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Poplorica    by Martin J. Smith & Patrick J. Kiger order for
by Martin J. Smith
Order:  USA  Can
HarperCollins, 2004 (2004)
Hardcover, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Think you know your history? Think again. The authors of Poplorica give us history 'with a small h', telling us it's about 'convenience, invention, innovation', the unnoticed stuff that affects our daily lives. They address the question 'How'd things get so weird?' with eclectic milestones in contemporary culture. It's fascinating and funny to learn about the origins of cultural obsessions like the thin fad, inventions that changed our lifestyles such as high performance diapering, and evolving types of entertainment like celebrity voyeurism and gory horror films. Each chapter ends with interesting statistics and tidbits on the topic as well as references for further research.

I never thought about why we feel obliged to maintain a short, green, weed-free lawn around our homes, but now I know. Though grass has apparently been a landscape design element since 100 BC (in the Chinese Emperor's gardens), the lawn apparently only became an obsession of the suburban N. American masses after the publication of Frank Scott's 19th century book on The Art of Beautifying Suburban Home Grounds of Small Extent. Ever heard of the author? Me neither. But he's the one to blame for the 'lawn-centered life' and the US Lawnmover Racing Association. The invention (in 1902 by Carrier), development and impact of air conditioning also intrigued me, especially comments on how it impacts the way we interact (or don't) with neighbors.

I've always wondered about 'How Thin Became In' in N. America (especially since it never mattered to the same extent in Europe, where the 'zaftig figure' has always been more accepted). Again it seems we can blame it on a book, a 1918 bestseller by Dr. Lulu Hunt Peters, Diet and Health, With Key to the Calories. There's a funny history of weight loss gimmicks in this part, starting from William the Conqueror's limiting his intake to alcoholic beverages; didn't work! And did you know that Alfred Kinsey's motivation for his pivotal research on human sexuality was his own 'calamitous honeymoon'? Interestingly, the piece on how TV dinners evolved blames over-sexed turkeys. I learned more than I wanted to know about the origins of 'Tacky Chic' (those supremely ugly paintings on black velvet) in Tahiti, and about the debut of the electric guitar (the new 'technophallus').

Re. the clothing sections, I'm eternally grateful for the development of permanent press clothing and can't wait for stain-free apparel, but have always preferred pantsuits to pantyhose (whose history is in here too). There's a chapter on 'Gorgeous George', wrestling predecessor of posturing sports figures. And the authors take us back to the time before the 'First Angry Mike Man' when talk-show hosts had a mission 'simply to be nice', to tell how Joe Pyne ('Go gargle with razor blades!') changed all that in 1949, leading ultimately to reality tv. Another fascinating discussion covers the evolution of the graphical user interface and the 'point-click culture' from the work of Douglas C. Engelbart in the 60s.

There's a lot in here, and if you enjoy quirky ideas or wonder about the 'eccentricity creeping into modern American culture', then you'll love Poplorica.

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