Derek B. Miller
By Trevor Noah
Audible Studios. Unabridged,
Trevor Noah, comedian and host of “The Daily Show,” reads his own engaging, substantive account of growing up in Johannesburg under apartheid and the years following.
Noah is the son of a Xhosa mother and a Swiss father — both of whom could have been imprisoned for the crime of interracial sexual relations.
A social misfit, Noah made his way out of poverty and some danger through entrepreneurial ingenuity, comic genius and an ability to speak a number of tribal languages, which he gives marvelous voice to here.
Above all, Noah owes his success to the unfailing support of his mother, the real hero of the book. Forging her own small independence against all odds, she insisted that Noah learn English, and she sacrificed her small wages for his education: “She was preparing me to live a life of freedom long before we knew freedom would exist.”
Noah combines personal stories with political and historical observations, bringing his own acute judgment, sardonic humor and sense of the absurd to bear on both. The stories vary from descriptions of sickening injustice and brutality to his youthful awkwardness with girls and high-spirited adventures.
The author’s gift for vocal impersonation elevates the audio version into something even more splendid than an already terrific memoir.
Margot LeeShetterly’s “Hidden Figures” — the book behind the award-winning movie starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe — focuses on the lives of five African American female mathematicians who worked in a segregated division of the Langley Research Center in Virginia.
Performing myriad calculations for aeronautical research at NACA (later NASA), they all played important, invisible roles in U.S. air and space flight. Most monumentally, one of them, Katherine Goble Johnson, was key in calculating the trajectories for John Glenn’s orbital spaceflight.
The astronaut trusted her over machines, saying, “I want this human computer to check the output of the electronic computer, and if she says they’re good, I’m good to go.”
Robin Miles reads the book in a well-paced, exceptionally pleasant voice. Although some of the initial technological details are a little difficult to follow by ear, the personal lives of these gifted, determined women and the greater American story comes through loud and clear.
The book covers the injustices and indignities of segregation in the workplace and in education and housing. Shetterley shows, too, how the Soviets’ galling success with Sputnik was a factor in breaking racial and gender barriers in the sciences.
Derek B. Miller’s second novel begins in 1991 in Iraq near the Kuwait border, and, although the Gulf War has officially ended, the killing has not.
Among the dead is a Shiite girl in a green dress, shot by an Iraqi officer in front of British journalist Thomas Benton and U.S. Army Pvt. Arwood Hobbes.
More than two decades later, Benton gets a call from Hobbes claiming to have just seen the same girl in a video of a recent mortar attack in Kurdistan.
The two men set off to rescue this impossible figure, and from that improbable beginning comes a terrifically suspenseful and darkly satiric tale of people caught in the ever-mutating conflicts of the Middle East.
Will Damron’s general narration is kindly and calm in deadpan juxtaposition to the scenes of madness that he describes. He gives the novel’s multinational cast suitable accents and dispositions ranging through British, Southern-American military, Swedish and Iraqi/Syrian/Kurdish.
True, his Russian sounds like a Nazi and his Frenchman — as one character notes — like “Pepé Le Pew smoking weed.” Still, we know who everyone is in this heart-rending, often bleakly funny novel.
Katherine A. Powers reviews audiobooks every month for The Washington Post.