Green Island

My mother Li Min’s labor pains began the night that the widow was beaten in front of the Tian-ma Teahouse.

I’m a sucker for family epics, “spanning decades”. Honestly, you can just get my attention with those two words. Add a not-western background (because honestly, aren’t we familiar enough already with those?) and I’m in. So that’s how I ended up with Green Island.

You follow the main character from birth to seniority, over two continents and through so much political unrest that it’s sometimes boggling to realise that these are real life events. How much do you know about the history of Taiwan, after all?

Shawna Yang Ryan leads you through the casual horrors different governments exercise while juxtaposing it with (immigrant) domestic life, making some chapters almost surrealistic. The narrator is always chafing in her surroundings, sometimes making her annoying, but the story continuously enticing.

Green Island, Shawna Yang Ryan, Alfred A. Knopf, 2016

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter

What’s surprised me most about seeing my sister dead is the lingering smirk on her face.

Right now I’m following a school course about Young Adult Literature, which I’ve got to read four different books for. All of those have white protagonists, only one of those four is female. I read It’s Kind of a Funny Story next to this one, and guess what; both involve depression. So hey kids teachers, YA with Good Subjects come in other colours as well. Anyway, this was my soap box, let’s move on to the novel.

Julia’s good, sensible, perfect Mexican older sister is dead, and now Julia has to wear the brunt of her mother’s attention and emotions, and her father’s absence. As she never was the perfect Mexican daughter, this doesn’t make daily life any easier. Julia wants out, wants to live life to the fullest, and doesn’t care for getting married and becoming a mother, but that’s not how it’s supposed to be.

These struggles get extra layers when Julia’s mind goes in overdrive about everything and when she discovers that her sister might not be so perfect after all. How to keep that all in, because you’ve got no-one to share it with?

Julia so very clearly wants to escape and move on, but just like It’s Kind of a Funny Story‘s Craig, she’s got too many tentacles keeping her down. Still, the novel manages to end on a high note, and leaves me eager to visit Chicago one day.

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, Erika L. Sanchez, Alfred A. Knopf 2017

Homegoing

The night Effia Otcher was born into the musky heat of Fanteland, a fire raged through the woods just outside her father’s compound.

A much recommended book that didn’t disappoint one bit. How often does that happen (rhetorical question)?

I often appreciate a family epistle, using people to show history through the centuries. Sometimes their surroundings are more interesting, something the characters and their impact on later generations are the elements that make the story.

Homegoing does both. It starts in Ghana, with the time when white people were just a minor element, a mark in between tribal issues. It goes on into the twenty-first century. So that means kingdoms rising and falling, slavery, wars, segregation, the American civil war and civil rights movements, fear for lives solely because they’re being lived in dark(er) skins. And during all that, people. Likeable people, confusing people, people you worry for. There’s their family mythology, but Yaa Gyasi never makes you forget that these are (just) humans.

It’s ugly, how close to the skin it plays. Colorism, racism, the superiority feelings of white people. This is reality, and there’s no judging tone; the situations speak for themselves. Doesn’t mean this story is non-stop hard to read, just another gold star for in Gyasi’s book. All in all, add me to the voice of recommendations.

Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi, Alfred A. Knopf 2016

All You Never Wanted

She gets into the car and then she can’t drive it.

As if being a teenager isn’t hard enough already, both main characters in All You Never Wanted get to deal with disease. Alex as the carrier, Thea as the younger sister who can’t handle the big changes it brought to their lives.

It’s never explicitly mentioned what happened to Alex. Is it anorexia, bulimia, something physical over mental? No matter what, it’s crippling. Alex can’t move, can’t breathe, can’t live. While Thea needs bigger and stranger stories to flee in, to be someone besides the sister of the sick, strange girl.

Each share their point of view, without any resolution or relief. The only way this story might leave you with some kind of good feeling is for the fact that you don’t have it as bad as them. It’s a slice of life to remind you that adolescence is more than love triangles and doubts about the future.

All You Never Wanted, Adele Griffin, Alfred A. Knopf 2012

The Buried Giant

You would have searched a long time for the sort of winding lane or tranquil meadow for which England later became celebrated.

I don’t even know why I gave Ishiguro another chance. Maybe because others did love Never Let Me Go and I just wanted to understand.

I still don’t, and I think I’ll be fine without his work, especially this novel. It’s too slow, the tone grates, it all feels like fighting through cold porridge: no satisfaction in the end.

While there is a kind of interesting element. There is a strange mist that takes everyone’s memories. Add in some mythology (this is the time after King Arthur), unreliable narrating and well, it could have been discomforting and exciting.

But no, everything trudges on until it suddenly doesn’t. Gone, done. As I am with this man’s work.

The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro, Alfred A. Knopf 2015

Slade House

Whatever Mum’s saying’s drowned out by the grimy roar of the bus pulling away, revealing a pub called The Fox and Hounds.

Krijgt die man het toch maar mooi voor elkaar om van één gegeven een boek te maken. Er gebeuren Vreemde Dingen in een Vreemd Huis, door de jaren heen. Elke negen jaar, en de lezer mag mee kijken.

Niet Mitchell’s sterkste (ik ben een fan), maar zijn stijl en controle over dat waar je zo lekker kippenvel/shivers down your spine van krijgt, zorgen er toch voor dat je je niet helemaal bekocht voelt. Er is toch weer mysterie en mythologie en dat wat ik het Kippenvel?! einde noem: is het nu echt goed afgelopen of zijn we in slaap gesust?

Het voelt een beetje als een tussendoortje van de auteur, en kan dan zo ook als het beste beschouwd worden. Niet voor de eerste ontmoeting, maar voor de (passieve) fan.

Slade House, David Mitchell, Alfred A. Knopf 2015

Eleven Days

The United States Navy SEALs came out of the Teams that served in Vietnam; they in turn came out of the Navy Seabees, the Scouts and Raiders, and the Underwater Demolition Teams used during World War II.

‘What happens to those that are left behind?’ is regularly asked when military families are the subject. In case of Eleven Days, the question applies to both sides. It’s not only the mother getting left behind by her son and his father, it’s the son being left behind by her, his father, and the possibilities of ordinary life.

Sara and Jason aren’t a conventional mother and son and their relationship is similar. That doesn’t mean that when she gets the news of him being missed, she deals with it any differently than anyone missing a loved one. This mother just has a large safety net made by neighbors, military men and her son’s godfathers to catch her.

The novel tells not only Sara’s story, but also Jason’s. His need to become a part of the American army, his silent suffering because he never knew his father, the feelings of finally belonging somewhere when he finds his place in his team. Him ending up missing is almost a side plot, this is about war and peace, wrong and right, family you’re born with and family you create yourself.

It’s not a happy story, and it takes a bit of work to get through it, but if you want to ponder these subjects, I’d tell you to give this a chance.

Eleven Days, Lea Carpenter, Alfred A. Knopf 2013