UPfront: June & July

May 29th, 2009 by EVENTS

Portfolios of the Poor: How the World’s Poor Live on $2 a Day by Daryl Collins, Jonathan Morduch, Stuart Rutherford & Orlanda Ruthven

Princeton University Press

The debate on poverty in the developing world is thick with giants battling one another with grand theories of what is to be done. Most impressive about Portfolios of the Poor is that it is a real boots-on-the-ground study of how the world’s poor actually manage their money. Money comes in irregularly–not the two dollars a day you read about—and the authors worked with local researchers, visiting subjects twice a month, to paint a picture of how these families get by. The result is what the authors call “financial diaries,” and these diaries reveal familiar strategies. Rather than having an account with a neighborhood bank, the poor put money away in different informal “accounts,” splitting their money among relatives and acquaintances, near and far and creating a startlingly well-connected economy. [Seth Ditchik]

Selling Sounds: The Commercial Revolution in American Music by David Suisman

Harvard University Press

In the mid 1880’s, an aspiring songwriter called Charles K. Harris opened a shop in Milwaukee, advertising his services as “Banjoist and Songwriter, Songs Written to Order.” David Suisman credits (or blames, one might argue) Harris with personifying the early transformation of popular music into the ubiquitous commodity it is today. We are so surrounded by music as product that we take for granted the notion that music is commodified, and forget that the thing we buy and sell as “popular music” hasn’t always existed. But the rise of music as a business in the early twentieth century, when it became a mass phenomenon, was paradoxically accompanied by a centralization of the music industry. Suisman deftly unpacks the paradox. He’s a passionate music lover with a sure command of 20th century musical culture, and the illustrations are whimsical and surprising. It’s the best sort of cultural history, where we fish are shown the water we swim in. [John Eklund]

The Atmosphere of Heaven: The Unnatural Experiments of Dr. Beddoes and his Sons of Genius by Mike Jay

Yale University Press

A few years ago, Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men introduced us to an 18th century circle of scholars and inventors who helped kick-start the industrial revolution. In what can be read as something of a sequel, Mike Jay tells the riveting and bizarre story of Dr. Thomas Beddoes, whose “Pneumatic Institute” in Bristol was dedicated to administering medicine via the lungs, rather than through the more traditional route of skin or stomach. Both laboratory and hospital, the Institute was the first example of a modern medical research institute. Beddoes, a charismatic maverick, and his circle, which included Erasmus Darwin, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey, James Watt and Thomas Wedgwood, did cutting edge research at the margins of science, their efforts enhanced by copious quantities of nitrous oxide. Essentially, they got high. The scandals that ensued permanently over-shadowed their material contributions to science, and they are remembered today more for their explorations in consciousness than for inventing the concept of preventive health. This is an amazing collection of brilliant minds, and the core scientific story marinates in a rich vat of politics, poetry, philosophy and romanticism. Mike Jay is a fantastic writer, and, as he did in his previous book The Air Loom Gang, vividly animates these characters. [John Eklund]

The Ninth by Ferenc Barnás; trans. by Paul Olchváry

Northwestern University Press

The Ninth is a prime example of why translated literature is hot again, for it balances universal appeal with unique look into life behind the Iron Curtain. Set in Communist Hungary of the late sixties, Barnás’s novel is told in the voice of the ninth child in a devout Catholic family living north of Budapest. Through dialog, memory, and dreams, the Faulknerian narrative challenges the reader to piece together the trauma and guilt that the boy experiences after suffering bullying and abuse at the hands of his schoolmates. This compact story of childhood, trying times, and faith captures the insecurities of the both historical moment that provides its setting and adolescence in general. [Rudy Faust]

Terror from the Air by Peter Sloterdijk; trans. by Amy Patton

semiotext(e)/The MIT Press

The original edition of this powerful essay by one of Germany’s most widely read contemporary intellectuals is Luftbeben, which can be roughly rendered as “airquake.” Sloterdijk argues, convincingly I think, that what we think of as the modern 20th century began on a specific date and in a specific place: April 22, 1915, at Ypres. This was the day the German army first used a chlorine gas that was designed to kill indiscriminately, signaling the seemingly permanent transition from classic warfare to terrorism. It was no longer enough to target the enemy’s body, now the environment itself would be destroyed. In a short (110 pages) but briskly argued history, Sloterdijk leaves World War I for the concentration camps of World War II, and concludes with a surreal tableau involving Salvador Dali suffocating in a deep-sea diving suit while the audience applauds. The most important European philosopher we don’t know enough about, this is as good an entry point as any into Sloterdijk land. [John Eklund]

The Magnificent Mrs. Tennant by David Waller

Yale University Press

Gertrude Tennant was a grande dame who, like many successful hostesses then and now, became more known for the personalities who flocked to her salon than for her own accomplishments. Living a remarkably long life spanning the Regency and Victorian periods in England and France, her social hub included such notables as Disraeli, Mark Twain, Thomas Huxley, Henry James, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Victor Hugo. She is best remembered today—if remembered at all—as a close friend of Flaubert, with whom she had a youthful fling, and as the explorer Stanley’s mother-in-law. Eclipsed by these connections, she’s existed only as a footnote in the life stories of eminent men. Though a widow for fifty years, Waller describes how she became part of the “silent sisterhood,” joining legions of Victorian women seeking fulfillment in marriage and motherhood. This is an epic life story, made richer by the provenance of some of the sources. Waller discovered a trove of previously unknown and unpublished correspondence in the attic of a relative’s farmhouse, and he mines it to tease out the tension between Flaubert’s revolutionary tendencies and Tennant’s more conservative impulses. Her take on Madame Bovary? Not so much. [John Eklund]

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