Bookmarks Issue: 
Peter Orner

A-Love-and-Shame-and-Love-1Peter Orner, the author of the short story collection Ester Stories (2001), the novel The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo (2006), and two oral histories, was born in Chicago, the locale of his newest novel. A former Guggenheim Fellow, he currently teaches in the graduate writing program at San Francisco State University.

The Story: Alexander Popper first appeared, as a minor character, in Esther Stories, which devoted a section to a Jewish family in Chicago. In Love and Shame and Love, Popper dominates the story line--first as a sullen child, then as a depressive man unlucky in love with his bold, sharp-tongued girlfriend Kat, and then as a failed writer (and regretful lawyer) eager to escape his oppressive Jewish family. Through his jumbled collection of memories, three centuries of Poppers come alive: his unhappily married mother; his father, a lawyer and would-be politician who can't quite crack Chicago's Democratic Party; his bookworm brother, Leo; and his grandparents with their failed dreams. As the narrative shifts back and forth in time, Popper offers a melancholy look at love, memory, the disintegration of family, and, not least, a changing city.
Little, Brown. 439 pages. $24.99. ISBN: 9780316129398

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars"[There] is no action, no narrative through-line to tether the reader, except perhaps for the exquisitely rendered city of Chicago itself, where the book takes place. So it stands as a feat of laudable literary skill that Orner manages to use one-off vignettes to get at the really big happenings in life." Jessica Gelt

Miami Herald 4 of 5 Stars"Peter Orner's new novel is a deft character study of a family hiding the usual secrets and lies of contemporary life, but it's also a well-observed portrait of a city as rich in history, dirty tricks and deception as any of the people he puts in it. ... Orner excels at stripping away artifice and revealing the complicated, often contradictory workings of the human heart." Connie Ogle

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars"One of the novel's bravest moves is its unfashionable honesty about the hunger for a simple nuclear family. ... There's something noble and moving about Popper's resolute sorrow, about all the Poppers' largely unsuccessful struggles to connect to their times, to their city, to others." Maria Russo

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars"Orner has a fine ear for distinguishing these eras, the changing manner of marriage and labor, the way people talk, the city nightclubs giving way to neighborhood get-togethers. And later, in the '90s, when Alexander is a college student in love with a bold, witty woman, Orner captures the times just as accurately with an engaging blend of silly and intellectual patter that's distinctly modern. But the most striking aspect of this novel (besides the wistful line drawings by the author's brother) is its airy structure." Ron Charles

Minneapolis Star Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars"The novel demands patience early on, because the threads connecting three generations of Poppers aren't immediately obvious. ... Chicago's history, geography and racial tensions infuse its pages, and though the story ping-pongs across decades, its forward momentum rarely flags." Mark Athitakis

San Francisco Chronicle 3.5 of 5 Stars"To read Love and Shame and Love is like poring over a stranger's family photo album. At first it all seems a bit random and hard to sort out, but after a while you learn to recognize patterns, noticing in particular how these characters do what real people do across time: staying who they are in certain respects, but often growing apart." Malena Watrous

Wall Street Journal 3 of 5 Stars"The form ... is so unorthodox that it takes about 100 pages to acclimate to the novel and appreciate its effects. ... Instead of a sustained narrative, hundreds of snapshots from Alexander's past are pieced together--though ‘snapshots' suggests something static, and each of these eye-blink vignettes is animated by yearning and often by cries of desire or despair." Sam Sacks

Critical Summary

Peter Orner has earned a reputation as one of the best writers of "microfiction," in which each chapter in a novel ranges from a brief, evocative paragraph to one a few pages long. Although Love and Shame and Love garnered consistently good reviews, this unconventional structure seemed to be the major dividing point among critics, a few of whom initially felt disoriented by the approach. But Orner's witty, concise writing, melancholic character study, and homage to Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March soon won them over. Readers shouldn't expect an uplifting story, however, and they may have to read between the pages to make the story effectively cohere. But it's well worth the effort in this paean to a city and a family.