March 24th, 2017

kitty, reading

Books #11-12

Book #11 was "Spectacle: The Astonishing Life of Ota Benga" by Pamela Newkirk. Many people, like me, vaguely know that humans from exotic lands have been exhibited at World Fairs and even at zoos, but don't really know the details. This nonfiction book follows the story of Ota Benga, a Congolese man of small stature, called "pygmies" at that time, who was either kidnapped or convinced to come to America, where he was exhibited first at the World Fair and later in the monkey cage at the Bronx Zoo. A white minister and a group of black clergymen were outraged by it and petitioned for releasing him. Ota Benga bounced around from home to home in America but always pined to go back to his home. Pamela Newkirk does a magnificent job of researching the various claims about Benga (yes, he had sharpened teeth, but no, he wasn't a cannibal) and his history (did he come with explorer Samuel Verner willingly, or was he coerced?). She puts his exhibition in context by exploring the backgrounds of the men who put him on display and the tradition of bringing back sample humans from exotic lands to put on display in the U.S. She also debunks claims by apologists for the Bronx Zoo that he wasn't really "on display" but was there to care for the monkeys and orangutan. My only little quibble with her writing is that she frequently says "Verner preposterously claimed" or "Vernor made the unlikely claim that..." instead of trusting the reader will figure out what a disreputable character he is and how little his (often contradictory) claims should be trusted. Overall, a great, if sad, read.

Book #12 was "Between the World and Me" by Ta-nehisi Coates, a National Book Award winner. My husband read this as a paper book and recommended it to me. I listened to it as an audiobook as read by the author and was blown away by it consistently. It is a very brief (only 3 discs on audibook) book written in the form of a letter to Coates' teenage son, looking back on what it means to be black in America and talking about his hopes and fears for his son. This is so powerful. Just read it.

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