The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley: review

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley (NetGalley)
Hannah Tinti
Dial Press
release date: March 28, 2017

The story opens with Samuel Hawley teaching his twelve-year-old daughter Loo how to shoot a rifle. While she knew not to touch tThe twelve lives of Samuel Hawleyhem, guns were part of the backdrop of her life, hidden all over the house and cleaned nightly at the kitchen table. Her father never left the house without one, and he was always “listening for something else … always watching. Always waiting.” So it probably shouldn’t surprise the reader to learn that those twelve lives referred to in the title parallel twelve bullet scars that Samuel carries.

For as long as she can remember, Loo (short for Louise) and her father have rarely stayed in one place longer than a few months. They’ve crisscrossed the country in his truck, settling down in hotels long enough for her to attend school, often picking up and moving on before the year is over. They live on ramen noodles and take-out Chinese, play card games at night. At each stop Loo unpacks her few belongings while Samuel sets up a shrine in the bathroom to her dead mother’s memory: a bottle of shampoo and conditioner on the edge of the bathtub; a lipstick and compact; a parking ticket, shopping list, and scribbled notes propped on the mirror. The “dead woman” we learn, “was an ever-present part of their lives.”

Samuel and Loo finally come to settle in Olympus, Massachusetts, her mother Lily’s hometown. A house in the woods, ocean fishing, grandmother nearby–it sounds almost idyllic after twelve years of gypsy living. But that grandmother won’t acknowledge Loo, and the girl is often in trouble at school. Samuel is shunned by the small town and at odds with more established fishermen. Alternating chapters between Loo’s present and Samuel’s past, writer Hannah Tinti uses the bullet scars to tell Samuel’s back-story. And it’s not a pretty one.

Since he was barely sixteen, Samuel has made his way in the world by stealing and killing. The loving father and grieving widower is a criminal on the run. (I tried to figure out a way to slant that fact–some way to tell the truth a little more gently–but there it is.) Samuel Hawley has delivered stolen goods and been a hit man. He’s a runner for mob types and has good reason for all those guns. It seems that criminals keep score.

Now I’ve never shot a gun, and I can hardly think of a situation in which I’d shoot one. I don’t like violent movies–even those that get critical acclaim. I’m a law-abiding school teacher. (How’s that for status quo?!) But I was riveted by The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley. Tinti created a character I loved, whose actions I despised … but maybe came to understand.

And as luck would have it, yesterday’s Weekend Edition on NPR featured an interview with the author that might also pique your bookish interest. Published this week, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley is an engaging read.

Magic Trash and the Heidleberg Project (Blogging from A-Z Challenge)

Today is day 13 of the Blogging from A to Z Challenge.  The challenge began with A on April 1 and continues the alphabet throughout theMagic Trash
month, except on Sundays. My theme for the month will be this blog’s tagline: life, books, and all things bookish, so you can expect a little bit of this ‘n that. I’m still reading, though, and I’ll add reviews whenever possible. Thirty days of blogging is a huge commitment for me, but I’m looking forward to meeting and greeting new blog friends.

Today’s word: Magic Trash


Take a peek back at “K”–remember when hubby and I took in a Tiger game on opening weekend? After we left in the 5th, I had a list of Top Ten Things To Do In Detroit all ready to go, links and everything on my phone. I came prepared, people! Now you might ask–Detroit? There’s things to do that would even approach a Top Ten list?

And yes, dear reader, there is.

Because Detroit is coming back–it’s a story on the Michigan Radio NPR station just about every day. And if it’s not yet “back”, Detroit is certainly trying. We found Historic Fort Wayne, a Civil War fort and home of the Tuskegee Airmen museum. Closed, sadly, until the end of April. We found Eastern Market, a urban farmer’s market that spills over into some of the surrounding neighborhood with foodie little Magic Trashshops and such. And we found  The Heidelberg Project. Now I’ve heard about the project for years (on Michigan Radio, of course!) and I’ve seen footage on TV news when it was vandalized by arson. Twice.

But you really must see it to believe it.

Heidelberg ProjectI found an incredible children’s book in the gift shop titled Magic Trash that tells the story of Tyree Guyton and his art. As a boy Guyton’s grandfather (a house painter) encouraged him to channel his extraordinary imagination by painting. Like many artists, Guyton was also a keen observer of the world around him. He saw his beloved East Side decline as neighbors left for the suburbs. He watched riots light the city on fire in the late sixties. And he got out of there. This is one children’s book I bought for myself–the illustrations are whimsical and some of the writing, poetry: “Brush greens and blues/On wheels and shoes/Slosh, slap, and splash magic trash”.

Heidelberg ProjectBut Guyton eventually came back to Grandpa Sam’s house and started to transform the ugliness around him into something beautiful. Now this is where is gets tricky because some would look at The Heidelberg Project and question, not exclaim, its beauty. (In fact, some believe that the arsons were, in fact, an attempt to destroy the Project–but art is eternal, no?) And I’m not an expert in contemporary art, so I may not be the best judge. But I do know that The Heidelberg Project is stunning, extraordinary, profound on some level I can’t quite explain. It is vibrant. Alive.

The Project’s mission states their goal is to, “inspire people to appreciate and use artistic The Yellow Houseexpression to enrich their lives and to improve the social and economic health of their greater community.” One neighbor took that goal to heart. The Yellow House allows guests to sign and date the siding–and has used the money to repair the house: new porch, siding and soffit repair. That’s enterprise–the Heidelberg philosophy in action. Lives enriched. Economic health of one family improved.

Tyree Guyton is an evangelist for his art and his city. At the end of this YouTube video, (which is a must-watch, by the way) Guyton says he believes Detroit will come back. That if he can do one little thing to help that happen, he’s done his job.

We’re planning a trip back this summer.

L: Madeleine L’Engle (Blogging from A-Z)

Today is day 12 of the Blogging from A to Z Challenge.  The challenge began with A on April 1 and continues the alphabet throughout theL
month, except on Sundays. My theme for the month will be this blog’s tagline: life, books, and all things bookish, so you can expect a little bit of this ‘n that. I’m still reading, though, and I’ll add reviews whenever possible. Thirty days of blogging is a huge commitment for me, but I’m looking forward to meeting and greeting new blog friends.

Today’s word: L’Engle


 Most readers come to Madeleine L’Engle through her Wrinkle in Time books. (At least that’s what I call them–L’Engle’s website lists the series as the Time Quintet). When my own children were of an age to read the books twenty years ago, they proved madeleine l'engle's booksa great entry into the world of science fiction and fantasy. (Here’s a great segment about Wrinkle on NPR’s All Things Considered about its appeal.) And believe it or not, Wrinkle in Time, published in 1962, was even popular when I was in grade school. But I didn’t read it.

I first came to Madeleine L’Engle through a series she wrote: The Crosswicks Journals. Part memoir, part spirituality, the books explore the writer’s life as a mother, wife, and writer. They are introspective and not at all preachy, dealing with caring for an aging relative, our need for solitude, marriage, and the role of the sacred in modern life. (In fact, writing this, I think I’ll return to the books this summer.)

After falling in love with the Crosswick Journals, I backtracked and read a few of the Wrinkle books, as well as Meet the Austins and Troubling a Star, titles I’d consider Young Adult. Even as an adult (a crossover!) I wasn’t disappointed with the ideas in books that were written ostensibly for younger readers.

In fact, I have a Wrinkle in Time and Swiftly Tilting Planet in my classroom library–and just yesterday, I had a young man check one out. He’s sixteen, mind you. A true testament to the endurance of a writer who cares about Ideas.

