Britt-Marie Was Here–Fredrik Backman

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I fell in love with Backman’s prose and worldview in A Man Called Ove.  I love his new book, Britt-Marie Was Here, but not quite as much. Britt-Marie, like Ove, is a complex character whose inside is much bigger than her outside, and I struggled to decide why I loved her a little less.  I decided that, while Backman had created a complex character, he had not fully convinced me of Britt-Marie as a woman.  Upon reflection, my reticence was really the clue that Britt-Marie was anysexual with a woman’s name and biography, and, given the particular elements of Backman’s plot, that troubled the work from start to finish.  All of that aside, I will still recommend this book, but, if a friend were to only read one of Backman’s novels, I would insist it must be Ove and not Britt-Marie.

Britt-Marie is troubled.  She has recently left her cheating husband.  Her sister died tragically when they were young, after which her father left and her mother sank into depression.  Britt-Marie is of the generation of women who married with the expectation that their job was to care for their husbands and households and to foster their husbands’ careers and in return their husbands would care for them financially and give them the respect due a wife.  Britt-Marie’s husband forgot his end of the deal.  She cared for the children of his first marriage, then his business clients and him to be rewarded with a resume that could not land her a job in anything but sitting for a closed recreation center in a town left behind by the financial crisis.

At first I wondered if Britt-Marie were on the autism spectrum. She is obsessed with cleaning, and with a particular brand of cleaner.  She is brutally honest in defiance of all social convention.  She is socially awkward and obstinate.

As she settles into the town and becomes slowly entangled in the lives of some of its residents, Britt-Marie loses the edge of her social awkwardness.  She tempers her brutal honesty and she makes friends with a rat.

I listened to the audiobook of Ove and I wonder how Britt-Marie would have unfolded in the voice of a narrator outside my head.  I was, actually, nervous reading this work and feared that Backman’s prose would not hold up to the high standard established by the narrator of Ove.  I was wrong–Backman’s prose is lovely no matter the medium.  And that is why, even if Britt-Marie may be a cross-dressing character, she is worth the read.

Finished 4/25/16

Thanks to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for the advanced eGalley

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The Traveling Companion–Ian Rankin

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I am loving the increasing number of short story/novellas being published as stand alones.  Rankin’s The Traveling Companion is part of a series of such stories, Bibliomysteries:  Short Tales about Deadly Books.  In a strange twist of events, this became the second book in a row that I’ve read that features Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris and both just after rediscovering a photograph I purchased at an art fair years ago of the famous storefront.  Eerie, right?

Robert Hastie is a Scottish scholar who has escaped the strict Church of Scotland atmosphere of home for the more libertine life of Paris.  He works part-time in the Shakespeare and Company bookshop for Mr. Whitman in exchange for a place to stay.  He calls his sweetheart back home home regularly and he keeps touch with his parents through perfunctory calls from the public phone on the street and postcards.  Hastie is thinking about his return to Scotland in the fall and his coming doctoral program and research on Robert Louis Stevenson, whose visits to Paris had drawn Hastie abroad.  He is, he tells his employer, interested in the impact of Stevenson’s health on his writing.  Later we discover it’s his mental health that intrigues Hastie.

All thoughts of home flee when Hastie visits a bookseller, Benjamin Turk, as a favor for his employer, Mr. Whitman.  Turk draws Hastie into a conversation about Stevenson and begins an intellectual seduction that leads Hastie further and further from home and closer and closer to his intellectual idol, Stevenson, through the promise of a never-before-seen work, The Travelling Companion, forerunner to Jekyll and Hyde.

Books about books are dreamy for geeky readers.  We identify with fellow book geeks while reassuring ourselves that we are not that geeky.  We thrill to the idea of unknown works or secrets buried in the pages of well-known tales.  Rankin gives us all of this as well as the violence and drama we should expect from a story with Jekyll and Hyde at its heart.  And it’s all consumable in a long read before bed.  In fact, best consumed this way.

Thanks to NetGalley and Bibliomysteries for an advanced copy for review.

