Books April 2009

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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.”

The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution
Denis Dutton
Bloomsbury

Artistic predilection isn’t a social or cultural construction; it’s a downright Darwinian imperative. That’s the provocative thesis teased and tested in this punchy tract, a hard-hitting amalgamation of critical theory and evolutionary science. Tempering his contentious passion with winning doses of empiricism and good cheer, Dutton—the essayist, academic, public-radio enthusiast, and founder and editor of Arts & Letters Daily—seeks a way around “the hermetic discourse that deadens so much of the humanities.” Treading a path strewn with evolutionary psychology, prehistoric extrapolations, and other cross-cultural interpretations—and interpreters like Pinker and Gould—that he deems outmoded, the author takes a cluster-concept approach, arguing fluently that artistic creation, apprehension, and appreciation (like language, sexuality, and religion) are largely, if not wholly, chromosomal; that they are far more innate and biological than absorbed or accidental. While Dutton doesn’t spring all the aesthetic prisoners of postmodern thought, he does liberate many—or at least make the idea of a jailbreak from abstractionism seem both cogent and exhilarating.

Three Victories and a Defeat
Brendan Simms
Basic

The author, a scintillating young Cambridge historian, argues that the coming of a German prince to the British throne in 1714 and the consequent link with the House of Hanover made the United Kingdom into a true European power. In the next half century, the island nation became, thanks to a series of shifting alliances, a Continental juggernaut. Britannia’s ascendance culminated in its victory over France in 1763 at the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War. This success, which included expelling France from North America, led Britain into the dangerous error of focusing on its empire across the Atlantic, rather than on its hard-won, newfound place among the Continental powers. Soon faced with a rebellion in North America, it found itself without allies to help it; indeed, its European foes and former friends alike helped the American colonists succeed. Simms has a superb knowledge of diplomatic and military history to buttress his passionate, elegantly written argument that 18th-century Britain needed to concern itself less globally and concentrate its primary energies closer to home—an argument that has particular resonance at the beginning of the 21st century, as Britain fights in Iraq and Afghanistan and fails too often to pull its weight at the center of European decision-making.

Linthead Stomp: The Creation of Country Music in the Piedmont South
Patrick Huber
North Carolina

A new, canny take on Old, Weird America, this colorful, contrarian book does much to dispel a spate of antediluvian tropes, musical and otherwise. The myth holds that prewar country music was a grassroots phenomenon, made and popularized by pickin’-and-grinnin’ farmhands. But Huber, a history professor and co-author of The 1920s: American Popular Culture Through History, argues that it was Piedmont cities and mill towns and their industrial workforce that disseminated the region’s rich sounds. Drawing on a wealth of archival sources and recordings, he asserts that country music circa 1922 to 1942 was, “in fact, as thoroughly modern in its origins and evolution as its quintessentially modern counterpart, jazz.” Turning a welcome spotlight on talented oddballs such as Charlie Poole, Fiddlin’ John Carson, and the Dixon Brothers, he elucidates the experiences, equally civilizing and compromising, of millhands in a rapidly industrializing South. And he contextualizes the give-and-take of the music and its makers—how, exactly, new social identities emerged, regional allegiances congealed, and a proto-countrypolitan sensibility took root and flourished in times both culturally and economically turbulent.

William Hazlitt: The First Modern Man
Duncan Wu
Oxford

Hazlitt, the great English essayist and critic, became the first modern sportswriter with his pioneering account of a boxing match, “The Fight.” He was also the most consequential figure of English Romantic literature—except for the six great poets on whom he was an important influence. His vigorous championing of liberty has made him an enduring figure to the English political left: Michael Foot, the Labour Party’s leader of the opposition to Margaret Thatcher, wrote a penetrating and stirring portrait of him. Wu at times engages in speculation unsupported by the evidence, but he’s finely attuned to his subject’s qualities and sympathetic to the many personal, professional, and religious struggles that so complicated Hazlitt’s tumultuous life.

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Meet the students and staff at Tuscaloosa’s all-black Central High School in a short documentary film by Maisie Crow. 


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