The Walking Whales: From Land to Water in Eight Million Years

The Walking WhalesBeyond the obvious scholarship that goes into any UC Press book—research, writing, and editing—are challenges even sophisticated readers and reviewers often remain happily unaware of. In this multi-part Behind the Scenes series, we throw light on the hurdles UC Press authors face in bringing their work to the public. From field work logistics in foreign countries, to the regulatory snags of evolving public policy, to the unique concerns scholars of human subjects face, learn about the lengths to which authors go to present their scholarship to the public.

Cobras. Kidnappers. Creationists. Certifiably crazy people barring the door to huge fossil caches. Jackals driven mad by the same heat a dig team will be working in—unprotected.

G. M. “Hans” Thewissen’s work with fossilized remains of ancestral whales has exposed him to all of the above. He’s also had research trips aborted because of war, faced widely differing social mores, and waited years to study tantalizing fossil specimens because he lacked $1,000 to ship them to his lab.

“Hans” Thewissen
“Hans” Thewissen, author

The Walking Whales has been called “absolutely cutting-edge” by a Smithsonian curator of Marine Mammals, and Thewissen’s erudition and scholarship are obvious even to non-paleontologists. But the nitty-gritty adventures (literally) of fossil finding are almost as compelling—as are the situations grad school just doesn’t prepare you for. (Even if you’ve known fossils were your future since your twelfth birthday; on his digs Thewissen still uses the rock hammer he got then).

In 1991, for instance, the brand new PhD landed in Pakistan thrilled to begin his very first field project with a grant from the National Geographic Society. But scarcely five days in, Operation Desert Storm started and foreign nationals were recalled. Dream dashed, Thewissen returned to the US, very “aware that failing to deliver on a first grant can sink a career.”

After much travail, one of his finds turned out to be significant. His team’s short paper on the Pakicetus ear bone—different from both the incus (anvil) of a cetacean and a land mammal—was published in Nature.

Thewissen is well aware it could have gone another way. “My work being affected by global politics is not something I’d foreseen as a student, and I was certainly not trained to deal with that.”

Finding Fossils is Expensive

Nor was he trained in the economics of digs. Finding fossils is expensive. Post-docs are scared of not getting funding, and of not delivering if they do get funding. Though little discussed, the gap on a CV, and then demoralization over tenure can lead people to leave the field. Even though Thewissen himself is often “short a few thousand dollars,” researchers must “learn to live within their means” as people must in personal life.

“If I fly to India with $5,000 in my pocket for a team of three to live on and work with for a month, everything has to be paid from that, even if there are surprising expenses!” Thewissen says. “There are tense sessions to see how much has been spent. Some credit cards actually work there now, but that’s not how it was 15 years ago out in the desert.”

Both to save money and simply to get bones out of the ground and back home safely, Thewissen must stay nimble. He is used to MacGyver-ing stop-gaps in constant battles against remote and rough terrain, weather, and transportation logistics. He’s “frankly, quite proud” when he surmounts the engineering challenges that arise constantly. He’s also cheerfully adopted a colleague’s advice—“enjoy the entire experience, even if you lose a whole day from a logistics snafu … just go with the flow.”

And he maintains a capacity for self-examination that goes far beyond logistics: “There might be great personal growth that doesn’t help our understanding of whale evolution at all. If you’re not open to that kind of stuff, it’s going to be a very frustrating experience.”

Figure 66

The Dangers of the Field

“… working in a place like India is like riding a tiger: you can try to steer the tiger, but the tiger decides where you go.”

Luckily, Thewissen’s frustrations make lively reading. For instance, after getting a go-ahead (“There is an unwritten rule, observed by many paleontologists but also frequently broken, that one does not visit localities where someone else is working without their permission”), and then waiting 2 years to return to a certain site in Pakistan, he journeyed toward it in staggering heat and privation only to be turned back by police troops with semi-automatics in camouflaged jeeps.

“The next day, an Islamabad newspaper reports that four policeman have been killed in the operation and that the kidnappers were not caught. A colleague tells me to go home and forget about it. … The parts of Ambulocetus [the transitional specimen Thewissen discovered that is the walking whale of his book title] that are still under the ground remain where they have been for forty-eight million years.”

This type of thing seems to be all in a day’s work for a paleobiologist like Thewissen. Though this particular event signals the switch from Pakistan to India for his work, he approaches the new terrain with an open mind. “A place like India is sort of like riding a tiger; you can try to steer the tiger, but the tiger actually decides where you’re going to go. However, it’s always an interesting ride”

He realizes his own assumptions shouldn’t travel—even to the country just next door. For instance, while lost in the desert in India, Thewissen was shocked when his Hindu colleague matter-of-factly asked directions from a Muslim woman. His Pakistani-honed sensibilities (97% Muslim; India is 70% Hindu) had to be re-calibrated to a new normal, as one would not ask an unrelated female there for directions, and he “continuously works hard to be up on local mores and not offend people around him.” Giving candy to some village boys in a spare moment, for instance, he struggles and fails to also give some to the girls of the village, who are shy and cannot simply be waved over.

Creationists vs. Scientists

Not all dangers arise far from home. Thewissen had a self-described “embarrassing personal experience with creationists.”

Often, journalists or filmmakers want to see my lab and do a story. I always say yes. A year or two ago, a film crew came to my lab, and asked me to lay out the bones of Ambulocetus. They did some filming, but asked odd questions … and the same questions over and over. I thought, Is this guy dense? So I modified what I was saying, simplifying it well beyond what I usually do, until it sounded pretty simpleminded. It seemed he wasn’t really getting the story, he was really focusing in on some details that seemed rather off. A year later, two creationist videos were on YouTube with my degraded explanations that now sound silly but were given in exasperation with his questions!

I’m smarter now; I’ve learned something. we made our own video that explains the science appropriately.

