Sunday, September 21, 2014

Review: The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. by Martin Luther King Jr.

First published:- 1998

Star rating:-

I had to keep reminding myself that it's not the civil rights movement I am rating and reviewing, because the spectrum of legitimate excuses, let alone justifications, which could explain the withholding of a star or two is rather limited. It comes as a kick to the gut every time a young, unarmed Clifford Glover or a Travyon Martin or a Michael Brown is shot for no valid reason and the realization sinks in that the process of integration which was initiated by Lincoln some 150+ years ago and furthered by Martin Luther is yet to reach its completion. So the essence of this book and MLK's doctrine of nonviolent agitation are now relevant more than ever. 

In a way this is Martin Luther's own account of the movement he helped steer in a direction which not only sought to free an entire community from socioeconomic and political servitude but prevented America from becoming synonymous with the ultimate hypocrisy of all - preaching the infallibility of human rights abroad (by waging wars against Communist totalitarianism) but carrying on with its tacit agenda of institutionalized discrimination back home. 
"I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered."

How the spirit of rebellion - which found expression for the first time with the Montgomery Bus Boycott in '55 (unwittingly started by Rosa Parks' act of denying her occupied seat to a white passenger) - trickled into the hearts of oppressed millions in Albany, Georgia, Birmingham, Alabama, Florida, Chicago, Boston, and Washington culminating in the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, is recounted by King himself.
That aside, there's a brief autobiographical sketch patched together from the fragments of writings gathered from the Stanford University archive by Clayborne Carson. Excerpts from King's speeches (sometimes even the full text) also make appearances in between the accounts of all the non-violent movements of civil disobedience he gave leadership to. 

To put it more accurately, this is less of an autobiography (since King didn't live long enough to write one) and more like a montage of every single written document or important oratory piece which King left behind. So lucidly written are these that Carson's work must have been reduced to simple editing and piecing together a coherent narrative out of the vast amount of material at her disposal.

And yet there are such glaring mistakes here which marred my reading experience. Consider this excerpt from King's personal writings after his visit to India in '59 which cemented his faith in the inviolability of civil disobedience as an effective tool to usher in socioeconomic and political change -
"On March 1 we had the privilege of spending at the Amniabad ashram and stood there at the point where Gandhi started his walk of 218 miles to a place called Bambi."

It's not Amniabad. In all probability, it's the Sabarmati ashram in Ahmedabad King is talking about, while the historic walk was to 'Dandi' - a coastal village in Gujarat (the state our present PM hails from). Not Bambi, the iconic Disney deer. 

Even if it was a memory lapse on King's part or a sad apathy for geographical names, as a King scholar looking to publish a work of monumental importance Carson should have been more vigilant for inconsistencies such as the above, especially since Gandhi gets mentioned several times by virtue of his being King's role model. 
(Some quick googling led me to the unhappy discovery that the Stanford archive still retains the unedited, therefore, incorrect information derived from the original sources. I can understand the significance of preserving King's writings exactly as he authored them but the insertion of incorrect facts diminishes the integrity of this work.)
Also occasionally 'Gandhi' is spelled as 'Ghandi'. (Aaarrrrggghhhhhh!)

In addition to these turn-offs, nearly all of King's speeches are so chock full of archetypal metaphor after metaphor that I felt it weakened the gravitas of the narrative. Perhaps, they would have been better off being included in shortened formats. The fact of God's mercy and benevolence being invoked (quite natural since King was a pastor) in every alternate sentence also served as an effective irritant. These are undoubtedly the primary reasons why it took me a whole month to finish reading this. 

But these causes of botheration aside, there's plenty of good to be found in this compilation. Like the way MLK expresses his disappointment with 20th century capitalism in a letter addressed to his wife, Coretta -
"...I am not so opposed to capitalism that I have failed to see its relative merits. It started out with a noble and high motive, viz., to block the trade monopolies of the nobles, but like most human systems it fell victim to the very thing it was revolting against. So today capitalism has out-lived its usefulness. It has brought about a system that takes necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes."

or his critique of the Vietnam War and correlation drawn between American militarism and the dangerously skewed nature of race relations in the deep south-
"I do not believe our nation can be a moral leader of justice, equality, and democracy if it is trapped in the role of a self-appointed world policeman."

The absence of that missing star, thus, should be attributed to my personal aversion to factual inaccuracies, overused metaphors and bad analogies. Otherwise no rating system in existence can measure MLK's significance in American history and all that he stood for.

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Saturday, September 13, 2014

Review: The Royal Family by William T. Vollmann

First published:- 2000

Star rating:-

Some books are very obviously flawed, contrived in ways which slow down the reader's progress and heavily tax his/her ability to dredge up empathy over the headache-inducing frenzy of loaded work-weeks. And yet these narratives are so divine in their earnestness, so far-reaching in their scope, that you are filled with this overwhelming, earth-shattering zeal to shower them with a holy love and not let even a drop of your skepticism dilute your admiration for the writer's boldness. Your cowardice and inaction dictate you honor his unstated wish and this is the least you can do anyway. Embrace it all - the two-faced treachery perpetuated by the torchbearers of civilization, the endless cycle of degradation and corruption and the myriad sorrows of all the characters which bleed into its pages. Take one swig after another from the truth flask until you have been purged of all your self-indulgent guilt-trips and left with nothing but a crushing hopelessness which devours all other emotions with a vindictive fury. 

There's us, cocooned in the warm illusion of security, dissecting the politics of injustice from our ivory towers, wholly in denial of our bubble of happiness feeding off the despair of others. In an effort to scramble toward whatever glamourous concept of affluence it is we consider salvation, we do not see the charred wreckage of lives strewn all around. 

There's the woman of flesh and bone who becomes a grotesque assimilation of mere genitals, who can only be an abstract embodiment of the abuse with no human face - a walking, breathing cunt for hire whose existence you acknowledge only when you require its use. Every once in a while she leaves crack-addicted babies with no fathers in the maze of foster care or dumps them like inanimate blobs of flesh in seedy abortion clinics. She only lives in those documentaries harbouring Oscar-nomination ambitions, at the precipice of our segregated utopias merging with the abyss of the Tenderloins of the world. And the sanctimonious laws state with conviction, that the Tenderloins and the red light areas do not exist. 

There are the hobos, the panhandlers, the bums, the destitute - not allowed to be anything other than victims of their own ineptitude, worthy of a stray sympathetic glance and a few seconds of pity, to be religiously warded off our vaunted inner sanctums. There is Henry Tyler, a pathetic loser bearing the Mark of Cain, wallowing in eternal self-pity, choosing to live as a homeless man to find his Queen, his antidote to a desiccating loneliness. And then there's the Queen of the Whores with her magical powers and her crack pipe - just an emblem, a protector, a redeemer, a guardian angel, a modern day Jesus - and law-abiding respected founder of 'Feminine Circus' Jonas Brady, with his multi-million dollar franchise of selling men the right to rape, torture, and mutilate disabled girls, her nemesis. 
They are all actors in an absurd pantomime. They are all real. 

'Part biblical allegory and part skewed postmodern crime novel', the blurb announces with relish. But that doesn't even skim the surface of this tome.

I call this Vollmann's gift to the perpetual outcasts of society, the ones we have pushed so far beyond the edge bit by bit in our own mad dash for the center that they exist in a kind of parallel netherworld where all humanly concerns are put to rest, where violence and deprivation are the order of the day. I call this his sincerest attempt at chronicling their stories the way they may have approved of, however alien to our feral cravings for taint-free reputations, routine and fake dignity, however repulsive to our faux-fragile sensibilities. I call this a searing critique of the hypocrisy of the ones holding the reins of the civilized world, who would sputter with mock indignation when asked to legalize prostitution. 

However small or insignificant, I call this book an act of redemption.

