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Posts Tagged ‘Anne Tyler’

vinegarAlthough Anne Tyler’s new novel is a modern retelling of The Taming of the Shrew commissioned for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, Vinegar Girl (Hogarth, digital galley) reads more like a Tyleresque version of the movie Green Card. That’s fine with me, because I’ve always found Shrew problematic for its sexism, even if the two lovers appear to be in cahoots by the end. But I remember Green Card as a charming rom-com, and Vinegar Girl has the easy charm of many of Tyler’s books, with their endearingly oddball characters living seemingly ordinary lives. And, of course, the setting is now Baltimore, “Charm City.”

Kate Battista is a 29-year-old teaching assistant at a neighborhood pre-school, still living at home looking after her widower scientist father Louis and her pretty 15-year-old sister Bunny. She’s not so much shrewish as forthright and tactless — an altercation with a college professor led to her dropping out without a degree in botany — and while her young students adore her, their parents aren’t as comfortable. Still, she’s remarkably patient with her father’s eccentricities –“meat mash” for dinner all week — and over-indulgence of Bunny, at least until he proposes she marry his research assistant, Pyotr, so he can stay in the country. She’s mad and sad as she stomps up the stairs: “He must think she was of no value; she was nothing but a bargaining chip in his single-minded quest for a scientific miracle.”

This then is the farcical set-up for courtship, but the ensuing antics are mild and rather sweet. Pyotr, although literal-minded, is nowhere near as clueless as his employer. He admires Kate’s individuality, her long black curls, how she “resemble flamingo dancer.” Sure, he speaks bluntly without articles and adjectives, but Kate realizes he has layers of thought and feeling. She defends him to busybody relatives, and then is surprised when Aunt Thelma pronounces him “a cutie.”

A subplot involving Bunny’s sudden attraction to a pot-smoking neighbor and thus to veganism and animal-rights seems somewhat forced, but it does provide Tyler the chance for some satirical observations and to kick the action up a gear. The scenes of Kate at nursery school are spot on. The kids play and bicker — “Did so.” “Did not” — like the four-year-olds they are, occasionally spouting perfect gems, as when one girl talks about frolicking baby goats: “Yes, a few of them were just barely beginning to fly.”  The children may not see Kate as an authority figure, but they recognize her as a kindred spirit. The little boys want to marry her one day. They accept her for who she is, as does Pyotr, who knows she is more than a green card.

Still, the question remains. Will Kate and Pyotr marry for convenience, go their separate ways, or will they make a true match of it? Tyler takes her cue from another Shakespeare play: All’s well that ends well. Summer reading, anyone?

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spoolThe Whitshank home on Baltimore’s Bouton Road is a clapboard family house, “plain-faced and comfortable .  . . Tall sash windows, a fieldstone chimney, a fanlight over the door. But best of all, that porch: that wonderful full-length porch.”

This house is at the heart of Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread (Knopf, e-galley), a novel as comfortable and welcoming as that gigantic porch. With characteristic ease, Tyler draws readers in to meet the Whitshank clan, which like all families, thinks itself special, spinning its own mythology out of shared history and stories. One story is how Junior, a self-made contractor out of the West Virginia mountains, built the house for another family in the mid-1930s but eventually moved into it with wife Linnie Mae, daughter Merrick and son Red. Another concerns how Merrick schemed to get away from the house by stealing another girl’s rich boyfriend.

Tyler assures us the Whitshanks are ordinary folk. Their talent for pretending everything is fine isn’t just a quirk. “Maybe it was just further proof that the Whitshanks were not remarkable in any way whatsoever.”

Methinks Tyler doth protest too much. Tyler has made a career — this is her 20th novel — of illuminating the ordinary so it becomes extraordinary. Her characters both charm and exasperate with their mild eccentricities as they negotiate domestic life, which Tyler depicts as both rich and interesting. Readers will recognize the familiar territory, relish the generous details. Here is Breathing Lessons grown old.

The book is divided into four parts. The first introduces the present-day Whitshanks. Laconic Red and effusive Abby are in their 70s, and their four grown children can no longer pretend that everything is fine at the house on Bouton Road. Red has slowed down significantly since a recent heart attack, and Abby has memory slips. Daughters Amanda and Jeannie, both married to men named Hugh, concur with youngest son Stem that he and his family will move in to look after Red and Abby. Then prodigal slacker son Denny, who has dropped in and out of family life for years, moves home, announcing that he will take care of things and why does everyone think he is unreliable, anyway? The list is so long as to afford chuckles if not for the long-held rivalries and secrets bubbling to the surface. An accident changes everything, and the Whitshanks begin to unravel.

Tyler abruptly time-shifts to July of 1959 and “the beautiful, breezy, yellow-and-green morning” when teens Abby and Red begin their courtship at the Whitshank house. The family is preparing for Merrick’s wedding, and as Abby helps usually quiet Linnie Mae in the kitchen, she learns a surprising fact about her future in-laws. It’s a hint of what’s to come in part three, another extended flashback, this time to Junior and Linnie Mae’s early days in Baltimore. Fascinating stuff, and it goes a long way toward explaining Junior’s attachment to the house.

In the end, Tyler returns to present-day, tying up loose ends at the Whitshank house. It’s almost Halloween so the porch is decorated, as always, with a row of six ghosts made of rubber balls tied up in gauzy white cheesecloth that wafts in the breeze. “The whole front of the house took on a misty, floating look.”

It’s one of those indelible images that Tyler is so good with. Another finds the Whitshanks on their annual trip to the beach, where they observe the next-door neighbors year after year and how they change as time marches on. Abby has yet to venture into the water this vacation. “In her skirted pink swimsuit, her plump shoulders glistening with suntan lotion and her legs lightly dusted with sand, she looked something like a cupcake.”

And then there’s Junior, who, after he finally gets the house of his dreams, starts beginning every sentence with “In this house.”

“In this house they never went barefoot, in this house they wore their good clothes to ride the streetcar downtown, in this house they attended St. David’s Episcopal Church every Sunday rain or shine, even though the Whitshanks could not have possibly started out Episcopalian. So ‘this house’ really meant ‘this family,’ it seemed. The two were one and the same.”

 

 

 

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You may have heard that Anne Tyler includes a ghost in her new novel, The Beginner’s Goodbye. The ghost is Dorothy, a short middle-aged radiologist killed when a tree falls on her house one August. Some months later, she appears to her grieving husband Aaron, a 36-year-old editor at a small Baltimore publisher that specializes in beginners’ how-to guides on various subjects. Aaron first met no-nonsense Dorothy while editing ‘The Beginner’s Cancer” and was impressed when she came right out and asked him about his crippled arm.

Aaron doesn’t believe in ghosts, but here’s Dorothy showing up at his side as he walks down the street or browses in the farmers’ market. These brief encounters cause him to reflect on his so-called happy marriage and how often he and Dorothy were out of sync. And so Dorothy’s ghost begins to ease him out of the suspended animation of his grief, which has landed him back living with his bossy older sister in the family house.

It’s a sweet, slight story written with Tyler’s seemingly effortless grace and charm. But it’s so thin as to be transparent, especially when compared to such Tyler novels as The Accidental Tourist and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. The main characters are the usual endearing oddballs, although I found it easier to believe in Dorothy than obtuse Aaron, whose narrative voice seems that of a much-older man.

In the end, I was smiling, but I also felt bereft. It’s as if I invited Tyler over for a substantive meal, and she just dropped by for tea and sympathy.

Open Book: I bought a digital copy of Anne Tyler’s The Beginner’s Goodbye (Knopf) for my Nook Tablet and my original Nook, which my mom is using. We always read Anne Tyler.

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As promised in About this Blog, I’m hoping to release into the literary wild one old book for every new book that enters my house. At some point, I might even donate two or four or more for every new book. However, I have tried this method before of pruning my jungle without much success.

The New York Times recently asked six authors and one bookseller on what books to cull and what to keep. I rather wish I could be as realistic as Jane Smiley, but my sentiments are with Joshua Ferris:  “Home is Where Your Books Are.”  And even after Chang-rae Lee offers his criteria for all the books he wants to throw away, he says, “But I know I won’t.”

Oh, dear. I’m counting on all BBFs (best book friends) who read this blog to help me by holding me accountable. If I go too long without posting a “Going, going, gone,” demand to see my latest annotated list of books I can live without.

This week I part with three, all old, gently used mass-market paperbacks.

The Five Bells and Bladebone by Martha Grimes, the ninth entry in her witty Richard Jury crime series titled after English pubs. This is actually one of my favorites, where a corpse falls out of a rosewood secretary, and antiques dealer Marshall Trueblood proclaims: “I bought the desk, not the body; send it back.”  I’m keeping my hardcover copy.

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, by Anne Tyler, the masterful and poignant story of the Tull family of Baltimore. Again, I have a hardcover.

Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour an Introduction, by J.D. Salinger, which was Salinger’s last published book about the Glass family. I’ve had this copy since college, and after skimming it this past week, I have no plans to read it again, so out it goes. I do like the last line: “Just go to bed, now.  Quickly. Quickly and slowly.”

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