Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine – Gail Honeyman 


There’s a famous quote about people not remembering what you said but only what you made them feel. I’ve always felt this is equally applicable to books. It is not the structure or the grammar but the voice of a book, the story it tells and how it connects to you personally. 

Eleanor Oliphant is awkward and judgemental and even unpleasant at times, but her flaws, her feelings and her (occasionally very dark) humour feel so real. Honeyman writes about extreme experiences and situations in a way that make them relatable – who hasn’t felt lost or isolated or out of place at some point? Who hasn’t had a moment where they needed someone else to remind them that they deserve to be happy too? She also makes you laugh, which is a massive achievement given the subject matter. And  Eleanor loves books, especially ones with dogs in…so I’m completely sold! 

Part of the power of this book, for me, was that it deals with the aftermath of awful events. It is about carrying on and coping and learning to live rather than just exist. Eleanor is not simply a victim and the horrors of her life are not there for shock or scandal- for her they are simply the facts of life. The story is not what has happened but how Eleanor survives. And Eleanor is not portrayed as an angel or flawless. You do begin to understand a lot of her reactions but there is no attempt to excuse her, which I think is important. A lot of media reporting about traumatic situations divides everyone into good and bad and forgets we are all human. The book also underlines how big an influence childhood experiences can have, well into adulthood.

Honeyman is honest about there being no quick fixes for what Eleanor is dealing with and how awkward the process of getting support can be. I particularly liked her highlighting the weird feeling of pouring your heart out to a stranger and then having to walk home and function until the same time next week! 

**sort of a spoiler alert**

A big theme of the book is people looking out for each other; a son visiting his mother, a boss giving an employee the time they need, someone giving a complete stranger first aid. With all these positive examples next to the ‘abnormal’ (read horrific) relationships that Eleanor had experienced, it meant so much that Honeyman chose to hold off on making this a love story. The book left off at a point where Eleanor was a strong individual with friends which feels such a powerful narrative (and goal) compared to ‘and then a man turned up and saved her’. 

I loved this book with it’s wry humour and raw awkwardness and watching Eleanor learn to love herself and trust other people (and cats). A big part of that might be influenced by my own dealings with PTSD but then again, that experience made me greatful that someone is talking about what living with trauma is like and just how much other people’s kindness can help. 

Oranges are not the only fruit – Jeanette Winterson

Winterson describes this book as a work of fiction based on her childhood. It is beautifully written and funny and moving. A young girl who’s upbringing by an Evangelist mother makes it difficult for her to accept her sexuality, It is about feeling that you don’t quite fit in, not being sure of yourself and at the same time being sure you are not fully able to be yourself. I love the way chapters wander into fairytales just as children do when they want to escape. There are also fantastic reminders of growing up in Britain in the 60s/70s (which is a nice nostalgia trip for those of us who grew up then or grew up hearing about it).

My copy is full of sweet wrappers (orange Clubs and Penguins) where there were quotations I wanted to remember.

Here are some favourites:

On books:

In the library I felt better, words you could trust and look at till you understood them, they couldn’t change half way through a sentence like people, so it was easier to spot a lie.

On whelks:

Whelks are strange and comforting. They have no notion of community life and they breed very quietly. But they have a strong sense of personal dignity. Even lying face down in a tray of vinegar there is something noble about a whelk.

And my favourite:

Happiness is not a potato

(Although I’d say this is debatable as potatoes can definitely make you happy.)

From: That bookshop raid in Nailsworth (don’t worry, I paid for my plunder!)

Read: While on a mini-break with friends in the Cotswolds (cos I’m sociable like that) and finished the evening I got home.

Felt: drawn in, entertained, amused, heartbroken. All the things. And so very grateful that people are much more accepting, or openly able to be themselves in glorious technicolour now.

Would recommend: to everyone.

Good Behaviour – Molly Keane

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The bookshop owner said she’d just finished this and kept accidentally referring to it as ‘Bad Behaviour’ which I think says it all. Everyone here functions on their own terms and for their own ends. The art of Keane’s writing is that she has created characters that do awful things but seem not to be completely awful themselves. People do things mistakenly, out of misjudged love or hope or impulse. There is a lot of love but it is often either miscommunicated or misunderstood. There are also a lot of caricatures and absurdities but they hardly stand out in the bizarre world we are thrown into.

We see it all through the eyes of Aroon, the daughter of an aristocratic Irish family in the early part of the 1900s. Aroon doesn’t always quite understand what is going on around her, initially because she is a child and later perhaps because she continues to be treated like a child. This does mean that you are never entirely sure what is actually going on which just adds to the oddness. There is something so basic and understandable in Aroon’s yearning to be loved that you struggle to judge her too harshly.

