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Short Takes

‘Drinking Water,’ ‘Boston Noir 2,’ ‘Superman is Jewish?’

DRINKING WATER: A History

By James Salzman

Overlook, 320 pp., $27.95

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Although it is necessary for life, many of us take water for granted. For as long as most Americans can remember, we’ve had access to running water at home and bottled water on store shelves. Still, as James Salzman uncovers in this sometimes unsettling book, we face serious concerns about shortages and access, not to mention our water supply’s safety from contamination — intentional or otherwise. Terrifyingly new as these threats may seem, Salzman argues that the history of drinking water is “fraught with legend and strife, science and religion, ethics and business.”

Consistently across cultures, water has long symbolized purity, life, youth, and health. Throughout recorded history, most societies have had laws or customs supporting a “Right to Thirst” — the idea that we must share water with any person, even outside of one’s tribe, who needs to drink. Yet, as Salzman points out, unequal access to water is also a longstanding tradition. In the Roman Empire, water for the masses was provided through public, communal sources, including grand fountains, while the rich enjoyed running water inside their homes (it ran nonstop, so a Roman household was delivered as much water in one day as a modern American household gets in two months). Occasionally stiff in tone (and featuring one bad stumble in discussing racially-segregated drinking fountains), the book nonetheless raises provocative questions about water as a public versus private resource.

BOSTON NOIR 2: The Classics

Edited by Dennis Lehane, Mary Cotton, and Jaime Clarke

Akashic, 251 pp., $24.95

A couple gunned down in their suburban home, a college student found murdered on a frigid campus footpath, an effete poetry critic who teams up with an ex-con to punish his ex-wife — these are among the victims and criminals gathered in “Boston Noir 2.” The first “Boston Noir” featured original stories by Dennis Lehane, Patricia Powell, Don Lee, and others; here the entries range widely, including novel excerpts, and the contributor list is delightfully quirky, including writers such as Joyce Carol Oates (with a 1977 story set in Quincy) and David Foster Wallace, who wrote portions of “Infinite Jest” while living in Brighton. The collection’s definition of “noir” is slightly more generous, too: George Harrar’s “The 5:22,” which takes place on the commuter rail from Kendall Square to Lincoln, feels more like a ghost story than anything else, though with a delightful twist.

The collection’s unifying element is a deep understanding of Boston’s Byzantine worlds of race and class — seen terrifyingly in Andre Dubus’s tale of milltown resentment and pampered preppies. In a quieter but no less acerbic vein, Barbara Neely’s detective-maid Blanche, serving canapés at a Brookline political soiree, observes: “In this town, white politicians and black ministers seemed to go together like tears and tissues.” Or, as Robert Parker’s Spenser says, in a much-missed voice: “Half the people in Cambridge sounded vaguely British. The other half sounded like me.”

SUPERMAN IS JEWISH?: How Comic Book Superheroes Came to Serve Truth, Justice, and the Jewish-American Way

By Harry Brod

Free Press, 208 pp., $25

Michael Chabon memorably fictionalized the world of Jewish comic book artists in his novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.” Beyond the demographics of its forefathers, Harry Brod argues, the entire genre is steeped in an indelibly Jewish sense of linguistic and visual energy, humor, and soul. It’s not just that Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster invented Superman; what makes the Man of Steel Jewish are his origins as an immigrant from a lost civilization, his role as avenging defender of underdogs, his cover as the assimilated and mild-mannered Clark Kent. “There are many ways of being Jewish,” Brod says, “and many ways of being a superhero.” In this smart, entertaining book — which ranges from Superman to Spider-Man, from Mad magazine to “Maus” — he examines and explores the deep connections between Jewish culture and some of our most enduring heroes.

Jewish artists gravitated toward the comics trade after midcentury anti-Semitism kept them out of fields like advertising. They avoided marking their heroes as Jewish, but Brod finds familiar themes, from Superman’s complicated masculinity and ethical battles to Spider-Man’s tortured survivor’s guilt; later, it became possible for Mad to pepper its pages with Yiddishisms, and for Marvel’s the Thing to burst out in a Hebrew prayer. Recently, though, Brod sees a worrisome trend in a “whitewashed” Superman of recent films, whose voyage from Krypton no longer evokes Moses, or Ellis Island, but instead carries overtones of a son sent to Earth to save it, Christ-like, from itself. No wonder he considers this book “an exercise in reclamation.”

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.
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