Book Reviews: Summer 2017

PLJ - Summer 2017 - Cover - 9781974698783-Perfect

By: Anna Faktorovich, PhD

What is pure obedience?

***

Dimitris Vardoulakis. Freedom from the Free Will: On Kafka’s Laughter. Albany: SUNY Press 2017. ISBN: 978-1-4384-6240-0.

A philosophical study that argues that Kafka’s plots of confinement are a way to satirically express the character’s lack of free will. The book’s description then argues that Kfka is “a critic of the free will,” instead supporting the freedom of limited personal experience. I disagree with the notion that Kafka did not believe in free will, as his examples of confinement are satires on the lack of free will people have in society. It’s a reversal to say that Kafka is against people having free will. The only explanation that makes some sense is when Vardoulakis brings in Kafka’s theological background, as an orthodox Jew. Religious, in theory, restricts free will, and shifts this responsibility onto God, at least that’s how the Judeo-Christian texts are frequently interpreted by the devout. The book is divided into sections on confinement, judgement, ethics, Spinoza, and violence in the law and government. Each of the five sections is a chapter with a few sub-sections. The section headings are cryptic and confusing, so it is difficult to navigate through this book in a logical way, if you are searching for something specific about Kafka and free will. The Index is only a few pages long. It’s mostly populated with the names of the people and books discussed in the book, without subjects like “freedom” or “will.” This adds to the difficulty with navigation. Curiously, the first note in the Notes section from the “Preamble” gives credit to one of Vardoulakis’ essays, “Kafka’s Other Freedom.” Other notes include first person reflections from him, such as: “I was writing my two subsequent books…” (150). Most of the book examines the actions of characters in Kafka’s works to determine if they are acting freely or with restraint. Vardoulakis uses Spinoza to explain Judaic and legal definitions of freedom. Here is an example: “Articulating Spinoza’s conception of the empty law in terms of existence, we can say that law as a means toward pure obedience corresponds to the modality of necessity” (89). What is pure obedience? Can someone obey impurely? Can a law fail to exist? This type of circular logic and convoluted philosophy is extremely common to modern scholarly non-fiction. It becomes more frustrating the more of it one reads… and I’ve hit my limit a decade ago… Still this is a book that indicates what it sets out to do on the cover and then sticks with this objective until the end. It has a great cover. It’s a painting of Kafka with bloodshot eyes, and a cracking face, as if it’s extremely old and cracking apart. At the same time, it’s very realistic, and almost looks like an edited photograph. This photo-realistic work of art and the glaring stare of the main in the painting drag the viewer into the book.

A Fight for Gender and Developmental Rights in Jamaica

***

Joycelin Massiah, Elsa Leo-Rhynie, and Barbara Bailey. The UWI Gender Journey: Recollections and Reflections. Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 2016. ISBN: 978-976-640-582-3.

The account of the struggles of a group of feminist scholars who worked to bring the Institute for Gender and Development Studies to the University of West Indies. It can be taken for granted that most western universities have these types of departments, but the creation of each of these entities required an organized push by activists. Popular media sells gender norms that place men and women into two fictional boxes of prescribed behaviors, attitudes, physical attributes, and various other components that typically fail to fit any of the people in them. Gender is performative. Only a person’s sex is set at birth, and even this aspect can be changed with surgery. But without gender studies departments the propagandistic chauvinist message that women lack the strength, power, confidence and other aspects that make men manly rule the narrative. Meanwhile, the study of developmental countries and regions serves to bring awareness to the problems faced by people that are typically too poor to lobby for their own interests. The three women that penned this book were all involved in building this Institute, so this is really a memoir of their experiences. I wrote an accreditation proposal for the journalism department during my PhD studies, but I doubt I could have written a book about it. So, it’s amazing how much drama these women faced in pulling this Institute together. The book is divided into sections on the background that led to a need for change, on how it was initiated, on how it was planned, on how the plans were executed and the proposal and related tasks were completed, and on how they have been maintaining the department’s existence. The book includes photos throughout of the Institutes founders during official events, lectures, meetings, office visits, and the like, as well as images of their students, and research fellows. The process these leaders went through is summarized in appendixes at the back that show that first the new course/ program had to be developed, then it had to be approved by different departments before being fully implemented. These committees included the Gender and Development Studies Board of Studies, Faculty Board: Faculty of Arts and General Studies, Faculty Consultative Committee, Campus Academic Board and the University Academic Committee. The number of committees explains why most university courses lack radical variations from equivalent courses in other universities. If somebody objects to any variations along this process, the differences have to be suppressed for the program as a whole to pass further down this ladder. In addition to describing the committee work involved, the book ventures out into commenting on the state of the country and of the university at large. The factors that shaped the course of the department included: “generally limited institutional resources, financial and human, made available to the units, resulting from the economic crisis facing Caribbean governments” (170).

Ghost Stories from the Caribbean

***

Martin Munro, Editor. The Haunted Tropics: Caribbean Ghost Stories. Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 2015. ISBN: 978-976-64-551-9.

This book reflects on the damage done to the Americas and the Caribbean by European invaders and the ghost stories that resulted from the devastation of so many lives among the native populations, African slaves, people oppressed by dictators, and other suffering populations. This is a collection of stories from a group of authors. I don’t like essay collections in general because the essays tend to lack a coherent message in the book as a whole. Additionally, many of the essays are frequently weak and deliver few interesting or innovative bits of information. When I dissect these, I typically only find one usable (in my own research) essay, so it’s a lot of work to get to the one nugget of gold. Short stories collections present a similar problem, as there might only be one outstanding work of fiction in the bunch.

I judge fiction by the density of the prose. There are some light stories here that are mostly dialogue with few descriptions, but a few of them offer a pretty rich linguistic density: “He hear a rumble coming from the shaft he jumped out of not so long ago and he tuck the phone-book-size album in his waistband and fling himself through the fire escape only to find himself ankle-deep in water” (96). This is an example of a regional dialect and a lot of action and suspense rather than a literary description of the person, the place and other elements. There are some descriptions in other stories, such as the start of the first in the collection: “Carmelien spat out the last of the fish bones and piled them together with the others on the side of his tin plate. It was his favourite dish: a court bouillon of grey tench seasoned with green mangoes and lime juice” (1). The details of what the character is eating place the reader into the Caribbean. One similarity between these two quotes is the anger in the spitting and the flinging and other violent actions. As the book is advertised this is a story about death and destruction, and the writers hit you with these on every page of the narrative.

