Sunday, February 28, 2010

Book Review: The Wife by Meg Wolitzer

The beginning of this book really grabbed me. The voice was moving and the early plot was interesting: a woman is on an airplane with the husband she had been with for a long time, and has decided at that very moment to leave him.

Of course, such a decision is never made at that very moment. A lot has gone into such a decision. And so the narrator takes us back with her through the history of the relationship between her and her husband. We find out that it began in the 1950's, when she was his creative writing student at Smith College and he was married. That's rather cliche, and so are a lot of things about their relationship. I thought that Wolitzer did a convincing job of showing me that this is what it could be like for a couple who began in such a way, as cliche as it may have been.

There were other cliched parts of The Wife, though, that I didn't think she portrayed so well. Essentially this is supposed to be a story about a wife who sacrifices everything for her husband. The first part of the book is the strongest in my opinion, because the reader can easily see how she sacrifices the approval and support of her parents and her college education for this selfish, haphazard, impulsive man who doesn't truly love anyone, including himself. The reader can see how he is so caught up in his ambitions of writing that he is incapable of being much else. (The "selfish writer" is a theme I always find interesting, in Andre Dubus's short stories and in biographies of Raymond Carver, etc., because it does seem that being a successful writer requires a narrowly-focused, internal, solitary drive, to the exclusion of most everything else in life.)

What wasn't convincing in The Wife, however, was that the narrator was supposed to be giving up her own writing ambitions or her "career" for her husband. The problem was, she never really had any writing ambitions until her professor-turned-husband encouraged her, for the sake of starting an affair with her of course, and she never reveals that she has any desires to have a career outside of the home. In the flashback scenes to her early and mid-married life, she either seems content to be a housewife or she is bitter about the fact that her husband is cheating on her.

Perhaps it's that times have changed or perhaps it's that I can't relate to a character that I can't see myself being, but I just didn't understand why she put up with it. She seems to be resentful of the fact that her husband thinks he is some God when it comes to writing, yet she obviously encourages such thoughts by placating to him, encouraging his writing career and staying with him even though he doesn't treat her right. If this was supposed to be a book that showed why a woman sacrifices her own dreams (or never fully forms any in the first place) in order to stay with a rotten, no-good husband, it failed. But maybe it wasn't supposed to show me that; maybe it was supposed to just be about this character. Still, for whatever reasons I found those parts very unconvincing and it made me dislike the narrator when she seemed to get whiny and become a "poor-me" victim. The following is a passage that I feel sums up the theme of the book:

"Everyone knows how women soldier on, how women dream up blueprints, recipes, ideas for a better world, and then sometimes lose them on the way to the crib in the middle of the night, on the way to the Stop & Shop, or the bath. They lose them on the way to greasing the path on which their husband and children will ride serenely through life.

But it's their choice... they make a choice to be that kind of wife, that kind of mother. Nobody forces them anymore; that's all over now. We had a women's movement in America, we had Betty Friedan, and Gloria Steinem... we're in a whole new world now. Women are powerful.

Everyone needs a wife; even wives need wives. Wives tend; they hover. Their ears are twin sensitive instruments, satellites pricking up the slightest scrape of dissatisfaciton. Wives bring broth, we bring paper clips, we bring ourselves and our pliant, warm bodies. We know just what to say to the men who for some reason have a great deal of trouble taking consistent care of themselves or anyone else.

'Listen,' we say. 'Everything will be okay.'

And then, as if our lives depend on it, we make sure it is."

(Click here for more quotes from The Wife)

The ending of The Wife contains a twist which wasn't incredibly surprising but was nevertheless interesting. I don't want to include any spoilers, so suffice it to say that it adds another layer to the entire analysis about why a woman would do such things for a man.

I did think that The Wife was written well and that the first-person narrator voice, when not overly bitter or victim-y, was intriguing. Although there wasn't much to the plot--basically a history of the life of an unhappily married couple--it seemed realistic and it kept me interested, as I read the book straight through in a couple of days. I would like to read more of Meg Wolitzer's work, especially a book that has a completely different theme, plot and characters. So overall I give The Wife three and a half stars and I would recommend it with some reservations.

Click here to purchase this book:

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Quotes from The Wife

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Parts of this book reminded me of Women Like Us by Erica Abeel, which is a book about a group of girlfriends who graduated in 1959 from Sarah Lawrence College. Most of them curtailed their dreams and ambitions for the men in their lives. Click here for my review of Women Like Us.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Quotes from "The Wife," by Meg Wolitzer

I finished this book in December; a review of it is coming soon. In the meantime, here are quotes from it.

"As a rule, the men who own the world are hyperactively sexual, though not necessarily with their wives."

"'Ah, a Sarah Lawrence girl,' he said with pleasure, deciding at that moment she was a highly creative type, her hands damp with both acrylic paint from art class and ambrosia from some middle-of-the-night winter-solstice ritual."

"All first wives are crazy- violently and eye-rollingly so."

"New York City was a spectacular place in which to take a walk in the middle of the night if you were a young, ambitious, confident man."

"Of course she ached to be a writer. Like so many women, she burned for it, all she wanted to do was to publish, and her whole life was leading toward the moment when she found an agent and a publisher and her first book appeared."

"Everyone knows how women soldier on, how women dream up blueprints, recipes, ideas for a better world, and then sometimes lose them on the way to the crib in the middle of the night, on the way to the Stop & Shop, or the bath. They lose them on the way to greasing the path on which their husband and children will ride serenely through life.

But it's their choice... they make a choice to be that kind of wife, that kind of mother. Nobody forces them anymore; that's all over now. We had a women's movement in America, we had Betty Friedan, and Gloria Steinem... we're in a whole new world now. Women are powerful.

Everyone needs a wife; even wives need wives. Wives tend; they hover. Their ears are twin sensitive instruments, satellites pricking up the slightest scrape of dissatisfaciton. Wives bring broth, we bring paper clips, we bring ourselves and our pliant, warm bodies. We know just what to say to the men who for some reason have a great deal of trouble taking consistent care of themselves or anyone else.

'Listen,' we say. 'Everything will be okay.'

And then, as if our lives depend on it, we make sure it is."

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Writers' Rules for Writing Fiction

I just found the coolest article online, called Ten Rules for Writing Fiction. Really there are a lot more than ten rules, because each writer gives ten rules (except for the ones who choose to give less... some writers don't have that many rules, I guess. And what about the ones who have more?!)

Here are some of my favorites.

Margaret Atwood:

You most likely need a thesaurus, a rudimentary grammar book, and a grip on reality. This latter means: there's no free lunch. Writing is work. It's also gambling. You don't get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you're on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don't whine.

Geoff Dyer:

Do it every day. Make a habit of putting your observations into words and gradually this will become instinct.

Esther Freud:

Find your best time of the day for writing and write. Don't let anything else interfere. Afterwards it won't matter to you that the kitchen is a mess.

Don't wait for inspiration. Discipline is the key.

Neil Gaiman:

The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you're allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it's definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it ­honestly, and tell it as best you can. I'm not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter.

PD James:

Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious.

Don't just plan to write – write. It is only by writing, not dreaming about it, that we develop our own style.

Open your mind to new experiences, particularly to the study of other ­people. Nothing that happens to a writer – however happy, however tragic – is ever wasted.

AL Kennedy:

Write. No amount of self-inflicted misery, altered states, black pullovers or being publicly obnoxious will ever add up to your being a writer. Writers write. On you go.

Read. As much as you can. As deeply and widely and nourishingly and ­irritatingly as you can. And the good things will make you remember them, so you won't need to take notes.

Rose Tremain:

In the planning stage of a book, don't plan the ending. It has to be earned by all that will go before it.

Jeanette Winterson:

Turn up for work. Discipline allows creative freedom. No discipline equals no freedom.

Be ambitious for the work and not for the reward.

And, this one makes the most sense to me!

