Thursday, April 19, 2018

On Beginning to Read "The Female Persuasion," by Meg Wolitzer

I don’t think I have posted here before on a book before I actually read it, but a book I just began reading reminded me of how enjoyable the anticipation of reading a long-expected new book, along with the pleasures of the first few pages of that book, can be. I was happy when I got an email from my wonderful local library telling me that my turn in the library queue had come up. The book is the novel “The Female Persuasion” (Riverhead, 2018), by one of my favorite contemporary writers, Meg Wolitzer. I have been reading her novels with pleasure for years, most recently “The Interestings” (see my post of 4/18/13). I had read positive reviews of this new novel, learning that it was about a leading feminist writer, Faith Frank, and the young college student, Greer Kadetsky, who is inspired and influenced by her for years after their first meeting. The front flap copy says that the novel is about “power and influence, ego and loyalty, womanhood and ambition.” It sounds like a good list to me! What attracts me as I start reading this novel is the prospect of a story that puts feminism at the center, and at the same time has compelling characters and an equally compelling plot. I love that the book is dedicated to several women writers, including Nora Ephron, Mary Gordon, and the author’s mother, Hilma Wolitzer. I love the prospect of two feminists (and more) being at the core of the novel. And, as a related side note, I love that Greer is a devoted reader, one who has read voraciously since childhood, when she early on discovered “the strange and beautiful formality of the nineteenth century” (p. 7). I can’t wait to keep reading this novel, and will just have to guard against it taking over all the time that should be devoted to more pressing (but less interesting) matters!

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

"The Alice Network," by Kate Quinn

When my friend F. suggested that I would probably like the book “The Alice Network” (William Morrow, 2017), by Kate Quinn, I hesitated a bit, because I understood it to be about spies during World War I, and spies are not a major interest of mine. But I trust F.’s judgment, and the main spy in question was a woman who was recruited rather than choosing the “job,” so I decided to at least look at it. Well, you can see where this is going: I started reading and got completely caught up in the story. The plot has two parts and two heroines. Eve is the spy, and we see her in 1915 and then again in 1947, when she meets a young American woman named Charlie in London. We soon find that there is a connection between these two women. But first a mystery has to be disentangled. Along the way, we learn much about the two women’s lives and relationships. And yes, we learn much about the particular network of spies in German-occupied France, and I found this more interesting than I expected to, as well as inspiring; these were immensely courageous women. These women, led by the titular “Alice,” are amazing, and risk their lives over and over again to save many lives. But there is misunderstanding and unfinished business, and this is what we start to understand when Eve and Charlie come together. This book appeals on many levels, and I appreciate F.’s recommending it to me.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

"White Houses," by Amy Bloom

It has long been known, though only discussed very openly in the past couple of decades, that First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt had a close and cherished woman friend/partner/lover for some years, including much of the time she was in the White House. At the time, their relationship was only known in certain circles, and was tolerated (if reluctantly in many cases) by those in those circles. Her husband Franklin D. Roosevelt tolerated it because he had his own extramarital relationships, in some cases quite well known in certain circles as well. A new novel, “White Houses” (Random House, 2018), by Amy Bloom, fictionalizes the relationship between Eleanor and her lover, the newswoman Lorena Hickok. Furthermore, this novel tells the story from the point of view of Hickok. Bloom’s portrayal of this relationship is open, candid, thoughtful, loving, revealing, and enjoyable to read. The two women obviously had a close and loving relationship, one that outlasted their romantic relationship; both had the best interests of the other at heart (although Eleanor, probably understandably given her high position, was usually the one with more power and agency in the relationship). This novel gives us great insights into the time period, the White House, the Roosevelt presidency, and the society of the times (especially the 1930s). Lorena came from a very poor and deprived background, yet by dint of her brilliance, her hard work, and her hunger for knowledge and a better life, she created a career for herself first as a reporter and then in a job in the Roosevelt White House. We also learn more about Eleanor’s character and personality. She was formidable and admirable indeed, yet with a tender, loving side that we see in this book. I note that the author of "White Houses," Amy Bloom, is one whose fiction I have already read, admired, and enjoyed; see my posts on “Where the God of Love Hangs Out: Stories” (2/27/10) and on “Lucky Us” (9/24/14). If you have not discovered Bloom’s fiction yet, I highly recommend it.

Monday, April 2, 2018

RIP Anita Shreve

I have read many of Anita Shreve’s novels over the years. I have always thought of them as “middlebrow” (see my post of 2/8/10 on “middlebrow” fiction by Shreve and other authors such as Anne Rivers Siddons, Elizabeth Berg, and Joanna Trollope). Of course the label “middlebrow” is very subjective, and could be interpreted as negative, although as I said in my earlier blog about the topic, novels by these authors have given millions of readers, including me, many hours of pleasure. There is also the issue that nowadays the terms "middlebrow" and "women's fiction" are sometimes conflated. Today I want to give tribute to Shreve, who died of cancer on March 29th at the age of 71. Shreve’s 19 novels sold millions of copies, and three of them were made into movies. Many of them were inspired by real life events and characters. Her best known novels were “The Pilot’s Wife” and “The Weight of Water.” Two endearing (to me at least) and telling details that some obituaries mentioned were that she was most inspired as a teenager by Edith Wharton’s novel “Ethan Frome,” and that she preferred to write her novels in longhand. Her novels mostly focus on women characters, often those who are “haunted or traumatized” (according to Hillel Italie’s obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle, also the source of some of the other information in this blogpost). In later life, she received not only popular but some critical acclaim. Whatever the labels used about her writing, and these were, as mentioned, in any case both subjective and shifting, Anita Shreve was a dedicated and excellent writer whose enjoyable, gripping, and inspiring works meant so much to so many readers, especially women.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

"Halsey Street," by Naima Coster

Gentrification is a big topic in many U.S. cities, and Naima Coster’s novel “Halsey Street” (Little A., 2017), is set in the context of, and preoccupied with, that topic. It is an important one, and should be addressed; the problem is that the gentrification of parts of Brooklyn is portrayed in a rather heavyhanded manner, especially for the first part of the novel, at which point the topic is more or less dropped, except for an occasional mention. But the more overriding topic or theme of this book is family, and the ways in which even loving families can somehow find their members have become disassociated from, even alienated from, each other. Even when they are together, they somehow look past each other, misunderstand each other, and find that what they thought was a loving foundation has weakened, or perhaps never was what they thought it was. The main character here is Penelope, the late-twenties daughter of an African-American father, Ralph, and a Dominican-American mother, Mirella. Penelope loves her father, yet sometimes resents having had to return to Brooklyn to help take care of him. She had gone to art school in Rhode Island for a while, then moved to Pittsburgh, needing to get away, but now is “home” in Brooklyn. She lives in an elegant attic in the home of a white family who has moved into the neighborhood (representing, among other such symbolic people and institutions, the gentrification of Brooklyn, specifically the Bed-Stuy area) and her relationship with her landlords goes predictably awry. As for her relationship with her mother: it has never been a good one. Mirella took care of Penelope’s basic needs, but never knew how to be a real mother emotionally. Penelope’s biggest attachment and true love was her grandmother Ramona back in the Dominican Republic, and Ramona’s death devastated her. At one point in the story, Mirella, who has moved back to the Dominican Republic, reaches out to Penelope, but the results are not happy. Throughout, we sense that Penelope is directionless, lost, and sad. Yes, she teaches art to schoolchildren, and yes, she still draws (but only small objects). Yes, she has plenty of relationships with men, but nothing seems to be enough to address her feelings of emptiness. She also doesn’t take the initiative to change anything much about her life. Does Coster imply that because Penelope didn’t get the kind of attention and unconditional love that all children need (and I agree that this is extremely important), she is doomed to a meaningless life? In any case, she is a depressed (as well as judgmental) character with what sometimes seems to be a dreary life. The novel ends with a sad event, but also a small note of hope. This novel wrestles with issues of race, gender, family, parenting, urban life, gentrification, and millenials’ trying to find their way.

Monday, March 12, 2018

"Fire Sermon," by Jamie Quatro

Jamie Quatro’s intense new novel, “Fire Sermon” (Grove Press, 2018) has received high praise for its depiction of extramarital desire and longing, mixed with desire and longing for God. The cover of the book is bright red, and there is much talk about burning. The main character, Maggie, is a professor and writer and in a marriage of some years to Thomas; they have two children. She meets an also-married poet/professor whom she only sees at academic conferences, but with whom she carries out an intense ongoing conversation, replete with poetry and various literary talk, by phone and email. They agonize about being unfaithful to their spouses, and about wanting to but not being able to stay away from each other. They try to rationalize their relationship as just an intense friendship. All of this is, of course, self-delusion. It's not an unusual plot. But what makes it different than the usual such novel is the way the story, relationship, and correspondence are all enmeshed in the adulterous couple’s feverish, high-flown, theologically/poetically-inflected interchanges. Forgive me if this makes me sound like a philistine, but this over-the-top, self-involved, self-important ongoing conversation smacks of literary/metaphysical self-indulgence, and I found myself getting quite impatient with it.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

"Mrs. Osmond," by John Banville

Henry James fans: I hope and believe that John Banville’s novel “Mrs. Osmond” (Knopf, 2017) will be a great treat and pleasure for you, as it was for me. However, I know what high standards James connoisseurs have, so it is possible that some of you will not appreciate or enjoy this “sequel” to James’s “The Portrait of a Lady.” I am no James expert, but I have read many of his novels, and studied his work during my English major college years. With that limited expertise, I find Banville’s novel, style, character portrayal, and plot admirably compatible with, though of course not as great as (which would be impossible!), James’s. I am particularly impressed by the language, which manages to sound authentically similar to that of James. The plot developments appear seamless, and – spoiler alert? – take a slight but definite feminist turn. Without giving too much away, I can say that the story delineates what happens to Isabel, and what Isabel causes to happen, in the months after her visit (against the wishes of her despicable husband Gilbert) to her dying cousin Ralph. She finds out new information about her husband and about Madame Merle, meets new people, takes new trips, faces up to her situation, and makes decisions, in some cases surprising ones. I, for one, was completely caught up in this “sequel,” a worthy one in my opinion.
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