Sunday, December 28, 2014

Fog Island Mountains - Michelle Bailat-Jones

I am only halfway through Michelle Bailat-Jones' beautiful Fog Island Mountains (Tantor Media, 2014), and truly there are too many lovely sentences to choose just one. I am beguiled by the author's delicate depiction of the emotional rift between a husband diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and his distraught wife, the tense, turbulent backdrop of a brewing typhoon, and the perfectly observed details of life in Japan, which have transported me instantly to a favorite former place in my own life. I am especially enchanted by our narrator, an elderly Japanese woman in the tiny mountain village of Komachi, who rescues and rehabilitates injured wild animals, and in particular, one special kitsune:
"She's been coming for as long as I can remember, this same fox, her auburn face now nearly white, and if I am calm enough, if I am quiet, she will let me come near her, and if you were to enter my garden at this hour, you might be surprised by the sight of an old woman with her hand settled carefully atop the head of a fox... 
...she is the only one who accepted my healing, and she visits from time to time, the only way she can repay her debt, because everyone knows that foxes are very serious about gratitude."
Sunday Sentence is a weekly meme hosted by David Abrams over at The Quivering Pen.

I received my copy of Fog Island Mountains as a Christmas gift from my family.

Happy reading!

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.