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Posts Tagged ‘cultural history’

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

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43. “Code Name Ginger,” Steve Kemper

July 5, 2010 Leave a comment

“Code Name Ginger” is the first-hand story of Dean Kamen’s invention of the Segway, from his inception of the device through its design and testing and its eventual release.

I have no idea how Kemper did it, but he managed to make not only Segways, with which my only previous non-Arrested Development experiences had been with a handful of douchebags riding them on the streets of Boston with a smug air somehow devoid of the self-loathing that I would associate with such an absurd form of transportation, seem interesting but actually to make me interested in full chapters about people grumbling over stock options or how the company should be divided up (Steve Jobs at $63 million and 10% of the company? $50 million and 10%? $38 million and 5%?). And not only THAT, but I kept finding myself swept up and in quiet moments, the terrible thought would enter my head: “I kind of want a Segway?” (There was always a question mark at the end, because just how did Kemper and Dean Kamen get that thought inside my brain?!)

Sadly, the book ends shortly after the Segway is released, which leaves unanswered the question “how did an innovation that was supposed to change the world for the better become the chariot of douches?” Was it the $5,000 price tag? The fact that it offers a response to what is for most people an invented problem (“I can stand under my own will for a long time but walking— I just don’t see that happening”)? Dean Kamen’s territorial grandstanding? It seems that Segway, Inc. was sold at the beginning of this year, which makes me sad for the people I came to know from this book.

Overall, this book was an unexpectedly compelling read. I’d recommend it.

Page count: 317
Page total: 10,925
LOC Call number: TL 410.K46 2003

41. “The Roots of Desire: The Myth, Meaning, and Sexual Power of Red Hair,” Marion Roach

June 29, 2010 Leave a comment

This was an exjoyable read, more in the vein that I thought “Blonde Like Me” would follow.

Page count: 219
Page total: 10,368
LOC Call number: GT6735.R63 2006x

27. “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” Rebecca Skloot

May 13, 2010 Leave a comment

Another excellent book. While I was initially disappointed to discover that this book was more about the Lacks family and how their lives have been affected by Henrietta’s cells having been stolen than about the science related to those cells, Skloot gives her subject such excellent treatment that it becomes utterly engrossing.

I was number eighty- or ninety-something on my library’s waitlist; it took about three months for me to get it. It was worth the wait!

Page count: 338
Page total: 6,756

26. “The Mother Tongue,” Bill Bryson

May 11, 2010 Leave a comment

This was a very enjoyable book. It’s full of neat little bits of trivia, yet manages to be well-integrated, informative, and funny, much more than a mere collection of quirky facts.

One of the interesting things that Bryson points out early on is that English is the only language that has a book which compiles words with the same meanings (EG, a thesaurus). Most other languages would find little use in this because their lexicons tend to be smaller, with fewer shades of meaning. In another language, you’re only happy to see someone, not glad, or pleased, or joyous, or ecstatic, or chuffed (though if you’re me, you’re more likely to be chafed, annoyed, put-off, irritated, perturbed, aggrivated, or generally bothered).

Page count: 244
Page total: 6,416

12. “Twinkie, Deconstructed,” Steve Ettlinger

January 26, 2010 2 comments

The subtitle is “My Journey to Discover how the Ingredients in Processed Foods are Grown, Mined (Yes, Mined), and Manipulated into what America Eats.”

My over-all reaction is just a big “eh.” I was expecting more muck-raking and generally more intrigue (that is, I expected to be more intrigued) than this pretty harmless list of chemical names provides. I did pretty well in chemistry, but that’s only because my wonderful teachers carried me (shout-out to Angie Melcher and Dr. Rivkin!). It also just seemed weird in this day and age to talk about high-fructose corn syrup and red dye #40 without talking about how people are shitting themselves over how scary these things are (or aren’t?).

Maybe the honey moon is just over for me and the cultural history of a noun books, but I kind of doubt it. In fact, my problem may have been that there wasn’t enough culture here. This book was mostly like an episode of “follow that food.” We go to the mines for salt, the oil fields for hydrogenation, but there’s not a lot of talk about the cultural meaning of these products. I’m writing this when not quite finished with the book, and here’s an excerpt from the page I’m on:

Shanghai Dyestuffs Research Institute Co., Ltd., the largest synthetic food color producer in China, plays a very important role in creating colors: reacting aniline in a metal sulfate to create sulfanilic acid (a common metal sulfate is magnesium sulfate, aka Epsom salts.)
Meanwhile, Sinopec refines naphtha and ethylene out of more crude oil and combines them to make naphthalene (a rather unlikely subingredient for a food ingredient, this is the main ingredient in old-fashioned mothballs). Shanghai Dyestuffs reacts this with another acid and plain old table salt to make something called Shaeffer’s Salt, the key ingredient in both red and yellow [food dyes].” (250-251)

This is pretty characteristic of the writing style in this book. It’s how things happen, I guess, but not what it means. I don’t know what naphtha is. I barely know what ethylene is. So their creating naphthalene doesn’t mean much. Ettlinger obviously is great with science stuff, but maybe not great at translating that to non-science audiences. The result is uneven and occasionally a little patronizing. And it’s the worst kind of patronizing, too, where you don’t know the information but just resent being talked down to, so you can’t even stomp your foot and be like “yeah, duh, napphthalene, like msot chemical intermediaries, is frequrntly reacted wit ha large number of other chemicals to produce wildly different results. For example,
naphthalene sulfonic acids are used in the manufacture of naphthalene sulfonate polymer plasticizers or dispersants, which are used in the production of concrete and other building materials, like drywall. In addition to their use as dispersants for dyes and tanning agents, they are used in a similar capacity are also used in pesticides and Lead-acid battery plates. But all of that is hardly the same as your insinuation that we’re eating sugary mothballs.” (Thanks, Wikipedia!) I do. however, know enough to say “I’ve noticed that a lot of things contain both carbon and one oxygen, but they are probably not going to smother me if I eat them in my garage.”

So, to sum up, I think overall the implied audience (people who enjoy science) and actual audience (people who enjoy snack cakes) for this book are quite different.

The book also felt really stilted to me. I only just put a finger on it: each chapter is about a different ingredient and overall it has the feeling of a large stack of pamphlets created by Hostess to dispel some unsavory rumors about how theirs is the most-processed food of all time.

The last chapter is fairly redeeming and more what I expected overall. In it, he cautions us against being too paranoid over food additives, because we have been adding things to food to change their behaviors or prolong shelf life forever– salt and sugar, for example. But the biggest gift this book gave me is my continued attempts to make flour dust explode.

Page count: 263
Page total: 2,802

Edit: The author was kind enough to comment below. Go see!

4. “Curb Your Enthusiasm: The Book,” Deirdre Dolan

December 13, 2009 1 comment

I freaking love “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” This is summaries of each of the episodes of the first five seasons, interviews with Larry David and several people involved with “Curb.” My favorite parts were where they showed David’s original outline (there is no script for the show, just an outline of the information that needs to come across in a particular scene), and then the transcript of the scene that comes from it.

David sort of seems like a monster, though. But I really identify with him?

Page count: 207
Page total: 735