The Food of a Younger Land, edited by Mark Kurlansky

The Food of a Younger Land

Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, I grew up on a blend of midwestern and Texan food (my parents come from opposite parts of the country) and as much junk food as I could sneak past my mom. (Sorry, mom.) I ate casseroles, Tex-Mex (Mexican food as interpreted by Texans), what my dad called “southern gourmet” dishes like biscuits and gravy, and lots of Italian dishes that my mom had taught herself. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become fascinated by food history. Why do we eat what we eat? How old is this recipe that my mother and her mother make? Mark Kurlansky’s The Food of a Younger Land answered some of my long-standing questions, as well as introducing me to American cuisine prior to World War II and the interstate highway system.

Kurlansky rediscovered the notes and draft essays, recipes, and anecdotes for what was supposed to be a book called America Eats at the Library of Congress. America Eats was the brainchild of Katherine Kellock, who envisioned a massive volume that would reveal the everyday diets and regional specialties of the United States. The timing didn’t work out. By the late 1930s, the Federal Writers’ Project was on its last legs. The Project—which employed thousands of writers across the nation during the Great Depression—dissolved completely during World War II. Kellock sent out assignments to every state’s project and a few writers turned in content for America Eats, but the book was never completed and most of the unedited manuscripts were stored at the Library of Congress waiting for someone like Kurlansky to make sense of them.

Because the manuscripts were unedited, the quality of The Food of a Younger Land is uneven. Some of the pieces included are no more than scraps of recipes collected by FWP folklorists. Others shine, however. My favorite pieces covered Wisconsin lutefisk church suppers, a history of dishes that originated in New York, and hilarious attempts to explain things like ravioli and tortillas (included a helpful note on pronunciation) to readers who might never have encountered these dishes. There is a lot of casual racism that was common in the 1930s and 40s that wouldn’t be allowed past an editor these days. The sections that discuss Native American food are particularly condescending; the sections about African American food in the south are full of racist stereotypes. Kurlansky warned about this in his introduction, but I wasn’t prepared.

Even though America Eats was never edited, one theme did emerge. The distance between farm and fork before the interstate highway became to homogenize American culture used to be a lot shorter. In the midwestern section there are descriptions of enormous meals made from ingredients grown just outside the cook’s door. In the northeastern section, cooks and eaters dig and cook clams in gigantic bakes all in an afternoon. The entire southern section is full of barbecues of livestock raised and killed within a mile of where it would be eaten. I freely admit that I have no idea where my food comes from and it makes me a little sad that my generation (with a few exceptions) has so little connection with where food comes from. (Another, smaller theme that came out was that American men loved eating what are variously called calf or lamb fries, prairie oysters, or Rocky Mountain oysters. Who knew?)

I don’t know if I’ll try any of the recipes in The Food of a Younger Land, though some of them sound very tasty. The writers who collected and wrote the source material often noted just how long it took to create authentic baked beans or a proper barbecue. Also, it’s near impossible to get some of the ingredients these days and I just don’t have time to hunt my own opossum or squirrel. Ah, well, I suppose that feeling a bit of regret about the foods I’ll never taste* is one of the downsides of reading food histories.

* Except for lutefisk. I feel no regret whatsoever at never eating this dish. It sounds appalling and I have it on good authority that it doesn’t actually taste like much anyway.

Biblioprudence; Or, This brings new meaning to the term “sentencing”

At the end of September, Taylor Sperry wrote at Moby Lives about a strange case from Italy in which a judge sentenced a man who had solicited sex from a 15-year-old girl to buy the girl a bunch of feminist books. (The man was also given a prison sentence.) I haven’t written about it before because I’m still not sure what I think about the judge’s decision.

tumblr_lk3248p2jr1qiw718o1_500I kind of agree with Adriana Cavarero, who Sperry quotes in the blog post, that the guilty man should have been the one to read the books “on top of his two year prison sentence.” Sperry goes on to say that judges in the US and Canada have been adding required reading to prison sentences. (Read Husna Haq’s article in The Christian Science Monitor for more on this.)

In the past I’ve been intrigued by bibliotherapy, which involves mental health professionals recommending books to their clients. To a certain extent, I buy into this idea. There’s a critical difference between bibliotherapy and biblioprudence. I wonder how effective either of these might be. Every 18 months or so I see bookish folk on the internet gleefully forwarding a report of a new study from researchers who found that reading books made people more tolerant of other groups or less likely to be bullies or similar. These studies are usually about children, not convicted criminals or people in therapy. How much can a book change an adult, even if they are willing? (Nota bena: I’m a librarian, not a criminologist, psychologist, social worker, etc.) Clients of bibliotherapists are open to change—criminals, not so much. And yet, I want to believe in the transformative power of books.

The Chosen Ones, by Steven Sem-Sandberg

The Chosen Ones

Steven Sem-Sandberg’s The Chosen Ones (translated by Anna Paterson) is a difficult book to read. First, there is the subject matter. Even though The Chosen Ones is a novel, it is closely based on the actual history of the victims and perpetrators of Aktion T4, the Nazi euthanasia program for people designated “unworthy of life.” Second, the style of the book—dense paragraphs that read like nonfiction more often than not—is relentless. I never got a break from the details of Aktion T4 and its effects on the children that got caught up in its monstrous betrayal of everything medicine is supposed to stand for.

For the most part, The Chosen Ones centers on Adrian Ziegler and Anna Katschenka. Ziegler is fictional but closely modeled on actual patients held at the Austrian Am Spiegelgrund Clinic. Before the war, the clinic’s staff cared for children who suffered from congenital illnesses or deformities, mental disorders, learning disabilities, and a host of other problems that their parents found they could not cope with. Some of the children are clearly mentally ill. Others are more ambiguous and, in modern times, would not be institutionalized. Adrian is one of the ambiguous ones. Before the war, he is neglected by his parents and caretakers. There’s nothing that I could point to about his behavior that would warrant putting him in a place like Am Spiegelgrund. Mostly, he’s just very unlucky. His time in Am Spiegelgrund, however, with doctors out to prove pseudoscientific theories about “racial hygiene” or conduct unethical, painful experiments, and cruel nurses, changes him. For the rest of his life, Adrian will be in and out of prisons and mental institutions.

Anna Katschenka is a nurse at Am Spiegelgrund. She’s not a Nazi. She’s not even particularly cruel or callous to the children at the clinic. She is, however, more than willing to follow orders. Early in the book, Katschenka meets with the clinic’s director, who shows her a memo from Berlin that authorizes the staff to euthanize “hopeless” cases. Essentially, if no cure for their “condition” is possible, children can be killed. I put quotations around conditions because while some of the children do have diagnosable illnesses, some of the victims were troublemakers or because of their ethnic backgrounds. Even though the Hippocratic Oath begins with the principle of “First, do no harm,” Katschenka did nothing to stop the crimes occurring all around her. She comforts herself by telling herself:

The ultimate decisions are not made by us, but by them, in Berlin. All we can do is knuckle under and do as we’re told. None of us can be regarded as personally responsible. We are obliged to obey current legislation. We have no reason to feel guilty. (Chapter III*)

Like many Nazis would say after the war, she was only following orders as if that makes things okay.

There is a third confounding factor that makes The Chosen Ones a difficult read (as if we needed one more thing). The third factor is that no one in this book can be trusted. Ziegler’s mental condition deteriorates over the course of the book. Katschenka and the medical staff lie constantly to save face and/or convince themselves that they’re doing the right thing. Working out what really happened is a challenge and I know not every reader enjoys this particular one.

Earlier today, I read Susan Rubin Suleiman’s review of The Chosen Ones in The New York Times. Suleiman’s chief complaint was that none of the characters had much depth, leaving her with a litany of crimes to slog through. I disagree. I found the two main characters fascinating because they are so messy. Katschenka believes herself to be dedicated to her work, in spite of her participation in euthanasia. Ziegler’s psyche is a snarl of anger, confusion, and pain. I found each characters’ version of events to be very revealing about what motivated them and why they did what they did.

After I finished The Chosen Ones, I had to read something completely different. I don’t think that I’ve recovered from the mere experience of reading this book even two days later. This book is not for every reader given its subject matter and its stylistic challenges. I might recommend it, but only for readers who are curious about ethical dilemmas, culpability, and/or crimes against humanity and really, really want to give their brains a lot to chew over.

