Tag Archives: Anne Tyler

What I’ve Been Reading

There are times – for instance, when the world appears to be heading to hell in a handbasket – when even the most politically engaged, newspaper-addicted reader needs to escape into some frothy fiction. And fortunately for me, two of my favourite writers happened to have new novels out.

'The Hanging Tree' by Ben AaronovitchThe Hanging Tree by Ben Aaronovitch was a very satisfying new installment of the Rivers of London series. It was good to see Peter back in London where he belongs, solving crimes, making new enemies and nearly getting killed in various dramatic and supernatural ways. He’s assisted by all the old crowd – Stephanopoulos, Guleed the Somali Muslim Ninja, the Rivers, Dr Walid, Kimberley the FBI agent – and it’s nice to see the subtle development of his relationship with his boss, Nightingale (who is actually observed smiling, and at one point, even winking, at Peter in this book). There’s also not one, but two new groups of magicians introduced, who may or may not be Peter’s allies, and there are important revelations about the Faceless Man and Lesley. With the author juggling so many characters and subplots, it’s not surprising that he occasionally drops one, kicks it under the sofa and pretends it never existed. What, for example, has happened to Abigail? But Peter’s narration is so entertaining and the action is so exciting that I honestly didn’t mind the odd plot hole – and in fairness to the author, he does tend to address these sorts of issues eventually, even if it does take a few books before you find out who, exactly, that strange fox-obsessed guy is, or what’s happened to the Quiet People. I also really enjoy the bits where the author goes off on tangents that have absolutely nothing to do with the story – for example, there’s a hilarious scene where he pokes fun at the sort of pompous old white men who keep getting short-listed for the Booker Prize, which makes me wonder whether Ben Aaronovitch ever had an unpleasant encounter with, say, Martin Amis at the BBC one day (although really, the fictional novelist could be based on any number of British male writers). Anyway, The Hanging Tree was well worth the wait and I think I might need to check out the Rivers of London graphic novels while I’m waiting for the next book.

'Vinegar Girl' by Anne TylerAnne Tyler also has a new book out, this one a modern retelling of The Taming of the Shrew. It’s part of a series commissioned by The Hogarth Press, with Jeanette Winterson doing The Winter’s Tale, Margaret Atwood The Tempest, Howard Jacobson The Merchant of Venice and so on. Now, I really, really hate The Taming of the Shrew, but I figured if anyone could find some charm and humour in the story, it would be Anne Tyler and indeed, I did enjoy a number of scenes, particularly the ones in which Kate, in this version a preschool assistant, interacts with her four-year-old students. The problem is trying to make modern-day Kate’s situation plausible, while staying true to the events of the play. Tyler decides to make Kate the intelligent, strong-minded 29-year-old daughter of an eccentric Baltimore scientist, Dr Battista. His brilliant Russian assistant’s visa is about to expire, so Dr Battista starts a “touchingly ludicrous” campaign for Kate to marry the young man, enabling Pyotr to qualify for a Green Card. This makes no sense whatsoever. If Kate is so smart and stubborn and independent, why is she still living at home acting as an unpaid servant for her selfish father and younger sister, and working in a dead-end child-care job she dislikes? Why does she have no friends and why has she never had a boyfriend (or girlfriend)? She’s not even particularly shrewish, just a bit tactless. If she wants to improve her life, which she does, there are dozens of ways to accomplish this without having to marry a man she barely knows, and who rapidly reveals himself to be a sexist jerk with no social skills. All the characters are paper-thin, but I kept reading, mildly engaged with the story, until the climactic scene in which Kate gives a speech that nearly made me throw the book across the room. Hey, did you know that it’s totally fine for men to be verbally and physically abusive, because “it’s hard being a man”? They just get frustrated because they have to be in charge of everything and have all the power and success in society! They just don’t get enough practice expressing their feelings and their “interpersonal whatchamacallit”! Then Kate and Pyotr live happily ever after, the end. So if you haven’t read any Anne Tyler before, please don’t start with this book. I don’t know what she was thinking. Unless she thought a vile misogynist was about to become President of her country…

My Favourite Books of 2015

It’s not quite the end of the year, but here are the books I read in 2015 (so far) that I loved the most. But first, some statistics.

I finished reading 81 books this year, which doesn’t include the two terrible books I didn’t finish, the novel I’m currently halfway through, or the small pile of books I brought home from the library for the holidays.

Types of books read in 2015

I read lots of non-fiction books this year, because I was researching 1960s England for a series I’m planning to write. This would also explain the following information:

Writer nationality 2015

Gender of writer for books read in 2015

Women writers dominate, yet again.

Now for my favourites.

My Favourite Adult Fiction

My favourite novels this year included The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor, The Two Faces of January by Patricia Highsmith, A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler, The Watch Tower by Elizabeth Harrower and A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark. I also became hooked on Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series.

My Favourite Non-Fiction

I found myself engrossed in Sylvia Townsend Warner’s biography of T.H. White, Rebecca West’s The Meaning of Treason, and Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. I also liked Coming of Age: Growing Up Muslim in Australia, edited by Amra Pajalic and Demet Divaroren, a collection of autobiographical stories by twelve Australian Muslims. And for sheer entertainment value, I can’t leave out The Years of Grace: A Book for Girls, edited by Noel Streatfeild.

