SORRY!: The English and Their Manners
By Henry Hitchings
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 492 pp., $28
According to a 2011 report, Henry Hitchings writes, “the average Briton says ‘Sorry’ eight times a day.” This doesn’t mean they are actually apologizing for anything, of course. In this terrifically entertaining, surprisingly thoughtful book about manners and Englishness, Hitchings describes his own country’s culture as a paradox: simultaneously rude and polite. “Extreme rudeness and elaborate politeness both stem from feelings of unease,” he argues; “they are different techniques for twisting one’s way out of discomfiture.” Hitchings goes on to trace the development of everything from table manners to dress codes over the past several centuries, with highlights such as the first Englishman to use an individual fork at table (1608 — only a quarter century before the first fork arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony) and the development of the handshake as an egalitarian form of greeting, courtesy in large part to the Quakers, who disliked shows of rank deference.
Like a good conversation, the book allows for many fruitful digressions, including a long detour into the topic of American manners, much derided by the English writer Fanny Trollope (the novelist’s mother), whose critique included Americans’ “vile and universal’’ tobacco chewing and spitting. Another English visitor complained of American accents (“a lazy nasal twang”) and, again, spitting, which he called the country’s “monster vice . . . next to slavery,” an observation that calls into question his sense of proportion. Hitchings is a lively guide through these thickets, pointing out the bizarre while inviting us to take another look at just how our conventional manners, so inevitable to us now, arose from history, circumstance, and luck.
THE NEW SOFT WAR ON WOMEN: How the Myth of Ascendance Is Hurting Women, Men — and Our Economy
By Caryl Rivers
and Rosalind C. Barnett
Tarcher/Penguin, 288 pp., $26.95
Women today go to college at greater rates than their male counterparts and earn more advanced degrees. Compared to where we were a half century ago, before the Civil Rights Act and Title IX, it’s clear that women have made enormous strides. Yet inequities in money and power seem intractable — look at how few women are CEOs, CFOs, and corporate board members — and some of these disparities appear to be growing, not receding (especially in high-tech industries). According to Caryl Rivers and Rosalind C. Barnett, today’s women face barriers less obvious but no less devastating than those encountered by our mothers and grandmothers. In what they term a “soft war” on women, the authors argue, “the bombs are under the surface, but they still explode.”
Rivers and Barnett, who have co-authored three previous books on gender and economics, deploy both hard numbers and human stories to make a powerful case that, despite current myths of female ascendance and male decline, when women make careers they have to do so while “carrying a history of gender discrimination that is as heavy as a pack filled with large rocks.” The perpetuation of male advantage takes many forms, from workplaces where fatherhood is applauded but motherhood is a problem to a media culture that judges women within a narrow range of acceptable behavior. At times the sheer volume of statistics seems to muddle the narrative — they argue that the media overstate women’s success and point to dismal female-to-male earning ratios, then lambaste articles focusing on miserable working mothers for hyping the opposite scenario. Yet this apparent contradiction is itself illustrative; as Rivers and Barnett point out in their book’s conclusion, the one constant in the story of women’s achievement in a sexist society is that old curse: “[d]amned if you do, damned if you don’t.”
JUNKYARD PLANET: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade
By Adam Minter
Bloomsbury, 304 pages, $26
Recycling, for most of us, brings to mind separating our glass, plastic, and paper waste and leaving it in bins on the curb on collection day. But it’s what happens after the bins are emptied that concerns Adam Minter. Minter, an American journalist based in Shanghai, grew up in the family business, watching his father and grandmother run a junkyard in Minnesota. Today’s junk trade, he writes, is global, but it still depends on the same skill: “a talent for spotting value in what others throw away.”
Reporting mostly from China, where the scrap-metal business is thriving, Minter introduces us to former farmers who’ve struck it rich melting down discarded American Christmas-tree lights and to residents of a city almost entirely devoted to the recycling of American electronics. While some of Minter’s tales are inspiring, others feel like warnings: In Guiyu, where old laptops and cell phones go to be reborn, “among a cohort of village children under the age of six, 81.8 percent were suffering from lead poisoning.”
A STORY LATELY TOLD: Coming of Age in Ireland, London, and New York
By Anjelica Huston
Scribner, 254 pp., illustrated, $25
The daughter of film director John Huston and his beautiful fourth wife Enrica Soma, Anjelica Huston grew up in what sounds a fairy tale — magically beautiful, yet tinged with loss, sadness, and monsters. The first ogre was her seductive, egomaniacal, overbearing father. Huston’s early memories include watching him get ready for the day in “a gleaming mahogany dressing room full of kimonos and cowboy boots and Navajo Indian belts, and robes from India, Morocco, and Afghanistan.” Simpler, less theatrical pleasures included riding and jumping her Shetland pony or going into Dublin with her mother and brother, a trip that ended with a stop at “Woolworth’s for a Carvel ice cream topped with a Cadbury chocolate flake before the train ride home.” By memoir’s end, Huston is a young model and actress, still yearning for “the perfect family that never was.”
Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.