Archive for the 'book reviews' Category

November 5th 2011
Tony Grafton on the higher education crisis, and your turn to talk back!

Posted under American history & book reviews & jobs & students

Via my colleague Nathan Citino who reads the New York Review of Books, we learn that Tony Grafton has written a thoughtful review of the raft of books on the “crisis” of higher education in the United States published recently.  He dislikes the polemics that pick one enemy–the lazy-a$$ed faculty who allegedly never teach, or the inflated ranks of administrators who allegedly suck up six-figure salaries without contributing to the core mission of education.

However, Grafton appears to agree with Historiann’s analysis of the free farm clubs that unis run for the NFL and the NBA, reserving some choice disdain for the fact that “head football and basketball coaches earn millions and their assistants hundreds of thousands for running semiprofessional teams. Few of these teams earn much money for the universities that sponsor them, and some brutally exploit their players.”  But even I must acknowledge the fact that even if Baa Ram U. fired the coaches and told the men’s football and basketball teams to hold a bake sale if they want uniforms and travel money, it’s unlikely that the money saved would actually be invested in rebuilding the faculty or otherwise improving the quality of classroom education we offer.  (I still think it’s a fantasy worth preserving, however!)

The problem as Grafton sees it is not just that students buy into the Animal House vision of student life, with an emphasis on a social life built around sports and alcohol and drug-consumption rather than an intellectual life built around independent study.  He argues that American universities themselves foster the Animal House sensibility, rewarding faculty only for their research and never for their teaching, and providing a range of amenities for students that lure them anywhere but the classroom or the library: Continue Reading »

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October 21st 2011
Was I really too harsh on Steve Jobs?

Posted under American history & book reviews & class & jobs & technoskepticism

After Steve Jobs’s death a few weeks ago, I noted that the encomia for his life’s work seemed strange to me because he was a celebrity CEO who outsourced jobs to China, which doesn’t strike me as a particularly patriotic or environmentally responsible business plan.  Some of you objected.  Well, friends, I’ll let you be the judge as to whether this was unnecessarily harsh.  The Huffinton Post (via RealClearPolitics) offers some choice tidbits from Walter Isaacson’s not-yet-released biography, which was written with Jobs’s cooperation.  Here’s the HuffPo’s reportage on what’s to be found in Isaacson’s tome:

Jobs, who was known for his prickly, stubborn personality, almost missed meeting President Obama in the fall of 2010 because he insisted that the president personally ask him for a meeting. Though his wife told him that Obama “was really psyched to meet with you,” Jobs insisted on the personal invitation, and the standoff lasted for five days. When he finally relented and they met at the Westin San Francisco Airport, Jobs was characteristically blunt. He seemed to have transformed from a liberal into a conservative.

“You’re headed for a one-term presidency,” he told Obama at the start of their meeting, insisting that the administration needed to be more business-friendly. As an example, Jobs described the ease with which companies can build factories in China compared to the United States, where “regulations and unnecessary costs” make it difficult for them.

Jobs also criticized America’s education system, saying it was “crippled by union work rules,” noted Isaacson. “Until the teachers’ unions were broken, there was almost no hope for education reform.” Jobs proposed allowing principals to hire and fire teachers based on merit, that schools stay open until 6 p.m. and that they be open 11 months a year. Continue Reading »

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October 16th 2011
Sunday round-up: friends & neighbors edition

Posted under American history & art & bad language & book reviews & captivity & childhood & Gender & wankers & weirdness

Me & my best friend!

