Then We Came To The End

Then We Came to the Endbook by Joshua Ferris

annotation by Diane Sherlock

Then We Came To The End, titled from DeLillo’s Americana, begins in first person plural, a technique that holds up for about a hundred pages and is intermittently successful after that. Fortunately, the author punctuates the narrative with other points of view. First person plural is an effective choice to convey office life at a large advertising firm in Chicago, “How we hated our coffee mugs! our mouse pads, our desk clocks, our daily calendars, the contents of our desk drawers. Even the photos of our loved ones taped to our computer monitors for uplift and support turned into cloying reminders of time served. But when we got a new office, a bigger office, and we brought everything with us into the new office, how we loved everything all over again, and though hard about where to place things, and looked with satisfaction at the end of the day at how well our old things looked in this new, improved, important space.”

The author uses this point of view to great effect for many aspects of office life. The two omissions noted were arguments around food which he covers by glossing over a break room without a refrigerator and the territorial skirmishes common in large offices, but the book succeeds without them.

The first person plural point of view is broken up by dropping into conversations around the office and occasionally into someone’s first person point of view. The tone falters at page 95 for about twenty pages. The author rather than the narrator emerges to center stage only to slip back behind the scenes and recover the original tone. Amid the gossip and petty concerns in the office, there are glimpses into a couple of ad campaigns, most notably one for breast cancer that runs through the narrative. This parallels the experience of one of the creative vice presidents who is rumored to have breast cancer and a canceled operation.

There is a prologue exclusively in first person plural, “You Don’t Know What’s in My Heart,” followed by the first half of the book titled, “Enter a New Century.” On page 196, a new section, sort of an interlude, “The Thing to Do and the Place to Be” varies between simple past and third person present tense about the female creative vice president gossiped about in the first section. “Returns and Departures” is the final section and mirrors “Enter a New Century” in its structure, including chapters with all of the subheadings stacked at the beginning: “ON NOT GETTING IT – BENNY SPOTS CARL – HOSING THE ALLEYWAY” but the distance created by the structure and layout enhance the feel of a corporate office environment.

The interlude with Lynn Mason, the creative vice president, begins on the night before her cancer surgery and builds into a touching portrait of a woman who has put all of her energy into work and is alone facing the loss of her breast and possibly her life. She is introduced early on, “Lynn Mason was intimidating, mercurial, unapproachable, fashionable, and consummately professional…. She dressed like a Bloomingdale’s model and ate like a Buddhist monk.” As her team works on a pro bono ad ordered to elicit laughs from breast cancer patients, a task they regard as impossible, she comes to terms with her overwhelming fear, especially of the hospital. The author explores her waning relationship with an attorney who devises a way to circumvent her fear with a blindfold, “‘Like you’re a pirate’s captive,’ he said, ‘and you’ve just been told to walk the plank.’” This close up on Lynn provides the heart of a novel that otherwise would be an interesting exercise in first person plural.

The last major section delves into the lives of the key characters set up before the interlude, resolving several, but not all, by the end. Because these are tied together and repeated – the breast cancer, the steady firings due to downsizing, the individual dramas -the narrative builds emotional intensity. The first person plural allows the reader to feel part of the office and there is enough close observation on the politics, in-jokes, and minutiae of general office life to provide amusement and authenticity. There is also a minor character who returns in the coda at the end with a book written and published after his layoff, excerpted from the earlier interlude with Lynn.

Within the first person plural, individual characters are peeled away as they are let go, “At first we called it what you would expect – getting laid off, being let go…. Lately a new phrase had appeared and really taken off. “Walking Spanish down the hall.” Somebody had picked it up from an old Tom Waits song, but it was an old, old expression as we learned from our Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins.” All the way through the book, various employees ‘walk Spanish’ until the book takes a serious turn and the language changes first to “They let go of Marcia Dwyer.” to “When next they came for Amber, a few weeks after that, we said she was tossed into the streetlamp outside the building without any concern for her unborn baby.”

The most valuable parts of the book for my writing were the point of view and the use of language with repeated phrases and narrative threads to tie it together in a different way. There’s a linear element to the narrative, but it’s not a story traditionally told. It helped me consider new ways to convey story and build emotion that may not directly apply to my current novel, but which I may consider for future work. The book is occasionally uneven, but largely successful, with an ending that nicely sums up the layoffs and pays off the initial point of view.

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Little Birds

Little BirdsBook by Anaїs Nin

Annotation by Kat Kambes

Little Birds is a collection of thirteen short stories of what has come to be known as erotic literature. Nin herself writes of this collection as her becoming “the Madame of an unusual house of literary prostitution.” Not because the work itself did not have the literary quality of her other work (for which I note some 40 + books) but that she had gotten to a point and place in her life where she needed money with a certain amount of desperation, so that, in her words, “my real writing was put aside when I set out in search of the erotic.” This was not an easy road to take, especially in the times written and she talks somewhat about this as “…at first difficult. The sexual life is usually enveloped in many layers, for all of us — poets, writers, artists. It is a veiled woman, half-dreamed.” So considering the great difficulty and challenge that a woman had to engage in to write these stories and sell them for making a living, I found them quite remarkable.

The nature of this work can be found to be avant garde for her time, in that, with regard to female sexuality, there still seems to be a hesitation amongst female writers to explore sexuality fully from the point of view of women. This might be due to the deeply internalized taboos that we have been formed by, or the fact that our history has largely been depicted through the imagery of male artists and consequently those are the viewpoints which have formed our ideology about art (what is and what isn’t). The fact that that these stories depict women who have desire is rather revolutionary in the sense that it breaks such a long held silence about women’s sexuality and Nin rather approaches her female characters as women who have command over there own sexuality. In this sense, I think Nin did women, and female writers, a service by expanding the preconceived concepts of what the “feminine” is. In this way, the stories hold a kind of empowering effect for women of her time.

Little Birds, the story, seems to take a non-judgmental view of a pedophile. This story would have received much more criticism in today’s time than it did in her own, just by the shear idea of the dynamic of the fantasy and how her main character, Manuel, ultimately entices young girls into his apartment. So while this particular story resonated an eroticism in her time, it undoubtedly would have been spurned in our time. None-the-less, she did capture the calculating behavior of this person in great detail, and when he finally exposed (literally) his lechery, her ending was full of humor and vindictiveness for the lewdness of his behavior.

The Woman on the Dunes seemed fully male fantasy, but in that respect, Nin was able to achieve a kind of dream like quality for her main male character, which remained unnamed, and as such enveloped a kind of dream-like effect. This seemed, when juxtaposed with the move to move, play by play of the sex scenes, (“…He placed it between her legs. She touched it. His hands searched her…”) to created a kind of tension. So what we get in the lead up is very poetic, then there is a bluntness to the sexual encounter, then the ending is once again poetic. I read where she was told to “take out all the poetry, it has to be nothing but description of sex,” and can see that clearly in the sex scenes of this story in particular. However, she did hold on to a fair amount of her poetry here.

Lina was an exploration of the lesbian experience. As such, it was brief and conflicted. This was much, I suppose, as Nin’s own experience. This brief story seemed almost more one of power than of sex, which is an interesting view on the lesbian experience, considering that her character Lina was the one who was ultimately duped and overpowered, yet portrayed with unresolved lesbian tendencies. I’m struck again by the directness of the sexual encounter, the way she refers to a man’s penis as his sex. But also the way Nin captures the conflicted nature of woman, wanting but unable to express her desire, for fear of being thought of cheaply or as less than.

Nin seems to travel through the gamet of sexual fantasy in this collection. From Lina she moves on to the Two Sisters, where Robert ultimately gets both. To this point, the stories seem to be written with the male fantasy in mind. It seems to me that, although Lina depicts two sexually assertive women, that the females in two sisters seem decidedly more conventional. However, it is in this convention, that she is able to define the ways in which these characters find themselves locked into their roles, and so their ultimate sexual expression is a great leap toward freedom.

My absolute favorite in the collection was The Queen, in which the model gets her body painted as a leopard for the masquerade party, and tells the painter she will meet him there. The imagery she draws, not just of this majestic character getting painted, but the artist who can hardly control himself to its completion is vivid and humorous. When the artist arrives at the party and follows her trail, it is a boldly drawn piece, and as such, the female, Bijou, is quite beautiful. To be able to capture this kind of bold beauty in the time written took great courage. She drew a particularly sharp line to a defining sexuality, and depicted her character fully in touch with that aspect of herself.

She touches upon themes of infidelity in Saffron as well, but interestingly is able to distinguish between physical infidelity and emotional infidelity in a way that is not often so clearly delineated by women. In Mandra she hits infidelity differently, a shared sexual experience between two females under a fur coat in a car on a way to an event with the husband sitting right next to them. Her tension is built as much in the context of the possibility of getting discovered as it is in the hand reaching between Miriam’s legs under the coat, fingering her clitoris until she “grows tense under my fingers.”

These themes are more or less repeated in various incarnations throughout the stories. While their appeal may be limited, they do carry with them a kind of political statement, and while Nin herself may have felt prostilitized by having to go “there” in her writing, she undoubtedly opened the door for many female writers, romance writers, or otherwise, who came up behind her. Her direct approach to the smells, sensations, and physical attributes of both her male and female characters make the work vivid and engaging. Her direct approach to the clitoris and penis and the way they behave, regardless of how their owners (male and female) might think about it, was an interesting exploration.

The Hummingbird’s Daughter

Hummingbirds DaughterBook by Luis Alberto Urrea

Annotation by Tisha Reichle

This journey begins with the conquest, coffee, and Dia de los Muertos as Cayetana waits to give birth. Throughout the novel this same tension exists between the political, the natural, and the spiritual. Urrea tells a detailed family story infused with cultural history. I learned a great deal about the geography and people of various regions. I was also traumatized by the mother who abandons her child; however, that immediately gave the novel its universality. This is a phenomenon that plagues my own community across race and class. Unfortunately, it is also too often unacknowledged. While it may not have been Urrea’s intentions, he inspires social consciousness.

Using vivid imagery, Urrea paints Mexico as a land of adventure and political problems. Alternating between male and female protagonists, urea allows them both to have a voice. Teresita grows up on the trip and replaces Huila as curandera for their rancho. She expands her healing powers after her own resurrection. Huila dies.

Huila is my favorite character because of her knowledge and strength; she is feminine in a way not normally revered by men. Teresita’s father, Tomas, entertains readers with his womanizing, beekeeping, and skepticism. He provides Urrea the opportunity to infuse humor into his text. Complicating their lives are Tomas’s two sons: one the offspring of his wife Loreto and the other illegitimate like Teresita. All of the characters are unique and present a distinctly identifiable perspective throughout their travels.

Conflicts ensue when Teresita wants to read and her father (at first) discourages it. He is master and all (even the bees apparently) obey. That is until he is forced to confront Buenaventura and his son, Jose Francisco and he must acknowledge that Teresita is his daughter.

Women turn to god and faith in times of duress, but we see many of the male characters responding with violence. Urrea is making commentary about the state of Mexico’s society. He also offers contrasting perspectives on religion with the resurrection of Tereista, Cruz’s worship of her, her father’s denial, and Fr. Gastelum’s accusations. Readers are challenged to create their own impressions.

This novel is both love story and adventure tale. It is the kind of fiction I aspire to create; the kind that weaves familial reality with the cultural and political history of a nation.

Momma and the Meaning of Life: Tales of Psychotherapy

Momma and the meaning of lifeBook by Irvin D. Yalom

Annotation by: Telaina Eriksen

Irvin Yalom’s Momma and the Meaning of Life consists of six tales of psychotherapy, four nonfiction and two fiction. Yalom, renowned relationship-based, here-and-now psychiatrist, tackles his personal mother issues in “Momma and the Meaning of Life.” In “Travels with Paula,” Yalom writes about his relationship with a breast-cancer patient that revolutionized the therapy of death in California. “Southern Comfort” offers the reader a look into group therapy in a psychiatric ward. “Seven Advanced Lessons in the Therapy of Grief” details Yalom’s seven-year therapy with a female surgeon who lost her 45-year-old husband, both parents and her godson in a two-year span. The last two stories, “Double Exposure” and “The Hungarian Cat Curse” revisit the fictional psychiatrist Dr. Ernest Lash who readers met in Yalom’s novel, Lying on the Couch.

