New and noteworthy – 9 June 2016

Rosa Luxemburg's letters, godless Americans, womanist ways and an anthropologist among the undergraduates: must-read monographs

June 9, 2016
Review: I Love Learning, I Hate School, by Susan Blum

I Love Learning, I Hate School: An Anthropology of College
Susan D. Blum
Cornell University Press

Why are university students so focused on whatever it takes to get the highest marks with the least effort? In this sane, unstintingly honest and hopeful book, a US academic finds the answers, drawing on hundreds of peer-to-peer interviews of University of Notre Dame undergraduates. Blum observes: “I used to be frustrated by my students as individuals…And then I studied this problem anthropologically, but also as a human being. And I changed my own heart, mind, and behavior as a result. I love the students; I deplore the system.” A must-read.

Viva La Revolución: Eric Hobsbawm on Latin America
Eric Hobsbawm, edited by Leslie Bethell
Little, Brown

Before his death in 2012, Hobsbawm asked that a collection of his reviews, articles and essays on Latin America be published. The hefty result covers works written between 1960 and 2002, edited by a scholar of Latin America who was Hobsbawm’s friend – and awed admirer of his sideline in jazz criticism – for half a century. Cuba and Castro naturally figure, as do guerrillas and peasant movements, Peru and Colombia, “the murder of Chile”, US imperialism and the “hard man” Che Guevara, who, wrote Hobsbawm in April 1968, “dead remains a political force, though of a different and lesser kind than Guevara alive”. Incisive and persuasively blunt, this is longue durée reportage of the highest order.

Women Political Prisoners in Germany: Narratives of Self and Captivity, 1915-91
Kim Richmond
Institute of Modern Languages Research

This fine doctoral thesis centres on first-person accounts of women who, argues Richmond, used language to “survive” prison and resist the identities imposed on them. Her focus on Rosa Luxemburg is particularly valuable in its look at the public response to her posthumously published prison letters – seen to present a more feminine side to the stern left-wing revolutionary – and the way her self-representation “negotiates between transgressive and ideal femininities”. Gender performance, transgression and transformation also figure in Richmond’s analysis of accounts by Luise Rinser and Lore Wolf, jailed during the Third Reich, and Margaret Bechler and Elisabeth Graul, political prisoners in the GDR.

Choosing Our Religion: The Spiritual Lives of America’s Nones
Elizabeth Drescher
Oxford University Press

Most discussion of “nones” – the burgeoning group of the religiously unaffiliated – focus on what they are not, but Drescher focuses instead on what they are, looking “beyond the numbers” to first-person accounts of theists, secular humanists, atheists and agnostics. As religious identity becomes as fluid as social identity, she argues, “None-ing is not a turn away from religion, but rather the emergence of multiple, sometimes overlapping, sometimes diverging…conceptions of what it means to be human and to be citizens.”

Learning in Womanist Ways: Narratives of First-Generation African Caribbean Women
Jan Etienne

Etienne’s inspiring study of lifelong learning by older black women in the UK is dedicated in part to her “African Caribbean sisters steeped in the ever present struggle to flourish in the academy”. John Field’s introduction points to the significance of Etienne’s “womanist” approach and identification of “matriarchal learning hubs”, and promises that it is “a joy to read”. And so it is: unusually, much of it consists of narrative set out as dramatic scenes that capture voluble, agumentative subjects holding forth on literacy and self-confidence, patois and politics, pride and prejudice, and St Lucia-born Anselma’s lifelong love of her copy of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility: “I always knew I would be able to read it one day.”

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