Few sound bites from the 2008 U.S. presidential race received the sort of scrutiny given Hillary Clinton’s voice cracking with emotion as she explained why she was running: “I just don’t want to see us fall backwards,” she said. “I see what’s happening and we have to reverse it.” What she was alluding to is writ large in Big Girls Don’t Cry, Rebecca Traister’s trenchant, entertaining analysis of the historic campaign. “It cried,” one commentator sneered at Clinton’s rare show of vulnerability, ignoring the fact tears weren’t shed. Traister, who covered the election for Salon.com, sees the landmark moment reflecting the campaign’s bizarro reversal of traditional gender roles: Clinton downplayed her “femaleness” and focused on policy, while the Oprah-endorsed Barack Obama scored points exploiting the touchy-feely language of women’s magazines.
Such astute observations elevate what could have been a history lesson to must-read cultural criticism. Traister, an Edwards-turned- Obama-turned-Clinton supporter, argues, not always convincingly, that an election filled with identity politics was good for women: “What was once called the women’s liberation movement found thrilling new life.”
Overt sexism directed at Clinton (the “F–k Hillary, God Knows She Needs It” signs, the $19.95 Hillary “nutcracker”) galvanized women, Traister points out. As did Michelle Obama’s transformation from an outspoken, reluctant political wife to a smiling, unthreatening “Stepford-ized” first lady. More, though, a campaign focused on identity politics revealed the diversity of female opinion, reflected in the generational divide in feminist support for Clinton and a new vibrant younger feminist wave. This detonated the myth of a “feminist monolith,” or as Traister drolly puts it, “some accredited synod that takes away your disposable razor and issues you a gift card for two free abortions.”
Traister is at her most compelling musing over her conflicted feelings about how Clinton’s run paved the way for Sarah Palin. And how, in turn, Palin’s “retro” femininity then gave way to “Mama Grizzlies” harnessing gender as a new force in the GOP. If you want to know how they did it, this is the book to read.
– ANNE KINGSTON
Between 1894 and 1897, vagabond Joseph Vacher roamed the rural byways of France, killing at least 11 people, mutilating and often sexually assaulting them after death. Almost all of his known victims were teenaged shepherds (five boys and five girls) whom he encountered in lonely pastures. Caught by a fluke—his last attempted victim was still within hearing range of her companions—Vacher would probably have gone free after his three-month sentence for attempted rape (his assumed motive and a misdemeanour under French law) if not for a handful of pioneers in the concepts and techniques of forensic science. Starr, a veteran science writer, intertwines the stories of Vacher and of the men who would prove to be his downfall, in a gripping account of a crucial stage in the creation of the modern criminal justice system.
The scale of Vacher’s wanderings—the crime scenes spanned almost 1,000 km—and localized policing meant authorities had no idea a serial killer was at work. Instead, rural cops carried on as they always had, throwing lovers—real, spurned or only imagined—in jail in hopes of a confession. But one local magistrate detected a pattern, and Starr follows one of the first recorded instances of criminal profiling, as Emile Fourquet collects witness stories, puzzles his way through botched autopsy reports, plots a map of the crimes and sends a warning letter to his colleagues, describing the sort of man to be sought—a letter read by the official who had just sentenced Vacher for the attempted rape.
Once on trial for murder, Vacher, pleading insanity, faces Dr. Alexandre Lacassagne, the greatest criminologist of his era, who had previously regularized autopsies to scientific standards and conducted groundbreaking research in psychology. Lacassagne’s testimony turned the trial into a startlingly modern event, leaving judge and jury wrestling with the same questions they do today: how can insanity be evaluated and judged, and what sort of punishment, if any, could fit such crimes?
– BRIAN BETHUNE
In this engaging memoir, a theoretical physicist reveals his highly unusual career trajectory: one year he was a delivery boy in Copenhagen, the next he was studying for his Ph.D. at Cambridge University—with no prior university education and the most dismal of high school transcripts. Born in Denmark, the son of a musician and a chorus girl, Moffat grew up in wartime England, to the accompaniment of bomb blasts and German bodies washing up on shore. The family moved so frequently that his education was spotty; suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder didn’t help.
At 19, headed nowhere fast, he picked up a popular science book, became an autodidact, and started writing papers on Einstein’s unified field theory. He wangled a meeting with Danish Nobel winner Niels Bohr; he corresponded with Einstein; he lucked into meetings with big-name, big-ego physicists who shrieked things like, “Einstein is an old fool!” Eventually, he impressed his way right into Cambridge. His memories of the eccentrics there, and heated wine-fuelled arguments between famous physicists furiously battling for immortality, are particularly lively.
Moffat ably renders controversies in physics in layman’s terms, and has a gift for explaining complex ideas without seeming to patronize. Best of all, the entertainment quotient of the book is high, and his portraits of the giants he has known are illuminating and frequently hilarious. At a conference, Paul Dirac’s wife screeches, when he emerges from an elevator, “Paul, you are so stupid! You can’t even put on your own trousers.” At a meeting in a restaurant, Murray Gell-Mann, father of the quark, puts his feet up on Moffat’s knees under the table; the author is too mortified to protest.
Moffat, who taught at U of T for many years, is a maverick, and throughout argues against what he sees as a herd mentality in his field. Today, pushing 80, he’s conducting radical work in particle physics at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, thereby proving his own maxim that to achieve success in physics, “one must be childishly optimistic, possess a thick skin and live a long life.”
– KATE FILLION
There are some titles that speak volumes by themselves, and Taylor’s promises a different—yet immediately obvious—concept of the War of 1812. The conflict, of course, is far more remembered in Canada, as one of the mythic building blocks of our nation, than it is in the U.S. (save by the American navy, which had a very good war). For Canadians, that Yankee lack of interest is easily explained: we won, or—distinction without a difference—fought the U.S. to a draw. The war’s outcome cannot be minimized for us: it is the single greatest reason why today one republic does not stretch from the Rio Grande to the North Pole.
Taylor, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian from the border state of Maine, wouldn’t quarrel over that evaluation of the war’s effect. But, looking past the Canadian patriotism that he persuasively argues grew up after the conflict and precisely because of it, he offers a startling take on just who fought this war: Americans, on both sides. (And often enough closely related Americans: Taylor unearths numerous examples of riven families.) Later generations of Canadians have tended to see Ontario’s Loyalist defenders as British, but they were not yet, and wouldn’t be for years to come. They too were Americans, refugees from a revolution that was every bit as socially divisive as it was ideologically bitter. How they responded to this rough new invitation to join the republic would decide the war.
The end of the conflict struck an enduring line through what was amorphous borderland, and heralded the birth of a new—but never entirely distinct—people on its northern side. Empire and republic, which had been at odds for a quarter century, learned they could—indeed, had to—get along. Taylor’s beautifully written book offers a War of 1812 that’s no longer an insignificant afterthought to the American Revolution, but its final, decisive act.
– BRIAN BETHUNE
During her four-year stint on TV’s Ally McBeal, and long before, actress Portia de Rossi, wife of Ellen DeGeneres, was plagued by bulimia and anorexia. It’s understandable if there is a deficit of sympathy for the struggles of a gorgeous blond actress. (Mea culpa.) But in a gripping memoir, de Rossi transcends her celebrity status and becomes just another girl standing on the bathroom scale, full of regrets.
How does she make us care? With humanizing details—of her striving to please others, her calorie counting and self-loathing. Unbearable Lightness is ideal reading for anyone who ever thought, “Why can’t they just eat?” We learn de Rossi is a brainy perfectionist who took ballet as a child, started modelling at age 12, then attended law school before heading off to Hollywood. By 15, she was taking handfuls of laxatives and appetite suppressants while binging and purging. The yo-yo dieting ruled her life, to the exclusion of all else. (The book’s secondary characters are Splenda, Diet Coke and her treadmill.)
De Rossi (née Amanda Rogers) is an unexpected misfit: an Australian in America, a lesbian in Hollywood, and an “average” girl struggling to have the body of an actress. She retreated into an obsessive world, consuming only 300 calories a day. At 90 lb., she ate only one third of a can of tuna. Her eventual collapse came while filming a movie in Toronto and staying at the Windsor Arms Hotel, where she ate only pickles and mustard before vomiting up glasses of wine. Unbearable Lightness is a cautionary tale for anyone who “just wants to excel at dieting,” as she puts it. “I didn’t decide to become anorexic. It snuck up on me.”
– JOANNE LATIMER
In the opening pages of Nelson’s first novel in a decade, a prosperous Houston realtor named Misty drives off a cliff and dies. Cattie, her mildly wayward teenage daughter who’s been sent off to an East Coast boarding school, is now an orphan. Catherine, Misty’s best friend from high school, is notified that she is now the guardian of a child she’s never even heard of; she and Misty parted ways long ago.
Catherine, amiably vague and still pretty in her 40s, is now married to an elderly Lothario, who’s cheating on her with an even younger woman. Rich and vain, he’s not the kind to be touched by the plight of an orphan, particularly not a stolid, unattractive one like Cattie. He prefers “the capacity to blush or jump in alarm. The gestures of low self-esteem, that charming hardship, that sexy chink.”
Nelson, best known for brilliant short stories in the New Yorker, is a master of surgically precise observation, and Bound is full of them. As Catherine tries to decide whether to take in her dead friend’s daughter, she remembers Misty’s bad teeth, which made her “the epitome of white trash: she had a car but not a dentist.” Back then, Misty had seemed admirably tough to middle-class Catherine, and the girls egged each other on to binge drink and hook up with older boys, then cops. Today, Catherine shudders to think that “one red light, one inexplicable pill, one bad man, one unforgivable decision, and everything would have turned out otherwise.”
More character study than traditional novel, Bound bumps along with no shattering climax or neat resolutions, shifting between characters in a style that in short fiction is intriguingly elliptical but in a novel means that questions—pressing ones—are left unanswered. How did Misty propel herself out of the trailer park? And why doesn’t anyone grieve for her? Nelson’s witty, unpretentiously literary prose is so entertaining that it almost conceals a gaping absence: she is not bound enough to her own novel to tie up its loose ends and give it a heart.
– Kate Fillion