Life Among the Savages

jacksonsavages

Book by Shirley Jackson

Annotation by Kate Maruyama

Sometimes what we read influences us because of the craft of the work, how specifically the writer tackles tone, subject, suspense, tension, sentence structure, the dissemination of information and the countless other elements of craft covered on this site.

Shirley Jackson’s more known works The Haunting of Hill House, or We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and her short stories in her collection The Lottery and Other Stories have provided me countless lessons in structure, tension, character, tone, and gorgeous sentence-to-sentence craftsmanship.

But when I listened to the audiobook of Life Among the Savages, which is a memoir composed of essays collected over the years from Jackson’s writings for Good Housekeeping, Women’s Day, and Mademoiselle, among other magazines, I experienced a series of awakenings as a writer that stirred me beyond simply craft. I saw a fellow writer mother balancing, compartmentalizing and becoming so many different people outside of her writer life that the familiarity shook me.

Many people who know Jackson’s work and read these books (the sequel being Raising Demons) often say, “How could someone who wrote such dark stuff be a housewife?” or, more often, “Should someone who wrote such dark stuff raise children?” This isn’t even a consideration for me. I write horror. My mother, Kit Reed wrote dark and fucked up novel after dark and fucked up story and it had no affect whatsoever on our self-involved little childhoods. Mom was chastised by the neighbor mothers for sitting up in her office instead of going on playdates, but we felt no ripple through our childhood of her writing pursuits. We simply knew when we were very small that a babysitter meant don’t bother Mom, she’s working, and, when we were old enough, we knew not to bother her before lunch or we’d “break her train of thought.” This an image I took literally: I imagined a small wooden train thrown on the floor. But Mom’s dark, strange stories did not seep into our lives. We knew she wrote, but she also drove us all over creation, was there when we got home from school, helped us with our homework (excepting math, Dad’s department), cooked us countless meals, and life went on as it does.

And, I should mention, no one seems to ask whether a writer dad is ruining his child with his writing. But that is another article.

But what struck me in these essays was the full immersion into life with three kids. Jackson was a housewife in the fifties which meant that her husband was an extremely uninvolved partner. I found myself growing impatient with him as Jackson takes care of all of the cooking and cleaning and transportation of children and shopping for the household, and three hot meals a day are expected without aid. In one hilarious essay the entire family seems to think Jackson’s going into labor with her third child will get in the way of their plans and, tongue in cheek, she describes the absurdity of their alarm and each trying to schedule the most convenient time for her to deliver. The child comes when the child comes, and  Jackson catches a taxi alone to the hospital.

There is a wonderful and identifiable rhythm as Jackson describes her days, especially when listing tasks she has done in a row, or picking up the children’s things around the house, or when in one wonderfully cosy story the children wander from room to room one sleepy morning. The nice thing about listening to the audiobook is that, (brought up to the speed of 1.5, which felt to me more like the speed Jackson meant it to be read at, ) you can feel the cadence of her days, the repetition of tasks, and the way that rather than being in charge and on top of everything, she rides wherever her day takes her. Embracing the chaos is a grace that comes to caretakers of children only after a few years and experience, and she captures this quite nicely.

There is a hilarious recounting of her kids having a friend over to play cowboys. They end up having a shootout in the living room with breaks for the littlest to fix her shoe, for Jackson to get some lunch on for them, and there is something very real in the plainness of the day. There’s another hilarious recounting of her kids’ overlapping conversations as they try to talk their mom into getting a car; as if it’s already been decided. And in the consummate lousy partner move, her husband decides that she will be the one to learn to drive; he simply doesn’t have the time. Jackson has a genius for capturing the cadence of kid talk, each having their own conversations that somehow end up building in an interplay and rise to an absurd place. It’s the closest I’ve ever heard to the patter of my own kids at an earlier age.

My favorite chapter/essay is a recounting of a simple trip to the store in town with the three older kids. It should be the simplest thing; picking up necessaries in a department store. But what Jackson allows for, which very little fiction does, and very little of the mommywriting I’ve read does, is the enormous personalities of her children and how nothing is ever simple when you have small children. They are each the stars of their own lives, and they will gum up the works. Laurie brings his cap gun and is already having trouble dealing with Jannie and all of her imaginary friends who need room on the bus, who have to get off the escalator one by one, who need to be responded to. To top it off, Sally, the littlest, has insisted on bringing her doll’s carriage. The kids’ personalities are frenetic in a way that was most familiar to me. Then Jackson adds the humor and the recognizable reality of not wanting to seem like a monster mom in public; the judgement of those around her on her parenting is palpable. She keeps the kids in line as best she can in the sweetest and most gentle voice. It all starts to spiral when a guy trying to sell boyswear tries to get in a conversation with Laurie who doesn’t take well (and rightly) to a stranger getting a bit creepy. Jackson’s comic timing takes us on through lunch and the kids’ impossible orders. We are fully with her as she manages their personalities without totally having a meltdown in the restaurant, all the while trying not to waste the waitress’s time. I was completely transported to any outings with my own kids at that age, including one child’s tantrum when I tried to blow off someone asking her directly if she would like to be in commercials, or another’s meltdown when we’d simply been out too long without enough calories. I replayed the story to my husband, and we howled with laughter as all of this is very real and recognizable for anyone who has raised kids who have any imagination.

Almost seventy years after they were written, Jackson’s stories ring with a stark familiarity. I get a sick feeling in my stomach and a kind of exhilaration recognizing moments in parenting. When Jackson decides to go visit some friends for the weekend, she goes through preparing a list and schedule for the children as well as meals so that she can put her husband in charge, without his really having to do anything. She creates playdates, rides, meals at other people’s house and makes her husband a casserole he can eat over two days. She essentially does the work of the entire weekend ahead of time in order to get a thirty six hour break. It put me in mind of so many work trips, or absences for residency in my MFA program where I realized the seemingly simple tasks I did for a week raising my kids actually added up to a whole lot of details that are very hard to pass on to another person. Of course, Jackson arrives home to find the schedule out the window and the kids missing, her husband having taking everyone out to dinner to solve the problem.

And, as I played a story of decorating the Christmas tree, I told my husband how exactly Jackson had captured the terrible nostalgia/excitement/love one feels getting out the annual box of decorations. Every detail, from pulling out crappy paper and glue decorations made while one’s now grown child was in preschool, yearly conversations about the lights, passing on traditions to younger kids when the older have lost interest. I said, “It’s like she knows exactly how it is right now for us.”

And my husband wisely answered, “Or how it is for everyone with kids, every Christmas.”

The beauty in writing is not just in capturing the unreal, or those esoteric in-between spaces of life. It’s in capturing the truly human everyday. The makeup of the everyday may have many differences as time passes over years–what I wouldn’t give for Jackson’s 50 bucks a month rent on an entire house/how glad am I my husband is a much fuller partner in childrearing than dads in the fifties–but there are some things essentially the same. All kids are their own little weirdos. They are incredibly energy consuming, but wildly entertaining, and their childhoods pass too fast. And their lives will eat up a work day. And you will never feel like you are getting enough writing done.

I think of the writer mamas and writer papas I know (I do know a number of writers who are stay at home dads) and the very real struggles they have trying to carve out the time in which to write. So many of us have jobs as well as children and yes, our partners are much better at helping with the labor, but the brainspace after allowing for schedules, homework assignments, meals (even if a the caretaker is not a cook, they are usually in charge of procuring each meal,) illnesses, doctors’ appointments, and so much more does not allow for the esoteric gathering of threads from the air to produce literature. We are a bit more about finding an hour, pounding it out. Find a half hour, write something down. Think of the story while doing the housework. Holy shit I have three hours this Saturday while my partner has the kids…WRITE. I think about the year my daughter had fifteen sick days and I ended up putting down my horror novel and reading aloud to her from my middle grade book in progress and asking her questions to keep moving. To her credit, without her I would not have finished the middle grade book, which is now at market.

I think of my own mom who produced about a book a year and hundreds of short stories in between, and countless book reviews, all the while raising three kids and parenting us all the way into adulthood. And I think of Jackson, who helped keep her family afloat with the money raised from these articles, did absolutely all of the housework and childrearing (her husband seemed available only for occasional conversation with the children, and the odd babysitting stint) and still created an oeuvre of literature that has lasted well into this century. Her work has not seemed to age and informs an entire generation of speculative fiction, horror fiction, television and movies.

In this age of #amwriting on Twitter and writers declaring daily word counts, accomplishments, and other minutiae of the writer day, I also marvel that throughout both this book and its sequel, Jackson accounts for no time during which she was writing. Even if the readers of Ladies’ Home Journal shouldn’t worry their heads too much about her creepy as fuck short stories, or the fact that she would soon produce the most disturbing and brilliant novels of the next decade, Jackson says nothing in the articles of the struggle of finding the time to write the articles themselves. It is, as if, like those meals that appear magically on the table every three or four hours, or the children’s things that get put away magically and produced on demand, or Jackson’s remembering exactly which imaginary friend has exactly which characteristic, the labor itself is not to be spoken of. It is meant to appear effortless.

All of this is somehow comforting. In all the time I’ve kicked myself for not getting writing done because of tending to a child’s illness or erratic schedule or working other jobs, I realize that I do get the writing done. Bit by bit. Somehow. I find the space and pound it out.

I try not to get too cross with Haruki Murakami’s account of his immaculate writing day without mention of whoever it is who procures his meals, tends his home.

And I give a shout out to my fellow writer parents out there. It is no small thing you are doing there. And you likely have better childrearing partners than Jackson did. And know that, like Jackson, you will write the things. And the things may have a lasting impact. Keep writing.

You are a goddamn miracle.

Now excuse me, I’ve got to get dinner on the table for my kid who had to be picked up early from school because she’s sick. Again.

 

 

 

 

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

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book by Rebecca Skloot

annotation by Sarita Sidhu

Rebecca Skloot takes the disparate stories of Henrietta Lacks and her family members, the scientific research and breakthroughs based upon Henrietta’s cells (and the bioethics discourse they engender), the scientists themselves, and her own salvation, and combines them all into one braided narrative.

Skloot reveals in the prologue (2) that she was in danger of not graduating from high school, until she became captivated by the black woman from whom HeLa cells had been taken in 1951; her biology instructor had stated “HeLa cells were one of the most important things that happened to medicine in the last hundred years,” yet when Skloot asked him questions about this black woman he told her no one knew anything about her. Also in the prologue (5, 6), the author shares with us the information she was able to glean from magazine articles written about her in the seventies, and it leaves us wanting a lot more. The author takes us on her journey to discover the human being behind the cell line, and the backdrop to this investigative journalism narrative is the history of slavery and the Jim Crow era.

She explains “…when black people showed up at white-only hospitals, the staff was likely to send them away, even if it meant they might die in the parking lot. Even Hopkins, which did treat black patients, segregated them in colored wards, and had colored-only fountains” (15).

The book is a treasure trove of interesting facts across a range of subjects, including the origins of the white robes associated with the domestic terrorist organization, the Ku Klux Klan: “To discourage slaves from meeting or escaping, slave owners told tales of gruesome research done on black bodies, then covered themselves in white sheets and crept around at night, posing as spirits coming to infect black people with disease or steal them for research. Those sheets eventually gave rise to the white hooded cloaks of the Ku Klux Klan” (166).

When Skloot writes about the science, she does so in a way that is both engaging and accessible: “Under the microscope, a cell looks a lot like a fried egg…The cytoplasm buzzes like a New York City street” (3).

