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Fredrik Backman

Last weekend, I finished the book Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman—one of my favorite authors of this decade.  This is the third book I’ve read by him, and I’m looking forward to reading his novella, which was released in English in December, and waiting for his next book, set to be available stateside around summertime.

This was the first book I’ve read by Backman that didn’t leave me saying, “Wow!”  Because of this, I feel like reflecting back on my reading experience with him to kind of talk through why I felt this way about Britt-Marie was Here.  I’ve published a version of this post as a review on Goodreads, but I wanted to embellish it for further thought here.

I appreciated A Man Called Ove firstly for its similarities to The One-Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson.  Both are great portraits of the elderly, and they read like a conversation you might have with your grandfather, or another aging relative.  Moreover, I enjoyed the quick wit that leapt out of very straightforward language.  Part of me wonders if this shouldn’t be attributed to the translator, but clearly Backman has an appreciation for quick and simple situational humor.  He seems like the kind person who can laugh at everyday occurrences.  Another aspect of Ove I loved was his affection for his wife.  One quote from the book that still sticks with me is, “People said Ove saw the world in black and white.  But she was color.  All the color he had.”  In this element, Backman managed to capture that part of our hearts that always breaks at the beginning of Disney Pixar’s “Up.”  It’s a huge component of what makes you invest in the man who is Ove, who might otherwise seem like nothing more than a grumpy old man.  Finally, I love how the opening chapter of this book hangs in the balance until you’ve almost forgotten it, and then, VERY near the end, you read (paraphrased), And that’s why Ove was standing in the store asking about an iPad.  All in all, Backman made you love his characters, watch their development, and get lost in love, laughter, and heartache over their general daily lives.

What I loved about My Grandmother Asked You to Tell You She’s Sorry stemmed from what I had also loved in Ove.  This story took a little longer to get moving, but it finished in perfection.  What I love about this story is how the reader is exposed to the nuances of the situations in ways that escape Elsa’s understanding.  Much like the humor hidden in A Man Called Ove, the harsh reality of life and death are tucked away in the passages of this one.  I also loved how all the lives of everyone around Elsa came together because of what her grandmother had done in life.  Each person served a purpose in the end, and the plot still felt plausible because they were all simply repaying the debt they owe to Granny.  At the same time, the reader really can’t predict everything that happens, so you’re left in this sort of awe over the results, and you can simply dwell in the emotions Elsa feels as well.  Moreover, as someone who is extremely close with her grandmother, I greatly enjoyed reading about another girl’s experience getting to know here mom’s mom.  I even appreciated the fact that this book alluded to the next, with the exodus of Britt-Marie and the promise of her own adventures.

Which brings us to the topic that’s really at hand.

I really, really, really wanted to enjoy this book as much as Backman’s other stories, but I simply couldn’t.  While the potential was there, it all fell flat.

When I first realized that there would be a story dedicated to Britt-Marie, I was pretty excited.  I felt that My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry only scratched the surface of her character.  She was dismissed, pretty much literally, throughout the entire story.  I figured she deserved her time in the spotlight.  In addition, I love when authors address mental illness and social disorders in their books by applying them to their characters.  Britt-Marie has no named disorders, but I would say it’s safe to assume she suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and perhaps some Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as well.  Moreover, several of her behaviors imitate those who are on the Autism Spectrum.  Regardless of what she is actually supposed to have—or to not have—her character spoke directly to the part of me that seeks to learn more about people who deal with these struggles.  I dove into the text with all the hope and excitement that accompanies getting to know an acquaintance a little bit better.

Unfortunately, as delightful as it was to witness her working through her situations and learning how to adapt, I felt that she still never gained any significance.  Unlike in My Grandmother…, however, she is the one who does a large amount of the dismissing.   The entire premise of the book is that Britt-Marie “was here,” in Borg, and the people will remember that she had been because the town has changed.  To be fair, a lot happens after Britt-Marie arrives in town, and a lot is going to stay different when she heads back out.  However, I felt that everything that happened probably would have still happened even if Britt-Marie had, in fact, not been there.  Unlike Ove and Granny, who drastically affected the lives of those around them (somewhat intentionally, mostly on accident), Britt-Marie remains a fairly passive character and does not strike me as a catalyst in the situations around her.  Despite her presence in the middle of the story (and the town), a lot of her encounters reveal her to still be the “fly on the wall.”  She doesn’t even manage to serve as the coach to the soccer team in the end because she has no license, so, while she supports them and takes the register, she has little influence over their actual experience.  Moreover, even in the moments where her actions do change the future, she doesn’t seem to take anything away from them.  While she has several opportunities to grow and change, she takes none of them, and is left pretty much where she started, except with a blue door on her white car—and she’s not even happy about it.

