Book Review: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

eleanor oliphant is completely fine book cover

Sorry, ya’ll. Back to reviewing books. Or at least, some books, since Blogging for Books has shut its doors and the free book gravy train has stopped.

Also, this review contains what some would call spoilers. So read at your own risk.

Book Review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

I cringed through the first few chapters of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine. The protagonist, Eleanor, is a socially awkward, 30-year-old office worker who read Classics in college. Her coworkers dislike and mock her, she’s got no friends and her weekend routine involves knocking back a bottle of wine on Fridays, enjoying a frozen pizza and working her way through a bottle of vodka over the next two days, hovering somewhere between sober and drunk but never really falling into either category.

But there’s more to Eleanor than social awkwardness (my first assumption was that she was on the spectrum, but in the end, I think her awkwardness comes from prolonged social isolation) and inexpensive vodka.

She’s got some issues that haven’t really been discussed or resolved over the course of her life. Mainly the fact that her mother tried to kill her (spoiler) and that she spent much of her childhood being bounced from foster home to foster home.

So Eleanor’s been coasting along, content with weighing the merits of ready-made meals at Tesco and M&S (the book is set in Glasgow) and content with her lonely but very well structured life. Then things start to happen. She “meets” a guy she’s sure is the one and starts planning their new life together (although this doesn’t work out since he’s a singer in a band and also a bit of a jerk. Also, he doesn’t know she exists).

She also makes a friend at work and with him, helps to save an elderly man who has a heart attack on the street. All the while, in the background, her past and unresolved family issues are about to boil over.

Although I enjoyed reading the book, I got the sense that it was trying to be two novels in one. On the one hand, there’s the charming of hilarious story of an awkward loner who breaks out of her shell and finds friendship and acceptance. On the other hand, there’s the story of horrible abuse and the lasting effects it’s had on Eleanor. All that seemed glossed over and handled a bit too neatly, especially at the end when it’s magically revealed that her mum’s been dead this whole time and the woman Eleanor’s spoken with on a weekly basis was just a figment of her imagination.

There are a lot of threads running through Eleanor Oliphant. Her life is messy, just like anyone else’s. But I wonder how much stronger of a story the book would have been if the author had chosen one thread to focus on rather than giving a passing interest to multiple.

 

 

Book Review: New Boy

New Boy by Tracy Chevalier

*I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review.*

Imagine Shakespeare’s Othello. Now imagine Shakespeare’s Othello transformed into an 11-year-old boy named Osei, called “O.”

That’s what New Boy, by Tracy Chevalier, asks you to do. She transfers much of the action and plot of the play “Othello” to a Washington, DC elementary school playground in the early 1970s.

Desdemona becomes Dee, Iago becomes Ian, the rest of the cast turn into their six-grade classmates.

In some ways, it works. You could argue that much of the action of the play Othello is driven by childish behavior, so why not have those characters actually be children?

The jealousy that spurs much of Iago’s actions in the original Othello is there in Ian. But instead of feeling jealous for being passed over for a promotion, like Iago in the play, Ian is a calculating bully decides he can’t bear to have O, the new kid in school, become popular. His MO seems to be to put himself first, at the expense of others.

Much of the rest of the plot unfolds like the play it’s based on, with some changes. Ian manages to convince O, who’s just met Dee that day, that she has affection for another boy (in this case, Caspar, the boyfriend of Blanca), setting the wheels of jealousy and tragedy turning.

The strawberry handkerchief becomes a strawberry printed pencil case. (although, cleverly, a handkerchief does make its way into O’s backpack, seemingly just there as an Easter Egg for Shakespeare fans.) The teachers and students at O’s new school seem to fear him slightly and feel anxious around him because he is black and they are white.

I would say that the race issue feels more heightened in New Boy than it does in the play. There are some downright awkward lines commenting on O’s color from the white characters around him. Issues of identity and what it means to black in 1970s America also crop up.

Given that the novel does primarily involve 11-year-olds, the ending isn’t quite so bloody as the original tragedy. But it is still shocking, especially given the current climate of school shootings and violence on school grounds.

 

 

 

 

Book Review: Live Lagom

live lagom

Live Lagom by Anna Brones

*I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review*

From French women not getting fat to Danish people mastering the art of coziness to a certain Japanese woman getting the entire world to tidy up, it seems that all we want in the US is for someone from another country to tell us we’re doing it all wrong, then offer us a solution, usually imported from halfway around the world.

And so we end up with Live Lagom, which promises to teach us how to lead more balanced lives, just like the Swedish do. “Lagom” can be translated as “just right” or “moderate.” According to Anna Brones, it’s what what a Swedish person might say if you ask them how much coffee they want or how much food they want to eat.

So, will embracing “lagom” change your life?  I dunno. Brones’ book feels just like more of the same, given a Swedish gloss and packaged up with a lot of beautiful photos of impeccably decorated and well-lit Swedish homes. The advice she gives isn’t going to shatter anyone’s world, unless that person’s been living in a completely sealed off glass alternative world for the past decade or so.

This is all to say that, well, OK, we know we should work less and buy less and not destroy the planet. Brones tells us to do those things, which, is great I guess, but nothing we haven’t heard before. At one point, she actually tells us to switch to CFL/LED lightbulbs and my thought was “really! Like that isn’t something the entire world hasn’t been saying for years now.”

Does this book need to exist? I’m going to say no, but I do have to give props to Brones for being willing to glance at the negative side of lagom — which is that it can discourage people from striving in life. She’s also quick to note that Sweden isn’t the perfect society everyone’s always making it out to be. Just think — two of the biggest names in “fast consumption” came from Sweden (IKEA and H&M). So although it seems like she recommends that we all live lagom, she does acknowledge that not everyone, even not every one in Sweden, is doing so.

 

Book Review: L’appart by David Lebovitz

l'appart book review

L’appart Book Review

*I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review.*

If you want a guide on what not to do when buying and renovating an apartment in Paris, David Lebovitz’s L’appart is the book for you.

I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect going into the book, I chose it because it’s about living in Paris and I’ve read Lebovitz’s blog from time to time. Would it be some boring, “and then I chose this material for my counter tops,” and “this is what I picked for the floor” story about renovation, which is kind of what I feared? Or would it be just a bit more interesting?

It was, I can assure you, the latter. Perhaps because he’s been blogging since blogging was even really a thing (1999!), Lebovitz has the friendly, conversational voice thing down pat. Reading his book is like having a one-sided discussion with a friend, during which they say maybe more than you want to hear and repeat themselves a bit.

But all in all, it was a pretty engaging read and it was pretty interesting to learn about the differences between living and buying real estate in France compared to in the US (OK, I might have lost a lot of people with that sentence). For example, to get a mortgage in France, you have to pass a medical exam, so you don’t, you know, die, while owing the bank lots of money.

There’s also a big difference when it comes to interactions between “bosses” and “staff.” One of the big mistakes Lebovitz makes is tutoyer-ing (that is, using “tu” instead of “vous”) with his contractor and the workers. There’s a social distance that exists in France because of the structure and formality of the language. By ignoring that formality, Lebovitz sets the stage for his contractor to take advantage of him, majorly.

OK, also, his contractor seemed like a connard, which is probably the main reason why he did such a bad job (spoilers, maybe, but the word “disaster” is in the subtitle of the book, so you kinda know that going in).

Since Lebovitz is primarily a cookbook writer and food blogger, there are a few recipes interspersed throughout, usually bookending chapters and serving as little set pieces for Lebovitz to make his various points. I haven’t tried any of the recipes, but a few of them, particularly the pastries, look pretty tasty.

Book Review: The Lauras

* I received this book from BloggingforBooks.com in exchange for my honest review.*

I can’t quite put my finger on how I feel about The Lauras, by Sara Taylor. I enjoyed the book, it was beautifully written and timely, but I felt that there wasn’t that much to it.

The Lauras

The Lauras

One night, Alex’s mom wakes them (Alex is agender, meaning they don’t identify as either a boy or a girl) up and puts them in the car, speeding off into the distance. A fight with Alex’s dad is supposedly the reason for the departure, but evidence suggests that the grand exit has been a long time coming.

Their departure is the start of a cross-country trip that takes them down to Florida, over to Texas, up to Utah, and finally into Vancouver. Along the way, Alex’s mom tells them stories of her youth, growing up in and out of foster and group homes and meeting a range of women all named Laura.

Along the way, Alex plays a long, but you can tell their heart isn’t really in the trip. They miss their father, who’s back home in Virginia. They also start going through puberty and have to deal with the discovery of sex for the first (in one instance, in a very disgusting way).

The Lauras is a classic coming of age meets road trip tale, but with a twist (the twist being the gender identity question). Although Alex’s mom does eventually make it to where she needs to go, there’s not a sense of finality to the book. Alex eventually strikes out on their own and get you get the sense that maybe one day they will find what they need. But it won’t be in this book.

Book Review: The Lesser Bohemians

Lesser Bohemians cover

The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride

Sometimes, the things you hear about a book color your expectations of it. I was a bit nervous going into The Lesser Bohemians because I’d heard that its prose was a bit  . . . tricky. Oh, man, I thought, what have I gotten myself into.

Well, first things first, the prose is a bit . . . tricky. It’s fairly fragmentary at first and can be jarring to read. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Reading is supposed to give Wernicke’s area a workout, after all.

The novel is a decent reflection of the inner workings of Eily’s (the main character’s) thoughts and feelings. She’s a young woman on her own for the first time, off to study drama in London (she’s from Ireland). She starts the book as a virgin . . . and she ends it very much not a virgin.

The story wasn’t particularly new or original — young woman moves away, falls in love with older man, begins a challenging relationship with that man — but the telling of the story, with its fragments and starts and stops. is. And interestingly enough, at some point during my reading of the book the jumpy jarring prose stopped being so jumpy and jarring. It was still Eily’s voice coming through, but I guess I had gotten used to her style.

Choppy prose aside, I think The Lesser Bohemians is an important book for another reason. It handles sex well. If you’re in any way squeamish about sex, and descriptions thereof, this isn’t a book for you.

But if you don’t mind the occasional (or pervasive) sex scene but are also getting tired of sex described from a male writer/male character’s perspective or want something a little more intellectually stimulating than what you’d find in a 50 Shades of Gray-type book, I can’t recommend The Lesser Bohemians highly enough.

*I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review.*

Book Review: The Life-Changing Manga of Tidying Up

life changing manga of tidying up konmari

The Life-Changing Manga of Tidying Up: A Guide to the KonMari Method

Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up changed my life. Or at least, it made my house a lot more “tidy” and less cluttered. I know a lot of people find the book and method impractical or just plain weird, but keeping objects that “spark joy” and thanking those that you are getting rid of resonated with me.

Onto the Life-Changing Manga of Tidying UpDoes the world need the KonMari method, in illustrated form? Isn’t that what we got with her second book Spark Joy? I’m really not sure.

Manga doesn’t just illustrate the method, though, it also puts a story behind it. In it, we meet Chiaki, a 29-year-old living in the messiest apartment ever in Tokyo. Chiaki has a successful career but a not-so-successful love life, probably because her method of dating seems to involve falling in love with guys who already have a partner. Her other big issue, and one of the reasons why her flat is such a wreck, is that she picks up a new hobby with each guy she meets. Whatever that guy is into, she’s into.

Chiaki hits a breaking point when her cute next door neighbor knocks on the door to complain about the trash on the balcony. She calls in KonMari (aka Marie Kondo) to help her clean up her home. KonMari comes in and takes Chiaki through the process, step by step. Along the way, Chiaki gets to express her surprise and occasional confusion about KonMari’s way. She plays the role of the confused reader who might want to interject at some aspects of the process. At the end, Chiaki has a clean apartment and a new romantic interest.

Manga is a mix of both story and practical advice. Each chapter ends with tips on how to use the KonMari method in your own life. I thought that the tips weren’t as in-depth into the method as Kondo’s first two books.

If you’re read The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up or Spark Joy and found them helpful, you won’t learn anything new from Manga. If you enjoy reading manga or graphic novels and find that you learn best from case studies or stories, this might be the book that gets you to finally tidy up.

* I received this book from BloggingforBooks.com in exchange for my honest review.*

Book Review: How Music Works by David Byrne

*I received “How Music Works” for free from BloggingforBooks in exchange for my honest review.

I’ve long been a huge fan of David Byrne. I’ve seen him enough times live that I’ve lost count. I listen to his music weekly, if not daily. I have an autographed copy of “New Sins,” which I got after seeing him read at the Free Library way back in 2001.

So I was super excited to get to read “How Music Works,” his exhaustive history of music and an inside look at how the music industry has evolved over the years.

How Music Works by David Byrne

How Music Works by David Byrne

Part musical biography, part insider’s guide to recording history, “How Music Works” takes you on a guided tour of the evolution of the music industry. That might sound dry and dull and I was actually afraid the book was going to be a challenge to read, but Byrne’s writing is engaging throughout.

Each chapter of the book covers a different area of music or the music industry. Chapter one, for example, is devoted to the discussion of the way that spaces or venues shape the music created. Punk sounds the way it does because it was often performed in gritty, underground clubs. Mozart’s compositions sound the way they do because they were meant to be performed in parlors. Jazz sounds like jazz, and actually jazz improv came about because people wanted to dance and needed something to dance to.

At times the “How Music Works” does get a bit technical. I probably didn’t need to know all about the different contracts and licensing agreements available to musicians and the pros and cons of each. But that info is probably very useful for aspiring musicians or for musicians who are wondering how to get started in the industry without giving up all the rights to their work.

If you want a guide to modern music, a look behind the scenes of David Byrne’s musical career or a general idea of how to get more involved in music and art-making, “How Music Works” is definitely worth a read.

 

 

Book Review: Woman No. 17

woman no. 17 book review

Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki

*I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review*

Sometimes, things aren’t what they seem. Lady, recently separated from her husband, needs to hire a nanny to watch her toddler, Devin, while she (Lady) writes a memoir.

Pretty much immediately after meeting her, Lady hires a woman named “S” (formerly Esther).

S, as you might have guessed, has a few secrets. These aren’t secrets to the reader though, and we find them out pretty much immediately, once the novel switches gears and is told from S’s point-of-view.

Woman No. 17 is a reflection on toxic motherhood, a critique on modern/contemporary art, and a page-turner. It’s weird enough and its story is gripping enough that you want to find out more.

Let’s talk about Lady. Lady’s been commissioned to write a memoir about Seth, her teenage son. Seth doesn’t speak and no one really knows why. Seth also doesn’t remember his dad, Marco, who took off when Seth was a toddler.

In the intervening years, since her baby daddy left, Lady’s modeled for an art photographer, married, and had another child, Devin, who’s now two or three. Recently, she’s asked her husband, Karl, who’s an OK but kinda boring seeming guy, to leave the house. He does, but insists on meeting at PF Chang’s every week or so.

So, enter S, a recent college grad who’s crashing on her mom’s couch and is looking to start over after a poorly thought out “art” project up in Berkeley.

She lands the nanny job and gets to move into the cottage behind Lady’s house. And then things get weird.

Or maybe things were weird to begin with, considering that S has decided her newest “art’ project is to live as her mother lived when she was in her 20s. That’s the version of S that Lady meets, not the Esther who graduated from college in Berkeley. Trouble is, S’s mom is an alcoholic. Well that’s one of the troubles.

Lady’s got mother troubles of her own, and has cut off communications with her mom, a wealthy, but difficult woman. Lady’s also dealing with the question of whether or not she’s a good mom (she’s probably not, sorry, it had to be said).

There’s a lot going on in Woman No. 17. It’s heavy on the art critique and commentary without being too heavy handed about it. It’s got a lot to say about motherhood and being a woman and life imitating art, or maybe art imitating life. And through all that, it remains a really fun, enjoyable read.

Book Review: The Glorious Heresies

The Glorious Heresies

The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney

“The Glorious Heresies” opens with a bang (quite literally) and doesn’t let up from there. Maureen Phelan thwacks an intruder over the head, killing him. She’s left to call on her son, Jimmy, to get rid of the body.

From there, the novel introduces us to a variety of other characters, all of whom have some connection to the body and/or Jimmy. The man Jimmy hires to dispose of the corpse recognizes the body. Ryan, the son of the man who gets rid of the body, is introduced to and sells drugs to Georgie, the dead man’s girlfriend. Georgie, desperate to find out what happens, go around asking too many questions, putting her own life at risk.

Set in Cork, Ireland, as it struggles to recover from the 2008 crash, the novel jumps from character to character. It often leaps forward years in time. It’s fast moving, engaging, and heart breaking. Georgie, Ryan, Jimmy and Maureen all have various levels of suffering and dismay in their lives. Maureen was separated from Jimmy when he was a baby because she was an unwed mother. In at attempt to flee her life as a sex worker and drug addict, Georgie joins a weird cult, only to have the members of the cult treat her just as poorly as those on the outside. Ryan takes the fall for his drug dealer boss, landing in jail and pretty much destroying his chance of getting out of a life of crime.

No matter what, it seems every thing goes wrong for the characters. Some of it’s their fault, but most of it is due to their crappy circumstances. The novel’s strength is that it doesn’t pass judgment on the characters or push us to feel deep levels of pity for them. Instead, it’s downright funny at times, even as it’s pointing out the troubles in the world.

 

*I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for my  honest review*