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

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“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.

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“H Is For Hawk” by Helen Macdonald (2014)

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hawk“Forty-five minutes north-east of Cambridge is a landscape I’ve come to love very much indeed.”

My faith in memoir still hasn’t quite recovered from my last dalliance with it, but I fancied something based in truth rather than fiction. H is for Hawk was a book that bookshops seemed incredibly keen on advertising. Indeed, last summer you couldn’t pass a Waterstone’s without a seeing a whole window dedicated to the book, just as Go Set a Watchman is doing at the moment.

Eventually I succumbed and bought a copy and now urge you to do the same. Helen Macdonald, our narrator, has always been fascinated by raptors and from a young age was keen to become a falconer, despite it traditionally being something that is considered a bit of a “boy’s club” and definitely something linked to the aristocracy. As a child she learnt all the terms and read every book she could get her hands on, and indeed eventually her dreams came true and she started training birds.

Then, quite suddenly, her father dies. She is racked with grief, almost unable to go on, and decides that the only way to keep herself in check is to train a new bird; in this case, a goshawk, one of the most difficult species to tame. On a Scottish dock, she purchases Mabel and the two set about getting to know one another and as time goes on and their relationship develops, they start to learn from each other and the threads of wildness and domesticity begin to tangle up in new and unusual ways.

Not only is it the story of Helen and Mabel, but it’s also a back door biography of T H White, the author of Helen’s apparent birding bible, The Goshawk, but perhaps better known to most of us as the writer behind the retelling of the Arthurian legends, most notably, The Sword in the Stone. Mixing in with the genres of misery memoir, biography and falconry textbook, there is also a vast amount of nature writing, painting the British countryside in wonderfully poetic and descriptive hues.

There is something hugely compelling about the writing. Macdonald is clearly in love with the subjects she tackles and bravely holds forth on memories of such a painful time in her life. There are moments of utter joy, such as when she discovers that goshawks are capable of play, and dreadful sadness when depression sweeps over her and she is trapped in a black fug of grief.

Macdonald never seems to particularly anthropomorphise Mabel, although I’m sure the temptation is there and once or twice she inserts lines suggesting what Mabel might be thinking. However, she also never loses sight of the fact that this is a wild animal, and could easily turn against her and fly off to never return at any time. There’s a wonderful note in the text that even though humans have coexisted with birds of prey for thousands of years, we’ve never been able to domesticate them completely. They remain as unchanged and wild as they were when our ancestors first took an interest in them. They represent something otherworldly, it seems, and Macdonald frequently points out how Mabel is reptilian in many aspects of her appearance and behaviour, a reminder that this is what the dinosaurs turned into.

A captivating and engaging read about what it is to be human, to be wild, to grieve, and to love.

“Hey Nostradamus!” by Douglas Coupland (2003)

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hey nos“I believe that what sparates humanity from everything else in this world – spaghetti, binder paper, deep-sea cretures, edelweiss and Mount McKinley – is that humanity alone has the capacity at any given moment to commit all possible sins.”

Possibly in part because it has one of the most wonderful opening lines in all fiction (see above), Hey Nostradamus! is one of my favourites in the Coupland canon. It feels a little more grown up than his previous books, but still full of characters seeking meaning in their lives. In this case, we get to see the internal thoughts of four characters in four very distinct sections.

The first part of the book takes place in 1988 and is narrated by Cheryl. Cheryl is seventeen, secretly married and secretly pregnant. Her devoutly religious friends know none of this but suspect that she is sleeping with her boyfriend (or rather, husband) Jason and are quite content to let her know that they think it’s wrong. But then life takes a terrifying twist and Cheryl is killed by a fellow student in a high school massacre.

The second part of the book, and the largest, is narrated by Jason who is writing a letter to his nephews in 1999, eleven years after the death of his secret wife. Destined to forever be “that guy who never got over it”, he tells his version of events from that awful day in 1988 and explains what he’s doing with his life now, which mostly involves keeping his head down and trying not to attract any attention from people who want to know all the grisly details of his past.

The third part is narrated by Heather in 2002. She is a woman who meets Jason and finds within him a kindred spirit, and she becomes the first person he has opened up to in years. Between them they have invented a whole world populated by strange characters. But Heather is far from happy, for reasons that I don’t divulge here because you need some reason to read the book. The final and shortest chapter is written in 2003 by Jason’s tyrannical and devoutly religious father Reg, who struggles with the notion that while he’s sure he’ll be getting into Heaven, he can’t vouch for the other members of his family.

It’s a stunning book that deals with so many big issues – murder, grief, religion, suffering, familial relationships, marriage and guilt – but never once feels dense. The characters are fundamentally likeable (except possibly for Reg – it depends on your interpretation by the time you reach his pages) and they’re all lost for one reason or another, desperate for a sign that their lives have meaning, or at least that they aren’t entirely alone.

There are some macarbe and gory scenes, in particular the one where the surviving school students turn on one of the gunmen and kill him in an outrageously cartoonish way. The book was inspired partly by the events at Columbine, although the shooting takes place in a time long before that event has happened. The language and ideas presented, however, are as Couplandish (Couplandic? Couplandesque?) as ever, such as suggesting how useful it would be to have a gauge that measured how susceptible we are to different sins, just to give us a warning, and how you should never write down anything in a list that means anything to you. And one line that I adore and wholeheartedly agree with: “Forget drama and torrid sex and the clash of opposites. Give me banter any day of the week.”

To paraphrase another reviewer on the back cover of this book, it’s not a book that’s pretentious enough to offer up the answers to life, but it explains quite clearly that seeking them out is what makes us human.