BOOK REVIEW: 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

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As a rule, I don’t read books by celebrities. This is the first one I can remember reading. My reasoning is rooted in publishers’ beliefs that such books will sell no matter what, and anything that doesn’t have to be good is unlikely to be.

And yet, I’m glad I made an exception for this book. Perhaps, because it’s not a book about Noah’s rise to fame, there are only a few off-hand references to his early career successes in South Africa. This book is about his youth in South Africa as a mixed-race child under Apartheid (hence the title, as such interracial progeny were illegal.) The book focuses heavily on race and the bizarre logic of South African governance during those days, as well as how rulers set groups against each other to make their own misbehavior less conspicuous. However, it’s also a very personal story, telling of his close relationship with his mother, the abuse he and his mother suffered from his drunkard stepfather, and the challenges that compelled him to adapt to survive loneliness and the awkwardness of youth.

Given Noah’s comedic merits, it will come as no surprise that the book is humorous, despite the tonal burden of its subject matter – i.e. racism, poverty, and abuse. Often, the subject matter makes the humor dark and bitter, but it’s nevertheless amusing.

If you’re curious about life under apartheid, or in an abusive household, you’ll likely find yourself in the grips of this tense and hilarious memoir.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Atheist in the Attic by Samuel R. Delany

The Atheist in the AtticThe Atheist in the Attic by Samuel R. Delany
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The first two-thirds of this book is the titular novella. It’s a cerebral work of historical fiction that will be loved by readers interested in philosophy and history, but which will be dry and claustrophobic to those expecting a gripping tale. It’s not that there are no stakes. The story is about a clandestine meeting between Leibniz and Spinoza during a turbulent time in the Dutch Republic. That said, the bulk of the story is discussion and internal monologuing about philosophic ideas. Leibniz speaks with Spinoza, but also with household staff – offering insight into his psychology. In short, for perspective into the psychology and philosophy of the time, it’s intriguing, but it’s no thriller.

The last one-third of the book consists of two nonfiction pieces. The first, there’s an essay that Delany wrote on racism in science fiction. In it, he discusses some hostility he was subjected to at a Hugo Award ceremony early in his career. He also describes how he is repeatedly put on panels with other black writers (whose work is different from his own) rather than with those whose work is most closely related to his. It’s an interesting look at the varied faces of racism from blatant through well-intentioned to accidental. The last piece is an interview that rambles over a wide expanse of topics touching on Delany’s career.

I enjoyed this book a great deal. That said, I’m an admitted philosophy nerd. I think someone who only read the cover blurb might expect the novella to be more story driven and less character- and philosophy-centric. The essay on race features both stories from Delany’s career and his views on racism as a system. If you like cerebrally-engaging reading, check it out.

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BOOK REVIEW: Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Heart of Darkness is a story within a story (i.e. a frame narrative) in which the protagonist, Marlow, tells a group of men on a ship on the Thames about his adventures captaining a boat on the Congo River. The use of a frame narrative both gives this novella/ novel a confessional feel, but also imagines Marlow’s audience feeling his tale particularly viscerally as some of them might be caught up in similar intrigues themselves.

Marlow’s job in the Congo is transporting ivory. However, the core of the story revolves around a trip to extract an agent of the ivory trade named Kurtz, and to transport the ill man to medical care. Kurtz is an intriguing character. This isn’t a man one can feel indifferently towards. Some love his intellect, charisma, or even his ruthlessness. Others despise him as the face of villainy. Kurtz represents imperialism at its most vile. Some natives are at war with him. Others respect and fear him. However, he’s willing to destroy them all on a whim to make the flow of ivory come more swiftly.

Marlow isn’t a member of Kurtz’s fan club initially and thinks the agent is completely insane, but he becomes intrigued with him as their journey progresses. In a way, Marlow is the moderate face of Imperialism. He doesn’t like the way the natives are treated, or the power plays and bureaucracy of the trade. However, he’s an active and willing participant, and, ultimately, when given a choice to work against the system or in support of it he chooses the latter. He hands over Kurtz’s report on the “Suppression of Savage Customs.” He also shows his sympathy towards Kurtz through his interaction with the dead man’s fiance.

This is definitely 19th century literature. While the book is very short, it’s readability isn’t high by today’s standards. It’s organized into just three parts or chapters, and the prose isn’t built for speed. Also, while it turns out to be a gripping tale, it’s slow off the blocks. It must also be put in the context of 19th century literature because the themes of imperialism and suppression of “savagery” have long since been settled. Viewed through today’s lens, the story might not ring true. Though I suppose there’s still a heart of darkness in urban environments today, behind walls rather than across seas.

What are the book’s strengths? While it may seem silly, the title is pure-D awesomeness. Also, while it’s not organized or written for readability by today’s standards, by 19th century standards it’s a page-turner. It’s certainly a compact tale. As I indicated, I’m not sure whether to call it a novel or a novella. Reading this book isn’t a major time investment, and it does pay off. Conrad’s use of descriptive language is often beautiful. Conrad’s characters all ring true and serve to sit one in a world of darkness beyond the imaginings of the London elite, where sad and terrible things happen to make their world possible.

Lastly, the book makes one think. Like Kurtz, one is likely to love it or hate it.

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