Saturday, January 20, 2018

Michael J. Ryan's "A Taste for the Beautiful"

Michael J. Ryan is the Clark Hubbs Regents Professor in Zoology at the University of Texas and a Senior Research Associate at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. He is a leading researcher in the fields of sexual selection, mate choice, and animal communication.

Ryan applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, A Taste for the Beautiful: The Evolution of Attraction, and reported the following:
Nature surrounds us with beauty: melodious songs of birds, brilliant colors of tropical fishes, and the spectacular flashing of fireflies are just a few examples.

All of this beauty evolved in the service of sex in which courters, usually males, strive to make themselves more sexually attractive to choosers, usually females. The driving force responsible for these diverse sexual traits is what Darwin referred to as “a taste for the beautiful,” the sexual aesthetics that guide individuals in their choice of mates.

To understand beautiful traits we need to understand why choosers find them beautiful. In many cases beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but more generally beauty is in the brain of the beholder. Thus to understand beauty we need to understand how the brain perceives beauty.

In A Taste for the Beautiful I draw on recent studies in neuroscience and evolutionary biology to explore how sexual aesthetics are rooted in the brain—specifically the female brain—and how many of the details of what we find beautiful actually derive from other things the brain evolved to do. I describe how the senses, the brain, and its cognitive architecture mold sexual aesthetics in animals, including humans, and how the evolution of sexual beauty can be viewed as a series of experiments in which males try out different traits in an effort to please females.

Page 99 reports one bizarre result of such an evolutionary experiment. Female birds just love to hear their males sing. Male manakins evolved a novel instrument to better please the ears of their females—they bring their wings over their shoulders and rub them together creating a violin-like sound that makes the females swoon. Such musical ingenuity occurs in other animals as well. Elsewhere in the book I explain how some males mimic food and predators to trick females into mating; why beauty is so dangerous for the beautiful; why Mickey Gilley was right, for both of us and for frogs, when he sang “all the girls get prettier at closin’ time”; and how sexual fetishes in animals help us understand pornography in humans.
Learn more about A Taste for the Beautiful at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Kenny Fries's "In the Province of the Gods"

Kenny Fries is the author, most recently, of In the Province of the Gods, which received the Creative Capital literature grant. He is the author of The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory, which received the Outstanding Book Award from the Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights, and Body, Remember. He edited Staring Back: The Disability Experience from the Inside Out. His books of poems include In the Gardens of Japan, Desert Walking, and Anesthesia. He was a Creative Arts Fellow of the Japan/US Friendship Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts, twice a Fulbright Scholar (Japan and Germany), and has received grants from the Canada Council for the Arts, Ontario Council for the Arts, and Toronto Arts Council. He teaches in the MFA in Creative Writing Program at Goddard College.

Fries applied the “Page 99 Test” to In the Province of the Gods and reported the following:
“It starts with a dull pain in my upper-right side.” Thus begins page 99 of In the Province of the Gods. This is the first step in the discovery about my health, which will propel the rest of the book’s narrative.

Page 99 also introduces Dr. Shay, my New York City doctor, whose support allows me to go to Japan for the second time. And, on this page, Ian, my ex, with whom I broke up at the start of the book, and readers will be familiar with from my previous book, The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory, makes an appearance. Though Ian didn’t make the trip with me to Japan, his presence has been felt throughout my first stay in Japan, which comprises the first section of In the Province of the Gods.

I’ve often called In the Province of the Gods “my happy book about death.” Yes, the book is about my time in Japan, and about disability in Japan, but the overarching theme of the book is about mortality. Page 99 takes place in the book’s brief second section, when I’m back in New York City, soon to return to Japan, where I first went to research disability in a culture different from my own. The chapter, which starts on p. 99, is called “After,” which refers to how I felt at the time, that the medical diagnosis I was to receive less than ten pages later has bifurcated my life.

