Jul/Aug 2006  •   Reviews & Interviews

The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell

Review by Scott Malby

The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell.
Mark Kurlansky.
Ballantine. 2006. 294 pp.
ISBN 0345476387.

Mark Kurlansky has written another entertaining, intellectually fascinating, and highly creative work with The Big Oyster. It may actually become something of a minor cult classic. His subject involves the geography and cultural history of New York City in relationship to the Big Apple's once world renowned oyster beds.

Oysters? I've always been a little suspicious of them, but after reading this book, I've come to respect them as individuals. In fact, I may have learned a little more about them than I really wanted to know.

The book begins on simmer and continues that way to the end. Along the way, a little bit of everything the author is interested in is thrown into the mix, and readers will be interested by what he has to share. For example, did you know that a garbage heap is the highest promontory on the Atlantic coast of the U.S.? Come to think of it, I believe I also read that somewhere else.

The only other author who I can think of to compare Kurlansky to is Simon Winchester. If you're not familiar with Simon Winchester, you should be. Both Winchester and Kurlansky have made reputations and a good living through the popularization of intellectual subject matter.

Their approach to a subject is journalistic in nature. You have a hard time finding anything in their work to madly identify with or hate. While this approach is not exactly a formula in terms of writing, it borders on it. The upside is that you can depend on these two authors to give you a lot for your money and not make you think you've wasted your time by reading their work.

Chapters in The Big Oyster tend to alternate between the oyster and New York. Kurlansky admits that the same approach could be taken with such cities as London, Rome, and Paris. Clearly he is a very experienced, popular author, and novice writers could learn a lot from Kurlansky's latest effort. However, while this particular book is always entertaining, it is not always successful. The tension that binds it together fluctuates between narrative and vignette. Nevertheless, it is a well researched and valiant attempt.

The Big Oyster is so full of interesting historical, social and scientific material that you could pick any chapter or page at random and be entertained. The problem is that the vignettes themselves threaten to become the focus at the expense of the overriding story.

This is not to demean either the book or the writing style. You just cannot help but be both delighted and a little exasperated while reading. It is just as entertaining the second time through, and to his credit Kurlansky saves his obligatory Garcia Lorca quote regarding New York for the epilogue.

Now, who is this book for? Well, you've got oyster recipes, ecological and scientific discourses, gossip, politics, raw sewage, history, Indians, war, urban growth, inventions, disease, murder, a mini history of American cook books, aqua culture, and the belle époque, along with everything else you might possibly imagine. It's kind of like New York itself. This means that ultimately The Big Oyster is very American, very human, and certainly about us all.


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