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.

New Year, First Books

I haven’t usually paid attention to what book I’d start the new year with, although I can see why some readers might like to carefully select that first book, a symbol of the direction, spirit or overall tone they’d like to see take shape or set in their lives over the coming months.

So it’s serendipitous that the first two books I was reading in the new year were Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.

I bought Wild exactly one year before and had tried to pick it up then. It felt dense, though, and I put it back down without having gone far. I had so looked forward to reading it ever since I heard Cheryl Strayed’s interview on NPR in 2012 and I was worried about this initial failure to click with her book.

I really believe, though, that books will speak to us when the time is right.

I picked up Wild again last week, not because it was January but because the events in my life over the last couple of months made me gravitate toward those who have grappled with pain and/or loss. Cheryl Strayed, and Wild, spoke to me loudly and this time I flew through the book.

Wild is the memoir of Cheryl Strayed who, at 26, decided to hike 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), from southern California to Oregon. She embarked on the hike a few years after losing her mother, who had been her life. After her mother’s death the whole family fell apart; her stepfather distanced himself from the children and Cheryl’s brother and sister more or less disappeared due to their own grief. Cheryl spiraled out of control, turning to sex and heroin to escape her pain. She also ended her marriage to a good man in the process. Her solo three-month hike was an attempt to find home and to find herself again.

In the beginning of the book we learn about her relationship with her mother and her turbulent early life. Once the hike begins, the story concentrates on her daily journey through the trail – sometimes glorious, sometimes dangerous, often blistering. She intersperses these stories with occasional flashbacks to or reflections on her life.

I enjoyed her story as well as her writing and voice, which I found to be honest, intimate, and humble. I found myself rooting for her, and even reacting physically (my pulse would race) when she ran out of water on a particularly sweltering day or when she encountered a couple of potentially threatening men. Although I have no plans of doing any kind of hike on this scale, her story – both her coping with loss and her physical experience on the trail – made me think about the extent to which we can push our limits and the occasions in which we rise higher than we ever believe we could.

The other book that I was reading (though have not yet finished) is a translated work from Japan, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by famed professional organizer Marie Kondo. She helps clients to organize their homes and to stay that way using her special philosophy and method. Apparently, she has no repeat customers due to the success of her technique and she has a waitlist for her waitlist. Marie had been obsessed with organizing since the age of 5 and she writes with an intimate and tough-love kind of voice.

A dear friend of mine gifted this book to me, and I picked it up one day while trying to capitalize on a rare urge to purge and clean. I flipped through the book looking for tips I could implement right that instant and found these bits of advice:

1. Ask yourself, ‘Does it spark joy?’

2. Choose what you want to keep, not what you want to get rid of.

3. Discard first, organize later.

4. Work by category, not room.

(I read but intentionally ignored the advice on getting rid of books.)

They’re certainly practical instructions that can be extended to the rest of one’s life. My biggest take-aways are #1: Does it spark joy? and #2: Choose what you want to keep, not what you want to get rid of. (Apparently one of Marie’s clients even decided to get rid of his/her spouse (though somehow I suspect it was a ‘she’) after purging her home.)

So I started with all my clothes and began filling a donation bag with those that I no longer enjoy wearing or that I never enjoyed wearing at all (but had purchased because I needed it and it was on sale). And then I moved to other areas in my life – my bedroom, my bathroom, my daily routine, my behaviors, my ways of thinking – Do they bring me joy? What ideal bedroom, bathroom, lifestyle and mindset can I envision and how can I achieve that? These are questions I plan to keep asking and responding to in 2015.

Happy New Year! What were/are your first books of the year? Do you choose them deliberately to start your year with? What sparks joy for you?

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

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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? 

Marriage and Personal Struggle: Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill

I’m back, or so I hope! I had a hard time motivating myself to write over the last few weeks but I’m hoping to now slowly get back into the swing of things. 

I have been reading my books, though, so I have some reviews to catch up on. I’ll start with one of my favorites from the summer, Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill.

I first spotted Dept. of Speculation under the category of “Mystery and Thriller.” I skimmed the blurb which described it as a suspenseful tale of marriage and motherhood and immediately decided that it was right up my alley.

It turned out to be completely different from what I expected. First, it’s a slender book at 160 pages. And when you flip through it, all you see are what appear to be little paragraphs. Indeed, the structure is unconventional. The book reads almost like poetry and the nameless narrator (sometimes “I,” sometimes “the wife”) jumps from one thought or short vignette to another. Offill’s lyricism reminded me of Paul Yoon’s beautiful Snow Hunters.

The story is a first-hand account of the changes in a marriage, and one woman’s slip into depression and the impact on her marriage and ability to parent. It is about the realities of marriage – about how chasms build and how difficult it can be to bridge them. There is an element of suspense, because her struggles hit a climax and as readers we hold our breaths to find out what happens, but I would most definitely not classify this book as a mystery or thriller.

I found such beauty in Jenny Offill’s writing. The book is small but each word is pregnant with meaning. She throws in a number of literary and scientific references, including many about living in space. But all of it is relevant. And she conveys just as much in what she chooses not to write. Here is a passage that really stayed with me:

So lately I’ve been having this recurring dream: In it my husband breaks up with me at a party, saying I’ll tell you later. Don’t pester me. But when I tell him this, he grows peevish. “We’re married, remember? Nobody’s breaking up with anybody.”

“I love autumn,” she says. “Look at the beautiful autumn leaves. It feels like autumn today. Is autumn your favorite time of year?” She stops walking and tugs on my sleeve. “Mommy! You are not noticing. I am using a new word. I am saying autumn instead of fall.” (page 46)

And here is a space reference:

Survival in space is a challenging endeavor. As the history of modern warfare suggests, people have generally proven themselves unable to live and work together peacefully over long periods of time. Especially in isolated or stressful situations, those living in close quarters often erupt into frank hostility. (page 56)

“The wife” never tells us she’s anxious about her marriage, or that she is slowly falling apart as a mother and human being. I recognize her depression because I have been there: Anxious when marital longevity has deceived us into thinking communication unnecessary; fearful that my mood swings will one day drive my husband away; guilty about how absent I am as a mother even when I’m physically there. It’s eerie, how I picked up this book during a depressive relapse, thinking it was going to be some literary version of Gone Girl and instead hearing the whispers of another woman speaking right to me. “The wife” and I do not experience the same marital crisis, but I could relate to what goes on inside her head.

It’s a book that I am planning to re-read, and this time with a pen and notebook, in order to pick up on everything that I had missed the first time around. It’s a surprisingly intimate read given its brevity – a little somber, sometimes irreverent, but ultimately hopeful. Most of all I just found it very real.

The Disappearance of a Young Woman Abroad: People Who Eat Darkness, by Richard Lloyd Parry

In 2000, a young British woman named Lucie Blackman working as a club hostess in Tokyo disappeared after taking a ride with one of her wealthy customers. Her body was found dismembered seven months later in a seaside cave.

People Who Eat Darkness by award-winning British journalist Richard Lloyd Parry is the story of Lucie, her family, her disappearance and the subsequent investigation and legal proceedings of the case. It is also the story of her abductor and killer, Joji Obara.

Before traveling to Japan, Lucie had worked as a British Airways flight attendant until she realized that the grueling schedules and isolation (she was never in any place long enough to make real connections) were too much. She subsequently resigned and, knee deep in debt, accompanied her best friend to Tokyo where they planned to work at a hostess club, an establishment on the fringes of the sex industry and that caters to wealthy Japanese businessmen willing to pay over $100 an hour for female company. The clubs paid handsomely, or at least compared to English teaching, and Lucie believed this to be the quickest way to get back on her feet financially.

The hostess clubs are an interesting phenomenon. There is, supposedly, no sex involved. Attractive women, often foreign, are paid to basically stroke men’s egos. The hostesses exist to pour drinks, light cigarettes, listen to the men and laugh at their jokes. The most difficult part of the job seemed to be boredom. But the women did have pressure; to keep their jobs, they needed to establish their own clientele of regulars, whom the clubs relied on for steady business.

Perhaps Joji Obara was a prospective regular. One evening, the friend receives a cell phone call from a seemingly delighted Lucie. Lucie says that Joji will soon be giving her her own cell phone, and that they are now driving to the seaside. That was the last time her friend ever heard from her.

The book details the long months following Lucie’s disappearance: the role her parents and siblings played in drumming up media and other support to keep the story and investigation alive (Lucie’s father went as far as reaching out to then-Prime Minister Tony Blair); the sometimes infuriating and slow responses of the Japanese police; the way Lucie’s family’s dysfunction played out in each person’s grieving process; and, finally, the identification and discovery of the abductor and murderer, and the final attempts to bring him to justice.

We learn, upon his arrest, that Joji Obara was a serial rapist. In his apartment were detailed records and videotapes of the women he had lured and drugged for thirty years. He used a different name with each woman. Another club hostess had gotten sick and died some years back after spending a night with Obara and complaints had been made, but the police had not followed up.

In the author’s profile of Obara, we learn that he is an ethnic Korean whose parents had immigrated to a poor Korean ghetto in Japan. Though Parry does not excuse Obara’s crimes (most people with difficult pasts do not become rapists and murderers), he paints an illuminating picture of a troubled man with a troubled past, a personal history that became a window into the ugly but often hidden and unspoken realities of Japan’s ethnic minority communities and the prejudices they face.

Parry, too, is honest in his portrayal of Lucie’s family. Her father Tim, who flew to Japan frequently and never tired in his efforts to fight for his daughter, is a confusing portrait of loyalty and self-interest. Where had he been when Lucie was growing up, when he became involved in multiple affairs before finally leaving his family? Why had he accepted a substantial amount of money from the killer during the court trial, in exchange for providing some verbal support? Lucie’s mother and father, who were icy at best before Lucie’s disappearance, became even more hostile after her death. Without judgment, Parry does an admirable job of laying bare the flaws of a family trying to survive a horrific and unspeakable tragedy.

Though some parts felt repetitive, I couldn’t put the book down. I found it simultaneously intimate and chilling. I was fascinated to read about a part of Japanese society that I’d never entered. It is an eye-opening look into Japan’s mizu-shobai, or “water trade,” a euphemism for its diverse night entertainment or sex industry; its criminal investigation/justice procedures (one of which is a heavy reliance on criminal confession and inevitability of cooperation and remorse); and its Korean community and history. On a personal level, the book is an intimate account of a flawed but real family and how they contributed to both creating Lucie and remembering her in her death. And, finally, it is a disturbing story of a human being gone wrong. I remain haunted to this day, by the images of Joji Obara.