A worthy, capably told look at a small canon of works demonstrating how to do well by doing good.

Exploring the American “bibles”—dictionaries, almanacs, cookbooks, and the like—that have helped shape the nation’s sense of self.

Journalist McHugh examines a long bookshelf of didactic books by which Americans have self-educated. We pride ourselves, she contends, as people who have made themselves out of the common clay, and thus “asking for help becomes at least a little shameful.” Thus, such readily available books help us avoid owning up to our ignorance by asking someone who knows how to bake a cake or spell a word. One key example is Noah Webster’s dictionary of the English language, which helped stabilize wobbly spellings and provided the wherewithal for a national tongue. The McGuffey Readers were an extension of this, premised not just on a national educational system, but also on the conviction that the Christian Bible was “a national text, tying patriotism and a certain kind of Christianity ever closer together.” Less nationalistic in nature, Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book, which has sold 75 million copies, instructed its readers in the fine art of becoming a “successful American housewife,” and Emily Post’s book of etiquette became an essential guide for social climbers who wished to shed their rough roots for urbane polish. McHugh closes with a look at the self-help books of the 1980s, when the anti-capitalist mores of the 1960s gave way to full-on consumerism and became “a multimillion-dollar industry.” Clearly enthusiastic about her subject, the author sometimes finds herself in the tall weeds; her account of the making of the Old Farmer’s Almanac is everything you ever wanted to know, and then much more besides. Early on, McHugh points out that her field contains “a striking absence of nonwhite authors and LGBTQ authors,” for the simple reason that dispensers of advice have usually been White men, and often of a conservative religious bent.

A worthy, capably told look at a small canon of works demonstrating how to do well by doing good.

Pub Date: June 1, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-5247-4663-6

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Dutton

Review Posted Online: March 29, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2021


The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the...

Elie Wiesel spent his early years in a small Transylvanian town as one of four children. 

He was the only one of the family to survive what Francois Maurois, in his introduction, calls the "human holocaust" of the persecution of the Jews, which began with the restrictions, the singularization of the yellow star, the enclosure within the ghetto, and went on to the mass deportations to the ovens of Auschwitz and Buchenwald. There are unforgettable and horrifying scenes here in this spare and sombre memoir of this experience of the hanging of a child, of his first farewell with his father who leaves him an inheritance of a knife and a spoon, and of his last goodbye at Buchenwald his father's corpse is already cold let alone the long months of survival under unconscionable conditions. 

The author's youthfulness helps to assure the inevitable comparison with the Anne Frank diary although over and above the sphere of suffering shared, and in this case extended to the death march itself, there is no spiritual or emotional legacy here to offset any reader reluctance.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2006

ISBN: 0374500010

Page Count: 120

Publisher: Hill & Wang

Review Posted Online: Oct. 7, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2006


Deliberately provocative, with much for left-inclined activists to ponder.

A wide-ranging critique of leftist politics as not being left enough.

Continuing his examination of progressive reform movements begun with The Cult of Smart, Marxist analyst deBoer takes on a left wing that, like all political movements, is subject to “the inertia of established systems.” The great moment for the left, he suggests, ought to have been the summer of 2020, when the murder of George Floyd and the accumulated crimes of Donald Trump should have led to more than a minor upheaval. In Minneapolis, he writes, first came the call from the city council to abolish the police, then make reforms, then cut the budget; the grace note was “an increase in funding to the very department it had recently set about to dissolve.” What happened? The author answers with the observation that it is largely those who can afford it who populate the ranks of the progressive movement, and they find other things to do after a while, even as those who stand to benefit most from progressive reform “lack the cultural capital and economic stability to have a presence in our national media and politics.” The resulting “elite capture” explains why the Democratic Party is so ineffectual in truly representing minority and working-class constituents. Dispirited, deBoer writes, “no great American revolution is coming in the early twenty-first century.” Accommodation to gradualism was once counted heresy among doctrinaire Marxists, but deBoer holds that it’s likely the only truly available path toward even small-scale gains. Meanwhile, he scourges nonprofits for diluting the tax base. It would be better, he argues, to tax those who can afford it rather than allowing deductible donations and “reducing the availability of public funds for public uses.” Usefully, the author also argues that identity politics centering on difference will never build a left movement, which instead must find common cause against conservatism and fascism.

Deliberately provocative, with much for left-inclined activists to ponder.

Pub Date: Sept. 5, 2023

ISBN: 9781668016015

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: June 28, 2023

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2023

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