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Short Takes

By Kate Tuttle
Globe Correspondent / June 26, 2011

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JUST WORDS: Lillian Hellman, Mary McCarthy, and
the Failure of Public Conversation in America

By Alan Ackerman
Yale University, 361 pp., $35

When Lillian Hellman sued Mary McCarthy for libel — after McCarthy said, on Dick Cavett’s talk show, that “everything [Hellman] writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’ ’’ — some observers saw it as a last gasp of Old Left infighting, the battles over Trotsky and HUAC wheezing into the disco era. Although, as author Alan Ackerman points out, the women’s enmity “dated back to the political and sexual feuds of the 1930s,’’ the lawsuit (which ended, without entering a trial phase, with Hellman’s death in 1984) exemplified tensions we still face. In a close reading of the case, as well as both women’s literary and political legacies, Ackerman links their feud to the development of celebrity culture, the rise of television as a medium, and the shifting definitions of truth in memoir.

Ackerman’s highly academic study can be tough going for the general reader, but the concepts he discusses will be familiar to anyone who watches reality TV: What is the line between public and private? What is a lie, and whom does it hurt? In one fruitful digression, Ackerman looks at the dispute between John Kerry and the so-called Swift Boat Veterans, whose claims against him may have swayed the 2004 election; as Kerry asked afterward, “How many lies do you get to tell before someone calls you a liar?’’ The book’s best sections, however, skewer the writers themselves, arguing that the incident revealed each remarkable woman’s worst qualities: “McCarthy’s put-down is a concise expression of her glib meanness, and Hellman’s outraged reaction indicates the passionate intensity of her narcissism.’’

NOTHING DAUNTED: The Unexpected
Education of Two Society Girls in the West

By Dorothy Wickenden
Scribner, 304 pp. $26

Less than a century ago, the northwestern corner of Colorado was remote and forbidding. It snowed half the year, and the farming was tough. The US government offered 160 acres free to any homesteader willing to work the land for five years, and tens of thousands came to Colorado and other western states, from the Midwest and all over Europe to take their chances. In tiny Elkhead, Colo., in a stone schoolhouse perched on a hill, the far-flung community’s children came to study under two new teachers. Rosamond Underwood and Dorothy Woodruff, two Smith College graduates, were imported from New York state with at least one ulterior motive — it was hoped they might marry a couple of the many single cowboys in town. From scores of letters, Dorothy Wickenden (Woodruff’s granddaughter) has crafted an exquisite book.

“Nothing Daunted’’ chronicles the 1916-1917 school year, the first for both teachers and schoolhouse, gracefully interweaving Ros and Dorothy’s stories with broader histories of homesteading, railroad building, and myriad fascinating figures (from a Russian Jewish law student and rancher to a local debutante whose modern dance school teaches Agnes DeMille, among others). Both main characters are engaging, often funny — Dorothy writes that she’s thrilled to find they won’t have to teach Sunday School or domestic science classes. Another of the book’s delights is Wickenden’s gentle correction of eastern assumptions about the West, in particular the region’s pragmatic gender progressivism: “When Dorothy and Ros were pouring tea for suffragists in Auburn [N.Y.], their counterparts in Colorado were going to the polls.’’ Although their time there was brief, both women left a mark on the school they inaugurated — several of their students went on to college — and were indelibly changed by it themselves.

SEASON TO TASTE: How I Lost My
Sense of Smell and Found My Way

By Molly Birnbaum
Ecco, 320 pp., $24.99

On the verge of entering culinary school, Molly Birnbaum was hit by a car while running. The accident shattered her leg and pelvis. As her body mended, she noticed a new wound: She could no longer smell. Smell and taste are, of course, twin senses — without the ability to smell, the human tongue can only discern the broad strokes of salty, sour, sweet. Just like that, her life plan to become a professional chef crumbled. Losing the sense of smell — a deficit shared by an estimated 1 to 2 percent of Americans, around 3 million people — Birnbaum felt that she had “lost a way of relating, of understanding, of processing my world.’’

In this thoughtful, expansive memoir, Birnbaum explores both her singular anguish following her injury, and the wide-ranging importance and meaning of smell. She investigates smell and memory, smell and sexuality, smell and emotion, smell and art, and meets with physicians, food-flavoring experts, perfumers, and — in an oddly charming cameo — neuroscientist Oliver Sacks. After months without any sense of smell, Birnbaum began to recover some awareness of certain smells — rosemary, cucumber, chocolate — but couldn’t recognize or describe smells with any accuracy (she mistakes the odor of skunk for baked goods, for instance). She is forced, in the end, to accept an imperfect sense of smell and to find new ways to enjoy food and cooking: “Nourishment, I remembered, came from far more than taste and smell. Flavors were heightened with my happiness.’’ After reading Birnbaum’s smart, lovely book, readers will be reminded to savor their next meal, each fragrant bite.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.