Book Reviews: Spring 2016

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Books

Gloria Ferreira and Paulo Herkenhoff, eds. Mario Pedrosa: Primary Documents. $40. 464pp, 72 illustrations, ISBN: 978-0-87070-911-1. January 2016. A publication of the Museum of Modern Art: MOMA Primary Documents. Duke University Press.

 

***

 

Having won half-a-dozen research grants, I am always excited by the word, “primary documents.” The concept made me think of doodles in an artist’s notebook or never-before-seen letters to childhood sweethearts. I am always searching for textbooks that might help me practically to use postmodern and abstract art in my designs, drawings and other creative projects. When I read academic books about this subject, I anticipate that they will explain multiple perspectives or negative space in an applicable way. I visited MoMA many years ago, and I was inspired by the range of the exhibited ideas. This book is large enough to have enriched and depressed my hopes.

Mario Pedrosa is separated into sections of essays, plates and primary documents of the established, Brazilian art and culture critic. The documents are separated into sub-sections: theoretical and aesthetic speculations, cultural politics and the art system, history of criticism, criticism of criticism, art criticism, architectural criticism, a singular socialist, and correspondences.

Let’s start with the last section because it includes the names Leon Trotsky and Pablo Picasso, and I frequently find that starting with a detail that interests me helps me to dive into a book. Mario Pedrosa calls himself Lebrun in the letter he sent to Leon Trotsky on March 23, 1940 from New York. Pedrosa explains that he had been a member of the communist party or the Leftist Opposition in France since 1928, and that he had “been militantly (and uninterruptedly) engaged in L.B. [Leninist Bolshevik] ranks under” his “direction” (406). The use of the term “militant” is striking in the context of a collection of writings of an art critic. “Forced to abandon the country, for I was then on trial because of my active participation in the movement in France and in the I.S. [International Secretariat], during the whole of 1938,” he continues. He states that the party sent him to North America and that he is still stuck there, though he succeeded in leaving the distasteful New York City. The rest of the letter criticizes Trotsky for his negative comments about the party. It also points out several problems in the leadership of the international socialist movement. In response to all this, Trotsky calls Pedrosa a, “curious type!” and says that Pedrosa is falsely supporting democracy over Bolshevik centralism (410). This is a curious exchange at a central political moment, though its significance to art history is less clear. In contrast, the letter to Pablo Picasso from Santiago, July 19, 1972 is a formulaic letter that he probably sent out in semi-duplicate to most of the great artists that he hoped to acquire paintings from for his Museo de la Solidaridad in Chile.

The first section in the book is the most difficult to read because the essays are written in a style that all graduate students recognize as the post-modern puzzle. These essays are about Pedrosa as opposed to by him, and each of them attempts to glorify the art of his critical writing with exercises in stylistic confusion, the natural outcome of criticizing criticism about postmodern art. In other words, a critic comes to an art exhibit and sees cow feces smeared across the white walls, and writes an article that he enjoyed this project for a series of reasons. If the critic achieves notoriety in their own right, a highbrow critic now comes in and closely reads the article about the feces, and then has to describe the significance of the criticism without using the word “feces” and certainly not the word “shit” with a vocabulary that should stop the shitty artists from buying the resulting critical collection. The best example of this from the titles is, “Naturally Modern: Mario Pedrosa and Architectural Criticism” by Lauro Cavalcanti. After a historic summary of architecture in Brazil, Cavalcanti writes, “Pedrosa did not fail to notice the Brazilian contribution to downplaying the prosaic style of an exacerbated rational-functionalism that, for him, was justified only initially as a way of combatting decorative excesses. As positive elements of this new emphasis, he pointed to the articulation between interior and exterior spaces and the formal freedom engendered by the curves…” (45). Prosaic? Why not say, “simple”? By “exacerbated” did he mean “impaired”? How about this non-critic translation of this statement: Pedrosa described the simple, impaired, functional and excessively decorated Brazilian architectural style with its contrast between negative and positive space and use of curvy lines. The latter sentence would not have been accepted into this collection of criticism, but would’ve been a lot more useful to an architect trying to figure out Pedrosa’s stylistics. This type of criticism always frustrates me as I try to make use of it. Simultaneously, this critical style matches Pedrosa’s in his own essays in this volume. For example, in “Concrete Poet and Painter” he writes, “…the poet leaves the specific field of verbal rhetoric, or logical-significant discourse—the natural environment in which words are born, live, grow, move, transform themselves, and die—to begin his investigations anew, with the virginity of primary experiences, at the level of practical-phenomenological inter-sensorial activities in which the painter or the musician acts” (273). If that poet leaves verbal communication, he is going past nonsense and into either spirituality or drug-induced surreality. Too many poets abandon logic following this type of advice and imagine that all nonsense is postmodern. Pedrosa takes up this very question in his later essay, “On the Stuffed Pig; or, Criteria of Criticism.” He begins by summarizing the history of art movements from impressionism to cubism to surrealism, and then concludes that the critic’s “increasingly uncomfortable function leads him either to deliberately take on the partisan, active role of an ism…” or to be a “living witness of his time,” relating “opposites.” “Each artist makes his revolution once, but the critic is a tireless witness of each revolution. Within a single age, one revolutionary episode after another amounts to a process. The critic’s role is to define this process—or the process of a single albeit permanent revolution—in its totality… Thus the critic exists in a state of permanent revolution” (219). Revolution as a historic movement is a Marxist concept here used to explain the constant changes in the preferred styles of art. Pedrosa explains that the complex vocabulary and philosophical and even scientific explanations for artistic movements stem from “a desire to solve what abstractionism was; to decipher its messages…” (220). He goes on to complain: “Pretense to originality is lost; aristocratic aversion to the copy is no more” (220). After this long philosophical treatise, Pedrosa details the introduction of a “sculpture” called Porco empalhado or “Stuffed pig” to the jury of artists at the Salao de Brasilia. Pedrosa seems to be asking questions, but he really spends a page-long paragraph defending the validity of a stuffed pig and of Andy Warhol’s exhibited cardboard boxes and cans with known labels as worthy of serious art criticism. The problem with current art criticism is that this string of wild art movement adventures stopped four decades ago and since that point, critics have been reminiscing and repeating the absurd praises to all sorts of temporary innovations in art during a century of extreme technological advances that traumatized artists of merit. Art criticism is frozen and speechless at the old stuffed pig and critics can’t call shit by its proper name and move on to valuing new types of modern art. Once a stuffed pig, garbage or cans are introduced and shock the imagination, the repetition of these tricks is nothing put the replaying of somebody else’s tragedy or a satire.

To summarize, this is a book that all art critics should browse and dissect if only to disagree with the style or content. Criticism cannot evolve until critics have read sufficient past criticism to be repelled from nonsense and inspired by logic and the pursuit of ideals.

 

 

David Kaczynski. Every Last Tie: The Story of the Unabomber and His Family. 176pp, 29 illustrations, $19.95 hardcover: 978-0-8223-5980-4, ebook: 978-0-8223-7500-5. February 2016. Duke University Press.

 

***

 

David Kaczynski’s memoir is important if only as a primary document that records the recollections of a sibling of an American serial killer. Readers should be aware of the likely biases of the writer, as what brother would portray himself as a villain that helped to shape a murderer? Despite this, careful readers can find the curious psychology, biases and truths about David, Ted and their relationship between the solid lines of text. David writes that when he was seven and Ted was in high school, Ted moved into the attic to finally get his own bedroom and to “isolate himself from the family whenever he wanted, which turned out to be rather often” (7). Think back to your childhood. Do you recall times when you wanted to move to the attic? Perhaps there were shouting matches? Maybe your sibling stole your favorite book and buried it in the backyard? David does not describe these incidents from what must have been a violently emotional childhood for both of them that led Ted to feel the need to isolate himself from the brood. David keeps returning to the question he asks his mother outright, “‘What’s wrong with Ted?’” (8) His preference to stay alone in the attic and to avoid human interactions in general are seen as an anti-social disorder, but no evidence is given of the types of negative interactions with people that led him to think that as a great philosopher once said, “hell is other people.” David also stresses that while he thought something was wrong with Ted, he enjoyed spending time with him, collecting coins, playing duets, or reading Edgar Allan Poe. “He once showed me a humorous drawing he’d done of Napoleon that made the emperor look quite crazed.” It’s interesting that he stresses the craziness of this drawing, but then again perhaps that’s the best way to describe it. It is interesting that when David reports that Ted went away to Harvard at sixteen he did not anticipate that he “would suffer as a result of social isolation (and worse) there, because I had no idea he needed anting from people. I thought of him as emotionally self-sufficient, free of my ‘weakness’ for human companionship, my need for social validation” (8). This is a great observation. The difference between a sociopath and a self-sufficient personality is just that, a loner that wants to belong and constantly struggles to fit in but fails is likely to develop a psychosis while somebody who is happy away from other people is more likely to philosophize about it with detachment. At the point when Ted left for college, David’s primary exposure to Ted ended, so he steps aside from family recollections and looks at the CIA-sponsored experiment Ted participated in at Harvard, operated by psychologist Henry Murray. David writes, “it is clear my brother was a guinea pig in an unethical and psychologically damaging research project conducted by a team of psychological researchers who used deceptive tactics to study the effects of emotional and psychological trauma on unwitting human subjects” (11).

In the childhood photographs in the middle of the book, Ted is always smiling, while David is sticking out his tongue in one and frowning in most others. In the photos when Ted is graduating from high school and leaving for college, he looks like he wants to start skipping with joy, while David is staring oddly at nothing in the distance. Ted only becomes more serious in pictures after Harvard. The notorious cabin in Montana makes an appearance in a 1972 photo. It has a tiny window, stands on stills and has a square shape. While he looks like a farmer surveying his land in 1972, the photo of the “last visit from his parents” in 1982 shows a rebellious and malicious attitude in his eyes and raised chin. His body is uncomfortably posed and he has bare feet. His jeans are worn and he has a thick beard and mustache. He was clearly unhappy that his parents were on his land and that they were taking this picture.

