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Archive for November, 2010

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

David Foster Wallace as Philosopher

David Foster Wallace“I was just awfully good at technical philosophy, and it was the first thing I’d ever been really good at, and so everybody, including me, anticipated I’d make it a career. But it sort of emptied out for me somewhere around age twenty.”—David Foster Wallace

Fate, Time and Language: An Essay in Free Will is David Foster Wallace’s now-famous undergraduate thesis in philosophy. Written while at Amherst, the work challenges the philosopher Richard Taylor’s logical argument regarding human beings’ control over the future.

As James Ryerson points out in his introduction (read an excerpt here), for a period Wallace considered both fiction and philosophy as possible future careers. After receiving his MFA, Wallace was accepted and enrolled in the PhD. program in philosophy at Harvard. Realizing that pursuing philosophy would not allow him to continue writing and grappling with depression, Wallace abandoned his formal pursuit of philosophy.

However, as Ryerson points out in his introduction, philosophy would “forever loom large in his life” and work. Ryerson writes,

In addition to having been formative for his cast of mind, philosophy would repeatedly crop up in the subject matter of his writing. His essay “Authority and American Usage,” about the so-called prescriptivist/descriptivist debate among linguists and lexicographers, features an exegesis of Wittgenstein’s argument against the possibility of a private language. In Everything and More, his book about the history of mathematical ideas of infinity, his guiding insight is that the disputes over mathematical procedures were ultimately debates about metaphysics—about “the ontological status of math entities.” His article “Consider the Lobster” begins as a journalistic report from the annual Maine Lobster Festival but soon becomes a philosophical meditation on the question, “Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?” This question leads Wallace into discussions about the distinction between pain and suffering; about the relation between ethics and (culinary) aesthetics; about how we might understand cross-species moral obligations; and about the “hard-core philosophy”—the “metaphysics, epistemology, value theory, ethics”—required to determine the principles that allow us to conclude even that other humans feel pain and have a legitimate interest in not doing so.

Tuesday, November 30th, 2010

New Book Tuesday

Humans, Beasts, and GhostsThe following books are now available:

Humans, Beasts, and Ghosts: Stories and Essays
Qian Zhongshu

The Shift: Israel-Palestine from Border Struggle to Ethnic Conflict
Menachem Klein

The Implied Spider: Politics and Theology in Myth (Updated with a New Preface)
Wendy Doniger

Harmony and War: Confucian Culture and Chinese Power Politics
Yuan-kang Wang

Monday, November 29th, 2010

The Novelist’s Lexicon Inspires Other Authors

The Novelist's LexiconTaking their cue from The Novelist’s Lexicon: Writers on the Words That Define Their Work, The National Post asked Yann Martel and a cross-section of Canadian writers to choose a word that “opens a door to their work.”

Words selected include: almost, apocalypse, but, centaur, dbaajimoweonini, detergent, mirth, rationality, revolution, and tree. Here’s Peter Darbyshire, author of The Warhol Gang on his word, apocalypse:

Apocalypse is the narrative and social arc of all my work. The inevitable destruction of the characters, of their world, of our world. The end of meaning. But also a search for new meaning in the wreckage. The explosion of the novel itself as I try to find a new form for each work, a form that hasn’t already been done to genre death. The destruction of the writer, as I try to annihilate my past and reimagine myself with each work. But apocalypse also means revelations. I like to think of my books as MRI scans of the present, revealing the tumours hidden in our fantasies. Obituaries of the future. Also, my next book is called The Apocalypse Corpse.

For a much shorter entry there is Yann Martel’s word, up: “I [want] to let the meaning of Up be born in the reader’s mind.”

Monday, November 29th, 2010

Caryl Rivers, Rosalind Chait Barnett: Single-Sex Ed Based on Baloney Science

The Truth About Boys and GirlsIn a recent op-ed Caryl Rivers and Rosalind Chait Barnett, authors of the forthcoming The Truth About Girls and Boys: Challenging Toxic Stereotypes About Our Children, applaud the recent decision by Boston school superintendent Carol Johnson to back away from an earlier decision to set up single-sex academies in the city’s schools.

Rivers and Barnett argue that arguments for single-sex education are based on false scientific assumptions. They point to recent studies that debunk the notion that there are biological or neurological differences between the brains of boys and girls. Moreover, large-scale studies of single-sex and co-ed classrooms indicate that neither type of classroom is superior in terms of academic achievement. The drive for single-sex education is often led by people with political motivations who draw on pseudo-science to back up their claims.

Rivers and Barnett conclude by citing the neuroscientist Lise Elliot:

Lise Eliot argues that the danger of exaggerating the biological differences between the sexes is enormous: “Kids rise or fall according to what we believe about them, and the more we dwell on the differences between boys and girls, the likelier such stereotypes are to crystallize into children’s self-perceptions and self-fulfilling prophecies.”

But we continue to believe that girls can’t do math and that boys’ verbal abilities are innately deficient–neither of which is true.

So kudos to Boston Superintendent Johnson for resisting the easy temptation to go with popular–but very unscientific–school policies. Maybe she’s started a parade for that many educators will join.

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

Andrew Smith Exposes the Truth About Thanksgiving


In the chapter “Giving Thanks” from his book Eating History: Thirty Turning Points in the Making of American Cuisine, Andrew Smith reveals that “the whole idea that the Pilgrims were the first to celebrate Thanksgiving in America was, in fact preposterous.”

The myth of Thanksgiving first took hold in 1841 when Alexander Young, a Unitarian minister in Boston published Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers of the Colony of Plymouth, in which he added a footnote to a description of a feast by one of the settlers in Plymouth. Young claimed that this was the first instance of Thanksgiving but in fact as Smith describes, “it was an insignificant event and the Pilgrims took no notice of it in subsequent years.”

A few years later, the popular poet and writer Sarah Josepha Hale campaigned to make Thanksgiving a national holiday even writing to Abraham Lincoln, who in 1863 declared the last Thursday of November to a national day of Thanksgiving. As the century wore on the religious character of the holiday faded and food, and especially turkey became a focal point? Why turkey?

While many other main dishes had been tried, it was turkey that thrived, mainly because it was less expensive than the alternatives….The traditional side dishes—stuffing, gravy, sweet potatoes, succotash, corn bread, cranberries, and pies—were inexpensive as well, so that Thanksgiving dinner was affordable to all but the poorest Americans.

Thanksgiving did have its skeptics, most notably John Harvey Kellogg, inventor of corn flakes. Kellogg “believed that the large meal was a tragedy in the making that could cripple digestive ‘organs completely and produce a fatal uremia.’”


Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010

New Book Tuesday: David Foster Wallace and More

David Foster WallaceThe following books are now available:

Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will
David Foster Wallace

Perversion for Profit: The Politics of Pornography and the Rise of the New Right
Whitney Strub

The Demon at Agi Bridge and Other Japanese Tales
Edited by Haruo Shirane and translated by Burton Watson

The Other Cold War
Heonik Kwon

Strange Wonder: The Closure of Metaphysics and the Opening of Awe (Now available in paper)
Mary-Jane Rubenstein

For more recent titles.

Monday, November 22nd, 2010

Qian Zhongshu — The Best Chinese Writer You’ve Never Heard of

Qian ZhongshuIn an essay for The China Beat, Christopher Rea, assistant professor of modern Chinese literature at the University of British Columbia, calls Qian Zhongshu, “the best Chinese writers you’ve never heard of.” So who was Qian?

Qian is perhaps best known as the author of the novel Fortress Besieged but as the forthcoming collection Humans, Beasts, and Ghosts: Stories and Essays reveals, Qian was also a talented short story writer and essayist. As Rea writes, Qian had an urbane wit and breadth of vision that distinguished his essays and fiction. His work, Rea suggests, transcends the political readings that seem to dominate Western interpretations of Chinese writers.

This, despite the fact that Qian’s life was very much shaped by Chinese history and politics. Qian and his wife remained in China after Mao and the Communists took power in 1949. He was assigned to translating Mao’s poetry in English but during the Cultural Revolution as sent off for re-education. After Mao’s death Qian’s work enjoyed a resurgence once again.

Rea concludes by summarizing the meaning, impact, and legacy of Qian’s work:

Qian himself treated life like “one big book” and claimed to be content with merely jotting down “piecemeal, spontaneous impressions” in its margins. In fact, the panoramic vision we find in Qian’s “jottings” marks him as one of the twentieth-century’s great literary cosmopolitans. If he remains little known in the West, it is mostly because he wrote in Chinese.

Qian’s writings thus pose a challenge not just to overpoliticized views of China, but to the presumption that to be cosmopolitan is to play on the West’s terms. Living under three governments (Nationalist, Japanese, and Communist), Qian’s most “political” act was to establish his own autonomous republic of letters. Worldly and multilingual, he chose to live in China and write in Chinese. This is not to romanticize Qian as an “apolitical” author or, conversely, a patriot. The point is rather that he sustained an extraordinary degree of creative independence from his immediate circumstances. In Qian’s works, then, we find one “China” that rarely makes headlines.

Friday, November 19th, 2010

The Novelist’s Lexicon: “fascinating and strangely disciplined”

The Novelist's LexiconThe Los Angeles Times book blog Jacket Copy called The Novelist’s Lexicon: Writers on the Words That Define Their Work “a fascinating and strangely disciplined set of responses” to the question posed to writers to find one word that creates a window into their work.

The book includes pieces from Annie Proulx, Jonathan Lethem, Tariq Ali, Adam Thirlwell, Rick Moody, Dennis Cooper, James Meek, Daniel Mendelsohn and National Book Award winner Colum McCann. Jacket Copy also excerpted the contribution from Israeli humorist and filmmaker Etgar Keret, who chose the word “balagan.”

Balagan, a word that migrated to the Hebrew language from Yiddish, means “total chaos.” But this word is unique because, contrary to the implied negative value the concept has in other languages, the subtext of balagan is positive. True, that positiveness is not overt — a bit like a proud parent trying to hide a smile from a mischief-making son — but it is completely there. Yet chaos for a society that is itself full of balagan is nothing less than proof of vitality itself.

For more on the book, you can also read Jonathan Lethem’s piece on furniture.

Friday, November 19th, 2010

University Press Blog Roundup

To showcase the richness of university press publishing, every so often we like to highlight interesting and provocative items from other university press blogs. Apologies for those we did not include in this installment (see the blog roll for other press blogs).

Carole McGranahan, author of Arrested Histories: Tibet, the CIA, and Memories of a Forgotten War, on the Dalai Lama’s connection to the CIA on the Duke University Press blog.

Kristin Lewis, one of the authors of The Measure of America, 2010-2011: Mapping Risks and Resilience, is interviewed on the Brian Lehrer show as featured on the NYU Press blog.

Adam Bradley, co-editor of The Anthology of Rap is featured on “Soundcheck” via the Yale University Press blog.

Jay Gallentine was presented with the AAS Emme Award for his book Ambassadors from Earth: Pioneering Explorations with Unmanned Spacecraft via the University of Nebraska Press blog.

Jennifer Frick-Ruppert, author of Mountain Nature: A Seasonal Natural History of the Southern Appalachians is interviewed on the University of North Carolina Press blog.

Richard Hughes, author of Christian America and the Kingdom of God, continues his series “The Christian Right in Context: Building a Christian America,” via the University of Illinois Press blog.

The University of Chicago Press blog launches its “Top Five or Ten” feature with a look at five “wholly relevant recent books that … make sense of developments in the liberal arts and their bright digital future.”

Julian Cribb is interviewed about his new book The Coming Famine: The Global Food Crisis and What We Can Do to Avoid It on the University of California Press blog.

The Princeton University Press blog runs a feature on The Atlantic article praising small presses and slow poetry.

Bourdieu and the hipster? The Harvard University Press blog explains.

Thursday, November 18th, 2010

A Brilliant Rivalry: Victor Cha and David Kang

David Kang and Victor Cha

Amid the sometimes competitive world of academia and the frequently divisive world of contemporary politics, it would be unlikely to find a collaborative relationship among two people from different sides of the political spectrum. However, the influential scholars David Kang and Victor Cha have found a way to develop a productive relationship that has led to a book, Nuclear North Korea: A Debate on Engagement Strategies, the series Contemporary Asia and the World, and the Korea Project.

