Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine – by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant“I suppose one of the reasons we’re all able to continue to exist for our allotted span in this green and blue veil of tears is that there is always, however remote it may seem, the possibility of change.”

Now I realize that this quote may not make you want to read this book (and maybe you shouldn’t), dreary as it seems. But the novel, Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine, is about a person’s ability to make even the most dreadful life better—through change.

Eleanor Oliphant is a peculiar, 31 year old office worker, with a university degree in classics and what we learn was a miserable upbringing. She describes herself as a woman with “Long, straight, light brown hair that runs all the way down to my waist, pale skin, my face a scarred palimpsest of fire.” Her face, specifically, has “ridged, white contours of scar tissue that slither across my right cheek, starting at my temple and running all the way down to my chin.”

Eleanor has no friends and the people at work, a graphics design company, make fun of her behind her back. Her weekends are spent at home alone, with vodka, pizza and books. She has a weekly telephone call with her “Mummy”, who appears to be institutionalized and is extraordinarily cruel to Eleanor.

Eleanor attends a concert where she sees a musician named Johnnie Lomond and immediately falls in love. A great deal of the novel is focused on her efforts  to find a way to attract his attention. In the meantime, Raymond Gibbons, an IT expert at the graphic design company, befriends Eleanor. One day while they are out walking they encounter an older man who collapses on the sidewalk. They call for help and begin to visit the man in the hospital and get to know his family.

Through her relationship with Raymond and her obsession with Johnnie Lomond, not to mention her therapy sessions, Eleanor’s past slowly reveals itself. At the same time, Eleanor begins to make changes, such as cutting her hair, buying clothes, wearing makeup and getting manicures. Although there are many ups and downs in her story, the books does end with a note of hope, although you have to suspend reality to actually accept  Eleanor’s transformation.

The book has a lot of dry wit and a great deal of unique language which caused me to be constantly looking up the meaning of words. Some examples? Simian, dispomaniac, zetabetical, and rebarbative. I have noticed that the book seems to have gotten a bit of acclaim. However, taking into consideration the level of cruelty and resultant mental illness, Eleanor’s unlikely and rather speedy transformation, the unbelievable purity of some of the characters and the use of language that in some instances does not seem to actually exist, I would rate it as okay (and a tad irritating) but certainly not great. You can reserve the novel at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Threads – by Sheryl Crow

ThreadsIt’s time for a change of pace. Let’s talk music. Some of you may not know this but during my junior and senior years in college I was part of a group that brought in and promoted concerts. We had Elton John and Jimmy Buffet and Linda Ronstadt and Jackson Browne, just to name a few. I miss those days!

But this blog is not about me. It’s about this amazing new album released from Sheryl Crow called Threads. This album reminds me of those days of anticipation for the new release from a favorite artist, of impatience to hear the next track to learn if it is as good as the one before. This album is everything you expect but dare not hope for from your favorite musician.

First, there is the generosity of 17 tracks and more than 70 minutes of music. Second, each song includes one or more great musicians, including Bonnie Raitt, Stevie Nicks, Joe Walsh, Neil Young, Kris Kristofferson, Sting, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson and James Taylor.  Third, there is a wide diversity of sound.

There are upbeat tracks and slower tracks. There’s the political (Story of Everything—“Our do nothing congress they never made mistakes, cause they don’t show up to work except to give themselves a raise.”) and there are love songs (Lonely Alone—“There’s no reason to be lonely alone, how about a friend who looks like me.”). There’s the philosophical (Flying Blind—“No one tells you when you’re young that life is full of questions and that there aren’t many answers. But I’ve come to believe sometimes yes or no depends on circumstances.”) and plain old cheerful (Still The Good Old Days—“I like it when you turn the radio on, you still get worked up to your favorite song, even when you sing the words wrong, at the top of your lungs.”). And there is just a brilliant remake of Bob Dylan’s Everything is Broken that left me speechless. There is not a bad track and each song has its own unique identity.

This CD is uplifting and brilliant. Music can fill you with emotion, joy and empathy as much as fine literature if it is done well. This CD does all of those things and I just want to listen to it over and over again. If you like Sheryl Crow and you like the idea of a creative CD, filled with talent, passion and beauty, run out and buy Threads now!

