Archive for the ‘book review’ Category

I finally read The Big Oyster by Mark Kurlansky, who’s perhaps better known for his books Cod and Salt, neither of which I’ve read, as it turns out. The Big Oyster, however, I can recommend if you’re a lover of oysters and/or a lover of New York. I have a complicated relationship with New York, which I think might have actually enhanced my reading experience, because this book catches New York at its ups and downs.


A couple of things I thought about while reading this book:

1. It BLOWS MY MIND to think of a New York in which people could eat things out of the estuary. It also blows my mind to think that when people thought of New York back then, they might have immediately thought of oysters. Of course I understand that cities evolve, but imagining New York as anything other than the monolith it is today is really tough.

2. I do believe this book tips its hat quite a bit to Consider the Oyster, given the number of old recipes reprinted throughout.

3. I learned why baby oysters are called spats! Oystermen referrred to the mating process of oysters as “spitting.” therefore baby oysters had been “spat.” Delightful!

4. It’s amazing just how fast the overfishing started. In the oyster shell middens left behind by the native folks who lived on Manhattan, a decrease in shell size can be observed from the bottoms of the piles to the top. Oyster gathering had to be regulated practically as soon as it began by settlers. Foresight: we humans don’t often have it.

5. As someone who makes lots of things with my hands, I appreciate when some processes defy mechanization. Just as any goods made of wool start with some human being literally wrestling a sheep in order to shear it, there really isn’t a better way to shuck an oyster than by hand, with a knife.

6. The book is ultimatley quite depressing, naturally, given the state of wild oysters (that state is functionally extinct), but all hope isn’t lost and although we royally screwed up the harbor for a long time, it’s in a much better state now than it has been in an extremely long time, and more oyster reefs will only help with that.

By happenstance, the weekend before I read this book, I went to The Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, NY. Don’t worry; I went to the Hall of Fame too. Naturally, I was there to see this sort of thing:


But mollusks are really never very far away. They’re one of the ways to ride the carousel:


(That’s an action shot taken from the frog I was riding). And oysters were prominently featured in the exhibition about foods of New York. As a native New Yorker, I have to feel pretty proud that my state has contributed such amazing delicacies as jello and potato chips to the culinary lexicon, and it was pretty neat to see some oyster memorabilia, all of which made more sense after reading The Big Oyster.


Another super fun thing about the Farmers’ Museum is that it plays host to one of the greatest of all hoaxes, The Cardiff Giant. What a great piece of humbug history!

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I just finished the book The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, by Elisabeth Tova Bailey. I’m not even sure how I heard of this book, and all I knew going in was that it was about a woman’s convalescence in the presence of a snail. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this book, honestly. I’m not usually into memoirs, but this didn’t read like a memoir to me at all. It was much more like observations of an old-school naturalist, with some musings on the side about how the snail’s life intersected with the author’s during a time that she was recovering slowly from a debilitating disease that left her in bed all of the time and very fragile with what kinds of stimulus she could handle. This snail, brought to her by a friend on a whim, quite literally saved her life, just by doing its snail thing. It’s charming and beautifully written, and philosophical in a way that isn’t grand or overreaching, more like the personal philosophy one can find in poetry. It’s a book I know I’ll revisit.

The book also is very studied and packed with mollusk facts. It has such a tremendous list of sources at the end, some of which I hope to read myself to get some more snaily goodness in my life. In particular, I’m currently in love with Kobayashi Issa, a prolific haiku poet. He has a searchable database of his haikus; seriously, check out just how many snail poems there are!

I like this one a lot, especially this translation by R.H. Blyth:

O snail
Climb Mount Fuji,
But slowly, slowly!

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I found the book Civilization and the Limpet at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe. It was an especially good day in the science section there because there were a bunch of Stephen Jay Gould books, Richard Dawkins books, and this one. I picked up a bunch but this is the first that I’ve delved into, naturally.

It’s so great! The writer is super charming, and although the book starts with a chapter on urchins, it gets to limpets quite quickly. The first chapter is about how soft-bodied animals can’t know where their bodies are (our brains can process that information because it’s way more finite, since we have a finite number of joints, and they only have so much freedom of movement), and it makes navigating and manipulating the world difficult.

Thus we have two qualitatively different sorts of animal, both successful, but only one capable of manipulating its environment in a manner that has led to computers and the atom bomb. We think that this, our, sort of animal is more successful than the others, which are forever cut off from the possibility of such clever inventions. Yet we are both here in our millions, and only one of us is bashing the ozone layer.
Reflect on this next time that you meet a limpet.

The second chapter gets into sex, and it too is just so great.

Most set up as males as soon as they are old enough to be troubled by maturity This is no big deal. A sexually mature limpet sit, as is the way of limpets, and does nothing, most of the time. Not for him the pursuit of nubile lady limpets. No panting scramble across the rocks, no tiny molluscan feet touching as if by magic. A limpet has nothing, or next to nothing, to fantasize about. It develops sperm at an appropriate time of year, triggered perhaps by rising temperatures and high tides, it tosses the lot off into the sea and lets the little beggars get on with it, no doubt heaving a sigh of relief that it is now all over for another year, so it can settle down to serious matters such as feeding and digestion–a vintage year for algae one can always hope–and growth.

It continues to discuss how limpets change sex over the course of their lives (I’m sure I’ll devote more blog space to that phenomenon in the future, as the complicated sex of lots of animals is a particular pet topic of mine), as is the way of some mollusks, and it continues to charm and delight me. I’m so glad I stumbled upon this book!

Speaking of urchins and limpets, I also stumbled upon a crochet pattern yesterday, called, amazingly, Urchins and Limpets.

The neutral colored motifs are supposed to be the urchins, and the brightly colored motifs are supposed to be the limpets. I would love to crochet this (when I finish the other two gift blanket projects I’m working on) but I’d have the urchin motifs in an appropriate purple, and the limpets in appropriate limpet colors, like so:

The urchin photo (the purple is hard to see but I love their little hidey holes!) is one I took at the Fitzgerald Marine Reserve, one of my favorite places on the planet, and a great place for finding mollusks (including nudibranchs on a good day!)

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Ahab’s Wife is a book I thoroughly enjoyed. First of all, it’s a book written into the space left by the scant details about Captain Ahab’s personal life in Moby Dick, which is obviously one of the best books ever. Second, it’s got a great protofeminist hero who has incredible adventures all her own; she’s not just pacing the widow’s walk waiting for her wacky husband. I’d say the downside is that sometimes the plot is a little too contrived, but I’d still give it a hearty recommendation.

What does this book have to do with mollusks? Well, it introduced me to byssus! Byssus are the protein fibers that some bivalve mollusks use to attach themselves to their substrate. I had perhaps heard of a mussel’s beard before, but what I didn’t know was that byssus is a fiber that is used in textile arts. Holy cow!

Here’s a photo of byssus in the wild taken by Mila Zinkova at my beloved Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

I’m a spinner, and a large part of the fun of spinning is trying out all the different fibers that exist in the world. It’s not an exhaustive list, but I’ve spun with fiber from sheep, goats, rabbits, musk oxen, cotton plants, flax plants, bamboo, silk, alpaca, Bactrian camel, yak, kelp, and even soy fiber derived from the leftovers of making tofu. I haven’t spun with byssus, but only because I’m not sure how to get my hands on it. Perhaps I should ask a restaurant that serves mussels to save me some beards? It’s an idea. While I don’t love the idea of an animal having to die so that I can spin its fiber, the mussels are dying because people harvest them to eat them, so to my sense of ethics it’s more a case of creative reuse. Why, apart from my curiosity, would I want to spin byssus? Because it makes beautiful yarn, that’s why! Check out this glove knit from byssus yarn. The photo was taken by John Hill during a visit to the Smithsonian.

I will certainly report back with any success stories regarding the acquisition of byssus fiber.

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