How Corporate Slavery Was Founded

***

Hilary McD. Beckles. The First Black Slave Society: Britain’s “Barbarity Time” in Barbados, 1636-1876. Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 2016. ISBN: 978-976-640-585-4.

A history of enslavement in Barbados by the British. The “disposable” workforce created fortunes from sugar farming for the British elite. The book propagates that Britain owns Barbados’ blacks a fiscal debt. Beckles looks closely at how Britain structured its first slave-driven economy on the backs of white bonded prisoners before focusing on dehumanizing the black slaves. The chapters in the book are logically divided into topics such as how white women participated in the enslavement, or how whites ganged up with “brown” people against blacks. The chapters are also chronologically organized, as a later part looks at how the slave owners turned to breeding slaves rather than buying them, or increased physical punishments. The last section looks at how the previously enslaved people were then forced to work for nearly nothing to pay for their own emancipation. The book is well designed with images of chains and innovative lettering smudges. The cover is composed of two drawings, one is an dramatic paining of African slaves being driven like cattle, and the other is a propaganda poster-like drawing of the British flag. There are some interesting tables and other visuals, such as a table that lists the occupations of the principal organizers of the 1816 War, which includes one African driver, and Creoles that were carpenters, masons, drivers, and domestics (166). There is also a table that shows the ratio of black to white people in Barbados in 1712/5, 2.4, with over twice more blacks, and then in 1816, 4.8, or over four times more blacks. Based on my research into American slavery decades ago, I had assumed that these ratios were a lot higher still, but perhaps they were lower in the Barbados than in the North American South (157). The text is informative and provides philosophical and economic explanations for the shifts in Barbados. For example, Beckles explains the hiring patterns among estate managers: “who were more concerned about the practical matters of reducing cost of production, controlling rebellious Africans and manipulating the ambitions of free non-whites” (94). There is plenty of evidence via cited sources provided, and the detailed Index and Bibliography assist researchers with finding the pertinent information.

Violent Stories from Jamaica’s First International Novelist

***

John Hearne. Shivaun Hearne, Editor. John Hearne’s Short Stories. Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 2016. ISBN: 978-976-640-606-6.

I did not request this set of books, so there are a lot of items here that are not the sort of books that I enjoy reading. I stopped reading fiction for fun around the time I had to read hundreds of books for my PhD dissertation. When I do read fiction, I prefer Dickens, Scott or something else that’s dense both linguistically and in political significance. So, I am biased before I start reading this collection of short stories.

It is from the first internationally recognized Jamaican author. This is the first collection of his short stories, which have had almost no traction in comparison with his popular novels. The back cover advertises Hearne as somebody who “examines fundamental human truths rather than social politics or a nationalistic agenda.” As I mentioned, the politics and agendas are the bits that most interest me in fiction, as I view fiction as a propagandistic tool that has shifted world politics by convincing otherwise disengaged readers of the right course of action. When it comes to “fundamental human truths,” I’m very skeptical. I mean—what’s fundamentally true about people—we eat, we sleep, we are born, we die. They are fundamental because they are obvious, and I prefer to avoid reading about anything obvious. The fundamental nature of the book is confirmed in titles such as, “Morning, Noon and Night” or “The Wind in This Corner.” Some of the more interesting titles have a social or political meaning: “A Village Tragedy” or “Living Out the Winter.” With great hopes, I started reading the latter only to discover that after a descriptive introduction, Hearne started relying heavily on dialogue, and specifically formulaic dialogue that brought in violence and the threat of death to bring readers into a state of suspense: “‘A good day for murder,’ Roger told him. ‘I don’t like committing murder in bad weather. That spoils everything…’” (64). I can’t continue reading this book because unlike casual readers, I see the craft of convincing readers to bite into a light story with a temptation of graphic violence.

Case Studies in Caribbean Business

****

Indera Sagewan-Alli, Editor. Caribbean Competitiveness Through Global Value Chains. Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 2016.

This is a study of how economic quantifiers and qualifiers can be strengthened in developing countries. The analysis begins by examining previously successful industries to learn from their examples. The goals for development include: “employment creation, foreign direct investment, rural development, human skills development, and economic growth and resilience.” The analysis is grounded in industry case studies, a similar approach is taken in most Harvard business school classes, as evaluating individual cases of business success and failure helps students to make better judgements when they face similar difficulties later in life when they are running a business. The book is divided into two main sections, the first on the manufacturing industry (4 case studies), and the second on the services industry (2 case studies). For each of these case studies, the authors look at a few similar aspects: the state of the market (sauces, solar water heating, fruits and vegetable processing etc.), how the business is succeeding, what other businesses can learn from their experience, and how policies can be improved to help the sector. As in all good economics books, the descriptions are accompanied by numerous tables and graphics that visually demonstrate the production flow, and other aspects of the economic processes at work in these businesses. The examples are compared not only with their competitors in the developing world, but also in Europe and in other top-performing markets to demonstrate the difference in patterns between them. Anybody who is starting a business in the Caribbean should read this book to learn from these successful examples: it’s a lot cheaper than an MBA from Harvard.

The World Is About to End! Let’s Do Drugs!

**

Ben Sessa. The Psychedelic Renaissance: Reassessing the Role of Psychedelic Drugs in 21st Century Psychiatry and Society, Second Edition. London: Muswell Hill Press, 2017. ISBN: 978-1-908995-25-4.

