This extraordinary set of autobiographical essays gives insight into a black woman’s life in the arts: everything from joining the Black Panthers to avoiding African-American chick lit.
Juanita (Virgin Soul, 2013) grew up in Oakland, California, in the 1950s. She remembers a “goody-goody” childhood of reading, spelling bees, and chores. America at the time was “a Jell-O & white bread land of perfection and gleaming surfaces,” she notes in her essay “White Out”; the only blacks on screen played mammies and maids. She joined the Black Panthers at San Francisco State in 1966 and became a junior faculty member in its Black Studies department—the nation’s first. In perhaps the most powerful piece in the collection, “The Gun as Ultimate Performance Poem,” written after the death of Trayvon Martin, Juanita sensitively discusses the split in the Black Panthers over carrying guns. She liked guns’ symbolic associations and even kept one in her purse while working at a post office. But she now recognizes the disastrous consequences of romanticizing a weapon: “It was Art. It was Metaphor. It was loaded with meaning and death.” In another standout, “The N-word,” she boldly explores the disparate contexts in which the epithet appears: in August Wilson’s play Fences, in comedy routines, and intimately between friends. “It’s not problem or solution; it’s an indication,” she concludes. The title essay contends that black women are de facto feminists because they’re so often reduced to single parenting in poverty. Elsewhere, she discusses relationships between black men and women, recalls rediscovering poetry as a divorcée with an 8-year-old son in New Jersey (“Tough Luck,” which includes her own poems), remembers a time spent cleaning condos, and remarks that Terry McMillan has ensured that a “black female writer not writing chick lit has an uphill challenge.”
The author refers to herself as “an observational ironist,” and her incisive comments on black life’s contradictions make this essay collection a winner.
This collection of interview transcripts brings 24 experts, mostly psychologists and social scientists, together in a scholarly examination of the feminine.
Debut author Salum used Kickstarter to fund her 2014 documentary, also entitled Ensoulment. This women’s studies project relied on interviews with experts but created an animated protagonist who was, like the author and director herself, on a journey to understand the feminine. “What I was really after was not the female gender, but a matter of the soul, the impalpable,” Salum recalls. Her direct inspiration was a BodySoul Rhythms women’s retreat run by the Marion Woodman Foundation, which explores the Jungian idea of the feminine. Indeed, a number of the analysts and academics Salum interviews work within the Jungian framework. Many emphasize that feminine and masculine are not strict categories but interrelated principles, akin to the Eastern notion of yin and yang. “The whole business of opposites does not exist anywhere in the world. Everything is complementary,” one psychologist insists. Attempts to define the feminine abound—“the rhythmic…and the intuitive,” “both strength and delicacy, both firmness and love,” and “the great round…the encircling embrace”—but, crucially, Salum’s interlocutors always retain a sense of mystery and lived experience. They explain that the feminine is an archetypal quality to tap into rather than a distinct set of stereotyped behaviors and characteristics. The discussions in this original work center on six themes—the media, the body, men, relationships, work, and religion—but stray widely within those parameters to take in everything from eating disorders and fertility symbols to the goddess role that pop stars play in today’s culture. The interviews exhibit impressive depth as well as range, and the fact that one-third of Salum’s subjects are male prevents this from turning into a triumphalist, girl-power narrative. Instead, these are nuanced arguments that divorce gender from spirit. Each interview is headed by a photograph or cartoon avatar of the subject, a few biographical paragraphs, and Salum’s intriguing reflections on how she knew of and decided to include them.
Thought-provoking statements on almost every page; unmissable for women’s studies and religion students.
A conservationist and art photographer explores the erotic aspects of trees.
For more than 20 years, Arbor has been creating intimate photos of trees and people together. The humans, which include herself and others, are nearly always nude, and the folds and curves of their bodies harmonize with the sinew of the trees. In one, the author prostrates herself, as if on an altar, along a platform at the base of a 285-foot mountain ash; in others, she reclines on a willow that appears as though it’s bending to drink at a nearby pool or nestles in the crook of a windblown Cyprus, the curve of her back in perfect accord with the outermost bough’s lurch to the left. In one black-and-white photo, she molds herself to the basal furl of an enormous fig tree, pressing her palms and her cheek against its bark, looking like something from the pages of Ovid’s Metamorphosis. “For tens of thousands of years,” she writes, “people took refuge under trees, held council under trees, and depended upon trees for survival.” Indeed, from even earlier. Anyone perusing Arbor’s book can’t help but feel eerily reminded of humanity’s distant ancestors—the earliest hominids—and how some of them would have lived nearly their whole lives in the vanished oaks and beeches of the Pliocene (“we lived in kinship with them,” she achingly writes of that forgotten past). Sometimes the models’ fetal poses in the trees drift toward the sentimental, à la Anne Geddes’ work, and some readers may be amused by the fact that sometimes the models are difficult to locate, bringing to mind Where’s Waldo? But such levity isn’t unwelcome, and it serves only to intensify the fact that humans can appear eerily camouflaged in nature. Fortunately, Arbor has a remarkable eye for how light and shadow shape the viewer’s experience of texture, and some pictures are every bit as powerful and haunting as Edward Weston’s images of bell peppers—or, for that matter, of trees. Forest giants from Tasmania to South Africa to Anatolia have never seemed so alive.
