Category Archives: Book review

The Private Lives of Anthropologists: A Review of Lily King’s Euphoria

[This is an invited post by Paul Shankman, professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado. Paul is an anthropologist of Samoa, and author of numerous articles about Margaret Mead and the Mead-Freeman controversy including The Trashing of Margaret Mead: Anatomy of an Anthropological Controversy (University of Wisconsin Press, 2009, and reviewed here on Savage Minds).]

 A review of Euphoria by Lily King. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press (2014).

The last time Margaret Mead appeared as a character in a best-selling novel was over fifty years ago. In Irving Wallace’s The Three Sirens (1963), Dr. Maud Hayden (the Mead stand-in) finds her world turned upside down by the discovery of a Polynesian island where, as America’s foremost anthropologist, she leads a team of researchers who encounter “people from a simpler, happier society, free from the inhibitions and tensions of the 20th century.” The novel’s dust jacket informs us that the culture of the island is “a shocking assault, a challenge to their most cherished beliefs about love, sex, marriage, child rearing, and justice.” So profound is this encounter that the researchers end up studying their own desires, fears, and passions. Of course, this trashy potboiler had no redeeming social value, but interest in the Mead character, the tension between a repressive West and a permissive Polynesia, and the interplay between professional fieldwork and private lives attracted many avid readers. Continue reading

The Graduate Advisor Handbook: Take Its Advice

Shore, Bruce M. 2014. The Graduate Advisor Handbook : A Student-centered Approach. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

I’m a big fan of the University of Chicago Press’s series on academic life (disclosure: this may be because I went there for graduate school). Their series on writing, editing, and publishing  features several of my favorite titles, and their younger series on ‘the academic life’ has also gotten off to a good start. So I was optimistic about Bruce Shore’s The Graduate Advisor Handbook: A Student-Centered Approach. Having read it (disclosure: I received a free review copy), I don’t feel like it’s the Final Statement In Human History About Advising Graduate Students. But I do strongly recommend that you read it, especially if you are new faculty or a new graduate student trying to get a grasp of what good advising looks like. Continue reading

Writing Badly, Speaking Better. Practical Books for Doing the Life of the Mind

Rex’s post on back to school books got me thinking. `Doing the life of the mind’, as he puts it, involves lots of different activities. Its not just reading and writing. Talking is a big part of what we do.  And to different audiences, or not , as the case may be. Much of the way that we do our academic presentations gets in the way of wider communication. This might be intentional. In reinforcing the walls of the silos in which we like to situate our knowledge it fosters the aura of complexity and exclusivity which in our social universe renders academic knowledge credible.

A recent book addresses this phenomenon as it applies to writing in the social sciences and,  by extension,  to anthropology.   Learn to Write Badly . How to Succeed in  the Social Sciences   by Michael Billig is not a ‘How To’ book.  Its  a  `How Not To’ book.  But, as the author makes plain, if you don’t write in the way which has become authoritative in your field, even if it entails writing badly, there could be consequences for your reputation if not your career.

Although Billig’s is a book about writing I think that the author’s claims work pretty well for communication in the social sciences more generally. It certainly made me think about how we as anthropologists in academia tend to speak to our audiences whether they are our students or our peers. The formal style of academic presentations in anthropology based on writing rather than on `findings’ prioritizes engagement with other writing over and above engagement with either our audience or our informants. This is quite different to communication in other fields,  within and outside academia. A how to book which you may find useful for engaging with these other fields is Carmine Gallo’s Talk like TED summarized neatly here by Sam Leith of the Financial Times .

Sure,  it’s a manual in self promotion (but lets not kid ourselves that academia is any different). But it also has lots of useful tips about connecting with the audience, making a few key points and giving them something to remember.  And I learned something wholly new, useful and unexpected. That if you press the B or W keys in powerpoint you can suspend the presentation so your audience is focusing on you not the slide until you are ready to show them the next one. Despite the acknowledged allure of  intellectual  posturing sometimes you just cant beat useful practicality.

Plays Well in Groups – [Book Review]


Plays Well in Groups: A Journey through the World of Group Sex
Katherine Frank. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2013. 406 pp.

“So, how did she…do her research?” This was a common response after mentioning to colleagues that I was reading a book “on the anthropology of group sex.” The critical intonation of the query comes from professional curiosity of these anthropology students and professors, and it is rooted in a (mistaken) assumption that the book is strictly ethnographic. Rather, Plays Well in Groups: A Journey through the World of Group Sex by Katherine Frank is an excellently researched collection of narratives – histories, current events, media studies, ethnographic works, and participant interviews – analyzed through a sex-positive and unifying anthropological lens. Frank’s task is drawing parallels between different forms and practices of group sex in general, while exploring deeper social, political, economic, and historical contexts in order to contrast them. Much of the book is about who has group sex and why, as well as who fears group sex and why. An overarching theme of the book is thus one that appealed to my interests: an emphasis on sexual taboo and transgression. Continue reading

The Soul of Anime [book review]

What happens when dedicated people come together to work on a project they care about? Where do good ideas come from? How is it that some creations start off in niche markets and grow into global brands while others fade into obscurity? In his latest foray into Japanese popular culture, The Soul of Anime: Collaborative Creativity and Japan’s Media Success Story, Ian Condry offers ethnographically grounded theory for the study of creativity. The work can be read as a synthesis of the best practices in the field of pop culture studies from anthropology and cultural studies.

Soul of Anime

Condry describes the efforts of dedicated artists and producers working in a “crucible” atmosphere of “collaborative creativity.” Their collective social energy is the “soul” of their shared engagement with the project. Therefore this study offers something other than a follow-the-money investigation, anime as Japanese national culture, or an interpretation of the content of anime, reading the text. Rather Condry seeks to follow-the-activity and commitment of small groups of people (mostly men) as they exercise creativity. It is the dynamic social relations, the connections between people in a working group that shine through here. Anime is emergent from the social practice of creativity and the collective values of that group as they define the importance of their own actions within a context.
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The Omniscient Narrator

I’ve spent a lot of time in India, but only briefly visited Mumbai. However, even though I was only there for a few days, I did manage to see enough to get a sense of the different worlds that people inhabit there: from the home of a wealthy patron of the arts near Victoria Terminus, to that of a struggling actor at the other end of the city, whose flat only had running water for ten minutes a day. Getting from one end to the other was an epic journey, and it (along with rides on over-crowded commuter trains, pollution, etc.) left me with a feeling that life in this city was  impossible. Perhaps this sense of impossibility is why so many talented writers have chose to write about Mumbai, and why I keep reading them. Among the more memorable books I’ve read are A Fine Balance, Maximum City, Beautiful Thing, and Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, which I just finished last night. There is a lot that could be (and has been) said about these books — about the relationship of writing to geography, about the relationship between journalism and fiction, about the relationship of these authors to the city, etc. — but in this blog post I want to focus on something that struck me in Boo’s writing: the omniscience of the narrator.

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Fiction and familiarity

My impression is that many people read fiction as an escape from their day-to-day. I am not those people. I like to have enough of a non-fictional toehold on a story to be able to judge its verisimilitude. I don’t want to be the reader analog to the millions of people under the impression that the legal system is in any way similar to Law & Order or CSI.

Given my interests and experiences, my toehold criterion seems to leave me with only so many fictional reading options to choose from. But early this spring I came across one short story and one novel fitting it to a T.

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The Lessons of Arnold Toynbee

When William McNeill’s biography of Arnold J. Toynbee dropped to 2 bucks on the kindle store, I knew that I had to read it. Like most scholarly flashes, it had more to do with the way decades of reading and browsing were being shuffled around in the back part of my brain. My intuition was right — McNeill’s book is valuable to people interested in Toynbee but also, more importantly, to scholars everywhere trying to balance work and life. As someone who gave himself up wholly to work, Toynbee exemplifies what an intellectual can accomplish once they give up everything but their work. As a result, this well-written and intimate biography of Toynbee serves as a cautionary tale (or how-to guide) for many of us.

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Reading non-ethnographic non-fiction

In yesterday’s post I discussed my discovery that I have non-ethnographic writing options. In today’s post I touch on the corollary, my discovery that I have non-ethnographic reading options.

What I like in ethnography

My reading of the decade prior to last November consisted almost entirely of anthropological and linguistic literature and of ethnographies and published primary sources when given the choice. During that period I began reading 18th century military journals as sources of data and came to appreciate the way their authors used language, as in the following example from a 1761 journal describing a scene from the area where I spent my youth:

The prospect from some of the Hills pleasant, though not very extensive, occasioned by a circumstance extraordinary enough & perhaps not to be parralled—viz. That go to the highest Mountain you can see yet when on the top of it you see others still higher. This we experienced every Day’s March.

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Healing Secular Life — Book Review

Savage Minds would like to welcome back guest blogger Ayla Samli and thank her for contributing this review of  Healing Secular Life: Loss and Devotion in Modern Turkey by Christopher Dole, a 2012 publication from the University of Pennsylvania Press. While at Rice U. Samli completed her dissertation field research in Turkey and currently is Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of North Carolina – Greensboro.

