Liam Pennywell, who set out to be a philosopher and ended up teaching fifth grade, never much liked the job at that run-down private school, so early retirement doesn't bother him. But he is troubled by his inability to remember anything about the first night that he moved into his new, spare, and efficient condominium on the outskirts of Baltimore. All he knows when he wakes up the next day in the hospital is that his head is sore and bandaged.
His effort to recover the moments of his life that have been stolen from him leads him on an unexpected detour. What he needs is someone who can do the remembering for him. What he gets is--well, something quite different.
We all know a Liam. In fact, there may be a little of Liam in each of us. Which is why Anne...
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About the Author
Date of Birth:October 25, 1941
Place of Birth:Minneapolis, Minnesota
Education:B.A., Duke University, 1961
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By Anne Tyler
KnopfCopyright © 2010 Anne Tyler
All right reserved.
In the sixty-first year of his life, Liam Pennywell lost his job. It wasn’t such a good job, anyhow. He’d been teaching fifth grade in a second-rate private boys’ school. Fifth grade wasn’t even what he’d been trained for. Teaching wasn’t what he’d been trained for. His degree was in philosophy. Oh, don’t ask. Things seemed to have taken a downward turn a long, long time ago, and perhaps it was just as well that he had seen the last of St. Dyfrig’s dusty, scuffed corridors and those interminable after-school meetings and the reams of niggling paperwork.
In fact, this might be a sign. It could be just the nudge he needed to push him on to the next stage—the final stage, the summing-up stage. The stage where he sat in his rocking chair and reflected on what it all meant, in the end.
He had a respectable savings account and the promise of a pension, so his money situation wasn’t out-and-out desperate. Still, he would have to economize. The prospect of economizing interested him. He plunged into it with more enthusiasm than he’d felt in years—gave up his big old-fashioned apartment within the week and signed a lease on a smaller place, a one-bedroom-plus-den in a modern complex out toward the Baltimore Beltway. Of course this meant paring down his possessions, butso much the better. Simplify, simplify! Somehow he had accumulated far too many encumbrances. He tossed out bales of old magazines and manila envelopes stuffed with letters and three shoe boxes of index cards for the dissertation that he had never gotten around to writing. He tried to palm off his extra furniture on his daughters, two of whom were grown-ups with places of their own, but they said it was too shabby. He had to donate it to Goodwill. Even Goodwill refused his couch, and he ended up paying 1-800-GOT-JUNK to truck it away. What was left, finally, was compact enough that he could reserve the next-smallest-size U-Haul, a fourteen-footer, for moving day.
On a breezy, bright Saturday morning in June, he and his friend Bundy and his youngest daughter’s boyfriend lugged everything out of his old apartment and set it along the curb. (Bundy had decreed that they should develop a strategy before they started loading.) Liam was reminded of a photographic series that he’d seen in one of those magazines he had just thrown away. National Geographic? Life? Different people from different parts of the world had posed among their belongings in various outdoor settings. There was a progression from the contents of the most primitive tribesman’s hut (a cooking pot and a blanket, in Africa or some such) to a suburban American family’s football-field-sized assemblage of furniture and automobiles, multiple TVs and sound systems, wheeled racks of clothing, everyday china and company china, on and on and on. His own collection, which had seemed so scanty in the gradually emptying rooms of his apartment, occupied an embarrassingly large space alongside the curb. He felt eager to whisk it away from public view. He snatched up the nearest box even before Bundy had given them the go-ahead.
Bundy taught phys ed at St. Dyfrig. He was a skeletal, blue-black giraffe of a man, frail by the looks of him, but he could lift astonishing weights. And Damian—a limp, wilted seventeen-year-old—was getting paid for this. So Liam let the two of them tackle the heavy stuff while he himself, short and stocky and out of shape, saw to the lamps and the pots and pans and other light objects. He had packed his books in small cartons and so those he carried too, stacking them lovingly and precisely against the left inner wall of the van while Bundy singlehandedly wrestled with a desk and Damian tottered beneath an upside-down Windsor chair balanced on top of his head. Damian had the posture of a consumptive—narrow, curved back and buckling knees. He resembled a walking comma.
The new apartment was some five miles from the old one, a short jaunt up North Charles Street. Once the van was loaded, Liam led the way in his car. He had assumed that Damian, who was below the legal age for driving a rental, would ride shotgun in the van with Bundy, but instead he slid in next to Liam and sat in a jittery silence, chewing on a thumbnail and lurking behind a mane of lank black hair. Liam couldn’t think of a single thing to say to him. When they stopped for the light at Wyndhurst he contemplated asking how Kitty was, but he decided it might sound odd to inquire about his own daughter. Not until they were turning off Charles did either of them speak, and then it was Damian. “Swingin’ bumper sticker,” he said.
Since there were no cars ahead of them, Liam knew it had to be his own bumper sticker Damian meant. (BUMPER STICKER, it read—a witticism that no one before had ever seemed to appreciate.) “Why, thanks,” he said. And then, feeling encouraged: “I also have a T-shirt that says T-SHIRT.” Damian stopped chewing his thumbnail and gaped at him. Liam said, “Heh, heh,” in a helpful tone of voice, but still it seemed that Damian didn’t get it.
The complex Liam was moving to sat opposite a small shopping mall. It consisted of several two-story buildings, flat-faced and beige and bland, placed at angles to each other under tall, spindly pines. Liam had worried about privacy, seeing the network of paths between buildings and the flanks of wide, staring windows, but during the whole unloading process they didn’t run into a single neighbor. The carpeting of brown pine needles muffled their voices, and the wind in the trees above them made an eerily steady whispering sound. “Cool,” Damian said, presumably meaning the sound, since he had his face tipped upward as he spoke. He was under the Windsor chair again. It loomed like an oversized bonnet above his forehead.
Liam’s unit was on the ground floor. Unfortunately, it had a shared entrance—a heavy brown steel door, opening into a dank-smelling cinderblock foyer with his own door to the left and a flight of steep concrete steps directly ahead. Second-floor units cost less to rent, but Liam would have found it depressing to climb those stairs every day.
He hadn’t given much thought beforehand to the placement of his furniture. Bundy set things down any old where but Damian proved unexpectedly finicky, shoving Liam’s bed first one way and then another in search of the best view. “Like, you’ve got to see out the window first thing when you open your eyes,” he said, “or how will you know what kind of weather it is?” The bed was digging tracks across the carpet, and Liam just wanted to leave it where it stood. What did he care what kind of weather it was? When Damian started in on the desk—it had to be positioned where sunlight wouldn’t reflect off the computer screen, he said—Liam told him, “Well, since I don’t own a computer, where the desk is now will be fine. That about wraps things up, I guess.”
“Don’t own a computer!” Damian echoed.
“So let me just get you your money, and you can be on your way.”
“But how do you, like, communicate with the outside world?”
Liam was about to say that he communicated by fountain pen, but Bundy said, chuckling, “He doesn’t.” Then he clapped a hand on Liam’s shoulder. “Okay, Liam, good luck, man.”
Liam hadn’t meant to dismiss Bundy along with Damian. He had envisioned the two of them sharing the traditional moving-day beer and pizza. But of course, Bundy was providing Damian’s ride back. (It was Bundy who’d picked up the U-Haul, bless him, and now he’d be returning it.) So Liam said, “Well, thank you, Bundy. I’ll have to have you over once I’m settled in.” Then he handed Damian a hundred and twenty dollars in cash. The extra twenty was a tip, but since Damian pocketed the bills without counting them, the gesture felt like a waste. “See you around,” was all he said. Then he and Bundy left. The inner door latched gently behind them but the outer door, the brown steel one, shook the whole building when it slammed shut, setting up a shocked silence for several moments afterward and emphasizing, somehow, Liam’s sudden solitude.
Well. So. Here he was.
He took a little tour. There wasn’t a lot to look at. A medium-sized living room, with his two armchairs and the rocking chair facing in random directions and filling not quite enough space. A dining area at the far end (Formica-topped table from his first marriage and three folding chairs), with a kitchen alcove just beyond. The den and the bathroom opened off the hall that led back to the bedroom. All the floors were carpeted with the same beige synthetic substance, all the walls were refrigerator white, and there were no moldings whatsoever, no baseboards or window frames or door frames, none of those gradations that had softened the angles of his old place. He found this a satisfaction. Oh, his life was growing purer, all right! He poked his head into the tiny den (daybed, desk, Windsor chair) and admired the built-in shelves. They had been a big selling point when he was apartment hunting: two tall white bookshelves on either side of the patio door. Finally, finally he’d been able to get rid of those glass-fronted walnut monstrosities he had inherited from his mother. It was true that these shelves were less spacious. He’d had to consolidate a bit, discarding the fiction and biographies and some of his older dictionaries. But he had kept his beloved philosophers, and now he looked forward to arranging them. He bent over a carton and opened the flaps. Epictetus. Arrian. The larger volumes would go on the lower shelves, he decided, even though they didn’t need to, since all the shelves were exactly, mathematically the same height. It was a matter of aesthetics, really—the visual effect. He hummed tunelessly to himself, padding back and forth between the shelves and the cartons. The sunlight streaming through the glass door brought a fine sweat to his upper lip, but he postponed rolling up his shirtsleeves because he was too absorbed in his task.
After the study came the kitchen, less interesting but still necessary, and so he moved on to the boxes of foods and utensils. This was the most basic of kitchens, with a single bank of cabinets, but that was all right; he’d never been much of a cook. In fact here it was, late afternoon, and he was only now realizing that he’d better fix himself some lunch. He made a jelly sandwich and ate it as he worked, swigging milk straight from the carton to wash it down. The sight of the six-pack of beer in the refrigerator, brought over the day before along with his perishables, gave him a pang of regret that took a moment to explain. Ah, yes: Bundy. He must remember to phone Bundy tomorrow and thank him at greater length. Invite him to supper, even. He wondered what carry-out establishments delivered within his new radius.
In the living room he arranged the chairs in what he hoped was a friendly conversational grouping. He placed a lamp table between the two armchairs and the coffee table in front of them, and the other lamp table he set next to the rocker, which was where he imagined sitting to read at the end of every day. Or all day, for that matter. How else would he fill the hours?
Even in the summers, he had been accustomed to working. St. Dyfrig students could be counted on to require an abundance of remedial courses. He had taken almost no vacation—just one week in early June and two in August.
Well, think of this as one of those weeks. Just proceed a day at a time, is all.
On the kitchen wall, the telephone rang. He had a new number but he had kept his existing plan, which included caller ID (one of the few modern inventions he approved of), and he checked the screen before he lifted the receiver. ROYALL J S. His sister. “Hello?” he said.
“How’s it going, Liam?”
“Oh, fine. I think I’m just about settled.”
“Have you made up your bed yet?”
“Do it. Now. You should have done it first thing. Pretty soon you’re going to notice you’re exhausted, and you don’t want to be hunting for sheets then.”
“Okay,” he said.
Julia was four years his senior. He was used to receiving orders from her.
“Later in the week I may stop by and visit. I’ll bring you a pot of beef stew,” she said.
“Well, that’s very nice of you, Julia,” he said.
He hadn’t eaten red meat in thirty-some years, but it would have been useless to remind her.
After he hung up he obediently made his bed, which was easily navigated since Damian had positioned it so there was walking space on either side. Then he tackled the closet, where clothes had been dumped every which way. He nailed his shoe bag to the closet door and fitted in his shoes; he draped his ties on the tie rack that he found already installed. He’d never owned a tie rack before. Then, since he had the hammer out, he decided to go ahead and hang his pictures. Oh, he was way ahead of the game! Picture hanging was a finishing touch, something that took most people days. But he might as well see this through.
His pictures were unexceptional—van Gogh prints, French bistro posters, whatever he’d chosen haphazardly years and years ago just to save his walls from total blankness. Even so, it took him a while to find the appropriate spot for each one and get it properly centered. By the time he’d finished it was after eight and he’d had to turn all the lights on. The ceiling globe in the living room had a burnt-out bulb, he discovered. Well, never mind; he’d see to that tomorrow. All at once, enough was enough.
He wasn’t the slightest bit hungry, but he heated a bowl of vegetable soup in his miniature microwave and sat down at the table to eat it. First he sat facing the kitchen alcove, with his back to the living room. The view was uninspiring, though, so he switched to the end chair that faced the window. Not that he had much to see even there—just a sheet of glossy blackness and a vague, transparent reflection of his own round gray head—but it would be nice in the daytime. He would automatically settle in that chair from now on, he supposed. He had a fondness for routine.
When he stood up to take his empty bowl to the kitchen, he was ambushed by sudden aches in several parts of his body. His shoulders hurt, and his lower back, and his calves and the soles of his feet. Early though it was, he locked his door and turned off the lights and went into the bedroom. His made-up bed was a welcome sight. As usual, Julia had known what she was talking about.
He skipped his shower. Getting into his pajamas and brushing his teeth took his last ounce of energy. When he sank onto the bed, it was almost beyond his willpower to reach over and turn off the lamp, but he forced himself to do it. Then he slid down flat, with a long, deep, groaning sigh.
His mattress was comfortably firm, and the top sheet was tucked in tightly on either side of him as he liked. His pillow had just enough bounce to it. The window, a couple of feet away, was cranked open to let the breeze blow in, and it offered a view of a pale night sky with a few stars visible behind the sparse black pine boughs—just a scattering of pinpricks. He was glad now that Damian had taken such trouble to situate the bed right.
Most probably, he reflected, this would be the final dwelling place of his life. What reason would he have to move again? No new prospects were likely for him. He had accomplished all the conventional tasks—grown up, found work, gotten married, had children—and now he was winding down.
This is it, he thought. The very end of the line. And he felt a mild stirring of curiosity.
Then he woke up in a hospital room with a helmet of gauze on his head.
Excerpted from Noah's Compass by Anne Tyler Copyright © 2010 by Anne Tyler. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Reading Group Guide
1. Do you like Liam Pennywell as a person? Do you identify with him as a character? How?
2. Liam loses his job and moves into an efficiency apartment, thinking he doesn’t have much left to live for and that this final part of life is meant to be “the stage where he sat in his rocking chair and reflected on what it all meant, in the end” (p. 3) . Do you think this is an accurate reflection of Liam’s life at this point? Do you think most people his age and in his position feel similarly?
3. Liam has strained relationships with his daughters and his ex-wife, and blames himself for these circumstances. Do you think he is right to do so? In what ways have the women in his life contributed to these difficult relationships?
4. How do you think each of his daughters would describe Liam?
5. Kitty becomes especially close with her father over the course of the novel, choosing to live with him over her mother at the end. Did this ring true for you as a reader?
6. What was your first impression of Eunice when Liam spotted her in the doctor’s office? Would you ever be tempted to “[pay] someone else to experience your life for you” (p. 67), as Liam desires?
