


I receive this book as a digital copy via VitalSource. It is a “collection of… essays about the transformations of captivity experiences in major early modern texts of world literature and popular media, including works by Cervantes, de Vega, Defoe, Rousseau, and Mozart.” This is a very wide mixture, but then again, I have published about both Cervantes and Defoe, so it is curious that these two particular authors are included. While Robinson Crusoe and other Defoe-attributed texts frequently include enslavement narratives, it is more difficult for me to recall that Cervantes had Don Quixote enter slavery-adjacent situations, but perhaps his servant Pancho is somewhat too servile… It is also difficult to imagine how Mozart could have serenaded about slavery in his musical compositions… “Where most studies of Mediterraneanslavery, until now, have been limited to historical and autobiographical accounts, this volume looks specifically at literary adaptations from a multicultural perspective.” I reviewed a study about modern slavery in this same set of reviews, and without checking I recall reading a few studies before about Mediterranean slavery in literary projects, so I doubt this is the first volume to take this approach.

The Cervantes chapter addresses minor stories of Cervantes that include some enslavement; I am not as familiar with these as I am with Quixote. The introduction explains that one of the main “innovations” of Cervantes’ covered is: “the insertion of a gracioso (comical figure), complements the introduction of Jewish characters, and, together, they facilitate the presentation of scenes in which Jews not only interact with Muslims and Catholic captives, but, more importantly, scenes in which Jews are persecuted. Whereas many critics have utilized such scenes to demonstrate the strong anti-Jewish sentiments present in Spanish Golden Age comedias, I argue that their inclusion in Lope’s Los cautivos and Cervantes’ Los baños not only places these works more in line with historical reality, but also serves to present this minority in a favorable light.” Anti-Semitism is presented as historical truths indicative of the Jews inferiority due to their comical missteps? This is so troubling, I cannot even discuss it, but perhaps this numbness is due to the late hour…

The chapter on Mozart covers his experiences with watching executions and the history of various types of torture. It is an extremely short article that touches on Mozart’s opera, The Magic Flute, about which this is observed: “Pamina calls Monostato a ‘barbarian’ in their first encounter. And of course, Sarastro also has only negative associations with Monostato’s skin color, claiming that his soul is ‘as black’ (‘ebenso schwarz’) as his face. Thus it comes as no surprise that Monostato himself soon believes that his skin color is responsible for his misfortune”. If any of this had something to do with the promised topic for this collection of essays, slavery, this might be explainable, but why is this discussion regarding skin color alone standing here as a racist value judgement?

This book veers into very inappropriate topics when they are handled in the manner they are handled herein. I hope nobody else will dive into these pages, and this book rests untouched and un-inflicting of torture on future readers.

Demystifying a Primary “Shakespeare” Attribution Source

Neil Carson. A Companion to Henslowe’s Diary. 164pp, hardback. ISBN: 978-0-511554162. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009; 1988. 


The rest of this set of reviews is composed of texts I requested or accessed on free review databases belonging to Oxford and Cambridge university presses. While I am a bit allergic to reviewing books in the digital format because on occasion, they lack some of the images, cover design, texture and other elements apparent from a printed book. Despite my hesitation, the books included in the set that follows were specifically requested to assist my ongoing “Shakespeare” re-attribution project. A few of these books are just amazing resources without which I would not have made many if not most of the connections I have made in this study so far. I highly recommend all of these for scholars who want to check my findings or trace the origins of some of my cited ideas.

This particular book by Neil Carson is a miracle of modern scholarship. Earlier on in the study I searched for the previous publications of the Henslowe Diary and encountered barely legible digitized versions of an early-modern English printing, and other varieties that are unreadable. Most Renaissance scholars cite this diary at some point, and they refer to play names in it, but it has been a mystery to me until now how they can make out what even nineteenth century editions of it are saying. It is extremely difficult to decipher because Henslowe uses various spellings even for his writers’ names, and the names of the plays he cites tend to be extremely or very different from the names we know them by today; these variations is one of the reasons scholars cannot tell if some plays belong under the Henslowe umbrella, or if a name is similar in name or historical character covered, but actually represents an entirely different text. This might be the case if two or more plays were produced in around the same period about Richard III. Figuring out these cryptic entries is extremely important for attribution studies because this is perhaps the only detailed accounting book of a theater and company manager from “Shakespeare’s” lifetime. Henslowe’s position as the head and financier of the Admiral’s Men echoed Shakespeare’s role for Lord Chamberlain’s Men; while “Shakespeare’s” name appeared on many of the plays Chamberlain’s produced, Henslowe instead credited the various lead authors and ghostwriters he used in his accounting book and gave the leads credit in the playbooks that he approved for publication or surrendered copyrights to. Some scholars also contest if “Shakespeare” might have written or acted for Admiral’s Men prior to taking the lead with Chamberlain’s and this has resulted in some plays currently attributed to Shakespeare to be mentioned in Henslowe’s Diary. Given the popularity of this source in attribution studies, it is strange that this text was published in 1988 and has barely been edited since then, and there are no other similar studies just presenting annotations and explanations of this puzzling text.  

