I’m going to kick off this series with three books I enjoyed quite a bit in a span of a few months. I’d confidently say they were some of the most informative hobby-reads I’ve ever indulged in. The books are similar in more ways than one yet they can’t be more different when it comes to the authors and their backgrounds. I’ll get back to this in a bit, but first I’d like to introduce the books without giving too much away or spoiling them for any potential readers.
Born A Crime by Trevor Noah
Now this was the first of the three and quite frankly the one I enjoyed the most. You may know Noah from The Daily Show. He’s a comedian of South African origins, who took over John Steward’s role in 2015. Born to a Xhosa mother and a Swiss father, he was raised in Johannesburg, by an overly religious catholic single unmarried mother (talk about irony and oxymorons). The book revolves around growing up in South Africa as a “mixed” local in the age of apartheid, and later post-apartheid using humour as the main tool of his narration.
His humour is witty and intelligent and at times heartbreaking. After all don’t they say humour can only make sense if it stems from pain? He does not need to use page turning techniques to keep the reader interested; his stories are addictive. His narration is brutally honest and informative without being boring. He explores and explains the issues of race and class and their relationship to one another. He describes what being black in South Africa meant at the apartheid era and how his knowledge of several languages aided him in not only blending in with various groups and tribes but also in being accepted by them.
Noah moves between jokes and serious recollections, introducing his family in an honest and uncensored fashion. His mother, an extremely religious faith holder raises him single-handedly refusing any help from his father. Her character is generously described, giving a raw insight to the environment in which Noah was raised. He explains the custom of name giving in his culture, stating that the Xhosa names traditionally bear meanings. He brings the example of his mother’s name, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah, which means “she who gives back”, or his cousin Mlungisi, whose name translates to “the fixer”.
His mother made sure that he was given a name that had “no meaning whatsoever in South Africa, no precedent in my family… It’s not even a biblical name, it’s just a name. My mother wanted her child beholden to no fate. She wanted me to be free to go anywhere, do anything, be anyone.” Little did she know that 31 years later, across an ocean and several political borders, Trevor, whose name had no meaning, would take over one of the most successful and prestigious comedy talk shows in the United States.
I have to mention one thing though. Patricia Noah, a devout Christian who deeply believes in miracles and is convinced that Jesus saved her after being shot in the head by her ex-husband, is now known to have converted to Judaism. This discrepancy rang interesting and surprising to me. However, I could not find much on it online. Then again, it wasn't too important since my interest lay in Trevor’s journey and not in that of his mother’s.
If you enjoy listening to him speak and fancy a dose of English with a South African accent try the audible version.
The Last Black Unicorn by Tiffany Haddish
I was intrigued to read Haddish’s memoir when on his show, Trevor Noah described her as “I've always wondered what the sun would be like as a human being, and I think I've met that answer”. To which she blushingly responds "Boy, you better stop. I'm ovulation."
Her expressive personality could not be ignored while sitting opposite Noah, promoting her book that recounts her experience of growing up as an African-American young woman in South Central Los Angeles, with a “horn on the forehead” and larger than life personality.
I do have to warn you though, there’s a good amount of swearing going on in this book and nothing is off topic, from her sexual interactions to her temporary job pimping her male friends- “If you’re doing bar mitzvahs, you’re going to meet old Jewish ladies…They started telling me how lonely they were and saying things like, ‘My husband’s not satisfying me.’” And how did she get to meet these ladies in bar mitzvahs? She was employed as an “energy producer”, a PR-refined modern day phrase for the task of Patrick Swayze’s character, Johnny Castle, in Dirty Dancing. She basically danced enthusiastically in parties, bar mitzvahs being her speciality in order to motivate the guests to dance. She worked as a pimp until the men realised they could cut their own deals and her job proved unnecessary as far as they were concerned.
Haddish’s collection of personal essays reflect a rowdy character’s recollections (may be a little too loud if you, like me, initially decide to listen to the audible version instead of reading a copy of the book. I found her shouting a little too much for me during the third trimester of my pregnancy so I ordered the book instead) of a life filled with experiences of abuse, violence, relationships, sex, race and class -not too different from the recurring theme in Noah’s book- and family.
