The Nickel Boys

Even in death the boys were trouble.

The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead, Doubleday 2019

I read stories by Colson Whitehead before and even though I know their subjects are heavy (Black American history, racism), there’s a certain atmosphere to them that still makes them easy to read. Like there’s a layer between the reader and the story, but the reader can feel how fragile it is.

This time it’s about a Correctional Facility (add air quotes at your own convenience) in Florida that was created in times of segregation and still works along those lines when the reader gets there. Entwined with that story are also jumps back and forward in time to show black American lives and the impact incarceration (directly and indirectly) has on them.

What I liked on top of everything else is the nicely hidden away twist: I felt like a numpty to not have picked it up, and that means that it was worked in without any fanfare nor heralded with a complete orchestra. It gives an extra punch in case you were strangely complacent with all the horrors you read.

Killers of the Flower Moon

In April, millions of tiny flowers spread over the blackjack hills and vast prairies in the Osage territory of Oklahoma.

Killers of the Flower Moon: the Osage murders and the birth of the FBI, David Grann, Doubleday 2016

With some books, it’s clear how it could be turned into a film or TV-series. Some seem to be written for that transition, this one doesn’t. And yet: guess which story is turned into a film.

This could be a deep-digging, terrifying and beautiful look at the wild west in the USA and the horrible treatment of native people; there’s so much happening that you might wonder how it could have all happened in just a couple of years. That also means that plenty of those details are going to be cut out: this film isn’t going to be six hours long, of course.

Because in the beginning it’s simple: Osage people are killed by white people because of their riches. Corruption and racism reign the small towns, including the law enforcement. How is crime solved when the victims are viewed as less than human? The murders are blatant, the villains are almost cartoon-y evil, and the incompetence is staggering.

It all makes for a very detailed western – the birth of the FBI is really the least interesting part of the entire story. It’s – besides the spotlight on corruption and racism – a demonstration of journalism and research: the author just kept on digging and flourished by other people’s needs to document their lives.

Truth is stranger than fiction, indeed.

One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter

Only idiots aren’t afraid of flying.

One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter, Scaachi Koul, Doubleday 2017

I didn’t know about this woman’s existence before reading this collection of articles/slices of life. Possibly it was the title that caught my attention, and I always consciously try to read more by women of colour. Another thing I appreciated was how her view of India juxtaposed with the one mentioned in The Far Field. As someone who wants to visit India one day, it was nice to hear that it’s not an unsafe for white people pile of trash after all.

But I deter; this is about Scaachi Koul, not me. A Canadian woman with Indian parents and the body, hangups and cultural differences that come with it. She discusses these in a dry tone and also explains why: women have little room – women of colour even less to have any kind of emotion that isn’t desired.

In under 200 pages she shows both her life as that of an immigrant daughter, a brown woman in Canada, just another person growing up.

Some articles are very recognisable, some might make you cringe. As far as insights go: consider me further insighted.

The Farm

The emergency room is an assault.

The Farm, Joanne Ramos, Doubleday 2019

I expected this to be sharper. Almost halfway in I commented that I was hoping that the author would deliver on what she was promising. She didn’t. This is a clear example of a novel that would have blown the mind of someone less well-read and well-informed. I know that sounds snobbish, but it’s the truth in this case: the ideas used in this novel are quite Body Sovereignty 101 and What Are The Limits of Capitalism 101. You might be curious about learning more, but for those that already did, it leaves you feeling a bit without direction.

The Farm is a very luxurious place where (implied illegal) immigrant women are surrogates for very rich families. For nine months they are pampered, kept from their usual lives and financially rewarded for several reasons. They’re also not allowed to have too many emotions, share too much personal information and contact anyone outside. They’re endlessly (physically) checked out and basically just viewed and handled as walking wombs.

Jane comes from the Philippines, is a young mother and tries to better her life for her daughter. She starts out as a nanny, but something happens which cuts off that line of work.

Sharing more would spoil some of the plot lines that are nicely knitted together, but simply miss spark. Do I need to be angry? Horrified? Was this all just a pamphlet?

I guess I’m still in the market for something that teaches me more about surrogacy and/or rich people that need to be stopped.

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

The Underground Railroad

The first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no.

