New Cathcart Publication, or, the Book Review as a Four-on-One Fast Break

Yet another little-noticed publication from June 4, 2009 has emerged from Long Island:

My review of Jeffrey Engel‘s edition of George H.W. Bush’s “China Diary” from 1974-1975 has emerged, and is also available from H-DIPLO as a gorgeous pdf.

This was a tough review to write, in part, because three other distinguished reviewers were cooking up their own analyses concurrently under the watchful eye of our leader Xia Yafeng. (This past December Xia urged me to the finish line with little e-mails while I tapped out revisions, marvelled at French-Canadian culture, and warmed myself by a little stove in frozen Montreal). Most difficult of all, the editor of the book under review, Jeffrey Engel of Texas A & M University, had the opportunity to respond to the review, which is sort of like your coach telling you to drive to the hoop when you know that Dwight Howard or LeBron James is waiting under the rim.

So I spent a few months on the review, on and off, and ended up discarding about two-thirds of what I had written. Since much of my writing was sketched out in pencil in little Chinese bakeries in Seattle over crumbly pastries and Hong Kong milk tea, maybe it wasn’t such a loss. Yet once back in the U.S., it is likely that I will post some of the rough cuts here for interested researchers, particularly the passages dealing with music and cultural relations which Bush was wrapped up in, delightfully so. Bush got no respect for his cultural push!

Fortunately, Engel is not only a fine scholar, but a great sport as well. (Not everyone takes so kindly or constructively to the mostly-constructive criticisms that stick like thorns out of book reviews.) When time allows I might cull out just a couple of his notes, comments on my work which are both plentiful worth appreciating. And it is good to have the feedback!

Just having got my hands on the reviews, but one thing stays in my mind like a star. After having had to justify, contextualize, explain, defend, and occasionally uncontort our reviewer logic, Engel lets himself breathe a bit at the end of the essay. Because in fact (returning to our basketball metaphor), rather than an unchallenged dunk, this was a four-on-one fast break type of format. Having done something truly commendable (finding, editing, and publishing a truly significant piece of modern US-China relations), Engel could not sit back and merely watch highlights of his 3-pointer-esque achievement, the ball arcing softly through the air like a dream of a B-52 pilot in 1961…Instead, he had to get back on defense. And I think we had a good squad for this one. (I have always thought that academics should have universal stats which indicate our productivity along the lines of sports stars…a subject for another posting, though.)

Now, the end of his response, which I can only savor. It gave me a nice feeling about being an academic, since we are, after all, only joyful humans :

Of greatest importance in this entire set of reviews is,I fear,
Professor Robert’s quite correct critique that I failed to catch the
typographical error misnaming shark’s fin soup. As the progeny of New
York Jews, Chinese food was (and remains) my native cuisine.
Furthermore, my graduate school education was made possible only by the
tips generated through service as a waiter in a (quite authentic)
Chinese restaurant. Of all the mistakes I have ever made in a book, and
goodness knows there are many, this culinary typo will forever pain me
the most.

Great stuff! And bravo to Jeffrey Engel, long may he (and the state of Texas!) thrive.


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