Thewissen knows many scientists won’t dignify creationists by engaging in direct debate about the fossil record. “But if the battle for science is lost it’ll be because scientists are not taking the challenges and educate the public. As a researcher, I feel a responsibility to explain that research to anybody who asks: kindergartners, high-schoolers, the Rotary club.” Thewissen suggests that if the public is to be “science literate and make the right decisions about global climate change or coal mining development or fracking, we need to get them used to thinking about these things with topics that are friendlier. Paleontology can be an ambassador for science.”

The Hoarder’s Stash

Some tales have several surprise twists. The German widow of an Indian geologist lived in Dehradun, a community in the foothills of the Himalayas, guarding a legendary fossil stash. (“This is the largest collection of Eocene artiodactyls from India, and it is our best bet at finding the closest relative to whales.”) A tangle of cross-continental intrigue, professional paranoias and jealousies, mental illness, and a large dollop of xenophobia comprises the tangle Thewissen returned to repeatedly. “Because I’m Dutch, and I speak German, I thought I’d butter her up, but that didn’t work at all. Every year that I’d visit, I’d ask if I could see the fossils. Every year she said no.”

Eventually his patience and persistence paid off. She finally granted permission, albeit with demands that he not show the fossils to any Indians, which Thewissen eventually ignored. Then just as he readied himself to begin organizing and cataloging, she died. Three months later, Thewissen was informed he’d been put in charge of the Dehradun estate. But like a fairy tale curse, the widow had left Thewissen with a treasure that includes the earliest ancestors of whales, but not the means to access it.

Though hard pressed to describe the chaos of the widow’s compound, he finally likens the disarray to an episode of Hoarders. “She gave us the estate and the fossils, but not the means to work with them … I don’t even know how to describe the disorganization, but I don’t have the money to do right by them: to get them out of the rocks, to get them cleaned and curated and numbered and in boxes and photographed and published.”

As he began exploring the crawl space where myriad burlap sacks with fossil-filled rocks had languished for years, Thewissen says the compound’s Nepalese servant ran up shouting “Cobra! Cobra!” pushed him out and began extricating sacks himself. “I’m wearing leather shoes, but he has flip-flops! If he gets bitten …” Appreciated the worries about his safety, Thewissen could only hope he “knew cobra behavior better than I.”

Thewissen is still discerning how to tackle what might yield the discoveries of a lifetime.

Post-docs, NB: Twists and turns such as these are all in a day’s work. Paleobiology is not for the faint of heart.

G. M. “Hans” Thewissen is Ingalls-Brown Endowed Professor in the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology at Northeast Ohio Medical University. His main research interest is the study of whales, particularly their adaptations to life in water and their origin as land mammals. He discovered in 1994 the skeleton of the first-known whale that could walk on land (Ambulocetus), and he has led more than ten field expeditions each to Pakistan and India, collecting fossil whales. He is coeditor of Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals (2002), Emergence of Whales (1998), and Sensory Evolution on the Threshold (UC Press, 2008). His work also appears in a Nature-produced video on whale evolution.

Speculative Illustration

Jacqueline Dillard
Jacqueline Dillard, illustrator

Jacqueline Dillard is an Ohio native and studies entomology in Kentucky. She was an undergraduate at Kent State (my medical school is affiliated with Kent State) and I knew her mother; Jacqueline has made scientific drawings for me before, and I thought it would be really cool to have a bunch of drawings by the same person, in the same style. Because she often visits her mom in Ohio, I could meet with her face to face and she could touch the fossils.

The five or six reconstructions of whales are all originals. We do not like to reconstruct parts that we do not know, so in the drawings we try to hide those parts. In one case, we left out the hands and feet since we never found those bones. Reconstruction is always a judgment call. For instance, we never know what type of fur a fossil animal had; maybe it was white, but in the drawing it’s brown. That’s an assumption we make, without even being explicit that we make it. On the other hand, if I start leaving that stuff out, non-professional paleontologists lose so much context that they cannot imagine the animal, they won’t get it.

Figure 21

But different professionals will be more or less comfortable showing more or less of the animal and in making up things. I think you have to be honest about what you have and don’t have. If you just have a skull, you shouldn’t re-construct the whole animal. But I think it’s OK if you want to convey the excitement of this animal, the life of this animal, to reconstruct some parts you don’t have. You look at animals that are closely related to it, and you do the best you can. But, yes, some parts like fur color are really a guess.

Jacqueline Dillard’s work is featured in the Wild Things show from March 20 through May 2, 2015.

 

Additional Q&A

Who handles logistics?

When I work in Pakistan or India, my colleagues there take care of all the permitting, and carry papers around to show authorities where we’re allowed to be and what we’re doing.

What happens to the fossils after you’ve studied them?

The fossils aren’t mine. They’re on loan (sometimes for years), but I return them to the countries they’re from. If they’re from India, they go back to the university that my main colleague works at. In Pakistan they go back to Geological Survey of Pakistan or, previously, to the National History Museum in Islamabad.

Do you find field-work colleagues/collaborators via universities, published work, friends?

All of the above. I start to work with people in the field only after I’ve met them and I’m pretty sure they’re going to be people I trust and understand. I have to respect them and they me. It’s very different from being a colleague where you just have a half hour lunch. It’s not a couple of emails back and forth and then you’re off. You’re going to be spending days and nights in a foreign country with them, living very cheap, seeing them day and night, for every meal. You share your bedroom with them!

 


In Memoriam: Clark Terry

Legendary jazz trumpeter Clark Terry passed away on Saturday at the age of 94. UC Press published his autobiography, Clark, in November 2011. His editor, Mary Francis, shares what it was like to work with Clark and what she’ll miss about him.

I remember when I first heard through the grapevine that the great jazz trumpeter Clark Terry had written an autobiography. I was eager to get a look at the manuscript—I knew that his life was packed with notable milestones, stellar collaborations, and just plain great jazz.

I picked up the phone and the minute Clark’s wife Gwen Terry answered a rewarding collaboration began. Gwen was ready to jump in feet first, and working with her and Clark to shape the manuscript was such a pleasure. Clark Terry was every bit as gifted as a raconteur as he was a musician. His autobiography has a great dramatic arc, starting with Clark’s passionate boyhood interest in music, playing a horn made from junk parts, and following the years of hard work on the road that helped make his name. The manuscript wasn’t just event-filled and engaging and funny: there was a distinctive voice, something of the sly, nimble character that you hear in Clark Terry’s singing was there on the page, and it was a delight to read. Clark could tell a crackerjack yarn, but underneath the sparkle of his humor, the determination that drove his rise in the world of jazz was evident on every page.

But his determination wasn’t only about making his way to the top of the professional heap. Clark’s generosity, his desire to help others was just as evident, most notably in how he helped younger musicians. His patience and persistence as a teacher was clear: not letting students off the hook when he sensed they had more to reach for, more to accomplish, but also offering them something of himself, a guide and an example as he pushed them to find their own distinct musical voice. You can see this in action in the documentary about Clark, Keep On Keepin’ On, where his pleasure in passing on musical knowledge to younger musicians is front and center.

Clark’s joie de vivre (I’ll never forget that raspy laugh) made it a privilege and a pleasure to work with him. We’re all proud to have worked with him and Gwen to bring his story to the world, and we’ll miss him.

—Mary Francis, Executive Editor

Learn more about Clark Terry at his website, clarkterry.com.

Watch Clark Terry’s Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award acceptance speech.

 


UC Press Author Trevor Paglen Part of Oscar-Winning Team

Congrats to The Last Pictures author Trevor Paglen, who was part of the Oscar-winning team behind Citizenfour, last night’s winner for Best Documentary. Paglen contributed footage of surveillance sites to director Laura Poitras for the film. Here he is celebrating at the Oscars:


Join Us at the 2015 American Society of Criminal Justice Sciences Meeting

Join University of California Press this spring at the 2015 American Society of Criminal Justice Sciences. The meeting convenes March 3-7 in Orlando.  “Broadening the Horizon of the Criminal Justice Sciences: Looking Outward Rather Than Inward” is this year’s conference theme.

Visit our booth 35 at the Caribe Royale All-Suite Hotel to check out our criminology titles and check out the following offers:

  • 30% conference discount and free worldwide shipping
  • Request exam copy requests for course adoption for your upcoming classes
  • Win an $100 worth of UC Press books! Join our eNews subscription for eligibility.

Please see our conference program ad for our latest offerings. Acquisitions and marketing staff will be available for your publishing questions.


Reflections on Malcolm X 50 Years After His Death

This Saturday, February 21 marks the 50th anniversary of Malcolm X’s assassination. His untimely death came shortly after his public split with the Nation of Islam, when he was developing an international human rights, anti-racist, and anti-imperialist message that was meant to appeal to the oppressed around the world. The debate at the Oxford Union took place only three months before his death, and was one of the last opportunities for him to share this message, “…I, for one, will join in with anyone—don’t care what color you are—as long as you want to change this miserable condition that exists on this earth.”

Stephen Tuck, author of The Night Malcolm X Spoke at the Oxford Union, will be speaking at The Malcolm X 50th Anniversary Memorial at the Shabazz Center in Harlem this Saturday, February 21. If you can’t attend in person, visit www.ebony.com/MalcolmX50thMemorial-221 at 2pm on Saturday to view a live stream of the event.
 

Excerpt from the Prologue of The Night Malcolm X Spoke at the Oxford Union:

On the evening of December 3, 1964, a most unlikely figure was invited to speak at the University of Oxford Union’s end-of-term “Queen and Country” debate: Mr. Malcolm X. The Oxford Union was the most prestigious student debating organization in the world, regularly welcoming heads of state and stars of screen. It was also, by tradition, the student arm of the British establishment—the training ground for the politically ambitious offspring of Britain’s “better classes.” Malcolm X, by contrast, had a reputation for revolution and danger. As the Sun, a widely read British tabloid, explained to readers in a large-font caption under a photograph of the American visitor: “He wants a separate Negro state in which coloured people could live undisturbed. And many Americans believe he would use violence to get it.” Certainly the FBI did. Its file on Malcolm X, opened in 1953, expanded by the week as he toured Africa during the second half of 1964, giving a series of uncompromising speeches and meeting with heads of state to seek their support in calling for the United Nations to intervene in U.S. race relations.

The peculiarity of his presence in Oxford was not lost on Malcolm X. “I remember clearly that the minute I stepped off the train, I felt I’d suddenly backpedaled into Mayflower-time,” he told a friend later. Fresh from visiting newly independent nations in Africa, Malcolm X sensed that in Oxford “age was just seeping out of the pores of every stone. The students were wearing caps and gowns as if they graduated the first day they arrived . . . and they were riding bicycles that should’ve been dumped long ago.” Initially, he wondered whether he had made a mistake accepting the invitation.

At times, Malcolm X’s visit proved to be comically awkward. He was met at the rail station by, among others, the (white) Union secretary, Henry Brownrigg, who fell somewhat silent in the presence of an African American revolutionary. Brownrigg accompanied Malcolm X, self-consciously, to Oxford’s preeminent hotel, the Randolph, a Victorian Gothic building with a quaint, old-fashioned ambience. Malcolm X, however, seemed to interpret the choice of a hotel somewhat in need of internal refurbishment as a racist insult, a view reinforced by the receptionist’s insistence that he sign his surname in full, rather than just with an “X,” in the hotel guest book. The dress code at the silver-service dinner, held in the Union’s wooden paneled dining room before the debate, did not suit him either. By tradition, speakers wore black bowties, which was also the uniform of the Nation of Islam, the religious movement that he had served for more than a decade. But having left the Nation acrimoniously earlier in the year (and now living under a death threat as a result), Malcolm X wore a straight tie instead, the only speaker or committee member to do so. Wearing a straight tie was a mark of inferior rank at the dinner: the only other person who wore a straight tie was the steward, who served the food and wine.

Ironically, the motion Malcolm X was called on to support in the debate was embodied in a quotation from Senator Barry Goldwater, of all people, the outspoken conservative Republican nominee in the previous month’s presidential election, who had opposed the recent passage of the American Civil Rights Act. During his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention that summer, Goldwater had defended the John Birch Society, saying, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, and . . . moderation in the pursuit of vice is no virtue.” Even before he rose to speak in support of that argument, Malcolm X’s debating opponents mocked the notion of a black radical defending “the Goldwater standard.” Malcolm X countered that he preferred Goldwater to the winner of that presidential election, Lyndon Johnson, since at least Goldwater was open about his racism.

Malcolm X’s friend the black arts poet and filmmaker Lebert Bethune, who was in London in late 1964, could not resist the chance “to see the sacrosanct image of Oxford shattered by the fist of revolutionary logic. So I took a train to Oxford just to be there for the blow.”That blow was aimed most directly at Humphrey Berkeley, a conservative MP and Malcolm X’s main debating opponent. Berkeley charged Malcolm X with being every bit as racist as apologists for South African apartheid, and joked about his “pseudonym” surname, X.

Perhaps it was the intimacy of the debate, with speakers facing each other at a distance of barely two meters in a chamber modeled on the House of Commons, that caused Malcolm X to come as close as he could remember to losing his temper. He gathered his thoughts, however, regained his composure, then returned Berkeley’s insult. “The speaker that preceded me is one of the best excuses that I know to prove our point,” he said, andthen threw Berkeley’s argument back at him: “He is right. X is not my real name.” His real name, in fact, had been taken by Berkeley’s forefathers, who raped and pillaged their way through Africa. “I just put X up there to keep from wearing his name.” The students laughed when Malcolm X suggested that Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “I think it was, who said, ‘to be or not to be,’” was “in doubt about something.” They listened attentively to his assault on the American media, loudly applauded his condemnation of racism, and some booed when he justified the recent murder of white missionaries by freedom fighters in the Congo as an act of war. Malcolm X lost the debate, but he won plenty of admirers. Bethune judged it “one of the most stirring speeches I have ever heard delivered by Malcolm X.”

On the face of it, the fact that Malcolm X chose to spend an evening at a fusty old English university seems something of a puzzle.But given the lengths to which Malcolm went in order to make the trip, it was clearly important to him: he accepted the invitation even though he was too busy in late 1964 even to respond to similar invitations from leading American universities; he agreed to speak for no fee even though his finances were in a parlous state; and he accommodated Oxford’s fixed schedule even though the debate could hardly have come at a more inconvenient time. Having been abroad during the spring and then again through the second half of 1964, he was eager to be home. “I miss you and the children very much,” he wrote to his wife, Betty, in August from Africa, “but it looks like another month at least may pass before I see you.” In fact, it would be another three. He returned home to New York on November 24. By that time, Betty was heavily pregnant,his mother was seriously ill, and the Nation of Islam was seeking to evict his family from their home. Meanwhile, his new organizations, Muslim Mosque Inc. and the Organization of Afro-American Unity, were in a state of organizational shambles owing to his absence. Yet he still felt, as he put it to one of his closest colleagues, Charles 37X Kenyatta, that “the long-run gains [of the trip to England] outweigh the risks.” Within a week of his homecoming from Africa, he was back on a plane across the Atlantic to London.

Why coming to Oxford was so important to Malcolm X, why Oxford students chose to invite him, and what effect the visit had on the man and the institution were the starting questions for this book. Far from being a chance or unlikely combination, it turns out there was an unerring logic about the coming together of an outspoken black revolutionary and this historic center of Western learning. By late 1964, black students at Oxford needed Malcolm X to come, and he felt it was urgent to go. Why that was so reveals much about both Malcolm X’s life and thought and the university’s engagement with race and rights. And more broadly, it has much to tell about Britain at the end of its empire, America during the civil rights era, and the global currents of the black freedom struggle.

From his childhood, Malcolm X had been on the move, eager to learn and in search of a better life—first for himself, then for others. In 1964, his journey took him abroad, to the Middle East, then Africa, and finally Europe. His international travels were a response to changes in his outlook, but they also caused his outlook to change in turn. Thus the debate at Oxford marked the latest stage in Malcolm’s transformation from a small-time hustler to the world’s most famous black nationalist, from a dogmatic black supremacist to a proponent of human rights, and from an American-based controversialist to a seasoned traveler with a global vision (who remained an irascible critic of America). Ending up at Oxford happened somewhat by chance. But only somewhat. The details of his life—his enjoyment of travel, his fascination with (or rather contempt for) the British Empire, his love of debate, his ease among white students, his desire to connect with the coming generation of postcolonial leaders, his frustration at being dismissed by the media as too extreme, his readiness for a confrontation, and his penchant for associating with famous people and places, even his love of Shakespeare—had prepared him for a debate on extremism and moderation at the Oxford Union.

As for the students of Oxford, they had grappled with the issue of race ever since the Victorian era, first in support of the empire, then to challenge it. In 1964, the issue had come to a head. Malcolm X arrived to speak at the very moment when some two thousand students were demanding an end to the exclusion of black students from university housing, when Britain was beset by the racial politics of immigration, and when global freedom struggles were headline news in Britain. That the Oxford Union issued an invitation to Malcolm X was by no means inevitable. But it made perfect sense. The Union was a high-profile forum for debate with a tradition of outspoken colonial student leaders, heated engagement with gender, race, and colonial issues, and a rising influence of left-leaning students. And in late 1964, a radical Jamaican student—whose hero was Malcolm X—had been elected as president of the Union.

Malcolm X’s visit to the Union, in short, was a story with much longer roots, and more far-reaching implications, than the content of the speech alone might suggest. It was a story that interwove the global, national, local, and university politics of race. It was a story that involved a wide cast of characters from four continents. And it was a story that touched on many of the major themes of the era, of empire and nationalism, Black Powerand citizenship, immigration and segregation, student rights and human rights, Commonwealth and the Cold War, Islam and Christianity, sexism and class conflict, media and the cult of celebrity, the so-called Black Atlantic and the British-American special relationship, and even cricket. It was precisely because of the broader context of Malcolm X’s visit that the content of the speech is so important. It stands as the clearest and most eloquent articulation of his critique of racism and his vision for a remedy after a year of travel and shortly before the end of his life.

