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Review: A Man Called Ove

I’m not even sure why I’ve been wanting to read this book for so long. There’s just something about a fictional grumpy old man that makes me sure I’m going to laugh and learn about life, so I finally decided to go ahead and pick it up. This is a review of Fredrik Backman’s adult novel, A Man Called Ove.

About the book: Ove is 59. His wife, the amancalledoveonly person Ove knows who deserved a good life, died of cancer 6 months ago after years of living with a wheelchair because of a terrible accident. His parents died before he was grown, his childhood home was allowed to burn and then taken from him, and Saab was sold to General Motors. Clearly, Ove has plenty of right to be angry. He’s angry at the young men who have decided he’s ready for retirement. He’s angry at the county officials who want to take his ex-best-fried away from his wife. He’s angry at the new neighbors who’ve broken traffic rules to back a moving trailer up to their house and run over Ove’s flowerbed and mailbox in the process. But anger is what makes Ove productive, and before his aggravating neighbors can lay new projects at his doorstep, his productivity is focused on ending his life because all he wants is to see his wife again. But Ove is particularly bad at suicide, and his growing anger is directed toward other projects in the meantime–projects that’ll make his neighbors rethink their opinions of the grumpy old man next door.

“In the end, there is nothing left but a series of weekdays with nothing more meaningful than oiling the kitchen counters. And Ove can’t cope with it anymore. He feels it in that moment more clearly than ever. He can’t fight anymore. Doesn’t want to fight anymore. Just wants it all to stop.”

This is the sort of book that reminds me everyone has a story. Backman writes with the sort of narration that’s both matter-of-fact and emotional. It’s the sort of story that reminds readers that every seemingly ordinary person in every ordinary neighborhood has a lifetime of intrigue behind or ahead of them, and appearances are never what they seem. Ove is just a man, like any person is just a person, and like anyone else, he’s got an incredible story to tell.

“He’d been a grumpy old man since he started elementary school, they insisted.”

The first and foremost attribute to note about A Man Called Ove is its humor. This is a great summer read because its humor keeps the story light even when it’s running through the most tragic parts of Ove’s past. There’s something unexpectedly amusing about a character so harmlessly abrasive. There’s real bite behind his bark when he needs it, but for the most part he knows his opinions about all the idiots in the world and their backward ways are not opinions that anyone else seems to share–and thus he can’t do much about it beyond muttering at their idiocy. He’s an old soul that doesn’t quite fit in the modern world, and where the edges overlap he stands his ground–he may not fit, but he’s not letting the rest of the world run him over. And it’s funny. Here’s a taste of Ove’s grumpy personality:

“Because nowadays people are all thirty-one and wear too-tight trousers and no longer drink normal coffee. And don’t want to take responsibility. A shed-load of men with elaborate beards, changing jobs and changing wives and changing their car makes. Just like that. Whenever they feel like it.”

This is an example of the running commentary through Ove’s present life. Every person and situation he meets sparks some sort of rude thought, if not dialogue, that outlines the faults Ove sees in the world around him. It’s never offensive because he seems to understand that the problem with his inability to mesh with the world is his own outlying personality. What he has to say about the people around him speaks just as much about who he is as who they are.

But this humor is a weight that balances the parallel seriousness of the tale. Ove doesn’t fit in–it’s funny, but it’s also driving him to extremes. The humor is what prevents morbidity when the differences between Ove and the rest of the world become too great. Then we have statements like these:

“Of course, he was supposed to have died today. He had been planning to calmly and peacefully shoot himself in the head just after breakfast.”

The downside: it’s a slow story. The humor has to keep the reader going because the plot is all but nonexistent and the tension is mild at best until a brief spike of adrenaline near the end. Mixed in with Ove’s present thwarted attempts to die are snatches of his past. His life has one bright beam of positivity–his wife, Sonja–shining through a mess of painful and tragic events. Ove has seen death and destruction and unfairness, and it all plays on the reader’s emotions, but it does little to forward the plot until Ove’s character begins to change at the end of the book. A few details that culminate quickly in Ove’s present tie his past, present, and future together in meaningful ways, but until a few events start happening very quickly at the end of the book, it’s just a nice story with some humor and sadness that doesn’t seem to have much directionality. It’s not boring, but it takes some patience if you’re primarily a plot-reader because this is a character-driven story.

