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Manning Up: How the Rise of Women Has Turned Men into Boys
Kay S. Hymowitz, Basic, $25.95 (187p) ISBN 978-0-465-01842-0
What do Adam Sandler movies, Maxim magazine, and South Park have in common? According to journalist Hymowitz’s unpersuasive polemic, they are compelling evidence that “crudity is at the heart of the child-man persona,” an increasingly ubiquitous personality type among men age 20–40 who don’t grow up because they don’t have to. Weaving together the socioeconomic and cultural paradigm shifts of the last half-century, Hymowitz identifies the appearance of “a new stage of life” in developed societies–pre-adulthood–where the traditional life-script: grow up, marry, have children, and die, is now: “What do I want to do with my life?” But in a world where social demands no longer equate manhood with maturity, frat dudes, nerds, geeks, and emo-boys can remain in suspended postadolescence, while women, whose biological clocks are ticking, are forced to choose between single parenthood and casting their lot with a “child-man.” It’s a provocative argument that Hymowitz advances with considerable spirit, but she conflates character with maturity, and her blaming feminism for the infantilization of men wrests more power and control away from men, suggesting that they can’t develop a sense of responsibility without a woman’s help.
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Ethical Wisdom: What Makes Us Good
Mark Matousek, Doubleday, $25.95 (272p) ISBN 978-0-385-52789-7
Matousek (Sex Death Enlightenment) makes a case for why human beings are inherently ethical creatures in a provocative book that suffers from uneven execution. Wired from birth with “mirror neurons” that function involuntarily, and cause us, for instance, to tear up when others cry: “Emotions, not reason,” Matousek asserts, “are the bedrock of ethical life.” Drawing on philosophy, neurological and psychiatric research, anthropology, pop psychology, and mysticism, he debunks the belief that organized religion is a necessary framework for an ethical sense, and demonstrates that moral behavior evolves out of a complex interaction between our built-in empathy for those we identify as like ourselves, and the way we respond (or don’t respond) to the supposedly abstract suffering of those we deem as “other.” In the hands of an Oliver Sacks, this braiding of the scientific, moral, and anecdotal could be revelatory; Matousek, however, repeatedly substitutes opinions and inferences for fact, sapping his argument’s credibility and his reader’s patience.
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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.”
Starstruck: The Business of Celebrity
Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, Faber and Faber, $26 (307p) ISBN 978-0-86547-909-8
Currid-Halkett (The Warhol Economy) takes a tasty subject and rehashes it into sawdust in her repetitive study of celebrity. She dissects the “collective fascination with some people over others,” postulating that our preference for watching television and surfing the Internet over actual engagement has created a public “lonelier than ever” but with free, instant access to indulge our “voyeuristic tendencies.” Analyzing the appeal of personalities as disparate as Paris Hilton and Bill Gates, she concludes unremarkably that celebrity has little to do with talent or fame, but with an unquantifiable “light” recognized and exploited by those whose livelihoods depend on star-based revenue, including the media. Having made this point, the remainder of the book is reiteration, supported with diagrams and tables that seem unnecessary in supporting the incontrovertible conclusion that “celebrity ultimately hinges on whether we decide to pay attention or not.” A glimmer of interest flares on the penultimate page of the book, when Currid-Halkett observes that, “on the whole many of us care far more about [Jennifer] Aniston’s latte than the thousands being murdered in Sudan,” a more puzzling phenomenon that could have proved a more promising focus.