The night of the speech was not the end of Malcolm X’s connection with Britain. Oxford was the first stop for Malcolm X in a short tour of four English cities, followed by a return trip in February 1965, a week before he died. His visit was but one of many by high-profile U.S. civil rights activists to Britain during this period. Just three days after the Oxford debate, for example, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached to an overflowing congregation at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Civil rights travelers, including Malcolm X, sought to use these visits, and the international dimensions of the struggle for equality, for their own purposes. But none of those involved, not even Malcolm X, had complete control over how the story turned out or how the visit changed their outlook or circumstances. Thus the full story of the Union debate also reveals the transformative, and often unexpected, impact of transatlantic connections on issues of race and equality—in this case, an impact not just on the course of British activism, but even on such a renowned global figure as Malcolm X.

 

Stephen Tuck is Professor of Modern History at the University of Oxford and Director of the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities. He is the author of several books including We Ain’t What We Ought to Be: The Black Freedom Struggle from Emancipation to Obama and coauthor of Historians across Borders: Writing American History in a Global Age (UC Press).


The Envelope, Please: UC Press Cinema Experts Cast Their Votes for the Oscars

With the Oscars coming up this Sunday, we asked some of our authors to weigh in with their picks and predictions.
 

Boyhood is my favorite movie of the year, my pick for Best Picture. I’ve always been interested in moviegoing as a sort of autobiographical experience. In my book Hollywood Vault, I talk about how American audiences watched the 1944 reissue of Disney’s Snow White and measured how their lives and world had changed since the film’s original release. Boyhood immediately invites these types of personal reflections. What was I doing 12 years ago when Richard Linklater began this project? Could the pretentious 19-year-old film student who panned Linklater’s 2001 Waking Life (I remember complaining, “it’s not deep enough”) believe that he would feel so emotionally overwhelmed by the director’s ambitious next project, or that he would watch the new film sitting next to an amazing person, pregnant with their third child? These questions grow as we revisit events that mean something different now: Roger Clemens’ late-career stint pitching for the Astros; Barack Obama’s first campaign for president. The emotional and narrative backbone that allows these moments to hang together comes from Patricia Arquette. Her character’s 12-year journey captures something simple and profound as she slowly moves closer to the person she wants to be while accepting the never-ending responsibilities of parenthood. On Sunday, Boyhood and Arquette will both go home with Oscars, just as they should.

—Eric Hoyt, author of Hollywood Vault

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I find it always interesting when a film is nominated for Best Picture and the director and other key shapers are nowhere to be found. Such is the case with SELMA. Ava DuVernay should have been nominated, as should David Oyelowo for his standout performance as King. There’s been a lot of online speculation that Hollywood felt it had done all it needed to in 2013, after lavishing so much (deserved) praise 12 YEARS A SLAVE. And this year was also chock a block with biopics, a fair number of which I was happy to avoid.

Glad that BOYHOOD’s doing so well, that film was an experiment/experience that took risks and paid off. FOXCATCHER and BIRDMAN, on the other hand, I can’t find the brilliance in either. (AMERICAN BEAUTY was one of the few male mid-age crisis movies I’ve warmed to). The buzz around FOXCATCHER puzzles me in particular; yes, it’s an interesting and weird story, but beyond that . . . and am I alone in believing that C. Tatum’s performance was better than S. Carrell’s, for doing so well with a more nuanced, less flamboyant role? At least Ruffalo’s in the running.

All that being said, I’m looking forward to who “gets the envelope.” It’s a wide field; I don’t think there’s a slam dunk. I wish I’d seen more of the nominated films, and in that regard, this year will be, for me, like many others . . .

—Caryl Flinn, author of The New German Cinema and Brass Diva

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One of the most unjustly neglected films of the year is Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, a full-throttle action and special-effects movie about a dystopian future in which the only survivors of the human race are crammed aboard a single passenger train. It’s an allegory of contemporary capitalism, and will be darkly amusing to anybody who has had to travel in steerage on today’s airliners. It’s also a shame that Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin and Steven Knight’s Locke were overlooked. Tom Hardy’s performance in the latter film is a tour de force—he, too, should have been nominated.

My favorite film of the year is Pavel Pawlikowski’s haunting Ida, which is nominated for best foreign picture in a group of unusually good nominees. Photographed in black-and-white, it looks exactly like an old Polish art film from the period in which the story is set, and the two women in the lead roles (two Agatas—Kulesza and Trezbuchowska) are mesmerizing. Among the US pictures that were nominated, for me it’s a tie between BoyhoodBirdman, and Grand Budapest Hotel.

James Naremore, author of An Invention without a Future, More Than Night: Film Noir in Its Contexts and Acting in the Cinema

***
 
 

In her most recent dialogue with fellow New York Times film critic A.O. Scott about the upcoming Oscars competition, Manohla Dargis referenced, half in jest, the words of film scholar Tom Hempel: “Moviegoing in America is a blood sport.” This seems especially true during Oscars season—or at least in certain awards-obsessed circles across this fair land—when individuals, publicity teams, and the studios try, in what occasionally appears to be a knock-down-drag-out battle, to champion their darlings and to take down their opponents. I personally could not be any less interested in the tired arguments over historical accuracy in American Sniper or The Imitation Game or Selma, all of which are contenders for Best Picture. In fact, if I had to argue in favor of one film in that coveted category, it would be—no major surprise, perhaps—what strikes me as the most innovative and unconventional of the lot: Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. That widely celebrated film (it’s already racked up its share of early awards) has become something of a darling among scholars and critics, I realize, but it also stands, rather quietly and subtly, apart from the rest. And, yes, if I’m going to weigh in on this mad ritual of impassioned amateur speculation (no blood, please): for her equally unflashy, supremely convincing performance in the same film, Patricia Arquette has to my mind more than earned an Oscar as Best Actress in a Supporting Role. Voilà!

Noah Isenberg, author of Edgar G. Ulmer

***
 

Birdman is a great theater movie. Its central conceit of unfolding nearly all the action in a single continuous take imparts added expressive weight to the mise-en-scene, making staging more important and giving the actors fewer places to hide. It’s a film about faces. There is much for acting students to relish, such as when Edward Norton’s character, Mike, filling in for an injured actor the day before the first preview, gets a rehearsal on its feet. Mike knows all his lines, and he and Norton are exhilarating to watch.

Birdman is a great theater film, but it is not theatrical. The camera incessantly circles, floats, pushes in, pulls back. It’s a film about reframing as much as faces. We wait for a figure to cross the frame, and the camera to follow, before we can get a reverse angle on the character she’s just chewed out; or the angle is provided by a mirror conveniently tucked in the mise-en-scene. Sometimes we find that the actors and camera have drifted into an intimate shot of two kissing faces, and we have no idea how we got there, while at other moments the soaring camera reveals itself to be the hidden star of the film.

Theater seems to be the place where a Hollywood actor can go to rediscover his authenticity, an idea the film gestures toward every time Michael Keaton’s Riggan peels off his hairpiece (five). But there’s too much cinematic wizardry on hand, and it’s too much fun, for us to swallow this cliché entirely. Riggan confesses a story of childhood abuse, horrifying his rival Mike, and us, and then brightens and exclaims that he can pretend, too. Mike has said that “the truth is always interesting,” but Birdman is at pains to demonstrate that pretending can be just as good.

—Robert Spadoni, author of A Pocket Guide to Analyzing Films and Uncanny Bodies
 


Weekend Armchair

Whether you’ll toast a relationship, mutter “Down with love!to institutionalized diktats RE: romance, or decline to debate the topic, here are our best reads … whatever your plans. (Once again, two out of three UC employees—unbeknownst to one another—suggest the same author. Thus, Ferrante is February’s “trending topic.”)

 

I’m reading James Salter’s Light Years right now, which is a good choice if Valentine’s Day makes you feel like rebelling against love. It’s an unsettling, beautiful book about a married couple bored of each other and their fabulous lives. Salter shows how you can love everything about someone and still not really know—or care to know—them.

For a more affirming love story, try The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. The romance makes up just a small part of the book, but it is so tender and surprising that it has stayed with me many years later. Two kindred spirits find each other late in life, and despite their vast differences manage to really see and understand each other. Barbery seems to suggest that not only are these serendipitous connections possible, life is brimming with them and they’re ours for the taking.

—Sarah Silverman
Direct Online Marketing Manager

__________________

 

Colm Tóibín is one of my favorite writers, and I have been reading his beautifully crafted new novel, Nora WebsterI admire writers able to use subtle, spare language to draw the reader into the emotional world of their work. Tóibín’s prose is quiet, his phrases are simple, even mundane. Yet every sentence suggests something beyond it, a great weight of experience, or emotion held in check.

The plot is no more dramatic than the prose, but the emotional intensity of the story is gripping. Nora Webster is about a young widow in a small, convention-bound Irish town, where everyone knew and respected Maurice, her much-loved husband. Tóibín’s spare style is perfect for conveying the painful, contradictory emotions beneath the controlled surface of Nora’s life. She struggles to come to terms with her sorrow, and the loss of autonomy and privacy that came with being a married woman. Every social interaction forces her to acknowledge that once-insignificant choices like what color coat to wear and whether or not to join in the singing at the local pub will be judged by her neighbors according to the exacting standards of what is appropriate for the young widow of an educated man.

Another book that maps the emotional lives of women, Elena Ferrante’s Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay is the third of her four books tracing the lifelong friendship of two women who grow up together in a working class neighborhood in Naples. The story so far has been an unsparing depiction of all aspects of friendship: the trust, generosity, and love that binds the two women, but also the jealousy, dependence, conflict.  Ferrante’s novels are a remarkable, and all-too-rare acknowledgment that friendship is every bit as sustaining and important as romantic or family relations, perhaps even more so.

—Mary Francis
Executive Editor

__________________

 

I’ve also just started the third book in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay. The first two books in the series, My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name are some of the most engrossing and beautiful books I’ve read in a long time (credit to translator Ann Goldstein, as well). The characters are all so fully fleshed, with unique personalities and desires, especially the two central women, Lila and Elena. I’m eagerly awaiting the fourth book this fall.

If you’re looking for a themed read this weekend, you have to check out Alexis Coe’s Alice + Freda Forever. It tells the true story of two teenaged girls in nineteenth-century Memphis whose love had a grisly ending. Alice Mitchell planned to pass as a man to marry her lover Freda Ward, but when their letters were discovered, their families forbade them from speaking to each other again. Distraught at losing Freda, Alice publicly slashed her ex-lover’s throat, and started a national news and courtroom sensation. The book is beautifully designed and illustrated throughout, showing us the letters that passed between Alice and Freda, newspaper articles, and courtroom documents.

—Ryan Furtkamp
Associate Marketing Manager


Author Spotlight: Anthony Barnosky (author of Dodging Extinction)

 

 
Anthony D. Barnosky is a professor in the Department of Integrative Biology, a curator at the Museum of Paleontology, and a research paleoecologist at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California, Berkeley. He has spent three decades conducting research related to past planetary changes, and what they mean for forecasting the changes Planet Earth faces in the next few decades.

The author of books, numerous scientific publications, op-eds, and blog posts, Barnosky speaks regularly about climate change, extinction, and environmental tipping points in a variety of public and academic venues.

_____________

For a scientist who’s considered an expert in the dynamics of mass extinctions, Anthony Barnosky is a surprisingly upbeat guy. He brings that same attitude to his newest book, Dodging Extinction: Power, Food, Money, and the Future of Life on Earth, which eschews doom-and-gloom soapboxing for can-do approaches to pulling us back from the brink of a Sixth Mass Extinction.

Given the scope of the book’s subtitle, it’s not surprising that UC Press calls Dodging Extinction “nothing less than a guidebook for saving the planet.” First, what IS a mass extinction?

Barnosky explains:

Mass extinction means that at least three out of every four species you are familiar with die out. Forever. Extinction of that magnitude has happened only five times in the past 540 million years, most recently 66 million years ago, when the last big dinosaurs were killed by an asteroid strike.

