The Beginner’s Goodbye

June 22, 2014 at 2:44 pm (Reviews) (, , , , , , , )

beginnersgoodbyeTitle: The Beginner’s Goodbye

Author: Anne Tyler

Publisher: Knopf

Genre: Fiction

Length: 198 pages

I have two Anne Tyler books on my bookshelf.  I acquired them somehow, possibly gifts or hand-me-downs from someone else.  I know I didn’t buy them, because I’ve never felt moved to read them.  Perhaps they were freebies I toted home thinking, “I might need these if I start dying from cancer.” It’s morbid, but it is a frequent thought where free books are concerned.  I worry that I will be trapped in the house or the hospital without reading material.  That must be a phobia of some kind or another, I’m sure of it.

The two books I have are Back When We Were Grown Ups and Digging to America.  They sit perched there right after Mark Twain and before John Updike.  I almost put them in the garage sale we had this week, but couldn’t bring myself to do it.  Something about them makes me want to hold on to them even as I try to decide what to keep and what not to keep during our ‘we might be moving, but aren’t sure’ months.

beginnersgoodbye2This last week at the library, however, I caught a glimpse The Beginner’s Goodbye in the stacks.  On the cover is a coffee cup and a dainty tea cup, immediately invoking the idea that two very different companions will be separated and someone will find themselves with a hole in their heart.

There are many covers out for this book, published in 2012, by a Pulitzer prize winner, everyone wants to add their own touch and be associated with it.  But this one with the cups, that’s what did it for me – that is what captures the essence of the book in my mind.  That’s what conveyed that essence to me from the shelf and prepared me for a mood that I wanted.  The other covers are beautiful, but I probably would have gone on forever ignoring them.

Anne Tyler wrote something in The Beginner’s Goodbye that I wish I had written.  I suppose I say that fairly frequently, but it is the highest compliment I know how to give.  There is much in the reading world I enjoy with all my heart but wouldn’t necessarily long to have my name attached to it.  This, is not one of those things, this is lovely and beautiful and gives you a taste of sweet humanity that even the greatest of storytellers seem to miss sometimes.

Appropriately titled and timed for my life, I’m learning to say goodbye to books that I anticipated keeping until my kid was old enough to read and discard them.  I might be saying goodbye here soon to my extensive library.  Granted, I could get rid of half my books and still have more books than anyone else I know, but sorting through them is hard for me.  By checking out this book from the library, Anne Tyler has made it clear that I at least need to read her other two before I give them up – and that when I give them up they should be wrapped and lovingly gifted, not tossed in a garage sale.

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Magical Thinking and the Vortex

October 16, 2013 at 5:00 am (Reviews) (, , , , , , )

magical thinkingTitle:The Year of Magical Thinking

Author: Joan Didion

Publisher: Knopf

Genre: Memoir

Length: 227 pages

‘I want to go to Malibu.  I would have especially loved to be there in 1976… but alas, I am not a time traveler,” I think as I look at the black and white photograph of Joan Didion with her family on the jacket of The Year of Magical Thinking.

I’m holding a first edition, twelfth printing from December 2005.  It’s a hardback and does not yet feature the gold emblem in the upper right hand corner you see there. I’m assuming where it announces that Didion won the National Book Award for her memoir about grief.

Didion describes ordinary moments when lives change with such detail and such sadness. All I can think is that I find people who go out of this world in ordinary moments sort of blessed.

I know too many who have departed at the height of some drama or another… a gun to the head, horrible bodily functions that caused them to drown in their spit, people who spent their last moments screaming in horrible pain of the body or the mind.

These other people who depart happy… well, let’s just say I hope I go out that way.

Reading this book brings back the nausea of my own grief.  Every description she offers sounds familiar in some way.  No, I haven’t lost a husband, or a child, but I’ve lost.  And I anticipate their loss every day.

Grief comes to you in a number of ways.  One of which is the way you find yourself trying to fill in the hole that missing person left behind.  And doing it badly.  Leaving not a filled in hole, but nauseatingly burning questions you can never get answered.  Song lyrics you can’t un-hear.

When someone dies you are to be there for the family.  You are in no way to interfere with their grief.  You provide.  You silently help.  You be there. You do not intrude.  I was taught this.  I was taught not to draw the attention away from the people in real pain – just as Didion describes.

But reading this, I weep.

What about the people who have no rights? No claim?  The person sitting there who viewed the deceased like family but clearly meant less than the real family?

What do you do when one of the best people you have ever known is dead and you have no claim?

You stay silent.  Or have inappropriate anger toward the deceased.

You find yourself trying to make new friends to fill their place, only to realize the relationship was entirely unique and can never be replaced. Because they were unique.

Didion speaks of the Vortex – of memories – in a way I know so well.  Her vortex are stories of her daughter – her husband – snippets from their lives.

Mine is my own private cage.  That world of private thoughts that I don’t have.  Mine come in deja vus and too much whiskey.  Mine come in always hearing the right thing at the wrong time and the wrong thing at the right time.  Mine come in conversations that remind me of silences, and silences that echo long gone conversations.

My Vortex is the panic attack that starts in my pinkie and the moment in which I forget something I used to remember… or suddenly remember something I forgot.

The Year of Magical Thinking is a bit of a Vortex too… best kept under wraps in a comfy chair, with my journal nearby for the uncontrollable vomit of thought and tears that will arise as I turn the page to the next chapter.

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February 1, 2013 at 9:02 pm (Guest Blogger) (, , , , , , , , )


A Short Story

by E.B. Jones

Mason Maxwell wasn’t like most of the other boys that he went to school with. Whenever he was twelve years old his mother bought him a box with a glass front and he decided that he was going to use it to start a butterfly collection. He liked the idea that butterflies weren’t always the way that butterflies seemed to be. For he himself, felt as though he was a caterpillar, simply waiting until he was able to wind himself up in a cocoon and then to emerge and fly away from everyone and everything.

Mason had never been a very popular boy, he was skinny, small and had to wear very large glasses in order to see. He spent most of his time alone in the library reading books and avoiding confrontations at all costs with the mean boys in gym class.
His only real friend at the school was the librarian. She had taken a special liking to Mason because of his love of reading. Many times he would excuse himself from the pep rallies and assemblies, saying that he needed to go to the bathroom, and he would sneak off to the library to read.

Mason wasn’t the only kid in school that didn’t get along with the mean boys in gym class but they weren’t the same as Mason was. They all wanted to be accepted by the popular kids. One of them, Lynn, had once been friends with Mason years ago. But whenever the boys would be mean to him he would run to the bathroom and cry.

There was another boy, Jeremiah, who would be made fun of as well. But instead of running off to the bathroom and crying, he showed up to school one day wearing all black and pretending like he had no emotions. The kids eventually stopped making fun of him but they never accepted him and Jeremiah would spend most of his off time standing behind the dumpster smoking sweet smelling cigarettes.

Mason was made fun of just as much as any of the other kids that were made fun of, but he didn’t mind it so much. He never wanted to follow the status quot, but preferred to focus his energy on things that interested him. With his affinity for insects he categorized all the students in the school into different groups. Most of the kids in school were ants, just following whatever was popular at the time and doing things that way because that was what you were supposed to do. Mason never got angry at them or wanted to cry whenever they made fun of him because he knew that was just how they were. He knew that none of the ants could understand him, being a caterpillar, and he never expected them too. “There’s always tomorrow.” He would tell himself and smile.

One day, one of the boys from gym pushed Mason up against a locker, “Hey nerd,” The boy said, “How come you like butterflies so much? You a fag or something?”

“No,” Mason said calmly, “I just think they’re pretty. I mean, they aren’t at first, whenever they’re still caterpillars. But eventually they grow up and are beautiful, then they fly around in big groups with their own and are never alone anymore. Not like ants, ants just stay on the ground and do whatever they’re told to do, never thinking for themselves.”

“Whatever faggot.” The boy said, pushing him down on the ground. “I bet you like other boys, that’s why you like butterflies.”

