Posted in Books, Current Events, Politics, Reviews

Book Review: Talking To Strangers – Malcolm Gladwell

When I was in my twenties, I went out a lot. Being single in a city full of other single people, and being financially independent for the first time in my life with no parents telling me to be home by eleven, I grabbed every opportunity to have new experiences, and I was obsessed with meeting people and making as many new friends as I could. I subscribed to the belief that the stranger sitting next to you on the bus or the person wanting to share your table in a coffee shop was a friend just waiting to be discovered (not that this ever happened to me, but you know, the thought is nice).

I pride myself on being a good judge of character, of having enough emotional intelligence, empathy and sensitivity to read a person or read a room. In all my job interviews I would list “excellent interpersonal skills” first when asked about my strengths. If pressed, I would describe myself as generally likeable and popular. I’m good with people and people are good with me.

And yet, like so many of us, I invariably screw up in my interactions with others. I read someone wrong, I fail to see when someone is lying to me, I misinterpret other people’s actions and act on that misinterpretation, often to the detriment of that particular relationship; I give out personal information that have then been used against me, I have judged or lashed out at someone who I then found was more or less innocent of any wrongdoing. Where were my excellent interpersonal skills in those instances?

If you’ve ever asked yourself the same question, then Talking to Strangers is the book for you. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this is a book that EVERYONE should read.

Malcolm Gladwell argues that as a society we fail utterly and completely when we are required to talk to strangers, and that this can sometimes lead to tragic circumstances, such as the death of YouTuber Sandy Bland, who was stopped at a motor highway in Texas by a police officer for the flimsiest of reasons.

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, I found it interesting that a prominent author seemed to suggest that BOTH Sandy Bland and Officer Brian Encinia were victims of this very human failure. I thought for sure that he would denounce Officer Encinia in the same way I did after having read that brief transcript of the “arrest”. Five sentences into it and I came to the conclusion that he was a complete dick, a moron who had no right to be in the position of authority he was in. I also came to the conclusion that you could not pay me enough to live in America, where these kind of “arrests” are more or less commonplace.

But Malcolm Gladwell just spent an entire book providing facts, compelling arguments and studies to support his statement that the root of the Sandy Bland problem lies not in bad policing and the screwed up American justice system, but in the realm of how we understand each other as human beings. Or more accurately, how we MISunderstand each other.

First, he discussed how human beings operate on a ‘default to truth‘ setting. This may seem laughable to those of us who believe that we are living in an increasingly cynical world where, more often than not, doubt and mistrust are the order of the day. But apparently, when confronted with an obvious lie or doubts about someone we know, it would take a whole lot of evidence to push us beyond the threshold of belief. We will always try to explain away or rationalise anything unexpected. Basically it takes a million red flags for us to believe that someone respected would be, say, a child molester. It sounds crazy, doesn’t it?

And yet Malcolm Gladwell cites incidences of pedophile activity that went unchecked for years before the perpetrators were finally arrested; in some cases, a full decade after the first complaint. Larry Nassar, who was the doctor for USA Gymnastics, molested hundreds of girls before any kind of conviction was made, and even as the case went to court, there were people who defended him up until the evidence became too overwhelming to ignore.

There is apparently no way for us to separate the people who are telling the truth from those who are telling lies; not even the most hardened judge or law enforcement official has it down to an exact science.

We are simply built to assume that people tell the truth until we find incontrovertible proof that they’re not. Many anthropologists have suggested that this default to truth setting is fundamental for society to continue functioning as we know it. We cannot live our lives perpetually suspicious that people are lying to us, because if that were the way everyone operated, everything would stop: relationships, governments, economies – nothing would get done. So we take the occasional betrayal on the chin, because to change our internal settings so that it defaults to lies…well this was what happened with Brian Encinia. His training went too much the other way; it all but conditioned him to believe the worst of others, so that a woman who was merely upset suddenly becomes a potential threat.

Which leads to another interesting thing that was brought up in this book: Transparency, the idea (originated by Charles Darwin, I think) that “the face has developed into some kind of billboard for the heart” borne out of the need to communicate “quickly and accurately” with each other. A smiling face means someone is happy, a lowered brow is a portent of doom, a blush signals embarrassment, and a fidgety attitude is almost akin to an admission of guilt.

Macolm Gladwell refutes Darwin, and in fact he called this chapter ‘The Friends Fallacy”, because he believes this erroneous notion stems from our copious ingestion of sitcoms such as Friends, where everything an actor is feeling is evident in their facial expressions, physical gestures, and body language. He presents a lot of studies that give evidence to the contrary, including studies conducted among remote tribes that live somewhere that’s relatively untouched by modern development. For these people, uplifted corners of the lips doesn’t necessarily equate to an expression of happiness.

