Sunday, September 23, 2012

Bibliophile: End with a Bang

It's 9 degrees out, and feels like 6. There's also supposed to be scattered showers. Do I have any excuses for not going out in weather like this? Oh, right. This is Bibliophile.

This week, we're going to Memorial University in Newfoundland.  The Maritimes, and such.  MU has a real new books page, which is nice after some of the things we've dealt with recently.  The page has an RSS feed, and divides the new books by the library that purchased them, and subject area.  Subject area is organized based on alphabetic order rather than call number, which is a bit unusual.

The war of the sexes : how conflict and cooperation have shaped men and women from prehistory to the present / Paul Seabright. Judging from the title, we're about to enter the "Men are from Mars, women are from the other one" argument. To his credit, Seabright doesn't go there. Rather, his argument is that the advantage of humans, evolutionarily speaking, is that we cooperate, but because so much hinges on that cooperation and we work so closely, there's a lot of conflict. And while that conflict has traditionally favored the male, things are in turmoil now thanks to economic changes. Does that imply that women are better off than men financially? Because that's certainly not the case. Or perhaps he's just saying that men are slightly worse off than usual. He's starting with a comparison between human courtship habits and those of flies, so there may be a biological component to his argument. I can't say I'm that interested in a book that starts with a narrative sleight of hand, though.   H.

  Risk, reproduction, and narratives of experience / edited by Lauren Fordyce and Aminata Maraesa; foreword by Carole H. Browner and afterword by Rayna Rapp.  
Once upon a time, I was a big proponent of auditing grad courses. While other engagements no longer allow that indulgence, I still look fondly on one course in particular: modern and 18th century reproductive technologies, the only graduate course I've ever heard of that was team-taught by a 18th century English professor and a gynecologist. The exact details of the class is something I usually reserve for ice-breakers at parties, but the relevant point at the moment is that it really opened my eyes to social negotiations and positions placed on women in the area of reproduction and prenatal care. This anthology is about that relation, and how it invokes the concept of risk. The essays, as you might imagine from the title, are sociological explorations of risk and reproduction in various contexts--some of them very, very specialized. There's essays on ultrasound among Haitians in Florida, Maternal Responsibility and Shiftings of Blame in North Ghana, and Mothers and Young Child Health among Datoga Pastoralists in Northern Tanzia. The Datoga, incidentally, are a tribe from the Ngorongoro District of the Arusha Region of Tanzia. So that checks out. I do like the topic, but the narrow focus may be off-putting.  H.

 Merchants of despair : radical environmentalists, criminal pseudo-scientists, and the fatal cult of antihumanism / Robert Zubrin.  
The cover of this book has a picture of a nearly submerged Statue of Liberty. "You Maniacs! You blew it--uh, sank it! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!" Ahem. Zubrin argues that society has shifted from seeing itself as something "precious, worth protecting and fighting for," to seeing human beings as a cancer on the earth, and endangering natural order. He calls this latter shift antihumanism, and traces its roots from Thomas Malthus to Al Gore. Chapters include Thomas Malthus, "The Most Dismal Scientist," "Darwin's Moral Inversion," eugenics, Nazis, Doomsday Cults, Green Police, "The Betrayal of the Left," and "Global Warming and the Madness of Crowds." Now, I'll agree that it's better to light a candle than curse the darkness, and that the fear of an event can actually play a part in bringing it out (bank failure, for example). But it seems to me that rhetorically aligning Nazi eugenics with global warming is, uh, problematic. And honestly, I think Zubrin's premise is wrong from the ground up. There's a mile of difference between believing that everything in society is the best it's ever been (remember British Imperialism? Remember how that wasn't cool?)believing that humanity is pretty good, just like there's a difference between believing that humanity is a scourge that needs to be wiped out and believing that, hey, we got some work to do. That said, it looks like Zubrin has does his research, and connected the negative effects, in particular, of Mathusian economics throughout history. It's clearly a highly contentious book, and may be worth reading on those grounds.

The extraordinary in the ordinary : the aesthetics of everyday life / Thomas Leddy.
I've been making an effort recently to look at trees. Yes, trees. I'm in the middle of southern Ontario, so I'm not going to be experiencing mountains or valleys any time soon, and even a lake-sized body of water is a bit of a trek. But trees are all around me, and it feels nice to just take a moment and appreciate nature around me. From what I gather, that's the argument in Leddy's book--not nature, per se, but everything, appreciating the aesthetics of things around us in our everyday lives. I noticed a pattern, though, to the professed focus of his investigation: "Thomas Leddy stresses the close relationship between everyday aesthetics and the aesthetics of art, but places special emphasis on neglected aesthetic terms such as ‘neat,’ ‘messy,’ ‘pretty,’ ‘lovely,’ ‘cute,’ and ‘pleasant.’" "Cute," "pretty,", "lovely"--these are all stereotypically aesthetic terms associated with feminine rather than masculine attributes. (I'll give you "messy.") Is there anything to be read in that?  H.

