Thursday, November 16, 2017

Stephen R. Bown's "Island of the Blue Foxes"

Stephen R. Bown is a critically acclaimed author of several literary non-fiction books on the history of science, exploration and ideas.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Island of the Blue Foxes: Disaster and Triumph on the World's Greatest Scientific Expedition, and reported the following:
On page 99:
The flotilla was soon engulfed in “thick” weather, and one of the ships became lost and returned while two continued on south, one commanded by Spangberg, the other by Lieutenant William Walton. They reached the island of Honshu in northern Japan in late June. Here they spied many small ships in the shallow bays. Coastal villages were surrounded by people working in fields of grain of a variety they did not recognize, while large forested hills dominated inland. On several occasions, boats sailed out to meet them, and men came aboard their ships to trade fresh fish, water, large tobacco leaves, rice, fruit, salted pickles, and other foods for Russian cloth and clothing. They were small men who bowed when entering the ship’s cabin and were “excessively polite.” Spangberg did not allow his men to go ashore, nor did he allow many Japanese to board his ship, “since Japan’s history abounds in accounts of attacks on Christians.” He observed that “in each Japanese craft was a number of stones, each of about two to three pounds weight. Perhaps the stones served as ballast, but being of that size, they could also have been used as projectiles, if things should have gone wrong.”
My latest book, Island of the Blue Foxes: Disaster and Triumph on the World’s Greatest Scientific Expedition is about the mighty decade long Great Northern Expedition, conceived by Russia’s Peter the Great in the early 18th century. It was the most ambitious and well-financed scientific expedition in history, lasting nearly ten years and spanning three continents, its geographic, cartographic and natural history accomplishments are on par with James Cook’s famous voyages and Lewis and Clark’s cross-continental trek. The expedition involved thousands of scientists, artists, surveyors, naval officers, mariners, soldiers, and skilled laborers, all of whom had to cross through Siberia (which had no roads or accurate maps at the time), build a shipyard from scratch in Kamchatka, then build two ships, before setting off across the North Pacific to Alaska. It was a hugely important undertaking both politically and scientifically – Siberia was charted and a route across it formalized, while it laid the foundation for the Russian Empire to conquer Alaska (before selling it to the US over a century later). But it was also one of the Age of Sail’s darkest tales of shipwreck, suffering and survival. Page 99 does convey something of the content of the book – the adventurous events of a sea voyage – but it doesn’t get to the meat of the story, neither politically with Peter the Great in St. Petersburg, nor scientifically with the German naturalist and physician Georg Steller, nor nautically with the lurid and dramatic shipwreck, nor adventurously with the demoralized group’s survival on an uninhabited island. So this time I’d have to say sorry Ford Madox Ford, no dice, as they say.
Learn more about the book and author at Stephen R. Bown's website and Facebook page.

My Book, The Movie: The Last Viking.

The Page 99 Test: White Eskimo.

My Book, The Movie: Island of the Blue Foxes.

Writers Read: Stephen R. Bown.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Kelley Fanto Deetz's "Bound to the Fire"

Historical archaeologist and historian Kelley Fanto Deetz is a research associate at the James River Institute for Archaeology, and a Visiting Assistant Professor at Randolph College, in Lynchburg, Virginia. Deetz, who was a professional chef for several years, is a contributor to The Routledge History of Food and Birth of a Nation: Nat Turner and the Making of a Movement. Her work has appeared in National Geographic History.

Deetz applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, Bound to the Fire: How Virginia's Enslaved Cooks Helped Invent American Cuisine, and reported the following:
Page 99 is the start of chapter 4: "In Dining: Black Food on White Plates." It opens by introducing Mary Randolph, a well-known wealthy white plantation mistress as she discusses the excitement about throwing a ball.  White southern nostalgia oozes throughout the first paragraph, and reflects most American’s ideas about plantation dining and southern hospitality as a whole.  Mary Randolph was the quintessential housewife, and her social world revolved around entertaining.  The language and images presented are quickly derailed as paragraph two states “Behind every meal and in the shadow of every mistress was an enslaved cook who was responsible for creating these lavish dinners.”

