Okra vs. Gombo

Vibration Cooking or The Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl by Verta Mae. Doubleday & Company, 1970.

The groovy 70s cover

Sarah: A while ago I was reminded of Gil Scott-Heron. He was very influential, like a pre- hip hop hip hop artist.
Gene: He’s mentioned in an REM song, but I’ve got no idea who he was.
S: Yeah? He was a poet who set his poetry to music. So I go on to a music subscription service to start listening to him, and I’m really enjoying it, then all of a sudden there is a song that centers around a slur that’s very homophobic. I was like, “Huh, I guess that’s of its time,” then thirty seconds in, “I can’t listen to this anymore.” So. Then I read a wonderful book and at almost the very end of it, apropos of nothing, there’s a homophobic slur. It’s of its time, it wasn’t enough to make me stop reading the book, but it really took me out of the flow.
G: It’s this book, Vibration Cooking?
S: Yeah. It’s by Verta Mae, who also went by Vertamae Grosvenor and Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor at different parts of her career. I don’t think anyone would have blinked at the slur in 1970, when it was written, except that you wouldn’t have said it in polite society. If I could have just skipped that page, that would have been great. I don’t know if it’s in the later reprints, too.* But other than that, as a whole, I really enjoyed the book! It was published in 1970, and was written when the author was in her late twenties. It’s a combination of autobiography and recipes.
G: Where did she grow up?
S: In South Carolina. The subtitle of the book is The Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl. The Geechee are a people, also called Gullah, in that area. They are descended from slaves from West and Central Africa and have their own unique language and traditions. She talks about the farm where her family lived and where she was born, then how they moved to Philadelphia and had a tough time getting by there. Her family was pretty poor. Then in the middle of a sentence, she’ll put a recipe. Like “Aunt Rose used to cook” and then the heading “COWPEAS,” and then the recipe for cowpeas.
G: Was this book famous when it came out?
S: I don’t think so. The author later wrote a lot of other stuff, was a commentator on NPR, had a PBS cooking show, stuff like that. She definitely had a following.
She became an actress in New York for a while, then moved to Paris, then she was an activist in New York, and she hung out with all of these writers and poets and musicians — in the book she’ll talk about how everyone came over after a show and this is what we cooked.
G: And this is all in there?
S: It’s all in there. She had some cousins, one who ended up in the West Indies, another who ended up in India, and she’ll write their recipes in their stories. It is always a conversational, great story that gives you all the context you need for the food. It makes it so much more enjoyable and friendly. And luckily, there’s an index at the back, because there is no organization to this at all except as a story.
G: Is it even broken up into chapters?
S: Yes, it is. There’s a section called “Away from Home,” another called “’59” when she left New York for Paris, then again in “’68.” And little side stories about raising her daughters, about how she had a hard time catching a cab in New York, stories about how people reacted to her wearing African clothes. It’s a very personal story that brings in personal recipes because that was a part of her life. At the end, there’s an everything left over section, how to cook different vegetables, about spices, there’s a section on Aphrodisiacal Foods.
G: (flipping through the book) Poems in the back.
S: And some letters between her and her cousin.
G: You can imagine a publisher getting this and just saying, “What?”
S: But it’s perfect, a perfect little story.
G: Who published it?
S: Doubleday.
G: So a major publisher. Where did you get this brown-with-age paperback?
S: At a used bookstore. It’s a first edition paperback. I think I’m going to cook some recipes from it, but I got a lot out of it even if I don’t. I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it.
G: But you’d recommend it to me for the narrative flow.
S: Yes, for the flow over the recipes. It’s about the central role of food in family and friends and community and identity. And then there’s a homophobic slur. Just skip that part.

*There is a fairly lukewarm apology in the 1986 reprint. She says, “I should have said ‘homosexual.’ I apologize for that […] but the rest stands.” According to a review, the1992 reprint omitted both the original slur and the apology. The 2011 reprint has the slur back again and includes the 1986 apology.

