Wanneer je omringd bent door vlammen

Mijn vriendin Patsy vertelde me een verhaal.

Ik koos dit boek jaren geleden uit in een Parijse boekenwinkel (voor op mijn cadeaulijst!), puur op de titel en de cover. Ik denk dat het zo’n zes jaar heeft geduurd voor ik het uit de bibliotheek haalde (ik lees Frans niet zo goed).

Wanneer je omringd bent door vlammen is een autobiografie. Daar twijfelde ik eerst een beetje over, want ik ben niet zo’n autobiografiefan. Er is toch vaak een heel groot risico van kijk-mij-eens, smugness die een beetje drammerig wordt. Maar Sedaris, of hij het nu bewust doet of niet, toont zichzelf als zo’n lulletje rozewater dat maar overvallen wordt door het leven, dat al die arrogant nooit boven komt drijven. Ja, hij reist veel, maakt veel mee en krijgt veel waardering, maar toch blijft de toon “Jeetje, ik?”. Dat is verfrissend en soms zelfs hilarisch.

Met zijn reizen komt hij over heel de wereld en ook de omschrijvingen en situaties waar hij in terecht komt dragen bij aan het idee dat die David Sedaris toch maar geluk heeft om nog in het leven te zijn. Stuntelige pechvogel, ex-rookverslaafde, sociaal-vreemde die met de verkeerde mensen omgaat.

Niet alleen heeft Sedaris bewezen dat niet elke autobiografie vol hete lucht zit, ik ben nu ook erg benieuwd naar zijn fictieve werk.

Wanneer je omringd bent door vlammen, David Sedaris, Lebowski 2008


True Grit

110 min.

I think I liked this one a little bit more than The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Not just because it was shorter but it was a little bit less ..bearing on you. Where The Assassination wants you to be clear that there is no such thing as heroes, wrong or right, stalking is never good and so on – it pushes more to form an opinion. True Grit is a lot more … ‘simply there’.

Paramount Pictures 2010
Paramount Pictures 2010

That’s not because there happens less. Here are also shoot outs, needless deaths and gorgeous surroundings. And main character Mattie Ross (a thirteen year old girl whom decides to hunt down her father’s killer) is much stronger and level-headed than Robert Ford. Mattie knows her business, is smart and unimpressed by adults (fooling around). There are only very few shots in which she’s denigrated to plot device, a sudden question asked in a too childish voice to help the clueless viewers along. Which really isn’t necessary in my opinion, especially because with Jeff Bridges’ accent (the Marshall that helps her) you wouldn’t understand the answer anyway. His Marshall really needs subtitles from time to time.

True Grit is a little bit lighter, mostly due to its characters (as its surroundings are covered in the bleakness that seems to come with westerns). The Marshall is the gruff with the golden heart, LaBoeuf is flamboyant but honest, the bad guys are stinky rats and Mattie could be a role model for a lot of children, boys and girls alike. The good thing about Hailee Steinfeld’s acting is that you never get the ‘Ugh, child-actor’ feeling. Mattie’s snappy remarks fit her, as do her sudden tears.

Western isn’t a genre I’m well-versed in (before these two films only having watched The Quick and The Dead) and I don’t know if it completely fits me. I do know that I want to see more of Mattie’s story. Luckily there’s a comic for that.

True Grit, Paramount Pictures 2010

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

160 min.

I usually don’t watch films that share the plot in their title. It feels a bit like -as a viewer- you don’t have to go through any trouble anymore. Like you don’t need to invest your full attention to get to the climax because hey, you already know how it’s going to end. But in the name of my mini-mini western marathon (True Grit will follow), and simply because I was curious, I watched The Assassination. It showed me that knowing how the story ends doesn’t necessary has to be the most important part of a movie.

Warner Bros 2007
Warner Bros 2007

Jesse James is a criminal. He robs banks and trains and moves through the country to prevent arrest. Jesse James is also a mysterious, charming man and Robert Ford is absolutely obsessed by everything he does.  Yes, put this last sentence in a different context and you have a stalker story, one everyone knows how it will end. As the youngest brother, as the kid with nerves and little knowledge – Robert always gets the short end of the stick. No-one listens to him, no-one really sees him. And he so desperately wants to be seen. Jesse James probably knows this, picks up on the kicked puppy that is building a world around his personal life. But he doesn’t do anything about it.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford looks incredibly gorgeous. Especially the nature shots are worthy of a place on your wall, and the whole colour scheme and music make sure that you are pulled into this world. Watching it on a computer screen almost felt too modern. Casey Affleck (Robert Ford) shows how a 19-year-old’s imagination slowly starts running out of control while it’s a 100 percent understandable why people would follow the charm of Jesse James in the shape of Brad Pitt. James isn’t a hero, but he’s the meter other people are measured with.

This isn’t a shoot ’em up western, the guns here are subordinate to words and glances. And (long) pauses, because this genre isn’t familiar for it’s speedy delivery. That’s something you have to think of before starting, else you might get fed up with The Assassination around three quarters. And that would be -for the gorgeousness alone- a shame.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Warner Bros 2007

Strijdlied van de tijgermoeder

Veel mensen vragen zich af hoe het komt dat Chinese ouders over het algemeen zulke succesvolle kinderen voortbrengen.

Ik ben één van de mensen die dat niet doet. Wat werd ik af en toe nijdig van dit boek.

