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Book reviews: Disco & Gen. Custer


You know how disappointing it is when your favorite books don't pick up awards at the end of the year? That's what happened to me with the two non-fiction volumes reviewed below. The Custer book was particularly deserving, I feel, as it took a subject that has been written about a zillion times and found both new ways to tell the story and re-examined revealing eyewitness accounts. Both books have been recently republished in paperback.

Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture by Alice Echols (Norton, 338 pages, $17.95).

By the time disco's mainstream popularity took off in 1973, some segments of American life — at least of American nightlife — were already three years into their discovery of a music that, for them, "changed everything."

Alice Echols, a Rutgers professor who was a DJ during the disco era, wrote a captivating book about that time and its influence on American life. She gets to the point quickly: In its early days during the early 1970s, mainly in big city dance clubs, disco became a galvanizing force, a speeding up of social changes that had already roiled American society for a few years.

Women's newfound sexual freedom — and feminism's scorn of "3-minute sex" — found a supportive environment in discos as well as in the songs played there (goodbye "Where Did Our Love Go," hello "Hot Stuff" by Donna Summer).

Most of all, says Echols, disco was the coming out party, pun intended, for gay culture in the U.S., its development and its eventual commercialization. For gay men in the early 70s, disco became a celebration of new freedoms, a revelation of their increasing numbers, and a kind of social laboratory. Some of the most interesting parts of Hot Stuff are when Echols describes how disco led to a new public identity for gay men. One example: Many gay discos were like sweatboxes, so shedding shirts became common — and thus gay men toning their torsos at the gym was born, which in turn led to an explosion in the popularity of gyms and gym culture.

Today, dance club music is an outgrowth of the old disco tree, dolled up and computerized to within an inch of its life, but an outgrowth of disco nonetheless. What's undeniable after reading Hot Stuff is that the era mainstream America would love to forget really was as important as it seemed at the time, although perhaps in different ways than most of us thought.

The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn by Nathaniel Philbrick (Penguin, 496 pages, $16).

The Battle of the Little Bighorn, or Custer's Last Stand, took place in Montana on the afternoon of June 25, 1876. Since then, it has become so deeply ingrained in American history and imagination, it would seem impossible to find anything new to write about it. However, Nathaniel Philbrick, the author of Mayflower and In The Heart of the Sea, produced one of the best, most riveting, non-fiction books of 2010, centered on the intricacies of that day.

For Custer and his men, it was obviously their last stand, which is what happens when you bring 250 men to fight 800 others, but then discover that the foe actually numbers 8,000. Philbrick contends that the battle was also, in a real sense, the last stand for the Plains Indians. Within a few years of their most complete victory over U.S. military forces, all their major leaders would be either dead or confined to reservations.

Up to the very last, Sitting Bull was ready to negotiate with Custer, but the man the Sioux called "Yellow Hair" wasn't interested; he was too busy figuring out how his expected victory in Montana could help him run for President.

Philbrick is a writer with style, and a great narrator who keeps things moving steadily, shifting between the two sides, with backstory folded seamlessly into the drama. He gives more credence than previous historians to accounts from witnesses who said they saw Custer on the east bank of the river at the time his subordinate, Maj. Marcus Reno, and his men were being routed in the day's first fight. The implication, if Philbrick's sources are correct, is that Custer was so consumed with prospects for his own glory, he was willing to sacrifice Reno's battalion if he could "mop up" afterward. If that is true, it sadly reconfirms that Custer was as egomaniacal and potentially treacherous as nearly everyone who served with him already believed.

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