Book Reviews: Spring 2020

By: Anna Faktorovich, PhD

Vegan Cookbooks

I became a vegan around three years ago because my blood sugar results placed me on the border of pre-diabetes. At 248 pounds and 5’4, my BMI was 42.6, placing me in the morbidly obese category, which begins at 40 BMI. According to Rochester’s Bariatric Surgery Center: “Morbid obesity” or being “100 pounds over his/her ideal body weight… is a serious health condition that can interfere with basic physical functions such as breathing or walking. Those who are morbidly obese are at greater risk for illnesses including diabetes, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), gallstones, osteoarthritis, heart disease, and cancer.” My weight had expanded gradually over the previous decades without any major indicators of ill-health as I exercised regularly. But discovering that my weight had become a medical condition on its own forced me to research my options for losing it. I discovered that according to studies such as “Probability of an Obese Person Attaining Normal Body Weight: Cohort Study Using Electronic Health Records”, the odds of achieving normal weight from morbid obesity are extremely small: “1 in 1290 for men and 1 in 677 for women”. Then, I recalled a doctor telling me a few years earlier that I had to eat more fiber to improve my digestive system, so I started purchasing as much fruit and vegetables as could fit into my fridge, and then I attempted to eat all of it in a minimally processed form before it spoiled. Just eating this volume of fiber made me less hungry for junk food and began the process of dropping my weight. Since it was working, I decided to go strictly vegan. I reached normal weight with a low of around 138 pounds around half-a-year ago. I was tracking calories only between around 155 and 138, when I wanted to check on how precisely my body was reacting to different foods. In addition to the vegan diet, I have also been doing 40 minutes of kickboxing and 20 minutes of weightlifting 7-days-per-week across the past couple of years. After my weight was stable at normal weight for a few months, I stopped weighing myself and calculating precise caloric intake, and started re-incorporating bread and added oil into my diet. I plan on avoiding these calculations at least until the end of the pandemic, but I am eating around the same amount as I was before this switch. It is a bit labor and volume intensive to eat predominantly fruits and vegetables, but this labor is essential to not want to eat any more than needed for the body to lose weight. I was also forced off this stricter diet because of shortages of fresh produce in the grocery stores around me. I have discovered some reasonably healthy vegan frozen foods that have a higher oil and salt content, and these have been fun to eat and easier on my digestive tract. Most of the fresh bread I was purchasing and immediately freezing was repeatedly proven to be stale, so a few months ago I purchased rye, and other unique varieties of flour, nuts, yeast and other ingredients and began baking bread. It has been great to switch from predominantly eating oatmeal for every breakfast to relying on a mix of oatmeal, buckwheat and bread. I have been experimenting with several different bread recipes, adding cacao, nuts, oatmeal, corn meal, and unusual flours to various degrees of success. I am wavering between wanting to do more of my own cooking, and sticking with relying on lightly processed vegan frozen foods as my primary staple. To find inspiration or to strengthen my choice of cooking-avoidance, I requested a few vegan cookbooks from publishers for this set of book reviews. I hope they will give me and my readers some ideas regarding approaches to cooking healthy food, or will give reasons why cooking is best left to the professionals.

Subversive Meal-Prep Suggestions to Convince You to Pay Restaurants to Prep

JL Fields, Vegan Meal Prep: Ready-to-Go Meals and Snacks for Healthy Plant-Based Eating (New York: Rockridge Press, 2018). $16.99. 150pp. ISBN: 978-1-64152-290-8.

***

When I reviewed the different types of vegan cookbooks that have been published, I avoided requesting those that describe “meal-prep” because I predominantly run a publishing business from my home office. There is no point to prep meals if one is not taking them to an office, as the foods can remain fresher if they are prepared from fresh or frozen without pre-prep. I also prefer cooking with a minimum number of ingredients to cut down on prep-time and because I live alone, so multiple-ingredients tend to create a portion that is too large for a single meal, necessitating storage. I do like to bake 8 muffins of bread in advance, as obviously I could not knead dough every morning. So, will this book change my mind about prepping?

The blurb explains that it: “makes sure that you always have healthy, portion-controlled meals and snacks ready-to-go with fool-proof meal preps.” I tend to eat a single item, like a banana or a pre-cooked food, per meal, so the calorie-calculation is pretty simple, but perhaps I would mix ingredients more frequently if I did the math on them weekly. The description veers into strange waters from here: “Featuring 8 meal preps that cater to a variety of nutritional needs and tastes—grains, greens, legumes, bowls, and more—this cookbook provides nutritious, balanced recipes for 5 days of the week.” Why only 5 days? I guess this really is just designed for people who venture outside to work. And it is difficult to imagine under what circumstances a reader could utilize the “shopping lists” they include, unless they are suggesting taking this book on a shopping trip, or tearing the page with the list out of the book (I don’t think I could rip  a page out of a book even if my life depended on it). The opening “Go-To Ingredients” list includes a random list of basic vegetables, grains and the like, as if it’s designed for somebody who has never seen unprocessed food before. A look at one of their “Shopping Lists” does explain why it’s needed as it’s page-long, and includes everything from flour to canned foods and various types of juices and oils. The first photo of their first meal on page 22 looks like a jar of tuna fish with mayonnaise and nuts and raspberries on top. I think the image of a tube of paint would be more appetizing. I think this is supposed to be “overnight oats”. I tried prepping enough buckwheat for a couple of days in advance once, but it developed some spoilage within a day of refrigeration. It takes a few minutes to boil oats, so I don’t understand why somebody would want to leave oats to semi-rut overnight, or to leave them in a state of degeneration for the proposed 5 days. Perhaps freezing the oats would keep them fresh enough, but then the time to microwave these oats from frozen would take as much energy as just cooking a new set on the stove… The second proposed meal includes beans. I used to eat canned beans before my local grocery store developed some kind of a heating problem that left their canned beans semi-spoiled on-arrival, so I switched to only making my own beans from raw in a soup. I prefer making the bean soup because this way I don’t discard the water the beans bake in, missing some of their nutritional content. Their fourth idea is to put raw kale leaves on top of a jar of quinoa and chickpeas. This little bush of leaves is a standard feature in these meal-prep books, but in reality a typical vegan would want to eat a lot more than a jar of kale as the tiny leaves proposed here would be less than 5 calories. And kale goes bad quickly when it is compressed into a tight-fitting jar. And it will get cooked without one trying to cook it if it’s placed on top of steaming-hot quinoa. It seems these ideas are designed to convince people they should just purchase fast-food while they are at work rather than trying to prep something themselves. The fifth idea is the first one that somewhat approaches the caloric needs for a meal, as it includes tempeh and meaty vegetables like brussels sprouts. Another problem though is that the “Step-by-Step Prep” is confusing because the author constantly refers to future pages where the details of how to cook a “Basic Baked Potato” or the like are explained (40). The seventh meal has a quarter of the container soaked in oil, which is referred to as “artichoke curry”, perhaps because it is sprinkled with a bit of curry powder, but the bubbles identify it as butter. It is absurd that this oil-bath is covered on top with another set of 10 leaves of grass or “salad”. The eighth meal includes a visually appealing but nonsensical set of layers of different types of beans, born, onions and the like on top of another fatty pool of Caesar-dressing. Most of the calories here are from the dressing. And why would somebody cook red and white beans separately, only to mix them in this jar? The last section of this book on snacks includes “Taco Pita Pizzas”, wherein one begins with “4” ready-made “pizzas”. Once again the subliminal suggestion is for folks to buy fast-food tacos rather than attempting this at home and watching these pizzas disintegrate across the 5 days in which the cooked pizzas are then supposed to sit in the fridge. The items that is most blatantly designed as anti-cooking propaganda is “Baked Potato Chips”, wherein folks are asked to cut the potato into “1/10-inch slices” with a “mandoline slicer or the slicer blade in a food processor” for consistency. Readers are likely to question how much this special slicer would cost, and if this “blade” in the processor is safe for somebody who is not a trained chef. And cooking these otherwise unprocessed slices soaked in oil and spices is likely to produce cardboard-tasting chips that should dissuade further experimentation in this direction. Chips work because they are mostly oil and salt in the remnants or bones of what used to be a potato. If one is cooking for themselves and has committed to eating vegan for their health, they really just need to bake the full potato without soaking it in oil and burning the nutrients out of its skin. A similar nightmare would befall somebody attempting to make “Baked Granola”. Commercial granola bars have an extremely high quantity of syrup, sugar and other sweet ingredients holding the nuts and oats together without just adding enough water. Putting only ¼ cup of syrup to 3 cups of oats should create brick-burned-oat-nuts rather than anything resembling “granola”. And the “Banana-nut Bread Bars” recipe omits baking soda in favor of more syrup. And I really don’t think I’m ready to process fruits into a cake. I like to just defreeze fruit and eat them and my home-baked-bread in separate plates, but in the same meal for breakfast. Fruit tastes perfectly well as nature makes it. Overall, I just don’t understand JL Fields’ cooking philosophy. Maybe as I look over these other cookbooks, I’ll be able to explain why it is deeply troubling.

Vegan Recipes Capable of Converting the World

Bryant Terry, Vegetable Kingdom: The Abundant World of Vegan Recipes (Emeryville: Ten Speed Press: Penguin Random House, February 11, 2020). Hardcover: $30. 8X10”. 256pp. ISBN: 978-0-399-58104-5.

*****

Since most cooks on a hunt for recipes are searching for ideas outside of the formulas of cooking that they grew up with, a good cookbook really has to have an international or foreign perspective. This is the basic philosophy claimed in the title of this book. The blurb promises “100 beautifully simple recipes… centered on real food, not powders or meat substitutes”. My experiments with fabricated meat have been negative, so this is an encouraging promise. It further sets out to show “how to make delicious meals from popular vegetables, grains, and legumes. Recipes like Dirty Cauliflower, Barbecued Carrots with Slow-Cooked White Beans, Millet Roux Mushroom Gumbo, and Citrus & Garlic-Herb-Braised Fennel are enticing enough without meat substitutes, instead relying on fresh ingredients, vibrant spices, and clever techniques to build flavor and texture.” Beyond this, the book promises to deliver a cooking class that prepares cooks with basic competencies in the kitchen to understand this craft in a new light. “Bryant also covers the basics of vegan cooking, explaining the fundamentals of assembling flavorful salads, cooking filling soups and stews, and making tasty grains and legumes.

The interior delivers on these grand promises. The table of contents is originally and usefully organized, with a section on “Flowers” for flowery vegetables such as broccoli. The first recipe that caught my attention is the “Smashed peas and creamy cauliflower”. I have been eating a lot of froze pre-prepared fried mashed cauliflower balls. It might be interesting to attempt to boil cauliflower and attempt to mash it next time I can find some fresh cauliflower. Usually I just cook it in a pan with some water sprinkles and without oil. But mashed cauliflower has a creamy texture that makes it seem fatty by itself without the added frying. His “Panko-crusted cauliflower and coconut curry” recipe with the oven-burned cauliflower is also an interesting experiment to try.

The “Cornbread muffins” recipe also stands out. It begins with a story about why this fatty recipe was particularly satisfying and joy-making when it was popularized in the turbulent Jim Crow South. The descriptions are poetic: “Black folks in the South like their cornbread sweet because that’s the way it’s supposed to be eaten.” I bought corn meal a few weeks ago when I ran out of a non-diastatic vegan malt substitute. And adding it to my bread appears to have finally led to me making bread that rises because without something sugary it appears to have been pretty flat before. I also bought some baking soda for the first time because as I glanced through this and the other cookbooks, the idea of making something more muffin than bread-like became tempting. I did not buy any sugar, as the idea of eating spoonfuls of sugar appears contrary to all rules of proper dieting and eating. The theory that cornbread has to be sweet even if it’s not a desert is on the opposite end of this spectrum. I might attempt making sugar-free muffins using a modified version of this recipe in the coming weeks because it is a bit dull to eat mostly bread in the mornings. But if I avoid the recommended coconut oil as well, and don’t have any dates (they don’t sell them at my region’s shops), and skip the “unsweetened oat milk” (I don’t like meat/milk substitutes)… Well, I have no idea what I’ll end up with, but it won’t be called a muffin. I’m not even sure if I can switch “baking powder” with “baking soda” without coming up with a science experiment.

Many of these recipes are what I dream I could cook, but the small rural and even small mega shops around here just don’t have the needed ingredients. For example, I tried some of the wilder species of mushrooms that are sold in shops in Wichita Falls two hours away from me, and they were fantastic. The “Caramelized leek and seared mushroom toast” recipe suggests using “1 pound wild mushrooms, such as maitake, chestnut, or chanterelle”. Just thinking about having a pound of the mushrooms in the photo makes me drool, but it would be impossible to access them. Maybe if I attempt to scavenge the local forests, as I did when I was a kid in Russia. While Terry acknowledges that this is his version of fancy “avocado toast” in the intro, he seems oblivious of the hardships most folks using this book would face with the suggested ingredients. And it just wouldn’t work with plain mushrooms.

Terry’s “Scallion-teff biscuits” recipe is also tempting, and I might also attempt a modified version of it with my limited ingredients. I have fancy flour, but would skip the “cane sugar” and “coconut oil”. Curiously, he recommends adding “1/2 cup thinly sliced scallions” right into the dough mixture. I have been adding some dry onions to my bread, but perhaps it would taste a lot better if I just dropped in tiny onion heads or other vegetables into the mixture, if Terry thinks adding half-a-cup to biscuits works. Perhaps I’ll try this on biscuits first.

Another inspiring idea is the “Hoppin’ john-stuffed peppers”. I have never tried stuffing peppers before because I really like to eat them raw with salad if fresh ones are available, but perhaps if I buy more than what I can eat in salads alone, I’ll try this recipe. The idea of stuffing them with beans is appealing: it should be an interesting mixture of sweetness, softness and hardness. I just don’t know about some of the other ingredients. I have been staying away from canned foods because they tend to add sugar, or preservatives, so canned tomatoes or “sun-dried tomato paste” don’t sound appealing. I also have had a tough time eating rice since going vegan: it tastes too heavy and bloating. Perhaps I’ll attempt an experiment to adjust this recipe to my current preferences, but again I’ll have to invent an entirely different concept, which would not work as well as this tested recipe.

Overall, this is probably the best vegan cookbook I have come across because it attempts innovative and traditional cooking experiments that suggest further experimentation by explaining how and why a given recipe is presented the way that it is. I love living in the middle of nowhere, but looking through the suggested ingredients in this book is one of the few things that have made me miss access to city-adjacent stores with their wider variety of strange ingredients. While some cookbooks digress into irrelevant philosophizing the stories that introduce these recipes help to place readers into the world-hopping settings these dishes originate in, while also explaining their personal significance for the chef presenting these ideas.  

An Introduction to Veganism for the Cooking-Illiterate

Dustin Harder, The Simply Vegan Cookbook (New York: Rockridge Press, 2018). $12.99. 254pp. ISBN: 978-1-62315-926-9.

*****

Dustin Harder’s book promises to avoid the pitfall of proposing unfindable ingredients that troubled me in Terry’s recipes. “Forget about vegan cookbooks that require specialty ingredients and leave you unsatisfied.” It even insists that: “Dustin Harder has travelled over 110,000 miles—and visited every grocery store along the way— to find out which vegan foods are (and are not) accessible.” It promises to be “the most comprehensive of vegan cookbooks to date” by including “150 recipes with two variations each resulting in a total of 450 recipes”. This is very helpful for me since variations are necessary given my preference for minimum ingredients, and attempts to avoid heavily processed and chemically preserved food. It also helps that it promises time-efficiency: “No more than 30 minutes of active time prep time per recipe”. And it would be useful to read “Cooking tutorials” to “improve your skills for making vegan staples”, as there are common vegan foods that seem unconquerably difficult to make unless they are explained in detail.

The “Contents” show the breadth of this project, as the sections are divided into the main vegan food-groups, such as “root vegetables” and “grains”. The main recipes include most of the ingredients that a vegan can imagine employing such as edamame and grits. The first item that drew my attention is “Cheese Grits”, which seem to contradict the “vegan” promise in the title. I have been searching for a method to cook eatable grits since I just bought some for the first time and my first experiment was a flop, as I added too much pepper and made a full cup for breakfast and the volume of grits this made was so large it took me around an hour to eat it all. I learned something new just glancing at this recipe: apparently grits are a type of cornmeal, as the recipe requires “stone-ground cornmeal” rather than “grits”. I checked my box of grits and apparently, I really could have just cooked the cheaper cornmeal that I got versus the more expensive packaged version labeled as “grits”. Everybody reading this probably know this, but you might be similarly surprised by other obvious revelations in this book that are needed for our modern cooking-illiterate society. This recipe asks for “soy or almond milk”, so perhaps “grits” are not really eatable unless you add something milky to them. Though I’m hoping for an alternative. The recipe does specifically ask for ½ teaspoon of black pepper, and it seems I’ve learned this is not a good idea, but maybe the milk would neutralize this sharp taste. There is no section on “grits” or “cornmeal” in the Index, or I would check the other ideas for making this stuff eatable. It’s a great idea to just add some water to cornmeal and call it a meal if the world continues sliding into deeper food-shortages. But the taste is troubling. I believe I liked something grit-like as a child, but it was made with milk.

The promised explanations are offered in sections such as “The Basics of Cooking Greens”, wherein basic recipes are offered to “Saute” or “Steam” any type of green before the detailed variations are offered in the rest of the section. I have been looking up online definitions for terms such as “saute”, but these are typically too short to explain the science or the technique behind the basic steps. I don’t have a steamer, but reading about steaming makes me wish I had these tools.

The book does veer into ideas that rely heavily on pre-cooked ingredients such as “Taco Seasoning”. There are a lot of variations proposed on a “Salad” and “Smoothie”. I like very meaty salads without any lettuce. I never really liked eating lettuce because it tastes like grass, and then there were sprouts of food poisoning associated with lettuce, so I really don’t find these appealing. The “Smoothie” idea is also problematic from my perspective. For example, the “Blueberry Lemonade Smoothie” asks for: kale, frozen blueberries, soy/almond milk, lemon juice, and maple syrup. Problems: 1. Nothing can make kale taste good. 2. I like to eat cups of defrosted blueberries with bread on the side or by themselves. Fruits are healthier when they are left intact. When they are blended, they lose some of their best health properties, and become closer to processed sugar, as their rate of absorption is increased. And the texture of whole fruit is perfect just the way it is naturally versus chopped fruit has a mud-puddle texture. 3. I don’t have a food processor or the like to chop a smoothie, and my tiny house doesn’t really have the space for it and other tools of fancier cooking. 4. Adding fatty milk substitutes and large quantities of processed sugar via syrup sounds like a deliberate attempt to turn the healthiest approach to food (veganism) into junk-food-veganism. I don’t know f other people see these problems when they review this book, but it’s very annoying for me as I can’t imagine cooking this stuff.

Then the recipe on “Artichoke Flatbread” asks for pre-made “pita breads”: there is no “pita” sold in even the biggest stores in the region where I live, so I don’t know where the author traveled to check for the presence of the suggested ingredients. Maybe she traveled between New York City and Boston… I would need the recipe to make pita bread from scratch to make this recipe. Same goes for her proposed “Mushroom Pizza Bowl”: well there are pizza crusts sold in stores, but these are highly processed and made with white flour. They also tend to be to gigantic for a single person like me to eat in a sitting (1,000 calories just in the crust). If I’m buying the pre-made pizza pie, why not just buy it with the vegetables on top of it. It would be absurd to spend all that time chopping vegetables, but leave the pizza crust baking to a corporation. Later in the book, there is a recipe for “Roasted Mexican-Spiced Cauliflower” – with a picture of un-spiced pieces of basic vegetables on a skewer. Given the volume of vegetables I eat when I just have vegetables for dinner, it would take a lot of skewering to prepare it, and it would be a lot more logical to just toss the vegetables in a pan. Most of these recipes appear to be designed for the eyes rather than for taste. If I was inviting guests over, it might be prettier to skewer vegetables, but since I live alone in isolation (even when not during a pandemic), prettiness isn’t really a goal for me. There are a few tempting recipes in these pages that echo Terry’s and those I’ve been pondering testing, such as the “Zucchini Cornbread Muffins”: which also proposes adding vegetables to the muffins. Perhaps muffins with vegetables added to them don’t need sugar? I tested adding onions and peppers to a 4X version of this recipe with various adjustments to delete sugar and the like, and it was curious, though I would use a lot less baking soda next time.

If the “Drunken Mushroom Noodles” recipe included how to make noodles from scratch, this would have been much more helpful for my current interests in food research. The recipes at the end for pudding and pancakes clearly appear to be made for folks who like milk-like textures and junk-food: I’m not missing these at all, and eating pudding would be the equivalent for me to eating a bowl of oil paint. I think this has to do with sugar addiction. An average American drinking 10 spoons of sugar in a can of soda several times per day has difficulty stopping this habit, but for somebody who has not eaten almost any added sugar for years, watching somebody drinking 10 spoons of sugar is horrifying.

I wish this book delivered what it promises in the blurb, but this is a very high bar for any cookbook to meet. My standard for innovative and useful cooking recipes might be a bit high. I did learn about grits and got some other ideas from this book, so I think somebody who has no idea what is vegan or how one would cook vegan stuff would find most of the information similarly informative. This is a book intended for beginners to convert them with recipes that meet the sugar/fat content of the traditional American diet. Somebody turning vegan on these types of foods should not notice much of a difference, but perhaps would have fewer weight-loss etc. benefits due to the more processed nature of the proposed ingredients.

Anti-Weight-Loss Veganism for Those with Abundant Time

Editors at America’s Test Kitchen, Vegan for Everybody: Foolproof Plant-Based Recipes for Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, and In-Between (Boston: America’s Test Kitchen, 2017). $29.95. 328pp. ISBN: 978-1-940352-86-2.

*****

The cover of this book suggests that “Everybody” prefers a burger with a fried vegan-patty and super-fried onion rings, soaked in sweet salad dressing on white bread. It is typical for fast-food propogandists to sell the American diet as a populist every-man diet of the working classes, but these ideas are contrary to these working peoples’ health interests. Readers who have high cholesterol and need to go vegan for their health might assume that this version of veganism would be helpful, whereas it is the only variety of veganism that is the opposite of being for everybody. Athletes that need to maintain a high caloric intake to exercise for 3 hours daily might need this volume of fat and processed flour, but “Everybody” else should do better with a health-conscious version of veganism. 

The book is advertised as one that “decodes and demystifies vegan cooking so you can reap its many benefits. Avoid the pitfalls of bland food, lack of variety, and overprocessed ingredients with approachable, fresh, vibrant recipes. Can vegan cooking be flavorful? Satisfying? Easy to make? Through rigorous testing on the science of vegan cooking,” it “addresses these questions head-on, finding great-tasting and filling vegan protein options, cooking without dairy, preparing different whole grains and vegetables, and even baking.” The insertion of “even” at the end of this sentence might explain why the other books included very few breads, or otherwise “baking” recipes, as it seems this category of cooking is isolated in cookbooks into an advanced level. Perhaps baking takes a bit longer, but it can require fewer ingredients than some stove-top recipes, so it’s unclear why this distinction needs to be made. The editors promise to “Reimagine mealtime by celebrating vegetables at the center of the plate and in salads and grain bowls. Take a new look at comfort foods with a surprisingly rich and creamy lasagna or hearty burger with all the fixings. Bake the perfect chewy chocolate chip cookie or a layer cake that stands tall for any celebration. With more than 200 rigorously-tested vibrant recipes”. It did seem with some of the recipes in the other cookbooks I’ve reviewed that they were not really “tested”. For example, the jars in the meal-prep book did not appear to have been closed and these meals were not likely to have been stored for the 5 recommended days to check how these jars with lettuce on-top would look towards the end of this refrigeration (probably an appalling and uneatable sight). Since this book is by the Test Kitchen, and specifically promises that these recipes were experimented on to derive these specific suggestions, the bar for quality is set higher than in the other books.

The introductory remarks include several tips that I learned from. For example, the note on “Browning without Butter” includes a curious note on using “oat milk”. A section on “Foods That Might Not Be Vegan” should be helpful for those committing to veganism for ethical reasons, who are not likely to find a similar simple summary in many other sources. For example, it notes that “Pasta and Noodles” tend to include eggs, which is something few might ponder because noodles lack the thickness associated with egg-heavy recipes like pancakes. Other items on this list are “Wine” and “Sugar”, but these are cited for minor infractions that would only matter to an ethical vegan versus a health-vegan. For the latter, the “fining” of wine in “isinglass (fish bladder)” would be insignificant as milligrams of fish oil would not alter the cholesterol volume in the wine, and thus would not counter the health benefits of drinking more wine and less milk. They also recommend some curious ideas on making slits in portobello mushrooms. There are also useful lessons on freezing nuts, though I’ve found that refrigeration is sufficient to keep them reasonably fresh for some time. And the section of “Flavor Boosters” should be helpful for new vegans because adding vinegars, chiles, citrus, spices and their other recommendations really helps to make any vegetable gain flavor, increasing the odds a new vegan would enjoy these healthy dishes. I haven’t experimented with some of their suggestions yet, like nutritional yeast, dried mushrooms, or tomato paste, but perhaps I will. Overall, this is a great textbook introduction to vegan cooking; if I was teaching a class on this subject, this would probably be a textbook I would consider as a primary source of information.

The first recipe they pitch is strangely appealing despite my distaste of late to very fatty foods. “Tofu Frittata with Mushrooms” looks like a quiche. The ingredients are basically flour, tofu, mushrooms and shallots. I tried experimenting with baking and pan cooking tofu without processing it, and it hasn’t really worked, but I’ll probably get some tofu and try making it this way. It’s hard to imagine that just flour would make tofu taste good, but the picture really sells this idea.

There are some other curious ideas scattered across the book, such as mixing three different grains into “Breakfast Porridge”: millet, quinoa, and amaranth. Millet alone did not taste good when I tested it, but perhaps some of these less appealing grains improve when mixed with other grains because they vary in texture and taste (51). There is also a recipe for “grits” here, and it again includes “almond milk” and the strange spicy inclusion of pepper and chives (52). The “Savory Drop Biscuits” proposed here are relying on a mix of coconut milk and oil; the chief difference between these and other biscuit recipes might be their tiny size. The volume of sugar and oils this recipe requires and the lack of vegetables or the like to supplement for this added sugar will keep me from trying this version (55). One thing that I want to test is “Banana Bread”: I’m curious if I can make it without any added sugar, only relying on added frozen bananas, nuts, lemon powder and other ingredients at my disposal (67). Is there a gap between the version of bread I’ve been making and this banana-bread mixture? Would it be weird beyond recognition without milk substitutes and sugar? I guess I’ll find out because I’m bookmarking it for future testing.  

While the ideas noted above are inspiring, most of this book also relies on pre-cooked breads, such as the “Thin-Crust Pizza Dough” (136) on top of which cauliflower and other ingredients are supposed to be sprinkled. I tend to cook a whole cauliflower when I open a package, and it would be pretty absurd to put that much cauliflower on top of a crust… And most of these recipes suggest too many steps if cooking from scratch. For example, even a salad requires boiling chickpeas, grilling onions, making dressing out of seven ingredients (including the unhealthy syrup and mayonnaise) (145). I would appreciate an original method for cooking particularly great chickpeas more than this lengthy, multi-ingredient process. The editors are clearly going against their own stated objectives for this book. On the other hand, if I had a live-in-chef, I would definitely ask for some of these dishes to be cooked up in various combinations. I’d have to specify my objections to added sugar and the like, so this chef would have to be a bit of a scientist to adjusted these recipes to my laundry-list of health-conscious preferences.

