A Man Called Ove

img_1921Date Read: August 8 to 31, 2019

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

This was my book for The Unread Shelf Project prompt for August: a book voted for you to read by Bookstagram. Since I do not have a large following, I decided that it was easier do this as a poll with two options. It was actually my first ever Instagram poll! I only had 6 participants, but enough to give a slight majority to this grumpy old man. I loved this book, so I am happy that it turned out as it did!

To those around him, Ove appears to be just a cranky old man. They aren’t wrong—he is one of the most cantankerous characters I have ever read. However, as the back cover states, there is more to Ove than meets the eye. Of course there is; we would not have much of a story otherwise. We meet Ove shortly after the death of his wife, Sonja, although this is not entirely clear in the first few chapters. He has been struggling to cope with the loss, as he views Sonja as the bright spot in an otherwise bleak existence. Throughout the novel, we jump back and forth between past and present, allowing us to see how the story of Ove’s youth, and Sonja, has influenced his attitudes: strong principles, irritability, and all. Sonja certainly brought out the best in him, and continues to do so even after her passing. Whenever faced with doing something that is inconvenient, but the right thing to do, he considers what Sonja would say to him when he joins her in the afterlife—whether that decision is about caring for a stray cat or taking in a youth who was kicked out of his home.

The two main themes that stood out here for me were Ove’s ability to find new purpose in life through his connection to others, as well as what Backman calls “time optimism”—the tendency we all have to assume that there will always be enough time with other people, until suddenly that time runs out. It’s a funny concept to think about, because I think it is a characteristic that we all share, to an extent. I know I am guilty of time optimism still, despite having several experiences to call on of time run out. I would like to say that it is something I am working on—and it is—but I think it is something hardwired in us that we may only be able to escape temporarily.

In addition to falling in love with the story of Ove, there were some literary devices the author used here that I really enjoyed. The first, and the most apparent, is the liberal use of ridiculous and hilarious similes. Things like when Ove “nods irritably, like someone squeezing an avocado and finding it overly ripe.” I can see why some readers might think the similes are overdone—but I love it. Second, and a bit subtler, is the change in narration that coincides with Ove’s shifting attitudes. At the beginning of the novel, Ove refers to nearly everyone around him by a nickname, oftentimes a rude one. His new neighbors are the Pregnant One and the Lanky One, and their children are referred to only by their ages. There is a full cast of characters in the neighborhood who have all earned Ove’s contempt. Gradually, as Ove begins to soften toward some of these characters, he begins to refer to them by their proper names; beginning with Parvaneh, the pregnant one who pushes his buttons but also pushes him to be better.

Boris’s thoughts: “He was kind of a jerk to that cat… but I’m not sure I can blame him. I think I relate more to the man than the cat. 3 paws.”

Lovecraft Country

img_1914Date Read: July 24 to August 8, 2019

Rating: 3 (of 5) stars

This was definitely an interesting read, although I wanted to enjoy this book so much more than I did. I suspect that part of the problem may be my lack of background knowledge—I have never read anything by H.P. Lovecraft, and my reading of classic science fiction is admittedly lacking. However, I am not fully convinced this would have made a drastic difference in my feelings on the book, although it may have at least increased my appreciation of what Ruff was doing here.

Lovecraft Country falls somewhere between a novel and a collection of short stories, chronicling the lives of an extended African American family living in 1950s Chicago. Each chapter is written as a story centered on a different member of the family, each of them connecting to the main narrative. It includes horrors of two primary varieties: elements of classic horror fiction inspired by Lovecraft and others; the perhaps even more terrifying daily horrors of racism in America. The stories of the struggles encountered in their everyday lives, as well as their research for the “Safe Negro Travel Guide,” paints a picture of that period in American history that many may not realize existed—a bit scary considering that time is not so far back in our history. I am a generally well-read and well-informed person, and this is a perspective of America that I have never had to face myself. Although I know that side of our past exists, I have not previously encountered it in the perspective taken here. Perhaps that is my own fault.

I wish I could find more to say about this book, especially considering my unusually low (for me) rating. (You’re right, three stars is not a bad rating; however, if you have read any of my previous reviews, you know that I tend to give 4-5 stars to most of what I read. I really cannot help myself; I love books too much). With the style of the book I mentioned—the chapters that feel more like individual stories—I felt like there was something missing somewhere. There is some resolution to the overall narrative, but it feels like there is something lacking, although I cannot quite put my finger on what that is. Perhaps there could be more to the story from here? Perhaps something more is needed to fill in the gaps between each of these tales? I am not sure, but it left me feeling a bit unenthused.

Boris’s thoughts: “Curious. You lost me after that scary dog in the second story though. No thank you. 1 paw.”

Shout

img_1034Date Read: July 18 to 22, 2019

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

I went to a small high school. There were two English teachers in the school my freshman year, and by the time I graduated that had only increased to three. We had no library, just the small collection of books each teacher had in their classroom. By my junior year, I had read them all. One of the teachers started bringing in books from home for me to read, and that was when I discovered Laurie Halse Anderson. I was so taken with her story and her writing that I bought up her other novels as soon as I saw them, without even taking the time to read the description on the back cover. It was this practice that led me to scoop up her latest book without realizing what it was—which I am considering serendipitous, as I would have likely passed on this incredible work because I thought it was “not my style.”

Shout is a novel-length memoir, told through a series of poems. Although each poem as its own subject, and there is variety in style, they combine to form a loose narrative. I was impressed with how Anderson was able to convey her troubled childhood without judgment. She acknowledges the hardships of her family life, but does not condemn her family nor ask for sympathy. The poems are divided into three sections, labeled simply: One, Two, and Three. One, which covers more than half of the book, deals with her early life into her early writing career, ending with Speak, her first successful novel (and the book that I had originally discovered back in high school). Two gets more involved in life as an author, and as a speaker. Dealing with the unexpected success, but also the controversy surrounding sexual assault and speaking about it in schools. Three was a bit less organized, but had some reflections and other pieces that did not quite fit into the rest narrative.

Overall, I was really impressed with this book. I usually am not a fan of poetry, but something about these poems really drew me in. The story was captivating and I found myself enjoying it much more than I had expected when I started.

Boris’s thoughts: “I think poetry just goes over my head. It was hard enough to learn to read human, how am I supposed to understand this? 2 paws.”

Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Part 2

 

img_0927Girls in Pants

Although I gave all of the books in these series a similar overall rating, I felt book three of the Sisterhood was an improvement over book two. It starts out with what has now become a tradition to begin the summer: celebrating their friendship and bringing the pants out from their winter hibernation. In this case, three of the four are planning to be home for the summer, with Bridget off to coach at a soccer camp. Her story seems to come full circle here, with her experiences with the boys on her team as well as reencountering Eric from her past. Her story does well to highlight the growing up that she has done since the end of the first book.

Tibby’s story here was not as interesting as the ones in the previous books, but there was nothing that I specifically disliked. My feelings on Carmen’s story were similar to those from her book two plot, although a bit more balanced by adding in her caring for Lena’s grandmother. Carmen’s interactions with her mother seemed melodramatic, and sometimes borderline vindictive. While I would like to say that she made some growth by the end, I am not convinced that’s true. She seemed very aware that she was behaving badly, and acknowledged how she could be better, but was uninterested in making a change.

My favorite story here was Lena’s—and I was so happy to see that her story was not centered on Kostos! The prior books mentioned her art, but did not describe it as the passion that can be seen here. Lena’s struggle between following her dreams and following the rules of her family is captivating and relatable. I love that she is able to use her love for art as well as her talent to learn more about herself, and connect that to her relationships with her family.

img_1037

Forever in Blue

Book four of the Sisterhood, Forever in Blue, provides a perfect wrap up to this series full of ups and downs for this group of friends. It starts with some uncertainty for all of the girls—they are not together for their traditional kick off to summer, and since they have all been apart at college they never retired the pants as they did in previous winters. I was happy to see some personal growth for all of the girls, and was especially pleased with the stories for Lena and Carmen (finally!!!). The ending, with Carmen’s friends showing up to support her at her play, and then the four girls coming together to search for the lost pants in Greece was a fitting end to this series of adventures and growing up. The loss of the pants fits well with the “magic” element that I was not too crazy about: they have served their purpose for the girls, and so have moved on.