This is a strange collection that feels like Yalom took everything he’d written that he didn’t know what to do with and threw it in this book. Uneven doesn’t begin to cover it. “Seven Advanced Lessons in Therapy Grief” is well-written and moving…and it inhabits the same space as “The Hungarian Cat Curse” where the protagonist psychoanalyzes a reincarnated cat.

The nonfiction outings do hang together thematically—all dealing with loss. The fiction offerings are more playful (or at least they attempt to be). “Double Exposure” is charming enough to be readable but “The Hungarian Cat Curse” is so out of place it is baffling. It passes playful and heads south on Absurd Highway and not in the good Gabriel Garcia Marquez way. Not only is it out of place, if a reader has read Lying on the Couch, he/she cannot suspend disbelief that the harried and helpful Dr. Lash character would ever (unless under the influence of strong pharmaceuticals) buy into the situation being presented in the short story.

Yalom is a concise writer with a great depth of philosophical and medical knowledge and his content is interesting. His characters seem real and nuanced. He’s not lyrical, but he gets a reader from Point A to Point B with little difficulty and his characters’ motivations always seem true (with the exception of the reincarnated cat).
Yalom, though confident and experienced, does not pretend to have all the answers. “Where was the line between intimacy and seduction? Would she become too dependent on me? Would she ever be able to break away? Would the powerful husband-transference prove to be irresolvable?” (p.150)
He also tries to bring to light the problems with therapy today. “How can you say Ernest has seen her only for fourteen sessions?…I’m luck to have an HMO give me eight visits and only if I can out of my patient one of the magic words—suicide, revenge, arson or homicide…” (p.171)

Yalom also brings comfort to those readers who might have developed attachment or dependency on their own psychotherapists. He talks about his patients who are dependent on him without judgment and with compassion. “The ending of every session was problematic: she hated me having so much control… Every ending was like a death. During her most difficult periods, she was unable to keep images in her mind and feared that once I was out of sight, I would cease to exist. She also considered endings of sessions as symbols of how little I cared for her, how quickly I could dispense with her. My vacations or professional trips invariably posed such major problems that on several occasions, I chose to phone to maintain contact.” (p.149)

This is a worthwhile collection due to the strength of the nonfiction pieces but in terms of fictional offerings, Yalom’s two novels, Lying on the Couch and When Nietzsche Wept are much more compelling than the two pieces of fiction offered here.

Bring Your Legs with You

bring your legs with youBook by Darrell Spencer

Annotation by Neal Bonser

Bring Your Legs With You is a collection of linked stories about a boxer who retired undefeated and still quite young, who is being tempted back to the ring, not for money or glory (he is actually well situated financially and is somewhat haunted by the damage he inflicted upon his opponents), but out of loyalty to his old manager and out of a desire for his father to see him fight in person for the first time. Many of the stories were originally published as stand alone short stories in various journals, but the collection as a whole won the Drue Heinz award. Reading this collection at the same time as reading Junot Diaz’s Drown has prompted me to consider the question of what exactly is a collection of linked stories and what makes it different from a novel.

Justin Cronin’s first “novel” was labeled by the publisher as a novel-in-stories and won the Pen-Hemingway for debut fiction. The collection concerns a small group of characters and the stories proceed in a chronological fashion. I happen to know Mr. Cronin a little bit and heard directly from him that he would have preferred that the stories be ordered differently (i.e., not chronologically, more thematically ordered), but that his publisher pushed for the chronology so that it could be sold and marketed as more closely approximating a novel. I believe the quote he got from his editor during the discussion of the ordering of the stories was something like, “Don’t give me that writing school bullshit.”

