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Category: Fiction

To the New York Times Book Review, Domestic Violence is Never Funny: A Response Review of Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau

 

Jill Alexander Essbaum_HausfrauReaders, let me explain first that I am not one to contest reviews, whether overly positive, unconstructively negative, or anything in-between. But when a review makes a claim that is societally problematic, I have to respond—not to the review as a whole, but to its thematic issues. A week ago, a review appeared for the New York Times Book Review that left many writers enraged, which led to an angered discussion of the role of domestic violence in our society and literature, as well as how we view it and how we should talk about it. The review was in response to Jill Alexander Essbaum’s Hausfrau, and within it, there were aggressive and misinterpreting claims regarding victim responses to domestic violence, as well as the definition of an effectively-portrayed central female figure. The NYT reviewer (who I have decided will remain nameless in this response review, though I don’t doubt that it would be easy for you to find their name, if you were to pursue it) marked the novel as “banal,” stated that it contained “all the charm of a sink full of dishwater” and (my favorite) claimed that it contained “rogue humor”… in reference to (get this) victim response in a situation of domestic violence. AKA: the main character’s response to physical victimization (or, if you haven’t read the book: the breaking of her nose) was funny. Readers, this claim upsets me. As I stated before, I understand the purpose and placement of constructive reviews, and even at times negative reviews, but I cannot account for one that is as problematic as this. Written in a snarky, jabbing and entirely-unconstructive fashion, the NYT reviewer offered us little by way of actual insightful discussion and instead led us down a very problematic path of not only misinterpretation but also a misrepresentation of the widely-spread societal problem that is domestic violence (and the widely-varied responses to it). My response review will be very different from my usual reviews, as it intends to be in conversation with the previous NYT reviewer’s review, mostly as a means to interpret and constructively engage with the previously-made claims.

Hausfrau is, in reduced terms, the story of one woman’s descent away from a seemingly-perfect, happy life to one of destruction in the form of disloyalty and self-exploitation. The main character, Anna, finds herself unsatisfied with her life with her husband and children and begins to explore other means of gaining happiness: at first classes and therapy, and eventually sexual relationships. The novel largely functions as a piece of self-reflection for the main character and, in my opinion, explores the effects of severe depression. Though this story does fixate on the sexual, as the NYT reviewer so grotesquely pointed out—they referred to the scenes of sexual exploration as graphic and compared Essbaum’s writing to the “erotic stylings of E.L. James”—its sexuality is in keeping with the process of Anna’s introspection and decline, a more physiological form of something like The Bell Jar than Fifty Shades of Gray, if you ask me.

The NYT reviewer also argued that any engagement with the novel was rooted in the opening line, “Anna was a good wife, mostly,” and that readers were spurred on by the proposition of reading about Anna’s flurry of sexual excursions, and discovering less than such was a disappointment of dramatic proportions. Not so. While I will admit that there is a great appeal to the mostly of the first line, I highly disagree that this is all a reader may sign on for, unless they are specifically looking for a run-of-the-mill weekday afternoon drama. Because the truth of the matter is, as terrible as some of our behaviors may be, with or without marriage, and with or without depression, those behaviors are often less than sensational, and even promiscuity does not always (or even often) equate with many lovers, but perhaps the inclusion of one or two. The sensational is in the reaction of the harmed—the wronged husband, in this case. I will agree that one of the grander moments of the text is in Bruno’s discovery about his relationship with Anna and one of their children, though not at all for the reasons the NYT reviewer suggested. To summarize, they claimed that in the moment when Bruno discovers one of his children is not his own, he breaks Anna’s nose, to which she “simply” realizes that he must have found out about one of her relationships and then thinks “only,” “Huh,” which the NYT reviewer found humorous and simple-minded. Readers, this may be a brief moment, but it is hardly simple. This is a moment of confession and regret, violence and self-deprecation, and contains grave surprise and shock. This moment is not humorous and does not mark Anna as simple-minded or as an equivalent to the other Ana of Fifty Shades. Rather, this is a mark of domestic violence and the quiet, subdued behavior that often ensues.

And this—this—is certainly the most important point I need to make—the reason I wanted to write this response review in the first place: domestic violence, of any kind, for any reason, is never funny. Ever. Not even a little; not even a chuckle’s worth. Because it involves pain and victimization and harm and is a form of physical and emotional robbery. For anyone who has been in this position of receipt knows that there is no humor to be found here, but also that, depending on the situation in which it happens (or even depending on how long it’s been going on), the response to the situation will widely vary—and let me tell you, a simple “Huh” is anything but dumbfounded. This is not plain or simple-minded behavior; it is a symptom of abuse. It is an expression of suppressed shock. Let me remind the previous reviewer that this simple response occurred immediately after Anna’s nose was broken; I highly doubt she was thinking about formulating a long and thorough response to the events that had just occurred. Such a reaction would be better suited for a later time and is largely demonstrated in the final pages, when Anna performs a thorough recounting of her life while waiting for a train that is finally late.

Which brings me to my final thought—I have my doubts about whether the NYT reviewer finished reading the book, because this piece deserves so much more credit, discussion and interpretative work than the reviewer offered. To invite a legitimate moment of humor of my own, this book is not just a pretty face—not just a lovely cover, not just the story of a housewife (nor is a book plain for having been about a housewife and domestic concerns; nor is being a housewife and performing as a housewife plain), not an over-sexed drama, and certainly not a comedy. It’s a deep exploration of a life that has become untethered, and of a woman truly seeking answers for her condition and struggling to move past a series of mistakes and finding a way to start over—for herself. For the NYT reviewer: if you became bored along the way, if you didn’t bother to finish reading it, if all you really took from it was sex and misappropriated responses to domestic violence… then you seriously did it wrong. Read it again.

 

JILL ALEXANDER ESSBAUM is the author of several collections of poetry, and her work has appeared in The Best American Poetry, as well as its sister anthology, The Best American Erotic Poems: From 1800 to the Present. She is a winner of the Bakeless Poetry Prize and recipient of two NEA literature fellowships. A member of the core faculty of the Low Residency MFA at the University of California, Riverside, she lives and writes in Austin, Texas.

 

 

The Two (or More?) Sides of Friendship: Reading Rufi Thorpe’s The Girls from Corona del Mar

 

Rufi Thorpe_The Girls from Corona del Mar We all have to grow up someday. And some of us are dealt a better hand than others—some during our childhood, others later in life, and even others not at all. But we find a way to persist, to perceive the world and how to function within its barriers. We learn how to love, to grow—and sometimes, more interestingly, we learn how to watch. Rufi Thorpe’s The Girls from Corona del Mar is so completely about childhood friends growing up and growing apart, but it’s also about what some would perceive as luck (or luck running out) and the strange, voyeuristic qualities of our friendships tend to take on—particularly in those moments of attempting to “catch up,” that thrill—when friendships become distant, or even estranged.

And as if these concepts weren’t complicated enough, Thorpe offers such beautiful, raw and emotional renderings that we (or at least I) lost touch with that boundary between narrative and reality. I cared for, and felt for, screamed at, rooted for and cried for, these characters more deeply than I often do for a story’s personalities. Because it’s more than that—a story; it’s more of a piece of historical fiction, really, telling truths about each of us with different names and slightly different situations. And yet it’s a story we’ve never heard before; we hurt for these characters, and we are surprised when they fall, and it feels perfectly natural and reasonable to want to catch them. This is a novel that envelops us and continues to hold on long after the last page.

Perhaps what makes all of this so arresting is the disjunctive nature of their relationship; while Mia and Lorrie Ann grew up together in the small, seemingly-disadvantaged place of Corona del Mar, their memories are still tinged with nostalgic sunlight, their tanned skin and sun-kissed hair; there’s beauty, and a certain perfection, in those memories. And yet when these two young women have grown up, and come into situations where they truly need each other emotionally, they are often physically separated by great distances—and, at times, even greater apathy towards one another. While these two women were friends through and through, and always sought one another one for help (and to check in), there is a certain amount of perceived dislike, almost an obligatory forcing-together of their lives, contained in their relationship, as well. Unfortunately, though, this is fitting and regrettably true for many of us: we often maintain some of those relationships that are the most toxic for us because they’ve been established the longest, or we simply lose interest (again, because of the time that’s passed) and yet try (and fail) to maintain in touch, often out of obligation. Weirdly, though, there’s a certain amount of purity to this obligation—after all, that feeling of responsibility isn’t often forced by the other party, but rather the desire to maintain that which was once treasured. It’s interesting to think about how these emotions often played into not only Mia and Lorrie Ann’s decisions to see one another, but often how they treated or viewed one another (and their troubles or successes).

