The Taliban Cricket Club

He hadn’t forgotten me.

Karo from Persephone Magazine tries on a regular basis to get us interested in cricket. It’s one of the reasons I took this book from the library. Another is that I’m always on the lookout for writers and stories from outside my known Western culture. A novel is an easy way to peek behind the curtain, especially when it comes to countries that – in the not-novel world – are still inaccessible.

Rukshana used to be a bright, curious journalist. Than the Taliban took over and locked her up inside her burqa, but she is determined to let the real story come out and continues to write under a pseudonym. The story that tells about how innocents are being shot in the streets and discarded as trash. How the religious police will take offense in everything just so they can be violent and steal. Rukshana’s daily life and that of her small family is a war zone.
A very small light at the horizon comes from news about Afghanistan starting a cricket team. The winners of the national competition may go to Pakistan for international games. Basically, way out of this world. Of course Rukshana can’t play, she’s a woman, but she knows how to and she thinks this is the chance for her brother and cousins to escape. Training them in a burqa is impossible, so she dresses up as a young man.

Other worries and threats loom, laced with details of the country’s history. It’s lost potential in the most cruel way. Every character knows that their life is in danger in Afghanistan, yet find it so very hard to leave.

And the cricket? Much more interested, but still don’t understand much about it.

The Taliban Cricket Club, Timeri N. Murari, Ecco 2012

Twenty Thirty

It was a normal day, or so it seemed.

Yikes. It’s not unknown that in the United States of America some things are just plain crooked. Health care and its cost, the 1% that seems to have forgotten all about humanity and sharing, dodgy things happening in taxes and so on. Twenty Thirty takes this and runs with it, painting a  cruel world in which the have and have-nots can be defined by a very clear line: age.

There are different story lines with characters on different sides. A few of the rich are young as well, a few of the (almost) poor are old, but even those that could be able to understand each other, stay at both sides of the line.

In 2030, big bucks have turned into small bucks. Tens of thousands of dollars for surgery, thousands dollars for a meal for two at a fancy restaurant. The country is in huge debt and its population gets grayer and grayer because of the discovery of some important (mostly cancer) cures. America is on a slowly dripping vaccine of money yet it’s never enough. When natural disaster hits, the relationship between young and old turns even worse.

As a twenty-something, some parts of Twenty Thirty made me nauseous. Not only the complete lack of (financial) future for the young ones, but also because age groups ruthlessly being pitted against each other. Some parts were more horrifying than any zombie-tale could come up with.

Twenty Thirty paints a bleak story. Hopefully it inspires more change than any politician.

Twenty Thirty: the real story of what happens to America, Albert Brooks, St. Martin’s Press 2011

Running the Rift

Jean Patrick was already awake, listening to the storm, when Papa opened the door and stood by the side of his bed.

Why would you even try to come up with an idea when reality has many horrible ones? Running the Rift tells about Hutu versus Tutsi at the end of the twentieth century. How from one day to another neighbours and colleagues turned on each other because of what? A different body type, a different ancestry. Because some people rather ripped up a country in the hope of ending up top then “suffer” a normal life next to a people you didn’t recognize as your own.

Running the Rift is the coming of age story of Jean Patrick, a Tutsi. He discovers that he likes to run and that he’s really good. But when his passion becomes entangled with politics, with “being on the right side” while his loved ones are on the other side, he can’t use it as an escape from reality any more.

Naomi Benaron manages to make Jean Patrick’s struggle, between desperately not wanting to be part of the (political) situation while at the same time having his world spin a 360, so believable that there were multiple moments of frustrated huffing. It again shows that not every person is a straight up hero. That humans prefer what they’re used to and will cling to it in such a way that in some situations it will earn you the title of showing ostrich behaviour or being a loser.

Running the Rift was impressive.

Running the Rift, Naomi Benaron, Oneworld 2012

HhhH

Gabčík is zijn naam en hij is een personage dat echt heeft bestaan.

Het is knap hoe er toch, na zoveel tientallen jaren, er nieuwe invalshoeken voor de gebeurtenissen voor, van en na de Tweede Wereldoorlog gevonden kunnen worden. Deze keer gaat het om de aanslag op Reinhard Heydrich, ‘De Beul van Praag’. Maar, zoals Laurent Binet meerdere malen toegeeft, er is geen manier om deze gebeurtenis als een chronologisch, één-lijnig verhaal op te schrijven. Het is eerder een grote knoop.

In het begin van HhhH is de auteur nog erg sterk aanwezig. Hij twijfelt over het gebruik van bronnen, het aanhalen van anekdotes en of dit wel het juiste onderwerp is. Later nemen de gebeurtenissen vaker over, wordt de roman meer een roman in plaats van de aantekeningen van Binet. Een roman met een soepel geschreven verhaal, gevuld met details die de situatie heel dichtbij brengen. Hoeveel mensen weten van de aanslag af? Hoeveel weten de namen van de verzetshelden?

In dit geval is de waarheid vreemder dan fictie. Een actiefilm zou de exterminatie van Heydrich niet kunnen bedenken. Er is een einde dat Hollywood als niet happy genoeg zou afkeuren. En het toont wederom dat de oorlog een aangelegenheid van mensen was. Aan beide kanten.

Himmlers hersenen heten Heydrich, Laurent Binet, Meulenhoff 2010

The Book of Night Women

People think blood red, but blood don’t got no colour.

People who say that we live in a post-racial society are talking bullshit. People who say that (Western) society can only become race-issue free when we forget everything that happened in the past, need to make an obligatory reading of this. This is a past that should never be forgotten. How we live with it should be the discussion, not how we should ignore/shove it away.

Onwards. The Book Of Night Women tells the story of Lilith, through her eyes. Her mother was a teen slave that got raped by her master. Lilith works in the house of a plant on Jamaica. She’s treated differently by the other slaves because she’s a house slave over the field slaves, but more importantly: she has “white” eyes. Lilith is a half breed, too dark for the white people, too white for the other slaves.

The slaves are considered as something less than animals, somewhere between a faulty piece of equipment and a moral-less, emotionless creation. If you whip, kick or burn one to death, you buy another one. You take their children, because they can’t raise them themselves properly. And there’s no end to it.

All this lies heavy on the heart, but never gets so depressing that it puts you off reading on. The surroundings Marlon James shows could star in a travel guide, the characters are extraordinary without making the mistake of making them the Exotic Ones.

I recommend it.

The Book of Night Women, Marlon James, Riverhead Books 2009

Paper Towns

The way I see it, every person gets a miracle.

Another YA novel that doesn’t need fantasy elements to stay upright or trigger any emotions (usually frustration). Basically a YA novel from before the time that Young Adult was synonymous to covers with mopey witch teens and love-triangles involving vampires and/or mermaids.

Paper Towns is about plain teenagers who suffer from unrequited love, feel lost and directionless and try hard because they feel like they have to, instead of because they want to. Protagonist Quentin is an inbetweener – not a loser, nor a winner. Some friends, but not a lot. Not exactly sure what he wants in life and rather floats than battles currents. Margo Roth Spiegelman is everything that he isn’t, adventurous and popular. She’s also his neighbour,  possibly love of his life and after one shared night full of adventure, she disappears.

At first Quentin tries to continue with his life, she’ll come back and he’s just a neighbour to her anyway. But then he starts finding hints and something takes him. He has to find Margo. What follows is an endearing trip through known and unknown surroundings. Quentin discovers that everyone has a different version and he becomes less sure if he wants to find Margo’s version of Margo.

Especially that – the who are we when we’re alone, who are we surrounded by others –  lifted this book from road trip to coming of age, getting to see the familiar from strange angles and handling disappointment. The people in these books are real humans, and that’s refreshing and frustrating at the same time.

Paper Towns, John Green, Penguin Group 2008

Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal

When my mother was angry with me, which was often, she said, ‘The Devil lead us to the wrong crib.’

This was a surprise feminist story. And much more. Winterson admits that she can’t write chronologically, that her pen goes where her mind goes. So this is autobiographical, a story about growing into feminism, a story about adoption and a history shot: the frozen time of the sixties in a place that’s neither North nor South England. Don’t expect any laughs, because it’s a very sad story as well.

Jeanette Winterson is adopted by Ms. Winterson and her husband, a shadowy figure in the back that is never really part of anything. Ms. Winterson is an incredibly angry, joyless person who is waiting for the End of the World to happen. She is continuously disappointed by everything, disapproving and a dark cloud in Jeanette’s life. Even though you try to understand that this is a human being and there will be reasons for the way she is, it’s very easy to cast her as the horrible villain of this story.

Not that there are no other contenders for that spot. Society, the small town they live in and Jeanette herself, struggling with so many thoughts and feelings and always coming back to a point a not-adopted child simply couldn’t recognize as a problem. As a reader you’re ping-ponged between the heavy feelings of ‘why bother’, being unloved and never fitting in. It doesn’t make for a book you want to curl up with for a nice escape.

It makes a book that shows how incredibly important family is, how important the feeling of belonging and having connections are. To this day, Winterson is still working out how love fits into her life, how a healthy relationship should be. A lot of things are said by adoption, but this book gives you the first person view on it.

Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal, Jeanette Winterson, Cape 2011