Born a Crime

33632445Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Trevor Noah

Source: my own collection

Length: 08:44:00

Publisher: Audible Audio

Year: 2016

Trevor Noah is known to most American audiences as the newest host and replacement for Jon Stewart on late night comedy. But this book chronicles his childhood in South Africa in the last few years of apartheid, through the years immediately after with their unrest and violence, and his own experiences with abuse. And yet, through it all, he kept his innate goodness and kind nature, despite seeing some horrific things. I don’t know that I could have come through as happily as he did.

I’m not generally a fan of memoirs, though I find that I’ve been reading more lately. So I don’t know, maybe I’m more of a fan of them than I thought. In any case, Noah managed to discuss some really heavy topics like apartheid, racism, domestic violence, and crushing poverty with genuine humor. I never thought I would have laughed out loud over eating “dog bones” because you’re too poor to buy better food, but goddamn the way he told it was hilarious. Maybe the best way to effect change is to make people laugh about a thing. I don’t know. But by turning it into something laughable, it kind of felt like it was a little disrespectful. But I am not the one who lived through it, so I also feel like I don’t really get a say in it. In any case, I enjoyed this book and I learned a lot about many things. I definitely recommend this whether you enjoy Trevor Noah as a comedian or not.

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Underground Airlines

35051774Underground Airlines by Ben Winters

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: William DeMerritt

Source: my own collection

Length: 9:28:00

Publisher: Hatchette Audio

Year: 2016

The premise of this alt-history novel is WHAT IF America had never had a Civil War? What if slavery was enshrined in the Constitution? There are four states – the Hard Four – which still have slavery, a highly regulated system with a lot of checks and balances. People like to think that it is not the slavery of the 1800s or even “fifty years ago,” but those people are incorrect. And it’s fucking slavery. Enter Victor, a young man who had once been a slave himself and managed to escape. He maintains his freedom by working for a shady government official as a runaway slave catcher, a job he is very good at but which gives him a great deal of conflict. His newest case is to track down a runaway named Jackdaw who is thought to be headed to Indianapolis. Along the way, Victor encounters shades of his past that he had tried to escape or push down, and learns that even the shady people he reluctantly works for are not at all what they appear to be.

This was a horrifying book, mostly because I don’t think something like this is really that far from truth. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to envision an America that still has slavery, judging from the revolting news we see everyday. There is rampant racism and neonazis and white supremacists and other disgusting groups who would probably jump at a chance to live in a world Winters portrays here. The poverty wages that many, many people earn are hardly better than slavery in this country, and in many other countries, there are sweathouse jobs that I would argue do constitute slavery conditions. So yeah, this book was terrifying. It is too easy to see this as reality. Let’s keep books like this fiction.

For as horrifying as I found this book to be, I was actually kind of bored with it. I thought the pacing was uneven and the plot a bit disjointed. It made it hard for me to follow at times. The characters as well felt rather flat and were hard to connect with. The narrator did a great job, though, using a variety of voices to differentiate everyone, which made it more appealing to listen to. I would still recommend this book, but perhaps not as an audiobook. I think I might have been more interested if I had eyeball read it instead. Maybe. I still think the characters would have felt one-dimensional and the pacing would still be uneven.

Bluebird, Bluebird

40605488Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: JD Jackson

Source: my own Audible collection

Length: 9:25:00

Publisher: Hachette Audio

Year: 2017

Darren Mathews is a black Texas Ranger who is on suspension. While he is called home to Lark, TX, he begins digging around in the deaths of two people – a black lawyer from Chicago and a local white woman, found in the same bayou two days apart. Darren starts investigating, even though he is suspended, in an attempt to head off the racial tensions building in the tiny town.

This is the first book of Locke’s I’ve read. Her prose is rich and evokes a great deal of authenticity regarding race relations in tiny, backwoods Southern towns. I had to keep reminding myself that this novel was set in modern times, not 50 years or more ago. The details of the crimes were complex and believable within the scope of the story. I really found her writing to be relevant for many issues society still, sadly, deals with today. She showed how racism is deeply ingrained in both the white and black communities, which is so sad on every level.

That said, I didn’t actually like this book much. I had a hard time connecting with any of the characters. I didn’t like how Darren would use his badge to manipulate people to get what he wanted from them. I didn’t find most of the people terribly sympathetic, even the victims or the victims’ loved ones. I was mostly bored with the crime plot and it dragged too much for me. I like plenty of detail and don’t mind slow pacing but this was too slow. I can easily see why this book got so many 4 and 5 star reviews, because it really was well written and deals with important issues. It just wasn’t for me.

An American Marriage

38389692An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Sean Crisden and Eisa Davis

Source: my own collection

Length: 08:59:00

Publisher: HighBridge

Year: 2018

Roy Hamilton and Celestial Davenport are a young, married, black couple living in Atlanta. They’re up and coming, just starting out – he’s a hotshot executive, having graduated from a prestigious college with a full scholarship, and she’s making a name for herself as an artist. Their plans for the future come to a grinding halt when they visit Roy’s parents in Louisiana one weekend, and Roy is arrested, and later convicted, for a rape he did not commit. He is sentenced to 12 years in prison, and is released after 5 when his conviction is overturned. He returns to Atlanta, ready to start his marriage back up again, but 5 years apart is a long time, and Roy isn’t the only one changed by his time in prison.