My Favourite Books for Children and Teenagers

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart was an exciting middle-grade novel in which four gifted children foil the plans of an Evil Genius. It reminded me of the early Harry Potter novels, except it was science fiction rather than fantasy and had fewer jokes (although it did contain lots of fun puzzles, codes and riddles). I also enjoyed Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead and Friday’s Tunnel by John Verney.

My Favourite Picture Books and Graphic Novels

'The Arrival' by Shaun TanShaun Tan’s The Arrival was a beautiful wordless story about a refugee starting a new life in a strange, confusing country, with a message particularly relevant to the world right now. On a lighter note, I enjoyed Kate Beaton’s The Princess and the Pony, about a young warrior princess who hopes to receive a noble steed for her birthday but instead finds herself stuck with a small, round pony with some unfortunate traits.

Thanks for being part of Memoranda in 2015. I hope you all had a good reading year and that 2016 brings you lots of great books. Happy holidays!

More favourite books:

Favourite Books of 2010
Favourite Books of 2011
Favourite Books of 2012
Favourite Books of 2013
Favourite Books of 2014

‘A Spool of Blue Thread’ by Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler is excellent at writing family sagas and A Spool of Blue Thread is a wonderful example of her craft, even if many of the themes and plot lines will be familiar to her fans. Her twentieth novel is about three generations of Whitshanks, who live in a beautiful house that was built in a well-to-do Baltimore suburb by Junior, the ambitious Whitshank patriarch. The Whitshanks endlessly retell stories about themselves (and their house) to convince themselves of how special they are, but inconvenient historical truths and the harsh realities of ageing and death threaten the family’s complacency.

'A Spool of Blue Thread' by Anne TylerEchoes of her previous novels did occasionally distract me from the story. For instance, at one point, Abby Whitshank muses, “The trouble with dying … is that you don’t get to see how everything turns out. You won’t know the ending,” just as Pearl in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant told herself that “dying, you don’t get to see how it all turns out.” Abby’s daughter, clearing out the house after a sudden death in the family, wonders “why we bother accumulating, accumulating, when we know from earliest childhood how it’s all going to end”, just as Barnaby in A Patchwork Planet, cleaning out Mrs Alford’s house, said, “I suddenly understood that you really, truly can’t take it with you.” Abby’s determination to look on the bright side of life, wilfully ignoring the facts, is reminiscent of Maggie in Breathing Lessons; Abby’s wayward son is a current-day version of Barnaby in A Patchwork Planet; even the Whitshank house, with its wide front porch and porch swing, brings to mind the Bedloe house in Saint Maybe. And, just as in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, characters who initially seem unlikeable, even despicable, are gradually revealed to have complex reasons for their behaviour, which provides some excuse and attracts some sympathy (not for Junior, though, who remained despicable to me).

If you aren’t familiar with Anne Tyler’s work, you won’t notice the reworking of previous themes, and if you do love her work, you probably won’t mind it too much. I really did enjoy the humour in this book (there were a couple of laugh-out-loud moments for me) and the clever observations, delivered in her characteristically sharp prose (for instance, when a family member attempts to make polite conversation with a visitor determined to be offended, the visitor “slammed each question to the ground and let it lie there like a dead shuttlecock”). The only reasons this book doesn’t make it into my Top Five Anne Tyler Novels list are that: a) it doesn’t contain any characters as vivid and lovable as Agatha in Saint Maybe or Maryam in Digging To America, and b) the meandering non-conclusion, while consistent with this novel’s themes, isn’t anywhere near as satisfying as the conclusion of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant or A Patchwork Planet or The Accidental Tourist. I still think this is a great read and I highly recommend it. There’s also a terrific interview with the author here at The Guardian, in which she discusses, among other things, her friendship with John Waters (“I don’t go to biker bars with him. Once a year, he comes to mine for dinner and once a year I go to his. He’s a very sweet man”).

You might also be interested in reading:

Anne Tyler and Her Novels

What To Read When You’re Sick

'The Convalescent' by Gwen John (1924)

‘The Convalescent’ by Gwen John (1924)

My apologies for the scarcity of blog posts recently. I do have an excuse – I’ve been sick. This has been No Fun. On the positive side, after months of dragging myself around, feeling pathetic and useless, it was some sort of relief to hear my doctor say, “You are not being lazy – you are seriously ill and need to be in hospital right now, having lots of blood transfusions.”1 Anyway, all of this has left me pondering what to read when you’re sick.

Of course, when you’re really, really sick, you can’t read anything at all. In fact, this could be a diagnostic test for certain people (the sort of people who read blogs about books, for instance). Doctors could ask, “Have you had difficulties reading more than a few pages of a book, even when you usually like that author?” alongside questions such as “Do you get breathless walking more than a few steps?” and “Do you feel faint when you stand up?”

However, assuming you’re at a stage where you can read, what should you read? Here are my suggestions:

1. Choose books that conserve your energy

You don’t want to be reading anything that makes your heart pound in fear, causes you to gasp with laughter, or gives you nightmares. You’re trying to give your body a rest. For this reason, main characters who are endearing may be a better choice than characters who are so annoying that they tempt you to hurl the book across the room. Novels with convoluted plots, non-fiction containing complex information and genres you don’t usually read may also be too much for your tired brain right now. You’re looking for something predictable and comforting, yet interesting enough to distract you, and this really depends on your personal tastes. I found Anne of Green Gables, which I’d never read before, worked well for me. Anne is good without being sickly-sweet, and her adventures were fun, without containing any nasty shocks. The book was amusing without being laugh-out-loud and Anne’s feisty approach to life was inspiring – perhaps I, too, would soon have the energy to be able to break a slate over the head of anyone who annoyed me.2

The problem is that you don’t really know what a book will be like till you’ve read it, so old favourites are often a good choice. I grabbed Anne Tyler’s Saint Maybe off my bookshelf just before I rushed off to hospital and this turned out to be an excellent decision. I could put the book down if I needed a little sleep, then resume reading without forgetting who the characters were or what they were supposed to be doing. (This reminds me of another Anne Tyler character, Macon in The Accidental Tourist, who never boards a plane without his copy of Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, which he describes as “plotless . . . but invariably interesting”. I was pleased to discover recently it is an actual novel, so maybe I should hunt down a copy.)

2. Avoid books about illness, medicine, hospitals, death, etc

You don’t want to be reading about all that when you’re sick. So don’t, for example, choose Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper for your sickbed reading because a) it’s about a teenager dying of leukaemia and contains detailed descriptions of medical procedures, and b) it’s full of corny dialogue, clunky metaphors and implausible plot developments, with a conclusion that will make you want to throw the book across the room.

3. Magazines are good, newspapers less so

There’s a reason hospital shops stock a large selection of magazines. A magazine article is often just the right length to suit your concentration span and there are lots of colourful pictures to gape at. I don’t know who most of the celebrities in magazines are, so I prefer ‘lifestyle’ magazines and the more removed from my current life, the better. There’s something very soothing about sitting in a hospital bed, reading about the difficulties someone had while renovating their charming centuries-old farmhouse in Provence. Newspapers are less suitable, because the pages get loose and smear ink on your sheets and they’re full of BAD NEWS.3

4. Paperbacks or large-print hardcovers?

Large-print books are handy if your vision is blurred due to illness or your medication, or if you just can’t get out of bed to put in your contact lenses. Hardcovers are also good at sitting up and staying open by themselves on your bed tray. They are heavy, though, so sometimes paperbacks are easier to manage. An e-reader with adjustable font size would probably work well, but a) I don’t have one, and b) you can’t use personal electronic devices in some medical settings.

5. What about audiobooks?

In theory, audiobooks should be a great way to read when you’re sick. Choose an appropriate book, plug in your earphones and relax against your pillows as a professional actor brings the words to life! However, I find that audiobooks require more concentration than print books do. If I get lost, I can’t just flip back a few pages to figure out the timeline or remind myself of the name of a minor character. There’s also the issue of not being able to use electronic devices in some medical settings. What sick people really need is an actual live person to sit by their bed and read aloud to them on demand. The reader can stop when the patient falls asleep and then answer questions about previous events in the book once the patient wakes up again, and can also fluff up pillows, fetch iced lemon drinks, adjust window coverings according to time of day, etc. Unfortunately, this is not an option for most sick people.

Um . . . that’s all I’ve got. Reading recommendations welcome.

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  1. I try not to use this blog to proselytise about anything other than books, but I’m feeling very grateful to the blood donors of Australia at the moment, so . . . If you’re medically capable and are okay with needles, maybe consider donating blood this year? I used to be a regular blood donor, back when I was young and healthy (obviously, they wouldn’t want my blood now, especially as most of it isn’t mine). Giving blood doesn’t take much time, doesn’t hurt much, and could save someone’s life. Thanks! Okay, back to books now.
  2. Metaphorically speaking, of course. I wonder what a modern-day Anne would do to an annoying classmate? Wallop him with an iPad?
  3. Especially at the moment, if you are an Australian.

First Lines

The Atlantic recently asked some writers about their favourite first lines in literature. As Joe Fassler reports, “The opening lines they picked range widely in tone and execution – but in each, you can almost feel the reader’s mind beginning to listen, hear the inward swing of some inviting door.” I especially like the opening of Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White:

“Where’s Papa going with that axe?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

You know right from the start that it’s all going to end in tears, don’t you?

Here are some more of my own favourites. I think it’s good to be told up front exactly what sort of book you’ve picked up:

We think it our duty to warn the public that, in spite of the title of this work and of what the editor says about it in his preface, we cannot guarantee its authenticity as a collection of letters: we have in fact, very good reason to believe it is only a novel.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses, or Letters Collected in One Section of Society and Published for the Edification of Others by Choderlos de Laclos

It’s also nice when an author explains all that we need to know about the protagonist:

The education bestowed on Flora Poste by her parents had been expensive, athletic and prolonged; and when they died within a few weeks of one another during the annual epidemic of the influenza or Spanish Plague which occurred in her twentieth year, she was discovered to possess every art and grace save that of earning her own living.

