New and noteworthy – 11 February 2016

New titles for your to-read list: the law and transgender, world history redux, quantum bananas and eldritch otherworlds

February 11, 2016
Pile of books against red wall

Otherworlds: Fantasy and History in Medieval Literature
Aisling Byrne
Oxford University Press

Via glittering jewels, fairies and green-skinned children, the Land of Cokaygne’s gourmands’ paradise and the frankly quite frolicsome Land of Women, Byrne considers the role of “otherworlds” as explorations of gender, desire and death, and as political allegory, in “a culture distinguished by its willingness to take the marvelous seriously”. The eldritch worlds of the ilk of Sir Orfeo’s “fare cuntray” reveal their undimmed power to beguile, and Gervase of Tilbury’s sage words offer up a warning to unwitting swineherds everywhere. Especially those in Derbyshire.

A Concise History of the World
Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks
Cambridge University Press

One planet, 376 jam-packed pages: autodidacts in a hurry are urged to absorb, but first admire, this feat. The author, a former general editor of the Cambridge World History, accomplishes it without once writing “moving swiftly on”, and with a welcome alertness to social and cultural issues, sexuality, gender, material culture, ethnicity, slavery and wealth distribution. The remit could not be more vast, but the authorial eye on everything from the Venus of Brassempouy to a note pinned to a foundling in 18th-century London is keen and laser-sharp.

The Legal Status of Transsexual and Transgender Persons
Edited by Jens M. Scherpe

Laws in this area are “in a state of flux”, as this volume’s editor, a University of Cambridge legal scholar, observes with masterful understatement. The outcome of a research project at the Centre for Medical Ethics and Law at the University of Hong Kong, it includes national reports from 14 jurisdictions and contributions from 26 scholars from Europe, Australasia and South America, and takes in perspectives ranging from the medical and psychological to that of the Christian church. In his preface, Scherpe notes the supportive letters that he received as well as the verbal abuse and personal threats – and ends by hoping that the book will make a positive contribution. Weighty, important and timely, it will surely do just that.

Bananaworld: Quantum Mechanics for Primates
Jeffrey Bub
Oxford University Press

Although the subtitle suggests a pitch to a readership lower on the evolutionary ladder than mere dummies, the book’s author, who studied with David Bohm and Karl Popper, has higher hopes for us. The title – it’s to do with non-locality, “one of the most fascinating things in physics today” – is jollity itself; Sandu Popescu’s foreword and Bub’s preface are winningly enthusiastic; the Alice in Wonderland-style illustrations are charming; and chapter headings dole out home truths (“Nobody understands quantum mechanics”) with a wink. As theorems (Kochen-Specker and the rest) come thick and fast, blithe inducements to “suppose Alice and Bob, who are separated, share a pair of qubits in the maximally entangled state…” lead merrily along the path to wisdom. Just mind the peels.

University Reform: The Founding of the American Association of University Professors
Hans-Joerg Tiede
Johns Hopkins University Press

Founded 101 years ago in a world of men of serious mien, high purpose, goatees and little spectacles, the AAUP transformed higher education, argues the author of this history of the association’s early years. It’s a volume worth reading as much for its walk-on characters (“distinguished classicist Basil Gildersleeve”) as for its discussion of the AAUP’s Declaration of Principles. Tiede makes a good case for its role in defining and defending academic freedom in a long-ago age in which deans “in the better class of institutions” jostled for endowments and tried to sack controversial scholars, silence students, finesse lectures on evolution and spot the Bolsheviks in a professoriate “squabbling unreasonably for power”.

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