Cover to Cover

A 1946 Monsanto ad promised consumers "the fabric of tomorrow." (Courtesy of MIT)

The Color Revolution
Regina Lee Blaszczyk

This fascinating book details how a group of unheralded “color engineers” created and standardized palettes for the American mass market. Delving into corporate archives, trade journals, and long-forgotten advertising from the 1890s to the 1970s, Blasz­czyk, a design historian, illuminates the economic forces and shifting cultural values that have influenced consumers’ color preferences—and she shows how industry has sought to fathom those trends and to anticipate and alter those preferences.

Blasz­czyk ranges from the advances in chemistry that revolutionized the dyestuffs industry, to the developments in the study of psychology that enhanced scientists’ understanding of color perception, to geographic-­cultural aesthetic differences (people in the West liked colored refrigerators; easterners and midwesterners preferred white). She explains how color engineers standardized the hues used in industry—so that all stop signs are precisely the same shade of red, and regardless of printer, all boxes containing the same product are exactly the same color; it’s no accident that the black of, say, a Maytag dishwasher matches the black of a Kenmore refrigerator.

The Color Revolution traces how the analysis, forecasting, and manipulation of color trends spread from the fashion industry to the production and marketing of durable goods—telephones, appliances, and, most crucially, cars. Indeed, Blaszczyk focuses her story on Detroit, where Ford’s black Model T gave way in the mid-to-late 1920s to GM’s colorful array (thanks in part to the innovations of color engineers who had learned their skills designing camouflage in the First World War), and where in the 1950s the car companies’ application of advances in acrylic technology allowed car finishes to permanently retain their color and gloss, thus eliminating the need for wax and polish. For the automakers, which had to make their palette decisions 18 months ahead of the December auto shows, the correct reading of consumers’ color preferences—using sophisticated if hardly precise economic and cultural analyses—amounted to a gigantic annual gamble.

Alas, although Blaszczyk has researched widely and deeply to produce an eye-opening book on a largely unexamined facet of everyday life, she makes one glaring, if largely inconsequential, error: “User-friendly latex paint was perfect for amateurs,” she writes. “Holly­wood depicted the do-it-yourself impulse in Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, with Myrna Loy playing a brush-wielding homemaker.” But Loy’s character never touches a brush, and in fact that movie’s most famous scene shows her giving elaborate and thoroughly ignored instruc­tions regarding paint color to her professional painter.

A Long and Happy Life
Reynolds Price

This acclaimed and precocious first novel by the southern literary giant Reynolds Price, reissued in a 50th-anniversary edition, begins and ends with episodes centered on the Delight Baptist Church. As fellow North Carolinian Allan Gurganus points out in his wide-ranging after­word, Price’s deep familiarity with the New Testament informed all of his work. His main character—generous, thoughtful, and true—is in some ways saintly, complete at one moment with a halo formed from the dust of the land of which she’s intimately a part.

She’s also a typical young woman, observed with unusual sensitivity, alternately tenacious and frustrated as she offers her considerable attractions to a man too self-absorbed to appreciate them. This is a story of sexuality—its magnetism and power, as well as its dangerous consequences for women—although, ironically, the single short scene that describes the sexual act is nearly devoid of physicality. The young woman is the focus, but this slim masterpiece is also an exquisite rendering of her community—­the rural underclass, both black and white, of Warren County, North Carolina, a “farmed-out sector of an unrich state,” as Gurganus puts it. Price neither condescends to nor elevates his subjects—he perfectly reveals them.

Rachel Cusk

This memoir, Cusk explained in an inter­view with The Guardian, grew out of an essay she was asked to write about feminism as understood through personal experience. The resulting piece, organically flowing yet tightly wrought, constitutes the first and finest chapter of this meditation on Cusk’s divorce. While people she encounters refer perkily to her post-marriage domestic arrangement as the “new reality,” Cusk is honestly and appropriately dour. Divorce is not a different thing; it’s a broken thing, she contends: it’s nothing. Astutely and adroitly, she examines contemporary social arrangements from the vantage point of one whose well-established order has disintegrated. The modern family, as she points out, is founded not on God or economics but on love, and so is vulnerable to, as she calls it, “the human need for war.”

