Book Review Round Up Part 4: Foreword Reviews

It’s time for another round up of the books I have recently reviewed for Foreword Reviews. This round up contains books about fairy tales in a small town in the Midwest, travels around the Black Sea, and an mixed-race family struggling with Alzheimer’s disease.

These are all books that I enjoyed reading. Hopefully you will find them enjoyable as well.

The text within quotation marks are excerpts from the reviews. The reviews can be read in full on Foreword Reviews’ website and in the May/June 2022 issue of the Foreword Reviews magazine.

Scott Russell Sanders, Small Marvels (Indiana University Press, 2022).

“Midwestern magic abounds in Scott Russell Sanders’s fairy tale short story collection Small Marvels. In Limestone, Indiana, Gordon Mills is a jack of all trades whose big family lives in a dilapidated house that only remains standing because it doesn’t know which way to fall. His wife, Mabel, keeps the family together. With their respective parents, Gordon and Mabel work to make ends meet. Even though money is short, there is always food on the table and plenty of love to go around. But while, on the surface, the family’s hometown seems to be an ordinary place, and the Mills to be an ordinary family, these linked stories reveal that there is more to both than meets the eye.”

I enjoyed this short story collection because I enjoy stories about the fantastical among the ordinary. There is story telling to explore where these two worlds crash up against each other, and it shows that what we take for granted might just be magic.

Jens Mühling, Simon Pare (transl.), Troubled Water. A Journey around the Black Sea (Haus Publishing, 2022).

“Jens Mühling’s colorful travelogue Troubled Water captures the history and cultures on the shores of the Black Sea. The Black Sea has been a crossroads for warring and colonizing societies since human civilization began to take form in the Fertile Crescent. Along its contested shores, empires have risen and fallen, and people are constantly on the move, either voluntarily or by force. Against a backdrop of demographic, political, and environmental change, the civilizations of the Black Sea are examined by looking at every situation from more than one angle. Simon Pare’s vibrant translation from the original German brings out the literary qualities of the prose.”

As I wrote in last week’s post about the interview I did with Jens Mühling, before Russia invaded Ukraine, the Black Sea as a region was generally overlooked in popular history and contemporary politics. But as recent developments in the region have shown, and which Mühling brings forth in his book, the Black Sea has played a crucial role in human civilization for millennia. And not only is this a great book, look at that book cover! I love it.

Jennifer Dance, Gone But Still Here (Dundurn Press, 2022).

“Jennifer Dance’s based-in-truth novel Gone but Still Here follows a tragedy-scarred multiracial family as one of its members is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Mary feels herself slipping. Despite her career as a published author, her words don’t come to her the way that they used to, she has forgotten how to use a can opener, and time passes without her noticing. To preserve her memories before they completely disappear, she begins to write a book about her husband, Keith, who died when their children were very young. Told from Mary, Kayla, and Sage’s points of view, as well as using multiple storytelling elements, from text messages to prose, the novel does a beautiful job of portraying the joys and sorrows that follow from a life-altering diagnosis. Gone but Still Here is an emotional novel about a family faced with the challenges of caring for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease.”

I enjoyed this book because of the love and warmth that exuded from its pages. Books rarely make me cry, but this one did.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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How to Survive in Oz as an Academic. The 3 Kinds of Book Reviews and Why You Need to Know the Difference.

Book critic.

Over the past week, the purpose of book reviews has once again been a topic for debate. If this comes as news to you, don’t worry. The debate happened within a limited group of academics and academia-adjacent people on Twitter. But even though those involved were few, the debate did raise some general questions about book reviews, what they are for, for whom they are written, and why that matters in the larger scheme of things.

There are three different types of book reviews: the online review, the media review, and the academic review. Each type of review has its own purpose, its own intended audience, and its own requirements of what it needs to contain.

The book review is an important part of any literate society’s intellectual life. Students write book reviews to practice critical thinking. Critics write book reviews to tell magazine and newspaper readers about books they should pay attention to. Academics write book reviews to further the production of knowledge.

