Book Review: Teach Me How To Laugh

A fun fact about yours truly is that one of my favorite genres is Comedian Autobiography. If I’m going to read about someone’s life, where there are probably going to be some sad parts (as is true in many lives), I want to at least laugh a little.

Born a Crime is no exception in this regard, but it does change the rules I’d come to expect in the Comedian Autobiography genre.

(Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah (2016) Photo Credit: Google Books)

 

Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood came out late last year. Unlike the other autobiographies I’d read (and am currently working through) by the likes of Amy Poehler, Terry Crews, Tina Fey, and Mindy Kaling, Trevor Noah is still a fresh face. Literally. These other people had published their books after years and years of working usually in a different industry or going to college, usually after having kids, getting married, getting divorced, switching industries, etc. etc. Trevor Noah was not only born and raised in South Africa, but he is also a millennial, a recent 33-year-old. Although he’s been touring the world for years as a comedian, it wasn’t until he got the gig as the John Stewart’s Daily Show successor in 2015 that America truly knew his name.

Trevor Noah takes over the Comedy Central’s Daily Show from John Stewart (2015) (Photo Credit: Sky Valley Chronicle)

Perhaps that’s why the autobiography doesn’t read like others in the genre, with a mostly straightforward chronology of the author’s life with a few interludes and thanks thrown in. No, Born a Crime is more like a collection of interludes and pieces of South African history, of stories from a South African Childhood, with common themes of Noah’s appreciation of his mother, Patricia, his thought-out plans of mischief, and his desire to one day fit in connecting the dots between each tale.

Born a Crime also reads more like a fiction novel than a non-fiction biography. From the the very beginning, Noah sets up an underlying sense of suspense and the importance of his mother in his life despite all of the other characters that weave in and out of his narrative, all with the charismatic and comedic tone we’ve come to recognize as Noah’s unique voice:

To this day I hate secondhand cars. Almost everything that’s gone wrong in my life I can trace back to a secondhand car. Secondhand cars made me get detention for being late to school. Secondhand cars left us hitchhiking on the side of the freeway. A secondhand car was also the reason my mom got married. If it hadn’t been for the Volkswagen that didn’t work, we never would have looked for the mechanic who became the husband who became the stepfather who became the man who tortured us for years and put a bullet in the back of my mother’s head–I’ll take the new car with the warranty every time (Noah “Run” 9)

Whether I was learning  about the apartheid’s effects on Noah’s existence during the 1980s and ’90s, relating to his love/hate relationship with church in a black family, laughing at his many (MANY) misguided pranks gone wrong and the consequences, or crying at moments that just seemed unfair, the back of my mind was constantly begging me to turn the page, “But what happens to his mom? We have to find out what happens to his mom.” The answer to that occurs at the end, the last chapter of the book, titled “My Mother’s Life,”  the telling of which kept me tensed up and silent until I reached the last page…

Another reason Born a Crime seems like an outsider to the comedian autobiography genre is not totally surprising to me, after reading the book, is because Noah, himself, has constantly felt like an outsider. Because his existence as a mixed child of a black African mother and white European father was considered a crime for part of his childhood (because of the apartheid), Noah had a strange childhood–he couldn’t go out to play with the other kids or even with his mother for fear of someone arresting his mother or taking him to an orphanage; even under mild circumstances, such as in a lower-policed area, seeing his father in public or even addressing him as “Dad” was out of the question.

Even after the apartheid is over, Noah has trouble fitting in–whose group does he go to? The blacks? The whites? Noah is like a chameleon, who knows different languages, even as a child, and uses this skill to navigate between different groups of people, people from different tribes, even when he is still on the outskirts.

Nelson Mandela once said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” He was so right. When you make the effort to speak someone else’s language, even if it’s just basic phrases here and there, you are saying to them, “I understand that you have a culture and identity that exists beyond me. I see you as a human being” (Noah “The World Doesn’t Love You” 236)

Anyone who’s seen Trevor Noah’s comedy special Afraid of the Dark will not be surprised by his ability to seamlessly master a variety of languages and accents. But, in the special as well as the book, Noah doesn’t use this ability only to translate or get what he wants; he uses it to understand. A common feature of the comedian autobiography is the author feeling like an outsider and using the gift of laughter as their ticket into the world, the club everyone else seems to be a part of. Here, Noah provides the reasoning behind this, basically saying, “They laugh because they can relate to it. Joy, like sadness, is something everyone can understand, something everyone can express. We all sound the same when we laugh.”

Trevor Noah’s Netflix Comedy Special “Afraid of the Dark” (2017) (Photo Credit: Just Watch)

Speaking of laughter, what is missing from the book, I feel, is a story behind why Noah decided to get into comedy or even the path of becoming a successful comedian. After finishing high school, Noah took an odd path of being a pirate deejay (as in using stolen music, not the “arrgh” kind) as his main hustle. Though the epiphany of turning his life away from the hood where he hung out is implied, the author doesn’t give any indication to what he would be doing next, only:

I chose to live in that world, but I wasn’t from that world. If anything, I was an imposter. Day to day I was in it as much as everyone else, but the difference was that in the back of my mind I knew I had other options. I could leave. They couldn’t (Noah “Cheese Boys” 224)

Perhaps Born a Crime is meant to be an indirect answer as to why Trevor Noah took the comedian route. Despite the pain he’s endured (physical and emotional), from being the result of a crime (as a mixed child during apartheid) to constantly getting caught in his bad behavior as a kid to his first heartbreak (by a dog named Fufi)  to awkward adolescence to spending days in jail to a home of abuse all leading up to the story of his mother getting shot, Noah tells his story like only he can: with honesty, meticulous and ridiculous details, and hints of humor in every situation. In the book, Noah’s mother always finds a way to show her dedication to Jesus or a way to laugh during hers and her son’s many mishaps (sometimes both).

