Notes from a Young Black Chef

About seven and a half hours

I think I’m getting the hang of this audio book thing. It even made me thoroughly enjoy a memoir!

This is the first time I’ve heard of this man; this novel is part of the Black Lives Matter-category in one of my libraries. That’s one reason I decided on borrowing it, the other is his function: he’s a chef.

And he makes the dishes sound so good, the passion for food and cooking so clear that his career couldn’t have been otherwise. There’s struggle on his road to it (and that’s putting it nicely), but Onwuachi has such strength that it turns into a rags to riches to rags to riches to rags Hollywood-approved story instead of self-pitying lamenting. And the author shares how and why he continuously had the strength to do so.

The good thing about reading an unknown’s (to you) memoir is that you won’t be confronted with things you already know; the bad thing is that it can make you wonder why you’re spending your time on a stranger’s story. In this case, it felt like I was listening to a Black Western playing out in streets and kitchens, brought so enticingly that I regularly cycled a bit further to just keep listening.

Notes from a Young Black Chef, Kwame Onwuachi, Penguin Random House Group 2019

Vinegar Girl

Kate Battista was gardening out back when she heard the telephone ring in the kitchen.

What a gross disappointment, ew. Sometimes a book just doesn’t fit you right from the start. In this retelling of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew it starts with the introduction of characters that are quite impossible to love or even like.

This is followed by the plot (quite logical), a situation which main character balks at for approximately five chapters before completely giving into it without any clear motivation. If this novel set out to depress about how some women don’t have any outlook on life and what they want to do with it, it succeeds.

Something extra to grind my gears is that – after it has been shown that this guy she needs to help out might not be so ugly and annoying after all – there’s a demonstration of verbal abuse and aggression. And Kate just … takes it.

Combine this with an epilogue that is about as plausible as the Harry Potter’s one and it leaves a lot to be desired. Ten Things I Hate About You did this much more entertainingly.

Vinegar Girl, Anne Tyler, Hogarth 2016

Heartburn

6 hours (approx.)

Read by Meryl Streep, so yes, another audio book! Good gravy, does the woman has a recognisable voice. No need to get into her acting skills here, but her reading fits this story very well.

Kind of well-off woman on her second marriage and second pregnancy gets cheated on. A lot of love for New York and little for other parts of the USA, she writes cook books, he’s involved with media and/or politics, a lot of dinner parties.

It’s juicy, rich people problems with sometimes a recipe added. Meryl Streep’s voice makes it sound like you’re listening on the traumas of a rich, eccentric aunt who – when she’s isn’t full of self-pity – has some snarky oneliners and a nice eye for details (this audio book definitely painted a lot of pictures in my mind). Here, the addition of the right reader, definitely elevated quite a common (but entertainingly written) story.

So, if you want to enjoy an Ephron-production just a little bit more, try an audio book.

Heartburn, Nora Ephron, Penguin Random House 1983 (first edition)

In Five Years

Twenty-five.

It’s not often that you don’t know what you would have wanted when a story doesn’t go the way you want to. Usually I’m sure how things could have been better: this time I just knew that this wasn’t what I wanted.

I like ‘what-if’ a lot, and that’s a large part of In Five Years‘ starting point. Dannie has a premonition/hallucination/dream about herself in five years in an absolutely different situation from which she’s in right now. And she likes this situation, so she doesn’t want that other one.

Rebecca Serle doesn’t feel like using filler and jumps almost four years to get to that dream/premonition/hallucination, but in the meantime the protagonist doesn’t evolve or become a person. Dannie feels like she came from a character generator, and her boyfriend doesn’t fare much better.

Besides the key element, there’s little development that excites as well. The first twist can be seen coming from afar, and the second turns this magic realist pondering about in what ways we can influence our futures into something.. the Hallmark channel would love for their tearjerker category.

After that, all strength is gone and it’s a good thing there never was much investment in the main character(s).

In Five Years, Rebecca Serle, Simon & Schuster 2020

She-Ra

65 x 24 min.

Yes, I know, I’m surprised as well. This animated TV-show definitely took me a while to warm up to, and during the first two season (there’s five of them) I wouldn’t even have considered writing a blog about it. Somewhere near the end of season two, and/or the start of season three, it grabbed me. It grabbed me good.

She-RaBefore starting this show, I knew little about the previous incarnations of it and therefore didn’t feel the need to complain about how She-Ra isn’t a full-grown woman this time, nor about the lack of butt and boob shots (in an animated show, yes I know). It also means that I didn’t have any connection to it, and had to invest some time and energy to feel the connection.

She-Ra is fantasy, people with magic, bad guys that want to take it, colourful stuff, talking horses, but also teenagers, queer love, building your own family and views on power and the (ab)use of it. Especially when watching several episodes in a row you might notice some repetition, but as someone who skipped a few (there’s a character I could barely handle) I can say that you can still follow the main plot without confusion.

It’s also fun and bright and there’s so much heart in it, even though the shows of it sometimes made me feel a bit outside of the target audience/too old. Oh, and the animation is nice, instead of that try-hard, ugly as possible “adult” animation we have to suffer all too often.

She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, Netflix 2018

Is Everyone Hanging out Without Me?

