Monday, October 20, 2014

Go read this book! Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky by David Connerley Nahm

Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky is the kind of book that can cast a spell over you, one that pulls you in. The writing is so beautiful, and the book’s mood so evocative, after you finish it, you’ll find yourself wanting to read it again.

I learned about this debut novel when the author, David Connerley Nahm, was interviewed on Brad Listi’s Other Ppl podcast. (That’s the podcast formerly known as Other People, which is still called “Other People” but is now spelled in that shorter and hipper style.) During the interview, I heard that the book was getting good reviews, that it involved kids telling scary stories, that Nahm is actually a practicing lawyer, and that he spent fifteen years (off and on) writing this novel. I decided to check my public library's catalog, and was amazed to see that it had been pre-ordered. (This appears to be the first book published by Two Dollar Radio that my library has purchased.) When it was available and I checked it out, I was honored and excited to see I was the first person to borrow it!

The book is about Leah Shepherd, a woman directing a non-profit agency in her hometown of Crow Station, Kentucky. When she was about ten years old, her younger brother, Jacob, went missing. He was never found, neither alive nor dead. The story is told by a third-person narrator who might be omniscient, but if he is, he certainly doesn’t tell us everything. Most of the book is written from Leah’s perspective, though some of the short sections put us inside other characters’ heads -- primarily Leah’s mother, but also her father, and Jacob (in flashbacks). There are also passages about the everyday life of the town and its residents, which add to the immediacy of the story. I felt like I was inside the skin of everyone in Crow Station.

The story is not linear, and there’s not much “action.” Instead, Nahm masterfully takes us inside Leah’s thoughts, emotions, and memories. We see her at work, or walking outside, or talking with her mother, and alongside the mundane activities of most days, we watch her mind wander, and we learn about her past. Through her, we get to know Jacob, find out what they both were like as children, and share the confusion and grief the family felt when Jacob first disappeared, and in the months and years that followed. In the same way that people get distracted, or if they see or hear something that reminds them of something else -- perhaps from far away and many years in the past -- the novel follows Leah’s trains of thought more than any kind of plot.

The best thing about Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky is the quality of the writing. At the most basic level -- sentences and paragraphs -- this is truly a fantastic book. Here are a few excerpts to give you a sense of the style:

It is impossible to sleep in such heat, the body turning and twisting and tacky with sweat, so everyone stays up all night, listening to the chorus of crickets sounding the depth of the dark. And every night is every night that ever was all at once and every lonely boy prone in his bed is every lonely girl prone in hers, chests heaving with that painful pressure of hoping that there is someone out there unable to sleep on their account. The thunder ends. The crickets quiet. The houses settle and the only sound left is heavy breath in the night air. They get up, walk to the window and stare out at the dark yard, shallow breaths catching as they watch the shifting shape of the shadows, but it was nothing, they are certain, nothing but breeze, nothing, they are certain. (p. 28)

Distant howls and cries. They crept up the stairs toward a dim hallway and heard a voice, distant and low, and they knew that they’d found the horrific heart of the crumbling maze and would have to face the creature that writhed there. They peeked around the corner, to see what they could see. (p. 14)

And for this one, part of a description of Leah's workplace, I just had to share a photo of page 69 so you'd get the full effect:

As I read Ancient Oceans, the other book that kept coming to mind was Tinkers by Paul Harding, another stream-of-consciousness type of novel with gorgeous language, that went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. Do I need to say more than that? David Connerley Nahm is a gifted writer, and I hope this novel becomes one of those small press success stories. And then, I hope he can find time to write more beautiful books.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Yep, I'm doing Dewey's Read-a-thon!

I took the day off from work, but since the boys were also out of school, and Jeff left a to-do list for me, I haven't had a chance to do what I'd originally planned to do today: to get some more of my books in order before the read-a-thon, and do some of the housecleaning I won't do tomorrow because I will be reading. So, this is not a long or fancy or detailed post, but just a quick one to say:

It's Read-a-Thon time, and I am IN!

I'm so excited for tomorrow!  :-)

Updating at 2pm Central Time, 10/18

The read-a-thon started at 7am my time, but I didn't start reading until 8. My progress so far:
8-9am:  Faithful and Virtuous Night by Louise Gluck (poems), 35 p.
9-10am:  Gluck, 23 p.
10-11am:  Gluck, 11 p. (finished book)
11am-12noon:  Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (novel), 18 p.
noon-1pm:  Mandel, 24 p.
1-2pm:  none -- I had lunch, looked at a few blogs, then took a shower and got dressed. I feel refreshed and am ready to get back to Station Eleven, which is very good so far!


Sunday, October 5, 2014

Book review: Home Leave by Brittani Sonnenberg

(I really love this cover!)

I received an advance reader’s copy of Home Leave, the debut novel by Brittani Sonnenberg, through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Many thanks to LT and to Grand Central Publishing (Hachette Group) for the opportunity to read and review it.

Description from Hachette’s site:
Chris Kriegstein is a man on the move, with a global career that catapults his family across North America, Europe, and Asia. For his wife, Elise, the hardship of chronic relocation is soothed by the allure of reinvention. Over the years, Elise shape-shifts: once a secretive Southern Baptist, she finds herself becoming a seasoned expat in Shanghai, an unapologetic adulterer in Thailand, and, finally, a renowned interior decorator in Madison.

But it's the Kriegstein daughters, Leah and Sophie, who face the most tumult. Fiercely protective of each other -- but also fiercely competitive -- the two sisters long for stability in an ever-changing environment. With each new move, the girls find they can count on only one thing: the consoling, confounding presence of each other.

When the family suffers an unimaginable loss, they can't help but wonder: Was it meant to be, or did one decision change their lives forever? And what does it mean when home is everywhere and nowhere at the same time? With humor and heart, Brittani Sonnenberg chases this wildly loveable family through the excitement and anguish of their adventures around the world.

Brittani Sonnenberg is a talented writer, and the range of narrative styles in Home Leave illustrates a willingness to be experimental. I looked at the other LibraryThing reviews, and a few of them expressed frustration at some of the narrators Sonnenberg used. For me, that was one of the most enjoyable aspects of the book. When I started reading, I couldn’t figure out who was narrating. I re-read the description on the back of the book, looking for some hint. On page three or four, it became clear who it was, and I thought of starting my review with: “You won’t be able to guess the first narrator, so just go with it; you’ll know who it is by page four.” Other reviewers hated that beginning, but I thought it was cool. There are two chapters written as mini-plays, and there’s a chapter near the end of the book written in first person plural. All of these worked fine for me, but they won’t work for everyone.

The book opens with two epigraphs; one of these explains, “The purpose of home leave is to ensure that employees who live abroad for an extended period undergo reorientation and re-exposure in the United States on a regular basis.” Chris Kriegstein is from Indiana, and Elise grew up in Mississippi. The young family spends about four years in Atlanta, and two or three in Shanghai, but for sisters Leah and Sophie, “home” is really one another. Sonnenberg paints these two girls, and their relationship, very realistically. Leah sometimes takes care of Sophie, but is just as often annoyed with her. Leah is quiet and bookish, while Sophie is more energetic and adventurous. As Leah becomes a moody teenager, they drift apart somewhat … but not far apart.

Readers who prefer “likeable” characters could have problems with Elise. The publisher blurb says that she “shape-shifts,” and one of her identities is “unapologetic adulterer.” When Leah is a baby, Elise often feels trapped by motherhood, and when she learns she is pregnant for a second time, she isn’t happy about it. However, when the girls are a bit older and the family is abroad, Elise often seems like a “normal” mom: she has her quirks and bad moods, but it’s clear that she loves her daughters. Chris is probably the least vivid of the main characters, to me, and yet I did like him a good deal. We learn in the second chapter (which seems to be set the closest to present day) that Chris was a star athlete in his Indiana high school, became a successful businessman who lived in several countries, and is now his company’s CEO. He and Elise are still married and living in Madison, Wisconsin, having made it through her affair, his overseas jobs, their mutual grief.

The backdrop of the novel is the panorama of international settings, but at its heart are grief and loss. The family suffers a tragedy, and can’t return to normal. There’s some irony, too, in the title of the book: “home leave” is what Elise and the girls take for a couple of months each summer, while Chris remains in China, but Leaving Home is what Chris and Elise both wanted desperately to do when they were growing up -- and succeeded, spending several years on the other side of the world. Leaving Home is what Leah and Sophie do as well, in very different ways. Sonnenberg weaves a fine tapestry of people, place, time, and loss, that will stay with me for a long time.