Monday, April 12, 2021

Fredrik Bachman's Anxious People

Lately I find that I often feel slightly out of touch with my fellow man. What do you do with a book that opens with the author stating, “This story is about a lot of things, but mostly about idiots.”? I felt slapped in the face and had an immediate and visceral reaction that pre-disposed me to dislike the novel called “Anxious People.” My parents would have punished us kids for even thinking about calling A picture containing text, sign

Description automatically generatedsomeone else an idiot. The bottom line though is that I genuinely enjoyed this novel even as it broke my heart. Why? Because it is overwhelmingly full of human beings, not so much anxious, as fearful of what life has in store, fearful of failing, fearful of loneliness, fearful of abandonment. In other words, a book for our times.

Touted as a comedic tour de force, there is little that I found funny in this novel. Poignant? Yes. Ironic? Sometimes. The premise is that a desperate robber with a toy gun tries to hold up a bank employee at a cashless facility. As the teller threatens to call the police, our thief, in a panic, runs through a back door, up a set of stairs, and walks right into a real estate open house in a small condominium complex. Before a word is uttered, assumptions are made, and our hapless robber suddenly has a hostage situation on his hands. The hours drag by, journalists, TV vans, cops, and onlookers gawk at the building as the folks inside settle in for an awkward meet and greet.

A retired couple who fill their days flipping properties and making money rather than do the hard work of communicating, a young couple expecting their first child and terrified that they won’t be good parents, and elderly woman waiting for her husband to park the car, an aloof banker, this disparate group spar, practice avoidance, and slowly open up over the course of an afternoon while Jim and Jack, a dysfunctional father/son duo of local police officers waiting for the big guns from Stockholm to arrive, decide to take matters into their own hands and learn wonderful new things about each other.

Author Fredrik Bachman makes no secret of his own high anxieties. A friend and I saw him present at a panel discussion in New York City and it felt painful to watch. For this reason, I am going to go out on a limb here and say that perhaps the gentleman doth protest too much. He may say he thinks they are idiots, but he loves his characters, each and every one. By the end of the novel, readers will love them too, for their insecurities, their frailties, their lack of self-awareness, but their willingness to face their demons.   

Our discussion group last night was plagued by Zoom problems but in-between the annoyances we agreed on a few things. If you have never read Bachman before you may be put off by his choppy writing style and penchant for interspersing his own opinions into the tale. One member of our group made the spot-on recommendation that “Anxious People” would be better served if presented as a play. We all agreed though that the joy of this book is that, though written in Sweden about Swedes, the struggles of the characters, dealing with grief and possible self-harm, have universal reach, and we loved the way Bachman forced us repeatedly to face our own biases and assumptions.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Spring Book and Author Festival

This past week Penguin/Random House, Library Journal, and School Library Journal hosted a fabulous day of book chats and panel discussions featuring hot titles coming out for avid readers this spring. I could sign up for as many or as few hour-long sessions as I liked. I did not want to be too greedy with the virtual LJ Day of Dialog looming in May.

The morning session “Illuminating Book Club Picks”, two memoirs and two novels based on memoir, led to a timely investigation of the fine line between fiction and truth and why certain authors choose one mode over the other in which to interrogate their pasts. Moderator Migdalia Jimenez from the Chicago Public Library pointed out the themes that each book shared that would force book groups to look deeper than the average reader might. Among these are:

Point of View – multiple characters who have very differing perspectives and make alternate choices in their lives that others may not approve of or understand.

Coping with Grief – illuminating the myriad responses people have to grief and recognizing the validity of each person’s individual reaction.

Trauma and Loss – investigates how people’s lives are changed by historical events, WW II, 9/11, Brexit, etc.

Childhood Connections – the best and the worst parenting and how we cope, growing up in multi-generational homes, sibling rivalry, and mother/daughter conflict.

These four diverse authors shared their stories with us and each sounds unforgettable. KeepThe Ugly Cry: A Memoir your eyes peeled for Danielle Henderson’s “The Ugly Cry, A Memoir,” a reckoning with her fractured family using humor and grace.

