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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.
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American Wasteland: How America Throws Away Nearly Half of Its Food (and What We Can Do About It)
Jonathan Bloom, Da Capo, $26 (368p) ISBN 978-0-7382-1364-4
Since the Great Depression and the world wars, the American attitude toward food has gone from a “use it up, wear it out, make do, or do without” patriotic and parsimonious duty to an orgy of “grab-and-go” where food’s fetish and convenience qualities are valued above sustainability or nutrition. Journalist Bloom follows the trajectory of America’s food from gathering to garbage bin in this compelling and finely reported study, examining why roughly half of our harvest ends up in landfills or rots in the field. He accounts for every source of food waste, from how it is picked, purchased, and tossed in fear of being past inscrutable “best by” dates. Bloom’s most interesting point is psychological: we have trained ourselves to regard food as a symbol of American plenty that should be available at all seasons and times, and in dizzying quantities. “Current rates of waste and population growth can’t coexist much longer,” he warns and makes smart suggestions on becoming individually and collectively more food conscious “to keep our Earth and its inhabitants physically and morally healthy.”
Living Large: From SUVs to Double Ds, Why Going Bigger Isn’t Going Better
Sarah Z. Wexler, St. Martin’s, $23.99 (222p) ISBN 978-0-312-54025-8
Wexler, a staff writer for Allure magazine, spent three years on the road, investigating America’s worship at “the Church of Stuff.” Wexler dives into America’s new normal where bigger is better and our landscape is dominated by starter castles, Barbie boobs, megachurches and megamalls, jumbo engagement rings, mammoth cars, and landfills visible from space. By turns horrified, tempted, incredulous, guilt-ridden, mystified, and captivated by these excesses, Wexler approaches her subject with a compassion born of her own complicity (she’s an SUV driver and enjoys her shopping). Though the book covers increasingly familiar postrecession “the party’s over” territory with the depth of an extended magazine piece, Wexler brings a friendly first-person perspective to her study of surfeit and of the psychology behind our compulsion to consume and squander, why “living large” is defended by some as our “God-given right as Americans” and in other cases, might be downright unavoidable.