For The Someday Book

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A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, New York: Washington Square Press, 2014, 337 pp.

Man called OveI will probably not be able to consider this book without connecting it to a particular season of life. We were moving to London, and I had planned to read my mother-in-law’s copy of this book during our three week sojourn in our hometown before departure. A novel on vacation usually takes me only a couple of days to read. Then I got diagnosed with cancer. I did start the book, but in the three weeks, I only made it halfway through before having to abandon it and head to London. My mom delivered it to me over a year later, the same copy, to be returned when next we travel to the U.S. This time, I finished it in just a few days.

I picked up Backman’s My Grandmother Told Me To Tell You She’s Sorry when I was home last year for my father’s funeral, and returned to Ove with that background. In both books, a seemingly unlikeable curmudgeon becomes the savior of a tiny community. I love it. I want more of it.

Ove is a widow who has been forcibly retired from his job. A man who has lived by strict principles of hard work and duty now feels alone and adrift, as though his life no longer has meaning or purpose. The book slowly coaxes Ove out of his depression and isolation, as his principles lead him into relationship and even a care-taking role for all his neighbors–though caretaking in an irascible, agitated, curmudgeonly way. The book moves backwards and forwards through time, unpacking the story of Ove’s life and the ways he has known and shown love over the years, while also showing the way his life is being saved by the help and saving grace he extends to others in his initially bleak present.

A Man Called Ove is about Ove, but it is grows into an ensemble piece as Ove’s isolated world expands and connects. Backman creates a tiny community of neighbors, each with their own story and personality and evolution in the story. They are diverse and rich, not stock characters at all. To me, this portrait of an international community was my favorite element of the book.

It’s a good novel, good story, beautifully written. Read and enjoy.

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Here’s a summary of all the fiction I’ve read in the last 18 months, grouped by some categories and with a short review of each. Non-fiction is here and here, plus an explanation.

BEAUTIFUL AND BEST

These books are what fiction is all about—words and characters that come together to tell a powerful, moving, captivating story about being human. These brought me joy, tears and healing this year.

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My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry by Frederik Backman, Washington Square Press, 2015, 372 pp.

I bought this at the airport on my way either to or from my father’s funeral. The narrator offers a child’s perspective on death and grief, on truth and fiction, on love and normality, but woven by a brilliant storyteller. Elsa’s grandmother creates for her a magical world of stories, and when she dies, Elsa journeys to discover the meaning behind them. This book spoke to my heart’s need to tell my story to make sense of my own life and its heartbreaks.

Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter, Faber & Faber, 2015, 114 pp.

This book defies explanation. This short piece explores the topology of grief and loss, with all its attendant feelings, through prose-poetry in multiple voices, including the husband grieving his wife, the two sons grieving their mother, and the giant crow who comes to stay with them, who is sometimes nonsensical and sometimes the only one who makes any sense. Epic, complicated, deep and true. I want to read it again, a year later, living with new grief.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, Candlewick Press, 2011, 225 pp.

Intrigued by the movie previews, I gave the book to my son for Christmas. I didn’t realize it was about a boy coming to grips with his mother’s death from cancer! And I didn’t learn it until a month later when I finally read it and talked to him about it! Not my finest parenting moment. The monster is his grief and his fear of it, and it abides with him until he opens his heart to accept the reality of loss. Another book that is deep and true, but this time for a younger audience. Even though I should have prepared my son for its content—and perhaps not given it to him right in the middle of my treatment!—it was a gift to open up conversation between us.

GOOD AND GOOD FOR YOU

These books made me feel better informed about the world and about literature, but the content was sometimes difficult and sometimes reading took work. They demand appreciation, but sometimes withhold joy.

20180102_195322Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward, Bloomsbury Press, 2011, 258 pp.

This is a book about survival in the midst of poverty and hardship. As a hurricane approaches, Esch and her brothers in the Mississippi bayou work with their unreliable father to find food and shelter to survive the storm. The lives and circumstances are harsh and unrelenting, but Ward creates characters with depth and nuance. They lack much, they make choices we might disdain (dog-fighting plays a prominent role), but they have a fierce tenderness for one another that brought me to care for them. A tough but worthwhile read.

Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg, Quercus, 2011, 372 pp.

Set in 1830 on St. Kilda’s Island, the most remote corner of Britain, where a young couple goes as missionaries to the pagan Gaelic inhabitants. In addition to teaching me about the geography, zoology and history of these Britons, the book reflects on what it means to be a missionary—to inhabit a particular place, to love and mingle with others, to find God already there even in the most remote places.

England’s Lane by Joseph Connolly, Quercus, 2012, 532 pp.

