June Reads

I've had so many great reading recommendations that I can no longer hold my reads to one a month. Three reading recommendations follow.

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

Recommended by Sandra

A Man Called Ove

Curmudgeon.

No better term exists to describe Ove. He is not a pleasant man. He is not a happy man. He is not a man in whom the milk of human kindness runs freely.

Then we get to know Ove through the course of the book, and we learn the reasons why he is a pretty silent fellow not only is it his natural state, but it has been further reinforced by the tragedies and challenges of his life. He doesn't think that much of himself, but he does very strongly believe in justice, fair play, following rules, hard work, and the rightness of doing the right thing. He also knows how incredible it was the day he met the wonderful woman who would become his dearly loved wife. And we see there is much more to him than he is showing the world.

Now 59, another loss has happened to throw onto the pile of so many others that he has had to face, and he has had enough. He is determined there will be no more connections with others. No more purpose to his life. No more happiness. And then, well, life happens, often hilariously, and Ove, despite his stubborn resistance, reconnects with the world.

Here he is at the beginning of the book:

It was five to six in the morning when Ove and the cat met for the first time. The cat instantly disliked Ove exceedingly. The feeling was very much reciprocated... Ove stomped forward. The cat stood up. Ove stopped. They stood there, measuring up to each other for a few moments, like two potential troublemakers in a small-town bar. Ove considered throwing his clogs at it. The cat looked as if it regretted not bringing its own clogs to lob back.

How does life reassert itself? A heavily pregnant mom and a rather hapless dad move in across the way with their two young daughters. A rope breaks at an inconvenient time. The satirical and near feral cat decides Ove will do. An estranged old friend needs help. He has to rescue someone, when he had quite a different task in mind. He punches a clown. He becomes a bully-defying driving instructor. The list continues and somehow, to his bewilderment, Ove, the practical man, steps up again and again and connects with people.

Slowly, even as the characters in the book grow to love Ove, so too does the reader come to delight in this man. In his way he is kind, and he does care. We begin to truly understand that well hidden beneath Ove's bent for silence and irascible nature is a man who constitutionally must always do the right thing, because he is a rule follower. And one of the rules that is fundamental to his sense of self is to help when it is clear his help is needed. Now, he isn't always best pleased about having to do so, and he is truly cantankerous, but in helping others his life changes to the deep pleasure of all, especially the reader.

I'm very enthusiastic about this title, and I do hope you read it, too.

Get your copy of A Man Called Ove today.

 


A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Recommended by Fraser

A Gentleman in Moscow

This reading challenge has been a wonderful experience. You have recommended authors and books to me that I'm not sure I would have come across, and I can't tell you how much I appreciate your ideas. I look forward with pleasure to more recommendations coming forward.

A gentleman in Moscow is yet another winner. Count Rostov is the gentleman referenced in the title, and the tale of his life in Moscow is a wonderful surprise. I was *never* able to guess what happened next.

In the turmoil and chaos of Russia in the early 1920's, Rostov is nearly shot for being a man of his class, but a fortuitously written poem written at an earlier time provides enough weight of revolutionary zeal to save his life. On the other hand, he is declared to be a Former Person, and as such is told where he is to live for the rest of his days. He is then further advised that leaving that place will be a death sentence. And so the Count becomes a permanent resident of the Metropol Hotel in Moscow, a slightly removed and not quite eyewitness to a tumultuous time in Russian and world history.

Early in the book, a story is told of his seven year old self, who behaved badly with a neighbouring boy when he lost at a game. His very sharp grandmother visited him in his misery and said, "There is nothing pleasant to be said about losing," she began," and the Obolensky boy is a pill. But, Sasha, my dear, why on earth would you give him the satisfaction?" This approach to dealing with life's challenges becomes very much a part of what the man would become. Later he is tasked with deciding what among the treasures that already decorate a suite of rooms at the Metropol, at which he has lived since 1918, will be taken with him to his new and much smaller space in the belfry of the building. He recognizes the challenge:

From the earliest age, we must learn to say good-bye to friends and families... But experience is less likely to teach us how to bid our dearest possessions adieu. And if it were to? We wouldn't welcome the education... we imagine that these carefully preserved possessions might give us genuine solace in the face of a lost companion.

But of course, a thing is just a thing.

And so, slipping his sister's scissors into his pocket, the Count looked once more at what heirlooms remained and then expunged them from his heartache forever.

He is certainly a man to admire, which we see as we settle in with the Count as he accepts what may seem like a circumscribed life in the Metropol. However, while most of the book is set within its walls, circumscribed it is not. The hotel becomes the world writ small. The book surprised me again and again with its sanity, humanity, humour and grace, much of this informed by Count Rostov. He is kind, sophisticated, worldly, accepting, loyal, cultured, determined, and decisive. At some point, he takes a job, and is superb at it. He never moans about his lot, and he never loses sight of what is happening in the world at large, and yet accepts that while his world is a smaller and more contained one, it is still a world of wonders.

The author has brilliantly created a tiny world within this huge hotel that is never claustrophobic or restrictive because Rostov refuses to give up. The Count's world is full. There are people who become dear friends and family, an enemy or two, natural enemies who become friends, hidden rooms, secret panels, allies, the dignity of work, love, laughter, culture, bureaucracy gone mad, compassion, derring-do, incredible food, better wine, and a story of discovery that will keep you guessing and engaged to the final page. Through it all, the urbane, literate and charming Rostov becomes a wonderful companion with whom to spend time.

Get your copy of A Gentleman in Moscow today.

 


The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Recommended by Samreen

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

A middle-aged man returns to his hometown for a funeral. After it was done, instead of doing what he should be doing (going to his sister's), he finds himself returning to the place where his childhood home once stood. Meandering, he arrives at his neighbours' place, and memories from his life as a seven year old boy come rushing back. The Opal Man. Lettie Hempstock. Ginny, her mom. Old Mrs. Hempstock, the granny. His parents. Ursula Monkton. All of it. The flood of reminiscence is strong, and the memories so profound you struggle to understand how they could ever be forgotten.

The boy is resourceful and independent. Lonely. He says, "I was not a happy child, although from time to time I was content. I lived in books more than I lived anywhere else". He has his seventh birthday party to which no friends or schoolmates come, and while sad, he is pleased to end up with a Batman figure and a boxed set of the Narnia books. "Books were safer than people anyway". Family financial difficulties have required him to give up his bedroom to lodgers, so he bunks with his older sister. His fears of the dark are not treated sympathetically by her, but a compromise is reached and he is mostly content. He is not a doleful child. His life is just his life.

And then the Opal Man comes. As a result of the decisions this man makes, the Hempstocks are brought into the story, and the boy therefore into their orbit, and the plot of this slim title takes off. It is clear that the Hempstocks are more than they appear, and it is a good thing, too, since there is evil coming, and the shakily steadfast narrator will need their help to overcome its power.

Neil Gaiman is a multi-award-winning author of stories, novels, comics, graphic novels, and television and movie scripts. I hadn't read anything by him before, and I'm really happy to have been prompted to finally fill this reading gap.

There are scenes in this book of profound recollection of what it is like to be seven years old, when adults make no sense, the world is confusing, and somehow otherworldly things seem obvious and real. It doesn't take long for the very skilled author to craft episodes of fear and dread, bravery, and sacrifice that quickened the pace of my reading even more. At least one scene of absolute terror between the boy and his father had me quaking in my boots the intensity of it was amazing and it was almost cinematic in its depiction.

This snippet underscores the author's gift for description:

Over the stile. I came down into a clump of nettles, I knew, as the hot-cold pricking burning covered my exposed ankles and tops of my feet, but I ran again, now, ran as best I could. I hoped I was still heading for the Hempstocks' farm. I had to be. I crossed one more field before I realized that I no longer knew where the lane was, or for that matter, where I was. I knew only that the Hempstocks' farm was at the end of my lane, but I was lost in a dark field, and the thunderclouds had lowered, and the night was so dark, and it was still raining, even if it was not raining hard yet, and now my imagination filled the darkness with wolves and ghosts. I wanted to stop imagining, to stop thinking, but I could not.

And behind the wolves and the ghosts and the trees that walked, there was Ursula Monkton...

When the book draws to a close, the narrator leaves the farm, thinking about memory. And we understand much more than he does about the power and fragility of memories.

What a terrific book.

Get your copy of The Ocean at the End of the Lane today.