Threads can also be reserved at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Chances Are – by Richard Russo

Chances Are“Chances Are” is a mystery, a love story and a buddy story all wrapped together. It is engaging, captivating, well written and 100% pure Richard Russo.

Lincoln Moser, Teddy Novak and Mickey Girardi are 66 year old college buddies who get together for a reunion at Lincoln’s vacation home on Martha’s Vineyard. Each come from very different backgrounds and met as college students at Minerva College in Connecticut, where they were scholarship students. They worked in the kitchen at the Theta House as “hashers”, where Lincoln met Anita, who became his wife and all three were close friends with and secretly in love with Jacy Rockafellow.

The novel tells the story of Lincoln, Teddy, Mickey and Jacy, and the details of their lives that the others do not know. The reunion in Martha’s Vineyard is difficult, because it was this exact house, forty plus years earlier, where they last saw Jacy. After college graduation, the four decided to have a last get together at the home previously owned by Lincoln’s mother. Jacy snuck out early on the last day and was never heard from or seen again.

Lincoln is a commercial real estate broker who struggled through the recession. Lincoln’s father and mother also struggled financially while he was growing up. However, it turned out that his mother had inherited the house on Martha’s Vineyard from her parents and left it to Lincoln at her death, not to his know-it-all father, Wolfgang Amadeus Moser, who is still alive at the time of the reunion.

Teddy is the only child of parents who are both teachers and who had very little time for their intelligent lonely son. In high school, Teddy grew strong and played basketball, where he was undercut by a teammate while going for a basket and broke vertebrae. The combination of the parental neglect and the broken vertebrae have impacted Teddy throughout his life. Teddy appears to be bi-polar, with spells both extremely up and extremely down. Teddy is also a teacher and runs a small publishing business.

Mickey comes from a working class family full of love and positive impact. He is a musician and sound engineer living in Cape Cod. He, Teddy and Lincoln sat together during the nation’s first draft lottery. Mickey’s number was 9 out of 366 and it was clear he was going to Vietnam. Jacy hugged him close in sorrow and the others were jealous, despite Mickey’s difficult situation. Married and divorced more than once, and still playing rock and roll, he appears to be the least changed of the three, including his volatile temper.

Jacy, a member of the Theta house, was the daughter of wealthy parents (Vivian and Donald) and appeared to lead a privileged life. But all was not as it seemed. Jacy was engaged to be married to Vance, a Dartmouth graduate headed to Duke Law School and seemingly the perfect match. Yet she never visited him, never spoke of him. She seemed to spend all of her time with Lincoln, Teddy and Mickey.

As they all gather in Martha’s Vineyard, thoughts of Jacy take control of the week-end. Lincoln starts doing some community research, Teddy gets lost in his memories and Mickey has some surprises for them all. Along the way, they focus on a year round resident by the name of Mason Troyer. Mason has expressed interest in buying Lincoln’s house and they all begin to believe that he had some involvement in Jacy’s disappearance over Memorial Day week-end in 1971. Is she somehow buried in the back yard?

During the reunion week-end, they each learn something about the other that they did not know. Teddy observes that “…there’s a lot we don’t know about people, even the ones we love best.,,,But the things we keep secret tend to be at the center of who we are.” This novel, enjoyable, readable, and thought provoking, proves the point. The book was released in August and I certainly do recommend it. It can be reserved at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

Normal People – by Sally Rooney

Normal PeopleNormal People is the story of two very damaged people who only feel whole when together but tragically keep finding ways to be apart.

The story takes place from January of 2011 until February of 2015. In 2011, Marianne Sheridan and Connell Waldron are in high school. Marianne lives in a mansion with her mother and brother and Connell’s mother, Lorraine, is their housekeeper. Marianne is awkward and bookish and has no friends. Connell is popular, athletic, good looking and well liked by the girls.

Connell and Marianne get to know each other as Connell picks up his mother  from work. They develop an intimate relationship, which, although meaningful to both of them, they decide to keep a secret from their classmates. At the same time, they decide to go to Trinity College together, further strengthening their relationship. Then Connell invites someone else to the school dance and the thing falls apart.

They reconnect at Trinity and throughout the novel they are splitting up, engaging in new romances and then finding each other. Marianne grows into a beautiful woman and each of her relationships (other than Connell) involves physical abuse.

Each of them has significant family issues. Connell does not know who his father is and believes his grandmother resents him. Marianne’s father is deceased but was abusive. Her mother and brother are emotionally abusive to her as well. Throughout the story and at alternating times, Marianne and Connell spiral down into dark depressions.

Throughout the book there are allusions to political issues, such as the evils of capitalism, problems in the Middle East, and Ronald Reagan. The book also addresses the nature of love and the challenges of mental illness. But all in all, the story is just simply unpleasant.

I understand that life is sometimes difficult and that relationships can be deeply and mysteriously complex. But what I do not understand is all the critical acclaim for this book which seems to be aimed at ensuring that the reader experiences, first hand, each character’s misery, with no other apparent point. If you like to be miserable and to dwell in all of life’s big and little injustices, this is the book for you. You can reserve the novel at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

The Flight Portfolio – by Julie Orringer

There are times in our past that are so horrific, and yet so monumental,  that the story must be told again and again. The trick, of course is to find a way to tell the story in a new and engaging way, that captures the interest and holds the attention of an audience. The Flight Portfolio is one of those stories.

In The Flight Portfolio, Julie Orringer tells us the story of Varian Fry, a Harvard educated, sexually confused, New York Protestant. In 1940 Varian Fry is in Marseilles France working to help significant writers, artists and intellectuals (most of whom are Jewish) blacklisted by the Nazis, get out of France. Fry is working for the Emergency Rescue Committee, headquartered in New York City. The mission is simply a matter of life and death.

The job involves relationships, money and bribery. Fry assembles an eccentric group of refugees, displaced do gooders and others to help with the mission. They develop relationships with the not always helpful or friendly American Consulate, French police, Nazis, gangsters and profiteers—anyone who can help or be bribed to help in getting people to safety. During a good portion of the story, much of the staff and many of the refugees are living together in a villa known as Air Bel, where food is scarce and raids are frequent.

The story begins with Fry visiting the home of Marc and Bella Chagall in a village in France. Fry is trying to persuade the Chagalls that their lives are in danger and that they need to leave. At this time, the Chagalls, like other successful Jews, believe that they are somehow immune from the Nazi cruelties. Later in the story they come to realize that no one is exempt from the reach of the Nazis.

While in Marseilles, Fry seemingly coincidentally reunites with a close college friend, Elliot Schiffman Grant, whom he calls Skiff. Grant is a professor at Columbia University and has a friend, a German Jew, who is also a professor at Columbia, Gregor Katznelson. Katnelson’s son, Tobias, is a physics genius and the Nazis are looking for him. Grant has promised to find him and get him to safety. Fry agrees to help and later in the book has to choose between Tobias and a famous Jewish artist when there is the opportunity to save only one of them. That choice haunts him throughout the story.

Fry, who is married, and whose wife Eileen is in New York wishing him home, has a complicated relationship with Grant. A great deal of the book deals with this relationship.

In the meantime, while everyone is living together in Air Bel, the artists decide to create artistic representations of what they have experienced in France and Germany and take those pieces of work to the United States with them. In that way, the refugees hope to convince the American government, which has been resistant to engagement in the War and which is subtly described as implicitly anti-Semitic, of the atrocities being committed and the need to engage. This is the flight portfolio. But like everything else, things do not quite work out as intended.

This 500 plus page novel is gripping and although I was somewhat relieved when it ended I also wanted it to keep going. Of course Fry is ejected from France and returns to New York  (this is not a spoiler—all you need to do is look him up on Wikipedia), where  his relationships with Eileen and Grant are complex. Each of the characters struggles with what they are doing, whether the struggle involves the inability to save enough people, the right people or their own lives. A constant theme is whether it is morally appropriate to determine who should live and who should die based on perceived value. This moral question extends well beyond the precise story being told.

The book is well written, fast paced and thought provoking. And it tells a story that should never be forgotten from a different perspective. You can reserve this book from the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

The Great Believers – by Rebecca Makkai

The Great BelieversThe Great Believers is a story of the AIDS epidemic, its victims and its survivors. The story is told in alternating years, beginning with 1985 in Chicago and moving to 2015 in Paris.

The story starts with Nico’s funeral and funeral reception. Nico had died 3 weeks before the story begins. This part of the story focuses on Yale (and Charlie) and Nico’s sister, Fiona. Yale works in development at Northwestern University at the Briggs Gallery. Charlie is a gay rights activist and runs “Outloud Chicago”. Charlie and Yale have been in a long term monogamous relationship.

Nico’s parents threw him out of the house at the age of 15 when they found out he was gay. Fiona was 11 at the time and began bringing him food and money. Nico’s partner, Terrence, is just waiting for the disease to hit him.

The funeral reception takes place at photographer Richard Campo’s home. Richard is about 15 years older than the rest of the group. When someone at the party brings out slides of Nico, Yale is so upset he goes upstairs to get away from the pictures. When he comes back down everyone is gone. It is this event that causes a permanent and insoluble rift between Yale and Charlie.

Nico had been a graphic designer, had a comic strip and was designing theater sets. Artistic talent ran in the family. Nico and Fiona’s Aunt, Nora, had been an art student in Paris in 1912. Nora sends Yale a letter indicating that she has various drawings and paintings from famous artists from her time in Paris that she would like to donate to the Briggs  Gallery. Unfortunately, her son is not keen on the idea and contacts a friend who is on the university board of trustees and is a significant donor. Yale gets a visit from the head of development, Cecile Pearce, who explains the problem. Over the course of the story Cecile and Yale become good friends.

Fast forward to 2015. Fiona, 51 years old, is on a flight to Paris, where she has hired a private investigator to help find her estranged daughter, Claire. On the plane she meets a 35 year old journalist, Jake, to whom she mentions that she is friendly with 80 year old Richard Campo. At this point, Richard is a famous and revered photographer. Jake continues to pop up in this part of the story. We learn that Claire had been involved with Cecily’s son, Kurt Pearce, that they had joined a cult and that they have a child together. The estrangement between Fiona and Claire, in a sense, is another result of the 1980s AIDS epidemic.

While in Paris, Fiona stays with Richard and his much younger partner, Serge. Jake shows up and asks Richard how his age has affected his work. In response, Richard comments that “Ageism is the only self-correcting prejudice.” While in Paris, much of the past comes back to Fiona, in a variety of ways which I will leave to you to discover.

The trip to Paris is also marred by tragedy. While Fiona is in Paris, a bomb explodes at a heavy metal concert at a soccer stadium in Saint-Denis. Fiona, of course, fears for the safety of her daughter. But Serge, visibly upsets, fears on a larger scale, emphasizing the fragility of progress and the dangers of extremist reaction. ‘’What I care is, now they elect right wing across Europe. And then, yes: You, me, we’re screwed. Everyone acts from fear, the next year, two years. What happens, you think, to, people like us?”

The story is involved and mostly sad. There is a lot of death and a lot of disappointment. The impact of prejudice, intolerance and fear, as well as the inequities of our health care system are palpable. There is some positive sense of progress and the impact of activism and protest, despite the costs. The story is well written and the characters are well developed and this review does not begin to scratch the surface of the complexity of the story. Nora summed it up the best when she explained to Yale: “…when you boil a story down, you end up with something macabre. All stories end the same way, don’t they?” You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

The Stationery Shop – by Marjan Kamali

The Stationery Shop“The Stationery Shop” is a sweet, overly sentimental story of a woman’s life journey from heartbreak in Iran to ultimate consolation in America.

Roya Khanom, a 17 year old high school senior in Tehran, meets Bahman Aslan at the Stationery Store in Tehran. They start meeting there on Tuesdays and with the assistance of the store proprietor, Mr. Fakhri, begin to know each other and fall in love. Bahman is a political activist supporting the Iranian prime minister Massadegh.

