In search of the perfect work space…

This is where I work: on an espresso wood computer desk, overlooking a landscape of trees, in a nook in our bedroom right next to our bed.


I arrived here earlier this spring after years of in-house migration. Seriously, next to finding affordable health insurance, figuring out the best place to work is the next biggest challenge for the work-from-home-self-employed (or at least that’s true for us).

We’d bought our house several years ago, already knowing that we would be running a business from home. So we chose the house we’re in now, which has not only an extra bedroom but also a family/bonus room that is sort of sectioned off from the rest of the house. We knew that we could use one of them for our home office, and the other as a guest room. Over the last few years we have tried both.

Extra bedroom: Sunny and bright, with easy access to our then-still-little child. We often worked at night, so we liked the fact that we could hear him easily if he suddenly woke up crying. However, this room is pretty small, especially for an office for two people, and we soon wanted more space for our printer, books, files, etc.

Family room: Roomy – really, more room than we needed. Unfortunately, only after spending our days there did we realize how dark it is during waking hours. The forest of trees right outside the windows formed a fortress against the sun (as well as heat during winters), as if I needed any more reason not to report to work.

So, running out of ideas and rooms (I vetoed Max’s suggestion to create an office in the kitchen), I’m breaking all my rules of securing proper boundaries by moving my office into our bedroom. How many times have magazines warned “The bedroom is for sleep and sex only!”? Yes, in an ideal world that would be the case for all of us, wouldn’t it? But during my quest to find the best work spot I came to the conclusion that securing work/life balance is not as easy as dividing my life up into rooms. All I have to do to even think of work is to see the top of my laptop, or my iPhone. And yet, how much else of my life is in there? My family photos and videos, my Facebook and Goodreads accounts, my favorite blogs, my journal, my personal e-mails, my recipes…During any given work period I’m toggling between client documents and e-mails and Facebook and blogs. So, given our limitations, I decided that more important than finding a place for our business is finding a place for myself.

The place for myself is a spot that is drenched in sunlight and is private. It also has to be neat, which has required a lifestyle change on my part. My major accomplishment this summer had been to simply take (and keep) the clothes off of my chair and to make the surface of my desk visible. I bought a faux antique file organizer from Marshalls and I have a couple of decorative containers from Japan that currently hold my pens and sleeping pills (Nature Made sleep aids; I swear I don’t abuse these). I also have on my desk the two books that I’m currently reading, a bottle of mango scented lotion, a gargantuan bottle of Advil, a little clay dish and a gold origami crane that Fred had made for me, lip balm, my glasses, and my iPhone. None of this is for decorative effect, but I suppose it says something about what I consider essential to have at my fingertips. I don’t know what else I’d do with this space (maybe light scented candles or put up some photos?), but I will settle for clutter-free as my decor for the time being. I don’t care if I’m working with a client, writing a blog post, or shopping for shoes, as long as I feel at peace while doing it. After all, I am all of my jobs and activities – consultant, business owner, mother, friend, writer, reader – and by designating my work life to one room, I realized that I was dividing my life into Enjoyable and Not Enjoyable. I feel I need to find a way to both manage my boundaries while welcoming my work into my life as something that enriches rather drains.

windowMy view, not that I usually even remember to look out the window (I usually have the blinds down), is lovely when I do. I’m surrounded by a landscape of trees, obstructed by nothing. Aside from my four years on a picturesque New England college campus, this view is the most serene I’ve ever had. I’ve otherwise faced my share of garbage pick ups, parking lots, and buildings.

My work days, which take place during the hours Fred is in school and occasionally at night, are quiet, interrupted occasionally by the sound of the telephone (which I virtually never answer) and brief (work-related) visits by Max (who is now working out of our extra bedroom-turned-guest room (until there is a guest)). Over the eight years that we’ve had our business, I’ve gotten happily used to the absence of office politics and overly chatty co-workers. Over the last five years since Fred has started school I’ve gotten accustomed to longer stretches of time to concentrate without needing to juggle feedings, play time and potty supervision. I’ve gotten used to toggling over to Facebook when I feel like chatting or meeting Max in the kitchen when I want a coffee break. Once in a while I schedule a lunch or breakfast with a girlfriend or two. Is this work life isolating? Sometimes. Too quiet? Occasionally. Would I change anything about it? After almost two decades of working in large cities and spending 70% of my waking hours in bustling offices, nah. The privacy and the tranquility suit the introverted person I’ve returned to, and I can finally hear myself think.view

Where do you do your quiet work when you’re at home? And what constitutes an ideal work space for you?

Re-reading The Little Engine That Could: do children matter?

Little EngineFred finished his first day of 4th grade yesterday, and seemed tired from all the stimulation. So I wanted him to get into bed a little earlier than usual to get some extra sleep. “Pick something short from your library,” I told him, letting him know that we would have less time than usual to read.

After a couple of minutes, he walked into his room sheepishly, carrying The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper. “I don’t know why but I chose this.” He grinned, and plopped onto his bed beside me with the book.