Voor degene waarbij de titel (Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother) geen belletje doet rinkelen: toen dit boek uitkwam stond (even) de opvoedkundige wereld op zijn/haar kop. Chua had helemaal gelijk; de Westerse samenleving ging ten onder omdat ouders liever de beste vrienden van hun kinderen waren dan hun opvoeders. Het was niet meer dan logisch dat China binnenkort wereldmacht #1 zou zijn, want de mensen daar zorgden er wél voor het beste uit hun kind te halen.
Nee, helemaal niet waar. Een opvoeding zoals die in Strijdlied genoemd wordt, is bijna gelijk aan kindermishandeling en dit boek is een gruwelijk slecht voorbeeld.
En zo verder.

Allebei de kanten hebben goede punten. Kinderen kunnen best leren dat niet alles altijd maar leuk is en dat doorzetten geen enge ziekte is. Moeten daar dreigementen, geweld, vloeken en eindeloze ruzies voor gebruikt worden? Lijkt mij niet.

Of je het nu wel of niet eens bent met Chua, doet niet af aan de zelfvoldane toon waarmee ze alles opschrijft. Elke universiteit wil haar hebben, íedereen complimenteert haar met haar kinderen, uitnodigingen voor optredens in het buitenland ..alles wordt op haar conto geschreven. Zelfs als ze een momentje van zelfkritiek bespreekt, heeft het veel weg van ‘Dit doe ik even voor de lezer. Ik bén geen monster hoor’. Dat begint erg snel irritant te worden.

De auteur zei dat ze een boek wilde schrijven over Westers opvoeden versus Chinees opvoeden maar dat het veranderde in een boek over haar dochters en familie. Dat is haar maar gedeeltelijk gelukt, want Strijdlied van de tijgermoeder gaat vooral over Amy Chua zelf.

Strijdlied van de tijgermoeder, Amy Chua, Nieuw Amsterdam 2011


I never thought I’d have a story worth telling, at least not one about me.

Another amazing YA. Without a love triangle, a special snowflake or vampires. Hilarious, lovely and nearly perfect (in its genre/kind/and so on. No such thing as The One Perfect Book in my world).

Thom Creed is the son of Hal Creed, used-to-be superhero but now, after a horrible disaster, a social pariah. Thom is kind of ordinary, until several things happen at the same time. He owns up to himself that he has superpowers, a thing his father hates, so he has to keep them a secret. The Superhero League wants him to try out for their club. During a basketball match an opponent outs him as gay, which makes society turn against him. He needs to save the world and his invisible mother (literally) pops up after years of being absent. It’s a lot to handle.

But Moore manages it very well. After you close the book after 500+ pages, there are only two or three plot lines that you have to roll up by yourself, everything else is neatly tied up. Before that there’s love, loss, redemption, teenager problems and playful parodying of everything superhero.

I want a sequel, I want a film, I want people to read it and enjoy it as I did.

Hero, Perry Moore, Hyperion 2007

Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal

When my mother was angry with me, which was often, she said, ‘The Devil lead us to the wrong crib.’

This was a surprise feminist story. And much more. Winterson admits that she can’t write chronologically, that her pen goes where her mind goes. So this is autobiographical, a story about growing into feminism, a story about adoption and a history shot: the frozen time of the sixties in a place that’s neither North nor South England. Don’t expect any laughs, because it’s a very sad story as well.

Jeanette Winterson is adopted by Ms. Winterson and her husband, a shadowy figure in the back that is never really part of anything. Ms. Winterson is an incredibly angry, joyless person who is waiting for the End of the World to happen. She is continuously disappointed by everything, disapproving and a dark cloud in Jeanette’s life. Even though you try to understand that this is a human being and there will be reasons for the way she is, it’s very easy to cast her as the horrible villain of this story.

Not that there are no other contenders for that spot. Society, the small town they live in and Jeanette herself, struggling with so many thoughts and feelings and always coming back to a point a not-adopted child simply couldn’t recognize as a problem. As a reader you’re ping-ponged between the heavy feelings of ‘why bother’, being unloved and never fitting in. It doesn’t make for a book you want to curl up with for a nice escape.

It makes a book that shows how incredibly important family is, how important the feeling of belonging and having connections are. To this day, Winterson is still working out how love fits into her life, how a healthy relationship should be. A lot of things are said by adoption, but this book gives you the first person view on it.

Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal, Jeanette Winterson, Cape 2011

Cat’s Cradle

Call me Jonah.

My boyfriend recommended this to me with “It’s really weird, but I think you’ll like it”. I didn’t find it that ‘really weird’. I don’t know what that says about me or the books I read.

Jonah (or whatever his name is) tries to write a book about the children of the Father of the Atomic Bomb. Those three are not your ordinary humans. Which is a good thing, because Jonah isn’t either.
Things happen, they travel to San Lorenzo, more things happen; as does the end of the world.

Cat’s Cradle was like a Where’s Waldo of metaphors and hints to real life during the time Vonnegut wrote it. Recognizing the commentary added a second layer to the novel. Usually I’m not such a big fan of working to Get The Message, but Vonnegut manages to communicate it without smacking you around the head with it. The embarrassing Americans? The “illegal” religion kept alive by the government? The fictional country of San Lorenzo? I wish I could have read this book for English, so I could dissect it until the final comma and discuss the whats and whos. Now I’ll have to find another way.

If I remember correctly I wasn’t sure about Kurt Vonnegut after reading  Slaughterhouse 5. If I liked his work or if I liked his ideas and how slim his novels were. I’m pretty sure I like his work.

Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut, Penguin Books 2008