“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.

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“Hungry Heart” by Jennifer Weiner

Hungry HeartI don’t remember how I first became aware of Jennifer Weiner and her debut novel, Good in Bed, but I attended what must have been one of her earliest bookstore events, at the now-defunct Black Oak Books in North Berkeley. Weiner was funny and engaging, and I wish I’d had the means to purchase a signed copy. But at that point in my life I was pretty broke and couldn’t afford to buy hardcovers. I did check it out of the library, and I’ve been a fan ever since.

Her novels have frequently featured autobiographical elements—just for starters, the heroine of Good in Bed has a mom who came out as gay following her divorce, which is also true of Weiner’s own mom, Fran—and Weiner is a regular presence on social media, but Hungry Heart is such a revealing memoir that even her most ardent followers may be shocked at what they learn. Some of the chapters are absolutely heartbreaking, especially one about the death of her mentally ill, frequently-absent father, and one describing her fairly recent miscarriage.

The info about her socially awkward early years will come as no surprise to those who have read her novels. I will admit that I identified strongly with a lot of it. Weiner was a smart kid who skipped third grade (I skipped second). “The trend of skipping grades stopped once educators realized that they were creating a generation of social cripples. By then it was too late for me.” Amen, sister.

Weiner writes about her experience working to open up Princeton’s all-male eating clubs to women; her college writing classes with teachers like Joyce Carol Oates and Toni Morrison; her early, unglamorous journalism jobs before she finally lands at the Philadelphia Inquirer; the fight to publish a novel with a plus-sized heroine; and her own weight loss surgery, which brought her back down to a size 16 after a significant weight gain following the birth of her first child. The only thing she’s pretty circumspect about is her divorce from her first husband (she’s since remarried), but considering that they have two kids together who may one day read this book, it’s probably for the best that she didn’t air too much dirty laundry about that event. It seems like they are amicable co-parents.

Hungry Heart is a brave book, and I really admire the strength it must have taken to write so openly about the lowest points of your life. It’s a fine book for readers of any age, but I hope it finds its way into the hands of her fans in their teens and 20s who will no doubt be reassured that this now-successful woman had to fight very hard and overcome some tremendous obstacles in order to write her own happy ending.

“Troublemaker” by Leah Remini

Troublemaker by Leah ReminiLeah Remini gets right to the point on Page One of her autobiography: “I have done some things in my life that I am not proud of,” including falling in love with a married man and “physically threatening” meter maids. She also reveals that her husband used to deal drugs and her mother was “a self-admitted slut in her younger days.”

Usually, celebrity memoirists don’t deliver info-dumps like this, preferring to gradually roll out the shocking details little by little. But Remini knows that when you leave the Church of Scientology, that makes you a target. The church has no problem attacking “apostates” using confidential information disclosed during auditing (counseling) sessions, meaning that there’s never a shortage of juicy gossip to spill about former parishioners. So Remini decided to beat ’em to the punch by writing a book that airs much of her own dirty laundry.

Remini’s mother joined Scientology when her daughter was a child, so Leah was essentially brought up in the religion. She and her sister Nicole joined the Sea Org (Scientology’s clergy) at a very young age, signing billion-year contracts which were quickly broken once Leah got into trouble for messing around with boys. She went on to bigger and better things, appearing in several dozen failed pilots and canceled TV series before finally hitting the jackpot with “The King of Queens,” which lasted nine seasons and made her a star.

All the while, Remini was forced to spend several hours a day taking Scientology courses and giving huge sums of money (she estimates she spent around $5 million total on services and donations) to the church. Unfortunately, while Leah may have been a big star, she was nowhere near the level of Scientology’s biggest star, Tom Cruise—and when she grew disenchanted with the way Cruise was treated as a sort of demigod within the church, with Sea Org members serving at his beck and call, it marked the beginning of the end for Leah’s own status as a Scientology celeb. Everything came to a head at Cruise’s wedding to Katie Holmes, when Remini noticed all kinds of irregularities: not just Cruise’s wedding seemingly “being regarded as ‘official church business,'” but Tom’s Sea Org “handlers”—a man and a woman both married to other people—were canoodling at a pre-wedding dinner, and church leader David Miscavige was there with a date who was not his wife. Even people who aren’t obsessive Scientology watchers like me have probably heard the phrase “Where’s Shelly?” at some point; Shelly is Miscavige’s wife, and she hasn’t been seen in public for many years. Leah and Shelly were friends, and Leah’s questions about Shelly’s whereabouts led to a tremendous amount of drama. Leah eventually filed a police report declaring Shelly a missing person (pages from the report are reproduced in the book).

