ForeWord Reviews

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From the Halls of Academia

Ten Distinguished University Press Titles

Like the expectations students have of universities, readers have expectations of academic books—they must provoke and answer questions. Indeed, they must both excel at nurturing creativity, word craft, and truth-seeking through intensive research—the long form—and we take measure of both based on how well they deliver on those unspoken promises. The following ten titles from exemplary schools seek to answer many intriguing questions; let’s identify some of them and endeavor to see how each delivers.

In The Problem of Distraction (Stanford University Press, 978-0-8047-7538-0), Paul North wonders, “When the intellect is duly disciplined, the blinders on, so to speak—when it pays attention—what faculty remains to attend to it? … How would distraction appear if it were released from its subordination to attention, to perception, to the subject?”

Heady stuff. North, like Aristotle and Parmenides before him, is on the historical trail of the thought of thought. Why were there some periods in history when cognition and its nemesis, distraction, were prime topics, as in ancient Greece, only then to disappear afterward for centuries on end?

Much theorizing still needed to be done when interest returned, in seventeenth-century French moralism. And when modern thinkers like Franz Kafka, Martin Heidegger, and Walter Benjamin noticed that un-thought kills thought (momentarily), the maddening phenomenon of distraction returned to a position of prominence.

Certain tasks, like operating a motor vehicle, deserve undivided attention, and yet driving impaired from alcohol remains a right in the United States. The fact that 12,000 Americans die each year is regrettable, but acceptable. In One For the Road: Drunk Driving since 1900 (Johns Hopkins University Press, 978-1-4214-0190-4), Barron Lerner, physician and professor of medicine and public health at Columbia University, is fairly apoplectic at this uniquely American attitude of tolerance.

He chronicles the early opposition to drunk driving, a movement as old as the automobile itself, but notes that, unlike elsewhere, “The suburbanization of America after World War II, followed by the development of the interstate highway system, helped to transform the automobile—and the act of driving—into a vital cultural and economic activity. The car, the ‘freedom machine,’ became the primary mode of transportation for those in suburban or rural areas going to work, visiting friends, and most importantly for this book, going to restaurants and bars.” Youthful free-spiritedness, fast cars, open roads, and macho attitudes about hard drinking—are there keener descriptors for America’s self-love?

No doubt the United States Surgeon General would add “gluttonous” to that list. Americans, it seems, do not know when to step away from the dinner table. In Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism (University of California Press, 978-0-520-2665-4), Julie Guthman argues, “The problem of obesity is an artifact of particular ways of measuring, studying, and redressing the phenomenon so that existing assumptions about its causes, consequences, and solutions are built into existing efforts to assess it independently as a problem.”

Yes, Americans are fatter. Guthman would be the first to admit it; but are weight and risk factors the most relevant way to think about pathology, she asks?

“Unlike lung cancer and skin cancer, for which clear causal agents have been identified, thus far obesity per se has failed to pass muster as a clear identifiable cause of any chronic illness …The biological pathways have been difficult to establish.”

Larger girths and increased heights can also be signs of improved health and nutrition, as well as longer lives. She writes, “Massive hand-wringing about girth alone is getting in the way of knowledge.”

In spite of advancements in genetics and hereditary understanding, plus knowledge of non-caloric avenues to weight gain (environmental toxins and pharmaceuticals), science is still unable to explain the relationship between overeating and obesity. Guthman’s sanity is much needed in today’s food debates. Though we can’t agree on a path to weight gain, we do know that obesity has a Southern stomping ground—Mississippi and Alabama lead the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control—and that the South’s food traditions and eating habits cause nutritionists and cardiologists to grimace in concern.

That grimace, however, is offset by a dismissive eye roll from the millions who wouldn’t give up brisket, ribs, gumbo, po’boys, fried oysters, and the like, even if threatened with waterboarding. Alabama bon vivant and Southern-cooking Renaissance man Eugene Walter, as comfortable on a Fellini movie set in Rome as a rib shack in Mobile, would have asked only that you prepare the torture water julep-style, with bourbon and mint. His death in 1998 was a blow to food writers and cookbook lovers around the world.

