Now Reading: February 2014
I recently finished Jamie Quatro’s I Want to Show You More, a mildly terrifying short story collection that roams through the ruined lives of modern southern women. Frankly, I didn’t expect to like the book. I’m not enamored of literature that revolves around suburban dysfunction, peeling up the layers that conceal the dark undercurrents running beneath happy, shiny family lives. Besides, contemporary writers often weary me with their self-conscious, ham-fisted modernity.
That said, I have to hand it to Quatro for keeping me turning the pages. She is, unquestionably, a good writer, and she does something with dysfunction that makes me think (instead of just making me want to take a shower). I find that I like short story collections best when they are hung on a thread of continuity, and Quatro has strung threads of all kinds through I Want to Show You More. They imbue the stories with special complexity, especially those that otherwise seem to stand alone. Two in particular, “Ladies and Gentlemen of the Pavement” and “Demolition,” read like strange fables of some kind. They don’t seem to share characters or narrative with the rest of the stories, although they take place in the same geographical area. They start out intriguingly and end horrifically, but I can’t stop thinking about them because I can’t stop trying to figure out how they, as fables, reflect on the more “realistic” and overtly connected stories in the collection. Quatro’s stories can be creepy and grotesque, but that’s part of the reason they resonate. Even as you’re not quite sure what she’s saying over all, you know that moment after moment, with this sentence here and that image there, she’s getting it right. Read on for more literary reflections.
“Birthing the Mother Writer” Columnist Cassie Premo Steele writes, “I recently read A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. It was heartbreakingly beautiful and literary in the best sense of the word—the characters are tragic and funny and creative and lonely and philosophical and doomed and redeemed. And while the two main characters are not a mother and daughter to each other, the themes of parenting, grandparenting, family, honor and memory—and how all these fit into a writing life—are the emotional heart of the book.”
Caroline Grant, Editor-in-Chief, shares, “I just finished reading Sara Houghteling’s beautiful novel, Pictures at an Exhibition, which tells the story of a Parisian art dealer whose collection is stolen by the Nazis during the war. The recent discovery in Munich of a trove of lost art, plus the new movie Monuments Men, has brought the Nazi’s looting of European museums back into the news; Houghteling’s writing vividly brings this history to life. The novel is also very much a family story: Daniel Berenzon is a successful art dealer but a difficult father; he and his wife, a concert pianist, keep a secret from their almost-adult son Max, who longs to work at the gallery but is rebuffed. The Berenzon Gallery’s collection isn’t all that’s lost in this book, which is a delicate exploration of how we handle all manner of losses.”
Profiles Co-Editor Rachel Epp Buller reports, “I’m in the midst of reading Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama. Having been thoroughly impressed by Bechdel’s mix of wry humor, intellectual ponderings, and crudeness in Fun Home, the graphic novel memoir of her relationship with her father, I was eager to see how Bechdel might approach her difficult relationship with her mother. Only a couple of chapters in, I am already drawn into a story that weaves through analyses of the author and her mother, sexuality, dysfunctional family relationships and social perceptions of what it means to be a good mother.”
Senior Editor Maria Scala raves, “I am reading Jennifer Robson’s fascinating debut novel, Somewhere in France. The heroine of this tale is Lady Elizabeth Neville-Ashford (Lilly), who is feeling constrained by aristocratic British society and yearns to travel, pursue a career and find love. When World War I breaks out, Lilly sees her chance for independence and moves to London, eventually joining the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps and securing a position for herself as an ambulance driver in France. In doing so, not only does she move closer to the Western Front, but also to Scottish trauma surgeon, Robert Fraser—someone who has always encouraged Lilly to follow her dreams. The book has already drawn comparisons to Downton Abbey, but as one reviewer wrote, “Downton Abbey fans will be thrilled to move beyond the estate and glimpse life on the front lines as Robson’s heroine bravely defies convention, … leaving class strictures far behind.” Robson first learned about the Great War from her father, acclaimed historian Stuart Robson; she served as an official guide at the Canadian National War Memorial at Vimy Ridge France, and holds a doctorate in British economic and social history from the University of Oxford. The research for this novel is exhaustive–from fashion, to war terminology, to food, to surgical procedures–and Robson brings it all to life with her sharp and evocative prose. I was personally thrilled to hear of the publication of this book, having known Robson from our years working together in book publishing. There is a wonderful story she tells about how she wrote down all her ideas for this novel in a notebook she carried in her daughter’s diaper bag. While her son was at nursery school, she’d take the baby for walks around the neighborhood, hoping to catch a few minutes to jot down the story whenever the baby napped in her stroller. Now, with her kids at school all day, Robson is hard at work (from her home office) on her second novel, which features Lilly’s feisty best friend Charlotte Brown, and is tentatively titled After the War Is Over.”