Woman Hollering Creek

Woman Hollering CreekBook by Sandra Cisneros

Annotation by Tisha Reichle

The women of Cisneros’s stories are flawed creatures; that is what makes them so real. Unlike traditional heroines, they don’t always win. The narrator and her comadres are women that readers from varying cultural backgrounds can relate to. Cisneros expands the virgin-whore dichotomy to illustrate other types of women. Some of her characters praise men, others blame men, but they all assert their woman-ness proudly.

Some of the stories, like “Eleven” and “Barbie-Q,” echo the childhood conflicts Cisneros focused on in The House On Mango Street. The narrator recalls a school incident that brought her shame on her eleventh birthday and a fire that damaged the toy store. Through these accounts, she illuminates her unfortunate economic circumstances.
Most of the description, however, are sexual, abusive, and yet filled with faith. In “One Holy Night,” a young girl loses her virginity to a man who vanishes, bringing shame to her family. In “Never Marry a Mexican,” girls are warned about the consequences of making bad choices. In “Woman Hollering Creek” a woman endures the will of men (father and husband) until rescued by other women. In the face of serious obstacles, Cisneros’s women (young and mature) persevere; they are models of strength and inspirations for future generations of women. Cisneros gives women who have not been listened to an opportunity to be heard.

She also employs a unique narrative structure. Some of the individual stories possess a reader in a brief snapshot – no dialogue and no real plot. Others have a more traditional beginning, middle, and end with the narrator sharing what others say but not in conventional dialogue. Others are even more experimental with simultaneously alternating conversations, an acrostic poem, lists, letters, and advertisements inserted to move the plot along. Many of the longer pieces have interesting scene breaks – sometimes brief fragments of memory separate the actual action.

Reading this text empowers me as a Chicana, as a Feminist, and as a writer. I am encouraged by Cisneros’s words to reach deeper into my subconscious and extract the silenced voices of my ancestors.


My Happy Life a Novel

My Happy Life as a NovelBook by Lydia Millet

Annotation by Telaina Eriksen

When students of writing read Lydia Millet, it is an exercise in humility. Millet earns her much-deserved reputation again with this deceptively slim novel and its haunting, autistic prose. In My Happy Life, our narrator, whose name is never spoken or mentioned, has been “forgotten” in an insane asylum which has been scheduled for demolition. Alone, with just running water and a small box of artifacts from her life, she proceeds to write her life story on the walls of the room that will surely become her coffin. She calls her life a happy one. The irony of this is so deep and rich, one can barely begin to touch on it in a two-page annotation.

This work is so darkly funny, so black and beautiful, sad and touching. Millet’s command over language and metaphor, her way of tipping things upside down to look at them makes this a unique and challenging work. Horrible thing after horrible thing visits our narrator. She calls herself stupid, but she is also gifted. She has a different way of looking at things and undoubtedly suffered brain damage not only at her birth (prematurely and then placed in a shoe box and given to the state) but by the beatings she suffered as a child. She becomes partly crippled when hit by a car. She is kicked out of school, farmed out to abusers at foster homes and all the while her voice arises from description of these events—with an urgent understatement, innocence and earnestness. Our narrator doesn’t know why anything happens in the world (“I am in charge of nothing” she says on page 40) but you can almost hear Millet ask the reader if any of us really do.

The structure of the book surrounds important objects in the narrator’s life—a tooth, a towel, a leaf, and the shoe box (the one her newborn body was shoved into) which holds all of these artifacts. The narrator describes how each object came into the box and she seems disconnected in some very obvious way from her happy life. But as her trials continue, she gets pregnant by the sadist who has imprisoned her and repeatedly beaten and raped her (she is less than 20 years old at the time). After she has the child, Brother, she calls him, her wispiness fades and she focuses on the baby boy, really happy and very maternal for someone so deeply… reality-challenged. The sadist, who has always wanted a son, drugs her and leaves her in a hotel room, with only her shoe box and a stack of cash, taking Brother and leaving, the narrator suspects, the country.

