I recently read Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. You know you know this book – it’s everywhere. Target shelf? Check. A selection for Reese Witherspoon’s new “book club” via her nascent media enterprise Hello Sunshine? Why, yes. Set to be made into a movie by same company? Hello (sunshine)! But not at your library because 150 people have holds on it before you? Of course.
Reading rule of thumb: If it’s on the shelf at Target, there’s a very good chance it’s going to be off the shelf at your local library, i.e. 150 holds before your turn. If Reese Witherspoon or Oprah endorses it? Perhaps double that library hold number.
My friend Ashley says that books like Eleanor Oliphant – a quick page-turner about a “quirky,” earnest, and unintentionally hilarious 30-something woman who learns to cope with the real world after a traumatic childhood – “scratch an itch.” These types of books are laugh-out-loud funny (or at least for me this one was) and easy, but nonetheless well-written and clever. Think Maria Semple (Where’d You Go, Bernadette?) or a 20-years-on Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding. Let’s call it chick lit for the woman who normally avoids chick lit.
Regarding Eleanor Oliphant: I laughed, I cried (I really did, but it was while I was on a plane, so I had to hide it), and it was way, way better than what is sometimes on Target’s shelves. (I cheated and downloaded it to my Kindle.) At first glance, it seems that Eleanor is quite sheltered – she doesn’t “know how” to dance, and here is her initial dance-floor observation:
“During the next free-form jiggling section, I started to wonder why the band was singing about, presumably, the Young Men’s Christian Association, but then, from my very limited exposure to popular music, people did seem to sing about umbrellas and fire-starting and Emily Brontë novels, so, I supposed, why not a gender- and faith-based youth organization?”
In actuality, Eleanor is a keen observer – and lonely. In fact, about three pages in (or thumb clicks, in Kindle-speak) Honeyman’s book reminded me very much of The Faster I Walk, The Smaller I Am, by Kjersti Skomsvold. (I loved this book so much and wrote about it here.) And I immediately thought, “Hey, The Faster I Walk is a great ‘substitute’ book if someone wants something similar to Eleanor Oliphant.” (I mean, if you’re willing to add 60 years to the protagonist.) And then about an hour later, I walked to my fridge and noticed this on the back of the yogurt container (picture below). Swaptions! A blog post was born.
My husband tells me that Dannon does not have a trademark claim to this phrase because “swaptions” is actually a complicated financial derivative (ok), so therefore, I am going to borrow the phrase as well. Below are my SWAPTIONS for what I’ll call Target-Preferred Books. Here’s what to get if you’re patron number 151 on the library-hold list – or perhaps if you’d like something slightly different than the popular option.
Instead of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman…
…try The Faster I Walk, the Smaller I Am by Kjersti Skomsvold
(See above, obviously.)
Instead of You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld…
…try Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro.
Curtis is a “way back” friend of mine. I haven’t seen her in about 10 years, but I know for a fact that she is as sharp, witty, and observant in person as she is in print. This blurb from NPR’s All Things Considered, as found on the back of her first short-story collection, is perfect: “Sittenfeld is…popular, but intellectual, accessible but mysterious and, above all, a perspective chameleon with an uncanny ability to enter the minds of callow prep school outcasts and devotedly compromising first ladies alike.” In my opinion, “Volunteers are Shining Stars” is the standout story in this collection. It’s the best of Curtis: an illumination of humans’ tendency to self-congratulate, spot-on descriptions and dialogue, and a look at the neuroses and random thoughts that we usually try to hide. (OK, I also “broke down” and bought this book too. That’s what friends are for.)
Curtis is also the person who introduced me to the always-perceptive and keenly attuned short story master Alice Munro. (Who just celebrated her 87th birthday!) Munro has published 14 short story collections, and Curtis is not shy about her Munro adulation. (See here.) I selected Too Much Happiness only because it is the one I last read (I wrote a bit about it here), but you won’t go wrong with any Munro.
Instead of How Hard Can it Be? by Allison Pearson…
…try Small Ceremonies by Carol Shields.
Allison Pearson is the author of the bestseller I Don’t Know How She Does It, which I think I re-read about three times in the 2003-2004 timeframe because I had a newborn-turned-toddler and could not possibly read any “high brow” literature at that time (you know, like Middlemarch) – but also because it gave me a funny look at what might be in my motherhood future. I haven’t read her latest, but the New York Times gives it a positive review. Shockingly, there are only 34 people in my library system who get to read this before I do, so fingers crossed I read it before this time next year.
Allison Pearson is great, but the late Carol Shields is my absolute favorite. I generally don’t have “favorites.” Favorite movie? I’ll probably say Breakfast Club just because nothing else comes to mind and I’ve always liked Molly Ringwald’s brown and pink ensemble. Favorite place to travel? There are too many places in this world…why repeat?! Favorite child? Don’t even. But I unequivocally have a favorite author, and that is Carol Shields. You may know her because of her 1993 Pulitzer-winning book The Stone Diaries, but her first – Small Ceremonies – is my, yes, favorite. Shields touches on everything Pearson does – marriage, motherhood, career – but in a gentle, quiet, and completely non-flashy 1970s way. (I wrote about this book here.)
Instead of Leopard at the Door by Jennifer McVeigh…
…try Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood by Alexandra Fuller
I enjoyed Leopard at the Door, a Target Book Club pick, just fine. This is different than the above picks because it’s not funny, and shockingly, I got it easily from the inter-library loan system. Eighteen-year-old Rachel returns to her home (and her father) in Kenya after being sent to her grandparents in England after her mother’s death six years prior. Readers get an inside (albeit fictionalized) peek into British colonialism. This novel – McVeigh’s second – veered a little too much into Behold the Dreamers territory for me (a bit cliché and too many words spent describing the fizzy taste of cola on lips or tongues running over teeth [see, that’s a lot of words you didn’t need to read]), but the historic aspect more than made up for that. (Readers learn about the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya in the late 1950s to early 1960s.)
However, Don’t Let’s Go the Dogs Tonight is better – and it’s real. Or as real as a memoir can be because it’s someone else’s “real.” Alexandra Fuller’s first book made a splash when it was published in 2001 and was a New York Times Notable Book in 2002. The book follows Fuller’s childhood from her farm in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and then as her family moves to Zambia and Malawi. I realize these are different countries than Kenya and that the conflicts (Rhodesian Bush War vs. Mau Mau Uprising) are not the same. But the “characters” – in the simplest of ways – are similar. Fuller’s prose is gripping – I mean, here are the opening lines:
Mum says, “Don’t come creeping into our room at night.”
They sleep with loaded guns beside them on the bedside rugs. She says, “Don’t startle us when we’re sleeping.”
“We might shoot you.”
“Okay.” As it is, there seems a good enough chance of getting shot on purpose. “Okay, I won’t.”
Reading should give you a vantage point into someone else’s life, and from the get go, Fuller’s book does just that.
So there are four “swaptions” for you. I have a lot to say about why certain books are selected as “book club picks” and what makes a good “book club” book. (My thoughts on the latter topic are here.) In the meantime, I hope that my “alternatives” motivate you to look beyond Target’s shelves – not because those are bad choices, but because there is so, so much more out there. Happy reading!