Philip Pullman:

My main rule is to say no to things like this, which tempt me away from my proper work.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Book Review: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

A Chilling Winter Read: A Book Review of Ethan Frome, by Edith Wharton

Ethan Frome is set in Starkfield, Massachusettes, where everything is very stark indeed. Much of the story also takes place in the winter, when the New England town is covered in snow and bitter cold. At the heart of the story is, of course, Ethan Frome: a farmer living in the early 1900's who has been dealt a bad lot in life. He had been living away from Starkfield, at college, studying to become an engineer, when his father died and he had to return home to the family farm to care for his ailing mother, Zenobia. He ends up marrying Zeena, the nurse who took care of his mother, more out of duty and gratefulness than love or passion. Before long Zeena becomes a hypochondriac, inventing illnesses and perpetually seeking possible cures for them.

Into this depressing scene steps Mattie, who is quite the breath of fresh air for Ethan. A distant relative—-she was the daughter of Zenobia’s cousin-—Mattie's father had squandered all of the family’s money, a fact which was only revealed after his death. Mattie’s mother apparently dies of the shock and shame, leaving Mattie a penniless orphan. Zeena’s doctor suggests that Zeena find someone to help with the household chores, so Mattie comes to Starkfield to do just that, and also ends up winning Ethan’s heart.

The story is so depressingly tragic that at times I wanted to stop reading it. But it was like watching a scary movie or sitting down on a roller-coaster: you want to stop, kind of, but you also want to keep going. The story starts out by revealing that Ethan was in a freak accident, and then goes back in time, so you know things don’t end up well. The entire feel of the book is incredibly ominous and its pace marches you right on from the sweet tale of a simple and down-on-his-luck farmer who falls in love with a young, care-free girl, to the bad ending you know is coming. The language is simple and no-nonsense, yet it alternatively scares you like Stephen King and pulls on your heart strings like Jane Austen.

There’s a scene near the beginning in which Ethan has gone to pick Mattie up from a barn dance that puts you right there in the middle of their budding relationship, which is technically illicit and wrong, but feels so right that you find yourself rooting for them, even though you know it will end horribly. Ethan watches Mattie dancing, yearning for both Mattie herself and the simple innocence and hopefulness of youth, which is long-lost for him. When the dance ends, a young boy flirts with Mattie and offers her a ride home, and Ethan thinks that soon Mattie will get married and leave him. Yet, she is so surprised and happy that he is there to pick her up, and she reassures him that she’s not going anywhere. The tone of the relationship between Ethan and Mattie is light-hearted, casual and happy, in the middle of this otherwise entirely depressing book.

Despite its tragic subject matter, Ethan Frome is a gem of a book I plan to re-read again and again. I also want to read more of Wharton’s work. This is the first book I’ve read by her and I know that most of the rest of her works deal with the upper class New York society from which she came. I don’t know how she can write so well about a poor New England farmer, so I can only imagine what she writes about those characters that comprise her own element. I give Ethan Frome four and a half stars and highly recommend it to anyone.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Writing and Working: a Career as a Writing Professor

In an interview in the Fall 2003 issue of Glimmer Train Stories, writer Carol Roh-Spaulding discusses her writing/ teaching life. She is, or at least was as of the time of the interview, an associate professor of English at Drake University, where she teaches creative writing and literature. She says:

"I started teaching in a writing lab as an undergraduate, so I've been teaching as long as I've been writing seriously. They've always been together. And the truth is I've always resented in some way the time I've had to spend teaching because it took away from my writing. Now if you saw me with my students, teaching, you probably wouldn't believe that, but there is a part of me that is so jealous of the time that I get to write that it is very easy for me to see my teaching as--and I'm not proud of this--a distraction. However, I have managed to create a life where I move back and forth between those modalities. And summer is when I can sink deeply into that writing mode. I teach at an institution that expects very high quality teaching, so you can't sink into your writing life every day when you're teaching. I try to earn periods of time when I can do that, devote myself to writing. I think I've fashioned a life where I can pretty much do both fairly well. I'd like to do less teaching. I think most writers would. I also think, though, that having young, eager, talented students really keeps my writing alive and creates part of the excitement that keeps me going, too. Having that community of writers."

