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

When Breath Becomes Air

When Breath Becomes Air
Paul Kalanithi
Random House

when breath becomes airSo much has been written about Paul Kalanithi’s meditation on living and dying When Breath Becomes Air–reviews in every newspaper and magazine, a Super Soul short by Oprah, NPR interviews, a TED talk. What more could I possibly add?

Not much.

Kalanithi does with words what he did as a surgeon–takes two pieces seemingly torn apart and stitches them seamlessly together. As a surgeon he removed brain tumors and fixed broken spines, then sewed muscle to muscle and skin to skin so that the patient was once again all of a piece. As a writer he took an idea that frightens many–death–and connected his past and present, bringing the reader to understand that death does not separate us from our lives, but instead merely moves us along a kind of continuum. In her Ted Talk, Kalanithi’s widow, Lucy, recites the poem “Separation” by W. S. Merwin: Your absence has gone through me/Like thread through a needle/Everything I do is stitched with its color. I can only hope that it may be so for my loved ones.

Strange that I read When Breath Becomes Air only three days into my retirement. Such an event is frought with thoughts of mortality and life’s work and self-worth. I’ve most likely lived, at best, two-thirds of my life already. And I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t admit that some days that remaining slice of the pie seems terribly small.

I could also say that Kalanithi wasn’t so lucky.

Or I could say he was the luckiest man alive–because Paul Kalanithi experienced a marvelous grace that enabled him to live a good death.

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.