Category Archives: Good Reads

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

Three-hundred-and-thirty-seven pages. Published by Simon and Schuster in North America.

By the end of the read, I wanted to name the book, A Man Called Love instead of Ove. Because, love and acceptance, although rather begrudgingly, is what this book is all about.

amancalledove_pb_900Backman takes a classic, cranky-next-door-neighbour tale and spins it into a humorous story of acceptance, burying the hatchet and finding new friendships in unlikely places.

I simply couldn’t put it down. If you enjoyed another Swedish book, The 100-Year-Old-Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson, you will positively relish this novel. The convoluted writing style of Ove is peculiar yet easy to read. In his end notes, Backman thanks his editor for making numerous grammatical corrections and suggestions, and for letting Backman ignore them all.

Ove is the curmudgeon next-door, old beyond his years. Life has not been kind to him and he’s bitter because of the hand he’s been dealt. Ove unexpectedly meets the young new neighbours in his townhouse complex when one of them runs over his mailbox while backing-up a U-Haul. Not the best start to a new friendship but it’s the beginning of the blossoming of Ove.

I chose the word blossoming because Ove keeps a sharp eye on the complex for non-approved greenery and flowers residents might plant. But sometimes flowers show up in unexpected places. For Ove, there are rules and they must be obeyed. Playing by the rules is the only thing Ove knows how to do but his neighbours and their trials and exploits force Ove to look beyond the black and white that has been his life.

I won’t spoil the novel with a synopsis of events but they are at times surprising, expected and always serve as an explanation of how Ove got to be the way he is.

A Man Called Ove is a quick and easy read that will lift your spirits and help you see the best in everyone.

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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Published by Crown. Three-hundred and thirty-seven pages.

 

lacks_bookHenrietta Lacks was a poor, barely-educated African-American woman from the South. Her cells were taken by her physician while she was battling cancer. Those cells live on to this day and are said to be responsible for many medical breakthroughs like the polio vaccine. This biography is her story and the story of her children’s lives after her death.

Lacks, who died in 1951, never gave consent for her cells to be taken and her family has never been compensated for their use. Skloot tells us millions if not billions of dollars have been made by the pharmaceutical industry making more of, selling and testing her cells. Typically, our cells die after a period of time outside our bodies. For some reason, Lacks’ cells never die.

The science is fascinating but her story is tragic. Skloot’s book raises more questions than it answers. Was Lacks’ medical treatment inferior to that of white people’s of the era? Was the reason no consent was attempted, and no attempt made to inform her family, because she was black?  Her offspring suffered greatly as children and continued to suffer as adults. They were shocked and confused to learn about their mother’s cells, known around the world by scientists as HeLa.

We learn, alarmingly, that Lacks may have been the first, but not the last person whose cells have been taken by doctors for research without patient consent. Various American courts have upheld the right of doctors and scientists to use people’s cells without compensation to the donor. The reason is invariably that doing so would stagnate medical research. Skloot does a good job of outlining various stakeholders’ arguments for and against that reasoning.

The author, a science writer, unearths a mountain of scientific practices that continue today and affect us one and all.

The Girls by Emma Cline

Published by Random house. Three-hundred and fifty-five pages.

 

botmjuly1606-720x793More than not bad for a debut novel. This New York Times best seller, alluring and electrifying, will send you rushing to Google to check out the facts behind the real Manson Murders.

The novel is roughly based on the Manson murders in L.A. in the late 60s. Pregnant American actress Sharon Tate was among those murdered by the disciples of a strange sect led by Charles Manson. In The Girls, the female followers of counter-culture commune leader Russell, murder an actress and her young son along with two others, at their home. It’s an attempt to get back at a famous singer. Most of these facts are revealed in the opening pages.

The lead-up to the event consumes the rest of the book. It’s a slow simmering pot of ideals and desires gone wrong. Cline’s writing is not always clear and I found myself re-reading several paragraphs to understand her meaning.

The protagonist is 12-year old Evie Boyd who’s under-supervised by her self-absorbed parents during a long summer. Languishing in boredom in the oppressive California heat, Evie, at odds with her only friend Connie, meets cult-follower Suzanne at a park. Evie imagines Suzanne, older and attractive, to be the embodiment of carefree and spirited youth that Evie so desperately craves to be.

The attraction is immediate and with nothing else to do, Evie seeks out Suzanne and boards a bus that will forever change her life.

The Girls does a decent job of laying out the circumstances in which an intelligent but lonely girl can get wrapped up into exploitation, while willfully neglecting the writing on the wall. Evie has plenty of opportunities to get out but the lure of what she considers acceptance and the attention of a charismatic older man, lead Evie down the proverbial garden path. Only, Evie’s is sprinkled with thorns and pestilence.

Get your teenage daughters to read The Girls. The perils of joining a gang are laid before them and the attraction of unrestricted freedom and charming older men slowly crumble.

The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante

Four-hundred-and-seventy-three pages, Europa Editions.

story-of-the-lost-child-cover-241The Story of the Lost Child is the fourth and final installment of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan chronicles recounting the story of Elena and Lina. Reading the book is like cliff-diving off a high cliff and crashing on the rocks below. It’s a sad ending to a glorious story.

I’m not going to spoil the book for you, but the two protagonists become pregnant and raise their children in the old neighbourhood. One of the two protagonists literally loses her child and begins a slow decent into instability if not madness. A lot of ink is taken up summing up of all the characters and where they’re at in their lives when the book ends in 2006. Lina and Elena are in their 60s, as are the majority of the cast of characters who make up the novel.