Here is how Cambridge summarizes its significance: “Henslowe’s ‘diary’ is a unique source of information about the day-to-day running of the Elizabethan repertory theatre. Philip Henslowe, a theatrical entrepreneur, kept records of his financial dealings with London companies and actors from 1592-1604. The diary itself is difficult to decipher. Neil Carson’s analysis is based on a much more thorough correlation of Henslowe’s entries than has been attempted before, breaking down into clear tabular form the main items of income and expenditure and drawing conclusions about the management procedures of the companies, the professional relationships of actors and playwrights and the ways in which plays were written, rehearsed and programmed. Previous speculation has dismissed Henslowe himself as ignorant, disorderly and grasping. Carson shows him to have been a benign and efficient businessman whose control over the actors’ professional activities was much less extensive than has often been supposed.”

I requested this book with the assumption it would not be available for review, as Cambridge usually limits review copies to books released in the last couple of years, and thus having active marketing campaigns. But I really needed to see the financial calculations included in Table III of this study because Manley (reviewed later in this set) referred to details in it that suggested accounting fraud from my perspective. I have not yet followed this thread, but I will read this book cover-to-cover as I return to the “Shakespeare” study after finishing these reviews. I did not expect this collection to have as many other revealing features as it has upon closer review (I only looked at bits of it available on Google Books previously). For example, Table I is a chronological list of all of the plays in the Diary. While this seems rudimentary, I have been considering making this type of a list myself to understand the ordering and relationships between plays better. There 280 plays on this list, many of which have been lost, but many are some of the world’s most admired surviving texts. Carson has also put together the tediously detailed “Performance Calendar” in Table II: closer examination might reveal patterns summaries of this information elsewhere are missing; Carson includes calendars from other companies, such as Sussex’s and Chamberlain’s to allow for cross-company comparisons, which would help spot irregularities in any one of their schedules (as irregularities stand out when compared to the norm). Table III is indeed going to be extremely helpful as the details include author’s paid or lent to, who approved a payment, the date of payment and their order, and the exact amount paid. One of the points I am trying to figure out is why there was so much ghostwriting in this period with only a handful of ghostwriters and if Henslowe and other managers were aware of this or if they organized such schemes. I might have to re-do some of these tables or re-organize this information to see the patterns more clearly as the type is a bit smudgy and the information is chronologically organized whereas organizing it by author or other parameters might explain why Henslowe was hiring so many writers for some of these plays even if they were not particularly profitable. Some of the abbreviations of notes on the current table are so intricate, I will need to read the book attached to these tables to understand the specifics being communicated. The interior of this book summarizes the playwriters, play content, the actors, theatrical landlord and Henslowe’s background. If I keep reading this book any further at this moment, this review will briskly turn into a few dozen pages as I carry on with my research, so I will stop here to return to it at my leisure, so those just interested in if they should buy this book or not can find the answer they seek.

Yes, this is a brilliant piece of undervalued practical scholarship. If other scholars read these types of sources more closely perhaps the “Shakespeare” mystery would have been solved a few decades ago. This book should be on the shelf of all libraries internationally, as those who are taught “Shakespearean” plays are likely to want to explore what this label meant in its contemporary context. All researchers on Renaissance drama definitely need to have some familiarity with it, especially if they rely on lines from it as the primary evidence for the authorial attributions they have been using.

Great Source for “Shakespeare” Collaboration Scholars

Brian Vickers. Shakespeare, Co-Author: A Historical Study of Five Collaborative Plays. 558pp, hardback. $78. ISBN: 978-0-199269167. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004; 2002. 


I read the first chapter of this book closely before stopping the “Shakespeare” project to write these reviews. It was dense with useful information. Since my study is about ghostwriting and collaboration, this is obviously one of the best sources for me to learn regarding previous studies on this subject. Sadly, one of the main reasons I have used Vickers a good deal already in my own study is that he repeats mistakes that have been echoing across “Shakespeare” attribution studies for centuries, preventing progress in this field. For example, he cites the number of plays written across this period, but the source he cites does not match the exact number he offers, and the lack of precision is not specified. I learned a lot as I investigated the source of this glitch about how critics echo such information. It was also curious to read how Vickers summarized a critic from this period as “derivative” as this pushed me to test details in the criticism referred to, thus discovering a pattern of attribution that was not apparent before Vickers’ glitches alerted me to something being odd about Meres unusually satirical derivations. Vickers explanation of the types of theater versus authorial plots from this period also helped me understand the writing process these ghostwriters went through, thus allowing me to explain my own re-attributions in these specialized terms. As I searched for Vickers’ name just now in my study, I came across another book of Vickers that I also analyzed, Shakespeare, “A Lover’s Complaint” and John Davies of Hereford; I explain how a similarity of these texts does not mean Shakespeare wrote both of them, but rather the proper authorial signature holder my study uncovers by comparing 134 texts against each other linguistically. In contrast, Vickers just looks at these two texts and assumes that one of them, “Lover’s” was actually written by Shakespeare; I contention is that as some critics have suggested before, Shakespeare was a manager and not an author, so finding similarity between a “Shakespeare” attributed work and any other text identifies the ghostwriter responsible for both rather than proves “Shakespeare” was capable of writing and wrote both of these works. One of the first rejections I received regarding my “Shakespeare” re-attribution project was from an editor who insisted that I needed more citations of past scholarship in my essay. I tried to explain that the first essay in the set that I submitted to her periodical was on my unique methodology, which was based on reviewing thousands of previous failed attempts rather than any one of them closely as no past scholar has identified the responsible authors as I am doing. I further tried to explain that I would have to write a negative review on each of the sources I cite and explore to prove why my findings contradict pretty much all previous findings. She did not respond to these objections, but as I was fuming about this, I did insert a few of these explanations for what led to past mistakes in the first essay, and I am reading these studies extremely closely now to really understand the sources for these mistakes. Clearly this is necessary because proving one’s case in attribution is not only a matter of showing the mathematic answer, but rather also explaining philosophically why everybody else is wrong. While it has been very frustrating to nitpick with all these great scholarly projects, it has also been a lot of fun to find mistakes in them.  