No-one in this is wholly good or bad or even sane, but despite them being bonkers they are occasionally very insightful or relatable.

From: A lovely little bookshop in Nailsworth, where I went in saying ‘I’ll just fill my pockets’ and left with armfuls of books for our walk home

Read: while ‘snowed in’ and therefore forced to sit on the sofa, read and eat biscuits – it’s a hard life.

Felt: so bombarded by absurdities so that by half way through I was startled every time anyone seemed to have any sense or do anything normal.

Would recommend: this is a quick and interesting read. Because the narrator doesn’t always understand what is going on you have to do a bit of guesswork which actually makes it quite an engaging read.

 

The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath

This book is one of my favourites. I’ve read it repeatedly since first being introduced to it at school. It is beautifully written and Plath’s prose is as poetic as her poems. She has a knack for capturing the essence of anything in just a few lyrical words; from a thought or feeling to a whole situation or personality. It is one of the few books I have read that  portrays someone with serious mental health issues and manages to emphasise the severity of their experience alongside their humanity, or ‘normality’ if you will. Esther Greenwood may be increasingly detached, depressed, delusional and struggling to engage with the world around her, but she is still just a girl who loves a bath.

There must be quite a few things a hot bath won’t cure but I don’t know many of them.

I never feel so much myself as when I’m in a hot bath

And just try to tell me you have never stood somewhere beautiful, looked around and felt this..

I felt my lungs inflate with the onrush of scenery—air, mountains, trees, people. I thought, “This is what it is to be happy.”

Plath shows you someone who is incredibly vulnerable and almost naive about life, but she is also intelligent and has had to make her own deductions about what is going on and what is expected of her. She also shows you other people’s reactions to mental health, and while some of the treatments have moved on since this was written in 1963 not all attitudes have. Continue reading “The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath”

The Island of Sheep – John Buchan

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This was a great romp of an adventure story, with a bit of falconry, a trip to Scotland and a remote island thrown in. I loved it but I know that’s mainly because it is a mix of all my favourite things so I’m not recommending you rush out and track this down!

Reading the notes on the author, John Buchan not only wrote the 39 steps but published FIVE books while at university.  This man came from a family that was not at all wealthy, attended grammar school in Glasgow and was awarded scholarships to the University of Glasgow (which is beautiful) and then to Oxford where he couldn’t even afford to dine in college – and yet he ended up Governor-general of Canada. From the way this man describes grand landscapes and being outdoors, I bet that country suited him just fine!

Found: Oxfam bookshop

Read: on the train

Felt: swept up into a good old fashioned adventure story

Would recommend: to people who like a bit of early 1900s escapism

 

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a glimpse of the University of Glasgow

 

The Plague – Albert Camus

 

I’ve not even finished the book yet, and I’ve filled multiple pages with incredible, insightful quotes. I’ve found it fascinating to read about an epidemic now that so many people I know work with infectious diseases, although this book is less about a town dealing with an outbreak and much more about humans dealing with each other. Camus examines how people and their relationships respond to pressure, hardship, fear and hope. In places, the book reads almost like a sermon. There is one haunting paragraph that rings so clear and true; the writing is raw and powerful and, even in translation, it still sounds like poetry. This quote:

The evil that is in the world always comes of ignorance, and good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence, if they lack understanding. On the whole men are more good than bad; that, however, isn’t the real point. But they are more or less ignorant, and it is this that we call vice or virtue; the most incorrigible vice being that of an ignorance which fancies it knows everything and therefore claims for itself the right to kill. The soul of the murderer is blind; and there can be no true goodness nor true love without the utmost clear-sightedness.

 

Mere Anarchy – Woody Allen

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In all honesty, I don’t know that much about Woody Allen other than some people find him funny. I love a funny book and so picked this up as an antidote to the excellent but sad book I was reading at the time. While I did find this book amusing, in a wry smile kind of way, it was also hard work. Allen’s writing is pretty laboured, full of long convoluted sentences that are very clever but in a ‘look at me I’m writing something wonderfully clever and wildly amusing’ style. I prefer the understated sort of humour that sneaks up on you and makes you laugh out loud.  Thank goodness this is a short story collection because I could only muster the required energy to wade through it in short stints. The stories were interesting, neat little jibes at the weird world we live in – often based on short news clippings. And they were really quite clever, I just wish they didn’t have to make such a laborious display of it.

Continue reading “Mere Anarchy – Woody Allen”