Books

in brief

‘The Nuns of Sant’Ambrogio’ by Hubert Wolf, ‘Savage Park’ by Amy Fusselman, and ‘Plucked’ by Rachel Herzig

THE NUNS OF SANT’AMBROGIO: The True Story of a Convent in Scandal

By Hubert Wolf

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin

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Knopf, 496 pages, $30

In the summer of 1859 Princess Katharina von Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen begged her cousin, Gustav Adolf zu Hohenlohe-Schillingsfürst, for help. An archbishop and close associate of Pope Pius IX, Hohenlohe was able to rescue her from the Roman convent she had joyfully moved into just a few months earlier. Rather than providing the spiritual home the middle-aged, twice-widowed princess had sought, Sant’Ambrogio della Massima turned out to be lurid hotbed of sin. Princess Katharina claimed she had narrowly survived multiple poisonings, murder attempts orchestrated by the charismatic young nun Maria Luisa, whom the princess had discovered was having sex with both nuns and priests (along with other, more ecclesiastical, offenses).

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Hubert Wolf, a German papal scholar, deftly balances this juicy HISTORY with a raft of serious (yet accessible) research into the intricacies of Vatican bureaucracy, the underlying philosophical disputes among various key Roman Catholic figures, and the complex political landscape of mid-19th century Italy. Fans of German nobility — or umlauts — will have a field day just saying the names in this book. Wolf’s dry tone is especially welcome when he recounts an ardent nun or libidinous priest’s excuses before the official inquisitor. Confronted with testimony placing him naked in bed with Maria Luisa, the convent’s father confessor admitted that “what he’d done might look erotic and sexual, but it was actually a special, unique form of pastoral care expressly willed by God.”

SAVAGE PARK: A Meditation on Play, Space, and Risk for Americans Who Are Nervous, Distracted, and Afraid to Die

By Amy Fusselman

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 144 pp., $21

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On an extended visit to Tokyo with her family, New Yorker Amy Fusselman took her sons to the city’s Hanegi Playpark. She noticed the open fires, the hut packed with toys and building materials, the real tools set out for kids to use. Fusselman and the friend hosting her in Tokyo called it Savage Park; needless to say, her kids loved the place. It would be difficult for most American parents to argue against the need for regulations in their children’s playgrounds — nobody wants their son or daughter taking a header off the slide onto concrete or getting tetanus from an old nail in a wooden climbing structure. Yet our desire for safety, Fusselman argues, has led us to build playgrounds that are “fantasies for adults . . . to reassure ourselves that death will not happen to our children there.”

In this brief, passionate book, Fusselman thinks out loud about the role of fear in our parenting and our lives, and how much can be gained by focusing instead on play. “Play is not something that we do; it is something that we are,” she writes. Even in a carefully manicured, American-style playground, kids can play if we give them room to risk, to fail. “Savage Park” doesn’t entirely hang together — at times Fusselman writes with an essayist’s curiosity, at other times with a zealot’s conviction, and some bits just meander — but it never fails to engage. The words Fusselman sees on a sign hanging in Hanegi Playpark will resonate as a rallying cry for how to live in any place, at any age: “Play Freely at Your Own Risk.”

PLUCKED: A History of Hair Removal

By Rachel Herzig

New York University, 280 pp., illustrated, $29.95

Body hair is an odd topic for academic study, the author of this book admits; some readers, she allows, will find it “too repellent to merit scholarly attention.” Thank goodness she ignored them. In this fascinating look at hair and its removal, Rebecca Herzig manages to explore issues of race and gender, class and religion, power and commerce, with both intellectual rigor and a healthy sense of humor. “Americans are not born averse to body hair,” Herzig notes. In fact, early European settlers considered hairiness to be a sign of virility and vigor; indeed, the relative smoothness of American Indian men’s faces struck many whites as a troubling sign of otherness.

As beauty standards changed, however, women have grown increasingly accustomed to removing hair from their armpits, legs, and — most recently — their pubic areas. It’s likely not Herzig’s intention to be the Upton Sinclair of the bikini-depilation industry, but it may give you pause to know that the currently popular porn-star smoothness is mostly achieved using “slack wax,” a “sludgy consequence of industrialized petroleum refining.”

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