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Although this can sometimes be done just as effectively in half the words:

I planned my death carefully; unlike my life, which meandered along from one thing to another, despite my feeble attempts to control it.

Lady Oracle, probably Margaret Atwood’s funniest book

Or even fewer words:

I am a man you can trust, is how my customers view me.

A Patchwork Planet by Anne Tyler

And sometimes, an author’s first line not only tells us a lot about the protagonist, but also conveys an essential truth about literature:

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversation?”

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland', illustrated by John Tenniel

“The chief difficulty Alice found at first was in managing her flamingo . . .”

My Favourite Books of 2012

Here are the books I read this year that I loved the most.

But first, some statistics!

I read 72 books this year, plus approximately 7,853 articles in scientific journals (this last number may be a slight exaggeration). I’m sure you really, really want to see some pie charts about the books I read, so here you go:

Books I read in 2012 by genre

I read lots more children’s books this year than I usually do.

Books I read in 2012 by writers' nationality

Hmm, that is not very diverse, is it? I only read three books that had been translated into English, too.

Books I read in 2012 by writers' gender

That’s probably typical of my reading habits. It’s not that I deliberately try to read more women writers than men, it simply works out that way most years.

Now for my favourites.

My favourite children’s books

'The Word Spy' by Ursula Dubosarsky and Tohby RiddleI absolutely loved Saffy’s Angel by Hilary McKay, which I have previously written about here. I also liked Amelia Dee and the Peacock Lamp by Odo Hirsch, a sweet, charming story about a girl who is inspired to write stories by a mysterious brass lamp she finds in her house. This has many of the usual elements of an Odo Hirsch book (eccentric but benevolent parents, a carefully multicultural cast of characters, a vaguely European setting), but I found Amelia especially endearing and the lessons she learned (that it takes courage to share your thoughts with others; that other people often have complex motivations for their actions; that unchecked anger harms yourself, not just others) were exactly what I needed to think about at the time.
Other books I enjoyed included The Word Spy, an entertaining non-fiction book about the history of the English language, written by Ursula Dubosarsky and illustrated by Tohby Riddle, and Al Capone Shines My Shoes by Gennifer Choldenko, about a boy whose father is a guard at Alcatraz Prison in 1935.

My favourite Young Adult novel

This year I read quite a few YA books that had received plenty of acclaim, but I ended up feeling underwhelmed by a lot of them. I could certainly understand why the books had been praised, but they just weren’t my cup of tea. Sometimes they had beautiful sentence-level writing, but the voice seemed implausible for the teenager who was supposed to be narrating the story. Sometimes they had a great narrator and fascinating premise, but the structure of the novel didn’t work for me. One book I’d seen described as ‘feminist’ was . . . really, really not feminist at all. Maybe my expectations had been raised too high by the hype. Anyway, my favourite YA book of 2012 turned out to be a book first published in 1910, long before the concept of ‘Young Adult literature’ existed. The book was The Getting of Wisdom, by Henry Handel Richardson, which I’ve previously written about here.

My favourite novels for adults

'At Last' by Edward St AubynI found At Last by Edward St Aubyn quite as harrowing as I’d expected, but also hopeful and consoling and unexpectedly funny. It’s the fifth in a series of novels about Patrick Melrose, who was born into a wealthy, aristocratic family and was then subjected to appalling childhood abuse and neglect by his parents. In this book, Patrick has finally overcome his drug and alcohol addictions and is trying to cope with his marriage breakdown, when his mother dies. The novel is elegantly structured around her funeral, allowing a lot of thoughtful commentary on the nature of death, forgiveness and free will, but also some hilarious descriptions of the idle rich. Patrick’s awful relatives and family friends are mostly ‘old money’ who’ve never worked a day in their lives, but complain constantly about how difficult their existence is. I know this all sounds very grim and this book certainly isn’t for everyone, but I thought it was fascinating and beautifully written.

I also enjoyed Insignificant Others by Stephen McCauley and The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler, which I’ve previously written about here. I’m currently halfway through Restoration by Rose Tremain and loving it, so I suspect this book will make it onto my 2012 favourites list, too.

My favourite non-fiction for adults

I read some terrific biographies this year, including A. A. Milne: His Life by Ann Thwaite and Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox. I wrote about both books here. I also enjoyed Alex and Me, by Irene M. Pepperberg, about a very smart parrot.

I will not bore you with my To Read list for 2013, especially as it contains approximately 2,147 scientific articles1 that I didn’t get around to reading this year (this number may be a slight exaggeration).

Hope you all have a happy and peaceful holiday season, and that 2013 brings you lots of great reading.

More favourite books:

1. Favourite Books of 2010
2. Favourite Books of 2011

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  1. Yes, it’s research for my next book. The book that was supposed to need far less research than my last book. Ha ha ha.

Bookshelf Neighbours

I loved this article1 by Geraldine Brooks about her method for shelving her books, which even she admitted was “eccentric”:

“I start out conventionally enough, alpha by author. But while I take account of the first letter of the writer’s surname, I have other ambitions for my shelves that transcend the conveniences of mere alphabetical accuracy. It’s impossible for me to place one book alongside another without thinking about the authors, and how they would feel about their spine-side companion.