A year ago I had gone through his library to pull out books he was no longer reading, donating some to his school and selling others at our first garage sale. But I’ve kept a number of his early childhood story books either because we like them or because they had been given to us as gifts, or both. Maybe 4 or 5 years ago, Fred had received The Little Engine That Could from my second grade teacher (yes, we are still in touch!).

I can’t remember the last time we read this together, but certainly it was the first time we’ve read it this year, at an age where my son has long been reading chapter books and recently begun thinking and worrying about the world.

For those of you who haven’t read this in years, I’ll give a recap:

A little train carrying toys and good food is trying to cross a mountain in order to deliver them to the children on the other side. On the way, the train breaks down, and they realize they are in danger of failing to make their delivery. So they wait and wait and flag down other trains who pass by, to see if they could help lead them across the mountain.

First a golden Passenger Engine stops, but when he realizes that the train in trouble is just a train of toys and food for children, he decides that he is too important to take them since, after all, he is used to carrying affluent adults who dine and sleep in his cars.

A second train then comes by, and this time it’s Freight Engine. His job is to transport printing machines for adults, used in printing books and newspapers. “I am a very important engine indeed. I won’t pull the likes of you!”, he says.

The third train that comes by is Rusty Old Engine, a train that appears to want to help if only he weren’t utterly exhausted and weak.

The train of toys and food are feeling hopeless and discouraged now, until finally, a small engine comes along who seems unsure of her ability and strength but decides to give it a go anyway, especially after she understands that children on the other side of the mountain are counting on the train. She chugs along, not without difficulty, but she makes it, and everyone is happy.

We read the book quickly, and this time Fred and I talked at length about it.

He understood that the book is about being confident in your abilities, to give things a try even if you might not think that you can do it, to be persistent when things are tough. He also pointed out  the importance of thinking about others and helping.

And then he said, “The first two trains think that children aren’t important.”

I’d always known that, but for some reason never paid much thought to it, chalking up the trains’ attitudes to simple arrogance. I’d focused instead on the well-known moral of the story, the “I think I can I think I can” message. But of course. This story is about a number of things, among them the status that our children occupy in society, and it saddened me that my son picked up on this. He also noticed that, in the end, it is a girl, and someone young, who ends up helping the children.

There are such strong parallels to the world we’re living in now. Fred and I talked about the money that is spent on the military versus money that is spent on education and child welfare. “But isn’t it also important to spend money on our country?” Fred asked. Yes, I told him. But then again, our children are our country, aren’t they? I made this clear to him.

I often scoff when Fred picks up an old childhood picture book, thinking that he is not gaining anything in his reading skills by regressing. But last night was an important reminder that not only he but I can gain and see so much more by going back.

What books do your children like to read and/or re-read? Have you also re-read your childhood favorites? If so, do you see them differently now as an adult?

Caring about what others think

I did something this week that was uncharacteristic of me; I turned down a social invitation even though I had no excuses, and I told the truth why.

A friend of mine had invited a rather large group of women to get together. I didn’t have anything on my calendar at the time, and, as members of my friend’s social circle, the women on the guest list were no doubt interesting, intelligent, and successful people. Unfortunately, I just couldn’t go through with it. (Couldn’t or wouldn’t – the two feel almost the same). I thought about the continuous small talk I’d need to engage in, the repeated explanations of what I do for a living, the awkwardness of sitting alone once small talk exhausts itself and the person has moved on to someone else, or has already found her niche. Not that I am anti-social or always awkward socially, but I’m outgoing and friendly in certain situations, in certain moods, and with certain people. And very likely 10 or even 5 years ago I would’ve put on my networking mask, told myself I needed to get out of my comfort zone, and gone. This time I questioned what was so wrong with being comfortable. And so I turned down the invitation and, instead of offering an excuse, I simply told my friend the truth (tactfully so, of course).

I remember when not caring about what others thought was such an alien concept – a shock that it was even a concept at all. I was 30 when I was introduced to a gentle 43-year-old divorcee on my first day at a new job. After we exchanged hello’s, my boss told me privately that Mina had come a long way since she turned 40 and became single again – better able to hold her own and less anxious about what others thought of her. That evolving to this emotional freedom was even a possibility in a woman who didn’t seem all that different from me was inspiring and hopeful. Emotional independence became a silver lining in the inevitability of one day turning 40: I had something to look forward to.

I’m now there – or here, rather, and I’ve noticed myself indeed drawing the line more and more. Over the years, marking this boundary has evolved from consciously choosing to responding instinctively to a desire to take care of myself. The PTA begging for volunteers, another friend asking for a favor, someone organizing a big party, a client asking for a last minute appointment, acquaintances wishing to get together when we travel. How and when to mark one’s territory is rarely an easy decision, because in some of these situations it’s the choice between being selfless and being selfish. It’s always been hard to make the selfish decision, but I find myself doing it more as I get older.