* Quote is from the 2016 kindle edition by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Nineveh, by Henrietta Rose-Innes


I never read Hal Herzog’s Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat, but the title has always stuck with me as an excellent way to sum up humans’ relationship to the other species on this planet. Nineveh, by Henrietta Rose-Innes, is very much about the “some we hate” category. The critters in this category—rodents, insects, reptiles, etc.—have done nothing to earn our enmity. They just gross us out or scare us for being what they are: low level predators, occasional disease vectors, destroyers of the wooden frames of our houses. The protagonist of Nineveh, Katya Grubbs, doesn’t hate any animals. She runs Painless Pest Relocation. Instead of trapping or poisoning pests, she collects them and moves them into the remaining wild areas around Cape Town. She is the Sisyphus of pest removal.

When we meet her, Katya is working with her nephew to remove a swarm of caterpillars from the garden of a rich Cape Towner. She has a method for tricking the caterpillars to swarm into collection boxes. It takes time, much to the annoyance of her client. One of the client’s guests, however, notices the care Katya takes for the fuzzy little guys and offers her a new job, a big one that could put her at the top of the list for pest removal in the city. All she has to do is figure out a way to clear a massive apartment complex, called Nineveh, of an infestation of some kind of biting beetles.

There is an added complication to the job. Katya’s estranged father—a rough, difficult, duplicitous man—previously had the job to get rid of the beetles. Now he’s disappeared. Taking the job would mean walking in his footsteps once again, something Katya has promised herself never to do. Still, she takes the job because her fledgling company needs the money. When she arrives at Nineveh to evaluate the situation, it’s like stepping into another world. Cape Town is a modern city. Nineveh feels like it was built smack in the middle of a wild jungle. It’s isolated. It’s run down. And it’s more than a little haunted by white men who aren’t quite right in the head.

On the face of things, this book sounds straightforward, possibly a little dull. (And gross, if you’re not good with creepy crawlies.) But I found Nineveh to be a meditative book about a daughter coming to terms with her childhood and her father. Life was rough with Grubbs Senior. He wasn’t bad, as such, but he was neglectful and expected his children to be as tough as he was when they broke bones or went hungry between jobs. He was casually cruel to animals and insects, often using them as tools to get jobs by deliberately causing infestations or leaving a few critters behind so that he would have to be called back.

When Katya temporarily occupies a caretaker flat at Nineveh, she finds her father once more up to his old tricks. When she left him before to strike out on her own, it was more a matter of opportunity than choice. In Nineveh, she has to face the choice at last. Who does she want to be? Can she be her best self if she is still somehow attached to her father? So, even though there are a lot of bugs, this book is a fascinating journey of self-discovery set in a place I’ve never read about before.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 15 November 2016 in the United States.

Odessa Stories, by Isaac Babel

Odessa Stories

Russian literature has (deservedly) a reputation for being utterly depressing and heavy—which is why it’s always a delight to find comic writers like Teffi and Isaac Babel. The humor in these authors’ stories and feuilletons is caustic and sharply observed, but still makes me smile and chuckle. This week I read Isaac Babel’s classic collection, Odessa Stories (translated by Boris Dralyuk), about Jewish life in Odessa in the early twentieth century. The collection is night-and-day from his collection Red Cavalry, as one might expect, but it shares similar themes of violence and chaos without being as gutting as Red CavalryOdessa Stories is packed with gangsters, tsarist and communist officials, pigeons, and a lot of slapstick.

Most of the stories in this collection center on Benya Krik—Benya the King—and his extended family. Benya is a gangster. He’s twenty pounds of chutzpah in a ten pound sack and gets away with things that should have gotten him shot on the spot. Over the course of the stories, we see Benya rise and the old order fall as the Bolsheviks take control of the country. We see him face off against police and set up protection rackets on intractable rich men. The stories are almost always told secondhand by someone who claims they were present or heard it from a reliable source. The narrators invariably end up telling the story in a loopy, unfocused manner that mirrors the chaos of Benya and his family members’ lives. So, while the stories are ostensibly about Benya, we end up learning a lot about their friends, enemies, and the Jewish community of Odessa and its suburbs.

Odessa Stories also contains a long pair of semi-autobiographical stories about an unnamed boy who is an awful lot like the young Babel. The stories relate how the boy got caught in a pogrom before finding shelter with a friendly family. This story is a stark reminder of how dangerous life could be for Jewish Russians: most of the time, families got along but things could turn deadly in an instant. The other semi-autobiographical story contains my favorite part of the whole collection. The young narrator has been ingratiating himself with the wealthy son of an important family. They’re good friend, but the boy tells all sorts of lies to disguise his origins. Unfortunately, he gets caught up in his lies when he reciprocates an invitation to tea. The boy sends away his embarrassing uncle and grandfather and is praying that they don’t come back before his guest leaves. So, of course they come back. Hilariously, the narrator recites Marc Antony’s eulogy from Julius Caesar to distract his guest (at increasing volumes) while his uncle crows about an amazing deal he got for a huge piece of furniture and his grandfather tortures a violin outside.

Unlike Teffi’s comic stories, the darkness of Russian life is closer to the surface in Babel’s. A person more cynical than I probably would have laughed more at the characters’ antics. I did laugh, but not too much because I could always see how a lucky escape could have easily turned into an ignoble death.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 15 November 2016.

This week on the bookish internet

  • One of the most entertaining things about studying the eighteenth century is learning how many modern things (celebrity culture, for example) actually developed 200 years ago. John Pipkin provides one more example by detailing how James Lackington essentially invented the modern bookselling trade. (LitHub)
  • Bob Eckstein sought out the four hardest to find (allegedly) bookstores in the world. (Atlas Obscura)
  • Okay, this one was technically published last week, but I only got around to it this week. Eric Thurm ponders whether or not Joyce Carol Oates is trolling us on twitter. In a larger sense, however, this piece is about the disconnect between an author’s books and the author’s personality and opinions. (LitHub)

Nobel Notes

Then she opened up a book of poems
And handed it to me
Written by an Italian poet
From the thirteenth century
And every one of them words rang true
And glowed like burnin’ coal
Pourin’ off of every page
Like it was written in my soul from me to you
—Bob Dylan, “Tangled Up in Blue

Bob Dylan, 1960s

I had three conversations today that started with someone asking, “Bob Dylan?” Since I work in a library and today the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature was announced, we all knew what the questioner meant. Usually when the Nobel Prize for Literature is announced, I have to go the author’s Wikipedia page to learn who the hell they are before I start buying all the books we don’t have by that previously unknown author. This year, everyone knew the winner’s work.

What many of us didn’t know, was why Dylan won the prize. I’ve been seeing articles predicting the winner for about a week now. The lists have included perennial favorites like Philip Roth, Adunis, and Haruki Murakami. (My personal recommendation is for Margaret Atwood or Ursula Le Guin to get the prize, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen them in the top 10.) Each announcement is accompanied by a brief explanation about why they are unique, valuable, and deserving of global recognition for their art. There are, as far as the rest of us not on the nominating committee know, no set criteria for the award as long as the author put words to a page. This is the first time the award has gone to someone who put music to the words on the page.

My usual complaint about the Nobel for Literature is that, more often not, an obscure European who is read by a vanishingly small audience wins the prize. The award has always gone to someone very gifted, but I’ve always thought that a global award should take into account all of the voices of the world. My complaint is different this year. I know Bob Dylan’s work and am a big fan. But how is he relevant now? There are so many writers who’ve been published in recent decades who write about the events and movements that are shaping us now. Dylan spoke for (and still does, I suppose) for another generation.

Perhaps my complaint about Dylan is the same as my usual complaint after all. He wrote and sang for a specific time, place, and audience that doesn’t exist anymore. His audience is bigger than the one for Patrick Modiano, Herta Müller, or Tomas Tranströmer—so I guess Dylan is a more deserving winner than the obscure Europeans by my criteria. Still, I feel that other authors deserve the win more. Atwood and Le Guin write for woman, for humanity, for our possible futures. Murakami writes for a disconnected but also hyperconnected generation. Adunis writes about the turmoil of the Islamic world. All four are writing about the way we are now (and have been for a few decades). But hell, if Dylan can win, maybe there’s hope for genre writers yet.