But Rufi Thorpe doesn’t stop here—not even close. Much of this relationship, and its complications, are explored through consequences (both positive and negative) of our choices, and how those consequences can bring us to a new mental and physical state: becoming a mother, moving from the United States to Istanbul… these are two central occurrences in the book, but they are hardly exhaustive. And Mia and Lorrie Ann’s reactions to one another’s life events, often dark and judgmental, dismissive or cold, put a mirror to the core of their relationship, and often how broken it can be after their departure from Corona del Mar. What makes this even more stark is the initial glorification applied to Lorrie Ann, her life and her family, by the ever-watching Mia, who continues to watch with concern, and even a certain amount of fascination, as her friend’s life continues to change.

My praise for this story, its complexities, and its characters, are endless. The story Rufi Thorpe has offered up provides all the twists and turns to keep you up and night, and then some. It’s taken me a great deal of time to process the book after finishing it, to process what I can even intellectually say about it, and (perhaps most importantly) to be able to move on to my next read without taking these characters with me and projecting them onto the new characters! This book is quite the experience. Slow yourself down a little bit, take a deep breath, and dive in. It isn’t an easy trip, but really, it shouldn’t be; honest and raw stories tend to pull you in several directions, run your emotions dry, and get you thinking about the truth behind the theme most thoroughly explored in the story (in this case, friendship, I’d say). And that is exactly the sort of trip you’ll go on with The Girls from Corona del Mar. It’ll be hard, but it’ll be worth it. I promise.

 

RUFI THORPE received her MFA from the University of Virginia in 2009. Her novel, The Girls from Corona del Mar, was published by Knopf July 2014. A native of California, she currently lives in Washington D.C., with her husband and son.

 

 

The Surrealist and Bodily Nature of Grief: Reading Kristin Bair O’Keeffe’s The Art of Floating

 

Kristin Bair OKeeffe_The Art of Floating Even when you read regularly, it takes time to find something truly great; but every once in a while, there will be a book, a poem, a story, that truly turns you on your heel, holds you in place, and keeps you loving, recommending and discussing that piece for months. Though first described to me as “a great summer read” and “something good to take to the beach,” Kristin Bair O’Keeffe’s The Art of Floating was precisely that piece I needed to improve my summer—and not just by giving me a book to read under an umbrella next to the waves.

Sia Dane’s personal story, at first glance, may appear to be a simple one: a woman well-defined and independent in her writing life and her marriage to her husband, Jack, and then grief-stricken and unable to write upon his disappearance one year before the opening of the novel. This, in and of itself, may suggest a straight-forward story of grief, whether or not beautifully-written. Even with the addition of a strange man on the beach, who Sia discovers early in the morning, would support this story-arch, perhaps with the inclusion of a romantic turn (which would fulfill that “take it to the beach” mantra). However, even if this is how Sia Dane’s story begins, it is hardly conclusive or summative, and we end in a very different place than we might have guessed.

What is so beautiful, haunting, and even bewildering, about this novel is the way in which Bair O’Keeffe can first introduce us to a story we think we know, and twist it into something symbolic, surreal and highly-bodily, which immediately removes The Art of Floating from the common “beach read” section and propels it to the realm of literary fiction—and presents it as a gorgeous example of literary fiction, at that.

When I was first introduced to this title, I did the unthinkable thing—something that I am very guilty of doing on a regular basis, despite my extreme dislike for spoilers: I read the back cover. And I knew, deep in my gut (perhaps in the same place where Sia finds her flopping fish), that this book was different. In the first line of the synopsis, it summarizes, “When her beloved husband, Jackson, disappeared without a trace, popular novelist Sia Dane stopped writing, closed down her house, stuffed her heart into a cage, and started floating.” I read that line over and over, gushing with excitement, at the sheer potential of the novel being refreshing and different. When the book arrived at my home, I wanted so badly to break the reading order of books I had “scheduled” before this one, but I held my ground, clenched my teeth, and waited until it was Bair O’Keeffe’s turn—and, boy, was it worth the wait.

It was more than I could have bargained for, expected, or dreamed of. The events detailed on the back cover do indeed happen, for real, within the context of this novel. This reality is created and made acceptable—made beautiful and strange and heart-felt—within the first several pages of the book, when Sia discovers the man on the beach (who she names “Toad”) and feels a literal wave of his sadness enter her body—as well as a large, flopping fish in her stomach, which she feels move whenever she feels empathy for another person. Obviously, this is outside the operational realm of our bodies and the abilities of them; but that, in the end, is what makes these surreal moves so beautiful and true, when we are given that image that is, at once, strange and capable of retelling those emotions that we otherwise feel are beyond the reach of description. In their surreal nature, they apply truth.

Kristin Bair O’Keeffe’s novel, The Art of Floating, is too entirely beautiful to reduce to “a great summer read” or “something good to take to the beach.” Though I did read this over the summer, and while the book did make an appearance at a water park, it was not read in that time or place out of simplicity or lack of expectation. Rather, reading that back cover pushed my expectations to a higher level, where I wanted strangeness and originality and literary-ness to thrive. And it did. This is one of the most gorgeous and emotionally-demanding novels that I have read in years, and it tackles the duality of the lost and found with renewed fervor and poignancy I haven’t seen in fiction—“women’s” or not—for quite some time. Not only does this novel require that you open yourself to a wide range of emotions, but it demands you to open your mind to the unusual physicality of these emotions, their shift in physics, even; and it even projects into you those emotions you’re seeing and feeling on the page—the frustration and need for patience with the Dogcatcher and the therapist, the split between being happy and appalled by Jilly, the love and pain felt for Jackson and Toad . . . and the possibilities, the range of emotions and reactions, continue.

When it really comes down to it, this is such a deep and well-thought-out examination of how we grieve and love and relate to one another. Perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect this much from one novel, to want a book to meet so many demands, effectively, between a pair of covers—but I feel it’s all been done here; and I know when I read it again, I’ll feel the same way . . . and the surprises will keep coming.

 

KRISTIN BAIR O’KEEFFE is the author of the novels The Art of Floating (Penguin/Berkley, April 2014) and Thirsty (Swallow Press, 2009). Her work has been published in numerous magazines and journals, including Poets & Writers Magazine, The Gettysburg Review, The Baltimore Review, The Christian Science Monitor,HYPERtext, and Bluestem. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia College Chicago and has been teaching writing for the past twenty years. In late 2010, after nearly five years in Shanghai, China, she repatriated to the United States and now lives north of Boston with her husband and daughter.

 

 

A Unique Design of Women and Culture: Reading Desiree Zamorano’s The Amado Women

 

Desiree Zamorano_The Amado WomenAfter reading Désirée Zamorano’s The Amado Women, many readers have claimed to have found a new story with women who are more properly, culturally portrayed, an interesting story which offers new commentary on the larger themes of love and loss, family and finding strength in numbers and learning from our past. As I begin to write this review, I find that I must agree with my fellow readers. This story emphasizes beauty and strength; and Zamorano’s portrayal of these women represents, both, innovation and new-thinking in the way of more accurately using cultural references as potential characteristics, rather than as wholly-defining attributes.

This is an emotionally-difficult novel in many ways, stemming from its strong emphasis on past events. Arguably, more time is spent reliving these events, and coming to terms with them, than in the actual present. Perhaps this will be a problematic trait for some, those who hold a greater desire in their reading to be constantly moving forward, but I found this imbalance to be somewhat endearing, if not a constant reminder of how our past decisions and involvements continue to inform us, and even plague and harm us, in our current affairs. This emphasis on the past also opens up this small world of characters in a way we may not otherwise observe; by exploring their past lives, which function like wounds that are constantly being reopened, we gain a greater understanding and appreciation for these women. Without this focus on the past, we would care for these characters in the same way.

Not to mention Zamorano’s achievement in developing unique, culturally-diverse characters, riding on a line between their heritage and cultural surroundings. Placed against the backdrop of American hustle-and-bustle, and with constantly-changing religious influences, these women operate somewhere between involvement with this background (their selected jobs, the raising of children, etc.) and embracing their culture (primarily through cuisine, prioritization of values and defining success, and family ties). While many novels emphasize cultural stereotypes in their Hispanic characters, this novel minimizes the importance of those stereotypes and focuses more so on the importance of their diaspora. This shift, too, allows us to care more so for these characters, because they are more realistic, wholesome and complete.

This may be Zamorano’s first trade-published novel, but I highly doubt it will be her last. With its lovely focus on family and working through the past to gain a new present, the novel represents both hardships and beauty, harm and hope, and it is through its emotionally-trying edges that we arrive at an ending that is pleasing and long-awaited and well-earned.

 

DÉSIRÉE ZAMORANO is a playwright, Pushcart Prize nominee, and novelist. She is the director of the Community Literacy Center at Occidental College; she also collaborates with InsideOut Writers, a program that works with formerly incarcerated youth. She lives in Pasadena, California. The Amado Women is her first trade-published novel.

 

 

When Dancers Turn to Writing

 

bone dream body of a dancer

 

Tuesday evening, I planned on attending what looked to be an interesting reading. . . but what it turned out to be was an inspirational, uplifting and hilarious multigenre experience.

The event was titled “After Dancing: Dancers Turn to Writing,” and for good reason. These two wonderful, strong women were dancers for the majority of their lives, and when they eventually “left” that part of their lives “behind” (though, we did discuss that you never leave such a big part of you behind, not really), they turned to writing, and eventually writing about dancing with new vigor that many dancers never find the words to express.

As the original event flyer explains, Moira MacDougall’s first poetry collection, Bone Dream, from Tightrope Books, summoned much of her training in classical ballet and modern dance, as well as her experiences as an Iyengar yoga instructor. From my experience of listening to her read (in the crisp, precise enunciating way she is so blessed with!), her poems are filled with pain, raw truth (about the physical body and emotions of the mind), as well as a Dream World from which she draws references of Greek Mythology, Christianity/Catholicism (from which she was raised) and some various forms of old and new pop culture. Despite the strange way these various topics may move or taste in one’s mouth, what was then produced was a new way of expressing her experiences and feelings about dance that maintained a dancer’s vitality and spirit in the most admirable of ways.

Similarly, Renée E. D’Aoust’s memoir, Body of a Dancer, from Etruscan Press, is expressed through a series of “Acts,” or narrative essays, which discuss her time in New York at the Martha Graham School. I purchased, both, MacDougall’s and D’Aoust’s books before the reading began, and I spent a few minutes exploring each. What I found in D’Aoust’s work was a stark quality often lacking in fiction, the harsh truths of performing at a professional level, elevated to a whole other state of hilarity, strength and heart. D’Aoust additionally has “what it takes” to make that clean, wide divide between what it means to read a work and what it means to see a work, a performance of a work. Throughout her reading, she had memorized passages, acted, gestured—in a very real way, danced, to what her work demanded. Her work, and her performance, and her attitude, were inspirational and uplifting, and the experience of watching her, of experiencing her work through her performance, left me feeling lighter and more inspired than I have in a long time.

What made both of these women’s equally, individually, inspirational and beautiful performances all the more honest and real was the fact that they were performing together, in a multigenre performance, within a dance studio—a multimedia room with a large dance area, mirrors along one wall, and a ceiling that made me want to return to singing. The first third of their performance was their movement, back and forth, from poetry to memoir, account after account, one truth after another. Experiencing this first brought an unusual excitement for life, dance and writing into the room that I very rarely have seen or felt in a reading. This then led seamlessly into the second section, during which Moira read some of her published, and new, poetry, followed by Renée in the third section, who read and performed purely from the first section of her book, regarding the Martha Graham School. The way each of these forms of art—dance, poetry and memoir—all worked together, moving, in this room, was so telling and real and beautiful. Beautiful in a way that is often removed from a writer’s reading, when placed in a room, pinned behind a podium. It was different, and it was breathing.

 

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After I have fully read their books, I will post reviews on each… This will absolutely be a wonderful project to complete; I’m truly looking forward to it.

 

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Moira MacDougall has been published widely in Canadian and American literary journals and is currently the Poetry Editor for the Literary Review of Canada. She lives on The Beach in Toronto, Ontario.

If you are interested in purchasing her book, Bone Dream, please visit Tightrope Books.

 

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Renée E. D’Aoust has numerous publications and awards to her credit, including a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts’ Journalism Institute for Dance Criticism at American Dance Festival (a mouthful, huh?). She lives half of the year in Switzerland, the other in Idaho, where she manages her family’s forestland.

If you are interested in purchasing her memoir, Body of a Dancer, please visit Etruscan Press.