Often, I wish I could just write. I suppose most writers probably feel that way. The problem is that it generally doesn't pay well; it's usually no way to make a good living!

I practice law because I like it and it provides me with a comfortable living, and I save a bunch of money so that eventually I will have the option to just write, if I really want to. The law, like many careers, is very demanding and it often sucks up almost all of my time and energy. It seems like what little is left goes to my fiance, lifestyle habits I try to keep up, such as eating well and exercising, family, friends, pets, social and work events, and the occasional relaxing bubble bath or TV show or movie. There is little time to read and write, although I carve out as much time as I can, and aim for an hour and a half a day of consistent writing, editing, or submitting.

Sometimes I think about how much writing (and reading!) I could get done if I didn't have my full-time "day job" of practicing the law. Then I realize I would be broke, and I'd have to have some kind of job to bring in some money. I think, what else would I want to do? Teaching often comes to mind, especially teaching literature, because I think it would be fun to immerse myself in it constantly. Yet here is a writer who gets to teach literature and writing, and she resents her "day job" too. Like me, she would rather be just writing. In a way, it's comforting, to know that other writers feel this way and it's not as if I made a bad career choice; it's just that there is no other career I would like to do other than writing, which isn't feasible right now. And I agree with what Ms. Roh-Spaulding says about the creative stimulation that comes with having a "day job," especially one like hers where you get to interact with other writers and readers. I often think, if I just sat at home writing, how would I get ideas of what to write about? I get them in the real world, although not incredibly often from work, and I'm sure I'd still find them where I already do: by eavesdropping on (or accidentally over-hearing, as I'm changing!) conversations at the gym, by observing people's behavior in the grocery store, by being struck with inspiration by something I hear on the radio, by talking about books and writing with the other members of my writing group. Still, the real-life inspiration is another reason to smile about going to the office every day. It just helps to realize that no matter what I did for a career, I'd rather be writing or reading, but I also have to do something that happens to make a living.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Quotes About Hard Work and Discipline, for Writers and Others

I've read and heard over and over again from published writers that the only true tip they can give aspiring writers is to write, write, write (and read, of course!) Sometimes life gets so busy or we get caught up in other things that we forget to make writing a priority. These quotes remind us that nothing good comes easily-- even genius and inspiration are nothing if we don't consistently work on our craft-- and that dedication, discipline and hard work are the surest paths to success.

"Inspiration comes of working every day."
~ Charles Pierre Baudelaire, French Poet, 1821-1867

"If people only knew how hard I work to gain my mastery, it wouldn't seem so wonderful at all."
~ Michelangelo Buonarrati, Italian artist, 1475-1564

“Success flourishes only in perseverance–-ceaseless, restless perseverance.”
~ Baron Manfred von Richthofen

"Get up very early and get going at once, in fact, work first and wash afterwards.”
~ W.H. Auden

"Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work."
~ Thomas Edison

"Inspiration is wonderful when it happens; but, the writer must develop an approach for the rest of the time... The wait is simply too long."
~ Leonard Bernstein

"Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand."
~ George Orwell

"Live simply and deliberately."
~ Thoreau

"Be regular and orderly in your life, like a good bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work."
~ Gustave Flaubert

"Courage and perseverance have a magical talisman, before which difficulties disappear and obstancles vanish into air."
~ John Quincy Adams

Monday, February 15, 2010

Virtual LitSpot: Duotrope's Digest - Where Writers Can Find and Track Markets for Submissions

I've been very impressed with Duotrope's Digest, a site that features fiction and poetry markets and allows you to track your submissions online. From what I've been able to tell with some experimenting, the site includes every fiction and poetry market that's listed in 2010 Writer's Market Deluxe (Writer's Market Online), plus more markets. It includes both paying and non-paying markets. Its online submission tracker is very helpful and reduces the amount of time I have to spend making spreadsheets to track where I've sent what. I can easily find out how often a market publishes, how long they take to respond, how much they pay, etc. The site makes it easy to keep track of deadlines and closed versus open submissions periods, and it reminds you when it's time to follow-up with a market because their usual response time has passed.

