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

Beasts of No Nation

It is starting like this.

Dit is een klein boek met een groot verhaal. De lezer volgt de tien-jarige Agu die ergens in Afrika uit zijn dorp wordt meegenomen om als kindsoldaat in een leger te dienen. Het wordt in eerste persoonsvorm verteld, in gebrekkig Engels en met een incompleet beeld over hoe de wereld in elkaar zit.

Door het taalgebruik werd -voor mij- wel een afstand geschapen. Ik ben gewend aan correct taalgebruik en las expres maar halve zinnen zodat de fouten minder stoorden. Ergens vind ik dat wel jammer, want is een verhaal dat heel je aandacht verdiend. De wanhoop, uitzichtloosheid en compleet gebrek aan beter kriebelt onder je huid.

Ik weet dus eigenlijk niet of ik Beasts of No Nation zou aanraden. Mogelijk moet ik gewoon meer boeken in een speciaal taaltje lezen. Het is -zoals altijd- aan de lezer.

Beasts of No Nation, Uzodinma Iweala, Murray 2005

Gods Without Men

In the time when the animals were men, Coyote was living in a certain place.

The flap text gave me the idea that this novel would be about and around the same place, the characters connected in some, yet undisclosed, way.
Instead this book was a collection of short stories about and around the same place, through time and with most of the characters connected in a random way. It took me a while to adjust to that difference. Especially because I’m not a fan of collected stories.

The one big plus Gods Without Men has (there are others, including making the ordinary creepy and interesting) is the way it offers visuals and accompanying atmosphere. I was there in that desolate, forgotten-by-the-world place in the desert, felt how heavy its surroundings pressed on the characters.
Another plus are the characters, all trying to escape a side from their selves they want to forget, loose, reshape.

It was not an easy read, almost 400 pages taking 10 days. There is little joy on it, and yet the story lingers when you close the book, the characters giving you room to look at your own life and ideas.

Gods Without Men, Hari Kunzru, Hamilton 2011

The Girl Who Fell From The Sky

“You’re my lucky piece,” Grandma says.

A mixed race girl moves in with her black grandmother after a family tragedy. Suddenly she discovers how important society thinks the colour of her skin is. While trying to adjust to that, she has to come to terms with being the only one of her family left.

It’s an utterly depressive premise and yet this book is spiked with glimmers of hope. It’s so easy to root for the main character, to tell her to not fall into temptation of the easy escape, to become everything she can be while the reader can do nothing more but watch her stumble.

It’s also -for me as a white person- a new, raw experience to read what a big part skin colour is for some people. The ‘real’ black people don’t want her, the white people don’t understand where she fits in. Her grandmother just wants her to turn into a ‘good woman’ who will make a husband happy (and therefore her). The main character lets herself be shaped by her surroundings while at the same time trying to disappear from this world without her family.

The Girl Who Fell From The Sky leaves you with questions, but also a small glimmer of hope. Outside that, you will just have to take this story inside you and carry it around.

The Girl Who Fell From The Sky, Heidi Durrow, Oneworld 2010

Boxer Beetle

In idle moments I sometimes like to close my eyes and imagine Joseph Goebbels’ forty-third birthday party.

This book confused me. Luckily it had a lot to say about itself:

This is a novel for people with breeding.
Only people with the right genes and the wrong impulses will find its marriage of bold ideas and deplorable characters irresistible.
It’s a novel that engages the mind while satisfying those that crave the thrill of a chase. There are riots and sex. There is love and murder. There is Darwinism and Fascism, nightclubs, invented languages and the dangerous bravado of youth. And there are lots of beetles.
It is clever. It is distinctive. It is entertaining. We hope you are too.

Ned Beauman didn’t worry himself with using a clear layout that makes it easier for the reader to understand who’s point of view she’s following this time. And from time to time it is very weird and the reader might has to get used to the fact that she’s following fascists and that (if he/she isn’t one) opinions will clash. But on the other hand -yes it was entertaining and weird and bold and interesting. Read it if you want to read about a whole different world view, a way of life that existed not that long ago and/or Hitler beetles. Seriously.

Boxer Beetle, Ned Beauman, Sceptre 2010

The Lonely Polygamist

To put it as simply as possible: this is the story of a polygamist who has an affair.

Oh, but this is anything but a simple story.  I finished it a little less than two days ago and I still feel something ache when I think about it. This book didn’t leave me behind happy at all. I don’t agree with its happy ending. I pitied but couldn’t sympathize with (barely) any of the characters .. it took a bit of a toll on me, I suppose.

As the first sentence hints: this is a story about a polygamist, a man with four wives and twenty-eight children. But it’s not only about Golden Richards, it’s about his whole sorry family and sorry they are. One of his sons, one of his wives and -in a way- the house itself bleed their feelings of loss, frustration and loneliness into the main story. They can’t belong because there are simply too many others and too little of the father to give everyone equal opportunity. And Golden himself feels like an outsider in his own family. His back story shows that he has never made a decision about anything, there were and are always others to do that for him. Until he falls in love with an other woman and: lets himself. Even cherishes the thought of acting on it.

‘Wry’ would be my word for The Lonely Polygamist. There is no relief from the maelstrom that is the family Richards and I gobbled up the small pieces of joy that sparsely feature. It made me angry with polygamist families and the named religion they follow, but in the end there was only pity for so many unhappy people. Especially because they were unhappy by my standards (never share a man, don’t put yourself in second place, be loved unconditionally).

I fully recommend this book, if you read books to experience thoughts and feelings outside your own spectrum. Don’t read it for a laugh or a How To on polygamy.  It’s a very human story, of humans and their (self-)inflicted boundaries.

The Lonely Polygamist, Brady Udall, Cape 2010