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Archive for the ‘Setting: Africa’ Category

18. “The Number One Lady’s Detective Agency,” Alexander McCall Smith

July 1, 2011 Leave a comment

Page count: 235
Page total: 5,084

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57. “Who Fears Death,” Nnedi Okorafor

August 11, 2010 Leave a comment

In a post-apocalyptic Africa where oceans are a thing of the past, technology has given way to powerful juju, and racial wars rule, Onyesonwu is a young and powerful sorceress charged with ending the war between the Okeke and Nuru.

I definitely want to re-read this. The first third or so was slow going for me but after Onyesonwu begins training in earnest, the book became urgent and fast-paced.

(Despite the dire tags, this book isn’t really depressing. It’s dark, to be sure, and if any of those things are a major trigger for you, skip it, but Okorafor manages to weave a book where rape, racism, and genocide are central and important but not soul-crushing.)

Page count: 387
Page total: 15,617

54. “A Fish Caught in Time,” Samantha Weinberg

August 4, 2010 Leave a comment

A quick and very readable history of the re-discovery of the coelacanth, a fish more than 80 million years old and which was believed until 1938 to be extinct.

Weinberg tells the story of the coelacanth through the people who become obsessed with finding it, entwining their lives and their search. I think I caught coelacanth fever, because I keep finding myself fantasizing about how fucking amazing it would be to catch a living fossil, something people believed no longer existed, and something people still hope can tell us more about the moment we climbed from the deep.

Page count: 226
Page total: 14,602
Call number: QL638.L26 W45 2001x

52. “Hair Story: The History of Black Hair in America,” Ayana D. Byrd and Lori L. Tharps

July 29, 2010 Leave a comment

A historical and cultural examination of the meanings assigned to Black hair in the US.

This was a really interesting and enlightening book. I did have some understanding of Black hair care (and myths, mythos, superstitions, and general bullshit) before reading, but this book was lush with first-person accounts and extremely balanced in its reporting of history and the meanings of history.

When I was younger, I had long, very textured and curly hair and if left to its own devises, my hair would dred a little. But this book really argues that it’s not the hair itself as much as it is the history of the hair that makes it so fraught. In most West African societies in (and long before) the 1600s, hair care and styling was incredibly ritualized, with different hair styles holding symbolic meaning and the creation and upkeep of them a cultural affair. When Africans were kidnapped and enslaved, their kidnappers shaved their heads, stripping them of their identities. After months in the belly of slave ships, they emerged with dirty, matted hair incomprehensible to their slavers. In a new continent, new climate, and inhuman (not merely inhumane) conditions, slaves had to come up with new ways of caring for, or more often, merely taming or containing their hair.

Enter the hot comb, grease, do-rags, followed up by relaxers, braids, Afros, Jerri Curl, weaves, cornrows, perms, dreds, and blow-dryers.

Along the way, White people, of course, have had a lot of shit to say about Black hair, such that smooth, silky, combable hair becomes good hair, worthy of both envy and derision, and textured, kinky hair is “bad” hair (but sometimes afforded a sort of grudging respect at particular political moments).

I mentioned my own hair earlier because it has always been kind of difficult for me to understand why many Black people are quick to snap that their hair is not curly, it’s kinky and that White people don’t really have dreds even when they, well, have dreds (because White hair usually requires intervention to make it dred, while kinky Black hair doesn’t). But reading this book helped me to understand the cultural meaning of kinky hair and how it probably feels like white washing to have it euphemized by White folks as curly. And White surfers with dreds, or me pointing out that my hair used to have a lot of texture, too, definitely smacks of appropriation of an extremely loaded topic by someone who simply doesn’t get the same cultural baggage with the hairstyle.

So, as I said, a really interesting book, and, I think, a good one for White people to read. Because the average Black person definitely knows more about caring for White hair than the average White person knows about caring for Black hair and that’s not comfortable to me.

Since it’s my favorite axe to grind with this genre, there were a few organizational/editing problems, though. Parts of it were set up almost like a magazine with vocab lists, profiles of five Black men who changed hair, a bio of Jesse Jackson (I didn’t know that his bouffant was originally cut and styled by his mentor and surrogate father James Brown, who made him promise to wear his hair like that until Brown died), and other interesting asides, but they are plopped in sort of randomly. Also, the time line kind of jumped around so that it wasn’t always in historical order, or we’d get an in-depth profile of Madam CJ Walker and her business and then, twenty pages later, have her explained again.

Overall, a solid B+.

Page count: 198
Page total: 14,376
Call number: E185.86.B96 2001x

49. “Blonde Roots,” Bernardine Evaristo

July 19, 2010 Leave a comment

“Blonde Roots” is historical fiction with a twist, imagining if Europe had been imperialized by Africa and whites (or “whytes,” in the vernacular of the book) enslaved.

This was an interesting idea, but extremely heavy-handed, especially the first several pages, which is all telling (as opposed to showing). While the story calls for a massive over-haul in ones thinking (because the fingers of slavery are that long), all I heard for the first few page was “THE WHYTES ARE THE SLAVES, GET IT, BECAUSE IN THE REAL WORLD, THEY WERE THE SLAVE MASTERS AND ALSO THERE ARE THE WEST JAPANESE ISLANDS LIKE THE WEST INDIES AND HER MASTER’S INITIALS ARE KKK BECAUSE HE IS BAD LIKE THE KKK.”

I mention this because I would have stopped reading if someone in 50books_poc hadn’t mentioned that the first forty or so pages are really all about reversing/echoing as much as possible of narratives of Black slaves.

The broad concept was both interesting and compelling, but the details were rather shakey for me. It’s such an odd reversal, but a reversal of things that would not exist without slavery. For example, without many Africans of different religions thrown together and force-fed Catholicism, you don’t have Voodoo, so celebrating Voodoomas doesn’t make sense (the -mas from “Christmas” making, of course, the least sense).

Throughout the book, I also felt myself wondering a lot if what we needed was further empathetic identification with white characters. Is Evaristo simply exploiting the fact that we are trained to identify with white people and see through their eyes, making the story of a white slave girl more heart-wrenching? Or is she effectively reenacting this connection? Is the book challenging because it plays out the distant historical facts of slavery in a way that seems new and therefore immediate? Or is it challenging because it plays fast and loose with history, resulting in a confusing hodgepodge? Does taking issue with the style of a narrative like this totally overlook the point of it, or is it valid to feel that the writing got in the way of an extremely useful conceit?

In the end, I felt that this was a pretty solid piece of young adult fiction– which, I want to be clear, is not an insult. I read a lot of young adult fiction and I enjoy it and think that the genre truly does have the power to educate, enlighten, and challenge. Easy-to-understand writing is not a bad thing. After I got more used to Evaristo’s narrative style, the book got more enjoyable. I would love to read more on the same theme because I do think that this book has the ability to really challenge people to see with fresh eyes the inhumanity of the slave trade. It is creative, intelligent, and deep thought and craft obviously went into the world the book portrays. It’s just that the writing never matched for me the sophistication of the idea.

Page count: 270
Page total: 13,392

35. “The Ridiculous Race,” Steve Hely and Vali Chandrasekaran

June 13, 2010 Leave a comment

This book was actually legitimately funny, which is a welcome change in most things labeled “humor.” In a largely-true story, two friends decide to travel around the world in opposite directions without using airplanes. The prize is “a bottle of Kinclaith 1969. This was the most expensive Scotch available in Los Angeles. It cost so much that upon paying for it I thought I might throw up.”1 Flights of fancy do not count as flying, though they do explain my characterization of this book as “largely” true.

Along the way, they become interested more in the unspoken Awesome Contest, with Steve taking a container ship from LA to Beijing, trekking through Mongolia, riding the Orient Express. Vali starts with an excursion to a Mexican Jetpack maker and wends his way through the middle east and Cairo.

Page count: 315
Page total: 8,752

1. It’s so expensive that if you run a search for “Kinclaith 1969,” the price will not pop up. This is to protect your fragile sensibilities. I finally found it listed as £531.91, which I refuse to convert into actual dollars.

25. “Hunger: An Unnatural History,” Sharman Apt Russell

May 8, 2010 Leave a comment

An interesting book, but one that didn’t really capture me. It began with a frame about the author’s own body during a fast, but it didn’t continue, despite what the table of contents led me to believe. That’s all and good by me, though, as a first-person account of hunger isn’t what I was looking for.

There were some very interesting anecdotes– especially the Minnesota hunger experiments, which have spawned more than a few searches of the BPL databases, but the first and third parts dragged for me. The concept of hunger artists is weird and interesting, though. Apparently it was all the rage for people to do David Blaine-esque stunts where they set up in the town square and didn’t eat for a month just to show they could.

Page count: 230
Page total: 6,172