If Born a Crime is a thank you letter from Trevor to his mother, for not only teaching him how to think but also teaching him how to find a way to make life more bearable, more humorous than the bleak moments seem, then Trevor Noah’s career as a comedian and news satire show host is his way of paying her teachings forward, by teaching us how to laugh too.

 

You can find more of my Book Reviews here. Looking for another comedian autobiography? I wholeheartedly recommend Amy Poehler’s Yes Please on audiobook (Poehler’s improv-trained voice telling her own story really gives it that AHMAZING something extra).

Onslaught of Book to Movie: Movie Review of “Divergent”

2014 is the year of YA novel to movie adaptations. As mentioned in a previous post, we have plenty coming out of the gate with enough dystopian angst to go around. I won’t bother to recount the novels (because reading is fundamental!) and also because my posts would be endless if I summed up every YA novel before reviewing its corresponding film.

Divergent_film_poster

(Movie Poster; Image Courtesy of Wikipedia)

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(Book; Image Courtesy of Amazon.com)

Divergent came out on Friday, March 21, 2014. It stars Shailene Woodley, queen of the “YA novel to movie” right now. Following her stunning performance in the Oscar-nominated The Descendants with George Clooney, she has also starred in the recent Spectacular Now and will be playing the female lead in the another YA novel to movie adaptation The Fault in Our Stars set to premiere in June of this year. But this review is not to remark on Ms. Woodley’s performance.

Yes, she is the star, but when the discussing the movie with a fellow avid YA novel reader, we discovered that there was a lot of focus on Ms. Woodley’s character, Beatrice “Tris” Prior. Maybe too much?

This is a struggle with every book to movie adaptation. So many relationships in the pages, but on the screen, there is are so many constraints on time. In Divergent (2014), when compared to the novel, there are a lot of *spoiler alert* deaths. They weren’t totally unexpected but unlike the book, the viewers aren’t really connected with the deceased. Of the five scenes, Tris has with her mother (Ashley Judd), one is her death. We see even less with her father before he too dies.

Two more deaths I am finding it hard to care about are those of Candor-turned-almost-Dauntless Al, and Erudite-turned-Dauntless-turned-dead Will. Al, in both the book and novel, *spoiler alert* commits suicide after attempting to kill Tris and growing restless about his impending rejection from Dauntless. Will is the intelligent soul that is somehow able to win over the too honest Christina before a mind-control serum works its way into his brain. Under the spell, he is about to kill both Tris and her mother before Tris shoots him.

In the book, we sense Al’s desperation. He’s a horrible fighter, the other initiates from Candor are doing quite well, and now suddenly, Tris, who was at the bottom of the bracket, is now at the top. He goes along with the plan to kill Tris, then tear-eyed, apologizes for it before Tris (rightfully mad) promises to kill him the next time he comes near her. In the movie, we don’t we see this. We meet Al, hear him ask Tris for tips, see him try to push her over the edge, he apologizes, and the next shot of him is his dead body. (It actually takes a while to realize the body is Al.) The same occurs with Will. We have a few scenes of him spouting out facts before a bullet is shot at him.

The lack of connection is not just apparent in deaths. The relationship between Tris and Four is built on weak foundation in the movie. In the book, Tris has several outings with Four’s friends and small conversations with Four as well as a passage of a Four in a drunken state:

“I’d ask you hang out with us, but you’re not supposed to see me this way.”
I am tempted to ask him why he wants to hang out with him, but I suspect the answer has something to do with the bottle in his hand.
“What way?” I ask. “Drunk?
“Yeah…well, no.” His voice softens. “Real, I guess.”
“I’ll pretend I didn’t.”
“Nice of you.” He puts his lips next to my ear and says, “You look good, Tris.”
His words surprise me,and my heart leaps. I wish it didn’t, because judging by the way his eyes slide over mine, he has no idea what he’s saying. I laugh. “Do me a favor and stay away from the chasm, okay?”
“Of course.” He winks at me. (Can’t remember the page, but here’s its source)

In the movie, Four seems to go from being an uptight instructor and giving Tris small tips to showing her his fears to kissing her outright. Then, on-screen, after the small make-out session, Tris has the nerve to say, “I just don’t want to move too fast.” Too late, missy!

All in all, the movie wasn’t bad. I could go on and on about downplayed meanings of Tris’s tattoos, how movie Peter (Miles Teller) is much nicer than book Peter, and the alteration of certain plot points (Capture the Flag, anyone?) but I feel the need to point out good parts of the film as well.

It is quite refreshing to see such a well-casted group of people on-screen. Even though he didn’t much screen-time, Ansel Elgort was great was Tris’s older brother Caleb (which means his acting skills will be put to the test when he plays Woodley’s boyfriend in The Fault in Our Stars and then Tris’s brother again in the Divergent sequel). This probably goes without saying but Kate Winslet was delightfully evil, annoying, and brilliant as Erudite leader Jeanine.

I feel neutral about this movie. It was decent, even if you didn’t read the book. I’d give it three stars out of five, and advise parents to get a babysitter and depressed teens to sit it out. It’s a great movie, but  its violence (complete with triggers and allusions to abuse) may be sensitive to some viewers.