Monday, August 31, 2015

Watt Key's "Among the Swamp People"

Albert Watkins “Watt” Key Jr. is a novelist, screenwriter, and speaker living on Alabama’s Gulf Coast. His debut novel, Alabama Moon, was released to national acclaim in 2006, won the E. B. White Read-Aloud Award for Older Readers, and has been published in eight languages to date. In 2009, Alabama Moon was made into a feature film starring John Goodman. Key’s follow-up novel, Dirt Road Home, was released in 2010 both domestically and internationally. His third novel, Fourmile (2012) received starred reviews from Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, and School Library Journal. In addition to novels and screenplays, Key writes fiction and nonfiction articles for both local and nationally distributed publications. Key divides his time in Alabama between Mobile, Point Clear, and the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Among the Swamp People: Life in Alabama’s Mobile-Tensaw River Delta, and reported the following:
Page 99 in Among the Swamp People is at the end of a chapter. What little print there is on the page mostly consists of the quote below:
This old boy used to show up at school back when we were kids. He always carried a paper grocery sack with his lunch in it. We never had much for lunch those days, so we was always wantin' to know what all he had in that sack. We figured it must be pretty good. Especially since he walked off to the top of the hill and ate it by himself every day.

One day a few of us snuck up to the top of that hill and got up behind him. He opened the sack and pulled out two bricks and a hickory nut. He broke that hickory nut between those bricks and ate it while he looked out over the playground.
This is a quote from one of my characters. The book is a memoir of my time in the swamps of the Mobile-Tensaw Delta in Alabama where I built a primitive cabin and spent fifteen years learning how to live like the “swamp people.”

The “swamp” consists of about 260,000 acres of wetlands located just north of Mobile Bay. It is the second largest river delta in the U.S. behind the Mississippi. There is no way into this place except by small boat. To most it would appear a maze of rivers and creeks between stunted swamp trees and mud. There are few places where one can step out of a boat without sinking to the knees in muck the consistency of axle grease. It never occurred to me that a land seemingly so bleak could hide such beauty and adventure.

My story chronicles the beauties of the delta’s unparalleled natural wonders, the difficulties of survival within it, and an extraordinary community of characters I met—by turns generous and violent, gracious and paranoid, hilarious and reckless—who live, thrive, and perish there.

Throughout the book I pepper the chapters with quotes and anecdotes gathered from the swamp people. These short snippets often say more about an unusual way of life than I could ever put into words. For example:
What the heck is that thing?


That platypus bill lookin' thing. In your boat.



That's the front end of a spoonbill catfish. You never seen one of them?

No. Looks prehistoric.

Government says they're endangered, but I catch the ever livin' hell out of ’em.
Learn more about the book and author at Watt Key's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, August 29, 2015

John Hagedorn's "The Insane Chicago Way"

John M. Hagedorn is professor of criminology, law, and justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the author of People and Folks and A World of Gangs, coeditor of Female Gangs in America, and editor of Gangs in the Global City.

Hagedorn applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, The Insane Chicago Way: The Daring Plan by Chicago Gangs to Create a Spanish Mafia, and reported the following:
From page 99:
Mo Mo as a kid always hung out with older guys, and his home became a gathering place for the mainly Italian C- Note$. He came to the attention of made guys early in life as their sons hung out with him, watching TV and rooting for the Cubs and other Chicago sports teams. What this did was put Mo Mo on a fast track into the C- Note$. He had a temper and streak of violence, but always was a thinker. Joey Bags picked him in that year’s C- Note$ draft. Sal remembers Joey’s standard advice to Mo Mo and his young charges that “anyone can be a thug, but it takes a real man to be a gangster.” This was the credo of C- Note$ members who aspired to go up the ladder into Outfit ranks as made men or associates.

Mo Mo became part of the enforcer team that went after rival gang members and kept C- Note$ in line. As a teenage soldier, Mo Mo was brought in repeatedly for questioning on aggravated battery charges and was arrested several times, but the charges never stuck. In 1989 after having been involved in some retaliation shootings and with mounting police pressure, Mo Mo left the neighborhood and joined the armed services. Later he would tell Sal that Desert Storm wasn’t nearly as violent as his life in Chicago. He was right at home with a gun, and he told Sal the war in Iraq was more “predictable” than Chicago gang wars.

Mo Mo led a wild life of trips to Vegas, blowing lots of money, and partying. But from his early twenties he also had a relatively stable relationship with Mercedes, a fun- seeking younger girl who knew from the start that she wanted them to get married. Mo Mo thus had a traditional relationship that Sal approved of, while he looked askance at Joey’s philandering. Mercedes was constantly pushing Mo Mo to get away from gangbanging, which pressured him to slide more comfortably into a lower-key Outfit orbit. Competing pressures to settle down and go for riches and power haunted Mo Mo throughout his life. Mo Mo’s more stable personal life is among the factors that convinced Sal that he was their man. Mo Mo came back to the neighborhood at about the same time that the C- Note$ were considering the implications of SGD.
The In$ane Chicago Way tells a heretofore unknown story of how Chicago Latino gangs tried to create a Spanish mafia and why they failed. In$ane explains how a coalition of Latino gangs, Spanish Growth & Development (SGD), was created by gang leaders to control violence, organize crime, and corrupt police. Law enforcement and even most gang members were not aware of the 10-year existence of SGD which ruled the streets from the Illinois prison system. SGD was not destroyed from outside by arrests but by an internecine war of the families, or rival groups of gangs. The book follows SGD from its origins to its bloody demise in an assassination of the steps of a peace conference.