But what distinguishes a collection of linked stories from a more traditional novel? The chronology of events? Clearly many novels do not proceed in a chronological order of events. A tighter narrative arc? I’d say Bring Your Legs With You has a tighter overall narrative arc than, for example, Gaitskill’s Veronica. So what is it? I wonder if it might occasionally come down to the order in which things were conceptualized. I’m guessing here, but I’d bet that both Bring Your Legs With You and Drown evolved out of short stories that were never intended to be part of a larger collection. A voice just spoke to them and they went with it for more than one piece and then success breeds success. If Drown was simply labeled “Chapter One, Chapter Two” instead of the story titles, would we have questioned that it was a novel? In the case of Bring Your Legs With You, I certainly think it could have been passed off as a novel simply by changing titles into chapters.

If pressed, I’d say the distinction lies more in the original conception of the work as a whole—how it evolves. Chapters can have resolution. Short stories can have very little resolution. Annotations can have absolutely no resolution.

Angle of Repose

Angle of ReposeBook by Wallace Stegner

Annotation by Kat Kambes

Very eloquently written study of early California frontier life, particularly focused on an artist and the mining industry as seen through the exploration and foraging of the grandson. Stegner does a number of things that hold you deeply engaged through this lengthy depiction. Structurally, the book is two books entertwined. The first is the story of the young couple Susan and Oliver who make their way west during the early days of mining, and their eventual life together, the ups, downs, disappointments and accomplishments. Susan is an artist and Oliver an engineer. Susan is genteel and Oliver is enraptured by her gentility. This juxtaposition of the lives of Lyman Ward’s grandparents and his own life, which has been excruciatingly limited, and the veracity of the times play against each other to create tension.

The second book is that of the “author/narrator,” Lyman Ward, who is writing the history of his grandparents whilst being restrained in a wheelchair and having to learn to accommodate himself to a new life, one in which his wife has betrayed him and his son does not want to be burdened by him. These two texts work against each other and reflect each other throughout the book, bringing our historian writer, Lyman Wagner (grandson of the esteemed Susan and Oliver) closer to the truth about his own struggles, inhibitions and limiting attitudes which have “crippled” him.

There is an additional world created in this book, which is that of Grass Valley, its inhabitants and the times which are affecting them. Somehow, it is this third world that helps us to keep reality with Lyman Ward, our narrator, and keeps him from becoming an unreliable narrator. We seem to be able to rely upon him because he is cross-comparing in his research the differences between then and now (60’s at the time) and positioning himself between them.

The book utilizes knowingly the “Doppler Effect” – where the grandmother is continually longing for things in her past that are receding further and further into the distance an eventually lost and juxtaposes this as well against Oliver’s very forward looking, advanced thinking, toward the future.

The portrayal of the west in its full glory and beauty is seen while at the same time revealing the myth of the west as a kind of brave new world, full of gold, wealth, and opportunity. We see it’s fraying at the edges. We see it at the “Angle of Repose” – to the utmost angle before its loose surface begins to crumble. A metaphor encapsulating the book within the title.

There is a lot of reflecting that occurs throughout the book, Susan’s being restrained to be a “lady” – even in the most unseemly conditions, Lyman’s being restrained in a wheelchair. Susan having to have men do all for her, Lyman having to have others do for him. Susan being an artist. Lyman being a writer. There are numerous parallels throughout the text, that interconnect the story lines on a very subliminal level.

The artistry of Stegner to “paint” the locations are remarkable. He does some stunning work in drawing you into the scene, one sense, two senses, aural, visual, physical. Over and over again he meticulously drives the story with these “painted” portraits of the wild west, much as his Grandmother would have seen them. He has a unique ability to depict something in such stunning detail that the clarity is astounding. To this effect, the landscape itself becomes a character in the book, each location having its own definite color and contributing its own strengths and weaknesses to the story.

He mixes into the storyline, clippings, letters, journal entries that help drive the narrative. Through the letters Susan writes to her best friend back east in the “best circles” of artists and writers, we are provided a lens with which to see and experience her precariously complex nature and how conflicted she is about social standing and or this new spirit she is experiencing in the west. She wrestles with these issues. There are also communications with publishers and the on-going artistic projects, so that while she has an unrelenting longing to return to the civility of the east, she is truly becoming in every sense of the word in the west, the artist and writer that captures her place in the world. There are suggestions of infidelity, and it is in this grappling with the possibilities of Susan’s human frailty that Lyman must confront his own doggedness and grapple with forgiveness. The fact that these facts are never completely disclosed, but alluded to, seems to heighten the effect.