The only criticism I have of the site is that it doesn't include non-fiction markets (I guess that would get very cumbersome with all the how-to websites and magazines that run cooking articles, etc.-- but I'd think it could at least include markets that accept creative non-fiction/ essays, for those of us who write in these creative genres). It also doesn't include contests, I guess because there's usually a submission fee and it doesn't include markets that you have to pay a reading fee to submit to. So, for instance, if you look for Glimmer Train Stories on Duotrope right now, it will show it as "Temporarily Closed" although it is open for its fiction contest.

Overall I think Duotrope is tremendous resource to help writers submit and publish their work, and I can't believe it's free! I plan to donate to it soon since I use it so much and I find it to be such a valuable service. I haven't bought the 2010 edition of 2010 Writer's Market Deluxe (Writer's Market Online) yet because I haven't needed it (except that I'll probably need it for creative nonfiction markets) -- so maybe I'll donate the $40 that Duotrope saved me on that book!

Click here to go to Duotrope's Digest

Or, buy Writer's Market 2010:

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Persistance Pays Off: One Story Sent to Twenty-Five Markets!

In the Fall 2003 issue of Glimmer Train Stories, writer Carol Roh-Spaulding is interviewed. She had this to say about her first published story:

"I sent the first story I wrote to the Beloit Fiction Journal. I actually sent it out to twenty-five different places... I knew there was no way more than one place would want the story. And they took it--that was my first publication and it felt wonderful."

Wow. I'm proud of myself when I send a piece out to five literary journals at once. Now I'm going to start aiming high like Carol Roh-Spaulding. It's inspiring that her first piece was published, and I know it wasn't beginner's luck, but good writing and persistence.

Boloit Fiction Journal doesn't even pay. I think I'll stop limiting my first-round of submissions to journals that pay. Most of them don't pay much anyway, and I think that seeing something I've written in print is satisfaction enough.

Book Review: Glimmer Train Stories, Fall 2003, Issue 48

It's hard to "review" an issue of a literary journal because all the stories are so different. So this "review" more constitutes my notes and impressions on this particular issue. I'm a big fan of Glimmer Train in general and have been since I was in high school.

I'm obviously way behind on my Glimmer Train issues. I devoured this one from cover to cover. Still, I found many of the stories lacking. I think it may be because I rather recently read Best New American Voices 2006 and I've decided I usually like more of an experimental, shocking, grab-me-by-my-throat-and-surprise-me style more than a traditional realist style, which most of these stories were. If a story is pure realism, then I at least want something to happen. Many of these stories seemed more like glimpses or scenes than actual stories.

For example, J. Patrice Whetsell's "The Coconut Lady" is about a girl going off to college and remembering how her mother taught her how to cook. It is mostly full of memories of her mother's cooking and what her mother would talk about when it came to food. There is a very small hint of a story--in which it is revealed that the mother's marriage did not work out--that peeps its head out, but then it's back to shaking coconuts, or whatever. I just don't understand the point of a "story" all about food, with no real plot.

I enjoyed "Mother Knows" by Diane Chang, although the plot could have been thicker for me. It's about a woman who finds out that her son, a medical school student, is in the hospital with a concussion after a Frisbee accident that happened during his school's orientation. She reminisces about leaving him in China when she and her husband first came to the U.S. On the way home from visiting her son in the hospital, she gets her very first speeding ticket, ever. Her husband is basically useless, but she still loves him. It was pretty good writing and it kept me interested, and I do understand that stories can show a slice of life instead of needing to have a pat conflict/ climax/ resolution, but, again, if it's overly realistic and nothing much happens and not much of a conclusion is reached, then I feel like I've wasted my time reading it, unless it's very well written or there's something particularly unique about it. Otherwise I feel like I could have just talked to a friend about an event like this; it doesn't stir me the way I think an excellent story should.

