How to Love a Curmudgeon

A Man Called Ove

By Fredrik Backman; translated from Swedish by Henning Koch

It’s not often you find a book garnering the astronomical number of positive reviews as A Man Called Ove, especially a foreign language translation. You immediately want to know why, so you begin reading the novel. Several pages into it, you’re asking yourself, what am I missing here? Ove’s rude, the kind of man you don’t want as a neighbor for sure. The pace is kind of slow. But you push on, and as you do and become more intimate with his life, you see that Ove is truly likable, wonderfully giving, and, in the end, humanly endearing. Why then is this book so popular, the winner of so much reader praise? Because it reaffirms our belief that most people, even those who on the surface appear irredeemable, deep down, under the right circumstances, have heart and want to reach out and help others. Our job is being like Parvaneh, perceptive, patient, and encouraging.

The story takes place in Sweden in a townhouse community. Ove is 59. He once served as president of the residents’ board, but no longer. In his mind, his so-called friends ousted him in a coup d’état of sorts. At work, his bosses approached him about retiring early and now he really has no meaningful work. A man of uninterruptible habit that some might call obsession, Ove starts and ends his days the same each day, patrolling the community, raging in his mind about things out of order and disrespect, and engaging in short conversations with his wife, Sonja, whose grave he visits regularly. Then a pregnant Parvaneh, her husband Patrick (who is a stereotypical klutz around the house), and her children move into the community. At the same time, a mangy cat adopts Ove as his caretaker, taking up residence in the house and accompanying him pretty much everywhere. To say that Ove’s life changes dramatically is quite the understatement.

What you read above constitutes the opening of the novel, after which Backman, in short flashbacks, takes you through Ove’s life, from his time as a boy, his courtship of Sonja, his life at work, his relationships with people in his community, up to the present. (There’s much emotion here.) Knowing a person’s history helps us understand and appreciate that person, and so it is with Ove. We learn why Ove is as he is, and it isn’t just the untimely death of the person he loved dearly. In the end, when it’s time for us to bid Ove goodbye, we do so reluctantly and with not a little bit of sorrow.

If there’s something to pick at, it has to do with the publisher not including the fact that this is a translation on the cover and the title page. You learn this only by checking the copyright page. The translator is Henning Koch. He’s Swedish, a screenwriter, a novelist in his own right, and, of course, a translator. The translation reads simply with British flavoring, and captures the tone of Ove’s character and world perfectly. If you haven’t yet read it, do so, and you’ll understand why so many readers have taken Ove to heart. w/c

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Among the 20th Century’s 100 Best Novels

Ubik

By Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick certainly lived in a strange, magical, and uncomfortable world. Drugs, paranoia, and spiritualism constitute the primary ingredients. In Ubik, Dick puts all on display in a mind bending romp through the worlds of the living and the almost dead, in what was for those of 1969, the publication year of Ubik, the near future, 1992.

In this world of the tomorrow, Earthlings have settled on Luna, which they reach by rocket in an hour or so. They use rockets, too, to jump between Earth cities. And they number among themselves all manner of psychics who can read and manipulate (telepaths and precogs) ordinary people.

Thankfully, there exists also a population of professionals (called inertials) who can intercept these psychic signals and block them. Principal character Glen Runciter, in his eighties, operates a company (known as a prudence organization), Runciter Associates, comprised of the latter. He consults with his very young wife from time to time for guidance.

Ella, unfortunately, died. She exists in a state called half-life, which is a form of cryonic suspension. Half-life doesn’t equate to eternal life; eventually, over many years, the last brainwaves diminish to nothing and true death takes over. Lurking within this world of weakened brainwaves are half-lifers bent on extending their slim hold on existence by eating weaker half-lifers. One of these, fourteen-year-old Jory Miller, has been harassing Ella and her fellow half-lifers at the Beloved Brethren Moratorium, where she rests.

The novel opens with Glen Runciter taking on a new assignment, clearing magnate Stanton Mick’s lunar facility of psychic interference. To accomplish the mission, Runciter assembles a large team of inertials, chief among them Joe Chip and Pat Conley. Chip is something of a spendthrift, always finding himself lacking funds for the most mundane purchases, not a good state of affairs in a world that literally nickels and dimes you to death (for example, you must pay your front door a nickel each time you want to enter or exit, your refrigerator to put in and take out food, etc.; it’s capitalism run amuck in a funny way). He’s Runciter’s second in command. Conley, new to the team and on her first mission, possesses an unusual, and new to both Runciter and Chip, talent. She can alter time or create alternative realities. Once on Luna, in the Stanton facility, they encounter an ambush, an explosion that seems to leave them pretty much unscathed, except for Runciter, who dies and needs to be rushed immediately to the Beloved Brethren Moratorium. It appears to be a trap set by Ray Hollis, chief of a band of psychics, designed to eliminate a primary impediment to expanding business.

All find their survival and Runciter’s sole death peculiar. By their estimation, all should have been killed in the exposition. Back on Earth, though, one by one they begin to perish. Also, the world takes on an odd dimension. Everything appears to be regressing into a former version of itself, or in the case of perishables, crumbling to dust. As each dies, the survivors discover themselves moving back in time, until they arrive at 1939. Reality doesn’t seem to make sense anymore. Suspicion falls on Pat, as she has the ability to distort time. Joe suspects that Hollis has planted her in Runciter Associates. In fact, their dilemma turns out to be something completely different, as readers will learn for themselves.

In Ubik, Dick manages to blend the supernatural, science fiction, spiritualism, a mystery, and unhealthy doses of paranoia into one very satisfying novel. Time magazine’s book editors compiled a list of the top 100 novels from 1923 to 2010, the year they published the list. Ubik made the list that included Lolita, The Lord of the Rings, Slaughterhouse-Five, among them. If you are looking for a good, approachable introduction to Philip K. Dick, you’ll find Ubik an excellent entry point. w/c

The Personhood Amendment, and Much More, Too

We can’t seem to escape Leni Zumas’ Red Clocks. Why? Because more and more it looks like we’re headed to a world she envisions, one in which the theocrats have refashioned America into a state they like, one on its way to becoming Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement announcement could not have come at a worst time, with Trump president and Pence (who we like to call The Commander) as his mini-me. No good can come of this for women who have gotten used to and wish to continue, and extend, agency over their own lives. Women of this mindset, particularly young women, should mark their calendars for November 6 and turn over Congress, and then go after the presidency in 2020. If they don’t, here might be their fate.

Red Clocks

By Leni Zumas

Leni Zumas uses the Personhood Amendment as the impetus for her novel about the lives of four disparate women, plus a fictional 19th century historical figure, to illustrate in dramatic fashion the constraints under which many women struggle now and perhaps in the near future if certain zealots get their way. She further emphasizes her points by compartmentalizing these women by their primary roles: The Biographer, The Wife, The Daughter, and The Mender. The historical figure, an ambitious woman who doesn’t hew to the societal demands of her time, is simply a woman, itself, when you view the novel this way, a restrictive compartment.

The novel follows the lives of these women living in a small Oregon coastal fishing town, including how they interact with each other. The Biographer, Ro, researches and writes a biography of 19th century Arctic explorer Eivør Mínervudottir, teaches at the local high school, and tries via IVF to have a baby before her biological clock and a new law sounds expiration. The Wife, Susan, raises two children as she suffocates in her marriage to her teacher husband, who seems indifferent to her and certainly self-absorbed. The Daughter, Mattie, an adopted child, finds herself pregnant and desperate, as abortions have been outlawed and harming a fetus in anyway is a crime. The Mender, Gin, a young crone of sorts, lives in the woods, prefers the company of her animals to humans, and sells herbal remedies to townspeople. And Eivør forms something of an intermezzo between chapters not only adding a note of emphasis to the issues faced by the characters but also reminding us that severely restricting women to certain accepted roles has always been the norm.

These women prove complex, more expansive than their definitions, but also squarely within them as well. Ro nearly impoverishes herself trying to become pregnant but puts aside her desires to help, though not without much inner torment, Mattie resolve her unwanted pregnancy. Susan struggles to exit her marriage and builds up lots of resentment toward Ro, who she views as free, though Ro resents Susan partly because she has what Ro desires. Gin, for her part, can’t help but be involved with others in town, regardless of how much she wishes most to be left alone.

Hanging over all of them and affecting them in different ways is the Personhood Amendment, which steals control of their lives from them and imposes potentially severe punishments and restrictions upon them. This, for those not familiar, for in fact it is a real proposal pushed by some antiabortion groups, declares life begins at conception, triggering a whole laundry list of laws, among them murder for abortions, no contraception, and more. In the novel, this is coupled with it being illegal to go to Canada for an abortion, as you will be turned away, even arrested, at the “Pink Wall,” the requirement of two, a man and woman, as parents, and the impending end to IVF. Since all these currently don’t exist but could if some had their way, the novel has the flavor of a dystopian future.

Some may find the novel’s flow a bit disjointed and the writing a little showy, while others may not think it dystopian enough in the sense of being technologically removed from our time. But for others interested in how society works, and can work even harder, to mold women to limited expectations, the novel will resonate. w/c

More Like Our Future Now Than When Published in 2015

As you celebrate the 4th of July, consider this: Sometimes a novel that didn’t seem to have gravitas when it first appeared strikes a reader as more prescient years later. Such is the case with The Subprimes that appeared in 2015, a year that feels like a full century ago, in the shadow of the recent Supreme Court decision on union dues. Some might call this novel the vision some of our political leaders and monied class see for us. Some might not be wrong for thinking the oppressed in the novel are the very people who voted for and continue to vote for the very people grinding them down. It’s a stark future, indeed, for many, if not quite as abject as portrayed in The Subprimes. You might not be a fan of unions, but you probably recognize that it takes power to stand up to power. A coalition of people wields more negotiating strength than a sole individual. Wishing and ruling unions away may yield a future you might live to regret.

The Subprimes

By Karl Taro Greenfeld

Greenfeld’s satirical, often cynical, novel imagines what might become of the U.S. if the most rabid proponents of unfettered capitalism have their way. Needless to say, for the vast majority of people, even, ironically, the handful of beneficiaries, the endgame is quite ugly: massive poverty, perpetual uncertainty and fear, a complete distortion of institutions and values, and a devastated environment. Yet, in the midst of the dystopian suffering and chaos, Greenfeld finds humor because, let’s face it, we can laugh at our own stupidity, as long as it is a good long arms distant.

In the not too far off future, the one-percent have gotten their way. They control all the resources, which they exploit ruthlessly. Government, services outsourced and officials reduced to vassals, kowtows to the elites’ demands. Religion functions as cheerleading flimflam. The former middle-class roams the land in search of pennies, worse off than serfs of old as they and their families have become rootless wanders. And the world both floods on the coasts and sizzles in the center, an endless wasteland of ravagement.

The novel follows the lives of three families, a mysterious motorcycle-riding woman, an ersatz preacher, and a pair of self-righteous capitalists. Jeb, Bailey, and children Tom and Vanessa, stand-ins for the middle-class, want to live decently, instead of as they do in hastily organized and as quickly rousted Ryanvilles (Paul, perhaps?). Arthur, Gemma, and daughters Ginny and Fanny, once enjoyed the lifestyle of the elite, until Arthur was exposed as a fraudulent charlatan, costing his family everything (but also revealing to them, minus Arthur, what counts in life). Richie, ex Anya, children Ronin and Jinx, are a mix of the cynical (husband), new age (wife), and neglected (children). Rounding out the cast are Pastor Roger, embodying everything most people dislike about shallow televangelists, and the Pepper sisters (Koch brothers in drag?), major capitalists who might just believe in everything they have done. And the star of the novel, the one woman who unites a community, who leads a revolution of sorts against the system, and who proves to be something more than earthbound, a mystic with some extraordinary powers that manifest in the final pages of the novel. All converge on a resurrected community in the Nevada desert as the Pepper sisters prepare to launch fracking to a whole new level of despoilment.

Surprisingly, though it might strike you as sounding a bit cartoonish, Greenfeld’s a skillful enough writer to make most of the tale compelling. Categorize this one under “best watch what you wish for.” w/c

What the Hell is Going On in America?

Tailspin: The People and Forces Behind America’s Fifty-Year Fall—and Those Fighting to Reverse It

By Steven Brill

If you’ve been paying attention for the past few years, what Steven Brill tells you in his often times infuriating new book Tailspin will not surprise you. There’s a tremendous and still expanding disparity between the haves and the have-nots. The haves control the levers of government and they work actively to reduce government, because, frankly, government can do little for them; from their viewpoint, it mostly hinders them. The have-nots control nothing. They really don’t understand how government and business work. They especially don’t grasp how good government benefits them, and, amazing to many, they support the goals of the haves in their effort to shutdown government.

As a result, the country feels like it’s going to hell in a hand basket, what with crumbling infrastructure, skyrocketing medical costs, lack of meaningful work for many, shortage of affordable housing, spreading poverty, and the like. What Brill shows you is how after the 1960s we began spiraling downward, how almost unnoticed changes contributed, what good intentions morphed into, and how some, a handful, work now to pull us out of our spin. If the book has a weakness, it’s this last part, ways that we can level off, and climb, once again regaining our lofty status as a country that prospers by helping the least of us succeed. Unfortunately, as Brill presents it, the space he gives it, it really seems meager, particularly viewed against the entrenched powers.

Brill begins back in the early 1970s when a few forward thinking universities, among them Yale, actively endeavored to break the American old family network by developing outreach programs designed to accept students based upon merit. Other institutions followed, a culture of meritocracy blossomed, and, lo and behold, these new bright people began pulling up the ladder after them. They went where the money was, becoming lawyers, corporate leaders, bankers, and Wall Street financiers.

On the way up, they revolutionized banking and finance with complicated and dangerous financial instruments. They enlisted lawyers to transform due process into a weapon for besieging and crippling government regulators. They turned free speech on its head to give corporations much more leeway in advertising, dodging marketing regulations, working around product labeling rules, and accumulating and trading in personal data.

With the advent of multiple channels of information, the public no longer operated off of a shared set of facts. Using C-Span, a noble idea, political leaders with the loudest and most conservative voices gained control and moved the country rightward. The myriad of issues well known to us today, from healthcare, to immigration, to a diminished middle class, and to financial speculation, became unsolvable problems, mere pawns for demagoguery.

The first step to reversing descent into accent is understanding how we got here, really getting under the hood for a close inspection of the origins and operating parts of our dysfunction, examining it in its particulars and also from a gestalt view. Here, Brill, as he did with his America’s Bitter Pill on healthcare, does the public a great service. Tailspin is the book that should be on every American’s reading list who truly have an interest in helping America achieve greatness defined in human prosperity and dignity. Too bad many who should read it won’t. w/c

Where Is the Worst Healthcare System?

Steven Brill has a new book out about America’s diminishment, the causes and possible ways to fix it, titled Tailspin. We’ll review it shortly. His current book brought to mind his last one on the American healthcare system, or what passes for our effort at it. What he said and we said of his book is as true today as it was way back in 2015. Take a look, and look for our take on his new book, coming soon.

America’s Bitter Pill: Money, Politics, Back-Room Deals, and the Fight to Fix Our Broken Healthcare System

By Steven Brill

Reality is a hard to face and accept. We Americans certainly have a hard time with it. For instance, when you tell people that our country has the highest number of incarcerated citizens and the second highest rate of incarceration, exceeded only by the Seychelles, (International Centre for Prison Studies), many are surprised and many flat-out don’t believe it. Same holds with healthcare. Of 11 developed countries, we come in dead last on efficiency, equity, and outcomes (Commonwealth Fund, 2014 Survey). For many reasons, some of them ideological, many people continue to insist we have the best health care in the world (or had, before Obama fiddled with it!). Dispelling delusion isn’t easy.

That’s what makes Brill’s book so welcome and worthwhile. It will be an eyeopener for many and for others will illustrate why we went wrong, when we went wrong, how we attempted to rectify our mistakes, why we failed, and how what we ended up with the Affordable Care Act that has left pretty much everybody disgruntled (now under dismantlement by Trump and his Republican allies to be replaced with, well, who knows). Blame it on the vested money interests: hospitals, doctors, insurance companies, and pharma; blame it on politics and our historical ideological divides (like the socialism bugaboo); blame it on a generally uninformed population, many of whom are happy to work against their own best interests. There are certainly plenty of places to point to.

If nothing else, if you find Brill’s book foreboding in volume and detail, you will learn a lot by at least reading Chapter 2, “Center Stage.” Here Brill clearly and succinctly provides the history of medical delivery and financial protection (which nicely describes what we call our “healthcare system”) in the U.S. This sets the stage for ACA and how we got what we have now, something that is better than what we had before, in terms of covering many more people, but that doesn’t solve the problem of cost control that is jogging to within shouting distance of 20 percent of GDP (currently just shy of 18%, nearly double that of the UK, Canada, France, and others [World Bank, 2014]).

If all the arguing over healthcare in the U.S. baffles and mystifies you, you should find some help in Brill’s book. Unfortunately, though, this book can’t supply us with what we need, a true healthcare system providing equity, efficiency (in delivery and cost), and superior outcomes. That requires a political will that doesn’t appear anywhere on the horizon. w/c

Terrorized by Religion

Boy Erased

By Garrard Conley

There was a time when psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, and psychologists considered homosexuality a disorder and experimented with a variety of techniques for curing the condition, the most notorious being transorbital lobotomies, torturous aversion therapies, mentally damaging blame the victim abuse, to name a few. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality as a disorder from the DSM-I. This, however, did not stop groups from pursuing ways to pressure individuals into changing their sexuality, or at least suppress it. In fact, currently, only a handful of jurisdictions in the United States prohibit what Garrard Conley writes about in novelistic memoir, Boy Erased. Love in Action (LIA), of which Conley writes, still operates, now under the name Restoration Path. John Smid, a real person appearing in Conley’s book, now admits that he was wrong, and acknowledges his homosexuality; in 2014, he married his spouse, Larry McQueen. You can detect bitterness at the end of Conley’s life story regarding the ex-gay leaders who now admit to the harm they did.

Conley recounts when a fellow student at his college who had raped him outed him to his parents. Both were very religious people, fundamentalists. Conley’s father owned a car dealership wherein he not only sold cars but proselytized to buyers and held prayer meetings with his employees. At the time, his father was on the verge of beginning a new life as an ordained pastor in the local Ministry Baptist Church. As for Conley, he appeared on the outside to be an ideal prospective minister’s son, replete with beautiful and popular girlfriend.

Conley’s parents were not the harsh types. They thought perhaps they had done something wrong, that maybe he was medically defective in some curable way, that professional help would put him back on the Christian path. LIA, which came highly recommended to them, seemed like a good option.

Conley recounts his time at LIA and with leader John Smid. LIA subjected Conley and the others to conversion therapy. This version, as explained by Conley, employed a 12-step approach. It forced participants to look deep into their family histories for issues, among them alcoholism, spousal abuse, and the like, that might account for the subjects’ aberrant behavior. As you might imagine, constantly dredging for problems, continually trying to prise from yourself some reason for your sexual abnormality, this unrelenting type of self-flagellation could lead to dangerous mental instability.

Coupled with this was Conley’s fundamentalist religious upbringing. His was, and probably remains, engaged in an inner battle to reconcile his sexuality with religious dogma that condemned him, that viewed his sexuality as a choice and thus a turning away from God. Conversion therapy only served to intensify this struggle.

Conley tries to convey his pain, but, unfortunately, in trying to treat his experience more like a novel than an introspective memoir, readers might not fully appreciate the agony such pseudo therapy caused him and others.

Boy Erased will appear as a film in late September, starring Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman, and Russell Crowe. with screenplay adaptation and direction by Joel Edgerton, and may do a better job of portraying the emotional and mental turmoil non-acceptance can produce.

Those interested in LIA and religious conversion therapy in general might like to watch the documentary This Is What Love In Action Looks Like, as well as view a few interviews with survivors online. w/c