7. Do you think that Liam and Eunice make a good match? Why or why not? Does their age difference matter?
8. As you were reading the novel, did you ever suspect that Eunice was married? How did you feel when Liam discovered this fact from Eunice’s mother?
9. Do you think that Liam should have tried to make things work with Eunice, or did he do the right thing by ending things with her after he found out that she was married? Should he have just taken his “share of happiness,” as his father suggested?
10. Eunice says to Liam that married people “go on being involved for all time even if they’re divorced” (p. 229). Do you think this is a true statement? Do you think Liam, Barbara, Eunice, and Eunice’s husband, Norman, behave this way?
11. The only time Noah is mentioned in the book is when Liam is babysitting Jonah and tells him the story of Noah’s Ark. Liam says that “ ‘Noah didn’t need to figure out directions, because the whole world was underwater and so it made no difference’ ” (p. 220). How do you think this story relates to Liam’s own life?
12. Liam seems to regard his life largely as a failure, and comments to Barbara that “It’s as if I’ve never been entirely present in my own life” (p. 263). Would you agree with Liam about his statement? To what degree do you feel present in your own life?
13. Liam thinks that: “We live such tangled, fraught lives . . . but in the end we die like all the other animals and we’re buried in the ground and after a few more years we might as well not have existed” (p. 210). Liam is comforted by this thought; do you feel that way, or do you find this viewpoint depressing?
14. Memory, or the lack thereof, is a large issue for Liam. What do you think he is trying to achieve by recalling the night of his break-in and any other memories that seem to have escaped him?
15. When Liam does have the opportunity to confront his attacker, he says no, even though he has longed for this throughout most of the novel. Why do you think he decides not to pursue this? How has Liam changed between the night of the attack and the day when his attacker is identified?
16. Liam set out to be a philosopher, ended up as a fifthgrade teacher at a private boys’ school for most of his career, and became a Zayda at a nursery school after being fired from teaching. Do you think Liam would have been happier as a philosopher? In what ways has your life taken unexpected turns and how did you deal with them?
17. Did you like the ending of the novel? Did you feel that it satisfactorily answered everything?
Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Anne Tyler
By her own admission, Anne Tyler's no longer a writer ambitiously looking forward to literary "milestones" -- many of them can be glimpsed in the rearview mirror. Recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for 1988's Breathing Lessons, the 68-year-old author of deceptively graceful fiction has also been honored with the National Book Critics Circle Award (for The Accidental Tourist, 1985), and was a finalist for the Pulitzer and the PEN/Faulkner Award in 1983 for Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. Like most of her novels, that work was set in her hometown of Baltimore -- also the setting for Noah's Compass, which relates the story of 60-year-old Liam Pennywell, a philosopher by training who spent the better part of his career teaching history to fifth-graders, and who now finds himself "downsized" from a prestigious boys' school and facing no new milestones himself.
In a set of email conversations that took place in December 2009, Tyler discussed her fear of memory loss (a theme in her new book), her labor-intensive style of writing -- it includes a tape recorder and multiple handwritten drafts -- and why she wishes you wouldn't read her first four novels. --Cameron Martin
Barnes & Noble Review: In the beginning of Noah's Compass, the protagonist, Liam Pennywell, is assaultedduring a home break-in and loses his memory of the event. For a time, he'sconsumed by this gap in his life. What was the inspiration for this conceit and forthe focus on memory? Do you think you'd be more or less concerned aboutlosing a memory such as this? Or is Liam's experience the relative equivalent ofhow you think you'd handle that?
Anne Tyler: One night after I'd gone to bedI heard the house creaking downstairs, but I was too sleepy to investigate. Then I started thinking about how if it were a burglar intent on beaning me, I wouldn't know anyway till I woke up the next morning. And so: no psychological trauma! Except I'd probably try for days to figure out what had happened. (Though perhaps not for as many days as Liam.)
Why that thought gave birth to a whole novel,I'm not sure. I do know thatI have been fascinated by the subject of memory all my life. Now that I'm in my sixties, with instances of Alzheimer's disease on both sides of my family, my biggest fear is that I'll end up with no memory whatsoever. Yet I agree with Liam that there is such a thing as remembering too much, and I half admire his resolute refusal to dwell on his past.
BNR: Before he became a school teacher, Liam had trained to be a philosopher, andit's mentioned that he's fond of Epictetus and Arrian. If you had to boil it downto a few key tenets, what's Liam's philosophy on life? And how successful is heat adhering to his beliefs?
AT: I suspect that Liam would be uncomfortable at the thought of spelling out his specific philosophy of life. I chose Epictetus and Arrian as his favorites for a most literal reason: they were Stoics, and Liam is, in another sense of the word, a stoic himself.
I do think he is an honorable man-as shown by his decision toward the end of the book. The "compass" of the title is a moral one, as well as a physical one.
BNR: The book is told from the third-person point of view, hewing closely to Liam's perspective. Atwhat stage of the writing did you settle on this POV -- as opposed to the first person, which you've employed in other works? Isit more fun to write from a male angle? More taxing?
