“Born a Crime” by Trevor Noah

Born A CrimeI think Trevor Noah is doing a great job as host of “The Daily Show.” He’s funny, charismatic and attractive, and his accent work is killer. However, I spent eight long years slogging through the George W. Bush administration with Jon Stewart, and when Trump got elected, I just couldn’t bring myself to tune into the madness on a daily basis. So I’m now an occasional “TDS” viewer.

Noah’s autobiography, however, is one I’d recommend to anyone, be they fans of his comedy or folks who have only the vaguest idea of who he is. There are a couple chapters that allude to his success (he was a huge star in his native South Africa before he made a splash in the U.S.), but 95% of the book deals with his childhood. It’s a remarkable tale, and Noah tells it very well.

Born a Crime is truly a singular story. Trevor Noah was in no way a typical South African child, thanks largely to his mother, Patricia Nombuyiselo Noah. She decided to get pregnant by a Swiss-German neighbor, despite the fact that interracial relationships were illegal. Since the son’s skin was conspicuously lighter than his mother’s, Patricia frequently had to find a colored woman willing to walk young Trevor to school (his mother would follow behind, “like she was the maid working for the colored woman”).

Patricia was devoutly religious, insisting that her son accompany her to three separate church services on Sundays, as well as various Bible studies during the week. Despite all of that time spent in houses of worship, Trevor was quite the handful as a child. At age seven, he accidentally burned down a white family’s house (he was playing with their maid’s son). Decades later, Noah is unapologetic: “Things catch fire sometimes. That’s why there’s a fire brigade. But everyone in my family will tell you, ‘Trevor burned down a house.’ If people thought I was naughty before, after the fire I was notorious. One of my uncles stopped calling me Trevor. He called me ‘Terror’ instead. ‘Don’t leave that kid alone in your home,’ he’d say. ‘He’ll burn it to the ground.'”

There are plenty more crazy anecdotes in the book, which is just a delight from start to finish. By the end, even nonbelievers may find themselves convinced that somebody up there is looking out for Patricia, whose terrifying brush with death is detailed in the final chapter.

Noah vividly captures the grit and determination it took to escape poverty and abuse (at one point, Trevor, his mom and stepfather were so broke they had to eat caterpillars, a.k.a. “Mopane worms,” in order to survive: “there’s poor and then there’s ‘Wait, I’m eating worms,'” writes Noah). Born a Crime is a compelling memoir, as well as a loving tribute to the powerful woman who raised her son “as if there were no limitations on where I could go or what I could do”—a fine rebuke to the dehumanizing system of apartheid.

“Commonwealth” by Ann Patchett

commonwealthOne small decision can change everything, reverberating for decades to come. That is the central theme of Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, her sprawling family saga which tracks the members of two different families that come together and fall apart, beginning in the early 1960s.

The fateful decision was made by Bert Cousins, a lawyer in the Los Angeles district attorney’s office. Wanting to escape from his own large family, he opts to crash a christening party he’d heard about in passing, bringing a large bottle of gin as a gift. The child in question belongs to Fix Keating, a cop, and his movie-star-gorgeous wife, Beverly. An encounter between Bert and Beverly leads to a kiss, and the next thing you know, Beverly and Bert have left their respective spouses for each other, complicating the lives of six young kids (her two, his four). There is a move to Virginia, the commonwealth of the title, and a death that shakes the families’ world.

There’s no denying that Commonwealth is a beautifully-written book, with lots of perceptive things to say about families, aging, love, and the randomness of life, but I sometimes found myself wishing I’d drawn a family tree as I read, because there are a lot of characters to keep track of: Fix and Beverly, Bert and his first wife Teresa, their offspring, plus a gaggle of spouses, in-laws, stepchildren and lovers. Did there really have to be so many children? I would mutter as I tried to remember which kid came from which parents. The book demands attentive reading, as it does not follow a linear timeline.

In the end, it just sort of stops (I was reading Commonwealth on an e-reader, so I was unaware of how many pages were left), and I had the sense that Patchett could have kept going for another hundred pages, filling in details of characters we hadn’t come to know as well as others. (Beverly’s eventual divorce from Bert and subsequent remarriage to her third husband is mentioned in passing fairly early on, but I had forgotten about it and was surprised to encounter that spouse in the book’s final chapter.) If you’re a Patchett fan and plan on reading this book, do so with a pen and paper next to you and create a list of characters; I’ll bet you’ll find yourself referring to it several times along the way.

