Women’s Friendships, Women’s Voices, in The Story Hour

The Story Hour by Thrity Umrigar is about the friendship of two women from two different cultures, whose complicated personal histories and cultural values eventually lead to judgment and misunderstanding and threaten to end their relationship.

Lakshmi is a 30-something woman who immigrated to the US from India to join her Indian husband, a store and restaurant owner. As we are introduced to Lakshmi, we begin to understand how lonely she is in the US and in her marriage. She feels no love from her husband who treats her more like a possession than a partner and who has forbidden her from ever contacting her family again. Lakshmi tries to kill herself one night (this is written on the back cover), and while hospitalized is assigned to talk to Maggie, an African-American psychologist.

Lakshmi’s husband scoffs at the idea of therapy and tells Maggie they cannot afford it. At that point Maggie tells them that she will meet with Lakshmi in her home without charge.

With the therapy sessions Lakshmi gradually comes to develop a voice for the first time, encouraged to believe that her stories are worth telling. As she tells her stories and becomes braver in her trust in Maggie, she reveals more and more, and we learn that her marriage to her husband is not what it seems.

At the same time, and unbeknownst to Lakshmi, Maggie is dealing with her own issues in her marriage and questioning how much her abusive relationship with her father has impacted her and her relationships to this day.

Toward the latter half of the book, the issues of the two women clash and come to a head, and both are reeling in their judgment of one another. Both are not the people they had imagined the other to be.

I enjoyed this book quite a bit. To me it was women’s literature without being chick lit. There is the cultural piece, for those who want to read “diversely”; as an Asian-American who’s very familiar with how it feels to have one foot in one culture, I saw well the cultural differences that Lakshmi and Maggie were dealing with. Do you honor family or do you honor yourself? Is passion in marriage more important or duty? In very traditional Asian cultures, it is often hard to have both.

Mostly, I enjoyed the psychological complexity as I’m always drawn to stories of basically good human beings who are confronted with difficult life decisions and choices. I thought this was an intriguing study of two women with complicated histories that are made more complex by the cultures in which they grew up. It’s also an interesting story about women’s friendship and the expectations we have for our women friends. We can want and love so much and at the same time be very judgmental and unforgiving. In the case of Lakshmi and Maggie, I’ve wondered how much each was projecting on to the other, and did judging the other make it somehow easier to accept (or not think about) one’s own mistakes? This would be a fun book to read in a book club.

What Matters Most in Life: We Are Not Ourselves, by Matthew Thomas

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas is frequently touted as a novel about the American Dream but I’d like to think of it as a story about what it means to define meaning and happiness in one’s life, and that’s something that anyone – American or not, immigrant or not – can relate to.

Eileen Tumulty was born to poor and alcoholic Irish immigrants in Queens, New York. She was a hard worker and grew up with ambitious dreams. She wanted to make a life of which she’d be proud and in which she’d be happy and secure, and that included succeeding in her own career and marrying well, preferably to someone who wasn’t Irish. Well, things don’t work out exactly according to plan in terms of marriage, as she ends up falling in love with Ed Leary, another Irish-American. But he is kind and he is an academic – a promising scientist and professor – and so she optimistically begins her life with him. They eventually have a son, after years of battling fertility issues.

As Eileen rises in the ranks as a nurse, Ed receives but turns down opportunities to rise in the way that she wants him to. Instead of taking a position at a lucrative pharmaceuticals company (if I remember correctly), he decides to take a teaching position at a community college. Later, instead of seizing a chance to move to the prestigious NYU (New York University), he chooses to stay at the community college. His decisions exasperate Eileen to no end, who has visions of continuously climbing “up” in life. She is also secretly annoyed at the “browning” of her neighborhood and yearns to move into a more affluent and higher status part of town. Ed is adamant about staying where they are. Without his knowledge, Eileen begins visiting dream houses with a real estate agent.

Then one day they receive devastating news, and the rest of the book centers around this seismic shift in their family. It’s an event that causes Eileen to look back on her life and to question her long-held assumptions about what is important to her.

This is a lovely story about so many things, in particular the struggle to marry one’s dreams and definition of happiness with that of one’s partner. It is also about marriage and parenting and the sacrifices and endurance that both require. In my quick summary I don’t think I paint a very appealing portrait of Eileen, but she is a more complex and sympathetic character than what you see here. She’s got a lot of grit and she is tremendously devoted to her family. I find her quite realistic.