Calibrating current extinction from previous epochs is vital, says Barnosky, especially as we confront the current state of biodiversity: in the last 40 years we have killed a staggering half of all wildlife on earth—and more than 20,000 species are “at risk.” The accelerated rates of extinctions, says Barnosky, far exceed those in the fossil record, “before people got into the act.” From climate change to food production, human behaviors are triggering vast, incalculable losses, but it’s a negative feedback loop that can be rejiggered to halt declines without great sacrifice to creature comforts, and it’s a story he wants everyone to know.

Lay readers will be happy to know that Barnosky writes in an engaging style, summarizing terms “you might have learned (and forgotten) in high-school biology” so that non-specialists understand what’s at stake. He takes readers into the trenches—both past and present—to share the story of where we’ve been and where we’re going. Through his book, invited lectures around the world, and most recently in the Smithsonian Channel documentary Mass Extinction: Life on the Brink (which also features UC Berkeley’s Walter Alvarez), Barnosky explains that the “tipping point” comes down to one question: “How do we provide for the needs of people while still providing for the needs of other species?”

We’ve completely plowed, paved, or otherwise transformed 50 percent of Earth’s lands, taking all those places out of play for the species that used to live there.

As Barnosky lays out the sobering facts about past epochs, the recent (human-inflected) past, and our current conundrum, he says continuing on our trajectory, regardless of what we now know, is equivalent to “being a train operator and seeing a school bus stalled on the tracks way off in the distance, knowing you can stop in time if you pull the brake lever hard now, but deciding what the heck, let’s not bother.”

That might sound like a fatalistic analogy but Barnosky, a self-described realist and optimist, is confident about our ability to change things:

We know how to save species when we put our minds to it. That’s one thing that is very hopeful going into the future… We know the underlying drivers of what’s causing all these extinctions, and we know ways to fix that, too. We have to also think about that very big picture as well as the specific ways to save certain species and ecosystems …

Grandson of a coal miner, son of a butcher, and himself a coal geologist-turned paleontologist, Barnosky says wryly, “fossil fuels have been very good to me.” He doesn’t demonize industries, policy-makers, or our current un-checked proclivities, but he is clear-eyed about where we need to go: “We are at a crossroads.”

The good news, Barnosky declares, is that we have the technology to address our problems. Change is possible in such diverse but interrelated arenas as power (energy), food (agricultural land use, yield efficiency), and money (the economics of habitat destruction, and integrating the full valuation of all ecosystem services into the global economy).

One of Barnosky’s many strengths is offering cogent solutions to seemingly intractable issues such as, say, how to feed 10 billion people without further harming biodiversity. The short answer is:

1. Improve the efficiencies of the yields in places we already have under cultivation—in environmentally sustainable ways.

Improve yields where they are below capacity.
Improve yields where they are below capacity.

2. Convert all of the croplands that are now used to grow feed for cattle, pigs, etc. and put those into production for growing crops that people would eat directly. (“We would increase the number of calories available to the world by 50% to 70%. That’s enough to feed a couple more billion people.”)

3. Stop wasting food. (Barnosky calls this “incredibly obvious,” noting that in developed countries, “we waste about 30% of what we grow.”)

Wary of the hard science and statistics behind these accessible sound bites? No need. Barnosky’s deep erudition is tempered by both humor and a journalistic writing style that includes lively drive-by introductions to such diverse topics as the “Cretaceous Barbeque” the Goldilocks Principle, and “de-extincting” passenger pigeons. (Is re-creating the latter equivalent to what “Dr. Frankenstein attempted to do with the leftover parts of dead people?”)

After you’ve absorbed Barnosky’s data and arguments, what’s next?

Awareness is the first step. As Barnosky reminds students, when he was their age, 300 million across the world were connected via land-lines, now more than 3.5 billion humans (over half the human population) are connected via the internet, smart phones, and social media. Because the first step is communicating these issues, connected Millennials are especially well situated to tackle the first of Barnosky’s Top 10:

Top 10 Ways You Can Help Avoid the Sixth Mass Extinction

  1. Spread the word that the extinction crisis is real.
  2. Reduce your carbon footprint.
  3. Buy products from companies committed to using sustainably produced palm oil in their products.
  4. Eat fish only from healthy fisheries.
  5. Eat less meat.
  6. Never, ever buy anything made from ivory—or from any other product derived from threatened species.
  7. Enjoy nature.
  8. Become a citizen scientist.
  9. Vote for and support leaders who recognize the importance of switching from a fossil-fuel energy system to a carbon-neutral one, who see the necessity of growing crops more efficiently, whose economic agenda includes valuing nature, and who promote women’s rights to education and healthcare.
  10. Don’t give up.

Simple, right?

As one of his chapter titles states: It’s Not Too Late (Yet).

Follow Anthony D. Barnosky on Twitter: www.twitter.com/tonybarnosky

 

 


99 Problems But Authenticity Ain’t One

Loren Kajikawa, author of Sounding Race in Rap Songs, gears up for this Sunday’s Grammy Awards by pondering the racial and social politics of white Australian rapper Iggy Azalea’s nominations (Best Rap Album among them). Will she win any of the awards she’s been nominated for? Perhaps more importantly, can she really freestyle… and does it matter if she can’t? 

Loren Kajikawa
Loren Kajikawa

by Loren Kajikawa

“First things first, I’m the realest,” begins white Australian rapper Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy,” the Grammy award-nominated collaboration with British singer Charli XCX.[1] This boast, coming from the Best New Artist nominee, never fails to raise my eyebrows. Azalea raps in black dialect, but in interviews her speech is straight outta the Outback. Unless by “realest” she means to remind us that all identities are constructed and performed, I have serious doubts about her claim.

I am far from alone. Azalea has drawn fire from critics who charge her with ignorance, insensitivity, and cultural theft. Black female rapper Azealia Banks has been one of her harshest critics, calling Iggy out for profiting from black culture while showing no concern for black issues. The combination of Azalea’s rising popularity and her tone-deaf responses to such criticism prompted Q-Tip from A Tribe Called Quest to step in, offering an unsolicited lesson via Twitter on hip hop’s social history. But not even a rap legend could break Azalea’s stride. Her reply—that she didn’t feel like playing “hip hop squares” with a “stranger” to prove her worth—simply dodged Q-Tip’s argument about hip hop’s inseparability from black politics.

Although Iggy’s dismissive response sent the hip hop internet into a spiral of gold chain clutching, perhaps there is a calculated logic to the Australian star’s unflappable coolness. Her responses to Banks and Q-Tip are part of a larger trend in which the 24-year-old rapper appears to show little concern for conventional standards of hip hop authenticity. In 2013, Azalea and her mentor (Atlanta-based rapper T.I.) appeared on the Sway in the Morning Show, a popular, hip hop-themed satellite radio program hosted by rap impresario Sway Calloway. Guests on Sway’s show are regularly asked to freestyle, to give an impromptu improvised rap performance. In fact, videos of these live in-studio freestyles practically constitute a genre of their own. Video of Azalea’s appearance went viral because she seemed utterly unprepared when the DJ dropped a beat and invited her to rap a “hot sixteen.” Much like she did with Q-Tip’s tweets, Azalea attempted to wriggle free from the challenge until she finally had no choice but to recite a few lines from her upcoming song “New Bitch.” Her lack of preparation was telling. Whether it was ignorance about what would be expected of her, or a lack of concern about what it means to take Sway’s show seriously, Azalea missed out on a golden opportunity to get her credibility card stamped.

Iggy’s attitude comes into greater relief if we compare her to another white rapper. In 2000, Eminem was nominated for and won a Grammy for his single “My Name Is” as well as for his album The Slim Shady LP.[2] Breaking into the industry less than a decade after Vanilla Ice’s spectacular rise and fall, Eminem’s success hinged on the way his music deftly negotiated hip hop’s racially based standards of authenticity. Rather than deny the importance of race, the music and video of his debut single “My Name Is” poked fun at various representations of whiteness. Steering clear of conventional tropes of black masculinity, Eminem rapped about topics previously absent from mainstream hip hop music and used humor to make his whiteness audible. This preemptive strike against racial authenticity eased his acceptance by calling attention to his race and owning it before critics could do so. (Not to mention that anyone looking into Eminem’s past found plenty of hot freestyle recordings). Eminem may have refused to apologize to gays and women, but his music placed blackness at the genre’s symbolic center.[3]

In contrast, Iggy Azalea seems to be betting that such conventional forms of hip hop authenticity don’t apply to her. Maybe she’s right. Although I’ve done my best to indoctrinate my 10-year-old daughter into the world of Eric B and Rakim, Queen Latifah, and A Tribe Called Quest, Azalea’s music speaks to her and other girls on the playground in ways that I cram to understand. Perhaps old and grumpy hip hop heads (and their politics) truly are irrelevant to today’s pop rappers and their fans. But as Jeff Chang explains, “When hip-hop began to cross over at the turn of the 1980s, its hardcore followers—not only black, but white, Asian, Latino, and Native American—engaged in heated debates over appropriation and exploitation of the culture. That Vanilla Ice is now a reality-show regular rather than this generation’s Pat Boone tells us who won those debates.”[4] Time will tell what happens to Iggy.

The stakes at this year’s Grammy awards wouldn’t be so high if Azalea were just a rising pop star who happened to rap. Her nomination for Best Rap Album is an attempt to position her squarely within the genre. If hip hop’s traditional gatekeepers, and issues of black politics and aesthetics, no longer matter to the same degree they did during the era of Vanilla Ice, that will be a noteworthy development in and of itself.

 

[1] “Fancy” was nominated for two Grammy awards: Record of the Year and Best Pop Duo/Group Performance. Iggy Azalea was also nominated for Best New Artist and Best Rap Album for New Classic.

[2] In 2000, Eminem won Grammy awards for Best Rap Solo Performance (“My Name Is”) and Best Rap Album (The Slim Shady LP). He and Dr. Dre were also nominated but did not win for Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group (“Guilty Conscience”).

[3] More recently, white rapper Macklemore has taken a page from Eminem’s book. After winning the 2014 Grammy award for Best Rap Album, Macklemore sent a tweet directed at Kendrick Lamar that suggested the black rapper from Compton, California should have won instead.

[4] http://www.theguardian.com/music/2014/dec/24/iggy-azalea-azealia-banks-hip-hop-appropriation-problem

 


Wall of Fame: UCP Designers Curate Even the Walls

Wall of Fame: UCP Designers Curate Even the Walls

Anyone entering the UC Press office immediately notices the display wall in the reception area where books are arranged to form a mosaic-like piece of art. Claudia Smelser explains the process (part homage to now-retired senior design colleague, Sandy Drooker), and fellow designer Lia Tjandra’s photographs convey the effect.

Claudia, Sandy, and Lia
(from left) Claudia Smelser, Sandy Drooker,
and Lia Tjandra

In our old building, the book display was the first thing you’d see upon entering. Someone evidently paid attention to it, since new books appeared intermittently, but the area looked a bit forlorn.

I don’t remember which of us in Design decided we should put ourselves in charge and do our best to show off the covers we had created. If they looked beautiful singly, why shouldn’t they look beautiful together?

So my coworker Sandy Drooker and I would stay late from time to time to “curate” the book display.

We chose different themes and a mix of old and new titles: all jazz, all snakes, books with black and red covers, books featuring faces, books designed with circles.

Sandy would stand at a distance staring for long periods of time, using author names as a shorthand as she suggested particular placements. “Trade Rabinowitz for Alvarez. No. Try Ingram. Move Ingram up and Montgomery down.” And so on, until we got it right, which could take a very long time.

Sandy is an artist. She created the orange display you can see now opposite reception in our new building, and I haven’t had the heart to change it since she retired.
 

Reception Area Wall of Fame


 

Kitchen Wall of Fame

 

Art Wall of Fame