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

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

Disrupted

Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble by Dan Lyons9780316306089

publication date: 2016
pages: 258
ISBN: 978-0-346-30608-9

Currently, the author Dan Lyons writes for the HBO show Silicon Valley. Five years ago Lyons was the technology editor at Newsweek. For a few years in between, Lyons worked at Boston tech start-up HubSpot. Disrupted chronicled that time.

At one point during the book, Lyons stated that the main purpose of Disrupted was to be funny and provide some entertainment for the reader. There were certainly many parts that were funny, especially because this was all presumably an accurate representation of what actually happened to Lyons while he worked at HubSpot. The book was full of so much corporatespeak and other business world gems. For example, here was Lyons’s explanation of the explicit and written “culture code” of HubSpot:

The culture code asks, “What does it mean to be HubSpotty?” and then defines the meaning of that term explaining a concept that Dharmesh [a cofounder] called HEART, an acronym that stands for humble, effective, adaptable, remarkable, and transparent. These are the traits that HubSpotters must possess in order to be successful. The ultimate HubSpotter is someone who can “make magic” while embodying all five traits of HEART.

There was also this example of one of Lyons’s coworkers:

[She] calls herself a member of the management team even though she has no one reporting to her. “I manage a team of one,” she tells us one day in a department meeting, and by one she is referring to herself.

Sometimes the corporatespeak went beyond eccentricity and self-aggrandizement and became sinister. Whenever someone quit or got fired, management at HubSpot always referred to it as “graduation:”

In my first month at HubSpot I’ve witnessed several graduations, just in the marketing department. . . . Somehow [the employee’s] boss will have arranged his disappearance without anyone knowing about it. . . . Nobody ever talks about the people who graduate, and nobody ever mentions how weird it is to call it “graduation.”

Although Lyons’s writing was often entertaining or enlightening, it was obvious that much of the book was written to give Lyons closure and vindication for working at a place he didn’t understand and hated and that sometimes treated him poorly. Many passages in the book contained personal screeds against HubSpot and the people who worked there.

This defensive and judgmental tone pervaded the book. Here were Lyons’s initial impressions of the people he worked for:

Nine months ago I was the technology editor of Newsweek. In that job I did not even notice people like Zack, or Wingman, or even Cranium. They are the kind of people whose calls I would not return, whose emails I deleted without opening. Even [the founders] were such small fry that I probably would not have taken the time to meet them for coffee, and I certainly would not have written about them. And Zack? Good grief. He’s five years out of college . . . .

The book was interesting and informative, but the whole thing was colored by the author’s screechy and judgmental tone.

3/6: more good than bad

other reviews:

Fortune
New York Times
Venture Beat

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

Yes Please

Yes Please by Amy Poehler

publication date: 2014
pages: 329
ISBN: 978-0-06-226834-1

There was very little joy in this book. There was passion and there were exhortations and exclamation points, but it was as though every paragraph was wrung out of Poehler after much pleading and coaxing. That came across in her writing, and Poehler also admitted as much in her prologue.

That made the book a little hard to read at times. I found myself wondering why she wrote certain passages or why I was reading them. For example, Poehler included a chapter about her divorce, but she prefaced it with:

I don’t want to talk about my divorce because it is too sad and too personal. I also don’t like people knowing my shit. I will say a few things.

If you don’t want to talk about your divorce or other personal things, why write this chapter at all? In fact, why write a memoir?

I also did not always find Poehler likable or relatable. She could be very judgmental and egocentric. This is how she talked about New York City post-9/11:

It was a tough time to join [Saturday Night Live]. It felt like America might not ever smile, never mind laugh, again. . . . I had to attempt to do comedy in a city that was battered and still on fire, while avoiding being killed by the ANTHRAX that had been sent to the floors below us.

Of course, a book, and a narrator, does not have to be likeable or relatable to be good or effective. And Poehler was often effective. The theme of the book was to accept life, experience, and fun as it comes to you and, generally, do what you want. Reading the book made me want to do that. It made me want to follow my dreams, and stand up for myself, and have an Amy Poehler in my friend group. (According to Poehler, “a key element of being [her] friend is being comfortable with [her] forced fun,” which sounds awesome.)

The book contained a lot of sincere advice and beautiful insights. For example, she reminded us that “other people are not medicine.” There’s also this great line that I loved:

People are their most beautiful when they are laughing, crying, dancing, playing, telling the truth, and being chased in a fun way.

The book was also pretty funny. For example, Poehler described her writing style like this:

I have told people that writing this book has been like brushing away dirt from a fossil. What a load of shit. It has been like hacking away at a freezer with a screwdriver.

Poehler wasn’t as good a writer as her contemporaries, like Tina Fey or Mindy Kaling, but her writing, though inconsistent, resonated and often delighted.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

New York Times
Boston Globe
Bonjour, Elly

Fever Pitch

Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby

publication date: 1992
pages: 247
ISBN: 0-575-05315-1

As someone who has not watched a lot of soccer (or “football”) and has never watched British football and, in fact, cannot even name a single current football player, I don’t know if I’m the best person to review this book. Fever Pitch was Nick Hornby’s first published book, and it followed his obsession with Arsenal, a British football team, from the late 1960s to the date of the book’s publication, 1992.

There was so much about this book I didn’t understand. The British idioms alone had me frequently checking Google. I’m still not quite sure what a “scouser” is. Additionally, there were elementary football references that I didn’t appreciate. Hornby often mentioned “Hillsborough,” a 1989 disaster wherein an overcrowded football stadium resulted in a crushing mob and the death of 96 people. I kept expecting Hornby to explain the situation but he never really did, presumably because he expected his reader to know what Hillsborough was. I eventually looked it up on Wikipedia after the fifth mention. Finally, there were dozens and dozens of obscure football tidbits that I didn’t even bother to research. Here’s a sample sentence:

I experienced the big things – the pain of loss (Wembley ’68 and ’72), joy (the Double year), thwarted ambition (the European Cup quarter-final against Ajax), love (Charlie George) and ennui (most Saturdays, really) – only at Highbury.

However, there was much about the book I did understand. Hornby was a funny, engaging writer who attempted to impart something about humanity but realized that football could only take him so far. In Hornby’s words, “in some ways, football isn’t a very good metaphor for life at all.” As Hornby reflected on his own life, he was able to discover insights about the modern experience:

The white south of England middle-class Englishman and woman is the most rootless creature on Earth; we would rather belong to any other community in the world. Yorkshiremen, Lancastrians, Scots, the Irish, blacks, the rich, the poor, even Americans and Australians have something they can sit in pubs and bars and weep about, songs to sing, things they can grab for and squeeze hard when they feel like it, but we have nothing, or at least nothing we want. Hence the phenomenon of mock-belonging, whereby pasts and backgrounds are manufactured and massaged in order to provide some kind of acceptable cultural identity.

Hornby also discussed his own conflicted relationship with the object of his obsession and his own past in funny and relatable passages.

One of the most interesting portions of the book was its discussion of the more sordid aspects of football. For example, he discussed some of the apparent racism found in football, such as the first time he went to a game and fans threw bananas on the field:

Those who have seen John Barnes, this beautiful, elegant man, play football, or give an interview, or even simply walk out on to a pitch, and have also stood next to the grunting, overweight, orang-utans who do things like throw bananas and make monkey noises, will appreciate the dazzling irony of all this.

Hornby admittedly had an intense love-hate relationship with football and his frank but decidedly subjective views were interesting.

This book started Hornby’s writing career and was very well-received. I imagine that any Arsenal fan would enjoy it. And maybe anyone who is a fan of anything would enjoy it, too. For all I know, any British person would find it clever and relatable. However, I can only really recommend this to someone who loves sports. And maybe only someone who loves soccer. And maybe only specifically British soccer.

3/6: more good than bad

other reviews of the book:

guthikonda
Dappered
The Sports Book Review