“Today Will Be Different” by Maria Semple

today-will-be-differentI will admit that there have been days when I’ve awakened and run through a pep talk similar to the one on the first page of Maria Semple’s Today Will Be Different, the follow-up to her blockbuster Where’d You Go, Bernadette? “Today, anyone I speak to, I will look them in the eye and listen deeply… Today I will take pride in my appearance… Today there will be an ease about me. My face will be relaxed, its resting place a smile. Today I will radiate calm. Kindness and self-control will abound… Today will be different.”

Of course, what would be the point of this comic novel if Eleanor Flood’s day actually did result in her becoming her “best self, the person I’m capable of being”? Instead, everything goes disastrously wrong, careening from bad to worse.

Even if I could sometimes relate to Eleanor, though, I didn’t particularly enjoy this book, which seems like a lesser version of Bernadette (once again, the protagonist is a Seattle mom who wishes she lived elsewhere, with a kid who goes to the tony Galer Street School). Right at the beginning, we hear from Eleanor’s first-person voice: “You’re trying to figure out, why the agita surrounding one normal day of white-people problems?” I kept asking myself that same question as the book progressed.

The book takes place on a single day, though there are occasional third-person flashbacks filling us in on things in Eleanor’s past, and these are the best parts of the book. First-person Eleanor just isn’t very likable, and I say that as somebody who has stood up for “unlikable” female protagonists many times in the past. She’s almost pathologically self-absorbed, and not particularly interesting.

To wit, a minor spoiler: at one point, Eleanor ties her dog (a Boston Terrier-pug mix!) to a cart rack in a big box store parking lot, and then forgets about him. At the very end of the book, she finally goes to retrieve him and fortunately, he’s OK, but I spent the last half of the book thinking to myself, “But what about the dog?” For me, that was simply a bridge too far. This reader never forgot about you, Yo-Yo!

“The Night Bird” by Brian Freeman

The Night Bird by Brian FreemanCan memories be changed? It sounds far-fetched, but there is actually a growing body of scientific evidence showing how easy it is to manipulate memory. This article recounts a study where volunteers watched an episode of the TV show “24,” were fed false information about what they had seen, and later took a quiz about the program. The experiment demonstrated that under certain circumstances, memories can be selectively rewritten.

I’m pretty sure the scenario in The Night Bird, in which a deranged madman “programs” people to kill themselves and/or others by messing with their memories and implanting suggestions, is 99% implausible, but at least it’s grounded in reality. Dr. Frankie Stein (yes, she’s heard all the jokes about her name) treats patients who have developed crippling phobias as a result of traumatic experiences, such as a girl who grew terrified of water after a kayaking accident. Dr. Stein rewrites the bad memories and replaces them with different ones: the doctor “reconstructed a completely different version of the accident,” one in which her patient “didn’t topple under the weight of the current. She kept control… That was her reality now. That was what she remembered.”

But when someone with a grudge against Dr. Stein begins kidnapping patients she’s worked with and further manipulating their memories, causing them to snap when a particular song (Carole King’s “Nightbird”) is played, the doctor teams with San Francisco homicide detective Frost Easton to figure out who is carrying out this deadly vendetta.

You do have to suspend your disbelief a bit in order to fully enjoy this book—I could buy some of the memory stuff, but toward the end, the killer manages to plant his suggestions into someone who wasn’t even an official patient of Dr. Stein’s (she’d only gone in for a single consultation). Also, Frost is a pretty unconventional cop; he seems to have a lot of latitude to go out on his own to follow tips or hunches. Still, I really enjoyed reading The Night Bird. It’s a genuine page-turner, and even though Freeman lives in Minnesota, he’s obviously done his research on San Francisco; the book’s setting provides the reader with an amazing sense of place. Since I live in the Bay Area, I always like reading books that take place here, and Freeman writes about it so well that you’d swear he must be a local.

As a bonus, Frost has a cat named Shack who is one of the most unusual and delightful fictional pets I’ve encountered in quite some time. If you’re going to read a book about a diabolically brilliant serial killer, it helps to have a cute kitty (who is never in jeopardy at any time during the book—don’t worry, feline fans!) along to provide a few moments of levity.