Howdy, friends!  It’s lovely, sunny, and warm, so I’m off on a run.  Here are some interesting tidbits I found elsewhere on the world-wide timewasting web for those of you not enjoying perfect autumn weather today:

  • Via RealClearBooks, Eleanor Barkhorn on “What Jeffrey Eugenidies Doesn’t Understand About Women,” after reading his new book, The Marriage Plot:  “There’s one way, however, in which [the protagonist] Madeleine defies believability: She has no true female friends. Yes, she has roommates and a sister with whom she once had ‘heavy’ emotional conversations, but these relationships are characterized more by spite than affection. And, sadly, The Marriage Plot is just the latest story to forget to give its heroine friends. There are countless other Madeleines in modern-day literature and film: smart, self-assured women who have all the trappings of contemporary womanhood except a group of friends to confide in.”  Have you noticed this about recent books and films?  I have to say that I hadn’t until Barkhorn pointed it out.  She concludes, “The great irony, of course, is that the old-fashioned, marriage-plot-bound books that Eugenides attempts to modernize in his new novel actually do a better job of portraying female friendship than The Marriage Plot.”  I think I may read this anyway–a library codex copy of the book, of course–because I’m a huge fan of “marriage plot” authors like Jane Austen and the many Brontes, but Barkhorn makes an interesting argument here.
  • Isn’t it cute when right-wing religious nuts start condemning each other to hell?  Robert Jeffress vs. Bill Donahue, plus all Catholics, Mormons, Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims, of course.  Taking victimology to new heights, Anita Perry cries that her handsome husband Rick has been “brutalized . . . because of his faith.”  Mark my words:  the majority of Americans will not reward this kind of religious pride, which just stinks of hubris and un-neighborliness.  Even if they privately agree with him, Americans are fundamentally uncomfortable with the Jeffress style of public religious condemnation.
  • 1970s flashback:  Do any of you remember the sensational book Sybil, about the girl with multiple personality disorder?  Continue Reading »

11 Comments »

October 12th 2011
Who’s killing the footnote?

Posted under American history & book reviews & European history & jobs & students & technoskepticism

Alexandra Horowitz blames e-books, but footnote-killing is a longstanding trend among non-virtual academic book publishers for at least twenty years.  Most university presses and tradey U-press lines use endnotes, period.  (And who other than university presses make such generous use of notes, anyway?  Nonfiction trade books usually offer the clumsy and much more paper-consumptive apparatus of citing sources by quoting the beginning of a sentence, followed by ellipses, and then listing the relevant sources.  Are tiny numbers on the page really all that distracting to the average reader?  Srsly?)   

My understanding was that the increase in paper costs nearly 20 years ago led most academic publishers to switch from footnotes (at the bottom of each page) to endnotes (at the back of the book.)  Somehow, I was informed, this saves paper.  I can remember the last time I read a book with footnotes–ironically, it was Anthony Grafton’s The Footnote:  A Curious History (1997), which I re-read with my graduate seminar a few weeks ago, and which for obvious reasons offers footnotes rather than endnotes.  (Horowitz’s exploration on the life and death of the footnote uses and cites Grafton generously, too.)  But I think when it was published 14 years ago, it was already exotic for having resisted a publisher’s insistence on endnotes.

My foremost concern about e-books–or perhaps more specifically with the Kindle, although I hope those of you in the know will inform me if this is true of other e-readers–is that it makes citations by students unnecessarily annoying.  Continue Reading »

43 Comments »

October 4th 2011
Can a textbook change your intellectual life?

Posted under American history & book reviews & publication & students

Ben Hufbauer, an art historian at the University of Louisville,  has a really nice essay about his encounter with Richard Hofstadter’s The American Republic, which was co-authored by Daniel Aaron and William Miller (1959; rev. 1970).  It turned out to be Hofstadter’s final book, as he died just weeks after the publication of the revised edition in 1970.  Go read–Hufbauer makes a compelling case for the clarity and freshness of the approach by Hofstadter et. al. to narrative history, especially as he encounters it in the mid-1990s in an unlighted Nigerian university library:

I came across The American Republic almost by chance 24 years later, in the library of the Enugu campus of the University of Nigeria. I was in Nigeria for five months with my wife as her research assistant as she studied Igbo masquerades for her doctorate. We lived in a small apartment a short distance from campus in a city that was at times hot almost beyond belief. We often only had power for a few hours a day, and in that un-air-conditioned state — when we weren’t doing ethnographic research — we read a lot to each other, often by candlelight.

