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

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

By 1899, we had learned to tame the darkness but not the Texas heat.

Feminism in shape of an eleven-year-old girl in the nineteenth century. Calpurnia is a smart little girl who doesn’t understand why “because it has always been like this” is a valid excuse for pushing gender restrictions on anyone.

Because Calpurnia Virginia (Callie Vee) is on the edge of womanhood and it’s time for her to learn different things than her brothers, so she can one day not that far away, get herself a nice husband. But Callie is more interested in the strange things her grandfather keeps up with, like nature and the origin of species. Why care about a straight seam when you could discover a completely new plant species?

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate comes from the YA/children section of the library, but Jacqueline Kelly manages to handle these questions (Can you be religious while believing in evolution? Why can’t women work and be married?) in a sane, realistic manner. She combines this with a world-building of an end of century Texas that makes you smell cornbread and sweat straw.

And you’re witness to an evolution.

The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, Jacqueline Kelly, Henry Holt and Company 2009

Eleven Days

The United States Navy SEALs came out of the Teams that served in Vietnam; they in turn came out of the Navy Seabees, the Scouts and Raiders, and the Underwater Demolition Teams used during World War II.

‘What happens to those that are left behind?’ is regularly asked when military families are the subject. In case of Eleven Days, the question applies to both sides. It’s not only the mother getting left behind by her son and his father, it’s the son being left behind by her, his father, and the possibilities of ordinary life.

Sara and Jason aren’t a conventional mother and son and their relationship is similar. That doesn’t mean that when she gets the news of him being missed, she deals with it any differently than anyone missing a loved one. This mother just has a large safety net made by neighbors, military men and her son’s godfathers to catch her.

The novel tells not only Sara’s story, but also Jason’s. His need to become a part of the American army, his silent suffering because he never knew his father, the feelings of finally belonging somewhere when he finds his place in his team. Him ending up missing is almost a side plot, this is about war and peace, wrong and right, family you’re born with and family you create yourself.

It’s not a happy story, and it takes a bit of work to get through it, but if you want to ponder these subjects, I’d tell you to give this a chance.

Eleven Days, Lea Carpenter, Alfred A. Knopf 2013

Oh Dear Silvia

He sits with a sense of being watched, although he himself is the watcher.

I should have known better than to pick the book with the comedy genre sticker on it. Just like trying to find a fantasy book that isn’t part of a series, I continue to look for a book that deserves its comedy genre sticker.

It’s not that oh Dear Silvia is completely without laughs. It’s just all of them stem from awkward and cringe-worthy situations. Silvia is in a coma after a fall from her balcony. Every chapter is for someone from her life, visiting her in the hospital, showing a different side to the patient. Is she a selfish mother, a life-saver, a role model, a loveless monster or all of them combined? Or none of the above?

All the anger directed at Silvia seems definitely deserved, until the plot shows its backside and you remember that there’s always more to the eye than one can see. It’s not funny, but it’s reality. And with or without Silvia, the people around her will continue to build their own version of it.

oh Dear Silvia, Dawn French, Joseph 2012

Wizard of the Crow

There were many theories about the strange illness of the second Ruler of the Free Republic of Aburiria, but the most frequent on people’s lips were five.

With over 700 pages and a lot of ugly truths about Africa and (Western) society sometimes I lot to work through, but definitely not a book to give up on easily. Because besides the truths and the amount of pages there is humor, a gritty yet warm world-building, satire, lessons about the African continent and some small history lessons.

The Wizard of the Crow has several story lines going on at the same time, but the main ones center on the title character, the woman he meets and the dictator of the country they live in. Turning to magic, having the right and wrong people believe in it, coups, rebels, an insane leader with a God-syndrome and a super religious couple are the cherries on the milkshake.

This book is a – sometimes awkward/uncomfortable – encyclopedia to underline the fact that people outside your culture aren’t less human, weirder or scarier. In the end and beginning of all things, they’re human beings that try to get by in their daily life, in any which way. Even in the fictional country of Aburiria.

The Wizard of the Crow, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Harvill Secker 2006

Juliet, Naked

They had flown from England to Minneapolis to look at a toilet.

I saw more of Nick Hornby’s book-to-film projects than read his books. Feeling like a laugh (I never seem to learn about books with the “comedy” genre sticker), I took a risk with Juliet, Naked. It paid off.

Annie’s boyfriend for fifteen years is obsessed with an eighties’ musician. Both of their lives circle Tucker Crowe; his for unknown reasons, hers because her boyfriend can’t live without linking everything back to Tucker Crowe, his music and his life. Everything else is simply (permanently) put on hold. And, being human, Annie kind of gets used to it. She didn’t want this, but how do you change?

Tucker Crowe’s newest CD is the trigger to that change. Annie’s and Duncan’s life together finally splits and it’s up to them to look at ‘Now what?’ and who they have become after fifteen years of symbiotic living. This sounds pretty dramatic, but Nick Hornby’s dry English humour builds a coming-of-age-at-forty-something story without any bitterness or sentimental toppings. ‘Life happens when you’re busy making plans’ never rang more true.

Juliet, Naked deserves the sticker of comedy genre, without being horribly try-hard or  laugh-or-I-shoot.

 Juliet, Naked, Nick Hornby, Viking 2009

Little Birds

Manuel and his wife were poor, and when they first looked for an apartment in Paris, they found only two dark rooms below the street level, giving on to a small stifling courtyard.

It’s been a while since I’ve read a Classic. And I don’t expect Anaïs Nin to be on the same high school to-read lists like Jane Austen or Mark Twain, but I’m certain she can be called a Classic (the capital is necessary). So, like with other Classics, I picked the slimmest novel of the author and ended up with Little Birds, a collection of (very) short stories.

Erotic stories. Published after her death, so sadly I’ll never know if she gave a damn about being different like that. Maybe people in the 1940s didn’t give a damn either, the preface of the Penguin Classics version doesn’t touch upon any of it. But besides that, does this author deserve the title of Classic?

That’s not easily said after reading just one piece of work, but Little Birds definitely has a certain appeal. The writing is accessible, there is a certain easy rhythm in the short stories that can almost be put to music. And, very important to erotica, there are barely any (horrible) metaphors for genitals.

And maybe most important: Little Birds made me curious about more Anaïs Nin.

Little Birds, Anaïs Nin, W. H. Allen & Co. 1979

We Are All Made Of Glue

The first time I met Wonder Boy, he pissed on me.

Marina Lewycka has a way with making the extraordinary human and vice versa. An old exotic woman with a fairy tale house turns out to be just someone living through all the things (war, lost love, age) life throws at her. A doormat housewife becomes a crusader for elderly rights. And none of this happens with any characters turning into caricatures.

The friendship between Georgie (doormat) ans mrs Shapiro (old woman) is the axis of this story. Through reduced prices, estate agents, a witch of a social worker and a handyman who swaps b’s with p’s and vice versa the reader gets a slice of life served up.

And throughout the entire story Lewycka balances a thin line. Just when there’s the risk of frustrations, anger or confusion (the character does what?), she swoops in and makes the characters (likeable) humans again.

Right now it feels like I could pick any of Lewycka’s books and be pleasantly surprised again. Which is never a bad feeling to have.

We Are All Made Of Glue, Marina Lewycka, Fig Tree 2009

The Camel Book Mobile

The child, wide-legged on the ground, licked dust off his fist and tried to pretend he was tasting camel milk.

American librarian becomes part of a project to bring – by camel – books to Kenyan tribes. Some of the tribes-people like the act of reading and the new worlds that are opened to them, while others worry that tribe values will be replaced by written, fictional ones.

When two books aren’t returned to the book mobile (breaking one of the many rules surrounding the project), therefore risking the future of the book mobile – it’s clear that everyone, pro- and against, are influenced by what the book mobile brought and changed in their little village.

Masha Hamilton shows the small village as normal and the nearest big city as alien. It’s all in the eye of the beholder and what he or she is used to, after all. The main character realizes she is far from home, but doesn’t turn the strange into the wrong. All this comes together to create a fairy tale that is quite close to what any human experiences on a daily basis.

The Camel Book Mobile, Masha Hamilton, Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2007

Sinners and the Sea

They say it is the mark of a demon.

Reading a book about a Christian figure, while being atheist. Most of my arguments against this book are probably based on that. So many frustrations about a cruel God and the disinterest and cruelty of Noah. And yet, I think I liked it.

Probably because from time to time the Christian parts are backstory instead of front and center. Noah’s wife is a sad girl growing into a sad woman, viewed as a demon because of the mark on her face. She expects little from life, is loving and passive and doesn’t understand all Noah’s fuss. Sinners are still human after all, are they not? The author manages to show that with some of the characters, while others are clearly considered lost. There is no grey in this world, only black and white. Besides that, Rebecca Kanner does a nice job of world-building. It is hot and sandy and the nearby city is a hell-hole full of sin.

If you’re okay with knowing how a story ends before finishing it, and if you can ignore the extremely outdated ideas about sin, a woman’s place and a man’s rights ..you might as well enjoy this story. If those things make you see red before even opening the book – let it be.

Sinners and the Sea: The untold story of Noah’s wife, Rebecca Kanner, Howard Books 2013