LAWRENCE — The elves atop Mount Oread have been busy in their workshops, creating great gifts for the holiday season.
The University of Kansas’ first Herman Melville Distinguished Professor of English, Randall Fuller, published the “The Book that Changed America: How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation” (Viking Press, 2017) to critical acclaim this year. He argues that Darwinism, in the words of Washington Post reviewer Jerry Coyne, “gave powerful ammunition to abolitionists, ultimately contributing to the Civil War.” Coyne called the book an “engrossing account of the literary and intellectual hub of New England.” In The New York Times, historian Eric Foner called Fuller “a lively, engaging writer, with an eye for fascinating details,” adding, “(he) has mined this rich material with care and insight.”
Either of Assistant Professor of English Kij Johnson’s latest novellas, in which she inserts female protagonists into classic fiction, would make great presents, particularly for young readers. “The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe” (Tor.com, 2016) won the 2017 World Fantasy Award for best long fiction for its take on H.P. Lovecraft’s 1943 novella “The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath.” In this case, the titular protagonist is a middle-aged college professor, not unlike Johnson herself. It was short-listed for the Hugo and Nebula awards, and won heaps of critical praise.
Johnson’s latest, “The River Bank,” (Small Beer Press, 2017) is a sequel to Kenneth Grahame’s 1908 “The Wind in the Willows” adding two female protagonists, Miss Rabbit and Miss Mole, to the well-loved original cast of Toad, Rat, Badger and (Mr.) Mole. Johnson said she enjoyed imagining the female characters the original work had merely implied, and that she views it as a valid form of critical inquiry.
Johnson is also the associate director of KU’s Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction, named for her colleague, Professor Emeritus of English James Gunn.
At age 94, Gunn has had an unusually productive year. He published the final volume of his trilogy: “Transcendental” (2013), “Transgalactic” (2016) and “Transformation” (2017, all Tor Books). And as well, his memoir, “Star-Begotten: A Life Lived in Science Fiction” (McFarland, 2017), contains Gunn’s reflections on a career that spans from the genre’s Golden Age to its present. The big names – Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke – are all there because they were Gunn’s peers and colleagues. In addition, Gunn was the subject of another book: “Saving the World Through Science Fiction,” Michael Page’s biography of him, also from McFarland, 2017.
Associate Professor of Piano Steven Spooner’s 15-CD, 1-DVD set of recordings titled “Dedications” won raves from the classical music world in 2017. It’s inspired by Spooner’s love of the greats of the “Russian school” -- Anton Rubenstein, Vladimir Horowitz and particularly Sviatoslav Richter. With a little “Amazing Grace” thrown in to reflect his New Orleans roots. Each disc contains an audio track giving Spooner’s spoken thoughts on the music therein in lieu of the liner notes found on older record formats. The DVD was recorded at Swarthout Recital Hall. The most prestigious piano journal, International Piano in London, featured the set with a four-star review, and it was also reviewed favorably in the most important publications in North America, Europe and Asia. In the March/April edition of Fanfare magazine, Radu Lelutiu wrote: “Spooner possesses a fearless virtuoso technique. … a splendid collection that should be heard by anyone who loves piano music.”
If you get a cold this winter, you might want to read up on natural remedies. “Echinacea — Herbal Medicine with a Wild History,” (Springer, 2016) co-authored and edited by Kelly Kindscher, senior scientist at the Kansas Biological Survey and professor of environmental studies, explores the botanical’s natural history and how it’s been grown, conserved and used. Kindscher thinks the immune-boosting plant is underappreciated in the U.S., pointing to a recent European clinical trial where it was shown to be as effective and safer than the prescription anti-flu medicine Tamiflu.
Dog lovers might like “The First Domestication: How Wolves and Humans Coevolved” (Yale University Press, 2017), co-authored by Raymond Pierotti, associate professor of ecology & evolutionary biology and environmental studies, and Brandy Fogg, who received her undergraduate degree in environmental studies and a master’s degree in Indigenous nations studies at KU. It traces a co-evolution of wolves and Paleolithic people who cooperated for mutual benefit — a narrative that runs counter to the popular ideas of wolves depending upon human refuse dumps as important foraging sites, or of people “taming” wolves through domination. Pierotti says anybody interested in wolves would find the book a fascinating read. Indeed, he said, his publisher is marketing the book to “anyone interested in human evolution, ecology, animal behavior, anthropology and the history of canine domestication.”
Not surprisingly, KU professors are thinking about the rising problem of student debt. In “Student Debt: A Reference Handbook,” (ABC-CLIO, 2017) William Elliott III and Melinda Lewis examine problems and controversies and offer solutions. They co-edited the book, part of the publisher’s Contemporary World Issues series. Elliott is associate professor and director of the Center on Assets, Education and Inclusion (AEDI) in KU’s School of Social Welfare; Lewis is associate professor of the practice and AEDI’s assistant director. “By giving an overview of the history of student loans, we can help give a better understanding of where we are now, how we got here and the scope of student debt,” Lewis said. “Our hope is to expand the conversation. We think the book is substantial and something people will want to pull out and use regularly.”
History Professor Adrian Lewis published a third edition of his “The American Culture of War,” (Routledge), about which the former member of U.S. Army's 9th Infantry Division and 2nd Ranger Battalion said: "The way we go about war is not sustainable." Lewis has updated his history of U.S. military forces since World War II with an account of action in the Middle East now as recent as the abrupt rise of the Islamic State. It's the only single-volume study that covers the entire period. "My fundamental belief is that we need to change the way we do things," Lewis said. With no draft, "We are relying on a small group of Americans, 1 percent of the population, to maintain security around the planet, and in many cases that force has proven to be too small. … If we had to fight World War II today, we couldn't do it."