Pop Culture

Nonfiction books are a varied bunch

Good nonfiction books can be tough to find. Not that they don't exist, but they're literally harder to find in a bookstore or library.

Fiction all sits together, as do cookbooks and biographies. But the nonfiction books reviewed here might be found in advertising, in sports, in history and social sciences, in true crime, music, politics and more.

That's the wonder of nonfiction — there's so much to choose from that it's rather misleading to collect all these books together under one heading. Extreme-sports fans, vintage-advertising buffs,  Fleetwood Mac fans and others will find something for them here.

I love the ’70s
It's ironic that it took a German publisher, Taschen, to come out with a wonderful series of books featuring all-American ads. "All-American Ads of the '70s" (edited by Jim Heimann, $40) takes a fascinating look at how products were pitched in this most maligned of decades.

I've explored the series' books from the 1930s-1960s, and have to admit to wondering if a decade so recent would be of as much interest as older volumes. Wouldn't the ads from the 1970s look much along the lines of the ads we see in magazines and newspapers today?

The answer: Ohhh no. I've obviously forgotten how long ago the '70s actually were. As you examine these ads, you can picture Carol or Mike Brady flipping through them in their sprawling California home. One ad hawks Tupperware in avocado green, the semi-official hue of the decade. Fashion ads tout velour sports shirts, platform shoes, lime polyester pants, and then-not-infamous OJ Simpson wearing Dingo boots. There's even an ad for REO, "the world's first cologne exclusively for gay men."

The food section is especially fun. Much of the products are still on our shelves today, but even so, there are jolting changes. Remember Sanka? The un-politically correct Sambo's restaurant chain? Pepsi in glass bottles? The days when it was "sugar-free Dr Pepper," not "Diet Dr Pepper"? Like home movies, old ads capture the minutiae of our past in a way our memories just cannot.

The books in the All-American ads series are phone book-sized, stuffed with hundreds of full-page and some smaller ads reproduced in full color, so even at $40, readers get their money's worth. These are the kind of books that should have a permanent place on an easily accessible bookshelf or coffee table, as their broad appeal will have even those who don't remember the decade flipping through with interest.    —Gael Fashingbauer Cooper

Dream a little 'Dream'

Bring up the topic of welfare at your next dinner party and see how many fights break out. The program, started in the 1930s to help widows (my grandmother, widowed in 1934 with 7 young children, was one), the program has morphed and changed much over the decades since then — in his 1992 campaign, Bill Clinton vowed to "end welfare as we know it." Jason DeParle's "American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation's Drive to End Welfare" (Viking, $26), tackles that massive topic by making it very personal.

DeParle followed three young cousins — Angie, Jewell and Opal — who move from Chicago to Milwaukee in search of better welfare benefits, only to find that the country is cracking down, the program is in flux, and their life on welfare is limited. It's hard to argue with the concept of moving people from welfare to work, but as with everything, it's far from straightforward. Teen pregnancy, drug addiction and violence-filled streets pockmark the lives of these women.  In one frustrating exchange, a caseworker is asking a woman questions meant to find her a job, while she's spilling out a heartbreaking tale of abuse and poverty. Yet all he can do is continue to follow the form: "Volunteer work or hobbies?"

DeParle must have been a fly on the wall in the women's lives in order to observe them as closely as he does. Yet he's blunt about their failings and never sugar-coats. It's satisfying to watch Angie cling to work, even though the money she brings home is a relative pittance. But Opal just can't stay afloat, ending up back on crack, with her children taken away.

There are no hardcore answers in "American Dream." But it successfully weaves the personal in with the political in such a way that it should be required reading for politicians, whatever their party alignment.     —G.F.C.

Xtreme-ly dull

A chronicle of the evolution of "extreme" sports (a term its practitioners apparently despise) would make an outstanding book — how the culture grew, how it was appropriated by corporate concerns, how its stars rose and fell.  "Amped" (Bloomsbury, $25) is not that book.

Author David Browne has a great topic, but doesn't know how to handle it.  The diction is too lofty for the subject matter, and often veers into These Kids Today territory with descriptions of "piercingly loud music and eye-damaging spotlights."

Nor does Browne seem to know exactly for whom he's writing.  Readers familiar with skateboarding and motocross (or with current slang) will find the writing painfully clueless; Browne misdefines the word "sweet" as "one of numerous examples of the specialized lingo that had developed in their community," and he repeatedly (and judgmentally) refers to the unkempt appearances of various athletes. But the book doesn't work for outsiders, either.  Browne often over-explains things, but just as often fails to explain terms like "grom" and "no-handed transfer," preferring to harp on their outsider status instead.

The overview does have its bright spots — how Mountain Dew became the signature soft drink for the culture, for example, and when the book works, it's when Browne lets facts and people (he gets great quotes from Tony Hawk and Bam Margera) speak for themselves.