The section in the second half of the book on lasagnas and mac-and-cheese just veers of the rails of healthy cooking entirely and attempts to match the fat-content of the worst SAD (Standard American Diet) kitchen. But their “Chile-Rubbed Butternut Squash Steaks” idea is curious: I like soft, extra-cooked squash, but I’ve not seen squash get as black as these pieces seem. I might test this idea to see if it would work (205).

While my preferences disagree with many of the ideas covered in this book, it would be very strange indeed if I managed to find a book that perfectly matches my taste buds. Cooking and eating are not exact sciences (yet), and this is a collection of curious experiments in this multi-opinionated field. Thus, I would recommend this book to those who are interested in veganism, have a lot of time to cook, and are not hesitant to add oil, sugar and other sinful or anti-weight-loss foods.   

The Italian Seafood Diet: Corporate Propaganda versus Basics of Vegan Home-Cooking

Tess Challis, Vegan Mediterranean Cookbook: Essential Vegiterranean Recipes for the Ultimate Healthy Lifestyle (New York: Rockridge Press, 2019). $16.99. 154pp. ISBN: 978-1-64152-614-2.

****

One of the trends that is a constant annoyance for me is the appearance of articles on the benefits of the “Mediterranean” diet as the world’s healthiest. The studies that have concluded that this diet is superior to veganism are clearly based on the biased assumption that veganism is too strict, so folks would not comply with it. Most folks who review the pop summaries of what to eat on a “Mediterranean” diet interpret it as implying that American Italian food is healthy. Of course, American Italian pizza, pasta, and other white breads smothered with layers of triple-cheese are as far from healthy as a human can get. This misconception is strengthened by the stress on “olive oil” and the acceptance of milk, poultry, and pretty much all other foods, even including red meat in “moderation”. These concepts have nothing to do with traditional foods eaten in the Mediterranean, which did not include anywhere near the milk-conception levels accepted in modern kitchens. The idea of mixing the “Mediterranean” diet with veganism appears to be advising readers to cut out dairy and meat, but add a high quantity of olive oil into a diet. It is difficult to imagine why just adding more oil to a vegan diet would be a better idea than just being a vegan. I dive into this book with the hope it will solve these mysteries of human eating propaganda.   

The blurb describes the combination proposed as a “vegiterranean cookbook.” It goes on to explain that the improvement on veganism from this region is in its “bold flavors and healthy lifestyle of the Mediterranean diet”. This seems to be hinting that there is something about the “Mediterranean” region that presents a uniquely healthy way of living. The Mediterranean Sea is bordered by countries as varied as Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Libya, Algeria Morocco and Egypt. Each of these countries has hundreds of regional variations as well as national cooking traditions. To call a diet Mediterranean doesn’t even specify if a European or an African diet is being suggested. How can anybody seriously research what people on-average from all of these bordering countries are eating, and can all of these places jointly seriously have a longer lifespan than elsewhere? The Mayo Clinic explains that the term “Mediterranean diet” stems in 1960s ideas that concluded there was less heart disease in countries such as “Greece and Italy” versus “U.S. and northern Europe”. The imagery connected with the “Mediterranean diet” tend to be of Italy and Greece, but it would be an advertisement of Italian food to just call this the Italian diet. The other component in this name is its reference to the Sea, suggesting that eating “more seafood” in general is healthy. Micro-plastics and other pollutants present in modern sea waters make this less than the ideal food, and fish oil is related to snake-oil. Basically, this diet is the Italian Seafood Diet. Turning this concept vegan is contrary to all of these notions. Vegans can’t eat any seafood, so it becomes the cheese-less pizza diet…

The blurb promises to deliver recipes that are “free of both animal products and artificial ingredients.” Then it explains the hype: “The Mediterranean diet is one of the most-studied diets of all time, and is known to boost energy, lower cholesterol, strengthen your immunity, and help you maintain a healthy weight.” Just as a nonsense diet like this “Mediterranean” idea has become the “most-studied”, attribution studies have added and subtracted attributions around and in the “Shakespeare” canon for nearly five-hundred-years without arriving at the answers I’ve arrived at with my computational-linguistic method that has been rejected at all of the journals that have been puffing the brilliance of all past failed and contradictory attempts. Re-affirming the “Shakespeare” attributions has benefited publishers and theater-builders who have used this trigger-word to sell all sorts of content as “Shakespearean”. Similarly, the “Mediterranean” idea is likely to benefit Italian restaurants and sea food sellers. If there are segments of the economy benefiting from selling specific foods, they tend to sponsor “studies” that confirm the assertions of the promoted idea even if it is contrary to all basic logic and scientific facts. There is nothing about fish or olive oil that boosts “energy”. All food is converted to energy by the human body: a gallon of oil is energy, just as a bucket of salad is energy. And oil in olive oil and fish oil alike do the opposite of lowering cholesterol: fish oil especially is very high in cholesterol. If this is the most studied idea of all time, shouldn’t some of these researchers have noticed this contradiction? While the immune system can be assisted by eating more fruits and vegetables because they carry heavy loads of vitamins, there is again nothing immune-assisting about the “Mediterranean diet” recommendations. Since the “Mediterranean diet” does not specify caloric-intake, there is nothing in its philosophy that would promote weight-loss. Eating more fruits and vegetables is believed to be the reason past experiments in the “Mediterranean diet” resulted in weight-loss, but this is not explained in the mainstream media, where the olive oil and fish oil are taunted as the weight-loss promoting elements. This is not a scientific book, but rather a cookbook. While it would be unusual for a cookbook included explanations regarding food science, it is necessary for any book that makes claims regarding the science of weight-loss to explain these claims scientifically because readers who follow these medical suggestions under the assumption they are factual might otherwise be misled into a lifetime of health-problems related to failure to lose excess weight. The blurb goes on to promise an explanation of the “nutritional and environmental benefits of plant-based meals”, hinting at a scientific explanation that does not materialize. Instead of focusing on explaining what about this diet is “Mediterranean” or why veganism is beneficial, this book stresses topics that are of interest to small segments of the population with rare diseases that require foods labeled as “gluten-free, soy-free, and nut-free”. A few people are allergic to nuts, or have gluten-intolerance, but far more people gain weight because they eat too much oil. Focusing on the negatives of these allergens and ignoring oil, sugar and other dangerous foods benefits the food manufacturers to the detriment of the public. The absurdity is taken further as this book features stereotypes about the “Mediterranean lifestyle, including exercise, attitude, and community.” The number of countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea make any single exercise a stereotyping of this diverse region. Simplifying the “attitude” of these people is similarly racist. And the idea that there is a better sense of “community” here again hits the emotions of readers rather than any real difference between community structures around the world. People live in communities in every country in the world, but modern conveniences have led to an increase in individuality. The suggestion is thus a return to pre-modern times of communal living. Actual communities are mocked by American culture as communal or communistic. Again, the idea seems to return to the Italian restaurant or eating in a corporate community, rather than cooking at home for yourself.

As usual, the “Foreword” and other pieces of front-matter fail to offer any scientific basis and instead stick to abstractions, stereotypes and propaganda. The “SOS: no sugar, oil, or salt” vegan diet is criticized as a form of “deprivation” that is unhealthy or a type of eating disorder as the Foreword’s writer, Victoria Moran, confesses to overcoming a “long-standing binge-eating disorder”. Since binge-eating means eating a lot, and then a little, this disorder represents most Americans who occasionally eat at all-you-can-eat buffets or other restaurants that offer enormous plates that can all be described as binges. The manner in which eating-disorders are taught in American schools makes it seem as if all caloric-restriction or dieting is a form of eating disorder: this false belief shames those who attempt to diet to improve their health. These ideas have made Americans the leaders in the world in morbid-obesity, so clearly this is a failed philosophy that needs changing, rather than reinforcement in books about veganism. These remarks are echoed in the primary author’s “Introduction”, where Challis confesses to spending a decade as an “obese vegan”. Challis claims that the “Mediterranean diet” helped her lose weight by “its magic”. It’s difficult to imagine how Challis could have been more anti-scientific than this statement. She does state that the main change she made was starting to eat “less processed food and more fresh food (particularly organic vegetables and legumes)”, before repeating the bits about “energy”, immunity and overall “disease and illness” prevention. But avoiding processed food has nothing to do with the Mediterranean or this diet philosophy. Of course, if this book was called the Unprocessed Vegan Diet, it would not find a mainstream publisher because food corporations are selling pizzas and fish and not the end of themselves. An unprocessed diet is a diet free from corporate food handling. The ideal unprocessed diet means a person grows their own potatoes and bakes them from scratch at home. While this might be ideal for humanity’s health, the billionaires profiting from food processing have the opposite interests.

Some positive elements about this book is that it includes a recipe for “Pita Bread”. I don’t think I am going to attempt to bake bread on a pan as I’m pretty sure pita needs to be made with special equipment or it will just be burned dough. But, if I ever want to attempt this experiment, this is a detailed explanation of this process. The flatbread recipe that follows it is also curious: it’s advertised as coming “together in just a few minutes” (65-7). The recipe for “Falafel” from-scratch is also curious: I might attempt it, though I don’t think mine would come together if I don’t have a food processor to chop the chickpeas.

Readers of this cookbook should just ignore the title and the marketing pitch. If you ignore all references to a “Mediterranean” diet, and just read the recipes, there are indeed a lot of ideas for minimally-processed cooking that returns to the roots of home-cooking versus relying on the highly processed oil, salt and sugar. Aside for the recipes mentioned above, there are many recipes in these pages that repeat the same ideas as in the other cookbooks, but the presence of some original ideas makes this a good addition to a home-cook’s collection.

The Fastest Cooking Method Is Not Cooking

JL Fields, Fast & Easy Vegan Cookbook: 100 Mouthwatering Recipes for Time-Crunched Vegans (New York: Rockridge Press, 2019). $14.99. 150pp. ISBN: 978-1-64152-623-4.

****

This is the second book in this set by Fields; the first was about meal-prep, while this one just discusses speedy recipes. It is described as covering topics “From one-pot to pressure cooker”. I don’t have a pressure cooker, so I’m starting at half-range. Then the blurb threatens readers with a kidnapping if they refuse to buy this book; cooking these recipes would leave readers “without being held hostage for hours in your kitchen.” The death-threat is a powerful selling tool… The problem is that while it is advertised as specializing in not needing “a long list of ingredients”, the cover includes an image of a dish with a hodgepodge of ingredients: tofu, a mix of at least five vegetables, and nuts. How many ingredients would be too many? Most of the dishes I cook involve one ingredient and spices, so this is a lot of ingredients in my book. Instead of minimizing ingredients, Fields focuses on minimizing cooking: “there’s even a chapter devoted to not cooking at all (Gazpacho, anyone?).” But this is a cookbook. If there is no cooking involved, there is no need for this book: you just go to the store and buy pre-cooked food… This seems to be a nonsensical contradiction. Then, Fields promises: “Every recipe lists nutritional information, and most include tips for ingredient substitution, adding more protein, or other easy customizations.” In this regard, Fields does deliver. I have not seen this in any of the other cookbooks. There are small-font lists of the caloric count, fat-carbs-protein counts, as well as fiber and sodium counts at the bottom of each recipe. This is helpful, as otherwise I would probably have to calculate the portion-size that fits my current diet before I could decide on a recipe and on the quantity I should cook. The suggested substitutions are also helpful. For example, a recipe for “Cauliflower Fried Rice”, suggests that to add “More Protein”, lentil loaf or barbecue tofu can be added, whereas water can be substituted for oil to make this recipe oil-free. I have been imagining how to make these types of changes in the other books in this set, so this minimizes some of the picky chef’s labor. Overall, this book delivers: “100… recipes” such as: “Artichoke Heart Salad, Spicy Pinto Bean Skillet, Mushroom Stroganoff Bake”. With sections on “30-minute recipes, sheet pan and casserole meals, 5-ingredient dishes”. Those on a calorie or a macro-nutrient-counting diet should particularly benefit from this book over the other options. The first chapter on “Vegan Meals” explains several points about veganism that readers are likely to be curious about, including the foods with the highest protein content, including edamame and tofu.

This book is meant for folks who don’t have time to cook and have access to high-quality pre-cooked ingredients such as wraps, pita pizza and the like. This is not what I’m looking for, but if you don’t know what to put on your pita, this is the book for you. Most of these pages look only half-full because the font is tiny, but the recipes are also short, so there is a lot of white space around very basic ideas like: toss everything in a skillet, cover, heat, done (64). This might be the only book in this set that did not inspire me at all, and I don’t think I’m ever looking inside of it again.

Cooking with SAD Mammal Secretions

Editors at America’s Test Kitchen, The Complete Vegetarian Cookbook (Boston: America’s Test Kitchen, 2019). $32.99. 464pp. ISBN: 978-1-936493-96-8.

****

The first title from America’s Test Kitchen in this set was designed to attract the broadest possible audience by simplifying veganism, whereas this title promises to be a broader coverage of veganism for those interested in understanding the topic in greater depth. “Everyone knows they should eat more vegetables and grains, but that prospect can be intimidating with recipes that are often too complicated for everyday meals or lacking in fresh appeal or flavor. For the first time ever, the test kitchen has devoted its considerable resources to creating a vegetarian cookbook for the way we want to eat today.” The last note regarding the special way “we… eat today” appears to be another reference to fast-food being what people want versus the less flavorful fruits and grains. Technically, fresh vegan foods have a greater range of flavors than any processed food because nature makes variety whereas processing deletes these textures and variations and leaves just basic tastes like sweet or salty. But perhaps this is not the intended meaning. The number of recipes advertised is the largest out of the books in this set: “More than 300 recipes are fast (start to finish in 45 minutes or less), 500 are gluten-free, and 250 are vegan… [A]lmost 500 color photos illustrate vegetable prep and tricky techniques as well as key steps within recipes.” Some of the other books only include photos at the start of sections, so a photo for half of the recipes is a very positive feature.

The problem with this set of books is that most of the publishers from whom I requested specific vegan books that appeared especially unique did not send them to me for review. And a few publishers that did send books, also included a few other books that I did not specifically request. For example, I did not request any “vegetarian” books, which this title is, or the meal-prep book. While I ate sprinkles of cheese earlier in my weight-loss experiment, I lost the taste for it all together after I tried vegan parmesan cheese and realized that it and the “real” cheese it was based on had cardboard texture, and tasted like what it was, spoiled milk with a lot of salt. Since most of the recipes in this cookbook rely heavily on dairy products as their bases, I am not likely to be able to come up with alternative recipes that avoids these ingredients. Another problem is that while the total number of recipes in this book is larger than in the other books, there are few ideas here that are unique, as they all seem to be variations on the basic cooking ideas repeated across these books. The “Test Kitchen” brand and the introductory comments regarding their chefs testing variations of recipes once again sets a high expectation of readers finding experimental recipes inside, but this is not the case. There must be a lot more ideas humanity has had regarding cooking the enormous range of food that does not include meat or dairy, I hope somebody will undertake the research to truly write an international strange vegan recipes cookbook to give us all some culinary adventures.

On the bright side, the front-matter of this book does provide a good deal of useful information about cutting and cooking methods and tools. On the negative, the section on tools appears to be a series of sponsored advertisements of specific companies’ tools with prices and brand-names listed next to them. For example, they include a “Coarse Grater” that costs $35.95, but can be substituted with a basic grater that might cost a couple of dollars. If the makers of these tools sponsored this book’s publication, readers are left uncertain if recipes are designed to incorporate these tools or because of their health or taste benefits. The section on knife-skills offers basic lessons one might see in an introductory cooking class, which should be helpful for those among us who don’t have home-economics or the like class offerings in school. Some helpful tips on purchasing and storing vegetables include that “Larger eggplants tend to be more bitter and have more seeds” (14). The section on cutting vegetables includes several useful pictures as when these techniques are described in online articles or the like, they tend to lack visual explanations assisted with verbal details provided here. I wish some of these explanations were written out in still more detail though. For example, there is a note that mushrooms should be washed “under cold water”, but when eaten raw, they should not be washed at all, but rather have their “dirt” brushed away with a cloth (21). While there might be vitamin B12 in dirt, not washing any food about to be eaten; then again, it’s a fungus, so it’s already pretty much counter to the types of things humans should be eating.

Nearly all of these recipes rely on pre-cooked noodles, rice, cheese and other ingredients that I can’t stomach. There is a curious recipe inserted for making “Paneer” cheese from boiled milk, but again, I’m not eating dairy (65). For example, the recipe for “Roasted Butternut Squash with Goat Cheese, Pecans, and Maple” advises users to just over-cook the sliced squash, covering it in cheese and added sugar. The baked butternut squash tends to be as sweet as I can handle on its own, so I can’t imagine adding the recommended spoons of syrup to it (68). And then many recipes ask for either a “charcoal” or a “gas grill”: neither of which I have (71). These seem to be advertising grills rather than suggesting the best cooking method again, as the photos of the dishes using these tools look pan-fried, so it’s unclear what the grilling can be adding to these ideas. Similarly, the section on making pasta from scratch features an image of a pasta cutting machine. And the pasta recipe asks for eggs: I have made gnocchi from scratch before to make a flour-potato mix to avoid adding eggs to a pasta-like recipe, so if this book was vegan and offered a vegan pasta alternative, this would have been a more informative section (134). The section on “Making Homemade Tofu” is something I haven’t seen elsewhere. I don’t have a blender to process the beans into puree, but if I ever do get one, this should taste a lot better than the ultra-processed tofu I’ve tried: it tends to eliminate all of the taste of beans, and I wish tofu tasted like crushed beans instead. The problem might lie in the recipe asking for the roughage of the beans to be separated, and just the soy milk to be boiled down into the chunks of tofu. All that nutritional value in the original beans is degraded and minimized down to one of its components. It ends up tasting like the cardboard that’s left when any of nature’s complexities are simplified down to a single color, taste and texture (221). The recipe for “Classic Pizza Dough” is something I’ll look into later on. It is unlikely I will make this plain dough because I prefer whole wheat flour and to mix it with other types of flour like rye as well as nuts and oats, and this mixture doesn’t work as well in a flat pizza-style pie. There are several other from-scratch recipes for tarts and other dishes, but all of them break the rules of healthy-eating that are the point of veganism for me. The section in the back on eggs is just a cholesterol-nightmare: the recipe for the “Pasta Frittata” requires “8 large eggs”, cheese, pasta and only a sprinkle of broccoli (395). This is how when vegetarians are compared with meat eaters their tests are more similar to each other than they are dissimilar from vegans. There are probably more animal fats in eggs and dairy than in a slice of meat: especially when eggs are compressed and baked down into a pie.   

This is basically a regular SAD diet book that includes some dairy in most of its dishes. Since most humans can’t digest dairy of other animals, and should not be eating it due to the divergent over-growth requirements of animals like cows, this book has a lot of bad ideas contrary to the readers’ health interests. Perhaps the egg-board or the like sponsors these types of pufferies of milk products. Or maybe the public is just addicted to the dopamine in cheeses and the like and wants to buy books that feature a lot of recipes maximizing these addictions. Either way, there is something horribly awry with modern cookbooks at a time when it’s especially easy to perform digital research into a wide array of international cooking ideas. The photography in cookbooks has pushed forward to beautiful heights, but the content of the descriptions and the choices of what people should be eating has degenerated from greed or the profitability of ignorance.

Scholarly Books

Pro-Colonial/Pro-Corporate Perspective on the Monopolization of Global Commerce

Andrew Phillips & J. C. Sharman, Outsourcing Empire: How Company-States Made the Modern World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, June 2, 2020). $29.95. 6.125X9.25”. 272pp. ISBN: 978-0-69120-351-5.

***

While we have been sold on the idea that capitalism works in a manner similar to democracy, producing businesses that operate on the consent and individual choices of the workers, most corporations function a lot more like monarchies or empires as a single ruler at the top governs a monopoly cornering a segment of industry that is inaccessible to competitors. While the victory of the few over the people has been a constant since the birth of capitalism, few books offer this perspective, so this study is a unique exception. It considers the link between companies and state actors and how these interplays dominated the world around them.

This book describes: “How chartered company-states spearheaded European expansion and helped create the world’s first genuinely global order.” As typical for mainstream books, this “global order” is seen in a positive light. But we really should question why having a single order ruling the entire world is in anybody’s interests other than the few chosen for these ruling positions. And even these administrators might be only puppets of the still smaller circle of billionaires profiting from their monopolizing labors.

“From Spanish conquistadors to British colonialists, the prevailing story of European empire-building has focused on the rival ambitions of competing states. But as Outsourcing Empire shows, from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries, company-states—not sovereign states—drove European expansion, building the world’s first genuinely international system. Company-states were hybrid ventures: pioneering multinational trading firms run for profit, with founding charters that granted them sovereign powers of war, peace, and rule.” Herein lies the problem we are left with to this day. There is a profit-motive to launch wars: those who manufacture weapons only see a profit if there is a war wherein these weapons are needed, and if they are granted the power to declare wars, wars can become an endless part of human existence just to satisfy these capitalist interests. It might be in the interests of the many for the state to invest its state funding into feeding the hungry, but this is not in the interests of the corporate powers able to declare war. This might be a subversive point the author is trying to make, but it is not the surface meaning; on the surface, this book is glorifying these businesses for “discovering” rather than enslaving the world. “Those like the English and Dutch East India Companies carved out corporate empires in Asia, while other company-states pushed forward European expansion through North America, Africa, and the South Pacific. In this comparative exploration, Andrew Phillips and J. C. Sharman explain the rise and fall of company-states, why some succeeded while others failed, and their role as vanguards of capitalism and imperialism.” Learning why these company-states fail might hold lessons as to how the public might win in the battle against placing world-dominating power in the hands of the few.

“In dealing with alien civilizations to the East and West, Europeans relied primarily on company-states to mediate geographic and cultural distances in trade and diplomacy.” This is a curious topic to research as it is a mystery how a few business people in Europe have managed to dominate the world’s economics a few centuries ago, and how their ancestors still hold these power-positions today, despite a lack of monarchic passage of power. Instead, money has been granted equivalent power to crowns of old. “Emerging as improvised solutions to bridge the gap between European rulers’ expansive geopolitical ambitions and their scarce means, company-states succeeded best where they could balance the twin imperatives of power and profit. Yet as European states strengthened from the late eighteenth century onward, and a sense of separate public and private spheres grew, the company-states lost their usefulness and legitimacy.” The author is making the legal distinction between company-states and modern corporations that do not have the power to wage war without the approval of their governments, but while there is more paperwork involved in the modern corporate structures, there are now trillions to gain from pushing countries into wars, whereas before only a miniscule amount could be gained from such violent ventures. The term “globalization” repeatedly appears in modern economics to explain how international monopolies are a positive because they bring the world together to share in the products and services countries are offering. If there was true competition under this global economy, we would see rapid and useful innovation, but instead there are a dozen giant corporations running most of the world’s economies, and it’s in their interest to block rivals from competing with them by offering better products. For example, in the current pandemic, a positive capitalist structure open to competition would see thousands of researchers making their findings available to the international marketplace within months, and people would be able to choose which pills are the most affective, but instead we are given a single test, or a single inoculation procedure after all competitors are crushed by the pharmaceutical giants that benefit from continuing sickness with drugs like pain-killers that are addictive and can be taken for decades without fixing any underlying problems. But let’s look closer inside this book.

The book is separated chronologically into a curve of rising, climatic and falling action. This is problematic as it considers the peak of colonialism to be a peak of human achievement, rather than a low in human devolution, wherein the enslavement and exploitation of fellow humans by these company-states was at a peak. The “Introducing” chapter explains that the “English East India Company came to rule over a fifth of humanity” before it and other major players saw a “decline… in the late 1700s and 1800s” (4). Since there are still around five corporations selling most of the world’s media and goods, giant companies have about as much power now as at these peaks, but the vocabulary of international dominance are now not as popular, so books tend to avoid describing the power we give these companies when we allow monopolies to grow or merge without challenging their “rights” to do so.

A major problem with this book is the generalizations it engages in as it glorifies these entities. For example, there is a curious mention of the “Merchant Adventurers that monopolized England’s cloth trade to northwestern Europe down to the late seventeenth century” (28). But after a mention of their ability to govern themselves due to power granted to them by a Duke, no other details are offered to specify how this entity functioned, why they were given these special powers, and the like. When details are offered, it is easy to see how they show these entities as anything but positive. For example, one of these companies, VOC, “waterboarded and then decapitated ten EIC employees… before impaling the English captain’s head on a spike, part of a ruthless strategy to win exclusive control over the Spice Islands” (42). If the “globalizing” actions of these companies were to the benefit of local traders or international buyers, there would be no need for violent suppression to gain dominance as the market would just reach an equilibrium price point. In contrast, if a company’s greed for profit exceeds by many times the price the market wants to set, warfare becomes required to maintain these unnatural and anti-competitive profit-goals.

Generalizations also cloud the propagandistic war that was required for these companies to maintain dominance. For example, Phillips and Sharman describe how Arthur Dobbs “became a fierce critic of the HBC for failing to discover the fabled passage” through “pamphleteering” that propagated for “colonization and settlement further “inland”, as he criticized the current organizers of the ruling companies, while pitching his own company (127). My own study into ghostwriting and propaganda demonstrates how self-pufferies and contrary pamphlets arguing for shifts in power were sponsored by the rich who wanted to get richer. Power was traded in these textual exchanges, so they have to be scrutinized for what they were rather than for what they claimed to be.  

I requested this title because I was hoping to mine it for details regarding the business of colonialization that impacted publishing and authorship in Britain in the years I’m exploring, or between 1570s and 1642. However, most of this content is compressed into a few general remarks about the struggles between these entities. The narrative focuses on describing their shifts in power rather than explaining how they functioned. So, this is not a useful book for my purposes. I don’t recommend it overall because of the larger problems of its skewed pro-colonial perspective.

A Convoluted But Enriching Textbook on Investigative Interviewing Methodology

Marianne Mason & Frances Rock, eds., The Discourse of Police Interviews (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020). 372pp. ISBN: 978-0-226-64779-1.

****

This book is advertised as an introductory course in “forensic linguistics, or the study of language and the law,” which examines “how police interviews are constructed and used to investigate and prosecute crimes.” It “explores the sociolegal, psychological, and discursive framework of popular police interview techniques employed in the United States and the United Kingdom, such as PEACE and Reid, and the discursive practices of institutional representatives like police officers and interpreters that can influence the construction and quality of linguistic evidence.” It can either successfully offer practical advice on affective interviewing strategies, or it can be a series of disjointed nonsensical essays on the nature of language.

The sections in the book are separated into those focusing on the Reid/PEACE procedures, on investigative practice and applications, and for some reason three chapters discuss “bilingual” interviews. One of these is about delivering “Miranda Rights” to non-native speakers: why would this be any different in structure; I would imagine the rights would be the same just in a different language. This study touches on if a defendant understood the “Miranda rights” based on the response to two different terms for the word “lawyer” (235). A few different cases in different states are examined to determine comprehension. In one of these other sections, the author repeats that the problem might be that the interpreter is failing to explain intricacies of the rights offered, which might be barring the rights of those accused to take advantage of their full meanings (240). Since most Americans’ vocabularies bar them from understanding most of the complex legal language in these rights, I doubt having these rights translated incorrectly can be any greater grounds for a mistrial versus just a low-intelligence criminal failing to understand their implications. The greater problem presented at the end of the essay is that some non-native speakers are read these rights without an interpreter present, and in such cases, obviously the rights are being curtailed as they are not being understood at all, and no attempt is being made to correct this error (244).

Other sections of the book offer more useful advice for interrogators or for those writing about detectives. A section on “The Discourse Structure of Blame Mitigation” explains that “suggesting that the suspect’s actions were spontaneous, accidental, provoked, rationalizable, done in self-defense, pressured, drug-induced, or otherwise justifiable by external factors” can help arrive at a confession (89-90). This is a technique frequently employed in fictional crime dramas, as questioners sympathize with the criminal to gain trust. On the negative side, these strategies can lead to false-confessions or to a suspect being lied to in order to elicit a confession. If the questioning is over a major crime these strategies might be warranted, but if it’s a minor infraction and pushing for a confession with statements that the actions were not criminal can put an innocent person behind bars under false pretenses.

