Virgil Wander by Leif Enger


67ED6962-E081-4A26-ABFC-089CF8128753Sometimes you need a book that soothes spirit – a book that starts slowly and meanders along at a gentle pace, telling a gentle story that leaves you feeling like you’ve been floating down a lazy river in the not-too-hot sunshine. Virgil Wander is that kind of book.

Leif Enger is known for his use of allegory and symbolism, and remains true to form in Virgil. The overarching theme that appears again and again throughout the story is flight and all the things that go along with it – here specifically weightlessness, freedom, and risk-taking.

The story begins with our titular character, Virgil Wander, recovering from an awful accident that had him driving his car off an embankment into Lake Superior. While his car doesn’t make it, Virgil escapes with some bodily damage and a traumatic brain injury. Language is one of the things that Virgil has lost – not the ability to speak, but the use of adjectives – the ability to describe. It leaves Virgil feeling like a stranger in his home, his job, and his life in general.

Into this confusion comes Rune Eliasson, an old man from the Arctic Circle searching for a son he didn’t know was conceived on a long ago trip to Greenstone, Minnesota. He discovers the son mysteriously disappeared a decade before, but stays to find out more about him. Virgil and Rune bond over flying kites and eventually become unlikely roommates.

What commences is the story of how Virgil Wander recovers his adjectives and discovers a new life right on top of the old one. Along the way, Virgil and the multitude of characters living in Greenstone struggle with the vagaries (and predictabilities) of small town life. The story is a common one across the Great Lakes region where towns that boomed with good fortune and wealth for years are now faced with closed factories, declining population, and aging infrastructure.

The big question is why do people stay in these small towns with no future. Enger’s answer, I think, lies in the symbolism here. One of the characters, Shad Pea, is allegedly killed by a monster sturgeon, which his surviving son vows to kill. The fish itself becomes a character here, driving one of the many sub-plots until a blood-pumping scene at the end of the book. The fish is often used as a symbol of rebirth or resurrection, a theme entwined with the lives of the characters and the town. Relationships are born and reborn throughout, further emphasizing the importance of friends, family, and acquaintances in daily life. People in Greenstone care about each other and, more importantly, take care of each other.

The more obvious theme here, though, is flight. For Virgil, his old life has flown away, but he’s finding a new one bit by bit. Rune’s amazing handmade kites are used as the vehicle to bring people together and to provide the sense of power and weightlessness that exists when something leaves the earth to swoop through the air. While you can see the kite and feel it through the string, a wayward breeze or a strong wind can take that kite and fold it up, crash it, or make it soar if only you have the courage and perseverance to keep it in the air. One of my favorite scenes has Rune and Virgil flying a kite in the dark. Virgil never knows which kite he was flying. All he knows is what he can feel through the string and he says it is “a curious privilege…to fly without so much as a glimpse of perception of the wing.” That is a turning point for Virgil when he realizes that his new life will require risk-taking.

Virgil’s budding relationship with Nadine is part of his transformation, and Enger handles it with the gentle matter-of-factness of finding a partner late in life. It just happens. And that is ultimately what Virgil Wander discovers. Life happens, whether you’re ready for it or not. Sometimes it’s good, but sometimes you get a raw deal. How you respond to both the good and the bad is what makes your life important.

Virgil Wander is not the most exciting book you will ever read and, indeed, many reviews call it out for being boring. If you’re not a small town kind of person, I expect you would find this odd and a little dull. Anyone who has spent some time living in a small town will recognize the unusual (and usual) characters that show up everywhere, and will enjoy drawing comparisons to real-life examples of the Village Hall staff, the tired sheriff, the local marijuana grower, and the colorful characters who are found everywhere. If you have a couple hours of uninterrupted time where you want to fall into a cozy, friendly reading trance, pick this up and snuggle down. You’ll emerge refreshed.

Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan

1

7542C48B-735E-49B8-BEF2-24F9A58B1216Oh, my lovelies! If you read just one book this month, make it this one. I laughed out loud. I sobbed. I had ALL the feels. The writing is gorgeous, the characters are, by turns, gentle, salty, and mischievous, and the story so clever.

Anthony Peardew, who lives in a beautiful house called Padua, collects lost things, catalogs them, and carefully stores them in his study. (St. Anthony of Padua, Patron Saint of Lost Things…get it?) His collecting began, as many unusual habits do, in response to a tragedy that took his one true love from him. Eventually, Anthony recovers from his loss and begins to live again, becoming an accomplished author and friend to his housekeeper, Laura. When Anthony dies, he leaves Padua and his entire estate to Laura, with the caveat that she must begin returning the lost things to their owners. She must also complete a near impossible task – find the one thing that Anthony himself lost the day his beloved Therese died. Aided by gardener Freddy and neighbor Sunshine, Laura begins to recover from her own tragedy and learns about true love and friendship.

There are so many things to love about this book. The characters are good people with flaws, people who care about each other despite their differences. Witnessing Laura’s journey from a wounded, frightened, menopausal mess to a vibrant, caring woman in charge of her own self is gratifying. The relationship she develops with Sunshine, the neighbor who decides that Laura needs a friend, is especially poignant and powerful, given that Sunshine has Down Syndrome. Her character is written with warmth, respect, strength, and intuition. She sees and understands things long before Laura and Freddy, and she is 100% part of their work in returning the lost items.

Told alternately with the secondary story of Eunice and Bomber, two people whose lives were unknowingly caught up with Anthony and Therese for decades, and interspersed with micro-stories about the lost objects themselves, Keeper of Lost Things reveals the often invisible connections between people, places, and things in a way that will stay with you for a long time. Highly recommended.

Hunch by Bernadette Jiwa


97FEF938-BD16-459A-B93F-FE3609A18274The subtitle of this book is a bit more descriptive: “Turn Your Everyday Insights Into the Next Big Thing.” Jiwa packs a decent amount of information into this short book that is all about trusting your gut and taking risks.

We’ve all had hunches – those times when we’re pretty sure something is going to happen, or that this way is the right way. Jiwa delves into what distinguishes a hunch from a guess, and boils it down to three things: curiosity, empathy, and imagination. She devotes chapters to each, but provides a half-page summary that everyone should print out and hang on a wall where they see it every day. It’s on page 81; below is a synopsis.

Curiosity = Interest + Attention – notice things and think about how to make them better.
Empathy = Worldview + Understanding – be able to put yourself in the shoes of someone experiencing a problem.
Imagination = Context + Experience – learn how to think about what already exists in a different way.

The most consistent theme throughout the book is the directive to pay attention – to your own experiences and to those of the people around you. There are several sections with activities the reader can perform to hone those paying-attention skills. Several years ago, I developed a set of observational exercises to examine and learn how people were currently using my library. Those exercises were grade school work compared to what Jiwa suggests. My mind was flying, imagining all the places I could use those exercises and what I wanted to learn from them. So much potential there…

Hunch is a slim book, and can be read in an hour or two, but it will leave you thinking about it for a very long time. If you are looking to change up your career, or are beginning any planning work within your organization, set aside some time and absorb this little gem.

Many thanks to Seth Godin and Niki Papadopoulos (Penguin Random House) and altMBA for sharing this book with me.