Duck Duck Book

39 – at day’s close
11.28.2006, 1:24 pm
Filed under: social sciences

At day’s close : night in times past / A. Roger Ekirch. 
New York : W.W. Norton, c2005.
[MCL call number: 306.4 E36a 2005; five copies, no holds]

Being a city dweller my whole life, I have only rarely experienced the almost complete darkness of stormy or moonless nights, seen the true glory of the Milky Way, or walked in the bright light of the full moon.  The modern world I live in places a high value on lighted streets, 24-hour grocery stores, and late night public transportation.  Night is nothing particularly awesome, it is just the dark period between the days.

In modern times people, especially city dwellers, have conquered the regular advance of nighttime with shift work, central heating, scientific notions to chase away fears of ghosts and goblins, and of course, artificial lighting.  Before these innovations, night fell and we could do nothing about it.  Darkness stopped work and play, changed the familiar landscape into something frightening and strange, and put people to bed early.  All we could do was wait for morning.

A. Roger Ekirch’s history of night in pre-industrial Western Europe (with occasional mention of North America) opens a space for modern readers to begin to understand how very different the world was before technology gave us ways to believe night wasn’t so powerful after all.  In a beautifully written and careful narrative, he discusses how night influenced or manipulated morality, work, leisure activities, the details of family and household life, sex, sleep, dreaming, and many other aspects of early modern existence.  And the differences between night then and now are greater than one might think. 

For example, Ekirch explains that there is good evidence to show that before widespread industrialization, most Western Europeans experienced two periods of sleep each night.  They slept soundly for a few hours, then lay in peaceful wakefulness for an hour or more, then returned to sleep until morning.  This pattern is widely reported in diaries and other anecdotal evidence of normal life; and it is the same sleep pattern experienced by people who live under conditions that have some similarities with early modern Europe — chiefly the absence of sophisticated and widespread methods for providing artificial light.   The interval between periods of sleep seems to have been a truly restful one for many people, a time in which people contemplated dreams or pondered philosophical or political questions, lovers had sex, babies nursed, and bedfellows conversed.  Then, as now, many people had very little time just for themselves, due to long working hours and crowded households, so this time awake in the middle of the night was valuable for its inherent privacy as well.
The window Ekirch provides into nighttime before the Industrial Revolution is fascinating both for its familiarity and for its strangeness.  Most everyone has been afraid of the dark — we fear unknown creatures in the shadows under the trees, the creaks and bumps that houses make after everyone is in bed, and the anxious waiting for morning that comes with insomnia.  But it is very hard to imagine living in a community where everyone believed wholly in ghosts, where darkness changed the world outside into a foreign, dangerous  landscape, and where people went to bed because it was just too dark to do anything else.


39 – soothing broth
11.28.2006, 1:23 pm
Filed under: technology

A soothing broth : tonics, custards, soups, and other cure-alls for colds, coughs, upset tummies and out-of-sorts days / Pat Willard.
New York : Broadway Books, 1998.
[MCL call number: 615.854 W694s 1998; one copy, no holds]

A hundred years ago, every good general cookbook had a chapter on cooking for the sick.  Invalid cookery was an important weapon in the housewife’s arsenal of talents.  In my own kitchen, I rely on two general cookbooks — The Joy of Cooking, which is the basic cookbook my mother used, and The Settlement Cookbook.  Both have chapters on food for comforting the sick and speeding their healing, and though I have only made a few of the recipes included in these books, I do feel it is invaluable to have help when, for example, you are trying to cook for someone who is so nauseated that eating even the plainest normal food is a challenge.

A Soothing Broth is kind of an anthology of sickroom cookery.  Pat Willard has collected dozens of recipes suited for people suffering from (as her subtitle indicates) colds, coughs, upset tummies, and out-of-sorts days.  The book is accessible both as a reference and as a narrative on the history of this particular arm of cuisine.  Vegetarians, it should be said, should take note that many of the recipes involve meat in some way.  I am not unduly grossed out by meat, although I do not cook it myself, and I have to say that while brewing the book I had to skim over some of the more, shall we say, old-fashioned of the meaty recipes.  Steamed cod liver and new potatoes (page 126), and the two recipes for a cold beef jelly (pages 124-125), for example, all intended for people on the final path to wellness, sounded so utterly foul that I had to turn the page quickly.  However, just reading the recipes for sweet fern tea to soothe the stomach (page 86) and for the vegetable tonics intended to ease healthy people through the difficult transition between seasons (pages 172-194) made me feel better.

The main text is followed with an excellent bibliography of cookbooks and general historical references, and a reasonably helpful index.

39 – lewis and clark
11.28.2006, 1:22 pm
Filed under: history & geography

Lewis and Clark through Indian eyes / edited by Alvin M. Josephy, Jr. ; with
Marc Jaffe.
New York : Knopf, 2006.
[MCL call number: 978.02 L673 2006; six copies, two holds]

As an undergraduate, I studied history.  Although I had several excellent teachers, I never settled into the discipline.  I had no real quarrel with the ideals or practices of historians, and no clear argument with the way it was taught, but I could not stand the company of my fellow students.  They wanted to Know What Happened.  They were certain that an examination of the available facts of any historical subject would lead them to The Truth.  I doubt anyone had told them they would find this complete truth, but they were somehow sure it was waiting for them just before the final examination, easily attainable for  any diligent student, and just as easy to assimilate into one’s bank of knowledge.

This view that it is simple to understand the past is, unfortunately, somewhat widely held.  People go to the movies, and then they think they have seen the truth about the Kennedy assassination or the revolt on the ship Amistad — and maybe they have seen the truth, but they haven’t seen the entire truth.  The whole truth doesn’t fit into a nice, easy package, because every story has as many versions as there are people affected by it.

Lewis and Clark Through Indian Eyes gives room for a few of the many stories about the travels of the Corps of Discovery in the early 1800s.  Nine eminent Indian authors were provided with an initial question: What impact, good or  bad, immediate or long-range, did the Indians experience from the Lewis and Clark expedition?  Their essays present very different stories about Lewis and Clark’s journey and their purpose, the American project of western expansion, U.S. treaties with tribes, the loss of Indian languages, the creation and erosion of Indian Reservations, modern tribal and intertribal cultural practices, and many other subjects. 

Because the essays have different authors, and because the editor allowed so much creative room, the nine pieces are very different in content, style, and tone.  Some are personal stories, some read like mainstream historical accounts, some are intensely spiritual, some are humorous, and some are righteously angry.  Taken together, they are refreshing, surprising, and humbling — especially for readers who, like me, were taught as children to unabashedly revere Lewis and Clark, their actions, their purpose, and their accomplishments.

addendum to number 38
11.10.2006, 8:39 pm
Filed under: misc.

Dear Readers,
One of the fascinating side benefits of having an archive of this list in blog form is that WordPress keeps statistics for me. So I can go and look at which review gets the most hits (Tijuana bibles, from number 23 wins every time, of course!), what webpages referred people to mine, and my favorite — the search engine terms that led to results people used to find my site. Here’s a sampling of some of the best from recent weeks:

  • garish appearance with schizophrenics
  • number 11 strange
  • “What is it with these white people?”
  • famous librarian to write about
  • economic importance of mt. hood
  • Orwell 1946 + “chicken soup”
  • strange celeb deaths
  • work sheet for grade one from work book
  • how to remove deer poop stain?
  • arkady renko in love

and of course there are always many searches for things having to do with ducks:

  • how does a mother duck show affection?
  • different kinds of ducks ducks
  • duck stories mythical
  • ducks on telephone wires
  • duck cheese space novel

‘Nuf said. I hope you enjoy this issue’s reviews.

38 – the official dictionary
11.10.2006, 8:38 pm
Filed under: language

The official dictionary of unofficial English : a crunk omnibus for thrillionaires and bampots for the Ecozoic Age / Grant Barrett.
New York : McGraw-Hill, c2006.
[MCL call number: 423.1 B274o 2006; two copies, no holds]

When you studied English in grade school, no doubt you were taught rules that illuminated the difference between the parts of speech, how to enforce the agreement between subject and object, and so on. Not all of those rules make sense if you examine them closely, but the main idea is that they are based in the way that English actually functions, the way English speakers use the language to express themselves. Modern dictionaries tend to work this way too; they carefully describe the meanings of words based on the authority of demonstrated usage. That is, the dictionary compiler includes definitions found in the language that people actually employ in their lives.

The problem is that making a dictionary is slow work; while creating new words, and new meanings for old words, happens as quickly as people can speak. Barrett’s rather slim dictionary includes only definitions he was unable to find in more established dictionaries — but here’s the funny thing: many of the words and phrases he includes can be documented awfully far back in the past:

  • buffet flat “a speakeasy or other unregulated or illegal entertainment establishment that sells alcohol, usually located in an apartment or home” — 1911
  • soup bunch “a bundle of vegetables and herbs used in the preparation of a soup — 1883
  • lumberjill ” a female lumberjack” — 1937

It’s not that I think the mainstream dictionaries are slacking off (in fact, I am kind of addicted to checking the list of new words that are added to the Oxford English Dictionary every three months, and some weird shit shows up there), but I do wonder how some of these words slipped through the cracks. Who expects that the noun “eco-roof,” or the verb “to gleek” would not be included in at least one major mainstream dictionary?

Barrett’s definitions are clear and eloquent, and the dictionary portion of the book is well laid out and easy to read. Barrett’s introduction explains a great deal about how dictionaries are usually made, and how this one was created. Another introductory chapter, “Changing English,” discusses some of the major forces for language change — especially the language of soldiers and military personnel, and the kind of plate tectonics that happens in places where communities speak more than one language simultaneously. The book would be a useful reference, if you needed that, but it also makes an interesting conversation piece.

38 – a danish photographer
11.10.2006, 8:36 pm
Filed under: art & entertainment

A Danish photographer of Idaho Indians : Benedicte Wrensted / by Joanna Cohan Scherer ; foreword by Bonnie C. Wuttunee-Wadsworth.
Norman : University of Oklahoma Press, c2006.
[MCL call number: 770.92 W945s 2006; two copies, no holds]

Photographs of Indian people are a prominent feature of modern histories of the western United States, especially photographs taken between the 1870s and about 1910, and even more especially photographs made by government survey projects and by white art photographers (usually men) who viewed their work as a kind of emergency ethnography — an important effort to save a record of a vanishing race that would soon assimilate with white people. Photographs made under these conditions are of a documentary nature, and for the most part do not record people as they might wish to have been recorded. Even absent the racism and stereotyping that often accompanies images of Indians in U.S. culture, these art and ethnographic photographs are like more like news photos than they are like family snapshots.

Of course, until the invention of the Kodak Brownie, no one took snapshots. If a person wanted a photograph for her own or her family’s purposes, she went to a photographer’s studio and had one made. By the beginning of the twentieth century, studio photographs were within the reach of many working people, and were an accepted part of modern life.

Danish immigrant Benedicte Wrensted operated a photography studio in Pocatello, Idaho between 1895 and 1912. Her business was largely studio portraiture, though she did photograph street scenes, weddings, graduations, sports teams, school classes, the local firefighting company, the Boy Scouts, social club gatherings, and many other groups and occasions. A large portion of Wrensted’s portrait clients were Northern Shoshone, Bannock, and Lemhi Indians who lived in Pocatello, on the Fort Hall reservation, and in other nearby places.

Naturally, many of Wrensted’s photographs have survived in the families of the people who hired her, but a large collection of negatives somehow made their way to the Bureau of Indian Affairs photographs collection in the National Archives (how they got there is actually a mystery — the National Archives has no record of their acquisition). From there, author Joanna Cohan Scherer became interested in Wrensted’s photographs, and her research eventually led her to write this book about Wrensted’s work and the people she photographed.

A Danish Photographer of Idaho Indians reproduces several hundred of Wrensted’s photographs, together with Scherer’s history of Wrensted’s professional life, an analysis of her use of props and her photographic techniques, and of the contrasts between Wrensted’s portraits of Indians and those made by white male ethnographic photographers.

Some of Wrensted’s photographs of Shoshone, Bannock, and Lemhi Indian people have been used by the National Archives as generic representations of Indians (for example, on the cover of the 1991 National Archives and Records Administration telephone directory). This generic “here’s an Indian” kind of use is no doubt familiar to most of you; it is the way in which historic images of Indians are most often displayed in our culture.

But Scherer presents Wrensted’s photographs and their content in a careful, attentive way, therefore providing stark contrast between her treatment of these images of Indian people and the treatment they are most often given. Scherer’s examination of the lives and stories of the Indians who are the subjects of Wrensted’s portraits is perhaps the most interesting facet of the book. Some people and families came to have their portraits made again and again — the Edmo family, in particular, are featured in dozens of photographs. Some of the portrait subjects have been identified by comparison to other photographs saved by family members, or by people’s assessments of family resemblances, or memories of their long-dead relatives’ faces. Even the book’s illustration captions reflect this attention to the stories of the portraits’ subjects.

Wrensted’s photographs are lovely, worth looking at for their artistic and technical competence and general historical interest alone; but these images are very powerful when woven together with a bit of the stories of the people they portray, of the woman who made them, and the historical context in which they were produced.

38 – to have and to hold
11.10.2006, 8:35 pm
Filed under: art & entertainment

To have and to hold : an intimate history of collectors and collecting / Philipp Blom.
Woodstock, NY : Overlook Press, 2003.
[MCL call number: 790.132 B653t 2003; four copies, no holds]

When I was growing up, I read a classic novel of American poverty, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. One piece of the book that has always stuck with me is the narrator’s story of a woman who was her neighbor. This woman had been burned severely, and one of her arms was covered with scars. Every week she went to a costume dance contest, wearing a special dress which her mother had made — the dress had one sleeve (to cover her scarred arm), which was removable. She had many different colors of satin sleeves, and changed them every week. She often won the contest. Each week, the prize was a silk parasol, and the woman saved her parasols, rolled up and never used, in a special place in her closet. The narrator explains that the luxury of having many duplicate things, nearly useless and unmistakably luxurious, filled a deep emotional need for this woman, who had spent her entire life surrounded by unbreakable poverty.

I thought, when I picked up To Have and To Hold, that it would answer some probing questions about collectors and collecting. Early modern European princes and nobles spent fortunes to obtain exotic objects from around the world, which they displayed in their private collections — is there some kind of connection between this practice and the modern-day compulsion to own every single beanie baby or an entire set of in-the-original-wrapping Star Wars action figures? Even if there is not, what is the difference between the different sorts of collectors? Are you really a collector if you only do it for a while, or do you need to spend your life consumed? What if you only collect things you can get for free, like some of the people profiled in Ted Botha’s book Mongo [reviewed in number 2]? What if you collect lots of different things, instead of focusing determinedly on tchotchkes featuring the praying hands or sets of salt and pepper shakers?

To Have and To Hold
doesn’t answer this sort of question; instead it is a detailed history of the rich and famous collectors, people who could afford to buy rare books at auction or travel the world collecting exotic plants. There is some focus on fads in rich-people collecting activity, such as the cabinets of curiosities — intricate pieces of furniture that 18th century aristocrats commissioned, with little drawers and drawers to hold their objects — but for the most part the book is a history of famous or notable collectors, and of storied collections. It is interesting, but not at all the book I was hoping for.