From Publishers Weekly
Who'd have thought that Willis Carrier's "Apparatus for Treating Air," an early air conditioner patented in 1906, would set the stage for the Republican domination of Washington that started with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 (by allowing for a population shift to the hotter Southern states)? Or that 260 tons of leftover turkey would help usher in a profound change in the way Americans eat and socialize with their families (by stuffing the first TV dinners)? Smith (a Los Angeles Times Magazine editor) and Kiger (a freelancer and regular contributor to Discovery.com) share 20 similarly significant milestones in this "Cliff Notes of contemporary culture" chronicling some overlooked but strangely influential moments in American history. A melange of strange occurrences, the book is brisk and frisky, addressing everything from the extracurricular exploits of sex researcher Alfred Kinsey to the way in which former first lady Betty Ford's public struggle with addiction presaged an era that would finally accept drug and alcohol abuse as a disease and not a moral failing. Though its yuckity-yuck style approaches the cornball at times, the book succeeds in placing into context the chosen developments in a breezy, compulsively readable fashion. Thanks to these two research-happy authors, readers may decide it's okay to restore that velvet Elvis to its honored place above the mantle, where it can enjoy a second life as a treasured piece of ironic Americana. All history should be this much fun.
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Smith and Kiger's collection of historical oddments traces the people and fads that have constituted American popular culture over the years. It's the chronicle of the likes of Frank J. Smith, whose The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds of Small Extent
(1870) spawned Americans' fascination with lawn care and, eventually, the omnipresent home-improvement shows that clutter the cableways today. Equally influential in the 1950s was Robert Harrison, whose delightfully sleazy magazine, Confidential
, perfected the celebrities-and-scandal formula without which waiting in supermarket checkout lines would be nigh unendurable. And then there's Edgar Leetag, forced to paint on black velvet when his Tahitian art supplier ran out of monk's cloth. Did he or the clerk who suggested the substitution have "an inkling of the twisted aesthetic that ultimately would spring from" the chance transaction? Other wellsprings of the way we live now that Smith and Kiger celebrate include the 1953 invention of panty hose, the sex research of Alfred Kinsey, and (praise God!) Willis Carrier's 1902 invention of air conditioning. Mike TribbyCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved