When a pair of nooses were discovered hanging from a tree in Jena, La., following a dispute in 2006 among high school students about race (specifically whether black students could sit under an oak tree tradition had reserved for whites), the white students who placed them there professed ignorance. They simply didn’t know, they said, that a noose was considered a threatening, racist symbol. What’s interesting about that story, which Jack Shuler uses to open his brilliant cultural history of the noose, is how an object’s meaning can be both known and unknown, “a collective family secret: feared, assiduously hidden, never spoken about until our kids stumble upon it.”
Shuler, a professor of history at Denison University, traces the noose as an artifact of state execution and extrajudicial killings; the difference isn’t always as clear-cut as one might imagine. The noose killed Judas, establishing a pattern in which the victims of hangings were described as dangling “between heaven and earth.” In Colonial America, the noose dispatched murderers, rapists, and those who plotted revolts (especially slaves), each execution a ritual of state, religious, or community control. After the Civil War, the noose became a tool of lynching, “the ultimate cultural technology whites had at their disposal for controlling black people.” Richly researched and beautifully written, this is an essential history of our country, as seen through one homely, terrifying object.
Among the longest-lived people on the planet are people who live in the small villages of Sardinia, where the men live as long as the women, and reaching 100 is not unusual. Why do these island dwellers lead such long, healthy lives? It turns out that their rich networks of family and social life are largely responsible; while a Mediterranean diet and regular exercise surely help, what keeps the Sardinian elderly going, according to Susan Pinker, is their good fortune in living in a place where “[f]eeling isolated was simply not possible.”
In “The Village Effect,” Pinker, a psychologist, argues that human beings — much like our primate cousins — evolved to live among interconnected webs of family, neighborhoods, and friendships that offer both practical and emotional support and sustenance. Drawing on scores of psychological and sociological studies, she suggests that living as our ancestors did, steeped in face-to-face contact and physical proximity, is the key to health, while loneliness is “less an exalted existential state than a public health risk.” That her point is fairly obvious doesn’t diminish its importance; smart readers will take the book out to a park to enjoy in the company of others.
“Murders are the cases everyone wants to hear about,” writes forensic pathologist Judy Melinek. Although only about a tenth of the deaths she investigates are homicides, these are the most colorful of those she describes in this memoir of life as a fledgling medical examiner. (Other types of death include natural, suicidal, and accidental, and some of these are pretty riveting as well — notably the man who died in an industrial egg-roll machine, which she calls “the grisliest industrial accident I saw in New York City.”)
Coauthored with her writer husband, Melinek’s story unfolds gracefully and thoughtfully. After a brief and exhausting experience in a surgical residency, she switched to pathology, a specialty widely considered more family-friendly (after all, she notes, a pathologist’s patients will still be dead tomorrow). Her growing competence and confidence are tested during the intense work identifying victims of the Sept. 11 attacks, along with regular New York deaths, the details of which she regularly shares at home — often “thoroughly ruining my husband’s dinner,” she points out. Describing horrific deaths with a scientific appreciation for human life, Melinek charms as she chronicles her job as “the medical profession’s eyewitness to death.”
Growing up in State College, Pa., naturally Michael Weinreb was a Penn State football fan, which means he was a member of a cult. He acknowledges as much in “Season of Saturdays,” his beautiful meditation on a game as essentially corrupt as it is paradoxically beautiful and unpredictable, “bizarre and glorious.” He acknowledges that not everyone grows up loving college football. Although it was born in the elite schools of the Northeast, the sport has thrived in the South and Midwest. These days, the games (not least “the Game”) played among Ivy League teams are a shadow of the battles a century ago between Yale (whose coach, Walter Camp, helped invent the game) and Harvard (whose president, Charles Eliot, wanted to ban it for its inherent violence).
Weinreb’s well-researched book chronicles the development of the sport from its early years (deaths, gambling) through its struggles that often paralleled the country’s (integration, politics, financial inequality). The narrative is studded with sharply distilled character sketches of Knut Rockne, Bear Bryant, Nick Saban, and others. More than anything, though, it’s an intimate and deeply personal rumination on the sport’s meaning to Weinreb — and, by extension, to others who love it as “the purest emotional attachment of our adulthood.”