Saturday, April 6, 2024


UndiscoveredUndiscovered by Gabriela Wiener
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"The strangest thing about being alone here in Paris, in an anthropology museum gallery more or less beneath the Eiffel Tower, is the thought that all these statuettes that look like me were wrenched from my country by a man whose last name I inherited."

Undiscovered by Journalist Gabriela Wiener is a dive into Peruvian history as she traces the lineage of her Jewish Austrian/French great great grandfather, an explorer in Peru, grieves the death of her father and tries to understand his dual life with two families, and documents the racism and colonial-tinged political slurs she's encountered as a Spanish resident. She also discusses her polyamory relationship with her husband, Jaime, and her girlfriend, Roci, plus other affairs she experiences. She's a busy narrator. Although the book is catalogued as fiction, I am thinking it is more like autofiction from the online interviews. She's a good writer but I bogged down a bit in the ancestral family tree hunts and wanted to whip back to the contemporary which yielded plenty of drama. Her exchanges with her mother toward the end were satisfying in conversation and letters, although my overall assessment is that I would rather see any one of the story lines developed, particularly the effects of her move to Spain and life there as a journalist.

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Wednesday, April 3, 2024


LiarsLiars by Sarah Manguso
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Manguso’s slim volume of precise prose reads like autofiction as she dispassionately describes the end of her fifteen-year marriage to John who’s cheating. “When you’re a liar, you always know something that other people don’t know. Maybe lying to me made John feel extra smart.”
But no one gets off the hook as the narrator admits: “I remember how desperately I had to cling to the story of my happy marriage. It took effort. It felt so good to stop lying,” hence the title. Her reactions are visceral and compounded by the questions her young son asks.
I welcome another Manguso.

My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the ARC.

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1,000 Words, a Writer's Guide to Staying Creative, Focused, and Productive All Year Round

1000 Words: A Writer's Guide to Staying Creative, Focused, and Productive All Year Round1000 Words: A Writer's Guide to Staying Creative, Focused, and Productive All Year Round by Jami Attenberg
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

1000 Words: A Writer's Guide to Staying Creative, Focused, and Productive All Year Round is a book of enjoyable essays with writing advice, interviews and inspiration by well-published Attenberg (six novels, a memoir, a short story collection) generated on her motivational social media site Extolling the virtues of a daily writing practice, Attenberg has set her own output at one thousand words every day and encourages her readers to try doing the same. In June, the sixth version of this communal two-week practice starts with a daily letter of encouragement from the author. The book uses the four seasons of the writer's cycle to discuss creativity, motivation, drafting and publishing. There are notes and insights scattered throughout, all geared to inspiring the writer to make art. And the book's messages could be used for other art forms as well. Highly recommended. Thanks to Net Galley for the ARC.

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The Body in Question

The Body in QuestionThe Body in Question by Jill Ciment
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Body in Question hums along as a story of a sensational murder trial of a young girl accused of murder, and the participating jurors, each identified only by profession or number. In Part Two, the story shifts our focus to one of the key jurors and her aged husband. Now each juror is identified by name and an irregularity surfaces which could challenge the verdict. Journalists hound the jurors and alliances crumble at the same time as one juror's husband is dying.
"Feet planted on the floor, he is half off the bed, half on, the posture of a man who has passed out from a night of hard drinking, but the scene lacks all the joys of inebriation. Only a drunken old poet would imagine that he is going to rage against the dying of the light. At whom? Death is excessively attentive. Death taps her husband's shoulder each time he falls asleep, startling him awake only long enough to remember that the is going to die. Death puts ice packs on his already cold feet. Death fill his bladder..."
Not only funny in bits, the prose is succinct and the pace moves swiftly to a surprising end.

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Saturday, March 30, 2024


HeroinesHeroines by Kate Zambreno
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are some disagreeable reader comments about the author's excessiveness in this book, but I applaud its combination of memoir and literary commentary about the women writers who are psychologized and pathologized by their creative male partners, i.e. Zelda Fitzgerald, Vivien Eliot (Painted Shadow: The Life of Vivienne Eliot, First Wife of T. S. Eliot), Jane Bowles, Jean Rhys, June Miller (Henry and June), Sylvia Plath, Anaïs Nin, as well as fictional characters in Virginia Woolf, Kate Chopin, Gustave Flaubert, Anna Kavan, H.D., Elizabeth Hardwick'sThe Ghostly Lover, etc. In Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper, the doctor tells the woman writer "to never touch pen, brush, or pencil as long as you live." Kate Zambreno describes "mean reds," fears of abandonment, her IBS and endometriosis, obsessive shopping, and her history of depression and sleeplessness, hence shrinks, pills, hospitalization as one of the "slit-your-wrist girls." She is accused of writing which is too personal, too emotional, too excessive. While some of the stories were familiar, I was sorry to finish this enlightening book and I was grateful for the extensive bibliography of over 150 books and articles about these women's lives. My TBR (To Be Read) quakes under the strain.

