Medea in the Garden



A very old and uncollected story of mine…






By midnight all the men were asleep.  My Kenneth was upstairs in bed, Bert and Joe had each gone home, and Di’s husband, Adam, was out like a light on the love seat.  By then the fire was roaring and the snow falling in big fat clumps.  And after onion soup, veal roast, artichokes, creamed new potatoes, Double Gloucester, stewed Anjous, Leah’s blackberry pie, and every color of wine, we four women were wide awake and ravenous.  So I went to the pantry for breadsticks and Liederkranz and came back instead with cognac and my precious new 20-pound bag of plump, salty, premium, natural-color Escondido Nut Farm pistachios, which my mother sends us every Christmas.

This was one of those subversive impulses that flash and stun without warning.  The sort which when you’re young compel you to blurt “I love you” when you certainly don’t, as a kind of insane courtesy.  The happiness you spread never offsets the cost.   Until now, I had shared the pistachios only with Kenneth, and that just since two years ago when he discovered them in a hatbox under the bed and threatened to rat me out to the children.  It was some small compensation, that evening, to please my friends, to watch them reveal their fine natures through food play, but not enough.  Never enough.

We had been talking about Baghdad and the polar ice caps, and about Caroline’s new drapes which she made herself with no previous sewing experience, and then on to how uncanny I was to have found a Sanredaam print stuck in an old book on party stunts, and so on, when Di leaned forward with that constipated expression she sometimes gets and asked, “Why do men like to slap women on the ass?” You can always count on Di.  “No, seriously,” she said.

“What a wonderful question!” Caroline, bony as a chicken foot, scooped yet another mound of pistachios from the communal bowl and funneled the nuts through her cupped hands into an ashtray already choked with shells.  She knew we were watching.  “This way I get to… rummage through the empties and sort of…come upon the full ones.  Then I sort of…pounce on them and wrestle them to the ground.”

Caroline’s little pistachio drama, hyperbolic and fey, is in keeping with her overall comic style.  Like certain theater people, she is always “on,” her mannered dottiness at once wearying and contagious, so that in her company, and against our will, both Di and I often catch ourselves chattering in unconscious imitation, adopting as our own her clichés and the rhythm of her speech, and even the fluttering mock-genteel gestures of her hands.  Only Leah, the rock, huge and solid, imperturbable as Buddha, remains intact, amused but unseduced, true to the classic ironic style: the majestic, straight-faced understatement.  Leah objects at length and often to all the sort-ofs, quites, and wonderfuls.

Leah ate slowly, contemplating each nut throughout its progress from random selection to obliteration. “I like the closed ones,” she said. “I like to crack them with my teeth.  If anyone finds any…”

“They won’t,” I said, keeping my voice light.  “These are premium triple-grade-As, sifted and resifted by hand, for a guarantee of absolute perfection.”

“Quality control!” cried Caroline.  “How wonderful.  Of course I must say I do miss that bright rosy color, the telltale fingertips, the sort of—“

“Stigmata,” said Leah, continuing darkly, “Nothing this pleasurable should be guilt-free.” Once upon a time, Leah claims, she made these pronouncements in all seriousness.  She ruminated and blinked in Di’s direction.  “Has Adam been spanking you, dear?”

“What? Oh! No.”  Leah, who has a genius for catching you on the wrong foot, had startled our Di into a blush the color of a dead-ripe Freestone.  Di is a newlywed, younger than the rest of us by forty years, slim and straight as a wading bird; an intense sharp-witted young woman, and a treat for the eyes.  Usually spirited company, she had been throughout this evening listless, preoccupied.  An ominous little bundle in our midst, ticking quietly away.  Like my own moody daughters. Like me, once a moody daughter.  She was laughing now, with us, uncomfortable and pleased, at the center of attention.  “Not exactly,” she said, provoking more laughter.

“And why not, I’d like to know?” Caroline brandished a fist.  “Good God, what have we come to, where will it all end?”

“It’s not a personal question,” Di said. “It’s a theoretical question.  I just suddenly wondered.”

“Of course you did,” said Caroline, “but the more interesting question is, why do women like to be slapped on the ass?”

“I don’t,” said Di.

“I sort of do, once in a while,” someone said.  Actually it was me.

Leah cleared her throat.  “They slap us on the ass for the same reason that compels them, when they are young boys,  to run up and touch the Witch’s House.”

“Ah,” we three said in unison.  Di was especially impressed.  She added, “Wow.”

“Bravado, is all,” Leah said, shattering a nut with her back molars.

“Do you really think so?”

Leah pondered, ponderously, assuming at last a benign, abstracted smile.  “No,” she said.

“You do, too,” I said, and continued before she could protest.  “When I was a child, our neighborhood Witch’s House was the only stucco house on Columbia Avenue.  It was pink with red tile roofing, and round rooms and turrets like a castle, and an ugly oak out front with all its limbs amputated.”

“They are often hideous, with round rooms and turrets,” Leah said.

“Our Witch’s House was just an ordinary old barn with a fat lady in it,” Caroline said.  “She was so enormous that she couldn’t wear clothes.  In the wintertime she wore blankets fastened together with safety pins, and in the summer she wore sheets. She kept pigs.  On windy days, when she came out to slop the pigs, the sheets would loosen and billow and snap, and the pigs would scatter, and I used to pray for one great big gust to come and blow those sheets away.  One day, at high noon, this actually happened.”

“Ah,” said Leah.  We were all quiet for a while, listening to the crackling of fire and pistachio shells, and the stertorous breathing of Adam; contemplating the solid, glistening apparition of the Naked Fat Woman, who appeared, at least to me, to rotate serenely within the fire itself as if on a vertical spit, glowing red like the center of the earth.

“I’m pregnant,” said Di in a low voice.  “I haven’t told Adam yet.”

Caroline opened her mouth to say, “How wonderful,” but didn’t and probably would have caught herself even without warning looks from Leah and me.  For Di looked at no one, her expression aggressively noncommittal.

So no one spoke, and after a time the suspense dissipated into an easy lull. Adam’s breathing changed, becoming shallow and rapid, his eyes rolled beneath slightly open lids, and his long legs jerked arrhythmically, in little puppet spasms.  He is a handsome young man, so the effect was more endearing than pitiful.  Di was particularly taken.  Apparently she had never seen him do this before.  “Is this a nightmare?” she asked.

“We’ll see,” said Caroline, smiling.  “He’s probably just chasing rabbits.”

Leah peered at her over the tops of her glasses.  “He’s not a dog, Caroline.”

“I wasn’t implying anything.  I dreamed about rabbits once myself.  An enormous beautiful white rabbit, and it hippity-hopped into Baba Yaga’s house on stilts, or what looked like Baba Yaga’s house on stilts, when I thought about it later, you know.  Then it blew up.   Not the house.  Just the rabbit.  It just sort of whoomfed and oozed out under the door.”

We all said that was disgusting.

“Don’t I know it,” she said.  “I was sort of retching when I woke up.  But then I was retching a lot in those days, because I was p—“ Caroline began to cough.  “Husk,” she whispered, pointing at her throat.  “Ahem.  As I say, at the time, I had one of those twenty-four hour bugs.”

“My mother had terrible nightmares,” said Di.  “Sometimes she’d scream so loud and wild that we’d all be frightened out of our minds.  One night my poor Dad—he must have been having a bad one, too—started screaming right after she did, and oh, that was a horrible sound.  The two of them were awake and scaring each other to death, screeching their heads off in the dark, and of course we got hysterical too, and ran into their room.  It took like forever to find the light switch.  This became a classic family joke, like the time they broke the bed.  I didn’t think it was all that funny, though.  Mother always said her nightmares were silly.  The worst dreams, she said once, don’t make you scream.  But she would never tell me more about them.”

“Then she shouldn’t have mentioned them,” Leah said.  These were my feelings exactly.

“But she did,” Di said.  And this retort—for it was that—made Leah blink.  No one said anything, and after a very uncomfortable minute Di got up and went to the bathroom.

In Di’s company we Old Ones had always refrained from homeowner talk and anecdotes about our kids.  We wanted not to bore her or pull rank.  On this occasion, though, she was inescapably, willfully junior; what with her pointed exit and equally stylized return ten minutes later.  She entered the dark and silent room as though it were a stage, and she the ingenue, with downcast eyes and lips tightly pursed.  She sat on the carpet in front of the fire, giving it her full attention, presenting to us her grave and lovely profile.  I would have waited her out.  I would have let her stew.  But Leah and Caroline, who have only sons, were moved by pity.

“The worst dreams,” Leah told her, with obvious misgiving, “are when you wake up smiling.”

“Or humming a little tune,” said Caroline.

“And then you realize why.” Leah regarded Di with kindly intensity.  She preferred, of course, to leave the rest unsaid.  Di could see this, so she nodded as though pretending to understand, with a wholly unconvincing smile.

Adam sighed a whispery sigh, licked his lips, rubbed his nose with a baby fist.

