Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Review: Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (2017) by Gail Honeyman

Since its release last year, Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine has been a fixture on bestseller lists and was even a Reece Witherspoon Book Club selection (June 2017).

The novel’s titular character is a thirty-year-old woman who works in the accounting department of a Glasgow graphic design firm. Eleanor lives a solitary life, eschewing social interaction; wearing unfashionable, utilitarian clothes; and blotting out her weekends and memories one mug-full of vodka at a time. Her only tenuous connection to the world outside of herself is a crush she develops on a local musician . . . who she stalks on social media.

After a chance encounter with a coworker and an elderly man in distress, Eleanor’s cloistered life opens up. She begins to form tenuous friendships and, with the help of patient sales assistants, make better sartorial choices. As she begins to build a wider social circle, Eleanor must come to terms with the traumas past and present that have shaped her life.

Ultimately, the book is about the importance of compassion, forgiveness, and the redemptive qualities of human connection. While Eleanor is not always a likable character, she possesses a stilted charm that makes the reader root for her, even in her most despicable of moments.

On the whole, I enjoyed Eleanor Oliphant and, at first, gave the book four stars on GoodReads. Upon reflection, however, I dropped my rating to three. Where the book stumbled is in its conclusion, which felt hamfisted and needlessly protracted. The book is about fifty pages too long and its “twist” ending didn’t feel consistent with the development of Eleanor’s character. Had this manuscript landed on the desk of a more dogged editor (with a fist-full of red pens), it would have been a more cohesive, satisfying read.

Despite its flaws, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is an engaging read tailor-made for book clubs and more substantive evening reading.

TLD Rating: *** / *****
Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Review: The Sick Bag Song (2015) by Nick Cave

It should be a surprise to no one that I am a huge (HUGE, people) fan of Australian post-punk and goth rock icon, Nick Cave. Cave’s dark, and often darkly funny, music with the Birthday Party and the Badseeds has had a major influence on my life, work, and personal aesthetic. Yet, despite my love of Cave’s music and persona, I hadn’t picked up any of Cave’s seven books until fairly recently.

Books by musicians are, more often than not, a profound disappointment: terrible novels (Morrissey), indulgent or underwritten (Morrissey (again!), Kristin Hersh), or tomes that leave you needing a Silkwood shower by the time you’ve finished the introduction (see: any book by a musician in the 1970s who isn’t Patti Smith). So, as you can imagine, I was a little nervous about delving into the bibliography of an artist I hold as dear as Nick Cave; the literary history of rock had left much to be desired.

My first foray into Cave’s bibliography was 2015’s The Sick Bag Song, an epic poem that charts the Badseeds’ 2014 North American tour. The book’s central conceit is that Cave “wrote” the poems on the back of a series of air sickness bags (hence, the title) along each stop of the tour. However, the titular “sick bag” is more than makeshift stationary, it’s a metaphor for the artist’s collective unconscious, where, for better or worse, his multifarious influences reside and vie for his attention.

Like Odysseus on his circuitous journey back to Ithaca, Cave finds himself encountering a cast of characters nearly as fantastical as those of his ancient analog: a dying she-dragon, a decapitated corpse, some rank seafood, and a scantily-clad wraith cheekily flashing the poet as she perpetually climbs over the railings of North America’s bridges.

As he criss-crosses his way across the continent, Cave struggles to get his wife on the telephone. Isolated from the comforts of home, Cave revisits the contents of the sick bag, recalling the formative events and influences that have shaped his life and career.

For Cave, the influences he carts around in his sick bag both shape his art and tax his creativity. In one memory, the poet recalls a flooded music festival where he met a raincoat-clad Bob Dylan, a creative vampire on the cusp of his celebrated Love and Theft (2001) album . . . while Cave’s next release, Nocturama (2003), was a critical and commercial flop. Your influences, Cave seems to say, can only carry you so far; at some point, the artist must purge themselves of their influences and and take a creative leap into the unknown.

At times emotionally affecting, bawdy, hallucinatory, and darkly funny The Sick Bag song is a fever dream of a travelogue that can holds its own against Cave’s impressive discography.

TLD Rating: * * * * / * * * * *
Monday, May 21, 2018

May 2018 Book Haul

As the temperatures begin to rise, and as the number of school days left slips into the single digits, I have been devoting more time to building my personal library. If you’re trying to fill out your latest Amazon order or are looking for some recommendations for your beach bag, here are some of my recent purchases:

Gems from the Friends of the Library Bookstore. I make a point of trolling the stacks at the Friends of the Library Bookstore in town at least once a week. Friends’ bookstores are a great place to pick up gently used copies of new releases, older titles, bestsellers, and the occasional mass-market paperback. On my last jaunt through the stacks, I picked up copies of Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Anne Tyler’s The Amateur Marriage that are in great condition for $1 each. I love Didion beyond words (JOANIE!) and, for a buck, I am willing to give Tyler’s work another go before I swear off Baltimore for good.

Supporting Independent Booksellers. Over the weekend, I went with my equally as introverted and equally as bookish partner to Pegasus Books on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley. In addition to a few literary-related items, I picked up three used books that had been on my radar for a long time: The Accidental by Ali Smith (paperback), Night Film by Marisha Pessl (hardback), and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (hardback). Chachkies not included, I paid about $30 for the lot; each book was in excellent condition and priced well below cover price. If you ever find yourself in the East Bay, Pegasus's used “new arrivals” shelf is well worth rifling through.

The Obligatory Semimonthly Amazon Order. If you live in an area where Prime Same-Day Delivery is an option, why wouldn’t you take advantage of the service? I’m pretty sure it’s criminal not to, at this point. Since I have been taking a deep dive into Mindhunter on Netflix as of late, I picked up copies of the two books that inspired the series: Robert Ressler’s Whoever Fights Monsters: My Twenty Years Tracking Serial Killers for the FBI and John Douglas’s Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit. I rounded out the order with two books that have been on my shopping shortlist: Lumberjanes, Vol. 5 (yes, I know I am behind in the series) and Samantha Irby’s newest essay collection, We Are Never Meeting in Real Life.

As the volume of my recent purchases might suggest, I anticipate spending a majority of my summer reading in an air-conditioned space!

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Summer Reading Plans 2018

Periodically, through May to August, I will be sharing updates on my summer reading-- what I want to read and what I actually read.  Up first: what kinds of books I like to tackle over the summer and some of the titles that are on my TBR shortlist.

It’s May so, like most educators and students alike, I am counting down the days until summer is finally here. For the first time in years, I’m taking time to rest and relax (thanks, medical problems!) and I am looking forward to seven weeks of sleeping late, not wearing “real pants,” and afternoons spent reading in the shade.--Oh, the luxury!

As I count down the days until summer, I thought I would share my summer reading plans to help you suss out which books to pack in your beach bag before you’re legging it through duty-free.

Getting My Suspense Fix. Summer is a great time to tuck into the thrillers and mysteries that have been piling up in your queue for the past nine months. Really, there are few things as satisfying as reading a page-turner poolside on a sweltering day. This summer I am looking forward to finishing Tana French’s In The Woods and have a copy of Dorothy B. Hughes’s pulp-classic, In a Lonely Place, that is calling my name. I’m almost certain that another mooch through my local library’s used book shop will probably add a few more suspenseful reads to my stacks.

Catching Up On the Hype. This summer, I also plan to finally catch up on some of 2018’s most hyped new releases. On my shortlist are Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion, which looks at the relationships between different generations of feminists; Madeline Miller’s Circe, which presently resides on my mother’s nightstand . . . but won’t for much longer; and Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage, which looks at the impact that institutional racism and incarceration have on a family. Hype-influenced reads should, at the very least, be fodder for water cooler conversations and, at best, get you a few months ahead of the game on your book club reading.

Nonfiction Nosedive. In between novels, a good nonfiction read can be a great pallet cleanser. There have been many an essay collection, for example, that have helped me nurse a massive book hangover. As it starts to heat up, I am planning to (finally) finish reading Zadie Smith’s Feel Free and work through newish essay collections from Sloane Crosley (Look Alive Out There) and Samantha Irby (We Are Never Meeting in Real Life). And, morbid gal that I am, I am keen to pick up From Here to Eternity by Caitlin Doughty, the Internet’s Funeral Director, and Sarah Krasnostein The Trauma Cleaner; honestly, if these two can’t prevent people from trying to start conversations with me while I am reading, I don’t know what will!