The “Foreword” to this second edition begins with a tale of woe, as a PhD student is bored and confused in his Bristol program, and suddenly finds common ground at an International LSD Symposium in Switzerland with a group of elderly experts in the field of psychedelics. They drink and party and bond, calling themselves, “The Basel club.” He ends this intro by inviting readers into Dr Sessa’s “world of remarkable wonders!” This is the most loose, first-person, and joyous introduction I have ever read in a scholarly book… Then, the “Introduction” begins by stating that the times we live in are “apocalyptical”… Then, the author blames everything from new technologies to, television campaigns, to global democracy and Facebook on the impeding downfall of humanity… The section after these predictions asks, “But What Can Psychedelics Offer Us?” Obviously, this title suggests that the doom and gloom is presented to scare readers into wanting to escape from reality. This is definitely a book that propagates for the use of psychedelics as a solution to the world’s problems because as it claims it helps people answer “fundamental human question” (2). Here is this notion again of “fundamental” questions. What can these be? Sessa states that these questions include: “What is it that we are part of? And what is it that we are?” (2) From there, he states that: “As a medical doctor, with a traditional education and methodical approach rooted in objective, evidence-based scientific rigour, I have a profound distaste for pseudoscience.” Then in the following paragraph he contradicts this assertion: “But then things changed for me when I learned about psychedelic medicine.” Why wouldn’t he have known about psychedelic drugs since high school, and certainly since medical school? How can a discovery of this category of drugs be something that surprises a doctor later in life? Why would this awakening suddenly make him propagate for pseudoscience? He goes on to explain that psychedelics help patients “tackle their long-standing unresolved memories” (2-3). At this point, he is loudly proclaiming that this book is a pseudoscience fantasy that will attempt to prove that being out of your mind on drugs helps patients restore mental health. This is confirmed by a section a couple of pages later called, “Alien Visitors Sent to Save Humanity.” After this “Introduction,” the next section is on “Personal Reflections,” in which he concludes by proclaiming that working in this controversial field has not been a “career suicide,” but fails to come out and say clearly what the title implies, or that he himself has experimented with these drugs, as he describes the sensations they create with a “personal,” and close fondness. The rest of the book attempts to offer information about the range of psychedelic drugs, but some of it is too scientifically complex for the general reader, while other parts are very relaxed reflections about the authors experiences and reflections. In the middle of the book, there is a 30-page section with very brief paragraph biographies of “Some Important Contemporary Psychedelic Researchers.” These bios are not indented, and don’t have spaces between them, so it looks like one long paragraph with a series of corresponding photos in the midst of it. And this is not an appendix; the book just continues after this section. Probably the only way to digest this book is for researchers with a purpose to read the chapters that they are interested in or to find the drug they are writing about in the Index. The book is organized into sections on how drugs feel, early psychedelic pioneers, prehistoric hallucinogens, hippie ecstasy, how psychedelics are linked to creativity, and then how psychedelics are used today, and how they are regulated and prosecuted in the War on Drugs. Overall, this is a tough book to tackle and any scientist is likely to be fuming from the first pages onwards. But, casual or medicinal drug users might find some enlightening information here. The book is clearly written for them, as no scientist could handle the contradictions and slips I mentioned above.

Classical Art of Impoverished Urban Settings

*****

Robert A. Slayton. Beauty in the City: The Ashcan School. Albany: State University of New York Press: Excelsior Editions, 2017. ISBN: 978-1-4384-6641-5. History/ Art. $29.95.

A history of the Ashcan School of Art and their work with glorifying the beauty of the industrial working class in New York City in a grand painting style that was then more common to bourgeoisie commissioned masterpieces. This is a branch of realism that romanticizes the poor while also portraying the blunt details of their harsh lives. The name of the movement comes from “ashcan,” a common subject for the art. Chapter One explains that this is a social history, rather than a critique of art or an art history. This book includes some humorous comments, such as a joke about Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, which was so abstracted that several publications offered prizes for anybody who could locate the nude in the chaos, and a cartoonist for Chicago Evening Sun even crafted a satire called, “The nude descending a staircase (Rush hour at the subway)” (8-9). These types of remarks always make a history more readable, as one anticipates the next entertaining witticism. The highbrow artists that preceded this movement were Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Edouard Manet, and other impressionists that choose upper class subjects and luxurious scenes. Another inspiration and point of digression were photographs of the slums shot by impoverished themselves photographers like Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine. Their black and white images captured the reality of the slums, but did so in very simple and degrading terms. They picture miserable, crouching, starving, litter-covered people in only black and white colors that delete the dimensions the same scenes had for the people that lived them. The “premier artist of this genre” is John Sloan. Slayton uses him to describe the foundations of this school of art. Sloan’s paintings are of crowds in front of a moving train, or of a cleaning woman overlooking a brilliant city skyline from the roof of a tall building. people thriving at the market. Each artist in this school had a stronger divergence in style than impressionists or cubists. George Luks paints in broad strokes, while George Wesley Bellows paintings are realistic and yet abstracted, while also being oddly detailed. Thomas Eakins achieves a near-Renaissance style in his sketch for The Gross Clinic, where doctors are performing surgery (83). The decline of the movement is also explained, as the participating artists drifted away from New York City after Armory Show, which was instrumental in bringing this movement into the public’s eye. These artists later chose more varied topics in terms of class and location. I think this type of variety is a lot more natural than the confines of a School. Constantly drawing in the cubic or impressionist style for the sake of a movement would become tedious quickly. Naturally, artists have a propensity to experiment.

An inspiring book for any artist. This collection brings together dozens of the best modern American art, and explains its connections to other times and movements. This book would make a great course textbook for a narrow course on this movement. It’s extremely well designed. The cover is elegantly done. It’s printed on top glossy, thick paper. No Wikipedia search would yield this many curious interpretations of how one can bring classical art to impoverished urban settings.

Fictionalized Thriller About Stupid and Corrupt Americans Abroad

***

Jade Wu. Flash Points: Lessons Learned and Not Learned in Malawi, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Albany: State University of New York Press: Excelsior Editions, 2017. ISBN: 978-1-4384-6545-6. Political Science/ International Relations. $24.95.

The cover draws readers in with a set of bills of different currencies covered with red blood-like ink. This is a study into why after nearly a century of US policies that have aimed to peace-keep and develop countries across the world, the world remains as it was, without any noticeable positive changes. Wu’s goal is to explain the lessons that should have been learned from America’s failed experiments in “assistance” in Malawi, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan. This premise is outstanding, as America is at a critical point, where leaders have to figure out why we have started a couple of the country’s longest wars, and if we will continue to approach bankruptcy as we start new wars and assistance programs or if it is time to retreat and take care of domestic problems first.

