the Little Red Reviewer

“What is it?” it’s from the VanderMeers

Posted on: August 15, 2011

The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities, edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer

Published July 2011

Where I got it: rec’d  a review copy from Harper Voyager

Why I read it: have been following this doctor for a while, and I want to get my hands on anything Jeff VanderMeer is involved in

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In homage of the Neatorama game that would have an utter nerdgasm if faced with Dr Lambshead’s Cabinet of Curiosities, I offer you the ultimate meta’d “What is it?” game: The Thackery T Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities itself.

Well, what is it? Exhibition? Self guided museum tour? Self referential satire? A massive inside joke? Eulogy? An unearthing of the madness of a harmless eccentric? I think a line from the movie Catch Me if You Can, (which coincidentally came out the year before Lambshead’s death) sums it up nicely: “people only know what you tell ‘em”.

Dr Thackery T Lambshead was born in 1900. Trained as a physician and scientist, but a true renaissance man, Dr. Lambshead travelled the world, collecting things here and there, making sure other things got back to their home countries, filling countless diaries with descriptions along the way. Briefly married in the 1950’s, the doctor may have never fully recovered from his wife’s tragic death in a car accident. Filling his home with collectibles and oddities, and occasionally culling the collection by permanently lending items out to museums, he became more and more eccentric. After his death in 2003, appraisers made their way through his home, discovering wonder after bizarre wonder, and trying to connect the objects to descriptions and references found in Thackery’s diaries. And then they happened on the secret underground bunker, a cabinet of curiosities that made the upstairs collection look like nothing more than a museum gift shop.

The Thackery T Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities then, is a collection of remembrances of the doctor himself, descriptions (and some outright guesses) of the strange items found in his home, and most importantly it is an attempt to discover what would cause a man to fill his home with such strange and disturbing things. With entries by Ted Chiang, Rachel Swirsky, Charles Yu, Michael Cisco and Reza Negarestani, Lev Grossman, Naomi Novik among many, many others, along with corresponding artwork and photographs, this is a book that’s more than a book. It’s a curiosity unto itself, an experience, a portal, a self guided tour through the mind of someone whose collection created him as much as he created his collection.

After the entries and stories is an appendix of additional curiosities. Perhaps you recall Jeff VanderMeer soliciting descriptions of strange and bizarre things that could have been found in the doctor’s cabinet on his blog about a year ago? The appendix is the best of those entries, and just as fun as the longer parts of the book.

Some thoughts on just a few of the entries:

The Thing in the Jar, Researched and Documented by Michael Cisco – A disgusting, distorted, haunting thing. In a Jar. It has an inhuman face. Found with manuscripts of Thackery’s research, some of the manuscripts offer legitimate guesses as to where and what it could be, others skirt madness. My favorite guess on what it could be was “infant gorilla raised by crocodiles”. This is the first of many hints that Thackery may be more than he seems.

Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny, documented by Ted Chiang – With some steampunk flair, the Automatic Nanny is exactly as you’d guess: a robot nanny that watches your children, as working class women aren’t educated enough, and governesses are often too expensive. Dr Dacey’s robot nanny would never get tired, or impatient, or ask for a raise or a day off, or raise a hand to a child. When he proposed to ladies that he was courting that their child would be raised by his Automatic Nanny, he was surprised at their outrage, shock, and reluctance to see him again. Never fear, he did finally find an infant for his Automatic Nanny to raise, with unexpected results.

The Very Shoe, As told to and Compiled by Helen Oyeyemi – It’s a beautiful and strange shoe, with a small window in the platform and an antenna on the toe. Made by a simple man for his Romani wife, she was wearing the pair of shoes when she was taken off to concentration camps. Only the shoe was ever found again, but if you listen very closely, with that anttenna right up against your ear, you can hear something impossible. Because love never dies.

