Friday, October 17, 2008

Bookworm heaven coming to Wash. U. Nov. 20

I first really clicked with Gerald Early when I asked him if I could read some of his writing. He was then a young junior professor at Washington University, the kind of guy who shared a tiny office with another junior faculty member and couldn't predict with any confidence whether tenure was in his future.

He smiled brightly - he has an unusually beautiful smile - and said, "Wow!" (he says "wow," a lot). "No student has ever asked me if they could read my writing before!"

He gave me a long, brilliant essay that eventually became the opening movement of his strange and penetrating book about prizefighting, The Culture of Bruising. I returned the manuscript with raves, and one critical comment: that a book about boxing that doesn't look into organized crime probably isn't going to tell the whole truth about boxing. To that, he said I was probably right, but no book tells the whole truth about anything and he really didn't want to have to write organized crime into his book about boxing.

We have been together as colleagues, in one way or another, ever since. As his star rose - the boxing book was published after a diverse book of essays (Tuxedo Junction), tenure was followed by a program chairmanship in black studies, more books were joined by talking head gigs in a couple of Ken Burns documentaries and commentaries on NPR - we more or less kept in touch, and Gerald managed to find various things for me to do, over the years.

These days, I serve as an unpaid advisory board member for The Center of the Humanities at Washington University, which Gerald now directs. One of our projects is an annual festival that celebrates books published that year by campus authors. I especially dig this event, because it strikes so close to how Gerald and I first connected - I was the first student who approached "Professor Early" as a writer, which is how he saw himself then and sees himself now (though the center keeps him entangled in a large number of creative, yet administrative, projects), and this is one campus event where professors appear as writers, rather than professors.

This year's event (burdened with the slightly clunky title Celebrating Our Books, Recognizing Our Authors) will be celebrated 4:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 20 in Graham Chapel. We will give away our second-ever Washington University International Humanities Prize to Michael Pollan, who is very much an off-campus guy (he's an intellectual foodie, journalist and environmentalist who teaches at Berkeley).

We will also be asking two campus writers to speak at the event. Gerald recently sent board members a long list of campus writers with blurbs about their books published this year and asked us all to pick a few we would like to invite to speak. Here are the folks who looked the most interesting to me. Come on down to Wash. U. on Nov. 20 and see if any of my picks made the cut - and take a look at all of these books (and many others) in the flesh.


Ahmet Karamustafa
Sufism: The Formative Period
University of California Press, Edinburgh University Press and the American University in Cairo Press, 2007.

This book is a comprehensive historical overview of the formative period of Sufism, the major mystical tradition in Islam, from the ninth to the twelfth century CE. Based on a fresh reading of the primary sources and integrating the findings of recent scholarship on the subject, the author presents a unified narrative of Sufism’s historical development within an innovative analytical framework. He gives a new account of the emergence of mystical currents in Islam during the ninth century and traces the rapid spread of Iraq-based Sufism to other regions of the Islamic world and its fusion with indigenous mystical movements elsewhere, most notably the Malâmatiyya of northeastern Iran. Karamustafa analyses extensively the formation of Sufi communities, the imbrication of Sufi sainthood with popular saints’ cults as well as nonconformist dimensions of Sufism and fully explicates the reasons for the increasing social prominence of the Sufi mode of piety during this early period in Islamic history.

B Mabel Moraña
Coloniality at Large
Duke University Press, 2008.
Co-edited with Carlos Jáuregui and Enrique Dussel.

Postcolonial theory has developed mainly in the U.S. academy, and it has focused chiefly on nineteenth and twentieth-century colonization and decolonization processes in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and the Caribbean. Colonialism in Latin America originated centuries earlier,in the transoceanic adventures from which European modernity itself was born. It differs from later manifestations of European expansionism in other ways as well. Coloniality at Large bringstogether classic and new reflections on the theoretical implications of colonialism in Latin America. By pointing out its particular characteristics, the contributors highlight some of the philosophical and ideological blind-spots of contemporary postcolonial theory as they offer a thorough analysis of that theory's applicability to Latin America's past and present.

[Same guy, different book]
Revisiting the Colonial Question in Latin America
Iberoamericana/Vervuert, 2008
Co-edited with Carlos Jáuregui

From the configuration of Empire in the colonial period to th e multiple facets of modern coloniality, this book offers a challenging approach to the developments and effects of imperial domination and neocolonial rule in Latin America. Thought of as a contribution to current debates on post-colonialism and covering an ample range of topics, geocultural fields, and historical scenarios, Revisiting the Colonial Question in Latin America provides indispensable materials to the study of the formation and representation of colonial and modern subjectivities, the role of historical accounts, cultural practices, and symbolic representation (literary writing, oral narratives, visual images, and artifacts) through which some of the parameters of colonized epistemologies become apparent to the European Other.

C Michael Sherraden
Asset Building and Low-Income Families
Co-edited with S.M. McKernan
Urban Institute Press, 2008.

Low-income families have scant savings to cushion a job loss or illness, and can find economic mobility impossible without funds to invest in education, homes, or businesses. And though a lack of resources leaves such families vulnerable, income-support programs are often closed to those with a bit of savings or even a car. Considering welfare-to-work reforms, the increasingly advanced skill demands of the American workforce, and our stretched Social Security system, such an approach is inadequate to lift families out of poverty. Asset-based policies—allowing or even helping low-income families build wealth—are an increasingly popular strategy to facilitate financial stability. Asset Building and Low-Income Families draws together top experts to assess this growing body of research and suggests ways to translate academic findings into policy that works.

D Robert W. Sussman, editor
Man the Hunted: Primates, Predators, and Human Evolution, Expanded Edition
Westview Press, 2008.
Author is University College Professor Donna Hart.

Man the Hunted argues that primates, including the earliest members of the human family evolved as the prey of any number of predators, including wild cats and dogs, reptiles, and birds. This view of human evolution suggests that countless adaptations that have allowed our species to survive stem from a considerably more vulnerable position on the food chain than we might like to imagine. The myth of early humans as fearless hunters dominating the earth obscures our origins as just one of many species that had to be cautious, depend on other group members, communicate danger, and come to terms with being merely one cog in the complex cycle of life.The expanded edition includes a new chapter that describes the ever-increasing evidence of predation on humans and clans that the earliest humans were neither hunters nor even the accomplished scavengers that many authorities have suggested. Furthermore, the authors provided evidence that as a prey species humans relied on cooperation as one of many predator avoidance mechanisms.

E Hugh Macdonald
Beethoven’s Century: Essays on Composers and Themes
University of Rochester Press, 2008.

I find that writing about music can only be driven by curiosity and the desire to get to the bottom of some teasing problem that arises from music one plays or hears or reads. This might be the ambition to cover the entire life and works of an individual, or to chart great cultural movements, but it can equally take the form of solving a small mystery, or putting an unusual aspect of a composer's work under the microscope. I once wrote a short article (never published) on a single note in Puccini's Crisantemi. My collection Beethoven's Century contains essays that mostly arose from such obsessive moments when an idea once settled in the mind needs to be explored, expanded and expounded. Repeats, for example, was my way of checking what we are supposed to do with the repeat signs that are found in all classical instrumental music. Having played a great deal of chamber and orchestral music, I was struck by the way musicians responded to repeats, sometimes with reverence, sometimes without. Which repeats did composers write? Which did they want? Why did they drop out of favour, and when?My essay on "Comic Opera" was driven by noticing that comic opera and dialogue opera were less well served in our opera houses than the heavier genres. Is it not time to correct the imbalance, I ask. The closing essay, "Modernisms that Failed," attempts to question the received history of early 20th-century music, while giving a moment's attention to some of the crazier advances that seemed promising at the time, but actually led nowhere. Smell-music, colour-music, noise-music and machine-music are some of the fads that might well appeal to listeners as strongly as those of our own time. The opening essay "Beethoven's Game of Cat and Mouse" pursues a path suggested by Czerny's story that he used to turn on his obsequious audiences when they became visibly moved by his playing. This is cruel behavior, since we think we ought to be moved by his music. Beethoven teases us in all sorts of subtle ways, always leaving us in no doubt of who's in command. In this elaborate game, I argue, Beethoven is the cat and we are no more than mice. No one was more aware of his colossal stature than he was himself, as if he had already annexed the whole of the nineteenth century as his own.

F Derek Pardue
Ideologies of Marginality in Brazilian Hip Hop
Palgrave Macmillan, 2008

In the land of samba there is another vibrant culture capturing the attention of urban youth. This compelling account argues that hip hop, while certainly a product of globalized flows of information and technology, is by no means homogenous. Using more than five years of anthropological fieldwork in São Paulo, Brazil's largest city, Pardue represents "culture" as generative and thus meaningful as a set of practices. When interpreted in this manner, local hip hoppers become closer to what they claim to be--subjects rather than objects of history and everyday life. In his ethnography, the first in English to look at Brazilian hip hop, Pardue highlights the analytical categories of race, class, gender, and territory.


Funky bookworm image courtesy of Electric Chicken.

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