Monthly Archives: June 2009

The President’s OMB: a lesser-known power grab

June 23, 2009
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The President’s OMB: a lesser-known power grab

From nameless Gitmo detainees to warrantless wiretaps, the abuse of executive power by successive presidents continues to make headlines. Even NPR’s This American Life entered the fray with a piece that aired last weekend about the 1953 U.S. Supreme Court case that created a “state secret privilege” permitting the executive branch to derail normal judicial procedures for cases it claimed would disclose national security secrets. The TAL story reveals that the original 1953 case, in fact, contained no state secrets at all—calling into question not only the government’s motives for moving to dismiss that trial, but undermining the legal basis for the string of cases shut down since—up through the Bush administrations and, unfortunately, the current administration as well.

If this were not enough to concern the ordinary citizen, Peter M. Shane, professor of law at Ohio State University and author of the new book, Madison’s Nightmare: How Executive Power Threatens American Democracy argues in a recent article for George Mason University’s History News Network that the most systematic White House power grab has garnered much less publicity.

Over the past thirty years, Shane argues, the White House has taken increasing control over “domestic rulemaking activity by administrative agencies”—agencies . . .

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The American trial’s vanishing act

June 23, 2009
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The American trial’s vanishing act

Fifteen years ago this month, police in California charged O. J. Simpson with murdering his former wife and her friend, then chased him for about 50 miles before he surrendered, starting a process that would lead to one of the most famous trials in recent memory.

As Robert Ferguson reminds us in The Trial in American Life, an estimated 150 million Americans, the largest TV audience ever, watched the verdict, which arrived “only after thirteen months of media frenzy.” These excesses were, well, particularly excessive—but they are not unique. In his fascinating investigation of prominent trials in American history, Ferguson points out that “media frenzies during noteworthy trials have become such a staple of our times that dozens of instances will come to mind.”

But despite its cultural prominence, the trial is, in reality, almost extinct. In 2002, less than 2 percent of federal civil cases culminated in a trial, down from 12 percent forty years earlier. And the number of criminal trials also dropped dramatically, from 9 percent of cases in 1976 to only 3 percent in 2002. In his new The Death of the American Trial, Robert Burns warns that this decline could lead not only to . . .

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“Chicago Gardens: Past and Present” at the Chicago Tourism Center

June 22, 2009
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“Chicago Gardens: Past and Present” at the Chicago Tourism Center

A new exhibit at the Chicago Tourism Center showcasing some of Chicago’s most gorgeous gardens is currently on display from June 17-August 16. According to the Chicago Tourism Center website, the exhibit highlights the planning and growth of Millennium Park’s Lurie Garden; public gardens in Chicago parks; community gardens; garden inspired photography and artwork, as well as gardens as explored in Cathy Jean Maloney’s, Chicago Gardens: The Early History.

Demonstrating how Chicago earned the sobriquet, Urbs in Horto, in Chicago Gardens Maloney draws on decades of researching the city’s horticultural heritage to reveal the unusual history of Chicago’s first gardens. Challenged by the region’s clay soil, harsh winters, and fierce winds, Maloney shows how innovative horticulturalists found both pragmatic and aesthetic uses for many of the area’s hardy native species. This same creative spirit thrived in the city’s local fruit and vegetable markets, encouraging the growth of what would become the nation’s produce hub. And her vibrant depictions of Chicagoans like “Bouquet Mary,” a flower peddler who built a greenhouse empire, add charming anecdotal evidence to her argument—that Chicago’s garden history rivals that of New York or London and ensures its status as a world-class capital of horticultural innovation.

