Tag Archives: bestsellers

A Man Called Ove: How to tell if the book you’re reading is sentimental crap. Or if you are cruel and unfeeling.

old man

I’m a graduate of a PhD program in English and Cultural Studies. My training was all about – well, most of the time – explaining why something was bad. Oversimplified! (see? I’m good at explaining why I’m bad, too). What it was about was cultivating my critical faculties. My ability to take something apart and show all the ways it was ‘problematic’. There’s a whole set of verbs you can use: problematize, trouble, unpack… all in an effort to have us reconsider the taken-for-granted and the assumed. Sometimes I worried – like L. – that I was being trapped in a culture of criticism that not only meant I had a harder time building or believing in something (that is, being earnest or sincere), but that I was only ever to think about the books I was reading in terms of ‘good’ books (those that were self-aware enough to know they were problematic) and those ‘bad’ books.

So I’m tempted to say that Fredrick Backman’s A Man Called Ove is problematic, but I’m not going to (even though I just did, see?). Instead I’ll say that it’s at once wonderfully enjoyable and a lesson in the conventions of best-selling novels: a story of a man who tries to kill himself because he’s grieving the death of his wife, but can’t kill himself because he finds purpose in building community (how’s that for the elevator pitch?).

The chapters read as headlines (“A Man Called Ove Finds a Screwdriver” “A Man Called Ove Buys Bread”) (which I recently learned is a pretty common strategy in writing a novel, to sketch out your chapters as newspaper headlines) and the narrative – in translation, no less – is funny, warm, cozy and safe. You’re meant to see Ove as his neighbours do, a crotchety old man who is actually the funny, warm, cozy and safe man that parallels his narrative.

It’s a book I’d suggest if you were worried that living in your townhouse in the suburbs was making you less community-focused. Or if you thought that maybe you couldn’t have intergenerational friendships. Or if you were concerned that you were xenophobic or homophobic (or that maybe your granddad was). It’s a book that takes any worry you might have about your existence – or modern life – and banishes it away with the calmest, safest, warmest, funniest, hug-of-sentimentality.

It’s a book you’ll read and you’ll cry in your oatmeal. You’ll be glad you read it for the warmth it gave you all day. You’ll read it knowing there are problems with the narrative construction, with the character, with the politics of the text, but you won’t mind because it makes you feel so good. And whether that makes the book itself good or bad, I’m not one to say. I think there are some occasions (certainly not all, let’s not get carried away), when it’s okay to enjoy a book because it’s enjoyable. And this one really is.

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Filed under Book Club, Fiction, Funny

Birdman: Gross

                                                       finch

I watch crime procedurals to be soothed by the familiarity of the introduction, the red herring, the twist, the conclusion. I read mystery novels knowing that (the good ones) are intentionally playing with the genre, the expectations, the mode and pattern of discovery and twist. So on the recommendation of A. I started reading Mo Hayder’s *Birdman* with the expectation of formal/genre play. On that count the book delivered – much to my chagrin (and secret pleasure) I didn’t see the plot twists coming. 

So what’s my problem? I suppose I wasn’t expecting the graphic violence, the victimization of women (both literally and metaphorically), the pleasure the narrative derives in long passages of brutality. My patience for this sort of normalized violence against women is wearing thin. Throughout this book I felt escalating frustration with the heroic rescue of women in distress, the small and large indignities visited on women’s bodies and identities and the supposed pleasure the reader is meant to take from encountering such descriptions. I did finish the book, but I’ll be taking a long break from Mo Hayder. And suggesting you only read this if you’re looking for examples of the ways in which representations of violence against women are made simultaneously normal and glamorous.  Examples that you can then declare gross and reprehensible. And never read again.

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Filed under Mystery, Worst Books

Quiet – The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking: Am I an Introvert?

introvert-vs-extrovert

My physiotherapist – an introvert – recommended this book to me. I see her twice a week (mostly) and I love her, so I took on reading non-fiction (gross) so that I could tell her about what I thought in one of our many sessions attempting to fix my [unfixable?] feet. This desire to talk-books is, most often, why I read books recommended: I want to read the thing that is important to the people I care about so that I can share it with them, talk to them about it, compare notes. (The exceptions, of course, are when N. or my mum recommend books. I trust their judgement implicitly. Though I’m stumbling my way through Gravity’s Rainbow right now in ways that make me think N. might be wrong for the first time ever. I suspend judgement.).

Right. Enough on books recommended (though  I do extend the offer again to tell me what I should read and why) and more on Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. I was telling my friend M. that I was reading Cain’s book and that on reading it I’d come to think that I might be an introvert. She laughed at me and told me that anyone who reads as much as I do has to be an introvert. Having finished the book I’m not more certain of “what” I am, though more sure of the circumstances that make me more and less likely to behave as if I am an introvert. Certainly more ideas about how I might approach the idea of introverts in my classrooms (more on that in a minute).

What I liked about Cain’s book is the way she allows that people cannot be reduced to a personality trait. That in particular situations we can behave and act in whatever way the context requires. We might just have a preference or an inclination one way or another. The idea of how introverts and extroverts gain energy – time alone and time with others, respectively – also resonated. Her message that our cultural preference for extroverts has reduced introverted behaviours to shameful or apologetic activities also appealed to me on an instinctual level “you’re right! I shouldn’t have to feel guilty for wanting to stay home and read in the tub on a Friday night!” Though I’m suspicious of the science – or at least her presentation of the science – which was as more anecdotal than it was peer reviewed.

But here’s the thing with such books – people read them (and boy are they reading this one) because it explains something people feel. There’s a difference among people – the people person, the shy one, the whatever – and that such an argument presents a comforting explanation for when things don’t go the way we wanted or anticipated “well of course she didn’t hire me, I’m an introvert.” These sort of pat assurances reduce our sense of ourselves to a predetermined or unimpeachable excuse. Cain does make useful distinctions among introvert, shy and sensitive that were refreshing and nuanced. She, too, takes care to argue that being an introvert provides great benefit. But I’m wary of the explanatory power of such books. That students – or others – will explain away their behaviour – of their lack of acting – because “I’m an introvert.” Like learning styles (no actual evidence for learning styles, btw) the idea of introvert-extrovert can be taken to an extreme where it forgets that there are circumstances wherein reflection is required – and everyone should learn how to do it – just as there are circumstances where being engaged with other people (ew) is required – and everyone should learn how to do it.

All this to say the book was helpful in making sense of some of my partner, S. (an clear Cain introvert)’s behaviours. Just as it was helpful in thinking about incorporating more taught-reflection and taught-introspection into my classes. I’m just wary of grand declarations of who we are that explain away behaviour that really does deserve – an introverted! – consideration.

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Filed under Bestseller, Non-fiction

Divergent and Insurgent: Reading for Pleasure and Diminishing Returns

reading-for-pleasureSeldom have I been so excited about a book while reading it and then so utterly disappointed by its conclusion. So it was with Vernoica Roth’s *Divergent* and then *Insurgent*. I have no comment on the final book in the trilogy because I won’t be reading it. Why did I bother with the second, you ask? Well, I was so captivated by the first half of *Divergent* that I went and bought the second book and lest I be one to squander my (tiny) book buying budget, I had to read the second out of deference to Not Wasting Book Money. The gap between my enthusiasm and my eventual feeling about the book is hard to retrospectively bridge. That is to say, it’s hard to find something good to say about the series when I now have so many complaints, but I *must* have found something worthy and exciting if I was willing to pay for it (note: I am not library-monogamous, just library-preferential).

So what did I enjoy? The world-building aspects of this series are terrific. Like The Night Circus, the physical space imagined by the novel is captivating. So, too, the initial characterization of Tris (a characterization that takes a decided turn for the wooden and flat as she reacts and acts without any consequence to character development) and her confusion of what and who she is. The mystery elements: where are we in time and space? What kinds of cultural, social, political forces are at work? What’s the allegory here? compel the reader to keep reading with an urgency and a pleasure often misplaced in Literature that wants to slow you down enough to savour each word or sentence.

Reading *Divergent* was certainly an exercise in reading for pleasure. In much of my graduate and undergraduate discussions of literature outside the classroom my peers expressed discomfort or disbelief that “reading for pleasure” might even be possible. Having such extensive training in being critics,  how, they wondered, might it be possible to turn this critical eye “off” long enough to enjoy a book? Trained to say “no” and “but,” (how) could we allow for appreciation and commendation? I suppose I could argue that the two aren’t mutually exclusive: it is possible to find pleasure and retain critical faculties. I think I could also argue that books get read – or we read – with different intents and purposes. That the same book can be read by the same reader with different foci and attention. Putting aside the precision and attention of close reading and allowing – or abdicating? – attention to the pleasures of plot and character might well be possible (I think they are). It’s tempting to be self-depricating and say I was just a poor critic, unable to notice that worth being critical. But I’m not: I’m a good reader. So I suppose it’s an argument for the dialectic: that a reader can take pleasure from a text and simultaneously be aware of its problematic bits. *Divergent* has troublesome politics, Tris and Four have an imbalanced sexual relationship and her gender gets worked out and worked over in disturbing ways, choice and freedom get bizarrely dichotomized against violence and power.

So if it’s true that I could enjoy *Divergent* and still be aware of its problematic politics, when did I stop enjoying it altogether? I’m tempted to say it was when Four’s named turned to Tobias and I stopped being able to remember him as a sexy and mysterious instructor and could only think of him as a predatory creep, but I think it’s more basic: I stopped enjoying *Divergent* and I disliked all of *Insurgent* because the writing was bad. Really, really bad. Written for a movie and without the subtlety to pretend otherwise kind of bad. Written without the attention of an editor bad. Written as if the reader might not have ever read anything else before bad. BAD. Which is not to say that *Insurgent* doesn’t have its share of ideological issues, just that before the reader can start to think about those she has to get past the terrible writing, lack of character development and uninteresting plot. It will make a terrific movie, I’m sure, because it was written to one.

I almost wrote “Avoid both,” but I don’t think I should. *Divergent* is pure pleasure. Read it and enjoy. Just don’t – for the love of God (and boy does Veronica Roth love God – capital G) bother with the second or third.

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Filed under Fiction, Young Adult Fiction