Monthly Archives: July 2012

The Beginner’s Goodbye, by Anne Tyler

One doesn’t expect anything less from Anne Tyler than a beautifully-written, nuanced portrayal of everyday life, and The Beginner’s Goodbye does not disappoint. It’s the second book I’ve read this summer about grief and loss: in this case the story focuses on a husband whose wife has died suddenly as a result of a freak accident. Aaron, the main character, is a young man who due to some slight disabilities has always felt that the women in his family fussed over him and coddled him; he is drawn to the brisk, no-nonsense Dorothy because she’s not a fusser. Her sudden death leaves him devastated, yet as the story of their marriage unfolds in Aaron’s memories, it’s clear that it was by no means a perfect love match: in many ways, Aaron and Dorothy, though they genuinely cared for each other, didn’t know how to make each other happy.

It’s an interesting side of grief to explore — not just the overwhelming pain of loss, but the knowledge that, as is so often the case, the relationship with the person you lost was less than ideal, and now there’s no time to do better, to love more fully. The loss of that opportunity is an inextricable part of the loss itself, and Tyler has portrayed this beautifully in Aaron’s response to his unexpected widowerhood. Aaron begins seeing visions of Dorothy after her death — whether these are in any sense real or products of his own mind is question neither author nor character explore too deeply. What’s important here is not why or how Aaron meets Dorothy, but how he uses those meetings and how their post-death conversations help him to process what’s happened and move forward.

Anytime I do have reservations about an Anne Tyler novel, it generally has to do with whether I like the main character or not. In a book like Noah’s Compass, I can be distracted from enjoying the story by the fact that I simply can’t sympathize with the main character, while in a book like A Patchwork Planet, falling in love with the main character makes me fall in love with the book itself. Aaron, the protagonist of The Beginner’s Goodbye, falls somewhere in between Liam Pennywell and Barnaby Gaitlin on the likeability scale of Tyler characters. He actually has many unattractive personality traits, yet there is something endearing about him too. For me, the only real weakness with this novel was the ending — I wasn’t happy with the way things worked out for Aaron in the long run, and didn’t think the choices he made were consistent with the way his character had been developed throughout the book. But it’s still an enjoyable read and a great character study.

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The Fallback Plan, by Leigh Stein

There’s a certain kind of character in a novel that I just want to shake until his/her teeth rattle. I last encountered this kind of person in Jamie Fitzpatrick’s beautifully written You Could Believe in Nothing. It’s the passive character, the one whose life is going nowhere, who isn’t happy about it, and who seems to lack the energy or gumption to change anything. Now, if this character is, say, Terisa Morgan in Stephen Donaldson’s The Mirror of Her Dreams, and she’s about to get sucked into a fantasy world and turn into a hero, that’s cool. If the novel is realism rather than fantasy you sort of expect that something is going to happen to act as a catalyst for change in this character’s life, that he or she will have moved a few steps in some different direction by the time you close the book. If that hasn’t happened, my overall feeling at the end of the book tends to be, “Why bother having written a book about this character?”

We meet just such a character in The Fallback Plan. Esther Kohler has just graduated from college with a degree in theatre but seems to have no passion, no plan, and no direction about what to do next. She moves back to her parents’ home and tries to avoid adulthood, until her parents (quite sensibly) pressure her into getting a job. Since Esther lacks even basic job-search skills, or enough energy to pound pavements, she falls into the job her parents have lined up for her — babysitting for a neighbouring family.

I’ve seen this novel described as “hilarious” several times, and the writing is certainly funny in tone — Esther has a great voice — and parts of it can be read as humour. But at the core, it’s actually quite a sad novel. Insofar as the reasons for Esther’s quarter-life inertia are explored (which is not a great deal), her situation is rather sad. She’s still recovering from an episode of severe depression which almost derailed her last semester at college — though, in keeping with the light-hearted way this book treats serious subjects, the implication seems to be that Esther somehow made herself depressed by an overdose of method acting while preparing to play a depressed character in a play: any real underlying causes are never addressed.

