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A History of American Fun

Michael Ochs Archives

In his new book American Fun, John Beckman charts our pursuit of happiness from the Boston Tea Party to hippies and Yippies. But are we having fun anymore?

Several years ago, driving down the Atlantic coast to Georgia, I looked out my window to find that I was being paced by a woman on a quad. I must have done a double-take, like the Navy pilot who sees a UFO outside his cockpit. Not because a quad along a Southern highway is an uncommon sight but because this woman also had a baby in her lap. And a tallboy. Protective headgear was conspicuous by its absence. I wouldn’t like to embellish, but she was probably smoking a cigarette—hell, why not make it a joint? Whenever I tell this story to my fellow Northeasterners, they assume I was aghast at the primitive childrearing customs of Herda Hadda Holler, but what really went through my mind is: That’s a mom who knows how to have fun.

Mersey Mersey

It Was 50 Years Ago Today…

CBS /Landov

On February 9, 1964, The Beatles walked onto the stage of the Ed Sullivan Show and changed rock history. Nik Cohn was around to watch their ascendancy, and he didn’t miss much.

“If the Beatles meant a lot in England, they meant very much more in America,” wrote Nik Cohn in his brisk, entertaining history of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Awopbopaloopbop Alopbamboom: Pop from the Beginning. “They changed everything. They happened at a time when American pop was bossed by trash, by dance crazes and slop ballads, and they let all of that bad air out. They were foreign, they talked strange. They played harsh, unsickly, and they weren’t phoney.

Scribblers

The Battle for Lincoln’s Legacy

Corbis

Who would determine how the world saw America’s greatest president, his old friend or his secretaries? A new book tells the story of the men who were by his side during the presidency—and how they started shaping his image.

The boys of Lincoln’s Boys are John Nicolay and John Hay, Lincoln’s youthful private secretaries when he was president and in middle age authors of the most substantial nineteenth-century biography of Lincoln. Their biographer Joshua Zeitz, a former contributing editor at American Heritage, says in his prologue that “Nicolay and Hay believed that writing history required telling a good story.” Zeitz tells several. The longest story traces the friendship of a German immigrant and American prodigy who met in primary school and remained close until their deaths.

Monsters

Don’t Forget Stalin

Alexander Demianchuk/Reuters

Even while Hitler and Mao still captivate the popular imagination, one of the great monsters of the 20th century recedes. Celebrated historian Paul Johnson on why he decided to write a new biography of the Soviet Union’s monstrous dictator.

I have undertaken to write a new short life of Joseph Stalin because I have discovered that, among the young, he is insufficiently known. Whereas Hitler figures frequently in the mass media, and Mao Tse-tung’s memory is kept alive by the continuing rise in power of the communist state he created, Stalin has receded into the shadows. I shall bring him forth and shine on him the pitiless light of history.Stalin was a monster, one of the outstanding monsters civilization has yet produced.

Longreads

The Week’s Best Reads

The Daily Beast

From Vladimir Putin’s loneliness at the top to a creepy, secretive supermarket chain, The Daily Beast picks the best journalism from around the web this week.

The Loneliness of Vladimir Putin Julia Ioffe, The New Republic He crushed his opposition but has nothing to show for it but a country that’s falling apart.A Valuable Reputation Rachel Aviv, The New Yorker After Tyrone Hayes said a chemical was harmful, its maker pursued him.This Land Was Your Land Christopher Ketcham, The American Prospect In Utah and other western state, the country’s most pristine wilderness faces new threats from Big Energy and its powerful allies.

Art

These Cartoonists Are Killing It

The saying "a picture is worth a thousand words" is particularly appropriate when looking at the unmistakable style and inspiration of the best illustrators working today.

Fever Dreams

Hitler’s Fantasy Museum

AFP/Getty

Before World War II’s start, Hitler was driven to create his dream museum containing all his favorite Aryan-approved art. Noah Charney on how the Monuments Men had to unravel the thousands of objects plundered by the Fuhrer’s minions—and what they learned from Napoleon.

