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!

Thursday, May 29, 2014


Winter and spring have come and gone in a blink of an eye, dear reader.

Though I meant to be here a little sooner, my extended absence has been a good thing - after many years of being mostly home with children, some part-time work, and a couple of relocations, I've returned to work full-time. The transition has been intense but exciting, and I'm energized in a way I haven't been in a long time.

Like so many other women navigating the work-family-self balance thing, I have so many feelings about the journey - a journey for which this blog has been a sort of travelling companion over the last few years. It is my virtual suitcase of sorts, fixed constantly in cyberspace while I've packed and unpacked houses, teleported to new states, started children in new schools, settled in new communities. It's been a place to collect and save the treasures and souvenirs I've found along the way - the books that have challenged or inspired or resonated, my occasional attempts at writing beyond a blog post, the online friendships and connections. While I don't open the suitcase as often as I might like these days, it means a lot to have all these conversations and artifacts and mementos close at hand.

Perhaps as an extension of my own journey, I'm finding myself ever more drawn to writers who capture the many facets and complexity of women's lives. I will confess right off that I have read a lot of Meg Wolitzer recently, eagerly devouring three more of her novels soon after finishing The Interestings (which in my humble opinion is the strongest of her books, and one of my favorite books of 2013). Dani Shapiro's Still Writing was another favorite - a loving and encouraging reflection on writing and self - there is wisdom in it for writers of all levels (and for human beings in general). As it is still - well, just barely, but still - Short Story Month, I must give a shout out to some terrific short story collections: Laura van den Berg's excellent The Isle of Youth (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013) and Jennifer Spiegel's The Freak Chronicles, insightful and introspective stories set in far-flung and exotic corners of the world (Dzanc, 2012).

I'd been looking forward to Orion's Daughters, by Courtney Elizabeth Mauk (Engine Books, 2014) ever since reading her mesmerizing debut novel Spark nearly two years ago. Orion's Daughters is the story of a woman haunted by the fractured remnants of a magnetic but dangerous friendship from her youth. The novel unfolds with suspense and strong emotions - love, devotion, envy, jealousy, loyalty. The writing is lovely:

"She tells a story. Her voice is light, a shimmering thread on which the words are strung like so many jewels. Only I can't hold on to the end. The words slip into my ear and back out, falling, cracked, in heap."

...and with each sentence and chapter perfectly paced and phrased, it struck me as the rare second novel that gains a level of polish and sophistication without giving up the raw power of the first book. Just as with Spark, I was completely enchanted, devouring the book quickly.

I was also recently excited to learn that Ethel Rohan has a brief memoir, Out of Dublin, which explores her childhood and adult relationships with her parents; their deaths, one close upon the other; and the author's profound grief over their loss. Rohan's fiction is full of fierce beauty and emotional force, and these qualities drive Out of Dublin as well. It is a memoir written with immediacy rather than long-range perspective, and it isn't long, but her story is striking - I would have been glad to read more. Rohan was kind enough to answer some of my questions last summer upon the release of her short fiction collection Goodnight Nobody - you can read our conversation here.

Happy reading! What are the books that are currently inspiring, awing or challenging you?

I purchased my copies of Orion's Daughters, The Isle of Youth, and Out of Dublin; Still Writing and The Freak Chronicles were a holiday gifts (and lovely ones at that); my copies of all four Meg Wolitzer books came from my local public library.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Above All Men - Eric Shonkwiler

When a country collapses, what becomes of a man - not only materially, but morally? In Eric Shonkwiler's Above All Men (forthcoming from MG Press in 2014), David Parrish is a husband and father, recently returned from a war which has left America stretched and stressed to near-breaking. When a powerful storm destroys the country's oil rigs, a domino chain of natural and man-made events is set in motion that challenge Parrish and his family's survival, and that test Parrish's soul.

Parrish, his wife and child live on a farm somewhere in the mid-west, with an elderly neighbor next door, and another family to whom Parrish has offered a small homestead in exchange for help on the farm. Parrish is a stoic, capable man in the way that farmers and military men often are, with a strong sense of loyalty and duty, one that often leaves him torn between his family and others in need. When his son's best friend is murdered, Parrish struggles to both care for his family but also answer the call for justice.

While the imagined stages of societal decline and even some of the basic plot elements did not strike me as especially original, Shonkwiler creates a very distinctive and memorable story through his own writing of it. The landscape is bleak but striking, full of haunting images - fields and mines, small towns and old farmhouses, coyotes and dusters and big sky, and one feels Parrish's elemental connection to the place. The details bring the reader close into the small moments of the story: We walk the fence line with Parrish, feeling the sharp edge of wire and the rough of wood; we practically breathe in the dust that rises up out of nowhere, beautiful and terrifying, coating everything in its path and smothering out the crops. We share his sense of foreboding and feel his fierce love for his family. The author's careful pacing very effectively conveys the slowing of time in a world without machinery (and eventually without electricity, or running water) and the straightforward, unadorned narrative, too, reflects a world and a man stripped down to their cores.

If I had any quibbles, they were small, and probably only even attracted my attention because Above All Men overall is such a solid debut. The most relevant of them was that somehow I missed the specific motive for the murder beyond the villain's innate villainery - though maybe this lack actually speaks to the profound moral vacuum of the new social order, for the only thing more horrifying than a murder is a murder for which there exists no reason except the act of violence itself, the absence of reason only one more measure of our collective disrepair.

Above All Men is a somewhat intense read, testament to the portrayal of this future world, which is not all that comfortably far-fetched. It is one, sadly, we could envision, and it made me rather conscious of my dependence on modern conveniences and even a little anxious about them. But it also left me thinking that if the world were to collapse, you would sure want to know a guy like David Parrish.

My thanks to the publisher for a complimentary advance review copy of Above All Men.

Happy reading!