Tag Archives: Reading

The Center of Everything by Laura Moriarty

It’s been a while since my last book review here on TumbleweedWrites, and I’ve always considered the sharing my reading adventures to be the backbone of the blog. Life has been a little crazy recently. I’ve got a new job and I’m still getting used to being on my feet for 9 hours every day. The physical nature of the work threw my writing schedule out of kilter for a week or two, but now I’ve restructured my schedule and settled into a new routine. I write in the evenings and on the weekends, and I read whenever I get a chance- usually on my lunch break. I should have finished this book a good month ago, but I struggled to distribute my energy in several directions at once. But I think having this new job has made me a better reader- I’ve got less free time than I had when working at the pub or traveling the USA- and it’s when you are faced with such obstacles that you become more efficient. So as soon as the boss would holler “Break time, lads,” over the din of power drills, claw hammers and thrash metal, I’d open my book as fast as I could and get reading.

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But what have I been reading exactly? For a while now, I have been borrowing books from my American roommates and trying to get a little book club going. Faithful readers of my blog will remember that last summer Anne-Marie lent me her copy of The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty. It was an excellent read, and it was made all the more enjoyable by having my best friend around to discuss it with. Anne-Marie would get home from the clinic and I’d be like “Oh my God, Tess totally just slept with that P.E teacher.” As I stated in my review for that novel, Anne-Marie is a big Liane Moriarty fan. While she was out at the bookstore one day looking for more Moriarty novels, she was ecstatic to find one she hadn’t yet read: a beautiful hardback called The Center of Everything. It’s a gorgeous-looking book, with a striking cover of an inverted tree with big flowers on its branches. I can see why my roommate grabbed it instantly. It was only later that she realized that it wasn’t a Liane Moriarty book at all. The name on the cover in fact read Laura Moriarty. This, however, turned out to be one of the best mistakes Anne-Marie had ever made.

Before I left Texas, she lent me this beautiful mistake. I got home, and I let my mom read it first as I worked through my backlog. My mom is a thoroughbred reader, and breezed through the novel in a couple days as she relaxed poolside in the Cretan sunshine. Before she even finished it she was filling my lughole with snap reviews about how great the book was, how the writing style reminded her of To Kill A Mockingbird, and how I had to read it as soon as humanly possible. After enduring several months of these frenzied reminders, I decided that the time was right to read- and blog- about this other Moriarty the women in my life were raving about.

The Harper Lee comparison is an apt one. The Center of Everything is a blue-collar coming-of-age story set in 1980s Kansas. It follows the life of Evelyn Bucknow from middle school to college as she lives with her mom Tina in a low-income apartment complex off a highway. I’m drawn to character-driven novels, but this one might just take the cake. I can’t remember reading a book with such complex and compelling characters. The fact that this isn’t a memoir astounds me. If you just picked this book up off the floor and started reading without knowing anything about it, you would assume that all this stuff actually happened. Every character is just so vividly brought to life- from Evelyn’s troubled, curly-haired crush Travis to her zealous, Bible-believing grandma Eileen. In many ways the novel is about how each of these quirky personalities has an effect on the way Evelyn sees the world. It’s exactly the kind of book I want to be reading, because it examines the minutiae of human behavior and how we are all sculpted by our experiences, our circumstances, and our peers.

What Moriarty does so well is weave the overarching themes of the novel into almost every scene. It’s an example of masterful storytelling; each scene feels like the natural consequence of the last, nothing contrived or out of place, and yet each one exists as a microcosm of the novel as a whole. Evelyn’s life is a patchwork of hormones, intellectual curiosity, poverty, the need to be loved, the search for identity, and the tendency of the human psyche to desire simple, absolute truths in a world of infinite complexity. In short, it’s about growing up. I think almost anyone can relate to Evelyn at some point. This book captures adolescence with a razor-sharp authenticity. It’s a book that’s both hilarious and poignant in equal measure, but above all it’s a book with a big heart. As good as it was, The Center of Everything was actually a struggle to read for me sometimes; not because it was hard to understand, but because I was so invested in it that my eyes kept jumping ahead to the next paragraph or the next page. It’s never really happened to me before, but I had to physically stop myself from spoiling the events of the novel and making sure I read every line. My eyes just wouldn’t behave. As a writer, this book was both inspiring and demoralizing. Inspiring because it was just so well-crafted, and demoralizing because every time I finished reading I did so with a sigh and a pang of despair that I could never write anything as good as this.

Moriarty states that a book that influenced her writing of The Center of Everything was Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World, and I can see how. Carl Sagan was one of the most brilliant minds of the 20th century, and an important proponent of the skeptical movement. In The Demon-Haunted World he stresses the importance of critical thinking and maintaining a skeptical disposition. He makes clear distinctions between science and pseudoscience, and that any idea should be able to stand up to rigorous scientific and skeptical testing before it can be accepted as valid. They’re important values for our society moving forward, and ones I absolutely hold dear to my heart. It reminds me of my old philosophy professor from college who said “While everyone has the equal right to an opinion, not all opinions are equal. If one theory states that we evolved from apes and that we can measure this evolution by examining fossil data, and another states that God made us, because a dusty old storybook called the Bible says so, then the former is clearly a better opinion.” Throughout the novel Evelyn is torn between the liberal professors that feed her burgeoning passion for science and her grandma Eileen’s religious doctrine. As the school debates whether to teach evolution or not, Eileen cries that it’s unfair to teach the kids one theory and not the other. The scene reminded me of my professor’s words.

I didn’t like the character of Eileen, because she seemed to represent the sinister nature of organized religion. She’s sweet and smiley in appearance and voice, but when you listen to her views you realize that she’s a shockingly hateful and bigoted person. It’s difficult for Evelyn to reconcile Eileen’s kindness and generosity with her subscription to a belief system that castigates homosexuality and pre-marital sex as being evil. In contrast, Evelyn’s free-spirited mom Tina preaches nothing, but practices tireless love. To my mind, she emerges as the true heroine of the narrative. She can be childish and impractical, but she has a heart of gold. The crux of the novel, I believe, is Evelyn’s journey to understanding that no one is wholly good or bad, that in every person’s wake there lies a trail of bad decisions, hypocrisy, and the search for truth.

