Book Review: This Mortal Coil

BookReviewLogoReview by Stephanie Hudson.

In her new book, This Mortal Coil: The Human Body in History and Culture (Oxford University Press, 2016), Fay Bound Alberti writes that “our bodies are products of the stories we tell” (19). And this is the work Bound Alberti takes up, to explore stories of bodies and how these stories impact our embodied experience. She works to trace, and perhaps complicate, origins and potential futures of stories of bodies, with particular focus on women’s bodies.

26401367Bound Alberti is a cultural historian whose work is situated within histories of medicine and the body. Her previous work includes Matters of the Heart: History, Medicine, and Emotions (Oxford University Press, 2010), which was shortlisted for the Longman History Today book of the year award. Bound Alberti co-founded the Centre for the History of Emotions at Queen Mary University of London, where she is an honorary senior research fellow. Through a Western lens, This Mortal Coil is located in Britain, and in part, North America.

Bound Alberti’s work in This Mortal Coil was motivated by an interest “in looking at the body as an assemblage of parts, and why it was that some parts take on particular significance and meanings at certain points in history” (206). Each chapter focuses on a different body part—spine, breast, genitalia, heart, brain, skin, tongue, and gut—taking the reader on a journey “from inside out, from our very core to the surface of our body and the boundaries between self and other” (16). Continue reading “Book Review: This Mortal Coil”

Book Review: The Clamorgans

BookReviewLogoReview by David Kilgannon

Julie Winch opens her book The Clamorgans: One Family’s History of Race in America (Hill & Wang, 2011) bemoaning the failure of Charles Dickens to visit the Clamorgan family’s “bathing saloon” during his visit to St. Louis, Missouri in 1842. If the Victorian novelist had attended, Winch speculates, there may have been another Dickens novel as the story of the Clamorgan clan provided a range of the archetypally Dickensian tropes of “hapless orphans, wily villains, women seduced and betrayed by the men they trusted, imposter of one kind or another, with an unscrupulous lawyer or two thrown in the mix” (3). Comparing an actual family to a novelist’s work sets a high standard for any tale, but is more  than surpassed in Winch’s engrossing narrative history of one biracial American family.

10308115Through the life and times of the Clamorgan family of St. Louis, Winch traces the development of the idea of race and its role in family life, the law and broader American society from 1781 to the early decades of the twentieth century. The narrative begins with the clan’s progenitor, Jacques Clamorgan, whose uncertain origins and even murkier ethics set the stage for more than a century of contention. Specifically, this tension centred on Jacques’ questionable investment in large tracts of land in the upper Louisiana territory alongside the fact that “over the years he lived openly with a succession of black women, all of them at some point his slaves, and several of these women bore him children” (39). Clamorgan’s provision for these children, his mixed-race illegitimate heirs, went on to produce more than a century of often bitter litigation. Winch is sympathetic but clear sighted in showing how Jacques’ less than scrupulous business methods, as well as the racist sentiment inherent within the United States’ justice system, conspired to leave a legacy of unfulfilled riches that occupied generations of Clamorgan’s descendants. Continue reading “Book Review: The Clamorgans”

Book Review: Annals of Pornographie

BookReviewLogoReview by Katelyn Smith

In his first full-length book, Annals of Pornographie: How Porn Became Bad (2016), Brian Watson traces the long history of pornography in the West, reiterating throughout his work the need to place our modern understanding of porn in context. Porn became popularized through the printing press, which allowed cheaper reproductions of obscene texts, and Watson has made use of the modern day printing press for his own description of the obscene, self-publishing his research in e-book format. The book is an expansion of Watson’s masters’ thesis on the Society for the Suppression of Vice (Drew University, 2013), which attempted to regulate and exterminate “smut” in nineteenth-century England, one of the many organizations Watson discusses.  

29232094Watson argues the book is an “attempt to trace a history through the ‘underside’ of Western culture, its art, literature, philosophy, sexology, psychology and its changing laws. It is an attempt to explain the modern view—to explain exactly why, where, and how porn became ‘bad’”(9). He disputes the belief that pornography is a modern conception and instead that we must ‘begin at the beginning.’ His history begins with the 14th century Italian Renaissance and Giovanni Boccaccio’s 1353 work, The Decameron. While recognizing the text is not usually labeled pornography, Watson points to its underlying philosophy, humanism (where “living people deserve as much attention as the future world”), claiming that this philosophy would significantly impact the development of porn in the centuries to come (18).   Continue reading “Book Review: Annals of Pornographie”

Book Review: Lab Girl

BookReviewLogoReview by Sarah Parker.

People are like plants: they grow toward the light. I chose science because science gave me what I needed – a home as defined in the most literal sense: a safe place to be (18).

25733983It would be misleading to describe Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl (Alfred A. Knopf, 2016) as a “debut” work. Jahren has been the recipient of numerous academic accolades, including three Fulbright Awards, and she has been published several dozen times prior to the recent appearance of this memoir. Academic publications by definition have a limited and elite readership of specialists, though. In Lab Girl, Jahren opens up to a much broader audience the fields of geobiology and paleontology, fields whose very names can intimidate us with the reminder of our small and yet terrifyingly destructive place in the long course of our planet’s history. The book develops an extended metaphor relating Jahren’s accomplishments and setbacks to the obstacles that plants face in their struggle for survival and their attempts to flourish. Jahren’s in-depth knowledge of the evolutionary history of plants rescues this metaphor from cliché and instead introduces the reader to a complex botanical world of which most of us are shamefully oblivious: “As a rule, people live among plants, but they don’t really see them” (3).

These plants are Jahren’s passion. She examines their history, teases apart their inner workings, and considers them as actors in a world that has become increasingly hostile to their success.  The result is the fascinating personal story of a woman who made it in a world dominated by men, a wonderfully wacky tale of Jahren’s friendship with her lifelong lab manager Bill, and a surprising paradigm shift in the way that we think about plants.

Beginning with her childhood in the Midwest, where she spent time in her father’s lab at the local community college, Jahren shares her successes and failures with the reader in an engaging prose style that is alternately laugh-out-loud funny and sharply poignant. For example, Jahren tells the reader of her discovery about the content of ancient hackberry tree seeds when working on her dissertation. She muses that most would probably find this “either trivial or profoundly dull” (72). For her, though, it signals the beginning of a new path in life as a researcher:

I was the only person in an infinite exploding universe who knew that this powder was made of opal. […] Until I phoned someone, the concrete knowledge that opal was the mineral that fortified each seed on each hackberry tree was mine alone. […] I stood and absorbed this revelation as my life turned a page, and my first scientific discovery shone, as even the cheapest plastic toy does when it is new. […] I stared out the window and saw the first light of the day spilling its glow out upon the campus. I wondered who else in the world was having such an exquisite dawn (71-72).

Continue reading “Book Review: Lab Girl”