Forsaken (NewSouth Books, 2016) is a fine first novel by Ross Howell Jr. (AM ’74, English & American literature & language). It addresses various social issues, in particular, those raised by today’s Black Lives Matter movement: that “blind justice” isn’t blind when it comes to race. But its rich textures and nuanced characters make Forsaken far more than simply a “message novel.” Howell recognizes the manifold complexities and insecurities of the Progressive Era South. A master of historical scene-setting, he is deft in evoking life a century ago in Hampton, Va. He starts with a true story—the execution of Virginia Christian, a 16-year-old African American girl, for killing Ida Belote, the white woman for whom she did laundry. And he heightens the verisimilitude by excerpting primary sources, from the murdered woman’s inquest report to the anguished letter Virginia’s mother wrote to the governor, seeking clemency for her daughter.
Howell’s main character, 18-year-old Charlie Mears (fledgling news reporter and idealist-innocent) gradually shifts from observing to shaping events (thus putting himself and others in danger). The plot climaxes with a wintry chase across woods and water that seems more than camera-ready. And with way points ranging from racial injustice and child sexual abuse to the vulnerability of gay people and the Dr. Mengele−like activities taking place at a state mental facility, Forsaken channels a distinctly modern sensibility.
In The Consolations of Mortality: Making Sense of Death (Yale University Press, 2016), Andrew Stark (AM, PhD ’85, government) focuses less on death than on how best to live. And in his exploration of how we can come to terms with death, he ups the ante by forswearing the comforts of religion (though making space for Buddhist ideas). He offers four arguments that could reconcile us to death: 1) it is essentially benign; 2) life offers intimations of immortality in the mark we leave; 3) true immortality would be insufferable, “bone-crushing boredom;” and 4) life itself inflicts the pains of death piecemeal—in death-by-a-thousand-cuts fashion—through the loss of loved ones, infirmities of age, etc.
Joel Kabakov (PhD ’77, music) has published his first volume of poetry, Available Light (Goldfish Press, 2015). The poems are eloquent and well-crafted, the language ranging from fastidious and poetic to loose-limbed vernacular. Individual selections address varied themes—love (“I Brought You Ocean Scenery”), environmental concerns (“Columbia Crossing”), family and memory (“Generations”). Some poems are buoyant; others, more coolly philosophical. But some of his most striking passages conjure up darker visions—“Marooned on islands/each populated by one/ . . . Marooned in rooms/ . . . separated by . . . deadly undertow”). One might say that Available Light contains multitudes, yet the individual selections are given unity through Kabakov’s vivid and intensely personal imagery.
After WWI, Edward Bernays transformed American advertising with psychological insights. Product features became secondary to persuading customers that the product would magically transport them to some better life. Jim Poage (AM, PhD ’72, Applied Sciences) and Jennifer Poage expand this notion across the board—to product design, marketing and sales, even behind-the-scenes realms like corporate presentations. Flair: Design Your Daily Work, Products, and Services to Energize Your Customers, Colleagues, and Audiences (Maven House, 2016) stresses that in product success, emotion trumps reason. You tap those emotions with “flair,” grounded in communicating a product’s “meaningful and joyful essence.” Flair is what—in the big-finned, chrome-festooned ’50s—distinguished the now-classic ’57 Chevy from Ford’s failed ’58 Edsel.
A Taste for Provence (University of Chicago Press, 2016) examines how Provence became an American destination and part of our “changing relations with food.” Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz (AM, PhD ’69, history) also notes how observers often re-see the seen. Thus, Henry James’s 1882 travel book channeled contemporary black-and-white travel photos; Willa Cather’s 1902 observations reflected her reading of Alphonse Daudet; and future art curator A. Hyatt Mayor saw 1926 Provençal scenery refracted through Van Gogh landscapes. (Even the open-for-anything Thomas Jefferson was primed for Provence’s antiquities by earlier lithographs.) By the 1960s, Provence was ready for mass tourism, and Julia Child’s on-location filming for The French Chef (1970−71) catalyzed its entry into mainstream American awareness.
Ambitious and timely, The Politics of Islamic Law: Local Elites, Colonial Authority, and the Making of the Muslim State (University of Chicago Press, 2016) challenges many assumptions surrounding this now-fractious topic. Iza Hussin (AB, AM, ’00, Middle Eastern Studies) emphasizes that “Islamic law” is not synonymous with shari’a (law “derived from divine and prophetic texts”)—nor with the less-familiar fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence). It’s a modern construct, mediated by the experience of colonialism. Taking Egypt, India, and British Malaya as examples, Hussin shows how Britain both marginalized and centralized Islamic law. Islamic elites responded by defending shari’a (thus helping validate their own elite status). And Islamic law emerged as both rallying point and politically contested terrain.
Spirit in the Dark: A Religious History of Racial Aesthetics (Oxford University Press, 2016) recounts black intellectuals’ views on African American religiosity. Josef Sorett (PhD ’08, African and African American Studies) interweaves voices familiar (Du Bois, Hurston, Baldwin, etc.) and novel. Of the latter, Sorett discusses journalist Roi Ottley, author of New World A-Comin’ (1943), and poet Robert Hayden, absent from the black literary canon partly due to his Baha’i faith (which stresses a unity that transcends race). Sorett addresses black Judaism and Catholicism but focuses on black intellectual views on “Afro-Protestantism,” including the significance of its highly emotional, storefront, and Pentecostal forms; its African roots (if any); and whether it promotes black political goals.
Brooke Harrington (AM, PhD ‘96, sociology) explores the rarified world of wealth management, dedicated to preserving great fortunes from taxes, legal judgments, and harebrained investments. After a historical overview, Capital without Borders: Wealth Managers and the One Percent (Harvard University Press, 2016) describes the current role of wealth managers and their use of trusts, offshore financial centers (like the Cayman Islands), and loopholes in tax and inheritance law to protect accumulated wealth. She emphasizes that these activities do real social damage—increasing inequality, constricting governmental resources, and harming the economy by impeding the flow of capital. Harrington knows her stuff: Before commencing, she secured a Trust and Estate Practitioner certificate, the wealth manager’s gold-standard credential.
Volunteerism has burgeoned since the 1980s; a million Americans now volunteer annually in other countries. Hoping to Help: The Promises and Pitfalls of Global Health Volunteering (Cornell University Press, 2016) concentrates on medical volunteering. Having interviewed program employees, participants, and medical and nonmedical staff in host countries, Judith Lasker (AM, PhD ’76, sociology) concludes that such programs are far from an unqualified success. Participants, she notes, typically volunteer for just two weeks, and each new wave of short-termers needs to adapt to the local culture, reducing program continuity and effectiveness. Besides calling for longer stays for participants, she recommends listening more closely to host-country providers, carefully evaluating successes and failures, and better preparing the volunteers.
Nikki Skillman (AM, PhD ’12, English) argues that poetry has lost its “lyric I,” (the centering presence within the verse, e.g., Walt Whitman’s “I sing the body electric”). The Lyric in the Age of the Brain (Harvard University Press, 2016) attributes this shift to scientific advances that replaced “the mind” (seat of the soul and consciousness) with “the brain” (synaptic networks and neurotransmitters). Once society embraced the brain as truth, poets were unmoored. Thus, Skillman cites Tan Lin, who tracks his online reading as a mashup of times, URLs, and headlines—a sort of android’s dream of poetry. Yet despite “belabored opposition” of avant-garde versus more traditional poets, Skillman sees hope for an eventual rapprochement.
In The Experimental Society (Transaction Publishers, 2016), we’re all guinea pigs in large-scale social experiments. That’s not bad per se, Marshall Shapo (AM ’61, history) concedes. Experiment is the testbed of innovation. It’s about “human beings trying to do things better.” Yet subjects in such experiments can be harmed, which Shapo illustrates with vivid case studies, involving radiation exposure (whether due to 1950s-era atomic tests or Three Mile Island), asbestos-related injuries, tobacco smoking, fracking, carpal tunnel syndrome, etc. Society attempts to remedy perceived hazards, but proof of harm and fixes tend to lag. Scientific studies take time. Corporate pushback hobbles regulatory and legislative action. Shapo suggests correctives, but views tort litigation as our main protection.
In The Profitability Test: Does Your Strategy Make Sense? (MIT Press, 2016), Harborne Stuart Jr. (SM, PhD ’92, business studies) offers a business approach equally suited to startups just entering the market or established firms weighing expansion into new products or territories. The text incorporates diagrams, graphs, “games” (brief exercises reinforcing key concepts), and equations (which should benefit the quantitatively inclined). Stuart distills his message into a brief set of questions about competitors and their responses, supplier costs and capacities, and customers’ perceptions and expectations. The goal is to create a “coherent story about your own business.” Doing so will help in framing strategies attuned to market realities that offer the best chance for profits.