It is this juxtaposition between how we, as a nation, have chosen to remember our shared cultural heritage and how things actually were, and continue to be.  Misrepresentations baked in generations of racism and exploited labor have led us to not just misremember, but to forget the contributions of enslaved African Americans to our culinary history. Page 99 sits at the crossroads of race, gender, and memory and represents the greater point of the book; enslaved cooks and West African foodways were central to the creation of American cuisine, and its due time to give credit where credit is due.
Learn more about Bound to the Fire at Kelley Fanto Deetz's website.

My Book, The Movie: Bound to the Fire.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Helen Fry's "The London Cage"

Historian and biographer Helen Fry is the author of more than twenty books focusing mainly on intelligence, prisoners of war, and the social history of World War II. She lives in London.

Fry applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, The London Cage: The Secret History of Britain's World War II Interrogation Centre, and reported the following:
Few stories of the Second World War have been as controversial as the London Cage – the secret wartime interrogation centre run by British intelligence from three luxury stately houses in a road parallel to Kensington Palace. The street was Kensington Palace Gardens, still known today as ‘Millionaire’s Row’, and the most unlikeliest of places to hold German prisoners of war. But their quarters were far from luxurious – the once grand rooms of Nos. 6-7 and Nos. 8 and 8a were stripped of their opulent furniture, carpets and priceless art and turned into a harsh interrogation centre.

Applying Test 99 to The London Cage gets to the heart of one of my major revelations – that the intelligence services were using ‘truth drugs’ on enemy prisoners at least a decade before the Cold War. Page 99 lands at the controversial point in 1941 and 1942 when MI6 – the British Secret Service – was holding Rudolf Hess (Hitler’s deputy) in a secret location after his failed solo flight to Britain in May 1941. ‘Truth drugs’ were administered to him in the belief he might spill some of the closely guarded secrets of the Third Reich. I place the Hess drugging episodes within the wider context of the experimental use of ‘truth drugs’ at the London Cage. The intelligence services were using a combination of  barbiturates, amphetamines and hypnosis on its prisoners in an attempt to ‘break their will to resist’ and induce them to speak the truth in interrogation. The discussion about Hess comes immediately after an incident in 1940 when Colonel Alexander Scotland, the commanding officer of the London Cage, arrived at another interrogation site to inject a prisoner with ‘truth serum’. In that instance, Colonel Scotland hoped to ‘turn’ a captured German spy into a double agent for Britain. He failed and was banned from ever entering that site again.

Truth drugs are of course not the only controversial revelation in the book – I'm interested in the four mysterious ‘suicides’ and try to get to the root of their deaths. I succeed in revealing the names of two of them for the first time.

At the end of the war, the London Cage became the most important war crimes unit outside Germany and was responsible for bringing some of the worst Nazi war criminals to justice by a painstaking, forensic gathering of evidence for the trials. These interrogations were not without their controversy either. Returning to the core of page 99, did Colonel Scotland sanction the use of ‘truth drugs’ on Nazi war criminals to gain their confessions?  Probably not, but it would appear that he crossed a line even further and allegedly used brutality, and forms of torture on them – physical and psychological. Had the tables turned such that Colonel Scotland himself was now guilty of war crimes? Issues raised by page 99 are still relevant today – posing challenges in this age of global terrorism for both opponents and exponents of torture.
Visit Helen Fry's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, November 10, 2017

Cathy Gere's "Pain, Pleasure, and the Greater Good"

Cathy Gere is associate professor of history at the University of California, San Diego, and the author of Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism and the newly released Pain, Pleasure, and the Greater Good: From the Panopticon to the Skinner Box and Beyond.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to Pain, Pleasure, and the Greater Good: From the Panopticon to the Skinner Box and Beyond and reported the following:
Page 99 of Pain, Pleasure, and the Greater Good is the first page of Chapter 3, entitled “Nasty, British, and Short.” My terrible pun on Thomas Hobbes’s famous phrase ‘nasty brutish and short’ is actually a serious statement. The book is about the psychology of pain and pleasure, which originated with Hobbes’s Leviathan, and became more and more influential in England and Scotland through the succeeding centuries. Chapter 3 is about the early-nineteenth-century version, as proposed by Thomas Malthus and Jeremy Bentham. The point of changing ‘brutish’ to ‘British’ is that pain-pleasure psychology always presents itself as being about the true brutish nature of the human animal, but in fact, it inevitably reflects very specific geographical, economic and political conditions, in this case British laissez-faire capitalism, rampant industrialization, and poor law reform.
Learn more about Pain, Pleasure, and the Greater Good at the University of Chicago Press website.

The Page 99 Test: Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism.

Writers Read: Cathy Gere.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Kevin Carrico's "The Great Han"

Kevin Carrico is Lecturer in the Department of International Studies at Macquarie University and the translator of Tsering Woeser’s Tibet on Fire.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Great Han: Race, Nationalism, and Tradition in China Today, and reported the following:
From page 99:
When the Qin Emperor founded the first unified Chinese state, Han Clothing was there. When the great inventions of paper, gunpowder, and the compass were discovered, Han Clothing was there. When Emperor Taizong reigned over the golden age of the Tang, Han Clothing was there. And when Zhu Yuanzhang led the victorious establishment of the Ming after the Yuan invasion, Han Clothing was there, just as it was when Koxinga gave all that he could to resist the murderous Qing. And having been there at these moments, it is also here in the present, providing a link from these moments in the past today… According to movement mythologies, the sole remnants in the Yellow Emperor’s tomb today are his Han Clothing: such permanence and stability is lacking in every aspect of real human existence, yet is imaginarily given concrete form in Han Clothing.

Such transcendent stability and indeed immortality is particularly resonant in an era of unpredictable and destabilizing change, as we see in China today, in which identity not only faces the usual existential challenge of its own impossibility but the further challenges of increasingly rapid sociocultural transformation.
The Great Han is an ethnographic study of the Han Clothing Movement (Hanfu yundong), a popular nationalist group that has emerged in cities across China in the decade and a half since 2001. Members of this group promote a purportedly eternal style of “traditional clothing” that they imagine was worn through history by members of the Han nationality, China’s majority constituting 92% of the population, until it was lost in early modernity. Revitalizing this apparel for the Han majority, then, is viewed as a way to revitalize authentic Chinese culture against the depredations of China’s painfully long nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

This narrative, however, not only misrepresents history, but also the movement’s driving forces in the present. The Han nationality is a thoroughly modern concept, and Han Clothing, while presented as a timeless tradition, is in fact a very recent invented tradition. Therefore, rather than tracing the revitalization of lost authenticity, The Great Han finds the origins of these constructions of history and tradition located firmly in the contradictions of life in the present.

In this book, I focus in particular upon the relationship between socio-political processes and individual experiences. Although recent developments in China are often glossed as “China’s rise,” individual experiences of this rise are considerably more complex: new opportunities also produce new anxieties and uncertainties. Based upon my research in cities across China, I profile a number of participants in this movement, providing a glimpse of how the alter egos they construct therein, presented as their genuine selves, are in fact fantasies of the self that imaginarily invert real-life challenges and uncertainties, while legitimizing these imaginings through the ideas of “culture” and “tradition.” Participants, in short, imaginarily transcend their mundane living environment by constructing an alternate fantasy reality that is presented as more genuine and thus real than reality itself.

This is where we find ourselves on page 99. In an era of disillusioning modernity plagued by uncertainties and anxieties, the threads of Han Clothing functions provide links to a more authentic, more peaceful, and genuinely prouder time in the past: what participants call “the real China.” Most importantly, these metaphorically laden threads can now be held and indeed possessed as one’s very own. In contrast to a disillusioning reality constantly slipping out from beyond one’s control, Han Clothing thus provides a stable and indeed possessible link to an inverted fantasy world presented as one’s authentic self.
Learn more about The Great Han at the University of California Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Randolph Lewis's "Under Surveillance"

Randolph Lewis is a professor of American studies at the University of Texas at Austin. He has written extensively on how visual culture shapes our sense of the nation, often focusing on people who work outside the cultural mainstream. His books include Navajo Talking Picture: Cinema on Native Ground.

Lewis applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Under Surveillance: Being Watched in Modern America, and reported the following:
The page 99 test is useful for my new book, which is about living in a society making unprecedented investments in surveillance technologies. The page in question is part of a chapter called “Growing Up Observed” that deals with the strange ways we get accustomed to (or hostile to) invasive monitoring during our earliest years. What makes us sensitive to being watched is not a question that scholars have been able to really answer, and I don’t make any definitive claims in this essayistic chapter. Instead, I’m considering some ways of thinking about the topic that might help readers to understand their own attitudes about the NSA, drones, Big Data, and other forms of surveillance that the book explores.

