Born A Crime: Stories From A South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

At the moment my two favorite comedians, and also the main faces of my Facebook newsfeed, are Trevor Noah and Shayne Smith. Shayne Smith tells jokes that have me rolling on the floor laughing because I can either relate, or because they’re just totally absurd. But Trevor Noah, even when he makes a joke, he makes me think. And I love that. His life experiences are so vastly different from anything I could ever imagine, and everyone will have different opinions on this, but to me, his perspective usually feels so…just all-encompassing and well-thought. I feel like he is able to give credit to and kindly acknowledge multiple view points on each issue while giving his own such that I have to be careful to not just accept everything he says as true. I took this picture below from off his daily show website (it had a little “download” button right on it, so hopefully that’s okay! *fingers crossed*

So, when I saw that he had written a book about his childhood, I HAD TO get it from the library and finished reading it in just a few days.

PC: Gavin Bond

Trevor Noah was born in Johannesburg, South Africa (the first image in this post shows the Johannesburg skyline), and “Born A Crime” is the story of how he maneuvered apartheid as a total outcast of the system – not really black, not really white, and not comfortable pretending to be like the other “colored” people that looked like him. Not only that, but in “a woman’s world” where he had no good male role models shares the things he learned from the ladies in his life, and the religion that filled their life.

I can’t say enough good things about this book, the sense of humor amid some deep and disturbing circumstances, the way he thinks about apartheid and people in general, and all the little lessons he squeezes in throughout the book. The book manages to lace abuse, tragedy, humor, love, faith and all the complicated overlap of those things together.

He describes himself as a naughty child, and has the stories to prove it, but I especially appreciated a moment in the book when he took a step back to defend children who’s parents struggle to discipline them, try as they might. He explains that family considered him destructive as a child, but he never intentionally destroyed anything. He just was trying to figure out how things worked. And often broke things in the process. Like in a very minor incident when his mom became upset at him for drawing on the walls, he felt terrible and vowed to never disappoint his mom by doing this thing again. But how would he remember not to do it?? Oh! He could write a note to himself on the wall, of course! And there he was, right back at the wall with a crayon. I found this so insightful into my own son’s little brain, and think that every reader will find themselves at some point in this book caught between realizations of your own misled thoughts/reactions to people, and simultaneously laughing at the presentation of his many schemes and predicaments.

I definitely recommend this book, especially to people who struggle with thoughts of racism, of feelings of being outcasts, who search for miracles, and to those who just love a good read.

The Line Becomes a River by Francisco Cantu

The grandson of a Mexican immigrant, Cantu struggles to understand his family’s relationship with the U.S. Mexico border patrol by joining the border patrol itself! As a Mexican-American studied in the international issues, with a tender heart, and the necessary Spanish skills, he hopes to be able to bring some kindness to the families being turned back at the border while helping establish justice and fair rules. He wants to know where and if there is a balance between the two. So the story starts there – leaving his schooling to pursue training on the ground as a border patrol agent. In part two, he is transferred to an intelligence position, which gives the audience a look into a second aspect of how the border patrol runs. Finally, having stepped away from the border patrol after a few years of service, Cantu learns that a wonderful friend has been detained after trying to cross the border and has to decide what he can do to help the family.

Next to the man it reads: “For (To) a world without walls”
Photo by Max Böhme on Unsplash

I honestly can’t imagine a better method of addressing this issue than what Cantu has accomplished. He mixes his schooling and research on the matter, his family and personal demons, as well as his professional experiences into a really beautiful illustration of what has been occurring at the border between the U.S. and Mexico. Not only is he articulate but there’s something really poetic and simple in his style that just sucked me in and made it all so much more emotional to read. I especially love the way he maintains his identity and culture by unashamedly weaving in bits of Spanish conversations without translation throughout the book.

I also appreciate that I kept waiting and waiting for him to give his solution, or any solution, or for him to just call out a problem and curse it for its awfulness. But he doesn’t. The voice in my head that I’ve created for Francisco Cantu speaks with a softness, and sometimes is sad, but never accusatory, crude or judgemental. And because of this, as I read I felt like I was able to make my own decisions about what needs to change and be done. What is working well already and what has shown improvement.

And after watching this video now, I think I’m mostly right about my choices in his voice. Here’s his similarly short synopsis and invitation to read the book:

The Beekeeper

January now officially kicks each new year off with National Human Trafficking Awareness Month! And as such, it seems like appropriate a time as ever to catch up on some book reviews, namely “The Beekeeper”.

Photo by Akira Hojo on Unsplash

This book is a true story, and one filled with true horrors. With that being said, I want to share a quote from a book called “Slave Stealers” by Tim Ballard before getting into this.

“Do you have children, Tim?”

“Yes,” I responded, my eyes matching the intensity I was reading in his.

“Then let me ask you something….” He hesitated. He must have known the question was somewhat cruel. But he went forward with it anyway.

“Could you get in bed and sleep at night, knowing that one of your children’s beds was empty?”I knew the answer was no, but I couldn’t get the word out, as instant tears and emotion blocked my ability to vocalize. I just shook my head.

“Slave Stealers”, pg 56, Tim Ballard

Books like this can be hard to digest, but Tim Ballard argues that if we don’t learn how to make it personal- imagining our own children and recognizing that the victims are real children of other heartbroken parents – and act as if our own families and loved ones were on the line, then this criminal market will never end. So in the parts when your heart and tear ducts start to swell at the same rate, and you think you’d rather just not finish, consider for a minute why you feel that way and what you can do. It might just be a defining moment in the start to someone’s rescue.

“The Beekeeper” is based on true stories from Abdullah Shrem, a beekeeper working to help liberate Yazidi women kidnapped by Daesh (aka ISIS), who through many means and people escape. He tells their stories in hopes of bringing light to the problem and to “rally the troops,” so to speak, against ISIS.

But for all the horrors, this book is very interestingly written, leaving no words to the author alone, but always quoting verbatim the conversations she had with the beekeeper and others involved in the rescues or being rescued.

If you’d like to learn more about the author and Abdullah Shrem (the beekeeper), then you can also check out this PBS News Hour Report and interview with her!

Red Notice by Bill Browder

Um. Whoa.

Can that be a sufficient summary for this book review?

“Red Notice” is Bill Browder’s autobiography, yes, but it’s also his personal testament and accusation against his murderers.

Photo by Etty Fidele on Unsplash

Wait, what?

Yeah. It’s that crazy. Bill Browder is still touring the world in 2019, making global change, and very much alive. But he’s pretty sure he already knows if he’s found with a bullet in his head exactly who will have given the kill-order: Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, or another high-ranking Russian oligarch in the Putin regime. So he just wanted to make sure everyone else in the world knows too.

If you’ve seen “Kicking and Screaming” then you can appreciate all the “He’s Dick, and he’s got balls!” jokes.

To put that into perspective, Vladimir Putin might just be one of the wealthiest men in the world ruling the most openly corrupt government in the world. I say “might”, because his net worth apparently is dependent on who you ask (click here to read about speculation of his net worth). Can you imagine the resources at his fingertips? You might after this story.

Now seriously, Bill Browder has some serious guts. His story is incredible, and as a result he’s been called Putin’s No 1 Enemy.

From a cultural history perspective, this story is fascinating, because we see an example of how an American helps create a major cultural shift in Russia. But also, it’s so important to be conscious of how you read generalized statements. There are so many times that Browder says something along the lines of “Russia is….just that way.” In this book, that Russia that he is usually referring to is the government of Russia, but in any book we have to consider exactly what group the author is interacting with and not allow a generalization lead to misinformation or incorrect ideas.

I know a very different version of Russia (I was there 2013-2014 at the very end of this book’s timeline), because I was involved in a religious mission, whereas Browder was invested in finance and politics. And it was interesting to me at the beginning to read some of his generalizations about Russian people being cynical and guarded. So often I met people just the opposite, and there are a lot of reasons to that. I have a very naive view Russia. But, the further into the book that I got, the more I found myself thinking that I would have read so many situations better if I had read a book like this before going to Russia.

He describes one scene in particular that I can relate to wherein a sick man falls into traffic and nobody wants to help him for fear of being falsely accused by the police. I never could understand this when I was in Russia, but I felt that his observations were pretty well-grounded as I read the book, and allowed me to reflect on personal experiences with a whole new meaning.

I’ve waited for this book for 6 months to finally be available from the library and it was worth every second of the wait. As if the book wasn’t good enough, I also searched Youtube for some videos that are vital to the story and was so impressed at what I found. I don’t know what I envisioned when he talked about the Youtube content they created, but these are really really great videos that describe in simple terms major parts of the story and were used in order to protect different people and fight the corruption of Russian government simultaneously.

There are at least 3 in this series that should be listed when you follow this link to Youtube.

I also found a number of TEDtalks given by the man himself – Bill Browder – and this one is another decent summary of events in this story. But still, you have to read the book!

Pachinko

I hate to admit that I read an R-rated book, but the first thing you have to know about “Pachinko” if you’re on my blog is that it is NOT for youth. This is not one I would put on my bookshelves for the long haul, and because of that, I didn’t know whether or not I’d give it a review at all. But the excuses for why I kept reading through the book is because it really was such an interesting look into a WWII racism-fueled relationship between the Japanese and Koreans. If you haven’t read “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea” then plan to read these two titles back to back for a whole array of perspectives on an overlapping bit of history. If you care to have a little more chronological order, then read this one first as it starts and ends earlier. You almost forget that it’s fiction. Almost. And then there is that other layer of the book bearing the motto “a woman’s lot is to suffer.” It takes you through how different women (and men) deal with that suffering. Do they grin and bear it, rise to the occasion, or let it overwhelm them? It does all of this by basically following 4 generations of shameful acts on a Korean family that ended up living in Japan around the time WWII.