But it’s not always about sacrificing. Sometimes it’s about what others would think, and a matter of preserving the image that you want to project.  What would others think of you if you acted out of self interest, or chose to reveal the real you? I absolutely knew that I was taking a risk in telling the truth when I turned down the invitation. Though I consider the hostess my friend, our friendship was initially born in the context of a presumably shared professional and social status. I’m aware of the kind of image I should portray – someone confident, someone sociable, someone successful. So why did I risk presenting myself as a socially inept wimp? Because I believed that my friend deserved more than a lie, if even a white lie. Maybe deep down I wanted to “come out,” so to speak, to say, this is the real me. (This is probably why I keep a blog; it’s the one place where I can be authentic.) I’ve also recently come to believe that not liking big crowds is not a weakness; it’s a preference the way I like wine better than beer, or staying in the city over camping in the woods. I have social skills; they just don’t include working crowds of strangers.

Choosing to honor yourself – to not care about what others think – is also about asserting yourself: telling someone that the line starts back there, asking for your money back, telling an acquaintance, friend, or loved one that enough is enough. I think that for many women this strength, if latent before, kicks in during motherhood, when you have no choice but to protect and stick up for your children. I have one clear memory of being on the playground when we first moved back to the States, and Fred and I watched from the swings as a woman I’d never seen before picked up Fred’s bike helmet from the bench and put it over her daughter’s head and strapped it on. We were both incredulous, unsure of what her motive was, and for a couple of minutes I found myself hesitating to go up to the woman. Finally stirred by my 4-year-old’s increasingly insistent cries of “Mommy, it’s not right!” I swallowed my discomfort in confrontation and walked up to the woman. If I can’t do this for myself, I thought, I need to at least do it for my child, to signal to him that he has boundaries to be honored and to model a proper way for standing up for oneself. Assertiveness is not just marking your territory but becoming aware that you actually have a territory to mark, and that territory is defined by respect.

I remember so many women in college and in the years after who seemed to already be at the place that would take me four decades to reach, so it was reassuring when I later came to hear about women who started to come into this emotional independence in middle age. Why so relatively late for some women? For me part of it may be sheer exhaustion from having done so many things at the expense of my own needs and my desire for authenticity. I’m also much more aware of the passing of time now, and I’ve grown more assertive about how I want to spend the time that I do have.  Certainly it’s a greater inner strength that did require all those years to develop. I have a self now that I didn’t when I was younger, and more faith in myself and in others that I will not be chipped away with each no, disapproval and judgment.

How about you? Do you tend to worry about what others think? 

We Need New Names, by NoViolet Bulawayo

WeNeedNewNamesI picked up NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names because I knew it was about the immigrant experience (a genre I am interested in) of a girl from Africa (a country I have not read much about). Of course, I have also heard enough good things about the book and most recently learned that it had made the Booker Prize Long List.

We Need New Names is told from the point of view of Darling, a 10-year-old girl at the start of the book. In the first half of the book we follow Darling as she travels in a pack with her friends Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Sbho, and Stina. Through her adventures with her friends we get to see Zimbabwe post-colonial rule and during the Robert Mugabe regime. Darling’s family and all those around her have been displaced, and live in a shanty town they call Paradise. The schools have been closed and the men have relocated to find work (in typically dangerous conditions). The women and children left have little in the way of food and belongings and Darling’s group of friends makes a pastime of stealing guavas in the neighboring wealthy and white town. They run into Chinese businessmen who have now penetrated Zimbabwe; encounter a dubious evangelist; witness a white couple being driven from their home by militant protestors; attempt to perform an abortion on their 11-year-old friend. The most powerful chapter for me, in the first half of the book, is one that talks about AIDS. I was struck that the overwhelming emotion portrayed was not that of fear or loss but of shame.

The second half of the book takes place in America. Many Zimbabweans are fleeing the country, after elections fail to bring change. Darling moves alone to join her aunt in Michigan. Here we see Darling’s view of America as an outsider, and there are a number of things that shock her, from the lack of wealth and comfort that she had come to expect to the odd attempts that she finds Americans making to show interest in and empathy for Africans. She also struggles to reconcile her desire to remain in America with her longing for home, a place where she can’t live and yet the one place that makes sense to her.

Darling’s voice drives this book: it is energetic and spunky, childlike yet razor-sharp. There are many things she doesn’t understand or has never seen, and it is in her attempted descriptions for which she cannot find the proper names that we see her innocence as well as the knowledge and experiences that we take for granted. She has, for example, no name for “pizza,” and no name for that condition in which pretty women who seemingly have it all intentionally starve themselves. She notices everything and doesn’t let anything go. As a reader, too, I felt pulled by Darling to pay attention, to see the things that are not right and to have an opinion.

