Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

img_7578Book: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Date Read: December 20 to 26, 2020

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

I had been eyeing this book for quite awhile before finally picking it up at one of my local stores. Despite hearing the title and seeing a few different renditions of the cover, I did not know much about the premise when I started. Based on the cover art for one edition, a house made of burnt matches, I suspected that fire would play a role in the story. Other than that, I was mostly drawn in by the title, and the belief that I would discover that Eleanor Oliphant was not actually completely fine.

To start, I have to say that I found this story to be both hysterical and quite moving, with the perfect balance between humor and sadness. I found my feelings about Eleanor changing pretty quickly as I read, although not always in a positive way. Upon a first impression, she is not particularly likable. She is rigid, rude, and very quick to judge others. She is very certain of the “rightness” in how she lives, although her view of the world does not fit into the norm defined by everyone else. I suppose you could argue, in a way, that she is “completely fine”—the version of completely fine that is constantly teetering on the edge of disaster.

As the layers of Eleanor’s life begin to slowly peel back, her awkwardness shifts from off-putting to endearing. Although we do not see the full picture of Eleanor’s background, there is enough revealed to allow the reader to begin to sympathize with her. She is certainly misguided and unaware of social expectations—although she does her best with her ill-conceived interpretations of social skills. She knows that she does not quite fit in, and many of her efforts to do so lead down the path of hilarity. At the same time, it becomes clear that the surface of Eleanor’s perfectly organized life is hiding some deep issues.

My favorite thing about this book was that it was absolutely not a romance. Although she would not admit it, Eleanor is profoundly lonely. She creates a romance in her head with who she imagines could be the perfect partner, without realizing that she is also quietly cultivating some much more real connections. When she reaches a breaking point and heads into a downward spiral, it is these friendships that help to set her on a course toward recovery. I loved that the author did not seek to “cure” or “fix” Eleanor’s problems by throwing her into a romantic relationship. Her experience is much more true to real life, and the bumpy ride that many find themselves on.

Boris’s Thoughts: “See? Who needs romance? All of Eleanor’s problems start to get better when she gets a cat. This is clear proof that cats fix everything. 4 paws.”

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek

img_7212Book: The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson

Date Read: December 17 to 20, 2020

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

I picked up this book as a new addition to my states collection a few years ago, when a friend and I took a trip down to Louisville for a few days. While we spent most of the trip enjoying beverages and tacos on patios, we did a fair share of neighborhood exploring as well. Carmichael’s Bookstore was only a couple miles from where we were staying, so we set out to patio hop our way to and from the store one afternoon. I was unsure of what book I might choose to represent Kentucky in my collection, but Carmichael’s made it easy: this book set in Kentucky and by a Kentucky-based author was a new publication, as well as being on the staff recommendations list.

This unique historical fiction is a book for people who love books. It combines two aspects of history that I previously knew little about: the Depression era Kentucky Pack Horse Library Service and the historic blue-skinned people of Kentucky. The latter, actually, I had not heard of before seeing this book. The book follows Cussy Mary, a packhorse librarian and the last in the line of a blue-skinned family. She loves reading, and is passionate about her job of sharing books with the hill people of Kentucky. She travels a weekly route exchanging books for her patrons. She connects to each of them through a mutual appreciation of the books, always keeping an eye out for new materials to suit each of them from the library’s extremely limited catalogue.

Initially, I thought that blue-skinned was an exaggeration—perhaps referring to people who were abnormally pale or sickly appearing. However, as I was reading it became clear very quickly that it truly meant blue. I did some mini-research, which led me to the real family that Cussy Mary’s was based on. The “Blue Fugates” lived in Kentucky from the early 1800s until as recently as the 1970s. I do not want to give too much away, but will say that it is a fascinating example of recessive genetic traits. The book does delve into the details of this eventually, as Cussy Mary works with a local doctor who is intrigued by her condition.

This turned out to be much more than I was expecting, with an ending that I did not see coming. Cussy Mary spends most of her life surrounded by tragedy: poverty, hunger, discrimination. Despite being pushed to the fringe of society by her classification as “colored,” she persists in a dedication to her patrons through both her books and her attempts to bring a little ease to their lives. There are a few dramatic turns toward the end of the novel, which are taken in stride, and appear to be heading toward a fairly clean and mostly happy ending for Cussy Mary—but it did not turn out exactly as I had anticipated or hoped. I do not want to say that I was dissatisfied with the ending, as it was quite fitting given the context of the story.

