Eleanor Oliphant is fine. Completely fine. Or at least, that’s what she tells herself, when the loneliness starts to be too much or when she has yet another awkward encounter with another person. As quickly becomes clear in Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Eleanor Oliphant is not completely fine.
Eleanor is in her early thirties and she lives a solitary life. She’s held the same office job for almost a decade. She gets a weekly phone call from her volatile mother. She’s socially inept, with real difficulty reading cues and interacting with other people. She keeps to a strict daily routine and her weekends are a blur of vodka-haze. Day after day, week after week, this is Eleanor’s life.
Until one day when she and a co-worker happen upon an elderly stranger who needs assistance. From there, Eleanor’s routines are upended, and she suddenly has plans for the future and more human contact than she’s used to.
There’s a dark layer in this book that I wasn’t expecting. Eleanor’s got a terrible, sad secret in her past, one that is uncovered as the book goes on. She’s solitary and disconnected for a good reason. However, this darkness makes the light at the story’s end that much brighter–there’s real weight and import in Eleanor’s growth as a person. She’s not quirky. She’s struggling to cope and to heal.
Which does not mean that she isn’t fun to read about. This is a very amusing book, and extremely heartwarming, too. There’s catharsis and change, but there’s also always a sturdy friend and hope for the future. Her voice is original and perfectly individual.
Eleanor’s relationship with Ray, the scruffy IT guy from her office, is gold. Ray is a kind, affable guy, and his patience with and affection for Eleanor is great to read about. Their friendship shows how much kindness can make a huge difference.
Absolutely hilarious and endlessly informative, Word by Word is a pleasure to read–particularly if you love words!
Stamper, a lexicographer who works at Merriam Webster, talks about the nature of her job, the history and usage of dictionaries, and shares great anecdotes. It’s witty, nerdy fun, and written with a whole lot of passion for words and language. The behind-the-scenes tour of a dictionary definition is a fun peep behind the curtain of dictionary-making.
What I especially love about this book is how Stamper emphasizes that the role of the dictionary is to show us how language is actually used (with citations to prove it!). The dictionary is always evolving and being updated, reflecting the culture and the actual usage of phrases and words out in the world.
And English is a super-unruly language to wrangle with, as Stamper notes. The image of the English language as an incorrigible kid toddling home wearing someone else’s socks and its undies on its head is the best example of her vivid imagery, by the by.
On a personal level it was fun to see how many similarities there are between what a lexicographer does and what a library cataloger does. This quote, from the epilogue, really spoke to me:
Lexicography is as much a creative process as a scientific one, which means that good lexicography relies on the craft of the drudges at their desks. Lexicographers will frame their work as “an art and a science,” though we only throw that tired old coat over the bones of our work because it’s recognizable shorthand for saying that this thing–the act of creating a definition, sifting through pronunciations, conjuring Proto-Indo-European roots, ferreting out dates of first written use, rassling with language–isn’t just a matter of following a set of rules.
Stamper goes on to note that writing a dictionary entry is invisible work. No one ever considers that a person, an educated, experienced person, must sit down and craft a dictionary definition. She might as well be talking about a library catalog record. Or perhaps I flatter myself.
If you enjoy A.J. Jacobs’ books, you will probably find a lot to like in Stamper’s work. Her style is accessible yet deeply intelligent, and her love for her work comes through on every page. Language is a living, breathing, ever evolving thing, and lexicographers are there to keep track of it.
This is dumb, but I’m scared that Stamper will find this post and will judge my style and usage and word choice. 😦
In a series of connected vignettes, All Grown Up shares Andrea’s ongoing struggles with getting her life together and overcoming her childhood. It’s funny (often darkly so) and observant. It’s sharp, too, and there’s a strain of melancholy and dissatisfaction that runs through it. While everyone else seems to be moving forward with traditional life milestones, Andrea is 39 and the same person in the same place as she’s always been.
And is that really a problem?
I suppose you could call Andrea unlikeable, given how she can drive you a bit nuts with her selfishness and lack of motivation, but I liked her. Andrea is funny and has rough edges. She comes across as a real human being with issues and flaws, but also with insight and desires and a sense of humor. I like that she does what she wants, even if she regrets it or the situation turns out badly. I can also identify with her sensualist tendencies (there are some great passages about food and the eating thereof in this book).
How does one measure success at being a “grown-up”? How do you know when you are one? Do those traditional milestones (marriage, home ownership, car ownership, boat ownership) really matter at all? Maybe you know you’re a grown-up when you reach the point where you can be there for others even when it’s hard, create connections that matter to you, and when you can hold a sick baby’s hand.
I’m excited to read more of Attenberg’s work. She’s witty and insightful and creates emotional and truthful moments that pack a punch for how unexpectedly they creep up on you.
Tom knows. He’s from the way the future is supposed to be: a techno-utopia free of want and war, where all material needs are provided for and the only industry left is entertainment. However, his life kind of stinks. His mother is dead and his father is a jerk, and Tom himself is a hopeless schmuck. It’s down to his really, really stupid decision to go back to the past that history changed, the technology never materialized, and the world is what we’re used to.
And wouldn’t you know: Tom’s life in the wrong 2016 is awesome. Much better than what he left behind. Swiftly his dilemma becomes whether his wonderful family and life are worth the countless billions who were erased and the society that never was.
Like the best science fiction, All Our Wrong Todayshas plenty of social commentary and ethical questions. But it’s such a refreshing change from dystopian fiction. Particularly since, in this book, the reality that we know is the dystopia. We have to kill plants and animals for food. There’s pollution everywhere and we just keep making more. Every technology we invent seems to do more harm than good, despite our best efforts. Tom is shocked when he sees the conditions of our 2016. Even though his world had problems, they were not on so grand a scale.
Tom is a great narrator, a totally directionless screw-up who seems incapable of changing. Endlessly self-involved and self-deprecating, Tom’s emotional and personal arc over the course of the story is a rewarding one. He finds himself cast in the role of hero by the end of the story, commenting on the fact that he suddenly has a purpose and a duty. Besides, he’s pretty funny, so that helps the narrative along.
I also really appreciated the optimistic ending. The future (and the present) is what we make it. It can be whatever we choose. We should make sure we choose well.
All Our Wrong Todays is funny and smart, action-packed and cinematic. It’s also a slightly mind-bending romp through alternate realities and the fabric of time and space.
I’m a little late to the party on this one. But I’m so glad I finally arrived!
Girl Waits With Gun is based on real people, and tells the story of one of the first female deputy sheriffs in the United States. Her name was Constance Kopp, and she lived in Wyckoff, New Jersey. One day when out in town with her sisters, Norma and Fleurette, a wealthy silk factory owner ran into their buggy with his car. Constance’s attempts to get the silk man to pay a $50 repair bill swiftly snowball into a dangerous situation when the man refuses to pay up. Throw in a gang, some gunplay, and a missing child, and then let Constance Kopp save the day.
This is the first in a series, and I’ve also just finished the second installment,Lady Cop Makes Trouble. The second one builds on the first for sure, but it’s a great outing all on its own–Constance finds her job in jeopardy after a criminal escapes on her watch. These mysteries are amusing and filled with great characters. As mysteries both of these books are a nice blend of police work and the more amateur sleuth style, given how Constance is kind of in-between those two worlds.
The pace is quick and the writing is evocative. Stewart does a lot with just a few lines to bring a scene or setting to life. These books are set in the 1910’s, and there’s just enough historical detail to add color and interest. And the characters are very well-realized through the dialogue-driven stories. Their relationships, particularly those between the Kopp sisters, are very well-drawn. In Girl Waits With Gun we get Constance’s backstory, and that of her family, and learn how these sisters ended up on an isolated rural farm.
Constance is presented as no-nonsense and incredibly driven, and I like how matter-of-fact she is about her unorthodox (for her time) profession. This real-life quote from Constance says it all:
“Some women prefer to stay at home and take care of the house. Let them. There are plenty who like that kind of work enough to do it. Others want something to do that will take them out among people and affairs. A woman should have the right to do any sort of work she wants to, provided she can do it.”
She’s good at what she does and she wants the opportunity to do her job. That’s pretty much all there is to it. I appreciate how Constance just gets on with things, and the story never gets bogged down with the social issues that it touches on. These books are about Constance Kopp taking down criminals, and keeping you delightfully entertained while she does so.
If you want to learn more, Stewart’s website has some great background on the characters and on New Jersey/New York City in the 1910’s. Check it out here.
And the third installment is due in September, so keep your eyes peeled this fall for Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions!
Ben is on a business trip in the Poconos, and he decides to go for a quick hike behind the inn where he’s staying. That quick hike turns weird fast when Ben suddenly finds himself lost and alone, on a path he can’t stray from under penalty of death. In this bizarre world there are giants, twin moons, an old lady in a lonely cottage, monsters, and a foul-mouthed crab named Crab. Ben’s only goal is to stay alive and get home to his family.
It sounds trippy because it is. But just roll with it!
The set-up is that of a fairy tale quest: Ben has to stay on his path and overcome obstacles in order to get back to his own world and family. The tone and atmosphere are like a Twilight Zone episode (right down to the ending!), with its eerie weirdness and sense of danger.
It’s a fast-paced adventure with plenty of humor, but there’s also a poignancy to the quest. Ben is a wonderful Everyman character, and it’s very easy to identify with him. What parts of your life would you most like to have another chance at? And how would you go about facing down your deepest fears? And, most of all, how much would you be able to endure in order to stay on your path? I imagine this book is one you would probably read very differently at different stages of your life. Kind of like Gulliver’s Travels or Alice in Wonderland, or even The Odyssey.
The Hike is all about conquering your demons and following your path, whatever those might be. It’s fun, hilarious, and touching. And very, very weird.
Simply Books! turned three years old in March! We’ve had just about the same core crew since the beginning. Along the way we’ve picked up new members who each bring something unique to our table. The Simply Books! crew, to a one, is friendly, intelligent, hilarious, warm, and, of course, well-read!
It really is an honor to facilitate this group. It occurs to me that our members are always thanking me and saying how great the group is. Which warms my heart, don’t get me wrong! But they really should be thanking themselves. It’s every member together that makes a book group fantastic. Along with that certain “It” factor. Whatever “It” is, Simply Books! has it in spades.
So thank you to every single member of Simply Books! I look forward to the fourth Saturday of the month like you wouldn’t believe. Talking books with all of you is one of the highlights of my professional life. Here’s to another three years!
All-righty then, on to the good stuff! This month I’ve decided to keep intact the list that I send by email to group members. Most of these descriptions are in their own words. It gives you a nice idea of what we cover at a meeting.
In the Fall by Jeffrey Lent
A novel about a white Civil War veteran and his wife, an escaped slave, set in Vermont. It’s a story that spans three generations and revolves around a family secret. Very character-centered and character-driven, with lyrical and engrossing writing. Every character feels real.
The House at Sea’s End by Elly Griffiths
This is the third in the Ruth Galloway mystery series, and is absolutely delightful! Ruth is a forensic archaeologist in Norfolk, England, who turns her expertise about bones into a turn for solving crimes. Funny, with thin mystery plots that are secondary to the fantastic style and flawed (but always entertaining!) realism of the characters. (this is a series you can join anywhere, but the first is “The Crossing Places” if you wanted to start there)
Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
A re-read (in the original German), and worth it! Quite beautiful, with many wonderful moments. It’s the story of a spiritual journey, with Buddhist sensibilities. A simple tale, but lyrically told.
Robert Redford: The Biography by Michael Feeney Callan
The authorized biography of Redford (and yes, there are pictures!). The writing is pedestrian, but Redford’s life was quite amazing. His energy, environmental interests, film work, and athleticism all really come through. The one down side is that, as it’s an authorized biography, you don’t know what they’re leaving out.
A Formal Feeling by Zibby O’Neil
A beautifully rendered story of coming to terms with grief. Anne is a 16 year old girl who has recently lost her mother. Her father has already remarried, and Anne is home from boarding school for the holidays. The story revolves around Anne’s grieving process, and finally allowing herself to grieve. It’s a sophisticated young adult story with writing to match, tactile and evocative and filled with symbolism and imagery.
Tigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussman
A novel about dysfunctional families, secrets, and coming of age, this story spans about twenty-five years and the stories of five different characters. At the center of them all is a dangerous teenage sociopath and a crime he has committed, and through the points of view of the other characters his background and upbringing are brought to light. Very evocative of upper-class New England in the 1950’s and 1960’s.
The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud
This novel centers on Nora, a schoolteacher in her thirties who considers herself a forgotten and overlooked “woman upstairs.” She makes a connection with a student and his family, an obsessive connection which has disastrous
consequences. Nora is a compelling narrator, one you identify with…until she crosses that line into insanity with a line or a thought.
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The classic novel of crime and its aftermath, as well as into the mind of a killer who seems perfectly normal. The reader mentioned especially how the reader is drawn into the minutiae of the protagonist’s life, of how creepily everyday the narrative is, when all the while he is plotting a gruesome murder.
I realized only after I’d sent the email that I’d totally forgotten to include the book I shared! Ooops. It was Hild by Nicola Griffith, and if you click this link you can read my blog post. I said pretty much all the same things.
If this post makes you curious about what Simply Books! is like in person, please come join us in a couple weeks! Our next meeting is scheduled for Saturday, April 26th at 2pm, in the Jean Picker Room.