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Monday, March 25, 2024


AbigailAbigail by Magda Szabó
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I finally finished Abigail by Magda Szabó translated into English by Len Rix in 2020 which I started in CA weeks ago.. This was a dense piece of writing, a coming-of-age novel, which is not my favorite genre but the emphasis on plot kept me moving along. The narrator is placed unhappily in a strict girls' school in a small town in Hungary during WWII by her beloved military father, a general, and each chapter is skillfully filled with suspense so that it is unthinkable to abandon the book. By the end, the final pages pick up the pace and suspicions are confirmed as the heroine encounters grown up revelations and political insights about allies and enemies and the statue named Abigail who allays the troubles of the girls. I recommend Magda Szabó's work to Elena Ferrante fans for its youthful themes and wartime era as well as its psychological underpinnings. I preferred her earlier work, The Door, but have no regrets about reading either and welcomed the chance to learn a bit about Hungary.

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CostalegreCostalegre by Courtney Maum
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Costalegre is a story in which I keep trying to fill in all the fictional blanks with real artists. Evidently about Peggy Guggenheim (the mother is called Leonora) and her cadre of Surrealists on the Pacific Coast of Mexico near Careyes doing art and escaping from Nazis in 1937, it is told from the viewpoint of the lonely lovesick teen daughter (inspired by Guggenheim's ill-fated daughter Pegeen), this erratic crew bond, scrap and neglect each other like the real Marcel Duchamp, Andre Breton, Max Ernst, Djuna Barnes and Leonora Carrington might have. The chapters are short, labeled for days of the week as though a diary, and a smattering of drawings contribute to the whimsical touch of a lively coming-of-age contribution to the many writings on Peggy Guggenheim, her family and friends.

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ThreeThree by Ann Quin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Finishing Three gave me a sense of accomplishment. Ann Quinwrote this dense experimental novel of a ménage a trois often using no distinguishing orthographies or paragraphs for the three different speakers (a British middle-class couple plus their missing tenant/visitor) as well as no such breaks in their journals, diaries, etc. Just endless unpunctuated sentences, thoughts and movement so it is never clear who is speaking: "verbiage bumping up against verbiage in a dim, junk-cluttered hall" described by Joshua Cohen in the introduction. Although confused by the lack of plot, I was at the same time, swept along trying to build a story and propulsively attuned to Quin's fine writing. I intend to read another of her works, Berg.
"...Days become shorter. Hours lengthen. Wind rises
out of the sea
carries mist
to the house. Buries itself
into stonework. The possibility of what might have been sinks
away. Into what is left."

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Ex-WifeEx-Wife by Ursula Parrott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ex-Wife by Ursula Parrott, published anonymously in 1929, was as good as promised when I heard about it on Backlisted's Patreon podcast and they recommended it as the feminine counterpart to Gatsby in describing the Jazz Age and what happens to young women who are caught between Victorian morality and the sexual revolution of the twenties. I responded with a raised glass to the blurb's description of the narrator as "wedged between Edith Wharton's constrained society girls and the squandered glamour of Jean Rhys's doomed wanderers."
The first person narrator, Pat, announces to her newest man, Noel:
"Don't have any illusions about me. I have slept with more men than I can remember." That was exaggeration, but I had to exaggerate, lest I should understate.
And he responds..."Whatever happened to you has made you poised and tolerant, and comprehending, and anyone who knows you should be grateful for whatever produced the result." But, in the all too familiar refrain, he's taken, and Pat continues the high life in search of a stable closure. And Ursula Parrott sold 100,000 copies of the novel.

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Wednesday, January 17, 2024


Flight: A NovelFlight: A Novel by Lynn Steger Strong
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Flight: A Novel by Lynn Steger Strong is a good domestic novel of three grown children and their spouses and children gathering for Christmas now that the matriarch, Helen, has died. They try to maintain old customs and some are more entrenched in family memories than others, a couple are artists, each has concerns of their own. Most rue the mother's passing. There are mishaps and challenges with the five children present, and the last quarter of the book steps up the pace considerably when a child is missing in a snowstorm. At that point, it went from a three-star to a four-star for me. I thought the writing admirable with a nice balance of scene and dialogue plus introspection. In the beginning with six adults and a neighbor, I struggled to keep track of who was married to who, made their living doing what and who had which kids. I put notes in the front of the book to guide me. Kate, whose mother has died, remembers her: "But she's the only person in the world who ever saw me the way she saw me, who loved me like that, who remembered me as all the things I'd ever been and also thought of me as all the things she still thought I might become...It feel harder--fucking terrifying--that there is no longer any person in the world who loves me like she did." A poignant sketch of mothering and mother loss.

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Saturday, January 13, 2024


TremorTremor by Teju Cole
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Teju Cole's book is a learning experience. He writes beautifully, talks about historical tragedies, and the book has a challenging shifting narrator scheme and the same with many locations, starting in Maine, then Cambridge, MA to Mali and Nigeria and back. He discusses J.M.W. Turner's painting "Savers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying" which we've seen with its foreground of roiling seas and brilliant red sky and the ship Zong, plus the Africans, some in chains, which the slaver is throwing overboard, cargo he is transporting to America. Lloyds of London has since offered reparations. There were at least 130 who drowned in 1781. According to the BBC this ship and the crime paved the way for eventual abolition of the slave trade so something was learned by someone.

He also fields an interesting discussion of the unreliability of Western custody of artworks citing the WWII destruction of work by Van Gogh, Courbet, Murillo, Rubens, Titian, Goya, Botticelli, Tintoretto, and Caravaggio. by allied bombs. And there are references throughout to so many paintings (i.e. Chris Ofili's "Mary Magdalene" with a "violet so deep it could drown the eyes, in whose "Raising of Lazarus" there is a violet so base it could raise the dead."

In the beginning of the book, Cole includes a scene where his partner and he are shopping for antiques at a rural warehouse in Maine and find a couple of things they wish to buy including a ci wara, a ritual object representing an antelope and used by the Bambara people of Mali. Later, he goes to Mali for a conference and buys others of these sculptures. He also spends evenings listening to the music of the area at a club and the music is available on a playlist:

I'll skip a recap of the serial killer mentioned by a student in his creative writing class.
He also watches The Searchers and a 1994 film by an Iranian director, Abbas Kiarostami, Through the Olive Trees.
Art and music predominate but fewer books from this creative writing professor at Harvard. except for a handful of titles, Virginia Woolf's "The Death of a Moth." Susan Faludi's The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America about captivity narratives; Invisible Cities and Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali. But I remind myself it is not about a WRITING professor, it's about a photographer! I had a hard time not reading it autobiographically.

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Thursday, January 4, 2024

The Door

The DoorThe Door by Magda Szabó
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Door by Magda Szabó is about a hard-working cleaner who is hired to look after the writer-narrator's apartment and performs impeccably until she is struck ill, found by neighbors immobile in squalor and sent to hospital with no help from the narrator who has writing obligations elsewhere. "Emerence was pure and incorruptible, the better self that each and every one of us aspired to be. With her permanently veiled forehead and her face that was tranquil as a lake, she asked nothing from anyone and depended on no-one. She shouldered everyone's burden without ever speaking of her own, and when she did finally need my help, I...left her, in the squalor of advanced illness, for others to witness the single moment of degradation in her life." The author began her writing life as a poet and has written numerous novels, non-fiction and short stories and won various awards. A compelling read.

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Winter in the Blood

Winter in the BloodWinter in the Blood by James Welch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A teacher recommended this book and I dutifully picked it up and inhabited another world, a Montana reservation where members of the Gros Ventre and Blackfeet tribes live outside of towns such as Harlem, Dodson, Havre, where they grow grain and run cattle. James Welch writes with humor and truth. His dialogue skills are rich and authentic: "Why don't you settle down?" I said to my hands. "Pay up," said the bartender. When he left, I said, "If you settled down you'd be a lot better off; you'd be happier, believe me, Agnes." "You bore me," she said. "You should learn a trade, shorthand," I said. "There's a crying demand for secretaries." She looked at me as if she didn't recognize me. "Shorthand?" she squealed.
His images of nature and characters put you right out on that flat grazing land of the West. "Evening now and the sky had changed to pink reflected off the high western clouds. A pheasant gabbled from a field to the south. A lone cock, he would be stepping from the wild rose along an irrigation ditch to the sweet alfalfa field, perhaps to graze with other cocks and hens, perhaps alone. It is difficult to tell what cocks will do when they grow old. They are like men, full to twists." Welch started as a poet and is quoted in Louise Erdrich's introduction: "we are storytellers from a long way back. And we will be heard for generations to come." The book was published fifty years ago and I am as excited about reading it as if it were just out, a new discovery. And his storyteller credentials are evident in the braided tale describing a cattle drive perfectly paced with a bar spree. The narrator describes his mother, "she had always had a clear bitter look, not without humor, that made the others of us seem excessive, too eager to talk too much, drink too much, breathe too fast...I much she had come to resemble the old lady." Highly recommended.

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