The Happy Table of Eugene Walter: Southern Spirits in Food and Drink (University of North Carolina Press, 978-0-8078-3483-1) is partially based on an unfinished Walter manuscript collected and edited by Donald Goodman and Thomas Head. It includes recipes printed in Alabama newspapers and magazines, numerous photos of Walter over the course of his life, and his own charming sketches of conversant vegetables.

Part one offers dozens of recipes for Southern drinks, many introduced with witty, declarative instructions explaining the why and how to serve summer punch, say, over bluegrass julep. The Happy Table’s second part is titled “Victuals” and features two hundred or so inspired Southern dishes— recipes that are based on the classics but elevated by Walter’s modern food sense and cooking acumen.

With bacon fat and such on our minds, it’s interesting to note that Herman de Soto and his conquering explorers introduced pigs to North America in 1539 and, no doubt, devoured the first plate of BBQ pork ribs. Pigs were the ideal animal for sailors to leave behind on islands and coastlines; hardy and omnivorous, they were all but certain to survive in the wild, and fresh meat was assured when humans returned.

Feral pigs are now found in forty-four states, and the rooting nature of their foraging exacts a terribly destructive toll on native vegetation and the environment. Smart and highly reproductive (pigs are sexually mature at eight months with a gestation period of 115 days), pigs are all but impossible to control. And, due to their potential to spread disease, wild pigs pose a serious threat to the health of domestic pigs. Mark Hainds’ Year of the Pig is a collection of hog hunting stories augmented by narratives on Southern forestries (longleaf pine, cypress, eastern cedar valley oak, black gum, etc.) and any number of non-native plant species working their way across the southeast US and Hawaii.

Armed with bow and arrow, knife, black powder, and high-powered rifle, Hainds set out to kill wild pigs in ten states over the course of twelve months. He killed many, some as big as 317 pounds. As a game animal, pigs are categorized as large, dangerous, and elusive. In fact, many would say that hunting pigs is addictive. A successful pig conservation program is sure to include men and women just seeking the thrill of the hunt, regardless of their stand on conservation.

As ecological problems go, wild pigs do not rise to the level of greenhouse gases, acidification of the oceans, Facebook, and other threats to the planet. And, like it or not, pigs and humans alike have a place in the cosmos. For the sake of this particular planet, hopefully humans will figure out how to exist before they exploit every last natural resource. In fact, our species seems to have purposely excused itself from the natural order of earthly things.

In Return to Nature? An Ecological Counterhistory (The University Press of Kentucky, 978-0-8131-3433-8), Fred Dallmayr explores the issue of “how to bring nature back into modern and contemporary awareness, not just as a topic of esoteric philosophical discussion, but as a leaven of human reorientation and renewal—intimating a forgotten ‘pathway to eden.’” Nothing less than human survival is in play.

While the past several decades has seen the issue gain a sense of urgency, Dallmayr notes that the problem dates back to the dawn of modernity and “its attendant separation of ‘man and nature.’” Return to Nature? examines the writings and philosophies of Baruch Spinoza, Friedrich Schelling, Friedrich Schlegel, John Dewey, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Martin Heidegger, Thomas Berry, and the Confucian thinker Chang Tsai, among others. Dallmayr seeks a cohesive thread and a philosophical counterhistory, to interrupt the human pattern of marginalizing and abusing the natural world.

Are humans unique in their capacity to care? Is risking one’s life for the sake of a person or cause the most virtuous act of all? Are women and men fundamentally different in ethical makeup? That is, are women predisposed to care more about the well-being of family and friends, while men maintain a more objective, rational approach to right and wrong?

