Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

For Black History Month (February), my book club read this book. The author is a former host of the Daily Show on Comedy Central. It is the story of his growing up in South Africa, both during and after apartheid there. It was educational, funny, and at times emotionally challenging.

Each chapter tells of a part of his life. These include a wide variety of experiences. There was the time he pooped on the floor of his house as a small boy because it was raining outside and he didn’t want to go to the outhouse. He once spent a week in jail for borrowing his step-father’s car without permission due to it having no proper title. Most emotionally and in the final chapter, he tells of how his step-father shot his mother in the head and left her for dead.

Throughout the book, he made me laugh. He also made me feel deeply for the people, like himself, that struggled through apartheid in South Africa and the challenging times afterward as the society adjusted to the new reality. But most of all, this was the story of a boy who loved his mother deeply and experienced the many ins and outs of growing up in a difficult time, coming out of it a wise and compassionate young man.

My rating: 4/5

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

A relative of mine from South Carolina lent me her copy of this book, her favorite. It was clear that she has read it many times by the state of the broken binding on the copy she lent me. Having grown up as a Yankee from central New York state, I’ve never read this book. And if she had not lent me her copy, I’m not sure I ever would have. I am sincerely glad I did.

The story is primarily a love story. It starts out with Scarlet at sixteen on her family’s plantation south of Atlanta just as the US Civil War is about to begin. It follows her life through the war and the Reconstruction years after the war. She is a very selfish, pragmatic, and determined young woman. She is in love with Ashley Wilkes, but he is set to marry someone else. The bulk of the novel surrounds how she manages the reality that the man she considers the love of her life is married to someone else. But the story is about so much more.

It is also about Scarlet’s naivete and immaturity. Being pragmatic and determined, she is a survivor above all else. But she continues to pine away about Ashley even though at sixteen he told her that they were too different and would be miserable together. She deals with this the same way she deals with all other things in her life that she doesn’t understand and that make her unhappy. She just decides not to think about them “right now”, determined to think about them later. But she never does. She never grows up and learns to consider anyone other than herself.

The story is also a perspective on the Civil War from the Southern point of view. This is problematic to say the least. This perspective is racist and promotes white supremacy. Despite that, I feel that it is valuable. It provides a view on how being on the losing side of that war must have felt. History is taught by the victors. As such, we learn that the Civil War was a noble war fought to free the slaves. But we are never taught what that must have felt like for those who fought for the Confederacy. They lost family members just as the North did. Their property was destroyed as was their way of life. Then, during Reconstruction, Washington sent soldiers to run their governments and give equal rights to African Americans that those Southerners saw as ignorant and inferior. That must have been infuriating.

And the “Lost Cause” mythology permeates the novel. This I have much less compassion for. Yes, the characters in this book, and I suspect many Southerners after the war, longed for their old way of life and social order, especially the upper class of land and plantation owners. It was a life of ease and luxury. But that way of life depended on the enslavement of other human beings! This is even acknowledged in the novel. The justification for this better old way is that the enslaved were treated like family and cared for in their old age. This is essentially Rudyard Kipling’s argument of the “white man’s burden” and is utter nonsense. Would any white Southerner have changed places with one of their well-cared for slaves? I think not.

Despite these problems, the story and characters are compelling. In addition to Scarlet and Ashley there are Rhett Butler, a scoundrel and conniver with a very similar world view to that of Scarlet, and Melanie Hamilton who marries Ashley. She is the epitome of the great lady of the South for her dedication and loyalty and love. Indeed, she is one of the best characters in the novel. Personally, I couldn’t stand either Scarlet or Ashley, mainly because they didn’t know themselves and didn’t seem interested in self-examination at all. Rhett was my favorite character. He may have been a thief and a Scalawag, but he always knew who he was and why. And he was always honest about who he was. The interaction and growth of these four characters is the soul of the story and what makes it great.

Should you read this book? If the racism and white supremacy and revisionist history would be too much for you, no. If you can see past those very significant shortcomings to have some understanding of the plight of the Southern condition during and after the Civil War, then the interplay of these characters in that background are well worth your time.

My rating: 4/5

Chain-Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

I read this for my book club. We are reading it January We read a different genre each month, and January is Science Fiction month.

This book was on a lot of “best of” lists for 2023, and I can see why though it is not a lighthearted read! In the near future, private companies have taken over the prison systems and have created a kind of gladiator system. The federal government passed a law making it possible for prisoners to opt into a death-match program that is televised. In these matches, members of different prison conglomerates (chain gangs) fight each other to the death. It is bloody, violent, and never-ending. That is unless you survive for three years. Then you are exonerated and freed.

The story follows one particular link (what they call members of a chain gang) as she approaches her last two matches. It also follows a protest movement and a particular couple who are watching it. The emotions are strong and deep. I often put the book down at the end of a chapter and got up and walked around just to take a break from the unrelenting drive of this book and its message. it really puts you in the place of the prisoners and how they must be feeling. Interspersed as footnotes are also facts about the US prison system that are just as shocking.

The writing is visceral. It delivers body blow after body blow. But somehow, it isn’t completely bleak. There is hope. And the story is driving and compelling. I would say that I loved this book, but that isn’t quite the correct word. It isn’t really a story to love. I appreciated it. It moved me. I think it is important how through hyperbole it shows what prison does to people, both those incarcerated and those who house them and administer the system. It makes you uncomfortable while it makes you think. That is my kind of book.

