‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ can save your life

Meet Eleanor Oliphant, the almost-thirty-something-year-old heroine in Gail Honeyman’s debut novel “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.”

She’s the UK version of Ellie Kemper’s character in the Netflix original “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.”

Eleanor isn’t as cheerful and bubbly as Kimmy Schmidt. And she wasn’t kidnapped by a man and forced to live in an underground bunker.

But Eleanor has survived her own traumas — ones that she drowns with weekend vodka binges in her apartment by herself.

It’s fine.

She’s fine.

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“Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine”
By Gail Honeyman.
327 pp. Viking. $26.  
2017.

And that’s been her routine for nine years. But then she sees this musician at a distance at a concert and she becomes convinced he’s going to become her boyfriend. This leads to a succession of hilarious and heartwarming firsts: first Hollywood bikini wax, first makeover, first haircut and first time she felt like she was pretty.

The reader is just along for the ride.

Honeyman’s novel is kind of funny and kind of sad — even if Eleanor doesn’t quite see it that way.

(Eleanor thinks she’s fine, remember?)

But the reader is like an extrovert peering at the habits of an extreme introvert, seeing someone who normally goes without seeing or speaking to anyone from the time she leaves work on Friday and returns to work on Monday.

Perhaps Eleanor doesn’t know how it feels to be anything other than lonely?

But she’s not alone.

None of us are — even if it may sometimes feel that way.

Honeyman’s novel is a call to action: to reach out and to be good to your neighbor.

It might save a life.

 

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The trial of the ‘Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance’

At one point in Ruth Emmie Lang’s debut novel “Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance,” one of her characters warns another to not try too hard while trying to impress someone.

If only Lang took her own advice.

Lang tries really hard to impress you — to get you to like Weylyn Gray, a boy who grew up with wolves.

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“Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance”
By Ruth Emmie Lang.
346 pp. St. Martin’s Press. $25.99.  
2017.

First, she kills off his real human parents in a freak accident. (Surely that’s got to score some sympathy points.)

If making Weylyn an orphan doesn’t do the trick, she gives him an awesome sidekick (a unicorn pig Weylyn names Merlin) and the ability to perform real magic. This is a kid who can talk to animals and start blizzards, stop tornadoes, revive plants and start downpours.

What’s more, Lang invents nine character witnesses for the sole purpose of trying to get you to like Weylyn.

Through Weylyn’s doctor Daniel Proust, teacher Mrs. Meg Lowry, sister Lydia Kramer, mayor Bobby Quinn Jr., boss Duane Fordham, neighbor Roarke, nephew Micah Barnes, butcher Nelson Penlore, and friend Mary Penlore’s first-person narratives, the jury understands Gray — a man who becomes more fantastical and extraordinary with each retelling that his feats almost read like a bunch of Chuck Norris jokes by the end.

Through their words, Weylyn Gray is a humble giant of a man, Lang’s own Paul Bunyan. (Like Bunyan, Gray was also a part-time lumberjack in one of his past lives.)

Weylyn made their lives more interesting, sometimes giving it color when it didn’t have any (One of Weylyn’s magical abilities is to create rainbows out of thin air).

But still, “Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstances” feels and sounds surprisingly ordinary next to Superman or the X-Men or Mowgli from “The Jungle Book” or Paul Bunyan or Boo Radley from “To Kill A Mockingbird” or Tom Sawyer — that the tall tales of Weylyn Gray may not stand the test of time.

The alternating prospectives, which all sound the same, make it hard to connect with a single character, but their attitudes color how you see Weylyn. Those who knew Weylyn treat Weylyn as a novelty initially (the boy who doesn’t sit in chairs, stops tornados with his bare hands, jars the light of fireflies or patches his roof with cobwebs). To them, Weylyn sounded like an alien — a person who didn’t really belong in their world even though he made their lives more magical.

To them, Weylyn was the best kind of human (like Boo Radley from Harper Lee’s book “To Kill a Mockingbird”) — the kind of guy who “don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy.”

It’d be a sin to hurt him, Lang seems to be saying, just like it’d be a sin to criticize Lang’s young adult novel. Like Lee’s mockingbirds or the bird (I mean wolf) boy Weylyn, Lang created “Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstances” to be enjoyed. Who are we to shoot them down?

