I had to wait what felt like a decade but I finally got to see what all the hype was about when I read A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. This is a Swedish to English translation so I went into this one fairly confident I was going to love it based on my track record. (For example, I read The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared last year.) And I was right! The story centers on Ove who everyone sees as a cranky old man completely set in his own ways aka a total curmudgeon. However, the reader gets to see what goes on behind closed doors and so from the very start we know that all Ove wants is to kill himself. (This is a very funny book, trust me.) Yes, he wants to commit suicide except that every time he turns around someone in the neighborhood is approaching him with a problem. He's Mr. Fix-It in a pair of clogs. A man born of routines and logic is soon forced into a group of people who use those dreaded things called feelings to inform all of their decisions. We get to discover who Ove really is through flashbacks as well as his reactions to those around him. For a man that doesn't seem to hold much stock in that feeling malarkey it's soon readily apparent that he's not some automaton obsessed with Saab automobiles. (Although he really is obsessed with Saab vehicles.) It's a reminder that surface impressions are generally completely erroneous and that still waters truly run deep. This is such a beautifully wrought story bursting at the seams with heart and humor. If you're looking for a great character study with a lot of biting wit then I think this one is for you. 10/10
The Kordolians are loose on the asteroid mining station Fortuna Tau, and first-rank mechanic Jia Morgan has become caught up in the thick of things. Under the careful watch of these steely-eyed silver warriors, Jia and her team have been tasked with repairing the hull of the Kordolians' Alpha-Class battle cruiser,Silence.The problem is, their alien technology is far, far beyond anything she's seen before, and whatever they try to weld to Silence's black hull just won't stick.
When Jia goes in search of a tool that might actually penetrate the warship's impossibly strong Callidum exterior, she find herself being aided by a most unlikely source. The hard-faced warrior who's decided to accompany her walks on silent feet and carries a big, big gun. He's equal parts scary and attractive, in an otherworldly sort of way.
But although Jia finds this Kordolian fascinating, she's not even going to try and get close to him, because, well, he's a freaking Kordolian, and Kordolians aren't exactly known throughout the Nine Galaxies for being warm and fuzzy.
Instead, she's going to do her job and fix their warship, because that's the only way these intimidating warriors are ever going to leave Fortuna Tau. Hopefully, they won't break anything, or anyone, on the way out.
Oh, and there's also the small matter of these flesh-eating insect-aliens called Xargek. Apparently, they bite.
He is grumpy. He falls head over heels for a kick ass mechanic heroine. They have great adventures and mega sexy times. Good stuff.
I try to imagine Lester Goran a few years before this novel was published. This must have been 1956 or 1957. He's a struggling writer. He's reading the great works of fiction, pulling them apart and putting them back together again to see how they tick. He's in his mid-20s and he's desperately trying to write something worthy of his young ambitions.
Miraculously, The Paratrooper for Mechanic Avenue is accepted. The young man begins a career.
I typically think of first novels as failures. As learning experiences. Who knows if this was actually Lester's first novel. It certainly doesn't read like a first novel. After having read three other of Lester's works, works that were much easier to track down, here I am reading his first novel -- so I can pull it apart and put it back together again (as Lester did with the authors he read).
What do I learn reading this novel? I learn something about choosing subjects. A novel about an impoverished Polish family growing up in the ghetto -- this couldn't have been an easy thing to write about. It must have been an even harder sell. There are no clear heroes in this novel, but the characters are compassionately drawn. If their realism makes them ugly and hard to romanticize, Lester's sympathy for them also makes us care about them -- ugly warts and everything. Perhaps he had to write about this. The subject chose him. Not the other way around.
I learn about characters. Good characters should lead their authors as much, if not more, than their authors lead them. Ike-O, the failed soldier and child of a Polish ghetto, often leads the story in ways that are unexpected but realistic. His story and Dolly's story probably wouldn't fit into the neat boxes of a pre-fabricated plot outline. I think that makes this story stronger, not weaker. It also probably made it a harder sell to a literary agent. (The plot synopsis usually goes before the manuscript.)
Authenticity. Lester always said, you don't have to write what you know, but you can't write what you don't know. It's clear that Sobaski's Stairway is a real place. Catfish Gudunsky is a real person. The authenticity is what makes the novel.
First novels and the collective memory of literature. This was Lester's first novel -- published when he was 26. It's a triumph. At sixteen chapters and 178 pages, it might not be an ambitious artistic work. First novels shouldn't take too many bold risks. But within these confines there is clear genius. 56 years later, the book is all but forgotten.
It's not obvious that it should be. Sure, the novel is about ugly people in an ugly environment doing horrible things (so is most of Steinbeck's novels). The topic itself probably wasn't easy to market. But if good literature is supposed to naturally rise to the top, then there is no good reason to believe this book shouldn't still be with us today in some form.
Thus, the last thing I learned from the book is this: It's not enough to write good literature. It's not enough to read good literature and to try to emulate its practices. We also need to be advocates for good literature. We need to keep our eyes open for the neglected works and keep them alive whenever we can.
What do we miss if we don't? We miss moment like these:
"Ike-O did not look at him; the world pulls in on itself, it ends, it suffocates itself like a match gone out, and Ike-o Hartwell stands on the corner of Mechanic and Gardenia and looks away and asks no questions and waits dumbly to suffer further." (p. 143).