In the “Afterward” James Knoll, MD attempts to grapple with the psychological questions the text suggests about mass shooters and the Buddhist Perspective. In David’s conclusion, he reflects about Ted’s refusal to answer his letters and about his own “dream” of recovering “the joy and newness” of his “marriage, before the Unabomber’s shadow engulfed us” (104). If the relationship between the brothers was as positive as David says, why would Ted refuse to reply to his letters? Why would Buddhism help with understanding mass homicide?

Still, this book raises many necessary questions. If Ted’s mind is too clouded by CIA torture, drugs or psychosis, at least here, we can step into his brother’s mind and we can study the roots between the two and the intricate differences that make a man from this upbringing snap.

 

 

William H. Chafe. Hillary and Bill: The Clintons and the Politics of the Personal. Revised and expanded edition. Paper: $21.95: ISBN: 978-0-8223-6230-2. January 2016. Duke University Press.

 

*

 

If this were the first biographies I read about Bill and Hillary Clinton, I would have read with curiosity. Sadly, I have read a couple for each, so most of the biographical stories summarized here are repetitions I have read about previously. The stories are always reported as known facts in these biographies in part because they are based on primary autobiographical accounts. There were a few details that on this reading surprised me in light of Hillary’s second presidential run. Chafe reports that Hillary was the class president and gave the Wellesley University commencement address in 1969. Oddly, standing on that podium, knowing that she was headed for Yale Law School, made her angry at the speaker that went ahead of her, the only black member of the U.S. Senate, Senator Edward Brooke, who did his best to give a positive speech that avoid offending his primarily white-female audience in Massachusetts. Hillary’s introductory remarks were reprinted in the major papers and launched her national reputation, “‘Part of the problem with empathy with professed goals is that empathy doesn’t do anything… We’ve had lots of empathy… [For] too long our leaders have used politics as the art of the possible. And the challenge now is to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible possible’” (46). With only one African American in the Senate in 1969, was it really “possible” for him to make real changes? Chafe falls into the same trap as all of the Clintons’ biographers, he commands Hillary on her achievement saying that she spoke “boldly, directly” and the like, but did she really? She was the first student to give a commencement address at Wellesley. And the message she most wanted to carry across was that Senator Brooke was too empathetic and too middle-of-the-road? Surely, if one will command Hillary for taking this position, one has to argue that she had not done enough with all of the power she has been granted as a Secretary of State, a Senator, a First Lady… Politics really is not the “art of making what appears to be impossible possible.” Politics is the work of making what is necessary and possible happen. A good goal should not appear as impossible to the person who’s going to pick up the shovel and make it. We can excuse Hillary for making a linguistic blunder in her youth, but we should not color it as her first political success.

The opening chapters work to convince readers that both Hillary and Bill had traumatic childhoods with verbally and physically abusive parents. The story builds towards explaining how their parents stayed together despite this abuse and why it was natural for them to stay in their marriage after the Lewinski scandal.

The bias of the author even comes through when he commands Bill on skipping classes at Yale Law School, “of course, Clinton was enrolled in classes—which he never attended. Like Hillary Rodham in her first year, Bill Clinton followed his own agenda…” Bill was apparently away helping to run U.S. Senator campaign of the Reverend Joe Duffey and when he finally returned to Yale, a fellow student, Nancy Bekavac (who later became a partner in a California law firm and the first female president of the Scripps College from 1990 to 2007), asked him “ ‘Where the hell have you been?’” He brushed her off. “He then asked if he could borrow her notes” (68-9). William Chafe stresses that Clinton spent most of his time away from campus and reading novels and somehow managed to score perfectly on his exams. Any professor would tell you that the only way a student can score perfectly without studying at all or coming to class is by cheating and getting the answers in advance. If Nancy or other students were willing to give him notes, surely some were willing to write his brilliant essays for him too. Plagiarism and cheating are serious problems and yet every time I read a book about a suave politician that knows everything without touching a book this is seen as a fun characteristic and not as a major flaw.

With all of the political and fiscal scandals, potential assassinations of rivals, and various other allegations, how can an academic write a book about Bill and Hillary that paints them in such rosy colors? It was accounts like this that convinced me to help Hillary’s first presidential run eight years ago. In my experience, her staff was running a crooked campaign and was viciously forcing anybody who might compete for seats in the administration out by making their life difficult. Hillary looked a bit like a robot in person, always acting and forcing a smile and for her face to point at the proper angle at the cameras. It was a frightening and brief experience to be in her camp and it’s sad that she is one of a handful of women with the political capital to run for the top American office.

 

 

Charles E. Cobb Jr. This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible. 328pp, 12 illustrations, $24.95: ISBN: 978-0-8223-6123-7. December 2016. Duke University Press.

 

**

 

The cover of this book enticed me because it’s of an elderly African American woman in a white shirt, skirt and partially untied shoes seated comfortably but intensely in a wooden chair with a rifle with its barrel pointing at the ceiling in her right hand. Whenever I see a book about a movement or a rebellion, I hope that it will be a detailed history from a unique perspective that I never saw before. Sure, I’ve read books and essays about the Civil Rights Movement, but I certainly never read an entire book about the weapons the activists were carrying. The videos show them being beaten up by police officers, and as far as I can see none of them are shooting back. The book’s back cover explains that Martin Luther King Jr. had a loaded pistol at his side regularly during the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott and had an arsenal at his home. This detail re-colors the details surrounding King’s assassination. John F. Kennedy could’ve been shot by the CIA agents riding in the car behind him that were heard to fire at least one shot (supposedly by accident). Lennon was definitely killed by a fan because the shooting had witnesses and the shooter never denied his involvement. But in King’s case, on April 4, 1968, after making his “Mountaintop” speech, King was stretching his legs on the balcony outside his regular suite 306 at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis when he was shot with a single bullet from the Remington motel across the street in the face. There was a bomb threat against his plane on the trip over to Memphis. Why would he have been casually standing on that balcony in plain view of any bomber or shooter interested in taking a shot if he was so concerned about his safety that he had an “arsenal” of weapons? Was there any chance that King was displaying his guns as he was stretching his legs on the balcony? Could one of his followers have stolen a weapon from his stash and used it against him? No witnesses saw the shooting, and police happened to find a bag with binoculars and gun that had a fugitive, James Earl Ray’s, fingerprints on them, and then he happened to confess, only to recant the confession later on. Certainly crooked police officers would’ve had an easy time getting Ray’s prints on a gun and forcing a confession to lead suspicion away from the real culprit. Is it really likely that a fugitive had nothing better to do than stake out King’s motel with binoculars? The title of this study almost suggests that at least one activist was killed because he or she carried weapons during the nonviolent movement. And yet, King’s activism in Montgomery nor his assassination are in the index and are not explained in needed detail in the book.

There are four pages of blurbs at the start of the book, followed by a dedication, a long quotation, an author’s note, the “Preface to the Paperback Edition: More Than a Gun Story,” an “Introduction,” a “Prologue: ‘I Come to Get My Gun’” and only then, finally, chapter 1 “‘Over My Head I See Freedom in the Air.’” I believe that I have never seen so much repetitive front matter in a book before, and that includes Charles Dickens re-introductions. There are six sections that all prepare the reader for the book ahead. I can’t imagine that the reviewers at the Library Journal and the New York Times Book Review, and especially Julian Bond, NAACP Chairman Emeritus, read every word in these introductions and came out awake by the start of the first chapter. The only part that was added to the edition before me that they did not see is the “More Than a Gun Story” preface, and it seems that this was needed because all of the reviewers talk about a “celebration of armed resistance” while in fact there is very little after a few scenes on the cover and in the prologue of details of how blacks were actively defending themselves with arms. As I searched near the end of the book for something about King’s assassination, I found this curious quote, “One oft-repeated assertion about weapons in the 1960s was that their organized use increased the chances of massive retaliation by local, state, and even federal authorities. That just did not happen, not even in Louisiana where the Deacons for Defense and Justice came closest to armed confrontations with police” (240-1). Really? No retaliation? And this idea just happened to come to the author around the time he’s avoiding talking about King’s assassination? Malcom X was shot on February 21, 1965 by Thomas Hagan, an African American member of the nation of Islam, which ordered the assassination after splitting ties from Malcom X. Malcom X is frequently shown in photographs in textbooks with a shotgun standing at his window on a lookout, and King is portrayed as sleeping unarmed while his home is bombed. Did Malcom X ever actually shoot anybody for the Nation of Islam or anybody else, and if not then he too was acting in self-defense and the difference between violent and non-violent civil rights resistance from this era breaks down. Instead of asking these difficult questions, he continues,

 

There was no meaningful difference between white responses to armed resistance by blacks and white responses to nonviolent resistance by blacks. Where massive police force or state power was exercised, as in Birmingham and Selma, Alabama, or in Jackson, Mississippi, police violence was not a response to either the use of guns or the practice of nonviolence; rather, it was exercised for the sole purpose of crushing black protest and demands in any shape. The Freedom Rider bus in Anniston, Alabama, for instance, was not firebombed because anyone thought it was smuggling weapons; hate and fear alone drove that attack, as they did the police-backed mob attacks against Freedom Riders in Birmingham and Montgomery (241).

 

This entire is just this frustrating. The history is given in glimpses of loosely related incidents in the Civil Rights Movement that jump between Freedom Riders and smuggling without stopping to detail the historic events of any single moment and to explain exactly where the weapons were hidden, what weapons were used, and if the whites opposing the movement were aware that this group was so heavily armed. The claims are also very flimsy and beg for a contradiction. How can the response from police officers remain the same if there is an army of armed blacks coming at them or an unarmed march of peaceful protestors, singing “We Shall Overcome”? The author has entered deep waters and seems to be struggling against the implications of his own statements. It is indeed very possible that the police was responding violently because of the movements use of guns and not because of their urge to crust “black protest.” It is a lot easier to imagine fear in response to seeing weapons as opposed to fear generated solely by the color of the opposition’s skin. A conclusion about the white officer’s motivations cannot be based on assumptions about their inherent racism, but rather on the facts, accounts, photographs or other documents that would settle this question with certainty. In other words, why is Cobb stressing that the Freedom Riders were not “smuggling weapons”? Who accused them of doing so? Is there a chance they were indeed smuggling weapons and that’s why they were firebombed in Montgomery, the town where King was assassinated? If they were involved in weapons smuggling in Montgomery, King’s shooter could’ve been a disgruntled smuggler, and this can put a dark veil over an American national holiday.