Here is the summary from Oxford: “No issue in Shakespeare studies is more important than determining what he wrote.” I would argue it is still more important to question if he wrote… “For over two centuries scholars have discussed the evidence that Shakespeare worked with co-authors on several plays, and have used a variety of methods to differentiate their contributions from his.” The assumption that “Shakespeare”-signed texts and those attributed to him in the 1623 Folio are actually by a single author called “Shakespeare” have led to most of this confusion, so viewing some of these as co-written is a great step towards solving this mystery.

“In this wide-ranging study the author takes up and extends these discussions, presenting compelling evidence that Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus together with George Peele, Timon of Athens with Thomas Middleton, Pericles with George Wilkins, and Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen with John Fletcher.” All of this is wrong, but in a revealing manner. The latter two texts are co-written by Fletcher, but he wrote them together with Munday rather than with Shakespeare; the presence of collaborative signatures in this study confirms my own findings that these two plays are particularly collaborative. Meanwhile, Titus was written primarily only be Munday; Peele used at least two ghostwriters, also including Sidney, to compose his published works; hiring ghostwriters was and continues to be a great path towards social mobility or government-office acquisition. Timon (Middleton used primarily Drayton for his ghostwriting, but did use Munday as well at least once, so if the Munday text had been compared in this study, this would explain this mis-attribution) and Pericles (the one Wilkins play I tested, Enforced Marriage, was ghostwritten by Drayton, but given the rest of this pattern, he must have used Munday as well) are also Munday’s.

But to return to the summary: “Part one of the book reviews the standard processes of co-authorship as they can be reconstructed from documents connected with the Elizabethan stage, and shows that all major, and most minor, dramatists in the Elizabethan, Jacobean, and Caroline theatres, collaborated in getting plays written and staged.” The citations across this study of these central documents are very helpful for my own research, as I knowing what these are allows me to dig them up for closer analysis. “This is combined with a survey of the types of methodology used since the early nineteenth century to identify co-authorship, and a critical evaluation of some ‘stylometric’ techniques.” The problem I found is that the strategies from the nineteenth century continue to dominate the field: back in those days it was extremely difficult to compare massive volumes of text mathematically, so scholars only tested the text in question against samples from alternative authors, leading them to draw mis-attributions even if there was some truth to the patterns they were spotting. On the other hand, modern computational linguists or “stylometric” technicians are failing to disclose their raw data as they design convoluted and inaccurate (by their own admission) tests to confirm current attributions rather than to reveal the truth in the numbers; in response to my request to check my findings one of these computer scientists sent back clearly biased and manipulated findings that showed no similarity between Haywood’s or Richardson’s novels as well as between most of the texts currently attributed to “Defoe”; his refusal to show the raw data that led to these strange findings explained the corruptions in this field that have stalled attribution science despite the availability of free tools that make it efficient and precise.

“Part two gives detailed analyses of the five collaborative plays, discussing every significant case made for and against Shakespeare’s co-authorship.” Reading this closely will be extremely helpful in helping to understand the causes of the misattributions beyond what the numbers in my own study explain. “Synthesizing two centuries of discussion, the author reveals a scholarly tradition, builds on and extends previous work, and identifies the co-authors’ contributions in increasing detail. The range and quantity of close verbal analysis brought together in this book present a case to counter those ‘conservators’ of Shakespeare who maintain that he is the sole author of his plays.” This is a required step in the direction of going still further and admitting that he was not an author among those playwriters who wrote these plays.

Finding fault with studies such as Novak’s biography of “Defoe” is extremely painful as Novak introduces events or attributions he is imagining without any support. On the other hand, spotting glitches in Vickers’ conclusions is very useful because he almost always explains how he arrived at the mis-direction: and this journey tends to be rich in fruit to prove the accurate re-attribution the numbers and the original raw primary sources support. Those who enjoy reading literary mysteries, should purchase this book to explore its insightful explanations. All studies of “Shakespeare” attributions should be more available in libraries than they are now, as I had barely come across any questions regarding “Shakespeare’s” or “Defoe’s” authorship before I started digging into these problems.

Is There a History Play Genre in the “Shakespeare” Canon?

Dominique Goy-Blanquet. Shakespeare’s Early History Plays: From Chronicle to Stage. 320pp, hardback. $190. ISBN: 978-0-198119876. Oxford Scholarship Online: Oxford University Press, November 6, 2003. 


This book is on my list. I will read it more closely for the later chapters of my project that touch specifically on the two plays it covers. It is advertised thus: “Like many of his fellow playwrights, Shakespeare turned to national history for inspiration. In this study, Dominique Goy-Blanquet provides a close comparison of the Henry VI plays and Richard III with their sources, demonstrating how Shakespeare was able to meet not only the ideological but also the technical problems of turning history into drama, how by cutting, carving, shaping, and casting his unwieldy material into performable plays, he matured into the most influential dramatist and historian of his time.”

