Archive for the 'book reviews' Category

January 5th 2013
2012: the Year of the Asshole?

Posted under American history & bad language & book reviews & European history & fluff & Gender & the body

Some of you have probably heard of Geoffrey Nunberg’s Ascent of the A-word:  Assholism, the First Sixty Years (2012) because of his platform as the resident linguist for NPR’s Fresh Air.  A few weeks ago, we learned that Aaron James, a philosophy professor at the University of California, Irvine, published a book in 2012 called Assholes:  A Theory, and this article describing James’s book made me laugh out loud:

So what is an asshole, exactly? How is he (and assholes are almost always men) distinct from other types of social malefactors? Are assholes born that way, or is their boorishness culturally conditioned? What explains the spike in the asshole population?

James was at the beach when he began mulling those questions. “I was watching one of the usual miscreants surf by on a wave and thought, Gosh, he’s an asshole.” Not an intellectual breakthrough, he concedes, but his reaction had what he calls “cognitive content.” In other words, his statement was more than a mere expression of feeling. He started sketching a theory of assholes, refining his thinking at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, where he spent a year as a fellow in 2009.

Now here’s the part I really like as a historian.  James pushes beyond the linguist’s focus on the word to explore the history and philosophy of the asshole avant la lettre:

He consulted Rousseau (who, James notes, was something of an asshole himself on account of his shabby parenting skills), Hobbes (especially his views on the “Foole” who breaks the social contract), Kant (his notion of self-conceit in particular), and more-recent scholarship on psychopaths. He spoke with psychologists, lawyers, and anthropologists, all of whom suggested asshole reading lists. “There are a lot of similar characters studied in other disciplines, like the free rider or the amoralist or the cheater,” James says, calling his time at Stanford an “interdisciplinary education in asshole theory.”

James argues for a three-part definition of assholes that boils down to this: Continue Reading »

18 Comments »

December 11th 2012
Cake Week, Tuesday edition: pull up a chair for coffee and War Cake

Posted under American history & book reviews & fluff

Today’s post is a recipe cribbed from M.F.K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf (1942), which I reviewed here a few years ago and did not love.  However, this recipe stuck with me, because it seems like an ingenious way to make a cake without butter or eggs:  hide the use of sub-standard fat with gingerbread spices!  (And/or ganja, or as M.F.K. Fisher herself would say, “what have you.”)

Now to the recipe and its explanation:

Coffee, when it is brewed intelligently, is a perfect accompaniment to any dessert, whether it be a Soufflé au Grand Marnier, or a bowl of frost-whipped Winesap apples, crisp and juicy.  It is good, too, with a piece of fruity cake, and here is a recipe for one which is foolproof to concoct, and guaranteed to make the world take at least two steps back, instead of one step nearer.

It is a remnant of the last war, and although I remember liking it so much that I dreamed about it at night. . . like all the other children who ate it, I can’t remember that it was called anything more appetizing than

WAR CAKE

1/2 cup shortening (bacon grease can be used, because of the spices which hide its taste) Continue Reading »

19 Comments »

December 8th 2012
Notes on X

Posted under American history & book reviews & European history & Gender & women's history

Here’s something amazing I learned from Dreaming in French:  The Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis, by Alice Kaplan (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2012).  Apparently, even Susan Sontag struggled against an inner Disney Princess!

The X Factor

With two books in print, life went on–the more and more dazzling public life, the secret inner life.  Life and work were tightly combined, yet under the pile of manuscripts, cultural outings, and intellectual connections was a constant buzz of worry, a struggle that preoccupied her throughout the winter months of 1960, in her daily existence with [her lover] Irene and her son David.  She called it “X”–the overwhelming desire to please, to appease, to see oneself through other people’s reactions, to spare other people’s feelings, to care what they think.  Women, she decided, were X; America itself, with its cult of popularity, was “a very Xy country.”  “X is the scourge,” she wrote in February 1960:  “How do I really cure myself of X?”  She made lists of X situations, X feelings, X characteristics, and finally connected her personal problem to a concept in existential philosophy:  “X is Sartre’s bad faith,” (125-26). Continue Reading »

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December 7th 2012
He capsized the boat and we lost five men, and we did not catch the whale, brave boys.

Posted under American history & art & book reviews

This time you’re going down, Moby Dick.

I hope as many readers out there as have time for it will join in Comradde PhysioProffe‘s interdisciplinary excursion into Melvilleana over at his blog. If you’re interested, be sure to click on over and let him know. Continue Reading »

3 Comments »

September 18th 2012
Trilogies, trade presses, and books in print: part III of my interview with Mary Beth Norton

Posted under American history & book reviews & Gender & publication & women's history

Today’s post is the final installment of my three-part interview with Mary Beth Norton, whose career will be celebrated at Liberty’s Sons and Daughters, a conference in her honor in Ithaca, New York September 28 and 29.  (If you’ve missed part I and part II, get yourself caught up and then read on.)  Here, we talk about her decision to to write a trilogy of books on early American women’s and gender history.  In chronological order of the history they cover, they are Founding Mothers and Fathers:  Gendered Power and the Forming of American Society (1996), Separated by their Sex:  Women in Public and Private in the Colonial Atlantic World (2011), and Liberty’s Daughters:  The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750-1800 (1980).   We also talk about her experiences publishing with both trade and university presses, both of which present their own advantages and disadvantages.

