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Friday, June 24, 2011


Fred Kaplan's 1959: The Year Everything Changed labors to live up to its subtitle, but nevertheless provides an entertaining look at the culture and politics of 1959. Though history buffs might find the book a little light the average reader will probably be thankful for the book's concise and agile prose.

The book is divided into 25 chapters each profiling an event, advancement, invention or other noteworthy happening of 1959. The arrangement is a little unwieldy. There are a lot of cultural chapters stacked up in the beginning of the story, covering Norman Mailer, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, and Miles Davis. The profiles on the writers will basically just make you think all novelists are monomaniacal assholes (Burroughs "accidentally" shot his first wife, Kerouac helped a friend cover up a murder, Mailer stabbed his wife at a party) while the chapters on Jazz left me, a reader with no understanding of musicology, in the dust.

Later on Kaplan returned to culture with profiles of Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and the free jazz pioneer Ornette Coleman. 1959 was also the year the Frank Lloyd Wright designed Guggenheim opened.

The science and space chapters were less compelling, and I'm not really certain what the chapter about searching for extra-terrestrial intelligence had to do with anything else. The space race is more interesting in the politcal sector, where it informs so much of the story behind Khrushchev's visit in the summer of 1959.

Perhaps the most relevant of the science articles was the one about Margaret Sanger and the FDA hearing for Enovid, the first birth control pill. Here Kaplan does a better job than anywhere else tying the history into real life, both before and after the pill.

Bottom line, this is the kind of book that if you already know a lot about history, at least features a lot of little anecdotes that you can try to sprinkle into your next conversation about Soviet history or non-representational art. If you don't know anything about the era, the book is a serviceably enjoyable introduction. At 245pages, it also won't weigh you down too much.

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