Musings of Navigating The Finite remainder of life from Porchville, with the hope of a glimpse of The Infinite

Friday, August 19, 2011

Why is Anne Tyler so Popular?

I just finished another Anne Tyler novel Dinner At The Homesick Restaurant.  Good God, even the title just drips with Anne Tyler:  dinner = mundane, homesick = ineffectual and pushed around by life, and Homesick coupled with Restaurant = the eccentric…all elements in a Tyler novel.  Who the hell names a restaurant The Homesick Restaurant?  It sounds like a place where wimps would go and cry in their soup.  It is exactly the kind of name that an odd Anne Tyler character would come up with, and exactly the kind of place that I wished that I could have found in week three of some of my business trips.  And there it is, the odd dichotomy of Anne Tyler…what a dumb sounding name, it almost makes my skin crawl, and yet, if I can dispense with all the typical daily macho horseshit from my psyche, how manly and tough I am—like about what happens to me in week three of a business trip, I find the notion of dragging myself in to a joint called the Homesick Restaurant where real mashed potatoes with real gravy is served by a real, average looking with flaws, middle aged, woman that smiles a real smile and calls you “hon” to be extremely appealing.  There have been times on business trips when I would have killed for an hour with my wife and a plate of Kraft macaroni and cheese.

I have read four of Tyler’s novels, The Accidental Tourist, Breathing Lessons, Noah’s Compass, and Dinner At Homesick Restaurant.  The first two I read on my own about 20 years ago and the specifics have long left me.  I can only remember these oddly ineffectual characters that seem to have absolutely no control over their lives.  Things happen to them and they react to it, sometimes in an eccentric and bizarre albeit harmless manner, but never do they seem to take the bull by the horns and take charge of their lives.  I read Noah’s Compass last year and just finished Dinner At The Homesick Restaurant a few days ago because they were selections of the book club that I not only belong to but through a typical “Anne Tylerian” act of mundane life, came to run.  In any event, I am certainly not an Anne Tyler expert.  In fact I find her success and my reaction to her books to be confusing.

Why in the world are Anne Tyler’s novels so popular?  They have no plot.  There is no action.  There are no heroics.  They answer no huge moral questions, and, for that matter, hardly look at even small moral questions.  The protagonists are not someone that you would envy.  They have little to do with popular culture, fame, glamour, or fortune.  They are apolitical and seem to be written before feminism existed.  There are no grand questions.  And on top of that, Tyler, like one of her characters, does absolutely nothing to help her sales.  She does not do book tours, interviews, public readings, or appears in the media.  And yet, from Wikipedia, we have:

Tyler's ninth novel, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, which she considers her best work, was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1983. Her tenth novel, The Accidental Tourist was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1985 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1986 and was made into a 1988 movie starring William Hurt and Geena Davis. Her eleventh novel, Breathing Lessons, received the Pulitzer Prize in 1989” 

On the other hand, let’s consider the customer reviews on Amazon for Breathing Lessons.  Out of 110 reviews, there are…WAIT  110 reviews?  For a Pulitzer prize winner that has been around since the late 1980s?   Hmmmm!

Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone:  157 one & two star reviews out of 5,665 reviews.  An unhappiness factor of 2.7%.

Breathing Lessons:  34 one & two star reviews out of 110 reviews for an unhappiness factor of 30.9%.  And it won a Pulitzer!  

Looking at the low reviews, we find these comments:  “Biting the bullet”, “Disappointing”, “Pointless and rather depressing”, “A waste of precious reading time”, “An utter, irritating bore”, “A big ho hum”, “Couldn’t get through it”, “A Pulitzer, really?”  Oddly enough I agree with and understand all these comments.   

When I read a Tyler novel, I am caught between two thoughts: 1) What is the point of this? 2) Damn this is really good, but I don’t have a clue why.  Her books are like one of those dreams where I am walking through the bedroom of my home and I open the closet door, and there is a grand ballroom that I have never seen before.  And I think, how could I have owned this house for 30 some years and never noticed this ballroom?  Then I go down a hallway and it suddenly turns into a cave.  It is all very inexplicable yet perfectly acceptable.  It never enters my mind that this is a dream, that it is not real.  I just marvel that I have never noticed any of this before.  And so it is with Tyler.  Her books usually have no plot, no excitement. They grind on and on. Her characters are ineffectual eccentrics that persist in doing odd things for inexplicable reasons. Life hands them a turd, they look at it and say “Oh, it is a turd” and they put in their pocket and bumble on.  Sometimes I ask myself why am I reading this?  And then for days after I finish the book, I wallow in self reflective thought about the different characters, oddly unsettled.  Perhaps what Tyler does is throw up a fun house mirror showing us exaggerated distortions of our own lives. Who has a life with plot?  How many of us have some grand defining moment of heroism?  Most of us lead quiet un-notable lives and maintain a few eccentricities.  So we end up reading weird little books written by a weird little woman that somehow inexplicably gnaws at our Souls.  Perhaps Tyler shows us that we are not alone.

