1984 (George Orwell)

That last book?

Yeah, I had to read it pretty much solely to recover from this one. For the love, 1984 (affiliate link) was a wretched work that just made me SAD. From the first chapter on, the dastard depravity of humankind is amplified over and again until we see Winston, the main character, chewed up and spewed out by the reality that is unfortunately his. 

Winston works in the Records Department in the Ministry of Truth. His actual responsibilities include changing past records to accommodate the lies that the Party perpetuates regarding anything from the number of boots created one month to the country with whom they are currently at war. Winston's problem is that he is an anomaly to society: he notices and remembers the Party's alterations to the truth. Over time, he evolves from just a curious observer blindly carrying out his sad little life to a willing volunteer of the Brotherhood intent on bringing the Party down. 

This leads to a rebellious affair with a fellow Party member named Julia. Julia and Winston fall as much in love as two individuals with no moral compass or liberty know how, and together they change the course of their destiny by committing to the Brotherhood...and subsequently being ripped apart by it. 

Just sad. Sad, sad, sad. I was distraught for the broken relationships between parents and children, heart-broken for the callousness of one human being toward another, and overall disgusted with how easy it is to compare the state of Winston's society to the reality of our own. I was positively horrified to take in Winston's torture scenes, especially the one (oh, I can't even type it) with the rats. Lawdyhammercy. 

It is said that George Orwell was a genius. I'd agree...this work is a prime example that the man's brain was on a level the rest of us can't even imagine. 

A sad genius, though. 

Black Like Me (John Howard Griffin)

Black Like Me (50th Anniversary Edition)



Every once in a while a book dances across my path that renders me utterly speechless. Griffin's Black Like Me is one such work. Hard as I try, I'll fail to do this one justice...but try, still I will.

I'll be researching more about this John Howard Griffin in order to affirm or re-evaluate my initial opinion that he's pretty much an unsung hero of the civil rights movement. At this point in my knowledge of him, he seems to have been a major protagonist in the development of social justice for black Americans. For all Americans, really.

I'm sort of furious that we didn't read this book in high school.

Griffin's book was written in the late 50s and is about an experiment he performed to discover if and how there were differences in the ways black and white men in the South were treated. In 1957, he decided to medically darken his skin so that he looked like a black man. This book chronicles his experiences in a string of Deep South cities from New Orleans over to Atlanta, including stops in Mobile, Montgomery, and Biloxi. For six weeks, Griffin ventured into each city alternating between white Griffin and "Negro Griffin."

*It was 1957. The words "Negro" and "n*****" were used commonly and crudely. They're all over this book. I won't censor direct quotes, as that would detract from historical accuracy. Personally, however, I am rather uncomfortable using the terms even in this setting.

Obviously, he encountered rather poor treatment when he was black. The book details the stress of being harassed by white teenagers, his inability to get a job, and a bile-rising string of depraved questions from white men regarding very intimate details of black men's personal relationships. Once the experiment ended, Griffin's personal knowledge led to him becoming a common guest to meetings with leaders of both races (some separate, others mixed) who were seeking ways to bring peace and justice to the country. He writes of criticism on both sides of mistakes made during this critical time period.

Normally a good book means a few marked pages or highlights/notes in my Kindle. This may tell you something about the number of penetrating statements within this book.



I won't list them all, and for the sake of reasonableness, I've limited myself to the five most profound.

"The Negro. The South. These are details. The real story is the universal one of men who destroy the souls of other men (and in the process destroy themselves) for reasons neither really understands. It is the story of the persecuted, the defrauded, the feared, and detested. I could have been a Jew in Germany, a Mexican in a number of states, or a member of any 'inferior' group. Only the details would have differed. The story would be the same." (Preface)

"I learned a strange thing- that in a jumble of unintelligible talk, the word 'n*****' leaps out with electric clarity. You always hear it and it always stings. And always it casts the person using it into a category of brute ignorance. I thought with some amusement that if these two women only knew what they were revealing to every Negro on that bus, they would have been outraged." (Pg. 21)

"My revulsion turned to grief that my own people could give the hate stare, could shrivel men's souls, could deprive humans of rights they unhesitatingly accord their livestock." (Pg. 67)

"The white man's fears have been widely broadcast. To the Negro, these fears of 'intermingling' make no sense. All he can see is that the white man wants to hold him down- to make him live up to his responsibilities of taxpayer and soldier, while denying him the privileges of a citizen." (Pg. 121)

"Too many of the more militant leaders are preaching Negro superiority. I pray that the Negro will not miss his chance to rise to greatness, to build from the strength gained through his past suffering and, above all, to rise beyond vengeance." (Pg. 164)

Look, I grew up in the 80s and 90s. I won't even begin to pretend I understand the scope of what happened in this country during the civil rights movement. I could never fully grasp the complexity of all sides involved. I do pay close attention to this part of our history, perhaps because mine is a transracial family and maybe because I believe social justice is essential to the liberty of our great land.

Black Like Me is the can opener many people need to crack our minds wide enough to consider the intricacy of racial tensions and issues, both past and present.

*Please view disclosure statement at bottom of page.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Sherman Alexie)


Born "with water on the brain," 14 year old Junior is seizure-prone and poor as dirt. Here he tells the story of life on his Spokane Indian reservation, in all its shocking and gut-wrenching glory. Junior's physical issues and desire for a different life cause him to be something of a target on the "rez," and before long he finds himself enrolled at Reardan, the closest mostly white high school. Violence, cruelty, alcoholism, racism, and tragedy are normal daily occurrences for Junior; though his voice is laden with wit and charm, still the book is peppered with negative stereotypes about the Native American culture.

The oppressive poverty is the worst, and the root of all the other issues. Junior's take:

"It sucks to be poor, and it sucks to feel that you somehow deserve to be poor. You start believing that you're poor because you're stupid and ugly. And then you start believing that you're stupid and ugly because you're Indian. And because you're Indian you start believing you're destined to be poor. It's an ugly circle and there's nothing you can do about it. Poverty doesn't give you strength or teach you lessons about perseverance. No, poverty only teaches you how to be poor."  (pg. 13)

Though it is overrun with stereotypes, the difference for The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is that as the narrator, Junior is a funny yet deeply self-reflective Native American. He describes experiences with his culture that cannot be disputed by those of another race. Another consideration is that through use of Junior’s very strong, specific voice, these stereotypes are brought to light to reveal their complex combination of truth and utter ridiculousness.

Because it is so heavy laden with negative stereotypes, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian may at first seem a risk to young readers in promoting the very untrue notion that Native Americans are inferior to other ethnicities. Because of the way Alexie tells Junior’s story, the novel does more good than harm in the realm of typecasts. Awareness of the stereotypes and disputing the untruths promotes the integrity of the Native American culture. Young readers without experience in or with the Native American culture will be surprised at what Junior has to say about his life, but one of the most essential qualities of great literature is that it brings awareness to and appreciation of cultures different from our own. 

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Rebecca Skloot)

Ever heard of something called HeLa cells? Yeah, umm, me either...not until a few months ago, anyway.


HeLa is a building block of cell science and a cornerstone of modern medical research. Among numerous other very interesting uses, HeLa cells were used in the first space missions to test the effects of space on human cells, they were used in nuclear experiments, and they were (and still are) used to develop important vaccines, chemotherapies, and radiation treatments that have and continue to save millions of human lives. HeLa is widely known in the medical science community as one of the most important tools in the development of modern medicine. The purchase and sale of HeLa cells for the purpose of medical research over time likely numbers somewhere in the billions.


This book goes into painstaking detail about the relevance of HeLa cells in the existence of mankind, but its primary purpose is to shed some light on how HeLa came to be...which went a little something like this:


Once upon a time there was a woman, a wife and mother to several children. She suffered several medical ailments on and off in her life, but one day she became very ill and was diagnosed with cervical cancer. The doctor treated her with radiation, but the cancer spread and in her very early thirties this young woman died. After her death, cells were removed from her body and used in an experiment of cell division. Unlike any other cell in that experiment, this woman's cells kept dividing. And kept dividing. And kept dividing. And even unto this very day, they are still continuing to divide. Because of this unique type of cell division and multiplication, the woman's cells were extremely valuable for a multitude of research purposes. The woman's name was Henrietta Lacks. Likely because it was the 1950's and even more likely because Henrietta Lacks was a black woman, her family was never informed of the cultivation of her cells for research and certainly not informed of their value. Today, Henrietta's family is trapped between an expired statute of limitations on the several infringements committed toward them and an understandable inability to trust anyone in the legal or medical communities after a lifetime of  betrayals they have experienced. They have lived 60 years of intense frustration, and no one in the Lacks family has lived happily ever after. 

What a sad, sad story. Henrietta Lacks left a legacy that has transformed medical science, yet her own children stated at one point that they were so poor that they couldn't even afford health insurance.

Somehow the author of this book won the trust of the Lacks family and was therefore able to put together this very comprehensive tale of Henrietta's life and background, her medical treatments, and the process of the discovery and subsequent uses of HeLa cells. It is incredibly thorough and in the author's own words was extensively fact-checked.

The thoughts that continued to run through my mind while trudging through the bits of cellular science history were that the real untold story here is that this family has been exploited in ways unimaginable. Their disadvantages due to poverty and race (at that time) made them easy prey for the people who they should have been able to trust: the doctors. What has been done to the Lacks family is positively inexcusable, and why no reparations have been made to Henrietta's descendants is beyond me.

In addition to her cells' contributions to science, the controversy surrounding Henrietta's family's experience has led to a revolution in the way patients are required to be informed and to give consent for their treatments or for bits removed from their bodies. What you and I take for granted in that stack of release, privacy, and consent forms we fill out at the doc's office or for pre-operative processing, Henrietta was never given the opportunity to consider. You can thank Henrietta Lacks for her seemingly ceaseless contributions to science, but you can also thank her for your right today as a patient to be informed and to give consent to procedures that involve your body and what is removed from it. And we can all thank Rebecca Skloot for telling Henrietta's story.

*The author used a portion of her earnings from sale of her book to establish the Henrietta Lacks Foundation, which is a foundation that provides scholarships and grants for descendants of Henrietta Lacks as well as descendants of other research subjects (ex: the Tuskegee experiments). Learn more about that here: http://www.henriettalacksfoundation.org/

For more about the author and Henrietta's story, go to http://rebeccaskloot.com/.