Moreover, page 99 is not just about childhood and surveillance, which is a fascinating topic in the era of “Elf on the Shelf”, but also a reflection of the personal nature of this book. While the various chapters on surveillance in nature, churches, or media gently touch on my own experiences, “Growing Up Observed” has a short section that draws on my own life in some detail. That makes page 99 the most personal part of a fairly personal project, and in that sense it’s quite revealing about the origin and deeper nature of the book. Yet am I really writing about myself on page 99 and the pages nearby? Yes and no: mostly it is my attempt to think through the subtle things that make us sensitive, or not, to this vast organizing force in the world today. That was my goal at least.

Finally, I would say something about the writing style that I noticed when I flipped to page 99. Happily, for me at least, the writing on page 99 feels a little more vibrant and personal than the academic work I did in my younger years. Frankly, to the extent that authors can say such a thing about their own books, page 99 seems written with the sort of care and warmth that I hope is characteristic of the book as a whole. So in that sense, I hope the reader of the book gets something that page 99 seems to promise: big questions and subtle insights about a subject of great urgency, written in clear prose with a gently philosophical bent.
Learn more about Under Surveillance at the University of Texas Press website.

Writers Read: Randolph Lewis.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, November 6, 2017

Daniel Swift's "The Bughouse"

Daniel Swift teaches at the New College of the Humanities in London. His first book, Bomber County, was longlisted for the Samuel Johnson Prize and the Guardian First Book award, and his essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Times, the New Statesman, and Harper’s.

Swift applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Bughouse: The Poetry, Politics, and Madness of Ezra Pound, and reported the following:
Page 99 is the heart of my book The Bughouse, for this is the page on which I describe Pound’s room on Chestnut Ward of St Elizabeths federal hospital for the insane. Pound spent a decade in this room, as a patient at the hospital between 1945 and 1958, and here he met with the many poets, artists, political activists, and students who came to visit him. He was, in his years at St Elizabeths, a most provocative figure: a great poetic genius and a patient in a mental hospital; a traitor and a madman; a fascist, a teacher, and a fool. This ward, and this room, were his setting, and here he played so many roles.

What is the room like? It is not big but nor is it a prison cell. It is perhaps ten feet by twenty, with two windows which look out upon the trees and lawns which surround St Elizabeths. It has heavy blue wallpaper which is peeling now, and it is no different, really, from the ten other rooms on the ward. No different except this one is the scene of what is perhaps the world’s most unorthodox literary salon: convened by a fascist, held in a lunatic asylum, with chocolate brownies and mayonnaise sandwiches served for tea.
Learn more about The Bughouse at the publisher's website.

The Page 99 Test: Bomber County.

The Page 99 Test: Shakespeare's Common Prayers.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, November 4, 2017

John Sharples's "A Cultural History of Chess-Players"

John Sharples is a cultural historian. He completed his PhD at Lancaster University. He has published on the chess-player, flying saucers, and Jules Verne.

Sharples applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, A Cultural History of Chess-Players: Minds, Machines, and Monsters, and reported the following:
My book puts forward the idea of the chess-player as a fragmented cultural figure. In an attempt to engage with the various forms of its subject, it is divided into three sections – Minds, Machines, and Monsters. The thought that a solitary page could encapsulate the entire work’s themes was an intriguing one. Despite initial doubts, it arguably does do so. Page 99 comes from the concluding remarks of chapter four, entitled ‘Future Shocks: IBM's Deep Blue and the Automaton Chess-Player, 1997-1769.’ This chapter examines a range of cultural responses to Garry Kasparov's 1997 defeat by the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue and to Wolfgang von Kempelen's eighteenth-century Automaton Chess-Player. By suggesting that ‘both Deep Blue and the Automaton Chess-Player functioned as highly ambiguous cultural messages congealed in one object’, I frame the chess-player as a kaleidoscopic cultural figure capable of generating multiple meanings. This is the main theme of the whole work. Other chapters apply this theme to chess-player forms including the human, animal, child-prodigy, and super-villain, utilising comics, detective fiction, sci-fi, and film.

