Reviews: e-books and audiobooks - nudism, voyeurism, and a Southern memoir
Mark Haskell Smith goes bush for a fun study of clothing-optional living, Pamela Newkirk recalls the 1906 exhibition in a cage in New York of a black African man and orangutan, and Harrison Scott Key will have you laughing and crying
Those of you who have never heard of Harrison Scott Key before will wonder why you haven’t. So enjoyable is his memoir that you will want to give it to anyone who’s grown up to be the opposite of what they were supposed to be. That’s a lot of people. Few would have the satirical chops to pull off a memoir that will have you in tears the minute you stop laughing. Memphis-born Key grew up in Mississippi doing everything his father wanted him to, such as skin a buck deer, run a trotline and tie a clinch knot. But Key preferred reading books, loved baking and was handy with a needle and thread. “One thing I could not do … was to love what my father loved,” Key says. Neither could he understand why his father whipped him for such trivial misdeeds as running around the house half naked. But this was Southern Man, in Bible Belt country, where “there was very little to do but shoot things or get them pregnant”. Son of Southern Man eventually has children of his own. To tell more would be to deny readers the full pleasure of the book.
The World’s Largest Man by Harrison Scott Key (Harper Collins) (e-book)
This book is more than "A Reluctant Nudist's Adventures in the Clothing-Optional World" (its subtitle). In fact, it is the historical sections of Naked at Lunch that are the most interesting, although readers will understand why Mark Haskell Smith met naturists on their own turf, such as on the Big Nude Boat, a charter that attracts sixty-somethings. He meets people who do business in the buff; hikers who tackle peaks au naturel; and nudists who strut their stuff, despite the majority espousing "conscious sexlessness". Behind the fondness for baring all, Smith finds, is a belief that social nudity can help with "de-alienation" (clothes are apparently worn to hide who we are). That said, he finds that because everyone is trying so hard to be non-sexual, they behave with a strange formality. Smith introduces us to famous proponents of naturism, in Victorian England and Belle Epoque France, and explains why nudism became so popular in Germany after the first world war. The book could have been a serious study; being written in the first person, however, makes it more fun.
Naked at Lunch by Mark Haskell Smith (Grove Press) (e-book)
In 1906, New York Zoological Park exhibited a young man from the Congo in a cage with an orangutan. A sign for the hundreds of thousands of visitors to the Primate House read: "The African Pygmy, Ota Benga. Age, 23 years. Height, 4 feet 11 inches". Spectacle, by Pamela Newkirk, tells that story, chronicling, as far as possible, the life of a man captured after Belgium's King Leopold II's conquest of his country left his people at the mercy of slave traders and so-called American explorers. That the spectacle took place in 20th century New York makes for uncomfortable reading, although, as the author tells it, only two years before, Benga had been part of the St Louis World's Fair, where, in a bid to showcase anthropology as a cutting-edge science, he had been shown as an attraction - along with Native Americans, native Filipinos and Japanese Ainu. Read by Bahni Turpin, the book continues after Benga was rescued by African-American communities in Virginia, but there is nothing close to a happy ending.
Spectacle by Pamela Newkirk (read by Bahni Turpin) Dreamscape Media (audiobook)