Saturday, December 12, 2009

Book Review: Women Like Us, by Erica Abeel

We are Still Women Like Us: A Book Review of Women Like Us, by Erica Abeel

Although I had some issues with Women Like Us, I absolutely loved it. I should admit my bias up front: this book was written by a Sarah Lawrence College alum, which I also am (class of 2003), and the plot centers around four women who graduated from Sarah Lawrence in 1958. I was therefore pre-disposed to enjoy it, but in my opinion, any woman could relate to the plot and characters. That is what makes the book so very readable and also quite depressing. Women Like Us is not a happy story by any means, and its over-arching theme seems to be that women sell out our talent, our ambitions, our own goals, for those of our husbands and our families.

One would hope this is less true now than it was in 1958. At that time most women, including most of the characters in this book, shared the main goal of marrying before age 21 or so. Even intelligent girls from well-off families who went to college did so as something to fall back on, biding time between their childhood/adolescence and the time that their "real" - AKA married -- life would start ("Even at Sarah Lawrence, a caldron of creativity, Art was just an exalted form of occupational thoerapy; you didn't sacrifice romance on its account.")

There are four main characters in Women Like Us-- Daisy comes from a lower class background, having been raised in Queens, but is a very talented dancer who also likes to write. Although the book rotates around the lives of the four different girls, Daisy seems to stand out as the "main" character and I couldn't help but wonder if she was based on the author of the book. Delphine is from a lavishly rich but troubled family, and she is always the center of attention. Franca is tied to men from the beginning and eagerly gives up parts of her soul to be with them. Ginny is the overweight and dorky college misfit, who still somehow fits in with this otherwise seemingly trendy crowd (I never really understood how). The book starts with the girls' senior year in college and then traces their lives through their mostly short-lived careers and the trials and tribulations of marriage to successful and selfish men, and motherhood. Ginny changes her name to Gina and blossoms into the only consistently strong character who continuously follows her dreams into success; I wondered if her character was modeled after Barbara Walters, another SLC alum. Throughout the book Gina is portrayed as self-centered and shallow, and resented by the other three women as incapable of loving anything but herself and her career. To me this represents the two roles into which women have eternally been pigeon-holed: either we are selfless and unhappy (and often "naggy") wives and mothers, or we are selfish and cold career women.

Today it seems more possible to find a middle ground, somewhere where many men lie: we can be family women and career woman, we can have it all. This is what the characters in Women Like Us dreamed of at Sarah Lawrence in 1958, although it didn't turn out that way for any of them. Reading about their horrible experiences in the business world-- most of them went into publishing-- made me feel really lucky that I am living and working today instead of four decades or so ago. In some ways the book made me realize that we have come a long way. In other ways, I realized that many women everywhere are the same. Some of us still ditch our closely-knit friendships as soon as we find a man we think is husband material. And it seems that to many women, a man is still more important than whatever else we used to hold dear: career, education, our own interests and dreams.

I enjoyed reading about this generation of women, and now I want to read books based in similar time periods, such as Mary McCarthy's "The Group" and Rona Jaffe's "The Best of Everything." The women in Women Like Us felt they had been left behind and left out: younger women were marching in the street in the 60's while they were at home nursing their babies and wondering where their cheating husbands might be. They were too early for the women's movement and too late for the old-fashioned notion of Leave it to Beaver and men who had to mean the words "till death do us part." Later they are tossed to the side like used-up goods, left to fend for themselves when they never learned how to do that. That wasn't the way they had planned for things to turn out, but much of their plan involved hitching themselves to men. One thing clear from this book is that a woman only has herself, and she had better not give that up for anyone else, even her husband or children. She has to find a way to hold on to what is important to her and know that she can survive on her own if she has to. The character who comes closest to doing this (besides Gina, who never marries or has children) is Daisy, but it's a hard-fought battle even for her.

Now, for the issues I had with Women Like Us. The writing style is very different from what I'm used to; Abeel often uses short, choppy sentences, or rather, sentence fragmants. From the beginning, I didn't like it and almost stopped reading the book (I'm glad I didn't). But I was annoyed with the style throughout the book, because it made it hard to figure out what was going on. ("Franca offered her own number, mumbling she was overscheduled. A fabrication, Daisy later discovered, to her shame." Why not just say, "Franca gave Daisy her number and mumbled that she was overscheduled, which Daisy later found out was a lie"? This is only one example of many points in the book that drove me crazy by the strange way in which it was written!) Abeel also uses a lot of slang which made the book harder to follow. I think that in this way she limits the appeal of the book to educated East Coast college women. Girls from Radcliffe, for example, are called "Cliffies" (without any explanation, so that the reader has to figure it out for herself), debutantes "debs," locations at Sarah Lawrence and Harvard are mentioned as if the reader has been there before and knows exactly what the girls are talking about and where they're at, and composers and authors are name-dropped without any further definitions.

The entire tone of Women Like Us also gets very over-dramatic to the point of gagging ("She'd been preparing for this concert all her life," "She was persophone sprung from the underworld!"), but maybe this type of over-sentamentality was en vogue in the 50's. The book also bounces around in time and among the different characters' lives, and, even though I read this long book straight through in about a month, I often became confused, wondering what the date was and mixing up the characters. And the most annoying thing for me was how far-fetched the plot was. I don't want to give any of it away but pretend that one girl nearly dies in a plane crash, to be miraculously saved at the last moment, another goes to prison in a case of mistaken identity, the third gets hauled off to a mental institution and the fourth is shot by a bandit in a super-market.... all of that could have easily been thrown into the plot of this book along with all the other crazy escapades. To me this unrealistic drama was unnecessary and cheapened the book; I thought just telling the rather common lives of these four women over time would have been enough of a plot and I'm not sure why Abeel did this. From the blurbs and cover this looks like it was a "popular" book when it was published in the early 90's (which seems to go against some of the isolating or elitist references I was complaining about earlier), so maybe Abeel felt that she had to make the book exciting and totally plot-driven.

In the end, though, Women Like Us' redeeming qualities are that it is completely relatable and completely readable. I devoured it like I haven't any book in awhile, staying up late or deciding to read instead of do something else because I was so intrigued with the current character's situation. I also like how a theme in the book was writing and that Daisy aspired to be a published writer. Overall I give it four stars and would recommend it to any woman, while challenging her to not to be able to see herself or her female relatives or friends in many of the pages.

Click here to purchase Women Like Us from (I will receive a small percentage of the sale):

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Book Review: Lucky: A Memoir, by Alice Sebold

Disturbing Subject Matter but an Important Book: A Book Review of Lucky: A Memoir by Alice Sebold

It's hard to read, let alone review, a book about rape, but I think that this book it is an important one. Lucky
is a memoir about a college student who was attacked and raped in the park by her campus. Despite its difficult subject matter, Lucky reads smoothly. I feel that this is an accessible book for people to read who would like to understand better how to deal with rape, and to see all the ways that it impacts someone.

For me there were four distinct parts of this book (although the writer did not designate them as such – it just felt to me to read like that). The first part was the beginning, in which the actual rape sequence is told right up front. It is hard to digest but is written very clearly and directly. I really felt for the narrator in the next scenes, which immediately follow the rape, in which she goes to the police and is examined and has to tell her friends and family members what happened. At one point she describes something that I imagine must be almost as horrible as the rape itself – having to live the rest of her life as a rape victim:

“I knew exactly what had happened. But can you speak those sentences to the people you love? . . . That question continues to haunt me. After telling the hard facts to anyone from lover to friend, I have changed in their eyes.”

