High on the Hog

Dan-Tokpa Market, Catanou, Benin, West-Africa – I visited my first African market with my mother three decades ago.

High on the Hog, Jessica B. Harris, Bloomsbury 2011

It hardly can be any clearer how much this author loves her people, their culture and their history. This isn’t just a book about food or (for) black people: it’s the history of eating and about every continent is involved in some way.

This combination of travel, research and family stories taught me several new things about black history, without ever feeling preachy or as an information-dump. I’ve also learned of many things I want to eat.

High on the Hog travels from slavery to American contemporary day, and sometimes that’s a lot to take in. But Harris’ way of light, loved writing makes it feel like you’re listening in om someone’s stories while they’re preparing you a scrumptious meal. As I said – I really just want to try so many things.

Piranesi

When the Moon rose in the Third Northern Hall I went to the Ninth Vestibule to witness the joining of three Tides.

Piranesi, Susanna Clarke, Bloomsbury 2020

Susanna Clarke took her time. Years and years ago I plunged into Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell and continued to recommend it to everyone the following months. When no news followed about other books, I guessed that was it: the unicorn of a solo fantasy book you could enjoy in every direction.

I was an eager beaver when I heard about Piranesi. So eager that I noticed it was much smaller than the book that had took me along for a multidimensional rollercoaster-ride. Piranesi is a novella, in e-book not even hitting the 150 page mark. Well, beggars can’t be choosers etc., and a well-written novella is even more proof of a good author.

You’re kept in the dark for a long time; not just the narrator is unreliable, everyone seems to be. Where are we, what are we, when are we? The clue doesn’t necessary ruin the eerie feeling of the story, but it does make it much more depressing. And just like with Jemisin’s The City there’s some sense of this not being fiction at all, which doesn’t make for a better feeling when closing the book.

Long story short: I still like how Clarke can surprise and influence me and my mood.

Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race

It wasn’t until my second year of university that I started to think about black British history.

I guess August was for non-fiction, or that This Lovely City just put me in the mindset to learn more about black British history. Because of course, of course – in some way you know that the islands aren’t an utopia for black and brown people, but how much of black history is focused on the USA (effectively making it possible for Europeans to dodge any responsibility?)? Turns out – when it comes to my knowledge – a lot.

Don’t write this title off as a history book now (why would you write off any book because it has history, you don’t love history?), because as anything involving people; history is just one part of it. As Eddo-Lodge explains it probably better than I do: intersectionality is a thing, and you can’t discuss a human issue without looking at the place where it intersects.

So, this book is about history, about feminism, about the media and white privilege. It’s about health and education, and every other part of human life. In clearly cut chapters, in clear language, Eddo-Lodge doesn’t only answer the title’s question, but also explains to you why you should take responsibility regarding it.

And just like that, I’ve got my first book for my students to read (from).

Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race, Reni Eddo-Lodge, Bloomsbury 2017

Lincoln in the Bardo

On our wedding day I was forty-six, she was eighteen.

Don’t judge a book by its title. Or maybe don’t expect to know what is going to happen by a book’s title. I thought Lincoln – like the American president. I thought Bardo – a kind of Buddhist limbo, add those and you get something eerie, cool, spooky about mourning, the afterlife and discussing religion.

Instead I got a collection of (fictional) citations and quotations about Abraham Lincoln, his dead son and a lot of people I’ve never heard of before.

It took some time to adjust.

Both Lincolns are very little part of this story. It is about the Bardo and how people of all walks of life experience it while avoiding the reality of having died. As mentioned before – this doesn’t happen in continuous prose, you seem to be paging through an encyclopedia of Americans that have died in the time before Abraham Lincoln. Why? Because some of them look out for Willie Lincoln, and are impressed that Abraham continues to visit his son and mourn him.

So it’s not a story about the American president, it’s a little bit about mourning, it’s a too little bit about what the Bardo is, how it works and what it looks like, and the rest of it is – I guess – about the skills of one George Saunders in bringing a lot of character sheets together and passing them off as novel.

2020 isn’t a great year for books, just yet.

Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders, Bloomsbury 2017

The Coincidence Engine

‘They’ve found the pilot.’

I’ve owned this book for ages, and I’m pretty sure that I read it before or at least partially. Per story line my opinion fluctuated on it, and as a harsh, firm book owner, this book will be donated soon.

I’m sure both the cover as the summary will draw several eyes, though. There’s things going on, it’s science fiction without having too much science, there’s shenanigans and hijinks, and – both a pro and a con – a lot of different story lines for everyone to find something of their liking.

Because there is a young man traveling through the USA to surprise his girlfriend, but there’s also a recluse math genius, and that plane. There’s a very secret government agency, more secret-y people and a machine that might impact/ruin/improve everything.

Besides the several story lines that can make you feel so-so about this story, there’s also something strangely stilted about it. What if fewer lines would have been added, and more world-building to the rest? Why does the ending feel like the author just didn’t feel like writing any more, and should we view all this as a commentary on life, coincidences and authorities, or is that looking for something that isn’t there?

All that makes The Coincidence Engine more a collection of gimmicks than a mind-blowing, eye-opening story. Or even just full-time entertaining.

The Coincidence Engine, Sam Leith, Bloomsbury 2011

The Tortilla Curtain

Afterward, he tried to reduce it to abstract terms, an accident in a world of accidents, the collision of opposing forces – the bumper of his car and the frail scrambling hunched-over form of a dark little man with a wild look in his eye – but he wasn’t very successful.

And the prize for Most Depressing Book read in January goes to.

The tortilla curtain is the border between Mexico and the USA. The Tortilla Curtain is about the people on that thin line that just want to have a comfortable life, but are prevented from having it by paranoia, racism, and society. The one side is simply much more privileged than the other, but don’t let that fool you into thinking they could have an easier life (add a note of sarcasm here).

I had to read this one for school, because we’re doing a course called Aspects of the USA and well, racism definitely is one.

The book’s well written, luring into supporting one side until everybody just shows how ugly their thoughts and prejudices are. The one side is just allowed more, under the guise of honesty and worry. It’s over twenty years old, but the story can definitely be retold today.

The Tortilla Curtain, T.C. Boyle, Bloomsbury 1995

Playing with the Grown-ups

The phone is ringing.

Ik vond dit een heel leuk boek, een fijn boek dat lekker op alle zintuigen inspeelt. En toch weet ik niet hoe en aan wie ik het zou moeten aanraden. Het is meer dan oppervlakkige chick-lit, maar er zijn wel een boel vrouwen aanwezig die een mannelijke lezer zou kunnen afschrikken (waardoor ik ‘m juist aan zou raden, want het is niet alsof vrouwen ooit wordt verteld een boek niet te lezen omdat er te veel mannen in voorkomen). Het is coming of age in Technicolor.

Hoofdpersoon Kitty heeft een bijzondere familie, met een hele bijzondere moeder. Ze is jong en stoer en apart en nooit saai. Haar zussen zijn als fairy godmothers voor Kitty en haar broertje en zusje en grootouders Bestepapa en Bestemama maken het Jan-van-Steen huishouden compleet.

Helaas is Kitty’s moeder ook heel wispelturig in wie en wat goed voor haar en haar kinderen is. Ze reizen door de VS en de VK, wonen bij de Hare Krishna, in luxe appartementen in New York of in kleine huisjes in Londen. Kitty moet opgroeien tussen haar moeder’s stuiptrekken door.

De mensen, outfits en omgevingen die passeren zorgen voor kleur, sfeer en een duidelijk kader om Kitty’s eenzaamheid.  Vrolijk, verdrietig, meeslepend.

Playing with the Grown-ups, Sophia Dahl, Bloosmbury 2007

Tanglewreck

At six forty-five one summer morning, a red London bus was crossing Waterloo Bridge.

The idea was lovely, but the execution could have been better. And I don’t think it was because Winterson tried to keep things age appropriate: ‘dumbed down’ isn’t the problem here.

So what is? Because taking too much/too little time literally, and almost having a Roald Dahlian feel to it sometimes, Tanglewreck definitely isn’t bad.

The characters just aren’t that good. They’re very child book like, not very multi-dimensional. Even when a Good Guy is revealed, there’s nothing more than an “Oh, okay” feel to it, because there’s simply not much excitement when it comes to the people of this story.

Anyway, the world building with time tornadoes, alchemists leeching time from people and mammoths in the Thames, is definitely amusing enough for a quick read. And the house gets a few bonus points, for being what it is. Everything could just possibly have been more than it was.

Tanglewreck, Jeanette Winterson, Bloosmbury 2006

The Residue Years

It’s years beyond the worst of it, and it’s your time, Mom, a time of head starts and new starts and starting and not stopping – of re-dos and fixes, of gazing at full moons and quarter moons and seeing what before were phantasms for-reals.

Sometimes people have already said it and said it better: “A raw heart wreck of a novel .. one of the fictional families I have cared about most” (Amy Hempel).

A poor, black family tries to adjust to the drugs-addicted mother coming back from rehab. She tries to adjust to society, life, and family, but none of those are very cooperative in giving her a a second, third, fourth chance. Her older son tries hard to avoid the cracks, but just stumbles from one to another, because life is different for a black man versus a white man.

Things go a bit better before they turn a lot worse again, and it hurts and it aches because the reader can’t do anything about it. This is simply the reality for some people, and even it knowing is uncomfortable, it’s better than not knowing.

The Residue Years, Mitchell S. Jackson, Bloomsbury 2013

The Highest Tide

I learned early on that if you tell people what you see at low tide they’ll think you’re exaggerating or lying when you’re actually just explaining strange and wonderful things as clearly as you can.

This book in one word: heartfelt.

Sometimes it’s too obvious that the author wants you to know how odd its main character is, how special in its weirdness. Jim Lynch manages to show Miles in all his different ways, but never turns him into a caricature, in something that you will only experience in fictional stories. But this teen, although experiencing some weird things, could definitely exist.

Miles lives in a small town near a bay and loves everything the ocean and maritime nature can offer. This, combined with his lack of length, makes him the odd duck. Finding strange things and becoming a (local) media star, turns (pun intended) the tides for him. Suddenly his being different is amazing, he’s viewed as an expert on every subject related to the ocean, while his (social) life starts falling apart.

Is finding an oarfish really so amazing if your crush is in trouble and can you care about clams if your parents might be divorcing? Miles’ story meanders through a teen’s life with amazing details on ocean life. A pleasure to read.

The Highest Tide, Jim Lynch, Bloomsbury 2005