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Bookish Delights 2010: The Nonfiction Edition

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Stranger than fiction? You be the judge!

The Fall of the House of Walworth: A Tale of Madness and Murder in Gilded Age America
by Geoffrey O’Brien

As an old-fashioned, straightforward narrative chronicling an upper-crust family brought down by divorce, insanity, and murder, Geoffrey O’Brien’s new book details the history of three generations of the Walworth clan of Saratoga Springs, New York as they rise from obscurity in the early 1800s to national prominence by the eve of the Civil War — only to be brought down by a series of unfortunate circumstances. The Fall of the House of Walworth: A Tale of Madness and Murder in Gilded Age America came about as O’Brien was working on a book at the Yaddo writers’ retreat when he visited the Walworth Memorial Museum in Saratoga Springs, New York. There he learned about the Walworths, a prominent family, important members of the Empire State aristocracy who, due to greed, corruption, and madness that had been festering in the family for decades, lost ownership of the estate. Although the saga of high society on the skids takes in the entire 19th century and part of the 20th, the story focuses primarily on the events of June 3, 1873, and its courtroom aftermath.

On this date, Frank Walworth — age 18, spoiled, and mentally unstable – met his estranged father, Mansfield Walworth, in a Manhattan hotel room, where Frank shot him point-blank in the head. Frank then descends the hotel stairs and inquires of the desk clerk the location of the nearest police precinct, adding, “I have killed my father in my room, and I am going to surrender myself to the police.” Mansfield, it must be said, might have been the son of a prominent and powerful judge, but he wasn’t much of a family man, having divorced his wife Ellen, and abandoned Frank. In addition, Frank believed — based on letters mailed to her — that Mansfield intended to harm Ellen. A jury convicted Frank, but the punishment doesn’t seem to fit the crime.

O’Brien delves into the Walworth family whys and hows that may have constituted a catalyst for Frank’s homicidal mindset. But moreover — though detours into the vocations and avocations of the various family members are welcome diversions — The Fall of the House of Walworth extends its thematic and topical reach beyond a reading as just a familial tale of true crime among the upper crust; the societal and cultural history of the times takes shape with settings and scenes from the Gilded Age in New York City and Saratoga Springs sharing the narrative. So many strands and considerations add up to a rich history, amounting to a cohesive and compelling retelling and presentation of an America in transition — still rough, if gilded, around the edges.

Twilight at the World of Tomorrow: Genius, Madness, Murder, and the 1939 World’s Fair on the Brink of War
by James Mauro

Like a phoenix out of The Great Gatsby’s ash heap, the 1939 New York World’s Fair arose, constructed on New York’s most notorious garbage dump, built for $150 million ($2.3 billion today). But it was something of a faltering phoenix throughout its two-year duration, as former Cosmopolitan executive editor James Mauro attests in the ambitious Twilight at the World of Tomorrow: Genius, Madness, Murder, and the 1939 World’s Fair on the Brink of War. While the Fair’s “World of Tomorrow” theme showcased the promise of the future (or pawned off gadgetry and gimmickry in a gaudy carnival-like atmosphere), a spotlight on such new technology as television, the fax machine, GM’s “Futurama,” nylon — and visiting presidents, kings, queens, politicians, sports heroes, and movie stars impressing many of the 45 million attendees — harsh reality with the jolt of impediments and cold truth also hit hard. In addition to the ominous rumblings of war, fair organizers had to deal with cost overruns, missed deadlines, unruly rain storms, wilting heat waves, labor disputes, sabotage, power failures, lower-than-expected attendance and weak revenues.

But more than anything, Mauro, besides registering other individuals instrumental to establishment and impetus of the New York World’s Fair, focuses in on four figures who embody the “Genius, Madness, and Murder” of the subtitle of Twilight at the World of Tomorrow. Chronicling the actions of Albert Einstein, from his summer home on Long Island while in exile from Nazi Germany, Mauro retells how the physicist abandoned his well-known pacifism to sign a series of letters to Franklin Roosevelt warning about Hitler’s atomic-bomb program and advocating the development of an atomic bomb, a notification that eventually led to the Manhattan Project.

In another demonstration constituting a bridge between World War and the World’s Fair, Grover Whalen, the Fair’s president, attempted to win over dictators Benito Mussolini and Joseph Stalin, believing in vain that his utopian vision had the power to stop their madness. And on a smaller though still bloody and notable scale, on July 4, 1940, a little-known terrorist attack at the World’s Fair killed New York City police detectives Joe Lynch and Freddy Socha, who – on duty to investigate a rash of recent bomb threats and explosions that had hit the city for months — undoubtedly saved the lives of hundreds.
As a time capsule of the genesis and aftereffects of the 1939 World’s Fair augmented by many personal accounts, Mauro’s narrative and insights makes for an abundant social history.

The Man Who Sold America: The Amazing (but True!) Story of Albert D. Lasker and the Creation of the Advertising Century

by Jeffrey L. Cruikshank and Arthur W. Schultz

Meet one of the original ‘Mad Men’ who made household names as of Kleenex, Pepsodent, and Sunkist. Quaker Oats Puffed Rice and Puffed Wheat cereals were “foods shot from guns,” Palmolive soap could give you “beauty appeal,” and, when the rubber meets the road, it’s Goodyear “all-weather” tires all the way.

