Anxious People and Bird by Bird

 Anxious People by Fredrik Backman

The first few chapters seemed so silly I almost gave it up. I tried a few more (the chapters are very short, 74 in all) until one of the characters said something that finally made sense to me and convinced me to keep going. 

A group of people at an apartment viewing are surprised to find themselves being held hostage by a bank robber who never did manage to rob a bank. The hostages are a quirky group, competitive at first and determined to nab this great apartment by any means, fair or not, but then gradually, cautiously, they lower their defenses and get to know each other and their captor. 

The police officers on the case are a father and son who have different ways of doing things. One is by-the-book and easily frustrated, the other, with more experience, has learned that compassion offers a better solution in some cases than strict adherence to the rules. 

I liked the book once I had some understanding of what was happening. The early part was like putting together a puzzle without the picture, but in the end I enjoyed the story and found characters I liked and even wished I could spend more time with. 

The wrap-up reminded me of the last Backman book I read, Beartown. In both he shows us in little vignettes how life turns out for each of the characters, wrapping each short account up with a meaningful/dramatic sentence or two. I appreciated being told what happened in each character's life - I wanted to know that - but the repetitious structure became tiresome in both books.

Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott

Anne Lamott shares her writing process in hopes of helping others get started, or get back to it, or get unstuck from whatever point you're at. She shares some of what she teaches in her writing workshops, lessons she's learned in her own years of experience trying to get words on paper. There are chapters on plot, dialogue, characters, writer's block, finding your voice, and broccoli.....hmm. It's full of helpful information and encouragement, real stuff that has pushed me to finish some things abandoned long ago. She has a sense of humour and the confidence to use it well, making this a lot of fun to read. A good book to keep nearby for the writing help and for a laugh when I need one. 

An Unnecessary Woman

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine

Aaliya is a 72 year old woman living alone in a Beiruit apartment. From childhood she has felt somehow different from others, a difference she sometimes carries with a small amount of pride but  which has always left her with the awkward feeling of never belonging anywhere. She has spent most of her life translating works of literature into Arabic, translations that no one will ever read because as she finishes them, she boxes them up and stores them in her spare room She's been doing this for 50 years.

Aaliya is the narrator, so we have the privilege - and it is a privilege - of being inside her head throughout the book. Through her thoughts and memories we experience her childhood, her family, her awful marriage, and her despair. Her love of literature fills every chapter with enough book references and quotes to keep you adding titles to your tbr for days.

She is, has always been, lonely, yet tends to keep apart from other people. She is quick-witted, sharp-tongued, and she doesn't like her mother, brothers, neighbours, or herself. She is one of the most honest characters I've ever read, or maybe it's just that I recognize bits of my flawed self in her, those bits you just don't talk anyone. Alan Bennett has said : “The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. And now, here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out, and taken yours”. When I was reading this book I felt the author was reaching out her hand and taking mine. You can't ask more from a novel than that.

This opening line: "You could say I was thinking of other things when I shampooed my hair blue, and two glasses of red wine didn't help my concentration." begins a novel that doesn't rely on plot, but on her memories, her present situation, and her ideas and philosophies, formed mostly from the literature to which she devoted her life. I am taken with the way this author expresses herself, how neatly her sentences convey her thoughts, and the clarity and impact of her imagery. Here are a few other lines/phrases that caught my attention:

"Beirut is the Elizabeth Taylor of cities: Insane, beautiful, tacky, falling apart, aging, and forever drama laden. She'll also marry any infatuated suitor who promises to make her life more comfortable, no matter how inappropriate he is."

There is no one more conformist than one who flaunts his individuality.

I know. You think you love art because you have a sensitive soul. Isn’t a sensitive soul simply a means of transforming a deficiency into a proud disdain?

…the impatience of the entitled...” This one stopped me in my tracks.

…with an Egyptian pyramid’s worth of effort....” I love this. 

I don't recall where I heard about this book, but I feel very lucky to have found it; it's one of the best I've read this year.

