Wait, Wait … I’m not done yet! (review)

I drink my morning coffee with Steve Innskeep, my drive home is accompanied by Here and Now’s Robin Young, and I fix dinner or grade papers to the sound of Robert Siegal and Melissa Block. It’s not that I have a seriously packed social calendar, though. Rather, those are the NPR program hosts that make up  the soundtrack of my life.

Wait wait I'm not done yetAnd how can I forget the years I spent with Noah Adams or Linda Wertheimer or Susan Stamberg? Or the dulcet tones of Carl Kasell, who anchored the news on Morning Edition for nearly thirty years.

Carl Kasell has written a memoir titled Wait, Wait … I’m Not Done Yet, a reference to his second NPR career as Peter Sagal’s sidekick on Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, the news quiz show. (Would it surprise you if I told you the book was a membership drive giveaway?)

Kasell’s book went down as smoothly as his reading of the news, but was decidedly more homespun in nature. The memoir covers his childhood, college days, early career, and, of course, his time at NPR—Kasell’s own memories are alternated with reflections of his co-workers, friends, and family members. The tone is warm and conversational. In fact, the almost folksy nature of the memoir was at first a little off-putting (I guess I was expecting something a little more weighty and NPR-ish), but I quickly settled into a long chat with good friends.

So many good stories and tidbits here. Kasell’s high school drama teacher? Andy Griffith (Who knew?!) Kasell’s lovely Italian bride Clara and their young family. His desolation after her death.  One of his college interns? Katie Couric. Kasell’s serendipitous seating at a wedding  reception with a lovely woman, now his wife Mary Ann. The tenor of the NPR newsroom on 9-11. And his (again!) meteoric rise to fame (at least in NPR land) as Peter Sagal’s co-host on Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me.

I’m thinking this book might be a little too much of an inside story for anyone who isn’t an NPR listener. But for those of you who are, it’s like a pleasant visit with dear friends, catching up on old times and I was sorry to see it end.

As in, “Wait, wait, don’t go yet!”

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey (review)

The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey (Edelweiss DRC)
Rachel Joyce
Random House

We expect our happiness to come with a sign and bells but it doesn’t.

When The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce was published in 2012, the novel was short listed for the Booker Prize and won UK National Book Award for New Writer of the Year. And it was that good. Harold Frye, a kind of work-a-day Everyman, goes out one day to post a letter to an old friend who has written to say she’s dying and finds himself walking from one mail box to another until he’s out of the city and into the countryside. A couple miles out, Harold decides he’ll just keep on keepin’ on and deliver the letter himself. He calls the hospice where friend Queenie now lives and asks the nurse to give her a message: “Wait for me.”

Along his nearly 700 mile pilgrimage, Harold reflects on his marriage, his failure as a father, his lonely childhood, and his pedestrian work life (pun intended). Harold dutifully calls his wife Maureen each day and buys souvenir trinkets along the way for both her and Queenie. Writer Joyce also gives the reader Maureen’s point of view and we can begin to unravel the pain and hurt that has scarred this couple for the past two decades. After some little publicity, Harold is joined along the way by a rag tag bunch of followers who co-opt his mission, but he ends his journey as he began: alone. His goodbye to Queenie isn’t what he (or, probably most readers) quite expected.

In her second novel, The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennesey, Joyce tells the story from Queenie’s end. And I must say, I think it’s the better novel.

Love Song of Miss Queenie HennessyQueenie Hennessey, thirty-something and pregnant, moves to Kingsbridge to start anew after a love affair gone wrong. Oxford educated, she’s floated through life, rudderless. Moored by the pregnancy she applies for a job as an accountant and refuses to budge from the office of the misogynistic factory boss who won’t interview a woman for the position. Her tenacity pays off and Queenie begins work, almost just as her pregnancy ends in miscarriage. But in the pain of losing her baby, she’s touched by a stranger–one Harold Fry, a diffident man, rather timid, and very tall. Because she needs to visit the brewery’s accounts scattered around the county and because she is a woman, the brewery boss Mr. Napier delegates Harold to drive Miss Hennesey to her appointments.

And so begins their ten year friendship. Queenie sees it at her job to make the uncomfortable Mr. Frye relax a bit, and he, in turn, treats her with gentlemanly respect and kindness. Queenie finds herself in love, but never speaks of her feelings. After several years, Queenie meets a belligerent (and probably drunk) young man on the street, immediately recognizing him as Harold’s son David. The two begin a secret friendship of sorts, neither mentioning Harold.

As often happens when secrets are involved, tragedy strikes. Queenie sets out again to begin anew, settling far away in a beach cottage in Northumberland where she creates fantastical natural sculptures in her beach garden—figures of driftwood, draped with seaweed and strung with shells. Queenie finds whatever peace she can until cancer strikes, disfiguring her and robbing her of speech.

In hospice, Queenie is cared for by tender and rather eccentric nuns: Sister  Lucy, Sister Philimena, and Sister Mary Inconnu. When news of Harold’s pilgrimage reaches the residents, they follow his trek via the post cards he sends Queenie and whatever news they can find in the newpaper or on television. To help Queenie come to terms with her life and loss, a Sister Mary Inconnu helps her write another letter to Harold Fry, but not “the sort of message he might expect from a gift card. Tell him the truth, the whole truth. Tell him how it really was.”

And so she does. Queenie’s story is, I think, more honest than Harold’s in Pilgrimage. Her voice is tender and raw and so much poetry: “Now that I have shaped the songs in my head and placed them on the page, now that my pencil has turned them into lines and tails and curls, I can let them go. My head is silent. The sorrow has not gone but it no longer hurts.”

Oddly (or maybe not) I read the two novels out of sequence. I got Love Song as an advance reader’s copy and liked it so much I wanted to hear Harold’s story, too. Both books would make a lovely gift pair and both stories are a testament to the extraordinary grace of ordinary lives–but it is Queenie’s words that are  with me still.

Elephants in the mist: Leaving Time (review)

Leaving Time
Jodi Picoult
Ballantine Books

From the first page of Jodi Piccoult’s new novel, we’re drawn into the story of Jenna Metcalf and her mother, Alice, separated in a terrible accident years before. Each narrates her journey as she searches and longs for the One Missing and the love they have for each other is palpable. Alice’s life’s work is researching the emotional lives of elephants, both in Africa and at a sanctuary in New England run by her husband. Jenna, following in her mother’s footsteps, knew elephants before she Leaving Timeknew playmates.

Jenna enlists the help of two unlikely characters in her search for Alice. Serenity Jones is a washed up psychic. Once a psychic to the stars, her fall from fame was fast and furious after she misread the fate of a missing boy on national TV. Reluctant at first to take on Jenna as a client, she can’t shake off the feeling that this is a case she must pursue. Virgil Stanhope was one of the detectives who first investigated the accident that separated Jenna and Alice. Jenna, winsome and all but orphaned, wins over this done-for detective just as she did Serenity. Together, they’re a rag tag bunch, each one trying to reclaim better days.

I could almost hear the voice of Wild America’s Marlin Perkins whenever Alice shares her elephant research. These are amazing creatures and Piccoult is clearly in love with them. I must admit I expected (and, being a believer, hoped) Serenity’s psychic gift would play a more important role—but, in true Piccoult fashion, we get a twist at the end that is so unexpected, I’m still thinking about it. Powerful stuff.

Before this, I had only read two of Jodi Piccoult’s twenty-three novels, but I’ve often seen her titles in the hands of my students. (In fact, I’ve promised a couple girls that I’d put House Rules on my reading list—and I did, of course!) Piccoult is chick lit with a message. (Piccoult, though, has some interesting things to say about her genre—or, should I say, the genre with which she’s been labeled. There’s enough fodder in that interview for another post, but you can read it here.)

If you want to explore the boundaries between this world and the next, or travel the length and breadth of timeless love, you must read Leaving Time.

Frayed edges: Spool of Blue Thread (review)

Spool of Blue Thread (Edelweiss DRC)
Anne Tyler

“The disappointments seemed to escape the family’s notice, though. That was another of their quirks: they had a talent for pretending that everything was fine. Or maybe it wasn’t a quirk at all. Maybe it was just further proof that the Whitshanks were not remarkable in any way whatsoever.”

Spool of Blue ThreadI started reading Anne Tyler about twenty-five years ago when I with Dinner At the Homesick Restaurant (which is still one of the few novels my husband has read at my prodding).  From there I backpedaled and read some of her earlier novels (Morgan’s Passing, Searching for Caleb, Celestial Navigation) then, through the years, read on to Breathing Lessons, Saint Maybe, Ladder of Years, and, just a year and a half ago, The Beginner’s Goodbye. I never regretted a single one of those reads–which is unusual for me 1) because I’m picky and 2) because the quality of authors’ work does tend to fluctuate–and A Spool of Blue Thread is no different.

Red and Abby Whitshank frequently squabble, sometimes disconnect, often nag, but, in the end, settle back into their love story which Abby’s many retellings always begins the same way: “It was a beautiful, breezy, yellow-and-green afternoon …”  Abby, a social worker, is a bona fide hippie turned grandma. She writes found poetry from scraps of magazines, newspaper, and letters. Her biscuits melt-in-your-mouth. And Thanksgiving dinner always includes “orphan” guests—immigrants, students, widows, and an odd assortment of down and outers. For his part, Red runs the family construction business along with two of the children. Red is busy, a bit gruff, a little stiff—especially next to Abby’s earth motherliness. But always, there is that love.

The Whitshank children—Denny, Amanda, Jeannie, and Stem—are in and out of Red and Abby’s lives and there’s a passel of grandchildren nowadays to keep track of. Only Denny gives them any cause for concern, really. He’s every family’s never-keeps-a-job-girl-home kind of guy. The kids jostle for attention, competing (most of the time) with good nature. Yes, Amanda is bossy and Stem is a goody two shoes—but always, there is that love.

And center to it all is the Whitshank home, built to perfection for another family by Red’s father Junior, (who probably had a plan all along for the home to return to him). It is Norman Rockwell picturesque, right down to the flagstone walk and the deep, wide porch.

But while it seems like a story book family, the Whitshanks hurt each other. There are secrets. Betrayal. And loss. Lots of loss.

What I like about Tyler’s novels is the fact that she takes some pretty dysfunctional families and endears them to us until we realize that there are more ways than one for families to live and love. If the characters were in therapy or marriage counseling, it would be a pretty messy business. But Tyler shows us that families come in all shapes and sizes, usually with a little wear and tear, a few frayed edges. But no matter—family is just that.

Books and a Babe: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (review)

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry
by Gabrielle Zevin
Algonquin Books

What’s better than a book recommendation from a book-lovin’ friend? Nothing. So as soon as a friend wrote on my Facebook wall that The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry was fast and fun and right up my alley, I was on it. Plus I’m a sucker for any book set in a bookstore.

Storied Life of A.J. FikryA.J. Fikry is rudderless. Wife Nic has just died in an auto accident, his bookstore Island Books is barely keeping its nose above water. Life is pretty grim when in walks his new Knightly Publishing rep Amelia Loman with the list of winter books. He’s not welcoming, to put it mildly (grief and social niceties are usually at odds); rebuffed, Amelia leaves assuming she won’t be calling on Island Books again any time soon.

But before things get better, they get worse when A.J.’s prized possession, a first edition of Poe’s Tamerlane, is stolen. Then—a toddler is left on his doorstep with a note from her mother: “I want Maya to grow up to be a reader … I love her very much but I can no longer take care of her … I am desperate …” and quick as you can say “Silas Marner” A.J. is a dad. A bumbling, curmudgeonly, single dad who despises Elmo and has never changed a diaper.

And, yes, readers all—The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is a modern day Silas Marner. The references come fast and furious. Maya enters through an unlocked door. Both Marner and A.J. suffer from some sort of seizure disorder that leaves them, well, blank, for a few moments. Maya opens A.J. to the warm embrace of the Alice Island community and the love of a woman. While he lost his earthly treasure, he gained a more precious gift. Any more parallels and I’d need to insert [spoiler alert]—but then if you know Silas Marner, you know how the plot unfolds in A.J. Fikry.

Gabrielle Zevin’s novel is fast and fun and scattered with did-you-catch-‘em literary references. (A.J. goes on a date to a restaurant named Queequeg, for instance) Each chapter begins with a short book review written by the store owner. The trials and tribulations of life in an independent bookstore were spot on from what I remember about my own book selling days. And, yes, friend, it was right up my alley.