Book Review: My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry

First things first: I’m currently participating in the Unread Shelf Project 2018, hosted by Whitney at @theunreadshelf. This post reflects on the July Challenge, but you can look back at all the posts here

The July Challenge for The Unread Shelf Project was to “finish that series!” I don’t usually read series — the only series I’m in the middle of is Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache mysteries and in that case middle is a generous term. (I still have eleven of the twelve books to go..) So I decided to interpret the challenge as “finish that collection” and for me that meant read the last Fredrick Backman book that I own but haven’t read yet – My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry.


Author: Fredrik Backman
Published: June 16, 2015
Genre: Fiction
FLW Rating: 3/5

I’m just going to be up front about it – This book didn’t totally work for me. I’m not sure if it was me, or the book, or the timing and the circumstance, but this book felt flat for the first 300 pages, and finished with a big finish that still left me a little unsatisfied.

Fredrick Backman is (still) hands down a favorite author of mine. When I met him last month, he told me personally (while signing my copies of Us Against You and A Man Called Ove), that My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry is his personal favorite of his own books. I wanted to love it and run off in to the sunset with my feelings towards this author’s work, but I just can’t. However, I still plan to read Britt Marie was Here, and I plan to like it… and I’m here to tell you why.

My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry is a story about Elsa, her crazy grandmother, his unconventional family, and her quirky set of neighbors. Elsa is an eight year old girl who likes to describe herself as “different”, and struggles repeatedly with bullies at school. Her grandmother is Elsa’s only friend and helps her escape reality by introducing her to an imaginary world called “The-Land-of-Almost-Awake”. But when her grandmother dies somewhat unexpectedly, Elsa is left with nothing but unexplained sadness and a letter she must deliver to a particular person. This letter takes her on a journey to discover the personalities and personal histories of those around her, leading her to make one big decision.

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When we spoke, Backman said that he felt offended when people disliked Elsa — and I didn’t dislike Elsa but I think the faults I found with the book, stem from the book being narrated by an eight year old.

Throughout the book, I struggled to find consistency in her voice, which made identifying the tone and rhythm of the book more difficult. Particularly early on, there were moments of extreme sadness in the middle of an otherwise comedic story, and the surprise I felt at the change in tone pulled me out of the story more than it pulled me in to the characters. As I reflect on this, I noticed that this is somewhat typical of Backman’s books – to counter extreme sadness with an element of humor or hope, but it just didn’t work for me in this case.

Similarly, I found that I was having a hard time following all of the characters. Again, with Elsa being eight, not only was she learning along with the reader, but she just wasn’t the best story teller. She also used names, nicknames, and descriptions interchangably which felt very on brand for the character, but confused me as the reader. My advice for you reading this book: There was one page in which Elsa ran through who everyone in her building was – bookmark that page. I didn’t, and the rest of the book I spent wondering how people were connected. Serious suggestion for if this book gets reprintedPUT A MAP OF THE UNITS IN THE FRONT OF THE BOOK.  Again, having many characters seems typical in Backman’s work, but it just didn’t quite work here.

Once I made my way through the confusion, I did truly enjoy the plot. I think this book embodies the spirit of young adventure we all had as kids. I used to love scavenger hunts and this book certainly felt like I was back in the game! I mean really, is there a more satisfying arch than that? The end, as is the case in all good scavenger hunts, was both rewarding and eventful as well. It was action packed and full of emotion. While I wish Backman had spread those elements out over the course of the book, at least the book wasn’t completely lacking the action I was searching for.

One more thing – I liked that while this book was about Elsa, it also wasn’t about Elsa at all. It was about all what Elsa came to understand about those around her, including her mother, grandmother, and one very complicated chracter – Britt Marie. Which brings me back to my intro – despite not loving this book,  I am so excited to read another book about Britt Marie. To me, she felt like the understated point of this book, and I’m excited to see how Backman develops her in another book.

Overall, I think this book would make a fantastic movie. Putting faces to names would immensely help with the issue of losing track of the characters, and following Elsa around on her journey would bring me a lot of joy on the big screen. If you’re ready to enjoy the journey, I would definitely recommend this book, but take me as an example and don’t read it when all you really want to do is re-read your favorite police procedural.

Have you read it? Let me know what you thought!

