Saturday, April 6, 2013

Bibliophile and Philosophy: Reading at the University of Manitoba

“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! How much sooner one tires of any thing than of a book! -- When I have a house of my own, I shall be miserable if I have not an excellent library.”
― Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

This is Bibliophile.

For those new to the blog, Bibliophile is a semi-weekly column wherein I peruse the new books purchased recently by a Canadian university library, and comment on them in an insightful and/or amusing manner. This week, we'll be looking at University of Manitoba, after the break.

Things are off to a good start, as U of Manitoba has a proper new books page.  New books are sorted by subject area or library, though there's no indication for how frequently the list is updated (the implication is that it's done twice a month).  Starting from the top, we have  Philosophy.Only I didn't find anything interesting in philosophy, so we'll skip to psychology.

Impossible to please : how to deal with perfectionist coworkers, controlling spouses, and other incredibly critical people / Lavender, Neil J. 2012.
I'm sure we all know someone who fits the description in this subtitle here. I'm always hesitant to just come out and label someone "perfectionist," though. Such a label implies that it's an identity that you can take on, and I tend to think of things like that more like modes you can enter. For some things, I'm a perfectionist--as a totally random example, I'll spend hours putting effort into a blog post segment that no one ever, ever reads or comments on no matter how very, very hard I try. And for other things, I am not--see, for example, my bedroom, at any point from age 6 to age 29. Lavender also seems to be associating perfectionism with OCPD, which is not an association that I'd make. In fact, I think there are several places where Lavender seems to have cut corners in his research, methodology, and overall writing. ...and now I'm the perfectionist. How quickly the tables turn. On a more serious note, Lavender's book is essentially a guide for dealing with critical people, for creating interactions that don't descend into anger or defensive behavior. It's a combination of setting boundaries, improving communication, and self-assertation. And that sounds pretty good. It's definitely a pop psychology book, but one whose value is immediately apparent.
The Oxford handbook of the psychology of appearance/ edited by Nichola Rumsey and Diana Harcourt. 2012
 I mentioned a while back that I read Ted Chiang's book of short stories, Stories of Your Life and Others The last story of the book, "Liking What You See: A Documentary," features a university campus deciding whether to make it mandatory that students undergo a minor surgery to keep them from recognizing physical human beauty. Putting aside the question of whether students have the right to vote on issues like this, I liked the story for explicating something that often goes without saying: a lot of human behavior is predicated based on who we find attractive. This anthology, written for an undergraduate audience, looks at the issue from a psychological perspective. The book appears to be going for breadth and information, which  makes sense for an undergraduate text, but is a bit of a disappointment; I generally prefer critical discussion over just presenting issues (not that you can't do both, but still). Issues covered include eating disorders, peer influence, cosmetic procedures, cultural difference, healthcare provisions, media roles, and general issues regarding appearance to be concerned with for researchers. I appreciate the practicality there. It's a very big reader, with 50 essays spread over 600 pages.H.
The body in pain : the making and unmaking of the world / Scarry, Elaine. 
Scarry is known for her work on the subject of pain and torture, and this book, originally published in 1985, is what made her that reputation. The book is all about the pain of the body, and how various human institutions, from the Church to the government and everyone else--tries to deal with pain. As such, she looks at literature, art, medical case studies, Amnesty International, personal injury trials, military writings--it's the paradigm of the eclectic scholarly assemblage. Pain, she argues, is not only hard to describe, it destroys language, rendering us inarticulate. She chronicles such practices of unmaking before turning to making--cultural creation that moves against pain and how it is used. I have a friend just finishing her dissertation on the rhetoric of torture; I know she speaks highly of this book, and Scarry in general. If I had the time, this is definitely one of those books I'd read--if for no other reason than to write the world's best analysis of that torture scene in Metal Gear Solid. H.
Different horrors, same hell : gender and the Holocaust / edited and introduced by Myrna Goldenberg and Amy H. Shapiro. 2013.
This is one of those books where I look at the title, appreciate it for existing, admire the editors' efforts to bring these stories to an audience, and am very glad that my studies don't require me to read it .H.

The Saint Bartholomew's Day massacre : the mysteries of a crime of state (24 August 1572) /Jouanna, Arlette
It was the promises of mysteries that drew me in here. Although given the period, it could be mystery in the sense of the old medieval dramas based around Christ's death and resurrection. In terms of a whodunit, it's not particularly mysterious; in terms of an example of the ineffable miracles enacted by the divine, it's pretty impressive. Anyway, this is a book length study of 16th century slaughter of the Protestants in France by the Catholic king, six days after a lavish wedding that was meant to cement relations between the two religious groups. Jouanna argues that the reasons behind the rapid about-face can be traced back to reason of state, issues of royal power, and the limits of authority and obedience. In a funny coincidence, the "Things You Should Know" podcast did a recent show on revenge, where this very massacre featured on the top ten most vengeful acts list--I didn't actually finish the account yet, but I think the revenge part was the king's subsequent mental and physical deterioration.  Anyway, it was a bit of a surprise to see it turn up here so soon after. It's like some game of seven degrees of European atrocities.H.

American umpire / Cobbs Hoffman, Elizabeth 2013
It's pretty common to refer to the United States as an empire, especially in terms of its international actions. Hoffman looks at key moments in history to argue that the United States is an umpire, not an empire, compelling adherence to rules that gradually earned broad approval, though it was often met with short term criticism. This is a very... questionable metaphor in my eyes, especially given the way the US sees fit to throw international law to the wind whenever it suits expediency. Casting the US as an umpire grants it a level of moral authority and righteousness that I don't think history can really back up. It all feels a little jingoistic, frankly. (Although I'll admit to some skepticism caused as being a citizen of America's nervous northern neighbor.) I'll admit it's usually an easy out to paint America as a villain in a given global encounter. But this perspective seems to skew too far in the other direction.H.

