Finished a debut novel last week called, “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.” Not sure why Reese Witherspoon called it “incredibly funny” because it relates the experience of a thirty year old woman with severe PTSD who suffers a breakdown. The character sometimes makes wry observations or off-beat statements, but they don’t rise to the level of even cringe humor, never mind hilarity.
Eleanor Oliphant is an unlikable protagonist at the novel’s outset. Having built defenses reliant on rigid adherence to rules, she is smug, anti-social, and arrogant. Until a guy from work takes her on as a friend, she seems doomed to a lonely and essentially vapid life, and we don’t really care.
But then, a series of circumstances loosens something inside our heroine, causing her armor to slip and soon we are rooting for her while at the same time gaining more and more details about an unimaginably awful childhood (with a surprise twist at the end).
Too often in tales of recovery, the healing process is given short shrift. Not here. The author provides grit and descriptions of credible growth. Oliphant’s recovery stands as something more than a literary band aid in service of a happy-ish ending.
“Happy-ish.” Like that?
A worthwhile, relatively quick, read.
Skip the following if you read my captions on Instagram.
The next book, “Song Yet Sung,” by James McBride, is another quick and worthwhile read. McBride creates tons of suspense for a historic novel. There are really great characters, like the Wooly Man (a huge African American living wild in the swamps), the Dreamer (enslaved clairvoyant making a run for it), Patty (a ruthless slave catcher, owner, and trader) and Gimp (another slave catcher with notorious skills who comes out of retirement to catch the Dreamer). There is flight, child theft, secrecy, hope and corruption alongside the punitive, degrading structures of slavery. The story is vividly set along the Chesapeake Bay. We are treated to visual details of the unique boggy, watery landscape and its oyster economy.
One of my favorite parts of the story is McBride’s description of the intricate, secretive, and effective ways that the enslaved communicated with one another.
James McBride wrote another piece of historic fiction more recently in 2013, “The Good Lord Bird,” which won the National Book Award. I think I liked “Song Yet Sung” better.
Another prize-winning novel featuring enslaved characters is Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad.” I won’t comment on the story so much, because there are so many reviews online, but, I heard the author speak a few months back in Brookline, Mass., and thought I’d share some of my notes.
First you should know, Whitehead was hilarious — I mean, seriously funny — which maybe shouldn’t have surprised me, but did. He started with some comments on how he got into writing, noting that he’d have ‘preferred to be a sickly child, but it didn’t work out that way.’ He was not into sports growing up, but loved comic books and Stephen King, making his first literary ambition, apparently, to write ‘the black Salem’s Lot.’He offered a lot of sober, self-deprecating biography about rejection, noting how early on in the life of a writer, “No one likes you. No one wants to read your crap.” After taking on the subject of slavery, he naturally picked up Toni Morrison. He said, “Thirty pages into ‘Beloved,'” I said to myself, ‘Fuck. I’m screwed.'” But then he noted that there will always be someone more talented and smarter than you that has already done it — not a reason to stop.
Before taking questions from the audience, he answered a couple that are frequently posed. The first was: “why another novel about slavery?” Whitehead offered a two part response. The first part was funny: “I guess I could’ve written about upper middle class whites who feel sad sometimes, but there are a lot of those books.”
More seriously, Whitehead then offered the second part of his answer. He pointed out that slavery lasted for a couple of centuries; World War II lasted for six years. No one asks, “Why another novel about World War II?” There were two movies about DUNKIRK alone last year. So, let that sink in.
To charges that slavery stories must be told in a historically factual manner, Whitehead said that he felt no responsibility to the reader to tell the story a certain way. “I’m not a trustworthy person,” he said, “but I trust my reader to tell it’s fiction.”
Apparently, this trust is not always warranted for he has been asked on more than one occasion if there really was an actual underground railroad (in the novel, there is).
He defended his approach by saying: “I won’t stick to facts, but I’ll stick to the truth.” The construct of a physical underground railroad, apparently, facilitated his conversation with history.
Three GREAT books!
What have you read lately that really impressed you — anything?
[no links at the moment, sorry! have some glitchy issues with the internet at the moment].