Book Review of Elizabeth Strout's Oh William!
I’ve read a few enjoyable and comforting reads in recent weeks, but Elizabeth Strout’s Oh William! is the first book I’ve picked up, in absolutely ages, that I struggled to put down. I read it in two sittings.
The strength of Elizabeth Strout’s Oh William! is the connection that the reader makes to Lucy Barton the narrator. She tells the story in first person and focuses on the minutiae of life, which she uses to explore big life questions. The effect that an individual’s childhood has on their present and future self is never far from the surface of the book.
In Elizabeth Strout’s Oh William!, Lucy’s second husband has recently died. She finds herself spending time with her first husband, William, and she and he go on an actual and metaphorical journey of reflection. William’s own life is unravelling as his third marriage disintegrates. Lucy and he discover hidden family secrets that create insight and provide them with greater understanding of who they are and why they are as they are. We learn a lot about William’s mother, Catherine and through that see the complexity of son/mother relationships. I’m sure if this were a high school text it would be worth analyzing from a Freudian stance.
Oh William! Is a book that focuses hugely on connection. The narrator’s own self-awareness of time passing, the significance of perception and her ability to pinpoint precise emotion is incredible. There is absolutely nothing twee or sentimental in the writing, though it is nostalgic, particularly in relation to their shared grown up children. The sophistication, yet simplicity of the writing in Elizabeth Strout’s Oh William! makes it an utter joy to read.
Book Discussion Questions for Elizabeth Strout's Oh William!
Book Club Questions on Elizabeth Strout's Oh William! (If you haven't read the book).
Personal Response to Elizabeth Strout's Oh William!
The phrase Oh William! made me think of a different book Oh David! by David Shannon. It is a text I used to read to Key Stage 1 children when I worked as a librarian. Oh David! features a little boy who does a series of naughty acts from knocking over a vase to running down the street naked. Despite all his misdemeanors his mum loves him anyway.
This is, I think, kind of how Lucy feels about William. In life we make mistakes, we don’t understand why people act the way they do, we put faith in individuals when perhaps it isn’t deserved and we can’t ever really understand or explain why we do the things we do.
As Lucy observes the actions of her first husband she frequently says Oh William! This sums up the emotions she feels toward him, without perhaps having to overtly articulate or fully understand them. We are all a bundle of complex and contradictory emotions, which leave us baffled, yet alive!
Book Review of Matt Haig's The Comfort Book
Matt Haig’s The Comfort Book is the perfect read for anyone who has found themselves at a low ebb and needs a message of hope that things can and will get better.
Matt Haig begins The Comfort Book by telling the readers that the structure of his writing makes it a messy read. It has both short and long chapters, lists, quotes, case studies and even the occasional recipes. It is quite random in structure, but the theme that runs through The Comfort Book is one of connection. Everything is connected to everything else – hope to despair, pain to joy and so on. It also reminds us repeatedly that the simple fact of our existence is a reason for hope and joy, that we don’t need to try to be anything other than what we are, or meet anyone else’s expectations. Just be!
Matt Haig’s The Comfort Book is written in a completely non-judgmental tone. It is friendly and warm and welcoming. Part memoir, with a little bit of philosophy for beginners, for me it is a book of substance. It creates a solid and positive basis for building self-love which can help readers avoid faulty thinking or going down a spiral of negativity. Even if you are not feeling low or needing comfort it is a book of hope and I found it frequently amusing. It is definitely a book that enhancing wellbeing and creates a feeling of positivity. I was delighted to read under the heading Wolf, that “Crying releases stress hormones. Swearing increases pain tolerance. Fury can motivate us into action.” The book legitimates both activity and inactivity as a means of managing life.
Book Discussion Questions for Matt Haig's The Comfort Book
Book Club Questions on The Comfort Book (If you haven't read the book)
Personal Response to Matt Haig's The Comfort Book
“Feel what you feel,” says Matt Haig. “Sometimes it is good to howl.” What’s not to like? Although written with a lightness of touch, the message of The Comfort Book is profound. Connection is all.
Some of the text in The Comfort Book can be viewed as an inspiration for personal activities, such as writing a list of music that is significant or cheer inspiring. I think that this book would be wonderful to dip into as a class tutor, parent or teenager. Obviously, I have no way of knowing if this is true, but my hunch is that this book has helped many people who are in complete despair.
Book Review of Mary Lawson's A Town Called Solace
Mary Lawson's A Town Called Solace is set in Northern Ontario in 1972. It is beautifully accessible, eternally hopeful and poignantly sad.
A Town Called Solace explores the relationship between Clara, (the sister of Rose, a rebellious teenager who has run away from home), with Mrs Orchard her next door neighbour, who also inexplicably disappears, and later Liam, the mysterious man who then appears in Mrs Orchard's house. Told from alternate narratives we learn everyone's story and the relationships between them.
The main story in A Town Called Solace, is a historical one. I'ts a tale that Clara never actually learns about. Had she known I wonder how she or her parents might have felt about her friendship with Mrs. Orchard. Elizabeth Orchard, a Primary teacher who was unable to have children, befriends Liam, the small boy from next door. Events unfold and Liam is removed from Mrs Orchard's life. Years later Elizabeth, having moved to a town called Solace, leaves her house, in her will, to Liam, now a grown man, If I were teaching the book in school I'd be looking at the unreliability of narrative voice as I'm not sure I believed everything Elizabeth said!
Liam, now an accountant, in the aftermath of a failed marriage, arrives at Solace determined to stay only long enough to sort out Mrs Orchard's estate. Events unfold in a way that the reader realizes early on that Liam's visit will be a lengthy one. After all Mrs Orchard has a cat that someone must look after!
The individual stories that emerge are tragic and heartbreaking, yet any sense of despair felt by the reader is fleeting. Somehow, Mary Lawson manages to instil hope in the most awful of situations. Perhaps it is the feisty innocence, but determination of young Clara, who links each of the stories, that allows for optimism to emerge.
The book has both a small town, parochial feel alongside a sense of it being universally important. The deceptively simple writing style embodies this. It's straightforward nature belies its utter brilliance. It feels strong and immersive. The reader is left enchanted, yet wondering why this is the case. There are definite weaknesses in the plot - the inclusion of child safety issues pertaining to Clara seem like an editor's after thought. Not particularly being a cat lover myself the ending struck me as cheesy, yet it didn't matter.
Despite criticisms that can be made A Town Called Solace resonates to the very heart of the reader. It has the same kind of feel good message as The Midnight Library, but the plot is probably a bit darker in places. Perhaps it is because ultimately we are all concerned with the small corners of life that make up existence. Trivial to others, but important to us.
It is both pleasing and surprising that Mary Lawson's A Town Called Solace has been longlisted for the Booker Prize. I wonder if it could win?
Book Discussion Questions on Mary Lawson's A Town Called Solace
Bookclub Questions on A Town Called Solace (if you haven't read the book!)
Personal Response to Mary Lawson's A Town Called Solace
The fascinating thing about The Booker Prize is how diverse the selected longlist and then the short list of books are. I would not have expected this to be on it, yet why not? It is a powerful and sophisticated exploration of the frailty of people. It deserves it's place.
The more I read, particularly in recent years, the more obvious it seems to me that the fundamental purpose of all fiction is just to help us understand ourselves and the people we love. Mary Lawson achieves this in A Town Called Solace. It is probably a good job that I've been out of the teaching profession for several years now. If that's all I'd had to say when teaching IB English my lessons would have been very short.
Book Review of Fredrik Backman's Anxious People
Fredrik Backman's Anxious People is a thought provoking book, with overall an uplifting and feel good vibe. It encourages us to be kind and reflect on what really matters in life. The plot is clearly thought out and effectively executed. The way all the loose ends are tied up at the end is incredibly well done. Bravo Fredrik!
The driving force of the plot of Anxious People is a failed bank robbery, which inadvertently turns into something of a farcical hostage situation. The bank robber, running from the scene of the crime, that never happened, ends up in an apartment where eight prospective buyers are being shown round by an estate agent. They inadvertently find themselves in a siege situation, being held by the hapless bank robber who had no plans to take anyone hostage.
There follows an exploration of the emotions, hopes, dreams, losses and achievements of the different characters lives. Flaws are revealed, conversations are held, histories are shared and, above all, the fundamental need for connection between humans is illustrated.
Bring in a father/son police officer duo into the action and a whole extra dimension to the story is added. The scene is set for a fully-fledged crime drama with a heavy dosage of irony, humour and pathos. The blurb on the back of Fredrik Backman's Anxious People suggests that this is a restorative book that reminds the readers of the good in humanity. In this way, it is almost interchangeable with A Man Called Ove.
Backman comments on how many of the jokes are lost in the translation of this book from Swedish to English. I don't easily laugh out loud so for me, that's no problem. The dominant tone is probably one of pathos that is enjoyable to read. As a writer Backman reminds me quite a bit of Matt Haig. I would put Anxious People in exactly the same genre as The Midnight Library. Both texts are poignant reminders that despite the mistakes we make along the way, life is precious and every moment needs to be valued.
