COMING TO LIFE: ELEANOR OLIPHANT IS COMPLETELY FINE

If you’re a fan of books where a character starts out isolated from the world and from him or herself and then, gradually over the course of the book, comes closer to the rest of the world and becomes more of a social human being (like The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion, which the book group read and loved last year, not that I’m trying to prejudice you one way or the other), then you’re going to love the debut novel by Gail Honeyman*, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine.

eleanor oliphant

At the start of the book, you would be hard-pressed to describe Eleanor’s life as anything close to “fine.” She’s in her thirties, single, living alone and doing her best to avoid human contact as much as she can.  She’s working as a clerk in a firm in Glasgow, Scotland, and is aware that her co-workers make fun of her for her appearance and her behavior.  She doesn’t have any friends, and her one social interaction other than at work is a weekly call with Mummy, which are sufficiently damaging to her that she’d probably be better without them. She’s very particular and very dependent on her routines, which include crossword puzzles on her lunch hour and drinking too much vodka every weekend.  She’s clearly suffering from depression, and her limited social skills lead her to believe this is one of those things she needs to keep from everybody else.

 

But life finds Eleanor despite her best efforts.  She develops a crush on a popular singer, in an effort to please Mummy about her future, and she changes her appearance to attract him, which of course doesn’t work the way she intends.  She reluctantly joins Raymond, a work colleague, in helping Sammy, an elderly stranger who’s fallen and hurt himself badly, and as the three of them spend more time together, their lives intertwine, and Eleanor begins to open up to the gentle and caring Raymond about her past, her present, and why she is the way she is.  Raymond helps her to get therapy, and over the course of the book Eleanor comes to blossom, not into someone “normal”, but into the best Eleanor she can be.

 

The book has been compared not only to The Rosie Project (which would be enough of a recommendation for me), but also to bestsellers like A Man Called Ove.  Give Eleanor a chance and she’ll charm you as she’s charmed other critics and readers.

 

*Yes, this does qualify as a debut novel for those of us doing the 2017 Reading Challenge.

Advertisements

FROM THE VILLAIN’S SIDE: THE HOUSE OF NAMES

I personally have a soft spot for books that tell the other side of famous stories, especially books that tell the story from the point of view of someone traditionally considered the villain. Antiheroes can be fun, and seeing a famous story from the other side can be a revelation, especially if it’s written by someone who knows what she or he is doing.

HOUSE OF NAMES

Which is why I’m so excited about Colm Toibin’s new book, House of Names.  Toibin is the author of, among other things, Brooklyn (made into a movie) and The Book of Mary (a look at the Gospels from the point of view of Jesus’ mother, Mary), and (it shouldn’t even be necessary to add) a brilliant writer.  His newest book, House of Names, is about the Trojan War, from the point of view of Clytemnestra, infamous as the woman who killed Agamemnon, her husband, and then later was killed by Orestes, her own son. It also tells the story from the point of view of her son, Orestes, and her daughter, Electra. It’s long seemed obvious to me that Clytemnestra had a story of her own and reason to act the way she did, so I’m thrilled that Toibin is taking on her story.

 

In House of Names, Clytemnestra is conspiring with her lover, Aegisthus, to kill her husband, King Agamemnon, when her husband returns from the Trojan War.  She has never forgiven Agamemnon for sacrificing their daughter, Iphigenia, to get favorable winds for the armies’ trip to Troy, putting his need to win the war above his feelings for his daughter.  Nothing she does to get revenge on him, from taking a lover to murdering Agamemnon and his new concubine, seems out of line or unjustified to her, and Toibin puts you in her head and in her emotions so her actions feel justified to us as well.  Add in Orestes and his struggles with his mother’s and his father’s behavior, and add in his sister, Electra, who’s truly her mother’s daughter, ready to do whatever she believes necessary to achieve her version of justice, and you have the makings of a powerful story that’s fascinated people for thousands of years, and takes on a new life in the skilled hands of Colm Toibin.  Don’t miss it!

DON’T JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER: THE BOY ON THE BRIDGE

We all know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but let’s face it: there are a lot of books out there, and many times we judge books by the description on the book cover flaps.  Sometimes that description is inadequate, and sometimes it’s just terrible.  For instance, would you be interested in a book that had this on the inside cover flap?

