Front Table - 9/10/21

September 10th, 2021

On our Front Table this week, find new works of literary and cultural criticism, from an exploration of the role of nature in Black women's struggle against racism, to a global approach to literary history that reconceptualizes the rise of the novel. Find the following titles and more at semcoop.com.

The Art of Statistics: How to Learn from Data  (Basic Books)
David Spiegelhalter

In The Art of Statistics, world-renowned statistician David Spiegelhalter shows readers how to derive knowledge from raw data by focusing on the concepts and connections behind the math. Drawing on real world examples to introduce complex issues, he shows us how statistics can help us determine the luckiest passenger on the Titanic, whether a notorious serial killer could have been caught earlier, and if screening for ovarian cancer is beneficial. The Art of Statistics not only shows us how mathematicians have used statistical science to solve these problems -- it teaches us how we too can think like statisticians. We learn how to clarify our questions, assumptions, and expectations when approaching a problem, and -- perhaps even more importantly -- we learn how to responsibly interpret the answers we receive. Combining the incomparable insight of an expert with the playful enthusiasm of an aficionado, The Art of Statistics is the definitive guide to stats that every modern person needs.


Black to Nature: Pastoral Return and African American Culture
(University Press of Mississippi)
Stephanie K. Dunning

In Black to Nature: Pastoral Return and African American Culture, author Stefanie K. Dunning considers both popular and literary texts that range from Beyoncé’s Lemonade to Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones. These key works restage Black women in relation to nature. Dunning argues that depictions of protagonists who return to pastoral settings contest the violent and racist history that incentivized Black disavowal of the natural world. Dunning offers an original theoretical paradigm for thinking through race and nature by showing that diverse constructions of nature in these texts are deployed as a means of rescrambling the teleology of the Western progress narrative. In a series of fascinating close readings of contemporary Black texts, she reveals how a range of artists evoke nature to suggest that interbeing with nature signals a call for what Jared Sexton calls “the dream of Black Studies”—abolition. Black to Nature thus offers nuanced readings that advance an emerging body of critical and creative work at the nexus of Blackness, gender, and nature. 


The Broken Heart of America  (Basic Books)
Walter Johnson

From Lewis and Clark's 1804 expedition to the 2014 uprising in Ferguson, American history has been made in St. Louis. And as Walter Johnson shows in The Broken Heart of America, the city exemplifies how imperialism, racism, and capitalism have persistently entwined to corrupt the nation's past. St. Louis was a staging post for Indian removal and imperial expansion, and its wealth grew on the backs of its poor Black residents, from slavery through redlining and urban renewal. But it was once also America's most radical city, home to anti-capitalist immigrants, the Civil War's first general emancipation, and the nation's first general strike--a legacy of resistance that endures. A blistering history of a city's rise and decline, The Broken Heart of America will forever change how we think about the United States.


Christians Against Christianity (Beacon Press)
Obery M. Hendricks

In his new book, Christians Against Christianity, best-selling author and religious scholar Obery M. Hendricks Jr. challenges right-wing evangelicals on the terrain of their own religious claims. He exposes the falsehoods, contradictions, and misuses of the Bible that are embedded in their rabid homophobia, their poorly veiled racism and demonizing of immigrants and Muslims, and their ungodly alliance with big business against the interests of American workers. Following the deadly insurrectionist attack on the US Capitol, Christians Against Christianity is a clarion call to stand up to the hypocrisy of the evangelical Right, as well as a guide for Christians to return their faith to the life-affirming message that Jesus brought and died for. What Hendricks offers is a provocative diagnosis, an urgent warning that right-wing evangelicals’ aspirations for Christian nationalist supremacy are a looming threat, not only to Christian decency but to democracy itself. What they offer to America is anything but good news. 


Estranging the Novel: Poland, Ireland, and Theories of World Literature
(Johns Hopkins University Press)
Katarzyna Bartoszyńska

In Estranging the Novel, Katarzyna Bartoszyńska explores how the emergence and growth of world literature studies has challenged the centrality of British fiction to theories of the novel's rise. She argues that a historicist approach frequently reinforces the realist paradigm that has cast other traditions as "minor," conceding a normative vision of the novel as it seeks to explain why historical forces produced different forms elsewhere. Recasting the standard narrative by looking at different novelistic literary forms, including the Gothic, travel writing, and queer fiction, Bartoszyńska offers a compelling comparative study of Polish and Irish works published across the long nineteenth century that emphasize fictionality, or the problem of world-building in literature. Bartoszyńska shows that the history of the novel's rise demands a more capacious and rigorous approach to form as well as a reconceptualization of the relationship between fiction and its cultural contexts. By modeling such a heterogeneous account of the novel form, Estranging the Novel paves the way for a bracing and diverse understanding of the makeup of contemporary world literature and the many texts it encompasses—and a new perspective on the British novel as well.