This remarkable relationship as well as Kang and Cha’s extraordinary individual accomplishments were recently profiled on KoreAm. Victor Cha, who is considered a hawk on North Korea and worked in the George W. Bush administration, had long been aware of David Kang, “who wants to open the isolated nation to capitalism and Western ideas.” Their parallel paths in academia came to fruition after each wrote op-eds for the New York Times on North Korea, which led to the writing of Nuclear North Korea.

As the article explains, despite their different approaches they have found room for agreement

Cha and Kang, considered moderates in their views, took opposite directions to the same conclusion—that, as reprehensible as the actions of the Kim Jong-il regime were, its behavior was comprehensible, even rational, and therefore, there was a path for diplomacy. They commonly urged Washington to pursue some form of engagement with the North. For Kang, it could pave a gradual path to regime change; for Cha, engagement could be used to test whether Kim Jong-il would truly disarm.

One of the next chapters in this collaboration will be the eagerly anticipated updated version of Nuclear North Korea.

Wednesday, November 17th, 2010

Gary Francione on the Abolitionist Approach

Gary FrancioneOn his blog Animal Rights: The Abolitionist Approach, Gary Francione, most recently the author of The Animal Rights Debate: Abolition or Regulation, writes a series of commentaries/podcasts.

In the most recent installment, “The Animal Rights Debate,” the Abolitionist Approach Discussion Forum, and a Response to Nicolette Hahn Niman, Francione discusses among other issues Niman’s recent article in The Atlantic, Dogs Aren’t Dinner: The Flaws in an Argument for Veganism. In the article, Niman justifies the eating of certain kinds of animals, killed under certain conditions. Francione challenges Niman, arguing:

Ms. Niman denies that we suffer from moral schizophrenia when we treat some animals as members of our families but stick forks into others. Her analysis, in a nutshell, is that, as a cultural matter, we have a different relationship with dogs than we do pigs.

That is precisely the problem: as a cultural matter, we treat some sentient nonhumans as things and some as persons. But cultural norms cannot serve as any sort of justification of cultural norms! If they could, then racism, sexism, and all sorts of discrimination and human rights violations would be justified.

Tuesday, November 16th, 2010

Jonathan Soffer interviewed about Ed Koch by the New York Press

Ed KochIn a just-published interview with the New York Press, Jonathan Soffer, author of Ed Koch and the Rebuilding of New York City, weighs in on a variety of Koch-related topics, ranging from his distinctive and often abrasive personality and his post-Mayoral career to Koch’s sexuality.

One of the questions, Soffer addresses is the resurgence of interest in 1960s and 70s New York and the Koch and John Lindsay administrations. Soffer responds:

People are fascinated because the city went so low; because it’s a period of transition where the old post-war LaGuardia city is largely destroyed. Destroyed in terms of physically destroyed, destroyed in terms of the political economy of the city and how the city makes its money—all of that collapsed in this period of 1962 to 1984. It is being replaced over the course of the Koch administration. On the other hand the Rent is Too Damn High has become a common slogan. My rent back in 1977 was $260 a month for an apartment in Manhattan. And it wasn’t that bad a place to live. The city was much more different place to live in, in a lot of ways. But it was tough to live here.

People were proud of overcoming that for the pleasures of living here. They very much valued the pleasures of the city. Whether that would have continued as more and more of the city continued to burn, if the city had actually gone into bankruptcy I don’t think that would have continued. It might have gotten so bad that they would have left like they left Detroit.


Friday, November 12th, 2010

The Green Life recommends Whaling in Japan: Power, Politics, and Diplomacy

Recently the Sierra Club’s blog, The Green Life, ran a round-up of new recommended books on environmental governance. Jun Morikawa’s excellent new study of the politics of Japan’s whaling industry, Whaling in Japan: Power, Politics, and Diplomacy was listed and praised as “a timely exploration of the political and cultural background to the Japanese whaling industry, as well as the real environmental stakes, taking all sides into account and pulling no punches.”

Thursday, November 11th, 2010

Siddharth Kara Wins the Frederick Douglass Book Prize

Sex Trafficking, Siddharth KaraWe were very excited to learn that Siddharth Kara won the Frederick Douglass Book Prize for his book Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery.