A substantial part of the book follows where our narrator is much more focused in her happy life because she has to look for Brother. “And I knew what Mr. D. had practiced on me and that he was not prone to charity. Because the tools from the past centuries, and the wires and the knives, might have been all right for me but they could not be plied on Brother. For Brother there could be no history.” (90)

We believe the narrator because of her innocence, her understatement and her constant misunderstandings of the world. She is guileless and toward the end, very probably certifiably insane due to electroshock and starvation. But still we believe her perceptions. The narrator’s grace with language is also believed because of the segmentation—gifted in this area, naïve and clueless in this other one. This gives Millet much to work with in terms of her structure. Her novel is at once straightforward and nuanced. The reader follows the narrator between reflections about ghosts and dreams, memories and the future, and the unreliability of the ocean.

Millet’s originality shines throughout the piece. It is even more impressive if one has read previous works of hers. Her range as a writer is amazing—comic, subversive, strange, slapstick, literary, touching, believable and poetic. If a writer is prone to envy or feelings of inadequacy, he/she needs to stay far clear of My Happy Life, and Millet’s other works as well.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Extremely Loud and Incredibly CloseBook by Jonathan Safran Foer

Annotation by Kate Maruyama

EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE kinda blew my mind about four years ago, when I read it for the first time. While I am very well read in certain areas of literature, I have huge gaps in others.

I hadn’t read much about 9/11; it still hurt too much. New York was my city, growing up in Connecticut. In my heart, it held my ideal future life in my childhood and teenage dreams. I tried to get through Art Spiegelman’s IN THE SHADOW OF NO TOWERS, but it was too personal and too well drawn. He took me right down that tunnel of despair I’d been avoiding for two years thus far.

When I got to Oskar Schell’s story, I was ready. The kid had that approach to the subject that I needed to have: glimpses, trying to sort out the emotions involved, that lost feeling and inarticulateness that goes with it. It was still too awful to either dive into or put away. His immature mind and the mature way he approached it proved very cathartic for me. I also enjoyed the two stories’ separation and how they wove together. I was willing to go wherever Foer took me. The big question came up often: how did he do this? How did he think of all of this?

But when I finally read SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE, the idea of the backwards thing at the end gave me a “huh”. I read AS I LAY DYING and the epiphany came, “Wow, people have been messing with time and character space for longer than I realized.” TRISTRAM SHANDY did in 1759, with its blackened page thing what I thought was revolutionary in 2005.

This second reading held echoes of everything I had read since the first: heavy echoes of Vonnegut, Faulkner, Sterne, and of Foer himself. It did not strike with the same original resonance it had given me on its first read. Sigh. This is the price of studying writing, losing that wonder and becoming jaded.

I still love Oskar’s voice, his “heavy boots” and his natural acceptance of every new personality that comes along. His travels and his approaches to people are fascinating, and, as my boy approaches nine, some of his observations really slayed me. The scene where Oskar is onstage as Yorick (a nod to Tristram Shandy? ), basically melting down inside while playing an inanimate skull is amazing.

This reading brought up an irritation with Oskar’s mother that I hadn’t felt before. Sure, it’s revealed that she was aware of his travels the whole time, but I don’t think I’d let my nine year old traverse Glendale on his own, let alone the five boroughs of New York City, unless I knew he had a companion; even with a call ahead to the person meeting him.

Mr. Black from upstairs is still a lively character, as is his life, delivery and filing system; but when he abandoned Oskar atop the Empire State building, it became once again apparent that while Foer’s characters are rich in this book, not all of their motivations are clearly defined.

The story of the grandparents was problematic for me this time. There was something lacking in their motivation and questions kept arising. Thomas Sr. never really tells us how he felt about losing Anna and her baby and why it makes him behave so awfully to his wife. It is a clever device to have him stop speaking, but scene after scene, his thoughts and feelings are stunted. While there is reason for this, it leaves us in the dark as to his thought processes. The “not space” he and Grandmother created in the apartment felt more like a writer enthralled with the rhythm he has found in his own language than an insight into his character’s lives. The vagueness of motivation in Thomas Sr. only brought into relief the problems of the grandmother character. I wanted so much more of her, from her point of view. Her voice is distant and folkloric and it feels like there was an opportunity here for so much more to happen.

I never could have written something so vast and in many ways beautiful and certainly not in my early twenties. It is a good reminder not to get too caught up in one’s poetry (which I could totally see doing at that age) and never to forget that writing should really be about the characters and what they are experiencing: that rendering their thoughts, feelings and conflict are really what make a novel work. That those lyric moments need to be earned and can’t just be everywhere.

Maybe Oskar is a lesson in following the characters who are really telling the story, or listening harder to those yelling in the background.

The Metamorphosis

metamorphosisbook by Franz Kafka

lecture by Vladimir Nabokov

annotation by Tina Rubin

Kafka’s remarkable tale of a young man who awakens after unsettling dreams to find himself changed into a monstrous vermin invites interpretation on every level. Before reading Nabokov’s lecture on the novella, I suspected that the theme was religious, based on Gregor Samsa’s humanity and selflessness to the end; his lonely death of starvation after his sister’s declaration that he, the beetle, must go; and the resurrection of his family after his death. Thus I read Nabokov’s interpretation with great interest. He says that Kafka was not interested in religion at all but in literature.

The greatness of this work, which Nabokov points out, to me lies in Kafka’s ability to portray “objective reality,” which includes elements of lunacy, poetry, emotion—in other words, an average sampling of a million different realities—while winning the reader’s sympathy. Gregor belongs to an absurd world that he tragically refuses to accept, and dies trying. As Kafka layers in the details of the family’s life and Gregor’s human role as the sincere breadwinner trying to pay off his father’s debts, he stirs up disdain for the family’s cruel treatment of him—including his father’s deception and his beloved sister’s cold betrayal. Too, the skill with which Kafka balances Gregor’s humanity with his growing insect attributes creates ever-increasing tension, and the symbolism throughout adds brilliant richness. As Nabokov notes, Gregor is a human disguised as an insect; his family are insects disguised as people—“nothing more than mediocrity surrounding genius.” Kafka is one of those geniuses to learn from.

Nobody’s Fool

Nobody's Foolbook by Richard Russo

annotation by Diane Sherlock

It was disconcerting to read a novel that came very close to describing someone I grew up with, but Richard Russo does just that in Nobody’s Fool. The title refers to the main character, Sully, Donald Sullivan, a perennially down and out construction worker. Having walked out on his family, he lives in the small town of Bath in New York, upstairs in Miss Beryl’s house. He works off the books for Carl, a contractor, while flirting with Carl’s wife. “Sully – people still remarked – was nobody’s fool, a phrase that Sully no doubt appreciated without ever sensing its literal application – that at sixty, he was divorced from his own wife, carrying on halfheartedly with another man’s, estranged from his son, devoid of self-knowledge, badly crippled and virtually unemployable – all of which he stubbornly confused with independence.” Russo paints a vivid picture of small town life and juggles a number of characters.  At 549 pages, a case could be made for editing down some of the tangential stories, but they are all vivid and well written.  Sully doesn’t have a substantial character arc and an alarming trend of misleading cover blurbs continues here, leading the reader to look for Sully’s son to follow in his father’s footsteps, which is not really part of the story.  The book is divided into three parts, with Part One divided into chapters of one day each: Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday; Part Two contains the following Tuesday and Wednesday; Part Three is one long chapter on Thursday.  With the span of only a about a week’s time, Sully is pretty much the same from start to finish.  The book begins and ends at Miss Beryl’s house where Sully is a border with little details like a Queen Anne’s chair that is rickety at the beginning, breaks about two thirds of the way through, and is repaired in the final pages, creaking again when Sully sits in it at the end.

Russo has taught me to find significant details for each character. Carl Roebuck is lucky and sleeps with any woman with a pulse. Miss Beryl is a retired schoolteacher: “Her being known in North Bath as “Miss” Beryl derived from the fact that the militantly unteachable eighth-grade schoolchildren she’d instructed for forty years considered he far too odd looking and misshapen to have a husband.” Rub Squeers is painfully stupid and smelly, “Rub still considered attentiveness hateful and exhausting and perverse.  And since he knew no one in Bath more alert than Miss Beryl , there was no one he disliked more.” They help the reader hang on to characters when they are absent from the story for awhile and to distinguish characters from each other.

This is a comic novel and mostly succeeds. There are funny and unexpected moments such as when Sully’s estranged son returns to his life while Sully is hitchhiking: “When he got alongside the car, he saw there were three children crowded into the cramped backseat among pillows and stuffed animals, slightly older versions of children he knew from somewhere. The young woman got out and pulled one of the bucket seats forward so Sully could crawl in back, and as he leaned forward and caught a glimpse of the driver it dawned on him who the hell these people were.  ‘Shove over, you runts,’ he said, making a face at the children. ‘Make room for Grandpa.’”

The primary reservation I had about the novel was that the language of the narrative is largely cultured and is more in line with the minor character of Sully’s son, Peter, a college professor. Most of the characters are not college educated, so there is a definite disconnect between the tone of the narrative and its subjects.  This is only a problem when he employs some but not the entire vernacular – it sounds stilted along the troublesome and erratic use of the n-word. That word seemed more like a political commentary on people who live in small towns, a social put-down perhaps, than an integral part of the story.  I think the reason it stuck out is because not a lot of the other dialogue is coarse, even from people who might speak coarsely on a regular basis, so it seemed to come out of nowhere. If it were taken out, the book certainly would not suffer.  Quite likely the opposite.

A few days after I finished the book, I learned it had been adapted into a film with Paul Newman (Jessica Tandy’s last). They came perilously close to ruining it, but settled for not capturing the book although Paul Newman makes an interesting and mostly convincing Sully. Most of the screenplay was taken directly out of the book, however Russo has done a great job of creating an entire world that isn’t easily transferred into another medium. His writing is richly textured with a strong sense of place that takes you beyond reading into the feeling that you’ve not only visited the town, but moved in. Like David Lodge, Russo understands that work is a large part of life and explores many facets, from the retired, to the barely working, to the bartenders, cooks, and waitresses, to the professor denied tenure. He gets the details of their lives right, along with their concerns and in that, also delivers a sense of history to the town of Bath. Sully is haunted by the specter of his dead violent alcoholic father, not unlike the father(s) of Pat Conroy’s books without Conroy’s self consciousness.

Two other valuable techniques Russo has mastered are his use of props (Chekov’s gun: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired”) and how he begins and ends his scenes.  He has an almost theatrical feel for when to get in and out.  To end the funeral scene for one of the minor characters, he ends with Sully as one of the pallbearers, talking to the man next to him:  “’Hey, buck up,’ Sully said, putting his arm around Otis’s shoulder and giving him a comforting pat.  Only Jocko seemed to notice through his thick glasses that when Sully took his arm away he slipped the rubber alligator he’d bought at Harold’s Automotive World into Otis’s overcoat pocket.  ‘You’re such a bad man, Sully,’ Jocko said as they took their positions alongside Hattie’s casket. ‘Okay, everybody,’ Carl Roebuck said as they grabbed hold of the silver handles. ‘On three.’” The paragraph illustrates both the author’s use of props, which is often hilarious, and how he ends a section.

Russo slowly builds, over five hundred pages worth, how many people count on Sully, who appears to be the last person anyone could ever count on. By the end of the novel, numerous interactions with the townspeople, some trivial, some comic, some heartfelt and some very moving, have shown Sully along with the reader, his own worth and with him, the worth of people in general. Russo conveys heartbreaking loss along with comic relief and a sense of hope, providing a rich literary experience.

