“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.

“Precious and Grace” by Alexander McCall Smith

Precious and GraceNote: This review contains a mild spoiler.

A couple days after Sept. 11, 2001, having immersed myself in the tragic news, I reached the point where I needed a little bit of an escape. This was in the days before Netflix and Amazon Prime, but I had recorded some movies and shows on my trusty old VCR, and for some reason decided to watch a TV movie called “Mazes and Monsters.” It was based on a Rona Jaffe novel that came out during the height of the satanic panic over Dungeons & Dragons, and starred a young Tom Hanks in his first major role. I assumed it would be campy fun.

Hanks’ character Robbie begins suffering from psychotic delusions that he truly is the cleric he portrays in his fantasy role-playing game. All these years later, I have forgotten the plot details, but here’s Wikipedia: Robbie “start[s] drawing maps that will lead him to a sacred person he has seen in his dreams called the Great Hall. In his dream, the Great Hall tells him to go to the Two Towers, which is in fact the World Trade Center, and he believes that by jumping off one of them and casting a spell, he will finally join the Great Hall.” I remember sitting in front of the TV with my jaw dropped, feeling shocked that the silly film I had planned to watch in order to get a break from the news actually featured a big climax starring the Twin Towers. I mean, what are the odds?

I found myself thinking about that situation a few days ago after finishing Precious and Grace, the newest novel in one of my favorite series: Alexander McCall Smith’s gentle, lyrical non-murder mysteries about Botswana’s number-one lady detective, Mma Ramotswe, and her secretary-turned-co-detective Mma Makutsi. I had turned to Precious and Grace hoping for a respite from the election madness. In most respects the book did not disappoint, but one of the subplots… well, let’s just say that it also involved an election. There were two candidates, one of them so narcissistic and irresponsible that there’s simply no way the person could ever emerge victorious. Of course, that is exactly what happens.

“I have no appetite,” said Mma Makutsi upon hearing the news. “I could not touch food. Not tonight. Not for some days, I fear… My heart is broken, broken, broken.”

“Mma Makutsi shook her head in disbelief… Did people not realize? Were people such poor judges of character as to be unable to see [winning candidate] for what she was?”

Mma Ramotswe responded: “There are many things in the world that are not right. You only have to look about you and you see them.”

All in all, it wasn’t quite as on the nose as the “Mazes and Monsters” coincidence, but it still brought me back to reality. In fiction, just like in real life, the people you root against don’t always get their comeuppance.