Furthermore, if we follow the whole “everyone lies” train of thought, we know that everyone is capable of schooling their expression into something that actually hides their true feelings. I’ve done it myself. I’ve come into work feeling like shit, and yet I put on red lipstick and a smile on my face and no one can tell the difference. And it’s not just facial expression either, its all the other nuances you glean information from when you have a face to face interaction.

Inflection, for one. A polite tone is interpreted as someone liking you or agreeing with what you’re saying. But the British, for example, are masters at the art of damning someone with politeness. They do it so well that it took me years to see how one of my favourite surgeons can cut someone to the bone and still sound like he was asking someone if they wanted a cup of tea, and when I did finally see it in action, it made me wonder how many times I may have been patronised and insulted…but it all just went over my head.

Even more disturbing, there are cases that suggest we get it particularly wrong if the person is a mismatch, meaning, their outward demeanour reflects the opposite of what they’re actually feeling. The nervous fidgety person may just that way by nature, but because we are built to believe that nervous and fidgety equals liar, he or she get wrongfully accused. Or worse, in the case of Amanda Knox, whose kooky, slightly loony character was turned into this femme fatal persona by the international press (who really ought to be ashamed of themselves) and the Italian authorities, you get jailed for four years and scarred for life.

Terrifying. I watched the Amanda Knox documentary after reading this book, and it really struck me when she said that her story could so easily be my story. If they get things like that wrong all the time…I would really hate to be on the receiving end of a police investigation where everything I say, everything I do, every emotion that shows on my face, would be dissected and potentially used against me. I might never trust the system again, actually. I’m sure that wasn’t the intent of the book, but its what I’m taking away from it. We can’t trust our own judgment of strangers, the way society has been built and the way we were taught from birth simply doesn’t support it.

So what do we do? Well, there’s only thing we can do, really, and this is what I love about the book. It isn’t so much a book that will “help” you talk to strangers but rather it will raise an awareness that we can’t: we will never get it right all the time, but we will get it right sometimes, and we have to accept that “sometimes” is probably the best we can hope for.

And somehow, we need find a way to forgive ourselves if our errors in judgment lead to devastating consequences, like Sandy Bland and Amanda Knox and all of Larry Nassar’s victims.

This is what it means to be human.

Rating: 5 stars

Posted in Books, family, Reviews

Book Review: Washington Black – Esi Edugyan

My colleagues gave me a Waterstones gift card as a leaving present when I left our department after having worked there for five years. I went to the bookshop confident that I would be able to stay within the limits of the gift card, despite past experience of just the opposite happening.

After about an hour of shopping, I was on my way to the till, confident in my choice of books and ready to make the purchase, when I came across this beautifully bound book that had been long listed for the Man Booker Prize this year. It had a picture of some kind of flying contraption on the cover, and a synopsis that would draw in any reader claiming to have a sense of adventure.

So of course I spent an extra 15 pounds on top of the gift card that I had already been given, but after finishing this incredible book I am of the opinion that it was absolutely, no-doubt-about-it money well spent.

Washington Black tells the story of a young boy who grew up as a slave on a plantation in Barbados. His fate changes when he meets scientist, inventor and abolitionist Christopher ‘Titch’ Wilde, brother to the owner of the plantation. Titch takes him under his wing, which sets off a turn of events that will take Wash on an adventure beyond his wildest imaginings.

I have never heard of Esi Edugyan before but after reading this book I’m sure I will be looking out for more of her work in the future. There is something so effortless and melodic about her writing. She kept me so engrossed in Washington’s adventures – and misadventures – that I finished this book in A DAY.

The plotting was so seamless, and she managed to keep the narrative at an even pace despite the many twists and turns the story took. She took her time and allowed the story to unfold organically, and it paid off in the form of a book so well-rounded and – I don’t know – the best word I can used to describe it is FULL.

It is so full and rich in imagery that you will immediately feel yourself transported to wherever it is that Washington’s fate had brought him. You can feel the salty breeze of the West Indies, the icy climes of the Arctic, and – this last one I’m quite familiar with – the smoky, foggy air that is unique to the city of London.

Her characters also came alive under the expert strokes of her pen. It is very hard not to feel empathy for Washington Black. You never really think about how miraculous it is to be free to make your own choices until you realise that some people were born not having any choice at all.

