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.

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.
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