Work Title: Best of All Worlds 2007: Outstanding University Press Books
Work Author(s): Peter Skinner
Byline: Peter Skinner
Surely it should, over the years, become easier to discern clearly outstanding books among the year's output from the nation's university presses. Surely the selector's criteria should over time clarify and strengthen, and the choices become unassailably valid and acceptable. But it does not work that way. What are the trade-offs between discerned quality of content and a reader's likely reward? Between what we ought to read (those formidable Great Books lists) and what we enjoy reading?
Should emphasis fall upon mainline excellence---the towering biography of a maker-and-shaker statesman---or the sensitive story that brings home how the humblest victims of racism or war find qualities that enable them to survive and transcend their oppressors? Or is it translations that we should salute, highlighting the delicate work of a Vietnamese poet or the brave new world of an Uzbek oil-king? Should we be raising orphan gazelles in Zimbabwe or voyaging to Xanadu or living on a croft in the Hebrides?
Given the ever greater constraints of production budgets, can we still hold out for something more than an elegant yet economically deigned text block; can we expect lavish illustration or specially commissioned maps? This year's selection strives for the best of all worlds, featuring books that surely will educate us, entertain us, and expand our lives---or at their most outstanding, achieve these desiderata simultaneously.
A Little Improvement
Surgery Junkies: Wellness and Pathology in Cosmetic Culture by Victoria Pitts-Taylor (Rutgers, 978-0-8135-4048-1)
Cosmetic surgeries will soon be totaling over 2.5 million per year, and non-surgical procedures, including Botox, are reaching the 8.5 million mark. The primary consumers, women, are moving from justifiable procedures to EM, or "extreme makeover." In her concise analysis of the situation, Victoria Taylor-Pitts, as professor of sociology and author of In the Flesh: The Cultural Politics of Body Modification poses the question, what is justifiable need, and how much cosmetic surgery is appropriate? She also discusses how the profession curbs the addict while serving the "appropriate case." Case histories (her own included) illuminate the debate; she discusses feminists' pro- and anti-surgery factions, and addresses the matter of costly legal actions against surgeons.
It is clear that beyond the objective debate that seeks rational standards, demand for cosmetic surgery is driven by subjective factors. The reader may be tempted to brashly sum up the situation as: "We are how we look, and how we look drives our behaviors and curbs or promotes our economic, social, and sexual success." Given highly influential public perceptions about looks, why should we not have the eyes, noses, lips, chins, and other features that make us feel good---and ensure our acceptance and success?
Taylor-Pitts' analyses are far more searching than the foregoing. She explores psychic health, physical pain, disappointing outcomes, and the increasing addiction to surgeries. The unanswered question is why does contemporary life demand that women be have to be "made over" to be acceptable.
Also recommended, by way of a distinct contrast, The English Physician by Nicholas Culpepper (Alabama, 978-0-8173-1558-0). First published in 1704, this herb-based medical handbook will delight.
Women -- At Work and At Play
Napoleon and The Woman Question: Discourses of the Other Sex in French Education, Medicine, And Medical Law by June K. Burton (Texas Tech, 978-0-89672-559-1)
No, not new disclosures on Napoleon's love life; June Burton (a specialist on Napoleonic history) addresses the changing place of women in French education, medicine, and medical law---changes shaped by Napoleon's views on women's roles and capabilities. Burton provides a deft reprise of Descartes, La Mettrie, and their successors' thoughts on the body/mind problem, showing that despite Napoleon's political progressiveness, he was a conservative about women and their potential. Napoleon's mother single-handedly raised eight children, yet he accused women (while acknowledging their physical...