‘Circe’ stands up to those in power

Madeline Miller’s “Circe” is to Homer’s “Odyssey” as Jonathan and Lawrence Kasden’s “Solo: A Star Wars Story” is to George Lucas’ original “Star Wars” trilogy.

If you’re familiar with the canon, you know where these characters will end up (in Han Solo’s case, that means steering the Millennium Falcon with Luke Skywalker; while in Circe’s case, that means turning Odysseus’ men into pigs), but their respective origin story spinoffs answer questions you didn’t know you had — like where did the six-headed man-eating sea monster Scylla come from? Or how was the man-eating Minotaur of Crete born? Or why does Circe transform men into swine?

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“Circe”
By Madeline MIller.
393 pp. Little, Brown and Company. $27.  
2018.

Miller’s “Circe” gives these myths new life, weaving them together and giving them context. Circe, the witch exiled to the island of Aeaea, was the daughter of the sun god Helios and nymph Perse. She was the niece of Prometheus, the Titan who stole the secret of fire from the gods and gave it to humanity.

She was the sister of Pasiphaë, the queen of Crete who gave birth to the Minotaur.

She was the aunt of Medea, who helped the hero Jason steal the golden fleece from her father and Circe’s brother Aeëtes.

Miller’s Circe was also an immortal goddess, a powerful master of transfiguration, who fell in love with mortal men and was uncomfortable with praise.

Odysseus, the Greek hero who made Circe famous, said he “never met a god who enjoyed their divinity less.”

But that’s what mortal men liked about her — that she was giving and approachable and motherly.

Battling with an internal monologue filled with doubt, guilt, fear, loneliness and low self-worth, Circe was a goddess mortal men took advantage of — who has her own #MeToo story.

But she doesn’t let it or her sins define her. She punishes and atones and persists. All the while, time stands still as we listen to her story with rapt attention.

Unlike Circe, those familiar with the Greek mythology are the ones with the gift of prophecy, knowing things before the goddess does.

Icarus will fly too close to the sun. Theseus will slay the Minotaur. Odysseus eventually goes home. And everyone dies — eventually.

But despite what the fates have foretold, we dare Circe to defy it, standing up to those in power and speaking the truth.

She doesn’t disappoint.

‘Sing, Unburied, Sing’ reminds us that we inherit the pain of our ancestors

The songs in Jesmyn Ward’s “Sing, Unburied, Sing” are a litany of moans. The moans of a 12-year-old black boy killed after being wrongfully accused of raping a white woman. The moans of an 18-year-old black man shot by a racist because of the color of his skin.

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“Sing, Unburied, Sing”
By Jesmyn Ward 
304 pp. Scribner. $26.
2017.

They haunt their loved ones who can’t get over the deaths of their son, brother, uncle, friend and in turn, their ancestors inherit their songs.

“Sing, Unburied, Sing” isn’t a happy book. Ward fills it with a chorus of pain, sung through the alternating first-person viewpoints of three generations of black narrators: JoJo, a 13-year-old practically raising his three-year-old sister Michaela; Leonie, JoJo’s largely absent mother; and Richie, a ghost who knew JoJo’s grandfather and Leonie’s father Riv when he was still a slave.

These characters moan too, crying about neglectful mothers or ungrateful children or abandoning friends. JoJo learns that Leonie unintentionally kills things (like their beta fish that died from starvation). Leonie learns that her children prefer to comfort each other (her three-year-old prefers her son’s parenting over hers).

All are restless.

Even more so when JoJo and Michaela’s father, Michael, a white man who was imprisoned for drug charges, was released from prison and Leonie takes her children on an uncomfortable car ride to pick Michael up.

Through Ward’s words, “Sing, Unburied, Sing” shows us what it’s like to be black in America — to almost get shot by a police officer because they think you have a gun in your pocket, to be thought of as rude or lazy or less than by strangers who don’t even know you and don’t want to know you, and to be haunted by slavery, still.

The ghosts of racism and slavery don’t go away. They moan and sing and shout.

‘Red Clocks’ shows you what it’s like to be a woman

Leni Zumas “Red Clocks” is a book about cannots. How a woman cannot be published because she’s not a man. How a woman cannot finish her law degree because she became a mother. How a woman cannot become a parent because she’s not married. How a woman cannot speak about sexual or physical abuse because no one would believe her. And “how many horrors are legitimated in public daylight against the will of most of the people.”