  Landscape ethnoecology : concepts of biotic and physical space / edited by Leslie Main Johnson and Eugene S. Hunn. This book is apparently a collection of essays looking at landscape in terms of regional and local management, how cultures perceive and balance habitat. Like the book on reproduction, it seems to be very regionally based (somewhat understandable, given that local and regional show up frequently in its description). Essays include " Landscape perception, classification and use among Sahelian Fulani in Burkina Faso (West-Africa),"The cultural significance of the habitat maƱaco taco to the Maijuna of the Peruvian Amazon," and "What's In a Word? Southern Paiute Place Names as Keys to Environmental Perception." And like in the reproduction book, I have to admit that the extreme regionalizing of the essays lessens my interest somewhat, though that doesn't detract from the value of the book to those interested in the subject.  H.

 The Chinese transformation of corporate culture / Colin S.C. Hawes.  
I remember in the 80s there was a slew of business books embracing Japanese practices, and another slew of them deeply concerned over the pending Japanese invasion. (And later too: see Michael Crichton's Rising Sun.) The focus is now on China, perhaps somewhat more justifiably, given the country's presence on the global economic scene. Hawes' book, from what I gather, is arguing that China is currently going the opposite route--rather than the US learning from China, China is trying to take lessons to transform its own corporations. (Does that make the US the encroaching, strange culture to be feared? Hmm.) The book features case studies with Haier, Huawei, and Mengniu, and how each tries to change itself while appearing to comply with the Chinese government's notion of a positive corporate culture. It's pretty much an open secret that the Chinese government's version of communist doesn't really have anything to do with the original Marxist version, but it's still fascinating to observe a culture that needs to regulate its behavior in terms of notion of the People's "socialist" corporate practice. In particular, Hawes analyzes how CEO role models, videos, and corporate magazines all work to promote new notions of proper business conduct.

The joy and pain of work : global attitudes and valuations, 1500-1650 / edited by Karin Hofmeester and Christine Moll-Murata. 
 Yeah, I think the title explains what's going on here: it's a collection of essays on how work was conceptualized in the 16th and 17th century. I'm vaguely curious, because it's usually the 18th and 19th centuries that get more attention in this regard, with the increases in imperialism and industrialism. Exactly what work would constitute in an earlier context isn't immediately clear. It might be a bit much to call it "global" attitudes, though it does discuss Islamic views as well as the usual European focus. Essays include studies of gender and work, two on labor in Italy, examines of Denmark and Russia, and the aforementioned Islamic chapters on Jewish ethics of women's work and Cairo. 

Retiring men : manhood, labor, and growing old in America, 1900-1960 / Gregory Wood. 
 If, as popular wisdom goes, Valentine's Day was invented to sell Hallmark cards, then I can only assume retirement was invented to sell golf memberships. My lame jokes aside, it's worth noting that retirement is still a relatively new social invention, right up there with the automobile and teenagers. Originally, one only ceased working when one was physically incapable of doing it anymore, and even now, we have this notion that if you're not working, your value as a citizen goes down. (The economic reality is that, even retired, your value as a consumer still goes strong. But it's kind of depressing that your main contribution to society is buying stuff.) Wood's approach is historically oriented, looking at how aging men could maintain traditional roles as the head of the family, as fixed income, mandatory retirement, and just plain longer life expectancy challenged former roles. The answer was an enlargement of leisure time, with golf, shuffleboard, social clubs, tool tinkering, new business ventures, and yard work; activity is necessary for a notion of masculinity. Personally, my answer is going to be videogames. Or whatever equivalent of videogames still exists fifty some years from now. Depending how society goes, my answer may be "living in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, Road Warrior style."  H.

 Private empire : ExxonMobil and American power / Steve Coll.
Disclosure: I have a friend whose dad works for Exxon, and there's a chance he might read this. The friend, not the dad. Although you never know. I'm not going to change what I say based on that consideration, but it's still there and present. Anyway, it's hard to examine rhetoric involving Big Oil in a non-subjective way; even the viewpoint that it's a necessary evil is already precluding the "evil" part. I don't think Coll is even attempting at the objective perspective though; the focus here is on "exposing" the "black box" of ExxonMobil and its place in American history. He starts with the Exxon Valdez in 1989, and builds to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, and ranges from the company's actions in Moscow to their corporate policy at home. It looks at public figures in the company such as Lee "Iron Ass" Raymond, and his successor, Rex Tillerson, and their role in environmental regulation. The book is in the style of investigative journalism, and uses interviews, previously classified government records, field reports, court records, and so forth to explore ExxonMobil's role in American policy. It's definitely a view cast from a particular perspective, but it seems like an informed view.  H.

The end of reading : from Gutenberg to Grand Theft Auto / David Trend.
Here's one that's of use for my dissertation: Trend argues that we're seeing a shift away from book-based literacy to something else. The book looks at the history of public literacy, and education. It doesn't seem to be offering an argument that I haven't seen elsewhere, but a little more support is never a bad thing. Despite my English background, I don't really have much a problem with the definition of literacy changing away from the print stuff. In fact, it could be argued that part of being a digital scholar means accepting that change with a bated breath. What annoys me is the embrace of digital scholarship as the be-all and the end-all without a real critique of what that scholarship *is*. Still, let's make a mental note to check this one out.  H.

