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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Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish

Preparation for the Next LifePreparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Preparation for the Next Life received many five star reviews on Goodreads. People raved about it. Wretched protagonists Zou Lei and Brad Skinner start an unlikely romance – she’s an undocumented immigrant, he’s a traumatised war vet – after meeting in a decrepit basement noodle shop. The writing is sparse, the sentences are simple, and every word is crushingly depressing. Lei and Skinner barely scrape by. The landscape is one of endless garbage and graffiti, rot and refuse. Attempts at progress end in failure, when they’re undertaken at all. Supporting characters exist only to undermine their plans and drag them back down. The whole novel is a bucket full of crabs, except someone has thrown in weapons. Graphic violence proliferates. Sexual coercion, rape, and the threat of rape are frequent themes. Brad’s relationship with Zou Lei verges on abusive, and while he’s presented in a sympathetic light and the problems are shown to stem from the emotional, physical, and psychological trauma he endured in Iraq – and for which the army refuses to treat him – I had a hard time seeing this as an “unsentimental love story” as The New York Times describes it on the cover. I kept thinking of Lolita. It’s constantly described as a romance, but is really a horrifying story of kidnapping and child abuse. The unrelieved despair soaking from every page made the ending almost cathartic; there finally seemed like the smallest chance that luck was changing. When you live right on the margin of society, dull stability is a dream come true. Glorious triumph? Not so much.

Because of the subject matter, violence, and overall heartcrushingness of the plot, I found this to be a very emotionally draining book. It’s definitely well written. The story is unique. But I’m recommending it with heavy caveats. Tread carefully.

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King Kwong: Larry Kwong, the China Clipper Who Broke the NHL Colour Barrier by Paula Johanson

King Kwong: Larry Kwong, the China Clipper who Broke the NHL colour BarrierKing Kwong: Larry Kwong, the China Clipper who Broke the NHL colour Barrier by Paula Johanson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Full disclosure: I received this free ebook in exchange for a review.

One minute. That’s how long Larry Kwong was physically on the ice in that earth shattering hockey game all those years ago. Sixty seconds of the third period. Kwong and another teammate, Ronnie Rowe, were called up from the New York Ranger’s farm team – the New York Rovers – to substitute for a couple of regular players who were out with injuries. Rowe played nearly the entire game. By all accounts, Kwong was the better player. He played on many teams throughout his life and consistently led in points scored per game. Such was his sportsmanship that he rarely got a penalty. Kwong spent over a decade in Europe, helping develop the Swiss Hockey League. He taught sports at a Catholic girls’ school in Lausanne, ran a restaurant in Quebec and a grocery chain in Alberta, survived two triple-bypasses and losing both legs to diabetes. Kwong was married twice and outlived both wives. In spite of constant discrimination he forged a career playing hockey professionally. One of the first things he did with the money was to build his mother the house he had always promised her. That’s not even the whole biography! Just some highlights. I can’t believe I had never heard of Larry Kwong before.

As a whole, this biography is pretty straightforward. A few spots where the timeline seemed muddled or jumped too quickly forwards; Kwong goes from being a 66 year old tennis and hockey player to an 80 year old losing his legs to diabetes with hardly a blink. There are a couple of places where the editing leaves something to be desired. Missing letters, erratic punctuation, changing tenses, the lost end of a sentence, that sort of thing. Johanson sets down a good baseline of the political climate in Canada during Kwong’s lifetime. There were some horribly racist laws well into his adulthood that dramatically influenced his hockey career. And many other areas of his life. Again, most people are familiar with some of the laws (the head tax, for one), but there were many more. While this is a wonderful book and an uplifting story, the constant discrimination makes some parts hard to read. I have no idea how Kwong was able to constantly be the bigger person in the face of these attitudes. According to the friends and team mates interviewed throughout this book, he “handled each and every situation with class and dignity.” (61) It takes a special kind of person to be able to do that. Kwong is that kind of person.

“Superstar is not enough to describe Kwong.” – Baz Shaw, The Longest Shot. Truer words may have never been spoken.

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Beloved by Toni Morrison

BelovedBeloved by Toni Morrison
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Skin. It features heavily in this book. Things done to it. Things done because of it. The feel of it. This book will get under your skin. There is frequent, graphic violence. But it’s a book set in the mid-1800s as slavery finally starts to stumble, and if you weren’t white, horrific brutality or the threat of it was essentially a daily occurrence. I’m torn between wishing I could forget the images in this book and being grateful that I read it because I believe it’s important to remember that there were people who were treated this way. That while this book is technically historical fiction, it’s based in historical fact.

Aside from etching itself into your brain because of the violence, this book is also impressively done. Morrison has created magnificent characters, complex and powerful. She sets things up so that despite knowing at the beginning that little Beloved has died at her mother’s hands, the ending still comes as a surprise. There’s poetry and prose. Morrison “melds horror and beauty in a story that will disturb the mind forever” – Sunday Times. She’s made the black people the characters, white people the punch cards slid in and out of a machine that generates violence. The handle of a slot machine that may spit out a win, but is more likely to spit out death. It’s an interesting reversal of focus. We see and know everything each black character knows. The white ones are automatons. Mostly unfathomable. They just do what they are going to do and you can’t predict it or prevent it, only react to it. Why even think about them? Think about the people struggling to survive in a world like that. Think about the children.

“The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness.” – Joseph Conrad

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The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

The Satanic VersesThe Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Definitely one of the strangest reading experiences I’ve had to date. This is the fourth Salman Rushdie book I’ve read and I’ve come to the conclusion that I just don’t appreciate his writing. Which is unfortunate, because he’s very good. His work is descriptive and complex, with these long involved sentences which wind around you like a slightly malevolent, parasitic vine. But for some reason it all just leaves me feeling cold. It’s a personal failing, I guess.

Verses is an exercise in memory. You’ve got to keep track of everything that happens, every character and tidbit because Rushdie is going to work them all in again later on. It will also help if you have a thorough understanding of Islamic history, Indian history, and maybe brush up on current events from the time too, just in case? Riots factor in to the plot of the novel at one point, and I found myself wondering if Rushdie had invented them or was pulling from the evening news. It may have been a little of both, I could see him taking an actual riot and tweaking parts of it for the effect he wanted.

This novel was infamous when I was growing up. I remember seeing it mentioned constantly in news articles and magazines, banned in this country or that one as obscene. After its publication Rushdie spent just over a decade living under an alias, sharing secret houses with body guards and moving constantly, because the British government deemed the threat against him was that serious. Rushdie writes eloquently of this time in his memoir Joseph Anton, the name he took while living under the fatwa. It disturbs me to think that someone could write a work of fiction, even an offensive one, and have their life be endangered. Rushdie questions the origins of the Islamic religion and in return some question his right to keep breathing. How heartbreaking to think that there are people so terrified by dissension they will kill someone else to stop it. I’m a big fan of tolerance and acceptance for opposing viewpoints, but how do you tolerate someone who wants you to die because the things you think aren’t the same as the things they think? Or even worse, someone who wants you to die because somebody else told them that’s what they should want. Read the book! Be offended, if you find it offensive! But no killing. No death threats.

As a final aside, having read The Satanic Verses after Joseph Anton I kept seeing Chamcha as Rushdie himself, in a bizarre prediction of what his own life would become after Verses was published; he starts out plummeting towards the earth and spends the rest of the story struggling to put his life back together. I’d really recommend reading them both together because it adds so much more to the books when you have the background, and the similarities between the plot of Verses and Rushdie’s life after its publication are quite…novel. Assuming Rushdie didn’t fictionalize his memoir to play up those aspects, it’s very ironic that he almost became one of the characters from his own books. But please don’t take my word for it. Read it yourself. Read them both yourself, and make up your own mind.

PS: While I didn’t think very highly of Joseph Anton when I first read it, having finished Verses I find I appreciate it more now. The additional backstory is worth the extra effort.

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Go Down, Moses by William Faulkner

Go Down, MosesGo Down, Moses by William Faulkner
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Originally published September 29th, 2013
I. Give. Up. I made it 76% of the way through this book, and I have no intention of spending more time trying to finish it. Dear Mr. Faulkner, I promise you there is no shortage of periods! You can put one or two more into your writing without worrying that there won’t be any left for your future novels. I just can’t grasp what he’s saying. The colloquialisms befuddled me, the characters’ complicated family entanglements gave me a headache. It took me forever to conclude Tennie’s Jim was a man, and not someone’s pet. I’m still not sure what a Turl is. I’m sure Faulkner has submerged a wealth of meaning just out of my grasp, and if I were taking a course on it I would appreciate it. But I’m not grasping the meaning, and I’ve got other books to read with my time.

Those of you who’ve read a few of my posts will have probably gathered that I just don’t appreciate Faulkner. (I gave him a chance. I really did.) I admire his writing, and I could see possibly enjoying a collection of short stories where I don’t have to hold all that crap in my head for a whole novel, but his full length stories just don’t do it for me. And since there are more books in the world than any one person could possibly read in several lifetimes, I am making an effort to only spend my limited time on ones that I enjoy.

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Village of the Small Houses: A Memoir of Sorts by Ian Ferguson

Village Of The Small Houses: A Memoir Of SortsVillage Of The Small Houses: A Memoir Of Sorts by Ian Ferguson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Originally published on February 16th, 2013
Sad. And cute. But mostly sad. A tragi-comedy, where even the funny parts make you a little unhappy. And whenever I read these slightly fictionalized/embellished accounts of people’s childhoods, I always find myself wondering what they tweaked, and why, and what was true. What actually happened? Why did they feel the need to make their life story more intriguing or dramatic? It seems to me that fictionalizing your history has become much more common (or maybe it’s because I’m reading more biographies now). I used to think that biographies were supposed to be all true. At least to the best of the author’s ability. But maybe they were always embellished, and we’re just open about it now?

Also, I noticed lately I love everything I read. Hopefully that won’t invalidate my opinion; it’s much more enjoyable to read books you love than to force yourself to finish one you hate. Which is what I used to do, and finally was able to stop got better at. But, in the interests of fairness I’ll try to review something I hate. Or at least was only moderately fond of. I don’t want people assuming I automatically and thoughtlessly love everything I read.

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Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

AmericanahAmericanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Originally published March 22nd, 2014
I am not going to be able to do this book justice with my review. I suspected that before I started reading it and now that I’m finished the realization kind of curdles my stomach. Because I’d love to be able to write something truly insightful about Adichie’s eye-opening work. Full disclosure: I’m about as white as it gets. If I were any more white I’d be albino. So I don’t know anything about how it feels to be racially discriminated against. Adichie made me feel as though I’d lived it. All the unnoticed slights and dismissals of voice, of personhood. The “White Privilege Test” (p347) Adichie copies? Invents? (I couldn’t help thinking about how easily this test could be slightly tweaked and reused for male privilege.) Ifemelu questions the usefulness of this test as she posts it on her blog, but I could see it. It’s for the people who don’t believe that gender/race-based privilege exists. Because they never question these things. Because these doors already stand open for them, and are rarely pulled shut in their face.

I was expecting more challenges for Ifemelu and Obinze when she came back to Nigeria. The flyleaf claims that when she returns they will face the toughest decisions of their lives. But compared to what Ifemelu went through during her years in America, and Obinze during his years in England, I thought their challenges in Nigeria seemed…not a cakewalk, but nothing more than the ordinary difficulties of two people trying to reunite after decades apart. Although really, how hard-hearted do you have to be to complain that someone’s life isn’t difficult enough? Even a fictional character.

It struck me as though Adichie was running out of time to end the story. That America had sprawled so far across what she expected it to take up that she had to cut space out of Africa to fit it all in. Not that I felt unsatisfied with the ending. Just that I assumed Ifemelu’s return to Nigeria would be given equal weight to her time in America, and it wasn’t. The difficulties were pared down and simplified as though Adichie suspected her readers would remember them all from Ifemelu’s last cross-continent move, and she didn’t want to waste the space repeating herself. It wasn’t as difficult for Ifemelu to settle back in to her Nigerian self as I thought it might be. I guess this would be where I put in a corny line about taking the Nigerian out of Nigeria but not getting the Nigeria out of the Nigerian? That seems like it would be a waste of time.

I kind of hope this book shows up on secondary/post-secondary reading lists across the continent. I think that would be good for everyone.

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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 Orenda by Joseph Boyden

The OrendaThe Orenda by Joseph Boyden
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Originally published January 4th, 2015
The Orenda. It’s hard to start a book knowing in advance there is no happy ending. At first, I didn’t think I would be able to finish this book. I have a hard time with torture, violence, or gore. All appear here in spades. Eventually it seemed to get less painful, and I’m assuming that I just became numb to it. Consider yourself warned if you have a weak stomach, and keep the tissues close by while reading this book. But do read it. Boyden has done a masterful job recreating the world of the Iroquois, Huron, and Jesuit missionaries from Canada’s earliest days. Even knowing in advance what the overall end of the story would be, I couldn’t put down the book. It was heart-breaking reading about these incredible people and their beautiful culture and knowing you were watching the beginning of the end unfold in front of you, with no way to stop or change it. That even when people tried their best to do good so often the results were further rifts between their cultures that only brought the end closer. It was impressive to resurface from their world and realize Boyden had managed to make characters I really disliked at the beginning sympathetic and admirable, in spite of all their flaws. Without my even noticing he was doing it. Without whitewashing over the serious divisions between them, he still knits them together in a way that felt realistic and true to each character’s self. Amazing.

There isn’t a happy ending for this book, but I can’t quite give up hope that if we work together we can make one for ourselves.

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