Swing Time

It was the first day of my humiliation.

I’ve read some Zadie Smith before and I think I can repeat a previously used sentiment: Zadie Smith doesn’t write plots, she creates characters. Although this time, in Swing Time there definitely might be some plot-like features to be found.

There’s the growing up of a mixed girl in eighties England on the (edge of the) estate, her sort-of friendship with an equal in skin colour but very different in background and surroundings and their shared passion of dancing.

There’s the woman who’s an assistant of a world-famous pop-star who gets entangled in the lives of West-African villagers (maybe Gambian) in an attempt of charity work.

And then there’s the woman who can’t seem to do right by the dreams and ambitions of her mother, who in turn decides to pursue them herself.

It’s all the same woman, so you might get what I mean. It’s a slice of life but life is firmly on the background, even when the protagonist (unnamed) interacts with it and the people part of it. It’s all very much in her head, even when, or maybe especially when you would appreciate a bird’s eye view.

But the title is ever so fitting, the story providing a certain kind of rhythm that makes the book easy to pick up and stick to.

Swing Time, Zadie Smith, Hamish Hamilton 2016

The Maid

Red flowers were blooming in the front yard, but Nanase had no idea what they were: the names of the flowers did not interest her.

Well, the summary of this novel is going to be short and clear. Young Japanese woman is telepathic and listens in on the households in which she does maid-work. Any questions?

Nanase doesn’t really manage to hold on to a job for long, which could be quite understandable when you can hear everyone’s thoughts. It turns the novel into a collection of short stories: ever so often a new household. It also makes it quite repetitive: everyone only seems to think about status, money and sex.

So, yes, maybe that’s all what people think about when they think no-one else can hear them, but couldn’t there have been some kind of addition to prevent feeling like you’ve read this already the previous chapter? Sadly not. There’s no descriptions of surroundings and Nanase herself doesn’t seem to spend too much thought on herself and her future. It sadly turns The Maid into a creative writing exercise that went on for too long.

The Maid, Yasutaka Tsutsui, Alma Books 2010

The Kitchen

102 min.

In no way does this film show that the origin is a (comic) book, at least not the kind you might expect from DC (Batman and his ilk). This is ‘just’ a movie about the Irish mob in New York’s Hell Kitchen at the end of the seventies.

the kitchen film posterThree wives-of-mobsters are left hanging high and dry when their husbands are caught and imprisoned. The family doesn’t take as much care of them as expected either, so they decide to take matters in their own hands. And matters in this case are making money in less legal ways.

Not so surprisingly, this goes well, even better than the men that had started it. Other people, of course, are less than pleased by this, and some thing close to a hunt happens. So do dead bodies, but somehow The Kitchen never manages to add a sense of worry or urgency to all this. It all floats along; well-looking surroundings, okay soundtrack, okay dialogue. Any excitement? Not really. Why do I need to keep watching this movie, no matter how hard Melissa McCarthy is trying? Unsure, really. It’s all just there.

The Kitchen, DC Vertigo 2019

Paradise Lodge

The job at Paradise Lodge was Miranda Longlady’s idea.

‘Teenager in seventies’ England gets a job at a seniors home and learns things about life, herself and others’ must have been a curious plot to pitch, but Nina Stibbe manages to land it with a homely, gentle feeling to the story and everyone involved. Even Matron.

Lizzie Vogel is a bit of an onion; she’s got layers. Starting off this job with ‘better shampoo’ as a personal motivation, she quickly starts to see that both seniors and the people providing for them as individuals as well. Her work at the home is more exciting and interesting than school, there’s a cute guy who’s someone else’s boyfriend, and her mother isn’t all that stable through all this; all of which causes issues in a domino kind of cascade.

That might make Paradise Lodge sound severe and dire, but even though there are deaths, it’s all on the lighter side of things. Teenage problems, without being teenage disasters. Lizzie really is an onion: she goes with many things.

Paradise Lodge, Nina Stibbe, Penguin Books 2017

Freshwater

The first time our mother came for us, we screamed.

Sometimes a book leaves you with a feeling instead of easy-put-into-thoughts words. Freshwater is exciting, eerie, scary and frustrating, both the story and the story telling. It’s a book you’d recommend with a long disclaimer.

Main character Ada (or the Ada) is born with one foot in the other world, she’s possessed by creatures/things/ghosts, and they have quite the impact on her health, her life and her loved ones. It’s not just her that gets to speak either, it’s the ‘we’ and others that get to control the human Ada from time to time, or at the very least debate her decisions.

It makes for a creepy, aggravating story that isn’t always easy to get through, like it’s not just Ada that’s being dragged down and manipulated by the other ones. At the same time it’s such a balanced story about a culture (Nigerian) that doesn’t view all this as too exotic, but at the same time has elements that prevents Ada from speaking the truth. So there’s different layers to her straddling two worlds, even when she hasn’t has her creatures involved.

Freshwater, Akwaeke Emezi, Grove Press 2018

Hustlers

109 min.

From “this looks entertaining” to “wait – people are talking Oscar nominations?” in under a week. The promotion team of this film must be pleased, but how true were both of these sentiments?

hustlers posterDisclaimer: I could watch this for free, and don’t know if I would have paid a ticket for it otherwise. Story and trailer showed me something that was Netflix-friendly, not necessary in need of the big screen experience. I was right about that one.

Hustlers is inspired by a true story about how strippers stripped (ha ha) Wall Street men of their money and then some. Not very legal, but quite satisfying. Of course, something like that can’t last, not for the people involved.

For a very long time, Hustlers keeps it light. Look at all the things they buy, look at the stunts they pull with the fools that think strippers are just entertainment instead of human beings. It’s in the last twenty minutes when different cinematographic and tonal decisions are made, almost like they have to show arguments for the ‘inspired by a true story’ part. Instead of leaving pumped, you might feel a bit deflated.

And those Oscar-nominations? Well, if Matthew, Jared, Emma and all those others have one… get Jennifer Lopez on that stage.

Hustlers, STX Films 2019

Coisa Mais Linda

7 x 45 min.

Also known as Most Beautiful Thing, and it definitely is pretty to look at. With it being centered around a musical cafĂ© it’s not bad to listen to either.

most beautiful thing posterBut what’s going on? A Brazilian housewife in the fifties follows her husband from Sao Paulo to Rio de Janeiro only to discover he disappeared with all her money, leaving her indebted and without direction. Now what? Her image destroyed, her bank account empty, time to find a new husband!

Except she doesn’t want to. They had dreams of starting a restaurant, now she decides on starting a jazz club. As a naive little housewife there are plenty of things she has to learn while working against sexism, the previous mentioned debts and her parents. Good thing there are female friends that suffer (in other ways) along with her.

And all that in beautiful, bright surroundings (are so many shows and films so dark these days or is it just my screen settings?) that add a little bit extra to the trope of ‘woman recognises her worth and comes into her own’. Oh and yes, it’s in Portuguese, so you might have to get used to the idea of reading subtitles.

Coisa Mais Linda, Netflix 2019

Pretend I’m Dead

For months he was just a number to her: she counted his dirties, he dropped them in the bucket, she recorded the number on the clipboard, and he moved down the line.

Some stories aren’t pleasant to read, but so compelling that you don’t want to give up on them ether. Mona isn’t easy to love or follow, even though it could have been with such a mercy- and pity-inducing history.

Mona is a twenty-something with a bad youth and/or possibly some mental illnesses. There are clear symptoms, but there’s also the consideration of how much comes from her background. She cleans houses for a living, even though her aunt and her sort-of-boyfriend tell her that she should change things, start living. Develop.

But that’s not easy, especially when you’re not exactly willing to do so. Mona’s got a lot of thoughts, maybe too many, and the author doesn’t let the reader off easy. This is an annoying, disgusting, frightening protagonist that might make you feel more empathetic to those neurotically atypical, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing annoying either.

Pretend I’m Dead doesn’t give answers, it just shows. I didn’t find the ‘laugh-out-loud funny’ a blurb claims, but I did want to stick around. Maybe in some way, Mona will notice.

Pretend I’m Dead, Jean Beagin, Oneworld 2018

The Letdown

13 x 30 minutes

For someone who doesn’t have children, nor wants them, The Letdown has plenty recognisable situations that make you think that mothers aren’t a completely different species (yes, I know!).

The Letdown posterIn this Australian show the viewer follows around different (new) mums from different backgrounds and in different surroundings. But even though they are introduced through a mum-related event, the show doesn’t turn them solely into ‘mothers’. Children have upended the lives of these women (and their partners), and that’s where the relatable part comes in.

Even when these women are in different times in their lives, they all struggle (more or less) with romance, health, personal time, family etc. It’s small things, frustrating things, and sometimes so secondhand embarrassing that it’s hard not to look away. Please, just admit that you were wrong, right or uncomfortable, aren’t you too old for such behaviour come on.

I guess not, and that’s also what elicits chuckles besides rolling eyes. Good thing you can’t blame children or partners on bad decisions, no matter how old you are. There’s plenty of us that do so, and it’s nice to see that.

The Letdown, Netflix 2017

 

The Word for Woman is Wilderness

The space probe Voyager 1 left the planet in 1977.

Wow. Maybe as much impact on me, albeit in a slightly different category, as Het achtste leven (voor Brilka). I’m still a bit fuzzy around the edges after having finished it. And as often with those on the edges of opinion (very good, very bad), I’m struggling a little bit with how to put into words what I like so much about this.

Because with the premise, it just as easily could have gone on to be terribly navel-gazing and Philosophical without foundation (ie fake deep babble). A young English woman deciding on going to travel ‘to the wild’ by herself, through Iceland, Greenland, Canada and Alaska. During, she’s often (very) conscious about her privilege, place in the world, safety and future, but not without keeping her eyes turned outwards. And what a beautiful, mesmerising outwards it is.

So, what does happen in this book that left me reeling slightly? It’s the insights, but also the recognisable feelings about living without a buoy, and/or direction. It’s the worries about environment and society and how you seemingly can’t have any impact on it, yet never turns into something completely depressing. And with the conclusion, it all slides into perspective.

Maybe that’s the biggest thing: it offers such a broad perspective that keeps narrowing down, without offering you the light at the end of the tunnel. It just gives you the knowledge about all that’s around you.

The Word for Woman is Wilderness, Abi Andrews, Profile Books 2018