Friday, February 24, 2017

Nonfiction: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

Today's selection was one of those books I could not get my hands on fast enough. But every Christmas Day, I take a trip to BookPeople in downtown Austin, because it is one of the few things that are open on that day. And, since it is Christmas, it is possibly the one day of the year that 6th street is not crowded with people. So I decided that was the day I would buy Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah, and was almost not able to when the store only had one copy left, and no one could find it. Fortunately I did, and it made Christmas Day that much better. 

Genre, Themes, History: This of course is a nonfiction book, where current The Daily Show host Trevor Noah talks about his life and the many adventures, and misadventures, he had growing up in South Africa. When he was born, apartheid was still very much a thing in South Africa, so it was illegal for a black woman and a white man to have sexual relations. Of course, it still happened, and Noah is proof with a black Xhosa mother and a white Swiss father, hence the title of the book. He recalls his early childhood days when he was not allowed outside to play freely with the other children because of the color of his skin and the fear that he would be taken away. And while he knew his father, he could not acknowledge him in public, and vice versa. From there, Noah continues to chronicle his life in Johannesburg, South Africa. For the most part, the story is told in chronological order, but there are times when he will circle back to important moments in his life, specifically when it came to moments that include his abusive stepfather, Abel. It may be Noah's story, and all of the experiences are from his point of view, but I think it could be effectively argued that the actual main character is his mother. Noah tells the story of a stubborn woman who made sure to give him what she never had so that he would not be subjected to the same fate many young men share in South Africa, especially many black men. The two of them were a team, and with all of the dangers that even a post-apartheid South Africa under Nelson Mandela had to offer, the two of them managed to survive and make it work. They had their difficulties and disagreements, and she was never hesitant to discipline him - and he admits to also being a bad child - but ultimately, they were in this thing together, and it showed. The story does not end with Noah coming to America or with him becoming the host of The Daily Show. The book is all about his life in South Africa and the support of his mom.

My Verdict: There are so many reasons to love this book. First, there is the way Noah tells his story. It is just as honest and funny and forthright as anyone who is familiar with his comedy would expect it to be. Second, it is a crash course in the recent history and culture of South Africa. You think you know about South Africa, and apartheid, and Nelson Mandela...but unless you lived it, you don't. Noah lived it everyday for most of his life, and he does not shy away from the often brutal reality that was daily life in Johannesburg. There is a lot more to it then just black against white, and often Noah describes the feeling of being at the center of it, yet not really belonging to any one group. Third, there is his mother. This stubborn and independent woman made up her mind to make her own way and raise her son to do better than she did. Every story is more jaw-dropping and hilarious/sad/shocking/emotional than the one that comes before it. True, Noah would not have these stories to tell if he had not grown up in South Africa. But he did grow up in a place where his very existence was often a danger to himself and those around him, and everyone can learn a great deal from his decision to tell his story. 

Favorite Moment: There are so many to choose from. But I decided on the moment when Noah describes eventually meeting other people like himself that were also half black and half white, but instead of staying in South Africa, they chose to emigrate somewhere else. Before then, he did not realize that leaving was even an option. "Imagine being thrown out of an airplane. You hit the ground and break all your bones, you go to the hospital and you heal and you move on and finally put the whole thing behind you - and then one day somebody tells you about parachutes. That's how I felt."

Recommended Reading: For humor while discussing the African-American experience, I recommend How to Be Black by Baratunde Thurston. For a humorous memoir about the life of a comedy legend, I recommend Born Standing Up by Steve Martin.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Classic Fiction: Sula by Toni Morrison

In honor of her birthday tomorrow, I decided to cover Toni Morrison's Sula. I have read many of Morrison's books, old and new. Sometimes I was forced to for a class, and then there are ones, like Sula, that I read on my own. Whether I was forced or I volunteered, I was never disappointed, and I am always ready for a Morrison book recommendation.

The Situation: It's 1922 in Medallion, Ohio and twelve year-old Nel and Sula have become fast friends. Soon, they are often thought of and seen as one person, their bond is that close. Where one ends the other begins. They're both  poor, black, smart, and come from homes where the mothers are less than nurturing. Living in a community known as the Bottom, Nel and Sula grow up navigating life as a minority in a town and time where the majority has no issue letting their hatred and prejudices be known. Nel must also deal with a mother who is not shy about her displeasure over her daughter's physical appearance. And Sula deals with a mother who admits to loving her children, but not liking them.

The Problem: Nel and Sula will stay close friends until ten years after Nel's marriage, when Sula comes back to town and the unthinkable happens. Nel's life will change forever, but Sula's will remain the same, even after she becomes a social pariah in the Bottom and it is clear that most everyone would prefer if she were not around. It seems Sula is destined to follow the same path as her mother, who died in a tragic fire years earlier when she was only a girl. As strong-willed as ever, Sula keeps her path if for no other reason than that it is hers and she has the freedom to choose it, though it may lead her to a tragic end.

Genre, Themes, History: Initially published in 1973, I gave this the label of classic fiction and can now add it to my shelf next to the other Morrison novels I have been able to read. Once again Morrison explores the complicated matter of growing up black in post antebellum America. Even though Nel and Sula do not live in the south, which is commonly acknowledged as being openly hostile and dangerous for black people in the early 20th century, it seems the northern state of Ohio was not much better. Black people were still made to occupy the least desirable land in a city, regularly harassed by cops, and often had a hard time finding work for a decent wage (I could go into how times really haven't changed all that much, but that is a rant for a different post). Morrison's story is full of young black men who leave their families, not much caring about the destruction they leave in their path, while single black women have no problem sleeping with someone else's husband, and the husbands have no problem sleeping with someone who is not their wife. With a string of strong female characters - from Nel and Sula, to Nel's mother Helene, Sula's mother Hannah, and also Sula's grandmother Eva - a story is told that illustrates how strong women can be when they have no choice, and how independent and strong-willed they can be even when they do. But it also shows how one generation can heavily influence the next, even when there is a desire to do things differently from those who came before.

My Verdict: As usual, Morrison does not disappoint or fail to both shock and surprise. Stories about black people in America during the 1920s and 1930s can easily become depressing or maddening, and while Sula certainly had moments of both, it was also engaging, and even exciting, while also being heartbreaking and sad. Much like Beloved, there are moments of intense tragedy, moments that would make most wonder how anyone can do such a thing, especially to family. But without saying too much, or describing too much, the reasons for Morrison's characters come through clearly, and though condoning such actions is impossible, dismissing them somehow seems like an easy solution, despite their full horror. It is this sort of complexity that Morrison has always been so good at, and Sula simply proves this yet again.  

Favorite Moment: There are two fires in this novel, and while both end in tragedy and are unbelievably horrible, only Morrison can write about such things and make a reader feel sympathy for the ones who caused them, or even the ones who stood by and watched them burn.

Favorite Character: Eva is Sula's grandmother, and manages to hold herself and her family together after her husband leaves her for another woman. She then raises two more generations, as well as a steady stream of children and boarders who filter through her large house, before eventually becoming senile (or so it seems) in a home for senior citizens.

Favorite Quote: "The purpose of evil was to survive it and they determined (without ever knowing they had made up their minds to do it) to survive floods, white people, tuberculosis, famine and ignorance. They knew anger well, but not despair, and they didn't stone sinners for the same reason they didn't commit suicide - it was beneath them." 

Recommended Reading: My favorite Morrison novel is still The Bluest Eye, though to me, it may also be her saddest.     

Friday, February 10, 2017

Historical Fiction: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

I first took notice of A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles when it was nominated for Best Historical Fiction in the 2016 Goodreads Choice Awards, although after reading the premise I immediately wished I had taken notice of it much sooner. For me to find historical fiction not centered around World War II seems to be a small miracle these days, so this book, with its focus on a man under house arrest in early 20th century Moscow, easily made it onto my to-read list.

The Situation: In the summer of 1922, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is sentenced to house arrest by a Bolshevik Tribunal and ordered to never leave the Metropol Hotel in Moscow under the penalty of death. The Count had only recently returned to Moscow from Paris, but now he can never leave a building, much less the country, or he will be shot. While such a sentence would devastate almost anyone, the Count seems to approach the situation with the same class and good humor he attended his trial, somehow managing to not give the authorities the satisfaction of seeing him downcast or hurt. Even when he is moved from his previous hotel room to a closet of only 100 square feet, the Count shows no distress. Instead, he simply immerses himself into the hotel and its inner workings, as well as the people who run it. 

The Problem: While Russia, and indeed the entire world, continues to change all around the Metropol Hotel, the Count's life continues from year to year with very little change, at least in comparison. Over the years he will receive visits from old friends, receive news of the deaths of others, experience his own moments of despair, and even eventually become a waiter in the hotel's best restaurant. His one constant source of agony will be a zealous comrade who insists on doing what little he can to make the lives of those around him incredibly difficult, first and foremost being the Count's. But when a small child is left in the Count's care, everything pales in comparison to the duty he feels to give her the best future possible, despite his circumstances. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel set in Russia during the 1920s thru to the 1950s. Most of the novel stays focused on the Count, though there are a few chapters that will follow some of the people he has come into contact with, such as an actress, an old friend from the Count's childhood, and of course Sofia, the Count's adopted daughter. It is the Bolsheviks who sentence the Count to house arrest, and all because of a poem he wrote that appears to be a call to action against the Bolshevik Revolution, although the Count's insistence to make jokes during his own trial certainly did not help matters. The Count will end up occupying the Metropol Hotel through two World Wars, and will have to witness the myriad of ways Moscow will change under communist rule from the confines of a building. As grim as that may sound, the Count is able to approach his situation (for the most part) with humor, and relies on his good manners and breeding to bring him through almost any situation, no matter how small or great the annoyance. Even confined to one building, a lot can happen and change for a person in 30 years.

