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A Man Called Ove – Fredrik Backman

Review (Amazon): Meet Ove. He’s a curmudgeon—the kind of man who points at people he dislikes as if they were burglars caught outside his bedroom window. He has staunch principles, strict routines, and a short fuse. People call him “the bitter neighbor from hell.” But must Ove be bitter just because he doesn’t walk around with a smile plastered to his face all the time?

Behind the cranky exterior there is a story and a sadness. So when one November morning a chatty young couple with two chatty young daughters move in next door and accidentally flatten Ove’s mailbox, it is the lead-in to a comical and heartwarming tale of unkempt cats, unexpected friendship, and the ancient art of backing up a U-Haul. All of which will change one cranky old man and a local residents’ association to their very foundations.

A feel-good story in the spirit of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, Fredrik Backman’s novel about the angry old man next door is a thoughtful exploration of the profound impact one life has on countless others. “If there was an award for ‘Most Charming Book of the Year,’ this first novel by a Swedish blogger-turned-overnight-sensation would win hands down” (Booklist, starred review).

My Review:

Executive Summary: slow to start but sweet at the end

This book took a little while to get into, but once you were, it was an easy read. It did remind me quite a bit of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, which was on our bookclub list pre-blog, thus it had been a few years since I read it, and it didn’t really make me like this book less.

As I’m writing this review, I just scrolled back to page 1 of the book, and I realize that the first sentence of the book is “Ove is fifty-nine.” Interestingly, I had forgotten this throughout the book, as Ove seems well into his seventies. He’s grouchy, stuck in his ways, and basically hates everyone and everything. He’s the neighbor you don’t want who does daily inspections around the neighborhood, ensuring that not a hair is out of line, even when it’s not a rule for the hair to be in line.

Ove used to be happily married to a teacher, Sonja, a ray of sunshine in Ove’s dark life. And when she died of cancer six months prior, Ove regressed into his darkness. The underlying plot of the book is Ove trying to commit suicide, in a dignified way, because he can’t go on living without his wife. However, each and every time, something bamboozles his attempt. He lives next door to another couple, Anita and Rune, who have been friends and frenemies over the course of their lives, and now that Rune has had a stroke, city officials are coming into the neighborhood to investigate whether Rune should be taken away from his home for his safety. Rune and Ove moved into the neighborhood at the same time and are two of the original members of the neighborhood. With Rune getting sick, Sonja dying, and the additions of various new neighbors, Ove sees his familiar, regimented old life slipping out of his grasp.

On his first neighborhood round of the book, we get introduced to most of the main players of the story. Ove meets a cat who he tells to scram. We meet Anders, who has a lot working against him. He’s divorced, self-employed, drives an Audi, goes jogging, and has a wife nicknamed “The Blonde Weed”. She has a little obnoxious dog, and Ove especially hates them both. Ove also finds a bicycle parked outside the bicycle shed, so he angrily puts it inside and continues on his route. And as he finishes inspecting unauthorized cars parked overnight in the guest parking or trash being properly sorted, we meet the new neighbor family as the husband backs their trailer into Ove’s house.

The Lanky One gets out of the Japanese car, and both Ove and The Lanky One’s pregnant Arabic wife begin to shout at him for being a moron. Ove thinks he may get along with her. The Lanky One tries again, and then runs over Ove’s mailbox, so Ove orders him out of the car so that he can maneuver the car into the driveway for them. Once finished, he shouts at them for driving where cars are not supposed to be and then stomps to his house! Shortly thereafter, the two daughters–a 7-year old and a 3-year old appear with food for Ove because their mom said he was probably hungry.

This begins a begrudging relationship with Parvaneh and her family. Parvaneh encourages Ove to take in the stray cat when it’s near death from being outside in the Swedish cold. Through this, he also reintroduces himself to Jimmy, as he uses his big body and its heat to help warm up the cat…and then realizes he’s allergic and Ove and Parvaneh take him to the hospital.

Parvaneh convinces Ove to teach her how to drive, and in the meantime, imposes herself and her children on him, always at crucial times during his suicide plots, to drive here various places.

