Review: Black Like Me

Black Like Me
Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a book about racism, about how deep-rooted it is despite all the rhetoric to the contrary in late 1950s/early 1960s America. A white journalist decided to go undercover as a black man through a series of medical/cosmetic alterations in an effort to experience for himself a slice of life as a black man. Griffin’s experience shows how despite retaining his name, his clothing, his manner of speech and behaviour, people still make preconceived notions about him as a person based solely on the colour of his skin. Even the whites who purport to be inclusive fall into speech and thinking patterns, however unconsciously, that exacerbates the unfairness the blacks feel, particularly in the white concept of half-hearted conciliatory gestures that don’t go all the way. For example, the recognition of a black professor as a peer in academia and according him with commensurate pay and opportunities, but he’s forced to live outside of the city due to the persecution faced by his wife and children.

I really disliked the way the book started, particularly how Griffith feels as he undergoes the treatment of darkening his skin, about how when he looks into the mirror for the first time as a black man that he’s somehow fallen into this proverbial black hole of hopelessness and despair, despite not having experienced yet any interactions with the outside world as a black man. As if the mere act of turning black has zapped all his sunny disposition. This struck me as being overly dramatic and as I was listening to this segment of the narrative in the car, drivers from lanes either side of my car will have seen how scrunched up my face looked, if they had taken a peek. I knew I was tackling a heavy subject matter, but I had moments when I felt like if this was the tone the book was going for then I’m not sure I could have continued.

Thankfully, after Griffin’s internal epiphany, he got onto actually living the life of a black man, and here he was much better. He painted a community of blacks who were bonded together through shared sufferings and feelings of injustice, and with good cause. He also painted the whites in what I thought was fair light, showing kindness where it was given, but documenting the hate stares and ‘remember-your-place’ attitudes the whites more often displayed. There were plenty of takeaways here, but mostly the sense of injustice was rife, and the sense of danger constantly permeated in the air for a black man.

His sojourn was about 6 weeks, at which point he decided to end his experiment, document his journey and appeared in media detailing his experience and advocating civil equality, and it is this part that I most admired him. He outlined the lack of equal opportunities afforded to young black perpetuated a vicious circle of crime and constant underachievement, and the need to ensure the black community get access to quality education was imperative to moving out of poverty. The one thing that struck me was how the black civil movement leaders persevered on a strategy of peaceful resistance, and not give in to need to retaliate against this awful situation, and remaining courteous and kind and all the things the whites constantly say they are not. The story of the poor family who’d offer a stranger (black Griffin as he was stranded on a lonely highway at night) a roof over his head despite barely holding it together as a family speaks volumes of the mentality of the people at that time.

I’m mindful of the time when the book was written, and thus the melodrama of the start may be completely justified despite my reservations, but once you get past that the book becomes incredibly interesting. I think Griffin achieved his objectives of getting a closer look at the problem, and in his way helped his nation address the problem.

I’m trying to tie this back to our national experience here where I am, and while there are parallels it’s nowhere near as insidious as in 1960s America. But it teaches lessons that I strongly feel politicians here must learn. Recently there was a minister here who proposed the establishment of a tech mall solely to cater to Muslim businessmen and patrons, because, as he put it, the existing tech mall (which caters to people of all races I should add), somehow comes across as marketing only to non-Muslims (which is utter rubbish). Here we have a governmental leader. Proposing segregation. In 2015. I couldn’t believe it. He needs to open his eyes and read more, travel more.

He probably wouldn’t find parallels, but he could start by reading this book too.

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Review: Being There

Being There
Being There by Jerzy KosiƄski
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s a quick read. A story about a simple gardener with literally no past, educated completely by American television his whole life, gets exposed to society for the very first time. He gets mistaken for a super cultivated, intelligent messiah of the modern times when he responds to questions on the bleak American economy with allusions the cyclical patterns of plant care (sprouts, gets rotten, gets trimmed so that new growth is possible, etc). Everyone starts believing that he’s speaking in allegory, and it goes on and on until he eventually gets touted as a potential candidate for vice presidency.

