Happiness by Heather Harpham

Happiness by Heather Harpham

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Cover image provided with permission from Henry Holt & Co.

When I reflect on this book, I think of one word: Grace. It’s a story where many things go wrong, but then there are moments of miraculous blessings. Where people are given second chances after making poor decisions, and some are given the ultimate gift of life after looking death right in the eye. Unfortunately, it’s a story where the unthinkable happens, the death of children-innocents-and it reminds me of the lyrics from Hamilton, after Alexander’s son is killed:

There are moments that the words don’t reach

There is a Grace too powerful to name

We push away what we can never understand

We push away the unimaginable

Ultimately, I consider the grace with which Harpham weaves several stories that tell how she became the mother of a very sick little girl, how she fought for her with all her might, and how through a great deal of suffering and countless moments of despair, she found happiness, in spite of everything stacked against that outcome.

This book is a memoir in which Harpham deftly describes how she became pregnant with her daughter, Gracie, how this strained her relationship with Gracie’s father, Brian; a man who although loving her deeply, was terrified of parenthood and walked away from their relationship during the pregnancy (the worst I know, but Harpham tells the story so beautifully and with such clarity that you almost see where he’s coming from. Almost.) Once Gracie is born, it’s clear that she is sick, she must undergo regular blood transfusions to keep her alive. What follows is a beautiful story of hope, love, strength, heartbreak and resiliency as this little clan goes through setbacks and surprises to make Gracie well.

What I really loved about this story is Harpham’s ability to understand other people, to forgive and connect with them in a way many of us simply are not capable of.  She’s able to see her own pain, her own unlucky hand, and still find goodness and offer kindness to others. While the book’s title is Happiness, so hopefully it doesn’t spoil anything to say it has a happy ending, she points out that going through this experience doesn’t make her immune to future sadness. I find that a very brave way to look at the world.

This is a great book for someone looking for a very moving story, who is not afraid to cry a good deal while reading it. Harpham’s writing is seriously top-notch and she is a gifted story-teller, I could not put this one down because I had to know what was happening in this little world, to this family and the people who surrounded them. If you are looking for a book about family, grit, and love, this one is for you.

Happiness: The Crooked Little Road to Semi-Ever After by Heather Harpham

Published on: August 1, 2017

I read this as: a library book

 

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

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Cover image provided with permission from Penguin Random House Canada

From the outside Eleanor appears to be okay, maybe even completely fine. Sure, she is socially awkward, has no verbal filter, is unable to be anything but completely literal, and her closest friend is a plant, but none of this seems to really bother Eleanor, as she puts it:

“If someone asks you how you are, you are meant to say FINE. You are not meant to say that you cried yourself to sleep last night because you hadn’t spoken to another person for two consecutive days. FINE is what you say.”

Once we start digging through the layers of Eleanor, we begin to see that she is far from fine. However, as the shroud of her heartbreaking past and the mystery around it begins to fall, Eleanor learns about herself and develops meaningful relationships. She meets Raymond, her office IT guy, and through her friendship with him she saves Sammy, an older man who falls in the street. Even though Raymond and Sammy are a little confused by Eleanor initially, they see the kindness in her and open their friendship and families to her, giving Eleanor a chance to experience loving relationships, perhaps for the first time.

This book is about trauma, but even with everything stacked against her, Eleanor is a true heroine; she is brave, kind, someone you simply cannot stop rooting for. Despite the sad parts, Eleanor is unwittingly hilarious, I loved the depictions of her experiencing something for the first time, such as dancing in public:

“I found myself not thinking about anything, sort of like how the vodka worked, but different, because I was with people and I was singing. YMCA! YMCA! Arms in the air, mimicking the letters – what a marvelous idea! Who knew dancing could be so logical?

During the next free-form jigging 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?”

I DIED.

This novel was so endearing, funny, and sweet, I loved it from start to finish. Learning about Eleanor opens us up to understanding people who are different, even if they are off-putting and strange, and in this way the book reminded me a lot of A Man Called Ove. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys quirky and like-able characters, character-driven story-lines, or someone who enjoys cheering for the under-dog.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Published: May 9, 2017

I read this as: A library book

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

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Image included with permission from Penguin Press

Everyone in Shaker Heights was talking about it that summer: how Isabelle, the last of the Richardson children, had finally gone around the bend and burned the house down.

Izzy Richardson does not follow the rules, and this is a problem for her mother, Elena Richardson, born and raised in Shaker Heights, and life-long rule follower. The older three Richardson children have all fallen in line with the life prescribed by their mother and their community, but when single mother Mia Warren and her daughter Pearl move into the family rental property, the children begin to see all sorts of new possibilities.

Pearl quickly finds a place in the solidity of the Richardson household, where everything is planned, steady and organized, a life very different from the one she has lived with her artistic mother, who has moved them around the U.S. her entire life. Meanwhile Izzy latches onto Mia, who seems to recognize something in Izzy that her family has neither seen or understood. As their worlds begin to thread together, a local polarizing incident causes everyone to take sides, lines are drawn, and secrets begin to come out.

Today there are many set rules for how things should be done: do well in school, drink eight glasses of water a day, get regular haircuts, don’t have a child out-of-wedlock, don’t watch too much TV, the list goes on and on. Not that these are bad rules to follow, the problem lies with believing that anyone who doesn’t play along is wrong or has made a mistake, as Ng so eloquently summarizes:

One had followed the rules, and one had not. But the problem with rules… was that they implied a right way and a wrong way to do things. When, in fact, most of the time they were simply ways, none of them quite wrong or quite right, and nothing to tell you for sure what side of the line you stood on.”

The story also had some amazing insight on race, motherhood, and life as a minority in America. I would recommend this to someone looking for an insightful, deep, yet hopeful novel with a building pace, flawed characters who experience growth. If you were born in the early 80s you will probably enjoy the throwbacks to your youth as well, the novel is mostly set in the mid-late 90s.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

Published on: September 12, 2017

I read this as: an eAudiobook from Audible