Alison Johnson’s chapter on “Embodied Action” is more convoluted as it employs an enormous volume of quotes, rather than explaining the points clearly. For example, the section on “Gesture and Bodily Interaction” includes some interesting categorizations of the different types of gestures: “iconic”, “metaphoric”, “beat”, “and deictic (pointing to objects or people in the context)”. These terms are defined in parenthesis with quotes and explanations that are as cryptic or more so than the terms themselves (268-75). This chapter is a bit easier to understand if one starts by looking at the body-language diagram or visual it presents. Other chapters are similarly grounded in diagrams that compress the complexities of these ideas. For example the “PEACE model of police interviewing” diagram demonstrates the steps involved in preparing for, executing, and evaluating the interview process (26). This chapter on interviewing “sexual assault” victims is particularly relevant for modern criminal justice researchers. It covers topics such as that interviewers should avoid “implied implausibility, by probing physical details, chronology, and so on, in a manner that implied not that the interviewee’s account was correctable, but that it was paradoxical or implausible” (32).

There are many interesting points raised here, but busy investigators probably would not manage to dissect these nuggets of golden ideas. This book could use some overall editing to introduce each of the chapters and points in the different paragraphs in a manner that would guide an investigator to unique topics that he or she might face in a given case that requires delicate handling. As it stands, this is a textbook for researchers in this field that requires hard labor to dissect and interpret its hidden meanings.

Carroll’s Alice: A Mix of Biography, Art History and Art Methodology

Diane Waggoner, Lewis Carroll’s Photography and Modern Childhood (Princeton: Princeton University Press, May 26, 2020). Hardcover: $65. 280pp. 8X10”. 199 color + 3 b/w illustrations. ISBN: 978-0-69119-318-2.

*****

In our visual world, it is especially important for some scholars to closely examine these arts that we are all practicing and consuming without much pondering. While it is to the benefit of all for some to make and consume art without contemplation, scholars’ guiding hand has to be present in the background to decipher what it is we are all looking at. Cinematography and photography cannot move forward if we fail to look back at its roots to understand how we ended up with our current preferences in these fields. To innovate or to move away from these traditions, we have to acknowledge these habits and the artists who set them. This study of Lewis Carroll’s photography attempts this historic look back at the dawn of photography.

“Lewis Carroll began photographing children in the mid-nineteenth century, at a time when the young medium of photography was opening up new possibilities for visual representation and the notion of childhood itself was in transition.” In feudal times, the end of childhood was met with the commencement of cheap labor or apprenticeships, which at their end created adults working in guilds or otherwise to feed their families. During the centuries of transition between this type of bondage and the modern forms of bondage into “employment”, the idea of “childhood” commenced as public schools became free and accessible, and kids could afford the luxury of an extended period of unemployed development. The photographs in this collection are predominantly of children in various states of relaxation, but then again so are the classical paintings they are juxtaposition against.

“Diane Waggoner offers the first comprehensive account of Carroll as a photographer of modern childhood… in the Victorian age. Situating Carroll’s photography within the broader context of Victorian visual and social culture, Waggoner shows how he drew on images of childhood in painting and other media, and engaged with the visual language of the Victorian theater, fancy dress, and Pre-Raphaelitism. She provides the first in-depth analysis of Carroll’s photographing of boys, which she examines in the context of boys’ education and reveals to be a significant part of his photographic career. Waggoner draws on a wealth of rare archival material, demonstrating how Carroll established new aesthetic norms for images of girls, engaged with evolving definitions of masculinity, and pushed the idea of childhood to the limit with his use of dress and nude images.”

This is a great book to have on a showcase bookshelf as it’s a sturdy hardcover with popping and sparkling letters and with a haunting image of Asian-clothed children in high-contrast in black-and-white against a regal purple background. Most TV hosts include a lot of shabby soft-covers on their background bookshelves, whereas this book’s decorative potential is far more potent. The pre-copyrights page image summarizes the birth-of-childhood theme better than some of the other images across the book as it features a boy on a toy horse with a long sword over a kneeling fellow child who is clothed in a lion’s cloth. This is a dramatic summary of power-relations in a monarchy, and definitely shows kids not doing anything particularly productive other than perhaps developing their theatrical skills.

The advertisement of this book focuses so much on the art of photography that I began to think this was a book by a minor early photographer until the introductory note explained the byline is referring to the author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the ten years he spent building his standing as a photographer prior to the success of his children’s book. The beautiful photographs offered across this book are accompanied by the narrative of Carroll’s biography with a focus on his interactions with the models he photographed and the implications and meanings of the photographs he chose to create. For example, the story begins with Carroll’s early trials in photography using the subject of Alice Liddell, the daughter of the dean of Christ Church, and the “muse” for the “Alice” in the children’s story (1-2). The children in these images are uniquely at-ease, and the biography of the friendship Carroll formed to establish this trust helps explain why most modern photography is far more strained or full of nervous energy, as photographers rush between assignments without stopping to form close personal bonds with their subjects.

It is a bit unnerving to read Carroll’s descriptions of his deep adoration for the beauty of the children he was photographing from the modern perspective of child-abuse scandals. But the manner in which he describes the “innocence” and the “doll-beauty” of these kids is poetic and paints portraits of angelic study and contemplation. This perspective allows readers to once again admire the beauty of youth without sexualizing or disfiguring it. Carroll explains his preference for depicting children thus: “With years, features become so much more decided, expressive, through the development of character that they admit of more or less appreciation… A child represents beauty more in the abstract” (12-3). On the pages next to these words, the editor showcased the contrast between an oil painting by John Everett Millais from 1864 and Carroll’s photograph of a similar sitting girl in a to-the-knee puffy dress and cloak that appears imitative in arrangement from 1866. The painting has more color, contrast and invention, but the photograph has a unique power of reality, emotions, and balance. Given Carroll’s photographic practice, it’s strange that he did not attempt to do his own drawings for Alice, leaving the task to an illustrator, John Tenniel, as an included image from the book makes clear (19).

There are many pitfalls when writing and art meet in a scholarly book, but they are mostly avoided in these pages. Somehow there is indeed a whole book that can be written about the philosophy, method and art of photographing children based on Carroll’s work. This is a mix of biography, art history and art methodology that avoids any one of these topics from becoming tedious or repetitive. Anybody who enjoys stumbling onto a curious archive, or a secret diary, or taking a stroll through a museum without actually venturing into the currently dangerous outdoors will enjoy and benefit from this book.

Sexual Sadism in Art Pre/Post-de Sade

Alyce Mahon, The Marquis de Sade and the Avant-Garde (Princeton: Princeton University Press, May 26, 2020). Hardcover: $45. 296pp. 44 color + 56 b/w illustrations. ISBN: 978-0-69114-161-9.

*****

Princeton’s art publicist strongly recommended this and the preceding titles to me without me noticing them as being in my standard sphere of interest. I read de Sade in a modern literature class during my master’s studies as well as earlier as I researched the varieties of literary forms. I have since avoided returning to de Sade because of the intensity of his sexual sadism that goes beyond modern hard-core pornography. So, it is a bit frightening to dive into this book. As I glanced through the images prior to diving further, I noticed Jacques-Fabien Gautier-Dagoty’s L’ange anatomique or The Flayed Angel image from 1745 (167), which I have just used on the cover of my own novel, The Burden of Persuasion. My book is about a woman’s violent response to a history of sexual assaults and dehumanizing harassments. The image is of a woman whose back has been dissecting, displaying her muscles and bones. It felt like the only image that described the depth of pain my heroine had undergone to drive her to a homicidal rampage. The need to express these types of sexual and emotional pains is the reason I had looked closely at de Sade in my youth. If people are censored from expressing these pains, they are bound to inflict pain on others or allow it to be inflicted on them because they have not been warned by predecessors of the implications of these extremes.    

“The writings of the Marquis de Sade (1740–1814) present a libertine philosophy of sexual excess and human suffering that refuses to make any concession to law, religion, or public decency. In this groundbreaking cultural history, Alyce Mahon traces how artists of the twentieth century turned to Sade to explore political, sexual, and psychological terror, adapting his imagery of the excessively sexual and terrorized body as a means of liberation from systems of power. Mahon shows how avant-garde artists, writers, dramatists, and filmmakers drew on Sade’s ‘philosophy in the bedroom’ to challenge oppressive regimes and their restrictive codes and conventions of gender and sexuality. She provides close analyses of early illustrated editions of Sade’s works and looks at drawings, paintings, and photographs by leading surrealists such as André Masson, Leonor Fini, and Man Ray. She explains how Sade’s ideas were reflected in the writings of Guillaume Apollinaire and the fiction of Anne Desclos, who wrote her erotic novel, Story of O, as a love letter to critic Jean Paulhan, an admirer of Sade. Mahon explores how Sade influenced the happenings of Jean-Jacques Lebel, the theater of Peter Brook, the cinema of Pier Paolo Pasolini, and the multimedia art of Paul Chan. She also discusses responses to Sade by feminist theorists such as Simone de Beauvoir, Susan Sontag, and Angela Carter.”

The variety of perspectives offered in this study allow for distance between the passionate autographical reflections from de Sade to be tempered with the logic of centuries of criticism and re-interpretation and imitation of his work. Alyce Mahon does not propagate for de Sade, but rather offers the “heated debate among feminist cultural critics” that has raged regarding if Sade is liberating or chauvinist and anti-female in the bedroom philosophy he presents. Fiction has the benefit of being a falsehood, so it is impossible to fully separate intentions from outcomes and from hidden meanings or if the opposite was intended to the interpretation. Satire, tragedy and misogyny might look about the same, and might only be distinguishable based on the reader’s leanings on these subjects. Or as Mahon explains there is a fight in de Sade between “virtue” and “terror”: and terror wins (3-4).

The sex-politics are almost secondary in this narrative to the politics of liberation of the French Revolution. Censorship and the fight over suppressing pro-uprising or pro-violent revolt writings are described as the reason for the revolutionary nature of de Sade’s sexual revolution (68-9). And the explanations of the “dissident surrealist” art that depicts “violently erotic painting” in more recent art forms explains these movements with more verbosity and philosophical precision than other attempts I’ve reviewed in this field (115). Sadly, there is only so much you can say about torture and sex before you begin to repeat yourself and you are just circling around the same ideas about “desire” and “pornography” (151). These later notes are not to my taste, so I will stop the review here before I start lecturing about the evils of depicting violent sexuality, and the impact these images might have had in my own decision to become anti-sexual. Suffice it to say that if humanity allows for the legal creation of pornography, we have to have scholars writing books about these pornographies to shame them to make art rather than mere dehumanizing filth.

Babbling About Why Women Should Say Less

Anne Toner, Jane Austen’s Style: Narrative Economy and the Novel’s Growth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020). 208pp. ISBN: 978-1-108-43940-4.

***

During my research into the gender biases between romantic and mystery literature genres in Gender Bias, I explained how publishers pick female authors with lighter or less dense styles out of the belief that readers assume these styles are natural for women, and that women are more likely to buy lighter or easier to read prose. These assumptions promote women who wrote in these stereotypical ways, while refusing women who submit denser texts. For example, one of the rejection letters I recently received from a periodical regarding my “Shakespeare” research is that my paragraphs are too long for modern readers to comprehend them, even if they were normal-sized back in the “1590s”. This type of criticism of highly educated women and their writing, and the promotion of female authors who fit the light-prose gendered stereotypes comes to mind as I contemplate this particular book. Austen is the opposite of my favorite author, but there is much to learn from studying why scholars who have rejected most female authors as genre-writers or pop-romancers have crowded to appreciate Austen’s style. Anne Toner commences this study by restating this point: “Jane Austen is renowned for the economy of her art: for the close focus of her romantic plots and the precision of her writing style.” This “precision” is favored by modern publishers because it is easier to plagiarize, mimic and otherwise mass-produce simplistic and plain linguistics and plotlines. If the plain-Jane represents high-art, then awards can be given to modern extremes of hyper-formulaic or extremely plain styles of writing. Toner goes on: “Exploring that economy stylistically and structurally, this book traces Austen’s keen interest in narrative form,” promising to evaluate her “techniques”. “Toner argues that Austen’s conciseness in terms of plotting, narrative description and in the depiction of dialogue also contributed to her innovations in representing thought, expanding the novel’s capacity to depict consciousness.” References to “consciousness” here applaud stream-of-consciousness writing styles wherein modern authors ramble on about inconsequential nonsense: this style is also easy to mass-reproduce.

My interpretation of this topic is not entirely wrong as the subtitle of the second chapter is, “Not Saying Things and Saying So”. The introductory comments are vague in explaining just what Toner has in mind as she is describing Austen’s plain style, as it observes that Austen avoided the “superfluous” (25). Modern literature has interpreted this as a direction to avoid everything but basic verbs and nouns to communicate precisely what a character did rather than precisely what they thought or the political significance of the chosen actions. Toner keeps returning to the term “picturesque” across this study, as she propagates against “embellishment to a novel” and the “strength” in silence (60). Since silence is best imitated rather than interrupted with theorizing, I will stop this review here. I’ll only add that this is a terrible study that goes in circles without arriving at any enriching for scholarship meanings.

Biographical, Literary and Historic Scholarship at Its Sharpest: On Mary Wollstonecraft

Nancy E. Johnson and Paul Keen, eds., Mary Wollstonecraft in Context (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020). 360pp. ISBN: 978-1-108-41699-3.

*****

In contrast with the preceding philosophizing on Austen, this book is a practically useful tool for researchers of Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797). Across my decades of studying and writing scholarly articles, textbooks that place classical writers in “context” are almost always extremely useful in offering multiple forms of evidence that should help almost any type of research into a given writer. It is tedious to haunt down dozens of books to address the types of compressed information that tends to be found in a “context” collection of essays. Typically, I dislike essay collections because they tend to be disjointed, and some are almost always added for volume rather than because they are rational contributions to the topic. But these types of author-context collections screen out nonsense by focusing on a few elements that are needed for a researcher to understand a new author under examination. These elements cover biography, early and later critical reception, social and historical context, political and philosophical subjects of primary interest to the author, and the generic, linguistic and structural components of the fiction. Participating in one of these collections must be a superior honor because there are almost never any stray articles that lack some enriching message that supplements the rest.

“Wollstonecraft achieved remarkable success in an unusually wide range of genres: from education tracts and political polemics, to novels and travel writing. Just as impressive as her expansive range was the profound evolution of her thinking in the decade when she flourished as an author. In this collection of essays, leading international scholars reveal the intricate biographical, critical, cultural, and historical context crucial for understanding Mary Wollstonecraft’s oeuvre. Chapters on British radicalism and conservatism, French philosophes and English Dissenters, constitutional law and domestic law, sentimental literature, eighteenth-century periodicals and more elucidate Wollstonecraft’s social and political thought, historical writings, moral tales for children, and novels.”

The first chapter on her biography opens like a novel with Mary’s awareness of looming death. But this tension is incorporated into the research of how her life was in danger in revolutionary Paris. Instead of touching on ordinary facts, Kate Chisholm then explains how Mary’s father lost his inheritance by speculating on farming (3). Each paragraph paints a curious portrait of this author in ways that are pretty rare among the biographies I’ve read. For example, the brief sketch on how Mary came to work as a live-in companion to a rich widow encourages sympathy while explaining the social pressures on women during this period (4). The next chapter on her “Correspondence” is also practically useful for researchers seeking for some ideas on her personality and interests without digging further into the archives for the full collections of her letters. Snippets of quotes from letters that are particularly significant for explaining an author’s character are always useful for researchers who are attempting to explain the motivations and behaviors of the characters a given author has created. It would have been still better if this chapter offered more quotes. As it stands it mostly summarizes her correspondences, explaining their connections with her fictions. The focus of the chosen segments is on Mary’s friendships and loves. For example, in one letter to “her perfidious lover”, Mary writes: “we must live together, or I will be entirely independent” (17). I would have preferred reading about Mary’s writing methods, but this take on lovers and independence should be relevant for researchers trying to explain why Mary’s heroines make certain choices in their own love-lives. The following chapters on critical reception across separate centuries are essential for critics who have to insert at least an overview of critical interpretations of Mary into their own research: these are required in dissertations, and in most articles adding new interpretations of any writer. My research into the pufferies issued by the members of the Workshop following the deaths of their pseudonyms and otherwise make these chapters on reception particularly curious. The negative reviews Mary received with notes such as the Monthly Mirror writing that “her ideas are ‘not quite consistent with sound philosophy’” (47) indicate that Mary had rivals, as well as supporters such as the publishers (Godwin etc.) of her posthumous works. Nancy E. Johnson concludes that early reviewers were “disturbed when they had to face Wollstonecraft’s cultural and sexual transgressions” (48). A review of these general negative or positive reception trends should help a researcher understand their own position in this spectrum of acceptance or rejection of a writer’s style or personal beliefs. Even the chapters on “Feminist Theory” are logically executed without digressions, as Jane Moore explains the role of “satirizing conventional norms of femininity and aristocratic male behavior” in Mary’s canon (195). Another useful article is Gary Kelly’s “Anti-Jacobin Novels”: the term “Jacobin” is contextualized as referring to a radical revolutionary sect and other related shades of meaning. The extended explanation details how anti/Jacobin labels were used differently by different authors with different intentions. Without these types of compressed explanations, scholars are bound to stumble in their employment of a term like this one in the sense that it is used today (273-5). Because of the stated breadth of Mary’s writing, there are new points to address in each of the articles, including in Jonathan Sachs’ “History Writing”, wherein the process, method and content of Mary’s histories are described with an abundance of supporting evidence. 

This is a book that needs to be in all academic and large public libraries because it’s the first front of attack for most researchers of Mary’s writings and biography.

Unfamiliar Classical Art to Inspire Home Tourists

Jonathan Bober, Piero Boccardo and Franco Boggero, eds., A Superb Baroque: Art in Geonoa, 1600-1750 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020). 370pp. 250 color illustrations. ISBN: 978-0-691-20651-6.

*****

This is another book that I am going to have to put on display because the cover image (and the paintings inside too) represent some of the best art created across human history. It is amazing that modern technology allows for the reproduction of these paintings on paper so thick and textured that tearing one of these out, framing it, and hanging it on a wall might fool a non-art-historian into believing it is an authentic painting from the Baroque period. If you have a similar passion for classical art, you will probably have a similar joyous response to unwrapping and opening this book.

“Genoa completed its transformation from a faded maritime power into a thriving banking center for Europe in the seventeenth century. The wealth accumulated by its leading families spurred investment in the visual arts on an enormous scale. This volume explores how artists both foreign and native created a singularly rich and extravagant expression of the baroque in works of extraordinary variety, sumptuousness, and exuberance. This art, however, has remained largely hidden behind the facades of the city’s palaces, with few works, apart from those by the school’s great expatriates, found beyond its borders. As a result, the Genoese baroque has been insufficiently considered or appreciated.” As I glanced over these pages, I was struck by how foreign these images are. I took a couple of art history classes, so most art books have many works I recognize, but this one is pretty foreign. The church ceilings appear familiar, but I think this is because they evoke memories of Michelangelo’s paintings of the Sistine Chapel, but are rather different from these in their style. Well, on closer examination, Giulio Cesare Procaccini’s The Last Supper (1618) is certainly recognizable. But many of these images are wonderfully strange in their depiction of the poor and at least subversive socially radical messages. For example, Giovanni Andrea de Ferrari’s The Drunkenness of Noah (1630/40) depicts an old man without pants who is lying on the ground while a boy points to him jokingly and other man is about to cover his wrinkly body with a cloth (168-9). It appears to have more emotion-inspiring power than Mona Lisa because of the vivid reality captured in this absurd and ethically meaningful moment. Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione’s Diogenes Searching for a Man (1635/40) is also particularly powerful as it depicts Pan, a statue of a tied god, slain poultry, a living cow, giant vases and other elements that could have come out of a modernist or surrealist Salvador Dali painting. The detailed explanation across from this image is really necessary in this case to explain what is happening here. The editors summarize that the depiction of Diogenes, founder of the Cynic Greek philosophy sect, was employed as a “metaphor for the rarity of virtue” during this period. Each of the items in this hodgepodge is explained in its symbolic and plain significance until one feels as if one could have conversed intelligently with the artist without betraying total ignorance on the intricacies of this composition (188-9). The section on sculpture also presents some very unique pieces that are perhaps better than their Greek rivals. One that stands out is Pierre Puget’s Saint Sebastian (1664/6) in the Basilica di Santa Maria. Here an image of an old, frail, thin man is contrasted with a chubby baby at his feet. The old man is almost gasping his last breath as his mouth is open and he is looking upwards: an open mouth is pretty rare in other sculptures. The robe of this man is also fanning off his body and has a strange texture that makes it seem as if this stone is really being blown by the wind. Many of the features about the face and the babe’s attitude are surrealist, abstracted or otherwise otherworldly, but they are accompanied by realistic textures of the robe, the book lying at his feet, and other surprising details. It is very inspiring to look at this type of strange and wonderfully innovative art from the Renaissance as it begs the question why modern artists can’t do better in imagining life from perspectives that explain its philosophical confusions (266-7).

It is not an exaggeration for the blurb to describe this book as “Lavishly illustrated”, but rather an understatement. There are castles with fewer and less radiant decorations than in these pages. It is also truly “comprehensive, encompassing all the major media and participants. Presented are some 140 select works by the celebrated foreigners drawn to the city and its flourishing environment—from Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dyck, and Giulio Cesare Procaccini to Pierre Puget, Marcantonio Franceschini, and Francesco Solimena; by the major Genoese masters active for much of their careers in other settings—Bernardo Strozzi, Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione, Filippo Parodi, and Alessandro Magnasco; and above all by the brilliantly synthetic but unfamiliar masters who worked primarily in Genoa itself—Gioacchino Assereto, Valerio Castello, Domenico Piola, and Gregorio De Ferrari.” While the editors are familiar with most of these artists, their names are likely to be foreign to even those who take art and art history classes at the undergraduate levels. But this unfamiliarity makes this book particularly useful for those seeking art that is not over-puffed or overly celebrated. A collection like this one of rarer artists rightfully expands the canon of classical art to include voices that have not previously fit into the mainstream narratives of the “great” Renaissance artists. The skill of these artists is equal to the names that have been puffed, so they really have to considered in a conversation about the most significant artistic achievements of this age. Art should be measured by its timeless significance and quality, even if (or specifically when) it was entirely ignored by its contemporaries.

“Offering three levels of exploration—essays that frame and interpret, section introductions that characterize principal currents and stages, and texts that elucidate individual works—this volume is by far the most extensive study of the Genoese baroque in the English language.” I hope to receive similar books for review specializing in every city and state in Europe in the coming years: I will continue enjoying looking at this type of art even if I begin drowning in these enormous volumes.

This book was: “Published in association with the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.” It is really apparent when a book is published in affiliation with one of these major galleries because it must come with an extraordinary cost or time-investment to photograph all of these pieces of art, to design hundreds of these pages, and to polish these historical and art-explaining descriptions until they convey precisely what readers need to comprehend the foreign language of a distant art-form. Princeton and the Gallery probably really need buyers for this and other similar books at this time because they had scheduled an exhibit at the National Gallery of these pieces between May 3–August 16, 2020, which is listed as “Delayed” due to the pandemic. And they have another exhibit coming up in Rome at the Scuderie del Quirinale between October 3, 2020–January 10, 2021, which might suffer a delay or a cancellation too. It is difficult to imagine how soon folks will begin touring art galleries again. I haven’t been to a physical art gallery for around fourteen years, and it was a bit intense to tour the noisy galleries when I did used to go regularly, but the idea that there will be near-empty museums showing this type of art makes me want to fly to Europe to attempt to catch gallery art without people. Either way, if you’ve been contemplating expanding your art book collection, now is the time to help these places out with this alternative non-germ-spreading revenue stream.

The Gender and Cultural Politics of Qing Dramatic Costumes

Guojun Wang, Staging Personhood: Costuming in Early Qing Drama (New York: Columbia University Press, April 7, 2020). Cloth: $65. 312pp. ISBN: 978-0-231-19190-6.

*****

In the spirit of strange and interesting art, here is a book on staging costumes in Qing dramatic performances. Chinese and Japanese cultures are so frequently stereotypically depicted in films and other mainstream entertainments that it is refreshing to find an in-depth study of one of these elements: the types of clothing worn in these classical shows. In my current research project, I’ve discovered that costumes were frequently rented and reused at the profit of theater-owners such as Henslowe, or were deliberately spiked in price by theater administrators who received a cut of however much a revel or another form of entertainment cost the crown. Thus, the choice of clothing on the stage is not only an artistic decision, but a reflection of the social, economic and political circumstances of the players, the play organizers and those who sponsor or license these entertainments.

The blurb explains that the costumes from this period are particularly significant because they were one of the few traditions the Han allowed the Chinese people to retain. Nationalistic symbols such as style-of-dress and religious texts have consistently been suppressed during conquests across human history. Imposing new cultural beliefs, values and costumes creates what is known as “national identity”: an artificially-designed state of perceiving a given nationality or national allegiance. If only one element, such as these costumes is allowed to be retained, while most of the remainder of past cultural habits are forbidden, a culture tends to place greater social significance into this rare surviving element, which is likely to have contributed to the preservation of traditional dress through the present in some forms of Asian theater.

“After toppling the Ming dynasty, the Qing conquerors forced Han Chinese males to adopt Manchu hairstyle and clothing. Yet China’s new rulers tolerated the use of traditional Chinese attire in performances, making theater one of the only areas of life where Han garments could still be seen and where Manchu rule could be contested.” It “uncovers a hidden history of the Ming–Qing transition by exploring what it meant for the clothing of a deposed dynasty to survive onstage. Reading dramatic works against Qing sartorial regulations, Guojun Wang offers an interdisciplinary lens on the entanglements between Chinese drama and nascent Manchu rule in seventeenth-century China. He reveals not just how political and ethnic conflicts shaped theatrical costuming but also the ways costuming enabled different modes of identity negotiation during the dynastic transition. In case studies of theatrical texts and performances, Wang considers clothing and costumes as indices of changing ethnic and gender identities…” This critical history dives into the “variety of canonical and lesser-known plays, visual and performance records, and historical documents”.

The text offers heavy notes, which are critically needed or scholars who want to follow the footsteps of this researcher to the rare documents these pages analyze. There are also useful elements such as a table that summarizes the titles, performing spaces, dress styles and plot elements of twenty-seven of the focal plays (Appendix 2). And there are useful illustrations that visualize the performances and costumes described. It is difficult to discuss or contemplate a visual medium like the theater without a few drawings on these elements (199). “A map of Nanjing in the Qing dynasty” also helps with picturing life in this town and how it might have been connected with regional theaters (161). Chinese translations of some of the quotes are inserted: they are likely to help scholars in both languages as the original meanings might be a bit different from the English translations, so the inclusion of key words in their original phrasings is essential to avoid losing the intended meaning in the translation (26-7).