“Once upon a time, in a land blighted by terror, there was a very clever boy.

The people thought the boy could save them, so they opened their gates

and sent him out into the world.

To where the monsters lived.”

No, I probably wouldn’t, either.  That’s the flap copy for The Boy on the Bridge, by M. R. Carey, and whoever wrote that description should be fired (or at least disciplined) for it, because not only is it inadequate to the point of leaving out most of the good stuff in the book, but it’s actually misleading (as you’ll see).  And it’s practically a crime, because the book in question is so good and such a great read that you’ll be missing out massively if you choose not to take the book out based on that description.

the boy on the bridge

This book is set in the same world as The Girl with All the Gifts, which, as you know, I absolutely loved and recommended to just about everybody, but you don’t need to have read the first book in order to appreciate this one (though there is no reason in the world why, if this book sounds intriguing to you, you shouldn’t run out and read The Girl with All the Gifts).  It completely stands on its own; everything you need to know about this world is set up right away.

 

It’s England in the future, suffering through the aftermath of a terrible disease which turns people into what the remaining humans call “hungries.”  They’re essentially zombies; their entire nervous systems have been parasitized by a fungus that leaves them with no volition and pretty much no movement except when they’re in the presence of food, when they run and attack and kill.  As with most zombies, a bite leads to infection, and the person so infected loses his or her personality and ability to think almost immediately.  The human population has been nearly wiped out, and the remaining humans cluster together in small barricaded enclaves.

 

People haven’t completely given up, of course, though the situation is absolutely dire.  Military solutions were tried, including the firebombing of a portion of England where the “hungries” were congregated, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of innocent human beings.  Scientists are trying to find out what causes this disease and whether there’s anything that can be done to cure it or vaccinate against it or at least slow it down, without much success to date (although a special lotion has been invented that cuts down on a human’s smell so the hungries aren’t able to smell them from afar and zero in on them).  As part of the scientific research, an armored tank called the Charles Darwin went on a trip through England and Scotland, leaving samples of the fungus in different places to see whether there were any places where the fungus died or had its growth slowed. The Charles Darwin never returned to its home base and nobody knows what happened to it or to its crew.  Another tank, the Rosalind Franklin (affectionately known as the “Rosie”), is following the track of the Charles Darwin, with a crew of scientists and military people (for the scientists’ protection) hoping to find some hint that the fungus can be contained or destroyed.  It’s the voyage of the Rosie through hungries-infested territory that forms the spine of the book.

 

The “boy” referred to in the title is Stephen Greaves, a young man who may be on the autism spectrum or may be just utterly traumatized by witnessing the deaths of his parents and everybody he ever knew in an attack by the hungries.  He is unquestionably bright, but his intelligence is not something the people of the town recognized (in fact, the only reason he’s along on the expedition is because one of the scientists, Dr. Samrina Khan, made his inclusion a requirement for her joining the expedition), and his strange behavior has alienated the soldiers on the crew of the tank as well, who refer to him (when they’re feeling polite) as “the Robot,” and worse things when they’re not polite.  Stephen is the one who invented the gel that hides people’s smell from the hungries, but he’s not resting on his laurels: he wants to understand the disease and the creatures suffering from it.  In one of his unauthorized forays from the Rosie, he sees a different kind of hungry, a somewhat feral girl who, though bearing all the physical signs of the usual hungries, acts like a human being with the capability to think and plan and communicate.  She is, Stephen thinks, an anomaly, a different kind of creature, and he wants to find out more about her (and the other children with her), no matter where that leads.

 

The book is filled with characters in conflict: the military side of the expedition has a low opinion of the scientists and vice versa, there are schisms within the military group, and the leader of the civilians is respected by nobody (and, as we come to find out, they have no reason to respect him).  Living for seven months in a cramped space makes things worse, and when Dr. Khan gets pregnant, her situation adds another potential problem for the crew as the expedition goes from bad to worse.

