Review: ‘Twelve Lives’

51K9A8D3y0L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_The last lines of “The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley” by Hannah Tinti are the greatest last lines I’ve read in ages, worth reading every day. I won’t tell you what they say because that would spoil it for you, but just know that every single page of this book, not just last few lines, is worth reading.

Tinti is a masterful storyteller whose first book, “The Good Thief,” was a 2008 New York Times Notable Book of the Year. She is also the co-founder and executive editor of the award-winning magazine One Story that publishes one short story every three weeks in a small journal. It took her nearly a decade to complete her second novel, a story of heroism and redemption — a story of second, third, and even 12th chances — but it’s worth the wait.

“The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley” is a coming-of-age story about a girl named Loo (Lucinda) and her hit-man father Samuel Hawley. Hawley wants to turn his life around for the sake of his daughter, a feisty girl who knows how to shoot a gun and has spent most of her young life on the run. Loo has no memory of her mother Lilly who died when Loo was a baby, but she is surrounded by her mother’s presence.

As they move from one state to the next, the few items Hawley carries with them are mementos of her mother: a collection of photos, perfume and shampoo bottles. The year she turns 12, her father returns to Olympus, Mass., her mother’s hometown, so Loo can have a “normal” life.

Tinti weaves the voices of Loo and Hawley chapter by chapter. Hawley’s story is told according to the bullet holes on his body from “Bullet Number One” to “Bullet Number Twelve.” In previous interviews Tinti has said that she was interested in “this idea of how to tell the story of someone’s life through their physical body and how our bodies can in some ways be almost maps of our pasts and maps of our lives.” She was also inspired by the Greek myth of the “Twelve Labors of Hercules,” and if you read closely, you’ll find clues that connect the Labors and Lives.

We first see the map of Hawley’s scars when he participates in the Greasy Pole contest (an actual contest that Tinti, who grew up in Salem, MA, has witnessed), where men try to get across a greasy pole without falling into the water below.

“Across his body were rounded scars – bullet holes, healed over. One hole in his back, a second through his chest, a third near his stomach, a fourth in his left shoulder, another through his left foot. The scars were dark and puckered in places, as if the bullets that had entered Samuel Hawley had eaten their way through his flesh.” To his daughter these scars were “signs of previous damage that had impacted his life long before she was born.”

One of these scars came from a job on Whidbey Island, off the coast of Seattle. In “Bullet Number Three” Hawley and his partner Jove take the ferry to the island to recover a priceless, antique watch for their boss. Hawley is 29 years old at the time and  “still carried the feeling he was not where he was supposed to be…. The bad luck had gone on for so long now he felt marked, like a smudge had been left on his forehead.”

Hawley and Jove find themselves battling skin peeling burns, a shoot-out, and a near death experience with a whale before they complete the job. But the jobs are never really over and Hawley is tired of looking over his shoulder.

As much as Hawley tries to make a new life for Loo, she’s his daughter and isn’t sure if she’ll ever be good. One of the hardest parts of growing up, especially, I think for fathers and daughters, is realizing your parents are regular people with faults and figuring out how to love them anyway. When Loo and Hawley return to Olympus, she is forced to confront the truth of her father’s past and has to decide if he’s good or bad, a hero, or a killer.

Love is a thread that runs through each story, but it’s love that’s closely linked with loss and violence. There is love between Hawley’s victims, love between Hawley and Lily, love between Loo and Marshall, whose kisses leave her with swollen lips and a face scratched raw from stubble. Marshall makes Loo feel “Ripped open. At times, she could barely stand it. The boy wanted to kiss her even though she had broken his bones.”

Over the course of the book Loo learns that no one is ever all good or all bad, but a little bit of both. She discovers that we are all searching and fighting for the same thing.

This review was originally published in the Post and Courier.

‘History of Wolves’ examines consequences of actions

emilyfridlund800Growing up in the northern woods is a lonely experience. Winter is so long, much longer than it should be, that it teaches you to hunker down, to hold your arms tight across your chest, to grit your teeth and squint your eyes until it’s over.

“It was the worst part of winter, a waste of white in every direction, no place for little kids or city people. Beneath a foot of ice, beneath my boots, the walleye drifted. They did not try to swim, or do anything that required effort. They hovered, waiting winter out with driftwood, barely beating their hearts.”