This book is upsetting. I am always frustrated when I read artistic histories like this one. I am hungry for the truth and want to see history in a new light and instead I suddenly see a nightmarish, distorted fog over what I previously assumed were settled historic facts. I hope somebody will re-examine the assertions in this book and will come up with a textbook that leads the reader through the facts to the truth, whatever it might be.

 

 

Carin Kuoni and Chelsea Haines, eds. Entry Points: The Vera List Center Manual on Art and Social Justice, No. 1. 288pp, 153 illustrations. $25: ISBN: 978-0-8223-6200-5. January 2016. Duke University Press.

 

****

 

This book needs an introduction because anybody that comes to it without an orientation will become confused. The title, cover and the map of artists on page 12 promise a collection of modern social art, but then three essays on the personal experience and theory of the relationship of postmodern art to politics toss the reader into a haze. It seems the structure of the book is deliberately breaking design norms. An introduction in small font explains how the book is organized: Part One, “The Field” presents a “snapshot into the state of art and social justice on a global level with reflections on key concepts” by looking at twenty-two distinct projects very briefly. Part Two, “Dorchester Projects” by Theaster Gates theorizes in essays on the 2008 transformation of two buildings in Chicago into a library, performance space and soul food kitchen (7-8). Once you orient yourself in this scheme, it’s easy to turn through the individual social art projects and concepts to dig for the information that interests an individual reader.

This book was sent to me by Duke, but they are only the distributer for the project. It was designed with the support of The New School in Manhattan that also houses Project Runway. They created a deliberate sense of disorientation in part by starting the table of contents on the left-hand side and using multiple columns for the chapters as if they were image titles and not placing “contents” or another identifying label above the list. The second you take the book into your arms, you feel strange bumps on the front and back cover that feel like brail, but do not appear to have any visual correspondence with the wooden house photograph on the cover. The next thought you have might be if you have unintentionally damaged the book or if it was damaged in transit, so you check it more closely and the dents appear smooth and artistically positioned (if nonsensically). Then you turn the pages past the introductions and find a black-background map with white and green dots on it and suddenly the two might come together and you realize that the bumps on the cover echo the pattern of art installations marked on this interior map. Each of these dots also re-appears on the first page of the chapter that discuss the installation in that geographic location (frequently overlaying the text on that page). The spine is also made up of two rectangles, orange and green, in contrast with the beige tones on the front cover. The font in the introduction and in those crucial sections where the achievements of radical artists are introduced are in tiny 8-9 point font, while the sections of casual personal theory and interviews are enormously sized at 12 point font. There is also a cacophony of fonts used for the different types of content blocks. In parallel, there are great low-contrast, meaningful photographs across the book. Overall, reading this book is a postmodern experience, and if the reader has enough time to explore this sensation, this is a good thing.

One of the artists interviewed and described is Ai Weiwei who “brought 1,001 Chinese people to Kassel, Germany, throughout the run of the exhibition to wander around the city in specially designed clothes, towing custom-made luggage. His exhibition So Sorry (2009-10) at the Haus der Kunst in Munich included reproductions of thousands of ‘too little, too late’-style apologies expressed by governments, industries, and corporations worldwide, as well as a giant banner covering the museum’s façade made of 9,000 children’s backpacks that spelled in Chinese the phrase ‘she lived happily for seven years in this world,’ a reference to the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, in which poorly built schools collapsed and killed thousands of children. A photographic series Ai has produced features him ‘giving the finger’ to a series of national monuments, while another documents his destruction of ancient Chinese pottery by dropping them defiantly on the floor” (52). I had to reproduce this entire passage because all of these exhibits are very striking and help to explain why it’s important to create collections like this of examples of radical art. Weiwei was later arrested and imprisoned, and is now making films of himself at home to demonstrate against government surveillance.

Another project is the Ontological Walkspaces, where after the corrupt 2008 Armenian election, the protestors were forbidden from protesting in public, so instead they took what they labeled as “political walks” and discussed politics as they went in an attempt to make a political statement without being arrested for public protestations.

Amy Balkin created the Public Smog series of projects in 2004. Balkin’s website reproduces fictitious “financial and legal documents” that grant the public ownership of vast air parks that are supposedly traded in the open market and can fall into the hands of consumers who want to keep smog out of their air space. She also has documents that show that she attempted to “register the earth’s atmosphere as a UNESCO World Heritage site” but was refused (70).

Then there are sections about larger artistic organizations. Chto Delat (What Is to Be Done?) in Saint Petersburg, Russia has been doing collaborative art projects with proactive goals since 2003. DABATEATR in Rabat, Morocco runs a theater company which aims “to bring as many people as possible into the exploration and uncertainties of the creative process” (96). The Etcetera collective founded in Buenos Aires has been protesting with arts, acting, poetry and puppeteering for decades, and recently started the Errorist Movement that included a series of actions in protest on the streets “to Bush’s war on terror” (104). A war on terror is an absurd concept because fighting a feeling of fear is only likely to evoke that feeling in all involved. There have always been protestors (violent and non-violent) that have overthrown monarchies and tyrannies (i.e. the American Revolution) so fighting anybody that might cause one to feel terror is a psychotic proposition.

Anybody that has an ambition of practicing political mass art should read the stories in this book for inspiration and ideas. The design is unique, but this helps the text become a work of art in its turn, allowing its owner to acquire not only information, but also a piece of art to display predominantly on a shelf.

 

 

Paul Kockelman. The Chicken and the Quetzal: Incommensurate Ontologies and Portable Values in Guatemala’s Cloud Forest. Paper $23.95: ISBN: 978-0-8223-6072-8; Library Cloth: $84.95: ISBN: 978-0-8223-6056-8. January 2016. Duke University Press.

 

**

 

I must’ve read the summary for this book too quickly before requesting it. I assumed that as the cover promised it would detail the birds of Guatemala from the chicken to the quetzal… So, I was a bit hard-hit by the academic “Introduction” that reads like the first part of a dissertation because it laboriously summarizes the concepts, terms, and all major research in the field of eco-tourism and at-length summarizes what will be discussed in each of the coming chapters, despite the relative brevity of the book as a whole. As a thesis would, the first chapter then summarizes the history of eco-tourism in the central region of Guatemala. The usual academic pattern is broken in a section called “Priming the Ecotourism Experience,” where questions such as: “What are the tour and the accommodations like [at the Proyecto Ecologico Quetzal]?” and “How do we get there?” are answered. “In the ecotourism program you will travel to see and experience the cloud forest and learn about the life and culture of the Q’eqchi’ people living near the forest. Your accommodations in a typical Q’eqchi’ home are rustic. Their homes are constructed with wood walls and dirt floor, and there is an open fire inside the home over which your food will be cooked” (28). Note, that his food was cooked for him… I doubt some that can cook will not be allowed to volunteer to help these extremely impoverished Guatemalans. Kockelman has a section later in the chapter on “Immaterial Labor, Incommensurate Values, and Intersubjective Intentions” and uses Marxist and Kantian terms to explain these but in the spirit of ecotourism, I doubt hard labor is the point of touring an ecologically beautiful environment. Chapter 2 is dedicated to “poultry.” Kockelman explains that the “local ways of framing the relation between women and chickens” frame the key themes of this section, “ontology (what kinds of entities there are in the world), affect (cognitive and corporeal attunements to such entities), and selfhood (relatively reflexive centers of attunement) (52). This is another typical critical trick. Kockelman starts with a basic emotional subject or the archetype of farming and chicken raising by small family units. The book is about ecotourism, but instead of exploring the environmental solutions and complications of the Proyecto Ecologico Quetzal program, the author digresses from the concrete chicken to the chicken as a surreal entity. Just as feces is feces, a chicken is a chicken. The chicken has been introduced to the region five hundred years ago, as Kockelman points out. Thus, the chicken or how the chicken is raised by women in this region are not questions of deep rooted ancient culture that needs to be preserved. If the chicken is still a nutritious and economical good for the locals, this domestic industry should continue. If parrots can legally be traded today and they can make the locals more money, they should switch to caring for this commodity. But, even if the chicken and the love between the Guatemalan women and their chickens must be protected, the criticism should not diverge into mythology or theology in a discussion of the “corporeal” and the “entities” of the “world.”

I do not recommend reading this book to eco-tourists or to ecologists because it is likely to frustrate and confuse both.

 

 

Steven Pierce. Moral Economies of Corruption: State Formation and Political Culture in Nigeria. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016. 282pp. Index, bibliography, maps and notes. Paper: $25.95. Library Cloth: $95.95. February 2016.

 

***

 

This book offers an interesting mix of historic detail and political philosophy on the topic of economic corruption in Nigeria across its history. From the “Introduction” onward, Pierce constantly offers unique ways of looking at the stereotypes and assumptions westerners have about Nigerian corruption. For example, almost everybody has heard of and probably received one of the “419” scam emails, but few understand just what happens when somebody replies to one of these notes, or why westerners are so susceptible to believing that money might be laundered out of Nigeria into the west by these rudimentary means. In this particular case, many westerners are familiar with the Maryam Abacha scandal. Maryam was the widow of General Sani Abacha, who headed Nigeria’s military between 1993 and 1998, and during that time he is said to have stolen and laundered billions out of the country, and the assumption was that he didn’t manage to steal it all before he died and that his widow carried on this task with the help of random westerners she had her affiliates email.

While the facts are closely researched, the moral argument is missing. The back cover states, “The best solution to combatting Nigerian government corruption, Pierce contends, is not through attempts to prevent officials from diverting public revenue to self-interested ends, but to ask how public ends can be served by accommodating Nigeria’s history of patronage as a fundamental political principle.” In other words, Pierce asks readers to accept corruption in Nigeria as its cultural legacy that should not be altered just as native languages should not be suppressed in favor of a colonizing language. I obviously do not agree with this premise. Corruption is not a culture that should be preserved just as head-hunters should not be encourage to carry on their native tradition of hunting for the heads of their enemies. Here is a more detailed explanation of Pierce’s position in chapter 5 “Nigerian Corruption and the Limits of the State”: “Others have made similar observations about the persistence of patronage. William Reno has described the situation of Liberia, whose pre-1980 government was quite corruption in the sense that its rulers benefited personally from office and irregularly diverted state funds for their own purposes, but it was remarkably stable over a long period. Reno attributes this stability to its presidents’ ability to control other members of the elite through tight ties of patronage” (207). Most of the terms in this statement need to be defined to be convincing. For example, how can a government be judged as “stable”? If a ruler can destabilize it simply by offering patronage funds to fund a rebellion, clearly this system has major weak points. What about changes of ruling elite or deaths of rulers? In corrupt systems, changes of rule always come with violence and destabilization. And if patronage is part of the system, why can’t the ruler pay the critical parties a salary legally? Why would this culturally-necessary patronage need to come as underhanded handouts that rule by the fear of incrimination from the slightest disobedience. In a situation like this, the only way to escape indebtedness to a tyrannical ruler that has offered one patronage is through assassination or coup d’etat, and this certainly is not a system that should be encouraged for the sake of a country’s stability.

While the argument made in this book is disagreeable to those who are staunch resisters to all forms of corruption, it should be an engaging and entertaining read for this very reason.

 

 

Marshall N. Price, Editor. A Material Legacy: The Nancy A. Nasher and David J. Haemisegger Collection of Contemporary Art. Durham: Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, 2016. ISBN: 978-0-938989-40-0.

 

****

 

If you are considering buying a re-print of a contemporary work of art, buy this book, turn it around and put it on a prominent shelf in your library. The moment I glanced the back cover, I immediately recognized the work of Kehinde Wiley. This piece is Naomi and Her Daughters (2013, oil on canvas). I am familiar with Wiley because he contributed one of his other paintings freely to the front cover of my Pennsylvania Literary Journal a couple of years ago. His work is instantly recognizable because he frequently paints African Americans in bright, regal or stylish clothing and against mosaics of leaves and flowers. The images are photographic and drawn with a Renaissance precision. Seeing this image before exploring the rest of the book set a very high bar for my expectations. I was hoping to find other realistic contemporary painters inside to expand my awareness of the most recent art. These assumptions changed when I read in the introduction that Nasher and Haemisegger’s collection focused on contemporary sculpture.

 

The book does offer a thorough representation of the collection with detailed explanations regarding how the pieces came together in terms of funding and selection. The funding was bolstered by the success of the owners’ mall renovation project at the NorthPark Center in Dallas Texas, as part of which they utilized one of the pieces featured in the book, Ivan Navarro’s BED (Water Tower), Ladder (Water Tower), and ME/WE (Water Tower) from This Land is Your Land project (2014). These structures are wooden circular towers with metallic tops and stands. If a viewer looks up when standing right under them, they see the words or images their titles represent in neon lights.

The majority of the collection is made up of smaller, absurd, modern sculptures such as the cup drenched in foam that looks like dripping wax, The Cup (2013) by Sterling Ruby or the cracked, building-like shaped and multi-piece glass sculpture called Untitled 16 (Guides) (2013) by David Altmejd. Wiley’s is the only realistic painting in the book. The rest are abstract with blotches of scattered paint like the rainbow-colored Untitled (2013) oil on canvas painting by Katherina Grosse or the Malevich-square-like black rectangle with two white slits in it, Double Rift #10 (2013) by Richard Serra.

The pages are printed in such a way that the color photographs have a rough texture that makes the images feel more as they would if somebody was touching them on the walls of the museum. The pages are humongous and really let the viewer study the intricate details of each plate.

To summarize, if you want to visit this museum without leaving your study, there is no better way to do it than by buying this book. I have my doubts about the choices the collectors made to acquire these particular pieces when they had the entire contemporary art world at their door hoping to be acquired, but the editor does explain that this is a private collection chosen in part because of the collectors’ personal familiarity with these artists and not because they were professional museum curators choosing only the best art. Then again, I think I am feeling a bit of jealousy that my work isn’t included in this beautiful book, so you cannot trust my evaluation of the quality of the display.

 

 

Jonathan Gottschall. The Professor in the Cage: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch. New York: Penguin Random House Books, March 15, 2016. $17. ISBN: 978-0-143108-05-4. 288pp.

 

***

 

This book captivated my attention in the “Preface” when Jonathan Gottschall confessed that he was working as a “lowly adjunct making $16,000 per year teaching composition to freshmen who couldn’t care less” in his late thirties (3). When I saw the blurbs and cover in the catalog, I had assumed that this will be a straight-forward history and sociological study of the phenomenon of humans fighting. When I started reading the “Preface,” I could immediately tell that it was written in the conversational cross pop-fiction/academic style that is popular with the big publishers like Penguin today as they try to create sales for scholarly books that matches their mainstream children’s, bestselling literary and popular genre books. These books feel as if professors really step into the ring to compete for attention with Fifty Shades of Grey and Harry Potter. And it’s amazing how readable non-fiction can become when it’s weaved in with personal stories and entertaining historical anecdotes, as is the case here.

Jonathan spends years training at the mixed martial arts (MMA) studio that was started across the street from his shared adjunct office in the English Department of the Washington & Jefferson College, where he later became a Distinguished Research Fellow, as he stepped away from teaching to focus on this writing. Five years after starting training in January 2011, his labor of love is finally being released from Penguin in a couple of days. He lists five editors in the acknowledgment, but he thanks some of them with helping with image copyrights and others (a family member for one) it seems with helping with readability and making the whole thing more approachable for general readers.

The book opens with a foreshadowing that Jonathan’s wife referred him to friends who could help him get a fight in Vegas, and his steps towards this option. In the conclusion, he ends up going through only one fight in his more local Pennsylvania and confesses that he only laid one punch on this much younger opponent. In part he had difficulty booking a fight because he was moving towards forty and even MMA has age restrictions. The description of how Jonathan fears getting into a fight and yet feels that his wife might be more attracted to him if he shows prowess by engaging in physical competitions are very endearing and create sympathy for the struggling writer.

The personal reflections are well-mixed with summaries and critical evaluations of major fights such as the first professional MMA fight that established the sport between Teila Tuli, a four-hundred-pound sumo wrestler, and Gerald Gordeau, a thin and tall black-belt janitor. There are also numerous retellings of famous duels (Hamilton in 1801 on the Hudson River) and Gladiator championships. It is designed like a high school textbook, with grey boxes with photographs and historical key points. However, most of these boxes contain humorous anecdotes that are more sarcastic than enlightening. For example in one box under a photograph of a semi-domed hall, Gottschall argues that academia is “fiercely competitive.” He explains that he was just at a European conference on “violence” where the presenters battled each other with scathing remarks, “I stumbled early in the fight and got hammered down by a hooting primatologist. Then, before I could gain my feet, an elderly historian from Oxford doddered over to drag his blade across my throat…” (64).

The obvious sexist assumption in the title is that it’s specifically “men” who like to “fight” and “we” or both sexes that “like to watch.” The editors must have raised objections on this because Gottschall includes several sections that explain why women who reared children for decades before contraception could not gather the strength needed for physical challenges. But, then again, I’ve always been very proud to be a woman because of the assumption that women are less violent or less barbaric than men. I personally think that all violence is animalistic and unrefined. Anybody that engages in fist-throwing must’ve lost an argument (even if that argument was with his own animalistic self). I enjoy watching fights in the movies, but I’ve never been able to sit through an MMA or even a fake-fighting show because fighting without a motive other than hoping for victory is a very dull sport from a critical point of view. At one point, Gottschall proposes that baseball should be made more interesting (to help the dwindling attendance) by allowing players to fight when there is a bad play without interference. I have never sat through any full game (baseball or football), but it’s hard to imagine that inserting brutal and bloody fights will make baseball more interesting.

To summarize, if you enjoy fighting and you have some free time, I recommend slowly and leisurely reading this book. Academics will find it difficult to quote from it. Violence theorists that Gottschall met at his European conference will probably tear it to shreds because of the loose jokes and sketchy history. Younger readers used to linguistic density in books such as Fifty Shades of Grey probably will have trouble with the comparatively dense vocabulary and historically rich references. But, somewhere in the middle, there are disgruntled adjunct professors out there who want to quit their jobs and join the circus or MMA too and they will surely giggle at the inside academia jokes and sport-porn references.

 

 

Abolqasem Ferdowsi. Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings. Dick Davis, Translator. New York: Penguin Books, 2016. $30. ISBN: 978-0-14-310832-0. 996pp.

 

****

 

It is a treat to have received a free copy of this great reference book. I always enjoy researching some of the earliest and most complicating books in human history, and this certainly qualifies as a monumental achievement. Abolqasem Ferdowsi was born in a village in Persia, now Iran, in 940 CE, and rose from this humble beginning in scholarly achievement to be funded by the Samanid dynasty that sponsored his writing of this one single book across the entirety of his long adult life. I love the ending in this book, in which the writer finally takes the first-person voice and complains about the indignities he suffered as a dependent of the kings that he spent his life writing about.

 

After sixty-five years had passed over my head, I toiled ever more diligently and with greater difficulty at my task. I searched out the history of the kings, but my star was a laggard one. Nobles and great men wrote down what I had written without paying me: I watched them from a distance, as if I were a hired servant of theirs. I had nothing from them but their congratulations; my gall bladder was ready to burst with their congratulations! Their purses of hoarded coins remained closed, and my bright heart grew weary at their stinginess. But of the renowned men of my district, Ali Daylami helped me, and that honored man Hosayn Qotayb never asked for my works for nothing. I received food and clothing, silver and gold from him, and it was he who gave me the will to continue. I never had to worry about paying taxes and was able to wrap myself in my quilt in comfort, and when I reached the age of seventy-one, the heavens humbled themselves before my verses…

 

The above is the translator’s prose version of the multi-volume poem with rhyming couplets at the end of stanzas. The poem ends following the above content with these verses:

 

I’ve reached the end of this great history

And all the land will fill with talk of me:

I shall not die, these seeds I’ve sown will save

My name and reputation from the grave,

And men of sense and wisdom will proclaim,

When I have gone, my praises and my fame (962).

