Friday, February 15, 2019

Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman's "Sounds Like Titanic"

Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman is the author of Sounds Like Titanic: A Memoir. Her recent writing has appeared in McSweeney's, The New York Times Magazine, Brevity and Hippocampus. She holds a BA in Middle Eastern studies and an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Columbia University, and a PhD in English from the University of North Texas. She teaches creative writing at Northern Kentucky University, where she recently won the Outstanding Junior Faculty Award. In her spare time she enjoys cooking (Italian), dancing (Beyoncé), and dreaming up clever Halloween costumes (Large Hadron Particle Collider).

Hindman applied the “Page 99 Test” to Sounds Like Titanic and reported the following:
From page 99:
At some point I realize that the lyrics to The Composer’s musical mention Jesus, even though the Book of Ruth is from the Old Testament. At some point I realize that The Composer has merely played some chords from his keyboard into a sophisticated computer recording system and emailed us an MP3. He has no idea how to write a violin part, which is why he’s asked Harriet and me to do it. The pit violinists of this Christian musical I’m transcribing will never know that The Composer didn’t fully write the music in front of them, couldn’t have if he wanted to. They’ll never know that the violin part was composed by a 23-year-old amateur violinist working for free, and not for love of Jesus but for love of Dolly Parton. Whatever. I want to go to Dollywood. I want to eat something else besides stale bagels and slices of Supreme, which I order from Pepperoni’s because it’s the only way I can think of getting vegetables and protein.
In this section of the book, I am describing what life was like on the God Bless America Tour of 2004. My fellow musicians and I have been stuck at a hotel in rural Georgia for days. We’ve been eating the hotel’s complimentary breakfast and ordering delivery pizza and going stir-crazy. The Composer makes us a deal: If we, his musician employees, transcribe the violin parts for the Christian musical he is working on, he will take us to Dollywood.

This passage offers an example of the ways in which musicians in The Composer’s ensemble found themselves exploited. We completed days of free transcription work, a task that, had we been charging per hour, could have amounted to hundreds, possibly thousands of dollars. And we never made it to Dollywood. It’s a small example of the idea of false promises, which is a larger theme in the book.

Sounds Like Titanic is a nonfiction account of my life as a fake violinist. When I performed with The Composer’s ensemble, the microphones in front of me weren’t plugged in and a CD recording of a far-more-talented violinist was blasted toward unsuspecting audiences. But on a deeper level, the book is about class, gender, geography, mental illness, and American culture in the years immediately following 9/11. It is an investigation between the real and the fake, and what happens when an individual, and the society she lives in, can no longer tell the difference.
Visit Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Katharine Smyth's "All the Lives We Ever Lived"

Katharine Smyth is a writer based in Brooklyn, NY. After graduating magna cum laude from Brown University, she worked as an editorial assistant and researcher at The Paris Review and Radar Magazine. In 2010, she received her MFA in nonfiction from Columbia, where she was awarded a Dean’s Fellowship, the university’s highest merit-based award. Her essays and articles have appeared in The Paris Review, Literary Hub, The Point, DuJour, Poets & Writers, and Domino, among other publications. In October 2014, her essay “Prey” was selected as a Notable Essay in The Best American Essays 2014.

Smyth applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, All the Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf, and reported the following:
I should be honest about the tiny stab of disappointment I felt on first opening my book, All the Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf, to page 99 to find the tail end of one of my parents’ most vicious fights. The page also includes my response to that fight, which was to distance myself from my beloved, alcoholic father more deliberately than ever before, and concludes with a nighttime scene in which he approaches me shyly, hoping to discuss an essay I was writing on Antonioni—whom he had loved when he was younger—and I banish him downstairs. The page’s final words, “And yet,” gesture toward the pain of doing so: as I write on page 100, “how badly it hurt to send him away like that, evening after evening, terrified, terrified, that we didn’t have much time together, that he would soon be gone.”

