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text 2017-11-29 13:01
"Beartown" by Frederik Backman - beautifully written but too painful for me to finish
Beartown: A Novel - Fredrik Backman

I read the first half of "Beartown" in about three days back in May, some seven months ago now. I was delighted. Here's what I said about it after the first day:

    Beartown” is the latest book from Fredrik Backman ( “A Man Called Ove” and “My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry”).

    It’s about a remote, slowly dying, small town in the middle of the woods where the success of the Junior Hockey Team is the last hope for the town to grow rather than continue its slow decline

    I’ve barely started the book and it's already holding my imagination hostage. The language is simple and undramatic yet it gets to the heart of the things that shapes lives.

    Here’s how it starts:

    “Late one evening, towards the end of March, a teenager picked up a double-barrelled shotgun, walked into the forest, put the gun to someone else’s forehead and pulled the trigger. This is the story of how we got there”.

As I read more, I was carried along by the rhythm of the sparse language, which beat into me, like the smack of a puck against a fence, how much a hockey team and a hockey game can mean to a small, failing town in need of hope and pride. It drew me into the lives of people I could see as clearly as if I'd lived with them for years and let me see the world through their eyes

And with each page, as we journeyed towards that shotgun in the woods, my sense of dread grew.

Then I reached the rape.

I saw the damage it did. I imagined the damage it would do. I understood how the ordinary, everyday nature of the act intensified its evil at the same time that it made it credible. This is how life is. I know that. But I couldn't bring myself to read more of it.

I set it aside for a while. I didn't want to abandon something so well written and so true. I was sure I'd pick it up again and savour it.

Today, I tried, not for the first time, to go back to it.

I can't, or, more honestly, I won't.

It's painful to see the world that clearly and then focus on how we do each other harm and how the harm is amplified by poverty, desperation, and a culture where the right of the powerful to do wrong is accepted with sad resignation rather than challenged with righteous anger.

I'll move on to Backman's next book and leave this one closed.

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review 2017-11-18 09:36
"Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine" by Gail Honeyman
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine - Gail Honeyman

I was wary of reading this book because I was told it was partly about loneliness and what it does to us and that sounds as much fun as reviewing the final stages of terminal cancer. I picked it up because it was consistently described as being well written.


It's more than well written. It's pretty much perfect.


There is so much understanding here of how day to day life really is, how we struggle with it, how loneliness colonises our lives like a carcinogenic mould until our lives become literally unbearable and how important small acts of kindness and regular honest contact are.


The book is written entirely from Eleanor Oliphant's point of view. It's a point of view quite unique to her, a product of her history, her isolation and the pressure of a trauma that she can only cope with by living a life as free from emotion as she can manage.


If you've ever been the unpopular person, the nutter, the lonely one, the one who genuinely doesn't get parties and small talk and the obsession with pointless television, then there are many points in this book where you will find yourself cringing with muscle-memory recognition of embarrassment and hurt. You can see exactly how Eleanor misreads things or behaves in ways that make other people dislike or dismiss or ridicule her. You know that she knows she's not easily likeable and that she has no idea what to do about it other than endure.


Eleanor starts from a worse place than most of us but many of us have walked parts of this path.


Eleanor is strong. So strong that she rejects help and deals on her own with what has happened to her and how it shapes her daily life. Eleanor is also vulnerable, fragile and in pain. Yet she makes the most of it. She tries to have a life. Most of the time.

In the first half of the book I became acclimatised to Eleanor's coping strategies, her constraints and her small acts of courage and began to hope for her, When bad times arrived they were devastating. There's no sugar-coating. No ducking of the issues. Just a bleak confrontation of reality. It is hard to take but it is worth taking because it feels true.


When better times arrive, not yet good times but much better than the times that preceded them, I could see and feel the slow, painful progress Eleanor was making. Her sessions with a counsellor are wonderfully done. I've always been resistant to the concept of psychotherapy but I understand what is being done here. It's imperfect and limited but so much better than the alternative.


