Books April 2009

Cover to Cover

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Mr. Playboy: Hugh Hefner and the American Dream
Steven Watts
Wiley

Just past the round rotating bed, beyond the hot-tub grotto but before the pajama-draped walk-in, lies … what? If we’re to believe this book, it’s the Truth about Hugh Hefner—and, by proxy, about American life since the 1950s. Of course, the larger legacy of Playboy has been considered long and well (in these pages a couple of years ago, and elsewhere). But Watts, a history professor prone to interpreting American Dreamers (he has written stellar works on Henry Ford and Walt Disney), is wise to draw a narrow bead on Hef qua Hef, dividing his life into tidy quadrants of postwar influence and iconography: as sexual liberator, avatar of consumerism, pop-culture purveyor, lightning rod for feminist ire. He also succeeds in identifying and exploring raging personal paradoxes—hedonist and workaholic, libertine and romantic, provocateur and traditionalist—while resisting the urge to attempt reconciliation. The Horatio-Alger-with-a-libido case he makes—where else but in America could a repressed midwestern boy rise, and fall into so many sacks, while creating and brand-managing a multimedia empire?—is only intermittently convincing. Still, there’s plenty to enjoy here, from the factual wealth (Watts was granted access to the vast Playboy vaults and draws heavily on his subject’s compulsively kept scrapbook collection) to the photographs aplenty (some offer revelatory glimpses; others give off the whiff of stale cheesecake) to the fundamental pleasures of watching a larger-than-life figure scuttle social norms and satisfy his own lavish urges.

An Illustrated History of Interior Decoration
Mario Praz
Thames & Hudson

Mario Praz (1896–1982), longtime professor of English at the University of Rome, spent most of his life in his native Italy but was nonetheless one of the foremost authorities on English literature, and was knighted for his services to it. Best-known for his pioneering study The Romantic Agony, published when he was still in his 30s, Praz was also a brilliant art critic. This intense study of interior decoration and of domestic life in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries (first published in the 1960s and now gloriously back in print) is a distillation of his enormous learning and insight, drawing on paintings handsomely reproduced in this solid volume. Ranging from the famous (who has captured interiors better than Vermeer, or van der Weyden, or Zoffany?) to the lesser-known (Ivanov, Bendz, Gärtner, to name a few), Praz is always original without being eccentric. He’s also adept at finding the apt literary quotation, ranging through sources from La Bruyère to Henry James. The sweep and quality of his mind raises this book far above the level of most others on this well-explored topic.

Delta Blues
Ted Gioia
Norton

Donning a sleuth’s sloped hat (and sometimes wearing it well), Gioia—the noted critic, historian, musician, and History of Jazz author—traces and parses the 12-bar profundities of Mississippi Delta blues and its purveyors, both well-known (Son House, Robert Johnson, Charley Patton) and long-forgotten (Geeshie Wiley, Kid Bailey, Mattie May Thomas). Chapter-length discussions, discursions, and deconstructions unfurl apace: the music’s origins (plantation field hollers, ring shouts) and offshoots (rock, soul, funk); the tall tales and half-truths that wreathe the juke-joint principals; the alluvial region’s racial, economic, and political complexities; and the music’s inevitable migration, from rural isolation to urban amplification. Throughout, the author’s skill and stylish writing is evident, his enthusiasm abundant. And when candor comes to the fore—as in Gioia’s confession that only artistic humility and maturation gave him a deeper understanding of, and engagement with, a notationally simple but emotionally complex art form—the book really sings. The lingering question, then, is one of pure fundament: In a fertile folk-art field so well plowed by so many estimable authorities and enduring works (Robert Palmer’s Deep Blues, Samuel Charters’s The Country Blues, LeRoi Jones’s Blues People, the list goes on), how and why is a new volume—one neither strictly biographical, sturdily counterintuitive, nor sweepingly comprehensive—truly germane? Gioia walks the thin blues line with skill and conviction, yet rarely takes a road less graveled.

The Peculiar Life of Sundays
Stephen Miller
Harvard

Here is a cultural history of Sunday observance in the Christian West, drawn from ancient and contemporary sources, explored through the psychological dialectic of gladness and gloom. Miller acquaints the reader with the Sunday lives of observant Christians (Augustine, George Herbert, Samuel Johnson, Jonathan Edwards), nonobservant Christians (John Ruskin, Robert Lowell), and lapsed Christians (Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Wallace Stevens), narrating a transformation of Sunday that began when Constantine’s decree eclipsed pagan veneration for the sun god with Christian veneration for the Son of God. His focus on the Sabbatarian debates in America and Britain attests to the human need for a day of rest and reflection. Post-secular anxiety can be heard in this story, as residual blue laws fade to black—giving way to idle amusements and banal commerce. Now that Sundays are free of burdensome forms, they seem burdened by formlessness, which may be why Pope Benedict XVI exhorts, “Give the soul its Sunday, give Sunday its soul.”

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