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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419 by Will Ferguson

419419 by Will Ferguson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Originally published April 28th, 2013
I can’t decide how I feel about this book. The descriptions of Africa are evocative and dimensional; I could feel the heat and taste grit on my tongue. I definitely didn’t notice the half-page chapters when I was reading it; but then again I only notice chapters if the book is really boring. I did have some issues with plot and character development though.

[Spoiler Alert]
Laura manages to rob Winston with the same scheme he used on her father. While this allows for a reasonably happy ending and a sense of poetic justice, I had a hard time accepting it. Winston wrote email scams all day long. What are the chances he would have been taken in by one? In fact, Laura’s whole revenge plot is so fragile it’s a miracle that she succeeds at all. She manages to fool Winston into believing her and meeting her in Africa. Then she tricks him into letting her meet his parents. And charms his parents into giving her their names, addresses, and letting her take a picture of them all. (I also confused the okada boys who take her back to her hotel after she meets Winston’s parents with the area boys who accosted them earlier. I couldn’t understand why the okada boys didn’t rob her. That baffled me for quite a while.) Furthermore, why did the generous and kind Nnamdi suddenly become so hard-hearted? That he even contemplates killing Laura seems really out of character for him, especially after the risks and sacrifices he took for Amina. His death felt…gratuitous, like he was killed just for the tragedy of it. It irritated me. That might have been mainly because I liked him, and who likes it when their favorite character is killed?
[End Spoiler]

The language was confusing for large portions of the book. What’s an oyibo? Or a mugu? And no, there’s no glossary. That would be too easy. Is there a life-lesson here? Probably, but I’m getting my life-lessons elsewhere. Can I just have the glossary?
It almost feels as if Ferguson didn’t quite know what to turn this book in to, so he tried to make it into a bunch of different things that don’t always sit well together. It’s a mystery, and a socio-political statement, and a travel book, and a police-procedural. Would it have lost anything if there had been less police procedure, and more about Amina? Why is her past left so mysterious, but Nnamdi’s is described in detail? Does Laura really need a love interest? There’s a lot going on, but there are some parts that I think could have been pruned down or left out without hurting the overall story. Too much information is distracting.

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The Complete Short Stories by Ernest Hemingway

The Complete Short StoriesThe Complete Short Stories by Ernest Hemingway
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Originally published June 17th, 2013
I should not have been surprised that a book of short stories by Ernest Hemingway had very few happy endings. It took me a while to get used to it though. Even when I thought the story was going to have a happy ending, Hemingway would throw a wrench at my head on the last page. Surprise! It’s depressing.
Of course, that doesn’t mean they weren’t awesome. Some of my personal favorites were “One Trip Across,” “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” “Wine of Wyoming,” Parts I and II of “Big Two-Hearted River,” “Fifty Grand,” and “Sea Change.” No particular reason for most of these favourites, they just appealed to me on some visceral level. But I’m getting the impression visceral appeal is what Hemingway excels at.
I’d heard as well that his stories are most incredible when you read them out loud, so I tried it with “Wine of Wyoming”. It did seem to make a difference, although there’s a fair bit of French mixed in with the English, so I had to do it where no one would hear me mangling the language. My apologies to France. If you don’t speak French and/or Spanish, you may wish to read this book with a translator handy. Most of the stories you’ll be fine, but there are one or two with enough exchanges in other tongues that you’ll miss the gist of the story if you don’t get it translated.
Hemingway wrote multiple short stories that featured the same character but were unconnected otherwise. In this book those stories are interspersed with completely unrelated ones, which I thought was a wise touch. If the ones with the same character had been grouped together, I would have gotten engrossed with the main character and been irritated when the “series” came to a close. This way it felt like short visits with an acquaintance. Overall I would say the book itself was well and thoughtfully laid out. And it ends perfectly.
One last thought: you know you haven’t read enough short stories when you can’t tell the difference between the finished ones, and the unfinished ones. There are some of each in this book, so you can sample as you please. I haven’t worked out how to tell them apart yet. What makes a story finished? Maybe that’s a question only Hemingway can answer.

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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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