It’s been a while since I did a round up of the books I have reviewed recently for Foreword Reviews. The novels that are included in the round up this time couldn’t be more different, from meditations on the Jewish tradition of sitting shivah, to trolling Marcel Proust, to presenting a new take on a nineteenth-century murder.
The text within quotation marks are excerpts from the reviews. The reviews can be read in full on Foreword Reviews’ website and in the July/August 2022 issue of the Foreword Reviews magazine.
“In Lisa Solod’s novel Shivah, family relationships are turned upside down after an abusive matriarch is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. During shivah—the seven-day period of Jewish mourning that follows the death of a close family member—each day is designated its own focus to help with the mourning process. Inspired by this custom, the novel is divided into seven chapters, one for each day. It is steeped in Jewish spirituality, numerology, and theology, and it turns the commandment of honoring your parents inside out. Returning to the same situations, but from different perspectives each time, Leah struggles with questions of how to honor a parent who never honored her children; how to mourn the cognitive loss of a parent who never showed her true self; and how to hold someone accountable when that person has no memory of their actions.”
“Hermann Burger’s Brenner is an autobiographical novel about childhood traumas and the pleasures of smoking a cigar. Hermann Arbogast Brenner is the heir to a Swiss tobacco empire who is approaching his own end. Wrapping up his affairs, Brenner drives in his newly purchased sports car to visit friends in the Swiss countryside. He wants to talk about life while also smoking his way through a case of cigars. In a mocking celebration of Marcel Proust and his madeleine cookie-triggered involuntary memory, Brenner chooses which cigar to smoke in the hope of conjuring a particular event. Complicated but rewarding (just like a fine cigar), the novel Brenner takes its time to get to where it is going.”
“W. is an immersive, intricate historical novel about the alienation experienced by those who struggle to find their places in life. Inspired by George Büchner’s play “Woyzeck,” about a man who murders his wife and is driven insane by medical experiments, the novel also offers a possible backstory to the play’s real-life protagonist, who was sentenced to death for the murder of his wife, Johanna, in 1824. It involves both research and speculation as it sets Woyzeck on his adventures across Germany, Sweden, Lithuania, and Russia, all in search of a place to fit in.”
In the words of my friend, the Australian I shall return.
From letters of recommendation for college applications to buying insurance, scratch the surface of any American institution and you will find racism, antisemitism, or both. Over the past number of years, voices have been raised in shock over the increase in American society and political discourse of overt White supremacy, the racist belief that White people are superior to all other races. This is not who we are! these voices exclaim. It’s un-American to be a racist! But as Nell Irvin Painter demonstrates in her book The History of White People, being a racist, and being a White supremacist, is as American as apple pie.
Though published already in 2010, Painter’s history of the White race in America is as relevant as ever. Flipping the coin on the historiography of race, Painter, Professor Emerita at Princeton University, puts the White race under the microscope to investigate how the group seen as the default in American culture invented itself.
Painter’s findings are as fascinating as they are revolting. Over and over, Painter demonstrates how scholars, intellectuals, philanthropists, and others turned themselves into intellectual contortionists in order to build pseudo-scientific arguments that prove why they, because of their pale skin and Protestant Christian beliefs, are superior to all other groups, especially Jews and Blacks. Particularly interesting to read is how these labyrinthine discussions over time created a contradictory, yet clear, origin of White Americans in Scandinavia.
As racism turned into race science, scholars made use of eugenics, genealogy, phrenology, anthropology, and history to create an internal hierarchy within the White race in America where Nordics, Anglo-Saxons, and Caucasians are the top three best groups to belong to. These three groups are intellectual products with no connection to reality, either in the United States or Europe, but as we have daily proof, the belief in them and the violence that this belief provokes is very much real. As Painter so convincingly demonstrates, even those of us who refute the ideas of racism and White supremacy can’t escape them, because racism and White supremacy are built into the walls of that shining city on a hill we call America.
The History of White People is essential reading to understanding racism, antisemitism, and White Supremacy in the United States today.
In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.
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.
“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’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’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.
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.
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.