Separate, But Equal
State By State: A Panoramic Portrait of America edited by Matt Weiland and Sean Wilsey. Ecco, $29.95.
State By State’s tagline is “Take Pride in Your Country,” and those words never felt more earnest than at the twilight of 2008, with a new, black president-elect and a renewed sense of global (and domestic) goodwill towards Americans, who often seem to come through in a pinch. The book also comes at a time of high unemployment and perplexingly low gas prices. State By State may be the inspiration for you to load up the Vanagon with a cooler of cold cuts and mosey along the (remaining) blue highways of the U.S.
The premise for State By State can’t miss: Take 50 writers and have them check the pulse of 50 states for an updated take on the Federal Writers’ Project’s American Guide Series, a New Deal program that sent unemployed writers across America to write travel guides. While State By State doesn’t pretend to be a travel guide (other than offering census data on each state), it does color in the blanks of our imperfect union, and not always in red or blue Sharpies.
Some matchups are spot-on: Rick Moody on Connecticut, Barry Hannah on Mississippi, Carrie Brownstein on Washington, Alexander Payne on Nebraska, Jonathan Franzen on New York. Joe Sacco, the graphic novelist, writes about his connection to umbrellas and girlfriends for the chapter on Oregon. One of Sacco’s recent girlfriends is a sommelier, and he accompanies her on trips to Willamette Valley vineyards for tastings. “At these moments, watching her isolate the attributes of the wine,” Sacco writes, “I almost begin to understand how it all fits together — this climate, this soil, this person.” Each writer may be writing about a place, but, tellingly, every story inevitably focuses on the people. — Chuck Adams
We Know Not What We Do
Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely. Harper, $25.95. A New York Times Notable Book of 2008.
This full-length book reads like a thriller in some ways, a mystery that Detective Dan Ariely, our intrepid guide to human behavior, solves with aplomb. Those like Ariely, a behavioral economist, can watch with kindly benevolent amusement as humans young and old, smart and stupid, thoughtful and unthinking alike get drawn into patterns that, looked at with logical economic skill, make no sense. But humans aren’t rational actors, Ariely argues with impeccably fascinating illustrative studies to back himself up. There’s the famous Amazon Free Shipping example, which leads people to spend a lot more on books than they planned — that is to say, when something is free, you’re likely to pay a lot more for it. There’s the study about how reciting a number (say, the last two digits in your Social Security number) will influence how much money you’re willing to spend. There’s relativity and decoys: Things look good in comparison to other things close to them. Ariely advises single people, based on these studies, to take a friend with a similar but less attractive appearance to social gatherings in order to garner more interest.
The book’s not only fascinating but makes for intersting thought experiments about personal economics. Ariely points out that it’s almost impossible for people to save unless we never see the money in the first place. A program that forces us to save five percent of our income would be good for almost everyone, but there’s hardly a chance politicians could implement something like that without getting called “the nanny state” by people who have little desire to help us fight our own natures. Altering physician scale pay so family practitioners don’t have to think they’re taking a pay cut compared to their star classmates in surgery also starts to sound like a great public health idea that will never, ever occur. By the way, this book’s funnier and cheaper than taking an economics class — not to say that it’s cheap; at $25.95, it’s an investment we’d all be well-advised to make. — Suzi Steffen
It’s Bigger Than Hip Hop: The Rise of the Post-Hip-Hop Generation by M.K. Asante, Jr. St. Martin’s Press, $25.95.
Since the advent of youth subcultures, corporations have been there to co-opt, exploit and profit from those innovations while omitting the near-universally anti-corporate, anti-consumerist sociopolitical agendas that sparked those movements in the first place. Just look at what happened to punk rock. In It’s Bigger Than Hip Hop, M.K. Asante addresses the repercussions of hip hop’s commodification (and the other cultural influences that perpetuate it). Mostly, it’s good stuff: an interview with seminal raptivist Dead Prez, a timeline of historical events that have influenced hip hop and a mention of the suspicious removal of “The Rape Over,” a song with controversial lyrics, from Mos Def’s 2004 album The New Danger by his record company, Rawkus (a Geffen subsidiary).