Though some reviewers have said that the second half of the book falls flat, especially in comparison to the vivid and powerful images of Zimbabwe in the first half, I personally took well to the story of her life in America. Having lived abroad for some time, I am always interested in seeing how others see Americans. I was able to relate to many of her observations and opinions, either through my own experiences or through those of other immigrants and expats that I have talked to. One of her final chapters, narrated by a collective “we” of immigrants, was especially powerful for me, as I imagined her speaking for my parents, whose voices I have never truly heard. There is a whole genre of literature written by first generation Americans, but I have often wondered what these parents would say, if they had the courage to publish their words. Here is a quote from the book:

They died waiting [for their children to return home], clutching in their dried hands pictures of us leaning against the Lady Liberty, graves of lost sons and daughters in their hearts, old eyes glued to the sky for fulamatshinaz to bring forth lost sons and daughters. We could not attend their funerals because we still had no papers, and so we mourned from afar. We shut ourselves up and turned on the music so we did not raise alarm, writhed on the floor and wailed and wailed and wailed.

When I was 9, in America, my parents, too, were unable to attend the funeral of my grandfather. We didn’t have our papers either, and if we left the country we would not have been able to come back. The phone call had come in the morning, I remember; my mother picked up, clasped her hand over her mouth, and handed the receiver to my dad: “Your father has died.” They couldn’t do anything.

There are so many things I appreciated about Darling’s story, but in terms of my reading experience I felt a bit mixed. It is likely a matter of personal taste, but the child’s point of view was unexpected, and while an effective method for telling the story, it was limiting as well. The book seems to be pulled together through a series of vignettes – one chapter on stealing guavas, one chapter on the attempted abortion, one chapter on AIDs, etc. – rather than a story that builds up through a more crafted thread. Perhaps this structure reflects the reality of our memories – that when we look back, we do remember in terms of vignettes and scenes.

I was more pulled in in the second half of the book, when Darling’s voice matures as she gets closer to adulthood. Her writing is more thoughtful there (and by the way, Bulawayo’s writing is beautiful throughout) and a bit more philosophical, and I felt that I got more out of the story. The few characters in her life then – her aunt, her uncle, her two girlfriends – are present throughout the whole second half, so I felt there was a bit more character development and consistency as well.

Overall, I am glad I was able to read this new author and I’ll be looking forward to seeing her future work.

Stress and growing pains (a back-to-school post)

I didn’t get much uninterrupted sleep over the last week. Fred was struggling with a cold and an on-again-off-again fever, night terrors, and complaints of mysterious leg pain at odd hours of the night.

I can attribute all of this to any number of things — the hectic travel schedule we had this summer, summer camp fatigue, recirculated air, too much t.v., too much video game playing, too much sugar…and/or…I can blame it on August, the ending of summer and a time when his half-brother returns home 7,000 miles away, and the anticipation of a new year at school.

As in tune to my child as I’d like to think I am, I haven’t always been successful in seeing when he is anxious. After all, he is not likely to come to me and say, “Mommy, I’m nervous about starting school and about the academic and social pressures that I’ll be facing this year.”

Of course part of it is because it’s too easy to get wrapped up in the day-to-day to always see beyond the surface, to know that your child might be talking back to you or overreacting over small inconveniences not because he’s being difficult but because something deeper is unsettling him.

It can be hard, too, because we might have forgotten exactly what it’s like to be 5 on the verge of starting kindergarten or 6 about to head into 1st grade or 10 wrapping up the final year before moving on to middle school. By now, we’ve conquered so many feats from surviving high school to passing any number of job interviews to graduating from the dating world to giving birth. Our adult brain with all its experience and wisdom and a certain amount of amnesia now ranks moving on to the next grade in school as nerve-wracking as taking that first step into a cocktail party; it’s uncomfortable but after a couple of drinks and some introductions we know we’ll sail through.

It’s also harder for me to notice the signs, I suppose, because I had it harder, just like my parents had it harder than I when they were in China. Growing up in my family we’d heard so many versions of “When I was your age I had to walk three miles to school without shoes.” (The joke for our generation is “When I was your age I had to get up to turn the t.v. channel. ;-)) As a first generation American, though, things were quite difficult for a good number of years while my parents were trying to get established in a country where they didn’t know the language or customs. They fought all the time from the stress, to the point where I used to run into bed and hide as soon as I heard my father coming home from work. For the first 10 years we lived in a 2-room apartment in a pretty bad part of town, and one night when I was about Fred’s age I heard a woman get shot outside my bedroom window while I was trying to sleep. I never talked to anyone about how I was feeling, but my body was screaming through headaches, stomachaches, tics and canker sores. And I coped by turning inward, to reading, writing, drawing, and daydreaming.

Those years feel like a lifetime ago, and today we have everything – my modest definition of everything. We live in a safe community, a beautiful home (once I organize it), and we have the luxury (and burden) of knowing that Fred never needs to suffer or want for anything. He travels, takes piano and martial arts lessons, studies foreign languages, reads books he is running out of room for, plays freely outside with his friends. He is safe and he is incredibly loved. To me, he has absolutely everything.

Interestingly, though, that is how my parents saw me as well: blessed and privileged. In their eyes I got to grow up in America, to know English, to attend school all the way through graduate studies without ever needing to question otherwise, to not know the threat of soldiers or invasions, to never have to go a day without food, and to grow up with both parents (my father was on his own from 16 and my mother never saw her father). My parents had not seen the stress I was suffering, because they thought I had everything.

Nine years ago when I was an expat in Japan and home alone with a new baby, I spent a good deal of time on a mothers’ forum on the internet. I was living in the suburbs then and knew no one and couldn’t speak the language well. I was grappling with some level of post-partum depression or “blues” as well, and though new to the whole world of social media, decided one day to reach out and talk about my feelings of isolation, especially with my husband away at work 16 hours a day.  I received many sympathetic and encouraging responses, but one woman brusquely responded that at least my husband wasn’t stationed in Afghanistan, that those wives were the ones who had it hard.

Her response humbled, hurt and angered me. If I were to compare my troubles against the troubles of the world, then I should simply keep my mouth shut, something I had been doing my whole life anyway, up until I posted that message to the forum. Absolutely many have it harder. There are women raising families alone, women living with disabilities, women being beaten by their spouses, women being sold into prostitution, women being raped and mutilated and murdered — where do I stop? And yet the fact that others have it harder or worse – and even the awareness and appreciation that they do – does not lessen my need for comfort during my own times of difficulty, even if the difficulties seem paltry against the world’s larger and innumerable problems.

And so for all the parenting mistakes I have made, I am grateful that I have managed to not belittle the stresses felt by my son, comparing his experiences against mine. Over dinner with family friends the other day, Fred said, “Teachers yell more in the 4th grade. In kindergarten and first grade they’re nice to you and they take care of you, but they yell more and more after that. And there’s going to be bullying, and bullying tends to take place around lockers.” This is thanks to stories, rumors, books, and too much Nick at Night. But this is also the reality that my rising 4th grader believes he will face in the coming year – the certain extrication from childhood, the entry into a more unknown and threatening stage of boyhood – and that can be pretty stressful for anyone.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland

LowlandI received an advance copy of Jhumpa Lahiri’s much anticipated The Lowland to briefly review on another site. Though I am not obligated to do so anywhere else, I enjoyed it so much that I wanted to discuss it here as well (no spoilers).

The book, told in alternating points of view of several characters, begins and ends with two very close brothers, Subhash and Udayan. The setting in the early part of the book is Calcutta in the 1960s, during the rise of the Naxalite movement. The Naxalite movement was born in West Bengal in 1967 when a communist leader Choru Majumdar and another man Kanu Sanyal led a campaign against what they believed was an exploitative landlord. The uprising, following the ideology of Mao Zedong, soon gained impassioned followings in various districts throughout India and led to a militant and violent revolution.

Udayan becomes involved in this movement while Subhash wants out: out of India, out of the pressures to care the way Udayan cares. Subhash chooses to leave for America to pursue a Ph.D. and they argue about what it means to be selfish. Is it more selfless to sacrifice yourself to a political cause for your country, even if it means taking yourself away from those who love and depend on you? Is it more selfish to pursue your own safe dreams, benefiting yourself but following the path that your parents sacrificed and wanted for you? Subhash does want out but not out of his brother’s life, and he fears losing their relationship because of the choice he’s made.

Shortly into the book, after Subhash moves to America to begin his studies, an unexpected turn of events catalyzes the direction that the fate of three generations will take. These family members will be struck like dominoes. Some of them will be placed in situations where they face decisions that will forever impact those coming before, with, and after them.

The argument that Subhash and Udayan have about what it means to be selfish and selfless reverberates throughout the book. How do we negotiate this war between honoring our self and honoring our family? Can we respect and nurture one without sacrificing the other, without inflicting on our loved ones haunting ramifications? Though this is ultimately a love story – the love between parents and children, husband and wife, brother and brother – loneliness is the most palpable emotion. Incredible loneliness inflicted at the hands of those we love most, loneliness because of the choices our loved ones decided to make. We risk loss and rejection whenever we love, but among blood ties, within family, shouldn’t there be no risk to love at all? How do we protect ourselves from hurt in what should be our safest haven? How do we move on from loss or can we ever?

The story, in the end, is about more than the relationship between two brothers. The female character, Gauri, carries many of the weightiest themes in the book. I found her the most complex and infuriating character, and I’m not sure if this is because she has the most complex issues to deal with, if it’s because I’m a woman and I can imagine her struggles best, or if it’s because Lahiri spent the most time developing her as a character, since the climax of the story centers around her and the decision she had made. Udayan and Subhash are much more unidimensional in comparison, I thought, convenient polar opposites of one another.

Despite this, I found The Lowland a sobering, emotional, and thrilling read (I’d stayed up later than I wanted to on one too many nights). It’s been a few years since I’ve read The Namesake but The Lowland feels to me more ambitious, more emotionally challenging as a reader. I was constantly struggling against judgment, finding myself, for example, condemning one character for 3/4 of the book until I was forced to admit that I can imagine, even see, a part of myself in this person. The story pushes us to think about how differently we all view and define sacrifice and to ask of ourselves, too, what it is that we are willing to give and what it is that we would give up.