Studying the sources an author utilized to compile a fictional work is especially helpful in my “Shakespeare” attribution project because the “author plots” that were created for playwriters’ utilization in this period were repeated across several different plays in a few curious instances. This echoing has been perceived as authors borrowing from previously published or performed histories or fictional creations. Part of the problem is that who copied who in this context tends to be difficult to trace. The patterns of imitation of primary sources can reveal attribution patterns. For example, if a single ghostwriter is familiar with a specific history book; with the current mis-attributions, it appears as if several authors are taking information out of this text, but my re-attribution method might reveal a pattern that all texts touching on this source have a single unifying authorial signature between them. Going through all of Goy-Blanquet’s source comparisons for these two plays might also help to spot similar patterns without this level of detail in other plays. The question of the meeting point between history and fiction is also an important one for me to learn more about. My first scholarly book (out of my PhD dissertation) covered Sir Walter Scott, who is said to be the founder of the history novel genre. I recently realized that there is a split between two of the main ghostwriters behind “Shakespeare”, Munday and Fletcher, in terms of one specializing in tragedy, and the other comedy; the term “history” play genre has been added long after all of the players of Shakespeare’s time we dead to re-classify some of the plays that had initially been labeled “tragedies” by the printer or author to now group them together as histories. This is a somewhat absurd label as nearly all of the plays from this period are at least inspired by historical events, if not following their plots precisely, so distinguishing only some of them as histories creates a logical overlap between the three resulting genres. I have discovered that if I have to call something a scholar has said before absurd or nonsensical, I have to be very precise regarding the root of the problem, so studying Goy’s interpretation of the links between history and drama will give me food for my argument (especially if I disagree with Goy’s).

In a sea of “Shakespeare” studies, this one offers a more unique perspective, and digs for rarer evidence than most have attempted. Thus, it belongs within at least Interlibrary loan-reach of most casual and academic students of “Shakespeare”.

Was Shakespeare Ever an Actor?

Bart Van Es. Shakespeare in Company. 384pp, hardback, 12 halftones. $53. 6.125X9.25”. ISBN: 978-0-199569311. Oxford: Oxford Scholarship Online: Oxford University Press, 2013. 


This study turned up as a cited source in my research, so I pulled it up for these reviews. Since it is available in full-text on Oxford Scholarship and it covers the production question at the center of my study than Manley’s review of Henslowe’s company, I will read it closely in the future. For now, this is an initial brisk review.

“This book is about two very different kinds of company. On the one hand it concerns Shakespeare’s poet-playwright contemporaries, such as Marlowe, Jonson, and Fletcher. On the other, it examines the contribution of his fellow actors, including Burbage, Armin, and Kemp. Traditionally, criticism has treated these two influences in separation, so that Shakespeare is considered either in relation to educated Renaissance culture, or as a man of the theatre. Shakespeare in Company unites these perspectives. It argues that Shakespeare’s decision, in 1594, to become an investor (or ‘sharer’) in the newly formed Chamberlain’s acting company had a transformative effect on his writing, moving him beyond the conventions of Renaissance dramaturgy. On the basis of the physical distinctiveness of his actors, Shakespeare developed ‘relational drama’, something no previous dramatist had explored. This book traces the evolution of that innovation, showing how Shakespeare responded to changes in the personnel of his acting fellowship and to competing drama, such as that produced for the children’s companies after 1599. Covering over two decades of theatrical history, Shakespeare in Company explores the playwright’s career through four distinct phases, ending on the conditions that shaped Shakespeare’s late style. Paradoxically, Shakespeare emerges as a playwright who is unique ‘in company’—special, in part, because of the unparalleled working conditions that he enjoyed.”

This is all very problematic, but my comments are about the whole rather than about the parts. This book might pinch my nerves as much as Novak has as I dig further into it based on this summary. The problem here is that this text accepts as evidence past biographies written about Shakespeare rather than relying on the textual evidence that has survived to lead the narrative. Though my premonitions might be unwarranted. For example, the “Prologue” promises to relate “Shakespeare’s early life”, but it does not state as a fact that Shakespeare wrote or performed for Admiral’s Men (a common biographical misconception), and it does not really describe any specifics regarding where and how Shakespeare might have served as an actor; instead, the “Prologue” introduces known details regarding how actors with more authenticated biographies established themselves in this profession. There are still some oddities that are illogical in this summary; for example, it seems the “theatre” is a part of “educated Renaissance culture”. So why would anybody have said Shakespeare was one but not the other? The real point of separation for me is when Es argues there is a proven relationship between Shakespeare’s contribution as a manager and the innovations seen in later “Shakespeare”-attributed texts. Any patterns in this regard must be biased misinterpretations given my findings of multiple “Shakespeares” behind these attributed texts. And why would the experience of paying writers and scheduling play-times positively influence one’s literary capability? This is like saying that Warren Buffet learned to be a playwriter as he worked in investing, and thus obviously the films one of his subsidiaries released demonstrate his improving genre-development; this false attribution to Buffet of the skill of screenplay writing is hardly more absurd than equating these two oppositional fields in “Shakespeare”. It is also absurd to insist “Shakespeare” responded to specific characteristics of Chamberlain’s actors because a few “Shakespeare”-attributed plays were performed by other actors belonging to rival acting companies (this being a currently established fact). As for the last point, Shakespeare was famous in his day for storing too much grain during a shortage or as people in London starved without it… He enjoyed great working conditions, but if he was poetically-inclined he might have approached this and other decisions with a bit more artful humanity.