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Chicago’s aspirations to become a hub for independent publishing

June 19, 2009
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Chicago’s aspirations to become a hub for independent publishing

Chicago Public Radio aired a piece this morning on the city’s recent efforts to be come a hub for independent publishers. According to CPR City Room contributor Lynette Kalsnes Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs has hired Danielle Chapman, former editor of Poetry magazine, to spearhead an effort to “galvanize the industry” by creating more public awareness of the many small local publishers that dot the Chicago landscape, and by fostering ties in the currently fragmented Chicago publishing industry. Contributing to the conversation is University of Chicago Press director Garrett Kiely. Formerly President of Palgrave Macmillan in New York, Kiely explains that the publishing industry in Chicago lacks the kind of close interaction amongst members of the publishing community in the Big Apple, but working with a small group of publishers currently advising Chapman, he sees that changing.

According to Kalsnes “the cultural affairs department is hosting meet-and-greets for local publishers and public events on the future of publishing and also has created a literary and publishing section of the Chicago Artists Resource web site. “But,” Kalsnes says, “neither Kiely — nor anyone else I talked to — wants Chicago to become another New York.” Kalsnes continues: “the industry . . .

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Consumer protection all over again?

June 18, 2009
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Consumer protection all over again?

Debate is already raging over the Consumer Financial Protection Agency just proposed as part of the Obama Administration’s plans for regulating the financial system. Yesterday afternoon, the Los Angeles Times blog Money & Co. highlighted representative arguments of those battling on each side of the issue:

“Providing this much power to one agency is truly frightening as they will get to set the rules and pick the winners/losers for the financial sector,” the LAT quotes Andrew Busch, a markets strategist at BMO Capital Markets in Chicago, as writing.

The California Public Interest Research Group, on the other hand, argued that “the CFPA would ensure the safety, fairness and sustainability of credit.… The president’s proposal addresses a glaring oversight in the regulatory structure by creating an agency designed to monitor the safety of financial products from the viewpoint of the consumer.”

As Larry Glickman, author of the forthcoming Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America, might point out, this isn’t the first time Americans have argued at high pitch over regulations designed to protect consumers. In Buying Power, he tells the story of the decade-long—and ultimately successful—campaign that conservatives launched in the late 1960s against proposed legislation to . . .

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A Philosophical Exploration of Art and Humanity

June 18, 2009
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A Philosophical Exploration of Art and Humanity

As Bert Archer notes in his book review for Monday’s Globe and Mail, Ben-Ami Scharfstein, professor emeritus of philosophy at Tel Aviv University, “has spent decades studying and publishing on Chinese, Japanese, African, European, American, South American and Pacific island culture.” And in his new book, Art Without Borders: A Philosophical Exploration of Art and Humanity, Scharfstein brings the full force of his arsenal of cultural knowledge to bear in a fascinating study of art as a universal part of human experience. Archer writes for the Globe:

has given him a fluency of reference that allows him to efficiently, easily and convincingly compare a 16th-century Chinese artist with Picasso, use Yanagi Sôetsu’s take on art in the age of mechanical reproduction to add to the usual Benjamin version, and describe second millennium BC Egyptian art in ways that recall Andy Warhol films such as Blow Job.

Indeed, this breadth of references is an inherent part of the book’s argument. When Scharfstein uses a Congolese proverb to remind us that history is written by the victors, Nigeria’s Prince Twins Seven-Seven as an example of a surreal artist, or the 11th-century Chinese forger Mi Fu to discuss the . . .

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In Defense of Hoop Dreams

June 17, 2009
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In Defense of Hoop Dreams

On Sunday night, the Los Angeles Lakers bested the Orlando Magic 99 to 86 in Game Five to become the 2009 NBA World Champions. Watching the playoffs, Scott Brooks, author of the new book Black Men Can’t Shoot—a moving coming-of-age story that counters the belief that basketball only exploits kids and lures them into following empty dreams—reflected on LeBron James, whose team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, eventually fell to the Magic in the Eastern Conference Finals. Long considered the poster boy for “hoop dreams,” James was, at the age of 18, the number one pick in the 2003 NBA draft. This season, he was named the league’s Most Valuable Player.

