Virgil Wander: review

Virgil Wander
Leif Enger
Grove Atlantic Press (October 2018)

Virgil WanderVirgil Wander (yes, that’s the main character’s name) thinks his “world began reorganizing itself” the day a stranger, Rune Eliassen, turned up in town–but I’m pretty sure the sea change in Virgil’s life really began when he found himself launched off Highway 61 on a snowy autumn day, arcing over the guardrails and straight into Lake Superior. He doesn’t remember the accident, but he was told Marcus Jetty had been beach combing along the shore and managed to pull Virgil out before he sank to the bottom with his car.

Virgil’s memory is sketchy because he’s had a mild traumatic brain injury. It’s left him with a monster of a headache. Virgil has also lost his adjectives. He misreads faces. His motor skills are shaky. And months of his life are hazy at best, missing at worst. But lucky for Virgil, he lives in Greenstone, Minnesota, a hard-luck town whose residents are good-hearted and loyal, if not also a rag-tag of a bunch.

There is the town drunk Shad Pea who drowns when a sturgeon pulls him under one night and his young son Galen who vows to avenge his father’s death by catching the fish that killed him. There is the young widow Nadine, a tender and single-minded mother to her son Bjorn. Jerry Fandeen, a ne’er do well who straightens up and flies right–or so it seems until some explosives are involved–and his dynamo of a wife, Ann, who works with Virgil in the mayor’s office. A domesticated raccoon named Genghis who runs away and is the likely source of a rabies outbreak. And, of course, a villain–Adam Leer.  Rumored to have killed his older brother, he left town at sixteen. Little is known about the life of this Hollywood director who has now returned to live quietly in the empty family home.

A small-town story like this might even stand on its own, but Virgil Wander is all the richer for that stranger I mentioned. Rune is the long-lost father of one of  Virgil’s close friends, Alec Sandstrom, who disappeared over two decades ago. He flew a private plane out over the lake and never returned. Alec, a minor league pitcher for the Duluth-Superior Dukes had a wicked fast ball. He was also something of a cut-up–another small town eccentric–and his disappearance haunted his friends and family. There had even been some rumored Sandstrom sightings in Ontario. Northern California. Idaho. And now here is a father he never even knew. A Norwegian, in fact, traveling thousands of miles to gather stories about a son he never even knew he had.

Rune is also a kite maker and his fantastical kites are what draw Greenstonians to him. The kites are large and elaborate and seem to have a life of their own. There was a stained glass window. A cloudberry pie. A bicycle and a catfish and a fireplace “with a crooked brick chimney and flames of loose orange that flapped in the wind …” Because of Virgil’s brain injury, his doctor recommends he have someone stay with him for awhile, which Virgil dismisses until he almost burns down his apartment over  the Empress, a movie theater he owns and runs. So it is Rune who comes to live with Virgil, and while one of the men tries to remember pieces of his life, the other tries to piece together a life he had never known. As their friendship deepens, Virgil finds himself much different from “the previous tenant” who inhabited his life. And so he builds a new life for himself, one in which puts aside his aimlessness and searches for purpose. Connection. And love.

But ohmygoodness it is the language in the novel that makes me swoon. The narrator speaks in  an oddly formal manner that endears him to the reader and, at the same time, adds to the story a mythical tone. Here’s Virgil on recovering language after the accident:

Within weeks certain prodigal words started filtering home. They came one at a time or in shy small groups. I remember when sea-kindly showed up, a sentimental favorite, followed by desiccated and massive. Brusque appeared all by itself, which seemed apt … this would be a good time to ask for your patience if I use an adjective too many now and then–even now, some years on, they’re still returning.

And this when Virgil warns his love that the accident has forever changed him:

“You know what you’re getting here, [Virgil] said. “I’m still fairly reduced. I may never be unabridged again.”

Of course the fact that the novel is set in a Great Lakes state with the sand dunes and gales off the lake and unpredictable storms I love–it’s all just too much. Much beauty. Much love. Much magic.


Here’s a video clip of Enger describing the novel.

Changing my tune on Whodunits: The Blue Kingfisher (review)

The Blue Kingfisher
Erica Wright
Polis Books (November 2018)

I’ve written a number times over the past ten years on This Is My Symphony of my dislike for mysteries and whodunits. Then I read one and rationalize that this particular title is an aberration–an outlier–a fluke. Except in the past two years, I’ve managed to read at least several. There was August Snow, The Bad Daughter, Girl Last Seen, Unbecoming, Girl Waits With Gun, and at least two Flavia DeLuce mysteries. (I also read a Tony Hillerman and John Grisham that I just never bothered to blog!)

*Cough* Methinks I do protest too much.