Bahman‘s father is a successful engineer and his mother, Badri, married up from her modest beginnings. But Badri has many secrets and does not approve of the romance between Bahman and Roya. Badri has chosen another girl for Bahman, from a much more successful family.

When Bahman requests approval from Roya’s parents to marry Roya, his parents do not join him, which is the tradition. At the engagement party for the couple, Badri shows up wearing all black.

After a coup attempt in August of 1953, Bahman and his family disappear and Roya assumes the disappearance is tied to the resistance. Mr. Fakhri transfers correspondence between the two and ultimately, Bahman asks Roya to meet him at Sepah Square and then can go together to the government offices and be married. She goes to Sepah Square in the middle of what turns out to be deadly protests and he does not show. Shortly thereafter she receives a letter from Bahman breaking off the relationship.

Bahman’s mother calls her to let her know that Bahman is marrying the girl chosen for him. Roya is bereft and her parents send her and her sister to America for college. Both girls meet American men and marry. Roya never stops thinking about Bahman and in 2013, a curious turn of events brings them back together. Their reunion answers all of the open questions.

The book is interesting in terms of Iranian history and culture. The story itself is a little too sentimental for my tastes and the ending a little too convenient. You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

The Feral Detective – by Jonathan Lethem

I actually do not know how to describe this rather odd book. At first blush, it is a peculiar story about a search for the missing daughter of a friend, which takes the protagonist into an unknown world. However, I do not think that is what this book is about. I think this book is about politics and judgement and about how we have lost our way. But I am not sure.

The book starts with Phoebe driving through Upland, California looking for a detective’s office. Phoebe is from Manhattan and the description of how she feels searching for this office after driving past it twice is wonderful. “It was the feeling, specifically, that it was a place for driving past,  so my foot couldn’t find the brake.” There are little gems like this throughout the book.

The detective is Charles Heist, who keeps an opossum in his desk drawer and a runaway in his armoire. Needless to say he is unconventional and of course Phoebe falls for him.

Phoebe is looking for Arabella, the daughter of her friend Roslyn. Roslyn and Phoebe met at work at NPR, where Phoebe was working in the OpEd department and Roslyn, 20 years her senior, was her supervisor. Phoebe quit her job over her perception that NPR had normalized Donald Trump during the election.

Arabella had been a college student and disappeared. Phoebe and Roslyn believe she may have gone to follow in the footsteps of her music idol, Leonard Cohen, as a sort of memorial.

Phoebe’s search with Charles Heist takes her into worlds she never knew existed. First is the Wash, where she meets Sage and the giant, Laird, trying to avoid a flood. Her search takes her to Zendo and the Monks, where she starts to get closer to finding Arabella. Then they climb up a mountain where there is a mysterious compound which is protected by a fence (not a wall), which is surrounded by two “tribes” known as the rabbits (women) and the Bears (men). It is here where the story really gets weird and violent.

The book ends with Phoebe questioning her assumptions about life as she’s known it, as well as her values and the values of the country. “Ordinary people might be the most terrifying thing on earth. Or ordinary Americans, I should say.” She uses as a backdrop to this observation the weirdness she has encountered during her search and ordinary current events. The read was kind of fun, but it is not subtle and by the end I am not sure Lethem accomplished whatever it is he was trying to accomplish. I loved Motherless Brooklyn and was hoping for another great novel, but I was disappointed . You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

My Sister The Serial Killer – by Oyinkan Braithwaite

My Sister the Serial KillerMy Sister the Serial Killer may be the most literal title of any novel I have posted here. The novel is one sister’s story about her sister who kills her lovers, in what seems like rapid succession.

Korede, the older less attractive sister, is a nurse at St. Peter’s in Lagos. Ayoola, her beautiful younger sister, designs clothes. Ayoola is so beautiful that men, apparently all men, are drawn to her. Big mistake!

The story starts with killing #3–Fermi. Ayoola calls Korede from Fermi’s apartment and Korede arrives to find the dead man on the bathroom floor. He is big and strong and handsome. They clean every inch of the bathroom, load him into the car and drop his body over the bridge into the water. Apparently this is the second body they have dropped here (#1 they simply set on fire). Fermi’s family becomes concerned and the police arrive to ask questions, but of course, they are mesmerized by Ayoola’s beauty.