Sometimes, you read a book that highlights a social issue and it enrages you and makes you want to set the world on fire, like The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. Other books, like An American Marriage, bring those social issues home, give them a human face, and put them into the context that shows the impact they have on whole families, not just one person. This book is a deep character study, using first person perspectives from Roy, Celestial, and their mutual friend Andre. During the years of Roy’s incarceration, it shifts to an epistolary narrative, which works really well and shows the ways in which his and Celestial’s marriage is beginning to crumble. It is a discussion on what marriage is, what is worth fighting for, how much of yourself are you willing to give up, and to what extent duty and obligation stretch. How does one person save another, and is it her job to do so? There were so many parts of this book that made me just…sad. Nothing made me ugly cry, though I can see how it might have if I had been in a different mood. But the whole thing just filled me with a deep sadness. Our system is so terribly broken. Although Roy is fictional, his story is not. There are so many young men whose lives are destroyed because they were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, and they were victims of a system that is deeply flawed and stacked against them. Roy was the one to spend time in prison, but it was not just him to suffer. His family suffered and changed in irrevocable ways and no one came through the experience unscathed. To think only the person in prison is the one affected is very wrong. It shouldn’t need to be said at all, but in case it does, this book helps to bring that point home and show the human side of the broader social issues.

I think this story could have gone very differently. I am glad it ended as well as it did, though it was still heartbreaking. It could easily have gone a whole lot worse and I’m glad it didn’t. I was really worried it would go sideways and be bad, especially at the start of the epilogue. The resolution was imperfect and the best they could do and was, ultimately, very human and real.

A Girl Like That

51h8gf05wjl-_sx329_bo1204203200_A Girl Like That  by Tanaz Bhathena

I read it as a: hardback

Source: library

Length: 384 pp

Publisher: Farrar Strauss

Year: 2018

Sixteen year old Zarin Wadia is a girl caught between family, social, and peer pressures. Orphaned at four, being raised by her hateful aunt and spineless uncle, Zarin has never really remembered a time when she felt loved. Her only friend is a boy she sees from her balcony who waves to her as he heads out to school each morning. When her aunt and uncle move her from her hometown of Mumbai to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Zarin has even more rules to follow, for interactions between men and women in Saudi are highly regulated and women are closely guarded. Zarin begins rebelling against the societal boundaries, learning to avoid the religious police as well as her aunt, just for an hour or two of unsupervised freedom. When she encounters Porus, a young man working at the neighborhood deli, they each recognize each other as the balcony friends they had been in Mumbai ten years earlier. Porus, against his mother’s wishes, stands by Zarin through bullying, slandering, assault, and abuse, determined to be everything for her that she never had before. When the two of them die in a horrific car accident (not a spoiler, it happens on the first page), the pieces of their stories come together in astonishing ways, revealing slowly just how Zarin came to be known as “a girl like that,” and how very, terribly wrong rumors and reputations can be.

This book was devastating. Utterly, completely, beautifully devastating. The pain the Zarin endured for so much of her life was tangible and leapt from the page. The bullying the girls at school put her through is something kids today across the world might be familiar with, which is disgusting as it is. Added to that was the way misogyny and violence towards women is codified into so much Arabic law. No, there was no hint of Islamophobia in this novel, as some reviews implied. It doesn’t make the author anti-Muslim to point out that Saudi Arabia actually has plenty of misogynistic laws reinforced by religious police. It was interesting to learn more about the region, and the various other cultural groups that live there besides Muslims. Zarin and her family are Zoroastrians, a small minority within the community. They don’t speak Arabic, or at least not well enough to defend themselves if they had been detained by the religious police. They spoke Hindi and Gujarati, mostly, and a little Arabic and Avestan. In my ignorance, I had never heard of Gujarati or Avestan in my entire life before reading this book. So I learned a few things, which is always good.

There were too many things that were sad and mad me cry in this. I loved the parts that made me happy, too. Porus is such a sweet character. We need more like him. The one thing I wanted more of was to know why her aunt was the way she was. Did she have schizophrenia? Early onset? Was she just an evil person? What happened to make her like that? What happened to Zarin’s uncle to make him lose his balls and not defend a child under his care from abuse? We also only got a little closure with the schoolmates. I get that the story was Zarin’s and not theirs, but they contributed to the misery of her life, so it would have been nice to know what happened to them beyond just a couple. I suppose we had some answers regarding the biggest offender, but I still wanted more about the other girls in the end.

I cannot overstate how much I enjoyed this book, how gutwrenching it was, and how important I think it is that everyone read it. It’s a major discussion on a multitude of topics from bullying to rape culture and toxic masculinity to the long term impact of an abusive home environment. It pulls no punches, nor should it.