The View from Saturday

A heart full of love and a bookshelf full of hope and some books.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Monday Morning Reviews: Digging to America by Anne Tyler

Okay, one of the pages just handed me a book to be recatalogued and it is called The Tailchaser's Song and it has a really crudely drawn picture of two cats on the cover, one of whom is apparently coughing up a hairball onto the other. This magnum opus by the venerable Tad Williams is the story of (AND I QUOTE) "Fritti Tailchaser, a ginger tom cat of rare courage and curiosity, a born survivor in a world of heroes and villains, of powerful feline gods and whiskery legends about those strange furless, erect creatures called M'an." The back-cover teaser goes on to invite us to "join Tailchaser on his magical quest to rescue his catfriend Hushpad--a quest that will take him all the way to cat hell and beyond."

This is not a children's book, by the way. It is a book intended for grownups. Scary, scary grownups. Anyway, reading this stellar summary inspired me to start writing reviews of my own. I think this will help me feel like I am contributing something to the world of professional readers' advisory. Furthermore, it will remind me that I didn't just get my Masters to help people log into msn Messenger properly. So here we go.

I blame Anne Tyler for my long-enduring, completely unfounded interest in visiting Baltimore, Maryland. I started reading her character and relationship driven novels on the advice of my local librarian when I was about twelve, and was immediately drawn in. Tyler has that rare gift of being able to create a world that is at once universal and particular (those of you who know me will know that I have been VERY BIG on the universal meeting the particular ever since I was a doe-eyed undergrad obsessed with Virginia Woolf). Most of her books take place in Baltimore, and while they are definitely grounded in their setting, there is also the sense that the story could be unfolding anywhere--in your own house, with your own demented but lovable family. Tyler's characters are complicated and endearing and unintentionally funny: Digging to America's Bitsy Donaldson, for one, wears nothing but black and white clothes for the first year of her child's life because she has read that children can't process colours and organizes a Binky Party to create a tradition out of her daughter getting rid of her soother.

Digging to America tells the story of two families who meet by chance at the Baltimore airport, waiting for their newly-adopted daughters to deplane from Korea. What follows is the intergenerational, multicultural version of the Odd Couple: The Iranian-American Yazdans and the slightly left of centre WASP Donaldsons are linked for life by the coincidence of their children's arrivals. Tyler traces their stories from the points of view of several members of the two families, but always comes back to the psyche of Maryam, the Yazdan grandmother, an assimilated American whose ongoing struggle to determine her identity as an Iranian and an American, a traditionalist and a modern woman, expresses the cultural and emotional complexities that echo through the voices of all the characters.

Like most of Anne Tyler's books, Digging to America broke my heart in the nicest possible way. A description of a recently widowed man as feeling "as lonely as God" is just one example of Tyler's simple but powerful command of metaphor and simile (hello, English major). It's a book about belonging, about family, about making your way in a world that isn't always familiar. Her stories walk the precarious line between happiness and sadness, always mindful of the fact that any good is tempered with bad, that the balance of our lives is always teetering toward one end of the spectrum or the other. I love the way she incorporates familiar events into the story without sermonizing --things like 9-11 and the 2003 hurricane on the Eastern seaboard are woven into the narrative so seamlessly that the story's currency never feels forced. Some of Tyler's recent books--The Amateur Marriage, for one--have been panned by critics and readers alike, and she's been criticized for falling into a rut. With Digging to America, though, I think Tyler is back on her game in a way we haven't seen since her earlier works like Saint Maybe and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (my personal favourite). Whether this is your first taste of Tyler's writing or you've already read a lot of her books, any fan of familial fiction and emotional interiority will love this story.

...and with that, my sincerity for the day is tapped out. Now back to yelling at kids for running, helping people perfect their resumes, and googling people I used to date. It's a good life if you don't weaken, folks.


At 7:49 PM, Anonymous Thadius Bilge said...

While you make an interesting point about Anne Tyler's appealing emotionality and placeless sense of place, I would have to add how much I enjoy her use of capitals and appropriate punctuation. No one uses an ellipsis like old Anne.


Thadius Bilge, Esq.

At 7:06 PM, Blogger cait said...

Dear Thadius,

Why do you hate literature?

CK Dexter Caitlin

At 12:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That last line is just a little too tragically hip... perhaps credit is due?? to Gord D. and to me for finally convincing you that he is a poet, and they are good, no matter how dorky/unhip (is that irony??) that made you feel...


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