Africa · Books · South Africa

Born a Crime- book review

By now, Trevor Noah has become a household name in the US. As the host of The Daily Show, having taken over from Jon Stewart in 2016, Noah has come a long way from growing up in a poor neighborhood in his native South Africa during apartheid. What makes his life story even more remarkable is that his birth was a result of a criminal act – his mother was a black South African while his father was a white Swiss, and miscegenation was illegal during apartheid. Hence, the name of his biography – Born a Crime – Stories from a South African Childhood.

I got this book because a friend highly recommended it, but I have to admit I was a little apprehensive. As Noah is a well-known US celebrity, I thought his book would be tame and politically correct. Well, how wrong I was. From the start, he doesn’t pull any punches in talking about his life. He balances hard-hitting commentary with humour and bluntness as well as poignant recollections of painful memories. When he talks about how his devout Christian mother and him spent Sundays going to 3 different churches for the entire day, he says that “white church” was his favorite because of how comfortable it was and how brief the services were (just one hour). “Black church” was an ordeal, as services went on for 3 or 4 hours. “I eventually decided black people needed more time with Jesus because we suffered more,” he says, which struck me as both hilarious and sad. Then he complains about his mother’s old, beat-up car. Almost all bad experiences were a result of that old car, said Noah. Having to miss school, hitch-hiking, being late for work. And having to find a mechanic, who ended up marrying his mother, beating her, and eventually shooting her in the head. That escalated fast (Noah is not joking about that, it really happened). All this is just the first chapter.

South Africa is one of the world’s most fascinating countries because of its racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity. I have great memories of visiting there in 2010. But under apartheid, this diversity was twisted so that it was completed corrupted and abused – blacks were forced to live separately; coloreds and Indians were treated as being inferior to whites but better than blacks; child siblings of different skin complexions could be classified separately. As the biracial, light-skinned son of a black woman, Noah is caught up in this. The remarkable thing is Noah isn’t bitter or sad, but filled with optimism as well as a resolve which stayed with him his whole life. As he says, his mother told him not to forget pain, but to also not let pain rule him.

Not surprisingly, Noah’s mother is a key figure in his life and in the book. She is a woman of great resilience and spirit, who worked and brought up young Trevor without any shame, and instilled in him a strong attitude towards life. But she is the victim of the greatest tragedy in Noah’s life, when she is shot in the head by her abusive ex-husband (not Noah’s father). She recovers, which goes to show how tough she is, and Noah’s love for her and vice versa are very apparent.

Noah fills the book with hilarious and harsh anecdotes, as well as commentary on racial and social issues. Sometimes, it sounds brutal such as when he talks about the Coloured people in South Africa – people of mixed ethnic origin. Now, you might wonder – isn’t Noah himself Coloured since his parents were black and white? No, because Coloureds were mixed going back several generations, as their ancestors were the early Dutch and European settlers and locals over two centuries ago. Noah’s point is that this is the Coloured’s tragedy because they don’t have a solid heritage. That isn’t a problem in itself (obviously there are lots of mixed people worldwide) but in South Africa, Coloureds were caught up in the middle of the country’s racial hierarchies, during apartheid and even now.

This book is a great example of this – it’s not dominated by pain and terror, but by humor and fond memories of growing up, getting in trouble, and hustling in the hood, whilst learning some hard lessons. Noah’s autobiography is a fantastic read for learning about South Africa, race, the hood, and basically how a boy from a South African ghetto grew up to become an international comedian and personality. It is one of the best biographies I’ve ever read. Interestingly, the last biography I read was also about a South African, Elon Musk, which was also good. The country might have some serious problems, but it produces some special people.

Advertisements
Books

Swing Time- book review

The most recent novel from Zadie Smith, Swing Time, is about two women from a London working-class neighborhood who grew up together and shared a love of dance. However, the book is not as jaunty as its title suggests. The story starts during the biracial girls’ childhood, then alternates between the present and their teenage and young adult years, where we see the narrator and Tracey grow apart.