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Five Guys Read Hemingway: My Reading Experiment

I’ve discussed my relationship with reading many times on this blog. It’s the skill I’m most eager to improve day-in, day-out. It’s something that’s absolutely fundamental to the way I live, for the simple reason that healthy reading has a ripple effect that improves every other aspect of my life. My improved mental well-being, productivity, creativity, and my growing appetite for vivid experiences, all started with my renewed commitment to reading. It was the first block, and the foundation upon which all others were built. This blog, my novel, my increased sense of happiness, would not exist without my initial commitment to regular reading. In many ways it’s like exercise- something that I make time for, that changes every aspect of my life for the better. All I can say is how this process has worked for me, and I’m aware that reading means different things to different people.

Which brings me to the subject of today’s post. For the past few weeks, I’ve been conducting a little reading experiment aimed at exploring how other people read and what reading means to different people of the same generation as me. The fact that we were all born into an increasingly digital world is an important point, and is why I decided to focus the attention of my study on young folks. I gathered five willing volunteers, who would each read one of my favorite short stories, and whom I would then interview about the experience. I wasn’t sure if this research would yield anything of any worth, but the results have proved more interesting than I could have ever hoped.

Even though I love books, I’m not necessarily a brilliant reader. People tend to associate books with intelligence, and as someone that enjoys reading, I’ve found that non-readers often think of me as being hardwired differently. But the truth is, as this research shows, that we actually have more in common than we realized. Reading is very much a craft that one can improve through time and dedication. Like anything in life, there are those naturally suited to it, but that doesn’t mean that the joy of reading is or should be exclusive to them. I don’t consider myself such a natural at all; if anything I’m a just a keen reader. I’m a very slow reader, I’m an anxious reader, and haven’t always been this keen. I assured my volunteers that this little experiment was not a measure of their intelligence, but rather a study of the medium of reading. I was quick to point out that each of them consumed various forms of media, and stressed that the only difference between me and the non-reader is a preference of mediums.

My five volunteers are all from the North Somerset area of England, are male, and between the ages of 23-26. They are each talented and quirky in their own way, representing a range of interests and abilities. Some are scientifically inclined, some are more philosophical, and others still are intrigued by everything from fitness to technology. For the purposes of this experiment, their names will remain private. I figured calling them “Test Subject A” or “Test Subject B”, while amusing, would make it hard for you to distinguish a particular candidate. So I’ve gone ahead and given them nicknames. Here are the interviews:

 


Q1: HOW OFTEN DO YOU READ?

HUNTER: Books? Never. I used to read textbooks…

FROSTY: Never.

COWBOY: I don’t read books, but I consume newspapers often.

SPACEMAN: I listen to audiobooks almost every day, both fiction and non-fiction. As far as printed books go, I’d say I read at least one novel per year.

WISEGUY: I read fiction books daily, perhaps 30 minutes a day.

 

Q2: DID YOU ENJOY READING AT SCHOOL?

HUNTER: Not overly. We read Old Man and the Sea…that was alright I suppose.

FROSTY: No.

COWBOY: No.

SPACEMAN: It wasn’t my favorite activity, but I didn’t mind it. It was okay.

WISEGUY: Not at all.

 

Q3: WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE BOOK?

HUNTER: The Railway Cat – Arkle Phyllis

FROSTY: The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien

COWBOY: A Series of Unfortunate Events – Lemony Snicket

SPACEMAN: The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck

WISEGUY: Supernatural: Meeting with the Ancient Teachers of Mankind – Graham Hancock

 

Q4: WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME YOU READ A SHORT STORY?

HUNTER: About four months ago actually. Remember that collection we had to read in school called Opening Worlds: Short Stories from Different Cultures by OCR? I found it and started reading.

FROSTY: I love reading Creepypastas online actually. A while back I read one about a sleep deprivation experiment.

COWBOY: I’m not sure to be honest.

SPACEMAN: One of yours actually. Remember that story about the automated wind farm on an alien planet that you asked me to proof for you last year?

WISEGUY: You know, this might be the first one.

 

Q5: DID YOU ENJOY TEN INDIANS?

HUNTER: Yeah it was alright, that. It was uneventful and it wasn’t clear what the meaning was, but that’s not a bad thing.

FROSTY: Nope. I found it a struggle to take in. I think I’m much more visually-oriented. I was reading the words but I couldn’t digest them.

COWBOY: No. There was nothing engaging about it. Maybe if it was longer, and more stuff happened in it, I might have enjoyed it. It was brief and boring.

SPACEMAN: Yes. I liked trying to figure out the meaning, which isn’t really revealed until the end.

WISEGUY: Well, it didn’t blow me away. It was OK, but it felt like a chapter of a longer story.

 

Q6: DID IT MAKE YOU WANT TO READ MORE HEMINGWAY?

HUNTER: No.

FROSTY: Probably not. I hated Old Man and the Sea at school.

COWBOY: Not particularly.

SPACEMAN: Yes, absolutely.

WISEGUY: Not especially. I’m into different genres of fiction, mate.

 

Q7: IN A GENERAL SENSE, DO YOU WANT TO READ MORE?

HUNTER: Nah.

FROSTY: Yes. Even though I find reading a struggle, I have a copy of Stephen King’s It upstairs, and it makes me want to improve my reading ability.

COWBOY: Yes- but not because of this story.

SPACEMAN: Yes.

WISEGUY: Yes. A lot more.

 

Q8: WHAT DID YOU THINK OF HEMINGWAY’S WRITING STYLE?

HUNTER: Yeah mate, it was alright. However I didn’t get the tone of some sentences- probably because it was written in a strange dialect.

FROSTY: Well, I dunno about the style, but I did like print. The font was pretty friendly. There were a few regional words I didn’t recognize, like “squaw”.

COWBOY: No. Me- I like a definitive beginning, middle, and end. I just wasn’t sure where this story was going. It’s like it wasn’t long enough to hook me.

SPACEMAN: Oh yes. I liked the ending in particular.

WISEGUY: Yeah. His straightforward style made the story accessible and friendly to me as a reader.

 

Q9: DID YOU READ IT ALL IN ONE GO?

HUNTER: Yeah.

FROSTY: Yeah.

COWBOY: Yeah.

SPACEMAN: Yeah.

