Literary Wives: “Wife” as Depicted in The Zookeeper’s Wife

As some of you know, I’m part of an on-line book club called Literary Wives. Every two months we post a review on a designated book and April’s read is Diane Ackerman’s The Zookeeper’s Wife (2007).

The Zookeeper’s Wife is a non-fiction account of the heroic efforts of Jan Żabiński, director of the Warsaw Zoo and his wife Antonina to save 300 Jews during WWII.

The Żabińskis were respected owners of the high-profiled and thriving zoo. In 1939, however, when Germany invaded Poland, much of the zoo was bombed, and many of the animals were killed or taken away (the rare/special animals were sent to Germany).

At this point Jan and Antonina began using the zoo and its villa to temporarily house and hide Jews. Jan became an active member of the Polish Underground and later in the Warsaw uprising near the end of the war. Antonina, in the meantime, kept the entire operation at home running; she had, in addition to those in hiding, a young son, an infant daughter, animals in and out of cages, and staff. And she did so while working desperately to keep as upbeat of an atmosphere as she could during this horrific time.

The questions we are discussing in this series are:

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

The main story really doesn’t focus on the Żabińskis’ relationship, but I did find some striking passages. During the height of the Żabińskis’ efforts, Jan became increasingly “short-tempered and uneasy.” Antonina wrote in her diary that Jan was “cold and expected more from me than from the rest of the people in our household” and that “nothing [she] did ever seemed good enough, nothing made him proud of [her], and perpetually disappointing him felt wretched.” (page 231)

It is, of course, hard to say if these dynamics were characteristic of what it meant to be Jan’s wife. After all, they were both living under extraordinary circumstances. As Ackerman writes, “To keep their life livable, [Jan] checked and rechecked every ritual and routine, a taxing responsibility, since the tiniest chaos, neglect, or impulse could unmask them. Small wonder that he rigidified from the strain and began addressing [the house guests] as his “soldiers” and Antonina as his ‘deputy.'” (page 231)

One day, Jan suddenly praised Antonina when he heard about her success warding off German soldiers in a narrow escape. Antonina wrote in her diary: “He was talking about my talents, praising me in the presence of other people. It never happened before! . . . He was serious?! He had called me ‘silly’ so often I’d started hearing it as a second name.” (page 235)

Near the end of the book, we learn from various interview excerpts after the war that Jan had always appreciated and admired his wife’s abilities and efforts. In one interview he said, ” . . . she was terrified the Nazis would seek revenge on us and our young son, terrified of death, and yet she kept it to herself, and helped me [with my Underground activities] and never ever asked me to stop.” (page 314) There were more acknowledgements like this about various aspects of Antonina’s character and strengths.

Was Jan condescending and did he assume a superior role in the marriage because of his gender? It is possible, given the times. I also wonder, though, how much was personality. I certainly know of couples in which the woman is the one who condescends or is sparing in praise. From Jan’s detailed acknowledgements of Antonina’s contributions and rare talents, it seems clear that he knew his wife well and appreciated her, but perhaps rarely showed his feelings to her during the war.

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

It seemed important to Antonina to win her husband’s approval. This could have been a function of her status as a wife, or it could have been a matter of personality. It seemed that Jan was rather stoic and sparing in his praise, whereas Antonina was more open with her feelings and wanted the same in return.

The above quote by Jan about how Antonina kept her fears to herself also shows Antonina’s loyalty to her husband. At the same time, I believe her willingness to put others’ needs before her fears speaks to her mindset as a rescuer. Antonina had unique strengths – an uncanny ability to relate to animals, the wherewithal to apply this ability to her interactions with enemy soldiers, and great compassion for fellow humans – and she used these as the perfect complement to Jan’s more analytical and physical work with the Polish Underground. I saw the Żabińskis’ marriage as a partnership with wife and husband sharing the same mission but offering complementary strengths.

. .  .

Overall I had mixed feelings about the book. It took me a long time to finish despite the fascinating (and important) subject matter. I think it was because the story didn’t really feel linear in a way that I wanted it to be in order to stay engaged; Ackerman interrupts Antonina’s story with lots of facts and musings about everything from Nazi ideology to animal behavior. All of it is relevant on some level I suppose, but I found myself confused a lot of the time, not able to really picture how the Żabińskis were actually hiding the Jews, for example, because the story felt so scattered. Every time a chapter went off on a tangent I found my mind wandering.

. . .

Anyway, those are just my thoughts. Please check out my fellow Literary Wives club members to read their takes on the book!

Ariel of One Little Library 

Audra of Unabridged Chick

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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Secrets, Ghosts, and Twists and Turns: The Winter People

I am going to write this review based purely on memory (I was eager to immediately lend the book to a friend) and with a bad cold, so hopefully I will do the book justice.

The Winter People is Jennifer McMahon’s latest literary thriller and ghost story.

The book starts off with words from the diary of a woman named Sara. Sara lived in a small town in Vermont at the turn of the 20th century. Through a brief reflection Sara intimates about her childhood, that her mother had died while giving birth to her and that she was raised by the family’s Native American housekeeper/nanny whom she called “Auntie.” Auntie raised Sara and her brother as her own but her fierce personality and seeming mysteriousness as a Native American renders her a suspicious figure among some in the community.

It is also in this early chapter that Sara describes her first encounter with a “sleeper,” someone who comes back from the dead, in a process that Auntie seems to know quite a bit about and will later share with Sara.

From this point on, the book alternates between Sara’s diary and the present-day story of 19-year-old Ruthie, the current resident of Sara’s home in Vermont more than a century later. Sara’s diary reveals the sudden death of her young daughter Gertie while Ruthie wakes up one day to find her mother missing. In her attempt to find possible clues about her mother’s disappearance, Ruthie finds a boarded up closet in her mother’s bedroom as well as a handgun, drivers licenses of a couple she does not recognize, and Sara’s diary. As the story moves forward, we begin to understand the connection between Sara’s diary, Ruthie’s mother’s disappearance, and the two people pictured in the drivers licenses. Ultimately, this is a story about the mother-daughter bond and about how far a mother will go to care for and protect her child.

I raced through this book. There were a number of twists and turns that made the book hard to put down and I found the ghostly element to be sufficiently creepy to enjoy a few chills but not so frightening that I couldn’t sleep. As a greater fan of realistic fiction than fantasy, I was also satisfied that some of the explanations for the mysteries in the story made sense; that is, not everything was due to supernatural forces.

The book is more plot driven than anything else, and the beginning of the climax felt a bit like a made-for-TV movie to me, but all in all I quite enjoyed the book as a fun, atmospheric, and satisfying break from the classics that I have been reading. I would be interested in checking out Jennifer McMahon’s other books.

Have you read any of Jennifer McMahon’s books? Do you read ghost stories?

A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki

Ruth Ozeki’s 2013 Booker Prize finalist A Tale for the Time Being tells the intertwined story of a Japanese girl named Nao and a Canadian writer of Japanese heritage named Ruth. Ruth has found a Hello Kitty lunchbox washed up on shore near her island home off the coast of British Columbia. When she opens the lunchbox, she finds inside a small packet of letters written in French, an old army watch, and a diary handwritten in English. The diary was written by Nao, a teenage girl in Tokyo.

Through Nao’s diary we learn more about her and the circumstances surrounding her decision to write this diary. She and her family had recently moved back to Tokyo after her father lost his tech job in Sunnyvale, California following the dot-com bubble burst. Unfortunately, he has trouble finding work in Japan and falls into a deep depression, which he tries to end through several suicide attempts. Nao becomes the victim of extreme bullying at school, eventually dropping out and also deciding to end her life after witnessing her father’s psychological decline. She does, however, find a spiritual guide in her 104-year-old Buddhist nun great-grandmother, Jiko, through whom she learns the story of her great uncle, Haruki, a kamikaze pilot during WWII and with whom her father shares the same name. Near the end of her story we learn about the parallels between her great uncle and father, and we discover the truth behind Haruki #1’s suicide attack and Haruki #2’s multiple suicide attempts. And yes, we learn to a sufficiently satisfying degree the fate of both Nao and her father.

This is an existential story about conscience, agency, and the meaning and passage of time as well as our role as human beings within this space. At the peak of the story Ruth traverses time and steps into the lives of Nao and her father (or does she?), resulting in a brief moment of magic realism.

The chapters alternate between Nao’s diary and Ruth’s story. Ruth is a fairly successful writer suffering from writers block and living on a remote island. Since discovering the diary, however, Ruth becomes increasingly obsessed with the story of Nao. Who is she? Is she real? Is she still alive? Ruth hypothesizes that her lunchbox was washed away in the Japan tsunami of 2011 and makes effort to hunt down the real Nao and Haruki.

While I loved Nao’s story – Ozeki does a great job of making this intelligent and witty teenage voice come alive – I found Ruth’s chapters to drag a bit. The Ruth chapters are used often to interpret Nao’s diary and to explain the scientific concepts behind such topics as quantum mechanics (to explain how Ruth could have entered Nao’s story briefly at one point), the life cycle of barnacles, etc. Oliver, her husband, is the convenient walking encyclopedia that explains much of these things but all of it felt a bit academic to me, like I was being lectured to. I would sit up straighter whenever Nao’s voice came on and then my mind would sometimes wander when Ruth’s came on. It wasn’t that I didn’t appreciate Ruth’s perspective or all that she had to offer about philosophy, Buddhism, and science, but I found Nao’s personal story of trying to connect with her suicidal father so engaging that the chapter alternations sometimes felt like an unwelcome interruption and break in flow. I believe there are many readers out there who enjoyed the book precisely because of its interconnections with so many subjects; for me it was a bit much, as I was interested mainly in the more personal aspects of the story.

As for the mood of the book, while I don’t want to give anything away, I will say that it is not all bleak despite the weighty subject matter. There are definitely some parts that were very difficult to read but the story is ultimately heartwarming and rather inspiring. Nao has a lively, engaging voice and somehow the story manages to be serious without being overly dark, funny without being inappropriate. It was, all in all, a thought-provoking and unique/unusual read.

A Suspenseful Tale of Adultery, Power, and Womanhood: Apple Tree Yard, by Louise Doughty

I recently finished reading Apple Tree Yard by British writer Louise Doughty, whose last novel Whatever You Love was longlisted for the Orange Prize (now known as the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction) and shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award.

It’s a mystery/suspense tale that opens with 52-year-old Yvonne Carmichael sitting on the witness stand in her own trial. She has been accused of being an accomplice to murder. After the chilling prologue, Yvonne takes us back about a half year or so, to the day she meets X (the only name we have for him at this point). She is on a lunch break after presenting before a governmental committee, and she catches his eye and vice versa. He begins walking with her, and then guides her down one set of stairs after another, until they are alone in the basement of an old chapel. In this way their affair begins.

Yvonne addresses the entire novel to her secretive, unnamed lover, calling him “you.” Through her story we understand the context of this affair and where she is in her life. She is an accomplished and respected geneticist. She is married to another academician, lives in the suburbs, and has two grown children. Her marriage is stable, familiar. Her husband did hurt her some years back, but she has chosen to stay in the marriage. She has a troubled son with whom she has a tenuous relationship, but she loves him dearly, and is desperate to do the right thing not to drive him away.

Yvonne, though a semi-unreliable narrator, is a nice, “normal” woman, the grown-up girl next door who always did well in school, followed the rules, and tried her best to have a quiet, meaningful life juggling career and family. She says, “Until I met you, I was not the sort of woman to throw caution to the wind” (page 44), and “I suppose there are two types of adulterers; the repeat types, and the one-offs. I fall into the latter category. I would never have had an affair if I hadn’t met you.” (page 311)

One night, Yvonne is attacked. She chooses not to tell her husband or her girlfriend and confides only in X. From here a series of events unfold like the kind of nightmare that one sees happening only to other people on television. In less than a year that she’s begun this affair, Yvonne finds herself facing a potential prison sentence.

I was captivated from beginning to end. The premise of the story itself is not all that original – so many stories have been written about love affairs gone awry – but what also kept me engaged is the psychological tale of a woman trying to find meaning, or something, in midlife. Yvonne is a woman who could be a colleague or a friend or a neighbor, someone who has it “all,” at least within the limitations of real life. Reading this book was like reading a long letter from a good girlfriend who is smart, successful, witty, unsure, flawed, and vulnerable. I think that many of us can see pieces of ourselves in Yvonne.

I also sensed the emptiness she feels in her life, a life in which she is hungry for connection with the opposite sex. She hasn’t seen her son in two years but fears driving him away if she comes too close. Her husband is married to his work and they haven’t had sex in three years. As a woman scientist, she is wary of licentious looks and power plays with male graduate students. About being propositioned by a male student who is depending on her external review of his dissertation, she says: “Maybe he wanted to f*ck me because he knew that I had indeed – simply by being who I was – already f*cked him.” (page 53) And in comparing her relationship with her husband with that of her lover, she describes the former as being full of knowledge of one another but with little intimacy, and the latter as being void of knowledge but filled with intimacy.

But even someone of her age, professional status, and confidence is ultimately reduced to the primitive and physically weaker position of woman. This is Yvonne’s internal struggle when she attempts to finalize an email asking her attacker to stop contacting her:

“Before I hit Send, I look at those two sentences for a long time. I shouldn’t be saying “please.” I should be telling him, not pleading with him. ‘Please’ was what I said, repeatedly, during the attack, and much good it did me. But if I leave it out, it’s an imperative, a command, and that might anger him. It comes to me with great force, and it is a sober and simple thought, that I am very afraid of him, viscerally afraid . . . Fear fought with my education, my achievements, my politics: fear won. ‘Please’ stayed in.” (page 138)

Apple Tree Yard was such a satisfying read for me because it encapsulates the things I look for in a mystery but have a hard time finding in one book, and it has those elements in just the right doses. It is entertaining yet thought-provoking; suspensefully paced and yet not merely plot-driven; erotic yet tasteful. This book also appealed to me as a woman who thinks about issues of relationships, gender, security, and power.

Literary Wives: “Wife” as Depicted in The Inquisitor’s Wife

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Quick Announcement

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The February read for our on-line Literary Wives book club is The Inquisitor’s Wife, by Jeanne Kalogridis. 

The Inquisitor’s Wife is the tale of a young woman named Marisol García who gets caught up in the turbulence of the Spanish Inquisition. Marisol is the daughter of an “old Christian” and a conversa – a Jew who has converted to Christianity – and her family eventually becomes the target of  the Inquisition whose mission was to hunt down conversas suspected of secretly practicing Judaism.

In an arranged marriage Marisol weds Gabriel, whom she has despised since childhood ever since she witnessed him brutally beat an elderly Jewish man. Her father has married Marisol off to him because of Gabriel’s connections with the Inquisition, in the hopes that she would be protected as his wife. At her wedding, she sees the shadowy figure of her long lost love, Antonio. She first laid eyes on Antonio when he came to the rescue during the beating of the Jewish man. Marisol and Antonio fell in love then and pledged to marry, but for some mysterious reason Marisol stopped hearing from him once he left for university.

There is no love in Marisol’s marriage to Gabriel, and she soon realizes that the protection she had been promised never truly existed. Her father is captured and tortured as is Marisol, who is pressured to make certain confessions in order to save her father. In the final section of the book we learn about Marisol’s mother’s secrets, the role of Antonio, and the real reason why Marisol’s father was captured.

Here are the questions that we are asking in our discussion:

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

The upper class wife in 15th century Spain is a pretty miserable position. She is completely dependent on her husband for her livelihood and is relegated to the home day in and day out.

However, we also see, through the three wives in this story – Marisol, her mother Magdalena, and Queen Isabella – that wives are strong, independent-minded, strategic and, because of the restrictions that shackle them, calculating. Magdalena foresees the dangers of the Inquisition well before her husband does and insists on taking action to protect themselves. She is instead met by the back of her husband’s hand. Her husband is desperate to stop her from poisoning their daughter’s mind with her “lunatic” ravings. This lack of cooperation and respect then push her to mastermind another way out.

Marisol is similarly independent and fierce and is struck by her husband for her attitude. She withstands torture and refuses to give in to the inquisitors’ questioning while at the same time goes to great lengths to try to get her father released. Like her mother, she has to be scheming and to take action covertly.

