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Smack: Heroin and the American City
Eric C. Schneider
Pennsylvania

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
Oxford

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
Lloyd Jones
Dial

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
Tim Blanning
Harvard

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
John Lukacs
Basic

One of Churchill’s shortest speeches, given to the House of Commons three days after he became prime minister, the grim but stirring peroration (“I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat …”) wasn’t broadcast to the nation. But it came to epitomize Churchill’s defiance and his role in galvanizing his countrymen. This brief but deep book, enormously detailed about the speech, its background, and its iconography, gives us the measure of the man. Often clumsy (Lukacs has never overcome his middle-European prose style), sometimes simplistically argued, the book is nevertheless an achievement of history through synecdoche: by shining a light in this corner, the author shows an essential figure at a truly pivotal point in history.

The Bolsheviks in Power
Alexander Rabinowitch
Indiana

Based on extensive research in newly released Russian archives, this briskly written, often riveting study of the evolution of Bolshevik authoritarianism, just issued in paperback, provides a salutary corrective to the school of historiography that views Soviet Communism as totalitarian by nature. Rabin­owitch, a distinguished scholar of Russian history, marshals a wealth of evidence that the elimination of democratic elements from the newborn system came about haphazardly in a chaotic period beset by crises on every front. Compelling as this argument is, it won’t entirely persuade those who believe that the split in the Second International and subsequent evolution of Marxism-Leninism—due in no small part to Lenin’s particular convictions and nature—made authoritarian government inevitable in Russia after the October Revolution.

Plumes: Ostrich Feathers, Jews, and a Lost World of Global Commerce
Sarah Abrevaya Stein
Yale

Assorted histories—world, fashion, economic, Jewish—converge in this fluent account of an esoteric trade and its far-flung principals. From the “feather boom” of the 1880s, when urbane Western women began clamoring for the exotic accessory, till the First World War–concurrent “bust,” when the hat ornamentation fell quickly from vogue, a niche of lavishness formed and thrived. Stein, a University of Washington history professor, brings this ephemeral luxury market into focus, acquainting the reader with its diasporic, generally Yiddish-speaking middlemen and -women: feather handlers in South Africa, manufacturers in England, families of importers in the Mediterranean, farmers in the western United States. To her credit, the mix of religion, colonialism, persecution, and plumage never becomes dizzying. Nor does the style stray: Stein eschews both portentousness and glibness in telling a “story of unimagined global connections,” one in which there is no distinction “between the fundamental and the frivolous, between things historically weighty and those light as a feather.”

The Thing Itself: On the Search for Authenticity
Richard Todd
Riverhead

Underscoring one’s own wide-ranging observations with sly references to self-aware aphorists—Thoreau, Pierre Bourdieu, Andy Warhol—may seem a recherché gambit hardly worth the hazard. Yet by foreword’s end, the reader knows that all is well. Why? That underscoring observer is Richard Todd, a longtime cultural critic with Montaigne-like tendencies toward gently acerbic discursion. Owing certain stylistic, spiritual, and topical allegiances to Joseph Epstein’s bravura Snobbery, Todd takes ruminative stock of his life and the paradoxes inherent in various external matters: celebrity, antiquity, politics, travel, brand names, spare parts, modern art. Along the way, our apprehension-obsessed Virgil offers object lessons aplenty—how poignancy emerges most clearly when it’s least forced, say, or why a well-Windexed personal prism is still our best refractor of the universal. As important, he pillories only those who truly deserve it (which, given the candor, often means a reflexive sacking). All of this reinforces the reliability of the narrator, an insightful humanist who concludes, “We need to be better materialists.” If that means more books like this one, then indeed we do.

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