20 Books of Summer, #1–3: Hadley, Timms & Tyler

I’ve been reading sophisticated short stories, a food/travel memoir, and a prize-winning slice of cozy Americana.

 

Sunstroke and Other Stories by Tessa Hadley (2007)

Everything is running away so fast; your deepest responsibility is to snatch at all the living you can.

Here’s a little something I wrote as an introduction to a review of Hadley’s most recent short story collection: “When I think of Tessa Hadley’s books, I picture a certain quality of light. I see piercing yellow shafts of sunlight filling airy, wood-floored rooms and lowering over suburban English gardens to create languid summer evenings. I think of childhood’s sense of possibility and adolescence’s gently scary feeling of new freedoms opening up. And, even when the story lines are set in the present day, I imagine the calm sophistication of 1950s–70s fashions: smart sweater sets and skirts, or flowing hippie dresses.” This volume is from a decade earlier and is not quite as strong, but that distinct atmosphere is still there.

Each story pivots on a particular relationship: A mother fends off her son’s spurned lover; a teenager helps her older sister recover from a miscarriage; a woman hosts her former brother-in-law. Several stories revisit the same place or situation decades later. Claudia flirted with Graham when he was a teenager and she a grown woman; in “Phosphorescence” he tests whether there’s still any power in that connection 25 years later. In “A Card Trick” Gina goes back to a writer’s home she visited with family friends 25 years ago and reflects on how life has failed to live up to expectations. In “Matrilineal” Nia shares the comfort of a bed with her mother twice: once as a little girl the night they run away from her father, and again 40 years later in a hotel in New York City.

My two favorites were “The Surrogate,” in which a young woman falls for her professor – and for a pub customer who happens to look like him; and “Exchanges,” about two women on the cusp of middle age whose lives have diverged.

 

Korma, Kheer and Kismet: Five Seasons in Old Delhi by Pamela Timms (2014)

The only diary I’ve ever religiously maintained is my food journal.

Timms is a Scottish journalist and food blogger who moved to India in 2005 when her husband got a job as a foreign correspondent. She delights in the street food stalls of Old Delhi, where you can get a hearty and delicious meal of mutton curry or fried vegetable dumplings for very little money. Often the snacks are simple – the first roasted sweet potatoes of the season or a big bowl of rice pudding made with buffalo milk and flavored with cardamom – but something about snatching sustenance while you’re on the go can make it the best thing you’ve ever tasted. It takes some searching to avoid the “pizza-fication” of Indian cuisine and discover an authentic hole-in-the-wall. Timms relies on local knowledge to locate hidden treasures and probes the owners until she gets recipes to recreate at home.

There isn’t a strong narrative to the book, but the food descriptions are certainly mouth-watering. Timms also captures the “magnificent mayhem of the spice market” and the extremes of the climate – a Delhi summer is like “being trapped inside a tandoor for three months of the year.” I reckon “Mr Naseem’s Sheer Khurma” will be fairly easy and so worth trying as a light dessert to follow a curry feast. Made with whole milk, ground rice, dried fruits and nuts, it’s a sweet custard traditionally used to break the Ramadan fast.

 

Breathing Lessons by Anne Tyler (1988)

“Was there a certain conscious point in your life when you decided to settle for being ordinary?”

Tyler won the Pulitzer Prize for this one. I’d rate it third out of the seven of her novels I’ve read so far, after Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant and The Accidental Tourist. (In general I seem to like her 1980s work the best.) The main action takes place all on one day, as Maggie Moran and her husband Ira travel from Baltimore up to Pennsylvania to attend the funeral of her childhood friend’s husband and pay a visit to their son’s ex-wife and their granddaughter.

Of course, circadian narratives are so clever because they manage to interleave sufficient flashbacks to fill in the background. So we learn how 48-year-old Maggie – a precursor of Rebecca Davitch from Back When We Were Grown-ups and Abby Whitshank from A Spool of Blue Thread and the epitome of the exuberant, slightly ditzy, do-gooding heroine – has always meant well but through a combination of misunderstandings and fibs has botched things. She settled on Ira almost out of embarrassment: she’d heard a rumor he’d been killed in military training and sent his father an effusive condolence letter. When their son Jesse got Fiona pregnant, Maggie convinced Fiona to give him a chance based on a sentimental story about him that she perhaps half believed, and now, years later, she’s trying to do the same.

I loved the funeral scene itself – Serena is determined to recreate her wedding to Max, note for note – but I wearied of a sequence in which Maggie and Ira help an older African-American gentleman with car trouble. This is very much the Maggie show, so your reaction to the novel will largely depend on how well you’re able to tolerate her irksome habits. (Really, does she have to confuse the brake and the accelerator TWICE in one day?) Ira is the usual Tylerian standoffish husband, and Jesse the standard layabout progeny. What I found strangest was how little Tyler bothers to develop the character of the Moran daughter, Daisy.

Still, I enjoyed this. It’s a story about the mistakes we make, the patterns we get stuck in, and the ways we try to put things right. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. Ultimately, we’re all making up this life business as we go along.

(I’ll also be reviewing Anne Tyler’s new novel, Clock Dance, on July 12th.)

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15 thoughts on “20 Books of Summer, #1–3: Hadley, Timms & Tyler

    1. I’d join you for a readalong of her titles I haven’t yet read!

      I will likely have to do some substituting soon; it turns out I’ll be going to the States for three weeks next month to help my parents pack and move out of their house. So instead of packing books I have over here, I’ll just read ones I already have in storage there. (Before figuring out how to ship all my remaining books and other belongings over here!)

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  1. I’ve meant to read Tessa Hadley’s short fiction for a long time. I liked A Spool of Blue Thread, the only Anne Tyler I’ve read, but it didn’t really motivate me to seek out any of her other stuff – it seemed vaguely derivative of other things. Perhaps, as you say, it makes sense to seek out her earlier fiction which probably feels a bit fresher.

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    1. In terms of Hadley’s short stories, I’d most recommend Bad Dreams and Other Stories, which came out last year. It’s just that little bit better than Sunstroke.

      I have not been particularly impressed with Tyler’s more recent work (2000s onward). I started with The Beginner’s Goodbye, a pretty weak one, and A Spool of Blue Thread, but I’m so glad I persisted past those and tried some of her classics. (Looking back to my review of A Spool of Blue Thread, the characters and setup are awfully similar to Breathing Lessons in some ways!)

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  2. I went through a phase many moons ago of listening to Tyler’s work on audio. I enjoyed most of them though I can’t tell you any of the titles or remember any of the plots (this was before I kept any kind of record about my reading). Maybe that tells me something about my reaction to her work – ie enjoyable at the time but not memorable?

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    1. She seems to recycle fairly similar plots and characters, so I can see why after a while they would start to blend into one. Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant has been the most distinctive to me so far.

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  3. I’ve read Breathing Lessons but as others have mentioned her plots tend to blend together sometimes… and it’s been a while. My favorite of hers is Digging to America because of the Iranian characters/storyline. The other two sound like ones I would enjoy. I’m woefully behind on 20 Books of Summer reviews (I’m on a reading tear lately) so I’ll be writing some mini-review posts soon.

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  4. Mmm… fried vegetable dumplings and fire-roasted sweet potato…

    I think I own Breathing Lessons (and several other Anne Tyler books). They always sound good, but I never get to them. I didn’t know Breathing Lessons won the Pultizer!

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    1. I would love to go to India just to eat the street food 🙂 But getting there, and getting around within the country, sounds terrifying.

      Anne Tyler’s books are really cosy. Pick up one up next time you need a comfort read! You might especially like The Accidental Tourist.

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