My rating: 5/5

Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters

I listened to Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters on audiobook on a recent road trip. It takes place in an alternate modern-day USA where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on his way to his inauguration in 1861. That same year a series of Constitutional amendments were ratified that enshrined slavery forever. A network of modern-day abolitionists called the Underground Airlines works to help escaped slaves find safety in Canada.

The main character is a former runaway slave working for the US Marshal’s office returning runaway slaves. He is in the process of infiltrating a cell of the Underground Airlines to return his latest runaway assignment. But something is a little off with this assignment.

As the mystery unravels, this world of modern, regulated slavery is laid out in all its horror for individuals and society. The story is compelling and realistic, never descending to polemics or speechifying. It all blends well into a sophisticated story of human complexity dealing with systemic racism enshrined in the Constitution. A fantastic “what if” historical thriller.

My rating: 4/5

Those We Thought We Knew by David Joy

Translucent snake coils up the front cover over a green background

On September 8, I attended the final event in David Joy’s book tour for his novel Those We Thought We Knew. As he opened that discussion, he invited all of us to sit in our discomfort as we engaged in civil discourse about a difficult subject—race and its legacy in our country. While not the subject of his novel, it is the context and a large part of the conflict within it. Because the novel takes place within thirty minutes of where I live, this book and the conversation that evening really hit home.

The story is about a woman in college at Western Carolina University (WCU) in Cullowhee, NC. Her grandmother lives in Sylva where her mother was raised. However, she grew up mostly in Atlanta and came to school at WCU to confront the racism she had felt her whole life, just simmering below the surface. The personification of that is a confederate statue in a place of prominence in downtown Sylva. This statue is not made up for the story. It actually still exists. She decides to bring attention to it in a way that kicks up a hornet’s nest and sets the story going.

While the novel is primarily a mystery, it deals with the differing experience of white and black in the mountains of western North Carolina. This is seen at its most challenging in the relationship between the sheriff (white) and the young woman’s grandmother (black). They grew up together, and the sheriff and her late husband went fishing and hunting together regularly as adults. At one point, they have an uncomfortable discussion. The sheriff is confused about why everything is getting stirred up. It was never like that before. Maybe other places, but not there. The grandmother eventually feels the need to point out to him that it was always there, but because he is white he has never had to deal with it.

The mystery is gripping and the storytelling is marvelous. The author really understands how to bring out the beauty in his descriptions of the mountains. But this is not a comfortable story. It’s not meant to be. At the book talk, the author made the point that the work that needs doing on race is work for white folks. And we need to stop asking for black folks to do that work. White supremacy and racism are problems created by white people that can only be addressed by white people. The author’s hope is that this book can help bring people together to have uncomfortable conversations in safe places like around kitchen tables similar to that where the sheriff and the grandmother talked, knowing that they are safe in their love for each other.

I highly encourage you to read this book and watch the video of the book talk.

My rating: 5/5

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Background of line drawn images in red and blue against a black backdrop. The images are of plants and letters. Over all this is the title and author.

For Pride Month, my book club decided to read The Color Purple by Alice Walker. This book won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in 1983. That’s a lot to recommend it. I have to say I was not disappointed. In fact, I read the entire book in one day this past Sunday, all 288 pages.

The book is an epistolary novel told through letters written by Celie. On page one is the shocking revelation that she was sexually abused by her father at the age of fourteen, having two children by him. She is married off to a man who really wants to marry her sister Nettie. From there it goes on to tell about her relationships with her husband, his children, and a woman that Celie falls in love with. Most of the letters are addressed to God. But as her relationship to and understanding of God changes, so does who she addresses her letters to.

This novel touched me deeply. Not only is it about family and overcoming trauma, it is about growing into real adulthood and a deeper understanding of one’s spirituality. To my sense, this sense of spirituality as based in nature and her laws really rings true. In its approach to the divine, it reminded me of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower.

There is a whole section that describes the experience of missionaries in Africa. They try to help the natives they live amongst even as powers beyond their control slowly encroach on their village, forever changing their way of life. This reminded me of Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart that I read in college back in the late 80s. Just like then, the truth of that experience was a gut punch.

Overall, the word that comes to mind to describe this book is “authentic”. It feels true to the human experience in its challenges, ugliness, joys, and triumphs. Despite the sometimes bleak situations, the book left be feeling warm and hopeful about how we as humans can grow and improve.

My rating: 5/5

Struggling with History

Kindred book cover

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler. I devoured this book. It is a historical novel about a woman living in 1979 who keeps being yanked back to an antebellum Maryland plantation worked by enslaved people. Why? It’s not clear, but a member of the plantation family turns out to be one of the woman’s ancestors. The story explores how a twentieth-century black woman would fare on a slave plantation.

That on its own is an interesting premise for a story, but with Butler’s storytelling and imagination it is so much more. It explores slavery and humanizes both the enslaved and the enslavers while still exposing the absolute inhumanity of slavery itself. Her husband is white and is with her on one trip to the past. This allows Butler to explore not only the obvious injustice and brutality suffered by those enslaved, but also the effect on the enslavers of growing up in a culture and family that endorse such a violent and degrading economic system.

And now I have made the book seem depressing, and at times it is. But the best word to describe this work is human. It is the story of everyday people trying to live their lives as they struggle with the lived reality that was slavery. It honestly made me think in ways I had never considered. It exposed the ugliness and cruelty of slavery as well as how those involved did their best to simply live their lives. Most controversial issues get oversimplified. Not in this book. Butler stares directly at the problem, making the reader experience it and, hopefully, start to come to terms with what many call America’s original sin. It’s a book every American needs to and should read.