Survey Says! Dishing da dirt

It is the time of the year when we enjoy the soil’s miraculous bounty. Plant a little seed in the ground, add water and sun, and marvel as this humble recipe yields sprawling watermelon vines, mountains of green beans, and more pumpkins than you could use in a hundred years. Yet, like all things, dirt has its problems. Moms complain about it being tracked in by children. The devout worry that it pollutes our popular culture. And scientists worry that we are using up the very soil beneath our feet, a real emergency, as we’re no longer allowed to restore fertility with human sacrifice.

The scholarly and small press world provides plenty of dirt on dirt in all its guises and meanings.

montgomeryDirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, by David R. Montgomery
University of California Press

Will eroded soil lead to that inevitable dystopia that will make our golden years look like outtakes from Mad Max: Fury Road? This fascinating book doesn’t go that far. But it does sound a warning about soil depletion, yet another of the depredations our species is visiting upon the planet. Roaming from the agriculture of the ancient Nile to our unfortunate modern-day habit of washing fertile soil into the Gulf of Mexico, David Montgomery examines how human have long spent up this essential natural resource, the subsequent effects on even the mightiest of civilizations, and humanity’s possible fates if we don’t change our ways. He also explores the recent rise of organic and no-till farming, seeing in such the hope for a new agricultural revolution that might help us avoid the grim outcomes experienced by our forebears in Mesopotamia, Greece, Kansas, and elsewhere.

tzioumakis and lincolnThe Time of Our Lives: Dirty Dancing and Popular Culture, edited by Yannis Tzioumakis and Siân Lincoln
Wayne State University Press

The 1980s were a time of strange, unexpected pop culture explosions, when overnight sensations conquered our zeitgeist again and again. One of the biggest surprises was a modest little coming-of-age drama featuring heretofore supporting players Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey. The reasons that Dirty Dancing become a phenomenon of screen and sound, and later stage, inexplicably went unstudied for years, until Yannis Tzioumakis and Siân Lincoln came along to answer the question: Why did my sister watch this movie 500 times? Their assembled essayists tango with questions ranging from the film’s mastery of Eighties media synergy to its treatment of race to the genre-blending (and -bending) that struck whatever chord you need to strike to become an enduring classic.

burnsteinNext to Godliness: Confronting Dirt and Despair in Progressive Era New York City, by Daniel Eli Burnstein
University of Illinois Press

Progressive Era reformers had no problem takin’ it to the streets. Alas, the streets of the time were frequently a disgusting soup of trash, dead animals, and that anonymous and disgusting goo that develops when nobody runs the drain in the sink through the dishwasher. Handkerchiefs in place, reformers surveyed Gotham neighborhoods to see where, and if, city efforts at sanitation gave immigrants and other poor people a chance to achieve “decency.” Daniel Eli Burnstein explores everything from juvenile cleaning leagues to striking garbage men to show how middle-class reformers amassed a cross-class and cross-ethnic base of support for social reform measures that went far beyond images of Iron Eyes Cody.

slideInside the Hollywood Fan Magazine: A History of Star Makers, Fabricators, and Gossip Mongers, by Anthony Slide
University Press of Mississippi

The Hollywood fan magazine took the ancient scourge of gossip and perfected it into a form of communication known as “dishing the dirt.” In its pages we learned of the feuds, affairs, fraud, and dirty tricks troubling the lives of movie stars and other celebrities. Mongers like Hedda Hopper and Rona Barrett became as identifiable as the actors and singers themselves. Even lit talents like Theodore Dreiser and e. e. cummings contributed grist to this neverending mill. Anthony Slide‘s look at these pop culture relics discusses how the fan magazines dealt with gossip and innuendo, and how they handled nationwide issues, some of them slightly more important than Marilyn Monroe’s hat size.