At over 600 pages long, the book is also a surprisingly easy and quick read for the most part. I will say that I started to lose steam at around page 400, so I guess I felt it was about 150 pages too long. The story moves along at the pace of life, and though it’s been described as an “epic,” it is a quiet story about an ordinary family. This is not one of those sprawling sagas spanning generations and filled with family secrets and twists and turns. The Learys’ story could be any family’s story.

So I was not the most enthusiastic reader during those last 200 pages, until I came upon this, something that Ed says to his son Connell:

Picture yourself in one of your cross-country races. It’s a hard pace this day. Everyone’s outrunning you. You’re tired, you didn’t sleep enough, you’re hungry, your head is down, you’re preparing for defeat. You want much from life, and life will give you much, but there are things it won’t give you, and victory today is one of them. This will be one defeat; more will follow. Victories will follow too. You are not in this life to count up victories and defeats. You are in it to love and be loved. You are loved with your head down. You will be loved whether you finish or not. (page 594)

In my opinion, this is as much a message to Eileen as it is to Connell. We have to accept that life will not give us everything we want.

You are in it to love and be loved. You are loved with your head down. You will be loved whether you finish or not.

And sometimes people, books, words, etc. have a way of finding you when you need them most. I was going through a soul searching struggle in my parenting, trying to break the cycle of severe self-criticism that extended to my parenting, and these lines almost brought me to tears.

(Literary Wives) Not Enough Marital Connection and Too Much Facebook: Wife 22

I apologize for my sporadic writing of late, but I’m back to review our (on-line book club) Literary Wives’ October book, Wife 22 by Melanie Gideon.

Wife 22 is a book about contemporary issues: growing disconnections in family – between mother and children and especially between wife and husband – and the role that technology has come to take in the modern family.

Alice Buckle is a 44-year-old mother to two (a surly teenage girl named Zoe and a still affectionate tween boy named Peter) and wife to William, an advertising professional who loses his job about a third of the way through the book. Alice is a passionate playwright who now, because of family commitments or a past failure, works part-time for the drama department at the local elementary school with funds from the PTA. Like many upper middle class suburban wives, she is trying to juggle schedules, raise good kids who would still like her, make sure she hasn’t lost her husband in the midst of parenting, and, somehow, remember what her own needs are.

Twenty years into her marriage, though, she is falling apart. Her position at the elementary school is shaky; her daughter is constantly sarcastic toward her; she is nearing the age at which her own mother had died; her husband feels like a stranger; and she is spending too much time on Facebook.

Then one day Alice receives an invitation to participate in a marriage survey/research study. She accepts it and is assigned the anonymous username “Wife 22.” She is given a lengthy set of personal questions asking her to reflect on her marriage and on marriage and love in general. She is paired up with an equally anonymous “Researcher 101” with whom she occasionally and then, eventually, frequently corresponds. Their emails soon become more and more flirtatious and more and more intimate. Alice is in the giddy but uncomfortable position of finally feeling the intimacy that she wishes she had with her husband.

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

There are several wives in the book. There’s Alice, of course, and then there’s her best friend and neighbor Nedra, who is about to marry her long-time partner, Kate. There are also a few minor characters in the book who are married. The experiences depicted in this book all fit our modern, western definition and expectations of what it means to be a wife: to be independent, to feel purpose beyond marriage, and to be emotionally connected to and respected by one’s partner. Alice is flailing in the absence of these things, and she needs them to feel herself again. She had once worked full-time in advertising along with William and she was good at it. She and William had once been so in love with one another, so connected. No doubt the intervening years parenting and the growing complacency in a long-term marriage have diluted that early connection. Nedra offers a contrast to Alice. She has been living in a committed relationship with Kate for many years now (and have a teen boy). Though not legally married until late in the book, their relationship is rock solid. There is another minor character who is happily married and another who eventually divorces, presumably all due to how well they’ve mixed their particular formulas for a successful marriage under our modern definitions.

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

Alice really wants connection with her husband and she is clearly very lonely. But she is passive. When her husband gets “laid off,” she goes behind his back and asks his co-worker to send her the video from work that did him in. She watches in horror but doesn’t let on to him that she knows anything about it. She later helps him get a job but she does that in a round-about way, behind his back, as well. It’s been a few weeks since I’ve read this book, but I don’t seem to recall an instance of her trying to talk to William about her feelings or needs. Of course, I understand this is a catch-22 (hence the book title perhaps…) – the less she and her husband communicate, the more distant they become; the more distant they become, the harder and more awkward it is to communicate. So she finds herself on the verge of getting in too deeply with another man and she has knowingly allowed herself to get into this position.