Review by Ayla Samli

I met Christopher Dole’s Healing Secular Life: Loss and Devotion in Modern Turkey with an eyeroll, the kind you might give an old uncle who tries to tell you a joke you’ve heard at every family gathering since the beginning of time. I looked at the book, winced at “secular” and “Turkey” in the title, and put it down, realizing that my dissertation-related injuries were fresher than I had imagined.

But the word “healing” in the title surprised and enticed me just a little. Isn’t healing misplaced here? Isn’t healing part of a somatic process, an outlier in the religio-political arenas of Turkey? For those unfamiliar with the anthropology (or the news, or anything making mention) of Turkey, religious and secular are binarized, regularly cast at odds in very tired ways.

However, as the demonstrations happening now reveal to the world, Turkey is full of internal dissonance. Dole’s book pushes beyond the predictable configurations of secular and Muslim, addressing instead healing practices among Sunni and Alevi healers and their respective neighborhoods in Ankara, Turkey’s capital.

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Go read my review of "World Until Yesterday" at The Appendix

This announcement went out yesterday over social media, but I wanted to blog it here just to make sure as many eyeballs as possible saw it: my review of World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond is now available at The Appendix. The Appendix is an interesting new magazine with a lot of energy behind it, so give a few of their other pieces a try while you are at it.

I had originally planned to live blog my entire reading of Diamond’s book here on SM, but as time went on Diamond’s claims got increasingly vague and difficult to handle — it became too hard to turn them into concrete questions that could be answered and evaluated. At some point I would still like to explain, at length, what does and doesn’t happen in Papua New Guinea when people go to ‘war’. But until that unlikely event, take a look at my review and let me know what you think. I worked pretty hard on it, so hopefully that will show.

Treasure Islands

Shaxson, Nicholas. Treasure Islands: Uncovering the Damage of Offshore Banking and Tax Havens. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Before the Cypress bailout fizzles out of the news cycle I think its worth spotlighting Nicholas Shaxson’s excellent Treasure Islands. In this book Shaxson examines the history, organization, and ethnography of ‘offshore’ as a phenomenon — not just particularly tax havens (although there is a lot of that) but the entire global syndrome of places created to remove accountability and transparency in finance and business.

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Interview: An Anthropologist on Tiger Woods

I had the pleasure of pitching a few questions to Orin Starn, Chair and Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University, about “popular anthropology,” golf, Ishi’s brain, and the right PC sports to play if you’re an anthropologist (its not golf!).

AF: I really liked your book The Passion of Tiger Woods: An Anthropologist Reports on Golf, Race, and Celebrity Scandal. As a golfer and media producer I found the book impossible to put down but as an anthropologist it made me wonder about the future of the discipline.

It might just be my hang-up having just earned my PhD badge but a key concern is the absence of data derived from ethnographic field research. You make passing reference to playing golf with other players and taking notes about the experience on the links but none of that information seemed to explicitly inform your reading of Tiger Woods. The book is primarily an analysis of representation–how race is discussed online, on TV, in tabloids. Again, this makes me think that some form of offline ethnographic research in these cultural industries might have afforded you and your readers access to forms of information not easily accessible. This brings up for me a bunch of questions:

How important is ethnographic field research for the future of the discipline?

OS: For all the many changes over the decades, I think that intense, engaged fieldwork remains the single most distinctive thing about anthropology. I I think and hope it’ll remain just that. I like very much the idea that understanding another way of doing things shouldn’t be a fly-by proposal, but deserves the kind of deep, sustained engagement that only fieldwork can provide. I’m not sure that the actual ethnographies we write – which aren’t always very interesting — do justice to the great time and energy we give to our research, and yet I’m still a believer in the Boasian credo that fieldwork matters. Continue reading

“All it takes is a Passport”

My reading of The World Until Yesterday (WUY) is taking me down a Jared Diamond rabbit hole which is turning into a semester-long project. At the end of my last entry on Diamond I wanted to talk more about how his approach to understanding human variation differs from that of actual cultural anthropologists. However, in order to do this I’d actually have to review his other new book Natural Experiments in History, which would drive me off course of my review of WUY. Since these blog postings are going to be collected and appear in an actual published article and the deadline is nigh, I’ll reign in these general discussions of what science is or could be, and continue on to chapter 1 of WUY, entitled “Friends, Enemies, Strangers, and Traders.”

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