Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

I just toured Soweto where Trevor Noah grew up in South Africa. Soweto has 50 plus townships where blacks, Indians, and colored people were displaced or forced to live during Apartheid. Nobel Peace prize winners Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu lived on the same block in Soweto and its face has changed over the years reflecting a growing black middle class. Trevor's raw look growing up in post-apartheid Soweto in the 1990s, whose population is over 1 million today, is riveting.

"Born a crime" is how he describes his birth as it was illegal for a white man and black woman to be together in the 1980s. His Swiss dad and Xhosa mom didn't marry when he was conceived, but even then his life was dangerous because of his light skin. He didn't know anyone else whose heritage was of black-and-white descent making unique situations for him and his mom. If he was with his dad, his mother had to walk on the other side of the road. Or if his mother was walking with him and the police came by she'd have to drop his hand and pretend he wasn't her child or else she would be accused of kidnapping a white person's baby.

The overarching theme in Trevor's book is honoring the tenacity, cleverness, and education his mother gave him growing up during a time when there were not many opportunities for South African blacks. He gives personal details interspersed with nonfiction facts that are helpful in understanding the current climate and culture in South Africa. For instance, I'm baffled as a foreigner by the crazy minibus taxi drivers that overload their vans with passengers and drive through lights, drive on sidewalks, drive on walkings paths, drive through fields, stop anywhere they want to pick up passengers, block lanes, and seem to pride themselves in their maniacal driving. In six months I've seen them almost hit a person walking as they spun out of control on the shoulder, tip a van over on its side driving too fast on a roundabout, and go over an embankment trying to pass another van, to name a few. There has been a turf war too, where drivers from two groups shot and killed each other because one group was taking what others considered their routes. Turf wars are common and Trevor describes this hell-on-wheels, gang-like transportation system that most of the population uses to get to and from work. His harrowing experience in one of these taxis and getting tossed out of it while it was moving as a nine-year-old is one of many stories that will keep you flipping the pages.

Trevor's experience in different schools shows the variety of learning experiences that influenced him and his gift with languages that allowed him to be liked by different groups of people, while at the same time, remain an outcast. I didn't understand when he wrote about the Bantu education system and had to look that up on my own. Basically, the 1953 Bantu education act extended Apartheid to black schools and implemented an inferior and racist education system that denied black children the same educational opportunities as white children.

The chapters about Trevor's abusive stepfather shooting his mother execution style and threatening others is frightening in its portrayal of the violence Trevor dealt with in his life. It's amazing that his mom survived her gunshot wounds and joked about it with Trevor in the hospital. The mix of humor and seriousness helps balance the dark spots and makes for an engrossing read. While I enjoyed the book I did think the pacing was off. The end felt rushed and too much time covered leaving me with questions.

Also, some parts of the plot are not always in context and the last chapter repeats a beginning part, but none of this takes away from an easy-to-read authentic tale. In the last chapter, I wasn't quite sure if the mom was engaged. And did others in the group get shot at like her fiance? It sounded like it. His brothers and his relationship with them are not always clear and Isaac's age conflicts with the age Trevor says his mom was at this time. The editing seemed sloppy in parts. But these are minor details. The excellent character development of Trevor's stepfather's dual sides of being charming and violent show a complex person. The relationship with his biological dad is heartwarming and heartbreaking. Many things are done well such as how there was no recourse for his mother with the police and how the justice system didn't serve her.  Trevor's love for his mom holds the plot together giving it cohesiveness even if the context is uneven. I hope he pens another book explaining his journey to the US and breaking into national media.

4 Smileys

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

This interesting graphic novel takes three seemingly different stories and weaves them together in a story that shows the struggles of what it is like growing up in a country as a teenage immigrant and trying to fit in. The first story is a 500-year-old Chinese myth about the Monkey King. This arrogant monkey thinks that he is a god and learns humility and caring for others after getting knocked down. The second story is about a young Asian boy in love with a white girl, but afraid to ask her out. And the last is about a white boy that has to tolerate his cousin portrayed deliberately as a negative Asian immigrant stereotype. The three stories come together in an unlikely way that uses visual and print images to convey messages about immigrants, stereotypes, identity, bullies, and love. The author packs a lot into this book that only took me an hour to read.