Michelle Zauner also chose the memoir format for her new book “Crying in H Mart,” about re-discovering her Korean identity and her relationship with her mom as she helps her face a cancer diagnosis.

Vietnamese American debut author Eric Nguyen chose fiction, and a glorious title, “Things We Lost to the Water,” to examine the lives of two immigrant boys and their homeless, jobless mother as they Things We Lost to the Water: A novelrelocate and try to forge a life in New Orleans, always waiting for their father to join them in their strange new world.

 And then, “Rainbow Milk” by a British debut novelist, Paul Mendez, tells the story of nineteen-year-old Jesse, a gay, Black man raised in a Jehovah Witnesses household trying to come to terms with his sexuality, the color of his skin, and the lack of means to support himself in a country that will always see him as different.


The afternoon session was all about the so-called “Big Summer Reads,” all novels and all sounding fascinating. I’ll tell you all about them tomorrow and follow that up with a blow by blow of our neighborhood book discussion on “Anxious People” by Fredrik Bachman.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Viola Ardone's The Children's Train

Raising a child to a reasonably sane, functional adulthood has got to be the most difficult job in the world! The longer I live, the more I witness the disparities in prosperity that affect young families and their ability to feed, clothe, and educate their offspring, the more I have concluded that it is a remarkable leap of faith to procreate.

These thoughts were brought home to me this past weekend while I was reading  The Children’s Train,” by Viola Ardone, a fictional take on an historical event that happened in Italy at the end of World War II. In southern Italy, Naples in particular, poverty and hunger are rampant. Amerigo and his friends steal food from the street vendors and scrounge for rags to sell. School is a distant dream. But members of the Communist party, in a bid for solidarity, have partnered with families in the more prosperous north, to temporarily take in the kids of Napoli, feed them back to health, send them to school, and treat them as if they were their own children.

Our narrator, Amerigo Speranza, is wise beyond his seven years. Unlike his friends, he doesn’t fall for the gossip that says the children are being sent to Russia to work. He just wants to be warm and maybe have a new pair of shoes and since his Mamma Antonietta is always complaining about having him underfoot in their two-room apartment, he embraces the train trip to Bologna and the new life that waits for him there.

Children are so smart, so intuitive. If they had only been told the truth from the beginning, that they would eventually be returning to their homes, that their parents sent them away for their health and well-being, that they were loved, there might have been less chance that they would not want to return. Looking at the world through Amerigo’s eyes we understand that he’s never felt cared for, that he has no idea who his father is, that his mother is likely depressed and barely functional after the death of her first born.

 Amerigo is ripe for the big, warm open house and arms of his benefactor, Derna, and her extended family, which includes Rivo and Luzio, two boys his own age. Their dad, Alcide, is the first male role model Amerigo has ever had, a man who encourages Amerigo in his love of music. The more he thrives, the more the world opens to him, full of possibilities, and the shabby apartment and the mother he is a bit ashamed of seem extremely far away.

Though Amerigo is a funny smart aleck whom one easily comes to love, this novel has a melancholy tone that is difficult to shake off. The language is simplistic, no flowery, languorous sentences from Ardone or her translator. What’s most interesting about it is the way the fallout from this social experiment impacted the various children as they grew up, the ones who returned and the ones who did not. I’ve tried to find some evidence of studies that may have been done by psychologists because I believe they would be fascinating but so far, no luck.

A famous poster from the Vietnam era tells us that “War is not healthy for children and other living things.” This book lends itself to a radical discussion of displacement during wartime and the trauma that parents suffer when faced with the ultimate sacrifice, to give up their children so that they might live.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Cherie Jones' How the One-Armed sister Sweeps Her House

Cherie Jones! Another debut novelist who knocks it out of the park on the first swing! “How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House” is simply dazzling, perhaps a strange term to describe a book about the long arc of domestic violence as it passes down through three generations. After Lala’s mom died, her grandmother Wilma grudgingly took her in but watched her like a hawk. All that scrutiny could not save Stella, who preferred to be called Lala, from pregnancy though, so she packs her bags and moves down the road to Adan’s one-room shack on Barbados’s Baxter’s Beach.