I also think that the story was lending itself toward a rather specific outcome in the end, but rather than taking the narrative to that place, Backman tried to fix his plot around a different ending that left me with zero closure.  It is clear through both books in which she is present that Britt-Marie wants nothing more than to be a mother.  And here, in this story, she is presented with three orphans in need of a mother—literally.  Two of them even become wards of the state, in need of adoption.  And the children are crazy about Britt-Marie.  Yet, in response to their need, Britt-Marie goes to Paris.

Um, what?

For the longest time, it seemed that Britt-Marie would leave Kent, get with Sven, and raise Sami, Vega, and Omar with him.  But none of that happens.  Rather, Britt-Marie is overwhelmed by her moral compass (which is mostly dictated by her age, apparently) and decides to return to the life that she has spent the last months running from.  The thought of adopting never crosses her mind, even after Sami has asked her to watch out for Vega and Omar and make sure they have a good home.  Britt-Marie really doesn’t hang out long enough to make sure this happens.  Even Sven “abandons” the children in the end under the assumption that some other set of parents, who already have children (and who, I might add, were not actual characters in this story until they come to Sami’s funeral), will step up and take over.  To me, this doesn’t sound like either of these characters at all, and quite frankly challenges my belief that the story itself should exist.  After all, if the entire plot builds to a point where Britt-Marie makes no choices and just goes on a holiday, why did she need to encounter these people in the first place?  And how dare we then attribute her presence as worthwhile on their lives?

I was also irked by the morality that trumped all behavioral elements in the marriage of Britt-Marie and Kent in the end.  Kent, clearly, has not changed.  Even as he helps Britt-Marie achieve one of her personal goals (i.e. the soccer pitch [Does that even happen, by the way?  It was never very clear, in my opinion.]), it is over and against her autonomy as an employed woman and in preparation for her to come home with him and return to life as normal.  The story tells us honestly that Britt-Marie must choose between the soccer pitch and her job.  Of course, Britt-Marie is the main decision-maker in deciding to have the field developed (again, does this even happen?), but that also points back to the problem.  Not to mention that, at least verbally, Kent is extremely abusive!  He dismisses Britt-Marie, even as she tries to explain to him why she left in the first place.  And his strict understanding of gender roles, while at one time might have satisfied her, have ceased to apply now that she’s lived on her own.

I don’t think the story gives full appreciation to the fact that this is the first time Britt-Marie has really been on her own.  She was self-sufficient when her mother turned ill, but she was not at that time also a single woman in charge of her life.  Her mom dictated her every step, and shortly after Mom’s death, Britt-Marie married Kent.  She has never had a place of her own, and rather than fully appreciating it or grasping its significance, Britt-Marie goes home.

Essentially, despite alluded-to growth, Britt-Marie has barely changed from the person she was when she fled her original home.  We could see all through “My Grandmother…” that Britt-Marie was discontent and underappreciated in that life.  She set out to escape it for some reason, clearly, but at the end of this novel she is headed back in the same direction, albeit through France instead of the most direct route.

I’m not saying that Britt-Marie should have run off with Sven, but I am saying that it should have taken more than a feeling of commitment to Kent and the thought, “You are too old to start over now” to convince her to return to an unhappy marriage.  I appreciate Backman’s moral compass in most of his writing, but here I think it overwhelmed general common sense.