When Monuments Men Robert Posey and Lincoln Kirstein walked into the white-washed cottage in the German forest that housed Hermann Bunjes, the Harvard-educated one-time SS officer and art advisor to Herman Goring, they learned of an elaborate plan involving the wholesale looting of Europe’s art treasures. Bunjes, hiding in fear of reprisals against SS officers by angry German citizens, told these fellow art historians about the ERR—the Nazi art theft unit—and about Hitler’s plan to create a city-wide museum in his boyhood town of Linz, Austria: a “super museum” that would contain every important artwork in the world, including a wing of “degenerate art,” a sort of chamber of horrors to demonstrate from what monstrosities the Nazis had saved the world.

Stifling

Cairo’s Revolutionary Lit Scene

Ugurhan Betin/Getty

With Cairo still in turmoil and bombs exploding, writer Ahdaf Souief shares her worries over the stifling of cultural life, her love for Naguib Mahfouz, and the power of the Nile.

Ahdaf Soueif is a pillar of Cairo. Coming from a family of activists (she has a nephew in jail for allegedly encouraging a demonstration, a sister whom, after her son was faced with a court marshal, went on hunger strike, and a niece in full-time human rights activism) she is held in high regard in the city in which she was born. Soueif pens a weekly column for a national paper, has written two novels and three story collections, and then, during the Egyptian revolution, produced Cairo, an often very personal account of the inception of the Arab Spring.

Homefront

Between Boredom and Terror

Damon Winter/The New York Times

From the frontlines of America’s war in Afghanistan a Yale graduate turned Army warrior reflected on his experience in letters home. Now he’s put those letters together and they reveal a man comforted by the trivial and questioning why he is there.

If war is the true oldest profession, then perhaps the soldier’s letter is the origin of the form. The particular constructs and constraints of a military campaign—necessary separation from loved ones, daily news and hardships, hours of tedium that must be filled, not to mention the prospect of death—combine to create perfect letter-writing conditions, and average soldiers have been communicating existential insights large and small since the moment they became literate.

Office Humor

The Temp's Literary Debut

Jennifer Rocholl

‘One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories’ is an absurdist, scathingly funny literary collection from Ryan from ‘The Office.’ B.J. Novak on his surprisingly personal fictional debut.

Plenty of actors have written books lately, but none as original, smart or literary as B.J. Novak’s collection, One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories. It’s a sign of his freshness that reviews, most with extravagant praise, have strained for comparisons. Woody Allen’s sketches? Sort of, in their comic philosophical questioning, but Novak can be far more narrative. David Sedaris? Novak is less autobiographical; his characters include “The Man Who Invented the Calendar.

Treasure Hunt

The Real Monuments Men

Claudette Barius/Columbia Pictures

In this excerpt of the bestselling book ‘The Monuments Men,’ on which the film of the same name, directed by George Clooney and released Friday, is based, the platoon comes across four coffins containing the remains of Germany’s greatest leaders—and discover what they were intended for.

George Stout arrived at Bernterode on May 1, 1945. Just as fellow Monuments Man Walker Hancock had hinted in his phone call, the mine was in a rural area, with nothing to see but forests. Even the tiny village nearby had been evacuated by Nazi officials so that no one would know about the frantic activity at the mine. The only sight of civilization, if that’s what it could be called, was an internment camp for displaced persons, mostly French, Italian, and Soviet slave laborers who had worked in the mine.

Hail Mary

Seduced by Il Duce

Culture Club/Getty

A new book makes a compelling case that the Catholic Church should pay greater penance for its support of Mussolini and the rise of fascism—and what they got in return.

In 1995, Pope John Paul II issued a message on the 50th anniversary of World War II, stating that “the Christians of Europe need to ask forgiveness, even while recognizing that there were varying degrees of responsibility in the events that led to the war.”Over the next several years, against the advice of certain cardinals, John Paul made a startling call for the church to engage in “the purification of historical memory.”For a church that considers popes to be infallible—perfect in truth on matters of dogma—the idea of acknowledging its failures in the mud of history was a dramatic shift.

Monuments Man

Bob Balaban: How I Write

Victoria Will/AP

The prolific actor, who stars as Private Preston Savitz in this week’s ‘Monuments Men,’ is also a successful children’s book author.

Where did you grow up?Well, I was born in Chicago. My family moved there in about 1898 or so, escaped from some pogrom in Russia, got there, and eventually set up a chain of movie theaters. I got hooked on movies as a little kid and never really got over it. I love Chicago and I go back whenever I can.Is there a film that you remember seeing, an earliest one that you really loved and made you want to be in the film industry?One of my earliest memories is going to see, when I was 7 or 8, Guys and Dolls, which was playing at one of my dad’s theaters.