                      He takes it in a final time, knowing he will never visit this place again. He walks toward another stone and stumbles, reaching out to it, steadying himself. A marker, toward the end of his journey, of what is given, what is taken away.

                                                                                     – from The Lowland

In the coming months I’m planning on reading and reviewing a few of the titles from the Booker Prize Long List. The Lowland is the first of these titles.

The Literary Wives Book Club

I’m very excited to announce that I’ll be co-hosting a virtual book club called Literary Wives on this blog (!).literarywives1

Literary Wives started earlier this spring, where 4 writers read and blogged about the meaning and role of wife in 4 select books. (The next time you go into a bookstore, check out how many book titles there are with the word “wife” in it – and in the possessive form!) The books read in Part 1 of the series included American Wife, The Paris Wife, A Reliable Wife, and The Aviator’s Wife.  Part 2 is starting up, and I’m really thrilled to be contributing as one of the bloggers. Every other month, we will post our thoughts on a selected title, including answers to the following 2 questions:

1. What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

2. In what way does this woman define “wife”—or in what way is she defined by “wife”?

Though we wear many hats, certainly “wife” (or partner or spouse) is a major one for those in committed relationships, and it was the role I dreamt most of taking on when I was a little girl. My expectations about what it means to be a wife have of course evolved and sophisticated since I was seven, but I still find this topic a fascinating one to study, especially in historical and cultural contexts.

Ahab's WifeOur first read this fall will be Ahab’s Wife by Sena Naslund, an epic novel told from the point of view of Una Spenser, the wife of Captain Ahab in Herman Mellville’s Moby-Dick. We’ll see 19th century America through Una’s eyes and voice, and it should be an interesting perspective and counter to the very masculine Moby-Dick.

We’ll post our thoughts on October 1, and we would love it if any of you are interested in reading and blogging along as well! I have also added a page for the book club in the top menu of my blog. I’ll keep updates of our reading list and schedule there.

(Note: One reader asked if I was planning on changing the focus of my blog and the answer is no; I will continue as always except on October 1 and December 1 I will have a post reviewing our book club’s selected titles.)

The Literary Wives Reading Literary Wives

In the meantime, I’d like to introduce to you the other co-hosts and their wonderful blogs, where you can find posts about earlier Literary Wives reads and other book reviews and musings on the reading life:

ArielAriel of One Little Library 

Ariel is an editorial assistant at a Southern California publishing house. A literature enthusiast, she likes heroines full of gumption and conflicts fraught with ethical dilemmas. Her favorite book is and always will be Jane Eyre.


Audra of Unabridged Chick

Audra is a 30-something married lesbian with a thing for literary fiction and historical novels, classic noir and vintage favorites.  She lives in Boston with her wife and works for a non-profit.  She loves interesting heroines, gorgeous prose, place as character, and the occasional werewolf.

Carolyn O pictureCarolyn O of Rosemary and Reading Glasses 

After five years in graduate school, Carolyn O is on hiatus to be the read-at-home-parent to her small son. She works as an editor, proofreader, and writer on the side, and hopes to return to teaching soon. She loves used bookstores, early modern drama and poetry, feminism, and anything Joss Whedon creates.

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J. Emily

Emily is a Ph.D. student studying professional communication who has worked as an editor and a composition instructor. She is the mother of two little girls and loves chocolate and ice cream. The thing she wants most right now is a day in bed with a good book, preferably fiction.

LynnLynn of Smoke & Mirrors

Lynn is an avid (some might say “obsessive”!) reader, former Borders bookseller (my dream job!), and now blogger of books and reviews! My only limitation to reading and posting more often is that necessary full-time job! I am mother to three sons, soon-to-be 10 (yes, 10!) grandchildren, and one beautiful and “purr”fect gray kitty, Smokie…oh, and perhaps most importantly, I can count one of the kindest, most caring, and complex men I’ve ever known as my full-time partner and husband! Life is good!

Flaws and friendships

I had a wonderful, cathartic time over coffee this morning with a friend. We live close to each other but were both away most of the summer. In the intervening weeks I had met up with old friends and caught up with others on line, friends of different intimacy levels, friends who satisfy different needs. There is the friend with whom I can be freely neurotic about my child’s future, the friends who can relate on the the cross-cultural issues, the friend who has known me since I was Fred’s age and before I became the person that all my other friends know, the friend around whom I feel some pressure to show my best (most intelligent, put-together) side, the friends who don’t care if they see my worst.

Few people fit like a glove, and in any friendship there is a getting-to-know-you, a checking out of style and expectation that we try and adjust to and work with in order to ensure the growth of friendship. We don’t always fit like a glove but we try to make a good fit. It means that sometimes we learn to be friends with someone who goes against our grain, a little, or we temper something in ourselves in order to make us a little easier for our friend to take.

We give and take, and ask ourselves what we can live with and what we cannot. In doing so, I’ve come to learn that the quality I appreciate and need the most in a friend is acceptance. It’s the ability to confess that I’d been depressed, or that I’ve been feeling incompetent, or that I’d just had this horrible fight with my husband. And that is all I need – just the ability to do all of this. It means that this friend has, long before, created an environment in which I can go to her and do this – pour it, myself – out to her, and feel absolutely safe.

When it comes to friendships, our animal instincts kick in; somehow we know whom we can go to and whom we cannot. But sometimes I test the waters. I do that by seeing how much that friend tells me about herself, how she reacts when I confess something personal. It does sting when I realize, or imagine, that I am being judged. A non-reaction when you expect one, a look that says nothing, a barely traceable scowl or raising of an eyebrow. Women often avoid conflict, prefer not to say anything if they can’t say anything nice at all. Is the quiet look at the period of my sentence a look of criticism? I wish I could tell; I wish I were daring enough to ask, “What are you really thinking of me?” But that silent exchange of assumptions has just placed a solid barrier between us.

We also want to give, as friends. That a friend is willing to take from me means that I’ve earned her trust. As much as I appreciate her listening to whatever issue it is that is going on with me, it would only feel like a true friendship if she felt the same trust toward me. I have to earn this, I know, although sometimes it doesn’t come, no matter how hard you believe you’ve tried. It is difficult for some people to say, to show, too much. I don’t know if it is a matter of trust or a matter of shame, a wall that no one, no matter how well-intentioned and trusted, can bring down. I’ve been saddened by the drifting away of one friend, who’d gone from chatting with me regularly to barely responding to e-mails ever since her husband had gone from a prestigious position to something humbler. You let her know that you want to be there in the hard times, but she only wants to be seen during the good.

These may be the friends who make you think twice before you continue to confess you are merely human. If she is too ashamed to admit that she has flaws or doubts or bad days, how will she feel about yours?

I started this blog anonymously, and in many ways it still is fairly anonymous. I don’t use real names, except for my given name. I don’t post personal photos. But slowly, over the years, as I’ve tested the waters and developed thicker writer’s skin, I’ve released my blog to more and more “real life” friends, a big step because unlike in the on-line world of personal and confessional blogging, acceptance is not necessarily the modus operandi of relationships made in the larger world. But several old friendships of mine have been rekindled through my blog, and I have been heartened and grateful for that. I don’t believe that masking flaws makes us any more perfect on the outside, or any more admired, and I hope that in readily admitting mine, I am offering the kind of acceptance to my friends and readers that can make real connection and friendship possible.

Reading habits and quirks

A friend of mine once suggested that I write a post on my reading habits, which got me thinking. Reading, while an enjoyment so universal that we form book clubs, blogs, and social media sites based on it, is still a very private activity in many ways. I mean, I rarely read with or around people who are not family. I’m thus not privy to this activity that is usually done in the privacy of one’s personal space and time, and I admit that whenever I do learn of someone’s reading habits – for example, I catch a friend pulling a novel out of her purse in the middle of a museum, or a friend tells me that she reads in the bathtub – I feel almost the way I do when I walk into a friend’s bathroom and find a shelf of magazines and books next to the toilet. Wow, I think to myself; so this is how they “do it.”

Below, I write about some of my reading habits and quirks (and I’d love to hear about yours):

Where and When

I read in the following places:

1. my bed

2. our chaise lounge in the living room

3. our car

4. Fred’s martial arts classes/piano lessons/Chuck E. Cheese/any place where I am waiting longer than 15 minutes for Fred and/or Max

5. on the plane/in the airport

I never read in a chair at home, on the toilet, in the bath, or standing up. I think this has mainly to do with concentration and comfort.

I try to read daily though in reality it’s more like 4-6 days/week. Unfortunately, I don’t start until late at night. Fred falls asleep late, especially now that it’s summer, and once he’s in bed I end up on the computer. (I’d like to say that I’m cleaning or folding laundry during that time, but I’m not.) By the time I climb into bed with my book, it’s usually well past 11 p.m. I read anywhere between 20 minutes to 2 hours, and I’m awake again between 5 and 6:30 in the morning. I’ve been trying to enforce a no-technology past 9 or 10 p.m. rule for myself but I haven’t been successful.

I read one book at a time for the most part.


I love paperbacks. I know this is the cheaper version, but I really prefer it over hardcovers. I like the texture of paperbacks and the way they flex. When I am shopping for books I flex them not too unlike the way I flex Fred’s sneakers when we’re looking for shoes. Also, they’re just lighter and easier to hold.

I hate e-books though I love the way my Kindle feels. I almost never read from my Kindle at home but when I’m traveling it’s a constant companion. I actually find myself reading more and faster on the Kindle. I love that I can adjust the font size, and I make the font BIG. I am literally reading about 2 paragraphs a page if even that, which makes the text very non-intimidating and a breeze to get through. I was quite surprised when I once finished a 200+ page book in a matter of hours – I normally wouldn’t be able to do that with a physical book.