However, the book is difficult to digest as other than it being separated into sections by the four countries’ names, the sub-sections have very general names like “Politically Correct” or “Working the System” that fail to explain what they hold or where a reader looking for specific answers should turn. The clearest and shortest section is the last on, “Bureaucracy in Washington.” The book begins with a confession of a mild post-traumatic shock in the author, Jade Wu. She has worked on US foreign assistance projects in all of the focus countries as well as in Germany and the Philippines. She is now living in Virginia and practices law in DC, but she still jumps back to flashes of traumatic experiences abroad when she hears loud noises, or sees sudden movements. She then accuses other Americans working abroad of “ignorance, nonchalance, poor judgment, and a proclivity toward waste” (xvii). With a start like this, it’s clear that this is a book that holds no punches. And indeed, there are many curious stories of corruption, greed and laziness within from the perspective of a Chinese American that migrated to California from Hong Kong at five.

One drawback is that while the early chapters condense the stories from her travels, later chapters stretch them out with a lot of dialogue. It’s unlikely that somebody could remember everything that was said many years ago, so these dialogues probably have bits of fiction in them. In addition, these dialogues digress into discussions of friends visiting (57), or stories about how her money was stolen and the locals were not sympathetic to her plight (117). The narrative would have been improved if she focused on the stupid and selfish Americans that she brings up in the introduction, but perhaps if she was too honest and details about the corruption she saw, she might have swerved into confessing that she failed to report corruption as it was happening to the authorities. Due to the lightness and fluff in the narrative across most of the book, it would be very difficult for a researcher to find those bits of explanation as to what America is doing wrong in its assistance efforts. Wu is clearly overwhelmed by her own personal struggles. They cloud her memories, and have stopped her from writing with detachment about the bigger issues at hand. Even at the end, there is no clear advice on policy in sub-sections that would explain the challenges that must be overcome. The Index does have headings such as “corruption” and “lack of rule of law” for Kosovo and other countries visited. But following these to the pages specified is likely to lead to a general story about a related experience rather than a practical explanation of what this narrative indicates about corruption and the like. So, this is more of a somewhat fictionalized thriller than a political manifesto.

How No Country for Old Men Was Composed, Edited and Sold

*****

Daniel Robert King. Cormac McCarthy’s Literary Evolution: Editors, Agents, and the Crafting of a Prolific American Author. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2016. ISBN: 978-1-62190-247-8.

This is a literary biography that examines how Cormac McCarthy rose from obscurity to become a New York Times best-selling author. The book is based on the author’s archival papers, as well as his editor’s at Random House. The contributions that were made to improving McCarthy’s writing by his editors and agents are examined, as well as stylistic and other changes in McCarthy’s writing over the critical years. Since I just finished a book on author-publishers, the book’s claim that it examines “print culture” as a whole is particularly engaging. One of the downsides to this book is the focus on how slowly McCarthy wrote his novels, such as stressed in this chapter title, “Toilers in the Orchard: The Long Genesis of The Orchard Keeper.” It’s about as interesting to read about how a writer is blocked and can’t put words on paper as it is to watch a house painter sitting on the sidewalk unable to start painting… The book that is likely to be recognizable to most readers from McCarthy is No Country for Old Men, this was the work that brought him into pop fiction. It is probably more frequently cited in popular media than it is read, but this recognizability is what drives much of literary criticism of contemporary fiction. It is particularly recognizable today because of the film version that was released in 2007. The “Acknowledgements” thanks King’s PhD dissertation committee for their help with editing and focusing this project. He continued this work on a post-doctoral scholarship. King explains that much of the research he was able to do for this study could not have been done earlier because in 2008, the Wittliff Collection at Texas State University at San Marcos purchased the key collection of McCarthy’s files for $2 million, and this allowed King access to documents that were not publicly accessible prior to this point. Regardless of what might think of McCarthy’s pop or semi-literary fiction, King’s efforts to understand the inner-workings of this writer are laudatory. The notes from McCarthy and his editors reveal much about how formulaic fiction is written. For example, King cites that McCarthy wrote in pencil on page 328 of an early draft of Blood Meridian: “‘There must be a fatal weakness that gives the judge the edge. Something… that he cannot do that will seal his fate’” (91). This focus on the premise for action, or the direction the plotline is taking, or the necessity for a rollercoaster of tension are all elements essential to any formulaic novel. The characters and scenes can be drawn with less detail if the reader is in a state of fear for the character’s life, and is following the actions with a breathless suspension of disbelief. The “weakness” is not created for a symbolic, social or political reason, but rather simply to insert a typical element of a dramatic plotline. Thus, anybody who wants to write or edit modern fiction can find a great deal in this investigation to practically benefit their own craft. This is a thoroughly researched and complex book that studies rather than propagates for McCarthy’s writings.

A Series of Digressions on Politics and Fiction

***

Martin Griffin and Christopher Hebert, Editors. Stories of Nation: Fictions, Politics, and the American Experience. Tennessee Studies in Literature, Volume 48. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2017. ISBN: 978-1-6290-276-8.