The whole story was not awful.  Backman’s standbys were still present.  The book reads like you are sitting next to an elderly relative on their front porch, listening to them talk about their life.  This is perhaps my favorite element of Backman’s storytelling.  Some books beg you to turn the pages faster and devour the story in one gulp, but Backman’s books can hang out for a time without rushing you.  Many of the characters are lovable, including Somebody, who remains this sort of enigmatic antihero reminiscent of Everyman or Odysseus’ “Nobody.”  The two men in the pizza shop each day are a perfect representation of small-town living.  The town itself sounds beautiful, and the concepts at work are commonplace and comforting.  There are the expected heart-wrenching moments that leave you invested in the individuals who experience them.  When Ben scores the team’s only goal, and when Sami’s car doesn’t come back, I had actual tears in my eyes.  And, of course, small moments make you giggle and even laugh out loud.  His wit is, again, so quick and so simply you could easily miss it.  These elements of his talent were still there, if overshadowed by a storyline that lost its direction—and may have never ended up anywhere.

This review turned more depressing that I was expecting it to, or than I meant for it to be.  In the end, I’m not sad that I read this book, but I am sad that it did not turn out better than it did.  I think, for his own good, Backman should move away from similar character types—older people encountering youths and having their lives changed for the better.  Hopefully his next works will be able to stand on their own.  He certainly hasn’t lost a reader in this experience.  I look forward to taking some time in the next month or so to read through And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer.

Having a grandmother is like having an army. This is a grandchild’s ultimate privilege: knowing that someone is on your side, always, whatever the details.

– Fredrick Backman, My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry

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Best Books of 2016

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This year, I made it through 125 books and audiobooks, which I’m pretty sure is a new record!  It was also a diverse year of reading for me, as I took on my second Pop Sugar Reading Challenge to broaden my tastes and habits.

As this crazy year comes to a close, I’m content to dwell on some of the best reading I had to accompany me through it.  They span the spectrum of children’s and “adult,” fiction and nonfiction, and I’m happy to share them with the world.

 

Ollie’s Odyssey

William Joyce

What I loved most about this book was the way the story and the illustrations blended together so well.  The plot itself is fairly dark for a children’s book, but not inappropriate for younger children.  In fact, I have a theory that this book is meant to be read aloud to a child by an adult (or older sibling), because there are elements of the story that children will understand best, but there are other parts “mature” readers will pick up on as they read through it.  Ollie is the best friend every parent would want for their child, and even the villain has a story that people can understand.  I appreciated this book so much for the ways that Joyce applied eccentricities to a simple children’s story of the real-life love of their favorite toys.

 

Unhooked

Lisa Maxwell

I love the original Peter Pan myth and legend, created for the stage by J. M. Barrie, and I also love the different ways people interpret that myth.  This book was my favorite adaptation of the year.  It’s not often that I enjoy an adaptation that messes with the good side and the bad side (I hope I’m not giving too much away there…), but this one does it well, and you experience great sympathy for the right characters at the right times.  Lisa Maxwell is an excellent author, and I look forward to reading more from her in the future!

 

The Female of the Species

Mindy McGinnis

I’ve already gushed about this book in my last post, and I still haven’t said enough about it.  An easy-to-digest story this one isn’t.  McGinnis says a bunch of stuff you probably don’t want to hear about what happens (or, at least, could happen), in high school in such a way that we cannot ignore it.  Alex is the protagonist every present and previous victim needs to know she/he is not alone.  And we, the greater populace, should aspire to be the Alex to our friends who have suffered (although perhaps without the psychopathic violence…).

This story isn’t only worthy of school reading requirements with its treatment of sexual assault and date rape culture.  It’s also just brilliantly done.  You spend the second half of the book wondering how all these different situations could ever work out to be a good thing, and then BAM! McGinnis delivers the only possible ending that could tie everything together.  You don’t feel great about it, but you feel comfortable with the knowledge that she put it together in the method that works best.  Perfect for the teen reader and the thriller lover alike, Alex will have you guessing until the very end!

 

This Is Where It Ends

Marieke Nijkamp

I read this book in a matter of hours on a Saturday.  The plot itself is a great page-turner.  I think I was most captivated by the idea that we would be witnessing this school shooting through the eyes of the shooter’s sister, along with a few other characters.  The perspectives that come from inside and outside the building, and even inside and outside the auditorium, give a plot that is at once well-rounded and scattered.  I was immediately drawn to the characters and their lives, and I was invested in how their stories would turn out.  I don’t think what Nijkamp describes is necessarily a realistic school shooting (if, of course, we want to admit to the “normalization” of this experience that makes us notice differences from actual situations).  Our shooter doesn’t act like someone on a spree, he has too much ammo, and it takes him far too long to be stopped.  Moreover, some of the deaths of different students are more from dramatic effect than for accurate representation.  However, the overall mood created in these instances does, in fact, create a better understanding of the atmosphere one might experience if put in that situation.  Another author who was unafraid to touch the social taboo and attempt to address real-life problems our culture must learn to acknowledge and attempt to overcome.