Akin, Oryus

 Akin by Emma Donoghue

Noah Selvaggio is a 79 year old getting ready for a trip to Nice, his early childhood home. He is going only because his sister passed away and left him money that she insisted he must use for fun. He hasn't been back since he was sent to America at the age of 4, but he has an interest in searching out information about his grandfather, a famous photographer, and his mother, who stayed in France when she sent him away.

Just before he leaves, he receives a call from a social worker tracking down relatives of an 11 year old boy, Michael, whose father, Noah's nephew, is dead and whose mother is going to prison for drug possession. If Noah doesn't help, Michael will go into the foster care system. Noah can't bring himself to abandon his nephew's son, and so reluctantly decides to take the angry-at-everybody, foul-mouthed but otherwise uncommunicative Michael to France with him. Once there, Noah looks both for answers about his family and a way to connect with Michael, discovering things about his family's past and present that change the way he sees his life. 

A good story and well written. I very much enjoyed this one. 

Oryus by Craig Gordon

The first in a fantasy series with Biblical overtones and echoes of The Lord of the Rings, with a hooded, grey-haired figure who offers words of wisdom and/or impending doom, an assortment of beings from different lands, and an intense young man of noble character destined for a greatness he does not seek.
The plot is decent, but there is only the one story line. I think it must have been written for younger readers who I'm sure would enjoy the adventure more than I did. I found it lacking in depth, with no clear theme and very little character development.

And it was disappointing to find the end of the story set up to lead into a sequel. The last chapter did end on a reasonable note but then there's an epilogue warning of that impending doom mentioned earlier. It would be nice to know how it ends without having to continue a series that doesn't appeal to me. Shouldn't it warn you on the cover somewhere that you're starting a series?

East of Eden, Under the Overpass

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

Expecting this to be a bit of a slog, I opted for the audio book. Reviews I'd looked at swung wildly between wonderful and horrible, so, seeing it was quite lengthy, I chose to take the easier road. Now I wish I'd read a hard copy. It gave me a lot to think about; I'd stop listening to consider what they'd just said and what it meant to me, and ten minutes would slip away before I'd remember to get back to it. It's the kind of book that compels you to keep a pen in your hand for underlining meaningful passages, and then, when you come to the end, you close the cover and sit quietly, grateful for the experience.   

It begins with two brothers Charles and Adam Trask, sons of Cyrus Trask. Charles loves his father, while Adam merely respects him, and Charles is painfully aware that of his two sons, Cyrus loves Adam more. Adam is coerced by his father to join the army, while Charles goes on to be a prosperous farmer. In time Adam marries Cathy, the worst of all possible choices for a wife, and they have twins. Cathy doesn't want anything to do with them and Adam sinks into a depression, not caring for his sons or even naming them. Fortunately he has Lee, his cook, a wonderful character, to tend them until a neighbour, Samuel, another great character, comes to remind Adam rather forcefully that he has two sons to raise. The boys get named, grow up, and eventually meet their mother, a trauma impacting them in radically different ways. 

Good and evil, destiny and free will, these are the main themes. The twins, like all of us, have both good and evil tendencies, and with one tending more heavily to the wrong side of the scale, the book asks if darkness is his destiny or if he can choose who he will be in the world.

East of Eden is a powerful story, insightful and utterly absorbing. A great read.

Under The Overpass by Mike Yankoski

These are the eye-opening experiences of two young men who stepped away from university for a few months to live with the homeless on the streets of several major US cities. They slept in shelters when beds were available but spent most nights outside in parks or in any reasonably safe spot they could find. Money for food and bus tickets to the next city was earned panhandling - singing and playing guitar. Their experience, though harrowing, was not truly the same as that of other people on the streets because they always had a safety net. They knew they could walk away from it at any time, and even if they did stick it out for the planned time period, eventually they'd be going back to their normal lives, with warm beds, clean clothes and plentiful food. Still, what they saw and heard while they were out there changed them and gave them stories to tell that are worth the reading.