Monthly Archives: February 2013

Book: To Sir, With Love

To Sir With Love
Also a popular 1967 film

Great story, poor character development.
185 pages, ★★

Rick Braithwaite, a black military officer from Guyana (then British Guiana), receives a horrible shock after leaving the army. Even though he was highly respected as a soldier in British uniform, dozens of employers now reject him because he’s “too black”. Finally, one school accepts him despite his skin colour.

I strongly believe that racism is rooted in classism. Braithwaite summarises the views of the British on page vii:

“The few West Indians who did occupy the streets of England would, despite the prejudice they endured, have far more in common with white, working-class people than with this Cambridge-educated former [army] officer.”

Reading that, this speech/song sprung to mind.

Racism is also a scapegoat for classism. This is strongly supported on page 37:

“It is true that here and there one sees Negroes as doctors, lawyers or talented entertainers, but they are somehow considered ‘different’ and not to be confused with the mass.”

Most strikingly, when people of different races are of the same class (such as in some universities), racial oppression simply melts away. It doesn’t matter what race you are as long as you’re rich, well-connected and well-read. However, when people of the same race are of different social class, the symptoms of racism emergeostracism, bullying, derision, and so on. Classism, not racism, is evidently the root of these problems.

The U.S. now has programmes like Troops to Teachers, which fast-track army veterans like Braithwaite into teaching positions. Veterans provide the discipline, respect and structured lifestyles that are considered elixirs for America’s dilapidated high schools.

I have one complaint: this novel has too many superfluous characters. So many characters, so little interaction. See the character map below.

To Sir With Love Character Map
So many characters, so little interaction! Click to enlarge.

Important characters are also introduced at the last minute, as and when they’re needed. We never really get to know any of the characters other than protagonist Braithwaite, and some characters exist only for one paragraph. The characters aren’t the highlight of this novel, though. The most important aspect is the message that racism exists, and that it can be transformed.

To Sir With Love should be compulsory reading for schoolchildren. It’s easier to relate to than the other school-time favourite, To Kill A Mockingbird, yet the two books’ treatises on racism are of equal caliber. The accompanying discussion also provides a valuable lesson for kids. ★★

Book: The Secret of the Seven Seeds

The Secret of the Seven Seeds
The Secret of the Seven Seeds

A perfect, textbook parable of Buddhist transformation.
191 pages, ★★★★★

The great “Western Disease” is rapidly spreading around the world! The disease is called, “I will be happy when…” When I get that money, when I get that racy car, when I get that new house, when I get that promotion. — Foreword

It seems contradictory to review a book that says, “Don’t evaluate this book—evaluate yourself” on page ix.

Protagonist Ignacio Rodríguez—he might as well be called Ignoramus—is a stereotypically stressed businessman who’s worrying about hitting his company’s performance targets and bullying his staff to “try harder”.

Ignacio’s stress-induced, non-fatal heart attack prompts his doctor to prescribe some rest. He resists at first, but eventually—reluctantly—seeks the help of a spiritual guide who shows him how to improve his life through restful, mindful meditation and by cultivating compassion. (See my review of Cultivating Compassion here.)

After following the master’s advice, every aspect of Ignacio’s life improves: his marriage, his relationship with his children, his sales performance, his company’s profits, his physical and mental health, and his happiness. His co-workers even get along better with each other. Compassion spreads.

The Secret of the Seven Seeds Character Map
Click to enlarge.

The Secret of the Seven Seeds is a slightly-too-perfect version of a life transformed by Buddhism. Being fictional, the transformation story is more ‘textbook’ than in Tiny Buddha, which was autobiographical. Both books inspire, but The Secret of the Seven Seeds is more parable than legend. Read whichever one works best for you. ★★★★★

Book: Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out

Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out
So red. Who could resist?

Simple, plod-along depiction of rural life from 1949 to today.
552 pages, ★ on an e-reader; possibly five stars in hardback.

Mo Yan is famous for writing novels set in the Chinese countryside. In Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out, Mo Yan describes the growth of modern rural China (post-1949) through the eyes of an ever-reincarnating landlord called Ximen Nao (闹西门).

Protagonist Ximen Nao begins the novel as a successful businessman in Gaomi Township, Shandong Province. At the start of the novel, he is tortured and killed as a “capitalist counter-revolutionary” in the 1949 revolution. The story proceeds through the eyes of an ever-reincarnating protagonist; the book’s six parts represent each of his reincarnations. Between lives, Yama, lord of the underworld, determines Ximen Nao’s fate:

  • Before New China (1949): human
  • New China (1949) to the Great Leap Forward (1957): donkey
  • Great Leap Forward (1957) to the Cultural Revolution (1966): ox
  • Cultural Revolution (1966) to the death of Chairman Mao (1976): pig
  • Death of Chairman Mao (1976) to Opening Up and Reform (1992): dog
  • Opening Up and Reform (1992) to the year 2000: monkey, then a child

He lives in the same village throughout these lifetimes, witnessing—sometimes interacting with—his wife, children and friends from when he was a human.

Two aspects of this book were most interesting. First, there’s how China changed suddenly in 1949, not just politically (into a one-party state) and economically (with the onset of Communism), but also socially: people got killed, elevated, and demoted; and romantic couples re-arranged themselves with new society. Legalising divorce resulted in a flood of second-marriages, step-parents and intertwined family trees (I drew a character map for this book, but it looks too messy to be of use!)

Second, we watch China transform from a backward agrarian society led by Chairman Mao into the BMW-driving, hair- (and skin-) bleaching society that we see today. Protagonist Ximen Nao reincarnates himself every time China reincarnates itself (1949, 1957, 1966, 1976 and 1992). Even though Life And Death is fictional, it’s believable and historically accurate, and takes the perspective of an average Chinese rural dweller. (See also Zhang Yimou’s flim, To Live, which also does this very well). Historical texts such as China Since 1949, however, are too dry for many readers, and usually focus on top-level party politics, rather than on ordinary people’s lives.

There’s humour in this book, but it’s too long to read on an e-reader. It gets just four stars from me, but someone with a hardback copy might give it five.