 

The Girls

Emma Cline

This book is so dark and creepy, it made my skin crawl just reading about it.  I have to admit that, while I can’t stomach scary movies, I appreciate an occasional dark and frightening read, and this one did it for me this year.  I’m too young to really be aware of Charles Manson or the women who murdered in his name, so I was mainly intrigued by this book’s premise after learning about it.  After engaging in the story, I fell in love with the rest of it.  Evie’s plight is extreme, and I found myself empathizing and distrusting her at the same time.  As the story developed, I particularly appreciated the parallelisms between Evie’s past and present.  These elements complicate the message of the story and remind us that the behavior of these women are perhaps not so foreign to us after all.  Creepy as hell, but worth the chills!

 

Adulthood is a Myth

Sarah Andersen

I absolutely LOVE “Sarah’s Scribbles,” so I was totally stoked when I saw that she was coming out with a book (and I believe she’s officially signed a contract to publish another one soon!).  I read this collection in one sitting, as well, and I found it delightful.  It includes several of my favorites from the Sarah’s Scribbles Facebook page, along with several new stories.  As a twenty-something, I find the best way to cope with “adulting” is to laugh about it, and Sarah helps you do that it the best way possible.  I can’t wait to get the next collection!

 

milk and honey

rupi kaur

I don’t frequently read poetry, but this collection really spoke to me.  I think, like The Female of the Species, this is one young women should be exposed to, to remind them of where love and relationships can lead.  More importantly, this collection reminds young women where their strength comes from, and how powerful they are on their own.  In rupi’s own words,

“from now on i will say things like
you are resilient or you are extraordinary
not because i don’t think you’re pretty
but because you are so much more than that”

 

Finding Mr. Brightside

Jay Clark

I met Jay Clark and bought his book to show support for a local author.  Much to my surprise, I was immediately swept up in the story and carried away by the characters and the plot.  The writing is simple and funny, with some elegant twists and turns through the complex relationships it reveals.  The romance feels not only possible, but real, which isn’t often something I say about a teen love story.  But you want to situation to work out for our lovebirds, and it isn’t handed on a silver platter.  Now, I’m grateful for the opportunity I had to speak with Jay about his writing, and I can’t wait to pick up his first novel, The Education of Jay Baker.

 

The Reason I Jump

Naoki Higashida

I have been interested in the Autism Spectrum ever since I studied the disability deeply in a training course I took for writing center work.  When I found this book, written by someone with autism, I couldn’t wait to read it.  Naoki’s simple expressions of his feelings and experiences are eye-opening.  The target audience is parents of people who are on the spectrum, but I think anyone who wants to understand how others think might enjoy diving in to this thirteen-year-old’s brain.

 

Where Am I Now?: True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame

Mara Wilson

Other than having seen “Miracle on 34th Street” and “Matilda,” and finding her on Twitter, I didn’t know much about Mara.  However, after reading this book, I feel like she could be one of my best friends.  She’s extremely honest about her experiences growing up, both within and outside Hollywood.  She speaks to issues all young women have experienced, and even some of her unique encounters speak to me due to how we were interested in similar things when we were younger.  I also appreciated that this book did not read like a traditional celebrity memoir.  Mara isn’t trying to draw connections to her readers by speaking around her personal experiences.  Rather, she says what actually happened, and then expects you to make those connections yourself.  I felt like she was just talking with me, rather than trying to explain herself.  A great storyteller with a well-developed voice for prose.  Even those with no knowledge, appreciation, or understanding of Mara’s career would enjoy her book!

 

As I mentioned, this year was a diverse series of books from my Pop Sugar challenge.  I ended up reading some books I greatly disliked, including some highly popular bestsellers that simply didn’t speak to me personally.  Reflecting on these Top 10 Best, however, reminds me of what a great year in reading it was, and how much I can’t wait to take on the 2017 Reading Challenge for next year.

Happy New Year, and Happy Reading!

 

 

 

 

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