Tag Archives: bookworm

50 Years of YA, Part 3

I could write an introduction, but y’all know what’s coming.  Let’s do this!

Note: I decided to try including synopses with the books from here on out.  We’ll see if I remember to do this, and if it sticks.

 

#4: The Friends, Rosa Guy

A powerful, award-winning novel about friendship.

Phyllisia Cathy–She is fourteen. Her problems seem overwhelming: New York, after life on her sunlit West Indies island, is cold, cruel and filthy. She is insulted daily and is beaten up by classmates. What Phyllisia needs, God not being interested, is a friend.

Edith Jackson–She is fifteen. Her clothes are unpressed, her stockings bagging with big holes. Her knowledge of school is zero. She has no parents, she swears and she steals. But she is kind and offers her friendship and protection to Phyllisia.

“And so begins the struggle that is the heart of this very important book: the fight to gain perception of one’s own real character; the grim struggle for self-knowledge.”–Alice Walker, The New York Times

This book offers an interesting look at what it means to reach an age where you can identify your own prejudices.  Phyllisia is an extremely relatable character.  She just wants to be considered normal and to fit in, and after moving to this new place, it’s not coming as easily as she thought it might.  I really enjoyed her character in the sense that I think young people can look at her and see themselves.

Edith is the perfect foil to Phyllisia: Aware of who she is and unashamed of it (at least, willing to admit that nothing will change for her without her initiating the change).  She’s also a character you enjoy reading about, because she so perfectly depicts goodness.

I have a few issues with how the plot of this book is carried out.  In many ways, I think it is too didactic for the teenage reader.  They can spot a phony solution.  And the trauma that Phyllisia experiences as she’s learning to accept people who are different is almost textbook sentimental literature.

Despite its shortcomings (many of which are most likely a result of its age), The Friends is a story that offers an alternative perspective, and I can understand why it was included on this list.  I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for “fun” reading, but it’s one to take a look at if you’re interested in what YA was like in the Beginning.

 

#5: A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But A Sandwich, Alice Childress

Benjie can stop using heroin anytime he wants to. He just doesn’t want to yet. Why would he want to give up something that makes him feel so good, so relaxed, so tuned-out? As Benjie sees it, there’s nothing much to tune in for. School is a waste of time, and home life isn’t much better. All Benjie wants is for someone to believe in him, for someone to believe that he’s more than a thirteen-year-old junkie. Told from the perspectives of the people in his life-including his mother, stepfather, teachers, drug dealer, and best friend-this powerful story will draw you into Benjie’s troubled world and force you to confront the uncertainty of his future.

Can I just say, I love this title?

This book is really neat due to its style.  Each chapter is from the point of view of a different character (although sometimes, like in the case of Benjie, they have mutliple chapters), and each of these characters shares his or her perspectives on what’s happening in Benjie’s life.  This gives the author the opportunity to personify the different ideologies and persons surrounding a heroine epidemic.   The other really neat part about this book is that it’s written in dialect.  It was difficult to read at first, but you quickly get used to it as you get to know the characters (and each character has a slightly different way of speaking, too).

This book, like The Friends, is from an early time in the world of YA, and therefore it has some weaknesses in terms of how engaging the plot is.  When reading it, I could definitely see this one being required reading in a freshman high school classroom.  Again, another you wouldn’t necessarily pick up for “fun.”  Yet I can also see how it could be challenged and banned in certain communities.  It’s brutally honest about how young people find and use and sell drugs, at least within the context of its day.  It also deals heavily with race issues, which in the story and in history were not resolved.

It was during the reading of this book and The Friends that I started to see this list of “50 Best YA Books” in a new light.  While I began reading these books because I thought they represented what teens loved, I think a more accurate description of them would be books that educators, librarians, and booksellers offer for their value to young people.  It doesn’t make me want to stop reading through these titles, but it does kind of change my approach to them.

 

#24: Kit’s Wilderness, David Almond

The Watson family moves to Stoneygate, an old coal-mining town, to care for Kit’s recently widowed grandfather. When Kit meets John Askew, another boy whose family has both worked and died in the mines, Askew invites Kit to join him in playing a game called Death. As Kit’s grandfather tells him stories of the mine’s past and the history of the Watson family, Askew takes Kit into the mines, where the boys look to find the childhood ghosts of their long-gone ancestors. Written in haunting, lyrical prose, Kit’s Wilderness examines the bonds of family from one generation to the next, and explores how meaning and beauty can be revealed from the depths of darkness.

I actually listened to the audiobook for this title, and I have to admit, I got lost.  It was hard to follow the story.  I don’t think it was the fault of the performer or anything; I just think this text is probably best read on your own.

The overall feel of the book is very weird, but in kind of a good way.  I love the haunting images and rhythm to the writing.  And the relationship between Kit and his grandfather is sweet and believable.  Having just recently experienced the loss of a grandparent, I was able to relate to the pain behind the struggles his family was facing.

Because I got lost with the overall plot of this story, I really have no idea what was going on with John Askew.  I think if I had read the story in print, I would have grasped it better.  However, there are 50 books on this list and I don’t have time to reread at this point.  If the title still sounds interesting to you, find it in print!

 

#26: Hole in My Life, Jack Gantos

In the summer of 1971, Jack Gantos was an aspiring writer looking for adventure, cash for college tuition, and a way out of a dead-end job. For ten thousand dollars, he recklessly agreed to help sail a sixty-foot yacht loaded with a ton of hashish from the Virgin Islands to New York City, where he and his partners sold the drug until federal agents caught up with them. For his part in the conspiracy, Gantos was sentenced to serve up to six years in prison.

In Hole in My Life, this prizewinning author of over thirty books for young people confronts the period of struggle and confinement that marked the end of his own youth. On the surface, the narrative tumbles from one crazed moment to the next as Gantos pieces together the story of his restless final year of high school, his short-lived career as a criminal, and his time in prison. But running just beneath the action is the story of how Gantos – once he was locked up in a small, yellow-walled cell – moved from wanting to be a writer to writing, and how dedicating himself more fully to the thing he most wanted to do helped him endure and ultimately overcome the worst experience of his life.

I didn’t recognize the title of this book, but when I saw the cover, I had a gigantic “Aha!” moment.  I’m pretty sure every single boy in my class in middle school checked out this book from the library, at least once.  In my mind, it’s the quintessential book guys chose when they had to find something to do during Silent Reading (oh, how I miss that designated half hour of the day!).  For that reason, I wasn’t super excited about this book.  I figured it would have very little to offer me that I would find engaging.

On the one hand, after reading this book, I can TOTALLY see why a certain school demographic was attracted to it.  There’s language, sex, and drugs on pretty much every page.  I went to a rather sheltered public school, and so this was probably one of the first introductions to anything grungy and on-edge for these young teenagers.

On the other hand, I ended up really enjoying the “memoir” aspect of this book.  Gantos is an excellent writer, and it shows through this very personal story.  I love reading memoir, and this actually did not disappoint.  I still struggled to really connect with any of his life experiences.  But, to me, the mark of a good memoir is that you end up relating to its speaker even if you have no personal experience with what they went through.

In terms of required reading and recommending this to young people, I think this book continues to speak to young men entering into the stage of life in which Jack’s experiences occurred.  And I think this one will stay relevant, as evidenced by its inclusion on this list.

 

#41: Wintergirls, Laurie Halse Anderson

“Dead girl walking,” the boys say in the halls.
“Tell us your secret,” the girls whisper, one toilet to another.
I am that girl.
I am the space between my thighs, daylight shining through.
I am the bones they want, wired on a porcelain frame.

Lia and Cassie are best friends, wintergirls frozen in matchstick bodies, competitors in a deadly contest to see who can be the skinniest. But what comes after size zero and size double-zero? When Cassie succumbs to the demons within, Lia feels she is being haunted by her friend’s restless spirit.

In her most emotionally wrenching, lyrically written book since the multiple-award-winning Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson explores Lia’s descent into the powerful vortex of anorexia, and her painful path toward recovery.

I’m not going to lie–this book was extremely difficult to read.  It wasn’t that the prose was stilted or that the plot was slow-moving; it was just so emotional and dark.  As someone who has struggled with body image issues in the past, Lia’s internal dialogue gave me a nasty feeling in the pit of my stomach.  The blurb from Goodreads does not lie–this is the most emotionally wrenching book by Anderson I have ever read.

I personally cannot stand when serious emotional and physical issues are used for entertainment purposes.  There are several very popular TV shows and movies I refuse to watch because I think there’s a limit to how much violence we should willingly take in for the sake of a good story.  As I began this book, I wondered if its content would fall in the same category.  In the end, though, I agree that this story is important.  The struggles Lia and Cassie face are not glorified, by any means.  Instead, they’re exposed for what they truly are: an illness, real and powerful, that no one can fight alone.  And this story likewise highlights the important role family and friends play in combating the darkness many people face on a daily basis.

This is not a fun book, by any means.  But it’s beautiful, and it’s important.  I’m glad it was included on this list and that I finally was able to read it.

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Happy #NationalBookLoversDay! Disney Book Tag

Hello, Book Lovers, and Happy National Book Lovers Day!

I’m spending the majority of my day at a virtual library conference called SLJTeenLive.  I am enjoying hearing from YA authors about their books and what they’re reading.  It seems to be one of the best ways to spend a day dedicated to book lovers!

I also thought it would be fun to honor the day with a Book Tag.  I’ve never done one before on this blog, and it seemed like the perfect way to highlight some of my all-time favorite works, as a lifelong book lover!  I stumbled across the Disney Book Tag a few weeks back.  It’s categories highlight some of the best titles I’ve ever read, and I can’t wait to share them with you!  I hope you enjoy.Image result for disney book tag

The Little Mermaid:
A Character Who is Out of Their Element

Wonder

Wonder, for me, is the uncontested winner for this category.  Auggie is thrown totally out of his element when he goes to school for the first time.  His classmates, even, experience some of the Little Mermaid syndrome as they learn how to relate to him.  This book has a powerful message about bullying and acceptance.  I can’t say enough about how much I loved this story and its characters.

 

Cinderella:
A Character Who Goes Through a Major Transformation

Ranma

I thought I’d be a little humorous with this one and name the Ranma 1/2 manga series.  Ranma, the main character in this story, has fallen into the Pool of Drowning Girl during his martial arts training.  Thus, every time he gets splashed with cold water, he turns into a girl!  And every time he gets splashed with hot water, he turns back into a boy.  Absolute madness ensues in adventures galore as he uses his curse to get out of bad situations.  Absolutely hilarious and adorable, this is one of my favorite manga series.

And, you have to admit, fluid transgender modifications make for a fairly large transformation!

 

Snow White:
A Book with an Eclectic Cast of Characters

Coville

I feel like any fantasy series is a good fit for this category, but I wanted to honor one of my favorite stories from my childhood: Bruce Coville’s Unicorn Chronicles.  With all of the mysterious and wonderful characters that usually appear in a fantasy world, this series is captivating.  Cara is one of my favorite female lead characters ever, and I loved reading about her adventures in Luster.  Also, if I could have my own Lightfoot,  that would be pretty cool!

 

Sleeping Beauty:
A Book that Put You to Sleep

Hook

Most of my followers know how much I love Peter Pan, so you may realize how painful it was for me to add this book to my DNF pile.  The film Hook is one of my favorites, but the story version was too long and detailed to hold my interest.  I know Terry Brooks is a huge and important name in fantasy literature, but I found this work unreadable.  Rarely, if ever, do I say that the movie was better than the book.  But in this case, I’ll go even further–don’t bother reading the book; just enjoy the movie!

 

The Lion King:
A Character Who Had Something Traumatic Happen to Them in Childhood

Perks

Spoiler Alert!  But not really–it doesn’t take long when reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower to figure out that Charlie has experienced something traumatic in his past.  The Big Reveal of what that was shook me the first time I read this book, and it inspired me to write my senior thesis on this title in my undergrad.  To date, Charlie is one of my favorite characters, and in many ways I consider him a friend.  I am grateful to the story Stephen Chbosky tells through him.

 

Beauty and the Beast:
A Beast of a Book that You were Intimidated by,
but Found the Story to be Beautiful

Anna Karenina

I actually signed up for a class because Anna Karenina was on the syllabus, and I knew if it weren’t required reading, I would never make it through the entire book.  I’m so glad I took that class, too, because this ended up being one of my favorite classics of all time.  The story is beautifully written and hauntingly memorable.  If you haven’t experienced Tolstoy, I beg you to give him a go.  And if you really want to dive in, push yourself to read this amazing story of love and betrayal.