AT: Point of view is not something I consciously decide. Almost always, when I come up with a plot I find that the point of view has automatically arrived with it, part and parcel of the story.
The first-person viewpoint is more enjoyable to write, because it lets me meander more freely, and it can reveal more of the character's self-delusions. Really all the advantages are with first-person, so I'm sorry I don't get to pick and choose.
There's surprisingly little difference between writing from a male angle and from a female angle, but I feel more restricted in my language when I'm writing as a male character because males tend to sound less emotionally expressive than females.
BNR: Has this attitude toward point of view -- that it comes part and parcel with the character -- always been thecase, even with your earliest novels? Or was it an observation you arrived atonly after a lot of hand-wringing with a particular work?
AT: Yes, as far as I can remember that has always been the case.
I have to work doggedly for my plots, but then a few days after I've figured one out, the first sentence will simply float into my hearing. ForA Patchwork Planet:"I am a man you can trust." Or for Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant:"While Pearl Tull was dying, a funny thought occurred to her." That's how I learn what the viewpoint should be.
BNR: The title of the book, Noah's Compass, refers to the Biblical character whobuilt the ark and survived thegreat flood. At one point in the creative process did you settle on the title? Wereother titles considered? In your experience (18 novels), how much influencedoes the title of a book (and when you pick it) have on the finished product?
AT: Thetitle evolved organically. Liam and his small grandson were discussing the Bible story and they just grabbed the conversation away from me, as characters sometimes do, and came up with the reference to Noah's lack of a clear destination. It seemed appropriate to Liam's own situation; so that was it, and I didn't look any further.
Titles are hugely important to me, but they arrive in all sorts of ways. Celestial Navigation existedbefore the book did, and the book was cooked up to go with it. I was dissatisfied withThe Accidental Tourist as a title-itseemed to me too obvious-soI offered a $100 prize to my daughters' schoolmates if they could invent something better. And a number of my titles have been vetoed by my editor, Judith Jones, which means I've had to scramble for a new one long after the book was finished. That's no fun at all.
BNR: The private boy's school in the book, St. Dyfrig's, does not actually exist inBaltimore, and St. Dyfrig is a rather obscure Christian saint from the mid-6thcentury. Is there a particular significance to the name in the context of this novel?
AT: None whatsoever. I just leafed through a book of saints for a name, and when I came across "Dyfrig," it made me laugh. Words that use Y as a vowel often strike me as funny.
BNR: How many drafts did you make of Noah's Compass? Was that more or lesson par with the number of drafts you've made for other novels? Did any of your books come relatively easy, from beginningconceit to finished product?
AT: It all depends on how you count, but I'd say the book took four drafts. That's three longhand drafts before I entered it in the computer, and then I copied the computer version into longhand again. I read that fourth version into a tape recorder and then listened to the tape recorder while I followed along on the computer screen to pick up any minor changes I had made.
Ridiculous, I know. But it's more or less the way I've always done it, except for the three or four earliest books which I wrote without revising, under the mistaken impression that revising was a form of cheating. Nowadays, I love revising. I think of Draft One as work and the revisions as play.
My easiest book was Searching for Caleb, which felt like attending one long, merry party. My hardest was Noah's Compass.I didn't know why at the time, but now I think it was because it reminded me too much of my own current stage of life: no new milestones to look forward to.
BNR: Your 2004 novel The Amateur Marriage was 60 years presented in 10chapters. Noah's Compass covers a single summer, from the end of oneschool year to the beginning of the other. In your experience, which type ofcanvas is easier to work with and why?
AT: Longer periods are easier for me. That's because when you don't have an action-filled plot, the mere passage of time can provide one. People get born, they marry, they die: there you go.
I felt very confined with Breathing Lessons, which covered only a single day. The one after that, Saint Maybe, took place over years and years-deliberately.
BNR: You've written numerous short stories, though none have been collected forpublication. Do you plan to publish a collected works? When was the last timeyou wrote a short story for publication? And how has your attitude towards themedium perhaps evolved since you began writing?
AT: I think my short stories shirk a little bit, as if I'd told myself while I was writing them that they don't matter as much as novels. There are only five or six that I feel like claiming now, and that's not enough to form a collection.
I haven't written a short story in decades. I can imagine, though, that I may eventually have to go back to them, because writing novels requires a good memory. You have to keep so many balls in the air. I'm not sure that I'll be able to do that endlessly.
BNR: Do you have similar reservations about any ofyour novels? Are there particular works that, if given the option, you'dchange? I've read that you consider Dinner at theHomesick Restaurant to be the favorite of your works. Which novel stands outas your least favorite, and why?
AT: I would like to buy up the rights to my first four novels (If Morning Ever Comes, The Tin Can Tree, A Slipping Down Life, and The Clock Winder) and remove them from circulation. Those are the books I wrote in the days when I thought it would be cheating to rewrite. They feel blurry to me now-not well enough defined. I think it was only with Celestial Navigationthat I began to know what I was doing.
BNR: You've been the guesteditor for several short story collections, including the most recent Best of theSouth, published in 2005. Who are some contemporary short story writerswhose work strikes you as particularly strong or inventive?
AT: I believe that the owner of the short story form nowadays is William Trevor. A relatively brief story of his accomplishes more than most people's novels. It was William Trevor's writing that made me realize that my own stories gave short shrift to the reader.
BNR: Reading your manuscripts into a tape recorder would seem to give you an earfor the rhythm of your prose. Among other writers, whose work stands out foryou as rhythmically beautiful?
AT: I used to read aloud to my husband in the evenings, and I learned from that to appreciate the work of William Faulkner-someone I'd never much liked until then. Reading any piece of writing aloud is an acid test, particularly when it comes to dialogue. There were other writers I'd always admired who suddenly rang false when I spoke their words in our living room.
BNR: What are you working on now? What can you tell us about the plot, settingand characters of your next novel?
AT: I'm writing a novel about a man whose wife returns from the dead. The setting will be Baltimore, as always.
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of Noah’s Compass, Anne Tyler’s subtle, deeply empathetic, and richly rewarding new novel.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
In Baltimore Liam Pennywell thought he would be the great twentieth and twenty-first century philosopher rather than a fifth grade school teacher at St. Dyfrig. However, to be an accomplished muse takes ambition and hard work; two traits that Liam lacks as his two former wives and his three estrange daughters would testify. He is taken aback when the second-rate private school retires him though he just turned sixty one. He comes home bewildered only to wake up the next day in a hospital with no recall of the assault in his apartment. Liam needs to know what happened during the lost hours so he begins a quest. He meets thirtyish Eunice, whose élan for life is opposite of his dark world view. Somehow she encourages him to be all he can be; although he insists that is not much he vows to try to shake off his lethargy with reckless abandonment. This is a terrific character study that avoids clichés so the audience roots for Liam to regain what he once had and lost after years of what he perceived were kidney shots from those who he loved. The story line is leisurely and meandering with no great nirvana as Liam tries with Eunice encouraging him. Anne Tyler is at her best with this super tale of a man kicked to the curb and the young woman who insists That's Life (Sinatra) as "Some people get their kicks stompin' on your dreams" while others will encourage you to "get back in the race". Harriet Klausner
I have been reading Anne Tyler's books for 25 years. She has never let me down. Her characters are so real, so funny, and so much more interesting than the people I deal with in my everyday life. There is nothing better than an Anne Tyler novel,. I planned the last 3 days reading it, putting it down more than I really wanted to, hoping it would last forever! How I long to meet Liam here in Florida. I can only hope she will continue to write about the good in ordinary people.
Typical Anne Tyler. Exactly what we have come to expect from her books. She takes an ordinary event in someone's life and explores it and all of it's ramifications in depth. Along the way we come to feel like the characters are part of our very own families.
Ann Tyler's has the amazing gift of transforming ordinary characters and every day situations into remarkable novels. Her writing reminds us that the simplicity of real life often make for the best stories.
It could be argued that Anne Tyler has been writing the same book for the past dozen or so years and, honestly no one could refute that except for Anne Tyler herself, whom I'm sure would be a daunting menace in any form of WWF cage match. Still, I really enjoy her (one) story and I love her characters. She writes about good Baltimore people doing good things and, although I've never been to Baltimore, I'd like to assume that it's populated with these lovable but emotionally disjointed people that she populates her books with. The main character of this novel is a divorced older gentleman who's become staid in his relationship with life. He is robbed, loses his memory and tries to evoke it via a new dumpy girlfriend who just so happens to have an undisclosed vanilla flavored husband waiting in the wings. He's got a segmented family of daughters and an overbearing ex-wife who keep him honest but still, he's lost and his Bible beating grandson provides the type of secular wisdom that only a toddler can appreciate. Even though I gave this book 4 out of 5 stars I'm not going to sit here and proclaim that it pushes the curtains aside on life and teaches you how to understand the broken world as we know it. If anything, it gives up on doing that, and this is exactly why I love it. This is a book about life in all its messiness which exists on the world's book-shelf currently populated by Dan Brown's and Stig Larsen's. It is sorely needed.
I enjoyed this main character. It was a good read with not much action. The plot was lacking in action but somehow I kept reading endearing myself with the character of Liam. I enjoyed the author's writing style. When I finished the book, I asked myself what in the world did I just read? I am a bit confused as to why it is named Noah's Compass, because little reference is made to Noah. I will be anxious to hear how others liked or disliked it. I would be hesitant to buy another book by Anne Tyler.
I found this not worth the investment of my time.
I totally understand how Anne Tyler's novels are not everyone's cup of tea. I felt the same way when I read her first couple of books, years ago. But I got used to her understated style and grew to adore her quirky, disfunctional characters. One summer while waiting for her next book to come out and longing to read her again, I re-read all of her books. So it was with great joy that I welcomed her latest, Noah's Compass, and it didn't disappoint. The only disappointment is that I read it too fast and now I'll probably have to wait several years for her next one!
Being a retired teacher who suffer from a stroke, I could relae to this book. The characters were realistic and the plot was genuine. A great book!
A few months in the life of a 60-year old man facing retirement. May sound dull; is anything but. Noah is preparing to die, and in fact, learns how to live. Loved it!
For me, the characters were unintriguing, the life boring and depressing. I definitely do not recommend.
An interesting story about an older man suddenly adrift in the world. He is an interesting, if not particularly compelling character. While I was curious about what he would do with himself, I found myself often more frustrated with him than rooting for him. He was a curious protagonist, as he was not terribly sympathetic. I would recommend this book for an interesting character study, even though the end of the story left me feeling unfulfilled... I sensed this was done intentionally, but did not find the story particularly enjoyable. Still worth the time, however, as it did make me think. I believe this would make an excellent story for a book club to discuss.
This is probably not Anne Tyler's finest work, but even when Tyler's mediocre, she far exceeds the accomplishments of other authors at their very best. A male hero -- somewhat rare in Tyler's works -- only added to my enjoyment. Most of Tyler's work is female-centric, but as a male, I find her economy of language facsinating and her sentence structure impeccable. Just hope that there are many more novels to come.
This book is a very enjoyable read. It has well defined characters who many people will be able to relate with, even if just in part. It is emotionally well rounded, with a slight unexpected twist at the end. Not a thriller or a romance novel. It is a book one might want to read when they just need a little pick up, or just for the enjoyment of a quick book. Definitely an original work of art, set in modern times with modern characters. This book will be reread just for the simple pleasure of it. It has a permanent place on my shelf!
Love Ann Tyler and enjoyed this little gem very much.
It's not her best but if you like Tyler you will like Noah's Compass. Always takes an ordinary person and brings them to life. Tyler usually sets her stories in Baltimore and as a former resident I enjoy reading about streets and areas that have good memories for me. Her writing quality is always above average.
This novel starts out as a mystery-who assaulted Liam Pennywell in his new apartment and left him in a hospital without knowing who hit him? The solution to the questions around the assault fade into the background as Liam gets out of the hospital and starts to cope with his new condition: he is retired, involuntarily, from a job he didn't like at a private school. He was forced to teach English though he was a philosophy major and, at sixty-one was invited to be laid off. Though he had a case for staying, Liam decided this was a great opportunity to change his life. So he sold his home, moved into the apartment and began to worry about what powers he was losing. So dire were his concerns that he looked for a "reminder"-a sort of assistant who could serve as mental nurse, confidante and amanuensis. He thinks he's found her when he locates Eunice Dunstead, a frumpy thirty-eight year old. They fall into an awkward affair and he begins to have serious thoughts. But that's on the outside of Liam's life. On the inside he has to deal with three daughters: Kitty and her boyfriend, Damien; Louise, the born-again; and Xanthe, who suspects Damien of being Liam's assailant. Throw into the mix Barbara, Liam's second ex-wife (the first died) and assorted other mostly women and you have poor Liam merely trying to survive his retirement. The saving grace for him turns out to be his grandson, Jonah who, at four, loves to color badly and to talk with "Poppy" about many things. Included in his wondering about the world is the clever assumption that Noah was a bad man. He killed a lot of animals because he only took two of each of them on his boat. With the cute grandson, the swarm of females around him and the questions of love and death in the air, this begins to sound like a woman's novel and, in many ways, that's what it becomes. But the character of Liam is an appealing one and we wish him well on his hapless quest for his real self. Largely through no fault of his own, the sky clears and there is every indication that he'll make it through, minus a few people he thought would be with him at the finish.
Premier voice performer Arthur Morey beautifully assumes the persona of protagonist Liam Pennywell in this wise, affecting story. Pulitzer Prize winner Anne Tyler is a kind, generous author; Morey is a kind, generous reader presenting Liam as an ordinary fellow with regrets, hopes and aspirations common to many. A teacher of performance and writing at several universites Morey brings both knowledge and awareness to his narrative. Following a Pulitzer Prize for BREATHING LESSONS and accolades from every newspaper, journal, and reviewer imaginable for other works what further praise could be heaped upon the unparalleled Anne Tyler? She has captured readers once again with a story of ordinary people, their hopes, joys, regrets, and fears. Ordinary people, yes, but intriguing to us because Tyler presents them with such discernment, kindness, wisdom and humor. At 61 years of age Liam Pennywell lost his job. For him it wasn't much of a job anyway; he had a degree in philosophy. But, he had been teaching fifth grade in a second tier boy's school, and Noah accepted his unexpected unemployment stoically thinking, "This might be a sign. It could just be the nudge he needed to push him on to the next stage - the final stage, ....... The stage where he sat in his rocking chair and reflected upon what it all meant, in the end." That was exactly what he intended to do but first he had to move into less expensive living quarters - a modest condominium on the rim of Baltimore. Unfortunately, that rocking chair would have to wait because on his first night in his new home someone broke in, assaulted him, and the next thing Noah knew he awoke in a hospital bed unable to remember what had happened and why he was there. The lost few hours soon mean everything to him,; he becomes obsessed with remembering that time period. To him, "The distressing thing about losing a memory was that it felt like losing control." And, Noah does want things to be in control whether it is being bothered by mismatched dining chairs in a coffee shop or his grandson, Jonah, ignoring the lines in a coloring book. Noah is a rather isolated individual with few friends, a sister of whom he's not particularly fond, twice married (once widowed and once divorced), and the father of three daughters he doesn't see very often. Nonetheless, when he is released from the hospital all rally about to help (or hinder) in various ways. In addition, he meets Eunice, a 38-year-old plump, rather frumpy woman given to wearing "balloony" trousers and heavy sandals. She serves as what might be called a "rememberer" for a very wealthy man who is suffering from dimentia. Noah believes that perhaps Eunice is precisely what he needs. As Noah continues to pursue his quest for those lost hours we learn more about his earlier life, and see his daughters in greater depth. Tyler is a genius with spare prose and attention to telling detail whether it be a torn belt loop or long, flexible fingers "ending in nailbitten nubbins - lemur fingers." Every detail paints a broader picture of the character described. NOAH'S COMPASS is a rare beauty of a book - enjoy! - Gail Cooke
liam seemed like a really annoying guy to me. his favorite conversational gambit seemed to be whaaat? everyone in the book seemed annoying. is this realism? the story was kind of interesting . a lot of people seemed to have liked it. maybe they're all annoying?
