155356C2-E75D-4FCF-8F1B-CEB6EB1DA2B9Eleanor Oliphant, the titular character of Gail Honeyman’s debut novel Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, is not like anyone else you have likely met before. She has worked in the same office for the last nine years, she has no friends and she lives on a diet of vodka and pizza or pasta and pesto. Her life is structured and predictable, right down to her weekly calls from “Mummy.”

It doesn’t take long to figure out that Eleanor is actually not completely fine. She is pretty much the loneliest person I have ever met. She has no aptitude for social niceties; she says whatever pops into her head. It makes it difficult for her co-workers to warm up to her. Her mother is particularly harsh.   When she wins tickets to a concert and asks one of her office mates to accompany her, she becomes the butt of the joke because as everyone knows “she’s mental.”

Enter Raymond. He’s the new office IT guy. When he comes to fix Eleanor’s computer she notes that “he was barely taller than me, and was wearing green training shoes, ill-fitting denim trousers and a T-shirt showing a cartoon dog lying on tops of its kennel. It was stretched taut against a burgeoning belly….All of his visible skin, both face and body, was very pink.”

It’s funny that Eleanor dismisses Raymond as she has, similarly, been dismissed by others. She is aware of her own appearance, her “face a scarred palimpsest of fire. A nose that’s too small and eyes that are too big. Ears: unexceptional.” But Raymond doesn’t seem to see Eleanor’s appearance – or care much either way, at least, and is persistent and the two become unlikely friends.

The stuff that comes out of Eleanor’s mouth is often funny. She has no filter and doesn’t seem to take offence to the things she hears, even when she is the subject of ridicule. When an office mate makes a cruel joke at her expense, Eleanor admits that she “laughed at that one, actually.” Her world is very black and white. When she and Raymond stumble upon an elderly man in distress, Eleanor is tasked with keeping him calm.

…don’t worry, you won’t be lying here in the middle of the street for long. There’s no need to be anxious; medical care is completely free of charge in this country, and the standard is generally considered to be among the best in the world. You’re a fortunate man, I mean, you probably wouldn’t want to fall and bump your head in, say, the new state of South Sudan, given its current political and economic situation.

Oh, Eleanor.

It is Eleanor’s friendship with Raymond that starts to crack open her insular, dysfunctional life. The more we know of her story, the more amazing she becomes. Eleanor Oliphant will stay with you long after you’ve closed the final pages and you will leave her knowing that she will actually be completely (mostly) fine.

 

Imagine if the Queen had only discovered reading later in life? That’s the premise of Alan Bennett’s lovely novella, The Uncommon Reader. While taking her corgis for a walk, the Queen happens upon a mobile library parked near Buckingham Palace. Intrigued, she boards the bus and meets Mr. Hutchings, the library’s driver and  Norman, a young man who works in her kitchen.  She feels duty-bound to select a book, but when asked what kind of book she likes her response is, essentially, that she doesn’t know.

She’d never taken much interest in reading. She read, of course, as one did, but liking books was something she left to other people. It was a hobby  and it was in the nature of her job that she didn’t have hobbies.

The Queen casts about, looking for something to borrow and discovers a name she recognizes.

“Ivy Compton-Burnett! I can read that.’ She took the book out and gave it to Mr.  Hutchings to stamp.

“What a treat!” she hugged it unconvincingly before opening it. “Oh. The last time it was taken out was 1989.”

“She’s not a popular author, ma’am.”

“Why, I wonder? I made her a dame.”

The Uncommon Reader is full of laugh out loud moments like this one and is, in fact, an utterly charming book. The Queen, despite a rather rocky beginning, turns into a voracious reader. She promotes Norman from the kitchen to a new position, a sort of personal assistant, and that causes all sorts of problems with other staff members.

For a while nothing comes between the Queen and her books. Like all devoted readers, she’s never without one and dinner party conversations invariably turn to the topic of what people are reading. Instead of being told about the books of authors she  meets, the Queen now wants to read their work.

“But ma’am must have been briefed, surely?”

“Of course, ” said the Queen, “but briefing is not reading. In fact it is the antithesis of reading. Briefing is terse, factual and to the point. Reading is untidy, discursive and perpetually inviting. Briefing closes down a subject, reading opens it up.”

The Uncommon Reader is a love letter to reading.

“Books are not about passing the time,” she admonishes Sir Kevin. “They’re about other lives. Other worlds.”

The Queen proves to be, at the end of the day, just like the rest of us who couldn’t imagine a life without books.

25/365

Here’s a book I never would have chosen for myself in a million years, but which actually turned out to be better than I thought it would. The Financial Lives of Poets follows one week in the life of a middle-aged guy named  Matt Prior. Matt lives somewhere in America with his wife, two young sons and senile father. Matt used to be a newspaper business writer, but he took a buy-out so he could start a website which would deliver financial advice through poetry. It’s no surprise that it flopped. A couple bad investments and the economy’s belly flop later and Matt (and his family) are in serious financial trouble.

The plot of The Financial Lives of the Poets really begins when Matt hits the 7-11 to buy a gallon of milk. He’s not sleeping much these days – his mind is in a constant state of chaos trying to figure out how he’ll pay the bank the $30,000 plus he’s missed in mortgage payments, how he’ll keep his two young sons in private Catholic school and how, most importantly, he’ll keep their dire situation from his wife, a woman he loves but is sure is having an Internet relationship with an old boyfriend. At the 7-11 he meets a couple of low-level thugs. He ends up getting stoned with them and before you know it, Matt’s selling hydroponic weed.

Despite its serious subject matter, The Financial Lives of Poets is often laugh-out-loud funny.

Should anyone doubt that our miserable time here on Earth is just a sad existential joke, here is the cruelest thing I can imagine describing: my father (who is obsessed with sex, like a lot of dementia sufferers) – at seventy-one years of age, frail, balding, with a paunch that looks like it should wear its own pair of jockey shorts –  recently had ten days of crazy sex with a twenty-one-year-old stripper with long smooth legs and two big round silicone funbags, and the poor son-of-a-bitch doesn’t remember a thing about it.

Despite the often comical narrative, Walter tackles some weighty issues: how do people cope with the failing health of their parents, (Matt’s desire for his father to have just one moment of lucidity is heartbreaking); how do you save a marriage, why are we so concerned with having more stuff The Financial Lives of Poets doesn’t necessarily offer solutions, but time spent with Matt as he works through his problems is time well-spent. Funny and intelligent.