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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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The Female of the Species

The Female of the SpeciesWhen I started this blog around two years ago, I didn’t know what it might become, but I didn’t see it becoming a series of book reviews.  Then, last night, I finished a new book.  The Female of the Species, by Mindy McGinnis.  And I can’t forget about it.  And it’s the end of Banned Books Week 2016.  And while I know this new release will (hopefully) catch a lot of attention in the near—and distant—future, someone needs to be talking about this book, now.

So, here is my 5/5 star review of The Female of the Species, the book that should be absolutely next on your To Be Read (TBR) list.

Disclaimer: This review may contain some spoilers, but my intention is not to talk about the plot of the story so much as some of the content and conversations this book has started about change that should be occurring in our contemporary culture.

I had heard about this book from some of my former coworkers at Barnes & Noble.  As mentioned in my other blog post, I really enjoy getting recommendations from booksellers, so picking the book up was more about the people who suggested it to me than what the book itself was about.  I don’t always read the “backs” of the books I read, either, because I’ve become frustrated by summaries that give away too much of the plot—or not enough, in the case of the ones that only contain celebrity blurbs.  So, quite frankly, short of knowing I respected the opinions of the other people who had already read this book, I had no idea what I was getting in to.

While the plot of this story is spectacular—a real page-turner with a handful of powerful, gut-wrenching twists—I loved this book for its approach to extremely difficult content.  Actually, “love” may be a poor choice of words.  This book is hard to think of with positive emotions for the same reason that it’s a perfect fit for Banned Books Week; if it hasn’t been challenged yet, it will be.  McGinnis unabashedly captures rape culture in an upfront, inescapable way.  It’s not romanticized.  It’s not referred to only in metaphors.  Sexual assault is identified for the horror that it is, and it is given a response.  And other elements of high school culture are shown in a garish, truthful light as well.  In fact, it is so graphic that many parents may (no, excuse me, will) baulk at it, claiming the content is inappropriate for the targeted age group.  On some baser level, I wish they were right.  I wish high school students didn’t have to be aware of the dangers the world has prepared for them.  Unfortunately, because of the environment we have currently found ourselves in, I would argue that they have to know about this stuff.  As one of my coworkers said, this book should not only be read by high school students, but also this should be a required reading book.

The reality is that this book will be challenged for the wrong reasons.  There’s booze, and drugs, and sex, and language.  And it’s all very detailed.  It made even me, a 24-year-old who works with undergraduate college students, uncomfortable at times.  But McGinnis isn’t writing about this stuff to encourage its use or acceptance by teenagers.  Instead, teenagers who read it are exposed how real and present these elements of culture are, whether they are the “fun”-filled versions, or the violent and dangerous counterparts.  Quite frankly, most students are already aware of these elements anyway.  I love this book, not because of its content, which I find disturbing and discomforting; I love this book because its author was unafraid to show high school and rape culture for what it is—frightening and inarguably real.

The Female of the Species is not only relevant for Banned Books Week, but also is relevant for other national and cultural issues we have present in our country today.  This book was published only weeks after Brock Turner’s early release from prison.  His experience facing charges for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman, as well as the language surrounding him, her, and the case, has revealed the scandalous treatment of sexual assault and rape cases across the country.  Several groups and individuals have subsequently chosen to speak out about rape culture on college campuses, which is growing harder to ignore (thank goodness!).

At the same time, Turner’s situation hasn’t been the only thing drawing rape culture conversations out of the woodwork; documentaries fill DVDs and Netflix detailing recent developments, situations, and uncalled-for responses to claims of sexual assault and rape.  Moreover, more individuals are speaking out against the language that suggests women are “solely” responsible for ensuring men will not want to rape them, whether it relates to “what they were wearing” or “how they were conducting themselves.”  And we are seeing small instances of retribution and correction coming about from these changes, such as judges being held responsible for language they used toward victims in the courtroom.  Moreover, conversations are now louder on college campuses as victims and their friends refuse to be silent.  Many people are having the right conversations about what needs to change, but change at the institutional level is still negligible.

While trying not to give too much away, I just want to say that McGinnis looks at all sides of this issue in her book—when sexual assault is recognized, when it is reported, when “institutions” try to create change, and when that change doesn’t keep everyone safe.  This is the real mastery of the book, because the issues presented by a culture that “allows” men* to “take” what they believe they are entitled to cannot be ignored.  These issues are made all the more real through the multiple first-person perspectives.  We see what happens through the victims’ eyes, and through the eyes of those who try to help.  Honestly, McGinnis is pointing out how this situation is nowhere near healing itself.

[*I do want to say, quickly, that I recognize women are not the only victims of sexual assault.  In many ways, this is hinted at in the plot of The Female of the Species.  However, I believe the story is supposed to focus on the situations women—or, rather, girls—find themselves in.  This does not downplay the significance of other types of sexual assault and rape, but rather concentrates on one element to more sufficiently reveal the intricacies of the damage and darkness surrounding this single perspective on rape culture.]

This book is good because the characters are real.  While these particular victims’ stories are fictional, they might as well be borrowed from the pages of real-life accounts.  It’s good because, just like in real life, no easy Band-Aid is placed over a gaping wound.  In fact (again, as I try to not give too much away), McGinnis gives us a decently fictionalized ending that offers at least a little closure (more on this in a minute).  Even with this small element of poetic license that gives the book the feeling of ending in a “good” place, the very obvious message is that nothing is fully resolved. In the end, The Female of the Species is good because it is honest.

Spoiler Warning: the most disappointing reality check this book provides is that 99% of us don’t have an Alex.  Of course, I think both she and McGinnis would argue that this is not necessarily a bad thing.  As Alex’s part of the story wraps up, her conversation with the reader makes it clear that she understands where her choices have brought her.  And while Peekay—and Branley, and Jack—may be forever grateful for those choices, their repercussions are ever-present and irreversible.

Yet, clearly, the change that occurs in situations of sexual violence, at least in the world of this small town, is all because there is an Alex.  It is what she does that draws to light the letters, and that changes the tone of the notes in the restrooms.  She shows you what happens when rape culture becomes personal as well as public.  In the world of the book, Alex is the integral component of the reactions to sexual violence, even as she is dependent on her relationships with Peekay and Jack to bring this out in her.

In the real world, victims are not “fortunate” enough to have a girl like Alex on their team.  But this. Should. Not. Stop. Us.

We need to have the courage and confidence to defend ourselves without someone stronger than us to support us.  I think that’s why Alex’s solutions aren’t presented as the be-all, end-all in the text.  McGinnis wants us to know that we don’t need to be—or have—an Alex to try for change in the way our communities perceive situations of sexual violence.  Peekay sees that in the end.  And she is encouraged to see others responding in the same way.  This book is so important, so key, because it says that something must be done to stop the current perception and response to sexual violence.  It also says that the response may not eliminate any or all threats, and each response has a time limit in its effectiveness.  But, finally, this book says that none of this should stop us from trying.

Related to the significance of Alex is the message this title alone carries.  The name of the book comes from the Rudyard Kipling poem of the same title, in which it is said, “for the female of the species is more deadly than the male.”  This line most directly represents Alex’s character, but it also helps to communicate the all-important truth that even girls can bring about change in contemporary environment and culture.  Their voices matter, because they have an in-born, natural strength that is recognized as powerful in defense of violent attacks.

I would never say that this book is beyond rebuke.  I’m a very picky reader, and I challenge myself to find things I “don’t like” in a text, even if I find myself appreciating the rest of it.  For instance, I think the ending of this story could have spent more time addressing the fact that victims with guilt should never be blamed for their responses to their attacks.  Peekay feels responsible for most of what happens in the second half of the story because she didn’t speak up.  And while I think McGinnis shows that time and understanding can begin to heal that wound, a more important message is that this guilt, while legitimate, is completely unfounded.  Yes, all situations on sexual violence should be reported; it is the best way to combat the current culture.  However, our focus on reporting should never be so strong as to make victims feel like they have contributed to the problem if they do not voice their experiences.  Communicating what happened to them is first and foremost personal; all resulting public outcry is secondary to their own healing.  If these two elements coincide, fantastic.  If they don’t, it is not the victim’s fault.

There are also moments in Jack’s part of the story that may be construed as contributing to the mindset that men and boys “cannot help themselves.”  His perception of sex gives an allusion to the common opinions that girls are asking for the attention they get.  Of course, in no instance does he act toward a girl who has told him “no.”  Similarly, I think he is an example of how boys can be victims of sexual harassment and abuse.  His years of exposure to a certain type of girl have left him both craving immediate sexual gratification and perhaps permanently separating emotion and sex from one another.  Do I think he is a small component of an overarching sexual violence culture? Absolutely.  Do I think it makes his role with Alex and Peekay any less authentic?   Absolutely not.  He may not be a perfect opposite to Ray, but his role does demonstrate that men who enjoy sex can still perceive rape culture as wrong.

Finally, I was a little uncomfortable with the way faith is handled in the story.  Of course this is purely on a personal level.  Out of all of the characters in this story, the only ones I find inauthentic are Peekay’s parents.  To me, it feels that a pseudo-rumspringa is used purely to allow Peekay to be present in all the situations the story creates—like being able to hang out with the same people after the first “incident.”  Also, as someone who theoretically shares the faith of Peekay’s parents, I want my response to situations of sexual violence to be more potent than what theirs are.  I understand that different Christians perceive the issue of rape culture in different ways, but I have issues placing this particular response in the mix.  It doesn’t detract from the overall story—and, as I said, it enables Peekay to be present where she’s needed for the movement of the plot.  I admit this is a personal dislike of an element of the story, even as it contributes to my perception of the book’s message.  If anything, other people of faith reading this should see that they are (a) not immune to sexual violence, and (b) as obligated to respond in appropriate ways as other members of the community and its institutions.

This review took me places I wasn’t expecting, but I feel that everything here had to be said.  In the end, The Female of the Species shares with us the all-important message: one person can become the courage others need to fight back against rape culture.

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