I just finished reading Culture on Ice: Figure Skating and Cultural Meaning, by Ellyn Kestnbaum (our own EllynK). What a read! Buy it! Buy it!
I don't want to make this review so long that no one will read it, so I will briefly mention just three points here.
1. You can't judge a book by it's cover. On the front cover is a picture of 15-year-old Michelle Kwan, all tarted up as Salome, obviously being pimped to an appreciative male audience, if not to Herrod himself.
On the back cover we read that the book is classified under "gender studies" and that the author (PhD in theater from the University of Wisconsin) has contributed to scholarly compilations of feminist writings.
"Oh oh," thinks the typical oafish male figure skating fan, "I'm about to have my consciousness raised."
Well, I don't know if my consciousness was raised or not, but I certainly learned more from this work than from any other book on ice skating on my shelf. Yes, the author outlines the image of figure skating as filtered through the vocabulary of feminist writers of the 1970s: that the essence of the sport is to present the female body to the masculine gaze, while the female being thus presented is valued according to how well she matches the societal ideal of the passive and disempowered sex object. The point of this book is to subject this view to critical analysis, and in particular to challenge it as superficial or at least incomplete (for starters, the majority of figure skating fans are women).
I don't want to give away the plot, but Dr. K. argues persuasively: it's <em>way</em> more complicated -- and more interesting -- than that!
2. This book is not fluff. The title of the first chapter is <em>A General Theory of Meaning</em>. The first sentence of the first chapter is: "According to structuralist linguistic/semiotic theory based on the work of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, meaning derives from difference or distinction within a system of signification."
OK, so I have never heard of de Saussure and I have had to consult the dictionary three times so far. No prob. Any book that starts out discussing the "meaning of meaning" is my kind of book! Plus, once you get into it the work zips along like a novel. Although the author does not back away from using technical terms when precision requires it, the writing style is a model of clarity that can only be described as elegant. The book is worth reading for the quality of the writing alone.
3. Don't read this book with a hi-liter in hand to mark especially salient passages. Your copy will just end up like mine, solid yellow. If you don't like sex or culture, the book is still worth the price ($19.95 in paperback) just for the historical references: how did figure skating, a sport begun by adult men, develop into an activity that is now associated mainly with adolescent girls? (Oh wait -- that's sex and culture , too.)
Anyway, this is a dynamite book. If you like figure skating you'll love this book!