There’s so much dish in the Cruise/Holmes wedding chapter that I can’t possibly detail it all (Jennifer Lopez, whose father is a Scientologist, plays a big part); suffice it to say this was finally the tipping point that caused Remini to break publicly with the church she’d been a part of for 30 years. Due to Scientology’s “disconnection” policy, overnight, she became persona non grata to all of her friends in the church. Amazingly, Remini’s entire family agreed to leave Scientology with her. This is a very rare occurrence. Most of the time, at least some family members stay, separating grandparents from grandchildren, sisters from brothers.

It’s kind of amazing that Remini, a mouthy girl from Brooklyn, managed to last as long in the church as she did. She obviously has a great sense of humor, a trait discouraged in Scientology (L. Ron Hubbard called it “joking and degrading” and even issued a formal statement declaring it off-policy). Her book is a fast, fun read, and provides a rare glimpse of what life is like for a genuine Scientology celebrity; most run-of-the-mill parishioners “will never experience seeing behind the curtain like I and a handful of others have,” she writes. Thank goodness for troublemakers.

“Alligator Candy” by David Kushner

Alligator CandyThe “free-range kids” movement seeks to give children the same sort of carefree childhoods their parents enjoyed growing up in the 1970s, those mythical days when moms would push their youngsters out the door on a sunny weekend or summer morning, allowing them to roam the neighborhood at will until dusk. The fact that the movement is so controversial (the woman who coined the term has been vilified in the media as “America’s worst mom”) demonstrates how far we have come; today, it’s considered completely normal to forbid children from playing alone outside even in the most secluded suburban cul-de-sac unless they’re constantly under an adult’s watchful eye.

In his powerful and affecting memoir, Alligator Candy, David Kushner takes us back to the era when children were “unbuckled and unrestrained, free from seat belts or helmets or meticulously organized playdates… When we had a stretch of hours to play, they let us put the free in free time, wandering off to learn and explore and find adventures. They shared our innocence. They hadn’t learned to be afraid.”

This book is about the day David’s family, and by extension his neighbors and city (Tampa, FL) learned to be afraid. On a Sunday in October 1973, David’s older brother Jonathan pedaled away from their home on his red bicycle, headed for the nearby 7-Eleven, located across the woods (“a thicket of freedom, a mossy maze of cypress and palms begging to be explored”). He had promised to return with a package of David’s favorite Snappy Gator gum, which came packaged in a toy alligator head. Jon never returned; after a weeklong search, his body was discovered in a shallow grave.

It later emerged that Jon had been abducted and murdered, but since David was just four at the time of his 11-year-old brother’s death, he knew very little about the details of the crime. He only knew Jon was gone forever. Much later in life, Kushner, now an award-winning journalist, decides to conduct a thorough investigation of Jon’s short life and brutal death. He interviews friends and family members; he reads the police reports, court documents and newspaper coverage.

He also documents his struggles with raising his own children. “The culture had changed,” he writes. “CNN broadcast news stories of missing kids. We heard about Amber Alerts, followed drawn-out abduction stories on Nancy Grace… at what point does fear subsume mindfulness? Parents, drunk on the fear, began hovering over their kids… Kids were more likely to die from an accident inside the house than get murdered by a kidnapper. But the reality of statistics didn’t matter.”

Alligator Candy is part true-crime story, part meditation on grief and loss, and a book that will no doubt prove to be tremendously valuable to families going through the sort of suffering the Kushner family endured. It can be a tough read due to the subject matter, but it’s beautifully written, and David has certainly fulfilled what he set out to do with this book: “I wanted to be the memory harvester,” he writes. “I wanted to learn and tell the story, the whole story of everything. I wanted to bring Jon back to life.”