Image of Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood
Reviewed by:

“This book is a breath of fresh air.”

Born A Crime is a rollicking ride of a book, an enjoyable feast of storytelling. Deservedly it is already a number one bestselling book. Combining comedy and tragedy, the book covers the dying days of apartheid in South Africa and the uncertain dawn of a new age as Nelson Mandela tries to birth a Rainbow Nation out of a horrific, nationalist, racist past.

Trevor Noah’s autobiography of his childhood and adolescence in this perilous, shifting landscape cleverly avoids polemical statements and moral platitudes. Instead he describes a resilient and opportunistic child and teenager whose intuitive street smarts lead him into a hustler’s life. The very facts of how he learns to navigate the political currents swirling around him provides vivid commentary on those challenging times for South Africa.

The book begins and ends with chapters on his mother. She is a woman of unbreakable religious faith. Sundays with Mom mean attending three different churches in three different parts of Johannesburg and environs.

Mrs. Noah is a formidable woman. She knowingly broke apartheid laws designating as a crime sexual intercourse between people of different races. Yet, she moved into a “gray” area (neither white nor black-only residences) with a man she loved, a Swiss man. Wanting a child she persuaded him to be the father.

When Trevor was born she moved back to her mother in Soweto, the sprawling black township near Johannesburg. Trevor became accustomed to clandestine visits to his father. He learned that if they were out in public he could not call him “Dad” and must walk alongside his mother but several steps behind his father. In later years his father moved to Cape Town, and they lost contact.

Trevor does not enjoy church and argues continually with his mother about her Sunday regime. But she is steadfast in her faith overcoming all obstacles an inadequate transport system throws in her way. Only when he was an older teenager and living away from home did Trevor stop going to church.

By then we have learned of his mother’s marriage to a Tsonga man, a master mechanic, Abel, and of their move to a previously “whites only” suburb where Abel houses his business. Eventually Trevor has two younger brothers, Andrew and Isaac.

Early on Trevor experiences being on the receiving end of Abel’s strength, wrath and other ravages his alcoholism bring. But this move does not only portend tragedy. Fortuitously it also provides Trevor with a shot at better schooling. He is now enrolled in previous “whites only” schools.

At junior high and high school, Trevor encounters the heartache of crushed love. He struggles to find his identity as a so-called “colored” youth, unacceptable to both the black kids at school and the white. His identity crisis also creates opportunities as he uses his entrepreneurial instincts to keep himself busy and earn some money.

“My life of crime started off small. Selling pirated CDs on the corner. That in itself was a crime, and today I feel I owe all these artists money for stealing their music, but by hood standards it didn’t even qualify as illegal. At the time it never occurred to any of us that we were doing anything wrong—if copying CDs is wrong, why would they make CD writers?”

Trevor graduates from high school and wants to study computer programming at university, but the family does not have the money to pay for his studies. Unemployment among black youth is as high as 50 percent. For the last two years of his adolescence, Trevor, living away from home, and along with friends, works the streets of seedy and dangerous Alexandria Township selling pirated CDs, DJ’ing wherever invited, and working deals for other hustlers that give him and his cronies a cut of the profit.

Inevitably, the day arrives where he is stopped by the cops and arrested for driving a stolen car. The car belongs to Abel but Trevor “borrowed” it and put on false number plates. He cannot find the registration papers. Through guile he avoids a jail sentence but after describing a week in a holding pen awaiting trail, we see fully that the new black police force is as brutal as their white predecessors.

The book ends on a poignant note. Trevor, in his twenties and working as a stand-up comic, on Sunday morning is called by one of his younger brothers and told Abel shot their mother. Her life had moved on from Abel having divorced him and married again. One Sunday in a drunken rage he sought her out and shot her. Miraculously she survives, and Noah writes movingly of how her near-death experience highlights their indestructible bond and how much having her as his mother shaped his life.

