Back to Anne Tyler again! I did mean to stop but I saw two of her novels in a charity shop for 50 pence each and so obviously I had to buy them and obviously had to read them. Just finished this one. It is, I think, rather more sombre than the others I have read so far -- not that she does not deal always with serious subjects, but I suppose I felt there was less comedy interwoven here. However this is not to say that I did not enjoy it -- far from it. This is a really impressive novel. If I tell you what it is about, you will think it sounds like nothing much -- is is, as the title suggests, the story of a marriage. Beginning in 1941, when young Michael Anton, working in his mother's grocery store, is swept off his feet by pretty, impulsive Pauline, it simply charts their lives from that point on, through marriage, the birth of their three children, the disappearance of their eldest daughter, their rescue of their grandson, their divorce, and so on until the very end of both their lives. But my goodness this is well done. These two people are so incompatible -- Michael serious, calm, unemotional, Pauline swinging between quirky humour and furious rages -- but something holds them together. It would be easy to say it is just sex, but in fact as I think becomes clear there is something deeper there too. Yes, Michael is probably more contented with his second wife, but as he approaches the end of his life, he comes to realise what he has lost in losing Pauline. Painful, in a way, but so true and so perceptive, and the end, though I was a little tearful, is also kind of uplifting.
The structure of the novel is also very interesting -- there is not really a continuous narrative. Instead, each chapter deals with an episode, and generally there is as much as ten years in between each. So though you are filled in to an extent about what has happened in the interim, much is left to you to surmise. And though the narrative is in the third person, each chapter is told from a different person's point of view. This is so effective! I found it particularly so when one chapter, about Michael's new relationship, left me feeling so sad and anxious for Pauline, only to find that the next chapter showed how, despite her underlying sadness, she is coping so well and having, really, a tolerable and sometimes even enjoyable life -- a real survivor, even though she panics so badly when her pilot light goes out and has to send for her son to light it for her. All the characters are so believable, and the period detail is wonderful -- the nearest really that the novel comes to comedy is in the dreadful episode when Michael and Pauline go to Haight Ashbury in the 1960s to look for their errant daughter. All terrific stuff.
As you may recall, I have a bit of a love hate relationship with David Baldacci. I read a couple of his on holiday earlier this year and wanted to read this as it features the same two detectives, Sean and Michelle, an attractive if mis-matched pair -- Sean, in his forties, living in a tidy and beautiful house, a lover of fine wine and peace and quiet, and Michelle, 32, an ex-Olympic sportswoman, strong, outspoken, radically untidy and disorganised in her living conditions. They are a working partnership but not a romantic one, though one of the pleasures of reading about them is the undercurrent of attraction that is obvious but never spoken or acted on. Here, though, both are drawn to other people, with, it's safe to say, rather disastrous results. The plot is very intriguing -- a hunt for a serial killer, with many sub-plots which, as you may guess, will all turn out to be relevant in the end. So for those reasons it is an enjoyable read -- but oh, David, I wish you could learn to write better dialogue. Clunky hardly encompasses the sheer awfulness of it in places. Why do these writers (Dan Brown is another) not listen to how people really speak? My advice is the same I used to give to students -- read it aloud and see how it sounds! You would soon see how truly ludicrous it frequently becomes.
Do you remember an Inn, Miranda? Do you remember an Inn? And the tedding and the bedding Of the straw for a bedding, And the fleas that tease in the High Pyrenees, And the wine that tasted of tar? And the cheers and the jeers of the young muleteers (Under the vine of the dark veranda)? Do you remember an Inn, Miranda, Do you remember an Inn? And the cheers and the jeers of the young muleteers Who hadn’t got a penny, And who weren’t paying any, And the hammer at the doors and the din? And the hip! hop! hap! Of the clap Of the hands to the swirl and the twirl Of the girl gone chancing, Glancing, Dancing, Backing and advancing, Snapping of the clapper to the spin Out and in— And the ting, tong, tang of the guitar! Do you remember an Inn, Miranda? Do you remember an Inn?
Never more; Miranda, Never more. Only the high peaks hoar; And Aragon a torrent at the door. No sound In the walls of the halls where falls The tread Of the feet of the dead to the ground, No sound: But the boom Of the far waterfall like doom.
How I used to love this poem when I was a teenager. Is it a good poem? Who can say? Very evocative, though.
How many people, I wonder, sometimes feel like just walking out of their lives and starting again somewhere else? And how many actually do it? Probably there are statistics somewhere that would tell you, and presumably many more think about it than actually do it. Delia, in this book, hardly thinks about it at all -- but she does do it, apparently on the spur of the moment. Disappearing from a family beach holiday dressed only in her swimming costume and her husband's beach robe, she simply hitches a ride with a talkative maintenance man and gets out of his van in a small town miles from home with no plans and no idea, really, what she is doing or going to do next. It is not that she is exactly unhappy at home, though she cannot be said to be exactly happy either -- she feels unappreciated by her doctor husband, is largely ignored by her teenage children, and has got involved in a rather unsatisfactory relationship with a newly separated man which she has not had to courage to consummate fully. But once she lands in this new environment, she starts to reinvent herself and to start a totally new life. She buys a plain, rather elegantly severe dress, rents a small and pleasingly bare room, and gets a job as a secretary. At first she barely allows herself to think at all. But gradually life starts to enfold her again. She makes new friends, gets a new job which entails looking after a separated man and his twelve-year-old son. Her family, completely bemused by what has happened, make occasional forays to see her or at least contact her by letter, though she hears nothing from her husband. Eventually she gets a letter inviting her to her daughter's wedding. Will she go? What will happen if she does? You must read this and find out.
Just as beautifully observed as the other two I have read, just as sweet, funny, sad and thought-provoking, this is another one I can't recommend highly enough. Anne Tyler writes so beautifully and so wittily -- I will just leave you with one moment that made me laugh. This is Delia's mother-in-law: "Instead of a purse she had one of those belt packs, glow-in-the dark chartreuse nylon, riding in front of her like some add-on pregnancy. It caused her to walk slightly swaybacked, though ordinarily her posture was perfect".
Have you ever been a member of a book club? How did your group
choose (or, if you haven’t been, what do you think is the best way to
choose) the next book and who would lead discussion?
Do you feel
more or less likely to appreciate books if you are obliged to read them
for book groups rather than choosing them of your own free will? Does
knowing they are going to be read as part of a group affect the reading
I have always longed to be a member of a book club, but only once been invited to join one, made up of local friends and neighbours. And it was not an unqualified success. For a start the book was one I didn't enjoy at all -- I actually blogged about it but am not going to say here what it was. I think the main problem, though -- and also the reason why I haven't been invited to this kind of thing more often -- is that the other members, bright, lively, intelligent and perceptive people -- obviously found my presence a bit intimidating. As an academic I was deemed to have some kind of superior knowledge -- a ridiculous assumption in fact as, though I may have read more books than most, I am well aware that everyone's opinion is equally valid -- look at all the blogs by non-professionals for examples of the finest reviewing you will find anywhere. But the fact that I'd read so much did raise problems with the choice of the second book. And, in fact, for those and other reasons, I dropped out. But I am now a member of the wonderful Cornflower's online book group -- long may it last. It's not been going long, but essentially the books are suggested by members and Cornflower has final say -- she also leads the discussions.
So I can't give a very informed answer to the second part of the question. All I can say is that since I joined I have read at least one book -- William Maxwell's They Came Like Swallows -- which was stupendous and introduced me to an author I'd never have read otherwise. I don't think it affects my reading experience as now whatever I read I know I am going to say something about it here -- though of course I don't rubbish books on here (unless they are rubbish best sellers by undeserving millionaires) and I would feel freer to do so among a small group of friends.
Yes, it was on the cards that I would become a huge Anne Tyler fan, and so many kind people made recommendations that I am in danger of glutting myself on it all. This one is probably one her best known, partly because it was made into a film (though not one I have seen). And of course it is a delight. Having said that, I must admit that most of the way through I was thinking, Oh, am I enjoying this as much as the Patchwork Planet? I think this may have been because I loved the central character of that one so much, and Macon, the protagonist and indeed the eponymous accidental tourist, takes a bit of getting used to. Stiff, conventional, frighteningly addicted to list-making, planning and routine, he is not, at first sight, the most appealing of heros. When his wife of twenty years leaves him, unable to bear his lack of emotion any longer, he reacts by setting up the most sad and funny series of short-cuts in his lonely house -- sewing his sheets into bags to save on washing, fixing up the popcorn maker onto the tea-maker alarm clock so he doesn't have to get out of bed in the morning, trampling his worn clothes underfoot in the shower every day. Macon is cracking up and he doesn't know it. But everything changes, albeit very very slowly, when he allows scatty Muriel, the trainer of his angry dog, to make her way into his life. And just as gradually, gradually, Macon comes to appreciate Muriel and even to become fond of her strange little son, so gradually gradually we come to appreciate Macon. Or at least that's how it was for me. As for the ending, it is truly superb -- if you have by some chance not read this, I think and hope you will be as surprised -- and maybe delighted -- as I was by the way things turn out almost on the final page. True, nothing is simple, but that is I think one of the joys of this wonderful novelist's writing. There is so much here that is so endearing and at the same time infuriating -- Macon's terrible family, and his even more terrible dog, his guidebooks, his trips abroad... Fantastic.
This is another painting by the wonderful Elizabeth Vigée-Lebrun, It is a portrait of her daughter Julie, painted in 1786. I was back in Dorset this week staying at the Sanctuary B&B -- above a bookshop, if you remember, with books in the bedrooms, on the stairs, and in the dining-room. Over breakfast I found a volume of EV-B's Memoirs, translated from the French, and started to read them with great pleasure. Unfortunately I did not buy the book and now wish I had as it was charming and extremely interesting. E V-B was a sought-after portrait painter by the time she was sixteen and remained extremely famous throughout her life. She painted everyone in the French court from Marie Antoinette downwards, travelled to Russia and all round Europe with her little daughter, and clearly was a strong and independent woman. She seems to have dumped her rather unsatisfactory husband, quite a brave thing to do at that period although as he was living off her earnings and only giving her a tiny amount of pocket money I imagine it was not a hard decision. Sadly at one point she notes in passing that the newly opened art gallery at the Louvre contains paintings by all the celebrated modern artists to her day, but that she herself has not been invited to hang a painting there. Blatant anti-feminism, I'm afraid. All fascinating stuff.
If you have been paying attention you may remember that this was one of the two books that I had not actually read but had put on my alphabetical list anyway. I pledged myself to read them both and this was the first one I got hold of. I remember many years ago having a go at an Iris Murdoch and not getting very far with it, but I was hoping I would stay the course this time. Alas I did not. I got about half way through and found myself struggling -- and as we all know, life is too short, and the TBR pile is too high, to finish a book when you are not really enjoying it. A pity really as I thought the beginning was very intriguing. It starts with Marian Taylor, a young and well-educated woman, arriving at a remote castle on a wild coast (which I took to be the west of Ireland, though it is never stated where exactly it is). She has been employed as a governess, or so she thinks, but it soon transpires that her pupil is in fact the beautiful young woman who owns the castle, whose husband is permanently away from home. The place is full of mysterious and rather disturbing people and there are clearly secrets that Marian begins slowly to uncover. So far so good, and I was really enjoying the first quarter or so of the novel -- the writing is very fine, with some wonderful descriptions of the location and some fascinating encounters that leave you longing to know what is bubbling under the surface. But as the work progressed, and more and more of the dark undercurrents come to light, I got less and less interested. For one thing there is a lot of deliberate allusion to medieval romances, and/or The Lady of Shalott, which I found a bit annoyingly obvious, I'm afraid. Also the secrets that are revealed seem rather crude and boring, or did so to me -- homosexuality, unrequited love and so on. Anyway, in the end I just got bored. Never mind -- at least I tried. Perhaps I will enjoy the Quiet American better.
Can you believe that I have never read anything by Anne Tyler before? I've heard such great things about her novels but for some strange reason never felt at all drawn to pick one up. In the end I did get hold of this one, in a charity shop I think, but still did not make any attempt to actually read it until last week. I'm not sure what made me start, but once I did, I was absolutely enthralled. Just in case I am not the last person in the universe to have read it, I will tell you that it is the story of Barnaby Gaitlin, who is also the narrator. Barnaby, an attractive young man just about to turn thirty, is the younger son of a wealthy and successful middle-class family in Baltimore. Unlike his older brother, who is quite happy to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather, Barnaby has had a chequered teenage, including a good deal of housebreaking (although, unlike his fellow housebreakers, he spent his illicit time in other people's houses looking at their family photos and reading their diaries). After a period in a reform school and a failed marriage, he has settled down to the extent of finding himself a steady job working for a company called Rent-a-Back, which undertakes heavy work for those who are too old and infirm to do it themselves. Periodically he visits his daughter Opal, who lives with her snooty mother and seems to be rather disaffected and confused about his role in her life. But a chance meeting, in rather bizarre circumstances, with the rather older though not unattractive Sophia leads his life in several unforeseen and unsettling directions.
This is indeed a most delightful and charming book. It is hard to convey just how beautifully it is written. There is much wonderful humour and unexpected descriptions. On his first meeting with Sophia's aunt, he remarks that as the old lady came to the door, "Over her forearm she carried a Yorkshire terrier, neatly folded like a waiter's napkin". In another old lady's house, he and his team-mate Martine erect an ancient Christmas tree on New Years Eve, for the overnight visit of her grandchildren. The decorations are as decrepit as the tree, including a snowflake "pancake-sized, slightly crumpled, snipped from giftwrap so old that the Santas were smoking cigarettes.". But above all the great joy of this novel is Barnaby, good-hearted, quick-minded, cynical, chronically unable to stop himself messing his life up every time it appears to be on the up and up. There is so much here to enjoy, and I found myself thinking about it long after I had finished reading it.
Sorry about the silence, by the way -- I've been away from home for a week and won't be back there until Thursday.