“Death is a strange thing. People live their whole lives as if it does not exist, and yet it’s often one of the great motivations for living. Some of us, in time, become so conscious of it that we live harder, more obstinately, with more fury…We fear it, yet most of us fear more than anything that it may take someone other than ourselves. For the greatest fear of death is always that it will pass us by. And leave us alone.”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. I laughed. But also I regained the will to carry on, imperfect as life can be. I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book other than a funny story about a grumpy old man, and I got that, but I got so much more. Maybe this will be the start of a tradition for me–a Fredrik Backman book every summer.

Further recommendations:

  1. Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants is a tale about a traveling circus that’s told from the future, when the main character is an amusingly crabby man in a nursing home. Although much of the book is focused on the adventures of his younger years, that older, wiser, grumpier version makes some interesting appearances.
  2. Mitch Albom’s The Time Keeper would also be a great next choice for Backman readers. This one features a small cast of troubled characters–a girl ready to die, a man who intends to use science to live forever, and the inventor of time; the book focuses on the benefits of overcoming despair to save oneself and/or someone else.

Coming up next: I’m currently reading Angie Thomas’ debut YA novel, The Hate U Give. This is a wildly popular 2017 release inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s both timely and well-written, inspiring and entertaining. I have a lot of thoughts and it’s probably going to be one of the most challenging reviews to write, but I’m working on it. In this book, Starr, a black teen, witnesses her best friend being killed by a white cop and seeks justice, learning that racism is still a problem in modern US.

What are you reading this July?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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Review: A Million Junes

I wanted to read all three of my new Book of the Month books in June, but for some reason Emily Henry’s A Million Junes sounded the least exciting so I saved it for last. But I was wrong, so wrong to neglect it because this is now absolutely one of my favorite books of the year.

About the book: June O’Donnell has amillionjunestwo rules: Stay away from the falls, and Stay away from the Angerts. The rules are both more and less important now that June is eighteen and her dad, writer of the rules, has been dead for ten years. Both rules are turning out to be harder to stick to than ever before, but even considering breaking them feels like an insult to her dad’s memory. Even if she develops an instant crush on the enigmatic Saul Angert when they run into each other (literally) at a town event, everyone knows there’s bad blood between the Angerts and O’Donnells. Bad things happen when their paths cross; June has seen proof of that. As her feelings for Saul deepen, however, June is also receiving what she believes to be messages from her dad. The O’Donnells live in a magical place, a thin place where the borders between worlds is weak, and through the gaps June slips into memories of her family’s past that might finally explain why the Angerts have been enemies of the O’Donnells for generations–but she doesn’t know whether finding the answers will end the feud, or drive her and Saul apart forever.

“I think life is about learning to dance even when you’re sitting still. You learn to dance when you cook and clean, when you bite into cherries, and when you lie in clean sheets. It’s easy to believe that if you could do it all over, you’d do everything different.”

This book is a mystery. It’s a romance. It’s magical realism. It’s an exploration of grief. It’s a coming-of-age story. It’s a ghost story. And it does all of those things well.

“This is rapidly becoming a bad teenage retelling of a Shakespearean comedy.”

I laughed so much while reading this book. June and Saul’s flirting is hilarious. There are serious moments, and sad moments, and triumphant moments, but the first half of the book makes great use of humor to pull the reader in and lighten what might otherwise be a very tragic tale. And yet it’s all about balance. I stayed up late, reading for the funny banter, but I marked many quotes about what it means to grieve and move on when someone you love is gone forever. This is a fun read that’s also full of strong messages, and those messages are the part that will stick with me and keep this book in my list of favorites for a long time.

