Thursday, April 18, 2019

Virginia Morell's "Becoming a Marine Biologist"

Virginia Morell is a regular contributor to National Geographic magazine and a contributing correspondent to Science. She has also written for Smithsonian, Discover, The New York Times Magazine, International Wildlife, Audubon, Slate, and Outside, among other publications.

Morell applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Becoming a Marine Biologist, and reported the following:
Becoming a Marine Biologist profiles Robin Baird, the leading expert on the cetaceans--dolphins and whales--of Hawai'i. Most of us rarely look back at the trail of crumbs and occasional whole cookies that led to our present careers. But that's what my book offers: a study of one man's path from his childhood love of animals to becoming a marine biologist and director of Hawai'is Dolphins and Whales project. On page 99, Baird meets another cetacean biologist, Jeff Goodyear, who'd invented an inexpensive and simple method for attaching time-depth recorders (TDR tags) to wild whales. Instead of surgically implanting the tags, which sometimes harms the animals, Goodyear used $2.00 suction cups that are made for car roof racks to keep the devices attached. The meeting seems to be a crumb. But it will lead to a very large cookie for Baird.

Goodyear and Baird met in 1989 while Baird was pursuing his PhD at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada. By this point in the book, readers have learned that Baird has struggled to become a scientist; he's had to overcome his fear of mathematics and statistics, and taken an indirect path--through ecology--to study killer whales. Despite his handicaps--he's poor, recently orphaned, and painfully shy--he's driven to succeed. He's just earned his doctorate, but is struggling--as fresh PhDs often do--to establish a career. Page 99, while ostensibly about Goodyear's TDR design, is actually about how perseverance and learning a new and special skill can transform a person's life. In that sense, page 99 "reveals the quality of the whole" book, which describes how via hard work and luck, Baird navigates around numerous obstacles to achieve his dream.

Cetacean researchers are often frustrated by their limited view of the animals they study; they typically only see the animals when they surface to breathe. The TDR tags record and store data about the depths of a whale or dolphin's dive and the time he/she stays below the surface before resurfacing. Goodyear helped Baird modify his original TDR design so that the tags could be attached noninvasively to killer whales. For his dissertation, Baird studied the different feeding behaviors of two types of killer whales--the fish-eating residents and mammal-eating transients--around Vancouver Island. Scientists had started studying these marine mammals only in the 1970s. They noticed that the large, resident pods hunted only fish, while the smaller groups of transients seemed to concentrate on other marine mammals, such as seals, dolphins, and the calves of baleen whales (grays and humpbacks). Baird set out to discover why the residents and transients behaved so differently. Why did hunting fish lead the residents to live in large, chatty social groups? Why did the transients live in smaller pods and keep close to the shoreline? How did their foraging preferences and techniques affect their social behaviors and reproductive success? Baird followed the transient killer whales for six years, recording observations on 26 transient social groups. Using a crossbow or long pole, he also attached TDR tags to one transient killer whale, and six residents; these data revealed how the two types differed in how and where they foraged. Baird discussed his tagging work at a marine mammal conference, and was immediately invited by Karsten Schneider, another marine biologist, to help him attach TDR tags to the bottlenose dolphins he studied in New Zealand.

These dolphins, however, bolted and disappeared when the tags hit them; the animals behaved unnaturally and most of the tags fell off. The project seemed to be a failure. But Baird explains that failures in science are as important as successes--one of many bits of advice he offers to those who dream of pursuing a similar career. He and Schneider published an article reviewing marine biologists' efforts to use tags on a range of cetacean species, and pointed out that researchers could not assume that non-invasive tags would work on all dolphins and whales. Thanks in part to this article, other scientists began to view Baird as an expert on TDR tagging. This special skill set him apart from many other young marine biologists, and helped lead to his first major grant in Hawai'i. Yet most of his success stems from his ability to recognize an opportunity--something not taught in schools. The page 99 passage captures this side of Baird, too. What it does not reveal about Baird is his passion for the animals he studies, or the love he brings to his work. That is better captured in the chapters where I join him at sea in Hawai'i as he searches for such elusive species as pantropical spotted dolphins and pygmy killer whales. He knows which species like to look at people in boats, which flee at the faintest sound of a motor, and which ones suffer from naval sonar exercises. His research has helped marine mammal managers draw up protections for the whales and dolphins of Hawai'i--and readers come to see that Baird's love and compassion for these animals and the sea are the true underpinnings of his success.
Learn more about Becoming a Marine Biologist.

