The Boston Phoenix December 28, 2000 - January 4, 2001

[Book Reviews]

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Notable nonfiction

Nonfiction - the year in review

compiled by Mike Miliard

Experience: A Memoir, by Martin Amis (Talk Miramax). In this labyrinthine memoir, Britain's "Lucky Bastard Laureate" cracks his arrogant veneer by laying bare his life: a dismissive, alcoholic father (Kingsley Amis); a cousin killed by England's most notorious serial killer; divorce and separation from his children; and vicious public thrashings for crimes like wearing an "unfashionable suit." Experience reveals Amis as much more human than his detractors would have him portrayed.

As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl, John Colapinto (HarperCollins). In 1967, infant Bruce Reimer's penis was burned off in a botched circumcision. On the advice of a since-discredited doctor, his parents had him surgically castrated and set to raising him as a girl named Brenda. At age 14, Brenda renamed herself David and began the arduous transition back to maleness. In exploring the ethical and scientific quandaries inherent in the "nature vs. nurture" debate, As Nature Made Him is an engrossing read.

One Market Under God: Extreme Capitalism, Market Populism, and the End of Economic Democracy, by Thomas Frank (Doubleday). As corporate business casts its shadow across the globe, and triumphant "market populism" -- with its hipster CEOs and down-home investment clubs -- deepens the divide between haves and have-nots, Thomas Frank is a voice in the wilderness, a howling prophet calling for more justice, more equity, and more honest debate. Ultimately, Frank seeks to debunk the increasingly unquestioned notion that "free market" and "democracy" are interchangeable terms.

the year in review

art - classical - cultural explosions - dance - film
film culture - fiction - jazz - internet - law - local rock
local punk and metal - nonfiction - queer - pop
protest - theater - tv

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, by Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown). With a reporter's eye for detail and a crystalline writing style, Gladwell explains how "ideas and products and messages and behaviors spread just like viruses do." His examples extend from Paul Revere to The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood and teen smoking.

Black Mass: The Irish Mob, the FBI, and a Devil's Deal, by Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill (Public Affairs). One of the more sickening episodes in American law-enforcement history begins with two childhood chums from Southie -- Irish mob kingpin James "Whitey" Bulger and FBI agent John Connolly. Whitey acts as an informant, through Connolly, to the Feds. But soon enough, information is flowing in the opposite direction, too. Before long, the cops and the bad guys are indistinguishable. This true, complex, fascinating story reads like a novel -- and it's one that's uniquely Boston's.

Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation, by Jeffrey Meyers (Norton). An exhaustive look at the author of 1984 and Animal Farm, the last century's pre-eminent literary crusader against fascism, who coined terms like "newspeak" and "doublethink." Meyers artfully documents Orwell's democratic socialism and talent for satire as he sheds light on a man who reveled in his contradictions: "Etonian prole, anti-colonial policeman, bourgeois bum, Tory Anarchist, Leftist critic of the Left, puritanical lecher, kindly autocrat."

Quarrel & Quandary, by Cynthia Ozick (Alfred A. Knopf). In this collection of literary essays, Ozick tries to plot a course between art and politics. She finds, however, that they're not so easily separated -- the incisive writer's work (her art) is often inadvertently political. How does one respect art and history at the same time, she wonders? In pieces on Kafka, Dostoyevsky, Gertrude Stein, and Anne Frank, Ozick seeks to resolve the dilemma.

The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, edited by Karen V. Kukil (Anchor Books). Plath is a poet whose short, tragic life garnered as much (prurient) public interest as her work. These journals, the first edition to include two formerly sealed diaries, will satiate the "peanut crunching crowd" about which she wrote so contemptuously in "Lady Lazarus." Plath is popularly perceived as a victim of patriarchy or of her own immoderate artistic passion, but these journals offer no hard evidence for either view. They do reveal a tragic figure, clearly ahead of her time.

Nobrow: The Culture of Marketing, the Marketing of Culture, by John Seabrook (Alfred A. Knopf). In this age of media supersaturation, the idea that taste can be ordered into high-, low-, and middlebrow categories is extinct. Advertising, marketing, and demographic targeting have rendered things like "art" and "talent" all but obsolete. Now, there's only "buzz." Seabrook shows that we've entered a new world where even former arbiters of class and sophistication like the New Yorker cravenly seek the "next big thing" and the hype du jour, contributing to a culture of impermanence and profit-driven standards.

A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal that Nearly Brought Down a President, by Jeffrey Toobin (Random House). Speaking of the New Yorker, legal correspondent Jeffrey Toobin, who cut his teeth on the O.J. saga, dives with abandon into the quagmire of the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal here. We all know what happened, but this is the authoritative account of that thrilling and sickening spectacle, and Toobin somehow makes the whole overexposed mess compelling yet again.