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Book Fight Club

Sarah: I recently saw the new HBO movie adaptation of Fahrenheit 451.
Gene: Starring Michael B. Jordan from Fruitvale Station and Black Panther.
S: It was not great. The ending was updated in a way that I didn’t like.
G: His boss is the bad guy from The Shape of Water, Michael Shannon.
S: He was good. All the performances were good. The changes in the plot were aggravating.
G: Michael B. Jordan plays Guy Montag, right? I recently read someone’s opinion that the book really needed to be updated, that the story needs to be updated. The previous movie was not great.
S: People respond to the story as though it were just about censorship, but Bradbury wrote it about how people have stopped reading because they just want to watch TV. I think that’s absolutely something you can update to the internet era. People don’t want to read long sentences, they want emoji. And that’s how the movie starts. Then there’s book burning, because books bummed people out and caused wars.
G: What bummed people out?
S: Books with sad stories. And religious books cause wars because people disagree about them.
My actual question is this: if you’re in the dystopian future and you have to memorize one book, you’re assigned to memorize one book, how do you go about picking that book? I felt like when Montag met the people who were memorizing books, it looked like they didn’t necessarily get to pick their book. Maybe someone assigned it to them.
G: Oh my god, no!
S: So you’ve got to go in with a strategy or you’re going to end up with a book you don’t like and it’ll be etched into your soul forever. How do you make sure you get a book you can live with for the rest of your life? I liked that the HBO movie updated the books that were being preserved to include more contemporary authors and authors of color…
G: That’s nice.
S: …but it annoyed me that the people who became a book always matched the color of the author. The one Asian-American person had memorized Mao’s Little Red Book. Really?
G: That’s your book? Not an Amy Tan novel or something you’d want to remember?
S: No! Not something that she probably connected with personally. I don’t know. I think 90% of Chinese Americans really don’t like Mao. (laughs) Or at least their parents don’t.
G: I think that’s high, Sarah, I think it’s more like 89%
S: So you, Gene, don’t want to be assigned a guy book just because you’re clearly a guy. You don’t want something based on your demographic background. You want something based on who you are and what book you can live with.
G: That’s the question? How do you do it?
S: How do you go into the room and be like, “I only want prose.” Or “I only want American authors.” Or “I only want books that focus on language rather than character development.”
G: Maybe in that dystopian future, there are few books to choose from.
S: That’s the problem, knowing how non-librarians collect books in those Little Free Libraries, you’re going to end up with a car manual. You’re going to end up with Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
G: (laughs) Oh my god! The Prophet by Gibran. How to Win Friends and Influence People.
S: Exactly! I want to go in there and not get whatever bullshit Little Free Library books were saved. Librarians know about collection development, about core collections.
G: But it couldn’t be a graphic novel.
S: Yeah, or you’d have to act it out.
G: Could it be a picture book? It’d easier to memorize prose. That’s maybe the wrong idea, maybe there’s a way to transmit pictures in a graphic novel. I immediately go to prose, I go to short. I think plays would be easier to memorize.
S: Do you think that’s why that lady chose Mao’s book? “What’s the shortest one you have?”
G: And it’s historic, right? But I think most people would preserve a bestseller…
S: Yes.
G: Every Dean Koontz book would come down through the ages..
S: By sheer numbers…and Stephen King.
G: Stephen King, The Bible, Harry Potter.
S: Harry Potter shows up on the screen in Fahrenheit 451.
G: Could you do it if you didn’t have a choice? I think yes. Because you’re going to get stuck with one book, and you’re desperate to read something anyway.
S: Assume you get to go through the process of memorizing, it’s not just accidental. What do you want to stare at, for as many years of your life as you need to memorize that book?
G: What would I want? I would pick a story that I really like and I would pick a kids’ book. I would pick some Lloyd Alexander book, probably The Book of Three or The Black Cauldron or The High King. (I recognize that Taran Wanderer isn’t the best standalone book in the Prydain series though it’s still my personal favorite.) I’d pick one of those, or my favorite book, LeGuin’s The Wizard of Earthsea. I could memorize the first three books in that series, I think.
S: Yeah. They might be happy if you volunteered to do three. “I’ll do three if I can do these three.”
G: But how do you resolve the fights? “No no no, I’M The Wizard of Earthsea!”
S: Trial by combat!
G: Have a throwdown? Maybe a bunch of people are sitting around reading a copy of John Grisham’s The Client to each other.
S: That’s what I’m afraid of. I don’t want to walk into the room and get The Client.
G: You have to have some redundancy, though, right?
S: Yeah, what if somebody gets set on fire, as happens in the film?
G: Are they setting people on fire?
S: One person immolates herself as a political protest, I think simultaneously eliminating The Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck.
G: I remember in high school skipping every other chapter of that book because they were the allegorical chapters. The chapters about the Joads were interesting and readable, though. All I remember is the end, where the woman is breastfeeding an old man who’s dying. And everyone in class was like, “Whaaaaaat?”
S: If you are that book, say, “Calm down. Don’t flip out over this next chapter.”
G: Maybe I’d want to be Between A Rock and A Hard Place by Aron Ralston, the book about the guy who got his hand trapped while hiking and climbing in Utah alone.
S: Ooh, yeah, a gripping true adventure story.
G: Of course there’s be some guy who’d want a Highlander movie novelization. What would you do?
S: See, I should have an awesome answer, since I had a while to think about it…
G: You have two seconds!
S: (blurts quickly) The Areas of My Expertise by John Hodgman!
G: See, that wasn’t so bad. It’s a funny book.
S: It’s a funny book, it’s in little bits and pieces, you can read it in any order, you can jump around and memorize little bits at a time. Maybe I’d even do the whole trilogy.
G: Can you imagine a library where everyone its the service area got to choose just one book for the collection? And there was nothing else there?

