Born A Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah (Book Review)

img_1434Intro: You know Trevor Noah, right? The Daily Show on CC, its previous host Jon Stewart, his replacement and all that good stuff? No? Then wherever have you been getting your ‘authentic news’ from? And if you know him, Noah’s biracial looks, his almost British accent and his sincere humor would’ve made you curious. And when his book came out, you’d have wanted to read whats the fuss all about (and understand why he is even writing an autobiographical book in his early 30’s!). I wanted to read it too, but it was Bill Gates recommendation that made me move it from my ‘To Be Read’ list to ‘currently reading’.

About: Born in apartheid to a black native mother and a white father, (during a time when inter-racial relationships were against the law with up to five years of imprisonment) Trevor’s birth was actually the result of a “crime”. This is where the book gets its name (in case you were wondering). Being the comedian that he is, one is poised to laugh at some joke he is going to crack, and so when you start reading his book, you are not surprised by the humor. What is surprising, a few pages in, is when it is not all jokes. He talks about apartheid not as a concept, but as a day-to-day reality he grew up in, about the racial discrimination and miserable lives of the black natives in ghettos (away from the white neighborhoods), with hardly any means struggling to make ends meet. For me, all I knew was “apartheid” is policy of “discrimination based on one’s race” and that it ended in South Africa after Nelson Mandela became the first black president; this book shocked me with the length, breadth and the depth of it. And how the world outside (especially, America) is so different with so much going on.

Noah describes how the black community kept fixing problems of the past, when they were pillaged for generations, and never progressed using skills or education to move ahead in life. It was a curse that Noah’s mother called the “black tax” that they had to keep paying just to bring everyone back up to zero. Read this excerpt from the book just for the sake of perspective:

“I often meet people in the West who insist that the Holocaust was the worst atrocity in human history, without question. Yes, it was horrific. But I often wonder, with African atrocities like in the Congo, how horrific were they? The thing Africans don’t have that Jewish people do have is documentation. The Nazis kept meticulous records, took pictures, made films. And that’s really what it comes down to. Holocaust victims count because Hitler counted them. Six million people killed. We can all look at that number and rightly be horrified. But when you read through the history of atrocities against Africans, there are no numbers, only guesses. It’s harder to be horrified by a guess. When Portugal and Belgium were plundering Angola and the Congo, they weren’t counting the black people they slaughtered. How many black people died harvesting rubber in the Congo? In the gold and diamond mines of the Transvaal?”

Sounds terrible isn’t it? Stuff like that certainly gives me the blues and I go in a denial mode, but Noah’s humorous take on everything lets you take it all in without any of that gloom – that, I think, is the value of this book! Some incidents are outright hilarious and you could not stop laughing out loud. The mixed kid that he was (and looked), Trevor was always confused which group he really belonged to – blacks, ‘coloureds’, Indians or the whites – and his insight into their inter-group dynamics is nothing short of remarkable. But he found is place as someone who gets people’s work done, and so, he was welcome everywhere! “I became a chameleon. My color didn’t change, but I could change your of my color.” His coming of age chapters are entertaining with his many heartbreaks, his years of hustling selling pirated CDs, being a DJ and all his entrepreneurial endeavors which he pulled off quite successfully.

The main theme of the book is Noah’s relationship with his mother, Patricia Noah, who raised him singlehandedly. She was stubbornly religious and tried her best to inculcate religious faith in him. But she was also an independent thinker, fierce and fearless, who raised her son by never letting any social, racial or economic boundaries come in the way. She understood the importance of language, and made sure Noah learnt to speak English (which black people did not), along with other native tongues. Trevor was a very naughty kid and a handful for his mother, almost always giving her a good chase around the neighborhood. Nevertheless, they were a great team and he credits his mother for making a man out of him; this book is Noah’s heartfelt tribute to his mother.

Born A Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood is entertaining, interesting and, of course, funny. But you would leave the book having learnt so much about racial discrimination, poverty, domestic violence and adversity, and everything that made such a brilliant comedian out of him!

 

 

EXTRAS:

“My own family basically did what the American justice system does: I was given more lenient treatment than the black kids. Growing up the way I did, I learned how easy it is for white people to get comfortable with a system that awards them all the perks. I had a choice. I could champion racial justice in our home, or I could enjoy granny’s cookies.
I went with the cookies.”

“That, and so many other smaller incidents in my life, made me realize that language, even more than color, defines who you are to people. I became a chameleon. My color didn’t change, but I could change your perception of my color.”

“The hood made me realize that crime succeeds because crime does the one thing the government doesn’t do: crime cares. Crime is grassroots. Crime looks for the young kids who need support and a lifting hand. Crime offers internship programs and summer jobs and opportunities for advancement. Crime gets involved in the community. Crime doesn’t discriminate.”

“It’s easy to be judgmental about crime when you live in a world wealthy enough to be removed from it. But the hood taught me that everyone has different notions of right and wrong, different definitions of what constitutes crime, and what level of crime they’re willing to participate in.”

“Growing up in a home of abuse, you struggle with the notion that you can love a person you hate, or hate a person you love. It’s a strange feeling. You want to live in a world where someone is good or bad, where you either hate them or love them, but that’s not how people are.”


Book Review: Option B by Sheryl Sandberg & Adam Grant.

Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, And Finding Joy. By Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant. Book Review. Book Cover. Inspiring and motivating Quotes.“Life is never perfect. We all live some form of Option B. This book is to help us all kick the sh*t out of it.”

Sandberg is the COO of Facebook whose husband of 11 years suddenly died in May 2015 during their vacation in Mexico. Their friend and psychiatrist Adam Grant helped her cope with the tragedy. This book is the result of Sandberg’s personal insights, Grant’s research, several interesting studies and inspiring stories of many who faced adversity -death, illness, sexual assault, war or other extreme hardships- and how they got over it.

Here are some important points I noted:

  • 3 P’s that stunt ones recovery (per psychologist Martin Seligman) :
    1. Personalization– belief that we are at fault for a given adversity
    2. Pervasiveness – a belief that an event will affect all areas of our lives
    3. Permanence– a belief that the aftershocks of the adverse event will last forever.
  • It is important for family and friends to reach out and acknowledge the pain and assure that they are there, rather than avoid because they are uncomfortable or not sure what exactly to say.
  • Journaling, or even voice-recording, could be a powerful tool for learning self-compassion. By putting feelings into words, you give yourself more power over them. At the end of the day, write down 3 things you are grateful for. Another more active form that builds self-confidence would be to write down three things that you did well in the day, the “small wins”. 
  • Building resilience in children depends upon the opportunities they have and the relationships they form with parents, teachers, friends and caregivers, fostering four core beliefs:
    1. That kids have some control over their lives: This comes with clear and consistent communication of expectations, and giving them structure and predictability.
    2. Learning from failure: Tell kids that if they find something difficult, it means their brain is growing. Foster a “growth mindset” as against “fixed mindset,” e.g. when applauding say “you tried so well” as against ” you are so smart”. The latter actually puts a cap of sorts that discourages kids to go beyond.
    3. That kids matter as human beings: Listen closely to their ideas, make them feel that others notice , care for and rely on them. This helps them create attachments.
    4. They have real strength to rely on and share: Help children identify their strengths. This is a great tool in life and critical after any traumatic events.
  • Just as family stories help children feel a sense of belonging, collective stories create identities for communities building collective resilience that is the need of the hour in today’s fragmented world.
  • We have blind spots- weaknesses that others see but we don’t. It is important to seek constructive criticism; one of the best ways to see ourselves clearly is to ask others to hold up a mirror.

The last part is about learning to love and laugh again, especially after a partners death. Sandberg gives statistics and stories of how prejudiced the society is, particularly towards widows, if they try to find love again. Her own case proves the point: encouraged by her family and friends she started seeing someone, the news story received some very angry and mean comments.

I found Sandberg’s intimate description acute pain she and her kids experienced day in day out quite touching, and left me teary eyed many times. It is indeed difficult to get through loss or trauma, but trying is all we can do. And if there is support of either family – friends, or if one reaches out to groups facing similar struggle, along with right tools, it becomes easier.  Also, finding greater meaning in life makes it bearable.
Option B: Facing adversity, Building Resilience, And Finding Joy is well written, not too big, comprehensive and an easy read. 5 Stars of Goodreads.

Helpful Links: OptionB.org,  Facebook Page.
Some thoughts from the book:
“Self-compassion isn’t talked about as much as it is usually confused with self-pity and self-indulgence. Self-compassion comes from recognizing that our imperfections are part of being human.”
“Children look for acceptance in drugs, alcohol and unsafe sex.”
“Talk to people about their grief instead of avoiding the conversation because you are uncomfortable or you think they will not feel good about it.”

 

 

Book Review: ON WRITING – A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

Stephen King_On_Writing_A Memoir_of_the_Craft. Book Cover pageLets first get this out of the way: I am not a Stephen King fan, nor have I ever read any of his other works, only because I was never into the genre he mostly writes. However, whatever connection I do have with him is through one of his novellas that was adapted into one of the finest movies ever made: The Shawshank Redemption (I resisted putting a couple hearts here). This is my first book by him, and the second on writing, after Bird by BirdOn Writing: A Memoir of the Craft gives a zoomed in view of a successful writer’s entire process. If I was so amazed to read what all actually goes into writing a fiction novel (doubting if I could ever do all that), I was equally inspired to try it out, and excited to see the “magic” happen. In this book, King doesn’t give a success formula or a to-do list, but instead, discusses in detail some very fundamental aspects of writing, some of which are summarized below.

LIFE
The first few pages are about several stories about King’s early life. He and his older brother were raised by a single mother with limited means. Later, even as a father of two toddlers doing two jobs, King struggled to make ends meet, up until the commercial success of Carrie. While he was quite candid about his alcohol and drug addiction, his recovery and how he bounced back is very inspiring, destroying in the process any myths that stimulants are necessary to aid writers or artists in their art. Halfway through the writing of this book, he met with an almost fatal accident during one of his daily walks. Amidst series of operations and painful physical therapy, he resumed work on this book.

STORY
King believes that story is the boss in fiction writing and it is the most important thing readers will want. He says good ideas come sailing at you right out of the empty sky and that the writers job is to recognize them when they show up. Don’t know why, but I feel I am somehow violating trust by putting this very sacred and profound sentence out there, but I will: Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writers job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible. I think it is much like remembering a dream: you want to try hard recalling it, yet not inadvertently add your own details in the process, to get the dream as intact as possible.

READING
Read. Read. Read. Reading creates an ease and intimacy with the process of writing. King reads ‘anything and everything he can lay his hands on’ and for those who want to know his recommendations, there is a long list of books at the end.

WRITING

  • Writers ‘toolbox’ should be well equipped with a strong vocabulary and solid grammar. Not surprisingly, he praises the classic Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White.
  • He detests unnecessary use of adverbs and of passive voice (attributes it to a lack of confidence and/or affectation of authority), advises writers the same.
  • A serious writer would write between 4-6 hours everyday, without any distractions whatsoever (with doors closed and curtains drawn); this is the time to  dive deep within.
  • It is important to write about what you really know well. Write what you like and then imbue it with live and make it unique by blending in your own personal knowledge of life, friendship, relationships, sex and work.
  • Write what rings true to you.
  • His little formula for editing: First completed draft = Second draft – 10%.  There is a sample passage showing his first draft and the edited second, with notes, which I thought is very useful.

The last part is about actual publishing, finding an agent and such. I think a lot has changed since 1999 making this information a bit outdated.

King makes a promise to his readers that this book is going to be to the point, without “any BS”, and he keeps it. There is lots of good advice and memorable sentences worth framing. Some of the paragraphs are so beautifully written that I typed the entire passages in my phone Notes for the fear of losing the beauty or wisdom in them to time or memory. When his writing is not clever or stylish, it is endearing. For instance, he gives you the reader a Permission Slip: If you feel you need permission to do all the reading and writing your heart desires, consider it hereby granted by yours truly.  

On Writing is a masterclass for aspiring writers or bloggers that should not be missed. 4.5 stars on my Goodreads.
Get it on: Amazon iBooks BN
Some of my frames are here:

Shoe Dog: A Memoir by Phil Knight, the Creator of NIKE (Book Review)

When goods don't pass international borders, soldiers will. Quote by Phil Knight, creator of Nike Shoes and Apparel, Memoir Shoe Dog

Shoe Dog by Phil Knight. A memoir by the creator of Nike. Cover pageBill Gates recommended the book on his blog, and according to Warren Buffett, it is  the best book he read in 2016 (and that copies will be available at the annual Berkshire shareholders meet in May’17): Didn’t mean much to me when hubby mentioned it. He had loved the book and insisted (more than once) that I give it a shot. Unlike him, I wanted to protest,  I do not particularly consider myself a business buff. Instead, I just read it. After, awed and emotional, I just mumbled “No. Wonder.”

It was 1962 and in one of his morning runs, the shy and introverted Phil Knight wondered what he wanted to do in life. Though his ultimate dream of becoming a great athlete had not come to pass, he had resolved that whatever he did, it will not be work, it will be play. He was driven by the ideal of greatness to do something meaningful that made a difference in the world. At Stanford he had written a paper on the great potential the Japanese running shoes have to make deep cuts into the shoe market (just like they did with cameras), hitherto dominated by the Germans. Obsessed with what he called the “Crazy Idea,” he started selling the Japan-made Tiger shoes, and Blue Ribbon Sports was born. Of what would become Nike later, the company sales grew steadily and then exponentially, doubling sales every year. His coach Bill Bowerman, loved and regarded very highly of by Knight, became his partner, and gave excellent inputs on shoe improvement, as a result of his trail and error experiments with different designs and materials. In time, many talented people became a part of his company and shared his passion to play.

Though his business was growing rapidly, he would plow all the profits back into his business, leaving no “cash” (highly unacceptable to the Banks). As such, he had to always fight and beg for more credit of his bank. He was taking very high risks. To have a fall back income, Knight earned his CPA and worked for Price Waterhouse for several years, and later taught Accounting at Portland State University, all while selling shoes. Page after page of the years described in the book are filled with war that Knight and his team are fighting to not go out of business. But their passion to play, mutual camaraderie, and inexhaustible grit keep them together and going (as it does the reader). There are poignant moments where he expresses regret for not able to balance his home life, giving enough time to his two sons.

In the last part of the book, Knight looks back after stepping down as the CEO of NIKE for 40 years, wondering if of all this was just business. Most certainly not, he stresses. Far from it.
All this was about the passion and love for sports.
It was about having strong close relationships, be it with his coach or his team or even the endorsed celebrity athletes (he has a close bond with Tiger Woods, Agassi, Michael Jordan, to name just a few).
It was about the obsession to do something different on one’s own terms; money never a goal but  a means to make it happen. A by product.

A business started with $50 investment is today a $30 billion empire – a stunningly impressive number, sure. But to peer behind the scene and walk in Knight’s ‘shoes’ to see where it all began only as a Crazy Idea, is something quite extraordinary: real, relatable and somehow…. doable! Add to it the great storytelling and excellent writing, Shoe Dog would leave you at a high point, emotional, awestruck and stirringly motivated.

Educating. Inspiring. A compelling read. Very highly recommended. 5 Solid stars on my Goodreads.

Well played, Mr. Knight!

Book Review: The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying Up

‘Zen And The Art of Minimalism’ could be an alternate title of this book by Marie Kondo. It is the English translation of the original book written in Japanese.

img_0084-1I am part of the Generation X, and grew up when middle class was really the middle class. We seemed to have just enough to get by and save and be debt-free. We rarely discarded anything, I remember, partly because we didn’t seem to have much to discard, and partly because we could surely ‘use it in future’. Now in the age of consumerism, it is  “hoarding”, and there was an urgent need to unlearn.

That point on space & time graph:

I believe that there are trying times in all our lives that sweep us off our feet and we question everything that we have – people, relationships, things. Looking around in this moment of powerful contemplation and finding meaningless “stuff” about us, we just might have the ‘and-why-do-I-have-all-this-cr@p-anyway’ moment. I did, over a year ago when, quite serendipitously, I found this book. Because it resonated with me so much, I strongly wanted spread the word. It answered for me questions like “how do I create my Happy Place?” literally,  or “how to be happy”.

Fight Club, Minimalism, Quote. We buy things we don't need with money we don't have to impress people we don't like. Things you own end up owning you.The book:

With systematic steps to declutter your home, what she calls the Kon-Mari method (from her last and first names), the author writes passionately and in an honest voice. Her principle is to surround oneself with things that spark joy, and discard the rest (as much as possible). She goes a few steps further in asking readers to touch everything and see if you feel good about it, to their express gratitude for their service  (something she is ridiculed for). No wonder this book seems to be a hit or a miss. Yes- there is repetition, and yes-there are suggestions that might seem beyond you. But do not take it literally, if you so disagree; take it with a grain of salt so as to not miss the important underlying principle.

Minimalism

MinimalismBeing idealistic and passionate, I aspire to the ideal of minimalism. In principle, one doesn’t need to have what one doesn’t need to have. More and more, I look for meaning in things and people and relationships- quality, more than quantity. Have less things, but good ones that serve your purpose that you feel happy about. Don’t let the things you own, own you.
Minimalism is not as much about figuring and discarding what you don’t want as it is about diving deep within to find what you really do. Gnothi seauton: Know thyself. Quite simple. And very difficult. When you let go of things, I think, you practice “letting go” in general, a very handy virtue. When I  give up/away things with-out, it frees up energy that sort of comes back to me within. This is highly empowering. Pointing to this truth is the beauty and the value of this book.

In defense of the book:

What is an ideal? Some thing that is perfect- a highest attainable degree of excellence. Are  or can humans be ideal? No-not generally. So, do we need ideals? Yes, absolutely. Because we need something to aim for. Something to go by. I wonder if religion had a similar purpose with its tenets- all point to some basic ideals (and ideally keep out of trouble with the Church and one another- but that is a whole ‘nother complex topic). A particular example that I grew up knowing is of Sri Ram in Indian mythology, called maryada purushottam, the ideal man; though no one could be all like him, the society has Him as the model to aspire to.img_0096

While The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying Up contains tactical steps and a method to tidying up your stuff, the book is not really about things; it is actually about the ideal of living very consciously and having your home/space as an expression and extension of it… with the things that spark joy. Now what a beautiful, inspiring and life-changing idea that is!

Further Reading: The Minimalists, Becoming Minimalist, Best resources

 Goodreads review.