Here, as in her novels, Cusk wields metaphors with the breathtaking accuracy and supernatural dexterity of a knife thrower: “Unclothed,” she writes, “truth can be vulnerable, ungainly, shocking. Over-dressed it becomes a lie.” She describes swallowing her solitary hours (while her children are with their father) “like hospital food” and compares a working mother to a space station that, to stay in orbit, requires repeated boosts of energy to counter the gravity that’s continually dragging it back to Earth. This book has provoked shrill disapproval in Britain from those who accuse Cusk of using her ex-husband and children for material, but although she’s clearly angry with “X,” she airs no dirty laundry and reveals nothing that could be considered even remotely private about her daughters.

“Navel-gazing” is another charge by those who seem determined to miss the point that this self-­examination explores the predicament of modern womanhood. Cusk, a self-professed feminist, should be credited for her honesty in trying to grapple with the often contradictory demands of motherhood and feminism, and even of feminism and femininity, and for admitting to emotions that confound her ideology. Within her marriage, she so assiduously strove for equality that she describes giving up her “primitive mater­nal right over the children” when she chose to provide financially for the family, while her husband sacrificed what she somewhat ambiguously calls his “law job” to care for their daughters. But when, after the divorce, her ex-husband demands that they share custody 50-50, she protests. “The children belong to me,” she finds herself saying, expressing a sentiment she admits intellectually is barbaric but never­theless feels is undeniable.

The rest of the book probes the dark aftermath of divorce from different angles—including a tooth extraction as an extended metaphor, intelligent analyses of several Greek myths, a disturbing account of a vacation gone wrong, and a story about a divorce from the point of view of an au pair—but although Cusk could not write poorly nor think sloppily if she tried, none of these disparate chapters is as finely formed as the bitter and beautiful opening.

Chapman’s Odyssey
Paul Bailey

Bailey’s elegant novel is a surprisingly comforting rendition of a life at its closing. As Harry Chapman lies in an open hospital ward, suffering from mysterious stomach pain and drifting in and out of consciousness, he’s visited not only by ghosts from his past, such as his acid-tongued mother and her eternally cheery sister, but also by the literary characters—Bartleby and Pip, for instance—who’ve peopled his life as a rare scholarly student in a tough south London school, a young actor, and a prize-winning novelist. Bailey draws these frequent (and in many cases super­ficial) literary allusions with a heavy, pedantic hand. Those who recognize them—and that will surely be the majority of readers interested in such a novel—will find them clunky, and those who do not will remain unenlightened. Still, Bailey, whose past novels include Peter Smart’s Confessions and Gabriel’s Lament, skillfully weaves a tapestry of light and shadow, pain and delight, refined and sordid pleasures, minor and major losses, and he shifts with impressive grace between the dream and solid worlds.

San Miguel
T. C. Boyle

Boyle returns to the desolate Channel Islands—the setting of his previous novel, When the Killing’s Done—this time to focus on San Miguel, the western­most of these bits of land off the coast of Santa Barbara. Boyle’s prose is generally so dramatically charged that it pushes his characters and plots to the edge of unreality—or at least it heightens reality—­but here, although his sentences are vivid and vigorous, and his observations are, as always, uncannily precise, the reader is aware not so much of the writer as of the three stalwart women whose rich stories he tells. Boyle draws his characters from life—a mother and daughter who lived briefly on the island in the late 19th century, and an unrelated woman who lived there during the Depression and into the Second World War. Of course, their personal situations determine their experiences—for one the place is a misery, for another a trap, and for the third mostly an idyll—and the island itself, by turns wind-­battered, fog-drenched, and sun-soaked, easily encompasses them all.