“You dream about a baby,” Leah said, “and it cries and cries.  You pick it up and it cries.  You rock it and walk up and down with it and sing lullabies to it and it cries.  It makes you frantic.  It makes you crazy.  Then a brilliant idea occurs to you.  And you get a hold of a darning needle, and you thread it with fine silk wire…”  Leah shuddered.  Leah shuddering is impressive, for there is a great deal to Leah.

“And you, what, sew its mouth shut?” asked Di, unnecessarily. My God, girl. Of course you do.

“One should not,” said Leah, “feel guilty about a dream, or a conscious wish, for that matter.  All that counts is what one does.  One should not feel guilty about a dream.”

“So you say,” Caroline said, clapping a hand on Leah’s shoulder with rare camaraderie and giving it a little wobble.  “Okay, once I was trapped in my living room with Antonin Scalia. Joe was there, and another couple, and we were having a cocktail party, and here came Antonin Scalia—either that or Saddam Hussein–crazed with blood lust.  He was chasing us around the room in slow motion with a butcher knife or—no, it was a gun.  He had this terrible gun and he was waving it around.”

“You sure it was a gun?” I said, trying to lighten the air with a double-entendre, which of course fell flat, as I am not a vulgar person, but really, I had to do something.

“Then somehow I overpowered whoever it was and tied him up in one of our butcher block dining chairs.  Butcher block!  Freud Alert!  Then I picked up this knife—you’re right, it was a knife—and proceeded to cut off his arms and legs.  I had to do this to make absolutely sure he didn’t hurt anybody.  It was hard work.  It took a long time.”

For God’s sake,” I said.  Caroline has a mind like a sprung trap.

“I haven’t finished.  I was so proud of myself!  Then I looked over at Joe—he was sitting on the couch with Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman—and they were all staring at me with horror.  And then I looked at Antonin Scalia, and it wasn’t him at all, it was just a great big, well, baby.  Of course, after I woke up I was ill, but in the dream it seemed like just the worst kind of social gaffe.  I was so embarrassed!  I was swanning around, trying to laugh it off, and feeding the baby, who still lived, plumping pillows in back of its baleful little head.  I kept saying, Look, he’s okay, he’s just fine, no real harm done! I kept saying, He’ll be as good as new, you’ll see!”

“They’re not always about babies,”  I said.  Di worried me.  She was too solemn.  God knows, we don’t want to take ourselves that seriously.  The whole point of Di is to lighten us up, not the other way round.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“Enough,” I said.  “Life is too short.”  The hour was late, and I was tired and cold, the way you get when you’ve stayed up too long.  I offered more cognac all around, in a voice which was, I thought, clearly insincere, but Caroline took me up on it, and then I drained the bottle into my own glass.  “Well, I wrote to the president again today,” I said.

“How wonderful!”

“Tell me your dream,” Di said.

I sighed and rubbed my forehead as though it ached, but she persevered, silent, poised.  The young are incredibly selfish.

“It was in the early days of our marriage, long before the children, although at that point we had just begun to try.  Kenneth and I were traveling cross-country, sleeping in motels.  I woke up smiling in a strange room and a gray morning, to a dull, rhythmic, thumping noise, which I came slowly to realize was part of a fading dream.

“I was killing a small mammal, some sleek, furry creature, like a ferret or a weasel.  It was badly mangled but still conscious.  I had a hold of one of its hindquarters and was beating the animal against a wooden block until the joint loosened and ripped away.  This act gave me intense pleasure.

“When I was fully awake, I ran to the john and threw up.  I couldn’t shake the scene from my mind, or explain it away, for the creature was as real to me, and still is to this day, as any you and I could see together.  So I made myself go back to sleep again.  I visited a thousand libraries, in different European cities, all quite detailed and of varying architectural design. I studied textbooks on anatomy, surgical techniques, anesthesiology.  I put the animal to sleep and reassembled it.  I didn’t skip a step.  Sheets of muscle were layered and joined, veins and arteries somehow soldered, and at the end my stitchwork was so fine that the animal’s coat was seamless and no one could have told, just from looking, that it had suffered any injury.

“When it came to, it cringed at the sight of me and would not let me near enough to stroke its fur.  Its eyes were terrible.”

“I’m sorry,” said Di.

“So am I,” I said.  “Sorrier than I can say.”

“Why did you write to the president?” Leah asked in a tone that brooked no opposition.  She is the oldest, the most forbearant, and God help you when her patience runs out.  She had an ominous look about her now and her color was bad.

Caroline noticed it, too.  “Yes, tell us,” she said.  “What did you say this time?”

“Same old thing.  Stop it right now, whatever you’re doing.”

“This instant,” Caroline said.  “We know you’re up to no good.”

