Maybe it’s just a knee-jerk survival response to being the smallest fish in a big pond, but Rhode Island breeds self-obsession the way Glenn Beck breeds conspiracy theories. Four books have been published in the past four years chronicling the fables, foibles, fallacies and quirky cultural attractions and behaviors found in the Ocean State.
Ryder Windham’s “You Know You’re In Rhode Island When …” and Roberta Mudge Humble’s “The RIght to Crow: A Look at Rhode Island’s Firsts, Bests & Uniques” were published in 2006. Seth Brown’s “Rhode Island Curiosities: Quirky Characters, Roadside Oddities & Other Offbeat Stuff” came out in 2007. The latest, “Rhode Island 101: Everything You Wanted to Know About Rhode Island and Were Going to Ask Anyway,” written by Tim Lehnert and published earlier this year, is the best of the bunch.
MacIntyre Purcell Publishing, Inc., chose Rhode Island to launch its 101 Book Series, producing guides to all of the United States compiled and written by local scribes, after a similar venture proved successful with the Canadian provinces.
The most impressive thing about the book is that even lifelong, all-things-Rhody mad residents will learn something new. Small enough to fit into a purse or coat pocket, the volume comprehensively details the state’s oddities and trivial pursuits, while fleshing out the facts with 26 engaging opinion columns by prominent Rhode Islanders.
Anecdotes and tidbits trace Rhode Island’s “mobsters and lobsters” legacy, a sobriquet made popular by Providence Phoenix columnists Phillipe and Jorge (who emerge in the book). There are also stories of mills, mansions, vampires, ghosts, pirates, stuffies, bubblers, dynamites, Plunder Dome, Dollar Bill, the Ancients & Horribles Parade and everything that makes Rhode Island what it is today.
In between, there are lists galore (“Five Quebecois Rhode Islanders,” “Top Five Legendary Weiner Joints”) and carefully selected quotes compiled in a running “They said it” feature. The guest columns are especially enjoyable (among them “Rory Raven’s Top Five Tales of Haunted Rhode Island,” “Ted Widmer’s Five Ways Rhode Island Influenced the United States,” “Robin Kall’s Top Five Rhode Island Reads,” “Tony Petrarca’s Top Five Forecasting Challenges.”)
In sum, it’s a field guide for travelers to the strange ways and byways of Rhode Island and a keepsake for Rhode Islanders who can’t read enough about their home state.
With so many scandalmongers around, Rhode Island is a haven for skeptics. Thankfully, North Kingstown’s Tom Sgouros is one of them. His “Ten Things You Don’t Know About Rhode Island,” published earlier this year, is billed as “a skeptical look at government, economics and recent history in one lively little state.” Sgouros, an independent journalist and editor of the Rhode Island Policy Reporter, a political newsletter, compiles and expands his columns and writings into a book-length analysis of the state’s financial shenanigans and bad decision-making at the highest (and lowest) levels. In doing so, he debunks conventional wisdom about business as usual (a.k.a. the Rhody follies), pointing out the flaws and hypocrisy in many of the traditional arguments about the ills and problems of the Ocean State. Just an edited glance at the index will let you know that this is not your typically dry white paper:
Beast, Starve the, 147; boogeyman labor, 23; Bruce, Lenny, 135; Gekko, Gordon, 26; I-boondoggle state debt, 15; Jamestown two police cars, 72; lemons market for, 51; lottery, projections, bad, 11; mall not useful investment, 61; music stops eventually, 41; Oedipus, 42; orange drivers, 142; paradise this isn’t, 23; sea bass vs. cod, 141; self-freezing Popsicles, 57.
By taking a closer and more thoughtful look at Rhode Island’s infrastructure, tax collections, debt service, municipal aid practices, police budgets and salaries for white-collar and blue-collar workers, Sgouros describes a state in crisis and how it got there. His insightful skepticism puts him in good company with the dissidents and critics that have helped define this state since it was little more than a humble settlement running uphill from a Providence stream. (Nobody is sure where that stream is today, although some believe its source to be located under the Roger Williams National Memorial on North Main Street, under a well now clogged with litter and crushed beer cans.)
Three Rhode Islanders collaborated on a new book about a decade-long effort to survey life in the world’s oceans. That volume, “World Ocean Census: A Global Survey of Marine Life,” serves in part as a preview for a final report to be released next year. It’s filled with stunning pictures, including dramatic images of such creatures as the jeweled squid, cownose ray, football fish and Hawaiian monk seal, along with several colorful corals and everything from scallops to sharks. Fans of maritime New England will enjoy scenes ranging from logbooks of whaling expeditions, vintage postcards of beached black fish and finbacks off Cape Cod and a collage of coasters and placemats from old seafood restaurants. Even the names – The Oyster Boat, The Lobster Claw, Anthony’s Fish Grotto – conjure days of platters and bibs in southern New England. My favorite picture in the book is a 1910 postcard of a 270-pound halibut caught at Provincetown, a fish as big as a dune shack that dwarfs the fisherman who caught it. Today Evelyn’s or Flo’s could serve fish ‘n’ chips for a month from a fish like that. Like many white fish, halibut have just about disappeared from the North Atlantic. Go to Jim’s Dock in Jerusalem and take a look at the snapshots on the walls if you want to see the giants that didn’t always get away in the old days.
One sad note of prose to add: Myopic Books in Wakefield recently announced that it would close at the end of January. The store, located at 343A Main St., featured an eclectic selection of used books and routinely hosted intriguing solo art exhibitions on site. Owner Kristin Sollenberger said that the Myopic Books on Angell Street in Providence will remain open and that in the meantime all books at the Wakefield location will be 25 percent off. The closing of Myopic, on the heels of the body’s-still-warm loss of Mom and Pop’s on Robinson Street in Wakefield, is just more kindling for the bonfire of lost bookstores in an age of Kindle and iPod Touch.
This week’s question: What is your favorite book that you discovered in a used bookstore?