DRINKING IN AMERICA: OUR SECRET HISTORY
By Susan Cheever. (Twelve, 258 pages, $28.)
Would the Mayflower have landed in Virginia — its intended destination — instead of at Plymouth Rock, had the Pilgrims not been continually inebriated? That's one of many fascinating questions that Susan Cheever raises in "Drinking in America: Our Secret History," a chronicle of America's past that is full of details they never told you back in fifth grade. Like the fact that the colonists drank from morning until night, everybody consuming up to a gallon a day of strong beer. Even small children started the day with a cocktail of juice and grain alcohol.
Booze, Cheever argues, has steered our nation's course in ways we rarely acknowledge. Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence with a drink at his elbow. Johnny Appleseed's wares weren't used to keep the doctor away but to produce hard cider. Sen. Joseph McCarthy's paranoid bullying of accused Communists was fueled by his alcoholic temper. Secret Service members were recovering from the previous night's drinking bout, their alertness dulled, on the day John F. Kennedy was shot.
But this Bacchanalian America has a teetotaling flip side, reflected in the Temperance Movement and Prohibition. "There are two strains of American belief about drinking," Cheever writes. "The one holds our right to drink the way we choose as sacred. The other tries to legislate drinking habits by age, hours of availability, open-container laws and general disapproval." Today's mixed messages — tough drunken-driving laws, festive happy hours — are the contemporary version of our cultural heritage.
Susan Cheever will be at Common Good Books, 38 S. Snelling Av., St. Paul, at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 16, and at the Twin Cities Book Festival at 2:30 p.m. Oct. 17.
LET ME TELL YOU
By Shirley Jackson. (Random House, 416 pages, $30.)
If all you know about Shirley Jackson is that she wrote that terrifying short story you read in eighth-grade English class, you don't know Shirley Jackson. The eccentric who dreamed up "The Lottery" and the equally creepy novels "The Haunting of Hill House" and "We Have Always Lived in the Castle" also was a mommy blogger of sorts before her time, documenting in cheerfully demented style the rearing of four kids (the recently reissued "Life Among the Savages" and "Raising Demons").
"Let Me Tell You," a compendium of mostly unseen stories and essays published by two of her children 50 years after her death, offers a taste of both Jacksons. Stories of ordinary people (women, more often than not) caught up in eerie and uncertain circumstances call to mind John Cheever filtered through "The Twilight Zone."
In "Mrs. Spencer and the Oberons," a wife and mother devoted to perfection is haunted by the introduction of a new family in town, possibly imaginary. In "The Lie," a woman returns to her backwater hometown, hoping that by rectifying a long-ago falsehood her present life will magically be fixed. "The New Maid" is a domestic whose unusual tactics repair marriages like a Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle for grown-ups. In "Family Treasures," a boarding-school kleptomaniac exacts subtle revenge on her tormentors. Jackson even includes a fairy tale of sorts, "The Man in the Woods," a kind of benevolent "Hansel and Gretel." In each, the aura of the off-kilter and the slightly supernatural hovers uncomfortably.
The essays that follow, including a lamentation over a clueless husband, an appreciation for Dr. Seuss and an attempt to answer the burning question "What's so special about clowns?" allow a glimpse into the real-life humor and terror that seeped into Jackson's fiction. This collection, representing the full spectrum of her prolific writings, is a valuable addition to the Jackson oeuvre.