booknotes: october round-up

I've been reading lots lately, without a lot of time to write substantial review posts. So here's another one of those massive "stuff I've been reading" posts that I find myself obliged to write several times a year. Alpha by author because I'm organizational that way at times. It's the librarian thing.

Eagleton, Terry. Why Marx Was Right (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011). So I've read a bit of Marx and generally think of myself as a socialist-minded leftist -- when I think of myself in those types of political terms at all. But I'm not really all that clear about what makes Marxism unique among all of the other theories and practices of socialism and communism that exist in the world. Which is where Eagleton's theory-heavy but still readable primer on Marxism was worth the read. Also he works in the phrase "a pathological obsession with penguins" and explains why this is perhaps not relevant to the class struggle. Mr. Eagleton, sir, I'd say you win all the things if this turn of phrase didn't seem ill-conceived given the subject at hand.

Hale, Grace Elizabeth. A Nation of Outsiders: How the White Middle Class Fell in Love With Rebellion in Postwar America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). Hale's history explores the different conduits by which white middle class Americans came to identify with "outsiders" between the 1950s and the 1980s, beginning with the publication of Catcher in the Rye and ending with an examination of Randall Terry's anti-abortion organization Operation Rescue.  I found a lot of interesting stuff here, particularly Hale's inclusion of conservative as well as liberal sources -- white Civil Rights activists and folk musicians are well-trod ground, but the Jesus freaks are an under-explored phenomenon.  My one frustration with Hale's treatment is that she tends to talk in broad general categories -- i.e. "white middle class Americans" and "outsiders" without acknowledging that despite economic and racial privileges, not all white, middle-class folks were appropriating outsider identity -- there were a lot of ways to experience marginalization in postwar America, and I feel those complications get short-shift. I would also have been pleased to see more in-depth discussion of the process by which flirtation with outsider identity prompted many white and middle-class people to actually become marginal outsiders in deed as well as word. Still -- a truly thought-provoking recent read.

Maguire, Seanan. Rosemary and Rue (New York: Daw, 2009) and A Local Habitation (2010). Rosemary and Habitation are the first two volumes in a series of novels about changeling October "Toby" Daye, San Francisco-based private investigator and knight pledged to Daoine Sidhe Duke Sylvester Torquill of the Summerlands. You can tick off a lot of urban fantasy boxes for this series, and in addition to the satisfaction of the familiar Maguire consistently digs a little deeper into her stories and characters than strictly demanded in one's popcorn fiction. There are no easy answers few heroes or villains without a whiff of moral dubiousness. I already have the third installment on order at the Brookline Public Library!

Moreno, Jonathan D. The Body Politic: The Battle Over Science in America (New York: Bellevue Literary Press, 2011). This was an advance review book I snagged via Early Reviewers on Library Thing. Moreno is a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, and I suspect this primer was meant to serve as a classroom text, introducing students to key controversies at the intersection of biology (particularly human biology) and politics. It suffers from many of the shortcomings that other such introductory texts suffer from: summary treatment of thorny questions due to space limitations, a limited number of citations, and strongly-worded assertions meant (I assume) to provoke discussion for which scant evidence is given. I felt like the book suffered from poor organization -- the text seemed to jump back and forth between historical narrative and issue-based sections, with little transition. The brevity of the text itself might be offset to great effect by the inclusion of a narrative bibliography or "further reading" section, neither of which were in evidence in the uncorrected proof. I'd argue that more valuable contributions to the field have been made by such authors as Michelle Goldberg (The Means of Reproduction) and Debora L. Spar (The Baby Business) -- though granted, my knowledge in this area leans heavily toward reproductive technologies as well as the broader the right to bodily autonomy and health decision-making.

Priest, Cherie. Hellbent (New York: Spectra, 2011). I reviewed Bloodshot earlier in the year and was excited when the second installment of the Cheshire Red Reports so close on the heels of volume one. Hopefully there will be many more to come! Hellbent follows the continuing adventures of vampire and thief-for-hire Raylene as she and her chosen family of misfits hustle to keep themselves safe and financially stable in the midst of growing tensions in the vampire community and the appearance of a mentally unstable witch. Totally anticipating volume the third.

Smith, Christian. Christian America? What Evangelicals Really Want (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000). Now over a decade old, this book contains an analysis of over 100 lengthy interviews with self-identified evangelicals from across the nation in which the interviewees were asked to articulate their beliefs about Christian faith and practice as it relates to American political life and culture. Smith's analysis of the data feels slightly heavy-handed in the "Evangelicals are not all close-minded bigots!" direction, but the data and first-person narratives will still be useful to people seeking to understand the worldviews of American evangelical Christians in the mid-1990s.

Sonnie, Amy and James Tracy. Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times (New York: Mellville House, 2011). Sonnie and Tracy have taken on the ambitious project of documenting the experiences of a number of white working class community organizers in Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York City during the 1960s and 70s. They set out to challenge the common assumption that poor and working-class whites of the era were knee-jerk racists who felt efforts to end racial discrimination translated into loss of (white) jobs in already-struggling urban areas. “These men and women understood that ending racism was not a threat or an act of charity,” they argue, “but a part of gaining their own freedom” (5). The extensive research represented in this book is a valuable contribution to the scholarship in this area, and I found it particularly interesting to read in tandem with A Nation of Outsiders, since Sonnie and Tracy chronicle many of the same events, but from the perspective of the outsiders themselves -- rather than those who sought to romanticize them.

Taormino, Tristan (ed.). Take Me There: Trans and Genderqueer Erotica (New York: Cleis Press, 2011). I wrote a review of Take Me There over at Harpyness; you can also read an interview with Tristan Taormino at Lamda Literary. Erotica anthologies are always particularly tricky to review given that the unevenness of any anthology is compounded by the very personal nature of ones likes and dislikes when it comes to sexually explicit material. Suffice to say, there were some stories I liked, some I didn't, and I'm looking forward to further expansion of the subgenre. In the meantime, may I recommend Julia Serano's "Small Blue Thing," "Now, Voyager" by Rahne Alexander, "The Visible Woman" by Rachel K. Zall, and Patrick Califia's "Big Gifts in Small Boxes" -- all of which can be found in Take Me There.

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