In time for the holidays—a comprehensive selection of books highlighted in The Atlantic in 2007
Four Days to Glory
by Mark Kreidler (HarperCollins)
In a sort of Friday Night Mats for the Iowa high-school wrestling circuit, an ESPN contributor follows two of the state’s most promising wrestlers through their senior seasons. Although Kreidler’s book lacks the strong sense of place of H. G. Bissinger’s Texas football classic, it’s an inspiring chronicle of individual effort—and its portraits of stifling gyms and miserly training diets ably evoke an elemental loneliness unique to the sport.
Wallowing in Sex
by Elana Levine (Duke)
A media-studies scholar documents how the sexual revolution made its way into the mainstream via 1970s American television. Leaving aside Levine’s unintentionally amusing academic dutifulness—”I have been able to view this episode of the Match Game, along with many others, in syndicated repeats on the Game Show Network”—the book does map genuine cultural change and find meaning in an ephemeral medium that, despite its pervasiveness, is too often regarded as unfit for serious study.
The Proper Care and Feeding of Marriage
by Dr. Laura Schlessinger (HarperCollins)
Eschewing, as always, wishy-washy understatement (sex-averse women should “get over yourselves and under your men,” for example), Dr. Laura, in this follow-up to The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands, traces the cause of much marital unhappiness to our “almost total lack of understanding, appreciation, and respect for what is feminine and what is masculine—and therefore what it means to be the counterpoint to the other.”
The Real Toy Story
by Eric Clark (Free Press)
A fascinating exposé of the $20 billion- a-year toy industry, in which ads increasingly tout sex and violence, executives jockey for market share with alarming bloodthirstiness, and the terrifying prospect of KGOY—”kids getting older younger,” and therefore becoming immune to the charms of the toy chest—haunts all.
by Susan Seligson (Bloomsbury)
An amply endowed journalist explores society’s complicated relationship with the female breast. Bearing a suitably overstuffed quiver of mammary synonyms (Seligson deserves some sort of lifetime-achievement award for elegant variation), her book is an entertaining, if not especially groundbreaking, tour of plastic-surgery clinics, exotic-dancing trade shows, and the national bedroom. It also offers some interesting factoids along the way: Seventy percent of women wear the wrong bra size, for example, and topfree—rather than topless—is the preferred term among advocates for women’s right to appear bare-breasted in public.
by Laura Sessions Stepp (Riverhead)
A Washington Post reporter follows three groups of high-school and college girls through the wilds of “hooking up”; the by-now-familiar term, with its ambiguous mechanical overtones, neatly encapsulates the current young-adult sexual landscape. Stepp’s account of her subjects’ repeated disappointments is numbing and sad; her wide-ranging list of contributing factors—text messaging, prolonged adolescence, Title IX, the complex legacy of feminism, colleges’ increasing reluctance to act in loco parentis, etc.—is on-target and thought-provoking; and her proposed solutions—valuing oneself, seeking romance, privileging the erotic over the pornographic—are basically sensible.
Oklahoma!: The Making of an American Musical
by Tim Carter (Yale)
With due respect to the genius of Lorenz Hart’s lyrics, something enormous happened to Richard Rodgers—and to American musical theater—when he teamed up with Oscar Hammerstein to produce the first of their many shows. Carter, a professor of music, conducts a detailed examination of Oklahoma’s origins; he separates myth from fact and convincingly establishes the play’s artistic and historical importance.
Bambi vs. Godzilla
by David Mamet (Pantheon)
The famed director and screenwriter puts forth a self-consciously searing account of Hollywood’s current decadent horrors. Mamet offers the occasional winning aside: Preston Sturges’s work is “irrefutable proof of an afterlife, for it is impossible to make films that sweet and not go to heaven.” But many of his observations manage to be simultaneously banal and obscure: “Storytelling is like sex. We all do it naturally. Some of us are better at it than others.” If this counts as heresy, then the movie business may be just as shallow and insular as advertised.
Made for Each Other
by Bronwyn Cosgrave (Bloomsbury)
A former editor at British Vogue exhaustively reviews the fashions worn by nominated actresses at the first seventy-three Academy Awards presentations. Cosgrave’s book is thoroughly illustrated and appealingly knowing, and it leaves no doubt that the annual spectacle is as painstakingly stage-managed as it seems to be.
Beyond 9 to 5
by Sarah Norgate (Columbia)
A British psychologist takes a comparative look at people’s experiences of time throughout history and around the world. Norgate’s conclusions about time are largely familiar (there never seems to be enough of it), and her book is meandering and unfocused, although it does give readers an opportunity to learn why it’s difficult to retain memories from before the age of three, why 11 percent of Canadians are awake at 3 a.m., and why the migration of more and more workers onto the graveyard shift may portend significant biological and political challenges.
The Gospel of Food
by Barry Glassner (Ecco)
In his previous book, the sociologist Glassner showed us why the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. In this latest effort, he applies the same pragmatism to the ever-more-complex interlocking worlds of food, gastronomy, and health. The result is another work of refreshingly sensible skepticism about all manner of nostrums that offers some sound advice to avoid extremes, in either practice or expectation. Along the way, Glassner gives sharp views of the restaurant scene and piquant portraits of some of its stars.
Alice Waters and Chez Panisse
by Thomas McNamee (Penguin Press)
American cuisine today probably has no greater star than Alice Waters, founder of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse restaurant. As a leading champion of organic food and sustainable agriculture, Waters has transformed food culture in the United States. Now someone who hobnobs with Bill Clinton and the Prince of Wales, she is still concerned that poor children obtain the benefits of organic produce, even if they have to learn to grow it themselves. This biography provides too much information, especially of the gossipy variety, but even that supplies context for the spectacular effusions served forth by her protégé Jeremiah Tower, in his 2003 memoir, California Dish.
The Iron Whim
by Darren Wershler-Henry (Cornell)
Witty and idiosyncratic, this history of typewriting says more than one might think possible about the subject. The author, a Canadian scholar, ranges from the QWERTY/Dvorak format wars to the 2004 “Memogate” scandal that brought down Dan Rather; in one chapter, he entertainingly debunks the notion that a band of monkeys, given typewriters and time, would eventually reproduce Shakespeare’s works. Wershler-Henry’s most interesting achievement, however, is documenting how the typewriter, once a dreaded totem of mechanization, has become an object of nostalgia, in a process that will surely repeat itself as technology advances. After all, as he writes, “Typewriting died a violent death, and … violent deaths lead to hauntings.”
by Rachel Sherman (California)
A Yale sociologist provides this consistently interesting (but distractingly jargony) ethnography of two luxury hotels and the nuanced interactions between guests and staff there. Sherman, who worked a variety of hotel jobs while doing her research, offers an often entertaining look inside a well-oiled service machine (as a concierge, she fielded such requests as “find live crab … find blue roses … make appointment with German- speaking dentist”), while raising necessary questions about labor, justice, and our common humanity in an age when some people go hungry while room service is ordered for well-heeled dogs.
by Archon Fung, Mary Graham, and David Weil (Cambridge)
What you don’t know will hurt you, especially when it comes to information on, say, how many patients die in your local hospital or which toxins are contaminating your drinking water. The authors, three Boston-based researchers, offer examples from the United States and other countries of individuals and political groups encouraging policies that coax and/or force companies and governments to release information they would rather hide.
Impotence: A Cultural History
by Angus McLaren (Chicago)
Viagra promises to relegate to history the affliction explored in this learned, always diverting study. Alas, its author avers that in fact the little blue pills are simply the latest in a long line of “charms, aphrodisiacs, and herbal remedies consumed in ages past for similar purposes.” The best thing about this book is that it’s a true history, beginning with manhood in ancient Greece and Rome and going on through Freud and Marie Stopes before concluding in our own chemically dependent age.
The Cigarette Century
by Allan M. Brandt (Basic)
This examination of the cigarette’s place in American life, written by a Harvard medical historian, manages to be both an engrossing cultural history and a passionate, exhaustively researched indictment of a public-health catastrophe that happened largely in plain sight. From a 1929 publicity stunt imploring women to “Light another torch of freedom! Fight another sex taboo!” to the rise of that most distinctive advertising icon, the smoking spokesdoctor, Brandt outlines how the industry ingeniously built and preserved its customer base even as evidence of smoking’s harmful effects mounted beyond question. Having served as a plaintiff’s expert witness in recent tobacco-liability litigation, Brandt argues that the industry has survived such trials and is now focused on expanding its reach throughout the developing world. With access to new markets, he writes, tobacco products stand to claim a billion lives worldwide in the 21st century, 10 times the death toll they caused in the 20th.
How Sassy Changed My Life
by Kara Jesella and Marisa Meltzer (Faber and Faber)
Two journalists fondly recall the six-year run of the teen magazine Sassy, whose Seventeen-meets-Spy aesthetic tweaked the sugar-and-spice conventions of the genre and turned legions of teen girls on to feminism, irreverence, and alternative rock in the early 1990s. Jesella and Meltzer make a convincing case for Sassy’s lasting influence and poignantly reconstruct the lost world of Crystal Pepsi and Kurt Cobain in which the magazine briefly thrived.
All That Glittered: The Golden Age of Drama on Broadway, 1919–1959
by Ethan Mordden (St. Martin’s)
If any writer has made American musical theater his fief, it’s the prolific Mordden, but in this latest book he shows that his particular vision of Broadway extends to nonmusicals as well. The four decades he spotlights in this energetic, opinionated volume emerge as the apogee of commercial dramatic production, particularly the first decades, crammed as they were with productions by such luminaries as O’Neill, Molnár, and Coward. Mordden can manage to be simultaneously earnest and flip, a knack that’s at once formidable and a trifle insufferable. “Western Civilization,” he writes, “would be unthinkable without Noël Coward. Worse: uneducated.” The trouble with, and the charm of, this book is that for Mordden, the Great White Way is civilization—or perhaps even the entire known world.