Coffee with a Canine: Virginia Morell and Buckaroo.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Michael J. Sullivan's "Earned Citizenship"

Michael J. Sullivan is Associate Professor in the Graduate International Relations Department at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, Texas.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Earned Citizenship, and reported the following:
Earned Citizenship is about earned citizenship for immigrants through a variety of forms of service, including military service, community service, and caregiving for dependents. Page 99 highlights the importance of military-based earned citizenship. However, this particular page is not just about immigrants. Rather, page 99 is about gender equality, and the rights and responsibilities of citizenship for current and aspiring American citizens. The page highlights the role of women in the military, and the continued significance of military service as a potential responsibility for all young Americans.

I begin page 99 by quoting President Carter’s February 8, 1980 address “seeking additional authority to register for noncombat service to our Nation.” Since 1980, immigrant men, including unauthorized immigrants, have been required to register for Selective Service. In a 6-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court in Rostker v. Goldberg (1981) upheld male-only registration, but Justice Marshall dissented, arguing that the exclusion of women from “a fundamental civic obligation” violated the U.S Constitution’s “equal protection of the laws.” I end page 99 by supporting Marshall’s view, and adding that the end of gender-based combat restrictions has made contentions against gender-neutral Selective Service requirements moot. As my book went to press, on February 22, 2019, U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of Texas, Gray H. Miller, ruled that male-only Selective Service rules were the product of historical gender stereotypes, and that “if there ever was a time to discuss “the place of women in the Armed Services,” that time has passed.

The discussion on page 99 of Earned Citizenship speaks about an enduring and progressively more open pathway to earned citizenship through military service in the United States. The preceding chapter showed how past generations of African-Americans and Latinos successfully claimed citizenship rights based on their wartime military service. Chapter 4, where page 99 is situated, does not simply celebrate this legacy of earned citizenship. It also points to areas for improvement, including abolishing barriers to earning and retaining U.S. citizenship through military service that have resulted in the deportation of U.S. veterans. As a whole, Earned Citizenship makes a moral argument for policy reforms to reward immigrant contributions across all of society, from caregiving to military service, as important civic services meriting a pathway to citizenship.
Learn more about Earned Citizenship at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, April 15, 2019

Suzanne Hinman's "The Grandest Madison Square Garden"

Suzanne Hinman holds a Ph.D. in American art history and has been a curator, gallerist, museum director, professor, and an art model. She owned an art gallery in Santa Fe and then served as director of galleries at the Savannah College of Art and Design, the world's largest art school. Her interest in the artists and architects of the American Gilded Age and the famed Cornish Art Colony in New Hampshire grew while associate director of the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College. The author continues to reside near Cornish as an independent scholar.

Hinman applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Grandest Madison Square Garden: Art, Scandal, and Architecture in Gilded Age New York, and reported the following:
Page 99 occurs in the chapter “Continental Influences” and within Part Two, “Building a Palace of Pleasure.” The Palace of Pleasure was the name by which Stanford White’s fabulous 1890 Madison Square Garden was known, as America’s largest structure built primarily for entertainment, including two lavishly decorated theaters, a huge arena, banquet hall, restaurant, and eventually a roof garden where White would be murdered in the “crime of the century.”

