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

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

OUTsider

OUTsider by Ruth Marimo41mh4gjqj7l-_sx321_bo1204203200_

publication date: 2014
pages: 248
ISBN: 978-0-9895868-0-1

This book had two things going for it: a heartfelt and genuine tone and a thought-provoking account of a person not often represented in the media.

OUTsider was the autobiography of Ruth Marimo, a gay, undocumented immigrant activist originally born in Zimbabwe. The book detailed her struggles of being an orphan in Zimbabwe, the confusing events that led to her living in America at nineteen without a status, her abusive marriage, and her self-discovery as a lesbian and an activist.

Marimo was very open about much of her life, including her struggles with her sexuality, her noxious relationship, and her status as an undocumented immigrant. That sincerity and candor was often effective, as in this passage from shortly after Marimo arrived in the States:

At first, I was very alarmed and upset that I had come to this country so ill prepared. I had not been treated well, and I had to work real hard for everything I had.
I was nineteen.
I was a kid.
For the past year, I had fended for myself so far away from home and from any assistance. Now, with my predicament, I simply had to do whatever I could to survive. I shopped for all my clothes at the Goodwill . . . .

The ardent nature of the writing and the important subject matter, especially surviving a physically abusive relationship, was enough to recommend the book. However, the book had some problems.

The writing was self-indulgent, like a journal or diary, as though Marimo was using the writing process to work through her own problems. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with using writing as a tool, but then don’t sell the book to others as something that would interest them.

Also, the writing could be very disorienting. Parts were contradictory, from the smallest lines to entire passages. As just one small example, early in the book, Marimo said she was “really in love” with a young woman named Belinda when she was around 16. Then, only nine sentences later, she said she fell in love with a young man named Masimba at 17, and this “was the first time I was truly in love with someone.” Entire sections contained these kinds of contradictions, which made the book confusing to read and lessened its effectiveness.

Additionally, Marimo did not have a coherent thesis beyond just the importance of her story and stories like hers. That was enough of a thesis for me, but the book seemingly strove for a more actionable thesis, and failed.

The book was a quick read and contained many illuminating passages about Marimo’s life and experience.

4/6: worth reading

Other reviews:

goodreads
Amazon

Bastards of the Reagan Era

Bastards of the Reagan Era by Reginald Dwayne Betts9781935536659

publication date: 2016
pages: 68
ISBN: 978-1-935536-65-9

This poetry collection chronicled Betts’s time in the 1980s and 90s during the “crack epidemic” and as an inmate in prison. He took a direct and nuanced look at the tangles of the drug war in cities at that time. The significance of the title seemed to be two-fold: first, he felt his community was complicit in the explosion of drug use that happened at that time, and the consequences of that complicity:

It take a nation of millions to hold / us back? Well they got that. We got that too. / Hands around our throat. Before you suffocate / your own fool self. Father forgive. . .

The second aspect of the title was the role the government and society at large played:

Death reinvented when red / was the curse of men born black / and lost in a drama Reagan read / as war: crack vials and cash and red / in our eyes and we not still / with a pocket full of stones.

The poems were generally focused on a few major themes: selling drugs, the inner city, and prison life. Many of the poems were labeled as elegies, including “Elegy Where a City Burns,” which contained these lines:

They wake / young & bound by count time & chow call, / burning in purgatory / where there is no rest. / & their lives: music, that same / melody —, / where prison is the imitation of life.

These forceful and repeated themes were present throughout and seemed to be focused around a thesis, possibly summed up in these lines:

We were all running down demons with our / Chests out, fists squeezed to hammers and I was / Like them, unwilling to admit one thing: / On some days I just needed my father.

The language, rhythm, and imagery of the poems was usually striking and rarely fell flat. One of my favorite poems was about a game of street football with these lines:

Touchdowns are as rare as angels / & when the boy turns his body, / the RIP shirt slants against the wind, / & there is a moment when he is not / weighed down by gravity, when / he owns the moment before he crashes / into the other boys’ waiting arms & they / all look like a dozen mannequins, / controlled by the spinning sneaker / strings of the dead boys above them.

These poems focused on a subject matter not often found in published poetry and the author crafted his thought and concepts wonderfully.

5/6: seek this book out

Other reviews:

New York Times
Rhizomatic Ideas
Muzzle Magazine

The Center Cannot Hold

The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness by Elyn R. Saks 9781401301385

publication date: 2007
pages: 346
ISBN: 978-1-4013-0138-5

Elyn Saks is a very intelligent, driven woman. She graduated from Oxford in England and Yale Law School in Connecticut. She is also a tenured legal professor at USC and a psychoanalyst. She has also championed for the rights of those declared incompetent or incapacitated personally and by writing books on the subject and appearing on television. But perhaps most impressively, she accomplished all this while living with the mental illness of schizophrenia.

In her autobiography, The Center Cannot Hold, Saks details her struggle with her mental illness. Starting with her night terrors as a young child, her first experience with delusional thoughts and voices as a teenager, her hospitalization while at Oxford in England, her much more confining and destructive hospitalization while at Yale in America, and, finally, her diagnosis.

Throughout all this, Saks gives very thorough descriptions of what was happening inside her head. For example, her description of her first experience with delusional thoughts:

I began to realize that the houses I was passing were sending message to me: Look closely. You are special. You are especially bad. Look closely and ye shall find. There are many things you must see. See. See.

I didn’t hear these words as literal sounds, as though the houses were talking and I were hearing them; instead, the words just came into my head – they were ideas I was having. Yet I instinctively knew they were not my ideas. They belonged to the houses, and the houses had put them in my head.

The book also contains several thought-provoking passages on questions concerning identity, body, and mind. For example:

Intelligence, combined with discipline, could overcome any challenge. And mostly, that belief had served me well. The problem was, it assumed that the intelligence at hand was fully functional, fully capable – but I’d been told by experts that my brain had serious problems. Was my brain the same thing as my mind? Could I hang onto the one while conceding that there was a big flaw in the other?

Clearly, Saks is a smart, reflective, admirable woman; but, she is not necessarily an author. The book is sometimes dry and boring and is riddled with pacing issues. She would focus on one moment or experience for paragraphs and then skip over entire parts of her life. However, her willingness to delve into the uncommon and often bleak aspects of her mind and illness made the book generally engaging.

The illness of schizophrenia is still often met with fear and misunderstanding. Therefore, this book is important and meaningful simply as an example of a successful product of a schizophrenic mind. Saks adds further meaning by conveying her illness, and her life, with such honesty and contemplation.

4/6: worth reading

Other reviews of The Center Cannot Hold:

SFGate
Psy Blog
Lit And Life

Life Itself

Life Itself: A Memoir by Roger Ebert

pages: 415
publication date: 2011
ISBN: 978-0-446-58497-5

I was late to learn about the rich and varied life led by film critic Roger Ebert. Of course I was familiar with the thumbs-up/thumbs-down system he created with Gene Siskel to rate movies. But beyond that, I didn’t know much. I didn’t know about his extensive body of written work. I also didn’t know that his bout with cancer in 2006 left him unable to speak, eat, or drink. After he passed away in April of this year, the Internet was brimming with tributes and memorials about Ebert. Many of these contained excerpts from his memoir, Life Itself. The excerpts were always winsome and charming. So I decided to pick up his memoir and read it in full. (By the way, although the subtitle of Life Itself is “A Memoir,” the book reads more like an autobiography than a memoir.)

Although the excerpts I had read were captivating and inviting, the book as a whole fell somewhat flat. First of all, Ebert was an unabashed list-er. He listed everything from the TV shows he watched with his father to people he interviewed and later became friends with. And if Ebert was a consummate lister, I am a consummate list-skimmer. So, whenever a passage contained a list, my mind went on auto-pilot until I noticed that blessed serial comma and focused on Ebert’s writing again. Also, the book contained a lot of material about celebrities and other members of the Hollywood crowd. Many of the people Ebert discussed I had never heard of, but even when I had, I didn’t really care that they drank Heinekens or had mommy issues. These incidental details would give Life Itself a sodden, plodding feel.

The book was at its best during the chapters when Ebert described his own life and feelings. In the first chapter, Ebert is describing his childhood home and running up and down the hallway from the living room to his bedroom. The passage is personal, yet universal. Ebert explains that he returned to his childhood home years later and “saw that the hallway was only a few yards long. I got the feeling I sometimes have when reality realigns itself. It’s a tingling sensation moving like a wave through my body. I know the feeling precisely.” In another similarly satisfying passage, Ebert is discussing the conversations he has with an old friend. Ebert says, “Our conversations all take place in the present tense. We are always meeting for the first time. When you’re young you don’t realize that at every age you are always in the present, and in that sense no older.” The passages like these – the personal, reflective, inquisitive passages – were what gave the book life and wonder.

Life Itself has a lot to offer. Readers who are movie buffs, fans of Ebert, or who enjoy reading about celebrities will find a lot to love in the pages of Life Itself. And Ebert’s prose is often bright and funny. As someone who seemingly lived a life full of travel, melancholy, love, and adventure, Ebert had a lot of wisdom to impart to anyone willing to read his works.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

Entertainment Weekly
National Post
npr