Meeting Fredrik Backman

SPECIAL NOTE: Beartown and Us Against You made such a big impression on me that I’m dedicating a week to them. Check out the other posts here:


I attended my very first author event last weekend (I’ll admit that I have seen David Sedaris live in the past, but I consider that to be more of a show than an author event.) Meeting Backman was an absolute joy. I loved the way he spoke and how authentically himself he was – it lets you know that the amazing voice that you hear in his books is him. Nothing about him was “put on” and although I know speaking in front of large groups of people is his absolute worst nightmare, I am beyond thankful that he does it for us – his readers. Hearing him speak for an hour was incredible and I wanted to highlight some of his thoughts for you.

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Where does he start a book?

The common places, of course, are the story or the characters. Backman’s answer to this was, both but really “the feeling he wants you to leave with as you’re closing the book”. For Beartown and Us Against You the feelings were: Punched in the gut, sad, scared, but also full of hope. He also said he wants you to close the book and think to yourself “I need to talk to someone about this.” I cannot express how strongly I felt each of those emotions. His writing is good.

How does he feel about sports?

This may come as a surprise to some, as it did to me, but Backman actually loves sports. Growing up he played “everything. Except hockey.” What he wanted to do in the Beartown trilogy was many-fold but I want to highlight two in particular.

1 – He wanted to write a book to highlight how important sports are. His wife and his father, he mentioned in particular, don’t enjoy sports and he wanted to write a book to show his wife how important sports are.

2 – He wanted to tackle the issue of damaging sports culture. The way he talked about it was so incredible. He started to describe how the ideal hockey player is tough, and violent, and wins, and doesn’t take no for an answer, and goes out there to fight every day, etc etc. And then he slowly transitioned to “what happens when a girl says no to him? Did we ever have a conversation with him about that? At 17 years old.” The way he ended with “at 17 year old” gave me chills the way his most powerful passages in the book did. It was at that moment that I realized edited or not, this man is the real deal. It also let me know that he doesn’t hate Kevin (from Beartown). It gave me the impression that instead of viewing Kevin as inherently evil, he genuinely felt that sports’ culture had failed him. “Had we ever had a conversation with him about that?” Wow.

Humor

As we all know and love about Backman’s books, particularly the early ones, he uses humor to offset sadness. I particularly loved this in his first book, A Man Called Ove, where every sad moment was brought back to being humorous relatively quickly. While I didn’t notice it as much in Beartown or Us Against You, this was the opening topic of the discussion last weekend. Backman said that as an awkward kid, humor was a way in. “You like people who make you laugh. That’s just normal social behavior.”

But Backman pointed out that it can also be a weapon, and that joking in the locker room as middle school boys and making homophobic jokes is “just a joke” to the people making them, but is destroying the person who’s affected by it.

Also on the topic of humor – Ove is apparently the most common middle aged man’s name in Sweden. It would be like calling the book “A Man Called Mike” in America. Apparently Backman thought it was a funny joke that didn’t translate in to any other language.

Self Doubt

This was a total curveball in the conversation – it was the final question of the night and a woman from the back row asked how he’s overcome any issues with self doubt. I naiively thought that it was a silly question, but then was humbled by Backman’s honestly.

At first he said “I haven’t” and the audience laughed.

Then Backman said he struggles with serious anxiety, and there’s nothing funny about not overcoming self doubt. After events like we had today – which were full of respect and openness – he feels the way he does the morning after a party when he drank too much. “Why did I say that? Did I have to …? I wish I hadn’t… .”

He shared that on his last book tour he called his wife crying in the middle of the night (Swedish time) because he had so much anxiety that he has panic attacks – so this time his wife is traveling with him.

One thing that I found truly remarkable and I have so much respect for him sharing is that he’s in therapy because he doesn’t know how to deal with success. His exact words were “I’m in therapy for not being a failure.” It was amazing to hear someone open up about the topic of mental health and answer the question with so much honesty.

 

There is so much more of this conversation I would LOVE to share with you, but neither you, nor I, have the time to share it all here! I hope you’ve enjoyed hearing a little more from Backman – I know I sure did!

Book Review: Us Against You

SPECIAL NOTE: Beartown and Us Against You made such a big impression on me that I’m dedicating a week to them. Check out the other posts here:


Author: Fredrik Backman
Published: June 5, 2018
Genre: Fiction
FLW Rating: 5/5

Sequels are hard – I imagine hard to write, sometimes hard to read, and honestly, as I sit here writing this, hard to judge. Us Against You is a phenomenal sequel and overall a phenomenal book – although, YES you do need to read Beartown first.