Despite this book getting my blood pressure up by a few points, it will be very interesting to review what the life of actors was like in this period. Since I have not come across any specific evidence before that “Shakespeare” was ever an actor, if I find any here it would at least answer this gaping question. I am sure any other patterns between the “Shakespeare” canon and changes in the theatre industry across this period will help me figure out what happened behind the scenes. This should be a useful book to research for scholars in this field who have stumbled across the same types of questions I note here that this text inspires.

When and How Were the 1623 Folio Plays Written and Edited?

Gary Taylor and John Jowett. Shakespeare Reshaped, 1606-1623. 352pp, hardback. $155. ISBN: 978-0-198122562. Oxford: Oxford Scholarship Online: Oxford University Press, 1993. 


According to my findings, the plays included in the 1623 Folio collection of “Shakespeare” plays were written primarily by Fletcher and Munday. Many of them had not been published ever before, and if they had been performed, they were heavily edited if not nearly entirely re-written between their performance and this publication. The 1623 Folio has been utilized as the main source for deciding if a given play is attributed to “Shakespeare” or if it is labeled as Apocrypha, or a text that might have even had “Shakespeare” in its “written by…” line on the title page, but because it was not included in the 1623 folio scholars have insisted it could not actually be by Shakespeare. This seemingly random mis-attribution was crafted by publishers who established “Shakespeare” as a top British author, including the Pope collection of “Shakespeare” plays; Pope explained his selection was based on the superiority of the works in the 1623 collection rather than on any attempt to exclude any plays because he believed them to be less likely to be by Shakespeare; but the following generations of publishers found that readers were more likely to purchase “complete” collections of “Shakespeare” rather than one that only included his best efforts, and so the tradition of excluding plays from the 1663-4 Folio and other plays not published in the 1623 Folio began.

Given this background, I can now introduce this book’s abstract: “This book explores the ways in which Shakespeare’s texts were reshaped in his lifetime and up till the publication of the First Folio, and the kinds of outside interference to which they were subjected.” This should be highly revealing when I have a moment to read this text more closely; it should explain how the ghostwriters behind these plays mutated them. For my project, I need to know if Fletcher and Munday wrote most of these plays specifically for the 1623 folio, or if they really just collected old plays knowing they were coming to the end of their lives. “As well as the powers of censorship of the Master of the Revels, in this period these included moves to expurgate profanity; major changes in theatrical conventions, notably the imposition of act divisions; and the late introduction of material by other hands.” This will be very useful, but these problems have been softened by past scholars. The Master of the Revels was likely to have contracted with one of these ghostwriters for his critical work, so the relationship between these writers and censoring or propagandistic efforts of the government were almost always congruent rather than conflicting, unless strive was deliberately introduced for the purpose of pressuring these writers to great degrees of obedience to the scheme. The note regarding profanity might prove doubtful as the theaters were located in the brothel districts and the plays presented tend to be heavy in their death-toll and sexual content, so it would be strange if amidst the strong language that remains, a significant portion was expunged… This type of censorship for profanity is more of a modern problem, in my opinion. If I test all of the scenes of these plays for authorial signatures separately, I might figure out which hands added which portions; however, when I have attempted testing scenes or acts that past attribution scholars have attributed to “other hands”, I discovered that they had a very similar or a shared authorial signature with the rest of the play. Given my hypotheses, I am interested to read more about this to see how Taylor and Jowett arrived at these conclusions.

It continues: “Political censorship of individual plays has already been studied in some depth: this book concentrates on the forms of interference—expurgation, Act division, interpolation—which can usefully be examined across the whole canon, and which resulted in ‘late reshaping’. These influences were at work between May 1606 and November 1623, and—unlike the political censorship, which would have come into effect immediately the plays were submitted for a licence—affected the texts years after they were first written. There is a major central study of Measure for Measure, which underwent posthumous interpolation: the book makes a strong claim for this being at the hands of Thomas Middleton.” Well, it was definitely not by Middleton as my linguistics demonstrate Middleton hired ghostwriters, and Measure registered as matching Fletcher’s authorial signature.

Adding and Subtracting Attributions Amidst the “Shakespeare” Canon

Gary Taylor and Gabriel Egan, eds. The New Oxford Shakespeare: Authorship Companion. 741pp, hardback. $190. ISBN: 978-0-199591169. Oxford: Oxford Scholarship Online: Oxford University Press; The New Oxford Shakespeare, 2017. 


This is one of the volumes that makes up a new addition to the collected “Shakespeare” works that Oxford has been editing and re-releasing every few decades. This collection is called The New Oxford Shakespeare, and it was just released a couple of years ago, though the covered attribution or “authorship” studies reviewed or included in this particular volume are a bit older, as just-released studies have a tendency to be proven wrong pre-press. The primary objective of my “Shakespeare” re-attribution project is to prove that the conclusions of all of these most highly regarded past attribution studies are wrong. The number of these attempts alone is rather frightful, and the works included in this collection are a mere fraction of the scholarship released over nearly five centuries on the “Shakespeare” attribution question. So far, I reviewed a few of these chapters more closely than the others, but I will eventually re-read all of them as I am sure editors will not accept the number of my past study citations as sufficient until I at least debunk all of these field-leaders. The chapter that has attracted most of my research time up until now is “Chapter 25 The Canon and Chronology of Shakespeare’s Works”; this is an important chapter for my project because it considers the body of “Shakespeare” attributions as a whole rather than focusing on comparing an individual test to other samples. Among the clues in these pages for further research there is a giant diagram from Ahmed Shamsul Arefin’s study, “Clustering outcome of the MST-kNN + kNN Clique graph partitioning algorithm on the distance matrix produced by using pair-wise Jensen-Shannon divergence of the works’ token frequencies”, which is more specifically explained in Arefin’s essay, but is summarized in this chapter to prove the validity of the current attributions. This diagram reminded me of my own attribution clusters, but Arefin excludes nearly all of the main authorial signature holders to whom I am re-attributing the texts in question; when they are excluded as potential authors, it appears as if a single author called “Shakespeare” might have written several logically distinct and only slightly connected (outside of their individual groups) clusters of texts. Without repeating my findings regarding several other studies covered in these pages, suffice it to say that these summaries of reasons why scholars trust the established attributions are indeed the walls that I have to prove to be faulty to be believed in my re-attributions.

