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.

Author Peter Selgin says we are all Inventors

Selgin -- The Inventors cover

Who?

Author Peter Selgin believes we are all inventors. He says memory is fallible and that we invent ourselves intentionally or inadvertently. “We don’t have a faithful grasp of who we are and we base our identities on a blend of memory and mythology. Memories are about as reliable as myths. Like myths, they take on their own truths.” But what does it mean when our memory of someone (a father, a teacher) is different from reality? Selgin’s latest book “The Inventors” is a memoir that examines the lives of two men, his father and his 8th grade teacher, who were influential in his life. Each had a profound effect on his development, and it wasn’t until after their deaths that he discovered the significance of their inventions.

What? and Where?

Selgin began his career as an illustrator for noteworthy publications like The New Yorker and Gourmet magazine. He lived in New York City and spent years drawing caricatures at corporate events. “I sometimes can’t believe I abandoned painting for writing. Writing hurts,” Selgin says of his switch from visual art to storytelling. “Writing is more like hand-to-hand combat, while for me painting is playing with shapes, textures, and colors. With painting I couldn’t get to the heavier thoughts, the deeper emotions that I wanted to access.” A prolific writer, Selgin works across all genres and won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction for his collection “Drowning Lessons” in 2007. It was this award that brought him to the south, and in 2009 he moved from New York to Georgia College where he teaches Creative Writing in the MFA program. He tells his graduate students that all writers have one real story living inside of them and that many will tinker with the story for years before getting it right. “There’s something in us. We keep taking stabs at it. I’ve written about my father for years. Maybe this time I’ve got it,” he says of “The Inventors.” Referencing Tennessee Williams and Flannery O’Connor who wrote about the same subject for years, he says that writers want to create one work that will last.

Why?

Memoir writing has a different set of challenges, especially when it comes to accuracy, and Selgin says he wasn’t able to write about his father or his teacher until after their deaths. “After my father’s death a woman told me that he was Jewish,” he says. Selgin speculates that his father denied his Jewish background out of a fear of anti-Semitism and a deep love of British culture. His father was a brilliant inventor whose developments include the first machine for changing dollar bills to coins. His teacher’s motivations for reinventing his identity are less clear. Selgin’s research process involved tracking down the teacher’s sole surviving family member, reading old journals and letters, and hiring a genealogist. He did his due diligence, but contemplates the complexity of memory throughout his book. He writes, “What do we remember? What do we know? Are knowledge and memory the same? Just because we remember something, does that mean we know it? Is memory something that we possess, like knowledge, or is it something we do – an act?” Selgin is a twin and invited his brother, who often has vastly different memories of shared experiences, to write the Afterword. In it his brother writes that “The Inventors “is “a book about inventors whose inventions consist of myths they’ve spun about themselves. (…) But it is mostly about a third inventor, Peter himself, and his own creations, whose patent specification you are holding.”

“The Inventors” explores the different theories and psychology of memory, and writes that according to one theory “As soon as we stop remembering, just as the wind stops existing when it stops blowing, our memories cease to exist.” I remember when dementia started to steal my grandmother’s memories and in an attempt to push back against the inevitable, she wrote little notes and put them in an old jewelry box for safekeeping. I remember the fear in her eyes when she showed me her box of notes. Who was she if she couldn’t remember? In “The Inventors,” Selgin reminds readers about the infallibility of memory, and the power of invention.