Starting Middle School

Sarah: A friend of mine, her daughter is going to middle school next year. The school she goes to now has a lot of kids who have been protected from the bumps and bruises of life. The don’t have testing, they don’t have grades. It feels very accepting and hippie-ish, but they get to use computers.
Gene: I have some friends whose kids went to a school like that, and they didn’t end up too crazy.
S: It’s interesting, some of them go to similarly special middle schools, and some of them go to the regular middle schools, which can be a bit of a change.
G: Kids with chains and filed-down teeth waiting for them at the door.
S: Waiting to suck their blood.
So my friend gets a letter from the school about how to help her help her daughter to adjust to the changes in going to a new school. The whole thing is about how it’s hard, and it’s harder when they’re going through puberty and social changes, and starting to argue with their parents and having their own sense of what their lives should be. They’re no longer your cute perfect darling children. It can be hard. But it doesn’t approach it as though it’s normal (which it is) and that every parent goes through this (which they do), it’s more like, “This is the upcoming tsunami that’s going to hit your home, you may be concerned. Here’s how to ensure they don’t become dead-eyed drug addicts.”
G: I think I got a letter like this, too, years ago.
S: At the end of the letter, there is a list, Great Books About — and this is actually in quotations — “Middle School.”
G: (laughs) Because we’re not really talking about middle school?
S: I have no idea. There are four fiction and three nonfiction books. The nonfiction books are fairly well-chosen. There’s some recent ones and some older ones that are pretty good.
G: Does it mention using a short-wave radio to call for help?
S: Right, no, it’s not quite that bad. The fiction books, though… my friend, who has an MLIS, who makes booklists herself, was dismayed that they were so old. Old enough that two weren’t in the public library anymore, one was available only as an ebook rerelease, one that’s just old and there are only two copies available.
G: Maybe it’s a cry for help from whoever made that list. Maybe the list had to be district-approved.
S: Exactly. I feel the same frustration with lists people get from their doctors after a diagnosis. The books are all ten or fifteen years old and the library system only has one copy left, with a long, long waiting list. I want to write back to the doctors with a list of ten newer books and tell them to pick the ones they like.
G: You should do that for the school.
S: My friend asked me to make her a list she could share with the other parents.
G: That’s great! You’re living the librarian’s dream!
S: But 99% of my booklist is graphic novels, because that’s what I read. So I wanted to ask if you had some recommendations. Here’s what I have so far:
Awkward and Brave
G: I really liked Brave.
S: Drama.
G: How old is the main character in Drama?
S: I had thought she was in high school, but the synopsis said middle school.
Jedi Academy.
G: Timeless.
S: All’s Faire in Middle School.
G: Liked it, but maybe a limited audience.
S: I added this because I like the author and it had a lot of positive reviews, Planet Middle School. It’s poems about a girl making the shift into middle school, trying out new ways of being more grown up. And these two, which are constantly being requested by kids, The Strange Case of the Origami Yoda and Dork Diaries.
G: Are those middle school?
S: As far as I can tell, yes. Though it’s tough to say sometimes, when the summary describes the characters as being in sixth grade. That could be elementary or middle school. My friend does know me, and would not be surprised if I gave her a list full of graphic novels, but if you can think of any others. There’s those James Patterson middle school comedy novels that seem to be really popular…
G: I don’t read this age very much.
S: …and I don’t know if they’re positive hopeful you-can-do-it kind of books about middle school. Because you don’t necessarily want to give them the books where it looks like everyone gets teased.
G: I haven’t read this series, but I’ve heard they’re good: Positively Izzy. And Roller Girl is solidly middle school, about finding your way.
S: But it’s a summer story more than a school story.
G: But it’s a friend story. Real Friends is good, too
S: But that’s elementary, right?
G: Is it?
S: I seem to think it was pretty young.
G: I can’t remember how old the kids are in the Sunny Books, but Swing It Sunny is middle school. And there’s now a middle school Babymouse book.
S: I think I should ask a children’s librarian, too, because kids in late elementary grades are the ones who are curious about starting middle school. The kids in middle school are thinking about other things, because they’re there already. Which is why I thought of Drama, because it’s not about starting middle school, it’s about being in it.
G: Yeah, I would never booktalk a book about starting middle school in a middle school.
S: Right. My friend thought that clearly the expert would be the teen librarian, but apparently not.
G: Ask us about the transition to high school. The indirect stories, anyway. The direct how-tos are for parents.
S: I want to have the parents read these graphic novels. I want to say, “Hey, it’s not that bad. Everything seems horrible to them because that’s their bodies and their brains going through big changes. Everything seems intense because it’s all new. But people survive this. Kids survive this every day. You’ll survive it. It’s going to be obnoxious, but you’ll survive it.”

These are the people in your neighborhood

Made in India: Recipes from an Indian Family Kitchen by Meera Sodha, photography by David Loftus, design by Fig Tree. Flatiron Books, 2015. 9781250071019.
Vegetarian India: A Journey Through the Best of Indian Home Cooking by Madhur Jaffrey, photography by Jonathan Gregson and Sanford Allen. Alfred A. Knopf, 2015. 9781101874868.

Sarah: A couple of years ago, I decided to try to eat better and one of the ways I did that was to follow the USDA food plan. You know the thing you learned in elementary school, the food pyramid? They still have that, but now it’s called My Plate. You can look up by your age and height and weight and see how much of what kind of foods you should be eating. And I liked it because the plan is revised every ten years by a panel of people who look at current research on diet and health. The website had some cool free tools to track your food intake and exercise. I liked that it was based on scientific consensus and only changed every decade. It wasn’t based on whatever was on Oprah or whatever diet fad book is a bestseller.
Gene: I feel like everybody disbelieves science now, including educated folks, especially about what to eat.
S: Yeah, it’s really frustrating. And if you’re a total nerd, they have the scientific basis available in a long report where you can look up what the research says, all the citations, this is why we recommended this. And then you get to tease people on high protein diets. “Look how much bread I get to eat! Mmmm, yummy!” But if you’re on the 2000 calorie a day plan, you eat two and a half cups of vegetables a day, plus two cups of fruit.
G: That’s a lot.
S: It is. Compared to the usual American diet, that is a crap-ton of vegetables. I was having a hard time finding ways to eat enough vegetables. (Because salad is not very dense, so you have to eat twice as much as other vegetables.) It was becoming hard for me to do this.
G: But kale counts three times as much, right?
S: (laughs) Nope, kale counts the same as anything else, because this is not a fad diet. So I started looking at vegetarian cookbooks at the library, because I thought “Who eats a lot of vegetables? Vegetarians!” No, turns out the books were full of recipes for grains and other things. I had a hard time finding vegetable dishes in vegetarian cookbooks. So then I wondered where else I could try. I figured: India. I ended up reading through a lot of Indian cookbooks and, after discarding many, I ended up with two that I really like to use to cook. One is Vegetarian India by Madhur Jaffrey, who has been writing awesome cookbooks for 30 or 40 years. The other one is Made in India by Meera Sodha, I think this is her first cookbook.
G: It looks old, but it isn’t.
S: The cover is kinda cool, because it looks like a label you’d get on a bag of rice or something.
G: Because the cover has a matte finish, without a dust jacket — I assume it was issued like that? — it feels like a classic cookbook. The other is more glossy.
S: Part of why I chose India, besides it having a really established vegetarian culture, I felt like a lot of the other vegetarian books were approaching it like, “You grew up eating meat, so here’s something like meat that you can eat instead.” These recipes assumed you grew up eating vegetables, so here’s some tasty vegetables. Though Made in India has meat dishes as well as vegetable dishes.
G: I like it already, because I flipped to “A Simple Goat Curry” which sounds great.
S: The other reason I chose India is because my neighborhood has at least four different Indian grocery stores, so if I’m looking at an Indian recipe book, I have no excuse to not buy all the ingredients on the list.
G: Cool.
S: So I went out and bought a bunch of spices, bought a bunch of dry legumes, bought a bunch of vegetables and gave it a shot. I tried it for a year, and it was really good. The authors bring their own stories into the books.

