Do You Enjoy Speculative Fiction?

By N.M. Cedeño

Do you enjoy speculative fiction? Do you know what speculative fiction is?

The dictionary defines speculative fiction as “a genre of fiction that encompasses works in which the setting is other than the real world, involving supernatural, futuristic, or other imagined elements.” The genre is an umbrella under which lies science fiction, fantasy, and even some kinds of horror. From fairy tales to space operas, from paranormal stories to alternative histories, any kind of fiction containing imagined elements that exist outside of known reality can be classified as speculative fiction. Many well-known books and series fall into this category.

Works of dystopian fiction like Brave New World by Huxley, 1984 by Orwell, and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 are speculative fiction. The Hunger Games dystopian series is speculative fiction.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s work of magical realism, One Hundred Years of Solitude, is speculative fiction.

Stephen King’s horror novel It and his time travel novel 11/22/63 are speculative fiction.

Star Wars, Buck Rogers, and other space operas are speculative fiction.

The Twilight romance series featuring werewolves and vampires is speculative fiction.

The Harry Potter fantasy series is speculative fiction.

The Martian, a work of hard science fiction by Andy Weir, is speculative fiction.

Janet Evanovich’s Lizzy and Diesel urban fantasy series is speculative fiction.

Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas paranormal thriller series is speculative fiction.

Wonder Woman and other superhero stories are speculative fiction.

Irish folk tales about leprechauns or banshees are speculative fiction.

Given all the stories and genres that can be classified as speculative fiction, it might be easier to ask what isn’t speculative fiction than to go through all the examples of what it is. If a work of fiction is entirely realistic in its setting and involves no magical, supernatural, futuristic, or other elements that don’t yet or might never exist, then it isn’t speculative fiction. A mystery, police drama, or romance set in the present day with no imaginary elements added would be categorized as realistic fiction. Horror, thriller, and suspense novels that feature only human evil or terrors that are based in the real world are realistic fiction. A historical drama that accurately reflects life in a given time period would also be realistic fiction.

Speculative fiction allows for flights of imagination, presenting other worlds, dream worlds, and future worlds rather than depicting the world how it is or was. Realistic fiction stays within the bounds of known reality.

As an author, some of my writing falls under the mantle of speculative fiction. My Bad Vibes Removal Services paranormal mysteries featuring Lea, a woman who can see and talk to ghosts, definitely fits into the category. My romantic suspense / mystery novel All in Her Head also features paranormal elements.

My novel For the Children’s Sake is a murder mystery featuring an imaginary medical condition where some people’s skin oils cause other people to go into anaphylactic shock and die. That imaginary condition makes the book speculative fiction, even though the rest of the book is based in reality.

October 2021 issue

Several of my short stories are classified as social science fiction, set in possible future worlds. For example, my short story entitled A Reasonable Expectation of Privacy is a private detective story set in a world with no privacy rights.

My latest release is also a work of science fiction. The Wrong Side of History is currently available in the October 2021 issue of After Dinner Conversation: Philosophy and Ethics Short Story Magazine. The Wrong Side of History is a tale of blackmail set in a world recovering from a near-extinction event and featuring a 130-year-old politician trying to keep his legacy intact in a world with values that differ widely from those considered acceptable in his youth.

So back to the original question. Do you enjoy speculative fiction?

*****

N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is currently working on a paranormal mystery series called Bad Vibes Removal Services. Ms. Cedeño is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter. Find out more at nmcedeno.com.

Biblioholism: The Literary Addiction – Book Review

By Renee Kimball

Biblioholism *. . .book, of books; the habitual longing to purchase, read, store, admire, and consume books in excess.  Tom Raabe

In Biblioholism – The Literary Addiction, author Tom Raabe hilariously details what happens to those who are unable to contain their compulsion to purchase, collect . . .well, HOARD books.  And if you wonder if there are still certain people who do this in the age of Ebooks- – – then YES is the answer.  Biblioholics still exist, while collecting books in all its myriad forms available today.

Raabe wrote the first edition of Biblioholism – The Literary Addiction in 1991, it was revised and re-published in 2001.  Raabe’s insights are entertaining, that is, unless you are a BOOK HOARDER – and, well, then reading about it can be uncomfortable, even painful. 

So, for the record, I am biased, I am not impartial, I am a Book Hoarder.

Today’s book world is much, much different than that of Raabe’s.  Book stores, places of wonder, have greatly diminished, other online sellers have cornered the book-buying-market.  Technology has transmogrified lengthy volumes into tiny bits and bytes.  Centuries of the written word are now carried along with phones, tucked into portable cases or satchels, purses, and even pockets, read whenever the owner chooses, wherever the owner can get a satellite signal.

But still, Biblioholics that remain continue to treasure the heft of the physical book.  They are behind the scenes, ferreting out those remaining bookstores, garage sales, thrift stores, Thriftbooks, Ebay and Etsy, and public library sales for the real thing…that tome of paper–the physical book.  Dusty, dirty, old, frayed, new, crisp, silly, serious we keep looking and bringing home BOOKS

Raabe asks: Do you suffer from Biblioholism

“What another addiction? . . . Don’t we have enough addictions to worry about —drugs, alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, gambling eating, not eating, shopping shoplifting, sex, chocolate, work, television watching, fitness, religion, and who know that else—without having to worry about books too?” Raabe (p. 12-13).

What are the effects of Biblioholism?  Raabe enlightens us (the following is paraphrased, for a full accounting, please obtain the book) . . .

  1.  The first thing to go is your eyesight.  “This is because biblioholics, by definition, read everywhere…We must read and considerations, like proper lighting are not sufficient to sway us from our passion. . .” (p. 14).
  2. Losing your ability to see, is second to the change in our body (neck, arms, chest, fanny, bum, backside). Nothing worse than the effect of a tilting head and neck after years of reading in bed. “Browser’s neck” appears but that is small compared to the “every spreading” dynasty of flesh which becomes the derriere you never wanted and has “spread to the size of the Mississippi Delta.” (p. 14).
  3. “Proper hygiene,” and “time,” come last to finishing that last chapter.  If you can push yourself to read a few more sentences, then taking a spit-bath is far more attractive than a full shower or arriving to work with pressed clothes and sparking teeth.  The financial result (both in pay) and ability to buy more books, suffers.
  4. As the Biblioholic’s living space becomes constricted with books (stacked everywhere and on everything), their social world contracts as well –soon, encased by books, a recluse is born.  You can’t invite anyone in, you can’t safely open the door.”

When the Biblioholic finally realizes they need “help,” it may be too late. . . Books have taken over his/her life. 

At this stage, there is little or no money (it has all been spent on books), and because books have taken the place of human company, there are few friends to call on for assistance.  Only after the Biblioholic comes to his senses, can he finally confront his book-addiction and turn his life around.

If you believe you may be a Biblioholic and need a guide to determine if you are a true “book addict,” then review Raabe’s “checklist,’ for a more targeted approach.  Following a sample of Raabe’s questions found in: “Taking the Test: Are you a Biblioholic?” (pg. 25-30) . . .

“Have you ever bought the same book twice without knowing it?

At Christmastime, do you buy your loved ones books that you want to read?

Do you have a personal library on an entire subject, note of which you have read?

When at a garage sale, is the first thing you look at the books?

Have you ever become suddenly deeply interested in an obscure topic and immediately bought six or more books on that topic?”. . .

I must answer “Yes” to all of the above, I even have more than two copies of the same book (even three).  While there is much more to Raabe’s lighthearted but serious book, he closes with a chapter detailing a suggestion for a cure:

“. . . and now you’re probably ready to bask in the good news of a cure and get on with life, right?  Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but wrong. Because the operative rule for this disease is: Biblioholic, heal thyself.” (p. 156).

Wait! After all this about the disease, how do I cure myself, you ask?  Raabe glibly offers the following: “Total Abstinence,” “Find Something Else to Love,” (as in marriage, or supplant with another addiction: “shopping, religion, fitness, rage, chocolate, sex, work, pizza…who knows what else.” (p. 159).  And lastly, much like aversion therapy, Raabe finally suggests: “Buy Till It Hurts.” (p. 163). 

“. . .nothing works unless we want to be cured. . .And in order to hit that bottom we have to buy until it hurts, until every dollar forked over for a book brings with it concomitant pain and guilt.

          We can’t be cured until we want help; we can’t want help until we hit bottom; and we can’t hit bottom until we become absolute book fools and buy until it causes us so much pain we will want help. . .

          How else can we be healed?  The disease must run its course. . .Only in total defeat is there victory. Only from the bottom can we see the top. Once we get there, we can turn it around.  But as they say, getting there is half the fun.”. . . (Raabe 163).

What will you try?  I think I will continue to implement Raabe’s last suggestion – I will keep buying till it hurts. 

After all, when has “Total Abstinence” ever worked for any addiction?

References:

Raabe, Tom. Biblioholism: the Literary Addiction. Fulcrum Publishing, 2001.  Photo courtesy of Amazon.

The Biblioholic. Biblioholism: n. [BIBLIO + HOLISM] book, of books: the habitual longing to purchase, read, store, admire and consume books in excess. Columbia Edu – OnLine http://www.columbia.edu/~fuat/biblioholic.com/

Photos courtesy of Pixabay. 

A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are reading, writing, and animal advocacy. She fosters and rescues both dogs and cats and works with various organizations to find them forever homes

Weaving Complexity into Story

by Renee Kimball

It has been a year of extremes—Covid, freezing weather, and higher than average temperatures forecast for the summer ahead. 

During Covid quarantine, I read many, many books of all kinds.  I forgot some of those within an hour of finishing, but others, stayed with me long after I turned the last page.  

The stories that remained with me included specific historical, geographical, even philosophical backstories, that despite of a kind of literary density, held my attention.  Each author had conducted meticulous research, and their obvious investment of time, effort, along with many complex details, was an achievement.  Each story was the kind the reader falls into and stays to the end.

Similarities between them were clear; all were written by female authors; all contained resourceful, intelligent female protagonists; and each flawlessly merged a complex backstory within the main theme.  What could have been unintelligible and unenjoyable was successful, even riveting.  These stories were not mired in dry, mind-numbing facts, and the characters were believable, even likeable; what more could a reader ask?

In the first novel, The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert, we meet the protagonist, Alma Whittaker.  Whittaker’s character is loosely based on the historical women explorers of the Victorian age.  Alma’s story is engaging, and she not only became an explorer, but a respected scientist through her groundbreaking global research in Bryology, the study of mosses, a branch of Botany.

Alma, an unattractive baby, then a precocious child, develops into a brilliant multi-talented adult.  Alma’s insatiable need to know everything, to her credit, gives her an unstoppable confidence that keeps her strong and saves her in the later decades of life.  Her greatest disappointment is her failed marriage, the husband unable or unwilling to give Alma the love that she desperately wants, eventually leaving her unhappy and alone. 

Gilbert’s rigorous research details the severity of the life of a Victorian woman.  Blocked from entering or studying within male dominated scientific fields, any findings women might make were dismissed or stolen by men who took credit for the original work, or disregarded completely.  In spite of this overall disregard, many women persevered, becoming explorers or scholars in their own right, and laid the groundwork of the first inklings of female equality.

The second novel, The Weight of Ink, by Rachel Kadish, introduces a dual timeline and two female protagonists: the present-day London historian, Helen Watt, who discovers an ancient cache of valuable correspondence, and Ester Velasquez, a Jewish female scribe, who was the actual author of the historical letters.  Two stories run side by side, back and forth, jumping from present day London to the Jewish community of 1660s plague-ridden London. 

Intrigue and tension rise as a present-day scholarly battle throws university professors and researchers in a race to establish control over the translation of the letters, while, in tandem, Ester’s life-story is picked apart as the letters are slowly translated, revealing her character and brilliant inquisitive intellect.

Ester, an orphaned Jewish adolescent, is sent to London along with her brother, from Amsterdam, when their family home burns, killing both parents.  The children become wards of the venerated but blind Rabbi Moseh Ha Coen Mendes.  Ester’s brother, slated to become a scribe for the Rabbi, refuses, runs away, and dies shortly after. 

Hiding behind a fictious “male” persona, Ester becomes the Rabbi’s scribe.  A scribe was traditionally a male only position, but the Rabbi silently allows Ester to hide behind a false identity and to transcribe his weighty correspondence.  It does not take long for Ester’s razor-sharp intellect to rise to the surface when unbeknownst to the Rabbi, Ester modifies the Rabbi’s responses with her own commentary and questions.  This correspondence is composed in reply to some of the greatest thinkers of the day, a list that includes the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, among others.

Kadish presents an intellectually strong and resourceful woman trapped by gender, religion, tradition, and social constraints in the frantic environment of plague-ridden London.  Ester’s character refuses to be cowed and questions centuries of Rabbinical teaching and beliefs, even questioning Spinoza’s philosophies. 

Kadish’s language flows, integrating the complex philosophical theories of Judaism and those of Spinoza through Ester, and again through Helen Watt, a specialist in Judaic history who demands Ester’s letters be given the prominence and respect they deserve.  With Kadish, the reader becomes nothing less than a captive to the story—Kadish has created an historical page-turner.

The The Fifth Season: The Broken Earth, Book 1 by N.K. Jemisin, unlike the first two novels, is pure science fiction in imaginary time.  The novel takes place on an Earth-like planet of broken islands, what Jemisin’s calls the “Stillness.” The ever-changing geological landscape breaks, fuses, rises and sinks, entire enclaves disappear, only to rise again elsewhere.  Time runs in Seasons that begin and end with land-mass upheaval while creating a daily apocalypse for its inhabitants.  

Essun, the protagonist, a middle-aged woman-healer, lives in the ever-changing Stillness, confronting numerous small enclaves of hostile caste-ridden survivors with bizarre magical abilities.