The second part of Lucky: A Memoir, for me, described the weeks and months following the rape. I found this part to be lacking because it seemed to me that the narrator wasn’t really dealing with her true feelings. I suppose that that is how it actually happened, though, and she did a good job of making me feel like I was right there with her in that time and that space, even though I often wanted her to do things differently. At times it seemed like she was pushing the rape out of her mind completely, and writing about her college classes and other things that any book about any college student would include. I wanted her to focus more on the issue, but perhaps she dealt with it by not focusing on it. In this part the theme of writing was introduced, which I did enjoy. Sebold dealt with her emotions by writing poetry and fiction. She took classes and seminars by Tobias Wolff and Tess Gallagher. Tess Gallagher is actually a pretty central character in the book, who accompanies Alice to court when she has to confront her attacker (although she’s disappeared by the end of the book without explanation, leaving me to wonder what happened).

The third part of the book, which I really liked, moved on to show how the narrator was intent on prosecuting her attacker. It was easy to cheer for her and she showed a lot of strength and wisdom. She describes the legal process well and at one point she mentions wanting to go to law school so that she can prosecute other criminals (she later decides to pursue teaching instead, and says it became her lifeline and salvation). It seems very fulfilling that the narrator finds some kind of justice and closure in the midst of all her suffering. At the same time, she is still human. I could tell that the rape had affected her and that in some ways it had changed her in a negative way. She seems to use men for own reasons and disregard what they must be feeling. She has a strange relationship with her father that she never quite explores in depth the way I wanted her to. (At times she has a close bond with her mother, who is always anxious and has panic attacks). Through all of these shortcomings, however, for most of the book she seems strong and like someone to whom most readers would be able to relate, despite the horrible thing that happened to her.

The fourth and last part of the book, though, takes a strange turn. I don’t want to include spoilers so suffice it to say that the narrator is no longer the intelligent, strong fighter that the reader had gotten to know and admire. This made me feel like my hunch was correct that she hadn’t been dealing internally with the aftermath of her rape. I was disappointed at her downfall but, more than that, it didn’t seem to make sense to me. I thought that the writer should have spent more time on the last part of the book and less time with the mundane intricacies of college life. I felt there were issues left unexplored in the book.

Overall, I “enjoyed” reading Lucky: A Memoir, although that is a strange thing to say about a rape memoir. I thought it was well-written and that it dealt with some very important social issues. I especially liked how it explored the subject of how different women deal differently with rape, and the need for there to be open dialogue about it. The writing in parts is flourishingly poetic, which was a strange offset for the subject, but it usually worked. I would like to read another book by Alice Sebold to see whether the tone works even better with a lighter subject matter (although, from what I understand, her novel Her Lovely Bones has anything but a light subject matter). I give Lucky: A Memoir three and a half stars and would recommend the book, but be forewarned that the subject matter is obviously difficult.

Click here to purchase Lucky (I will receive a small portion of the proceeds):

Quotes from Lucky:

“No one can pull anyone back from anywhere. You save yourself or you remain unsaved.”

“Poetry is not an attitude. It is hard work.” (Quoting Tess Gallagher)

“Memory could save . . . it had power . . . it was often the only recourse of the powerless, the oppressed, or the brutalized.” (Referring to Tobias Wolff’s own story, This Boy’s Life)

“You never get over some things.”

From an interview with Alice Sebold that is published as a supplement in the back of the book:

Question: People often wonder if writing is therapeutic. If you’re writing about a trauma, does that help the pain of the trauma recede? Susie in the novel [a different book] says something like every time she tells her story, a drop of the pain goes away. But as a writer who’s written about your own trauma and then written a fictionalized version of a similar trauma, is writing therapeutic or do you think that that’s really the wrong way to approach it anyway?

Answer: My feeling is that therapy is for therapy and that writing can be therapeutic, but therapeutic writing should not be published. My job as a writer is to go through the therapy myself and, if I manage to get through it and I feel I have something to share from that, to share it with my audience or my readers. But I don’t’ write novels and seek to have them published so that I can get therapy from having written them. That’s really the responsibility of an individual to do outside the context of their published work.

My notes on the book: At one point, due to the trauma, Alice wakes up with night sweats and sometimes screaming – sounds like night terrors. Dorland Mountain Arts Colony – rural California. Hayden Carruth, Jack Gilbert and Diane Wakowski – poets. Olga Cabral (“Lillian’s Chair”) and Peter Wild (“Dog Hospital”). Raymond Carver. Robert Bly. Mary Daly and Andrea Dworkin – feminist writers. She was raised in Paoli, Pennsylvania, near Frazer. She went to Syracuse College in New York. She lived in New York City for some years after college. She spends some time in California. She attends graduate school to pursue her MA in Poetry for awhile at the University of Houston.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Book Review: Mourning Ruby by Helen Dunmore

There May Be Such a Thing as Too "Literary": A Book Review of Mourning Rubyby Helen Dunmore

This novel is more or less about a mother who is grieving the tragic loss of her five-year-old daughter. But the "more or less" part cannot be overlooked. If it weren't for the title and the ominous cover picture featuring a little girl skipping in the leaves in a red dress, the reader would have no idea what this book is about for quite some time. It begins with a prologue that is a dream sequence, told in the first person, of the narrator--Ruby's mother Rebecca--and Ruby walking along a road. I thought that a novel should never open with a dream; it's a cheap technique, too easily and often used. And unfortunately the book continues that way, although a lot of the techniques are more original. After the prologue, Rebecca describes what happened to her when she herself was a baby, which was that her mother left her in a shoebox outside an Italian restaurant. She was then adopted by parents who seem not to care for her much, and the feelings are mutual. She tells her own story in such a removed and distant way that it is hard to relate to her. Plus, the tone of the writing is confusing and the plot starts jumping all
over the place.

Soon we learn that Rebecca lived with a guy who was in love with her, but those feelings weren't mutual. His name is Joe and he writes historical non-fiction. He's in the middle of writing a book about Stalin's second wife, and this story takes up a good chunk of the first part of the book. That story could be rather interesting, but Joe tells it to Rebecca in a series of long drawn-out conversations, in which he makes clear that she is not interested in what he is talking about. So why should the reader be? I never really figured that out, although I did enjoy reading about collectivist Russia.

We also learn that Rebecca has a husband named Adam, but the relationship between them doesn't seem very convincing. He is a doctor who saves newborn babies, ironically. Some things seem like easy plot devices which aren't very realistic-- such as Rebecca working part-time in a bar while her husband is doctoring.

Another central sub-plot in Mourning Rubyis the story of Rebecca and her boss, Mr. Damiano, for whom she goes to work after Ruby's death. To me he was the most interesting character and his story was the most captivating, albeit even more unrealistic than the relationship between Rebecca and Adam. His family performed in circuses in Madrid, and his little sister suffered a tragedy almost as devastating as Ruby's death. Mr. Damiano likes to re-create "dream worlds"--obviously a theme underlying the novel--and bring pleasure to people as his business. He owns a chain of hotels, all named after minor English poets: Sidney, Lampedusa, Villon, Langland, Sonescu, Cavafy, Sexton, and Bishop. Poetry and written language play a central part in this novel. In fact, an obvious theme is a writer writing about writing, which I found at times to be both interesting and annoying.

For instance, each chapter--and many of them are very short--starts out with a rather strange title and a snippet of a poem, excerpt from a book, or folk song. I found these snippets to be distracting because I wanted to know where they came from and how they related to the book and what the rest of the snippet was all about. Like much about the book, this information is never revealed to the reader, except at the very end, when Dunmore includes a list of "sources," which include her own poetry. Also in line with the literary theme, Joe tells Rebecca near the beginning of the book that the Russian poet Mandelstam once wrote about baby airplanes as a metapher for writing poetry: one airplane in full flight gives birth to another airplane, which then flies off and gives birth to another airplane. Dunmore weaves this theme into the novel, as a way to show how one story gives life to another, and all stories are connected. I suppose that Rebecca is trying to find her own life story, but the rather interesting plot line about her birth and her upbringing as an adopted child is abandoned rather early on. It's hard to care about a book when each story drops off after it gives birth to the next one. Ruby's death is the only main theme that continues throughout the book, but it's hard to connect to because so many other stories are swarming around it.

Most frustrating of all, for me, wasn't the fact that so many stories were told, but rather it was the way they were told. Much of the prose during Rebecca's narration is beautiful (the jacket cover states that Dunmore is a poet and short story writer, so I might like to check her out in these contexts, in which the language and style might work better for me than it did in a novel). The flowery language, however, seemed to detract from the plot for me and made it hard for me to related to Rebecca as a real character. And some of the stories that had the potential to be the most exciting were told in the dullest manners possible. Mr. Damiano's fascinating life story is told--much like the history of Stalin that Joe is writing--in long strings of conversation, which to me took a lot away from the potential captivating action. I was unsure why Dunmore chose to do this, even though I "got" that she had this over-riding theme of writing about writing, and writing about stories within stories.

Mid-way through Mourning Ruby, the point of view changes, and we are seeing Joe, told from the omniscient perspective, without Rebecca there, and also Adam in the same way. To me this was disappointing and destroyed any integrity the novel was supposed to have. It was another easy way out. The last part of the book is part of a novel that Joe sends to Rebecca, ostensibly to help her figure out her own story. I found part of this plot interesting, as it was about a prostitute named Florence who lived in France during the First World War. The Madame of the house was the only strong female character in the book (I thought it was annoying how Rebecca learned everything about herself through the three main male characters), although Florence, by the end portion of Joe's unfinished work of fiction, was starting to develop into a strong character as well. Joe tells Rebecca that he hasn't finished the book and so he encloses character and plot notes, which we the poor readers are forced to suffer through, right when we were into the story of Florence, and quite awhile after we had totally lost track of the story of Rebecca and Ruby.

Overall, Mourning Rubywas one of the most discombobulated novels I have ever read. At first it left me feeling disoriented, and then, once I got my bearings, it usually left me feeling disappointed. At times the language was captivating, and at other times the plot was too. These times were nearly canceled out, however, by the parts that seemed to be told in a hurry of rushed dialogue. The concept is certainly ambitious and I like some of the ideas behind the novel, but I think they were executed rather poorly, with style valued much more than substance. I did enjoy the writing theme, but it was much too much: definitely overkill. I enjoyed reading about the different places and time periods. Most of the parts featuring Rebecca--all of which are contemporary--are set in Cornwall, and some in London (Dunmore is a British writer). I also enjoyed reading about historical France and historical and modern-day Russia (where Joe briefly resides and where Rebecca and Adam go to visit him in a rather twisted love-triangle). So I can't say I regret reading this unique book, but it certainly wasn't one of my favorites. I give it two and a half stars, out of five.

Click on the image below to buy this book now, from (I will receive a small percentage of the sale price):

Here are some quotes and passages from the book that I really liked:

"She understood that she had no rights in the future of a baby she was about to give away. She wanted me to start with a clean sheet."

"I mistrust sensitive people. In my experience what they are chiefly sensitive to is themselves."

"In my view friendship can be rarer and tenderer than love."

"Living with someone, you can't help absorbing what they do. You get the language around you and you start to use it yourself, without thinking."

"When people say you remind them of someone it means that you remind them of themselves, of their own life, of their own concerns. You are a mirror, that's all."

"The circus had taught me the most important trick it possesses: to discover what people want, before they know it themselves, and before anyone else knows it. To discover it first, and act on it. It sounds very simple, doesn't it? You wonder why everyone doesn't find it out."

"You can't free yourself from the past. The past is what you are." [paraphrasing slightly]

"The most important thing parents have to do is to make their children believe that life is good. Or if they can't manage that, at least make them believe that life is bearable. That there are ways to bear it and that they will help the children to find them."

"Here I am sitting in a pool of electric light, with my iBook burning blue. I'm drinking whiskey and I'm about to start writing again. I'm in the territory of bears. They are all around me, even if I can't yet see them. I can sense them, smell them. I'm an indoor man by nature, and words are the kind of bears I hunt."

"The fact that the relationship between you didn't continue doesn't invalidate it- that would be like saying that love isn't real unless it lasts forever."

"For most of my life it felt improbable to me that I had a father at all. I don't remember him any more than you remember your mother. I'd love to have known him. Sometimes I get a sensation in my head, in my moth almost, like a taste or a smell. I nearly remember him, but then I don't. I try not to reach after it too much. The thread that links us is so slender that I'm afraid it'll snap if I strain it too far. it drives me crazy. Maybe there's a sensation like that in your head.

All those months inside your mother's body, those hours when she was yours and no one else's, and you were hers. The fact that the relationship between you didn't continue doesn't invalidate it- that would be like saying that love isn't real unless it lasts forever."

"A field is enough to spend a life in.
Harrow, granite and mattress springs,
shards and bones, turquoise droppings
from pigeons that gorge on nightshade berries,
a charm of goldfinch, a flight of linnets,
fieldfare and January redwing
venturing westward in the dusk,
all are folded in the dark of the field,

all are folded into the dark of the field
and need more days
to paint them, than life gives."

"Someone asked Mandelstam what poetry was like, and he said that it was like an aeroplane flying along which gives birth to a baby aeroplane which immediately begins to fly with its full strength and its own life, and gives birth to its own baby aeroplane. All this happens without any of the aeroplanes missing a beat. All this happens within one poem. Mandelstam's baby aeroplanes never nuzzle and butt around their mothers' bellies. Immediately they are born and they fly off, with their own life."

Saturday, October 31, 2009

National Novel Writing Month

I just signed up to write a 50,000 novel in the month of November, at Nanowrimo, the official site of National Novel Writing Month. Except for a book called "My Grandpa, the Weirdo" that I wrote in 6th grade, I've never finished a whole novel before. I guess there's a first time for everything. Wish me luck!

Oh, and Happy Halloween.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

New writing quotes

The Quotes On Writing section has been updated with new quotes about writing and writers.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Law-Related Quotes

Here are quotes related to the law, legal issues, law school and lawyers, that I have found and liked while reading books, articles, short stories, or websites.

"Few students enter college with all the points on the map plotted. The premeds commit early, because they have to. The prebusiness types drift into economis and psychology classes. The rest, a hodgepodge of majors, whose interests are vaguely creative, wander from art history class to philosophy seminar to life-drawing studio to the British novel until, one day, they matamorphose into nail-biting, neurotic law school applicants."

- Cameron Stracher, Double Billing: A Young Lawyer's Tale of Greed, Sex, Lies, and the Pursuit of a Swivel Chair

"Law school has become the graduate school for the great unwashed, the final resting place for a plurality of college graduates without an employable degree."

- Cameron Stracher, Double Billing: A Young Lawyer's Tale of Greed, Sex, Lies, and the Pursuit of a Swivel Chair

"For most . . . the decision to go to law school must be viewed as a combination of fear, coercion, curiosity, self-interest, self-delusion, and entropy . . . no one goes to law school at gunpoint. In a perfect world one could win the lottery, marry rich, lack material desires. But the world has never been perfect. The noisy clash between commerce and leisure is not an invention of this generation. Everyone has to work: the flawed, self-deluded, and famous. You look at the world and decide where you fit in, or the world fits you in. You make a guess, take a chance, leap into the void. But it's an educated guess, based on what you know about yourself and the world, which may not be much. Sometimes you guess wrong; sometimes the guess is right, but the world is wrong. In the end, you can change your mind, but you can't change the world. Thus, law school."
- Cameron Stracher, Double Billing: A Young Lawyer's Tale of Greed, Sex, Lies, and the Pursuit of a Swivel Chair

Browse more quotes and more at: Site Map

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Book Review: Double Billing by Cameron Stracher

Not as Dramatic as it Tries to Be: A Book Review of Double Billing: A Young Lawyer's Tale Of Greed, Sex, Lies, And The Pursuit Of A Swivel Chairby Cameron Stracher

Double Billingis a memoir by a Harvard Law graduate who spent a few years in the 1990’s as an associate at a large (fictionalized) law firm in New York City. I bought this book for my fiance’s father, who enjoys legal thrillers by the likes of John Grisham. He had most recently been telling me about Grisham’s book The Associate. So, I thought, here’s a bird’s eye view into the world of a first year associate at a large law firm, a true story told by the former associate himself. The cover looked intriguing and mentioned the usual exciting suspects: greed, sex, and lies (although I wasn’t sure what the pursuit of a swivel chair part was all about).

After my fiance’s father read it, I decided to as well, because it seemed timely. I was working at the local office of a large law firm where I wasn’t happy. I thought that reading this book would help in a “misery loves company” kind of way. (Disclosure: By now I work at a small civil law firm, where I am much happier, so I am biased!)

The contents of Double Billing, however, not only disappointed me but, more often than not, annoyed me. I found the writing to be mediocre and the narrator to be self-indulgent. At some points I wondered if it was the author’s intention to upset the reader, because the book contained some sexist and racist comments, as well as downright condescending ones, such as this little gem:

“In the hierarchy of criminal practitioners, federal prosecutors are at the top, state prosecutors at the bottom . . . In the civil bar, personal injury lawyers—those who handle “slip and fall” cases—are at the bottom; lawyers at large firms who represent major clients are at the top . . . If you asked a personal injury lawyer whether he considered himself at the bottom of the civil law food chain, he would probably deny it and protest vigorously. On the other hand, his denials would have a strong whiff of defensiveness.”

I wondered what made the narrator think he knew so much about the practice of law when it came to making such blasé comments, when throughout the book, he makes a big deal out of the fact that he knows nothing about being an associate at a big law firm. (When given a document review assignment, he lies to a senior associate about having done one before, messes the process up due to his own ignorance, and then remarks, “There was no course called Document Production at Harvard. No one explained ‘Bates stamping’ or making multiple copies or reproducing file labels or sitting in a warehouse sweating your ass off.”) He also comes off as extremely immature at times, and almost disrespectful. (“We drove to the hearing in White Plains in [a partner] Caroline’s Lexus. On the drive back to the office, I drew stick figures on the air-conditioned window while Caroline spoke to [another partner] Eric on the car phone.”)

Having worked at a large and a mid-sized law firm, I had a pretty good idea what Stracher was writing about. Granted, I never worked—-and know by now that I wouldn’t want to work—-as an associate at a large law firm in New York City, but I have had many similar experiences as Stracher. He spends the first few months with little to no work, supposedly reading law review articles all day, which in my experience means you are either lazy or that the partners find you undesirable and you will eventually find your way to the door, by yourself or with an escort. After awhile, however, he does pick up some work, mainly a lot of document review and some discovery requests and responses, which is pretty typical of first year associate work. He even gets to help with a trial, which is a rare experience for a new associate that he at different points in the book appears to appreciate and take for granted.

Much of Double Billingcame off as whiny to me, and perhaps I have been numbed by the corporate law firms to which I sold my soul, but I don’t think anything he described was that bad. For one thing, as far as his rant about document production goes, paralegals have done the "bates stamping and multiple copying and reproducing file labels" work at all three of the firms where I have worked, and I can only imagine a large law firm having even more support staff on hand for these types of tasks. The “lies” he mentions are basically instructing a witness not to speculate about a situation if he or she doesn’t remember what was said or done, and playing discovery “games” with the other side by stalling or objecting before producing important documents. These situations and others have bothered me at various points in my career, but, as Stracher pointed out, that’s the way that practicing law sometimes works, and nothing that he saw violated the law or any professional or ethical rules. He also talks about partners giving busy work and tasks that he himself views as unnecessary to associates so that the firm can keep billing as many hours as possible. This complaint also has merit, but one person’s “busy work” is something another person deems necessary, and I wanted Stracher to deal with these important issues in a better way than casually mentioning them and then moving on.

As far as “sex” goes, there was little to none, and certainly not enough for a book that has the word in its subtitle. One of Stracher’s co-workers is secretly dating a paralegal. (How exciting.) More puzzling to me are Stracher’s sporadic mentions of his own personal life, without ever letting the reader in to the whole story. The book starts when he’s out to dinner with his girlfriend, having just passed the Bar, and ends when his girlfriend finally persuades him to change jobs. In the middle, there are random mentions of times when he has to cancel plans with her or leave her lonely at home because he has to work so much, and other times when she nags him to change jobs and stop working so much. Apparently they had been together for quite awhile and I kept waiting for some detail into their relationship beyond this surface level, and especially for resolution one way or the other-—a marriage proposal or a break up—-but there was none. I was left wondering why he even brought the girlfriend into the book at all.

And the swivel chair in the sub-title? Another disappointment. The entire story can be summed up as: his chair broke and he had to put in a request with the office manager, which was last on her list because he was a lowly associate and not a partner, and eventually, right before he quit, he got his chair. This plot line about sums up the excitement contained in the book as a whole.

If you are an attorney who has worked at a large firm before, or probably any sized civil firm, you will be able to relate to many parts of this book. At some points I was like, “Oh, yeah, exactly,” but other times I was bored because it was so commonplace. If you aren’t an attorney, but are interested in legal books, movies, TV shows, etc., you may like the insider’s view that this book presents. My fiance’s father liked it and it gave us some good conversation material, such as billable hours and different types of attorneys and areas of practice, etc. The book is definitely an easy and fast read. I wonder, though, if some of the legal mumbo jumbo may be confusing or frustrating to non-attorneys. The way that Stracher tries to describe legal issues was pretty annoying to me, full of dramatic language and unnecessary capitalization. (“Imagine: you’re the General Counsel of a Very Big Corporation that has just been sued by an Extremely Nasty Corporation for Unimaginable Injuries.”)

I assume that the intended audience of Double Billingis the general public—-readers who want to know what it’s like to be a young, big wig attorney at a large law firm. On that premise, this book does deliver, although I think the entire “spend a lot of hours doing seemingly useless work, until you can pay back your law school loans and go in-house” spiel could have been told with a lot more excitement.

I recommend this for people who are in law school or thinking about going to law school because in my opinion it gives a realistic portrayal of being a junior associate at a big law firm. The problem is that those big law firms are boring and stuffy, so the book is a little bit like that, too. Still, I think many people go into good law schools (and a lot of debt) with a lot of ambition and high hopes, only to find out that they must sell their souls to large law firms to be able to pay for their education, and this is not the kind of work or the kind of environment they had in mind when they signed up for the gig in the first place. A bit depressing, really, but also remember that not all law firms/ law jobs are like that. In my opinion this book seems to accurately depict large, big-city law firm life. To that I can only say "blah" -- to the idea and to the book!

Rating: I give this book two and a half stars -- I didn't really like it but some people might and it's not absolutely horrible.

Read: March – April, 2009

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Saturday, October 24, 2009

Index of Book Reviews -- By Genre / Category

(Last updated on January 28, 2011 with the addition of Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity by Kerry Cohen)


* Classic

--> Novels
---> Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
---> The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers
---> Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky

--> Short Stories
---> Flappers and Philosophers: 8 Short Stories By F. Scott Fitzgerald
---> The Wife, and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov

* Contemporary

--> Novels
----> My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult
----> Mourning Ruby by Helen Dunmore
----> The Wednesday Sisters by Meg Waite Clayton
----> The Wife by Meg Wolitzer
----> Women Like Us by Erica Abeel

--> Short Stories
----> Best American Short Stories, 1991 Edited by Alice Adams and Katrina Kenison
----> Best New American Voices, 2006 Edited by Jane Smiley, John Kulka and Natalie Danford
----> Glimmer Train Stories: Issue # 48, Fall 2003


* Creative Non-Fiction

--> Memoir
----> Loose: A Memoir of Promiscuity by Kerry Cohen
----> Lucky, a Memoir by Alice Sebold
----> Double Billing: A Young Lawyer's Tale of Greed, Sex, Lies and the Pursuit of a Swivel Chair by Cameron Stracher

--> Instructive
---> Career and Corporate Cool: How to Look, Dress and Act the Part-- at Every Stage of Your Career by Rachel C. Weingarten

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Saturday, October 17, 2009

Wake Up Call: First Rejection Letter for Coach K Arrives

I've been waiting to hear back from the five literary journals to which I sent my personal essay/memoir piece "Coach K" almost a month ago. I received an email from Creative Nonfiction inviting me to view their website and receive a discount on a subscription. Although it was obviously a form email, it included my name and the title of my piece, which gave me hope. It said they take up to six months to respond, though, so I went back to waiting.

