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

Feel Good

6 x 25

This had me feeling awfully tender; not solely because I recognise everything the main characters experience, but mostly because the camera never turns away. You never get a break from emotions, fights and awkwardness.

Feel Good posterFor a show that’s easy to summarise, it’s not easy to review. I liked it, a lot. The story of a young woman struggling with gender identity and addiction, romance and family and being a comedian in the way that Hannah Gadsby is one – way too honest. Protagonist and creator Mae Martin added (some) biographical elements to the show as well, which might another layer of discomfort.

It’s the lack of heaviness that just makes it all more genuine and heartfelt. No musical clues about how to feel, not a lot of explanatory dialogue, just Mae and her girlfriend stumbling through life while you try to get them into a different direction.

Still, it’s sweet, and funny. There’s not fanfare or shoulder-pats about showing and discussing Big Subjects – they just happen to be the elephants in the room that have to be discussed.

Maybe not for everybody, but definitely for those that are always interested in the human connection.

Feel Good, Netflix 2020

 

How to Love a Jamaican

The first time I saw Cecilia, she was the only other black girl in our small group during freshman orientation.

I like pleasant surprises.

After a frustrating couple of hours concerning my e-book reader app, I ended up with Libby. To make sure it was the app and not my tablet (six years old), I borrowed something to make sure the novel would show. How to Love a Jamaican was that novel, and it showed.

It’s also a collection of (short) stories, for those that are apprehensive about those (like myself). They all involve a Jamaican, Jamaica and love in some kind of way – self, family, friendships, romantically.

I know that PoC authors and their stories are all too often described as “colourful” or “vibrant” so I’m going to refrain and say that these stories were fun, even when they subject wasn’t. There was a certain kind of life in them, even when you can’t recognise the situation mentioned. Immigration is a part of these stories, but not the story, and – what a surprise – all protagonists go through the same things people in white authored stories go.

All in all, this was a great start with my new reader app and it better continues delivering.

How to Love a Jamaican, Alexia Arthurs, Ballantine Books 2018

My Sister, the Serial Killer

Ayoola summons me with these words — Korede, I killed him.

This is why I don’t read hyped up books. So much excitement and build up and no-one who mentioned the sheer disappointment of most of it but definitely the ending.

And that’s impressive for a story that’s only 200 pages and with a plot – see title – that could definitely provide a lot of thrills, philosophising and secondary story-lines.

Instead you get a repetitive, stagnant story filled with passive characters. There is very little motivation (why does she kill, why doesn’t she put a stop to it, why doesn’t she actively participate in her daughters’ lives), no-one seems to learn. Even the lack of different surroundings doesn’t provide anything to the story or even a sense of claustrophobia, only slightly more boredom.

The end – always a risky business – is sheer “Ma’am, I’m done with my assignment!” in hopes of being allowed to leave early.

And just like that it’s 200 pages of hoping for ‘so much more’ wasted.

My Sister, the Serial Killer, Oyinkan Braithwaite, Doubleday 2017

Split Tooth

Sometimes we would hide in the closet when the drunks came home from the bar.

I struggled with this one, even though ‘struggle’ feels like too weak a word while at the same time sounding like a complaint.  While I was definitely annoyed, made uncomfortable and felt disgusted by this book, ‘struggle’ feels like I was fighting with the structure or built of the book. While it was the story, the actions, the implications, the anger and danger.

Yeah, all this was a lot.

And if it wouldn’t have been for the ending in which all of it came together so perfectly, so cleansing, so enlightened – I wouldn’t even have reviewed this on Goodreads. I would have been left behind with the aforementioned feelings.

Because Split Tooth isn’t a chronological story or just an ~experience~ or something in between: from time to time I felt like I was reading along with the notes of some world-building deity, but definitely one on a bad day. So much anger and frustration for humanity, but so much love and awe for nature. Is there even a main character, and is she an active or terribly passive one?

Split Tooth doesn’t provide answers or pointers, it’s just there while at the same time clawing at your brain to be allowed to reside there permanently.

Split Tooth, Tanya Tagaq, Viking 2018

Giri/Haji

8 x 60 min.

So many detectives, so many ways to be disappointed by them because they’re all the same. Moody unlikely hero, bitter and/or cheerful sidekick and a case that Might Be Connected to their past. You know them.

giri hajiWell, everyone is pretty moody in Giri/Haji, that’s something that’s hard to ignore. And except for the lack of che- wait, let me start again.

Giri/Haji is a Japanese/English production which mixes yakuza with London gangs, international police teams, family connections and men unable to share their emotions. Some of them are cops, some of them are criminals. There’s victims of bad personal decisions all across the board.

And all of it just so_damn_cool. Of course, it’s impressive story lines and colourful characters, but just the COOLNESS of it all. No murky colours or badly lit scenes, not the same buildings in London always shown, but above and beyond, gutter and higher.

A show that leaves you behind satisfied, even though you may not agree with the proceedings.

Giri/Haji, Netflix 2019

 

The Dutch House

The first time our father brought Andrea to the Dutch House, Sandy, our housekeeper, came to my sister’s room and told us to come downstairs.

I changed my mind on this book maybe three – four times. Pretty cover -> meh summary -> positive reviews -> where is this story going? -> Oh. Oh wow.

Wasn’t that an exciting trip to go on?

This book is the house it’s about, but at the same time its story never gets as bright and colourful as the interior of the house. Even before the big thing that changes everything happens, there’s a thick gray layer over not just the people of this story, but the story itself.

It doesn’t make the story less appealing, but it did make me long towards that version of the story: if Ann Patchett would halfway flip to the owners under whom the house prospered, I wouldn’t even have minded and this coming from the woman who despises different times – same houses stories.

Still, the story as it is found its way under my skin. On family, on bitterness, on deciding what you need for yourself instead of for someone else. And in the end – yes: oh wow.

The Dutch House, Ann Patchett, HarperCollins 2019

This Is How It Always Is

But first, Roo was born.

“This sounds like it’s going to hurt. I’m so excited!” Me, after almost two months of disappearing books.

There’s a lot of book clubs connected to this one, and the summary has definitely housewife-novel potential. A happy woman with a house full of boys only to realise – dum dum dum – that her youngest doesn’t want to be a boy. Maybe.

But instead you get what Ducks, Newburyport tried to be. The inner life of a frantic mum who tries and fails to keep all balls up in the air.
Because how do you take care of five children, your job and your husband even with ignoring your own needs and fears?

This Is How It Always Is sets you to thinking about gender and how we view it, how different societies look at the subject differently.

And it definitely shows what the life of a mother entails, how kids and their lives are on one’s mind all-the-time.

It left me staring into the distance after finishing it, considering everything.

This Is How It Always Is, Laurie Frankel, Flat Iron Books 2017

This is Going to Hurt

In 2010, after six years of training and a further six years on the wards, I resigned from my job as a junior doctor.

There’s very little joy to be found here, but heck – even the title tells you that. Besides that, it’s non-fiction and about the NHS (Britain’s national health). Even if you don’t know anything about that subject, the sum of these must ring a small alarm bell.

Adam Kay isn’t a doctor anymore, and these are his diary notes that have led up to that decision. Mostly it’s terribly politics and how hospitals deal with it, but patients don’t go scot-free either. This way even the awkward giggles feel bad because there’s lives at stake here and only those that can’t do anything about it, seem to care.

There are bits when Adam sounds a bit too full of himself, and maybe some more background would be nice, but this is a man’s personal story. Use it as motivation to do your own background research. If you’re sure that you want to know more about the state NHS is in, anyway.

This is Going to Hurt, Adam Kay, Picador 2017