But too often, out-of-touch editorializing clouds the narrative.  Readers looking for insight into action sports would do better renting "Dogtown and Z-Boys."    —Sarah D. Bunting

True crime

I've never been a huge fan of the annual books that collect the year's best sports writing, best magazine writing and the like. After reading "Best American Crime Writing 2004" (Pantheon, $30), I'm wondering what my problem was.

I suspect I thought that a bunch of unrelated magazine stories just wouldn't grab a reader in the same way a novel or full-length nonfiction book would. But the crime-writing collection not only did just that, but its mix of varied voices was one of the best things about it. Author James Ellroy's staccato phrasing makes readers race through "Stephanie," his essay about an unsolved murder from 1965. Jon Krakauer's ability to dive inside another's mind results in a fascinating look at a religious murder in "For the Love of God" (excerpted from Krakauer's book "Under the Banner of Heaven").

Despite the tragic events at the heart of each story, some still inspire, reminding us that for every criminal, there are a dozen good men and women fighting on the side of justice. Sabrina Rubin Erdley's "Who is the Boy in the Box?", first published in Philadelphia magazine, tells of the devotion of men who investigated the discovery of a young boy's body and then fought for decades to put a name to the abandoned child.

Prolific readers will have come across some of these stories before — Krakauer's book came out in 2003, and several of the stories come from major magazines, including Vanity Fair and the New Yorker. But it's unlikely even the most devoted true-crime fan would have come across all of them, and it's nice to have them all in one place. The collection is also worth reading for those who don't think of crime as an interest — the writing is top-notch and the stories are not so much tales of crime as of humanity, and what happens when it breaks down.    —G.F.C.

Smarty pants

A.J. Jacobs is smarter than you are. Or at least he hopes he is. At the very least, he either knows or has at some point known things that you have not, because Jacobs has read the "Encyclopaedia Britannica." And in "The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest To Become The Smartest Person In The World" (Simon & Schuster, $25), Jacobs is going to tell the tale he has lived to tell, and further explain why you should not run from the room at the very sight of him.

The obvious question about his quest is, "Why?" Well, to one-up his father, and to one-up his brother-in-law, and because Jacobs thinks things are interesting. Although the book is funny and charming and actually rather educational, structured as it is like a faux encyclopedia complete with alphabetized entries, this is the best thing about it: its unapologetic conviction that information is inherently interesting. That things you didn't know are automatically things you would want to know. Jacobs can be fascinated by anything. Famous people and their fetishes, diseases, long-forgotten customs, and especially ways that various people you've never heard of died, often horribly.

Jacobs has a chatty but very intelligent style, and he makes a good case — perhaps not for reading the encyclopedia, but for respecting the power of information. He admits that perhaps knowledge and wisdom are not the same, but he also understands how accumulating knowledge and seeing connections between apparently unrelated facts might make one wiser.

"The Know-It-All" is a fast, funny, breakneck tour through all of the information in the world (well, as defined by a single publisher). You'll even walk away knowing more about Alex Trebek than you do now.    —Linda Holmes

History of beauty

It's not news at this late date that much money has been made, and much blood spilled, in pursuit of the elusive glamour ideal. Teresa Riordan's "Inventing Beauty" (Broadway, $18) is the latest effort at explaining the history and significance of mascara, girdles, and the many other goodies that have promised to tighten, smooth, tint, and bleach whatever is loose, lumpy, pale, or conspicuous.

The book's structure is simple: Riordan follows products from their earliest incarnations through their adoption by middle-class women — in many cases after they are embraced by celebrities. Her impressive research provides a feverish level of detail as she explains, for instance, the progression from push-up lipstick to swivel tubes.

There are times when that level of detail is a mixed blessing. The intellectual-property implications of the hoop skirt are not fascinating. The book's most conspicuous flaw, though, is that Riordan ends all of her product histories in about 1960. Trying to write about women's social history and wrapping up before working outside the home became the rule can't help but feel a little half-baked.

In many cases, the stories Riordan tells are heartening — generally, what is stupid, harmful, or inconvenient is abandoned. That's why permanent-wave machines that look like torture devices are no longer all the rage, and neither is radiation as a depilatory. It's a shame that she quits before she can delve into modern, widely available cosmetic surgery. Whether breast implants will one day go the way of the rubber corset would make for an interesting discussion.

Despite the limitations, if you have a drawer full of eyelash curlers and a burning desire to know by how many years conical bras predate Madonna, "Inventing Beauty" is an entertaining read.    —L.H.

Want to trade?

You can tell a lot about what's not quite right about "Leg the Spread" (Broadway, $25) by looking at the cover. Cari Lynn's account wants to take the adventures of women at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (the "Merc") seriously, but that coy title tips off the book's conflicted wish to be serious — but also scandalous.

