Saturday, February 24, 2018

"The Truth about Me," by Louise Marburg

The stories in the collection “The Truth about Me” (WTAW Press, 2017), by Louise Marburg, are a strange and fascinating mixture of odd and sometimes grim and cruel, on the one hand, and matter-of-factly ordinary, on the other. The stories have been called (by blurbers, at least) “audacious” and “sometimes shocking,” as well as “perceptive” and “compassionate.” Making allowances for blurber-talk exaggeration, I find these adjectives appropriate for this collection. The stories usually start off with pedestrian, everyday situations, and then there is always a jolt, a surprise, yet one that is told in an unsurprised tone. The characters are resolutely ordinary, yet somehow encounter, or cause, or tolerate, the non-ordinary. Some themes are grief, addiction, death, abandonment, the pragmatic compromises that spouses and lovers often make, family, and mental illness (including a story about a mass shooting, which by chance I read the day of the most recent tragic school shooting, in Parkland, Florida, this month). This is Marburg’s first book, and I look forward to reading more by her.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

"Obama: An Intimate Portrait," by Pete Souza

I have seen some of Pete Souza’s brilliant photos of President Barack Obama in various publications and online, so it has been a treat to peruse those and many more photos collected in his large-scale, beautifully produced and printed volume “Obama: An Intimate Portrait” (Little, Brown, 2017). The book is elsewhere dubbed a “visual biography” of Obama during his years as president. Souza was granted what seems to be complete access to him and his family, his staff, and his meetings with other government officials and international statespeople. Many of the photos are taken in the White House, but others are are from various sites around the country and the world. Souza is highly adept at capturing important and telling moments, whether serious or relaxed and even humorous. Loving moments with his family are particularly touching, as are photos of the President engaging with small children, often in the Oval Office; he leans or kneels down to talk with them, or even lies on the floor to hold an a baby overhead; his sincere affection for these young children is palpable. There are of course also photos of the difficult times when the President and his staff had to deal with crises and tough decisions. The wide variety of photos in a wide variety of settings show the President as the thoughtful, serious, compassionate, caring president and person he was; whether or not one agrees with every decision he made, these characteristics are palpable in the photos. The photographer took nearly two million pictures during the eight years of Obama’s presidency, and over 300 of those are included in this book, along with very light annotation (mostly the pictures speak for themselves). This book, as I turn its pages now in the context of living under the current administration, makes me extremely nostalgic for those eight years.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

"Improvement," by Joan Silber

“Improvement” (Counterpoint, 2017) is a novel by Joan Silber, a writer whose fiction I have enjoyed in the past (e.g., "Fools," reviewed here on 6/11/13); I enjoyed this novel as well. Although the book is a novel, it is similar to a series of interrelated stories. It tells the stories of several characters, and of how their actions and decisions affect other characters, other lives, in a sort of ripple effect. The structure of the novel is perhaps a bit too schematic, but it is interesting and even compelling. The characters are very different in race, social class, economic status, and more. Most of them seem to operate in a rather contingent fashion; there is an unsettled nature to their lives. One, Reyna, is in love with a man in prison, yet cannot bring herself to get very involved in an illegal scheme he and his friends carry out. Then she feels she has let him and his friends down, with tragic results. Her aunt Kiki, who spent a good part of her life in Turkey, is in some ways a steadying influence, and also a reminder of the larger world. Other characters come and go; some are able to keep re-inventing themselves, but others get stuck along the way. Although I enjoyed the novel, I probably won’t remember it for very long, perhaps because of its feeling of being slightly scattered, albeit in an organized way.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

RIP Ursula Le Guin

I was sad to hear of the death, on Jan. 22, at the age of 88, of Ursula Le Guin. She was a critically acclaimed, prolific, and popular novelist, short story writer, poet, and essayist. Her books have been translated into more than 40 languages. She is best known for her science fiction and fantasy works, such as “The Left Hand of Darkness” and “The Earthsea Trilogy.” For us in the San Francisco Bay Area, she was a “local” writer, a Berkeley native, although she lived in New York and other places, and eventually settled with her husband and children in Portland, Oregon. As readers of this blog may remember, I personally don’t usually enjoy science fiction and fantasy, but because Le Guin’s work in those genres was so literary and, especially, because she was a real feminist and her feminist sensibility pervaded her fiction, I did read and admire some of her work. Le Guin was a great believer in the power of art, especially literature, as a moral force. She will be missed.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

"Moral Disorder," by Margaret Atwood

When I was about to go on a car trip recently, I followed my usual habit in such cases of going to the library to find a good audiobook to accompany me on the trip and make the time go faster. This time I found Margaret Atwood’s 2006 story collection, “Moral Disorder” (Books on Tape). As I was listening, I remembered a couple of the stories from earlier readings, but some seemed new to me. In any case, it is a wonderful collection of somewhat interconnected stories, and echoes some of the events of Atwood’s own life, including her childhood as the daughter of an entomologist who often took his family when he did fieldwork deep in the forests of Ontario and Quebec, giving his children much freedom there. The stories deal with marriage, broken families, reconstructed families, memory, secret lives and hopes, mental illness, farming, city versus country, the powerful effect of one’s housing, fragility and strength, adaptation, acceptance and much more. The stories are about both the everyday and the philosophical aspects of life. As always, Atwood has a unique, piercing, yet forgiving style of observation and writing voice.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

"Marlena," by Julie Buntin

"Marlena” (Henry Holt, 2017), Julie Buntin’s debut novel, is a real knockout. The main characters are two young girls, Marlene (age 17) and the narrator, Cat (age 15). At the beginning of the story, Cat and her mother and brother have just moved from the city of Pontiac, Michigan, to a very rural area in northern Michigan, a big change for Cat. She meets Marlene, who lives next door, and they become fast friends. But very early in the novel, we find that Marlene dies very soon after Cat meets her. The book’s chapters alternate between the time of their friendship in Michigan and a period twenty years later when Cat is living in New York. In the latter setting, although she has a good job in a library, and a reasonably good marriage, and loves New York, Cat is still haunted by the loss of her friend Marlena, and by guilt about whether she could have done more to save her. The main focuses of the book are an intense and fine-grained depiction of adolescence among those teenagers who are both exuberant and on some level hopeless; an up-close look at the powerful and destructive influence of drugs in rural areas; a portrait of families in trouble; and the ever-present difference that even small variations in social class (degrees of poverty and education, in this case) make. But portrayal of these issues, as important as they are, never detracts from the vivid, realistic portrayal of the central friendship of the novel, and of the way such friendships seem to be the most important thing in the world to young girls. There are also boys, there is also sex, there is also the general fearlessness and recklessness of adolescence, with its pranks and problems and bad decisions. But the friendship, along with the serious drugs that Marlena does (including opioids) and the drinking that Cat does, both as a teenager and as an adult, are always front and center. Both girls have been influenced toward, perhaps doomed to, their addictions by their addicted parents. The difference seems to be that Cat has an extra degree of stability in her family, as well as a little bit more social class stability (not a lot, but enough to make a difference). But will she ever forgive herself for surviving when Marlena did not? For me this book had the added power of its setting in northern Michigan. Although I never experienced the kinds of places and lives these two young women did, and although I led a much more privileged life than they did, I do know that area of Michigan a little, and some of the details about it resonate and ring true. Buntin is a powerful and insightful writer, and I look forward to reading more of her work in the future.

Monday, January 15, 2018

"Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology," by Ellen Ullman

I am not a particularly “techie” person (OK, that is an understatement), but when my friend BE gave me a copy of her friend Ellen Ullman’s new book, “Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017), a collection of essays, I happily embarked on reading it, as I knew Ullman to be a good writer. She was one of the earlier computer programmers and software engineers, starting in 1978, and one of the rare women in those fields back then (and, unfortunately, the situation is not a whole lot better now). Before writing this book, she had already written a memoir, “Close to the Machine,” about her life as a software engineer early on, along with other books and essays about the world of technology. (She also writes fiction.) Her gift in those publications and in this one is to “translate” that world into terms that even those of us not gifted or very knowledgeable in the area, or even particularly interested in the area, can not only understand but also enjoy. The back flap of the current book says her work describes “the social, emotional, and personal effects of technology,” and that pretty much sums it up. I learned so much from this book, and at the same time, admired and savored the wonderful, sometimes even poetic, writing. Ullman helped me expand my knowledge and understanding of the world of technology and the people who develop and work on computers, the Internet, and more. She shows us the delicate balance between the human factors and personalities, on the one hand, and the mechanical/technological factors on the other. The topics she writes about here include the pleasures of being in quiet isolation with the machine and its codes, free to focus utterly on these; the Y2K drama; robots; sexism in the world of programming and technology; social class aspects of who has access to technology, knowledge about technology, and high level technology jobs; technology and education; the benefits of, and problems with, online classes; the dangers of ever-increasing surveillance through technology, and the ensuing erosion of privacy; and the sometimes unfortunate changes that have occurred in her (and my) beloved San Francisco due to the tech revolution. She is always thoughtful and fair-minded, attempting to see and acknowledge all sides of an issue or concern. In a sense, she is a philosopher of technology and the current world, as well as an excellent writer who elucidates the issues in an understandable, relatable, and thought-provoking way.
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