The Bricks. The long and lazy days of summer also lend themselves to reading big ‘uns: massive, unwieldy, multi-volume works that you have meant to read for years but never got around to for lack of time or because of sciatica. There is an optimistic part of me that wants to believe that I’ll actually get around to reading Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago and Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 this year. As you can imagine this is a small, small, foolishly optimistic part of myself.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

What I've Been Reading Lately April 2018

Since it’s been an eternity-- well, at least a year-- since I have done a post similar to this one, I thought now would be a good time to let everyone know about the books I am currently reading. For the past year-and-a-half, I have been in a bit of a reading slump so I have been picking up and putting down several books over the past few months. These are some of the books I have been turning to in recent weeks as I try to catch-up with my (overly) ambitious GoodReads goal.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara

True Crime is one of my favorite genres of EVERYTHING. This posthumously published investigation into the as-yet-unsolved crimes of the Golden State Killer, a rapist and murderer who terrorized communities in Northern and Southern California in the 1970s and 1980s is one of the most compelling books I have read in years. The Golden State Killer’s earliest series of crimes occur not far from where I grew up and his specter is one that has long loomed over the region. I actually had to take a small “book vacation” over the weekend from this one because it was so disturbing and proximal. I’m about a third of the way through the book and it is already shaping up to be one of the classics of the True Crime genre, holding court with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Ann Rule’s The Stranger Beside Me.

In the Woods (Dublin Murder Squad #1) by Tana French

Ironically, this is the book that I jumped to while on my book vacation from I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. I’m reading this one on my Kindle app and I’m about ten pages in. So far, I am enjoying it. There is something comforting in reading about fictional murder for once instead of, y’know, real ones.

Feel Free: Essays by Zadie Smith

I have been dipping in-and-out of this collection for the past few months. The pieces are like letters from a simpler, less dumpster-fire-y time. Per usual, Smith’s prose is lovely. I imagine I would be making more headway in this one if I weren’t nostalgic for a time in the not-so-distant past.

Hopefully, I’ll manage to finish one of these soon and get caught up on my GoodReads goal which I am *gulp* NINE books off-pace with.
Thursday, April 12, 2018

Oh, hi.

I’ve decided to throw myself back into blogging after a tumultuous couple of years of starts and stops.

I guess the best place to begin again is to start with where and why I dropped off the map.

In April of 2016, as I wrote about previously, my beloved pug, who I wrote about on several occasions on TLD, passed away suddenly. I felt her loss acutely; my grief was complicated and I spent a lot of time suppressing my pain just so I could make it through my workdays. Yes, my suppressed grief came back to haunt me. More on that later.

Shortly after my pug died, we were presented with the opportunities, by sheer happenstance, to adopt first one pug-mix (a then two-year-old boy) and a month later another pug-mix (a girl). Even in our pain, we found the strength to open our hearts to two little souls who needed a second chance.

During the summer of 2016, after months of suppressing my grief and throwing myself into my work, I experienced a serious medical deterioration that forced me to reevaluate my health, my emotional well-being, and seek the advice of specialists. Even after the catastrophic presidential elections in 2016, I still managed to, slowly-but-surely, piece myself back together and start posting on The Lexicon Devil again. Sure, my reading had slowed-down considerably, but I was reading. I was trying. I was healing.

Then, in April of 2017, the little pug-mix girl we adopted eleven months, who had been medically frail since she joined our family, was diagnosed with diabetic ketoacidosis that didn’t respond to treatment. After many hospital stays, and a tremendous fight to save her life, in May we had to say goodbye to our second little fur girl in thirteen months. To lose one companion in a year is difficult enough, to lose a second-- so close to the anniversary of your first loss-- is unimaginably difficult.

To complicate matters, in the days after losing our second little girl, I was party to a falling out with one side of my relations (for a number of reasons, none of which I get into) and, as a result, we are no longer in contact. As hurtful as this estrangement has been, it has paled in comparison to the loss of my fur-girls. All of our lives are better without having the other set of relations in our lives.

In October 2017, we adopted a little doxie-chi mix boy we met at an adoption event at a local pet store. He’s been a wonderful addition to our family after so much loss. He’s two years old and as characterful as an episode of Monty Python. Along with his big brother (who will be four later this month!), he has been our saving grace during these troubled times.

Twice last year my mother had to have major surgery (once at the beginning of the year and once at the end of the year). With her second surgery, in December 2017, she experienced major complications that prolonged her recovery period and caused a great deal of physical and emotional pain for quite a while.

Despite the onslaught of tragedies that befell our family over the past two years, recent months have been far kinder to us. My mother, after great hardship, has secured her dream job. I, against all odds, met someone very, very special.

Since we (as a family-duo) are in a better place, I felt like it was about time to reclaim my digital space and write about what I love . . . books and words and whatnots.

So, if all goes to plan, you’ll be seeing more of me around here.

Knock on wood.