Anxious People, by Fredrik Backman*****

He’s done it again, only better.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the review copies. You can buy this book today, and I suggest you do it. The world around us may have gone nuts, but Backman helps us to remember the good in ourselves and in those around us, even in the most unlikely people. For that alone, this book is worth its weight in gold.

We start with an attempted robbery at a cashless bank; as with so many crimes done on impulse, nothing goes the way it’s supposed to. There’s no money to be robbed, and with the cops on the way, the best thing to do is to duck out quickly…until you realize that the door you chose isn’t an exit. Then there are these hostages, an insurance policy to prevent your being swept away to prison, but “it’s harder than you might think to take people hostage when they’re idiots.”

Backman often creates complex situations with huge numbers of characters in his novels, and he does better than hardly anyone else when he does it. This book, by contrast, has a more manageable number of characters, and perhaps that’s a big part of its even greater success. We have the robber; the hostages, who are the people viewing an apartment for sale, and the seller and realtor; a pair of cops that are also father and son; the therapist that sees one of the hostages; and a couple of other people. The first that we meet is Zara, a sharp-tongued, wealthy woman that is viewing the apartment even though she is obviously too rich to want it. Just about everything that comes out of Zara’s mouth is smart, mean, and very funny; we gradually learn that she does this to deflect the conversation away from herself. With apologies to Dickens, Zara is as solitary as an oyster.

Besides Zara, the prospective buyers include two dysfunctional couples. There’s an older couple, man and woman; and there’s a pair of women, one of whom is hugely pregnant. When this is revealed I roll my eyes, convinced that the climax is almost certainly going to include the obligatory emergency birth. But I should know better, by now, than to underestimate Backman.  He doesn’t use tired tropes or formulas, and Julia isn’t going to give birth during this crisis.

I don’t want to give away any of the details here, but as we get to know our collection of hostages and others, it’s pretty clear, as the title suggests, that everyone’s misbehaviors come from their anxieties, and when they criticize and pick away at others, they are actually dissatisfied with themselves. But of course, Backman’s writing is much more magical than my own, and the result is the sort of feel-good denouement that doesn’t insult our intelligence or become maudlin. At this moment I can only bring to mind three writers that consistently do this for us. (The other two are Alexander McCall Smith and Amy Poeppel.) And right now, friends, we need all of this magic that we can get.

Buy this book if you can; if your wallet is too thin right now, then get on the list at your library. Highly recommended to everyone.

This Tender Land, by William Kent Krueger*****

“God is a tornado.”

Odie and Albert are orphans, the only two Caucasian children at the hellish Lincoln School in Minnesota, which is primarily a boarding school for American Indian children. The year is 1932, and the Depression is in full swing. As things unravel, the two brothers sneak away, together with a mute Indian friend and a small girl whose parents have recently perished during a storm; the odyssey on which they embark raises questions for all of them about what they believe about themselves and the natures of God and man. My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

This is the first of this author’s work that I have seen, and it’s clear that he is one gifted individual. At the same time, however, this is not easy to read. The first fifteen to twenty percent is brutal. There are triggers all over the place including sexual assault, child abuse, and both put together. I read only a few pages at a time because more would have wrecked my head, and I never let it be the last printed material my eyes saw before bed. Those that soldier through the beginning can be assured that the worst is over, although there are many other passages in which Odie, Albert and friends are tried severely. For me, though, it was worth it.

The get-away trip takes them down the mighty rivers of the North American interior. There’s a lot of rich historical detail along the way, and it will be especially interesting for those unaware of the culture that existed before anyone in America had food stamps, or subsidized housing, or a social worker, or compulsory education.  There was no safety net of any kind; people existed at each other’s mercy. The travelers meet all sorts of interesting people, but when others get too close or ask too many questions, they leave rather than be identified. Albert points out that others are often untrustworthy, and that those we love are often taken from us; he says that if God is a shepherd, He must be the sort that eats his flock. But a man that hires them to do farm labor says that God is in the land, the air, the trees, and in each person.

Ultimately the journey is a search for home, for family, and for a role in the world. The original destination is St. Louis, Missouri, where Odie and Albert’s families live, but as they make their way toward it, they find out that there is more than one kind of family, and more than one kind of home.

Highly recommended to those that love the genre and have robust literacy skills.

The Five People You Meet in Heaven, by Mitch Albom *****

thefivepeopleyoumeetThis book was my grief book. That may sound bad, yet you’ll note that I gave it five stars. I had unfinished business left buried deep down, while I lived an extremely busy life and dealt with other things. This book was my resolution.

My mother died while my husband was near death, and while sitting by his bedside and urgently questioning doctors and searching his medical files to see what, if anything, they weren’t telling me, my mother, 200 miles south and 80 years old, was in intensive care. She had to be a side issue. I was glad my sisters were with her when she died, but because I was so intensively involved in my husband’s care and his ultimate recovery and my own little family at home, all I had time to do for my mother was to phone her briefly to say I loved her, and have quick conversations with my sisters regarding critical decisions that had to be made.

A year and several months later, a friend and administrator at the middle school where I taught recommended this book to the whole staff, and when she asked who would like to borrow it, my hand shot up.

I should point out here that I am an Atheist. But many times, we read fiction and we buy into a premise that we would not adopt in ordinary life. So it is with Albom’s heaven, and its five greeters. And on the last page, to my absolute astonishment, I burst into tears and grieved for my mother. I had thought that I was finished grieving; after all, she was quite elderly, and had been in poor health for quite awhile; her death was hardly unexpected. But I was very much mistaken. Our mother is our mother, and it’s likely to pack a punch when she goes.

I still don’t believe in an afterlife; I put my faith in humans, and so far it’s worked out well for me. It makes sense to base our beliefs on the material world, and to realize that the bad things that do happen are due to material conditions rather than some almighty hand from who-knows-where deciding to zap us. When people tell me that everything happens for a reason, I generally don’t say anything, but I don’t believe it for a minute. Sometimes bad things just happen. Period.

But once in awhile, when a loss is powerful and visceral, it can take the edge off of the sorrow or in the case of young people who die suddenly, the stark horror, if we pretend for a little while that we will someday meet again. It’s only natural to wish for such a thing.

You will notice there’s no place on this page wherein I thank the publishers and some other source for a free galley. There wasn’t one. A friend figured out that I should read this book, and she loaned it to me. It was the right book at the right time. If you have unfinished business, or even just like a good three-hanky cry, this might be a gentle way for you to get there.


This may not be “the” grief book for everyone, but it deserves strong consideration. It is an enormous consolation for some of us when there has been too much loss at one time, and we have had to be a little too strong.