Leah sighed.  “I haven’t been watching the news.  I don’t have the heart any more. But I was under the impression that things were pretty quiet.”

“Yeah.  Too quiet.”  Caroline began to giggle.  Caroline gets very silly when she’s overtired.

“I just reminded him that I wasn’t cut out to be a frontline soldier, and neither were my children.”

Caroline applauded.  “Hear, hear!”

“That’s exactly it,” said Leah.  “They put us on the front line.”  Leah regarded the fire.  “A long time ago. They should never have done that.”

“Why do you bother?” Di asked me, quite rudely.  And here I thought we had placated her. “Nobody reads your letters.”

“I know, but it makes me feel better.”

“If you know, it shouldn’t make you feel better.”  Crabby, militant, tiresome child.  We had in the past suffered her to lecture us on “learning to deal with rage.” She made me regret this indulgence.  “You’re comforting yourself with a fairy tale.  You don’t have any real power at all.  None of us does.”

“Hush,” said Leah.

“We have the power to swell up and burst,” said Di.  “We have the power to feed and burp and wipe up poop and walk up and down in the middle of the night.”

“Hush,” said Leah.

“We have the power,” said Di, her chin jutting toward Leah, “to make ourselves so important to them that they grew up to hate and fear us and make fun of us, and I hate it, I just hate it, and that son of a bitch can do anything he wants to, and you can write your letters from now until doomsday and it won’t make a goddamn bit of difference.”

“That’s enough,” whispered Leah.

Leah did that thing she does, where she moves without moving.  I can’t do it.  She loomed over the kneeling girl, filling her eyes, filling the room.  Even I was afraid.  Di paled, as well she might, and made herself small.

“The world can end in two ways,” whispered Leah.  “One is with a bang.”

“Kablooey,” said Caroline.  Leah shot her a look.

“That,” I said, “would be their way.”

“Their way,” said Di, her eyes huge.

“They have their ways,” said Leah, “and we have ours.”

“Tee hee,” said Caroline.

Don’t you dare!” Leah shouted like a thunderclap.  We all jumped a foot.  “This is deadly serious business, Caroline.  Don’t you ever laugh at this.”

Caroline, clearly embarrassed, assumed a ludicrous air-raid posture, arms folded tightly over her head. “No fighting in the War Room, okay?  You know I can’t bear confrontations. I’d walk over my own grandmother—“

“You’re scaring me,” said Di, to Leah.

“I scare myself,” said Leah.  She smiled a great sorrowful smile.

“We scare us,” I said.

“Yeah, but nobody scares the Fat Lady,” Caroline said.  “My, she was a sight to see.”

We were all breathtaken for just a moment, but Leah said, “You kill me, Caroline,” and that was the end of that.  We were at peace all of a sudden, all of us, even Leah.  Even Di, whose face was thoughtful now, and not quite so junior.

She went and fetched the coats.  They all stood and stretched and bundled up for the record cold.  We spoke in whispers, refraining from waking the driver until the last possible moment.  He had slept through all of it, his own dream long past.

Di wrapped her neck and chin in a muffler the color of robins’ eggs, which set off her hair in a way we all admired.  Her eyes were still quite unreadable.  “I’ve always wanted children,” she said, gazing directly at each of us in turn.

“So did I,” said Leah.

“We all did,” I said.

“We’ve talked about having two,” Di said.

“How wonderful!”

“You won’t regret it,” Leah said.  “I never have.”

“Nor I,” Caroline said.  “Quite honestly.”

“Children are the future,” I said.

We all smiled then, the way women do.  There was a round of awkward hugs—a long standing practice which I blame Caroline for initiating—and Adam was gently roused and hustled out the door with sleep in his eyes.  Someone else must have driven: I doubt that he even knew where he was.



What with holidays and various family crises and Kenneth throwing his back out again, it was five months before the next get-together, at Caroline’s.  We had a pretty good time, although I must say my party was better, as Caroline is one of those egocentric cooks who feel compelled to alter time-tested recipes with arbitrary additions in order to make the dishes “theirs,” with predictably odd results.  Di was more vivacious than usual and seemed to have lost, permanently, that sweet, slightly annoying deference which she used to show towards us older folk.

Her stomach was flat.  Perfectly flat, almost concave.  This would simply have saddened me, I think, except that she flaunted her tiny waist with a wide silk cummerbund of a particularly flamboyant rosy hue.

I did not like that heartless touch, that cummerbund.  She and Adam left early, and at some point Caroline asserted—Caroline, of all people—that there was such a thing as being too thin.  But that was all anyone said about it.