As well as utilizing similes, there is irony when the author brings the characters in the book to life through their own words, complete with dialect: ‘“if our mother cells done so much for medicine, how come her family can’t afford to see no doctors? Don’t make no sense”’ (Deborah, 9). In addition, Skloot’s vivid descriptions appear throughout the book: “Cliff…was about six feet tall, even with several inches of slouch, his light brown skin dry and weathered like an alligator, his eyes sea green at the center, with deep blue edges…his hands coarse as burlap” (119). And she uses their actions to inform us about character: “ When Henrietta’s cousin Emmet Lacks heard somebody at Sparrows Point say Henrietta was sick and needed blood, he threw down the steel pipe he was cutting and ran looking for his brother and some friends. They were working men, with steel and asbestos in their lungs and years’ worth of hard labor under their calluses and cracked fingernails. They’d all slept on Henrietta’s floor and eaten her spaghetti when they first came to Baltimore from the country, and any time money ran low. She’d ridden the streetcar to and from Sparrows Point to make sure they didn’t get lost during their first weeks in the city. She’d packed their lunches until they found their feet, then sent extra food to work with Day so they didn’t go hungry between paychecks” (83, 84).

The author also makes good use of humor throughout: ‘“He showed up at that meeting with no background or anything else in cell culture and proceeded to drop a turd in the punch bowl”’ (154).

Skloot deals with the pain, confusion, and anger of the Lacks family with sensitivity and compassion. She is able to gain the trust of the family, especially Deborah, through persistence and patience over the years.  We see the progress Deborah made in her understanding of the medical research when she responds to Christoph’s comment regarding the contamination of lab cultures by HeLa: “That’s what happened over in Russia, right?” (262). Although Deborah had made it clear she wanted to continue with school, she could not afford to do so. The link between poverty and the lack of opportunity to realize one’s potential is made very clear in the book.  It was interesting that Deborah finally felt ready to ride with Skloot on their journeys of discovery, instead of driving her own car (301). Unfortunately though, she died before that could take place.

As well as demonstrating the artful use of the aforementioned literary elements, Skloot taught me that complex, multilayered narratives can take a very long time to piece together. It took the author a decade to conduct the research for this book, and the writing itself took additional time. She embodies the act of bringing reverence and love into our creative nonfiction writing projects, and the book resonates with her commitment. She showed me how, as writers, we can direct flood lights onto obscured subjects and people. And although we clearly cannot change what has already transpired, our intervention may change the historical arc going forward, for the better. By the end of the book the complex ethical questions around the commercialization of tissue research and ownership of the cells continue, but the establishment of the Henrietta Lacks Foundation by Skloot is a gratifying outcome.

 

 

 

Skin: Talking About Sex, Class & Literature

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book by Dorothy Allison

annotation by Sarita Sidhu

Through this collection of inspiring essays and other writing produced over the years, Allison distills the essence of her life; the hard-fought battles that helped her to forge a ‘…meaningful politics…’ (35).

Truth, lies, and identity are themes which dominate this anthology in which she gives the reader access to her interior life, so we understand the emotional and intellectual struggles she went through as she navigated a hostile and dangerous world.

With a courageous candor that grounds her work, the author tells us that: “I have known I was a lesbian since I was a teenager, and I have spent a good twenty years making peace with the effects of incest and physical abuse. But what may be the central fact of my life is that I was born in 1949 in Greensville, South Carolina, the bastard daughter of a white woman from a desperately poor family, a girl who had left the seventh grade the year before, worked as a waitress, and was just a month past fifteen when she had me” (15). She continues: “My family’s lives were not on television, not in books…There was a myth of the poor in this country, but it did not include us, no matter how hard I tried to squeeze us in. There was an idea of the good poor―hard-working, ragged but clean, and intrinsically honorable. I understood that we were the bad poor: men who drank and couldn’t keep a job; women, invariably pregnant before marriage, who quickly became worn, fat, and old from working too many hours and bearing too many children…We knew ourselves despised. My family was ashamed of being poor, of feeling hopeless…” (17, 18).

Against all odds, the author goes on to be the first person in her family to graduate from high school, and then the first to go to college. This was facilitated by the family’s move to Central Florida in the 1960s.

Allison shares the harrowing experiences of being held up twice in the chapter Never Expected to Live Forever. She begins with the story of being held up on a street, and smoothly transitions to an earlier occasion during her college years when she was robbed at a dairy store, where she worked to help cover costs. The author repeats the phrase that was whispered to her on the street “I don’t want to hurt you” (37), to dramatically bring the reader back to the first incident (42).

In the next chapter Gun Crazy Allison shares her desire to own a gun and shoot like all her uncles. Her uncle Bo tells her “Girls don’t shoot” (46). The topic of guns appears again in the subsequent chapter Shotgun Strategies, in the context of confessional dreams of shooting sexual abusers. It was at this lesbian consciousness-raising group that the author began, for the first time in her life, to talk about the beatings and rape she endured at the hands of her stepfather. It was also here that she learned for the first time that violence and abuse spanned all classes in society.

“The world told us that we were being spanked, not beaten, and that violent contempt for girl children was ordinary, nothing to complain about. The world lied, and we lied, and lying becomes a habit…What I have taught myself to do is to craft truth out of storytelling” (55).

In her quest to belong, to find validation, Allison found all available theories on class and race inadequate and self-serving. And, to her utter despair, she also found that her sexual identity which had been historically labelled as ‘deviant desire’ did not fit into the feminist theoretical construct of ‘lesbian’ either. She described herself as “…a transgressive lesbian―femme, masochistic, as sexually aggressive as the women I seek out, and as pornographic in my imagination and sexual activities as the heterosexual hegemony has ever believed” (23). In the service of truth, she had no choice then but to endeavor to create a complex identity for herself, and to write herself into the literary canon from which she was missing. She states: “If Literature was a dishonest system by which the work of mediocre men and women could be praised for how it fit into a belief system that devalued women, queers, people of color, and the poor, then how could I try to become part of it?” (171)

Her commitment to “…break the public silence that has maintained so much private terror” (119), and write about her sexuality explicitly produced a backlash within society at large, but also, shockingly, within the feminist movement. This is detailed in the chapter Public Silence, Private Terror. When I read about the Barnard Sex Scandal of 1982 (105), I did not recall reading about it on earlier pages, so I was eager to discover the details. The tension grew, until Allison finally revealed everything two pages later.

Allison tells us: “I believe in the truth. I believe in the truth in the way only a person who has been denied any use of it can believe in it. I know its power. I know the threat it represents to a world constructed on lies…I know the myths of the family that thread through our society’s literature, music, politics―and I know the reality. The reality is that for many of us family was as much the incubator of despair as the safe nurturing haven the myths promised. We are not supposed to talk about our real family lives, especially if our families do not duplicate the mythical heterosexual model” (215). Regardless of the personal cost, she implores: “…Imagine me. I was born to die. I know that. If I could have found what I needed at thirteen, I would not have lost so much of my life chasing vindication or death. Give some child, some thirteen-year-old, the hope of the remade life. Tell the truth. Write the story that you were always afraid to tell” (220). She also states: “The first rule I learned in writing was to love the people I wrote about―and loving my mama, loving myself, was not simple in any sense. We had not been raised to love ourselves, only to refuse to admit how much we might hate ourselves” (237).

I could continue to write about the author’s use of simile in the chapter Bertha Harris, a Memoir, and how she lovingly and beautifully weaves the stories of “The two most important women in [her] life― [her] mother and [her] first lover…” (225), or about the humor sprinkled throughout the pages, but then I run the risk of this annotation becoming as long as the book itself.

As a feminist with working-class roots I picked up this book hoping to find myself on its pages. Unlike Allison’s own quest to see reflections of herself in literature she read, I was not disappointed.

I hope I can both emulate Allison’s courage and find the love (or at a minimum the empathy) I need to write the story I am afraid to tell. The story I wish I could have read growing up.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE COLOR OF LAW: The Forgotten History of How our Government Segregated America

coloroflaw

book by Richard Rothstein

annotation by Angela Bullock

There is a historical narrative I’ve always interpreted as true. In it the Southern States played the role of the evil ones while the Northern States played the role of the good guys. I came of age clinging to the notion that Southern Whites and their state governments were to be feared while Northern Whites and their state governments were liberally righteous in their fair minded measured approach to race relations. It is painful to have such a late awakening to the insidious facts. Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law is just that—a late awakening.

Race has always been a chip played for gain in our Democracy. A pawn on the chessboard, used to keep the Union appeased and unified. The progress of African Americans has been in part held hostage to a larger political game.

The evidence that my thinking was flawed has always been there. Historically, all States were run by the inheritors of European settlers—save for the period of reconstruction when the South was forced to share power. Still, the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow with its blatant terroristic tactics, encouraged a continued belief in this original and more traditional narrative. Alas, the world is far more complicated than a young woman’s fantasy.

On a level of craft, The Color of Law is a well-researched textbook detailing the inherent biases found in American housing practices. Using examples of deliberate social practices as well as legislation, Rothstein explains why and how American cities and towns continue to remain segregated.  My hope is that his book becomes a standard for the continued examination of a set of systems put in place to perpetuate African American disenfranchisement.

Beginning with a description of segregated San Francisco, each of the twelve chapters focuses on a different aspect of the organization of segregation fostered by local, state and the federal government alike.

I take these revelations personally. Because I knew it was the Federal government that fought to enact civil rights then voting rights and finally anti discriminatory housing policies in the form of the Fair Housing Act, I always sided with the U.S. Government over the argument for States Rights. It was the racist practices of the Southern States that subjugated people of color. They were the villains. However, Rothstein’s research puts a lie to the narrative that institutional racism was the exclusive province of southern states.

Each chapter reveals a well-researched litany of rules, ordinances, laws and behaviors, which I define as the practices of exclusion. They included but were not limited to restrictive covenants, redlining, discriminatory lending and white flight. Many of them were unspoken social contracts which resulted in keeping white neighborhoods homogeneous while perpetuating the continued isolation of African Americans. These practices of exclusion resulted in the limiting of educational opportunity and the overall stagnation of economic upward mobility.

***

People have an ability to exist and move forward despite blatant discriminatory practices. I do remember over hearing the talk of death threats our neighbors Mr. and Mrs. Grant received when they attempted to purchase a Levittown home. The Grant’s were two of the day people I describe in my memoir. Devoid of the insidious pathologies that inflicted some public housing families, when they escaped the projects, it was to a brownstone purchased in all black Bedford Stuyvesant Brooklyn.

Though they didn’t talk about it with their children, my parents must have known. Having left Jim Crow behind, perhaps they were simply satisfied with the housing accommodations made available to them. They certainly accepted those accommodations. So, I don’t know what my parent’s felt at the time. However it is the laws on the books they didn’t know were there, the secret agreements between financial institutions and business establishments, the places of employment set up to exclude them and other subtly coded racist practices that catches me in the throat. These facts create a queasiness in me now, years later, merely for being so naive.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article “The Case for Reparations” gives a very informative overview of these practices. However, the uniformity and pervasiveness illustrated in Rothstein’s tome is enough to justify the general belief in popular African Americans conspiracy theories, like the U.S. Government’s spread of crack cocaine and HIV/AIDS within black communities in order to keep Black people down.

And yet the more I examine the disparate confluence that make up American society, the more I understand this democracy to be—as many others have noted—simply an ongoing experiment. That Jefferson’s words  “We hold these Truths to be self evident that all (men) are created equal…” is nothing more than a fragile ideal. One that we citizens will keep attempting and failing to attain.

Whether FDR, the Father of the New Deal, was himself a racist believer in white supremacy, a gifted and pragmatic politician and public servant or some combination of both is beside the point. The results of the laws and practices he and many others promulgated have fostered a huge gap in financial prosperity and resources within our society. It has affected levels of education, incarceration and the overall well-being of an entire subsection of the American populous. Yet there’s an irony as well, that since emancipation and despite the pervasiveness of the practices of exclusion, the United States has made real and demonstrable progress. The Ideal is far from reached but incrementally sought.

I’m finally letting go of the narrative that the southern half of the United States is uniquely responsible for American race relations. Politicians compromise, collude and compete with one another. Roosevelt’s challenges are today echoed in the revisionist policies of Trump and his Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

I am conflicted concerning Rothstein’s mitigation of his facts. On one hand I wanted to feel the author’s righteous anger at the injustices he so well illustrates. I believe, however, that the neutral academic tone of his work will prove itself useful as America continues to have difficulty confronting race and privilege. Despite this point, The Color of Law is an important addition to the confusing, convoluted mosaic of what, who, and how our experiment in democracy has developed and continues to evolve.

 

Tell the Wolves I’m Home

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book by Carol Rifka Brunt

annotation by Douglas Menagh

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt is a coming of age story about June Elbus, a 14 year old high school girl living in upstate New York. The novel takes place in 1987, just as her beloved uncle, a painter named Finn Weiss, is dying from AIDS. Following Finn’s death, his partner Toby connects with June. Although distrustful of Toby at first, June soon develops a connection with Toby. The two help each other cope with and heal from the loss of Finn. Eventually, June and Toby develop a friendship in their own right.

What is beautiful about Tell the Wolves I’m Home is the way Carol Rifka Brunt presents June’s character arc. This is a story about how the loss of Finn brings Toby into June’s life and how that friendship affects her development. While June is skeptical about Toby at first, she grows to love him because she finds that the characteristics of Finn live on through his partner. This causes June to wonder, “What if everything I loved about Finn had really come from Toby?” (148). June realizes that Finn had adopted the behavior of Toby because they cared for each other and emulated one another. June experiences this first hand in her relationship with Toby. By caring for him, she picks up some of his habits and evolves as a character. On her own transformation because of Toby, June reflects, “And right then it was almost impossible to believe that there was a whole other me, who drank Volcano Bowls and smoked cigarettes and took care of people who used to be strangers” (286). Brunt demonstrates through character arc that, despite loss, loved ones live on by passing along their characteristics.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home affected my own understanding of who my characters are and how to create their arc. The growth of characters through personal loss was very useful to me when I was writing about grief in my own coming of age novel. My novel is about a family grappling with the death of a father and the resulting loss of each member’s identity in the wake of the loss. The characters in my book began to imitate the qualities and characteristics of their lost loved one. Through this process, they were able to regain a sense of self and become who they were always meant to be.

June’s character is revealed wonderfully through the first person. She is a deep and complicated character, though introverted. June loves medieval times, and this pining obsession for a world now gone colors her perspective. “The Cloisters are the best because they’re like a piece of another time right at the top of Manhattan. And I’m not just saying that. They’re actually made of huge chunks of French medieval monasteries that were shipped to New York and stuck together” (64). The way June sees life gives the book elements found in lyrical fantasies and builds the world in the novel. Her longing for the medieval world correlates with her pursuit of traces of her lost uncle. June’s connection to medieval times helped me understand my own characters’ affinity to history and how nostalgia plays a role as a coping mechanism in dealing with loss. I found this useful as a writer because the characters in my own novel feel nostalgia for other time periods just like they do for loved ones now gone. This book made me realize that there is a connection between longing for a place in time and longing for a person.

Tell the Wolves I’m Home was informative of my own process in writing a work of fiction about characters coping with loss and overcoming grief. June’s transformation and the change in her worldview influenced how my own characters heal and come of age. June discovers that Finn lives on in the present through the loved ones still alive. Later on, June says, “I didn’t know what Toby was trying to do at first, but I took a long slow breath of his coat and there, like, magic, was Finn. The exact smell of Finn” (273). This perspective showed me the way my characters could also cope and heal from their loss. By discovering ways in which loved ones live on in the present, my characters were able to heal in dramatic and unexpected ways.

 

 

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories

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Annotation by Nate Elias

Book by Ken Liu

The stories in Liu’s collection all border in the realms of science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction. Playing with the forms of fiction seems to be one of Liu’s inherent tactics when bringing his characters and ideas to life in each narrative. The first story in the collection, “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species,” Liu weaves a narrative that is void of characters and rather focuses on the process of reading and writing in made-up (possibly alien) species. Opening with this story sets up a tone for the book that hints for the reader to approach each story as its own text and to read with the body, soul, and mind in unison.

Liu makes up for the absence of characters in the first story by utilizing vivid character-building techniques in “State Change.” The main character, Rina, has a habit of checking refrigerators, freezers, and ice cubes as a method of therapy and calming nerves. While the plot has nothing to do with this character trait, the character trait itself is a metaphoric tool which reflects on the title, “State Change” and the epiphany Rina has when she comes on to Jimmy, who represents salt which cannot be frozen. This story also utilizes a non-traditional linear narrative technique by utilizing excerpts from letters, memoirs, and history texts.

“The Perfect Match” uses a more traditional narrative flow but requires simplicity compared to Liu’s other stories because the high concept plot requires more suspension of disbelief. The story proposes a software called Tilly (reminiscent of the iPhone’s ‘Siri’ function, only gone haywire) that makes all the decisions for the user. The consequence of this is that people choose to not think for themselves anymore. The main character, Sai, uses Tilly for every decision until one day his neighbor, Jenny, encourages him to turn it off for a short time. While she seems like a conspiracy theorist at first, it turns out that her speculations about Tilly were accurate when suited men arrive try to stop Sai and Jenny when their efforts to hack into the system go too far.

Although Liu’s content deals with science, technology, and speculation it does not read as genre science fiction literature; it reads more like literary science fiction, which is a much smaller niche. His prose often utilizes poetic language such as in the story “State Change”: “I have no candle to burn at both ends. I won’t measure my life with coffee spoons. I have no sprint water to quiet desire, because I have left behind my frozen bit of almost-death. What I have is my life.

I’m currently at work on my own speculative short fiction and Liu’s collection provided a framework of how to fully make a high-concept premise within the confines of the short story form concrete.  Liu exercises poetic language, structural range, and importance of character which serve as a reminder that it is not just the story being told, but how it’s being told. 

 

The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis

saramego

Book by Jose Saramago

Annotation by Mary Kay Wulf

When I read my first novel by Jose Saramago, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, I was intimidated by his block style, his sentence structure, and his original, spare use of punctuation. In an interview he recommends reading his work aloud to catch his rhythm and understand his meaning. It works for me, especially in the speeches. The lack of stops and white space on the page eliminates the dead air and elevates the language. It also increases dramatic tension and forces the reader to pay closer attention to what is being said by whom. Once I’m well into the novel and know the characters, I don’t have to reread the passages of dialogue as often to determine who is saying what to whom.

In this novel, I admired the author’s use of unlimited omniscience. It is ironic, reliable, fluid in time and space, and extremely complex. First, there is the author who makes himself known particularly through his religious and political views, then there is the narrator who, I assumed was also Saramago, who has, for this story, resurrected the famous Portuguese writer, Fernando Pessoa, who, upon his death in 1936, lures to Portugal, one of his heteronyms, the poet and doctor, Ricardo Reis. Pessoa appears to Reis much like Hamlet’s father’s ghost, “doomed for a certain time to walk the night,” and mostly dispenses advice on life before it is Reis’s turn to die. When the reader is presented with Reis’s sexual and physical humiliations, the POV is extremely and effectively intimate.

In regards to the roles of the two women in the novel, I thought in a large sense they represented the mystery of their sex in the eyes of the two poets. Both Reis and Pessoa claim to be frightened of women. Reis, the more experienced of the two, describes women as “an enigma, a labyrinth, a charade.” Throughout, Reis is inept in the role of seducer and refuses to claim paternity when he impregnates his hotel’s maid, Lydia. Undaunted, she appears to be the wisest and most genuinely alive character in the novel especially in light of her hard, impeccable work, the Lydia poems which Reis/Pessoa have devoted to her, and her refusal to accept Portugal’s hideous political alignment with Hitler in the days before the outbreak of WWII. Reis travels to the circus of Fatima to search of Marcenda, a much younger, wealthy, aristocrat. He fails to find her and departs before the closing ceremony in honor of the other virgin, the Virgin Mary. His humiliation is painful and yet the reader detests his and the Church’s class-consciousness. Marcenda’s infirmity seems to mirror her sterility as a member of the Catholic upper class, those who support Germany and the regime of Franco in Spain. Reis imagines Marcenda lifting her right arm in the “Roman salute.” Her paralyzed arm may represent Portugal.

This novel is so beautifully crafted. The author employs as his protagonist, Reis, the frail creation of a dead, revered poet (Passoa) and then gives him a brief life after Passoa’s death in order that he may fall in love and discuss with both the living and the dead, the state of this world and the next. It’s crazy original. Now I feel I must read the work of Pessoa. I also enjoyed the wealth of cultural and literary references, although it was Richard, not Henry, who offered to trade his kingdom for a horse. Or was it Reis beginning to lose his memory?

I want to address the statement made by the narrator in reference to the struggle between the classes. There are many of these but the one in reference to the wealthy eating figs is particularly memorable because it follows the scene in which Lydia serves coffee to Reis and Marcenda and points up Lydia’s position as only a chambermaid. The narrator states that, “The rule is that some eat figs while others watch.” It reminded me of a line delivered by Addie in the play, The Little Foxes, by Lillian Hellman. It reads, “Well, there are people in the world who eat the earth and eat all the people on it…. Then there are people who stand around and watch them eat it.” As writers, we must observe in order to write, but the act of writing is participatory. I believe Saramago’s novel is certainly an act of protest. Against what? That, I think, would require a volume in itself. Political issues are pervasive throughout the novel: imperialism, socialism, nationalism, and communism to name a few. Throughout the novel, whenever Reis attaches himself to a mob, whether it has gathered for religious, political, or celebratory reasons, he is hurt physically and psychically.

Regret, too, is a prominent theme throughout. Pessoa laments the “tug of war between memory that pulls and oblivion that pushes…” And in the end, “the world forgets everything.” “In every age we find reasons to go to war.”

I was struck by the title and its significance. Halfway through the book, I turned it over to read the cover again, hoping the word “Death” wasn’t there. As maddening as Reis is, his frailty and foolishness are universal. I felt only pathos. Passoa, Lydia, and the reader love him in spite of his faults, in spite of the fact that he doesn’t exist. As childish as it seems, I thought if anyone could rescue a doomed man, it was Lydia. Silly, I know. But that was what kept me reading. Hope.

Grace

9781619027206

book by Natashia Deon

annotation by Kate Maruyama

I have been itching to read GRACE ever since I heard Natashia Deon read a bit of it at David Rocklin’s ROAR SHACK a few years back. This was someone who clearly knew how to create scene, cared about language and the voice of the book had clear, strong, narrative clarity and control. I always tell my students that the key to voice is creating a voice so strong that the reader feels in good hands. From what I’d heard, I was definitely in good hands.

Once I got a hold of GRACE I was not disappointed, the book is hard to put down. From Naomi’s first line,

I am dead.

…the voice has such strength and assuredness that you have no choice but to sink into the narrative and absorb it.

Starting with your narrative character dead is nothing new, but Deon takes it one further. Because of her predicament, Naomi can observe several characters’ stories. She spends the book telling her story, and the story of her daughter, over whom she watches as things unfold. But she can also, without the glibness of an omniscient narrator, fly around and observe things happening in different environments that will affect her daughter. Through this tool, Deon manages to let Naomi tell several other people’s entangled stories herself.