  User unfriendly : consumer struggles with personal technologies, from clocks and sewing machines to cars and computers / Joseph J. Corn.
Considering my recent struggles in trying to get Bastion to admit that it can, in fact, run on my computer, I have a current affinity for complaints against unfriendly design interfaces. The book's blurb phrases this issue as an old/new dichotomy: we want the newest technology, but we struggle with figuring out how to use it. I don't know if that's quite it; there's plenty of old tech that is very, very unintuitive in terms of being user-friendly. Perhaps a more accurate assessment would be that we pride ourselves in being able to master a new technology, in integrating it into our lives in a meaningful way. Although in most cases, it's not so much changing the technology to fit us, but changing ourselves to fit technology. Corn's examination revolves around the experience of early adopters, the history of how and why people try to become the first to take on a new technology. The main technologies here are the automobile and the computer; good enough choices, I guess, if you want to get at things that fundamentally altered the lives of 20th century society. He also draws a sharp distinction between technology consumption and regular consumption, with the former requiring users to learn a set of new techniques before the consumption part can really begin. Interesting distinction, although again, one based just as much on the user's techniques than the actual technology. H.

Virtual water : tackling the threat to our planet's most precious resource / Tony Allan.
Either there are a lot of books coming out recently describing potential crises with water management, or it's a favorite purchase subject for university libraries. Either way, it seems to crop up on Bibliophile a lot. Allan's approach is definitely on the more pop-written side, which doesn't lessen its potential value, of course. Allan definitely knows what he's talking about; he's credited with coining the term "virtual water," which refers to water that is "implied" in a country's import. For example, many companies don't import water specifically, but they do import many products that they would normally grow on their own, if they had the water reserves to do it. This, according to Allan, can be thought of as virtual water, a measure of the water implied to be present because of the amount required to produce that import. Virtual water is significant, the argument goes, because it allows a more accurate global view of how various nations depend on water. Allan, unsurprisingly, argues that on this basis, our water use is out of control, requiring 140 liters for the average cup of coffee, 2400 l for a burger, 11 000 for a pair of jeans. It's statements like that, and the underlying production assumptions they imply without stating, that makes virtual water seem a little questionable, but the term does seem to accentuate processes that otherwise would lie hidden.   H.

  Popular trauma culture : selling the pain of others in the mass media / Anne Rothe. I wonder if it says anything about contemporary culture, or my own personal perspective, that my first reaction to this title wasn't "oh, I wonder if that's true?" but "I wonder which shows and movies she's planning on using?". The latter view implies, correctly I think, that there's an embarrassment of riches on the subject, if you care to look. Rothe's argument is that the Holocaust narrative is usually phrased in terms of good and evil, and survivor and perpetrator, and that this model is echoed in other expressions of personal pain in the media. So after establishing Holocaust cliches, then goes on to show it surfaces on talk shows form Oprah to Springer, and in misery memoirs. I'm not sure I see the causal relation here; there were certainly models of this sort that existed before the Holocaust, right? I mean, trying to draw a connection between Holocaust trauma and Springer sob stories seems... rhetorically questionable, to me. I'm not saying there isn't some structural similarity, but you would need to make a very convincing argument to convince me.  H.

  China in ten words / Yu Hua ; translated from the Chinese by Allan H. Barr. I imagine this is a very short book. It's: Big. Lots of people. Powerful. Asia. Out east. 2008 Olympics. There you go. Okay, my tongue in cheek explanation aside, the idea of the book is that Hua uses ten words to center a history of modern China: people, leader, reading, writing, Lu Xun, disparity, revolution, bamboozle, grassroots, copycat. You've got to love the inclusion of "bamboozle."

The artificial human : a tragical history / Horst Albert Glaser, Sabine Rossbach. Glaser and Rossbach outline the human history of artificial humans, from Prometheus (wasn't he just a Titan?) to mechanical dolls, Japanese robots, and historical discussions, in terms of Descartes, Leibniz, clones, artificial woman, AI, film history in Frankenstein and Metropolis, and so forth. It's a rather expansive history, and it would require some effort, I think, to keep it all manageable. Unfortunately, I can't really find any further description of the book, online. I'm curious in particular about the subtitle. Using figures like Prometheus and Frankenstein at least suggest why a tragic approach would be appropriate, but if the authors are arguing that there is something fundamentally tragic about the figure of the artificial human, that might be interesting. All right, this is taking forever, so we're going to be short and sweet for the last three. H.

 Queer others in Victorian Gothic : transgressing monstrosity / Ardel Haefele-Thomas. A study of Gothic-era works (including some films, apparently), in terms of both the earlier meaning of queer and its more contemporary meaning. Haefele-Thomas is also speaking more generally about gender, sexuality, and queerness. H.

What happens next? : contemporary urban legends and popular culture / Gail de Vos. This is interesting: Vos examines how some urban legends have changed form as they enter new mediums. Now, I can't find any description of the book online besides that, so I can't offer any examples, but it's certainly an interesting premise, isn't it?

Visual orgasm : the early years of Canadian graffiti /Adam Melnyk I can't possibly imagine any Canadian art living up to a title that... climatic. H.

Later Days.

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