In Emily Fridlund’s debut novel “History of Wolves,” Madeline, who goes by Linda, is a wise and lonely 14-year-old living in an abandoned commune in northern Minnesota with her parents, or “simply the people who stayed around after everyone else went back to college or office jobs in the Twin Cities.” The result of this atypical upbringing is that Linda is wise beyond her years, though her practicality exasperates her mother who wishes Linda would just “cavort and pretend.”

But it’s not in Linda’s nature to pretend to be happy. Not when she’s scraping money together to buy food and walking home from school through the snow and dark woods to a house with no heat. Happiness is pointless, until a young family moves into a house on the lake within view of Linda’s cabin.

Petra Gardner has relocated from the city to the lake house with her 4-year-old son Paul, while her husband Leo, an astronomer, works overseas. Petra is young and naive and enlists Linda as Paul’s babysitter “to teach them about the woods,” and soon Linda is spending all her time at the house on the lake. Immersing herself in the lives of Petra and Paul, she is happy — “I barely recognized the feeling,” she says — until Leo returns.

Dr. Leonard Gardner is a third-generation Christian Scientist who believes “there is no place in the universe for evil, for sickness, for sadness, for death.” His presence is unsettling and alters the dynamic of the house, driving a wedge between the women. Linda watches, resentfully, as Petra becomes passive and deferential around her husband.

The book is divided into two parts: “Science” and “Health,” which is also the title of a book written in 1875 by Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy, who argued that sickness is an illusion that can be corrected by prayer alone. Fridlund steers us away from critique of Christian Scientists, letting Leo’s actions speak for themselves.

This review was originally published in the Post and Courier.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

commonwealthNew York Times Best Selling author Ann Patchett said “Commonwealth” is the book she should have written when she was 25. In an interview with NPR, she said that, as a young writer, “I wanted to prove that I had this great imagination.”

To do that, Patchett wrote books such as “Bel Canto” about a hostage crisis set in South America, for which she won the 2002 PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize for Fiction, and “State of Wonder” which provided readers a chance to travel deep into the Amazon rainforest to study the extended fertility of an isolated Amazonian tribe.

Read more of my review “Patchett’s ‘Commonwealth’ spans 50 years of blended family life” in the Post and Courier.

Review: ‘Why They Run the Way They Do’ a compelling story collection about love and pain

why-they-run-the-way-they-do-9781476761435_hrWHY THEY RUN THE WAY THEY DO. By Susan Perabo. Simon & Schuster. 195 pages. $24.

Authors of short stories are a mixed breed of poets and novelists. Working in a condensed format, the best short story writers craft compelling characters, witty dialogue and sentences that sing within a few pages. Think of “Runaway” (or any collection) by Nobel Prize winning author Alice Munro or “This is How You Lose Her” by Junot Diaz.

That short stories are not as widely read as novels is unfortunate because a book like Susan Perabo’s “Why They Run The Way They Do” should be known far and wide. Her 12 stories highlight the frailty of relationships and the remarkable ways we love and hurt one another.

Perabo is at a unique stage in her career with the release of her short story collection in 2016 and a novel, “The Fall of Lisa Bellow,” that will be released in 2017.

She says her writing is strengthened by working in different genres, and while the collection was in the works for 14 years, the novel was completed in a year and a half.

Perabo is writer in residence and professor of English at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and she is on the faculty of the low-residency MFA program at Queens University in Charlotte, North Carolina.

The first story of the collection, “The Payoff,” highlights the finite agony and ecstasy of middle-school friendships. Anne and Louise are self-proclaimed “freaks” whose long friendship provides them with a sense of belonging. One afternoon, the girls discover something shocking at their school. Louise devises a way to profit from what they’ve seen and Anne reluctantly goes along, sensing a shift between them.

“She gazed at me impatiently, with the look of someone who in two or three years would no longer want to be my friend. We were two weird kids who had leapt from the ship of fools and splashed blindly toward each other, scrambled aboard the same life raft. Perhaps it was only a matter of time before we leapt again and made for separate shores.”

Perabo says we use stories to comfort us, and this theory is demonstrated in one of the collection’s strongest stories, “Indulgence,” a tale of a daughter and her dying mother. The two women spend a visit together smoking cigarettes and reminiscing.

In “Life Off My E,” a pair of recently divorced, middle-aged sisters are living together and spending much of their time playing Scrabble. A slightly absurd sense of humor runs through the collection, but it’s most evident in the interactions between these sisters. When one, a recovering alcoholic, meets a man from AA, the other sister feels threatened and jealous.

“Sometimes I wished I had a secret society for the things that had ailed me in life, perhaps a group of others who had been repeatedly attacked by dogs in their own living rooms.”

In “Michael the Armadillo,” Carrie and Dan are a married couple with a young daughter whose obsession over a stuffed armadillo named Michael is distressing. Six years prior, Carrie had an affair with a man named Michael, and she and Dan struggled to put it behind them. They thought they’d succeeded until their daughter is given the toy armadillo who she decides to call Michael, triggering the return of an unpleasant memory.

The flustered and repressed parents try, unsuccessfully, to get rid of Michael until Carrie decides to take things into her own hands. “Okay then, Carrie thought. This was how it was going to be. Okay. Accept. Accept and Adjust.”

For readers who do not typically pick up a book of short stories, take a chance on “Why They Run The Way They Do.” Your risk will be rewarded.


(Post and Courier, September, 2016)

Review: ‘Lily and the Octopus’ a story about a man and his dog

lily-and-the-octopus-9781501126222_hrLILY AND THE OCTOPUS. By Steven Rowley. Simon & Schuster. 301 pages. $25.99.

The relationship between a boy and his dog is a time-honored topic in literature. Think of classics like “Where the Red Fern Grows” and “Old Yeller.”

These stories of love and loss illustrate the depth of emotion many humans feel for their pets. They make us look at ourselves and wonder to what lengths we would go for our own four-legged creatures.

In his debut novel “Lily and the Octopus,” Steven Rowley takes the classic boy-and-dog tale and turns it inside out. Instead of a pre-teen boy out in the wilds of the Midwest, we have Ted Flask, a 42-year-old lonely gay man living in Los Angeles with his aging dachshund Lily who speaks in all caps (and loves ice cream). “WHAT! IS! THIS! CLOUD! THAT! YOU’RE! LICKING! I! LOVE! TO! LICK! THINGS! WOULD! I! LIKE! TO! LICK! THAT!”

We learn on the first page that 12-year-old Lily has a malignant tumor on her head that Ted names “the octopus.”

Ted’s head is a pleasant place to spend 301 pages. He’s witty, self-depreciating and fantastically loyal. He works from home as a freelancer and spends most of his time with Lily.

His humor is often directed outward to the ridiculousness of life in L.A., or his therapist Jenny, a name he says that is better suited to a gymnast or “a worker at one of those frozen yogurt places where you pump your own yogurt and all they have to do is weight it and they still think their job is rough. I just don’t think people take Jennys seriously.”

Ted has been seeing Jenny since his last relationship ended nearly two years prior. She fruitlessly tries to engage him in discussions about his love life, which he describes as tedious and tiresome. It becomes clear that Ted isn’t seeing a therapist to analyze his dating; he’s there because he has to decide what to do about the octopus.

Rowley’s powers of imagination are what makes this book so distinctive. The story is inspired by the author’s relationship with his dog, who died of a brain tumor in 2013.

In interviews, Rowley has said that he began writing stories about his dog as a way to process his grief. Rowley is the current golden boy in the publishing world after landing a nearly $1 million advance from Simon & Schuster. This is almost unheard of for first-time authors, especially for a book that, according to the author, was going to be self-published before it was snatched up.

It turns out the money was well spent, because there is much to love in this book. The relationship between Ted and Lily is comical and tender. On Sunday nights, they eat pizza, Thursday nights, they talk about cute boys (“We get into long debates over the Ryans. I’m a Gosling man whereas she’s Reynold’s gal”), and Friday nights they play Monopoly.

The presence of the octopus, and the vet’s dismal prognosis, disrupts their routine. Ted immediately sinks into the first stage of grief, which is denial. Thus “octopus”; he does not use the word cancer.

More than half of the book is spent on Ted’s poignant memories of their life together.

“I think of how dogs are witnesses. How they are present for our most private moments, how they are there when we think of ourselves as alone. They witness our quarrels, our tears, our struggles, our fears and all of our secret behaviors that we have to hide from our fellow humans.”

Toward the second half of the book, Ted devises a desperate plan to save Lily’s life. He rents a boat and heads out into the ocean with Lily to kill the octopus.

The drama is amped up as man and dog sail into open water — and the realm of fantasy, requiring suspension of disbelief in a section I counted as my least favorite.

