Saturday, December 6, 2014

The End of the City - David Bendernagel

We were overseas when the Twin Towers fell, expatriates abroad, watching events unfold on television - at once heartbreaking, terrifying, and surreal. We were soon to return to a stunned and deeply grieving United States, a country which would change in ways we are even still comprehending. We were thirty-something with a newborn - our first- and among the flood of emotions called forth by the sad events of that day was the realization that this child would never know the world as it existed before 9/11. What shadow would this day cast over the lives of children - all children?

David Bendernagel shines some light on this question in his novel The End of the City (Pink Fish Press, 2013). Ben Moor is a teenager coming of age in the early 2000's, and we meet him not long after 9/11. He lives in Reston, Virginia, a planned community outside of Washington, D.C. (one of a handful of popular similar American communities, if I'm not mistaken) designed to balance residential development, commercial development and nature, to offer mixed income housing, and perhaps above all, to adhere to a consistent aesthetic throughout. It is a particular kind of idyllic suburban dream that creates - or attempts to create- a particular kind of idyllic childhood environment.

But as we know, even the most thoughtfully designed city cannot protect us from death, and neither can this community protect Ben Moor. In addition to the collective loss Americans experienced with 9/11, Ben has also experienced a more direct and personal loss, the death of his father. Ben's relationship with his father was complicated in life, and thus Ben's grief is complicated as well.

Enter the assassin - a delightfully noir-ish, black-suit-and-tied action-movie, comic-book character-style killer. He's a murderer for hire: the best of the best, taking down not only his marks but his professional rivals on his way to the top. But now he is also a target - possibly of his own mysterious organization - and must figure out how to survive. His story alternates with Ben's, as as the novel unfolds, we increasingly see that each is troubled by the growing presence of the other around the edges of their consciousnesses.

I was completely intrigued by this concept - a teen grappling with the awful reality of violence and death in real life, all the while seduced by the glamour of the same in the fiction of comic books and movies. Ben wrestles with the implications of violence - intentional violence, accidental violence, the smaller violences we perpetrate daily against each other - while figuring out just how to be a kid - a son, an athlete, a brother, a boyfriend. He masks his vulnerability with pop culture, sports, and sometimes substances, but as we see glimpses of it we cannot help but feel affected, and charmed. Ben is compelling in a Holden Caulfield-ish kind of way (smart, irreverent, out of place, wounded, a hero complex), the assassin both fun and complicated, and the story gave me plenty to consider. With the changing points of view and Ben's very stream-of-consciousness narration within chapters, as a reader, the chronological details of story line can occasionally be hard to get an exact handle on, though I found this didn't really matter in the overall scheme of things. It is chock-full of cultural references which often serve to anchor the story in the era and also within the worldview of a teenage boy - if you recognize the references easily, you will likely appreciate them - sometimes I did, and sometimes I didn't, and when not, I found they distracted me. But the story was original, refreshing, and thought-provoking, and the writing smart, often moving, and sometimes downright poetic. Recommended for literary fiction fans who secretly (or maybe not so secretly, or who maybe don't even know yet that they secretly) also enjoy a good comic book.

My thanks to the author for a complimentary review copy of The End of the City. You can learn more about David Bendernagel at

Happy reading!

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Secret Place, Tana French

- from The Secret Place, by Tana French  (Viking, 2014)

"You forget what it was like. You'd swear on your life you never will, but year by year it falls away. How your temperature ran off the mercury, your heart galloped flat-out and never needed to rest, everything was pitched on the edge of shattering glass. How wanting something was like dying of thirst. How your skin was too fine to keep out any of the million things flooding by; every color boiled bright enough to scald you, any second of any day could send you soaring or rip you to bloody shreds."
Ach. The magic and the rush and the bittersweet and the agony of adolescent friendships, with a touch of the supernatural and suspense doled out in perfect measure. Loved every moment.

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

I borrowed my copy of The Secret Place from my local library.

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!