Weekend Shorts: Awesome Dudes For a Change (Plus One Lady)

I have been listening to a LOT of audiobooks lately, which is super awesome, except when I’m trying to catch up on a backlog of blog posts. So, please enjoy these very short takes on some pretty awesome audiobooks about pretty awesome people!

Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, by Trevor Noah
As will be my caveat for, oh, all of these books I’m talking about today, I didn’t know anything about Trevor Noah going into this book except that he’s that dude what took over The Daily Show. But I got an audio copy of this book for free for some unremembered reason, and had some listening time to kill, and so… voila!

And wow, this is a seriously good audiobook. Noah is a great narrator, which makes sense with the TV show host thing, and he has some amazing stories to tell. He talks about growing up during apartheid, and goes into great details that I’ve sadly already forgotten about how his black mother and white father left him in a very weird limbo, both socially and legally speaking. He also talks about his abusive stepfather, who is not just a regular jerk but an attempted-murdering jerk, which is crazy and awful. But of course my favorite stories are the ones that are a little happier and/or weirder, including one about working as a young copyright-infringing entrepreneur in the suburbs and another one that can’t be true but also can’t not be true about a dance performance at a Jewish center starring solo dancer… Hitler.

Yeah, so, basically now you have to go listen to this. You’re welcome. (Seriously, listen to it. It’s awesome.)

The Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son on Life, Love, and Loss, by Anderson Cooper and Gloria Vanderbilt
Here, again, my knowledge of the authors was “Anderson Cooper is that silver fox guy, right?” and also “Gloria Vanderbilt is… probably a Vanderbilt?” Yeah, I know, I’m shaking my head, too. This is a memoir that I would never have picked up except that my book club wanted to read it, and, well, it was so awesome that I did that thing where I make a second book club read the same book so I can talk about it all over again. So good, guys.

The premise of the book is that basically one day Cooper realized that his mother was old and that he didn’t know a lot about her life that wasn’t more or less public knowledge, so he started emailing her to ask her questions about her life before him, and a little bit about her life with him. Those emails became this book, and with the addition of the authors as narrators this book became an amazing audiobook. Seriously, try not to cry when Gloria Vanderbilt is crying in your ears.

If you’re like me, you will learn way more than you ever thought you even remotely needed to know about this Gloria Vanderbilt person, but you will also be totally okay with that because she’s endlessly fascinating. She was born into a branch of the Vanderbilt family but lost her Vanderbilt father almost immediately after her birth, and so she was raised by a very young socialite mother and also a nanny and her grandmother and there was a giant custody battle and the newspapers were involved and there was scandal and things were just crazy. Then, when all that was sorted out, Vanderbilt got herself into a bunch of really terrible relationships and marriages, plural, and was generally kind of a hot mess. Then she settled into being an adult, more or less, and became pretty well known for her designer jeans and made a point of working even though she could totally have lived on her inheritance and she made several babies including one Anderson Cooper. He tells some pretty good stories about himself as well, including how he came out as gay and how he basically tricked his way into a reporting career, which seems to have worked out pretty well for him.

Then it all comes together at the end with a discussion about, you know, life, the universe, and everything, including whether or not fate is a thing and if optimism is just fooling yourself, so, you know, I didn’t mention the crying earlier for nothing. If you haven’t had a good cathartic existential crisis lately, this book is probably good for one. But in a good way! If that’s a thing.

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
I am almost embarrassed to include this book in this post, because I remember so very little about it and I will do it absolutely no justice with my words. But I do want to include it, because even if I can’t remember the details, I can remember how good I thought it was while I was listening to it and how important it definitely is.

The book is written as a letter from Coates to his son in the aftermath of all the everything that’s been happening lately, race-wise. Coates writes about his own experiences as a black man in our world, and the uniting idea of the book is the idea that black people are seen and regarded and experienced as bodies moreso than people. This is a strange concept to think about, but Coates frames it in a way that makes a lot of sense and will leave you thinking all the thinky thoughts after you’re done with the book.

I might recommend this one in print, though, because while Coates is indeed an excellent narrator, listening to him read his book is more about the experience of hearing the way his words flow rather than the experience of receiving information. Not that that’s a bad thing. His words flow very nicely.

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Zoo City, by Lauren Beukes

Zoo CitySo a while back I read Beukes’s The Shining Girls and thought it was brain-exploding but also pretty darn good, and then the Internet was like, yeah, well, we liked Beukes before she was cool when she wrote a little thing called Zoo City. And I was like, yeah, well, Internet Hipsters, I owned Zoo City via a Humble Bundle before I knew that I was going to know that Beukes was cool, and then my brain exploded again.

I actually started reading this back in October, but fate and forgetfulness meant that I didn’t finish it until, uh, February (who’s behind on her book posts?). Luckily, the book is just bonkers enough that I didn’t have to start over.

But it is bonkers. See, it takes place in this alternate present where criminals somehow (insert hand waving here) end up with Animals who hang out with them for the rest of ever, like Mice and Mongeese and in our hero Zinzi’s case, a Sloth. Said criminals also get a magic power, which can be almost anything; Zinzi’s power is to be able to find lost things.

Aside from the cool things (well, not sure about the Animal thing), Zinzi’s life is… not great. She lives in a Johannesburg slum called Zoo City where, as you may guess, lots of other people with Animals are stuck living, having been rejected from better places. She is also in debt to her drug dealer and repays him by writing scam emails à la those nice Nigerian princes and sometimes pretending to be the people she writes about in those emails when the potential benefactors come to call.

Is this bonkers enough yet? Because it keeps going — Zinzi gets involved in a lost item case that nearly gets her arrested, and then she gets recruited to find a missing pop star and then there’s this whole thing with Animals and an Undertow and… there is a lot going on here.

But in a good way! It helps that Zinzi is a really interesting character, super flawed but generally trying to be a good person in a bad situation, and the other people she meets are equally difficult to peg as good or bad, which is part of what keeps the mystery going. And the world that Beukes created is amazing — she includes between story chapters little snippets of books and news stories and the like that talk about when Animals started showing up and what the prevailing theories are and how people are using them for fame and this sort of second storyline does come into play at the end so don’t skip these seeming extras. The ending is, as I am coming to see is “as usual” for Beukes, crazypants enough to make perfect sense, once you’ve overthought it enough.

So if, like me, you’ve had this book sitting on your ereader since that long-ago Humble Bundle, or if it crosses your path at the library or bookstore, you should definitely give it a shot.

Recommendation: For fans of alternate realities and hand-wavey magic and books that force you to think real hard about things.

Rating: 8/10