At age eight her mother, after being in a car accident suffers a severe brain injury leading to a change in her personality. She is described by Haddish as never being the same again, and emotionally and physically abusing her own daughter. Due to her mother’s inability to care for her, Haddish spends many years in and out of foster homes where in one particular home she is subject to abuse by an older man. Her experiences of abuse do not end with her adolescence. Her hardships continue well into her adulthood where she is a victim of domestic abuse enforced on her by her now ex-husband.
I wouldn’t call this a fine piece of literature. Frankly, I wouldn’t even consider it an outstanding memoir. This book will not expand your vocabulary nor will it satisfy your need for flowing narration, but it will give you a few things to think about. Haddish’s ability to come out of one terrifying experience after the other is nothing less than awe-inspiring and for her to be able to write about it (and while promoting her book, talk about it in what at times feels a bit too animated) in a humour-induced manner is impressive. I'd suggest this book to anyone who's not too offended by foul language and sex and is looking to get to know the woman who wore the same white dress three times, even at the 2018 Oscars, where I might add, she was presenting an award.
Sisters First by Jenna Bush Hagner and Barbara Pierce Bush
Ok, so I understand that this post has gotten a bit long and many readers may not have bothered to read this far, but I just had to include this next book in this section.
I was ready to hate this book. I'm admitting that I allowed my negative bias towards the 43rd president of the United States to initially throw me into assumptions. But having read an excerpt of it I decided it wouldn't be a total waste of time and nerves to know what's inside it. So I bought the audiobook. (I later got gifted the hardcover and have to say the photos inside are a bit of a treat as a reader who's put picture books aside for over a couple of decades and has just recently picked them back up to read to her baby).
The Bush twins' account of life as first granddaughters and later first daughters tells the tale of two girls raised in a borderline spoiling fashion in the most political family since the Kennedys; girls who summered in Camp David and dined with world leaders, never had to worry about money and knew they could get into any university they set their sights on.
And although its hard to feel sorry for these girls knowing how comfortable their lives have been, I do sympathise with them for some situations they were put in. Barbara, while at Yale, struggles to get good grades in one course even though she's making an effort in her assignments. When she confronts her professor she is told "I'll give you an A if your father doesn't go to war in Iraq". Whatever we think of the Bush administration this kind of treatment by an academic is unacceptable and unprofessional, and I can't imagine how embarrassing it must've been for the young Bush twin to be put in a situation where she was judged and punished for her parent's actions. Even more so when we learn that she's not exactly on the same page as her republican family when it comes to key issues such as marriage equality.
Then there are instances that many of us can relate to. Like the time Barbara was complimented by the Italian prime minister, Berlusconi, on her eyes who goes on to suggest she dates his son, not before declaring "If I was younger, I'd have children with you". Although most of us have had these uncomfortable encounters, but they were with people of less political power, fame and importance.
I'm going to stop here with the spoilers and shall not give more away. This book is definitely one I'd recommend, for a better insight into the lives of an instance of those who didn't choose a political life but were raised in one, where money and comfort was never an issue but security and judgment has been. And who knows, maybe your view of George W. Bush will change a bit. Then again, that probably has, for the better, after the current faux-republican took office and the comparison became laughable.
If you don't want to spend time reading it (I know all too well about the dilemma of having so many bought and unread books in the bookshelf) give the audible version a listen. It is narrated by the twins themselves and will make your morning commute or house chores a little less boring.
All three books are quite different when it comes to their authors. Each raised in a completely dissimilar environment from the next, yet I found them extremely educational. There's only so much you can read on the apartheid or poverty in America or the liberty suffocation imposed on political figures' family members, but hearing it from the horse's mouth is and I was truly surprised by what the pages of these books had to offer.
So that's about it for this time folks. I'm currently devouring as many books as I can (actually eyeing one I'm about to finish that's sitting on my nightstand right now as I rush to finish this post so I can dive into it) since soon I'll be back at my desk and picking up where I had left my research off and reading for fun while caring for a few-month-old with be quite a difficult task.
But until then, happy reading!