Born a Crime

Born a Crime: Stories Of a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah9780399588174

publication date: 2016
pages: 285
ISBN: 9780399588174

In this excellent memoir, Trevor Noah presented his readers with a look into growing up in South Africa, under apartheid and directly after apartheid’s dissolution. The title of the book came from the fact that Noah was mixed, with a black mother and a white father. Under the laws of South Africa during apartheid, it was illegal for people from two races to have sex, much less have a child. So Noah, because of his parentage, was literally born a crime.

Almost every aspect of Born a Crime was incredibly effective. The book obviously focused on only Noah’s life and Noah’s stories; but, within those stories, Noah explored meaningful and historically important themes, such as racism, poverty, totalitarianism, and hope. Noah’s relationship with his mother also played a major, and touching, role in the book.

While investigating these weighty themes, Noah used a winning, confessional style. He also was very funny. Here was a story he told about how his mother would have to chase him in order to discipline him:

When I was little she always caught me, but as I got older I got faster, and when speed failed her she’d use her wits. If I was about to get away she’d yell, “Stop! Thief!” She’d do this to her own child. In South Africa, nobody gets involved in other people’s business – unless it’s mob justice, and then everybody wants in. So she’d yell “Thief!” knowing it would bring the whole neighborhood out against me, and then I’d have strangers trying to grab me and tackle me, and I’d have to duck and dive and dodge them as well, all the while screaming, “I’m not a thief! I’m her son!”

Noah also offered excellent details, about his life and about living in South Africa. These details made his stories lively and potently reminded the reader of the constant horrors of apartheid. In this passage, Noah created rich descriptions about the particulars of growing up poor:

We got by with next to nothing, but we always had church and we always had books and we always had food. Mind you, it wasn’t necessarily good food. Meat was a luxury. When things were going well we’d have chicken. My mom was an expert at cracking open a chicken bone and getting out every last bit of marrow inside. We didn’t eat chickens. We obliterated them. Our family was an archeologist’s nightmare. We left no bones behind. When we were done with a chicken there was nothing left but the head.

Born a Crime did have some flaws. It was repetitive at times. Also, Noah prefaced each chapter with a few pages describing an aspect of living under apartheid. Sometimes, these prefaces were effective, as in this passage from the first page:

[During apartheid, the government divided two dominant tribal groups:] the Zulu and the Xhosa. The Zulu man is known as a the warrior. He is proud. He puts his head down and fights. . . . The Xhosa, on the other hand, pride themselves on being the thinkers. . . . The Zulu went to war with the white man. The Xhosa played chess with the white man.

Often, however, these prefaces seemed muddled and unnecessary.

Notwithstanding these minor flaws, this book superbly depicted the small facts of Noah’s life, while pondering the major themes that effected everyone raised in South Africa.

5/6: seek this book out

other reviews:

USA Today
Wanderer News
New York Times

The Grace of Kings

The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu9781481451864

publication date: 2015
pages: 618
ISBN: 978-1-4814-2427-1

In this attempt at an epic fantasy novel, author Ken Liu presented a sprawling fictional universe, chockful of dozens of new proper nouns that I had to memorize and become interested in. The Grace of Kings focused on the island kingdom of Dara and the jockeying for power among Dara’s ambitious citizens. The novel began with a parade, celebrating the new emperor of Dara, Emperor Mapidéré, whose brutal conquest of Dara left many in his kingdom with rebellious and power-hungry thoughts. Liu then spent the next 550 pages detailing the political and military maneuverings of all those interested in the throne.

The Grace of Kings was just the first in a series of books, called the “Dandelion Dynasty,” which described the rulers of Dara. I, for one, will not be reading the rest of the series.

My main problem with the book was that it was tiresome. It’s tiresome to learn an entire geographic region, and its relevant history, and its contemporary elite. And this particular universe that Liu created wasn’t even very original; it was like reading the “A Song Of Ice and Fire” series, or the excellent “Graceling” series, but with different proper nouns. All of the political and military intrigue was tedious. This was all perfectly represented in a single sentence, from about a third through the book:

With the help of Faҫa’s King Shilué, King Jizu, the grandson of the last King of Rima before the Unification, had reclaimed the throne in the ancient capital of Na Thion.

It was so hard for me to care about any of that. I had no context. I only just learned about Rima 100 pages before, much less all that other stuff. An effective way to get me to care about a fictional world and plot is to create compelling characters. Unfortunately, Liu’s characters had a very rocky start. His characters began as very rote: the trickster, the heartless emperor, the feckless child king etc.

However, although the characters began as uninspired tropes of the fantasy genre, Liu used that to his advantage and, by the end of the book, the characters were very rewarding. Liu created space for all the characters to grow and change with their circumstances, which meant the wife and mother you met at the beginning of the book was very different from the wife and mother at the end.

Also, specific and particular plot points within the book could be fun and interesting. There was an assassination attempt with a kite, and an origin story involving a silk scroll with a prophecy found inside the belly of a fish, and an ascendant king traveling the ocean by riding on the back of a whale. So although I didn’t care much about the overarching plot, with someone always fighting with someone else for some small bit of land, each individual scene usually contained some engaging action.

This book was certainly not terrible. It was much better than another fantasy book I reviewed, The Name Of the Wind. And it seemed like the author was trying to do something interesting, was trying to take the common tropes of fantasy and use them for a purpose, instead of just populating his book with them. If you’re new to fantasy, this is one of the better books in that genre to read. If you love fantasy, might as well give this a shot because it does adhere so well to the genre. If you’re just a casual reader of fantasy, I don’t know that I would recommend this book over any other.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

npr
Elitist Book Reviews
Tor.com

Native Guard

Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey514ukx2mkzl-_sx331_bo1204203200_

publication date: 2006
pages: 49
ISBN: 978-0-618-60463-0

In this 2007 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Trethewey presented powerfully structured poems, which contained immediate imagery and explored personal and potent themes. For those who like poetry, this is a wonderful and effective collection.

The first thing I noticed about the poems was how suited they were for being read out loud. Trethewey’s use of rhythm and the sounds of the consonants and vowels in her words was impressive. Here was an example, which I would encourage you to read out loud:

                             She is leaving behind
the dirt roads of Mississippi, the film
of red dust around her ankles, the thin
whistle of wind through the floorboards
of the shotgun house, the very idea of home.

In these poems, Trethewey examined issues of race, loss, identity, motherhood, home, and memory, all in a cohesive and energetic way. Here she explored loss and mourning, in a poem titled “After Your Death”:

First, I emptied the closets of your clothes,
threw out the bowl of fruit, bruised
from your touch, left empty the jars

you bought for preserves.

Here was another example, focusing on race and history, written from the perspective of a former slave who has joined the Union Army in the Civil War:

                                                     I now use ink
to keep record, a closed book, not the lure
of memory – flawed, changeful – that dulls the lash
for the master, sharpens it for the slave.

Additionally, Trethewey used the strictures of poetry, such as meter, rhyme, and repetition, in a careful, studied way. Her use of repetition was always especially effective. The rules that Trethewey adhered to allowed her to craft compelling and unpredictable poems. Here was an example of this from the poem titled “Incident”:

We tell the story every year –
how we peered from the windows, shades drawn –
though nothing really happened,
the charred grass now green again.

We peered from the windows, shades drawn,
at the cross trussed like a Christmas tree,
the charred grass still green. Then
we darkened our rooms, lit the hurricane lamps.

Generally, all the poems were engaging, but there were a few slow or dull ones in the second half of the book. If you enjoy poetry, I would absolutely recommend this.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews of Native Guard:

Bookslut
Savvy Verse and Wit blog
Nothing More Wonderful blog

The Princess Bride

The Princess Bride by William Goldman9780156035217

publication date: 1973
pages: 353
ISBN: 978-0-15-603521-7

William Goldman’s classic story, adapted to a movie by the same name in 1987, was generally tedious, often annoying, and sometimes even insulting.

The book took the classic genre of adventure story and attempted to modernize it by creating quirky and easily mock-able characters, then framed it all with much discussion from an irritating narrator called – William Goldman.

The concept of the book is that William Goldman’s father read him the story “The Princess Bride,” by a fictional S. Morgenstern, when he was a kid, and Goldman wanted to present the story to his son. However, it turned out Goldman’s father had only read the good parts to Goldman so he decided to transcribe Morgenstern’s story into an abridged book that included only the “good parts” and notes by Goldman. Here was a long example of the style of the Goldman narrator:

When I said at the start that I’d never read this book, that’s true. My father read it to me, and I just quick skimmed along, crossing out whole sections when I did the abridging, leaving everything just as it was in the original Morgenstern.

This chapter is totally intact. My intrusion here is because of the way Morgenstern uses parentheses . . . Either Morgenstern meant them seriously or he didn’t. Or maybe he meant some of them seriously and some others he didn’t. But he never said which were the spurious ones . . . All I can suggest to you is, if the parentheses bug you, don’t read them.

What Goldman was referring to was tiresome asides in the narrative of “The Princess Bride” made by Morgenstern. Like this as an example:

The Countess was considerably younger than her husband. All of her clothes came from Paris (This was after Paris) and she had superb taste. (This was after taste too, but only just. And since it was such a new thing, and since the Countess was the only lady in all Florin to possess it, is it any wonder she was the leading hostess of the land?)

I usually found all these asides and meta posturing to be unfunny and dreary. Also, the characters in the book, including Goldman himself, were generally just mouthpieces for Goldman’s style of humor, which did not work for me.

Although the writing and characters were unimpressive, sometimes the action was compelling, especially any scenes involving Westley the farm boy. Additionally, there were a few parts that I thought were funny, including these lines:

He was seventy-five minutes away from his first female murder, and he wondered if he could get his fingers to her throat before even the start of a scream. He had been practicing on giant sausages all the afternoon and had the movements down pretty pat, but then, giant sausages weren’t necks and all the wishing in the world wouldn’t make them so.

Although the book was a quick read, with a few funny parts and some effective action scenes, I would say you can just skip it.

2/6: many problems

other reviews of this classic:

The Daily Beast
SF Site
Fantasy Book Review

Spoken From the Heart

Spoken From the Heart by Laura Bush 9781439155202

publication date: 2010
pages: 456
ISBN: 978-1-4391-5521-9

Laura Bush, wife of George W. Bush, the 43d president of the United States, published this memoir about two years after her husband left office. The book, which wasn’t short, spent about 200 pages discussing Laura’s childhood, the early years of her marriage with George, and the first few months of George’s presidency. The remaining half of the book focused on 9/11 and the years following.

I was surprised by how much I liked this book. Bush was a fine writer and had access to many interesting stories, which she usually told with aplomb. The book was most effective when Bush depicted the stories of all the amazing, ordinary people she had met, like the doctor on the Thai-Burmese border who dedicated her life to providing medical care to Burmese refugees.

Bush’s retelling of the events surrounding 9/11 was very moving. I cried. In her description of that day – and throughout the book – Bush included perfect details to capture the essence of whatever she was recounting. For example, here was her portrayal of the evacuation of a nearby school:

Within minutes of the attack, many parents had rushed to the school to pick up their children, but as the streets clogged with evacuees and emergency vehicles racing south, 150 students remained behind. The school’s principal, Anna Switzer, herded them, their teachers, and a few parents inside. Before the South Tower fell, Switzer and her teachers lined up the students, ages five to eleven, in a single file and told them to hold hands. They stepped out of the building into the ash and smoke. Some looked up and watched as men and women flung themselves from the upper floors of the towers, their bodies passing through the billowing flames. One child said, “The birds are on fire.”

Although Bush spent a significant portion of the book discussing politics, she didn’t offer much criticism of her husband or herself. She attempted to rationalize much of her and her husband’s behavior, sometimes effectively, sometimes not. She completely skipped over things from the Bush administration that existed but that she seemingly didn’t agree with. For example, in the entire book, she only referred to Dick Cheney twice, although she brought up other political figures numerous times. She also never mentioned the controversial use of torture that was a huge issue for the Bush administration. She managed to remain silent on torture even as she recounted her visits to Bagram Air Base and dismissed the travesty at Abu Ghraib prison as a failure of the system of command.

The book humanized Bush and her husband, by detailing intimate moments of their lives and by describing all the time and attention to detail that goes into being a head of state. However, it didn’t remove the feeling of dissatisfaction with their performance, especially surrounding the nonexistence of “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

Spoken From the Heart was obviously very political. If Bush’s politics are so disagreeable to you that you can’t see them in print, then I would not recommend this book to you. However, the portraits that Bush created in this book, of people doing amazing, or interesting, or important things, were very compelling and effectively rendered.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

New York Times
The Guardian
OnTheIssues.org

The Coldest Winter Ever

The Coldest Winter Ever by Sister Souljah9781439119976

publication date: 1999
pages: 284
ISBN: 978-0-7432-7010-6

In one of the major books that fueled the renaissance in urban fiction, Sister Souljah presented a compelling story of a young black woman’s life as part of a culture of drug-dealing.

The Coldest Winter Ever followed Winter Santiaga, the self-proclaimed queen of the projects, who lived in Brooklyn with her family, including her drug lord father, Ricky Santiaga. Winter’s life began to change on her sixteenth birthday, when her father announced plans to move the family out of their vigorous urban neighborhood and into the rarefied New Jersey suburbs. However, Winter’s world really fell apart when her father was arrested by the FBI for drug-trafficking and RICO violations.

Winter was a wonderful main character. She was the perfect anti-hero, long before Walter White was introduced. Almost every move Winter made seemed morally wrong or, at least, against her best interests. And yet I wanted her to succeed throughout the book. I was rooting for her even as she knocked out an old woman with a sock full of rocks.

The tone of writing was punchy and stylized. As an example, here was a fun passage that showed the heat and sexuality of some teenagers:

Now I loved Poppa but I hated the way he cock-blocked. Every teenage girl wants to cut loose and get close to the fire, but I was like a pot of boiling milk with the lid on. You know that’s ready to explode and slide down the side of the pan.

Although the writing was animated throughout the book, the plot in the middle did become dull. Fortunately, that only lasted for about fifty pages and, by the end of the book, I was completely immersed again in Winter’s story.

Souljah has been explicit that she wrote this book with particular messages in mind. Specifically, she wanted to show that drugs lead to a hopeless path and that young people should apply their talents toward a legal business, and to create role models for black men, women, and families. Souljah’s explicitness of purpose made the book preachy at times. There were literally passages of speeches given by a character named Sister Souljah as she was speaking to a group of people about how to live their lives.

The characters in the book were also unambiguously anti-gay. Seemingly, Souljah shared that view. That made the book seem, at the best, dated and, at the worst, hateful.

The book contained a lot of sex, drugs, and language, and an irresistible story of a person who was trying to get theirs in a world that seemed set against them.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

Senior Critics blog
Salon
YA Books Central

Drink the Tea

Drink the Tea by Thomas Kaufman 9780312607302

publication date: 2010
pages: 294
ISBN: 978-0-312-60730-2

In Drink the Tea, Thomas Kaufman attempted to present a detective story set in Washington, D.C. Generally, his attempt failed. I didn’t care about the mystery, the other parts of the plot, or the characters. Additionally, Kaufman’s writing was generally confusing or ineffective. I will say, his themes and motifs were engaging enough.

The plot followed P.I. Willis Gidney as he searched for his friend’s missing daughter. The plot also contained multiple flashbacks to Gidney’s own tragic childhood, as an orphan in the D.C. system. The plot found Gidney haranguing politicians, bugging government workers, shaking down criminals, lying to cops, scaring innocent civilians, and just generally annoying everyone. This bit of dialogue from the first chapter was a good representation of how irksome Gidney was throughout the entire book:

Steps Jackson leaned across the table and said, “I want you to find my daughter.”
I stared at him, my coffee cup halfway to my lips. “You’ve got a daughter?”
“Why would I ask you to find a daughter I don’t have?” A wave of irritation crossed his face.

Waves of irritation were constantly crossing my face as I was reading this book. Everything was so confusing, from the tiniest detail to entire plot points. Here was an example of a small detail that was confusing and just seemed like lazy writing, from a scene where Gidney was searching an apartment building:

The top floor was the same, until I reached the rear apartment. It looked like it had been lived in more recently, though I couldn’t say how recently. And, unlike the rest of the building, this apartment had been cleaned out, there was nothing in the corners, no trash, no papers. Only some torn black plastic trash bags.

OK. So. Was there trash in the apartment or wasn’t there? And if there was nothing in the apartment, what made Gidney think someone lived there? If the only thing that was in the apartment was trash bags, how in the hell could it look lived in?

Beyond the confusing nature of the writing, it was very stylized and clunky. Here was an example of the author being sarcastic about his own story:

Men and women draped themselves over wrought iron chairs, speaking the poetry of programming code. Two or three male customers were getting pretty steamed up about cryptology and freedom of speech. One of them got so angry that he actually sloshed coffee over the brim of his cup. Exciting times.

Although I thought the book was pretty bad, there were some things I liked about it. Washington, D.C. was generally presented in a specific and detailed way, as though it was a character in itself. And some of Kaufman’s writing was effective. I liked this passage that occurred after Gidney was arrested:

[The guard] said, “This way.”
Meaning, follow me, asshole, down this long, musty green hallway that smells like piss with these sickly green fluorescent lights that flicker and strobe and into this changeless dungeon a city block long where you can breathe the same air you breathed twenty years ago and see the same faces staring at you as you walk the hallway and have the same cell you had as a kid and step to the side as the door slides open and without a word walk inside this cell because this is your cell and you know it and maybe you’ll get out soon and maybe you won’t but one thing for sure, the sound of the cell door closing is the loudest, most final sound you’ll ever hear.

This was a detective story without an engaging mystery, surrounded in generally poor writing. Although there were some bright spots, I would not recommend Drink the Tea.

2/6: many problems

other reviews (somehow, people gave the book generally positive reviews):

Mysterious Reviews
Amazon
Goodreads