That’s Life

A few weeks ago I headed to a nearby public library to engage in an activity that I like a lot: wandering up and down fiction aisles in search of my next read. Sometimes I have a specific author or title in mind. But more often than not I examine the shelves randomly, pulling out books here and there and giving them the once-over. Prone to quick judgments that undoubtedly are incorrect the majority of the time, within seconds I commonly return many of those books to their assigned places. Hey, they had a chance to make a good first impression, but they blew it!

However, by the end of almost every visit I stand at the checkout desk with two or more volumes in hand, hoping that at least one of them is worthy. Sometimes I win. Sometimes I lose. A few weeks ago, at the aforementioned library, I won, arriving home with a pile of books that included An Actual Life, by Abigail Thomas, whom I’d never heard of until her novel caught my roving eye. Normally a herky-jerky reader whose attention span over the last 20 years has fallen off a f*cking cliff, I found myself gliding through Thomas’s opus, digging the journey. An Actual Life, which was published in 1996, is good. Damn good.

It is the saga of married couple Virginia and Buddy, their baby daughter Madeline, and a small cast of other characters. Virginia is 19, Buddy is 21. Though they knew far too little about each other, wanting to do the “right thing” they’d wed after Virginia, during the first coital session she ever had engaged in, became pregnant by Buddy.

Most appropriately and agreeably, Abigail Thomas has endowed Virginia, the narrator of An Actual Life, with a homespun way of talking. Set in small-town New Jersey and Massachusetts circa 1960, the book opens when Madeline is just shy of her first birthday, by which time Virginia and Buddy’s marriage has become nearly as cold as a refrigerator’s freezer section. Not only are they not in love, they never truly were. Unhappy and stumbling through life, Virginia doesn’t know what she should do. And she has little idea what Buddy thinks about their situation, or about anything else really, as he is pretty much the silent type. Around her, anyway. Her love for Madeline, whom she adores, is enough to keep Virginia going, but to where?

Right from the start the book pulls no punches. A couple of hundred words in, mulling over the fact that Buddy is with her only out of a sense of duty, Virginia has this to say:

And there’s really nothing about me to love anyway. There’s not even really any me, exactly. I keep changing inside my skin. There’s no definite person in here. My voice comes out weird and I hardly ever say anything I mean.

Man, those are heavy-duty statements. Virginia’s low self-esteem is on clear display throughout the remaining pages too. Fortunately for the reader, Virginia also is witty as hell. The combination of bleakness and barbed observations makes An Actual Life feel real. There’s nothing strained or artificial here. Thomas writes like a champ.

Unlike the vast majority of books I tackle, An Actual Life got me thinking about life, its challenges, pitfalls, delights, vagaries, and all the rest of the deal. If Thomas ever were to pen a sequel to An Actual Life, I’m guessing it would take place 15 or more years later, and that Virginia, having faced up to her realities, would be on at least fairly strong footing.

Isn’t that the way things go for most of us? In our teens and into our twenties or beyond, we’re still babes in the woods, more or less, trying to figure out what paths to take and to decipher what the hell our garbled inner voices are saying to us. Even if we don’t necessarily lift the veils perfectly, and few folks do, eventually we create lives for ourselves that make the grade.

What’s more, when we think about it, we likely realize that we’ve acquired a nice amount of wisdom along the way. The pearls I’m about to spout seem obvious to me now, but they weren’t until maybe 15 years ago. I believe, for instance, that being loving and kind absolutely is where it’s at, and that said behaviors are the keys to a fulfilling life. And I’m convinced that it’s crucial to cultivate and nourish friendships. We can’t have too many friends, good ones especially. Solid friendships, after all, bring us joy and, when needed, comfort, and can open our minds in delightful ways.

Well, seeing that I ain’t exactly Plato or Confucius, I sure as shit better end my philosophizing right now, before I get in way over my head. Till next time!

132 thoughts on “That’s Life

  1. Sandy July 26, 2022 / 12:48 am

    So many novels are written about beginnings, seen from the point of view of younger people. I’d like to read the sequel that comes 15 years after the “happy ever after,” wouldn’t you?
    Great observations, one begets the other – kind and loving people nourish great friendships.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. gabychops July 26, 2022 / 1:34 am

    I think that your philosophical musings are great and well observed. Thank you!

    Joanna

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Audrey Driscoll July 26, 2022 / 2:05 am

    A good book inspires the person who reads it to think about things beyond the book’s content. It seems this one had that effect on you.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Yeah, Another Blogger July 26, 2022 / 1:18 pm

      Howdy, Audrey. It did, and I’m not exactly sure why. It connected with me , though, and I’m glad that happened.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. joylennick July 26, 2022 / 3:14 am

    Oh, Neil – who needs Pluto – whoops, Plato – and consorts when we have YOU! You are down to earth and say it as it is, and I do so agree that kindness and love are the two most needed ingredients on our precious planet. Kick greed out of the equation, add hope, and what more could we ask for! Fortunately, im indoors is one of the good guys, and I bet your wife thinks the same of you. Cheers. x

    Liked by 4 people

  5. swabby429 July 26, 2022 / 6:46 am

    This sounds like a relatable book. Unfortunately there are many Virginias and Buddys who don’t evolve much beyond their youthful points of view.

    Liked by 4 people

  6. JOYCE HAMILTON July 26, 2022 / 7:44 am

    Short but interesting post. I missed a little music.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah, Another Blogger July 26, 2022 / 1:25 pm

      Yeah, I haven’t included any music in my recent stories. But it will happen again, and pretty soon I bet.

      Like

  7. annieasksyou July 26, 2022 / 7:49 am

    No, Neil, you shouldn’t quit your philosophizing. Some of the simplest truths are the most profound, and I agree that kindness and friendship are two of life’s greatest sources of enrichment.

    A Netflix recommendation: “A Yak in the Classroom.” It’s really a lovely travelogue of Bhutan wrapped around a sweet story—slow moving, but full of kindness and friendship—and inspiration.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Yeah, Another Blogger July 26, 2022 / 1:28 pm

      Hi, Annie. Thanks for the tip. My wife and I are always looking for new series to watch. A good one we saw this month is River, which originally was on BBC I think. It’s a detective series. Amazon carries it.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. rivertoprambles July 26, 2022 / 7:53 am

    A+ for a book report infused with a bit of philosophical speculation by an ACTUAL blogger!

    Liked by 3 people

  9. ellie894 July 26, 2022 / 9:01 am

    I love libraries and wandering them waiting to be surprised. You found a real gem! I’ll keep my eyes open for that one. Take care ☺️

    >

    Liked by 3 people

    • Yeah, Another Blogger July 26, 2022 / 1:32 pm

      Libraries are fine places to spend time in. And, like you say, they are full of surprises. I feel sorry for communities that don’t have libraries.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Fictionophile July 26, 2022 / 10:03 am

    Fabulous review Neil. If a novel makes you think it has succeeded in my opinion. Thanks for the recommendation. ♥

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah, Another Blogger July 26, 2022 / 1:34 pm

      I suppose that not too many books get me thinking, which says more about me than about them, probably. Anyway, An Actual Life did.

      Like

  11. Jacqui Murray July 26, 2022 / 10:06 am

    I couldn’t help but dig into Abigail. What a life she’s led! Starting with the ‘bad’ marriage, it kind of got worse! But she has a passel of published books out there. Thanks for the intro.

    Liked by 3 people

  12. Donna Cameron July 26, 2022 / 10:54 am

    An Actual Life is now on my TBR list. Thanks, Neil, for the recommendation and enticing description. I agree with your thoughts about the wisdom we slowly develop over the years . . . well, most of us.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. eden baylee July 26, 2022 / 11:01 am

    Thanks for recommending the book, Neil. It’s good to read something that affects you deeply and makes you think about how you exist in this finite time we have on earth. Just when you think you’ve learned so much, you discover something new! That’s the best part for me. 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah, Another Blogger July 26, 2022 / 1:41 pm

      “It’s definitely good to try and keep learning. Whole “new” worlds are out there waiting for us to discover them.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Sam Gridley July 26, 2022 / 11:12 am

    A lot of contemporary fiction seems to focus on characters who might say what Virginia does, “There’s no definite person in here.” I wonder if that feeling is as prevalent in real life as it is in books. If so, we have a f**kload of lost people around.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah, Another Blogger July 26, 2022 / 1:43 pm

      Hi, Sam. What percent of the adult population would you guess falls into that category?

      Like

  15. Helen Devries July 26, 2022 / 12:42 pm

    Thanks for the book review….another to add to the list.
    What you say about the importance of friendship rings so true for me…I do sometimes feel very alone when my husband is gravely ill..but friendship always pulls me through.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah, Another Blogger July 26, 2022 / 1:44 pm

      There are people — hopefully not too many — who have no real-life friends. Maybe they have some virtual, online friends, which I guess is better than nothing.

      Like

  16. Monkey's Tale July 26, 2022 / 12:58 pm

    The book sounds interesting and nice to read how it brought about your words of wisdom. I’ll look for the book next time. Maggie

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah, Another Blogger July 26, 2022 / 1:45 pm

      Hi, Maggie. My wife is reading An Actual Life now. She likes it, though not quite as much as I did.

      Like

  17. Paula B July 26, 2022 / 12:59 pm

    You’re so right about everything, Neil, and most especially about friendships. I was never cavalier about friendship in my youth, and I recognized their importance, but in a way I thought of them as a lovely sauce atop a steak. Now that I’m in my 60s, they ARE the steak. Health, kindness (our own, and those of other people), and love are the three greatest life gifts. I’m hoping and believing that you have all of these.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah, Another Blogger July 26, 2022 / 2:41 pm

      Thanks, Paula. Good friendships truly are crucial. We need those deep connections in order to have substantial lives. I suppose there are some folks who are exceptions to this, but basically it’s true.

      Like

  18. Rosaliene Bacchus July 26, 2022 / 1:01 pm

    Neil, thanks for the review. It’s great when a book gets us “thinking about life, its challenges, pitfalls, delights, vagaries, and all the rest of the deal.” Marriage out of a sense of duty due to an unexpected/unplanned pregnancy rarely ends well, even when the law so dictates. I’m with you when you say that love, kindness, and friendship make our lives meaningful and joyful.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah, Another Blogger July 26, 2022 / 2:43 pm

      Hi. Off the top of my head, I’d say that the previous book that got me thinking along these lines was Flight, a novel by Sherman Alexie that I read two or three years ago. It’s short and pretty powerful.

      Liked by 1 person

  19. liliannemilgrom July 26, 2022 / 1:33 pm

    Great post. I love how some books pull you in. I get so excited when I have a new pile by my bedside. But as you say, you win some you lose some….

    Liked by 2 people

  20. JT Twissel July 26, 2022 / 3:03 pm

    So true. I am also a random reader – pulling books off the shelves. Sometimes I hit a jackpot – if not, no big deal!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah, Another Blogger July 26, 2022 / 4:03 pm

      And we’re always bound to find good books, because there are zillions of books out there. And quite a few are good or better.

      Like

  21. talebender July 26, 2022 / 3:05 pm

    I love the smell of some of the older libraries, too…..and the secluded corners in some of them to lose oneself in the books.
    Nice piece!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah, Another Blogger July 26, 2022 / 4:05 pm

      I know what you mean about the smell. In the towns near me, there’s one library I know of with that kind of smell. That library building looks old, and IS old.

      Liked by 1 person

  22. Laurie Graves July 26, 2022 / 7:49 pm

    Hear, hear! I will be putting An Actual Life on my TBR list. Always enjoy book reviews.

    Liked by 2 people

  23. tanjabrittonwriter July 26, 2022 / 7:56 pm

    I love your way of meandering through the library’s shelves and letting a book (or books) grab your attention. Your recent pick sounds very intriguing, if maybe a bit melancholy. But for most of us, life isn’t a bed of roses.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah, Another Blogger July 26, 2022 / 10:42 pm

      Hi. A blogger I follow wrote an essay a few days ago about William Faulkner. I haven’t read anything by him in 20 or more years. Maybe I’ll give one of his novels a try. Have you read any of his books?

      Liked by 1 person

  24. Riham July 26, 2022 / 8:05 pm

    Loved your post Neil! Thanks for encouraging one more book to my to-read pile

    Liked by 2 people

  25. Ann Coleman July 26, 2022 / 8:09 pm

    I like your philosophy and agree with it! I also love to wander through libraries and book stores, hoping that I end up with a special book worth reading. I haven’t read this one by Abigail Thomas, but I did read “A Three Dog Life” which is the non-fiction account of her life with her husband after he was hit by a car and suffered severe brain damage. (I would recommend it, it’s very good.) And now I’d like to try “An Actual Life.” Thanks for the review!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah, Another Blogger July 26, 2022 / 10:48 pm

      Hi, Ann. Thanks for mentioning another of her books. There are so many talented book writers out there, and she’s clearly one of them.

      Liked by 1 person

  26. johnlmalone July 27, 2022 / 1:44 am

    it’s good to find a book that grabs you attention, Neil but I’m off to the library tomorrow with a list of books short listed for a major Australian Literature prize; hopefully like you I will end will end up with a real page turner —

    Liked by 2 people

  27. Michael Graeme July 27, 2022 / 8:21 am

    You’ve inspired me to blow the dust off my library card, Neil. 👍

    Liked by 3 people

  28. stacey July 27, 2022 / 3:42 pm

    It’s nice that you moved toward love and kindness and not away from it, as so many have and are doing today. Props to you, and thanks for the intriguing write-up.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah, Another Blogger July 27, 2022 / 8:52 pm

      Hey there, Marie. With kindness, love, friends and good books we can’t go too wrong. And with beer and pizza too!

      Liked by 1 person

  29. Joe July 27, 2022 / 5:34 pm

    Thanks for the book review, Neil. It sounds like a thought-provoking story. I also appreciate your words of wisdom. Love, kindness and friendship are worthy principles to live by. I am still working on that. If I could only resist telling people what I really think, it would be a lot easier.

    Liked by 2 people

  30. Alyson July 27, 2022 / 6:13 pm

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the book – one for the wish list.

    So true about taking care of our friendships too. A good friend is worth their weight in gold.

    Liked by 2 people

  31. Fran Johns July 27, 2022 / 11:41 pm

    You may be wise beyond your years. Added to loving kindness, that’s hard to beat. If you’d send me a snail mail address (fjohns33@mindspring.com) I’ll send you a book you might enjoy; it’s unfortunately not on your library shelf. Book review NOT REQUIRED.

    Liked by 2 people

  32. Cindy July 28, 2022 / 12:17 am

    You speak the truth about books AND friends! Gene, who loves to wander through bookstores, brought home a book from the remainders table at Barnes & Noble a while back. He read some of it and gave it to me, saying the author was a very good writer and he thought I’d like the book. He was right! It was called Safekeeping: Some True Stories from a Life, by an author I’d never heard of–Abigail Thomas. Coincidence?–or great minds think alike??

    Liked by 2 people

  33. sniderjerry July 28, 2022 / 11:52 am

    Hello Neil, This is certainly one of your best essays. You get an A+. I agree with your insights 100%
    And I think I’ll call my biography,”Thank God For Second Chances.” Have a great day. Jerry

    Liked by 2 people

  34. snakesinthegrass2014 July 28, 2022 / 2:43 pm

    I’m like you, I often put books back on the shelf within seconds too. It has to grab me quickly otherwise I know it won’t stay in my attention span. I’ll put “An Actual Life” on my list. – Marty

    Liked by 2 people

  35. stargazer July 28, 2022 / 6:05 pm

    Sounds like a good one. There is nothing better than books, which make you think. I rarely pick up books at random, I prefer to do a little research before committing. With library books, I can be a bit more experimental, though.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah, Another Blogger July 28, 2022 / 10:05 pm

      Yeah, libraries can be terrific. Some are better than others, but there always are pleasant surprises awaiting us at all of them.

      Liked by 1 person

  36. Anabel @ The Glasgow Gallivanter July 29, 2022 / 5:52 pm

    So agree with your musings on life, love, and friendships. And of course on the value of libraries! I think I would enjoy this book but I have such a pile (real and virtual) waiting to be read that I doubt I will. Like yours, my attention span has decreased dramatically lately. I would like to think that things work out well for Virginia and her daughter. Society seems to be going back in some ways, but in others we have made progress. The idea of “having” to get married at such a young age with, I suppose, the alternative being a more or less forced adoption should stay firmly in the past. As for her low self-esteem, I think many young people have that and most mature out of it. It can’t be improved by having to learn to be a mother when you’re barely out of childhood yourself.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah, Another Blogger July 29, 2022 / 10:07 pm

      You make some excellent points. Many thanks for adding them. You’ve brought insights that eluded me!

      Like

  37. Lakshmi Bhat July 29, 2022 / 9:42 pm

    I liked your post. Thank God we change 😊 I am 60 and looking back I kept the words of my favourite relative in mind. We get what we want in life but many a time we do not. When we cannot change what has come our way, we have to learn to accept them and like them as we go on. Only then we have a good present and have have nice memories of the past in the future. Regards, Lakshmi

    Liked by 2 people

  38. shoreacres July 30, 2022 / 10:00 am

    I saw the mention of Faulkner above. I was — and am — so enamoured of his books that when my parents said they would take me anywhere I wanted to go as a high school graduation gift, I chose Faulkner’s home in Oxford, Mississippi. I know the map of the world he created — Yoknapawtapha County — as well as I know my own state, and every time I think I can’t deal with the world one more minute, I re-read his 1950s Nobel Prize acceptance speech. In short: if you want good fiction, there it is.

    Otherwise? That quotation and your musings over it probably are dead-on for most of us. When I read “There’s not even really any me, exactly. I keep changing inside my skin. There’s no definite person in here. My voice comes out weird and I hardly ever say anything I mean..” I was sixteen years old again, having to walk into a certain situation and coping by imagining that I wasn’t really me — I was Sophia Loren. It worked then, but it’s not a way to deal with life on a long-term basis.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah, Another Blogger July 30, 2022 / 1:56 pm

      That’s one of the reasons why I like An Actual Life: It’s from the viewpoint of a 19-year-old girl who, not knowing the importance of making good decisions, got thrown in way over her head.

      Liked by 1 person

  39. Michele Anderson July 30, 2022 / 8:09 pm

    I loved this, Neil. So true that for most of us, wisdom comes late in life. I guess we have to go through all the crazy times during our youth to get to the place where we start to understand what’s really important in our life and life in general.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, Another Blogger July 30, 2022 / 9:49 pm

      Generally speaking, I think that we become better decision-makers when we hit our 40s and beyond. That is, we think things through better, and thus are less liable to do things that have bad consequences.

      Liked by 1 person

  40. Dave July 31, 2022 / 11:58 am

    Thanks, Neil – always looking for a special read that isn’t just “the next one on my list”. It’s powerful when an author has you reflecting on your own life. I agree; most of what I read is pretty much forgotten after I close the book.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, Another Blogger July 31, 2022 / 4:45 pm

      Hey, Dave. You know, sometimes I can barely remember a book four or five months after finishing it. Which says more about me than about the book.

      Like

  41. ckennedy July 31, 2022 / 12:30 pm

    I’m always looking for good book recommendations–this one sounds great! I think I’d like it. Cheers!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, Another Blogger July 31, 2022 / 4:51 pm

      Hi. From poking around online recently, I’ve learned that Abigail Thomas has quite a few fans. She has written both fiction and non-fiction.

      Like

  42. Shelley@QuaintRevival.com August 1, 2022 / 6:05 am

    I love how you described your travels through the library. I’m the same way. Only I tended to end up with way more books than I could read before I had to renew the rentals. It’s not the same as browsing on the online library I use, but it is less bulky to just transfer the e-books to my Kindle. Well, anyhoo, your review has convinced me to add the book to my TBR list on Goodreads. Happy reading to you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, Another Blogger August 1, 2022 / 10:14 am

      hello, Shelley. I saw a few minutes of a show on Hemingway last night. I haven’t read anything by him in years and years, so maybe I’ll take a look at his works the next time I’m at the library.

      Liked by 1 person

  43. alhenry August 2, 2022 / 10:47 am

    Neil, in my humble opinion THIS IS YOUR BEST POST EVER. The most thought-provoking and it shows off your writing chops. Also, you nail it with your closer: “I believe, for instance, that being loving and kind absolutely is where it’s at, and that said behaviors are the keys to a fulfilling life.”

    Liked by 1 person

  44. rkrontheroad August 3, 2022 / 3:01 pm

    I welcome your words of wisdom, Neil, and have read that paragraph several times over now. It does sometimes take a lifetime of trial and error to learn the best of us, doesn’t it? I say this as a good friend hopped a plane to console her daughter in another state, who is struggling to deal with a surprise pregnancy, a friend’s suicide, a broken marriage, and who knows what else. I hope this young woman can find some positive directions in her challenging life ahead. As an avid library fiction reader, I often find pearls in these representations of life stories. They are not so different from real life.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, Another Blogger August 3, 2022 / 5:50 pm

      Greetings, Ruth. The young lady you mention is facing more distressing situations than anyone should have to deal with. Hopefully she’ll eventually pull through okay.

      Liked by 1 person

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