To spare the readers of this review the effort of googling this book in search of a summary: “This companion… concentrates on the issues of canon and chronology – currently the most active and controversial debates in the field of Shakespeare editing. It presents in full the evidence behind the choices made in The Complete Works about which works Shakespeare wrote, in whole or part.” This is why debunking the covered studies in these pages is essential to shifting this entire field; if Oxford is going to re-attribute the entire “Shakespeare” canon, as I am suggesting, they need to know how exactly my findings contradict the evidence that is current accepted or debated as uncertain. “A major new contribution to attribution studies, the Authorship Companion illuminates the work and methodology underpinning the groundbreaking New Oxford Shakespeare and casts new light on the professional working practices, and creative endeavors, of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.” This project does not only review the old attribution studies, but shows patterns of change and divergence or agreement between them; a critical compilation like this is needed in this field because with up to a thousand (or more) past attempts at re-attribution or attribution-confirmation, the field is too cumbersome for comprehension without a pattern analysis. “We now know that Shakespeare collaborated with his literary and dramatic contemporaries and that others adapted his works before they reached printed publication.” The “essays explore and explain these processes, laying out everything we currently know about the works’ authorship. Using a variety of different attribution methods,” it “has confirmed the presence of other writers’ hands in plays that until recently were thought to be Shakespeare’s solo work.” Oxford appears to have contracted computational linguists to assist them with adding to past attribution studies specifically for this project; I was told by the editor that the current Marston project contracted linguists in a similar manner to double-check the attributions in this author’s established canon. This is a good time for me to pitch my no-“Shakespeare” theory given this climate of accepting multi-signature contributions across the canon, but apparently my findings are still too shocking for scholars who have spent a lifetime writing about “Shakespeare’s” imaginary biography and the giant status of this “original” literary thinker… Re-interpreting “Shakespeares” as a plural clearly requires more effort. The “essays… show why we must now add new plays to the accepted Shakespeare canon and reattribute certain parts of familiar Shakespeare plays to other writers.” This addition of new plays to the “Shakespeare” canon is extremely troubling as if some attribution scholars are given the reins, they might expand this canon from a few dozen plays to most of the texts produced across the period, as has happened in the “Defoe” canon, which was over 550 attributions a few decades ago. Scholars might feel tempted to add attributions to the “Shakespeare” canon if they find similarities between texts written by the same ghostwriter under different names, whereas the subtraction might be the result of finding two ghostwriters’ divergent signatures. The assumption that one of the compared texts must be by “Shakespeare” is causing the illogical shuffling of texts between the multi-signature “Shakespeare” canon and the canons of individuals who hired shared ghostwriters. Too many computational linguists appear to create computing methods that are detached from linguistic rules; these types of problems are only revealed upon close scrutiny of studies such as the ones included here. This next line stresses the reason this is a better resource for this type of analysis than others I have consulted: “The latest methods for authorship attribution are explained in simple but accurate terms and all the linguistic data on which the conclusions are based is provided.” I doubt these are really “simple” explanations, but they lack the digressive nonsense too many modern scholars insert to confuse readers.

This is a great book that every Renaissance scholar and student at all levels needs to read to understand the hidden chaos behind the seeming certainty in the attributions to an author that has been perceived as a unified and unshakable entity in British literature.

Proving Attribution to a Nonexistent Play…

David Carnegie and Gary Taylor. The Quest for Cardenio: Shakespeare, Fletcher, Cervantes, and the Lost Play. 432pp, hardback, 9 black-and-white halftones. $73. 6X9”. ISBN: 978-0-199641819. Oxford: Oxford Scholarship Online: Oxford University Press, 2012. 


The approach taken in this study hits on all of the main problems with previous additions to the “Shakespeare” canon, so I have to begin by inserting their full summary before explaining the mind-boggling illogical problems Carnegie and Taylor’s approach introduces. “Celebrating the quatercenary of publication of the first translation of Don Quixote, this book addresses the ongoing debates about the lost Jacobean play The History of Cardenio, based on Cervantes, and commonly claimed to be by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher. It also re-examines Lewis Theobald’s 1727 adaptation Double Falsehood. Offering new research findings based on a range of approaches—new historical evidence, employment of advanced computer-aided stylometric tests for authorship attribution, early modern theatre history, literary and theatrical analysis, study of the source material from Cervantes, early modern relationships between Spanish and English culture, and recent theatrical productions of both Double Falsehood and modern expansions of it—this book throws new light on whether the play deserves a place in Shakespeare’s canon and/or Fletcher’s. The book establishes the dates, venues, and audience for two performances of Cardenio by the King’s Men in 1613, and identifies for the first time evidence about the play in seventeenth-century documents. It also provides much new evidence and analysis of Double Falsehood, which Theobald claimed was based on previously unknown manuscripts of a play by Shakespeare. His enemies, especially Pope, denied the Shakespeare attribution. Debate has continued ever since. While some contributors advocate sceptical caution, new research provides stronger evidence than ever before that a lost Fletcher/Shakespeare Cardenio can be discerned within Double Falsehood. This book explores the Cardenio problem by reviving or adapting Double Falsehood, and demonstrates that such practical theatre work throws valuable light on some of the problems that have obstructed traditional scholarly approaches.”

