Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Light of Evening, Edna O'Brien




"That small transaction an instance of their small lives in their small houses and their small gardens, their hearts contracting day by day, visiting little malices on one another in lieu of their missed happiness."

-from The Light of Evening by  Edna O'Brien (First Mariner Books/Houghton Mifflin 2007)


Sunday Sentence is a weekly meme hosted by David Abrams over at The Quivering Pen.



Saturday, August 9, 2014

The Great Glass Sea - Josh Weil





The Great Glass Sea by Josh Weil (Grove Atlantic, 2014)

"From afar it glittered, the border between the mirror-lit world and the darkness of the one beyond, shimmered as if all the stars lost from view inside the city had been swept out to the edge in swaths of dust."
Russia, or a concept of Russia anyway, engages our imaginations in a fantastic way unlike many other geographic locations we can conceive of. We think of an old, agrarian Russia, with bitterly cold winters and never-ending dark nights, picturesque churches topped with onion-shaped domes, larger-than-life tsars and tsarinas and work-weathered peasants, folk tales and storytelling, music and dance; we envision the tension and deprivation of war years and the cold war; we wonder now about millionaires and booming capitalism and commercialism and corruption.

Josh Weil's The Great Glass Sea invokes all these images and then re-envisions a Russia - not exactly today's Russia, but rather an alternative Russia - perched right on the cusp between old and new. The cold, deprived landscape of old Russia is in the process of being transformed into a highly productive agricultural powerhouse with The Consortium's construction of the Oranzheria, a vast, constantly-expanding ceiling of glass spreading across the city and countryside that, combined with an equally vast network of mirrors, mean that endless night has turned into endless day. Two brothers, Dima and Yarik, are employed working on the Oranzheria, but while one is driven by a sense of responsibility to work, family and economic security, the other holds fast to a simpler dream of returning to the family farm. As the novel unfolds, their conflicting desires drive them apart and the reader is torn between nostalgia for a past way of life and the practicalities of the modern world.

I was eager to read The Great Glass Sea having so much enjoyed the author's striking collection of novellas, The New Valley a few years ago. From the charming, fairytale-like opening image of two young boys stranded, oarless, on a boat in the middle of a lake at night, I loved the premise of the novel. The Oranzheria itself is a captivating concept, and its outwardly-extending edge is brilliant as a moving border, provoking and reflecting the tense emotional borders between the brothers. I especially enjoyed Dima's - the dreamer brother's - unravelling of sorts - drawn to his idealism, frustrated by his self-imposed poverty, charmed by his deep love but poorly-executed care for his mother and beloved pet rooster. Like Yarik, I was a little less sure of the "why me" of the relationship between The Consortium's business leader and this more sensible brother, so that piece of the story felt a little weaker, though later revelations added an interesting, complicating layer to the brothers' conflict. Above all, the relationship between the brothers felt very real and compelling, and provided so much to consider about family, tradition, and the unforeseen consequences of modern humans' attempts to manipulate our environment. I must also mention the gorgeous cover and the beautiful interior artwork adorning the headings of each chapter, all of which perfectly add to the transporting quality of the novel. Recommended for readers who enjoy a stealthy, deep, sink-into-the-story-and-savor-the-ideas-and-some-great-writing kind of read.

If you would like to know more, I recommend Matt Bell's interview with the author over at The Brooklyn Rail.

Happy reading!

My copy of The Great Glass Sea came from my local public library.


Saturday, July 12, 2014

Uncle Anton's Atomic Bomb - Ian Woollen


Uncle Anton's Atomic Bomb by Ian Woollen (forthcoming from Coffeetown Press, September 2014)
"Ward fumbled for a cigarette. He knew that it was impossible for him to share this concern with her. He sat nervously lapsing into his Wangert stare. The stare contained something different now. In the ineffable, ageless way that passion can suddenly, out of the blue, infect a human heart, Ward Lynton Wangert had just fallen in love with Mary Grace Stark. Fortunately, he said the best possible thing that he could say to her at this moment. 

He said, 'Let's talk more about Chekhov.'"
And thus, in the early 1950's, on a train bound for a boat that will take Mary Grace Stark on a CIA-funded mission to Moscow, begins the charming and humorous story of Mary and Ward's lifetime together. Not long after she arrives in Moscow, Mary becomes pregnant under circumstances she declines to explain, and writes to Ward, imploring him to come to her rescue. He does, and they marry and raise this son, and subsequently two more, leading the lives of a typically American family in middle America, growing and changing over the decades along with the political and cultural changes of the American Zeitgeist.

Of course, the Wangerts are not entirely typical. He Who Shall Remain Classified, the CIA operative who first recruited Mary to Moscow, cannot relinquish his curiosity about Mary and the family, occasionally interacting with them and covertly influencing their lives. Ward, who has inherited the family public relations/lobbying business, finds he is not quite as suited to the work as his larger-than-life father was. Mary is forced to deal with her secrets, turning to psychotherapy and women's empowerment encounter groups. Anthony, their first-born, comes out just as AIDS is coming into the public awareness; another of their boys gets kicked out of prep school and pursues a more unplugged lifestyle. The family members grow together and grow apart, with the tense specter of the Cold War looming in the background, and we wonder if and how they will hold together.

Uncle Anton's Atomic Bomb is the second novel I have read by Ian Woollen (the first being Hoosier Life & Casualty), and I leaped at the opportunity to review it. As I expected, this is a delightful novel, with an eccentric but heartwarming cast of characters you cannot help but like - even our villain with the Voldemort-reminiscent name. I was also intrigued to learn, after reading the book, that Mary's story was in part based on the author's own mother's adventures in Moscow, and one can feel while reading that while the book is of course a fiction, that it is also very personal. The characters are warm and compelling, funny and easy to relate to as they struggle with finding their places in family and in the world at large, and Woollen tells their stories with wisdom, compassion and insight. Perhaps because there is such a lovely balance of humor, the stakes for each of them never seem too terribly high, and thus the story does not quite achieve the most dramatic of dramatic peaks. I found the book absorbing regardless, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Recommended for readers who love Americana, humor, quirky ensembles, and an engaging family saga.

Ian Woollen's first novel, Stakeout on Millennium Drive, won the 2006 Best Book of Indiana Fiction Award. His short fiction has been published in a variety of journals, including The Massachusetts Review, Juked,decomP, and The Mid-American Review, from which he received a Sherwood Anderson Prize. You can learn more about Uncle Anton's Atomic Bomb at Coffeetown Press's website.

My thanks to the publisher for a complimentary review copy of the novel.

Happy reading!

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Ruby - Cynthia Bond


Ruby by Cynthia Bond, Hogarth, 2014 

When Ruby Bell returned to her hometown of Liberty, Texas from New York City, she arrived well turned out, a striking beauty, poised and polished with city sophistication. But within weeks of reclaiming her family homestead, Ruby has become someone else entirely: filthy, incoherent, wild, seemingly possessed. The women in Liberty avoid her and the men take advantage of her, until Ephram, a gentle man and childhood friend, sets his mind to reaching out. This simple kindness of bringing cake becomes a radical act of love, opening up a long-lost place in Ruby's heart and setting loose a powerful storm in a community which has been silent witness and accomplice to generations of violence.

It is perhaps strange to describe a book containing so much cruelty - and the cruelty is very truly heartbreaking - as beautiful, but Ruby is an incredibly beautiful novel. With evocative descriptions and characterization, the author brings alive every detail of life in this small, southern town, from the landscape of its piney woods and Ruby's beloved chinaberry tree to the domestic responsibilities of housekeeping and the fine fingerwork of lace-making; from the rhythm of casual conversational banter, to the rigid observances and competitive jealousies of social hierarchy. The novel is also infused with the supernatural, slipping seamlessly between earthly and spirit realms, with both a fearsome Dyboรน and and Ruby's collection of fragile, tormented souls:
"The reaching pines knew that there were legions of spirits tromping through their woods, trapped in thick underbrush, bound beneath the crisscross of branches, in places...where the sunlight never hit the earth. Some were haints still hanging from the tree they'd been lynched on. Some let the wind roll them like tumbleweeds from one side of the woods to the other. Some were angry and smelled of burned candles, like the rolling dank shadow haunting Bell land, swollen with such hate that it bent the new saplings aside when it passed. It shifted the cush of brown needles and leaves beneath it."
Ruby unfolds with elegant suspense, peeling back through family histories, a town's secrets revealed layer by layer. With each chapter, Bond brings us deeply inside one of the town's many characters - each worthy of a story of his or her own - but it is in their connections that the true story emerges, and it is larger than any one of them. The novel explores race, gender and religious expectation and convention, rules and boundaries, and what happens when one dares to subvert them. The brutality in Ruby's story may be terrible, but there is also so much tenderness, and ultimately the novel celebrates the remarkable resilience of the human spirit. Powerful and moving, with striking writing to admire at every turn, I loved Ruby and highly recommend it.

My thanks to the publisher for a complimentary review copy of the novel.

Happy reading!


Sunday, June 22, 2014

Love and Legacy: When Women Were Birds - Terry Tempest Williams

Briefly noted.




When Terry Tempest Williams' mother passed away, she left behind, bequeathed to her daughter, an extensive collection of personal journals, assembled over a lifetime.

When Terry went to read them, she discovered they were, to a one, completely blank.

When Women Were Birds (Picador, 2012) is Terry's lovely and unusual memoir exploring the many questions invited by the gift of these unwritten diaries, a mother's legacy of love and support, and the journey to finding her own voice.

Less a chronological autobiography than a selective and poetic reflection on the connecting themes and threads of her own personal narrative, Williams' memoir is an inspiring read for women writers of all kinds. She tells the story of being an unconventional, free-spirited child and woman growing up in Utah's traditional Mormon culture, chafing against many of its expectations and conventions. Her love of nature, science, and environmental activism, along with her choice not to pursue a life of motherhood and child-raising, often set her at odds with her larger community. But the memoir is less about events themselves, and more about her inner journey - feeling at odds with the world around her, discerning her own calling, and the long bumpy path to living and writing in a voice she could finally claim as her own. I was moved by the deeply loving way in which she writes about her relationship with her mother, the honesty with which she confesses her own flaws, and the openness and determination with which she keeps learning and writing. And her words are simply beautiful.

Special thanks to Julianne at Outlandish Lit for this excellent and inspiring reading recommendation.
I purchased my copy of When Women Were Birds.

Happy reading!