Few sound bites from the 2008 U.S. presidential race received the sort of scrutiny given Hillary Clinton’s voice cracking with emotion as she explained why she was running: “I just don’t want to see us fall backwards,” she said. “I see what’s happening and we have to reverse it.” What she was alluding to is writ large in Big Girls Don’t Cry, Rebecca Traister’s trenchant, entertaining analysis of the historic campaign. “It cried,” one commentator sneered at Clinton’s rare show of vulnerability, ignoring the fact tears weren’t shed. Traister, who covered the election for Salon.com, sees the landmark moment reflecting the campaign’s bizarro reversal of traditional gender roles: Clinton downplayed her “femaleness” and focused on policy, while the Oprah-endorsed Barack Obama scored points exploiting the touchy-feely language of women’s magazines.
Such astute observations elevate what could have been a history lesson to must-read cultural criticism. Traister, an Edwards-turned- Obama-turned-Clinton supporter, argues, not always convincingly, that an election filled with identity politics was good for women: “What was once called the women’s liberation movement found thrilling new life.”
Overt sexism directed at Clinton (the “F–k Hillary, God Knows She Needs It” signs, the $19.95 Hillary “nutcracker”) galvanized women, Traister points out. As did Michelle Obama’s transformation from an outspoken, reluctant political wife to a smiling, unthreatening “Stepford-ized” first lady. More, though, a campaign focused on identity politics revealed the diversity of female opinion, reflected in the generational divide in feminist support for Clinton and a new vibrant younger feminist wave. This detonated the myth of a “feminist monolith,” or as Traister drolly puts it, “some accredited synod that takes away your disposable razor and issues you a gift card for two free abortions.”
Traister is at her most compelling musing over her conflicted feelings about how Clinton’s run paved the way for Sarah Palin. And how, in turn, Palin’s “retro” femininity then gave way to “Mama Grizzlies” harnessing gender as a new force in the GOP. If you want to know how they did it, this is the book to read.
- ANNE KINGSTON
Between 1894 and 1897, vagabond Joseph Vacher roamed the rural byways of France, killing at least 11 people, mutilating and often sexually assaulting them after death. Almost all of his known victims were teenaged shepherds (five boys and five girls) whom he encountered in lonely pastures. Caught by a fluke—his last attempted victim was still within hearing range of her companions—Vacher would probably have gone free after his three-month sentence for attempted rape (his assumed motive and a misdemeanour under French law) if not for a handful of pioneers in the concepts and techniques of forensic science. Starr, a veteran science writer, intertwines the stories of Vacher and of the men who would prove to be his downfall, in a gripping account of a crucial stage in the creation of the modern criminal justice system.
The scale of Vacher’s wanderings—the crime scenes spanned almost 1,000 km—and localized policing meant authorities had no idea a serial killer was at work. Instead, rural cops carried on as they always had, throwing lovers—real, spurned or only imagined—in jail in hopes of a confession. But one local magistrate detected a pattern, and Starr follows one of the first recorded instances of criminal profiling, as Emile Fourquet collects witness stories, puzzles his way through botched autopsy reports, plots a map of the crimes and sends a warning letter to his colleagues, describing the sort of man to be sought—a letter read by the official who had just sentenced Vacher for the attempted rape.
Once on trial for murder, Vacher, pleading insanity, faces Dr. Alexandre Lacassagne, the greatest criminologist of his era, who had previously regularized autopsies to scientific standards and conducted groundbreaking research in psychology. Lacassagne’s testimony turned the trial into a startlingly modern event, leaving judge and jury wrestling with the same questions they do today: how can insanity be evaluated and judged, and what sort of punishment, if any, could fit such crimes?
- BRIAN BETHUNE
In this engaging memoir, a theoretical physicist reveals his highly unusual career trajectory: one year he was a delivery boy in Copenhagen, the next he was studying for his Ph.D. at Cambridge University—with no prior university education and the most dismal of high school transcripts. Born in Denmark, the son of a musician and a chorus girl, Moffat grew up in wartime England, to the accompaniment of bomb blasts and German bodies washing up on shore. The family moved so frequently that his education was spotty; suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder didn’t help.
At 19, headed nowhere fast, he picked up a popular science book, became an autodidact, and started writing papers on Einstein’s unified field theory. He wangled a meeting with Danish Nobel winner Niels Bohr; he corresponded with Einstein; he lucked into meetings with big-name, big-ego physicists who shrieked things like, “Einstein is an old fool!” Eventually, he impressed his way right into Cambridge. His memories of the eccentrics there, and heated wine-fuelled arguments between famous physicists furiously battling for immortality, are particularly lively.
Moffat ably renders controversies in physics in layman’s terms, and has a gift for explaining complex ideas without seeming to patronize. Best of all, the entertainment quotient of the book is high, and his portraits of the giants he has known are illuminating and frequently hilarious. At a conference, Paul Dirac’s wife screeches, when he emerges from an elevator, “Paul, you are so stupid! You can’t even put on your own trousers.” At a meeting in a restaurant, Murray Gell-Mann, father of the quark, puts his feet up on Moffat’s knees under the table; the author is too mortified to protest.
Moffat, who taught at U of T for many years, is a maverick, and throughout argues against what he sees as a herd mentality in his field. Today, pushing 80, he’s conducting radical work in particle physics at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, thereby proving his own maxim that to achieve success in physics, “one must be childishly optimistic, possess a thick skin and live a long life.”
- KATE FILLION
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