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The first guacamole recipe written in English came from a British pirate

And the rest of the week’s best writing on books and related subjects.

Slices of Hass avocado. Roberto Machado Noa/LightRocket via Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Welcome to Vox’s weekly book link roundup, a curated selection of the internet’s best writing on books and related subjects. Here’s the best the web has to offer for the week of July 28, 2019.

  • Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens is one of the biggest best-sellers of the year (lo, the powers of Reese Witherspoon). But, writes Laura Miller at Slate, somehow Owens has heretofore avoided discussing the fact that her husband and stepson were implicated in a murder in Zambia — a murder whose form hews suspiciously close to the plot of her book:

Press coverage of Delia Owens since the runaway success of Where the Crawdads Sing has focused on her tomboy girlhood, her passion for helping African wildlife, and the pristine isolation of her Idaho home, portraying her as nearly as unspoiled as her heroine. But Owens’ past is far more dark and troubling than that — and also a much more interesting story than Crawdads’ tale of a persecuted, saintly misfit finding solace and transcendence in nature. Owens’ own story appears to be one of love and righteousness run amok, of the seductive properties of power and violence, of what it feels like to watch your husband become someone your neighbors have cause to fear.

Steinbeck’s celebrity gave him access to important people all over the world, and for a time his powerful narratives of poverty in America during the 1930s had made him a darling of the left. His books were widely printed by the Soviets. Indeed, although he worked for the Office of War Information (the propaganda arm of the OSS intelligence agency during World War II) the Army’s intelligence operation would not clear him for a commission because of suspected communist sympathies.

  • The Library of Congress has digitized and made public for the first time a rare 2,000-year-old scroll. CNN has the details:

The scroll originated in Gandhara, an ancient Buddhist region in northern Afghanistan and Pakistan. Only a few hundred Gandharan manuscripts are known to scholars worldwide, and each is vital to understanding the early development of Buddhist literature. For instance, using linguistic analysis, scholars study these manuscripts to chart the spread of Buddhism throughout Asia.

Curbside’s reputation precedes itself, achieving horror-story status within the Chicago literary community despite the high quality of books it’s published. Bohnsack stayed on with the press for fear of the books going out of print, but now, he said, “I’m embarrassed to have it on my resume. … It’s just a big black cloud hanging over me.”

For some, the years they worked with Curbside have taken on a darkly funny, almost absurdist shade. One author, who didn’t want to be named, said that he recently met a colleague who had also published a book through Curbside. His introduction?

“You and I have something in common. Victor Giron probably owes us both money.”

It’s impossible to say everything on a cover. Fiction is complex, and especially when a book resonates, it becomes difficult to decide which parts of the narrative to broadcast. This is precisely why a cover can never be right; there are only degrees of error. I’m not just saying this to couch my ineptitude — I really believe it.

I used to work in the art department of a major publishing house, where designing covers under conditions demanded by the market could be brutal. As designers, we’re commercial artists, sure, but it’s nevertheless chastening to be reminded.

  • This week was the 200th birthday of Herman Melville, author of Moby-Dick, which is my personal pick for the great American novel. (People get nervous about Moby-Dick because it’s so long, but honestly, it’s very readable if you’re willing to take your time with it and just treat the cetology chapters as poetry. I promise I would not lie to you about such things; I will tell you when a classic is just way too dense to get without a group to help you, but Moby-Dick is a joy.) At the Guardian, Philip Hoare counts off the reasons Moby-Dick continues to hold up:

I’m still haunted by Melville: this winter, staying alone in an 18th-century house that he visited on the island of Nantucket off Cape Cod, I started to think that he was coming up the stairs. This side of the Atlantic, his anniversary ghost has conjured up some aptly eccentric events. The Isle of Man, which lays claim to a crewman on the Pequod, has issued a set of commemorative Moby-Dick stamps, while a Yorkshire stately home is asking for the return of bones pilfered from the only whale mentioned in Moby-Dick that really did exist — a skeleton assembled at Burton Constable Hall in 1825, on whose jaws, Melville joked, the lord of the manor liked to swing.

  • Also, there’s a Moby-Dick musical in development! Here’s a song, just for funsies:

The Dictionary of Gestures is clearly the product of a strange mind. Caradec, who died in 2008 aged 84, was the polymathic author of an encyclopedia of practical jokes and farces, a dictionary of slang, and a guide to the extensive weird and mysterious cultural underbelly of Paris.

“It’s like he was a collector,” said Clarke, the literary translator and PhD researcher who worked on the English version of the dictionary for MIT Press. But instead of collecting familiar things, “he just collected oddities, things that made him curious, or things that made him laugh.”

In the Bay of Panama, Damier wrote of a fruit “as big as a large lemon … [with] skin [like] black bark, and pretty smooth.” Lacking distinct flavor, he wrote, the ripened fruit was “mixed with sugar and lime juice and beaten together [on] a plate.” This was likely the English language’s very first recipe for guacamole. Later, in the Philippines, Dampier noted of young mangoes that locals “cut them in two pieces and pickled them with salt and vinegar, in which they put some cloves of garlic.” This was the English language’s first recipe for mango chutney. His use of the terms “chopsticks,” “barbecue,” “cashew,” “kumquat,” “tortilla,” and “soy sauce” were also the first of their kind.

  • Scholars are building a new program that uses artificial intelligence to help fill in the gaps in fragmented ancient literature. Tech Xplore has the story, including a reconstructed Akkadian hymn to the god Marduk. The reconstructed sections are in italics:

Marduk, your anger is like a raging flood,

But in the morning, your mercy gives consolation to your victim,

The fearsome and terrifying storm has abated,

Where the waves thundered, the shore is now calm,

The dark threatening cloud you have now illuminated.

Where the searing scorching wind blew, your bright day now reigns.

Here’s an overview of the week in books at Vox:

As always, you can keep up with Vox’s book coverage by visiting Happy reading!