I started the year by finishing my library book, then dived into the stack of books I got for Christmas!
Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman, translated from Swedish by Henning Koch
This novel featuring one of the background characters from My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry (reviewed here) isn’t nearly as unusual a story, but it is a well-written example of the “person with a rigid personality learns to have a heart and actually helps a lot of people while remaining true to herself” genre.
In this book, the annoyingly judgmental and perfectionist neighbor from the other book becomes the protagonist. Britt-Marie has just left her husband after he made it too obvious that he was cheating on her, after years of her carefully ignoring the clues. Now she needs a job. Refusing to accept the “wait-and-see” attitude of the employment office, she manages to secure a temporary position managing the recreation center in Borg, a tiny town where nearly everything has closed and the recreation center remains only due to bureaucratic oversight. And it’s filthy.
In time, Britt-Marie learns that what Borg needs most is a soccer coach to lend authority to the kids’ competition in a local tournament. It doesn’t really matter that she knows nothing about soccer; they just need someone to be in charge and believe in them. Britt-Marie finds that she can do that and, in the process, feel needed and loved. But the local policeman has a crush on her, and then her husband shows up….
This is an okay book, but I won’t read it again.
Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf
Addie and Louis are longtime neighbors, in their seventies, each widowed a few years ago and lonely since then. One evening, Addie stops by to invite Louis to spend nights with her, just to talk in bed and have a sleeping companion. Louis agrees to give it a try.
The relationship that develops between them is an excellent example of why narrow definitions of relationships are harmful: Doing things differently than most people do, Addie and Louis move into a deep and beautiful friendship that improves both of them and also helps Addie’s young grandson through the stresses of his parents’ separation.
This sweet novella has a sad ending, but I recommend it anyway. The only thing I didn’t like about it is the lack of quotation marks when people are speaking–that really bugs me!
Amsterdam Coffeeshops by Andrew Looney
My friend Andy has enjoyed several visits to the legal cannabis cafes of the Netherlands over the past 20 years. He’s now published this coffee-table book with hundreds of photos of these interestingly-decorated spaces, descriptions of the special features of his favorite coffeeshops, and tips for Amsterdam tourists.
Along with coffeeshops that still exist, you get to peek into coffeeshops Andy visited on early trips that aren’t there anymore or have been drastically redecorated. A handy index at the back uses symbols to tell you which coffeeshops were still the same as of spring 2017, which had changed, and which were gone.
The book also covers other things to see and do in Amsterdam, how to get around, what to eat, where to pee, how Dutch holidays may affect you, charming details of Amsterdam, and The Incident at The Bluebird. Andy explains the roles of coffee, alcohol, tobacco, and hot cocoa relative to marijuana under Dutch law, in coffeeshop culture, and in his personal preferences.
You might enjoy this book more if you set up your coffee-table Amsterdam style, but it’s still quite charming and entertaining if you’re completely sober and uncaffeinated. I meant to do a quick flip-through of the book after I received it, but I ended up reading the whole thing in one sitting!
NOTE: This book, like Amsterdam’s coffeeshops, is for adults only. It is explicitly about marijuana use and also includes a few (relatively discreet) photos of the Red Light District. The publisher, Fully Baked Ideas, also publishes card games for adults. I highly recommend Stoner Fluxx; if you’re playing it in a place where marijuana is illegal, simply substitute small pieces of candy for the “You get to toke!” moments.
Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey
Maud is in her eighties and slowly slipping into dementia, but having lived in the same house all her life helps her remember how to get along in between the visits of her daughter and part-time carers. She’s still able to walk over to her friend Elizabeth’s house and even be of some help to her, as Elizabeth is going blind.
But now Elizabeth is missing. This problem repeatedly swims to the surface of Maud’s awareness, and she makes valiant efforts to investigate the mystery, without any help from the annoying people who won’t listen to her. Meanwhile, Maud encounters many objects and events that remind her of another woman’s disappearance: Maud’s sister, who was married to a somewhat suspicious man, vanished suddenly in the 1940s. Can Maud’s clear memories of the past help her muddle through solving the mystery in the present? And why does she so urgently need to know what is the best place to plant summer squash?
This is an excellent novel of suspense! Instead of the gore and perversion in so many popular thrillers, this one keeps you reading by challenging you to recognize which of Maud’s clues are meaningful and which are just background noise. Maud’s perception of the world is so convincing and real, it’s easy to understand why she can’t remember where she is–so much has happened in her mind since then–but you remember, and you want to shriek, “Don’t open that door!!” But then there are the things Maud didn’t remember long enough to tell you….
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