 

Right before the above, the last section of the poem describes a rebellion against a king, followed by the violent execution of the rebel that assumed the throne, Mahuy, by the king that stepped in to defend the conquered city, Bizhan. The description of the execution is so brutal it might be fit for a modern black comedy film: “He cut off Mahuy’s hands with his sword and said, ‘These hands have no equal in crime.’ Then he cut off his feet so that he couldn’t move from the spot. Finally, he gave orders that Mahuy’s ears and nose be cut off, and that he be sat on a horse, and left wandering the hot sands till he died of shame” (961). The dark ending with the violent death of a few kings echoes the glum feeling the author was feeling towards the end of the writing process. He has had to fight for his daily bread like a servant instead of being respected for the scholarly and creative work he was doing that was benefiting the nobility that was using his text as propaganda. He might have felt rebellious and might have wanted to stage an uprising of his own to protest the poor treatment that failed to reward him for outstanding work, but the thought of being ripped to pieces for treason probably kept him from inserting still more unflattering images of the kings. The rest of the book includes many negative depictions of despicable acts by the kings of Persian history, and not only propagandistic reviews of their eternal fame and glory. This is a historical epic similar to the Odyssey and both are precursors of the modern European historical novel. The introduction describes the various sources Ferdowsi used to base his accounts of the lives of the kings on factual information.

Overall, I recommend this book to any scholar of Persian history or literature. College students or anybody that wants to read a unique philosophical and fictional exercise would also enjoy browsing some of this book. Though, this book is harder to finish than War and Peace and Anna Karenina combined, so those who enter might not surface on the other side. Reading this book before bedtime if you usually do not enjoy dense reading might help you out too.

 

 

Catherine Price. VITAMANIA: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. New York: Penguin Books, April 12, 2016. ISBN: 978-0-143108-15-3. $17.

 

***

 

This is a history of vitamins from the first discoveries of vitamin deficiencies causing diseases like scurvy to the recent innovations in vitamin production and identification of new potentially essential vitamins. It is written by a journalist that developed Type 1 diabetes as a child, and started this project because of her constant personal research into nutrition and how she could make herself healthier despite the setback diabetes had on her health. The only problem is that the book promises too much in the press packet and front and back matter. Here’s an example, “Yes, we need vitamins; without them, we would die. Yet despite a century of scientific research, there is little consensus around even the simplest of questions: how much of a vitamin does our body need, and, once ingested, how does it help us?” It is a standard practice in academic books to answer hypothesis questions like this in the meat of the book. If there has been “little consensus,” then this new book should be introducing new research to settle the argument and sway it towards a definitive conclusion. Price offers a few answers when she describes that vitamins are currently synthesized in labs from non-plant substances instead of being squeezed out of fruits and vegetables as some vitamin consumers might imagine. She also explains that there are many other substances in naturally-occurring, unprocessed foods that might also help humans live healthier lives, and offers some research and historical examples of these. Sure, the back of the book includes a table labeled, “Dietary Reference Intakes: Recommended Dietary Allowances and Adequate Intakes, Vitamins” that breaks down the mg or pg per day of a given vitamin that is recommended for different age groups and sexes. It’s interesting, that the chart states that women need less of many of these vitamins than men do, and younger people need less than older ones. It’s difficult to imagine without a scientific explanation, why this might be the case. I focus here on the women. Wouldn’t women who are carrying eggs, fetuses or nurturing babies in need of more vitamins? Is the assumption that most women have less muscle mass? What about women who are professional body builders? What about obese people in both categories, wouldn’t somebody who is twice the weight of an average person need significantly more vitamins at a rate that’s higher than the differences between the sexes? I’ve always thought the division in vitamins into “men’s” and “women’s” is sexist, and I wish this book did a better job explaining odd points like this. Also, there are many contradictory points that the book makes. For example, Price says that people need synthetic vitamins because they are eating processed foods devoid of these, but also says that an access of vitamins can be damaging to health just like deficiencies. She says that it’s better to eat produce and other raw foods, but adds that they might not be enough unless a complex pattern of specific vegetables with each of the essential vitamins is consumed. I don’t think any of these conflicting statements are new research, and I recall hearing near-identical points in my high school health class back in 1997. What would be new is if this book really gave an exact alternative to vitamin consumption.

Over the last eight years or so, I’ve discovered that it’s extremely difficult to find unspoiled fruits and vegetables in most supermarkets, be it Whole Foods or Publix. Some watermelons look and sound fresh, but then you cut into them and they’re decomposing and mushy inside. This contributed to me eating more and more frozen processed foods and to my sharp weight increase over the decade from 145 to 255. Starting this September, though, I started shopping for food primarily at Walmart and I’ve discovered that their fresh fish, meat, fruits and vegetables actually last for 1-2 weeks without going bad. I’ve also increased my exercise regime to around 75 minutes daily, in part because of my added energy with this better diet. I think I’ve lost some weight, though I don’t have a scale (to avoid negativity), but regardless my digestion has definitely improved and I’m feeling pretty good. I was hoping that this book would help me to understand exactly what I should be eating and if I should give up on vitamins or on all processed foods, but I guess this is why nutritionists still make an income, as guides are intended for the average person, and no overall help other than in synthesized generic vitamin bottles can be made available beyond this. Books like this help to sustain the paranoia and to encourage poor-quality diets because they offer questions and doubts that cancel out. Phrases such as, you can continue to eat the cookies if you want, to help to assure consumers that they can proceed to consuming the foods that are making them sick. In the end, this is really a book in praise of vitamins as the subtitle is, “How Vitamins Revolutionized…” and not “How Processed Foods Kill Vitamins…” Price indeed does a great job explaining the history of the revolutionary discovers of how vitamins can cure various diseases. What surprises me is that somebody hasn’t come up with a package of vegetables, fruits, nuts, meat, fish, and wholegrains, which, when combined and eaten across a week would satisfy each of the essential vitamins and minerals that have been discovered thus-far. I mean, if somebody is making billions selling a tiny bottle of vitamin pills, wouldn’t they make a killing if consumers were buying an enormous packaged container with all of these foods, and perhaps a link to recipes for each of them? Or, at least, if somebody figured out which food item has the most of each of the vitamins and came up with a summary of what somebody has to eat in any week to survive that would be great. One thing troubles me, Price explains that humans devolved so that our bodies lost the ability to synthesize vitamins unlike most other plants and animals. Unless, we lost this ability when we started eating processed food or vitamins, how did our ancestors, manage to eat at least a dozen different fruits and vegetables in any given week, with most of them only existing in isolated parts of the globe, just to keep their vitamin levels above the points when horrific diseases begin? I mean, if people were roaming around eating berries and grass, would we all die out in our first year due to vitamin deficiency because we aren’t eating all those other foods?

As you can see from these speculations, this is a horrific book that should inspire terror in all who read it closely enough. But nutrition researchers should discover some factoids and histories that will amuse or enlighten them. I can’t recommend that everybody who needs vitamins to survive (everybody as the press release explains) should buy this book, but I definitely recommend that everybody should eat fresh food to supplement whatever the corporate synthesizers are feeding us.

 

 

 

JOURNALS

 

 

Christopher Shay, Editor. World Policy Journal: Black Lives Matter Everywhere: Vol. XXXIII, No. 1, Spring 2016. 114pp. $45: individual subscription. ISSN: 0740-2775.

 

****

 

Policy makers and political science professors should find much of interest in this meticulously researched and skillfully written journal. Unlike a newspaper, its stories are much longer, and include graphs, tables, quotations and other elements more typical of scholarly essays. At the same time, some of the language in the articles is casual and conversational like in a newspaper, so it invites casual reading, and not only browsing to find a quote a researcher needs to support a position.

The special topic for this particular issue is “Black Lives Matter Everywhere,” and it delivers several perspectives on this topic that helped me to see the question of institutionalized racism in a new light.

I will return to reviewing the periodical later on, but first I have to digress to explain my stand on this topic. I migrated to the states when I twelve, and to this day, the only questions Americans ask me is where I’m from. I’ve replied, “from China,” a few times, after I taught there for a semester, and a few questioners agreed that this must be where I’m from. I recently also visited Mexico, so I am considering switching to saying that I’m from Mexico, just because I’m curious if this would be even more convincing. Some insist that I must be from Russia when I say I’m from China, but then they can’t explain why they asked where I’m from if they knew this for a fact. If I do not engage in relating the tale of how glad I am to have migrated to the US as a refugee, or perhaps they assume I’m a sex slave or Russian bride, they do not have any other questions to ask me. This happens with black, white, and all other people I meet, unless they are an extremely recent immigrant and hardly speak any English, and in this case, they do not ask me anything irrelevant. I contribute this propensity to the high illiteracy rates in the US, and usually assume that somebody taught them in school that this was the only significant question to ask to determine the essential element about any person they meet. If they did not know them from their neighborhood since they were a child, the new person might as well be an invading alien. I guess black people around the world face a similar conundrum, but I doubt everybody they meet asks them if they’re black or just tanned… I’ve faced a good deal of reverse-racism, as groups of blacks have either beaten me up or threatened to do so on at least a dozen separate occasions, without me speaking with them at all before this point, and thus them having no other motivation to threaten or hit me other than the color of my skin. I typically live in poor neighborhoods, and my black neighbors have not vandalized my car dozens of times, have threatened to rape me at gunpoint, robbed me of my possessions, and otherwise have left me with a sense that I’m living in a warzone. Are all these black people acting violently towards their white neighbors because they are discriminated against? I know of at least a few jobs I lost to African American high school students, when I had an MA or a PhD and a decade of experience over them. Was this because of affirmative action? Is it fair that there is no law that protects my rights not to be discriminated against as a white immigrant? The most common question at college professorship interviews is how I am planning on catering to the poorly performing and culturally diverse students in my classes. This always implies, that to be fair, I would have to give better grades for poorer work to minority students, especially if they are the majority in my classes. If I am unwilling to disregard plagiarism, absenteeism, hooliganism (such as throwing objects at me during class) from the minority students, I can usually expect to lose my job. There is obviously something wrong with the American “system” and I just don’t think it’s me.