The writing is excellent.  The characterisation is both subtle and clear. Modern life is closely observed and then relayed through the unique filter of Eleanor's perception. The emotions in the book are strong and real but not broadcast in soundbites or flash cards. If this was a movie, there would be no dramatic music, just close-ups of people being people.


This is one of my favourite books this year. I went to see what other Gail Honeyman books I could buy and then discovered that this is her debut novel. That's quite hard to take in. How do you come up with something this good from a standing start?

I listened to the audiobook version which is beautifully done. You can hear a sample below


[soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/319244987" params="color=#ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&show_teaser=true&visual=true" width="100%" height="300" iframe="true" /]


I've also included interviews with Gail Honeyman at bookpage.com and The Washington Independant Review of Books


gail honeyman

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review 2017-11-13 18:18
"The Scent Of Rain And Lightning" by Nancy Pickard
The Scent of Rain and Lightning: A Novel - Nancy Pickard

"The Scent of Rain and Lightning," tells the story of the misfortune that strikes the Lindner family, the richest ranchers in a failing Kansas town and the impact it has on those who survived it. It is filled with secrets and anger and grief but still manages to find a little room for love and forgiveness.


It has a powerful, sometimes almost overwhelming atmosphere that raises it above a murder mystery into an experience of the damage done by violence, lust and selfishness and the possibility of hope that can be realised only by setting hate aside.


The story is woven between the 1980's when a murder is about to take place and twenty-three years later when the man convicted of the murder is about to be released and returned home.


The first third of the book is heavy with foreboding and loss. You can see the storm coming in the first timeline and smell the pain-etched trail it will leave behind.

The Kansas landscape in which the book is set, with its vast skies and huge storms, is almost a character in the book. It drives the plot, colours the emotions and shapes the characters.


The language of the book is rich without being cloyingly lyrical. It's an excellent book to read aloud, savouring the descriptions that evoke the place and the dialogue that makes each character distinct.


I've seen comments that the ending is anticlimatic, with everything tied up just a little too neatly but I thought the ending offered quiet, credible, continuity and the unrolling of the plot was satisfying if a little less credible.


The book, a rare standalone novel from Nancy Pickard, was released in 2010. The video below is an interview with Nancy Pickard talking about how and why she wrote the book.


[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tbNvYyF5480&w=560&h=315]


In 2017, the book was turned into a film (shot, for reasons that escape me, in Oklahoma)


scent of rain and lightning movie poster

You can see the trailer below (which contains a little more information that I'd care to have before reading the book) but which looks like an atmospheric movie.


[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xHi9Ecs0ucs&w=560&h=315]


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review 2017-10-27 21:10
"I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter" by Erika L Sanchez
I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter - Erika L. Sánchez

In her interview with Hyable, Erika Sanchez gave this as the elevator pitch for "I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter":

The novel s a coming of age story about Julia Reyes, a Mexican-American girl growing up in Chicago. The book begins with the death of her sister, Olga, who appeared to be the perfect daughter until Julia sets out to discover who she truly was. In the process, Julia begins to understand her family and herself.

That (combined with the beautiful cover - hey - covers matter) was enough to get me to read the book but it turns out that it undersold the experience of reading this novel or rather, having it read to me by the talented Kyla Garcia.


What caught me by surprise was the simple beauty of the prose, the depth of the insight into depression and the skilful pacing of Julia's emotional journey.


Julia Reyes speaks directly to camera throughout this novel. The reader becomes her confidante as she describes her life in the immediate aftermath of her sister's death. Much of the success of the novel comes from Julia's distinctive voice and the honesty with which she shares her anger, her frustrations, her wit, her passion for writing and her complex and painful love for her parents and, eventually, herself.