The legacy of unwitting pop-culture pacemaker and “super-salesman of the generation” (according to Will Hays, political puppet-master and cultural gadabout and gadfly) Albert D. Lasker, the paradoxical pioneer who paved the way for 20th century advertising and molded modern consumer response, was a challenging task, admits the authors of The Man Who Sold America: The Amazing (but True!) Story of Albert D. Lasker and the Creation of the Advertising Century. For one thing, Jeffrey L. Cruikshank and Arthur W. Schultz found in their evidence and research that Lasker was prone to overstate, elaborate, and fabricate his life’s events, generating “so much electricity — and static – around himself that the reality of his life tended to be hidden from its observers.” And moreover, “Lasker tried consciously to obscure his own role in almost all that he did – to remain the man behind the curtain,” while others took the spotlight.

The particulars of the Oz-like enigma are culled from a recently discovered trove of Lasker’s papers — and perhaps the head-scratching complexities are just the qualifications the job calls for. “Orator and entrepreneur, statesman and pioneer, depressive and overachiever”: The rich and compelling Man Who Sold America shows us that “These conflicting legacies would advance Albert Lasker’s career, shape his emotions, and dictate his dreams.”

A New Literary History of America
Edited by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors

You’ll try to zig, but you just might zag… Take a close look at the over 200 original essays A New Literary History of America in the Table of Contents or delve into the topics in the comprehensive Index, and even the short bibliographies at the end of each reading. Better yet, as the book “is a reexamination of the American experience as seen through a literary glass, where what is at issue is speech, in its many forms,” turn over the tome and flip through it to scan the headlines that top each commentary about American history, literature, society, politics, religion, culture, and technology. Since I’m not a real methodical kind of reader when it comes to kaleidoscopic catchall compendiums like this, I succumbed to my impulsive nature, and all systematic disciplines were no-go.

So even if the unintended subject matter was at a variance, even if I was on my way to 1961 and “JFK’s inaugural address and Catch-22,” I had no qualms about being waylaid by, say, Ted Gioia’s take on 1949-1950 and “The Birth of the Cool.” The latter subject may have mattered more to me at the time. Just like any other time I may have been or will be stricken by the myriad topics by the considerable novelists, poets, playwrights, and screenwriters among the contributors, such as Clark Blaise (on Hawthorne and Melville), Angus Fletcher (The science of the Indian), Robert Clark (on Edgar Allan Poe), Alan Wallach (on the Hudson River School), Mark Ford (on Frank O’Hara), Joshua Clover (on Bob Dylan), Andrei Codrescu (on New Orleans), Sarah Whiting (on the Skyscraper), David Bradley (on Malcolm X), or James Miller (on “Roll Over Beethoven”).

As a matter of fact, delving into this 1100-page cat-cruncher need not be such an eclectic process of singular readings, with the “Made in America” topics so necessarily differentiated from essay to essay, whether the focus is on poems, plays, novels, and essays – or, for that matter, on travel diaries, maps, sermons, histories, religious tracts, speeches, debates, Supreme Court decisions, jazz, folk songs, comic books and comic strips, films, radio, rock and roll, musicals, hip-hop…

The Male Brain
by Louann Brizendine

No wonder Johnny can’t read – it’s that whole “embodied cognition” thing that won’t keep him sitting still. And Dr. Louann Brizendine, the founder of the first clinic in the country to study gender differences in brain, behavior, and hormones, should know, as she demonstrates in her fascinating and fact-filled book The Male Brain, showing how, through every stage of life, “male reality” is essentially different from the female one (well covered in her previously published The Female Brain from 2006). Using data from cognitive neuroscience, genetics, brain imaging, hormonal biology, and primatology, Brizendine backs up many long-noted or suspected observations, including the fact that a man thrives under competition, instinctively plays rough and is obsessed with rank and hierarchy; that he will use his analytical brain structures, not his emotional ones, to find a solution; has an area for sexual pursuit that is larger (2.5 times) than the female brain, consuming him with sexual fantasies. Indeed, Brizendine validates masculine stereotypes ranging from that of the perpetual playboy to the cranky old man, while also considering that tired old commitment-phobic question.

In any case, it all comes down to biology, with the nature-nurture ricochet a reductive back-and-forth whose momentum is largely traceable to the long-running disparity between the fields of psychology and neurobiology — a disparity Brizendine believes is now, finally, being quickly closed from both sides of the divide. It’s an approach that goes toward explaining the nature of irritability in teen, for example when “boys’ hormones prime them for aggressive and territorial behaviors”; why behaviors may change so suddenly during puberty, such as 20-fold testosterone increases, among other changes; and the ways in which chemicals, physical touch, and play bond fathers with their children. With carefully detailed and studied elucidations of how characteristics like anger expression, analysis of facial expression, and spatial manipulation differ between the sexes, Brizendine’s overview and explication of brain and behavioral research should draw a wide readership, from parents of boys to psychology students to admirers of The Female Brain counterpart.

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About Gordon Hauptfleisch

  • Tiffany

    A little known but great book was None of Us Were Like This Before. It’s nonfiction writing at it’s best, and I’d recommend it for your list.