Wednesday, September 5, 2012

All-American Wife: A Book Review of Wife 22: A Novel, by Melanie Gideon

All-American Wife: A Book Review of Wife 22: A Novel
by Melanie Gideon.

This novel is about a women caught in mid-life and marriage boredom, who starts filling out an online marriage survey. First of all, I would advise anyone who has a Kindle/eBook reader NOT to buy this book because it doesn't show you the survey questions as the book goes along-- only her answers to the questions, most of which are entirely useless without context. If you have a hard copy of the book you can bookmark the survey and flip back to it each time she answers a question (but even that is annoying, I would imagine-- as was electronically bookmarking the survey questions page and having to go back and forth all the time while reading). In my opinion this choice downgraded the book from 3 stars to 2.5 stars for me, because it was horribly inconvenient for me as the reader and I don't know why the author couldn't have just included the questions before the answers. It was very stupid and frustrating, to say the least.

Anyway, I read this novel for a book club I'm in, and mostly on airplanes and in the airport while traveling. I would say that it was fine for that kind of a book-- "beach read" or "airplane read"-- for entertainment value. It is a quick read which for the most part kept my interest, but I agree with the consensus of my book group that it is superficial and rather cliched.

Sure, there are some good lessons in here for people who are married but that's pretty much because it's the tired-and-true story of a middle-aged woman who has been married for a long time and is bored with it. The book did a include a new twist-- social networking and email communication, etc., which I thought was important because that is how people communicate these days and I don't know why more books haven't explored this theme and medium. At the same time, I think this twist could have been included along with a more solid story line and better developed characters, all of which seemed to fall by the wayside, sacrificed for the sake of the technology inclusion.

I was disappointed with the characters because they had strong potential but the author seemed to forget all about them with her attempt to splatter electronic communication all throughout the book. I mean I guess that goes to show that one of the dangers of getting so caught up in technology and the Internet world is that you forget about your own family and the down to earth relationships you have in real life. So perhaps it was intentional but still, the kids are brought up in the beginning but then forgotten about until mid-way through the book when the daughter starts having all these issues and I as a reader was left thinking, "Um, I would CARE more if I had learned more about this along the way." I also think that is a remark on modern society though (or maybe it has always been this way)-- the teenaged kids are in their own world, the parents are in their own world, and it's hard for the two worlds to intersect and create meaningful connections.

I did think the main character was selfish but relatable... I would say she's a spot-on caricature of a privileged, middle-aged American woman, so, the character was true to type. Some people in my book group thought the husband seemed selfish or clueless, but I don't really agree-- to me he was just a normal guy, doing his thing, but also in his own unique way, which was pretty cool. I thought his character could have been explored more, like all the other characters, but from what I saw of him, he just seemed like an average or better-than-average dude. Yes his career was in crises but whose isn't these days? I don't really blame him for his career malaise and I think he was taking actions to shake things up and create radical change-- which I guess the main character was also doing in her own way, although I was not nearly as sympathetic to her, and she seemed a lot more passive while the husband seemed a lot more active.

There's something else I want to say about this book but I think even hinting at it would be too much of a spoiler, so, I'll stop here. In general I don't think anyone will miss anything if they DON'T read this book, but if they do, they will probably be entertained for a few hours, and then go "meh" and move on with their lives. ;) It's not earth-shattering nor, in my opinion, is it extremely well-written or well-plotted, but it does have some remarks to make on the status of modern American marriages.

Final rating: 2.5 stars (Would be 3 except for the ridiculous choice to only show the main characters' answers to the survey as the book goes along, and leave the survey questions in the back of the book. Grrrrr!)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Pittsburgh in Words: Essays in Honor of the City's 250th Anniversary

I'm originally from Pennsylvania (the South Central portion, near the Maryland border... not Pittsburgh, although my parents are from Johnstown, which is closer) and I've recently heard (from my boss here in Albuquerque, who is from Pittsburgh) that Pittsburgh is a pretty cool place to live these days. I may have the chance to visit it in a week, because I'm going home to attend a wedding in Erie, and the next day I'm flying out of the Pittsburgh airport, which is about two hours away.

I found out through Creative Nonfiction Journal that this year is Pittsburgh's 250th anniversary, and so CNF has put together a website called Pittsburgh in Words to celebrate the city. The website hosts a collection of essays about Pittsburgh. It includes clickable tags so that you can find essays on whatever topic you happen to be looking for. I've had a fun time browsing the site, and thought I'd pass it on. I'll post an update if I end up visiting Pittsburgh this weekend!

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Kim Addonizio

I'm no poet, and not much of a poetry reader. I absolutely adore Pablo Neruda, and I occasionally browse through poetry collections. I just heard of a poet named Kim Addonizio who seems super cool. I'm interested in checking out her poetry collections; she has also written novels. Another unique thing about her is that she writes about tattoos! So I plan to check her writing out whenever I have the time (oh, time, what a silly, annoying thing to have to plan around!), and I will update with my thoughts.

Here is a great quote from her website:

“You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.”
~Ray Bradbury

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Lawyer-Turned-Writer Realizes Dream Despite Disease

Loss of Speech Evokes the Voice of a Writer: An Article on Lawyer-Turned-Writer Neil Selinger

My father has a favorite saying: "Life is short; sometimes, suddenly short." He said it a few months ago when the toddler-aged son of a family he knows from church chocked to death in his sleep, on his own vomit. The parents, of course, never had any warning that his death was coming, and they found him too late to save him. "Life is short; sometimes, suddenly short."

He said it again recently when a girl my family has known for years was involved in a fatal car accident in our hometown. Her sister is my age and was a friend throughout school; she herself was my brother's age and a friend and classmate of his. This girl was riding in her fiance's vehicle, on a main road in that town that they probably traveled on nearly every day, when it collided with another vehicle. She and the driver of the other car, an elderly man, were pronounced dead on the scene. Her fiance was transported by air to an out-of-town hospital where, last I heard, he was in stable condition. "Life is short; sometimes, suddenly short."

Today I saw this article on Neil Selinger in the New York Times Review of Books, about a man who retired early from the practice of law to concentrate on writing, only to be diagnosed with a debilitating disease. Undeterred, he writes on. I could relate to this author, mainly to the following quote: "He went to Columbia University planning to study literature, but practicality won out and he went to law school." I've always loved to write, but I also valued financial independence and security, and so I wanted to write while also working. I went to law school and into the practice of law with the goal of saving up a lot of money so that I could retire early, to just write, and travel. Looking back, that goal may have been a bit naive, as the law, as it has so often been said, is a jealous mistress, who is constantly dangling that carrot and doling out rewards for longer and harder work. Still, I don't plan to be a lawyer forever; I plan to be a "writer." Sometimes, though, I wonder if I'll ever reach that stage. I sent a link containing the article to my family, and my dad responded with his saying. "Life is short; sometimes, suddenly short." At least Mr. Selinger realized his goal of focusing on writing and other pursuits, before it was too late. Therefore I think his story is sad but inspiring.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Books Read in 2011

My goal is to read at least two books a month in 2011. (Wow, that's really not a lot at all. But it is so rare that I get the time to sit down and read!) So far, I'm on track. I will post the books I read here, with approximate start/end dates, and links to my reviews, once I post them (sometimes it takes awhile for a review to follow my completion of the book).


1) December 27 - January 3
Loose Girl by Kerry Cohen *** 1/2
(Nonfiction: Memoir: Women's Identity/Sexuality)

2) January 13-19:
A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick
(Fiction: Novel: Historical)


3) February 12 - 16:
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
(Fiction: Novel: Science Fiction)

4) January 3 - February 23:
Dancing After Hours by Andre Dubus
(Fiction: Short Stories)

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Hills Like Black Elephants

I'm taking a short story writing workshop class at UNM Continuing Education. Last week the teacher put us in groups of three and gave each group an assignment. My group's assignment was to write a short story similar to Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants." He asked us if we knew the story; two of us did, one of us did not. So the other woman who knew the story started to explain it to the woman who did not know it. She said, "It's about this guy and girl who travel all around together. The guy's about 35 and the girl's about 19. The girl just had an abortion and she's really not particularly happy about having done it, but she accepts that she did, because she wants him to be happy with her and he wanted her to do it; it took a lot of pressuring on his part but she finally did it."

That wasn't at all how I remembered the story, other than it being about a man and a woman traveling, and talking about the landscape and talking about the woman getting an abortion. As I listened to her, I thought, "huh?", as if she had just tried to convince me that the story was called "Hills Like Black Elephants." I just re-read it and it turns out I was "right"-- there's no mention of the couple's respective ages; the woman hasn't had an abortion yet; the man definitely wants her to, and she wants to make him happy, but he repeatedly tells her not to do it if she doesn't want to.

But was I really "right" about what happens in the story? My classmate remembered it one way--not the way it really was, but how it is in her memory and what the story means to her. That was her version of the story, at that moment, and as I read it again, I began to see that it was in fact a very plausible version.

To me, that's what makes a good short story; every reader approaches it and individualizes it in his or her own way. My classmate obviously cared enough about these characters to give them ages; she cared enough about this story to remember what happened in it, even if her memory of the sequence of events was slightly askew. And the funny thing is, she is probably "right" in her interpretation of the story, if only that she read into the story more than what was written, but what was really there. I'd bet you anything this guy's quite a bit older than this girl, who comes across as very inexperienced when she asks what Anis del Toro is and whether he will love her again and will like how she compares white hills to elephants after she has an abortion. And he is pressuring her to get it, even if his words are saying otherwise. (At the very least, he won't stop talking about it when she repeatedly asks him to, which is a form of pressure if I've ever read it.) And she probably does end up getting the abortion and not being happy about it. So my classmate's version could be very accurate; she was just telling about events that weren't mentioned in the story but that are clearly there, at least according to how she sees the story.

And that is why I love literature. From the moment it was published or given to someone else to read, "Hills Like White Elephants" no longer belonged to Hemingway, but to the reader. It doesn't belong only to me, just because I've read it. And my memory of it and feelings about it won't necessarily remain the same. Years from now I may remember it a different way, or I may have adopted my classmate's version as the story I chose to remember. The story belongs to me, and to her, and to everyone who reads it, and to whatever ways we end up personalizing it and remembering it. So if you haven't read "Hills Like White Elephants," or haven't re-read it lately, I encourage you to do so... because until you do, you won't know what the story means to you, or means to you this time, in this moment.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Book Review: Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity, by Kerry Cohen

High on Sex, Low on Love: A Book Review of Loose Girl by Kerry Cohen

This book is basically the true story of a young woman who slept with quite a few random guys, without really giving two diddly-doos about what (or whom) she was doing or why. The title term "Loose Girl" provides a negative connotation for this behavior, and I guess the book could have been just as easily called "Slut" or some other provocative term. As a preliminary matter, then, I didn't really agree with the author's assumed notion that someone who has commitmentless sex is worthy of name-calling or necessarily lacking in self-esteem. To me there was really nothing new or shocking in the book and I think a lot of women (and men) have had experiences similar to those of the author. In fact I think people have done way worse (at one point she feels particularly worthless for doing it "doggy style" -- why doing the dirty in this position with a near-stranger is supposed to be any more slut-worthy than it is in regular ole missionary position was lost on me).

What made the story unique, though, and almost a little annoying sometimes, was the level of self-awareness and honesty with which the narrator told it. I think she only acquired this level of self-awareness after she had lived the story, perhaps while she was writing it, instead of having it all along, but that is something I wish would have been clarified more. I think the author (or her editor or whomever makes these important decisions nowadays) may have chosen to call it "Loose Girl" instead of some other derogatory name for "woman who has unattached sex" because she was in many senses floating around without a connection, without an anchor, just looking for something to hold onto. I wish she would have explored this metaphor more throughout the book, but, then again, there are only so many metaphors one can explore--no pun intended--when it comes to sex, and Kerry pretty much touches--no pun intended yet again--on all of them. To me, though, it didn't seem that the narrator was trying to fill her empty void with sex per se but instead with men. She wanted "boys" (as she calls them) to like her and think she's pretty and want to be in a realtionship with her. To me she was more of a relationship junkie or wanna-be junkie than a "slut."

Although I did have some issues with the book, it was a fast and gripping read for me, and definitely kept me interested. Kerry describes growing up in a well-to-do house with parents who were unable to connect with her or with anyone else for that matter. After her parents divorce when she is eleven, her self-absorbed and dramatic mother ends up going off to medical school in the Philipines, and she and her reserved and goth-like sister go to live with their emotionally distant father who exemplifies the empitomy of the term "boundary issues" and who is also just plain odd. Kerry doesn't have any role models or anyone to really connect to, so she turns to boys to fill her emptiness and to look for love.

I could really relate to how she hated that she needed other people so much. Again, I was wondering if she really knew this at the time or if a lot of it was reflection learned while looking back on everything. She seemed so self-aware throughout the book, to the point where at times the tone of her writing made her seem as distant and unsympathetic as the parents she hated. I can see how she learned a lot about herself looking back, and if I read the book in this vein, I liked it a lot more. But most of the time I just plowed through it--no pun intended--without analyzing it, because I liked the theme and the style.

I admired Kerry's straight-forward and honest telling of her story. It didn't seem like she held anything back and it in fact seemed like she was a bit disconnected from who she was or had been--which is something else I can relate to--so that she could tell her story as if she was talking about someone else. I could also relate to the way she wanted to be loved and accepted, without having the capacity to really love or accept someone back in the right way, therefore perpetuating her continuous cycle of bad relationships.

And that leads me to the next segment, which is, my disappointments about the book. As I mentioned at the beginning of my review, I don't necessarily like the notion this book seems to put out--no pun intended--there that there is something "wrong" with a girl who likes to have sex. I do get that Kerry thought, or now thinks, there was something wrong with her because of it, and I get that in her case she was searching to fill a void, and she felt she was too needy. Still, I thought she missed a lot of opportunities to stress her bigger issue, which was wanting an emotional connection, and that she down hard on herself in the places she did write about it, as if wanting to be emotionally close with someone you're physically close with is such a horribly wrong thing. I get that for her a lot of it was about wanting and not being able to connect to someone, like her parents. And I was totally aghast that she took absolutely no precautions to protect herself against things like rape, pregnancy or disease, even after many of these things happened to her or almost happened to her! To me that was the biggest sign of her lack of self-esteem and her totally out-of-controlness. I also get that she gave up a lot of other life pursuits because she was obsessed with "boys," and that for her it was like an addiction.

Still, I don't think she emphasized quite enough that her issue was actually with her desire to feel loved by someone else and to have boys like her--which is no different than a relationship addict or someone who stays in a bad relationship for the wrong reasons--and not really with the physical act of sex. She certainly seemed to get enjoyment out of sex in that she mentioned things like pleasure and orgasm, which to me (and hopefully to anyone?!) are good things, so I found myself thinking that her issue was far more emotional. Perhaps she heaped the emphasis on "sex" to glamorize the book and make it more trendy, when she was really just a girl wanting to be loved. I was more worried about her relationship problems--wanting a guy to love her, only to break his heart rather callously (yes, I can relate, sadly)--than about the fact that she liked the occasional or daily romp in the hay (don't we all?!). I guess her job wasn't to psychoanalyze all of this stuff, but, since she did do a lot more telling than showing (which was another one of my gripes with the book -- I kept wanting to scream "more scenes, please!"), and a lot of self-reflection which is another supposed no-no in memoir writing, I would have expected her to make these distinctions a bit more clearly.

I was disappointed with the ending (and this isn't really a spoiler if you read the author's brief bio on the back and realize she's married with kids now, and she's a therapist), not because I wanted some pat, cut and dry ending but because Kerry wrote that she loved her husband and was happy to be getting married and I just wasn't convinced. It made me sad for her because I felt like she was still searching for fulfillment outside of herself, except now she had resigned herself to settling down with one guy because she no longer wanted to be a "slut." She says that as a therapist now she doesn't believe people can change and she still deals with many of the same issues, but now she is just more self-aware. I really think that if she had spent more time single/alone, she would have continued her self-growth and perhaps changed for the better even more. Of course that's just my opinion, but her writing style about her husband was not convincing. There was little to no description, emotion or action that showed me why she loved him. And when she glossed over being a traditional bride all of a sudden and caring so much about invitation font and wedding dress styles, I wanted to scream at her, this isn't who you are either, you are fooling yourself. (Okay, maybe I was projecting after having fairly recently gone through the same wedding-planning-frenzy only to end up canceling my own wedding... so sue me.) It seemed to me that she wrote about her husband much the same way as she wrote about the other men she had been with -- disconnected, distant, blase -- and that made me sad because it was like nothing much had changed.

Other than those quibbles, I really enjoyed the book and it caused me to think a lot about the relationship between "promiscuity" and self-esteem, and other related issues such as the inability to truly love oneself or someone else. It's definitely a "sexy" topic (yeah, I said it) and I read in the author interview section at the end of the book that Kerry said she was surprised that no one else had written this book first, and I agree with her. I guess there are some others like it (the nonchalant tone reminded me somewhat of "Bare," that stripping memoir, which I didn't enjoy nearly as much as "Loose Girl") but this is a very candid expose which I'm sure it took guts to write and for which I admire the author. I give this book 3.5 stars and would recommend it to just about anyone, especially someone who has struggled to find love and fulfillment externally instead of internally. (By the way, I think other writers would enjoy reading this book because Kerry writes a lot about how writing changed her life and also about her experience in her MFA program.)

Click here to read more about the book, or purchase the book and support this blog (I will receive a small percentage of the sale):