Madhur Jaffrey has travelled widely and tells stories about the people she met and the food she ate. So let’s take a look at her book, Vegetarian India. She doesn’t assume you have a background in this sort of cooking. (Both cookbook’s authors are British, and they know their audience members come from a wide variety of cultures.) But they don’t cut corners or compromise — I ran across a recipe in another book for Saag Paneer that said if you can’t get paneer, substitute feta or tofu. Gross!
G: I love paneer. But every time I can, I eat too much and get a stomachache.
S: Paneer is so good. If you live where I live, it’s easy to buy, and if you don’t it’s actually easy to make. Jaffrey’s assuming you want to taste the real deal. She’ll have stories about how she got a recipe, or how best to serve it, and tons of great vegetable-heavy recipes. I feel like if you picked this up and cooked a bunch of these recipes and served it to people who eat meat, they wouldn’t even notice.
G: I agree.
S: They wouldn’t feel deprived, like if you were serving them a plate of raw kale.
G: The flavor’s great in all of these, right?
S: Yeah, and that made a huge difference for me in helping me stick to my plan to eat a lot of vegetables. It all tastes delicious. There are several recipes that are otherwise very simple, but spiced in a way that you enjoy it more, you look forward to it.
G: In the other book, there’s a recipe for how to make paneer!
S: It requires milk and lemon juice.
G: That’s it?
S: That’s it.
G: I don’t have to put in that stuff from a calf’s stomach, what’s it called, rennet?
S: Exactly, because it’s from India. (laughs)
G: Wait, this only takes three hours?
S: That’s time it’s draining. You hang it up over your sink.
G: You could make it in the morning and eat it for dinner.
S: Yeah. I felt like I ate a lot better using these books. At first, I was looking for recipes that I liked in restaurants, but it turns out those taste good because they’re full of cream and butter. So because I didn’t want to feel like a ball of grease, I liked that these call for peanut oil or olive oil, and aren’t heavy and oily. The dishes are more homestyle. The recipes are drawn from all over India, which is nice, because like the US the food isn’t the same everywhere in the country.
G: I like the look of Made in India, it’s a mix of old style designs and cool poster art looking illustrations.
S: I think they’re all original graphic designs, but based on bright product labels.
G: Good photos, too.
S: I think that’s important, because you can have a book of the best recipes in the world, but if you’re flipping through it and you don’t see something that makes you say, “Yum!,” then you’re not going to make it. You’re not going to take that extra time.
G: Everything in here looks like something I would eat in a heartbeat.
S: There are cookbooks where I get partway into them and realize they require more equipment and expertise than I have — these were not like that.
G: These look great, and I’m not even a cookbook guy.

So Prepared

Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol. First Second, 2018. 9781626724457.