Watching the series Underground, The Knick and than reading this book, gives you a triangle of black American history. If you’re not a complete dunce, you can recognise that these three are slavery-related, because that’s a large part of black American history. And as I often ask myself with books about ugly subjects; why should you read it? Don’t we know already?

This time the underground railroad to the saver surroundings up north is really an underground railroad, but that doesn’t make an escape easier. Main character Cora is followed through different states and escapes, and even when it looks safe, it doesn’t mean it is. Sometimes the violence against black people is written down so detached, it’s easy to believe all the slavery-wasn’t-horrible stories some people still try to taut. Only for this author to proof them wrong, again and again. This book isn’t just about the violence, it’s about the impact on human lives.

The railroad gives it a slightly fantastical shade, but an escape is an escape, whatever way used. Sometimes the author veers off a little in style, rails to a dead end, but Cora’s story needs to be seen through.

And if people know already, even about South Carolina, even about the mass sterilisations, maybe they can just pass this story on for those that don’t.

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead, Doubleday 2016

Fitness Junkie

“I can’t believe you ordered that.”

This gives you much more to think about than you might expect looking at the cover and summary. All that, and some fun and heart!

Main character Janey is told by her friend and business partner Beau that she’s getting fat and that he can’t have that. Because of their toxic relationship, she just doesn’t laugh in his face, but attempts to change her “fat” body. Probably also because he doesn’t want her in the office until things change; it’s that kind of toxic relationship.

What follows is all kinds of exercise someone with less free time on their hands probably couldn’t come up with. This happening in New York City makes the divide between satire and reality quite thin sometimes.

But the best part is probably how much Janey discovers about herself, her body and how society views it. How she starts to have fun with food, dating and exercise (all is that one based on dodgy ground). Maybe you’ll be motivated to start exercising, but have at least your take away from this novel be that it’s your body and your decisions.

Fitness Junkie, Lucy Sykes & Jo Piazza, Doubleday 2017

Rich People Problems

PROBLEM NO. 1

Your regular table at the fabulous restaurant on the exclusive island where you own a beach house is unavailable.

Follow up from Crazy Rich Asians and China Rich Girlfriend, now with even some issues that everyone that isn’t a billionaire or millionaire could relate to. Maybe.

Does one read books of these series for recognising situations from their own lives? Probably not. Bring in the details about the clothes, the planes, the houses, the spending.

Again, there’s so many characters that the genealogy in front of the book can be helpful. The author ramps up the amount of notes as well, this time using them (more often) to comment, instead of to explain. But in between all of that is a brightly coloured, very expensive (looking) story full of dramatics and diamonds. It’s silly, it’s superficial, it’s quite delicious (especially in between Year of Wonders and writing essays about The Catcher in the Rye).

Rich People Problems, Kevin Kwan, Doubleday 2017

The Rathbones

Moses knows what will happen.

Marine magic realism or dark family fairy tale? The Rathbones are a huge whale hunting family in the (early) nineteenth century. The novel spans little over a century of family connections.

The family patriarch has a special connection with the ocean, making him and his offspring extraordinary hunters. They become legends, but every legend has foes, disaster and tragedy. The family tree moves in every which way but the prospering one.

Janice Clark creates a tapestry of myths, family and nature. It’s filled to the brim with details, colors and secrets. It’s a fairy tale and magic and just a family tome. And definitely worth your time.

The Rathbones, Janice Clark, Doubleday 2013

Unseen Academicals

It was midnight in Ankh-Morpork’s Royal Art Museum.*

Finally a Discworld novel again. With author Terry Pratchett suffering from Alzheimer’s, it’s unsure how many more he’ll be able to create. But until then; let’s enjoy what’s around.

Unseen Academicals is one of the Discworld novels centered on Ank-Morpork and its Unseen University. Of course the regular suspects are there (The Watch, DEATH, the ruling dictator) but the wizards and their personnel are the main characters this time.

Well, them and soccer. Lord Vetenari, for reasons not particularly clear, wants to clean up the game of soccer and for starters thinks that the wizards should form a team and be the shining beacon that will make the game ready for the next generation. Just some rules, less casualties and something to keep the plebeian mob happy, it should be a walk in the park.

Of course it isn’t, but this road is covered with bad jokes, good jokes and tickling-smart word play. Because that’s what Pratchett does and he does it well.

Unseen Academicals: a Discworld Novel, Terry Pratchett, Doubleday 2009