Book Review: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

Recently, I joined a book club run by one of my best friends which focuses on promoting critical thinking, especially in terms of the political and social issues of today. The book club is called Books for the Resistance.

Our second book was Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah. I knew Trevor Noah from The Daily Show, and from a couple of his comedy specials that I had watched on Netflix. Before reading his book, I was aware that he was South African, and that he lived his younger years under apartheid. I was aware of some of the more humorous anecdotes he used in his stand-up.

Born a Crime explores his life with much more depth. This book takes you through the full range of human emotions. One minute you’re laughing at the ridiculousness of his situation, the next minute you’re furious at the unfairness and the cruelty, the next minute you’re crying for a multitude of reasons.

Trevor Noah grew up in a society that was divided for the sake of division, because people are easier to control when you pit them against each other. He was literally born a crime: the child of a black mother and white father. Under apartheid, neither parent could claim him in public without facing arrest.

The book is organized as a series of essays, detailing different journeys throughout his life. He recounts his confusing and contradictory life under apartheid, then his confusing and contradictory life once apartheid ended and South Africa attempted to mend such a troubled history. He talks about trying to blend into the different cultures that exist within South Africa, to varying levels of success. He details his struggles with abuse and crime, and how these things are normalized in South African society.

The book is an excellent read, and to see Trevor Noah now as the host of a wildly successful comedy show in America is extremely inspirational.

Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

Recently, I joined a book club run by one of my best friends which focuses on promoting critical thinking, especially in terms of the political and social issues of today. The book club is called Books for the Resistance.

We kicked-off the book club with a classic: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Published in 1985, this book continues to resonate with every new wave of readers. It’s a striking look at social issues including sexism, reproductive rights, classism, environmental issues, and the sometimes at-odds struggle to feel safe while also feeling free.

The book follows Offred, a so-called Handmaid, who is one of the few women in Gilead (formerly the United States) who is physically capable of bearing children. As a Handmaid, she is assigned to a family-of-sorts, where her sole role is to conceive a child from the Commander. There are few freedoms in Gilead, especially for a Handmaid. Communication with the outside world is controlled by the militant government, and may be entirely propaganda and lies. Societal roles are strict, inspired by Puritan values.

The details of the establishment of Gilead are scarce, told second-hand through Offred. Some details the reader is given include the fact that there was some sort of coup that overthrew the previous government; at one point, all bank accounts belonging to women were frozen, forcing them to depend on the men in their lives; and issues infiltrated society ranging from environmental disasters to a strong cultural shift against sexual and reproductive freedoms.

Is it any wonder this book continues to resonate with people? It takes these issues to the extreme, and forces the reader to take a good hard look at them. It’s not a pretty sight, but Atwood weaves hope throughout the story. There are whispers of dissent, rumors of an Underground Railroad-type system helping people escape to Canada. The tale ultimately seems to view society in an optimistic light: things can take a turn for the worse, but they will never stay that way. Society will find a way through, to move forward. The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

Have you read The Handmaid’s Tale? What did you think? Are you excited for the Hulu series?

Book Review: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

I finished reading American Gods by Neil Gaiman a couple weeks ago, and I’m posting this delayed review because I needed time to process!

Let me back up, and, oh yeah, SPOILER WARNING!

American Gods follows the story of Shadow, a convict who was just released from prison only to discover his wife died in a car accident while cheating on him with his friend. As if that wasn’t enough to handle, a certain ancient god inserts himself into Shadow’s life and brings him along for an adventure of epic weirdness.

This god, Odin from Norse mythology going by the alias Wednesday, brings Shadow to meet other gods and other mythological beings as he tries to rally forces against the new gods: gods of technology and pop culture, etc. He says a war is coming, and the old gods need to fight to survive.

A whole lot of trippy weirdness ensues, including but definitely not limited to the reanimation of Shadow’s wife via magical sun-coin.

Near the climax of the story, Wednesday is killed by the new gods, and Shadow agrees to hold his vigil. In this instance, holding vigil means being tied to a tree while naked for days and days. Shadow, being human (kind of, more on that in just a moment), dies. He travels the underworld/afterlife, and at one point chooses to walk a path that reveals truths about his life. One of these truths: Wednesday is his father. Shadow is a demi-god.

Some more weirdness ensues and Shadow is brought back to life by the goddess Easter. The war has started, Wednesday’s death spurring the old gods into action, and Shadow goes to play his part.

Shadow pieces together that Wednesday’s intentions were not very noble. He and fellow Norse god Loki (known to Shadow as his old prison buddy Low Key – come on, Shadow!) feed on wars fought in his name and chaos, respectively. They set the entire war into motion so that they could become stronger and more powerful, at the expense of the lives of all the other gods, old and new alike.

Those bastards.

Shadow, being a resurrected demi-god and all, alerts the other gods to this plan and effectively stops the war. Odin and Loki’s plan is foiled, and they die.

That is an extremely over-simplified breakdown of the events of this novel! It’s definitely a trip, and if you can keep up with all of the “real” world vs spirit world/otherworld/underworld/etc stuff, it’s a great story. It’s also great if you’re a mythology nerd. Some gods’ identities are spelled out for the reader, but some are not. If you’re a mythology nerd, it’s fun to pick up on which god is which.

One of the main themes of the novel is, of course, the battle between traditions and the old world vs technology and the way of the future. The moral of the story, it seems to me, is that it doesn’t have to be a battle. The old and the new can peacefully coexist.

Overall I really enjoyed the novel, and am beyond excited that it’s going to be a TV series! If you haven’t seen it yet, here’s the trailer for that:

Book Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

I recently finished reading The Martian by Andy Weir on my brand-new Kindle (side note: I think I’ve been converted to eBooks…I never thought this would happen…but it’s just. so. CONVENIENT!) and long story short, I loved it!

I became interested in this book 1) because I like science fiction but especially 2) because it’s a self-published novel that BLEW UP in popularity and had a successful, popular movie adaptation (I haven’t seen the movie yet, but will watch it soon now that I’ve read the book). As a self-published author, this book represents a dream-come-true.

The book starts off with a team of astronauts on Mars who get caught in a sandstorm. The storm is so bad that they have to abort their mission and fly home only days (well, sols, in this case) after getting to the red planet. In all the chaos, astronaut Mark Watney is badly injured and lost in the storm, presumed dead and left behind as the other astronauts fly away. But, of course, he’s not dead. And now he has to figure out not only how to survive but how to get home.

This book is problem-solving session after problem-solving session, and it made my little engineer heart happy. If you’re a fan of the Apollo 13 movie (which obviously is based on a true story, not science fiction) imagine that but 1000x more complicated. The book is a roller coaster ride of “Oh, god, can’t Mark catch a break?” and “Oh yeah! Mark figured it out!” with a few “Oh no, Mark did NOT figure that one out!” thrown in for good measure.

My main criticism for the book is that the handful of chapters that are written in 3rd person (most of the book is in the form of daily logs from Mark) felt somewhat unfinished. They felt a little bare-boned (He said this then did that). At times it took away some of the heart of the story, as the only character that was really characterized effectively was Mark. But, we do spend the most time with Mark and he is the focal point of the story.

My only other criticism of this book is the ending. I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the ending. On the one hand, it did make sense to end where it did, but my first reaction when I got to the last page was “Oh, that’s it?”.

Overall, I rate this book 4 out of 5 stars, and would recommend to anyone who enjoys problem-solving!