New and noteworthy – 14 January 2016

From Soviet tanks on the streets of Hungary to the 30th birthday of a founding text of queer studies: academic books worth adding to your reading list

January 14, 2016
Pile of books against red wall

Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick
Columbia University Press

“With Between Men, the curtain rose.” Poet-scholar Wayne Koestenbaum’s foreword to the 30th anniversary edition of one of the founding texts of queer studies is as wise and attentive as the book deserves. Sedgwick, who died in 2009, was 35 when she published this groundbreaking and controversial analysis of literary works chosen “at pleasure”, from Shakespeare’s sonnets to Walt Whitman, Charles Dickens and (of course) Henry James. Her readings retain a ring of revealed truth, and she changed, says Koestenbaum, “our ideas about matters that formerly provoked derisive laughter or shaming silence”.

The Stone Soup Experiment: Why Cultural Boundaries Persist
Deborah Downing Wilson
University of Chicago Press

A gripping account of research into social group formation. When Wilson ran an in-class social simulation at the University of California, San Diego that split students into the laid-back Stone Soup tribe and the acquisitive Fair Trader Cartel, the emotional intensity and post-study persistence of their identification with these imaginary cultures was startling. “I was completely unprepared for the stealing, cheating, lying, conspiracy and betrayal that sent the project careening,” Wilson confesses. Is “us and them” so easy to create, and so hard to shake?

Winifred Gérin: Biographer of the Brontës
Helen MacEwan
Sussex Academic Press

This thoughtful account of Gérin’s life is as much a portrait of a tumultuous century as of a biographer whose “narrative skills, warmth and detailed evocation of the Brontës’ environment brought the family closer than any biography since Mrs Gaskell’s a century earlier”. Drawing on letters and an unpublished memoir, MacEwan considers her subject’s imaginative life as a child, her time at Newnham College, Cambridge, her marriage to the cellist Eugène Gérin, their flight from occupied Belgium and then work for the Political Intelligence Department near Bletchley Park. From the ashes of bereavement came a new literary vocation: on a visit to Haworth after Gérin’s death, she met a fellow Brontë admirer, John Lock, who would become her second husband.

1956: The World in Revolt
Simon Hall
Faber & Faber

Punk pioneers turning 60 this year – and the less curled of lip, too – will be chuffed at this bumper annual by an impressive young University of Leeds historian. It’s all here: Elvis, Hungary, Poland, Khrushchev’s secret speech, Rock Around the Clock, Castro in the Sierra Maestra, the Suez Crisis, Algeria, and black resistance in the US, one of Hall’s specialist subjects. You’ll even spot some women: Hall’s account of the women’s march on Pretoria in August is a standout. Detail-crammed and (whisper it) frequently inspiring, this is a satisfyingly big book, perfect for all those tempted by the heft, but not the chronicle-of-Thatcherism-foretold, of Dominic Sandbrook’s page-a-day Seventies. Meanwhile, the search for a pleasantly unremarkable 12 months of history continues.

Jeffrey Pomerantz
MIT Press

“By the end of the book, readers will see metadata everywhere,” the publishers note helpfully on the back. Promise or threat? Well, “librarians have been working with metadata for thousands of years”, this guide to “data about data” reminds us – even if it was “historically just called ‘information in the library catalogue’”. Pomerantz, an information scientist, serves up one of MIT Press’ useful need-to-know primers, covering controlled vocabulary, network analysis, Dublin Core, the DCMI Abstract Model, ontology (keyword Newspeak), using metadata (keywords NSA and Edward Snowden) and a concluding nod to – oh yes – the politics.

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