The Beginner's Goodbye, by Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler has long been one of my favorite writers. Her stories are set in my neighborhoods and feature their eccentric inhabitants. In my love-hate relationship with Baltimore, the quirkiness of its denizens is definitely a plus. While not glossing over their peculiarities, Tyler always treats her characters with compassion.

This 2012 novel is set in motion when Aaron is visited by his recently deceased wife, who was killed when a tree crashed into their house. He mourns for Dorothy, so traumatized by her loss that he does not expect to return to the house, even once it has been restored. Only 35, Aaron displays the fussy crankiness of an old man. Stolid and reticent, he rejects offers of help, throwing out the many casseroles deposited on his doorstep, though meticulously washing and returning the dishes. This is nothing new to him. Handicapped by a withered right arm and leg, he has spent his life fending off the well-meant assistance of his mother and older sister. Dorothy's serious and independent demeanor broke over him like a refreshing wave, and he does not know how to bear life now without her.

With his sister, he works for the family-owned vanity publishing business. One of their big successes is a series of short books for beginners: The Beginner's Wine Guide, The Beginner's Dinner Party, The Beginner's Colicky Baby. Although his co-workers urge him to take time off, he buries himself in work.

When Dorothy—short, plump and plain—begins to appear, walking beside him, sitting next to him in the mall, even conversing with him, he becomes obsessed with finding the right conditions to make her reappear.

I am reminded of one of my favorite films: Truly, Madly, Deeply. Nina is so tormented by grief at the loss of her husband that he takes pity on her and returns. Her joy is gradually tempered by the day-to-day frustrations of living with someone—he keeps the heat turned way up because he is always freezing and brings his ghost friends over for movie night—until finally she is ready to move on. It is the most wrenching film I've ever seen, capturing both the reckless fun of being in love and the despair of letting go.

Aaron's story is milder, but still deeply felt. I particularly love his tenderness toward his unglamorous wife. “She had a broad, olive-skinned face, appealingly flat-planed, and calm black eyes that were noticeably level, with that perfect symmetry that makes the viewer feel rested . . . She wore owlish, round-lensed glasses that mocked the shape of her face. Her clothes made her figure seem squat—wide, straight trousers and man-tailored shirts, chunky crepe-soles shoes of a type that waitresses favored in diners. Only I noticed the creases as fine as silk threads that encircled her wrists and her neck. Only I knew her dear, pudgy feet, with the nails like tiny seashells.”

It's a delightful story, filled with misunderstandings and kaleidoscopic shifts in relationships. There is much humor, but it is never cruel. And through it all, for me at least, the familiar details of my particular world, as Aaron walks my streets, shops at my grocery, visits my Apple Store. Tyler celebrates the small events in a life, an ordinary life, such as that of the person next door to you.

Is there a novel set in your town that you particularly like?

As the year ends, it seems like a good time to consider what (or whom) we are ready to say goodbye to.

What are you ready to let go of?

Playlist 2013

This has been a “hinge” year for me and my family, a year of fundamental changes, some the culmination of years-long endeavours, others pure chance. Music remains a constant, especially the intersection of song and story. These are the songs I listened to over and over.

Waltz of the Floating Bridge, Jeremiah McLane
Time Will End, Jeremiah McLane
Claudy Banks, Finest Kind
By The Green Grove, Finest Kind
Cielos Sin Fronteras, Pablo Peregrina
Chapulin, Pablo Peregrina
Una Cicatriz, Pablo Peregrina
Stay Home , Josh Hisle
Whiskey At Home, Josh Hisle
Not Alone, Patty Griffin
Antigua, Jacqueline Schwab
Mendocino Morning, Jacqueline Schwab
Helena, Bare Necessities
Portsmouth, Bare Necessities
Heidenröslein, Bare Necessities
Tan Dun: Desert Capriccio, Yo-Yo Ma: Silk Road Ensemble
Mamiya: Five Finnish Folksongs For Cello & Piano – 3. Miero Vuotti Uutta Kuuta, Yo-Yo Ma: Silk Road Ensemble
Trad: Mido Mountain, Yo-Yo Ma: Silk Road Ensemble
Trad: Mongolian Long Song, Yo-Yo Ma: Silk Road Ensemble
War Requiem, Op. 66: Requiem aeternam, Benjamin Britten
War Requiem, Op. 66: I. What Passing Bells for These Who Die As Cattle?, Benjamin Britten/Wilfred Owen
War Requiem, Op. 66: IX. Lacrimosa dies illa, Benjamin Britten
War Requiem, Op. 66: X. Move Him Into the Sun, Benjamin Britten/Wilfred Owen
War Requiem, Op. 66: XVII. It Seemed That Out of Battle I Escaped, Benjamin Britten/Wilfred Owen
War Requiem, Op. 66: XVIII. Let Us Sleep Now…In Paradisum, Benjamin Britten/Wilfred Owen

What have you been listening to?

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, by Bill Bryson

This memoir of Bryson's childhood in the 1950s, told with his special brand of gentle humor, turns out to be as much about the culture in the U.S. during that decade as about his personal experience. Much was familiar to me, since we are near-contemporaries, so I most enjoyed the bits that fell outside my experience: delivering newspapers, digging through layers of long underwear to pee, watching a tornado move across the horizon. Life in Des Moines, Iowa turns out to be remarkably like life in the Baltimore neighborhood where I grew up. Like me, Bryson was turned loose most of the day to find his own adventures. Unusually for the time, both his parents worked at the local newspaper, which to him mostly meant that dinners were rushed affairs, food thrust in the oven by his mother as she ran in and left to burn while she tore around trying to do the million and one other household chores.

Of Iowa, he says it “has always been proudly middling in all its affairs. It stands in the middle of the continent, between the two mighty central rivers, the Missouri and Mississippi, and throughout my childhood always ranked bang in the middle of everything—size, population, voting preferences, order of entry into the Union.” As such, it makes an appropriate setting for this tale of middle class life during the decade when the U.S. middle class was at its most prosperous.

My favorite part is where he talks of visiting his grandfather's farm. I loved his description of the church potluck suppers with their endless meatloafs with bizarre toppings and Jell-O molds filled with bizarre ingredients—“marshmallows, pretzels, fruit chunks, Rice Krispies, Fritos corn chip”—which were familiar to me from a memorable pot luck supper in Osawatomie, Kansas in 1965. His grandfather's barn was a terrifying place filled with old machinery and old manure. He says:

Even scarier were the fields of corn that pressed in on all sides. Corn doesn't grow as tall as it used to because it's been hybridized into a more compact perfection, but it shot up like bamboo when I was young, reaching heights of eight feet or more and filling 56, 290 square miles of Iowa countryside with a spooky, threatening rustle by the dryish late end of summer. There is no more anonymous, mazelike, unsettling environment, especially to a dim, smallish human, than a field of infinitely identical rows of tall corn, each—including the diagonals—presenting a prospect of endless vegetative hostility. Just standing on the edge and peering in, you knew that if you ventured more than a few feet into a cornfield you would never come out.

Since much of his humor comes from this kind of exaggeration, I felt some concern that readers not as familiar as I with that decade would think that even the true things were exaggerations. Examples include his description of the amount of radiation given off by the bombs so casually tested near populated areas—in 1958, he tells us, “the average child . . . was carrying ten times more strontium [the chief radioactive product of fallout] than he had only the year before”—and the hysteria about communism that led to so many lives being ruined without any proof at all. It is somewhat comforting to be reminded that even back then, foolish congressmen spouted insane pronouncements displaying their prejudices, such as John Rankin from Mississippi saying, “‘Remember, Communism is Yiddish. I understand that every member of the Politburo around Stalin is either Yiddish or married to one, and that includes Stalin himself.'”

In some cases, Bryson thoughtfully includes photographs, such as one of the many ads showing a woman at work, perfectly dressed from the waist down, but above that wearing only a bra, with the caption: “I dreamed I went to work in my maidenform bra.” Without such proof, one would be justified in believing such ads couldn't possibly have been published in all kinds of magazines, so must be an exaggeration.

Such misogynism is only one example of how the 1950s were not the perfection today's ranting politicians would like us to believe and bemoan the loss of. Occasionally he refers to the prejudices whose blatant expression was considered acceptable in those days, but this is Bryson's story of one aspect of 1950s culture, the one he experienced. It is a story of growing up white and well-to-do in the middle of a prosperous U.S. that was filled with optimism about the future despite fears of communism and atomic war. I enjoyed the book and am glad to add his experience to the multiple other facets that make up the prism of this decade.

What books about the 1950s have you read?

Veronica, by Mary Gaitskill

I've heard a lot about what a great writer Mary Gaitskill is. Looking through the descriptions of her books, though, they seemed to be about subjects that didn't interest me: obsession, addiction, porn, and what sounded like self-conscious flirting with sexual kinks. I pictured a smiling two-year-old sneaking looks at you out of the corner of her eye as she reaches for the glass bowl she's been told not to touch.

What I found is something quite different. If the mark of a great writer is her ability to immerse you in her world and the life of her characters, Gaitskill is a great writer. Even more so given the flimsy material she chose to work with in this novel.

We first meet Alison when she is, by her own account, old and sick, her beauty gone. She's in her forties, which tells you a lot about her right there. She reflects on her life, running away from home at 15, eventually becoming a model. However, since she is shallow and undisciplined, we cannot expect a deep and disciplined narrative. It jumps around in time, held together by a tenuous web of associations. Supremely self-centered, we cannot expect Alison to understand, much less help us comprehend, the other people in her life, including Veronica, the odd friend she makes while working as an office temp before going back to modeling.

If this sounds like a book you don't want to read, think again. Alison is curiously innocent, like a Parzival set adrift in the whirling, wicked world of 1980s New York and Paris. Despite her self-centeredness, she has no sense of who she is; there is an empty space at her center which she fills with the reflections of herself in others' eyes. She runs away from home because that is what teens do in the tv movies that scare her parents. The only thing she seems to know about herself is that she is beautiful, and she knows that not because she admires herself, but because everyone tells her so (though two modeling agents say that her breasts are “not good”). She takes up with an agent in Paris, not because she loves him but because he expects her to.

That lack of self-knowledge is why she is drawn to Veronica, a much older, ugly and flamboyant copy-editor. Obnoxious and rude, Veronica speaks her mind. She says, “‘Prettiness is all about pleasing other people . . . I don't have to do that anymore. It's my show now.' She said these words as if she were a movie star.”

One of Gaitskill's techniques that I loved is the way Alison describes some key moments in terms of ten pictures. Of the conversation quoted above, she says, “Imagine ten pictures of this conversation. In nine of them she's the fool, and I'm the person who has something. But in the tenth I'm the fool, and it's her show now. For just a second, that's the picture I saw.” It's an extraordinary way to show both how much it takes to pierce Alison's insensitivity and how she changes her view of herself based on what other people see.

Alison is proud of herself for befriending this woman who is old and ugly and, eventually, ill. Veronica contracts AIDS from her beloved bisexual on-again/off-again boyfriend, Duncan, who can't be bothered with protection even when he knows he is sick. We are enveloped in the frantic hedonism of the early days of the AIDS epidemic, when so much was rumored and so little understood, when it seemed as though there would be no tomorrow, no need to save any of yourself for a mythical old age.

Although we never really get to know Veronica, since we see her only through Alison's narcissistic eyes, we see her effect on Alison, who comes to regret bragging to others about the peculiar old woman she has befriended.

The writing is indeed excellent. Other reviewers have talked about her word choice and word-pairing, how her sentences seem to hold you off while hinting at their secrets. I liked the interplay of “old” Alison's story with her “wicked” youth. I liked the motifs that, like knots in a net, keep the whole flimsy tale from dissipating into air. This story will stay with me for a long time.

What books have you liked in spite of yourself?

Mountain Man, by Vardis Fisher

If you've followed this blog, you know that I read a lot of books each year. I also subscribe to the London Review of Books, read other reviews online, and am a member of “Goodreads”: When my son moved to Canada, he introduced me to a slew of wonderful authors who were unknown here in the U.S., several of whom I now count among my top ten favorite authors. Since then, I've made an effort to learn about books by writers from a variety of countries, nearly always in translation unfortunately, but still widening my experience. I've also attended Toronto's International Festival of Authors several times.

All this is to say that I've at least heard of a lot of authors. Still, my friend whom we'll call DAP managed to stump me when he said that his favorite author was Vardis Fisher. That's not a name easily forgotten! I'd never heard of him. So of course I consulted my wonderful local library and selected this book.

Mountain Man is Fisher's most famous book. It's the basis for the film, Jeremiah Johnson starring Robert Redford, a film I've never seen (my film knowledge is much more limited than my knowledge of books!).

Named Samson for his huge size, Sam Minard left his family back in New York state for a brief trip to see the still-unsettled west and fell in love with the mountains and the independent life he found there. Strong and self-reliant, he knows where in the wilderness he's likely to find his friends, the other mountain men who sell furs to purchase the few necessaries, like coffee and tobacco, that they cannot provide for themselves.

Reveling in his freedom and the beauty of his world, Sam responds with the music he learned from his father: “He had learned that playing Bach and Mozart arias [on his mouth organ] when in enemy country was not only good for his loneliness; the music filled skulking Indians with awe.” Many of the descriptions throughout the book use musical terms, as he hears symphonies in the stars and opera in the storms.

Sam is about to add two commitments to his currently loose ties with the other mountain men, one accidentally and one on purpose. He comes across a woman, Kate Bowden, who in a blinding rage has just killed the four Blackfeet who killed her three children. Her husband has been carried off by the rest of the band, and now she has dropped to her knees beside her children and lost all sense of anything outside of them.

Sam buries the children and builds her a little house, though she still seems completely unaware of him and the food he puts in front of her. He has to move on, but spreads the word among his friends and they look in on her when they are near.

He has to get on because he is ready for a wife and knows who he wants, the daughter of a Crow chief. This part of the story alone is worth reading the book for, the negotiations with her father, the way he and the young woman get to know each other without a common language, the way he reacts to this tumultuous change in his life.

I loved this book. The characters fascinated me, especially Kate and the trajectory of her life, but also Sam. The descriptions of a west that no longer exists enthralled me. And I loved all the stories about the other mountain men that they told each other, many of them lies or exaggerations, but true for all that. At one point he imagines what the others are up to at that moment: “in what deep impenetrable thicket tall skinny Bill Williams had hidden from the red warriors, his high squeaky voice silenced for the night; by what fire with its cedar and coffee aroma Wind River Bill was spinning his yarns and saying, ‘I love the wimmins, I shorely do'; in what Spanish village short blond Kit Carson was dancing the soup dance with black-eyed senoritas; what tall tales Jim Bridger was telling to bug-eyed greenhorns from a wagon train that stopped this day at his post to get horses shod and tires set . . .” Scattered throughout Sam's story are these tales of men who relished the independence of life in the mountains.

I'm grateful to my friend, DAP, for recommending this author. What books have your friends recommended that you've liked?