But Ove isn’t only making friends with her family. He also helps the teen, Adrian, who owns the bicycle which was not in the shed like it was supposed to be. He’d agreed to help fix it it up for a girl who he likes.  Ove, with Parvaneh, deliver the bicycle to his place of employment, a cafe, where Ove learns that Adrian knows nothing about fixing bicycles, and his dad is in prison. So Ove shows him how to fix up the bicycle. Upon returning into the cafe, Ove meets one of Adrian’s coworkers, another adolescent named Mirsad, who is “bent”, and his father Amel. He also saves a man who has fallen onto the train tracks, as he is there planning to jump in front of them to take his own life. Through this, he makes the acquaintance of a journalist who he continues to shrug off for her story about his heroic deeds

Later in the story, Mirsad comes out to his father, who doesn’t take it well, and Ove ends up taking Mirsad into his home. Mirsad asks if he can accompany Ove and the cat on the daily neighborhood round. Upon this route, they stumble upon Jimmy who informs Ove that social services is coming to get Rune. Anita has been appealing it for two years, but the decision has been made. Ove is furious that he and Sonja didn’t know anything about this, but Jimmy says that they had specifically made the decision to not tell Ove and Sonja because they had had enough troubles of their own after the accident. Ove is furious. He’s had his share of run-ins with the “white shirts” over the years–first when he was younger and his house burned to the ground, and later after Sonja’s accident when the driver was drunk. In both cases, the bureaucracy did not work in Ove’s favor, and he was bound and determined that it wouldn’t happen again.

With the help of all the neighbors, Anders, who works with a towing company, manages to tow the white shirt’s car, illegally parked in the neighborhood of course, while he’s in getting Rune ready to move out. When he comes out and finds his car missing, he of course assumes Ove, who has been badgering him about the illegally parked cars for years and calls the police. When the white shirt returns, with two other white shirts, the neighborhood is ready. Jimmy, Anders, Mirsad, Parvaneh and co., and of course Ove are all there to back her up. So is Lena, the journalist. They show the white shirts a bunch of information about themselves, and basically suggest that the white shirts leave Rune and Anita alone or the information will be published. (This was a bit of a stretch in the plot, but OK.)

They all go on to live their happy lives. We learn that Ove has a heart condition–his heart is too big! Oh the irony is a little ham fisted here. The book technically ends when Parvaneh has her third child, a boy. But of course there is an epilogue to give everyone closure on the story. Four months later, Ove dies in his sleep. He gifts many things to all his recent friends, and over 300 people come to his funeral.

Verdict: 3 stars

Generally pretty good. It’s drily funny, and I always love a good curmudgeon. The ending was a bit overdone in my opinion (a bit too Hollywood ending), but generally the story moved nicely and was a decent “feel good” tale.

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Filed under 3.5 stars, Book Club, Book Review

The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins

Review (Amazon): 

EVERY DAY THE SAME
Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning and night. Every day she rattles down the track, flashes past a stretch of cozy suburban homes, and stops at the signal that allows her to daily watch the same couple breakfasting on their deck. She’s even started to feel like she knows them. Jess and Jason, she calls them. Their life—as she sees it—is perfect. Not unlike the life she recently lost.

UNTIL TODAY
And then she sees something shocking. It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough. Now everything’s changed. Unable to keep it to herself, Rachel goes to the police. But is she really as unreliable as they say? Soon she is deeply entangled not only in the investigation but in the lives of everyone involved. Has she done more harm than good?

My Review (spoilers):

Executive Summary: pathetic and boring

I have NO IDEA what the hype was all about regarding this book. It is similar to Gone Girl, in that there’s not a single likable character in this book. But Gone Girl was actually interesting, not about a pathetic alcoholic creepily watching people while riding on a train. If I hadn’t been reading it on vacation, I’d have put it in my charity donation box unread.