On page 99, I conclude by summarising some of the ways cultural construction occurs and consider the efficacy of the crude binary oppositions which have been used to assert the superiority of the human chess-player over machine counterparts. Characterisations of Kasparov’s contest as ‘Linda Hamilton vs. the Terminator’, for example, raise questions of historical timeliness and cultural power. In an age of pervasive computer systems, the ‘historical moment’ of the chess-player as a figure of reason and intelligence may have passed. This thought is amplified elsewhere throughout the book, in the context of a number of more disreputable, more monstrous, and more Gothic theoretical readings of the human chess-player. These themes are closely linked to chapter four’s readings of the machine chess-player, particularly the idea of the chess-player as a statue, often static and frequently isolated in performance, and the way the chess-player is viewed as a distant emblem of ‘intelligence’ and ‘reason’ under the gaze of others. In this regard, the ‘quality of the whole’ work is revealed on this single page.
Learn more about A cultural history of chess-players at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Francesco Duina's "Broke and Patriotic"

Francesco Duina is Professor of Sociology at Bates College, as well as Honorary Professor of Sociology at the University of British Columbia and Visiting Professor of Business and Politics at the Copenhagen Business School. He is the author of several books, including Winning: Reflections on an American Obsession.

Duina applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Broke and Patriotic: Why Poor Americans Love Their Country, and reported the following:
From Page 99:
Indeed, if anything, the system—the country, the government, and society in general—helps you take advantage of America’s opportunities. This, too, is part of the attractiveness of the country. I asked Sam if he felt that the country did enough for him. He replied:
The country does enough.... They feed you, they give you free housing, they give you food stamps ... the country does a lot for their people. The United States do a lot for their people. If you can’t make it here, you can’t make it nowhere.... If you can’t make it here, you ... you ... there’s something wrong with you ... there’s something terribly wrong with you. ... Yeah, he [my father] taught me that. It’s the land of opportunity to be what you wanna be. I helped you so far, and you have to help yourself.
I paused to think about the words “there’s something terribly wrong with you” if you don’t make it in America. It was as if America really gives people everything they need to succeed. Angie, in the same bus station in Birmingham, stated something nearly identical: “If you check into anything like college, you want a good job ... there’s the government, there’s funds, there’s programs, there’s no obstacles if you know how to go get what you want, what you need. There’s something always out there to help you.” What is necessary on the individual’s part is the will to progress. “If you, if you work for it,” she added, “you can have what you want here. You go to school and do what you want. Before I had a wreck and broke my back and wound up on disability . . . I was a real estate agent making close to one hundred thousand dollars a year.” The help extends even to criminals. In Sam’s words, “Even in the prison they, they got programs in the prison. Trying to reprogram them, you know.”
Page 99 is one of many where the reader hears the thoughts and beliefs of some of America’s economically worst-off people as they describe their intense love of country. This is Chapter 3, where the attention turns to the widely-held conviction that America is great – indeed superior to other countries – because it is so wealthy and because anyone can make it there. When I questioned my interviewees about their own, often very difficult, trajectories in life, the answer was consistently one of personal responsibility: their dire circumstances were the results of their own choices, they told me, not anyone else’s – much like wealthy people have become so because they have earned it. So, why blame the country for anything? On the contrary, they expressed gratitude to the many organizations that help them eat and sleep with a roof over their heads.

The other core chapters of the book explore two parallel ideas driving the intense patriotism of America’s most impoverished citizens. The first is a sense that America represents hope for mankind in general and, in turn, for themselves individually. When nearly everything else has gone wrong in life, pride in being American can give one a powerful sense of dignity. This is the land where every person counts, every human being is sacred. The second idea involves freedom. America is the land of physical and mental freedom. The extent of that freedom, according to them, is unique. Here, discussions about God (freedom of religion) and guns often came up.

Misconceptions about other countries, and America itself, certainly abounded. The lessons I learned from my travels and conversations, however, made clear to me that those were not really very relevant for my interviewee’s devotion to their country. In the end, the most important thing was something else: it was a sense that this country (still) belongs to the people.
Learn more about Broke and Patriotic at the Stanford University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: Winning.

--Marshal Zeringue