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Friday, September 5, 2014

Review: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

First published:-2006

Star rating:-

It came to me as an epiphany as I barreled through the last few pages of this book, blanketed in my Sunday evening lethargy, marveling at Adichie's graceful evocation of a forgotten time and place and feeling the embarrassment of having known nothing about the Biafran war, that somewhere in the Gaza strip the maimed bodies of children must lie strewn amidst the debris of their former lives while vicious debates rage on twitter in which people pick a side - Israel or Hamas - to defend from criticism. As if that's what matters.

Somewhere at this very moment there may be a terror-stricken, weeping child, fleeing to find cover, unaware of what she is running from, unaware of the finality of death, shielded by the caprices of the same history she is living, perhaps. Someday she may grow up well to become another Chimamanda to write the story which is hers to tell, and time, circumstances, and health permitting, I am going to be reading that book and be reminded of the umpteenth 'war' that not even my generation of enlightened, Nobel-peace-prize winning heads of state did enough to prevent, the damage that could have been preempted, and the children who could have grown up to carry the weight of civilization some day but didn't.

The farce of this relentless cycle of mayhem, killing, pillage, rape, and starvation will hit us time and again and yet leaders of the first world will continue to look dapper in their crisp suits and appear dignified while justifying their sale of high-tech weapons to warring parties because revenue is to be earned from the spilling of blood. For the sake of self-made demarcations, for the sake of that ridiculous nonentity called national pride, for the sake of righting wrongs done in the past we'll bury our children and future in mass graves and commit more wrongs.

This book deserves 4 stars in my eyes. It's not a flawlessly written work with its frequent straying into the territory of melodramatic personal relationships and cliched characterization and Adichie's writing seems to lack polish in places. But in no way does that stop this from being a highly important work of fiction that the annals of literature ought to acknowledge with a gleaming appraisal.

This is the past transcending the barriers of time to appear before us in a surely pale imitation of its true grotesqueness. This is Adichie leading us to history of a corner of the world we only associate with food programs, the UNHCR, unstable governments and inexorable ethnic conflicts. This is Adichie telling us that history ignored isn't history blotted out.

I didn't know Biafra at all; there are not enough books on Biafra (as confirmed by Goodreads and Google Books), because only those horrors of war survive oblivion which are fortunate enough to receive the world media's stamp of approval. Not all death and devastation caused by 'civil wars' are worthy of the glory of 'crimes against humanity' like Nigeria's smooth war tactic of starving Biafran children with tacit British support wasn't. 

"Starvation propelled aid organizations to sneak-fly food into Biafra at night since both sides could not agree on routes. Starvation aided the careers of photographers. And starvation made the International Red Cross call Biafra its gravest emergency since the Second World War."

But there was a Biafra. Not the transient existence of the nation represented by half of a yellow sun but the reality of the people who, in the paroxysms of misguided idealism, picked the losing side in a war. 
Chimananda's Olanna, Ugwu and Richard, all of whom weave their way in and out of manifold conflicts of morality, identity, and survival, serve as our guides in this landscape of kwashiorkor-plagued children with pot bellies while trying to make sense of the muddle of mutual Hausa-Yoruba-Igbo animosity. And along with them the reader navigates the maze of wartime barbarity, political allegiances, and interpersonal relationships with a growing sense of unease and uncertainty - who are the ones truly responsible? who are the perpetrators? who are the victims? what was the war for and what did it achieve?

"Grief was the celebration of love, those who could feel real grief were lucky to have loved. But it was not grief that Olanna felt, it was greater than grief. It was stranger than grief."

In the end any such attempt at such neat compartmentalization makes little difference to the truth of lives destroyed in a fit of murderous passion. In all likelihood, there will be more Biafras and Srebrenicas and Rwanda-Burundis and Syrias and Gazas as there will be the burden of future tragedy and loss to be borne by hapless survivors. But there's the small assurance that there will be the Chimamanda Ngozi Adichies of the world to give a human face to the solemn formality of statistics every time.

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