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


At the Movies: Aronofsky’s Fallible God


By Darren Aronofsky, Writer & Director; Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris,  Michelle Pfeiffer, others

mother! (trailer) landed with a giant thud in 2017, at least at the box office. Critics reviewed it generally favorably. Even half the public who saw it rated it positively, though they might not have liked it. And it’s easy to see why viewers might be put off by the film. It starts off as a hot, confusing mess. You also might interpret their dislike as a comment on the film’s seemingly critical portrayal of major organized religions, given how it depicts God’s creation and His imperfectability and stubbornness in going about trying to get it right for all eternity. For that’s exactly what this chaotic film is all about. With religion as context, you can make sense of the film from the beginning the very first time you watch it.

Now, as caution, what follows explains the film in the context of a religious interpretation, and doing so tells you what happens in the film. If you haven’t yet watched mother! you might want to do so before reading further, or not; the choice is yours.

In the film, the writer (Javier Bardem) represents God. He has written the world into being, the house. Mother (Jennifer Lawrence), who you might regard as mother earth, mother nature, etc., busies herself maintaining God’s creation. While she does, she awaits God’s further creations. It’s been a long time since he as written a poem, producing tension in the house. In his writing room, which is off limits to mother, he has an object, a crystalline artifact; it has great sentimental value, as it seems to represent something that came before.

Eventually, Adam (Ed Harris) and Eve (Michelle Pfeiffer) show up. Adam comes first and the writer invites him in as if an old friend, to the discomfort of mother. Eve follows. There appears to be discord between the two, and they are very bad about obeying mother’s house rules, which involve no smoking in the house and no going into the writer’s room. They violate both.

In the writer’s room, they admire the crystalline object, but through carelessness, they drop and shatter it. Then sets off the destruction of the house, creation, and all those within. For it’s now that the house begins filling up with people, the first two of whom are oldest son (Cain, Domhnall Gleeson) and younger brother (Abel, Brian Gleeson). Younger kills older over an inheritance dispute. Mourning, and more people, follow. Eve taunts mother about her not having children. She, in turn, accuses the writer of neglecting her sexually, which he remedies immediately.

The next day, she announces her pregnancy. Overjoyed, the writer finds the inspiration he needs to complete his next great work (the scriptures). People receive these with great joy but read into them what they want to hear. Acrimony ensures in the now overcrowded house. Mother gives birth (son of God). The writer shares the child with the people to mother’s great horror. They worship the child but also tear him apart and devour him (communion with God).

Finally, amid unbelievable turmoil and conflict among the people, the house catches first, reducing creation to ashes. The writer comforts a scorched mother and extracts her heart from her (the new crystalline artifact). Mother awakens as she did at the opening. The house and the surrounding grounds are restored. The creation begins again (presumably to devolve in the same fashion as all the preceding times).

mother! has been billed as a horror film, which it isn’t. You certainly might find much of what goes on horrifying, as you probably find what happens daily in the world horrifying. But most wanting to watch a horror movie expect to have their socks scared off. mother! isn’t that kind of movie, and maybe that’s one reason it didn’t fare well at the box office. The other reason is that, well, it at first seems confusing and pointless, until you figure out what you are watching. For some, then, it might just be offensive.

However, if the film as a weakness, and it does, it is that the characters aren’t the kind audiences can connect with emotionally. Mother and the rest, rather, are archetypes illustrating creation mythology, God’s hubris in believing He could create beauty and still give the creatures of his creation free will. Kind of hard to establish a relationship with these folks. Visually and intellectually, though, the film should certainly warrant and reward the attention of questioning and thoughtful viewers. 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

Is This Stephen King’s Best Villain


By Stephen King

You can read and enjoy Misery for many reasons, but among the most rewarding is the deliciously evil Annie Wilkes. Opinions will vary, for sure, given King’s output, however, Annie, if not your best, certainly has to stand in your King Top 10 Pantheon of Baddies.

King delineates Annie’s character so we feel she is as real as any great member of what we’re calling the Society of Insane Villains. Outstanding members include: Fred Clegg (The Collector); Norman Bates (Psycho); Hannibal Lector (the series); Jack Torrance (another King nut); and others.

King hit upon two masterstrokes that make Annie fearsome and unforgettable. First is her wildly unstable personality; she can switch from nice to hellion in the space of an ill-considered intonation.

Second is her special vocabulary of dirty birds, cockadoodies, and the like.

Of course, she possesses most of the other endearing traits of a sociopath, paranoid, and schizophrenic, endearing in a purely literary sense. She is among Steven King’s best creations. And, happy to also report, this is one King novel that transferred to film very well.

If you like raving mad characters, try these: The Collector (a masterwork on the unhinged male searching for love in all the wrong ways; Psycho (what happens when Mommy is the dearest); the Hannibal Lector series (yummy, enough said), and I, Killer (what happens when bad memories become real, or maybe vice versa). w/c

“The Terror” Fans: Try This

1912: The Year the World Discovered Antartica

By Chris Turney

AMC’s The Terror is a fictionalized adventure featuring two beleaguered crews against the Arctic elements and a monster stalking them. Based on Dan Simmons novel of the same name, it’s about Captain Sir John Franklin’s ill fated hunt for the fabled Northwest Passage between 1845-1848.

Chris Turney’s is a non-fiction account of the five daring, dangerous, and rewarding explorations of 1912. These include the two well known expeditions of Scott and Amundsen, as well as, at least to Americans and non-scientific types, Japan’s Shirase, Germany’s Filchner, and Australia’s Mawson.

For tragedy, the Scott expedition stands out, and Turney uncovers information as to Scott’s and his team’s deaths a mere 11 miles from a replenishment camp, information known and suppressed at the time. For lightness and general amusement, you’ll enjoy learning about the Shirase adventure, though his treatment by his government you probably will find disgraceful. And the Germans add a high degree of human drama to an already life-threatening enterprise. As an example, Wilhelm Filchner resorts to hiding in his cabin for fear of being murdered by a drunken and abusive ship captain.

Then there are the nearly unbelievable perils of Antarctica itself, among them gale force winds, dizzying elevations, and nearly unendurable cold. And this is not to mention all the effort and cunning required to fund and mount an expedition in the days when governments did not ordinarily support such ventures.

So, was all the pain and sacrifice worth it? Yes, for as Turney reports these expeditions vastly increased the world’s knowledge of the continent, in particular the role it plays in the climate and weather of the world.

In the closing section, Turney observes the importance these explorers and their supporters placed on chronicling their endeavors, with an eye to stimulating public interest, as well as communicating their discoveries and their significance to science. Today, scientists talk to themselves in their own language in their own journals. In Turney’s closing words: “This is the central lesson from a century ago: scientific exploration still plays a vital role, not only in what we can learn about the world but in how we communicate the importance of that learning. We have to be passionate about its value and, like the expeditions of 1912, reach out.” w/c

Scientology: the Book or the Movie?

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief

By Lawrence Wright

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison Of Belief – The HBO Special

By Alex Gibney

Which? Without a  doubt, choose the book if you want a thorough understanding of Scientology, from origins to current practices. After,  by all means watch the film, very loosely based on the book, to see what many of the people Lawrence Wright introduces you to look and sound like.

Wright answers several questions in his fine, balanced, well researched and presented examination of Scientology, in particular, about its Hollywood connection, leaving the single biggest one for readers to decide for themselves.

Who was L. Ron Hubbard? What experiences led him to found his own religion (a categorization many would strongly dispute but won by doing something few can: bringing the IRS to its knees)? Why did people join and proselytize Hubbard’s belief system? What do celebrities, among them Tom Cruise, John Travolta, Anne Archer, and others, find compelling about Scientology? What ideas comprise the beliefs of Scientologists? Why is Scientology secretive and what are those secrets? With Hubbard long dead, who currently leads Scientology? How has Scientology succeeded in surviving and amassing considerable wealth since the death of its founder? And, finally, the question Wright leaves readers to answer for themselves: is Scientology a religion, a religion in the making, or is it a cult, a very visible, wealthy, and pugnacious one at that?

You’ll find much that’s sensational in Going Clear, and much bearing the hallmarks common to religious cults, among them Jim Jones’s People Temple, Moses David’s (David Berg) Children of God (now The Family International), and Aleister Crowley’s Ordo Templi Orientis (which Hubbard affiliated with after WWII), to cite a few.

You’ll see these similarities on full display in Wright’s book. These include a charismatic leader, proprietary knowledge without which salvation cannot be had, absolute devotion to the exclusion of family and past friends that promotes a binding insularity and captivity, to note just a handful. For comparison, and especially if cults interest you, you might want to try Tim Reiterman’s biography of Jim Jones and the People’s Temple march to tragedy, Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People. While different in approach and membership, you’ll recognize how Scientology tacks to the cult course. Of course, as Wright develops in his epilogue, a movement may actually be a nascent religion in the making that appears alien and threatening to the reigning orthodoxy, as did Christianity and Mormonism, to cite an older and newer example. A further apt point made by Wright concerns how a religion’s set of beliefs can appear absurd when an observer views them without the faith of the believers, something that can call into question the precepts of most any religion.

As for the sensational, these do not result from Wright’s even writing. They spring from Hubbard and Scientology itself. Examples include Hubbard’s manufactured naval history, the harsh punishment of members in the Rehabilitation Project Force (RPF), the original organization of Commodore’s Messengers Organization employing pubescent girls, the low pay and miserable living conditions of members compared to the lavish furnishings of top leaders, the special treatment afforded celebrities, the aggressive stances against perceived church enemies that often included physical intimidation and endless and expensive legal suits (which serve to restrict unauthorized published information and which the church used to win their designation as a tax-exempt religious organization in the U.S.), and many more.

Recommended as an insightful exploration of a movement, its influence, and its claim to religious legitimacy. w/c

Happy Dysfunctional Valentine’s Day

Gone Girl

By Gillian Flynn

Gillian Flynn offers up a thriller about love, deception, and sociopathic behavior that is often reflective of real life dysfunctional marriages and just as often funny. Briefly, and without revealing too much, since the pleasure of the novel is revelation upon revelation, twist after twist, Nick and Amy meet in New York, fall in love, marry, and seem happy, until both lose their jobs. Nick decides to move back to his hometown of North Carthage, MO, ostensibly to help care for his dying mother and Alzheimer father. Then Amy disappears, apparently abducted by parties unknown. It isn’t long before the police settle the mantle of prime suspect on Nick’s shoulders. And the question is who took Amy and why, or did hubby murder her? But beware: nothing is as it seems.

Flynn tells the story from Nick and Amy’s perspectives, leaving us to wonder, at least in the first part of the book, who we are to believe. In part two, Flynn reveals what really happened and why. In part three, she resolves the situation. Some have faulted Flynn on the ending, but I found it perfectly acceptable, in keeping with the personalities of the characters. However, morally tidy it is not.

Flynn skillfully handles sociopathy, having her sociopathic character expound, as well as showing how others perceive or misperceive the sociopath. It’s claimed that somewhere around four percent of the U.S. population is sociopathic. Not all, or even a fraction of, sociopaths are psychopaths, and they are nearly impossible, by their very nature, to spot. One trait, however, can give them away; that is, the compulsion to escalate their behavior, something Flynn expertly illustrates.

If you prefer, try the film version starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike. And if you prefer your romance even more dysfunctional and just plain psychotic, watch Fatal Attraction starring Close and Michael Douglas again, or for the first time if it’s new to you. w/c