What I do like about the Nobel Prize for Literature is the way it sends the bookish internet into a tizzy. “Who won?!? Who???” Then everyone brings out their list of who should have won and why (see above), yells at each other on twitter for a few days, then settles down. Most of the time, the bookish internet is quietly talking about new books, small scandals, and our own pet interests in literature. The squabbling about the Nobel for Literature is something that unites us all—at least for a bit.

All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders

All the Birds in the Sky

The future is impossible to predict, which is why I’m always surprised that some people are so willing to give credence to prophecies and visions. There are two many factors at play to say for certain what’s going to happen very far down the road. Things are different in fiction, of course, but I tend to stay away from books about destiny and prophecies because the outcome is preordained. What I do enjoy, however, are stories that subvert this trope. Near the beginning of All the Birds in the Sky, the stunning debut by Charlie Jane Anders, we learn that one or both of the protagonists will destroy the world. But since neither has actually done anything, they’re innocent. It’s a dilemma.

All the Birds in the Sky is the story of a witch and a nerd genius. (It’s a delightful blend of the two genres.) Both have a very hard time with bullies because they just don’t fit in with their peers. Because they are both ostracized, they gravitate to each other, comforting each other in the middle of rumors, dumpster wedgies, and worse. Life gets hard for each once they hit their mid-teen years. Their guidance counselor—who is an incognito assassin from a mystical order—has had a vision that these children will destroy the world with their powers. They must be stopped. But since he is prohibited (on pain of death) from killing children, he tries everything to get someone else do the dirty work. He starts with the witch, Patricia. He tells her that her only friend, Laurence, must be killed or else. When that fails, the counselor turns the school against Patricia and has Laurence packed off to a sadistic military school.

After a spectacular scene in which we learn what Patricia is capable of, All the Birds in the Sky jumps ahead. Patricia has learned to be a witch and is doing some kind of penance by healing everyone she can get her hands on. Meanwhile, Laurence has left behind his AI project to try and create a wormhole creator so that humanity can escape if earth becomes uninhabitable. The two characters’ stories once again weave together as Patricia and Laurence reestablish their friendship. Unfortunately, events run ahead of them and the pair find themselves in the middle of a war between science and magic.

I realize that my summary might make All the Birds in the Sky sound a little dull. This book is anything but. It’s just hard to capture the richness of Anders’ characterization and world-building. The science fiction chapters and the fantasy chapters are utterly convincing. It only takes Anders a few paragraphs to get you to sink into each genre. Also, unlike most destiny-based novels, Patricia and Laurence get less likely to fulfill their destinies as time goes on. How are these two, who only want the best for humanity, going to destroy the world? The mystery kept me reading All the Birds in the Sky way past my bedtime.

Bellevue, by David Oshinsky


When I read non-fiction, I usually end up reading something weird (Agent Zigzag or Grunt) or something awful (Nazi Hunters or Five Days at Memorial). It’s rare that I read a book that highlights the better angels of our nature, but that’s what I found (for the most part) in David Oshinsky’s Bellevue: A History of America’s Oldest HospitalThere are varying dates for the founding of Bellevue Hospital stretching back to the 1730s. Bellevue has been open ever since the eighteenth century and only closed briefly once, during Superstorm Sandy. The hospital’s mission has always been to take care of patients who couldn’t pay for their care. Even today, they take care of people no one else will.

Bellevue is as much a history of New York City as it is a history of the hospital. Oshinsky writes about the various epidemics that afflicted the city through the ages: yellow fever, typhus, cholera, Spanish Influenza. He also writes about the social pressures of waves of mass immigration, poverty, and the attitudes of the rich and powerful towards the “lower classes.” The two clash repeatedly over the centuries. Because of its huge population of poor crammed into filthy, infested tenements, disease is rife. Someone has to care for these people or, failing that, at least take care of the bodies. Bellevue was (and still is) that place.

The two factors (endemic disease and the reluctant providing of a medical safety net) would have made an interesting story all on their own, especially in an age where the social safety nets are being stripped away as fast as Congress can sign a bill. What I found most fascinating was the history of medicine at Bellevue. Bellevue is old enough to date back to the days of bleeding, various purges, and a lot of guesswork*. The patients of Bellevue, for better or worse, would be in for centuries of medical experimentation. Bellevue physicians made important discoveries in forensic medicine, surgery, emergency medicine, and were on the forefront of AIDS treatment in the 1980s. Two Bellevue physicians even won a Nobel Prize for Medicine in the 1950s.

