“The Beginner’s Goodbye” by Anne Tyler (2012)

Leave a comment

“The strangest thing about my wife’s return from the dead was how other people reacted.”

A couple of weeks ago, I spent a few days in Winchester. It’s a city with several affiliated historical residents, such as King Arthur, William II and Jane Austen, the latter two I encountered the graves of. But there was a name I came away with instead: Anne Tyler. She’s more associated with Baltimore, where all her books are set. On the first day there, I stumbled into her books in a bookshop and was oddly captivated by the covers. I put her on my tertiary list: will buy one day. In the pub the next evening, the people on the table next to me started a conversation about Anne Tyler. The following day, a woman was reading Vinegar Girl over her breakfast. I know when the universe is talking to me, so I went back to the bookshop and selected one at random.

This is all a very long-winded way of saying, “Hey guys, I’ve just read some Anne Tyler.”

The Beginner’s Goodbye introduces us to Aaron Woolcott, an editor who has recently lost his wife Dorothy in a freak accident involving an oak tree and their sunporch. Hampered by grief and not quite sure what he’s meant to do with his life now, he moves in with his sister, Nandina, and ignores the damage to his house and his heart. Eventually, after Nandina nags at him, he hires a contractor to start rebuilding the house, and soon things are moving on.

At his publishing house, Aaron’s team are working on adding to their Beginner’s series; a set of books that deal with an introduction to any topic you can imagine, from The Beginner’s Wine Guide to The Beginner’s Kitchen Remodelling. As they seek out more ideas, Dorothy begins to reappear to Aaron, and he starts to wonder if there shouldn’t be a book on how to get over a spouse.

Short and sweet, despite the subject matter mostly being about the death of the loved on and the grief that stems from that, it’s actually weirdly beautiful and uplifting. Oh, the emotions are raw and it feels a very realistic exploration of what happens when you lose a spouse. Neighbours and friends tip-toe around the subject. Aaron is besieged by casseroles and cheesecakes piling up on his doorstep from people in the street who want to feel like they’re helping. And there’s the inevitable attempts of friends to set him up with new people, most often a woman called Louise who lost her husband on Christmas Eve. People seem to think that widowhood is a good basis for a relationship, but as Aaron says, “It’s not as if losing a spouse is some kind of hobby we could share.”

Aaron and Dorothy’s relationship is also fascinating. They’re both intelligent and independent people, who marry after a quick courtship despite seeming to have very little in common and then continuing their lives as if they were both single, rarely displaying affection. Aaron doesn’t like being mollycoddled, and Dorothy, a radiologist, has no intention of doing so. Their marriage is a happy one, though, if not perhaps completely healthy. But then again, I’m single, so what do I know? Whether Dorothy is really coming back to see Aaron or if it’s all in his head is never quite explained, but I know which interpretation I prefer.

I’m also particularly fond of the scenes set in Aaron’s offices. The staff form a strange little family but they’re all oddly familiar. In some ways they’re cliches – the fussy secretary, the beautiful colleague, the solid family man – but Tyler writes with great economy and I feel we get to know them quite intimately with just a few words. It’s clear that the stuff they publish is hardly going to change the world – they’re mostly a vanity – “private” – publishing house, but it’s great that they still feel they want to help old soldiers get their memoirs out there, even though they’re identical to every other military memoir on the shelves.

Honest and sometimes brutal, I think it served as a good introduction to Anne Tyler. I’ll be back.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. If you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

Advertisements

“Sum” by David Eagleman (2009)

Leave a comment

“In the afterlife you relive all your experiences, but this time with the evens reshuffled into a new order: all the moments that share a quality are grouped together.”

There are several questions that have long stood unanswered throughout the history of human. Is there a God? Do we have souls? What is it about Joey Essex that people seem to find tolerable? But one of the biggest is, of course, the question of what happens after we die. Some say we go to heaven or hell, others say we reincarnate, and yet more still say that it’s game over and we get to feed the worms. David Eagleman has other ideas

In his collection of forty stories, he shows us forty alternatives for what the afterlife could have in store of us. Each one is uniquely brilliant, and quite often they’re beautiful, too. In one, you aren’t allowed to die for good until no one on Earth remembers you. In another, only the sinners survived, doomed to suffer eternity with God. In a third, God is a bacterium and doesn’t even know humans exist. Elsewhere, we are a cancer in god’s body; another one has Mary Shelley sat on a throne, cared for by angels, and one story gives us an afterlife where we sit in front of a bank of television screens and watch the world we left behind.

There’s one where you’re stuck with multiple versions of yourself, one for every age you were, and another where the multiple yous all did things differently to you, leading you to be stuck between those who achieved more and those who wasted their lives, hating both equally. Sometimes we weren’t created by gods, but by Programmers, or Technicians, or Cartographers. Each one has enormous scope for just a few short pages of text, and you can get lost wondering which, if any of them, you wouldn’t mind happening.

Sometimes they teach us more about who we were on Earth. For example, the one where you live with more and less successful versions of yourself reminds you that if this one is real, the harder you try and better you do in life, the fewer smug, successful versions of yourself you have to compete with. Another one has you live in an afterlife populated only by the people you knew from your time on Earth, stating that after a while you tire of not being able to meet new people, yet no one having any sympathy for you, because “this is precisely what you chose when you were alive”.

The title story “Sum”, is especially wonderful, as it says our life replays out of order, with similar events grouped together. Here, you “sleep for thirty years without opening your eyes”, spend “fifteen months looking for lost items”, “two weeks wondering what happens when you die”, “eighteen days staring into the refrigerator”, and “one year reading books”, which is definitely far less than I’d get. The moment that gets me though is when he mentions the time you spend experiencing pure joy – fourteen minutes. Compared to the fifteen hours writing our signatures and six days clipping our nails, it’s heartbreaking.

Some of the stories are funny, some deep, but all are thought-provoking in the extreme and Eagleman gets you thinking about what may be out there in the great beyond.

As for me? Well, I’m not religious and I think probably when you die, there’s nothing waiting for us out there. But I like to imagine that, maybe, you end up in a library of some kind, with all the books ever published there. And because I’m a sucker for lists and statistics, I’d like to imagine that your private library contains a book that lists all the statistics that could ever have mattered, from how many ice creams you ate and how much time you spent asleep, to how many books you read, and how many people fell in love with you on public transport.

That’d do for me.

“The Five People You Meet In Heaven” by Mitch Albom (2003)

Leave a comment

“This is a story about a man named Eddie and it behind at the end, with Eddie dying in the sun.”

Given how many books I have unread on my shelves, I always feel a bit guilty re-reading something. However, this took me a single evening and half an hour the following morning, so I don’t feel too bad about it. Plus, it’s totally worth it. I think I last read Five People either while I was at university or perhaps even earlier. I recalled fragments, but I wanted to see if it was as good as I remembered.

The story opens on Eddie’s 83rd birthday. He is the head of maintenance at Ruby Pier, an old amusement park that still attracts a great number of tourists. He continues on his day, not realising that soon he will die. When one of the rides malfunctions, Eddie rushes forward to save a small girl from death, but in the process, loses his own life.

He wakes up in the afterlife, where he learns that he will, one by one, meet five people who somehow made a big impact on his life. Between them, they will teach him lessons and explain what his life meant. Some of them he will know, others he will not, but each of them changed his life forever. As Eddie encounters his five people, he is forced to look back on his life and perhaps re-evaluate what that life was really like. Only when he’s met the five will his life make complete sense, and he can move on to whatever the next stage is.

While a quick read, the morals and messages will last longer. I can see already why parts of this story had stuck with me for so long; just a few tired synapses working hard to make themselves known at times of importance. Eddie is a sympathetic character, and in many ways the book and his life are tragedies, but there is hope there too, and love, and above all the feeling that no one is insignificant and everyone matters. There’s a huge emphasis on how all our stories are interconnected, which I’ve always loved to think about. You are only the protagonist in your own story; supporting cast in the story of everyone you know, and a background extra in millions more. But everyone’s story is important, and they all create changes in others.

It’s heartbreaking and beautiful. I’ve read Mitch Albom a couple of times before, and I always find his prose to be wonderful. He doesn’t waste words, but with the merest explanations and descriptions paints vast images for you to swim in. I don’t know why, really, I feel guilty about re-reading books, because I believe that many times a book comes along just as you need it, and maybe my brain knew that I needed to read this again right now. I implore you to find a copy and find some peace. Because if nothing else, this book will teach you the most important lesson of all, and the one that we all need to be reminded of now and again – you matter.

“R.I.P.” by Nigel Williams (2015)

Leave a comment

And then one morning you wake up dead...

And then one morning you wake up dead…

“‘George!’ said Esmerelda, in a more than usually irritable tone. ‘Are you just going to lie there all day?'”

I’m not especially scared of death, but what will annoy me most about it is not knowing how everything turns out. But would I want to hang around and see what happens to the people I love? It’s an odd thought. However, this slightly macabre introduction is my way to getting into a novel where this exact thing happens. Let’s read on.

George Pearmain is aware one morning of his wife Esmerelda shouting abuse at him. This is nothing unusual and he finds he can’t stir, even while she stands over him telling him how useless and fat he is. In fact, even once Esmerelda leaves and goes downstairs to find George’s mother Jessica dead on the kitchen floor is he capable of moving. It’s only when Esmerelda comes back up that they both realise the truth – George is dead, too.

Other than that, he feels fine though.

The house is full of guests – it was meant to be Jessica’s ninety-ninth birthday – so all the family and a few of her friends have gathered, and there are more on the way who can’t be contacted and told to stop. The police arrive and the efficient DI Hobday becomes convinced that there is more to the situation than there first seems to be. George, now a mere spirit with limited control over his conciousness and none at all over his body, is left hovering around the house trying to piece together what has happened. It soon becomes apparent that both Jessica and George were murdered, and when it emerges that Jessica is worth twelve million pounds and no one has seen her most recent will, everyone becomes a suspect. Money will do strange things to a person.

While genuinely hilarious in places, there is definitely a dark and bittersweet taste to this novel. George is a perfectly likeable man, I found, and it seems a shame that we don’t get to meet him until he’s dead. The rest of his family, however, are horrendously vile. With no main character younger than sixty, this becomes a novel where older people turn against one another with such suspicion, hate and violence that is unseen in the younger generations. George’s siblings, boring newsreader Stephen and qualified witch Frigga, never seemed to like George much, and the feeling was almost certainly reciprocated. The most hellish of all though is Lulu, Stephen’s wife, a harpy of a woman who has a considerable celebrity presence and believes that she is better than everyone around her, partly because she once made Tony Blair cry on national TV.

Despite the comedy, and the premise that it’s being narrated by, essentially, a ghost, it also works as a genuine murder mystery. There are seven or so primary suspects and while many aspects of their personalities are played for laughs, you also find yourself starting to wonder which of them would be so callous as to do away with the harmless George, never mind his ninety-nine year old mother. George, meanwhile, begins to appreciate the life that he had, realising that his marriage was far happier than he ever thought it at the time and that his wife meant more to him than he ever told her. It is, of course, too late.

Sharp, witty to the bitter end, and full of beautiful phrases and clever characterisation, Nigel Williams has blown me away.

“More Than This” by Patrick Ness (2013)

1 Comment

more than“Here is the boy, drowning.”

I was first introduced to Patrick Ness at the end of 2013 when the first of his Chaos Walking trilogy was thrust into my hands by a friend. After gulping the series down and loving every page of it, it wasn’t long before I was discussing the books with another friend and she suggested this one. I bought it last year and have only just got around to reading it (because I do that a lot). Always happy to return to an author I enjoyed, I expected to be blown away once more. Luckily, I was.

This is the story of teenager Seth Wearing and what happens after he dies. He wakes up wrapped in bandages on the front path of the house he grew up in, but hasn’t lived in for eight years not since … not since something terrible happened. The world is entirely deserted, filthy and with weeds growing out of every surface. He cannot explain how he has come to be here, given that this house is in England and was living in America, so comes to assume that this is his own personal hell. After all, the weather is very strange and only hell would send you back to the location where your worst memory took place.

Seth explores the old town, finding supplies in the remains of the shops and houses, but finding absolutely no other people. Every time he falls asleep he is plagued by dreams – bad dreams of what happened before he died, of how he led to his brother being mentally disturbed; how he fell in love with his best fiend Gudmund, but it was all taken away from him when his classmates found out. For days he believes he is all alone until he sees a van moving – the first sign of human activity since he arrived there. But when he tries to call out to the van for help, he finds himself captured by two misfits; angry, strong Regine, and tiny, enthusiastic Tomasz who insist that they are going to save his life. Seth has to work out exactly where he is and what’s going on, which is complicated when the last thing you remember before arriving in a desolate wasteland is breaking your skull against a rock.

Like the Chaos Walking series, Ness is very good at pacing. For the first hundred or so pages, there are no characters except Seth (not counting his flashbacks and dreams) but at no point does this seem a struggle. Ness is a master at cranking up the tension and the book is genuinely terrifying in parts, and just when you think things can’t get any worse, they do. The twists keep on coming and layer after layer of secrets are revealed with such speed and timing that the book soon runs out on itself and you find yourself on the final page with a cliffhanger that will probably frustrate you forevermore. I think it will me.

Although Seth is a fairly bland character – while not a typical boy-genius YA character, he’s pretty inoffensive with nothing to mark him out as special – the small cast around him more than makes up for it. Tomasz is unerringly cheery, even in this wasteland, and his English is flawed but sweet. He’s young but has the eyes and emotions of someone much older, someone who has had no choice in the matter of growing up. Regine is another strong, female character known well in the genre, not taking any shit from the boys but still maintaining a protective, caring side when it needs to be shown. Gudmund appears a nice guy, but is perhaps anything but, which is almost a shame.

This is the sort of book that makes hairs stand up on the back of your neck and you can never really explain why. There’s a lot of ambiguity, particularly as to whether this is all happening in Seth’s mind or if it’s real, and even when things do get explained, you can’t always tell if that makes the situations less creepy or more so.

Frankly, this book just needs to be read, especially if you enjoyed Patrick Ness’s other books, but also if you just like something a bit smart, a bit weird, a bit creepy, and a bit fantastic.