THE KOSHER GUIDE TO IMAGINARY ANIMALS
Ann & Jeff VanderMeer
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
In their introduction, Ann and Jeff VanderMeer explain that the idea that eventually became The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals came about during a hike in the woods, the sort of silly conversations people have to while away the time. Fortunately, they did more than forget the conversation, eventually posted on-line about their discussion. And Jacob Weisman at Tachyon Publications noticed and offered to turn their discussion into a (short, all-too-short) book.
The VanderMeer's premise is that if mythological creatures actually existed, Jews would debate whether or not they were kosher. The two of them, therefore, provide descriptions of 34 different creatures from the familiar mermaid to the more esoteric arkan sonney to the humorous sea monkeys. Following each description (which includes illustrations by John Coulthart) is an all-too-brief dialogue between Ann and Evil Monkey (presumably Jeff's alter ego). While the descriptions are generally amusing, often the dialogue that follows them is laugh-out-loud funny.
One of the strengths of the book is that the authors never explicitly define what makes food kosher (if you must know, check out Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14, among other places). Instead, the reader figures out what is or isn't kosher by the comments made in the dialogues. As Evil Monkey asks in the discussion of the aigi kampos, "why is it that the reasons it's kosher have to do with the gross icky bits you wouldn't ever eat."
As mentioned, The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals is a short book, which means the reader will finish it all to quickly. The VanderMeers left out numerous animals, many of them obvious, from its pages. There are no unicorns, trolls, rocs, or numerous other creatures. On the other hand, by leaving these out of The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals, the VanderMeers are allowing themselves the luxury, and their readers the hope, that there will eventually be a second volume looking at how well additional creatures fit into the laws of kashrut.
The book includes a foreword by Joseph Nigg and as an afterword an interview Ann conducted with Duff Goldman, of Ace of Cakes. Neither are necessary for the enjoyment of the book and in fact the interview, while funny, does not come close to the humor throughout the main portion of the volume. Nevertheless, the interview does add a nice coda to the volume, provided a sense of closure.
The Kosher Guide to Imaginary Animals is an enjoyable curio, the sort of book that comes along every once in a while that is at once appealing and approachable. It doesn't pretend to be anything it isn't and lives up to the expectations presented in its title. The humor covers the spectrum from subtle to broad as the authors "debate" whether one can, or should, eat Mongolian Death Worms, Sasquatch, or even pollo maligno while subtly informing the reader of the occasionally arcane nature of Jewish dietary restrictions.
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