Carnegie and Taylor attempt to prove a similarity of linguistic signatures between a text mentioned as similar without documentary proof, Cardenia, and other “Shakespeare”-mis-attributed texts. To confuse readers away from the obvious problems of not knowing if the texts already attributed to Shakespeare are by him, these authors insert two random additional levels of comparison: a novel from a century prior to this publication, Quixote, and a play “adaptation” of from a century later, Double Falsehood, by a completely different author. In other words, their goal is to prove X belongs to authorial signature group-a, and to make this link they compare X to authorial group-b and group-c. Do you think this is a logical approach to prove the intended point? To complicate this whole thing to the point of nonsense, the play being attributed is “lost”, so neither I nor anybody else can establish this attribution linguistically. As I demonstrate in my study, the repetition of plots between Quixote, Cardenio and Double could have been due to consecutive authors imitating the same plot; if these authors were all from the same period, they might have been using the same cheat-sheet plot, but the hundred-years distances between them mean that the authors were very likely to have read their predecessors, and this familiarity means an attribution cannot be made based on this evidence. For example, the Torah has similarities in plotline with Indian religions that depicted storylines such as the Great Flood and the Arc; using these plotline similarities to argue that the same author wrote both stories, or that the pattern can prove anything about either of these individual authors would be absurd. “Shakespeare’s” popularity has produced many hundreds of attribution studies including countless false attributions that favored the financial interests of the attributors, so if Theobald claimed his play was “based” on “Shakespeare’s”, but failed to produce this fiscally valuable manuscript, it is a certainty that he was lying regarding such a discovery. Several documents across the “Shakespeare” attribution industry have previously been proven to be fakes, so basing a book on not even a fake but the claim of the existence of a presumed fake is ridiculous. And absent any logical proof, these writers propose to prove the case by “reviving” the faker’s Quixote-mimicking play?

If I am this dumbfounded by reviewing the gist of this work, I am sure I will uncover still more shocking details further in, but these cannot fix the absurdity of their approach. I am still giving this project five-stars because this is a more sophisticated series of deliberate-confusion-inducing hoops than I have seen in books I typically label as nonsensical and give lower star-ratings too. I will include any change in judgement in my study.  

When the Raw Data Is Hidden, the Conclusions Mislead

MacDonald P. Jackson. Defining Shakespeare: Pericles as Test Case. 272pp, hardback, 1 line illustration. $180. 6X9”. ISBN: 978-0-199260508. Oxford: Oxford Scholarship Online: Oxford University Press, 2003. 


My own linguistic analysis determined that Pericles’ “Shakespeare”-attributed Acts 1 and 2, and its frequently contested Act 3 were both written by Munday. Acts 1 and 2 are slightly more collaborative including signatures matching Fletcher and Munday as well as other highly collaborative works. As I mentioned earlier in this set of reviews, I determined that Wilkins’ Enforced Marriage play was ghostwritten by Drayton, so it is likely this study used illogical, flawed, biased or otherwise misleading methods to reach its proposed conclusions. When Wilkins’ Enforced is compared with Pericles’ Acts 1 and 2, they only match on 2 out of 28 tests, indicating extreme dissimilarity, or a certainty they are by divergent authors. If scholars believe the attribution conclusions of this particular study, they would be believing the opposite of what the math indicates regarding these texts.

Here is what it attempts to prove: “‘That very great play, Pericles’, as T. S. Eliot called it, poses formidable problems of text and authorship. The first of the Late Romances, it was ascribed to Shakespeare when printed in a quarto of 1609, but was not included in the First Folio (1623) collection of his plays. This book examines rival theories about the quarto’s origins and offers compelling evidence that Pericles is the product of collaboration between Shakespeare and the minor dramatist George Wilkins, who was responsible for the first two acts and for portions of the ‘brothel scenes’ in Act 4. Pericles serves as a test case for methodologies that seek to define the limits of the Shakespeare canon and to identify co-authors. A wide range of metrical, lexical, and other data is analysed. Computerized ‘stylometric’ texts are explained and their findings assessed. A concluding chapter introduces a new technique that has the potential to answer many of the remaining questions of attribution associated with Shakespeare and his contemporaries.”

It is troubling how trusting “Shakespeare” literature scholars have been in the computer scientists running these types of “stylometric” studies that are leading them further from the truth of the matter. I look forward to examining what went wrong in this study as I continue my research. Other scholars who are also interested in correcting past missteps in this field might benefit from reading this project, but curious or casual readers of “Shakespeare” should avoid it as it will misdirect them towards erroneous conclusions without realizing they are being misguided.