When her own toddler son displays telekinesis, he is murdered by her husband.  Essun had hidden the child’s gift from her husband to protect the child, and although Essun has these same gifts she keeps them hidden because she too would be killed.  After murdering the son, the husband takes their remaining daughter and flees.  The novel is based on Essun’s search for her husband and daughter within the ever-shifting geological nightmare landscape.

All three novels are a testament to the authors’ exacting research and story-telling abilities.  

Gilbert became an expert in Victorian mores, women explorers, and scientific standards of Botany and Bryology during the 1800s. 

Kadish grounded her story in Judaism, Spinoza’s complex philosophies, the history of Amsterdam and the London plague.  She successfully tackled the difficult job of two protagonists with parallel timelines, one present day, one historical, with finesse and without alienating the reader or breaking the thread of the story.  

Although science fiction, Jemisin incorporated ever-changing geological manifestations—shifting tectonic plates, volcanic fissures, and violent changes resulting from those stresses.  Notably, Jemisin’s characters are believable despite the imaginary violent landscape of the Stillness.  Jemisin’s story is a woman’s fight for survival.

Countless other authors have successfully incorporated complex concepts into successful fiction novels. For me, Gilbert, Kadish, and Jemisin, prove that although the backstory may be scientifically and philosophically dense, it is possible to create stories both engaging and understandable to the reader  

Their skill to weave complexity into writing is something to be admired, even envied.

***

References

Image Extreme Weather courtesy of Pixabay

Images of book covers courtesy of Amazon

Heller, Jason. ‘Fifth Season’ Embraces The Scale And Complexity Of Fantasy. August 4, 201510:03 AM ET

Jason Heller. https://www.npr.org/2015/08/04/427825372/fifth-season-embraces-the-scale-and-complexity-of-fantasy

***

A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are reading and writing. She is an active Animal Advocate and fosters both dogs and cats and works with various organizations to find them forever homes.

Revisiting Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet

by Renee Kimball

“Almustafa, the chosen and the beloved, who was a dawn unto his own day, had waited twelve years in the city of Orphalese for his ship that was to return and bear him back to the isle of his birth.

And in the twelfth year, on the seventh day of Ielool, the month of reaping, he climbed the hill without the city walls and looked seaward; and he beheld his ship coming with the mist. . .
. . .
“And he said to himself:
Shall the day of parting be the day of gathering?
And shall it be said that my eve was in truth my dawn? . . .

The Prophet

Born in Lebanon in 1883, Kahlil Gibran was the son of an erratic and abusive alcoholic father who forced Kahlil’s mother to flee with her four children to the United States; Kahlil was 12 years old.  Although they arrived in New York initially, they quickly relocated to Boston’s Southside, settling within a larger immigrant community.

Gibran’s formal education was interrupted fleeing Lebanon, again through relocation to Boston.  The small family faced obstacles of language and culture, yet, despite this, the mother opened a small store that allowed some income.  During Kahlil’s late teens, a sister and both brothers died from tuberculosis; shortly after, Gibran’s mother died from cancer.  As the remaining guardian of his youngest sister, Gibran continued working his mother’s store while pursuing painting and writing.

Prior to his mother’s death, Kahlil also began writing and translating various articles for Boston’s Arabic /Lebanese newspapers. Through the translation work, he established contacts within the Boston artistic community giving Kahlil the encouragement and patronage he desperately needed.  His mother, however, questioning his friendships with the Art Nouveau/Romantic community, sent him back to Lebanon for more education.  He found his father the same aggressive, angry alcoholic Kahlil had fled years before, and he quickly returned to Boston and his mother.

Gibran’s early attempts at art, similar in style to the Romantic William Blake, failed to find an audience, but his writings, generated a respectable following. This was still not enough to support his sister or himself, particularly after his mother’s passing.  It was during this time that Gibran established a pattern of behavior he followed for the rest of his life—first, seeking acceptance within a supportive artistic community and, second, befriending and securing patronage of wealthy older women.

Boston’s literary critics found Kahlil’s grammar stilted and his spiritual style hard to understand.  Acceptance in the larger literary circles remained out of reach but several years passed before Gibran, upon the advice of friends, relocated to New York.  Once there, Gibran’s prose poems and parable style writings established his reputation as a respected writer.

In 1931, Gibran died from causes related to alcoholism and cirrhosis of the liver. He was 48 years of age. His body was returned to Lebanon, where he was buried.

In these troubling times of COVID—confusion and radical change, Gibran’s gentle messages pose as a reminder of the importance of caring for your neighbor, giving without expectation of return, knowing yourself, and loving without judgment.  You do not have look hard to find the love in Gibran’s message, and I, for one, am in favor of more of love everywhere.

 

On Love

…When love beckons you, follow him,
Through his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north
Wind lays waste the garden.

. . .

. . .Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself.
Love possesses not nor would it be possessed;
For love is sufficient unto love.
. . .
When you love you should not say, “God is in my heart,”
but rather, “I am in the heart of God.”
And think not you can direct the course of love, for love,
If it finds you worthy, directs your course.”

Of Children

 . . .Your children are not your children.
 They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you. . .

You are the bows from which your children as living
Arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with his might that His arrows may go swift and far. . .

 On Giving

Then said a rich man, Speak to us of Giving.
     And he answered:
     You give but little when you give of your possessions.
     It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.
     For what are your possessions but things you keep and guard
     for fear you may need them tomorrow? . . .
. . .
 It is well to give when asked, but it is better to give unasked,
through understanding;
      And to the open-handed the search for one who shall
receive is joy greater than giving.
     And is there aught you would withhold?
     All you have shall some day be given;
     Therefore give now, that the season of giving may be yours and not your inheritors’. . .

 ***

References

Gibran, Khalil. The Prophet. Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (1926, 1970).

Naimy. “The Mind and Thought of Khalil Gibran.” Journal of Arabic Literature, vol. 5, 1974, pp. 55–71.

Pantucek, Svetozar. “ANALYSIS OF THE PARABLES OF GIBRAN KHALIL GIBRAN.” Quaderni Di Studi Arabi, vol. 11, 1993, pp. 139–147.

Poetry Foundation. Kahlil Gibran. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/kahlil-gibran

Images via Wikipedia. All are in the public domain. For more information, click on each image.

***

A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are reading and writing. She is an active Animal Advocate and fosters both dogs and cats and works with various organizations to find them forever homes.

