Pretend I’m Dead

For months he was just a number to her: she counted his dirties, he dropped them in the bucket, she recorded the number on the clipboard, and he moved down the line.

Some stories aren’t pleasant to read, but so compelling that you don’t want to give up on them ether. Mona isn’t easy to love or follow, even though it could have been with such a mercy- and pity-inducing history.

Mona is a twenty-something with a bad youth and/or possibly some mental illnesses. There are clear symptoms, but there’s also the consideration of how much comes from her background. She cleans houses for a living, even though her aunt and her sort-of-boyfriend tell her that she should change things, start living. Develop.

But that’s not easy, especially when you’re not exactly willing to do so. Mona’s got a lot of thoughts, maybe too many, and the author doesn’t let the reader off easy. This is an annoying, disgusting, frightening protagonist that might make you feel more empathetic to those neurotically atypical, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing annoying either.

Pretend I’m Dead doesn’t give answers, it just shows. I didn’t find the ‘laugh-out-loud funny’ a blurb claims, but I did want to stick around. Maybe in some way, Mona will notice.

Pretend I’m Dead, Jean Beagin, Oneworld 2018

The Word for Woman is Wilderness

The space probe Voyager 1 left the planet in 1977.

Wow. Maybe as much impact on me, albeit in a slightly different category, as Het achtste leven (voor Brilka). I’m still a bit fuzzy around the edges after having finished it. And as often with those on the edges of opinion (very good, very bad), I’m struggling a little bit with how to put into words what I like so much about this.

Because with the premise, it just as easily could have gone on to be terribly navel-gazing and Philosophical without foundation (ie fake deep babble). A young English woman deciding on going to travel ‘to the wild’ by herself, through Iceland, Greenland, Canada and Alaska. During, she’s often (very) conscious about her privilege, place in the world, safety and future, but not without keeping her eyes turned outwards. And what a beautiful, mesmerising outwards it is.

So, what does happen in this book that left me reeling slightly? It’s the insights, but also the recognisable feelings about living without a buoy, and/or direction. It’s the worries about environment and society and how you seemingly can’t have any impact on it, yet never turns into something completely depressing. And with the conclusion, it all slides into perspective.

Maybe that’s the biggest thing: it offers such a broad perspective that keeps narrowing down, without offering you the light at the end of the tunnel. It just gives you the knowledge about all that’s around you.

The Word for Woman is Wilderness, Abi Andrews, Profile Books 2018

After the Party

When I came out of prison my hair was white.

When we don’t learn from history something something repeat something something. Who would have thought that a book about fascism would be all too relevant again in the twenty-first century? Look, it even has women and children being brainwashed through children and ‘good people’ while parroting that above all “it’s about patriotism!”.

The title can be interpreted in two ways, I realise only now. Protagonist Phyllis returns to England when the second world war is just a spot on the horizon. She joins her sisters in a world of high(er) society, and so what if there’s stories about a very charismatic Leader whose party will take care of making Great Britain greater (I kid you not)? Parallels, anyone?

The time-hopping kind of spoils how Phyllis’ story goes, and I would have appreciated more focus on details about this “patriotic” party and their place in society. Now it’s mostly a slice-of-life look of a certain people and how easily they step into the “we just want the best (for people like us)” trap. A study of humanity – and their refusal to learn from history.

After the Party, Cressida Connolly, Viking Press 2018

Internment

I strain to listen for boots on the pavement.

Looking back after having finished this novel I realise how naive and privileged it is of me to have thought “well sometimes she’s exaggerating a bit”. Something about how we are doomed to repeat history if we don’t learn from it, etc.

In this case the lesson is ‘Do not imprison innocent people for the sole reason that their religion, skin colour and/or ancestral background is different from yours’. Shown in the Second World War, the States did it with Japanese Americans, and Samira Ahmed does it a few decades later with American Muslims. Because in Internment a president – very alike of the one the USA has right now – comes in power, and he’s much more effective in getting his racist ideas turned into actions. American Muslims are put into camps on American soil.

And just like before, there are plenty euphemisms going around. None can cover up that the camp is surrounded by barb wire, that every guard has a weapon and that any sign or sound of protest is violently taken down. Here comes my conclusion from the first paragraph in: isn’t this put down all a bit too extremely? I should know better. We all should.

It’s good that the novel is less than 300 pages, because there’s no escaping the terror the characters are put through. Not just the mental and physical torture; also the shock of seeing how fast people get used to it. Again, as we should know.

All this makes for a bitter pill that as many as possible of us should swallow.

Internment, Samira Ahmed, Little, Brown & Company 2019

Knock down the House

87 min.

Aan de ene kant helemaal geweldig hoe rah-rah! je wordt van deze documentaire want potverdorie wat zijn deze mensen goed bezig om de (politieke) wereld te veranderen. Aan de andere kant pijnlijk in hoeverre dat nog nodig is, omdat de bestaande politici vastgegroeid zitten tussen lobby en eigen belang.

Knock down the House posterDeze documentaire is niet alleen over Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, ook al wordt haar naam en beeltenis gebruikt om de aandacht te trekken. Het gaat hier om grass-roots, om de mensen (meestal vrouwen) die er helemaal genoeg van hebben dat zij op geen enkele manier vertegenwoordigd worden in de politiek. Er zitten karakters tussen die zo verdomde inspirerend bent dat je je afvraagt waarom ze niet al [x aantal] jaar in een functie zitten waar ze de wereld ook kunnen verbeteren. Nou, dat legt de documentaire ook fijntjes uit.

Je hoeft heel weinig van Amerikaanse politiek te snappen of interessant te vinden om deze documentaire te waarderen; het gaat hier om verandering vanaf de bodem. Hier in Nederland heeft men de mond vol van elite – deze docu laat zien op welke manier dat woord wél vies kan zijn. Dan mag Netflix volgend jaar over de mensen van Stem Op Een Vrouw documenteren.

Knock down the House, Netflix 2019

One of Us

95 min.

Waarom haten mannen vrouwen toch zo en zetten ze er zo vaak godsdienst voor in? Nu is de orthodoxe invulling van een geloof gelukkig (nog) de minderheid binnen een samenleving, maar toch. Zoals One of Us laat zien, geven deze mensen niet om de samenleving, alleen om hun controle er op. En ieder die niet toegeeft aan die controle, wordt bevochten.

One-of-us-posterOne of Us is een documentaire over orthodoxe Hadisic Joden in het New Yorkse Brooklyn, en dan vooral de mensen die geen onderdeel meer van ze uit willen maken. En vooral in het geval van vrouwen, kan deze orthodoxe gemeenschap hun verlies slecht nemen. Bij de afvallige mannen is er nog enige vorm van communicatie; men kijkt de andere kant uit wanneer ze heidens gedrag vertonen. Vrouwen worden bedreigd. Rechtszaken worden ingezet (op die manier mag de heidense samenleving schijnbaar wel gebruikt worden).

De documentaire geeft geen oplossingen, alleen maar een kijkje in een wereld die zo succesvol gesloten is en veel doet om dat ook vol te houden. Dat dan slachtoffers maakt, heeft een lagere prioriteit.

One of Us, Netflix 2017

The Talented Ribkins

He only came back because Melvin said he would kill him if he didn’t pay off his debt by the end of the week.

Now how to talk about this one. There’s a fantastical element in this story (several, if you consider all the individuals involved), but I definitely wouldn’t call it a story from the fantasy genre. Maybe more magic realistic? Anyway, these talents can come in quite handy, but brought ruin to almost every owner – every member of the Ribkins family.

The Ribkins are a black family, with one generation starting out as activists (during the Civil Rights Movement) but seeming to have ended up in crime. Each of their stories rub against historical facts, which makes the people with extraordinary powers trope so much more realistic, and keeps the focus on those people, instead of what they do with their powers.

This is combined with a playground (Florida) that somehow manages to make all of it more surreal and real at the same time. Of course the main character needs to dig up money he hid around the state, of course their last name has a wonderful background. Ladee Hubbard bakes all of it together, and it tastes strange, but good.

The Talented Ribkins, Ladee Hubbard, Melville House 2017

Stay with Me

I must leave this city today and come to you.

I typed and deleted the start of this blog for about four times. It’s an impressive story, a frustrating one, not a happy one but a hopeful one? Here’s me scoring high on cliché bingo.

So, okay. Stay with Me is about a Nigerian couple that can’t conceive and because offspring is very important, is offered (‘offered’) a second wife to make sure offspring does happen. But this is liking saying Lord of the Rings is about some rings, there’s much more to it.

It’s not just a slice of life, it’s a slice of culture. It’s for everyone who isn’t familiar with Nigeria and Nigerians, a look behind the scenes. Yes, we all have relationships and romances, but how, why, and in what way? What sacrifices are desired (by the partners, their families, their surroundings), and who are you if you’re not parents of a child/children?

I was warned beforehand that the subject could get pretty heavy, and there have been times I cursed out outdated ideas and the people still clinging to them. But as an anthropological view, as a psychological view, and to freaking root for Yejide.. this story has a strong pull.

Stay with Me, Ayobami Adebayo, Alfred A. Knopf 2017

Bad Blood

November 17, 2006

I’m fond of the sentence ‘truth is stranger than fiction’, but this time the truth is so recognisable that the fictional version of it would have been waved away for being too boring. Ignorant people sticking to ignorance because it can possibly make them money? Sounds familiar.

This time there’s health involved though, which makes the schadenfreude slightly less because you know people might suffer more than a hurt ego and an empty savings account. Main villain is a young woman that decides she wants to be the next Steve Jobs, and as soon as possible. This leads to material that never works, a very tense work atmosphere and so much lies and threats towards both supporters and criticisers that you wonder if anyone involved has energy for daily life left.

So while you can laugh about all the dumb rich people that keep throwing more money at this company which is basically just a collection of shams, you’re confronted with the reality that this isn’t new. That companies work like this, that people out there will work harder for fame then for bettering society.

Yes, it’s a wild ride, but not an uplifting one. Just another argument for knowing that it’s truth: no clear cut happy ending in which everyone deserving of it get their comeuppance.

Bad Blood, John Carreyrou, Borzoi

Before We Were Yours

My story begins on a sweltering August night, in a place I will never set eyes upon.

Adoption isn’t an easy subject, but the historical story line of Before We Were Yours shows at the very least how it definitely shouldn’t be handled.

There are two story tellers in this novel about an “orphanage” that basically stole children from poor people and sold them to rich families. One is the girl and her siblings that go through it, the other connected to her through different generations. This element sometimes makes it a little bit Lifetime-ish, although her motivations for discovering more are at first more political than personal. ie the sob story starts later into the story.

Weaved in between these two is a romance that isn’t quite necessary, but not horribly done either. I feel like the subject is what elevates this novel from being just another one of the paperbacks your gran reads and pushes upon you because it’s “so exciting”. It’s an easy, accessible read, but the horror of the “orphanage” and the reality on which its based, is what gives the story its pull.

Before We Were Yours, Lisa Wingate, Penguin Random House LLC 2017