“I don’t see the correlation,” Mason said smiling, “Don’t worry, one day you might see.”

“Shut up faggot,” The kid said. Then he swung and knocked Mason’s glasses off. “That’s what you get for being a fag.”

That evening Mason’s mother picked him up and asked him what had happened. He explained and she just sighed. She didn’t understand him either, “Why don’t you try to play sports of something and make some friends?”

“It’s ok mom. I don’t want to be friends with people like that. They’re mean and one day things will change and I’m going to have a bunch of friends. People that aren’t just mean to each other because they are insecure in their own shortcomings,” he told her.

“Where do you get this stuff?” She asked. She didn’t understand her son, but she didn’t really care, she was proud that her son was more mature than even she was.

“I don’t know, I think it’s because I read a lot of books,” he told her.
A week later Mason decided that he wanted to explain to the other kids in school why he loved butterflies so much so he asked his science teacher if he could do a presentation on then for class. His teacher agreed and he set to work laying out all the details and making sure that he had everything in order for his presentation.

The presentation went well despite the spit wads and name calling. After he finished his teacher stood up and addressed the class.

“That was very informative Mason. Now, can anyone tell me what the process that a caterpillar goes through to become a butterfly?”

Mason raised his hand but the teacher just looked at him and smiled. “Obviously you know Mason, does anyone else know?”

A girl at the back of the class raised her hand slowly, as if she thought she might know the answer.

“Yes, Sandy?” The teacher asked, “Do you know?”

Sandy hesitated for a moment and bit her lip, “Is it, metamorphosis?”

“Very good Sandy.” The teacher said.

Sandy wasn’t the most popular girl in school, but she was a cheerleader and her boyfriend was on the football team. Of all the members of the cheer squad she was the only one that actually seemed to care about any of her school work. Mason turned around and looked at her and smiled.

She looked at him and started to smile, then someone coughed out the word “nerd.” Then her smile went away and she rolled her eyes at Mason.

Mason didn’t mind Sandy rolling her eyes at him. He just turned back around and kept smiling.

Three weeks later Sandy missed several days of school and rumors started to circle around. Someone had said that her mother had been murdered by her father and that she had been kidnapped and was in Mexico. The only thing that anyone knew for sure was that the news was saying that her mother had been murdered and her father was on the lam.
Eventually Sandy did show up to school. Most of the time she kept silent and whenever someone tired to talk to her she told them to go away. Many of her friends ended up taking it very personally because none of them understood what she was going through.
The day before her mothers funeral, Sandy was standing at her locker whenever Mason walked past and noticed that she was crying so he decided to walk up to her.

“Sandy.” Mason said to her.

“Go away, I just want to be alone.” She told him.

“I’m sorry about your mother.” Mason said.

“Just go away! All right?” She yelled at him.

Mason continued on towards the library and went inside and sat down at his usual seat. The librarian came and sat down next to him.

“You like that girl Sandy huh?” She asked him.

“I like everyone. I just think she’s sad and I want to be nice to her because her mom died.” He told her.

“Well, I think you are being a very kind and proper gentleman.” The librarian told him.

“I don’t want her to be sad.” He said “I know why she’s sad, but everyone thinks she’s just being mean to them. They tried reaching out but I don’t think any of them really understand.”

“Well, she is going through a lot right now, and you have to understand that there are a lot of things going on in her mind. Just try and let her know that you’ll be there if she needs to talk to someone, but don’t be pushy about it.” The librarian said, “It’s kind of like whenever you get a little older, you’ll learn that you need to be available, but also respectful of boundaries. Lord knows I’ve been waiting for a boy that understands that.”

“You aren’t married?” Mason asked.

“No,” She laughed, “I was a caterpillar until about two years ago.”

“How old are you?”

“Here’s one more lesson. Never ask a girl her age.” She told him, “But between you and me, I’m 27.”

“Wow,” Mason said, “You were a caterpillar for a long time.”

The librarian laughed and then said, “Yeah, I was.”

“You made a pretty butterfly though.” He smiled.

“Thanks kid.” The librarian said.