Boris’s Thoughts: “I suppose that book for book people means a book for book cats. 4 paws.”

Where the Crawdads Sing

img_7456Book: Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Date Read: January 1 to 9, 2021

Rating: 5 (of 5) stars

This was my pick for the first Unread Shelf Project prompt of the year: a book with high expectations. I thought through quite a few different ways to interpret this, and decided that I would use some data from Goodreads to narrow things down. This was the highest rated book on my to read list that has been rated by over 1 million people. I felt that this gave an endorsement both for the popularity of the book, and a general consensus on quality. In addition to that, this is a book that was given to me as a gift and came highly recommended.

Despite the hype, I actually knew very little about this one going into it. In fact, I was a couple chapters in before I even decided to read the description on the inside jacket. Overall, I really enjoyed the layers to this story; although it took me a little bit to really get into it. Once I was hooked though, I could not get enough of the story. I admit I was a little put off by the time jumps in the first part of the book, created by the dual storyline. Kya’s childhood was so much more interesting to me than the murder-mystery set up happening so many years later. Of course I realized that all would eventually become relevant, but it was occasionally frustrating to be pulled away from the more engrossing part of the narrative.

I mentioned enjoying the layers of the story, which I think was the most appealing aspect of this novel for me. There is so much here to consider: love, tragedy, discrimination, trauma, coming of age, loss, judgment, and a great appreciation for the natural world. To pinpoint any one cause of Kya’s eccentricities or her ostracization would be difficult, but examining her past, it is easy to see why she developed a fear of the outside world and the behavior patterns that went along with this. It was curious to me that the main source of Kya’s peculiarities was a fear of those in town, whose own prejudices led them to fear her as well.

While I have seen this elsewhere as a criticism of the book, I appreciated the details included in the naturalistic elements of Kya’s relationship to her home. It was obvious that the author has impressive knowledge on the subject, and helped in building the fascinating juxtaposition within Kya’s own character—the bits of truth in the town’s view of her life, contrasted with the accomplishments far beyond what anyone would suspect from her. Even later when the detectives from town see her collections, they do not understand them, assuming there is some element of madness in her work. I suppose this plays even further into the “fear of the unknown” element between Kya and the town.

Minka’s Thoughts: “I think I understand this girl. I, too, am fascinated by birds. 3 paws.”

Unread Shelf Progress for January

  • Books Read: 2
  • Books Acquired: 0
  • Total Unread Books: 269

Midnight Sun & Twilight

img_7155Book: Midnight Sun by Stephenie Meyer; Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

Date Read: December 10 to 16, 2020

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars; 3 (of 5) stars

Like most everyone else who read these, I found Twilight in the middle of the hype in 2008. The series was complete, and the movie would be coming out soon. My sister, who was not a big reader, was interested in the series, and we decided to split the cost of the boxed set of books. I loved the idea of encouraging her to read, and figured that I would get around to them eventually; but when her and my mom both finished it and started to get excited for the movie release, I caved so that I could join them.

I think it goes without saying that I do not consider Twilight, or any of the remaining books, as high quality literature. I take them at face value and consider them for what they are: quick entertainment romance novels aimed at a younger demographic. As that, they succeed spectacularly. (I suppose I should note that, at the time, I was probably just on the cusp of this ideal demographic, having graduated high school a couple years before the first book was released.) Along with that, I have to give Stephenie Meyer credit with perfect timing in the release of Midnight Sun, coming long enough after the initial series that those who read the first can look back with enough nostalgia to not cringe too much.

Knowing that Midnight Sun was coming soon, and with my new habit of rereading via audio book, I decided to revisit Twilight over the summer. I like to be prepared when reading something from a series. It was definitely an interesting look back. While the story was much as I remembered, the writing was a bit worse than my memory. Bella is more irritating of a character than I recalled—although this may be somewhat biased from reading the other books. I do remember liking her more in the later books of series, so perhaps taking that development backward clouded my view. I will say, however, that the narrator for the audio book was matched well, and I do like listening to audio books written in first person.

All things considered, I think this was a better story from Edward’s perspective. Perhaps some of this is improvement in writing over time, but I also think that part of that relates to the difference in the voice of who is telling the story. Sure, Edward comes across pretty arrogant much of the time, but he is also more reflective, and, well, does not talk like a teenage girl. Being familiar with the story from Bella’s view, and the more neutral view from the movie, it was interesting to see things from the other side. There is certainly more brought in regarding the other members of the Cullen family, which makes for a richer story with a bit more depth. I particularly liked filling in the pieces toward the end of the story, when Bella is in the hospital.

The switched viewpoint also allows for more insight into the actions of Edward and several other characters, given the “talent” of mind reading that Meyer has endowed him. It was good to piece together the motivations of him and others, which also shed some new light on some of the events from the original book. Edward’s view of himself was also different that I was expecting—although he often has a superior attitude, he very truly believes himself to be something terrible and unworthy of good things. His reminders to Bella that he is “not good for her” are much deeper than the obvious consideration for her safety. Turns out, Edward’s head is a pretty dark place to be, but of course, why didn’t I see that coming?

Minka’s Thoughts: “This book is so big. Almost me-sized. Do you think it wants to play?”

Annihilation

img_7041Book: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Date Read: December 1 to 8, 2020

Rating: 3 (of 5) stars

For December, the Unread Shelf Project asks you to read the shortest book on your shelf. It’s really the perfect fit for this time of year, when everyone seems to be going just a little crazy to fit in their holiday plans along with wrapping up their goals for the year. While I am often somewhat rigid when it comes to metrics and data, I interpret this one a little loosely: anything under 200 pages counts as my shortest books. There are quite a few of them—mostly Shakespeare, as I am that person who gets the complete works of Shakespeare and then individually lists all plays as things to read (making Shakespeare both the shortest and longest books on my list!). In the end, of course, I did not go with Shakespeare: I picked this one up at one of my local independent bookshops, when I went in for a gift and had to leave with something for myself too.

Annihilation is a little outside my normal reading spectrum, as a mystery and science fiction combo. While I do enjoy both, I do not read too heavily in either genre. The story is a slow build without much direct action, but much time put into building the world of Area X. This fits with the context of the novel—it is written as a journal belonging to a biologist, who is part of an expedition to an area reported to have had experienced an “environmental disaster.” Early on, her reports suggest that there is more going on than meets the eye, although this is never quite defined.

Each member of the expedition has a different area of expertise, which they are defined by rather than named: the Psychologist, the Anthropologist, the Surveyor, and the Biologist. While they have been given general orders as a group, each seems to have their own slightly varying agenda. The expedition quickly devolves, as each of the members is impacted by their surroundings and begin to follow their own paths. The biologist’s journal paints an eerie picture of the landscape, as she tries to make sense of her surroundings and describe things that she does not seem to understand herself.

While the concept here is definitely interesting, this book left me wanting more than it was willing to give. It was an enjoyable read, although a little unsettling in places. The style allows for the reader to start piecing some things together, and there’s definitely a ton of room for speculation. However, the ending is left too open for my liking. Of course, this is the first book in a series, so there may be some of what I was looking for in the other books; though I am not sure that I am invested enough in the story to continue.

Boris’s Thoughts: “All that strange wildlife, and not cats? Ridiculous. 1 paw.”

Unread Shelf Progress for December

  • Books Read: 5
  • Books Acquired: 8
  • Total Unread Books: 271

Old MacDonald Had A Truck

img_6773Book: Old MacDonald Had A Truck by Steve Goetz

My discovery of this book came out of a bad habit: I often browse the discount section for children’s books that look interesting, and if the price seems right I will buy a few without really thoroughly looking at them. I figure these are great things to have on hand for gifts, and although I would love to personally pick out a book for every occasion, there are times when it’s nice to have something on hand. Knowing that the holidays were coming up, I grabbed this one primarily based on the title and a quick glance at the illustrations.

A few days later, I took a closer look at the books I had picked up to see what might be good fits for Christmas, and gave this one a more careful look—the next day I headed back to the bookstore to pick up another copy. At first glance, this is a play on the familiar “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” song, with most of the text following the pattern of the verses. However, rather than going through a list of animals, the song goes through all the machinery owned by Old MacDonald: an excavator, bulldozer, and many others. Rather than animal noises, each piece of machinery is paired with its function, with a dig dig here or a push push there. It’s great fun for kids interested in vehicles or machines, but also has some other interesting features.

To go along with the different vehicles included, the author occasionally makes a play on the “E-I-E-I-O” part of the song, substituting an appropriate “O” rhyme that matches the equipment. I especially enjoyed the “E-I-E-I-SLOW” to go along with the steamroller. There is also a double story here for those who give more than a cursory glance at the illustrations. As each of the machines are being introduced, we can see that Old MacDonald is working on a construction project on his farm—leading up to the appearance of the truck from the title, which happens to be a racing stunt truck ready for the course that he has built!

Minka’s Thoughts: “Old MacDonald had a… cat? ME-I-ME-I-OW. I am poet!”

City of Ember

img_6662Book: City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau

Read: March 2016

One of the kids that I buy books for each Christmas is good about giving me requests. I usually do not even need to ask—he will find me at one of our fall get-togethers to let me know what he is interested in right now, or sometimes even to request a specific book. He started middle school this year, and told me that he is looking for something new. He asked if I knew about any books that are “kind of like Harry Potter, but not really because magic and stuff like that isn’t important.” Sounded like a bit of a tall order to me, but I told him I would think about it.

So, the first step for me was thinking about what is important about Harry Potter when you take out the “magic and stuff”—friendship, choosing your path, fighting for what’s right, working together to make a difference, and, of course, at least a little adventure. Some of these are common elements in much intermediate and young adult fiction, so my challenge was to find an appropriate combination in a story that will grab his interest. Nothing came to mind outright, so I decided to look for inspiration in the substantive children’s section at one of my local bookstores. I found the answer there when I spotted a book from a series that I read a few years ago from my school’s library.

This is the first book in a “trilogy plus prequel” series, but I think works well as a standalone novel as well. The story centers on Lina and Doon, two 12-year-old acquaintances with a vision of saving their struggling city, and to a lesser extent Lina’s younger sister Poppy. I would call this light science fiction and semi-dystopian—the world built here is not tremendously different than our own, although it is in much more unusual circumstances. In Ember, there is no natural light. The city runs on electricity, but the citizens are beginning to have increasing difficulty keeping things running smoothly.

Doon is interested in the generators and finding a way to save the town—Lina is concerned, but not so sure about what can be done. When Lina finds part of a document that appears to be left by the builders of the city, the two begin an investigation that may lead to a solution for their town. Of course, along the way they encounter the number one obstacle of all young protagonists: adults who are concerned with their own agenda, or fear the change that is suggested by the younger generation.

Boris’s Thoughts: “No lights? No sunny spot on the couch to sit in? This is not going to work for me. 1 paw.”

Christmas Cheer and Disney Cinestory Comics

My family’s Christmas gathering is a pretty big deal for us: although each family has always spent Christmas day on their own, we kick off the holiday with a Christmas Eve gathering of around 35 to 40 people spanning four generations. We have dinner, share drinks, exchange gifts, and always have a visit from Santa, who pulls out a guitar and leads a few Christmas carols. There are usually a few games of euchre, and the night often ends with a Christmas movie on as people begin to go their separate ways. As the family has grown, we have had some evolving rules around gift giving. Adults have always drawn names to exchange, and with a growing number of young kids there is a newer tradition of kids drawing names and buying for each other. Some of the adults—those without young kids of their own—still opt to buy for all the young ones. Several years ago, I started the tradition of buying books.

One of my favorite things leading up to the holidays is picking out books for each kid. When they were younger, it was easy to find fun picture books. Now, with a few getting older and becoming readers in their own right, I have tried to get a little creative. Being in schools, I do read a fair amount of children’s and young adult literature, but it’s not always easy to find the perfect match for each kid. I usually end up with a mix of new books and ones that I have read. Although I know my Christmas is going to look different this year, I still picked out books for all the kids, and decided to use the blog to share some of my finds.

img_6658Book: Cinestory Comics by Disney

Pictured: Big Hero 6, Coco, Inside Out

My first discovery of the holiday season was these Disney graphic novels. Disney has always been popular in my family, so these caught my attention right away. I found these in a box set for a pretty reasonable price considering it comes with four books. There were a few options of sets available, including princesses and blockbusters—I liked the variety in this particular set and thought it was a good fit for some of the older kids (around age 9).

Since the kids all read a fair amount, I am always trying to find the balance between something popular that will interest them, but not something so popular they will likely have already read or seen it through school. Graphic novels have been gaining popularity for some time, and I thought these were a fun addition in that format. These are especially cool because they are not simply comics telling the story of the movie—the comics are created from still shots from the movies. I am especially excited about the Big Hero 6 book, which I think is going to be perfect for my cousin’s son who can be picky about his reading, and tends to be more into video games lately.

Minka’s Thoughts: “Does being in my bed make these bedtime stories?”

Shakespeare for Squirrels

img_6788Book: Shakespeare for Squirrels by Christopher Moore

Date Read: November 5 to 15, 2020

Rating: 4 (of 5) stars

As an intro for this book, I am going to repeat the same sentiment that I had for last year’s November prompt from The Unread Shelf Project: I have no idea what my favorite genre is. This year I enlisted a friend to talk me through figuring it out, but we both ended up a little stumped. As it turns out, apparently my favorite genre is “fiction;” which seems too nonspecific for the prompt, and also means about 90% of the books currently on my to read shelf. We decided that an acceptable adjustment would be to choose a book by a favorite author, leading to books from Christopher Moore meeting prompts in two different months of 2020! It seems fitting for such a wacky year.

If you have been around Books On My Cat for awhile, you may know that this is the third book from Moore that I have written about. In the past, I described his writing as “a unique combination of humor, intelligence, and absurdity,” and commented on his masterful ability to create new life while building from a well-known source material. Both of these hold true in Shakespeare for Squirrels, and I continue to marvel at the research, time, and thought put into a work so riddled with penis jokes.

This is the third book that features Pocket, the fool in the court of King Lear, who readers first met in Fool. After the downfall of Lear and some shenanigans in Venice, Pocket finds himself on the shore of Greece amid goblins, fairies, and manipulative royals. The main feature here follows along with Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but also draws upon other aspects from the full spectrum of Shakespeare canon. He keeps many stylistic elements true to the work of Shakespeare, with some modernizations and creative curses thrown in for good measure.

Having not read the original work, I am not as familiar with particular play, and so find it difficult to point to specific links in the stories. However, the framework is definitely there, and my limited knowledge of the play did not lessen my enjoyment of this new take. I really enjoyed the “play within a play” aspect put together in “Act 3” of the novel, which served to pull together several individual lines running throughout the book. With some luck and a little fairy magic, Pocket makes it through to the end only a bit worse for wear, and ready to head off in the direction of his next adventure.

Boris’s Thoughts: “I may not know Shakespeare, but I know squirrels; and this is definitely squirrelly. 4 paws.”

Unread Shelf Progress for November

  • Books Read: 3
  • Books Acquired: 2
  • Total Unread Books: 268

Speak

img_6765Book: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

Date Read: Various

I read Speak for the first time when I was in high school—not for a class, but at the recommendation of an English teacher. She said that it is a book she thinks every high school student should read. Since then, I have picked up many other works from Laurie Halse Anderson, but there is something special about Speak that keeps bringing me back.

My continuous impulse to reread this one has earned it a spot on my list of favorites. Despite this distinction, I have a hard time articulating what exactly it is that draws me to this book, beyond the fact that I agree with my English teacher that it should be required reading in high school. The story follows Melinda, who enters high school as a selective mute after an incident at a party over the summer. Although she is mute to those around her, the reader gets an inside view to her thoughts, where they find the authentic voice of a cynical teenage girl. Melinda has much to say, about her school, peers, teachers, and experiences—she just does not know how to say it to others. While Melinda’s silence is linked directly to the trauma she experienced, the story of her search for her voice may relate to a broader audience.

I have not always been good about tracking my reading, although I would estimate that I have read this one around 5 or 6 times. Most recently, I revisited it as an audio book, which is a new trend for me. The narrator’s voice was matched well to the character of Melinda, and it’s first person format works well for the format. Hearing Melinda’s thoughts spoken aloud adds an interesting element, turning it from a sort of journal to an inner monologue.

Minka’s Thoughts: “This one is too big for my tent. Can I try the headphones again? I won’t chew on the cord this time.”