Book reviews are an important part of a book’s publicity plan. Book reviews help spread the word that a specific type of book exists, which, hopefully, will help boost sales. The algorithms on Amazon.com, for example, are geared to boost books that get good reviews and make them more visible on the site. Though the sections for literary criticism in newspapers has shrunk over the years, having their book reviewed in a major newspaper is a status marker for authors. If The New York Times reviews your book, it means that you have arrived.

In academia, book reviews are very important. Mainly published in academic journals, book reviews are a way to inform scholars of what is happening in their field. At American universities, they are among the publications a scholar needs to have published to qualify for tenure.

Important to keep in mind here is that these three types of reviews–the online review, the media review, and the academic review–are not the same. Reviews on Amazon are written by general readers. Reviews in newspapers and magazines are written by critics. Reviews in academic journals are written by experts.

Nor is their intended audience the same. Reviews on Amazon are intended for anyone interested in buying a specific book. Newspaper and magazine reviews are intended for the readers of that specific publication. Academic reviews are intended for the experts’ colleagues.

But even though these three types of book reviews differ in audience and purpose, they need to contain the same things: a summary of the contents, an evaluation of the contents, and discussion about the topic and the author. The purpose of a book review is then to weigh the merits and demerits of a book and reach a conclusion of whether or not the book is worth your time.

But here the three categories diverge again, because depending on who you write the review for, each section of the book review needs to summarize, discuss, and evaluate in different ways. And this is where the book reviewer gets into trouble if they are unaware of the different expectations of the different publication venues.

An academic review needs to discuss the merits as well as the demerits of a book. I would say there is an unwritten expectation that an academic book review needs to focus on the demerits because that is how the scholar demonstrates their skills at critical thinking. A favorable academic review is seen as a biased review. Even if the reviewer pans the book, the review will be published for the sake of science.

A review in the media also needs to discuss the merits as well as the demerits, but emphasis lies on the merits. The purpose of these reviews is to inform readers of books that might interest them. Here, a negative review fills no purpose. If a reviewer destroys a book in their review, chances are the review will never see publication. It is up to the discretion of each individual publication how much of a negative discussion they will allow in the reviews they publish.

An academic review needs to reference other books. Again, this is how the reviewer demonstrates their chops at critical analysis and moving the scientific conversation forward. By referencing other books, the reviewer demonstrates that they are up to date with the state of the art of research while at the same time demonstrating where in the scientific conversation the reviewed book belongs. The compare-and-contrast nature of this part of the review is crucial to moving the production of knowledge forward.

A review in the media should not reference other books. The reason is simple: the publication decides which books to feature based on the profile of their publication and the demographics of their readership. They also decide which books to feature based on a relationship with the publisher (less discerning publications also decide which books to feature based on who their friends are, which is what sparked the debate during this past week, but that’s another story). A media publication would never publish a review that discuss other books than the one being reviewed.

An academic review needs to contain academic jargon, and by academic jargon I mean the analytical terms, phrases, and type of prose that qualifies as academic. Again, this is how the reviewer demonstrates that they are part of the field.

A media review should not contain academic jargon. The point of academic jargon is to establish a language that will serve as short hand for scholars engaged in the same type of research. For anyone outside of that field (and this includes other scholars), that jargon is gobbledigook. I remember being confused by a discussion on the history of Swedish coal miners because they kept talking about how coal miners “penetrated” each other. Turns out “penetration” was academic jargon for the economic reform of coal miner collectives. (Don’t ask…) A review that contains academic jargon will be killed by the editor.

A media review needs to be straight forward and to the point. An academic review needs to take its time and be circumspect. A media review needs to be short. An academic review can go on for pages. A media review is written in the active voice. An academic review can use the passive voice. A media review can be written in the first person. An academic review is always written in the third person.

Academics get into trouble when writing media reviews because we are taught that, as the avant-garde of knowledge production, our way of writing book reviews is the correct way. Because we mainly publish in academic publications, we never need to consider our audience because the audience is always the same, and they play by the same rules as we do. But as soon as we step into the world of media, we are no longer in Kansas. Instead of playing the role of expert, we now become critics.

It is becoming increasingly important for scholars to know the difference between academic publishing and media publications as the erosion of higher education continues and scholars turn to mainstream culture to support themselves.

Thanks to social media, more scholars than ever have a public voice. With a public voice comes name recognition. With name recognition comes opportunities. For us to capitalize on those opportunities, we need to learn the rules of the world we have stepped into. Similar to academia, the rules of that world are harsh, they are discriminatory, they are humiliating, and they do not provide everyone with a level playing field. But, like Dorothy who learned the rules of Oz so that she could pull the curtain on the Emperor when she arrived in Emerald City, for us to change those rules, we first need to learn to play by them.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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The Invention of the Clash of Civilizations. A review of Nancy Bisaha’s CREATING EAST AND WEST

On May 29, 1453, the city of Constantinople fell to the army of Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II (r. 1444–1446, 1451–1481), also known as Mehmed the Conqueror. Even though the relationship between Latin Christianity and Greek Christianity (today known as Roman Catholicism and the Greek Orthodox Church, respectively) had been complicated since their messy break up in the middle of the 11th century, the loss of Constantinople to the Muslim Turks came as a shock to the rest of Europe. Secure in their conviction that the fortified capital of the Byzantine Empire could withstand a long-term siege, allies had been slow to muster forces and send aid. And now, it was too late. The last bastion of the Roman Empire was no more.

In traditional history writing, the fall of the Roman Empire in 476 CE marks the end of Antiquity and the beginning of the Middle Ages. Behind this narrative lies the idea that Rome was the pinnacle of human civilization, and nothing has been the same since. After the light of Rome was extinguished, darkness fell on the world until light was kindled once more with the rebirth of Roman culture in fourteenth-century Italy.

We find evidence of this view of history in the Dark Ages, an outdated name for the time period otherwise known as the Middle Ages, which, incidentally, is also a pejorative name for the time period between the end of Rome and Rome born again. And, we find this view in the name of the time period that in Italy followed the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, which literally means “rebirth.”

This simplistic narrative hides several complicated truths. For one, Rome didn’t suddenly collapse and leave the world in darkness. Nor was it the end of the entire Roman Empire. What happened was that to save the Empire from collapsing, Emperor Diocletian (r. 284–305) divided the massive realm into two halves along a north-south axis, which created a Latin-dominated western half and a Greek-dominated eastern half, ruled by an emperor in the east and a co-emperor in the west. As it turned out, the eastern half dominated over the western half, most notably after Emperor Constantine the Great (r. 306–337) founded a new imperial capital where the Mediterranean meets the Black Sea. He named this city after himself–Constantinople.

As the eastern half of the Empire flourished, the western half struggled to stay together. In 476 CE, Emperor Romulus Augustus was deposed by Ostrogothic king Odoacer and the Roman Empire in the west is considered to have come to an end. The debate on why the Roman Empire disintegrated in the west is a lively one, but suffice it to say, that when the Roman Empire went away in the west, it continued to exist in the east. We call that Rome the Byzantine Empire. Its capital remained Constantinople.

Whereas it can be debated whether or not the Renaissance is a time period of its own or if it is a cultural, political, and artistic movement among the elites of a fractured Italian peninsula that spread its influences over Europe for the next three centuries, the fact remains that during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in Italy, new ideas flourished with inspiration from the Ancient world. These ideas built on their medieval predecessors, but as Nancy Bisaha argues in her excellent book Creating East and West. Renaissance Humanists and the Ottoman Turks, they were distinguished enough to warrant the label “new.” And, as Bisaha goes on to prove, one of the main catalysts for these new ideas was the Ottoman Turks taking Constantinople for themselves.

Whereas the relationship between Latin Christendom and the Muslim world at times was contentious during the Middle Ages, it is in the work of the Italian Renaissance humanists that Bisaha traces the invention of a clash of civilizations. People of the medieval world harbored prejudices and cultivated stereotypes about those who were not Christians, but the chauvinism, superiority, and vitriol that can be found in the writings of the Italian Renaissance humanists is of a different kind. The dichotomy between civilizations is more clearly drawn; the Othering of initially the Turks, but later all Muslims, is more marked; and the identity of Europe as something distinct and superior to the rest of the (Muslim) world is in the process of being formed.

By delving deep into a very large corpus of primary sources from Renaissance Italy, Bisaha convincingly demonstrates that these attitudes were not expressed by a chosen few of the Italian Renaissance humanists, but that they were widespread, and that the intellectuals who participated in the debate, which the fall of Constantinople sparked, were many.

Suffice it to say, Creating East and West is an excellent book. The research is extensive and meticulous. The writing craft is exemplary. The historical analysis is on the highest level.

If I were to criticize this book for anything it would be how it positions itself in the existing research at the time of its publication in 2004. As a scholar who has worked in different European countries and in the United States, I am well aware of how difficult it is to obtain books from abroad. I am also well aware that much has changed as to what was available in 2004 compared to today when libraries and book publishing is increasingly digitized.

All that being said, I still need to point out that the majority of the books and articles referenced by Bisaha are Anglo-American publications. A handful are European, even fewer are Italian. Of the Italian publications, two are from 1999 and 2002, respectively. The rest are older, some significantly so.

Moreover, in the book’s otherwise impeccable introduction chapter, the historians whose works that Bisaha discusses as the most relevant research that the book is positioning itself against are all either British or American (and they are all men). Publishing this type of book is an important step in the recruiting process towards tenure at an institution of higher education in the United States. Therefore, positioning yourself within the field where you intend to have your career is crucial.

However, that doesn’t change the fact that this is a book on Italian and European history that does not position itself against the work of Italian and European historians. This would be the same as if an Italian historian would write about the American Revolution and then only position their work against that of other Italians.

This is not to criticize Bisaha or her credentials as a historian; it is merely an observation about a systemic issue within academia.

However, this observation does beg the somewhat uncomfortable question: how relevant are Bisaha’s findings in the larger context of European history and historical research? The Italian Renaissance is not my field of expertise, and because of that I am unable to determine whether something of importance did take place in Italian humanist thought following the fall of Constantinople, or whether the writings of the humanists come across as important because they look important in the primary sources.

Or, perhaps the geriatric publications in Bisaha’s references are evidence of the fact that what Bisaha highlights in her book is under-researched among Italian historians, and her findings are something that shakes life into a research field that has stagnated?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, because the book doesn’t tell me.

These reservations aside, Bisaha’s results do demonstrate that a shift did take place among Italian Renaissance humanists after 1453, and these new thoughts that developed are of significance because of Italy’s cultural influence over the rest of late-medieval and early-modern Europe. They are also of significance because we are still living with them today. The roots of Islamophobia and the Othering of people in what used to be the eastern half of the Roman Empire can be found here, in the impressive amounts of centuries-old texts that Bisaha has dedicated herself to.

If you are curious about the roots of the ideas of the clash of civilizations, Western exceptionalism and chauvinism, Creating East and West is the book for you.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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Book Review Round Up Part 3: More from Foreword Reviews

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a round up of some of the books I have reviewed for Foreword Reviews since October 2020. This week, I am posting yet another selection of books I have reviewed for them lately. Here you will find Latinx speculative fiction, travel through Greece in the Age of Covid-19, the absurdities of life in Communist Albania, and the origins of the conspiracy theories of the American far right, among other things.

I had a great time reading and reviewing these books. Hopefully you will be able to find something enjoyable to read among them.

The text within quotation marks are excerpts from the reviews.

Jan Brokken, David McKay (transl.). The Just. How Six Unlikely Heroes Saved Thousands of Jews from the Holocaust (Scribe Publications, 2021).

“Jan Brokken’s history text The Just documents a rescue operation to save Jews from the Holocaust in Nazi-occupied Lithuania. In telling the life story of Jan Zwartendijk, The Just adds one more piece to the memory of the Holocaust.”

Literature about the Holocaust is a massive genre and it continues to grow as research on this genocide continues. This book was very interesting to read because it focuses on one of the many people who, at great peril for themselves and their loved ones, stood up for humanity and what is right.

Hernandez, García, and Goodwin (eds.), Speculative Fiction for Dreamers. A Latinx Anthology (Mad Creek Books, 2021).

“The anthology Speculative Fiction for Dreamers is an exciting and mind-expanding collection of short stories by contemporary Latinx authors. Speculative Fiction for Dreamers uses as its inspiration the lived experiences of the American Latinx community of today, expressed through speculative fiction. Rooted in the theoretical framework established by Gloria Anzaldúa’s ideas about la frontera, the anthology’s stories grew out of the participating authors’ lives, located at the cultural, political, sexual, and ethnic borderlands of American society. Speculative Fiction for Dreamers is a fun, subversive anthology of Latinx short stories.”

Another book I really enjoyed. I would say that SFF is one of the most vibrant and dynamic literary genres today. New voices are being added to the choir at a steady pace, which expands our ideas of what this and other worlds could become, now and in the future.

Margo Reijmer, Antonia Lloyd-Jones and Zosia Krasodomska-Jones (translators). Mud Sweeter than Honey. Voices of Communist Albania (Restless Books, 2021).

“Personal testimonials reveal the lived truths of communist Albania in Margo Rejmer’s oral history book Mud Sweeter than Honey. The book is written like a fairy tale. Its introduction sets up the testimonials, which reveal a repressive society based on contradictions bordering on the absurd. From the survivors of the regime, Mud Sweeter than Honey collects important testimonies about life in communist Albania.”

Mud Sweeter than Honey is an important book for two reasons. One, it is an inside view of the least known former Communist state of Eastern Europe, Albania. Two, it demonstrates the importance of literature in translation. Originally written in German, without the work of publishers who believe in translated literature, this book would never have reached us.

Peter Fiennes, A Thing of Beauty. Travels in Mythical and Modern Greece (Oneworld Publications, 2021).

“Musings on the myths of ancient Greece are intertwined with contemplations on climate change and Covid-19 in Peter Fiennes’s travelogue A Thing of Beauty. As climate change set the world on fire and Covid-19 emerged, Fiennes traveled through Greece with ancient Greek travel writer Pausanias and Lord Byron as his guides. The purpose of the trip was to find hope and to search for beauty; these elusive terms are explored in depth, but the book provides no definite answers about them. In the end, it is the journey that matters. A Thing of Beauty is an entertaining, erudite travelogue through Greece, both ancient and modern.”

When Covid-19 shut down the world in early 2020, tourism ground to a halt and communities whose survival depend on money coming from outside suffered. Greece was one of them. Slowly as we learn how to live with the virus, tourism and travel in general is returning, but for those months when the world stood still, those who dared venture out walked in solitude.

Edward H. Miller, A Conspiratorial Life. Robert Welch, the John Birch Society, and the Revolution of American Conservatism (University of Chicago Press, 2021)

“The origins of the conspiracy theories that permeate modern American politics are revealed in Edward H. Miller’s biography of Robert Welch, A Conspiratorial Life. Born into a family of North Carolina farmers who fought in the American Revolution, owned slaves, believed in white supremacy, supported the confederacy, disliked Yankees, and distrusted the federal government, Robert Welch made his fortune as a candy manufacturer with the purpose of supporting himself as a political writer. Hypervigilant to conspiracy theories, he found a personal outlet in the death of John Birch, an American military intelligence officer who died during World War II. He founded an anticommunist organization, The John Birch Society, to peddle his theories among American conservatives. A Conspiratorial Life is the first comprehensive biography of Robert Welch. It is revelatory about his role in the development of modern American conservatism.”

This book is quite the chilling read because it shows the origins of some of the conspiracy theories that we are living with on a daily basis, how they developed, and were allowed to spread and sprout very deep roots.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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Book Review Round Up Part 2: Foreword Reviews

As some of you might know, I review books for Foreword Reviews, a magazine and review service that reviews books published by independent presses, university presses, and self-published authors for independent bookstores, libraries, and literary agents, as well as the general reading public. This week I would like to share with you some of the books that I have reviewed for them over the past year and a half. In addition to being featured on Foreword Review’s website, these reviews have also been published in the print edition of the magazine Foreword Reviews.

Last time I did a Foreword Review book review round up was in October 2020 and you can read that round up by clicking on this link.

Hopefully you will find a book that interests you. Enjoy!

The text within quotation marks are excerpts from the reviews.

Norris Hundley, Jr. and Donald C. Jackson. Heavy Ground. William Mulholland and the St Francis Dam Disaster (University of Nevada Press, 2020).

“On March 12th, 1928, the St. Francis Dam collapsed, and twelve billion gallons of silted water crashed through the California countryside. By the time the flood reached the coast and spilled into the Pacific, an estimated 400 people had lost their lives, making this one of the greatest disasters of its kind in US history.”

I really enjoyed this book and its discussions on how the city of Los Angeles wouldn’t exist the way we know it, if it hadn’t been for the massive infrastructure projects that were undertaken to secure the city’s water supply. Also, I will never think of Mulholland Drive the same again.

Amy Nathan. Together. An Inspiring Response to the “Separate-but-Equal” Supreme Court Decision that Split America (Paul Dry Books, 2021).

“On June 7, 1892, Homer Plessy, a Black shoemaker from New Orleans, bought a first class train ticket to Covington, Louisiana. When the train arrived, Plessy took his seat. Less than three blocks away from the station, the trip came to an end, and Plessy found himself arrested for being a Black man traveling in a train car for white people. Plessy found himself in court, and Judge John Ferguson found him guilty of breaking the law. What seemed like a minor occurrence was, in fact, part of a bigger plan to challenge The Separate Car Act of 1890, which introduced segregated train seating in Louisiana.”

This book is a great introduction to the actions that led to the Supreme Court ruling known as Plessy v. Ferguson, which came to be used as the legal precendent for introducing Jim Crow laws in the South. The story focuses on how the descendants of Homer Plessy and Judge John H. Ferguson work together to bridge the racial divide caused by this case.

Jen Gunter. The Menopause Manifesto (Kensington Books, 2021).

“Jen Gunter’s The Menopause Manifesto is a self-help guide through menopause for all women of a certain age. The Menopause Manifesto is practical as it reclaims menopause from myths, educating and empowering its audience in equal measure.”

In addition to reviewing The Menopause Manifesto, I interviewed its author, Dr. Jen Gunter. You can read my interview with Dr. Gunter here. An excerpt from this interview was also included in Foreword Review’s round up of the best conversations between reviewers and authors in 2021.

Mario Levrero, Annie McDermott (transl.). The Luminous Novel (And Other Stories, 2021).

“An author’s dream of financial independence comes true when he receives a generous stipend with no strings attached. Suddenly he has the means to dedicate all of his time to the novel that has eluded him for so many years. But the dream turns into a nightmare. Even with no time restrictions, he finds himself without the time to write. The novel slips further away from him, and with it, his life.”

This book was an unusual reading experience. The only way I can describe it is “meta.” This is a book written about the inability to write. But if you are unable to write, then how did you write this book?

Ellen Prentiss Campbell. Frieda’s Song (Apprentice House Press, 2021).

“In 1935, Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, a Jewish psychoanalyst, leaves Nazi Germany for the United States, where she builds a new life in Rockville, Maryland. In 2009, Eliza, also a psychoanalyst and the single mother of a troubled teenage son, moves into the house Frieda built. By accident, she discovers Frieda’s diary. Thereafter unfolds a story of how, for one summer, the women’s lives mirrored each other, despite a difference of decades.”

I enjoyed this book because it taught me about the real-life person of Frieda Fromm-Reichmann, a pioneer in psychoanalysis and the treatment of schizophrenia.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

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