Once she is out of danger they sit on her hospital bed, “She broke into a huge smile and started laughing. Through my tears I started laughing too. I was bawling my eyes out and laughing hysterically at the same time. We sat there and she squeezed my hand and we cracked each other up the way we always did, mother and son. Laughing together through the pain in an intensive-care recovery room on a bright and sunny and beautiful day.”

This book is a breath of fresh air. Hopefully a sequel is in the works. We wonder how Trevor Noah made the leap from stand-up comic in South Africa to anchor The Daily Show as Jon Stewart’s successor in New York.

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MY HEARTFELT APPEAL DIRECTED TO REPUBLICAN LEADERS TO DITCH DRUMPF.

LET’S PUT OUR COUNTRY BACK ON A PATH OF SANITY. HE IS AMERICA’S GREATEST FAILURE.

For most of my adult life I’ve been an educator, as well as a freelance journalist and an author, an international expert on the psychology of personality, and since the age of thirteen an anti-apartheid activist in my motherland, South Africa.

Let’s start there—the racist ideological madmen whom we opposed in South Africa at least believed in something, albeit a despicable racist ideology.

Drumpf believes in nothing except himself and his brand…and that’s it. He is non-empathic and unaware of the damage his lies do to other Americans and his country. He’s a racist. He’s a psychologically impaired ego- and megalomaniac. He is in the same league as all the most infamous villains of history. That alone should disqualify him for President.

Drumpf is the most pervasive negative role model for our children and grandchildren.

I’ve written a book on parenting, I’ve taught hundreds, if not into the low thousands of highly intelligent, young people, about moral responsibility, human rights, reality and illusion, and perhaps, most importantly, how to think and write critically.

* Drumpf models that it’s perfectly acceptable to be an ill-prepared, foul-mouthed, morally blind ignoramus. As long as you can lie and lie again, and bully and browbeat, you can be President.

*Drumpf models to them that bluster and bullying, screaming obscenities at individuals and groups is acceptable —after all he’s running for President; he’s the standard-bearer of the Republican Party, he must be okay.

* Drumpf lies and double downs, contradicts himself, lies again. He is a national embarrassment. He is a vaudeville villain, a clown, a con man, a cheat, a liar, a liar, and a liar.

HE IS A PATHOLOGICAL LIAR. He models to America and the world’s children that it’s okay to lie. And lie, and lie.

* He signals to America’s allies and enemies that his word is NEVER TO BE TRUSTED.

* He signals to Americans not only that can WE NEVER TRUST HIM but the sure road ahead if he becomes President will be to upend 240 years of progress, of tearing up the Bill of Rights and the Constitution.

*He is the greatest danger to America’s future and that means the international order too.

Can you imagine Drumpf trying to deal with a major catastrophe; he’ll blame the victims.

He’ll shirk responsibility. He won’t spend time in the White House; he’ll go back to his shyster business dealings. He and his wife will visit occasionally. Pence will be our president except in name…. and on and on.

My heartfelt appeal is directed to Republican leaders TO DITCH DRUMPF. Let’s put our country back on a path of sanity. He is America’s greatest failure.

 

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Barkskins: A Novel by Annie Proulx

Image of Barkskins: A Novel
Reviewed by:

“Over 300 years the forests are raped, eco-systems destroyed, wealth generated, and the insatiable international desire and greed for wood exploited.”

Annie Proulx, the author of Barkskins is an accomplished American writer. She has achieved the status of grande dame of American letters and deservedly so. An earlier book, The Shipping News, is a stellar work, one with teeth and grit, lyricism and poignancy, dark as well as magical moments. That book remains a pioneer at the frontier of American fiction, as her protagonist, Quoyle, exists in one of the first portrayals of a single father as a heroic figure through the travails and triumphs of his small, dysfunctional family.