The chapter title “Continental Influences” refers to a trip to Paris made by Stanford White and sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens in 1889, planned as an opportunity to explore European advances in architecture, technology, and perhaps even more importantly, nude female sculpture, for Saint-Gaudens had been commissioned to create such a piece of yet undetermined subject to top what would be America’s tallest tower.

In Paris the two men, dear friends as well as collaborators, would visit the Exposition Universelle for inspiration. The remarkable Palais des Machines, a very modern building of glass, wrought iron, and transverse steel trusses that enclosed the world’s largest interior space, would strongly influence the construction of the Garden. And among the fine arts on view at the Palais des Beaux-Arts was a life-sized plaster model of Diana, Roman goddess of the moon and the hunt--a sprightly nude by Saint-Gaudens’s old friend and former protégé, Frederick MacMonnies.

In turn, MacMonnies had been influenced by his teacher at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Jean-Alexandre-Joseph Falguiѐre:
Master Falguiѐre, known in France as the great sculptor of flesh, had himself already completed two well-known depictions of the goddess Diana. The first was a life-sized plaster for the Salon of 1882. Instead of the chaste young virgin of myth, it presented a rather coarse-faced, heavy-footed, stoutly middle-aged figure who seemed to critics to have just removed her corset. This Diana in all her very lifelike modernity garnered much notice and was popularly reproduced for parlor decoration as both a marble bust and as a full-figure bronze reduction just 18 inches high, while cheap plaster copies were sold to passers-by in the boulevards.
Saint-Gaudens would go on to create an 18-foot nude Diana for the Garden’s tower that would eventually reign over the World’s Columbian Exposition, a slightly smaller, more beautifully refined version for the tower in 1893, and within a few years 2-foot bronze reproductions sold to the upper-class public by Tiffany & Co.
Visit Suzanne Hinman's website.

My Book, The Movie: The Grandest Madison Square Garden.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Morgan Marietta & David C. Barker's "One Nation, Two Realities"

Morgan Marietta is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, where he studies the political consequences of belief. He is the author of The Politics of Sacred Rhetoric, A Citizen’s Guide to American Ideology, and A Citizen’s Guide to the Constitution and the Supreme Court. He and Bert Rockman are the co-editors of the Citizen Guides to Politics & Public Affairs from Routledge Press, and with David Klein he is co-editor of the annual SCOTUS series at Palgrave Macmillan on the major decisions of the Supreme Court. He and David Barker write the Inconvenient Facts blog at Psychology Today.

David C. Barker is Professor of Government and Director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies (CCPS) at American University. He studies political psychology, voting behavior, political communication, legislative behavior, and social welfare policy. He is the author of Rushed to Judgment, Representing Red and Blue, and dozens of peer-reviewed journal articles. His current research seeks to identify the sources of productive political negotiation and compromise.

Marietta applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book with David Barker, One Nation, Two Realities: Dueling Facts in American Democracy, and reported the following:
The page 99 test seems to argue that the quality of a book is revealed in its middle rather than its introduction or conclusion. The exact half-way point of our book is page 148. Or does page 99 have a certain magic?

Page 99 of One Nation, Two Realities is dominated by two figures that illustrate the deep divisions in core values among American citizens. Nestled between the figures is an italicized passage: “values are projected onto fact perceptions, any way you conceptualize them.” The central argument of the book is that ordinary citizens project their preferred values onto their perceived facts. Some scholars argue that dueling fact perceptions are the result of partisan leadership or ideological media, but we think that the psychological mechanisms of ordinary citizens account for the deep divisions in perceived facts. No external forces are necessary if the internal mechanisms are sufficient. This also means that no external reforms are likely to truly lessen dueling facts, which are the product of entrenched and polarized values. So page 99 really does encapsulate the argument of the book.

What about page 148? Again this is a page with a figure, in this case illustrating our argument about intuitive epistemology—that one of the reasons we project our values onto our perceptions is that our values provide us with habitual questions we ask about the world. Values are not only predispositions for what we would like to exist, but also predispositions for how we discern its existence. Again, the psychology of ordinary individuals leads them to dueling fact perceptions because they start from different core beliefs.