The cover for this book suggests that it discusses American political history, as John F. Kennedy is featured, reading a manuscript in a simple office, on a leaning wooden chair. The description and title explain that it is really about the overlap between politics and fiction. It looks at fictional works with a political story at their center, as well as at how American political facts have been portrayed in fiction. Sadly, this book was written in pieces, with each chapter being penned by a different scholar. These types of collections almost never materialize a coherent whole. In this case, the reality of the intersections between politics and art is obscured in the philosophy of the ideas regarding if all art is political and other abstract theoretical propositions. Most of the chapter titles fail to explain where the critic might be headed, as in this example: “The Death and Life of American Adam: Myth and the Contemporary American Political Novel.” What does myth have to do with contemporary America (which is decidedly anti-mythological, be it Judeo-Christian or atheist)? How is Adam from the New Testament mythological, when the definition of a myth is a religion that is no longer practiced? It would be great if a single author explained the nature of the American Political Novel in this opening chapter, but instead this is a disjointed essay about a small aspect of this genre, as if the author is assuming that the rest will be covered elsewhere. A more extreme example of a critic in this collection looking too closely at his subject is this chapter, the sub-title for which is: “James Russell Lowell’s Harvard Commemoration Ode and the Idea of Nationhood.” With all of American political fiction and non-fiction to cover, Stephen J. Adams looks at a single ode from an obscure Harvard address. This essay is followed by one on Henry James, and then oddly enough an essay on the historical romance genre. In the second part of the book, there are pieces like: “Dave Burrell’s Baghdad Blues: Fiction, Race, and History in 1950s Iraq.” It’s very common in recent scholarly collections to include tokenistic sections on gender or race. But in this case, Martin Griffin crams in several other broad areas of study, history, fiction, blues music, and Iraq. Instead of explaining the links between these contradictions, the chapter begins with a summary of the information held in the archives about an Iraqi coup of July 1958. Later in the essay, Griffin explains that he is discussing Burrell’s novel, which has a central black foreign service officer, and how it covers interracial politics in the early Civil Rights era (239). While this along might have been enough material for a novel, instead he spends most of the essay on talking about the overlap between fiction and history, and other philosophical asides. Thus, this type of a study is primarily helpful to somebody who is looking for particular evidence about fiction and politics in relation to one of the focal authors. Anybody who is familiar with the peculiarities of a given field should mine some profitable information, but anybody who is new to this field will be lost and confused in this jungle.

A Travel Diary for Guides of the Mountains

***

Ken Wise. Hiring Trails of the Great Smoky Mountains, Second Edition. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2014. ISBN: 978-1-62190-054-2.

A detailed guide to the Great Smoky Mountains, with descriptions of 125 official trails. These include driving directions. In the modern GPS dominated world, detailed driving directions might be outdated in most places, but not for park visitors. Many of these spots do not register on Google Maps or Sygic. Regardless of how “official” a park trail is, key points on it are not official addresses, unlike nearby businesses or long-standing residential houses. The directions also include markers as well as mile-lengths of the segments of the trip—these are also necessary when keeping an eye on the miles is inconvenient or when there are neighboring street possibilities.

One disappointment for me is the lack of photos of these “beautiful” trails. I was primarily interested in this imagery when I requested the book. It’s difficult to appreciate nature from descriptions only. To compensate for this lack, a map of the Mountains is inserted into the fold of the back cover. The map has a $1 price on it, so it is probably also sold separately. It’s a well-designed and comprehensive map, and should help visitors navigate this region.

Aside from the practical directions on how to get around these trails, the book is filled with picturesque descriptions of the nature and history along the way, with interesting information about the geology, climate, vegetation, wildlife, human history, and environmental concerns.

The author, Ken Wise, is the codirector of the Great Smoky Mountains Regional Project at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, as well as serving as a professor.

The book is geographically divided into sections based on their location. This means that somebody who wants to find a trail, should spot the area they want to visit. But, somebody who is interested in a general history of the area, will have to read the “Introduction” for a brief summary. If you are looking for particular bits of information for a research project, you are out of luck because there is no Index or Bibliography: this is very odd for a book from a university press that does not have any photos in the interior. The lack of a bibliography or any notes or citations is troubling. In the middle of the text, Wise does include names of books he is taking information from, such as Alan Coggins’ Place Names of the Smokies (68). But then he includes gray boxes of information about who visited the Smokies in 1934, or specific adventures they had there (69), without explaining how he found out about these details. The rest of the book reads like the notes of somebody attempting each of these climbs. For example: “At Little Brier Gap, the Little Greenbrier Trail becomes a steep relentless climb. It initially proceeds southward but soon edges into an easterly course as it plies the flank of Cove Mountain. Here, Roundtop Mountain again comes into view…” (136). This is pretty dry reading, but if somebody is a tour guide of this area and wants to anticipate where he should take tourists for the best views, and the exercise intensity that they are prepared for, then this is a guide for him or her.

A Poet’s Reflections on Travel

****

Richard Tillinghast. Journeys into the Mind of the World: A Book of Places. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2017. ISBN: 978-1-62190-281-2.

A set of travel stories that looks at the history, politics, culture, spirituality, art, architecture and ethnicity in the places described. Tillinghast has previously published other travel narratives as well as poetry collections. He merges a personal memoir with guidance for travelers in these stories. He begins before his birth with an account of his mother’s trip to Paris. From there he describes his childhood home, Memphis, Tennessee. The rest of the sections look at India, Nepal, Ireland, England, and Hawaii. These are interrupted with a return to the rest of Tennessee other than Memphis and with two interludes on music and storytelling. Each of the stories is told from a first-person perspective in a casual tone that summarizes what Tillinghast did, saw, and experienced at these places. For example, in an introductory chapter, he talks about listening to a Romanian gypsy CD, visiting a jazz festival in Istanbul (16). He inserts a few poems or long quotes throughout, such as a poem from George MacBeth, on whom Tillinghast stops for a long while, as he contemplates the life of a novelist writing under a pseudonym. Tillinghast describes a poetry reading performance where George read this masterpiece, “The Twilight of the Ascendancy,” which is pretty funny as exemplified by this stanza:

Anyway, there you have it. Lorimer Hall

In all its glory. I look

Forward to your book, especially the photographs

Of the dove-cotes and the footmen’s loo… (100)

The book is full of philosophical reflections such as this: “Ireland and Venice—the rise and fall of their fortunes, the ironies of their histories, their relation to the wax and wane of empire, the glories and tragedies of their architecture. As someone not inclined to believe the civilized world will ever let Venice disappear beneath the waves…” (126). I visited Venice at the end of my college studies primarily because my Greek history professor frightened me that Venice would be fully under water within a decade, and indeed a bit over a decade later Venice is having extreme flooding difficulties, though they are trying to fix them with reinforced barriers. If I wrote a set of travel narratives, I would probably also include these types of digressions into the fate of humanity, and what it all signifies. Architecture without these types of speculations is just a set of domestic or public houses, like birds’ nests or beavers’ dams.

This is a poetic narrative that describes places with passion and love. It is meant for casual, intellectual readers who want to step into Tillinghast’s mind to see the things he’s seen from his perspective without actually stepping onto a plane. It’s unlikely travel guides could use this book with tourists, as it jumps around without succinct and clear descriptions of the recommended buildings or places.

