Commentary

Tough Enough?

May 22, 2017
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Tough Enough?

From a recent profile of Deborah Nelson’s latest book Tough Enough: Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, Weil, at WBUR: In the book’s introduction, Nelson, a professor of English at the University of Chicago, acknowledges that these women initially “do not constitute a recognizable group.” In fact, each was quite determinedly not part of any organized faction. However, by book’s end Nelson has shown that, for all their differences, their work shares an essential bond: unsentimentality. Or, in Nelson’s expanded phrase: an “aesthetic, political, and moral obligation to face painful reality unsentimentally.” This artistic backbone would be useful in any era, but it was especially so in post-WWII America when the scale of suffering from the war, the Holocaust, the atom bomb, was practically impossible to comprehend. These horrors were followed by the Vietnam War, assassinations and the social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. Nelson posits that there were two primal, contradictory responses to the events: empathy, “that required the public sharing of feelings,” or irony and coolness. The former could devolve into wallowing and the latter could disintegrate into disregard. Neither one a good jumpstart for external action or internal growth. In their work, the women of “Tough Enough” each . . .

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Colin Dickey on Hilda Kean’s The Great Cat and Dog Massacre

May 12, 2017
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Colin Dickey on Hilda Kean’s The Great Cat and Dog Massacre

After the jump: an excerpt from Colin Dickey’s review of Hilda Kean’s The Great Cat and Dog Massacre, at the Los Angeles Review of Books.  *** Pets were like members of the family, and it is here that the real truth of the matter may emerge. In the run-up to the war, many parents spoke candidly of how they would poison their own children rather than force them to live under German occupation. “I have been collecting poisons for some time with guile and cunning,” one housewife reported to the social research project Mass-Observation. “I have sufficient to give self, husband and all the children a lethal dose. I can remember the last war. I don’t want to live through another, or the children either. I shan’t tell them, I shall just do it.” Her sentiment was echoed by numerous others in Britain that summer before the war. “I’d rather see my two boys dead,” a 45-year-old father said. “I’d poison them if I thought it was coming.” When war came, however, no mass murders of children took place. Instead, it appears, many people sublimated this impulse toward mercy killing by exercising it on their animals instead. The mass poisoning of children, . . .

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Microbes from Hell!

May 1, 2017
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Microbes from Hell!

From “Fungi to be with,” a recent joint review of Ed Yong’s I Contain Multitudes  and Patrick Forterre’s Microbes from Hell in the TLS: Yong takes his readers to the forefront of microbial science by interviewing the relevant researchers, one of whom could have been Patrick Forterrre of the Institut Pasteur. The fact that Yong didn’t make it to Paris makes Forterre’s memoir, Microbes from Hell, read as a clean take on some of the same material, in particular the micro-organisms that have adapted to live in extreme environments. These “extremophiles” can cope with the high temperatures of hot springs and deep sea thermal vents, which are often also highly acidic or abound with sulphur. Others thrive in intensely salty places, or with amounts of radiation that were long thought to be inimical to life. Their adaptations and coexistence with their own viruses have much to tell us about life on earth and its history. To read more about Microbes from Hell, click here. . . .

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Sara Goldrick-Rab: SXSWedu Keynote Address

April 28, 2017
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Sara Goldrick-Rab, whose Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream, made waves in almost every major venue dedicated to the high-stakes consequences of American higher education—from Inside Higher Ed to The Daily Show with Trevor Noah—recently delivered #PricedOut, her keynote address at the 2017 SXSWedu conference. Here’s the official description: One of the most sustained and vigorous public debates today is about the value and crucially, the price of college. But an unspoken, outdated assumption underlies all side of this debate: If a young person works hard enough, they’ll be able to get a college degree and be on the path to a good life. That’s simply not true says sociologist Goldrick-Rab, one of the leading voices on issues of higher education today. In her book and research, she shows why in damning detail. *** You can watch Goldrick-Rab’s talk in full above, or in the meantime, read more about Paying the Price, here. . . .

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Crime Scenes: Donald Westlake on Screen

April 26, 2017
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Crime Scenes: Donald Westlake on Screen

Great news for fans of Donald E. Westlake—aka Richard Stark; aka Alan Marshall; aka, all the other pseudonyms—this May 12–14, the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, NY, is playing host to Crime Scenes, a 7-film series of the author’s screen adaptations, co-curated by Eric Hynes, David Schwartz, and our own Levi Stahl. Among the highlights are the O.G. Point Blank  (May 12, accompanied by a conversation with Abby Westlake, Donald Westlake’s wife, and historian Luc Sante, moderated by LTS), Godard’s Made in the U.S.A. (May 14), and Anjelica Huston’s star turn in The Grifters (May 13). Here’s a more expansive description from MoMI (visit their site to view the complete schedule, here): Donald E. Westlake (1933–2008) was born in Brooklyn and grew up mostly in Albany. He claimed that the first word he learned to read was “police.” “Sometimes,” he wrote, “life really is banal.” As a young man, he moved to New York and learned how to write in large part by seeing how not to do it, assessing submissions at a literary agency that also encouraged amateurs to send in work to be critiqued for a fee. That led to him writing a few stories to spec for low-end magazines, then a stint churning . . .