Five pages later, I’m back in Japan, where I learn in a mortal life there is no before, no after. I begin to understand life as a continuum, more true to the experience and people I meet in Japan than what I’m accustomed to in the West. It is in coming to terms with how to move forward with the constant knowledge of mortality, brought to a climax when I meet two of the surviving Hiroshima Maidens, that brings the book to its conclusion.

Page 99 of In the Province of the Gods begins to solve both the tangible and intangible mystery held in the very first line of the book: “If ever I needed the presence of the gods, now is the time.” It is just one example of how the physical means much more than a “dull pain” felt in particular part of one’s body. It is the beginning of what just might be akin if not to a spiritual awakening, then to a spiritual reckoning, which is at the lyrical core of the book.
Visit Kenny Fries's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Catherine Reef's "Victoria: Portrait of a Queen"

Catherine Reef is the author of more than 40 nonfiction books, including Noah Webster: Man of Many Words, Frida & Diego: Art, Love, Life, Florence Nightingale: The Courageous Life of the Legendary Nurse, and other highly acclaimed biographies for young people. She lives in College Park, Maryland.

Reef applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest young adult biography, Victoria: Portrait of a Queen, and reported the following:
In 1843, Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, were the busy parents of three young children born in quick succession. The British people were delighted. Weary of the infidelities and corruption of preceding monarchs, they adored the notion of the current royals indulging in happy domesticity. They bought up prints like the illustration that fills page 99 of Victoria: Portrait of a Queen, which shows the queen and prince consort absorbed in play with little Vicky, Bertie, and Alice [below left; click to enlarge].

The image was popular, but did it depict palace life as it really was? Maybe not. At least for Victoria, fertility and parenthood were burdens. She was dismayed when she became pregnant immediately after her marriage and when she was delivered of a second child less than a year after the first. There would be nine young princesses and princes in all. Victoria said that giving birth so often made her feel “more like a rabbit or guinea-pig than anything else.” After each birth she endured postpartum depression, which left her feeling short-tempered and sad. As her children grew she was inclined to scold and correct, and she worried about them to excess. Yet a show of domestic felicity was necessary if Victoria was to set an example for the nation. Albert was more likely to get down on his hands and knees and play with his offspring, but he was strict in his own way. He had no problem administering corporal punishment to children as young as four.

The picture we see on page 99 is proof that images the public saw could be different from the scenes that took place behind Britain’s palace walls. This discrepancy continued under later monarchs and into the twentieth century. I recall, for example, hearing several television commentators insist in 1981 that the marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer was a love match. A fairytale romance was what the common people wanted and what Buckingham Palace was prepared to offer. And I can’t help wondering today, as I watch Diana’s sons marry and father children, if their lives are truly as blissful as they are made to appear.
Visit Catherine Reef's website.

Coffee with a Canine: Catherine Reef & Nandi.

My Book, The Movie: Victoria: Portrait of a Queen.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, January 14, 2018

C.J. Janovy's "No Place Like Home"

C. J. Janovy is an arts reporter and editor for KCUR (Public Radio Kansas City, MO) and former editor of The Pitch.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, No Place Like Home: Lessons in Activism from LGBT Kansas, and reported the following:
Half of page 99 is a photograph: A woman, kneeling with her ranch dog, in the middle of a wide dirt road that narrows toward the faraway horizon, prairie scrub on either side, weighty clouds above.

The woman is Anne Mitchell, who left her job as a legal secretary in downtown San Francisco and moved to Kansas after falling in love with a woman who owned a ranch in this starkly beautiful county near the Oklahoma border. Mitchell is among the dozens of people who shared their stories of activism with me. Sometimes that activism was loud and headline-making, like a rally on the Statehouse steps; sometimes it was a solitary farm laborer keeping the boss man’s 1,200 cattle alive while going through a gender transition.

