Thursday, August 16, 2012

A review of "The Beginner's Goodbye" by Anne Tyler

Though is won’t achieve the fame of “Call me Ishmael”, Anne Tyler has crafted a great first line for her latest novel (her 19th): “The strangest thing about my wife’s return from the dead was how people reacted.”***** No, it’s not yet another zombie novel, but the opening alerts the reader to themes that Tyler has often turned to in her work; the impact mortality has on relationships – in marriage, in families and among friends. “The Beginner’s Goodbye” draws even more specifically from one of Tyler’s most beloved novels, “The Accidental Tourist”. Both books feature a widower for a protagonist who is emotionally crippled (in this novel emphasized by a physical disability.) And Aaron is even in the publishing industry, editor for a company that features a series of “Beginner’s” help manuals as Macon Leary in the earlier novel wrote a series of “Accidental Tourist” guidebooks.***** I don’t at all mind Tyler returning to similar themes, because she manages to keep things fresh, sweet and, on occasion, rather funny. She manages quirk without it becoming cloying, which isn’t easy.***** Even lessons learned go down with the proverbial spoonful. One lesson that the protagonist, Aaron, learns is that self sufficiency and relationships often don’t go together. (It’s interesting that Aaron is an atheist in a world that has great wonder. He seems not to want to admit a need for God anymore than he wants to admit he needs other people.) Another nicely woven theme is the miraculous nature of relationships. Aaron’s renewed relationship with his dead wife is perhaps on the same plane of chance as their relationship beginning in the first place. (I thought of C. S. Lewis’ discussion of miracles. Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding was just quicker than the usual, also miraculous, process.)***** The novel is relatively short (under 200 pages), which is all to the good. While longtime writers like Stephen King write on and on, just challenging an editor to be brave enough to cut, Tyler knows when enough is enough.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Good Goo

What it is it about guys and gross stuff? Why are boys (young and old) drawn stories and jokes that feature bodily fluids, nasty sights and, yes, awful smells? Literature has a proud tradition of gross humor going back to the Greek comedies through Shakespeare to today.***** The tradition can be found in children’s literature from Tom Sawyer and his dead cat in a bag (to cure warts) through Captain Underpants. And the tradition continues with Michael Wilhelm’s series about Skunk Guy. I just finished and greatly enjoyed the first book in the series, Norman and the Stinking Space Goo.***** Norman Flinch is an average fourteen year old boy with a more than average interest (obsession?) with comic books. And an encounter with an abandoned alien toy (left by a family on a working vacation from the planet Rentar) empowers Norman with the power of creating aromas. This allows Norman to live out his dreams and make himself into an odor powered superhero.***** My son has a fairly encyclopedic knowledge of comic books and he couldn’t think off hand of an aroma creating super hero in the Marvel or DC universe.***** This also allows the creator of the series, Michael Wilhelm, huge opportunities for smell related humor; skunks and rotten eggs come quickly, and humorously into play.***** Along with the stink jokes, there are very likable characters, including Norman’s new found friend, Wendell (a scientific genius) and his family (parents and sister.) ***** Parents will appreciate the wholesome nature of the books. The characters are certainly not flawless, but in general Norman and Wendell are trying to follow the values of truth and righteousness they find in their comic books. (Some parents might also appreciate that church going is a natural part of Norman’s family life.) ***** Along with writing the book, Wilhelm also provides the illustrations (the cover and a picture at the beginning of each chapter.) The drawings are in the style of Al Hirschfeld, with similar wit. ***** The book is an easy read for early chapter readers and should appeal to boys that might be hard to shop for in the library or bookstore. This first book in the series came out in 2001 (I’ll admit that as a read I thought, “Why aren’t they using cell phones?” and then I looked at the publishing date.) ****** This is a self-published book, but it doesn’t look like it (no offense self-published books that really look it.) You can learn more about this book and other books in the series (including The Sensational Slime Saga and Skunk on the Run) at The books are available as e-books as well as in traditional tree killing form. Follow the sweet stink to a fine series of books.