If readers hope for more of the same in Barkskins they will be disappointed. The book is overlong, the storylines confusing, the insertion of pages and pages of albeit interesting facts about daily life in the towering, primeval forests—the utensils, the logging tools, the clothes, the traditions, rites and rituals of all the people who meet, clash, and intermingle—are shared in almost overwhelming detail, so as to slow and even disrupt the novel. It is as if Proulx insisted on using all the detail she had accumulated in her ten years of research and writing of Barkskins. At the very moment we are engrossed in one of the story lines we are dragged back to arcane documentation.

The book opens in 1693 when two indentured Frenchmen, René Sel and Charles Duquet, arrive in Canada—New France—to serve as woodcutters for an eccentric feudal lord who built a grand chateau deep in the forests for his future bride (when he finds one).

Sel is forced to marry a native Mi’kmaw woman, and his progeny, through generations, vacillate between the two worlds of their generators—French frontiersmen and native Canadians or “original people.”

Duquet escapes his servitude to gain a foothold on the wealth the territory offers through fur-trapping, trading, and later enterprising forays into timber. He founds, and his descendants (later changing their last name to Duke), now timber barons, forge an international empire.

Both families’ genealogical lines are tied to trees, natural disasters, unexpected plot twists and turns—in frontier Quebec, then Michigan and hundreds of years later in the kauri forests of New Zealand.

Over 300 years the forests are raped, eco-systems destroyed, wealth generated, and the insatiable international desire and greed for wood exploited.

Overall the writing is fluid, and as would expect of Proulx her characters are exposed to states of the human condition from veniality to love. There are too many characters and episodes to cite here, but among the most intriguing is the union of Kuntaw, one of Sel’s grandsons and Beatrix Duquet, a granddaughter of Charles, and their life near the Penobscot people, river and bay in Maine. This union (although they never married) is one where descendants of the Sel and Duquet families unknowingly for many years in the second half of the eighteenth century, amalgamated their lives. They had no offspring.

Kuntaw and Beatrix meet on the muddy banks of the river:

He stood a few yards back from the horse and looked at the girl. She was elegant, wearing a black cloak edged in red. Something about her dark-ivory face said she was part Indian.

“You like to make some money?” she asked moving close. She lifted her head and inhaled his odor of smoke, meat and pine pitch.

He shrugged. “What do?”

“Split wood of course.” She enunciated very carefully. ‘You carry an ax. Do you know how to split firewood?”

He nodded. “I know.”

“I need you, Indian man. Follow.” Beatrix Duquet turned her horse and trotted gracefully toward the big house, he had to run to keep up with her. Watching her long crinkled hair sway, the bright heels of her boots, he felt a wave of enchantment strike him like warm rain. So, in his thirtieth spring, began the strangest part of his life, as he seemed to stumble out of the knotted forest and onto a shining path.

Barkskins is an epic saga but unlike many of James Michener’s epic historical sagas or others such as The Thornbirds by Australian, Colleen McCullough, or Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie, to name only a few, Barkskins does not have the sweep and flow of history that keeps one reading through the night.

Perhaps the material here would be better served as eco-nonfiction, such as John McPhee’s The Control of Nature, Bill McKibbon’s The End of Nature, or Rachel Carson’s The Silent Spring and influence this and successive generations to save the planet and specifically in Proulx’s case, the forests that are left on our planet before they are denuded; however, as eco-fiction it falls below Annie Proulx’s admittedly extraordinarily high standards.

Perhaps her intention all along is to write a cautionary tale about the environmental catastrophe we have already wrought.

Why shouldn’t things be largely absurd, futile, and transitory? They are so, and we are so, and they and we go well together. —George Santayana

By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feeling of natural objects. —Lynn White, Jr.

These epigraphs certainly suggest the reason for Annie Proulx’s book encompassing the polemical tilt toward recording so thoroughly this irreparable damage.

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Relativity

Reviewed by:

“Relativity is a wonderful read . . . well written, sometimes lyrically so, well plotted and not afraid to enter some of the grittier territory of complex human relationships.”