Writing Class



I’m thinking of taking up writing workshops again.  In the olden days, I taught in bookstores and on campus extensions.  Right now, I’m torn between some sort of Zoom class or using my own home in Escondido, which I would greatly prefer.

I’ve heard from quite a few of you, and most seem interested in Zoom workshops.  If so, we can begin to set up a schedule.  Right now, I’m thinking of this:

  1.  Zoom workshop groups limited, perhaps to 6, although that may change.
  2. Either one meeting per week or one every two weeks, during which student chapters/stories, having been read by everyone before class (we won’t be reading aloud) are discussed in depth.
  3. For a fee, I’m thinking of $100 per class.
  4. If there’s enough interest, I could perhaps have two separate groups, each with the same schedule.
  5. Payment using PayPal (or check).
  6. How many meetings to attend/pay for would be up to individual members.  The group membership might change as a result.  We’ll see.
  7. Of course, the trick would be to find a meeting schedule amenable to everybody.  We’re probably not all on the same time zone.
  8. If there are enough people in San Diego County willing to trek up to Escondido (which I know can be a pain), we could work up an in-person schedule here.

I could also to work remotely with individuals who want feedback on their work.  I’m not drawn to this for two reasons:

  1. I’m not a book doctor or marketer or agent, so I could not promise that in the end the writer would have a publishable work.
  2. Workshops are the best way I know for writers to improve.  Critical reading of others’ fiction sharpens your own critical skills, which are essential for all writers.
  3. Still, if you’re interested in doing this, let me know, and we can decide on a schedule and fee.

Since I’m contacting you on FB, please respond, if you’re interested, using Messenger, or post a reply here.




Mind the Bollocks

Accidentally shooting yourself in the crotch is becoming a thing, so here’s the beginning of a new list.


Man fatally shoots himself in the groin while attempting U-turn, police say

Man accidentally shoots self in groin inside Buckeye Walmart

Florida man sits on gun, shoots self in groin, police say

Marion police respond after man accidentally shoots self in genitals

[Wichita] Man seriously hurt after accidentally shoots self in groin

[Nevada] Man Accidentally Shoots Himself In The Groin After Loading Gun

Colorado Football Mascot Chip Shoots Self In Groin With T-Shirt Cannon

[Zion Grove, Tennessee] Man facing charges after shooting himself in groin

[San Antonio] Man apparently shoots self in groin while trying to help woman on Loop 410

Man rushed to hospital after shooting himself in the groin with a home-made gun stuffed down the front of his pants

Police: Wanted Felon Arrested After Shooting Himself in the Groin

Police say NYC officer accidentally shoots self in groin

Man Accidentally Shoots Himself in Groin at Gun Club

Worcester man facing charges after accidentally shooting self in groin on Christmas morning

Watch Kevin Owens Shoot Himself In The Crotch In Bizarre New Year’s Accident [VIDEO]

Providence man accidentally shoots himself in crotch while sitting in bed

Man allegedly hiding drugs in butt accidentally shoots himself in testicles

Oregon man shoots self in groin while showing off gun in supermarket checkout

Omaha man shoots himself in the groin while putting handgun away

Gun Enthusiasts Celebrate Man Who Shot Himself in the Balls as Their King*

Trump Supporter Shoots Self Through the Groin in Attempt to “Trigger Liberals”

*“The reason we are calling him king is partially because the poor guy already shot himself, don’t think he needs to be chastised as well… I’m quite sure he’s learned his lesson without the entire world calling him an idiot.”

Book Reviewing 101


Once upon a time, and what a long time ago that was,  if you got a book published, you’d cross your fingers for a review in the New York Times, but you’d probably have to settle for brief reviews in smaller papers.  Now most of those stalwarts are gone, and a review in the NYT or the others left standing is even less likely than before.  There’s precious little space for paid reviewers to turn their attention on you.

In order to get that attention, writers are urged to market themselves on social media sites like Goodreads and Amazon author pages and Facebook.   I don’t do this myself (except for the occasional FB post), but I know plenty of writers who jump through all the hoops.

The result: Writers get tons of reviews, this time from unpaid reviewers.  Actually, it’s my understanding that some unpaid reviewers actually are paid—in copies of books.  Amazon, which owns Goodreads, also promotes a crack team of elite pre-publication unpaids, “Vine Voices”  These “most trusted” reviewers provide “honest and unbiased feedback,” for which they are sometimes paid by “participating vendors.”

This is supposed to be a good thing, although my publisher tells me there’s little proof that all this attention translates into sales.  Still, writers have to pay the rent, so many of us trudge off to these sites and market ourselves.

Because writers are supposed to have  marketing skills.

Probably some of us do, just as some people excel at both pocket billiards and rock climbing.  But most of us do not.

The great Mitch Hedberg noted that when you’re a comedian, everybody wants you to other things besides comedy.  They say, “All right, you’re a standup comedian, can you act? Can you write? Write us a script.” They want me to do things that’s related to comedy but not comedy. That’s not fair. It’s as though if I was a cook and I worked my ass off to become a good cook and they said “All right, you’re a cook.  Can you farm?”

Anyway, those of us who have dutifully farmed then get to sit back and enjoy all this attention.

Every writer I know has experienced blowback, as opposed to feedback, from unpaid reviews.

I’m not talking about reviews which simply give a number of stars, or which just say “I liked it” or “This isn’t for me” or “I hate hate hate this book”  or “This writer’s books suck.” These are straightforward expressions of opinion. Everybody’s got one, and why not.

And I’m certainly not talking about those unpaids which are well-written and sharply critical.  If a writer takes offense because a conscientious reader didn’t like their book, that writer needs to toughen up.  And if a reviewer, paid or unpaid, backs up critical assessments with illustrative quotes and examples, then that writer should be grateful and credit the reviewer’s skills.  We learn from intelligent criticism, whether we are persuaded by it or not.

Finally, I don’t want to imply that writers are entitled to positive criticism from unpaids.  For pete’s sake, they’re unpaid. If they were writing for the NYT, they’d need to get their act together, but they’re not.  An unpaid reviewer, unlike most paid reviewers, actually has the option of being wholly negative, and I have no issue with that.  When you write a paid review, you usually feel compelled to say at least something positive about the book.  Unpaids have no such obligation.  On top of that, “constructive criticism”—criticism designed to help the writer improve–has a place only in a workshop/class setting. Reviewers, paid and unpaid, are not the writer’s teachers, friends, or fellows; constructive criticism is inappropriate (and presumptuous) in a review.

I’m talking about those unpaids who

  1. Encourage their readers to agree with them when all they’ve done is express their own taste, and/or
  2. Attack the writer personally.

My purpose here is to encourage critical analyses of unpaid reviews.  (Also paid reviews.)  Why? Because all writing, including written reviews, should benefit from critical analysis.  This is especially the case for writers, who must, as they write and revise, criticize the hell out of their own drafts.  Also, since all writers should toughen up, confronting these reviews critically should help with that.

This is not an “anti-bullying” post.  I’m guessing there are lots of these. Examples:

I’m not interested in whether reviewer is or is not a bully.  I’m focused only in the writing. The best (and worst) of all writers is on the page. Writing a good book review isn’t easy.  It begins of course with your own reaction to the book, but then you have to figure out why you’ve reacted that way, and then you ought to provide evidence (with quotes and examples) from the book to back up your assessment.  People don’t read reviews to find out whether a stranger liked the book.  They read to find out if they themselves will like it.

Some talented unpaids understand this.  Others do not.

Some time ago, when I was setting up a Mean Writers website (since abandoned), I collected a number of unpaids of my own stuff.  I’ll just list some here, with a few comments.

Here are some that simply report the reviewer’s response, which is fine with me:

  1. Bought this book for my daughter because she loved the author’s other book. Did not enjoy stories at all.
  2. I bought this book because I have read, and loved, two of Jincy Willett’s other books. This book was a huge disappointment. David Sedaris, a very funny man, said on the cover, “It’s just the funniest collection of stories I’ve ever read – really funny and perfectly sad at the same time.” Well, I get the perfectly sad – just not the really funny. Not a chuckle from me throughout. Just really sad stories.
  3. It showed a tiny bit of promise, but after having read the second book of the series I have given up on them all. The only people who would like this series of books is the very type the author is sending up. Some compare him to Oscar Wilde. What??? Because he sends up the upper English classes? But Oscar does is with wit and style.Am I supposed to give this book a high score because it evoked such strong feelings in me: disgust, horror, disbelief? Or a low score because I absolutely despised all its characters and the story line? Part of me wants to read at least one more if the subsequent novels (there are 5 in all) but only because I hope some if these people will seek redemption. I have a feeling though that they wont. And I really don’t want to waste my time reading about people who only know how to be cruel to one another.
  4. I couldn’t force myself to care about any of these people. Prose reads musically in an obtuse, pointless plot. Appears to illuminate only that the author is well-read. I’m about to put my copy on the driveway and run over it eight times. [This is my favorite unpaid.  I hope my prose doesn’t read musically in an obtuse, pointless plot, but this is a thoughtful and creative description, plus I love the idea of hating a book so much that you want to demolish it.  We’ve all been there.]