A searching appraisal of contemporary Ismaili philosophy and its relation to modernity.
Islamic thought is famously fissured into Shia and Sunni strains, but that neat bifurcation hardly captures its competing allegiances. In the eighth century, following the death of Jafar al-Sadiq, a set of contentious claims regarding his successor was issued, and those who recognized al-Sadiq’s son Ismail as the true heir were eventually called Ismailis. That group itself experienced its own repeated splintering, but as a whole, it has always been a minority within the Shia followers, and a persecuted one as well, scattered across the globe. Western scholars typically know very little about Ismaili philosophical currents, but this is somewhat ironic, as the core of Ismaili beliefs roundly embraces progressive, liberal principles like democracy, pluralism, multicultural diversity, and social justice. Debut author Miraly explores the curious way Ismaili beliefs have exerted an outsized influence on Islamic thought at large despite historical marginalization. He wrestles with the twin possibilities that either Ismaili historians have appropriated liberal categories and grafted them onto revisionist interpretations, or, in some form, these principles were already contained within the ancient Ismaili tradition. Along the way, the author ably dissects that tradition’s approach toward the interpretation of the Quran and the ways Ismaili scholars locate and even ground liberal values on past religious and ethical thought. Miraly also investigates the work of the Aga Khan Development Network, which is essentially the social activist organization of the Ismaili community. Finally, the author considers the way a transnational community of Ismaili disciples presided over by the 49th Ismaili Imam, Aga Khan IV, has formed and how the cultural and political character of Canada has proven particularly congenial to Ismaili commitments. Miraly’s erudition is breathtaking, and the rigor of his analysis unrelenting; he deftly considers all the reasons why Ismaili theology has been so intellectually agile and politically adaptable. He avoids any facile conclusions; instead, he interrogates the internal coherence of the history presented by Ismaili scholars rather than its rightness. As he writes at the conclusion of the study: “In some sense, all historical scholarship is reinvention.”
A compelling analysis of the relationship between Islamic thought and modernity.
In this debut chronicle, an abstract painter offers a vivid look into a working studio and the development of his own artistic vision.
To many nonartists, abstract art may seem to be the most inaccessible of all forms, as it often lacks familiar images to cling to. To Rutenberg, however, abstraction represents a way of bringing the world up-close, so that one not only sees, but feels its integral parts. “Art happens,” Rutenberg states, “when the intellectual and the visceral collide so violently that they fuse into a third thing.” His love of art is palpable in this book, which serves as a companion piece to his YouTube series, “Brian Rutenberg Studio Visits.” He only sparsely describes the events of his own life, but he lavishly and lovingly dissects his growth as an artist, from his childhood compositions, created out of marsh mud and colored paper on hot summer days on the South Carolina coast, to later canvases that he stabbed with an ice pick in his loft studio in Manhattan. Alongside this deeply personal story, Rutenberg also offers a down-to-earth course on the transcendent power of art, presenting a wide range of examples, including works by Pablo Picasso and pianist Glenn Gould. The text is peppered with memorable passages, such as “All artists live in the gap between what they imagine and produce,” “When the effortless appears difficult, it’s entertainment. When the difficult appears effortless, it’s art,” and “An artist’s job is to monkey with stuff. We don’t seek solutions but problems. We play because we can.” Rutenberg’s love of his work is infectious, and his analyses of artistic issues are engaging and appealing, never indulging in the elitism that some may associate with the world of fine art. His delight in his chosen craft also counters the myth of the tortured artist, although a slightly less rosy perspective and a few more details about life’s challenges might have added a welcome touch of realism. All in all, however, it’s an exhilarating treatise on how to really “see” the world.
An original and stimulating memoir that takes readers into the mind and heart of an artist.
A debut biography examines a biologist whose DNA sequencing work paved the way for the Human Genome Project.
Biotech journalist Timmerman met Leroy “Lee” Edward Hood as a Seattle Times reporter in 2001. Bill Gates had lured Hood to the University of Washington in 1991 with $12 million for a molecular biotechnology department, but in 1999 Hood resigned to found the Institute for Systems Biology. The book shrewdly opens with this turning point, then retreats to Hood’s birth in Montana in 1938 and proceeds chronologically. A football quarterback and Westinghouse Science Talent Search finalist, Hood looked to professors to provide the positive example his alcoholic father didn’t. Caltech hosted much of Hood’s career, from undergraduate years—when he was president of the freshman class—to two decades on staff. While at Caltech, he co-wrote a biochemistry textbook and headed a cancer research center. “Never prone to self-doubt,” Hood had broad but shallow knowledge, Timmerman notes, so relied on—and sometimes took credit for—colleagues’ expertise. However, he was dedicated to innovation, and his work on a DNA sequencing machine would prove as revolutionary to the genomics field as the printing press has been in Western culture. Such farsightedness accounts for him winning the 2002 Kyoto Prize and a 2013 National Medal of Science—limited consolation for missing out on a Nobel Prize in the 1980s. One chapter title sums Hood up perfectly: “A Visionary, Not a Manager.” Timmerman builds a painstaking picture of a determined researcher whose entrepreneurial spirit made up for what he lacked in genius and interpersonal skills. Although distant and dismissive of bureaucracy, Hood earned tenure at Caltech at age 35 and became a department chair at 41—but he was asked to step down in 1988. Alongside his professional difficulties, including some failed ventures (for example, a rice genome project with Monsanto), were complications in his personal life, particularly wife Valerie Logan’s Alzheimer’s disease. In this sympathetic and thorough biography, Timmerman’s admiration of a man who was still working 84-hour weeks well into his 70s comes through clearly. Yet the author never shies away from the contradictions of this forceful personality.
A fine tribute to a forerunner of today’s personalized medicine and wellness monitoring; Hood deserves to be a household name.
Through interviews, portraits, essays, and photos, this large-format book explores the role of Jewish ancestry in the work of more than 70 leading American photographers.
Wolin (The Jews of Wyoming: Fringe of the Diaspora, 2000), a commercial, editorial, and documentary photographer, noticed that any list of influential American photographers would include many Jewish names and wondered why: “What could bearing Jewish ancestral roots possibly have to do with the skills involved in being a photographer?” This book, the result of her five-year project investigating the question, includes interviews, family photos, Wolin’s portraits of her subjects, and (in a separate section) an iconic example for each, presented in a large, generous format. “The Claim of a Jewish Eye,” an essay by Alan Trachtenberg of Yale University, discusses problematic issues inherent in such a project, though in a way that raises more questions than it answers—as when quoting other writers’ claims about difference: Jewish photographers are funky and restless, Gentiles “more settled.” Trachtenberg calls these claims “raffish” and “dazzling,” but they could also be labeled vastly, unhelpfully oversimplified. Some of Wolin’s subjects, especially those who experienced pressure to assimilate, see little or no connection between a Jewish background and their artistry. But for those who do perceive a link, the Jewish experience of being an outsider—someone who is necessarily watching others—is significant, both as a stance from which to observe and because photography was, like many other arts, a profession open to Jews. Also important, they say, is the Jewish intellectual tradition of humanistic questioning and interest in existential problems. The entries, arranged alphabetically, offer an intriguing range of opinions, styles, eras, and insights together with large, beautifully reproduced photographs. Reading photographers on their own work delivers the book’s most intriguing moments. For example, Joel Meyerowitz comments that “Photographing is about the potential meaning of things that are at loose in the world....Intuition is a form of mysticism,” while for Toba Tucker, “Photography is my great identity. The camera is the answer.”
A rich, well-documented collection for students of photography and Jewish culture.
America’s medical system faces severe and worsening problems under ObamaCare and can only be cured by a revolutionary turn toward public health insurance, according to this exposé.
Geyman (Souls on a Walk, 2012, etc.), a medical school professor and former editor of the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine, argues that while the number of uninsured has dropped because of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, spiraling costs and a decline in quality have left many Americans with unaffordable, inadequate, and insecure health care. He notes that tens of millions still go without insurance; that soaring deductibles and copayments mean that even insured patients often face crippling bills or have to forgo needed care and drugs; and that out-of-network fees and other fine-print gotchas result in huge unanticipated costs that still bankrupt families. Meanwhile, he contends, insurance companies have reduced their coverage and drastically restricted patients’ ability to choose their own hospitals and physicians, requiring them to drop their longtime doctors in favor of strangers and endure long waits because shrunken provider networks don’t have practitioners who can treat them. Geyman pulls no punches in detailing the failings of ObamaCare, but he’s equally hard on the market-based reforms of Republican opponents of the system (“If the Republicans have their way, individuals and families might pay less for skimpy insurance products, but would pay much more for necessary health care”). Instead, he fingers profit-driven health care as the root of the problem and advocates a Canadian-style, single-payer National Health Insurance program funded entirely by the government and delivered by private, not-for-profit hospitals and doctor groups. Geyman’s lucid and very readable (though sometimes repetitive) treatise has plenty of statistics to back up his arguments. But its heart is a series of individual health care horror stories wherein ordinary families find that ObamaCare promises of affordable treatments, universal access, and a choice of providers prove to be hollow. (One patient Geyman profiles was slapped with a $117,000 bill when an out-of-network consulting surgeon he had never met was called in while he was unconscious during a neck operation—a fee his insurer refused to pay.) The result is a smart, savvy analysis that shows the human cost of a broken system.
A compelling, hard-hitting indictment of U.S. health care and half-measure ObamaCare reforms.
A comprehensive review of United States court cases involving art that was plundered by Nazis.
Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime was always keenly attuned to the power of cultural symbolism and eager to find new ways to disenfranchise Jewish people. These two preoccupations converged in their looting of privately owned art between 1933 and 1945. Some treasures were brazenly confiscated, while others were purchased at steep, coerced discounts. In the last few decades, there’s been growing interest in this large-scale larceny, and yet much of the stolen art will likely never be returned to its original owners. Debut author O’Donnell, an attorney, calls this the “central paradox posed by disputes in the last twenty years.” In this book, he diligently catalogs the many moral and judicial reasons for this absurdity as well as the evolution of laws regarding claims. His study specifically focuses on cases that resulted in litigation in America, providing an exhaustive account of each and arguing that such litigation can be an effective legal strategy despite complaints to the contrary. O’Donnell also includes discussions of landmark moments in art-restitution law, such as the London Declaration in 1943, the Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets in 1998, and the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act of 2016, which was introduced in the U.S. Senate. The United States emerges in O’Donnell’s account as an early, forceful leader in international art restitution despite the fact that some of its own laws, and even the Fifth Amendment, can complicate victims’ options. His mastery of the relevant law is nothing short of stunning, and his meticulous parsing of legal detail leaves no stones unturned. This is primarily a work of legal scholarship, and the intense attention that it lavishes upon legal minutiae may prove prohibitive to lay readers. However, it also unearths the moral drama beneath the legal niceties and ably discusses the ways that uncooperative museums are complicit in Nazi theft and how nations grapple with the dark legacies of their pasts.
A brilliant display of legal erudition combined with historical incisiveness.
Wyatt (A Small Town’s Sacrifices, 2012, etc.) recounts the remarkable life of a Belgian patriot in this biography.
At the opening of this book, 10-year-old Josse Flasschoen attends a military parade with his family in 1901. At the sight of the soldiers on horseback, he declares to his mother, “I am proud to be a Belgian!” Soon afterward, he gets in a minor tussle with a policeman who used too much force while trying to keep spectators off the street. This strong sense of patriotism and intolerance for injustice remained with Flasschoen throughout his life. The biography’s first section examines its subject’s time in the Belgian Congo; the second looks at his involvement in World War II; and the third considers his legacy. At 20, Flasschoen was sent by the Belgian government to the newly acquired colony in the Belgian Congo.There, he established a successful palm oil plantation and gained the respect of many native people,whom he deeply respected, as well. They gave him the playful tribal moniker “Ndekendek”: “the man who runs like a bird.” Later, the palm oil trade slumped, and Josse and his family returned to Belgium in 1933. As World War II grew closer, Flasschoen worked undercover for French intelligence, investigating German invasion plans. On May 10, 1940, German planes filled the skies above Brussels, and Flasschoen knew that his life would be irrevocably changed. Overall, this is a complex, richly detailed story—a biography that’s as captivating as historical fiction. The author shows rare skill at evocatively describing settings in very few words: “The heat was unbearable, especially around the noon hour and early afternoon….It was also when flies fiercely buzzed around people, black or white, and the animals.” He also creates penetrating psychological profiles of various figures, and he provides well-researched historical data. The archival photographs included throughout the text bring the story even further to life. Anyone with an interest in early-20th-century European history, or World War II in particular, will relish this book.
A masterful, beguiling account of an extraordinary man.