Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Kosher -- and Fabulous Too!


A month ago, my review of Ann & Jeff Vandermeer's "flash book," The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals, was published in The New York Review of Science Fiction.  So enough time has has passed for me to post it online, I think.  If you're interested in buying a copy, though, you should act fast.  I suspect it's going to go out of print pretty fast.

Here's the review:

The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals, by Ann & Jeff Vandermeer
San Francisco: Tachyon Publications, 2010, $11.00 hb, 96 pages.

 This is an excellent example (and the first I’ve seen) of what might well be called a flash book.  Authors Ann and Jeff Vandermeer got into a discussion of which mythological animals would and would not be kosher to eat, and then put the results onto Jeff’s blog.   Their meditations became a minor Internet sensation, got Boing Boing’d, went global, and were covered in a story by Swedish National Public Radio.  Publisher Jacob Weisman noticed and commissioned a book version for the 30th anniversary of Tachyon Publications.

If all goes well, the volume (which has all the earmarks of a very limited print run) will sell out quickly, leaving all the professionals with a small profit and everybody else with a pleasant little book.

How pleasant?

Not as pleasant, obviously, as Jorge Luis Borges’s The Book of Imaginary Beings, the collection of brief essays whose existence haunts this book.  (Borges is cited by name in one of the introductions and six of the entries, and features prominently in the only entry which is fabricated by the Vandermeers from whole cloth.)   But then, it doesn’t try to be. 

What it tries to be is lighter than air.  The thirty-four entries – whose length, frankly, makes Borges look a trifle long-winded – range freely and eclectically from Dragon to Cornish Owlman to Sea-Monkey, and the essays are breezy and brief.  They are each followed by an even briefer discussion between the principals which sets the tone of the book.  In them Ann, who is Jewish, lays down the dietary law to Jeff, who is not.  Jeff is identified as Evil Monkey, his nom de blog.  Here’s an example:

            ANN:  “No reptiles or amphibians.”
            EVIL MONKEY:  “No exceptions?  What if a dragon asks politely to
            be eaten?”
            ANN:  “Jews don’t take suggestions from non-kosher food.”
            EVIL MONKEY:  “Does that mean you take suggestions from
            kosher food?!”
            ANN:  “Shut.  Up.”

And now you know whether you’d like this book or not. 

It is important when dealing with fabulous, mythical, or even religious matters to be as scrupulously honest as possible, particularly when writing about things you yourself are convinced have no physical reality.  Here, the individual essays are factually reliable for any reasonably attentive reader.  Several start out soberly and then at the end veer into Vandermeeresque whimsy.  But the break is always obvious and the inventions are not such as are likely to be picked up and passed along as fact by the gullible.  So this is, as all good books must be, an honest one.

It is a pleasant one as well.  It is pleasant enough to buy.  And it is pleasant enough to keep.   A very long time from now, it will still make people smile.

The book is bracketed by a serious introduction dealing with fabulous beasts by Joseph Nigg, who is an authority on the subject, and (strangely enough) a interview by Ann with Duff Goldman of the Food Network’s Ace of Cakes.  Goldman takes a far more catholic view of what is kosher than does Vandermeer and zestfully details how to cook such imaginary creatures as Wookiees and Mongolian Death Worms.  Personally, I think Mr. Goldman is on shaky theological grounds.  There’s not a religion in the world that would condone Wookieephagy.  Moreover, while I realize that as a former member of the Church of Rome, I have no standing here, I really must disagree on the Mongolian Death Worm question as well.  As Saint Thomas Aquinas would have put it:  “I say it’s tref and I say the hell with it!”

This, and the odd rendering of aigikornos as aigi kornos are the only two quibbles I have with this book.  It is a modest work, which wears its whimsy lightly.  It will be bought by people expecting what it is and no more.  I shall include it in my own permanent collection of bestiaries and mythobiologies and, just to make sure it doesn’t feel unwanted, I shall keep it alongside the Borges.

And there is happy news in China . . .

I've just learned that Li Chang, the "controversial" chief editor of Science Fiction World has been suspended!  This is very good news indeed.  I'll explain on Friday.



David Stone said...

Hullo, more title suggestions:

The Dissemblance of Darger and Surplus

The Dissembling Dog [of Moscow]

The Dog's [or Hound's] Dissemblance

The Duke and the Dissembling Dog

(I like this word "dissemble", and I did not dig it up from a thesaurus this time. :) )

Eponymous said...

Added to Amazon list, stat.

JeffV said...

That review made me smile, Michael. Thank you for taking the book exactly as it was meant. JeffV