Relativity by Antonia Hayes is a wonderful read. Hayes deserves a wide audience for this book. Relativity is Hayes debut novel, well written, sometimes lyrically so, well plotted and not afraid to enter some of the grittier territory of complex human relationships. One of Hayes’ singular achievements in this work is her non-judgmental stance and balanced voice.

For protagonists, 12-year-old Ethan, his biological father, Mark, and his single mom, Claire, sometimes explosive, sometimes tender, often hard-to-read shifting points of view have the ring of truth. Indeed they should, for as author Hayes says in interviews the novel’s impetus is largely based on autobiographical fact but the characters and evolving plot are fictional. The novel is set in Sydney Australia, Hayes’ hometown although she now lives in San Francisco.

Another character omnipresent in the novel is ideas created from theoretical physics and cosmology. Hayes’ writing of complex abstraction is masterful. By having, albeit a remarkable 12 year old articulate his understanding of these ideas, she makes them accessible to a wide audience.

A tattoo on Mark’s arm illustrates the interaction between science and this troubled family, ‘E=mc2’: Ethan equals Mark and Claire. Ethan, a brilliant and precocious boy fascinated by physics, Mark, a mysterious figure in Ethan’s life until he is 12, and Claire, a professional ballerina, who ends her performance career to care for her son.

No other spoilers in this review for that would mar your reading of this compulsive, compassionate, and intelligent novel. It grabs you from the jarring opening page and on the last page you gasp at the fitting paean of appreciation for the force of gravity and how Hayes links the implications of physics to the plot.

“Gravitation shapes our universe. Forms tides, heats planetary cores. It’s why fragments of gravitational matter clump together into planets and moons, why stars cluster into vast, rippling galaxies. Earth isn’t going to crash into the sun, the moon won’t collide with Earth—gravity keeps them safe in orbit. It always attracts and never repels; it brings the planets back.

Gravity is insistent. It firmly stands its ground. We never stop accelerating toward the center of the Earth at 9.8/s2. That curvature in the fabric of space-time is a phenomenon we experience every day, an invisible experience we all have in common.”

Light years from the rarified conceptual realm of scientific ideas, Ethan’s family is mired in hurt, excrutiating guilt, and a combination of hate and love not yet understood or clarified. Microcosmic and macrocosmic perceptions of human experience do not align—yet.

“Claire got dressed. Her head was full of contradictions, as though each hemisphere of her own brain were battling some civil war. Confusion left her with a strong desire for solitude, to be left alone with her conflicting thoughts. She felt completely disorientated, questioning her entire life. What if her heart had reshaped itself around a lie? Part of her was angry . . . another part of her utterly distraught.”

Ethan, a child on the cusp of adolescence, is the perfect vehicle through which the story unfolds. We learn at the same time he does the mysterious twists of family history, burial and reframing of tortured memories, a family constellation torn apart.

Gravity does not operate the same way in this family constellation as it does on a universal scale; the stars do not align, at least not on the surface. But at the quantum level gravity and relativity are present although to the untrained eye particles heave and bubble like chaos itself.

Hayes invites us to look deeper into the quantum level of her characters’ psyches. Our clue to this interpretation is Ethan’s pet rabbit named, Quark. As Hayes explains, quarks are elementary particles and fundamental constituents of matter. Quarks combine to form particles called hadrons, the components of atomic nuclei.

The matter that constitutes stars is the same matter firing neurons in our brains. At some level Ethan is already the space-time traveler he strives to be. After all, the title of the novel is Relativity.

– See more at: http://www.nyjournalofbooks.com/book-review/relativity#sthash.rnDkrJJr.dpuf

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Solstice Greetings December 21, 2014

When thinking what to blog about at this juncture of the year,  the word “books” keeps coming to mind. Books, in many ways remain an anchor in my life. So, I am going to share my great pleasure in books by selecting several highlights from my reading this year.  I’ll start with my most recent “fav”.

Seems as if this past year is the season for excellent historical novels and I so enjoyed and highly recommend The Paying Guests by acclaimed British author, Sarah Waters. In 1920s London, begrimed both physically and metaphorically by the ravages of WW1, Frances Wray and Lilian Barber form a friendship that leads to unanticipated and spellbinding consequences. Shot through with undertones of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s inimitable Crime and Punishment, this exquisitely written novel hits all the high notes available to a consummate artist at the height of her powers.

The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami, a fictional memoir written by formerly wealthy Moroccan merchant-cum-Spanish slave, Estebanico, who in 1527 accompanied his grandee master–along with 600 other Spanish conquistadors and journeymen–on the fictional recreation of a historic expedition from Hispaniola to the Gulf Coast of Florida to explore and claim La Florida territory for the Spanish crown. Only four members survived. Estebanico’s account counters the whitewash “official” version. This novel has everything: history, adventure, relationships, survival, courage, cruelty and important questions of morality, religiosity, and cultural anthropology. It is both anachronistic and perfectly attuned to contemporary issues.

The classic book on the Florida Everglades, The Everglades: River of Grass by Marjory Stoneman Douglas, first published almost seventy years ago, remains a gripping and fascinating account of the pre-history and history of this amazing eco-system. It is a must read for anyone who loves or who is interested in this landscape. I love the Everglades and this biota is one of the main motivations for my move to southwest Florida. I’ll be forever grateful for Stoneman’s book, it is already my constant companion.

I’m honored to highlight The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, published late fall 2013, an unforgettable read, a towering novel, that will remain the gold standard for dissecting the post-2001 apocalyptic world in which we find ourselves. In February 2014 it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Here are several paragraphs from the concluding pages. I hope they leave you wanting more.

“A great sorrow, and one that I am only beginning to understand: we don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.

“It’s not about outward appearances but inward significance, a grandeur in the world, but not of the world, a grandeur that the world doesn’t understand. That first glimpse of pure otherness, in whose presence you bloom out and out and out.

“And as much as I’d like to believe there’s a truth beyond illusion, I’ve come to believe that there’s no truth beyond illusion. Because between ‘reality’ on the one hand, and the point where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: is the space where all art exists, and all magic.

“And—I would argue as well—all love…the play between things, both love and not-love, there and not there.”

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Happy Solstice! As we (in the northern hemisphere) emerge from the dark light of December I send my love and wholehearted good wishes to my followers and readers for good health and happiness in the upcoming year, wherever you are.

 

 

 

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14-04_levine

 

This is me, this past week, teaching a Philosophy class, in the same classroom, at the same school, as I have done for these past 29 years. I look happy, I am happy, I love teaching. If all there is to teaching is   teaching, then, on most days I feel I can teach for ever. But there are meetings, and duties, and obligations, and grades to compute and comments to write, and students to see, and parents to see, and visits to the college office, and plays and other performances and sports events to attend, and (did I mention meetings), new technology to master and more and more pressure on faculty and students alike as the college application process year-by-year encroaches on every corner of high school life. You grow older among a sea of perpetual youth so gradually that you hardly notice your own well of bountiful energy starts to dry up. If your time in the classroom invigorates you, all that time away from the class room drains your internal reservoirs. I am tired. This has been an unusually trying year of ups and downs and I feel it now. So this  is no time to make decisions. But for me the transition away from teaching in this pressured environment has already begun. One more year I have said, a heads up, so as to graciously exit (as a older friend once  called it) “the little stage” of the class room.

