Matt’s Weekly Reads, March 4, 2023


Beartown (Beartown 1) Fredrik Backman (2016, trans. 2017)

Beartown is a remote village in Sweden with a depressed economy and even more depressed spirit among its strong and hard, tight-lipped and stoic residents. The community can be forgiven, then, if it cares a little too much about its youth hockey team — which finally has a shot at a national title after years in obscurity. But when, just before the finals, their star player is removed from the team bus in handcuffs, the tight-knit community is torn apart by questions of justice, loyalty, right and wrong, and good and evil — which as one character points out, are not always the same thing.

It was interesting to read this in early 2023, since for much of late 2022, Canadian newsmedia was filled with stories about the systematic failures within Canadian youth and junior hockey cultures surrounding off-ice behaviour and sexual misconduct. Like many Canadians, I greeted the news with the feeling that it was simultaneously shocking and the most obvious thing ever. I remembered the way the hockey players walked around my high school as though they were above the law. I remembered the way some of my female friends in university would walk the opposite direction whenever they saw a man in a letterman jacket, or who stated they “hated hockey” with a tone that made it clear there were stories they were not going to tell. At the same time, I also know how much hockey and hockey culture has meant to my nephews: the values it taught them of teamwork, loyalty, effort, resilience, responsibility and leadership. Beartown tells both sides of this story, in all its goodness and all its evil.

This is easily one of the best-regarded novels of the current century, acclaimed by critics and readers alike. And I can fully understand why. It’s a hockey book. It’s a small town book. It’s a book about friendship and family. But really, it’s about how the very things that make us our best can also make us our worst. It is deeply empathetic to all of its characters and yet doesn’t shrink back from hard truths about them. It is a love letter to hockey culture (really, sporting culture more generally — you could easily set the same story on a football team in Texas, a soccer club in the Midlands, or a basketball team in Queens), but is also a scathing critique of it. It’s a near impossible balance to find, yet Backman manages to walk it perfectly. Also, I’ve criticized a lot of books recently for their plotting , and so I feel it doubly important to applaud the pacing and plotting of this book: From the opening pages, Backman moves every piece on the gameboard with intention and perfect precision. The reader can see the events coming, like a car cash in slow motion, and yet is powerless to stop it. There was more narrative tension — and more payoff for it — in this book than in any thriller I’ve read. All this to say, this is a powerful, beautiful, important novel.

There have been two sequels to this, and while I’m sure I’ll delight in reading them, it’s going to take me some time to recover from this one before I do!

Read this if you’re interested in:

  • Hockey
  • Sweden
  • Small Towns
  • Athletics and Sports
  • Loyalty
  • Belonging

My Rating: Premise 10, Atmosphere 10, Main Character(s) 10, Plot 10, Intrigue 10, Relationships 10, Success 10, Writing 9, Enjoyment 9, Lasting Impact 10: TOTAL 98

Weekly Roundup

The Pursuit of Love (Radlett & Montdore 1), Nancy Mitford (1945), 85: This remarkable novel, published right at the end of the Second World War, charts the experiences of the interwar generation of the British upper class through the eyes of its cautious narrator as she describes the romantic entanglements her rather hapless cousin. This was a wonderful surprise to me, at once a sensitive and sympathetic portrayal of a ‘lost generation’ and a biting satire of the genteel upper crust in the midst of its collapse. Highs: Setting and Writing; Lows: Main Characters (Twentieth Century History, 1930s, Social Change)

Holly Jolly Diwali, Sonya Lalli (2021), 89: Niki has always been the “perfect Indian daughter” to her immigrant parents in Seattle, getting the best grades, bringing home the right boys, and taking the most sensible career paths available; Sam rebelled against the expectations of his father and ran off from Mumbai to London to become a rock star. But after unexpected setbacks leave both of them questioning their approaches to life, they meet at a friend’s wedding. Will they figure out a middle path that will allow them to make a life together? Or will the different trajectories of their lives leave them ships passing in the night? This is a solid opposites-attract romance that offers an insightful and nuanced perspective of life in the South Asian diaspora. Highs: Main characters and Setting; Lows: Meaning (Romance, India, Indian Americans, Opposites-Attract)

Hollow, Shannon Watters & Branden Boyer-White, illustrated by Berenice Nell (2022), 93: This fun graphic novel follows three teenagers in modern day Sleepy Hollow as they investigate the recent reappearance of the Headless Horseman. I really enjoyed this! I appreciated the diverse cast of characters and the way it expanded on the traditional lore. Highs: Main Characters and Setting; Lows: Meaning (YA, Graphic Novel, Myths and Legends, Legacy, Fantasy, Paranormal, LGBTQ2S+)

Something Wilder, Christina Lauren (2022), 83: Ten years ago Lily and Leo had a five-month romance at her dad’s dude ranch. They reconnect unexpectedly when Leo’s college friend books him on a wilderness adventure tour Lily is leading. But more than romance as afoot, as the trip devolves into a race for long-lost treasure — and survival. Christina Lauren is one of the most reliable names in romance writing. This one is a little out of the romance box, being at least as much, if not more, a madcap Western adventure than a romance. I enjoyed it but it wasn’t exactly what I was looking for from a Christina Lauren title. Highs: Setting, Main Characters; Lows: Meaning (Romance, Second Chances, Western, Adventure)

The Thirty-Nine Steps (Richard Hannay 1), John Buchan (1915), 69. A bored colonial adventurer is unexpectedly pulled into the world of international intrigue in the weeks leading up to the Great War. There are books that are called classics because of their excellence and others because of their importance. This one, unfortunately, falls into the latter category. It was an important morale-booster in the trenches of WWI and is recognized as marking an important historical shift in adventure writing, away from imperialistic exploits in exotic locales and towards the world of high-stakes espionage. Unfortunately, it doesn’t hold up well, with many plot holes and vapid characterization — much of it is just a rather pompous man running around the fields of Scotland trusting people who ‘look the right sort’ with state secrets. One thing that was fascinating about it was seeing some of the espionage tropes in a very different geopolitical context from what we’re used to, one in which it is dominated by openly imperial interests, rather than the ideological ones that have dominated since the rise of Communism and Fascism in the decade that followed. Highs: Setting (also: historical importance); Lows: Main Character, Relationships (Fiction, Espionage, 1910s, Twentieth-Century History, British Empire)

Tuck Everlasting, Natalie Babbitt (1985), 74: A bored young girl stumbles across a family that has discovered the secret of immortality, for good or for bad. I had mixed feelings about this and I felt like there wasn’t any payoff in the end. Highs: Premise and Intrigue; Lows: Fulfillment and Meaning (Middle Grade, Fantasy, Historical)

The Penderwicks, Jeanne Birdsall (2005), 78: The Penderwick family gets more than they bargained for when the cottage they rent for the Summer turns out to belong to a manor house and its patrician owners. This was ultimately enjoyable, but left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. The whole plot seemed to be the girls breaking the rules (even very sensible ones like ‘Don’t go into the bull pen’), creating havoc for others to clean up, and learning nothing. Highs: Relationships and Setting; Lows: Plot and Meaning (Middle Grade, Manor Houses, Summer, Friendship, Family)



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