Rachel, the main character, divorced from her husband 2 years prior after he was caught having an affair with Anne. Rachel moved in with a friend, started drinking heavily, and her train ride into work drives her past her old neighborhood where she had lived with her ex-husband Tom. The train always stopped so that she could look out the window and see one of the houses that was a few doors down from her old house. The couple who lived there had moved in after Rachel moved out, so she didn’t actually know them, but she concocted a story about their happy life.

Eventually Rachel’s drinking gets her fired, but she doesn’t want to tell her roommate, so she just keeps taking the train to and from the area where she worked, and mostly just drank all day. One day instead of seeing the couple outside their house, she sees the woman with another man, kissing.

When that woman goes missing, Rachel feels compelled to help the investigation. She doesn’t feel like the investigators are taking her seriously (she is an alcoholic and because she happened to be in that neighborhood at the same time as Megan went missing but was too drunk to recall anything) so she decides to reach out to the husband herself. It starts as just to try to figure out what had happened the night that she could not remember, and also to tell the husband about the mystery man, who turns out to be the shrink that Megan was seeing. Pathetic Rachel can’t let it go though because it’s really the only thing in her sad life so she keeps going over to visit the husband, but Anne keeps seeing her around the neighborhood and reaches out to the police about it. Tom was “supposed to take care of it” but he obviously hasn’t done so. She keeps calling him at all hours and now she’s hanging around. And to add to Rachel being a pathetic weirdo, she decides that she should also start going to the same shrink that Megan went to so that she can make her own assessment of whether or not he’s a killer.

As Rachel starts regaining some memories of the evening that Megan went missing, she realizes that she saw Tom near the train station, and she sees a woman get into the car. She thinks that it’s Anne, but eventually she realizes that it can’t be Anne because Anne has a baby, and she didn’t have the baby with her, and she wouldn’t have left the baby at home. So she realizes that it wasn’t Anne getting into the car, it was Megan.

She goes over to Anne’s to tell Anne that she and the baby need to leave! Anne doesn’t really believe her, but then Tom shows up. He tells Anne and the baby to go upstairs which they do, and he tells Anne how sorry that he is and that he was only sleeping with Megan when Anne was tied up with the baby. Anne realizes that Tom is just a shady person and has been using all the women he’s been with and telling them lies of his family, his military service, among other things. So once she puts the baby up, she goes back downstairs to find Rachel stab Tom in the neck with a corkscrew. Anne helps to push it in, and when the investigators come by, they have a perfect self-defense story.

Verdict: 2.5 stars

This book was so boring. It felt like a terrible reality TV show. All of the characters were pathetic and dull, and the story itself wasn’t any better. When I was at the beach, a woman asked me whether I’d recommend the book (because she like probably everyone else has heard of it), and I said definitely no. Another woman who was nearby gushed about how much she liked it, but she said that the movie was not worth seeing. Not that I was planning on it, but good to know. Even for a beach read, this book was mediocre.

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The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt

  Summary (Amazon): Theo Decker, a 13-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother. Abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Bewildered by his strange new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don’t know how to talk to him, and tormented above all by his longing for his mother, he clings to the one thing that reminds him of her: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the underworld of art.

As an adult, Theo moves silkily between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty labyrinth of an antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love–and at the center of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle.

The Goldfinch is a mesmerizing, stay-up-all-night and tell-all-your-friends triumph, an old-fashioned story of loss and obsession, survival and self-invention, and the ruthless machinations of fate.

My Review (Spoilers!!)

Executive Summary: amazing

So I have been reading this behemoth of a book since the 4th of July. It’s been on my shelf waiting to be read since last summer, but I haven’t had the time to set aside to actually do it. The book recommendation came from a random place. While we were on vacation last summer, we took a sunset ride on a sailboat. Also on this boat ride was a family who we have dubbed “the best family ever”. Because honestly, they seemed so great. The parents worked for the School of Rock, which is actually a real place, not just the Jack Black movie. They had 2 biological college age daughters and one adopted (also college age) daughter, and all were amazingly well-spoken and just very cool. One of the daughters was an avid reader and recommended this book as a must-read.

Maybe her opinion biased me, but I really liked this book, and I thought it was worth the time spent.