“I wanted to forget this feeling forever. The feeling of being ripped into two people: the you of before and the one you’ll always be once you know what it is to lose something.”

A Million Junes is sophisticated YA. It’s YA for all ages. It’s YA because its main characters are 18 and 20 and coming-of-age, but it’s a great choice for any age group because it’s not lewd or crass, and covers some hard topics that are widely applicable.

“I am very small, and don’t find myself wishing I were any bigger. All I want, with my one tiny moment, is to love you. If you remember anything about me, remember the truest thing: I will love you after all the stars have burned out, after the sun has died and ice has covered the earth, after the last human has taken her last breath.”

There’s an interesting female-female friendship in A Million Junes, as well. June and Hannah are supportive and kind to each other, even in situations when they might be interested in the same boy, or one of them is getting the other one in trouble. Often in books (especially in YA) girl friends can be uniquely cruel to each other and quick to hate, but June and Hannah sort things out calmly and stick together. Of course, since this book is focused on the turmoil in June’s life, we see Hannah routinely asking if June’s all right and what she can do to help, but their friendship is such that I’m sure June would give Hannah just as much love and attention if the situation were reversed; as it is, June’s problems dominate their conversations, but there is textual evidence of June’s compassion and consideration in the friendship, as well, even if it’s mostly internalized. It’s a great example of a literary female friendship.

And did I mention the phenomenal father/daughter relationship? Sometimes books have great dads, but this book realistically addresses the ups and downs of the relationship–realizing that no one is perfect no matter how much you love them, and that even death can’t take them away completely. June’s dad seems a lot like I imagine Ronan’s dad (from Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle) would have been like, magical dreaminess and all. If I had to pick a single purpose of this book, it might be June’s reconciling of the fact that her father’s dead and not who she thought he was, but she will always love him anyway.

“Maybe some people die gradually, move away from their bodies over time, but others–the people who shine–go in an instant. You can see their souls in their eyes until the last possible second, feel the gap in the world the second they’re lost.”

I was expecting a simple elegance to the ending after the rest of the book ran so smoothly, but the answers to A Million Junes‘ mysteries are convoluted. I had to do some serious mental juggling to keep straight which Jack O’Donnell is which (June is technically Jack O’Donnell IV, which means there were three others before her, plus the original Jonathon O’Donnell nicknamed Jack a few generations earlier) and what “the curse” means for different individuals, before I finally got it all straightened out. If I had to name a complaint about this book, it may be the multi-faceted layering of those final answers about the family feud, especially when all those secrets lead to such a simple choice for our main characters. It felt a bit like the plot was digging itself into a hole that Henry was determined to pull it back from at any cost, but I suppose even if it turned messy the plot survived the struggle.

My reaction: 5 out 5 stars. As I mentioned above, this one’s going straight to my best-books-of-2017 list. I was not expecting to love this book nearly as much as I did, and those are the best sort of reading surprises. I’m ecstatic to also have Emily Henry’s The Love That Split the World unread on my shelf because I NEED more of this wonderful writing in my life. My July TBR is already overfull, but expect a review on Henry’s first publication in the near future.

Further recommendations:

  1. Jandy Nelson’s I’ll Give You the Sun is a contemporary YA that also addresses the death of a parent and the ups and downs of other close relationships–mainly the bond between twins, but also in friendships and young love. No magic here, but plenty of art and family history intrigue.
  2. For another compelling YA book that’s important for readers of all ages, try Mindy McGinnis’ The Female of the Species. There are some great friendships and parents in this one, teens standing up against rape, a little romance, and a coming-of-age story for a group of high school seniors learning strength and morality.

Coming up next: Robin Roe’s A List of Cages, a beautiful YA novel about foster sibling love and coping with mental illness. This is one of those heavy-hitting YA books that covers a myriad of difficult topics meant to raise awareness of real life problems, and despite its easy readability it packs a powerful punch.