Short ‘n Sweet: Dear Committee Members (review)

Dear Committee Members
Julie Schumacher
Anchor Books

Jason Fitger has been an English professor for twenty-something years at a small university in the Midwest. He’s under pressure, overworked, and hardly appreciated. Writer Julie Schumacher tells the prof’s story through the letters he writes: a department head and dean here, fellowship and job recommendations there.

The tone of each letter varies according to Fitger’s feelings about the situation and the recipient. He might dear committee membermock a student’s request for a job recommendation to Avengers Paintball, for instance (“Mr. Trent received a C- in my expository writing class [which] is quite an accomplishment”); implore his editor to take a second look at a promising student’s work (“Accountant in a Bordello is a shattering reinterpretation of “Bartleby”); or rail against university bureaucrats for threatening to defund the creative writing program.

It’s the reader, really, who must unravel the plot (if there even is one in Dear) because our only perspective is Fitger’s–and truth be told, he’s not a very likable guy most of the time. “Irascible” and “curmudgeon” are two adjectives that come to mind.

I liked Dear Committee Members for it’s inventiveness–even the salutations and signatures mirrored the letters’ content–and I begrudgingly came to like  tolerate Jason Fitger. But the story sometimes seemed too much like an inside joke. It came highly recommended by NPR’s Maureen Corrigan (you can see her review here), although this is one (very rare!) time her plug failed me. However, nerdy high school English teacher that I am, I will be using a few of Fitger’s letters next year to teach my AP kids about tone.

So a mixed review from me*, but if you know someone emeshed in the politics of university life, this might be a winner.


*and in reading the reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, it’s clear my reservations are just me–although more than a few of those reviewers admitted to being college instructors.

Namaste, Ms. Elliott: Zen Under Fire (review)

Zen Under Fire 
by Marianne Elliott
Sourcebooks 2013

 Marianne Elliott documented human rights violations in Afghan prisons and police stations and trained local law enforcement officers and prosecutors about human rights and Afghan law. Her life, first in Kabul, and then in Herat, was one of contrasts. Rules and procedures narrowed her freedom: she needs a driver or security officer with her whenever she travels outside her UN guest house, she can’t walk alone on the streets, her dress and demeanor must at all times show respect for Afghan culture. But in countless other ways, Elliott’s circumstances open her to rich experiences: the camaraderie of UN and NGO workers from around the world, the priceless friendship of her Afghan co-workers, and the indelible mark the Afghans she served left on her heart. Sometimes frightened, often edgy, occasionally endangered, and always driven, Elliott struggles to maintain balance in her life–she knows that a shell-shocked, stressed out aid worker would be less than effective.

Before arriving in Kabul, Elliott practiced yoga and meditation in her native New Zealand, and she continues during her time in Afghanistan. At first, her practice is almost mechanical. Unnerved by a phone call or a meeting, she’d head to her mat, do some simple breathing exercises and several sun salutes. While the stressful situation was often the same, it was Elliott who was different. Yoga becomes both her refuge and strength: “Yoga is helping me little by little to trust my breath and my body, and to loosen my tight grip on control. I am starting to get glimpses of what yoga might be able to teach me …”

What I like so much about Zen Under Fire was the author’s transparency. As an American who only hears about aid workers on the news and has no experience with life in a war zone, it can be easy to elevate those who serve to sainthood. But Elliott struggles with jealousy and anger and helplessness
and self-doubt. Through fits and starts, she gives herself permission to sit with those feelings, acknowledging them instead of repressing them, and realizes “it is a kind of yoga, this approach. It is transforming my ability to be in the presence of profound suffering without closing my heart or leaping too quickly into action.” Maybe most important of all, she learns that sometimes it is more important to be a heartstrong woman than a headstrong one.

Yoga and meditation can sometimes seem like an “add-on” to our modern lives–something that might be nice to have, but certainly isn’t a necessity. But Marianne Elliott teaches us that living the mindful life allows us to experience the true depth and breadth this life has to offer. Even in a war zone.