Books for the News

Blowin’ Up at Pop Matters

July 22, 2016
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Blowin’ Up at Pop Matters

  From a recent review of Jooyoung Lee’s Blowin’ Up: Rap Dreams in South Central, at Pop Matters: One of the many powers of hip-hop, of course, is the intimacy it offers. Spend enough time listening to a certain rapper, and you begin to feel like you know that person as well as you do your own friends. Chuck D’s famous pronouncement that hip-hop is “CNN for black people”, pointed though it is, seems to miss part of the story. Hip-hop is CNN for white people, too, if you acknowledge the media’s systematic neglect of America’s black population. Through hip-hop, rappers are telling the stories that many journalists, and their publications, couldn’t be bothered to cover. As a white hip-hop fan, there’s a seductive tendency to congratulate one’s self for gaining cultural competencies in African American culture, as if memorizing Tupac lyrics and attending Wu-Tang concerts confers a master’s degree in black studies. But the truth is that even in its rawest, most detailed form, hip-hop gives only what is at best a keyhole-sized view of the African American experience. Jooyoung Lee’s Blowin’ Up: Rap Dreams in South Central represents a jump through the keyhole into the world of hip-hop as it is . . .

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In memoriam: William H. McNeill (1917–2016)

July 19, 2016
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In memoriam: William H. McNeill (1917–2016)

William H. McNeill (1917–2016)—historian, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago (where he began teaching in 1947), and prolific scholar—died July 8, 2016, at age 98. One of his most notable works, The Rise of the West: A History of Human Community, was the first University of Chicago Press title to win a National Book Award, and is often considered a major force in resituating “western” civilization in a more global context. From the New York Times: Professor McNeill’s opus, The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community (1963), took 10 years to write. It became a bestseller, won the National Book Award for history and biography and was lauded in the New York Times Book Review by the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper. “This is not only the most learned and the most intelligent,” he wrote, “it is also the most stimulating and fascinating book that has ever set out to recount and explain the whole history of mankind.” McNeill went on to write several books for the University of Chicago Press, including Venice: The Hinge of Europe, 1081–1797; The Pursuit of Power: Technology, Armed Force, and Society since A.D. 1000; The Islamic World (coedited with Marilyn Robinson Waldman); Hutchins’ University: A Memoir of the University of . . .

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Natasha Kumar Warikoo on affirmative action

July 8, 2016
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Natasha Kumar Warikoo on affirmative action

Natasha Kumar Warikoo’s The Diversity Bargain and Other Dilemmas of Race, Admissions, and Meritocracy at Elite Universities, which publishes this fall, examines how both white students and students of color understand race and privilege at three top-tier universities—Harvard, Yale, and Oxford. Culminating in what Warikoo calls “the diversity bargain”—white students agree with affirmative action abstractly as long as it benefits them personally—the book argues that the slippery notions that sustain social inequalities on college campuses are hugely impacted not only by the student body, but also by the practices of universities themselves. In a recent piece for the Boston Globe, Warikoo expanded on her findings: However, in my research with undergraduates at Ivy League universities, I have found that this narrow justification shapes students’ conceptions of fairness and equity in admissions. Many white students at elite colleges agree with affirmative action only because they understand it benefits them through interaction with their minority peers. As a result, some are upset when they see tables of black peers in the cafeteria, when their black peers join the Black Students Association, or when Latino peers spend their time at Centers for Students of Color. What they don’t understand is that those organizations can be lifelines for students unfamiliar with . . .

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Free e-book for July: Bigfoot

July 6, 2016
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Free e-book for July: Bigfoot

Our free e-book for July is Bigfoot: The Life and Times of a Legend by Joshua Blu Buhs— download your copy here! *** In August 2009, two men in rural Georgia announced that they had killed Bigfoot. The claim drew instant, feverish attention, leading to more than 1,000 news stories worldwide—despite the fact that nearly everyone knew it was a hoax. Though Bigfoot may not exist, there’s no denying Bigfoot mania. With Bigfoot, Joshua Blu Buhs traces the wild and wooly story of America’s favorite homegrown monster. He begins with nineteenth-century accounts of wildmen roaming the forests of America, treks to the Himalayas to reckon with the Abominable Snowman, then takes us to northern California in 1958, when reports of a hairy hominid loping through remote woodlands marked Bigfoot’s emergence as a modern marvel. Buhs delves deeply into the trove of lore and misinformation that has sprung up around Bigfoot in the ensuing half century. We meet charlatans, pseudo-scientists, and dedicated hunters of the beast—and with Buhs as our guide, the focus is always less on evaluating their claims than on understanding why Bigfoot has inspired all this drama and devotion in the first place. What does our fascination with this . . .

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Love Game in the New York Times

June 10, 2016
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Love Game in the New York Times

From a recent review of Elizabeth Wilson’s Love Game: A History of Tennis from Victorian Pastime to Global Phenomenon (or, In Defense of Scholarly Publishing) in the New York Times: Wilson drop-shots mini-essays on broader intellectual topics like corporate dominance (“McDonaldization”) into the mix, and occasionally hits the mark, as in a paragraph on punk culture: “When Nastase and Connors brought the spectators into the drama this was a distinctly punk tactic, whether they realized it or not.” Caveat emptor for tennis fans, however: It’s an indication of the content and tone of the book that the Baader-Meinhof Group receives two mentions while the late tennis writer, historian and commentator Bud Collins shamefully gets none. No shame in the Indexical Cultural Context (Love) Game. To read more about Love Game, click here. . . .

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Free e-book for June: Mark Monmonier’s Coastlines

June 8, 2016
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Free e-book for June: Mark Monmonier’s Coastlines

Our free e-book for June is: Mark Monmonier’s Coastlines: How Mapmakers Frame the World and Chart Environmental Change *** In the next century, sea levels are predicted to rise at unprecedented rates, causing flooding around the world, from the islands of Malaysia and the canals of Venice to the coasts of Florida and California. These rising water levels pose serious challenges to all aspects of coastal existence—chiefly economic, residential, and environmental—as well as to the cartographic definition and mapping of coasts. It is this facet of coastal life that Mark Monmonier tackles in Coast Lines. Setting sail on a journey across shifting landscapes, cartographic technology, and climate change, Monmonier reveals that coastlines are as much a set of ideas, assumptions, and societal beliefs as they are solid black lines on maps. Whether for sailing charts or property maps, Monmonier shows, coastlines challenge mapmakers to capture on paper a highly irregular land-water boundary perturbed by tides and storms and complicated by rocks, wrecks, and shoals.Coast Lines is peppered with captivating anecdotes about the frustrating effort to expunge fictitious islands from nautical charts, the tricky measurement of a coastline’s length, and the contentious notions of beachfront property and public access. Combing maritime . . .

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Deirdre N. McCloskey on “How the West Got Rich”

June 6, 2016
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Deirdre N. McCloskey on “How the West Got Rich”

In a recent piece for the Wall Street Journal, Deirdre N. McCloskey underlines some of the major themes that inform her decade-in-the-making trilogy The Bourgeois Era, including those particular to its most recent volume, Bourgeois Equality: How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World. Denying the centrality of accumulated capital, and turning instead to the accumulation of ideas, McCloskey posits “betterment” at the core of, well, how we became bourgeois. More about this in her book, but here’s a teaser from the WSJ: What caused it? The usual explanations follow ideology. On the left, from Marx onward, the key is said to be exploitation. Capitalists after 1800 seized surplus value from their workers and invested it in dark, satanic mills. On the right, from the blessed Adam Smithonward, the trick was thought to be savings. The wild Highlanders could become as rich as the Dutch—“the highest degree of opulence,” as Smith put it in 1776—if they would merely save enough to accumulate capital (and stop stealing cattle from one another). A recent extension of Smith’s claim, put forward by the late economics Nobelist Douglass North (and now embraced as orthodoxy by the World Bank) is that the real elixir is institutions. On this . . .

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“The most mind-boggling coffee table art book of 2016 (or any time)”

June 3, 2016
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“The most mind-boggling coffee table art book of 2016 (or any time)”

I, too, am biased. I find Paul Laffoley’s work speculatively seductive—the paranoiac bad vibes-side of the New Age, mixed with some pretty great architectural schematics that anticipate accelerationism and our non-anthropocentric future. As part of a pretty compelling interview with Douglas Walla, Paul Laffoley’s legendary gallerist and editor of his catalogue raisonné, conducted by Richard Metzger (another pal of Laffoley’s) for Dangerous Minds, here’s a chunk that capitalizes on the wonder: Richard Metzger: Right after the publisher sent me a black and white print out of the book, you called me up and gingerly suggested that I “might want to give Paul a call at the hospital.” I indicated how great I thought the book was and you replied—more poetically than I’m putting it here—that you were relieved and satisfied that Paul would die knowing that he was on his way into the modern art pantheon, on his own terms. “He’s not going to die an enigma” is what you said. How did he feel about knowing the book would be coming out and the likely trajectory of his posthumous reputation as an artist? Considering his global renown and the financial success that it brought him in the final 15 years of his . . .

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Thomas Bernhard’s Walking is the #1 funniest book of all time LOL

June 2, 2016
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Thomas Bernhard’s Walking is the #1 funniest book of all time LOL

Can’t make this stuff up. From Adam Ehrlich Sachs’s “The 10 Funniest Books” at Publishers Weekly: 1. Walking by Thomas Bernhard  Bernhard’s oeuvre is the longest, funniest joke in literature. If I were being honest this list would probably consist of nine Bernhard books and maybe one by Beckett. But I’ll go with this novella for its extremely long, hysterically funny description of Karrer’s mental breakdown in a clothing store, when he tries to convince a salesman, at some length, that the pants they are selling, when held up to the light, display a number of thin spots that can only be attributed to the use of shoddy materials, materials which Karrer insists (for page after page after page) must be what he refers to as “Czechoslovakian rejects.” To read more about (the patently absurd/deeply wounded/somberly screwball, which might be synonyms for “funny,” so we’ll take it) Walking, click here.   . . .

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Jellyfish (in nature—the other Nature)

May 27, 2016
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Jellyfish (in nature—the other Nature)

Just in time for this weekend’s unofficial “start of summer” gong, Nature (yea, that Nature—though also, ostensibly, “nature,” the wilder of nouns, not that other one qua Lucretius’s De rerum natura) came through with a review of Lisa-ann Gershwin’s Jellyfish: A Natural History. Stuck behind a paywall? Here it is in its glory, for your holiday reads: One resembles an exquisitely ruffled and pleated confection of pale silk chiffon; another, a tangle of bioluminescent necklaces cascading from a bauble. Both marine drifters (Desmonema glaciale and Physalia) feature in jellyfish expert Gershwin’s absorbing coffee-table book on this transparent group with three evolutionary lineages. Succinct science is intercut with surreal portraiture — from the twinkling Santa’s hat jellyfish (Periphylla periphylla) to the delicate blue by-the-wind sailor (Velella velella). To read more about Jellyfish, click here. . . .

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