It’s not necessarily that the page doesn’t reveal the quality of the book as a whole—though I did revise again and again the moment at which I comfort my mother, worried it was too sentimental (as Virginia Woolf worried of To the Lighthouse)—but rather that my father’s worst acts no longer hold for me the currency they did; that, as I conclude in the following pages, both my loathing and my absolution “feel like stories attached to someone else.” Indeed, page 99 marks a turning point, the moment in the book at which I bid goodbye to the narrative of my parents’ discord and focus instead on more Woolfian themes—loss, grief, homecoming, and the limitations of knowledge, to name a few. And while the scenes that convey my family’s intermittent unhappiness were necessary to the story that I sought to tell—one in which my father, a minor god to me when I was younger, is revealed to be deeply fallible—I far prefer the passages in which I got to write about him as the father I knew best: a man gentle, loving, and kind.
Visit Katharine Smyth's website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Monday, February 11, 2019

Deonnie Moodie's "The Making of a Modern Temple and a Hindu City"

Deonnie Moodie is Assistant Professor of South Asian Religions at University of Oklahoma. Her research has been funded by her home institution as well as by Fulbright and Harvard University, where she earned her PhD. Moodie is especially interested in religion in urban India and the ways people of various class backgrounds negotiate urban spaces as sites of devotion, memory, monumentality, labor, and leisure.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The Making of a Modern Temple and a Hindu City: Kalighat and Kolkata, and reported the following:
Page 99 begins the third chapter of The Making of a Modern Temple and a Hindu City and outlines the most recent and accessible modernization projects launched at the Hindu temple, Kālīghāṭ, dedicated to the dark goddess Kālī in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta). Upper-middle class city residents have generated public campaigns and public interest lawsuits over the past twenty years in order to clean up the physical space of the temple. Without regard for the formerly all-important issue of purity, they seek to remove beggars, sweep up dirt, and conceal the practice of animal sacrifice. In so doing, they build upon modernization projects launched before them (and that I examine in the previous chapters) – those that worked to bring the temple into the realm of modernist history and make it a symbol of Hindu identity in this former British colonial capital; and those that worked to make this a public temple in the eyes of the law so that it could be managed by public representatives rather than priests.

When I was living in Kolkata conducting fieldwork for this project, it was the efforts to physically cleanse the temple that most captivated me. Men and women were working so hard to make their city better – to make it something they could be proud of, and a place their kids would want to live. But then I began speaking with the priests who work at the temple. They felt that the goddess had empowered them to discern what ought to happen at Kālīghāṭ, and these outsiders were trying chip away at that authority. Then I sat with the beggars who live in the shadow of the temple – women who were born there and had never known another existence. The only means of subsistence to which they had access was being taken away. They want to be proud of their city too, and they want good opportunities for their children, but they also want to eat, and to maintain their close relationships with the goddess. The fourth chapter of the book features their stories.

What emerges is a picture of modern India that is both complex and raw. The modernization of this – among many other temples across India – signifies a deep cultural pride that refuses to give way to a homogenized and sterile version of modernity. Yet it also touches on the deep divisions among the “haves” and “have nots” and between the state and religious authorities in the world’s largest secular democracy.
Learn more about The Making of a Modern Temple and a Hindu City at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Lior B. Sternfeld's "Between Iran and Zion"

Lior B. Sternfeld is Assistant Professor of History and Jewish Studies at Penn State.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Between Iran and Zion: Jewish Histories of Twentieth-Century Iran, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Between Iran and Zion: Jewish Histories of Twentieth-Century Iran ironically takes me back to the beginning of my research. This page presents the bylaws of the Association of Jewish-Iranian Intellectuals (AJII). This association was crucial in building the alliances between the Jewish community and the revolutionary forces before 1979 in Iran. If a reader opened the book in page 99, he could find details about the operation that the Jewish leadership ran with one of Iran's top clerics, Ayatollah Sayyed Mahmud Taleqani. In this operation, the Jewish Dr. Sapir hospital in Tehran, together with Taleqani, had rescue teams that roamed in the city during demonstrations and picked up wounded protesters so they will not have to be taken to the other state hospitals in the city. The state hospitals had to turn in protesters to the hands of the notorious secret police, the SAVAK.

I think that this page gives a good idea of what the book is about. We do not tend to think about the Jews in Iran in the second half of the twentieth century as a minority with any political agency, let alone in revolutionary movements. The chapter on the revolution (in which page 99 is found) tells the story of the second and third generation of politicized Jewish communities. Communities that sought and embraced multiple identities and allegiances that did not interfere with each other, but instead complemented one another. Iranian Jews saw themselves as Iranians, and at the same time could be nationalists, communists, and even Zionists. All depends on the context of any given situation and various interpretations of each concept and a highly nuanced manner.
Learn more about Between Iran and Zion at the Stanford University Press website.

