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From Research in Review Magazine, Florida State University, Spring 2006:


On Happy Hearts

Happiness: A History by Darrin McMahon: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006, 560 pages, $27.50

Perfect happiness: it hangs overhead like a shiny red apple ever within sight and ever out of reach. Nonetheless, throughout history that fruit has been promised us, whether we’ve been told to wait patiently for it to fall or to pursue it with every device in our power. So says FSU associate professor of history Darrin M. McMahon in his book Happiness: A History.Book Cover Happiness

McMahon explores the changing concept of happiness throughout Western civilization, finding it instructive to look not so much at how happiness has been defined as how people have thought to obtain it. We’ve sought happiness through luck, suffering, faith, truth, virtue, reason, spiritual rebirth, and plain hard work. But whatever the pleasures that come our way, in the end our desires are insatiable, at least in this life.

Within the immense scope of his topic, McMahon chooses primarily to follow the path established by the usual moralists—Plato, Augustine, Aquinas, Locke, Jefferson, and so on—but offers a lively synthesis from a fresh perspective. It is difficult, if not impossible, to know, of course, whether people of any particular period actually were happy. The book makes reference to, but no real analysis of, how social and economic conditions may have contributed to overall contentment.

But in an interesting departure at the end of his very humanistic, subjective exploration, McMahon brings out some scientific data. Across the world, it appears, as long as people aren’t living in dire poverty, they report fairly consistent levels of happiness. And studies suggest that we’re each born with a degree of contentment that can be measured at a constant “set point” that may change temporarily due to life’s vicissitudes, but tends to stay steady over the long run.

Does happiness come, then, with the luck of the genetic draw? Perhaps the early Greeks were right, McMahon concludes, when they ascribed happiness to luck, the random fortunes, dispensed by the gods.
–Nora Fitzgerald

Teaching Trauma

The Dark Side of School Reform: Teaching in the Space Between Reality and Utopia by Jeffrey S. Brooks: Rowman and Littlefield Education, 2005, 199 pages, $24.95

Book cover Dark Side of School Reform

It’s unfortunate but true: some of today’s best texts on education can also be the most tiresome. And after a day spent in the trenches of America’s “No Child Left Behind” public schools, who’s really got the time to curl up with the latest on administrative benchmarks, reform guidelines and curricular realignment?

Jeffrey Brooks’ The Dark Side of School Reform is emphatically not one of these books. It is loaded with data, references and analysis, but it’s also got disarming, insightful first-person interviews with scores of teachers who are fighting to make K-12 education work for themselves, their schools and their students. It’s a story told in an informal, first-person essay style that’s appropriate for educators, administrators, parents and anyone else interested in what it’s really like out there. So it’s not only a research book; it’s also a surprisingly easy, engaging read.

Brooks starts by asking a simple question: Why are so many teachers so dissatisfied with so many aspects of their profession? Is it the administrative structure, the lack of time, the lack of recognition, the low pay? Brooks uses pseudonyms to profile a typical suburban Midwestern high school and more than 50 teachers there. He lets them speak in their own voices, and they tell it like it is.

Brooks sets the tone in Chapter One, “Theschooldayisfastandtheschooldayisfaster!”, spending a day shadowing an English teacher whose day starts with a 7 a.m. faculty meeting and whose planning periods are taken up by committee meetings in which several attendees don’t know why they’ve been asked to be there or what they’re supposed to be doing.

Teachers bring stacks of ungraded papers into meetings, hunched over their work and hoping not to be called on, trying to make the best of the 20 minutes left before their next class. Once there, they’re inundated with questions from students who aren’t prepared largely because there wasn’t enough time in yesterday’s school day for teachers to prepare them for what was supposed to be taught today.

Brooks examines teachers’ whole lives, making special note of how their stressful jobs lead to feelings of isolation, ambiguity and eventual dispassion. Brooks is an affable interviewer and an insightful narrator, and there are positive notes throughout, but the main theme is one of realism–a clear-eyed look at what is called “teaching” today.
-Kim MacQueen

By Our Own Hands

Why People Die by Suicide by Thomas Joiner: Harvard University Press, 2006, 288 pages, $24.95

The short of why people kill themselves, according to Thomas Joiner:

  1. They’ve lost a sense of social connection, of belonging;
  2. They perceive themselves as a burden;
  3. They’ve become suicide-competent. (In a purely physical sense, suicide is hard to commit, so experience with physical pain or previous suicide attempts help the potential suicide nerve up and succeed.)

But for the long of it, read Why People Die by Suicide. Joiner, Bright-Burton professor of psychology at Florida State University, frames his book with a story. In 1990, Joiner’s father drove to the lot of an industrial park, cut the engine, slashed his wrists with a large knife and then ran it into his heart.

Book Cover Why People Die by Suicide

The father had suffered serious physical injuries in his life, which made pain less frightening, Joiner writes. He’d severed ties with a company that had endowed him with a professional identity. And at his life’s end, his depression had deepened, augmenting his social isolation.

To support his theory, Joiner brings into evidence an extraordinary range of materials: academic studies, quotes and observations from literature and philosophy, a snippet here from This American Life, an anecdote there about the suicidal humorist Spalding Gray.

What a collection of note cards he must have, because he also piles on the facts and factoids. Samples: Five former republics of the Soviet Union have the world’s highest suicide rates; only in China do more women than men commit suicide; in the United States, the teenagers get the ink but it’s old white men who are at highest risk. (One in 100 teens succeeds at suicide, versus one in four of the aging men.)

The last chapter contains a few ideas for crisis intervention and treatment, such as a person’s carrying a “crisis card” with notes of things to do in case suicidal thoughts arise.

The book poses questions as well as answers. Among others is whether terrorists with visions of Paradise, on one hand, or those who leaped from high ledges on 9/11, on the other, are “suicides.”

You will ponder more than the motives for suicide after you put this book down, and reflect on all that this uniquely human act means, and doesn’t.
–Roger Martin

A Jazz Story

The World of Jazz Trumpet: A Comprehensive History and Practical Philosophy by Scotty Barnhart: Hal Leonard Corp., 2005, 250 pages, $24.95

While unraveling the history and culture of jazz, historians and musicologists find that the threads most often begin in New Orleans. An attempt to comprehend what it is that made the trumpet, in particular, shout out loud and clear from the Crescent City is the latest work of Scotty Barnhart, a member of the growing Florida State University jazz faculty.

Jazz Trumpet

His book The World of Jazz Trumpet: A Comprehensive History and Practical Philosophy provides a four-part guide to an understanding of the greater Atlantic world’s influence on this quintessential American music’s improvisational nature.

Barnhart begins with a historiography of recent research into the African presence in the Western Hemisphere. He sets the reader on a course that broadens a little-understood appreciation of early travels between Africa and what would become the Americas. Referring to 14th century trips, Barnhart also provides photographs of trumpets found in pharaohs’ tombs. Barnhart, a trumpet player of renown, understands how the westerly trade winds deliver not only sea beans and other flotsam. Sounds, too, make their ways across the waters.

His explanation of the evolution of improvisation via the sounds of ragtime in Missouri might be overly simplified, eschewing, for instance, 19th century travels by free black people to Kansas and the subsequent confluence of European and Americanized African musical traditions on the frontier. Instead, he relies on that other great body of water, the Mississippi River, to make those connections.

Most impressive are the interviews with America’s jazz greats. The book provides a comprehensive background for anyone wanting to teach the history of jazz. With his exclusive focus on the theory and application of the role of the trumpet in a jazz band as well as biographies and a jazz discography Barnhart provides a study of the trumpeters’ influential and innovative contributions to America’s cultural history.
–Madeleine Hirsiger-Carr


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