Inventing the Abbotts and other stories

Inventing the Abbotsbook by Sue Miller

annotation by Heather Luby

As a reader, I am drawn to stories that dissect the complicated codes of conduct that rule the middle class. The domestic dramas that so many of us live out in our daily lives, but that a skilled writer can shed new light and perspective on with a well crafted story. In this collection there are no cliffhangers, no mysteries to be solved, just subtle observations of ordinary people presented with unflinching clarity.

As a writer, I wanted to examine this collection to learn how Sue Miller manages to make these ordinary stories resonant with the reader. One thing that stuck out more than anything else was her effective way of ending each story. In The Art of Fiction, David Lodge says, “One might say the short story is essentially ‘end-oriented,’ inasmuch as one begins a short story in the expectation of soon reaching its conclusion” and Miller achieves when it comes to very effective endings. Mostly Miller ends her stories with an idea or image. Generally speaking, very open endings, instead of using a circular ending or summary ending.

In the story “Slides” Miller ends with a very powerful image; Georgia is burning the nude slides of herself, “smoke curled up black and chemical. It turned into delicate dark particles as it rose, and these descended slowly onto Georgia, like winter’s first tentative snow.” Miller chooses carefully the image she wanted to use to create a lasting impression with the reader and this one image encompasses the hurt and anger the slides carry with them throughout the story.

In the story “Appropriate Affect” Miller ends with an image, yes, but more than that. It ends with an idea—Grandma Frannie figures out what those around her really want from her. She discovers that her family cannot accept the changes in her. That to love her is to love who she has always been and despite the changes she feels on the inside since her stroke, she must continue as she as always been in order to maintain the love of her family. To maintain the almost mythical status they have assigned her as matriarch of the family. “Then she seemed to realize what they wanted from her. Unassisted and shaky, she stepped forward and smiled again. Slowly she bowed her head, as though to receive the homage due a long and difficult performance.”

In the story, “What Ernest Says,” again Miller produces a strong image. “In her seat, Barbara tried to hide the slow tears starting down her face.”

The endings in this collection do not serve the purpose of wrapping things up neatly. So much is left for the reader to contemplate. Instead, Miller has decided to leave the reader with a punch to the gut (even if it is a gentle punch!) by giving them something concrete. An image, or lingering thought, that plants in the reader a lasting attachment to the story.

What We Talk About When We Talk about Love

What we talk about when we talk about lovebook by Raymond Carver

annotation by Tina Rubin

Ever since encountering “Popular Mechanics” during my first Antioch residency, I looked forward to reading more of Carver’s short stories. Although much has been said about the role Carver’s editor, Gordon Lish, played in the minimalism his stories are known for, reading them left no doubt in my mind about Carver’s mastery of the format.

The stories in this collection deal with damaged love in every form; in other words, strong emotion. The stories progress clearly, directly, yet they surprise. The endings reveal an unexpected theme. After reading the first few stories and seeing the pattern, I began to look forward to the endings to see how Carver would resolve each situation. His titles are a clue, carefully chosen as a signpost to the emotion of the story.

Carver employs two techniques that I found especially instructive. First, these stories reveal emotion mainly through action and dialogue, yet they manage to pierce the deepest feeling places. Second, it is what is not said that carries the most impact. In “Tell the Women We’re Going,” for example, two best friends settle into their marriages, but one feels more burdened by family responsibilities. Midway through the story Carver gives us this line: “It was a Sunday at Jerry’s place the time it happened.” He then continues with seven pages of an ostensible pick-up scenario: Jerry and Bill leave the women, go for a drive, and try to hustle two girls on bicycles headed for a hike in the mountains. Like Bill, the reader assumes they are going to cheat on their wives. It’s okay with Bill if it happens or it doesn’t. In the last paragraph, however, the narrator nonchalently reveals, “But it started and ended with a rock. Jerry used the same rock on both girls, first on the girl called Sharon and then on the one that was supposed to be Bill’s.” It’s only then that the reader realizes the depth of the Carver’s clues.

In another example, “So Much Water So Close to Home,” a woman’s husband discovers a female body in the brush by the stream as he and his buddies begin a camping trip. Rather than hiking back five miles to their car and then looking for a telephone, they fish and drink and camp for two nights, calling the authorities only on their way home. Hearing the story, the wife becomes judgmental, internalizes the murder, and even begins to fear for her own life. Yet in the end, she welcomes her husband’s advances in the time remaining before their son comes in from the backyard. “First things first,” her husband says, and she agrees. The idea is closer to home than she realizes.

“After the Denim” also stood out for me. In it, Carver uses more of the techniques found in longer works (or perhaps Lish didn’t edit this one as much). He spends more time developing the characters; e.g., James is always concerned about locking doors and leaving porch lights on—protecting what is his—while happy Edith wiggles her toes at him and makes light of his cynacism about a younger couple (in denims) displacing them in their bingo group. When she faces a serious female problem, his anger is directed at the younger couple. Carver uses wonderful symbolism at the end, when James stabs at the eye of his needlepoint and pretends he is a man in a photograph he has seen at their community center, standing on a overturned boat and waving.

The collection taps into an emotional realm that everyone can relate to—because we’ve all been there. This too is a lesson for me: it’s the emotion of the characters that makes the theme work, not the grandeur of the theme itself.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Elegance of the Hedgehogbook by Muriel Barbery

annotation by Kate Maruyama

This is an engaging book that didn’t really pan out for me and I am still petulant and childishly cross with the ending..

But to go back, before…Barbery lends a lovely voice to Renée, the concierge. She is a bit crabby, perhaps from playing the role too long. Her habits are amusing and her take on the people who live in her building wry and cinematic. Renée admits a penchant for film and the descriptions in this book are so reminiscent of Delicatessen I venture to think the writer has had some filmic influence as well.

Paloma is the more entertaining voice, rambling at a breakneck pace on her feelings about the world. Barbery manages to catch the breathless speed with which the twelve year-old mind thinks and gives us Paloma’s comi-tragic intention of suicide up front. We all find that time in our lives when no one understands us particularly our family and that “when they find me” fantasy runs rampant. Paloma’s impending suicide becomes a nice little ticking clock under our story, although we know it probably won’t come to pass.

The style of the writing is so different from my own, this is one read that didn’t speak volumes on writing to me. I felt myself carried along, charmed and entertained, but fully aware that I was traveling in a foreign country where I can enjoy the coffee, but probably won’t buy any souveniers.

The intellectual argument raised my hackles some. I do understand that class stratification exists in Europe as it doesn’t here. I learned this in my year in England, puzzling at why two very good friends of mine didn’t get along…didn’t even try. Then I realized that one was working class, the other upper middle (joke was on them as they came to visit the US at the same time and were forced to sightsee together). Classes just don’t cross lines there and prejudices run deep. I understood where Renée’s intellectual conceits come from: a defensiveness of sorts. Her being smart and well read was her clever little secret and she kept the others fooled.

But somewhere in Renée’s philosophical musings, Barbery’s message comes in strong and clear: the only people of real value are intellectuals. She clearly conveys the view that the lower classes are vulgar because they have become dead inside to deal with their hardships. um. ick.

While she casts her critical eye on the upper classes: the tenants of the building are dealt with harshly in their wealthy blindness, there is a basic lack of joy in the everyday. While Renée does sing the praises of Manuela, she talks of her intelligence as well, as if defending her choice of friend: Manuela is a closet intellectual of sorts as well, otherwise she would not deign to associate.

Kakuro is a charming fellow from the beginning and the book takes a turn toward the romance novel as he comes on board, genteel, unprejudiced and loving all of the same things as Renée. He helps her make peace with her dreadful lower class past and helps raise her above her station (still yuck). But his charm and entire lack of conflict or trouble with desire made this engaging edgy teen suicide piece into one of those old Folgers coffee commercials with the handsome older gentleman from upstairs. (the gentleman was Giles from Buffy).

Barbery does have a lovely appreciation of beauty and of language, and if I cast the story aside, there are very nice passages, even some I dog-eared. She goes on with an energized voice about her joy for aesthetics and the beauty in every day. Paloma in the end, finds those moments of beauty which give her reason to live. But that did NOT seem worth killing off Renée!.(..says the woman who is writing a book half-filled with dead characters.) Call me old-fashioned, but death needs to fill a purpose in literature. It must either have a point or its pointlessness must make a point. We get engaged with our adorable hedgehog, clean her up, treat her to yummy meals and a chance at love then bump her off with a dry-cleaning van! (is there justice in that, as Renée was always taking in the dry-cleaning? I have no idea). This is sad for Kakuro, and for Paloma, who had already decided not to kill herself because she’d found Renée to be so nice…but it had no narrative purpose. I felt the French accent creep in (as it had been throughout the book) “Ah! C’est la morte!”

Very irritating.

What to take away from this amuse bouche?

I adore nice writing and this book was full of it, I love plays on words, cultural references (she had fun with movies), scenes about food and how a nice dress can change your life. But there has to be something larger going on in a book for me to feel satisfied. I felt like the book met Paloma’s description of French food with its creams, sauces, fussiness ending in nothing. It made me want a simple Japanese meal, elegant in its flavors and wholesome on the palate…sustenance.

I’m gonna go read some Banana Yoshimoto now.

A Relative Stranger: Stories

Relative Strangerbook by Charles Baxter

annotation by Heather Luby

In The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief, James Wood’s writes that for a piece of fiction to be successful, it must allow itself to be brought to completion by the reader. For me, a story should allow the reader to live within its characters and even after the story is completed, the reader will give life to those characters by imagining how the story could be continued. Like Woods, I believe that a story should give us a “true lie” by creating narrative consciousnesses so artful that the reader believes in its reality. And if we believe in the reality of the characters and of the story, it will be impossible to put the story down and abandon the pages. The story will continue with the reader.

In the collection A Relative Stranger by Charles Baxter he gives his readers a glimpse into the complex and fitful lives of his characters, who are all ordinary people swimming around in the muck of the world. Baxter creates for us the “true lie” by bringing life to these flawed and perfectly individual characters that each of us could know, as neighbor or friend, or each of us could believe to be ourselves. And just as in life, Baxter’s stories are never really over. Baxter’s stories are moments of truth, pulled from his characters lives and placed before the reader. Baxter refuses to give his readers an ending. He leaves their lives and their struggles open for the reader to complete.  This is what makes his fiction brilliantly successful.

In the story, “Saul and Patsy Are Pregnant,” Baxter gives us Saul, a man dissatisfied with his own mediocrity, while simultaneously believing his awareness of himself makes him extraordinary in comparison to his Midwestern neighbors. Yet, he allows the happiness of those he believes to be inferior to him to plague him. The story pulls its reader through Saul’s story of obsession with the McPhee’s and with their happiness, until you reach the end. Upon his discovery that their happiness is as flawed as his own, he feels free again to strive for his own happiness. He attempts to save himself through his love of Patsy, through sex and the ordinary and biological need to create in the world a continuation of self.  It is during his moment of climax that he finally feels connected to the world. “He understood everything, the secret of the universe.  But just like in real life, in the real world inhabited by the reader, Saul cannot hold onto his feelings of completeness. Reality erodes us. “Having lost the secret, forgotten it, he felt the usual onset of the ordinary…He would never admit to anyone that he had known the secret of the universe for a split second. That part of his life was hidden away and would always be.”  Baxter gives his reader no neat and tidy ending. No epiphany or closure. Just like in real life. In this way, Baxter gives us a “true lie.”

Every story in Baxter’s collection ends with a question.  It is as if we are watching the lives of his characters through an open window and then he shuts it. We know their world continues to exist and we can’t help but wonder what they are doing. In “A Relative Stranger” Baxter leaves us questioning what will become of this new relationship of “lost” brothers. In “Silent Movie” we are left to wonder where the life of the female protagonist will lead and if her love for herself and the silence of the night will be enough to sustain her. Will she really be happy? In “Snow” we are left to wonder, what kind of teenager did Ben become? Did his insightful observations of his older brother later protect him from the bad judgment of the teen years?