At its core, It’s Bigger Than Hip Hop is less about hip hop and more about the causes of black America’s sorry plight, with special emphasis on the consequences of hip hop’s commodification by large corporations who’ve been marketing an identity to a new generation of youth — black, white and otherwise — who worship the golden calf of consumerism. Asante’s thesis? Hip hop once served as the voice to a political movement, and it’s high time we reclaimed that voice (and the movement) from the corporations who kept hip hop’s style but removed its message, transforming a flesh-and-blood movement into a decked-out mannequin without a soul. Unfortunately, Asante doesn’t mask his radical politics, which, while they’ll fire up the choir he’s preaching to, may keep him from reaching anyone else. And that’s a damn shame. — Sara Brickner
This Pequeño Piggy Went to Market
Everything But the Squeal: Eating the Whole Hog in Northern Spain by John Barlow. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25.
John Barlow, a British food and travel writer who lives in Spain, decides to sample as many pig parts as possible in a single year. He does so under the disdainful eye of his vegetarian wife, dour rural restaurateurs and obliging traditional cooks in the muddy hills of Northern Spain.
This travelogue is the latest contribution to what Dwight Garner in a New York Times review calls “Pig Lit,” a genre of culinary writing unafraid of the grisly bits, perhaps best exemplified by Fergus Henderson’s cookbook The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating. Barlow’s journey is not merely one of blubbery snouts and bladder puddings, however; it meanders into Spanish politics and history. We learn of the deleterious effect of Franco’s regime on Carnivale festivals and heritage hog breeds as Barlow explores the high and low of pig cuisine in northern Spain, where sous vide ribs meet boiled tails nestled in a stew of slimy greens and pink bits.
The writing sometimes gives way to — forgive me — ham-handed prose, repetitious descriptions of suspicious locals and the horror of Barlow’s vegetarian wife. But when Barlow is in the moment, gnawing on fatty pork cheek after being showered with filth and live ants at an ancient festival, well, some of us may shudder, but the more porkulent will feel the stirrings of craving: Belly’s pork confit, anyone? — Jennifer Burns Levin
I Have Fun Everywhere I Go: Savage Tales of Pot, Porn, Punk Rock, Pro Wrestling, Talking Apes, Evil Bosses, Dirty Blues, American Heroes, and the Most Notorious Magazines in the World by Mike Edison. Faber & Faber, $25.
The editing and publishing career of Mike Edison, a shameless Ivy League drop-out, led him to High Times, Hustler, Penthouse and Screw. As he puts it, “That’s not a résumé, that’s a crime scene.” In between magazine gigs and touring Europe and the U.S. with raunchy punk bands, he wrote 20 pornographic novels and chronicled all of his escapades like the media whore he freely admits he is. Edison slags everyone and everything with abandon, and drags the reader along on a journalistic thrill ride of gonzo proportions. — Vanessa Salvia
The Battle for Wine and Love, or How I Saved the World from Parkerization
by Alice Feiring. Harcourt, $23.
This is a heart-warming little book about how Feiring came to love wine, made a writing career out of her love and then turned the career into a crusade to reverse “Parkerization,” defined as a response by vintners trying to make wines that would garner 90+ points on the 100-point scale devised by ex-lawyer-turned-wine-critic Robert Parker, publisher of The Wine Advocate, the most influential wine newsletter in the world. It’s simple money/sales greed that has led to wines that taste pretty much the same: big “fruit bombs” with no character. Despite Feiring’s brave best efforts, Robert Parker is thriving — and so is Parkerization. Funny book. — Lance Sparks
You Thought You Knew Me
The Importance of Music to Girls
by Lavinia Greenlaw. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $23.
Imagine a middle-aged, middle-class British female on a date — make it the third date, when the bloke sitting across from her is still clueless about her past but likes her enough to ask for the whole story -— who, egged on by her date’s curiosity, spends the whole night recalling the foibles of her youth. OK, now name her Lavinia Greenlaw, transcribe her words onto 205 pages and BAM! you have yourself The Importance of Music to Girls.
Lucky for us (her “dates”), Girls is overall a pleasant read. Greenlaw’s prose is generally formal and distant, creating a distinct break between the classy professor she is now and the punk rock teenager she was back then. She removes herself from her own experiences to cast a detached, analytical eye on her past, stumbling on the occasional cuss word to distinguish the “rebelliousness” of her youth.
Though not incredibly thought-provoking, the tales of teenage rebellion, desire for individuality and fluctuating experimental phases are easy to relate to for girls and boys alike. The real fun of the memoir comes from laughing at Greenlaw as well as yourself. Young audiences can identify with the silly adolescent mentality as they are living it, while older audiences can chuckle about the rashness of their youth with a hint of pride, as Greenlaw does. And if you really want to make the most of the novel, you can always read it with a British accent. — Mariam Wahed
Blood and Shit
The Two Kinds of Decay by Sarah Manguso. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $22.
