Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Bibliophile: Chocolate and Lemon Tossing at Quest U

Movies viewed so far today: Fletcher and The Goonies.  But I wasn't really paying a lot of attention to either, so no expanded reviews.  Instead, let's get down to business: book business, as Quest University, Squamish, BC. 

“Good friends, good books, and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life.”
― Mark Twain

Sounds like Grad School.  This is Bibliophile.

Quest University has a new books page, but it's rather limited: 10 items, as of this post. Granted, it's Christmas week, and it's to be expected that the list is a little slighter than usual. And the regular catalog doesn't let me search generally for 2012 releases, so we'll just go for the given ten, and call it a day.

Chocolate nations : Living and dying for cocoa in West Africa / Orla Ryan
Ryan traces how the cocoa that goes into chocolate gets made.  Hint: it's not Keebler elves.  Most cocoa beans, it turns out, now come from cash crop growth in West Africa.  Ryan spent two years covering the cocoa trade in Ghana for Reuters.  The livelihood of whole villages is bound up in the quality of the harvest.  As a former rural dweller, I can understand how a town can revolve to a high degree on how the crops go; but here, it looks like a matter much closer to life and death.   It doesn't look like it's as obviously exploitative as, say, sweatshop factories, but in a way, that just makes it more insidious, as it's extreme economic disparity created by a system rather than by single corporations.  And Ryan is trying to raise some awareness about where this cocoa comes from.  H.

From Jim Crow to Jay-Z : Race, rap, and the performance of masculinity / Miles White
I'll admit it: I'm not really up on my rap.  (or any music that isn't part of a videogame soundtrack, really, but that's a different issue)  The only rapper I've ever listened to with any frequency is Eminem, and I am aware that listening to only white rappers is, uh, problematic.  As the subtitle suggests, the book looks at the intersection of black masculinity and musical performance, and stereotypes that accuse the African American male culture of deviance, misogny, and excess.  White looks at how such music simultaneously demonizes young black males and still performs identity-construction.  And he looks at a few different case studies: chattel slavery, American minstrelsy, black action films, heavyweight prizefighting, Elvis Presley, Vanilla Ice, and Enimem.  That's a pretty diverse set of sources, I think it all works with the central discussion. H.

Ghost dancing with colonialism : Decolonization and Indigenous rights at the Supreme Court of Canada / Grace Li Xiu Woo
 Woo takes a legal approach to the issue of postcolonial, Aboriginal relations in Canada. She looks into contemporary Supreme Court rulings, and argues that they're still guided by colonial influences. Woo is apparently a former practicing lawyer who taught the Program of Legal Studies for Native People at the University of Saskatchewan, my old alma mater.  That would give her a lot of experience on the subject, both in terms of Supreme Court rulings, and the average Aboriginal perspective on those rulings.  According to Woo, the traditional legal approach from Britain, and later Canada is one of a binary, with one set of rules based on popular consent, the other on conquest and the power to command.  And she proposes a third alternative, one that works with the reality and wishes of all parties.  It's a pressing, ongoing issue in Canada, and it's good to see it get some attention. H.

I swear I saw this : Drawings in fieldwork notebooks, namely my own / Michael Taussig
Taussig presents the fieldnotes he made during forty years of travel in Colombia.  Taussig's an anthropologist by trade, but still considers his writing as a sort of modernist literature.  Anthropology is an interesting area in that regard, as is journalism; there always seems to be only a few degrees of separation between objective observation and gonzo journalism via Hunter S. Thompson.  His own notebook is a combination of writing, newspaper cuttings, and watercolors, and yes, the summary DOES refer to Burroughs and the cut-up technique at this point, which justifies the modernist label, I guess.  Taussig claims that this approach is justified, on the basis that tidying up one's notes into nice scholarly form erases finer small details and observations.  I'll grant that there's something to be said for that argument.  I recently read Grant Harman's Weird Realism, which makes a similar case against paraphrase, arguing that something is always lost in the concise summary.  The funny thing is that they do so for opposite reasons: Taussig's argument would be that avoiding paraphrase keeps us focused on what's real, but Harman would say that avoiding paraphrase keeps us focused on how far we are from grasping the real.  We've also got connections to Freud's analysis of dreams, Proust's thoughts on memory, and Benjamin's theory of history, which is a neat set of things to run together.  H.