Chicago’s mafia, the Outfit, was not an uninterested observer to these efforts. They worked backstage through their minor league team, the C-Note$, to influence SGD, particularly to control violence in order to safeguard profits. The book follows the exploits of the five principal C-Note leaders, who my Outfit informant called “Two Dagos, Two Spics, and a Hillbilly.” In order to infiltrate SGD, the Outfit had to overlook their Italian C-Note leaders and push forth a Puerto Rican, Mo Mo, as their de facto representative. Page 99 is a small glimpse into Mo Mo and why he became the Outfit’s choice as their covert liaison to SGD.

The book argues that this will not be the last attempt of gangs to organize crime. But the horrific wars of the 1990s undermined the legitimacy of Chicago gang leaders and offer unique opportunities to win youth away from the streets.
Learn more about The Insane Chicago Way at the University of Chicago Press website.

My Book, The Movie: The Insane Chicago Way.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Stanley I. Thangaraj's "Desi Hoop Dreams"

Stanley I. Thangaraj is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at City College of New York.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Desi Hoop Dreams: Pickup Basketball and the Making of Asian American Masculinity, and reported the following:
Sanjeet’s tattoo of the three swords with a shield engulfed in fire and Krush’s hyper-muscular tattoo of Hanuman become a few of the ways in which South Asian American men claim cultural citizenship while playing into “basketball cool.” We see Sanjeet and some other Sikh North American players with tattoos foregrounding Sikh masculinity in opposition to Hindu, Muslim, and Other masculinities. [Page 99, inset below left; click to enlarge.] Through tattoos, the young men engage in the mainstream U.S. politics of (basketball) cool that involves inking one’s body, but doing it in a way in which South Asian sensibilities and histories are realized. Similarly, the creation of team names plays both into their pride for their cities and underlining their ethnic histories. While South Asian Americans men might identify as same, this example of the tattoo and team names demonstrates how difference operates identity formation rather than equivalence. Furthermore, we see how the sporting court is always a site of difference where teams and individuals distinguish each other through wins and losses.

One of the dominant threads connecting all of the chapters and sections in the book is this idea of difference. Instead of stressing an artificial uniformity and singularity to South Asian America, Desi Hoop Dreams examines how various South Asian American communities differentially claim American-ness and national belonging. In fact, we see how the negotiation of American “belonging” involves always producing problematic politics of inclusion and exclusion. As these desi basketball players challenge mainstream racializations of them as either “terrorists” or “nerds,” they ironically invoke similar conservative categories of race, masculinity, sexuality, and class to perform renditions of athletic masculinity that can be read as “man enough.”

Although these young men are inverting the problematic gendered racialization of themselves, desi basketball players fit into the language of basketball ability and basketball cool by excluding various communities. By excluding or marginalizing black athletes, queer masculinity, lower-class desis, and women from the basketball court, they give substance to the very category of masculinity that is also middle-class, respectable, heterosexual, male-able-bodied, and homophobic. Thus, to emphasize the power of masculinity, one must exclude those very communities that are seen as oppositional and foundational to masculinity. We see how pleasures of sport are policed, regulated, and yet there are spaces to challenge these same racial, gendered, classed, and sexualized hierarchies. In the process, we have a basketball window into how the nation and diaspora are contentious, political, and policed spaces.
Learn more about Desi Hoop Dreams at the NYU Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Joachim J. Savelsberg's "Representing Mass Violence"

Joachim J. Savelsberg is Professor of Sociology and Law and Arsham and Charlotte Ohanessian Chair at the University of Minnesota. He is the coauthor of American Memories: Atrocities and the Law and author of Crime and Human Rights: Criminology of Genocide and Atrocities.

Savelsberg applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Representing Mass Violence: Conflicting Responses to Human Rights Violations in Darfur, and reported the following:
How do interventions by the UN Security Council and the International Criminal Court influence representations of mass violence? What images arise instead from the humanitarianism and diplomacy fields? How are these competing perspectives communicated to the public via mass media? Zooming in on the case of Darfur, I analyze more than three thousand news reports and opinion pieces and interviews leading newspaper correspondents, NGO experts, and foreign ministry officials from eight countries to show the dramatic differences in the framing of mass violence around the world and across social fields. Representing Mass Violence contributes to our understanding of how the world acknowledges and responds to violence in the Global South.

From page 99:
In short, while interview statements illustrate how activists of national sections of INGOs (here Amnesty-USA) seek to build organizational and linguistic bridges to domestic political movements (Save Darfur in our case), public representations of massive violence as displayed on websites of the national section remain distinct from national contexts and in line with the INGO’s central policies. With regard to the perceived necessity of ICC interventions, however, both organizations agree: they strongly advocate criminal justice intervention by the International Criminal Court against those responsible for the mass violence in Darfur. In their general assessment of the situation—as a campaign of criminal, indeed genocidal, violence or as war crimes and crimes against humanity respectively—and in the conclusions drawn for judicial intervention, NGOs in the United States aligned closely with other segments of American civil society, as our media analysis documented. And they shaped the rhetoric of the US government.

Conclusions Regarding the Periphery of the Justice Field

Clearly, in the United States, civil society and government stood out in international comparison as both sought to advance a criminalizing frame for Darfur and a definition of the violence as genocide. This does not mean, as we have seen, that rhetoric necessarily translates into action. Obviously the Clinton administration was mistaken when it refused to identify the 1994 violence in Rwanda as genocide, fearing that such a label would necessarily prompt military intervention. The George W. Bush administration proved this assumption wrong in the case of Darfur. It spoke loudly about genocide but refused to intervene decisively. Further, despite the rather forceful mobilization and rhetoric in the Darfur case, the world cannot always rely on the United States and American civil society when mass atrocities are being committed. As discussed above, the American response to Darfur was characterized by a particular constellation of societal and cultural conditions. It contrasts with the silence shown in many other cases, such as the long-lasting lack of public and governmental attention to the long and…
The “Page 99 Test” works and does not work for this book. It works as the page entails central lessons learned in part I, depicting human rights and court responses to Darfur; but it neither informs of the competing representations of the reality of mass violence nor does it show the empirical evidence on which the conclusions are based).
Learn more about Representing Mass Violence at the University of California Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, August 24, 2015

Susan Campbell Bartoletti's "Terrible Typhoid Mary"

Susan Campbell Bartoletti is the award-winning author of several books for young readers, including Black Potatoes: The Story of the Great Irish Famine, 1845–1850, winner of the Robert F. Sibert Medal.