Liam Pennywell, sixty-something, has just lost his job and has been attacked by a burgler. Like all of Anne Tyler's novels, this is a book about people who somehow don't fit easily in their lives. They have strange jobs, they feels things too deeply, or not nearly enough. As we live Liam's life with him, we share his frustration at being unable to remember the attack, and I, like him was intrigued by the concept of a professional "rememberer" to help get you through your life. I struggled with him as he tried to balance his sense of right and wrong against his chance at happiness. I settled when he settled and was, therefore, not disappointed by the ending, or by the relative lack of closure.I am a life-long Anne Tyler fan and, unlike several of my fellow reviewers, was not disappointed at all in this novel. Her ability to draw characters and draw you into their lives is phenomenal.
Liam Pennywell has been fired from his job, and decides to downsize his life, essentially retiring early. Moving into a new apartment, he is attacked by a burglar, and then in the following weeks he is obsessed by regaining his lost memory of the attach. His personality and life slowly is revealed to the reader as he interacts with family members and with Eunice, a woman who falls in love with him.Liam is an alarmingly passive person who allows his life to drift, his career trending downwards, and his personal life almost nonexistent. It's not so much that Liam has given up, but rather that he underchallenges himself, and has no deep enthusiasm or commitment. He is cared for by a number of strong women, but seems to hardly care for them in return. Even his favorite daughter, Kitty, is treated by Liam more with detachment than love. And his relationship with his first daughter is alarmingly, even abusively, distant. However, Liam's relationships with Kitty and Eunice offer hope of a restart for his life. Liam's search for his lost memory seems contrived and unconvincing. His relationships with Eunice and Kitty are more entertaining. In the end, though, we come to understand Liam only after learning about the outcomes of his first two marriages and about his parent marriage. Unlike most fictional characters, Anne Tyler's characters are always "real" people with true-to-life personalities. This is true of Liam as well. The book is not the best of Tyler's books (say, The Accidental Tourist, or Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, or Breathing Lessons) --- mostly due to the difficulty of liking the main character. Nonetheless, it is an interesting, thought provoking read.
Highly entertaining novel whose protagonist I found myself identifying with. I'd forgotten how much I enjoy Anne Tyler's books.
This was a bittersweet book about a 60-year-old man, Liam, who has just lost his job at a private school and moved into a smaller apartment. He wakes up in a hospital bed only to learn that an assailant knocked him out the night before; he has no memory of the event. He visits a neurologist and meets a "rememberer," hired by another older man. He becomes entangled with the rememberer, Eunice, with unexpected consequences. I thought this book was powerful and compelling, with memorable and real characters. I would have ended it more positively, but I can't quarrel with it as a work of art.
i love anne tyler books. i find them moving, sometimes very sad sometimes funny but always thoughtful and engaging. i cannot say this for her last one; i was very eager to read it and i was prepared to enjoy it but i found it slim in plot, in ideas, generally i thought that it might be better as a short story. the main character did not convince me; the character of the girlfriend convinced me even less. people in the book had the 'outsider' traits of an anne tyler novel, odd people, unsual jobs, loners, etc but they were somehow without substance and conviction, it was a book where the reader was following a familiar path but was not engaged. did other people feel the same? i wonder
I always like to read the other reviews before I write mine. I find the most positive reviews are the ones that really sense what Ann Tyler is doing. She creates real people that are slightly tilted. Her insights are clever" her vocabulary get better when she was criticizing" I thought that was a great line. Her characters always seem to grow. I found a feeling of hopefulness for Liam by the time the book ended. He has a better sense of who he was and what he wants his life to be. I did have trouble with the portrayal of someone 60 being "old" in the way that Liam was put together by Ms. Tyler. I did enjoy this book more than "Digging to America". Having read 7 books by Ann Tyler, I am always willing to give her the benefit of the doubt.