Many of these stories were about families, and death, and loss. After awhile they collectively started to seem a bit depressing and repetitive. Barry Lyga's "Trading Worlds" had quite a different format, involving a bunch of different dream sequences, but I didn't really like it. It was about the after-math of 9/11 and how one man was dealing with it in his personal life. I thought it was a rather over-the-top attempt to show that one really can't wrap one's head around something so huge and devastating. Bilal Dardai's "The Empty Bowl" had a very experimental format, to the point that I didn't even understand what it was trying to do.

One of my favorite stories in this issue was Virgil Saurez's "Lalo's Skin," which was about a man remembering a friend his father had had throughout the man's childhood, who was a liar and a thief, but whom his dad nonetheless continued to help. I also enjoyed Doreen Baingana's "Lost in Los Angeles," about a woman who comes to L.A. from East Africa. Both of these stories, as well as Jonathan Wei's "Mr. Lee's Study"--about an old professor close to retiring, which I rather liked as well--could be categorized as realistic slice-of-life vignettes, but the writing in all of them was very good and the "plots"-- or as much of a plot as each one had-- were interesting. I also enjoyed the interview of Carol Roh-Spaulding, although I haven't read anything she's written.

Karen Kovacik's "Madrigals for a Bauhaus Baby"--about a childless woman whose co-worker miscarried-- and Elizabeth Gallu's "At the Garden"--kind of a "day in the life" of a woman and her husband in Germany--were okay, in my opinion. Nancy Zafris's "Prix Fixe"--about a washed-up cook who used to be a chef in Paris--was okay but it felt much longer than it needed to be. I could not get into Christopher Bundy's "Morning Prayers" at all; I was confused about what was happening and where the characters were, and it just felt rather boring to me, so I stopped reading it. Quang Huynh's "Dust Falling in Daylight"--about a bomb that explodes and kills someone--was unremarkable, in my opinion. Jennifer Oh's "January," about a South Korean woman who loses her daughter during their flight from North Korea's attacks, was interesting and I liked it.

It's strange because although I felt disappointed with many of the stories in this issue, and very few made me feel deeply moved, overall I enjoyed reading the issue and I couldn't put it down. Reading Glimmer Train always inspires me to write and to think, and this issue was no exception. So I give it three stars. Of course I would give certain stories more stars than others, but overall it averages out to three.

Click here to purchase this issue from

Go to the Glimmer Train Stories website to subcribe to the journal.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Quotes on Reading and Literature

These are quotes about reading, literature and books that I've found and liked.

"Medicine is my lawful wife, and literature is my mistress."
~Anton Chekhov

"I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library."
~Jorge Luis Borges

“At home, I merely used to read. Reading stirred, delighted, and tormented me.”
~Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes From Underground (CLICK FOR BOOK REVIEW)

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Virtual LitSpot: Literary Rejections on Display

Feeling down about a recent rejection letter? Visit Literary Rejections on Display, where misery loves company. This blog features real-life rejections from both famous and aspiring writers and features everyone from Kathryn Stockett, whose best-selling novel The Help was rejected by almost 60 agents, to the blogger himself. If this site doesn't lift your spirits when you're feeling like you'll always be met with rejection and never the ever-elusive acceptance, then, sorry but I don't know what will!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Back on the Submission Circuit

I've heard back from three of the five literary journals where I sent my creative non-fiction piece "Coach K" in September. All three were rejection slips. My fiance suggested changing the name of the piece because apparently there's a well-known college football coach or something named Coach K and it might be confusing. I also thought I could shorten it some (from about 5,000 to 4,000 words) and that that might improve its chances. A few days ago I sent out the latest version of the piece, called "Cadence," to three more literary journals. I'm crossing my fingers.

I also finished a short story called "The Olympia Fiasco," about the wedding industry, and entered it into a fiction contest and submitted it to one other literary journal. Soon I plan to send it to many more places.

I was reading an author interview in Glimmer Train Stories with Carol Roh-Spaulding (it was an old issue -- Fall 2003) who said that her first short story was published, but she thinks it's because she sent it to twenty-five different markets!