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SOCIETY and CULTURE

Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion
by Jeffrey J. Kripal (Chicago)
Mysticism and empiricism, East and West, enlightenment and … golf? Esalen—equally a phenomenon and an institute—sought to amalgamate these things and more into a “human potential movement,” a unified utopia “creatively suspended between the revelations of the religions and the democratic, pluralistic, and scientific revolutions of modernity.” And for a time it did, resolving many of its inherent paradoxes to achieve something unique (and uniquely American) in its eclectic egalitarianism. Co-founded by former Stanford classmates Michael Murphy and Richard Price, Esalen had as its set and setting 1960s California (a sui generis time and place if ever there was one). During its heyday, it drew counterculture notables—Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Leary spent time there; so did Maslow, Huxley, and Campbell—and notoriety (the term touchy-feely sprang forth, fully formed) in equal measure. It eventually lost its vitality, but not before giving rise to the New Age movement that persists today (as does the institute itself, albeit in neutered form).

Kripal, a religious-studies professor at Rice University, examines Esalen’s extraordinary history and evocatively describes the breech birth of Murphy and Price’s brainchild. His real achievement, though, is effortlessly synthesizing a dizzying array of dissonant phenomena (Cold War espionage, ecstatic religiosity), incongruous pairings (Darwinism, Tantric sex), and otherwise schizy ephemera (psychedelic drugs, spaceflight) into a cogent, satisfyingly complete narrative. That he reconciles all this while barely batting an eye is remarkable; that he does so while writing with such élan is nothing short of wondrous. This essential volume achieves what Esalen itself ultimately couldn’t sustain: a true gestalt.

Museum: Behind the Scenes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
by Danny Danziger (Viking)
The genius of Danziger is to get to the heart of an institution through myriad personal interviews. From his second book, All in a Day’s Work, with snapshots of 50 people’s jobs, to the revealing Eton Voices, which exposed the mystique of Britain’s premier upper-crust school through interviews with Old Etonians, and now to New York’s Metropolitan Museum, Danziger is a master of the pointillist portrait. Here he runs the gamut of subjects, from cleaner and waitress through curator, trustee, and CEO, to show how this cultural behemoth functions.

The Decoration of Houses
by Edith Wharton and Ogden Codman Jr. (Rizzoli)
This handsome reprint of Wharton’s first book (1897) might well be subtitled “Feng Shui for the Gilded Age.” For Wharton and Codman, house decoration should not be mere “superficial application of ornament” but rather an organic activity guided by the principles of simplicity and common sense. The architectural historian Richard Guy Wilson has written a brisk and informative new foreword.

Where’s My Jetpack?
by Daniel H. Wilson (Bloomsbury)
A leading (if not the only) comic roboticist checks up on the progress of such once-promised technological innovations as the flying car, the death ray, and the ever-elusive meal in pill form. Although some of the most ambitious inventions Wilson discusses do in fact exist (including the jetpack, hampered only by extremely expensive fuel and the small matter that what goes up must somehow come down), a larger number do not, which movingly reflects inventors’ optimism about the eternal future—as well as the public’s even-keeled acceptance of the fact that the future often turns out to be distressingly similar to what immediately preceded it.

FICTION

Divisadero
by Michael Ondaatje (Knopf)
In this structurally disjointed but thematically cohesive tale divided between Northern California in the 1970s and France in the early 1900s, Ondaatje explores the tenacity of youthful experiences and relationships in the face of life’s radical forks. Emotionally enthralling and lushly envisioned, this novel, like The English Patient and Anil’s Ghost, demonstrates Ondaatje’s rare talent for imposing satisfyingly clear ideas on realistically ambiguous lives.

My Holocaust
by Tova Reich (HarperCollins)
In this merciless satire on the American glorification and commodification of victimhood (the first chapter of which appeared in this magazine), every group vies for the distinction of having suffered the most. As one of the characters (the president of Holocaust Connections Inc.; slogan: “Make Your Cause a Holocaust”) observes, “Everyone wants a piece of the Holocaust pie.” Reich, whose husband once was the director of the Holocaust Memorial Museum, writes with intense authority and relentless humor, so that this bitter poison goes down like sweet butter.

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