Smack: Heroin and the American City
Eric C. Schneider
Using a clinical pickax to scale sharp sociological heights, Schneider, a historian with a fetish for outré urban doings, locates and explores a provocative nexus of truth and transgression: the place where urban myth, violent crime, medical findings, drug trafficking, media conflation, and policy prerogative overlap and intersect. As one might expect, he fares best when humanizing and personifying the scourge and its chronologically shifting discontents, worst when permitting trend-tracking and stat-mongering to seep to the fore. The sober, somber epilogue proffers cool plausibilities—sensible alleviations premised on those rare qualities, basic political will and common sense.
Dusty! Queen of the Postmods
Annie J. Randall
The sultry voice, the midnight mascara, the sexual ambiguity—Swinging London’s semiotic pastiche had as its blond-and-beehived figurehead a former convent girl named Mary Isabel Catherine Bernadette O’Brien, aka Dusty Springfield. Between 1963 and 1970, the “White Queen of Soul” scored 18 hit singles, became a fixture on English television, and built an unlikely bridge from Motown to Merseyside. At the height of her popularity—built on an affinity for “black” music, an embrace by the mod faithful, and a camp sensibility—she transcended the British Invasion and some of its postcolonial trappings, though questions about identity and cries of cultural appropriation (owing partly to her long collaboration with the American gospel singer Madeline Bell) dogged her always. Much has been written about Springfield’s life, but too little about her artistry and panache. Randall begins to remedy that with her stylish, deeply researched analysis of an epochal look and an era-defining sound.
Here at the End of the World We Learn to Dance
The dance that energizes this beautiful little novel (published here for the first time, although it was released in New Zealand in 2001) is the tango, which, in addition to serving a symbolic function, drives much of the action. The terpsichorean magic casts its spell not only in its native Argentina but also in far-away New Zealand, a prim little society where it has a different but even more powerful appeal during the First World War, when pacifism and xenophobia collide with the prevailing British Empire patriotism. For the characters who decamp from there to South America and for their descendants who later make the return trip, the tango is a leitmotif. As the plot jumps back and forth through many decades between the two contrasting nations, Jones proves himself as skilled at evoking exotic Buenos Aires as he is at exploring his native New Zealand. As in his Booker-nominated novel, Mister Pip, this least parochial of novelists is adept here at picturing what happens when diverse cultures encounter one another.
The Triumph of Music: The Rise of Composers, Musicians and Their Art
Despite its deadening title, this is a provocative and amusing book. Blanning describes not the triumph of good music but the development of Western music generally, from an aristocratic court frill to a powerful social force. Toward the end, he points out that “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” is after 48 years, in all its banality, familiar to almost everyone. To Blanning this illustrates the pervasiveness that has brought music to supremacy among the arts. That’s hardly a revolutionary thesis, but it develops surprisingly as he pursues it through a wealth of historical anecdote. He contrasts, for instance, Wagner’s austere Bayreuth Festspielhaus with its French contemporary, the decadently ornate Paris Opera—“two ways of elevating music.” This work is clearly an outgrowth of Blanning’s equally intelligent study, The Culture of Power and the Power of Culture: Old Regime Europe 1660–1789 (2002).
Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat