Book Review: Beartown by Fredrik Backman

Hockey season is over, and this means two things: I am no longer doing my kegels during the National Anthem and I have time to read books in long stretches – instead of when the Zamboni is making rounds. I grabbed this book off the Target shelf after a now immemorable bad day and carried it around toward the end of the season, and just got to it this week. I was doubtful I could handle the emotional load of reading about a bunch of teenaged hockey players and a tragedy, but the cover was nice and I didn’t want another romance or American marriage introspective.

The novel begins:

“Late one evening toward the end of March, a teenager picked up a double-barreled shotgun, walked into the forest, put the gun to someone else’s forehead, and pulled the trigger.

This is the story of how we got there.”

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Fredrik Backman’s Beartown is situated in, well, Beartown. Like many elements of the book, the town itself is archetype: small town that used to be great, once great men down on their luck, a bar, a factory. What makes the town, like all of them, is the characters who reside within.

A club president who, upon our first introduction, is “sitting at his desk eating a sandwich the way a German shepherd would try to eat a balloon filled with mayonnaise” (60).

Peter, the team general manager who is almost anachronistically conflict-averse, husband to fierce Kira and father to key character Maya and Leo.

Sune, an established coach in risk of being pushed out in the name of progress tells a player: “Community is the fact that we work toward the same goal, that we accept our respective roles in order to reach it. Values is the fact that we trust each other. That we love each other . . . culture is as much about what we encourage as what we actually permit” and explains that this means “that most people don’t do what we tell them to. They do what we let them get away with” (210).

Ana, Maya’s best friend who loves hunting with her father and reminds us that the gender disparity in hockey goes beyond US lines, in that “Girls aren’t allowed to like hockey even just a little bit in Beartown” (330).

Benji, arguably the greatest character in the novel.

And many others.

Backman commands the universal here: “A simple truth, repeated as often as it is ignored, is that if you tell a child it can do absolutely anything, or that it can’t do anything at all, you will in all likelihood be proven right” (79) without schmaltz, and this generality contributes to an almost fairy tale sense, “There’s a town in a forest that loves a game. There’s a girl sitting on a bed playing the guitar for her best friend. There’s a young man sitting in a police station trying not to look scared” (250).

“There are two things that are particularly good at reminding us how old we are: children and sports” (37).

While I’m not sure how much this story will translate to readers who don’t know hockey, anyone who has experienced a love of something, whether it is sports or hobbies or whatever, so deep that it is a core part of their life can understand the implications that come when what you love seems to have hurt someone you love.

Backman’s writing is as clear and lovely as an Ikea catalog, and I wonder if this comes from its original language of publication (Swedish) or the accuracy of the translation (Neil Smith) or both. The pace is fast, and I found myself speeding through passages to get to the next discovery only to force myself back, to slow down, and not miss important details. I thought I had the book figured out from reading the back in the Target aisle, and I was pleasantly surprised to find my predictions incorrect on nearly every level.

Beartown goes far beyond hockey and examines problems within youth sports, the very real existence of rape culture and how it often masquerades as low grade sexism and “tradition”, marriage, the raising of children, and the simultaneous beauty and brutality that comes with raising a family and a community.

I cannot recommend it enough.

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Re-reads: Good in Bed

My first Jennifer Weiner book was In Her Shoes. The last time I saw it, many years ago, it was held together with a thick rubber band I had stolen from a stalk of kale in my refrigerator. The book was tattered; coffee stained and dog eared, its appearance confessed exactly how many times it had been read. In Her Shoes never returned home, but I still have many of Weiner’s on my shelf. I return back to them periodically, as needed.

I jumped off the deck of the Facebook ship late spring and have been reading ferociously ever since. If reading was my escape as a child it is 176% more so now at 36. But, I’m still operating on the same budget. The obvious benefit is the ability to drive my own car to Goodwill. I found a copy of Good in Bed and Little Earthquakes on discount book day, and stacked them on my living room bookshelf. I just finished (again) Little Earthquakes and then Good in Bed.

This was a smart move for many reasons. I had been disenchanted with Hungry Heart mostly, I think, because of Weiner’s Twitter response to the success of Glennon Melton’s Love Warrior. It seemed like the wizard had been revealed, and she wasn’t so tough after all. Actually, a little bitter. But, I thought as I approached Earthquakes and Bed again, isn’t that exactly why Weiner’s characters work for us? For me? We are ALL of these things: bitter, sweet, jealous, proud, insecure, fierce. Human.

Anyway. I’m in mama mode and Little Earthquakes did the same things to me it always did. Hug my friends, kiss my kid, remember that every person has a story I don’t know, look at my dirty Vera Bradley bag with more tenderness than disgust. A bit into Good In Bed I was talking to a friend and said something to the effect of “meh, I’m not sure if I’ll finish it this time around.” I kept reading. And then . . . the unintended pregnancy! The asshole impregnator! Bad dad! The career crisis and crazy family and legacy of painful childhood! I had forgotten about ALL OF THAT.

“Ahhh” I thought, “here we go.”

As improbable as Cannie’s financial and professional luck rang, I wanted it for her (and for me). Brief Phish culture commentary? I’m a Northeast 90’s product, I got it. Making peace out of white hot fury? I needed to watch someone else do it before I tried to do it myself.

We know what fiction does for us, and for our world. Re-reading Good in Bed in a very different decade of my life was much less beach read than role playing, shuffling the cards in my hand, and realizing there are more combinations than I am aware of. If that isn’t hope, I don’t know what is.

Got That Fire

For myriad reasons, I needed a break. Some privacy. A solo ride. 

Naturally, I decided to drive to New York to make this happen. We know I don’t do things the easy way. 

  

While I did really need to get the fuck out of town, the most valid reason I needed to leave was to write a paper I had been saving to write during April break. Virginia Woolf famously said that “a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction;” and I can argue that this must happen in order for a woman to do, well, anything. I knew I would not accomplish anything surrounded by animals and laundry. I needed to escape. 

I booked myself a room at The Inn at Green River in Hillsdale, New York for its free wi-fi and breakfast and its proximity to my main event: Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Austerlitz, NY home at Steepletop. Total home run. The innkeeper emailed me this morning to check in, and she met me at the door when I arrived (after an eerily easy and beautiful drive). The inn is settled in a little valley in the Berkshires. It’s early spring and the trees are just beginning to bud. It’s my favorite time. You can see the bones of the trees and the landscape but everything is softened by that smoky fuzz of budding limbs. Nature’s airbrush? Maybe. I can barely keep my eyes on the road, and I am completely enamored with this place. “No wonder she (Millay) moved here,” I said to myself as I drove back from dinner, “I want to move and I just arrived.”

  
 

A graveyard outside my bedroom
 
 
I really hate this.
 
 
Graveyard after dinner
 
  
 
grilled eggplant with charred tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella
 

After I settled in (washed my face and read in my underwear for an hour) I got dressed and ventured into town for dinner. Innkeeper Deb suggested Old Mill, a pub/bistro in Egremont, and since I do enjoy not having to make decisions for myself, I went with that. The drive into town was all hills and valleys and old homes and cows. I waved to them, as always. 

I sat at the bar flanked by two older gentlemen, both engrossed in their phones. I was served quickly, olives and bread straws and a Sheffield Big Elm lager (delicious- I had two), and the place was obviously banging for a Wednesday night. I pulled my glasses and book out of my bag and settled in with the menu. I noticed a quotation at the bottom of the hand-written specials menu: “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” Virginia Woolf. I opened my book, a worn, blue, paperback copy of Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and found the same passage on page 18. 

I ordered a small plate for dinner knowing full well I didn’t want leftovers but I also wanted dessert. It was good, but oily for a grilled dish. What the eggplant lacked, though, was made right with strawberry shortcake and conversation.

strawberry shortcake and Virginia Woolf

Once the early dinner rush subsided, the bartender looked up and asked me what part of Maine I was from. We hit all requisite conversation pieces (fishing, weather) and got to the reason for my visit. I told her about my grad paper and my sort-of Millay pilgrimage and THAT is where it good good. 

My bartender? Her grandmother was one of Millay’s roommates at Vassar – THE Charlotte (Charlie) Babcock mentioned in Nancy Milford’s biography of ESVM, Savage Beauty. 

Now I am not a believer in kismet or fate or true love or destiny, but the whole situation practically shimmered. I half expected to ride home on a unicorn. 

sheeeeit.

I’ve already finished outlining my paper. And here I am. Having a terrible time, drinking wine and talking to you while I sit by the fire. 
Xoxo
Heather

The Week of No Pants

I haven’t worn pants all week. Also, I told my friend’s daughter that the best thing about running shorts was that the underwear are built in, and much more comfy than regular undies. She looked at me like maybe it is not socially acceptable to tell people that. Whoops.

If I were a cartoon character my name would be Ms. Webb No Pants.

It’s no pants week because I said so. In a few days I will be forced to don teacher clothes. They are itchy and pinchy and no fun. My abdomen and thighs are enjoying their last week of freedom.

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What’s New?

I feel like summer is a boulder rolling, rolling, rolling downhill and picking up speed. I want it to stop. STOP. Now. Thanks.

My wedding registry tells me there are 57 days left until the wedding. This means only 50 something days before school begins again. *sigh* I’m not physically ready for the wedding or spiritually ready for school.

I have Colby a grand total of six days in July. Six. That is not enough. I’m so happy that he has a chance to spend some time with his father, but. . . more on that later.

I am reading like a fiend. Check out my book list page. This is one of my favorite things about summer. Also – all of my reading and writing time counts, for me, as “professional development”. That’s what I tell my family anyway.

I am awaiting a lumber delivery as we speak. Matt and his father have been jacking and digging and mixing concrete and pulling up boards. I cannot wait for the barn to be finished and have Matt back. I’m sure he would rather be at camp instead of pulling boards in 90 degree weather too.

I have a list of recipes that are nearly ready to go up. We have been eating swiss chard, more swiss chard, and occasionally cereal.

I’m running again. We’ll get back to that.

I am officially enrolled on my local yoga studio‘s teacher training program. I’ve been waiting for this FOREVER. Like since I was 10 years old and pulled a yoga sequence article out of my mother’s Redbook. I’m dropping out of university to go to yoga school.

And now, I’m going outside because I cannot stand to see the sunshine without being directly in its path.

xoxo

Summer Book List

What are you reading this summer? I’m waiting for the end of two trilogies: Margaret Atwood’s oryx and crake series and the finale to A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness. The Atwood book will be out in September, so I can’t add it to my summer list. I’m not sure when the Harkness book will be out . . .

I’m stumped! I need a cookbook, some romance, and a couple of good books I’ve never been able to get to.

Here’s my list so far:

How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman
Gatsby

and… That’s it. Help me fill it in.

What should I read this summer?

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Dinner and a Rant

First, dinner.

Confession: I was so hungry, I moved straight from grill to table. This means no time for pictures. I assure you, the asparagus was green, chicken glazed and grilled, the corn – crisp and juicy.

Today felt so much like summer that we relaxed into a summer evening schedule (even though it’s a school night). We each went our summer evening ways: I ran, Colby hit baseballs then ran, and Matt worked on the property. While Colby ran, I sat on a rock nursing a beer and talking with Matt. Supper was super easy and ready in 20 minutes start to finish.

Sesame Chicken with grilled vegetables

1 lb thin chicken breast, tamari, dark sesame oil, tin foil

seasonal veg (2 servings veg to each 1 serving of meant) – we had corn and asparagus

dessert – every day is special enough for dessert

Directions: place chicken breast (if breasts are thick – believe me, mine are not – pound or slice them so that all pieces are approximately the same size) in a 9 x 12 pan with 2-3 good tablespoons of tamari. Swish around then add appx 1 tablespoon of sesame oil (the darker the better). Let sit while grill heats.

Put water on to boil. Shuck and wash corn. Cook until just tender, but still crisp.

Prep asparagus or other veg. For asparagus, wash, snap ends, and arrange in grill pan or in tin foil, lightly spray with olive oil and salt and pepper liberally.

This is about time to take the corn off. It should be almost done, but not quite. Take the pot off the heat and push it back on the stove. Let it sit and finish cooking while you work on the grill.

Place a large sheet of prepped (cooking spray) tin foil on the grill. Place chicken and asparagus on the foil. Drink a beer. Swat flies. Read two paragraphs in a book that may or may not piss you off.

Colby picking end-of-the-season carrots.
Colby picking end-of-the-season carrots.

Now, the rant.

I’m reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I’ve been so excited to read this. I started seeds and we’ve planted and there are tender green shoots coming up everywhere. I totally wanted to spend my afternoons looking at my garden and reading this book. But while I was cooking, I read this:

I am not sure how so many Americans came to believe only our wealthy are capable of honoring a food aesthetic. . . Cooking good food is mostly a matter of having the palate and the skill . . . The main barrier standing between ourselves and a local – food culture is not price, but attitude (31).

What the fuck.

How many Americans know what “food aesthetic” even means?

For someone who seems to be railing against the perception of money as the gateway to food culture, that is an elitist and offensive collection of statements. And stupid.  And I’m only 31 pages in. I want to ask Kingsolver a few questions:

Do you know how expensive and time consuming it is to plant and raise a garden? Have you ever received food stamps? Was your first trip to a farmer’s market subsidized by WIC vouchers? Mine was. Have you ever had to create a meal for your family using dried or canned beans, canned tomatoes that you know are steeped in hormone disrupting chemicals? Generic, non-organic grains and cheese that did not come from organic milk? I have. That non-organic, processed and preserved meal was the staple of my young adult life (which also coincided with my parenting life). It contained complete proteins (I looked it up in Diet for a Small Planet), two servings of vegetables and complex carbohydrates. I am an American, I am a mother. And I’m really pissed off.

I value every fucking tomato that comes out of my garden because I know the investment. I know who started the seeds, be it me or my closest nursery. I water the plants. I talk to them. We weed and get bug bitten and apply compost. When we eat that tomato, I am proud. But when I have to buy a cheap tomato at the store because it is a year when I don’t have the time or money to grow my own, I will not feel guilty. Barbara – take a recipe for beans and rice and vegetables. Do the price comparison between fresh vegetables and frozen, organic rice and generic (at my local grocery it is at least a full dollar). Calculate the comparative TIME investment for dried beans vs. canned.

I feel like I’ve made it – in life- because I actually have the luxury of planting and tending a garden. TIME to prepare a careful meal for my family? A luxury that I have not always had. Enough money to buy the hormone-free chicken and local beef? You wanna bet that’s a luxury AND a sacrifice.

Sigh. I get it, I do. I want to know my farmer. I want to know where my food comes from. I want the best for my family and for me. I love Kingsolver’s fiction and I admire her passion, but she is missing the point.

When we eliminate time and money from the equation and make this a problem of culture (“palate and skill”, “attitude”), we are making a grave mistake. This is the culinary version of the bootstraps fallacy. Know what many working parents (and single working poor) don’t have? Time and money. Unchallenged, arguments like this are more harmful than a factory farmed tomato. They undermine our efforts at equality, tolerance, and human citizenship.

As angry as I am, and I’m angry because this argument cuts to the core of all I value, I will continue to read. I respect Kingsolver’s skill and passion, and I hope I find a glimpse beyond her 100 acre backyard and carefully crafted factoids.

I’m going to eat an Oreo.