SEX AND PUNISHMENT: Four Thousand Years of Judging Desire
By Eric Berkowitz
Counterpoint, 456 pp., illustrated, $26
No matter how fervently some may believe in eternal, universal rules regarding sex and family life, history makes clear that what’s considered normal in one time or place is taboo in another. As Eric Berkowitz writes in this enormously informative and entertaining book, “the harmless fun of one society becomes the gravest crime of another.” There may be no better lens through which to understand how a particular culture sees itself than its laws pertaining to sex, which touch on issues of gender, race, marriage, adultery, rape, incest, science, art, and religion. A lawyer, Berkowitz has a keen eye for ridiculous laws and a historian’s grasp of the meaning behind them. “All ancient civilizations were intent on controlling people’s sex lives,” Berkowitz writes, often erecting complicated laws around menstruation, virginity, and other aspects of women’s sexuality. Some of the book’s most chilling sections revolve around the absence of laws, as in a 1859 Mississippi case involving a 10-year-old black girl whose rape wasn’t even illegal because, as the court ruled, “The crime of rape does not exist in this State between African slaves.”
Although we mostly take for granted the idea of linear progress when it comes to sexual rights and freedoms, the narrative unfolds not as a line but a loop. In a year when Americans are debating same-sex marriage, it’s useful to learn that in the Middle Ages, before a widespread criminalization of homosexuality, “male bonding ceremonies were performed in churches all over the Mediterranean.” Berkowitz continues: “These unions were sanctified by priests with many of the same prayers and rituals used to join men and women in marriage.” The book ends, a bit abruptly, with the trial of Oscar Wilde in 1895; it cries out for a sequel.
By Nicole Galland
William Morrow, 370 pp., paperback, $14.99
No, you don’t have to reread Shakespeare’s “Othello” to understand the action in Nicole Galland’s new book, a take on the Moor of Venice as seen by his duplicitous underling, Iago. One of literature’s most despicable characters, Iago here is expanded and reconsidered as a damaged but not evil man, a person whose understandable insecurities and admirable talents simply happened to coalesce around one really bad choice. Galland’s Iago is the fifth son in “a family where even a second son is redundant.” Born into a wealthy but not patrician family, he grows up painfully aware of status, a natural observer whose habit of speaking bluntly makes others believe he is honest. Falling in love with the too-good-to-be-true Emilia softens him somewhat, though of course it’s jealousy over her closeness with Othello, his commanding general, that sparks the story’s disastrous conclusion.
Literary rehabilitation of bad guys isn’t new — Milton did it with Satan, Gregory Maguire with the Wicked Witch — and it isn’t as easy as it looks. Galland crafts a plausible voice for the wounded, bitter Iago, and all but begs us to care about him. In raising Iago, however, all the other characters feel diminished and flattened, even the majestic Othello, and still Iago comes off as a jerk.
APRON ANXIETY: My Messy Affairs In and Out of the Kitchen
By Alyssa Shelasky
Three Rivers, 260 pp., paperback, $14
Growing up in Longmeadow, Mass., Alyssa Shelasky wasn’t a foodie, but she loved her mother’s special pasta and her friend’s mom’s buckeye candies, and like all good Bay State kids, her daily diet was marked by “grotesque ice cream intake.” She describes a childhood marked by the mild, madcap dysfunction that powers the memoir industry: preparation for life as a writer, not a chef. In this messy, bubbly, confection of a memoir, Shelasky describes her evolution from entertainment reporter to chef’s girlfriend to food blogger, a journey by turns hilarious and harrowing.
Before meeting the man she simply calls “Chef” (a former contestant on “Top Chef”), Shelasky was a “tipsy, untamable” New York party girl filing dispatches for gossip rags and glossy mags. Falling into an all-consuming love affair, she uproots herself from New York and moves with Chef to Washington, where he’s just opened a restaurant — and where she feels rootless and alone. What saves her is learning to cook, a difficult process but one that roots, feeds, and fulfills her. Shelasky isn’t always easy to take, but the book, studded with unfussy recipes for the foods that have comforted her, ultimately satisfies.
Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.