Repetitive, Circular Babbling on How Good Girls Should Behave

**

Joan Cronan with Rob Schriver. Sport Is Life: With the Volume Turned Up: Lessons Learned that Apply to Business and Life. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2015. ISBN: 978-1-62190-212-6.

Explains how women can achieve success in business and in life through lessons learned from leadership in sports organization. Joan Cronan served for twenty-eight years as the Women’s Athletics Director for the University of Tennessee, winning ten NCAA titles and twenty-four SEC Tournament Championships for Lady Vols. She has also been on boards of businesses, and colleges. The title of “board member” is difficult for any woman to attain, as they have remained near-single-digit minorities on US boards. The blurbs for the book were provided by the Governor of Tennessee, a co-anchor for Good Morning America, as well as SEC commissioners and various other dignitaries and established folks in all sorts of professions.

I wish this book delivered on what its blurbs are promising, but it is like most of the other books in the motivational genre. It’s a small book, with very wide margins and wide spaces between lines, which means that fewer words are needed to fill its 200+ pages. The language used is in a style of a romance novel: with few descriptive words and brief action statements. The narrative begins when she was twelve and boys did not let her join the Little League baseball game. She writes that this rejection created her life-long goal of striving to make it easier for women to enter and win at competitive sports. This is a great goal to have, but if a businesswoman is looking for specific advice and how to achieve success, it’s shallow-pickings here. The chapter titles are a part of the problem. What do you think “Family Culture” is introducing? She begins the chapter by explaining that success in sports comes from building a community via socialization: “we had a series of special programs designed to create a village of support that would help these young women succeed in our school and in life.” The next paragraph further clarifies that these included workshops on interviewing “family night…, basic etiquette lessons…” Etiquette lessons? In the Athletics Department?! If I was playing a college sport and the administrator ordered me to take etiquette lessons, I’d be pretty offended. I mean, girls that win at sports really can’t be proper ladies that say “excuse me” as they slam an opponent into the hockey rink (31-2). Another troubling thing is that many of the chapters start with quotes from the author, such as: “It takes a village to raise a Lady Vol… or a good employee… or a solid citizen” (31). This quote sounds suspiciously like Hillary Clinton’s quote about the “village” and child raising… but with employee and citizen added to it… So it’s really an un-attributed quote within a quote. A quotation at the start of a chapter usually comes from a canonical or otherwise respected author, but why would these separated quotes at the start of a chapter be from the author. It’s like me inserting a quote of something witty I wrote before at the start of each of these reviews… This made me look back at the cover and I noticed that Joan wrote this book “with Rob Schriver.” She (or he) uses the first person across the book, but if Joan is quoted then perhaps Schriver did the bulk of the writing. But then, why is he writing most of it from the “I” of first-person experience? I read a couple of these types of books when I was about to enter the workforce for the first time back in 2002. They seem inspiring when you’ve never read anything like this before. But, if you’ve read a couple, and attempt to read more of them, you’ll notice that the same advice keeps repeating. Be a team player, be a go-getter, give back, don’t be rude, etc. In this particular book, these formulaic bits of advice are summarized in the titles of the chapters: “Delegate,” “Not Looking Back,” “Connecting,” “Leading People,” “Present Clearly,” “Listen Intently”… If you look closer at each of these chapters, the same bits of advice are repeated across them: “In your communications it is important that you be direct, succinct, and on target regarding exactly what you want your team members to know and understand. This is a place where flowery language does not help. Our employees need to understand the request” (141). If you look over the chapter titles quotes beforehand, you’ll notice that this quote hits on listening intently, and presenting clearly. There is no clear definition of what “clearly” means. What kind of a manager is unable to communicate something in a way that employees will understand him or her and needs a book to learn this? And if a great manager picks this book up, is it telling him or her to avoid brilliance or complex communications for the sake of the team members who are too slow to understand? Is this advice specifically for athletes, or for American workers in general? This book is definitely written at a reading level of a first to fourth grade student, and in a way, that is very clear. But clarity without new information is a series of empty words… which only communicates the author’s ignorance of the subject to somebody above this reading level.

Anti-Wall, Anti-Patrol and Pro-Native Propaganda

****

Stephanie Elizondo Griest. All the Agents and Saints: Dispatches from the U.S. Borderlands. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, July 10, 2017. ISBN: 978-1-4696-3159-2. 312pp, 3 maps, notes. $30.

A set of stories about U.S. borders both in the north and in the south. Stephanie Elizondo compares the borderlands between New York and Canada to the borderlands between Texas and Mexico. She was inspired to write this book after meeting Mohawks of the Akwesasne Nation. She writes with passion about the loss of cultural identity that the Mohawks suffered when they lost their mother tongue, and had to give up their “traditional occupations through capitalist ventures.” She also describes the activists that are striving to preserve their culture through practice and theory. According to an interview with the author that was included with my review copy, the title refers to “(Border Patrol) agents and (Catholic saints)… the twin protectorates of our nation’s borderlands.” These titles are used with negative connotations, as Griest sees both Christianity and the U.S. government agents as oppressing the native cultures of America and their religions and natural/ ancient borders.

The book is divided into two parts, one on the Texas-Mexico border and the second on the New York-Canada border. Within these she has chapters on activists, agents, the Wall, trade, and native languages. Some of the titles are less clear and leave a reader wondering what might be within, such as “The Chokepoint” or “The Healing.” Is the first about a homicidal choking? Is the second about a shaman healer? As I started looking closer I noticed that the second note from the Prologue refers to the word, “Dumbest.” This is a quote from Craig Wilson’s “Looking for Signs of Intelligent Life in Fort Wayne” article in 2005 in USA Today. Griest uses it as an example of the various insults that have been directed at her home town of Fort Wayne by the media, which include it being “America’s fattest city” and this assertion that it is America’s least “literate” city. She is not disputing the lack of literacy here, but rather sets out to discover, “How all of this came to be” (2). Her argument is that institutional racism and suppression of the native peoples’ cultures is what lead to them being pushed out of the American marketplace, while they also cannot maintain their own traditional market structure.