The journal’s special issue did a good job in showing that there are patterns of racism across many countries with widely different demographics. There were several stories on if affirmative action in schools and colleges is working in countries like New Zealand, South Africa, Israel and Malasia.

I spent a great deal of time studying the “Anatomy: Race and Incarceration: In countries around the world, minorities are disproportionately represented in incarcerated populations” diagrams. It separates race into shades of different colors (black for black, gray for white, and striped for Asian and Hispanic) across the world. Blacks are always incarcerated at a higher percentage than the percentage of the country’s population that they represent. Whites in contrast are always slightly or significantly less incarcerated. For example, whites are 9% of South Africa, and they make up only 2% of the prison population. Seeing all these statistics side by side on a two-page spread really helped to understand racism on an international scale. But, is it racism, or something else that is making blacks more prone to crime? Perhaps, pressures in their own culture are driving the trend towards promotion of crime, and incarcerations cannot simply be attributed to racist arresting police officers. Still, it is less clear why “Indigenous” people in Australia make up 27% of the incarcerated while they are only 3% of the population. It’s unlikely that they have violent rap music, and it is difficult to imagine that they are all in a network of aboriginal gangs. So, these diagrams cause some pondering.

Another article, “‘Not Blacks, But Citizens’: Race and Revolution in Cuba,” reminded me of a line I read in Alice Walker’s biography the other day—where she had asked black Cubans about racism and they had refused to acknowledge that their color was something they gave any thought to or felt that being black somehow isolated them from other Cubans. In contrast to this view, this article argues that Cuba is racism and that blacks have been second-class citizens across the Cuban communist era. One separated quote exclaimed, “Silencing them was not going to be as easy today as it was in 1959,” implying that Cuban blacks refused to admit that they were discriminated against because of their color. However, is it possible that incarceration statistics for minorities in countries where the idea of race difference is silenced reflect this color blindness, so that a similar percentage of all race categories are incarcerated? These statistics were not presented.

The highest percentage of incarceration rates for blacks in Latin America is given in the, “How Are They Dying? Politicizing Black death in Latin America” article, where Brazil is stressed as torturing and otherwise harassing blacks in prison so that a great deal of them end up dying.

A curious interview story featured a dialogue between two activists, instead of one being questioned by a detached interviewer, “Our Issues, Our Struggles: A Conversation Between Activists, Daniela Gomes and Janaya Khan.” Pen and ink or electronic line drawings of the counters of their faces illustrated the top of the article. Khan says at one point in this debate: “You say that a thing is racist, and the first thing someone says is ‘prove it.’ And if we don’t have that data, we can’t prove what we’re saying.” It is troubling that Khan is objecting to proving racism. If a criminal might be set free despite a murder charge on the basis of nothing other than racism, surely proof is essential, or the criminal justice system would be catering to gangs instead of to citizens that want to be safe from violence.

There were also some stories in this issue that were outside the realm of racism. One was on the high foreclosure rates in a Barcelona neighborhood that joined together to fight evictions, arguing that housing was one of their guaranteed rights. “The Unintended Consequences of India’s War on Sex Selection” talked about doctors refusing to perform late abortions when it was obvious that the woman simply wanted to get rid of a female child, and would try again to get a male one. There is a law in India against sex-based abortions because there have been significantly more male than female babies being born there. Another article that was a curious read was “Big Pharma’s Taxing Situation,” which explained the tax havens that pharmaceutical companies have been using to lower their taxes and to otherwise create extremely high profit margins by moving their businesses around the world to places that fit financial benefits. It is interesting that the best tax haven is Delaware, with 287 disclosed pharma subsidiaries located there. Other places on the list are Netherlands and Ireland, with Switzerland coming in as a distant fourth, with only 84 subsidiaries.

The journal is very well designed. The cover features a drawing with modern faded green lines crossing out a black girl’s black and white colored face. The paper used for it is soft and smooth, but it is perfect bound unlike the no-spine magazines, probably because of its relatively large page count. It is also sized somewhere between a magazine and a 6X9” academic journal. There are plenty of photographs, cartoons, graphs, stressed quotes, and other intricate design elements that shows that a great deal of time was spent perfecting its appearance. This makes it enjoyable to read through more of it, even if somebody only looks at the images.

 

 

Gary Scharnhorst, Editor. American Literary Scholarship: An Annual 2013. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015. ISSN: 0065-9142. 540pp.

 

***

 

This journal has a unique format because it solely includes overviews of scholarly research in specific focal fields. Scholars typically have to create a summary of previous research on the topic they are describing in anything from an essay to a dissertation to a book. Knowing that scholars are always searching for ways to brush up on all of the latest research without reading hundreds of these books themselves, many academic specialist journals pride themselves in providing bibliographic listings of the relevant recent releases in addition to offering innovative scholarship. This is a journal entirely dedicated to regurgitating the enormous volume of new scholarship in the broad field of American literary scholarship across its long history. Part I includes descriptions of recent research on American authors, including Hawthorne, Melville, Dickenson, Twain, James, and Faulkner. Part II offers summaries of research separated into centuries and genres such as literature, fiction, poetry, and drama. Each section is composed by a specialist in that particular field, though they are all done in a very similar, dry style that attempts to present detached summaries, though some critical theories are used that make arguments that some scholarly works might be of more interest to scholars than others.

In a typical section, such as the one on Ernest Hemingway, a section on “Books and Essay Collections” begins with, “Debra Moddelmog and Suzanne del Gizzo’s edited collection Ernest Hemingway in Context (Cambridge) is another fine, invaluable critical anthology. Like Mangum’s F. Scott Fitzgerald in Context (discussed above), Moddelmog and del Gizzo’s volume offers a variety of established and emerging voices and is an equally valuable gateway into 21st-century literary studies…” (182). As you can see, words like “invaluable” are used for most of the books and essays listed because scathing criticism is very uncommon in literary criticism, despite its name.

Sadly, this kind of a summary is only useful for somebody that is unfamiliar with the books in question. These scholars can save a lot of time simply by summarizing these overviews of the literature in a field, without needing to check the books themselves. This practice frequently makes for very repetitive literary studies, which all mention the same “invaluable” books without the tools to adequately object to the findings in them or to truly build on top of this earlier research. On the other hand, PhD students and new academics can surely learn a great deal about proper overviews by reading these meticulously constructed and verbally complex exercises.

 

 

George E. Rowe, Editor. Comparative Literature: University of Oregon, Eugene. December 2015: Volume 67, Number 4. 345-458pp.

 

***

 

This is a long-standing journal that has a very high for academia circulation rate, which is advertised in one of the first pages. It has a mail subscription list of 819, which means that the salary of a few editors can be covered by the release of a single issue at the institutional rate of $184. The individual rate is much lower at only $40, but both also include shipping charges of $10+. The high cost is necessary because even a major journal like this one can never break a 1,000-subscribers threshold because there simply aren’t enough hard-core researchers in even a broad field like comparative literature or Ivy League schools that house them that are willing to subscribe to a journal over the decades it will be in print. On the bright side, this means that unlike one-issue books, journals keep selling those 819 copies per issue for three issues possible for 50-100+ years, and this adds up to… approximately 245,700 copies in 100 years, and if they’re selling at $184, this is potentially $45,208,800 in revenue, and that’s a total that would be pretty solid even for a best-selling romance novel. Of course, a romance novel can be written in a couple of weeks, and a hundred-year journal is composed of the content of over 300 novels. I am thinking about this because the acquisitions editor from Intellect told me at SAMLA this year that they make the bulk of their profits from journal publishing, and this is the reason they have a hundred or so different journals. Thinking about all this has encouraged me to start a second Anaphora journal this Spring, Cinematic Codes Review, so taking a closer look at the finances of academic publishing is both academically and financially enlightening.

The bulk of Comparative Literature is a more standard scholarly journal than American Literary Scholarship. It includes five essays and five book reviews. There are wide one-inch margins on all sides and the font throughout is smaller than in a typical fiction book. The reviews section has an even smaller font, somewhere between 8-10pt.

One of the reviews begins with a passage that is representative of the needlessly wordy style of the prose in this journal. “For early modern Europeans Asia signified romance, and their discourses of Asia had a strong undercurrent of eros. A welcome addition to both race and sexuality studies in the early modern period, Carmen Nocentelli’s Empires of Love focuses on the erotics of Europe’s encounter with Asia, arguing that race and sexuality were mutually constitutive as the European notions of marriage and sexual relations were transformed by their overseas experience” (446-7). This review is written by Su Fang Ng from the University of Oklahoma. While a reader who is unfamiliar with the reviewed text might find fault in the author’s stereotype that “early modern Europeans” simplified Asia to “romance” and fantasized about sexually exploiting Asian women, it is fair to say that the author is only responding to these stereotypes in Nocentelli’s scholarly book, rather than expressing stereotypes of his own. It’s frequently difficult to separate the narrator from the subject in these reviews. Considering the awkward subject, the author does summarize the argument with grace.

In summary, researchers in the field of comparative literature should definitely search databases like WorldCat or the MLA Bibliography to find if a journal such as this one covers a narrow subject that is their chosen focus, and then they should dig these journals up at the library or online and take full advantage of the depth of these arguments to enrich their own.

 

 

Patrick McCreless, Editor. Journal of Music Theory. 59.2: October 2015. Yale University Music Department. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015. 191-332pp.

 

****

 

Many of these journals originate in universities other than Duke, so it seems that Duke has more opportunities for distributing a scholarly journal than even Yale University Press. Of course, Yale might not be able to produces journals by all of their faculty members, a majority of whom might be ambitious enough to want to start their own journal. I solicited this particular journal for review because I have recently done a bit of research into popular music composition theory and thought this issue might offer some practical help to these efforts. Because I have never looked inside a scholarly music journal before, the style and content displayed is entirely foreign to me. When I start reading any portion of a literary journal, I typically can recall reading a similar idea in a previous study. But, here the language of tones and notes looks more like scientific or statistical formulas than like an artistic humanitarian study. Of course, it’s possible the complexity is due to the in-depth, innovative research Yale’s music department is developing. One essay that stands out as the most convoluted is “Bartok’s Polymodality: The Dasian and Other Affinity Spaces” by Jose Oliveira Martins. Here is a segment of the “abstract” which explains my confusion, “Based on Bartok’s intuition that the pitch space modeled after his notion of polymodal chromaticism retains integral ‘diatonic ingredients,’ the Dasian space (named after the medieval homonymous scale) establishes a system of relations between all potential diatonic segments, without relying upon traditional constraints, such as complete diatonic collections, harmonic functions, or pitch centricity” (273). A few words like “polymodal” and “medieval” make sense, but then the rest really flies over my head. While in most studies, the images help to clarify the argument, here the diagrams begin with the supposedly simple “medieval Dasian scale”, which looks suspiciously like an early version of the periodic table, though it simply breaks down the scale into several categories. The more I look at the images, they do start to make some sense. For example Figure 3.2 includes a circle with ABSCDEFG repeated a few times around its circumference, and lines connecting different letters across the circle as well as sections of eight letters selected with brackets. It seems the author is trying to break down the scale into a mathematical pattern. He develops a more and more complex formula and adds elements to this diagram across the essay, and then offers some variations on the central explenation. Near the end of the essay, he seems to feel that the reader is on-board, and introduces this formula: I = p12 = s48 = sp s-1 t-1/ s5 = sp = ps (311). sp = ps? What would it prove if the two central elements in a formula equal each other after all those calculations? That aside, it is incredible what’s going on in the world of music. I wish I could understand it better and create an amazing synthetic musical with this knowledge, but I’d have to obtain a PhD in music theory.

 

 

Tom Sellar, Editor. Theater. Volume 45, Number 3. Yale School of Drama: Yale Repertory Theater. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015. ISSN: 0161-0775. 108pp.

 

****

 

In contrast with the previous journals I reviewed from Duke UP, this one is designed to be appealing and approachable for a more general audience. The cover of this issue includes a beige photograph of a man standing in front of a sign that reads, “CAPITALISM: works for me! True: 6. False 13” (Steven Lambert’s Capitalism Works for Me! (True/False), Times Square, New York, 2013, photo by Jake Schlichting). He is standing in the middle of the street, and seems to be performing street theater rather than just pointing to the sign inertly. The back cover features a photograph of women in revealing and yet bag-like outfits hanging upside down as if in a post-modern circus (Mira-Art, Acrobatic Dance Theater, Gdansk Shakespeare Theatre, 2014 photo by Dawid Linkowski). The rest of the issue is full of stills from theatrical productions, posters as well as portions of plays, poems, and list-descriptions of theatrical sets. The essays focus on the directors of theatrical productions and on social issues, as opposed to the science of the theater. I’m uncertain if “Caught” by Christopher Chen is a personal essay mixed with a play he saw, or if it is in its entirely a post-modern play with sections of narrative without proper citation of it as being narrated, as it reflects on the nature of the play, but does it in a very artistic style.

Theater practitioners will surely find a great deal of curious information in both the personal, the practical and the theoretical reflections in this book.

 

 

Janell Watson, Editor. The Minnesota Review: A Journal of Creative and Critical Writing. Special Focus Section: Emergent Precarities and Lateral Aesthetics. Issue 85. Virginia Tech University. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015. 196pp.

 

***

 

The Minnesota Review was the journal that inspired me to start my Pennsylvania Literary Journal back in 2009. I have not seen an issue of it since I saw it in the library of the English Department at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania back then and it has not changed in these years. Of course, I believe it was not published from Virginia Tech faculty back then, and I don’t think Duke was distributing it, but other than that, the format is very similar. It is still broken down into a “Creative” section that includes a mix of poetry and fiction from a couple dozen writers, and a “Critical” section that begins with general essays and then offers a series of essays on the “Special Focus” for the collection. It was not published by anybody who worked or studied anywhere in Minnesota back in 2009 either. I thought this was funny and decided to name my own journal after the state I was in at the moment too, knowing that I was unlikely to remain permanently not only in Pennsylvania, but also in the north-east region. I always offer full biographies of all of my contributors at the back of PLJ because I picked up on this formatting preference from this review. Few of the other journals in this set from Duke offer similar biographies. Most only include the name of the affiliated institution, or at most a sentence-long bio. I don’t understand why a journal wouldn’t describe the contributors at-length, I think it helps the morale. This review is also memorable because it’s still printed in the smaller size when compared with most 6X9” journals.

One of the essays that stands out from this particular issue is “Academic Imperialism; or, Replacing Nonrepresentative Elites: Democratizing English Departments at Top-Ranked US Institutionis” by Jeffrey Herlihy-Mera. This essay struck me because I had several questions on the criteria for candidate selection at this past SAMLA convention in North Carolina, where I presented and had an exhibit table. There was a circle discussion where a few graduate students were asking questions to the hiring faculty about what they look for in candidates. They did not mention that they only hire Ivy League graduates, but from the extremely expensive high-fashion outfits that all of the interviewees at the MLA always wear, it is obvious that this is their primary objective. Of course, a department that has Ivy League faculty looks more professional and might attract more students, so this bias towards elite graduate degrees in the hiring process is only natural. It is a bit sad that, as the statistics in Herlihy’s essay show, there is nearly a 0% chance of even a 4.0 GPA graduate from the lower 75% of graduate schools to win a job at a major research university. In other words, the vast majority of the growing PhD student population today is doomed to teach as adjuncts, in community colleges or to leave academia for less elitist climates. If they all knew this before they started their graduate education, it is likely most of them would not have pursued this futile path. Knowing the facts would not have diverted me because I enjoy writing and research too much to care about actually finding employment in the field. But, it has taken many days out of my life to apply for all those great research school positions. I wish there was more concrete data out there that proved with certainty that even a billionaire tech company owner with a PhD from the lower 75% could never win a fellowship or a faculty job in a research university, so I could finally stop applying for all those jobs and be satisfied with growing my enriching and entertaining publishing business.

 

 

Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies. 90. University of California, Santa Barbara, Department of Film and Media Studies. $217 institutional subscription rate. ISSN: 0270-5346. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015.

 

**

 

This journal has a dozen or more photographs accompanying each of the six essays included in this issue. The cover has a drawing of red women with gigantic, distorted arms holding on to rail rings. The essays are on obscure topics related to feminist and media studies. There is no introduction to the issue from the editor, but there is an index of a few key items from the issue. Overall, I just couldn’t get into this project. The photographs weren’t particularly interesting, and none of the topics of the essays grabbed my attention. Here are a couple of them: “Kyung-Sung: Cinematic Memories of the Colonial Past in Contemporary Korea” and “Stardom Ke Peeche Kya Hai?/ What is behind the stardom? Madhuri Dixit, the Production Number, and the Construction of the Female Star Text in 1990s Hindi Cinema.” The second one starts with an English word and is followed by a question in Hindi, which is translated immediately afterwards. Why not include the translation or the original Hindi text in a note instead of putting both of them in the title? If you keep reading this long title closely, the phrase “Construction of the Female Star” stands out. This reminds me of a biblical building of Eve my a masculine God out of Adam’s rib. I just don’t think this brand of feminism is my cup of tea.

 

 

Twentieth-Century Literature. Volume 61: 4. December 2015. Hofstra University. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015. ISSN: 0041-462X. $182 institutional subscription.

 

***

 

This journal has a unique beige-white, matte, textured cover with the title and issue number on the front. Below the title there is a curious logo with the running-onto-the-edge white “21” numbers in a red square. The back cover is entirely blank, but there is information about the journal’s submissions, board, and other specifics on the interior pages of the cover. Once again, there is no introduction. The issue contains four essays and three long reviews of recently released academic books. Instead of the introduction the issue begins with an unusual note on the winner of the Andrew J. Kappel Prize in Literary Criticism, Frances Leviston for his essay “Mothers and Marimbas in ‘The Bight’: Bishop’s Danse Macabre,” offered by this journal. The award announcement is supported with a brief essay from the judge in this competition, the journal’s editor, Professor Brian McHale. The essay itself is then re-printed as part of the regular award benefits. This is a well-crafted literary study as this quote demonstrates, “Bishop scatters its component parts through the lines (ribs here, marimbas there) so as not to disturb the surface appearance of ‘plain description,’ but with its knockabout etymological puns on ‘humorous elbowings’ and claves/ clavicles/keys, its percussive consonantal echoes mimicking the clicking of bones, and its frequent subliminal reminders of the dead, like the phonetic ghost of Les Fleurs du mal in ‘jawful of marl,” “The Bight” nevertheless takes its place in danse macabre’s ‘long & complicated,’ “Awful but cheerful’ history” (454). This is an example of poetic criticism where the sounds and rhythm of the essay takes over and gains superiority over the meaning of the critical explanations. But the meaning is still there and succeeds in sarcastically explaining the macabre elements and their intended functions.

This journal is only for literary scholars who are searching for the latest research on narrow topics. It is likely you will run into something relevant in one of the past issues if you search for it in online databases for authors or works from the twenty-first century.

 

Gavin Steingo and Jairo Moreno, eds. boundary 2: an international journal of literature and culture: volume 43 number 1 february 2016. Special Issue: Econophonia: Music, Value, and Forms of Life. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016. ISSN: 0190-3659. $392 institutional subscription.

 

**

 

The first thing that stands out about this issue is the cover, based on a black and white etching-like drawing by William Kentridge called “Learning the Flute” (2004). I remember drawing a similar, though perhaps better, image of a cat in my high school art class back in 1998, and a couple of magazines did accept if not that, then some of my other early art projects. It is still amazing that this work made onto a cover, and still more amazing that it looks pretty good when made more faint and blended with a gray background, and enlarged until the viewer mostly just sees random lines around a sketch bird, rather than the hawk, camera and other details around it in the original image (available as a small, black picture on the bottom of the back cover). I like these types of covers that enhance a doubtful initial image in Photoshop and InDesign until it looks like sophisticating modern art. It takes a great designer to achieve this look successfully.

The title on the cover is written without any capitalization or punctuation, as an e. e. cummings poem would be. This is a bit odd in a literary criticism journal that should criticize stylistic, grammatical and other problems like this in the works it reviews. The titles on the “Contents” page are properly punctuated and capitalized, so it’s likely that the designer of the cover is not the editor of this particular issue. The rest of the issue looked fine, but nothing grabbed my attention as particularly unique.

 

 

Priscilla Wald, Editor. American Literature: A Journal of Literary History, Criticism, and Bibliography. Volume 87, Number 4, December 2015. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015. ISSN: 0002-9831. $448 institutional subscription. 645-892pp.

 

***

 

This journal has a unique format. The spine has an interesting black line running through the lower half that makes it appear as if it might be two issues lying next to each other. The front is a simple gray with the title on it and the back is black with a list of the key essays from the issue. A few of this set of journals has either a list of the essays that will be included in the next issue or the current issue’s listings on the back cover, so this looks like a stylistic element added by the designer at Duke University Press. The essay titles themselves are less convoluted and more genre-identifying than in other journals. For example one is called, “The Marriage Trap in the Free-Love Novel and Queer Critique.” The “free-love” genre is identified and a focal topic “the marriage trap” is specified, helping readers who are browsing for works relevant to their research to determine if relevant content might be found here more quickly. The format of this journal particularly stands out because there are more book reviews here than in all of the other journals I reviewed. There are twelve reviews of three or two titles merged together into a single review by a contributor on a given topic of interest to him or her. These are followed by “Brief Mentioned” where dozens of books are reviewed in brief paragraph-long summaries and critiques. Instead of an introduction, the back of the issue includes an “Announcements” page that calls for papers for a coming special issue of the journal. Another unique feature is a long “Index to Volume 87” where all of the contributors and their corresponding essays are listed in full citations. Since the entire volume has 892 pages for a single year, an index like this surely comes in handy for those who are trying to find a work by a specific author without access to the appropriate electronic database. The “Extent and Nature of Circulation” note at the end also specifies that the journal has 1137 mail subscribers, a strong number to be proud of for any scholarly journal.

 

 

Genre: Forms of Discourse and Culture: Volume 48, Number 3, December 2015. University of Oklahoma. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015. 341-460.

 

**

 

This is one of the only journals that offers a summary of its mission in the interior, “triannual publication devoted to the study of the codes, conventions, and histories of generic forms in the context of their cultural manifestations and effects. It publishes articles that deal with questions of genre in both literary and nonliterary forms, that bring a broad range of disciplinary and interdisciplinary approaches to genre, or that consider theoretical, institutional, or political dimensions of discourse.” Past this summary and a table of contents, the entire issue is composed solely of four critical essays on elements in the works of writers such as Virginia Woolf and William Wordsworth. The essays are not exactly solely focused on genre as the mission and title specify. The cover is half-gray and half-white with an abstract black, white and gray drawing in the center. This is another reference journal that is only meant for the scholars interested in the narrow fields under evaluation.

 

 

Mariolina Rizzi Salvatori and Patricia Donahue, eds. Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition, and Culture. January 2016: Volume 16, Issue 1. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016. ISSN: 1531-4200. $156 institutional subscriptions.

 

***

 

This is one of the stronger issues out of this group because it has a special issue focus on teaching reading, which unifies the presented articles and makes it more likely that it will be of interest to somebody that wants to read an entire volume on a topic that interests them as a teacher of reading or as a theorist in this field (as opposed to a collection of unrelated essays each of which is only curious for a small circle of researchers on that topic). The “Guest Editors’ Introduction: Guest Editing as a Form of Disciplinary Probing” then does a good job of personalizing the topic by explaining that the topic of teaching reading was popular at the 1986 Conference of College Composition and Communication, but soon lost its popularity. The editors explain that in their call for papers and in their acquisition choices, they worked to re-popularize research into reading and the best ways to teach reading as a skill to students. “Of course, over these years reading has always been ‘there,’ whether ‘there’ is the classroom or the book or the journal or the Internet. Recently, in one of the always lively discussions that take place on the Writing Program Administrators electronic mailing list, several have forcefully stated that, yes, of course reading has to be taught, of course reading cannot be taken for granted, of course students can only improve as writers when they improve as readers. But, we feel, the question of how the teaching of reading should change to achieve these results needs more sustained attention” (2). While it is amazing how much passion these editors show for this topic, having read some studies on the topic of “reading”, this collection brings up negative associations for me personally. American pedagogues frequently work very hard to defend the comparatively low literacy level in the US (compared with international reading markets) instead of condemning this as a problem. “Cultural” differences are blamed for the students that fall behind and cannot read and teachers repeatedly pass students that cannot even read their tests, and allow them to cheat or bully their way into a diploma. These students then end up in community colleges, still barely able to read the alphabet, and Introductory Composition instructors are told they have to briskly teach these bullying, disrespectful and entitled kids how to read and write. Most professors do not take attendance and are content to let cheating and plagiarism get these hooligans through, or watch them crash and burn and drop out in the first semester. With this problem in mind an essay title such as the first in this collection sounds promising, “Creating Mindful Readers in First-Year Composition Courses: A Strategy to Facilitate Transfer” by Ellen C. Carillo. Here is a quote from this essay that is useful for explaining the problem with scholarship in this critical field, “I hypothesize that, to prepare students to read effectively in courses beyond first-year composition, we need to encourage the development of metacognitive practices through what I call mindful reading. Mindful reading is best understood not as yet another way of reading but as a framework for teaching the range of ways of reading that are currently valued in our field so that students can create knowledge about reading and about themselves as readers, knowledge that they can bring with them into other courses” (10-11). “Range of ways of reading”? There is only one way to read that has been thus-far invented by human kind. You read each word at a time, or perhaps you stop and re-read them, or maybe glance the page with speed-reading, but all of these techniques are the standards of reading that should’ve been acquired in elementary school if not in kindergarten. Instead of hitting the probably on the head and saying that we have to start by explaining these basics in American college introductory composition classes, the author crafts flowery language that disguises this ugly advice. “So that students can create knowledge about reading”? No, students should not be creating scholarly essays about the reading process. Students should be understanding what they read by spending most of their time at home after school on diligently doing their homework instead of being distracted by video games, or texting (if they’ve learned how to write), or doing drugs, or participating in all of the other distractions that keep youths occupied today and perpetually illiterate despite the billions spent on their education by the US government annually. The real topic here is what I call mindless reading, or a way of reading common among American college students where they all say that they read their homework assignment and yet most of them cannot answer a single question on it unless somebody has stolen and distributed the test with the question. Mindless reading occurs when students fail to read due to “boredom” or the lack of basic reading skills to conquer the ambitious reading curriculum that instructs them to read Hemingway and Twain when their reading level is more tuned into children’s books with bright pictures and short rhyming lines. I’d like to go to a CCCC conference session on “mindless reading”, it would let me have a good giggle and might give some practical advice on how a professor is supposed to conquer this monstrous problem.

All that aside, this is a journal composition and reading professors and researchers must read, if only to understand the problems with the current theories presented and to inspire them to write their own contradicting essays on these topics.

 

 

The Collected Letters of Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle. Volume 42, May-September 1865. Duke-Edinburgh Edition. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014. ISSN: 1532-0928. 266pp.

 

****

 

I closely studies Thomas Carlyle’s works on radical social, economic and political topics, such as the French Revolution, as part of my PhD dissertation, and later my first scholarly book with McFarland, Rebellion as Genre. Thus, I couldn’t resist requesting this volume, which was listed along-side with other journals from Duke. I was a bit surprised that this volume only includes letters from a few months in 1865, when Carlyle was nearing the end of his life and his mental faculties were diminished. As the “Introduction” by Jonathan Wild explains, “Those readers anticipating TC’s pronouncements here on public events—and in particular on the American Civil War, which was then entering its final phase—will be disappointed. One of his rare pronouncements on the war, in a letter written to his brother John A. Carlyle, registered his world-weary mien in the wake of Lincoln’s assassination: ‘(poor old Lincoln, and [thus in MS] innocent simple man, of considerably faculty & sense, the very best man I have ever heard of in these American murderings & massacrings for no cause!’ (TC to JAC, 1 May)” (xiv). The editor has guessed my primary attraction towards Carlyle and answered this urge in the negative, no, hard as I might look, I will not find the hidden away radical statements here that I need for my ongoing research projects into radical nineteenth century writers. Instead, the volume is full of letters between husband and wife on their personal affairs, financial troubles, travel mishaps, lack of sleep, bad health, and other mundane subjects.

For researchers who are interested in the personal matters discussed here, every effort is made to make finding relevant content easier. The “Chronology” summarizes the content of the letters in brief paragraphs that should help researchers to find the pertinent phrases here and then match them to corresponding letters in this long volume. There are also abbreviations of names to make the text more readable without repetitions of the same names throughout. The letters are accompanied with extremely detailed notes that explain the allusions, references and otherwise unclear details in the letters with copious citations. Several historical photographs also help to visualize the people and events described. A scan of one of the letters on page 43 demonstrates the barely legible handwriting in Jane Welsh Carlyle’s letter to Thomas on May 26, 1865 from the National Library of Congress. I have done a good deal of archival research and transcription, and if I came across this letter, I would not want to be responsible for decoding it in a transcription. The transcriber has to be a specialist on handwritings from this period for the wiggles to be identifiable. So, a portion of the work that went into this series of dozens of volumes of Carlyle’s letters had to be this tedious transcription. The text includes some brief accounting notes on the pounds owed for various household goods (200), so scholars of daily life and culture from this period should find many intricate details to analyze. The index at the end has numerous terms of special interest that appear in scattered parts of the text. Even the Bibliography of books mentioned in the notes in length and reflects the complexity of the research that went into crafting the volume. The whole project has been sponsored by at least three major grants, including one from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and this funding shows in all of the components that could be added to each of these volumes. Everything from the Index to the notes must have taken many researchers, technicians and textual scholars, as it looks like a mountainous effort.

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