Gene: Be Prepared by Vera Brosgol, the very delightful Vera Brosgol, who I met at a dinner during Emerald City Comic Con and talked to for a bit. I loved Anya’s Ghost and… and what was her picture book about knitting?
Sarah: Leave Me Alone, which was so great.
G: She was also on a panel that I moderated. Vera lives in Portland and worked in animation, and this is her second graphic novel… Anya’s Ghost was more YA.
S: Yeah, and this one is a little more tween-y.
G: Maybe even a little younger. The protagonist is Vera when she was 9. The story is not quite factual, and she explains that in detail at the end of the book.
S: She combined a couple of years of summer camp into one.
G: There are some charming real-life things, like real letters from camp. The first one says “Dear mom, could you pick me up as soon as you get this? PLEASE! I’m desperate” (Only later on do you find out that that one was actually written by her brother.)
S: And later there’s a much, much longer real letter from young Vera that talks about how terrible camp is, all the kids are mean, I can’t deal with this…
G: It has the feel of an autobiography. I think it’s very autobiographical in terms of feelings, if not in terms of actual events. I believe she really grew up pretty poor, a Russian immigrant, going to Russian Orthodox church…
S: It was these tiny little differences between her and her friends that made her feel like a complete outcast.
G: The birthday party scene.
S: Oh, the birthday party scene! It’s heartbreaking.
G: It’s so clear that Vera is the little girl that the other kids’ parents talk to.
S: Yeah. There’s a scene where all the girls are setting up their cute flowered heart covered sleeping bags and she has a pillow and blanket with a patch on it.
G: And the other girls arrange themselves in a star shape together on the floor and she’s off by herself. And they all have these super-expensive dolls that they’re talking about and she doesn’t have one. It’s brutal and really well done.
S: Yeah.
G: And then she has her own birthday party that does not go well. You can see it’s not going to go well.  Her family is poor, her mom’s a single mom, so they have the off-brand pizza, there’s Russian lettering on the cake. And the other kids are terrible about it all.
S: Do you have memories like that from elementary school? Where it was the tiny differences that kids would be completely obsessed with? I was the kid that the parents talked to at the party.
G: I wasn’t the kid the parents talked to. I fear that I was a kid who was inadvertently terrible. I had no worries when I was a kid, but we didn’t have a lot of stuff, either.
S: There are things like that I remember from my own life, I could feel so apart because I didn’t have the right brand of pants or something like that. My family wasn’t poor, we were just spending money on things other than pants.
G: My mother was very focused on us having those things even though she was a single mom, probably to a crazy extent. I had the right brand of jeans, she used to make me wear velour shirts because they were cool. She was wrong on some things, too. I think she was doing her best, but it was strange and hard to push back against it all until I was a teenager. I want that book to be written, too. Where a kid is forced to be the on-brand kid even though he doesn’t want to be.
But, back to the story, one of the big differences between Vera and her friends is that they all go away to camp in the summers while she’s stuck at home.
S: But one day at Orthodox church another girl says that she was gone last week because she was at camp. And Vera’s like “CAMP???” Turns out the Orthodox church sponsors this camp and might be willing to help her mom pay the fee to send her to camp for TWO WEEKS!
G: So she gets to go the next year, the summer after fourth grade.
S: And she’s so excited.
G: And her brother goes to the little kid part of the camp.
S: And at the end of the book she talks about how this organization was set up outside of Russia after the revolution to maintain this traditional sort of camping with a religious background because it was prohibited in the Soviet Union. It was interesting that she went into a camp with these fully-formed camp traditions that were totally unfamiliar to me as the reader.
G: It’s really cool, right? If she went to the sort of camp we recognized from movies, like Meatballs, it would be very different. Instead they go to a place where all the kids who go are different in the same way, but then she’s thrown in with these older girls.
S: Those girls!
G: Her little brother goes off with a camp counsellor who’s amazing, but hers is a seventeen-year-old girl who seems out of her depth. Her brother has a great time. The other girls in Vera’s tent are fourteen, and she’s this pre-pubescent nine-year-old girl. The girls are both named Sasha, they’ve been to camp together for years, and they’re totally crappy.
S: They’re obsessed with a cute boy at camp.
G: Very says goodbye to her mom, then finds out about the Hollywood.
S: Hollywood!
G: My favorite part of the camp, the doorless outhouse. Three toilet seats, right next to each other, no divider. There are so many toilet gags in this book. The one where she’s in there and she looks up and there are spiders all over the ceiling.
S: Uuuuugh! It has the air of a vivid sense memory.
G: It’s terrible, because she’s really alone for two weeks, she wants to go home, the girls are crappy to her and hiding candy, she’s feeding a chipmunk, they’re washing their hair in the lake. There’s a capture the flag game going on between the girls and the boys… it’s getting just a bit better, bordering on bearable, and then her mom comes to take her home… and says she has to stay two more weeks!
S: That was a great plot twist, I enjoyed that a lot.
G: Other stuff happens, plot-wise. More capture the flag. There’s a missing hamster. She makes a friend. It’s really sweet.

Stuffed Animals

Walter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy by Dr. Pat Morris with Joanna Ebenstein. Blue Rider Press, 2014. 9780399169441.