Lynn spent some time as a trader, but talks very little about her experiences. Instead, she tells tales of women she met who braved the mostly-male Merc. There is much analysis of the psychology of traders in general: the battle to hold the right position when the market moves, the ability to tolerate enormous losses in search of enormous gains, and the way sanity breaks apart when things go bad.

The book has a number of recurring themes:  male traders who believe that all women traders slept their ways into the pit, the women working on their shouting while wondering how sexy to dress — these are interesting issues, but Lynn's examination of them feels a little empty. Lynn tries to dramatize the difficulties that the Merc presents, particularly for women, but she's often distracted by her love for the big numbers and the dramatic tales of brinksmanship. While ostensibly about women, the book tells story after story of the day This Guy made or lost That Much and did This Dramatic Thing. It's fun to scan the workings of this unfamiliar environment, and you will learn a lot about commodities trading, but Lynn could have kept her eye on the women she met, rather than straying toward what seems to be her fascination with the money game itself.    —L.H.

Mac daddiesThe episode of VH1's "Behind the Music" devoted to Fleetwood Mac is so deliciously soapy — all those intra-band affairs and break-ups — that "Never Break the Chain: Fleetwood Mac and the Making of 'Rumours'" (Chicago Review Press, $15) might seem to promise more of the same, in book form.

But author Cath Carroll focuses more on the physical crafting of the "Rumours" album — the songwriting and track-selection processes — and refers only obliquely to the notorious intra-band friction; readers looking for dirt will come away disappointed.

Higher-minded readers might, too.  The members of Fleetwood Mac didn't participate in the book, and while producers and friends are quoted at length, Carroll's account feels remote, and the book takes a while to get through all the background information to its stated point.

Carroll also suffers from the occasional spasm of fangirl-ishness — her description of the Mac's next album, "Tusk," as "in a way…the ultimate punk rock statement" is laughable.  Tighter editing might have nixed sloppy clichés like "lived in thrall to a restless muse" (and the repeated characterizations of Fleetwood Mac's music as "soft rock" — a weirdly unflattering term to use when devoting a book to it).

Carroll's prose moves along nicely, though -- she gives readers a good feel for the California music scene in the 1970s, from the major players to how records got mastered, and her description of Stevie Nicks onstage, "whipping around like a Gothic tumbleweed," is worth the price of admission.   —S.D.B.

Booking it

Anyone who loves books — not just reading, but books themselves, their literal heft — will love "Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of A Man Who Rescued A Million Yiddish Books" (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $25).  Aaron Lansky, founder of the National Yiddish Book Center, began his quest to save what physically remained of Yiddish literature in the late 1970s, and "Outwitting History" is indeed an eminently readable account of his amazing adventures. 

Lansky and his team filled hundreds of rental trucks with thousands of tomes, books both abandoned in Dumpsters and entrusted to him by elderly Jewish couples.  They ate countless knishes, heard innumerable stories of resistance meetings and flights from the Nazi occupation, and unearthed literary treasures — often by mistake.

But the book is more than the story of how a non-profit organization blossomed; Lansky gives readers a solid overview of the evolution of Yiddish, both as a language and as a literature.  It's informative and detailed, but without lecturing.

Lansky also has a gift for reproducing dialogue, for the rhythms of "Yiddish-American" speech, and as he brings us into conversations at kitchen tables and on rainy sidewalks, he subtly evokes a nostalgia for a culture in its twilight — while letting us feel at home in it too. 

Lansky's narrative will inspire readers to go out and save something — and to wish his tireless efforts on behalf of literary preservation had left him more time to write.    —S.D.B.

Modern historySince the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, "Vanity Fair" editor-in-chief Graydon Carter has taken the magazine's content in a more political direction.  "Vanity Fair" is historically known more for lengthy true-crime pieces and fluffy celebrity interviews than for hard-hitting investigations into government, but Carter has made it clear in his editor's letters of late that he's watching and keeping score.

Carter breaks down the current administration's policies by chapter, covering everything from tax cuts to environmental measures to judicial appointments, and compares the promises of Bush the campaigner with the actions of Bush the president in each one.

"What We've Lost" is a lucid and sobering timeline of what's changed since Bush took office in 2001, and what those changes mean for the country.  Carter is perhaps a bit rosy in his assessment of the pre-Bush system, but his prose is cogent and forceful.  He covers concepts and makes distinctions in plain language — and the 12-page list he provides of all the military combatants killed in the Iraq conflict, which is still growing, is the plainest language of all.   —S.D.B.

Gael Fashingbauer Cooper is MSNBC.com's Books Editor. Sarah D. Bunting and Linda Holmes are frequent contributors to MSNBC.com.