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.

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.

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.”

The Forgotten Guide to Happiness: review

The Forgotten Guide to Happiness
Sophie Jenkins
Avon (July 2018)

Lana Green writes romance novels–or at least one, the best seller Love Crazy. Her second romance, Heartbreak, has just gotten a thumbs Forgotten guide to Happinessdown from her publisher. The reason? It’s bleak and bitter, hardly the stuff of romance. Except Lana was just writing what she knew. And what she knew was that the hero of Love Crazy, photographer Marco, had dumped her the heroine Lauren, just as Lana’s photographer boyfriend Mark had dumped her. See where this is going?

And to be sure, for the first few chapters, Sophie Jenkins’ The Forgotten Guide to Happiness is chick lit, plain and simple. Numbing her broken heart in a pub, Lana meets a scruffy IT guy, Jack Buchanan. Over wine and a beer, she confesses she needs to find a new hero for her second book–and Jack sets out to become that hero. Romance ensues.

But, wait a minute … not so fast.

It turns out that Lana is also looking for a job and a place to live, what with the fact that she didn’t get her book advance and all.  And Jack has just the thing. His step-mother suffers from dementia and has become increasingly difficult to manage; social services is threatening to intervene. Add to the mix that his step-mom is none other than the famed feminist writer Nancy Ellis Hall, and Lana quickly agrees to become her companion and caregiver. At first, Lana is convinced that Nancy, who carries around a black notebook and scribbles in it furiously, is still writing. (In fact, Lana even thinks she might be able to help the ailing Nancy write a new book.) And while Lana’s denial is based on her infatuation of the writer Nancy used to be, she soon comes to love the Nancy who is–and that Nancy draped her head with sheets of toilet paper and insisted she was eight years old; she kept a pastry brush in her purse and set the table with clothes pins, a book, and a ruler; that Nancy quoted the bible as her own work and bit the woman who ran the London Literary Society where Lana tutored–Nancy, the woman she cared for and loved, might seem strangely out of touch, but Lana “knew what [Nancy] meant. Language is just a means of communication, and she could communicate and I could understand her.”

It’s got to be a tricky business to write about a character with dementia, but Sheila Jenkins handles the character of Nancy tenderly, lightly, always with compassion–just as Lana does. And I hope that someday, should my aging self need a minder, I encounter someone with just as much love.

And about that love story Lana is trying to write–Does Jack get a role to play? Does Marco return and win back Lana’s love? Will there be heartbreak or more crazy love? I think its fair to say The Forgotten Guide to Happiness has plenty of love (and happiness!) to go around.

A Fan Favorite: Catherine Ryan Hyde (review)

Heaven Adjacent
Catherine Ryan Hyde
Lake Union Publishing
June 2018

Heaven AdjacentWith over thirty books, Catherine Ryan Hyde’s fan base is deep. There are probably few who don’t remember the movie Pay It Forward which is based on her book by the same title; her novel Take Me With You is a favorite of mine. Hyde is a story-teller, plain and simple–her novels may not be high art, but the stories are compelling. Heaven Adjacent is no different.

Manhattan lawyer Roseanna Chaldecott has walked away from everything: her established law firm, apartment in the city, friends, and family. With the clothes on her back and a few things thrown in the back of her Maserati, she heads for the hills (literally) and runs out of gas next to a piece of property with a FOR SALE sign posted in the yard. The house (if you can call it that) is barely two rooms, unheated save for a wood stove. There’s an even smaller out-building and an unoccupied barn. Perfect for someone who wants to escape from the stress of modern life–for someone who wants quiet. Peace. Freedom. And little, if any, human interaction.

Except that’s hardly how it played out for Roseanna.

Before she knew it, Roseanna has a young veteran camping in the woods by the creek, a mother and her five-year-old daughter squatting in the out-building, and an elderly man living on her Adirondack retreat. Her estranged son shows up on her doorstep. Add a dog and an old horse and you see how things weren’t going as she planned.

Roseanna fled New York broken-hearted and shaken: her best friend and law partner Alice died of a massive stroke at fifty-three. Alice, like Roseanna, was working full tilt, waiting for the day she could retire. And then … gone. The work? The sacrifice? All for nothing. Roseanna becomes an evangelist, of sorts, nudging others to ask themselves: am I really happy? As you can imagine, that peace and quiet suddenly becomes less and less important, and Roseanna’s relationships with Nelson and Patty and Willa and Martin and Lance become what she was seeking all along.

I had only one reservation. Hyde seems, at times, to use Roseanna as her own mouthpiece, and it comes off a bit didactic, even though fitting with the story. I want my characters to be human beings in their own right, not the writer’s proxy. But because I loved the story, I could forgive that flaw.