Elena is a success but she’s crushed by depression, never becoming the confidant person she could have been. She feels that her career has been marred by that. Elena is a success but she’s consumed by self doubt. Lina too, becomes a success but eventually implodes. Lina disappears, we know that in the first pages of the first novel. Here, we get an inkling as to why; she may have been murdered or simply decided to vanish of her own free will. Not knowing why she’s gone missing is an unsatisfying aspect of the novel.

The series has been a stellar trip about the lives of two remarkable women and the people in their lives. However, the ending is a sad ending to an otherwise at times shocking and always eventful series. I expect characters in their 60s to have misgivings, joys and regrets but Elena and especially Lina, loomed larger than life and their senior years are just plain dull.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante. Translated by Ann Goldstein.

Four-hundred and eighteen pages. Europa Editions.

9781609452339Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay reads like a soap opera. You know the entire cast of characters; new and fleeting ones are introduced and they get themselves into dangerous, sad and fascinating situations. You know they’ll get out of the mess they’re in but you don’t know how, so you keep reading.

The third in the four-book Neapolitan series is definitely not pulp fiction, yet it contains lurid and sensational subject matter and its narrative is operatic in scope. The main characters Lina and Elena alone would be comfortable in a Jackie Collins novel; not to mention the characters that surround them. In fact, that may be the broad appeal of the series.

The characters are so richly described and the writing so evocative, that the book is more than typical chick lit about women’s relationships. Ferrante’s talented writing elevates Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay from a light fluffy read at the cottage to literary prose.

The third book becomes more about Elena and how she asserts herself as a person and as a writer, while Lila spins down into a horrible abyss before climbing back up. Characters from the previous two books come together. There’s a reversal of fortune.  At this point, I could give you a synopsis of the novel but I won’t. I didn’t have a clue as to what would happen on these pages and I want to give you the same pleasure.

However, I will tell you that what Lila and Elena go through is almost symbolic of the cultural and social changes that take place in Italy during the late 1960s and 70s, the period the book is set in.

It’s a great read but a thick read at 418 pages. Enjoy.

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante

Europa Editions, four hundred and seventy one pages (translated by Ann Goldstein).

51w00tgvxtl-_sx320_bo1204203200_The Story of a New Name is so addictive; you can’t put it down. This is the second installment in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan chronicles. It’s so much better than the first, My Brilliant Friend. The novel starts where the first one ends – at Lina’s wedding, when she discovers her new husband has already betrayed her.

The soap opera list of characters already established, Ferrante is able to dive into the action in a way the first novel lacks. There’s much less set-up and character back-stories. Ferrante gets right to it and so much actually happens to her beloved duo of Lina and Elena. Lina’s honeymoon is a horror and her newly-wed life never really amounts to more than that. Elena finds success and a somewhat dubious mate.

A good chunk of the novel takes place at the beach where Lina and Elena spend the summer in the hopes of Lina becoming pregnant during one of Stefano’s visits. Plenty of actual sex and thinking about sex takes place at the beach. Lina takes a lover and in a fit of jealousy, Elena decides she’s done with being a virgin and does something drastic and terrible. Elena seems to be suffocating in Lina’s shadow. She believes Lina is sophisticated and intelligent but the ignorance and naiveté of both girls is at times frightening.

Since Elena is narrating the story, and she is infatuated, if not actually in love with Lina, much of the grandiose story-telling is centered around Lina while Elena’s tale is more sombre. This is clearly how Elena sees her own life. She says she’s happy but Elena is unable to tear herself away from Lina, even when Lina appears to implode. Lina is the proverbial traffic accident and Elena is the rubber-necker who can’t move along and eventually gets involved in the accident.

That makes me a voyeur and a speed-reader.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Five hundred-forty-four pages. Published by Hachette.

Yogi Berra uttered the redundant phrase, “it’s déja vu all over again,” and made it funny. There’s nothing fun about reading author Kate Atkinson’s book about déja vu all over again. Other books and movies based on the idea; The Time Traveler’s Wife and Groundhog Day come to mind, do a better job of making the time-shift paradigm enjoyable.

life-after-lifeIn Life After Life, the main character, Ursula Todd, is born on February 11, 1910. She dies at birth only to be born again and again on the exact night with different life outcomes the result of each re-birth. The book is not quite about reincarnation as it is about getting to relive your life over and over again until you get it right.

As Ursula, the precocious child in an upper-class home in the English countryside grows up, she is either raped in her home and lives with the gut-wrenching consequences or slaps her would-be rapist avoiding any second encounter; she either saves a young neighbour from a sexual predator, nearly becomes one of his victims or helps search for the missing girl; Ursula either becomes a confidant of Eva Braun or shoots Hitler herself before the war even begins.

Atkinson writes the story in a way that pivotal occasions in Ursula’s life are re-written over and over again with seemingly small but significant differences. For example, an encounter with two old ladies on a stairwell is re-written at least three times with the identical descriptions and conversations with one slight difference each time. Yet, the end results are the same. This section of the book feels like it was cut and pasted over and over again. I found it annoying to re-read.

Ursula not only has the ability to be re-born at the moment of her birth, she can jump out of windows as a teen and have a building fall upon her as an adult, die and come back again. This is where the book got murky, I wasn’t sure if Ursula’s varied deaths meant that she had to go back to her moment of birth and start over and ultimately, I didn’t know which of lives was her final one. Or, does she keep re-living her life forever?

This should have been an intriguing read full of what-ifs and if-onlys but despite its numerous awards, wasn’t.