Here, Brooks defends James’s choice to forgo college to join the ranks of professionals and suggests the real problem isn’t black athletes’ hoop dreams but a lack of opportunity and educational inequality.

Watching LeBron James play, I’m reminded of commentary about his skipping college to make his “hoop dreams” a reality (a hoop dream is the unrealistic hope and plan for becoming a professional basketball player, typically held by poor black males and their families).

Some people think that NBA players who leave college after only a year or two . . .

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The life and work of Thom Gunn

June 17, 2009
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The life and work of Thom Gunn

A posting on the New Yorker‘s Book Bench blog last Friday highlights an excerpt from an essay on the life and work of maverick gay poetic icon Thom Gunn that appears in this month’s issue of Poetry magazine. The excerpt—taken from the essay “Thom Gunn’s New Jerusalem” written by poet Tom Sleigh, and reprinted in its entirety in At the Barriers: On the Poetry of Thom Gunn—offers a candid look at how the various eccentricities and excesses of the poet’s life were mirrored in the style and content of the his work. Even as the poet’s life demonstrated that, as Sleigh writes, “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll… aren’t necessarily incompatible with personal loyalty, homebodiness, and domestic stability,” so too did Gunn’s work demonstrate that formal poetry could successfully include new speech rhythms and open forms and that experimental styles could still maintain technical and intellectual rigor. The excerpt from Sleigh’s essay, which you can also read online at the Poetry Foundation website, does an excellent job of making both these points while offering a bit of Gunn’s poetry mixed in as well. But for a complete critical study of Gunn’s oeuvre pick up a copy of At the . . .

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Bloomsday’s Backstory

June 16, 2009
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Bloomsday’s Backstory

In celebration of Bloomsday, the anniversary of the single day on which the whole of James Joyce’s Ulysses unfolds, fans are dressing as characters from the novel, adapting it for Twitter, and engaging in festivities around the world.

What inspires such devotion? “The book carried me through to the far side of my body,” the novelist Colum McCann writes in his Bloomsday op-ed in today’s New York Times. “ made me alive in another time.”

Indeed, the novel’s time-capsule-like qualities are, in part, what made it such a rich source for Cathy Gere’s Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism, in which she observes that “it is the astonishing achievement of Joyce’s prose—his ear for the exact cadence of people’s speech, his memory for the precise texture of everyday life, and his powers of description—that it can carry the reader back one hundred years to experience the labyrinth of modernism in its living, breathing actuality.”

Joyce accomplishes this vividness, Gere points out, though a method perhaps best illuminated by T. S. Eliot:

In using the myth, in manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity, Mr. Joyce is pursuing a method which others must pursue after him.… It is simply . . .

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Press Release: Camille, The Gargoyles of Notre Dame

June 16, 2009
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Press Release: Camille, The Gargoyles of Notre Dame

Any fan of the public radio show This American Life will remember the classic episode in which host Ira Glass takes Michael Camille, renowned scholar of the Middle Ages, to Medieval Times—the chain of “castles” that offer such attractions as jousting shows and meals served by “wenches.” Glass was “wondering what this academic is going to think,” one of Camille’s colleagues later recalled. “But Michael’s attentive, delighted response captures so much of his pleasure in discovery.” The Gargoyles of Notre-Dame, the last work Camille completed before his passing in 2002, reflects not only that trademark joie de vivre but also the intellectual heft he embodied just as fully.

Constructed in the 1800s, the famous gargoyles represent a later era’s notion of the Middle Ages (not entirely unlike Medieval Times). In his sweeping, comprehensive history of these chimeras, Camille shows for the first time how they transformed an iconic thirteenth-century cathedral into a modern monument. From the nineteenth-century reconstruction of Notre-Dame through the gargoyles’ twentieth-century afterlives, Camille tells a story that will delight anyone whose imagination has been sparked by the enigmatic creatures who gaze at Paris from one of the world’s most celebrated vantage points.

Read the press release.

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