Talking Right: How Conservatives Turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show, by Geoffrey Nunberg. Linguist Nunberg, a professor at UC Berkeley, frequent commentator on NPR's "Fresh Air," and contributor to the wonderful Language Log blog, uses wit, intelligence, and historical perspective to analyze why words are failing Democrats (aka liberals, aka progressives). "Words like elite, values, and traditional didn't work for the Republicans because they came with suitable frames already attached to them," Nunberg writes, "--rather, the words acquired their charged meanings in the context of the stories they were used to tell." Semi-frivolous aside: I was tickled to discover, in the middle of a riff on populism, a reference to Banana Republic's "populist pants" of the late 1980s. I had a hand in those pants, so to speak: I was Banana Republic's editorial director back then, and Nunberg's mention sent me back to my catalog archive. (Yes, children, 20 years ago BR was known for its witty illustrated catalogs and safari-themed stores where animal calls emanated from the speakers.) There they were, in the Fall 1987 book: Populist Pants, in khaki and navy, 100% cotton twill, $36. As I recall, we weren't making the "fashion statement" Nunberg disparages, but rather raising consciousness about a nearly forgotten high point in U.S. history. The copy began: "'Raise less corn and more hell!' So admonished a tough-spirited slogan of the Populist movement, back in the 1890s. Styles have come and gone since then, but certain values [aha!] persist. Our Populist Pants, steeped in grass-roots sensibility and the simple good sense of solid workmanship, are case in point. ..." Those pants were made in the U.S.A., by the way.
One Tough Mother, by Gert Boyle. I'm talking with a former CEO about ghostwriting his memoir, so I'm surveying the competitive landscape. This little book by Columbia Sportswear's "ChairMa" is a rule-breaking charmer from start (its unconventional size and format) to finish (a recipe for "Gert's Finger Apple Pie"). Beginning in 1984, Columbia started running attention-grabbing print ads that featured a chunky, unsmiling, gray-haired woman next to a big headline that said something like "My Mother Wears Combat Boots." That woman was Gert Boyle, nee Lamfrom, who fled Nazi Germany with her family in 1937, settled in Portland, Oregon, and, after her husband died suddenly in 1970, took over the company with her son Tim, then 21. They nearly drove the business into the ground before making a pivotal decision that reversed their fortunes. The text is straightforward and self-deprecating (shout-out to ghostwriter Kerry Tymchuk, who also wrote Bob and Elizabeth Dole's joint autobiography), and it's a treat to see a whole bunch of those classic ads reproduced here.
Shooting Water by Devyani Saltzman. The Canadian-Indian production Water is the most extraordinary film I've seen this year. Gorgeous and heartbreaking, it tells the story of a group of widows in 1930s India condemned to mendicancy and ostracism because of strict Hindu precepts that forbade widows to marry or mingle in society. The back story is even more astonishing: filming began in 1999 but was shut down after thousands of religious fundamentalists protested (they even burned an effigy of the director, Deepa Mehta); it resumed four years later in Sri Lanka with a mostly new cast. Mehta's daughter, Devyani Saltzman, was a 19-year-old cinematography assistant when shooting began, and she rejoined the production in Sri Lanka. She recounts the experience as an ambivalent outsider--she grew up in Toronto with her Jewish father--who has deep emotional ties to her mother's country. There's a fair amount of teenage mooniness here (Devyani loves Vikram, Vikram has a girlfriend), but the book is also a fascinating and intelligent account of the persistence of artistic vision despite almost inconceivable challenges.
The Secret Universe of Names, by Roy Feinson. The subtitle is "The Dynamic Interplay of Names and Destiny"--how woo-woo can you get? But I admit I'm drawn to this hefty tome (458 pages) for its insights into the relationship between sound, meaning, and emotional impact--three important elements of name development. Each page analyzes a consonant cluster (e.g., JN as in Jane, John, or Jonah) and teases out its associations: "the letter J's ability to impart a sense of integrity" (from justice and judgment) countered by "the influence of the negative letter N." A lot of this stuff is too close to astrology for my taste ("With their ability to lead and influence others, G people enjoy above-average success in business and politics"), but there's also a good deal of useful etymology and name history. And I defy you not to turn immediately to the page that analyzes your own name.