The Two Kinds of Decay recounts poet Sarah Manguso’s struggle with chronic idiopathic demyelinating polyradiculoneuropathy (CIDP), a disease that doesn’t even have a proper name yet. But Manguso won’t be inhabiting a weepy-eyed pity city in her first published memoir. “With my own blood in me,” Manguso explains in her steady, reflective, matter-of-fact tone, “I couldn’t feel, and I couldn’t move, but with other people’s blood in me, and with chemicals in me, I could do those things.” Gulp. For needle-phobes and psychosomatic sufferers (myself included), Decay may induce feelings of lightheadedness.
What’s great about Manguso’s memoir is that it doesn’t have a grand narrative arc welded to its spine. Manguso begins her book with such a simple premise: “Now I can try to remember what happened. Not understand. Just remember.” Who hasn’t felt the urge to record momentous events after they happen in the hopes that, in less chaotic times, these idiosyncratic thoughts might offer some insight? But what insight Manguso gleans from her ordeal isn’t set in stone from page one; instead she picks away at her memories using sharp, poetic prose and neat, chewable paragraphs as bits and pieces of her past come into focus on the page. Eventually she unearths nuggets like “The only hard thing I’d done in my life was recovering from a disease,” but usually her revelations are sweeter, like her belief that having sex with her college friend was what led to the disease’s remission. Congratulations, Sarah Manguso, for writing the first memoir that made me sweat. A lot. — Chuck Adams
Getting It On for Science
Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach. W.W. Norton, $24.95.
First, it was dead bodies. Next, the scientific possibility of the soul. Now, it’s sex: sex research, to be more precise. Give Mary Roach a couple more decades, and she’ll have turned out tomes on every outside-the-norm aspect of science you can think of, and a few more for good measure. Her personable, conversational, wry tone — and her willingness to join in the studies when human subjects board guidelines keep her from observing others in certain, er, acts — make Roach a fantastic guide through the world of sex research, from John B. Watson, the first “to make the case for bringing sexual arousal and orgasm into the formal confines of a laboratory,” to Dr. Ahmed Shafik, a somewhat quirky fellow who studies things like “the effect of polyester on sexual activity.” (This involved rats in small pairs of pants.) Naturally, the more familiar names, like Kinsey and Masters and Johnson, make plenty of appearances as well.
Roach starts with the basics — what actually happens during sex, and how researchers figured that out — and moves on to less straightforward topics, like the health benefits of masturbation (and whether an inexpensive, non-prescription vibrator can do the job just as well as the spendy Eros Clitoral Therapy Device), and how paraplegics can have orgasms. Roach’s footnotes and asides are as funny, and as sharply observed, as her main text, but she never loses sight of the more difficult aspects of her chosen topic, particularly where human hearts, as well as human bodies, are involved. — Molly Templeton
Notes From An Overanalytical Journalist
Only Love Can Break Your Heart by David Samuels. The New Press, $26.95.
David Samuels begins this collection of journalistic and personal essays with a preface that proclaims “it has become harder and harder for freelancers like me to have any fun” before announcing his retirement from a decade-long career in magazine writing. That isn’t to say Samuels will quit writing for The Atlantic, Harper’s or any other publication that pays him to report from the press tent at Woodstock ’99, the rope line at a fundraising banquet for George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004 and, of local interest, the rain-slicked and moss-covered porches of Eugene’s Whiteaker neighborhood; it’s just not his main gig anymore.
In “Notes from Underground,” Samuels sweeps through Eugene shortly after the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle, talks with local anarchists (including a lengthy chat with John Zerzan), police officers and other persons of interest, but mostly just absorbs the look and feel of Eugene at the tail end of a millennium. “The distinctive generational emotions of foot-dragging anger, thwarted desire, and suicidal disconnection,” Samuels notes, “have at least as much to do with the rain and fog and cold as they do with the decay of the American social fabric or the anomie-inducing properties of an Internet-based society. The weather here is enough to make anyone miserable.”
Samuels may’ve been the first to claim the similarities between Islamic jihadists and the “savage cousins of the hippies who lived in buses in the woods in Oregon.” Regardless of your heritage, Samuels writes, “it sucks to be raised on a diet of tofu and rice.” — Chuck Adams
Neurotica For Fiftysomethings
When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris. Little, Brown and Company, $25.99.