For Mitchell, that activism was starting a chapter of Equality Kansas, a statewide LGBT advocacy organization, in the rural southwestern part of the state. Mitchell was spurred to take action after 70 percent of Kansas voters banned same-sex marriage in 2005. “I realized: all our neighbors hate us,” she says at the bottom of page 98. “They might be very nice people and good Christians and smile at you and cook you dinner, but then vote against you.”

Below the photo on page 99, I recount how Mitchell calls and emails everyone she can think of who is slightly progressive, inviting them to supper “at the western-themed Dodge House Restaurant on West Wyatt Earp Boulevard” in Dodge City. “Eighteen people showed up. Among them was Lindy Duree, a fifty-something reading teacher at Dodge City Middle School who had been troubled by other teachers’ response when a student confessed to one of them that he was gay.” Duree told me: “They kept saying, ‘What are we going to do with this kid?’ Everybody was shocked that I wasn’t more shocked about him.”

In the chapter of No Place Like Home that contains page 99, Duree, Mitchell, and a small handful of folks spend the next few years making western Kansas a little bit more hospitable for LGBT people. Like almost everyone in the book, they challenge what outsiders think they know about Kansas.
Visit C.J. Janovy's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, January 12, 2018

Adrienne Rose Bitar's "Diet and the Disease of Civilization"

Adrienne Rose Bitar is an American cultural critic specializing in food, health, and concepts of American civilization. She is a postdoctoral associate in the history department at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Diet and the Disease of Civilization, and reported the following:
Scholars call it “imperialist nostalgia:” the double-edged sadness that simultaneously mourns a dying race and celebrates the success of the civilization that conquered that race. Page 99 of Diet and the Disease of Civilization reprints John La Farge’s 1895 painting [below left; click to enlarge] of Fayaway, a character from Herman Melville’s earlier novel Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life. Fayaway is the beautiful, innocent maiden who disrobes to sail her canoe with her own loincloth.

There’s another scholarly term that’s useful here: “present absence,” or the idea that cultural meaning comes from precisely what isn’t being said. The nostalgic myth of Fayaway is powerful for what it hides: the ugliness of conquest, the sullying of innocence, the clunky violence of encounter. Melville’s myth of Fayaway recasts the mechanics of colonial power – sailing, ships, the overthrow of nature – as nothing more than the peaceful, feminine embodiment of uncorrupted sensuality.

If La Farge prematurely mourned Fayaway, Western narratives today mourn a corrupted, now-obese Fayaway whose tragedy portends doom for the human race. Even as Hawaii touts its reputation as the Health State, Native Hawaiians suffer from extremely high rates of obesity, diabetes, and other “diseases of civilization.” Over 40% of Native Hawaiians are obese. Native Hawaiians are 2.5x more likely to be diabetic than the white population.

No one better summarizes this than health guru Paul Bragg, writing that the “effects of Western civilization’s diet of death on other races is more rapid and therefore more apparent than what we are doing to ourselves. But the white man is eating his way out of existence.” Media and medical research still regularly report on the “lesson from the Pacific,” claiming that isolated islands act as a “natural experiment” for testing the cause and consequence of Western diet and disease.

Discussions of the paradise paradox in “precolonial” diet books retell a more mature story of Fayaway as a cautionary tale about the costs of civilization. Like La Farge, diet leaders today mourn a lost Eden, a now-ugly paradise, beautiful maidens made fat with McDonald’s and canned meat. Imperialist nostalgia captures the sadness that imbues precontact diet, but misses the dread. Weston Price, a still-influential mid-20th century diet researcher, put it like this:

“They [the “doomed island races”] know that something serious has happened since they have been touched by civilization. Surely our civilization is on trial both at home and abroad.”

The story told by Western diet reformers like Price often goes like this: your fall is not only our disgrace but also signals our demise. Western disease had put civilization on trial and found it guilty. Stories like Price’s aren’t limited to the Pacific Islands or even the colonial legacy. Rather diet books like these raise the stakes and tell a bigger, even more important story about civilization itself: is it sick? Is it sickening? And do any of us stand a chance?
Learn more about Diet and the Disease of Civilization at the Rutgers University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Cary Federman's "The Assassination of William McKinley"

Cary Federman is associate professor in the Department of Justice Studies at Montclair State University and the author of The Body and the State: Habeas Corpus and American Jurisprudence.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Assassination of William McKinley: Anarchism, Insanity, and the Birth of the Social Sciences, and reported the following:
The Assassination of William McKinley: Anarchism, Insanity, and the Birth of the Social Sciences is more about the birth of the social sciences than it is about the assassination itself. By this I mean that each chapter of the book analyzes a developing social science at the turn of the twentieth century and examines how each social science understood the assassination (which occurred in 1901) and the assassin – a man named Leon Czolgosz.

In all, I examine Sociology, Criminology (including the criminal law), Criminal Anthropology, Psychology and Psychiatry, and Political Science. Page 99 falls in chapter 3, which is about the rise of Criminology. It’s difficult to say if there is one page or chapter that hits the sweet spot of the book’s overall aim. Each chapter is both distinct and connected to the others. Page 99 begins a new section, “The Production of Social Responsibility,” which makes it a key part of the book, as a subtheme of the book is the idea that the social sciences began to exert pressure on the concept of personal responsibility. Personal responsibility was being overtaken by large structures, such as society and social forces. And yet, as Page 99 demonstrates, despite the pull of sociological forces, criminologists could not give up on the idea that the criminal should be “examined with painstaking care and by precise methods, to determine how far he is responsible.” This quote, from the criminologist Arthur Hall, proves Ford Madox Ford was right. The key to the book is the changing idea of responsibility.
Learn more about The Assassination of William McKinley at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, January 8, 2018

Karen L. Cox's "Goat Castle"

Karen L. Cox's books include Dixie’s Daughters: The United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Preservation of Confederate Culture and Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture.

Cox applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South, and reported the following:
Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South examines a Depression-era crime that takes place in Natchez, Mississippi, a town that prided itself on its image of providing antebellum grandeur to tourists. But in August of 1932, the town made national headlines for the death of Jennie Merrill--one of the last members of the Natchez planter aristocracy. Still, it was Merrill’s eccentric neighbors, originally charged with her murder, who swiftly captured the attention of newspapers around the country. Dick Dana and Octavia Dockery, also descended from southern elites, lived a very different life than Merrill. Their estate, and their once grand home Glenwood, was falling down around them. Inside, conditions were even more shocking. It was ankle deep in filth and the former dining room now served as a pen for their goats. It was a southern gothic novel come to life, and journalists nicknamed the house “Goat Castle.”

While Merrill’s neighbors were charged with murder, they were allowed to go home on their own recognizance. Meanwhile, two African Americans were targeted as suspects. One was George Pearls, a Natchez native who returned from his home in Chicago to find work. The other suspect was Emily Burns, a domestic, who accompanied Pearls on a walk that led them to Merrill’s house where Pearls, along with Dana and Dockery, had planned a robbery. It all went wrong when Merrill was shot and killed. Pearls left town swiftly only to be killed a few days later. Locals would lead deputies to Emily’s home where Pearls had left behind his trunk of belongings. She was immediately arrested and taken to the Adams County Jail.

On Page 99 we learn of Emily’s “confession.” Her signed confession highlights the double standard of justice in a unique way. Not only had she been forced to confess under threat of a whipping, but she had to sign a confession that read, in part, that she had been well treated, as well “as any white lady.” It serves as a vivid reminder that in this case, and in the Jim Crow South, black women who were never accorded the mantle of “lady,” were lucky to be treated as well as a white one.

Page 99 also gets to the heart of the book. While generations of white Natchezeans have repeated the tale of two eccentrics and their goats, lost was the story of Emily Burns. In my research and writing of Goat Castle I have recovered her story, and demonstrated the injustice she endured for simply being a black woman, as evidenced by her forced confession.
Visit Karen L. Cox's website.

My Book, The Movie: Goat Castle.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Scott Kaufman's "Ambition, Pragmatism, and Party"

Scott Kaufman is chair of the Department of History at Francis Marion University, Florence, South Carolina. He is the author of many books, including Rosalynn Carter: Equal Partner in the White House and Project Plowshare: The Peaceful Use of Nuclear Explosives in Cold War America.

Kaufman applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Ambition, Pragmatism, and Party: A Political Biography of Gerald R. Ford, and reported the following:
Gerald Ford was, until 2017, the longest-lived former U.S. president. Three themes marked the overwhelming majority of his 93-year-long life. The first was his ambitiousness. He was a workaholic who put enormous energy into achieving the goals he set before himself. As a child, he joined Boy Scouts, sought to become an Eagle Scout, and did so in three years. He became a starter on the football team at South High School in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and then at the University of Michigan. During his quarter-century in the U.S. House of Representatives, he sought to become speaker. He never did, but through an unprecedented series of events, he became president. Even as an ex-president, he remained ambitious. He thought about running for the White House again. After deciding not to return to an elected post in Washington, he joined numerous corporate boards.

Second, Ford was loyal to the Republican Party. He grew up in a conservative district of Michigan and was inspired by a father who survived the Great Depression without seeking government assistance. For the remainder of his life, he stood behind the party, though he grew concerned as the GOP moved ever more to the political right. But—and this is the third theme—he was pragmatic. He was not an ideologue. Whether as a congressman, president, or ex-president, he sought to remain loyal to his conservative views. However, he saw nothing wrong with reaching across the aisle and compromising with Democrats.

Turning to page 99 of Ambition, Pragmatism, and Party, one will find a reference to all three of these themes. But one will discover that Ford’s ambitiousness had a price, which was his absenteeism as a father and husband. While in Washington, he spent as many as 280 days each year on the road, which was hard on his wife, Betty, and on their four children. There was never talk of separation or divorce, for Jerry and Betty truly loved one another. Yet taking the work out of the workaholic proved difficult, if not impossible.
Learn more about Ambition, Pragmatism, and Party.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Scott M. Deitche's "Garden State Gangland"

Scott M. Deitche's books include Cigar City Mafia: A Complete History of the Tampa Underworld, The Silent Don: The World of Santo Trafficante Jr., and Cocktail Noir: From Gangsters and Gin Joints to Gumshoes and Gimlets.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Garden State Gangland: The Rise of the Mob in New Jersey, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Garden State Gangland: The Rise of the Mob in New Jersey is a full-page, black and white photo. The caption reads, “Willie Moretti murder scene”, and it is a gruesome photo of the mobster Willie Moretti laying dead on the floor of Joe’s Elbow Room in Palisades, New Jersey, blood pooling under his head where he was just shot. Though it has no words apart from the caption, the photo does capture the feel of the book. It’s ostensibly about the history of organized crime in New Jersey, from the 1900s through the present, with narratives weaved through important figures and events (like Willie’s death). But, like the murder photo, the book is a few things more. At times, it’s gruesome, with stories of mob hits and hardened criminals. It is also nostalgic, with historic accounts of bootleggers, nightclubs, and Frank Sinatra. It’s matter of fact- I like to research my topics and present information as close to the truth as possible.

But above all else, the photo perfectly illustrates the way people view gangsters and the movies and books about their exploits. There, in the background of the photo, lined shoulder to shoulder, are spectators gazing upon the crime scene, appalled yet absolutely fascinated.
Visit Scott Deitche's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Bryon MacWilliams's "With Light Steam"

Bryon MacWilliams is an American writer who was a Moscow-based foreign correspondent for more than a decade. He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, With Light Steam: A Personal Journey through the Russian Baths, and reported the following:
Hah! Perhaps Ford Madox Ford was onto something. Page 99 begins, fittingly, in a Russian steam bath, or banya – the lens through which With Light Steam delivers Russia to readers. The wealthy owner of a private “trophy” banya in the Ural Mountains is telling me about the recent murder of a son, a moment that speaks to the intimacy of steaming: bathers don't always know each other's names, but can come to know (and intuit) crucial details from each other's lives.

In fact, the connection between Igor Ivanovich and me is so sincere that I'm silent – can't bring myself to say what Russians usually say to express their condolences.

Connection is key to the page, and the chapter, "The Banya Is Communion" – a journey from Moscow to Magnitogorsk and Bashkortostan that shows how what happens between steams can be more important than what happens in the steam room. Each chapter in the book, nonfiction that reads more like a novel, is an episode – spanning from several hours to several days – highlighting aspects of banya culture, the most Russian thing there is.
Igor Ivanovich moves from the uppermost bench to the floor, begins to massage himself in 200-degree heat with bundles of leafy birch twigs, the aspect of steaming he likes best. I offer to whack his back with the leafy veniki, but he declines. He knows what he wants the same way I know not to cool in the icy plunge pool, but to douse myself with water: each time is different because each time we arrive in different bodies.

The main thing in the banya is to listen to the body, then to do what it says.
The page ends with an observation reflected in the centuries-old saying, V tot den' ne starishsya, kotoryi v bane parishya – “You don't age the day you steam in the banya.”

It's true.
Learn more about banya culture at the With Light Steam website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Juliet Hooker's "Theorizing Race in the Americas"

Juliet Hooker is a Professor of Political Science at Brown University.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, Theorizing Race in the Americas: Douglass, Sarmiento, Du Bois, and Vasconcelos, and reported the following:
Theorizing Race in the Americas analyzes the racial ideas of four prominent nineteenth and twentieth century U.S. African-American and Latin American thinkers: the former slave and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass, the Argentinean statesman and pensador Domingo F. Sarmiento, the towering black intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois; and the Mexican philosopher José Vasconcelos. Scores of books have written about each of these thinkers, but they have rarely been read alongside each other. In contrast, Theorizing Race reads them as hemispheric thinkers, showing how they looked to political models in the “other” America to advance racial projects in their own countries. Page 99, in Chapter two—“Mi Patria de Pensamiento”: Sarmiento, the United States, and the Pitfalls of Comparison—is an apt example of the book’s core argument. It traces the lessons Sarmiento learned from observing U.S. debates about black education and black suffrage following the Civil War.

Sarmiento lived in the U.S. for three years (1865-1868) during the height of Reconstruction, while serving as Argentinean ambassador, and it had an important impact on his political ideas. The texts he wrote during that time, which have so far received very little attention, reveal a different Sarmiento, one not solely focused on Argentinean political conflicts as he was in his most famous book, Facundo, and increasingly concerned with the question of hemispheric power relations between the United States and Latin America. Page 99 describes Sarmiento’s understanding of Northern efforts to educate newly freed blacks and poor white southerners, which he viewed as a model for Latin America. It also describes his disagreement with Mary Mann, an important intellectual interlocutor, about black suffrage. Sarmiento’s skepticism about black suffrage in the United States derived from his understanding of how uneducated voters contributed to political instability in Latin America, by becoming credulous followers of caudillos (charismatic military and political leaders who often became dictators). This pattern, of reading U.S. historical events through the lens of Latin American political problems, would be repeated by later Latin American thinkers.

Sarmiento is an example of the way Latin American ideas about race were shaped in key ways by comparisons to the United States. As Theorizing Race shows, U.S. thinkers also developed romantic perceptions of race relations in Latin America. In both cases, to fully understand the development of racial thought in the Americas, we need to read these thinkers’ ideas in light of their shared hemispheric context.
Learn more about Theorizing Race in the Americas at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue