In the summer of 1979, I was riding in a crowded, sweltering second-class train car through Spain, and watched as a jovial woman in a sleeveless dress took a spraycan of deodorant and blasted each of her hairy armpits to counter the rigors of travel. This occurrence is of a piece with many episodes recounted in Katherine Ashenburg’s illuminating and ripely sensual study of humanity’s ever-evolving attitudes about bodily hygiene, The Dirt on Clean. Planting herself knowledgably at the tangled nexus of science, technology, feminism, sex, medicine, class, business, warfare, advertising, architecture, nationalism, religion, fads and politics, Ashenburg surveys the prevailing beliefs about how and when the body should be maintained, from the ancient Greeks to the hypersensitive present. Not truly global in its remit — Asian nations are lightly examined, and Africa is terra incognita — this study nonetheless enthrallingly portrays our variously stinky and sweetly scented ancestors and coevals. At times, a Monty Python sensibility reigns (Napoleon cogitated best in his bath, sometimes receiving reports from the battlefield amid the soap bubbles). But overall Ashenburg exhibits a catholic respect for the dramatically divergent mores of different cultures and periods. Was there ever a book more suited to be read while lolling in the tub? –
About the Writer
Author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, and Neutrino Drag, Paul DiFilippo was nominated for a Sturgeon Award, a Hugo Award, and a World Fantasy Award -- all in a single year. William Gibson has called his work "spooky, haunting, and hilarious." His reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, Science Fiction Weekly, Asimov's Magazine, and The San Francisco Chronicle.