Given the poverty and corruption of the country, and the fact that Nigeria suffered a military coup while we were there, it is perhaps not surprising that most of our reading was comfort fare — Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, Charles Dickens. But one day as I was wandering the quiet stacks of the library with no lights and no air conditioning, I dimly saw on a bottom shelf two volumes by a historian I remembered liking for The American Political Tradition, which I’d read as an undergraduate. Continue Reading »

28 Comments »

October 2nd 2011
Sunday Round-Up: Endless Summer edition

Posted under American history & book reviews & jobs & students & the body & wankers

Where there's smoke. . .

Howdy, friends.  It’s just another gorgeous, clear, warm, sunny, dry, earthquake-free, hurricane-free, and (of course) tsunami-free autumn day here on the High Plains Desert.  The crickets are chirping happily, and there are a few lawnmowers humming in the distance.  I’ve got a stack of student essays to mark while I sit outside trying to extend the tan on my gams, but here’s some fun links to keep you amused if the weather (or something else) is keeping you indoors.  To wit:

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September 26th 2011
Gerstle on White’s Railroaded, Gilded Ages, and the corruption of democracy

Posted under American history & book reviews & class & race & unhappy endings & wankers

Via John Fea’s blog, I found Gary Gerstle’s review of Richard White’s Railroaded:  The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern AmericaBoth White and Gerstle in his review are writing history for our times, friends:

For a generation now, historians have been reluctant to write about capitalism. Cultural history has been the rage, even as developments in the Second Gilded Age (1980–2008)—the unleashing of private economic power, the dismantling of government regulatory controls, and the deepening of income inequality—were making clear the need for a new reckoning with capitalism as a historical force.

Against this background, it is significant that one of the most distinguished historians of our time, Richard White, has written a book about an epic story of the First Gilded Age: the building of the transcontinental railroads between the 1860s and the 1890s. From the moment the first of these railroads was finished at Promontory Summit, Utah, in 1869, these immense undertakings became an American obsession, eliciting both marvel and anger. The marvel was about the technological and organizational feats required to build these roads across vast and often difficult terrain and the profound ways in which these projects transformed America—economically, geographically, and politically. The anger was about the power accruing to the men who built these roads and their consequent ability to hoodwink investors, bribe congressmen, exploit farmers and other small shippers, and engage in speculative activities so dangerous that they periodically brought the entire U.S. economy crashing to the ground. No industry did more to galvanize anticapitalist fury or to generate movements for economic regulation during the First Gilded Age than the railroads. Continue Reading »

4 Comments »

September 20th 2011
I miss Nora Ephron

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

Who else can turn out feminist commentary, pop culture awareness, and teh funny at such a clip?  I discovered Ephron as a teenager in the 1980s, when I came across copies of Crazy Salad (1975) and Scribble, Scribble (1978), two collections of her essays from the 1970s.  Reading her books made me want to learn more about that bygone era, and she taught me everything I know about some very 1970s things:  amyl nitrates, Jan Morris, and EST, for example–things that a sheltered midwestern suburban teenager in 1984 had no other way to learn about.  I thought that she was very smart, very funny, and an incisive critic of her era. 

I understood when she went Hollywood and decided to write and direct movies–it pays a hell of a lot more than writing for print or online publications, after all.  And lord knows, it’s not like Hollywood is glutted with working women writers and directors who want to produce something other than bam-bam/cops-n-robbers/blowemup movies.  But I miss the writing she did in the 1970s, which was of the moment and became an important work documenting the history of feminism in that era.