I tell my students that as long as you keep the reader oriented, you can get away with a lot. And Deon is masterful at keeping us anchored in a complex array of characters in a voice that creates its own rules and sometimes bends them a little. Naomi has these “flashes” of hindsight, portions of her life that unfold more fully in narrative than they did when she was living them. It launches the reader, much like that long view in magical realism, into a broader overview than the character would be capable of observing on her own:

You may never know.

May never know about the choice somebody made for you that changed your life. Just like I didn’t know about the choice made for me that day. By the time I was standing behind Albert, watching him bang those last nails in, my life had already changed.     — Page 353

 

Naomi can then, because we feel we are in capable hands, fly over into the world of a character who, without her knowing, will change the course of not only her life, but of her daughter’s. This is not her ghost being conscious of the world as it unfolded to her during her lifetime. This is a “flash” of a more fully realized hindsight from her ghost consciousness-perhaps a broader sense of things a soul can have once freed from its body. And this is deftly handled.

The narrative devices result in a richly layered story that is laid against not only the cruelties of slavery, but that volatile difficult time after Abraham Lincoln declared the slaves free, but in the South it wasn’t to be a reality until a few years later after several bloody battles. And the repercussions of the cruel system that spawned slavery still haven’t completely passed as of today, a consciousness that is woven carefully into this period piece.

Within Naomi and Josey’s story is that of Charles, whose life is central to both of theirs as well as the stories of Cynthia and Annie, two different morally complex white women doing what they can to survive not the repercussions of the war, but trying to live life on their own terms in a time that simply wouldn’t allow for it. In that lost moment of war between old and new, they slice out a bit of life by use of their wits and their bodies. Cynthia and Annie are so wrapped up in their own problems they have no idea that their whims and often careless decisions can change, even destroy people’s lives. And their ripple affect through the delicate web of two generations of women around them creates a solid portrait of the danger of unconscious white privilege which, while shown in the past, can easily be applied to the present.

With all of these characters, and Naomi’s ability to glide in and out of their lives as they unfold, Deon can deal with issues of gender roles, slavery, race, powerlessness, love, family, power struggles, individuality, strength and of course grace, all while keeping us rapt in the language of her storytelling.

South of Resurrection

 

resurrection

book by Jonis Agee

annotation by Tisha Reichle

Before I sign up for a workshop or class with any writer, I always read at least one of her books. If she has multiple novels, I choose the one that has some element similar to what I’m doing with my own writing. I selected South of Resurrection by Jonis Agee because it is in a rural setting with characters who are not wealthy; these are the people of my childhood. The characters also battle nature and a history of racism; this has been the chaos of my adulthood.

Immediately, Agee sets the stage with a place where the narrator, Moline, will experience turmoil. After 23 years away, Moline returns to her home town of Resurrection, “the sort of no-count, nowhere place … [that] could not be revived to a bedraggled glory” (1). The character’s musing about the place establishes her as an outsider who only crawls back home because she is broken and has no place else to go. The tension created between person and place makes the town of Resurrection a character in the novel, one that wreaks havoc on numerous relationships, not just on Moline’s. I want to make the setting of my novel come to life in that same way.

The character of Resurrection intensifies as the region experiences weather extremes. In the middle of a conversation with her childhood friend, Titus, who is the town’s preacher at the black church, Moline notices the “steady darkening of the sky from the clouds bellying up against the hills … the hollow went dim and smoky as if there were a fire just beneath the scattered pine needles and last year’s leaves underfoot” (180). The foreboding weather precedes a warning to Moline from Titus’s wife; she wants Moline to leave and take the trouble she’s stirring up with her.

Agee’s use of colloquialisms, gives Moline a distinct voice, representing the Ozark region in its glory and gloom. Early in the first chapter, one of the essential themes surfaces in the line, “Dreams hunkered down, refusing to be driven out” (3). Initially, Moline is critical of others and clearly indicates her stay is temporary. She mocks them, increasing the tension between herself and the people of Resurrection. She is clearly trying to avoid returning to some conflict from her past. But it is inevitable. She characterizes her attraction to Dayrell, “like going underwater, the sinking inside, all the resistance going away, the weight overhead insistent as a hand pushing me down” (231). In a town this small, she cannot avoid him, the man she once loved.  Or his horrible brother, McCall. This antagonist has no redeeming qualities, according to Moline. She looks at him with “the numb panic of the frog when it sees inside the dark of the snake’s open jaws” (185). But he is as complex as the other characters, manipulating his brother and charming the women of Resurrection out of their land, money, and dreams. He is a predator and Agee develops him with grace.

In spite of strong opposition from her own cousin, Pearl, Moline eventually tries to establish new dreams in Resurrection. With the help of several formidable female characters, including Great Aunt Walker and the sometimes weak, Lukey, Moline faces the abusive men and capitalist intrusion with resilience and determination. Agee has a cast of complex people who are damaged by their families’ past but determined to change the community into what they think is best for everyone.

Agee also uses detailed descriptions of furniture, buildings, and the natural surroundings to parallel the torment each character experiences. Moline helps her Aunt Walker and Uncle Able at their hotel, one that “even the special viciousness of raiders and occupying armies could not put an end to, that even the dying-out Rains family would not allow to expire, a hotel that housed not only the racial history of this town, but also the story of everyone and everything in its museum. If there was anything permanent at all, it was the Rains hotel” (212). This parallelism is effective at contrasting the weary tone Agee creates to portray the people and the land triumphant.

There are religious undertones scattered throughout the story as well; it is to be expected in the South. One character is a preacher and several are clearly God-fearing, Bible-beating, devout believers. In sharp contrast, Moline is skeptical and denies any belief. “Praying hadn’t worked before …God and I hadn’t been on speaking terms since I left Resurrection. No reason to think He was even listening anymore. It just seemed like one of the things you try when you hear the sounds of the well being capped above you” (169). Until she decides that she wants to hang on to her tumultuous relationship and remain attached to the dysfunctional community she is determined to protect.

Most prominently, this is a haunting novel, where a present-day mystery in the town is clearly connected to Moline’s dark past, the reason why she scurried out of Resurrection at sixteen and never looked back. With this added layer of conflict, Agee established the need for me to keep reading, turning each page looking for answers and hoping for resolution. It is not a fairy tale ending, but there is satisfaction in what she leaves unresolved.

Wylding Hall

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book by Elizabeth Hand

annotation by Kate Maruyama

I got a glimpse of Elizabeth Hand’s Wylding Hall last summer at Readercon, and couldn’t wait to sink my teeth into it. Of course, life being life and work being work, I didn’t get to it until just last month. But the moment I opened it, I tore through.

Told in a collage format reminiscent of a rockumentary, Hand introduces us to a variety of characters with distinct voices: from the band’s manager with his outside view of things to Lesley, the sole American in the group, who is deeply enamored of the elusive and beautiful lead singer, Julian. The band has been sent to a remote manor, Wylding Hall, to record an album. The desire to remove them from all distractions and the remote nature of the manor itself creates a hyper-awareness in the summer’s observers and the variety of points of view builds its own tension as each character refers in bits and pieces to what is to come. “That’s why it was so strange about the girl.” The story is told to us in pieces, each character’s strong distinct viewpoints affecting his and her reliability in the matter. We are given bucolic surroundings and Hand creates the manor itself with mysterious twists and turns in such a tangible sense that the reader is left standing there, experiencing each moment.

Sometimes individuals have broken out into their own scenes, but often not. In the case of one beautiful afternoon in which the album’s greatest hit is recorded and a photograph is taken that will weave throughout the rest of the book, Hand gives us all of the points of view in each moment. She creates a multi-dimensional image filled with so many different kinds of want and different takes on one very specific scene, that it crackles throughout its recounting with mounting tension. The weaving of these tellings, back and forth in their own rhythm, evoke a dreaminess as well as a creepiness, as we are certain something will happen. This is storytelling at its most expert; as a reader you cannot help but surrender.

The world of the manor itself, with its shifting halls and curious encounters weaves its own mystery and fear. We know we are in the middle of the English countryside somewhere and the reader feels as cut off from the outside world the band. In this concrete space of beautifully described rooms and edges, Hand gives us turns and stairwells and “don’t go in there!” in a wonderfully creepy and unpredictable way. It’s a good reminder of how important specific, sensory physical description is in the paranormal. And it is quite lovely to feel in such good, certain hands when a supernatural tale is being woven.

Hand deftly invents an imaginary album and in the yearning descriptions of all of her characters and brings it to life.  Each of them, from a different perspective tries to describe the magic of that one album. By the end of it, the reader yearns to hear it, but also somehow has a grasp on its ineffable quality.

Will Fogerty (rhythm guitar, fiddle, mandolin) reflects:

I’ve never known anything like it. Music, it’s always hard to describe, isn’t it? You can describe what it’s like to hear a song, how it makes you feel, what you were doing when you first heard it. And you can describe what it’s like to write it, technically, and how to play it—the chord changes, slow down here, pick it up here. A Minor 7, C Major.

But this—this was different. It’s a cliché to say something’s like a shared dream, like a movie or a concert—you know…

This wasn’t like a dream. It was like being lost; not in the dark, but in the light. Blinding sun through the windows and that fug of smoke from cigs and spliffs, motes in the air like something alive, atoms or insects all silver in the smoke. You couldn’t see to find your way;’ we couldn’t even see each other’s faces, it was so bright and so much smoke. You could only hear the music, and you followed that. Lesley’s deep voice and Julian’s sweet one, Jon grabbing the edge of his cymbal so you could hear only this thin, silvery sound. Ashton’s bass. Me and that mandolin I built from a kit; Les wailing until she nearly passed out.

The writing throughout is lovely while remaining completely economical. There is so much room for Hand to launch off into the lyrical, but she remains true to her characters and their specific feelings of nostalgia.

Despite its collage affect, or perhaps because of it, Wylding Hall hangs together of a piece. The rhythm of the cutting, the building of different tensions across stories from petty jealousies to disagreements over specific events, these are artfully measured and stitched together. The moment you open the book, you know you are in very good hands. As if taking a page from the narrative music of that period of folk rock, Hand creates a larger musical movement throughout the book and a very solid, satisfying ending. This was likely not easily accomplished and probably took a great deal of rewriting and editing.

I’m constantly exploring different points of view in my new work. How different characters see things from completely opposing perspectives and how each point of view can be exploited for its degree of reliability or grasp on the story; especially when a different point of view gives us new insight on something we’ve already experienced in the consciousness of another character. Wylding Hall is such a fantastic use of different points of view, woven together to one end. Hand has got me thinking about the balance of voice, and how snatches of story can be as illuminating as spelling out the whole thing.
When I’m putting together a novel, I’m often stopped by “this isn’t working” or, “where the hell is this going? It’s not what I set out to do.”  I’m trying harder now to open up a bit, write at the outside idea all the way, listen to the secondary characters if they are starting to speak to me. They may have no place in the final draft, but this writing at can get me somewhere I’d never go if I tried to remain within the constraints of an imaginary book. I’m trying to listen to the story all the way and trust the drafting process. So often we get bogged down in visualizing the finished product while drafting. Which shelf will it fit on? Who will read it? When the truth is, we cannot truly imagine that yet and the book may take us on a different journey altogether. A number of times I’ve had books start out as one thing and turn into a completely different animal by the end. I’ve also become more content to throw out pages that aren’t working for the book. I think I cut over 100 pages in my last novel, which is now out to editors. But, had those pages not been written, I wouldn’t have arrived at the final product.

Wylding Hall is a gorgeous example of a book that is artfully and beautifully delivered. It’s important to remember as we beat our heads against our keyboards that the product is out there somewhere, and if we keep working at it we’ll get there. And novels do not emerge, fully formed. Even the most frustrating parts of the journey help us get there.