Buying Vs. Borrowing

For a long time I stayed away from libraries and used book sales because I have this thing about second-hand stuff (though I’m not totally averse if it’s clean), and books are one of them. Mind you, I worked throughout my high school years in a public library, so I am a huge supporter of libraries. It’s just that I’d shelved away many a book that was dusty, musty, sticky, or stuck with hair. I’d also gone to used book sales and found nothing but yellowing and decaying books. All of this made shelling out $16 for a new paperback seem worthwhile.

Until one day a few years ago, when I stumbled into our town library’s used book sale. I couldn’t believe the finds. A like-new hardcover of Ian McEwan’s Atonement for $1! Title after title would be like this. I think it’s because we live in an academic town, where college students and professionals are transient; they move into town, pick up books (sometimes not even having read them), and get rid of them once they move on.

I love the library and I would go more regularly except I have too many books already sitting on my shelves at home due to these book sales. I haven’t counted but I probably have enough books to last me another 3 years at least.

The reason I do enjoy buying over borrowing is that I love having books. I like having a library and being able to browse my shelves the way I would in a library or bookstore. I attach a great deal of value to good books, and I suppose I view them the way some people view paintings: you don’t want to just look at them and move on…you want to keep them. I skimp on the nice clothes, jewelry, shoes, designer bags, but I indulge in my books.

Judging a Book By Its…

I was never horribly picky until I became old enough to understand that the time left in my life is finite while the number of good books available is not. I have a system for choosing which books are worth reading for me. The following are not make or break but, like the SAT or a teacher’s recommendation in a college application, just some of the factors that I look at when it comes to short-listing my reading list:

– The book has positive reviews from certain sources. There are certain critics with whom I don’t share the same interests and tastes, so seeing reviews by certain trusted sources allows me to know if a book is at least a possibly right fit and worth exploring further.

– It has 4.5 stars on Amazon. Now, I know about the game playing that goes on behind some reviews and of course there are some real nut jobs out there. And, just because a Harlequin romance gets 4.5 stars doesn’t mean I will want to read it. However, if it’s a title I’m intrigued about, 4.5 stars says to me that  enough people are excited that it is worth seeing what the buzz is all about.

– I have seen the book endorsed by either of my two favorite book bloggers. I don’t know if they’ll feel any pressure if they knew they were a part of my system, but I respect what they write and I feel from having read their posts that we have similar interests and tastes.

– Recommendations by friends. It’s always such a treat when you meet a friend who loves books as much as you do and one of the most fun exchanges is book recommendations. This can be a tricky area though, when, for example, a friend lends you the book that she absolutely loved, and you dive into it only to realize that you don’t like it. Despite this, I tend to be more comfortable taking recommendations than giving them; I’d feel too much responsibility if I steered a friend toward a book she didn’t like. So I try to be discriminate in my book recommendations, and at the least explain how the story feels (e.g., “It really makes you think though it’s a bit meditative and not what I would call a page-turner”) so that my friend can judge for herself, since what constitutes a good read differs even from one good friend to another.


Over the years I have learned to ban the following sources of guilt from my reading life:

Books that I might not necessarily hold up for the world to see I am reading (i.e., guilty pleasures) – I think that non-literature reading – romance, chick lit, sci fi, what have you – can make us more interesting as people and, of course, life a little more worth living. My latest such purchase is Sweet Hell on Fire: A Memoir of the Prison I Worked In and the Prison I Lived In by Sara Lunsford. The title pretty much sums it up. As I’ve written before, I love memoirs, and I love being able to learn about a life that is different from mine. It doesn’t have to be William Styron or Maya Angelou all the time. I’ve also gone through a ghost stories phase and, in my 20s, a major self-help phase (e.g., Men Who Hate Women and the Women Who Love Them; what is it with these titles!). In my teens I couldn’t get enough of V.C. Andrew’s Flowers in the Attic series.

Books that make me look smart but I don’t quite get or cannot get into – My favorite genre is still literary fiction, but sometimes a critically acclaimed book or classic just doesn’t do it for me. Maybe something’s missing upstairs, or I’m not at the “right” time in my life to appreciate a particular story, or I don’t have the time to really get into something deeply enough to get it, but I’ve sometimes questioned myself for not being able to see all the magnificence of a book that literary reviewers and prize committees see. The writers of such books tend to be older white men, but I don’t know if that has anything to do with it. I also like my fair share of books written by white men. Anyway, that slight feeling of insecurity and uncertainty brings back memories of my days as an English Lit major at an elite northeastern college, where I was a good student but outside of the top circle in my department.

Abandoning books – Guilt over not finishing a book never stopped me from stopping, but I used to let the guilt hang on even after I’d abandoned the book; I don’t anymore. A friend once said that pleasure reading is not pleasure if you’re forcing yourself to do it. I already have my college diploma – my reading is no longer required and I am no longer being tested on anything. When returning to a book each night feels like a chore the way cleaning the shower stall does, I know it’s time to move on.

And speaking of moving on, it’s probably time that I do. What reading habits and quirks do you have?