Friday, October 19, 2018

#37 [2018/CBR10] "Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine" by Gail Honeyman

I first noticed Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman on NPR's Best Books of 2017 list. I remembered the blurb said something about a quirky loner who begins to come out of her shell when she meets Raymond, the new IT guy at her work. It sounded like a fun, romantic story that I would enjoy. After waiting eons for the book to become available at the library, I was finally able to read it. And I was right, I very much enjoyed this novel. However, it was also much darker than I was expecting. Eleanor has some pretty tragic demons haunting her that made her life far from normal. She is not just a quirky loner waiting to meet the right quirky loner. A good book, but not exactly what I was expecting.

Eleanor Oliphant is initially both cringeworthy and likable. On the one hand, she is entirely unsociable and willing to dislike everyone around her. Her life is very structured and inflexible; it revolves around work, and drinking when she is not at work. Eleanor also has rigid and unreasonable expectations of what she wants and how other people should act. On the other hand, you immediately feel some sympathy for her when you see some of the casual cruelty visited upon her by her work colleagues.

Eleanor develops slowly throughout the book as she becomes more open to new experiences and the people around her. The catalyst for all this change is when Eleanor and Raymond, the new IT guy at work happen to be close by when an elderly man collapses in the street. Raymond may be a scruffy, laid-back, smoker, but he is also an empathetic, friendly, and genuine person. With neither side interested in romance, Eleanor very slowly makes her first friend. And it makes a huge difference in her life.

While Eleanor is expanding her life, the reader slowly gets to know more about Eleanor's past. In many ways, Eleanor has been living in denial, and she does not remember or understand things that have happened. It is remarkable that Eleanor was able to live as normal a life as she did. But Eleanor also isn't alone anymore, and with the help of Raymond, she is able to face her tragic childhood and move past it.

As I said above, I really liked this book, despite the unexpected darkness. The characters were well-written and their slow movement toward friendship and more felt earned. Sure, Eleanor did change so drastically, so quickly that it felt a little bit like a fairy tale, but I like the idea that friendship and community can make so much of a difference in someone's life.

The one thing that I couldn't buy was how quickly Eleanor jumped on the Twitter bandwagon with no problems or confusion. This was coming from the woman who had a hard time buying a computer and getting internet at her house. Very minor but something I noticed.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

#36 [2018/CBR10] "Out of the Easy" by Ruta Sepetys

Out of the Easy (2013) by Ruta Sepetys was chosen as our next book for my book club. I'd never heard anything about it, but the many positive reviews were promising. Out of the Easy is a young-adult, coming-of-age story of Josie Moraine, a 17-year-old girl living in the French Quarter of New Orleans in the 1950's.

Josie is smart and good-hearted. She has dreams of getting out of New Orleans, but she has a lot of obstacles. Josie lives by herself, above a bookstore, where she has been living and working since she was a little girl. Her mother is a prostitute at a local brothel. The brothel's Madame, a strong, opinionated, and powerful woman named Willie has taken Josie under her wing. Josie makes extra money by cleaning the brothel and Willie keeps an eye on Josie. This is useful because Josie's mother is pushing hard for the Worst Mother in the World Award.

Josie is focused on making enough money so that she can get out of New Orleans and go to school. Her life gets upended, however, when a handsome, rich man shows up at the bookstore. Josie would like to believe that he could be her father, but he dies that night under suspicious circumstances. Josie wants to know what happened to him and finds herself caught up in a number of lies. She is scared of the police, scared that her mother might be implicated, and unwittingly drawn into danger and deceit before the book is over. Complicating her life is the sexy guy, Jesse Thierry, who hangs around her neighborhood as well as Patrick Marlowe, the son of the man who owns the bookstore--because what would a young-adult novel be without a little love triangle?

I'm afraid that I didn't love this book. It's very possible that teenagers might find it more relatable, but I found it a little boring. One of the main problems I had was that I couldn't quite figure out what the book was trying to do. At first I thought Josie would discover who her father was, then I thought it was a murder mystery, but it wasn't either of those things. In addition, Josie could be a pretty irritating character. I couldn't understand why she would try to lie to Willie. Her problems would not be so insurmountable if she just trusted the one woman who had never let her down. I'm all for characters making bad decisions, but I need to believe in why they're doing it, and I don't think the characters were developed enough for this.

Not only was I unsatisfied in Josie's decision making, but I was disappointed by the characters of Willie and Cokie (Cokie is a Black man, hired by Willie, and he often helps out Josie as a fairy god mother would: providing transportation, money, and advice whenever needed). These two characters felt more like caricatures than any of the others, and it took me out of the story.

