Half, a review

Sharon Harrigan’s Half (University of Illinois Press) is the story of twins, Artis and Paula, born into a blue collar family in Michigan. They are raised by a domineering father whose nickname is Moose (he tells the girls that living in Alaska he rode moose, “steering with the antlers”) and a submissive mother who runs a daycare center out of their house (a house that “reeked of warm milk and pureed peas, diaper rash and ear infections”). As the girls come of age, Harrigan explores the issues of identity, gender, and power in a narrative that is deft, entertaining, and satisfying on a number of levels.

The girls tell their story in one voice. “We” is the dominant point of view. The reader is taken into the mysterious interior world of twins, one of the attractions of this novel. They are essentially two halves of the same person. But each, being only a half, raises the question, Do they ever become whole in the course of the novel? Do they have a life and identity, one apart from the other?

And, similarly, do they have a life and identity apart from their family? In Moose, Harrigan presents a character who personifies male power and brutality. The girls think: “We knew to keep our family secrets.” While their father tells them: “If you tell what happens in this house, you’ll be taken away and never see your mom again.” There is love in this home, but it is love that crushes. In the course of the novel Artis and Paula learn and acquire power from their father while they also become aware of power they discover in themselves, power that is singularly female in nature–the other half of the human creature.  

The story begins in the future, Christmas 2030, at Moose’s funeral. In the minutes after the church service, one of the father’s friends, named Wild Pete, says to the girls, “You’re the ones who killed him.” That charge launches this compelling story.  For the reader, the rewards that lie ahead are rich. Sharon Harrigan has written a wonderful novel.  

A Finch, a Bruce, a Burrata

“Your Bruce Jenner shirt,” my wife says, “is on the ironing board downstairs.”

It’s a Thursday morning in Coronavirus time. We’re having coffee in the kitchen. Later today I’ll go to the grocery store, an outing that used to occur daily. Now I go once a week, if that. For these trips, along with gloves and mask, I wear clothing I don’t care about, shirt and pants that might accidentally rub up against virus and will need to be washed right away. I’ll have to strip to my shorts in the garage before my wife lets me back in the house. 

“Look at those fatties,” I say, pointing to the goldfinches perched outside the kitchen window. “They’ve emptied the feeder again.” 

Continue reading “A Finch, a Bruce, a Burrata”

What It Might Feel Like to Hope, a review

Dorene O’Brien’s collection of short stories, What It Might Feel like to Hope, surprises and delights the reader on every page. Eleven stories, whose titles are irresistible invitations–”Eight Blind Dates Later,” “Tom Hanks Wants a Story,” “Pocket Philosopher”–take the reader into the lives of characters on the threshold of change.

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In “Turn of the Wind” a scientist specializing in crystallography, facing the onset of dementia, leaves the lab and builds weathervanes for a hobby. A weathervane, he says, “is a story on a stick,” it “offers beauty without the hope of anything more.”  Faith, the main character in “Falling Forward,” takes responsibility for her dysfunctional neighbor, Ed, “a creased and rumpled man with doom etched on his face.” She is alone, and he is alone but for a lizard named Little Richard who figures prominently in the story’s climax, which holds out the promise of “falling forward into a new life.”   

In “Honesty Above All Else,” along with the title of the story, O’Brien deploys a skilled writer’s second device for grabbing the reader, a smart first sentence: “I’ve never told anyone this story, and I’m only telling you now because Mrs. O’Leary is dead.” These first sentences aren’t just springboards; they’re catapults.  Like this, in “A Short Distance Behind Us”: “Braelynn and I have been operating at the intersection of I love you and Fuck off for the last year.”  And like this, in “Reaping: “Her hair was pulled up into a plastic bag, and red dye trickled down her face and neck as she stood on the front porch trembling.” And here, in “Little Birds”: “May told Dina to take the chair, or she’d regret it for the rest of her life.”  

Five of these stories are first person narrative, five are third person, and one, the Tom Hanks piece, subtitled “An Anatomy of a Tale” (it might also be subtitled “What It Might Feel like to Write”) is at times first, second, and third.  

Technically accomplished, emotionally taut, always captivating, these vivid stories are little worlds of conflict, pain, beauty, and hope. They are richly imagined and deeply satisfying.  Dorene O’Brien has written a truly beautiful book. 

 

Say What?

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Three times in the last week I’ve seen “welp” in print. Like this: “Welp, now O.J. Simpson thinks Carole Baskin from ‘Tiger King’ killed her husband.” 

And this: “Welp, I can die happy now. Chocolate cake stuffed inside this pup-cone!” 

This morning, I was scrolling through articles on Flipboard and saw this lead from a publication called Well and Good, an article by an anal surgeon:  “Welp, I hate to break it to you but [wiping] isn’t the best way to keep your butt clean.” 

What drew me to the article was the “welp.” 

Really. Continue reading “Say What?”

If This Is Shelter

I look over my shoulder at the clock on the oven, 11:19 a.m.  Not yet, I think. A few more minutes.

These are counting days. We count the deer we see on our morning walks, the orphan gloves dropped and lying at the edge of the sidewalk; the coyotes and vultures, one each yesterday. We count the days we’ve been sheltering in place, peruse the daily Covid-19 statistics in Michigan, in the US, and around the world. We open the fridge and count eggs. Continue reading “If This Is Shelter”

No Exit from Guyville

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“So sorry to hear of your loss,” I wrote. “We’ll be thinking of you guys.”

It was an email to friends ten years our senior, a couple who had recently lost a father 94 years old. Not to Coronavirus but to plain old old age. It was an ordinary passing–although no passing is ever really ordinary. I re-read the sentence, stuck on “you guys,” thought about it, then rewrote. “I understand you’ve had a death in the family. So very sorry.”

You guys? Really?  Continue reading “No Exit from Guyville”