In the Forest of No Joy (W.W. Norton, Company)
J.P. Daughton

The Congo-Océan railroad stretches across the Republic of Congo from Brazzaville to the Atlantic port of Pointe-Noir. It was completed in 1934, when Equatorial Africa was a French colony, and it stands as one of the deadliest construction projects in history. Colonial workers were subjects of an ostensibly democratic nation whose motto read “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” but liberal ideals were savaged by a cruelly indifferent administrative state. In the Forest of No Joy captures in vivid detail the experiences of the men, women, and children who toiled on the railroad, and forces a reassessment of the moral relationship between modern industrialized empires and what could be called global humanitarian impulses—the desire to improve the lives of people outside of Europe. Drawing on exhaustive research in French and Congolese archives, a chilling documentary record, and heartbreaking photographic evidence, J.P. Daughton tells the epic story of the Congo-Océan railroad, and in doing so reveals the human costs and contradictions of modern empire.


Pop Song (Catapult)
Larissa Pham

Pop Song,  Pham's debut,  is a book about love and about falling in love—with a place, or a painting, or a person—and the joy and terror inherent in the experience of that love. Plumbing the well of culture for clues and patterns about love and loss—from Agnes Martin’s abstract paintings to James Turrell’s transcendent light works, and Anne Carson’s Eros the Bittersweet to Frank Ocean’s Blonde—Pham writes of her youthful attempts to find meaning in travel, sex, drugs, and art, before sensing that she might need to turn her gaze upon herself. Pop Song is also a book about distances, near and far as she travels from Taos, New Mexico, to Shanghai, China and beyond. Pop Song is a book about all the routes by which we might escape our own needs before finally finding a way home. There is heartache in these pages, but Pham’s electric ways of seeing create a perfectly fractured portrait of modern intimacy that is triumphant in both its vulnerability and restlessness.


Seedtime III (University of Chicago Press)
Philippe Jaccottet, tr. Tess Lewis

Writers’ notebooks sometimes prove more revelatory than diaries or intimate journals. At first they might appear to be rag-and-bone shops of ideas, insights, hesitations, doubts, and records of things seen, heard, read, dreamt. But eventually they coalesce into a labyrinthine map of the creative process. Swiss poet Philippe Jaccottet has faithfully kept notebooks for many decades, and the selections that make up the Seedtime volumes have retained a vividness of insight and discovery despite the passage of time. After all, as the poet himself says, his notebooks are “a collection of delicate seeds with which I try to replant my ‘spiritual forest.’” Seedtime III, which brings this series to a close, records numerous fleeting thoughts, ephemeral experiences, and philosophical observations from a renowned poet well into his seventies, charting the single steps—sometimes forwards, sometimes back—taken in a lifelong attempt to transcend the limits of art. The inconclusive nature of the notebook entries, their tentativeness and lack of resolution, renders them as intriguing and evocative as some of Jaccottet’s best works.


Violent Fraterity: Indian Political Thought in the Global Age
(Princeton University Press)
Shruti Kapila

Violent Fraternity is a major history of the political thought that laid the foundations of modern India. Taking readers from the dawn of the twentieth century to the independence of India and formation of Pakistan in 1947, the book is a testament to the power of ideas to drive historical transformation. Shruti Kapila sheds new light on leading figures such as M. K. Gandhi, Muhammad Iqbal, B. R. Ambedkar, and Vinayak Savarkar, the founder of Hindutva, showing how they were innovative political thinkers as well as influential political actors. She also examines lesser-known figures who contributed to the making of a new canon of political thought, such as B. G. Tilak, considered by Lenin to be the “fountainhead of revolution in Asia,” and Sardar Patel, India’s first deputy prime minister. Kapila argues that it was in India that modern political languages were remade through a revolution that defied fidelity to any exclusive ideology. The book shows how the foundational questions of politics were addressed in the shadow of imperialism to create both a sovereign India and the world’s first avowedly Muslim nation, Pakistan. Fraternity was lost only to be found again in violence as the Indian age signaled the emergence of intimate enmity.


We Are What We Eat (Penguin Press)
Alice Waters

In We Are What We Eat, Alice Waters urges us to take up the mantle of slow food culture, the philosophy at the core of her life’s work.  Many of the serious problems we face in the world today—from illness, to social unrest, to economic disparity, and environmental degradation—are all, at their core, connected to food. Fortunately, there is an antidote. Waters argues that by eating in a “slow food way,” each of us—like the community around her restaurant—can be empowered to prioritize and nurture a different kind of culture, one that champions values such as biodiversity, seasonality, stewardship, and pleasure in work. This is a declaration of action against fast food values, and a working theory about what we can do to change the course. As Waters makes clear, every decision we make about what we put in our mouths affects not only our bodies but also the world at large—our families, our communities, and our environment. We have the power to choose what we eat, and we have the potential for individual and global transformation—simply by shifting our relationship to food. All it takes is a taste.