Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

Born a Crime: Stories From a South African ChildhoodBorn a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What an incredible piece of writing this book is. Noah has filled Born a Crime with stories which are almost surreal (to a white first-worlder). As if that wasn’t enough, he lards his writing with insightful observations on racism, poverty, classism, sexism, and human nature. As if it wasn’t enough of a miracle that he exists, he rises above the circumstances of his poverty-stricken childhood to become an intelligent, well-known, and (hopefully) wealthy television personality. He stomped that cycle into the ground.

Noah gives credit where credit is due, however. He didn’t achieve all this by his own will. His mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, is a powerhouse of a woman who refuses to let anything stop her from achieving what she wants. She molds Trevor into a decent human being out of willpower and…well, beatings. Noah explains and excuses it, and has a wonderful relationship with his mother, but child abuse is a thing in this story. As is spousal abuse, gun violence, sexism, and the consistent abuse of power by the police. Apartheid is so much more horrifying than I could have guessed, and it left a legacy that influenced every person in the country. Noah keeps the book upbeat even while relating stories of being arrested, hustling pirated CDs, and navigating the discriminatory culture he was being raised in. Until the end of the book. The third segment gets progressively darker, chronicling his time in jail and his stepfather’s abuse of Noah’s mother, until it will be a wonder if you are not in tears. There’s a happy ending, but trust me when I say you’ve got to walk across some hot coals to get to it. In my humble opinion, it was worth it. I’m glad I read this book.

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The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin

The Left Hand of DarknessThe Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sometimes it seems like all of my book reviews start off this way, but The Left Hand of Darkness was not what I was expecting. It begins with political intrigue swirling around a clueless ambassador, and slugglishly morphs into a polar expedition that would make Shackleton proud. Emphasis on slugglishly. I didn’t get really drawn in to the plot until after the first 100 pages. This edition is only 300 pages long. That’s a lot of slogging for not a lot of payoff. Even if this book is practically legendary now. The world of Gethen and its nuanced cultures, religions, and governments certainly merits praise. Though I wish things were more fleshed out. There’s a lot of vocabulary to puzzle through and not quite enough contextual clues to easily unpuzzle it. I’d speculate that what really made this story famous are the Gethenians themselves. This is the first story I’ve ever read where the characters are ambi-sexual. It’s fascinatingly done. Like human women, the Gethenians have a monthly hormonal/sexual/reproductive cycle. Unlike humans, during the reproductive portion of each cycle a Gethenian may become either male or female. And perhaps the opposite during the next cycle. One may father children, then mother children. There are no rigid sexual roles. They may vow fidelity or not, as they please, and neither choice is praised or denigrated. For a book published in the 1960s, The Left Hand of Darkness is ground breaking. With so much flexibility in genders, it’s a little difficult to determine if this book passes the Bechdel test. Anyone not actively female is referred to as “he.” There are no homosexual relationships. There’s mentions of incest, but only from the perspective of equal consenting adults. Minimal violence. Almost no gore. As befits a tale of political intrigue, Le Guin has written in forcible confinement and drugging too. It’s quite the package, and if the beginning hadn’t been so boring I would have given this book five stars. Should you be bored and bookless one day, consider The Left Hand of Darkness.

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Tomboy Survival Guide by Ivan Coyote

Tomboy Survival GuideTomboy Survival Guide by Ivan E. Coyote
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Coyote grew up in Yukon Territory through the 1970s and 1980s, in a small, unnamed town. Their survival guide is full of intriguing diagrams wherein the parts are labelled but the machines are not, and it occurred to me perhaps these mysterious items are allegories for Coyote and other transgender individuals, for how this book describes their lives. To anyone who already knows what these machines are, everything in the diagrams is obvious. What it is. What it does. But because the machines aren’t always named, you can study the picture and learn all the names for the components and still not know what the item itself is supposed to do. You can learn everything there is to know about someone, about a transgender individual; read all the little labels telling you all the little details, and still not understand what their lives are like because you haven’t walked around in their skin and lived it, and how well can we ever really know another person?