Such challenging queries arise repeatedly in Richard Avramenko’s Courage: The Politics of Life and Limb (University of Notre Dame Press, 978-0-268-02039-2), his veritable history of the “existential virtue par excellence” from ancient Greece to modern times. In chapter one, “(Re)introducing Courage,” Avramenko opens with a shot across the bow: “Nothing is more difficult to make than a courageous man. It is for precisely this reason that courage, as a topic of serious political and social debate, is not popular … this has not always been so, and in the history of political thought one finds serious attention and praise given to courage by thinkers as diverse as Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Mecius, Bacon, Montaigne, and so on.”

As far as contemporary writers, he’s much more bald-faced: “Only the courageous will be inclined to say that courage is important, and because thinkers are a notoriously timid lot it stands to reason that scholars not only ignore courage but often reject it altogether.” Subsequent chapters deal with martial courage and honor, political courage, moral courage, and economic courage. The last chapter, “The Aftermath,” is Avramenko’s delightful effort to come to terms with his obvious reverence for courage’s lofty role in human affairs.

In From Jim Crow to Jay-Z: Race, Rap, and the Performance of Masculinity (University of Illinois Press, 978-0-252-03662-0), Miles White offers a vivid view of contemporary black male hip-hop culture, one that might cause Avramenko to deliberate over a “last word” on courage.

White writes about N.W.A. as the most important rap group ever, and says that they “began the mainstreaming of hardcore styles of gangsta rap that would reintroduce into popular culture historical representations of black males as the hypermasculine brutes and hypersexual bucks turned street-hardened gangbangers and drug dealers, told in graphic ghetto narratives involving causal black-on-black violence, drug trafficking, misogyny, and gunplay. These were bad men.…Hardcore rap transformed black males from the ‘hood into totemic performers of a powerful masculine authenticity and identity at a time in which there appeared to be few real men left.”

There is no doubt that hip hop and rap have profoundly influenced American culture and especially young males. Ahmed Ertegun, the founder of Atlantic Records, believes that black American music is alone among music styles in its ability to “travel”—the way it appeals to music lovers in other countries and cultures.

White sees the brand of masculinity imbued in contemporary black men as a sum of representations starting back in the days of slavery and American minstrels, and continuing forward through action films and prizefighting, and even including Elvis Presley’s gyrating shake and take on blackness. Unmistakably scholarly, From Jim Crow to Jay-Z is a courageous work.

To machismo of the Basque persuasion: Back to Bizkaia: A Basque-American Memoir (University of Nevada Press, 978-0-87417-859-3) is an entertaining study in male relationships, as captured in a passage wherein seventy-eight-year-old former Nevadan sheepherder Joe Juaristi returns to Spain and greets his brother for the first time in several decades. Joe’s son, Vince, describes the encounter: “For three minutes, the two of them cussed and yelled with baritone timbres louder and louder, and finally, after a remarkable display of degenerate profanity, embraced and squeezed hard until their faces reddened and purpled and the veins on their necks swelled to a condition of pre-cardiac arrest.”

Vince had enticed his father onto the plane without revealing that their destination was Bilbao, the Basque country Joe had left sixty years earlier. The story is all the richer for Joe’s fierce obstinacy and general disgruntlement.

And last, a hearty Basque-like shout out to Robert Righter’s Windfall: Wind Energy in America Today (University of Oklahoma Press, 978-0-8061-4192-3), a multifaceted detailing of wind’s historic value as an energy source, the science behind contemporary windmills, and even the social and political forces impacting land-use decisions.

Wind generation is the fastest growing and one of the most controversial types of alternative energy. Righter is also the author of Wind Energy in America: A History. He encourages us to envision a future where vast fields of windmills are no longer an oddity. This latest effort will necessitate a reshuffling to the very top of the stack of all wind-energy books that have been written to date.

Whether our future energy sources are firing up the batteries for our e-readers or igniting our bedside reading lamps, university press books, in some form, will always power the country’s intellectual landscape.