What are your favorite heavy-hitting YA books?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Sisters Chase

I’ve been loving Book of the Month Club all year, but never so much as in the month of June. It was so difficult choosing from the five new selections this month because I wanted to read every single one of them. I even put some high priority books from my TBR on hold when my box arrived because I just couldn’t wait to dive into the the new books. And now that I’ve read Sarah Healy’s The Sisters Chase, I have a new favorite BOTM book for 2017.

About the book: Diane wasthesisterschase young when she had her first daughter, Mary, and the two of them are more or less alone in the world until baby Hannah joins the family when Mary is 14. There’s no father present for either of the girls, and even the grandparents are gone by the time Hannah is born, so when their mother dies in a car crash four years later, the sisters Chase are truly on their own. Old enough to act as Hannah’s legal guardian, Mary is forced to make some tough choices about their lives. Though the changes she makes are not always positive or even necessarily legal, Mary has only ever wanted to protect Hannah. The two of them set off in a Chevy Blazer and live by Mary’s wits in motel rooms and camp sites and shabby apartments, searching for love and answers and some elusive shard of peace that has always been denied to them both.

“The Chase girls stayed the next morning until it was time to check out, lying on the bed and basking in the infinitude of being nowhere.”

About the layout: the narration is told entirely in the third person, usually focused on Mary but occasionally veering to describe details that Mary wouldn’t know about other characters. Each chapter is offset with a year marker, highlighting a few key years in the 1970’s and 80’s. The timeline is perfect for the story–Mary’s cross-country driving expeditions are made possible by an extra degree of anonymity that hasn’t existed since the more recent digital era; the lack of cell phones is crucial to Mary’s rambling freedom. There are just enough time-accurate details to ground the story in its temporal setting without turning its focus away from Mary.

About the writing: The Sisters Chase is beautifully and emotionally woven (with just a hint of romance) from the beginning. Although there aren’t as many one-liners as I expected from this poignant narration, there’s a finesse of language that keeps the reader going even when the plot hits a (rare) slow point. This book bleeds tragedy, though there are happy moments, as well. It’s not the sort of sorrow that can make a reader cry without context; the sadness of The Sisters Chase comes in the implications and inferences, the masked emotion behind simple actions, the meaningfulness slowly revealed in every seemingly random move that Mary makes.

“At first, Mary decided not to think about it. She decided to tightly fold up the facts in her head again and again. Mary could do that. Mary could lock away parts of her mind, of her heart. Mary could hide things.”

About the characters: each and every person introduced in this story is unique and significant in some way, but the most interesting characters, of course, are the three Chase women. A sort of Gilmore Girls-type friendship is evident between them, despite (or perhaps because of) Diane’s firm but gentle wisdom, Mary’s fierce wildness, and Hannah’s dreaminess. With Diane gone (though always in Mary’s memories and thus present throughout the book), Mary is free to make some truly questionable decisions, but her devotion to Hannah keeps her from going off the rails completely.

” ‘Yes. I wanted you to love her. I didn’t want yo to live for her,’ [Diane] said. I didn’t want you to have to.’ “

The thing about Mary is that she always operates with an escape hatch in mind. She won’t go anywhere or start anything without knowing how she can flee before things go too far south.

“…Hannah feeling the optimism of going somewhere, Mary feeling the relief of having left. The Chase girls were always happiest in those brief moments of in-between, when neither of them was sacrificing, neither of them being sacrificed.”

I saw the big plot twist coming from the very beginning. I saw it, but dismissed it. I wondered about Mary’s past secrets, but when I did, so much was going on at the forefront of the story that it didn’t seem to matter what had happened before. It didn’t matter whether my guess was right because it didn’t change the fact that Mary was presently lying and stealing and bribing her way to cold, hard cash. And then when the past did matter, there was so much fresh emotion layered onto that big lie that it still didn’t matter that the reveal lacked surprise. It made me cry anyway. More trusting readers than me will probably find more shock-value in the big reveal, but my point here is that even if you see it coming, it’s worth it.

“But what Mary knew, what Mary had always known, is that when you stay still, leg in a trap, trouble can find you.”

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This book sneaked up on me. I knew right away that I loved the writing and the emotion it contained, but it still took a long time for me to realize just how hard it was going to be to get over the story. Mary is intriguing all the way through, but I had no idea until close to the end that my heart was going to break into a billion pieces for her family. I have very little in common with Mary, but I won’t be able to forget her for a long time. This is one of my favorite books of the year, and I’ll definitely keep an eye on this author going forward.

Further recommendations:

  1. Marlena by Julie Buntin is another 2017 release (and BOTM selection) about two girls who feel like it’s them against the world until tragedy knocks them back into their places. This is another great example of how friendship can overcome almost anything. It’s harsh and gritty in the same way as The Sisters Chase, and it’s also more about the emotion in something unstoppable rather than the event itself. It’s about how girls grow up, in a place where there are no right answers.

What’s next: I’m currently reading Cassandra Clare’s City of Lost Souls, the 5th book in the Mortal Instruments series. I’m getting so excited about nearing the end of both the Mortal Instruments and the Infernal Devices, which I’m reading simultaneously because I’m going through the Shadowhunter books in publication order. Things are heating up in both sets, and I’ve never gotten this far before so I have no idea what will happen or where it will end.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

Review: Room

Summer is great for easy reads, but every now and then it’s good to pick up something really thought-provoking; Emma Donoghue’s Room is a perfect choice for that.

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I’d been meaning to read this book for years, and finally I walked past it on the library shelf and decided it was time to pick it up. It’s so captivating that I read it in three days even though there were several times I had to put the book down just to take it all in. Room is definitely the sort of book that leaves you wondering about the state of humanity and the strength that people can summon to cope with the impossible. As kids, we’re warned about Stranger Danger, but it never seems like something that could happen to you–but then there are stories like Room that remind us anything can happen, to anyone.

About the book: Five year-old Jack has lived all of his life locked in the single room of an old garden shed with his mother, who was kidnapped from college about seven years before the book’s opening. The room is soundproofed, has a single skylight, is lined with cork squares, and was built with lengths of chain link fencing inside the walls and even under the floor. Their captor is a mean, selfish man who abuses Jack’s mother, spends very little money on their care, and overpowers them easily. Jack’s Ma allows very little contact between Jack and the kidnapper Jack refers to as Old Nick–it’s the one thing she asks, to keep Jack to herself. She and Jack spend their days keeping their one room tidy, exercising their bodies and minds as much as possible, and telling stories. When Jack turns five, his mother decides it’s time to share the most important story of all with him: the truth about the outside world.

” ‘I told you, it’s not TV. It’s the real world, you wouldn’t believe how big it is.’ Her arms shoot out, she’s pointing at all the walls. ‘Room’s only a tiny stinky piece of it.’… ‘I wouldn’t lie to you about this,’ Ma says while I’m slurping the juice. ‘I couldn’t tell you before, because you were too small to understand, so I guess I was sort of lying to you then. But now you’re five, I think you can understand.’ “

Jack has a hard time understanding and believing in the outside world. All he’s ever known is life between the four walls of Room where he shares everything with his mother and hides at night in Wardrobe from Old Nick, the only visitor he’s ever known.

Narrated by the young Jack, Room is described as a home, a safe place. Outside, everything is unknown and scary. Everything in Room has a name and a story, including Meltedy Spoon, Spaghetti Mobile, and Rug. Jack was born on Rug, so that’s one of his favorites. Sometimes Jack’s perspective is too limited, but dialogue fills in the gaps. He’s a smart child, with a million questions and an adorable thought process:

“The sea’s real, I’m just remembering. It’s all real in Outside, everything there is, because I saw the airplane in the blue between the clouds. Ma and me can’t go there because we don’t know the secret code, but it’s real all the same. Before I didn’t even know to be mad that we can’t open Door, my head was too small to have Outside in it. When I was a little kid I thought like a little kid, but now I’m five I know everything.”

Through Jack’s eyes, we see his mother’s story, as well. She’s very open and honest with him about her life, and she’s been his sole companion for so long that he’s finely attuned to her mannerisms and knows all of her stories by heart. He’s her sounding board, her reason to keep going, and everything else. Because this is primarily Jack’s story, his mother remains unnamed, referred to only as Ma by her son, who is shocked to learn that she has other names, as well. Even when he finally hears about her life before Room, she is first and foremost Jack’s mother.

” ‘Listen, Jack. Are you listening?’ / ‘I’m always listening.’ / ‘We have to get out of here.’ / I stare at her. / ‘And we have to do it all by ourselves.’ / But she said we were like in a book, how do people in a book escape from it? / ‘We need to figure out a plan.’ Her voice is all high. / ‘Like what?’ / ‘I don’t know, do I? I’ve been trying to think of one for seven years.’ “

For Jack’s mother, escape is vital. She feels caged, helpless, and claustrophobic. She knows Jack would be better off growing up outside, but she will need his help to escape and she needs to time her attempt so that he’s not too young to understand but not too old that he’ll be irreversibly damaged from the years he’s lost inside Room. Being captives keeps them close, but has no other benefits–and yet, perhaps it’s Outside that poses the greatest threats to Jack. Having never been exposed to ordinary aspects of life, like weather, animals, other children, or fire, the world is a dangerous place for him. He’s never even had a pair of shoes. Maybe he doesn’t even want to escape.

Something I didn’t like: The door to Room is locked with a key code which only Old Nick knows. Jack mentions once that he and his mother play a game that involves pushing random numbers into the keypad, but this only comes up once and Jack and his mother seem to spend very little time trying to guess the code. They try screaming toward the skylight to attract attention, and Jack’s mother switches the lamp on and off in the dead of night to try sending an SOS signal, but for as badly as she wants to escape it’s hard to believe she hasn’t spent every one of those seven days fiddling with the keypad, watching Old Nick’s hand when he presses the buttons, and counting the number of digits he enters. The keypad is the obstacle between her and freedom, but the only times she talks about it are to say she doesn’t know the code and can’t convince Old Nick to tell her. A ton of combinations could be tried in the space of seven years. Even if she tries every day and still can’t figure it out, it’s a little disappointing that the keypad isn’t mentioned more often or with more significance.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. Room is an incredibly powerful story about coping in times of distress, raising a child, and fighting against the odds. It leaves the reader thinking about the pros and cons of modern culture, the often-overlooked dangers of our world, and the choices and challenges of motherhood. I wished Donoghue had spent more of the book describing regular days in Room–even after all of its features and routines had been laid out, I think the writing could have been used to convey the sense of monotony and claustrophobia that must plague Jack’s mother to add even more tension to her desire and plans to escape. A certain amount of the horror and difficulty of captivity in a small locked room is inherent in the very idea of the story’s premise, and Jack isn’t the one who feels the urge to flee, but Jack must be able to see how uncomfortable his mother is in Room and make a greater point of it. Still, even with the full impact of Room reserved for the end of the story, it’s a bone-chilling feeling to imagine what being kidnapped might feel like, and this book definitely makes an impact.

Further recommendations:

  1. Flowers in the Attic by V. C. Andrews is an even-creepier book about captivity. In this one, there are four children who are locked away by their mother and grandmother, presumably to keep them safe and help secure funds for their futures, but months pass and they discover horrible secrets about the family that leave them dying to escape.
  2. If reading from the stalker’s perspective interests you, check out Caroline Kepnes’ novel, You, which you can find my review of here. Joe is a young man with a skewed view of reality, but you may occasionally find yourself sympathizing with him against all odds.

What’s next: I’m currently reading The Secret History by Donna Tart. It’s a great book about a young man who goes off to college and gets mixed up in an elite society when he tries to sign up for a Greek class. The other five students in the Greek program become his close friends, but Richard soon learns that they’re keeping a terrible secret, and something even worse looms ahead–and this time, Richard will be involved. Stay tuned to learn more about the mysterious lives of the strangest Greek class to ever exist.

Books are the only acceptable captors. Stay safe,

The Literary Elephant