Historiann:  You write in your introduction to Separated by their Sex that this is the third volume of your trilogy focusing on colonial and Revolutionary-era women’s history, connecting Founding Mothers and Fathers to Liberty’s Daughters.  When and how did you conceive of writing a trilogy?  Would you recommend this career strategy to younger historians?

MBN:  I knew I had to write a trilogy when I was three or four years into the research for what became Founding Mothers & Fathers, for I realized then that the project I had conceived as one book had to be divided into two. And even later I decided that Salem witchcraft deserved its own book, an offshoot of the trilogy, because otherwise I feared it would take over the second volume. As it happened, both the Salem research and the research for Separated by their Sex went in directions that I had not anticipated, and so In the Devil’s Snare became more a stand-alone (but related) volume. Continue Reading »

6 Comments »

September 1st 2012
Great Men and Famous Deeds, plus trucknutz.

Posted under book reviews & childhood & Gender & the body & women's history

Mancraft

The title of this post (and the image at left) is a Childcraft classic whose influence has been tragically overlooked on modern American historiography!

Have you ever seen those nasty trucknutz that some d00ds hang underneath their trailer hitches?  Yes, that’s right:  some men believe that the smelliest and most unattractive of their body parts are so awesome that they hang replicas of them outside of their cars and trucks!

So here’s what I’ve been thinking, after writing a blog post that I claimed was smeared with menstrual blood and would pollute everyone who clicked on itContinue Reading »

27 Comments »

June 30th 2012
What’s on your grill this weekend?

Posted under book reviews & fluff & local news

I have a few ideas for you.

14 Comments »

June 20th 2012
Mudwoman in Virginia?

Posted under American history & art & book reviews & childhood & Dolls & Gender & jobs & technoskepticism & unhappy endings & wankers & weirdness & women's history

Howdy, friends.  Since I’ve been living in the long eighteenth century for the past week or so, at least in my own head, I haven’t been consuming either print or electronic news as I usually do.  But several of you have written to ask my opinions on the unexpected and untimely cashiering of the President of the University of Virginia, Teresa A. Sullivan, last week.  As many of you know much better than I, Sullivan had been prez for only two years, and was the first woman chosen to lead Mr. Jefferson’s university.  This morning, I read something that several of you (in person and via e-mail) had already suggested to me, namely that forces on the university’s Board of Visitors against Sullivan were peeved at her resistance to online education.  (Earlier this week, other reporting suggested that Sullivan was perceived as reluctant to cut low enrollment programs such as German and Classics.)

I’m really grateful to you readers for the e-mails and the prodding on this, but since I’m actually making some research and writing progress this week on my own irrelevant and self-indulgent intellectual work, I’d like to turn the conversation over to you.  Some of you who have written to me have UVA connections, so feel free to discuss the Sullivan firing and its causes and consequences. Continue Reading »

33 Comments »

June 11th 2012
The successes of the LGBT rights movement

Posted under American history & book reviews & Gender & GLBTQ & happy endings & race & the body & women's history

In her thoughtful review of Linda Hirshman’s Victory:  The Triumphant Gay Revolution (2012)  E.J. Graff says that Hirshman presents a serviceable overview of the GLBT movement.  However, she says that Hirshman’s core argument for its remarkable success slights the Civil Rights and feminist movements that preceded gay liberation, and misunderstands the importance of the previous two movements to the victories of LGBT rights:

Of course, Hirshman isn’t trying to tell the entire history of the lesbian and gay movement, but so much is missing that she gets her analysis wrong. Or did she limit her focus because her analysis is off? In the book’s introduction,Hirshman claims that America’s two great preceding social movements, for racial justice and women’s equal rights, were less ambitious and therefore less successful, making strategic calculations to emphasize their similarities to the dominant social order. Lesbians and gay men, in contrast, had to work hard to open up room for our deviance, and therefore achieved more profound social change.

.       .       .       .       .

But in praising the LGBT movement’s drive to make the world safe for difference, Hirshman implies that black people and feminists never had to establish their moral cred. Is she kidding? Blacks had to fight depiction as subhumans, sexual monsters, immoral criminals, and intellectual inferiors. Feminists were painted as sterile, heartless harpies; women’s brains as supposedly too small for public life. Both groups expanded the meaning of the founding American dictum: All of us are created equal, endowed with certain unalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Continue Reading »

16 Comments »

April 27th 2012
Mark Fiege’s Republic of Nature at the OAH, April 20

Posted under American history & book reviews & conferences

Mary Beth Norton, Eric Foner, and Linda Gordon comment on Mark Fiege’s The Republic of Nature: An Environmental History of the United States (2012) at last week’s Organization of American Historians annual meeting. Unfortunately, this video doesn’t include the questions and comments from the audience.

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