There are two things you will need to understand before this book is over: 1. go-saeng and 2. pachinko.

Go-saeng,” Yangjin said out loud. “A woman’s lot is to suffer.”
“Yes, go-saeng,” Kyunghee nodded, repeating the word for suffering.
All her life, Sunja had heard this sentiment from other women, that they must suffer – suffer as a girl, suffer as a wife, suffer as a mother – die suffering. Go-saeng – the word made her sick. What else was there besides this? She had suffered to create a better life for Noa, and yet it was not enough. Should she have taught her son to suffer the humiliation that she’d drunk like water? In the end, he had refused to suffer the conditions of his birth. Did mothers fail by not telling their sons that suffering would come?

Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee

This book offers some very thought-provoking questions, like the one above, about the suffering that comes with this life.

I got way too far into the book before figuring out what a pachinko even is. At first, I was honestly envisioning a bowling alley, which just made no sense – why it would be frowned upon to work in a Japanese bowling alley. So don’t be like me and think that if you read this story. Instead, imagine a hundred slot machines and line them up in a small building or room. Also, take away the money that you would cash your coins in for gambling, and instead use your pachinko balls to trade in for special prizes or tokens. Gambling is illegal in Japan, but the loophole people found was to exchange their pachinko ball winnings for special tokens, and then sell those special tokens on the black market. And just like that, people have their gambling. Voila! Hence why its frowned upon. And yet some of the major characters of this book working at pachinko parlors are some of the most well-off characters! It’s these kind of backwards situations that carry the plot along – giving in to some “shameful” act and then living with any blessings, consequences, lies and scrutiny that follow.

Photo by Emile Guillemot on Unsplash

Physical deformities, illegitimate pregnancies, disagreeing with the government, preaching an unwanted gospel, internalized racism, gender equality, homosexuality, suicide, abortions, it’s like the Japanese-Korean “Inferno” diving through all the levels of things these people wanted to hide from a judgemental society. A society trying to figure out who they were and where everyone stands within a post-war mess that’s had multiple cultures all forced into this uncomfortable mixing of different kinds of people living together. So if you’re wondering what the historical relationship between Japan and Korea is, this might just be a good read for you.

Nothing To Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea

I think the kids nowadays say “I’m shook”? And I feel like this is the correct context for my first time ever using that slang, because this book for reals left me “shook”.

I just can’t say enough good things about the work and research that went into this book. And for people to share their stories like this is incredible too when you think about it! The author tells the overlapping true stories of 7 different people and their families as they slowly discover that communism doesn’t work and the leader they so loved has cheated them.

The alarming problem with North Korea that is illustrated in this non-fiction text is not that they live in squalid conditions under crazy dictators and without electricity. (I mean, that’s a huge problem, but that’s not the most alarming part.) No. The alarming problem is that Korea made its way into the twentieth century at pace with the rest of the industrialized world, but before the century ended, North Korea LOST their power grid. Can you imagine living your normal life with internet and theaters and telephones (which I can assume you have if you’re reading this), going through something as awful as a war, and then slowly watching each of those things be taken away as the electricity goes out?! It just blows my mind. I had never stopped to wonder what North Korea had once been, only ever looking at it as we all know it now.

I can’t even say more without giving it away. Just go read it. Please. And then tell me you read it so we can gab about it and maybe start a book club!

The Lemon Tree

Do you know the difference between a keffiyeh and a fez? Or are those words totally new to you? What about the term “Nakba”? If you answered ‘no’, then that makes me feel better because I didn’t know before reading this book either!

“The Lemon Tree” addresses the Arab-Israeli conflict from the 1930s on. If you can send me a word that has an edge of the hard feeling of “ignorant”, but also encompasses “its my teachers fault for not ever covering that”, then that would sum up how I felt at certain points in this book. Like, why is it so hard for me to accept that WWII had such a huge impact on Palestine as to cause this ongoing fight I grew up being (sort of) aware of? And why wouldn’t the conflict between JEWS and Palestinians have roots in a WWII-coping Palestine. It’s not called a “world war” unless it affects the majority of the world, right? Of course the mass scale migration of Jews into Palestine started at a time when they were being hunted like witches. Some world history student I was, right?!

This book is so interesting not only for the crash course in a major section of world history, but also because it’s a true story of what I’m going to christian “cultural frenemies”. Dalia and Bashir have this incredibly unique and mature connection that just leaves you wondering how they do it – how are they so kind to each other when they feel so strongly against each other at the same time. It’s the kind of stuff you really just can’t make up. **Spoiler Alert** At times I felt certain that they would either become romantic, or someone or their family member would tragically die. Neither of those happened. And still, the story is so so gripping and thought-provoking. It’s most definitely a worthwhile read.

You can also learn more by looking at Dalia and Bashir’s peace center, which I think is really amazing, for Israeli and Palestinian children here:

http://www.friendsofopenhouse.co.il/