Yang takes the Monkey King fable and presents a cocky monkey that tries to become immortal only to have the creator bury him under a mountain of rock. The god-like creator of human beings, Tze-Yo-Tzuh, is a mix of East and West religions, similar to the Christian God and the Taoist, Lao-Tsu. The Monkey King does not free himself until he learns to accept his identity and humble himself.

The second story is about an Asian boy that desperately wants to fit in with other students at school. He perms his hair and avoids the other Asian students until a new boy shows up from China. The Asian boy betrays their friendship and has to make amends. The third story is about a white boy with an Asian cousin who embarrasses him with his immigrant accent, looks, and behavior.

In comics and films, negative Asian stereotyped characters were often presented as wearing a type of sedge hat, having buck teeth, slanty eyes, and a ponytail. The "coolie", a derogatory term for a manual laborer, was usually the sidekick to the white hero. Yang's character is reminiscent of characters such as Chop-Chop, Yellow Peril, and Fu Manchu. Or maybe the immigrant Siamese Twins in Chip-n-Dale's Rescue Ranger with their bad accents are closer to the mark. Either way, I had no idea where Yang was going with the plot on this third story. The first two are about identity and trying to fit in but the third was offensive in its caricature. Yang creatively works this into the plot with a terrific ending - don't worry, I won't give it away. Another winner by the talented artist.

5 Smileys

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

The Complete Maus (Maus, #1-2) by Art Spiegelman

What a fantastic book for our book club discussion where members ranged in age from 13-50 plus. Media propaganda and popular culture have a plethora of anti-semitic caricatures and stereotypes used throughout history to sway public opinion. Art Spiegelman was taking a course in college studying this type of propaganda and political art in comics when he came up with the idea of writing a comic book on his father's survival of the Holocaust. He studied artists such as comic writer, R. Crumb, who drew anti-semitic cartoons against African Americans and Jews during the 1960s. He also studied German political cartoonists like Phillipp Rupprecht, a.k.a.Fips, who worked creating Nazi propaganda during WWII where Jews were portrayed as vicious rats and made scapegoats for various reasons such as the economic problems following WWI. Spiegelman explains this in an article promoting his book, MetaMaus, that it was out of this university class that the idea for writing this graphic novel took seed (Spiegelman).

Spiegelman takes this idea of vermin and turns his father's story into one where Jews are represented as helpless mice; an uncomfortable yet ironic mirror of negative political caricatures. The mice have no expressions on their mouths only when they scream or cry and the pictures are simple, not overly detailed. One person suggested during book club that the lack of a mouth was a symbol of silence while another brought up that Hitler gassed Jews using the same pesticide used to exterminate vermin. The attempt to extinguish a race was conducted in a frighteningly systematic way.

Spiegelman's mice are fearful, loving, and burrow underground to hide from the Nazis.  He tells the story of his father's remarkable resourcefulness and survival skills during a terrible time and the abstraction of anthropomorphizing the characters as mice helps put distance between the horrors of the story making it accessible to a wider and younger audience. The simple illustrations don't distract from the narrative. If the pictures were too detailed, the story flow or fluency might become too interrupted.

I was uncomfortable with the anthropomorphic representations: Jews are mice, Poles pigs, French frogs, German's cats, and Americans dogs. However, the negative caricatures are perhaps the author's way to point to the political and manipulative power of those in government who use images to demean ethnic groups. Or is this representing his father's racist views. He hated Poles and Blacks. Perhaps this is addressed in, "MetaMaus," his book about writing "Maus."

When in the present, the author portrays himself as wearing a mask of a mouse. Is he trying to unmask stereotypes or is it about being a second generation survivor of the Holocaust - a child whose father passed on his guilt of surviving when others didn't? Or is Speigelman symbolizing how difficult it is to write about something that he didn't experience? This is the memory of an event that his father narrates and he wasn't there and doesn't know the details. The author is constructing a past and identity that seems futile; hence, the Samuel Beckett quote and writer's block that is revealed in the therapist session. The comic took 13 years to write leading him to therapy sessions. Or maybe he is trying to unmask his own identity and come to terms with his own trauma.