I picked up this book because it’s set in our neighborhood in London. England’s Lane is just at the end of our street, and we venture there almost daily for coffee or groceries. This novel tells about life in the 1950’s, with three couples living and working there—the ironmonger, the confectioner and the butcher. The story taught me a lot about our neighborhood and about post-war London, and the writing was excellent. However, it was a novel driven by character development rather than plot, and I didn’t find any of the characters particularly likeable. That made it feel like a bit of a slog at times, but that may also have been the timing. I started it in January, and slowly finished after my father’s death in February.

Girl Reading by Katie Ward, Virago, 2012, 352 pp. (Not Pictured)

This novel was almost like a series of short stories, moving through time. In each, a girl or woman’s story unfolds around the time an artist captures her image, and in each of those images, she is (or appears to be) reading a book. The book was exquisitely crafted, and each of the stories made me want an entire novel about those characters. I enjoyed moving through the ages (stories move chronologically from the 14th century to the future 21st), even as I wanted to linger with each set of characters just a bit longer. Definitely recommended!

JUST FOR FUN

These last books were just for entertainment. They were good and well-written, but not outstanding or especially memorable. (I am struggling to recall the details of some enough to even write these small reviews.) We all need that kind of fiction in our lives as much as the profound and life-changing kind.

20180102_195428The Trouble with Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon, The Borough Press, 2016, 454 pp.

This is the story of a British neighborhood in the 1970s. Mrs. Creasy has gone missing, and two ten-year-old girls decide to take on the job of finding out what happened. It opens them to adult realities and to the complicated relationships within households and between neighbors. As someone who was just a little younger than the characters in the 1970s and is the mother of a ten-year-old, I connected with the story in several ways. I also enjoyed understanding all the Britishisms in the book, which I never would have gotten before!

The Muse by Jessie Burton, Picador 2016, 445 pp.

I enjoyed this book because it introduced me to worlds I would never otherwise see—London art galleries in the late 1960s and Spain in the Spanish Civil War. The story was about a painting created in 1936 Spain, discovered by a young gallery worker in the 1960s. The characters were likeable, and the plot was interesting, as we come to discover the painting’s origins alongside them. A fun and fast read.

The Innocents by Francesca Segal, Vintage Books, 2012, 436 pp.

This book is also set in North London where we live, but much wider ranging than one little street. It’s a story of love and family, set in the tight-knit Jewish community here. Adam and Rachel are childhood sweethearts, but Adam has feelings for her wild cousin Ellie. The book follows Adam as he feels torn between Rachel and Ellie. I loved the way the story lifted up the tangled relationships between family, community, faith community and more as he considered the possible consequences of his choices. Another entertaining and enjoyable read.

The Carriage House by Louisa Hall, Penguin Books, 2013, 279 pp.

This story struck me as one about upper class fears of decline. William Adair is a wealthy man with three daughters, for whom he had enormous dreams—and who have each stumbled along into disappointment. When he has a stroke, they return to care for him and fight to preserve the beloved Carriage House behind their home. In so doing, they are able to shake off the shadow of his expectations find themselves and even discover a bit of joy. Good to pass an afternoon or two, but not especially memorable.

 

A Week in Winter by Maeve Binchy, Alfred Knopf, 2013, 326 pp.

Week in WinterThis is my first Maeve Binchy novel, though I know many who love her. There is an odd pattern between A Week in Winter and A Wedding in December, both about inns and innkeepers in winter, and both unfolding stories of multiple characters centering on their time spent together at the inn. The novels share more subtle similarities too–lovely writing, characters that are charming and entertaining but not gripping, a good story for beach reading (or a snow day!).

A Week in Winter centers on a small inn in the town of Stoneybridge on the west coast of Ireland. Chicky Starr, after years away in New York living what everyone assumed was a happily married life, has returned to Stoneybridge to renovate an old home into an inn, bringing experience running a boardinghouse. Everyone things she is crazy, because no one would want to visit Stoneybridge.

The first chapter belongs to Chicky’s story, and each subsequent chapter adds a new character to the week at the inn, unpacking the journey that got them to that one place and time together. The second and third chapters bring in the employees of the inn. Rigger is a troubled youth sent to family in Stoneybridge to hide out from his life in Dublin, and makes a life for himself there. Orla found success as a young, professional woman living the fancy life in the city, but could not find all she wanted there. She puts her business sense to use at the inn and finds hope.

The guests each get a chapter to tell their story as well. They include an unhappy schoolteacher who leaves soon after making everyone miserable, a movie star trying to escape attention and travel incognito, two young doctors who have been broken by seeing too much death, a mother and her potential daughter-in-law who do not like each other yet refuse to give up on the man they both love, a Swedish young man choosing between what he loves and what his family expects of him, a librarian troubled by visions of the future, and a couple who is disappointed that they won a contest’s second-prize trip to Stoneybridge instead of the first-place trip to Paris.