Even Queen Isabella “married Fernando in order to do the unthinkable: win enough followers to claim the throne of Castile and León for a woman, despite ancient laws that forbade it – and to unite Spain into one kingdom.” (page 207)

The wives in this novel try to exert their power and free will by working around the boundaries of their time.

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

Marisol plays the role of the proper wife on the surface but is observant and calculating underneath. In this scene with Gabriel, Marisol is warned to not say a word of a transgression he had committed the night before. This is what she says in response:

“I looked up at him, trying to keep my smile fixed and my gaze innocent-looking – even though I’d just learned where a possible source of power in my otherwise helpless position lay. ‘Of course [I won’t say a word], husband,’ I answered sweetly. ‘Of course.'” (pages 133-134)

As events get more desperate, however, Marisol begins to shed more and more of her wifely persona. When she realizes that Gabriel has lied to her, she gets so angry that she attacks him in public. She is no match for him and his machismo, of course, and soon falls unconscious from the blow he gives her. When she awakes and sees him, she tells him she hates him and states that she doesn’t care if he hits her again and that she would “gouge out his eyes” if she were able to move (page 241).

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This book was okay and I didn’t really have strong reactions to it either way. Honestly speaking, I started it with very little enthusiasm, expecting a bodice-ripping romance with poor writing and it was better than I expected. While the characters are fairly one-dimensional (the good guys are noble (and the women noble and beautiful) and the bad guys are bad) and their actions predictable, I appreciated the introduction to the Spanish Inquisition which I knew little about and I found this a fast guilty-pleasure kind of read. I was not expecting Hilary Mantel and read it for what it was. I understand from fans that this is the most disappointing of Kalogridis’s books, so readers who are interested may want to check out her other work.

Have you read The Inquisitor’s Wife or books like it? What did you think? Do you have recommendations? And do you judge books by their covers?

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Please also check out the other Literary Wives bloggers’ pages to see what they have to say about the book! 

Ariel of One Little Library

Audra of Unabridged Chick

Carolyn O of Rosemary and Reading Glasses

Kay of WHATMEREAD

Lynn of Smoke & Mirrors

I’d like to mention also that Emily at The Bookshelf of Emily J. is taking a break from Literary Wives to tend to her busy schedule as a graduate student and mother 🙂

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For the first Monday in April we will be reading The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman, a true story of the Holocaust about the directors of the Warsaw Zoo who sheltered over 300 Jews. We’d love it if you read and post along with us! You can send us your link and we’ll post it to our Facebook page. 🙂

A Quiet Psychological “Thriller”: A Pale View of Hills, by Kazuo Ishiguro

A Pale View of Hills (1982) is the first novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, author of The Remains of the Day. It is about a middle-aged Japanese woman, pvh_onlyoublogEtsuko, presumably in the months following the suicide of her elder daughter. Etsuko is from Nagasaki, Japan but has since emigrated to England. A visit from her younger daughter and a dream trigger memories of a mysterious old friend named Sachiko, and Etsuko begins ruminating on that summer back in Nagasaki when they first met, some time after the atomic bombing.

Sachiko is a single mother that summer, with a lonely and equally mysterious child, Mariko. In Etsuko’s reflections we learn of Sachiko’s desperation to move to America, falling for the seemingly empty promises of an American man named Frank. We also learn of Sachiko’s inadequate maternal instincts, as Etsuko continuously finds Mariko alone or lost, but is met by a surprisingly nonchalant attitude from the mother. Mariko is often running away on her own, even in the dark, and spends much time along the river. She is also insistent about her sightings of an unknown woman “beyond the river,” claims that Sachiko constantly dismisses. In fact, Sachiko dismisses so much about her daughter. Near the end of the book, in her preparation to move closer to the U.S., she drowns Mariko’s kittens in an act that sends Mariko running away at night toward the river.

The story moves quietly and at times subtly chillingly, with a frequent sense of forboding. As a reader I wondered how the story of Sachiko and Mariko related to Etsuko and her daughter’s suicide, and then in one unexpected twist in the final ten pages of the book, I understood. Or, I didn’t. I had my interpretation, but I wasn’t sure if it was the “right” one. It was 11:20 p.m. when I got to the last page and I immediately flipped back to page 1 and re-read the first 95 pages to look for clues I may have missed.

The next day I began doing an internet search for analyses of the story. One blogger summed up the different possible interpretations, and I realized I had reached the most commonly held one. Then a day or two later I found this interview with Ishiguro himself, in which he pretty much cleared up his intentions with the story.

This is a book that has really stayed with me. It’s not a thriller in the traditional sense, but a subtle mystery of the human mind: about memory, guilt, coping, and the way we shape our personal narratives as we move through life.

I absolutely loved Ishiguro’s writing. Even more is said in the words that are not spoken and I find this understated style very powerful and appealing. The following passage is the spookiest I can remember ever reading, and it scared me to the point where I couldn’t go into my darkened kitchen to get the glass of water I so needed at 11:30 that night:

The little girl was watching me closely. “Why are you holding that?” she asked.

“This? It just caught around my sandal, that’s all.”

“Why are you holding it?”

“I told you. It caught around my foot. What’s wrong with you?” I gave a short laugh. “Why are you looking at me like that? I’m not going to hurt you.”

Without taking her eyes from me, she rose slowly to her feet.

“What’s wrong with you?” I repeated.

