March Reviews

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Synopsis: Like every good novel heroine, Eleanor Oliphant has life figured out. Her life just happens to look different than those of other heroines: As she puts a traumatic childhood behind her, she manages a functional work life and crippling loneliness with structure, frankness, and a weekend bottle of vodka. That is, until she sees a singer perform and falls for him hard. Can she overhaul her life to make it more normal, more appealing? And what about if her past insists on intruding?

I liked but didn’t love this. I liked Eleanor, and many of the characters who gradually populated her lonely life. I laughed aloud at points and cheered for Eleanor. But the ending included what felt like a superfluous bit of showmanship in a plot twist — I think a quieter ending would have suited me better.

Takeaway Passage: “There are days when I feel so lightly connected to the earth that the threads that tether me to the planet are gossamer thin, spun sugar. A strong gust of wind could dislodge me completely, and I’d lift off and blow away, like one of those seeds in a dandelion clock.”

Confessions of an Organized Homemaker: The Secrets of Uncluttering Your Home and Taking Control of Your Life by Deniece Schofield

Another recommendation from Real Learning Revisiting — surprisingly engaging prose and weirdly nostalgic, as the author, revising her book for the 1990s, is basically chronicling the minutiae of my suburban childhood. A shocking amount of the content was outdated, things have changed so in one generation (!), but it did get me to start slowly reorganizing my cabinets and basement, making order out of chaos in this weird, still season as I waited for spring.

The Exiles by Christine Baker Kline

Synopsis: Follow Evangeline, an unworldly new governess whose missteps lead her to prison and from there to a sentence of transport to the colonies. She, and the women she meets along the way, will form a chorus that speaks of the injustices of colonial life in Tasmania.

I hated this! So much! And yet I listened to it all! I was excited to read a book set in colonial Tasmania, but the book was unremittingly and sometimes gleefully grim and while I get that Kline set out to show the harsh realities of prison transport and the powerlessness of women in the early 1800s, it was just a lot to deal with, and not worth it. Also — and, ok, I’m not that good at placing accents — I felt like some of the reader’s here were Not Good.

Mandy by Julie Andrews Edwards (yes, that Julie Andrews)

Synopsis: Mandy lived in the orphanage all her life, but suddenly new vistas open up when she discovers a forgotten cottage just beyond the orphanage grounds. Soon she’s sneaking every spare moment to make the little cottage her own, but at what cost?

I remember reading and loving this as a tween, but found it just better than meh as an adult. As a kid, I found stories of kids striking out on their own, and especially the mundane details of their housekeeping, fascinating. (Hey, look at me now!) But rereading it as an adult, I was struck by how wobbly Edwards is in walking the very delicate psychological territory of an (obviously traumatized) orphan presented with a new home. (If you want to know what I’m talking about, think about how carefully Gertrude Chandler Warner skirts around the deaths of the Aldens’ parents in Boxcar Children. The parents have to die so the kids can have this adventures, but also the kids can’t be at all broken by the experience or the book won’t be a fun adventure!) Edwards keeps tiptoeing into Mandy’s psyche when I think it would be better to just gloss over that reality or abandon the project entirely. Still, I was reading it, a chapter or so a week, to Scout, and she LOVED it, so I guess that’s the point. Just be a kid, and think about how fun it would be to grow your own garden and decorate your own little cottage. (If only your parents would just kick it so you could go to the orphanage!!)

St Patrick’s Summer: An Adventure Catechism by Marigold Hunt

Synopsis: Cecilia and Michael are just a couple of kids in the British countryside, wiling away their days until they can make their First Communion when HOLY MOLY St. Patrick himself starts appearing sporadically to elucidate theology and church history.

This was so good, you guys. I know I made fun of it in the synopsis, but seriously, it has glimmers of a more focused, more Catholic and and more rigorous Narnia. We have been doing a very inane video-based First Reconciliation and First Communion prep the church requires, and while I think Pip learns something there and certainly enjoys the cartoon gerbil (!), I looked forward to this book to come along behind and do the heavy lifting. There’s time travel and apparitions amongst the theologizing, and concepts are broken down with helpful analogies. My kids and I particularly connected with references to the persecutions under Queen Elizabeth because of our time in York in 2019, especially at the Bar Convent Heritage Centre. A couple caveats: St Patrick’s Summer is firmly pre-Vatican II so you may have to explain some differences in the Mass to children unfamiliar with the Latin Mass, and it’s also not even a little bit ecumenical, so while there are explanations and beautiful passages that I think would still work well in a high church Anglican family read aloud, some of it is going to be a bit uncomfortable.