The bulk of the text comes from interviews Griest did with people who experienced problems in the borderlands. For example, in “The Woman in the Woods” chapter, Griest describes a third-person account of a women traveling across the border: “He finally parked beneath a mesquite tree and everyone climbed out. The pinche checkpoint is up ahead, the coyote might have said. We have to go around it, just a few miles, no problem” (115). This is an example of a slightly fictionalized account that inserts researched assumptions of what happened into the woman’s account.

The bulk of the book is similarly colorful and educational in its descriptions. It should be a very beneficial read to any scholar of the borderlands as well as to anybody who wants to cross these lands. Are they coming to a better place, or to a nightmare that will suppress their spirit, culture and economic mobility?

Practical Biographies of Three Successful Female Entrepreneurs

****

Edith Sparks. Boss Lady: How Three Women Entrepreneurs Built Successful Big Businesses in the Mid-Twentieth Century. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, June 19, 2017. ISBN: 978-1-4696-3302-2. 326pp, 18 illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $27.50.

This is a set of three biographies about outstanding and glass-shattering American entrepreneurs. Tillie Lewis is the founder of Flotill Products. Olive Ann Beech is the cofounder of Beech Aircraft. Margaret Rudkin is the founder of Pepperidge Farm. Oddly enough, all of them started their own manufacturing companies in the 30s, then sold them in the 60s and 70s, and then became members of their corporate boards. Based on my recent research into American publishing companies, this pattern is common to most industries in these decades. At the start of the twentieth century and across the nineteenth century, American small businesses were growing and seeing a great deal of success. But, by the 60s and 70s, their owners developed an ambition for much greater volumes of profit or started failing on earlier loans and this resulted in a lot of mergers, corporate takeovers and other types of enlargements. So, it’s only natural that the first female entrepreneurs on a manufacturing scale had to sell out. What is unique is that they stayed with their companies, rather than being kicked out after the sales. The back cover description exclaims that these women managed to succeed in business “before women had widespread access to higher education and before there were federal programs to incentivize women entrepreneurs or laws to prohibit credit discrimination.” In truth, all of these laws have not helped women much as statistics show little change in how much women earn, or how able they are to win discrimination lawsuits after they were enacted. When the first printers and publishers established shops in America in the eighteenth century, nearly half of them were women, as they frequently took over the businesses for their husbands, sons or business partners. These women were typically more educated than their male partners, either through independent reading or via expensive schooling. In contrast, there’s something spirit-crushing about the modern system that assigns hyper-feminine identities on girls and shames them into silence. Thus, this is a helpful study into what women in the 30s did to succeed that they might not be doing enough of today. The first paragraph of the “Introduction” addresses this very question, as Olive Ann Beech is satirized as a “austere, insecure yet self-righteous” “Boss Lady” in the 1959 Saturday Evening Post and she replies: I never concerned myself with what people thought of me… If I had, I’d have been pretty mousy” (1). Yes, women cannot worry about how they look, or if men are scared of them if their aim is to succeed in business. Most of the book describes the details of these women’s business dealings. In contrast with the empty platitudes offered by Cronan in the prior book I reviewed, this feminist treatise offers very specific explanations by what “familial ideal” meant for an entrepreneur like Margaret Rudkin, who insisted on being called “Mrs. Rudkin,” while also being willing to actively work within the “production process during the World War II labor shortage” (133).

There are a few black and white photos scattered throughout the book, images of factory workers with the leaders, as well as these same leaders baking at home or the “campy, country acting” that leaders like Maggie Rudkin left to an actress, Parker Fennelly in advertisements for Pepperidge Farm (100, 193). The book is heavily researched, with plenty of notes, and an Index that should help readers to find just the bits of information they need. This study should help any modern businesswoman learn from the hard-won experience of her predecessors.

Nonsensical Circles Around the Presence of Absence

*

Nicole B. Wallack. Crafting Presence: The American Essay and the Future of Writing Studies. Logan: Utah State University Press, 2017. ISBN: 978-1-60732-534-5.

This is a collection of essays on how writing can be taught through literary essays. The examined works primarily come out of The Best American Essays volumes.

I am always hopeful when I start reading books in this genre. I always hope that I will find practical advice in them that I can utilize in my own writing or literature classes. However, as in this case, they are typically theoretical, convoluted studies into distant and impractical questions. They also tend to be cryptic as they talk about taxonomy or “evidence and presence.” Not the presence of evidence, but “evidence and presence”…

This study is divided into sections on “The Genre of Presence,” “Crafting Presence in the Company of Ghosts,” “Crafting Reading Presence,” and “Crafting a Self Made of Images in Essays.” The last part is the only one that does not have “presence” in the title. Just from these, what do you think “presence” means in this context? Is this a reference to the metaphysics of if we are all truly here, and if so how could the awareness of our presence or proving that we are really absent going to help us write an essay? Unless… the goal is to procrastinate writing the essay by being really and truly absent. I hoped that the “Preface” will help me solve this mystery, but it begins with this confession: “While many of us had read essays, and even taught composition before, few of us had written them ourselves outside of school…” (vii) How can any academic in New York University or Columbia University, where the author of this book is based, not have written a single essay? I mean… this book is kind of a long essay… Each chapter is essay-like… What on earth is an “essay” in this context? Later on, the author continues to spin in near-nonsensical circles: “To teach the essay acknowledges writing as a technology for original thought and deep engagement with texts, with the self, and with the world” (4). Who can this sentence help? Is writing a technology? What does the need to learn the writing skill have to do with the self or with the world? And why is a book about writing talking about an abstract “self”? Half-way into the book, she asks if there are any “differences between what I am calling ‘reading’ essays, and ‘interpretive’ or ‘critical’ essays.” There may not be many, except that when we thing about interpretation, we may emphasize the results of our reading…” (123). This is a contradictory and nonsensical quote. It’s equivalent to asking if there’s a difference between reading and writing. On top of this, she answers a question she is proposing with a negative—no, there is no difference between these two things, but I just asked you if there was a difference because I wanted to say “no.” How can things that are like each other be logically compared or defined based on their contrasts? But, then, after saying there aren’t differences, she contradicts herself again, stating that “interpretation” is the one thing that separates reading, interpretation and criticism. As you can see from the previous sentence, “interpretation” is repeated in the term and the definition or in the thing that is different from a pack of three. This would be like saying which one of the three images is showing a tree, and showing pictures of a tree, a dog, and a cat… And then, writing the following sentences on how a tree is definitely a tree…

This book should only be read by a college composition instructor that needs to become indignantly angry before a committee meeting where she or he has to stand up for an unrelated matter of concern. It’s going to make the reader angry as they try to find a gem in the rubble.

