Author Essays, Interviews, and Excerpts

Face/On: The ethics of the transplant

June 28, 2017
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Face/On: The ethics of the transplant

At New Books Network, you’ll find a podcast interview with Sharrona Pearl, author of one of our best-covered (as in images) books of late, Face/On: Face Transplants and the Ethics of the Other, a perfect storm of cultural studies and synthetic and biogenetic technologies. A brief description from their post follows below, but here’s the real link: to listen in to the fascinating hour-long talk with Pearl! *** Troubling the indexical relationship between the face and character and reminding us that “he self has always been a set of choices,” Pearl explores face transplantation as it relates to cosmetic surgery and whole-organ transplants, the cinema of the 1960s, television shows, and more. She carefully and sensitively takes us into the debates among surgeons, bioethicists, and journalists that circled the first partial face transplant of Isabelle Dinoire in 2005, and offers a way toward a philosophical approach that brings together Levinas with the kind of (Deleuzian) subjectivity that allows for individuality through constant change and understands the self to be constantly in a process of becoming. The final chapter of the book also situates the analysis within larger contexts of online subjectivities and work with facial and bodily manipulation by artists and performers. . . .

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Paying the Price: Should College Be Free?

June 26, 2017
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Paying the Price: Should College Be Free?

Just a soundbite from a recent New York Times Magazine piece on free college, fueled by Sara Goldrick-Rab’s efficacious research in Paying the Price, follows below. *** Sara Goldrick-Rab, a self-described “scholar-activist” who teaches higher education policy at Temple University, has a more expansive idea: Make the first two years free for everyone who attends a community college (all of which are public) or four-year state school. Directing more resources to the first two years of college would help people from lower-income families overcome the biggest barrier to their success, which is the living costs associated with housing, food, transportation and books while they attend school. “When students are able to focus on college, and not work, they graduate,” Goldrick-Rab told me recently. The federal government currently gives tens of billions of dollars in grants and subsidies each year to private colleges and for-profit trade schools in the United States, despite the fact that public colleges educate three-quarters of the students pursuing a postsecondary degree. “I say let the privates and for-profits fend for themselves,” Goldrick-Rab says, and put that money instead toward what she sometimes calls Grades 13 and 14. Finishing high school might once have provided enough education to find employment that pays well. . . .

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The Real Million Dollar Baby

June 23, 2017
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The Real Million Dollar Baby

“Claressa Shields is the Real Million Dollar Baby,” Sarah Deming’s piece from our new anthology The Bittersweet Science: Fifteen Writers in the Gym, in the Corner, and at Ringside, first ran at Deadspin. Here’s an excerpt from that essay below. More at Deadspin, of course. *** Claressa Shields was born in Flint, Mich., the middleweight champion of hard-luck towns. Her dad was an underground fighter called Cannonball who went to prison when she was two. Her mother was an imperfect protector. When Cannonball got out, Claressa was nine years old and already a survivor. Father and daughter drove around Flint in his big burgundy van, trying to make up for lost time. Cannonball told Claressa it was a shame nobody else in the family boxed. All the Shieldses could fight; most of the men had gone to jail, and some of the women, too. He said prison was a cycle somebody had to break. He said it was sad how Muhammad Ali had all those sons and none of them followed him into the ring. “Laila did,” said Claressa. “She’s a bad girl,” said Cannonball. Claressa thought he was telling her to box. Her favorite cartoon was The Powerpuff Girls, about three little superheroines who . . .

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(Higher Educations is) A Perfect Mess

June 21, 2017
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(Higher Educations is) A Perfect Mess

David F. Larabee’s A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education reminds us that the combination that colors higher education—neoliberal fiscalization, massive student debt, conflicts between administration and faculty, and debates over the future of our public schools—isn’t anything new. In fact, as Larabee argues, it’s been around as long as … free enterprise, or rather, as long as the free market, which never guaranteed a place for higher education in society. After the jump, read an excerpt from an interview with Larabee at Inside Higher Ed, which touches on his book’s argument: in this witch’s brew of the populist, the practical, and the elite, no single individual or institution can determine the future of the system. It takes a village, for better or worse. *** Q: You seem to be suggesting not to worry too much about today’s problems, because higher education has always been a “perfect mess.” But are there issues that are notably worse today than in the past? A: First, let me say a little about the advantages of the system’s messiness. In the next section, I’ll respond about the problem facing the system today. The relative autonomy and decentralization of American higher education allows individual colleges and universities . . .

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Thoreau: A Life

June 12, 2017
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Thoreau: A Life

Coming this July. (A teaser, from Publishers Weekly: “The wonder is that, given her book’s richness, Walls still leaves the reader eager to read Thoreau. Her scholarly blockbuster is an awesome achievement, a merger of comprehensiveness in content with pleasure in reading.”) . . .