Page 99 and page 148 both emphasize empirical data, which is also the point of the book. The preface says that there will be “several discussions of psychological theory and strands of the philosophy of knowledge, but at heart this is an organized presentation of collected data on perceptions of facts” (xv). Our conclusions from the data are that dueling fact perceptions are common, their causes deep, their consequences severe, and their potential correctives ineffective. We are not optimistic about the future of facts. But the Page 99 test seems to have potential.
Learn more about One Nation, Two Realities at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Keele Burgin's "Wholly Unraveled"

Keele Burgin is an entrepreneur, activist, mother of three, author, and filmmaker. Her story of survival and self-discovery has inspired a life dedicated to impacting tens of thousands of women across the globe. She has served in leadership roles on the boards of multiple nonprofit organizations that empower women.

Burgin made her mark in the business world by cofounding two companies, taking her first one public. Her second, a venture out of her hometown of Boulder, Colorado, is designed to help women rearchitect their lives by relinquishing the patterns of behavior that hold them back.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Wholly Unraveled: A Memoir, and reported the following:
I don’t know that I will ever fully believe in the phrase “everything happens for a reason.” It’s catchy, I get it, but isn’t that just the easy way out? Just let fate have its way with me?

But testing the Page 99 theory on Wholly Unraveled made me a believer. Page 99 is a strong representation of my young life. It’s about a little girl trying to be brave, knowing that her world is not a safe place to be…at all.

The page begins with me trying to cipher strength from Shirley, one of the strongest women I knew, a woman who loved me, but she was hundreds of miles away at the time and couldn’t help me.

I am in the desert with my father, who was unsafe to be with at all times, but this time he had a gun. The italics on this page defined my life for decades: Don’t let him see you scared. And: Don’t let him see your thirst. I put on my suit of armor that day and believed, quite possibly, that the whole world was going to hurt me like my father did.

For a chance at survival I adopted the philosophy that only men should quench their thirst, “He put space between the opening of the canteen and his mouth so I could see the clear, wet liquid hit his tongue.” While he did that, I cemented my role as a woman. I was to be invisible, hide my needs, and be thirsty for life.

I go on to talk about my brain feeling foggy and how difficult it was to put energy into anything other than just putting one foot in front of the other. I would feel that way until I realized that I could heal. Until I realized that it truly wasn’t my fault. I could fall in love with myself. I wasn’t someone else’s mistakes, someone else’s hatred of himself. I needed to define my own existence. The ability to heal is always gently reaching its hand out to the taker. Look down at your hands … is it time to heal?
Visit Keele Burgin's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Mary Cregan's "The Scar"

Mary Cregan is a lecturer in English literature at Barnard College in New York City. She holds an undergraduate degree from Middlebury College and a PhD in English and Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to The Scar: A Personal History of Depression and Recovery, her first book, and reported the following:
I’m not sure, although I love the novels of Ford Madox Ford, that I believe in the randomness of his Page 99 Test for “the quality of the whole,” since books don’t generally maintain a single high quality on every page. However, page 99 does reveal something inherent in the quality—and even more in the method—of my book The Scar, which is a personal narrative about a suicidal postpartum depression that enveloped me when my first child died two days after her birth. It is also about my life since then, as I have learned to live with major depressive disorder.

Page 99 falls near the beginning of the fourth chapter, called “The Paradise of Bedlams,” which tells the story of my time and treatment in a psychiatric hospital in White Plains, NY (now called New York Presbyterian-Westchester Division, formerly called the Bloomingdale Asylum). As I have done throughout the book, I’ve woven my own experience in with a larger history of depressive disorders (as well as other mental illnesses) and their treatment. So this chapter includes not only the psychiatric hospital experience in my time there (the 1980s) but the history of the asylum movement that began in the late 18th century, and the profession’s efforts to care for and preserve the lives of people with very severe forms of psychiatric illness.