Writers Read: Lior Sternfeld.

--Marshal Zeringue

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Jack Kelly's "The Edge of Anarchy"

Jack Kelly is a journalist, historian, and one-time screenwriter. His latest book The Edge of Anarchy: The Railroad Barons, the Gilded Age, and the Greatest Labor Uprising in America was praised by the New York Times as “timely and urgent ... a thrilling description of the boycott of Pullman cars and equipment by Eugene Debs’s fledgling American Railway Union.

Kelly applied the “Page 99 Test” to The Edge of Anarchy and reported the following:
The Edge of Anarchy is the story of the largest and wildest labor uprising in American history. In 1894, hundreds of thousands of railroad workers shut down virtually all commerce in the country in order to pressure George Pullman to address the demands of the workers in his rail car factory. The workers were led by Eugene V. Debs, one of the most dynamic labor leaders in the country’s history and president of the huge American Railway Union.

Page 99 relates the “blistering six-hour debate” that erupted during the union’s convention on the eve of the strike. One of the main issues on the agenda was whether to admit African American members to the union. Pullman operated sleeping cars on rail lines and hired black workers to serve as porters, essentially servants for the passengers. If these men joined with the other railroad workers, it would give the union much more clout.

Debs, a strong advocate of the solidarity of all workers, pleaded that “if we do not admit the colored man to membership, the fact will be used against us.”

But it was not to be. One man rose to say he “would not ‘brother’ the negro under any circumstances.” By two votes, the delegates refused to admit black members.

This incident, although not a central theme of the book, is an excellent example of how the race issue forms an underground current through so many aspects of our history. By rejecting blacks, the white rail workers helped defeat their own cause—a pattern that recurred again and again during the later history of the labor movement.

The book mentions how it took another forty years for black workers to form their own union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and win recognition from the Pullman Company. The leader of that union, an admirer of Debs, was A. Philip Randolph, who became an important figure in the civil rights movement.
Learn more about the book and author at Jack Kelly's website.

My Book, The Movie: The Edge of Anarchy.

--Marshal Zeringue

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Edward Humes's "Burned"

Edward Humes is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author whose books include Garbology, Mississippi Mud, and the PEN Award-winning No Matter How Loud I Shout.

Humes applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Burned: A Story of Murder and the Crime That Wasn’t, and reported the following:
Burned moves back and forth in time from the present day at the California Innocence Project, where Raquel Cohen labors to free Jo Ann Parks through new discoveries in the field of fire science and arson investigation, to 1989-1993, when Jo Ann Parks’ home in Bell, California, burned, her three children died, and she was convicted of their murder.

Page 99 of Burned is part of a deep dive into Cohen’s past, her fears, and her motivations as an innocence lawyer. Captured on page 99 is a scene depicting Cohen’s review of grisly police photos of the Parks home after it was devastated by fire, which leads her to reflect on some uncomfortable parallels between her and Parks’ lives:
She made notes of photos she wanted her expert to examine closely. And then came photo “AA029.jpg.”

Cohen froze, at first not quite sure what she was seeing. The fire had distorted the form and coloration of the subject of the photo, which showed a portion of a fire-ravaged kid’s bedroom. Then the charred objects at the center of the photo resolved into something recognizable and Cohen recoiled. She had stumbled on a photo of one of the dead little girls, RoAnn, sprawled across her burned twin-sized bed. And this battle-tested lawyer, who blithely marches into the nation’s most dangerous prisons to interview convicted killers, who faces off with seasoned prosecutors and cops with far more experience and resources at their disposal, had to fumble to clear the screen and flee the room—anything to avoid looking at any of more of those images of Parks’s dead children.

She would try very hard never to look at them again. And she would have nightmares for weeks about seeing the one.

That’s when Cohen started to realize People v. Parks might differ from her other cases. There were several reasons for this. There was her own family history and its slight parallels with Parks’s, in the form of a disappointing and dysfunctional father figure. Cohen’s biological father had been an alcoholic and an abuser who left the household when Cohen was five. In the years that followed he would regularly promise to visit, or to attend one of his daughter’s gymnastic competitions. And each time, she’d wait, looking through the window for his car to pull in the driveway, or craning her neck in some gymnasium, peering over the crowd to see if she could spot her dad in the stands. Almost every time, he disappointed her. Only later did she learn that he had lived just two long Vegas blocks from the family for five years, yet he never let them know, never came by. His final act, after announcing to a sixteen-year-old Raquel that he was dying of cancer and promising a lavish inheritance for her and her two brothers, was to leave behind an old wallet with five dollars inside, to be split three ways.
Learn more about the book and author at Edward Humes's website.

My Book, The Movie: Burned.

--Marshal Zeringue

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Alexandra Natapoff's "Punishment Without Crime"

Alexandra Natapoff is Professor of Law at the University of California, Irvine School of Law, and a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Punishment Without Crime: How Our Massive Misdemeanor System Traps the Innocent and Makes America More Unequal, and reported the following:
Every year, 13 million misdemeanor cases are filed across the United States. Although those cases make up 80 percent of the American criminal system, we pay shockingly little attention to them. Typically written off as “minor” and “petty,” misdemeanors actually have very serious consequences, both for the individuals who encounter the petty offense process, and for the integrity of the entire justice apparatus. Punishment Without Crime analyzes the full scope and influence of that enormous misdemeanor machinery.

For example, the misdemeanor system does not always work the way it should. Thousands of defendants are rushed through a legal process that puts heavy pressure on them to plead guilty. Sometimes defendants cannot afford to pay bail and so they plead guilty simply in order to get out of jail. Misdemeanor defendants also routinely do not get lawyers. When they do, public defenders are often overwhelmed with hundreds of cases and therefore cannot investigate or litigate meaningfully on behalf of their clients. As a result, many people accept minor convictions without challenging the evidence, exercising their legal rights, or understanding the full consequences of their decisions.

Page 99 of Punishment Without Crime is part of the chapter entitled “Innocence,” which explains in detail how this fast and sloppy process naturally generates wrongful convictions. On page 99, for example, a New York public defender describes how innocent misdemeanor defendants often plead guilty. “[I have] a disgraceful number of innocent clients,” he says. His clients are innocent because misdemeanor arrests and minor criminal charges can too easily be triggered by unreliable evidence—a flawed drug test, for example, or an arrest that lacks probable cause. All too often, that evidence will never be checked for accuracy. Defendants can thus experience strong pressure to plead guilty to crimes they may not have actually committed. Because such dynamics are common, misdemeanor wrongful convictions probably occur thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands of times every year.
Visit Alexandra Natapoff's website.

The Page 99 Test: Snitching.

--Marshal Zeringue

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Sheri Berman's "Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe"

Sheri Berman is Professor of Political Science at Barnard College, Columbia University. She has written extensively on democracy, authoritarianism, populism, fascism, the history of the left, and European politics for both scholarly and non-scholarly publications.

Berman applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe: From the Ancien Régime to the Present Day, and reported the following:
Page 99 in Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe in right in the middle of a chapter on the 1848 “wave”: during the “springtime of the peoples”—as this year was called—citizens across Europe rose up against dictatorships. This wave was initially at least remarkably successful, toppling what seem to be even the sturdiest dictatorships in places like Prussia and the Austrian Empire. Yet within a year or so, all the liberalizing and democratizing experiments had been crushed, and dictatorships were back on place. Why did this wave succeed and then fail so spectacularly? This is the type of question Democracy and Dictatorship seeks to answer.

At the end of the twentieth century, many believed the story of European political development had come to an end. Modern democracy began in Europe, but for hundreds of years it competed with various forms of dictatorship. Now, though, the entire continent was in the democratic camp for the first time in history. But within a decade, this story had already begun to unravel. Some of the continent's newer democracies slid back towards dictatorship, while citizens in many of its older democracies began questioning democracy's functioning and even its legitimacy. And of course it is not merely in Europe where democracy is under siege. Across the globe the immense optimism accompanying the post-Cold War democratic wave has been replaced by pessimism. Many new democracies in Latin America, Africa, and Asia began "backsliding," while the Arab Spring quickly turned into the Arab winter. The victory of Donald Trump led many to wonder if it represented a threat to the future of liberal democracy in the United States. Indeed, it is increasingly common today for leaders, intellectuals, commentators and others to claim that rather than democracy, some form dictatorship or illiberal democracy is the wave of the future.

Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe traces the long history of democracy in its cradle, Europe. It shows that in fact, just about every democratic wave in Europe initially failed, either collapsing in upon itself or succumbing to the forces of reaction. Yet even when democratic waves failed, there were always some achievements that lasted. Even the most virulently reactionary regimes could not suppress every element of democratic progress. Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe takes readers through two centuries of turmoil: revolution, fascism, civil war, and—finally--the emergence of liberal democratic Europe in the postwar era. A magisterial retelling of modern European political history, Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe not only explains how democracy actually develops, but how we should interpret the current wave of illiberalism sweeping Europe and the rest of the world.
Learn more about Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue

Friday, February 1, 2019

Dian Fox's "Hercules and the King of Portugal"

Dian Fox is a professor emerita of Hispanic studies and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies at Brandeis University. She is the author of Refiguring the Hero: From Peasant to Noble in Lope de Vega and Calderón and Kings in Calderón: A Study in Characterization and Political Theory.

Fox applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, Hercules and the King of Portugal: Icons of Masculinity and Nation in Calderón’s Spain, and reported the following:
From antiquity, Hercules was considered a native son on the Iberian Peninsula. Traditionally, two of his Twelve Labors took place there; he expelled tyrants; and he founded Seville and Barcelona, among other cities. His statues, architecture, and other symbolism abounded (and still do). He signified Christ in medieval church friezes and sermons. In the Renaissance, with imperial Spain at the height of power, voices of authority conscripted the “Hispanic Hercules” to represent Spanish nationhood, the Hapsburg monarchs even claiming descent from him.

But there was a problem with this commanding figure so deeply embedded in the cultural landscape: although a hero, Hercules was also a wild man. His myths express his extreme masculinity, with violence, indiscriminate sexual energy, and sometimes hostility to mother-figures. The challenge to elite articulators of nationhood was how to tame Hercules’s image in support of elite control. His stories needed to teach the right lessons to Spanish subjects, how men and women should behave to uphold and perpetuate hierarchy. The flourishing court and public theater was a crucial medium for such messaging.

Page 99 begins with the English translation of a princess’s command, in Pedro Calderón’s 1672 Love Feminizes Beasts. Staged before Charles, ten-year-old heir to the Spanish throne, and based on the myth of Omphale, the play schools Hercules on proper manliness by cross-dressing him.

Here, although misbehaving in other ways, Hercules’s great transgression is hating women. Venus and Cupid take revenge by making him fall madly in love with the princess, who despises him and dresses him in women’s clothes. Shamed, he vows to mend his ways. (Among other great deeds, the chastened hero will go on to father 72 children and eventually ascend to heaven.) The moral of the story for the young royal in the audience: non-reproduction threatens hierarchy and the state.

Spanish theater discerns a similar lesson from the fate of King Sebastian of Portugal (1554-78). His aversion to women and escape from matrimony got him killed invading Morocco, resulting in Portugal’s loss of sovereignty to Spain until 1640. Cultural voices on the Iberian Peninsula and in Brazil are still wrestling with the implications of Sebastian’s behavior.

And certainly, interrelationships between public “performances” of manliness and political power are hardly irrelevant to our lives today.

Below is most of page 99. English prose translations of passages from the Fieras afemina Amor (Love Feminizes Beasts) appear in parentheses, which is my practice throughout the book, because I want it to reach a wide audience while still respecting the original texts. Because early modern Spanish drama is composed in verse, line numbers are included.
(You take away that hammer, while I cinch this spindle to him; and now the three of you arrange his unkempt mop of hair with ribbons in grubby braids.) (3988–94)
Upon awakening, Hércules is put on display incrementally: he is again shown himself in the mirror; then despite his sobs and pleas, his army is summoned to see him; and finally, his metamorphosis becomes a spectacle for all of Libya to behold. Aristeo exclaims, “¿Hércules postrado en tierra / con viles armas llorando?” (Hércules prostrate on the ground, with vile arms and weeping?) (4061–62). The hypermasculine hero, now feminized, begs for mercy, weeps, and flees. When the pursuing crowd calls for his death, Calíope and the other Muses come to his defense in order to bring on his anagnorisis: “queremos / que viva para que sienta” (we want him to live, so that he can be sorry) (4105–6). At the behest of Venus and Cupido, Hércules is captured and caged in a cart so that
en fantástica apariencia
se deje mirar triunfante,
bien como le representan
ya pinceles y ya plumas.

(in his fantastic appearance he will be triumphantly displayed, just as paintbrushes and pens represent him.) (4117–20)
Learn more about Hercules and the King of Portugal at the University of Nebraska Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue