An era, a century, and self-help to swear by
Feast of Excess: A C ultural H istory of the N ew S ensibility
By George Cotkin
Oxford University, 434 pp., illustrated, $35
In this dazzling work of cultural history, George Cotkin traces the series of artistic and cultural eruptions that roughly coincided with the 1960s (while extending several years before and after). Rather than talk about “the Sixties,” Cotkin explores what Susan Sontag and Tom Wolfe, among others, dubbed “the New Sensibility,” a term he admits contains so many possible definitions that “trying to reach one is a game that has its delights but never ends with victory.” He’s right about its delights — the book fascinates on every page — and also about the inevitable failure of assigning any single meaning to the label. It doesn’t matter.
Each chapter focuses on a specific year, starting with John Cage’s 1952 debut of his “4’33”,” famously a piece of music without any notes played, which Cotkin calls “a hydrogen bomb of conceptual creativity.” The final chapter gives us 1974, the year the artist Chris Burden had himself crucified atop a VW Beetle. In between, Cotkin looks at Lenny Bruce, Andy Warhol, Diane Arbus, Anne Sexton, Amiri Baraka, Patricia Highsmith, and others — despite their originality, they shared an attraction to taboo subjects, dissatisfaction with rigid separation of genres and forms, and willingness to transcend boundaries (including those of good taste). Taken together, these disparate and sometimes dissonant voices become a chorus of change; for better or worse, they sang our current culture into being.
Sailor and Fiddler: R eflections of a 100- Y ear- O ld A uthor
By Herman Wouk
Simon & Schuster, 160 pp., $20
When Herman Wouk first considered writing an autobiography, his wife, who was also his agent, shot him down: “You’re not that interesting a person,” she told him. As Wouk himself notes, he has “used my own life, pretty near, in my fiction,” which includes “The Caine Mutiny,” “Marjorie Morningstar,” and “The Winds of War.” In time the 100-year-old Wouk changed his mind, at least a little. Less an autobiography than a series of remembrances, this new book is divided into two sections tracking Wouk’s twin passions: his career as a writer (the sailor part, a reference to his World War II Navy stint that led to “Caine”) and his Jewish faith (the fiddler part, a reference to Sholem Aleichem’s immortal Tevye).
In both arenas, Wouk sketches his own long path — mostly happy, but not without pain. He writes for the first time of Abe, the firstborn son — “a radiant memory” — who drowned just before the age of 5. He allows himself some bitterness over critics (“reviews could gash my flesh”) and the “literary elite” he felt never accepted him and his work. Mostly, though, his tone is generous and warm, crediting always his happy marriage to an extraordinary woman, offering sympathy and his “grandfatherly blessing” to young writers aspiring to literary greatness. It’s “a mug’s game,” he says, “a crapshoot, the stakes one’s heart’s blood.”
The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving A [Expletive]: H ow to S top S pending T ime Y ou D on’t H ave W ith P eople Y ou D on’t L ike D oing T hings Y ou D on’t W ant to D o
By Sarah Knight
Little, Brown, 224 pp., $16.99
The title is a riff on “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” the reigning self-help primer for folks looking to radically declutter their lives by letting go of possessions that do not, in the words of author Marie Kondo, “spark joy.” For writer Sarah Knight, the method worked so well on her husband’s sock drawer it made her wonder what else could she jettison on the way to a tidier, more joy-filled life. The answer that came to her is a word we can’t print in the newspaper.
Knight resented the time, money, and energy drained by being asked to give a whit about things she really didn’t care about (perhaps you do, too). While she notes that it’s fairly easy to stop caring about wrinkles, having a bikini body, or a friend’s Facebook drama, other topics are more vexed — how to get out of attending an extended-family wedding you don’t care a bit about? What about meaningless meetings and conference calls at work? Knight proposes creating a “budget” in which you figure out how many cares you can really afford to spend, and allocate them wisely. With the crucial caveat that both honesty and politeness are called for in saying no, and the addendum that really, it’s not OK to be a jerk, Knight’s admittedly profane and giddy advice book is pretty darn useful.