After graduating high school, the narrator becomes the PA of an Australian singing star and becomes consumed by the jetsetting lifestyle, while Tracey settles into family life back in their neighborhood after a lowkey dance career. A major part of the plot centers on the singer deciding to fund a school for girls in an African country (I think it’s the Gambia) which requires the narrator to spend a lot of time in the village where she bonds with locals and tries to understand the culture. Things don’t progress too well as the school creates complications, which is true for international development, among the locals. There is a brief romantic relationship with the narrator and a local teacher which fades away in a surprisingly callous manner.

The name of the book derives from the two girls’ enthusiasm for dance, which they shared in dance class and which saw them idolizing stars like Michael Jackson and even oldtime celebrities like Fred Rogers and Ginger Astaire. Dance represents the one common area for the two girls, whose families and other interests differ significantly. The relationship veers from friendship to frenemies and there are some terrible incidents alluded to regarding one of the girls.

Zadie Smith, a biracial British writer, is a huge literary star, but somehow I’ve never really liked her books that much. Swing Time was a bit boring in the beginning, then improved in the middle, but after finishing it, I thought it was just decent. With Smith’s previous books, especially NW, I found the plots to be kind of complex and the writing all over the place (NW was divided into sections with distinctly different writing styles). I think the issue with Swing Time was I never really cared too much for the main protagonists.

Where I find Smith is good at is describing the bits of disappointment, tension and turmoil that fill her characters’ everyday lives, which reflects the struggles of real life working-class Londoners. Tracey’s broken dance dream signifies the difficulty of escaping the working-class neighborhood while the narrator’s somewhat aimless life, despite taking her all over the world, suggests the hollowness of taking the practical way over passionate pursuit.

Books

China Rich Girlfriend, and Rich People Problems- book reviews

Continuing on from Crazy Rich Asians, Kevin Kwan came out with China Rich Girlfriend and Rich People Problems to complete a mesmerizing trilogy.

China Rich Girlfriend sees the spotlight turn to China. Nick and Rachel, the main couple from the first book, are getting married in the US when they receive a stunning revelation about Rachel’s real father. It turns out he is one of China’s richest billionaires and a rising Party official. But while he is receptive to receiving Rachel and welcoming the couple to Shanghai, his wife is not so keen. The extravagance factor goes up by several notches in China as we get treated to details about China’s rich elite. Somehow the main characters fly off to Paris where things get heated between Rachel’s half-brother and his socialite girlfriend.

This book is more over-the-top than its prequel, Crazy Rich Asians, and the China parts didn’t interest me much. I suspect that the author is not as familiar with China as he is with Singapore or Europe so that is why he didn’t spend too much time on the China part. Because what fascinates me is not the luxury brand and high-end product descriptions but the social and cultural references and explanations, I didn’t find China Rich Girlfriend as interesting as Crazy Rich Asians. That said, Kwan includes a deadly Ferrari crash that is remarkably similar and based on a real-life one involving the son of presidential aide Ling Jihua in Beijing in 2012.

Rich People Problems concludes the saga as Nick’s 94-year-old grandmother Su Yi, the family head, falls seriously ill, bringing all her children and grandchildren to the family mansion in Singapore. Besides filial piety, there are more practical reasons for the family gathering, namely who gets what from Su Yi’s financial fortune. Readers get a glimpse of Su Yi’s early life from flashbacks of Su Yi’s experiences during World War II when she fled to India after the Japanese invasion of Singapore, as well as memories of her interactions with her brother and father. There are some mysterious bits concerning those flashbacks and Nick’s parents that are not explained so perhaps there is room for further books in the future. The conclusion wraps up a bit too neatly and conveniently.

The three books in the trilogy were all very fun reads that really pulled you in because of the many interesting details.
That said, there are a few problems.
For one, it is a pity that the few self-made main characters in the trilogy are made out to be wretched or deeply flawed. One of them, Kitty Pong, is an actress with a dubious past who upgrades as she jumps from man to man to man (but is actually one of the funnier characters), while another, Michael, the husband of Nick’s cousin Astrid (also a wealthy heiress in her own right), is a former soldier and tech entrepreneur from a middle-class family who warps from a decent man into an arrogant and status-obsessed social climber.
Another issue is that while the sheer amount of details pertaining to luxury brands, food and cultural quirks is a strength, sometimes the wealth and brand descriptions are so extreme and drawn out as to be inconsequential.

All in all, the trilogy was very entertaining, with the first and third books being particularly good reads.

Books

The Sympathizer- book review

Lots of books have been written about the Vietnam War but those mostly are about the US experience. The Sympathizer is a novel about the war from a Vietnamese perspective, but even this is a little complicated. The protagonist is a South Vietnamese captain and aide of a special police general, both of whom flee to the US after the fall of Saigon to the victorious North Vietnamese. But he is also a long-time mole who reports on the general and other South Vietnamese in the US for the North Vietnamese. This makes for a very intriguing novel that blends a war story with an immigrant’s tale and a suspense thriller with a bit of history and politics as well. This potent mix is why the Sympathizer won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2016 as well as several other major book prizes.

However, the story doesn’t end in the US but surprisingly returns to Vietnam, which was unified after the North defeated and overran the South, in an agonizing finale. Since I don’t want to disclose the ending, I’m being intentionally vague. I will say the conclusion comes after the general and other South Vietnamese refugees in the US plot a covert invasion of their home country, which the captain struggles to decide whether to take part in.

The book is starkly fascinating, starting in Saigon during its last days as the capital of South Vietnam, with the desperation of people to flee being especially palpable, mixed with the despair and defiance of soldiers like the general and the captain’s comrade as they contemplate futile resistance. After the captain and the general make it to the US, they struggle to make a living in vastly humbler circumstances, a common experience of many immigrants. During this whole period, readers discover the captain’s origins, being the illegitimate love child of a French Catholic priest and a local village woman, which makes him a bastard, a Eurasian and scorned by many of his compatriots. Yet it is never clear why he chooses to serve the North, other than that his village was in the north.
There is a strange interlude in the middle of the novel where the captain serves as an advisor during the filming of a Hollywood movie about the war, which bears similarities to Apocalypse Now.

Vietnam, to me, is an intriguing country whose history (both recent and past), culture, and society are often overlooked and underrepresented in Western media. The Vietnam War was a significant tragedy for the US, which can be seen in American movies, TV series and novels about the war, but this obscures the fact that the Vietnamese suffered the most, even if they were the ultimate victors. The Sympathizer can only portray a bit of the effect of the war and its aftermath on the Vietnamese, but this is more than enough to present the trauma and tensions vividly.

I found the book a little too dark and tragic to be truly enjoyable, but it is highly captivating.

Books

The Triple Package- book review

It might be a sensitive topic, but academic and economic success varies among different ethnic and cultural groups in the US. What makes ethnic groups like South Asians, Jewish, or East Asians such high performers in the US? The Triple Package- How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America  argues that three factors foster the success of certain groups.

Some readers might recognize co-author Amy Chua for her 2011 book Battle Hymns of the Tiger Mother, a memoir of how she parented her two daughters based on strict “Chinese” values as opposed to American/Western compassion. In The Triple Package, Chua and co-author Jed Rubenfeld (also Chua’s husband and fellow Yale professor) explain that three main traits are essential — superiority complex, insecurity and impulse control (discipline). Superiority and insecurity seem contradictory, but they go together because groups need to both have a strong sense of self-esteem and confidence while also feeling insecure enough to keep striving and pushing themselves. Impulse control is also important, so for Mormons, their austere upbringing as well as the two-year service for many young Mormon adults who go on evangelical missions worldwide, is a great benefit.

All three traits are vital because if a group lacks even one of them, they will not be successful. For example, the authors explain that black Americans (those whose ancestors came to the US as slaves) lack a sense of superiority due to enduring persistent discrimination, which hinders them from being successful, whereas Nigerian-Americans, one of the successful groups mentioned in the book, and other African immigrants don’t. Another example is the Amish, who live even more austere lives (no electricity!) and possess more discipline than the Mormons, but they do not have a sense of superiority and have little desire to compete and advance in modern society.

Most of the groups like Chinese-Americans and Nigerian-Americans are immigrants or have only been in the US for 2-3 generations, though the Jewish community and Mormons are exceptions. However, decline usually sets in for immigrants after two generations so that for example, “first- and second-generation Asian students outperform whites, whereas there is no difference between third-generation Asians and whites.”