WISEGUY: Yeah.

 

Q10: HOW LONG DID IT TAKE YOU?

HUNTER: 17 minutes.

FROSTY: 10 minutes.

COWBOY: 10 minutes.

SPACEMAN: 7 minutes. After I was done, I went back and re-read some sections near the beginning to gain a better understanding of the story as a whole.

WISEGUY: 25 minutes.

 

Q11: WHERE DID YOU READ IT?

HUNTER: In a computer chair at my desk.

FROSTY: On a couch in a quiet room.

COWBOY: On a couch in a room shared with three guys quietly playing Minecraft.

SPACEMAN: In a leather armchair. The TV was on, but I muted it.

WISEGUY: On a couch in a café with noisy, annoying distractions. Make sure you include that detail.

 

Q12: WERE YOU IMMERSED IN THE WORLD OF THE STORY, OR DID YOUR MIND WANDER?

HUNTER: Mostly I was immersed. My focus shifted a few times and I had to go back and concentrate again.

FROSTY: Oh, it wandered alright. I had to re-read a few lines I wasn’t sure about. Overall it was just very hard to process the events and meaning of the story for me.

COWBOY: Immersed makes it sound like I was enjoying it. I wasn’t. I read it the way I read the news. Not fun, but no real effort either.

SPACEMAN: It took a while to get into at first, probably because I knew I was taking part in an experiment instead of reading normally.

WISEGUY: Remember, I was very distracted by external noises. However I want to say that I liked the subtlety of his story. I think that kind of subtlety suits the concise medium of short fiction.

 

Q13: IN A WORD, WHAT DO YOU THINK THE STORY WAS ABOUT?

HUNTER: Heartbreak.

FROSTY: Racism.

COWBOY: A Journey.

SPACEMAN: Love. Specifically “first love”. The line that stood out to me was that he was “hollow but happy”. I quite liked that I did.

WISEGUY: Heartbreak.

 

Q14: WHAT WOULD YOU SAY IS YOUR BIGGEST REASON FOR NOT READING IN YOUR LIFE?

HUNTER: Can’t be arsed. It seems like an effort.

FROSTY: Because it’s boring. It seems like a task instead of a pastime. This experiment felt like homework. However I’m hopeful. Perhaps I just haven’t found my genre of fiction yet. I didn’t like this story, but I guess it’s like the movies- there’s so much choice that there has to be one for everyone.

COWBOY: I’d say my answer is probably true for a lot of people of our generation, so think of this as not just my reason, but mine and so many others. Alternative forms of media. Things like video games and TV are so much more accessible. But the biggest one reason, in my opinion, is my phone. I take my phone to bed and the time I spend on it before going to sleep is probably the time I would otherwise be spending reading, if I were into books.

SPACEMAN: I just consume other forms of media so much. The big three for me are video games, Netflix, and Youtube.

WISEGUY: I get put off reading. Because I’m so slow, reading seems like this big task, and I end up procrastinating and not reading as much as I would like.

 

Q15: DO YOU TEND TO READ NON-FICTION FASTER?

HUNTER: I haven’t noticed a discernable difference.

FROSTY: O yes.

COWBOY: Absolutely. For me, the dialogue present in fiction breaks up my flow. I definitely read articles and news columns faster.

SPACEMAN: Yeah actually, I do read it faster.

WISEGUY: No. I read works of fiction faster. With non-fiction, I feel the pressure to remember facts.

 


As you can see from their answers, each of my volunteers has a completely different relationship with books. There are aspects of each person’s experience that hold true for me as well. What COWBOY and SPACEMAN said about the accessibility of digital media was very interesting to me, and I think it’s something that probably holds true for a lot of Millenials, whether they are readers or non-readers. I know the big reading slumps I have had in the past had a lot to do with my pouring hours into addictive games like The Witcher 3 or Bioshock Infinite. Games, movies, and binge-worthy TV shows all tell fascinating stories, only they are passive activities as opposed to sitting down and reading a novel, which is active. We’re all interested in storytelling and we always will be. It’s the medium that is changing- with increasingly sophisticated technology designed to be as comfortable and accessible as possible. You have to remember, just 100 years ago, sitting down to read just one more chapter of Great Expectations was the equivalent of hitting the “Continue watching” button after your third straight episode of Mindhunter. In 1841 American fans of Charles Dickens were so desperate to find out if Nell had survived in The Old Curiosity Shop, that they caused a riot and stormed the harbor in New York where a ship was bringing in the latest chapter of the book.

So are novels disappearing as a storytelling medium? No, I don’t think so. But they might become more of a niche interest. And it must be remembered that the volunteers I selected represented a pretty homogenous demographic. It would be interesting to carry out this experiment with strictly female volunteers, or volunteers from America instead of the U.K. What do you think of my results? Should I carry out more of these experiments? Can you relate to any of the answers my wonderful volunteers gave? Please let me know in the comments!

Homeland by R.A Salvatore

I’ve always been bad at multi-tasking. It’s a skill I want to improve, but I feel like I’m wired in some way to be consumed by a singular focus. I should have finished reading R.A Salvatore’s high fantasy hack n’ slash about a month ago, but once I started writing my novel, my rate of pages-read-per-day dropped significantly. But that experience has given me some good perspective; I realized that seeing reading as something to squeeze in at some vague point in the future was not good enough. I’m glad the writing has been going well, but I need to improve my relationship with books. And the way to do that is to set aside a dedicated reading time that is free of distractions. I’d get more reading done, and in less time; an hour isn’t much in the context of a whole day, but it’s more than enough to get quite a lot of reading done- if that hour is focused and free of distractions.

In early 2017 my reading stamina really started to grow strong again. I had rediscovered my love of fiction to the point that the musty vanilla scent of an old book would make me want to grind the pages up into lines of fine powder and snort them up my nose. Hell yeah. To cope with all the books I had to read and wanted to buy, I made a list on my phone and alternated between the dusty novels of my backlog and newer purchases. The author R.A Salvatore came to my attention during one of my many long conversations with my American roommate and best friend Aaron. Salvatore is his favorite novelist, one that he read extensively during his teenage years, and given that I’ve so enjoyed listening to his favorite band (Blink 182), I figured I’d give his favorite writer a try. As I’ve stated in other posts, I’ve been trying to build a little book club among my friends. Not only do I feel like reading a person’s most cherished novels is a way to become closer to them, but I also just love talking about books. Before 2017 I had an idea of what a “Michael-esque” book would be, but now I’ve broadened the definition of what I like infinitely.

I used to love high fantasy as a teenager, be it in the form of books like A Wizard of Earthsea or video games like The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. But I fell out with the genre and figured I was done with it. Then came along the Game of Thrones TV series and I was sucked right back in. Aaron recommended Salvatore as a good choice to get me back into high fantasy, because his stories were dark and weren’t just another regurgitation of the Tolkien formula. I distinctly remember him selling the idea of Salvatore’s stories to me on the basis that they were about “immoral troglodytic dark elves that worshipped a giant spider”.

I got the first volume of Salvatore’s The Dark Elf Trilogy, Homeland, not realizing that the trilogy was a prequel to a much wider saga of novels about The Forgotten Realms. When I laid eyes upon the book for the first time I saw that it said “Dungeons & Dragons” on the top, which is strange because there are no dungeons or dragons in the novel. I started reading it, and while I thought it was well-written and interesting, I wasn’t immediately hooked. The reason for that was because in the first few chapters I had no one to root for. Every character seemed like a bloodthirsty serial killer with the innate likability of a wood tick with real estate designs on your urethra. It wasn’t until a few chapters in that the protagonist emerged in the form of Drizzt Do’Urden- and as soon as that happened I became thoroughly invested in the story. Drizzt acts as a stand-in for the reader’s sense of morality, compassion and conscience. The first few chapters before his arrival so perfectly establish the novel’s world as a dystopia. Dystopian fiction is more often associated with Science Fiction than its more whimsical cousin, but really there’s no reason it can’t work just as well in a setting of high fantasy.

The book takes place in a subterranean city called Menzoberranzan, and trust me when I tell you that there is almost nowhere else in fiction I’d rather live less. The dark elves worship a massive spider, Lolth, the Goddess of Chaos, and so their society is based largely on stabbing your relatives and neighbors up the babkas. It’s a city of ordered anarchy, in which pretty much anything goes so long as you don’t get caught. I know that sounds kind of like a contradiction- and it does take a while to grasp the psychotic hypocrisy of this bizarre, underground theocratic state, but what I mean is that the dark elves are encouraged to do whatever they can get away with. They admire the skills of deceit, treachery, and stealth; the murdering someone without leaving a trace. I know what I’d do if I did have to live in this city- I’d become a funeral director or something like that, because they must be absolutely raking it in. If you’re not discovered face-down in the shadow of a glowing mushroom with a dagger in your back, you’re bones are burped up by the enormous crustaceans that lurk in the caverns surrounding the city. The battle between the protagonist’s conscience and his need for belonging as he discovers the depths of his people’s depravity reminded me of the classic dystopian novel The Giver in a lot of ways; only with a higher density of spilt entrails and broken bone fragments.

It’s a fascinating setting, and completely unlike any other fantasy story I’ve heard of. I like how it reinvents the idea of elves as being this peaceful race of tree-huggers living in Edens of idyllic wholesomeness. I’ve also always been intrigued by the idea of subterranean adventures ever since I watched the 1959 movie Journey to the Center of the Earth as a little kid. The creatures and cultures of Salvatore’s Underdark are so viscerally brought to life in descriptive passages that have just the right amount of information to let your imagination run wild. The descriptive paragraphs never outstay their welcome and always work in conjunction with the action of a given scene, which for me is the best way to go about world building. It gives us the pieces, but lets us put them together with our own imagination.

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about why it’s so important for writers to make the situations and settings of their narrative realistic, and this book is the best example I can think of to illustrate that practice. Salvatore’s world is so interesting to the reader, because he explores the mechanics and basic workings of the fantastical society he has created. For instance, the dark elves live underground, and so their vision is based off of infrared heat signals. Salvatore has put himself in the shoes of someone living in such an environment and thought about how they interact with and perceive the world around them. That’s what we mean by realism and believability. It’s got nothing to do with gnomes and mind flayers; you bring those creatures to life by exploring their behavior in little mundane or mechanical details. And that’s how you turn raw creativity into something immersive. For me, realism in fiction is the key to immersion. I could spend hours reading about the lore of The Forgotten Realms. The hook-horrors and cave fishers feel like animals, the cold and lightless caverns of the Underdark an ecosystem that is lived in. The characters are quirky and well-written. We can easily imagine the jealous wizard Masoj, or the evil Matron Malice whose reputation as the biggest slut in the Underdark is offset by her megalomaniacal ambition.

As good as the setting is, the aspect of the novel that really stood out to me- and the reason why I became hooked- was the moral dialogue that opens with the arrival of the protagonist Drizzt. There’s a reason Drizzt Do’Urden is such a beloved character, and it’s not just his artful use of scimitars. The clash between Drizzt’s sensitivity and the ghastly dystopia around him makes for some really addictive reading. It’s the kind of book I’d bring on vacation, because you just have to know what’s going to happen next. There are schemes at work and peril around every corner. The fight scenes are badass, but truly my favorite scenes- the ones that had me sweating and shaking- were the ones where Drizzt’s personality comes into conflict with the expectations of his cruel society. I won’t spoil anything, but the book is much more nuanced than what you might expect from a hack n’ slash. The characters of Drizzt and Zaknafein in particular have such engrossing moral dilemmas. There’s a genuine philosophical depth to this story that elevates it to the top-end of its genre. I can’t wait to read Exile and Sojourn!

The Top 5 Books I Have Read This Year!

2017 has been a great year for my reading. It wouldn’t be hyperbolic to say that this was the year I rediscovered reading- certainly in terms of reading for pleasure. Now it’s a part of my lifestyle instead of some nagging regret, an attitude which I am sure only served to make reading seem like a chore and not something enjoyable and fun. My dream is to one day be able to read a novel a week, but I’ve also learned that I shouldn’t compare myself to faster readers- the same way I shouldn’t let comparisons of myself to folks who can so easily execute a windmill dunk affect my love for playing basketball. It’s been my best year for reading ever, and aside from finally eschewing my slump, I’ve also had a great time with authors and genres I did not expect myself to be reading. So here it is: my top 5 novels I’ve read this year and what makes them so special to me. This will be the first in a series of festive, end-of-the-year posts, and I already can’t wait to write my top 5 for 2018 a year from now. So here’s to new traditions!

 

#5 Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant

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Author: Anne Tyler

Published: 1982

Opening Line: “While Pearl Tull was dying, a funny thought occurred to her.”

Premise: Put simply, this novel chronicles the life of a mother and her three children after her salesman husband leaves her without explanation. It’s about the long-lasting consequences of that one act and how it shapes all of their lives thereafter.

Why I Loved This Book: Reading Tyler’s magnum opus was like looking into a mirror that revealed everything I knew about myself on a subconscious, instinctual level, but had never before expressed. It seemed to show my place as it existed in the continuum of human experience. I loved this book because it highlighted so well the minutiae of ordinary, domestic life, and I feel like the book acts very much as a reflection of everything we thought or felt about family and urban life.

 

#4 Orchard

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Author: Larry Watson

Published: 2003

Opening Line: “Henry House stayed out of the orchard’s open aisles and instead kept close to the apple trees as he tried to work his way unnoticed down the hill.”

Premise: Sonja is a Norwegian immigrant, come to the USA to start a new life. She settles in Wisconsin and finds herself reduced to her roles as a wife and a mother. She then becomes the obsession of a local artist and finds herself torn between his and her husband’s desires to possess her, all the while trying to maintain her own independent sense of self.

Why I Loved This Book: I was drawn to this book because it was set in Wisconsin’s Door County- and truly and I can’t think of a better setting for a novel. The book does a wonderful job of capturing the charm of what I can confirm is absolutely one of the most quaint and beautiful places in the USA. But what I really liked best about the novel was its unflinching portrait of marriage, sex, motherhood, domestic life, and its exploration of independent, female sexuality.

 

#3 The Folded Leaf

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Author: William Maxwell

Published: 1945

Opening Line: “The blue lines down the floor of the swimming pool wavered and shivered incessantly, and something about the shape of the place- the fact that it was long and narrow, perhaps, and lined with tile to the ceiling- made their voices ring.”

Premise: The Folded Leaf is a beautiful, atmospheric coming-of-age story written by one of America’s most underrated authors. It’s set in the Midwest in the 1920s and it’s all about the friendship of two boys and what they mean to each other, as they graduate from high school and move on to college, only to fall in love with the same girl!

Why I Loved This Book: I adored this book because I felt such a strong connection to the characters. It touches on themes that really resonate with me- such as social awkwardness, neuroticism, insecurity, jealousy, and love. There are so many books written about romances, but far less written about friendship- and this is one of the best and most touching out there. I love the way it explores how we make heroes out of people and how we need them to be heroes.

 

#2 The Husband’s Secret

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Author: Liane Moriarty

Published: 2013

Opening Line: “It was all because of the Berlin Wall.”

Premise: Three women’s lives converge and their worlds’ turned upside-down when happily-married, mother of three Cecilia discovers a letter in her husband’s writing hidden in the attic that reads “to be opened only in the event of my death”.

Why I Loved This Book: This is easily the most addictive book I’ve read all year. At the time I was working as a volunteer in a solar analysis survey and as I walked the streets of Friendswood, Texas in the blazing midsummer sun, I held this novel in front of me and mastered the art of reading as I walked. What I liked best about the book was the way small events- mistakes or coincidences- would come to have such earth-shattering consequences. It’s all about the butterfly effect and thoughts of what might have happened if things had gone differently.

 

#1 Martian Time-Slip

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Author: Philip K. Dick

Published: 1964

Opening Line: “From the depths of phenobarbital slumber, Silvia Bohlen heard something that called.”

Premise: In short, this book tells the story of a tyrannical boss of a Water Works Union on colonial Mars, and how his attempts to consolidate his power by exploiting a mute autistic child with visions of the future affects everyone around him.

Why I Loved This Book: I adore this novel because not only is it so intelligent, but it’s such a warm, riveting, and thoroughly enjoyable page-turner. I breezed through this book and have fond memories of staying up late in bed to read just one more chapter. Martian Time-Slip is my favorite book of the year because it was just so intensely pleasurable, and represented to me my ideal, perfect reading experience. How I felt when reading this book is what I hope for with every book, but which seldom happens.

3 Experimental Novels That Inspired Me!

Today I’d like to highlight three novels I read that challenged the accepted definitions of what exactly a novel is. During my life I’ve gone through several reading phases. I had my Star Wars phase, my Science Fiction & Fantasy phase, my Bohemian phase, my Gothic phase and my American phase, but during my early college years I became interested in Experimental Fiction. I was drawn to Modernism and the Avant-Garde, because these books focused not so much on the story itself than on the way it was told. I was also excited by the challenge of reading novels that were considered difficult to read.

Each of the three novels I’m going to list today helped both my reading and my writing. I think every writer can benefit from reading experimental fiction- even if it is not their chosen genre- because what experimental fiction does is it examines the craft of storytelling- the techniques of how a story is told. It takes a step back and investigates the basic workings of narrative exposition, and finds new ways to tell a story. I picked the novels listed below because each one innovates in a way that relates to the theme its narrative explores. Enjoy!

 

La Jalousie

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Author: Alain Robbe-Grillet

First Published: 1957, Les Éditions de Minuit

Opening Line: “Now the shadow of the column- the column which supports the south-west corner of the roof- divides the corresponding corner of the veranda into two equal parts.”

Synopsis: On a tropical banana plantation, a jealous husband spies on his wife through Venetian blinds, convinced that she is having an affair.

How It Innovates: According to Vladimir Nabokov, Jealousy is “the finest novel about love since Proust,” and far be it my place to criticize one of 20th century’s most iconic literary figures, but I’m not sure it’s got anything to do with “love” as such. I can’t get his comment out of my head, because I want to see what he saw when he was reading it. I remember there being a lot of jealousy- and plenty of connotations of lust and sexual tension- but not too much love. More so than anything else, the dominant theme of this short novel is the nature of reality- which is Robbe-Grillet’s favorite theme to work with (see Les Gommes and Le Voyeur). I remember being confused while reading this novel- because it seemed like I was reading the same events over and over again. I then learned that what was happening was that the narrator was constantly replaying the same moments over and over again in his mind to the point that it becomes impossible to distinguish between his observations and his suspicions. It’s this aspect of the novel that reminds me of A Sport and a Pastime; both feature jealous narrators and it’s never revealed whether the events of the book actually happened or if they are the creations of those jealous narrators. The difference Jealousy has with A Sport and a Pastime however, is that unlike the latter it is not a conventional novel, and cannot be approached as such. Robbe-Grillet wrote Jealousy as a novel with what he referred to as an “absent third-person narrator”. The husband is never once referred to in the book, never speaks, never acts, never named. The idea of the jealous husband is one that is inferred by the reader, once they realize that the events of the book are framed as though being observed by someone. There are subtle clues as to the narrator’s existence- such as the number of deck chairs on the veranda or the number of places at the table. This is a book that will make you a creative reader, because a creative reader is what the book requires. On the surface it is merely a sequence of repeated scenes, each of them written with a meticulous and exact sense of geometry. There’s something very mathematical about the book. The smallest angles and dimensions create a sense of perspective, and provide evidence that there is indeed a narrator. And the green landscape of banana trees that enclose the house represent the jealousy of this view, since green is the color of jealousy.

 

The Sound and the Fury

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Author: William Faulkner

First Published: 1929, Jonathan Cape & Harrison Smith

Opening Line: “Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.”

Synopsis: The fall from grace of a Southern aristocratic family is chronicled over 30 years through the memories of three brothers obsessed with their sister.

How It Innovates: The novel is divided into four parts. The first three sections detail the memories and thoughts of the three brothers Benjy, Quentin, and Jason- each of whom has a different relationship with their sister Caddy that consumes them in various ways. The fourth section of the novel is written from a third-person omniscient point of view, and Caddy- the heroine, the central figure of the book- has no narrative voice at all. And yet this only makes her presence seem all the more powerful, as our image of her is filtered through the views of her brothers. And ultimately that is what the book is about; not Caddy herself so much as what she means to her brothers. It is the first two sections of the novel that are the most interesting to scholars because they are unlike anything else in fiction. Benjy, the voice of the first section, is cognitively disabled and non-verbal. His passage is so interesting because he is trapped in the past, going over various events in his life linked by visceral sensations. It makes for challenging reading, because the time shifts abruptly every couple paragraphs or so, and we are presented with this splintered, kaleidoscopic mélange of scenes. I got the hang of it when I realized that the temporal shifts are indicated by italicized lines (Faulkner originally wanted to have different colors of font to mark the alternating time periods) but it still makes for very challenging reading. It’s not the sort of book you wanna rush, or take to the beach and unwind with in the sun. It’s the sort of thing you have to methodically work through and re-read again and again. The second section though, is even more difficult. It’s narrated by Quentin as he slowly loses his mind. He is tortured by his father’s nihilistic world view and his sister’s sexual promiscuity. Benjy’s section, when you get used to the temporal shifts, is more or less a series of physical sensations and images. He’s non-verbal, so there is no voice to speak of. Whereas with Quentin, we are given a rush of pained emotions and neuroticisms. I honestly marvel at Faulkner’s genius here, because the psychology of the narrators are as interesting as you will find- it is as though he wants to get to the very heart of the human soul and its agonies. As Quentin’s mental state rapidly deteriorates, all sense of grammatical structure and punctuation is thrown out the window. And that’s what I meant in my opening paragraph about experimental fiction reinventing narrative techniques to reflect the themes of a story. Faulkner does not subvert convention for its own sake, but because it serves the book’s themes. Quentin is one of the most fascinating characters in American literature- in some way representing the chivalric, “white knight” psyche of all Southern men- and Faulkner’s abandonment of form makes for an unforgettable account of the man’s depressive state. I’m not sure if I have a favorite novel, but The Sound and the Fury is definitely a contender for the title. Although it’s ball-bustingly difficult, it’s actually a very entertaining story with plenty of cinematic scenes in its more straightforward final two sections.

 

Rayuela (Hopscotch)

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Author: Julio Cortázar

First Published: 1963, Editorial Sudamericana Sociedad Anonima

Opening Line: “Would I find La Maga?” or “Yes, but who will cure us of the dull fire, the colorless fire that at nightfall runs along the Rue de la Huchette, emerging from the crumbling doorways, from the little entranceways, of the imageless fire that licks the stones and lies in wait in doorways, how shall we cleanse ourselves of the sweet burning that comes after, that nests in us forever allied with time and memory, with sticky things that hold us here on this side, and which will burn sweetly in us until we have been left in ashes.” (depending on where you start the novel)

Synopsis: An Argentine writer living in Paris searches for his mistress La Maga, before going home to his native Buenos Aires and seeing her everywhere he looks.

How It Innovates: Hopscotch is described by its author as a “counter-novel”. As you may have noticed above, I put two opening lines for the book. How can a book have two opening lines, you ask? Well that’s because it was written as being “many books”, although it is two above all. If you want you can read it from the first page in a straightforward manner like you would any other novel, and the book ends at chapter 56. There are 155 chapters in total, but the last 99 are considered “expendable”. Thinking that I would not read this again for many years, if at all, I decided to read it the second way, where you “hopscotch” from chapter to chapter using a code indicated at the front of the book. This way, you read all of the chapters, starting with chapter 73, and using the code to figure out which chapter comes next. It was super-interesting and completely unlike anything else I’ve ever read. The expendable chapters provide deeper insights into the characters as well as random musings that serve to fill in the gaps of the main narrative that runs through chapters 1-56. It’s been a few years since I read the novel, but it’s an interesting read and the protagonist makes for an intriguing, isolated tumbleweed that goes from place to place without really finding a sense of belonging.

 

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3 Short Stories I Can’t Get Out Of My Head

Today I’m doing a little short story roundup. I’ve recently submitted a few short stories to magazines and competitions, and I thought it might be interesting to share with you three of my favorite stories that I’ve been reading of late. In no particular order, here are three different short stories by three different authors, all of which have inspired my recent writing.


#1 “Hoeing the Beet” – Endre Ady

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Publication Date: 1907

Collected in: Neighbors of the Night (1994, Corvina Books, Ltd)

Summary: On an estate in rural Hungary, a group of women work for 30 krajcárs a day (a paltry amount of money) hoeing beet. Two of the girls are gypsies (magyar cigányok) and all of them are desperately impoverished, living off of “bread and a slice of stale bacon”. Despite their economic equality, the Magyar women cling to a strong sense of racial superiority and refuse to drink from the same jug of water as the Roma women. The owner of the estate tries to resolve the issue by giving the Roma their own jug. However, the Roma women refuse to drink it, believing that they are entitled to the same water as the Magyar. This results in them nearly dying of thirst and the other women laughing at them. One night, however, as all the women sleep in the field, the two Roma women get up and search for the jug of water the Magyar women have hidden in a nearby grove. They find it and drink all of it in long, hearty gulps. In the morning, all the women get back to work and the Roma women are happy for once. Ady ends the story with the ironic line “This, then, is the way beet is hoed in our glorious Hungary”.

Why I LOVE this story: Endre Ady is one of the most respected figures in Hungarian literature, and considered the country’s most important and most-imitated poet of the 20th century. I’m going to resolve to read some of his poetry- for which he is primarily known- since I loved this short story of his. I like to think of Ady as being to poetry what Thomas Wolfe was to fiction, Kurt Cobain was to music, and Pistol Pete was to basketball; a brilliant comet of pure genius and raw talent, an indomitable soul whose legacy we can’t separate from his tragic end. When we look back on their creative fire we almost assume it was fated to happen. Ady passed away on January 27th 1919 after complications from Syphilis. I think his story “Hoeing the Beet” is a real testament to his character as a sensitive, fearless progressive. In many ways, the owner of the estate in the story, who is sympathetic to the Roma girls, represents the government of Hungary over the years and how it has approached what was once known as “The Gypsy Problem”. He is well-meaning but ineffectual. In the story we see a Hungary in which a certain amount of integration has been reached between the Magyar and the Romani, in that they are both equally exploited in an economic sense- and yet the lingering racism of centuries past still lives in the hearts of the women our protagonists work with. The sad conclusion from the story is that the racial hatred does persist- but that’s kind of why it strikes a chord with me. I don’t want stories that cheer me up and make me comfortable. As Debra Wilson, the actress of Wolfenstein 2’s Grace Walker, recently said “We don’t learn by being comfortable”.


#2 “The Half-Skinned Steer” – Annie Proulx

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Publication Date: November 1997 (Atlantic Monthly)

Collected in: Close Range: Wyoming Stories (May 10th 1999, Scribner)

Summary: In Massachusetts, an 83-year old Mero gets a call from a woman saying that his brother Rollo has died. Mero, who left his family’s Wyoming ranch at the age of 23, and who has attempted in a variety of ways to bury the past, finally decides to head home and attend Rollo’s funeral. The story sees his physical and psychological deterioration as he drives across the country to Wyoming, in which many repressed memories from his childhood and why he left the ranch come back to him. Chief among them is a story his father’s girlfriend once told about a rancher named Tin Head, who has a galvanized metal plate sewn in his cranium that severely affects his brain functions. Supposedly, Tin Head was butchering a steer outside when he decided to take a break, eating lunch and taking a nap. When he comes back outside, he finds the steer gone. It then comes back, half-skinned and mutilated, fixing him with a hateful stare that he believes is the steer setting a curse on him. This story gives Mero a nightmare and he leaves home. After a problematic journey across country, Mero finds the Wyoming landscape much the way he remembers it- despite all his years trying to forget it. It’s night and snowing hard, and thinking he knows the way to the ranch, Mero ends up crashing the car and wrecking the engine. He attempts to find another ranch on foot he believes is nearby, before ultimately perishing in the cold. As he dies, he thinks he sees the half-skinned steer from the story glaring at him with a red eye.

Why I LOVE this story: Reading this short story gave me a classic case of “I wish I had written this”. I was just so completely in awe of it that I even felt a little jealous and disheartened. How could I possibly write anything ever again? I can’t believe Proulx’s genius has eluded me for so long as a reader. For those of you who don’t know her, the film Brokeback Mountain is an adaptation of a story from the same collection as “The Half-Skinned Steer”. She also won a Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Shipping News, which I also believe was made into a film. I’m not sure “The Half-Skinned Steer” has the same cinematic potential as “Brokeback Mountain”, as it is less of a straightforward narrative and more a haze of flashbacks and stories-within-stories. I think it would probably have to be a loose adaptation, with an expanded narrative. The characters and their conflicts are great film material however, and it’s probably the reason I love this story so much. It’s a dark, psychological narrative that explores themes of memory, death and sex.


#3 “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” – Denis Johnson

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Publication Date: Spring 1989 (Issue 110, The Paris Review)

Collected in: Jesus’ Son (1992, Picador)

Summary: The story is narrated in the first person by a hitchhiker who claims to be prescient. Reporting the events of a single night as if outside of time, the hitchhiker recalls traveling with a Cherokee, a salesman, and a college student. Each of them share large quantities of drugs and alcohol with him, until eventually he falls asleep in a puddle on the side of the road. He is then picked up by a family and falls asleep in their car. The car later crashes headlong into a vehicle driven by a man who is apparently asleep at the wheel. The hitchhiker grabs the baby and tries to seek help from a reluctant truck driver. The police arrive and insist that he come with them to the hospital. There, the hitchhiker watches as it is revealed that the man in the family is dead. His wife screams, and the hitchhiker narrates “What a pair of lungs! She shrieked as I imagined an eagle would shriek. It felt wonderful to be alive to hear it! I’ve gone looking for that feeling everywhere”. The narrative then jumps forward a few years where the hitchhiker is now being admitted to a clinic for substance abuse. As the nurse injects him with vitamins, he hallucinates being in an idyllic, pastoral setting and claims that he cannot be of any help to anyone.

Why I LOVE this story: I was assigned Jesus’ Son in 2012 during my student exchange to the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire. During a Creative Writing workshop class, we analyzed this story and Johnson’s distinctive writing style. What is so striking about this story in particular is how the fleeting, minimalist narrative is made large by the voice that underpins it. Johnson captures the altered mental state of a drug addict in such an unforgettable and fascinating way. The opening paragraph in particular made a huge impression on me, and influenced the way I wrote stories for years afterwards. I loved the crazy sentences that didn’t make logical sense, yet whose interesting word choices seemed to resonate somehow. Famed author Jeffrey Eugenides sums up the narrator (whose name is Fuckhead, by the way) thus “Fuckhead isn’t Jesus. He’s Jesus’s son, which is a different thing entirely. He’s a person graced with an intuition of heaven who still lives in hell on earth”.