Eulogies to Fathers and Fatherhood

**

Stephanie G’Schwind, Editor. Man in the Moon: Essays on Fathers & Fatherhood. Fort Collins: The Center for Literary Publishing: Colorado State University, 2014. Literature/ Essays. ISBN: 978-1-885635-36-8.

The “Introduction” explains that this collection of essays was begun when the editor, G’Schwind, published some essays on the topic of fathers, and then invited other writers to bring in their own essays on this topic to create a book-length collection. She explains that her interest in the topic sprang out of sadness and loss. The back cover doesn’t do a good job summarizing what else these essays have in common, but the last paragraph of the “Introduction” does a pretty good job putting it all together: “Many of these essays are painful. Fathers are dying or have died, and in one, a boy slips forever from his father’s hands; some fathers are angry and neglectful, though some gentle and loving; and some are just not there at all…” (xiv). Thus, this is a collection of personal, rather than critical stories from the authors’ experiences with fatherhood or fathers. In other words, these are mini-memoirs that only look at things related to father’s out of the rest of life. The stories are lightly written, in a relatively calm tone. Mostly only surface descriptions of the things and places are given. The focus is on what was said, what the writer thought about what happened, and philosophizing about what it all means. I can’t read this book as the premise is innately boring for me personally. But, somebody who is grieving the death of a father, or somebody who has just become a father and is considering what type of a father they want to be might find some insights in these reflections.

On Eating Ears, Biting Fingers and Other Nonsense

**

Stephanie G’Schwind. Beautiful Flesh: A Body of Essays. Fort Collins: The Center for Literary Publishing: Colorado State University, 2017. Literature/ Essays. ISBN: 978-1-885635-57-0.

I definitely did not ask for either of these books as I have not requested any fiction or creative non-fiction for review (ever before). My anti contemporary fiction and creative non-fiction sentiment stems from reading too much of it. Regardless, I have ended up with two similar collections of mini-memoir on a single topic, both by G’Schwind. This second project is more abstract that the one that preceded it, so at least the absurdity is more suitable to the genre. Here, the authors were asked to write about a single body part, such as a leg, brain, heart, etc. The conclusion of the “Introduction” once again helps to summarize what the stories within attempt: “a virus that wreaks havoc with a man’s ability to think, the strange design of sinuses, a woman’s tentative love for her teeth, another’s urge to bite the flesh from her fingers, the way a father can’t resist nibbling his sweet daughter’s ear, and another man’s reasons for undergoing a vasectomy” (x). An example from deep within this collection should help to explain the abstract, confusing and post-modern nature of these pieces. In “Speaking of Ears and Savagery,” Steven Church writes in Round 3 of the essay: “Aside from some new mysterious hair sprouting from them (and inside them!), I don’t have to worry much about my ears. I live in a climate where frostbite is a concern only for fruit…” (63) The author goes on reflecting about his ears, and contemplating if he needs them, and what other aspects about them he loves or loathes. If you read this passage and felt an urge to read more, grab a copy of this book. But, if, as you read, you felt your eyelids coming dangerously close together, you should avoid it at all times of day other than bedtime.

The Middle Ground Between Cities and Farms

****

Tershia D’Elgin. The Man Who Thought He Owned Water: On the Brink with American Farms, Cities, and Food. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2016. ISBN: 978-1-60732-495-9.

This project is advertised as: “A story no other water book, no other farm book, no other climate book is telling.” The unique component here is that Tershia d’Elgin looks at the problem of water in the West not only as an environmentalist or as a propogandist for business interests, but rather from both of these perspectives in an attempt to reconcile their conflicting interests. He acknowledges that there is a need to urbanize, but argues that it should be done in a sustainable way. The sector this study is concerned with is farming. The solution proposed is that urban and rural areas should cooperate on water to jointly succeed.

Given these grand promises, it is frustrating to find creative and abstract chapter titles like “Vagaries of Basins” and “At the Not-O.K. Corral.” Like other books with these types of headings, the author is insisting that you read it cover-to-cover, as few land posts or directions are provided to get exactly where the reader might need to go. The insides of the book are a bit more inviting to students, as definitions for complex terminology like “Biomimicry” and “First Planting” is provided in boxes by the margins. There are also some illustrations of irrigation, the water cycle and other complex, scientific concepts.

Across the book, the author offers interesting histories of how modern water problems came into being. For example, he writes: “On the march toward civilization, Ben and his neighbors had ceaseless tribulations. The winter of 1871-72 was severe, blowing, and frozen with a cold that took bites from colonists’ commitment” (31). This is a good example how description can assist a historical account by engaging a reader with the emotions of the scene. It should be a pleasant experience to read this book cover-to-cover as the author hopes readers will do. Only after showing the evidence on what the problems are, does D’Elgin begin to offer suggestions as to what should be done about them, or to philosophize on their nature. For example, amidst a drought, he has a conversation with his sister about rationing from the Boulder’s reservoir. He reflects: “Cities need water. Apart from everyone in cities consuming products that require water to produce, cities use less water than farmers, therefore farmers should not grow?” (158)

It is a good idea to add some personal experiences and reflections to a scientific study, as without them it would be too dry even for scientists to read. In parallel, it’s a good idea to introduce a new perspective into an old argument. It’s not a “yes” or “no” debate on what should be done about water shortages in the West. There is a lot of gray areas in the middle, and the problem cannot be solved before this gray area is fully understood and the outcries of both sides are addressed. Therefore, this is a great book that any researcher or student of environmentalism should read. I also like the painting on the cover—it’s detailed in the center, and the edges are smudged as if they were diluted by water falling on the painted page.

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