After the string of get-me-down books that I wrote about in my last post, I was determined to treat myself to some lighter, fluffier, more enjoyable fare. I managed to read two books that were definitely lighter and fluffier (hooray!) but weren’t very good (boo!). I also read a kids’ book about Japanese internment, which (although pretty good) was decidedly not light, not fluffy, and not enjoyable. So, my quest for good fluff continues. Keep your fingers crossed for me.
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Britt-Marie Was Here
Published May 3, 2016
336 pages (hardcover)
Why I read it: Backman is the author of the very sweet and breezy best-sellers A Man Called Ove and My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry. This is his latest and is one of May’s Indie Next List picks and the #1 LibraryReads List selection.
What it’s about: Britt-Marie is the uptight, naggy neat-freak who lived with her husband, Kent, (around whom her life revolved) in the same apartment building as Elsa in My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry. Kent has recently had a heart attack, which Britt-Marie found out about when his mistress called her to let her know. Following that phone call, despite the fact that Britt-Marie has been cleaning Kent’s perfume-smelling shirts for decades, she decides that she must leave (because “[y]ou can’t keep pretending someone doesn’t exist when she speaks to you on the telephone”).
And, now, Britt-Marie is forced to start over. So, she does what she does best: she nags her way into a new job in a new town. She visits the unemployment office multiple times a day until she lands a temp job managing the rec center in the small village of Borg.
Borg has suffered greatly from the financial crisis and most of its businesses have closed; the rec center is slated to be demolished soon. Until then, Britt-Marie is charged with making sure it runs smoothly. Initially, she’s not sure what this means . . . so she does what she does best: she scrubs it from top to bottom, including laundering a bunch of kids’ dirty soccer jerseys.
Before she knows it, the town and its residents begin worming their way into her life (despite being wholly unwelcome there). There’s an eager, single policeman who does not hide his interest in Britt-Marie, a group of dirty, loud children in need of a new soccer coach, a nearly-blind and incredibly rude roommate, and a drunk and nosy restaurant owner/postal worker/convenience-store owner/mechanic. Borg leaves its mark on Britt-Marie (and, duh, Britt-Marie leaves her mark on Borg).
Every year for the past three years, Backman has churned out a big best-seller. This would be impressive if all of his books were as good as the first (A Man Called Ove). Unfortunately, they’ve gotten progressively worse.
Is this book readable? Certainly. It’s breezy and easy. It has some sweet moments. It has some funny moments. But it couldn’t be more formulaic. An old, set-in-her-ways, recently single, stubborn curmudgeon has her life disrupted (much to her initial dismay) by some rambunctious kids and a cast of other random, diverse characters. Sound familiar? Substitute the female pronouns for male pronouns, and that’s a summary of A Man Called Ove. It was cute the first time, certainly. But it feels a little lazy and played-out the second time around.
If you haven’t read any of Backman’s books, you should certainly read A Man Called Ove. This one you can skip.
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Published January 5, 2016
192 pages (hardcover)
Why I read it: After my string of get-me-down books (which you can read about here), I was in the mood for something light and fluffy, which is why I chose a kids’ book about . . . Japanese internment. Cringe.
My maternal grandparents lived in California before World War II and were both interned. I was surprised to see a middle-reader book (targeted to grades 4-7) about Japanese internment and was interested to see how the topic was handled for kids.
What it’s about: Manami is a ten-year-old girl who lives with her parents, grandfather, and dog on Bainbridge Island in Washington. Her family is forced to relocate to a prison camp in Arizona. When they leave, Manami decides to try to sneak her dog onto the train underneath her coat. But, mid-trip, the dog is discovered and Manami must give him over to the guard on the train. Manami is devastated. When she arrives at the camp, she is so sad and guilt-ridden that she becomes mute. Her only comfort is a kind teacher who recognizes Manami’s artistic talent and gives her paper and pencils with which to draw. Manami uses some of the paper to write notes to the dog pleading for his safe return, which she releases into the desert wind.
You know what? A book about a kid getting sent to a prison camp isn’t sad enough. Nope, nope, nope. In order to make it truly sad, you have to pry the kid’s beloved pet away from her while she’s on the way to the prison camp.
Needless to say, this book is not one of those “let’s gloss over this dreadful topic for the sake of kids’ sensitivities” books. And that is one thing I appreciate about this book. I recently read some excerpts of an E.B. White interview in which he talks about writing for children (thanks for the link, Lara Martini!!). In it, he said, “Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down. Children are demanding. They are the most attentive, curious, eager, observant, sensitive, quick, and generally congenial readers on earth. They accept, almost without question, anything you present them with, as long as it is presented honestly, fearlessly, and clearly.” Lois Sepahban seems to follow this line of thinking.
There are some beacons of light (Manami’s sweet and supportive best friend, her loving family, her understanding and generous teacher), but the book doesn’t look at what a shitty situation the prison camps were (the climate, the living conditions, the losses, the lack of freedom) through rose-colored glasses. It’s a good (if brief) introduction to a very heavy topic for kids.
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The Eyre Affair: A Thursday Next Novel
Published January 28, 2002
400 pages (paperback)
Why I read it: This was picked as the May selection for my playgroup’s book club. It’s not a new book, and it’s the first of a fairly popular series, but I had never heard of it before. But it’s about a lady detective who specializes in literary crimes. I was down.
What it’s about: Thursday Next is a Special Operative in a bizarre alternate version of the UK in 1985. Dodos have been cloned and are kept as pets, people routinely time travel (including Thursday’s eccentric dad), vampires and werewolves are real, and the arts—literature especially—are hugely important. This is a world where “Baconians” knock on doors like Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses to proselytize—“[t]heir purpose in life was to prove that Francis Bacon and not Will Shakespeare had penned the greatest plays in the English language.”
Thursday is a member of the SO-27, the literary detectives (“LiteraTecs”). When an especially evil criminal mastermind (the aptly-named Hades) steals the original manuscript of Charles Dickens’ The Life and Adventures of Martin Chuzzlewit, Thursday is tasked with finding Hades and returning literary order. Then, Hades kidnaps Thursday’s inventor uncle who has created a device (the Prose Portal) that allows a person to enter a book or pull a character out of a book. Hades’ plans for the Prose Portal will be devastating to literature as we know it! Jane Eyre is the next original manuscript that Hades steals . . . and when Jane goes missing from the book, Thursday knows she must pull out all the stops to put an end to Hades’ evil.
The playgroup mom who suggested this book for our book discussions had read it and loved it in college (over a decade ago). She described rereading it as being similar to running into an ex-boyfriend. I loved that analogy.
The book is all over the place. The alternate UK setting is bizarre and quasi-futuristic . . . but not well explained or realized. It seems haphazard and thrown together, which makes for very confusing reading.
But the setting is not the only thing that threw me off. Chapter 13 (page 142 in my paperback version of the book) was absent . . . but not conspicuously so. I’m not sure how (or why) I noticed it. There’s no reference to the missing chapter (aside from the fact that it appears in the table of contents). Why isn’t it there? Your guess is as good as mine.
The book is very jumpy and not at all deep (there’s a secondary storyline about the relationship between Thursday and her ex-boyfriend that feels so tangential you can’t be bothered to care).
I must admit, however, that, at least conceptually, this book is fun. Entering classics and messing with the characters (and potentially the plots)?! I like that idea. Unfortunately, that idea was one good idea in a sea of many bad ones. How this became a popular series is beyond me.
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Want to read along with me? Here are a couple of posts that are coming soon:
- The Pride & Prejudice post: This month, my playgroup’s book club is reading Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld (a modern retelling of Pride & Prejudice–it’s one of this month’s Indie Next List picks and was the #1 LibraryReads List selection for April) and re-reading Pride & Prejudice for comparison’s sake.
- The obnoxious foodie post: I’m currently reading silver-fox chef Eric Ripert’s new memoir, 32 Yolks, and a debut novel about a waitress in a fancy NYC restaurant, Sweetbitter (a LibraryReads List selection for May; this excerpt appeared in this month’s issue of Bon Appétit).