Bartoletti applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, Terrible Typhoid Mary: A True Story of the Deadliest Cook in America, and reported the following:
Which scene would I find on page 99?

Would it be the scene where George Soper (the epidemiologist) has successfully tracked Mary to the Park Avenue kitchen for the first time? Where Soper forgets the old adage that the cook rules the kitchen? Where he asks for specimens of a very personal nature? Where he accuses Mary of unclean habits? ? Where he neglects to see the carving knife within the indignant cook’s reach? Where Mary lunges at him with the carving knife?

Or would it be the scene where Dr. S. Josephine Baker is sent to accomplish what Soper could not? No one has warned Baker that Mary might be resistant. No one warned her about Mary’s propensity with kitchen utensils.

I wondered if I’d find the scene where Mary bolts outside, scales a fence, and with the help of other household servants, hides in an outdoor closet? When a policeman spies a bit of blue calico sticking out from the door, he opens the door, and Mary emerges, fighting and swearing for all she’s worth. It takes four policemen to strong-arm Mary into the waiting ambulance that whisks her, kicking and screaming, to the hospital.

Page 99 occurs about 20 pages after the book’s midpoint. It’s 1907 and Mary has been remanded into the custody of the New York Board of Health. She’s sent to North Brother Island, a small island for quarantined patients in the middle of New York City’s East River. Mary’s 38th birthday comes and goes. So do Christmas and New Year’s. Mary lives alone in the tiny cottage that sits on the East River bank, with only a small dog for company.

“A keeper, three times a day, brings food to her door and then flees as if from a pestilence,” writes a North American reporter. A New York Call reporter states, “They do not dread leprosy, smallpox, scarlet fever, and a score of other diseases. … But they avoided the disseminator of typhoid germs and left her entirely to herself.”

It is a lonely, dismal existence. Or so newspapers would have us believe. Using a journalistic style known as “yellow journalism,” they fear-mongered the public. They characterized Mary as half-human, referring to her as a “human typhoid germ,” a “human culture tube,” and a “human fever factory.” Later newspapers would demonize her as a skull-simmering witch.

Such reporting dehumanized Mary. (It’s always easier to exploit and victimize and treat someone cruelly after you’ve convinced yourself that the victim isn’t human. It removes the abuser’s guilt and assuages his conscience.)

Soper is guilty of dehumanizing Mary, too. In order to convince the NYC Board of Health to arrest her, he calls her “a living culture tube” and “a chronic typhoid germ producer.”

In his later writings, Soper also transforms Mary into a stock character in a real-life cautionary morality tale. Mary Mallon becomes a fallen woman who deserves her treatment and punishment because she is “dirty” (with all those germs inside her), because she has violated the “true nature” of womanhood and the social mores of the time, and because she refused the help offered by a man. In fact, Soper said, Mary “walk[ed] more like a man than a woman.”

But on page 99, we begin to see a different, human Mary who belies the depictions offered by Soper and the newspapers. We see a Mary who makes life-long friends with others on the island. One such friend was a nurse, Adelaide Fane Offspring, with whom Mary could often be seen walking and talking. This friendship continued throughout the course of Mary’s life.

We see a Mary who longed for human contact and who desired to help others.

“Often I help nurse the other patients on the island and often the children will have no one else take care of them when they are very sick,” Mary later recounted to a reporter. Soon we will also see a Mary who forgave the man who betrayed her to George Soper. At the end of her life, we will see a woman who had close friends who loved her, and about whom she cared deeply, who cared for the less fortunate, and who was a woman of faith.

Mary was not without blame for her fate. But she was not the half-human monster that George Soper and reporters had conjured – and this is the story that emerges on page 99.
Visit Susan Campbell Bartoletti's website.

My Book, The Movie: Terrible Typhoid Mary.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Gary Alan Fine's "Players and Pawns"

Gary Alan Fine is is John Evans Professor of Sociology at Northwestern University. He is the author of numerous books, including Difficult Reputations: Collective Memories of the Evil, Inept, and Controversial; With the Boys: Little League Baseball and Preadolescent Culture; and Shared Fantasy: Role-Playing Games as Social Worlds.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Players and Pawns: How Chess Builds Community and Culture, and reported the following:
Flipping through Players and Pawns to page 99, I wondered where I might land. In the rush of chesstime, I discovered: speed chess as blitzkrieg.

All social activities are organized through temporal rules. How we act results from how we allocate time. In competitive chess, each player is assigned a set amount of time to spend as he (rarely she) wishes. This might be two hours or five minutes, depending on whether one is playing traditional chess (long-form chess), as is often the case in serious tournaments, or speed chess, as is often found in evening events at tournaments, online, or in informal gatherings. These rules constitute the same game, but simultaneously they are very different games. Time defines them, creating distinct cognitive, emotional, and social worlds.