Ultimately, Baxter’s brilliance is the creation of a recognizable spiritual longing within his characters that makes his fiction “real” to the reader. He gives his reader an ordinary universe, inhabited by the familiar, but then he connects with his reader by showing them they are not alone in the doubts and fears we all share. The reader believes in the reality of his characters, therefore, we believe in the stories ability to change us as a reader. This collection is startling and unforgettable.


Middlesexbook by Jeffrey Eugenides

annotation by Diane Sherlock

The most surprising thing about Middlesex is not the titillating subject matter, but the reportorial voice, that, despite strained Homeric outbursts, is often flat. The narration is too often a series of platitudes strung together in an entertaining narrative lacking depth or insight. The author stays on the surface of his subject, offering only conventional, even stereotypical, observations about sex and gender.

There is little sense of understanding of many of these characters. One of the great oversights of the book is that the author apparently has never changed a diaper or cared for a baby. He accounts for the doctor overlooking genital abnormality, but not for any of the (most likely) women who would have changed Callie’s diaper. In an extended family as described, the chances are very good that several of the women would have helped out with the baby at a time when cloth diapers made the changing process longer than with modern paper diapers and wipes. It strains credibility that no family member would have noticed something unusual in the baby’s anatomy in hundreds of times wiping and bathing. Also, the significance of Desdemona’s sobbing promise to her mother at her mother’s death to take care of her brother and find him a wife, “I promise, I promise!” does not seem to trouble her as the affair with her brother and its attendant rationalizations unfold. Though technically she does fulfill her promise, the apparent ease with which she overcomes her reservations seems counter to the traditional Greek society that the author has constructed.

The voices of the characters are captured well, as are details such as Lefty’s singing in English without understanding the words. “It spoke to Lefty of jazz-age frivolity, gin cocktails, cigarette girls; it made him slick his hair with panache…” The burning of Smyrna is vivid: “The heat precedes the fire” as are the details of life in Grosse Pointe, “The trees were what I noticed first.” Grosse Pointe appears to be where the author is most comfortable and one of the strongest sections of the book deals with Callie’s relationship with the Object as s/he sorts out feelings and urges.

In addition to the facile cleverness, there is the problem of the structure of the book. It starts off in a promising way and the story of Cal’s life is laid out in the second paragraph. There will not be a lot of surprises; the main tension of the book arises from how Cal will make the jump from female to male and what the consequences might be. Unfortunately, this means the tank in San Francisco then becomes the overriding metaphor for the book. The focus is too much on the revelation of unusual anatomy and its freak show overtones instead of a powerful exploration of what it means to be a man or a woman and the territory between the two. Sexuality is likely fluid for most of us early on (and remains so for many), but the author does not take the opportunity to explore this in any depth.

Overall, the book feels unbalanced. For example, from the very beginning, Desdemona is a vital character and even though she fades away after her husband/brother’s death, it seems like it would have been a stronger choice to end the book with her death rather than Milton’s. Since the main character never fulfills Tiresias’ prophetic role, it would have been natural to either give Desdemona a stronger prophetic voice besides the spoon and occasional jeremiad or the voice of a Greek chorus from her sickbed.

We do not know much more about who the main character is by the end of the book.  Details about his growth as a person rather than anatomical details could have added poignancy to his budding affair with Julie. Instead, it is just another curiosity, not unlike his performance in the tank in San Francisco. There is little besides wardrobe that changes from the moment Cal lives as a man and some twenty years later when he has made his fortune, evidenced by expensive clothes with his “handmade cordovans by Edward Green”  that go for about a thousand dollars a pair (is Cal on the take to make that kind of coin?). He is defined primarily by what he is not: “And I happen not to be a political person. I don’t like groups. Though I am a member of the Intersex Society of America, I have never taken part in its demonstrations.” The author never gives us enough of who Cal is, as a State Department employee, as a man, or as a hermaphrodite in his thirties and early forties. The result is a novel that is entertaining in its uneven way, but not moving.