One-Minute Book Reviews

August 19, 2009

Katarina Mazetti’s ‘Benny & Shrimp,’ a Scandinavian ‘Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’ With Swedish Meatballs

Can a Swedish librarian find happiness with a man who owns a manure-spreader, or is he just shoveling — ?

Benny & Shrimp. By Katarina Mazetti. Translated from the Swedish by Sarah Death. Penguin / Pam Dorman. 221 pp., $14, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

This frothy romantic comedy is a Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society with Swedish meatballs. Benny Söderström is an unmarried dairy farmer who owns a manure-spreader and boasts, “If you’ve read one book, you’ve read them all, and I read one last year!” Desirée Wallin is a widowed librarian who likes modernist furniture and talking about the literary theories of Jacques Lacan. The two lovelorn Swedes, both in early middle-age, meet at a cemetery where Benny visits his mother’s grave and Desirée her husband’s. And if you can’t see where this novel is going by the end of the first chapter, you’re probably still shocked that Julia Roberts got together with Richard Gere in Pretty Woman.

But like The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Benny & Shrimp makes use of an interesting narrative device: Katarina Mazetti tells her story not in letters but in chapters narrated antiphonally by Benny and “Shrimp,” the farmer’s nickname for Desirée. And Mazetti invests her tale with enough wit and vitality to offset some of the contrivances of her plot. Benny might refer to Rigoletto as “that fatso with the sword” after Shrimp tries to couth him up by giving him opera tickets. But  you have to admire an unmarried man who, when he opens his refrigerator, has the integrity to admit the truth: “There were things in there that probably could have walked out on their own.”

Best line: “You could lobotomize him with the power saw and nobody would notice the difference.”

Worst line: It’s hard to imagine a Swedish farmer saying, even in translation, “Blimey” and “not bloody likely!”

Published: August 2008

Reading group guide: Penguin has posted discussion questions that include comments by Mazetti.

Caveat lector: This book was based on an advance reader’s edition. Some material in the finished book may differ.

Furthermore: Mazetti is a Swedish radio producer and author of books for children and adults. Benny & Shrimp was a bestseller and inspired a movie in Sweden. And yes, this novel about people who meet in a cemetery was translated by “Sarah Death.”

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com and www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

March 17, 2009

‘Passive suffering is not a theme for poetry’ (Quote of the Day / W. B. Yeats)

Members of an isolated British reading group write letters about their favorite books in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Dial, 2008), a bestselling novel set mainly on a Channel Island in 1946. But one character rages against William Butler Yeats, the Irish Nobel laureate. The complaint: Yeats edited The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, 1892–1935 and said in its introduction that he had left out all the great World War I poets, including Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, because

“ … passive suffering is not a theme for poetry.”

This well-known quote was controversial from the start. But it suggests how much poetry has changed: Many recent collections, such as Frances Richey’s The Warrior and Mary Jo Bang’s Elegy, include poems that involve “passive suffering.”

What do you think of the change? Does poetry need less passive suffering and more active engagement with life? Or are modern poets proving that Yeats was wrong?

Read Yeats’s full quote and more on The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, 1892–1935 www.english.emory.edu/LostPoets/Yeats.html.

A review of and reading group guide to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society appeared on this site on Nov. 25, 2008 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/11/25/. A review of The Warrior was posted on July 27 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/07/27/ and of Elegy on March 10 www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/03/10/.

nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1923/yeats-bio.html

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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