Limiting a woman’s right to choose even further is the 28th Amendment of the United States, also known as the Personhood Amendment, which overturned Roe v. Wade, making it absolutely illegal for anyone to have an abortion.

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“Red Clocks” 
By Leni Zumas. 
351 pp. Little, Brown and Company. $26.
2018.

In Zumas’ dystopian near-future, anyone caught having or aiding in an abortion would legally be tried for murder. And anyone attempting to flee to Canada to terminate an unwanted pregnancy would be returned to the United States and promptly arrested.

Because abortions are a federal crime under this Personhood Amendment, the theory was that more children would be available for adoption and that there would be no need for in-vitro fertilization.

Public Law 116-72, also known as Every Child Needs Two, would prohibit single parents from adopting a child; only married couples would be permitted to legally adopt.

To show what this world looks like, Zumas braids the narratives of four unhappy woman living in the quiet fishing and whaling village of Newville, Ore.

Roberta “Ro” Stephens is a 40-something-year-old single history teacher, list maker and researcher who desperately wants to raise a child of her own despite not being able to have any.

Stay-at-home mom Susan Korsmos is trapped in a loveless marriage for the sake of her two children. She desperately wants leave her lazy husband Didier, but thinking of her children bouncing between two single parents guilts her in staying.

Matilda “Mattie” Quarles is sixteen and pregnant. Mattie desperately wants to end the clump of cells growing inside her because she knows what it’s like to be adopted and to spend every day wondering who her biological mother is. She doesn’t want her child wondering who her real mother was and why his or her mother didn’t keep her.

And Mattie’s birth mother, Gin Percival, is a hermit and suspected witch doctor who illegally heals women with herbal remedies.

These women tell you what it’s like to be a woman living in a male-dominated world  — to constantly live in doubt and fear exacerbated by laws created by men. It’s time that we listened to them.

‘The English Wife’: A royal Shakespearean tragicomedy

She was an foreign actress when he first met her. He was not quite a prince, but he came from an old Dutch family with money and expectations. They came from different worlds — hers in London, his in New York. They met through a mutual acquaintance, traveled the world, got married, became controversial all-caps headlines in international tabloids with the latest as: “KNICKERBOCKER MURDERS WIFE AND KILLS HIMSELF! MURDER AND SUICIDE ON THE HUDSON!”

They were the Van Duyvils, Annabelle and Bayard, principal characters in Lauren Willig’s new novel “The English Wife,” but I can’t help imagining them as the Meghan Markle and Prince Harry of their time — gorgeous and happy with a fairy tale romance. These reminders make peering into the Van Duyvil’s lives seem like a guilty pleasure.

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“The English Wife” 
By Lauren Willig. 
376 pp. St. Martin’s Press. $26.99.
2017.

Besides the whole murder and suicide bit (if you believe the headlines), which happens about nine pages into the book through the point of view of Bayard’s 26-year-old spinster sister Janie who finds Bayard’s body, Annabelle and Bay were practically royals in late 1890s New York, expected to wear fancy hats, entertain high society and never cause a scandal. They lived in a secluded mansion, which they named Illyria after Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” and had twins they named Sebastian and Viola.

But that changes on January 6, 1899, when Bayard’s found lethally stabbed with a costume sword and Annabelle’s seen submerged in the Hudson River. The couple were to host a wondrous costumed ball that night in their new mansion modeled after the English Tudor home Annabelle grew up in. They would be have danced and laughed, perhaps, and showed the gossips how happy they were.

Instead, cousin Anne and sister Janie find Bay’s body — and the rest is printed in the presses.

Willig’s novel alternates between the past and present, between the romances of Janie and Janie’s sister-in-law. Desperate to clear her brother’s reputation (because Bayard couldn’t have killed both himself and his wife), Janie Van Duyvil recruits reporter James Burke to find out the truth behind her brother’s death. What she finds isn’t what she suspects, but madness and mixups are part of what keep “The English Wife” entertaining.

In true Shakespearean fashion, Willig introduces pairs of twins, sisters who could be twins masquerading as each other, and confusing similar-sounding names. There are an Anne and Annabelle, a George and Georgie — the characters even comment that it’s hard to keep track of who’s who.

