Sunday, October 2, 2016

Literary Wives #23!!

American Housewife by Helen Ellis
Here is the NPR review of Helen Ellis' second book in 15 years.
The NPR reviewer obviously liked this one much better than I did.
Overall, this collection was "okay" for me, 
but some of the more gruesome stories were definitely NOT "my cup of tea," as they say. 
I admit that I was fascinated by this cover image. 
What a hoot! Especially the can-sized rollers. 

Be sure to check out the reviews 
of the other co-hosting bloggers:
Naomi @ Consumed by Ink
Kay @ whatmeread
And last, but by no means least, our newest co-host,
Kate @ Kate Rae Davis 


Check us out on Facebook!

Access all our previous reviews on my Literary Wives page!

I really enjoyed the first story, "What I Do All Day." 
There were some gems in here. For example, the first sentence:
Inspired by Beyoncé, I stallion-walk to the toaster. (3)
That's funny. 
(Though not as funny to me as it evidently is to many others! :))
And this woman is obviously beyond OCD:
Fearing cold and flu season, 
I fist-bump the credit card signature pad. 
Back home, I get a sickening feeling and am relieved 
to find out it is just my husband's coat 
hung the wrong way in a closet. (3)
Oh, yeah...thank goodness! Honestly, I had to roll my eyes at this! My thought? Oh, good, it's actually hung up and in a closet! Great! That's progress! This first story describes her preparation for a party she 'and her husband' are throwing that night. I did laugh at her observations:
I see everyone out and face the cold hard fact that no one will ever load my dishwasher right...
I fix myself a hot chocolate because it is a gateway drug to reading.
I think I couldn't love my husband more, and then he vacuums all the glitter. (5)
This story was indicative of many of these stories, in that it described the mundane activities and yet also some of the bright moments. I had to nod and say "Awww..." about her husband vacuuming! :)

The second story, "The Wainscoting War," was rather entertaining until it got a bit grisly for me. I can indeed see how neighbors could disagree over a common area's decor, and although I can easily imagine how neighbors might bicker back and forth without ever meeting face to face or communicating directly as adults should do, and this could escalate, it did become ludicrous...and then just downright grisly. I think I was particularly turned off because the grisly part involved pet kitties...and you should know by now how I feel about kitties! I became disillusioned at that point, and turned off.

"Dumpster Diving with the Stars" is the third story and probably one of my favorites. A down-and-out author takes a friend's suggestion and participates in a 'reality show' of the same name. I did chuckle several times as I read this. Firstly, I despise 'reality shows' and when I was still watching TV the first three or four had just started running and I watched each of them once. That was enough for me. Besides, they're basically all scripted anyway, so much as WWF, it is NOT spontaneous anyway, and is nothing but DRAMA! Personally, I work to eliminate as much drama as I can from my daily life. The last thing I want is more of it, especially the back-biting two-faced insincere behaviors depicted and dramatized to the max as portrayed on these shows. I did, however, find the analysis of the interviewer's intentions and the Scientologist couple's responses and behaviors a bit fascinating. This writer realizes that as a "reality game show fan,...I'm manipulated to root for certain contestants." And as she has a major lead going into the final challenge, she realizes "[t]he producers aren't happy about it." After all, she's just a writer... I did get a kick out of her list of Cardinal Reality Rules--#7 of which is "Forge unlikely friendships." 

"Southern Lady Code" had some humorous entries, and probably truisms, as Ellis is from Alabama! 
"You are so bad!" is Southern Lady code for: 
That is the tackiest thing I've ever heard and I am delighted that you shared it with me.
"She's a character" means drunk.
"She's outdoorsy" means lesbian. (74)

"Hello! Welcome to Book Club" describes a book club that is nothing like I have ever experienced--thankfully! You must select a 'book club name' and Jane, the club's "grande dame" is "ninety years young." She pays for everything for everyone in the book club. Things like an education at Smith, or fertility treatments, or... It seems there are NO secrets among these women! Rather creepy overall. I much prefer my own book club, thank you very much! 

The first sentence of "The Fitter": "The fitter is mine." And continues...
Myrtle Babcock can get her flabby pancake tits out of his face.
He's sizing her up in her ill-fitting turtleneck that's off-white and thin 
because it's been through the wash too many times.
Her "nude" athletic bra shows through like she's smuggling ferrets. (95)
This specific passage made me laugh because...I once saw a woman who worked for the same institution where I worked who was dressed in just such a 'white' turtleneck but who didn't even deign to wear a bra! She was older and her boobs sagged worse than mine do (at age 60 and after nursing three children) and she acted as if she had no idea how she looked. It was ridiculous. I mentally would shake my head and wonder what she thought when she looked in a mirror. How could she not see what the rest of the world saw? (But then I am the same woman who went to work one day with my shirt on wrong side out...so...) I saw her a total of three times during the years I worked there and each time she wore the same turtleneck and no bra. I was amazed that evidently no one felt uncomfortable in her presence at work. I sure would have. Not that I think it is a must to wear a bra, that is, in my opinion, your decision to make, but to wear a rather sheer top where your nipples are sticking out, seemingly at least an inch, and NOTHING is left to the imagination, at work, in an office, that is unacceptable. Perhaps that is just my own quirky opinion. 
A good bra is fine, but a great bra is life changing.
It gives you the confidence of a homecoming queen.
It's a tiara for your ta-tas. (97)
So it is for these reasons that The Fitter is "pilgrimage-worthy" and women travel hundreds of miles for his services. (Confession: I have NEVER been truly 'fitted' for a bra by anyone, so I have no idea. And I have NEVER called breasts "ta-tas" or any other nickname...they're breasts, just as a penis is a penis. Honestly, I just don't get our aversion to the anatomically-correct names. It's much simpler, in my opinion.) 

We learn that this woman just happens to be The Fitter's SECOND wife, although she is protective as hell and I initially believed she was his first/only wife! (No wonder she's particularly protective, eh?) Though by the story's end we learn she is gravely ill and is trying to hide it from The Fitter/her husband. Perhaps she believed he would "dump" her if he discovered she couldn't work with him and sell the bras? I don't know, but she is doing her best to hang on...to her life and her husband. She is upset when she notices that Myrtle has removed ALL her clothing under the kimono, not just her turtleneck and bra. I did have to laugh when she noticed that Myrtle has also "painted her toes." (I'm sure she means 'toenails,' not actual "toes.")
A French pedicure is an investment. 
A French pedicure is what some women get to go on their honeymoons. 
When The Fitter and I went on our honeymoon, I had my toenails painted red. 
Red is what good wives wear. French pedicures make your toes look like fingers. 
You look grabby. French pedicures are for man thieves. (101)
I did laugh at this line of reasoning. I've never thought of red nail polish as being what "good wives wear," since a friend of mine, as well as her husband, calls it "fuck-me red" when she's wearing red polish! :) The wife admits
...I know I'm not fine. The sicker I get, the more business booms. (107)
It seems The Fitter is quite a catch for any woman in this area--he's got money! And each one is already hoping to be wife #3. Geez. Heartless. Cruel. Greedy.

In "How to Be a Grown-Ass Lady" Ellis lists 8 steps:
Step 1: Take your husband's money.
Step 2: Lose yourself in marriage. 
Make love to your husband sometimes two times a week.
Remember what a good kisser he is. 
Touch places and perform acts that he wouldn't want you to write that you touched and performed.
Enjoy the embarrassment. Learn that life's more fun when you're loose. (119)
Step 3: Make your own mantra.
Think up a new and improved list of writing commandments.
Step 4: Support the literary community.
Step 5: Become a gay man's arm candy.
Step 6: Buy art.
Step 7: Become a muse.
Step 8: Develop a signature look.
It is worth noting that each section after the first one ends with "Make love to your husband when he says..." However, at the very end of Step 8: 
Ask your husband, "Will you still love me if I quit writing for good?"
Make love to him, no matter what he says. (129)
This is about a writer who sold one novel and it has been six years and she is working 5o hours per week as a secretary, then finally quits when her husband says he'll support them so she can write full time...etc. 

"Dead Doormen" was my least favorite story. I was reminded of How To Be a Good Wife by Emma Chapman. Her mother-in-law was the one who decided she was acceptable as a wife. This occurred as a result of their first meeting at his parent's home. His mother spilled some red wine on her cream-colored carpet, and she immediately went down onto her knees and used "a bottle of cleanser [she] kept in her purse" and her napkin to clean it. 
She said to my husband, "This one's quick. Prepared. Appreciative. Thorough. 
She'll get rid of a mess before you can make it." (134)
I'm feeling a bit nauseous after reading this. So to be a good wife, you must simply clean up after him, BEFORE he makes a mess? Yikes! They inherit his parent's apartment. The kitchen is the only room in this four-bedroom apartment that this woman calls "her own." She replaces broken appliances "with what I can afford off the Internet with [her] debit card allowance," admitting she "saved eight years for a commercial chest freezer." This woman is a good wife who honors and obeys, though 
My husband is cheap. He shouts. He doesn't like me to go out. (139)
Oh, boy. What a life....not! But it seems she does more than just 'honor and obey." She actually 'takes care' of the doormen. Boy, does she...and probably not at all in the way you are thinking...trust me, it's nothing sexual. Then they 'return' to her. As ghosts, I guess. I did not enjoy this one at all. My reaction in one word? Sick. 

"Pageant Protection" was another sick one, though I personally do not in any way enjoy or condone dressing little girls up to look like adults and parading them in public to earn trophies and titles. But I also could never condone someone kidnapping a girl from her parents! Even if the child herself had requested it? 

"Take it From Cats" was very short. The ending was my favorite part:
If you're not interested, don't look interested. You don't have to chase very bird that you see. (160)
So very true...

"My Novel is Brought to You By the Good People at Tampax" deals with a writer selling her soul to have her novel published. :) Tampax is willing to publish her novel...with just a few unwritten requirements: she must market the novel and make sure it sells a certain amount...or... Let's just say that her husband has disappeared and she must now "earn" him back... There were some parts of this which rang true. I do know that one publisher actually sequestered an author in a hotel and the editor would visit him each evening, taking what the author had written that day and returning the edited pages from the previous day's output. This continued until the book was finished. I know an author whose book was retitled by the publisher because it sounded much like another best-selling book's title. Another author told me that she had written a much more far-reaching and "happy ending" to her novel, but the publisher removed it, stating it was too happy. So I do know that publishers can get a bit, uhm, overbearing... But, conversely, one of the very best books I've read isn't selling much at all because the author self-published and is struggling to market his book. So I'm sure these are all issues and probabilities to be considered.

As the NPR reviewer noted in this review mentioned above, several stories in this book dealt with writers experiencing difficulty books published...and this is only the second book Ellis has published in 15 years. Is there a bit of autobiographical material included here? I certainly hope not in the "Dead Doormen" or "The Wainscoting War"! But perhaps there is in some of the others, especially the last one. 

Now for our Literary Wives question: 
What does this book say about wives or about the experience of being a wife?

One story describes a wife as "committed," though that wife killed people, in the belief that she was helping her husband. But I doubt he would even care, since he was obviously not in the least bit interested in truly sharing his life with her, he really just wanted someone to clean the house, cook, and wait on him hand and foot. Unlike Marta in How to Be a Good Wife, however, I am relatively certain this wife in "Dead Doormen" was undoubtedly suffering from psychoses! Though both of these men, Hector in HtBaGW and this man, seem to simply desire someone to be "the perfect wife," staying home and keeping the house spotlessly clean and cooking and serving her husband. Though there are other husbands who are depicted more as partners in other stories. 

In many of these stories a wife is performing the most mundane of everyday activities: grocery shopping, dusting, cooking, organizing the household, etc. And as a result of all this seemingly inane work, there are some enjoyable times, when husband and wife seem to work together to some degree. When the husband vacuums the glitter after a party, or offers to support them both so the wife can quit her secretarial job to become a full-time writer. 

I particularly appreciated the Scientologist actors who were married and participating in a reality game show. It was rather obvious that they were doing so to prove false the rumors circulating regarding his gender/sexuality as being not entirely hetero... I felt it forced her to consider to what lengths she might go to help her own husband, whether in a similar situation or even something quite different. And to consider the fact that her husband was supporting her decision to participate in this seemingly inane endeavor, all in the name of 'research.' This exemplified the effects of media upon individuals who are "famous" and in the limelight. Once rumors take hold it can ruin people, regardless of the veracity of such 'gossip.' And, really, where is the line drawn for media interference? It seems there are no lines any more. I remember an NPR segment about this very subject. Supposedly, the first time someone's personal life was made public and ruined a famous person was Gary Hart's presidential nomination bid in the 1980's. One name: Donna Rice. This was the first time such personal information was used to destroy a man's career. At least in politics. Especially presidential politics. But there have certainly been many more since then. I admired the Scientologist's wife for helping her husband in this way, or at least trying. 

In the last story about Tampax publishing a book, I did appreciate the fact that this woman was determined to earn her husband back, no matter what it required! That is dedication and commitment! 

To be a full-time stay-at-home wife when there are no children to care for might be a challenge for some, especially if there isn't much money. But even if there is enough money, some women just need to work outside the home to be happy and healthier. Neither one is wrong or right, this is a choice each woman/couple must make. However, someone must do all those mundane routine activities/tasks, so either a couple will share duties or one of them will be burdened with virtually all of them, or they will hire help. I was a stay-at-home mother for 13 years and loved it, but many friends would ask me how I could do it. They were unable to even imagine being at home all day long with their children. Some had tried and were just too unhappy. What works for one doesn't work for the other. It seems most of these women in American Housewife were at home but without children...and I could see how that might be a strain for both the wife and partner. In my opinion, couples must be willing to figure out what works best for them both. 

Ellis rarely names her protagonist or her partner in these stories. 
I feel this lends even more of a disconnected feeling to the characters and their stories. 
It is, I think, more difficult for a reader to connect to unnamed characters overall. 
Would you agree? 

I can't say I got much from reading this one. 
It was just "okay" and I would not recommend rushing to it,
though I know others have loved it. 
It just didn't resonate much for me. 

Join us on 
Monday, December 5th 
for our impressions of 
Mrs. Hemingway 
by Naomi Wood
 This will be especially 
interesting since 
Literary Wives
read and reviewed 
The Paris Wife 
by Paula McClain
over two years ago! 


Happy reading
--Lynn

11 comments:

  1. Oh, but the wife was upset when the husband vacuumed up the glitter! I think this one specialized in snarkiness, and I didn't get much from it for our club, but Emily saw a lot more than I did.

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    1. Huh. Well, if she was upset by it, I missed that! :)

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    2. I read this the same way Lynn did. "I don't think I can love my husband more and then he vacuums up the glitter." which is to say "I don't think I'm capable of more love toward my husband, and then he does something worthy of even more love."

      Agree with Kay - SO much snark. You have to dig beneath it for any meaning, which is an interpretative gymnastics that is a little exhausting (and probably why my post went on and on ...)

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  2. The choice between staying home or working outside the home is what I ended up concentrating on, because it is what I know. I know that staying at home works for us, but not for others. I also know people who would like to stay home, but decide not to because they feel "guilty" staying home, like they're not contributing enough. I believe this is a symptom of the fact that women's choices these days still are not easy, equal, or without societal pressure.
    I definitely agree that everyone should do what works for them. But then the rest of us have to accept it and not criticize it.

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    1. Bingo, Naomi! Sometimes that is the most difficult part...just letting go of our own feeling of "right" or "wrong" for other women...

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  3. It seemed like the majority of these women were idle, or if they had jobs, they didn't really consider them important. For example, the writers were either having difficulty writing or had just given up, and the woman with the feud about the decor started out with a job but lost it because of her obsession with her fight. None of these people seem to have enough to do. I don't think Ellis is making statements about housewives in general, here.

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    1. I'm not sure what statement(s) she was making, so as usual, just state my interpretation. :) Perhaps, like Naomi, I simply concentrated on what I know and therefore what I could connect with. Since there wasn't much I felt I connected with overall.

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  4. I am fascinated by the cover too and that's pretty much the reason I want to read it. I didn't know there are grisly stuff in this one though, so I think I will stay away from it and not let the cover enchant me any more.

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    1. Nothing struck me as grisly. Snarky or satirical are better words. It reads like a McSweeney's essay or an article from The Onion. If you're into that kind of sarcastic and wryly funny social critique, I think it's a good read. The cover represents that well -- a woman who is modern (the pink hair, the clothing) and cheeky, but also very image-focused and bored.

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    2. I guess everyone has their own definition for grisly. A woman murdering and then cutting the victim's body into little pieces that are then being taken out literally bit by bit? That is grisly to me. Yuck! I am turned off by such imagery/descriptions, so perhaps that is why I didn't feel it was just sarcasm--I am too grossed out. Just varied interpretations, which is what makes discussion so valuable! What disgusts one reader entertains another.

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  5. I am totally with you on reality shows! I watched for the first few years they came out, and then I was done. I don't understand why they are still popular. And I agree with you on the book club story. It didn't make sense to me because it was completely unlike any of the book clubs I have ever attended. I'm not quite sure what she was trying to say with that one.

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