The Oddest Books
A Magpie Collection of Weirdness
from the pages of RALPH
In our business, there often comes
a psychotic phenomenon known as
The Reviewer's Blues.
To trace the origins of this breakdown,
one only has to take a glance at some of
the odd --- the very odd --- book titles
that have passed across our desk
over the past few years.


Hoosh
Roast Penguin, Scurvy Day, and
Other Stories of Antarctic Cuisine

Jason C. Anthony
(University of Nebraska Press)
Hoosh is packed with facts about the scary cuisine of the Antarctic. Of all the delicacies there, the one at the top of everyone's Fantastic Food Fancy is seal brain. One of the explorer's chefs, Gerald Cutland, devised five recipes for this delicacy, including Seal Brain Omelette, Brain Fritters, and Seal Brains au Gratin. For an omelette, take "two seal brains, chopped up into very small pieces, four penguin eggs, some reconstituted eggs, butter, salt, pepper and mixed herbs."

Cutland might permit seal, but he put his foot down at making Penguin Pot Pie, or at least eating it. "When cooking Penguin, I have an awful feeling inside of me that I am cooking little men who are just a little too curious and stupid."

    A penguin even walked into his kitchen one day, and for a moment Cutland thought it was nice of the chap to come to the kettle so fresh, but he didn't have the heart to kill it: "Even though I have cooked many I have always left that job to those who would eat it."

A more typical menu was that enjoyed by the NBSAE expedition (1949 - 1952). "Seal liver and kidneys, breast of penguin with slices of bacon, braised whale steak with onions, whaleburgers, and grilled seal brains. Then there was the feast on local awful offal: heart, tongue, and liver of seal served up with heart, kidneys, liver and testicles of emperor penguin."

These are mostly menus from later explorations. The earlier ones were hardly gourmet journeys in any sense of the word, as the very expeditions themselves may have been nothing but self-promotion for people like Byrd and Scott. Writer Tom Griffiths suggests that "The heroic era of Antarctic exploration was "'heroic' because it was anachronistic before it began, its goal was as abstract as a pole, its central figures were romantic, manly and flawed, its drama was moral (for it mattered not only what was done but how it was done), and its ideal was national honour."

Go to the complete text of our
review.


Alexander A Potebnja's Psycholinguistic
Theory of Literature:

A Metacritical Inquiry
John Fizer
(Harvard)
In the very first Whole Earth Catalogue, among all the great and interesting books, Stewart Brand planted an obscurantist work, The Neo-Agricultural Wet-Land Practices of Third Century China, Volume III, or some such. We addicts of the WEC dutifully ordered it (at $27 a toss) which drove the publisher looney since there were no takers whatsoever for Vols. I, II, and IV. The book made no sense anyway, unless one was into Third Century Chinese bok choy production quotas. For that reason, we hereby nominate Alexander A. Potebnja's Psycholinguistic Theory of Literature for the Stewart Brand Fuliginousness and Emunctory Book-of-the-Year Award for 2014.

Go to the complete text of our review .


The World at Night
From Broken Land,
Poems of Brooklyn

Mathew Rohrer
(New York University Press)
When another subway came I crawled on
and technically I passed into death, but
passed through and awoke at Coney Island
and saw black cowboys galloping on the beach.
Hungry, mentally defeated, I stared
at the World's Largest Rat --- for fifty cents.
Really it was only the same color
as a rat. "It's from the same family"
the barker explained. I felt vulnerable
illuminated by neon and fried light.
Go to the complete text of our
review.


The Vacuum Cleaner
A History
Carroll Gantz
(MacFarland & Co.)
Some readers may come to be impatient with a listing of the exact number of models put out by Hoover, although they do include the Handivac, the Floor Mate, the Hygienisac, the Wind Tunnel Bagless, and even one that may have popped up in the pages of Playboy Magazine, the "Friction Drive Baby."

But it's not all lists and changes in belt drive systems in this book. The pictures, some 200 in number, are a joy, bring back some memories for those of us who grew up years before the DustBuster came on the scene. On page 124 is a photograph of the "Kenmore Commander Bullet Model 116." I remember it well: we had one and it looked just like a spaceship, and I could disconnect all the hoses and crank it up, hang on, and we'd be flying, me and the Kenmore, off to outer space, with a real motor that blew out real hot air (and smelly dust) to take me to the fringe of the universe.

One might think that a 206 page book on such a wheezy industrial concept as the vacuum cleaner might be considered overkill, especially where the author manages to bring in such unlikely characters as Vincent Van Gogh (the 1913 International Exhibition in New York), Blaise Pascal (proof of the existence of the vacuum), and Monty Python (something to do with an English vacuum called "The Henry." which is, apparently, extremely hilarious to people from that sceptred isle.)

There are of course, as always, the sales pitches. Those guys at the door with a Hoover in hand. The gimmicks to make you buy (dust was said to be extremely dangerous to your health). And we are allowed to attend the first Hoover International Convention in 1921 when all the sales people rose to intone "The Hoover Song," sung to the tune of the hoary WWI air "The Field Artillery March,"

    All the dirt, all the grit,
    Hoover gets it, every bit,
    For it beats, as it sweeps, as it cleans.
    It deserves all its fame,
    As it backs up every claim,
    For it beats, as it sweeps, as it cleans.
    Oh, it's Hi, Hi, Hee!
    The kinds of dirt are three.
    We'll tell the world just what it means,
    Bing! Bing! Bing!
    Spring or Fall, the Hoover gets them all.
    For it beats, as it sweeps, as it cleans.

Go to the complete text of our
review.


Licensing Your Baby
Heather Kien Lanier
From The Sun Magazine
The month we made her --- that is, the month we flipped the calendar pages nine months forward and agreed it was good timing --- I felt as if I were doing something illegal. Wasn't there some tall marble building I had to enter, a bureaucratic line I had to stand in, a form I had to fill out in order to make a new human being? For a car, for a marriage, for a loan, for a degree, for all these and many more I'd had to apply. Why not for a child? For a new being with lungs and wants and wishes, with needs for caloric intake and physical affection and mental stimulation? Where was the rubber stamp marked APPROVED? Where was the bureaucrat to say, "Yes, you can make a human. Yes, you can add another soul to this planet who will scramble over the earth's rocks and shout into its canyons her quest for love, her search for the balms against loneliness; another person who will hurt and be hurt, and who will never ask anyone for the right to do either. Yes, you can make one of those." No one said this, and there she was, twenty weeks in and fluttering below my navel, believing the world was nothing more than a warm red sack of salty fluid that tasted like tears, if only she knew what tears tasted like.


The Sky Filled with
Japanese Zebras

From Non Campus Mentis
Anders Henriksson
(Workman Publishing)
  1. Another man to influence the state and others was Karl Marx, who advanced his theory of dialectical maternalism. His ideas about revolution, condos, and supermen intrigued many. According to Marx the stages of history are canabalism, slavery, fuedalism, capitalism, and back to canabalism. These are the moods of production.
  2. Austria fought the Snerbs. The allies versed the Turks. The British used mostly Aztec troops to fight at Gallipoli. Italy joined the allies and this was useful because of their common border with Australia.
  3. Lennon ruled in Russia. He was first zar of the Soviet Union. Eventually he started the NOPE (No Economic Plan) to encourage the peasants. When he died the USSR was run by a five man triumpherate---Stalin, Lenin, Trotsky, Menshevik, and Buchanan.
  4. The Germans took the by-pass around France's Marginal Line. This was known as the Blintz Krieg. The French huddled up and threw sneers at the Germans. Japan boomed Pearl Harbor, the main U.S. base in southern California. American sailors watched in shock as the sky filled with Japanese zebras.
  5. Stalin, Rosevelt, Churchill, and Truman were known as "The Big Three."
  6. Hitler, who had become depressed for some reason, crawled under Berlin. Here he had his wife Evita put to sleep, and then shot himself in the bonker.
  7. Yugoslavia's Toto became a non-eventualist communist. Hochise Min mounted the power curve in Viet Nam. Korea became a peninsula. Chairman Moo tried to forclothes all outside ideas in China.
  8. One major source of conflict since World War II has been Israel's relations with the Parisians. The Carter administration found itself face to face with this problem during the so-called Iran Hostess Crisis.
  9. It is now the age of now. This concept grinds our critical, seething minds to a halt.