With the comedic elements and tragic circumstances, “The English Wife” is a Shakespearean problem play — one that starts with a tragedy and ends with people dancing at a funeral.

The dialogue is bit thick at times — with characters literally quoting lines from Shakespeare to each other (“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”), but when the characters take a bow, you take their cue and grin and applaud.

 

Predicting the next ‘American War’

More than 50 years in the future, the second American Civil War isn’t fought over race, or confederate statues, or religion. The war is fought over fossil fuels, according to Omar El Akkad’s debut dystopian novel “American War.”

In 2074, America is divided between the Red states (Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina; Florida has been swallowed up by ocean) and Blue states (most of the rest of continental U.S. as we know it).

Global warming has brought upon areas of extreme heat and cold, swallowing up more and more land. Solar panels and wind energy are standard in most U.S. households that industries like coal are obsolete. Yet folks in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, collectively known as the Free Southern State, succeeded from the Union and clung to these dying industries, just like they clung to cotton and slavery in the first Civil War.

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“American War” 
By Omar El Akkad. 
333 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $26.95.
2017.

El Akkad’s future feels much like the past with bloodshed on U.S. soil, people routinely ducking from air bombing (which they call Birds), global interests suppling weapons to insurgents, poor refugees camps which become breeding grounds for recruiting suicide bombers and child soldiers, and inhumane torture facilities off far-off islands.

To understand this world, El Akkad recruits Sarat Chestnut, a six-year-old dark skinned black girl uprooted from her home in Louisiana after the war moved into their backyard. Her mother, Martina; twin, Dana; and older brother, Simon; travelled to Camp Patience (which was based off Guantanamo’s Camp Justice), a refugee camp for Reds displaced by the war, before that too became a casualty.

Through it all, Sarat learned to grow up too fast — to play with rats, get drunk off Joyful (a jungle juice of rotten fruit, crushed painkillers and alcohol), swim in brown rivers, sharpen a knife, hold a rifle, maim, kill, fight for the South. She learned about pain — what it’s like to be humiliated by boys with mean smiles, what it’s like to be betrayed by her mentors, what it’s like to lose everyone and everything she knew. And she learned about war — how “the misery of war represented the world’s only truly universal language.”

“American War” isn’t an easy read and it might take a few tries to get into, but El Akkad’s fiction, which is influenced by El Akkad’s own reporting on Black Lives Matter protests, Arab Spring, war in Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, feels very real.

Perhaps that’s because it’s like how he describes in his book: “The misery of war represented the world’s only truly universal language. Its native speakers occupied different ends of the world, and the prayers they recited were not the same and the empty superstitions to which they clung so dearly were not the same—and yet they were. War broke them the same way, made them scared and angry and vengeful the same way. In times of peace and good fortune they were nothing alike but stripped of these things they were kin. The universal slogan of war . . . was simple: If it had been you, you’d have done no different.”

 

It doesn’t matter what you think of ‘Emma in the Night’

No matter what you think of Wendy Walker’s newest psychological thriller “Emma in the Night,” that doesn’t matter.

“We believe what we want to believe,” writes Walker in the book’s opening lines, perhaps challenging those who dismiss it as a worser version of Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” or as a book that makes so sense.

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“Emma in the Night” 
By Wendy Walker. 
305 pp. St. Martin’s Press. $26.99.
2017.

The theory in her case is two teenaged sisters went missing on the same night about three years ago. Three years later, Cass Tanner, now 18, returns on her mother’s doorstep. Her older sister, Emma, is still missing, but Cass says Emma’s held captive on an island off the coast of Portland, Maine.

Walker’s book alternates between the first person perspective of 18-year-old Cass and that of 32-year-old Dr. Abigail “Abby” Winter, an FBI forensic psychologist who’s been examining the case with her partner Agent Leo Strauss. (Weirdly enough, since the chapters are titled either “Cass” or “Dr. Winter,” Dr. Winter’s chapters are written in the omniscient third person where the narrator knows what Abby is thinking and feeling — a direct contrast to the “Cass” chapters, which are written in first person.)

These writing conventions make “Emma in the Night” a bit hard to follow, for perhaps both author and reader — especially when you’re reading points of “Dr. Winter” chapters when Cass is supposed to be talking, but speaks as if she’s writing; or when you’re reading Abby chapters where Abby knows exactly what Cass means with a bit of obscure dialogue.

It’s as if Walker is arguing about a pig who could fly with an elephant on its back in a submarine in outer space.

But that’s besides the point.

The point is that it doesn’t matter if you hate “Emma in the Night” because there will also be those who love it, its unreliable narrators and it’s plot twists. To borrow Walker’s words, “We believe what we want to believe” — which means it’s pointless to try to convince someone why they need or don’t need to read “Emma in the Night.”

A love like ‘A Million Junes’

Normally I don’t start a book by reading it’s end, but “A Million Junes” ends with a love letter so beautiful that even if you didn’t read the rest of Emily Henry’s 391-page young adult novel, I’d encourage you to read just that.

It’s like that game parents and children play where each ask the other to guess how much they love them — the type of love you want every child to have and know.

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“A Million Junes”
By Emily Henry.
391 pp. Razorbill. $17.99.
2017.

These feelings are probably why “A Million Junes” feel like the warmest of hugs.

Henry’s book is a ballad about a love that defies death — how a child copes with the death of a beloved parent, whose body is cold even before the book begins.

Jack O’Donnell’s death is the emotional stimulus for much of his daughter’s writing, which one imagines as lyrical as Henry’s own. In it, June O’Donnell tells the tales her father passed down to her — how her great grandfather settled in the Five Fingers and started a cherry farm, how coywolves steal shoes from their backyard, and how their house is haunted by ghosts (which are mostly good).

Both are still playing that game and the child still can’t win. The child, high school student June O’Donnell, loves her dad from the moon and back while her dad, Jack, loves June from beyond.

Love has it’s own rules, of course. It can become boundaries like “if you love me, don’t.” And O’Donnell’s don’t. They don’t go to Five Fingers Falls. And they don’t hang out with their neighbors the Angerts because for generations (at least) whenever O’Donnells and Angerts meet, bad things happen. Bad things like her father’s death.

This becomes problematic when 20-year-old Saul Angert drops out of school and returns home to care for his sick father. June starts seeing Saul hanging around town and her high school. Worst of all, she starts liking him — which seems to defy her dead father’s wishes.

But as June learns, to love is to live — even if it hurts.

Disappear in ‘The Blinds’

If you want to disappear (from the latest sexual harassment scandal, Trump tweet, breaking news push alert, or _______ ) for six hours, pick up Adam Sternbergh’s sci-fi western mystery thriller “The Blinds.” It’s the type of book you get lost in and end up finishing in one sitting.

The name for the book comes from the nickname for Ceasura, Texas — a shoebox type of town in the middle of nowhere where nothing bad ever happens. That changes when someone’s shot dead in a trailer.

To realize how strange that is, there’s a few things you have to understand about Ceasura. First off: it’s in the middle of a desert.

Second off: no one has guns.

And lastly, The Blinds isn’t your normal town.

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“The Blinds”
By Adam Sternbergh.
382 pp. HarperCollins Publishers. $26.99.
2017.

The Blinds is the place where people go to disappear from the world when they have exhausted all their other options and have nowhere else to go. It’s a place where there’s no cell phones, no Internet, no guns (except the one the sheriff carries). A place where it’s rude to ask someone about their past.

Since The Blinds was built as a safe haven when a select few can start over without a past, anonymity is key. Everyone is given a new name in The Blinds — even the sheriff and his deputies. (The formula for creating new names is to mash-up first and last names from recognizable celebrities and forgettable vice presidents.)

With these new names and identities, the residents of The Blinds are told they can never have any visitors and they cannot contact or return to the outside world.

This arrangement goes relatively well for a while — until a homicide becomes the catalyst for the town’s unraveling.

Most of the 48 residents in The Blinds don’t remember their lives before The Blinds — even if you asked. A total or partial memory wipe which took away your worst memories was one of The Blinds’ entrance fees. The only people who know their past are Ceasura’s sheriff (whose not actually a sheriff even though everyone calls him one), Calvin Cooper (whom I imagine as Sheriff Hopper from “Stranger Things” — a generally good guy with a few skeletons in his past); and Cooper’s two deputies, Robinson and Dawes.

These three are in charge of figuring out who or what killed a man they don’t even really know.