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Posts Tagged ‘history’

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

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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

48. “The Lost Symbol,” Dan Brown

July 19, 2010 Leave a comment

Robert Langdon is once again unraveling the well-guarded secrets of an ancient and highly-influental order whilst being stalked by a violent white dude. This time it’s Freemasons in Washington, DC.

I know I am supposed to be above Dan Brown, but I do find the Robert Langdon books enjoyable. They are fast, they make you feel smart and smug, and they are many pages. And if you are a page-counter like me, fast, long books are what it is all about.

Page count: 509
Page total: 13,122

34. “Outwitting History,” Aaron Lansky

June 10, 2010 Leave a comment

This book was so good. It was touching, funny, educational, and, above all, inspirational. A man who has saved more than 1.5 million books in a language that is dying and gets (or got) little respect? A man who digitized a language by scanning thousands of out-of-print books and making them available for free– starting in 1998, when we were all still using AOL? A man who made me want to learn Yiddish AND write a cheque to support his work? Well played, Aaron Lansky. Seriously, this dude could be featured on Badass of the Week. His business card should just say “Aaron Lansky, Mensch.”

Lately my summaries have been short out of laziness and apathy. This one is short because I don’t want to rob you of the pleasure of reading this book!

Page count: 312
Page total: 8,437
Call number: Z987.L25 2004

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

64. “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food,” Jennifer 8 Lee

October 2, 2009 1 comment

I liked this book. Like most “a cultural history of [a noun]” books, it would have benefited from a good editor, but it’s no worse than most of these book, and much better than some.

I learned a number of things that it never occurred to me to wonder about. Among them:
-Those white cartons Chinese food comes in (in the US) are a purely American invention. They aren’t even in Canada. Some places import them in response to strong customer demand for those white things on “Seinfeld.”
-In the US, Chinese food restraunts out number McDonald’s 2:1
-In 2005, 110 people hit five out of six Powerball numbers one night– 104 of them played numbers from a fortune cookie.
-The PF of PF Chang’s is Paul Fleming, who also had a hand in creating Outback Steakhouse (18)
-In 1994, Philip Carlo served sixty days in Rikers for assaulting a Chinese food delivery man for leaving menus in Carlo’s building (33)
-“‘People consider it ethnic [food] when it’s new to them and they don’t understand’.” (19)
-Between 1850-1910 Taishan, China had 14 floods, 7 typhoons, 4 earthquakes, 2 droughts, 4 epidemics, 5 famines, and a 12-year ethnic war. Before the 1950s, 80% of all Chinese immigrants came from this region in the Guangdong province. (51)
-In a 1865 trial of a white race rioter, his white lawyer argued that Chinese people were inferior saying: “why, sir, these Chinamen live on rice, and, sir, and they eat it with sticks” (54)
-Chinese immigrants were referred to as “Celestials” by European-Americans who had never seen Asians before. (51)
-In the 1870s, (what is now) Idaho was one-third Chinese. (55)
-Fortune cookies are Japanese, but it was US Chinese restaurants that made them the cultural symbol they are
-The largest fortune cooking company in the US, and therefore the world, picks their lucky numbers by hand, out of a jar. When word leaked out that they were thinking about switching to computer-generated numbers, they received a number of letters including one about the small human connection that this offers that might have made me tear up a little on the train. (Judging by this blog, I spend a lot of time manfully blinking back tears on the train.)

Page count: 291
Page total: 24,830