Of course, along with the beneficial discoveries, there was a lot of misguided, painful, possibly damaging, practices. Yellow fever and cholera patients were bled repeatedly. Tuberculosis patients were bundled in blankets and parked out in the fresh air in all weather. Women died in high numbers from puerperal fever in the 1860s and 1870s even after germ theory had been widely accepted. From the 1930s to the 1950s, children in the psychiatric wards were subjected to insulin- and electro-shock therapy. Psychiatric care is where Bellevue physicians struggle most. Even though the 1990s, psychiatrists struggled to diagnose and treat their patients. Part of the problem was because, as a public hospital, Bellevue takes care of prisoners for the city and its staff are regularly called on to evaluate whether criminals are faking or genuinely mentally ill.

In spite of its failings (most of which can be chalked up to lack of resources), I have to admire Bellevue and its staff. There have been times in the hospital’s history when physicians have deserted their post but, for the most part, Bellevue has been and still is a place where anyone can be treated regardless of their ability to pay. Doctors and staff stayed to care for people during epidemics and pandemics and riots and disasters. They are heroes.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration.

* Fun fact I learned from this book: New York and other states in the late 1700s repealed measures to make sure that physicians had actually gotten medical training before they hung up their shingle. The reason? Legislators didn’t want to infringe on a person’s right to pursue any profession they wanted.

Mr Splitfoot, by Samantha Hunt

Mr Splitfoot

Belief is a powerful thing. It can also be a dangerous thing, as we learn in Mr Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt. Over the course of the novel, we see cults, seances, toxic love, and more. Hunt crams an awful lot of plot and ideas into this novel, yet it never feels overstuffed. Instead, Mr Splitfoot is an intense ride through upstate New York. It was so gripping, I had to read it in two sittings just so that I could get to the heart of this book’s mysteries.

Mr Splitfoot contains two women’s stories, told in alternating chapters. Ruth’s chapters are set 14 years ago. She and her sister were taken away from their mother after their mother poured bleach on Ruth’s face, scarring her for life. Ruth’s much older sister ages out of foster care and Ruth is left alone at Love of Christ! farm. The only good part of her rough, hungry life there is Nat. (They call themselves sisters, even though Nat never identifies as female.) When the two turn 17, Ruth starts to look for ways to escape Love of Christ! She doesn’t want to deal with the hunger or the Father’s crazy rants about religion and history anymore. She also doesn’t want to find herself penniless and helpless. Fortunately (or unfortunately), Nat develops a knack for talking to the dead and the pair meet conman Mr Bell.

In the present, Cora (Ruth’s niece) has just discovered that she is pregnant and that her married boyfriend is terrible. She drifts through life, unlike her striving mother and aunt. Cora’s life changes when Ruth appears one night and convinces her to take off for…somewhere. Ruth can’t or won’t speak. It’s only her urgency that gets Cora on the road. After the car breaks down, Cora and Ruth walk for months towards Ruth’s unknown goal.

The more time we spend on the road with Cora and in the past with Ruth, the weirder things get. Ruth keeps crossing (through no fault of her own) men who have such strong beliefs that they draw followers or who believe her self-serving lies. Nat and Mr Bell are her only allies—though it’s clear that Mr Bell has his own agenda. The women in Mr Splitfoot are survivors. They adapt to circumstances. They look for opportunities to get out of their bad situations. But the men! The men in Mr Splitfoot want to reshape reality in their own image and they do their best to drag the women into those reality. It’s terrifying.

Mr Splitfoot had me from the beginning. Because of the 14 year gap between Ruth’s chapters and Cora’s chapters, there is a big mystery about what happened to Ruth in the years in between. Why is she not talking? Where is she taking Cora? What happened to Nat and Mr Bell? Not only does the book get weirder, it gets ever more tense as Ruth escapes a psychotic cult leader and a disappointed lover over and over. I just had to get to the conclusion so that I would know what the hell happened. This book is an incredible ride.