The meaning of disgust / Colin McGinn
McGinn analyzes what it is to be disgusting.  He claims that life and death are both implicit in disgust, that it's an emotion reflecting human attitude to the biological world (which is an interesting phrase; is the biological world different from the natural world?  The real world?  The flesh and meat world?), an emotion that we try to repress.  And since humans are biological, it means it's a feeling we apply to ourselves, making things complicated.  Death is a big part of disgust, as disgust is what we feel when we look at the decaying body.  In particular, this book seeks to replace existentialism and psychoanalysis, and their focus on general emotions with a theory that explains emotion based on that of disgust.  That's... interesting.  Kind of like framing a theory of evolution around the dung beetle.  There's a particularly damning review of the book here.  Here's an excerpt from the review: "Actual content, thought, or insight is entirely optional. The only real requirement is that the pages stroke the reader's ego, make him feel he is doing something highbrow for once, something to better himself. The sad fact is the reader would learn more about disgust by reading Mad magazine."  Ouch.  Even worse: "In disgust research, there is shit, and then there is bullshit. Colin McGinn’s book belongs to the latter category."  Hell hath no fury like an academic scorning. H.

Memory, trauma, and history : Essays on living with the past / Michael S. Roth
It's always hard to judge these essay collections by a single author.  It's hard to keep a consistent argument or theme.  Regular anthologies by multiple authors are bad enough, but at least everyone contributing to a given anthology is generally aware of the main topic.  For essay collections by single authors, it's usually a compilation of things he or she's written years ago, with no deliberate connections.  (The exception to this is when the writer in question tends to focus on the same subject, so the essays have a common theme by default.)  Judging by the triple elements in the title of this book, it seems to be suffering from the "themeless" problem.  There's five sections here: first, 19th century maladies of memory, with essays on nostalgia and hysteria in connection to medicine and remembering in France.  Part 2 is History and the Psyche, with essays on Freud and trauma.  Three is postmodernism and cultural politics, which focuses on individuals, including Keith Jenkins, Frank Ankersmit, Anne Carson, Richard Rorty.  I have to admit, of that bunch, Rorty is the only one I'm familiar with even in name.  Part four is Photography and Piety, with essays on the connection between photography and history.  That may be worth looking into; photography theory is an (extremely) amateur interest of mine.  Finally, a coda wraps things up, with essays on the risks of liberal education.  ...One risk, I think, is that you never leave school.  I know this by experience.

Nettl's elephant : On the history of ethnomusicology / Bruno Nettl
The book description describes Nettl as "one of the most lauded scholars in ethnomusicology."  I was not aware that this was a thing.  This book appears to be a personal description of Nettl's theories of ethnomusicology, and how he came to it, including relating concepts such as evolution, geography, and history, with Native American, Mediterranean, and Middle Eastern contexts, among many others.  As I've said many times (including above) I'm not really big on music; I enjoy singing it, and playing it on the piano, but following particular trends and bands and genres is entirely outside my sphere of interest.  But it is important to a lot of people, both now and throughout history, so ethnomusicology is probably worth doing. Sections center very much on the role of ethnomusicology in the university at large, with headings such as "A Collage of Commentary," "In the Academy," and "Celebrating Our Principal Organizations."  (And a chapter called "Ethno among the Ologies."  Heh.) H.

Shanghai girls : A novel / Lisa See
The description for this book starts off calling Shangai the "Paris of Asia."  It's a better claim than Saskatoon's "Paris of the Prairies."  The book's events take place in 1937, where Pearl Chin and May learn that they're being sold to suitors in Los Angeles to cover his gambling debts.  They leave "as Japanese bombs fall on their beloved city," which doesn't seem like a particularly safe time to ferry brides across the Pacific, but I suppose men who would buy wives know these things better than I.  The emotional core of the book is the two sisters, as they struggle to build lives in North America.  Not really the sort of thing I usually read, but it sounds fine.H.

Toss of a lemon / Padma Viswanathan
In an interesting coincidence, I started reading this just before I left for the X-Mas break. It begins when ten year old Sivakami, in turn of the century (19th/20th) India, is married to a husband in his mid twenties.  After fathering two children, he dies eight years later, and she becomes an eighteen year old woman--by Indian caste rules, forbidden to be seen by anyone of her caste, besides family, ever again.  The novel places a human face on the rapid changes in Indian society in this period.  Or so I imagine.  I'm only fifty pages or so into it.  It's not simply a matter of Sivakami being enslaved by her culture, either; she's proud to uphold the traditions of her people.  It adds some complexity to the proceedings--this isn't a straightforward oppression, but something more ingrained. H.

Undoing Gender / Judith Butler
Confession time: I've never read any Butler in full.  That's a bit of a shortcoming for a humanities scholar.  In my defense, gender theory and queer theory, her two main areas, aren't really within my area (though there is some intersect with game studies, especially in cultural studies aspects), and her writing is notoriously difficult.  I've heard reasonably convincing arguments that obfuscating language is part of her argument, but at some point, difficult writing is just difficult writing.  My rationalizing aside, this is an important book.  Butler reconsiders her stance in Gender Trouble, and argues for a new consideration of gender, queer theory, and sex.  This would be more significant if I had read Gender Trouble.  Still, it's on my "to read some day" list.  Right up there with some Derrida, Said, and all the other theorists with "reputations." H, in digital.

 10 items, 10 descriptions.  Merry X-Mas, folks, and see you next week.

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