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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Book Review: Born a Crime

Title: Born a Crime
Author: Trevor Noah
Enjoyment Rating: 5/5
Source: Audiobook from Audible

This book is not just another celebrity memoir. I did not know what to expect when I bought Trevor Noah's book. I knew he was from South Africa, that he is the current host of The Daily Show, and that I had enjoyed many clips from his show during the election, but that's about it. The book is billed as a "coming of age story during the twilight of apartheid in South Africa," and since in 2016 I read Nelson Mandela's autobiography A Long Walk to Freedom, my interest was piqued. Trevor's story is far more complicated and eye-opening than I ever would have imagined. Through Trevor's humor in the face of incredible hardship and his masterful storytelling, I will never think about apartheid, race, or crime the same way again.

Trevor was born to an unmarried black Xhosa mother and a white Swiss father in a time when the laws of apartheid made sexual relations between the races a crime punishable by up to five years in prison. Simply being a mixed race, or "colored" boy (a separate legal and cultural classification than white or black), he was evidence of his mother's crime. When he was a young boy staying at his grandmother's house, his cousins would go out to play all day, while he was forced to stay inside or risk being taken by the police. Even as apartheid fell and the laws began to change, Trevor struggled to navigate the codes of race in a country with eleven official languages and many social and political efforts to separate groups and prevent unity. English is his first language, but he speaks several other South African languages and found that shared language defines who you are to people more than color or any other characteristic. Talking the same language says "we are the same."

Trevor's mother is a fascinating woman who flouted social norms of race and gender, and yet still had to live in a country where her son was born a crime and where the police did not even pretend to care about wife battery and issues of domestic violence. Even when she was shot through the head by her ex-husband, the criminal justice system failed to give her attempted murderer even a slap on the wrist.


I wish I could retell here all of the stories in this book, but instead, I will just say, go read it. And if you have any recommendations of books written by women about apartheid, please share.  All I have read and watched so far about apartheid has been largely through a male perspective.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Top 12 Books of 2016

Top 12 Books of 2016

Here are 12 of my favorite books from 2016. Why 12? Because I couldn't make myself stop at 10, and my self-imposed time limit for this post kept me from selecting more. I read or listened to 53 books in 2016. The number seems low compared to my super-reader friends, but I was pleased with managing to average one book per week in a year that started with having my third baby. Thank you audiobooks!

In no particular order:

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell - YA fiction, love story, amazing writing (but heads up for frequent swearing).

Rising Strong by Brene Brown - Non-fiction. How to live vulnerably and bravely and rise after a fall. I love everything Brene Brown and I read this twice.

Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life by Emily Nagoski Non-fiction. Reviewed this one here. Every woman should read this book.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance. Non-fiction. I reviewed this one here.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. Fiction, classic. Amazing writing, fascinating story, but people, this is NOT A LOVE STORY. Mr. Rochester is not a romantic hero, unless you like the secretive, abusive, controlling, brooding type.

Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton. Non-fiction. I love GDM from Momastery. This is her story about battling bulimia and addiction earlier in her life and fighting for her marriage after learning of her husband's infidelity.

Wish You Happy Forever: What China's Orphans Taught Me About Moving Mountains by Jenny Bowen. Non-fiction. Real, normal people can change the world. Jenny Bowen revolutionized the orphanage system in China and improved the lives of countless orphans and families.

My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand. YA fiction. Super fun book. I reviewed it here.

Duskfall (Chaos Queen #1) by Christopher B. Husberg. Adult fiction, dark fantasy. I reviewed it here.

Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela. Because I had heard his name so many times, read quotes from him, seen his pictures, and watched the movie Invictus, I thought I knew a little about Mandela. I knew next to nothing. His life is incredible and he made great personal sacrifices to bring freedom to his people in apartheid South Africa.

Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt. Middle-grade fiction. This is a companion book, not technically a sequel, of The Wednesday Wars, which was also a great book. Schmidt writes fascinating stories with pitch-perfect tone.


On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. Non-fiction. I listened to this book for a second time this year and enjoyed it as much as the first. A must read (or listen!) fir anyone interested in writing, whether or not you have any interest in horror stories. 

Monday, January 2, 2017

Book Review: Hillbilly Elegy

Title: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
Author: J. D. Vance
Enjoyment Rating: 5/5
Source: Audiobook from OverDrive

To kick off 2017, I want to review Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance, which I listened to last month. I liked it enough to buy a copy for one of my brothers and recommend it to several people.

Vance writes honestly and movingly about growing up poor in the rustbelt. His grandparents were Appalachian hillbillies who moved from Kentucky to Ohio with the hope of providing a better future for their children. Vance's grandparents were able to achieve a certain amount of financial success compared to the severe poverty they came from, but Vance's mother and uncle struggled in the dueling cultures of hillbilly violence and secrecy (you don't talk about domestic violence to anyone) and the pressures of middle class life. Vance's mother moved from man to man and struggled to hold down jobs while fighting drug addictions. Due in large part to the loving (if still somewhat chaotic) influence of his grandparents and his decision to join the Marines after high school, Vance made it out of Middletown, Ohio and ultimately graduated from Yale Law School. He writes about the challenges facing poor whites in the rustbelt; towns built up around mills and manufacturing plants that provided upward mobility and stability for one or two generations, but when the mill closes the town dies, and even where they remain open, opportunity for upward mobility becomes scarce. Faced with few achievable options, too many individuals bounce around low-paying jobs and struggle with issues of multi-generational violence and addiction.


Though all of the details of Vance's life are different than mine, I felt it resonate on an emotional level. I grew up as a poor white in a small, agricultural producing town in the Central Valley of California. A lot of the families I knew likewise struggled with issues of domestic violence and/or divorce, drug abuse (prescription pain pills or alcohol most common), and the challenges of a lack of opportunity and upward mobility in a town that sends too few away for higher education and has too few good-paying jobs for them to return to. Vance does not advocate for Donald Trump, and I struggle to see how even a single individual was willing to vote for that man, but I think Hillbilly Elegy is an interesting perspective into the lives of poor whites who see little opportunity or reason for optimism in an economy where manufacturing and mining jobs are shrinking and where they see special interest groups advocating for everyone except for them.