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Noah’s Compass – Anne Tyler

Noah’s Compass – Anne Tyler

I went to a second hand book store/book exchange and I always feel I have to buy something. So when I saw this Anne Tyler novel I was on it.  I have read quite a few Anne Tyler novels – I like how the ordinary is made extraordinary.

Here is the blurb …

Quintessential Tyler, yet full of surprises – a perfectly pitched, enchanting and affecting novel about a man adrift in his own life, Noah’s Compass chimes gently, heart-breakingly with our times.

With the humour and poignancy of her classic The Accidental Tourist (though with a protagonist who doesn’t venture far from home) Anne Tyler’s new novel tells the story of a year in the life of Liam Pennywell, a man in his sixty-first year. A classical pedant, he’s just been ‘let go’ from his school teaching job and downsizes to a tiny out-of-town apartment, where he goes to bed early and alone on his first night.

Widowed, re-married, divorced and the father of three daughters, Liam is a man who is proud of his recall but has learned to dodge issues and skirt adventure. An unpleasant event occurs, though, to jolt him out of his certainty. Obsessed with a frightening gap in his memory, he sets out to uncover what happened, and finds instead an unusual woman with secrets of her own, and a late-flowering love that brings its own thorny problems. His ex-wife (sensible Barbara) and daughters worry about him but Liam blunders on, His teenage daughter Kitty is sent to stay – though it’s not clear who is minding whom. His middle daughter, Louise, is a born-again Christian with a son called Jonah, but her certainties leave Liam still more perplexed.

Noah’s Compass is about memory and its loss, about incidents and relationships which open up sight lines into a painful past long dead for a man who becomes aware that merely trying to stay afloat may not be enough.

Liam is disconnected from his own life – he has few friends and seems disengaged from his children. His two older children are angry at his emotional absence, but he just seems confused by them.  At the start, Liam has given up. He is planning on leading a small life – marking time until he dies – and then he suffers memory loss after a burglary gone wrong and becomes obsessed by the memory gap. While visiting a neuroscientist he overhears another patient in the waiting room being reminded (subtly) of someone’s name and he decides that’s what he needs a ‘rememberer’. He stalks this woman and they have a relationship – although she is not as she seems.

Liam is a non-stick man – he passes through life and nothing seems to stick – wives, children, friends, jobs. He is going through the motions but is not living. However, his memory loss, meeting Eunice, having Kitty (and her boyfriend) move in, minding Jonah and his oldest daughter’s anger seems to somehow ignite him and he becomes part of the world.

As always, the writing is beautiful, but unobtrusive.

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A Patchwork Planet – Anne Tyler

A Patchwork Planet - Anne Tyler

A Patchwork Planet – Anne Tyler

I do like Anne Tyler novels, so when someone donated this one to the second hand book stall at my daughter’s school fete I had to have it. One of the perks of volunteering is that we see the books first. It was clearly a well-loved novel and might even have had a bath at some stage!

Here’s the blurb …

Barnaby Gaitlin is a loser – just short of thirty he’s the black sheep of a philanthropic Baltimore family. Once upon a time he had a home, a loving wife, a little family of his own; now he has an ex-wife, a 9-year-old daughter with attitude, a Corvette Sting Ray that’s a collectors item but unreliable, and he works as hired muscle for Rent-a-Back, doing heavy chores for old folks. He has an almost pathological curiosity about other people’s lives, which has got him into serious trouble in the past, and a hopeless charm which attracts the kind of angelic woman who wants to save him from himself. Tyler’s observation is more acute and more delicious than ever; her humour slyer and more irresistible; her characters so vividly realised that you feel you’ve known this quirky collection for ever. With perfect pitch and poise, humor and humanity, Anne Tyler chronicals, better than any writer today, the sublime and the ridiculous of everyday living, the foibles and frailties of the ordinary human heart.

At first I wondered what type of book I was reading, as Barnaby stalked a women he met at the train station, but my sympathy for Barnaby grew as the story progressed. He appeared to be a hopeless case – troubled youth, unskilled job  and divorced with a bad relationship with his daughter, but as the story unfolds you realise there is more to Barnaby than appears at first sight.

All of the Gaitlin men meet an ‘angel’ who changes the direction of their lives. Barnaby thinks the woman on the train, Sophia, might just be his angel. She does change the direction of his life, but not in the way you would expect. She finds him charming on the train and is intrigued (and attracted) by his job. So much so she encourages her ageing aunt to employ him several hours a week. Meanwhile we meet Barnaby’s mother a ‘poor girl who has married well’ who can’t let go of Barnaby’s mis-spent youth. Frequently reminding him of the money they had to spend to pay-off the neighbours after his thefts. Barnaby and Sophia embark on a relationship and Barnaby decides to pay his mother back the money and so free himself from her forever. The other interesting character is Martine Barnaby’s co-worker and friend (they have a lovely bantering relationship). Sophia’s aunt accuses Barnaby of stealing her money (everyone knows she keeps it in the flour tin). It turns out she moved it and then forgot, but Sophia replaces the money in the tin (therefore proving herself to doubt Barnaby). Sophia is originally attracted to Barnaby because of his job, but then she wants him to change – get a better job (perhaps at her bank) and keep the money his mother refuses to take to buy the occasional luxury.

This brings me to theme or idea that I have been thinking about since finishing this novel – life style choices and how hard it is to go against the conventional view of success. By all accounts Barnaby’s life is a failure – failed marriage, dead-end job and living in someone’s basement, but his job is valuable (and brings joy and companionship to the people he helps) and he doesn’t have extravagant needs or wants. He is content.

“The way I see it, everyone has a choice: living rich and working hard to pay for it, or living a plain uncomplicated life and taking it easy”

As with all Anne Tyler novels the writing is beautiful.

If I had to eat one more stewy-tasting, mixed and mingled, gray-colored one-dish meal, I’d croak!

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A Spool of Blue Thread – Anne Tyler

A Spool of Blue Thread - Anne Tyler

A Spool of Blue Thread – Anne Tyler

Anne Tyler is one of my favourite authors. I love her narrow focus – like Austen’s three or four families in a country village. It is the common experience made extraordinary. I have read Breathing Lessons, The Beginner’s Goodbye and Breathing Lessons and was keen to read A Spool of Blue Thread. I went to the Lane Book store (my small attempt to keep an independent book store alive).

Here is the blurb …

“It was a beautiful, breezy, yellow-and-green afternoon.” This is the way Abby Whitshank always begins the story of how she fell in love with Red that day in July 1959. The whole family–their two daughters and two sons, their grandchildren, even their faithful old dog–is on the porch, listening contentedly as Abby tells the tale they have heard so many times before. And yet this gathering is different too: Abby and Red are growing older, and decisions must be made about how best to look after them, and the fate of the house so lovingly built by Red’s father. Brimming with the luminous insight, humor, and compassion that are Anne Tyler’s hallmarks, this capacious novel takes us across three generations of the Whitshanks, their shared stories and long-held secrets, all the unguarded and richly lived moments that combine to define who and what they are as a family.

I really enjoyed the sections about Abby and Red – their courting days and as an elderly couple with adult children. The story is mostly told from Abby’s point of view, but you get snippets from the other family members. Abby is generous and caring always bringing ‘strays’ home for Sunday lunch. It is clear that her children (well at least one) recent her attention being elsewhere. This novel is about the give and take of relationships, differing expectations, secrets and what is required from each member of a family.

However, I didn’t enjoy the section on Junior and Linnie. I thought Junior was repellent. Although I did enjoy reading about his craftsmanship and the beautiful home he built – just whose burglar kit was it?

As always, the writing was lovely and I have a real feel for the house – the porch, sun-room and the intricate woodwork. And I want to know what happens next – how will Red cope in his small apartment, will Denny finally settle down, and what about Stem?

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The Beginner’s Goodbye – Anne Tyler

The Beginner's Goodbye - Anne Tyler

The Beginner’s Goodbye – Anne Tyler

I’m a Anne Tyler fan – a review here and here – I like how she can make the ordinary extraordinary.

I picked this one up from the library and it was quite an easy read (shorter than other Tyler novels).

Here is the blurb …

Anne Tyler gives us a wise, haunting, and deeply moving new novel in which she explores how a middle-aged man, ripped apart by the death of his wife, is gradually restored by her frequent appearances–in their house, on the roadway, in the market.

Crippled in his right arm and leg, Aaron has spent his childhood fending off a sister who wants to manage him. So when he meets Dorothy, a plain, outspoken, independent young woman, she is like a breath of fresh air. Unhesitatingly, he marries her, and they have a relatively happy, unremarkable marriage.

But when a tree crashes into their house and Dorothy is killed, Aaron feels as though he has been erased forever. Only Dorothy’s unexpected appearances from the dead help him to live in the moment and to find some peace.

Gradually he discovers, as he works in the family’s vanity-publishing business, turning out titles that presume to guide beginners through the trials of life, that maybe for this beginner there is a way of saying goodbye.

A beautiful, subtle exploration of loss and recovery, pierced throughout with Anne Tyler’s humor, wisdom, and always penetrating look at human foibles.

This was an intriguing premise – right from the start we know Dorothy is dead and that she is visiting Aaron. It does take her a while to come back and at first she is just there not speaking, but then she talks and then they argue. This was a lovely way to show the progress of grief – at first Dorothy (and their life together) is perfect, but then he starts thinking other things – like how nice it is to sort his cupboards and know they will stay sorted, how Dorothy wasn’t very interested in food and how she didn’t pay much attention to how she looked.

The great thing about this novel is the fine detail – almost a series of vignettes of Aaron and Dorothy’s life together is portrayed. The first date – where Dorothy wears her white coat, the wedding – very small, the search for the triscuits, which ended so badly. Through all of these incidents character is revealed and the plot moves slowly forward.

Aaron’s publishing company publishes beginners guides to things – The Beginner’s Dinner Party – and this novel is a beginner’s guide to goodbye.

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Saint Maybe – Anne Tyler


I picked this book us from the library (in large print! – I quite like large print I wonder if that means I need reading glasses?).

I liked Anne Tyler. I like how her novels focus on more domestic themes – everyday life with all of its complexities.

Here is the book description …

In 1965, the happy Bedloe family is living an ideal, apple-pie existence in Baltimore. Then, in the blink of an eye, a single, tragic event occurs that will transform their lives forever — particularly that of seventeen-year-old Ian Bedloe, the youngest son, who blames himself for the sudden “accidental” death of his older brother.Depressed and depleted, Ian is almost crushed under the weight of an unbearable, secret guilt. Then one crisp January evening, he catches sight of a window with glowing yellow neon, the Church of the Second Chance. He enters and soon discovers that forgiveness must be earned, through a bit of sacrifice and a lot of love.

The characters in this novel are wonderfully portrayed – they all seem to be real (and completely ordinary). This novel is about guilt and atonement, but also about family and where individuals fit into a family and what is required to be part of a family. Ian sacrifices greatly to atone for his brother’s death (which he thinks he caused). He raises his brother’s children (with some help from his parents) which involves giving up college and the life he might have imagined for himself.

‘Right,’ Ian told her. ‘I had both my parents helping, and still it wasn’t easy. A lot of it was just plain boring. Just providing a warm body, just being there; anyone could have done it. And then other parts were terrifying. Kids get into so much! They start to matter so much. Some days I felt like a fireman or a lifeguard or something – all that tedium, broken up by little spurts of high drama.’

I think that’s a fantastic quote about parenting. Sometimes it is boring – admiring the thirtieth picture of a dinosaur for that day, reading yet another Princess story and yet it does matter.

Having said that, I was a bit disappointed with the ending. I wanted something better for Ian – not just more of the same – still living at home (albeit with his wife), looking after another baby and his aging father.

Here’s a study guide …


and it was made into a TV movie


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Breathing Lessons – Anne Tyler


I’ve been making an effort to get books from the library and this is one I found while browsing (I was looking for Sarah Waters). It one the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

I liked this one – Maggie is so annoying. She interferes with the best of intentions and then just makes every thing worse. The characters are fabulous and the situations so believable. Ms Tyler works on a small canvas – not many characters and people don’t move far from their hometown. A bit like Austen’s ‘three or four families in a country village’.

Here is the blurb …

Maggie and Ira Moran have been married for twenty-eight years–and it shows: in their quarrels, in their routines, in their ability to tolerate with affection each other’s eccentricities. Maggie, a kooky, lovable meddler and an irrepressible optimist, wants nothing more than to fix her son’s broken marriage. Ira is infuriatingly practical, a man “who should have married Ann Landers.” And what begins as a day trip to a funeral becomes an adventure in the unexpected. As Maggie and Ira navigate the riotous twists and turns, they intersect with an assorted cast of eccentrics–and rediscover the magic of the road called life and the joy of having somebody next to you to share the ride . . . bumps and all.
This is a novel for people (like me) who don’t need a lot of action, but like to see the plot slowly unfold and reveal more and more about the characters.
Here are some other sites that might be of interest.


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