Princeton University Press, $35
By December 30, 1936, Stalin’s midnight armies had arrested, isolated, deported, or killed most of his real enemies, and the Soviet Union sat, uneasy, between the First and Second Moscow Trials. You wouldn’t have known any of this by reading Labor, the Soviet trade union paper, whose front page told readers that "for us, children, our great Stalin is our best friend." No surprise, really. We’ve known since it began that the Soviet state commanded its media, art, and literature and that it transformed novelists into "engineers of human souls" and painters into the mechanists of "socialist realism." Jeffrey Brooks’s Thank You, Comrade Stalin! attempts to document the history and effect of this cultural power-grab. Brooks, a professor of European history at Johns Hopkins, reminds us that yes, life does imitate art. There is a certain humor in it all–the image of 75,000 athletes spelling out Stalin’s name for a parade seems as buffoonish as Mel Brooks’ "Springtime for Hitler," and the doctored graphic art, those careless mosaics of Stalin and flowers and armored tanks, could come straight from a checkout-aisle tabloid. But the book’s central theme carries crushing weight. At least for a time, a regime can define reality. The ethnocentrism, chauvinism, and ignorance of modern-day Russia, a country known for high educational standards, are the living remnants of decades-long media control. Brooks instructs most by reminding that Newspeak is old news, that a properly orchestrated public culture can creep, kudzu-like, through private thought. Entire nations can fall under, as Louis Fisher called it, "the hypnotic effect of the great dream."
Alison J. Clarke
Smithsonian Institution Press, $24.95
Seeing Tupperware as a snug container of great cultural significance, Alison J. Clarke’s well-researched social history interprets the unassuming food storage system as a bridge between the thrift of the Great Depression and the heady consumer carnival of the 1950s. Clarke ties these opposing poles to the two personalities most instrumental to Tupperware’s success–eccentric inventor Earl Silas Tupper, whose Protestant work ethic was molded into Tupperware when he created it in 1942, and enterprising housewife Brownie Wise, whose Tupperware Party sales model merged the positive thinking of Norman Vincent Peale with the bounty of postwar production. Clarke’s attention to detail is impressive, though the almost endless march of similar quotes from oral histories and trade publications slow the flow of her narrative (too many leftovers ended up in her book). Still, Clarke offers an intriguing critique of a prevailing view of postwar consumers (and 1950s housewives in particular) as passive dupes of a monolithically homogenizing "culture industry." Thanks to the versatility of Tupperware and the entrepreneurial possibilities offered by the in-home sales parties, Clarke argues, women were able to empower themselves outside of the patriarchal structure of corporate culture and earn both independent income and self-esteem in the process. If Clarke’s evidence on these larger issues is sometimes wanting, the questions she raises about how commodities take on lives of their own and interact with their producers and consumers certainly deserve further discussion. That we live in a world in which a Tupperware party takes place somewhere every 2.5 seconds before an annual audience of 118 million people only underscores the importance of these questions.
Westview Press, $22 (paperback)
In this thorough and accessible book, Curtis Keim examines the role of American television, print media, and amusement parks, among other sources, in shaping inaccurate views about Africa. The story begins in the nineteenth century, when Europeans developed the myth of a "Dark Continent," and some American intellectuals (and much of the public) were attracted by Social Evolutionism, a flawed theory that connected the advancement of a society to the advancement of its race. Anthropologists have gradually debunked this thinking by showing that differences in societies resulted from how they adapted to local conditions. Unfortunately, modern misconceptions often replaced earlier mistakes. To his credit, Keim uses an explanatory rather than an accusatory tone when addressing these issues: "Inaccuracy and insensitivity are not necessarily racist, even when they have racist roots and produce racists results." That said, myths often have a self-serving purpose for those who perpetuate them. For instance, exaggerated tales of African cannibalism peaked in the middle of the nineteenth century, just before Europeans made their major imperial moves into the continent. (By 1900, when the conquest was complete, tales of cannibalism, which has never been proven to have been a regular practice in Africa, decreased.) Mistaking Africa makes a compelling case for understanding Africa for what it really is rather than how it serves outside interests.
Basic Books, $26
On the heels of a pair of bestsellers on language and mind in the large, Steven Pinker focuses in Words and Rules on the small subject that’s been his professional focus for the last dozen years–regular and irregular English verbs. These creatures are the drosophila of modern brain and cognitive sciences. Concentration on these specimens, as on the fruit fly in genetics, has been theoretically productive, and as a result they are the explananda by which theories of the mind/brain are evaluated. Pinker argues that neither of two older, influential models–Chomskyan generative grammar and Rumelhart-McClelland connectionist neural networks–provide a satisfactory account of both regular and irregular verbs. But each handled part of the task well, and Pinker synthesizes the two. He claims that the language faculty consists of two distinct systems: a lexicon of memorized links between symbol and meaning, and a grammar of operations for producing and processing strings of meaningful symbols. These are the "words" and "rules" of the book’s title. Pinker deploys evidence in support of his thesis in thorough, convincing fashion. And he does so with impeccable pace and control, so that when, in conclusion, he draws an epiphanic connection between verbs and categories, opening up again onto the big topics for which he’s famous, it’s both welcome and well-earned.