Thank you so much for reading! These are the short stories that have particularly influenced me of late. What are your favorite short stories? Let me know in the comments!

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler

My 2017 reading schedule has seen me go back and forth not only between genres of fiction, but between old books and new. I’ve made a sizable dent in the stack of second-hand novels I brought home from Texas this summer, but I have also committed myself to reading those books that have suffered on my shelves for years. Some of them I always intended to read but just never got around to, others I had completely abandoned, forgetting why I wanted to read them in the first place. The great Anne Tyler and her inimitable body of work most certainly occupy the former category. She’s an author that I was very much predisposed to liking; whose work I seemed to know without having ever read. I knew I’d like her but I never got around to sitting down and losing myself in Tyler’s Baltimore.

I discovered Anne Tyler in the fall semester of 2013, during a meeting with my creative writing professor regarding my dissertation. I couldn’t decide what story I wanted to write for my “extended creative project” or “ECP” as it was known. At the time I was struggling with this idea I had about a high school basketball star in Western Wisconsin, and taking my influences from a variety of American male authors such as John Updike and Raymond Carver. I was interested in the mundane- American suburbia- but also drawn every now and then to the sensational, to plots involving earth-shattering revelations and high emotions. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to write, and only followed a vague idea of where I wanted to go, trying to advance a plot that wasn’t quite moving all on its own. I had a meeting with a professor who was acting as the supervisor for my dissertation and tried to convey some of the difficulties I was having. It was then that he gave me a list of books I ought to read. The first items on the list were Breathing Lessons and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, both by Anne Tyler. I was intrigued by the titles alone.

My professor said that it sounded like I was trying to emulate these writers, and that if I read from them myself, I might get the help I needed to write the kinds of stories I wanted to write. I never did read them; I was far too wayward, too impatient, too anxious to simply settle down on anything- but I remembered Anne Tyler especially. I ended up buying her magnum opus- Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant– for my mother. I knew she would like it even though I hadn’t read a single sentence of her work before. My mom and I share a lot of books and have a lot of the same tastes. She loves American fiction and always has. This book was supposedly the kind that I wanted to write. So I bought it for my mom and Anne Tyler became her favorite author of all time. No one else comes close, except maybe Steinbeck. Over the years she’s collected every single Anne Tyler novel and read them all. It seemed these books had the same life expectancy around my mom as Double-Stuf Oreos do around me. She tore through them, and it’s hard to discuss it and not come up with metaphors relating to thirst and hunger. I was going to say she just as quickly consumed and disposed of them as a relapsed alcoholic does the contents of a hotel minibar. I always intended to join her, but I never got around to it. However, after months of intensifying nagging on her part, I finally decided that the time was right and picked up this book whose title I had for so long been entranced by.

Like most of her novels, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant is set in Tyler’s native Baltimore. In fact, I’d argue that she stands as the greatest and most iconic author of the city and perhaps the state of Maryland as a whole. Yes, I know that the Baltimore Ravens are named after that one Edgar Allen Poe poem, but honestly you’d be hard pressed to find a fitting name for a football team in an Anne Tyler book. The Baltimore Single Mothers? The fact that Tyler is so strongly associated with the city of Baltimore was a real draw for me. Maryland has always seemed like such a strange place. It’s too southern to be considered a part of the North, and yet too north to be considered truly Southern. It occupies this narrow stretch of no-man’s land between two vastly different cultural and geographic regions, and it has the strangest shape of any country subdivision you’ve ever seen. However there’s little physical description of all this in the novel. What lines are devoted to the setting are sparse and fleeting. Tyler’s Baltimore is a world of sun-splashed sidewalks and brick row houses, streets either full of children at play or no one at all, strip malls, street cats and an endless maze of roads full of parked cars, with only occasional references to the smog of the more industrial parts of town. It’s thoroughly urban, and in some ways that atmosphere comes across in the sheer lack of description of the setting. Tyler is more interested in people and their relationships. Very careful and deep attention is given to the minutiae of domestic life. Tyler’s philosophy is that through the examination of small, mundane things, larger truths are revealed.

In some ways, her obsession with the small aspects of family life reminds me of Raymond Carver, but in truth she reads a lot more like John Updike or William Maxwell. Her vibrant characterizations are much like that of Liane Moriarty, though the pace and themes of her work could not be more different. To my mind, the crowning achievement of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant– and the main aspect that I take away from the novel- is how rich and interesting the characters are. They are all so kooky and eccentric, and represent universal truths of the psychology of family life- such as sibling rivalries, the passing down of traits to descendants, and the nature of pride. The novel is about three siblings: Cody, Ezra and Jenny, and details their life after their father abandons their mother Pearl, leaving her to raise them herself. Each of the siblings fail to detach themselves from the event of their father’s leaving, allowing it to determine the rest of their lives. As the novel spans many years, we see how each of them are shaped by this one event, and how none of them- including Pearl- fully get over it.

I was especially drawn to the oldest child Cody, because in some ways he reminded me of myself during my childhood. During my school days I often caused a lot of trouble and mayhem. I was guilty of not only being a hyperactive little shit, but also being mean to other kids on a few occasions. I remember teasing a girl when I was nine years old, and the class teacher assistant came over and said icily “He doesn’t care about people’s feelings. He just doesn’t care”. I felt a little sympathy for the character of Cody, who everyone assumes is just cold-hearted and without empathy, because it reminded me of those days. I felt like I could relate on some level to his desire to cause more trouble, to accept his “devil” status to spite those that had given it to him.

To conclude, this is a wonderful book, and my reading of it was long overdue. Perhaps the most fascinating element of Tyler’s characterization is the way each sibling remembers the same childhood events differently, and how these competing memories clash throughout the book in a series of poetic repetitions of family dinners always going unfinished. I urge you all to give Anne Tyler a read. She’s one of America’s most perceptive and intelligent writers. And there’s no better place to start than the novel she herself considers her best: Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant!