BEHEMOTH: The History of the Elephant in America
By Ronald B. Tobias
Harper Perennial, 512 pp., illustrated, paperback, $14.99
Likely the first elephant to touch American soil was brought here by a Salem merchant in 1796. The crowds of an energetic young nation flocked to see this seemingly ancient, implacable beast. From the start, elephants were both loved and feared — part of the thrill of seeing one came from knowing how easily it could rampage; they were “susceptible to alcoholism, depression, and fits of violence that sometimes left people mangled or dead.” Yet even when elephants ran amok, they won the public’s affection — Tusko, who crushed cars and buildings throughout the Pacific Northwest in the 1930s, was seen, Ronald Tobias writes, as “a lovable scofflaw.”
In his thoroughly entertaining history of elephants in America, Tobias muses on animal behavior, human psychology, and the business of the circus. Most insightfully, he looks at the elephant as stand-in for America itself. In the 19th century a new expression arose: “to see the elephant.” “It implied the loss of innocence and the cost of experience,” Tobias writes. The elephant, in this formulation, “was joy and pain, success and failure, freedom and slavery, and, most of all, he was life and death.” Lincoln adopted the elephant as the emblem of his Republican Party, an image critics married to that of a freed slave in a political cartoon mocking his Emancipation Proclamation. The relationship between Republicans and pachyderms was solidified, Tobias points out, during the 1912 election between elephantine William Howard Taft and long-faced Democrat Woodrow Wilson, whose party would soon be associated with the donkey.
CANDY: A Century of Panic and Pleasure
By Samira Kawash
Faber and Faber, 402 pp., illustrated, $27
Would you eat, much less serve, a concoction calling for “a delectable mixture of diced tomato, mayonnaise, and chopped Oh Henry! bars”? Author Samira Kawash points out that the recipe, which appeared in a 1926 manufacturer’s booklet, likely gained little traction in actual kitchens, but its very existence speaks to the questions at the heart of this book. One is whether or not candy is a food — a conundrum as modern chemistry and social mores combined to change our understanding of meals, snacks, and dietary health. “[C]andy is a nourishing and sustaining food,” said one turn-of-the-century expert, while another wrote a book, “Sugar as Food,” advising that adults could eat a quarter-pound of sugar a day with no ill effects. Needless to say, candy flourished in an era in which calories were coveted, vitamins hadn’t been discovered, and nobody yet knew why teeth rotted.
Some of the book’s most delicious bits come as Kawash details the candy industry’s shifting marketing strategies whenever new challenges arose, whether about its food value (Hershey labels in 1903 read “More sustaining than meat”) or its importance in the daily diet (Klein’s Lunch Bar’s slogan was “Lots of Milk, Smooth as Silk, Eat One Every Day”). As the nation began worrying more about obesity than skinniness, one industry pamphlet piped up, nonsensically: “Candy is a delicious food, eat some every day to help your diet work.” Still, Kawash is alert to the absurdities of the anti-candy forces as well, and her most withering social critique lands on “nutritionism,” an idea that she argues has led to candified fake foods of all types. Her prescription: “let candy be candy,” eat it in moderation, and the rest of the time, eat food.
HOW DOGS LOVE US: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain
By Gregory Berns
New Harvest, 248 pp., illustrated, $25
What is your dog thinking? How does she feel about you? Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University, wanted to explore what dogs’ brains can tell us about their cognition and emotion, particularly in regard to their relationship with us, their humans. Naturally, this meant he had to train his rescue pup to walk willingly into an MRI machine and lie down, motionless, as her brain was scanned.
Those of us who aren’t neuroscientists may have to take Berns’s word for what he learned — we have all read more than our share of neurobunk, and it’s hard for an amateur to parse. But this book’s abundant appeal and value come from following Berns through the challenges of constructing the experiment and especially of training his dog to participate. “Like a catcher and pitcher,” he writes, he and his dog “became a team.” The satisfaction of that relationship perhaps explains why our two species have lived together so long and happily.
A CURIOUS INVITATION: The Forty Greatest Parties in Literature
By Suzette Field
Harper Perennial, 320 pages, $15.99
Parties in books may be grand (for instance, Gatsby’s), humble (Winnie the Pooh’s), or cataclysmic (the prom in Stephen King’s “Carrie”). Regardless, they function in literature much as they do in life, as opportunities for personalities to collide, character to be revealed. In “A Curious Invitation,” Suzette Field collects 40 and dissects them with great wit and insight. Just as in real-life parties, boring others is the cardinal sin; at a hobbit birthday party, “[t]he least eagerly anticipated part of the evening’s entertainment is Bilbo’s speech of thanks.” Re-living the festivities in well-loved books is part of the charm of this one; even more exhilarating, perhaps, is meeting intriguing new writers.