Books

in brief

Four recent nonfiction titles

VITAMANIA:

Our Obsessive Quest for Nutritional Perfection

By Catherine Price

Penguin, 336 pp., $27.95

A list of the diseases caused by vitamin insufficiency reads like a roll call of long forgotten maladies: scurvy, pellagra, rickets, beriberi. They may sound quaint today, but you wouldn’t want to have any of them (especially beriberi!). Luckily, beginning in the late 19th century and into the early 20th, scientists began to understand that certain illnesses resulted when the body didn’t receive enough of some nutritional substances (given the name “vitamine” by Polish biochemist Casimir Funk in 1912, the “e” was dropped later). Unluckily, Catherine Price argues in this persuasive new book, the rise in our use of vitamins to fortify foods has coincided with a reliance on less nutritious foods generally, as well as a magical belief in the power of vitamins. By the 1930s, food and drink manufacturers had learned that vitamins were a big sell — even beer got into the act, briefly, with the 1936 product Schlitz Sunshine Vitamin D Beer.

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Our romance with vitamins went further, though. The huge business in nutritional supplements is essentially unregulated, Prince writes, an industry that falls into “an odd middle ground between pharmaceuticals and food,” thereby escaping testing for safety and efficacy. Millions of Americans flock to stores for vitamins and other supplements with as little scientific evidence supporting them as, say, the Victorian cure known as “Dr. Williams’ Pink Pills for Pale People.” In the end, Price argues, our belief in the power of vitamins is quasi-religious. And like a religion, the power we feel they have reveals a lot about us, “about our hopes, about our fears, and about our desperate desire for control.” That human beings have been able to discover these 13 essential chemicals is a scientific triumph for sure, but she cautions against overreach — “we still don’t know how to reverse engineer perfect food. Nature is simply too complex.”

GOING INTO THE CITY:

Portrait of a Critic as a Young Man

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By Robert Christgau

Dey Street, 384 pp., $27.99

Years after he mockingly dubbed himself “the Dean of American Rock Critics” (it was “the most effective self-promotion of my life,” he writes) the title has followed Robert Christgau through a career that has spanned five decades of popular music, most notably as the chief music critic for the Village Voice. As this new memoir demonstrates, his critical faculties engaged early — an essay he wrote for English class in the 1950s was titled “Why ‘Casey at the Bat’ Is a Better Poem Than ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ ” — and half a century later he’s still willing to argue the point. Lucky for readers, Christgau engages in self-examination with equal vigor and often with similarly surprising results.

The book is at times delirious, dizzyingly stuffed full of names, song titles, political movements, and aesthetic notions, in particular Christgau’s restless, kaleidoscopic portrait of the late ’60s, which he winds down into a rueful simplicity: “It was a hard time to get your bearings.” If at times readers might feel bogged down in details, what’s refreshing is Christgau’s disdain for nostalgia (especially about the ’60s) and open mind for new sounds. “Ever the pop guy, I was an instant fan,” he writes of first hearing the Ramones. What makes good criticism work, Christgau argues, is “a brew of genre knowledge, general knowledge, aesthetic insight, moral passion, palpable delight, prose style, more prose style, and what-have-you.” It’s all here.

THE UPSTAIRS WIFE:

An Intimate History of Pakistan

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By Rafia Zakaria

Beacon, 264 pp., $26.95

Pakistan is one of the world’s younger countries, but its conflicts center on some of the oldest: religion, ethnic identity, and the role of women. In this lyrical, richly detailed new book, Rafia Zakaria, an international human-rights activist, entwines her family’s stories with the history of her native land — a place she describes both lovingly and with a kind of wariness (and weariness). Her Indian-born Muslim grandparents had moved there in 1961 with all the excitement of a family finally claiming a homeland. “They had expected to fall in love with Karachi,” Zakaria writes, “and so they did.”

But life in Pakistan was never simple. As a little girl, Zakaria writes, “I understood incompletely, but felt fully.” When her uncle decided to take a second wife, exiling her Aunt Amina to another floor of the house, the blow was somehow both personal and political, a hint at the limitations on women’s freedom that she chronicles here as a clear-eyed, compassionate witness.

SELECTED LETTERS OF LANGSTON HUGHES

Edited by Arnold Rampersad and David Roessel with Christa Fratantoro

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Knopf, 480 pp., $35

Langston Hughes is one of the most anthologized American writers, perhaps the best known of the Harlem Renaissance, and many, upon hearing his name, can conjure immediately an image of the poet’s handsome, smiling face. Arnold Rampersad, who edited this collection of Hughes’s letters, previously chronicled his life in a two-volume biography. Do we really need this new book, a selection of letters spanning more than four decades of the writer’s life?

Briefly: yes. This new book adds nuance to the portrait in progress of a notoriously elusive character (and Rampersad’s introduction is itself a fine primer on Hughes for novices). In the cheerful, gossipy notes exchanged with the writer and photographer Carl Van Vechten we see glimpses of the black artistic world Hughes is entering (“Zora Neale Hurston is a clever girl, isn’t she? I would like to know her,” Hughes wrote Van Vechten in 1925). Draft letters to Charlotte Mason, the woman he sometimes called his “godmother,” reveal the discomfiting transactions between artists and patron (he grovels, she provides). Still, Hughes’s sweetness and generosity prevail throughout the volume; as Rampersad writes, “The truth, as these letters suggest, is that Hughes’s life was a struggle that he won.”

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