I Am Not a Moral Pauper

by Kathy Waller

“Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world.
I know because I’ve done it thousands of times.”
~ Mark Twain
(or possibly W. C. Fields, or . . . )

*

It seemed a valuable medical course, and I recommended it to a lady. She had run down and down and down, and had at last reached a point where medicines no longer had any helpful effect upon her. I said I knew I could put her upon her feet in a week. It brightened her up, it filled her with hope, and she said she would do everything I told her to do. So I said she must stop swearing and drinking, and smoking and eating for four days, and then she would be all right again. And it would have happened just so, I know it; but she said she could not stop swearing, and smoking, and drinking, because she had never done those things. So there it was. She had neglected her habits, and hadn’t any. Now that they would have come good, there were none in stock. She had nothing to fall back on. She was a sinking vessel, with no freight in her to throw over lighten ship withal. Why, even one or two little bad habits could have saved her, but she was just a moral pauper. ~ Mark Twain, Following the Equator

*

So I decide to write about New Years’ Resolutions, and some I’ve made and why I don’t make them any more, and of course, to write about that, I must quote Mark Twain’s remark about smoking, and while searching for the quotation I wonder whether Mark Twain really said it, so I check other  [more reliable] sources and learn that he probably didn’t, and now I’m so fired up about errors in attribution–and errors in everything else–flying around the globe even as I type, that I’m too emotionally jangled to settle down and write about resolutions.

Isn’t that just the way?

Well, whatever. Back to resolutions.

I don’t smoke, never have, so I can’t give it up–well, when I was ten, I did try to smoke a section of mustang grapevine, which my grandfather had warned me would make my tongue sore, but I was afraid of holding a lighted match so close to my face–one could get burned that way–so I gave up.

And another time, three cousins and I–we were eleven or twelve years old–lit one of their mother’s Winstons and each took one puff. Then we decided we’d done something entirely too daring, and their mother was probably already on her way home from town, less than a mile away, so we put the cigarette out, placed the butt on a piece of shingle one of them dug up from somewhere, carried it with great ceremony and a lot of giggling to their burn barrel, and disposed of it.

I guess that means I have smoked but resolved to give it up. One resolution kept.

I am not, however, a moral pauper. I have not neglected my habits. I have plenty of freight I could throw overboard. And I’ve tried, how I’ve tried. But what I intend as jetsam floats back and attaches like barnacles, as it were, to my hull.

I’ve never lost ten, twenty, thirty-five, forty, or any set number of pounds; or completed grad school papers (or blog posts) with more than a few hours to spare; or abstained from chocolate; or organized my purse, office, car, house, or self; or left my keys, reading glasses, or shoes where I could find them; or reached any other goal listed on a December 31st contract.

I know I’m not alone. A proper Victorian girl, Louisa May Alcott was taught to strive for self-improvement but had difficulty following through. At ten years of age, she wrote in her journal “A Sample of Our Lessons”:

‘What virtues do you wish more of?’ asks Mr.L. I answer:—
Patience, Love, Silence,
Obedience, Generosity, Perseverance,
Industry, Respect, Self-denial.
‘What vices less of?’
Idleness, Wilfulness, Vanity,
Impatience, Impudence, Pride,
Selfishnes, Activity, Love of cats.

Alcott is famous for her industry, perseverance, and generosity, but also for wilfulness, impatience, and activity–and thank goodness she retained those “negative” characteristics. American literature would be in a sad state without them.*

Does breaking resolutions bother me? It used to. I have a broad streak of Puritanism. I want to do better. To get it right. When the Methodist minister inquired about me one Sunday morning and my mother told him I was at home trying to finish a grad school paper before slamming into the deadline, he asked, “Is she a perfectionist?” My mother said yes. “I thought so,” he said.

But that was then, and this is 2021. I’ve been at this resolution thing for a long time. A woman at my age and weight** knows how things work.

Contracts can be renegotiated. And when I’m the only party, I’m allowed to set new terms to suit myself. Or to say, “So what?”

Award-winning columnist Ellen Goodman*** wrote something about resolutions that has stayed with me for over ten years:

We spend January walking through our lives, room by room, drawing up a list of work to be done, cracks to be patched. Maybe this year, to balance the list, we ought to walk through the rooms of our lives … not looking for flaws, but for potential.

I like that. I think Alcott would have liked it, too. In fact, maybe that’s what she did all those years. She saw her own potential, got down to business, and didn’t let up.

That’s the trouble with potential–once you’ve found it, you have to do something about it. Like work.

I suppose the trick is to learn to love the work. Alcott and Twain must have loved what they did. Even when they hated it, they loved it.

Well. What got me thinking about resolutions that I don’t believe in making?

Anthony Trollope. I binge-watched the miniseries adaptation of his The Way We Live Now a couple of weeks ago, for the fourth time. And then I watched the adaptation of Dr. Thorne. And I’m looking for the adaptation of The Pallisers series–I believe it’s seventeen episodes, and I’ve seen it at least three times, but I’d love to watch it again. And The Barchester Chronicles, which is so funny, and I’ve watched it so many times, I’ve practically memorized the dialogue . . .

I love Trollope. I decided to marry my husband when he told me he’d read many of Trollope’s novels. He hadn’t asked me to marry him, but I decided. If he’d read Dickens, I might not have been so impressed. But any man who’d read that many of Trollope’s novels just because he wanted to had to be a man of substance.

If you look at the reviews of The Warden on Amazon, for example, you find, “boring… boring… boring… boring… long and boring…” And, “I couldn’t get into it.” (Good grief, people, it’s a Victorian novel. What did you expect?)

But that is a matter of taste. Some of us think his novels delightful. Satirical. At times, drop-dead funny. The Eustace Diamonds, in The Pallisers series, is a murder mystery.

Trollope wrote forty-seven novels, plus short stories, plus a ton of travel books. He set a writing goal for each day. When he finished one book, he immediately began another. In an autobiography published posthumously, he admitted to writing for money rather than for a Muse. (The admission led to a decrease in sales, because writing for money was considered crass. I don’t know what readers thought Dickens was writing for.)

And Trollope was a civil servant, worked for the British postal service, where he invented the mailbox. 

Now. My dirty little secret is that I’ve never read The Warden. I’ve read its sequel, Barchester Towers. But that’s the only Trollopian novel I’ve read. I have, like many writers of high school book reports, seen the movies.

So I made a resolution: In 2021, I’m going to read all the novels of Anthony Trollope.

If I read one novel a week, I’ll finish with two weeks to spare. My Kindle initially said I could read The Warden in 3 hours and 53 minutes, but a few pages later, it said I could be finished in 4 hours and 15 minutes. Beats me.

In the two weeks left over, I plan to read Brian Doyle’s Martin Marten, which was recommended by a former student, and something by Ann Patchett.

Furthermore, after looking for potential, I’ve resolved to finish writing my own novel. It’s been in the works for a while. Bits and pieces are stored in approximately 3, 508 files on my hard drive (and in the cloud).

I worked on it today, revising an ancient scene for the umpteenth time, and was stuck on whether an Afghan hound named Katie Couric should wear eau de lavender or eau de peppermint when I remembered I had to write this post.

By this time tomorrow I expect to have that issue solved and to have moved on to the next, which will probably involve a goat and a climbing rose.

I don’t write as fast as Trollope.

***

* I’m sure that if Louisa May Alcott stopped loving cats,  she had to do it thousands of times.

