Books

An Uncommon History of Common Things by Bethanne Patrick and John Thompson

Thanks to this book, a friend greeted me with an earnest handshake, and I remarked that the handshake developed in England several hundred years ago as a means for people to demonstrate that they were not holding weapons.


An Uncommon History of Common Things

Publisher: National Geographic Books
Length: 303 pages
Author: Bethanne Patrick and John Thompson
Price: $40
Format: Hardcover
Publication Date: 2009-11
Amazon

An Uncommon History of Common Things ruined my social life.

Shortly after I began reading this densely packed volume, full of historical biographies of most of the nouns we encounter in our daily life, the wealth of information within began seeping into my everyday conversation. For instance, showing up at a dinner party, a friend greeted me with an earnest handshake, and I remarked that the handshake developed in England several hundred years ago as a means for people (men, particularly) to demonstrate that they were not holding weapons. While the gesture currently demonstrates respect, I continued, George Washington considered handshaking to be for the common folk, and preferred to bow instead. After thanking me for not bowing, he brought me to the living room.

There, I noted that several of the guests was wearing high heels, and I offered that according to An Uncommon History of Common Things, the high heel did not develop as a means of enhancing the appearance of a woman’s legs, but for more practical reasons: In ancient Rome, actors used heels of various size to adjust their height depending on the role, while Egyptian butchers wore high heels to avoid stepping in the pools of blood that accumulated on the floor. While high heels in various forms appeared throughout the world for many centuries, they weren’t popular in the United States until the early 20th century because early Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony associated them with witches and forbade the wearing of such shoes.

Amid a chorus of "hmm"s and "interesting", several of the guests excused themselves to the kitchen to refresh their nearly full drinks. I followed them, explaining that the kitchen is likely the oldest of architectural rooms. I referenced the same book, explaining that early humans who sat around a fire to cook their foods had created the de facto kitchen. In medieval Rome, as well as in the longhouses of Native American cultures, food was cooked in communal kitchens. I pointed out that this history of gathering in the kitchen continued today, as the kitchen is a common congregation area for most dinner parties -- though it wasn’t true of this party, since the kitchen began emptying as I spoke. I suspected people were going to other rooms to share the fascinating information I had acquired from the book.

While I had expected An Uncommon History of Common Things to provide a thorough examination of a select group of curious items, much like the interesting One Good Turn: A Natural History of the Screwdriver, this volume, from the brilliant folks at National Geographic, documents the origins of a massive array of foods, objects, symbols, beliefs, customs, ceremonies -- in short, it seems to endeavor to provide a brief history of nearly everything.

For a fan of such minutia, it's fantastic fun. Every entry is short, so in a single session, the reader can focus on a topic and learn about holidays from Valentine’s Day to New Year’s Eve, from Ramadan to Kwanzaa. Or they can flip through the pages and quickly read about the origins of the zipper, the peace symbol, central heating, and the 21-gun salute.

This type of information may not appeal to everyone. I have learned that many people are content to turn a doorknob without knowing the history of the device or that its patent in 1878 came long after similar latch systems had been in common use. These same people seem to find no additional joy in a chocolate bar when told that the first chocolate bar was introduced by Joseph Fry & Sons in 1847. In fact, no matter how much I try to enlighten certain friends to the rich history behind common things -- and believe me, I have shared -- they seem to prefer not knowing.

I can tell, because ever since reading this incredibly broad collection of historical facts and sharing the information at parties, I rarely have occasion to attend parties, anymore. So I just let people know, if you are interested in learning the condensed origins of our favorite foods, pastimes, and passions, An Uncommon History of Common Things is the book for you.

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To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

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The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

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2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

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From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

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This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

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