On page 99, we are in the midst of the story of how the Bloomingdale Insane Asylum moved in 1894 from Morningside Heights in Manhattan, where it had opened in a quiet rural setting seven miles north of the city in 1821, to farmland in White Plains twenty miles north, when the city had grown rapidly northwards and right up to its outer fence. The asylum’s property was purchased by Columbia University, which eventually tore down the residence halls of the asylum for their new campus, so that only one building from asylum days—a brick villa created for wealthy male patients and their servants, now called Buell Hall—remains on Columbia’s campus today.

It was a major undertaking to move one of the city’s major institutions, with all of its patients and their belongings, to a wholly new asylum, planned and built according to the latest ideas of caring for people with psychiatric illnesses, alcoholism, and general paresis of the insane (the insanity of late-stage syphilis). This was the very hospital where I was treated, and where I received ECT, late in the following century, when some of the same treatment rooms had been adapted to new purposes, but where the buildings and grounds were largely identical to what the newspapers reported upon the new asylum’s opening in the fall of 1894 (as quoted on page 99).
Visit Mary Cregan's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, April 8, 2019

Yuval Taylor's "Zora and Langston"

Yuval Taylor, senior editor at Chicago Review Press, is the author of Zora and Langston: A Story of Friendship and Betrayal and coauthor of Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop and Faking It: The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music. He has edited three volumes of African American slave narratives, and his writings have appeared in The Antioch Review, The Guardian, and other publications. He lives in Chicago.

Taylor applied the “Page 99 Test” to Zora and Langston and reported the following:
Near the bottom of page 99 of Zora and Langston is the following sentence: “When Zora invited him to join her expedition in her little old Nash coupe, nicknamed ‘Sassy Susie,’ Langston happily accepted.” You see, page 99 is the second page of chapter five, “The Company of Good Things,” the heart of Zora and Langston: a day-by-day and place-by-place recounting of the road trip they took through the heart of the South in 1927, a road trip that truly cemented their friendship.

Many of the book’s readers so far have remarked that this chapter is their favorite. Maureen Corrigan’s review of the book on Fresh Air is centered around the road trip, and Zinzi Clemmons, writing in the New York Times, calls it “the book’s most exciting chapter.” It is certainly the chapter that went through the most drafts. A very different version of it was published in the Oxford American, where it was subjected to the very different edits of three very different editors; and the book’s editor demanded more changes to it than to any other chapter.

Sometimes I’m an excessively concise writer (meaning that I leave out too much), but the edits that chapter five went through made me put in more than I’d ever imagined discussing. I was forced to do a good deal of somewhat tangential research in order to come up with details like “The car looked a lot like a Model T Ford, and could only seat two” (to quote from page 99), or the fact that there really weren’t that many “sundown towns” (where no black people were allowed after sundown) in the South in the 1920s—they became increasingly common later.

So in that sense page 99 is not that representative of the book. Chapter five is really unique. It’s the only chapter that takes place in the South, it’s more full of incident and incidentals than the rest of the book, and it focuses more on events and places than on characters and relationships.

So will “the quality of the whole” be revealed to someone who reads only page 99? Absolutely not. I fundamentally disagree with Ford Madox Ford. “The quality of the whole” of any book can only be revealed by reading the whole of it. Page 99 may provide a few clues, but judging a book by it is like judging a car by its hubcap.
Learn more about Zora and Langston at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, April 6, 2019

Brett Krutzsch's "Dying to Be Normal"

Brett Krutzsch is Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion at Haverford College. His scholarship examines intersections of religion, sexuality, gender, race, and politics in the United States.