This was a pretty quick read that had some interesting parts, but I just couldn't get into it.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

#35 [2018/CBR10] "Birds of a Feather" by Lorin Lindner (with Elizabeth Butler-Witter)

I am a sucker for animals. So, even though I don't have any, I was immediately drawn to the cover of Birds of a Feather (2018) by Lorin Lindner. Now, birds are not my favorite, but when you look a little deeper, they are smart and fascinating creatures. Since they often live in very complex, social societies, they can relate to humans in surprising ways. And they can talk to us! I'd already read Alex & Me by Irene Pepperberg, and I was willing to read more about parrots. When I looked closer, I saw that Lindner's book was both about saving parrots as well as helping homeless veterans. My job quite often requires dealing with the homeless and addicted, which is usually sad and frustrating. I wanted to read what Lindner had done to help them.

Lindner wasn't planning on getting a bird, but when an acquaintance called to tell her that a bright-pink Moluccan Cockatoo was found screaming, alone in an empty house with no food, she adopted him. At the same time, Lindner was working at the L.A. Veterans Healthcare Center. She ran into countless homeless veterans on the street that were not getting any services. In fact, the Veterans Administration stated that there weren't any homeless veterans.

With small steps, dedication, and a lot of hard work, Lindner was able to intertwine her suddenly growing bird sanctuary with help for homeless veterans. She founded Serenity Park on the grounds of the LA Veterans Healthcare Center. The birds came from all over, and willing veterans helped to care for them. The birds were often traumatized and difficult--requiring a lot of care. But they were also social and non-judgmental. Not only did working at Serenity Park give the veterans something useful and fulfilling to do, but the parrots often became important companions. Lindner is honest in saying that this sometimes wasn't enough, and not everyone pulled through. But it did help a number of ex-soldiers.

This book was written in a very clear, straightforward manner. It was easy to read and consistently interesting. The writing isn't anything special, but I admired Lindner's dedication to helping those less fortunate around her. I think I am pretty sensitive, so I have a very hard time seeing any thing suffer. Lindner seemed to have a similar personality, but unlike me, she did something about it and had a significant impact on many lives. After finishing this book, I definitely did not want a parrot as a pet, but I had even more respect for them as intelligent animals. If you have any interest in them, I would recommend  the documentary The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. I also found Petra the African Grey on Youtube, and she is pretty entertaining.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

#34 [2018/CBR10] "Making Up" by Lucy Parker

I usually don't buy books. If I can't get it at the library, it's not worth reading. But I make an exception for Lucy Parker. For some reason, my library doesn't carry her, but I really enjoyed her first two books. When I saw that she had another one coming out, Making Up (2018), and I was about to leave on a backpacking trip, I knew it would be perfect reading for the rainy weekend ahead.

I have to be careful about what I read while I'm camping. I have a vivid imagination and I can freak myself out pretty quickly when I'm alone in a tent, in the dark, in the middle of the woods. Romance novels are usually perfect. They can be engrossing without any murder, suspense, or mystery that will scare me. And Making Up worked well. I read it in two days on my phone, mostly sitting in my tent while it was pouring rain outside.

If you've read Parker's other books, you'll recognize Trix as Lily Lamprey's old roommate and best friend. Trix is a petite gymnast with pink hair who plays a major role in a sexy, Cirque du Soleil-type show in London. She has been recovering from a manipulative, controlling, and emotionally abusive boyfriend. She successfully left him a year ago, but she is still struggling with her self esteem after his evil machinations. Her stress compounds when the woman in the lead role is injured and Trix takes her place as the understudy. At the same time, an old friend from high school, Leo, is hired on to the show to do make up.

Leo and Trix were almost a couple in high school. They were so similar and got along so well until something happened. Since then they've run into each other almost everywhere and snipe at each other constantly. When they finally figure things out enough to know that they actually like each other, there are still problems. Trix is terrified of getting into anything too serious after her last boyfriend, and Leo is in the middle of a competition that might bring him a job offer to work in the United States. Either way, their relationship may be doomed. But of course it's not doomed because love always wins out in the end.

I liked Trix and Leo a lot. They were not your typical romantic protagonists: they were both nerdy artists, and they made a really good couple. However, on the whole, I think I enjoyed Parker's first two books a little more. I felt like there was not much development in their relationship. They already knew each other, there was just a misunderstanding that the reader knows nothing about until it is revealed and solved in one scene. I felt like it took forever for them to get together with few small steps along the way. I loved the scene where they finally got together, but I wish there had been more.

I also did not like Leo's sister, Kat. She acted horribly and (to me) unrealistically for vague reasons. Even when I found out what was going on, I wasn't satisfied. I also couldn't believe that she would run to Trix at the end to spill all her secrets because she'd heard that Trix had endured a bad boyfriend, too. I didn't like her and I didn't believe her as a character. I also couldn't understand how Jono, Trix's co-worker and apparently the nicest man in the world could tolerate her. I'm assuming that Parker is setting something up for her next book, but I kind of hope that Kat is not the subject.

Although this didn't draw me in quite as much as Parker's previous novels, I still enjoyed it. I loved Trix and Leo, and I'm looking forward to Parker's next one.

#33 [2018/CBR10] "Love Warrior" by Glennon Doyle

I swear I found Love Warrior (2016) by Glennon Doyle on NPR's List of Best Books, but I just went back to check and couldn't find it on the list. So now I have no idea where I found it. Love Warrior is a memoir of a life and a marriage. Glennon Doyle grew up in a loving family, but she had Bulimia since she was a child. As she grew older, she also became an alcoholic. Getting married to Craig Melton and becoming a mother was a turning point in her life. She sobered up and she focused on building the perfect family.

Doyle's seemingly perfect family was shattered when she discovered her husband's pornography on the family computer as well as his infidelity. She'd focused her life on taking care of her kids. Suddenly she did not have the support of her husband, and she could see the pain she was causing her children. All of her life, Doyle had run from her problems, avoiding and refusing to feel the pain and loneliness that we all go through at some point. But this time, Doyle faced her problems. She went to therapy, allowed herself to feel pain, and worked through a lot of issues with her husband. Doyle also changed her relationship with God and religion, making a more personal relationship with God instead of blindly following the narrow roles prescribed by her church. In some ways, this book turns into a self-help book where Doyle explains what helped her get through her crisis.

There were many things that I liked about this book. Doyle is a good writer, and I admired how she honestly discussed her Bulimia, alcoholism, and downward spiral in high school and college. She ended up in a mental hospital as a teenager, and it was one of the few places she felt safe.

However, some aspects of the second half of this book didn't work as well for me for a number of reasons. Perhaps most disconcerting was that I googled Glennon Doyle after I began reading because I was curious what she looked like and what she was doing now. I discovered that she is now married to Abby Wambach, a retired, women's soccer superstar. I thought that was interesting, and I kept expecting her to address it in her book--perhaps even as an explanation as to why her marriage was so difficult. But that never happened--Doyle wrote the book before she met (or at least got serious) with Wambach. The narrative of the book was solely focused on being brave and saving your marriage against all odds. It felt like something was missing. Doyle found a way to forgive and live with her husband again, but even with all the talk of honesty, it seemed that she had not really addressed the problem.

During the breakdown of the marriage, I found myself most often feeling sorry for her husband, Craig. I did not forgive his cheating or lying, but he did not ruin a perfect marriage. Even before they were married, they could not talk to each other and Doyle hated sleeping with him. They'd never really spent time together sober, and the only reason they got married was that Doyle was pregnant again and decided to keep it. It's a horrible recipe for a marriage, and it is no surprise that it didn't work out. But Glennon was attacking Craig like he was the only one at fault, which didn't seem fair--although I do appreciate the honesty in which Doyle described their interactions.

Finally, I am not a religious person, and I can sometimes get frustrated with too much talk of it. I like Doyle's eventual take on religion where it's all about love and a personal relationship with God. However, I could not stop from rolling my eyes when she pretends that her decisions are God's will. Just take credit for your decisions. I don't understand how people can pretend that God is telling them what to do.

After an entire book about her husband's betrayal and how they worked out there problems, Doyle leaves him for another woman. It feels like a large part of the story is missing. Doyle never liked sex, was this because of bad experiences? Was it because she was a lesbian but in denial? Doyle has always been religious. If she was attracted to women when she was younger, did the inevitable guilt and denial going along with that contribute to some of her problems growing up? Was she in denial when she was younger or did she honestly develop an attraction out of the blue to Wambach? Despite reading so many of Doyle's honest confessions, something still felt disingenuous about her memoir. At least right now, Wambach appears to be the happy ending and true partner for Doyle. It would have been a more interesting book to see how she got there.

Friday, July 27, 2018

#32 [2018/CBR10] "In the Time of the Butterflies" by Julia Alvarez

Another day and another book from my list of  50 Books Every Woman Should Read Before She Turns 40. This one was In the Time of the Butterflies (1994) by Julia Alvarez. I had heard of this novel before and was interested in reading it. It is a fictionalized version of the true story of four sisters in the Dominican Republic, three of whom were killed by the order of the brutal dictator, Rafael Trujillo. Trujillo came into power with a military coup, and he managed to stay in power for over thirty years from 1930 to 1961. The three sisters and their driver were murdered on November 25, 1960. They were a symbol of resistance to Trujillo.

This book was interesting and easy to read. It is no mystery that something horrible happens at the end, so there is natural, built-in tension. The reader sees the Mirabal sisters grow in age, maturity, and awareness as the novel progresses. Eventually, they become involved in active resistance to Trujillo. Minerva, the most vocal and dedicated, was the first to join the resistance. She was given the code name Mariposa, or butterfly. When her sisters joined her, they were called Mariposas as well.

We get a good look at the sisters and their family and how they became radicalized. However, I wouldn't have minded a little more general information about the Dominican Republic and its culture. The Mirabal family was just one well-to-do family on the island. I wanted to know how Trijullo's dictatorship affected people in worse economic circumstances, and how the Mirabal family was viewed because of their class. I know a book can't be everything, but I could have used a little more context about the social and economic happenings of the situation.

I found reading about the sisters' lives interesting and instructive, but having just read A Visit from the Goon Squad, I found the characterization a little flat. The sisters were all unique, but they tended to have just the one character trait that defined them. Patria, the eldest, was the religious one. Dede was the responsible one, Minerva was the rebel, and Maria Teresa is the spoiled, materialistic, youngest daughter. There were definitely moments throughout the book where there was real tension and drama, and I wish Alvarez had gone deeper into their characters. I sometimes felt something was missing.

On the whole, this was an interesting book. It is based on a true, remarkable story. I'd recommend it to those interested in the history. I also saw there was a movie made based on this book with Salma Hayek, but I haven't seen it yet.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

#31 [2018/CBR10] "A Visit from the Goon Squad" by Jennifer Egan

Like many of the books I've been reading these days, A Visit From the Goon Squad (2011) by Jennifer Egan is on my list of 50 Books Every Woman Should Read Before She Turns 40. I had heard of this one before. It won the Pulitzer Prize, and a coworker recommended it to me back when it was first published. However, I think I was turned off by the title. What is a goon squad? It sounded violent and probably not fun to read.

So when I finally picked it up, I began reading with a little optimism and some trepidation. A Visit From the Goon Squad turned out to be a collection of intertwined short stories that jump from time to time and character to character. Some of the writing is especially original and creative. One chapter is simply a power point presentation (it is much better to go to the website link for this chapter than to try to read it on Kindle). Now, this description, along with the title, would be more than enough to scare me away from reading this book. I generally prefer straight-forward narration with good, interesting characters that draw me in and keep me engaged. I find gimmicks frustrating, distracting, and rarely useful.

The surprising thing, though, was that I loved this book. The characters and the stories immediately drew me in. Instead of readjusting with every new chapter and every new character's viewpoint, I looked forward to who I would be reading about next. The book begins with a young, New Yorker kleptomaniac out on a blind date. She steals a woman's wallet in the bathroom because she can. She also works as an assistant to Bernie, a famous music producer. The next chapter is from the point of view of one of Bernie's high school friends, years ago, when they were in high school in California. Another friend of Bernie's gets involved with a music producer who ends up becoming Bernie's mentor. The next chapter jumps even farther because it is from the point of view of the new girlfriend of Bernie's mentor while the family is on a trip to Africa. The book continues to spread, jumping from character to character, forward and backward in time, with a web of connections linking them together. At one point, the book is in an undisclosed location with a murderous, dictatorial general, and yet it all makes sense.

Each chapter was interesting and well-written all on it's own. But the more you read, the more you learn about each character. Seeing the characters in many different time periods and from so many different perspectives gave them a surprising amount of depth. Egan also showcases how time can change both circumstances and people. Seeing Sasha as we see her in the beginning of the book, and then seeing Sasha through the eyes of her daughter was perhaps the starkest example of this.

I am impressed beyond words at how Egan was able to write such believable, interesting, characters with this format. The intricacies of how everyone is connected, how they see each other, and how they evolve is sometimes hard to keep straight as the reader. I cannot comprehend how Egan managed to create this whole thing. And yes, that power point chapter may have turned me off if it were in another book. However, by the time I got to it, I was so invested in the characters and the story, that Egan could have filled a chapter with bumper sticker slogans, and I wouldn't have minded.

Nothing quite matches the joy of finding a book that speaks to you, especially when you are not expecting it. I am very glad that I finally read this book.

"In this story, I'm the girl no one is waiting for."
"We know him from a time when there was no such thing as normal people dying."
"[O]ne of those people who used the unforgivable phrase 'meant to be'--usually when describing her own good fortune or the disasters that had befallen other people."
"The album's called A to B, right?" Bosco said. "And that's the question I want to hit straight on: how did I got from being a rock star to being a fat fuck no one cares about?"
"Time's a goon right? Isn't that the expression?"