The Lady In the Van (review)

The Lady in the Van
Alan Bennett

After I read Alan Bennett’s delightful The Uncommon Reader (review link here) I do what all readers do, I assume—I ran to get my hands on another of the author’s works. The library had a copy of a two-fer: The Clothes They Stood Up In (another novella) and The Lady In The Van (a non-fiction narrative); both pieces center around how the stuff in our lives can entrap us. The novella is about a couple who returns from a night out to find their flat bare, stripped of everything right down to the toilet paper and curtain rings. Now the Ransomes are a proper English couple, and LadyVanmuch of their life is spent keeping up appearances—but Mrs. Ransome finds that in shedding her possessions (albeit unwillingly), she gains a new sense of freedom and independence.

The book’s companion piece is the non-fiction The Lady in the Van.  Miss Mary Shepherd is a homeless (sort-of) elderly woman forced to move the van-which-was-her-home from spot-to-spot only to park at last on the writer’s street. Concerned for her safety, Bennett invites her to park in his yard—presumably for a short time. But days became weeks became months and we watch the relationship between the writer and Miss Shepherd develop with a kind of tumultous tenderness that changed them both. This is a story about mental illness and community and one would assume the story’s focus would be the Crazy Lady. And to some extent it is, of course. But it’s also a story (and I would contend it’s the real story here) about how reaching out to others often transforms us more than it does those we “help”.

The Lady in the Van was a 1999 theatrical production in London and is now a film to be released sometime this year  starring the inimitable Maggie Smith, who also starred in the original play. I had no idea this was in the making until my husband shared a film trailer he thought I’d like. “Of course I like it,” I said after watching, “ Considering I read the book several years ago.”

There’s little of Maggie Smith’s work that I haven’t adored and from what I can see in the trailer, she’s made for The Lady in the Van. I think you might agree.

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.

I Love Lucy ♥

I love Lucy.

No, I mean I really love Lucy. I’m not your run of the mill Vitameatavegamin-candy-factory-grape-stomping kind of fan. My fan creds?  Well, I’ve been to Lucy’s hometown in Jamestown, I love lucy triviaNew York where I toured the Lucy Desi Center for Comedy. My husband and I drove  to nearby Celoron to get a peek (and a pic!) of her childhood home, which, by the way, is cute as a bug’s ear as Lucy might say. My small library of Lucy books runs from reference to coffee table. Of her early Metro Goldwyn Meyer girl films, Stage Door is my favorite and of course I have my very own copy of The Long Long Trailer. (Even my favicon on this blog is even a nod to her in the initial we share.) And on my Bucket List? The annual Lucille Ball Comedy Festival held in Jamestown, really as much to see all the Lucy impersonators as anything else.Lucille Ball

When our TV situation allowed, I’d watch Lucy episodes with my reference books at the ready, waiting to pick out the gaffs and highlights. The Lucy Book by Geoffrey Fidelman is especially handy because the show’s directors, writers, and editors (as well as some of the actors) comment on each episode of her fifty years in television. It’s a trivia Lucy lover’s dream come true.  But nothing can beat Lucy At the Movies for chronicling her fifty years in film and being just plain gorgeous, like Lucy herself.

Of course if you love Lucy and Desi, you also know the story of their personal lives—how they rose to great power in Hollywood, how Desi chaffed at being “Mr. Ball” then occupied himself with a series of dalliances, how they struggled to continue their legacy with the Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour even as their marriage crumbled. We wanted to believe, didn’t we? But love Lucy, Desi did, despite it all. Lucy called Desi on what would have been their 46th wedding anniversary, just days before he died. Their conversation, apparently, included I love yous.

Lucy was loud, she was pushy. She was naive and open-hearted. She loved her man and boy could she work those fifties fashions with cinched waists and crinolined skirts, or trousers with legs up to here.  My own sweetheart knows just how to woo me—my Valentines gift this year were tickets to see the I Love Lucy Live On Stage show touring the U.S. It’s silly, but oh so fun. (Here is a montage of some of the scenes).  The premise is that the theater audience is the studio audience for the filming of two I Love Lucy episodes, complete with commercials for Halo Shampoo, Chevrolet, and Brylcreem. Nothing too deep here. But I clapped. I laughed.I loved Lucy.

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.

Sailing the ocean blue: As Chimney Sweepers Come To Dust (review)

As Chimney Sweepers Come To Dust (DRC)
Alan Bradley
Delacorte Press
Release date: January 6, 2015

If you haven’t caught Flavia fever by now, you’re missing out on something special. Twelve-year-old Flavia de Luce is a chemist prodigy-turned-sleuth who has solved any number of thefts, murders, and kidnappings in her six previous adventures.  At the end of The Dead In Their Vaulted Arches we knew Flavia was bound for Canada to train for her role in an As Chimney Sweepers Come To Dust“ancient and hereditary” organization at Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy, the very same school her legendary mother Harriet attended.  And true to his word, Bradley opens As Chimney Sweepers Come To Dust with Flavia standing on the deck of an ocean liner–in a storm, covered in sea spray, planning the murder of her chaperone Mr. Rainsmith by champagne and bicarbonate of soda. Flavia fans would expect nothing less.

As to be expected, Flavia and boarding school prove to be an odd bedfellows. At home, playmates were decidedly missing, with Flavia preferring the company of the vicar’s wife and the police inspector. Just how would she manage the drama of dozen’s of girls living under one roof? It helps that she is quickly taken under the wing of the headmistress Miss  Faulthorne—who sympathizes with Flavia on a level she’s not accustomed to–and also finds out that these girls aren’t just any girls. They are, in fact, also members-in-training of Nide, the same group that Flavia’s Aunt Felicity told her she must “learn her way into” at the end of Vaulted Arches. It also helps that by the end of Chapter 2, a mummified body falls out of the fireplace in her room, its desiccated head rolling across the floor and landing at Flavia’s feet.

With that, Flavia is off and running. Those girls I worried about become no more than stand-ins for the adults she was accustomed to interviewing (and, truth be told, manipulating) as she parsed together the truth. As always, Flavia runs into some dead ends and meets any number of decoy characters. She jumps to conclusions and puts herself in danger. But truth she finds.

When I first realized at the end of book six that there would be no more Daphne or Dogger, no more Mrs. Mullet or Colonel, my heart dropped. Buckshaw and Bishop’s Lacey, along with her friends and family, were as much a part of the books’ charms (almost!) as Flavia. But just as the almost-a-teen Flavia was experiencing some growing pains, I, too, wanted to see how Flavia would manage outside the familiarity of Bishop’s Lacey. Bradley’s oh-so-perfect details help with our transition: a chemistry teacher who is an acclaimed—and acquitted—murderer; dorm rooms named after pioneering women (Florence Nightingale, Marie Curie, Edith Cavell); girls singing Ninety-nine bottles of arsenic on the wall. It’s a world of delights.

But it’s the magic of Flavia de Luce herself that successfully carries this little sleuth across the ocean, and us, the reader, with her.