My Verdict: I need only say this: had I read this book before the voting for the Goodreads Choice Awards began, I certainly would have voted for it. To me, Towles pulls off something that I would think is incredibly hard to do. He wrote a book that reads like a Russian classic (like from Tolstoy or Dostoevsky), despite having been written in 2016. And he did so while also somehow avoiding the confusion most American readers encounter regarding Russian names in literature, while also acknowledging that difficulty and how hard it can be to get past. There are footnotes that are not annoying or interrupting, or even all that frequent. But more than anything, the characters are delightful and well-presented, while the story itself is funny, engaging, interesting, and captivating. I could not recommend this book enough.

Favorite Moment: When the Count, along with the maitre d, and head chef, manages to pull together an extravagant meal for the three of them despite many of the ingredients being hard to come by in communist Russia.

Favorite Character: Though the Count is fairly young when he is first sentenced, he is already wise, observant, well-mannered, and maintains a great sense of humor. He will actually learn to loosen up even more as he gets older, while also becoming more accustomed to making mistakes and realizing that other people do know better than him, sometimes.

Recommended Reading: If I had to pick one Russian classic to recommend to someone, it would be The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. However, I am a somewhat realistic person, and I realize most people are not going to read something nearly 800 pages long, so I will also recommend Crime and Punishment, which is a much more reasonable length. But for a modern historical fiction book, I recommend Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly.        

Friday, February 3, 2017

Contemporary Fiction: Dance Dance Dance by Haruki Murakami

I have finally gotten around to reading and writing about the final installment in The Rat series by Haruki Murakami. Dance Dance Dance is the fourth and final book, coming after Wind, Pinball, and A Wild Sheep Chase. It seems like a year cannot go by without me reviewing at least one of Marukami's novels, and 2017 is proving to be no different.

The Situation: It seems our nameless narrator is just as aimless and lonely as we left him at the end of A Wild Sheep Chase. Work has been going well, though he still does not care much for what he does and only does it to put money in his pocket and food on his table. There isn't even anyone in his life for him to be excited about. So he decides to search for the woman who disappeared on him years ago, who now has a name, Kiki. The narrator retraces his steps back to where Kiki first left him, at the Dolphin Hotel in Sapporo, back when he was investigating an entirely different matter. He arrives at the Dolphin Hotel just fine, except it is nothing like he remembered it. The hotel he remembered was small, shabby, and not at all glamorous. The place he is now staying at is the exact opposite, but the narrator's strange connection to it seems to be the same, and finding Kiki will prove to be another adventure without a clear-cut path and direction.

The Problem: The narrator manages to make contact once again with the mysterious Sheep Man. Unfortunately, the information he receives is vague and hard to understand. The only thing he does know is that he is in fact connected to the Dolphin Hotel, and the path he is on is the right one, even though it may be hard to see and follow, which leads to more feelings of lacking direction. But as the months roll by, the narrator meets up with old friends, while also making new ones, and they all somehow move him forward in his adventure. Every person and every event is connected, which should be encouraging. But progress also seems to mean people must die, which is what starts to happen. And even progress without loss of life does little to cure the narrator of his loneliness and lack of connection.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel that appears to be set in the 1980s. I only say that because tapes are mentioned, along with musicians such as Boy George, Talking Heads, and Phil Collins. As I mentioned, the narrator still does not have a name, but the people around him receive more names than they did in A Wild Sheep Chase. But it seems that if someone receives a name, even if it is a fake one, it means they will die at some point during the novel, with only a few exceptions. The narrator does not seem to have changed or grown much since the previous novel. He is still obsessed with Kiki's ears, and does not have many interpersonal relationships that are important to him. He does not even work at his old company anymore, so even those ties have been more or less severed. He embarks on another adventure that, from the outside, would not seem to have much action in it. But that may be the point: instead of waiting for something to happen, we move forward just by agreeing to continue living our lives. And being a Murakami novel, there are details regarding cooking and eating, strange dreams that may or may not be actual dreams, weird but intense sex, and the blending of lines between the real and imaginary.   

My Verdict: For whatever reason, I was not as invested in this adventure as I was in A Wild Sheep Chase. Granted, that adventure had more of a sense of urgency about it, while this one seemed to unfold at whatever pace the narrator felt comfortable with, sometimes even taken longer than he would of liked. Many of the same elements were present, but it just was not as interesting, and the ending may not have felt rushed, but it also did not feel fitting for the conclusion of the four-book series. Even so, the story was not terrible, and I never wanted to abandon it and move on to a different book. It was interesting enough that I wanted to know how everything was going to turn out, even though the further along I got, the more sure I was that things were going to come out in a less than satisfactory way.

Favorite Moment: When the narrator is able to outsmart the police, even after they manage to hold him for three days without a warrant and without officially arresting him.

Favorite Character: Yuki is a stubborn but sensitive 13 year-old girl the narrator ends up meeting by chance, but their paths turn out to be somewhat connected. She becomes one of the few people the narrator becomes concerned about and goes out of his way to look after, and they end up forming a strange and unlikely friendship that does them both a lot of good.

Recommended Reading: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is still my favorite Murakami book, and I recommend it to anyone as an introduction to his work.