Duck Duck Book

23 – no. 1 ladies’
08.16.2005, 12:05 am
Filed under: fiction

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency / Alexander McCall Smith.
Edinburgh : Polygon, c1998.
[MCL call number: MYSTERY MCCALL; 38 copies, 14 holds;
also CASSETTE Mystery MCCALLSMI; nine copies, two holds;
CD Mystery MCCALLSMI; four copies, 17 holds;
and LGE-TYPE MYSTERY MCCALL; three copies, four holds]

Precious Ramotswe is Botswana’s leading private detective, which explains the name of this book and her agency. If you like the friendlier sort of mystery novel, and you appreciate a folksy kind of vernacular and a storyline filled with people who have rich and supportive but not entirely three-dimensional relationships, you’re likely to enjoy this series of books. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is followed by five (so far) other novels about Mma Ramotswe, her friend Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, mechanic and proprietor of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, her assistant Grace Makutsi, and other interesting characters.

Mma Ramotswe is resourceful, honest, patient, and very very smart. She makes her own way in the world even as she draws deeply on the support of her dear friends and community — Mma Ramotswe is a person who shows that her successes come from her own initiative, fortitude, and hard work without diminishing that she could never be what she is without the love and attentions of other people. This is nice to see in a fictional character. In addition, the human mysteries around which the stories revolve are compelling and rich — not too violent or upsetting, but just disturbing and interesting enough to allow readers to consider serious matters while engaged in the recreation of reading. Mma Ramotswe is a philosopher of life, and her intonations about how things are, how they should be, and what they mean are often calming and subtly inspiring.

But, as much as I’ve enjoyed the books in this series, they do remind me of a feature of the world of literature that saddens me greatly — white people, people from the “western” nations, and representatives of the middle and upper classes are the ones who tell almost all the stories, even when the subjects of those stories are decidedly not white, not “western,” or not middle/upper class. (It used to be also that stories about women were told almost exclusively by men, though this is changing some with time.) It is common for readers to be interested in literature about people who live lives quite unlike their own and situations that seem exotic or glamorous or are very far away in time or geography. This is right and natural — reading is an amazing, complex activity that can simultaneously soothe one’s curiosity and excite one’s intellect, and providing a window on a new world is one of the things that literature and the act of reading do best. But the available literature changes how these needs are actually met.

What I really want is to be able to hear a chorus of voices about those people, places, and situations that are far from my own experience. I would love to know what the Batswana people themselves have to say about their culture, the place they live, and their society. I am sure they have spoken in their own voices, but how do I find that work, here in Oregon? The library catalog at Multnomah County Library, for example, contains the work of three authors who write fiction set in Botswana: McCall Smith, a former Peace Corps coordinator named Norman Rush, and South African exile Bessie Head. Of these three, Head is the only African, and have you even heard of either Rush or Head, or of their books? I hadn’t until I looked in the catalog.

McCall Smith spent much of his life in Botswana, but he is nonetheless a foreigner and a white man. His books are beautiful and (I think) respectful of the place and culture they describe, and I do not mean to discount the value of an outside observer’s voice. But though I very heartily recommend the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, I do wish that McCall Smith’s success and acclaim didn’t effectively overshadow other voices about Botswana and the Batswana people — and I wish that the voices of the Batswana themselves were more accessible to readers in the United States.


23 – index to how to do it
08.16.2005, 12:04 am
Filed under: technology

Index to how to do it information.
Wooster, Ohio : Norman Lathrop Enterprises, 1963-1999.
[MCL call number: R-602 L35i, one copy reference only in the Periodicals Room at Central Library]

Popular Mechanics used to be a great magazine. It was chock full of handy little articles describing household projects, science experiments, and tips for facilitating the smooth workings of modern life. Wondering what to do with all those leftover scraps of wood from your furniture-building project last winter? Need to figure out how to build a better birdhouse, or find a fix for that leaky dryer hose? If you had these needs in the 1950s or 60s, Popular Mechanics would have been able to help, or at the very least, the magazine would inspire you to new heights of project-dom by its quaint but practical example. But, so what? This is great if you want to browse through back issues, but what if you have a particular task in mind?

Enter the Index to How To Do It Information. This handy periodical indexed articles that gave you the poop on the practical side of life, from 1963 through 1999. How-to articles from Popular Mechanics, Cloth Doll, Shutterbug, Replica Wrap-Up, Mother Earth News, and many other magazines were included (there’s a nice list at the publisher’s website). Look up the subject you think your project fits into, and the Index will provide a list of magazine articles that tell you how to do it.

The main contents of Index to How To Do It Information is this list of articles, arranged by subject. Within each subject, there is a list of magazines, and the articles from each magazine are arranged chronologically. Like many print indexes, the Index to How To Do It has little helper entries in case you think of a different word than the one they’ve used, so “macadamia” refers you to “nut & nut culture,” “basting fabric” to “sewing,” and so on. These examples make it seem as if the entries tend to the less specific, but there are some pretty tight categories : “lobelia,” “napkin ring,” and “turnip” (though the last has a see also – “rutabaga”). The Index is in two volumes, so if you want to make sure you’ve seen the whole range of possible articles on nuts and nut culture, you need to make sure you’re looking through the whole set — there is a volume for 1963-1989, and second one for 1990-99. I’m sure you’ll find it useful the next time you need a little kick-start on a practical project.