Every day I check the mail to no avail. Except last night, after getting home from a bar with my fiance and one of our friends, my fiance checked the mail for me and there was an envelope from Alaska Quarterly Review. Sure enough, it was a rejection letter. :( A standard form one stating that my work does not meet their needs at this time. Someone did write "Re: Coach K" and "With Thanks" on it, which was a nice little gesture, but I didn't even notice that until this morning I was so bummed, which the alcohol didn't help, so I just tossed the letter to the side and pouted. I just wanted to go lay in bed and cry. I had to smile, try to ignore it (I did whisper to my fiance that I got a rejection letter -- he looked genuinely surprised and crestfallen, which was sweet, and then he said something funny like "Those fools are stupid for not recognizing your talent!") and play Beatles Rock Band.

Lately I'd been thinking more and more about whether I could ever leave the law to be a writer, and if so, when. I had been joking wih my sister while I was in PA over the weekend that if I were hit by a car and bleeding to death on the side of the road, I wouldn't think about my legal career, accomplishments, downfalls, etc. at all. I'd think of my family and friends and then I'd think, "I never got to publish a book! I didn't spend enough time writing!" We were laughing and she was going, "Help me officer, I'm bleeeeeeeeding and I just want to publish a book!" But then on Wednesday after I returned home I was actually involved in a scary car accident in which my tire blew out on the highway on the way from Albuquerque to Santa Fe. I thought I was going to die but I walked away completely fine. I called my sister and told her we shouldn't joke about me being in a car wreck! But since then I've had this eery feeling, like life is trying to tell me something.

Of course, last night, when I received the rejection letter, my first thought was, "Good thing I have a good day job!" It would be really hard, if not downright impossible, to rely on writing to pay the bills. And I do enjoy my job and the law. So maybe life is trying to tell me to continue to write and pursue publication as much as I can in my spare time (which is very limited) while being grateful for my legal career during most of my waking hours. ????

On the other hand, I know that rejection is just a part of the writer's life. Did I really think that the first literary journal that I sent my piece to was going to say, "wow, what a literary genius, we must publish her immediately!" I guess I kind of did. ;) But that obviously isn't very realistic.

For laughs, I enjoyed this cartoon on the stage of rejection that writers go through: From Writer, Rejected

Friday, October 9, 2009

Book Review: Career and Corporate Cool

Tries Too Hard To Be "Cool":
A Review of Career and Corporate Cool (TM): How to Look, Dress and Act the Part--at Every Stage of Your Careerby Rachel C. Weingarten

I'll give this book credit for marketing. It really attracts attention and looks like the total package, complete with pink letters on the cover! But inside, it reads like a bunch of articles in Seventeen Magazine. (It even has cutesy chapter titles like "Career-o-rama," and cartoon cutout-like drawings of fashionably dressed women at work). Instead of advising you on what to do on your first date, it tells you how to be cool and sophisticated at work. Because the writing is anything but sophisticated, I didn't find it very convincing. It was really hard for me to take a book seriously that is supposed to be about a professional, mature career image but projects the image of a 16-year-old.

The sub-title of the book is deceptive, because this book does't talk at all about "every stage of your career." Instead, it seems to assume that everyone has a glamourous job but still somehow needs to figure out how to fit in. Much of the advice contained in the book is just plain common sense. The description in the inside jacket (which I should have read before the rest of the book, and then maybe I wouldn't have bought it) states, "While an off-color joke generally won't play in a cubicle environment, it can be a job requirement for a professional comedian. Fortune 500 companies tend to frown on perceived sexual harassment in the workplace while massage therapists touch naked strangers on a daily basis." Oh really, Rachel, you don't say?

Speaking of the dear author Rachel, she writes the entire book with a super chatty tone, like a thirteen year old, I guess in an attempt to relate to the reader (who is supposed to be caring about their professional career). But I found it condescending at some points, and downright annoying at others. She touts her own horn to no end. On page 169 of the book, she is still reminding us how "cool" she is: "I'm not a doctor (thought I'm known as a heck of a spin doctor and freuquently revive brands that are on death's door), and I'm certainly not a nurse (though I regularly nurse clients' and colleagues' bruised egos, and nurture projects from concept to fruition.) I am a marketing strategist and consultant who works on
high-profile projects and glamourous launches and events." I don't know about most readers, but I certainly do not care how many times Rachel wants to remind me of what she does and how important her work is. What I want to know are tips to succeed in my own career.

And that's where her book falls completely flat, in my opinion. My biggest objection is that it's all fluff and no substance. It also seems to jump from one topic to the next unrelated topic and back again. For example, Chapter 3 is called "Culture Club" and the index at the front states that it will teach you how to "understand and adapt to your firm's unique corporate culture without becoming just another clog." But Chapter 3 has one section called "Follow your bliss," which belongs more in a section about choosing a job or profession, another section which advises you to "be yourself" (gee, thanks for the tip) and the last and longest section is about email etiquette.

Finally, Career and Corporate Cool (TM)just seems out of touch with reality. It doesn't contain many practical tips for the typical career girl. Instead, it seems to think we all live in Hollywood and have jobs that involve throwing elaborate parties for famous people. Under a section called "publicity," Rachel writes, "If your event is newsworthy, then promote it--but first create an outstanding and newsworthy story. Court and invte key media and create individual pitches and stories for their particular publications. Follow up with details that make the story juicy, fun, or relevant. For instance, yet another party on Oscar night might not be newsworthy, but an event that boasts 12 celebrity chefs, with 12 major designers creating the table decor, and boasts such an ubercool guest list that Jamie Foxx, the night's winner in the best actor category, gets turned away at the door along with throwns of celebrites--well, that's a great party story! The extremely pricy launch party for another luxury building in Manhattan? Not a thrill. The launch party for another luxury building in Manhattan, at which one attendee wins a multimillion-dollar penthouse apartment? Now that's a great story." (No, I did not make this paragraph up. That is seriously a paragraph taken from this so-called "career guide." Now you see why I had so many problems with it.) The book also includes a strange chapter on how to dress your guy for your successful events, which includes having his eyebrows waxed and teaching him how not to be afraid to go to the spa to get a facial. At that point, I would think even a teenage reader would be thinking, WTF?!

The only parts of this book that I didn't totally hate were the small splatterings of advice on organization and productivity. And the "what to wear to work" section was okay. But you can get much better advice on the former topics in Women for Hire's Get-Ahead Guide to Career Success (which I will review soon, because it is a much better career guide than Career and Corporate Cool (TM)!), and much better "fashion for work" advice in Dress Smart for Women. There is nothing in Career and Corporate Cool that isn't in any other career book. And there is a lot of annoying stuff that isn't in those other books. So my advice is to skip this book unless you happen to be buying it for a 17 year old who has the means to organize a launch party complete with a multimillion-dollar door prize.

My rating: 1.5 stars (out of 5) - I pretty much hated it.

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Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Website Review:

Click here to go to!

The other week or so, I had what I thought was a unique idea -- what if there was a website where people could swap books? Alas, I didn't have the time or money to create such a website. Out of curiosity, though, I typed in "swap books" on Google and, much to my amazement, such a website already existed! It's Paperbackswap and it's pretty cool. I may be the last person in cyberspace to have heard of this site, but I told my mom and my former office manager, both who love to read, about it, and neither of them had heard of it either. Apparently it is five years old, so word is slow to spread... at least to me and my mom and my former office manager!

Paperbackswap is kind of like eBay or Amazon -- you just enter a book you want, and it comes up, but you can "order" it for free, with credits. You get two credits for listing ten books, and then one credit thereafter for every book that you send to someone else. (You type in a book that you want to list and add it to your "bookshelf" for other people to browse). Despite its name, it doesn't deal in just paperbacks. One paperback or hardback book cost one credit, while audiobooks cost two credits. The only thing you have to pay for is to ship the book to whoever orders it (which is why it's beneficial to trade paperbacks). There are no other fees or charges.

The great thing about Paperbackswap is obviously that you can get free books! The only negatives I have found so far are few in comparision to that fantastic fact. But, for the sake of full disclosure, here they are. For one thing, someone doesn't always have the book you want to order, online on Amazon or usually eBay. In that case you can put it on your "wish list" and be notified when someone lists it. I have so many books to read that I don't mind the wait. But if you want a brand new, popular book that a lot of people have added to their wish lists (you have to wait in line behind whoever requested it first), this might not be the place you should look. Likewise, if you list a bunch of hot-off-the-press bestselling books, you may be inundated with a flood of books you have to mail, because everyone else has wish listed them and requests them right away. This was not my problem, by the way. I guess I have obscure tastes because no one was in a rush to order my books. I listed ten about a week ago and have sent two out. So, in my case, it's harder to get credits than if I were a fan of the latest thrillers or what have you.

All of that, I can work with. The only thing that really bugs me is that it seems to take much longer to get a book from Paperbackswap than from other book sites. When you order a book, the seller is given *five* days to click a button saying that they will mail it "now" (within 2 days) or "later" (within 5 days, I think). Plus everyone only mails media mail since they aren't getting paid for the book OR to mail it. So if you need a book in a hurry, this is NOT the site where you should order it. I ordered two books with my first two credits, both by Andre Dubus. Maybe this can be blamed on my comparatively obscure taste, but the owners of both of these books took the full five days to respond. One responded at the last hour that they would mail it within five days. The other one never responded, in which case the request goes to the next person in line who listed that book. That person, bless their heart, did respond and send out my book right away. I think it's a bit ridiculous that people have *so* long to send a book they list as wanting to trade, just because it's a trading site, whereas on other sites a reasonable confirmation response and shipping time is expected.

Despite that complaint, I really love this site and plan to get most of my books on here from now on (since I rarely need them in a hurry and rarely feel like buying a hot-off-the-press book). I recommend it to any reader! If you do sign up, please mention my name (voracia) because then I'll get a credit as a referral bonus. :) For everyone who has tried this site, what do you think? Has it been a positive experience or a negative one? Do you recommend it?

Click here to go to!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Read To Me Corner

Last weekend I volunteered to read to children at the New Mexico State Fair, through the Albuquerque Business and Education Compact (ABEC)’s “Read To Me” program. My assignment was to lay out a blanket and a bunch of books by a tree and a sign that said “Read To Me Corner.” I arrived at the designated spot, the “Kids’ Pavilion,” to find that it was placed smack in the middle of a lot of entertaining activities for children – the petting zoo, an outdoor science museum with experiments like making bubbles out of a humongous wand, a tunnel to walk through, games to play, and an arts and crafts tent right beside me. Even though my love for reading and books started at a very young age, my first thought was, “What kind of a kid is going to want to have a book read to him when there’s all of this other fun stuff to do?”

The kids proved me wrong. And they proved to me that reading as a form of education and entertainment is as alive and well as when I was their age. My first “customer” was a baby named Theo, who literally crawled over to my blanket and pounded his hands over the row of books I was still laying out. His parents laughed and told me he loved books. He sat cross-legged and enthralled while I read him Dr. Seuss’ Oh, the Places You'll Go! and when I read the line, “you have feet in your shoes,” he grabbed his tiny little shoes.

A girl of about seven sat straight and tall, while I read her a book called Recycle Every Day! by Nancy Elizabeth Wallace. The book is about a bunny rabbit named Minna who has a school assignment and contest to make a poster about recycling. It’s very entertaining but shows the rabbit family recycling every day of the week, and I was afraid that my listener might start to lose patience. Instead, she listened carefully until I finished the book and Minna had won the contest for her poster that said “Re-re-re-member to re-re-re-cycle every day.”

I loved seeing the children interested in reading, and I must admit I enjoyed browsing the book selection (which was provided by ABEC). Many of the children loved the book Emma Kate by Patricia Polacco, which is about a little girl and her imaginary best friend elephant (the illustrations are superb). Another favorite – one little boy knew it by heart and said his teacher read it to him – was Beatrice Doesn't Want To, by Laura Numeroff. It was about a little dog who doesn’t want to go to the library with her big brother, until she discovers a book she likes about roller-skating. Another good one was A Pocket Can Have a Treasure in It, by Kathy Stinson.

I would like to volunteer to read books to children again in the future because I think it’s something that both I and the kids enjoy. I am not sure if all state fairs have something similar to a Read To Me corner, or only New Mexico. I found this opportunity by visiting the mayor’s website of upcoming events that need volunteers – at the Mayor’s Office of Volunteerism and Engagement. But there were many similar opportunities at – it’s just that many of them require a weekly commitment that I honestly don’t have the time to give right now. I think that projects like this are great volunteer opportunities for people who love to read and write! It’s refreshing to be able to bring a smile to a child’s face by doing what you love to do anyway.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Book Review: Best New American Voices 2006

Fresh is Right: The Unique Stories in Best New American Voices 2006
Edited by Jane Smiley
Series Editors: John Kulka and Natalie Danford

This is the first book I've read in the Best New American Voices series, which I didn't know existed until I was at Borders with my mom in Pennsylvania in June and I saw it on the dollar clearance rack. This series accepts entries from top writing programs and workshops around the country, and chooses the best--in this book there are 15 stories--to publish. I started reading this book on July 25, 2009. A week later, during a camping trip at Vallecito Lake, Colorado, I finished it. Having been a big fan of the Best American Short Stories series for a long time, I was a little skeptical about the Best New American Voices series, thinking, "these writers were just in graduate school when they wrote these stories, how can they be as good as the stories from long-established writers?"

Boy, was I wrong. Granted, some of the stories show signs of amateurism; but then I wondered, "would I even think that if they weren't in this book?" I don't know. Other stories to me seemed to come from tried and true "professional" writers (whatever that means), and I was surprised to know that the authors were just emerging.

Overall, I like this book even better than some of the Best American series I've read, and almost every story grabbed my attention from beginning to end. Sometimes I feel jaded about the Best American stories, which the series editor supposedly picks without knowing the author's name but which happen to feature particular authors over and over again. Sometimes, especially--it seems--depending on the series editor, I think, "what in the world is this story doing in here? It's not even good." But the stories in Best New American Voices were obviously chosen without regard for who the author was, as long as she or he was in a writing program or workshop.

I think my favorite story in this collection is "Alice's House", by Jamie Keene from the University of Oregon. It's about a man who has recently divorced his wife and is getting ready to sell their house and move in with his girlfriend, when his ex wife comes to his house for an unannounced midnight visit. I also liked "Lyndon", by Amber Dermont from the University of Houston, about a young woman whose father recently died. The narrator continues her and her father's tradition of visiting the birth places of U.S. presidents with her mother, with whom she has a strained relationship.

Some of the stories feature quite unique formats, such as "The Jupiter's In", by Sarah Blackman from the University of Alabama, in which each scene starts and ends with missing words or letters, much like the sign on the run-down inn. This story features colorful, unique characters and has a distinctly southern feel. "Begin With an Outline" by Kaui Hart Hemmings from Stanford University is about a narrator attempting to tell an emotional story in a forced outline format. The setting for that story, or at least its background, is Hawaii, and the imagery is very vivid and gripping. "Useless Beauty, or, Notes on Esquire's 'Things a Man Should Never Do After the Age of 30'" by Albert E. Martinez from New Mexico State University (of particular note to me, since I live in New Mexico) is a story told interspersed with excerpts from the article, such as "own a futon," "live with someone you don't sleep with," and "use the word 'party' as a verb." The story itself involves a guy who just turned 30 and who is still hung up on his ex girlfriend. It is set in San Fransisco and, to me anyway, is a commentary on the late 20's/early 30's urbanites who live there.

There are many stories in this collection told from the point of view of a child or young adult, such as Michelle Regalado Deatrick's "Backfire" and Matt Freidson's "Liberty." There are also many stories about the death of a parent, such as Jennifer Shaff's "Leave of Absence", Amber Dermott's "Lyndon", and Sian M. Jones' "Pilot". Story notes from each story follow below, but because they may contain mild spoilers, I've saved them for the very bottom of the page.

All the stories in this series fit the title, being fresh and invigorating reads. I hope to find and read more books in this series and would recommend it to anyone who likes short stories and anyone who wants to read the newest works coming out of America's writing programs.

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Story Notes:

1. Leave of Absence, by Jennifer Shaff -- Emerson College
Spock comes to visit a young woman whose parents died in a car crash, while she is on leave from her teaching job due to grief, slowly turning into madness.
Setting: Evanston, Wisconsin.
Character's profession: Teacher.
Jewish characters.
Themes: Sibling bond (brother/ sister), Death of parent (both), Sports - Packers football.
Very far-fetched yet unique.
7/10 - I liked it. Very unique.

2. Lyndon, by Amber Dermott -- University of Houston.
Girl's father dies and she thinks her mother is pregnant with another man's baby. Mother and daughter continue the former father/daughter tradition of visiting birthplaces of presidents.
Setting: New Jersey and Johnson City, Texas
Character's career: Investment baker
Working moms
Themes: Death of parent (father), father/ daughter relationship, mother/ daughter relationship
Anxiety/ night terrors/ nightmares
8/10 - I really liked it.

3. A New Kind of Gravity by Andrew Foster Altschul -- Stanford University
Guard in women's domestic abuse shelter befriends the young daughter of a resident.
Character's profession -- guard
Domestic violence. Children.
9/10 -- I loved it.

4. The Rust Preventer by Jessica Anthony - George Mason University
Man is stuck in the jungle after war is over, forgotten.
Animals - monkey
Wars - World War II
Setting: Malay Archipelago
Death - main character's
8/10 -- I liked it. Very unique.

5. Trampoline by Vanya Rainova - University of San Francisco
Family living in post-communist Bulgaria has trampoline business at beach. Son falls in love with woman who has cancer and a young daughter.
Setting: Bulgaria - Slancher Briag
Love Family
9/10 - I loved it. Unique.

6. Watermark By Melanie Westerberg - California College of the Arts
Girls whose twin sister disappeared visits the shark room of the aquarium where she works, in the middle of the night.
Animals - Octopus, shark
Bad dreams
Sports - swimming, diving
Character's professions - Aquarium worker
5/10 - I didn't really like it.

7. Useless Beauty, or Notes on Esquire's Things a Man Should Never Do After the Age of 30
By Albert Martinez - New Mexico State University
Man who just turned 30 lives rather cliched social urbanite existence, trying to get over a recent break-up.
Setting - San Fransisco
Breaking up
8/10 - I really liked it. Pretty unique.

8. The Jupiter's In by Sarah Blackman - University of Alabama
A playful experiment with style, where the first words or so keep dropping more and more off the beginning of each sentence of every section, mimicking the letters fading from the sign on the inn owned by Miss Flora Jean. Her son is lazy and is purposefully gaining weight, with the goal of becoming the fattest astronaut in space. His girlfriend is pregnant. A tragedy occurs with a guest at the inn.
Setting -- South (never says where, but it's obviously in the South)
Characters' occupation - Innkeeper
Relationship with parent - mother/ son
8/10 - I really liked it. Very unique.

9. Alice's House by Jamie Keene - University of Oregon
Breaking up
10/10 - I loved it.

10. Liberty by Matt Freidson - Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing
Teenage boy in delinquent youth's prison in Vietnam falls in love.
Setting: Vietnam - Hanoi
Friendship - men
8/10 - I really liked it.

11. Twinless by Gregory Plemmons - Sewanee Writers' Conference
Sister locks twin brother in cellar before going to their father's wedding after their mother's death, so he can't ruin the wedding. Then he disappears.
Siblings - twins, brother/ sister
Death of parent - mother
Wedding - of parent
7/10 - I liked it okay.

12. Backfire by Michelle Regalado Deatrick - University of Michigan
Young boy's friend sets fire to his own house, killing the boy's sister, and the boy is blamed for it, although it was not his fault.
Siblings - brother/ sister
Death - of sibling
Character's profession: Insurance industry
Setting - Sacramento, California
8/10 - I liked it.

13. Begin With an Outline by Kaui Hart Hemmings - Stanford University
A young woman is questioned during the investigation of her father for selling/ growing pot. She tries to establish a relationship with him but can't.
Father/ daughter relationship
Setting - Hawaii
Character's occupation - college student
8/10 - I really liked it.

14. Going After Lovely by Sean Ennis - University of Mississippi
A young boy's sister runs away. He stays with his dysfunctional family, featuring a well-meaning but over-reaching and hapless father, and crazy mother.
Family - dysfunctional
Mental health
Siblings - sister/ brother
Father/ son relationship
Unhappy marriage - parents'
9/10 - I loved it.

15. Pilot by Sian M. Jones - Mills College
A young woman thinks she hears her mother talking to her after her mother had a stroke.
Death of parent - mother
Siblings - sister/ brother
Religion - atheism
7/10 - I liked it.

(Book was read in July 2009 - camping at Lake Vallecito, on bus on way home from work, etc.)

Monday, September 21, 2009

The first of the "Daddy Issues" pieces - submitted!

I went through a period, last winter and spring, where it seems that all I could write were essays about my father! Even when I tried to write about a totally different topic, such as moving to Albuquerque or my brother's engagement, or a totally different person, such as my mother, there was my dad, popping his head into my piece! So I decided to just go with it and perhaps I can eventually compile all of these stories into a book called "Daddy Issues," or something!

The short memoir pieces featuring my father seem to flow easily, and everyone in my writer's group always likes them. So I just revised one of the pieces, called "Coach K," which deals with my relationship with both my father and running, and decided to send it off for publication. It's nearly 5,000 words long and includes a lot of personal snippets. I've been toying with taking out a lot of the personal stuff and focusing on the running aspect of it--how I was pushed into running by my father at a young age, and always hated it, but now as an adult, I love it--and sending it to Runner's World, one of my favorite commercial magazines, or some other magazines for runners or women, that might pay pretty well. But, as the hostess of my writer's group bluntly pointed out (she's pretty blunt, that's what we love about her!), it's not like I'm a starving writer who needs to live off my writing, so why not send it like it is to literary journals that don't pay much? In its present state, that's where it would best fit, because it's more of a memoir, and more about me, than it is a piece about running, for any other runner out there.

I was reading a blog yesterday that said something like, you should always send out your piece to at least 5 markets at once. So, I chose five literary journals from Writer's Market--mostly alphabetically, narrowed downs to the ones that accepted creative non-fiction--and off I sent my first piece about my dad that I'm trying to get published. I'm crossing my fingers!! And working on the next piece.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Kathryn Ma -- Attorney Turned Author

I have just discovered a delightful blog called 1st Books: Stories of How Writers Get Started. And I could really relate to one of the posts, which featured an interview with Kathryn Ma, a former lawyer who left the law firm she worked at to open up a "writing office" and concentrate on her writing. Now she is the winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award for her book of short stories, All That Work and Still No Boys. The way she described practicing the law and then leaving it for writing sent shivers up my spine, because I could relate to it so much, and it's what I want to be able to say myself one day: "I liked being a lawyer, or parts of the job, anyway, like the teamwork and the libraries and the paycheck, and had worked hard at it until I couldn’t stand not writing anymore, and so I packed up my Bekins boxes and set up a little office a half-mile from my house where the siren call of the laundry basket wouldn’t lure me to my doom."

Ms. Ma is my new idol! I have loved to write ever since I can first remember. I always wanted to be a writer - just a writer. But I also needed to make a living. I'll be honest: I wanted a comfortable, secure living, and I wanted to be self-sufficient and independent, relying only on myself and not my parents or a signficant other. These goals obviously competed with my desire to be "just" a writer! So I explored other career options and decided to enter the law because it does involve a lot of reading, writing and thinking, all things that I enjoy, as well as a steady paycheck. I told myself early on that I would work hard, save up a lot of money, and retire early, so that I could just write and travel, like I've always wanted to do (and did in college).

Somewhere along the way, I lost writing for a little while, or maybe I just lost myself. I hated the first year of law school -- I had moved half way across the country, to a state I had never even been to before (to attend the University of New Mexico School of Law) and knew nobody and couldn't figure out what was expected of me or how to get the good grades I had always been used to in high school and college. I finally figured all of that out and came to love New Mexico(but never law school!) and did quite well in law school, when all was said and done. But I just totally stopped reading for fun, and pretty much stopped writing. I had no time for it after all the legal work. I rarely felt creative or drive, and instead just felt like I was trying to keep my head above water and master the legal stuff.

Towards the end of law school I moved in with my boyfriend and let my life totally revolve around his. I was into all of these new things like watching football and playing poker. We skiied/snowboarded together, which I'd always liked, and went on road trips together, and had a grand old time, but I had lost myself. I had given away most of my precious book collection before I moved in with him, without really thinking twice. I never wrote. I did pass the Bar and get a job at a big firm.

A couple years later, I woke up and thought "who am I?" I did the best thing ever then -- I joined a local writer's group and made myself start writing again. I switched firms and was working for an even bigger one, and it was very demanding and stressful and I was miserable. I had enjoyed practicing law at my first firm and I knew I was good at it, but all of my former energy and passion for certain areas of the law was being sucked right out of me, and I was questioning my entire profession and decision to practice law. I thought many times of just quitting and trying to be a freelance writer, or working at a bookshop or as a waitress so I could spend the rest of my time writing.

I suddenly realized that if I wanted to be a writer, I had to really be one. I couldn't waste my days hating my day job and wishing I had time to write, without actually writing much at all. I still entertained the thought of becoming a full-time or at least part-time writer, but I decided that first I would have to make the time to write, in the here and now. I tried to write every day, and I found that I did have the time when I made it, even while I was still working at the big firm. It also made my job there a little easier, because at least I had something going for me in another area of my life.

Probably the best thing that could have happened to me, which felt like the worst thing at the time, happened: I got laid off from the big firm, during the height of the recession. It sucked but it forced me to make a change I knew I had to make, eventually, anyway. And it forced me to make a decision: did I want to continue in the law, or did I want to be a writer? Well, I wanted both. And I did not think (and still don't think, at this point) that being only a writer was a viable option. I do not have the financial wherewithal right now (even with my severance package!) to depend on writing. And I also enjoy practicing law. I knew I would enjoy practicing it even better now that I was forced out of the firm I hated anyway. But I wanted to be a writer too, and I wanted to have enough time to devote to that. No more ridiculous billable hours and crazy pressure.

I was very lucky to find a job at a firm that does "big firm" work but is very small, and very laid-back compared to my former firm. It is the perfect balance, in terms of pay, challenging work, the partners that I work with, hours, etc., between my first firm and my second firm. And most of all, I can much more easily make time to write (I'm still not saying it's easy -- there never seem to be enough hours in the day!), because the hours and the workload aren't so demanding.

I still have moments where I would love to do what Kathryn Ma says she did -- leave my law firm (as much as I enjoy this one) to be a full-time writer. I know I will do it one day, and sometimes I get frustrated wondering if that day will ever come. Law is a demanding profession, and also a trap in a way, because the further I progress in it, the more money I get paid, the higher up on the "partnership" ladder I move, the more connections I make, the more it feels like I should stay in it. (Moving anywhere else to practice law, for example, even at this juncture, would be hard because I have slowly built up a name in this city, and would be nobody in a new city.) But at least I have found a balance, where I can be myself and be a writer *and* an attorney (and I still enjoy watching football with my boyfriend, and our regular ski trips, etc. ;)).

I will just write (and read, which really helps my writing) as much as I can while I practice law, until I am in the financial and emotional position to just focus on writing. Kathryn Ma says it took her ten years to write the stories in her first book. (I don't know if that includes the time period when she was still practicing law or not). I have definitely learned that nothing good comes easily and everything requires hard work and I cannot count on some pie in the sky dream of waking up one day and being a published writer. It seems to me from reading the interview that Ms. Ma had definitely saved up money and had independent resources before she made the decision to leave the law for writing. So it is nice to read about someone actually doing what has been my goal, and being successful at it.

I plan to buy and read Kathryn Ma's book All That Work and Still No Boys and will review it here after I do! But in the meantime, I will keep reading and writing, and being inspired by lawyers-turned-writers, because I eventually plan to be one myself!

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Index of Book Reviews -- By Title

(Last updated on January 28, 2011 with the addition of Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity by Kerry Cohen)

1. Best American Short Stories, 1991 Edited by Alice Adams and Katrina Kenison

2. Best New American Voices, 2006 Edited by Jane Smiley, John Kulka and Natalie Danford

3. Career and Corporate Cool: How to Look, Dress and Act the Part-- at Every Stage of Your Career by Rachel C. Weingarten

4. Double Billing: A Young Lawyer's Tale of Greed, Sex, Lies, and the Pursuit of a Swivel Chair by Cameron Stracher

5. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

6. Flappers and Philosophers: 8 Short Stories By F. Scott Fitzgerald

7. Glimmer Train Stories: Issue # 48, Fall 2003

8. Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity by Kerry Cohen

9. Lucky, a Memoir by Alice Sebold

10. The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers

11. Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky

12. My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult

13. Mourning Ruby by Helen Dunmore

14. The Wednesday Sisters by Meg Waite Clayton

15. The Wife, and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov

16. The Wife by Meg Wolitzer

17. Women Like Us By Erica Abeel

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Thursday, September 10, 2009

LitSpot - Book Store Review: Ocean City, Maryland

Bookshelf Etc. -- Ocean City, Maryland

I just returned from a vacation in Ocean City, MD with my family over Labor Day weekend. We have been going there since I was a kid. My mom doesn't like the beach, but like me she likes to read, so I looked up some bookstores for us to go to. The list was longer than I would have thought. We only went to one, a charming little used bookstore called "Bookshelf, Etc." on the Coastal Highway. Earlier in the day, my dad and I had ran along the Coastal Highway and I saw its cute little storefront and checked to see if it was open because it was a Sunday -- and it was.

It is a small bookstore, which looks like it's in a renovated little house, but perfect for the vacationer who wants to explore the literary world while at the beach. It sells mainly popular fiction titles (the woman behind the counter, who was very nice, told us that they can't get in enough Jodi Picoult to satisfy all the customer requests) and some classics and poetry, also some non-fiction such as cooking, history and weight loss books, and some children's books. All of the books are used and most of them are half off the cover price, unless specially marked. Like most things at the beach, the book prices were higher than I would have expected at a used store, but they were still better than at Border's or some other regular bookstore.

The store also sells old collectibles like post cards, magazines, covers of Rolling Stone and other pop culture magazines, posters, art, and old playing cards and the like. I guess that's where how the "Etc." entered into its name.

I highly recommend Bookshelf Etc. for the literary traveler. Its address is 8006 Coastal Hwy, Ocean City, MD 21842 and its phone number is 410-524-2949.