Book Review: Born a Crime

bornacrimeBorn a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood
Trevor Noah
Memoir
285 pages
Published 2016

I read this book, though I’d really like to listen to the audio book version. It’s narrated by Trevor Noah himself, and apparently very, very good. I totally believe that – the man is hilarious on The Daily Show. I still really enjoyed the stories Noah told, though I wish he’d gotten more into his journey as a comedian, and not just his childhood and teenage years.

Noah has an uncanny way of explaining background information that you need to know while not giving away the (actually somewhat obvious in hindsight) punchline. Even the background information is told in an extremely entertaining way – you can feel Noah’s everpresent grin through the pages. Even though the book begins (and sort of ends) on a sad note, the book itself is a happy, optimistic one. I didn’t laugh myself silly, like the next book I read (Jenny Lawson’s Furiously Happy), but I did have to giggle and read parts to my husband. (And he actually laughed at them, instead of looking at me like I was insane, which is what happened with Furiously Happy.)

I’ve been a fan of Trevor Noah’s since shortly after he took over The Daily Show, and this was an interesting peek at his background, and the very different culture he grew up in. I highly recommend this book.

Incidentally, I spotted someone reading Born A Crime at the Atlanta airport on the way home from Christmas vacation in my hometown, so this one knocks off the PopSugar category “book that was being read by a stranger in a public place”! This is also my first review for Black History Month.

From the cover of Born A Crime:

Trevor Noah’s unlikely path from apartheid South Africa to the desk of The Daily Show began with a criminal act: his birth. Trevor was born to a white Swiss father and a black Xhosa mother at a time when such a union was punishable by five years in prison. Living proof of his parents’ indiscretion, Trevor was kept mostly indoors for the earliest years of his life, bound by the extreme and often absurd measures his mother took to hide him from a government that could, at any moment, steal him away. Finally liberated by the end of South Africa’s tyrannical white rule, Trevor and his mother set forth on a grand adventure, living openly and freely and embracing the opportunities won by a centuries-long struggle.

Born a Crime is the story of a mischievous young boy who grows into a restless young man as he struggles to find himself in a world where he was never supposed to exist. It is also the story of that young man’s relationship with his fearless, rebellious, and fervently religious mother—his teammate, a woman determined to save her son from the cycle of poverty, violence, and abuse that would ultimately threaten her own life.

The stories collected here are by turns hilarious, dramatic, and deeply affecting. Whether subsisting on caterpillars for dinner during hard times, being thrown from a moving car during an attempted kidnapping, or just trying to survive the life-and-death pitfalls of dating in high school, Trevor illuminates his curious world with an incisive wit and unflinching honesty. His stories weave together to form a moving and searingly funny portrait of a boy making his way through a damaged world in a dangerous time, armed only with a keen sense of humor and a mother’s unconventional, unconditional love.

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Book Review: Furiously Happy

furiouslyhappyFuriously Happy: a Funny Book about Horrible Things
Jenny Lawson
Memoir?
353 pages
Published 2015

How do you even begin to explain a Jenny Lawson book? Known as The Bloggess on the internet, Lawson is one of the most laugh-out-loud, hysterically funny, off-the-wall-crazy-pants writers I’ve ever come across. From her antics with taxidermied animals to the bizarre arguments she has with her husband to the weird tangents her brain goes on, Lawson is one of the most entertaining people on the internet. In Furiously Happy, she explores her lifelong fight with mental illness, from depression to anxiety to a number of manias, and she does so in a lovely, non-judgmental way. She does get serious – she talks about her “folder of 24” – 24 letters from suicidal people telling her that she, and the community she’s built, are the reason they’re still here. Lawson tackles the topic of depression head on, and by writing down the bizarre things that go through her head, lets people know THEY’RE NOT ALONE, and that’s incredibly important.

As the subtitle of the book says, it might be a book about a serious topic, but oh. my. is it funny. Between sneaking a taxidermied ecstatically happy raccoon into view of her husband’s video conferences, and trying to snuggle koalas in Australia while dressed in a full-body koala costume, Lawson also talks about waking up in the middle of the night thinking her arms have fallen off, and being stalked by carnivorous swans. Lawson’s blog is hilarious, and this book is one of the most insanely funny things I’ve ever read, and now I have to track down her other two books. (Let’s Pretend This Never Happened and You Are Here)

From the cover of Furiously Happy:

In Furiously Happy, a humor memoir tinged with just enough tragedy and pathos to make it worthwhile, Jenny Lawson examines her own experience with severe depression and a host of other conditions, and explains how it has led her to live life to the fullest:

“I’ve often thought that people with severe depression have developed such a well for experiencing extreme emotion that they might be able to experience extreme joy in a way that ‘normal people’ also might never understand. And that’s what Furiously Happy is all about.”

Jenny’s readings are standing room only, with fans lining up to have Jenny sign their bottles of Xanax or Prozac as often as they are to have her sign their books. Furiously Happy appeals to Jenny’s core fan base but also transcends it. There are so many people out there struggling with depression and mental illness, either themselves or someone in their family―and in Furiously Happy they will find a member of their tribe offering up an uplifting message (via a taxidermied roadkill raccoon). Let’s Pretend This Never Happened ostensibly was about embracing your own weirdness, but deep down it was about family. Furiously Happy is about depression and mental illness, but deep down it’s about joy―and who doesn’t want a bit more of that?

Book Review: Unbelievable

unbelievableUnbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History
Katy Tur
Memoir/Documentary/Current Politics
305 pages
Published September 2017

This was my pick for the “song lyrics in the title” prompt for the PopSugar 2018 Reading Challenge. I feel a little like “Unbelievable” is a bit of a cop-out for the prompt, but it was already on my to be read list, and it works. And the book is fantastic.

This is the story of Katy Tur’s time on the campaign trail as one of the journalists covering Donald Trump’s campaign. It is, as she says, unbelievable. When it begins, she thinks it will be very short – as most of the American public thought. No one thought Trump would wind up being the Republican nominee. But as she attends rallies, and watches the vitriol of his supporters – which occasionally gets turned on her, as a member of the “lying, fake media,” she begins to realize he could, in fact, win this thing.

We experience Tur’s shock as he calls her out by name multiple times, leading to death threats by Trump supporters, and security being assigned to her specifically. Through all of this, Tur continues to do her job as a journalist, reporting on the travel, the rallies, the information from sources within the campaign as they criss-cross the country and promise ridiculous things.

I was worried at first that the book would be a dry rehash of the events, but it is far from it. Tur speaks with a refreshing, absorbing voice. Even knowing the outcome – that Trump is elected president – it’s a page-turner that didn’t let me go until the last page. Unbelievable is a fast-paced, fascinating book by a first-class journalist.

From the cover of Unbelievable:

Called “disgraceful,” “third-rate,” and “not nice” by Donald Trump, NBC News correspondent Katy Tur reported on—and took flak from—the most captivating and volatile presidential candidate in American history.

Katy Tur lived out of a suitcase for a year and a half, following Trump around the country, powered by packets of peanut butter and kept clean with dry shampoo. She visited forty states with the candidate, made more than 3,800 live television reports, and tried to endure a gazillion loops of Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer”—a Trump rally playlist staple.

From day 1 to day 500, Tur documented Trump’s inconsistencies, fact-checked his falsities, and called him out on his lies. In return, Trump repeatedly singled Tur out. He tried to charm her, intimidate her, and shame her. At one point, he got a crowd so riled up against Tur, Secret Service agents had to walk her to her car.

None of it worked. Facts are stubborn. So was Tur. She was part of the first women-led politics team in the history of network news. The Boys on the Bus became the Girls on the Plane. But the circus remained. Through all the long nights, wild scoops, naked chauvinism, dodgy staffers, and fevered debates, no one had a better view than Tur.

Unbelievable is her darkly comic, fascinatingly bizarre, and often scary story of how America sent a former reality show host to the White House. It’s also the story of what it was like for Tur to be there as it happened, inside a no-rules world where reporters were spat on, demeaned, and discredited. Tur was a foreign correspondent who came home to her most foreign story of all. Unbelievable is a must-read for anyone who still wakes up and wonders, Is this real life?

Book Review: An American Family

americanfamilyAn American Family: A Memoir of Hope and Sacrifice
by Khizr Khan
Memoir
271 pages
Published 2017

Like many people, I was inspired by the Khizr Khan’s speech at the Democratic Convention last year, and appalled by Trump’s reaction. As a Marine wife, the family members left behind when a service member dies get my utmost sympathy and compassion. That was my biggest fear while my husband was in the Marines, and it’s still a very emotional memory to look back on. So when I heard that Khan was writing a book, I knew I HAD to read it. I put a hold request in at the library before the book was published, and I’m glad I did. The book is definitely one of my favorites of 2017. (One of my next posts will be a round up of my favorites from this year.)

An American Family follows the Khans’ journey from Pakistan, to Dubai, to Texas, Maryland, and finally Virginia. And it’s fascinating. He says in the beginning of the book that he wrote it to answer the question he’s constantly asked: why do you love America? Why are you a Patriot? He couldn’t answer it in a few short sentences. This book is his answer, and what an answer it is. It’s impossible to summarize this book – it must be read.

It’s a very easy read – it flows beautifully, and Khan tells a story well. It’s easy, at least, until you get to the point where their son dies in action. Perhaps it wouldn’t have such an emotional effect on someone else, but that, and its aftermath, was pretty hard for me to read about. The event is important, however. Its repercussions ripple out through the Khans’ lives and affect everything they touch.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Especially if you’re American, and no matter where on the political spectrum you fall, this book is important. It might give you a different view on immigrants.

From the cover of An American Family:

“I am an American patriot not because I was born here but because I was not. I embraced American freedoms, raised my children to cherish and revere them, and lost a son who swore an oath to defend them, because I come from a place where they do not exist.”

In fewer than three hundred words, Muslim American Gold Star father Khizr Khan electrified viewers around the world when he took the stage at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. And when he offered to lend Donald Trump his own much-read and dog-eared pocket Constitution, his gesture perfectly encapsulated the feelings of millions. But who was that man, standing beside his wife, extolling the promises and virtues of the U.S. Constitution?

In this urgent and timeless immigrant story, we learn that Khizr Khan has been many things. He was the oldest of ten children born to farmers in Pakistan, and a curious and thoughtful boy who listened rapt as his grandfather recited Rumi beneath the moonlight. He was a university student who read the Declaration of Independence and was awestruck by what might be possible in life. He was a hopeful suitor, awkwardly but earnestly trying to win the heart of a woman far out of his league. He was a brilliant and diligent young family man who worked tow jobs to save enough money to put himself through Harvard Law School. He was a loving father who, having instilled in his children the ideals that brought him and his wife to America – the sense of shared dignity and mutual responsibility – tragically lost his son, an Army captain killed while protecting his base camp in Iraq. He was and is a patriot, and a fierce advocate for the rights, dignities, and values enshrined in the American system.

An American Family shows us who Khizr Khan and millions of other American immigrants are, and why – especially in these tumultuous times – we must not be afraid to step forward for what we believe in when it matters most.

Book Review: On Tyranny

tyrannyOn Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century
by Timothy Snyder
Nonfiction
126 pages
Published 2017

On Tyranny is a short little book. I don’t think it needs to be longer – it’s easy to read, succinct, and is meant to serve as a warning. If anyone wants to learn more about any of the twenty lessons, there are plenty of resources for that. It’s simply “HEY. This happened before. And this happened before. And this happened before and YOU NEED TO SEE THESE SIMILARITIES.” It was a very quick read, but has left me with a lot to think about.

The format is simple: Twenty sections, each beginning with a lesson title and a short summary paragraph, then going into more detail in the next two to three pages. For example:

Do Not Obey In Advance.
Most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then offer themselves without being asked. A citizen who adapts in this way is teaching power what it can do.

The next few pages talk about Austrian Nazis rounded up Jews and used them as forced labor, before the German government told them to. When Jewish businesses were marked as such, people immediately started avoiding them. Anticipatory obedience. (Relate this to the suddenly overt racism and Nazi marches we’re now facing in the US – where that used to be hidden.)

Another example:

Take Responsibility For The Face Of The World.
The symbols of today enable the reality of tomorrow. Notice the swastikas and the other signs of hate. Do not look away, and do not get used to them. Remove them yourself and set an example for others to do so.

The next pages talk about propaganda, and signs. If we tolerate swastikas, we imply that we accept them. That we support them. And if the oppressed groups that those swastikas are aimed at see everyone around them supporting them, who do they look to for help? All it takes is one person deciding to scrub off or paint over the swastika, for people around them to realize that’s a thing that can be done. This plays into another section, which talked about Standing Out. Do the thing that makes you stand out – whether that’s standing up for a minority, or scrubbing swastikas off walls, or attending a protest. If you don’t stand out, you’re too easily ignored as part of the problem.

This book had lots of holds at my local library – while I was sad to have to wait so long, I was pleased that so many people wanted to read it. I was 35th in line at one point! Just knowing that so many people want to read it is a little reassuring. The author has written several books on the Holocaust, WWII, and the rise of Hitler, so he knows what he’s talking about, and it shows in his writing.

On Tyranny is a quick read and does an amazing job of boiling a lot of complicated concepts down into very succinct little points. I definitely recommend it as a jumping off point. Just don’t let it be all you read.

From the cover of On Tyranny:

The Founding Fathers tried to protect us from the threat they knew, the tyranny that overcame ancient democracy. Today, our political order faces new threats, not unlike the totalitarianism of the twentieth century. We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism.  Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience.

Book Review: The Journal of Best Practices

journalThe Journal of Best Practices: A Memoir of Marriage, Asperger Syndrome, and One Man’s Quest to Be a Better Husband
by David Finch
Memoir
222 pages
Published 2012

Well. I’m still not 100% back to health, but I’m well enough to get absorbed in a book again! This book was especially interesting to me because we are pretty sure that my husband is on the autism spectrum. What would have been called Asperger’s a few years ago, before they wrapped that back into autism, because it’s all the same syndrome – it just differs in how it impacts people. (The book was obviously written before that happened, though Asperger’s still seems to be shorthand for autistic people that don’t fit what most people think of as autistic – what some people would call high-functioning, I suppose, though that’s also not as cut and dried as it seems. Rebecca Burgess described it well in her comic on Tumblr.)

I read portions of this book aloud to my husband, because they described him to a T. The very first page mentions how Finch recalls his niece’s birthday, not because he’s a good uncle, but because it’s 3/14 – Pi. My husband remembers my birthday because it’s half a stick of RAM (well it used to be, anyway!) – 5/12. Now he remembers it as 2^9. The first chapter then goes on to describe how Finch’s wife sat him down with a self-diagnostic questionnaire (he received an official diagnosis later) and he was surprised at how many questions described him. While they didn’t list all 200 or so questions in the book, the ones that were mentioned I asked my husband. He was a Yes to all but one, and looked at me afterwards with a laugh and a joking “I’m feeling a little attacked right now!” That included questions like “Do you sometimes have an urge to jump over things?” (Yes) and “Have you been fascinated by making traps?” Husband told me about a book on survival he’d been given when he was 14 or so – he doesn’t remember much of it, but he can recall almost verbatim the chapter on traps and snares.

The book was a fascinating look into the mind of an adult with autism trying (and succeeding!) to navigate a relationship. It gave us a lot to talk about, and a few new strategies to try. If you know or love anyone on the autism spectrum, I highly recommend this book. It might help you understand how they see things.

I have another book on autism to read soon – Been There, Done That, Try This! – about coping strategies for autistic adults. I’m eager to see how much of that we can use in our daily lives.

From the cover of The Journal of Best Practices:

At some point in nearly every marriage, a wife finds herself asking, What the @#!% is wrong with my husband?! In David Finch’s case, this turns out to be an apt question. Five years after he married Kristen, the love of his life, they learn that he has Asperger syndrome. The diagnosis explains David’s ever-growing list of quirks and compulsions, his lifelong propensity to quack and otherwise melt down in social exchanges, and his clinical-strength inflexibility. But it doesn’t make him any easier to live with.

Determined to change, David sets out to understand Asperger syndrome and learn to be a better husband – no easy task for a guy whose inability to express himself rivals his two-year-old daughter’s, who thinks his responsibility for laundry extends no further than throwing things in (or at) the hamper, and whose autism-spectrum condition makes seeing his wife’s point of view a near impossibility.

Nevertheless, David devotes himself to improving his marriage with an endearing yet hilarious zeal that involves excessive note-taking, performance reviews, and most of all, the Journal of Best Practices: a collection of hundreds of maxims and hard-won epiphanies that result from self-reflection both comic and painful. They include “Don’t change the radio station when she’s singing along,” “Apologies do not count when you shout them,” and “Be her friend, first and always.” Guided by the Journal of Best Practices, David transforms himself over the course of two years from the world’s most trying husband to the husband who tries the hardest, the husband he’d always meant to be.