Go to the complete text of our
reading.


The Bestiary
Or, Procession of Orpheus
Guillaume Apollinaire
X. J. Kennedy, Translator

(Johns Hopkins University Press)
The Bestiary was Apollinaire's first published set of poems; in fact, his first published anything outside of art criticism and some gummy pornography that he produced when he ran out of money ... (A Young Don Juan's Memoirs, 11,000 Strokes). Picasso who probably was no literary critic thought 11,000 Strokes to be "Apollinaire's finest work."

The twenty-six animals in The Bestiary get four or five lines each, plus a woodcut by Raoul Dufy. Despite the translator's kind words, the poems are really not worth writing home about, being somewhat childish (as all good bestiary poems should be). For instance, "Cat"

    I hope I may have in my house,
    A sensible right-minded spouse,
    A cat stepping over the books,
    Loyal friends always about
    Whom I couldn't live without.
§   §   §

Le chat
Je souhaite dans ma maison:
Une femme ayant sa raison,
Un chat passant parmi les livres,
Des amis de toute saison
Sans lesquels je ne peut pas vivre.

Go to the complete text of our
review.


Jeff in Venice,
Death in Varanasi

A Novel
Geoff Dyer
(Pantheon)
Atman is no longer the English writer on assignment from the Telegraph, sickened by the carcasses, the filthy kids, the crap everywhere, appalled by all he sees. No, he becomes a part of Varanasi, turns thoughtless (can that be the right word?), a disciple of the otherness that is India.

"Thought bore a curious resemblance to a headache." When he gets sick,

    At first, I'd kept wishing I was better. Then, after a while, my notion of what feeling better felt like grew a little hazy ... If I felt only slightly ill, then I felt perfectly well.

"There was no such thing as being ridiculous in Varanasi. The very idea was ridiculous." It has to do with all the animals, and the human bodies burning in the ghats, the ritual breaking of cadaver skulls, the ashes being dumped in the river, the men chanting.

And gradually, we watch Jeff go crazy. But, then we wonder, is it really crazy, is he any crazier than the guru who sits near the ghats, whispering to himself; or the strange people lolling about: can one be called "crazy" here; or is all "normal?"

The previously laconic Jeff starts talking to anyone who will talk with him, putting off strangers, worrying his new friends, obviously falling off the train, yet making --- at least to the readers --- perfectly good sense as he blithers on, "All of time is here, in Varanasi, so maybe time cannot pass. People come and go, but time stays. Time is not a guest."

Comes a kangaroo, can anyone else see it? A kangaroo that "caused quite a stir, as you can imagine, but, in the hospitable Hindu way, it was immediately welcomed and absorbed into the pantheon of interesting events."

A kangaroo? On the Ganges? Is Jeff Atman totally potty? Or enlightened? Is there any difference?

I bought this one because it got rave reviews in the TLS and the LRB. The New Yorker listed it as one of twenty-two "Best Year's Reading." I was sure that in the book, during the time Jeff was in Venice, that we wuz robbed. Once we got to Varanasi, however, where we heard our first raga, and a note came to be

    stretched out as long as possible and then a little longer; it continued, somewhere, long after it was capable of being heard. It is still there, even now.