[n.b., please see the addendum to this entry, dated 2.16.2006]

23 – bees in america
08.16.2005, 12:03 am
Filed under: technology

Bees in America : how the honey bee shaped a nation / Tammy Horn.
Lexington, Ky. : University Press of Kentucky, c2005.
[MCL call number: 638.1 H813b 2005; two copies, no holds]

There is a trend, of late, that favors the publication of a particular kind of popular nonfiction — books that report and explicate the history of objects, technology, and phenomena. The New York Times bestseller Salt : A World History, by Mark Kurlansky (New York : Walker and Co., c2002) is perhaps the best example, but there are many others as well. Henry Petroski’s books detailing the history of various feats of mundane engineering and design certainly fit into this category, though he began publishing this kind of work more than ten years ago (see, for example, The Pencil : A History of Design and Circumstance, New York : Knopf : Distributed by Random House, 2003, c1989, reviewed in booklist number 12).

These books, and the others like them, can be characterized as cultural histories of somethings. In each, the author tells us a bit about the something (pencils, salt, the bookshelf, bees, potatoes) and then undertakes to show how the something has affected human culture, shaped our possibilities, and influenced politics or art or communication. And there is usually some musing about how culture has determined the shape and being of the something as well — e.g. honeybees live in North America only because people brought them here for honey production; their lives and possibilities are further defined by humans’ interest in using them as pollinators of crops.

Indeed, this trend of books about the history of things is not merely a fashion in publishing, it is a fashion in reading. The people who made the history of salt a bestseller are eager for more. They may move on to Consider the Eel, by Richard Schweid (Chapel Hill : University of North Carolina Press, c2002), or One Good Turn : A Natural History of the Screwdriver and the Screw, by Witold Rybczynski (New York : Scribner, 2000), or perhaps to Bees in America.

In Bees in America, Horn treats bees (though they are alive and it seems clear that there is something that it is like to be a bee) as things as well. Glorious, awe-inspiring things that work together so that they are more than the sum of their parts, but things nonetheless. Her approach is not really a history of bees and their lives, or a natural history, but rather it is an exploration of the history of what bees are to people. The inside jacket flap of the book waxes rhapsodic about the accomplishments of the text: “During every major period in the country’s history, bees and beekeepers have represented order and stability in a country without a national religion, political party, or language.”

So, indeed, this book is not just about bees. It is the story of the United States, every piece told through a bee-lens — a pair of bee-colored glasses, if you will. The book details American history and culture in relation to, because of, and in spite of honeybees, bee culture, honey production, and apiarianism in general. Bees in America is not riveting, and it leaves many questions unanswered for readers who, like me, are generally unschooled in bee lore and science. But it is an interesting exploration into how the culture and society of the United States has been influenced by bees and beekeeping, and I would recommend it to lay readers interested in these subjects.

23 – tijuana bibles
08.16.2005, 12:02 am
Filed under: art & entertainment

Tijuana bibles : art and wit in America's forbidden funnies, 1930s-1950s / Bob Adelman ; introductory essay by Art Spiegelman ; commentary by Richard Merkin ; essay by Madeline Kripke.
New York, NY : Simon & Schuster, c1997.
[MCL call number: 741.5973 T568 1997; two copies, no holds]

Tijuana bibles are naughty little underground comics, mostly produced between the 1930s and the 1960s, that portrayed and caricatured sex, usually in eight tiny pages. Many Tijuana bibles featured movie stars, sports heroes, politicians, and cartoon characters in various compromising positions, and some were about stock types like the down-and-out tramp, the horny office worker, or the traveling salesman. You know — a woman walks into the grocery store and asks the clerk, "Do you have any Lifebouy?" (a brand of soap). He looks surprised, says, "You bet I do!," invites her into the back room and begins to ravish her. She protests at first, but then surrenders, everyone has a huge orgasm, and in the last frame she is promising to return the next day for another round.

Adelman's book presents a hundred or so Tijuana bibles in facsimile and with annotations, arranged by general topic (gangsters, movie stars, etc.). There is a general introductory essay by Art Spiegelman, and a second essay by Madeline Kripke on the vernacular as it appears in Tijuana bibles. The main contents are followed by an essay on style by Richard Merkin, a glossary by Kripke, a few pages of reproductions of back cover illustrations (which were generally outside the narrative of the bibles), a detailed bibliography, and indexes to bible titles and subjects parodied.

23 – small city big hip hop
08.16.2005, 12:01 am
Filed under: events, films

Small city big hip hop [film] / Opio Sokoni.
Opio Media LLC, [2005].
Hollywood Theatre.

A documentary about hip hop in the Rose City debuts at our own Hollywood Theatre at 4122 NE Sandy Blvd. this Saturday, August 20 at 7:00 p.m. The film’s press release promises, “Radio talkshow host and Hip Hop enthusiast Opio Sokoni intelligently documents the different elements of Hip Hop in his first independent film. . . [the film] also explores social issues, a generation gap and some of this city’s dirtiest realities.”

Clearly I can’t make any representations about this film, as I have not yet had an opportunity to see it, but the it’s about time for the subject matter and free is a very good price.