The child began to run, her footsteps drumming along the wooden boards. She stopped at the end of the bridge and stood watching me suspiciously. I smiled at her and picked up the lantern. The child began once more to run.” (page 173)

Ishiguro never reveals what is caught around this woman’s foot, nor does he ever explain why the woman is in this situation or conversation with the girl. We assume the woman is holding a rope, and it’s the second time a scene like this appears. Earlier in the book there is reference to a serial killer and a series of child hangings in Nagasaki. Some questions go unanswered in the story, and Ishiguro in his interviews has admitted to having written a flawed book with too many loose ends, this being his first novel and all. Nevertheless, for me the unspoken adds to the mood of the story and in turn becomes as mysterious and frightening as our minds allow it to be. I thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated the intelligent and quiet thrill of a ride I got in reading A Pale View of Hills, and I’ve since added Ishiguro to my list of must-read authors.

Have you read A Pale View of Hills? How do you feel about unreliable narrators in general and stories with loose ends or endings that are open to interpretation?

Favorite Reads in 2013 (part 2)

Toward the end of 2013 I started to get inspired by all the different favorite book lists that were floating around the internet, particularly those that compiled favorites from different people (“Bill in Accounting loved Inferno; Barbara in Human Resources loved The Divergent series,” ;-)). So I thought it’d be fun to put together my own list.

I asked my fellow book club members in Literary Wives for their favorite titles from 2013 and also some of my book-loving friends. I do apologize for the dearth of male opinions here as I realized that the majority of my reading friends are women. 😦

Alexandra at Good Day, Regular People

My favorite book this year was one I read twice, it was so good, I had to have it again. The Slippery Year, by Melanie Gideon. Loved this book because I found myself in it on every single page. Melanie questions life, parenthood, marriage, aging, the passage of time, her friends, her choice to stay home, happiness, loving your children too much, all of it… and she never pretends that she has answers that others don’t. Her book is like finding that one friend who understands you without you ever having to explain. That one friend who accepts you, without judging, and finds you wonderful. She made me laugh out loud with her sweet honesty and trust, and each page leaves you feeling as if you’ve just been whispered confidences. Melanie leans in and trusts you with questions like Do people like her? How do you know people like you? Why don’t people like her? Is the school carpool lane this difficult for everyone? It’s impossible to not fall deep in love with Melanie Gideon, and even if you don’t have a close friend like Melanie in real life, you’ll always have the endearing friendship of someone who taps the ground first before she takes a solid step, whenever you open The Slippery Year.
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Melanie Gideon says it all in her books’ introduction, “I am one of the millions who is currently walking around in a daze, no longer recognizing herself, wondering ‘Is this all there is?’ The Slippery Year is about grabbing hold of yourself, before you slip away. This book is gorgeous, quirky, and pierced my heart with its tenderness.

Ariel at One Little Library

I think my favorite was I’ll Be Seeing You by Suzanne Hayes and Loretta Nyhan. I loved so much about this book. It was a beautiful, touching epistolary novel, with the two main characters writing back and forth to each other. And that’s how the authors wrote it: they wrote back and forth to each other and they’ve never met! I also love that there is so much timeless advice about love and life. The characters are everlastingly hopeful in the face of a terrible war. And they share recipes!

Click here for Ariel’s review of the book from June.

“Brother”

The editor of this blog has given me permission (i.e., begged me) to submit more than one book because male voices are so underrepresented in her post. Here are two:

I don’t know what this says about me but my favourite 2013 book was one written for nine year olds. It’s Jedi Academy by Jeffrey Brown, a graphic novel of sorts about a boy who longs to follow in the footsteps of his father and brother and become a fighter pilot. The pilot school, however, rejects his application and he ends up at the Jedi Academy, a place where he doesn’t fit in. It’s about experiences we can all relate to: dealing with disappointment, finding the people we’re comfortable with who become our friends, feeling a little flush when talking with a crush, facing bullies, and learning and growing as a person, in and out of class. Jedi Academy is a terrific book with life lessons presented in a witty, funny, light-hearted way in the context of the Star Wars universe (the gym teacher is a roaring Wookie who wears a whistle around her neck and Yoda muses that “hunger leads to anger.”)

Last year I was really into military history; the best of what I read was Blackhawk Down (1999) by Mark Bowden, about a small group of U.S. Special Forces dropped onto the streets of Mogadishu, Somalia to capture a warlord. What was supposed to be a quick mission became a debacle, with American soldiers being dragged through the streets by the crowds. Bowden does a masterful job of recounting the frenetic, harrowing, and heart-wrenching action of the ordeal. From the exact dialogue of the combatants to the description of sights and sounds like walls shattering above people’s heads from mortar shells, he makes you feel as if you are right there with them. At one point a soldier loses his hearing from all the shooting he and his partner are doing–just one of many, many details that makes this book come alive.

Carolyn at Rosemary and Reading Glasses

Of the books I read that were published in 2013, it’s difficult to pick a favorite. For beautiful, lyrical composition I’d go with Paul Yoon’s Snow Hunters; for structural inventiveness, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life; for brilliant creation of a new world, Hanya Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees. But best all-around goes to Anthony Marra’s haunting, disturbing, joyful debut, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.

Click here for Carolyn’s review of the book from December.

Emily at The Bookshelf of Emily J.

I have so many books that I loved this year, but if it is okay, I’m going to go with one that isn’t fiction. It was A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary 1785-1812 (1990) by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.  I loved it because it is a glimpse into the past of a woman who was a professional.  The author is known for coining the phrase “well-behaved women seldom make history,” and this analysis of Martha Ballard’s diary is an example of how a woman didn’t make history, but her diary has survived all of these years to highlight the important contributions she made to her community through her quiet life of work and service.

Click here for Emily’s review of the book from July.

Kay at WHATMEREAD

My favorite would have to be Life After Life by Kate Atkinson because it is so inventive in its approach. Aside from telling an entertaining story, it makes profound comments about how small things that we do can affect much larger issues.

Click here for Kay’s review of the book from May. 

Lynn at Smoke & Mirrors

Historical Fiction novels enthralled me the most in 2013: The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin and A White Wind Blew by James Markert were my favorites. The former has been the recipient of much well-deserved praise, whereas the latter hasn’t had as much press… All our book club members appreciated this story about the Waverly Hills TB sanatorium in Louisville, Kentucky, following WWI. Although broad in scope, A White Wind Blew presents issues of the day through finely honed characters and a sense of place that make for an unforgettable novel–these people are real to me!!

Lynn has a review of The Aviator’s Wife here.

Kathryn

Sonia Sotomayor’s “big-hearted” autobiography, My Beloved World was my favorite book of 2013.

Sotomayor’s story is awe-inspiring, ongoing, hopeful. Her words jumped from the pages directly into my heart. I felt like a superficial cheerleader in some parts, wanting to chant support alongside; while in other areas, I felt less personal but more drawn to see what one individual could do for an entire nation of people.  She squashes the cliche that everyone can make a difference. It’s true!

I have always enjoyed the human interest side of news when we hear about someone who overcame extreme obstacles and reached a goal. Sotomayor would be the most unlikely to succeed on a reality show today, and she has come to hold a seat in the most powerful positions in the US.

Max

My favorite read was a volume of 8 books called Ryoma Ga Yuku by Ryotaro Shiba, about the visionary leader Ryoma Sakamoto who contributed to the formation of modern Japan. This was written unlike anything I had ever read in history classes during school. I read these in Japanese and think it is a shame they are not translated into English. However, you can also find works written in English about Sakamoto.

Ryoma Sakamoto was a low-class samurai who was able to foresee Japan’s need to modernize and to open itself up to the rest of the world. He helped overthrow the Tokugawa Shogunate, ending Japan’s feudal structure, and paved the way for modern Japan. I learned many things about my country of origin for the first time, since I hated the way that history was taught in Japanese schools. I also came to understand why the Japanese think and act the way that they do. I recommend reading about Ryoma Sakamoto to anyone who is interested in modern Japan.

Ngan at Ngan Made It

My favorite book I read in 2013 was Anthony Marra’s debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.  I enjoyed Marra’s expressive writing style and play with chronology as much as I enjoyed the story itself.  It is a beautifully written tale chronicling the plight of a local doctor who rescues an orphan girl in war-torn Chechnya.  This book left an indelible mark on me, not for its darkness and weight, but for the hope and renewal that pulsed beneath the surface of this tale of strangers fighting to survive together in uncertain times.
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Click here for Ngan’s review from May.
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Rudri at Being Rudri
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Heartfelt vignettes in Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things pierce through the reader’s heart in these essays about love, life, and loss. Strayed’s advice not only brings you to tears, but also lingers with you months after reading the book. I find myself revisiting some of these essays and rereading passages that I’ve underlined. If therapy is not an option, don’t walk, but run to the nearest place for this book. You will not regret it.
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The Age Of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker is my fiction pick. In this debut novel, we learn that a seismic shift changes the way that time operates on Earth. The days are becoming longer and longer and this change is seen through the perspective of a young teenage girl named Julia. We see how her personal world unravels and how she struggles to preserve her life despite how everything around her, literally, is crumbling. Haunting prose, human truths, and an interesting premise will keep readers engaged in learning how the protagonist makes sense of her life. Through Walker’s writing, we also get a glimpse of how so much of our lives are gripped with uncertainty and the actions we take to keep holding on. I read this book in one sitting because I just could not leave Julia’s life. It felt like I, too, would abandon her.
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Sharon
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My book pick of 2013 is The Cuckoo’s Calling.
What impressed me was J.K. Rowling’s ability to write well in both the fantasy and mystery realms. Written under a pseudonym, Rowling left no stone unturned with “The Cuckoo’s Calling”. A detective is hired to investigate the death of a famous model. Was it a suicide or was she pushed off the balcony? I could not put it down once I started. I have to admit I picked up the book for two reasons: it was written by Rowling – I loved the Harry Potter series – and I am a sucker for mystery novels. I loved the characters in the book as they were well-developed and utterly believable,  and the writing was witty and flawless.
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If you still can’t get enough of 2013 book lists, here are some more, at the following blogs that I enjoy:
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And if you missed the post of my personal favorites, here it is: Favorite Reads in 2013 (part 1).

Scandal and Secrets: The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress, by Ariel Lawhon

I’m happy to do my second post for the Literary Wives virtual book club. There are six other members posting as well, and I’ll share their links at the end of this post.

December’s read is The Wife, The Maid, and the Mistress, a debut novel by Ariel Lawhon. It’s a fictionalized account of the 1930 disappearance of Joseph Crater, a judge on the New York City Supreme Court.

