THE UGLY HISTORY OF BEAUTIFUL THINGS:  ESSAYS ON DESIRE AND CONSUMPTION by Katy Kelleher; Simon & Schuster, 2023; 262 pages, $27.99; ISBN 978-1-9821-7935-9


About beauty, economist John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006) said: “There is certainly no absolute standard of beauty. That precisely is what makes it’s pursuit so interesting.”  However, as Maine science writer
Katy Kelleher so clearly argues, the pursuit of beauty has unpleasant costs affecting humans, plants, animals, and the earth. And she is determined to explain what beauty is and the price we pay to have “beautiful things.”

Kelleher’s science essays and columns have appeared in the New York Times, the Guardian, and Harper’s. This is her first book, a collection of 10 insightful and provocative essays that “blend science, history, and memoir to uncover the dark underbellies of our favorite goods.” Her question: Beautiful things give us pleasure, hope, and purpose, but at what cost?

She writes about mirrors, flowers, gemstones, mollusks, cosmetics, perfumes, silk, glass, porcelain and marble, all tangible objects, some natural, some man-made, all with fascinating histories of creation, use
and hazards, from ancient discoveries, magic, superstition, desire, greed, warfare, arbitrary values and manufactured consumerism. For example, why is a diamond “a girl’s best friend”?

Mirrors offer “the beauty of reflection and refraction,” but at the high cost of toxic pollution in their creation. Caution: Mirrors don’t really show you yourself, they show you how others see you (and that’s pretty scary). Kelleher appreciates the beauty of gemstones, but decries the suffering of miners and the capricious labeling of some stones as “precious” and others as merely “semiprecious.” Who decides?

Most interesting are the essays on cosmetics and perfumes, their histories (think poisonous), sources, manufacturing and weird applications of lip color, mascara, face paint and Botox. Another caution: Lipstick and mascara have high PFAs levels. These essays are a bit depressing (that’s part of her story, too), but the historical truths are gripping.


JUST EAST OF NOWHERE by Scot Lehigh; Islandport Press, 2023; 256 pages, $18.95; ISBN 978-1-952143-57-1


To paraphrase British author A.S. Byatt: “Pain hardens, and great pain hardens greatly … though it may occasionally lend a certain rigid dignity of manner,” and perhaps even forgiveness. For young Dan Winters,
however, the pain is still sharp and won’t easily be soothed.

“Just East of Nowhere” is the debut novel of Maine author and veteran journalist Scot Lehigh, a complex and provocative story of teenage hormones, anger, impulsiveness and the rash decisions that irrevocably
upend lives. There is redemption here, too, but folks will have to suffer before it is realized.

After four years of incarceration, Dan returns home to Eastport, Maine (where Lehigh grew up), to attend his mother’s funeral, get some long sought-after answers and settle an old score. He is an angry young man with a hot temper. Lehigh moves the story back and forth, four years ago to today, carefully revealing the reasons for Dan’s anger, the real reason he went to reform school as a teenager, and what he intends to do now that he’s back in Eastport.

Raised by his mother, as a teenager Dan is tormented by cruel rumors of his parentage, and violence erupts, but those involved never admit the truth. Now back home, Dan digs into his past and what he
uncovers shocks him, and the boys who tormented him years before are scared about what he might do next.

Add an ex-convict with a damaging secret, a high school sweetheart who is an unwilling ally, two frightened bullies with a gun, a police detective who listens and understands, and a sudden twist of fate. Lehigh has created an engaging tale with a stark real-life reminder: When seeking forgiveness, the past is the past — except when it isn’t.

Bill Bushnell lives and writes in Harpswell.

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