I read this on the way to South Africa, as one method of familiarizing myself with its recent history. As someone who attended college in the 1980s, most of my knowledge of the country centers around apartheid and the struggle to get people to recognize the need to sanction its repressive government by divesting from investments there and other methods. The efforts of the entertainment industry, in particular Peter Gabriel’s song “Biko” and the various Free Nelson Mandela campaigns, are particularly memorable. Noah’s book is not a history, but an autobiography that describes growing up in the country as it transitioned from apartheid to racial equality. Along that personal journey, you can gather some historical facts, but the focus is definitely more on understanding the underlying impact on South African culture from this transition.
Given Noah’s regular occupation, it should come as no surprise that this book is at turns funny; insightful into foibles, mainly cultural and political; and just a tad bit disrespectful, in a good way. For example, he spends a lot of time on his mother’s constant church attendance and the arguments he would have with her when something would go wrong, questioning whether it was God’s will that they shouldn’t go to church that day. It shows an aspect of both his and his mother’s characters, through their relationship with each other, and often his logic is so extended to be very amusing.
For an autobiography, this is as much about his mother as Noah himself, as the pivotal last chapter reveals. Frankly, that makes this book work much better than if Noah had gone into detail in the latter chapters on his emergence as a comedian and television personality. In that case, it would have just been another celebrity bio of rags to riches. By focusing on his mother’s story, it becomes a triumph over adversity and an awakening to how much those around us contribute to our destinies.
I’m not a regular reader of biographies, auto or other, but as far as the ones that I have read, this is one of the best, rivaling Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, which it resembles more than somewhat. I would recommend Born a Crime to pretty much anyone.