The politics of storytelling : violence, transgression, and intersubjectivity/ Jackson, Michael, 2002
Either someone's making a return from beyond the grave, or there's an academic out there who's thought long and hard about changing their name. Jackson is building on Hannah Arendt's work here. Arendt said that the political can be understood as a power relation between the private and public realms, and that storytelling acts as a bridge, a site where individualized passions and shared views are contested. I suppose I can get behind that, if you're willing to take a very broad definition of contested. Jackson's approach is to expand this idea through a cross-cultural analysis of storytelling, from Aboriginal stories, Sierra Leone, South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the stories of refugees and war veterans. Also under discussion is the conditions under which stories aren't told, and how the narrative workings of a story enable people to symbolically alter subject-object positions. I feel like there may be a connection to be made between Jackson's statement regarding the conditions under which stories aren't told, and Scarry's argument that pain is where language fails. 

I'm going to jump ahead to language and literature; there wasn't anything particularly grabbing me in the sections between, though we can come back later if necessary. 

Dramatising disaster : character, event, representation / edited by Christine Cornea and Rhys Owain Thomas.
This anthology is exactly what I was hoping it would be: a collection of essays on the general topic of disaster in popular culture, in terms of the way it's presented, metaphorical resonances, and broader cultural contexts. It's a little disappointingly short for an anthology (10 essays, three sections), but it has a nice mix of topics. Part 1 is trauma and personal identity, which includes studies of Cancer narratives in Stepmom and The Family Stone (which I commented on recently), technological accident in The Sweet Hereafter, and teen networks and obsession with Apocalyptic Drama. Section II is representations of New York and New Orleans, and includes a study of Man on Wire, After the Deluge, Treme, and videogames featuring New York City as a site of urban warefare. I'd be interested in that last one. And the last section is about apocalypse-level disasters, and includes a study of Dr. Strangelove, Life After People, and Torchwood: Miracle Day. It's an impressive array of pop culture engagement; I like this book.H.

Green Lantern and philosophy : no evil shall escape this book /edited by Jane Dryden and Mark D. White
I read Green Lantern for a long time; the combination of a police procedural and SPACE! really struck a chord for me. I gave up some time over the last year or two, after a deluge of developments: there were founding of other rings, specializing in particular emotions: red for rage, blue for hope, purple for compassion, pink for love, yellow for fear, and orange for envy. And then there was a rainbow war between the various colors. And then there were black lanterns, undead lanterns who wanted to end all existence. And white lanterns, who wanted to stop them. And it all went on and on, lantern vs. lantern, and all I ever wanted was to read about space cops. So I stopped reading. But I still have a soft spot for this book, despite the fact that it's part of a long series of *Insert Pop Culture Icon* and Philosophy" type book. And despite the fact that the bullet points of the content refer to Aristotle, Descartes, and Kant as "philosophical heavy hitters." And despite the fact there's an essay called "Women are From Zamaron, Men Are from Oa." Okay, maybe I don't have a soft spot. Still, at least it lets people add some publications to their CVs. H.

Inhabited by stories : critical essays on tales retold / edited by Nancy A. Barta-Smith and Danette DiMarco. 2012
This anthology proceeds from the question of what it would mean for a story to inhabit a person, to phenomenologically experience, not just think, what you're reading. Intertextuality, it argues, is more than just lines of influence and appropriation; it's bringing the past and future into the present, and the expansion of experience through telling stories. That's not a bad hook for an essay collection; it certainly has more going on than the usual "here are a bunch of essays on more or less the same subject." The book is divided into seven parts and 18 essays; there's a focus on modern interpretations of very old works. And some not so old. Highlights include Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close as a rewriting of Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five; Leon Garfield's Hamlet;  ethics in the Penelopiad; Uncle Tom's Cabin and Beloved; retellings of the Wife of Bath; and Blakean influences in the Year of the Flood. Hmmm. I like the premise, but it feels like they're basically just loooking at fairly canonical works in slightly unusual contexts.H/

Alice in Wonderland and philosophy: curiouser and curiouser / edited by Richard Brian Davis
I skipped over the third book from this series on this week's list, Spider-Man and Philosophy. All right, so let's philosophize about the series. What does it mean to create a series like this? Well, it assumes a desire in society at large for a critical engagement with pop culture artifacts. But it further assumes that this engagement must happen in clearly defined parameters, ones easily recognizable. It's not Spider-Man and Nietzche, it's Spider-Man and Philosophy. It's also capitalizing on the opposite market, philosophy students who would probably think it's cool to apply what they know to the characters they like. And, perhaps most importantly, it's an appeal not to an audience, per se, but a publisher; in the university press' desperate attempts to appear relevant, such series must appear as sound investments, far easier to convince people to purchase than "Hegel's anti-aesthetics" or something of the like. What's this book actually about? Ugh, do I even need to look? Here's a guess: essays on wordplay, shrinking and growing, hostile environments, nonsensical time, the nature of reality (red king's dream), metamorphosis. Maybe games in general, via the playing cards and crochet and so forth.  Let's see how I did: all right, there's more than that. There's feminist perspectives, social contracts... I got the language, wordplay, and reality part. And the focus on time. Clearly, I should write one of these books. Is there an Adventure Time and Philosophy yet? Hey, Blackwell-Wiley, I called it! H.
The catcher in the rye and philosophy : a book for bastards, morons, and madmen /edited by Keith Dromm and Heather Salter
Look, philosophy, that's enough out of you. If you don't cut it out, so help me, I'll turn this Bibliophile around, and you can walk home.
That's it for this week. Tune in next time, for The Cambridge Companion to Pop Culture and Philosophy (call back).
Later Days. 

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