Wednesday, April 13, 2016

What Did the Book Club Think of Fredrik Backman's "A Man Called Ove"?

So the first question that came up is how do you pronounce his name. One of our attendees has a Swedish friend who called him "OH-vuh" with a longer stress on the first syllable, but one of our booksellers said he listened to the audio and it was distinctly "OOH-vuh." (Photo credit Edward Koinberg.)

However his name is pronounced, Ove is the culimination of years of cantankerous heroes. He know the right way to do everything, and it's generally different from however you happen to do it. His life is changed a boisterous neighbor family moves in, the very clumsy Patrick, his friendly wife Parvaneh (she's Iranian), and their two kids.

And yes, there's a plot, but like many of these transformational novels, A Man Called Ove is as much a character study. There are two trajectories going one, one in present time, where Ove is continually frustrated in a particular thing he is trying to get done, and another in the past, where Ove's life is chronicled up to this point. 

And the thing is, as the folks in his neighborhood get to know Ove, we do as well. One of Backman's particular triumphs is the way he parcels out little bits of revelatory information about Ove's life. We've seen this before, with Andrew Sean Greer's The Story of a Marriage, and recently with another book club pick, Helen Oyeyemi's Boy Snow Bird. But in that case, the publisher decided to reveal the first big revelation on the copy. In this case, Atria/Washington Square Press kept mum, and even with the book being on the bestseller lists for months, it caught me and most of the attendees of the in-store lit group by surprise. So I'm deciding not to do any spoilers here. That said, I think the structure of the book was perhaps what made it stand out from the pack.

The word of mouth on the book has been amazing, but at least initially, like many books of this sort, traditional reviews were hard to come by, with mostly bloggers writing the book up. Interestingly enough, the British press loves books like these, and has no problem finding space:

--Here's the review for The Express from Jane Clinton, who gave it five stars!
--Here's the review from The Independent, whose headline still says "A Man Called Over" and spells the authors name wrong. I'm just one blogger, and while my posts are riddled with errors, I do correct them when someone finds them.

Fredrik Backman has noted that this novel grew out of a blog he wrote. The character was based partly on him, partly his father. Readers just couldn't get enough of him, and I guess that is true, no matter the format.

So what did the book club think of A Man Called Ove? Well, it turned out everybody loved the book, and it got me wanting to be more negative just to stimulate discussion. I'm thinking the folks who might have had more criticism didn't come?

Here are a few things we discussed--
1. Whether Ove's behavior nature (mental illness) or nurture (the result of hardship)
2. The role of perspective, and differentness in how characters saw the world
3. His longstanding feud with Rune, his neighbor
4. The nature of goodness - does it matter how you treat people on the outside if you're good on the inside? And really, was Ove nice to people or not? His actions toward his work bully seem justified, but what about Rune? 
5. How did a person like Ove's wife Sonja understand him so quickly and completely? I guess there's someone for everyone.

There is definitely an air of Luddite-lite about the story. Ove has a lot of trouble confronting change. is this one of the key things that makes people cantankerous in the first place. 

Being that I love international jackets, A Man Called Ove is a good example of publishers searching around for an iconic image, and then going with something that works. An early Swedish jacket uses Ove's tools, but gives away one of the book revelations. A British cover uses a silhouette variation which became the rage after Little Bee hit big, but the paperback jacket, while not exactly what became the standard European cover, is closer. And the American cover is a variation of that UK standard of the man and his cat. The UK is a profile and another is side image, but most of them show Ove from the rear. The French jacket similarly was changed, with the 2nd jacket giving away less of the plot and was more upbeat, less, well gruesome.

But thematically, while at first glance, Ove's plot seems a little dire, it's been quite popular with inspirational books. Look at The Elegance of the Hedgehog, for example. And what about our success with All My Puny Sorrows.

Here's a link to Simon and Schuster's reading group questions. And don't forget, Fredrik Backman is appearing at Boswell on Saturday, May 14, 2 pm for his third novel, Britt-Marie Was Here. His second novel, My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She's Sorry. In Australia and some other countries, the book is called My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologies. Here's a review in the Whitsunday Coast Guardian from John Grey who calls the book "enchanting and emotionally engaging."

What's next for the in-store lit group? On Monday, May 2, pm, the in-store lit group will be tackling The Turner House, the breakout novel from Angela Flournoy, about an extended African American family in Detroit. Who knew at the time this would be a breakout hit, but a stock-up special from the publisher indicated to us that the book is working in many places across the country.

On Monday,  June 6, we'll meet at a special time of 6 pm, to discuss Paul Goldberg's The Yid. Goldberg will join us at 6:30 and then will be in conversation for a public event at 7 pm. Our 6:30 session is the time to ask your spoiler questions. And because this book is hardcover, it will be 20% off through the day of the event.  

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