The Multidimensionality of Henslowe and His Men

Lawrence Manley and Sally-Beth MacLean. Lord Strange’s Men and Their Plays. 488pp, hardback, 30 b/w illustrations. $65. 6X9”. ISBN: 978-0-300191998. Yale Scholarship Online: Yale University Press, 2014. 


This is the one book in this set that I finished from cover-to-cover. I am currently mentioning Manley and MacLean 64 times in my study, so there is a lot to say, but I don’t want to repeat what I am saying in the study. While I am reviewing seven other books available in full-text via Oxford and Yale Scholarship Online, this book had to be the first I digested because it goes through many of the dark spots that I had regarding what it was like to operate or work for a theatrical company in Renaissance London. While this is my second attribution project, I am veering further and further away from my comfort zone of nineteenth century British literature. On the other hand, “Shakespeare” was one of the authors who first interested me in the serious study of literature back at the Dewey High School in Brooklyn, where oddly enough I took an entire class on “Shakespeare’s” plays. A mythology was built around “Shakespeare” in many of my literature classes since then, but the reality of what it was like to be a theater manager or an author over four hundred years ago remained as hazy as it would be if “Shakespeare” was a character in a fairytale. I recall having difficulty believing or visualizing the bits of biography we were taught about “Shakespeare”. For example, Manley and MacLean describe the dimensions of the Rose and other theaters Henslowe built or managed and I recall these statistics echoing in at least one of the textbooks we read while covering “Shakespeare”; even on those earlier readings I had a sense the numbers had to be off because the theaters’ size, Rose pre-remodeled at 1,334-square-foot and remodeled 1,837-square-foot, was three times my tiny house, but some believed “Shakespeare” contemporaries said audiences per show reached 10,000 and documented records indicate at least 2,500 attendants; 5,000 is the capacity for the Hollywood Palladium (11,200-square-foot: 6X larger than renovated Rose) and the Ford Amphitheater at Coney Island (90,164-square-foot: 49X larger). These numbers indicate that the space offered to a single person in Coney Island was crammed with 49 people in Henslowe’s theater; or it might have been 100 people if the 10,000 estimate is to be believed. If Henslowe’s books were not cooked or exaggerated, he was forcing the audiences to stand body-to-body on three shaky wooden stories, which collapsed at caused injuries on at least one occasion, probably due to over-capacity loads on the wood. If you imagine the most ruthless modern ghetto-landlord you might begin approaching Henslowe’s character; in fact, Henslowe was also a landlord who was forcing writers to compose at extreme rates in part because they owed him for rent and he could send them to debtor’s prison if they fell behind. While you might questioning what this lunatic called Henslowe has to do with the great “Shakespeare”; well, the two had a nearly identical role as theater company managers and theater developers, only Henslowe kept a cooked or deliberately convoluted to avoid detection log-book of his activities, whereas Shakespeare barely wrote a word across his lifetime (even his six signatures have been contested as fakes). Reading this book closely helped me to see this obvious parallel so that I gained a more logical and detached perspective on “Shakespeare” and why authors might have chosen his name for their bylines; then again, it is possible that “Shakespeare” was all together an invention or a pseudonym created by Drayton and Bassano, and later reinforced by Munday and the other ghostwriters; Mary Sidney or one of their wealthy aristocratic patrons might have been the secret financier who not only signed playbooks and poetry with “Shakespeare” starting in 1593, but also became a part-owner in the Chamberlain’s company. While these are some of my less supported arguments at this point, thinking in these directions might eventually help me to locate the proof needed to strength wild theories into documented facts. And this is only one example of how this book has inspired my research. For example, these authors have closely reviewed the vast body of criticism out there and they indicate the precise degree of disagreement on the points of contention in the “Shakespeare” canon rather than guessing blindly to relate their own beliefs. They have also made me realize that the seven main ghostwriters my study located are likely to have been working in a collaborative rather than as individual competitors; this came to mind as I was reviewing Manley and MacLean’s notes on working arrangements via a “consortium” between “players”. The presence of a “consortium” would explain why rivals had difficulty competing with them during their active years for ghostwriting assignments, and the London theaters closed for two decades in 1642 not long after the last of these mega propagandistic writers died. But I won’t digress any further, and will return to these ponderings in my study.

The publisher explains: “For a brief period in the late Elizabethan Era an innovative company of players dominated the London stage. A fellowship of dedicated thespians, Lord Strange’s Men established their reputation by concentrating on ‘modern matter’ performed in a spectacular style, exploring new modes of impersonation, and deliberately courting controversy. Supported by their equally controversial patron, theater connoisseur and potential claimant to the English throne Ferdinando Stanley, the company included Edward Alleyn, considered the greatest actor of the age, as well as George Bryan, Thomas Pope, Augustine Phillips, William Kemp, and John Hemings, who later joined William Shakespeare and Richard Burbage in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Though their theatrical reign was relatively short lived, Lord Strange’s Men helped to define the dramaturgy of the period, performing the plays of Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, and others with their own distinctive flourish. The authors offer a complete account of the troupe and its enormous influence on Elizabethan theater. Blending theater history and literary criticism, they paint a lively portrait of a unique community of performing artists, their intellectual ambitions and theatrical innovations, their business practices, and their fearless engagements with the politics and religion of their time.”

This book should be read by teachers of the “Shakespeare” canon and Renaissance drama at all levels, so that they can explain why the plays of this period have attained their elevated status, how they were made and performed, and other elements to ground with details this distant time and culture.


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