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review 2020-04-29 18:22
"Redhead By The Side Of The Road" by Anne Tyler - Highly Recommended
Redhead By The Side Of The Road - Anne Tyler,MacLeod Andrews

'Redhead ByThe Side Of The Road' opens with:

'You have to wonder what goes through the mind of a man like Micah Mortimer. He lives alone. He keeps to himself. His routine is etched in stone.'

Yet this is not something most authors wonder about at all.

 

Not unless it turns out that Micah Mortimer is an ex-CIA black ops assassin, hiding from his violent past, or a yet-to-be-discovered serial killer, or about to inherit a mysterious object from a distant, reclusive relative that reveals him to be the only one who can hold back the demon hoards as the veil between the worlds thins.

What makes Anne Tyler unique is that she can summon up the life of this ordinary, disconnected man in a way that combines empathy, acute insight and just a hint of wry humour.

 

I listen to a day in Micah's life and I'm enabled to see him more clearly than he has ever seen himself and, instead of shaking my head at how clueless he is, I'm left wondering just how clearly I do see myself.

 

The book is accessible and engaging. Even though Micah isn't the classic broken man with a dark past, or perhaps because he isn't that classic broken man, I found I wanted to know what was going to happen to him and how he came to be how he is: a man who fixes computers for old ladies, a man who believes that if your house looks cleaner when you've cleaned it then you've left too long between cleans, a man to whom it never occurs, when his girlfriend tells him she's going to be evicted, to offer her shelter; a man who blames his failing eyesight for the fact that, when he is on his morning run without his glasses, he repeatedly mistakes a fire hydrant for a redhead at the side of the road and never once wonders why he doesn't learn.

 

The more I learned about Micah, the more of myself I saw in him. I think this was mainly the magic of Anne Tyler's empathy spell but I'm not entirely sure

Take this example from a beautifully drawn scene of chaotic family life in which Micah is having dinner with his four sisters and their families and is very much the odd one out. The family suddenly decides to try and find an old girlfriend of Micah's from twenty years earlier and we get this exchange:

"She still got her same last name?.

He had taken his cellphone out and was stabbing it with his index finger.

'Nobody on earth lists their phone number anymore,' Micah told him.

'Îs she on Facebook?'

'Not if she's in her right mind she's not.'

'I don't know how you can say that,' Suze told him. 'If I weren't on Facebook I wouldn't know what a single highschool friend of mine was up to.'

'You care what you're highschool friends are up to?' Micah asked.

I listened to the dialogue, knew it was supposed to be funny but found myself going, 'What's funny about that? That's exactly what I'd say.'

 

Then there are the small ways Anne Tyler uses the small things to share the way forty-something Micah thinks, like his conclusion at the start of this telephone conversation:

'Halfway through eating his lunch, he got a customer call.
“Tech Hermit” he said and a woman said, "Hi." all perkiness and optimism. She was probably still in her twenties.'

That's all it takes to tell you that he's sure the perkiness and the optimism will wear off with time.

 

What I liked most about this story was its kindness. Anne Tyler doesn't vivisect Micah and leave him splayed out on a board so we can see how he works, She takes us with him as he slowly, often painfully slowly, figures out what will really make him happy and what he has to do about it. It's not a big drama, it's just real-life, but a version of real-life where we get second chances, where we finally understand what we love and where with a little luck and a little courage we might have a shot at happiness.

 

I listened to the audiobook version of the novella which is perfectly delivered by MacLeod Andrews. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear him work.

 

https://soundcloud.com/penguin-audio/redhead-by-the-side-of-the

 
 

 

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review 2020-01-22 23:16
Vinegar Girl
Vinegar Girl - Anne Tyler

Vinegar Girl is Anne Tyler's contribution to the Hogarth Shakespeare series, which attempts to put a modern spin on a re-telling of The Taming of the Shrew

 

I had issues with the original play and I was very keen to find out whether Tyler would interpret the play differently. Would she stick to the literal description of the relationship between Kate and Petruccio or would she re-interpret it? How would the story be able to stand up in a modern setting?

 

What I found was that Vinegar Girl seemed to be rather confused by its own parameters. One one hand we have a modern setting with a headstrong woman as main character, on the other we're supposed to believe that can be persuaded to not only be chief cook and bottle washer for her scientist father and airhead sister while also having a career of her own, and on top that she's not objecting to having a green card marriage arranged against her will. I just found it hard to believe this. It was a setting that was difficult in the original play, but at least it was plausible because of the time it was set in. 

In 2013, this makes no sense. 

 

I was also confused by the sheer number of tropes the book employed - the eccentric scientist father, the airhead sister, the militant animal rights activist, the vegetarian who doesn't understand basic food facts, the rude generic Eastern European/Russian lab assistant - I was looking for more depth, but got none. 

 

To be fair, at least with respect to Pyotr, Tyler created something quite fun: originally we get to meet him as the awkward and rude lab assistant. I'm not sure whether it is ever stated which country he is from, so for most of the book he is the "generic" Eastern European/Russian (why did Tyler not bother with more details? Did she not trust her readers to be able differentiate between countries?).

In the course of the book, we get to see more and more sides of Pyotr and find out that he isn't the unsophisticated, rude, misogynist idiot that he appears to be at the beginning of the book. I guess Tyler tried to make the reader follow Kate's footsteps in warming to Pyotr by the end of the book. 

This was really well done.

 

Alas, this was not enough to make me like the book. For a large part I was bored and wishing I had just re-watched Ten Things I Hate About You.  

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review 2018-12-06 00:00
Searching for Caleb
Searching for Caleb - Anne Tyler So, my spouse's best friend from high school has a daughter, Becca, who just gave birth to a son. Apparently, in Jewish culture, it is common to write up a little essay on the new child's name and what it means to the parents. Becca's new son is to be named Caleb, and one of the reasons, it seems, is that one of her favorite books is Searching for Caleb. So, I figured I should check the book out. It was quite good.

It seems that back in the 19th century, Justin Peck set up a very successful import/export business in Baltimore. One of his sons, Daniel, decided to study law. The other son, Caleb, wanted to be a musician, but he was forced by family pressure into taking over the family business.
But, one day in 1912, Caleb had had enough and he disappeared. No one knew where he went, and no one bothered much trying to find out. Well, some sixty years (more-or-less) later, Daniel takes it into his mind to find his brother Caleb. He gets his granddaughter, Justine, to help him. Justine was a bit of a free spirit, having taken up fortune telling and having married a cousin, Duncan, also a bit of a family renegade. Duncan was restless and kept switching from one location and one career to another every couple of years.

Anyway, we have sections where we learn about the family or mostly repressed individuals living in the same neighborhood in Baltimore (the city of my birth). And also sections wherein Justin and Daniel wander around looking for clues to the whereabouts of Caleb. It's all rather fascinating, and well worth the time to read through to find out whether or not Caleb is actually found in the end (I know, but I'll never tell).
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review 2018-08-08 12:19
CLOCK DANCE by Anne Tyler
Clock Dance - Anne Tyler

Chronicling Willa's life during decisive years for her. Willa's reactions to life events depend on how she sees others responding. She then works to make sure they calm down. It is not until the end she learns to stand up for herself (in small ways) that she becomes her own person.

I liked Willa. I felt bad for her because most of the people around her were jerks and she enabled them to continue acting that way. She idolized her father because of the calmness he exhibited when her mother went off the rails. She wanted to be like him in that way. So many others in her life went off the rails like her mother and, like her father, she was the calm but the others walked over her because they knew that Willa would accept them and their behavior and not lash out.

When she gets a call from Baltimore, she goes even though she has no connection to the people involved except her son used to live with the woman. It is here where she finds a purpose and herself. No, she does not go off the rails like her mother but she does finally stop accepting and glossing over the bad behavior. Willa will never be the scream out loud type but she does make her feelings known if you look for the signs.

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review 2018-07-29 17:16
There is a deeper message in what seems like a simple story.
Clock Dance - Anne Tyler

Clock Dance, by Anne Tyler, narrated by Kimberly Farr

The fateful day in 1967, when Alice Drake, in a state of angry frustration, decides to leave her husband Melvin, and her two children Willa and Elaine, 11 and 6 respectively, making them latchkey kids, temporarily, is a turning point in their lives. Willa’s mom was sometimes emotionally unstable and physically abusive. This was an example of her compulsive, sometimes irrational behavior. Willa’s dad, a shop teacher, at the Garrettville High School, was the more stable, patient and serene parent. Willa looks up to him. The whole family, however, suffers from her mother’s thoughtless, uncontrolled rage.

The years pass, and the book picks up in 1977, with little discussion of what occurred in the intervening years. Willa is now in college. She is on her way home to Lark City, Pa, with her boyfriend Derek.  Willa’s mom has another of her uncontrolled, angry outbursts when they discuss their future plans, and it too has its consequences on their futures. Willa declares her independence, but contrary to that declaration, she seems to live her own life subsuming her needs to the needs of others, always smoothing out the wrinkles of life.  

Once again, the years pass, and it is now 1997. Willa is 41. She and Derek have two teenaged children, Sean and Ian. Like Willa and her sister, both of their children are different from each other. While driving and discussing them, Derek, sometimes prone to losing his temper, becomes angry at a driver. Soon road rage has its own consequences. Their whole family suffers from the effects of that anger.

In 2017, without much background information, we find Willa, now 61, with an empty nest, living in Arizona with her second husband, Peter, a man who is more than a decade older than she. He is rather stodgy, but like Derek, he takes care of her and infantilizes her somewhat, making her feel as safe as she did with her father. Women make her more uneasy since her mom was so volatile.

Most of the story begins now with an unusual phone call from Callie Montgomery, a neighbor of her son Sean’s former girlfriend Denise. Denise has been shot in a freak situation and Callie is charged with taking care of her 9 year old daughter, Cheryl, and their dog, Airplane. Callie was overwhelmed, being a working woman who never had children.  She found Willa’s phone number on the fridge and took a chance calling her, assuming she was the grandmother, which she was not. Nevertheless, she enlisted her help, and although totally unrelated to any of them in any way, Willa, yearning to be needed again, feeling useless, purposeless and unnecessary, decides to go to Baltimore to help out. Peter decides to accompany her when he fails to persuade her to change her mind. He feels she is not independent enough to handle the strain and stress of the trip, and she agrees, glad for his help. She is somewhat needy and tentative, insecure and uncertain about being alone. Willa’s transformation over the following weeks is the main theme of the story, I believe. She, at such a late stage, finally comes of age.

As Anne Tyler examines the consequences of certain actions and reactions in each of the character’s lives and follows how their futures evolve, the reader watches them make decisions that are often not well thought out. They are often selfish and cruel, mindless and foolish. Still, each decision can quite possibly be traced back to a previous incident in their lives which affected the formation of their character and made him/her, who or what they become.

Willa sought men like her father, men who embodied what she believed was serenity, good judgment, and strength, men who could protect her. She regarded women like her mother warily. They frightened her. She herself made few waves and always sought the quiet, careful, least objectionable response to all situations. She rarely lost her temper. Her children grew up with the character traits of both she and her husband and were also formed by their experiences, sometimes as a result of being misunderstood at the time they occurred, or because their needs were ignored at that time. Many of the characters had anger management issues as well as inordinately selfish needs without the concomitant sense of gratitude for what they received from others. At the end, as Willa imagined the scene around her at the airport, frozen in time, many of the characters in the book are frozen in times, as well. As we move from time period to time period with little explanation about their intervening years and experiences, the reader is left to their own devices and imagination regarding that missing time and its future effects.

The clock dance that Cheryl refers to is slow and in syncopated time; the one that Willa prefers marches onward, fast forwarding into a world where anything is possible. From wanting to maintain the status quo, she begins to want to live, no longer biding her time, but making use of it.

Anne Tyler’s books always have a hidden, quietly stressed, profound message, and this one is no different, although it is a bit thinner in context than others she has written. She seems to leave open spaces in the narrative deliberately, so that the reader can fill them in. In the end, Tyler examines all of life’s possibilities, and although there is some question as to how Willa will live out the rest of her life, adrift or attached to the mainland, it is reasonably predicted by her last thoughts that she is going forward.

Possibly, in the need to make the book part of the current day philosophy of liberals and progressives, of which authors are great in number, Tyler inserts race, mental illness, drugs, sex, crime and infidelity into the narrative in a sometimes contrived and minor way. Some of the characters seem like caricatures of themselves, i.e. the strong man Sir Joe, the nerdy Erland, the Marcus Welby image of a doctor, Ben, the lonely single life and the desire to be independent as in the overweight, self absorbed Callie Montgomery and the selfish ways of a possibly resentful, unexpectedly pregnant and pretty much unwilling young mother, Denise. She calls into question the art of judging people by appearances and not actuality.

In short, the novel is good story that analyzes relationships, ordinary and dysfunctional, examines family dynamics and explores the experiences and choices of the sometimes, somewhat quirky characters. It is tender, at times, and it is authentic in its insight into the minds of children and troubled adults. No one escapes the consequences of life’s choices, even when inadvertent.

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