EDIT 11/5/2016:  There is a Reader's Review on NPR's Diane Rehm  show about this book.  You can listen to the discussion, 51 minutes long, or read the transcript:


Image Credits: 

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Who The Hell Moved The Allegheny Mountain Tunnel?

Yesterday, I listened to a Radiolab podcast entitled “You Are Here".  It is in the Lost and Found episode of season 9.  You can hear it at this site:

Radiolab, January 25, 2011, You Are Here

It is about a woman who has a unique problem.  Her internal maps of her surroundings can shift by 90 degrees making navigation about a room or a city difficult.  She can reboot her maps by closing her eyes and spinning around a few times.  It turns out her condition is known as developmental topographical disorientation.  It is believed to be caused by a lack of development or injury in an area of the brain known as the hippocampus.  

Note! Click on images to view full size. 

There is a far better image of the hippocampus in the Wikipedia article showing the hippocampus in 3 D in an animation. 

Wikipedia, Hippocampus Animation

Well this woman’s plight reminded me of a navigational faux pas that I pulled back in August of 2003.  I pride myself in knowing where I am at and knowing how to get places.  It is a false pride.  One should not confuse interest with ability. 

Summit Diner, Somerset Pennsylvania
My wife and I had been Geocaching in Somerset County Pennsylvania and as usual I pushed the last cache into deep twilight.  We hadn’t had supper yet so we decided to go to my favorite restaurant in the entire world, the Summit Diner.  Have I told you that I have the culinary sophistication of a typical nine year old?  No surf and turf for me, not when you can have the world’s greatest cheeseburger.  It is small, not at all fancy, and rather inexpensive but it has one thing going for it.  They use locally grown beef and prepare the patty from scratch.  It is simply magnificent!  Yes it is small so buy two, you will still spend less than 5 bucks!  Truly a 5 star greasy spoon.  I love the place.  Fortunately it is 70 miles from my home or I would have died of heart attack 10 years ago.  

Any how, we ate our dinner and left the Summit Diner at 11 PM.  It is straight shot on the Turnpike to home so I figured we would be home by about 12:10.  I made a left on to 601 from the diner parking lot, went up to the first light, and hung a left to go out the entrance road to the turnpike.  This was before I had EZ Pass so I got my ticket and hung a right on to the turnpike to go west to Pittsburgh on I-70, I-76.  We were driving along making good time, but boy we were heading into a really bad storm.  The entire horizon was illuminated with lightening.  Man this was going to be bad. 

West Portal of The Allegheny Mountain Tunnel
Note the direction the little guy is facing. Also
note, ponderous amount of concrete, does not lend
itself to being easily moved.  
Suddenly, the Allegheny Mountain Tunnel appeared.  In perhaps one of my most intellectual insights of my life, I shouted to my wife “Who the hell moved the Allegheny Mountain Tunnel?”  My wife gave me the look that only women can muster when their husbands say something truly bizarre.  “What?” she replied.  My wife doesn’t know anything about where things are located or how navigate to places.  She’s a woman, what the hell does she know about maps and locations.   I replied, “The tunnel is east of Somerset, who moved it?”  As the total absurdity of my comment slowly seeped into my consciousness, my wife said “Well, then you have to be going the wrong way.  What does the GPS say?”   She is a woman she doesn’t know how to read it.  I looked at the GPS and it confirmed what my commonsense (and my wife even if she doesn’t know where she is at) were stating.  Sure enough the little triangle was facing south east.  I was going the wrong way.  A moment before plunging into the tunnel, the mountain was silhouetted in the lightning from the storm raging on the east side of the mountain.  We went through the tunnel and exited out the other side into a wall of water.  It was like driving into the base of Niagara Falls.  I had to slow down to 10 to 20 mph.  Everyone except me had their flashers on which just blinded the hell out of you because there was an inch thick layer of water on windshield with the wipers going high speed.  I could just barely make out the lane lines directly ahead of the car, in one second increments.  Every time the flasher on the car ahead of come on, the world disappear in blinding flash of red or amber. This was really terrible! 

Like Ralphy’s father in the Christmas Story, I began to weave a giant tapestry of obscenity that still hangs on the east side of the Allegheny Mountain.  “Dumb son of bitch!  Goofy bastard!  How in the hell do you get on the turnpike in the wrong direction with a GPS sitting on your dashboard?  What the hell is wrong with you, you dumb bastard.  You could screw up a two car funeral.  And am I the only stupid son of bitch on this damned road that can figure out that your frigging flashers are blinding the other poor son of a bitch  Don’t these bastards have eyes?  You dumb son of bitch.  Going the wrong damned way.  Didn’t you look at the big huge son-of-bitchin sign when you got on.  Dumb bastard.  You are a first class idiot....”  An endless litany of self aggrandizement…all the way to Bedford, the next exit east which is 36 miles from Somerset.  Meanwhile my wife is invoking quiet prayer.  I am not sure whether the purpose of the prayer was to get us through the storm safely or to strike me mute.  Perhaps both, but she sat quietly mumbling to herself.

