Cover to Cover

Image: Courtesy of Stephen Inglis

Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It
Maile Meloy

After two well-received novels, Meloy returns to the short story, the form in which she made her notable debut and to which her lucid style is arrestingly well suited. Many of these stories are set in Meloy’s native Montana, and all are about domestic distress—about love, mostly, and the trouble stirred up by its often inconvenient insistence. Several are poised in the limbo of adultery, in the time between act and confession. Always true to her wide-ranging though consistently introspective characters, Meloy convincingly depicts the inchoate emotion that drives people, while also distilling meaning from it.

What Do You Want From Me?
Terri Apter

A domestic reckoning of sorts, the latest book by Apter, a psychologist, is an in-depth look at “the inescapable power of in-laws.” Arguing that this universal aspect of intrafamily dynamics has been given short shrift (and consigned to the world’s chock-full-of-chestnuts joke bin), the British Apter searches both sides of the pond for illumination, interpreting the responses of 156 interview subjects in the U.S. and the U.K. while taking stock of her own experiences as a wife and mother. The result is something well beyond checkout-aisle platitudes: a keenly perceptive interpretation of the kinship structures, “fracture lines,” and recurrent emotions—resentment, ambivalence, acceptance—that are part and parcel of the in-law experience.

Fresh: A Perishable History
Susanne Freidberg

A dietary-cum-social history of the Mark Kurlansky/Michael Pollan sort, this smart, sweeping, and timely volume—appearing at a moment when buying locally and eating organically are fashionably responsible quests—considers the conundrums of industrial freshness. According to Freidberg, a Dartmouth professor, we all crave access to healthful, seasonal foodstuffs, yet we hunger equally for year-round convenience and value. The result: to open a refrigerator is to access a Pandora’s box of compromise and freighted trade. Cold storage, Freidberg argues, has altered tastes, damaged the environment, hurt the consumer, and helped facilitate the less-than-salutary shift from localism to globalism. The “stories” of six staples—beef, eggs, fruit, vegetables, milk, and fish—both reinforce her thesis and stand as discretely engaging narratives, each rendered with clarity and flair. Food, truly, for thought.

The Idler’s Glossary
Joshua Glenn and Mark Kingwell

This delightful chapbook proffers a puckish twofer: a whimsically learned defense of indolence and flaneurship—waged by scouring the philosophical/literary quiver and loosing darts of Schopenhauer, Byron, Bataille, Waugh, Lao-tzu, and others at that ageless bromide of the strong work ethic—and an engagingly etymological lexicon of loafing, past and present. Kingwell, a University of Toronto professor and prolific best-selling author, provides the former; Glenn, the columnist and Hermenaut editor/publisher, the latter. The tandem result—which splits the spiritual and stylistic differences between, say, The Devil’s Dictionary and Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow—is a morally agreeable study in contrasts: high-minded yet fair, droll yet purposeful, erudite yet engaging. The corrective poststructural conclusion? “The genius of idling is not its avoidance of work but rather its construction of a value system entirely independent of work.”

The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found
Mary Beard

Doing her level best to unpack the “Pompeii paradox”—how “we simultaneously know a huge amount and very little about ancient life” in Rome’s foremost ruin, the seaside city wholly consumed by a vomitous Vesuvius in 79 A.D.—Beard, the subversive and spiky Cambridge classicist, leaves few forensic (or semiotic) stones unturned. Alternately re-creating daily life and picking, brick by symbolic brick, at the abundant archaeological and psychological detritus, she proceeds to exhume, analyze, and reconstitute the time and place in a manner pleasing to traditionalists, revisionists, and inevitabilists alike.

Trucking Country: The Road to America’s Wal-Mart Economy
Shane Hamilton

Couched as a social history of the U.S. trucking industry and its blue-collar “bandit” discontents, this book is in fact a left-field take on the New Deal’s takedown. Arguing that long-haul drivers long ago helped sow the seeds of free-market rural conservatism—by disseminating cheap consumer goods on a broad geographic scale and abetting the rise of Big Agribusiness—Hamilton makes an aridly astute case for why many 20th-century trade regulations have been repealed, why a majority of red-state populists began to vote against what would seem to be their economic interests, and why certain postwar class skirmishes presaged the postmodern culture wars.

The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth: A Life
Frances Wilson

This searing portrait of Dorothy Wordsworth draws on her celebrated journals but refracts them through a distinctly now sensibility. This is not the Dorothy so movingly addressed at the conclusion of her brother’s magnum opus “Tintern Abbey.” Nor is this the self-effacing sororal companion of the poet’s youth, and helpmeet and support of his sedate later life. Here, she is at the center of a nest of incest, anorexia, and destructive passions reminiscent of Wuthering Heights (indeed, Wilson speculates that Emily Brontë based Heathcliff and Cathy on her understanding of the relationship between the Wordsworth siblings). For all the author’s aggressively contemporary psychological perspectives, Wilson has produced a deeply insightful, disturbing corrective to the conventional understanding of the angel of Dove Cottage.

The Hindus: An Alternative History
Wendy Doniger

Though its roots stretch to 1500 B.C. and its adherents number nearly 900 million, Hinduism—with its diffuse history, texts, and tenets—has long resisted easy chronology and Western familiarity. Enter Doniger, a professor at the University of Chicago, who gamely attempts organization and edification via narrative interpretation. En route, she mines and deconstructs canonical works of poetry and philosophy (Rig Veda, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita); explicates basic concepts and dualities (karma, dharma, castes); scrambles traditional histories (women, animals, and untouchables are accorded new standing); and considers the assorted upshots of British colonialism on Indian culture, thereby pushing the Hindu story to the present. This chronicle is profoundly erudite, thoroughly engrossing, satisfyingly hefty (700-plus pages!), and delightfully idiosyncratic.