Three recent historical titles
DEAR MR. YOU
By Mary-Louise Parker
Scribner, 228 pp., $25
In her roles on Broadway and in television’s “Weeds,” the actress Mary-Louise Parker has always shimmered with her own particular energy, alternating currents of grit and fragility. She brings this quality to “Dear Mr. You,” a sort of LITERARY memoir in the form of epistolary essays, each one addressed to a man (EITHER REAL OR IMAGINARY) — or to an entity she sees as largely male, in the case of the dreamy “Dear NASA.” There are letters to her movement teacher in acting school, whom she thanks “for being open to another more workable draft of me,” former lovers, her extremely long-suffering accountant.
Among the most moving are those to her father and grandfather, and in the gorgeous final essay, to the man who picked the oysters that provided her beloved father his final, delicious meal. By turns fiercely intelligent and downright goofy, Parker is above all relentlessly self-critical, and often self-deprecating. Among the many things we learn she cannot do are juggle, manage money, and say no. What she can do is write. Many actors produce books, but few of these leave a reader wanting more; Parker is a formidably talented exception.
DRINKING IN AMERICA:
Our Secret History
By Susan Cheever
Twelve, 272 pp., $28
Alcohol has played a more central role in the American history than we commonly believe, argues Susan Cheever. From the landing of the Mayflower — which stopped early on account of a dire shortage of beer — to the strange social experiment of Prohibition, alcohol has been "our big solution and . . . our big problem," the subtext "unacknowledged in most written history" that underlies everything. It's a big claim, but one that Cheever, whose previous books have included memoirs about her own family's struggle with the bottle, makes convincingly.
Puritan New England was a particularly drunken place, Cheever notes. Harvard was founded with its own brewery, and its first president "fired because he let the students run out of beer." Even young children partook, starting their days with "flip," a sweet blend of juice and booze. And the fruit trees planted by American icon Johnny Appleseed didn't produce apples for lunchboxes — they were for hard cider, the most popular tipple on the early-19th-century frontier. By the 1820s, Cheever writes, "[t]he whole country was more or less living under the influence." The book has a slightly rushed quality, at times events and ideas are so compressed it feels as if we are hurrying through a museum of dioramas, history not so much distilled as flattened. At her best, though, Cheever lays bare something many of us know intimately: "alcoholism is a family disease," she writes, and its roots in the American family run deep.
CAST OF CHARACTERS:
Wolcott Gibbs, E.B. White, James Thurber, and the Golden Age of The New Yorker
By Thomas Vinciguerra
Norton, 464 pp., $27.95
Does the world really need another book about the early history of The New Yorker? There are already enough to make a sturdy bookshelf sag. Still, in spite of long odds against it, "Cast of Characters" manages to feel fresh and invigorating. Begun as a biography of theater critic and longtime staff writer Wolcott Gibbs, Thomas Vinciguerra's account covers the lives and work of Gibbs and colleagues James Thurber, E.B. White, John O'Hara, St. Clair McKelway, Charles Addams, and others — led by Harold Ross and Katharine White — as they created the magazine.
It grew, famously, out of the famed Algonquin crowd, whose "quips and antics . . . long ago passed into threadbare legend." Transforming breezy barroom banter into a printed magazine every week involves much more than wit, and where Vinciguerra excels is in figuring out how the dysfunctional workplace of the early New Yorker turned out such sparkling, electric prose. It all seems very glamorous to us now, but the author doesn't shy from the uglier side of New Yorker history — alcoholism, sexual indiscretion, petty feuds. The novelist Dawn Powell described this crowd as being "in a permanent prep school where they perpetually haze each other." If The New Yorker emerged as "a slightly condescending but consummately tasteful arbiter of the larger world," it's to Vinciguerra's great credit that he manages to avoid both condescension and hagiography in writing about the flawed, brilliant people behind it.
And Other Forgotten and Dangerous Sports, Pastimes, and Games
By Edward Brooke-Hitching
Touchstone, 272 pp., illustrated, $24
We all know the founding legends of our most popular sports — James Naismith and his peach baskets (true), Abner Doubleday inventing baseball in Cooperstown, N.Y., (untrue) — but what of those sports that failed to thrive? In hindsight, it seems obvious that ice tennis, a bruising sport developed in early-20th-century New York, never stood a chance. But how to explain the popularity of fox tossing — the flinging of not only foxes but hares, badgers, and wildcats — in 17th- and 18th-century Germany?
In a strange and strangely enjoyable new book, the English documentarian Edward Brooke-Hitching gathers these bizarre activities for our amusement. His tone is unfailingly polite, which is really the only way to regard some of these sad attempts at amusement: "One might assume that the simple act of hopping has limited potential as amusement for a crowd, but there is a surprisingly far-reaching history to one-legged jumping as a sport." This inventory of failed sports is both compelling and affectionate, fitting for a book in which "eccentricity is not just included but celebrated."