Julia is struggling with the gap between the life she has and the life she wants. She believes that her true self is not only unseen by those who love her but is constantly under threat from the pressures they place on her to be the good Mexican daughter her sister was seen to be. She is depressed and anxious, prone to outbreaks of temper, constantly in conflict with her mother and only truly happy when she writes.


Erika Sanchez's simple, precise, beautiful prose, captures Julia perfectly and helps the reader see her clearly in a way that seems effortless and natural but which requires great skill.


The novel deals with death, love, cultural and personal identity and the impact of trauma and secrets on our ability to be honest with ourselves and others. This is not an easy ride but it is one that is filled with deep compassion, a reluctance to judge and a refusal to simplify or avoid unpleasant things.


While this is a book about a Young Adult, I see it as mainstream literature and not a YA genre piece. This is a remarkable book that will engage the emotions and the minds of readers of all ages.


I recommend the audiobook version. Click on the SoundCloud link below to listen to a sample.


[soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/339257078" params="color=#ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&show_teaser=true&visual=true" width="100%" height="300" iframe="true" /]


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review 2017-10-22 21:56
"My Name Is Lucy Barton" by Elizabeth Strout
My Name Is Lucy Barton: A Novel - Elizabeth Strout

What I want to say about "My Name Is Lucy Barton" is:

Read it and read it soon. It's full of truth. It will make you cry. It will make you feel less alone. It will give you courage. It will fill your imagination as you read it and echo in your memory long afterwards.


At one point in the book Lucy says, "I know a true sentence when I hear one." Well, this seems to me to be a book full of true sentences. I kept interrupting myself as I read to make a note of another true thing. Then I realised that the only way to do justice to their truth was to read the book.


It's a short book, he hardcover version is less than 200 pages long, but it felt longer, not because it drages but because I was intensely engaged by every page. Not a word is wasted,


"My Name Is Lucy Barton" is about "A poor girl from Amgash who loved her momma." It's not a plot driven book or even a character driven book. It's a book in which Lucy, talking to us directly and frankly shares her thoughts, emotions and memories about how she and her mother were together.


In a few hours of listening I felt that I knew who Lucy Barton was, at least as well as anyone can know such a thing.


Lucy's honesty, what she describes as "the ruthlessness of holding on to myself" filled me with admiration. I know I am not that honest with myself and I know that I shy away from writing quite as honestly as she does.


Lucy understands that it is hard to be truthful. Our memories tend to become the stories we persuage ourselves to believe. The truth they hold is not always entirely factual and may change over time. At one point she says:

"My life has changed so much that I look back on those early years and say, 'It can't have been that bad.' and perhaps it wasn't.  Perhaps."

Later she recalls what she thought about a conversation and then says:

"Maybe I didn't think that. Maybe I just think that now, when I write this."

She spend some time reflecting on the question

"How do children come to know about the world. How do you learn it's not polite to ask people why they don't have children?"

She knows that she has

"Vast pieces of knowledge missing from childhood that cannot be replaced."

Lucy has always been lonely, she has always been different. She has spent large part of her life not wanting to be different any more.


Lucy embraced books because reading made her feel less alone. Then one day she read a book that made her want to write a book and the course of her life changed. She finally had something that was hers.


As she tells us her story, Lucy has already had novels published yet she says of herself;

"I know nothing of the lives of others. So much of life is speculation."

This is a book about love. It is not romantic or sentimental. It is an honest account of how complicated and painful and necessary love is. Lucy Barton knows that

"We all love imperfectly."

but she does not see that not as a weakness but an unaviodable truth.


I've never read Elizabeth Strout before but I'm now eager to read anything else that she's written.


Elizabeth Strout talks well about her writing.


Here you'll find a FreshAir podcast


Below is a discussion on YouTube


[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uBwOE7T-7Vs&w=560&h=315]


Kimberley Farr does a splendid job as the narrator. Click on the SoundCloud link below to her a sample.


[soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/241442996" params="color=#ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&show_teaser=true&visual=true" width="100%" height="300" iframe="true" /]

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