Image courtesy of Goodreads

In Lawhon’s version of events, Joseph Crater was last seen on August 6, 1930 getting into a taxi with his mistress Ritzi, a showgirl. The two had just spent the evening with Crater’s lawyer friend William Klein at the night club owned by notorious gangster Owney Madden. Partway through the evening Crater had said to Ritzi, “Why don’t you go powder your nose? . . .  Now.” (p. 29). Of course, that’s code for “Let us adult men talk.” Ritzi, while indignant, knows her part and does as Crater says. She spends just enough time in the ladies’ room to let them finish whatever it is they need to talk about, and when she returns to the table she catches pieces of their conversation, which hint heavily at some kind of attempt at a cover up and threat of foul play.

In the taxi Crater tells the driver to take them to the Belasco Theater, where Crater is only able to get one ticket for that night’s show. Ritzi offers to go home, but Crater redirects the driver to Coney Island. Crater books a hotel room for the two of them and it is here that Crater is last seen.

The rest of the novel moves both forward and back from alternating perspectives of Crater’s wife, maid, and mistress, to show the investigation following the disappearance and also the back story that finally reveals what happened to Crater and who was involved.

Here are the two questions we’re talking about:

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”?

Maria, the maid, is married to a member of the NYPD whom Crater pulls some strings to promote to detective. Following this favor, he says to Maria, “I do wonder . . . how the daughter of Spanish immigrants managed to snag one of New York’s finest.” (p. 19) Stella defends Maria, but adds, “You are smart enough to know that a woman is only as good as her husband is. The better off he is, the better off you are. Many women don’t understand that.”

She is speaking of the times, of course, when the financial quality of a woman’s life was really only as good as her husband. Stella has scarified everything in terms of personal choice and peace (and, yes, integrity) in order to enjoy her life of luxury with a corrupt and wealthy politician. At the possibility of ruin, she cries,

“If they [find and convict Joe], it ruins everything . . . My life! Everything we built. Every night I spend alone. Every compromise I made for him. Every one of Joe’s affairs. Not to mention every penny we have. All for nothing!” (p. 226) Stella’s extreme dependence on her husband for a certain lifestyle puts her in shackles, and she is stripped of any power to speak up or to expect respect from her husband.

However, marriage appears happier, kinder, safer, and more equal for the working class Maria and Ritzi, who has a husband in the book (I can’t say much more about Ritzi’s marriage without giving things away). Maria works two jobs as a maid and a tailor and is married to a man who loves her fiercely. Jude is very protective of Maria, and for good reason given the circumstances, but there is that sense that as a wife she needs to be protected. While in the bath together one evening, there is this interesting imagery:

“Their knees rose from the water like mountain peaks from mist, and she was locked between his legs.” (p. 234)

Jude will work hard to protect Maria, even decades after her death.

Finally, Ritzi, despite also being locked in her own shackles as a puppet for Owney Madden, has an iron will that drives her to try and take charge of her life on her own terms, as much as she possibly can given her own difficult circumstances and the constraints on women at the time. In the very few scenes that we see her with her husband, we get the sense that he is someone who loves her as she is, as he accepts her under less than ideal circumstances.

I think it is no coincidence that the most internally liberated woman in this story is the one in the most (presumably) egalitarian marriage. Ritzi is the one who has the greatest sense of autonomy and confidence in herself.

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Overall I found The Wife, the Maid, and the Mistress a fun, entertaining, and fast read. I enjoyed it in part for the mystery but more for the story about women. It’s a story about what it meant to be a woman in the early decades of the 20th century and it’s a story about husbands and wives. I can’t say that I was terribly surprised at the ending but it was still an entertaining read with some twists and a conclusion that will satisfy those readers who don’t enjoy loose ends, like those that exist in the real life story of Joseph Crater.

Please also check out my fellow book club members for their take on the book!

Ariel of One Little Library 

Audra of Unabridged Chick – Audra has a wonderful Q&A up with Ariel Lawhon, with questions from us.

Carolyn O of Rosemary and Reading Glasses

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J. 

Kay of WHATMEREAD

Lynn of Smoke & Mirrors

literarywives1

Every woman’s nightmare: The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

I finally read my first Margaret Atwood. I have heard so much about this acclaimed and prolific writer that I was almost salivating to start. Most sources seemed to recommend beginning with The Handmaid’s Tale, and so I did that.Onlyou_Handmaid's Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale, as many of you know, is a dystopian novel written as a fictional memoir by a woman captured in the theocratic regime of the Republic of Gilead. We learn about her story in bits and pieces as she moves along. We know that she didn’t always live under this regime, that once, some years ago, she had been married to a man named Luke, that she had had a young daughter and a regular job, and that she used to wear things like jeans and jogging pants. We never learn her real name, only that she is now Offred, a name designating her as the property of a high level official named Fred.

As we read on we understand that Offred, like other women, is being watched constantly. Along with other handmaids, she wears a red cloak with white wings that shield her face. She is governed by an Aunt. Her activities are limited to eating, sleeping, shopping for groceries, and copulating with Fred – also known as the Commander – once a month in efforts to get impregnated.

The Republic of Gilead was created when the President of the United States and members of Congress were assassinated. The new leadership is a dictatorship of extreme right wing religious radicals, with a goal of repopulating the country after infertility reached crisis low levels due to the ravages of war, radioactive material, etc. They have driven away and persecuted “undesirable” populations such as Jews, blacks, and homosexuals. Women are denied every right and used only for procreational purposes. (Infertile women are sent to work in labor camps.)

Through Offred’s memoir, we learn how she tries to bear her unbearable and uncertain conditions. She flashes back frequently to memories of her husband and daughter, whose whereabouts she doesn’t know. Offred seems beaten down and her best friend Moira, who doesn’t hesitate to challenge authority, calls her a “wimp.”  As the story goes on, Offred does begin to pick up more information and to take on riskier behavior, and the story gets more interesting.

