Greenwood

They come for the trees.

Greenwood, Michael Christie, Scribe 2020

It is well-known (here) that I’m a fan of family epics. There’s always the risk that the dullest character gets the most attention but still: throw in clear images of different eras and I’m in.

Michael Christie’s adds trees to his. From cutting to protecting, wood working and dendrology (- yes, I learned a new word), these Greenwood generations are willingly and unwillingly connected to the lungs of the earth.

The story ranges from 1908 to 2038 and with almost 500 pages – goes far and wide through Canada and characters.

The only thing that slightly bothered me was the imbalance between male and female characters and how the latter were all connected to motherhood somehow. I know that some of the historical settings limit female independence and freedom or maybe the male author simply didn’t dare but.. I would have liked to know more about them and their surroundings.

Except for Jake’s. Her 2038 is a loud, environmental warning we should all hope doesn’t turn into reality.

Homeland Elegies

I had a professor in college, Mary Moroni, who taught Melville and Emerson, and who the once famous Norman O. Brown – her mentor – called the finest mind of her generation; a diminutive, cherubic woman in her early thirties with a resemblance to a Raphaelesque putto that was not incidental (her parents had immigrated from Urbino); a scholar of staggering erudition who quotes as easily from the Eddas and Hannah Arendt as she did from Moby-Dick; a lesbian, which I only mention because she did, often; a lecturer whose turns of phrase were sharp as a German paring knife, could score the brain’s gray matter and carve out new grooves along which old thoughts would reroute, as on that February morning two weeks after Bill Clinton’s first inauguration, when, during a class on life under early American capitalism, Mary, clearly interrupted by her own tantalizing thought, looked up from the floor at which she usually gazed as she spoke – her left hand characteristically buried in the pocket of the loose-fitting slacks that were her mainstay – looked up and remarked almost offhandedly that America had begin as a colony and that a colony it remained, that is, a place still defined by its plunder, where enrichment was paramount and civil order always an afterthought.

Homeland Elegies, Ayad Akhtar, Little Brown and Company 2020

I should have seen it coming with such a first sentence. With some books you feel bad about not clicking with it; this has such positive reviews, it’s such an eye-opener etc. etc., so why am I not latching onto and never letting go?

Well, for starters the summary and the story don’t have a lot in common. There are so many descriptions of everything and everyone (the author seems to know that he does this, but still keeps doing it). And there’s much more descriptions of women’s vulvas than expected.

“Life as an American Muslim from 9/11 to Trump”. Sorta, but much more. And before as well, but not after. And very much, maybe all of it, about the author’s life. Even though there is a disclaimer about every character being fictional.

This offers insights about the (American) Muslim diaspora and ideas about the Islam which were new to me and explain some things, but there’s no clear line or plot wherever. Are these independent stories or a chronological build up? Trump might be mentioned on five of the three-hundred pages, was this a marketing decision? And why the sex diary?

But it’s “unputdownable” and by a Pulitzer-winning author, so I probably just don’t understand.

Utopia Avenue

Dean hurries past the Phoenix Theatre, dodges a blind man in dark glasses, steps onto Charing Cross road to overtake a slow-moving woman and pram, leaps a grimy puddle and swerves into Denmark Street where he skids on a sheet of black ice.

Utopia Avenue, David Mitchell, Sceptre 2020

I really think that David Mitchell is my favourite male author. While Utopia Avenue wasn’t my favourite (“yes, you did your homework when it comes to how music is created, I don’t really care”), it was still a book I spent my nights on opposed to the usual screen time.

It felt like it was a character study. Of people (in the music business) during a certain era in history, but also of the era itself. The USA and England can be compared to Cinderella and one of her siblings: young, fresh and exciting versus jealous drudgery.

Jasper de Zoet (as far as I know the first time Mitchell refers to characters from other novels) delivers the eerie, magical realistic touch to the story. Is he mentally unwell – and if so, in what way? – or is there more between hell and earth? I felt like it both lifted up and brought down the story. Any more would provide spoilers, and of course Mitchell manages to interweave it thusly that anything else wouldn’t have worked.

It’s a book like an opera: if those come with drug abuse, celebrity house parties and detailed descriptions of jam sessions. After having written this, I feel like reading it for a second time. Make of that what you will.

Minding the Gap + Betty

Minding the Gap is a 93 minute documentary

Betty is a two season TV-show, 12 episodes of 30 minutes

And both of them involve skating, why I combined the two. Minding the Gap is a sober documentary about life in a small town with an even smaller amount of possibilities to get out of the rut your ancestors created for you. The documentary maker returns after a time and goes looking for all his (skater) friends. Not all of them got out – mentally and physically.

This might all sound terribly depressing and it’s definitely not a fun, cool watch, but director Bing Liu manages to make you feel for these strangers like it’s your own set of friends.

Betty keeps things (most of the time) a lot more lighthearted. It’s based in reality with the skateboarders having been plucked from the street and allowed input to stories (according to the credits), but HBO puts a very cool, glamorous, quick-living sheen over it. It’s a group of diverse female teens in New York that skate. There are a few (teen-related) problems, but mostly it’s just cruising: little goes permanently wrong.

That also turns it into brightly coloured wallpaper pretty quickly. Or maybe I’m just too old and not cool enough.

Either way, I still want to get a skateboard and try my hardest to master it now.

Lupin

10 x 50 min.

I’ve talked before about how I like (some parts of) French cinema, but I’ve got little experience with French television. But I’ve yet to find something Omar Sy does that I don’t care about so yes, sure – I’ll watch a show based on a French gentleman thief.

The series aren’t about Arsène Lupin (the gentleman thief), they’re about Assane Diop who uses his stories as inspiration and motivation to set a wrong from the past right. But as we’re in the twenty-first century now, things go a little bit differently.

And Lupin didn’t have an ex and a child – as far as I know, or the series tell us.

It’s a fun, smooth, charming caper that sometimes even gets some comments on society in: because why is the black man in a suit more suspect than the black man in a cleaner’s overall?

It also made me want to visit all kind of spots all over France; not something that’s usually on my mind. A third part is already in the making and even though Diop can’t take on the entirety of French corruption, I’ll watch him try for at least two more parts.

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.

The Bestseller

One day God decided he would visit the earth.

The Bestseller, Olivia Goldsmith, Diversion Books 1996

Olivia Goldsmith is also the author of First Wives Club, if you were wondering why the name is vaguely familiar.

With The Bestseller she wrote another ‘The Upper Circles Can Have Issues Too’ and it’s delicious (you know I have a soft spot for that). It also made me never ever want to attempt getting anything remotely related to a novel published. Because oof. And this is publishing in the nineties.

In this novel the reader follows the stories of different authors. New ones, old ones, unwilling ones, suffering ones etc. While you get a slice of their (sad) life, you also get plenty of insight into the publishing business. It’s not good. It’s not about stories, creativity and adding something to culture: it’s about money, the bottom line, and PR.

It’s 1400 pages as an ebook and I flew through it in less than three days (okay, I had days off, but still). It’s entertaining, aggravating dramady in which very few people look good. After a few duds, this was all the fluff I needed.

The devil and the dark water

Arent Hayes howled in pain as a rock slammed into his massive back.

The devil and the dark water, Stuart Turton, Sourcebooks 2020

It’s been a day since I finished the book (I had to rush the last 200 pages because of a deadline), and I’ve only become more flabbergasted since. There really was a 410 page build-up for something that was turned around in five pages.

The devil and the dark water goes for the Sherlock Holmes-trope of a gentle, slightly goofy very intelligent small man and a brute of a protector; this time they’re called Sammy and Arent. The location is a WIC-ship and is it a devil or something or somebody else that is causing all of that chaos and mayhem? Dum dum dum, etc.

The other thing that makes this caper less fun (the first thing being “The Twist”) is that it all goes on for too long. The author mentions that he didn’t want to add more characters, but he could have done a character-cut twice more to bring some clarity and add some speed.

In all honesty, I think it would have been a more exciting and original story if he would have started with The Twist and showed those shenanigans in seventeenth-century Europe. But Turton already promised a next book, so who knows.

Probably Sammy and Arent.

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.

The House in the Cerulean Sea

“Oh dear,” Linus Baker said, wiping the sweat from his brow.

The House in the Cerulean Sea, TJ Klune, Tor 2020

This was just the sweetness needed. It felt like a story that could be animated as part of another story. It’s an origin story, the entire plot a huge cliché (man goes through things, discovers that there are joys in life to be had), but it’s all done so nicely, without ever veering into the saccharine.

Also, there’s monsters.

I mean – children with abilities. Hidden away in an orphanage on an island at the end of the world and our protagonist has to make sure they are treated well. It’s what he does for a living (if you can call it living). This time he even has to keep an extra eye on the headmaster because he likes to colour outside the lines (gasp!).

TJ Klune makes it all fresh, funny and adorable because of their descriptions, characters and little jokes. You might see the ending coming closely after the beginning, but it’s such a nice ride.