BOOK REVIEW | Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro

5/5 stars

I prayed forgiveness…for God to pluck me out like a coal from the fire… But Brothers, Sisters: What if that’s the wrong prayer? What if the right prayer is ‘Let me burn, only walk beside me in the flames’?.

Wow, that was intense. I’m not generally interested in books about religion, but Fire Sermon flipped the genre on its head, challenging the confines that keep devout followers trapped in unhappy circumstances.

Maggie, raised Christian, is married, contently. She has two kids, a boy and a girl, who are getting older and heading off into ventures of their own. Her husband, Thomas, is kind and attentive, though admittedly atheist. Maggie reaches out to James, a poet she admires, and the pair soon begin conversing regularly. Before long, Maggie and James are in the throws of a passionate, illicit affair. James provides Maggie with what she didn’t know she was missing; he encourages her to write and share her own poetry, and offers spiritually and intellectually satisfying theological debate. Though devoted to Thomas, Maggie struggles with her desires, and what she will lose if she continues in her affair with James.

You will watch the fire consume everything you care about. You will be left with ash – the proper and only end of any burning.

This book is as much about spirituality and monogamy as it is about the nature of female desire. In less capable hands, I don’t think this story would have been so effecting, but Jamie Quatro is a phenomenal writer. Her prose is haunting and poetic, resulting in a book that asks complex questions without surmising a moral standpoint.

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BOOK REVIEW | An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

4/5 stars

On the surface, this is a book about injustice, loyalty, and the ways in which we love. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find social commentary on what it means to be black in America. Without giving anything away, a young couple who seems to have it all is forcefully reminded that regardless of hard work and determination, they will not live the American dream.

Celeste and Roy are a young married couple, busy planning their lives and grappling with the decision of when, or if, to have children. Celeste is a successful artist and doll maker, and it’s easy to sense that Roy is on the brink of something great as an entrepreneur. One fateful evening will change the course of their lives for the next five years, leaving Celeste and Roy to untangle a mess and decide if love is enough to keep their marriage intact.

Jones’ writing is conversational and easy to digest; she pulls you into the story and is brutally honest in her message. There are a few strange elements at play here, such as Celeste’s dolls, or poupées, which often happen to resemble Roy in some way. I felt somewhat disconnected from the characters who are all deeply flawed; I often went back and forth with who I felt was right and just given the circumstances. That said, this is an engrossing read and I can certainly understand its popularity. This is the sort of book that plays out visually in your head – in fact, it would make a great movie. I wavered a lot with where to place my rating – sections of this book are five star worthy, but some areas felt like three stars – four seems like a good place to settle.

BOOK REVIEW | Live Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson

5/5 stars

“Name?” The desk clerk said to me politely… “Age?” She asked…”Occupation?”

“Writer,” I said.

“Housewife,” she said.

“Writer,” I said.

“I’ll just put down housewife, she said.

“Husband’s name?” She said…”Occupation?”

“Just put down housewife,” I said.

My first delve into Shirley Jackson’s non-fiction was beyond satisfying. I’ve read her horror, as well as Ruth Ware’s fantastic biography, and now, her humour. Life Among the Savages is a sort of memoir, Jackson reflecting on the mundanity of domestic life as well as raising her children – first two, then three, and by the end of the book, four.

It’s comforting to know that this book, first published in 1953, still rings true today. As a mom to two young boys, I often feel like I’m living among savages! Jackson’s characteristic dry wit turns moments of utter chaos into something many parents will relate to. Parenting is ruthless, absurd, challenging, rewarding, and the hardest work I’ve ever done – but I wouldn’t change anything about it. I only wish Jackson went a little deeper into the challenges of being a working mother, all while fulfilling the expected wifely duties; it’s bubbling there beneath the surface, but she never goes all the way in.

Those without kids can still enjoy this book – Jackson’s storytelling is as perfect here is it is in her fiction. These stories may be true or may be embellished, we’ll never know. Either way, this is a worthy read for any Jackson fan and I can’t wait to dig into Raising Demons, this book’s successor.

BOOK REVIEW | Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin

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5/5 stars

From the publisher:
Still known to millions primarily as the author of the The Lottery, Shirley Jackson (1916–1965) has been curiously absent from the mainstream American literary canon. A genius of literary suspense and psychological horror, Jackson plumbed the cultural anxiety of postwar America more deeply than anyone. Now, biographer Ruth Franklin reveals the tumultuous life and inner darkness of the author of such classics as The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

Placing Jackson within an American Gothic tradition that stretches back to Hawthorne and Poe, Franklin demonstrates how her unique contribution to this genre came from her focus on “domestic horror.” Almost two decades before The Feminine Mystique ignited the women’s movement, Jackson’ stories and nonfiction chronicles were already exploring the exploitation and the desperate isolation of women, particularly married women, in American society. Franklin’s portrait of Jackson gives us “a way of reading Jackson and her work that threads her into the weave of the world of words, as a writer and as a woman, rather than excludes her as an anomaly” (Neil Gaiman).