I arrange my shelves as I would seat guests at a dinner party. Anne Tyler and Anthony Trollope both seem devoted to a diligent scrutiny of manners. So I imagine them, shelved side by side, comparing notes on the mores of their respective eras . . .”

This sent me off to examine my own bookshelves. As organised as I am in many other aspects of my life, I have never attempted to shelve my books alphabetically, or by any other method recognised by librarians. I do tend to arrange books about similar topics in the same general area. For example, here is part of my ‘Indian fiction’ section, containing Rohinton Mistry, Anita Desai, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Rumer Godden (well, her biography) and Meera Syal, with Hanif Kureishi and Salman Rushdie lurking just out of sight:

Bookshelf One

(Mind you, Vikram Seth and the remainder of my Ruth Prawer Jhabvala collection sit on various shelves below this. I have no idea why.) I also have a ‘YA fiction’ section, a ‘dictionaries and other reference books’ section and two shelves of 1930s and World War Two books. I also try to shelve books by the same author together:

Bookshelf Two

Oh, I seem to own a lot of Anne Tyler’s books. I’m not sure how she’d fare if seated next to Nancy Mitford at a dinner party (Nancy was not very fond of Americans), but perhaps Elizabeth Jane Howard, on the other side, could draw Nancy into a discussion about Paris fashions. I’d be more interested in eavesdropping on a dinner conversation between these three women:

Bookshelf Three

Especially if they were talking about writing historical fiction. I also have Germaine Greer sitting next to Gloria Steinem, and Stella Gibbons beside Mary Renault.

But the rationale for the shelving of other books may be less obvious. For example, what do Frances Hodgson Burnett, Curtis Sittenfeld, Gerald Durrell, Andrea Levy, F. Scott Fitzgerald, David Sedaris and Alison Lurie have in common?

Bookshelf Four

They’ve written books that are the same height, of course!

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  1. Thanks to Bookshelves of Doom for the link.

Reading Roundup

I’ve read some really good novels lately, which is fortunate for me, because the non-fiction I’ve been reading (as research for my next book) has been very heavy (in both the literal and figurative senses). Here are some of the novels I’ve enjoyed:

The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler

'The Beginner's Goodbye' by Anne TylerI’d feared this might be merely a reprise of The Accidental Tourist, and it’s true the protagonists of these novels have many similarities – they are both introverted, socially-awkward men who write guidebooks, and they have both just lost a beloved family member in shocking circumstances. However, this book feels quite different in a lot of ways. It’s shorter, for one thing, and lighter in tone. In The Beginner’s Goodbye, Aaron’s wife has died in a freak accident, and there is nobody he can blame – not even God, because Aaron is an atheist. He copes with the loss of Dorothy by moving out of the house where she died and throwing himself into his work at the family publishing firm. He tells everyone he’s doing fine and he even believes it, until he suddenly begins to ‘see’ Dorothy. At first, she is a silent presence in his life, but eventually they begin to talk, and to argue, with more honesty than they ever did when she was alive. Aaron’s growing self-awareness feels true, his well-meaning friends and relatives are interesting and funny, and I loved the customary glimpse of a character from a previous Anne Tyler novel (in this case, it’s Luke from Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, now grown up and yes, running a restaurant – perhaps he inherited it from his uncle Ezra). My only criticism would be that the final chapter wrapped things up a little too neatly (Luke even provides the moral of the story, as if we couldn’t work it out for ourselves), but by that stage, I was so fond of the characters that I was happy to see that they were happy. This is highly recommended for Anne Tyler fans, even if it’s not her best novel. There’s a good review of the book here and you can read my previous post about Anne Tyler here.

The Getting of Wisdom by Henry Handel Richardson

I had read this before, but that was so long ago I couldn’t remember anything about it, except that I’d liked it. This is a wonderfully honest story of a precocious, headstrong country girl sent to a snobby boarding school in 1890s Melbourne. Poor Laura gets into one scrape after another as she attempts to ingratiate herself with her classmates, but her gaudy, home-made frocks, outspoken manners, and lack of interest in boys means she’s doomed to failure. Fortunately, she manages to make it out of school with her self-esteem intact, and the final chapter implies she goes out into the world and achieves great things (unlike her classmates), because “even for the squarest peg, the right hole may ultimately be found”. The edition I read also included a hilarious review quote from a 1910 journal, which sternly declaimed:

“The book is calculated to impress very unfavourably those who do not know that the Australian girl is a much cleaner, wholesomer and straighter person than any of the characters portrayed. It is a book we should strongly recommend adults to keep out of the hands of girls.”

So, you’ve been warned.

Insignificant Others by Stephen McCauley

'Insignificant Others' by Stephen McCauleyThis felt a lot like a grown-up version of Peter Cameron’s Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You, as both narrators were droll, articulate and perceptive when observing the failings of others, but were quite unable to acknowledge or fix their own problems. And the narrator of Insignificant Others, Richard, has plenty of problems. He has a distant relationship with his live-in boyfriend, who is probably cheating on him; he has an affectionate but futile attachment to a married man; he has become obsessed with exercising at the gym, to the detriment of his health; and he’s frustrated by his job at a software company. I’m not sure I’d usually care about any of these problems, but Richard’s narration makes the whole thing into a very entertaining satire of modern American life. For example, here’s Richard contemplating his homophobic, religious-fanatic secretary:

“The degree to which one is obliged, for the sake of tolerance, to be tolerant of the intolerant has never been clear to me.”

And, when arguing with his cheating partner:

“I hate when truthfulness is offered up as a sign of love and friendship, especially when it’s truthfulness about betrayal.”

And, after being berated, yet again, by his sister for not having children:

“The world of parents was divided between those like Benjamin who, worries about Tyler notwithstanding, had unqualified love for their kids and saw childlessness as a disability, and those like my sister Beth, who had ambivalent feelings about their offspring and therefore labelled childlessness as unmitigated selfishness.”

Recommended, unless you’re a fan of George W. Bush (Richard’s hilarious rants about Bush’s inadequacies feature throughout the novel). If you’d like to know more, there’s a review and excerpt here.

Anne Tyler And Her Novels

Thanks to John le Carré, I’m now aware that there is a Man Booker International Prize, awarded every two years to a writer for a body of work, rather than for a single novel. The finalists for the 2011 award were announced last month in Sydney, and I’m very pleased that Anne Tyler is among them. She is one of my favourite novelists ever and I hope she wins.

For those who aren’t familiar with her work, she’s written eighteen novels:

If Morning Ever Comes (1964)
The Tin Can Tree (1965)
A Slipping-Down Life (1970)
The Clock Winder (1972)
Celestial Navigation (1974)
Searching for Caleb (1975)
Earthly Possessions (1977)
Morgan’s Passing (1980)
Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982)
The Accidental Tourist (1985)
Breathing Lessons (1988)
Saint Maybe (1991)
Ladder of Years (1995)
A Patchwork Planet (1998)
Back When We Were Grownups (2001)
The Amateur Marriage (2004)
Digging to America (2006)
Noah’s Compass (2009)

With such a large body of work, it can be difficult to know where to begin. Luckily for you, I’ve produced this handy guide, which you can print out and take to your nearest library or bookshop:

For those who enjoy Southern Gothic:

'If Morning Ever Comes' by Anne TylerAnne Tyler is reported to “hate” her first two novels, but I think they’re both interesting books, even if they don’t quite work. If Morning Ever Comes is about a boy who abandons his studies in New York to rush home to North Carolina after his runaway sister shows up. There’s some very fine descriptive writing and the characters are fascinating, if a little too self-consciously quirky. Nothing very much happens, but it’s an enjoyable read.

The Tin Can Tree contains even more Southern eccentricity, but with slightly more narrative. It’s about an extended family that falls apart after their youngest child is killed. What I really like about this novel is the vividness of the setting – one “long, crowded” house inhabited by three families, surrounded by tobacco farms and dust. It’s hard to like these characters, but then, they are people weighed down with grief.

Earthly Possessions could possibly fall into this category, too, although it’s more of a Southern road trip novel than anything else. It’s about an unhappy housewife, who’s taken hostage by a young bank robber. They then head for Florida in a stolen car. Apparently, this was made into a film starring Susan Sarandon, but I haven’t seen it.

For those who like Young Adult novels:

A Slipping-Down Life is probably the closest to a YA novel that Anne Tyler has written. A lonely high school girl, obsessed with a local rock singer, decides to carve his name into her forehead, and the attention she receives alters her life in ways she couldn’t have imagined. This is a coming-of-age tale with a satisfying conclusion, set in a Southern town so insular and isolated that you can understand why all the teenagers are desperate to escape.

Saint Maybe is absolutely wonderful, but doesn’t fit quite as easily into the YA category. It’s about Ian, a teenage boy who becomes convinced he’s responsible for his brother’s suicide and goes searching for a way to atone, ending up a member of the very odd ‘Church of the Second Chance’. Much of the story is told from Ian’s perspective, but there are also contributions from Agatha, Thomas and Daphne, his brother’s children, as they grow up. It’s a funny, thoughtful novel about guilt, forgiveness and the consolations of religion. I highly recommend it.

For those who like reading about really annoying men:

'Celestial Navigation' by Anne TylerCelestial Navigation is about Jeremy, “a thirty-eight-year-old bachelor who never did leave home”. Although the words ‘Asperger’s’, ‘autism’ and ‘agoraphobia’ are never used, they could all apply to him, so I was fascinated to read in a New York Times article that he’s “the closest Anne Tyler has come to writing about herself”. When Jeremy’s devoted mother dies, it’s difficult to see how he’ll manage, but he takes in lodgers and works on his art, and eventually falls for Mary, who’s just walked out on her husband. I loathed both these characters for their extreme self-centredness, but it’s a beautifully written novel, and the minor characters are very endearing.

Morgan in Morgan’s Passing is “a man who had gone to pieces, or maybe he’d always been in pieces; maybe he’d arrived unassembled”. He spends most of his time collecting costumes, practising accents and acting out roles – a street priest, a refugee without any English skills, and then, disastrously, a doctor. This leads to him delivering Emily’s first baby in the back of his car. He then wheedles his way into the calm, organised lives of Emily and her husband Leon. Morgan hopes they’ll help him untangle his own life, but all he does is spread the chaos around. I detested Morgan, but liked Emily and was fascinated by her Quaker upbringing. Apparently, Anne Tyler’s “early childhood was spent in a succession of Quaker communities in the mountains of North Carolina.

For those interested in an analysis of a marriage from the perspectives of both wife and husband:

'Breathing Lessons' by Anne TylerBreathing Lessons, which won the Pulitzer Prize, follows a day in the life of a seemingly incompatible middle-aged couple, Maggie and Ira. As the summary in my copy of the book explains, “Maggie has an inexhaustible passion for sorting out other people’s problems: where happiness does not exist she must create it”. Her capacity for self-deception is extremely irritating, but Ira isn’t quite as perfect as he thinks, either. What I really loved about this book was how the author used a single day of their life to illuminate everything that both tears them apart and holds them together.

The Amateur Marriage is about another mismatched couple, Michael and Pauline, but this story begins at their fateful meeting during World War Two. They spend the following decades in vicious conflict, their children reduced to unhappy bystanders. I’m not fond of this novel because I dislike both Michael and Pauline, and the structure of this book didn’t quite work for me (or for this reviewer). However, some readers love this book.

For those interested in reading about an unhappy wife:

'Ladder of Years' by Anne TylerIn Ladder of Years, Cordelia is on a summer holiday with her unappreciative family when she decides to walk off down the beach and not come back. I was fascinated by the notion of a woman leaving her husband, without any preparation or even conscious thought on the matter, and then setting up a completely new life in a new town. Could she truly abandon everything from her past? Would she simply end up repeating the old patterns of her life? I must admit, I was disappointed with the conclusion to this novel, but I enjoyed the journey.

Back When We Were Grownups is my least favourite Anne Tyler novel – in fact, I gave away my copy of this book, because it irritated me so much that I didn’t want it sitting next to my proper Anne Tyler novels. However, I include it here for the sake of completeness. There’s a good review here, if you’d like to know more.

For those interested in reading about complex, dysfunctional families:

Searching for Caleb is a rich, rewarding family saga stretching from the 1870s to the 1970s. Justine Peck elopes with her rebellious cousin Duncan, hoping to escape the dull, dry “Peckness” of her family. However, it isn’t as easy as she or Duncan predict, because they’re soon joined by their grandfather Justin, who’s been searching for his runaway brother Caleb for decades. This novel is utterly engrossing and has a wonderful ending. I loved it.

'Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant' by Anne TylerDinner at the Homesick Restaurant is one of those rare, absolutely perfect novels. Anne Tyler thinks it’s her best, too (she also said it was “her hardest novel to write” ). Pearl is abandoned by her husband, left to bring up three children in her own angry, bitter fashion. Then the children grow up to wreak havoc upon their own spouses and children. I realise this does not sound like a very enjoyable read, but it’s so funny, moving and wise. I can’t recommend it too highly.

The Clock Winder probably fits into this category, too, but I don’t think it’s one of her best books. Here’s a thoughtful review if you’d like to know more.

For those interested in unsentimental portraits of old age:

'A Patchwork Planet' by Anne TylerA Patchwork Planet could probably fit into the ‘dysfunctional families’ category, but one of the many delights of this novel is thirty-year-old Barnaby’s job at Rent-A-Back (or Roll-A-Bat, as his socialite mother scornfully calls it). Barnaby and his friend Martine do chores for the elderly, ranging from decorating their Christmas trees to taking out their trash cans and disposing of their late husbands’ law books. I admit that Barnaby’s voice isn’t always plausible for a young man, but his cluelessness is hilarious. This is another deceptively light-hearted story with a powerful ending.

Noah’s Compass is Tyler’s most recent novel. It’s about Liam, a solitary, introspective man who’s been retrenched from his teaching job. He settles down in a resigned fashion to contemplate the last years of his life. However, on the first day of this new life, he’s attacked by a burglar and he wakes up a few days later with no memory of this event. His attempts to discover those lost moments throw him into a relationship with a younger woman, who seems as though she might revitalise him . . . or perhaps not. This is certainly not an optimistic book, but this reviewer admired it, and so did this one.

For those interested in a multicultural view of the United States, post 9-11:

'Digging to America' by Anne TylerI love Digging to America, which tells the story of two very different Baltimore families, who each adopt a baby girl from Korea. The description of the rigidly politically-correct Dickinson-Donaldson family verges a little too close to caricature, but I adored the Yazdans, originally from Iran. Maryam, the grandmother of the adopted baby, is a wonderfully astringent observer of American customs, and her independence and intelligence make her one of my favourite Anne Tyler characters. This reviewer agreed.

Finally:

'The Accidental Tourist' by Anne TylerI can’t quite categorise The Accidental Tourist, but I couldn’t possibly leave it out. Only Anne Tyler could turn the story of a man destroyed by the murder of his child and the subsequent breakdown of his marriage into a story so incredibly moving, hilarious and hopeful. I love this book, and I also enjoyed the film version, which starred William Hurt, Geena Davis, Kathleen Turner and some very clever corgis.

Anne Tyler is famously reclusive, but she has given one interview about her writing process (unfortunately, you now need an account with The New York Times to read this), one about The Amateur Marriage, and one about Digging to America. The Observer has also done an interesting profile of her.

Extra note: The book cover images I’ve used are all from the Readings website, which is selling a collection of Anne Tyler novels with snazzy new jackets, published by Vintage. Inexplicably, Saint Maybe is not included. This is very sad, especially as Readings doesn’t even have an old edition of the book in stock.

Dogs and Books

If I were asked to list my favourite things in the universe, dogs and books would be near the top of the list, so I’ve been pleased to see lots of both of them about lately.

Firstly, Inside a Dog, the website for the Centre for Youth Literature, was relaunched last week, with a new blog and loads of useful, interesting features. Go and have a look at the gorgeous photos of dogs reading books! I also liked the article about a greyhound who helps children learn to read. Children love reading aloud to Danny, because he

“does not criticise or correct their pronunciation. He just nods and pricks up an ear, although sometimes he closes his eyes and appears not to be listening . . . Some children even show Danny the pictures as they read.”

It reminded me of a learning disorders clinic where I used to work. My boss would bring in her good-natured poodle, who would sit on the verandah, looking adorable. I soon discovered that my students became highly motivated to finish their work if I promised they could pat the dog at the end of our session.

I’ve also been reading about Bamse, the St. Bernard who was the mascot of Free Norwegian forces during the Second World War. Bamse was an official crew member of a ship that managed to escape the Nazi invasion of Norway in 1940. While stationed in Scotland, Bamse rescued a sailor who’d fallen overboard, and saved another from a knife-wielding assailant, by pushing the villain into the sea. The crew bought Bamse a bus pass, which hung around his neck, and he would take the bus into town by himself to round up any crew members who were late returning to the ship. Bamse would often have a bowl of beer with the men, and he was an enthusiastic goalkeeper and centre forward when they played football on deck. When he died of a heart attack in 1944, eight hundred school children lined the streets to watch his flag-draped coffin being carried through the town of Montrose, where he was buried. Of course, I cannot resist squashing Bamse into Montmaray Book Three, even though his story doesn’t have much to do with mine.

I’ve also been thinking about beloved dogs in books, and came up with my favourite five:

1. Roger in Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals

My Family and Other Animals

'My Family and Other Animals' - 2005 BBC production

When ten-year-old Gerald and his eccentric family move to Corfu in the 1930s, they are accompanied by Roger, a woolly black dog of indeterminate breed, who causes a canine riot within minutes of their arrival. In a book full of endearing animals, Roger is one of the most lovable. As Gerald points out:

“He was the perfect companion for an adventure, affectionate without exuberance, brave without being belligerent, intelligent and full of good-humoured tolerance for my eccentricities.”

(Roger was also portrayed beautifully by a very clever canine actor in the recent film version of My Family and Other Animals.)

2. Heloise in Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle

Heloise is the family bull-terrier, described at one point by Cassandra as

“gazing at me with love, reproach, confidence and humour – how can she express so much just with two rather small slanting eyes?”

Heloise is a loyal companion to Cassandra during her wanderings around the countryside, and even manages to get Cassandra into, then out of, an awkward situation with Simon by barking out the barn window at exactly the right time.

3. Miró in Peter Cameron’s Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You

Miró is a standard poodle who “seems to think he is human” and watches “the simple canine ways of the other dogs with amused condescension”. His Manhattan family talk to Miró more than they talk to one another, but teenage James admits he’s often mean to the dog:

“I say things to him like ‘You’re just a dog. You don’t even have a passport or a Social Security number. You can’t even open doors. You’re totally at my mercy.’ Or ‘Get a haircut. Put on some shoes.'”

Needless to say, Miró is not bothered by these insults. He’s way too cool.

4. Edward in Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist

There aren’t many dogs in Anne Tyler’s novels (I have a sneaking suspicion she prefers cats), but Edward, a Welsh corgi, rules this book. Edward is responsible for Macon’s broken leg, which forces Macon to move back to the family home. Then Edward’s unruly behaviour leads Macon to hire Muriel, the crazy dog trainer, which results in scenes that any dog owner will recognise:

“During the course of the evening he chewed a pencil to splinters, stole a pork-chop bone from the garbage bin, and threw up on the sun porch rug; but now that he could sit on command, everyone felt more hopeful.”

In between attacking Macon’s boss and terrorising innocent cyclists and pedestrians, Edward brightens the life of Muriel’s son and manages to throw Macon and Muriel into a very unlikely but satisfying romance.

5. King in Anne Holm’s I Am David

Oh, King! The most loving, loyal sheepdog in the world, who sacrifices himself to save David! I can’t type out a quote about King, because it will make me cry. Just go and read it (with a big box of tissues).

Hmm, I didn’t plan to end on such a sad note. Look, here’s a hilarious comic about a dog with . . . um, intellectual challenges and another one about the same dog having difficulties adjusting to a new house.

Also – don’t forget that the Montmaray give-away is open till April 5th, if you’d like to win a book.