Monthly Archives: June 2006

While I Was Gone by Sue Miller

Ballantine Books (May 12, 2000), 304 pages

This book, I got when we stopped over to have lunch at Cooma, driving from Jindabyne to Canberra. I couldn’t resist a quaint old second hand bookshop bargain. This book is packaged and presented as a thriller novel. Raves such as ‘…a beautiful and frightening book, one that many readers will find difficult to forget’ and ‘Gripping, close to the bone fiction’ are printed all over the front and back covers. With this, I started reading with the expectations of a good scare.

However, as the story unfolded, I found myself breezing through the pages, hoping that the next page or chapter would finally be ‘scary’. So its not at all something ‘thrilling.’

Pace of the book is moderately dragging, picking up only ¾ of the way. I finished the book feeling initially disappointed because it did not deliver its promise of being frightening (now I know to take raves with a grain of salt). Maybe it Was scary, but I grew up on R.L Stine and Christopher Pike novels so nothing is too gory for me. But on hindsight, the book overall conveyed excellent values that we can get from our life’s crises.

In the 1960’s, Jo Becker found herself in a suffocating situation. She married early as a result of ‘living together’ being considered outlandish at that time. The marriage wasn’t working out, (good husband, good wife– they were just too young)  and soon she felt the immediate need to flee. She ran away from her husband and her family and took the bus to Cambridge, Mass.

There, simply because she didn’t want anyone to trace her, she changed her name and stayed in a college house together with 5 other people. All these people had different characters, but overall they were nice. Especially one of the 2 girls, Dana, who took an immediate liking to Jo. Soon, Dana and Jo had a special friendship, although it seemed a little one sided, because Dana was open and lighthearted and adored Jo, but Jo, (then going by the name Felicia), was quite wary and didn’t divulge much of her past because she just didn’t want to be traced by her family or husband, as she was enjoying her new life. For the next several months, life was good to Jo. She waited tables at the nearby bar while her housemates were trying to finish their majors. Then one day, Dana was found brutally murdered inside their house. That was the end of their happy days, and after a number of investigations with no leads, the case was closed.

Life goes on and the book starts 30 years after the ‘roaring 60’s incident’. Jo has remarried—happily, to a preacher, Daniel, and has 3 grown daughters. She has been practicing veterinary medicine in their quiet little town of Adams Mills. Then a couple moves in to town, and she was delightfully surprised to know that the newcomer is Eli Mayhew, one of the housemates she had.

After several rendezvous (almost leading to an affair) with Eli, he one day confesses that he murdered Dana. Jo tells her husband this, and it rocks their marriage (for she also confessed to the attraction) and she decides to involve the police. Jo’s charges weren’t that strong, especially since she cannot present any evidence against a crime that happened almost 30 years ago. When the police questioned Eli, he denied ever confessing the murder, and turned the story against her. (That Jo only turned him over because she was humiliated when He did not respond to Her sexual advances). In no time, the case was closed again, and after a rough patch, Jo’s marriage with Daniel heals and she learns to move on, once again with life.


A non-climatic plot but I appreciate the realness and consistency Sue Miller gives her characters. Jo, for example, has always been elusive, and unconsciously unable to form any extremely close relationships with anyone—not even her daughters. She is a bit of an escapist, learning early on that she can run away from her problems (as she did with her first marriage), and throughout the story, when she is faced with an issue, running away often crosses her mind. She is also perfectly human, being bored with her marriage with the town pastor, hence when Eli first came into town, she indulged herself with a few fantasies of “what if’s”, but never actively acted on it. She also wasn’t your typical pastor’s wife. She was not at all religious, didn’t go to church,  and did not meddle with her husband’s affairs. The husband, though a pastor, wasn’t spared from getting hurt and jealous, when Jo confessed that prior to Eli disclosing that he is a murderer, she was actually attracted to him. He was cold to her for weeks, and when Jo’s mother had a minor accident, he suggested that Jo’s going to her mother’s house would do them a good break. Their 3 daughters, they all had different characters, each of them charming in their own ways, and also gave headaches in their own separate ways.


One of the story’s focus, is change—the adage is true, its never too late to change. We may be affected by our past and mistakes, but we are not defined by them. From time to time, in life, we need drastic changes to get us out of a depressing situation (Jo’s running away from 1st marriage). And no matter how “used to” we think we are with ourselves, we will never truly know our being unless we have been subject to certain circumstances. And that to move on, we must first forgive and accept ourselves as what we truly are.


The last paragraph of this book summarized it really beautifully:


“My wish that they (Eli and his wife) move away will, apparently, not be granted.

But perhaps this is all to the good. Perhaps its best to live with the possibility that around any corner, at any time, may come the person who reminds you of your own capacity to surprise yourself, to put at risk everything that’s dear to you. Who reminds you of the distances we have to bridge to begin to know anything about one another. Who reminds you that what seems to be—even about yourself—may not be. That like him, you need to be forgiven.

I tell myself its all to the good, anyway. Still, when I see him, I always turn away, as if I don’t recognize him. As if I don’t know who he is. And so far, he does too.”



The Bride Stripped Bare (Anonymous)/ Nikki Gemmel

Harper Perennial;2004, 373 pages
“Vita Sackville-West described herself as an iceberg and said her husband could only see what was above the water’s surface–he had no idea of the huge mass below. She speculated it was the reason their marriage worked. What relationship could survice the shock of absolute candor?” –Nikki Gemmell

Been hearing about this controversial bestseller for a long time, and it was only fitting that my husband, who had no idea what this book was about, bought this for me on our civil wedding day. There is something taboo and “hush-hush” about a novel done anonymously and this alone gives any literary work an instant ‘oomph’ to it.
“For my husband. For every husband” is the dedication of this book.
Take your super ordinary, super plain and content wife. The woman you would never give a second glance to as she walks down an aisle at the supermarket; the woman who has completely disappeared into being the “little wife”. This book, told in the second person point of view (You being the protagonist), is about the awakening (sexual, mainly) of the ordinary wife in her mid 30’s. She is the proper clean wife, and when her marriage hits a bump (husband and her bestfriend betrays her), she decides to start living her life selfishly, why not.
Selfishly meant putting her own indulgences ahead, writing an erotic novel under her husband’s nose and succumbing to dark thoughts that she never thought she’d be capable of. She forms an affair, a student-teacher relationship with that of a Spanish-English virgin. And for once, she is the ringleader of the bed.
Her young lover soon becomes obsessed with her, and she puts the trysts to a stop.
Her relationship with her husband revs up again, with the help of her newfound sexuality and soon they conceive a child, and she tries to live her life on the normal mode again, content on having, for now, the stint with her young lover, as the most sensational chapter in her life.
A very simple plot, but boldy, very honestly and admiringly told. One should take all the time in the world to read this book, because, apart from the feminist plot, the story is written very beautifully. The protagonist was unamed purposely, so that every woman can distinguish herself and relate to the story. I originally thought that the author, Nikki Gemmel, wanted the book to be written anonymously only to gain the mystique factor. The book has an exclusive interview with the author and she explained very well, that she Had to finish the novel knowing her name will not come up, because anonymity will release her from inhibitions and reluctance of writing a novel that may be described as vulgar and literary pornography. She dared to describe, in graceful detail, what I believe, every woman has thought of, but had no audacity to declare out loud–to her husband, friend, etc.
After reading this book, it has sunk into me that no matter how liberated and opinionated women are of today, we are still not in the man-woman equal stage. A novel such as this is becomes controversial because ‘bad impure thoughts’ from a woman (girlfriend, mother, wife, grandmother), are still considered to be shocking.  A man who thinks of sex 24 hours a day is considered human but once a woman confesses to that, its not exactly a sin, but it comes off as “unusual, but yeah, these things happen”. It will still take us several more years before man and woman will be totally equal.
Anyway, to sum up the book, a statement from Good Reading cannot say it any better: “Husbands will be left feeling distinctly nervous” (if any husband reads this at all).

A Million Little Pieces by James Frey

Anchor (September 22, 2005), 448 pages

Another ‘accidental’ book. I was having some documents photocopied at the bookstore, and, not surprisingly, just 4 pages took an hour to photocopy. While waiting I found this on sale, and well, not that I rely on Oprah’s Book Club, but it being a non-fiction memoir plus the reasonable price made me get it.
I struggled to read this book not because it was of deep literary content. Hell no. If its possible that reading a book can give you a beating, I would say that true to this one. The first half of the book is painfully, excruciatingly detailed and dragging. James Frey is 23 years old, addicted to drugs and alcohol. Story opens when he is brought to rehab and ends when he gets out of it, only to serve a 3 month stay at the county house (jail).
Plot has absolutely no say in this book. Character development is what makes up the entirety of it. At the start, James is realistically cynical about the rehab program, and like a wounded animal (physically and literally), he shuns away and bites at anyone who crosses him. Although he changes predicably at the end, its admirable how he adheres to his own principles still, and doesnt follow the so-called ’12 Step Program’ of the center. He still manages to cure himself of his alcoholism in his own way. James is crass and “fuck” and “asshole” pop up every 5 words. It doesnt change until the last page but it can be seen that in the latter part of the story, the words are used in a wizened sort of  way.
He develops a special fraternal bond with the other men in the center. His best friend being a mafia boss, Leonard (to which this book has a sequel, “My Friend, Leonard). His friendship with him is more of a fahter-son relationship and they look out for each other’s asses.
James’ struggle to be clean (of his addictions) and be human at the same time (fell in love with a fellow AA)  is as real as can be. Frey’s narration of feelings are as detailed as can be. I was brought back in time when i was 12 and I had bad teeth and had to undergo a number of frustrating fillings. But this guy had to undergo fillings and root canals without any anesthesia. And his unusual narration–raw and long sentences, can both be refreshing and leaving you gasping for a comma or a period.

“I stay still as someone’s hand pulls my bottom lip out abd stuffs the space between my lip and gum with cotton. I can feel the stitches stretch and blood start to seep. The same procedure is done with my upper lip and my cheeks and it feels as if my mouth is full of fibrous dirt and almost instantly, everything is dry. A spray of water moistens it, but not enoough. It is dry and it will stay dry no matter how many sprays I get.
I close my eyes and I try to settle in and make myself comfortable. There are wads of cotton in my mouth and there is throbbing agony from the earlier drilling. The drill is back on and its working through the fragment of my left tooth. It is moving  through a thinner, more fragile section of bone, so it workds quickly. It shoots the grit, makes the hole, penetrates. At the point of penetration, a current shoots through my body that is not pain, not even close to pain, but something infinitely greater.
Everything goes white and I cannot breathe. I clench my eyes and I bite down on my existing teeth and I think my jaw might be breaking and I squeeze my hands and I dig my fingers through the hard rubber surface of the tennis balls and my fingernails break and my fingernails start to bleed and I curl my toes and they fucking hurt and I flex my muscles in my legs and they fucking hurt and my torso tightens and my stomach muscles feel as if theyre going to collapse and my ribs feel as if theyre caving in on themselves and it fucking hurts and my balls are shrinking and the shrinking fucking hurts and my balls are shrinking and the shrinking fucking hurts and my dick is hard because my blood hurts and my blood wants to escape and is seeking exit through my dick and my dick fucking hurts and my arms are straining against the thick blue nylon straps and the thick blue nylon straps are cutting my flesh and it fucking hurts and my face is on fire…”

Frey has been admired for his lack of self pity, and unlike most ‘trashed up’ people who credit bad childhood and fucked up families for their addiction, he takes full responsibility of his being messed up. His parents are well off, in love with each other, gives him too much money and attention.
Frey also refuses to accept the principles and steps of the center, which is veered towards Catholicsm, as he has had a very bad experience with a homosexual priest.
He defines religion in a simple, logical manner that makes atheism understood:

“I think God is something that people use to avoid reality. I think faith allows people to reject what is right in front of their eyes. which is that, this thing, this life, this existence, this consciousness, or whatever word  you want to use for it, is all we have, and all we’ll ever have. I think people have faith because they want and need to believe in something, whatever that something is, because life can be hard and depressing if you don’t. ”

To sum it up, my feelings towards this book is sort of like a hate-like thing. I hated it because it was full of negativity (atmosphere, words, theme) and I cannot relate to the addictions, and it was just too dragging. I began to like it when it started picking up, when his parents came over and the rehab nurse explained why seemingly perfect parents still do damage to a child. I couldnt wait to finish the book because I was just too exhausted, needless to say, I was definitely Not addicted to it.