Much of Players and Pawns argues that we should not consider long-form chess as a purely mental or emotional game. It is social activity. Chess depends on the interaction of two competitors. They take each other into account, and in doing so repeatedly, game after game, create a community of players. This is intensified in the realm of blitz. By giving each player five minutes or, in the case of bullet chess, one minute, chess becomes a videogame, but a social one. Speed chess is the primary form of internet chess, too quick for players to research their moves, but enough time to intuit what one’s adversary is planning. One must reach inside an opponent’s head to determine how he thinks. Unlike traditional chess, one is able to do this contest after contest: ten minutes each. I quote the psychiatrist and columnist Charles Krauthammer who has for years hosted an informal weekly chess night, what he labels the Pariah Chess Club. Krauthammer argues that it is precisely the rapid-fire multiple games that prevent players from regretting losses and permitting the possibility of avenging defeat. It is mental health in action. Quick chess emphasizes that the experience of contemporary life is swift. Further, sharing these experiences together, not in isolation, one becomes part of a group, a world of common experiences and shared stories.

Chess promotes a joint culture and a vital community, and can do so because we mutually agree on temporal rules as a means by which we build enjoyment.
Learn more about Players and Pawns at The University of Chicago Press.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Ann Larabee's "The Wrong Hands"

Ann Larabee is Professor of English and American Studies at Michigan State University. She is the author of Decade of Disaster and The Dynamite Fiend, and co-editor of the Journal for the Study of Radicalism.

Larabee applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Wrong Hands: Popular Weapons Manuals and Their Historic Challenges to a Democratic Society, and reported the following:
Page 99 of my book covers the Rice v. Paladin Enterprises case, more popularly known as the Hitman case. And yes, page 99 does resonate with the entire book, which is an exploration of legal and social debates over whether citizens should be allowed to read, write, and publish weapons manuals, like The Anarchist Cookbook, for murder and mayhem.

In 1993, Lawrence Horn hired James Perry to murder his ex-wife Mildred and her son, Trevor. In a civil suit against Paladin Press (an infamous publisher of popular weapons manuals), Mildred's family claimed that Perry had modeled his crime after Paladin's Hitman: A Technical Manual for Independent Contractors. One of the key details in the case was that Perry had filed the gun bore to erase any telltale markings, a technique explained in Hitman.

The legal question was whether the publisher could be held liable in a civil suit. A similar situation is whether a company can be sued for providing faulty instructions for building a baby crib that results in the death of an infant. Paladin Press had long claimed that it had a constitutional right to produce such manuals, and their readers had a right to read them. If the courts began allowing civil suits against Paladin, media producers were potentially facing big trouble.

The book examines the ways the courts deal with how-to-murder manuals as a distinct form of speech. For example, is Hitman different than a mystery that provides a detailed description of the crime? Complicating this question is that a Florida housewife originally wrote Hitman as fiction. The courts have usually treated fictional works as an especially protected form of speech and not to be used against criminal defendants. In criminal cases, is reading a book like Hitman a precrime?

Another interesting dimension is that Paladin ended up bowing under legal pressure. The case was settled out of court, but Paladin became more cautious about the kind of books it produced. If (as opposed to the libertarian view) we think that the world might be better off without popular DIY texts on how to murder our neighbors and build pressure-cooker bombs, weaponized drones, and 3-D printable guns, then might civil suits provide a disincentive?

The book asks whether mayhem manuals are important forms of creative, political expression (no matter how misguided) or are so dangerous that the state must do what it can to suppress them.
Learn more about The Wrong Hands at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Victor Tan Chen's "Cut Loose"

Victor Tan Chen is the editor of In The Fray magazine and a sociology professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who studies economic inequality. Chen’s latest book is Cut Loose: Jobless and Hopeless in an Unfair Economy, which tells the stories of men and women trapped in long-term unemployment.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to the book and reported the following:
Page 99 talks about how the unemployed deal with the depression and anxiety that come from losing part of their identities. Work is central to our sense of self—it’s often the first question we ask someone we meet—and during the workday we build friendships that sustain us throughout our lives. Many of the people I interviewed felt isolated. Friends could no longer relate. Relationships with spouses and children became strained. Unable to provide the way they used to, they found themselves mired in blame and doubts.

One smart way to help the unemployed is used extensively in Canada: action centers. When a layoff hits, the government sets up a help center for the company’s workers and trains some of them to work there. Unlike strangers at a government agency, peer helpers can assist their former coworkers with a personal and personalized touch. Lynn Minick of the National Employment Law Project points out that America’s social safety net for the unemployed largely helps the assertive and self-reliant. For those who might otherwise fall through the cracks, it makes a big difference if they have someone willing to step up for them, he says.

While policies are important, they’re not enough. As I write on page 99:
Individuals internalize society’s belief that being unemployed is degrading, and their mental health and social ties suffer as a result. Regardless of how much they receive in benefits, the unemployed are less satisfied than those with jobs. Even in countries with generous unemployment insurance, the unemployed tend to die at a younger age.
Society treats the long-term unemployed—whose numbers have remained at unprecedented levels since the recession—as lazy and useless. My book focuses on unemployed autoworkers, many who had worked hard for decades and, thanks to good wages and benefits, achieved a middle-class lifestyle. Now, suddenly, they are failures. Some became suicidal because they felt they had let their families down.

Our society attacks the “takers” who live off government aid or the “pampered” union members who had the gall to attain a decent quality of life. It’s obsessed with performance and proficiency, self-improvement and success. But in a culture that values winning at all costs, the long-term unemployed are the ultimate losers. The solution, I argue, has to involve changing that culture.
Follow Victor Tan Chen on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about him and his book on his website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Randy D. McBee's "Born to Be Wild"

Randy D. McBee is Professor and Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Texas Tech University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Born to Be Wild: The Rise of the American Motorcyclist, and reported the following:
The 99th page appears at the start of chapter 3, which is titled, “‘You Ain’t Shit if You Don’t Ride a Harley’: The Middle-Class Motorcyclist and the Japanese Honda.” The chapter introduces the reader to a growing divide between motorcyclists that will shape motorcycle culture throughout the postwar period. The 99th page focuses specifically on the increasing numbers of British-made bikes that entered the U.S. market after World War II. Immediately following the war the U.S. government relaxed trade restrictions to help rebuild Europe’s economy and British-bike makers quickly took advantage of the opportunity. Before long Americans across the country were riding BSA, Triumph, and Norton motorcycles (to name a few), and the bikes quickly attracted the attention of Hollywood. The iconic film The Wild One (1953), which starred Marlon Brando as the leader of a motorcycle club called the Black Rebels featured Brando in the now famous look of the rebel--dungarees and a leather jacket--and he was riding a Triumph motorcycle.