Krutzsch applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Dying to Be Normal: Gay Martyrs and the Transformation of American Sexual Politics, and reported the following:
The first words on page 99 of my book finish a sentence that started on page 98 and read, “…the most politicized deaths of the previous two decades: two white, Christian adolescents who were meant to represent all LGBT youth in America.” The two “most politicized” deaths in that sentence refer to Matthew Shepard and Tyler Clementi, two gay college students whose deaths made national headlines and generated widespread support for LGBT issues. Shepard was murdered in 1998; Clementi killed himself in 2010. Both were white, gender-conforming, middle-class, and practicing Protestants.

My book, Dying to Be Normal: Gay Martyrs and the Transformation of American Sexual Politics, examines how LGBT activists turned particular people like Shepard and Clementi into martyrs as a political strategy to promote assimilation. The book primarily focuses on the two decades of 1995 to 2015, and the book’s epilogue looks at the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016, which was the largest mass killing of LGBT Americans in the country’s history. Dying to Be Normal explores the period of 1995-2015 because in 1995 doctors introduced medications that dramatically shifted the American AIDS epidemic from a mostly deadly crisis into a more manageable one, and in 2015 the Supreme Court made same-sex marriage a legal possibility throughout the country. The book, therefore, considers how activists shifted the image of the American queer community from one primarily associated with death through unbridled sexual frivolity to one of LGBT Americans as deeply invested in lifelong, monogamous matrimony.

The book analyzes the most prominent LGBT deaths between 1995 and 2015 and the reasons why some deaths became potent political emblems. The book also explores other deaths that LGBT activists tried to use for political purposes, but with much less success. Those deaths overwhelmingly included transgender Americans and queer people of color even though they faced higher rates of violence during those twenty years. Ultimately, the book argues that through the process of political memorialization, and as part of a broader strategy to appeal to America’s dominant class of white, heterosexual Christians, secular LGBT activists commonly reinforced a white Protestant vision of who and what counts as acceptable, “normal” American citizens, which is why I title the book, Dying to Be Normal.
Learn more about Dying to Be Normal at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Emily Suzanne Johnson's "This Is Our Message"

Emily Johnson teaches modern American history, with a focus on women and gender. Her first book, This Is Our Message: Women's Leadership in the New Christian Right, tells the story of female leaders in the modern religious right, from the 1970s to the present day. This book explores the complexities of women's leadership in a movement that centrally emphasizes a return to traditional gender roles. Johnson received her Ph.D. from Yale University in 2014.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to This Is Our Message and reported the following:
From page 99:
[Jim and Tammy Faye] Bakkers’ ministry was also representative of the increasing popularity of “prosperity gospel” in many Christian ministries, especially Pentecostal ones, in the 1970s. This theology, sometimes derisively known as “health and wealth” or “name it and claim it” gospel, has roots in older American religious and cultural traditions. The Puritans, after all, were Calvinists who looked to their material successes and failures to determine whether they were among God’s elect, predestined for eternal salvation. More recently, in the last decades of the nineteenth century, a variety of philosophies from inside and outside the aegis of Christianity promoted “mind-over-matter” approaches to spiritual well-being, physical healing, and material profit...

The prosperity gospel had its detractors, not least among them Christians who saw this theological emphasis as a perversion of their faith, but its popularity grew throughout the 1970s and 1980s, resonating with congregants’ hopes for their lives and afterlives, and propelling the growth of ministries like PTL.
My book is about religion and politics -- the two topics that we have all been taught to avoid in polite conversation. (It is also about sex, but not on page 99).

Specifically, I write about conservative evangelicals at the moment that “conservatism” and “evangelicalism” became inextricably linked with each other in the American imagination. I argue that as the modern religious right came into being, women were important leaders of the movement, even though their commitment to an ideology of “traditional gender roles” meant that they had to be careful about how they expressed that leadership.

In writing this book, I have worked hard to balance rigorous analysis with equally rigorous empathy. I want my explanation of this movement to make sense from the outside and from within. If I have succeeded, a conservative evangelical will be able to pick up my book and recognize their own history; those who struggle to understand the movement will find an explanation that makes sense to them.