There were some unique insights on both finding and forgetting oneself that struck me here. For the first time in the series, I found myself jotting down quotes that I did not want to forget. To end the series, I’ll share two of the tidbits I chose to capture for myself, I believe both of them coming from Carmen’s narrative:

“You couldn’t always know what would matter to you.”

“When you belonged nowhere, you sort of belonged everywhere.”

Around the World in 80 Days

img_0515Dates Read: June 2 to 9, 2019

Rating: 3 (of 5) stars

This was my choice for the June prompt for The Unread Shelf Project: a book about travel, or set in a country that you’ve never been. When considering the books I had that fit this description, it was an easy choice. Not only does this seem the quintessential choice for a book on travel, it is primarily set in countries that I have never been.

I actually had some high hopes for this book, being a classic that has been recreated in many forms, and frequently referenced in popular culture. Despite many renditions of the story being available, I knew relatively little about the actual story going into the book. It is an adventure story about a man who travels around the world. Well, yes, but not exactly. The premise of the book is straightforward, and similar to my expectations: Phileas Fogg has entered into a wager that he cannot travel around the world in 80 days, and so he sets out to do so.

Fogg is initially presented to us as a precise and practical man. He is particular about his routine, and does not vary. It is a bit surprising at first that we would agree to such a wager, but after he does, it should not surprise anyone that he goes about it in the most practical and routine way possible. Phileas Fogg is not interested in travel, adventure, or seeing the world—simply in traversing it. The style of the writing matches this, as it is fairly straightforward and matter of fact. While I can agree that it is fitting with the character, I did find it a little dull. We do get some glimpses of the sights through Fogg’s manservant, Passepartout, and I did enjoy some of the facts and information about locations that were included. The inclusion of the detective chasing Fogg around the globe was interesting addition as well.

It does make sense to me why this became a classic, but I feel like it is, unfortunately, one that did not age particularly well. There is definitely comedy and adventure here, but it does not really meet the same criteria that we use to define those things today. It’s not quite a laughing type of funny, but more of a “oh, ha, that was clever” type of comedy. Similarly, when taken in the context of when it was published, I imagine that many of the locales and descriptions made by Verne were strange and exotic. Much of the information included was not common knowledge, and not accessible to the general population. However, it just did not hold the “wow” that I was hoping for. I definitely appreciate it for what it is, but overall it just did not excite me.

Boris’s thoughts: “I think this Fogg guy has the right idea about life: it’s all about routine. I would have never taken that bet though; it would interfere with my napping schedule. 3 paws.”

Bridge to Terabitha

img_0492Date Read: May 28 to June 1, 2019

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

Bridge to Terabithia is one of those classic children’s novels that I somehow never read when I was a kid. Even as an adult reading it, I was quickly drawn in to the story. Jess is a boy that feels himself on the fringes of society. He does not quite fit in with his family, and does not quite fit in with the kids at school either. What seems to start off rocky with a new girl at school develops into the most meaningful friendship of his life. Jess finds a refuge in his friendship with Leslie, and their made up world of Terabithia.

While I was able to avoid direct spoilers for this one, I had been forewarned that it was sad and dealt with loss. Even knowing that, this one hit me harder than I was expecting. This is not merely a sad story, it is the kind of sad that I want to tell everyone I know that they need to read this book—but I also do not want to pass this profound sadness on to others. I usually try to avoid major spoilers when writing, but I do not know how I can give this book justice without them. Stop here if you do not want to know. Leslie dies, unexpectedly and tragically. Jess is away, having a “perfect day,” when this happens. The later chapters, as Jess begins to process and accept what has happened, are full of so many things that are difficult but so important.

Stepping away from the book for a moment, I need to talk about Samantha. Samantha was one of my closest friends in high school. She was fun, she was sweet, and she was one of those people that you knew you could always count on to be on your side when you needed her. We created cartoon characters to draw in each other’s notebooks, and talked about all of the things that we would do after high school. I was a few years older, and we started to see less of each other after I graduated. Despite ending up at the same college a few years later, we only saw each other occasionally. Although we were no longer every day friends, each time we saw each other, it was as if no time had passed. She was still my friend that would always be there—until she wasn’t. Samantha died unexpectedly at 22.

I don’t know if it’s fair to generalize the loss of a friend as a young adult to the loss of a friend as a child—but I do know that many of the actions, thoughts, and feelings of Jess after losing Leslie reflected my own experience. Paterson perfectly captures the essence of a great loss, and Jess’s reaction to his loss is so genuine that I grieved for him as well as Leslie. Every new piece hit home for me, starting from the initial shock and unreality, the sorrow of the loss itself, and then adding on secondary pain caused by the reactions of others, or even your own thoughts.

In the end, Jess does begin to see hope in a future without Leslie—while he misses her terribly, he recognizes the impact that she made on him, and uses that to move forward. I still think about Samantha often. I cannot say what path our friendship would have taken if she were still here, but I can say with certainty that I am fortunate to have known her. There are bits of her in many of the things that I do and think every day. I remember a gift she gave me for my birthday one year—a necklace and a pair of flashy earrings that I had admired at the store, but decided not to buy. She told me she knew I thought they were impractical, but that I needed them: it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks if I like them, and there’s never a good excuse not to wear hot pink. What an attitude to have.

Boris’s thoughts: “I think I would have liked her. 4 paws.”

Girl with a Pearl Earring

img_0339Date Read: May 1 to May 27, 2019

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

This book was my pick for May’s Unread Shelf Project prompt: bought because of the adaptation. I was not exactly sure how I should define this one, so I looked through my to read list for books that had adaptations. Generally speaking, I like to pair book and movie adaptations. If I see a movie I like and find out there is a book, I add it to my list; similarly, I usually make a point to see movies based on books that I’ve read. This was one that has been on my list the longest: I found out this was a book while renting the movie shortly after it came out in 2003. I purchased it for my kindle a few years later, but never seemed to get around to reading it for some reason.

I like the idea behind the novel: historical fiction meant to touch on the mystery of a painting. The painting itself is intriguing, and coupling that with a background that is generally unknown makes this a perfect subject matter. The writing was excellent, and I found Griet’s perspective interesting. However, despite enjoying the book, I felt the plot was a bit lackluster. Not much happens, there is very little character development, and while the mystery of the painting source is solved, we still do not get much of a picture of the artist.

Griet’s experience is treated as scandalous, but it is hardly that. She is merely trapped into the drama of a higher class that is unable to take blame for their own actions. With the whole novel being from her perspective, it’s difficult to say whether the intimacy she describes is truly present. Of course, I imagine that there must be some level of intimacy reached between painter and subject, but Griet perhaps exaggerates it, or simply wishes it to be something deeper. There is no doubt from her words that she has feelings for the painter, but there is nothing in his actions that really suggests he sees her as anything more than an assistant and model. Griet seems to find some resolution in her reflections on that time after Vermeer’s death, but then this is thrown into confusion and further mystery with the revelation of the letter and Vermeer’s request for the return of the painting.

Despite some issues with the plot, I did enjoy the artistic aspects included: Griet’s descriptions of the paintings to her father, the references throughout the book to other works by Vermeer. More than once I was drawn to seek out the paintings described. I also really enjoyed the discussion of color, including the actual making of colors for the painting and Griet’s discovery of color as something deeper than she imagined.

Boris’s thoughts: “Sounds a bit like a snoozer. I like snoozing. 3 paws.”