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How to Tame (Really Tame) a Fox

June 9, 2017
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How to Tame (Really Tame) a Fox

Below follows an excerpt from Lee Dugatkin’s piece on tameness at the Washington Post, which draws from his singular work of biology, How to Tame a Fox (And Build a Dog), a Cold War-driven suspense tale of scientific experimentation, Siberian winters, and one unconventional Space Race-era goal: recreating the domestication of dogs from wolves in real time, using the silver fox. *** He and Lyudmila began to test this idea in 1959. Every year they assessed hundreds of foxes and selected only those with the most “prosocial” interactions with humans — the ones that licked people’s hands, wagged their tails and whined sadly when interactions with humans were over.  These were the foxes chosen to parent the next generation. They would then assess whether subsequent generations became tamer over time, and equally important, whether traits associated with the domestication syndrome began popping up. They did, and quickly — remarkably quickly, given the thousands of years it took for our ancestors to domesticate dogs, cows and other creatures. Within the first decade of the fox domestication experiment, the animals were not only markedly tamer, offering up their stomachs for belly rubs, but some of them had curly tails and mottled fur. Lyudmila remembers one fox in particular from this time. . . .

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Amitav Ghosh interview in BOMB

June 7, 2017
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Amitav Ghosh interview in BOMB

Amitav Ghosh, on climate change, Ray Bradbury, and “serious fiction,” in conversation with Curt Stager, at BOMB (excerpt after the jump). *** Curt Stager: You are primarily known as a novelist. What led you to write this nonfiction book? Amitav Ghosh: Climate change became a matter of personal urgency for me while I was writing my 2005 novel The Hungry Tide. The novel is set in the Sundarbans, the great mangrove forest of the Bengal Delta. While working on the book I realized that this region was already being impacted by rising sea levels and a retreating coastline. In the years after that, even though I was occupied with a project of a different kind (the Ibis trilogy), I found myself becoming more and more preoccupied with climate change—no doubt because the impact was increasingly obvious. After I finished the trilogy, I felt a great need to put down my thoughts on environmental change and its bearing on my practice as a writer. I might add here, that the distinction between fiction and nonfiction is itself beginning to look increasingly strained in this era of anthropogenic climate change. CS: What, exactly, do you mean by The Great Derangement? Is it related to . . .

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Jed Purdy on Henry David Thoreau (and our new bio!)

June 5, 2017
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Jed Purdy on Henry David Thoreau (and our new bio!)

Laura Dassow Walls’s Henry David Thoreau: A Life (forthcoming this July) is set to be one of 2017’s blockbuster literary events: years in the making (the first Thoreau bio in a decade+) and hitting the printer at just over 600 pages, the book has already garnered pre-publication superlatives, piped up by every outlet who could get their hands on a galley, from Publishers Weekly to the Chronicles of Higher Education. And now, even the think-piece heavies are starting to weigh in—here’s an excerpt after the jump from one of our favorites, Jedediah Purdy, in his long-form piece on appreciating Thoreau, fresh off his read of Walls’s powerhouse biography, at the Nation. *** I would bet that fewer Americans have read Walden than have heard that Thoreau’s mother did his laundry. Yet Thoreau persists. Laura Dassow Walls, who teaches English at Notre Dame, has written an engaging, sympathetic, and subtly learned biography that makes a strong case for Thoreau’s importance; she also seems a little baffled that anyone could fail to admire him. Her Thoreau was an abolitionist who brought Frederick Douglass to speak at the Concord Lyceum—a kind of community university—and participated in the Underground Railroad, to the point of risking charges of treason by helping enslaved people flee . . .

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Derek Hyra on gentrification and neighborhood perception in DC

May 30, 2017
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Derek Hyra on gentrification and neighborhood perception in DC

From a recent interview with Derek Hyra at CityLab—based on his latest book Race, Class, and Politics in the Cappuccino City—on the diminishing returns of gentrification in DC’s Shaw/U Street neighborhood. *** In the book, you talk about how the black history of the neighborhood is being leveraged to advertise it to young urbanites. Could you talk about that? In the 1950s, ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, if a neighborhood was branded black, it usually led to economic decline and white flight. And in the ‘90s and 2000s, you see low-income African-American neighborhoods being branded black and yet attracting whites. That is the unique dynamic of the Shaw-U Street area. Many of the developers are branding the buildings after iconic African Americans. There’s the Langston Lofts, there’s the Ellington Apartments. There’s Marvin’s, which is a restaurant that’s named after Marvin Gaye, who grew up in Washington, D.C. There’s Busboys and Poets, Andy Shallal’s restaurant, named after Langston Hughes, which is very well-known in the D.C. area and also around the country. There’s also a historic walking trail, and you can see where Alain Locke, who wrote The New Negro—the philosophy of the Harlem Renaissance—lived. There’s historic preservation related to this community’s . . .

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Philip Ball’s The Water Kingdom

May 26, 2017
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Philip Ball’s The Water Kingdom

Below follows an excerpt from Philip Ball’s The Water Kingdom: A Secret History of China, first posted at Lapham’s Quarterly. *** One seems to have little choice but to retain the outmoded name for the Yangtze when discussing it in English; the modern Pinyin transliteration Yangzi feels somehow pedantically perverse. The name is in any event only a local one, derived from the ancient and now mostly forgotten fiefdom of Yang and strictly applying only to the last 300 kilometers. This was the entire “Yangtze” to the first Western travelers, since they rarely got much further upriver. The Chinese people do not use those names. There are local names for each stretch of the river, but the full channel, cutting the country in half geographically, climatically and culturally, is simply the Chang Jiang, the Long River. It is the longest in all of China, 6,380 kilometers from the source in a glacier lake to the great delta on the coast beyond Shanghai, where the alluvium pushes out into the sea and adds steadily to China’s vast surface area. “A China without such an immense torrent at its heart is almost impossible to contemplate,” says the writer Simon Winchester. Even this . . .

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