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The Winter of Our Disconnect: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept with Her iPhone) Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the Tale Susan Maushart, Penguin, $16.95 trade paper (329p) ISBN 978-1-58542-855-7
Maushart (The Mask of Motherhood) embarked with her three teenagers on a six-month screen blackout (no cellphones, iPods, PCs, laptops, game stations, or television) to discover if the technology intended to stimulate and keep us virtually more connected was, as she suspected, making us actually more disconnected and distracted. Ironically, Maushart may have gone screen-dark, but her writing remains riddled with “textspeak”–“LOLs,” “WTFs,” emoticons–and exhausting chipperness and self-conscious “hipness,” which all distract from an otherwise intelligent and eloquent core text. Funny and poignant precisely when it is not trying to be, this book vacillates between diary entries (written longhand) and deeply researched reportage, which brings needed balance to the subject of new media, often touted as either the answer to all of our problems or the accelerant of societal doom. What Maushart’s experiment uncovers is a commonsense conclusion: in a world of proliferating demands on our attention, exercising the on/off switch is the ultimate practice in understanding connection.
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American Plastic: Boob Jobs, Credit Cards, and Our Quest for Perfection
Laurie Essig, Beacon, $26.95 (240p) ISBN 978-0-8070-0055-7
Essig, assistant professor of sociology at Middlebury College, argues that our national obsession with plastic money and plastic surgery is more than a cultural fad; it’s a capitalist conspiracy engineered to persuade Americans that problems of economic insecurity, downward mobility, and lack of opportunity for the poor can be solved by consumption. Essig posits that the national tendency toward self-reinvention has been hijacked into a new and impossible American Dream: attaining the perfect body. She traces this shift to the 1980s, when trickle-down Reaganomics, financial deregulation, and the AMA’s decision to allow cosmetic surgery marketing converged with a neoliberal rhetoric wherein “public issues became defined as personal troubles and problems of lifestyles.” America’s classic preoccupations with “rugged individualism” and “self-improvement” shifted to the literal canvas of our physical bodies; the result, Essig cautions, is a “plastic ideological complex,” a relationship to our personal and national self-image that will lead to an economically and emotionally insecure future. Essig has a brisk, smart style and she approaches her subject with a welcome serving of wit–which keeps her message on target even as some of her prescriptions (forming “reality-check” groups with our friends) are woefully insufficient.