Reviews

Love Songs for the Quarantined | The Girl From Charnelle | Last Call

Love Songs for the Quarantined

Tuscon Weekly

Can't Help It

A glance at the perfectly picked cover art for this new collection of short stories by K.L Cook will tell you what you're in for: It's "Orpheus and Eurydice," from a 1992 acrylic by Stephen Schultz. Picturing Eurydice following Orpheus up from the dark of Hades, it shows her gazing at him with trust, hope and love. They're almost into the light. Schultz has captured Orpheus, however, at the very moment when he's about to turn and look back. He clearly just can't help it.

Things, as you'll recall, don't work out so well for them.

In Love Songs for the Quarantined, Prescott resident Cook presents 16 finely wrought stories about the sublime and stumbling, the caring and cruel in romantic and family relations.

The collection is divided into four sections. While none of the stories repeats characters or situations, themes and characters' qualities are so similar that they begin to paint a familiar picture. Most of the protagonists are male. With the exception of those in Part III, the characters are working-class. They live in dusty parts of Texas or Oklahoma. Their examined relationships are with wives, mothers, siblings, uncles, stepfathers. Some have issues with alcohol. Some have issues with anger. Some beat their wives, then beg forgiveness. Some are children helplessly listening to the beatings. To one degree or another, most just can't help it.

The book opens with an award-winning period piece seemingly unrelated to the rest of the collection. But "Bonnie and Clyde in the Backyard" introduces themes that recur: emotional ambivalence; and a secret longing or capacity for violence, shame or guilt. Cook sets up the improbable—but engaging—situation of outlaws Bonnie and Clyde dropping in to visit distant cousins. The point-of view character is a 13-year-old who's quit school because his father is dying. The boy and his father have been riveted to accounts of the gang's exploits, and this visit provides a guilty pleasure. In a moment of epiphany, the boy realizes that his father and their infamous cousin have both been eluding "forces determined to kill them off." That, naturally, can't last.

In the second section, the central characters are also young or adolescent, and Cook sympathetically raises with them themes of betrayal, guilt and abuse. In a series of ministories, the primary relationship is boys and their mothers, but an appealing exception is "Chalkdust on a Dress." It's a crush-on-a-teacher piece in which the object of the crush goes from being the lovely "Miss Downey" to the unlovely "Mrs. Subotnick": "The poetry's all gone," the narrator muses regretfully, "And that's how love goes."

Looking at the book through parts I, II and IV, you could call it a sensitive, well-crafted literary work, reflective of a sort of hopelessness and male rage spawned from diminishing economic opportunity and fluctuating gender expectations. But Part III blasts that stuffy characterization right out of the water.

Although central characters vary, the stories in Part III read like the tale of a single young family. Characters are professionals. Although they might be anxious, they don't beat their wives. They have a sense of humor. They face tragedy clear-eyed. This is the warm "Love Song" part of Love Songs for the Quarantined.

The stories are arranged chronologically. Grad school. An affecting but not cloying "First Birth." A child dies. The central character frets about bills and masculinity in "What They Didn't Tell You About the Vasectomy." In the title piece, a young family is isolated by an old-fashioned contagion—whooping cough.

But the story that could alone justify the price of admission to this work is a one-sentence, two-page piece that first appeared in Harvard Review.

"Orchestration" is a stream-of-consciousness, music-infused paean to the frustrations, pain and joys of raising children: "... so I want to sing an unending song to those years," says Cook's narrator, "and not just a light melodic 'My Cup Runneth Over With Love,' but also a hard-driving blues number with a too-loud drumbeat ... and ... the rock and roll of sleepless nights and ... boulder breasts ... and brassy blare of ... this home of thick and chaotic love." This is rich, memorable stuff.

By the end of the book, some character types and themes feel repetitive (beware of charming red-headed guys, ladies), but that can be the nature of "collected works," and barely deserves a quibble.

Love Songs for the Quarantined is what "happily ever after" looks like in the real, contemporary world. And it's definitely worth the look.

~ Christine Wald-Hopkins

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Southwestern American Literature

The protagonist in “A Nova, A Secret, An Eyelash, A Snoring Man” best illustrates the essence of K. L. Cook’s new story cycle, Love Songs of the Quarantined.  A sixteen-year-old boy and his mother drink shots of tequila, and at two in the morning, she persuades him to steal cases of liquor, load them into a stolen Trans Am, speed down the interstate at 110 mph, and lurch into an alley to hide from the police.  As the siren blares past, her wig askew, “one of her eyelashes plastered to her cheek like an insect,” she smiles big enough for him “to see lipstick smudged on two of her top teeth” and says, “Now that’s what I call fun.”  Cook’s ride through family life’s thrills, wrecks, and side roads is a trip so engrossing, it should be illegal.

In a blog on the Spalding University Brief-Residency MFA Program site, Cook explains his intentions.  Quarantined, he says, is about “the unexpected transformations in our lives, how we embrace or resist isolation and solitude, how we become quarantined, or more often, quarantine ourselves…[and] the ways we console one another and ourselves in times of grief, the ways we find not just solace but pleasure.”  His inspirations are Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Pet Dog” and Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” both love songs about “joy and resiliency in the face of suffering.”
Cook teaches at Prescott College in Arizona as well as Spalding’s MFA program, but he grew up in Texas towns like Dumas, Childress, Temple, Dallas, and Houston, settings for most of his sixteen stories.  Divided into four sections, the book is about relationships between cousins, brothers, uncles and nephews, husbands and wives, sons and stepfathers, sons and fathers, sons and mothers, a boy and his teacher.  Forms include long stories, short stories, historical fiction, sudden fiction, flash fiction, and experimental prose.  In an interview, Cook admits that some pieces, such as the aforementioned joyride with his mother, were originally published as autobiographical essays, others as prose poems.  Five retell, revise, extend, or expand aspects of his first books, Last Call and The Girl from Charnelle.  Besides Cook’s mother, his grandfather, uncles, wife and four children serve as character models and plot sources.

In spite of one female protagonist, Quarantined is a man’s perspective on family relationships.  Think: Larry McMurtry’s The Last Picture Show.  Topics include Bonnie and Clyde, a Texas Longhorns game in the Cotton Bowl, a boy’s crush on his teacher, an uncle’s suicide, a violent stepfather, teenage boys sinking a car in a lake, a man and his wife hearing the upstairs couple having sex, a husband’s participation during his son’s birth, a man having a vasectomy, a family quarantined with whooping cough, an abusive husband’s murder, and a brother’s suicide.
They’re not exactly country and western love songs, but they come close.  In fact, the narrator in “Relative Peace,” wonders if he’s transformed his brother’s suicide into “a cry-in-your-beer ballad, a song to be accompanied by a steel guitar and whining fiddle, a simple refrain about the lonely, lovesick melancholy of the contemporary redneck.”  He admits he wants “the event to be this simple and manageable…to stake my words around it, cage it for myself so that it would make sense, would shrink into fact, into something static and confined and safe.”  This recognition of his impulse to identify the tragedy as “white trash and pathetic” is what moves the fiction into the realm of literature.  The other stories also raise their tragic or euphoric events to complex emotional reactions to those events.  The book’s psychological depth is reflected in its epigraph from T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”: “Let us go then, you and I/ When the evening is spread out against the sky/ Like a patient etherized upon a table…”

Cook’s first story cycle won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize, his novel won the Willa Award for Contemporary Fiction and an Editor’s Choice selection from the Historical Novel Society, and Love Songs for the Quarantined won the Spokane Prize for Short Fiction.  Cook is a scholar and specialist of the cycle form, so it’s no surprise that Quarantined contains outstanding stories, such as “Bad Weather,” “Love Songs for the Quarantined,” “Filament,” and “Relative Peace.”  But the best is “Bonnie and Clyde in the Backyard,” which was originally published in Glimmer Train Stories, was reprinted in The Best of the West 2011: Stories from the Wide Side of the Missouri (University of Texas Press) and won the 2011 Spur Award for Best Short Story from the Western Writers of America.

The narrator is a grandfather looking back to when he was thirteen and quit school to help his mother take care of his father, Zachary, who was dying of a brain tumor.  One afternoon, Zachary’s cousin, Clyde Barrow and his wife, Bonnie, come to visit.  “I’m your dad’s kin,” Clyde says.  “Me and him go way back.  You’re my cousin, thrice removed,” he adds…”Pleased to meet ya, cuz.”  Besides a convincing peek into the life of a notorious killer and bank robber, this is a poignant confession, a philosophical riff on the value of money, and a tribute to the narrator’s dignified mother.  Stylistically, Cook’s manipulation of time, a technique used in this and several other stories, enlarges the meanings, like the cumulative effect of serendipitous experiences, like the dancehall echo of a country love song.

~Nan Cuba, Southwestern American Literature (Vol. 37, No. 1, Fall 2011)

Visit Nan Cuba's Website

Trajectory

K. L. Cook’s most recent book, Love Songs For The Quarantined, winner of the 2010 Spokane Prize for Short Fiction, realistically probes the pain of lost dreams. These 16 stories sing of promises we make, not only to significant people in our lives (spouses, children, siblings, parents, and friends), but also to ourselves. The collection of stories examines the woven strands between people, as they negotiate those promises, betray them, and keep them, even when keeping them has the probable outcome of destroying aspirations.

From the opening story, “Bonnie and Clyde in the Backyard” to the final story “Relative Peace,” Cook’s stories explore the power of longing for family love that eludes, and the long-term shame these narrators live with, as a result of all the subtle betrayals of those they love and those they should love. While the first story seems to be out of time with the other 15 stories, a careful rereading suggests that unity of theme, the ambiguity of strained relationships, is the glue that holds the collection together throughout. Whether the strain comes from a sick or dying child, an unspoken lie, or animosity between brothers, fine, thread-like strands, filaments, connect family as surely as muscle, bone and DNA.

For example, that theme of strained relationships, tenuously bound with toxic ties, drives the powerful story, “Filament” in which a sliver of metal in Blue Simpson’s eye drives his downward spiral. The first paragraph of this masterfully crafted story tells the reader everything, except the how and then what, in a way that resonates with readers.

Filament, a term used in biology to describe linked protein structures, provides form and substance to tissue. It is also used to denote part of the male part of a flower, the stamen. These stories ring with the masculine voice, even when masterfully using full-blown omniscience or second person voices. The ‘masculine’ voice here sings of the body in second person stories like “What They Didn’t Tell You About A Vasectomy,” giving this story and others, a view of the inner world of the modern family-oriented male. In this story the narrator, who has agreed with his wife’s decision to have no more children, betrays her trust by withholding information about his elevated sperm count.

“You hover above your wife. A glistening thread connects you to her, and you watch for a second as it stretches between you both, an ordinary miracle. You imagine, in that split-second, the contents of the luminous thread under a microscope, millions of tadpoles swimming in thin milk, their tails wriggling frantically. Alive.

“Go, you think. Go!”

The story “Orchestration” sings of the joys, and the heartbreaking, mind-numbing chaos of family life with small children. The male voice sings of family with the aching thrum of a blues singer. It’s an amazing two page, one-sentence song that first appeared in Harvard Review. Such is the power of these complex links that structure a family.

Long chains of thread-like protein connect end-to-end in these stories, like those found in hair and muscle. And in these Love Songs for the Quarantined, fine shimmering threads connect families in love and betrayal, and to the subsequent joy, grief and guilt that is inherent in familial relationships.

~Jan Bowman

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The Girl From Charnelle

Library Journal (starred review)

What is the value of a secret life? This question both intrigues and haunts Laura Tate, 16 years old and already baffled by the adults around her. It is 1960, a year and a half since her mother mysteriously boarded a bus and left their small town of Charnelle, TX, and Laura still doesn't know why. It isn't until she becoms involved with a married man that she understands the power of having a secret life. As she tries to negotiate her way through her conflicting feelings of guilt and desire, she realizes that adulthood is full of paradoxes with which she's not yet ready to deal. Set against the backdrop of an emotional election and the start of a tumultuous decade, this atypical coming-of-age story from Cook considers more than a young girl's erotic and emotional awakening; it's the story of an entire generation growing up too quickly. The story may start quietly, but it's deceptively simple premise builds to a tense situation that makes this debut impossible to put down until the dramatic and realistic conclusion. Highly recommended for all public libraries.

Booklist

Cook's debut novel drives itself into the reader's consciousness much like the sudden, violent thunderstorms that sweep across the plains of the Texas Panhandle.... Cook deftly explores the mind of this girl on the the brink of womanhood as she is drawn into the affair. Laura tentatively explores her awakening sexuality as well as her intellectual curiosity of the world beyond Charnelle while coming to terms with the inner turmoil and lingering pain of her mother's abrupt departure. Cook's depiction of the optimism of the new decade of the 1960s contrasts effectively with the bleak landscape of the arid Texas High Plains. A deeply thoughtful and honest rendering of the unanswered questions of relationships and the nature of love.

Kirkus Reviews

Cook's narrative lens captures it all.... The story builds to a satisfying climax, and the affair's conclusion is both surprising and definitive. But what is most impressive is Cook's fair and probing treatment of the couple's ever-evolving power dynamics.... A strong, complex story from a promising new literary voice.

Publishers Weekly

For his first novel, Cook revists the Tate family of Charnelle, Texas, a panhandle town, from his collection of linked short stories, Last Call... The author closely observes the affair [between Laura Tate and John Letig]: the physical pain of Laura's sexual initiation, the power shift between them once Laura understands her allure, the irresistible pull of desire.... The climactic confrontation is a welcome narrative infusion.

Entertainment Weekly

In the early-'60s Texas of Cook's resonant first novel, people don't talk much about the whys of things: why a woman suddenly walks out on her husband and five children or why her 16-year-old daughter, too wounded to grieve, enters into a clandestine affair with a married friend of the family. Soon, though, the reader recognizes the recurrent themes of motherhood and madness, the power of shame, and abandonment as a compulsive search for self.... In disturbing scenes like one in which a mama dog kills her puppies, he adroitly reveals an average family's devastating potential for violence.

~Alanna Nash

2006 Southwest Books of the Year

Cook...has written a pitch-perfect coming-of-age novel set in a small Texas Panhandle town during the waning days of the Eisenhower administration. A sixteen-year-old girl, haunted by her mother's inexplicable disappearance, begins an affair with a married man twice her age. With remarkable insight and sensibility, Cook lays bare the cords of love and loss, yearning and redemption, that surround the human heart. This is a spellbinding read

~Bruce Dinges

The Houston Chronicle

The ghost of the absent mother hovers over the narrative like a mystery waiting to be solved and adds frisson to the actions and motives of the daughter. A tragic accident and a blistering confrontation with the aggrieved wife make this more than a coming-of-age novel of a young girl; rather, it is the record of the traumatic explosion of a childhood into pain and bittersweet, adult knowledge.... It's often said that the ultimate test of a male novelist lies in his ability to faithfully and compellingly portray the inner, emotional life of a woman and that only the greats like Tolstoy, Flaubert and James can pull it off. Cook pulls it off admirably. His portrait of Laura is compelling, deft, delicate and as gritty and honest as a West Texas sandstorm. The language throughout is fresh, accurate and literate without being pretentious. This is a marvelously written and well-paced, deeply affecting first novel that ought to bring the writer several more awards. That he is a Texan writing tellingly about other Texans ought to send all those who care about our nascent state literature rushing to the bookstores.

~Daniel Rifenburgh

Historical Novel Society (Editor's Choice Selection)

Cook effectively immerses his audience in the 1960s Texas Panhandle, describing the effect of historical events on his characters and using elements of the terrain to enhance his story: the female characters’ interest in all things Jackie, the frustration of Texans when the young Jack Kennedy is running for president instead of Texas’ own LBJ, and the relief of swimming in the cool waters of Lake Meredith. The book is fast-paced for an introspective novel, and the complex feelings of the characters make it hard to put down. It is difficult to avoid the natural discomfort felt when a 30-year-old man is having an affair with a minor, but this discomfort enhances the reader’s empathy for the main character. The whole is a poignant story of a young woman who must grow up too quickly. This first novel is a literary work of art.

~Nan Curnutt

School Library Journal (2006 Best Adult Book for High School Students)

This is a brilliant depiction of the coming of age of a sensitive protagonist who aches for new experiences, is open to new ideas, and longs for answers to family secrets, but it is more than a bildungsroman. The Texas town, its inhabitants, its climate, and the national events of the 1960s all impact Laura's story and result in emotionally charged scenes with vivid writing.

~Jackie Gropman

Mississippi Press/Gulf Coast Live (Selected as a Best Book of the Year)

If you have ever been a little girl, if you have ever loved a little girl, you will love The Girl from Charnelle. When barely old enough for high school, Laura Tate is forced to assume the mother role for her family. She does so with all the dignity and strength a young girl can muster.... The reader will find themselves falling in love with Laura, pulling for her and hoping she's doing OK, long after the last page is read and the book is closed. This is K.L. Cook's first novel. He has written a collection of linked stories, Last Call. If the short stories have half as much insight and depth as this novel, one would be remiss not to read it as well. The Girl from Charnelle is about grace, tragedy and motherless children who assume adult roles. Themes which are all too common. Moviemakers and those who nominate novels for prizes should sit up and take notice. The Girl from Charnelle is a hit. A big hit.

~Reba J. McMellon

Strand Books

With his debut novel The Girl from Charnelle, K.L. Cook gives his readers a gut-wrenching picture of a young woman dealing with the tormented repercussions of love.... The Girl from Charnelle is an unforgettable first novel from a strong, assured new voice in American literature.

 

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Last Call

Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)

A remarkably accomplished first collection covers 32 years in the life of a fragmented West Texas family. The first four stories ("Easter Weekend," "Nature's Way," "Gone," and "Thrumming") unfold during a few months in 1958. Laura, 14, has an older sister who has recently eloped, an older brother, and two younger brothers. Her father is away for days at a time working in Amarillo, and her mother is restless in a way only Laura seems to notice. The two family dogs, Fay Wray and her daughter Greta, provide some of the more vivid images, particularly when Greta runs off and comes back badly wounded, then gives birth to a litter. Still wild from her own damage, she shreds them with her teeth. Within weeks, Laura's mother runs off, leaving her children without a backward glance. The rest of the volume follows the damaged siblings as they grow older and have children of their own. The exquisite title story is told from the point of view of older sister Gloria's son Travis, who works with her at a bar...after her husband and other son have been killed in a car wreck and her daughter is pregnant with a girl who dies at birth. Travis is both tender and tough as he struggles to protect his mother with wisdom beyond his years. In a stunning feat of telescoping, Cook gives us some later years of estrangement and reconciliation in a matter of a few heartbreaking paragraphs.... Cook is subtle as he illuminates the fragile connections between men and women. A family's tragic trajectory viewed through the kaleidoscope of time in stories that make an immensely satisfying whole.

Booklist

They're like something out of a country-and-western song, these Tates of West Texas, what with their good women and bad dogs, bad luck and good honky-tonks. But that's where the song lyric cliche comparison ends. In Cook's hands, the series of linked stories introducing the Tates fairly thrums with keen insight born of uncommon wisdom and unwavering compassion for his characters. From the newly eloped oldest sister to the youngest still in his crib, we meet nearly everyone we need to know in the first of four sections, and the signature events both subtly and powerfully foreshadow what will be revealed in subsequent tales. As each of the Tates takes his or her turn in the spotlight, we come to know a family shaken by violence, overcome by sorrow, and, most of all, driven by a palpable longing for something or someone always just out of reach. Cook's debut collection is a breathtakingly haunting and magical tapestry of human emotions.

~ Carol Haggas

Library Journal

Cook's debut short story cycle deftly chronicles the often fractious and brutal lives of the Tates of West Texas, who are indelibly scarred when the family matriarch clandestinely boards a bus one morning, never to return. . . . Although the stories are generally harsh and unforgiving, Cook transforms these attributes into a kind of grace. Recommended for most public libraries.

~ Kevin Greczek 

San Antonio Express-News

K.L. Cook's debut collection of linked stories, Last Call, won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize, and no wonder: Like the characters and their lives, Cook's writing is ruthless and tender, complex and focused, sad as well as funny. In other words, his book is an engaging reflection of the human condition...From honky-tonk to lyricism, music lives in these stories...and so does wisdom and love tough enough to get kicked but keep getting back up. K. L. Cook's Last Call is a close look at a big-hearted, blundering Texas family. Move over, McMurtry.

~ Nan Cuba

Tucson Weekly

K. L. Cook's Last Call captures the bittersweet dysfunction of the everyday like a Bob Wills tune, sweetness shining in the rhythm of Cook's carefully juxtaposed stories. And while family rifts and arguments form the overarching theme of Last Call--elements we humans can easily overdose on--it is well worth the read.

Written through a series of interlocking stories and a variety of perspectives, Last Call features humor and sympathy carefully woven throughout. Cook advances the book chronologically from a bleak beginning to an emotionally fraught end, and seems to almost effortlessly command the tone of voice as he buttresses the story of a son visiting his father in Las Vegas against a mother's rediscovery of love.

These stories demonstrate that what we often see as abnormal behaviors are actually the backbone of human nature--the man who doesn't know how to trust; the woman who's heard it all before; the jaded child who stands in the dark as adults fight and make up in a ritual passed down through generations within a West Texas family.

The stories span 32 years and are divided into four parts. In Part I, Gloria, Manny, Laura, Gene and Rich are young children. Their father is unable to hold a steady job, and their mother--following an argument about the treatment of a dog in heat--leaves without a word. Just a girl, Laura tends to her younger brothers and imagines what happened to her older sister, Gloria, who eloped and ran away. She witnesses her father's first romance with a younger woman and discovers a fundamental change in herself and her perception of the adult world. "It seemed so small, this place, too small to contain all their lives."

As adults in Part II, Laura's little brother, Gene, begs his estranged wife to come back to him, despite the fact that he often was abusive; Gloria's son, Travis, describes his life as a bartender at the Texas Moon and details the fate of his run-away mother; and the youngest brother, Rich, returns to his wife and their old trailer only to find that the dreams he'd harbored of reconciliation are the farthest thing from her mind. The stories of Part II define the siblings as they hit middle age--angry, lost and uncertain of which way they should turn, but satisfied so long as a fist isn't approaching, and the drinks are cheap.

Part III focuses on Laura's relationships as seen through the eyes of her son, Lee. Lee's father is an entrepreneur, but one who's more shady than savvy; gangs, organized crime figures and double-dealers periodically appear on the family's doorstep. Meanwhile, Laura repeatedly picks men who look like Lee's father and who abuse her, putting Lee in awkward situations as both defender and witness. Lee's thoughts begin to parallel those his mother had as a child--"He and my mother were not the same people they were when they were married. This idea of not being who you set out to be or even who you think you are startled me then, made me wonder if I had any inkling who I was, if in 20 years I would look back at this time and not recognize myself or, worse, not care. If, like a snake, or some molting insect, I would outgrow this person and become someone different."

Laura narrates the last story, giving the book a sense of finality, though the characters will continue on, making bad decisions about their lives and emotional demands on each other. All the stories question what it means to be human and examine the part that hate plays in loving each other.

...In Last Call, Cook pulls together just enough detail from each perspective to make his readers want more. The stories themselves are much like the hard lives of people we know and meet daily, but Last Call has wrapped them into a brilliant puzzle that manages to permeate feelings of desperation and dull despair with a sense of hope--the notion that just one good decision or one kind word might be enough to make things work out.

~Julie Madsen

The Dallas Morning News

On a manifest level, the tales chronicle the lives of three generations of a West Texas blue-collar family. These folks and their children and their kin dream and drink and dance with their mates and fight and make love and fight some more and get separated and divorced and remarried. The implication is that this turmoil is all preordained and cannot be changed. But in this artful book...the reader is in on the secret.... Last Call does, in fact, reflect a world of hard knocks—but hope fights hard for equal time.

Foreword Magazine

In these stories, betrayal is a prominent theme, and Cook understands well that the distinction between faithlessness and opportunism is often a matter of pure chance.... In spare, unornamented prose, Cook writes about spare, unornamented people. These are stories about boozers, petty gamblers, con artists, and perpetual victims set in honky-tonks, dirt farms, and trailer parks, a world where a good night means making it home with somebody next to you—perhaps even your own spouse—without rolling the car on its roof along the way.

Southwest Book Views

Linked short stories sometimes mask an author's inability to construct a fluid novel, but that is not true of Last Call. Not only does Cook follow the sad, contorted trajectory of one extended West Texas family, but he bounces delicately from first to third, female to male, good intentions to ruin. The emotional depth laces the discrete voices together. It is no surprise this book won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction.... For readers not inclined to weighty—albeit beautifully written—family angst, pick up this book for the scariest encounter with a vicious dog I have ever read.

Rain Taxi

The book quietly explores the question of nature versus nurture, raising concerns that tug at the reader's mind...:what constitutes a family, when you right down to it? At what point is standing by our brethren too much to ask? What are the limits of family loyalty, and why, if we're so different, are we all stuck...together?.... Quizzically touching and genuine, Cook invites us to enjoy whatever happiness we find, just as his ever-unsuspecting characters do. When we put down the book, we consider our own warped and accidental famililial connections and wonder for what strange and beautiful misfortune our children's children might blame us.

Arts & Letters: Journal of Contemporary Culture

Those in Last Call learn the most by witnessing their parents' follies; the realization that the parents and siblings they admire make mistakes just as they do, and their eternal struggle to cling to their faith in those they love is the thread that binds these stories together. Cook's voice is tender and graceful, often tempered with humor and a hint of sly reflection, and resonates long after the stories end.

The Colorado Review

Cook understands the intersection between coincidence and insight, and he demonstrates a flair for picking out those random and nonsensical moments—a lightning strike, the return of a vicious dog—that, when paired with a narrator's retrospect, create meaning.... Whether looking forward or back, Cook's narrators know how to read the fringes of their world: they are detectives picking up clues that confirm what they, at heart, already knew, and they use the retrospective lens to add a bit of poeticism to their otherwise stark, tough lives.... though independent of the others, each story is relevant enough to the collection's central themes that an unspoken back story lingers, and...a history is built that mimics that of the family it portrays: fragmented and drifting, yet tenuously anchored to a larger whole.

 

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