Even sadder is the situation of the family she babysits for, who have recently lost an infant to SIDS. Their surviving child, Esther’s charge, is an engaging little thing but neither of her parents, severed from themselves and from each other by grief, is really able to connect with her. Esther is able to make that connection, and as much as there’s any emotional core to this novel, anything that does nudge Esther in a less passive direction, it’s her relationship with the child, both of whose parents are trying to make Esther their confidante.

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The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, by Melanie Benjamin

Melanie Benjamin has a real gift for taking the stories of women hidden by history and bringing them to life in fiction, and as I think that’s one of the best reasons for writing and reading historical fiction, I’m always glad to hear she’s written a book. I enjoyed her novel Alice I Have Been a couple of years ago, and The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb has been on my radar ever since it came out.

I think I’ve known the name “Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump” for as long as I can remember (it’s not a name you’d forget). I’ve read a lot of brief references to the famous nineteenth-century little person, General Tom Thumb (obviously that was his stage name; his real name was Charles Stratton) and his wife, who generally went by the name Lavinia Warren. Both were major celebrities in late nineteenth-century America and travelled widely under the management of the famous P.T. Barnum.

This new novel does a wonderful job of bringing Lavinia to life as a strong-willed, feisty, determined woman — a small woman who wanted a larger life. As an unmarried middle-class woman with a difference that would be perceived by most as a disability, Lavinia had already exceeded the options that were supposed to be open to a person of her sex, class and size when she became the teacher in her village schoolhouse. But Lavinia wanted more, and despite the worries and disapproval of her family, she found it when she seized a rather shady opportunity to join a travelling riverboat show. Her role was intended to be that of freak-show oddity, but her own determination, talent, and sense of her personal dignity elevated her to the status of a bona fide performer — though always, as she was well aware, it was her unusual stature that was the draw.

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I Remember Nothing, by Nora Ephron

In the wake of Nora Ephron’s recent death I was inspired to pick up her last book, a collection of essays and short pieces. Many of them are reflections on growing old, especially poignant to read so soon after the author’s death. The last two pieces in the book are lists — “Things I Won’t Miss” and “Things I Will Miss.” Perhaps Ephron knew she was dying when she wrote those lists, or perhaps even before receiving a terminal diagnosis, the onset of old age gets a thoughtful writer thinking about what she’ll leave behind.

Though most of the pieces are light and many very funny, there’s no doubt that Nora Ephron was a thoughtful writer. My favourite and most eye-opening essay in here is the one in which she talks about her early years in the field of journalism and the institutionalized sexism that everyone in the business took for granted in the 1960s, when Ephron began her career. It’s always a bit of a shock for a woman like me, born at about the time Ephron started her working life, to remember that there was a time when it was quite acceptable to give a woman a lower position, with less pay and few if any opportunities for advancement, than a man starting with the same qualities in the same organization. Even more amazing: that young woman accepted this system and took it for granted. Having the perspective of a woman like Nora Ephron who lived through the game-changing years of the women’s movement is helpful and that essay should be required reading for all young women. She was a witty, insightful writer and the world is a little poorer without her.


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The Lady of the Rivers, by Philippa Gregory

This is the latest in Gregory’s series “The Cousins’ War,” in which each novel deals with one of the strong female characters from the Wars of the Roses era. So far she’s written about Elizabeth Woodville (The White Queen) and about Margaret Beaufort (The Red Queen). Now, abandoning the chess theme in her titles, Gregory turns her attention to Elizabeth Woodville’s mother, Jacquetta of Luxembourg. 

If you don’t know the time period well in can be a bit confusing reading these novels as they come out, since the story doesn’t unfold in chronological order. The events of Lady of the Rivers take place well before those of The White Queen; here we see how the circumstances of Jacquetta’s life unfold in such a way that she, a close friend and supporter of the Lancastrian queen Marguerite d’Anjou, was able to support and encourage her daughter’s marriage to Edward of York, who seized the throne from Henry of Lancaster. Switching allegiances was a survival tactic in that turbulent era, and this story show Jacquetta as a consummate survivor.

She seems a warmer, gentler character than she did in her supporting role in The White Queen, but it’s been awhile since I read that book so I may be remembering it wrong. The Red Queen is still by far my favourite of this series of novels, but I definitely enjoyed this book as well. There are so many great, powerful female characters in this period of English history that a novelist like Gregory has enough material to keep her busy for years — I hear that her next novel is going to focus on Warwick’s daughters, and she hasn’t even touched on Cecily Neville or on Marguerite d’Anjou as a viewpoint character yet, both of whom would make great main characters for a novel. I’m looking forward to the next installment.

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Pope Joan, by Donna Woolfolk Cross

There’s a lot to like and also a lot to critique in this historical novel, which came out in the 90s but has been re-released in the last few years. It’s great that somebody wrote a novel about the Pope Joan story (in her Afterword, Cross discusses the historical evidence for and against the story being true). If you’ve never heard of Pope Joan, the story is that sometime back in the 9th century a woman disguised as a man rose through the ranks of church hierarchy to become Pope, but the deception was exposed after a couple of years when she gave birth to a stillborn child during a procession, and subsequently died in childbirth.

Cross’s novel creates a relatively plausible backstory for how such an unlikely career path might have unfolded, and does a really good job of taking the reader into the atmosphere of ninth-century Europe. You really get a sense of the chaos, ignorance, and superstition that dominated life for the average peasant. Things that seem obvious to us today — like that when a person is accused of a crime, evidence should be brought to determine whether they did it or not — were unknown in that world, and I found that including those kind of details Cross really did a great job of bringing me into the world of the story and putting me into the heads of characters from that time.

However, the book’s weakness lies in the fact that its main character, Joan, is not a woman of her time. Of course, if you’re working with a story like the Pope Joan story, you’d have to concede from the outset that a woman would have to be quite extraordinary and very much of a rebel to disguise herself as a man and go into the Church. But she should still be a strong-willed, rebellious woman of her time, and it seemed to me as I read the novel that Cross’s Joan was a modern woman in a ninth-century body. She looks at the world in modern ways, sees through all the prejudices of her own time, introduces and suggests so many modern innovations that it boggles the mind. She seems to understand the germ theory of how disease is spread! And of course she’s brilliant and good at everything. She’s a Medieval Mary Sue.

Then there’s the love story. Admittedly, if you’re going with the familiar legend in which a pregnancy gave away Joan’s game, you’d have to concede that there must have been at least one man who knew she was a woman and didn’t expose the truth. There are a lot of ways you could have that play out, but Cross chooses the most romantic and sentimental possibility, creating a romance for Joan so sweet that it made me gag a little. And yes, I have one more quibble: this is a novel about a woman who rose to the highest possible position in the Roman Catholic Church, yet as Cross portrays Joan, she’s much more drawn to her mother’s pagan (Saxon) beliefs than to her father’s Christian faith. While there were plenty of practicing pagans around at the time and it’s entirely possible Joan’s mother could have been a closet pagan, the whole thing smacks a little too much of the author wanting to have her cake and eat it too — wanting Joan to be a monk and a scholar and powerful in the church, yet not wanting her to actually believe all that unfashionable Christianity nonsense — so much cooler if deep down she’s really pagan, because being pagan is trendy and smart!

Sorry, I’m being more sarcastic about this book than I should given the fact that I really did enjoy reading it and found it a great page-turner. It’s just that it’s such a good story, with so much solid research behind it, that I wanted it to be better than it was — to avoid the easy cliches of historical fiction and give us a more complex and potentially historically accurate Pope Joan. Whether or not she really existed, I wanted to come away from the novel convinced that she did, and this Joan was just too modern to be true.

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Small Man in a Book, by Rob Brydon

never read celebrity bios. I mean, almost never. If you click on “Categories” on the right sidebar and selection “Nonfiction — memoir” you’ll find 96 reviews of books by people writing about their own lives. I think Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking and Michael J. Fox’s Always Looking Up  are probably the only two selections there from people who are famous mainly for being in show business. (I did also read Ken Jennings’ Brainiac and Barack Obama’s Dreams from my Father but I’m not sure either of those count as “celebrity bios.”) For the most part I prefer books by — well, by writers.

But Rob Brydon’s Small Man in a Book is another celebrity bio for which I was willing to make an exception and I’m glad I did because I thoroughly enjoyed it. Now, I realize the definition of “celebrity” can be a bit stretchy and there are many millions of people in my part of the world who would not recognize either Rob Brydon’s name or his face. Obviously he’s a much bigger star in Britain but not having a good sense of the British entertainment scene I don’t know how big a star he is. I first encountered him as a very funny panelist on QI; he’s also the host of our new favourite British quiz show Would I Lie to You and is perhaps best known as Uncle Bryn from the sitcom Gavin and Stacey. Before he got known for any of those things he spent many years working his way up the show-biz ladder as a stand-up comedian, voice-over artist and many other non-glamorous gigs, all of which he describes in hilarious detail in this book.

I know most show-business people have their memoirs ghostwritten but Rob Brydon either wrote this himself, or had it written by a ghostwriter who’d spent a lot of time listening to him (perfectly plausible I guess) since his distinctive voice comes through very clearly here. As I read, I imagined him saying it all out loud to me, so it was like having an audiobook in my head, which was very nice. I was reading it as an e-book, as I usually do, and there were frequent references to enhanced features you could get by “clicking here” if you were reading the e-book, like video and audio clips of performances he was describing. I can only assume these references were bits of dry British humour since there were no enhanced features that I could detect but anyone watching me read would probably have been entertained by seeing me stab my Playbook repeatedly with my index finger while laughing out loud. Alternatively, it’s possible the enhanced features exist but you can only get them on the iPad, which would go further towards explaining the RIM tailspin. But I digress.

While there may not be any embedded video clips there is a lot to enjoy and laugh at here. There was also, perhaps surprisingly in an actor’s bio, a lot that I could relate to. I knew before I picked up the book that I found Rob Brydon very, very funny, but I didn’t know that we were exactly the same age and shared a passionate love, bordering on obsession, with the music of Bruce Springsteen when we were younger. (Brydon eventually got famous enough to meet Springsteen; I eventually got financially solvent enough that I’m finally going to see him in concert). Also, I was interested to notice how many aspects of trying to “make it” as an actor/comedian are similar to the experiences you have while trying to “make it” as a writer — the gigs that draw the embarrassingly tiny audience but you have to put the best face on it anyway, the things you think are brilliant that nobody notices, and most interesting of all (and I’ve never seen anyone else describe this quite as well as Brydon does) the concept that at a certain point you reach a level of mild success, enough to pay the bills but far less than the dizzying heights you once dreamed of achieving, and have to decide whether you’re OK with staying at that level, or whether you want to keep pushing further.

Obviously if Brydon had been content with being a successful voice-over artist and hadn’t kept striving for greater success, I wouldn’t have ever heard of him or read his bio, so I’m glad he kept going! Even if you don’t know who Rob Brydon is you might find this interesting, but if you are a fan of his work this is a must-read.


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Torch, by Cheryl Strayed

Like a lot of people, I first heard of Cheryl Strayed through her currently-popular memoir Wild, which I’m proud to say I read, loved and promoted before Oprah did (this has happened a few times with books, but we’re not getting a lot of buzz around Trudy’s Book Club 2.0). While Torch was critically acclaimed when it came out a few years earlier, it wasn’t the monster hit that Wild has turned out to be, so I’m sure there are a lot of readers like me who are discovering Strayed’s earlier novel only after reading her recent memoir.

It’s kind of a reverse-Alice-Sebold effect: Sebold wrote a very good memoir, Luckyabout her own experience as a rape victim, but lots of people didn’t know about it until her novel The Lovely Bones, also at least partly about rape, became a huge hit. In Cheryl Strayed’s case, it was reading her true-life experience in Wild that led me back to the novel Torch, which is fictional but deeply rooted in the author’s lived experience.

Readers of Wild will remember that Cheryl’s life fell apart after her beloved mother died of a very swift-moving and aggressive cancer in her forties, when her three children were young adults. In Torch, Teresa is only thirty-eight when she is diagnosed with cancer and dies seven weeks later, leaving her husband, her teenaged son and her college-aged daughter to cope with the aftermath of a life suddenly torn apart.

Torch alternates between points of view — we get Teresa’s viewpoint when she is first diagnosed and begins receiving treatment. She’s an energetic, optimistic woman who can hardly believe this is happening to her. As her illness moves quickly her voice falls silent and for the bulk of the novel the three points of view are those of Josh, who drops out of high school and starts selling drugs in the chaos surrounding his mother’s death; Bruce, Teresa’s husband, who finds himself emotionally distant from his beloved stepchildren and unable to be a father to them, and who quickly falls into a new relationship; and Claire, who breaks up with her boyfriend and leaves college, but generally seems to cope the best of the three of them with this sudden loss.

All the characters are depicted well and with compassion, making this a very nuanced and thoughtful study of a family in the midst of grief. So many things ring true. such as the complete self-absorption and casual unkindness of young adult children when relating to their parents, backed up by the unthinking assumption that the parent will always be there, loving and available. Both Claire and Josh are left reeling when the mother they fiercely love but naturally take for granted is gone — and so, to all intents and purposes, is the stepfather who has always been like a father to them. Each of them does things, in this time of grief and loss, that it would be easy to label “unforgiveable” — but the novel hints at the hope and possibility of forgiveness anyway.

I read Torch quickly and found it absorbing and very well-written. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoyed Wild or just to anyone who’s looking for a good contemporary novel dealing with cancer, death, grieving and family.

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Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller

This Orange Prize-winning novel retells the legendary tale of Achilles from the Iliad, not as a story of war, conquest, or even heroism, really, but as a love story. The centre of the novel is the relationship between the great Greek hero Achilles and his companion, Patroclus. The Iliad doesn’t explicitly state that Achilles and Patroclus were lovers, though many later Greek writers presumed that they were. (And not that, in the words of the utterly-brilliant-deserves-to-be-an-epic-itself Troy in Fifteen Minutes, Patroclus was Achilles’ “Cousin. He’s my cousin. Cousin. Totally my cousin. In conclusion: Cousin.”)

Patroclus is the story’s narrator: in this telling, he is the shyer, more awkward, less brilliant and certainly less athletic of the two friends; after accidentally killing another boy Patroclus is exiled from his home and brought up as a foster child in the court of Achilles’ father. Achilles is the Big Man on Campus, gifted with a divine mother and supernatural abilities as an athlete, a musician, and most importantly, a soldier. The two are drawn together and form a lifelong bond that is both romantic and sexual.  And then the Trojan War breaks out, and all hell breaks loose.

I’ve read really widely varying opinions about this book, from those who thinks it’s an instant classic worthy of Homeric status (which would presumably include the people who gave Miller the Orange Prize), to those who think that turning one of the great legends of western literature into a gay teenage romance somehow cheapens the material. Personally, I liked it a lot. I found the characters engaging and I got involved in their story, and it moved me. As opposed to, say, Margaret George’s Helen of Troy, which was a bit of a letdown from one of my favourite writers, I found that Song of Achilles really did make mythical characters human and believable.

However, I think there’s an inherent problem with translating mythic characters to modern novels: the writer is constrained by the myth, and the characters have to act more or less the way they do in the original story. I found this a weakness here, since Achilles’s actions during the Trojan War cause him to behave like a rather different person than the character that has been established throughout the first half of the book. There was never really any motivation given for this character change; we’re just supposed to accept that Achilles becomes completely fixated on his own honour and glory, even at the cost of the lives of people he cares about — just because, well, that’s what Achilles does, even though he’s not been shown to be that kind of man. I found this a bit of a limitation with the novel, but otherwise enjoyed it very much.



Filed under Fiction -- historical