The story is a fable, a reflection of the absurdity of modern times that has spun so uncontrollably out of whack that society extols what is essentially nonsense as guidance. At least that’s the way I see it.

I consumed this as an Audible (this is the majority of my reading nowadays, with my nights largely spent *gasp* sleeping), and this was narrated by none other than Dustin Hoffman. From a performance perspective, I have to say I’ve listened to better narrators. Sorry, Mr Academy Award Winner.

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Review: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I finished this sometime back but only got around to writing the review here. A very interesting series of stories about what happens to cadavers throughout history, and how they advanced medical sciences. If you ever wondered what happens to corpses after they’ve been donated to science, then this book is for you.

It’s at turns funny and macabre. Roach doesn’t cover the spirituality aspects of the body donated to science, especially since the Asian perspective has some very strong links between the soul and the body.

Roach makes a strong case for organ donation here.

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Review: Rose Under Fire

Rose Under Fire
Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Story of an 18-year old American pilot Rose Justice who delivers planes to the Allied efforts in the war against Nazi Germany. She gets caught by the Nazis during a routine delivery when she chased down a ‘flying bomb’ and travels way off course into Nazi territory. The majority of the story deals with her experiences in a women’s concentration camp in Ravensbruck, the people she meets there and her eventual escape.

The novel highlighted a group of prisoners called the ‘rabbits’, women who were chosen as subjects for medical experiments in war trauma. These women were obviously unwilling participants, having injuries inflicted on their bodies (primarily legs) to see how the body reacted with different treatments in a real-life field scenario, and often extracted muscle and tissue from the said body parts as part of the experiments. These surgeries leave the subjects maimed, and they were called ‘rabbits’ akin to real rabbits in science experiments.

Rose eventually escapes Ravensbruck (stealing a plane along the way and flying into Belgium and safety with two of her fellow inmates), and lives on to participate in the Nazi trials in Nuremberg.

Like Code Name Verity, Wein depicts the perspective of war from a captive’s perspective, showing the horror of the victims of war. Also like Code Name Verity, I couldn’t help but feel so strongly for all the characters in the story. The story was punctuated with poems by Rose (she’s an amateur poet) which was at once tender yet brutally honest.

There are bits here that ties into Code Name Verity – Maddie makes an appearance, continuing her story after Julie’s death and her new life as wife to Julie’s brother Jamie.

This was a fantastic book that made me teary-eyed. Only one other book managed that. Wonderful, and highly recommended.

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Review: Ceremonies in Dark Old Men

Ceremonies in Dark Old Men
Ceremonies in Dark Old Men by Lonne Elder, III
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is an audio play, given free by Audible sempena Black History Month. The story is about a black family in 1950s-1960s Harlem. Russel Parker runs a barbershop, while his two sons Theo and Bobby are small-time bad boys with a penchant for larceny and have a hard time holding down a job, due to racism and other general malaise. Russel’s daughter Adele is the only one with a job, and supports both the barbershop and the men. She’s obviously unhappy about the situation (as well she might), and basically told them off to get their najis bersama-sama.

Theo gets involved with the local gangster and persuades Russel to front a bootleg alcohol business with the barbershop. Things very quickly go south, due to Russel squandering the earnings instead of properly keeping the books in order, which is apparently very unhealthy when the people bankrolling the operations find out. Eventually Theo wants out, but not before Bobby meets his untimely demise at an attempted larceny gone wrong.

The story’s quick and pretty good. I especially liked the character development here, especially Theo who previously didn’t believe in working for ‘The Man’, but ends up learning about responsibility when picking up the work left undone by Russel, even though the motivation was grounded essentially in self-preservation. He learns the lesson here about responsibilities, but unable to back out in time.

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