Although we’ve been in the new house nearly six months now, and I’ve read over 20 books over that span, I don’t know that I have a favorite reading spot. Or at least I didn’t until about a week ago. We have a sunroom that had been my spot, but it’s also just off the kitchen and you can hear the TV from there, so while very comfortable and well lit, it doesn’t always have the privacy I want when I’m really diving into a book.

A couple weeks ago the recliner we ordered for the office finally arrived. It took me a few days to get everything situated the way I want, but I believe I have my perfect reading spot now. The chair is very comfortable. I can pull the office doors shut if I want privacy. I have a little side table that has a perfectly placed reading lamp on it and room for a drink.[1] During awake hours I can play music on the Mac across the room. In the evenings, I can prop my iPad against the side table and play music loud enough for me to hear but soft enough not to disturb C in the bedroom above me.

Probably not a coincidence I ripped through two books in about 10 days after getting this setup in place.

The Return: Fathers, Sons, and the Land in Between – Hisham Matar
This is a gorgeous and mesmerizing book that won the Pulitzer for best memoir last year.

Matar was born in New York, the son of a Libyan diplomat at the UN. His family was forced to flee Libya in 1979 when his father’s opposition to the dictatorship of Muammar Ghaddafi put them all in danger. The family’s home base was in Egypt, but they traveled throughout Europe. Hisham’s older brother was once forced to flee his Swiss school late at night when a team of hitmen were discovered outside its gates. Matar’s family was lucky. Other Libyan dissidents in Europe during that time were captured and tortured, others were blown up in their cars, while some were simply shot. It was a crazy way to grow up.

In 1990 Matar’s father was abducted by Egyptian security agents and taken into secret custody. It took years for the family to discover that the Egyptians had immediately turned him over to Ghaddafi and he had been languishing in the dictator’s political prisons. From time to time the family would receive letters from their father that had been smuggled out. But in the late 90s, these letters ceased.

The book, then, takes us on Matar’s journey after the Libyan revolution of 2011. He returns to his homeland for the first time in over 30 years and connects with family and friends, including many who had spent decades in Ghaddafi’s prisons as well. He writes of the strangeness of meeting people he had heard about, exchanged letters and phone calls with for years, but never seen face-to-face as an adult. He sees their pain as they see his father’s features in his own. He rediscovers the beauty and promise of the land his father fought to make free again.

His biggest mission is to discover what happened to his father. Some believe he was killed during a prison revolt in 1996. Others claim to have seen him as late as 2002. Eventually Matar meets with Ghaddafi’s son, who promises to uncover the truth of Matar’s father’s fate. What follows is a year of frustration, as the junior Ghaddafi teases, stalls, lies, and eventually fails Matar. While suggesting that the senior Matar is dead, he never shares when, how, or why he died, or what happened to his remains. When the book ends, Matar and his family still have no confirmation of their father’s fate.

It’s a terrible story told beautifully.

Beartown – Fredrik Backman
This book just about floored me. I began it sometime Sunday and finished it early Tuesday afternoon after racing through the final 150 pages in a marathon session that day.

It takes place in far northern Sweden, in a small town on the edge of the woods that is slowly disappearing. Factories are shutting down, which hurts other businesses, which forces the population to flee to cities that still have jobs. Where there were once three schools, there is now just one. People see a future not too far down the road where the last factory and school close and nothing is left.

For now, though, one thing keeps the town together: hockey. After going decades with weak teams, the town’s junior squad finally has a chance for greatness thanks to a once-in-generation talent, a 17-year-old named Kevin. Following a win in the national semifinals, Kevin hosts a party at his home while his parents are away. During the party he rapes a 15-year-old girl who is the daughter of the team president. The daughter hides the rape from family and friends until the following weekend, just before the championship game.

Soon the town that was barely holding on is tearing itself apart.

Backman hits a lot of big themes in the book. There is the meaning of sports in our society: how much importance we place on them, how many of us gain our identity from following sports teams, how we coddle athletes, and how the culture within sports affects how athletes behave away from games. He hits sexual politics. He hits how gender roles have changed, and how more rural areas are reluctant to accept changes that have taken place elsewhere. He hits immigration. He hits sexual orientation. He hits on how the changing global economy affects the far reaches of the most modern countries. He hits how fast information, true or false, can spread in our hyper-connected age.

After the rape accusation becomes public, Backman zeros in on every character and relationship in the book, showing how the all change and the decisions behind those changes. It’s a fascinating section.

Nearly every chapter made me stop and think about issues beyond and bigger than the book. As the father of a 14-year-old girl, with two close behind her, the sections about rape had me thinking even longer about how to protect them, how much to tell them about the dangers of being a young woman, and how much not to tell them lest I make them fearful of trying to lead normal relationships. As wonderful as most of the book is, there are long sections that are very difficult to read.

Beartown is powerful, emotional, chilling, thought-provoking, smart, and, most importantly, entertaining. There are some moments when Backman may push a little too hard, and I’m not sure I loved his final chapter. Most importantly, though, he kept me stuck in my seat and turning pages.

  1. I’m 47 with shitty eyes. I’ll be honest, the light is probably the most important part of the equation.  ↩