The chapter called, “Across Genders and Ethnicities” is particularly interesting for my own research because I’ve been focusing on Ben Jonson’s authorship of the “Shakespearean” comedies, and his favorite themes are cross-dressing and gay-marriage. While it was a pretty unusual topic across other writers’ Renaissance texts, this chapter explains that this was a major theme in Chinese classical plays as well. The chapter opens with a quote from Qu Dajun: “…I often imagine myself being a girl or being a lady. As soon as one woman has a taste for the high bun, the others in every quarter of the realm all admire and follow her… I aspire to be a lady or a girl but cannot” (61). In many ways modern puritanical sexuality is far more suppressive than various cultures ancient traditions that welcomed cross-dressing as a festive element to be admired rather than shamed. While these types of gender-bendings were present, they apparently occasionally had very negative connotations as well: “Just as the defeated Ming state was assigned the feminine space, traditional (male) Han clothing was relegated to the theatrical space… From as early as the Kangxi era, the Manchu court recruited both eunuchs and performers from outside the palace to enact drama performances” (44-5). The theme of “Cross-Dressing” repeats in other sections, with descriptions such as: “The androgynous male concubine is ultimately shared by a man and a woman”. “Stage gender” was altered by hair length and other signals. Some of these de-sexing or humiliating strategies are far more hostile than the images de Sade brings into his novels in their implications.

Given these hard-hitting topics, this book is an exciting read even for those who know very little about Chinese or theater history. It is delicately edited and presented in a manner that is easy to grasp while also offering a wealth of complex information and philosophical interpretations of this historic contextualization.

How to Cheat at Drinking Games and Other Lessons from a Drunkard

Vincent Obsopoeus, How to Drink: A Classical Guide to the Art of Imbibing (Princeton: Princeton University Press, April 14, 2020). $16.95. 4X6”. 320pp. ISBN: 978-0-691-19214-7.

*****

I have not had any alcohol in at least a year, and close to zero alcohol has been my constant non-habit across my life. The current moment in history is seeing a spike in alcohol consumption. A HealthLine article on “Happy Hours” reports a 26-35 spike in drinking while working from home. And a Forbes article reports that the trends are mixed because there is less drinking in bars, but there are much more home deliveries of alcohol, so overall Americans are drinking more, but it’s unclear by how much. I have been working from home for most of the past decade, but it hasn’t spiked my urge to drink off or on the job, but just now as I contemplate reviewing a book dedicated to drinking, I wouldn’t mind having a beer to sip on. So this is a suitable topic that should be of interest to general readers who are contemplating their drinking or lack thereof.

“Is there an art to drinking alcohol? Can drinking ever be a virtue? The Renaissance humanist and neoclassical poet Vincent Obsopoeus (ca. 1498–1539) thought so. In the winelands of sixteenth-century Germany, he witnessed the birth of a poisonous new culture of bingeing, hazing, peer pressure, and competitive drinking. Alarmed, and inspired by the Roman poet Ovid’s Art of Love, he wrote The Art of Drinking (De Arte Bibendi) (1536), a how-to manual for drinking with pleasure and discrimination.” Drinking alcohol was safer than drinking water during these centuries because the process of turning water into alcohol purified it, whereas city water supplies were tainted with diseases. Thus, what is surprising about this study is that the editor interprets these heavy drinking habits in a negative light as a reflection of immoral behavior. In my research of the European Renaissance, it seems that bars were meeting places for artists, players as well as those of ill-repute. It is difficult to grasp why these particular decades might have experienced a unique spike in drinking abuses given the millennia of previous heavy drinking habits and accompanying disorders. Either way, this book “offers the first proper English translation of Obsopoeus’s text”. The editors clarify: “Arguing that moderation, not abstinence, is the key to lasting sobriety, and that drinking can be a virtue if it is done with rules and limits, Obsopoeus teaches us how to manage our drinking, how to win friends at social gatherings, and how to give a proper toast. But he also says that drinking to excess on occasion is okay—and he even tells us how to win drinking games, citing extensive personal experience.” Classical drinking games should be enticing to all studious folks who are tired of the modern games.

Meanwhile, this is a fun topic to learn Latin with as the Latin original is offered on facing pages for those who want to check the original-language meaning or to gain some translation experience.

The chapter on “Excessive Drinking” begins with an “Invocation of Bacchus” that explains that the narrator’s “parched throat will perish from a delay in drinking and my mouth’s strength will drain way and die of thirst, just as when the overpowering summer sun scorches plowlands dry and files of grass perish in the heat” (95). This supports my side of the theory that drinking alcohol was safer than water, and that most might have been drinking to satisfy this basic thirst. Then the narrator specifies that drink was believed to give the “drooping body… energy” (99), just as Mediterranean cooking book I reviewed earlier in this set promised this region’s diet anecdotally gave energy to its partakers. While most of this chapter celebrates drinking, the final paragraph grounds these ideas with the lesson that alcohol is like “fire”: “let sober water temper your wine… If you don’t want to get hot and burn up from those torches, too, then let cold water dilute your seething bottles.” This declaration begins by encouraging “Kids to Shun Drunkenness” and instead, “Study hard! Hit the books—serious ones!” (187-9) These ideas might have been at the stem of what became the campaign against drunkenness. Jesus turned water into wine a millennium or two earlier as back then drinking alcohol was the lesser of the two evils. Sadly, among other points, the drinking game section declares: “Never enter a drinking contest against a woman, and don’t compete against a drunk old woman” (265). It’s unclear why the young and old women are mentioned separately here, but I wouldn’t have been allowed to go drinking-game-playing with this author and his mates. To improve one’s capacity to drink a lot, the author recommends eating onions, hazelnuts, dried figs, “cow’s roasted lung” and other oddities (261). Another funny section gives advice on “How to Cheat”, claiming that giving yourself “sober drinks” or “water” can improve one’s performance in comparison (251).

The introductory comments and this entire book are short enough for it to be intended as a highbrow joke book to be read while drinking, rather than as a studious classic. Scholars of alcohol consumption might find some humorous quotes to use to introduce chapters here. But most readers will find just a light form of thought-provoking and time-wasting entertainment.

The Secret-Secretaries That Became American Rulers

Lindsay M. Chervinsky, The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, April 7, 2020). $29.95. 432pp. ISBN: 978-0-67498-648-0.

*****

According to my linguistic research, between at least the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries in Britain, secret and official secretaries of politicians ghostwrote most of their correspondences, performed their research, calculated fiscal accounting books, and otherwise performed most of the deciding tasks that those in office or on the throne were credited with. For example, Gabriel Harvey and Richard Verstegan ghostwrote most of Elizabeth’s letters and published speeches attributed to her. Monarchs did not publish their speeches, and did not send many letters before publishers, stationers and other professions created apprenticeships and other cheap forms of capitalist intellectual labor that forced these writers into strenuous work of state-craft without the due rewards. Thus, the question of how U.S. created its first cabinet is intricately tied to giving a greater power to these writerly laborers in the U.S. than they held in the British monarchy. Credit is given to a type of workshop of writing collaborators for the Constitution, rather than to George Washington alone. It would be interesting to test the linguistics of these documents to check if there was a single dominant hand in these America-defining documents or if equal or similar weight was truly warranted for the various parties credited with these writerly tasks.

Here is how the cover explains Chervinsky’s interpretation of this topic (which is obviously very different from my own): “The U.S. Constitution never established a presidential cabinet—the delegates to the Constitutional Convention explicitly rejected the idea.” They might have opposed it because of these corrupt practices of purchasing writing services by the wealthy through various types of secretarial laborers. “So how did George Washington create one of the most powerful bodies in the federal government?” Secret-secretaries had subversive power in Britain across the previous centuries because by being the ones to write official correspondences and publications, they decided on policy. For example, Harvey and Verstegan’s translation of the King James Bible allowed the following generations of Christians to develop a “personal” relationship with God, even if the clergy would have refused making such a translation available, if they had been involved in the intellectual work involved in this decision. On the other hand, America’s granting of more official power to these secretaries was radical, as such work was previously viewed as lower-class, or as something that those performing it would not want to be known for.

“On November 26, 1791, George Washington convened his department secretaries—Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Henry Knox, and Edmund Randolph—for the first cabinet meeting. Why did he wait two and a half years into his presidency to call his cabinet? Because the U.S. Constitution did not create or provide for such a body. Faced with diplomatic crises, domestic insurrections, and constitutional challenges—and finding congressional help lacking—Washington decided he needed a group of advisors he could turn to.” In other words, after fighting the Revolution, these secretaries threatened to overthrow Washington if he did not give them official power in the administration that acknowledged their power in the governmental structure. “He modeled his new cabinet on the councils of war he had led as commander of the Continental Army… Washington tinkered with its structure throughout his administration, at times calling regular meetings, at other times preferring written advice and individual discussions… The tensions in the cabinet between Hamilton and Jefferson heightened partisanship and contributed to the development of the first party system.”

In my study, I discovered that the chief ghostwriter for monarchs including Elizabeth I and James I, Verstegan, constantly ghostwrote on both sides of publicity “battles” in the Marprelate and Campion controversies. While history books simplify party-politics as a disagreement between two individuals, it is far more likely that there was similarly a single ghostwriter between them who decided that it was in his interest to create the illusion of disagreement. In Verstegan’s case, he was able to collect a pension or payments both from the Pope and Spain and from British monarchs and aristocrats as he convinced these sides that the other side was working to assassinate them and they needed the help of his network of “spies” to uncover these plots by the “other”. By having two antagonistic parties in America, TV networks, publishers and the like can benefit from tossing slander and propaganda at both sides: each side pays for attack ads and propagandistic messages to counter the illusionary opposition. The public is convinced of this duality because its theoretical presence is repeatedly reinforced in mainstream media as a result of these sponsored “debates”.

“And as Washington faced an increasingly recalcitrant Congress, he came to treat the cabinet as a private advisory body to summon as needed, greatly expanding the role of the president and the executive branch.” It seems as if the illusion of the presence of a cabinet convinced the public that this was a type of mini-congress or a body of advisors who could be trusted with equal power to the entire judicial and legislative branches. This outcome of this broad power given to the president or to whoever he trusts as his secret or open secretaries has led to our current problems wherein the president is arguing that he has near-monarchical powers to decide when states reopen, if he is committing treason, if he can pardon those who collude to unfairly win him an election, and other extreme forms of power-grabbing corruption.

Instead of considering these types of alternatives, the “Introduction” begins with a fictitious arrival of a coach in New York City that was carrying Washington for the first States Senate meeting (1). One clue to the presence of secret secretaries in the early group around Washington in 1775 was that he “always developed a series of questions” before summoning the “council”. If they had been his own questions, there would not have been a need to always draft them in advance, as he could have improvised them when strained for time (17). And a sign that early political appointments were purchased just as they had been under the British monarchy is that when Hamilton was tasked with hiring an enormous number of “employees” for the new government he relied on the preferences of a member of an “elite Pennsylvania family”, Bingham, who had only been in a horse regiment and had no logical business running the government. Bingham happened to have profiteered from the war because his family ran “mercantile businesses” tasked with the war effort. Bingham offered free housing to the Constitutional Convention participants including Washington in his estate and offered “afternoon tea and dinner parties”. In other words, he probably began by bribing them with food, drinks and housing and then just offered money to gain a lucrative position in re-selling government offices that Hamilton had been tasked with selecting folks for (132). Still other clues of this pattern are the accusations of “mismanagement and corruption” levied against agents such as Mifflin, who began asking to resign shortly after he was told to curtail these corrupt practices (211).

There is a lot of evidence in these pages to support the theories that I put forward in my research: it’s just a matter of how these facts are interpreted. Since governmental corruption continues to be rampant in our current administration, it’s not popular to question these types of behaviors. Any investigation of America’s or Britain’s top administrative governmental secretaries should uncover this type of evidence because they have historically been the real state-makers.

A Glimpse Inside Van Gogh’s Thoughts on Art and Literature

Mariella Guzzoni, Vincent’s Books: Van Gogh and the Writers Who Inspired Him (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, April 7, 2020). Hardcover: $25. 328pp. 132 color plates. ISBN: 978-0-226-70646-7.

*****

I used to paint in a style imitative of Van Gogh’s because it welcomes emotive expression in this sometimes intimidating medium. Since I always understand people better when I know what they are reading, this seems to be a book that should help me to see Van Gogh in a new light. The blurb advertises this as a book about one “of the most famous artists in history, Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) was also a man with another powerful passion—for books. An insatiable reader, Van Gogh spent his life hungrily consuming as many books as he could. He read, reread, and copied out books in Dutch, English, and French. He knew many passages by heart from works by Dickens, Zola, Shakespeare, and Maupassant, among many others. As he wrote to his brother, Theo, in one of their hundreds of letters: ‘I have a more or less irresistible passion for books.’” Guzzoni re-interprets Van Gogh’s biography through his reading patterns: “from the religious aspirations of his early adulthood, to his decision to be a painter, to the end of his tragically short life. He moved from Holland to Paris to Provence; at each moment, ideas he encountered in books defined and guided his thoughts and his worldview. Van Gogh wrote with eloquence and insight about what he was reading in his letters to Theo, referring to at least two hundred authors. Books and readers are frequent subjects of his paintings, and Guzzoni highlights over one hundred of these works, such as Still Life with Bible in the Van Gogh Museum and his vivid paintings of l’Arlesienne.” The writers covered include: “Thomas à Kempis, Charles Blanc, Honoré de Balzac, Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, Guy de Maupassant, Charles Dickens, Erckmann-Chatrian, Homer, Victor Hugo, Pierre Loti, Jules Michelet, William Shakespeare, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Émile Zola”. Most biographers slip from what is factually known into speculating what an author or a writer was like based on what they expressed in their art. Relying instead on what these artists wrote about other artists seems to be a sounder approach, as the reporting artist’s preferences and methodology should be made much clearer here than in fiction or paint strokes.

The interior holds some well-known and some of the more obscure of Van Gogh’s paintings. Some of these rare pieces are particularly impactful for me, as they surprise me with the multi-dimensionality and reality-imitation that he creates with broad and abstracted brushstrokes, while leaving only the elements that are necessary to convey the true nature of the image. The Sprig of Almond Blossom in a Glass with a Book (1888) (123) oil painting stands out in this regard as its soft pink colors and the simplicity of a mere twig and the book convey the passion the artist felt towards nature and reading without his typical grand scenes of starry nights or emotive personalities. Since the canon of paintings into which Van Gogh inserted books would not fill an entire book, Guzzoni also inserts images of the book covers and interior artwork from Van Gogh’s collection, such as an illustration of birds on a tree from Le Japon (1886). A cloth golden-orange place-holder is included in the book: these are pretty rare in modern printing, so this is a nice special touch demonstrating the editor’s particular affection for Van Gogh. Another illustration includes “Vincent’s” name on the title-page (89). And a duo of curious illustrations shows a pen-and-ink by Alfred Sensier (1881) and Van Gogh’s re-drawing in chalk of this reproduction from a book, called Sower (76-7). A few other images from books and Van Gogh’s imitations of them as he is performing art exercises are also included. It is always useful to look at rough sketches and imitations from highly innovative artists because it shows that they failed many times before they came up with methods to correct the flaws in these experiments (74-5).

The first chapter, “From Preacher to Painter”, draws readers into the complexities of Van Gogh’s seeming failures across the decades he spent attempting to make a career for himself as an art clerk, as a preacher, and in other professions, but each time he grew disillusioned with God, humanity, and the jobs he was being tasked with. Guzzoni explains the disconnect that Van Gogh found between the claims about the soul and God made in the Bible that he read closely and how these ideas were applied in practice while preaching to the people by those in the profession of preaching. Guzzoni then explains how Van Gogh’s transition into studying contemporary literature from Hugo and other novelists made him want to express human passions and social conditions in a creative manner. In the following chapter, as he turns to art, he comments: “books, reality and art are the same kind of thing for me” (40). Sadly, only a few of Van Gogh’s thoughts on these matters are available, so instead the book is full of quotes from the texts themselves and Guzzoni’s descriptions of Van Gogh’s art and its influences, and meanings: “This brushstroke, simple yet enigmatic, also contains an important aspect that foreshadows a characteristic in the evolution of Vincent’s oeuvre” (101). In one curious note after reading Zola’s novel, Van Gogh he describes his own sketch based on it: “abundant very black hair, a green bodice, sleeves the color of wine lees, the skirt black, the background completely yellow, library shelves with books. She’s holding a yellow book in her hand” (155). It is curious to read that Van Gogh pondered on these color, clothing and background choices philosophically, rather than drawing from his emotions.

This is an innovative approach to a biography based in a reliable source of primary information. Artists who are interested in imitating the positive elements of Van Gogh’s life, research and art will find much to be inspired and to learn from in these pages. And researchers who are contemplating the reasons for Van Gogh’s unique style, and those who have since followed his lead will find Guzzoni’s commentary useful. This would make a great addition to most academic libraries.

When No Puffery Fits, Just Keep Puffing

Stephen Bull, Ed., A Companion to Photography (Oxford: John Wiley & Sons Ltd., 2020). 550pp. Hardcover. ISBN: 978-1-405-19584-3.

**

There is a great book that can be written about the theory and practice of taking photographs, but this is not that book. It is advertised as being reflective on the current interest of humanity in taking picture of itself, or the “dramatic increase in all things photographic”. Its problems begin with the fact that it’s written by dozens of different authors, who all have disjointed things to say about various things barely related to the art of photography. It is supposed to be “comprehensive”, but just because something is varied does not mean it succeeds in covering the things that really matter in a field. The “themed sections” touch on “photographic interpretation, markets, popular photography, documents, and fine art”. It is unclear what “documents” is referring to in this context, but then again “markets” is similarly vague. While the editor believes this project achieves a “clear focus”, its lack is clearly the problem that grounds this project before it takes off.

Most of the essays are nonsensical as they jump between random or convoluted points without arriving at much that is related to photography. For example, the article on “Locating Photography” babbles about a murder of a wife’s lover, then jumps to pondering “flow” as a technique, before suggesting the “first photograph made on the continent of Africa” is dated November 7, 1839 in an opening sentence without any logical relevance of this national orientation to the points in the rest of the paragraph or elsewhere (30-1). The sections that are the most coherent are on popular photography or shifts in current commercial photography, which glorify corporations such as Kodak (294-5) and mobile phones in general. The latter includes ponderings such as, “Contemporary mobile photography is a multitude of things” (307).

This is a horrid book that attempts to fill the gap in modern cultural studies. Basically, there are folks who are paid well to write puffing modern film and photography reviews, and they put in some effort into these tasks. But academics who puff these subjects are ostracized from mainstream academia, so the few who are desperate enough to write on these topics just to be published are so disinterested, dispassionate and antithetical to puffing these concepts that their essays come across as the ravings of an academic on his or her second bottle of wine running in circles. I hope this book won’t find its ways into libraries or onto syllabi of graduate classes, or it will be the plight of graduate students who will be forced to question if this is the sort of dribble they might publish one day as well.

A Horror Story About the Economy

Anne Case & Angus Deaton, Deaths of Despair: And the Future of Capitalism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, March 17, 2020). $27.95. 288pp. 6X9”. 27 b/w illustrations, 2 maps. ISBN: 978-0-69119-078-5.

*****

The cover of this book is an intense black-on-black. The photo in black-and-white at the top of a suffering worker hits at the central emotion of the book. The editors inserted a nice silver tint into the online versions of this cover, so that the text is actually visible against the black background. Its visible in the printed cover because it pops up off the page and is made in a shiny ink. On the other hand, the title and the cover are a bit too horrific or hyper-tragic. I agree that the degree of misery the working-poor suffer is extreme, but hitting the emotions this intensely runs the risk of garnering an emotional reaction from readers who might feel that looking inside this book might depress them in a clinical manner. Then again, most of America’s politicians base campaigns on emotions rather than on logic. There is little logic in fighting against abortions in general, but hitting at the emotion of losing a child appears to drive voters to side with a party that is likely to be against their economic interests.  

The blurb explains that this book explains “how the flaws in capitalism are fatal for America’s working class. Life expectancy in the United States has recently fallen for three years in a row—a reversal not seen since 1918 or in any other wealthy nation in modern times. In the past two decades, deaths of despair from suicide, drug overdose, and alcoholism have risen dramatically, and now claim hundreds of thousands of American lives each year—and they’re still rising. Anne Case and Angus Deaton, known for first sounding the alarm about deaths of despair, explain the overwhelming surge in these deaths and shed light on the social and economic forces that are making life harder for the working class. They demonstrate why, for those who used to prosper in America, capitalism is no longer delivering… For the white working class, today’s America has become a land of broken families and few prospects. As the college educated become healthier and wealthier, adults without a degree are literally dying from pain and despair… Case and Deaton tie the crisis to the weakening position of labor, the growing power of corporations, and, above all, to a rapacious health-care sector that redistributes working-class wages into the pockets of the wealthy. Capitalism, which over two centuries lifted countless people out of poverty, is now destroying the lives of blue-collar America.” This study promises to provide “solutions that can rein in capitalism’s excesses and make it work for everyone.” These are indeed wonderful goals for any book, and if a solution can be found in these pages, surely it should be put into action.

Sadly, as is typical of books that explain they are emotion-driven on their covers, this book delivers an emotional narrative inside. For example, the first few paraphs on “Measuring Health among the Living” digress about the nature of “health” and how it’s measured and the difference about being alive or dead before finally, after a couple of pages, it begins to discuss how American health is measured by different Disease Control organizations, without ever giving the actual statistics to describe the essence of the problem this book is attempting to solve (72-3). The book does later offer graphs and other visuals to describe a few of the problems separately, such as “pain” statistics as they climb in older age groups (87). Most of this book repeats the main talking-points that are popular commentary in the news. The section on “Opioids” summarizes what opioids are as a class of drugs, their types, and their impacts. For example, this section repeats a claim that is frequently repeated in the media without a specific source citation: “It is greater than the total number of Americans who died in Vietnam”. This claim follows accident deaths and the like. Similar comparisons to other types of death are made in other contexts in the media to exaggerate or to stress the size of the problem into horrific terms (111-3). Even though these sections are digressive and fail to say anything new about these pop social “debates”, the main problem with this book is that instead of the promised solution, it includes chapters such as, “Growing Apart at Work”, suggesting that more community or chatting with coworkers will solve the despair rather than that higher wages or better benefits for workers would be useful for turning this tide. Another chapter blames robots and China: “Capitalism, Immigrants, Robots, and China”. This chapter equates Obama with Robin Hood, as it describes an “unfair society”, where “wealth and income at the top is ill-gotten” (213). After noting that immigrants have about the same education level as other Americans, the authors question if having fewer “workers to compete with at home, like having more cheap workers abroad, or more robots, can certainly reduce wages, at least in principle. Whether they have done so is a crucial question” (216). I have to stop the review on this note as the author is venturing into isolationism, anti-immigration propaganda, and a hint that robots must die.

Perhaps the awards these authors have won from the mainstream publications they are parroting as they make these philosophical observations have skewed their perception of their own greatness. While it is important to describe the problems in our society, it is important to provide new research in all scholarly books. If there is nothing new to say, why are these authors being paid to say it?  

The Renaissance Also Re-Birthed Ancient Machines

Paolo Galluzzi, The Italian Renaissance of Machines (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, February 4, 2020). $39.95. 296pp. ISBN: 978-0-67498-439-4.

*****

As part of my current research, I have derived that the British Ghostwriting Workshop was tasked with composing some of the great exploration narratives of the age, as well as the translation of the Bible and other grand feats of authorship that pushed human understanding forward. The Workshop’s output was particularly outstanding because many of its members were bound into cheap apprenticeships that forced them to work extraordinary hours for very little. The publishers and theater managers monopolizing these fields pushed them to extraordinary productivity because of the greed the system created for capitalist profits. Lords profited from pushing serfs, but the tools of modernization made it possible to sell products to international audiences, multiplying the potential profits. This study similarly steps back from viewing the Renaissance as a time of inspiration or mostly imaginative creation, and considers it as the birth of capitalism’s obsession with machinery. Very little writing or publishing can get done without improving or inventing the printing press, better pens, lamps, and various other items that saw a leap during the Renaissance and have since remained only mildly altered. We still use the pens, desks, building-design and many other machines developed during this time of extreme poverty and extreme greed. Thus, this is an important study because it should help inventors see this shift from the distant perspective of scholarship. To make a new leap, rather than making mere adjustments, we have to understand why the machine-development strategies of the Renaissance exceeded other ages.  

“The Renaissance… was also a new dawn for the machine. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries… the Italian peninsula was the stage of a no-less-impressive revival of technical knowledge and practice… Paolo Galluzzi guides readers through a singularly inventive period, capturing the fusion of artistry and engineering that spurred some of the Renaissance’s greatest technological breakthroughs. Galluzzi traces the emergence of a new and important historical figure: the artist-engineer. In the medieval world, innovators remained anonymous.” This anonymity continued through the Renaissance as well, there were just now a few capitalists who purchased bylines or paid to have themselves puffed in the press, whereas they might have made minor improvements whereas their workshops did most of the engineering and artistic labor involved in painting a ceiling, or developing a printing press. “By the height of the fifteenth century, artist-engineers like Leonardo da Vinci were sought after by powerful patrons, generously remunerated, and exhibited in royal and noble courts.” It was easier to convince monarchs of the greatness of a single “great” man like da Vinci rather than selling a group of bound apprentices laboring at near-slave-wages at Herculean tasks that past generations would have rejected participating in without much higher compensation. “In an age that witnessed continuous wars, the robust expansion of trade and industry, and intense urbanization, these practitioners—with their multiple skills refined in the laboratory that was the Renaissance workshop—became catalysts for change. Renaissance masters were not only astoundingly creative but also championed a new concept of learning, characterized by observation, technical know-how, growing mathematical competence, and prowess at the draftsman’s table. “Taccola” and “Giovanni Fontana” were indeed “masters” but not of merely “the quattrocento”, but of other men who remained anonymous while these few personalities gained Fame. Rather than being a story about how “da Vinci’s ambitious achievements paved the way for Galileo’s revolutionary mathematical science of mechanics”, it was a story about uncredited researchers, writers and scientists laboring to gather the knowledge that had been discovered millennia earlier, but had been ignored because of the lack of literacy or interest or respect towards reading and scholarship among the public or the elite. But I am adding my own take on these subjects, whereas Galluzzi delivers a very useful study of this age’s “great” masters from the perspective that is more widely accepted. Either way, we have to study how they reached beyond previous limitations to imitate their good habits.

The color illustrations across this book help to explain the new “bath” or sewage structures (4), “damming a river by  means of stone laden boats” (39), a “weary workman operating a winch” (54), and da Vinci’s “hammers striking gear-wheel pins in sequence” (115). These images explain how artists and engineers were needed to both imagine and turn these imaginings into practical applicable tools. These illustrations also make the types of rusty tools found in museums seem more complex and inventive as they are dissected into the parts that represented giant leaps in these fields.

The book is full of biographical and historical descriptions of the people, laws, societies, and governing structures that were involved in taking ideas and turning them into common utilized tools. The careful archival research that was needed to make this compressed study is apparent: “The folios of the Codex Arundel that we have analyzed indicate that, around 1504, the manufacture of paraobolic burning mirrors was not Leonardo’s priority.” Then, they go on to explain how the “manufacturing” of these devices was scaled and organized later on (150). This is a great review of the process those involved in these innovations went through as they copied out and drew or developed past researchers ideas to understand them better, before adding improvements, and allowing future researchers to eventually present a model that seemed to be a jump in a given field. For example, one artist draws “machines for moving and lifting obelisks and columns…, devices for raising water;… mills; and wagons with complex transmission systems” (80). The style in which these points are raised is a bit too digressive for my taste, but it is also easy to read for enjoyment.

Researchers who are seeking specific information on how a specific invention was arrived at, or information on a given related theme or topic will not have an easy time finding it here as the section titles are aimed at mystery rather than clarity. But those with plenty of time to read a book cover-to-cover to understand the Renaissance’s scientific achievements will eventually find the gold buried across this book.

Nonsensical Anti-Scholarship about Joyce’s Nonsense Novel

Roland McHugh, Annotations to Finnegans Wake, Fourth Edition (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016). $44.95. 628pp. ISBN: 978-1-4214-1907-7.

**

After taking an entire class dedicated to James Joyce’s Ulysses during my PhD studies, I was interested in reading what I assumed was Finnegans Wake with heavy annotations over the text. I had read Ulysses without any annotations, and with few useful essays or books to explain Joyce’s intentions, so I hoped to find clear explanations in this book regarding just why scholars have made Joyce the over-puffed “master” of modern literature. As I opened this book for the first time, I realized my mistake: this book just contains the annotations, whereas Johns Hopkins is selling a separate book that actually includes the novel being annotated. They did not include a copy of the novel with this review copy, and I couldn’t access this new edition online. But a review of just these annotations answers my questions about Joyce better than a coherent set of both the text and legible annotations would have. For example, on page 243, these notes are among hundreds cluttered onto the page: “RR viv: living”, “Blowick: old name of Bullock, nr Dalkey”, “It nutre (v.): nourishes”, and “*33: ‘a deed to which the husband & wife were both parties’”. The * is cited at the bottom of the page as referring to: Maud I. Crofts: Women Under English Law (1925). These are obviously heavily abbreviated notes. This type of abbreviation is possible because most of the notes are making the same types of citations. For example, “nr” is described in the “General Abbreviations” list of around forty items as “nursery rhyme” (xxvi). While the insertion of “nr” explains that “Blowick” comes out of a nursery rhyme and that’s why the editor knows the meaning that was hidden from readers, it is unclear how the editor interpreted “RR viv” to mean “living”. Proper annotations cannot simply define or interpret textual elements, but must instead explain the basis for these proposed definitions. If definition is obvious because it’s the dictionary definition, there is no reason to insert an annotation to state this. If a definition is only graspable by reading obscure texts or closely reading the rest of a given text this word is invented for, then just inserting a couple of words with the answer without the process that arrived at it does not help scholars who would need to check the sources to perform further research on any of these items that might be of special interest to their individual research. This style of cryptic annotations is deliberately designed to repel researchers rather than to reveal a code to help them understand a cryptic novel. The difference between nonsense and a textual mystery is that the latter can be unraveled to reveal the intended meaning. The point of Joyce’s “modern” novels is to communicate nonsense without any other hidden meaning than this state preference to avoid direct communication. Instead of employing the extraordinary modern computing and research tools at our disposal, literary scholars have opted to support the creation of nonsensical literature because it is easier to write nonsense scholarship than to make sense out of complex meaningful literature.

Obviously, my interpretation of this work of scholarly misdirection is not what the editor, Roland McHugh, intended. His blurb claims this is the “essential guide to Joyce’s famously difficult book.” Writer-scholars have been inserting literary puzzles or hunts for allusion clues into their fictions since the earliest surviving fictions. The density and complexity of literature has been a mark of superiority across the past millennia of literary output. However, just as humanity has made information and the interpretation of complexity easier than ever with online search engines, dictionaries and other tools that expedite research and literary creation, it has become much easier to spot mistakes in puffed scholars’ texts. Anybody can check a digitized archival source to find a typo or a mis-quote in an established scholars’ sloppy article. In response, these sloppy scholars have begun making their scholarship ungraspable by substituting common words with rarely used words, and adding complexities to sentence structure that make it difficult to find the intended meaning. As part of this effort to hide flaws with layers of seeming complexity, fictions such as Joyce’s have been taunted as great because of their difficulty. In parallel publishers have been working to sell literature with much lower reading levels, as they attempt to convince buyers they want an easy reading experience (full of sex and death and little pondering). It is easier to manufacture formulaic and simple literature than it is to build “difficult” books that communicate social messages in a manner that convinces readers to take actions to help fellow humans. Thus, this simple claim of Joyce’s dominance, the necessity of an insider interpreter to explain this dominance, and the ungraspable complexity of nonsense literature is loaded with questionable misinformation.  

This is the fourth edition of this annotation textbook. The first one was released back in 1980. Finnigans Wake was first published in 1939, and Roland McHugh was one of its first puffers, as he began publishing about this novel in 1965, releasing what might be his only scholarly book on the subject in 1976, The Sigla of Finnegans Wake. This solitary publication with the University of Texas Press was sufficient for an academic publisher like Johns Hopkins to agree to publish these cryptic annotations under the assumption they were made from an informed source. McHugh’s annotations are cited in various articles on this novel, and in textbooks such as The Cambridge Companion to James Joyce. In a University at Buffalo article on the “Massive… Project Elucidating Notoriously Difficulty Text” that describes “40 years” of funding for the study of this text granted to a group of scholars, McHugh is one of the only named scholars without an associated university listed, as his description is just that he lives in “Dublin” as an independent researcher. No website, social media or other sources is accessible that might have explained if McHugh has had any formal training in literature, or if he might not even have graduated high school before leaping into these scholarly endeavors. I have written over 440,000 words just in my latest couple of books on the de-attribution in “Defoe” and “Shakespeare” canons, and hundreds of my funding requests to organizations like NEH have been rejected, but they have been funding this group of hundreds of scholars to write nonsense about nonsense to help puff the James Joyce publishing industry? Do you think scholarly funding should be going to support these types of annotations, “It nutre (v.): nourishes”, or the type of scholarly contemplation that goes into content such as this set of reviews?  

But to return to the blurb: “Roland McHugh’s classic…” Here’s a trick: if you want to become the “greatest” scholar in the world, create pseudonyms and call yourself the greatest of all the greatest scholars under dozens of other bylines, and then you can refer to yourself as the greatest by citing the opinions of the scholarly establishment. “…Annotations to Finnegans Wake provides both novice readers and seasoned Joyceans with a wealth of information in an easy-to-use format uniquely suited to this densely layered text. Each page of the Annotations corresponds directly to a page of the standard Viking/Penguin edition of Finnegans Wake and contains line-by-line notes following the placement of the passages to which they refer, enabling readers to look directly from text to notes and back again, with no need to consult separate glossaries or other listings. McHugh’s richly detailed annotations distill decades of scholarship, explicating foreign words, unusual English connotations and colloquial expressions, place names, historical events, song titles and quotations, parodies of other texts, and Joyce’s diverse literary and popular sources. This thoroughly updated fourth edition draws heavily on Internet resources and keyword searches.” In other words, the editors are confessing that the fourth edition’s unique contribution is that the editors checked the nonsense annotations by googling them. “For the first time, McHugh provides readers with a synopsis of the action of Finnegans Wake.” There is no “synopsis” in the front-matter, so it seems McHugh has included brief notes summarizing the actions that occur in this novel inside the choppy annotations. This is extremely unhelpful as those who need a synopsis need to read it separately from such annotations to grasp the flow of events rather than to re-read a minor action described in the novel in an annotation. “He also expands his examination of possible textual corruption and adds hundreds of new glosses to help scholars, students, and general readers untangle the dense thicket of allusions that crowds.” Textual corruptions in a nonsense novel? The whole novel is a deliberate textual corruption. In the middle of this book, pages 319-20 are actually half-torn-out, folded and printed sideways, so it seems the publisher has inserted a printing if not a new textual corruption into this edition.

This is a horrid piece of anti-scholarship, but apparently few people are brave enough to call nonsense nonsensical, so I have to offer a particularly detailed explanation of these types of deeply problematic pieces that clutter or block scholarly funding and publishing routes to the scholars who are capable of clear verbal expression.

The Book of Mine That Was Rejected: How Censorship Continues to Suppress Satire

Ashley Marshall, The Practice of Satire in England 1658-1770 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013). 430pp. ISBN: 978-1-4214-1985-5.

***

Around three years ago, I set out to write a book about the genre of eighteenth-century British satire. I submitted this proposal to academic presses, and it was rejected by all because it was not something that fit their lists. I believe Johns Hopkins was one of these rejecting presses, and here they are releasing a version of the idea I pitched to them from an “established” researcher whose name I’ve seen frequently in this field, Ashley Marshall. I have not published my version of this concept yet because after writing several chapters reviewing trends in satires from these decades, I realized there was a major problem in previous studies that had to be addressed before anything coherent could be said about the narrow genre of satirical writing. The problem I noted (about which Marshall has also published without arriving at my own conclusions) was that the current attributions of anonymous and pseudonym-attributed texts are blatantly inaccurate. This was particularly apparent as I was attempting to reconcile that a single author called “Daniel Defoe” wrote the satires and the novels attributed to this byline. It takes a certain personality to write biting negative satire, and the opposite personality traits to write steady-handed tragic social adventures novels. My resulting book on the re-attribution of “Defoe” and neighboring texts has been rejected by dozens of publishers, while I have been busy fixing the attributions for the “Shakespeare” canon. It is now possible to fix these attributions because computational-linguistics allow for the identification of linguistic patterns that cannot be calculated by-hand or without computer assistance. I will probably return to the draft I started on British satires after I clean up these mis-attributions, but I guess by that point, this book will mean that the topic has already been covered by a rival scholar who arrived in this unexplored field first… On the other hand, anybody who charges into the “Defoe”-adjacent canon without proper re-attributions is bound to say a lot of falsehoods that are based on previous scholars’ mistakes. The first attributions of anonymous texts to “Shakespeare” began by the “Shakespeares” themselves, who needed to suggest these attributions to puff or sell their publications. Scholarship is not a race over speed, but rather over accuracy.   

The blurb describes this book as an exploration of “how satire was conceived and understood by writers and readers of the period. Her account is based on a reading of some 3,000 works, ranging from one-page squibs to novels.” While this book includes a hundred pages of notes and other back-matter, these do not fully cite these 3,000 works. But 3,000 satires from these decades is an unlikely number as there were fewer texts published in England over these decades. Perhaps, if single texts such as a novel are broken down into separate one-page portions this volume of satires can be fabricated… “The objective is not to recuperate particular minor works but to recover the satiric milieu—to resituate the masterpieces amid the hundreds of other works alongside which they were originally written and read.” What is the editor attempting to say here? Why would a study of satire be a recovery expedition? There is little practical difference between minor works and milieu, as both refer to the broader context of literature rather than to the major puffed texts from a period that have since been canonized. Based on my research, the difference between most “masterpieces” and the rest of the canon in these decades is that the “masterpieces” were created by “authors” who also paid to have their texts puffed or advertised in review publications and in texts by other authors. As I have dived into these corpuses, I’ve found plenty of very similar stylistic texts written under famous and unknown bylines that are qualitatively near-identical, but one byline is puffed, while another is ignored by contemporary and later critics, resulting in the divergence in the value-judgements of these texts rather than actual specialness of a “masterpiece”.

The rest of the blurb is more reflective of the type of message I would have wanted to relay in my version of this book: “The long eighteenth century is generally hailed as the great age of satire, and as such, it has received much critical attention. However, scholars have focused almost exclusively on a small number of canonical works, such as Gulliver’s Travels and The Dunciad, and have not looked for continuity over time. Marshall revises the standard account of eighteenth-century satire, revealing it to be messy, confused, and discontinuous, exhibiting radical and rapid changes over time. The true history of satire in its great age is not a history at all. Rather, it is a collection of episodic little histories.” I have also submitted several essays that have raised objections to Watt’s over-puffed Rise of the Novel, as one of the worst examples of literary historians simplifying periods of literary mutations without even closely reading the few texts they cite. Watt fabricated several generalizations regarding the birth of the novel in eighteenth-century Britain that are counter to the rival histories of the novel being born in much earlier texts such as Spain’s Don Quixote (1605) or Japan’s Tale of Genji (1021). Despite the sea of errors in Watt’s ponderings, this theory has been repeated by a clan of his supporters in part because it propagates the greatness of the British Empire. My articles explaining these points have naturally all been rejected in periodicals, so I am including the first few of these in this issue of PLJ to start moving these ideas out into the public. I am now ready to publish these regardless of the readiness of other publishers to accept these ideas because I’m nearing the completion of my attribution studies and these have led me to reach the necessary degree of certainty and comprehension of the related topics to now share my conclusions with scholarly readers. By considering an alternative disjointed history Marshall is taking a step in a similar direction.

This book is divided neatly into sections that explain the complex elements involved in addressing the satire-genre during this distant period. Chapter 1 includes parts that address the difference between “genre” and “mode”, as well as those that describe publishing and distribution of satirical texts. Other chapters offer useful information on how contemporaries interpreted satirical writing, how these views changed over time, and the distinctions between canonical authors such as “Defoe” and Swift versus lesser known authors. On the other hand, with a section like “The Rise of ‘Poetic’ Satire”, it is unlikely this book really turns away from the falsities of the Watt perspective. There were poetic satires written in Greek and Roman times, so it’s absurd to claim they “rose” millennia later in Britain.

The content inside this book is laden with various scholarly problems. For example, Marshall focuses on the “considerable anxiety” in Dryden’s satire (76): these types of mind-readings are counter to logical scholarship. Marshall does not and cannot know if Dryden was anxious as he wrote the satire. All that can be established is what Dryden said in autobiographies about himself, and what the characters report about themselves in the satires. Projecting fictional emotions of characters onto the author is an exercise in fictious biography; it has no scholarly value. Overall, Marshall inserts many quotes and summaries into her text, but then draws abstract and unsupportable conclusions such as: “Pope seems concerned not only with political rot but also with the role of the artist within society and with the province of the satirist in attempting to combat the wrongs he sees around him” (201). Either Pope writes about this rot and about the artist’s role in society or he does not, so why is Marshall using the uncertain term “seems”? Obviously, she is using “seems” because these are absent-minded abstractions to avoid making direct statements regarding Pope’s radical political intentions to use satire as an artist specifically to right wrongs that he sees in society. Critics like Marshall who think it is an overreach for a scholar or an artist to criticize the wrongs of the establishment tend to use subversion to criticize these choices by making them appear unclear in their intentions or moral fortitude. Instead of the difficult task of cataloging, grouping, contextualizing, and historically justifying these satirical pieces, Marshall spends most of this study on brief plot outlines of obscure satires, and coloring these with her interpretations of what these authors might have been thinking, and theorizing on what type of satire it might be without really arriving at clear genre-defining boundaries. For example, towards the end, Marshall describes “Macklin’s most successful afterpiece… Love a la Mode” as a “less wholly negative play”. This value judgement regarding a play’s vigor in accusing wrongdoers of wrongs suggests Marshall is pro-censorship and agrees that “negative” views are censorable. She describes the plot as being about a “philanderer” and offers a quote of his philandering philosophy. The rest of the plot is about the husband who is threatened with slavery and tortured to force him to give up helping his wife out of this seduction. The next paragraph jumps to another play and nothing further is said about this particular play. So, what is the point of raising this particular plot unless it is just mentioned to fill the page with content that’s easy to research?

I am going to return to read this book more closely when I return to finishing my own study of satire during this century. It is clear that Marshall’s political and academic interests are counter to her treating this subject with an unbiased and systematic method that it deserves. Given these shortcomings, there is plenty more to say on this topic.

If Khrushchev Called America’s Cold War “Nonsense”, So Should We

Donald Stoker, Why America Loses Wars: Limited War and US Strategy from the Korean War to the Present (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019). 332pp. ISBN: 978-1-108-47959-2.

***

This book’s title promises to address a topic I have been contemplating writing a million-word novel about just to protest the endless nature of modern warfare. Well, perhaps a bit longer to make it one of the longest novels ever written. American has been puffing itself as the world’s leader in military power since the end of WWII. America’s role in winning WWII was far smaller than the investment of millions of lives made by Russia and other countries that fought most of the battles that led to the eventual victory. America dropped the two atomic bombs after Hitler lost, and Japan was close to surrendering without this intervention. While Russia stood up to America’s bullying imperialism after WWII, most countries appear to have decided that any country willing to nuke entire cities of civilians should be allowed to call themselves the greatest country in the world if that’s what it needs to keep from repeating the genocide. Instead of simply sticking with puffing itself as the greatest, America has also felt the need to attack militarily weak countries every decade or so and to keep fighting them for a decade or more without ever accepting a surrender, or proposing a resolution, or clearly explaining why they are fighting a given “enemy”. America’s leaders have claimed most of the hot wars around the Cold War were about suppressing the spread of communism and promoting democracy, but these two terms are from different fields of study. Communism describes a communal economic organization of society, wherein companies are steered to act in the economic interests of the people rather than of the few “owners”. Communism can also refer to social programs that help the poor: an idea that is reflected in America’s and most modern country’s welfare systems. Democracy is a system of electing rulers by a popular vote. Sadly, America’s Electoral College means that America lacks this idealistic popular-vote political system; in at least two recent presidential elections, the winner of the popular-vote was not elected to rule. Almost immediately after the end of the Cold War, America began a new war, the War on Terror. The claim of terrorism or the vaguer sedition has been employed by rulers without just cause to execute political enemies since before Greco-Roman times. Jesus was executed because the ideas he was selling were heretical and seditious to the Romans. While emperors and kings have deemed these types of suppressions justifiable to retain power, overseeing the slaughter of millions of civilians in the War of Terror by a democratic country is a series of war-crimes. If the people America is attacking in these wars are not the people who perpetrated 9/11 or other isolated terrorist acts, there is no logical end to this conflict. How do wars end? If a war is fought to overpower another country, its government can be rapidly overthrown as the conqueror takes over. If a war is started because an “evil” dictator is killing civilians, a single assassination solves this problem, stopping the need for a war. However, if the attacker has no reason to start the war other than profiteering from selling weapons and other war-craft to both sides, it is impossible for any rational player to imagine how or why this war would ever end. The problem America is facing today is that while it is possible for a few war-profiteers to steal trillions of dollars under the guise of fighting communism and terrorism, this theft comes at the cost of crippling the fighting country’s infrastructure, healthcare and welfare systems, and all the other elements of society that taxes are designed to pay for. All past “great” empires have fallen because unbridled corruption and exploitation feeds a few while destroying the many. 31% of the world’s 5.5 million Covid-19 cases and 28% of the world’s 345,000 Covid-19 deaths have so far occurred in the U.S. Since the U.S. makes up only 4.25% of the world’s population, a person in the U.S. is 14X more likely to be infected than a person across the rest of the world. America’s failure to stop its perpetual warfare is linked to its inability to stop this virus. The answer to what is the nature of this link and why America can’t stop fighting unjustifiable wars necessitates books with titles like this one.

Here is the book’s summary: “How can you achieve victory in war if you don’t have a clear idea of your political objectives and a vision of what victory means? In this provocative challenge to US policy and strategy, Donald Stoker argues that America endures endless wars because its leaders no longer know how to think about war, particularly limited wars. He reveals how ideas on limited war and war in general evolved against the backdrop of American conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq. These ideas, he shows, were flawed and have undermined America’s ability to understand, wage, and win its wars, and to secure peace afterwards. America’s leaders have too often taken the nation to war without understanding what they want or valuing victory, leading to the ‘forever wars’ of today.” In other words, Stoker proposes that the reason for America’s failure to end wars is that its leaders are averse to compromise and lack negotiating strategies. If this is the case, it means there are millions of people in America’s military who all don’t “know how to think about war”. If there was a true democracy in America or in America’s military system, the people who are capable of negotiating and understand warfare strategy would have been promoted to lead these war efforts, but because corruption rules these systems, the greediest and the least competent are promoted.

Inside, Stoker argues that one of the false assumptions America’s military leaders have made is that the other side is “rational”, whereas it is actually irrational (39). This section is dominated by long quotes as obviously this point is extremely insulting to all of America’s “enemies”, who are being referred to as irrational or crazy by these implications. The example this section returns to is the Soviet Union and how American strategies failed to “understand” this irrationality about the “Soviet mind”. Americans were pitching the idea of “limited war” to the Soviets, and Premier Nikita Khrushchev and others were responding that this concept was “nonsense”. Clearly, the Soviets were not failing to “understand the nature of the war”, but were instead stating the fact that U.S. rationalization for why they were continuing to fight the Cold War was nonsensical (42). The book keeps returning to the nonsensical cycle of suggesting that America’s problem is that it has been “not willing to try to win” at war, but is rather opting for “permanent” warfare (179). Obviously, if a state or a corporation stands to gain funding by fighting endless wars, and there are no external barriers to stop this constant choice to continue killing for profit, wars will carry on indefinitely. Of course, plagues, bankruptcy of the state, genocides and other extremes of misery have previously brought these types of lunacies to tragic conclusions for the states that have failed to reign in totally-corrupt rulers who can respond with nonsense to sense, and still retain control over the media-propaganda-machine to keep the public ignorant of its thievery.

This book subversively hints at why America’s wars will never end if the world keeps feeding this beast. But the things this author is actually saying on the surface are propagandistic supports of this nonsense as sensible, and an insulting attack on those who attempt to criticize this war-machine. So, scholars in this field should read this book to understand the harm this perspective proposes, but the general public should avoid reading it lest they are swayed by the propaganda to agree with its anti-humanist conclusions.

A Professor Babbles About Greek Heroes Under the Assumption Nobody Did Their Homework

Gregory Nagy, The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, January 7, 2020). $24.95. 656pp. ISBN: 978-0-67424-168-8.

***

According to my current linguistic research, Gabriel Harvey was the lead researcher of the British Renaissance Ghostwriting Workshop that generated the “Shakespeare” canon as well as several of the surrounding bylines. Harvey started his career as a rhetoric professor at Cambridge. He published some of his first lectures on Greco-Roman literature, philosophy and the rhetorical art; he explained in these texts why he believed it was important to mimic the ancients while also imitating and creating a uniquely English interpretation of their ideas. This book appears to engage in a similar exercise of understanding the structure of Greek heroes to compare how these ancient ideas have mutated by modern times.

“What does it mean to be a hero? The ancient Greeks who gave us Achilles and Odysseus had a very different understanding of the term than we do today.” It “explores the roots of Western civilization and offers a masterclass in classical Greek literature. We meet the epic heroes of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, but Nagy also considers the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, the songs of Sappho and Pindar, and the dialogues of Plato. Herodotus once said that to read Homer was to be a civilized person. To discover Nagy’s Homer is to be twice civilized.” The heights of puffery reached in this blurb are extraordinary. It is absurd to suggest that the secret to civilization lies in following one scholar’s interpretation of an ancient author. The definition of “civilization” refers to the most advanced form of human social and cultural organization; thus, the concept of what is most civilized should be constantly improving as humans research the possibilities. The version of heroism Homer presented is far from “advanced” from the modern perspective. Enslavement of whole rival empires was legal in Homer’s times. There are problems with how modern films portray heroes, but these are not all that different from the barbaric notions of heroism in Homer. Barbarism, after all, refers to extreme cruelty: to be thus cruel has been interpreted as an indication of a lack of self-government, and thus the opposite of being civilized. However, if Homer’s and other Greek heroes reach peaks of cruelty unrivaled by their enemies there is nonsense afoot in the premise of this book.

The definition given for the “ancient Greek… heroes” is “humans, male or female, of the remote past, endowed with superhuman abilities and descended from the immortal gods themselves. A prime example is Achilles… the son of Thetis, a sea-goddess known for her far-reaching cosmic powers…” However, since “the father of Achilles is mortal… this greatest of heroes must therefore be mortal as well.” What does the mortality of Greek heroes have to do with “civilization” or with modern concepts of heroism? Many Greek “heroes” were mortal, but others were immortal Gods. The contrast between their mortality and immortality came out of the theological beliefs of the Greeks. Studying this lineage is as pointless as studying the bastards born to British royal families. Even if their illegitimacy can be established, how does the knowledge of their familial roots help human civilization?

The problems are littered across this book. Most of the sections have titles that start with “The Meaning of…” followed by an italic term covered. The italics on terms such as Hora makes it seem as if this is a title of a text, but this is how foreign words are distinguished in these names. Hora is defined as referring to Hera, the goddess of seasonality (29-30). What does this section’s definition of this particular Greek term have to do with heroism? Other sections begin with the name of a hero, such as “Herakles” and end with either “and the Meaning of…” followed by a Greek term, or “and the Idea of the Hero”. In the latter section, Nagy refers to his own article “on the topic of the epic hero”, as he summarizes his main points. According to these, a “hero is unseasonal”, “extreme – positively… or negatively”, and “antagonistic toward the god who seems to be most like the hero” (37). This is a non-definition because it cancels itself out. Anything can be extremely positive or negative depending on the spectrum one chooses. And the element of antagonism cannot be the defining element of heroism, but rather a characteristic modern interpretations of ancient tales have focused on. While a few of these definitions of Greek terms and summaries of mis-interpretations of these characters are curious to review, if this book was assigned to me in a Greek literature class, I would be clawing at the pages trying to escape without hope of doing so without failing the class. This is a case of a professor who is used to students applauding whatever he says to win A’s, so he just keeps saying whatever comes into his head under the assumption that even if its meaningless, false, simplistic and poorly researched, he will be puffed and published, and his students will be forced to purchase the resulting book. I hope this review will help other professors decide to assign any other textbook out there, while avoiding this particular series of aimless ponderings.

Attributing Great Art to a Female Hand: Evidence for the Painterly Life of Sofonisba

Michael W. Cole, Sofonisba’s Lesson: A Renaissance Artist and Her Work (Princeton: Princeton University Press, February 11, 2020). Hardcover: $60. 312pp. 7.5X9.5”. ISBN: 978-0-69119-832-3.

*****

Perhaps by focusing on the facts known about Anguissola’s biography and including beautiful reproductions of her paintings, this book avoids all of the pitfalls of bad scholarship, and succeeds in delivering a useful book for scholars and the general public.

The book is advertised thus: “Sofonisba Anguissola (ca. 1535–1625) was the daughter of minor Lombard aristocrats who made the unprecedented decision to have her trained as a painter outside the family house. She went on to serve as an instructor to Isabel of Valois, the young queen of Spain.” This study attempts a re-interpretation of “Sofonisba’s work” from the perspective of her impact on “the image of women’s education in Europe”. She is granted credit for having “transformed Western attitudes about who could be an artist.” Since Anguissola’s name is relatively rarely mentioned in comparison with canonized male Renaissance artists, it seems to be an exaggeration to claim that she led a shift in Western art to skew it towards accepting female artists. But it would indeed be great if Cole succeeded in finding proof of this claim. Then again, this exaggeration is harmless if this book simply reports on a great female artist’s biography and artistic contributions, as puffing a female artist is socially useful to modern female artists even if it failed to help those of past centuries. “Cole demonstrates how teaching and learning were central themes of Sofonisba’s art, which shows women learning to read, play chess, and paint. He looks at how her pictures challenged conventional ideas about the teaching of young girls, and he discusses her place in the history of the amateur, a new Renaissance type. The book examines Sofonisba’s relationships with the group of people for whom her practice was important—her father Amilcare, her teacher Bernardino Campi, the men and women who sought to be associated with her, and her sisters and the other young women who followed her path. Of most interest to art historians and art critics will be the book’s inclusion of “a complete illustrated catalog of the more than two hundred known paintings and drawings that writers have associated with Sofonisba over the past 450 years, with a full accounting of modern scholarly opinion on each.” Having reviewed a few art books, I can report that few of them attempted a “complete” cataloging. A sprinkle of images by any given artist leaves gaps for scholars of this canon, necessitating seeking additional sources to fill these gaps. Full catalogs are probably avoided for most canonical artists because there is an assumption that somebody else has attempted this previously, so it is refreshing that there is enough interest in this lesser known female artist to grant her a full review.

The “Introduction” opens by explaining that one of the sources for what we know about Sofonisba’s biography comes from the extraordinary quantity of self-portraits she did in her youth, which allow a glimpse into how she lived, studied, drew and saw herself (2). Sofonisba’s paintings of herself and other girls seem to have a wider range of emotions and intellectual complexity than the idyllic and frozen half-smiles typical in most of the male Renaissance painters’ interpretations of womanhood.

One of the curious patterns Cole points out is that other painters appear to have imitated Sofonisba’s preceding drawings. For example, “Sofonisba served the royal consort Isabel de Valois” and in this capacity she made several portraits of Isabel, such as her Portrait of a Woman (1570s) and Isabel de Valois (1581), the latter of which is believed to have been imitated in the Workshop of Peter Paul Rubens’ Isabel de Vaois from the early seventeenth century (123-5). These similarities become a bit problematic in other cases, when Sofonisba’s versions were painted after similar portraits were released by rival painters. For example, Sofonisba’s Isabel de Valois (1560s) is similar in its positioning, facial expression and numerous other stylistic elements to Alonso Sanchez Coello’s Isabel de Valois (1559-60). Cole states: “In recent decades, more than a dozen other paintings have been proposed as additions to this admittedly conservative list of plausible attributions.” While some critics have been adding paintings to Sofonisba’s canon, others have questioned why “a painter who signed an uncommon number of works in such distinctive ways would subsequently content herself with a long period of anonymity” (132-3). In my computational-linguistics study of this period, I determined that a Workshop of writers was ghostwriting most of the period’s texts while utilizing a far greater number of attributed bylines. While it is far easier to check the precise statistics behind texts of 20,000 words or more, the same type of test cannot be applied to paintings. A group of artists employing similar techniques can be undistinguishable from each other in style, as is confirmed by forgers who have succeeded in precisely imitating famous artists styles in making original paintings they attributed to famous artists as well as mimicking the precise brushstrokes of paintings that exist in the canon of these famous artists. If Sofonisba’s style is identical to other artists’ from her age, she could have: 1. Belonged to a workshop of artists who all followed similar indistinguishable techniques and handled the same small group of aristocratic subjects. 2. She was the ghostpainter who continued drawing under other names after her own name might have fallen into disrepute as she grew older and continued painting and otherwise living a radical lifestyle for a woman. 3. Sofonisba or her family could have purchased these byline attributions to her to glorify their family, but then lost interest in retaining these credits as Sofonisba matured. While I would like to imagine that Sofonisba was indeed a revolutionary female painter, my tests of Emilia Bassano’s style matched it to Harvey’s who started publishing when Bassano was a baby, so she could not have written his works, and he must have been the one writing under her female name. While it is hopeful to imagine that the overall constrictions on women’s rights during the Renaissance were not tight enough for some women to have broken through, in reality the laws against women’s capacity to seek independent employment or to have control over their own inheritance prevented pretty much all women from attaining basic educations, and so it is a far-fetched dream to imagine some of them struck artistic gold. I am still hopeful that Mary Sidney did write the texts that match her signature, but if not, apprenticeships into the arts were a man’s game.

Great scholarship opens the door for future scholarship. While this book does not solve these attribution mysteries, it presents these questions and the visual and documentary evidence in a manner that assists future researchers with diving further into these questions. This is a delightful, inspiring, and insightful study of the life and art of one of the world’s earliest female painters.

Anti-Socialist Doublespeak: “Orwell”, Eric and Other Sides of Propaganda

John Rodden, Becoming George Orwell: Life and Letters, Legend and Legacy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, February 4, 2020). $29.95. 384pp. 5.5X8.5”. 15 b/w illustrations. ISBN: 978-0-69118-274-2.

***

The blurb begins with this claim: “The remarkable transformation of Orwell from journeyman writer to towering icon”. The term “journeyman” makes Orwell’s early employment seem romantic, but it might be referring to his days laying bricks or performing other unskilled types of labor. After researching ghostwriting for a couple of years, this claim raises alarms for me, as it would typically indicate that Orwell came across some money and purchased authorship bylines for himself despite lacking the education or literary experience necessary to write books himself. Rodden does not see this disconnect between Orwell’s background and his capacity for authorship. Instead, Rodden declares rhetorically: “Is George Orwell the most influential writer who ever lived? Yes, according to John Rodden’s provocative book about the transformation of a man into a myth. Rodden does not argue that Orwell was the most distinguished man of letters of the last century, nor even the leading novelist of his generation, let alone the greatest imaginative writer of English prose fiction. Yet his influence since his death at midcentury is incomparable. No other writer has aroused so much controversy or contributed so many incessantly quoted words and phrases to our cultural lexicon, from ‘Big Brother’ and ‘doublethink’ to ‘thoughtcrime’ and ‘Newspeak.’” It describes “the astonishing passage of a litterateur into a legend.” While I agree this “passage” was “astonishing”, I diverge on the reasons for this rise being the result of the superiority of the prose. Sadly, the most puffed books are the ones that have the largest advertising budgets from the giant publishers. The more money is spent on repeatedly puffing a writer in the writings of fellow writers, in the media, in popular entertainment, as well as in glowing reviews, the bigger the “myth” of this “Author” becomes. If the text in question is nonsensical, incomprehensible or otherwise unreadable, students or their schools can be forced to pay for these books, but can all escape actually reading these texts by instead employing summaries of the plot and characters that digest this indigestible content, so that the same shorthand talking-points can be repeated. “Big Brother” thus becomes just a term to horrify the public with the power of the surveillance state, and the book where this term is employed is so unapproachable that the horror of this concept comes with nobody really know who this Big Brother was. If these concepts had appeared in a philosophy textbook, they would have to be clearly defined, but in a novel “doublethink” can be vaguely utilized, leaving the interpretation to the critic’s imagination, who can add new meanings depending on the political interests of a given moment.

The blurb then mentions a curious fact “the man and writer Orwell,” was “born” as “Eric Arthur Blair”. Since “Orwell” is a confirmed pseudonym by the admission of the differently named man to whom it has been attributed, it is very likely that Eric had little involvement with the authorship of this canon, just based on his background and name alone. Rodden even questions how this Eric “came to be overshadowed by the spectral figure associated with nightmare visions of our possible futures.” If Rodden admits there were two different people between the simple laborer called Eric and the mythic Author who created the horror-myth of the Surveillance State, then perhaps this Surveillance State sponsored the authorship and distribution of this propagandistic novel using the biography of a simple worker who was a more sympathetic author than a state employee would have been.

“Rodden opens with a discussion of the life and letters, chronicling Orwell’s eccentricities and emotional struggles, followed by an assessment of his chief literary achievements.” If Eric’s life was a better fit for the life of an author, the author of this biography would not have needed to rely on imagining “Orwell’s” “emotional struggles”, as there would have been plenty of diaries, letters, homework essays and other pieces of evidence to insert to describe “Orwell’s” youthful beliefs. After running out of life-evidence, Rodden turns to summarizing “Orwell’s” books. And when this runs out of steam, Rodden describes the pufferies or advertisements that have been published about “Orwell” since his death, and the various parts of modern culture that have been indirectly blamed on “Orwell’s” ideas: “looking at everything from cyberwarfare to ‘fake news.’” Rodden acknowledges that “Orwell” “and his work have become confused with the very dreads and diseases that he fought against throughout his life.” This confusion is the result of a failure by biographers and literary critics such as Rodden to deliver a coherent interpretation of either the texts attributed to “Orwell” or the facts of his life. Instead, these types of books mystify authors such as “Orwell” into cryptic figures by imagining that the things they wrote about reflect the types of lives they lived.

In “Chapter 1”, Rodden reports some basic facts that are known about Eric’s life. On May 10, 1936, “he was shot in the throat by a fascist sniper”; this wound was near-fatal, and after a few weeks of recuperation, Eric and his wife “left Barcelona” for a retirement from active service. These facts are supported by Eric’s autobiographical suicidal reflections on these events (38-9). The few other known facts are compressed into the next couple of chapters, before Rodden digresses into single-sentence paragraphs such as: “The ‘what ifs’ are legion.” Yes, there are many “what ifs” in this world, and none of them belong in a biography, where the things that are not doubtful or possible, but rather those that actually happened are supposed to be discussed. Later on this page, Rodden returns to the duality between Eric and “Orwell”, stressing that “Eric” was the name “he used in legal circumstances all his life”. In contrast, his wife, “Sonia Brownell used the married name ‘Orwell’” (54). Unlike Eric, Sonia spent her youth working as an editor for academics at elite universities and is claimed to be the “muse” behind the character’s in “Orwell’s” novels. Sonia makes for a more like author than Eric, so it is curious that Rodden focuses on her adoption of this name. Most of the book is dedicated to questioning the imagined dualities in “Orwell’s” philosophy. Rodden bases these speculations on anecdotes and popular perceptions of “Orwell” as well as on statements made in his fictions, rather than predominantly on direct statements Eric made in writing. For example, Rodden concludes that “Orwell remained” perceived as a man “‘of the Left’ to the end of” his “days”, despite being “always most critical of” his “own side”. Rodden jumps from this biographical conclusion to a value-judgement against the communist ideology: “They had good reason to be so: socialists of the Left (in Stalin’s Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) as well as of the Right (in Hitler’s National Socialist Germany) had proven time and again to be ruthless exploiters of the common man once they rose to power” (186). American Capitalist Democrats and Republicans tend to be just as “ruthless” in their exploitations, but America’s propaganda machine is far more efficient in suppressing free expression, so that criticisms of American leaders for extreme exploitations is rare, and when it is noted (as with the recent impeachment of Trump), Americans seem to experience communal amnesia, as they return to repeating the propaganda that the American Capitalist system is superior because at least it has avoided the evils of attempting to care for the working people as is the case with “Socialism”.

If you enjoy reading subversive, misleading and party-line propaganda for the glory of a totalitarian state called America, you are likely to enjoy this book. Otherwise, I hope the public and libraries will avoid purchasing this double-speak.

Gorbachev’s Confessions on Nukes, Revolution and Sabotage

Mikhail Gorbachev, On My Country and the World, Anniversary Edition (New York: Columbia University Press, December 24, 2019). Softcover: $20. 312pp. ISBN: 978-0-23119-489-1.

*****

Since one of the only questions Americans still ask me when I meet new people thirty years after I migrated from the USSR is where I’m from, it is a requirement for me to be at least vaguely familiar with another Soviet migrant’s interpretation of “the Soviet experiment and experience”. Mikhail Gorbachev was in charge of the USSR through most of my childhood, so the story of this “last steward” is also a story about the circumstances under which the USSR broke up, allowing me to migrate to the US. This autobiography is not a series of political or philosophical digressions, but rather is a frank confession of the historical events Gorbachev participated in. I have reviewed a few political autobiographies before, and most of them read as if they were ghostwritten by a nincompoop who has never been inside a government building before. This is thankfully not one of these books that keep talking without saying anything. One of the reasons for the precision or the historical accuracy of this narrative is the research Gorbachev undertook to substantiate what he remembered with the evidence of what might have happened outside of his purview.

The summary explains: “Drawing on his own experience, rich archival material, and a keen sense of history and politics, Mikhail Gorbachev speaks his mind on a range of subjects concerning Russia’s past, present, and future place in the world. Here is Gorbachev on the October Revolution, Gorbachev on the Cold War, and Gorbachev on key figures such as Lenin, Stalin, and Yeltsin. The book begins with a look back at 1917. While noting that tsarist Russia was not as backward as it is often portrayed, Gorbachev argues that the Bolshevik Revolution was inevitable and that it did much to modernize Russia. He strongly argues that the Soviet Union had a positive influence on social policy in the West, while maintaining that the development of socialism was cut short by Stalinist totalitarianism. In the next section, Gorbachev considers the fall of the USSR. What were the goals of perestroika? How did such a vast superpower disintegrate so quickly? From the awakening of ethnic tensions, to the inability of democrats to unite, to his own attempts to reform but preserve the union, Gorbachev retraces those fateful days and explains the origins of Russia’s present crises.” These straightforward conclusions are muddled when Gorbachev then offers advice for improving Russia in the future by strengthening “the federation” and undertaking “meaningful economic and political reforms”. Since the USSR collapsed under Gorbachev’s leadership, it is odd that he has the confidence to advise Russia on what it should be doing. It’s like a submarine captain that sees his sub sink to the bottom of the ocean and is one of the only survivors, and then comes back to the recovered wreckage a decade later to lecture fellow survivors on how they should get the pieces up to the surface… Gorbachev also seems to think he did a good job in the manner in which he ended the Cold War, and suggests crises-resolutions “including NATO expansion, the role of the UN, the fate of nuclear weapons, and environmental problems.” This summary left me questioning if Gorbachev might have inserted his ponderings on the benefits of nukes into his autobiography. No. He is against them. “Security could no longer be built on the fear of an inevitable retaliation, meaning that the doctrines of containment or mutually assured destruction were outdated” (191).

For those who are not familiar with USSR’s history: “Mikhail Gorbachev was general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, 1985-1991, and president of the Soviet Union, 1988-1991.” He is credited with ending the Cold War by bringing down the Berlin Wall separating East from West Germany, as well as opening up other borders and legal boundaries that restricted the freedoms of Soviet citizens. A few years into his openness policies led to declarations of separation from the Soviet republics, and the eventual coup that brought an end to Socialist rule. He was probably the first rational president the USSR had, or the first one that did not allow power to overwhelm his perception of what was in the interests of the people he was governing. Since most people around the world have misconceptions about Soviet socialism that Gorbachev clarifies in these pages, this is an important book for most members of the world’s public to read. However, I wish he focused more on his thoughts and actions during the decisions me made while in charge of USSR rather than his ponderings about stuff since he left office. Historians and political theorists need to understand how he perceived these critical years, and only he can speak to the thought-processes that led to his world-changing decisions.

While there is a great book I imagine Gorbachev could have written wherein he explains the realities of what forced his government to make changes, in reality, even the parts where Gorbachev is discussing his actions have the flare of a ghostwriting floating in abstractions because he does not know the true dimensions of the political conflict. “Glasnost not only created conditions for implementing the intended reforms but also made it possible to overcome attempts to sabotage the police of change” (61). Who was attempting “sabotage”? What form did this “sabotage” take? Were there mini coups before the big coup? Were there untold assassination attempts? Were there rivals and fighting parties lobbying against “glasnost”? The segments that rely more heavily on research deliver some answers, but they refrain from inserting Gorbachev’s opinions on these political actions. For example, Gorbachev writes the “situation… became hotter…” on “May 11, 1989, the Politburo discussed the situation in the three Baltic republics. The leaders of the Communist parties of those three republics took part in the meeting”. Then Gorbachev quotes a long speech that he made on this occasion, wherein he begged them to avoid reaching “a point of desperation or of breaking off relations” (98). It seems from this segment that he was the one making the situation hotter by hinting that he would break of relations if they failed to comply. Then, in a speech to the First Congress, he expresses that “legal mechanisms” need to be entrusted to solve disagreements between the republics and the whole entity of the USSR. He explains that on the basis of these speeches, “laws were adopted” that formed the basis for “self-government” for these entities (99). So, really Gorbachev artificially engineering their separation rather than fighting to keep the USSR intact. Once a state is declared independent, it’s imperialistic or against international law to conquer and re-acquire it into a foreign country’s fold.  

While this book could have been more heavily edited to leave just the content that scholars need to understand this history, the digressions and philosophizing Gorbachev inserts might hold answers to questions scholars don’t know to ask yet. State secrets are frequently uncovered decades if not centuries after the lifetimes of the rulers, so this book is an important document to preserve a state-breaker’s ponderings.

5,000 Paid Clappers and Other Familiar Terrible Leadership Strategies from the Ancients

Suetonius; Josiah Osgood, Ed., How to Be a Bad Emperor: An Ancient Guide to Truly Terrible Leaders (Princeton: Princeton University Press, February 4, 2020). Hardcover: $16.95. 312pp. ISBN: 978-0-69119-399-1.

*****

It is only fitting that after reading about Gorbachev’s interpretation of his failures as successes, I come across this classical text about “Terrible Leaders”. The editor explains: “If recent history has taught us anything, it’s that sometimes the best guide to leadership is the negative example… Nearly 2,000 years ago, Suetonius wrote Lives of the Caesars, perhaps the greatest negative leadership book of all time. He was ideally suited to write about terrible political leaders; after all, he was also the author of Famous Prostitutes and Words of Insult, both sadly lost.” This is Josiah Osgood’s translation of Suetonius’s “darkly comic biographies of the Roman emperors Julius Caesar, Tiberius, Caligula, and Nero.” The “stories of these ancient anti-role models show how power inflames leaders’ worst tendencies, causing almost incalculable damage.” Like other titles in this series, the Latin original is useful for those studying Latin or English, as they can check the two versions on the opposing pages. “We meet Caesar, using his aunt’s funeral to brag about his descent from gods and kings—and hiding his bald head with a comb-over and a laurel crown; Tiberius, neglecting public affairs in favor of wine, perverse sex, tortures, and executions; the insomniac sadist Caligula, flaunting his skill at cruel put-downs; and the matricide Nero, indulging his mania for public performance.” This is an arresting introduction to the topic that should convince most libraries and casual studies of history and philosophy to look inside.

The biography of this satirical author, Suetonius, in the “Introduction” helps to explain the seemingly radically anti-tyrannical position he takes on his subjects. His father was a military officer, but Suetonius opted to focus on scholarly pursuits. After writing some noted lost works, he was appointed as an “advisor on literary affairs and director of Rome’s public libraries”, before becoming “secretary of correspondence” under Hadrian (117-138). After some time in this position, Suetonius was fired, and it seems his subsequent biographies about terrible rulers were based on the problems he observed while under Hadrian (xvii-xviii). My recent linguistic research into secret and open secretaries uncovered that these scholars tended to be the only competent people in administrations in 16-18th century Britain, and it seems that this was also the trend going back thousands of years to Roman times. The rulers were consistently wealthy sadists who wanted sex and death, while their secretaries were the political strategies that worked in the background to orchestrate their rise to power despite or because of these horrific abuses. The secretaries’ job was to write propaganda, and these maniacal leaders tended to retain these writers even as they massacred thousands of other innocent people because the power these writers held over state secrets. When rulers failed to comprehend the subversive tasks these scribblers achieved, stories of their debauchery, greed and stupidity were publicized by these disgruntled past-employees, leaving humanity with books like this set of biographies in How to Be a Bad Emperor.

Every page is full of hilariously insulting anecdotes. Caesar “proclaimed that his mother was conceived by an act of incest, committed by Augustus with his daughter Julia” (131). Caligula, at a “dedication of the bridge… planned by him… invited many men from the shore to join him and then suddenly threw them overboard” (165). These types of psychotic actions tend to be interpreted as logical strategy to rule by fear in modern films: but this narrative presents this as just something he did spontaneously without any political rational. And Nero hired “5,000 men from the general body of citizens” to form “squads” to learn “the various methods of clapping” while Nero “sang” or otherwise made a public speech. “They were easily recognized by their very thick hair and fabulous clothes… Their leaders earned 400,000 sesterces each” (209). The latter trick of hiring clappers reflects the same tricks used by modern politicians and comedians alike to hire people who clap or cheer their decisions to make it seem the public agrees with them.

The repetition of these same psychotic and idiotic tricks of ruling by fear, intimidation, and trickery from these ancient times to the present indicates that humans are trained to imitate rather than to innovate. Perhaps if more secretaries or scholars wrote similar disgruntled accounts of their terrible leaders’ misbehaviors, we would all at least understand these strategies, instead of believing the clappers are clapping out of a sincere conviction rather than because they are better paid than the hardest-working ghostwriting secretary.

Eliot’s Lost Translation of Spinoza: An Introduction to the Philosopher and the Translator

Spinoza; George Eliot, translator; Clare Carlisle, Ed., Spinoza’s Ethics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, January 14, 2020). Hardcover: $99.95. 384pp. 5.5X8.5”. ISBN: 978-0-69119-323-6.

*****

Princeton has done a great job grabbing the reader’s attention with their dramatic summary: “In 1856, Marian Evans completed her translation of Benedict de Spinoza’s Ethics while living in Berlin with the philosopher and critic George Henry Lewes. This would have become the first edition of Spinoza’s controversial masterpiece in English, but the translation remained unpublished because of a disagreement between Lewes and the publisher. Later that year, Evans turned to fiction writing, and by 1859 she had published her first novel under the pseudonym George Eliot.” The front-matter also explores “Eliot’s deep engagement with Spinoza both before and after she wrote the novels that established her as one of English literature’s greatest writers. Clare Carlisle’s introduction places the Ethics in its seventeenth-century context and explains its key philosophical claims. She discusses George Eliot’s intellectual formation, her interest in Spinoza, the circumstances of her translation of the Ethics, and the influence of Spinoza’s ideas on her literary work. Carlisle shows how Eliot drew on Spinoza’s radical insights on religion, ethics, and human emotions… It includes notes that indicate Eliot’s amendments to her manuscript and that discuss her translation decisions alongside more recent English editions.”

The introduction summarizes that Baruch Spinoza was born to Jewish Portuguese immigrants in 1632, but became a symbol of atheism, for which he was puffed in the media in the USSR during my childhood. Ethics was first published posthumously after Spinoza’s death in 1677. Contrary to the re-imagining in the USSR and in other modern imaginations of Spinoza as an atheist, the first part of Ethics describes Spinoza’s conception of God. The rest of the book continues returning to God and concludes in Part V that God brings “true peace of mind”. It would have been heretical and punishable by death for Spinoza to have written and published a directly atheist book, so critics have read between these surface statements to arrive at a counter-religious messages in these pages. As the last non-fiction work of Eliot’s before she began writing novels, it is fitting to view this complex translation from Latin as having an impact on the morality and ethics expressed in her subsequent novels. Eliot’s translation of Spinoza was not published during her lifetime, and instead R. H. M. Elwes translation became the first one to see print in 1883. In 1884, William Hale White, who had “worked as a proofreader for John Chapman alongside Marian Evans and lodged in the room above hers in Chapman’s house on the Strand”, published his translation, which the editor suspects was “spinning new threads within the George Eliot-Spinoza web” (58). In other words, it is suspicious that somebody Eliot knew during the years she was working on this unpublished translation happened to publish a translation of this same text before Eliot’s version was first printed in a rough “typescript” in 1981, before finally being polished and presented with this introductory front-matter in this book in 2019. Women have an incredibly difficult time finding outlets to publish their non-fiction or sophisticating texts, and somewhat easier a time at publishing novels. Academic theft of women’s research after these types of rejections is apparent from snippets of information such as this string of immediate postmortem publications. It would have been easy for these men to make a few edits to disguise Eliot’s hand as they stole most of the heavy-lifting she would have done to carry the text from Latin into English. So, it is a significant step for female scholarship to have this translation finally reach print.

Spinoza’s philosophy grips readers as it gradually builds a logical argument on assertions derived explanations. For example, he writes: “human bodies are alike in many things, there are more in which they differ, and thus what to one appears good, to another appears evil; what to one appears order, to another appears confusion…” (110). He keeps discussing these divisions between humans: “there is no comparison between the pleasure of a drunkard… and that of a philosopher” (206). Spinoza’s ethics present several unique perspectives, such as: “men will be most useful to each other when each most seeks his own good” (250). Some of the Props are more direct: “No one can hate God” (301).

Spinoza is commonly inserted into jokes about the digressive nature of philosophy, and it is indeed true that this text is extremely digressive and repetitive as Spinoza keeps turning in repeating waves back to the same basic points regarding God, good versus bad, and human varieties. While it would be difficult to read this entire text cover-to-cover for a class, this is the type of text that should help somebody struggling with moral quandaries or with understanding humanity to come to some understandings of his or her self.

The Cult Barring Entry to Honest Book Reviews

Phillipa K. Chong, Inside the Critics’ Circle: Book Reviewing in Uncertain Times (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020). 180pp. ISBN: 978-0-691-16746-6.

***

Out of the hundreds of books I have submitted for review on behalf of the authors I have published with my Anaphora Literary Press to Publishers Weekly, they have only reviewed one title a few years ago, and this only after I approached their editor at the American Library Association convention to complain about these repeat rejections. Most mainstream book review publications are owned by the five giant entertainment corporations that own the various mainstream publishers with familiar names such as Penguin and Random House. Reviews are typically purchased indirectly with advertisements in these publications, or through review exchanges between authors or publishers. This is how some of the world’s books have become the most puffed or the most positively criticized. Given these practical barriers to entry that these review publications create by these types of corrupt practices for great writers without a “marketing” budget, it is of interest to all writers to learn what Princeton has published on this subject, as their editors must face these same pressures between seeking places to have their books reviewed, and the smaller “marketing” budget allowed for academic releases. 

The blurb describes this project thus: “An inside look at the politics of book reviewing, from the assignment and writing of reviews to why critics think we should listen to what they have to say.” It “explores the ways that critics evaluate books despite the inherent subjectivity involved, and the uncertainties of reviewing when seemingly anyone can be a reviewer.” LibraryThing is the only venue I have discovered where librarians, agents and other types of readers actually provide frank reviews with some degree of insight despite receiving free pdf review copies and not being paid anything for this effort. When I’ve contacted the “top” reviewers on Amazon, they were all expecting a payment or some other benefit, or they reject reviewing a book; and Amazon deleted hundreds of my own reviews that I posted on their site without giving a reason for this block. Sites such as Amazon have an army of bots or fake reviewers who attack without reading books that are not from the authors who are paying these reviewers to write positive reviews. These fake bot reviews are indeed a negative thing, but having “anyone” who has read a book and has an opinion about it write a review tends to produce more insightful commentary than most mainstream reviewers who just repeat the same types of puffing words for most of the books they filter. Chong’s interpretation of these reviews from the public as a threat to the establishment of “certain” purchased reviews from the “circle” of paid-for critics is indeed something that can finally shift publishing to be a more democratic process, but there are still too many barriers to honesty in book reviewing.

Chong’s perspective is biased because she relies “on interviews with critics from such venues as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post”. It would be amazing if these reviewers were veracious readers without political or fiscal interests, but the similarities between the reviews released from these publications on any given title prove that they collude in puffing some books, while downgrading and slandering others. This book is being sold to the public interested in writing reviews for these mainstream publications, as it describes the “review-writing process, including the considerations, values, and cultural and personal anxieties that shape what critics do.” The focus on anxieties means that this title focuses on the feelings of these reviewers rather than on the repetitive or formulaic structure of the puff-pieces they mass-produce.

“Chong explores how critics are paired with review assignments, why they accept these time-consuming projects, how they view their own qualifications for reviewing certain books, and the criteria they employ when making literary judgments.” After submitting my own research to over a hundred different periodicals, and receiving rejections from all but two, and constantly checking that I am willing to review articles as a peer, I received one request to review an article. This piece was purely nonsensical and should have blatantly been rejected before being sent out for peer-review with a mere glance at the myriad of errors in every sentence. How was I chosen for this particular piece? I have heard from several periodicals with notes that they cannot find reviewers in my 16-18th century British literature field despite publishing widely about this period; and yet, none of these periodicals have reached out to me due to this shortage to ask me to review the backlog that has meant some of the articles I’ve submitted over a year ago have still not been peer-reviewed. If there were no corruptions in the review process, when I contact these review publications (periodicals or mainstream) with an offer to do reviews for free (or for anything they usually offer), I would be welcomed to offer my honest opinions. But there are nearly no academics or intellectuals reviewing for these seemingly highbrow newspapers, and instead they appear to be run by 5th-grade level readers of pop fiction.  

“She discovers that while their readers are of concern to reviewers, they are especially worried about authors on the receiving end of reviews. As these are most likely peers who will be returning similar favors in the future, critics’ fears and frustrations factor into their willingness or reluctance to write negative reviews.” Chong is referring to review-exchanges. When you see a famous author puffing another famous author on the back cover, the author being puffed is likely to return the favor by writing a similar positive blurb for this reviewer in the future or in the past. And she is also explaining how attack-reviews are generated in retaliation to negative reviews or commentary coming from any honest reviewer. The fear of being attacked or fired prevents critics from calling garbage-books garbage.

The front cover of this title includes a cut-off section from a puffery of this very book, explaining the bias of the author as an outcome of having to submit this title for review while seemingly reviewing the review process. The interior includes a couple of tables based on a survey that asked the critics about their “Evaluative Criteria”, and the choices only include: characterization, language or prose (highest percentage base decisions on this), plot and structure, theme and ideas, and genre expectations (lowest) (43). This survey should have included more specific questions to arrive at a useful result. And the answers are clearly untruthful as the genre of a book rejects most titles from even being considered for review in most mainstream publications that state they only accept a few genres.