 

I don’t want to give away any more of the plot, because it’s the kind of book that picks you up and carries you along, immersing you in this frightening post-apocalyptic world and making you root for the complex characters and their dilemmas.  I read the book in a day, because I couldn’t put it down once I got into it, the same way I read The Girl with All the Gifts.  This writer knows how to crank up the suspense and how to make you care about the characters.  Take my advice: don’t even bother reading the flap of this book.  Take it out and give yourself time to dive in and live in this amazing, terrifying world.

NEW VISIONS OF THE PAST: HISTORICAL FICTION AT THE FIELD

Some of the best historical novels are the ones that illuminate an event or place or period you knew nothing about, so you feel you’ve learned something new.  Three of the newer historical novels at The Field Library this month do just that: take you to a new experience and bring it to life.

the stars are fire

Anita Shreve’s newest book, The Stars are Fire, starts with an ordinary young woman living in Maine in 1947.  Grace is married, not unhappily, and has two young children and is pregnant with a third.  She has a close friend, Rosie, also a young mother, living nearby, and Grace is more or less content with her life, until her whole world is upended by the largest fire in the history of Maine, which changes nearly everything in Grace’s life: her husband leaves her to join the other men in attempting to stop the fire, her home and Rosie’s home burn to the ground, along with most of their town.  It’s all she and Rosie can do to keep themselves and their children alive, and in the aftermath of the fire, Grace has to start over: penniless, homeless, facing devastation all around her, but also discovering new strengths and new freedoms.

the last neanderthal

There are two women protagonists in The Last Neanderthal by Claire Cameron. Though they are separated by 40,000 years and never actually meet each other, their lives are joined together by some experiences they have in common.  Girl, the Neanderthal of the title, is trying to survive in a harsh and unforgiving environment that has already killed off most of her people, when she finds herself alone with a foundling of unknown origin, whom she calls Runt, and the two of them have to figure out how to survive the winter storms that could kill them both.  In the modern era, Rosamund Gale, a paleoanthropologist, discovers the bones of a female neanderthal buried with a homo sapiens male, a find that could answer questions she’s been struggling with about the extinction of the neanderthals and the possible role homo sapiens played in that extinction.  The two women have more in common than either of them could imagine in this novel that speculates about what it could have been like for our ancestors and what it is that makes us human.

salt houses

The Palestinian family in Salt Houses, by Hala Alyan, is about to be swept away by the tides of history. On the eve of her daughter’s wedding, Salma, the family matriarch, reads the dregs of a coffee cup to discern her daughter’s future: she sees an unsettled life, travel, and luck.  Not exactly the best things to tell a bride on the verge of her wedding, so Salma keeps her predictions to herself, but they come true when the Six Day War uproots the family and scatters them from their home in Nablus.  Salma’s son is drawn into a militarized world he can’t escape from, and Alia, the bride, and her gentle husband move to Kuwait City to build a new life for themselves.  Unfortunately, when Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait , Alia and her family lose everything: their home, their land and their story.  Her children end up in Beirut, Paris, Boston, and beyond, learning the hard way that assimilation is never easy and you really can’t go home again.

 

NEW! EXPRESS BOOKS FOR LONGER AT THE FIELD LIBRARY!

You know what it’s like: there’s a hot new book you’re dying to read, but it seems as if everybody else in the world (or at least in Westchester County) is also dying to read it at the same time. You’ve put it on hold, of course, but when you check where you are in the holds queue, you’re disheartened to discover that you’re in triple digits.

 

Often there’s an express copy available at The Field Library, especially if the book is really popular or has won some major award (for instance, The Underground Railroad, which won the National Book Award AND the Pulitzer Prize this year). The advantage of an express copy is that it doesn’t go out on hold, so it’s going to come back to this library when the current reader is finished with it, and it can’t be renewed, so it will come back to the library reasonably quickly.  However, the disadvantage of an express copy has always been that you can only take the book out for seven days, and sometimes you just can’t be sure you’ll have the time to read the whole book in only a week.

 

Now there’s a solution to the timing problem: starting in May (that’s now!), we have changed all our express books so that they have a lending period of two weeks, not just one.  So you can get that new hot book and actually be able to read it!  Come to The Field Library and take a look at what we’ve got available in the express section, and treat yourself to something new, hot, and hard to get.