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The Diversity Bargain at PopMatters

April 10, 2017
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The Diversity Bargain at PopMatters

Below follows an excerpt from “On Race and Meritocracy in Academia” at PopMatters, a review of Natasha K. Warikoo’s The Diversity Bargain and other Dilemmas of Race, Admissions, and Meritocracy at Elite Universities. *** Diversity is perceived as something that’s intended to benefit everyone, including white students. It isn’t defended as being a matter of social justice, but rather as the best way to equip young Americans to succeed in today’s world. White Americans (and other students with privilege) see diversity and affirmative action as something which is intended to benefit them, and so long as it appears to be doing that, they’re okay with it. But when diversity places barriers in their way—when they experience rejection in admissions or job applications or anything else which they can find reason to blame on affirmative action—they’re quick to criticize it, or to blame it for their own shortcomings. There’s a related imperative for minority or marginalized groups of students to appear to be living up to their ‘side’ of the ‘bargain’, i.e., giving the privileged groups exposure to their marginalized peers, and contributing to the privileged students’ education on diversity. When marginalized students form identity-based student groups, or hold events to which white students . . .

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John M. Eason, Big House on the Prairie, and the rural prison boom

March 31, 2017
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John M. Eason, Big House on the Prairie, and the rural prison boom

Working crucial arguments from his book Big House on the Prairie down the line, John M. Eason takes on the rise of the rural prison industry—and its role as impediment to criminal justice reform—for the Conversation; excerpt after the jump. *** As I explain in my book, “Big House on the Prairie,” the number of prisons in the U.S. swelled between 1970 and 2000, from 511 to nearly 1,663. Prisons constructed during that time cover nearly 600 square miles, an area roughly half the size of Rhode Island. More than 80 percent of these facilities are operated by states, approximately 10 percent are federal facilities and the rest are private. The prison boom is a massive public works program that has taken place virtually unnoticed because roughly 70 percent of prisons were built in rural communities. Most of this prison building has occurred in conservative southern states like Florida, Georgia, Oklahoma and Texas. Much of how we think about prison building is clouded by the legacy of racism and economic exploitation endemic to the U.S. criminal justice system. Many feel that prison building is the end product of racist policies and practices, but my research turned up a more complicated relationship. People of color . . .

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Bronzeville: Recommended reading for a new podcast

March 20, 2017
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Bronzeville: Recommended reading for a new podcast

Josh Olson’s new 10-part podcast Bronzeville, which stars Laurence Fishburne, Larenz Tate, and Tika Sumpter, chronicles the lives of players in the illegal lottery that swept the African American community in the 1940s before the game was taken over by the mob. If that’s not enticing enough, here’s a list of some recommended background reading on the city, then and now; how it become one of America’s most iconic black neighborhoods; and why its redevelopment—in which the middle class benefits as lower-income residents are pushed out—continues to matter, now more than ever. *** Derek S. Hyra’s The New Urban Renewal: The Economic Transformation of Harlem and Bronzeville explores the shared metamorphosis of these formerly notorious urban ghettos into two of our most iconic black communities, as the pressure of late-capitalist gentrification and a complicated web of factors—local, national, and global—shaped their remarkable revitalization. St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton’s Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City, based on research conducted by Works Progress Administration field workers, is a sweeping historical and sociological account of the people of Chicago’s South Side from the 1840s through the 1930s, as path-breaking today as it was when it was first published in 1945. Diane Grams’s Producing Local . . .

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#ReadUPScience: A Digital Menagerie from The Paper Zoo

March 13, 2017
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#ReadUPScience: A Digital Menagerie from The Paper Zoo

American Scientist explores several centuries-worth of zoology on paper at the British Library in a review + “digital menagerie” from The Paper Zoo, an excerpt from which follows below. *** Historian Charlotte Sleigh’s book The Paper Zoo, which taps into the British Museum’s rich collection to explore and contextualize five centuries of zoological illustration (our sampler), leads one to conclude that the refrain’s origin can be traced back to 1659. Johann Amos Comenius’s elementary reader Orbis sensualium pictus (“The Visible World in Pictures”), Sleigh explains, “is commonly regarded as the first picture book for children.” By combining didactic text with illustrations Comenius had, with the stroke of a printing press, invented multimedia instruction. His petite depictions of animals, each appearing alongside a letter of the alphabet meant to represent the sound the animal makes, are clear and endearing without being especially cute. It’s easy to see how they would capture a child’s interest and, as Sleigh observes, ease memorization: Presenting the image of an animal next to a letter whose sound replicates the creature’s hooting, braying, growling, or hissing was an instructional breakthrough. In addition to their utility in the classroom, Sleigh notes, zoological illustrations helped far-flung naturalists keep up with discoveries made in . . .

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Alexandra Chasin on the history of the drug war

March 3, 2017
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Alexandra Chasin on the history of the drug war

Below follows an excerpt from “Our Aggressive ‘War on Drugs’ Is Not Actually about Drugs,” by Alexandra Chasin, author of Assassin of Youth: A Kaleidoscopic History of Harry J. Anslinger’s War on Drugs, at Alternet. *** Trump inherits a very old war on drugs in the United States, one with prisons almost as overpopulated as Duterte’s detention centers, where the “insanity” of the “purely repressive approach,” “counterproductive and cruel,” is the law and practice of the land. This war on drugs goes back before Nixon’s famous declaration and the Rockefeller Drug Laws of the 1970s.  Our national commitment to drug prohibition goes back almost as far as our commitment to alcohol prohibition, a thirteen-year disaster that dramatized all the perils of a strategy of suppression but somehow did not persuade us not to use the same one with narcotics.  With the installation of Harry J. Anslinger as Commissioner of the newly established Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1930, the federal government began a campaign of drug prohibition which, during his three decades in office, in making into federal law. So why, if it only took us thirteen years to prove that alcohol prohibition was both costly and ineffective, have we failed to . . .

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