The increasingly prescient Jackson emerges as a ferociously talented, determined, and prodigiously creative writer in a time when it was unusual for a woman to have both a family and a profession. A mother of four and the wife of the prominent New Yorker critic and academic Stanley Edgar Hyman, Jackson lived a seemingly bucolic life in the New England town of North Bennington, Vermont. Yet, much like her stories, which channeled the occult while exploring the claustrophobia of marriage and motherhood, Jackson’s creative ascent was haunted by a darker side. As her career progressed, her marriage became more tenuous, her anxiety mounted, and she became addicted to amphetamines and tranquilizers. In sobering detail, Franklin insightfully examines the effects of Jackson’s California upbringing, in the shadow of a hypercritical mother, on her relationship with her husband, juxtaposing Hyman’s infidelities, domineering behavior, and professional jealousy with his unerring admiration for Jackson’s fiction, which he was convinced was among the most brilliant he had ever encountered.

Based on a wealth of previously undiscovered correspondence and dozens of new interviews, Shirley Jackson—an exploration of astonishing talent shaped by a damaging childhood and turbulent marriage—becomes the definitive biography of a generational avatar and an American literary giant.

My thoughts:
She kept it up until the end, sending her literary bombs unerringly to their targets, then standing back to watch them explode.

Ruth Franklin hit a home run for me with her comprehensive biography of the amazing Shirley Jackson. If you’re a fan of Shirley’s work, this is a must read. After reading this, I am more enamored with Shirley than I already was. She went against the grain in so many ways, and it was a pleasure to step into her world.

Franklin was granted access to many fascinating letters written by Shirley and her husband Stanley, which provided a truly intimate reading experience. Through the correspondence, we gain insight into their rocky marriage, as well as Shirley’s tenuous relationship with her mother, Geraldine. Reading this biography allows for a deeper understanding of many of Shirley’s works – whether it be humour or horror, Shirley wrote what she knew.

One of my favourite parts of the book comes in a discussion about Shirley’s humerous book about raising her children, Life Among the Savages. Franklin goes on to illustrate how much Shirley’s kids loved this book, displaying the book jacket in their kitchen and endearingly dubbing it Life Among the Cabbages.

Shirley was a woman who struggled greatly in her short life. She struggled with her relationships to her husband and mother, with her weight, financially, with household tasks, with her role was a working mother, and with her eventual agoraphobia. As a mother who works outside of the house in an anxiety ridden and fast paced world, I can relate to many of these challenges.

This is a detailed biography that does sway from the narrative at times, but I found all of those moments to be worthwhile. This book has a well deserved place alongside of Shirley’s on my shelves.

BOOK REVIEW | Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

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4/5 stars

From the publisher:
Anna was a good wife, mostly.

Anna Benz, an American in her late thirties, lives with her Swiss husband, Bruno—a banker—and their three young children in a postcard-perfect suburb of Zürich. Though she leads a comfortable, well-appointed life, Anna is falling apart inside. Adrift and increasingly unable to connect with the emotionally unavailable Bruno or even with her own thoughts and feelings, Anna tries to rouse herself with new experiences: German language classes, Jungian analysis, and a series of sexual affairs she enters with an ease that surprises even her.

But Anna can’t easily extract herself from these affairs. When she wants to end them, she finds it’s difficult. Tensions escalate, and her lies start to spin out of control. Having crossed a moral threshold, Anna will discover where a woman goes when there is no going back.

My thoughts:
The problem wasn’t that her bucket was empty, the problem was that it was full. So full it overbrimmed. So full and so heavy. Anna wasn’t strong enough to carry it.

Hausfrau really blew me away. I went into it knowing the basics: a modern day Anna Karenina or Madam Bovary about a woman who is dissatisfied in her marriage and has affairs to pass the boredom. I thought it would be a quick read without much depth. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Oh the surface, Jill Alexander Essbaum’s debut novel comes off as a typical story about a stay at home mom. Anna Benz has a beautiful life – a husband who provides for her and her 3 children, a nice home, nice clothes, and anything else she needs. Anna, however, is unhappy. She goes to therapy and undergoes much Jungian analysis to get to the root of her apathy, and her therapist often tells her “a bored woman is a dangerous woman”. While I disliked this phrasing, it proved true for Anna.

Anna has many, explicitly detailed, affairs throughout the story. We quickly learn that this is her drug of choice and coping mechanism, and it become clear she has lost control. In a heartbreaking affair scene, Anna internally cries out for her husband, whose attention she wants more than anything. All of this leads to startling revelations and a truly tragic turn of events.

Pain is the proof of life. That’s it’s purpose.

This book will not satisfy everyone’s taste, and I can see many readers being infuriated with Anna’s carelessness. I certainly felt this way for the first third of the book. However, there is a shift, and as I started to realize how far gone Anna was, I was able to find a place of empathy. Anna makes terrible decisions that result in terrible consequences, and I feel incredibly uneasy with how certain elements came to a close. However, this book ignited many strong opinions and gave me a lot to think about, and that is always a win for me.