Lala had been a girl with dreams. She set up her hair braiding booth smack dab on the sand in front of the gorgeous high-rise, gated condominiums where wealthy Europeans relaxed for months at a time. She had a way with the women. Her sunny disposition and magic hands earned her a decent amount of money. She was saving to get away.

What drew her to Adan? Maybe the fact that he had ambitions too? But Adan didn’t work for the money he flaunted when he was flush. He had learned how to break and enter from his stepfather when he was only ten. In fact, he was robbing a home the night Lala went into labor. In pain and frightened she ran down the street to the first mansion with lights on and leaned on the bell. Lala heard the gunshot, then the scream, and somehow intuited that her life was about to drastically change.

Jones, a victim of abuse herself, must have found it deeply cathartic to write certain scenes. They are terrifying in their reality. Both Wilma and Stella exhibit that wariness and obsequiousness that plagues a woman who is physically or emotionally beaten down. Always trying to gauge the mood of the man, what might set him off, is exhausting. When the blow comes, no matter how many times it has been landed before, it is always a shock.

Every character in this amazing book has a deeply disturbing backstory. Jones is generous in sharing these with us, never making a judgment or an excuse. There are Peter and Mira, the victims of Adan’s latest B & E, and there’s Adan’s best friend and Stella’s first lover, Tone, damaged by a childhood trauma yet still able to love. Jones is psychologically astute when writing about the stages of grief and when interrogating the deadly resentments fomented by racial and class divisions on an island that appears from the outside to be Paradise.

Beautiful cover. Gorgeous writing. 2021 is shaping up to be stellar year for literature!

Monday, March 1, 2021

Take a Romp with Richard Osman's Thursday Murder Club

If I never get to live my dream of retiring to Louise Penny’s Three Pines on the outskirts of Montreal, my second choice is now Richard Osman’s Coopers Chase in the British countryside where I hope the members of “The Thursday Murder Club” will find my skills as a reference librarian suitable for entrĂ©e.

Joyce is keeping a diary, so it is through her voice that we are first introduced to Elizabeth, Ron, and Ibrahim, the remaining members of the murder club. Since Penny, a former DCI who absconded with files of unsolved crimes upon her retirement, had a stroke and moved to the nursing home, the club has been circumspectly seeking a fourth member. As a former nurse, Joyce seems a perfect fit.

Joyce has a wry sense of humor, is not the least bit sentimental, and had me frequently laughing out loud, but forget the reviews that call this murder mystery hilarious. Osman has imbued his debut novel with deep psychological insight into the nature of aging with dignity, living with grief, and coping with loneliness.

Tony Curran had left the life of a drug dealer far behind, going straight as a contractor for the smarmy Ian Ventham, fast-talking, loose with the truth developer of Coopers Chace. Ventham has an unpopular expansion in mind, one that would mean the destruction of the ancient Catholic cemetery on the property, where many of the Chace’s seniors walk for exercise and contemplation.

But all those new units mean job security for Curran so why are Ian and Tony having such a heated altercation in the Coopers Chase parking lot for all the community to witness? And what to think when Curran turns up in a pool of his own blood on his luxurious kitchen floor? The Thursday Murder Club is chomping at the bit to get involved. They begin by enticing Donna, an officer recently relocated from London and bored out of her mind, to a meet and greet heavy on desserts and wine. Soon she introduces her DCI, Chris Hudson, to the group and they’re off and running.

Osman sprinkles his story with enough red herrings to keep clever readers on their toes throughout, but it’s his take on human nature that I loved most about this book. Life is so precarious. One bad choice made early on can ruin a life forever. How does one outrun his past? Is there more than one acceptable way to make amends for a youthful mistake? I found this to be a wise, wonderful discourse on human frailty wrapped in a complex murder plot that stymied me until the very end.