While the subject matter is rather sensitive, the writing is rather nuanced and not inflammatory or exaggerated. The authors also devote a chapter to exploring the downside of the triple package traits in cultures, which manifests in insularity, high pressure and psychological problems. Asian-Americans often do very well in academics and are one of the highest earning groups in the US, but some young Asian-Americans chafe under the high expectations and try to break out of the narrow stereotypical mold they grow up under.

While groups might rise, they can also decline as they become complacent and lose the discipline or drive to strive harder. Interestingly, the authors apply this to explain the recent fortunes of the US as a whole. This is because the US can be considered the ultimate “Triple Package” nation- a young upstart that harboured a strong desire to prove itself compared to the much older and cultured European powers, whilst also possessing a sense of “exceptionalism” as a nation forged from a desire to be free, and a “Puritanical inheritance of impulse control” including moderation, saving and industry. But having risen to become the world’s superpower, America lost its discipline and sense of insecurity and became too confident. The world has become very turbulent and unstable but the authors say this is the right time for the US to recover its “Triple Package” due to insecurity presented by threats of terrorism, China, and financial woes. It will be interesting if the US can recover its status as a “Triple Package” nation.

Ultimately, the success of ethnic groups may not be simply due to these three factors, but the authors make convincing arguments that they are key.

Books · Taiwan

Green Island- book review

I find it a very ironic time to have read Green Island, a novel about the life of a Taiwanese man imprisoned after the 228 Tragedy in 1948 and his family as they endure Taiwan’s decades of repressive martial law before it became a democracy in the late 1980s. I say this because of recent developments in China, where the president has become an “emperor,” (he even threatened Taiwan today in a speech at a national congress) and worsening political repression and government announcements seem to be harkening back to the sixties and seventies. Single-party authoritarian rule and political repression are what Taiwan, a proud democracy since the late 80s, suffered for decades, during which the events in Green Island take place against.

There are not many novels about Taiwan, so Green Island is rather unique. And by focusing on Taiwan’s turbulent period of martial law, also known as the White Terror, starting with the brutal massacre of the 228 Tragedy, the book is even more special.

The 228 Tragedy was a mass killing of Taiwanese by Republic of China troops after mass riots erupted in 1948 sparked by the beating of a cigarette vendor. Having been a Japanese colony, Taiwan was granted to the ROC in 1945, who behaved like oppressive occupiers, fuelling serious tensions with the locals. The death toll has never been verified but was at least several hundred, though some believe the number was in the thousands. The narrator’s father, a doctor who speaks up for during a public hearing a few days after the tragedy, is arrested in the ensuing crackdown. His family never gets any news of his arrest or whether he is in prison or dead. The narrator was born on the day the tragedy began – February 28 (a public holiday now in Taiwan in commemoration of the victims) and grows up as the youngest child and daughter without knowing her father until he suddenly appears 11 years later.

But instead of a joyful reunion, the father’s reappearance causes complications with the family with his haunted and stern presence. As the narrator grows up, she is introduced to a son of a family friend studying in the US and marries him. Moving to the US in the early 1980s, they start a family in California where the husband teaches at a local university. He is involved in a Taiwanese dissident movement, and when the couple take in a Taiwanese academic who has fled Taiwan, Taiwanese government agents shadow them. This is a chilling echo of reality in those days when Taiwanese agents and thugs spied on and intimidated activists in the US, even committing murder, something that happens in the novel as well. When the dissident decides to write a book about Taiwan, the narrator helps him translate it into English. But a Taiwanese consulate agent contacts the woman and tries to intimidate and bribe her to spy on the dissident. Things become murky as the narrator struggles to decide whether to accept and fear and paranoia creep into her relations with her husband and the dissident. The situation seems hopeless for the dissident movement as the regime continues to rule by intimidation and terror (a state of affairs that would not seem out of place in Taiwan’s giant neighbour across the Strait right now). The book ends with a return to Taipei in the midst of the SARS virus epidemic in 2003.

While I have a general understanding of Taiwan’s 20th century history such as the 228 Tragedy and the White Terror, which lasted from the late 40s to the 80s, I did not grasp the sheer brutality and climate of fear and repression that occurred during that time. Reading Green Island brought this dark period to life and increased my appreciation of how much Taiwan has progressed to become what it is today. What makes this period even more striking is that the 70s was when Taiwan left the UN after the organization decided to accept China and then saw its chief ally, the US break off official relations with it in favour of China. Taiwan’s ensuing international isolation,  which still exists today with less than 20 countries officially recognizing Taiwan, was a big blow to the ruling KMT regime. I got the sense from reading the book that this loss of international legitimacy weakened the KMT and somehow helped Taiwan’s eventual democratization to occur.

At times while reading the book, I thought how Taiwan back then was so similar to China, both being one-party states ruled by dictators (Taiwan by Chiang Kai-shek and then his son Chiang Ching-kuo, China by Mao Tse-tung) and with censorship; mass killings; citizen surveillance, secret detention, torture and killings of dissidents. The big difference is that China now still has some of these things. Taiwan now is a completely different place and sometimes given the country’s openness and easy-going nature, it is easy to forget that decades ago, it was under a terrible dictatorship that committed killings and repressive jailing of its citizens. There are some torture and killing described in the book, all the more chilling because it is not over-the-top gory but realistic and based on reality.

Green Island refers to a small isle off Taiwan’s east coast that was used to imprison dissidents like the father, so the main criticism I have about the book is that the father’s 11 years of imprisonment are not described at all. After he is captured and jailed, time goes by and the family picks up their lives until suddenly one day he reappears. While the father’s Green Island imprisonment is traumatic and affects his personality, the isle itself does not feature so I think  the book being named after it is misleading.

You could say Green Island is both the story of a country and a family, both a political thriller and a family drama. There is an air of sadness and fear throughout the book, but it is lightened by the fact that in real life, we all know which side won in Taiwan between the authoritarian regime and the resistance.

Green Island is one of the most poignant novels I’ve ever read and there were a couple of times when I felt emotional and I rarely do so for books. Green Island is not an uplifting tale of heroism and happiness, but a somber story of survival and family that is also the story of a nation.

Books

Crazy Rich Asians- book review

Even though Crazy Rich Asians and its two sequels have earned a lot of acclaim, I held off on reading it for a long time because I wasn’t sure I cared about the lives of rich, high-class Singaporeans/Asians. Especially when the main plot centers on an American-Chinese girl, Rachel, flying to Singapore for the first time with her boyfriend Nicholas, whose family is one of the country’s wealthiest. Why would I find a romantic love story filled with wealth and extravagance interesting? Well, I did read Crazy Rich Asians, and I have to admit I found it interesting and more.

First off, the romantic plot is actually not the main point of the book – the lifestyle of the wealthy and elite Asian is. After getting past the convoluted beginning, which seemed to introduced several dozen characters (a mild exaggeration) and their backstories which focused on how rich they were, the story became more fascinating. That it is almost wholly set in Singapore, with a bit of Hong Kong and China included, made it interesting to me because I know little about the country. More specifically, it introduced the idea of a Singaporean old-money elite, which is distinct from the merely wealthy in the scale of their wealth, sophistication and their place in society. I suppose this is similar to the UK. The plot progresses from a simple trip to more complex and disturbing developments involving plots to break up the main couple, family fights, and illicit affairs. Rachel and Nick are coming to Singapore to attend Nick’s best friend’s wedding, where Nick will be the best man and which all of Singapore will be crazy about. However, despite being together for a year, Nick hasn’t told his parents about Rachel. But even worse, he hasn’t told Rachel about his family, which leads to obvious complications. In addition, there is a plot twist involving Rachel’s background that adds a poignant piece to the story and will have further repercussions.

The book is not without its faults. The main male protagonist, Nicholas, was rather boring, and both him and his girlfriend were not the most interesting couple in the book. The narrative can get too caught up in superlatives, especially concerning physical appearances. For instance, almost all the main male and female characters are exceedingly handsome or exquisite beauties. On the other hand, Rachel’s Singaporean best friend, while also wealthy, belongs to a different class – nouveau riche – and her parents and brothers are all short, and the latter dark-complexioned. While the book is described as a satirical parody of wealthy Asians, I found that at times it was quite serious and seemed to have a reverential tone towards its characters. And the sheer vapidity was quite overwhelming in a few parts, such as the wedding of Nicholas’ best friend and a local supermodel.

Despite its flaws, Crazy Rich Asians was an exciting read that turned out to be a guilty pleasure and more.

Books

Originals- book review

Being original is seen as highly valued in many areas in life, including work, business and arts, but it is not easy to attain. Some people are born with highly original and innovative minds, but the rest of us need to develop and foster originality. Originals- How Non-Confirmists Move the World aims to help readers do this with interesting lessons, insights and arguments.

Originals is a highly informative book, but also surprising as author Adam Grant makes arguments that contradict some pieces of conventional wisdom. For instance, at work, we always hear that instead of pointing out problems, we need to also have solutions (obviously managers love this suggestion), but Grant says that this can make people unwilling to speak up and as such, problems can be overlooked or ignored. As such, people should be allowed to make critiques freely.

Risk-taking is often praised and even encouraged, so you might think this is a key part of originality, but not so fast, says Grant. Keep your day-job while pursuing your dreams, like what author Stephen King and musician John Legend did initially before they really hit it big; and balance risks you do take in one area with caution in others, like a stock portfolio, for instance. To be honest, Grant’s advice seems more pragmatic than original as security seems to be the priority for him.

A lot of readers will take heart from the chapter on procrastination and companies not rushing into new markets. We often hear that procrastination is bad, but Grant says while leaving things to the last minute might hamper productivity, it might be good for creativity as it allows for flexibility and adaptability. Another instance of first being considered best is that companies that come out with products first always get lauded as innovators and supposedly have the first-mover advantage. Grant argues that these companies often get overtaken by competitors who wait and come out with better products. If anything, first-movers tend to be driven by impulsiveness which brings on more risk, says Grant. Grant also says civil movements and ideas failed because they were “ahead of their time” though he doesn’t give much evidence. Meanwhile, assigning somebody to be a “devil’s advocate” is less effective than if somebody was genuinely critical.

Another interesting chapter is about when to trust your intuition. According to Grant, intuition is dependable only when used in a familiar environment or situation but not in situations where conditions are always changing or a surprise. As such, you should trust your intuition in situations you are familiar with, but use more caution and thinking for unfamiliar circumstances. Hence doctors can trust their intuition when assessing cases they have encountered numerous times, but political and economic “experts” always seem to get things wrong.

One really surprising chapter is the one on the influence of birth order and parenting on originality. Grant finds that last-born children often turn out to be more creative and rebellious than their eldest siblings, who are more inclined to excel in traditional pursuits and become business and government leaders. Grant uses charts and stats showing that comedians and baseball steals leaders (steals are a sign of more risk-taking) are often the youngest in their families while a study showed that the largest percentage of CEOs were firstborn. In a somewhat vague link, Grant says parenting plays a key role such as using lessons and not orders to teach children to do the right thing.

Grant specifically praises investment company Bridgewater, where the founder and CEO Ray Danzig allows himself to be criticized publicly and harshly by subordinates. This is part of the company culture, based on over 200 principles that Danzig came up with. Employees are encouraged to publicly criticize their colleagues; all meetings are recorded; and all employees have scores published on a company-wide ratings board.

In the end, Grant lists a series of rules and suggestions including to procrastinate strategically, to back up your opinions, come up with more ideas than usual, and to present your ideas to disagreeable people who can challenge it earnestly. Originals might veer towards pragmatism in a few areas, but it provides a lot of useful ideas that might change your mind about common situations and behaviors, which would be the first step in becoming more “original.”

Africa · Books

Behold the Dreamers- book review

The American Dream has long been held up as the ultimate goal for people from all over the world, who brave all means to reach what they believe is the fabled land of hope and opportunity and try to make a good life for themselves and their families. Behold the Dreamers is about a Cameroonian couple, Jende and Neni, who try to accomplish this dream amid the turmoil of the 2008 financial crisis. Having overstayed his temporary visa to remain in the US for several years, Jende has gotten a lucrative opportunity to become the personal chauffeur of a Wall Street high flyer while applying for refugee asylum. His wife Neni is studying for a nursing degree while looking after their young son. Author Imbolo Mbue has crafted a compelling novel that goes beyond sentimentality and fanciful hopes to provide a raw and poignant take on the contemporary American Dream.

Through Jende and Neni’s challenging lives, Mbue shows that the American Dream is not always so fantastic nor attainable. Despite being set in the bright lights of New York City, which Jende and Neni both love, Mbue doesn’t hold back in portraying the grimness and sacrifice they put into trying to build a life in America, having to carefully balance their budget and diet while having to be obsequious at work (Jende not only has to drive Clark, but his wife and children, each of whom Jende treats as a master).

However, Behold the Dreamers is not just an immigrant story. Mbue seamlessly intertwines Jende and Neni’s story with that of Clarke’s well-off American family. Jende’s boss, Clarke, is an executive at Lehman Brothers, which became the most well-known victim of the crisis as it basically collapsed, so we know things won’t go too well for him. His wife is not as happy as she looks, and his elder son has a worldview very much at odds with him and much of society in general. Clarke balances work problems with maintaining a facade of a good family, which also doesn’t go too well and in a very sad way, he actually suffers more than Jende. I don’t know if it’s deliberate but Mbue makes Clarke a more empathetic character than one would have thought. Clarke’s lack of resolve with his home issues also drags in Jende and Neni and the result is tragic.

The novel was highly acclaimed and chosen by Oprah as one of her 2017 book selections, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as I had thought I would. For one, the main characters didn’t interest me that much and I wasn’t too sympathetic to their personal circumstances. In the middle of the novel, Neni commits a blatant act of extortion on a vulnerable employer that basically eliminated any sympathy I had for her. The ending provides some redemption as Jende makes a courageous decision, which I almost though he would go back on, and goes through with it. The ending will surprise a lot of readers and raise some issues to think about, such as rethinking what exactly is the American Dream worth.

Books

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness- book review

Twenty years ago, Indian writer Arundhati Roy wrote a novel that ended up winning a Booker Prize. Then in 2017, she released her second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, which sounds like a cheery, whimsical work, but that is not the type of writer Roy is. So while I was slightly taken by surprise when the book took a major change of direction early on, I should have realized there would have been more to the story. The book starts off with the story of Anjum, a hijra (transsexual) who moves to a cemetery and opens a guesthouse, before focusing on a tenant, Tilo, whose mysterious, sad past involves Kashmir.

The book is poignant in some parts, and light in others, but Tilo’s story and the brutality in Kashmir impart a heavy air. In the beginning, when we learn about Anjum, the capital Delhi is portrayed with a rich amount of detail highlighting history, culture and architecture. Roy also provides an entrancing description of the hijra community which Anjum becomes part of when he leaves home and decides he wants to become a woman.

However, Anjum’s life changes when she takes a trip to Gujarat and survives a communal massacre of Muslims (this happened for real in 2003 in retaliation for a massacre of Hindu passengers on a train). When the story shifts to Kashmir, where local uprisings have occurred against the Indian state, the tone changes to one of politics and conflict, as well as religious extremism and brutal policing. To be honest, I would have preferred it if the novel had just been about Tilo without the transsexual and funeral guesthouse part, though that adds a lot of colour to the book. The two parts differ in tone as well as story, and the effect is like two distinct stories fused together. Another issue is that midway in the book, during a recounting of Tilo’s past, the narrative timeline gets a little confusing and it is unclear whether events had happened in the past or had just occurred.

Roy’s focus on transgenders, history and the Kashmir conflict echoes her diverse knowledge (she trained as an architect in school) and tremendous activist work in speaking out against causes ranging from caste violence, dam-building, and religious conflicts in India, as well as the US government when it invaded Iraq. Besides her two novels, she has written numerous non-fiction books, a few of which I read in my university years, filled with blunt, angry essays about these causes.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is a pleasing book but one which might have been better if it had been streamlined.