Among the casualties of iPhone apps, Google Maps, and automobile GPS systems is that most useful of summer books—the atlas. But these oversize artifacts haven’t died just yet; they’re reinventing themselves. Instead of merely graphing Point A and Point B, or corn production in the Midwest, Penguin’s atlas series, which includes The State of the World and Women of the World, has given us a picture of where we are as a society through revelatory statistics presented in “charticle” format, with a political slant. The latest in that book series, The Real State of America Atlas, will arrive in July, delivering a riveting portrait of an America that doesn’t always live up to its ideals.
Real State maps the USA’s patterns in religion, race, politics, the minimum wage, the dwindling lands of Native Americans, the proliferation of guns, the most environmentally dangerous areas, the number of missing nuclear weapons, among many other hot-button subjects—daring us to confront the facts. Cynthia Enloe and Joni Seager, the political scientist and geographer who put the book together, spoke to the Voice about their vision of an utterly fascinating (and surprisingly slim!) atlas—but one that’s comfortable with bearing the weight of America on its back.
Can statistics change anything in a world where certain segments of the population believe that facts don’t matter? Seager: Yes. At the end of the day, there really are people in sub-standard housing and people who are hungry, and we can get statistics on [those realities]. I could go on about the mutability of language and truth, but there really are knowable facts, and we’re trying to reveal some of them with this atlas.
What statistics about the U.S. surprised you? Seager: Poverty statistics. We tried to make visible the American overseas empire—Guam, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, but also smaller places: Baker Island, the Palmyra Atoll. The social statistics for these islands are horrifying. Mississippi has the highest poverty rate (20 percent), but American Samoa has 60 percent. And 99 percent of Americans couldn’t find American Samoa on the map.
Enloe: I was stunned at how America dominates arms manufacturing and sales. Also that U.S. governments, Republican and Democrat, for many years thought that giving vast amounts of military aid to the Egyptian government was good for American security. But I don’t think that until the “Arab Spring” we thought about how disproportionate military aid to Egypt was. Egypt just jumps out at you.
After reading all these statistics, I felt a little shell-shocked. What did you want readers to come away with? Enloe: We wanted people to talk to each other. This is an era when Americans are becoming more polarized ideologically. We wanted people to look at the reliable factual portrait of Americans and how we live in this country, then look at their own America and say, “Well, this is what we’ll base our voting on.” We really do hope that every spread will spark refreshed conversations—conversations based on reality.
Seager: We see so many contradictions in American life and pop culture. For example, Americans by and large think of themselves as being caring, generous, and helping others less fortunate, giving money for causes, the Peace Corps, etc. That’s one true portrait, but then if you start to look—not even all that deeply—you realize the terrible inequities. And how do you reconcile that feeling of caring and concern with those inequalities? It’s hard to hold those contradictions in your head. So maybe you can hold them in the book.
‘The Real State of America Atlas,’ by Cynthia Enloe and Joni Seager, Penguin/Myriad Editions, 128 pages, $22. JULY
The Optimism Bias
By Tali Sharot
“Because we use the same neural system to recall the past as we do to imagine the future,” writes neuroscientist Sharot, “recollection also ends up being a reconstructive process rather than a videolike replay of past events.” Apparently, according to her insightful, Oliver Sacks–y first book, we embellish and alter the past for the same reasons we look forward to the future. Who could bear either without “optimistic tendencies”? “Optimism may be so essential to our survival that it is hardwired” into our brain. Perhaps the only reason we can go on living, she suggests, is that we always think things will get better, whether or not they do. Pantheon, 272 pp., $24.95 JUNE
The Secret History of Costaguana
By Juan Gabriel Vásquez
Western Lit is too big to ignore, but its history is too racist to bear. What’s a flabbergasted subaltern to do? Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s answer is to plunder Joseph Conrad—continuously. His first novel, 2004’s The Informers, owed a certain debt to The Secret Agent and brought Vásquez international attention. Too smart to leave a successful idea alone, in The Secret History of Costaguana, Vásquez imagines that Conrad appropriated the personal history of a Columbian man named José Altamirano to construct his novel of invented Latin American history, Nostromo. Maybe next he will make the Amazon stand in for the Congo in Corazón of Darkness.Riverhead, 304 pp., $26.95 June
The Steal: A Cultural History of Shoplifting
By Rachel Shteir