Over the next two decades debates about brand name loyalty became increasingly acrimonious with the introduction of the Japanese Honda motorcycle in the early 1960s. Honda would quickly dominate the U.S. market for two main reasons: the company became famous for their clean, easy to ride, lightweight motorcycles that stood in sharp contrast to the 1000ccs (or bigger) Harleys that were hard to start, mechanically unreliable, and loud, and because of a famous ad campaign that identified Honda riders as the “nicest people.” This new breed of motorcyclist was depicted as clean cut, respectable, and middle class, and these riders stood in bold relief to the traditional motorcyclist who was an “outlaw” at heart and increasingly imagined as violent and anti-social.

The success of Honda and the emergence of the middle-class rider profoundly shaped motorcycle culture. Honda’s popularity was accompanied by a shrinking share of the market for Harley-Davidson, which held less than 4 percent by the early 1970s, terms like “Jap bike” and “rice burner” framed the increasingly tense debates about economic nationalism, and fears about motorcycle safety compelled legislators to start passing helmet laws in the late 1960s. Helmet laws were part of a broader effort to regulate “outlaw” riders who were depicted as a threat to the non-riding public but also to protect middle-class riders whose safety dominated discussions about the growing numbers of motorcycle accidents and fatalities. Outlaw riders opposed helmet laws. Middle-class riders were blamed for them. The frustration surrounding these two different groups undermined efforts to develop a grassroots movement to repeal helmet laws and the resulting frustration contributed in part to the first slogan helmet opponents adopted in their bid to challenge regulation: “Helmet Laws Suck.”
Learn more about Born to Be Wild at The University of North Carolina Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, August 14, 2015

Deanna Fei's "Girl in Glass"

Deanna Fei is the author of the award-winning novel A Thread of Sky. A graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Fei has received a Fulbright Grant and a New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Huffington Post, and other publications.

Fei applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new memoir, Girl in Glass: How My "Distressed Baby" Defied the Odds, Shamed a CEO, and Taught Me the Essence of Love, Heartbreak, and Miracles, and reported the following:
The scene unfolding on page 99 of Girl in Glass is a fateful one: the birth of my first child. At this moment—what seemed to be my umpteenth hour of contractions--all of my meticulous preparations for the delivery are collapsing against the primal reality of the pain.
Peter suggested trying the alternative labor positions we’d practiced, but nothing could have seemed more ludicrous to me at that point than getting on a ball or into a tub or onto all fours, let alone slow dancing with my goddamn husband. When he attempted a few of the massaging techniques we’d learned, I yelled at him not to touch me.

When I finally asked for the epidural, Peter asked me if I was sure. This was the procedure we’d agreed to follow when we read The Birth Partner. Yes, I was sure. I’d never been surer about anything in my life. I wanted it now. Actually, now was much too late. I wanted it to have happened already. I wished I’d reserved it the day I was born.
And then, just as I was starting to despair, I delivered the baby with a triumphant push: Here was my son, exactly the way he was meant to be—born on his due date, no less. “Everything about him was an unforeseeable mystery and everything about him was like home.” From that day on, I thought I understood the most ordinary miracle of all: the radiant perfection in the birth of a new baby.

Then, thirteen months later, my second child exited my body much too soon and was rescued by doctors, encased in glass, and attached to machines. This baby, my daughter, seemed fated to be a tragic outcome—unless, by an act of divine intervention, she turned out to be a miracle child.

A preemie: It sounded so common, even kind of cute. Just like a regular baby, only in miniature. Yet the odds against my daughter overshadowed her very existence. Her life was suspended between birth and death, hope and fear, nature and science. Each moment that she survived carried her not toward a promised future, but further into limbo.

And everything about her birth and the harrowing months that followed forced me to question everything I thought I knew about how life is supposed to begin. Girl in Glass is my journey to the heart of this question. Along the way, I explore the worth of a human life: from the insidious notions of risk surrounding modern pregnancy to the history of how we care for sick babies to contemporary cost-benefit analyses of what their lives are worth—and finally, to the depths of my own struggle to make sense of my daughter’s arrival in the world.
Learn more about the book and author at Deanna Fei's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Svetlana Stephenson's "Gangs of Russia"

Svetlana Stephenson is Reader in Sociology at London Metropolitan University. She is the author of Crossing the Line: Vagrancy, Homelessness and Social Displacement in Russia and coeditor of Youth and Social Change in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Gangs of Russia: From the Streets to the Corridors of Power, and reported the following:
If you open my book on page 99, you will find a discussion of the structure of territorial Russian gangs. Like many other gangs around the world, Russian gangs (called “streets”) unite young people (the “lads”) living in the same city area. Some “streets” are relatively small, others form large associations (“families”) that can have several hundred members. Many of these gangs date back to the Soviet times. Although we tend to associate the rise of organized gangs with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the rise of crime and violence at the start of market reforms, as I show in my book many of these gangs first emerged back in the 1970s. A massive shadow economy was then emerging in the Soviet Union and some young street delinquents formed entrepreneurial gangs to racketeer Soviet shadow producers and corrupt service sector managers. At the beginning of the 1990s both old and recently formed gangs moved to racketeer newly privatized companies and individual entrepreneurs. By the late 1990s many gang leaders (those who did not perish in gang fights and did not end up in prisons) managed to legalize their wealth and become heads of corporations and even members of parliament.

But the streets lived their own lives and by the time I conducted my research in the Russian city of Kazan in the 2000s, some of them had become stable neighbourhood institutions. As I explain on page 99, young people join gangs from the age of 17, and from the age of 25-30 they tend to drift away from everyday gang activity, when family and work obligations take over. Only the most committed remain in the gang, those young men who want to continue with their criminal careers and join organized crime networks.

But even members who have drifted away (such as Ispug, the gang member I quote on this page) continue to attend obligatory gang meetings, so as not to lose touch with other lads. The gang becomes a social club rather than a business network. Members seeking to pursue legitimate careers see contacts with their former gang mates as still useful. Gang leaders know the “right” people in local councils and the police, who can help if current and former members - or their relatives - become victims of crime. The gang therefore becomes a source of social capital for ambitious young people, and, as one of my interviewees said, “being with the lads is no trouble, and everyone needs connections in life”!
Learn more about Gangs of Russia at the Cornell University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Justin Gifford's "Street Poison"

Justin Gifford is an Associate Professor of English Literature at the University of Nevada, Reno. His teaching and research focus on American and African American literature. His book, the first literary and cultural history of black street fiction, Pimping Fictions: African American Crime Literature and the Untold Story of Black Pulp Publishing, was a finalist for both the Edgar Allan Poe award for literary criticism and Phi Beta Kappa’s Christian Gauss Award for scholarship.

Gifford applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Street Poison: The Biography of Iceberg Slim, and reported the following:
At about the halfway point of his journey from Chicago pimp to bestselling writer of street literature paperbacks, Robert “Iceberg Slim” Beck gets a tip that the FBI is on his trail for violation of the Mann Act. A successful pimp with five women in his stable, a new Cadillac every year, and a steady supply of cocaine, Beck had cultivated a reputation as one of the South Side of Chicago’s living legends. He had hung out with some of the city’s most notorious black gangsters, including Albert “Baby” Bell and the Jones Brothers, reputedly the richest black men in the world. But with the feds on his tail, Beck hunkered down in a “dingy one-room kitchenette,” where “at night, rats would come scampering and squealing from the alley. They came under the back door which hung crookedly on its hinges.”

Beck’s talent as both a pimp and a novelist came from his inimitable abilities as a storyteller. Even while hiding just a few blocks from his prostitutes, he convinced them in regular phone calls to keep working for him. He told them wild stories that he had obtained engraving plates to counterfeit money, and he stalled them by promising ever more extravagant rewards for their loyalty. “I’m gonna breeze back into town the only millionaire pimp in the world. I’m gonna buy a beach and a mansion in Hawaii for my stable. If we run outta scratch, we’ll just run off another bale. So stay cool and keep humping.” It was through his ability to pimp fictions that Beck exploited hundreds of women and sold millions of books throughout his lifetime.

What makes Beck more than just irredeemable misogynist, however, was that he was plagued by deep feelings of guilt for his crimes. His mother Mary—who was an active member of the church and the black community in Milwaukee—raised Beck as a single mom. From the time he started pimping at the age of 18, he began to have horrific nightmares of whipping his own mother. While he was hiding out from the authorities, these nightmares worsened to the point where he couldn’t sleep. “Those dreams about Mama would hog-tie me on a sweaty rack of misery. I had an awful fear of another jolt in the joint. The guilty daydreams on the heels of the nightmares were torturing my skull.” Beck’s one and only connection to his humanity, Mary plagued him with feelings of guilt in his unconscious mind until he finally quit the pimp game to become an author 20 years later. But that is another story.
Learn more about Street Poison at the publisher's website.

My Book, The Movie: Street Poison.

Writers Read: Justin Gifford.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, August 9, 2015

J. Matthew Gallman's "Defining Duty in the Civil War"

J. Matthew Gallman is professor of history at the University of Florida and author of Receiving Erin's Children: Philadelphia, Liverpool, and the Irish Famine Migration,1845–1855.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Defining Duty in the Civil War: Personal Choice, Popular Culture, and the Union Home Front, and reported the following:
Defining Duty in the Civil War: Personal Choice, Popular Culture, and the Union Home Front asks how civilians in the North came to understand how to behave in the midst of a long and terrible Civil War. The book builds upon a few core observations. First, for the vast majority of ordinary Americans, it was not at all clear how they should act in the midst of this war. How should pro-war northerners balance their essential patriotism and their personal and familial concerns? Second, Americans in this highly literate population had grown accustomed to turning to a wide assortment of published materials – novels, short stories, sermons, cartoons, editorials, songs, etiquette manuals, travel guides and so on – for guidance on how to respond to life’s challenges and quandaries. When the war came, northerners turned to this wide diversity of published materials to help guide their choices. This book is about the war’s cultural rules that came to define what constituted duty and citizenship.

Page 99 is a pretty good illustration of the book’s larger character. It is, in fact, one of the book’s roughly seventy illustrations. The full-page image on page 99 is one of my favorite illustrations, and an example of one of the most interesting wartime genres. The illustration reproduces a “valentine” from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. These valentines were small cards, generally featuring a humorous illustration accompanied by a short piece of verse. In this case, the poem is called “Shoddy”; the image mocks the Union’s crooked government inspectors. The cartoon shows a portly meat inspector blithely ignoring the fact that a barrel of pork being sold to the U. S. Army is rotten. He fails to see the vile truth because the unethical war contractor is waving a $50 bill under his nose.