Finished 4/22/16

 

 

Wings: Gifts of Art, Life, and Travel in France–Erin Byrne

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I was drawn to this book by several factors:  1) the image of the Winged Victory of Samothrace on the cover and 2) the escapist promise of travel essays.   The fact that my colleague, Roaminghistorian (@travelhistory1) is drafting a similar set of essays about her travels in Italy also piqued my interest in looking at a current model for this genre.

Byrne says in her introduction that she is not writing to amuse, but to “call forth responses.”  She hopes that something in her experience calls out something in the reader’s heart or experiences.  Her essays are not chronological, which I found disorienting at first.  I wanted a narrative.  She was delivering experiences.  The essays are organized thematically into triads.  As I progressed through them I understood better what she was trying to accomplish and went along with her and gave up my resistance and resentment over the lack of chronological narrative.

At first I could not read Byrne without hearing a privileged somewhat spoiled voice.  As I read on, I heard a woman seeking.  Seeking answers, seeking questions, seeking connection.  Byrne is highly imaginative and empathetic.  When she is in a historic location, she feels the history, she imagines herself as the characters.  She invents characters in order to feel the historic moment.

Because the stories are drawn from a decade of travel, Byrne is able to reflect and tell the story and then analyze the way in which the experience helped her understand a later life event.  Whether it was her becoming more patient as she matured in her travels or my becoming more patient as I acquiesced to her organization, the book seemed to mellow, particularly in the last third.

Near the end, Byrne’s muse, the Winged Victory, tells her to go to Spain, to open her wings.  I hope Byrne’s next work relates that experience.  This time I plan to be fully on board from page one.

Thanks to NetGalley and Solas House for providing an advance copy for this review.

Finished 4/17/16

 

My mad fat diary–Rae Earl

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I have never met a woman who has not struggled with her weight.  I have also never met a woman who does not enjoy sharing someone else’s misery.  It makes us feel a little less less.  Hope for that feeling led me to My mad fat diary.  I did not realize when I chose it that it had been published in the UK several years ago and was a hit television show.  The first US edition appeared just this spring from St. Martin’s.

The diary begins with a glossary of British slang and jumps into Rae Earl’s life just after she was released from a psychiatric ward for having “lost the plot.”  She has women’s problems, is working on four A levels, is really fat, and wants to be loved.  In the midst of these personal details is a bit of gossip about a friend who is pregnant.  That is largely how the diary flows.  Sadness and struggles against sadness, small notes about poverty (she is a scholarship student at a private girls’ school), complaints about her classes and teachers, details about what she has eaten, complaints about her weight and how her clothes fit, and gossip.

Rae’s friend Bethany is toxic.  She undermines Rae’s confidence with snarky comments.  She talks about her behind her back.  She goes after the boys Rae likes.  She monitors what Rae eats.  When Rae finally realizes this, I felt more relieved than her friends likely did.

When Rae starts going “down the pub,” she makes new friends, including some guys from the boys’ school on whom she crushes in turns.  She and a friend give them code names, like Battered Sausage, Haddock, Fig, and Dobber (a girl).  Dobber becomes a good friend and Haddock teaches Rae life lessons about judging a book by its cover.  Rae drinks and eats, fights with her mom, and offers regular commentary about her mom’s love life.  Rae reveals her compulsive behavior–checking and rechecking the household appliances.  She is very open about her desire to lose her virginity.

Rae shows her vulnerability, after all, it’s her diary, but takes awhile to confess the sarcastic wit she uses on her friends to create a social shield.  She reveals that she is nearly as mean to her friends as they are to her.  She feels bad about these comments, but does not reflect that maybe these comments make her friends as miserable as they make her until she makes Haddock cry and he avoids her for days.

About halfway through the diary, I was losing patience with Rae.  She was mean and lazy.  She did not help her mom around the house.  She was only able to hold a job for a couple of weeks.  She knew she needed to eat less and exercise more, but she did neither. If I hadn’t agreed to write a review, I might not have persisted.

And then I found myself looking forward to opening the diary.  About this time Rae admitted to her sarcastic humor and began realizing she judged others much as others were judging her.

The diary ended abruptly, but it is only one volume of Rae’s teenage diaries.  I wonder how a younger woman would read the diary.  Would she have more patience for Rae’s teenage moods or would she be alienated by the 80s references–the trips to the pay phone among them.  I hope the television adaptation makes it way across the pond, also.

Thanks to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for providing an advance review copy of the diary.

Finished 4/10/16

 

Sidney Chambers and the Dangers of Temptation (Grantchester Mysteries): James Runcie

Forthcoming June 14, 2016

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I first met Sidney Chambers through Masterpiece Theater, where he is played by a very handsome young actor.  In the series, he is polished and, although curiosity is a major part of his character, and that which gets him involved in mysteries, he is not overly curious or overly interested in beautiful women.

This is the first of the books in the series upon which the television show is based that I have read and it was odd to meet a character as envisioned by the author when I had already met him on the screen.  Runcie’s Sidney is very curious.  In one of the stories that compose the novel Sidney’s German mother-in-law calls him nosy repeatedly–in German.  Runcie’s Sidney is also attracted to beautiful women, such as Barbara Wilkinson, whose troubles with her son, who has joined a commune, make up the first mystery in the novel.  A second mystery involves a stolen necklace and privileged college students.  Sidney’s friend Amanda and his former housekeeper both struggle with their marriages, forming two of the middle stories.  When Sidney and his German wife, Hildegard, vacation in East Germany Sidney encounters a murder that he solves but cannot bring to justice due to the corruption and secrecy of the communist regime there.  In the last story, Sidney faces and fights homophobia as he tries to help a dear friend.

The short quips and brief nature of the stories themselves took me by surprise.  Because the show contains hour-long mysteries, I expected the novel to contain one mystery that would unfold throughout the pages.  As I settled in, I found myself enjoying the way Runcie mocks Sidney and Sidney mocks himself.  Everyone mocks Sidney a bit and for various character foibles.

The title comes primarily from Sidney’s temptation, his thirst for beautiful women and mystery, but others are tempted along the way.  Each story involves someone tempted by love in some way, usually the wrong way, until the last story, when the reader is left to judge and Sidney himself does not agree with the outcome.

Sidney Chambers and the Dangers of Temptation was not a long read, helped by the short vignettes that compose the volume and the lighthearted prose and plots.  Runcie’s character, and the stories he features in, remind me of the #1 Ladies’ Detective Agency stories by Alexander McCall Smith.  Both are perfect for a Sunday afternoon snuggled on the couch or in one’s favorite reading chair or, by the time this volume comes out in June, maybe on a nice chair in the sunshine.  Then, if you are lucky, you can catch handsome Masterpiece Theater Sidney that Sunday evening.

Thanks to Net Galley and Bloomsbury for an advance copy for review purposes.

Finished 4/3/16

Ooko–Esmé Shapiro

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This morning my eight-year-old daughter and I read a new picture book by Esmé Shapiro.  Although my daughter is “beyond” picture books, we were both drawn to the beautiful illustrations rich in texture while echoing the innocent interpretations of children’s drawings of nature. (For more of Shapiro’s work, such as this image from Ooko, check out esmeshapiro.com)

 

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Ooko is a fox in search of a friend.  He sees a little girl playing with a dog and goes in search of his own “Debbie.”  Ooko examines each dog and changes himself to become more attractive to Debbies–he paints on spots, creates floppy ears.  You get the idea.  Ultimately, he finds a friend who likes him for himself.  The message is timeless, and a good one for adults as well as children, but the treasure is in the illustrations.  Each page is so beautiful I want to frame the images and decorate a studio or a nursery.  When Ooko realizes he is lonely, the image begs the viewer to give him a hug.

In good company with the best children’s books, Ooko includes some humor.  In one of his attempts to find a Debbie, Ooko wanders into a yard out of which a little dog has just wandered and cozies up to an elderly woman who is gardening in platform flip flops topped by hairy legs.  She misidentifies the fox as her Ruthie and brings Ooko in, bathes him, and clothes him in a scratchy sweater.  My daughter, even at a cool eight-years-old, giggled.

We read this story three times this morning.  I suspect we will read it again.  Ooko will be my go-to gift for the young children in my life this summer.  Publication date–July 2016.  Thank to Net Galley and Tundra Books for the opportunity to review this delightful new title.

Finished 4/2/16