There are a number of themes in the book and numerous religious references (of which I’m not knowledgeable enough to talk about though). One that struck me is the argument that women have it better now that their lives are controlled. As Offred quotes her Aunt Lydia saying, “We were a society dying . . . of too much choice.” (page 25) Women are safer now, this rulership claims, protected. Women used to live in uncertain times, with men who may or may not be faithful and committed, and many did not enjoy respect as mothers. At least in Gilead, women can simply focus on bearing children.

Maybe the most significant fallout of this heavily controlled environment is the loss of human connection. Women are placed in a caste system that encourages alienation and resentment. Romantic or even simply emotional relationships are illegal among most groups and punishable by death. At one point the Commander, starving for such a connection, invites Offred to secretly play Scrabble with him. He asks Offred, “What did we overlook [in our new world]?” and, with some of that power now melted through intimacy, she is able to respond honestly, “Love.” (page 220)

I can’t decide how I feel about the book. I enjoyed it as a story about women and I enjoyed Atwood’s writing. On the other hand, I found the themes interesting but not compelling. For example, the argument that women have it better in Gilead is something that I found too hard to believe…I was hoping for something a little more grey, that would make me think – uncomfortably – hmm, I can see that. Some readers have criticized the story for being far-fetched and it is definitely easy to believe so, until you think about other regimes like the Taliban and North Korea. Maybe the obstacle for me was that there were many holes in the story, due to the fact that this was told from Offred’s point of view, and Offred was essentially a prisoner who was pretty much kept in the dark as to what was happening. Or, it could very likely be that I am not familiar with dystopian literature and so I’m not sure what I should be reading or how I should be feeling.

Overall, as far as storytelling goes, I enjoyed this book and there were times when I couldn’t put it down. It’s chilling and horrific but ultimately there is a sliver of hope. I’m definitely looking forward to reading more books by Margaret Atwood, especially Cat’s Eye and Alias Grace which may be more accessible to me in terms of subject matter (I’m not a huge fan of dystopian fiction, to be honest).

Have you read The Handmaid’s Tale? If so, what did you think of it? What other books of Atwood’s would you recommend? (And a friend/reader tells me that Offred does offer her name! I missed it!)

Sibling rivalry and family secrets: East of Eden by John Steinbeck

East of Eden_www.onlyoublog.comI finally got around to reading the final couple of hundred pages of East of Eden, which I’d started some time ago but had put down when my work got busy.  Since graduating from college I hadn’t previously gravitated toward the classics, but I was intrigued by the premises of this story: an American family saga at the turn of the century, a vicious rivalry between two brothers, and family secrets. I was not disappointed and I would consider this one of my favorite books of all time.

The story takes place mainly in the Salinas Valley, California and begins with two families: the Trasks and the Hamiltons. The Hamiltons are immigrants from Ireland and Adam Trask is a wealthy man who moves in to the Valley as a new land owner. Samuel Hamilton befriends Adam and from there the story of Adam unfolds.

We learn about Adam’s troubled youth in Connecticut, growing up with a half-brother Charles who nearly beat him to death out of jealousy over his father’s favoritism. Adam joins the military and by the time he returns home his father has died, and he learns from Charles that they were both left a sizable inheritance.

One night a woman named Cathy Ames who is badly beaten by a pimp is found near the entrance of the Trasks’ home. Adam and Charles take her in, and while taking care of her Adam falls in love. Only Charles is able to see through Cathy, while Adam is oblivious to her psychopathic nature. He marries her and takes her to Salinas Valley to start a new life and family together.

However, the life that Adam is dreaming for takes a shocking turn. I’ll stop here so as not to give any more details away, but the story continues to the next generation, where we see the sibling rivalry play out between Adam and Cathy’s two sons, Aron and Cal, culminating in an emotional ending.

It’s a modern-day retelling of the story of Cain and Abel, and of the complexities of sibling rivalry and a boy’s desperate need for connection with and approval from his father. It’s also a story about nature versus nurture, free will, and what we do with both the evil and the good that we are born with. Lee, the Chinese servant-turned-surrogate father and family friend in the Trask household, offers the seemingly omniscient voice in the book, and in one careful discussion of the story of Cain and Abel offers a different translation for the Hebrew word timshel as used in the Book of Genesis:

…The American Standard translation orders men to triumph over sin, and you can call sin ignorance. The King James translation makes a promise in ‘Thou shalt,’ meaning that men will surely triumph over sin. But the Hebrew word timshel—’Thou mayest’—that gives a choice . . . That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.’ . . . Why, that makes a man great, that gives him stature with the gods, for in his weakness and his filth and his murder of his brother he has still the great choice. He can choose his course and fight it through and win. (page 303)

And regarding the story of Cain and Abel overall, Lee says,

I think this is the best-known story in the world because it is everybody’s story. I think it is the symbol story of the human soul  . . . The greatest terror a child can have is that he is not loved, and rejection is the hell he fears . . . and with rejection comes anger, and with anger some kind of crime in revenge for the rejection, and with the crime guilt – and there is the story of mankind. (page 270)

(For anyone who might be interested, I found out last night that another film adaptation of East of Eden is in the works, with Jennifer Lawrence (Hunger Games, Silver Lining Playbook) to play the part of Cathy Ames. The first movie version came out in 1955 starring James Dean.)

Have you read East of Eden? What has been your own experience with sibling rivalry, as a sibling and/or as a parent?