Page 99 captures this effort. The “prosperity gospel” is something that many conservative Christians would recognize immediately, but can be really difficult for outsiders to understand. (John Oliver’s recent bit about prosperity ministries is a good example of how ridiculous these ideas can seem to people who haven’t encountered them before). I’ve tried here to provide an explanation that will give new information to those who already know about this movement (whether as scholars or as participants), but that will also make its logic legible to newcomers. At the same time, this doesn’t mean that I simply explain the movement on its own terms without analysis. By contextualizing it within its broader history and addressing the controversy that surrounds it, I have tried to offer an explanation that will provide new insight to readers regardless of how much or how little they already know about this controversial theology.

In the pages of this book, readers will find a similar approach to topics including evangelical sex advice, religious right lobbying organizations, singer-turned-anti-gay-rights-activist Anita Bryant, televangelism, and the campaigns of Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, among other topics.
Learn more about This Is Our Message at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Aaron Shulman's "The Age of Disenchantments"

Aaron Shulman is a journalist whose work has appeared in publications including The Believer, The American Scholar, The New Republic, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. A collaborative writer and editorial coach, he works with visionary scientists and thinkers to bring their research to a wide readership. Shulman first lived in Spain while studying abroad and moved back in 2010 after falling in love with a Spanish woman. There, he published pieces about Spanish culture, social movements, and the economic crisis. In 2012, he watched “El Desencanto,” the 1976 documentary about the Panero family, and from that night onward became hopelessly obsessed. He now lives in Santa Barbara, California.

Shulman applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Age of Disenchantments: The Epic Story of Spain's Most Notorious Literary Family and the Long Shadow of the Spanish Civil War, and reported the following:
Page 99 is the start of Chapter 10, which is titled “We Won’t Be the Same: The Fall of the Republic, January 1939 to May 1939.” This is how it begins:
In early 1939, the [Spanish] Civil War began its final phase while the rest of Europe moved on from the drama in Spain, readying itself for its own cataclysm. On February 1, the Republican parliament met for the last time. Two weeks later, Franco signed the Law of Political Responsibilities, the legal framework he would use after the war to punish the people who had supported the Republic. At the end of February, Britain and France officially recognized Franco’s government. Now it was just a matter of how he would conduct the choreography of victory and defeat, and how many people would still have to die.

In early March, shots rang out near the Blanc home…
My book is the century-long story of the Panero family of Spain, but as the subtitle says, it’s also about “the Long Shadow of the Spanish Civil War.” In this sense, page 99 may not necessarily speak to the quality of my book—I’ll let the reader decide, though it’s a fairly information-driven passage, rather than an emotionally or stylistically engaging one—but it does speak directly to the national tragedy that devastated Spain, rewrote the lives of Leopoldo Panero and Felicidad Blanc (the parents), and whose legacy shaped the lives of their three sons, Juan Luis, Leopoldo María, and Michi. Without the Spanish Civil War, millions of lives, never mind world history, would have played out differently—and, of course, my book wouldn’t exist.

The Paneros were all writers, and in large part, what they all grappled with (and what I grappled with in telling their collective story) was how individuals can exercise agency when confronted with historical forces that seem to obliterate personal will. In the case of the obsessively literary Paneros—this is my reading of their words and actions, mind you, though they did admit their shared desire to be literature—their response was to turn their lives into a kind of poetic public narrative, acting as if they were characters in a novel and thus adding a layer of romantic mystique to their name and family history. They did this through the poetry, fiction, and non-fiction they wrote, through the two cult documentaries they made about their family, and through their often extravagant words and deeds that led other to tell stories about them. Turning plain old reality into myth was their specialty. I see the narratives that arise out of our lives as a creative, transformative force that stands in opposition to the destructive force of war, though the Paneros’ storifying of life did have its self-destructive elements as well. Even though I’m very different from the Paneros, I saw parts of myself in their choices, and I hope readers will too.
Visit Aaron Shulman's website.

--Marshal Zeringue