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.

The Sea Wave: review

The Sea Wave (NetGalley)
Guernica Editions/University of Toronto Press

Although a short 140 pages, Rolli’s The Sea Wave moves in and out, back and forth between two oversized stories: that of a young severely handicapped girl and her kidnapper, an elderly man. The twelve-year-0ld cannot speak and is confined to a wheelchair, yet her understanding of the world around her is keen, her mind, sharp. The elderly man who kidnaps her communicates (if it can be called that) by telling the girl stories the sea waveof his time in a cell by the ocean. Whether it’s real or imagined is anybody’s guess–but since all Story includes some element of Truth, it soon becomes clear that the man’s time in that cell damaged him beyond repair.

So we get the girl’s description of their journey as he pushes her wheelchair through the countryside–a rough ride where she takes a few tumbles, faces the fear of being abandoned, and begins to feels the painful grip of hunger and thirst. But as she endures the ride, she recounts the isolation she felt at home, the shame she sees in her parent’s eyes when they look at her, the disgust on people’s faces when they encounter her. I’m guessing more than a few readers will cringe when the girl uncovers their own discomfort on meeting someone severely handicapped–and the irony is that we come to love this girl’s spunk, even as we understand we’d never get past her handicap to know her should we ever meet.

The Sea Wave is marketed as a flash fiction novel–and perhaps the man’s nightmarish recollections mirror the intense imagery for imagery’s sake of that short short-story form. But the girl’s narrative, while brief, is complete enough to stand as a novella. However you want to categorize it, Rolli’s The Sea Wave is a powerful read.

My Name is Lucy Barton (review)

My Name is Lucy Barton (NetGalley)
Elizabeth Strout
Random House

This thing we call ‘family’–those little rag tag bands of humans who make their way through life bumping into each other and bouncing off again, sometimes laughing, but often in tears–becomes more mysterious to me the older I get. Whenever I think I have family and my place in it figured out, Life tosses in a storm, and I’m trying to stay moored against its relentless push and name is lucy barton

Lucy Barton had a hell of a childhood. Poverty, mental illness, abuse–yet she’s managed (she thinks) to put it behind her and recreate a family in her own image. One with a stable husband, a house in a respectable neighborhood, and two delightful little girls. She’s even a budding writer. But when she spends several months in the hospital with a life-threatening infection, it’s just Lucy, the hospital bed, and the four walls of her room. It’s then that the memories, uninvited, try to wedge their way in. And when her mother comes to visit (for the first time in a dozen years, mind you), Lucy realizes that in order to heal, she must somehow reconcile her past with the present.

One of my favorite writers Ann Tyler, writes about the chaos of family life with honesty and open-hearted acceptance of its flaws. Elizabeth Strout looks at family with the same honesty, but also with painful tenderness. When I read Olive Kitteridge, I wasn’t exactly a fan–not because of the writing, which is lovely and evocative–but because Olive was just so … unlikable, I thought. I gave Strout another go with The Burgess Boys and wasn’t disappointed.

But My Name is Lucy Barton left me wanting  much more from this writer whose understanding of family is a heartbeat away from my own.

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.

Of tater tot casserole and wilted kale salad: Kitchens Of the Great Midwest (review)

Kitchens of the Great Midwest (Netgalley)
J. Ryan Stradal

Sometimes my husband and I play “Do you remember eating … ?” We both grew up in the Midwest and church supper casseroles and desserts, as well as our own moms’ cooking, provide plenty of fodder. Do you remember … Tater tot casserole? Chocolate éclair dessert (known in some circles as Better Than Sex!)? Fried bologna sandwiches? Tuna and noodles? Jello salads of all varieties? Mock chicken legs?

We’ve come a long way, baby, which is why “Do you remember eating … ?” is so much fun. Several Kitchens of the Great Midwestyears ago we went clean and local–or as local as one can be when the growing season is all of four or five months. We cut out (or tried to) anything packaged with ingredients we couldn’t pronounce. Five ingredients or less. We joined a CSA and found a source for meat that was humanly raised. Everything we were “supposed” to do. We like restaurants that are farm to table. You know, garlic ramps and kale and charred corn pudding. (You get the idea.) And don’t get me wrong—I think it’s more healthful and more responsible to eat this way. But sometimes my mouth waters for a good old-fashioned casserole with cream of mushroom soup and canned fried onions.

Ryan Stradal touches the worlds of both the church lady and the new foodie in his first novel Kitchens Of the Great Midwest. Lars Thorvald loved food—real food—and two women: his daughter and his wife. Raised in Duluth, Minnesota, he and his brother were charged with making the annual batch of lutefisk to sell to his father’s bakery customers during Advent. The memory of that odious task stirred Lars to seek out fresh tomatoes, basil, sweet corn—indeed, fresh everything–when he finally became a chef. Wife Cynthia loved wines and together they made a dynamic pair (or so Lars thought) at their small restaurant. When Cynthia becomes pregnant, Lars dreams of the foods he’ll cook for their little one and when he holds daughter Eva for the first time, “his heart melted over her like butter on warm bread.”

But tragedy strikes. Not once or even twice, but three times and Eva’s world is irrevocably changed. In grade school Eva discovers she is gifted at growing chiles, and, coincidentally, can also withstand the heat of even the most potent chiles. Money is tight at home—Eva comes from the other side of the tracks, kids think she is odd. She’s bullied. Gains confidence. Teenage Eva has an incredibly developed palate and starts to hang around restaurant kitchens. Stradal moves quickly through the years, leaping from Eva age eight to sixteen to twenty.

Then after three chapters centered on Eva, I was reading about some chick named Octavia, and Eva was merely a character in the background. I was confused. The next chapter was about a hunter named Jordy whose mother was dying and I was confused even more. Then a chapter on a church lady who won contests for her famous cookie bars …

I was frustrated. I flipped back through the pages. Did I miss a name? Did I miss a connection between Eva and these other people? I ended up deciding I liked the flavor of the plot, so I finally just gave up trying to figure out the structure of the novel, trying to force it into my notion of how a narrative should be composed—and the story came together like mashed potatoes and gravy. Or “wilted kale with sweet pepper jelly vinaigrette”.

In fact, I loved the way Kitchens was written so much, I just might go back for a second helping and read it again. You won’t be disappointed.