A Brief Note Pertaining to the Absence of One Olivaceous Cormorant, Stuffed, by Dr Rachel Swirsky – I began calling this entry “The Rachel Swirky thing”, and for me it was the stand out best entry in the book, possibly because when Swirsky set to write about her meeting with Doctor Lambshead, she bravely decided it was time to come clean about her medical condition, a condition that allowed a 28 year old woman to have met Dr. Lambshead in 1943. A discussion regarding a phoenix-esque bird leads to a distraction, which leads to Swirksy having to wait a half century for Dr. Lambshead’s thoughts on her condition.


The Lichenologist’s Visit
, as Told to Ekaterina Sedia by S.B. Potter, Lichenologist – When Dr Lambshead requests the assistance of Dr Potter’s expertise in identifying a disease, the famed lichenologist hastens to the Lambshead estate, only to find something is very, horribly, amiss. Whose to say the doctor really lived to the ripe old age of a hundred and three?

Threads by Carrie Vaughn – Dr Lambshead may have been a hoarder, he may have been an eccentric. How many people knew how much of a prankster he was? He loved observing humanity, observing how people handled stressful situations, he wanted to find out what people really thought of him and his collection. How better to observe all of these things than to invite a chosen few to his home?

The Book of Categories by Chares Yu – A categorically organized description of a never ending book that categorizes all categories of everything, for everyone who has ever owned it, and it changes hands often. I’m at a bit of a loss on how to describe this, but let’s just say I read it three times, because it was put together in such an unexpectedly unusual fashion.

Why do I insist on calling these “entries” instead of “short stories”? The moment I got this book in my hand, I decided for kicks I’d treat it as non-fiction. When someones friends come together to remember him, to reminisce, sometimes it doesn’t matter if it’s all made up. However I will say this: as an themed anthology full of fiction, this is the best anthology I’ve ever come across. Whatever the Vandermeers said to their friends to get them to submit stories & artwork, they said the damn right things.

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11 Responses to "“What is it?” it’s from the VanderMeers"

I picked up a copy of this from my first ‘vulture circling the dead’ trip to Borders the day it opened on its ‘going out of business’ sale. John Scalzi’s feature of the book on his “Big Idea” post intrigued me and then when I picked it up to look at all the wonderful illustrations inside I knew it had to come home with me. I’m a big fan of Jeff Vandermeer. Have yet to read anything his wife was specifically involved in, but I’m very pleased to read that you enjoyed it so much. It is such a great looking book that it would be a shame if it didn’t live up to its looks in content.

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Now THIS sounds interesting. Might need to check it out.

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Intriguing. Off to find me a copy!

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Interesting! Have you read Jeff VanderMeer’s truly delightful Shriek: An Afterward?

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of course! and it was love at first read. :D I think the only Vandermeer I haven’t read is Veniss Underground.

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Haha, love at first read — I like that. What about his latest, Finch? I’ve been meaning to pick up a copy….

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I’ve been reading the ambergris novels in the wrong order – FinchShriek, and now City of Saints and Madmen. I’ll check this one out when I’ve worked through the big pile in front of me.

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You read Finch first? it’s so different from the other books, more a noir horror. What were your thoughts of Ambergris at first? It’s been really cool to talk to people who have read the books in a different order than me, because it really changes the experience. I actually lent Finch and City of Saints and Madmen to a friend, and specifically told him to read them in the wrong order. . . just cuz I want to see how his reactions were different than mine.

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I read Finch first as well, it was my first experience with Vandermeer’s work. Loved it. I bought City of Saints and Madmen earlier this year and hope to get to it sometime soon.

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[...] The Thackery T Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities edited by Jeff & Ann Vandermeer (2011) After his death in 2003, appraisers made their way through his home, discovering wonder after bizarre wonder, and trying to connect the objects to descriptions and references found in Thackery’s diaries. And then they happened on the secret underground bunker, a cabinet of curiosities that made the upstairs collection look like nothing more than a museum gift shop. [...]

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I’ve had this book on my TBR stack for a while, and for some reason I’ve kept pushing it back. Based on this, I think I need to get to it sooner rather than later. Great review! (and I’ve just added you to my RSS – belatedly, as well!)

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