The popular media during the Civil War really offered two sorts of advice. Many stories and images – like this one – defined and mocked those outrageous character traits that deserved the nation’s fury. Other messages (and other chapters) wrestled with the other side of that coin: What should society expect from the normal pro-war men and women? Defining Duty examines thousands of published sources to offer a new perspective on what it meant to be a loyal patriot in the midst of the Civil War.
Learn more about Defining Duty in the Civil War at the University of North Carolina Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, August 7, 2015

Margarita Engle's "Enchanted Air"

Margarita Engle is the Cuban-American author of many young adult verse novels about the island, including The Surrender Tree, which received the first Newbery Honor ever awarded to a Latino author, and The Lightning Dreamer, recipient of the 2014 PEN USA Award. Her books have also received multiple Pura Belpré Awards and Honors, Américas Awards, Jane Addams Awards and Honors, International Reading Association Award, Claudia Lewis Poetry Award, and many others.

Engle grew up in Los Angeles, but developed a deep attachment to her mother’s homeland during summers with her extended family in Cuba. Her new book, Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings, is a verse memoir about those childhood visits.

Engle applied the “Page 99 Test” to the new memoir and reported the following:
Enchanted Air is a verse memoir about my Cuban-American childhood. It is essentially a travel memoir, showing our summers visiting relatives in Cuba during the Cold War. Page 99 is typical of the portion of the book that occurs in Trinidad, my mother’s hometown.

After a big lunch of yellow rice
and black beans, all the grown-ups
fall asleep in rocking chairs.

Children are expected to rest
at siesta hour, but Mad and I know
that this is our best chance
to explore.

The central patio has fruit trees
and flowers to study, and the walls
display intriguing old black-and-white
photos of ancestors, wide-eyed pictures
that make me feel
just as drowsy
as a grown-up,
all filled up
with years.

This poem recalls the quiet curiosity of childhood, a time when every detail of life is still new. During the siesta hour in my great-aunt’s house, my sister and I stayed awake, exploring. In this poem, I wanted to recapture that spirit of wonder by creating it anew, in present tense, rather than as a nostalgic memory. Writing a childhood memory at an adult level might be different, but Enchanted Air is intended for young readers. I hoped to show a moment when boundaries vanished, and curiosity worked as a form of time travel.

Siesta/Nap is representative of the spirit of Enchanted Air, because it shows a bond between generations, a bond that was broken by history. Of course, while I was writing this book a couple of years ago, I had no way of knowing that diplomatic relations would suddenly begin to resume, with embassies that have been closed for more than half a century re-opening only a few days before the publication date. Writing Enchanted Air was an emotional experience. Reading it now is even more emotional. A memoir that began as a plea for peace and family reconciliation has turned into a celebration of possibilities, an ode to hope.
Visit Margarita Engle's website.

Coffee with a Canine: Margarita Engle & Maggi and Chance.

My Book, The Movie: The Lightning Dreamer.

My Book, The Movie: Mountain Dog.

The Page 69 Test: Silver People.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Judy Brown's "This Is Not a Love Story: A Memoir"

Judy Brown wrote the controversial novel Hush--a finalist for the 2011 Sydney Taylor Award for outstanding book on the Jewish experience--under a pseudonym because of feared backlash from the Chassidic world. Brown's identity has since been revealed and she has left Chassidism. She has been profiled in The New York Times Magazine and has written for the Huffington Post and the Jewish Daily Forward. She holds a master's in creative writing and lives in New York City.

Brown applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new memoir, This Is Not a Love Story, and reported the following:
Page 99 is a short one in my book; three paragraphs followed by a great blank space. Then starts Part II.

On page 99 my father stands in a cemetery in the high hills outside Jerusalem. It is a week after his thirteenth birthday. He watches as his father’s body, wrapped in a prayer shawl, is carried by a group of orthodox Jewish men. The men lay the body gently down in the open grave. There is tearful mumbling all around, the prayers for the dead. Then the body is covered with spadefuls of dirt.

My fathers’ family is destitute. Things have been this way since my grandfather had been crippled during his work as a milk-man. My mother’s family are well-to-do, the aristocrats really, who live on the other side of the ancient city where the wealthier settle. The two will not meet for years. But when they would, they’d fall in love, get married and we’d be born, my siblings, I, and my afflicted brother. And that’s when the story begins.

Because my afflicted brother carried a madness no one could understand. Without the words to explain or understand it, most would call it a curse, the kind of thing that happens when young men and women fall in love. For in the ultra-orthodox Jewish community where my parents grew up, then raised us, it was (still is) forbidden to fall in love. It is the parents, rabbis and God who decide whom will marry whom in the ancient tradition of arranged marriage. To do otherwise is to bring punishment and unhappiness upon oneself. And so, they said, my brother was born.

But that story unfolds itself on all the rest of the pages, before and after page 99, because from age eight, as the unhappy sister of this very strange brother, I begin to probe into the mystery that is my sibling, just a few months before he is taken away. What I learn takes years to understand, intertwining the present with layers of our past. I learn of the legends, myth and family history, and how much of it began when my father, the orphan, and my mother, the aristocrat, dared go and fall in love.
Visit Judy Brown's website.

My Book, The Movie: This Is Not a Love Story.

Writers Read: Judy Brown.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

David Morgan's "The Forge of Vision"

David Morgan is Professor of Religious Studies at Duke University, with a secondary appointment in the Department of Art, Art History, and Visual Studies.

He is the author of The Embodied Eye: Religious Visual Culture and the Social Life of Feeling and The Sacred Gaze: Religious Visual Culture in Theory and Practice, and coeditor of the journal Material Religion.

