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.

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.

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.”