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.
by Jeff Wiltse (North Carolina)
In this intelligent, compelling social history, Wiltse traces the development of American municipal swimming pools from 19th-century public baths intended to cleanse the Great Unwashed, to optimistic New Deal public works, to the postwar boom in private-pool construction that left millions “swimming alone.” A serious historian (“The consequences of the sexualization of pool culture have been profound, especially for women”) writing about a serious subject, the author details with palpable regret the public pools’ failure to live up to the democratic promise ascribed to them by one 1930s booster: “Take away the sham and hypocrisy of clothes, don a swim suit, and we’re all the same.” Wiltse also highlights the complex and ironic dynamics of social change (the first pool in the North to be integrated by gender, in St. Louis in 1913, for example, was also the first to be segregated by race), and he argues, poignantly and persuasively, that the great retreat into the backyard that accompanied suburbanization and the decline of the central cities has led to “atomized recreation and diminished public discourse.”
The Book of David
by David Steinberg (Simon & Schuster)
The likable, well-known Canadian comic’s first book finds him plying his well-worn sermonizing shtick and proto–Larry Sanders name dropping–cum–celeb bashing. His tongue-through-cheek pronouncements aren’t likely to win converts, but his hand-wringing, Old Testament–spoofing asides are a nice sop to the Borscht Belt faithful.
The Enigma Woman
by Kathleen A. Cairns (Nebraska)
At the time James M. Cain’s noir classic The Postman Always Rings Twice appeared, a real slice of that kind of Californian life was unfolding in a Los Angeles courtroom and in the sensationalistic press. After a trial in 1934 for murdering her abusive husband, which featured inadequate defense counsel and a judge who was summoned to take the witness stand against her, Nellie May Madison became the first woman in Southern California sentenced to execution. Cairns tells her story with considerable sociological and psychological acuity. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this tale is how the cut-and-dried, seemingly heartless justice system of the 1930s ultimately produced a punishment that was just and enlightened and would generally satisfy today’s more liberal attitudes toward spousal abuse and homicide.
Troubling the Waters: Black-Jewish Relations in the American Century
by Cheryl Lynn Greenberg (Princeton)
The vexed topic of black-Jewish relations in 20th-century America requires a brave writer, and Greenberg confronts the issue with honesty and dedication. While she provides ample evidence that the golden age of cooperation between the two groups wasn’t as harmonious as generally believed, she also provides numerous examples of cohesion during the more fraught times. Greenberg is not only adept at uncovering little-known controversies and victories; her brief exposition of the famous New York City teachers’ strike in the late 1960s, an incident widely credited with bringing to a boil simmering black-Jewish tensions, is a masterpiece of compression and insight.
Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Portraits of Married Life in London Literary Circles 1910–1939
by Katie Roiphe (Dial Press)
At first glance, this might seem like a chance to trip lightly through territory too well trod to justify yet another retrospective. Does anything about, say, that romantic entanglement at Charleston between Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, and David Garnett merit more explication? But Roiphe is original and offbeat. She adroitly exposes the human cost of these brave new experiments, both to the participants and to the innocent victims caught up in their dramas.
Motherland: A Philosophical History of Russia
by Lesley Chamberlain (Overlook/Rookery)
A lifelong student of all things Russian, the British-born Chamberlain reported for Reuters in Moscow; but even after Soviet Russia appeared to have eclipsed Mother Russia, the author continued her search for the country’s national essence. Her earlier books, whether on Russian food or weightier aspects of culture, revealed an uncommonly attractive writer—and she remains so even when taking on the daunting task of summing up a nation’s philosophy. Individualism, she argues, which was burgeoning in the early 20th century before being swept aside in 1917 by the Communist Revolution, is key to a unique Russian philosophical tradition. Chamberlain follows her avatar, the philosopher-sage Isaiah Berlin, who serves as Homer to her Virgil in this heroic task.
Silent Movies: The Birth of Film and the Triumph of Movie Culture
by Peter Kobel, foreword by Martin Scorsese, introduction by Kevin Brownlow (Little, Brown)
Despite its lofty title, this is chiefly a picture book. The text thinly surveys the development of silent film in somewhat arbitrary sections—“Promotion and the Press,” “The Art of Film,” “The Stars.” But, to quote the introduction by Brownlow (whose classic account The Parade’s Gone By probes the subject far more profoundly), the book makes “an ideal introduction to the silent cinema,” chiefly because of Kobel’s delight in his subject and the splendid pictures from the Library of Congress’s film collection—production stills and portraits, lobby posters, et al.; more than 400 illustrations in all—most of which will be new to readers.
The Great Funk
by Thomas Hine (FSG)
A sequel of sorts to the successful Populuxe (which smartly considered cultural curlicues of the 1950s and ’60s), Hine’s latest social history is half as satisfying. Taking the form of a quixotic quest, it strives—discursively—to vindicate the ’70s by showing what the decade bequeathed to posterity (big cars and bad clothes, apparently—oh, and Annie Hall). A noble experiment, perhaps, but one that too often tests tendentious hypotheses: While it’s hard to dispute the period’s societal-nadir status (crime, oil, war, etc.), it’s easy to dismiss the notion that Jaws is a post-Watergate allegory. Hine manages some nifty observations (particularly with regard to fashion and design), and his clean prose is never less than engaging, but it’s all in the service of a thesis as scattershot as the “Me Decade” itself.