Morgan  applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Forge of Vision: A Visual History of Modern Christianity, and reported the following:
On the ninety-ninth page of my book appears an engraving [below right] portraying an event that took place in 1842 at Champlain, New York, a few miles from the border of Canada. In the fall of that year, a zealous French brother from Quebec found Catholics in Champlain had been given copies of the King James Bible, a venerable Protestant version of Sacred Writ, which had been distributed by a local Bible Society. Outraged by this subversion of Catholic practice and authority, the itinerant friar organized a public burning of the bibles. No doubt he felt justified in doing so since official proclamations by a series of nineteenth-century popes in 1816, 1824, 1825 had expressly forbidden reading the scriptures in the vernacular, and castigated Protestant Bible Societies for subverting the Catholic faith by distributing the Bibles. The bishop of Montreal denounced the action when it hit the press, but in 1844 and 1846 popes Gregory XVI and Pius IX reiterated the Vatican’s contempt for Bible Societies as Protestant means of assailing the Catholic faithful.

click to enlarge
The incident has been detailed by historians of the period. My interest situates the event within a longer historical narrative of what I call competing sacred economies. Late medieval Catholicism had relied on an economy of intercession, in which devotees sought the favor of the saints through pledges and prayer, and made use of indulgences as checks drawn on the treasury of the Church in reparation for sins, resulting in the purchase of time spent in purgatory after death. The Protestant Reformation famously rejected this idea, putting in its place the idea of “free grace.” But Economics 101 assures us that there is no free lunch. With the gift of grace comes the duty to spread the word, which meant putting the Bible into languages everyone could read. Protestants developed a new sacred economy of “paying forward” rather than paying God back. So in 1842 a Catholic missionary responded by destroying the “coin” of the Protestant economy, burning the Bibles Protestants had distributed. The action was a way of re-asserting the Catholic sacred economy of sacramentalism and penance.

My book seeks to trace a number of strongly visual themes running through both Protestant and Catholic Christianity since the 16th century. The use of images was of primary importance to both versions of the faith.
Learn more about The Forge of Vision at the University of California Press website.

Writers Read: David Morgan.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, August 3, 2015

Reid Mitenbuler's "Bourbon Empire"

Reid Mitenbuler’s writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Slate, Saveur, Whisky Advocate, and other publications. He lives with his wife in Brooklyn, New York.

Mitenbuler applied the “Page 99 Test” to Bourbon Empire: The Past and Future of America's Whiskey, his first book, and reported the following:
From page 99:
“Many and many a putrid heap have I had dug out of trenches where they had been buried in the supposition of an everlasting rest, and ghoul-like work have I done, amid surrounding gatherings of wondering surgeons.”
This first sentence from page 99 of my book is a quote from Major John Brinton, a Union Army surgeon during the Civil War. Brinton was tasked with collecting body parts from dead soldiers for medical research, often digging them out of pits full of amputated limbs and preserving them using whiskey.

Brinton’s tale of one unconventional use of whiskey gave me a compelling narrative I could use to explore more pertinent issues related to how America’s whiskey industry tells the story of American capitalism in miniature: the quality of whiskey during the war (bad), peoples’ access to it (sporadic), the drinking habits of soldiers (you can probably imagine), other alternative uses of whiskey (medicine, currency), and how the economic and political impacts of the war influenced the spirits industry (drastically). Used as a lens, whiskey offers a unique takes on American politics, economics, and culture, and Brinton’s tale gave me a springboard for the next part of the book: how taxes on alcoholic spirits were used to pay the war’s staggering debts and were responsible for between a third and half of government revenue for many decades. Unfortunately, since America’s Gilded Age government—a collection of men made numb by the war they had just endured—was highly corrupt, this all-important whiskey industry regularly found itself mired in the era’s biggest political and business scandals (Ulysses S. Grant’s Whiskey Ring and, later, the Whiskey Trust, a cartelization effort that often led to physical warfare between competing distilleries).

So, page 99 is representative of Bourbon Empire in that it uses a narrative one might not readily associate with the history of booze or the quintessentially American business behind it. Nevertheless, Brinton’s story helped create a pastiche demonstrating how this one product, treated as a commodity, has influenced our nation’s history and, likewise, how that history has guided the evolution of the spirit itself.
Visit Reid Mitenbuler's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Peter A. Shulman's "Coal and Empire"

Peter A. Shulman is an associate professor of history at Case Western Reserve University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Coal and Empire: The Birth of Energy Security in Industrial America, and reported the following:
My book is about how Americans came to think about energy in terms of national security—not around oil in the twentieth century but coal in the nineteenth. As the United States industrialized, Americans had to learn to think about fossil fuels as strategically important, and precisely how they did so evolved over time.

The story on page 99 involves Ambrose W. Thompson, a businessman and promoter from Philadelphia. In the 1850s and into the 1860s, Thompson attempted to induce the American government to fund his speculative ventures—a steam line to Ireland or China, a coal mine in Panama’s westernmost region of Chiriquí, a colony for slaves freed during the Civil War.

This page has Thompson lobbying the U.S. Navy Department to set up a naval station in Chiriquí, where he imagined American steamers could dock and purchase from his anticipated vast mines of steaming coal. A line from this page captures the mix of commercial desire and strategic imagination that persisted throughout the nineteenth century: “The strategic value of coal in Chiriquí was not a simple geological or geopolitical fact but rather an argument that Thompson used to lobby the United States and New Granada [today Colombia and Panama] to promote his speculative investment.”

This page highlights several themes that appear throughout the book: the significance of law in shaping energy politics (which government had jurisdiction over coal in western Panama, the local one of Chiriquí or the distant capital of Bogotá?), the role of scientists and engineers in evaluating claims of new fuels and sources of power (did Chiriquí have coal at all? If it did, was it suited for American steamers?), and the importance of government action in developing new sources of power (should the navy subsidize the infrastructure of steam power?). These were the kinds of questions Americans found themselves asking ever since.
Learn more about Coal and Empire at the Johns Hopkins University Press website.

Writers Read: Peter A. Shulman.

--Marshal Zeringue