The Talented Ribkins

He only came back because Melvin said he would kill him if he didn’t pay off his debt by the end of the week.

Now how to talk about this one. There’s a fantastical element in this story (several, if you consider all the individuals involved), but I definitely wouldn’t call it a story from the fantasy genre. Maybe more magic realistic? Anyway, these talents can come in quite handy, but brought ruin to almost every owner – every member of the Ribkins family.

The Ribkins are a black family, with one generation starting out as activists (during the Civil Rights Movement) but seeming to have ended up in crime. Each of their stories rub against historical facts, which makes the people with extraordinary powers trope so much more realistic, and keeps the focus on those people, instead of what they do with their powers.

This is combined with a playground (Florida) that somehow manages to make all of it more surreal and real at the same time. Of course the main character needs to dig up money he hid around the state, of course their last name has a wonderful background. Ladee Hubbard bakes all of it together, and it tastes strange, but good.

The Talented Ribkins, Ladee Hubbard, Melville House 2017

Normal People

Marianne answers the door when Connell rings the bell.

I should have known that an impatient wait would only lead to disappointment, but I guess such repetitious mistakes make you human. This novel got plenty of accolades, but the summary didn’t particularly appeal me. After one review – one I didn’t even recognise the previous summaries read in – I changed my mind. Blow me away, Rooney.

There was no blowing away, only dragging down and wrestling through (negative) emotions. These two people, the main characters Connell and Marianne, are just …incomplete(?) and manage to simultaneously make it worse and better in the other. So much low self-esteem, depression, (mental) self-harm and words that should be said to improve things, but never are.

I finished this an hour ago and still feel that kind of daze of finishing a story that doesn’t let you come up for air. Of course, no story has to be completely happy, or even have happy moments, but every other word is doubted and dissected. The story involves only a few months, making me wish for these poor people involved for it to be decades because surely everyone deserves to have a mental breather.

And underneath all of it, I couldn’t find anything the author wanted to do with this story. Share suffering? Show us that there is no such thing as normal people? Or that no matter what kind of train wreck, people just can’t look away?

Normal People, Sally Rooney, Alfred A. Knopf 2018

A Beautiful Work in Progress

I sat on the king bed at the Best Western Mountain View in East Ellijay, Georgia, the night before the Double Tap 50K race at Fort Mountain State Park in the Cohutta Mountains.

I expected much more pages being about running, training, exercise and the judgment people reserve for fat people doing sports. Which is kind of sloppy of me, because it says right there in the title: a memoir. And no person came out of the womb with running shoes on.

So, after my initial lack of excitement about learning about this woman I’ve never heard before and didn’t know why I should have, I kind of got over it. I’m interested in what she had to say about her (long distance) runs, we’ll take the rest as it comes.

With Mirna Valerio being a fat collection of minorities in contemporary USA, there’s so much more to her stories about running and exercising than the regular blood, sweet, and tears (although they do show up). This might make you a bit impatient about the next story about a trial run, but it also shows you that nothing happens in a vacuum; not even exercising and sports.

So, for that, you could read this memoir. And, honestly, there’s definitely different kinds of motivation in it. You just have to work a bit harder for it. If not – there’s plenty of ‘regular’ running stories to be found.

A Beautiful Work in Progress; A Memoir, Mirna Valerio, Grand Harbor Press 2017

Bad Blood

November 17, 2006

I’m fond of the sentence ‘truth is stranger than fiction’, but this time the truth is so recognisable that the fictional version of it would have been waved away for being too boring. Ignorant people sticking to ignorance because it can possibly make them money? Sounds familiar.

This time there’s health involved though, which makes the schadenfreude slightly less because you know people might suffer more than a hurt ego and an empty savings account. Main villain is a young woman that decides she wants to be the next Steve Jobs, and as soon as possible. This leads to material that never works, a very tense work atmosphere and so much lies and threats towards both supporters and criticisers that you wonder if anyone involved has energy for daily life left.

So while you can laugh about all the dumb rich people that keep throwing more money at this company which is basically just a collection of shams, you’re confronted with the reality that this isn’t new. That companies work like this, that people out there will work harder for fame then for bettering society.

Yes, it’s a wild ride, but not an uplifting one. Just another argument for knowing that it’s truth: no clear cut happy ending in which everyone deserving of it get their comeuppance.

Bad Blood, John Carreyrou, Borzoi

The library book

Even in Los Angeles, where is no shortage of remarkable hairdos, Harry Peak attracted attention.

You had me at libraries, you from time to time lost me about the focus on not just the Los Angeles Public Library (so okay, it’s one of the main plots), but especially the background of the possible culprit and fluffy descriptions of ever person involved in any way. I would rather have seen book covers, if Susan Orlean felt like she needed to add some visuals.

But still: there is so much love for books and libraries and librarians that you almost feel yourself slip into that world that is more than only centered on books. Libraries are miniature societies, and Orlean shows it well.

So, if you’re about books, architecture, and American history through librarians – this is the book of your dreams. If just any of these categories do it for you: consider it as a bit of an encyclopedia; read a few chapters from time to time. That way, you’ll always have some time left to visit your own library.

The library book, Susan Orlean, Simon & Schuster 2018

Number One Chinese Restaurant

The waiters were singing “Happy Birthday” in Chinese.

One main disappointment about this story: not enough descriptions of food. In some ways, this one felt like an international version of De zoetzure smaak van dromen; also the (immigrant) family in and around a Chinese restaurant. Except this one has a lot more infighting and drama. And as I said before – less descriptions of food.

So, what does happen in this novel? No-one seems to be very happy with their place in society. All are connected to a Chinese restaurant, but some (feel like it’s) in the wrong way, and some want to cut all ties. There’s the son of the owner, employees that have been there for decades, and those at the fringes of their lives. A fire doesn’t make things easier, even though it was slightly expected to.

It’s not the most accessible of novels; there are very few people to like and sometimes side plot lines take a bit too much space. On the other hand: it’s mostly the male characters that are the annoying ones, and all of it shows humanity. With a title and subject like this, it could have easily become a collection of stereotypes about Asian Americans: instead you’re shown that family and finances issues work the same in every (sub)culture.

Number One Chinese Restaurant, Lilian Li, Macmillan Publishing 2018

Before We Were Yours

My story begins on a sweltering August night, in a place I will never set eyes upon.

Adoption isn’t an easy subject, but the historical story line of Before We Were Yours shows at the very least how it definitely shouldn’t be handled.

There are two story tellers in this novel about an “orphanage” that basically stole children from poor people and sold them to rich families. One is the girl and her siblings that go through it, the other connected to her through different generations. This element sometimes makes it a little bit Lifetime-ish, although her motivations for discovering more are at first more political than personal. ie the sob story starts later into the story.

Weaved in between these two is a romance that isn’t quite necessary, but not horribly done either. I feel like the subject is what elevates this novel from being just another one of the paperbacks your gran reads and pushes upon you because it’s “so exciting”. It’s an easy, accessible read, but the horror of the “orphanage” and the reality on which its based, is what gives the story its pull.

Before We Were Yours, Lisa Wingate, Penguin Random House LLC 2017