But maybe I’m reading too much in to it. Maybe a diagram is just a diagram. Maybe they’re just there because this is a book for tomboys, and equipment is a manly man thing.

Tomboy Survival Guide balances tales of growing up in a rural Northern community with a more cosmopolitan adulthood, and splits both of those with the hardship of being transgender. There are original song lyrics (with chords; I didn’t try playing anything), poems, copies of letters they receive from people all over the continent asking how they can bring themselves to write about these personal, painful memories and how do the writers relate to their transgender relative and how do the writers survive their very un-trans-friendly high school? Coyote writes back. Eventually. Sometimes it takes a few months to come up with the right words to say. They are as helpful and hopeful as possible, but frequently the letters are sad. And Coyote’s own stories are often painful. There’s discrimination, hatred, ignorance, the endless bathroom debate (can we just have gender neutral bathrooms already? Like we do in houses? Or for families? Or for disabled people?), rampant sexism, threats, and sexual assault. There are many happy stories too. I actually wanted more memories and fewer poems and songs. The personal anecdotes are engaging, hilarious, and eye opening. Whereas I found the poems and other tidbits didn’t resonate with anywhere near the same intensity. I even liked the equipment diagrams better. But the songs did serve to break up reminiscences from disparate time periods and add some levity between bleaker stories, so I can see why they may have been included. And hey, if you want more of Coyote’s stories, they’ve got more books.

*edited to reflect Coyote’s use of they/their pronouns, with thanks to the individual who corrected me.

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The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

The Age of InnocenceThe Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Once I got into this book, I completely devoured it. While typically I shy from romance, I found myself entranced by Newland Archer’s secret love for Countess Ellen Olenska. Wharton masterfully represents the constraints society imposed on its members, and the slavish, blind devotion so many of them had to maintaining those standards. Their willingness to accept and keep male adulterers in their glittering circles, thrown against their rejection of the countess for escaping a monster of a husband, illuminates the separate standards held up as acceptable behavior for men and women. It did my heart good to hear Newland proclaiming that “women ought to be free, as free as we are,” even if his generosity of spirit mainly stems from his love of the Countess. Few people come out of this novel looking good. It was equal parts amusing and disturbing to watch the characters in the story completely reverse their attitudes and behavior towards Ellen after Newland persuades a few of the wealthiest families to accept her into their circles. Their thoughtless rejection of her at the beginning is only slightly more reprehensible than their mindless acceptance of her a few chapters later. Decisions are rarely made after rational thought. Why think? The only acceptable behavior is exactly what everyone else is doing. Someone is constantly bemoaning the collapse of society or quivering in horror over a new trend in acceptable social behavior, an attitude not unlike the one we frequently see today. It’s rarely accompanied by an articulate explanation of just how these new attitudes are ruining humanity, or why keeping these arbitrary barriers in place is so vital to the survival of mankind. Nearly 100 years after it was first published, The Age of Innocence is as relevant as when Wharton first wrote it. I wonder what she would say to us today?

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The Children’s Book by AS Byatt

The Children's BookThe Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An impressive work of staggering vastness that would have definitely added Byatt to the canon of world-class authors if Possession hadn’t already won her a place. The story begins in 1895 and focuses on the two Wellwood families and their friends the Cains, to which Byatt adds the Fludds, Warrens, and Sterns, and an assortment of supporting characters. And because that’s not quite enough she adds in an overview of events in Europe at the beginning of each era in her book. Every page is a glut of evocative description. Grief, passion, anger, love. Landscapes, furniture, pottery, jewellery, plays. All expertly delineated. Her characters write stories and plays within the context of the book, and these are reproduced in it, an execution I’ve always loved. Byatt is an incredible author whose creative genius has yet to fail to impress.

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The Awakening by Kate Chopin

The AwakeningThe Awakening by Kate Chopin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Completely magnificent. It breaks my heart that Chopin only wrote two novels, The Awakening and At Fault, and a few stories which were published in magazines; there’s so little to read! I adore the simplicity of her writing. Her relaxed tone. The way she loops descriptive passages from the beginning of the novel into its end, giving the story a rounded completeness. And the phenomenal depth and complexity of her female characters. Women who revel in traditional gender roles, women who’ve cast them unabashedly aside, and women who aren’t sure what they want. And it was written in 1899! One hundred years later and we’re still writing books that don’t have the same level of female character complexity as The Awakening.

However, because this book was written in 1899 the terminology used for people of colour is not what we would use today and may be disturbing to some readers. There’s very little racist behaviour in the text itself, especially considering the time of its publication, but the terms are assertively antiquated. I’ve definitely read worse, and worse written more recently. Just so you’re fully aware. Though I realize it’s impossible, I want everyone to appreciate this book as much as I did. In my humble opinion it is a gem of literary achievement.

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The Myth of Monogamy: Fidelity and Infidelity in Animals and People by David Philip Barash

The Myth of Monogamy: Fidelity and Infidelity in Animals and PeopleThe Myth of Monogamy: Fidelity and Infidelity in Animals and People by David Philip Barash
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Originally published March 1st, 2013
This book will make absolutely enthralling reading…in another ten years. I feel like we’re riding a whole wave of new research in sexuality, history and psychology; and this book was just written 10 years too early. There’s tonnes of information, but it can be read in so many different ways and interpreted in so many different ways that it’s extremely difficult to draw conclusions. And which, for the most part, title nonwithstanding, the authors don’t do. They offer suggestions, make connections, point out flaws and issues, but there’s nothing solid anywhere. And if solid is what you’re looking for, you’re about 10 years too early.

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Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Their Eyes Were Watching GodTheir Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Originally published July 6th, 2014
I have a confession to make: I felt morally obligated to like this book and when I started reading it I was worried I wasn’t going to. I had a tough time with the language at first, until I started reading it aloud in my head. That was when everything started to click into place and I began enjoying the book. By the end I loved it and Janie, her courage and practicality. And I felt grateful to Hurston for writing the book, having the skill and knowledge to take people to a world most of them will have never experienced, and walk them around in it.

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The Good Women of China by Xinran

The Good Women of ChinaThe Good Women of China by Xinran
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Originally published November 3rd, 2014
“Gender issues” is such a weak term for the subject of this book. I keep coming back to a quote at the beginning from reviewer Jan Wong: “Mao said, ‘Women hold up half of heaven.’ Sadly, this remarkable book demonstrates that he was wrong. Women in China actually hold up half of hell. Xinran has written the first realistic portrayal of women in China. Read it, and weep.”

I wish I could tell you Wong was being overly dramatic. I wish I had any sort of assurance that things were better now. But these stories span decades. Generations. Many of them from the late 80’s. And one of the things I have learned as a woman in a male-dominated field is that the group with the power is loathe to open their eyes to the hardship their actions cause others, and even slower to admit fault. Meaningful change is glacial even in countries where the press and populace are free. How much longer will change take in a country where the rules are so different and dissidence is punishable by death?

It doesn’t seem right to give this book a star rating, as if I could assess the enjoyment I had reading it and that should be the gauge of its value. It’s simple, straight-forward, clear, and with my limited expertise I would say both author Xinran and translator Tyldesley did good work creating the English version of this book. On those aspects I would give it four stars. But that’s kind of like giving a star rating to the (hospital) birth of your first child based on how tasty the food and how comfortable the bed. It touches on some aspects of the experience but completely misses the point. There are some experiences that are unquantifiable. This was one of them.

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Staking Her Claim: Women Homesteading the West by Marcia Meredith Hensley

Staking Her Claim: Women Homesteading the WestStaking Her Claim: Women Homesteading the West by Marcia Meredith Hensley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Originally published October 11th, 2015
The easy-going language and candor of the writers made this a heart-warming read. My personal favourites were the sections of memoirs and biographies towards the end of the book, as they offered the most complete pictures of the authors’ lives and experiences. Hensley does minimal editing on the accounts, so you get the full pleasure of each woman’s individual voice as if you are speaking with them personally. Reading this book was a wonderful experience and I have a whole new crop of heroes for support now.

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