These are not bad at expressing their own response, but these reviewers assume, without evidence, that others will share it:

  1. Seriously?? NPR claimed this as a best book of the year? Maybe if no other books were written. This was the most boring book I have ever read! The reviews on the book claimed it was hilarious, witty and brilliant. On what planet!? I will give any book 100 pages but, kept reading this junk assuming it would get better. Wrong! Don’t waste your time or your dimes on this waste of paper. I will never read another Jincy Willett book again!
  2. I’m sorry….I have read the other reviews for this novel and I do not agree that this is a must read. It is NoT! I borrowed this book from the library and I am so glad that I did. The basic premise of this story is a good one …but I feel it was edited and put together badly. When your main character takes over almost a whole chapter of the book with her nonsensical lists of “funny words”…then your story has taken a twist that is very uninteresting. The villain is not developed until the last pages and your main character is basically running away from any confrontational situations for the entire book. I want to like the main character….not feel sorry for her. I’m sorry I read this book. Don’t spend your money on it.
  3. Call me a spoil-sport, but that issue with the dates REALLY bothered me as well. It’s a very sloppy mistake which seems to epitomize how I felt about this book. It’s clever at times, but Dorcas (the narrator) goes from being a funny, irreverent sage to an out-and-out pill awfully fast and Willett’s narrative style is wildly inconsistent. Literary and thoughtful at times, a messy spew of words the next. And that date mistake. How does a writer do such a thing? How does an editor not catch it? It only indicates that no-one involved in the writing or publishing of this book cared enough or took enough time with it. So why should I or any other reader? [Apparently there was a timeline error in the book, and I sympathize with the reviewer’s annoyance but not with their assumption that one error signifies that writer and publisher did not care about the book. The reviewer has no idea how publication works.]

And here’s a typical ad hominem attack:

This book was just plain awful. The characters were inconsistent and uninteresting. It’s such a stupid book. The only reason I kept reading until the end was so that I could make note of the pretentious and ostentatious vocabulary that peppers the pages. The author is, in my humble opinion, a show-off. Yeah, we’re all REALLY impressed. Better to just say “belch” than try to impress us by using the word “eructation.” It’s so obvious what she’s trying to do, which is to show us how well-educated she is. [Reviewer makes an obnoxious assumption about a writer’s word choices.  Our job is always to choose the right word for our meaning, and in a first-person narration (or in dialogue) a character’s personality will factor into those choices. In this particular stupid book, the narrator is introverted and bookish and chooses her words with deliberation.  I’ve looked at the offending phrase; Dorcas describes Guy DeVilbiss, a cartoonishly pretentious character: “His bee-stung mouth contracted into a little O, and he snorted, like an infant eructation.” I recall making that choice because of the characters of both narrator and Guy.  Looking at it now, I’m inclined to agree that “belch” would have been a better choice. It’s funnier, and Dorcas might be inclined to use it privately to ridicule Guy with a coarse monosyllabic. But the reviewer’s assumption (in their “humble opinion”) that a writer chooses words in order to show off is unwarranted.  Was Perelman a showoff? Reviewers should maintain tight focus on the page. As should we all.]

Finally, I sympathize with this one.  We’ve all had the experienced a book (movie, TV show) marketed to us (there’s that word again) as surefire hilarious and slogged through the whole thing without cracking a smile.  You do feel cheated.  But novels don’t promise; ads do that. There’s no such thing as universal funny.  If you’re not having the promised experience, read something else.

“Winner” is a book that suffers from bad advertising. I was promised a black comedy. “Riotous. Hugely funny…” and “The funniest novel I have read, possibly ever” appear right there on the cover.
The book was certainly sarcastic. It was caustic and biting but there was very little in the book that I could laugh at in good conscience. (And honestly, during reading, I wasn’t inclined to do so.) In many ways, it was more like a car wreck on the highway – horrific but engrossing – than anything else.
Ms. Willett’s main characters, twins Dorcas and Abigail, area a fascinating pair. Each completely embody the part of the human condition that the other lacks. “Winner” is the story of their interactions with each other and the members of a New England literary circle made up arch-typical characters.
Through my entire reading, I was off balance. I kept expecting ‘funny’ to show up and it never did. That said, “Winner” had other redeeming qualities which kept me reading. Ms. Willet gives Dorcas, the bookish narrator, wonderful recollections and descriptions of the joy of reading. The relationships between the people in a group and between the sisters were exaggerated for effect, but still intriguing.
Other parts of “Winner” were less successful. There were bits of extraneous metaphor and occasional clunky bits. Occasionally certain characters verged on caricatures. I understand what Ms. Willett was attempting to skewer but in the end, “Winner” falls a bit short. If I had come at “Winner” with different expectations I might have found it more enjoyable, but I never shook the feeling of being a bit cheated by a novel that failed to deliver on its promises.