Theo Decker lives with his mom; his dad left them and has not made contact. Theo is a smart kid who isn’t applying himself, and he finds himself suspended from school. He and his mother have to go into the school to discuss, and en route, they stop into the Met along the way when it starts to rain. Theo’s mother studied art history at NYU and wants to see a painting that is at the museum, The Goldfinch by Fabritius. It was her favorite as a child, and the tale of how Fabritius died in a fire in Delft with most of his artwork makes it even more rare. While at the museum, Theo finds himself mesmerized by another patron, a pale red haired girl with a man who looks to be her grandfather. When they are approaching the time to go, Theo’s mother tells him to meet her in the gift shop, but she wants to go back and get a look at another painting on display. An explosion occurs in the museum, and when Theo awakes, he has no idea what has happened. He realizes that the grandfather is in the room with him, and is struggling to stay alive. Theo finds some water, gives it to the man, and stays with him until he passes. The man gives Theo his ring and tells him to go to Hobart and Blackwell and ring the green bell. In his delirium, he also suggests to Theo that he take The Goldfinch (which has fallen from the wall in the blast) away from here, which Theo does.

Theo is unsure of his mother’s whereabouts, but when he exits the museum, he sees that they are preparing for an additional explosion. The plan is to always meet back at the house so he heads there expecting that she will eventually return. But she doesn’t. Eventually child protective services arrives. They ask him about his father, but he doesn’t know his father’s whereabouts. They allow him to go to stay with his friend Andy’s family until his grandparents or father can be located. Andy’s family is wealthy, but Andy is the nerdy odd duck of the bunch with his siblings Platt who is older and bullies him and the younger popular Kitsie and Toddy. As best as he can due to his traumatic experiences, Theo is happy at the Barbours, however, once he recovers somewhat, he remembers about the old man and his ring. He tracks down Hobart and Blackwell, rings the green bell, and he finds that the old man was Blackwell. Hobart “Hobie” is still there and explains a bit of the history. Hobie and “Welty” (Blackwell) were business partners dealing predominately in antique furniture. Hobie was the craftsman, and Welty was the salesman. Theo immediately likes Hobie, and is even more drawn to the shop when he finds out that the red haired girl from the museum is also there recovering until she heads to Texas with her aunt. In the meantime, Theo and Pippa become good friends.

One fateful day however, his father arrives with his new girlfriend Xandra. Theo is going with them to Las Vegas. Xandra works in a casino, and Theo’s father is a “professional” gambler. In general, Theo hates his life in Las Vegas, the only bright spot being his friendship with Boris, a Ukranian boy in a similar situation (no mother, deadbeat father). With no attentive parents, the two slip into a pattern of drugs, alcohol, and reckless abandon. They aren’t the only ones. Theo’s father is in trouble with gambling debts. Thugs are showing up at the house when Theo is home, and his father even tries to convince Theo to contact his mother’s lawyer for some of his inheritance. (He can’t withdraw it.) Theo’s father gets drunk and kills himself in a car accident. (This section in Las Vegas went on too long for my taste.)

Once Xandra is passed out after the funeral, Boris and Theo steal her money and drugs, and Theo leaves to head back to New York with the painting and Xandra’s dog who she never took care of anyway. When he finally gets back into New York, dirty and exhausted, he sees Mr. Barbour in Central Park. Mr. Barbour is off of his medication and scares Theo to the point that he has no interest in returning there or even with getting in touch with Andy. He heads to Hobie’s and asks if he can stay. Hobie agrees. Pippa is there again, on break from her school for broken girls, and they reconnect. Eventually Xandra calls and tells Theo that he’s just like his father. However, CPS allows Theo to stay with Hobie while he attends an early college program that he tested into.

The book then skips ahead eight years. We learn that Theo never did that well in school, and eventually returned to help Hobie at the store, taking the place of Welty when the past due notices begin to come in. Theo is wrought with problems. He still has The Goldfinch which stresses him constantly although it’s now in a storage unit. He is addicted to drugs, and he has also taken to selling counterfeit furniture to get the business into the black. He bumps into Platt on the street and becomes reconnected with the Barbours. However, Andy and Mr. Barbour died in a boating accident a few months prior. Theo agrees to dine with the rest of the family at their place since Mrs. Barbour no longer leaves to reconnect, and soon a relationship develops between Theo and Kitsey, although for both, it’s more a matter of appearance. Theo still loves Pippa (who has a boyfriend she lives with in London), and Kitsey is emotionally detached.

One of the people who Theo sold phony merchandise to has figured it out, and he confronts Theo. Theo returns his money plus some, hoping to buy it back and have it settled. However, Lucius Reeve has other ideas. He doesn’t cash the check or return the furniture, and one day confronts Theo with a thought. Lucius believes that Theo stole The Goldfinch from the museum since he was in that room when it was bombed, and Lucius is not above blackmailing Theo and Hobie for it. Obviously Theo is panicking since he still has The Goldfinch in a paid-in-cash storage unit. However, he can’t go check on it without being tracked. Theo’s anxiety is getting the best of him between the fraudulent furniture sales, Lucius Reeve and The Goldfinch and his upcoming wedding to Kitsey with all the parties and schmoozing that accompany it. He takes some time away from her to go see a movie, but ends up wandering around the city with a plan to find drugs. What he does find…is Boris!

It’s not clear what Boris has been up to or what his job actually entails, but it’s presumed to be a bit shady. (No one expected any differently.) In a surprise twist however, Boris reveals that many years ago when they lived in Las Vegas, Theo was blasted and showed Boris the painting. And Boris as a teenage joke, stole it. He meant to give it back, but Theo left in such a hurry, he wasn’t able to. Eventually Boris sells it, and he tells Theo that he will get it back. The pair go visit an associate of Boris’s who doesn’t really know what happened to it, however, through the behavior of the associate’s girlfriend during the meeting, Boris pieces together that her brother is the one who has it.

Boris makes an appearance at the end of Theo’s engagement party (where an associate of Mr. Reeves’ has been threatening him) and tells Theo to pack because they have a lead. Theo and Boris head to Amsterdam through separate routes and reconvene upon arrival. Theo is the American buyer, and they go to the meeting place where there are only 2 people waiting for them. They overtake the men, take the painting, and think they have made a clean getaway. However, a young boy in the restaurant saw what happened and gets the others. Boris and Theo are stopped on the way back to the hotel and a shoot out occurs. Boris is injured in the attack, but the big shock is that Theo shoots and kills one of the men. Boris keeps his cool in the situation. He sends Theo back to the hotel to await his call, and presumably he goes to take care of his arm.

Theo continues to wait for Boris’s call growing more impatient by the minute. His passport is still in the car that they drove to the rendezvous. After trying to get a new passport through the embassy (and failing), he tries to sneak to Paris via train (also failing). Then hee begins to concoct a plan. He writes letters to all the important people in his life–Hobie, Pippa, Kitsey, and Mrs. Barbour, and then does a bunch of drugs. However, the plan is not to commit suicide. The plan is go have a good night and then turn himself in. But before he gets the opportunity, Boris reappears with a bunch of money that he is giving to Theo. Boris indirectly called in an anonymous tip that led to locating the painting and many other pieces of stolen artwork.

Theo returns to the USA and confesses the entire story to Hobie. With his new windfall and essentially new life, Theo sets off to refund the money for all the counterfeit furniture that he sold over the years. He’s still engaged to Kitsey but still a part of him is hoping that something happens with Pippa. The book ends philosophically. One bad decision (stealing the painting) eventually led to a good outcome (recovering it and many other paintings). What does that mean about a person’s innate behavior? What is the meaning of the painting of The Goldfinch itself. A chained bird who looks content in its surroundings.

Verdict: 4.5 stars

I thought this was easily one of the best books I’ve read. The author seems so knowledgeable about everything she wrote about–from art to furniture to drugs. It made this fictional story seem like a real auto-biography. Definitely worth the time commitment.

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Filed under 4.5 stars, Book Review