I am not well-versed in the history of slavery or how it eventually came to be abolished, but all the same I am grateful to the men and women who made it all possible. I can’t even conceive of a world where my time is not my own, where personal freedom is only a nebulous concept. Its hard to believe that it was once the only way of life that people like Washington Black knew.

Despite all of that, you can’t help but cheer Wash on as he struggles to rise above his station, as he starts to come to terms with what being free means to him. It was an absolute gem to see his journey come full circle, as he realises that the world is his oyster – at least that’s the conclusion I drew from that incredibly ambiguous ending.

Freedom, Wash, is a word with different meanings to different people

– Titch

He was supported by a cast of characters that were as colourful and diverse as they were complex. I like how Esi painted them in shades of grey, how she showed that even with the best of intentions, human beings get it wrong more often than they get it right. The best we can hope for is that we do a little bit of good and leave the world a better place than when we found it.

This is a beautiful tale of personal strength, friendship and love. It paints a beautiful picture of the ties that bind us to another human being, and that no amount of time or distance or separation will ever be able to severe those ties.

Apart from all that, it was just one hell of a great ride. I absolutely loved it. 

Get your own copy from Waterstones now, you won’t regret it!

Posted in Books, Politics, Reviews, Self-Discovery, Young Adult

Book Review: The Hate U Give – Angie Thomas

I once had a friend who called me out for posting a flippant comment on Facebook about a social issue that was being raised 2-3 years ago.

At the time I think I told her to mind her own damn business. I didn’t think it was wrong of me to try and focus on the good things, and to try to make light of the situation, because there’s nothing I can do to change the bad things anyway.

To this day I still remember her answer to that, which was to say that that was completely the wrong attitude to take. She said that as someone who’s met, been and stayed in contact with so many young people (I was a teacher in the Philippines) and who’s so active on social media, I have a responsibility.

I have a responsibility to raise awareness about important issues, and to encourage people to think about things like equality and justice. I have a voice, and the ability to influence opinions through my words. I should use it for more than just making witty comments.

I’d like to take this opportunity to tell my friend Jerah that after reading this book I finally understand why she was so upset with me, and I’m sorry that I didn’t get it at the time. I get it now.

To make light of something is to diminish its importance, and its important that people raise social awareness in any way they can. The people who have been victims of hate crimes are not laughing at my witticisms because they’re too busy fighting for their lives.

That’s why books like these are so important. They give a voice to the people who don’t often have the courage to speak up for themselves. Through Starr, an ordinary teenager who proves that she’s capable of extraordinary things, Angie Thomas sends out a powerful message: that every one and every life matters.

Starr is a very strong heroine. Having been a witness to not one but two of her friends’ brutal murders she’s understandably scared, but she finds a way to turn that fear into strength, making her a worthy role model for teenagers everywhere.

It helps that she’s also so damn relatable, and that her family – even in the midst of all the violence – is able to retain a sense of normalcy for Starr and her siblings. They stick together and they protect each other even when they disagree with each other’s opinion. Or even if they’re fighting over whether Lebron James is or is not a complete and utter fraud (I personally am not a fan. Laker girl all the way!).

This book offers a social commentary on equality, diversity, the justice system and police brutality. However, its the way it portrays racism in ALL FORMS that really got me.

Its not just the blatant and overt things like treating someone differently because they’re black or Asian or any other minority. Sometimes the small snide comments, (often meant to be humorous) comments that show a lack of understanding about other people’s culture or beliefs, that hurt even more than any form of outright racism.

This book made me think about the many ways I may have disrespected people who come from a different background just by throwing out a careless comment or two, and how I really have to be more careful about drawing the line between banter and just plain being rude.

I am not the most socially aware person in the world. I tend not to read the news anymore because it just depresses me. I do, however, read books. Like, a lot. So it helps when they publish books like these because it gets people to stand up and take notice of the things that are happening in front of our very noses.

Kudos to the author for not mincing words even though she knows her main demographic will be young impressionable teenagers. In fact I think the point IS to reach as many young people as she can. This, THIS is the kind of books that they should be reading, not books about sparkly vampires.

The Hate U Give is not a book that will give you a lot of closure. Even towards the end there is a sense that there is still so much more to be done, so many more battles to fight before the war against racism can be won. If you’re expecting a happy ending all tied up in a neat bow I suggest you move on to the romance section of your local bookstore.

But if you want a book that will inspire you and make you think, feel and HOPE, this is the book for you. Absolutely brilliant.

4 stars!