I’ve been a bit less focused on my reading over the past few months due to moving, so instead of a monthly wrap up I thought I’d post reviews of the few books I’ve finished since June.
The Autobiography of Malcom X by Malcolm X with the Assistance of Alex Haley
When George Floyd was murdered back in May and the BLM movement of 2020 began in earnest, I did what I think a lot of bookstagrammers did, I reached for a book to further my education. As a history graduate, naturally I leaned towards an autobiography, one I should have read a long time ago.
What I found most interesting in the story of Malcolm X was the stark contrast between his life before prison and after. I knew nothing about Malcolm X’s life before he became a spokesperson for the Nation of Islam so it was fascinating to hear about it from his own hand. From an intelligent school boy, told to give up any hopes of becoming a lawyer, Malcom X moved to Detroit as a teenager and began to work. Whilst employed at a railroad company he decided to move to New York and fell into hustling, drug taking and burglary. When he emerged from prison, a converted Muslim and well read man he was ready to absorb all that Elijah Muhammad could teach him. All of his experiences meant that when he became a mosque leader he was in the perfect position to appeal to a wide range of African Americans who had been heavily disadvantaged by white supremacy.
I’m a big fan of autobiographies because you discover so much more about a person’s life than just their public persona. Malcolm X gave so many notorious speeches and was interviewed countless times, but often his words were simply used to build an image of aggression. My main takeaway from reading this book, was how far we have come and how little we have achieved at the same time. And yes, I should have known that before! While many things have changed, POC are undeniably fighting some of the same fights that Malcolm X was fighting 60 years ago and many of the quotes are still apt today.
it’s still a reaction to the society, and it’s a reaction that was produced by the society; and I think that it is the society that produced this that should be attacked, not the reaction that develops among the people who are victims of that negative society.p. 49
Unless we call one white man, by name, a “devil”, we are not speaking of any individual white man. We are speaking of the collective white man’s historical record. We are speaking of the collective white man’s cruelties, and evils, and greeds, that have seen him act like a devil toward the non-white man. Any intelligent, honest, objective person cannot fail to realize that this white man’s slave trade, and his subsequent devilish actions are directly responsible for not only the presence of this black man in America, but also for the condition in which we find this black man here. You cannot find one black man, I do not care who he is, who has not been personally damaged in some way by the devilish acts of the collective white man!p. 371
it isn’t the American white man who is racist, but it’s the American political, economic, and social atmosphere that automatically nourishes a racist psychology in the white man.p. 489
Additionally, I really enjoyed the discussion on religion. I’ve never read about Islam in much depth so found the topic incredibly interesting. I have consequently, discovered a new interest in the connections between different religions and the similarity in parables across them. This is something I definitely want to read more about in the future. (Any recommendations please let me know!)
Conclusion: I found this book to be an eye opening insight into the life of a black man in mid twentieth century America. Malcolm X not only tells the stories of the Civil Rights movement but also the atmosphere that sparked it and surrounded it which is something you can only really learn from first hand accounts. Although his autobiography was written 55 years ago so much of what is discussed is still relevant; it gives a wonderful context to the movement today, where it came from and what it aims to achieve.
How to be Autistic by Charlotte Amelia Poe
I had planned to read How to be Autistic as part of a readathon run by the publisher, Myriad Editions, so I ordered a copy from my local library before lockdown and about four months later I was finally able to read it!
A memoir of Amelia’s life living with Autism, the book began as a video recording entered into an arts competition. Poe is unashamedly honest and darkly witty. I cried within the first 10 pages and was laughing about 5 minutes later. They not only describe the personal trials faced living with Autism, but highlight the lack of medical expertise on the topic at a local level that left them undiagnosed for over 20 years.
The frank honesty made it both a difficult and beautiful read. So many authority figures let Poe down in their childhood and it was heartbreaking to read the way teachers, amongst others, treated them, simply refusing to believe Poe and escalating their anxiety rather than relieving it. Although you feel that many of these people could have shown more empathy regardless, you realise how unaccommodating much of society is to those with Autism. Mainstream media lacks the representation of so many minorities, Autistic people being one of those groups, which results in a lack of understanding. When they are included, Poe points out that they are often reduced to their Autism alone, partly explaining Poe’s obsession with tattoos:
it’s just so nice to be thought of as ‘the girl with all the tattoos’ before ‘the girl with autism’.p. 94
Conclusion: I strongly urge you to pick up this book! It forced me to face the subconscious prejudices I held regarding Autism and opened my eyes to the lack of resources available to support those who are Autistic. The success of books such as this, I hope will open the door for more Autistic artists, bringing accurate, firsthand stories to the mainstream, rather than interpretations of Autism created by others.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
I had seen lots of people reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and had assumed that it was a fictional story, so when I found out it was part one of seven autobiographies by Maya Angelou I was intrigued. Not only have I never read a seven part memoir, but I know shockingly little of Maya Angelou’s life despite seeing her quoted frequently in the media.
The first thing I noticed when reading the book was how beautifully descriptive Angelou’s writing is. I really felt like I was there in each story watching it unfold, holding my breath when she did and sharing her elation in times of joy, i.e. becoming the first black person to work on the San Francisco streetcars. Angelou is masterful in bringing each scene to life and drawing in the reader emotionally.
Like How to be Autistic this is both a joyful and difficult read, but for different reasons. Angelou experienced some unbelievably horrendous events during her childhood, which are not easy to read about, but you must read them. The dark stories, however are surrounded by anecdotes of a loving family and the successes that Angelou reaped in her early life.
Conclusion: This is a stunningly written memoir that took no time at all to read. I found myself recanting many sections to my boyfriend, because I found them so interesting. The only slight negative I would say is that Angelou very rarely mentions her age which was sometimes confusing at times, but not detrimental to the book. The second volume has been added to my next book buy list and I look forward to delving into more of Angelou’s exquisite storytelling as she documents her early adulthood.
Little Eyes by Samanta Schweblin, Translated by Megan McDowell
Little Eyes was part of my latest book buy. I was drawn to the dystopian, Black Mirror like plot and I couldn’t resist the beautiful cover. This is the quickest read I’ve had in quite a while, which mainly comes down to the fact that I couldn’t put it down. The bizarre and brilliant concept depicts our world with the edition of Kentukis, animal shaped robots with cameras inside. You can choose to either, buy a Kentuki and have it live in your house with you, or buy a connection which enables you to control and see through the camera of a random Kentuki, but not speak.
The story flips between different Kentuki-owner relationships in short punchy chapters. This is one of the great strengths of the book, because it does not follow a singular storyline, you find yourself immersed in a richly diverse world with a wide ranging plethora of characters and relationships, some of which you visit only once, some you return to again and again.
The only downside I found was that some of the stories did not have much of a climax. I appreciated that they all had varying levels of drama, because if everything had ended in an extreme way it would have been too much, making the story seem wholly unrealistic. However, I do feel a few of them could have made more of an impact.
Conclusion: I could very easily imagine Little Eyes being turned into a TV show or a movie with great effect because of its excellent concept and its large, well thought out group of characters and scenarios. Until that happens though, if you’re a fan of Black Mirror or dystopian realism pick up this book. You’ll probably finish it in a day or two, but you’ll be thinking about it and talking about it for weeks.
Have you read any of these books? What did you think? Let me know in the comments!