Shuggie Bain

The day was flat.

Shuggie Bain, Douglas Stuart Grove Atlantic 2020

Been a while since I read someone writing so vividly. This is an appealing story because of its style and imagery, and also severely depressing because of its images and stories.

The depictions of addiction, recovery and sabotage (intentionally and unknowing) is rough and tough, a trainwreck that just refuses to stop.

Papyrus

Mysterieuze groepen mannen te paard trekken over de wegen van Griekenland.

Papyrus: Een geschiedenis van de wereld in boeken, Irene Vallejo, Meulenhoff 2021

De geschiedenis van boeken, de geschiedenis van de wereld aan de hand van boeken. Irene Vallejo heeft een lijvig boek geschreven en het merendeel ervan heeft niet eens de Middeleeuwen bereikt: moet je nagaan hoeveel er te vertellen is en hoe diep Vallejo is gegaan.

Omdat ze dit doet op een fijne, lichte toon waarin haar interesse en devotie hoorbaar is (complimenten voor de vertaler, aangezien het origineel in het Spaans is), wordt het geen moment een naslagwerk waar je doorheen moet ploegen. De auteur is duidelijk ‘van de taal’ en kan bij andere taligen het enthousiasme vergroten maar zaait zeker ook bij beginners het zaadje.

A Girl is a Body of Water

Until that night, Kirabo had not cared about her.

A Girl is a Body of Water, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, Tin House 2020

What stuck with me most is how well Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi communicated the surprise and shrugs Ugandans had/felt about European ideas like time and religion. Might sound silly and/or narrow-minded but yes: not everyone cuts days into twelve hours and decides that one way of going at it is the right way. It’s all been decided before somewhere, and doesn’t mean that elsewheres should go along.

A Girl is a Body of Water plays out in a different time – Uganda in the nineteen-seventies and -eighties – and in a different world. The plot is familiar: absent parent decides to bring first child into second family. But Kirabo has plenty of other things on her mind; Sio, the mother who refused her, familial issues between her grandmother and the village witch and adjusting to private school and the city after growing up in a rural village.

Makumbi makes it all feel a bit like a fairy tale; even when dire reality sets in (war, death), it seems like something our princess has to get through to get to her happy ending. This absence and style takes some getting used to, but after you’re all in: we want the Stories of Kirabo; and we get them.

Light Perpetual

The light is grey and sullen, a smoulder, a flare choking on the soot of its own burning, and leaking only a little of its power into the visible spectrum.

Light Perpetual, Francis Spufford, Faber 2021

Sounds pretty dystopian, doesn’t it?

What if four children – who died in a WW2 bombardment – didn’t? The children aren’t extraordinary, they’re simply ‘allowed to’ play out their lives. What follows are slices of life of post-war England.

The characters make the novel, especially when the writing lacks a bit. It’s a history novel as history should be looked at: through the eyes of regular humans.

Nine Days

124 min.

Heartbreaking and heartwarming. Someone somewhere gets to decide who gets a life on earth. Something that could have turned very philosophical (“are they souls?”, “where are we before we’re born?”, “who deserves life?”) is kept very approachable — probably because of the two main characters.

Will and Kyo are very different from each other. Kyo thinks that is because Will used to be alive once, while he never lived. Will doesn’t share his thoughts on the subject, as he is wont to do with almost every subject.

He judges, though. Judges and tests to see who’s the right fit (“good enough” is another discussion). Again, I’m aware that none of this sounds very enticing, but this is actors showing their skill through emotions, text and body language. And do so without things becoming “floaty”.

Of course there’s something between Will’s very tough exterior, and it’s a cheeky-to-annoying young woman to get to it, but that’s about the only cliché this film offers.

Oliebollen-Nel

“Je zou eigenlijk eens achter Oliebollen-Nel moeten aan gaan.”

Oliebollen-Nel: De Oorlog van een kermisdiva, Michèl de Jong, Nijgh & Van Ditmar 2021

Dit is non-fictie. Er is heel veel informatie over de Tweede Wereldoorlog, het verzet, maar ook het kermisleven aan het begin van de twintigste eeuw. Het is een compliment voor de auteur dat dit bijna nergens taai of encyclopendie-ig wordt.

Oliebollen-Nel is een vrouw van de kermis die van publiekstrekker uitgroeit naar verzetsheldin. Of verrader. Nel is namelijk nogal een bijzonder, larger-than-life type met een flink ego, maar maakte dat haar naïef of veinste ze dat alleen?

Aan de hand van Nel wordt het Nederlandse verzet (vooral in Den Haag) gevolgd. Een verhaal waar Hollywood haar vingers bij af zou likken, maar dus allemaal gebeurd. Tot aan de laatste hoofdstukken houdt De Jong het tempo erin en de scènes kleurrijk: pas bij de verslagen van de rechtzaken gaat gevoelsmatig de rem erop.

Desalniettemin een aanrader voor iedereen die ook maar enigszins nieuwsgierig is naar één van de behandelde onderwerpen.

How to be an Antiracist

I despised suits and ties.

How to be an Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi, Penguin 2019

With certain books you feel bad about not loving it. This is important information, this is something to learn from, and I struggled from beginning to ending.

That’s partly because of the style of this book: much too often it felt like I was paging through a dictionary because definitions are added to everything and repeated often. It could be that I spend too much time online that I am already familiar with plenty of terms, but no matter if it’s for rookie or the more experienced: the message has to be delivered in an attractive way. And I know repetition is key to learning and remembering things, but now I just remember the repetition; not the message.

Kendi combines his own story with the story of racism and anti-racism and doesn’t protect himself in either. Maybe it’s better to look at this like a part of encyclopedia instead.

Fiebre Topical

Buenos dias, mi reina.

Fiebre Topical, Juliana Delgado Lopera, The Feminist Press 2020

Well, this wasn’t at all what I expected. I thought I was going to get a YA romance about discovering your queer identity while struggling through immigration, but.. I kind of got all that, minus the romance, plus depressed family members, a much more serious (and desperate tone) and a lot of Spanish. Without translation.

That took some time adjusting, and I still don’t know if I liked the novel. It was definitely an original experience, and I think the story told was genuine and heartfelt. The way it was told was sometimes hard to follow and frustrating.

Protagonist Francisca moves from Colombia to Miami, where she quickly loses half her family to a pretty extreme version of Christianity. She isn’t clear on what she wants, but she knows what she doesn’t and it is this; but how to fix it? And how to feel about the pastor’s daughter?

All this happening in a sweaty, oppressive Miami doesn’t make things easier. I felt like I had to step outside into the cold after having finished Fiebre Topical.

The Education of an Idealist

“What right has this woman to be so educated?”

The Education of an Idealist, Samantha Power, Harper Collins 2019

Pfew, this is a big one. I put this one on my list because I was curious about looking behind the curtains of the White House and the NATO, but those parts were the ones that made me lose (some) interest.

The idealist in question is Samantha Power and this book is her work memoir. Her resume includes foreign (war) correspondent), several functions within Obama’s team, author and US representative at NATO. Yeah, she went places.

All her experiences and insights into different systems are sad, frustrating and terrifying and they’re so many of them. Hundreds of pages on how American political actions work, sometimes even repeated (maybe to show how slow and grinding the system is?).

It’s all interesting, and I wouldn’t have had a deadline I might have spend more time on it, but for one week it’s just too much. A sharper edit, a tighter story telling or just more darlings killed might have left me feeling less relief when I finally reached the acknowledgments.

Sorry We Missed You

100 min.

Dat noem ik nog eens horror. De regisseur van deze film staat wel bekend om zijn “activistische” verhalen (je zou het ook gewoon realistisch kunnen noemen), maar met deze is het wel allemaal heel naar. Lichtpuntjes few and far between.

Terwijl je aan het begin nog wel even denkt dat deze man problemen maakt die er niet zijn. Ga nu maar eerst onder een baas werken, er zijn wel meerdere mensen die niet genieten van hun baan. En dan blijken er ook nog een grote hoeveelheid schulden te zijn? Oof.

Maar de protagonist loopt in de val van onderaannemer en is zijn leven vervolgens kwijt aan altijd meer pakketten bezorgen. Als daar het horror-kwartje niet bij valt, heb je oogkleppen op of vergeet je dat bezorgers ook gewoon mensen zijn.

En zo is het bijna honderd minuten lijden omdat als je eenmaal in een gat zit, je er niet meer zelf uit kunt klimmen.