Going in to it, I wondered how the story would be set up – would it have the same pattern of an arch as Beartown? What will be the drama this time? I think the answer to that comes from the fact that while Beartown was a great standalone novel, it never should have been a standalone novel because the consequences of what happened in that book need to be allowed to play out in the public eye– so that we can see, hear, feel, experience, understand, and learn from what happened. Us Against You didn’t need its own drama or its own arch because the drama of Beartown wasn’t over. And for continuing that so strongly, Us Against You in a perfect sequel.

WARNING: IF YOU HAVEN’T READ BEARTOWN THE FOLLOWING MAY BE A SPOILER! NOT 100% BUT SOME. READ THIS FIRST

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Us Against You is, as I mentioned, the sequel to Beartown – a book about a hockeytown in Sweden, in which the only thing going for it is its hockey team. Through that mentality, a group of hockey players is elevated above the rest of society, which creates unhealthy dynamics for young men – most about seventeen years old. When this unhealthy sports culture creates a conflict in the town, each member of the community is left to deal with how we got here and where we go. Some will leave town, some will hate those who leave town, and other will find comfort in new places. Backman writes with so much feeling and creates not only an extraordinary book, but an extraordinary sequel.

While reading this book, I was admittedly less enrapt by the plot than I was when I was reading Beartown itself, but I  think that’s because a) the shock had worn off and b) because it was hard to read about the characters I had grown to love go though such hardship.

One of the things I particularly liked about this book, was that Kevin, one of the negative characters from Beartown, wasn’t a focus in this part of the story. After what he did in the last book, he wasn’t a character I wanted to see again. I loved the focus on Benji – who kind of became the star of this show, and Vidar.

In general, what I love about Backman and his writing is that where there are glimpses of sadness, there are glimpses of hope too. He balances tragedy with humor, and gut wrenching pain with optimism, and I think that is why he can teach you such a lesson while also leaving you wanting more at the end of the day.

I highly recommend this book, because I highly highly recommend Beartown and Beartown would not be complete without this sequel. You may have heard that Beartown will be a trilogy – but for now it’s just two books. I have heard from friends who have met him in person in other cities (he didn’t talk about this when I met him in San Diego), that he’s not ready to start on the third book quite yet because these two took a lot out of him. UNDERSTANDABLE! I just read ’em and I have the most serious book hangover of the year. So, enjoy these two as we all wait patiently and full of hope for the third book in the trilogy!


I hope you’ll stick around this week for my other posts – I have so much I want to share with you from this experience!

Book Review: Beartown

Author: Fredrik Backman
Published: April 25, 2017
Genre: Fiction
FLW Rating: 5/5

First things first: I’m currently participating in the Unread Shelf Project 2018, hosted by Whitney at @theunreadshelf. This post reflects on the May Challenge, but you can look back at all the posts here

The challenge for May was to pick the book that you most recently acquired and read it before the end of the month or get rid of it! I bought Beartown in the end of April after renting it and not finishing it from the library TWICE. I knew it was a book I wanted to read and would want to keep, I just couldn’t seem to get through it in the time allotted by the library. Ironically, once I started it this time, I couldn’t put it down and finished all 415 pages of it in four days.

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My COMPLETED Unread Shelf Challenges

Beartown tells the story of a small hockey town on the edge of a forest. As the book frequently says, “Bears shit in the forest. Everyone else shits on Beartown.” The only thing that keeps Beartown going is the hockey club. And when all the work that was put in to the club by each member of the community is about to come to fruition, something happens to put everything they’ve worked so hard for in jeopardy. The community response is, understandably, very strong. And as the drama unfolds, the few who choose to risk it all for what’s right face losing their entire support system.

The character development in this book is strong. In my opinion, this is both its strength and its weakness. The first time I picked it up, I found the narration to be a little heavy handed. The tone was almost prophetic in its third person omniscient style. There was a lot of foreshadowing of how a character would act based on their pure and unchangeable personal definition — which irked me since I tend to favor more dynamic characters. At first I found this to be on the telling-not-showing side of things, and was a little frustrated by the style. Honestly, that is why, after only reading forty pages, I returned it to the library without a second thought.

However, all the character development in the exposition, comes full circle after the main event, because faced with such strong personal dilemmas, each person is forced to look inside themselves to pick a side. As the reader, you’re already inside of each character’s head, and are able to dive even deeper in to the conflict with that knowledge in tow.

Without getting in to any of the details, I thought the ending was really well done —  for a trilogy. I have SO many questions, but got enough closure to wait a month for the next installment to be released! (Us Against You comes out on June 5th!)

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