In my opinion Alice has defined “wife” as a rather weak player in marriage who allows circumstances to dictate the direction she – and her marriage and family – will go in.

~~~

Overall I really enjoyed the book. I’d been on a steady diet of literary fiction and very heavy subjects, and Wife 22 was a breezy, funny, and thoughtful read that was right up my alley. As someone who has also been married a long time, I appreciated the discussion of husbands and wives trying to connect, and the technology context was also quite fun. I wasn’t entirely crazy about the twist at the end of the book, which I had suspected, and which made the story a bit too romantic-comedy-movie for me. I can totally picture this book as a Jennifer Aniston movie. Anyway, I did like it all in all.

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Please also check out my fellow Literary Wives club members to read their takes on the book!

Ariel of One Little Library (she will post in a couple of weeks)

Carolyn O of Rosemary and Reading Glasses 

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J. 

Kay of WHATMEREAD

Lynn of Smoke & Mirrors

 Follow Literary Wives on Facebook!

Blew Me Away: An Untamed State, by Roxane Gay

Where do I begin? I’d started and deleted so many introductions to this post. Maybe I should just use the words of the Goodreads reviewer who convinced me to pick up the book: “Wow. Just wow.”

I actually learned about Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State through fellow Literary Wives blogger Carolyn’s beautiful review, which you can find here. Her post was compelling, but it left me in a predicament: I knew I wanted and needed to read this book and yet I wasn’t confident I could handle the intensity of the subject matter.

The book is a work of fiction, about a young Haitian-American woman who is kidnapped during her visit to Haiti to see her parents. Mireille is a spirited and headstrong woman who is living the American Dream. She is happily married and successful in her career as a lawyer. She is also the new mother of a baby boy.

The kidnapping takes place in the first pages of the book. The screaming, the pounding of fists on the glass of the car, the cries of the baby in the backseat – I can still see, hear, and feel the blood-thumping events as I type this. At that point I had to put the book down for a couple of minutes before continuing on. I had to, reading this as a woman and as a mother and wife.

Mireille’s father is a self-made man, who has succeeded in business and now lives a life of luxury that stands out all too starkly from the majority of the Haitian population. His wealth makes his family an easy target for kidnappers. And so the abductors demand a handsome ransom, but one that Mireille’s father can afford, and one that he makes the kidnappers wait to get. It would take him 13 days to give up the money, and so it is 13 days that Mireille has to endure – is there a stronger word for what she goes through? – before she is released.

The first half of the book details Mireille’s 13 days as a captive, and these scenes alternate with flashbacks to her past, mainly the development of her relationship with her husband and her entry into motherhood. There is some flashback to her life with her parents as well. This back story allows us to understand Mireille as a human being and gives a context for the second half of the book, which details the aftermath of her ordeal. When Mireille is finally freed, she is, both literally and figuratively, broken. She struggles to feel human again but doesn’t know how. We see how her husband copes, or doesn’t cope. We see her struggle in the new light through which she sees her father.

Mireille’s voice is a force. Roxane Gay’s writing is a force. The scenes of violence were intense and effective, but they were not gratuitous or more than I could handle.

Why did I choose to read this, knowing it was going to be difficult? Carolyn said it so beautifully, and so I will borrow her words here – first a quote from writer Cynthia Bond, and then Carolyn’s words:

 “Somewhere along the way, working with at risk and homeless youth in Los Angeles for 15 years, living with my own abuse, and hearing stories of such pain and torment, I thought—If you can bear to have lived it, I can at least bear to listen.”

Exactly. I read An Untamed State because somewhere out there, someone has lived it. And I can at least bear to listen.

I second that. And I’ve felt doubly so after learning that Roxane Gay had drawn from her own experience of having been gang-raped as a teenager to write this book. I am so grateful to have been introduced to this writer and I’ve already ordered her subsequent book, Bad Feminist: Essays.

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Have you read Roxane Gay? What is the most difficult book (in terms of subject matter) you have ever read? 

Literary Wives: “Wife” as Depicted in The World’s Wife, by Carol Ann Duffy

Our (on-line book club) Literary Wives’ August read is Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry collection, The World’s Wife.

In The World’s Wife we are introduced to the women – lovers, partners, sisters and wives – of some of the most well-known men in Greek mythology, the Bible, history, literature and pop culture. We hear from the women themselves, from Mrs. Faust to Frau Freud to Medusa, and the voices are often surprising. They’re irreverent, sarcastic, angry, sad, triumphant, bawdy, spiteful and, not infrequently, laugh-aloud funny. Here are my responses to the two questions we explore with each of our Literary Wives reads:

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

Being a wife is not a happy thing. In these poems, it is about putting up with egos, living in shadows, being neglected. Through the fictional voices we are imagining what it might feel like to be the wife of one of these famous men. Mrs. Aesop is tired of her husband’s moralizing; the loyal Mrs. Quasimodo, Quasimodo’s physical equal, is betrayed by her husband when he falls in love with someone more attractive; and even Eurydice, whose husband Orpheus loves her and tries to get her out of the underworld, prefers to stay in Hades, apart from him. She would rather be dead than to not have a voice, to live in her husband’s artistic shadow:

Big O was the boy. Legendary.
The blurb on the back of his books claimed
that animals . . .
flocked to his side when he sang . . .
 
Bollocks. (I’d done all the typing myself,
I should know.)
And given my time all over again, 
rest assured that I’d rather speak for myself
than be Dearest, Beloved, Dark Lady, White Goddess,
      etc. etc.
 
In fact, girls, I’d rather be dead.

 (page 59)

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

The women in the book grasp for power where they can within the confines of their relationships. To continue with Eurydice, she ends up appealing to Orpheus’ ego, in order to trick him into turning around to look at her, an act which causes him to lose her back to the underworld. Mrs. Midas, tired of her husband’s obsession with material wealth and his thoughtlessness toward her, eventually leaves him. Mrs. Icarus and Mrs. Aesop view their husbands with scorn and condescension. About their disappointing sex life, Mrs. Aesop says, “I gave him a fable one night / about a little cock that wouldn’t crow, a razor-sharp axe with a heart blacker than the pot that called the kettle. / I’ll cut off your tail all right, I said, to save my face. / That shut him up. I laughed last, longest.” (page 11)

The poem in which I found a defining message about wifehood, though, is Mrs. Beast. Here she warns about princesses and princes and happily ever after:

 . . . The Little Mermaid slit
her shining, silver tail in two, rubbed salt
into that stinking wound, got up and walked,
in agony, in fishnet tights, stood up and smiled, waltzed,
all for a Prince, a pretty boy, a charming one
who’d dump her in the end, chuck her, throw her overboard.
I could have told her – look, love, I should know,
they’re bastards when they’re Princes.
What you want to do is find yourself a Beast. The sex
is better. 

(page 72)

A celebration of love and partnership these poems are not. But I did find The World’s Wife a sharp, clever and witty read. Though many of the women were cattier than my preferred tastes in women’s voices (many of the poems reminded me of the darker side of female conversations bashing boyfriends and husbands), I read this collection for what it is. I enjoyed the modern and feminist twists on traditional and historical stories as well as the opportunity to revisit various cultural and historical references. (I kept my iPhone by my side to look things up while reading.) As a novice poetry reader, I also found this collection very accessible. My favorite Literary Wives read so far!

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Please also check out my fellow Literary Wives club members to read their takes on the book!

Ariel of One Little Library (she will post in a couple of weeks)

Carolyn O of Rosemary and Reading Glasses 

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J. 

Kay of WHATMEREAD

Lynn of Smoke & Mirrors

 Follow Literary Wives on Facebook!

Bookish Miscellany in Tokyo

Well, I’d overestimated my ability to blog while traveling so I apologize for having disappeared! We had a wonderful time in Japan and I am now back, finally getting over a very bad cold that I had caught the day we left for the airport. While my primary goal in Japan after seeing family, friends, and clients was to eat, I also made sure to check out the book scene in Tokyo. Japan has a strong literary and reading culture and was ranked #1 in number of bookstores in 2012 according to The World Cities Cultural Report released that year. Below is a small peak into Japan’s reading world:

First, the bookstores. I visited about seven or eight during my trip. According to The World Cities Cultural Report in 2012, Tokyo had 1,675 bookstores that year. There is also what is known as the Book District in the university town in Jimbocho – a half square kilometer of almost 160 used and rare bookstores. I spent a short afternoon walking around here, wishing that I could read Japanese as most of the books I found were in Japanese (naturally). The Book District is known to be the largest book market in the world.

The Book District

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Junkudo, a popular bookstore chain -There were about 18 active cash registers and a staffer managing the queue. From my experience the major bookstores have as many as 5 to 8 floors of books.

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A display of Haruki Murakami books at Junkudo

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Ernest Hemingway and other western literature in translation at Kinokuniya, Japan’s largest bookstore chain with stores in the U.S., several Asian countries and Australia. They’ve recently remodeled one of the main stores to dedicate the entire top floor to foreign books and Japanese books in translation. I was quite impressed by their selection and the prices were not exorbitant. Wouldn’t it be something to find this kind of selection of foreign books at Barnes & Noble?

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These English-language novels are labeled with corresponding TOEIC scores to assist non-native English speakers in choosing appropriate books. The TOEIC is the Test of English for International Communication, taken by many non-native English speakers who wish to qualify for various work and academic requirements. 

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Japanese literature wrapped to ensure their good condition. I asked Max about these, and he thinks these may be out of print or somehow “special” books, since contemporary books for sale are not wrapped like this. I found shelves and shelves of these at one of the larger and more modern bookstores in the Book District.

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And speaking of wrapped, whenever you buy a book in Japan, you have the option of getting it wrapped (usually in brown paper) for free. At first I thought this was to protect the book – and this is true – but when I started reading my purchase on the train I realized that the book cover holds another benefit: privacy. 

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There are also many fancier book covers for sale at book and stationery stores, meaning that covering up is quite popular in Japan. Here is one that I found. I love Japanese English!

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Some of our western feminist sensibilities might get a jolt when visiting Japan. In some bookstores are sections for “ladies,” but then maybe this is simply the Japanese equivalent of the labels “Chick Lit” or “Women’s Fiction.” (More knowledgeable readers, feel free to weigh in!) This photo is of the “ladies'” comics or manga section at a shopping mall bookstore. (Manga are also protected before purchase by cellophane ties or plastic wrap.)

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And at last, my Japan finds, because I couldn’t visit without bringing back something for myself: Haruki Murakami’s (translated into English) memoir What I Talk about When I Talk about Running, two books on speaking Japanese, a Japanese novella that a friend recommended to me as one way to practice Japanese, and this Kinokuniya tote bag. There were many Japanese books in translation that I wanted to get but I controlled myself, knowing that I can get them cheaper through the internet :-(. Plus I can only carry so much back in my suitcase…

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Have you visited bookstores in other cities? What are your favorites? How is the literary scene in your city?

An Evening with Khaled Hosseini

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I was lucky enough to get a seat at Khaled Hosseini’s recent book tour for the paperback launch of And the Mountains Echoed. I first read Khaled (I’ll take the liberty of calling him by his first name ;-)) when The Kite Runner took all the bestseller lists by storm, and it’s one of the few “hot” books that, for me, lived up to the hype. I had not read any Afghan writers nor had I read about Afghan culture before The Kite Runner and so like for many readers, I am guessing, it was an eye-opening experience to be introduced to the human faces of a country that has otherwise been portrayed so severely in the media.

Khaled did a 60 minute Q&A with the designated interviewer and with the audience. He talked about And the Mountains Echoed, a story about the ramifications of one Afghan family’s decision to sell their youngest child to another family, and he also talked about his writing process and a little about Afghanistan. Like at Junot Díaz’s talk, I struggled a bit with the note taking, this time because (1) my pen ran out of ink and (2) I accidentally deleted my notes a few minutes after I started taking them on my phone. (A post about author talk attendance do’s and don’t’s is forthcoming…) Anyway, I did my best to recoup what I heard. Here is a sampling of his quotes (paraphrased to the best of my memory) from the evening:

On the Sophie’s Choice-esque theme of And the Mountains Echoed:

Those things that are very difficult to imagine are the things I’m drawn to write.

On how to find your story:

I had an impulse in the past to write something educational, moral…to get on a soapbox, but the writing always suffered. I learned that if I feel the characters, feel their pain, their wants and needs, I will find the point in the story. Whenever I tried to build a story around a point, it always became stilted. It always flattens me when I write with an agenda.

When asked how he writes so beautifully, especially when English is not even his first language (he didn’t speak any English until he came to the States at 15!):

There’s been a voice inside my head since I was a boy – I don’t mean that I have a psychological illness [audience laughs] – and over the years I have developed a cadence that I have felt comfortable with . . . I have had this inner language with me for a long time . . . when I was younger and we would all sit around telling stories, the room would get quiet when it got to my turn…it was very powerful [laughs].

On how he could write so well from the perspectives of women characters in his second novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns:

I don’t think that I have any more insight into a woman’s mind than [interviewer] or any man in this audience [audience laughs]…in the beginning I would try to find out what they [the women characters] thought, but I learned to let them come to me, to let them tell me what they feel.

On The Kite Runner:

The Kite Runner was a grenade, it was divisive…some Afghans didn’t like that I aired our dirty laundry, and said that I was selling out to make money.

He said that support among Afghan readers was about 50/50, with the older, more conservative and religious generation more upset about his work. The younger and more urban Afghan people have been very supportive.

On his work with The Khaled Hosseini Foundation, which he started to provide economic, educational, and healthcare assistance to Afghan refugees:

We often forget the human story in war. Refugees live in a suspended existence. It is my job to bring to light the human story within the narrative.

I thought he was just wonderful. I was actually surprised, and then not when I thought about it, to see him initially looking a little nervous and fidgety up on stage. It’s so easy to assume that anyone this successful and intelligent would be comfortable in the lime light. He warmed up quickly as the talk went on, and I found him soft-spoken, humble, and extremely thoughtful and articulate. He showed no airs about him, and expressed gratitude that his books were being read.

After the talk was over I got in line to get my books signed. I didn’t try to craft anything special this time, especially as I observed that he was being pretty efficient in the process (there was a good sized crowd and the independent bookstore sponsoring the event was trying to move people along). I simply thanked him for coming and he smiled and replied, “Thank you.” He was quiet during the signings but spoke if readers initiated.

I was inspired after the talk to begin And the Mountains Echoed and so far it is fantastic. It’s my highlight at the end of the day to read it and I can see why everyone used to get quiet when it was Khaled’s turn as a boy to tell stories.

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Literary Wives: The Crane Wife, and Why I Didn’t Finish It

Our book club Literary Wives’ most recent read was The Crane Wife, by Patrick Ness.

The Crane Wife is a modern spin on an ancient Japanese folktale about a wounded crane that turns into a woman. In Ness’ version, a middle-aged divorced man named George finds a gigantic, wounded crane in his backyard one night. He removes the arrow from the wing and the crane takes off. The next day, a beautiful woman named Kumiko enters his print shop and George falls in love with her. They share their art work and soon begin a relationship.

I didn’t finish the book. I got to page 99 and after a lot of debating back and forth (with myself and with my family) I decided to put it down. These are the reasons why:

1) Bad first impression

Chapter one describes George being jolted out of bed by a loud noise, and meeting the mystical crane in his garden. It starts:

What actually woke him was the unearthly sound itself – a mournful shatter of frozen midnight falling to earth to pierce his heart and lodge there forever, never to  move, never to melt – but he, being who he was, assumed it was his bladder. (page 5)

Honestly, he began to lose me at “bladder.” And I was so in love with all the words preceding that.

On the next page there is a whole paragraph about George completing the urination process, shaking the urine off his penis and drying the tip with tissue. The paragraph following that describes him dropping the tissue into the toilet bowl and flushing it. As the sole female member of my household I am no stranger to male bathroom habits or humor, but this just seemed like TMI to me and completely out of place within the more poetic language on the pages.

2) Bad second impression

The entire second chapter is dialogue with no tags. This is how it opens:

‘But this says Patty.’

‘Yes, that’s what it says here on the order form, too.’

‘Do I look like a Patty to you?’

‘I suppose they could have thought it was for your wife.’

‘My wife is called Colleen.’

‘Well then Patty would have clearly been wrong for her –

(page 19)

??? Chapter 2 is clearly not taking place in George’s bathroom or backyard. It took a little bit of effort for me to figure out who was talking and where. I’ll also admit that I tend to be more conservative when it comes to narrative styles, and by this point I was starting to grumble audibly. I felt the author was trying too hard to be clever.

3) Bad third impression

I probably didn’t go far enough in the book to give Amanda a chance, but I found this woman annoying. Amanda is George’s grown daughter and has a hard time getting along with people. At this point in the book I wasn’t sure what her role was in the story. Ness’ constant use of italics also grated on my nerves (e.g., “Because it wasn’t like that. Well, it was. But it also wasn’t.” page 54)

……..

I kept reading though my heart wasn’t in it. I didn’t hate the book and I was somewhat curious as to how George’s relationship with Kumiko would turn out. But  returning to the book each night did begin to feel more like homework, and in a sense it was homework because this was an assignment for our book club. So this is where all my debating started. If I had been reading it simply for myself, I would have put it down. Then I remembered an email conversation that we had as a group following The Zookeeper’s Wife, and someone mentioned that not finishing a book is also telling of the book. I finally decided to stop, and to expend my (limited) energy elsewhere.

Again, I didn’t hate this story. In fact, I appreciated and enjoyed Ness’ lyrical writing style. If I had picked it up at a different point in my life, I probably would have finished it. This book enjoys many superlative reviews from readers so do give it a try if it sounds like something that might be up your alley. In particular, do check out the reviews of my fellow book club members to see what they have to say about the book I couldn’t describe in full!

Ariel of One Little Library 

Carolyn O of Rosemary and Reading Glasses 

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Meeting Junot Díaz

Earlier this spring I went to see Pulitzer Prize-winning Junot Díaz at a local literary festival. We went to see my parents over Fred’s spring break and I cut short our trip home so I could see Junot Díaz in the flesh for the first time.

I love Junot Díaz.

I cannot explain well why I do, so I will use his words instead:

You guys know about vampires? … You know, vampires have no reflections in a mirror? There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. And growing up, I felt like a monster in some ways. I didn’t see myself reflected at all. I was like, “Yo, is something wrong with me? That the whole society seems to think that people like me don’t exist? And part of what inspired me, was this deep desire that before I died, I would make a couple of mirrors. That I would make some mirrors so that kids like me might see themselves reflected back and might not feel so monstrous for it.

I adore and admire many writers, and I do so for different reasons. But I love Junot Díaz literally beyond words – that is, beyond the words in his books. I love him because of why he writes. His Facebook page also reflects this. Unlike other authors, Díaz rarely if ever promotes his books on his page. Instead he shares articles and essays (by other writers) that open our eyes and minds to the people we may not think about or understand well enough: people who are marginalized, who have no voice, who are invisible.

Díaz’s voice is one I never realized I was starving for until I read it. He’s of a different gender and culture from me but there is a universality in his stories about the struggles to find self and love amidst dysfunction and confusion. In his talk he said, “When I write, my default is that we are a descendant of slaves; society’s default is male, white, middle class.” I have nothing against male, white, middle class writers. But I’ve been reading them all my life. When I read Junot Díaz, I do, finally, see a reflection. Reading his books and knowing that he writes transform me from reader to participant: he makes me understand that I exist, that I take up space, that I am alive.

At the event he opened with an extensive Q&A before reading a passage from his latest book, the short story collection This is How You Lose Her. I was trying to both listen and pay attention while feverishly typing some notes on my iPhone with one finger. The following are my best attempts to paraphrase some of the quotes that stood out most to me:

On reading and writing:

How do we ask the questions that can open up our deep complexity?

The truth of who we are is best expressed in the fiction that we don’t pay attention to.

On love:

Nothing teaches more about love than its malfunction.

I am interested in [writing about] fidelity and what it does to children and the possibility of intimacy. When it comes to trauma, parents don’t talk about it but it’s the silence that passes down.

When you love someone you have to put your heart in someone else’s hands. A great way to defray intimacy is through cheating; it hurts less to give half your heart to one person and half to another.

We drag other people into our own fears.

Intimacy is so difficult – it demands more courage than we can imagine.

This is How You Lose Her is a collection of stories about his protagonist Yunior’s struggle to find and keep love. Díaz’s interest in this subject matter stems from his own experience growing up with an unfaithful father.

As a speaker he was thoughtful, engaging, articulate, self-deprecating, and funny. In front of an audience of 300 he pretty much talked the way he would talk to a buddy over beer.

Book signing came next and this is the part that got my nerves jangled for weeks. Max calls Junot Díaz my literary Justin Bieber. I honestly had no idea what to say to him and didn’t figure out something until halfway through his talk. It helps to get a flavor of the author’s personality and values first before deciding on what to say. I finally decided to just be honest when I talked to him.

I wasn’t in line long and when it was my turn, he reached out his hand and said, “Hi, I’m Junot.” As if I didn’t know!

I shook his hand and handed him my books to sign. I then said to him, “I am so grateful that you write…I am so grateful for your voice.” And I shared something personal about my own immigrant experience at which point he stopped and looked at me and gave me a look of…sympathy or compassion or something along those lines. He asked me where I was from (Peru (though I’m Asian)) and when we were done he said something to me in Spanish which for the life of me I couldn’t catch.

The people managing the event requested that we wait for photos if we wanted to take photos. So ever the rule-abiding gal I was the one person who waited all the way to the very end (I had to wait for my ride anyway) and I finally got my photo taken with Junot. I kind of made a fool of myself at this point, because I told the young woman holding my phone to “take as many” as she could. After we were done he went off with his wife, some family friends, and writer Peter Straub.

I’m relieved to have survived this celebrity encounter. To be honest, in the days leading up to the talk I had actually contemplated not going. Of course I’m so glad I went. Now I’ll have to brace myself once again when I go see Khaled Hosseini in a couple of weeks. I have no idea what to say to him.

 

Q&A. Sorry, quite a bit blurry...

Q&A. Sorry, quite a bit blurry…

 

"Hi, I'm Junot." He said this to every reader.

“Hi, I’m Junot.” He said this to every reader and he signed his books standing up the whole time.

 

That's me on the left. I know, there's some irony in making myself invisible in a picture with the writer who makes me feel visible. Unfortunately, I looked terrible that day (why hadn't I chosen my outfit more carefully) and I'm also trying to remain somewhat anonymous on this blog.

That’s me on the left. I know, there’s some irony in making myself invisible in a photo with the writer who’s given me my reflection. Unfortunately, I looked terrible that day (why hadn’t I chosen my outfit more carefully) and I’m also trying to remain as anonymous as I can on this blog.

 

IMG_0407

 

Have you met any authors? Which author would you most like to meet? And what would you say to him or her?

On Loss and Hope: Drown, by Junot Díaz

.
The fact that I
am writing to you
in English
already falsifies what I
wanted to tell you.
My subject:
how to explain to you that I
don’t belong to English
though I belong nowhere else
–Gustavo Pérez Firmat

And so begins Drown, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Díaz’s first short story collection that he jokes “no one ever reads.”

I went about this backwards, having started with This is How You Lose Her when it came out in 2012. A young man named Yunior narrates many of the stories in the two short story collections. Drown covers Yunior’s life as a child and adolescent, while This is How You Lose Her picks up where Drown leaves off.

Yunior is 9 years old in the first story “Ysrael.” He is staying with his brother Rafa and aunt and uncle in the Dominican Republic countryside one summer because his mother is working long hours at the local chocolate factory. Yunior’s father is in the U.S., supposedly working hard to one day send for the rest of his family. In “Ysrael,” guileless and eager-to-please Yunior follows his bored and brutish older brother around, listening to his tales of sexual exploits and accompanying him as he goes to torment the disfigured boy, Ysrael. Slowly, we watch Yunior lose his innocence.

Young Yunior grapples with the fear that his father will never come for them, and later, with the knowledge that he is cheating on his mother. Often it seems, Yunior is longing for either the physical or emotional presence of his father. Yunior’s mother is the anchor in his life but even she, too, eventually drifts away. There is a particularly poignant passage in the story “Aguantando,” heartbreaking in its youthful resignation. “Aguantando” is about the family’s dashed hopes following the father’s many promises to send for them, and Yunior’s mother falls into a depression, leaving her children behind to stay at her sister’s for several months. Of the aftermath Yunior writes:

She didn’t treat me badly on her return but we were no longer close; she did not call me her Prieto or bring chocolates from her work. That seemed to suit her fine. And I was young enough to grow out of her rejection. I still had baseball and my brother. I still had trees to climb and lizards to tear apart.” (page 84)

Without being sentimental or feigning a child’s voice, Díaz seems to capture well the melancholy of a child who longs for parental love while trying to accept what he cannot control. It is interesting to later read This is How You Lose Her and see how the dysfunction has impacted Yunior’s adult attempts at intimacy.

Several of the stories are told from Yunior’s viewpoint while the narrators of the others are unclear. But together the collection paints a vivid picture of the struggles, hopes, and disappointments endured by immigrant families. More specifically, the stories give voice to immigrant adolescent males struggling to love, receive love, and find purpose within the context of barrio life and a machismo culture. Díaz’s writing is spare and poignant but gritty and honest. You can read the strong language, sex, drugs, and petty crime at a superficial level, but palpable beneath all of that is the hurting of Díaz’s characters.

There is some unevenness in the stories but on the whole I was personally touched by this volume. The themes of belonging and daring to hope hit home for me as an immigrant. But I also read this book as a daughter, wife, and mother, and just as powerful for me were the themes of familial connection and sacrifice and coming of age.