MAHOGANY: The Costs of Luxury in Early America
Jennifer L. Anderson
404 pp., $35
What does your dining room table say about you? In 18th century America, a good deal; if a wealthy landowner’s table was made of mahogany, chances were good that any portrait painted of him would include its smooth, reflective surface. Because of its associations with gentility and good taste, along with its expense and exotic rarity, “mahogany objects . . . became desirable status symbols among the social elite.” Harvested throughout the West Indies and Central America, mahogany is deeply entwined with colonialism and slavery — the word, writes Anderson, comes from the Yoruba word “M’Oganwo,” so named when newly arrived slaves saw in the tree something that reminded them of a west African tree back home.
Scholarly but accessible, the book traces this interconnected history, as well as the complex cultural meanings of the consumer goods made from mahogany. After its peak from the early 18th century to the mid-19th, overharvesting led to an influx of cheap veneers; when people worried about whether the mahogany they bought was real, Anderson points out, “differences in materials served as an apt metaphor as well for class differences” in a rapidly changing America.
CONNING HARVARD: Adam Wheeler, the Con Artist Who Faked His Way Into the Ivy League
224 pp., $21.95
Adam Wheeler faked his way into Bowdoin and Harvard; his plagiarized work in college won him prizes for poetry and literary criticism, and nearly snagged him a Rhodes scholarship. Even when he was caught trying to pass off a doctored essay by Professor Stephen Greenblatt as his own work, Wheeler continued to forge a false identity, applying to Yale, Brown, and Stanford (Stanford admitted him) before Harvard filed charges against him for fraud. The case delighted some in Boston – a Herald columnist praised Wheeler for having “hoisted Harvard on its own pompous petard” – and this book about the case offers the same naughty thrill, as well as indicting a system in which even super-achievers will do anything to get ahead.
Zauzmer, who is managing editor of the Harvard Crimson, skewers those who were taken in by Wheeler and quietly holds up as heroes those who weren’t, especially English Professor James Simpson, whose sharp eye and good judgment helped end Wheeler’s con. When it comes to the book’s central character, however, even the best reporter would come up empty. “This was not only a student who cheated in his classes and on his applications,” Zauzmer points out. “This was a person who in many respects simply was not who he said he was.” We’ll never know what motivated Adam Wheeler (who in 2011 violated the terms of his probation by presenting himself as a Harvard graduate and earned himself a prison sentence). One judge sent him for a psychiatric evaluation, after which a doctor asserted that he was not mentally ill, just a liar. But even among students who don’t go nearly as far as he did, cheating is rampant (Zauzmer quotes from one survey in which 80 percent of students said they copied homework, and 25 percent admitted they had lied on the survey itself), and the pressure to win admission to the most prestigious schools is brutal.
The People of Forever Are Not Afraid
352 pp., $24
From Homer to Hemingway, the history of western literature is built upon war stories; overwhelmingly, though, these are tales of boys and men. From Israeli writer Shani Boianjiu, a veteran of her country’s defense forces (in which youth of both sexes are required to serve), comes a war story as raw and tough as any written by a man – but one whose soldiers must also grapple with tampons and mean girls and unexpected pregnancies. With its blend of brutal hilarity and heart-stopping anguish, this is a brilliant debut novel.
Boianjiu’s three heroines are childhood friends who’ve grown apart – popular, powerful Lea; irreverent Yael; and Avishag, who mourns her family’s dissolution through divorce and the suicide of an older brother. All came of age amid random violence – as one girl imagines the man next to her is a suicide bomber, she realizes that “even if the bus did explode nothing would have changed” – and as they enter the army each nourishes her own fragile hopes: a boyfriend, a good job, peace. Amid the dark humor and often shattering violence, Boianjiu and her brave soldiers recognize the necessity of connection, and common bond of human need and hurt.