Shteir, whose previous book, Striptease, exposed burlesque, sets out to capture the history of what some call “social banditry” and others call a crime. Along the way, she encounters Freegans, Abbie Hoffman–ites, and a troupe of Barcelonese performance artists who stage elaborate rituals in shopping malls that include “liberating” merchandise. She introduces us to “refund fraud,” “price switching,” and “grazing” (excessive tasting at supermarkets). We discover that while more men steal from stores, more women do so habitually, and that not even movie stars or senior Bush administration advisers can stop themselves from helping themselves. Penguin Press, 272 pp., $25.95 June
Precious, of based-on-the-novel-Push-by-Sapphire fame, is dead. “The Kid” is her son, Abdul. Yes, the one whose father is also his grandpa. Nine years have passed since the end of his mother’s literacy narrative, and literacy has evidently not done much to improve her lot in life. Sapphire changes the approach of Push very little for this latest effort, cloaking herself in another first-person Afrochild voice whose innocence she juxtaposes with the brutal and complex world into which he’s thrown. Why change up a good thing? Precious herself, who must have changed considerably in the years between Sapphire’s books, appears in Abdul’s flashback memories, providing the kind of guidance she became famous for missing in her own life. The Penguin Press HC, 384 pp., $25.95 JULY
By Amy Waldman
Claire, a 9/11 widow who represents the interests of the families on a committee to anonymously choose a memorial, fixates on “The Garden,” an entry that includes a green space where people might “stumble on joy.” Little does she know that this submission was the creation of Mohammad Khan, an apolitical, non-religious Muslim architect who’s sort of a douche. When “The Garden” wins the competition, a public-relations nightmare ensues, inflaming city politics and anti-Muslim racism in this brisk and surprisingly still-topical novel. FSG, 528 pp., $27 AUGUST
True Confessions: Feminist Professors Tell Stories Out of School
Edited by Susan Gubar
What do feminist academics write about when they’re not being feminist academics? Apparently, their father’s penises, their hatred and fear of their mothers, bulimia, being accused of sexual harassment, and the real or perceived changes in the landscape of women’s studies over the last few decades. While the first half, “Personal Views,” is juicier than the second, “Professional Vistas,” these smart, occasionally bawdy stories of intelligent women grappling with substantial life issues and historical conundrums are a great antidote to the maddening, reactionary tone of our wedding-centric babyocracy. W.W. Norton, 400 pp., $29.95 AUGUST
By Wayne Koestenbaum
Picador’s Big Ideas/Small Books series has paired provocative thinkers with exciting subjects, for example, getting Slavoj Zizek to write a short book called Violence. For this newest in the series, queer public intellectual Koestenbaum offers a swarm of exquisite, Barthesian paragraphs on the subject of humiliation. We find him alighting on the theme as it relates to cyberbullying, Larry Craig, Abu Ghraib, and Elliot Spitzer’s supposedly phallic cranium, plus the work of modern artists including Jean-Michel Basquiat and Glenn Ligon. Koestenbaum also submits to the humiliation of releasing a book during a month when everyone in publishing is on vacationPicador, 192 pp., $14 AUGUST
What Language Is
By John McWhorter
In 2009’s captivating Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, Columbia prof and linguist-to-the-layman McWhorter made a case for the way the English language may have mated with and been morphed by Celtic. Now chasing larger linguistic game, he argues that his colleagues have disrespected some “dialects” out of discrimination, and, similarly, that the structure of slang is, in certain cases, complicated enough to demand our respect. During the ride, he explains why insular languages are more complex and why Navajo code talkers hardly needed to speak in code—their Byzantine grammar contains no regular verbs. “Languages,” McWhorter says, “have messy hair.” Gotham Books, 272 pp., $26 August
The Bedtime Book for Dogs
By Bruce Littlefield
Grand Central, 32 pp., $15.99 JUNE
By Alison Pace
Berkley, 320 pp., $14 JUNE
Chihuahua of the Baskervilles
By Esri Albritten
Minotaur Books, 288 pp., $23.99 JULY
By Christopher R. Weingarten
NAL Trade, 144 pp., $14 JULY
Stereotypically, people consider summertime the moment for superficial reads, so if you’re craving mindless fluff, direct yourself to the season’s bevy of ludicrous canine fare. If you don’t find hipsters or puppies annoying enough, try Hipster Puppies, a coffee-table photobook of dogs decked out in thrift-store chic. PBR in a feed dish? Probably. Chihuahua of the Baskervilles claims to be the first novel in a moronic series about a ghost pup, and the schmaltzy novel Pug Hill can’t hide its real mission—to serve as über-cute female demographic–chow. Garage Sale America lifestyle guru Littlefield has peppered his picture book, The Bedtime Book for Dogs, with doggie English—“Lie down,” “Good dog”—so you can read it to her and indulge the idiotic pastime of treating your pooch like an actual child.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 25, 2011