Most of the book is written in a digressive, philosophizing style when the subject requires a close study of the practical elements of the review genre. For example, a section called “Can Anyone Be a Critic?” questions the value of reviewers based on if these “bloggers and other nonprofessional writers” can “effectively” cross “over from writing about books informally on the internet to reviewing for mainstream media outlets to gain further legitimacy and a broader platform” (141). The quality of a reviewer’s prose or their capacity for assessing texts should quantify if they “can” be a “critic”. Instead, Chong works under the assumption that those who are employed as critics by mainstream publications have intrinsic worth by the fact that they are chosen to write reviews. Incompetent people can be given jobs more readily than those who can do the job if the job requires incompetence or the puffery of titles that are sponsored without recognition of their relatively lower value.

Another problem with this book is that Chong is not citing the names of the reviewers she is interviewing. This omission means that she can be imagining what they might have said, instead of recording what they actually said, and there is no way to check with those anonymous reviewers being quoted. In one of these anonymous quotes, Chong describes a critic who received a “very, very bad” review on her own book from the Chicago Tribune that “brought in personal information about the author” based on the “media surrounding the book rather than the book itself”. This example is used to explain why this critic now avoids inserting any “personal information” into her reviews (73). Without specifics it is difficult to grasp just what these statements are suggesting. How did this reviewer receive so much media attention about herself personally rather than about just the book in question? The stories about writers that come to mind that were covered in mainstream news media include: affairs with TV stars or politicians, murders by the author of somebody, or being fired for an affair with a student. All press is good press. If the press was relating a reasonably true personal scandal, and this scandal solicited mainstream book reviews that mentioned it, why is this reviewer complaining about it? This is an absolutely ridiculous case that could not have happened.

Nobody should buy this book. If you want to write reviews, just post them on LibraryThing, your blog, or other platforms that allow free expression without the barrier of having to sacrifice stating exactly what you think (negative or positive) about any given book. Reviewing books is a public service carried out to help others avoid purchasing bad books and gravitate towards the good ones. Anybody who politicizes and polices the review process is selling the publishing industry’s propaganda.

“What I Think About and Around Dante”

John Took, Dante: How Dante Alighieri’s Life Shaped His Writing (Princeton: Princeton University Press, January 28, 2020). Hardcover: $35. 608pp. 5 b/w illustrations. 6.125X9.25”. ISBN: 978-0-69115-404-6.

***

This book evaluates how Dante Alighieri’s (1265–1321) autobiographical descriptions explain his writerly output. It is a bit troubling that John Took promises to describe Dante’s “thought”, as this might require some mind-reading, but hopefully Took is going to base what Dante was likely to have thought on what Dante wrote. This biography focuses on the impact Dante’s exile in 1302 had on his writings. This biography is advertised as depicting “often violent circumstances of Dante’s life”, and how it shaped his “passionate humanity: his lyric poetry through to the Vita nova as the great work of his first period; the Convivio, De vulgari eloquentia and the poems of his early years in exile; and the Monarchia and the Commedia as the product of his maturity.”

Most of the long poetic quotes inside the book are offered in their original Italian with translations in notes at the bottom of the page (260-1). Half of these two pages are filled with the long Italian passages, and the other half is the note-translations, with little space left for the author to make original commentary, summaries or explanations as to the relevance of these quotes. This is more of a translation of Dante’s texts than a detailed biography of his life. Poetic terms in diagrams are offered in Italian, for example, “diesis and rima chiave” (309). These terms are explained in the text in English; for example, “cantus divisio or partitioning of the stanza” (308). However, the visual diagrams would be more useful if they employed English, allowing for a reader to quickly grasp the intended meaning.

In a manner typical for thought-biographies, when commentary is offered, Took frequently makes broad observations regarding imagined thoughts of Dante’s: “the narrative is concerned by a strange sensation on the part of the pilgrim poet of his now soaring substance, of, in effect, the revised gravity of his existence” (344). This is a piece of existential philosophy that flutters out into the realm of generalized reflections vaguely connected with the actual content of the poem being reviewed. It has nothing to do with Dante’s biography. In another similarly nonsensically fluttering philosophical digression Took writes: “the original utterance stands always and everywhere to be honoured in respect of its equality to the matter in hand, of, even at the time, its power fully and freely to signify” (176). This indeed signifies nothing. While God might be “always and everywhere”, nothing about any “utterance” matches either of these infinite terms, so applying them gives a mystical or theological significance to a text when a direct description and evaluation of the text being studied is needed. If any sense is to be made of this book, it is found in the opening chapters dedicated to “Historical Considerations”, such as the “Descent and Demise of Henry VII” (21), or the compressed “Biographical Considerations” chapter with sections such as “Far-Wandering and the Agony of Exile (1301-21)”, where Dante’s actual biography is briskly covered (55).

I requested this book because I am studying 16-18th century European authors and most of them have extremely limited biographies because of the small quantity of documents authenticating who they were. I was hoping that this book would provide an extraordinary volume of biographical information about a still earlier European author that would help me imagine what their lives would have been like. Instead, this book is another example of fictitious biography, or a case where the author jumps around Dante by quoting him at length, while offering very little actual new content or interpretations or biography to readers. If this book was called, “What I Think About and Around Dante”, I would not have requested it, but it would have achieved what it promised. As it stands, libraries should not add it to their collections or other students might mistake it for a biography. 

The Politics and Practice of Drawing in the Streets of Chile

Guisela Latorre, Democracy on the Wall: Street Art of the Post-Dictatorship Era in Chile (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2019). 232pp. ISBN: 978-0-8142-5537-7.

*****

Because I design and draw most of the covers of the books I publish with Anaphora, I do my best to be at least vaguely familiar with modern and classical art movements to mine these for potential ideas to mimic in my own projects. Thus, a book about street art in modern-day Chile is a useful curiosity. I do wish more pieces fit into this book, and that they were a bit larger. For example, one mural from “12 Brillos Crew” of an untitled 2011 graffiti mural by Problacion Jose Mario Cano takes up around a 2-inch in height strip across the top of two pages. The details are too tiny to evaluate the technique or minor details. For example, there is a “F**k” in the text, and if I understood the language, there might be more textual obscenity hidden in more obscure textual commentary in this mural (114-5). And instead of focusing on the art, many of the photos focus instead on the community artists and their families. For example, one photo is of “Brigada Ramona Parra having lunch with local community” in 2017 (50). Overall, this is not the book I was hoping to find in these pages.   

A positive element about this book is that you can all read and view it for free if you are curious about graffiti: “This book is freely available in an open access edition in the OSU Libraries’ Institutional repository, Knowledge Bank, thanks to TOME (Toward an Open Monograph Ecosystem)”.

The blurb should have alerted me to the perspective taken in this book, as it explains that it “documents and critically deconstructs the explosion of street art that emerged in Chile after the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, providing the first broad analysis of the visual vocabulary of Chile’s murals and graffiti while addressing the historical, social, and political context for this public art in Chile post-1990.” If a summary includes the word “deconstruct”, it is bound to be digressive, whereas I prefer direct communications. “Exploring the resurgence and impact of the muralist brigades, women graffiti artists, the phenomenon of ‘open-sky museums,’ and the transnational impact on the development of Chilean street art, Latorre argues that mural and graffiti artists are enacting a ‘visual democracy,’ a form of artistic praxis that seeks to create alternative images to those produced by institutions of power.” An example of this are the Picasso/ Native-art styled drawings such as the group-project by three artists and their assistants on a mural of a few faces with leaves and birds (202-3). It is indeed important for people to be able to create art for their own community without needed to find funds to pay for an expensive artist to do a mural for them. Much of modern highbrow art looks like it was drawn by children, so most communities can probably do a better job creating art that reflects their preferences for decorations rather than the splashes of paints modern artists are currently puffing.

“Keenly aware of Latin America’s colonial legacy and deeply flawed democratic processes, and distrustful of hegemonic discourses promoted by government and corporate media, the artists… utilize graffiti and muralism as an alternative means of public communication, one that does not serve capitalist or nationalist interests.” This echoes my own current ponderings as I contemplate the transition the West underwent from feudalism and indentured servitude to an unfair and oppressive capitalist system. Modern museums and art galleries and places striving to capitalize on speculating on art as an investment or tourism-trap, rather than searching for great or relevant art. In this context, it is essential for people to have outlets for self-expression outside of these corrupted institutions. “Latorre posits that through these urban interventions that combine creativity with social action, Chilean street artists formulate visions of what a true democracy looks like.” Yes, drawing together and selecting what art is worthy of being displayed to one’s community is a practical approach to small-scale democracy that should help those who practice it to make better choices when it comes to their national elections.

The content of this book is more informative and surprising than the summary promises. For example, there is a description of the Chilean Communist Party asking in 1987 for Rodriguez to perform “a propaganda gig” that created a “public statement” that necessitated “military knowledge” to execute this art work in the “streets”. One of these art actions was a response the US FDA creating an embargo on Chile’s fruit after it “discovered that two grapes exported from Chile were injected with cyanide”, to which the artists responded by painting a banner that read, “Caceres lies to you” (53). The book also explains how Chile is “currently” a “more graffiti-friendly place than the United States” as it has vaguely defied laws on this topic (144). Another curious section describes “Graffiti Crews”, or groups of artists known to work together in “informal apprenticeships” and other associations as they improve their skills or choose to work jointly to expedite production (144-5). In the US and Europe, it is more common to credit individual ghostly graffiti artists, but obviously this is more of a team sport given its time-constraints due to the laws in place against it.

Overall, this book provides a lot of useful information about the practice and politics of making graffiti in Chile. While the images can be larger and more numerous, it would have probably been prohibitively expensive to photograph too many more of these geographically scattered pieces of street art. If you have access to a computer and have an interest in this topic, I recommend accessing this book online.    

Brilliantly Dramatic and Informative Account of Tacky’s Revolt

Vincent Brown, Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, January 14, 2020). Hardcover: $35. 336pp. ISBN: 978-0-674-73757-0.

*****

While stories about western military conquest are common in history books, it is relatively rare to find an entire book dedicated to a single slave rebellion. Uprisings among enslaved people are of unique historical significance because they explain how and why previous groups of oppressed people rose up to defend their rights. This is a uniquely detailed and heavily researched history that gives new life to a relatively voiceless group.

“A gripping account of the largest slave revolt in the eighteenth-century British Atlantic world, an uprising that laid bare the interconnectedness of Europe, Africa, and America, shook the foundations of empire, and reshaped ideas of race and popular belonging. In the second half of the eighteenth century, as European imperial conflicts extended the domain of capitalist agriculture, warring African factions fed their captives to the transatlantic slave trade while masters struggled continuously to keep their restive slaves under the yoke. In this contentious atmosphere, a movement of enslaved West Africans in Jamaica (then called Coromantees) organized to throw off that yoke by violence. Their uprising—which became known as Tacky’s Revolt—featured a style of fighting increasingly familiar today: scattered militias opposing great powers, with fighters hard to distinguish from noncombatants. It was also part of a more extended borderless conflict that spread from Africa to the Americas and across the island. Even after it was put down, the insurgency rumbled throughout the British Empire at a time when slavery seemed the dependable bedrock of its dominion. That certitude would never be the same, nor would the views of black lives, which came to inspire both more fear and more sympathy than before.” It takes the unique perspective that there is more in common between a slave rebellion and “wars of terror today”, and that both can be misconstrued by the powerful who oppose these dissident groups.

The book is well-illustrated with a diary entry, a sketch of the conflict, maps of the region and places like Fort Charles, as well as a drawing of the types of weapons that was popular in this region during this period. The text is heavily annotated, and every paragraph focuses on delivering new information to further the reader’s understanding of this conflict. There are also sections that describe the actions dramatically from the perspective of both sides: “Maroons used the landscape just as shrewdly on attack as on defense They could emerge suddenly from the bush to raid estates and disappear as quickly” (112). The historian narrating this story has a justified suspicion about the truthfulness of contemporary accounts: “It is difficult to tell which stories came from captured rebels and which sprang from slaveholders’ imaginations, especially when the specter of cannibalism appeared in print” (161). The events crucial to the rebellion are supported by explanations of the economic and political climate they occurred in: “Sugar, grown by armies of enslaved Africans, was by far Great Britain’s largest import from the region” (27).

This is a flawless history of a defining event in international relations between the colonizers and the enslaved. Therefore, it should be available at most public and academic libraries in case it is needed for anything from a high school paper to a professor’s research for a new book on a related topic. Some professors will probably want to buy this book for their own shelves because they will probably end up underlining and annotating it, and libraries don’t appreciate that sort of scribbling.  

We Would All Make the Right Decisions If We All Made the Right Decisions

Robert H. Frank, Under the Influence: Putting Peer Pressure to Work (Princeton: Princeton University Press, January 28, 2020). $24.95. 296pp. 32 b/w illustrations, 2 tables, 6X9”. ISBN: 978-0-69119-308-3.

***

I do not recall requesting this book. I am biased against the idea of “peer-pressure”. I believe that individuals are responsible for their choices, and that those who agree to follow the herd instead of their personal ethical philosophy are displaying a weakness in their moral character. Nazis and other sects have blamed peer-pressure for acting in murderous and less obviously heinous ways. I have been living in relative isolation from society or peers for over a decade, so the idea of following pressure from peers or anybody else sounds like the ravings of a cult. Since most of the world is still in lock-down because of Covid-19, perhaps my readers are also less in-line with peer-pressure’s sway than in “normal” times.

The publisher describes this book thus: “social environments profoundly shape our behavior, sometimes for the better, often for the worse… It reveals how our environments encourage smoking, bullying, tax cheating, sexual predation, problem drinking, and wasteful energy use. We are building bigger houses, driving heavier cars, and engaging in a host of other activities that threaten the planet—mainly because that’s what friends and neighbors do.” This is in-line with my own negative perception of peer-pressure. “In the wake of the hottest years on record, only robust measures to curb greenhouse gases promise relief from more frequent and intense storms, droughts, flooding, wildfires, and famines.” It “describes how the strongest predictor of our willingness to support climate-friendly policies, install solar panels, or buy an electric car is the number of people we know who have already done so.” This type of group-think also keeps scientists from making progress as new research is rejected because it does not match the research a lot of people or peers have agreed with previously. The most common response I receive to my re-attribution research is that my findings disagree with previous attributions, and thus the editors refuse to publish my divergent opinions. It is fiscally beneficial for lazy researchers to simply reject theories that disagree with them, rather than editing their findings to meet new evidence. Similarly, it is easier for politicians to convince the public that few people are environmentalists to keep receiving campaign funding from the gas/oil industry. Instead of just complaining about these peer-pressures, this book promises to explain “how we could redirect trillions of dollars annually in support of carbon-free energy sources, all without requiring painful sacrifices from anyone. Most of us would agree that we need to take responsibility for our own choices, but with more supportive social environments, each of us is more likely to make choices that benefit everyone.” The latter claim is the problem I anticipated from this project: a “supportive social environment” is the opposite of personal “responsibility”. From my perspective, our current society, especially in America, is perhaps the most hostile and evil society the world has ever seen. This inherent societal evil pushes hundreds of American kids to mass-murder of bullying classmates. Just earlier in this review set, I mentioned that two Chilean grapes were located by the FDA with poison in them that could have poisoned random people the poisoners never met. Anybody who is waiting for a “supportive… environment” to begin doing positive things is never going to step away from these pressures, but will instead lean into bullying, poisoning, and whatever new tortures this society of valueless pushers will design.

The psychological approach of this book is divergent from my own beliefs. “Push teenagers too hard, and they become more likely to smoke, not less” (183). If these children are psychotic, or lack basic social restraints to guide them to distinguish between what is in their own and their fellow humans’ interests, then perhaps they will do the opposite. But sane children that are offered logical proof to support the idea that smoking will kill them decades earlier than they would have otherwise died should be convinced without needing to be tricked with doublespeak. A chapter on “Trust” presents a quote from Glaucon: “A man is just, not willingly or because he things that justice is any good to him individually, but of necessity, for wherever any one things that he can safely be unjust, there he is unjust.” Frank follows a description of this philosophy by countering that he has “skepticism” regarding Glaucon’s perception of “morality”. To prove the opposite, Frank presents makes statements about how he perceives the world without any statistical or otherwise documented proof: “Many people donate anonymously to charity; they return lost wallets to their owners with the cash intact” (97-8). Frank cannot offer statistical proof for these types of assertions because the evidence cited across his own book points to the opposite: people act against the interests of the environment and are more likely to harm than to donate to others. At the end of this chapter, Frank agrees that revelations of Trump’s tax cheating have “inevitably” weakened “the population’s inclination to play by the rules”. Frank hints that regulations are needed to keep people from cheating, but does not really make this claim directly. He is unsure if the Invisible Hand might be alright without interference (111-2). If he is arguing for regulations here, he is disagreeing with his own assertions in the other sections that paint an optimistic perspective on humanity’s capacity to change if only people had “More Supportive Environments”.

This is a book designed to support the bad habits of people who cower under peer-pressure. It says to them: Oh, you poor thing! People were super mean and super pressuring and they weren’t supportive, so you (cheated/ lied/ stole/ killed or fill in another misdeed)! I agree with you! You’re just a fantastic fellow! Buy my book and we’ll be great peer-friends!

So, whatever you do, don’t buy this book and don’t search for it in the library. Just don’t kill people even if your peers tell you to do it.

A Renaissance History of an Indian Emperor

Abu’l-Fazl; Wheeler M. Thackston, translator, The History of Akbar, Volume 6 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, January 2020). Hardcover: $35. 688pp. ISBN: 978-0-67498-613-8.

*****

Since I have spent decades researching British literature and history, it is refreshing and necessary for me to compare this field occasionally with other regions. The style of narrating history had mutated and varied over the centuries and between different regions in a manner that makes one question the strangeness of the British approach. Thus, it is with great interest that I dive into Akbarnāma, or The History of Akbar, by Abu’l-Fazl (d. 1602), a puffed work of “Indo-Persian history and a touchstone of prose artistry…” This text is lauded as genre-defining for “Persian historical writing,” or “as a model for historians across the Persianate world. The work is at once a biography of the Mughal emperor Akbar (r. 1556–1605) that includes descriptions of his political and martial feats and cultural achievements, and a chronicle of sixteenth-century India.” This is only one of several volumes making up this enormous history, but it should be sufficient for me to grasp the types of brush-strokes India’s historians favored. “The sixth volume details the twenty-third to twenty-eighth years of Akbar’s reign, including accounts of the quelling of rebellions in Bihar, Bengal, and Kabul, and final victory in Gujarat. The Persian text, presented in the Naskh script, is based on a careful reassessment of the primary sources.” This edited Persian-language version is provided on the opposing pages next to the English translation, so this is a great textbook for those studying either English or Persian.

Since this is one out of several volumes, there is only a short introduction at the start that explains that the author Abu’l-Fazl had been “commanded by the Mughal emperor Akbar to write a history of the reigns of the Timurid sovereigns of India” in 1588, leading him to produce this empirically patronized text (vii). It is unclear why this “Introduction” puffs the sponsor as “the ideal monarch”: the reverend tone employed by the editor suggests extreme bias on the side of a despotic emperor (ix). But since these comments are very brief, it does not impede the text as a whole. This bias does suggest that the text’s translation might be colored to paint a more positive perspective of the rulers presented than the raw original text might have suggested. The detailed maps included should be helpful for those trying to grasp the names cited in the book that might have changed since the time when this book was written.

The interior of the text is similarly overly-puffing, or even more so than pufferies of British monarchs during this same period. For example: “the capital was enjoying the emperor’s presence… the expanse and vastness of the emperor’s tolerance was displayed…” (53). Those who oppose the puffed rulers are also painted in a very negative light: “One group of the profane accused the caravan leader of the godly of belonging to the Brahman religion. The basis for this misplaced thought was that in his vast tolerance the insightful monarch allowed learned Brahmans on the carpet of proximity… Three things stirred up malevolent spouters of nonsense…” (119). This passage defends the leader against an accusation by repeatedly insulting the accusers and profane and nonsensical. In another section, the emperor is presented as having “unveiled many true things that had been hidden”. Long quotes from the emperor’s revelations are offered, which include the note that “During… the Year of the Rat, rodents should not be harmed; in… the Year of the Ox, cattle should be strengthened to help farmers…” (303). Since India created the religions that were later imitated in Judeo-Christian bibles, these rules of what should be eaten in specific years, as well as probably many of the other ideas inspired by India’s “ancients” across this history, explain the roots of our modern mainstream religions in the West.

This book is an exaggerated version of the types of positive pufferies that are still written about most of the world’s rulers today. The extreme reverence granted to this emperor should help readers to question their own reverence towards leaders whose revelations about “true things” might not really be as “true” as they make them out to be. Thus, this is a great addition to most small and large libraries, as most people can benefit from reading a text that presents a very foreign and ancient perspective on our world to help us all contemplate if we are the strange foreigners spouting “nonsense”.

The Applications and Theory Behind the Study of Language in Context

Peter Grundy, Doing Pragmatics, Fourth Edition (New York: Routledge, 2020). 288pp. ISBN: 978-1-138-54948-7.

*****

I requested this book because I am trying to review most books released in fields connected to my current computational-linguistics research. Pragmatic refers to the study of language in context. I employed this field when I tested for frequencies of slang and other trigger-words. For example, modern linguistic theories argue that women tend to curse less, while they might use more expressions of uncertainty. Counting these types of preferences can distinguish between divergent linguistic styles, even if most men and women (in reality) have unusual variations from these gender stereotypes. One example of a pattern I noticed in my current study in this regard is that the ghostwriter behind most of “Shakespeare’s” comedies, Ben Jonson, uses the word “fool” more frequently in his plays than the other six ghostwriters in their Workshop. Textbooks in linguistics such as this one helped me figure out that searching for patterns such as this “fool” preference was likely to strengthen my authorial attributions. So, I recommend other researchers in this field to similarly review introductory and advanced textbooks covering these subjects as some of the basic concepts covered in them can be applied to solve ancient and convoluted mysteries.

The blurb advertises this book as an “introduction to pragmatics” that “extends beyond theory to promote an applied understanding of empirical data and provides students with the opportunity to ‘do’ pragmatics themselves. A distinctive feature of this textbook is that virtually all the examples are taken from real world uses of language which reflect the emergent nature of communicative interaction.” It is indeed a “unique combination of theory and practice with new theory, exercises and up-to-date real data and examples.” It will become obvious to anybody who attempts to understand either the theory or the practice of linguistics that these two belong together, as without either theory or practice, linguistic becomes an impassable forest of either philosophizing, or linguistic exercises that lead nowhere.

The last chapter on “Being Polite” explains my “fool” findings better than I could manage, as I focus on applying these theories. He defines politeness as “the term we use to describe the way our conduct, and particularly our linguistic conduct, enables parties to interact in a way that satisfies their want to recognize and be recognized by others as fellow human beings” (253). I tried to search through this chapter for a clearer explanation as to why some people use impolite slang such as “fool”, while others avoid it, but Grundy has a digressive writing style that prevents him from arriving at clearer definitions. He goes on digressive descriptions of examples of impoliteness and the shades and misinterpretations that can result when people communicate with varied national and cultural tints to their comprehension. I read a few clearer books when I researched gender linguistics years ago that explained the basics in a more straightforward manner, but Grundy does bring up many curious points that draw readers into this web, even if it fails to arrive at clear solutions to linguistic conundrums. This is an imperfect book, but it is a useful book and many more books like it are necessary until we all understand this language thing that we all keep doing daily.

A Rare Primary Source of Roman History

Appian; Brian McGing, translator, Roman History, Volume I (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2019). Hardcover. 410pp. ISBN: 978-0-674-99647-2.

*****

“Appian (Appianus) is among our principal sources for the history of the Roman Republic, particularly in the second and first centuries BC, and sometimes our only source, as for the Third Punic War and the destruction of Carthage. Born circa AD 95, Appian was an Alexandrian official at ease in the highest political and literary circles who later became a Roman citizen and advocate. He died during the reign of Antoninus Pius (emperor 138–161). Appian’s theme is the process by which the Roman Empire achieved its contemporary prosperity, and his unique method is to trace in individual books the story of each nation’s wars with Rome up through her own civil wars. Although this triumph of ‘harmony and monarchy’ was achieved through characteristic Roman virtues, Appian is unusually objective about Rome’s shortcomings along the way. Of the work’s original 24 books, only the Preface and Books 6–9 and 11–17 are preserved complete or nearly so: those on the Spanish, Hannibalic, African, Illyrian, Syrian, and Mithridatic wars, and five books on the civil wars.”

As the blurb explains, this is a significant book for understanding western thought about empire or state development or progress. Wealth of the nation is seen as a sign of success, so if a monarchy helps achieve wealth, it is presented as a preferred governing system. Our modern society similarly favors wealth in a state’s coffers or among the upper class above the interests of the people who might be exploited to reach this goal. This history was only translated into a polished English version in 1899. The first two “out of date” predecessors were performed during the years I am studying that were dominated by the Ghostwriting Workshop in Britain: “William Barker” (1578) and “John Davies’” (1679) versions. Just as the Workshop’s chief translator, Gabriel Harvey, was a rhetoric professor at Cambridge, E. Iliff Robertson worked from Cambridge as he prepared the Loeb translation version of this history between 1912-3 (vii). The “Introduction” is full of interesting points such as that Appian’s perspective is highly “materialistic” from the Marxian perspective, as “money, financial and economic considerations, bribery, and corruption come into play” (xxv). This perspective is just as relevant given out modern problems, so it is interesting to read about how these problems were handled in Roman times. This density of revelations in the front-matter would have been still more useful if more space was allowed for these explanations. But the miniature size of this book demands compression.

The content of the history itself is full of engaging, dramatic and insightful stories. “Marcus Manlius, a patrician” is described as having “saved the city when the Celts attached Rome…” Once “he found out that an old man who had served in the army on many occasions was being dragged off to slavery by a moneylender, he paid his debt for him” (55). There are several propagandistic cultural value-judgements made across the text, such as the “Boii” being called “a particularly savage Celtic people” who attacked the Romans. The strategy the Roman dictator Gaius Sulpicius used to defend Rome is then described: “the entire army of the Boii was destroyed by the Romans on this occasion” (97-9). There are several curious explanations regarding how the Romans won these wars, such as that one military leader was “demanding large numbers of hostages from those who surrendered” to keep them from attacking them in the future out of fear of their relations being punished (253).

 Anybody searching for answers regarding how humanity derived our current forms of government and military strategy will find clues and revelations in this history. Students and researchers of Roman history will find a polished, usefully annotated and clearly translated version of one of the rare primary sources of this period’s history.

An Emotional, Sympathetic and Dramatic Primary History of Rome

Livy, History of Rome, Books 21-22 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, December 2019). $28. 496pp. ISBN: 978-0-67499-694-6.

*****

“Livy (Titus Livius), the great Roman historian, was born at Patavium (Padua) in 64 or 59 BC where after years in Rome he died in AD 12 or 17. Livy’s history, composed as the imperial autocracy of Augustus was replacing the republican system that had stood for over 500 years, presents in splendid style a vivid narrative of Rome’s rise from the traditional foundation of the city in 753 or 751 BC to 9 BC and illustrates the collective and individual virtues necessary to achieve and maintain such greatness. Of its 142 books, conventionally divided into pentads and decads, we have 1–10 and 21–45 complete, and short summaries (periochae) of all the rest except 41 and 43–45; 11–20 are lost, and of the rest only fragments and the summaries remain. The third decad constitutes our fullest surviving account of the momentous Second Punic (or Hannibalic) War, and comprises two recognizable pentads: Books 21–25 narrate the run-up to conflict and Rome’s struggles in its first phase, with Hannibal dominant; Books 26–30 relate Rome’s revival and final victory, as the focus shifts to Scipio Africanus. This edition replaces the original Loeb edition (1929) by B. O. Foster.”

Livy is described in the “Introduction” as unique among “other major Roman and Greek historians in taking no part in public life or, it seems, military service”, as he only appears elsewhere as the author of philosophical ponderings (xii-xiii). He was “a friendly associate of the new ruling family” in the later decades of this project, so his account should be true to the types of political behaviors he observed from these contemporaries (xiii). A section on the sources that Livy cites explains how this version of history can be checked for accuracy if a detail necessitates further exploration (xxv). A curious tree diagram explains the complexities of the several divergent versions or manuscripts of this history that sprung up in the Third Decade (lxxvi-lxxix). It is easy to imagine how a classical history in translation conveys exactly what the original author intended, but trees like this demonstrate how it is really the work of generations of interpreters, transcribers, translators, and summarizers. For example, in my study of the Renaissance British Ghostwriting Workshop, I demonstrate that Verstegan and Harvey’s linguistic styles dominate King James Bible: they made so many edits or stylistic choices during their translation that their hands changed the style versus all previous attempts at the translation or the word-choices of the original. Thus, a study of Livy’s history in translation is really a study of the first dominant translator’s version of this history.

Unlike Appian’s history, Livy’s history is more emotion-based (as the “Introduction” explains). For example, in Book XXI, he writes: “The men were sick and tired of all their tribulations, when a fall of snow… added tremendous fear. The entire landscape was covered with a deep layer of snow, and when they struck camp at dawn the column moved sluggishly, and despondency and despair were written on everyone’s face” (101-3). Livy shows a greater concern for how the troops are dealing with warfare here than the other ancient histories reviewed in this set. Livy grabs his readers’ attention with various other dramatically emotional scenes such as this odd occurrence: “in the cattle market an ox had of its own accord climbed to the third story of a building and then thrown itself off when frightened by the alarmed reaction of the tenants” (181). And when describing the “dictator’s” rule against “assemblies of the people”, Livy describes it as an “unpopular… policy” (275). The other historians would have focused on how the policy helped the dictator to prevent rebellions, but Livy stresses how it suppressed the people’s right to free assembly.

This is a very useful history to have on the shelf for general philosophical inspiration, or to check this primary source for its version of Roman history. It should be available at most libraries where students and professors have an interest in this subject.

An Essential Step to Disclosing the Corruptions of America’s Suppression of the Press

Wendell Bird, Criminal Dissent: Prosecutions Under the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, January 7, 2020). Hardcover: $55. 560pp. 17 photos. ISBN: 978-0-67497-613-9.

*****

Earlier in this set of reviews, I covered the patterns pointing to corruption in Washington’s first cabinet, as the secretaries in it appeared to be pressuring to be granted official power to rule the country on-par with the Congress and Judiciary. The book also questions the standard narrative that interprets America’s Founding Fathers as faultless, angelic and generally good-doing.

“In the first complete account of prosecutions under the Alien and Sedition Acts, dozens of previously unknown cases come to light, revealing the lengths to which the John Adams administration went in order to criminalize dissent. The campaign to prosecute dissenting Americans under the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 ignited the first battle over the Bill of Rights. Fearing destructive criticism and ‘domestic treachery’ by Republicans, the administration of John Adams led a determined effort to safeguard the young republic by suppressing the opposition.” If those of pure hearts and intentions had won the American Revolution, they would have been welcoming to dissent as they would have been seeking to create a republic that met the preferences of the majority, rather than own personal interests. Instead, the necessity for Adams to institute harsh repression measures indicates that Adams and others were favoring their cronies in their appointment of government positions and the distribution of government funds. The Revolution was fought over a lack of representation, but the presence of taxation, and it seems those who fought it were simply interested in seeing their own pockets represented, and to see the public continue to be taxed without being heard. 

“The acts gave the president unlimited discretion to deport noncitizens and made it a crime to criticize the president, Congress, or the federal government.” These sedition rules are still partially in place, and are still cited by corrupt politicians such as Nixon and Trump as thy attempt to explain why all criticisms (especially true ones) of their wrongdoing is a violation of these sedition laws. This study “goes back to the original federal court records and the papers of Secretary of State Timothy Pickering and finds that the administration’s zeal was far greater than historians have recognized. Indeed, there were twice as many prosecutions and planned deportations as previously believed. The government went after local politicians, raisers of liberty poles, and even tavern drunks but most often targeted Republican newspaper editors, including Benjamin Franklin’s grandson.” The prosecution of the press over unfavorable statements had been a characteristic element of British politics. Many of the pro-Revolutionary pamphlets had promised to reform these abuses against the press as well as fixing other monarchical flaws. But once in power, a small group of these Founding Fathers realized that to steal enormous wealth from the nation’s coffers for themselves, they had to institute perhaps even harsher anti-free-speech laws than in Britain because they otherwise lacked a monarch’s power to execute dissenters without prosecuting them to the full extent of the law. “Those found guilty were sent to prison or fined and sometimes forced to sell their property to survive. The Federalists’ support of laws to prosecute political opponents and opposition newspapers ultimately contributed to the collapse of the party and left a large stain on their record.” While Bird interprets this is a stain that was corrected by bipartisan party-politics that crushed this political sect, in truth, these suppressions of free expression are still with us in various forms, such as frivolous litigation over unfounded libel claims wherein a publication can be trapped into a costly lawsuit over claims that are likely to be true, but are negative against the political party being criticized. Either way, this is an important study that explains the volume of litigation it took to establish the oppressive system we have inherited.

 During the debate that led to the Sedition Act by July 14, 1798, the Federalists blamed the Republicans of being “evil” monarchists who were scheming with France or Britain to seditiously surrender America’s power to a foreign entity. Most of these claims appear to have been invented to justify the suppression of the freedom of the press. The Republicans’ rebuttal was that to “restrict the press, would be to destroy the elective principle, by taking away the information necessary to election” “choices”. The First Amendment was overruled by the claim that it did not protect the right for “uttering malicious falsehood”. The Act made it criminal to “write, print, utter or publish… any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government… Congress… or the President”, including defamation or bringing these rulers “into contempt or disrepute”. Up to five years of imprisonment could result from a first such publication that was claimed by these same rulers to be false (45-7). The Act alone was clearly disregarded by the post-revolutionary public, so the wave of the prosecutions and imprisonments that followed was necessary to convince publishers and community organizers that they had to surrender their free expression in the press and in political communications or they would serve long prison sentences.

This ancient Act is still with us today and is still allowing local to national rulers to take despotic, unlawful and otherwise heinous actions without punishment because even lawyers and federal bureau investigators have recently been accused under these charges as they were attempting to bring the truth of misdeeds to light. The most corrupt country in the world is not the one where these corruptions are constantly in the news and the public is cognizant of these thefts of public funds. According to US News, the most corrupt two countries in the world (ranked by perception) are Colombia and Mexico. There have only been 776 deaths of Covid-19 in Colombia in a population of 50 million at a death-rate of .002% versus 101,000 deaths out of 328 million at a rate of .03% or 15X higher in the US. The life expectancy in Colombia is 77 and in the US 78. The fact that 158 journalists have been killed in Colombia since 1977 has been studied in articles by Colombia Reports. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ data, 14 journalists killed (most murdered) in the US and 88 in Colombia between 1992 and 2018. However, one of the most well-reported murders of a journalist in the US, that of Washington Post’s Jamal Khashoggi, is instead counted as one of only two murders of journalists attributed to Saudi Arabia across these years. The second Saudi journalist to be killed was Simon Cumbers who was shot by Al-Qaeda while shooting in report on a known militant. While Jamal’s assassination has been sold as an attack by Saudi Arabia’s monarchy on one of its journalists in a suppression of his free speech, Jamal’s presence on an exile the US means that the Americans Jamal was reporting about were far more likely to be threatened by his free speech than the royal family on the other side of the ocean. Jamal was a permanent resident in the US, so he should be reported as a US journalist in these statistics. If his death is mis-classified, so are probably many other US journalist deaths similarly under-calculated. A completely corrupt system exists to prevent being discovered for its corruptions. I have applied for minimum-wage entry-level reporting jobs in the middle-of-nowhere with a PhD and over three years of college teaching experience, and I was rejected from hundreds of these positions when the US was reporting a near-zero unemployment rate. There is no free press in the US. It’s all corrupted by business owners buying ads, corrupt politicians paying bribes, and corporations owning most of the read seemingly small-town papers across the country. Journalists are hired because they are willing to blindly repeated the required propaganda. Those who want to truly investigate the corruptions in their regions will never find a job as reporters in the US. And those who manage to convince employers of their loyalty, only to report the truth once entrenched might be assassinated without their deaths being properly reported as connected to journalism.

One of the cases described in this book is against Anthony Haswell, the editor of the Vermont Gazette, who published 201 publications including Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man. Haswell published regularly against the Sedition Act and against the unfair treatment of those this Act imprisoned, such as Matthew Lyon. Haswell was indicted in 1799 on two counts of using “strong language” in its solicitation of donations to cover Lyon’s Sedition Act fine, and his reprint of a single paragraph on “British Influence” from the Aurora newspaper. The “criminal” language that the first count was based on describes how Lyon was held “in a loathsome prison… deprived almost of the light of heaven and suffering all the indignities which can be heaped upon him by a hardhearted Savage”, referring to Jabez G. Fitch Marshall, “who has to the disgrace of Federalism been elevated to a station… where he can satiate his.. barbarity on the misery of his… victims” (276-8). The same sort of objections to illegal detention, malicious prosecution, suppression of human rights, torture and other crimes officials of the government were perpetrating is repeated across the various sedition cases described in this book. Between the 16 and 18th centuries, publishers were simply more willing and able to risk their lives and freedom to defend their fellow humanists. But hundreds more years of this type of suppression in the US has seen the savages win absolute power, whereas intellectuals and freedom-fighters have been forced into self-isolation even when there is no pandemic outside.

A Mixture of Truth and Nonsense About “Byron”

Clara Tuite, Byron in Context (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020). Hardcover. 344pp. ISBN: 978-1-107-18146-5.

****

According to my computational-linguistics study, Byron was one of the members of a collaborative writing workshop. He might have been one of the contractors purchasing their services to have books attributed to his byline, rather than one of the writers. His life of debauchery suggests that he was not likely to have needed to do much thinking. He was born into the aristocracy and to an inherited position in congress. On the other hand, his participation in foreign revolutions leaves questions regarding his motivations and identity. For these and many other reasons, this is a particularly interesting study.

“George Gordon, the sixth Lord Byron (1788–1824), was one of the most celebrated poets of the Romantic period”. In other words, he purchased more puffing praise of “his” texts than any other rival author from these decades. He was also “a peer, politician and global celebrity, famed not only for his verse, but for his controversial lifestyle and involvement in the Greek War of Independence.” In other words, gossip regarding his likely homosexuality, and heterosexual affairs was publicized in the press. His other misdeeds were also outed in satires and critical hit-pieces. These were likely to be designed to pressure Byron to purchase more pufferies of himself as a great poet and politician to suppress or minimize the impact of the negative press. This collection of essays examines “the social and intertextual relationships that informed Byron’s writing; the geopolitical contexts in which he travelled, lived and worked; the cultural and philosophical movements that influenced changing outlooks on religion, science, modern society and sexuality; the dramatic landscape of war, conflict and upheaval that shaped Napoleonic and post-Napoleonic Europe and Regency Britain; and the diverse cultures of reception that mark the ongoing Byron phenomenon as a living ecology in the twenty-first century.”

The first essay that drew my attention is Gary Dyer’s “Piracies, Fakes and Forgeries”, which begins by explaining the range of forgeries that have emerged around the Byron canon, including letters that have been claimed to belong to Byron that were forged a century after his death, as well as books that were published under the Byron byline but by a publisher other than Byron’s preferred publisher, Murray, and books that were first published by Murray and later pirated by other publishers. Later forgeries of Byron’s letters were created as continuing pufferies of Byron made this byline very popular, and thus forging a “new” text that could be attributed to Byron was likely to generate both a high price from a museum and from a publisher who might purchase rights to the first printing. Contemporary printings by publishers other than Murray were likely to be tied to Byron’s employment of a ghostwriting workshop, as they would have been able to create “Byron” texts without wanting to share a portion of the profits with Byron if he was unwilling to pay for their services for yet another byline. They would have also felt entitled to reprint the books they wrote with rival publishers to multiply their profits if Byron or his publisher were not paying them a fair rate given the volume of puffery and writerly output they were generating to make Byron the most “famous” poet of the age. Clues of these subversive reasons for the piracies can be found across Dyer’s chapter. In 1819, Murray is reported as having consulted with legal advisers regarding the piracies of “the first two cantos of Don Juan”. However, “Murray eventually decided against taking legal measures after he learnt that his affidavit would need to reveal the author’s identity” (53-5). If Byron was the author of these texts, and Murray had learned the pirates had no reason to believe they had a right to these re-prints, he would have filed the lawsuit, but he must have been aware of Byron’s likely employment of ghostwriters, and their rival claims to his publications to refrain from filing suits despite the number of these rival piracies.

While Dyer’s piece is clear and direct and should help readers interested in the various shades of piracy, other articles in this collection are more abstract and nonsensical. One of these is Richard C. Sha’s “Sexuality” that goes in circles trying to define “sexual identity”, “Sodomy”, and “sexual transgressions”, including the “liquefying” or the “bisexual” and gender-fluidity of Byron’s identity. After three pages of these digressions, Sha finally states directly, “There is also no question that Byron was bisexual, as he had erotic relations with both men and women”. Instead of exploring the evidence that led Sha to this certainty of Byron’s bisexuality, he then returns for the rest of the essay to discussing Byron’s sexuality in terms of general philosophy and how it is broadly presented in Byron’s “plays”, without sufficient specific examples to ground these reflections. One of the conclusions resulting from these digressions is: “Homosexuality in this view is meaningfully transgressive because it will not allow itself to be consolidated within heterosexual society” (117-23). This is deeply insulting. Homosexuality, in general, is perfectly willing to “allow itself” to mix into heterosexual society; the fault is with this society’s refusal to integrate homosexuals, who are ostracized or exiled. This treatment of homosexuality as an accusation that is levied without proof, and being gossiped about as a mark of an outsider is typical to literary studies. It is a bit nauseating to read several of these types of hit-pieces side-by-side. So I hope readers will avoid Sha’s ponderings all together.

The other essays in this collection are a mix of these two extremes of essays that are practically useful and impractically nonsensical. For example, the essay on “Satire”, digresses into contemplating the narrator’s description of a “Western, white and appreciated by a taste cultivated by classical tradition” world. While Juan is described as “fair” and “alabaster”, it was hardly “Byron’s” intention to stress this character’s “beautiful” whiteness. Imprinting racism onto Byron to support or reject modern debates regarding white-nationalism or other racism-related topics unjustly politicizes this canon. If Byron had been intentionally racist, this essay should have been called “Byron is a Racist”. There is nothing “satirical” about having a very white character… (180-1).

This book is written by a multitude of voices: some of them are rational, and others irrational. Check essays for their soundness before diving further into any of these pieces. The contributions that are well-executed should be helpful for scholars in this field, while those that are nonsensical should confuse and outrage.   

Jonson Wrote About Homosexuality When It Was Punishable by Death… Here Is How a Literary Critic Subverts This Point

Isaac Hui, Volpone’s Bastards: Theorising Jonson’s City Comedy (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Scholarship Online, September 2018). ISBN: 978-1-47442-347-2.

***

I closely read sections from this book while researching Benjamin Jonson as part of my computational-linguistics authorial-attribution study that re-attributes predominantly comedies written under several bylines including “William Shakespeare” and “John Fletcher” to Jonson. One of the structural elements about Jonson’s plays that confirm my linguistic findings is that Jonson preferred writing about sexually deviant behaviors in an absurd, comedic manner. For example, he frequently showcases gay marriages wherein members of the same sex are tricked into marrying because one of the parties is wearing a disguise that obscures their true gender. Jonson is also uniquely caring regarding the plight of the poor because he began his career bound into an apprenticeship. I ran Volpone through my set of 27 linguistic tests and it matched the other texts in the Jonson-group, including most of “Shakespeare’s” city and other sub-genre comedies. There is obviously much that has not been said about Jonson before if the parallels I am describing have not been noticed before. But instead of considering the building-blocks of this play, this book digresses into abstract nonsense speculations that jump between unrelated topics without arriving anywhere.

The blurb explains that this aimless philosophizing was the intended structure for this academic book: “Through studying Volpone’s three bastard children – the dwarf, the androgyne and the eunuch – from the theoretical arguments of Freud, Lacan, Derrida and Foucault, this book discusses how Jonson’s comedies are built upon the tension between death, castration and nothingness on one hand, and the comic slippage of identities in the city on the other. This study understands Jonson, first and foremost, as a comedy writer, linking his work with modern film comedies such as the Marx Brothers, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and Monty Python. It is a new approach to Jonsonian studies, responding to the current Marxist-Lacanian studies of literature, film and culture made popular by scholars such as Slavoj Žižek, Alenka Zupančič and Mladen Dolar.” Jonson represents human potential to craft fiction according to formulaic laws while also innovating and presenting a significant social method. In contrast, Freudian psychology and Woody Allen’s comedies represents misogyny, while Derrida represents nonsense research. By combining economics with psychology and jumbled nonsense literary theory this study manages to avoid discussing all of these topics with sufficient depths to arrive at a comprehendible meaning. A Marxist analysis along might have explained the plight of these deformed “bastards” in a society converting from feudalism to capitalism. And a close analysis of the psychology regarding why and how Jonson favored sexless, dual-sexual, sex-changing, and otherwise sexually unusual characters might have also arrived at some hidden truths. But neither of these things are achieved when these fields are mixed into a stew.

One of the patterns I have noticed about Jonson’s style is his unique preference to insert a higher frequency of the “fool” insult than the other members of the ghostwriting Workshop of which he was a member across the decades in question. The “Conclusion” chapter is subtitled “‘Fools, they are the only nation’”. However, rather than focusing on Jonson’s preference for calling out idiots for failing to uphold their social responsibilities, Hui views the repetition of the word “fool” as an abstraction. Hui quotes Androgyno saying that he prefers androgyny, “but because of his/ her status as a fool. S/he says that being a fool is the ‘one creature that I can call blessed; / For all other forms I have proved most distressèd’ (I.ii.57–8).” This leads Hui to conclude: “Understanding the value of being a fool makes Androgyno a philosopher. Therefore, the representation of the supposedly ‘higher’ figure, namely, philosopher, and the so-called lower one, namely, fool, are combined in Androgyno. Being a fool sums up the status of the bastards: it is an identity that is fluid and slippery. The nation of fools is a world of floating signifiers.” Hui is failing to grasp the irony or the contrary intention of the statements Androgyno makes: he is not happy being sexless, and he is not blessed to be ignorant. There is no value in a scholar creating a duality between people who are fools and philosophers, because as this passage demonstrates philosophers can be idiotic. 

Hui does address the subversive references to homosexuality in this play, but he subverts these discussions by buying them in philosophical juggling acts. Hui notices the “sexual implications” including the references to the “act of sodomy” in the mythical allusions, and in suggestions such as that “the inhabitants ‘go climbing the hills in clogs’”, which “has a ‘homosexual’ undertone”. However, instead of exploring the political and social implications of these statements or searching for biographical evidence to explain Jonson’s return to these themes, Hui instead digresses into nonsense theorizing. From “a psychoanalytic perspective,” these allusions are interpreted as a subverting “‘fetish’”. Hui relies on Foucault’s belief that directly calling Jonson a “‘homosexual’” due to this abundance of suggestions fails to acknowledge Foucault’s belief that homosexuality did not exist during this period. “To suggest Cipolla as having same-sex desire exhibits his relation to folly and carnival, which is different from the category of homosexuality in the nineteenth century with its sense of marginalisation.” These statements are nonsensical because they redefine the term “homosexual” to avoid accepting Jonson’s marginalized and radical self-expression. Homosexuality exists among wild animals, and it existed in the Renaissance just as it does today among humans. Making a distinction between a gay or carnival-like homosexuality and a puritanism-defying homosexuality is a veiled insult against these natural tendencies. Some homosexual people are carnivalesque, and others depressed, but Jonson favored portraying the first group because he was a comedian. If a canonical writer deliberately inserted gay subjects into nearly every one of his texts, critics really have to acknowledge these for what they are rather than re-interpreting these as non-radical by redefining the term “homosexual”. Literary theory should not be an exercise in expressing bipartisan political modern beliefs, but rather should focus on interpreting the structure and linguistics of the texts it is tasked with explaining.

The Giant Lessons in Short Eulogies

James Doelman, The Epigram in England, 1590-1640 (Manchester: Manchester Scholarship Online, January 2017). ISBN: 978-0-71909-644-0.

*****

This is a more practical book that helped me to understand the types of epigrams featured in the front-matter of many playbook quartos and folios I have been reviewing, such as the 1647 “Fletcher-Beaumont” Folio, which was ghostwritten primarily by Jonson. Eulogizing the dead in the news is a common modern phenomenon, but writing verse to honor the dead was an art the Renaissance revived from classical times. This book explains these roots and the practices and patterns epigram writers followed during the decades of particular interest to my current research.

The book is advertised thus: “While among the most common of Renaissance genres, the epigram has been largely neglected by scholars and critics”. This is “the first major study on the Renaissance English epigram since 1947. It combines awareness of the genre’s history and conventions with an historicist consideration of social, political and religious contexts. Tracing the oral, manuscript and print circulation of individual epigrams, the book demonstrates their central place in the period’s poetic culture.” According to my own research, epigrams were primarily used to puff or to advertise “authors”, as publishers attempted to use their deaths to increase their appeal to readers. Epigrams dedicated to aristocrats or wealthy gentlemen could also be purchased to puff the standing of a clan fighting to promote their family’s social standing. While my perspective is less romantic, it strengthens the need to study these epigrams because their intended propagandistic messages help explain the motives and interests of those who benefited from them.

Doelman focuses on these curious applications for epigrams beyond social-puffing, including “sub-genres” such “as the political epigram, the religious epigram and the mock epitaph. In its survey the book also considers questions of libel, censorship and patronage associated with the genre.” This last bit is exactly what I believe is significant about these epigrams. This period saw lawsuits over printed content under accusations over libel against the gentry and aristocrats and sedition against the crown. According to my linguistic findings, ghostwriters such as Verstegan deliberately created slanderous content to encourage their patrons to sponsor their authorship of rebuttals to these false claims. Verstegan wrote on both sides of scandals such as Marprelate and Campion, whereas he was only caught printing in favor of Campion and exiled for this. There is a lot of ground for further research among the dual-sided intentions in these epigrams, and it’s great that books such as this one have started moving in this direction, grounding my findings in other researchers’ footprints.

“While due attention is paid to such canonical figures as Ben Jonson and Sir John Harington, who used this humble (and sometimes scandalous) genre in poetically and socially ambitious ways, the study also draws on a wide range of neglected epigrammatists such as Thomas Bastard, Thomas Freeman and ‘Henry Parrot’.” According to my linguistic tests, seven ghostwriters (including Jonson) created most of the published output from Britain during these decades, so these “minor” authorial names are mostly pseudonyms or ghostwriter-contractors that paid the Workshop to use their names to gain social advancement. Doelman observes this naming irregularity: “More subject than author-oriented, epigrams often floated free, and this study gives full attention to the wealth of anonymous epigrams from the period.” Especially in cases where epigrams were used to satirize, slander or threatened the families of the deceased, the identity of the true author had to be disguised to avoid prosecution.

There is a wealth of information across this book. For example, Doelman explains: “poems often appeared only with authors’ initials”, and this “certainly widened the possibility of misattribution; three of the best epigrammatists of the period were ‘J.H.’ (Harington, Hoskins and John Heath) and, as will be discussed below, ‘H.P.’ might point to Henry Peacham or the slippery ‘Henry Parrot’.” The attribution of a single set of initials “J.H.” to three people with divergent last names is a perfect example of how past attribution studies have failed to arrive at logical conclusions. The presence of only seven ghostwriters in the Workshop monopolizing the British press made it necessary for them to invent subverting, convoluted methods to avoid discovery of their true identities. They found that they could use initials to hint at authorship without being prosecuted by the implied “authors” if the content they published was libelous or otherwise illegal. I have come to understand these deliberate misnamings by reading research into them from critics such as Doelman. He approaches the truth regarding the problem of mis-attribution, but without fully committing to insisting on the need to revise these absurdities. Without the linguistic evidence I present it is difficult to imagine how the three “J.H.’s” can be distinguished from each other, but with linguistics it becomes obvious that their styles are probably mathematically indicative of a single ghostwriter.

While broad studies that attribute Bassano as the real “Shakespeare” are more likely to be repeated in mainstream media, these types of close studies of epigrams and other sub-genres in the cryptic periods in literature such as the Renaissance have a lot more to discover to advance human understanding.

Are We Still Living with Roman Laws?

Paul J. du Plessis and John W. Cairns, Reassessing Legal Humanism and Its Claims: Petere Fontes? (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Scholarship Online, January 2017). ISBN: 978-1-47440-885-1.

*****

David Ibbetson’s chapter, “Humanism and Law in Elizabethan England: The Annotations of Gabriel Harvey”, drew my attention to this book as my linguistic study has indicated that Harvey was one of the seven ghostwriters who composed most of Britain’s textual output from this period. Beyond ghostwriting himself, Harvey’s role was as a professional reader (a job he is known to have taken on for aristocrats in documented agreements) or researcher. Harvey annotated at least the 180 books he left in his library when he died. These annotations were part of the research Harvey conducted to create detailed historic, mythological or the like plot outlines with passages, storylines, words, and ideas that he gathered in his reading that he recommended for other Workshop members to imitate in their writerly ventures. As Ibbetson observes there is a great depth of understanding in Harvey’s annotations of his lawbooks, as he was mining these not merely for “the literal interpretation of words, but” being concerned instead “with their underlying meaning, their “pith and power”. Scholars have been puzzled by the absence of any books or a single handwritten letter clearly attributed to Shakespeare. The volume of Harvey’s annotations indicates that this is what remains when somebody spends a lifetime researching the types of issues that surface in the legal and historical elements of “Shakespeare” plays. Research does not materialize from inspiration, but rather through the hard work of reading and annotation. Ibbetson is one of the rare scholars who have previously noted the significance of these annotations. I just wish that Ibbetson or others quoted more extensively from these as dissecting these more closely should explain many of the mysteries regarding why and how the Workshop repeated plotlines and the ideas Harvey researched.  

The rest of the book includes similar close examinations of questions that have been noted by very few scholars, but uncover points that are of significance to the progress of human understanding. The blurb advertises it as a new take on “Legal humanism” in “European legal history from the seventeenth century onwards… [S]cholars who have accepted the traditional view have used it to substantiate larger claims about the death of Roman law, the separation between the golden age of a pan-European medieval ius commune and the fragmented reception of Roman law into the nation states of Europe, and the relevance of ‘dogmatic’ Roman law as opposed to ‘antiquarian’ Roman law.” Most people do not question the basis for our current legal system as a whole, but rather focus on the minor points of political disagreement that become referendums. But considering the roots of this system in Roman law with scrutiny might uncover the absurdity of many of our laws that are remnants of ancient beliefs. Changing laws arouses fear in humanity, as it seems the alternative to the current legal system is total lawlessness. There are many other alternative legal philosophies humanity could invent if it has a better grasp of how we ended up with the system we are stuck with. For all of these reasons, this is a much-needed scholarly exploration that should help lawyers and those contemplating needing a lawyer understand the legal world we live in.

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