Transitions abound in my life as in your own. Elementary school to middle school, middle school to high school, high school (usually) to college, college to (maybe)  grad school, and then usually a job. Along the way transitions to and from relationships, transitions through the individuating process in adolescence into new understandings of parents and family life, experiments with and questions around gender roles and sexuality. Transitions in serious relationships, surviving break up, heart ache, more commitment, then (maybe) marriage, children, divorce, second time around a better fit, illness, death. Children, and the unfolding of unconditional love. Big bumps suddenly in life’s smooth path; divorce or death of a (partner) spouse. How do we recover from those transitions? But we do, although gradually life’s bumps and bruises whittle away at our core.

When I had a recent significant birthday I treated myself to a session with a world famous astrologer (Lawrence Hillman) and he is as good as his reputation. At the end of the session he said you have to find a place you can call home. This statement made me ponder, didn’t my Buddhist teachings say home is where the heart is? Well, yes and no. Metaphorically, yes, but physically no; physically I’ve never much cared for the New England landscape although I love the shore villages in the summer and the tranquil Berkshire Hills, and the mountains of Vermont but New England can never replace my complete at-one-ness with the South African landscape I love. Never home. It is too cold and barren and dead for too much of the year. I crave flowers, color, bird song, scents, warmth and light, sunlight, I am a person of the light. My life is in the USA now. I am an African-American. And I’ve found “home” in south west Florida surrounded by the one-of-a-kind and magnificent Everglades that teeming estuarine environment of great white clouds and blue sky, birds, saw grass and fish. And light and warmth.

IMG_0307  This week my counselor suggested I write about transitions because she has so many clients (especially women) experiencing all of the above (and many more), all the time. So perhaps I will. I appreciate your feedback.

Note: The top photograph  © Milton Academy 2014; and the other © Janet Levine 2013.

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From the New York Journal of Books web site

The Last First Day: A Novel


by Carrie Brown.

Reviewed by Janet Levine | Released: September 17, 2013
Publisher: Pantheon (304 pages)


0307908038.01._PC_SCLZZZZZZZ_For the past 30 years I have taught at a fairly large New England prep school in the Boston suburbs with an internationally diverse student body—co-ed—and both a boarding and day population. My experience is in many ways lightyears from that of Ruth van Dusen, the protagonist of The Last First Day.

Ruth has been the headmaster’s wife for over 30 years at a fictional, rural New England prep school, Derry School for Boys. But in essence, especially in the evocation of the school as a community—the surface clubby congeniality of the faculty, a world unto itself, a Petrie-dish of emotions, aspirations, disappointments, petty ambition, and empire-building—it is the same.

As another school year is launched Ruth prepares (as she has done for all these years) for welcome back faculty, party at their home—the headmaster’s house—scenes from her severely troubled childhood, courtship, and marriage flash through her mind.

Ruth’s husband Peter is the wise captain who has kept the school afloat through financial storms and social upheavals with a gracious demeanor and boundless tact. They have no children.

They are both aware that Peter—growing visibly older and afflicted with a rare illness—will soon lose his tenure and make way for a younger, more “modern” leader, one more in sync with the changing world of educational mores and innovative technology.

Ruth, at turns angry and sad, faces the loss of what she could have been if she had not willingly if reluctantly, subsumed her life into that of her husband and the school itself.

Carrie Brown utilizes the literary flashback device to an almost alarming degree as we move ever so slowly with Ruth through her catering preparations and her evening marking the van Dusen’s last opening of school. This is a meandering novel not in a hurry to tell its tale.

Ms. Brown works with words like a miniaturist painter does with color and detail. Scenes from the van Dusen’s courtship, early marriage, and later years merge into the slowly fading life of the present with its impending changes and challenges.

This nostalgic (maybe overindulgent) tale almost drowns under the slow, torpid flow of scenes; but we can relish the sensitively evoked detail, like a Vermeer painting, depicting the curves and sandbars of youthful love and then a long union. These are the driftwood and detritus washed up on the banks of a relationship in which both partners know one another too well and (from Ruth’s perspective) often not at all.

Reviewer

Janet Levine is a journalist and author of four books including the novel Leela’s Gift.

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