She’s got a commentary this week on The Daily Beast from the perspective of someone who was “an adult in the 1960s.”  Accordingly, she serves as an important feminist corrective and offers some words of caution about the Mad Men-ripoff, 60s nostalgia trap of The Playboy Club, which is apparently a teevee show now.  I would love to quote the whole article, but you’ll just have to click this link to read it.  Here’s a little flava:

Inspired by the success of Mad Men, it has gone back to the early 1960s, to that golden moment just before the women’s movement came along and ruined everything. It’s about several Bunnies, an ambitious Chicago lawyer, and the mob. The show (or at least the opening episode) is not unlike Playboy magazine in the early years: it has its moments, but it’s mostly an excuse to show women’s breasts, which (in this version, because it’s on a network) are usually encased in fabulous pointy period bras or shoved upward in satin-polyester Bunny costumes. Hefner doesn’t appear except as a shadowy figure, like a masked mafioso in the Federal Witness Protection Program. But he does provide a weird, creepy voice-over, on which he says that Bunnies “were the only women in the world who could be anyone they wanted to be.” Continue Reading »

10 Comments »

September 19th 2011
How we teach history? Thoughts on the work of professional historians.

Posted under American history & book reviews & class & Gender & GLBTQ & Intersectionality & jobs & race & students & women's history

Joshua Kim writes at the Technology and Learning blog at Inside Higher Ed that he’s reading and really enjoying Charles Mann’s 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created.  Then, unfortunately, Kim makes a whole lot of questionable assumptions about the ways in which history is currently taught or should be taught in university classrooms.

The last time I learned about the Columbian Exchange was in high school. Learning dates and the sequence of events, and getting familiar with maps and geography, was central to my high school history experience. As a history major in college the emphasis on maps, dates, and events diminished, as the work in primary sources came to the forefront.

I can’t imagine 1493will be much required in college history courses, as this type of historical narrative for a popular audience (written by a journalist and not a historian) probably does not conform to how postsecondary history is taught. This is perhaps too bad, as I just did not know most of the history of Columbian Exchange described in 1493.

Learning how to “do history”, to work like historians, is probably not a bad thing. But most history undergraduate students will not go on to graduate school. A book like 1493, a book with strong opinions and lots of dates, geography, people and events, might be an example of the kind of works we should make room for in our history courses.

Kim is probably right that a synthetic work aimed at a popular audience probably won’t be on a whole lot of college and university syllabi.  But why should books aimed at a general audience be taught by professional historians, when students might instead read a more challenging book with a professor on hand to guide them through it?  Students are perfectly free at any point of their college or post-collegiate lives to pick up a book like 1493 and read and enjoy it, just as Kim did.

Quite frankly, I don’t think I need to show my students how to read a book like 1493 or celebratory biographies of the so-called “Founding Fathers” by David McCullough.  Continue Reading »

32 Comments »

July 18th 2011
Not one more winter in the tipi, honey: gender and labor “off the grid”

Posted under American history & book reviews & Gender & local news & technoskepticism & women's history

Via Corrente, another Colorado blogger Michelle Nijhuis writes perceptively about the differences (encore!) in women’s and men’s labor when an idealistic heterosexualist couple decide to live their low impact dream inside a solar-powered yurt or straw-bale home:

Here’s what happens: A couple arrives in our valley, young, strong, in love, and full of plans to build an ultra-energy-efficient house out of straw bales, rammed earth, adobe bricks, or, heck, used bottlecaps. They set to work with equal enthusiasm, buying land and setting up temporary quarters in a yurt or a tipi. The weather’s good, the views are great, and the new house is humming along.

But at some point, the weather turns, or the project slows. Or a baby arrives, and everything gets more complicated. For whatever reason, their brio fades, NOMWITTH (“Not one more winter in the tipi, honey.”) sets in, and what was once a joint project becomes a battlefield, XX vs. XY. In mild cases, help is hired, the house gets a roof, and all ends well. In more serious cases, one person — inevitably XX — splits town for a fully-furnished condo with central heating, leaving XY alone with the low-carbon dream.

So why is it always XX who bails out on “the dream?”  Is it that the solar panels can’t power up their hair dryers and curling irons and they miss watching E! and HGTV?  Continue Reading »

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