By Penny Smith
Trevor Noah, Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood. New York: Soiegel & Grau, 2016.
One of my favorite Presidential books was written way before the man won an eight-year gig at the White House. Dreams of My Father is a coming of age story in which a young Barack Obama tries to understand his complicated family history. Born in Hawai’i to a white mother and an African graduate student, he never really knew the man who fathered him. Raised partially by his mother and her second husband in Indonesia, Obama returned to his home state for his secondary education under the guidance of his white grandparents. He left the islands for college, eventually graduating with a law degree from Harvard.
Moving to Chicago in the 1980s as a community organizer, his mentor while he was a summer associate at the Sidney Austin Law Firm was Michele Robinson. The rest, as they say, is history – marriage, university teaching, politics, children, the convention speech, the Senate and then a couple of new dogs and the big job. Given the behavior of today’s character-flawed occupant of that office, one can’t help but regret the passing of what was, on the part of the family who lived there, eight years of modeling patience, resilience, dignity, great parenting, decency, responsible behavior, respect for learning, and empathy.
Anyone who has read Dreams of My Father cannot fail to sense the authenticity of the man, the self-reflection, the honesty of his quest to understand how to place himself in a United States born in slavery, nurtured into adolescence with Jim Crow laws, and passing into middle age with resurgent nativism. It’s a well-written, thoughtful, simply wonderful book.
I didn’t know what to expect from Trevor Noah’s introduction to himself. Although I sometimes watch Daily Show reruns that at one time came on around 7 PM, I live with someone who has now decided that the proper time to go to bed is somewhere between 6:30 and 6:45 each evening. This is simply not a late night television household and that’s the easiest place to see Trevor Noah in action.
I knew about Noah, because he makes the news the day after his show – he appears in blogs and in news compilations, if he has been particularly political the previous evening. His book was published when he was 32, a young age to begin a retrospective (Obama’s book was published when he was 34.) However, there must be something in that African gene pool that they share – like Obama’s book, this one is also introspective and a mighty good read.
Unlike Obama’s book, it is also often funny – although what would you expect from someone who made his way to fame and fortune as a stand-up comic.
Chapters begin with an account of some aspect of South African life associated with the absurdities of Apartheid. For the dolts among us, those prefaces are printed in a different font. Then the chapter uses an event or events in his life to play off the absurdities and he manages to do that in a coherent, chronological sequence.
Both Noah and Obama’s mothers had trials, with husbands and with work. One difference is that Ann Dunham was born into a middle class striving family and she worked her way through our educational system to a Ph.D. One of the reasons Obama is so passionate about health care is his mother’s battles with insurance companies at the very time she was fighting what became an unsuccessful battle with cancer.
Patricia Nombuyiselo never had the economic and educational advantages of Dunham. Being black in South African automatically placed barriers around one’s life. However, like the women in Obama’s life, she was the major influence on Noah. In many ways Born a Crime is a hymn to her sturdiness and encouragement.
I’m not going to go much into the details of Noah’s journey. You need to take it on your own the first time. The book itself is relatively short (my hardback copy came in at 285 pages), but it’s a page-turner.
Anne Tyler, Vinegar Girl. New York: Hogarth Shakespeare, 2017.
An Aside: Penguin Random House publishes the Hogarth Shakespeare series. The project launched in 2015 and is composed of a mixed set of books by famous authors (Jeanette Winterson, Margaret Atwood) who produce a novel inspired by one of Shakespeare’s plays. This is Tyler’s contribution, based on Taming of the Shrew.
If it weren’t for novels, I’d probably have gone into science. Well, given my joy in reading history, perhaps not. However, I find myself never more than a few days away from reading a novel and have been so afflicted since I discovered the adult section of the Langley Field Base library before I entered my teen years. And there are some novelists to whom I turn when I need a little rest upon my mind, novelists whose subject matter, skill and stillness are guaranteed to make me appreciate my fellow human beings more than I sometimes do. That’s the case, for example, with such contemporary American novelists as Anna Quindlen, whom I first discovered when she worked as a New York Times journalist, with Marilynne Robinson, Edward Jones and Elizabeth Stout. And it’s the case with my favorite all-time author, Eudora Welty.
These novelists tend to write about domestic matters, about little people – that is, they capture the activities of daily life among the not so rich or famous. They have in common the notion that all people are interesting, that the dilemmas of everyday things are as richly layered and laden with lessons as grand tragedies.
My go-to person when I’m feeling rumpled by current events is Anne Tyler. She has an interesting connection to North Carolina, having been raised for several years in the Celo Community, a Quaker commune in the Blue Ridge Mountains. When her family later moved to Raleigh, she found herself a technological know-nothing and left at age 16 for college. Tyler wanted to attend Swathmore, founded by the same Hicksite branch that settled near Celo, but ended up at Duke, where her teachers included Reynolds Price and where Fred Chappell was a classmate. (For those of you who do not know NC writers, we’re talking here about literary royalty.)
Ostensibly Tyler despises all of Shakespeare’s plays and abhors Taming of the Shrew the most. So, it’s not a surprise that Kate Battita, her shrew, comes off a lot better in the novel than she did in the play. The book includes a befuddled, absent-minded single father, who’s a scientist; his assistant (not Igor of Frankenstein fame, but Pyotr), who is facing the prospect of losing his legal immigration status (poor dad can’t carry on his research without him, so he nominates his daughter as prospective spouse); Bunny, an incorrigible sister; a couple of other family members and friends to complicate a wedding; and, of course, Kate, an awkward, acerbic teacher’s aide.
It all works out quite nicely. There’s even a Nobel Prize. Happy reading.