My Internal Map Of  Somerset
We finally got to Bedford, explained our plight to a gleeful toll collector, turned around, READ THE BIG GREEN SIGNS, and got back on the turnpike heading west back to Somerset.  The deluge continued for another 10 to 15 minutes, and then slowed down to a moderately heavy rain.  I was able to speed up to about 35 mph.  When we got back to Somerset the rain reduced to a sprinkle and I was able to drive normally back to Pittsburgh.  We got home about 2:15 AM.  The entire time I was driving, I kept wondering, how the hell did I get on the turnpike in the wrong direction?  

I had to figure this out.  I know where I am going in Somerset.  I have been there many times.  How could I make such a potentially devastating mistake?  I got to thinking, Somerset has always been just a bit confusing to me.  Nothing that sticks out, but for a one horse town, nothing ever seemed to be in the right place.  I am going to look at the map but before I do I am going to draw a simple map of how Somerset lies in my mind.

My internal map superimposed on
Google Maps. 

So I drew the figure above with the main drag, turnpike, and the main visual landmarks, the court house and the Georgian Place Mansion.  Highway 601 runs east and west and the turnpike lies south of the court house.  So let’s superimpose my mental map on a screen dump of Google Maps.  Hmmm if you note, the words are hard to read.  If you turn your head so that your right ear touches your right shoulder, it will be much easier to read.  But looking at my version of the world, as you can see to head west to Pittsburgh, you would turn right on to the turnpike.  I guess I never noticed that the Georgian Place sat directly below the North Star when standing in the diner parking lot.

So let’s spin my map 90 degrees counter clockwise.  Hmmmm.  In this version, the main drag, highway 601, runs north and south and the turnpike is north of the courthouse.  You will notice that you can read the words without straining your neck.  So in this version you don’t bear off to the right.  You go straight across the turnpike and loop to the left on the other side.  Oddly enough, the BIG GREEN SIGNS mounted at the entrance confirms this fact.  All that you have to do is read them.  When using this version of the map, the Allegheny Mountain and Tunnel remain stationary, east of Somerset.  No mystical movements are required. 
Real World. 

So did I have some sort of temporary manifestation of developmental topographical disorientation?  No.  I don’t believe that I had a problems with my hippocampus.  I think the problem was endocrine in nature.  You see, us men, we have those things swaying between our legs, you know what I mean.  And as they are pumping out testosterone, they make us think that not only do we know what we are doing, but we also know where we are going.  As such, we never stop and ask for directions, and apparently we don’t bother reading those BIG GREEN SIGNS.  Ahhh! They put those up for women.  Us men don’t need ‘em.  Uh huh.

So you see, not only did I almost kill myself chasing three women on the Augusta Canal, see: Navigating The Finite, Testosterone,  but I almost killed my wife and I in a dangerous thunderstorm because I like to think with my gonads. 

The Somerset Entrance To PA Turnpike
Note big green signs.  A wonderful, free, navigational
innovation available to men as well as women.  Note, the
little guy faces north east, in my world he should face
southeast .  I am rotated 90 degrees clockwise.  

What is somewhat frightening for the species, is that I would not consider myself to be excessively macho.  Actually I am a little on woossie side of the macho spectrum, yeah about normal but maybe slightly to the left side of the clapper on the bell curve of micrograms per liter of testosterone in the blood.  Generally I am not into sports, fast cars, or fights.  So if I can be that damned, hmmm, what?,  manipulated, yes that's it, manipulated by a hormone, what are the truly macho brutes like?  Think of the amazing things that must go on in their minds! 

The other thing I did when I got home, and I wished I had done a screen dump, was I looked at the radar map.  It was amazing.  There was this small localized elongated cell that just sat stationary over the turnpike.  I have tried to reproduce the map from memory.  The inside is light pink on my map.  It should be brilliant red but I don’t have transparent shades like the weather maps.  If I duplicated what the map looked like I would obliterate all the detail. 
Artist conception of the radar map.
Entire circled area should be bright red. 

So as they say in the Mastercard ads:  Cost in additional travel: 2 hours, 72 miles, 7,195 obscenities, 54 prayers.  Cost in extra tolls: $2.90.  Lesson in navigation: priceless.

Image Credits:

Hippocampus:  Wikipedia, hippocampus

All Others:  Google Maps


Some photos of the Summit Diner

Diner Hunter, Summit Diner

For more information on the woman with the 90 degree rotations see: