Month in Review

What I read in July 2020

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The books “The Ocean at Home” and “Friday Black” laid out next to each other on a brown wood table. A small vase holding some dill flowers and radish blossoms sits between them. The Ocean at Home has multiple green sticky notes throughout its pages.

Books:

The Ocean at Home: An Illustrated History of the Aquarium by Bernd Brunner, which is what the title says. This one’s a weird recommend for me. This book is a fun, breezy read, while being super informative, highlighting the development of the aquarium from at-home scientific observations to the educational institution of the Aquarium, as well as notable individuals in the development of aquariums, the scientific study of marine life, and the business development of collecting fish. I learned about the existence of fish I didn’t know about prior to reading. I flagged a bunch of things I want to look into more, or maybe write something of my own about. But –

It only gives half the story, because it doesn’t talk about colonialism, and the systems that facilitated the trade of exotic fish, or the European collecting impulse, and how all those things are tied up in European colonialism. The history of museums originates with the cabinet of curiosity, which is inextricably tied up with colonialism, and the aquarium shares these origins. The closest the book comes is in the conclusion chapter, when Brunner discusses the ecological destruction collecting for aquariums did to coastlines. However, this analysis doesn’t go any further, and is in what I think is an oddly disjointed chapter compared to the rest of the book.

So I would recommend this book, just be sure to augment it with some readings on European collecting and colonialism, like: James Delbourgo’s “Slavery in the Cabinet of Curiosities: Hans Sloane’s Atlantic World,” Sophie Thomas’ “Feather Cloaks and English Collectors: Cook’s Voyages and the Objects of the Museum” and Giuseppe Olmi’s “Science-Honour-Metaphor: Italian Cabinets of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries” as a few basic starting points.

Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah is an anthology of short stories, most with a dystopian or apocalyptic bent. “Zimmer Land” was the standout story to me, and was also the most painful read in the book, along with “The Finkelstein 5.” ZImmer Land is about Isaiah, a Black employee at Zimmer Land, an amusement park where white customers can live out fantasies of “protecting” their neighborhood or averting a “terrorist” threat – by shooting the actors of color. Isaiah struggles to better a racist institution from the inside-out, coming up against the more “polite” forms of white supremacy while he tries to stop the more physical violent forms of racism, and revealing the ways the two are interwoven. I don’t have a lot to say about this one, other than that its a worthwhile read.

I particularly liked “The Era” a dystopian short story following Ben through school, as he comes up against alternatives to the strict, joyless status quo, all while suffering withdrawal from the “happy drugs” children are given. The worldbuilding felt super expansive, like I could just walk outside my door into The Era, all while condensed down to short story form.

The retail stories “Friday Black,” “How to Sell a Jacket as Told By Ice King” and “In Retail” really got me, and gave me vivid working-at-Target flashbacks, albeit with back-to-college zombies rather than holiday zombies. Particularly “In Retail” where a sales associate desperately tries to find meaning in a meaningless job, and how that basic point of connection with one customer is all the sales associate has. I related to this one a lot, remembering the one customer who showed me an every-day kindness at my retail job, and how my world had shrunk so much that a small kindness felt earth-shattering.

Short Stories:

Petroglyphs by Damien Krsteski, published at Everyday Fiction, is a short story about an alien collector race re-evaluating what their collecting means and does. This story is a lot of fun. It has one of the best alien names for Earth I think I’ve ever seen. I love the motivations of the hatchlings as art lovers and collectors in a way that’s alien, but not too alien, while also delivering  a hopeful re-imaging of what collecting could be). I thought the musings on art as death versus art as life were very lovely.

Bring the Bones That Sing by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor published by Diabolical Plots is a great bird story! Muriel has to find the lost notes of a dead bird’s song to take to the Queen of Air and fulfill the dead bird’s mission. This is a very kind story about fighting against an otherworldly and sensory nightmare to help a friend. The descriptions were fantastic. I loved Bird-Grandma and the reversal of expectations that come with her and the description that surrounds her. I loved every moment of this story, and read it twice this month. It was a nice refuge.

 

 

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