Sandy opened the door with her head down and stood in the entryway for a bit, then walked to one of the aisles of books.

“Go get her kid.” The librarian said.

“Right, available, but respectful.” Mason said confidently.

“You’re gonna be something someday.” She smiled.

Mason walked slowly to where Sandy and gone. “I know you don’t want to talk to anyone right now, but if you ever do want to talk, I just wanted to let you know I’ll listen to you.”
Sandy looked up at him and had tears in her eyes. They stared at each other for a moment and then Mason smiled at her, turned around and walked away.

The next day Mason asked his mother if he could go to Sandy’s mother’s funeral and his mother agreed that it would be a nice thing to do.

Sandy arrived with her grandparents and Mason with his mother. “I don’t want to get too close, she’s going through a lot.” Mason told his mother.

After the funeral service ended Mason looked up in the sky and noticed a dark cloud moving swiftly towards the site. Mason’s mother put her hand on his shoulder, “We should get going.” She said.

“Not yet,” He told her.

The dark cloud got closer and closer until everyone that was left at the grave site could see that it was a swarm of butterflies. As the small group marveled at the site, Sandy looked down and noticed that there was one single butterfly resting on her mother’s coffin. She watched it as it slowly moved its wings and then took off and joined the other butterflies and flew north. She watched them until they disappeared into the sky. Whenever she looked back she noticed that Mason was watching the butterflies as well.

“I want to go talk to that boy.” She told her grandmother.

“That’s fine dear.” Her grandmother said.

Sandy walked towards Mason and tapped him on the shoulder. “What kind of butterflies are those?”

“Those are called Red Admiral butterflies. They migrate through here during the spring and fall.” He told her, “This is the first time I’ve seen that many of them though.”

“Do you think they took my mother to a better place?” She asked.

“Maybe,” Mason said, “Maybe in this life we’re all just caterpillars right now. Then one day, we go into a coffin for a little while, and then come out as something even more beautiful.”
Sandy’s throat closed up and tears started forming in her eyes. She tried to open her mouth to make words but nothing could come out so she just leaned in and kissed Mason. It was the first time a girl other than his mother had kissed him. They both stood for a moment looking at each other.

Then, Sandy turned around and walked away, and even though no one ever saw it, for the first time since her mother had died, Sandy smiled.


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The Lovely Bones

January 24, 2010 at 8:13 pm (Reviews, The Whim) (, , , , , , , , , , , , )

I read this book a few years ago, actually, but with it being so wildly popular again I realized I never wrote a review.

The Lovely Bones is a bit tragic, terrible in its opening rape and murder, hazy with a metaphysical view of heaven, and sad as the family surviving the deceased fourteen year old attempt to function with one less person in the household.  Its beautifully written despite its harsh plot points and terrifying point of view, but reading Alice Sebold’s memoir Lucky will help you understand her approach to the story.  I highly recommend for 14-18 year old girls to read as a warning to pay attention to what’s going on around you and that the wise choices in life are not always polite nor do they quench certain curiosities.
Buy The Lovely Bones

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Gloriously Symmetrical

January 18, 2010 at 12:32 am (Reviews, The Whim) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

As beautiful as The Time Traveler’s Wife is, Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Fearful Symmetry is awful.  Every moment, every line is filled with mystery, sadness, and the terrible selfishness of humanity.  I loved it.

People have described this second novel as disappointing.  I feel as though it was done on purpose.  I cried on page one, knowing that the rest of the book could not be even remotely as beautiful or as happy; and by the end I had been disappointed by every character so often, I merely settled into a sigh of understanding.  Of course it ends this way, of course.  The novel was gloriously backwards, in comparison to Niffenegger’s first book, just as Valentina is a backward version of Julia.

If you read it, I think you’ll understand my meaning.

Buy Her Fearful Symmetry

If you liked it, I also recommend:

The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold (although The Lovely Bones is not nearly as fascinating, the writing is most excellent)

The Mercy of Thin Air – Domingue (equally calm and spooky, but add a southern American drawl)

Swan – Frances Mayes (for the characters and her always amazing prose, also set in the American south)

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