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.”

Anything Is Possible: review

Anything Is Possible
Elizabeth Strout
Random House

anything is possibleYears ago I was a bit put off by writer Elizabeth Strout’s novel Olive Kitteridge: great writing, stunning insight–but Olive was so … unlikable. (And I know, I know, the novel won the Pulitzer, so who am I to talk?!) But I tried her again with Burgess Boys (there was that Pulitzer, after all) and wasn’t disappointed. After My Name is Lucy Barton I was convinced like so many others that a Strout novel was a great read–but her latest novel Anything is Possible is a masterpiece.

Strout exposes the dark side of human nature in an achingly beautiful way. So, yes, we do find Linda Peterson-Cornell’s voyeurism distasteful and her tacit approval of her husband, a sexual predator, despicable.  But then Linda’s sister Patty–painfully obese, a virgin throughout her marriage, faithfully caring for an elderly mother with dementia–pulls aside the curtain of their childhood, and somehow we understand. Maybe even absolve. We meet Lucy Barton again (now a famous author), as she visits with her brother Pete and sister Vicky. They tiptoe around family secrets at first, then begin to survey the damage their parents had wracked on them. And Charley Macauley who pays for sex and then discovers that maybe he has paid for love; Mary, who left a philandering husband after her heart attack to take up with a lover nearly twenty years her junior in Italy.

Strout takes the stories of broken people and makes them our stories too. Because we all, in some way or another, carry our wounds into the relationships we enter into. And whether we like it or not, because we are flawed, we often end up hurting the very people we love the most. Hopefully not to the extent of Strout’s characters, and hopefully we find the same redemption many of them do. But anything is possible.

Why I’ll remember My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry

My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry
Fredrik Backman
Simon & Schuster

my grandmother asked me to tell you she's sorryI was enchanted by Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove and Brit Marie Was Here. But with features in the New York Times and thousands of reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, there’s probably not much left to say about My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry that hasn’t already been said. (And, yes, I did read them out of order!) So, instead, I’ll tell you why I’ll remember Elsa and Granny and the wurse and the Monster and Halfsie for as long as I have memory.

I’ll remember that there is something elemental (dare I say spiritual?) about the longing of our hearts for story. That we often make sense of the world around us through story, and sometimes the most important Truths we learn are fiction. I’ll remember that some of us understand ourselves more deeply by meeting people who don’t exist and live in places that can’t be found.

I’ll remember that sometimes a Love just doesn’t fit any longer. When worn every day for however many years, its elbows thin, the collar frays. We grow and stretch and one morning we try to slip Love on for yet another day and the buttons don’t close over our belly. The sleeves hitch up above our wrists. And the Love that was once such a delight to wear and fit so very well … just doesn’t.

I’ll remember that grandmothers have been given the precious gift of the Do Over. We can adore our littles unabashedly, but still push them (sometimes hard, even) and not suffer the estrangement that so often divides parent and child. Sometimes grandmas regret choices they made or words they couldn’t take back with their own children. “Mistakes were made!” they cry out. And grannies hope that the hearts of those grownup children start to soften (just a little even) in the presence of the love between grands and little

So there you have it. A grandmother who made amends as only age could allow and a little girl who learned love never really leaves us in a story that was more real than not.

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d: review

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d
Alan Bradley
Delacorte Press

thrice the brinded cat hath mew'dLittle Flavia is growing up.

In her previous adventure, The Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, as well as her new one, Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d, Flavia displays more poise and decorum than she ever thought possible. And she’s puzzled by a new-found tendency towards manners and small-talk. Flavia is twelve–and far from the little girl readers met eight books ago.

After only three months at Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy in Canada, Flavia is on her way home again to Buckshaw. Dogger, Father’s Man Friday, meets her at the train station alone, and with sobering news: Colonel De Luce is in hospital. And it’s serious–pneumonia.

Out of sorts that she can’t yet visit her father, Flavia sets out the next morning for St. Tancred, to visit with the vicar and Cynthia. And a simple errand for Cynthia turns up a dead body, a witch, and a famous children’s book author. But of course it does, because Flavia never goes for more than a few pages without turning up some sort of fiendish business. (As if title, a line from the witches’ scene in Macbeth, didn’t already warn us.)

What follows is classic Flavia. She probes. She swabs. She presses the unsuspecting for information. She mixes a few chemicals, and voila! Case solved. Every time I start a Flavia De Luce mystery, I brace myself. Has the charm worn off? After all this time, will the Girl Detective disappoint?

And the answer is always that Flavia is just as charming and delightful as ever. But this novel holds more than one twist of fate. The mystery solved, of course, and one deeply personal to Flavia–a fate that will change her life forever.

Book clubs: the good, the bad, and the ugly

In a perfect world my book club reads fascinating contemporary works (but never the best sellers) with a few classics thrown in to make sure we’re well-rounded and culturally literate. Leaders rotate–everyone takes a turn–and prepare diligently: a review shared, a YouTube video discovered, an NPR interview served up. We are astute. Serious. Profound, even.

But in real life … not so much. (And this is one of those timea when reality trumps fantasy.)

The only book club I’ve been part of is one I was asked to organize several years ago for some teaching friends I work with. We set some ground rules (if you don’t read, you don’t share; everyone takes a turn leading; we agree on books together) and met once a month, give or take. We called ourselves Chicks on Books, maybe because it sounded snappy?! Here are the books we read over the year-and-a-half we were together:
+ Columbine by David Cullen
+ Battle Hymn of a Tiger Mother by Amy Chua
+ Full Dark No Stars by Steven King
+ Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler
+ The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
+ Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhonda Jansen
The Immortal Life of Harriet Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Little Bee by Chris Cleave

book clubsHeavy on non-fiction, but that was fine by me–I need encouragement to read something other than fiction. The books sparked wonderful conversation, of course. As you can probably guess, teachers can talk about Columbine for days. Add a book to the mix and we’re set. And we deal almost daily with helicopter moms which are a subcategory of Tiger Mothers, after all. The author of Mennonite is a professor at a private college in our back yard, and so we were able to hear her speak at a local library branch. (Always, always go hear the author speak when you have the chance.) And more than a few of us had families who put the “fun” in dysfunctional (Not!) so between our own childhoods and those of our students, we had more than enough fuel to discuss The Glass Castle.

And like many book clubs, our was not averse to adding a little vino into the mix. Conversation was never an issue–in fact, we had to exercise self-discipline to ensure we talked about the book for at least forty-five minutes so we didn’t talk shop. Our tangents were wonderful, though. Just what I encourage my own students to be open to–reading isn’t about plot lines, conflict, and metaphor; it’s about letting a work touch our souls and inspire us.

So why was our little book club so short-lived? (I’ve heard of some book clubs that go on for decades …) I’m not sure. Some of it was family–half the members had young children. Some of it was plain ol’ time–during the school year we teachers find it difficult to do much more than eat, sleep, grade, repeat. When we first skipped a month, a couple members asked me, “When are we going to meet again?” And my reply would be, “Whenever someone organizes it!” I didn’t want to be the one to run the show and thought if the group was meaningful, someone would keep it going.

But after another missed month, the idea of planning book club again slowly fizzled out–kind of like a book whose pages we stop turning because it’s just not engaging. Or because it’s not what we expected? Or maybe we just got too busy and put it aside. Maybe I should be grateful that we got several chapters in.

And who knows? Maybe I’ll pick up the book club again someday and give it another go.


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