** The phrase “A woman at my age and weight” is an allusion to Christopher Morley’s Parnassus on Wheels, a little book in which a thirty-nine-year-old woman gets tired of taking care of her bachelor brother and takes off with the owner of a horse-drawn bookstore who made a door-to-door stop by the farm and invites her to come along. When the brother catches up with them, he blesses her out:

“Look here, Helen,” said Andrew, “do you think I propose to have my
sister careering around the State with a strolling vagabond? Upon my
soul you ought to have better sense–and at your age and weight!…” ~ Christopher Morley, Parnassus on Wheels

I read Parnassus about fifty years ago and thought that phrase funny, and have waited all this time for an opportunity to use it.

***I know Ellen Goodman said this because it read it myself in her column in The Austin American-Statesman. She was one of my favorite columnists.

****

Images of authors from Wikipedia, public domain
Image of notepad by USA-Reiseblogger from Pixabay
Image of book cover from Amazon

Where Are We? Trowels Up!

by Helen Currie Foster

Try to imagine a mystery without its setting. What? You’re having trouble?

Open a mystery and be denied the setting. What? You’re getting irritated? Why?

We use our senses to smell, to see, to hear, to feel a setting. We LIVE in our own settings, with their dimensions of sight, smell, sound, touch, with plants to see and smell and touch, other humans to love or fear. We use all our senses to apprehend a setting, and we imagine with those senses when we engage in a mystery setting. A mystery without a setting? Our imaginations would feel so deprived.

And if we’re talking about a “regional” mystery without a setting—what’s the point? I read about Venice because I want to feel I’m there as well as follow Guido Brunetti around his favorite canals. If it’s one of Spencer Quinn’s  Chet and Bernie mysteries I want to ride with Bernie in his beat-up Porsche, with Chet in the front seat (his tongue hanging out of course), cruising through the Arizona desert.

Texas mysteries? Local color, please. Note that term “color,” that appeal to our senses! The color of eyes and landscapes, the sound of accents and music, the feel of dry wind or thunderstorms, the scent of salsa and barbecue, saddles and blankets, cedar and limestone, creek water and cypress trees. We want it all.

We mystery writers face so many decisions. Protagonist? Characters? Point(s) of view? Tenses? Oh yeah, the plot? But perhaps paramount? Setting.

At last year’s Bouchercon conference in Dallas, Elizabeth George told a rapt audience (including me) that in her Lynley series she begins with the setting. She described visiting various settings and how the characters emerged in her imagination—from the place.

Alexander McCall Smith agrees that in his novels, location is as important as the characters. “Place is often terribly important to us,” he said. “And to describe it is to describe our feelings for the world.”  Our feelings for the world! Or at least, for the world of that setting.

Smith describes how he begins a book: “I mentally write the first paragraph and, on occasion, the last paragraph. With these two elements in place, all that remains is to write the bits in-between. The first sentence is very important. For me, that can set the whole tone of the book, and once I have the first sentence the task of writing proves relatively easy.”

His first sentence usually drops us directly into the setting, as in To the Land of Long Lost Friends (Pantheon Books 2019):

“Precious Ramotswe, founder of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, doyenne of private investigators in Botswana (not that there were any others, apart from her assistant, Grace Makutsi), wife of Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni (garagiste and past chairman of the Botswana Motor Trades Association, citizen of Botswana)—that same Precious Ramotswe was sitting in the second row of chairs at the open-air wedding of Mr. Seemo Outule to Ms. Thato Kgwadi.”

The paragraph continues: “It was a hot day in October, a month of heat and unremitting thirst for the land and all that lived upon the land: the cattle, the wild animals, the small, almost invisible creatures that conducted their lives in the undergrowth or among the rocks, creatures whose very names had been forgotten now. They were all waiting for the rains…”

We know we’re in Botswana at an open-air wedding where we’ve learned of the sleuth, her partner, and her husband, but the rest of the paragraph tells us even more: it’s hot and dry October, a time of “unremitting thirst for the land and all that lived upon the land: the cattle, the wild animals, the small, almost invisible creatures that conducted their lives in the undergrowth or among the rocks…”

We’ve felt how the protagonist, Precious Ramotswe, lives and breathes awareness of her country, where all creatures—human and otherwise, even the invisible creatures whose names have been forgotten—are waiting for the rains. What an appeal to imagination! Maybe this setting has extra appeal for readers in central Texas who know all too well the unforgiving heat of August, its crunchy dry grass, cracks in the soil, and desperate deer, waiting for a rousing thunderstorm to refill dry water tanks and refresh even the “small, almost invisible creatures” that surround us.

So a mystery setting is much more than a GPS setting. Accuracy’s important, as Rhys Bowen emphasized in her presentation to HOTXSINC (Heart of Texas Sisters in Crime): the writer risks losing all credibility with mistakes in location or description. But the mystery setting must include how the characters feel about the setting—which reveals more about the characters.

Here’s the beginning of Josephine Tey’s To Love and Be Wise (copyright 1951; Scribner Paperback Fiction 1998), with her series protagonist, Alan Grant of Scotland Yard:

“Grant paused with his foot on the lowest step, and listened to the shrieking from the floor above. As well as the shrieks there was a dull continuous roar; an elemental sound, like a forest fire or a river in spate. As his reluctant legs bore him upwards he arrived at the inevitable deduction: the party was being a success.

“He was not going to the party. Literary sherry parties, even distinguished ones, were not Grant’s cup of tea. He was going to collect Marta Hallard and take her out to dinner…The roar of the party’s success came flooding out through the open doors on to the landing, and Grant paused to look at the yelling crowd asparagus-packed into the long Georgian room and to wonder how he was going to pry Marta out of it.”

Ever felt like that, dear reader? Ever dreaded having to walk into a “roaring success” of a party with a “yelling crowd asparagus-packed”? I’m betting most of us (with our share of introversion) have “reluctant legs” in such situations. On Tey’s first page we learn Grant’s a “presentable escort,” a Detective Inspector at Scotland Yard, and can “afford to dine at Laurent’s.” But his “reluctant legs” indicate how this privileged character feels about even a “distinguished” literary sherry party. By dropping us into this particular London setting Tey helps us identify with her protagonist by his reaction to that setting. We walk with his “reluctant legs” up those steps. We understand that he (probably like us) is there because he feels an obligation, and, despite his feelings, he’s a man who meets his obligations.

Setting’s critical for regional mysteries. “The setting may define the mystery: an Arizona book, a Missouri story, a Cape Cod [or a Texas] mystery. In regional mysteries, the setting is more than mere background. The setting influences the characters and plot. It drives the story.” (Emphasis added.)

Texas writer Tex Thompson pointed out in her recent presentation to HOTXSINC that one way to dial up the conflict in our mysteries is to dial up the contrast between the character and the setting.  For example, is the protagonist a fish out of water? In my Ghost Cat, the protagonist Alice practices law in a small Texas town but fears any firearm other than a flare gun and feels like a complete impostor on a horse.

