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The Boston Globe

Books

In brief

‘Flappers,’ ‘Body Counts,’ ‘A Curious Madness,’ and ‘Things I’ve Learned from Dying’

Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Decade

By Judith Mackrell

Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Sarah Crichton, 488 pp., illustrated, $28

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Diana, Nancy, Tamara, Tallulah, Zelda, and Josephine. Judith Mackrell discards the biographical convention favoring last names for a number of reasons, it seems: to emphasize the one-name-only celebrity held by these six Jazz Age notables, to underscore the way each one’s powerful womanhood never completely erased the girl who came first, and to signal her own deep, intimate affection for them all. It works. This spellbinding group biography tells the stories — sometimes independent, often intertwined — of six women of the 1920s who epitomized the word flapper, in all its complicated meanings. Though each no doubt held her own privately nuanced definition, Zelda Fitzgerald’s works for them all: “The best flapper is reticent emotionally and courageous morally. You always know what she thinks, but she does all her feeling alone.” Though their courage took many forms — for privileged Britons Nancy Cunard and Lady Diana Cooper, a provocative rebellion against aristocratic rules, for Josephine Baker, born black and poor, a magnificent artistic rebuke to the racist stereotypes she was hired to enact — all symbolized their times, Mackrell writes, with the “spirit of audacity with which they reinvented themselves.”

Mackrell’s book bubbles with the giddy energy of the era, filled with parties, affairs, cocktails, and cocaine — and captures its inevitable dissolution as well (the Fitzgeralds’ marital and emotional breakdown is particularly harrowing). What binds the six together wasn’t just buoyant, transgressive ambition, but how frequently they found themselves thwarted, even crushed, for wanting “a life that could be bigger and more splendid than a conventional marriage.” Although some of Mackrell’s flappers almost deflect sympathy, the author sensitively probes their losses and insecurities, finding in the group, however imperfect, “a dissident, often brilliantly wayward generation of women,” each ahead of her time.

Body Counts: A Memoir of Politics, Sex, AIDS, and Survival

By Sean Strub

Scribner, 420 pp., illustrated $30

A clean-cut Catholic teenager when he arrived in Washington, D.C., in 1976 Sean Strub knew he liked two things: politics and boys. More than anything, he feared that his sexuality — “a humiliating secret,” still unacted-upon — could derail his dreams of a career in elective politics. In time, he would enter Washington’s gay nightlife scene, but its deeply closeted nature only seemed to confirm his fears. “The loneliness I had struggled with since puberty,” Strub writes of those years, “had become my version of normal.”

In this deeply moving, stunningly honest memoir, Strub recounts a story both distinctly his own and shared by many men in his generation. Moving to New York just as the gay-rights movement begins to open closets, Strub discovers sex and love, forging an identity as part of a “jubilant and protective” gay community. When AIDS emerged as both killer and metaphor with which to attack gay men, Strub became an activist for those infected — of which he was one. Here, he recounts a survival as much psychological as physical.

A Curious Madness: An American Combat Psychiatrist, a japanese War Crimes Suspect, and an Unsolved Murder from World War II

By Eric Jaffe

Scribner, 304 pp., illustrated, $30

At the end of World War II, while under trial for war crimes, one Japanese civilian seemed destined for conviction. Widely seen as the intellectual architect of Japanese nationalism in the early 20th century he agitated for his country to take over Asia, then conquer the West. At trial, he did something crazy: He slapped the bald head of General Tojo, his old friend and the leader of the Japanese military. His sanity became the question the Allies needed to solve — could he stand trial? Or was the slap evidence of madness?

Eric Jaffe’s grandfather, a psychiatrist serving with the Army, was asked to assess Shumei Okawa’s competence to stand trial. In exploring both men’s stories, the younger Jaffe encounters omissions and silences, great intelligence and pain. Along the way, he sketches a fascinating, largely unfamiliar history of how the military conceives of mental illness, which has always been with us, from shell shock to battle exhaustion.

Things I’ve Learned from Dying: A Book About Life

By David R. Dow

Twelve, 273 pp., $25

Rest assured: This is no inspirational book about a near-death experience, nor a motivational pep talk from the authorial deathbed. The dying Dow refers to in his book’s title is not his own. Instead, the author chronicles three endings, those of a father-in-law, a beloved dog, and a death-row inmate whose sentence he is trying to commute (Dow, a law professor at the University of Houston, devotes much of his work to appealing death penalties in the state that hands down more than its share). Interweaving these three narratives, Dow’s prose is precise and almost hard-edged at times, piercingly sensitive at others. He makes no argument in favor of faith or hope; he suggests instead that love, in all its constellations, is the only tool we have when confronting death. “I don’t know if I’ve ever learned anything more important,” he writes, “than to leave nothing unsaid.”

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

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