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.

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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: “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!

……………….

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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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 

Emily of The Bookshelf of Emily J. 

Kay of WHATMEREAD

Lynn of Smoke & Mirrors

 Follow Literary Wives on Facebook!

 

Madame Bovary Readalong

 

Alas, I didn’t get a chance until now to post about this Madame Bovary readalong that I’ve joined. The readalong started April 1 and it’s being hosted by CJ at ebookclassics (whom I’ve had the pleasure of “meeting” through Carolyn at Rosemary and Reading Glasses) and Juliana at Cedar Station. I’d had this book hovering near the top of my to-read list for about a year, so this readalong is perfect.

As many of you know, Madame Bovary is French writer Gustave Flaubert’s 1856 novel about a young woman seeking happiness and fulfillment in her mundane life as the wife of an ordinary and devoted husband. She ends up having a number of affairs until her various choices lead to her downfall.

A couple of things have surprised me about the book so far. One: it is extremely readable, even easy to read, and two: it feels timeless. If you disregard the various references to transportation and dress, this book can easily feel as though it was written in and about the 21st century. Here’s an excerpt:

Before her marriage she had believed herself to be in love; but since the happiness which should have resulted from this love had not come to her, she felt that she must have been mistaken. And she tried to find out exactly what was meant in life by the words “bliss,” “passion” and “rapture,” which had seemed so beautiful to her in books. (page 34)

The quote made me think of a 43-year-old woman I worked with once who had left her husband despite her own description of him as “perfect” – kind, gentle, loyal, etc. She told me she had wanted more in the way of excitement. (Yes, I can hear the sad sighs of nice guys around the world…)

If you’d like to join the readalong, please check out the master post here at ebookclassics. It lists the reading/discussion dates and you can link up there as well.

For those of you who are following, I’ve put on hold my Grapes of Wrath readalong, which I had announced last month I would be doing (face cast downward in shame…). Madame Bovary is just more fun for me right now.

 

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

 Follow Literary Wives on Facebook!

My Literary Week

I have been all over the place this month in terms of my reading and I’m finally getting over a cold that has lasted forever, so this will be a smorgasbord kind of a post:

March Madness and Fickleness

The weather isn’t the only thing that’s been fickle for me this March. Despite the fact that it’s National Reading Month – and I had wanted to join the various reading versions of March Madness – I’ve been making very little progress in any actual reading. I started the month with a number of goals: Start NPR’s The Grapes of Wrath read-along; start and finish The Zookeeper’s Wife for our next Literary Wives discussion; start and finish Howard’s End for The Classics Club’s April post. Well, I started and stopped all three. I kept flitting back and forth, not sure which book to prioritize. Finally a growing desire to get back into Victorian literature took over and I began re-reading Jane Eyre, something I hadn’t planned on doing this year. And so that’s all I’ve been reading over the last week and now I am positively hooked on Jane Eyre.

Which character in literature are you?

Speaking of Jane Eyre, I found this pretty fun literary/psychological (my favorite combination!) quiz at Book Week Scotland where you can find out who “your” literary figure is. And I mention Jane Eyre because Jane Eyre is who I got (introverted, loyal once you get to know me, and self-critical)! If you’ve been spending time taking all those BuzzFeed quizzes, then you will find this one to be of higher quality. It only takes a few minutes and it asks you various questions about how you approach problems and how you prefer to interact with people (kind of like a shortened Myers Briggs test). I gave this quiz to Max (hubby) and Fred (son) as well and they got, respectively, Atticus Finch of To Kill a Mockingbird and Jean Valijean of Les Misérables.

Victorian Men Montage

I’ve never understood the fascination with YouTube but this week I couldn’t keep my eyes off of these video montages of Victorian men in literature. I like the ones with fast music, and this one in particular, set to a remake of The Weather Girls’ It’s Raining Men. Some (like my recently-turned 10-year-old) may question my tastes but I actually find the video quite erotic. I can’t imagine the sexual tension that builds up in a society where emotions are so restrained and the people so heavily clothed. Note the subtle heaving of chests, lingering glances, and gently rocking pelvic motions (horse riding scenes).

Addiction Feeding

Bless my husband’s dear heart for driving me two towns away to visit yet another library used book sale and for not questioning or judging me when I walked out with another canvas bag full of books (contents: Pride and Prejudice, Wives and Daughters, Crime and Punishment, and more). The books now sit on the floor at the foot of our bed until they find a new bookcase.

Here’s the thing: every few months I get restless, like something critical from my life is missing. No doubt my body clock has aligned with our various local libraries’ quarterly book sale schedules. I feel such joy and security just being in a room full of books and browsing through them. I have no other vices in life – I’ve even given up Doritos and beer at 10 p.m. – and I figure there are worse ways in life to be happy.

And if you, too, are addicted to acquiring books, read this post Is Owning Books as Good as Reading Them over at Book Riot. The author has 850 (!) unread books in her apartment but it is the many reader comments that are most encouraging and supportive.

What’s up in your literary life of late?