Each chapter is like a short story of its own, interwoven together by setting and integrating one another as secondary characters. The stories are charming, hopeful and endearing. I was reminded of Jan Karon’s Mitford series, which keeps everything nice. While the stories do approach life’s difficulties, they allude more than explore, and most characters find redemption. It’s a feel-good book all around, and I didn’t mind a bit.

 

Necessary Lies by Diana Chamberlain, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2014, 372 pp.

Necessary LiesLike recent reads What She Left Behind, Orphan Train and Orphan #8, this novel begins in the author’s discovery of a little-known aspect of history, one that focuses on the lived reality of a small subset of people often overlooked. Those books turned on the stories of orphans and mental health patients; Necessary Lies opens the story of forced sterilization among impoverished women in North Carolina in the mid-20th century. The story’s characters are fictional, but the author drew on historical research into the lives of the women impacted by sterilization decisions.

The main characters of the story are Ivy Hart and Jane Forrester. Jane is a college graduate newly married to a pediatrician, Robert, who expects her to align with the lifestyle of a doctor’s wife in 1960–Junior League, bridge club, social events with other doctor’s wives. Jane has her own ideas. She wants to use her degree and serve others, so she takes a job as a social worker for the county welfare. She drives all over fictional Grace County meeting clients, helping tend to their needs and making sure they are not duping the government. She is also charged with making the case for sterilization.

Fifteen year old Ivy Hart is one of her clients. She lives with her grandmother, her older sister, and her nephew as a sharecropper on the Gardiner family farm. She is in a loving romantic relationship with the Gardiner’s son Henry. They share the land with the Jordan family as well, an African-American woman and her five sons.

Jane’s supervisor and co-workers agree that Ivy should be sterilized, and her grandmother is eager to sign the permission form after her older sister’s pregnancy. However, Ivy dreams of a family. As Jane grows to care for Ivy and hear her story, she resists, with dire consequences.

The novel is a plot-driven page-turner. Ivy, Jane and the rest are likable enough characters, but this is not a book in which to find great depth or lasting characters or magnificent writing. It’s a great summer read, vacation read,  or escape read. The insight into a unique and painful piece of history was enough to intrigue me, and I enjoyed the story greatly.

 

 

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, HarperPerennial, 2012, 337 pp.

Beautiful RuinsWhen NPR’s Fresh Air calls this the best book of the year, you know it’s on my list to read. The book jacket is covered in “best book” endorsements from the New York Times, Boston Globe and many other trusted sources. Beautiful Ruins earned every one of them.

Just listen to this opening line, which won me over immediately:

April 1962, Porto Vergogna, Italy
The dying actress arrived in his village the only way one could come directly–in a boat that motored into the cove, lurched past the rock jetty, and bumped against the end of the pier.

I mean, already we have a beautiful writing and a story about a dying actress and an Italian man in a remote Italian village in the early 1960s. I was hooked.

Very quickly, we come to know that the man in the story is Pasquale Tursi, a native of tiny Porto Vergogna who has inherited his father’s small inn and his passion for making it (and the town) a tourist destination. The dying actress is Dee Moray, who is in Italy to play a lady-in-waiting in the movie Cleopatra, with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. A doctor tells her she has stomach cancer, and the movie’s publicist, Michael Deane, ships her off to Porto Vergogna and leaves her there. She is the inn’s only guest, apart from an American, Alvis Bender, who ostensibly spends a few weeks there every year to write his novel, but really just drinks the days away.

The story then jumps to “recently” in Hollywood, California. We meet Claire Silver, a young woman interested in film as literature and currently working as an assistant to Michael Deane. Between 1962 and “recently,” Deane became one of the most powerful, innovative producers in Hollywood, but has fallen from success and is now a washed-up has-been, making bad reality TV shows. We also meet Shane Wheeler, an aspiring filmmaker who is coming to make a pitch to Michael Deane.

On the day Shane shows up to make his pitch, met by Claire, Pasquale Tursi also appears–and the past secrets all begin to pour out. The novel moves back and forth between the events of 1962 and “recently;” between Porto Vergogna, Cleopatra and today’s United States; between Pasquale, Claire, Alvis Bender, Shane, Dee Moray, and Michael Deane, with major doses of Richard Burton thrown in for fun. Their lives become intertwined, chance encounters become lasting relationships or missed opportunities, and the story keeps the reader wondering how it will all work out in the end. I cared about all of the characters, and wanted to find out if they would get what was coming to them–whether love or healing or punishment or justice.

Beautiful Ruins sometimes made me shake my head in shame at the human condition, then made me weep at the beauty, then made me laugh out loud. I couldn’t put it down, and it was beautiful from beginning to end. I can’t wait to read Jess Walter’s next book. Find Beautiful Ruins. Read it. You won’t regret it.

 

 

Orphan #8 by Kim van Alkemade, William Morrow/HarperCollins, 2015, 381 pp.

Orphan 8I enjoyed reading this book, which was more like fictionalized history than historical fiction. Van Alkemade learned of her grandfather’s time spent in the Hebrew Orphans home, while his own mother also lived and work there. In pursuing more about his life there, she stumbled across the story of a group of orphans suffering from alopecia caused by “x-ray treatments” received in their time there. She continued to pursue her research, learning as much as possible about the medical experiments, life in the home, and stories of those who lived there.

This novel is a fictionalized version of that collected history. Van Alkemade does a marvelous job of weaving together a unified story and full, fictionalized characters from the history she unearthed, but there are moments and plot developments that feel forced or uneven–usually because she chooses to stick with what actually happened, rather than what might make a more satisfying story. It’s the danger found in all memoir, of neglecting storytelling in favor of recording facts. The novel suffers only lightly, however, and it is still well worth reading.

The story centers on the fictional character Rachel Rabinowitz, who becomes an orphan at age 4, along with her older brother. They are separated when Rachel goes to the Hebrew Infants Home rather than the Orphan Home for older children, and it is during her time at the Infants Home that she experiences the dangerous radiation, the medical experiment of a young doctor. We meet Rachel as an adult, when she is a nurse in a hospice unit who discovers she is caring for the doctor who gave her those painful, life-altering treatments.

There is a lot going on in the story–Rachel’s coming out, her relationship with her brother, her ethical decision about how to relate to the ailing doctor in her care as a nurse, the environment and information about the life of orphans in the early decades of the 20th century, and more. While it was all interesting material, it was cumbersome from time to time, as the novel bounced between different eras and relationships. Again, van Alkemade chooses to service history over story from time to time. Yet Rachel is such an enjoyable companion that it overcomes much.

Nevertheless, Orphan #8 was a fascinating read, van Alkemade is a good storyteller, and I enjoyed learning about this unique time and place in history.

The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion by Fannie Flagg, Random House, 2013, 347 pp.

FlaggThis book was such a disappointment. If I hadn’t been stranded on a trip with nothing else, I don’t know if I would have finished it. While it wasn’t boring, it was also not particularly interesting. All the richness, novelty and questionable behavior of the characters in Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe has been replaced by two-dimensional characters and predictable plot developments and outcomes. Even more, the book’s perspective on identity felt dated and even tinged with a level of prejudice and stereotype that made me uncomfortable.

The central character is Sookie Poole, a Southern housewife rapidly approaching age 60 and experiencing an empty nest. Her life is dominated by her mother Lenore Simmons, who has delusions of grandeur about her family heritage, personal talents and Sookie’s potential. While Flagg writes with a lightness and humor, the decision to name Sookie’s children  Dee-Dee, CeCe and LeLe was just too much sugar. Their characters were about as mature and developed as their names, and Sookie is about as deep as hers.

One day, Sookie gets an elusive message that she is “not who she thinks she is,” and discovers she is adopted. The domineering Lenore and her Simmons legacy are not actually hers by blood. For me, Sookie’s reaction made her ridiculous and unlikeable. She believed she was a fraud who owed apologies and resignations to all her Southern organizations. She goes through major contortions to hide her visits to a therapist, as though such a thing would cause her whole community to crumble. Her birth mother’s Polish last name inspires her to indulge in stereotypes about Polish people to see which ones might apply to her. Seriously, Fannie Flagg–do you think someone would be that genteelly horrified to discover they are Polish? If they are, they are not a character I would want to get to know. Sookie felt both unbelievable and unlikable.

The book’s one redeeming element was the unfolding back story of Sookie’s birth family, a group of immigrants raising four girls and a boy by running a Phillips 66 Filling Station. When World War II breaks out, the son leaves for the war, the father grows ill, and the young women take over the business. Eventually, several of them become pilots and join the WASPs. The lead sister is Fritzi Jurdabralinski, an independent, strong-willed woman who eventually becomes a stunt pilot and wing walker, opening the door for the rest of the family to learn how to fly. Her story of life and love in the war is interesting, but she didn’t have a great force of personal character and dynamism. She and all the other family members never emerged from their flat stereotypes. I had the feeling that, though the setting was compelling, I’d met them all in sitcoms already.

I felt no drama or tension or suspense for any of the characters. All the plot twists were predictable. Fritzi and Sookie lacked all the complexity and novelty of Idgie and Evelyn, and Sookie’s transformation has no “towanda” excitement anywhere. Reading the novel all at once, I felt like I’d eaten way too much sugar and candy and now I was queasy. While I’m sure Flagg was trying to open us to the complexity of women’s lives in World War II and make Sookie and Lenore interesting and complicated women, this effort falls flat. It feels like something from another era, when identity was far more rooted in blood relationships, adoption was somehow scandalous, Polish immigrants exotic, and women in men’s jobs unconventional. I couldn’t believe it was written in 2013. What a disappointment.


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About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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