Sarah: This is one of several books that Joanna Ebenstein has done through a couple of art imprints on strange historical things, often related to the odd and morbid. She runs the Morbid Anatomy Museum that I think lost its space recently, so now it’s a pop-up. Her co-author Dr. Pat Morris has written a lot of books on the history of taxidermy. Walter Potter was a guy working in the late 1800s in Britain, a taxidermist in a small country town.
Gene: This reminds of something I saw online.
S: Potter did normal taxidermy stuff for hire.
G: “Normal stuff?”
S: Then he started a hobby…
G: (looking at the book) What the hell is that?
S: This is someone else’s work that inspired him. It was Hermann Ploucquet’s work shown at the Great Exhibition of 1851. Potter may have seen it as a kid. It’s a retelling of the Reynard the Fox stories using actual stuffed foxes put in storybook poses.
G: He saw that and thought, “I could do that!”
S: The thing is, if you live in a farm town, there are animals…
G: I don’t like sentences that start like that.
S: …and life is cheap…
G: How many dead kittens are in this photo?
S: This is The Kittens’ Wedding. There were generally cats on the farm and they weren’t fixed. So when they had kittens, the farm would keep one of them and the rest would… not be kept. So Potter had access to a large number of dead kittens, and he made them into a wedding party.
G: (curses)
S: Similarly, he had a lot of dead rabbits.
G: Where did he get the eyes for the kittens, Sarah?
S: They’re taxidermy eyes.
G: There’s a thriving market in fake animal eyes?
S: You just buy those as a part of your taxidermy supplies.
G: This is in the late 1800s?
S: Yes. He created a series of tableaux. His most famous was the Death & Burial of Cock Robin.
G: A large and creepy scene.
S: And The Kittens’ Tea and Croquet Party. He started exhibiting them in a museum that had some other stuff, but in which his work was the main focus.
G: This is so wrong. But that’s the fun of the book, I guess.
S: Yeah. The thing is, when he made these, they were just a curiosity, that he told a story in this way, a tourist attraction. (Rabbits’ Village School really upsets Gene.) Over the course of generations, these exhibits got more and more disturbing to the general viewer.
G: It’s not just me?
S: No, it’s not just you. This is interesting to me, how we feel about animals has changed so much. Maybe because our lives are further from the farm? Maybe because we’ve changed culturally?
G: How did he get access to these squirrels?
S: They were a pest, the farm dogs would kill them. They’re also a different type than are now common in the UK, because they got out-competed by grey squirrels.
G: There’s a squirrel smoking a cigar. Did he make those squirrel-sized playing cards?
S: Some of the stuff he made, some stuff he found or re-purposed. Eventually these little roadside curiosity museums couldn’t make enough money to support the people who ran them. The pieces ended up being crammed into smaller and smaller spaces, they got bought by different people. Eventually, in an auction in the early 2000s, this collection was broken up and sold off piece by piece. They are now all over the world.
G: I don’t want to look at these pictures anymore.
S: The reasons people pick this book up today are completely different than why people would have visited the museum. I kind of like that aspect of it, it’s this weird function of history that we can feel differently about he same object over time.
G: I’ll be honest with you, if you described this book to me I would think, “I would love to one one of those creepy little scenes.” After looking at this, I don’t want one at all. Would you want one?
S: No! If you ended up with it in your house, you’d walk by it every day and shudder.

Slapped by Adam Smith

Landscape with Invisible Hand by M. T. Anderson. Candlewick Press, 2017. 9780763687892.

After watching humans for decades, the aliens have landed. The Earth is now part of the Interspecies Co-Prosperity Alliance, trading the energy being harvested by the vuuv for advanced technology to solve the world’s problems. But the technology went to Earth’s big corporations, so you can only get it if you can afford it. Earth currencies are worth almost nothing in vuuv money, so only the privileged few  can have their diseases cured and live in beautiful floating cities.

Adam’s family is broke. His mom’s old job is done by a vuuv computer program and she’s spending every day looking for work. Even a job at a soup kiosk at the mall has an applicant line around the block, so they have to rent part of their house out to another family. Adam falls for the family’s daughter, Chloe, and they decide to make money from the vuuv by becoming stars in a 1950s-style dating reality show. They strap on sensors and look at sunsets together while the vuuv watch. (The vuuv don’t reproduce the same way humans do so it all seems exotic.) But the love and the money don’t last.

This book is not subtle: it’s about colonization and economic exploitation. The ideas in it would only be new and mind-blowing to young people. But the family’s financial hardships and indignities pile up gradually, building a claustrophobic feeling as the family loses the hope of making their own way out of poverty even as Adam refuses to compromise himself.