This was my first audio book! Read/listened to, not written. I’m not Mindy Kaling. Does listening to a story make you judge it differently than reading it? I don’t think so, but I’m not sure yet.

I have little experience with audio books; solely the idea just doesn’t appeal to me. I’m too old and too impatient to be read, and what if it’s a bad voice? The second argument made me gave up on two books before managing to finish this one. Mindy Kaling knows how to use her voice, doesn’t do other voices (too often) and has people come in for their own (male) parts. It helps.

What also helps is that her story is fun, her tone and story realistic without being too self-deprecating (never nice in a woman), and plenty happens (it’s a memoir, you might expect that, but Mindy shares it). Yes, there’s a bit of an overdose of numbered lists and sometimes you could feel a bit iffy about the vocabulary used, but this book is almost ten years old already and we as a society changed towards the better on certain levels regarding language.

I’ve started listening to audio books because I wanted something different during my runs. Mindy kind of paved the way.

Is Everyone Hanging out Without Me? (and other concerns), Mindy Kaling, Penguin Random House 2011

The Lovebirds

86 min.

Sometimes you have to experience a few duds before you can enjoy film time. Neither Berlin, I Love You nor Last Night managed to do it for me. The Lovebirds saved the night, easily.

Lovebirds filmBoth plot and tropes used are familiar. Squabbling couple gets involved with crime. I can remember some Tina Fey/Steve Carrell-thing I don’t even feel like looking the title up for. When the material used is (very) familiar, it’s up to the actors to carry it.
I mostly know Issa Rae from Insecure, while Kumail is only familiar for The Big Sick and some scary tweets. I like the first much more than the latter, so it says a lot about Rae and the writing that the male protagonist won me over as well.

Another pro is the speed of the film. Nothing feels like filler, while at the same time not pushing you into anxiety because everything is in a terrible hurry. It ebbs and flows, and there’s so many laughs that it’s a good thing you’ve got time to breath.

Originally, this film would have been in theaters and it would definitely have been extra fun with the right crowd. But this film doesn’t necessarily need a crowd to be more entertaining.

The Lovebirds, Netflix 2020

 

Nothing to See Here

In the late spring of 1995, just a few weeks after I’d turned twenty-eight, I got a letter from my friend Madison Roberts.

I don’t mind unlikable protagonists, but in this case I very much wondered if the dislike was from knowing that a male author was writing a female character, that this female character just was too spineless, or that I just can’t handle aggressive passivity. Maybe all of the above. This, combined with the shortness of this novel, made my final amount of stars (the ones I don’t use) end up much lower than I expected when I read the summary of Nothing to See Here.

What is that summary, you ask? Well – screw up is asked to nanny two children that start burning at random moments. Bodies turning into flames without the kids hurting in any way. She is asked this by an old acquaintance she herself calls a friend and it all has to be on the down-low because the children are a politician’s.

This could have turned into scientific sci-fi, something with (a whiff off) magic realism or have this fire turn into something metaphorical, and make the entire story a commentary on class and the gap between haves and have-nots. Instead, there’s just ..situations. If Kevin Wilson solely wanted to communicate how sabotaging poverty and being directionless is, he succeeded. If he wanted me curious about his characters and the world they move around in – not so much.

Nothing to see here, Kevin Wilson, Ecco 2019

An American Marriage

There are two kinds of people in the world, those who leave home, and those who don’t.

Layers upon layers to uncover and think about in a book that could just be summarised by its title: yep, it’s about a marriage. Between Americans. But these Americans are Black, one of them is wrongfully incarcerated and what is a marriage if it’s largely between people of one is in prison?

This way, Tayari Jones looks at the prison system, racism, the institution of marriage, the first ones in families to go study and the burden that comes with it. This is a story that creeps under the skin, leaves you staring in the distance afterwards – empty and fulfilled at the same time.

Because what would have happened if Roy wouldn’t have been locked up? The marriage wasn’t perfect, but which one is? What if they would never have married? What if they would have grown up in another state or even another country? In what ways is the USA to blame for this entire situation? How is ancestry to blame (if so)?

It’s a testament to Jones’ writing that none of this adds an essay-like feeling to the novel: it’s a story first. A painful one, with glimmers of hope.

An American Marriage, Tayari Jones, Harper Collins 2018

Russian Doll

8 x 26 min.

In the case of some shows you feel bad about not experiencing at the same time others did it. With some, the experience is just enhanced by going “Ooooh sh-!” to someone else.

Russian Doll posterAnd there’s plenty of moments like that in this TV-show about a woman who just keeps dying and doesn’t know why and can’t get out of this Groundhog day-situation. It being a woman played and written by Natasha Lyonne (you might remember her from Orange is the New Black) this groundhog is more like Final Destination when it comes to dying creatively.

With less than thirty minutes of runtime and eight episodes there’s not enough room for this element to get old: there’s just enough glimmers of clues to feel like you’re onto something just a bit before Nadia does.

The one con is that there’s going to be a second season: this could have been resolved, even in a possibly unsatisfying way in the last two episodes – easily. Now there’s the risk of things becoming stale.

Although Nadia’s back-to-life soundtrack might just be good enough to prevent that.

Russian Doll, Netflix 2019