After that, I knew we were home.

Go to the complete text of our
review.


Molvanîa
Santo Cilauro, et. al.
(Overlook Press)
For those who want to get off the well-beaten track, here is the answer of your dreams: the scarcely-known, rarely-visited country of Molvanîa. It is one of those mysterious places in East Central Europe which might be just a blank for many.

This luscious guide comes complete with photographs, history, passport information, sections on theatre, arts, and music, and current exchange rates --- dollars vs. strubls and qunts.

Molvanîa is a singular destination, both because of its history, its people, its customs, and the simple facts of life in this amazing mountain land. For instance, this on electrical power, "which is available in all but the most outlying areas:"

    The electrical current is a rather unusual 37 volts ... [so] a transformer may be required.

Under a photograph of a sizeable cactus: "The fzipdat of serrated thistle is the floral emblem of Molvanîa, a sharply thorned cactus, traditionally thrown at Molvanîan brides."

    Its leaves have an astringent, bitter taste, making it a popular ingredient in local dishes.

And next to a picture of a very old sow,

    The pig is generally considered the symbol of Molvanîa. Believed to be sacred by many, these animals may only be slaughtered Monday to Saturday. Pigs are widely used throughout the country for meat, milk and --- in remote areas --- companionship.

There are many unusual historical and factual subsections on each page. Under "The Age of Discovery," we find a sketch of a bearded man in Renaissance dress: "Svetranj is noted for being the birthplace of Molvanîa's most famous explorer, the legendary Jolp Trubazbor. On 13 June, 1468, Trubazbor and his brave crew fled Lutenblag with three sailing ships."

    It took them nearly a month to carry them over the mountains. But eventually they reached the Baltic Sea where they set off in search of the elusive East Indies. Inexplicably, they travelled north-east, ending up in Scandinavia where Trubazbvor put up a Molvanîan flag and declared that southern Sweden would henceforth be called Jotpland. Under a hail of arrows he and his crew retreated, sailing back across the Baltic Sea.

"Weeks of raping, pillaging and plundering then ensued until Trubazbor was eventually forced to close the ships Games Room ... Eventually he made it back home where he was given a traditional hero's welcome --- he was robbed."

Go to the complete text of our
review


Folk Furniture of Canada's Doukhobors,
Hutterites, Mennonites, and Ukrainians
John Fleming,
Michael Rowan
(University of Alberta Press)
At first I thought the authors might be putting us on, that they had gone through some junk yard, found thrown-out tables and chairs and whatnots, made dour photographs of them and then made up a pseudo-historical/critical commentary to go with these mythical, all-too-innocent sticks of furniture. But the text and the pictures here are of a piece, and the artlessness and simplicity of the tools of daily living are presented with a harsh wonder that is astonishing. Simple decoration includes colors that are understated and a modesty that bespeaks a world of piety.

It is not without scholarly fault: The authors try, sometimes almost too diligently, to seek out all the roots of the styles represented in the photographs:

    The cabriole leg set at a 45° angle to the skirt of a table, the curves of shaped and fielded panels, the scalloped skirts of armoires and tables, and the moulded or cut-out cornices of cupboards and dressers all each the distant profiles of the Louis furniture of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The narrative of Folk Furniture recounts in some detail the spiritual beliefs and lifestyles of the religions, and relates the immigrants coming to (and, in most cases, prospering in) Canada. The Mennonites (also known as the Anabaptists) were successful because they often took "the unpromising and treeless lands which others had shunned for more wooded areas, and turned those flat spaces into prosperous farms. One critic of the time wrote,

    The Mennonites are most desirable emigrants; they retain their best German characteristics, are hard-working, honest, sober, simple, hardy people. They bring money into the country, and can settle in a woodless place, which no other people do."

The Hutterites, on the other hand, originated in Moravia, believed in the complete separation of state and church, and shared property and an austere communal living system which deëmphasized the individual. They were also militant pacifists, and sought a conscious return to "the forms of early Christianity."

None of the religions escaped persecution once the followers took up residence in the Americas, and with the Hutterites, their refusal to participate in military service during the Spanish-American War forced many to move from the lower forty-eight to join their bretheren in Manitoba, Alberta, and Saskatchewan.

As we leaf through this, is it possible that there can be a luxury in such simplicity? If so, it is reflected in this delicious volume. Unfortunately, with the many subdued and understated color plates, we could not do justice to the originals on-line, so we had to satisfy ourselves with the plain black-and-white reproduction above. May the Anabaptists, Mennonites, and all their brethren forgive us.

Go to the complete text of our
review


Livestock Hotels:
America's Historic Stockyards
J'Nell L. Pate
(TCU Press)
Ms. Pate may have even more to offer the average reader than this slim volume: she recently published a book on the first (and last) hundred years of the Fort Worth stockyards. The Fort Worth stockyards!

Still, if you have a beef, and are interested in steering, and the history of cows, and the history of cows in America, and whether they are transported to your table on foot, or in a train, or in a truck or in frozen locker, then Livestock Hotels is your meat. However, once you've made the first joke about the hotel's lousy room-service, you're pretty much done, though she does report,

    Although the thousands of involuntary visitors mooed, squealed, bleated, or whinnied their discomfort, displeasure and sheer frustration at being herded and crowded into strange noisy pens...

The whole thing is a bit of a hoot --- or a moo --- if you stop to think about it. No bull. Ms. Pate goes into great detail on the last years in the great cow hotels of Sioux Falls, Peoria, Lancaster, and Joplin. She also gives brief histories of Philip Danforth Armour, Edward F. Swift, and James B. Sherman, the usual robber-barons whose names are branded in our memories mostly because they consolidated the middle-west stockyards and sold us hot-dogs and bacon packaged with their monikers.

There are numerous pictures of the Livestock Exchange Building in Oklahoma City and the stockyards of Ogden, but after WWII, Pate tells us, the hotels went into decline as local auctions took business away from the big packing-houses and the neighbors finally, at last, started complaining about the nose-pollution.

On page 160, there's a table of the receipts of the leading cow and pig markets between 1904 and 1974, all of which reminds us that in the newest issue of Booklist, the editors have highlighted some of the weirdest reference books that have come out over the years, including Who's Who on the Postage Stamps of Ecuador [1953] and Women Serial and Mass Murderers: 1580 - 1990 [1992].

May we nominate America's Historic Stockyards [2005] even though it ignores the first line of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man ("Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down the road and this moocow that was coming down the road met a nicens little boy named baby cuckoo") and, most heinous of all, does not even mention our personal favorite stockyard song of all time, "The Cow-Cow Boogie," sung by Ella Mae Morse, a song that I used to sing to myself when I was a baby cuckoo. According to LyricsFreak.com, the words go

    Now get along, get hip little doggies
    Get along, better be on your way
    Get along, get hip little doggies
    He trucked 'em on down that old fairway
    Singin' his cow cow boogie in the strangest way
    Comma ti yi yi yeah
    Comma ti yippity yi yeah.
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Special Use Vehicles
An Illustrated History of
Unconventional Cars and Trucks Worldwide
George W. Green
(McFarland)
Oscar Mayer's Weinermobile is here, as is the Pep-O-Mint car (1918) and a Zippo Lightermobile (looks to be a 1948 Chrysler) with a top that flips open to reveal a fake flame.

Special Use Vehicles includes 153 photographs. The text is pedestrian, the layout is ho-hum, but the shots more than make up for it ... especially the Mufflermobile of New Jersey, the Los Angeles Shoemobile, the Russell Stover Candies rolling bungalow, and a ladybug car from Japan, which, says the author, is "powered by a pair of hamsters running on a treadmill."

Go to the complete text of our
review