And now there’s another: The Blue Kingfisher by Erica Wright. The story begins with private detective Kathleen Stone out for a jog on a foggy morning along the Hudson River. Her destination is Jeffrey’s Hook Light, a place to clear her head because it brings back memories of her childhood when she had a bedroom decorated in a Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge theme. What wouldn’t have shown up in a little girl’s bedroom, though, is the dead body that Kate sees lying on the widow’s walk of the lighthouse. blue kingfisher

What’s worse? The body belongs to Tambo Campion, her apartment building maintenance man–he was quiet, kind, and hard-working, if not always timely. A jumper, the police say–but so out of character for the man Kate knew. (That, and Tambo missed the water.) And so begins her quest to find out the real story behind Tambo’s death.

We learn a lot about Kate as she tries to uncover Tambo’s story. As a cop she was a master of disguise and alter-egos, relying on Russian wig-maker Vondya and any number of personas to help her go incognito. She is Kat. Katya. Kacey. We know Kate once infiltrated drug lord Salvatore Magrelli’s inner circle in an effort to bring him down, but that her cover was blown and now she is hiding in plain sight, using disguises in an attempt to stay one step ahead of Magrelli’s henchmen.

Kate also learns that Tambo was a “un martin pescador”, a kingfisher–someone who found off-the-books jobs for immigrants. That a set of creepy looking masks line the walls of his bedroom. That the masks are a fertility totem. That a hidden compartment in each mask can hold  small pills. 

Could it be the masks that are the clue to Tambo’s death? Or was it his job as a kingfisher dodging immigration officers that put him at risk? Or maybe–somehow–Magrelli and Tambo are connected? Or are those tiny pills the key to his death? Kate gets a job at a Coney Island fishing tour boat company where Tambo secured jobs for illegals, hoping to get closer to the truth.  And in the manner of all whodunits, she does.

A testament to the strength of The Blue Kingfisher is that fact that, unbeknownst to me, the novel is actually the third Kat Stone novel–but it was compelling enough, with just enough backstory to stand on its own. Truth be told, I think I’ll go back and read the other two. Because here’s the deal. I think I like mysteries … I’m just very, very picky. No stale writing, no overblown tropes allowed.

And Erica Wright’s The Blue Kingfisher fits the bill.

Mr. & Mrs. American Pie: review

Mr. & Mrs. American Pie
Juliet McDaniel
Inkshares (August 2018)

mr. & mrs. american pieJuliet McDaniel’s Mr. & Mrs. American Pie is chick lit turned on its head. Call it wacky. Call it madcap. But however you describe it, the novel is 172 pages of fun, largely because the characters and situations are larger-than-life. Here’s a run-down.

Mrs. Maxine Hortence Simmons: Palm Springs junior league social climber, she of the Cartier watch, catered Thanksgiving dinner, and imported gold-foiled wallpaper. A bombshell. Married to airline executive Douglas Simmons–for the first few pages, at least … until she’s exiled to the Kachina Palms Condominiums in Scottsdale, Arizona. Drinks too much.

Robert Hogath: Thirty-something proprietor of the tavern La Dulcinea. A recent transplant from Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, he is, by his own admission, a “lifelong bachelor”. It’s 1969. And Robert has a secret.

Charles “Chuck” Bronksi: Age twelve, he has big plans that involve the FBI or CIA. Wakes at 5 AM to do calisthenics. Learning to read lips by watching Bugs Bunny with the sound turned off. Keeps spy notes in a little book. Pretty much the sole caretaker of his nearly two-year-old sister Dawn. He’s got an absentee mom and a dad “fighting the commies in Viet Nam”.

There’s a crazy Thanksgiving dinner scene that ends with the turkey in the pool. There’s a nasty divorce. Exile. More drinking.  Chuck and Dawn become Maxine’s ‘wards’ (her word).  There’s an arrest–for something they used to call lewd and lascivious behavior. A rushed marriage at city hall. A honeymoon with the kids in Old Tucson amusement park.

Now that right there? That would be a fine story in itself. But there’s more …

Maxine decides in an attempt to earn prize money and win back her dignity to enter the Mrs. American Pie beauty pageant. She’s got the family now, after all. And so begins the preparations to become June and Ward, Ozzie and Harriet and take home the prize. But first this.

A doctored photo to dethrone one of the current Mrs. Arizona Pie contestants. And some rumors about the others spread thick. As the now-reigning Mrs. Arizona Pie, there’s a cabin decorating contest, a cooking competition involving a dish called Spam ‘n Limas, and a chorus line of Mrs. wannabees singing and dancing to “It’s a Grand Old Flag”. Maxine’s talent? Reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. And a revelation–which comes via Chuck’s sleuthing skills–that just might bring the Director of Pageant Operations down.

The real kicker? The pageant is held at the Whitewater Country Club in Palm Springs. And Maxine’s ex-husband is a judge. But never fear. Alls well for this Mr. and Mrs. Chuck has the last word on the night the winner is crowned: “You won and then you lost because you love us!”

And his sister Dawn has the last last word. It’s 1982 …

[NO Spoiler Alert here]

But the end? It’s a keeper.

Ohio: review

Ohio
Stephen Markley
Simon & Schuster (August 2018)

Stephen Markley’s novel Ohio follows four twenty-somethings (Class of 2004) back to their home town in Ohio shortly after Obama’s election. ohioChapters follow each character to New Canaan, giving their backstory with special attention to their high school years. New Canaan has been ravaged by the financial crisis and torn apart by the conflicts in the Iraq and Afghanistan. But despite the biblical name, this was no Promised Land. Life in New Canaan was man against man, neighbor against neighbor.

Bill Ashcroft, Stacey Moore, Dan Eaton, and Tina Ross each have their own dark reason for returning to town and one fateful night culminates in conflict. (That word ‘conflict’ is quite the understatement.) In some ways, the character’s stories can stand alone, a bit like the those in Elizabeth Strout’s work. But from childhood through high school and into the present, their lives–and a whole cast of hangers on–have woven together in inexplicable ways and Markley shows us the underside of the tapestry, all loose threads and knots.

Let me be blunt: this book was a difficult read. Markley touches on alcoholism and drug abuse, sexual violence, assault, eco-terrorism, and murder. The angst of a generation–born of economic disparity, family dysfunction, misogyny–is revealed in all its ugliness.

I began reading the book one night before bed and within the first fifty pages had read about a detailed description of a meth trip, a drug-fogged drive involving some sort of contraband, and a funeral with an empty casket–and all I could think was, “This is waaay too depressing. I’m not sure I can finish it.” Twenty-four hours later I turned the last page.

Nearly two years ago I read J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, a raw look at the same time and place, told through the eyes of Vance who had overcome his circumstances–and escaped. While it was an intriguing read, it didn’t touch me quite like Ohio did. There is something about fiction that cuts deep.

So read Ohio … but be prepared to have your quiet world shaken.

Three Things About Elsie: review

Three Things About Elsie
Joanna Cannon
Scribner (2018)

“Everyone’s life has a secret, somethings they never talk about. Everyone has words they keep to themselves. It’s what you do with your secret that really matters. Do you drag it behind you forever, like a difficult suitcase, or do you find someone to tell?”

three things about elsieJoanna Cannon’s first novel The Trouble With Sheeps and Goats was a delight–Cannon’s insight into the hearts and minds of little girls and her portrayal of the rough waters of family life was spot-on.  Her second novel, Three Things About Elsie, gives us a glimpse into the heart and mind of Florence, resident of Cherry Tree assisted living, and in this book it’s the rough waters of aging that she explores.

The story opens with Florence Claybourne who has fallen in her room, and, as she waits for help, replays her life both at Cherry Tree (which, by the way, has no cherry trees, much to Florence’s annoyance) and her childhood. Each chapter marks the intervals with a time stamp. Florence isn’t easy to deal with for the staff or residents: she avoids social events, is loud and often belligerent, and (everyone assumes) delusional. The home’s manager Miss Ambrose is her nemesis, probably for continually threatening to send Florence to Greenbank, the next step in care, and dreaded by all the seniors–probably because it’s the Last Stop. When Florence suspects a new resident at Cherry Tree is a shadow from her past out to destroy her, her hunch is summarily dismissed.

So who is this Elsie-in-the-title? And what are the three things we need to know about her? The first is that she is Florence’s best friend. Has been since they were young girls growing up in a small English town. The second thing is that “she always knows what to say … to make [Florence] feel better.” And it’s quite clear from the story’s beginning, that Elsie and Flo were inseparable as children and that even now Florence turns to Elsie, ever at her side, for reassurance and advice. But only a few chapters in, it’s clear that Elsie isn’t visible to anyone else in the story, and the only person who converses with her is Florence. And that’s where I’ll leave Elsie. Because the third thing … oh, the third thing …

Florence, she of the outbursts and crazy rants, gets the attention of Jack, another Cherry Tree resident, and their friendship gives Florence hope simply (simply?!) because he believes her. The end of the novel is tender and poignant, and Florence–for all of her difficult behavior and troublesome accusations–is vindicated at last.

As to that third thing about Elsie? You’ll just need to read the book.

“It’s strange, isn’t it? How love paper-aeroplanes where it pleases. I have found that it settles in the most unlikely of places, and once it has, you are left with the burden of where it has landed for the rest of your life.”