My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman

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“Only different people change the world,” Granny used to say. “No one normal has ever changed a crapping thing.”

Elsa, 7-years-old, is astonishingly bright, creative and outspoken. These qualities lead her to be bullied at school and friendless. At home Elsa lives with her mother who is expecting a baby and has a new partner.  She doesn’t see her father as much as she wishes, he also has a new family. So she feels left out of both of her families in different ways and is an outcast at school.

Her grandmother is who Elsa’s world revolves around. She is her best friend, taking her on adventures and telling her tales about the Land of Almost-Awake and the Kingdom of Miamas where everybody is different like Elsa and nobody needs to be normal to fit in. Her grandmother does whatever she can to brighten Elsa’s day, whether it’s telling her fantasical stories, playing imaginary games or breaking into the zoo at night to show her the monkeys.

When Elsa’s beloved grandmother passes away, Elsa is left feeling alone and completely lost. Then her grandmother’s letters begin to appear, leading Elsa to people in her building that she didn’t know well before. Each letter is her grandmother apologizing for something, which helps Elsa to learn about her grandmother’s past and how she is connected to each recipient of the letters.

Through these letters Elsa experiences her own quest and expands the world she lives in to include new friends, neighbors and true stories that bring the fairy tales from the Land of Almost-Awake to life in a way Elsa never knew could be true.

Humanity in all it’s imperfections and varied challenges appear in Elsa’s letter delivery exploits.  An alcoholic, a well meaning cookie making couple, a overly fastidious neighbor (Britt-Marie! I wish I had read this book first!), a lurking dangerous figure and even a very large dog who becomes Elsa’s sidekick and protector.

“My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry” is not just about an incredible bond between a young girl and her grandmother seeped in fairy tales and imagination. It is a beautiful testament to the strength of stories, kindness, helping others, looking beyond first impressions and knowing that everyone has their own personal struggles.

I absolutely loved this book. Elsa’s grandmother is a superhero of the type that every child should have. Someone to encourage them to be creative and brave and adventurous but also tell them the truth and protect them no matter what. Her grandmother is hilarious, getting into all kinds of trouble but always with the best intentions. As her grandmother’s past unfolds and the stories of those around Elsa are revealed, we learn how wonderful and varied a life her grandmother truly had.

This wonderful novel about second chances, love, family and the magic of a well told tale is a must-read for anyone who loves to laugh, and believes each and every one of us could use a superhero in our lives.

The Painter by Peter Heller

Moody. Atmospheric. Haunting.

“The Painter” by Peter Heller will fill you with the yearning to pick up a brush, buy a canvas and run away to Santa Fe. It will suffuse you with the sound of a brook on a clear moonlit evening and the feel of a fishing rod in your hand. It will fill you with the appreciation for natural beauty and the bottomless grief of losing the one person whom you love most. 

Jim Stegner is an artist trying to paint his way out of his past.

In the wake of the destruction of everything he ever held dear; he paints, he fishes. He doesn’t drink. He controls his anger. He loses himself in his work – and his work is amazing. Genius. Transcendent. It touches, inspires and moves people to laughter, to tears. But behind the work is a man barely holding it together. An artist, struggling to survive just being human. 

One day Jim comes upon a man beating a small helpless horse and he puts himself in danger to save it. This one act of thoughtless kindness derails his entire quiet existence. He is unable to halt the uncontrollable progression of events and his life, and art, become darker and more volatile. He walks the line between what is right and what is just, between reality and the half-world he hides in. 

Jim is violent, protective, loving and lost. He is drowning in his grief and slipping over the edge. When he surfaces into the everyday to feel, to experience, to help… he makes it harder and more complicated somehow. He mostly only manages to fuck things up. Again. 

And in every page, through every mistake or bewildering blessing, is painting. Jim creating beautiful, funny, moving, delightful, horrifying and stunning things. Fish dancing on water, birds flying on desks. Mischievous crows and thoughtful horses. Oceans filled with miraculous light and pure joy. We experience who Jim is – his struggles, his choices, his thoughts – with every stroke of his brush.  

Heller’s writing vibrates with life on every page. You smell the turpentine, hear the scratch of the palette brush, feel that cool water around your waders as you fish. But most of all, you endure every piercing emotion with Jim. 

Jim is a man who cannot let go of the one thing he ever truly loved and lost. Who makes so many mistakes for all the right, and wrong, reasons.

A man who wants a simple life and who in his heart wants to be a better person.

To love more. To hurt less.

But isn’t quite sure how to get there – or even if he can believe ‘there’ still exists. 

‘Where’d You Go, Bernadette’ offers delightful dysfunction, adventure

“Where’d You Go, Bernadette” by Maria Semple is a hilariously quirky rendition of a dysfunctional family in Seattle. Bernadette lives in a crumbling home with her genius husband, Elgin, who works at Microsoft, and her loving daughter, Bee.

Bernadette used to be a revolutionary architect in Los Angeles, but after a disaster with her project, she moves to Seattle to hide and pull herself together. Though she means to restore their decrepit home as a way to get back on her architectural feet, she ends up leaving it to crumble more into ruin instead. And with the aid of some bad luck, wild choices and a crazy mom at school, she too, begins to fall apart.

Bernadette’s downward spiral begins to gather speed when Bee gets perfect grades on her report card and they plan a family trip to Antarctica. Bernadette, experiencing full-blown social anxiety, doesn’t sleep and uses her online personal assistant out of India to book their vacation and make purchases so she doesn’t have to face people out in the world.

As the trip gets closer, Bernadette is unsure how she will face going to Antarctica when she can’t even make a call to the local restaurant to make a dinner reservation for the holiday.

As Bernadette battles her inner demons, she also deals with craziness from others. A mom at her daughter’s school is completely nuts, accusing Bernadette of running over her foot in her car, sneaking onto Bernadette’s property to cut out her blackberry bushes (a first step in a wildly funny confrontation that ends with no injuries but lots of property damage) and generally makes Bernadette’s daily struggles much harder with her trivial issues and overblown complaints.

Bernadette is a great character. She handles just about everything with a sense of humor and flair. Despite all her personal problems, she tries to focus on the most important aspect of her life, her daughter Bee.

Bee is incredible. She is smart, accomplished, loves to help other children at school and is excited to go to boarding school the following year. She cheers on her mother’s odd antics and humorous confrontations with full support and compassion. They’re best friends.

One day, when Bernadette’s father, an FBI agent and a psychiatrist all end up confronting her together in a complicated climax of events, Bernadette goes missing.

Bee, heartbroken but determined, sets off to find her mother, using emails, Post-Its, confidential FBI papers and her own smarts to bring her mother home.

“Where’d You Go, Bernadette” is a sweet and zany novel about a woman and the confluence of events that lead to her disappearance. Her story is funny, touching and surprising throughout.

As we watch the complicated and absurd plot unfold, we cannot help but be hopeful that Bernadette will find her way back to her family, her love of architecture and, ultimately, herself.