The prize goes to the best book written in English on slavery or abolition. Sex Trafficking is the first winner to examine contemporary slavery. Martha Hodes, the 2010 Douglass Prize Jury Chair and Professor of History at New York University, wrote:

[Sex Trafficking] carefully and compassionately convinces us to understand the phenomenon of modern-day human sex trafficking as part of the history of slavery and abolition. For his research, Kara posed as a customer across Asia, Europe, and the United States, entangling himself with perpetrators and speaking confidentially with victims. Sidestepping sensationalism and absent any delusion of casting himself as a rescuer, Kara relates wrenching stories in lucid prose, thereby shedding a strong and steady beam of light on a widespread and ongoing global crime. With an exemplary mixture of courage and humility, the author combines a gripping first-person narrative with trenchant economic analysis and clear-eyed proposals for change. In the end, this book prevents us from consigning slavery to the past.

For more on the book: Watch a video of Kara discussing the book | Read an interview with Siddharth Kara | Read excerpts from the book or look inside the book.

Wednesday, November 10th, 2010

Obama’s new bid to engage the Muslim World — A Post by Roger Hardy

Roger HardyIn light of Obama’s trip to Indonesia, Roger Hardy, author of The Muslim Revolt: A Journey Through Political Islam, looks at the administration’s attempts to wins the “hearts and minds” of the Muslim world in an op-ed on the BBC.

Of course, one of the signature moments in the first months of Obama’s presidency was his speech in Cairo offering a “new beginning.” However, as Hardy points out “recent polls in that, in key parts of the Muslim world, [Obama's] credibility has slumped. In part this is because Obama has followed the policies of the Bush administration.” Hardy writes:

Although President Obama has made some crucial changes – prohibiting torture, and banishing the term “war on terror” from official discourse – he has stuck with many of the security policies of his predecessor.

Covert operations in Afghanistan – fresh details of which were revealed by Mr Woodward – have been stepped up.

Issues surrounding the status of prisoners in Guantanamo, and whether and where they should stand trial, are unresolved.

Strikes by Predator drones against suspected al-Qaeda militants in Pakistan have increased.

Hardy concludes by writing:

Offering an outstretched hand to the Muslim world – whether in Cairo or Jakarta – is a sign of a president reluctant to put all his faith in military power.

He believes global problems require “soft-power” solutions, not just Predator strikes.

But two years after his election, many in the Muslim world and beyond have yet to be persuaded he can deliver.

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

An Interview with B. Alan Wallace

The following is an interview with B. Alan Wallace, author of Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic: A Manifesto for the Mind Sciences and Contemplative Practice coming out Fall 2011.

In this interview Wallace reflects on some of the major ideas and themes that have informed his work. And for the time being, you can read some of his other works Mind in the Balance: Meditation in Science, Buddhism, and Christianity, Hidden Dimensions: The Unification of Physics and Consciousness, Contemplative Science: Where Buddhism and Neuroscience Converge, and Buddhism and Science: Breaking New Ground.

Question: How does Meditations of a Buddhist Skeptic differ from your previous books?

B. Alan Wallace: In this new book I synthesize many of the themes addressed in my earlier works, but I also focus more clearly on specific issues such as areas of confrontation and collaboration between Buddhism and science, the role of semantic information and meaning in the natural world, human nature, the question of free will, a Buddhist model of mental health, Buddhist methods of attentional training and contemplative inquiry, and the role of skepticism in Buddhism and how it may help break down ideological barriers that currently inhibit the scientific imagination. All too often, skepticism is applied only to others’ beliefs, but a central theme of Buddhism is that it is our own false beliefs and assumptions that lie at the root of our own unrest and discontent. So the primary focus of our skepticism should be inwardly directed, rather than aimed at other’s beliefs. My own encounter with Buddhism and science has helped me enormously in this regard, and I hope this book will likewise be of service to others in their open-minded pursuit of greater understanding.

Q: How did your background in science inform your experiences as a Buddhist monk?

BAW: My background in science traces back to my education when I was 13 years old and was deeply inspired by a science teacher to devote my life to the study of ecology and wildlife biology. This was my aim during my high school years and during the first two years of university education. Then at the age of 20, my interests turned more toward Buddhist philosophy and meditation, and a year later I left university and for the next 13 years devoted myself to the study and practice of Tibetan Buddhism, first in India and later in Europe and America. But the spirit of open-minded inquiry, skepticism of commonly accepted beliefs and assumptions, and the emphasis on experiential investigation—which are the great strengths of science at its best—has powerfully influenced my engagement with Buddhism. Here for the first time I found a spiritual tradition that welcomed such pragmatism, constructive skepticism, and empiricism. So this allowed me to unite my scientific interests and spiritual aspirations.


Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

New Book Tuesday

Columbia History of the Vietnam WarThe following books are now available:

The Columbia History of the Vietnam War
Edited by David L. Anderson

Genetic Justice: DNA Data Banks, Criminal Investigations, and Civil Liberties
Sheldon Krimsky and Tania Simoncelli

Gilbert and Sullivan: Gender, Genre, Parody
Carolyn Williams

Strange Wonder: The Closure of Metaphysics and the Opening of Awe (Now available in paper)
Mary-Jane Rubenstein

Islamic Finance in the Global Economy: Second Edition, Revised and Updated
Ibrahim Warde

Monday, November 8th, 2010

Jeffrey Perry Interviewed by Laura Flanders on GRITTV

Jeffrey Perry’s biography Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918 is now available in paperback. Here is an interview with Jeffrey Perry on Grittv.com with Laura Flanders.

Friday, November 5th, 2010

University Press Blog Roundup

To showcase the richness of university press publishing, every so often we like to highlight interesting and provocative items from other university press blogs. Apologies for those we did not include in this installment (see the blog roll for other press blogs).

Lara J. Nettelfield and Sarah E. Wagner discuss the fifteenth anniversary of the Srebrenica Genocide on the Cambridge University Press blog.

Duke University Press goes behind the scenes at a book printer.

The design director at Harvard University Press talks about new cover designs.

Kim Price-Glynn, author of Strip Club: Gender, Power, and Sex Work, is interviewed at the NYU Press blog.

Gordon Thompson, author of Please Please Me: Sixties British Pop, Inside Out revisits 1965 and the release of the Who’s “My Generation” over at the Oxford University Press blog.

VIDEO: A lecture from David Weintraub, author of How Old is the Universe? on “White Dwarfs and Baked Potatoes,” from the Princeton University Press blog.

A podcast interview with Toni Yancey, author of Instant Recess: Building a Fit Nation 10 minutes at a Time, at the University of California Press blog.

The University of Chicago Press’s interesting take on the viral video “So You Want to Get a PhD in the Humanities?”

A short excerpt from the forthcoming Woody Guthrie: American Radical, by Will Kaufman on the University of Illinois Press blog.

Thursday, November 4th, 2010

PRI’s The World on The Curious Case of Mandogi’s Ghost

Mandogi's GhostThe Web site, PRI’s The World consistently reviews books in translation that other mainstream publications might overlook. Recently, they discussed two “horror” novels, one from Iran, The Blind Owl, and one from Japan, The Curious Case of Mandogi’s Ghost by Kim Sok-Pom.

Kim was a zainichi, meaning a name attributed to individual living in Japan but of foreign ancestry (Kim was Korean). This the reviews suggests imbues the book with an “existential sense of humanity lost somewhere betwixt and between – between colonial subject and colonizer, human and inhuman, heaven and hell. The book appears be an “inspiring” yarn of the marginal (perhaps in ghostly form) striking back at the tyrannical, but it consistently undercuts being a simple allegory of good versus evil, suggesting that sin has spread to the point that ‘heaven and earth are full of bitter spirits who keep screaming and searching for something…’”

The review concludes:

Kim balances … a number of emotional tones, from the fractured fairy tale doings of Mandogi’s life in the temple to his truly bizarre sexual encounters, instances of apocalyptic terror giving way to wry comedy…. The Curious Tale of Mandogi’s Ghost succeeds as a very dark black comedy, almost Swiftian in its ferocity. Even “ghosts,” such as the hapless Mandogi, have to rethink how they go about frightening flesh-and-blood targets who have been coarsened by unspeakable atrocities…For Kim, the barbarity of the 20th century meant reinventing the ghost story.