The cultural heritages that she was able to experience and engage with were on a much deeper level than her eastern counterparts experience of foreign culture, and she was able to capture this in her art. Stegner brought a great complexity to these characters and wove the stories together in subtle tones. There could have been less perhaps of the historical scenes, and brought the two novels into more direct proportion, but I got the distinct feeling that the “larger life” of Susan and Oliver was part of his overall thematic quest, as his critique of the “modern” students of the present day, seemed to on one hand move in the quality of looseness, he considered that a process of dilution, whereby people were losing a sense of personal and particular identity and sensitivity to each other. So on another level this was also a critique of the modern relationship, and its inability to endure and begs the question of dedication.

White Teeth

White Teethbook by Zadie Smith

annotation by Diane Sherlock

The best thing about Zadie Smith’s first novel is the gusto with which she relates it. That enthusiasm was the most important element gleaned for my own development as a writer because it is key to involving the reader in the narrative. The influences of E.M. Forster and Salman Rushdie are loud and clear, which is not a criticism since Smith has her own voice apart from them.

I was going to say I did not have compassion for the characters, but that is not accurate. I did, but it dissipated over the course of the book. I think this is because the author begins the book with Archie’s failed suicide attempt, but he is one of the least interesting characters and is nearly abandoned by the middle of the book. Irie seems the closest to the author as well as the heart of the novel. Focusing the book more tightly on her character would probably have provided a more cohesive and satisfying structure. The so-called big reveal, that Archie never killed Dr. Marc-Pierre Perret, is not at all surprising. There is only one gun shot in the first scene and Archie emerges from the woods with a thigh injury. It did not strike me as believable that Iqbal thought that Archie would have killed ‘Dr. Sick’, so his shock that their fifty year friendship is allegedly built on a lie rings false and hollow.

The mosaic Smith creates with over thirty characters and numerous locations from North London to Jamaica is well done and impressive, particularly given the author’s youth. Even though she is not always successful, White Teeth serves as a reminder to have the literary courage to tackle a lot, more than can be comfortably handled in order to stretch as a writer and have a chance at creating something more interesting for the reader.

I chose to examine the book because of its comic elements and this is one of the areas that Smith handles well. She sets the tone on the first page with her word choice and what amounts to stage directions of Archie’s suicide. “…scrunched up in each fist he held his army service medal (left) and his marriage license (right), for he had decided to take his mistakes with him.” Archie is then saved by Mo Hussein-Ishmael, a local butcher, who declares, “’We’re not licensed for suicides around here. This place halal. Kosher, understand. If you’re going to die round here, my friend, I’m afraid you’ve got to be thoroughly bled first.’” This conveys the information to the reader quickly and the effect is comic. The biggest joke is in chapter sixteen, where Magid shows himself “a first-class, 100 percent, bona fide, total and utter pain in the arse” interrupting Irie’s work with his shrink-to-fit “emergency” that Joyce discovers completely out of context, “They need help. I just walked past the bathroom and Magid is sitting in the bath with his jeans on….. I should know a traumatized child when I see one.” Smith is not afraid to set up a big screwball visual joke that also illustrates the key foible of Joyce Chalfen.

Smith regularly fractures the text with signs, letters, tables, and the reproduction of a name, Iqbal, scratched in a bench, something that I have been experimenting in with my short stories and the current novel I am working on. They all contribute to the story in White Teeth, encouraging me to continue to find opportunities in order to bring something a little different to the traditional form of the novel.

Overall, Smith has a strong voice that is engaging and amiable. One of the problems in the book was that many of her details regarding the Jehovah’s Witnesses are inaccurate as well as her geography of India and Bangladesh, with Dhaka sounding more like Delhi. Regarding the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Clara notices Ryan wearing a small cross, but Jehovah’s Witnesses do not wear or display crosses. It is unfortunate in a book that does include a fair amount of historical understanding. In addition, the last hundred pages as well some of the character inconsistencies (such as Alsana’s development and Irie’s abrupt sleeping with both brothers) would have benefited from the strong pen of an editor, but the novel was enjoyable and fun to read.