Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is the story of a woman in her thirties who has managed to drift through life without forming any close connections, and describes what happens when she develops a crush on an aspiring musician, and when she and a colleague help a stranger in need. It’s hard to describe the plot without giving too much away, but this is an engaging story of loneliness, resilience, friendship and how the smallest acts of kindness can have the most profound impact.
Written in the first person, we see the world through Eleanor’s eyes, her awkward social interactions, the weight of her sinister mother’s influence, and little by little the mystery of her past is revealed. Eleanor is so peculiar at times, yet most readers will be able to relate to the themes of loneliness, rejection and the feeling of not fitting in, and I quickly found myself rooting for Eleanor.
Loneliness is often considered to be a problem for the older generations, yet this novel shows just how easy it is for someone to muddle through life without making any close or lasting connections, and why someone might even choose solitude to avoid difficult personal questions, the risk of rejection or the fear of the past repeating itself.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine tackles some pretty heavy topics from child abuse to domestic violence, depression and social isolation, yet it also shows how people can survive the most traumatic events and blossom when shown kindness and understanding. I found this story to be poignant, funny, uplifting and thoroughly engaging. Have a lovely week. X
Inspired by Ann Morgan’s TED talk My Year Reading a Book from Every Country in the World, I’ve been trying to read more translated fiction over the last few years, and I picked up Signs Preceding the End of the World on a cold day while day-dreaming about sunnier climes.
Signs Preceding the End of the World is the tale of a young Mexican woman called Makina who embarks on a quest to deliver a message to her brother who crossed the border to make a new life for himself in the United States.
In some ways, this is a modern retelling of the hero’s quest, reminiscent of Orpheus’ journey through the underworld, except Makina’s underworld is one full of crimelords, thugs, border patrols, police officers and illegal immigrants. The writing is sparse and poetic, and at times the plot trots along so quickly that whole chapters pass in a blur adding to the surreal and sometimes nightmarish quality of the story.
Makina is quite literally a messenger, working at a telephone exchange connecting people from “Little Town” where she lives to “the Big Chilango” (Mexico city) and beyond; Makina is resourceful, capable of crossing borders and languages, and able to defend herself in a machismo culture.
Signs Preceding the End of the World is a topical story concerning someone crossing the Mexico-US border illegally, describing how dangerous the crossing itself is as she relies on crimelords and smugglers to help her, evading border patrols and police along the way. Reaching the U.S.A she finds immigrants everywhere, and notices their influence on the culture from food to music and language, as well witnessing the daily prejudice and discrimination they face.
This is a short book – barely more than 100 pages – it ends almost as abruptly as it starts, but leaves the reader with much to ponder. Have a lovely week. X
Before Courtney Carver was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, she thought exhaustion, stress and debt were all normal parts of life, yet her illness became a catalyst forcing her to evaluate her lifestyle and choices; since then Courtney has started a blog Be More with Less, and become an advocate of living simply to increase happiness, health and love.
In Soulful Simplicity, Courtney explores how the myth of more keeps us trapped, indebted and unhappy. Shopping becomes a distraction and a way of numbing uncomfortable emotions like boredom, sadness, frustration and disappointment, and many of us fall into the marketing trap that somehow a new phone, car or pair of shoes has the power to change our lives, change how other people see us, and change how we feel about ourselves. Yet no matter how much Courtney bought, it was never enough, and it wasn’t until she started de-cluttering, downsizing and simplifying that she learned to appreciate what she already had, and what really mattered in life.
I’ve never been someone who lives to work, and my career is well below my other priorities like family, friends, health and hobbies, yet the reality is that many of us spend as many waking hours in the office with our colleagues as we do at home with our loved ones. Unfortunately, we can’t all give up our jobs to become full-time bloggers, but Soulful Simplicity offers useful advice on how to cultivate space, time and calm in a culture that promotes the idea that happiness can be bought and confuses busy-ness with productivity.
I started reading Soulful Simplicity during a period of acute stress when both my husband and mum were struggling with ill-health, and Courtney’s message that sometimes less is more really resonated with me and inspired me to examine how I spend my own time and money. Have a lovely week.
I can’t remember when I first heard about the ultra-marathon runner from Edinburgh who bonded with a stray dog he found while competing in a race across the Gobi desert in China, but I was delighted when I found out he’d written a book about their story.
Something that struck me right from the start is that it was the little dog who chose Dion out of a hundred other runners, not the other way around. Mile after mile, the scruffy stray he names Gobi keeps pace with Dion, and little by little he starts to enjoy her company as she gallops along beside him, at times Gobi’s presence helps him push through the pain, exhaustion and boredom of long distance running. A real turning point in their relationship comes when Dion stops to carry Gobi across a river that is too deep and fast flowing for her to cross, even though he knows it will cost him time and probably his position in the race too. By the time he crosses the finish line, seven days and 155 miles later, Dion has resolved to bring her back to the UK with him.
Roughly the first third of Finding Gobi focuses on the ultra-marathon, and the rest describes all the challenges of trying to bring Gobi back to the UK. I don’t want to spoil it, but this story ends happily and their reunion and eventual return to the UK is that much sweeter for all the obstacles and setbacks they faced along the way.
Dion, a bit of a loner by nature with a fair bit of emotional baggage from his childhood and adolescence, is humbled by the outpouring of generosity and support from friends and strangers alike who donate money to the crowd-funding campaign he starts or give up their time to help him directly. It is Dion’s commitment to bringing Gobi home that drives the campaign, but it’s the kindness of people from all over the world who make it possible, and in turn make this story so heart-warming and memorable.
Although my own furry, four-legged companion is of the feline variety, there were so many aspects of this story that resonated with me. Human relationships can often be complex, yet our animal companions offer us their love and trust unconditionally, and no matter how we may see ourselves they accept us just as we are. Yet even more than that, Finding Gobi demonstrates that somehow animals also have the ability to bring out our very best qualities – from commitment and co-operation to kindness and compassion.
Have a lovely week. X
Over the last few weeks, the long, dark midwinter evenings have given me the perfect excuse to sit by the fire and make a start on the pile of new books waiting to be read. It has been snowing on and off all week in our part of the country, making Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child seem like an appropriate story to start with.
Set in 1920, The Snow Child centres around Jack and Mabel, a married couple in their mid-forties from Pennsylvania grieving the stillbirth of their baby, and attempting to make a new life for themselves on a homestead in Alaska. Both lost in their own grief, Jack and Mabel hope it will be a fresh start away from all the reminders of their loss, but the reality proves quite different from their expectations as Alaska turns out to be a beautiful but harsh and unforgiving landscape.
One winter night, caught up in the magic of the first snowfall, they build a child in the snow – a little girl – but the very next day they find their snow child smashed and foot prints leading away from it. Not long after, they begin to see a little girl around their homestead and wandering in the wilderness. As the seasons and years pass, the reader is left wondering whether the snow child is just a feral orphan left to fend for herself or a fairy-tale brought to life by the couple’s desperate longing.
The Snow Child is split into three parts, and I found the final part – which jumps ahead several years – the weakest section as it seemed disjointed as it rushed towards the end. Despite this, I loved the descriptions of life on the homestead and the struggle to cultivate the land, making friends with their coarse-mannered but kind-hearted neighbours, the beautiful Alaskan winters and the mysterious snow child who seemed to haunt the land. The Snow Child is an ideal story to read under a cosy blanket with a cup of hot chocolate while the wind howls and the snowflakes fall outside.
A Street Cat Named Bob was the first book I reviewed this year, and it seems fitting that the sequel The World According to Bob should be the last. This picks up where the first book finished, James is a recovering addict, struggling to make ends meet by selling the Big Issue magazine and living in a London tower-block with Bob, the stray cat he adopted in the previous book.
Both books really capture the unconditional love, trust, loyalty and affection that can exist between people and animals, and how healing and transformative those bonds can be. Taking care of Bob gives James a sense of purpose, routine and responsibility, it’s his reason to get out of bed in the morning, to work hard and stay sober.
James isn’t proud of his past, and although he describes his difficult childhood shuttling between divorced parents in England and Australia, and his failed attempts to become a musician that ultimately resulted in him becoming homeless and addicted to heroin in London, he doesn’t blame anyone else for his choices.
James’ humanity comes across throughout the book as he understands the desperation that leads people in a similar situation to his own resorting to intimidation, violence, theft and addiction to numb their pain and shame. When his own fortunes start to change, James sees it as part of his duty and purpose to raise awareness of the harsh realities of those rough-sleeping, battling addictions and trying to eke out a living working on the streets.
James doesn’t have much by most people’s standards, and yet he is grateful for everything he does have, and his gratitude extends to all the people that believed in him and helped him when he needed it most from the Blue Cross vets who treated Bob whenever he was sick or injured to the Big Issue organisation, his parents, friends and the publishers who gave him the opportunity to share his story. Above all, James is grateful to the little cat that changed his life and inspired him to become the very best version of himself. I don’t usually read autobiographies but I found both of James Bowen’s books thoroughly heart-warming and inspiring. Have a lovely week. X
In Silence, Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that many of us are sleepwalking through life barely aware of the world around us because we are so lost in our own thoughts and distracted by the constant stream of information drip-fed to us by our phones, computers, TV and radio everyday.
Having said that, Silence does not read like it was written by someone out of touch with the modern world and living in a monastery in rural France, but by someone who understands just how busy, stressful and distracting modern life can be. Thich Nhat Hanh argues that there is no need to lock ourselves away in a quiet room or move to a monastery to spend our days meditating, but that everyone can achieve a sense of calm and inner peace whatever their circumstances by practising mindfulness during their daily activities.
In many ways, Silence is not dissimilar to Peace Is Every Step published in 1991, yet the message Thich Nhat Hanh delivered then seems even more relevant for readers today.
Although written by a Buddhist monk, Silence is not a religious text and is aimed at readers of all faiths and none. The tone of Silence is patient and understanding, and the mindfulness exercises in the book are simple to follow.
Winter seemed to arrive a little early this year with the last day of a frosty November bringing a light snowfall to our part of the country, and with our calendar rapidly filling up with festive fun, this short book is a timely reminder that we can still make time for silence and mindfulness regardless of what else is going on in our lives or the world around us.