The story is framed by the author interviewing his father whose behavior was irrational, contradictory, and loving at times; yet, understandable as someone who had to survive by his wits and broad base of knowledge during the Holocaust. His son had an inferiority complex never feeling good enough, but the father seemed to be projecting his Holocaust survival skills onto his son in their relationship. It becomes evident as the father's tale unfolds that he survived Auschwitz because he knew a little bit of many jobs and was able to fake it until he gained new skills; he shows this as he becomes a cobbler, tinsmith, and salesman, to name a few. He also bribed when necessary, saving his bread and trading to get some protection. If he didn't have the answer, he found someone that did. Spiegelman captures the complexity of his father's love, flaws, and damage caused by the Holocaust through the metafictional story of their relationship as he interviews him for the book he is writing.

The story also shows the author struggling with guilt. He feels guilty that his book was so successful it won the Pulitzer Prize and that he actually profited from the Holocaust. Spiegelman discusses his guilt with a therapist, and his ambivalence toward it:  "No matter what I accomplish, it doesn't seem like much compared to surviving Auschwitz." The therapist suggests that his father took his guilt out on him for surviving the camps. The therapist also says that the victims can't tell their story. Spiegelman quotes Samuel Beckett, "Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness" revealing how words are necessary to tell this tragic story but inadequate.

Quoting Beckett shows how Spiegelman stumbles to find words to name the unnameable. The novel has an insert about his mother's suicide when he was young. He expresses a desire to know her story but his father has burned all her diaries. Much of the story revolves around the unresolved trauma of his father losing his firstborn, Richlieu, and the death of the mother. Her story is untold and silent just like the mouths of the mice. Spiegelman must deal with that trauma in his own way.  In a powerful ending, when Spiegelman's father's health is failing he calls the author his dead first son's name, Richlieu, revealing just how deep the loss has been for him. A terrific book and not to be missed.

5 Smileys

Monday, February 6, 2017

Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War by Mary Roach

Every time I sit down to write this review, I struggle with the right words and can't help but feel like a "goober" myself. Journalist Mary Roach has a terrific voice that makes this science piece easy-to-read and while I laughed, for the most part, there were other times when it was too much. I am glad I read it after, "The Pentagon's Brain: An Uncensored History of DARPA, America's Top-Secret Military Research Agency" by Annie Jacobsen because it gave me some historical context that is lacking in Roach's book. Roach is upfront about not specializing in history or science, "I'm the goober with the flashlight, stumbling into corners and crannies..." Parts of her story were interesting, others not, and the end definitely abrupt; however, I appreciate the attempt to create characters that are easily visualized. Although even that got repetitive at times. The book doesn't quite nail it, but it is worth reading if you want to know about the side of the military that gets little press such as fabric design for combat, blast wounds, medic training, hearing loss, types of repellents, phalloplasty, and diarrhea to name a few.

Her self-deprecating humor and figurative language add to the light tone and great voice. She pokes fun at her lack of knowledge throughout such as thinking that a mechanic's tattoo of pistons are martial arts weapons because of his fierce appearance. On a ship, she makes the mistake of identifying rifle holders as cup holders. She creates characters through detailed descriptions that I liked but became somewhat repetitious, particularly at the start. It seemed most people were gorgeous, adorable, or muscular: "She is gorgeous, articulate, fast-moving, powerful. Lesser humans left blinking in her wake" or "...with a superhero jaw and muscles so big that when he walks in front of the slide projector, entire images can be viewed on his forearm" or " you wouldn't use the word distinguished but adorable." Another officer is "droll" and "adorable". Even the maggots are "adorable" as "they move like inchworms, like something you might see humping along the pages of a children's book." That image gave me pause. Here's another one, "His incisors touch down on his lower lip like children jumping on a bed." No adorable, but an interesting simile. A fun made-up word is, "The whole business is straight off my fathometer." Sometimes she kapow's the reader with phrases that hide her lack of depth on a topic. 

Other times the book has a seriousness and poignancy that is insightful. She admires the bonding of soldiers and selflessness that defies reason. A man that lost both legs was more concerned about his fellow soldiers being okay than the fact he'd just stepped on an IED. Or how another soldier lost his limbs but said the worst part was losing his hearing because it made it so difficult to communicate with his wife and children. Or the part about how much the government spent millions on shark repellent based on one man's experience and another's political connections. She nails it sometimes and misses the mark at others. And the chapters are connected in a loose manner. As a journalism major, I enjoyed and admired how Mary Roach wrote this piece. She tackles many different topics and perhaps this is the downfall. It might have been better if she had focused on fewer. If you are looking for something historical or scientific then you might want to pair this with another book.

4 Smileys