Anxious People by Fredrik Backman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
In turns blunt and brilliant, hilarious and heartbreaking, Anxious People is an absolute revelation. Having read A Man Called Ove a few years ago, I anticipated a similar sensibility for Fredrik Backman's Anxious People... and I was not disappointed. While covering very different ground than A Man Called Ove, Anxious People radiates with Backman's signature wry humor and piercing insight, introducing a diverse cast of complex characters thrust into an absurd scenario: a bank robbery gone awry. Over the course of the novel, these characters become (in the words of one protagonist) the "Worst. Hostages. Ever." Saying much more than that would ruin the many surprises that Backman has in store for his readers.
Imagine a Peter Sellers film directed by Paul Thomas Anderson with a script by John Green, and you might have a slight glimpse of what's in store for you. That kind of combustible comedy (with cutting satire interwoven throughout) is exactly the kind of unpredictable narrative that Backman has crafted. Somehow, Anxious People manages to pack a potent punch while subverting expectations all along the way. The novel begins with a bank robbery, but the book twists and turns and contorts into a much broader rumination on life, love, loss, grieving, parenting, and mental health. As Backman proclaims to his readers, human beings are frequently best described as "idiots" - but those self-same "idiots" are often simply misguided, wounded creatures trying to navigate the complex waterways of life. It's no accident that the architectural structure of a bridge plays a pivotal role in several scenes: so much of Backman's story forces characters to bridge the gaping chasms that divide them. Along the way, readers also get to make their way across the tenuous, rickety platforms that connect characters - but Anxious People repeatedly reminds us that teetering on the ledge is never the solution to life's cruelties.
I don't want to spew out too much plot summary, however, because so much of this novel's genius relies upon subverting the expectations of readers and avoiding tried-and-true (albeit tedious and tired) tropes of storytelling. At one point, Backman makes an offhand reference to the definitive "twist-ending" film, The Sixth Sense... and then immediately pulls off a narrative trick worthy of M. Night Shyamalan himself. It's a clever and calculated move, an impressive flex of the muscles that will undoubtedly inspire many readers to thumb through previous chapters to search for breadcrumbs. Fortunately for them, there's a literary feast scattered throughout these pages.
It's rare that I give any novel a five-star rating (it's the elitist English teacher in me), but Anxious People absolutely deserves such potent praise. The flawless juxtaposition of silly and serious, heartfelt and humbling, makes Backman's novel a unique piece of literature. In the end, this life-affirming novel will make you laugh, cry, and experience every emotion in-between - sometimes, even, within the confines of a single page.
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My Best Friend's Exorcism by Grady Hendrix
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Like a teenager suddenly and unexpectedly possessed by an ancient demon, I was not prepared for Grady Hendrix's My Best Friend's Exorcism. While Hendrix continuously crafts my favorite kind of horror (hilarious and haunting in weighted measure), he tends to lose his path towards the end of each novel. In fact, I once described Grady Hendrix as "the Stephen King of modern horror... but not in a good way." My biggest complaint with Hendrix is that, like King, he creates brilliantly creative premises, but fails to live up to the promise of such clever conceits. With My Best Friend's Exorcism, however, Hendrix has crafted a heartfelt horror novel and actually managed to "stick the landing." Imagine Linda Blair doing a Simone Biles routine as choregraphed by James Wan, and that just about sums up My Best Friend's Exorcism.
Like William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist, Hendrix's novel depicts the untimely and horrific possession of a young girl - with all the trimmings and trappings of stereotypical supernatural scripts. Over the course of My Best Friend's Exorcism, best friends Abby and Gretchen grow up from E.T.-loving little girls to substance-abusing adolescents; along the way, the two girls form close relationships with a couple of classmates (Margaret and Glee) and partake in the usual soaking-up-the-sun activities of typical teenagers. That all changes one night, however, when the acid-addled girls go skinny-dipping and Gretchen mysteriously disappears into the woods. When she reappears, she's... different. After a slowly emerging sense of horror starts to overtake Gretchen (first with invisible pricking of her skin and ultimately transforming into something much more overwhelming), it gets dark. Really dark. Chaos ensues, friendships unravel, and the seemingly unbreakable bond between Gretchen and Abby is driven to a breaking point. Cue the titular exorcism and watch how the story unfolds.
As would be expected, there are the usual, predictable elements of exorcism stories: demonic entities, unsightly transformations of the possessed, voracious vomiting, a plethora of profanity, and fantastical familiars of the woodland variety. However, Hendrix deviates from expectations with some unforeseen alterations: iron-pumping exorcists, high school hierarchies, horrifying eating disorders, and a poppy 1980s soundtrack. This novel also shares DNA (and a South Carolina setting) with The Southern Book Club's Guide to Slaying Vampires, though the two books offer decidedly different takes on surviving the supernatural. The juxtaposition, while jarring, provides just enough levity to lighten the horrifying levitation of high school girls.
It's clear that Hendrix loves his old-school horror: between his many novels, he's tackled demons, devils, vampires, serial killers, haunted houses, and various other macabre monster mashups. But he also has a soft spot for vintage "sisterhood cinema" (or "chick flicks" to the cynical), drawing upon films as diverse as Steel Magnolias, Mean Girls, and Beaches. No one can accuse Hendrix of unabashed, malevolent misogyny - especially considering that every single one of his novels is written from the perspective of a female protagonist. In that regard, My Best Friend's Exorcism is very much in line with Hendrix's attempts at creating empowered female characters. With this novel, Hendrix balances a respectful reverence with more subversive sendups of the horror genre. Nothing is sacred to Hendrix - nor is anything profane enough to remain off-limits. That includes all the terrifying tropes of horror, as well as the timeless binds of sentimental sororities.
I have to admit, I actually dragged my feet reading this novel, working my way through the rest of Hendrix's oeuvre before finally tackling My Best Friend's Exorcism. Boy, did I make a mistake. The talented and insightful Claire Laminen once told me that MBFE was her favorite Hendrix novel, and I wish I had taken her sage advice sooner. Though I've consumed Hendrix's books like Goya's "Saturn Devouring His Son," thoroughly enjoying the goofy twists and turns of his comedic horror, I did NOT anticipate the emotional connections forged between the two main protagonists of the novel, Abby and Gretchen. Unlike Kris Pulaski's solo journey in We Sold Our Souls or Lynnette Tarkington's withdrawn isolation in The Final Girl Support Group, Abby and Gretchen have a tightknit bond that's as unbreakable as Marley's chains. Between the violent and disturbing supernatural descriptions, Hendrix manages to weave in some truly heartfelt relationships, examining a sisterhood between Abby and Gretchen that's even more powerful than Satan's minions. And THAT makes My Best Friend's Exorcism a truly unique, worthwhile read.
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When I was a wee little Levin, waaaaayyy back in the 1980s, my dad said something that's stuck with me over the ensuing decades: "Everyone has a book inside of them, waiting to be written." Though my father often gave terrible advice, I accepted this one piece of wisdom as gospel. Somewhere, deep down inside of me, I just knew that there was a book waiting to be unchained and unleashed upon the world. In 2013, when I pulled the plug on my band, Far From Kansas, I heard my father's voice echoing through my waking hours. The book was there, in its gestational state, eagerly awaiting evolution. I just needed to make time to write it.
After reading a Rolling Stone article about Nine Days frontman John Hampson, I realized that my bizarre life of teaching during the day and playing in a band at night wasn't such a unique duality. What must it be like, I wondered, for a student to discover that her mild-mannered English teacher used to be a rock star? And there it was. My novel.
The seed of inspiration had been planted and my book was swirling in the ether, quietly taking shape as I explored characters and plot lines. I wrote my first scene in April of 2014 - Saturday, April 19th, to be exact - while I waited in line outside Salzer's Records in Ventura for National Record Store Day. Over the next few months, pages poured out of me. The work came quickly; and while it wasn't all gold, there was enough bronze and silver for me to forge something worth reading.
A lot has happened since then. My second daughter was born. My father passed away after a long battle with cancer. My stepfather died unexpectedly of a heart attack. We moved into a new house. I came out of "teaching retirement" and returned to the classroom for a stranded batch of AP English students. I secured financing for a recording studio on campus. I co-produced four albums with the school Choir program.
All of these experiences informed the novel that I had been secretly writing. Sometimes, life imitated art; just as often, art imitated life. Occasionally, life and art swirled together in anarchic mixtures with blurry lines.
Now, six years after writing that first scene, my debut novel is done. Technically, my long-gestating book has evolved into two books: Side A and Side B. As I put the final touches on the first novel in this "duology," I'm excited to share my words with the world.
So, my father was partially right. There was a book inside of me, waiting to be written... it just ended up being two books. I only hope that there are many more to follow.