Writers:  If you’re interested in this enterprise, please comment or otherwise contact me ( with any unpaids you’d like us to look at and discuss.  I look forward to hearing from you.

From My Father on Veterans Day

My dad died ten years ago.  Here’s a letter he wrote to Paul Fussell, author of The Boys’ Crusade (I had given him this book with great trepidation because Dad didn’t talk about the war–combat vets don’t–but I knew that this book was about his group. I’m so glad I gave it to him.) Anyway…

“Dear Mr. Fussell:
“I am one of those “boy survivors, now around eighty.” When I first read “The Boys’ Crusade” I felt that I wanted to write to you. Now that I have completed the second reading I feel compelled to do so.
“…I did my ASTP stint at Providence College and then later joined the 26th (Yankee) Division on maneuvers in Tennessee. You know the rest of that story but there are a couple of things that I wanted to add. I wound up in the Second Squad of the First Platoon of Company “K” in the 328th Infantry Regiment, 26th Division, attached ultimately to Patton’s Third Army. When you itemized those items carried into combat by most infantrymen, there was an anomaly in our outfit of which you apparently were not aware. When it was announced that we were being committed to combat in some unknown place, we were ordered to line up with our raincoats and overshoes in hand and then told to throw the raincoats in one pile and the overshoes in the other pile. The rationale, we were told, is that we would not need these in combat. Well, we did go into combat and it rained, and it got cold, and colder, and it snowed, and the water in our slit trenches often froze over at night, and we were pinned down cold, wet, and miserable, scared to death, and for six weeks we did not change our clothes. At the end of that time, those that did not get killed or evacuated with wounds for the most part had severe trenchfoot and I was one of those. [The casualty rate for this group was over 50%.] Through tender care and patience, and a lot of luck, I did not require any amputations but I have been in trenchfoot centers crowded with kids my age with toes amputated and legs amputated to the upper thigh and always bilaterally. Would we have been better off with overshoes and raincoats? Those in command didn’t think so. [Note: I know, because Dad told me, that it turns out that trenchfoot can be avoided if you just take off your boots every night and massage your feet and legs, but the soldiers were never taught that. They were taught about brushing their teeth and avoiding VD, but not trenchfoot.]
“After being discharged, I attended Brown University to get my deferred education. While there I met and become very close to a professor of mathematics called Ray Gilman and when I read “An Operation Called Cobra” I recalled a conversation that I had with him. I had mentioned that I had driven through the rubble called St. Lo may times while on temporary duty on Patton’s Red Ball Express. He told me that he was involved with that in a way. He said that when Cobra was under consideration, the Allies realized that there would be many “friendly fire” casualties and, as a mathematician, he was called on to calculate the degree of those casualties given the terrain, the position of all troops, and the planned bombing patterns. He did so and came up with a number that, as I recall, was somewhat under three percent. On the basis of that estimate (and other things!!), Operation Cobra was carried out with the results that you so graphically described.
“Finally, before I read your book, there were certain bits of information about the war that I thought were known only by me. Thank you for erasing that burden from my mind. I am very grateful.
“Most sincerely,
“Ward C. Willett.”
And here is one of his V-Mails from France–I found it in a box full of photos and papers when I was cleaning up and organizing after his death.  He was very young.

What I Wonder

What I wonder, Christian Nationalists, is who is going to pay for what’s coming. And by “pay” I mean in tax money, and by “what’s coming” I don’t just mean the banning of abortion, because obviously you’re coming for birth control (as practiced by women) and for “suspicious” miscarriages.

Who’s going to pay for an expanded police force to ticket obviously pregnant women caught smoking or drinking. Or, I don’t know, jogging? Kayaking? Because you have to protect the fetus, and women lack common sense.

Who’s going to pay to monitor all women of childbearing age? Because they can be pregnant and not showing, and they can be up to no good. I had a friend, a good Catholic, who one day deliberately shoveled wet, heavy snow until she miscarried. She didn’t believe in abortion but had no problem with that. But how is that different from smoking or drinking or drugging when you’re pregnant? Really, guys, the sky’s the limit, because women are sneaks.

Who’s going to pay for all the trials and prison cells when your mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters fill them to overflowing? Because an animal with its leg in a trap will chew it off. Because, let’s face it, women are animals. (That one is actually true.)

Seriously. Where will the money come from? I know that your hard-earned taxpayer dollars are very, very, very important to you.