Saturday, July 4, 2015

Summer Reading

*pings the universe* Hello - yes, still here! In my thoughts more often than on the page these days, but you know how that is sometimes. Lovely to have both the inspiration and the opportunity to pop back here.... 1) there are a handful of books that I love love loved recently and 2) a lovely publisher sent me a book out of the blue, which is more of a rarity than it used to be and I have a few thoughts about it and 3) it is a holiday weekend and that one extra day has brought me to a place where I can actually breathe, and think, and write! And so...

Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman (Scribner, 2015)
An absolutely fascinating collection of fictional stories about real women who lived on the periphery of fame - too eccentric or unaccomodating or behaviorally unacceptable for their time, and/or overshadowed by someone famous in their lives. I am one to always have suspected the under-appreciated Watson likely had far more complexity and interest than the obviously attention-getting Holmes, if only one took the time to dig a little deeper and truly look. The stories -each prefaced with a marvelous vintage photo that in itself sparks the imagination - are superbly written, suspenseful, and left me devouring even the endnotes and still wanting more.

On Immunity by Eula Biss (Graywolf Press, 2014)
You probably already have a firm opinion on vaccination and childhood immunizations and as such may not think that you need to read more about it. While I am already firmly in the pro-vaccinate camp and need no convincing, I found Biss's consideration interesting, essential and thought provoking. She explores every aspect of immunity, why it works, the social/cultural/and public health history of our modern vaccination policies, why some fear it - for reasons understandable and less so, and why in America opting out  - for those without medical reasons to do so - is a privilege that endangers others and would be devastating in many parts of the world. I found the book left me thinking hard about how we humans (all of us, not just those who oppose vaccines) are very imperfect - and rarely completely rational -  in how we come to our beliefs. And very timely this week with California's latest policy. Well worth a read.

The Book of Laney by Myfanwy Collins (Lacewing Press, 2015)
By way of disclosure I am a fan of Engine Books, a wonderful small press of which Lacewing is a new and exciting Young Adult imprint. I am a fan of the author, Myfanwy Collins, of whose beautiful and unflinching flash fiction and earlier novel Echolocation I am also a fan, and whom I have come to know just a little bit through social media. Her latest, The Book of Laney explores the incredibly difficult subject of school shootings through the lens of a perpetrator's surviving sibling. The description of the event itself was very hard to read (as one might expect) but the heart and soul of this book is not the terrible act, but Laney. She is vulnerable and tough and completely compelling - I loved her voice and her story and the captivating writing, and above all, the hope.

Minnow by James E. McTeer II (Hub City, 2015)
I was eager to read Minnow, winner of the 2014 South Carolina First Novel prize, largely because it is set just over the river from where we live, in the South Carolina low country. Minnow does a beautiful job capturing the wild beauty and magic of this terrain, full of palmettos and loblolly pines, islands and coastal salt marshes, vegetation that grows thick and mysterious and animals that are quite exotic to those of us not from here. In the story, the child Minnow is on a quest for medicine for his sick father, and in order to get it, Minnow must venture ever farther out a chain of islands to retrieve a handful of dirt from the grave of a now feared evil spirit. The premise is charming, the writing enjoyable, and the scenery wonderful. Though I found the story a little too charming sometimes, and strictly linear in its telling, I enjoyed the book and especially the ending, which took a completely unexpected turn in both tone and plot.

Dragonfish by Vu Tran (W.W. Norton, 2015) I was delighted and completely intrigued to have this novel appear unsolicited in my mailbox. I do like a crime novel from time to time, especially one with literary merit, and even better one with a fresh angle. In Tran's novel, the ex-wife of an American detective goes missing, and as he searches for her, he uncovers the mystery of her past life in Vietnam. I quite enjoyed the book - it has a classic noir detective feel with a contemporary twist - and I especially liked the wife's backstory, which was interesting and compelling (though it might have been even more effective, and even more suspenseful, if it had been interspersed in slightly smaller doses more evenly throughout the story). I also thought (as is so often true) the jacket blurbs oversold the thriller aspect of the novel, which never works in a book's favor - but independently of them I fundamentally liked the story, and even more so liked being introduced to an interesting new author.

Sources:  I received my copy of The Book of Laney as a birthday gift from my family. Almost Famous Women, On Immunity,  and Minnow came from our public library. My thanks to the publisher for my complimentary copy of Dragonfish.

Happy reading!

Sunday, April 19, 2015

A Replacement Life - Boris Fishman

My Sunday Sentence this week from A Replacement Life, by Boris Fishman (HarperCollins 2014)

"Isn't. Verbiage was missing. In Russian, you didn't need the adjective to complete the sentence, but in English, you did. In English, she could still be alive."

Loved this moving novel considering the complicated nature of truth, history, fiction, family, inheritance and justice - left me a bit teary and incredibly glad to have read it.

Sunday Sentence is a weekly meme hosted by David Abrams over at The Quivering Pen.
I borrowed my copy of A Replacement Life from my local library. Happy reading!

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.