Friday, April 30, 2010

Book Fifty: Celestial Navigation by Anne Tyler (and 50B: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

I finally make it to Anne Tyler, one of my favorite writers who does not get the critical support she deserves. Okay, so she has a Pulitzer and National Book Critics Award for The Accidental Tourist (an excellent book), but she has many other novels which deserve attention. 

Tyler's most recognizable feature is her unique characters. To say many of her characters are off center is being polite. Many are just plain strange, but almost always in an appealing way. Tyler loves people, especially those who choose to approach life with their own unique view despite what society tells them. She is not naive about people, and the eternally unhappy person usually makes an appearance, but it is the strange and wonderful which capture her attention.

Celestial Navigation is Tyler's 5th novel, published in 1974 -- long before praise started coming her way. It focuses on Jeremy, a 38-year-old bachelor who has lived with his mother while rarely leaving their house. At the outset we find the mother has died and Jeremy's sisters enter the picture. The mother had turned their house into a boarding house, so Jeremy has company, but over the years he strays less and less from home until he is nearly confined inside. He is an artist with a studio on the top floor, and although at times he is a teacher to some budding artist, his detached and strange ways usually finds them leaving.

In the midst of all the changes comes Mary. She has left her husband and moved to Baltimore with her daughter to be with her new lover, but that eventually ends. Jeremy, much to his surprise, falls in love. Despite his strange ways and unattractive appearance (and Tyler excels in this description), she falls for him as well. In one of my favorite lines, after she tells him no to his marriage proposal, he shocks with the casual line: "What hope do you have for a better life, if you keep on saying no to everything new?"

They have a brood of children and Jeremy begins to make small excursions out and becomes successful as an artist. But now that he has Mary and all he wants, he finds himself drifting once again. The title refers to how Jeremy gets through life, by following his path in the heavens. He steers by a force unseen by others and unknown to him, but it is a path nonetheless.

Tyler writes the book from the perspectives of many characters. Only when doing it from Jeremy's perspective do we get more of a 3rd person narrative. This inconsistency would get Tyler bad marks in a creative writing program, but it works because Jeremy lacks the self consciousness of other people. Tyler takes us through 13 years of his life and we see people sail in and out of his life, but he continues on as before. Characters like Jeremy serve well to make us reexamine our own choices, but Tyler does not use them as foils for our own self interest. Her unique people are to be accepted and even treasured for who they are individually. 

Where Tyler is sometimes criticized is for romanticizing characters and lives (okay, she is also criticized for not having much in the way of sex in her books, but I always thought that was a stupid thing to say about anyone). But Tyler is not romantic about her characters, as this novel will show you, although she is hopeful for them. If that constitutes a weak writer, I hope she continues losing strength!

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

This is a great collection of stories which I've read many times since I discovered Sherlock Holmes in 5th grade. I actually read another collection first, but this is the first collection of short stories and one most people are familiar with. I've not read all of them together in quite some time and I certainly have a new eye. At times I was frustrated by Doyle's failure to bring clear closure to a story, and some hardly seemed mysteries at all. However, Holmes is as difficult as ever as a person, which makes him all the more interesting. He does some things for show early on, but his love of deduction is what really drives him. These are well worth the read.

Just for my own fun here is my ranking of the stories (Holmes fans are always ranking stories!).

1)"The Adventure of the Speckled Band"
2)"The Adventure of the Red-Headed League"
3)"A Scandal in Bohemia"
4)"The Boscombe Valley Mystery"
5)"The Five Orange Pips"
6)"The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet"
7)"The Man with the Twisted Lip" 
8)"A Case of Identity"
9)"The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle"
10)"The Adventure of the Engineer's Thumb"
11)"The Adventure of the Noble Bachelor"
12)"The Adventure of the Copper Beeches"

This will probably change next time. Usually Red-Headed League tops the list.

Up Next 
So close! Just two more weeks to reach my goal. As I said before, Jane Austen gets the final week. But for next week, my busiest week of the year in which I dare not fail in my goal when so close to the end. A friend of mine (who recommended an earlier book) suggested Alan Lightman's Einstein's Dreams as a short, but not light book. My eldest also warned me that it is not a quick read, but I take heart that I'll manage.


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