Redhead By the Side of the Road

Anne Tyler’s quirky characters always resonate with me, from the annoying travel writer in The Accidental Tourist to meddling Maggie in Breathing Lessons. Her setting in  Redhead By the Side of the Road is once again Baltimore, and again she has family as the fulcrum for examining the life of her hero.

Micah Mortimer is a forty something bachelor who manages an old apartment house for the free rent in the basement, and dabbles in computer repair with his small company Tech Hermit.  Micah has a structured and organized life, bordering on obsessive – the kind of guy who must have all the pencils sharpened and lined up, if he used them, and has a schedule for cleaning, eating, waking up, and most of his life.  Although he has had girlfriends, Cass, an elementary school teacher, is the latest he has lost, and he is befuddled by what he did to make her leave him.

Brink, a young freshman in college, and the son of Micah’s first love, appears suddenly at his doorstep.  Brink is running away allegedly looking for his birth father, but the real reasons surface later.  Micah gives the boy coffee and a place to sleep for one night, assuring Brink he could not be his father (he never slept with his mother), and then sends him away when the boy refuses to call his mother to reassure her.  Eventually, Brink confesses and reunites with his family, but not before he ruffles old memories in Micah.

The redhead at the side of the road makes an appearance only twice in the story, and both times this reader wonders if it is symbolic of Micah getting older with his eyesight starting to fail, or some manifestation of his own desperate life – the redhead appears to be sitting, huddled with her head down and clasping her knees.  The first time the redhead appeared, I laughed out loud when Tyler revealed the true identity.  The second time, I wondered if his not seeing clearly said something about his relationships.

Through a series of incidents with his family – all older sisters and broods; with Lorna, Brinks’s mother; and with a funny assortment of customers needing help with their computers, Micah reevaluates his life and comes to a moment of awakening.  The ending reveals his vulnerability and offers hope for better connections with human nature. Tyler wryly reaffirms it’s always a good time to change your life.

This might be the best time to read Tyler’s story, not only for Tyler’s subtle humor but also for her message.   When all of us are experiencing our routines being changed through circumstances we cannot control, reading about a man whose life seemed happy with his ordinary regimen and suddenly has to adjust to outside forces is relatable.  It’s comforting to know he not only survived but life got better – eventually.

Related Review: https://thenochargebookbunch.com/2016/06/21/vinegar-girl-by-anne-tyler/

 

Chasing the Aurora Borealis and Other Dreams

Still catching up on old New Yorkers, James Lasdun’s Glow – Chasing the Aurora Borealis in the April, 2019 issue caught my eye.  Seeing the Northern Lights has long been on my adventure list, but these days I’d be happy to just get off this island.  Lasdun’s article is a cautionary tale; seeing the amazing colors in the sky is not easy, but after a week of chasing the dream, he finally gets closure and sees their spectacular show.  Reading the article inspired me to keep hoping.  If you missed it, here is the tale – Glow – Chasing the Aurora Borealis.

James Lasdun, the author, is new to me, but he has a long list of books. His Seven Lies was long listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2006, and his latest Afternoon of a Faun was cited as a timely read in Book Browse:

When an old flame accuses him of sexual assault in her memoir, expat English journalist Marco Rosedale is brought rapidly and inexorably to the brink of ruin. His reputation and livelihood at stake, Marco confides in a close friend, who finds himself caught between the obligations of friendship and an increasingly urgent desire to uncover the truth. This unnamed friend is drawn, magnetized, into the orbit of the woman at the center of the accusation – and finds his position as the safely detached narrator turning into something more dangerous. Soon, the question of his own complicity becomes impossible to avoid.

Set during the months leading up to Donald Trump’s election, with detours into the 1970s, this propulsive novel investigates the very meaning of truth at a time when it feels increasingly malleable… a study of our shifting social mores with a meditation on what makes us believe, or disbelieve, the stories people tell about themselves.

I may try reading one of his books, after enjoying his essay.  Have you read any?

A Running List of Books Read

My reading has been sporadic, and old New Yorkers are more likely to keep my attention these days than books, especially when the issues are before the coronavirus was a staple of society.   The covers offer some solace too when they picture a Sunday morning outing from September, 2019 – not that long ago, or Anna Parini’s “A New Leaf’ from January, 2019.  Short essays by David Sedaris and  Adam Gopnick are refreshing.  And then there are the cartoons…

 

 

 

 

But now and then a book appears, sometimes preordered in the mail or iBooks.  A few I’ve read:

The Starlet and the Spy by J-Min Lee

A profoundly poignant tale of the effects of the Korean War on a young woman who survives the horrors on her country, only to recap the trauma in her mind as she tries to return to a normal life after the armistice.  Alice J. Kim is a Korean translator and typist for the American forces, having abandoned her career as an illustrator and artist.  When movie star Marilyn Monroe is scheduled to visit the American troops still in Korea, Alice is assigned as her translator.  An unexpected friendship develops between the two women as Alice is forced to confront her past.  Although Marilyn Monroe’s appearance in this short novel is small, her role triggers an unexpected note of women’s strength in dealing with their lives.

The Secret Guests by Benjamin Black

Black is the pen name of Man Booker Prize winning novelist John Banville.  As Benjamin Black he uses mystery and crime in easy-to-read novels.  In The Secret Guests, he creates a fiction about the young Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret being evacuated to Ireland during the war.  If you are a devoted viewer of The Crown and a fan of Susan Elia MacNeal, this story will feed your curiosity about imagined conversations and feelings of the future Queen and her sister.  Short and fun.

The Red Lotus by Chris Bohjalian

Having read Bohjalian before, I was expecting a page-turning thriller, and I was not disappointed.  Maybe a little too close to current events, The Red Lotus reveals a story about a virus released globally – this time through rats.  From a bike tour in Vietnam to a New York City emergency room, the story is fast-paced with just enough romance and horrors to keep you reading. Alexis, the emergency room doctor discovers her new lover has been lying about his background and his family.  The energy packets he left behind where he was found dead lead to harrowing consequences, trailing with deceit and murder.  Although the idea of  reading about a global pandemic when we are all in one may not seem appealing, Bohjalian creates a solvable mystery with a happy ending.

 

Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn

Tempted by the possibility of hearing the author via crowdnet and motivated to support a local independent bookstore, I bought the book, read the story, and watched the interview broadcast.  Although the author confirms he is not native Hawaiian, he weaves a tale about a poor Hawaiian family beset by the demise of the sugar cane plantations.  The three children in the family follow a typical route by eventually leaving the island for college on the mainland – one with a basketball scholarship, another for an engineering degree, and the youngest and brightest to Stanford for pre-med – and all predictably find difficulty in adjusting to non-island life.

The youngest is also the fulcrum of the story; as a young boy he was rescued from drowning in the ocean by a shark.  Suddenly, he becomes the Hawaiian Messiah, with real or imagined healing powers.  Later, when his “powers” fail him as a paramedic, he returns despondent to his hometown; he dies accidentally or suicidally – it is up to the reader to decide. His brother replaces basketball with drug dealing and jail time, exiting to a life as a drug lord sending money back home.  His sister leaves college to help her destitute parents, and works on a local farm in exchange for food.  She, ultimately, becomes the savior, using her engineering skills to reconstruct and modernize the farm into a profitable business.

Sprinkled with Hawaiian local language and lore, the story may be more interesting to those looking to understand the plight of the Hawaiian family and the magical reasoning used to explain incidents and drive opportunities.

A Children’s Book – Perfect Therapy for Viral Times

In her essay for the New York Times Book Review today – “An Author Perfect for Now”  – Ann Patchett  talks about discovering award winning children’s book author Kate DiCamillo.  Amazingly, Patchett had never read any of DiCamillo’s books.  And her comment made me realize – not everyone knows about the wonders of children’s books.

Reminded of my traveling days when a good children’s book would carry me away and pass the long hours on a flight, I thought of the time I was surreptitiously reading Dahl’s BFG, trying to hide the cover from my seat mate, or the happy discovery of a discarded old Flat Stanley in the waiting area of an airport.   But, it seems, adults do not read children’s books – unless they are reading a story to a child,  If Ann Patchett had never read Kate DiCamillo, probably many well read adults had missed her too – along with Maurice Sendak, Beverly Cleary, Lois Lowry, Katherine Paterson, Scott O’Dell, E.L. Konigsburg, and more.

With my attention span wavering between Saki’s short stories and the New Yorker’s one frame cartoons, a children’s book seems a likely diversion.

What’s your favorite children’s book?

If you are looking for ideas for reading, I have a list of children’s books I’ve reviewed.  The top three are written by Kate DiCamillo.   Click here for a list of children’s books

Three Hours

I found Rosamund Lupton in Heathrow airport during a long layover, and devoured her debut novel Sister before I boarded the plane.  Since then I have anxiously waited for her novels to travel across the pond; but Three Hours was too long to wait.  I still have not seen it in stores here but I found it through the Book Depository and escaped into its world, reading through it in one day.  I love it when a book captures me; it’s been a while since a story has been so compelling.

Three Hours reminded me of the first of Ann Patchett’s novels, Bel Canto, with its theme of hostages, terror, lives intersecting and morphing into positive and negative influences, with a well constructed plot leading to surprises at the end. Lupton updates her characters to students in a liberal British school, unknowingly infiltrated by a psychopath who has connected with a hate filled group.  Students tweet and send messages through all the current social media and learn how to make bombs and adapt machine guns on the internet; they are more adept than their teachers and parents, of course.  Two Syrian refugees, one who proves to be a hero, provide the fulcrum as the story unravels through three hours of terror in the school.

So much happens, the three hours could have been weeks, as the reader watches students, teachers, parents, and the attackers through the lens of innocence and bias.  Macbeth plays a pivotal role on the story, and as someone who has read and taught the play, I was impressed by how Lupton integrates Shakespeare’s universal themes into today’s world.  As their fellow students are held hostage in the library, barricaded by books, and in a small pottery shed, making clay animals, the seniors rehearse the play in the seemingly foolproof theater.  The play’s murders and the infamous witches are suddenly relevant to the horror around them, and Birnam Wood will never be the same.

A fast paced thriller with not so subtle implications for today’s world, Three Hours is another of Lupton’s amazing rides.

Related Posts:

Afterwards by Rosamund Lupton

The Quality of Silence

Sister