“I am becoming harder, meaner, wilder. I am becoming the octopus.” There is a storm and a battle and an eventual retreat home. In the end, it’s Jenny who offers the best analysis of the octopus and the cocoon it’s spun over Ted’s life. “They can be symbols of growth, of transformation, of metamorphosis.”

(Post and Courier, September, 206)

Review: ‘Siracusa’ by Delia Ephron a creative look at marriage

siracusaNot all couples are compatible traveling companions. Traveling requires a certain set of traits such as flexibility, curiosity and the ability to stay calm in moments of chaos. Even the strongest marriages can be strained with unexpected travel woes.

In Delia Ephron’s novel “Siracusa,” middle-age couple Michael and Lizzie set off for a vacation in Italy with friends Finn and Taylor. Chaos ensues and marriages are tested.

Ephron, a best-selling author and screenwriter, sets a story of infidelity and tragedy in the Sicilian coastal town of Siracusa.

The two couples are an unlikely match-up. Michael and Lizzie live in New York where he is a famous writer struggling with his next book and Lizzie is a free-spirited journalist. Finn, a restaurateur, and his wife, Taylor, live in Portland, Maine, with their 10-year-old daughter, Snow.

 Lizzie and Finn dated when they were in their 20s, and after running into each other on vacation with their families, the couples decide to travel together the following summer.

It’s quickly established that this is not a happy-ever-after travelogue.

“It’s been a year and some of us no longer speak,” Lizzie tells us in the opening chapter.

We begin at the end, with Lizzie reflecting on their trip, and the plot unfolds in alternating points of view. This technique allows us to get inside each character’s head, but it also reminds us of the subjective nature of opinions and observations. We wonder, who can we trust?

When they arrive in Italy for example, Lizzie thinks that Michael is distracted and cold because he’s struggling with his novel, when in fact we know that he’s in the midst of an affair with the waitress of their favorite restaurant back home.

“The book is like a lover, and it’s all my fault for taking you away from that lover,” Lizzie unknowingly tells Michael.

I cringed and could almost imagine Ephron sitting at her desk, laughing out loud as she plunged her characters into one delusion after another.

The women, with their conflicting personalities, are the most compelling characters. Lizzie is hot to Taylor’s cold. She is messy to Taylor’s clean. When Taylor pulls out a bottle of Purell, Lizzie can’t imagine being friends with someone who brings Purell on vacation.

“It reflects a constant awareness that the world is awash with bacteria.”

Upon their arrival in Siracusa, Lizzie describes the evening fondly. “Outdoor spotlights artfully placed made us and history look our most glowing. How beautiful we were. How beautiful everyone was …” while in the next chapter Taylor says, “Siracusa was tacky.”

Lizzie wanders aimlessly through the food market and describes Italian delicacies with gusto: “the gelatos in hues so alluring they might be shades of chiffon.” Taylor is stunning, sleek and sophisticated, and she drags her mysterious daughter from one historical venue to the next, checking them off her itinerary. The men, in comparison, come off as narcissistic and unsympathetic.

Ephron’s keen observations of human behaviors are the best part about this book. She’s written movies and plays with her late sister, Nora Ephron, including “You’ve Got Mail” and “Bewitched,” and dialogue is clearly one of her strengths. The scenes of the couples at dinner are some of the most engaging moments as they flirt with and frustrate one another. Ephron, however, is heavy-handed when it comes to dropping clues about the pending disaster. This Hansel-and-Gretel-like sprinkling of crumbs made me impatient.

We’re often told that it’s the journey that matters, not the destination, and that’s true here. This is a book about the complicated journey of marriage, and what happens when disaster strikes. Who do we stand by? Who do we protect? Early in the book, Ephron writes, “Marriage can’t protect you from heartbreak or the random cruelties and unfairness life deals out.”

She proves this theory by the book’s end.

(Post and Courier, September 4)

LaRose by Louise Erdrich, how do we forgive?

laroseIn Louise Erdrich’s latest novel “LaRose,” the relationship between two neighbors is forever changed when one accidently kills the other’s child in a hunting accident. The families have lived next to one another for years. The children are friends. The fathers are friends. The mothers are half sisters.

So how do the families move forward? How do they forgive? Forgiveness and reparation in Native American culture are questions that Erdrich, who is part Ojibwe, examines in “LaRose.”

Read the rest of my review in the Post and Courier.