 

Aladdin:
A Character Who Gets Their Wish Granted, For Better or Worse

Down with the Shine

This is another sort of ironic inclusion, because the premise of this book is essentially be careful what you wish for.  I spent the entire time I read this book wondering if it was supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, because it combines a very literal experience with satirical extremism.  I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s sort of both.  (And, while several people have their wishes granted, I can think of one specific young man who asks for an enhancement to his anatomy in the form of a metaphor, with hilarious and disastrous consequences!)

 

Mulan:
A Character Who Pretends to be Someone They Are Not

Thirteenth Tale

Another (potential) Spoiler Alert!

If you haven’t yet experienced the mystery that is Vida Winter’s life, you need to read this book.  The plot twist at the end is totally mind-blowing.  I’ve read this twice, and I bet if I read it a third time I would discover even more hints toward the revelation of the mystery.  This is such a great book for people who like to try and solve the riddle, and a perfect fit for this Mulan category.

 

Toy Story:
A Book with Characters You Wish Would Come to Life

Peter Pan

I mean, do you even have to ask?  I would love to meet Peter Pan in real life.  I feel like we would have a blast reading books together.  And I’d love to go to Neverland, even if at this point I would have to be a pirate or an aborigine (because, unfortunately, I’ve Grown Up).

 

Disney Descendants:
Your Favorite Villain or Morally Ambiguous Character

Mindy

So, I’ve never experienced The Descendants, but I like the connection this category makes.  And this book cover is actually a stand-in for another of this author’s books, The Female of the Species.  My sister has my copy, so I couldn’t snap a picture of it today.  However, in terms of a villain/morally ambiguous character, you needn’t look any further than Alex.  The Female of the Species opens with the line, “This is how I kill someone.”  And the story that follows will haunt you and challenge you on your ideas of morality and justice.

I just received Not a Drop to Drink in the mail this week, so unfortunately I haven’t been able to read it yet.  If it’s anything like her other book, I know I’m going to love it–and perhaps it has its own ambiguous character to inspire us!

***

So, that’s it!  I had a lot of fun working through this challenge, and I’m so happy to have mentioned so many favorite books on this very special day.  Celebrate today in your own way: by reading a new book, picking up an old favorite, tweeting a favorite quote, or visiting a bookstore.  And if you have favorite titles to meet these categories, let me know!  I’d love to hear your ideas, too.

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Manga Review: Library Wars

Library Wars

Last week, I finished Library Wars, a manga series by Kiiro Yumi.  This is only the second manga series I have ever finished (I’m still working my way through Ranma 1/2, which is a little longer, and I’ve read a handful of stand-alones in between).  I found the series through another bookstagrammer’s (The Paige Turner) vlog.  As a librarian, I was intrigued by the title, and I was super excited to read an action-packed adventure about my profession.  We don’t get a lot of kick-ass representatives in our field–other than The Librarian(s), who are more like archaeologists than actually information professionals.  I couldn’t wait to see how this plot portrayed us.

In the near future, the federal government creates a committee to rid society of books it deems unsuitable. The libraries vow to protect their collections, and with the help of local governments, form a military group to defend themselves–the Library Forces!

This book is the next chapter in the conversation started by Fahrenheit 451.   The Library Forces are actively fighting against censorship and for the right to information–hell yeah!  I think what I loved most about this series from the beginning was how accurately it approached librarians.  Word for word, it represents a normal day in the information field!

Okay, okay, so maybe the National Guard-esque protection force is a bit of a stretch, but many libraries are in constant battles over banned and challenged books, as well as the rights of their patrons to information and to privacy.  Taking it to the violent level is of course great for its entertainment value in these books, but perhaps some of the valiant action scenes from real-life are more imagined than acted out.  (We’re still kick-ass, though.  Jus’ sayin’.)

No, the more accurate representations of librarians come when Iku and her team have to help in the stacks.  Yes, librarians do spend an inordinate amount of time finding books for patrons, and the system is a little bit like learning to read a map.  Kasahara’s struggles were amusing, but I’ve had identical conversations with student workers that Dojo has with her on her abilities and efforts.

The relationship between Dojo and Kasahara is also handled well.  I have to admit that the trope found in many mangas, in which the guy and girl like each other but won’t admit it, rubs me the wrong way.  I’m not big on romance, and I don’t appreciate when coincidence pushes into the realm of impossibility in terms of almost-slips and missed opportunities.  Yet this relationship was very tasteful.  The author works to shape an infatuation that began before the two knew each other, but the interest was modified when each discovered the other’s personality.  While I did grow sick of some of the situations concerning romance and attraction, the actual affection found between these two (and other couples in the series) was fairly tolerable.

This series was also a first for the author, and that comes through in the earlier books.  It’s around the fourth or fifth volume that the plot really hits a stride, and you can begin to get to know everyone outside of the general story.  At one point, I thought there were giant plot holes in between two of the volumes; then, I realized I had skipped a book!  Whoops!  At times, I do think the subtleties to some of the illustrations are difficult to follow, but the artwork is beautiful.  In the animated form, I’m sure everything is communicated for successfully.

I highly recommend this story, particularly for those who are deeply invested in political issues surrounding privacy, censorship, and information ethics.  It’s not really a bibliophile’s book–very little reading, if any, occurs in the entire series.  However, if you find yourself appreciating your right to read and learn what you want, you will most likely appreciate this manga’s characters for the work they do to get that freedom for their world.

Again, give it a couple books to pick up before you give up on it.  You won’t be disappointed.

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Echo

This week, I listened to the audiobook Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan.  This book had a profound impact on me for so many reasons, and the greatest treasure of this story is that it’s written for children but has the power to speak to anyone.

Echo is four stories wound into one, one of which is almost a folktale, and three of which are about three different children–Friedrich, Mike, and Ivy–and their lives during the tumultuous time of World War II.  Each story is staggered and feeds into the next one, for one epic finale that I will try hard not to spoil here.  All I will say is that the one thing holding them together is a harmonica, which mysteriously appears in each of the stories.

I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, but this book engaged me from the first page.  In a way, the stories were timeless even as they were attached to a time period.  Munoz Ryan follows her characters closely enough that important references to significant events like the Holocaust and Pearl Harbor serve as landmarks more than important plot points.  I also think this particular novel, in using a historical setting, still has a profound message to offer to contemporary American culture.  As I was listening to the stories, some of the conversations and experiences felt by central and exterior characters gave me goosebumps, because what was said in the 1930’s and ’40’s sounds disturbingly like some of what is rising in our political climate today.  It was almost scary, as an adult reading a children’s book about people who lived during Hitler’s reign, to think about there being any parallels between that time and ours, but Munoz Ryan subtly points them out–whether intentionally or unintentionally–in the most profound ways.  Even as a historical fiction book, this story is timeless.

Perhaps the most disturbing part of this book in consideration of its main genre (juvenile/young readers), is the fact that each story ends at first with a cliffhanger.  All four characters come to a time when it seems that hope is lost, and their story pauses until the very end.  And, really, the end does not directly address what happened to immediately resolve whatever situation the characters were left in.  It is set, instead, several years into the future when all three of the children are grown and reflecting back on their experiences.  I am proud of Munoz Ryan for including this in a book meant for young readers.  I think, too often, we are quick to protect children from the reality that life offers no easy answers.  This is particularly true in literature.  Books have quick resolutions–both because of the shorter texts for easier reading and because the Happy Ending seems so very important.  Munoz Ryan forgets both of these things, and writes a lengthy text full of despair and angst.  The Happy Ending is still (relatively) present, but readers have to commit to the story to get there, which makes it that much more beautiful.

The children in this book experience serious hardships in life; however, despite some of the extremes experienced by them contributed by the time period and the story itself, the messages are still relatable.  Friedrich is bullied for most of his life due to his birthmark.  While children today (hopefully) do not have to fear that they will be sterilized or sent to a concentration camp for not meeting a particular higher standard of “human,” bullying is an issue that culture is still trying to resolve.  Moreover, body image issues are a very real and present problem with people of all ages, even those who are very young.  Friedrich’s experiences are still relevant today, and I’m sure many young people have felt comforted and connected to him for what he went through.

Friedrich and Mike are also missing parents.  Mike is an orphan who feels very responsible for his little brother, and Friedrich’s mom died shortly after he was born.  In a time when broken families and single parents are a perfect example of the norm, young people must feel connected to these boys who are raised and adopted by single individuals (Mr. Howard, of course, serves as a good example of the “stepfather,” or the newer adult addition to a family).  Each of these boys experience their struggles around specific contexts, but the timelessness of belonging and love lead their stories to speak to people today as well.

Ivy’s family is transient, and she is constantly experiencing what it is like to be the New Kid.  Her story is unique due to the nature of her dad’s job (in connection with the Japanese internment camps) and her special school, but the anxiety she experiences over making new friends and going to a new school are extremely relevant.  Moreover, she has a family member in the armed forces and for the first time her life must learn how to live normally without her brother with her.  These emotions she goes through can mirror what children and young readers still experience and provide them comfort that they are not alone in what they are going through.

These struggles, while told through a child’s perspective, can also speak profoundly to any reader.  I was rooting for each of the characters to find success, to be safe.  Each segment held my attention to the end, and I desperately wanted to reach the point in the story where I would know that everything would be okay.  Each experience spoke to me in my past and present, and in so many ways brought me comfort that I didn’t even know I needed.

Munoz Ryan’s storytelling talent goes beyond just captivating characters; it shines brightly through the plot that twists and winds in several directions until, quite unexpectedly, even the mysterious folktale becomes linked to everyone else.  The coincidences are a stretch, but not unbelievable.  Everyone is brought together at the right place and right time because of powerful circumstances, and not convenience.  In every chapter and on every page, Munoz Ryan builds toward a crescendo that resounds with hope and community, reminding us that these characters endured and flourished and that they found a place they belonged.  There are many great storytellers out there who manage to make small connections between the beginning and end of their tales, and Munoz Ryan should be included among them.

One way in which the audiobook was made even better than the physical one, in my opinion, is that the music associated with each person and on each instrument was played and sung in the backgrounds of the chapters!  Harmonicas haunted the openings and closings of each Part.  Pianos and singers hummed out familiar tunes in context with the stories.  It definitely pulled you into the story more, and as a music lover I appreciated the aesthetic results.  It makes me wonder how you could enjoy this book in print without also looking up music and songs to accompany when they are mentioned in the story!

I cannot say enough that, regardless of your age, your preferred genres, your experiences, or your perspectives, you should read this book.  The message is more than timeless; it’s relevant.  The stories reflect on an important time in our country’s history (a time that has a certain amount of significance today), and yet it is coupled with just the right about of fantasy to make it magical.  Echo left a big impression on me that will resound for many books to come.

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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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Leaving Barnes & Noble

So, last week, I left my part-time job at Barnes & Noble Booksellers to take a full-time job at a university library.  Yes, I do in fact spend too much time with books.

A job at Barnes & Noble can seriously change your perspective on books.  I realized this as I began to make the transition from bookseller back to customer.  Even as a librarian, I know my role will be different than what it once was, and I feel the need to talk about some of those all-so-important and wonderful things I learned while selling books at a brick-and-mortar establishment.

 

Book People are the Best People

Seriously.  I am completely convinced that there is something about people who read and love books that makes them super special, amazing, and wonderful.  Having a conversation with someone who loves to read is so easy, and Barnes & Noble is full of those people.  They come in to find people who love books so they can talk about the books you love and the ones they love, and it’s absolutely fabulous.

Of course, you also get people who are not book people (i.e. The Summer Required Reading Reader, The I Need Something to Take to the Airport Book Buyer, and the Where are Your Movies DVD Browser).  And, quite frankly, they usually stand out.  I’m not saying they’re terrible people, by any means.  They are just different than book people—particularly because they do not actually like to talk about books.

Such a shame.

Anyway, one of my favorite lessons I learned while working at Barnes & Noble is that book people are the greatest.

 

Selling Books is Selling Products…

…but that can be okay.  Honestly, it was always hard for me to think about selling things.  I never really wanted to entrust my favorite books to complete strangers just to make a sale.  I felt like I was betraying my favorite authors and their wonderful characters by giving them away for a couple bucks.  But, really, selling books is not an awful way to spend your time.

First of all, refer to the first lesson I learned.  By and large, the majority of the people I interacted with at my job were trustworthy of taking home my precious favorite titles, and they would most likely love and treasure them an acceptable amount (because, let’s face it, there’s no way they would ever love them as much as me!).

Second of all, the books I love and loved to sell can stand on their own.  If the person who purchases them doesn’t end up enjoying them, who cares, really?  The words have reached another imagination, and so the characters are still immortalized.

On top of that, selling books to those people who came in was my way of sustaining a real-life bookstore, complete with a door on the front, seats inside, and books you can pick up and page through before you buy them.  While ordering online is ever so convenient, it will never be the same as walking in to an actual building to buy your next read.  Being a part of the effort that keeps this type of book shopping an option makes me feel like I’m making a better difference for the future. And that is pretty cool.

 

Booksellers are Great Book Recommend-ers…

By the time I finished my stint at B&N, I had read several books recommended to me by my coworkers.  Crazy thing?  Even if we have entirely different taste in genre, they have great taste in books!

Okay, so maybe that isn’t so much of a shocker.

But really, I had never considered what a wealth of suggestions booksellers might be!  It should have been obvious, because not only do these people want a job at a bookstore, they also have managed to keep said bookstore in business.  I ended up loving to ask others what they were reading and take those recommendations to read myself.  One of my favorite parts about their different tastes, too, was that dipping my toes into other genres wasn’t so difficult anymore.  If I wanted to try something in science fiction, I could ask for some ideas.  And I was more likely to actually appreciate and enjoy what was given to me.  In the end, I ended up with a greater genre palette than I began with.  And, of course, I got to share my favorite books and genres with my coworkers, too!

And now, I know that when I’m in Barnes & Noble in the future looking for something to read, I should ask the booksellers.

 

…And So Are Customers!

Again, this one probably should have been obvious, but I was still always delightfully surprised when a customer held up a title I had never heard of and said, “Have you read this one? No!? Oh, you have to read it!  It is so good.  I couldn’t put it down.”  Being able to swap favorite titles with pretty much everyone who came to the store was amazing.  My to-be-read list is absolutely gigantic!

Which leads me to my next lesson learned:

 

You Don’t Need to Buy Every Book, Ever

Let’s face, it; my bookshelves are already overflowing with new titles, editions, and copies.

The employee discount is fantastic, particularly at Barnes & Noble.  As a fan of used bookstores for the prices, I was always delighted to get a brand new book for the price of an old one.  But I learned, a little too late, that I had to pace myself.  I don’t think there were many days I left without buying at least one book, and now I have to try and catch up with reading them!

Ultimately, I learned to only pick the titles I most desperately wanted.  Usually, this meant waiting a week or so to purchase, thus maneuvering around the “Impulse Buy.”  I also tried to limit purchases of recommendations, rather buying the books I would have picked out for myself.  This helped cut down on what I was buying while also affirming what I enjoyed reading.  Again, I still have a ton of books that are going to keep me busy for several months, if not years.  But I certainly don’t now own every book, ever, or even every book someone told me I should buy.

 

There is a Different Between Readers and Bibliophiles, but Both are Book People

Working at Barnes & Noble, I think this was my favorite lesson that I learned.  You see, as much as I LOVE to read, I don’t always want to read.  Moreover, even though I sometimes want to OWN a book, I don’t necessarily want to READ that book at any point in the near future.  Plus, reading can be extremely hard for me.  I am a very slow reader, and it takes me a ridiculous amount of time to get through anything.  Overall, I’m a bad reader.

But I love books!  I love looking at books, shopping for books, buying books, shelving books, borrowing books, ordering books online… Most of my paychecks almost always go to books, even as I only slowly get through reading them.

For a long time, I felt very guilty about this.  How could someone who loved books so much not fit the reader model?!  It didn’t make sense.  And then I started at Barnes & Noble, where I was introduced to the other side of bookselling, and it changed my perspective in so many ways.  Because, for the first time in my life, I met people who were readers, and I met people who were bibliophiles, and they were almost never the same person.

Here is my moment of identification: I am a bibliophile. Here me roar!

In my role as a bookseller, I learned to love myself in relation to my books.  I was able to more fully accept that my TBR would always grow faster than my READ.  I could eagerly purchase new and unique copies of the same book over and over.  And I could look at readers with respect rather than jealousy.  If they are able to fly through several hundred books a year, and yet they dump them for donations in the end, I can admit that I am nothing like them.  And we are both okay.

 

Working at Barnes & Noble was an intense experience, one that I would not trade for the world.  It taught me a lot about myself, and books.  Even as I move to the next chapter, I’m happy to keep this collection of stories on my shelf.

Where is human nature so weak as in a bookstore?
–Henry Ward Beecher

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