Book reviews: new non-fiction from Benjamin Watson, Andrei Lankov and Jeanne Marie Laskas

The questions of race in America, a different view from inside North Korea and a look at the seriousness of concussion

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 January, 2016, 9:00pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 January, 2016, 9:00pm

Under Our Skin

by Benjamin Watson

Tyndale Momentum (e-book)

The New Orleans Saints’ Benjamin Watson had no idea a Facebook post of his would go viral. That may be a cliché but it explains how this American football player went from posting a social media comment to becoming a commentator on race in America, to writing a book urging readers to get real about race. The spark was the grand jury decision not to indict the officer involved in the fatal shooting of an African-American robbery suspect. Watson’s post explained why the decision made him angry, frustrated, fearful, embarrassed and more. It’s not hard to see why those heartfelt comments hit a nerve.

His introspection in that message and this book is cause enough to recommend Under Our Skin. He laments that while white America may feel that everything is equal now, “black people know in their bones that there’s still a residue of neo-slavery that sticks to so much of life”. Black people may not be as segregated as in his grandfather’s day, he writes, but it would be more accurate to say they are “not segregated in the same way”. Watson’s personal history adds weight to this emotional response to America’s racial problems.

Daily Life in North Korea

by Andrei Lankov

NK News (e-book)

Interested in property in North Korea? Thought not, but even if you could buy a flat – nearly all housing is considered state property – would you buy a “harmonica house” (a small terraced house)? Or would you splash out on an investment property? According to Andrei Lankov, a professor of Korean Studies in Seoul, a “good” apartment in Pyongyang, purchased about 15 years ago for

US$5,000, was sold recently for US$160,000, raising consciousness among North Koreans about the value of their homes. Daily Life in North Korea is full of fascinating nuggets and is the author’s way of underscoring that an events-oriented approach to North Korea coverage is misleading.

Rather than describing six-party talks, Lankov tells us prostitution has re-emerged, and that the newly rich feast on pork and chicken, although beef is still beyond their reach. If a woman is apprehended on the streets, it might be because she’s wearing trousers, although the enforcement of this ban has been “patchy”. Lankov bristles at media clichés along the lines of “a country on the brink of starvation”. Malnourishment remains widespread, he says, although it is easy to find a good meal if you have the money.


by Jeanne Marie Laskas

Random House Audio (audiobook)

Concussion is a David-and-Goliath-style medical thriller. It’s also an important tale that concerns everyone involved in any sport that can cause chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a progressive degenerative disease linked to repetitive brain trauma. Little wonder Hollywood has turned the story into a movie, starring Will Smith in the role of Nigerian forensic pathologist and neuropathologist Bennet Omalu. In 2002 the doctor finds himself examining the corpse of Mike Webster, a 50-year-old footballer whose erratic behaviour upon retiring included urinating in his oven and using Super Glue on his teeth.

Feeling something is amiss, Omalu fixes the footballer’s brain in formalin and confirms, upon examination, what the sportsman and his lawyer had been trying to prove: closed-head injury as a result of multiple concussions. However, the NFL, in an attempt to protect itself against expensive lawsuits, fights the claim, and it takes years for a ruling that he had been “totally and permanently disabled as a result of brain injuries from playing professional football”. Hillary Huber narrates the book, which is as satisfying as a good whodunit. It also highlights the racism felt by Omalu in the US, and will change the way you think of concussion.