Books for the News

Frances E. Lee on pro-rural bias in our electoral institutions

December 9, 2016
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Frances E. Lee on pro-rural bias in our electoral institutions

A recent piece for the Upshot blog at the New York Times on the pro-rural bias of American electoral institutions made good use of political scientist Frances E. Lee’s research on the history of congressional partisan conflict, the subject of her latest book Insecure Majorities: Congress and the Perpetual Campaign. In considering the ideological residue from “Thomas Jefferson’s agrarian America” and its “yeoman farmer” ideal, the NYT posits how the ongoing influence of the rural vote triggers our very notion of the kind of person who should be able to hold office. which ultimately shapes just the conflict Lee specializes in: Rural America, even as it laments its economic weakness, retains vastly disproportionate electoral strength. Rural voters were able to nudge Donald J. Trump to power despite Hillary Clinton’s large margins in cities like New York. In a House of Representatives that structurally disadvantages Democrats because of their tight urban clustering, rural voters helped Republicans hold their cushion. In the Senate, the least populous states are now more overrepresented than ever before. And the growing unity of rural Americans as a voting bloc has converted the rural bias in national politics into a potent Republican advantage. “If you’re talking about a political system that skews rural, that’s not . . .

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Steven Shapin on Jessica Riskin’s The Restless Clock at LRB

December 8, 2016
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Steven Shapin on Jessica Riskin’s The Restless Clock at LRB

Though it’s behind a paywall, here’s a teaser from a recent review by Steven Shapin of Jessica Riskin’s The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument over What Makes Living Things Tick, at the LRB. *** When you consider the difference between a human being and a machine, you start with some idea about what it is to be a human being and what it is to be a machine. Some people now celebrate the technological advances that can make it hard to tell the difference; others view that difficulty with anxiety. They are concerned when machines do what we want to do; and they have species-self-doubt when machines do things that once defined what it was to be uniquely human. The worst worry is that the machines will refuse our orders, that they may acquire a will of their own, and want free agency. You start out with some matter-of-fact presumptions about what each sort of entity really is. If you’re reading this piece, you’re almost certainly a person, and you assume that its other readers are too. you might be reading it on a machine, just as I wrote it on a machine, and it was typeset on a machine. I didn’t have . . .

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Mary Cappello at Essay Daily

December 7, 2016
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Mary Cappello at Essay Daily

Below follows an excerpt from a recent interview with Mary Cappello at Essay Daily about Life Breaks In, her exegesis (or, biography) (or, as the subtitle states, “almanack”) of mood, which captures the spirit of associative thinking and lyrical fluency that propels the book. *** Q: How much of mood is like trying to describe the uncanny—or—how important is the uncanny to writing nonfiction? A: I hope you don’t mind if I refer to an interview I carried out around my previous book, Swallow, in which I discuss the importance of the uncanny to my work and to nonfiction generally: http://www.propellermag.com/Fall2011/Cappellofall11.html I think the uncanny is at the heart of literary nonfiction. The places where the real slip-slides with something unrecognizable, where the familiar and the strange switch places. Cognitive dissonance. Home not home. The pleasure and necessity of altered states. At the risk of sounding psycho, I’d like to use the occasion of your question to try to put into words an “episode” I experienced in these days following the 2016 presidential election for the way it speaks to the alteration of the “real” as some of us know it. What Freud says about the uncanny is that, when we’re in its midst, there’s . . .

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Excerpt: They Thought They Were Free

December 5, 2016
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Excerpt: They Thought They Were Free

Following the 2016 presidential election, a group of Redditors digging for context and historical parallel rediscovered an excerpt on our website from Milton Mayer’s 1955 book, They Thought They Were Free: The Germans, 1933–1945. There, Mayer interviews ten German citizens, all Nazi Party members, following the war about the course of their lives during that decade, in order to determine what, precisely, had made them Nazis. As Mayer put it: What happened here was the gradual habituation of the people, little by little, to being governed by surprise; to receiving decisions deliberated in secret; to believing that the situation was so complicated that the government had to act on information which the people could not understand, or so dangerous that, even if the people could not understand it, it could not be released because of national security. And their sense of identification with Hitler, their trust in him, made it easier to widen this gap and reassured those who would otherwise have worried about it. Below is the excerpt in full. *** But Then It Was Too Late “What no one seemed to notice,” said a colleague of mine, a philologist, “was the ever widening gap, after 1933, between the government and . . .

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The Prince of Tricksters at the Guardian

November 28, 2016
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The Prince of Tricksters at the Guardian

From a recent review of Matt Houlbrook’s The Prince of Tricksters: The Incredible True Story of Netley Lucas, Gentleman Crook, at the Guardian: Between 1917 and 1924, Lucas was taken to court five times. In a society of strangers, his crimes were subversive, suggesting all you needed was money and the veneer of class to pass yourself off as a gentleman. For historian Matt Houlbrook, Lucas’s life story reveals deeper truths about the period after the first world war. He cites the criminologist Henry Rhodes: “Show me your crimes and I will show you the nature of your society.” New forms of mass culture and democracy promised greater possibilities of personal reinvention: “Lucas’s crimes were unusual, but his aspirations echoed those of countless ordinary men and women in a period when advertising encouraged dreamlike fantasies of social mobility.” . . . Lucas drank himself into an early grave in 1940. Few mourned the passing of the man known as the “prince of tricksters.” Even Houlbrook acknowledges that Lucas was a “lying bastard.” But he can’t help but be beguiled by this extraordinary character: “I’m obsessed with making sense of you.” Lucas is an exquisitely slippery subject and Houlbrook admits that “my writing echoes . . .

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The Sovereign Exception of Guantánamo (A Turkey Pardon)

November 24, 2016
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The Sovereign Exception of Guantánamo (A Turkey Pardon)

This oldie but goodie by Magnus Fiskesjö from Prickly Paradigm Press definitely remains the singular anthropological text published on the relationship between the Thanksgiving turkey pardon and the War on Terror: Each Thanksgiving, the president of the United States symbolically pardons one turkey from the fate of serving as a holiday dinner. In this pamphlet, anthropologist Magnus Fiskesjö uncovers the hidden horrors of such rituals connected with the power of pardon, from the annual turkey to the pardoning of the original Teddy Bear. It is through these ritualized and perpetually remembered acts of mercy, Fiskesjö contends, that we might come to understand the exceptional—and troubling—status of the “War on Terror” prisoners being held by the United States at Guantánamo Bay. “In The Thanksgiving Turkey Pardon, Swedish anthropologist Magnus Fiskesjö, see in the annual presidential reprieve of an otherwise doomed turkey something much more than a lark. (Just ask a vegetarian; it’s no joke.) ‘It is really a symbolic pardoning act which, through public performance, establishes and manifests the sovereign’s position at the helm of the state by highlighting . . . his power to control matters of life and death.’ That observation leads Fiskesjö to some troubling thoughts on the . . .

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Katherine J. Cramer on politicizing rural consciousness

November 23, 2016
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Katherine J. Cramer on politicizing rural consciousness

In a recent piece for Vox, Katherine J. Cramer outlined some of the arguments she makes in The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker, which draws upon years of research on Wisconsin’s shifting electorate to analyze the role played by rural consciousness, and the ongoing influence of place-based identities in politics. Here’s part of Cramer’s takeaway: Once I passed out my business cards, handed out tokens of appreciation like Badger football schedules, and turned on my recorder, I asked them, “What are the big concerns of people in this community?” Regardless of geography, people in most of these communities talked about their concerns about health care, jobs, and taxation. But in the rural places and small towns, people expressed a deeply felt sense of not getting their “fair share” — defined in different ways. They felt that they didn’t get a reasonable proportion of decision-making power, believing that the key decisions were made in the major metro areas of Madison and Milwaukee, then decreed out to the rest of the state, with little listening being done to people like them. They also thought that they didn’t get their fair share of tax money. To them, too . . .

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Norte in the New York Times

November 21, 2016
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Norte in the New York Times

Praise from the New York Times Book Review for Edmundo Paz Soldán’s Norte, the story of three unconnected persons, some drawn from real life, who travel north of the US–Mexico border: This searing novel about three Latinos lost north of the border is not for the faint of heart. In the opening chapter, Jesús — based on a Mexican serial murderer known as the Railroad Killer — gang-rapes and stabs a prostitute. As Jesús, both victim and monster, slips into drugs, sexual abuse, psychosis, incest and necrophilia, Paz Soldán perfectly modulates the tension, evincing our sympathy even as we recoil. . . . “One should show compassion to all creatures scrabbling along their path in life, should be willing to throw a cloak of pity over the shoulders of even a man like Jesús,” the ranger leading the manhunt ponders. We don’t forgive, but we understand. This is the Bolivian-born Paz Soldán’s miraculous gift. With unflinching realism and steely grace, “Norte” reminds us why literature can do what journalism cannot: We inhabit the minds of people we’d prefer to forget. To read the New York Times Book Review piece in full, click here. To read more about Norte, click here. . . .

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Excerpt: The Politics of Resentment

November 18, 2016
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Excerpt: The Politics of Resentment

An excerpt from Katherine J. Cramer’s The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker *** My Window Is Wisconsin My window to the way the politics of resentment works is Wisconsin. This is a state in which the debate over the appropriate role of government has played out prominently and over a sustained period. It has been central to the conservative response to the disarray of the Republican Party after the George W. Bush presidency and Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential victory. Wisconsin was a predominantly Republican state until the 1950s, but Democratic presidential candidates have repeatedly carried the state since 1988. Since 2000, however, it has been a partisan battleground, or swing state. You can see the push-and-pull of partisan fights here in multiple ways. Wisconsin scored highest on the number of “Bush-Obama counties”; no other state had as many counties that went for George W. Bush in the 2004 presidential election and then for Barack Obama in 2008 (Achenbach 2012). Wisconsin went from having a Democratically controlled state legislature with a Democratic governor and two Democratic senators in 2009 to having a narrowly Republican-controlled state legislature, Republican governor, and a split U.S. senate . . .

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Staff Profile: Levi Stahl on community and the Parker novels

November 16, 2016
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Staff Profile: Levi Stahl on community and the Parker novels

It’s #UPWeek, and you can read more about it here. The theme—for year 38, the 79th university of the AAUP—is community, and with that in mind, we asked associate marketing director Levi Stahl to talk a bit about a series of crime noir qua boilerplate mystery novels written by Donald E. Westlake, under the pseudonym Richard Stark, and  Stahl’s effort to tap into the community surrounding the cult novelist, an unusual move by a university press:             Reading is a solitary activity. That’s one of its glories.  But for a lot of us, it’s also just the first step. After reading, we want to tell people about what we’ve read, recommend it, discuss it, argue about it. And that’s where community begins. We experienced that, powerfully, back in 2008, when we decided to bring back into print Richard Stark’s crime novels featuring Parker the heister. We knew they were brilliant crime novels and that people over the years had loved them. What we learned very quickly, however, was that by bringing these back, we were joining the crime fiction community—and those are readers who aren’t shy about sharing their enthusiasm. The excitement, seen everywhere from . . .

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