The Vanishing Half by Britt Bennett

Synopsis: Stella and Desirée Vignes are identical twins, inseparable and firmly ensconced in 1960s small town Mallard, Louisiana where fair skin and “white” features are everything, even if you are, technically speaking, still classified as “colored.” Then they light out together for New Orleans, and it’s not long before they prove not so inseparable after all. The girls’ lives diverge as Stella disappears, bent on passing as white; Desirée returns to Mallard fleeing an abusive marriage — with a very dark daughter in tow.

I wanted to love this more than I did, as it came highly recommended. The beginning was compelling — as an audiobook, the variations of tone and accent are stupendous — but something about the pacing felt off. We abruptly veered from Desirée’s story and by the time we looped back to her head (only a few days later in my reading!), I’d lost the thread of who she was, having seen her from so many other perspectives. I wanted more on the men in the novel, especially Early. And while I get that the book was about all kinds of loneliness, alienation, and not belonging, I thought Bennett cast her net a bit wide and drew some false equivalences that clouded what she was trying to say. Beautiful prose and lovely characters, though, prickly and broken and loving.

Takeaway Passage: “When you married someone, you promised to love every person he would be. He promised to love every person she had been. And here they were, still trying, even though the past and the future were both mysteries.”

Paradise Lot: Two Plant Geeks, One-Tenth of an Acre and the Making of an Edible Garden Oasis in the City by Eric Toensmeier

A book out of Holyoke, where I cut my teeth in librarianship! It was so cozy to read about references to all the landscapes that hosted my grad school years, and it made me wish the book had come out while I was still working in Holyoke, as it would have helped me to understand the city better. I’m skeptical of the low-effort claims of permaculture — it’s cool they don’t have to weed, but they’re also out hand-pollinating some of their trees, so I suspect it’s at the very least a wash. Still, much more approachable than my other recent library checkout, The Resilient Farm and Homestead: An Innovative Permaculture and Whole Systems Design Approach, which will forever live in my memory as “the book about peeing on plants,” but most of which I didn’t understand. (I’m not reviewing that one as I only spent about two hours skimming it and refusing to try to understand its weird charts.)

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

Synopsis: Vida Winter is the world’s most famous author, a cross between Charles Dickens and J.K. Rowling. But here’s the thing: she famously never tells the truth about herself interviews. That is, until she summons reclusive bookseller Margaret Lea to her spooky manor, inviting Margaret to write Winter’s biography. But is the fantastic story Margaret is hearing real? And if so, what is she supposed to do with Vida Winter’s story?

People I know who’ve read this adore it and prefer it very much to Once Upon a River, so I was surprised at how much I disliked it! But maybe the explanation is in that eternal question from I Capture the Castle — “Which would be better – Jane with a touch of Charlotte, or Charlotte with a touch of Jane?” For me, the answer is obvious and unequivocal: Jane all the way, and down with the Brontës. And this, dear reader, is a Brontë book. Still lovely prose and a mystery that kept me reading even as it exasperated me, though.

Takeaway Passage: “People disappear when they die. Their voice, their laughter, the warmth of their breath. Their flesh. Eventually their bones. All living memory of them ceases. This is both dreadful and natural. Yet for some there is an exception to this annihilation. For in the books they write they continue to exist. We can rediscover them. Their humor, their tone of voice, their moods. Through the written word they can anger you or make you happy. They can comfort you. They can perplex you. They can alter you. All this, even though they are dead. Like flies in amber, like corpses frozen in the ice, that which according to the laws of nature should pass away is, by the miracle of ink on paper, preserved. It is a kind of magic.”

The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom

Synopsis:

This is a book I was probably supposed to read between the ages of 15 and 21 but somehow didn’t. And it was worth the wait! For a lifelong Christian, I feel like I have a pretty low tolerance for earnest Christianese in books (…and conversation), but Corrie never made me roll my eyes with her gentle faith and her family’s. The story was staggering (I didn’t know it), especially, and unfairly, in the context of a nice, dumpy late middle-age spinster. (Can anyone else think of another conventionally unattractive heroine in the same vein?) Just a truly uplifting read and a very good Holy Week pick.

Takeaway Passage: “Mama’s love had always been the kind that acted itself out with soup pot and sewing basket. But now that these things were taken away, the love seemed as whole as before. She sat in her chair at the window and loved us. She loved the people she saw in the street—and beyond: her love took in the city, the land of Holland, the world. And so I learned that love is larger than the walls which shut it in.”

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