David Sedaris’ recent collection of essays is so hilarious that you can almost forget the underlying quiet despair of mid-life crisis. He is 50 years old, wrestling with death and dying while trying to give up smoking Kools in Tokyo or manage an unruly flock of songbirds that menaces his home in the French countryside. As Sedaris contemplates the “9,125 relatively uneventful days” of his life, he wonders how the prime of life has passed so quickly, “and how can I keep it from happening again?” He trolls through banks of memories, from his childhood with a hedonistic babysitter and his parents’ attempts at art collecting to life with his partner, Hugh, and the strains coupledom places on his psyche.
One stand-out in this collection is about the unwittingly funny consequences of accidentally spitting a lozenge onto the lap of his seatmate on a plane. As usual, Sedaris’ strength lies in transforming life’s embarrassing, private and trivial moments into comedic gems that resonate with truth and beauty.
These aren’t new essays; 16 of the 22 were previously published in The New Yorker. But reading them more than once only enhances Sedaris’ prose. From a colorful, cussing neighbor to a truck driver who is obsessed with talking about oral sex to visiting a forensic examiner’s office while on assignment for Esquire, Sedaris never tires of mining his life for clues to explain his neuroticism. Here’s hoping that Sedaris gets another 50 years in which to share his transcendent take on the comedy that is life. — Vanessa Salvia
Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West
by Deanne Stillman. Houghton Mifflin, $25.
When I moved to Oregon, I discovered this state has herds of free-roaming wild horses east of the Cascades, and I became fascinated by them and the efforts to protect them. Mustang author Deanne Stillman was drawn into the wild horse issue when she read about the massacre of wild horses that took place in Nevada at Christmastime in 1998. 34 horses were shot and killed by a couple of U.S. Marines. “Why would someone go out and kill the animals that had blazed our trails, fought our wars, served as our most loyal partners?” she asks.
From this tragic incident, Stillman delves into an ecological, political and cultural history of wild horses in the West. She starts 65 million years ago with the evolution of the horse in North America and moves quickly to the return of the horse on the ships of the Spanish Conquistadors. Stillman intersperses fact with vivid imagery from incidents such as Custer’s last stand — a wild horse named Comanche was the only creature left alive of Custer’s troops — to wild horses in the movies and then on to modern day helicopter round-ups.
Stillman herself has become a wild horse advocate, and her book is particularly timely this year, as the government threatens to “euthanize” 30,000 of the last of America’s wild horses. It’s a fascinating introduction to the animal that leads the government, ranchers and environmentalists to squabble but little girls to squeal with joy. — Camilla Mortensen
The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell. Riverhead, $25.95.
To a transplant from the American South, everything out here just seems so … new. Oregon has its pioneers and explorers, sure, but sometimes I miss the East Coast, where you can barely navigate a city street without tripping over a commemorative plaque. That’s why I enjoyed Sarah Vowell’s The Wordy Shipmates, in which the author trains the trademark, self-described “confrontational, chatty bent” that served her so well in 2005’s Assassination Vacation on a new nonfiction subject: the Puritan founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Among Vowell’s band of literate, loquacious and unexpectedly relatable Puritans, two figures stand out: John Winthrop, riding herd as governor of the burgeoning colony, and Roger Williams, co-founder of Rhode Island and agitator for both Native American rights and the free practice of religion.
The Wordy Shipmates is far from a dry history tome. This is your eighth grade history textbook as you wish it had been written. Vowell’s pop cultural name-dropping can be cloying at times, but it’s worth it to watch her make goofball comparisons of early 1600s events to episodes of The Brady Bunch. And in her more serious moments, Vowell is capable of drawing parallels between 17th century politics and our current national debates on immigration and the War on Terror.
And that’s the real trick to Vowell’s work. In demonstrating the relevance of these long-ago shipmates to our own lives, our own time, Vowell rescues the Puritans from consignment to construction-paper turkeys and charter bus tours of Boston. Vowell gives her Puritans a voice lacking in more static history texts and proves that our American forebears still have lessons to teach us. — Aaron Ragan-Fore
New York at Night
Central Park in the Dark: More Mysteries of Urban Wildlife by Marie Winn. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25.
The star of this book is the variety of wildlife that inhabits the wilderness areas within Manhattan’s 843-acre Central Park. Winn’s detailed observations chronicle the habits of the park’s nocturnal critters, from a visiting great horned owl to resident pheasants and rare moths. The human drama is recorded almost as affectionately as the natural mysteries unfolding throughout the park’s wilds; Winn and her fearless band of nature lovers brave rain, snow and the criminal element to discover the drama of slug sex, the roosting tree of thousands of robins and the fate of a family of screech owls. — Vanessa Salvia