One of the doctors at the hospital, Tade Otumu, is kind and handsome and an excellent doctor. Korede is romantically attracted to him but when he meets Ayoola, he is just like any other man. “He isn’t deep. All he wants is a pretty face. That’s all they ever want.” Despite Korede’s best efforts, Tade and Ayoola begin a romance, which is briefly interrupted by Ayoola’s affair with an older, wealthy married man who mysteriously dies of food poisoning while they are off together in Dubai. The Tade experiment ends badly, but perhaps not the way you might think.

Korede’s guilt over the situation is overwhelming and she takes to talking to a hospital patient, Muhtar, about all the killings and her sister. Muhtar is in a coma so she thinks it’s safe, but is it really?

We also learn that their father had been extremely abusive and died under mysterious circumstances. Ultimately, the book is about abuse, the shallowness of men (sorry to my male readers), the mindset of a sociopath and family loyalty. This is a fun and quick read and can be reserved at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

The Nickel Boys – by Colson Whitehead

The Nickel BoysLet me start by saying this is an excellent book. This is a very sad book but it is an excellent book.

The Nickel Boys is the story of Elwood Curtis, an African American teenager with immense potential whose life and future take an unexpected turn. In 1962 Elwood’s grandmother gives him a copy of Martin Luther King at Zion Hall. The Civil Rights messages he hears in the album stick with him throughout his life and he tries too hard to live consistently with Dr. King’s messages.

Elwood is a serious student and an industrious young man, living with his grandmother in Tallahassee Florida after being abandoned by his parents. His grandmother works at the Richmond Hotel and Elwood spends his days there after school in the hotel kitchen. “Whenever the dining room door swung open, he bet on whether there were Negro patrons out there.” Elwood stopped going to the Richmond when he was 12 years old and never got to see a black patron in the dining room. As a 13 year old, he takes a job at Marconi’s tobacco shop. Mr. Marconi understands that neighborhood kids will pilfer candy and comic books from time to time and that this is just part of the cost of doing business. But Elwood does not understand this and after calling out some neighborhood kids for theft he is beaten. And yet the lesson that he should learn there does not stick.

Elwood attends Lincoln High School, where the students use the second hand textbooks used by the neighboring white high school in prior years. Sadly, the white students leave unpleasant messages in the textbooks for the Lincoln students to see. Elwood is befriended by his junior year teacher, Mr. Hill who gets him involved in the Civil Rights movement. He also arranges for Elwood to take college classes at Melvin Griggs Technical College. The classes are free and Elwood and his grandmother are excited that he will get this jump on college.

Elwood hitches a ride to the college and this is when things immediately go downhill. I will not tell you exactly what happens but Elwood gets sentenced to reform school and is sent to Nickel Academy. Maynard Spencer, an exceptionally cruel man, is the Superintendent at the “Academy”.

The school is divided into campuses for black students and white students. The school portion is itself perfunctory and many of the students cannot read or write. The facility is known for its White House, a shed with an industrial fan where students are taken to be beaten with a leather whip by Spencer and his helpers. When Elwood attempts to help another student he believes is being abused, he is taken in the middle of the night to the White House where he is beaten  to the brink of death. Afterwards he ends up in the Nickel hospital for weeks.

Throughout the story we learn of various cruelties at Nickel, including being taken “out back”, where the student is chained to a tree, beaten to death and buried in an unmarked grave. Elwood and his friend Turner are assigned to “Community Service”, where they work with a facility employee to sell school supplies of all sorts to the free community and pocket the profit.  As you might imagine, this does not sit well with Elwood and trouble ensues.

Ultimately Turner and Elwood escape and Elwood becomes a successful entrepreneur whose past never stops haunting him. The school  is closed and Texas A&M students begin to discover all its horrors. There is a website for former students and a reunion upcoming. Elwood, who is living in New York City at the time of the reunion  decides to go to Tallahassee for the event.

The book has some twists and turns that I do not want to disclose and the ending is simply brilliant. The story is based on the true story of a reform school called the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida. You can read about Dozier here and here. The book comes out in July and you can reserve it at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.

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