Home ec, for folks of a certain age who studied the subject in high school, may conjure up lessons in baking blueberry muffins and sewing dresses, but in her detail-filled and fascinating book, Danielle Dreilinger dynamites that cliché with glee. She shows how home economists pushed for affordable day care and STEM education for girls as early as the beginning of the 20th century.
At its heart, home ec began as an effort to remove the drudgery from housework, and along the way ushered generations of women into science careers that belied its reputation as “just stitching and stirring.” Few embraced the movement as strongly as Eleanor Roosevelt, who as First Lady during the depths of the Depression published a book that covered not only nutrition but how to care for a baby and manage money. Mrs. Roosevelt insisted on testing out the latest nutritional (and budget-saving) meals on her husband. Alas, there is no record of his reaction to a heaping serving of Milkorno, “made of cornmeal mixed with dried-milk powder.”
Few writers are as deft as Michael Dobbs at making history come alive on the page, but he has outdone himself with his account of the first few months of Richard Nixon’s second administration, which actually begins on the night before his inauguration with a phone call to a man Nixon called “the son I never had”: Charles Colson, White House special counsel and self-described “hatchet man.” The two discuss the next day’s speech as well as Colson’s squeeze play on The Washington Post to drop its Watergate coverage by going after the company’s TV licenses.
“That’s too damn bad,” replied Nixon with sarcasm when Colson told him The Washington Post’s stock price was dropping as a result of his actions. Then Dobbs writes, “He said good night to his special counsel and hung up the phone. Two floors below, in a locked cabinet in the West Wing basement, a Uher 4000 reel-to-reel tape recorder stopped whirring.”
So begins an utterly enthralling day-by-day account (178 days, to be exact) of Nixon’s descent from Inauguration Day to the day when the world learned that he had installed a taping system in the White House that was triggered automatically whenever he walked into a room or spoke on the phone. The tapes, of course, were his undoing, since they detailed his role in the cover-up of the break-in of Democratic National Committee headquarters, at the Watergate building, the previous year (an act that Nixon almost certainly did not know about beforehand).
What Dobbs does so brilliantly by relying on these tapes is to create Nixon in all his glorious tragedy during the days that truly determined his fate, even though he did not resign until the following year. If Nixon had destroyed the tapes, even after their existence had been revealed, he might very well have served out his second term. It is just another facet of Nixon’s tragic nature that he had convinced himself that the tapes would help rather than hurt him.
The earliest European explorers of the vast expanse of islands in the Pacific were amazed to find so many different peoples living on the remote lands of Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia. How did they get there?
What Nicholas Thomas does so engagingly is tell the story of the civilization called Oceania and the similarities among the “islanders,” a term that covers many different types of people on many different islands, all of whom are voyagers comfortable with the sea and have, as Thomas points out, “a capacity to connect.” For too long the history of the Pacific, which occupies a third of the world’s surface, has been written only from the perspectives of European explorers, resulting in misconceptions that Thomas elegantly fixes.