What are you reading and why?

In each issue of Keynotes, we like invite readers from the community to say something about works they’ve recently read.  This issue features Clair Beltran, Class of 2016, and Peggy Burns, Director, Center for Careers and Internships.

Clair Beltran

The Establishment is a great resource because of how varied it is. At first, when you open it up, it seems sort of like Thought Catalog or Buzzfeed, but the articles within it have a different depth of thought. As opposed to trying to just inundate readers with overly simplified news stories, the pieces written are opinionated and radical for the mainstream. With titles that openly talk about colonization, classism and ableism, The Establishment is trying to raise tough topics in an approachable way.

Its writers focus on covering topics and people who would normally be overlooked, and while these essays may not be peer reviewed or considered “academic,” the connections that these authors make are complex and intriguing. With headings like “brain&body” and “wit&whimsy,” they are trying to create space for self-care practices and thought-provoking conversation. Founded with the goal of remaking the establishment, the women who run this website are surely changing our awareness and considerations.

Peggy Burns
I recently finished Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. I love fiction, especially novels, having been an English major in college.  I read about 75 books a year, mostly fiction, and reading has been one of the greatest joys in my life since I was a little girl. The fiction I read is diverse, but I do have a few requirements: it must be well-written, feature characters I care about, and provide a compelling story.  I am influenced by New York Times book reviews, and there Janet Maslin called this title “a charmer” and “satisfyingly quirky.”  Between that and the fact that it is written by a Scottish author, I was sold.  (I am always looking out for good novels by Scottish authors or set in Scotland; with a name like Burns, that’s probably no surprise!)

The first 50 pages or so were tough going.  Eleanor was hard to like, and the circumstances surrounding her rather small and drab personal and professional life were depressing.  I found myself thinking, “Where’s the charm? Where’s the quirk?”  But I soldiered on (while it is always my intention to finish books that I start, I will walk away if I am not making a connection) and am glad that I did.  Within a chapter of that 50-page mark, I suddenly realized what had come before was a necessary foundation, and I found myself utterly drawn into this funny, poignant, and unpredictable novel.

Eleanor is 31, socially awkward, has difficulty deviating from any aspect of her daily routine, and astonishes her co-workers at a graphic design company with her honest and unfiltered – but always dead-on – observations.  Her brutal self-awareness can be heartbreaking at times.  An undercurrent of mystery surrounds Eleanor’s very existence — there are hints that suggest a childhood tragedy, which is slowly and carefully uncovered.  Far from employing mawkish or melodramatic “reveals,” however, Honeyman gradually and sensitively guides the reader through discovering how Eleanor has been shaped — and damaged.

This may make the novel sound like a real downer.  It’s not!  At times it is laugh-out-loud hilarious, with twists and turns in the plot that hinge on the introduction of some great, engaging characters who turn Eleanor’s life upside down.  Suffice it to say that Raymond (the office “IT guy”); Sammy, the elderly man Raymond and Eleanor (against her better judgment) inadvertently rescue after a fall; and Sammy’s raucous extended family provide the entertainment and the heart-and-soul of this book. In addition, Eleanor’s deeply misplaced (and unrequited) crush on a gorgeous bad-boy rocker unfolds via tweets.

This is Honeyman’s debut novel, and one of the most original I have read in a long time.  It is not often that a work whose central theme of loneliness, isolation, and the capacity for the human heart to heal and be healed is delivered so humorously and dispassionately.  I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did.