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in brief | kate tuttle

Capsule reviews of recent titles

I WEAR THE BLACK HAT: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined)

By Chuck Klosterman

Scribner, 214 pp., $25

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To borrow a trope Chuck Klosterman uses frequently, there are three things to know about his new book of essays, which, broadly speaking, ponders the definition and meaning of villainy through the lens of music, sports, politics, and pop culture:

1. His habit of assuming that his own feelings, beliefs, and opinions are held by “we,” “Americans,” or, most broadly, “people” makes it difficult to take many of his moral pronouncements as seriously as he seems to hope readers will. The royal “we” works when Klosterman writes about pop culture (an essay about hating, then not hating, the Eagles, is as entertaining as his breakout hit, “Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs”), but lends an air of solipsism, vagueness, or just plain laziness when he describes how “America” felt about subway shooter Bernhard Goetz, O. J. Simpson, or Joe Paterno.

2. Much of the book suffers from a strange lack of intellectual rigor. Essays exploring the hypothetical villainy of Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar seem willfully ignorant of American history, while Klosterman’s take on the Clinton-Lewinsky affair blithely sidesteps gender politics, leaving any remaining argument essentially hollow. It comes as no surprise that Klosterman describes himself later in the book as “an apolitical person” — still, that shouldn’t absolve him of understanding the landscape in which politics occur.

3. Klosterman has faced criticism for some flippant judgments in the year he’s written The New York Times’s The Ethicist column. This book will only amplify those critiques. Languid irony may be the perfect pose for pop music critiques, but it’s hopeless when musing on good and evil.

BLUE PLATE SPECIAL: An Autobiography of My Appetites

By Kate Christensen

Doubleday, 353 pp,, $26.95

The oldest of three girls whose father had left the family when she was very young, Kate Christensen grew up with a fierce love for her mother and sisters, a headstrong nature that got her into trouble, and a keen appetite for, well, everything. In this gorgeously written, boldly honest memoir, novelist Christensen recalls a peripatetic childhood, moving from bad neighborhood to good when her mother remarried a successful man, the lonely visit to a commune her father had founded in Oakland, Calif., and the confusing emergence of her own sexual power (the same day she flirts successfully with her older crush she comes home to find she’s gotten her first period; careful not to disturb her mother, she writes, “I launched myself into womanhood alone.” ).

Adult life turns to college, graduate school at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (which she remembers as “a man’s world, a boy’s network” ), and a loving but quarrelsome marriage that ends in divorce. Yet although Christensen faces down every single sad thing, the book is full of disarming humor and a rich appetite, both for the meals whose recipes dot the chapters and for life itself.

THE QUEEN BEE OF TUSCANY: The Redoubtable Janet Ross

By Ben Downing

Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 338 pp., illustrated, $28

In 1910 when the population of Florence, Italy, was around 200,000 people, the British consulate estimated that 35,000 of them were British subjects. Chief among them was Janet Ross, known to thousands as “Aunt Janet,” a writer, translator, and grande dame who hosted visitors from Mark Twain to Henry James to William Gladstone at her villa, Poggio Gherardo. In Ben Downing’s lively, immensely entertaining biography, we meet Ross as the then 5-year-old Janet Duff Gordon, celebrating her birthday with a guest list of only adults, including the novelist Thackery.

“Spirited, brassy, imperious” is how Downing describes her as a child, and the qualities endured through her early married life in Egypt, followed by a long tenure in Tuscany, beginning in 1867. Described by even those who loved her as lacking an inner life, Ross seemed delighted to live hers in as outward-facing manner as possible: There were weekly open houses, a constant stream of guests, endless domestic and agricultural tasks (Poggio Gherardo included two small farms, worked under a traditional Tuscan form of sharecropping). While at times Janet Ross herself seems lacking in complexity, the book more than compensates with its rich evocation of the time, place, and characters.

THE END OF NIGHT: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artificial Light

By Paul Bogard

Little, Brown, 323 pp., illustrated $27

When was the last time you saw the Milky Way in the night sky? Many of us never have seen it, and if recent estimates are to be believed, 80 percent of American children won’t have the opportunity to experience a night dark enough to see the spiraling stars that make up our galaxy. In this lyrical, far-reaching book, Paul Bogard argues for the importance of darkness — both to see the stars and to truly know and understand ourselves. The stakes are more than aesthetic, Bogard says, for “night’s natural darkness has always been invaluable for our health and the health of the natural world, and every living creature suffers from its loss.”

Bogard ranges from national parks in the Southwest to Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond, to cities like Paris that use light to enhance their beauty, and cities like Florence that don’t. He debunks the popular notion that more lighting equals safer urban areas and meditates on the cultural meanings attributed to darkness and night. Part elegy, part call-to-arms, “The End of Night” feels like an essential addition to the literature of nature.

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