Book Review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine – Gail Honeyman (Viking, 2017)

Eleanor Oliphant, thirty years old, works in an office, does things exactly how she wants them without worrying what others think. Eleanor Oliphant is perfectly fine on her own, thank you very much, and always has been. She goes to Marks & Spencer every Friday, talks to Mummy on the phone every Wednesday night, and spends her weekends in a fog of vodka. Most other people (the “hoi polloi”) have atrocious manners or uninteresting lives so there’s simply no reason for Eleanor to engage with them more than is absolutely necessary.

Eleanor’s life begins to change though when she ends up at a local concert one night and falls for the musician on stage. Building an elaborate fantasy life, she begins to figure out how she can meet him. After all, as soon as they meet they’ll surely fall in love and live happily ever after. Right?

But Eleanor’s life is also changing due to an inadvertent friendship developing with the IT guy, Raymond. When Eleanor and Raymond help an old man who has fallen in the street, their lives become slowly more intertwined and Eleanor finds herself more and more outside of her usual comfort zone and schedule.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine draws some obvious comparisons to Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project but I found myself more often reminded of Ottessa Moshfegh’s Eileen. There is a much darker tone to Eleanor Oliphant than is found in The Rosie Project. It’s clear early on that Eleanor has a heavy past. We learn of the scar on her face, stories of broken arms and black eyes, and there are the weekly, disconcerting phone calls with Mummy.

More than all that though is the fact that I initially found Eleanor very dislikeable. While not outright creepy the way that Eileen is, she doesn’t have much to endear her to the reader. While Don (of The Rosie Project) is more of a charming idiot savant type, someone who mostly gets along with people but has to work very hard at it and doesn’t really understand why, Eleanor seems to actively judge and look down on others. She has little desire to engage with those around her and clearly seems to think of herself as better than them. As her interactions increase and she goes through some major personal development, this does change and Honeyman does a good job of showing how her life and childhood has affected Eleanor.

Overall, the novel is an easy and entertaining read and certainly offers an interesting perspective into the mind of a vastly unique person. Whether Eleanor is on the Autism spectrum or simply the product of her own past is left up to the reader but it is gratifying to watch Eleanor change and develop over the course of the novel. While, of course, remaining uniquely herself.

Reading with Pearl: Janet & Allan Ahlberg

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One of the fun things about being a parent is getting to re-discover things you yourself loved as a child and being able to introduce them to your own kid. The books of Janet and Allan Ahlberg definitely fall into this category for me.

My favourites by the Ahlbergs were the Jolly Postman series – books filled with letters and jokes and funny references to classic tales. While Pearl’s still a little young for the Jolly Postman, she can definitely enjoy other offerings from Janet and Allan Ahlbergs.

These are the two books that we have in our collection, both board books (perfect for my not-always-gentle little girl). Each Peach Pear Plum is a rhyming story filled with fairy tale characters like Cinderella and Baby Bunting. Kids familiar with fairy tales and classic children’s rhymes will find lots to recognize and each page contains a simple search-and-find.

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Peek-a-Boo (or Peepo for the UK audience) follows a baby through his day, talking about what he sees. The illustrations are full of interesting details and are delightfully old-fashioned.

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These are favourites in our household and will be, I think, for years to come.

Book Review: The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks

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The Secret Chord – Geraldine Brooks (Viking, 2015)

David would have the throne, the crown, the line of descendants that the Name had promised him. But for the rest of his life, he would be scalded by the consequences of his choices. My task would be twofold: To stand up to him, and to stand by him. To awaken his conscience, and to salve the pain this would cause him. To help him to endure through the hard days and years that lay ahead of him.

David was a man after God’s own heart. His life is told with great detail in the Old Testament, more than almost any other person in the Bible. 1 and 2 Samuel are almost entirely about him. The second king of Israel, the one who unites the kingdom and brings it to greater power, the writer of many of the Psalms. A man who loved God and whom God loved. A man who sinned greatly, who did things with great passion, for good and evil.

The Secret Chord, taking its name from the famous Leonard Cohen song, tells the story of David as seen through the prophet Nathan. After a life time in Sunday School and church, I knew Nathan best as the one who confronts and condemns David’s actions after his seduction of Bathsheba and murder of Uriah. These events stand at the centre of the novel (do I need to call spoilers on something that happened thousands of years ago?) but Brooks goes further into David’s past, as well as into the fallout of David’s sin.

The novel begins with Natan* journeying to David’s home town, undertaking the task of writing about David’s life. Although no such book remains, the Bible does reference Natan writing such a history. Along with the famous stories of David as a boy – killing a lion, slaying Goliath – Brooks weaves in more fictional ideas about David’s place in his family and what it was like for him to be first embraced by Shaul the king, and then rejected and hunted.

Natan returns to the palace to learn that David has seduced a married woman, the beautiful Batsheva. When Batsheva becomes pregnant, David takes further action to hide his first sin. Natan, one of the only people surrounding the powerful king, is the one who dares confront him and condemn him.

