Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Fredrik Backman, A MAN CALLED OVE

I'll own straightaway that this book made me cry. I finished it on an airplane, and my seatmate kindly pretended not to notice me swiping away tears. But I also feel somewhat ambivalent about some elements of the novel. The protagonist Ove is 59 and a curmudgeon--disagreeable, bitter, inflexible, and at times truly lacking in empathy. With each chapter, the author doles out the backstory--the various betrayals, disappointments, experiences with cold-hearted white-shirted bureaucrats, and very real tragedies--that have led Ove to his current stony, emotionally disengaged state. So, with each chapter, the reader enacts the "evolving-empathy" trajectory that, toward the end of the book, Ove will embark upon too. (Ove plus L equals Love?) But I felt that the author didn't quite take Ove's pain seriously; there is an outrageous and even absurd quality to representations of Ove's behavior (e.g., his tantrum at the computer store) that made me laugh and reassured me from the start that Ove would rediscover his good, kind heart by the end. Perhaps I also felt shades of other books in here; Ove reminded me of the dour French chef Madame Mallory in *The Hundred-Foot Journey*, whose heart is softened by the exuberant Indian family who moves in across the street. In this book, it's an exuberant Indian woman, her husband, and her two lively children who begin to lure Ove back to the world of feelings. And as for the cat ... well, I couldn't help thinking of Blake Snyder's book "Save the Cat: The last book on screenwriting that you'll ever need," so named because one of the ways to make a tough or potentially unsympathetic character sympathetic is to have him do something like ... save a cat, which Ove does, eventually. Still, I enjoyed the book; I'm a sucker for any book that deals with empathy; and I'd read another by Backman.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Elizabeth Strout, MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON

This is a quiet book; it is the first-person recalled conversation between a woman (Lucy) who is in the hospital for several weeks for an operation and recovery; and her mother, who comes to visit her from a tiny town in Illinois. It largely concerns Lucy's poverty-stricken, desperate childhood, and how she made the transition to living in New York City, married and with two children, and becoming a writer. (The voice feels deeply authentic, and I couldn't help wonder how much the narrative voice leaned on Strout's own experience.) The prose is even in tone, not at all hysterical or overwrought; but the memories are wildly uneven--from Lucy reading books in a quiet classroom after school (to stay warm, and avoid going home to the garage, where they live) to being locked in a truck for a day, with a snake, while her parents are at work and her older siblings at school. People might gripe that this book "tells" instead of "shows"; I would not say so at all. (To me, "telling" is not the same as reporting events that happen off-stage, or in the past; it's when events happen on stage and the author writes "she was mad" instead of "she hurled the pot at his head." But not everyone would agree with my definition.) This book is, for me, about empathy; how it happens unevenly, how the mother who is incapable of empathy when Lucy was young has developed a crack here and there, but is still largely unenlightened and too fragile to cope with anything real; how marriage shines a bright light on childhood scars; how recovery happens through contact with people who are steady, who are honest, who know how to listen and love. It's a quick read (an hour or two) and worth it.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Geraldine Brooks, THE SECRET CHORD

Geraldine Brooks's earlier novels Year of Wonders and March are still two of my favorites; but this one didn't resonate with me the same way. It's the story of King David, told by his prophet Natan; parts were familiar to me (the slaying of Goliath) and parts not; it's full of war and political intrigue and rape. The use of a secondary character to tell a fiery protagonist's story is often an effective device; but I didn't feel that Natan's point-of-view added as much as it might have, partly because his character did not change throughout; he begins and remains the prophet. (Often, for me, the dual change in two characters can create all kinds of good dramatic tension.) As usual with Brooks, some of the language and phrases just sing--"[I saw] the sinews of his back, taut with the strain of the pulled bow"; "her face was tilted upward, to catch a meager shaft of light." But at times I was pulled up short by certain words that felt very contemporary--"scar tissue" (mid-19th-c), the feet on the stones beating a "celebratory tattoo" (1500s), and the phrase, "Well, you might have suckered my brother but you don't fool me." I will always read Brooks's books, however, and look forward to her next.