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: ‘The Secret Life Of Bees’ by Sue Monk Kidd

'The Secret Life Of Bees' By Sue Monk KiddWhen I finally got around reading it amidst several projects (a family wedding, relocating to another state, getting back to work after years, to name a few),  maneuvering through digital / physical library copies, whenever available, (oh, and some other books I finished during that period), I eventually did finish The Secret Life of Bees. The point of sharing my eventful summer activities is not to demonstrate my utmost capability and managerial skills (which I kind of did), but to emphasize that notwithstanding, the book stayed with me. Some thoughts and some feelings from sporadic readings staked themselves up in my heart and nudged me like the annoyingly persistent inner voice to take it up and finish it.  To mentally pick up from exactly where I had left every time, without any loss of interest or motivation is, I think, quite remarkable. In my case, it was not as much about the story (which was also very good), as it was about how it was told.

It is 1964 country deep in South Carolina  and the Civil Rights Act has just been passed (in theory), but the country has still to catch up (in practice). The story revolves around a 14 year old Lily Owens with no mother and a tyrant for a father. In a series of events, she and her black caretaker Rosaleen find themselves in another town, where Lily is trying hard to find clues about her deceased mother. There she meets the black beekeeper Boatwright sisters, especially the eldest (and my very favorite) August, and her life changes.
[On a side note, talking of bees, how often do you see the subject of a catchy book title carry over to the content (like that book with really no hedgehogs) I mean, who does that? This one actually has several bee references; now ain’t that funny, honey!]

To sum it up, The Secret Life of Bees has the prowess to cut through all the noise around you and suck you in and hold you there. How Lily talks to herself (and to the readers) about her emotions and stuff seems so deep and so believable. There were times I found myself letting out a cathartic weeping spell that seemed to wash my soul clean. Oh boy- did it feel good or what! This book is a coming-of-age drama, Steel Magnolias, Oprah kinda feeling all rolled into one. If the honesty and candor in the expression grips your heart, the alluring imagery makes it soar. I recommend this short book just for the experience of it. Four Stars on my Goodreads.

Extras:
The paragraph below conjured up images of bright sun, summer, humming bees and insects, and all the charm of country living and olden times (when life was different, quieter and, perhaps, simpler):
The woman moved along a row of white boxes that bordered the woods beside the pink house, a house so pink it remained a scorched shock on the back of my eyelids after I looked away. She was tall, dressed in white, wearing a pith helmet with veils that floated across her face, settled around her shoulders, and trailed down her back. She looked like an African bride. Lifting the tops off the boxes, she peered inside, swinging a tin bucket of smoke back and forth. Clouds of bees rose up and flew wreaths around her head. Twice she disappeared in the fogged billows, then gradually reemerged like a dream rising up from the bottom of the night. We stood on the porch in the pink light shining off the house. June bugs flickered all around, and music notes floated from inside, sounding like a violin, only a lot sadder.

The movie trailer (that I have not watched yet):

Book Review: Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. Book ReviewI was quite taken by the conversation Terry Gross was having with a Pakistani author on Fresh Air on NPR. His composed and very sensible views made me listen more closely. And that is how I picked up Exit West by Mohsin Hamid.

Characters: Set in an unnamed city (resembling Lahore in Pakistan), the story is about two main, very dissimilar characters, a young man Saeed- who lives in a very close knit family with his parents and who has a strong spiritual side, and Nadia – a young woman who has left her family to live on her own (terms) and who is not particularly religious. They develop a friendship that leads them to be together for a large part of the novel. Interestingly, Nadia always wears a long flowing black robe covering her body from neck to toe that might make her seem religious/ traditional, but she has very independent ideas about living and loving and sexual freedom, which only  goes to make a point that despite ‘conservative’ appearances, people could actually be different/ modern/ progressive in their thinking.

Storyline: The ‘normal’ things like surfing the net or freedom of movement or being able to hang out in restaurants or listening to music- things we take for granted- begin to get obstructed in Saeed and Nadia’s city by extremist militant activities, causing increasing bombings and destruction and killings and curfews. After Saeed’s mother is killed, he and Nadia, like many others in their city, decide to flee their country, reluctantly leaving behind his father who is firm on living (and dying) where his late wife’s memories still lived. The father making his son leave for the latter’s safety, knowing well that he might never see him again and agony of the son leaving his father in peril must describe only mildly the pain of refugees and, to some extent, of the immigrants.

This migration happens through these “magical doors” that are opening here and there around the world, as the reader gathers from short independent scenes from other countries interjecting within the main story. What it also does is it expands the canvas and context of the story from two characters to “everywhere”. Hamid used these “magical doors” to simplify the logistics of movement, ‘a relatively minor thing’, compared to the major issues of what makes people leave their country where they have belonged their entire lives, and what happens when they find themselves in another country among the natives. Saeed and Nadia secretly buy access to one such door through an agent. Against the ever changing backdrop of life with large groups of other refugees in foreign lands they go to, of meagre resources, and of hostility and conflict with the natives, Saeed and Nadia’s relationship also morphs in a way that I thought was very realistic.

Dystopia: The story is set in our present world with internet and smart phones and such, juxtaposed with the elements of wars and unrest in most parts of the world causing migration of large populations, the refugee crisis that develops as a result of such masses taking over other stabler regions /countries of the world, and the hardships of such an existence. It reminded me of the dystopian novels I had read, those cautionary tales set in some future time. But wait a minute! Terrorist activities and wars in vulnerable parts of the world and refugee crisis and hostility towards immigrants – it is all happening now. Are we actually living in a dystopian world? This thought was so unsettling!

Narrative: The flow of the novel is beautiful, and sentences long, as if building a crescendo. Some of the insights and sentences in the book are remarkable and make you think. Besides, it is relatively a short read. (230 pages paperback). I gave it four starts on my Goodreads.

Quotes:

“..an old woman who had lived in the same house her entire life…she had never moved, and she barely recognized the town that existed outside her property…and when she went out it seemed to her that she too had migrated, that everyone migrates, even if we stay in the same houses our whole lives, because we cant help it.
We are all migrants through time.”

“He prayed fundamentally as a gesture of love for what had gone and would go and could be loved in no other way. When he prayed he touched his parents, who could not otherwise be touched, and he touched a feeling that we are all children who lose our parents… and we too will all be lost by those who come after us and love us, and this loss unites humanity, unites every human being, the temporary nature of our being-ness, and our shared sorrow, the heartache we each carry and yet too often refuse to acknowledge in one another, and out of this Saeed felt it might be possible, in the face of death, to believe in humanity’s potential for building a better world.”

“…for personalities are not a single immutable color, like white or blue, but rather illuminated screens, and the shades we reflect depend much on what is around us.”

“Thus in the end their relationship did in some senses come to resemble that of siblings, in that friendship was its strongest element, and unlike many passions, theirs managed to cool slowly, without curdling into its reverse, anger, except intermittently… that if they had but waited and watched their relationship would have flowered again, and so their memories took on potential, which is of course how our greatest nostalgias are born.”

Book Review: A Man Called Ove

img_0709Intrigued by all the hype, I downloaded  the book on Overdrive (the great app that lets you borrow books online-all you need is a Library Card). I was finishing up other books and somehow could read just a few and it got auto-returned in 3 weeks. As I placed another hold to get the book back, I downloaded the audiobook from Hoopla as well. Part book and part audiobook, I eventually did finish A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

The story: is set in Sweden. It is about a 59-year old (though the character actually sounds more like a 70-ish) fastidious and grouchy man called Ove (oo-veh) who has just lost his job to someone of the younger tech savvy generation, and lost his wife of several years, to cancer. He is an old-school, black-and-white kind of guy, who lives to follow rules. A handyman who loves to use his tools, he believes very firmly that Saab made the best cars on earth. The other characters in the story are Ove’s neighbors, including a young Iranian immigrant, Parvaneh, who is pregnant mother of two little girls,  the old couple Rune and Anita, a few other neighbors, and a stray cat. Ove tries to commit suicide (to join his departed wife) several times, but some matter concerning either a neighbor or someone breaking a rule or the stray cat keep him from his matter-of-fact important project of dying successfully. Interjected with backstories from his childhood and about his late wife Sonja, the main story develops with Ove’s increased interaction and involvement with his neighbors and their lives in a series of tragic-comic events.

Good things about the book:
Backman’s has a peculiar way of bringing out humor that Ove’s strong opinions evoke. And that runs throughout the book. Ove, in spite of appearing to be angry with his “rule-breaking” neighbors (and the whole world in general), has a soft heart. How this lonely aging man develops a bond with the two little neighbor girls (like a grandfather to them) is very endearing (As a side-note, and this is as funny as it is cultural, but in India, we address almost all elders or elderly- including those we don’t know, like the vegetable vendors or shop keepers- as either uncle/aunty or grandpa/grandma: less alienating and giving respect that comes with age). However, the most important aspect, I think, that makes this book so popular, despite it not being particularly “exciting” or “deep”, is that it gives the reader a sense of community and togetherness, especially when (or because) it seems to be waning so swiftly from our lives. I digress- but since the time of cavemen, the human race increased its odds of survival against the stronger wild predators and elements of Nature being in groups and communities. It is so basic to our evolution and must be part of our DNA. That the readers all over the world who loved it and felt so good about these basic qualities bears testimony it.

If it is a simple story that is a relatively light read, A Man Called Ove is also funny, feel-good and very heartwarming. As I progressed towards the final chapters, warm tears were streaming down my cheeks and it just felt so good at the same time (I seem to love shedding tears watching movies or reading, and strangely not at all ashamed of it).

So I’d say, give the book a shot.
Check out: the Movie Trailer here, and the entire audiobook here (not sure how long before its taken down!)

SOME QUOTES:

To love someone is like moving into a house,” Sonja used to say. “At first you fall in love in everything new, you wonder every morning that this is one’s own, as if they are afraid that someone will suddenly come tumbling through the door and say that there has been a serious mistake and that it simply was not meant to would live so fine. But as the years go by, the facade worn, the wood cracks here and there, and you start to love this house not so much for all the ways it is perfect in that for all the ways it is not. You become familiar with all its nooks and crannies. How to avoid that the key gets stuck in the lock if it is cold outside. Which floorboards have some give when you step on them, and exactly how to open the doors for them not to creak. That’s it, all the little secrets that make it your home

Death is a strange thing. People live their whole lives as if it does not exist, and yet it’s often one of the great motivations for the living. Some of us, in time, become so conscious of it that we live harder, more obstinately, with more fury. Some need its constant presence to even be aware of its antithesis. Others become so preoccupied with it that they go into the waiting room long before it has announced its arrival. We fear it, yet most of us fear more than anything that it may take someone other than ourselves. For the greatest fear of death is always that it will pass us by. And leave us there alone.”