Grrr

No Jokes Please, We’re Russian

AFP/Getty

As journalists descend on the Winter Olympics the most chilling effect may be Russian pride when it comes to the truth about Sochi.

Everyone is aware of the Asian cultural preoccupation with saving face. Less well known is the pervasive Russian spin on this social dynamic, which is not so much saving face as resenting those who make one lose face—and punishing such tactless types with cold-shouldering, scolding or sterner measures, depending on the level of embarrassment they cause. It is called “being offended,” and it is an age-old Russian national pastime, both on an individual level and more broadly.

Racy

Revolutionary Cross-Dresser

Bettmann/CORBIS

In the American Revolution a woman named Deborah Samson donned men’s clothes and fought the British. Now transgender novelist Alex Myers has told her story and explores sexual identity in the 18th century.

Alex Myers’s debut novel, Revolutionary, reimagines the true story of Deborah Samson, a little remembered Revolutionary War soldier who disguised herself as a man to fight the British. Samson has fascinated Myers, 35, since childhood, not only because Samson is a distant relative, but also because Myers is a female-to-male transgender person. In the edited interview below, Myers discusses how his sexual identity informed the novel, the limits historical fact placed on him, and his own gender transformation.

Origins

This Week’s Hot Reads

From a look at the origins of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the life of the American poet E.E. Cummings.

Karate Chop by Dorthe NorsWhen describing many works of Danish art, adjectives like unnerving and disturbing often come to mind, but these are far from criticisms. It is precisely because of how unsettling Dorthe Nors’s stories in Karate Chop are that leave her words festering in the mind long after reading their four or five pages. Aside from “The Heron” (recently published in The New Yorker and included here), Nors’s work has gone largely unnoticed in America.

Masters

Alice Walker on Screen

Anthony Barboza

A new PBS documentary about writer Alice Walker finally tells her powerful story and has already moved audiences with its message writes Agunda Okeyo.

The documentary Alice Walker: Beauty in Truth is a cascade of impressive words and images revealing the life’s journey of a renowned author and activist. Although, British filmmaker and activist Pratibha Parmar has been a friend of Alice Walker’s for twenty years, she only decided to do this documentary when she realized that American Masters, perhaps the most prestigious televised U.S. documentary series, launched in 1986 by Susan Lacy, mostly featured men and often white men at that.

BOOKS

Farewell to Maupin's 'Tales'

As he writes his final ‘Tales of the City’ novel, Armistead Maupin talks sex, drugs, marriage, mortality – and lapping up Burning Man’s craziness - with Tim Teeman.

When I ask how his book tour is going, for what Armistead Maupin swears his last novel in the phenomenally successful Tales of the City series, the 69-year-old author laughs. Instead of giving a cursory “Fine thanks,” he tells me in his delicious, rich Southern drawl that he’s just had a discussion event with Don Bachardy, the artist and surviving partner of the novelist Christopher Isherwood. “We talked about the time Angelina Jolie sat for Don during one of her pregnancies,” Maupin says by phone from Los Angeles.

PTSD

Veteran Exorcisms

Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

A new book about a veteran undergoing exorcisms to purge himself of demons struggles with important questions about the costs of war and the nature of PTSD.

Tribal cultures differed in their approaches to reintegrating warriors. One common practice was to purify combatants after the fact, cleansing them of any evil spirits that might have trailed them home from battle. Sometimes, this purification centered on storytelling. A tribe would gather to hear a warrior recount his exploits, going into graphic detail, the bloodier the better. But in other societies, to tell war stories risked conjuring the dead and was considered dangerously taboo.

Feminine Mystique

A Life of One’s Own

Francois Duhamel/DreamWorks, via Everett

Jenny Offill’s second novel, 15 years in the making, looks at how a mother’s life can keep her from ever writing her second novel.

Jenny Offill’s first novel, Last Things, was published in 1999 and told the story of an 8-year-old girl named Grace, living in a small lakeside town in Vermont, being raised by a mother who at first appears whimsical and eccentric, but who the reader gradually comes to realize is mentally ill. It is easy to see why readers and critics compared it to Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping at the time—both novels tell the story of young girls growing up with absent or damaged parents, in a starkly rural setting, and employing a lush, pointillist prose style.

How I Write