The Half Brother: review

The Half Brother
Holly LeCraw
Doubleday (2015)

Holly LeCraw’s novel The Half Brother is one of those family-with-a-secret-sagas and a story of forbidden love.

And then it becomes something more.

Charlie Garrett is the son of a single mother. The father he never knew died, ostensibly, in Vietnam. Then his mother married the wealthy Hugh Satterthwaite when he was ten, and life changed forever. Charlie went to a private school, moved into a big Tudor home in Atlanta, went to Harvard. And Nick came along–his cherished half-brother. Athletic, charming, and loved by all. So different from the bookish, self-conscious Charlie.

half brother

But Charlie does just fine after all. He graduates from Harvard and gets a job at the prestigious Abbott School, a prep school in Massachusetts. At twenty-two, as young men often do, he became besotted by the charismatic chaplain, Preston Bankhead. Charlie was drawn to Bankhead’s picture-perfect family: three blond boys, a pretty wife, a beautiful young daughter. The Bankhead’s lived in a rambling old home that bubbled over with life.

Until it didn’t.

Charlie finds himself pulled into the family’s drama. There’s a divorce. Cancer. Death. And an especially troubling? confusing? affair with that beautiful Bankhead daughter, May, nearly ten years Charlie’s junior. It is in the midst of that love affair, that a secret is revealed–one that would destroy May if she found out … and truth be told, nearly destroyed Charlie himself.

And what about Charlie’s half-brother, Nick? That golden boy. The humanitarian who, when he graduated Harvard, worked with NGOs in African and the Middle East–and who eventually came to teach with Charlie at the Abbott School. He, too, feels the pull of May Bankhead.

So you’ve got that. An intriguing family saga that is so well-written it just might be enough.

But for me, the beauty of The Half Brother was how finely writer Holly LeCraw drew her characters. We watch them turn those family secrets over and over, trying to make sense of them. Trying to squeeze out every last bit of the why and somehow still carrying on.

I’ve also not read a novel that so realistically caught the day-to-day of a teacher’s life–of the theatrics that take place in front of the class and the grind that takes place after. Of the multitude of actions and reactions a teacher must consider every waking moment.

LeCraw’s prose is lush, her description evocative. For the writerly, it is a joy to read.

And if you need a recommendation other than my own? I added the book to my wish list after hearing Nancy Pearl sing its praises on NPR’s Morning Edition way back in 2015. It was quite an under-the-radar list Pearl suggested that day–the same broadcast also gave me Etta and Otto and Russell and James and Unbecoming. Keepers all, dear readers. Keepers all.

Christmas now …

I feel as though I’ve finally come to terms with the holidays–something I struggled with for years, trying to make certain every present and plan was perfect-as-can-be and every family and friend was treated with the best Christmas gift ever … so grateful for the perspective that comes with the years. What I had always desired was inside me all along.


Christmas at Midlife
Mary Anne Perrone

I am no longer waiting for a special occasion; I burn the best candles on ordinary days.
I am no longer waiting for the house to be clean; I fill it with people who understand that even dust is Sacred.

I am no longer waiting for everyone to understand me; It’s just not their task
I am no longer waiting for the perfect children; my children have their own names that burn as brightly as any star.
I am no longer waiting for the other shoe to drop; It already did, and I survived.

I am no longer waiting for the time to be right; the time is always now.
I am no longer waiting for the mate who will complete me; I am grateful to be so warmly, tenderly held.
I am no longer waiting for a quiet moment; my heart can be stilled whenever it is called.
I am no longer waiting for the world to be at peace; I unclench my grasp and breathe peace in and out.

I am no longer waiting to do something great; being awake to carry my grain of sand is enough.
I am no longer waiting to be recognized; I know that I dance in a holy circle.
I am no longer waiting for Forgiveness. I believe, I Believe.

Educated: a memoir (review)

Educated: a memoir
Tara Westover
Random House (2018)

I used to try to get my high school students (at least once a year and usually when reading Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451) to think about the difference between ‘education’ and ‘schooling’. Most seemed to think that they were receiving an education in their daily classes. My contention was that they were getting their schooling. How they interacted and applied the ideas they learned, what they did with the information–now that was education. Too many people stop at schooling and call it education. And to be successful, I’m pretty certain you need both.

Tara Westover’s memoir Educated is as good as every review you might have read since its publication in February. The book was my book club’s December pick and while it made for great discussion I couldn’t help but wish that it was required reading for every young person. Because only after she got her schooling did Tara become educated–in knowledge and understanding, sure. But also in love and life and what it means to persevere.

Tara Westover grew up in a survivalist family on a mountain in Idaho. Her father dealt scrap metal, and her mother was a midwife and herbalist. An older brother called Shawn in the book (many first names were changed according to an introductory note) physically and verbally abused both of his sisters. Tara’s ‘homeschooling’ consisted of learning to read and basic arithmetic, but by the time she was seven or eight, she was working in the scrap yard or helping her mother bottle tinctures. Her father’s fear that government agents were always ready to strike meant that Tara had a to-go bag under her bed, ready to flee to the hills. She had nightmares about the Randy Weaver and the Ruby Ridge incident. Tara Westover was sometimes hungry. She was often lonely.

At an older brother’s urging, Tara began preparing her escape at age sixteen–her goal, at first, was simply to teach herself the content she would encounter on the ACT. After two tries, her scores were college ready and she was accepted to Brigham Young University.

She left. And to say her adjustment was difficult is an understatement.

Tara lived in an off campus with two other girls and had little idea that people didn’t leave rotting food and trash on the counters with dirty dishes; that people showered regularly; that when they did shower, they used soap. She also had huge gaps in her understanding of the world and its history. Thinking she would ask questions, joining class discussion like the other students, Tara asked a professor what the word ‘holocaust’ meant on a lecture slide. The silence in the lecture hall, as they say, was deafening. But seventeen-year-old Tara had never heard of the Jewish holocaust.

Tara Westover not only succeeded at BYU–she went on to earn her PhD from Trinity College, Cambridge. She is an articulate and intelligent and amazing woman (just check out the interview links below). But always, always in those first years away from the mountain, she was dogged by a feeling that she was undeserving. That she was fraud. A cloud of shame shadowed every success.

How does one come to terms with a past like that? By making peace? Or cutting ties to a destructive family? How does a young person learn her place the world when she doesn’t know basic life skills, let alone
history? Spoiler alert (but not really!): the secret is in education.


Check out these interview links with Tara Westover:

Fresh Air (38 min.) audio
AfterWord (1 hour) video

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.

Changing my tune on Whodunits: The Blue Kingfisher (review)

The Blue Kingfisher
Erica Wright
Polis Books (November 2018)

I’ve written a number times over the past ten years on This Is My Symphony of my dislike for mysteries and whodunits. Then I read one and rationalize that this particular title is an aberration–an outlier–a fluke. Except in the past two years, I’ve managed to read at least several. There was August Snow, The Bad Daughter, Girl Last Seen, Unbecoming, Girl Waits With Gun, and at least two Flavia DeLuce mysteries. (I also read a Tony Hillerman and John Grisham that I just never bothered to blog!)

*Cough* Methinks I do protest too much.

And now there’s another: The Blue Kingfisher by Erica Wright. The story begins with private detective Kathleen Stone out for a jog on a foggy morning along the Hudson River. Her destination is Jeffrey’s Hook Light, a place to clear her head because it brings back memories of her childhood when she had a bedroom decorated in a Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge theme. What wouldn’t have shown up in a little girl’s bedroom, though, is the dead body that Kate sees lying on the widow’s walk of the lighthouse. blue kingfisher

What’s worse? The body belongs to Tambo Campion, her apartment building maintenance man–he was quiet, kind, and hard-working, if not always timely. A jumper, the police say–but so out of character for the man Kate knew. (That, and Tambo missed the water.) And so begins her quest to find out the real story behind Tambo’s death.

We learn a lot about Kate as she tries to uncover Tambo’s story. As a cop she was a master of disguise and alter-egos, relying on Russian wig-maker Vondya and any number of personas to help her go incognito. She is Kat. Katya. Kacey. We know Kate once infiltrated drug lord Salvatore Magrelli’s inner circle in an effort to bring him down, but that her cover was blown and now she is hiding in plain sight, using disguises in an attempt to stay one step ahead of Magrelli’s henchmen.

Kate also learns that Tambo was a “un martin pescador”, a kingfisher–someone who found off-the-books jobs for immigrants. That a set of creepy looking masks line the walls of his bedroom. That the masks are a fertility totem. That a hidden compartment in each mask can hold  small pills. 

Could it be the masks that are the clue to Tambo’s death? Or was it his job as a kingfisher dodging immigration officers that put him at risk? Or maybe–somehow–Magrelli and Tambo are connected? Or are those tiny pills the key to his death? Kate gets a job at a Coney Island fishing tour boat company where Tambo secured jobs for illegals, hoping to get closer to the truth.  And in the manner of all whodunits, she does.

A testament to the strength of The Blue Kingfisher is that fact that, unbeknownst to me, the novel is actually the third Kat Stone novel–but it was compelling enough, with just enough backstory to stand on its own. Truth be told, I think I’ll go back and read the other two. Because here’s the deal. I think I like mysteries … I’m just very, very picky. No stale writing, no overblown tropes allowed.

And Erica Wright’s The Blue Kingfisher fits the bill.