The book offers an interesting portrayal of a prophet in the character of Natan. Entering the story of David’s life as a young boy, Natan has powerful visions and words for David that are out of his control or knowledge. He frequently sees things that he isn’t present for. He cannot control when and to whom the prophecies will come and, at times, he knows things but is unable to speak them. Beyond this though, he seems to have little connection or relationship with God. As a Christian, I found those personal connections with God – which are a powerful part of David’s story in the Bible – to be lacking in Brooks’ account. Natan is a lonely figure in David’s court, unmarried, feared by many, though kept close by David who values his guidance. They have a unique relationship, not equals but in many ways Natan is closer to David than anyone else. Of course, much of the book is fiction and most of what Brooks creates of Natan is made up. She spins the fictional in skillfully with the Biblical history though, blending the two seamlessly. For example, David did name one of his sons Natan, which may signify a close relationship between the two men.

David himself is a larger-than-life figure. Charismatic, intelligent, good-looking, daring, and kind. He is a good king – brave in battle, wise in leadership. He is likeable and it’s easy to see why so many would follow him and risk their lives for him.

…the common soldiers did not blame him for his excessive grief. They knew him. They knew his flaws. Indeed, I think they loved him all the more because he was flawed, as they were, and did not hide his passionate, blemished nature.

His great downfall, as Brooks demonstrates it, is his lust for women and his weakness in raising his children. He is too often blinded by his own emotions and yet, at the same time, this is what makes him so human. As Brooks points out in the book’s Afterword, David must have existed because who would create such a flawed hero? Brooks doesn’t shy away from telling the darker sides of David’s history – not just his adultery but the bloodshed and vengeance done in the name of God and in uniting a kingdom. It is a difficult and complicated portrait and we are left to wonder that this is a man God loved and blessed so deeply.

Yet David was also punished deeply and the last part of the book focuses on this punishment and sorrow. On the fracture of his own family and the deaths of those he loves who he must bear witness to. The horror of his son Amnon’s sin, the betrayal of Avshalom. And then, a growing glimmer of hope in an unexpected place – Batsheva’s son, Shlomo.

Whether or not you’re familiar with the Biblical account of David’s life, this book is well-written and fascinating and I would recommend it. It could make an interesting read in combination with The Red Tent.

And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.

  • Leonard Cohen, “Hallelujah”

*Brooks uses the less common transliterations of names so I’ll use those from here on out too.

 

What I Read – March 2016

There was a time when Spring Break and holiday and travel meant I had time to read more than usual. Not this year, my friends, not this year. Here’s what I did read:

The Heart Goes Last – Margaret Atwood (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday Canada, 2015)

Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes (Penguin Books, 2003) (translated by John Rutherford)

The Adventures of Miss Petitfour – Anne Michaels, illustrated by Emma Block (Tundra Books, 2015)

The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan (Vintage International, 2015)

…courage, survival, love – all these things didn’t live in one man. They lived in all of them or they died and every man with them; they had come to believe that to abandon one man was to abandon themselves.

  • Richard Flanagan

The Secret Chord – Geraldine Brooks (Viking, 2015)

If David was a man after this god’s own heart, as my inner voice had told me often and again, what kind of black-hearted deity held me in his grip?

  • Geraldine Brooks

Currently Reading:

Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace (I’ll admit to being a bit stalled on this one though what I’ve read so far is terrific. The other night, Peter and I happened to watch a movie about David Foster Wallace called The End of the Tour that I would recommend to anyone interested in him/his writing.)

Pax – Sara Pennypacker, illustrated by Jon Klassen

A Separate Peace – John Knowles

What I Read – February 2016

Music for Wartime – Rebecca Makkai (Viking, 2015)

The Givenness of Things – Marilynne Robinson (HarperCollins, 2015)

(Truth be told, I only read half of this before I had to return it to the library. But I really enjoyed what I read and I hope to borrow it again.)

When panic on one side is creating alarm on the other, it is easy to forget that there are always as good grounds for optimism as for pessimism – exactly the same grounds, in fact – that is, because we are human. We still have every potential for good we have ever had, and the same presumptive claim to respect, our own respect and one another’s. We are still creatures of singular interest and value, agile of soul as we have always been and as we will continue to be even despite our errors and depredations, for as long as we abide on this earth. To value one another is our greatest safety, and to indulge in fear and contempt is our gravest error.

  • Marilynne Robinson

Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer – C.S. Lewis (Mariner Books, 2012)

If we were perfected, prayer would not be a duty, it would be a delight. Some day, please God, it will be.

– C.S. Lewis

The High Mountains of Portugal – Knopf Canada, 2016)

Furiously Happy – Jenny Lawson (Flatiron Books, 2015)

We Should All Be Feminists – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Anchor Books, 2014)

A Tale of Three Kings – Gene Edwards (Tyndale House Publishers, 1992)

These were David’s darkest hours. We know them as his pre-king days, but he didn’t.

  • Gene Edwards

The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy (Viking Canada, 1997)

Currently Reading:

Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes

(I swear, I’m so close to being finished. Really, you guys. I think March will be the month! I’m already planning how to celebrate.)

Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace

(I quickly discovered that Infinite Jest is too large a book for me to hold one-handed while up in the night for Pearl, so it’s semi on hold while I read smaller novels.)

And this time last year…

What I Read – February 2015

(Is it overly defensive to explain that February and March are combined from last year because I had a baby at the end of February? Well, I’m going to say it anyway.)

Book Review: Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai

Music for Wartime - Rebecca Makkai (Viking, 2015)

Music for Wartime – Rebecca Makkai (Viking, 2015)

This is Rebecca Makkai’s third book, following two novels. This short story collection is cohesive, yet diverse. There’s reality television and professional musicians and family legend. Indeed, fact and fiction are mixed together here. Spliced in between the fictional stories, Makkai includes interludes of her own family history, namely that of her grandparents. Her grandmother, a novelist highly respected in her home country of Hungary. Her grandfather, a politician responsible for introducing racist measures against the Jews in Hungary in the 1930s. Makkai’s father is the only child of their brief marriage. Makkai delves into her own attempts to reconcile this world history with her person experiences and memories of her grandparents, especially her grandfather. (This interview sheds some light on her story and process.)

The short stories are fine but the heart of the collection is really the real-life glimpses. While the fictional stories have interesting premises, I found that Makkai didn’t leave much room for the ambiguity that so many of the best short stories contain. While she does a neat job of creating worlds, they still feel fake as their tales are wrapped up a little too neatly. (Granted, some readers prefer this but I like a little more thoughtfulness in my short stories.)

On the other hand, the historical segments are full of an uncertainty and moral ambiguity that left me wanting more. While I’m not sure Makkai’s explorations, as seen here, are enough for a novel length book, I think they could stand alone as a set of linked family stories. Some of the fictional short stories here do have a wartime theme but not all and, in total, it creates a dissonance that wouldn’t be noticeable in a more traditional story collection. Basically, I think there is the potential for two books here and I’d be especially interested in an expansion of the non-fiction side.

As it stands, the book is a fine and interesting read with glimpses of the author’s potential to offer much more.

Book Review – The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

This book was okay.

That’s exactly what my dad always refers to as “damned with faint praise” but I can’t muster up much more enthusiasm about The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (Viking, 2014). I wish I could because I know a few people who read this novel and enjoyed it immensely. I simply don’t find myself in their ranks.

The novel is short – an easy weekend read. My guess is those who love it the most will be book lovers who have spent time working in bookstores or publishing houses. Though, obviously, that doesn’t guarantee anything. For a short novel, The Storied Life spans many years in its characters lives. We open with the first meeting between Amelia Loman, sales rep for Knightley Press (she’s a saleswoman and her last name is Loman!), and A.J. Fikry, owner of Island Books on remote Alice Island. A.J. is a grump – partly by nature and partly due to his wife’s recent death. He’s left alone in her small hometown, running the business they both started, and steadily drinking himself to death. The first meeting between Amelia and A.J. does not go well.

Then A.J. goes for a run one night and returns to find a baby in his bookstore. More specifically, a two-year-old named Maya. Here’s where my problem with the book began. The normal reaction to finding an abandoned child – even one with a note from her deceased mother pinned to her – is not to choose to raise that child as your own. Especially when you are a grumpy widower with a failing business and a drinking problem. That isn’t the next logical step and so the author has to convince me as to why a character might make that leap. (M.L. Stedman does an excellent job of this in a similar scenario in The Light Between Oceans.) Why does A.J. want to or choose to raise this child? Why do the authorities let him? Aren’t there legal procedures that he has to follow? The whole adoption process is really glossed over in the novel. Yes, I understand that adoption isn’t really what this book about but you have to give the reader something. There’s a single scene between A.J. and the social worker where he says he wants to keep Maya – after spending a single weekend with her, mind you – and the social worker thinks that Maya is one of the lucky ones. Wouldn’t she be just as likely to think that A.J. is some sort of pedophile? Show us why the social worker thinks this will work!

I suppose this issue is only a symptom of my greater problem with the novel. It’s cheesy and unrealistic and it didn’t have to be. I think there’s a lot of good material and some glimmers of greatness, which makes the kitschiness and unrealism all the more disappointing.

The format is appealing. Each chapter begins with the title of a short story and a blurb (written by A.J.) as to why he likes this particular story. Any booklover will enjoy that. The novel is full of book references that a well-read reader will love picking up on. And if you’ve worked in a bookstore you can’t help but smile at many of A.J. frustrations and excitements and the relationship he begins to build in his community through his business and love of the written word.

Yet it’s not enough. The novel spans many years in A.J.’s life (as well as a handful of other important characters who circle around him). Perhaps this book should have been longer, delved a little deeper and let us discover things about A.J., rather than simply throwing these events at us and bashing the emotions over our head. The supporting characters are fun but not particularly deep. Maya always seems a little too smart for her age. Lambiase, the local police chief who starts a book club is charming but never quite expands past a police officer. I found the most interesting secondary character was A.J.’s former brother-in-law, Daniel Parish. A once popular author, whose subsequent books have never been as successful as his first novel, Daniel is also a fairly horrible man. Zevin shows that she can do subtlety well as Daniel demonstrates who you can love a book and still hate the author. I only wish she had used that talent more widely through the whole novel.