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

Russian Doll

8 x 26 min.

In the case of some shows you feel bad about not experiencing at the same time others did it. With some, the experience is just enhanced by going “Ooooh sh-!” to someone else.

Russian Doll posterAnd there’s plenty of moments like that in this TV-show about a woman who just keeps dying and doesn’t know why and can’t get out of this Groundhog day-situation. It being a woman played and written by Natasha Lyonne (you might remember her from Orange is the New Black) this groundhog is more like Final Destination when it comes to dying creatively.

With less than thirty minutes of runtime and eight episodes there’s not enough room for this element to get old: there’s just enough glimmers of clues to feel like you’re onto something just a bit before Nadia does.

The one con is that there’s going to be a second season: this could have been resolved, even in a possibly unsatisfying way in the last two episodes – easily. Now there’s the risk of things becoming stale.

Although Nadia’s back-to-life soundtrack might just be good enough to prevent that.

Russian Doll, Netflix 2019

Trail of Lightning

The monster has been here.

More Charlaine Harris (True Blood and the like) than Eden Robinson, but you can’t always win,and at least I was entertained. Maybe I should have known better when discovering that there had been criticisms about this novel, but I very much enjoy the stories of indigenous people, so I was willing to risk it. On the other side, how could I have known if the author was doing something right or wrong with the very little I know about (North-American) indigenous people?

Anyway, hindsight is 20-20 and it wasn’t her representation of the Navajo – wrongfully or otherwise – that bothered me about this novel. It’s the characters, specifically the main character.

I understand that you’re a pretty tortured soul when you’ve gone through what Maggie has gone through and is still going through, but when it only leads to moping and lamenting – all the goodwill evaporates quickly. There are other characters that are more exciting, I would have loved to learn more about the world this plays out in, but instead I get ponderings-while-looking-in-the-mirror. If there would have been more sex and blood, I would have called this a Laurell K. Hamilton.

Coming down largely on the side of ‘meh’, you can skip this one for your dystopian, sci-fi and or not-just-white story needs.

Trail of Lightning, Rebecca Roanhorse, Simon & Schuster 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

Wanda Sykes: Not Normal

66 min.

I’m not a fan of comedians and their shows. Usually it’s too long, and there’s too much secondhand embarrassment to balance out the funny parts. I rejected several of the recommended shows on Netflix: some I couldn’t even handle for ten minutes. But I was cleaning up my list, this was the last remaining one – okay, I’ll try it.

Wanda SykesThe last comedian show I watched on Netflix was Hannah Gadsby’s. There’s barely no comparing here, which is good for both parties involved.

Wanda Sykes is about American politics and her personal life as a wife, a mother and a woman going through menopause. It’s stone cold sober with a large amount of questions: not very strange considering the subjects.

My biggest relief was that she doesn’t do the thing most male comedians do: wait for laughter. Sykes doesn’t go out with the aim of Being Hilarious – it’s her story telling and her subjects that make you snort.

And talking about length? I only checked how much time I had left once.

Wanda Sykes: Not Normal, Netflix 2019

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

Girl Runner

This is not the love song of Aganetha Smart.

I can point out the different disappointments in this book clearly: the biggest one being the obvious twists to prevent explaining a plot line. This can happen maybe once or twice and should be done well – not something that basically amounts to ‘BUT FIRST’.

For starters, I’m not too fond of two story lines in different times, especially not when brought together through a seemingly random connection. Jump through time or let people age; it’s not that hard. In this case I accepted it because I was curious about the subject: first long distance female runner at the Olympics. Canadian history. Canadian writer. Bring it.

But it’s Aganetha young and very old, and a story line tacked on that isn’t explained – and just barely – until the last ten pages. With Aganetha not being the most charming protagonist, it doesn’t make caring easier. Give me more about the world she grew up in if you can’t or won’t sell me on your main character.

All this creates the feeling of “this could have been more”, which might be more frustrating than this entire novel is.

Girl Runner, Carrie Snyder, Harper 2015

Truly Madly Guilty

This is a story that begins with a barbecue,” said Clementine.

I think I don’t have to summarise this story if I’d tell you that this author is the one behind Big Little Lies as well and that she definitely carved out a spot for herself in the ‘What’s Really Happening Behind the Doors of Seemingly Happy Families’-niche. A niche I very much enjoy, so no negative comments there.

The negative comments here are solely plot related. When my thoughts turn to “this is filler, just give me the twist/clue”, the story is going on just a tad too long. If all that build-up leads to not that much, you need a stronger conclusion. Maybe that’s just the burden of reading so much that surprise is hard to find.

Because there’s nothing otherwise wrong with this story: it doesn’t pretend to provide something more than it offers. It’s entertaining, it fits the bill, it’s escapism.

And it might make you want to visit Sydney.

Truly Madly Guilty, Liane Moriarty, Flatiron Books 2016

Invisible Women

Most of recorded human history is one big data gap.

Good gravy, just when you thought you already knew, things turn out to be so much worse. Next to a sexist gap in pay, safety and health there is a huge one in the thing that drives pretty  much all of society: data.

Why is the default ‘he’? Why is there still a riddle about a doctor whose husband died, and why do too many people involved with design viewing women as ‘men with boobs’? Well, because societies worldwide have made it so, and not enough people in powerful positions protest it. And it turns out to be lethal for women.

Invisible Women isn’t particularly uplifting material: there’s just so many numbers and anecdotes on things that went wrong and are going wrong and men not giving a damn about it. How do we rally for change when the entire history of humanity is against us?

Because in some cases and in some countries things have changed and are changing. And you can never change something you don’t know anything about. And because it might save your life to know.

Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, Caroline Criado Perez, Abrams Press 2019