Archive for the 'book reviews' Category

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 »

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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 »

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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 »

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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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July 16th 2011
Martin Amis on sex and death

Posted under art & bad language & book reviews & European history & the body & unhappy endings

I’ve been a huge fan of Martin Amis’s writing ever since I discovered him and read his back catalog in the 1990s.  What I love about his work is that he never pulls back from his self-loathing instincts.  More than any other novelist, he describes in minute detail the horrors of inhabiting human flesh, and even his youthful novels are obsessed with documenting bodily corruption and decay. 

The Pregnant Widow is unfortunately a disappointment.  Amis pulls back on the self-loathing, and he shies away from the horrors of the flesh.  Perhaps this was inevitable, given the setting for the book (1970), the fact that the main characters are all in their 20s, and that the male protagonist Keith Nearing is once again only a lightly disguised version of the now 60-ish Martin Amis, and the middle-aged and elderly tend to romanticize youth. 

There are some good lines about aging and the prospect of death, however, that are vintage Amis:

When you become old. . . When you become old, you find yourself auditioning for the role of a lifetime; then, after interminable rehersals, you’re finally starring in a horror film–a talentless, irresponsible, and above all low-budget horror film, in which (as is the way with horror films) they’re saving the worst for last. (5)

Continue Reading »

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July 13th 2011
Lori Ginzberg on Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Posted under American history & book reviews & class & Gender & race & women's history

Kudos to Penn State University historian Lori Ginzberg for her 2009 biography of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and for her interview this morning about the book on NPR’s Morning Edition The angle of the interview, and of the book I gather, is Stanton’s bitterness about voting rights being extended to African American men via the Fifteenth Amendment before white women won the franchise.  Stanton in fact would die almost a generation before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution granting voting rights to all adults, and the U.S. has never passed an Equal Rights Amendment.  The division among Civil War-era reformers like Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Frederick Douglass who had been allies in the struggle both for women’s rights and for abolition, is one that continues to shape the relationships between feminism and anti-racist movements in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. 

I look forward to the day when biographers of white, male progressives make the focus of their books the racism and sexism inherent in their activism and writings.  Continue Reading »

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July 4th 2011
Happy Independence Day!

Posted under American history & book reviews & childhood & happy endings & women's history

Here’s to 235 more, if we can keep our republic.  Famille Historiann made it out of the wilderness and back to Durango last night, so today is a travel day for me.  For a remembrance of Independence Days past, here are a few posts from the past that capture the spirit of 1776:

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June 18th 2011
Saturday round-up: slutty college years edition

Posted under American history & art & bad language & book reviews & childhood & European history & fluff & Gender & jobs & students & the body & unhappy endings & wankers & women's history

Good morning, y’all!  It’s another changeable day here in southern Maine, so just in case I end up spending the day at the beach and you don’t, here are a few items that will keep you entertained indoors:

  • First of all, have you been reading Tenured Radical lately?  It’s difficult to keep up with that woman, but I particularly loved Thursday’s cranky screed, “Question:  Why Do Development Offices Raise Money for Sports When Academics Are Being Cut?”  Excellent question!  As many of you know, I’m opposed philosophically and budgetarily to the free men’s sports farm clubsthat even Podunk Colleges and Directional State U.’s feel the need to provide to the for-profit teams of the NBA and the NFL, but when even sports-loving dyke proffies start wondering about the size and heft of the Athletic Department’s budget, compared to (for example) the Classics Department, somehow I feel less like the vox clamantis in deserto.  (And I don’t actually read a word of Latin!)  Repeat after me:  club sports good, free farm clubs bad. 
  • TR also shares what not to do when pi$$ed off by your colleagues.  (What is it with the peeing, boys?  Seriously?)
  • In “Fat Girl Woes,” New Kid on the Hallway writes, “You know what really annoys me? The way some stores that carry my size online won’t carry that size in the stores. I mean, clearly those stores would like to sell me stuff and take my money, but they don’t want me actually to shop in the store? You know, in public?”  (She’s not just a student-blogger any more–she has finished her law degree and really needs to wear suits pretty much all day long in her new career.)  I’ve noticed over the last several years that the combined forces of vanity sizing (what was once an 7-8 or a 5-6 is now a 4 or XS, for example) plus the fat discrimination New Kid reports means that the range of sizes represented on most store racks is narrower than ever.
  • Joyce Chaplin reviews Mary Beth Norton’s new book, Separated by their Sex:  Women in Public and Private in the Colonial Atlantic World, in tomorrow’s New York Times Book Review (h/t Blake at Down and Out in Denver.)  Chaplin writes, “The materials are rich, but most historians will be surprised that Norton goes after them with the equivalent of a power tool that has lost its edge. [Ed. note:  OUCH!] Continue Reading »

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May 2nd 2011
Sausage party, or wiener roast? Founding Fathers/Presidential Chic, again!

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

David Eisenbach, co-author of One Nation Under Sex: How the Private Lives of Presidents, First Ladies and Their Lovers Changed the Course of American History along with pR0n king Larry Flynt, has responded to my critique of his book, which was more a critique of the genre than of his book in particular.  As some readers may recall, this was the nut of my comments:

It’s funny (and by funny, I guess I mean LOLSOB) how some analyses (like those offered by the feminists and queers) go from being dangerous, unsourced, risky, out-on-a-limb evidence problems, to being conventional wisdom in about 30 seconds these days.  Too bad for you, historians of sexuality–it looks like you risked your careers, your fortunes, and your sacred honor only to get buried in a footnote in a book by Joseph Ellis or Robert Remini, because those are the only books any authors of popular histories will ever read or cite.

These comments are of course aligned with my overall critique of Founding Fathers/Presidential history, which I explained most recently last summer:

Here’s a suggestion, boys:  just stop writing about the so-called “Founding Fathers!”  Stop it!  Stop!  Go find something new, interesting, and utterly undiscovered in the archives, for a change!

Like I said:  “the gamut from A to B” in early American history.  It’s all the so-called Founding Fathers, all of the time.  ((Yawn.)) 

Eisenbach replied to last week’s post on his new book like this: Continue Reading »

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