One engaging archeological mystery dive is Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway Series set on the marshes of Norfolk, England. Ruth, a forensic archeologist, is often called to help local police when bones are found at construction sites. She feels many disconnects—unmarried mother of a daughter, slightly overweight, harassed by her university department head––but takes pride in her competence as a sharp-eyed and professional archeologist. She lives on a lonely road by the coastal saltmarsh, where water meets land, a liminal area with Bronze Age artifacts buried deep. Her love for this location drives the plot and enriches her character:

“Her favourite place. Beyond her front garden with its windblown grass and broken blue fence there is nothingness. Just miles and miles of marshland, sported with stunted gorsebushes and criss-crossed with small, treacherous streams…Ruth has absolutely no idea why she loves it so much.”

I wonder if archeology offers a challenge to our own imaginations. Just north of Austin is an archeological site including the “Gault Assemblage.” Very careful long-term excavation and documentation of the site now reveal human occupancy up to 20,000 years ago—much earlier than traditionally thought. The dates for human habitation in North and South America keep moving further and further back. And why wouldn’t early people have chosen this area? It’s on water…there’s chert available to chip into powerful tools…the nearby plains furnished buffalo. Similarly, recent breakthroughs in dating Neanderthal tools have pushed back dates for their culture by several hundred thousand years. Most artifacts of that age are lithic (rock points, rock knapping), and it takes sustained imagination and examination to understand what our ancestors were up to. It takes human imagination, staring at a biface point, looking at a reassembled cobble, to see the chipping techniques our ancestors developed, to begin to grasp the complex reality of their daily lives—their setting. Rebecca Wragg Sykes, Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art.

 In a way mystery-writing is archeological. In our imaginations we excavate clues from the past—perhaps an imagined past—to recreate what happened, or could have happened. We recreate in our imaginations what our characters saw, smelled, heard, felt…and did. Maybe the more richly we imagine the setting, the more the characters can come alive.

Okay, trowels up. Back to the trenches. Well, not archeological—but fingers on keyboards, pens on paper.

***

 

 

Helen Currie Foster is author of the Alice MacDonald Greer mystery series, her latest, Ghost Cat, was published in April 2020.  She is also author of The Bloody Bead, a Bullet Book Speed Read, co-written with Manning Wolfe.

Why Read Short Stories?

By N. M. Cedeño

If you don’t read short fiction, 2020 is the year to start. Busy, stressed, out of time, out of energy? Then short stories are for you. Here’s why:

Created with WordClouds.com

1. Finding the time to read isn’t a problem:

Even people with limited free time can find a few minutes to read a short story. While immersing readers in tightly woven plots, short fiction provides complete story arcs that can be consumed in minutes rather than the hours needed to read the average novel. Short stories may be read in small spurts rather than in long hauls, perfect for a lunch break or mental health break.

2. Short stories are the literary version of instant gratification:

Short stories are the chocolate cake of reading. photo from Pixabay.

Short fiction packs a powerful and entertaining punch into very few pages. By crafting concise prose to engage and captivate readers before quickly releasing them, short fiction authors grant even the busiest readers the sense of fulfillment that comes from finishing a work of fiction. Readers might feel bad that they never opened that massive tome on the nightstand, but a short story, quickly started and finished, gives readers a sense of accomplishment.

3. Find new authors within a favorite genre:

What if a reader wants to find a new author within a favorite genre? Maybe the book store and library only allow pick-up because of the pandemic, so no one can browse. Readers can browse by reading a short story collection. In one anthology, readers can try a dozen or more new authors and get a feel for how an author writes. Many novelists write short stories featuring their series characters for anthologies, collections, and magazines. These short stories give readers a chance to sample an author and meet characters before diving into a series.

from Pixabay

4. Try new genres or subgenres:

Readers can look to short fiction when they want to try something completely new. Anthologies, short story magazines, and e-zines contain samples of a wide variety of genres and subgenres of fiction. With magazines and e-zines filling a variety of niches, readers can get a taste of multiple genres for a low price. Some of these magazines provide sample stories on their websites or via newsletters for free. “Best of” anthologies collect award-winning stories in a variety of subgenres into one book. Reading a ‘best of’ anthology can introduce mystery readers to the year’s best science fiction, or science fiction readers to the year’s best horror. (See list below)

5. Build or rebuild a habit of reading:

Life gets busy, or even completely crazy, like this year. For some people, that causes reading to fall by the wayside. After falling out of the habit of daily reading, getting back into reading by diving into a novel might seem daunting. Short stories can provide a simpler, less time-demanding reintroduction to reading for those looking to establish the habit.

6. Perfect for emotionally or physically exhausted readers:

This year, 2020, has been hard on everyone emotionally and physically. If you’ve been trying to work, educate kids from home, care for the sick, and survive trying times without collapsing, starting a novel might seem an impossible task. For people low on energy, too exhausted to put forth the brain power a full-length novel might require, short stories are a better choice. Quick but meaningful bites of fiction like short stories can be a breath of fresh air for the exhausted mind.

Now you know why you should give short stories a try. Where do you find them?

Here is a nowhere-near-comprehensive list of mystery and science fiction short story magazines. Some provide sample stories on their websites or via newsletters. Check them out.

Don’t want magazines? How about books?

Try these anthology series. Your local library may have copies.

  • Best American Mystery Stories
  • Best American Mystery Stories of the Century
  • Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy
  • Best American Short Stories
  • The Best American Noir of the Century
  • The Best Science Fiction of the Year
  • The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror
  • The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy

Enjoy some short stories! They are perfect for 2020.

~~~~~

N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is currently working on a paranormal mystery series called Bad Vibes Removal Services. The second novel in the series, entitled Degrees of Deceit, came out in August 2019.  Ms. Cedeño is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter.

Book Review: Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do; Edited by Meredith Maran

by Renee Kimball

Meredith Maran decided to write a book about writing to show her “gratitude to writers everywhere.”  To do that, however, she needed information from at least twenty best-selling authors.  Their responses would form basis for the book and a portion of the final profits would be donated to the 826 National literacy outreach centers promoting reading and writing in underprivileged areas.  She hoped this extra incentive would entice the “twenty” to respond.

While Maran’s greatest worry was whether the popular selling authors would even acknowledge or ignore her plea, she found her worries groundless—every author she contacted fully participated.  The responses were beyond Maran’s wildest expectations.

Along with their replies, the authors also included a bit of personal information and a plethora of sage advice for new writers.  The result of Maran’s inquiries became,  Why We Write 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do.

While you will need to read the book to enjoy of the wealth of information, below a few of the authors’ replies are highlighted.

 Isabel Allende

“I need to tell a story. It’s an obsession.  Each story is a seed inside of me that starts to grow and grow, like a tumor, and I have to deal with it sooner or later. Why a particular story?  I don’t know when I begin. That I learn much later.” (p. 4).

“It’s worth the work to find the precise word that will create a feeling of describe a situation. When you feel the story is beginning to pick up rhythm—then you know the book is going somewhere, and you just have to find it, and bring it, word by word into this world . . . (p.11-12).

David Baldacci

“If writing were illegal, I’d be in prison.  I can’t not write. It’s a compulsion.” (p. 16).

“When the sentences and the story are flowing, writing is better than any drug.  It doesn’t just make you feel good about yourself.  It makes you feel good about everything.” (p. 16).

“It can go the other way too. . . But actually, sitting there and conceiving story ideas and plotting—it’s the coolest profession in the world.  I’m paid to daydream.” (p. 16).

“Whether you’re writing a novel or a cover letter. . . shorter is always better.” (p. 23).

“The upside of the current state of publishing:  it’s a lot easier to self-publish than it ever was.  Publish on the Internet, or on demand, or self-publish in print—but whatever you do, if you want to share your story, publish it” (p. 23).

“Writing for your readers” is a euphemism for “writing what you think people will buy.” Don’t fall for it! Write for the person you know best: yourself.”  (p. 23).

Sue Grafton

“I write because in 1962 I put in my application for a job working in the children’s department at Sears, and they never called me back.  Seriously, I write because it’s all I know how to do.  Writing is my anchor and my purpose.” (p. 52).

“My best time as a writer is any day, or any moment, when the work’s going well and I’m completely absorbed in the task at hand.  The hardest time is when it’s not, and I’m not.  The latter tend to outnumber the former.  But I’m a persistent little cuss.  And I soldier on.” (p. 52).

“Most days when I sit down at my computer, I’m scared half out of my mind.  I’m always convinced that my last book was my last book, that my career is at an end, that I’ll never be able to pull off another novel, that my success was a fleeting illusion, and my hopes for the future are already dead.  Dang!  All this drama and it’s not even nine a.m.” (p. 53).

“Mystery writers are the neurosurgeons of literature.  Or maybe magicians.  We work by slight of hand.” (p. 57).

“There are no secrets and there are no shortcuts.  As an aspiring writer, what you need to know is that learning to write is self-taught, and learning to write well takes years.” (p. 60).

Ann Patchett

“I write because I swear to God, I don’t know how to do anything else.  From the time I was a little child, I knew that writing was going to be my life. . . I put all my eggs in one basket, which has resulted in a great number of eggs.” (p. 185).

“Don’t be afraid to make money writing the kinds of things you’d never write for the fun of it. There’s no shame in earing a living, whatever your write, even catalog copy or fluffy magazine articles, makes you a better writer.” (p. 192).

 Jane Smiley

“I write to investigate things I’m curious about.” (p. 206).

“A novelist’s job is to integrate information with the feelings and the stories of her characters, because a novel is about the alternation of the inner world and the outer world, what happens and what the characters fell about it.  There’s no reason to write a novel unless you’re going to talk about the inner lives of your characters.  Without that, the material is dry.  But without events and information, the novel seems subjective and pointless.” (p. 206).

“When I am writing, more than any other emotion, I feel excited.” (p. 209).

“Don’t write the book you think a publisher will want to publish.  Write the book you want to research and the book you want to read.” (p.215).

Maran’s small book is well worth reading and you just might find a kindred spirit within its pages.

Allende—obsession
Baldacci—compulsion
Grafton—writing is my anchor and my purpose
Patchett—can’t do anything else
Smiley—to investigate things

***

*826 National is a nonprofit organization that provides strategic leadership, administration, and other resources to ensure the success of its network of seven—soon to be eight—writing and tutoring centers.

Photos courtesy of Amazon

***

A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are reading and writing. She is an active Animal Advocate and fosters both dogs and cats and works with various organizations to find them forever homes.

More Than There Was Before

When you reread a classic
you do not see more in the book than you did before;
you see more in you than was there before.  ~ Clifton Fadiman

*

The first few years I studied Romeo and Juliet with my high school freshmen, when I was in my early twenties, I followed the Star-Cross’d Lovers school of thought: Romeo and Juliet, two innocents, their eyes meet across a crowded room, she teaches the torches to burn bright, he’s the god of her idolatry, he wants to be a glove upon her hand, she wants to cut him out in little stars—but the cruel world conspires to bring them down.

The way Juliet’s father tells her to thank him no thankings nor proud him no prouds, but get to that church on Thursday and marry Paris or he’ll drag her thither on a hurdle—what kind of father says that to a thirteen-year-old girl? Parents don’t listen.

The kids might be a little quick to act, and goodness knows Romeo should have waited to talk to Friar Laurence before buying that poison. But who can expect patience of such romantic souls? A sad story indeed.

When I hit thirty, and had several years of teaching under my belt, I shifted to the What Can You Expect When Teenagers Behave Like Brats? philosophy: Romeo and Juliet, a couple of kids in a hurry, he doesn’t even bother to drop in on his family, just runs off to crash Capulet’s party, proposes to a girl before the first date, insists on a jumped-up wedding, then gets himself kicked out of the city, and he still hasn’t been home for dinner.

She mouths off to her father, tells him what she will and will not do, and that’s right after he’s told her what a nice husband he’s picked out for her. I mean, if you were a parent and your daughter spoke to you in that tone of voice, would you pat her hand and ask what’s wrong, or would you remind her who’s boss here?

If Romeo had just gone home in the first place, like any decent boy would, instead of running off with his friends, this mess wouldn’t have occurred.

In fact, since Old Montague and Old Capulet had that very afternoon been sworn to keep the peace, they might have arranged a marriage between Romeo and Juliet–formed an alliance that way—and the whole of Verona would have lived happily ever after, and Montague would have been spared the expense of a gold Juliet statue. Paris might have been a little put out at being jilted, but he’d have gotten over it. Kids! They don’t think.

When I hit forty, however, I developed the dogma of the Meddlesome Priest. Friar Laurence has no business performing a secret marriage between two minors without parental consent. He says he wants to promote peace, but he isn’t a diplomat. His field is pharmacology.

Furthermore, when Juliet informs him she’s about to acquire an extra husband, why doesn’t he go right then to her father and tell the man she’s married? Capulet wouldn’t have been pleased, but he’d have gotten over it. Instead, the Friar gives Juliet a sedative and stuffs her into a tomb with a passel of relatives in varying stages of disrepair.

The man appears to mean well, but it’s also possible he intends to take credit for being the brains behind the peace accords. Bunglesome or corrupt—the end is the same. With role models like him, are we surprised that children run amok?

Soon after the last epiphany, I ended my stint as a classroom teacher. I’ve wondered what would have happened if I’d continued to study Romeo and Juliet year after year. Would I have had new insights? Developed new interpretations? Uncovered new layers of meaning?

How much more would I have discovered in Shakespeare’s words? How much more would I have shared with my students?

Would I have continued to teach them respect and reverence? Would I have led them down the primrose path of dalliance and left them mired in levity?

How much more would I have given my students?

How much more would I have seen in myself?

***

Kathy Waller blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly. Her latest publication is STABBED, written with Manning Wolfe. She lives in Austin and is working on a novel.

Book Review: The Wife, by Meg Wolitzer

 

by Renee Kimball

“The moment I decided to leave him, the moment I thought, enough, we were thirty-thousand feet above the ocean, hurtling forward but giving the illusion of stillness and tranquility. Just like our marriage.”

In 2003, Scribner published The Wife by Meg Wolitzer—a short novel of 219 pages, and it packs a punch.  For those women of a certain age and time, it is a knock-out punch that is visceral and blinding.  Wolitzer’s writing is exacting, deeply pointed, writing that draws the reader into the heart of the story, towards the character—the wife.

It is a story of women born in the ’40s and ’50s who were expected to became wives and mothers—the only worthy feminine social contract of the age.  The goal was respectable: women, as mere women, had no other option for fulfillment than as wife and mother.  Many women today cannot relate to this story; it will come at them like a foreign language, no meaning, gibberish—make-believe murmurings, not acceptable, unbelievable.

For this story describes the kind of woman who went to college to obtain a MRS. Degree; if she didn’t marry, she graduated to become a secretary or teacher or nurse until she found Mr. Right.  Mr. Right was enough for a life’s goal; there really wasn’t anything else needed or desired.

Although women had earned the right to vote in 1920, during the ’40s and ’50s they were still somehow something less; feminists’ rising voices were in the future.  A successful marriage—a good husband, a home, children—was the purpose of womanhood.  It was a long time before society would accept that women might want more, or could contribute outside the home, offer something other than what had been preordained by a male dominated world.

It is hard to imagine that being a woman during that time offered limited life choices and failed to offer much that could be achieved without male approval.  The gender differences were deeper then, more difficult, more ingrained.  Being a wife, the wife of a successful man, keeping a home, raising children, was the goal.

The Wife is the story of a woman who becomes the wife of a “great” novelist—a man who wants it all—sexual conquest, notoriety, money, lasting fame—and her part nurturing and ensuring that those dreams come true.  She sits on the sidelines through the years, willingly relinquishing the loss of herself and her own innate talent as a writer.

 

“He was Joseph Castleman, one of those men who own the world.  You know the type I mean: those advertisements for themselves, those sleepwalking giants, roaming the earth and knocking over other men, women, furniture, villages.  Why should they care? . . There are many varieties of this kind of man: Joe was the writer version, a short, wound-up, slack-bellied novelist who almost never slept, . . . who had no idea how to take care of himself or anyone else. . .” (p. 11).

 

Meg Wolitzer, by Larry D. Moore. CC BY-SA-3.0. Via Wikipedia.

In this marriage, the wife doesn’t shrink from exposing her own weaknesses and her acquiescence to play her part—she proclaims her personal failures loudly—admitting surrendering her life to a man who basically exploited her mind, talents, and body to enrich his own life.  She quietly works and goes along to get along; she plays nice and gives up everything without a fight.  She blames herself, stating she was lazy, she was too easy; she is remorseful she was not stronger, more forceful, more demanding of her worthiness.

In The Wife, Joan is a young earnest co-ed at Smith, enraptured by her mesmerizing married English professor, Joe Castleman.  An affair ensues, and Joe divorces and abandons his wife and newborn daughter.  Joe—with Joan in tow- moves to New York to pursue becoming a famous author.  While Joan is forced to work to sustain them; Joe stays in their squalid apartment with roaches in attendance and writes his novel.

 

“It kills me to say it, but I was his student when we met. There we were in 1956, a typical couple, Joe intense and focused and tweedy, me a fluttering budgie circling him again and again. . .None of us was in the thick of anything in 1956 we understood that we were being kept separate from the world that mattered. . .We were being preserved for some other purpose, willingly suspending ourselves like specimens in agar for four years.” (p. 38-39).

Throughout it all, the marriage is held together by Joan’s efforts, through the birthing of Joe’s first novel, the further birthing of three children that follow, long years of Joe’s constant infidelity, and Joe’s unending neediness and whininess, and at last, the attainment of his final monumental success, the Helsinki Prize for literature.

Withstanding all the humiliation, the pain, the children and attendant issues, and her sheer monstrous personal sacrifices —Joan remains stoic, supportive, ever willing to smooth, console, and face whatever crisis assaults them all over the long years.  Joan never strays, she doesn’t waiver, she lives to make her husband successful and proud, she never says no to his demands no matter how outrageous, even if those demands degrade her morally, ethically, while crushing her belief in herself, she remains steadfast in her purpose—Joe’s dream—that the world acknowledge him as a literary author, a writer of great fiction, memorable for all time.

 

“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.” (p. 183).

 

In the face of her personal loss of her creative self, Joan passes that talent on to her husband gladly, keeping silent, working tirelessly to enrich his life and career in confirmation of their union as man and wife.  As Joe’s fame increases, she benefits and does not deny that; yet, she suffers in silence, knowing there is more to the literary success than Joe’s brilliance: it is her brilliance that brought this about for him, out of love, adoration, anger at his infidelity, even her own deep seated confusion, she isn’t really sure.

As Joan ages, becoming angry with herself, with her silence, with Joe, with the life of secrecy that she allowed to grow layer by layer around her, angry at the lies that kept the children outside her life safely unaware of the truth behind their father’s prodigious output, their mother’s silent necessary secret.  Joan knows that speaking the truth at this late date would not only destroy their carefully crafted life, splinter their family, eradicate their hard-won position in the elite literary circles, but destroy her life’s mission—the belief that Joe is a great novelist.  In turn, the truth would then erase her as well.

All throughout the marriage she remains his rock and muse—but she is more, so much more, and we do not know the extent of her worth until the end of the story.  While she simmers and her distaste for her life grows out of control, her repulsion, her self-loathing rises even more, and she reaches the decision to break free for whatever time she is left, reaching towards a life without Joe, a life of freedom.

Not all women can relate to this story—it seems farfetched that a woman would give up her intellectual gifts so easily to live in the shadow of a well-known author, allowing him the spotlight, the adulation, the honors.  Sadly, many know this tale in one form or another, and it exists in many relationships even now, but we hope that there are more options today for these bright and talented women.

But there is so much more to Joe and Joan’s story in the end.  It will not be spoiled for you here; read it for yourself.  The Wife is not a novel for all women, but it is not so narrow a tale that the subtleties and nuances of the relationship have no meaning—it is a worthy read.

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**The Finlandia Prize (Finlandia-palkinto) is a literary award in Finland by the Finnish Book Foundation. It is awarded annually to the author of the best novel written by a Finnish citizen (Finlandia Award), children’s book (Finlandia Junior Award), and non-fiction book (Tieto-Finlandia Award). The award sum (as of 2010) is 30,000 euros (previously 100,000 Finnish Marks). Works may be in Finnish or Swedish but non-Finnish citizens are not allowed to enter. However, in 2010 the Finnish Book Foundation made an exception for a nominee.

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The movie adaptation of The Wife stars Glenn Close and Jonathan Pryce.

Book Photo: Courtesy by Amazon.com

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A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are reading and writing. She is an active Animal Advocate and fosters and rescues both dogs and cats and works with various organizations to find them forever homes.