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).

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Book Review: The Most Frustrating Cliffhanger I Have Ever Encountered

[The post was originally drafted on Thursday, March 6, 2014]

Have you ever just read a book and it just completely messed you up?

Well, seeing as it’s currently 1:49 in the morning and I have an 8:30am class later, I would say that I am currently in that state.

My eyes are burning, my breathing is thick like it doesn’t want to leave my throat and yet I am completely wide awake. Wired, as if I downed a week’s worth of caffeine, but too anxious to put any of this energy to good use like to do reading for classes or study for a midterm.

I can’t stop thinking. My brain won’t turn off.

The cause this week?

Two causes actually.

Eleanor and Park.

"Eleanor and Park" by Rainbow Rowell (Picture from Goodreads)

“Eleanor and Park” by Rainbow Rowell (Picture from Goodreads)

Yet another novel by Rainbow Rowell but this one is geared towards younger folk (think high school students) and it takes place in 1986. I’m not sure how much time I spent reading the book since I first picked it up from the local library but I can confirm that a part of me has been itching to read more and more since I began.

Eleanor and Park is about two outcasts, well, misfits, well, perhaps goodreads does a better job of summing it up:

“Set over the course of one school year in 1986, ELEANOR AND PARK is the story of two star-crossed misfits – smart enough to know that first love almost never lasts, but brave and desperate enough to try. When Eleanor meets Park, you’ll remember your own first love – and just how hard it pulled you under.”

And boy, does it pull you under! This book had me on a roller coaster of ups and downs the entire novel as it shifts between Park’s and Eleanor’s perspectives. I’d like to say that I favor one over the other (it depends on the point in the story), but honestly, I feel for both of them.

What’s interesting about this novel (something that Fangirl, another book by Rowell has in common) is that there are some loose ends that are never tied up. In Fangirl, these loose ends pertain to Cath’s mother and her relationship with Levi (and Nick for that matter). In Eleanor and Park, it is a whole slew of things.

Sometimes characters do or say awkward or clumsy things, which, as readers who are teenagers or have been teenagers, we can put aside because explaining these actions don’t really matter to the plot. On the other hand, there are many more parts of the story line that are left unresolved at the end of the novel, such as:

  • Did Park get his comics back?
  • Did Eleanor and Park do the deed?
  • What happened to the rest of Eleanor’s family?
  • How did Richie discover Eleanor’s secret?
  • Why did Richie write those things (and was there any prior incident for it)?
  • What happened to Cal?
  • What happened to DeNice and Beebi?

And the biggest, possibly definitely most heart-wrenching, infuriating yet somehow understandable loose end is the ending.

Yes, the ending. The last four words of the book are probably what are contributing the most to my insomnia right now.

This ending is also what makes me hesitate from giving this book as positive a review as Fangirl. It’s so ambiguous.

In any case, I still recommend the book. Nerds abound (music, comics, and Star Wars fanatics) will love its references. It may not be for everyone but it’s an exciting read. Rowell uses staccato syntax to punctuate each chapter like rapid gun-fire–noticeable and exhilarating. I think regardless of age or background, this novel will make you feel nostalgic (sometimes not necessarily in a good way) of high school and first romance or torn (or, if you’re like me, both!). This book has some pretty intense situations for the characters, addressing themes of sexuality, morality, gender-roles, self-esteem, and family values without being preachy about them. In fact, the majority of the novel is pretty sarcastic and funny or confusing (ah, just like the teenage years). I honestly couldn’t stop turning pages, even with the onslaught of assignments and sleep prodding me to stop.

I feel the urge to warn you of the excessive use of profanity and abusive language. It doesn’t detract the novel’s content but just in case, there you go.

Book Review: Should You Ignore This? Probably.

Photo Courtesy of Amazon.com

Photo Courtesy of Amazon.com

I read the latest book by Cal Newport, entitled “So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love.” Although this book is over two-hundred pages, I think I can sum it up:

Passion should not be the driving force for your career. You need to build up tons of skills in many areas (not just in the area of your passion). You need tons of experience (otherwise known as “capital career”). Then, and only then, can you branch off or quit your current job in order to lead your career–oh! but only if you have a “remarkable but specific idea.”

My thoughts? It was okay but Newport’s argument didn’t always follow through. The people he used as examples had such different paths or extraordinary minds. There is no set of step-by-step instructions to follow.

So yes, having skills and expertise and all that stuff is important but Newport us pushing his theory of this over passion so hard with examples that barely work and such grandiose confidence that he comes off as pretentious which all contribute to his argument falling flat.

While I do enjoy other works by Cal Newport such as “How To Become a Straight-A Student”, I do not recommend this one.