Book Discussion Questions on Fredrik Backman's Anxious People
Book Discussion Questions on Anxious People (if you haven't read the book!)
Personal Response to Fredrik Backman's Anxious People
For me it is the vulnerability and fragility of human life that stands out in Fredrik Backman's Anxious People. It is a book I'd definitely recommend. There was, though, one aspect of the writing style that I couldn't reconcile myself to. A key theme of the book is to show that we shouldn't be judgemental and that we need to understand the backstory of an individual to really understand them. That's great and I adhere to it, yet I found the narrative style constantly judging those who judge! I found the discourse slightly patronizing and just a little bit supercilious. I haven't explained that well and maybe I'm being unfair. My friend who loaned me the book felt that the narrative is simply a commentary, not a judgement. I'm not sure who's right. Either way, I wouldn't let that stop you reading the book and deciding for yourself. If you need a lift, Anxious People is probably a great choice for you.
Book Review of Matt Haig's The Midnight Library
Matt Haig's The Midnight Library tells the story of 35 year old Nora Seed, following the night she takes an overdose. The various things wrong with Nora's life emerge quite quickly. She had a difficult father, she became ostracized from her brother when she jumped ship on the band they were in together, just as it started to be successful. Her best friend is upset with her for not joining her in Australia. Just when things seem pretty much at rock bottom she is fired as a piano tutor by the single student she has and her cat dies!
It doesn't take long for all the factors leading to Nora's suicide to emerge. Neither does it take long to figure out how Matt Haig is going to present his message to us. In a between life and death state, Nora finds herself in a large library where, as long as it stays midnight, she has the option to try out all the lives she might choose to live. The process of doing so enables her to eradicate the numerous regrets she has. Nora tries on many lives, from olympic swimmer, rockstar, wife of a famous musician, wine producer and countless more. What becomes apparent is that every life leads to different choices which not only affect her, but also the lives of other characters.
As a child Mrs. Elm, the school librarian was always kind to Nora and it is she who comforted her when she received the news that her father had died. It makes sense then that it is Mrs. Elm who navigates Nora through the library.
In the story, The Midnight Library, Nora is intelligent and aritculate. She is also afraid of life. She knows that her brain is tricking her and she is acutely aware that whatever choices she makes she is living as a kind of imposter. She returns time after time too her 'root life,' until finally the decision has to be made about whether she will live or die.
As readers, we are left questioning whether Nora is actually in her 'root life' or whether that is simply one among many parallel existences.
Book Discussion Questions on Matt Haig's The Midnight Library
Book Discussion Questions on The Midnight Library (if you haven't read the book!)
Personal Response to Matt Haig's The Midnight Library
I quite enjoyed Matt Haig's The Midnight Library. I respected the message that Haig was putting across. He includes a lot of signposts for how we can look after our mental health. In The Midnight Library, Haig is teaching us that regrets don't help us move forward. We can't actually change the past, but we can choose our futures. We can't guarantee they are perfect, but we can live them. I could appreciate that message. There are whole passages in the book that are worth having as a mantra to live by. For anyone struggling with their mental health, it is well worth revisiting these sections.
Like a lot of readers, I've struggled to concentrate in recent weeks. I wrote about managing coronavirus stress some weeks ago, so I was happy enough to enjoy the obvious direct nature of Haig's writing style. As I read The Midnight Library, I kept thinking it must have been written with a teen fiction audience in mind, as the message does get hammered home. I think it is fair to say that Matt Haig's The Midnight Library, is linear and lacks subtlety.
When I was reading it felt, at times, like Haig had returned to chapters already written and added in a bit of extra text to make sure that the reader hadn't missed any of the intended message. This gave it a slightly didactic feel. The story reminded me a bit of Life on Mars, with that whole between life and death feeling. In terms of choosing different lives, it is a bit like Kate Atkinson's Life After Life. Life After Life is a more sophisticated book though. The character Nora, in the story has studied philosophy, but I don't really view this as a philosophical text. It's more a cross between self-help and fiction.
If you follow my book blogs, you'll know that of late I've become quite obsessed with Richard Holloway and have recently read Waiting for the Last Bus. I think he would highly recommend The Midnight Library to readers. It covers the big questions. It's a totally different level and style of reading to Waiting for the Last Bus, but the messages of both are not so different. I enjoyed the book and found parts of it quite profound, but I felt like it needed another round of editing to move it from an okay book to a really good read.