Books for the News

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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The Case for Contentious Curricula

May 24, 2017
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The Case for Contentious Curricula

Here’s a brief chunk adopted from The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools, as featured in the Atlantic. *** Laws, school officials, and community opinion have all conspired to prevent or discourage American teachers from discussing controversial issues in their classrooms. This is not to say teachers have always avoided such issues: In 1953, at the height of the Cold War, a survey of social-studies teachers in Ohio revealed they were leading classroom discussions about whether President Harry Truman should have seized steel mills, whether Truman should have fired General Douglas MacArthur, and whether—as MacArthur wished—the United States should have used an atomic bomb in the Korean War. That same year, in another survey, New York City teachers reported holding debates on whether “Red” China should have a seat in the United Nations, whether Communists should be allowed to teach in public schools, whether Julius and Ethel Rosenberg should have received the death penalty for passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union, and whether Senator Joseph McCarthy was “a menace to or savior of American democracy.” After several teachers were dismissed for their own Communist affiliations, some admitted they were afraid to discuss anything controversial in their classes. But the . . .

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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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Supersizing Urban America

May 19, 2017
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Supersizing Urban America

Here’s a clip from a recent Huffington Post interview with Chin Jou, author of Supersizing Urban America: How Inner Cities Got Fast Food with Government Help, after the jump. *** Your book begins with an excerpt from Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation discussing the role the SBA has played in the fast-food industry’s expansion. Why did this capture your curiosity? Why did you feel this was a story worth telling? I reread the Fast Food Nation excerpt in 2010. At the time, I was studying the history of obesity as a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institutes of Health, so obesity was on my mind a lot. The Fast Food Nation excerpt, which was about the federal government’s loan guarantees to fast-food franchises, struck me because it occurred to me that such policies may have inadvertently and indirectly contributed to the obesity epidemic ― an epidemic that the government was in the process of trying to reduce with initiatives like Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move.” The notion that the government may have indirectly contributed to the obesity epidemic was not a new idea ― Michael Pollan is perhaps most famously associated with promulgating the idea that agricultural subsidies for crops like corn and soy contribute to the relatively low . . .

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Image sampler: Pollination Power

May 15, 2017
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Image sampler: Pollination Power

Below follow just a few of the spectacular macrophotographic images culled from Heather Angel’s Pollination Power for a recent profile in the New York Times. Sourcing flora from more than twenty countries, Angel delivered a technically laborious, otherworldly portrait of one of nature’s more intimate processes. You can read more about the book here. Also this line: “Sometimes you see up to five solitary male bees sleeping in a flower,” Ms. Angel said.     To read more about Pollination Power, click here. . . .

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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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Black branding in the Cappuccino City

May 10, 2017
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Black branding in the Cappuccino City

Derek Hyra’s Race, Class, and Politics in the Cappuccino City, not only offers up an contemporary ethnography of gentrification—DC’s Shaw/U Street district—but also concretizes how we talk about urban displacement in neoliberal late capitalism, centered around the concepts of the “gilded ghetto,” “living the wire,” and the “cappuccino city.”  A cappuccino is basically a cup of coffee with (steamed) milk, but costs nearly double or triple the price, depending on whether or not the espresso bean is artisanal, or if the foam is sculpted into a the shape of a leaf or a heart. In Hyra’s cappuccino city, our black inner-city neighborhoods, under pressure from the gig economy, gutted social programs, and real estate investors luring white millennials, undergo enormous transformations and become racially “lighter” and more expensive by the year. You can listen to Hyra’s recent appearance on the Kojo Nnamdi Show here, or read an excerpt from a Washington Post profile after the jump. *** “Black branding” describes how developers and other mostly white business interests actively promoted Shaw’s historic black identity as a marketing strategy to attract white renters and buyers. Their success helped tip the neighborhood’s demographics from 70 percent black in 1970 to 30 percent in 2010. The Shaw/U Street area was an ideal candidate for . . .

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Our free e-book for April: Doodling for Academics

May 5, 2017
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Our free e-book for April: Doodling for Academics

Our free e-book for April is a real doozy: an LOL takedown of neoliberal academia—complete with its sidelining of the humanities in favor of STEM program, its reliance on adjunct labor, and the bureaucratization of its day-to-day “management”—in the form of an adult coloring book. Already covered by the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Times Higher Ed (“I have difficulty imagining a group of philosophy professors sitting around together and coloring.”), and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Doodling for Academics pairs Julie Schumacher’s dry commentary on the life of a scholar with savvy illustrations by Lauren Nassef. You can download our free sampler here. You can also read more about the book after the jump, but in the meantime, here’s a profile on Schumacher, produced by PBS’s To the Point: *** To an outsider, working as a university professor might seem like a dream: summers off, a few hours of class each week, an exchange of ideas with brilliant colleagues, books and late afternoon lattes. . . . Who wouldn’t envy that life? But those in the trenches of academe are well acquainted with the professoriate’s dark underside: the hierarchies and pseudo-political power plays, the peculiar colleagues, the over-parented students, the stacks of essays that need to be graded ASAP. No one understands this world better than novelist . . .

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The Fox in the Big House

May 3, 2017
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The Fox in the Big House

Smarty Pants—a new podcast from the folks at the American Scholar—debuted “The Fox in the Big House,” a brand new episode featuring Lee Dugatkin, who talks up his latest book How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog) by recounting the historical particularities behind a Cold War-era Soviet experiment that started with few dozen silver foxes from Siberian farms and then attempted to recreate the evolution of wolves into dogs in real time. Intrigue! Listen in here. To read more about How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog), click here. . . .

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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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