A Feather on the Breath of God

Feather on the Breath of Godbook by Sigrid Nunez

annotation by Tisha Reichle

Nunez’s novel is based on her experiences as a child of mixed race. She reveals, with vivid sensory detail, the pain and comfort of each parent. The novel opens with a unique structure. First person anecdotes of childhood, specifically detailing the protagonist’s inadequate relationship with her father, are filtered through the mother in dialogue. This makes readers wonder, is her father dead? This section is brief, emphasizing the limited development of the father-daughter bond.

The mother’s story, titled Christa, is infused with the history of Nazi Germany which influenced the mother’s character. The sequence of events is non-linear, sometimes disconcerting, but rich with dialogue and specific description that brings the emotions of the time period to life. Each segment is like a snapshot or a different time, place, or person; the only narrative connection seems to be references to Germany. The narrator/protagonist gets more philosophical as time passes and the segments of memory are shorter. Clearly trying to discern her own identity, the author explores the cultural influences on the protagonist. She also begins to investigate gender identity, questioning the role of mother and father as it influences perceptions of a woman’s desire for man and man as necessity for woman’s survival.

Part Three is a disturbing narrative. From the narrator/protagonist’s perspective, readers learn the title is a reference to lightness – the absence of weight, not color. It is, quite tragically, the protagonist‘s desire to be so thin, to be a dancer. There are allusions to eating disorders and the fears of food her own mother cultivated which were reinforced by the ballet industry. The narrator/protagonist uses the upper social class association to escape her miserable life in the projects, yet she revels in the structure and discipline (99) of her classes that are so like the regimented life her to her has established. In spite of the security provided by this cultured life, she lives in constant fear, partially because of her mother’s history and partially because of her economic circumstances (112). Only when her passion for ballet is stolen by a minor obstacle (her age) does she evaluate what the problem really is. She begins to recognize it as another method of control by men (115). She compares it to the Chinese foot binding of her father’s ancestors. Even when she realizes how tragic and confining it all was, she longs for it, idealizes it, and is jealous of those who still have it.

The final section focuses on the narrator/protagonist’s adult life. Nunez parallels a young girl’s sexual experience with the narrator/protagonist applying to teach abroad. She then examines the childhood experiences that cause the protagonist to change the way she interacts with men. There are expectations about how to be a woman and what women should do that she consciously rejects (127). When the target of her “Immigrant Love” is revealed, the narrative shifts from her perspective on others to others seeing her differently. A Russian student in her class helps her explore Americans in New York and how immigrants are treated. At the same time, her perspective on how he acts and how hard he tries to learn English so he can “seduce” her (132). He is a New York City cab driver, and as his story unfolds readers learn that he was once addicted to drugs and was forced to immigrate to the US by his family. However, he is the only one learning English. They talk about his wife and Russian women, abortion, and sex in Russia (156). When his wife discovers the affair, she has a breakdown and he is forced to return to her. Nunez focuses on the link between love and language (146) for the narrator/protagonist and the Russian man (who is married), for the narrator/protagonist and her parents (who did not have the means or desire to communicate with each other, let alone her).

The relationship becomes problematic when he confesses all of his criminal behavior to the narrator/protagonist, including the time he spent pimping women. Two years go by before she gets in a cab and there he is. As a result of continued rejection, the narrator/protagonist ends up in the hospital, suicidal.

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Revolutionary Road

Revolutionary Roadbook by Richard Yates

Annotation by Kate Maruyama

This book was such a great read on so many levels. I got into it right away with the theater group, with a few wistful memories toward a teen reading of Marjorie Morningstar . But Yates manipulated that fifties nostalgia, proving that all of the hopes and dreams of the theater troupe turned out to be nothing but blue gel romance and it was really just another suburban disappointment. It was interesting that Yates took us here first, like a wide view of a small town before honing in on the intensity of April and Frank’s marriage. Each step forward brings us into their close world so that once we are inside the marriage we get a wonderful theatrical feeling of claustrophobia. First the troupe, then the social tension with canceling an evening with the Campbells, then we are in the car in one of those wretched fights of a bad marriage that doesn’t make any sense but goes back to the beginning of the relationship. It is obvious, from here that this is not about two people working out their problems, it is about two people trying like hell to ignore them and to forge forward with a normal semblance of life.

Yates was able to take simple and familiar elements of the suburban environment and have them reflect his character’s inner struggles. I could write a five page paper about Frank’s stone walk. Yates captured the humidity, the stupid backbreaking work of getting nowhere and not only the pain of the task, but the frustration that sets in when he realizes that he has accomplished nothing. The stone sitting too high after so much labor and the children observing this was such a fantastic “aarrgh!” Without having to say it, Yates gives us that David Byrne, “My God, how did I get here?” A thing of literary beauty.

This one scene in Revolutionary Road was enough to remind me to pay attention to what I can exploit more in my characters’ environment.

Yates revealed April to us carefully, in increments. Toward the beginning, we are given her difficult background, the fact that she’s a bit cold because of it and the fact that these two can’t seem to find each other because they manage to turn away at exactly the moments they should have been reaching out. His technique of putting in conversations the way Frank would have wanted them to go is a lot of fun. I’m thinking of stealing it, to show how difficult it is for my hero to find purchase in their new world, but I’ve got to introduce the erraticness of their real conversation first.

April’s plan for Paris and the fever that both she and Frank catch for it is gorgeously written. Here is where we get the first inkling the girl may be off her nut and here is where we get the sense that Frank might actually really love her. He is so happy to see her happy and she is so enthusiastic, that the two get riled up together, both so grateful to be in agreement about something, that they spin it into giddiness. And through this frenzy and hope, and joy, Yates lets us know somehow that we are truly in a tragedy and these two are headed somewhere really awful. The title itself lets us know that despite putting their house on the market and telling everyone they know, they are never going to leave Revolutionary Road.

John Givings is such a great character and so well written. Givings enters like Lear’s fool and calls it like it is. Of course it is the insane man that sees that their trip to Europe is a great idea. Frank observes this and here is where the doubt for him sets in. Givings also creates a great turn of angle on the view of his parents. We had seen Mrs. Givings as interfering, well meaning neighbor, and her husband as dotty and disconnected but her son’s view of her exposes her for the fraud she is: just trying to make nice and impress. Howard’s reaction to his son’s misbehavior and his irritation with his wife lets us know that there is a lot more going on with him than we’d first thought. Mrs. Giving’s life revolves around making things nice and Yates is careful to wrap the story up with her. Mrs. Giving is the voice of Revolutionary Road, smoothing over the suburban morass. We end with her cutting off visits with her son and of course, with Howard turning off his hearing aid.

The tension around the final climax was so cleverly built. I did love Frank’s big-man thoughts as he went to break up with his tootsie. It seems he didn’t really need a new job or a new life, just a promotion and for his wife to be nice to him. He is so together when he goes home to find his wife completely unhinged, it’s a great contrast. Yates captured the drama of an all-night fight, when everything comes out and time takes on peculiar proportions and how, finally, a body needs sleep. Frank’s hoping it was all a dream the next morning was such a nice detail and completely true to the surreal qualities a midnight fight carries. Once April fixed him breakfast, I was sure she was just going to kill herself. Suicide’s such a constant literary device, so her different approach was a nice twist. She didn’t want to die, she just didn’t want to have another child.

Brilliant, too, was Frank’s reflection after arguing with April to keep the baby, that it might be a kid he didn’t even want. We had gotten no sense of his having any real affection for his children, so it was obvious from the beginning that this deep month-long argument was simply based in his wanting to win. There are so many layers to a marriage, particularly a bad one, and Yates was so careful to show it through circumstance and dysfunction rather than calling it like it was. He could have said outright, “she was incapable of love because of her childhood, he was trapped because of the children ” but it would have said so much less about these two than their wrangles, poor decisions, brief hopes and self destructiveness.

This book an incredibly useful reminder that to make a relationship between two people real, all of the layers and subtleties need to be addressed.

Rebecca

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book by Daphne du Maurier

annotation by Tina Rubin

Everything about this Gothic novel seems to be perfect: plot, setting, characterization, themes, buildup of suspense, irony, symbolism, language, a cliff-hanger to the very last scene. And happily, much of what I learned from it can be applied to my own novel.

Du Maurier sets an ominous tone from page one and carries it through the book in myriad details: scary dreams, stormy skies, mists and fog, Mrs. Danvers’ skeletal face/hollow eyes/mechanical voice, the swish of a woman’s skirt behind a tree, the dog—Jasper—wanting to take the trail to the beach rather than through the woods, the idiot who knew Rebecca was “down there” . . . each details builds the suspense to a crescendo.

While my novel is not a Gothic mystery, it contains suspense and a hint of the supernatural in that the newlyweds exchange personalities: one becomes the very evil that she’s trying to squelch, while the other grows more compassionate as time goes by. I learned so much from Du Maurier’s symbolism and foreshadowing.

The nameless heroine of the book, the second Mrs. de Winter, is in her own head throughout much of the story (in fact, there’s no dialogue until page 14). That was a lesson for me in creating a character who begins to lose herself, an important element in my own main character’s journey. Mrs. de Winter not only has a weak self-image but lives in her imagination, which makes her susceptible to being haunted by Rebecca. And just as Mrs. de Winter becomes obsessed with the dead Rebecca, I plan to develop a growing obsession for my character through her fascination with the stars.

Another element that stood out for me was Manderley burning at the end. Not just because it illustrated that Rebecca had won, but that there must be some consequence, in the grand scheme of things, to Maxim’s killing her. (And the loss actually freed them from her and ended the game, so it was an outstanding climax). It hit home for me, because I didn’t know how I would end my own story after the attempted murder; whether there would be legal repercussions and a trial or a reconciliation. I really like the idea of a symbolic payback; it feels right.

The book was masterfully structured. Just prior to the dress ball fiasco, the heroine actually slips into “being” Rebecca for a moment at dinner, pretending that she was receiving a call from Jack Favell (Rebecca’s cousin) and unconsciously mouthing the words and pantomiming the actions. Then, of course, she inadvertantly “becomes” Rebecca at the ball, and the very next morning falls under Mrs. Danvers’ evil spell and nearly jumps out the window to her death. At that point I made a note in the book that Rebecca was coming closer. Sure enough, a few pages later her body turns up in the raised boat. Right to the end, du Maurier has Rebecca becoming more and more a threatening presence, invading the heroine’s dreams and finally using Mrs. Danvers to set the house on fire. This helped me understand that every scene in my own work must move the plot forward, every character must have a raison d’etre, every bit of dialogue must reveal character.

In terms of character, each one was so clearly drawn, living and breathing and different from the next. Their manner of speaking, their tone, their choice of words, their demeanor—all so very distinct. Even the magistrate, Colonel Julyan, and Doctor Baker and Frank Crawley and the two butlers, Frith and Robert, were all unique. To me this is a gift worth studying.

Rebecca will be a novel that I turn to many times, I’m quite sure. Like its main character, the book will probably haunt me until I can master even a trace of the skill that its author had.

Blood Meridian

Blood Meridianannotation by Seth Fischer
book by Cormac McCarthy

Blood Meridian is violent. I say that not as a critique or a compliment. I say that because it is what the book is about. There is very little central tension, aside from a little bit of “father-son” uneasiness between “the kid” and “the judge.” But what made me keep reading, page after page after page, was the new depths to which the characters were falling, the necklaces made of human ears and the male genitals cut off and stuffed inside mouths and the babies whose skulls were smashed on rocks. It was like watching a car accident. And all of this would have been a problem — would have made the book no more than a textual grindhouse film, really — if the sentences weren’t all perfect, if the voice wasn’t so gripping, and, most importantly, if the violence wasn’t there to make us fundamentally reimagine the “old west” that we so often romanticize.

After reading No Country for Old Men, I was expecting Blood Meridian to be violent and minimalist. I was expecting a matter-of-fact, rural, rustic voice that would describe the most unconscionable things I could imagine as if it were describing fabric softener. And there is some of this. Wisely, I think, McCarthy’s narrator does not graphically describe a lot of the more terrible things that happen in the novel. For example, “He took a skinning knife from his belt and stepped to where the old woman lay and took up her hair and twisted it about his wrist and passed the blade of the knife about her skull and ripped away the scalp.” This is disgusting to read, but it sounds almost like a description of a medical procedure. We don’t feel the murderers’ regret or disgust or anything of the sort. McCarthy allows the reader to fill all that in. And it’s almost more terrifying that way.

But Blood Meridian is a better book than No Country for Old Men because it does something more than this. McCarthy, in this book, is not so minimalist that he doesn’t allow the images to breathe. For example, there’s an image of “the judge” walking through the desert with a parasol made of human bones and hide walking a crazy man like a dog seeking out “the kid” in order to kill him. Or the image of a dancing bear being shot for no reason at a saloon while a little girl weeps as it bleeds out. Or the image of “the kid” wearing a necklace of human ears while a group of teenage boys ask him why all the ears are black in they’re Indian ears and not the ears of black people. I could go on forever. These images are so powerful and so disturbing that they almost work as a reason to keep reading on their own. And because the novel is a historical one (it was heavily researched and is based on historical accounts of that era), we keep reading especially because we know there is an element of truth to it.

So here we have a novel, often cited as one of the best novels in recent American history, that fails to really have much of a story in the way we would generally think of it. It starts with the destruction of a priest and ends with the destruction of a bear. Nearly everyone dies. People meander around the west killing people. Every once in a while, the Judge and the Kid get in a fight. None of this kept me going. Instead, it relies quite a bit on its “historical,” “research-driven” nature to keep the reader going. It also relies heavily on images instead of a central tension, especially given that “the kid,” who is someone whose survival we at least nominally care about (and therefore could be that central tension), disappears for large swaths of the novel. Despite all the “weaknesses” an MFA program would see in this book, I couldn’t stop reading because of these two things.

I loved his style and his approach. That said, I’m not sure I would want McCarthy’s nightmares.

From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction

from where you dreambook by Robert Olen Butler and Janet Burroway

annotation by Telaina Eriksen

This engaging series of lectures and workshops by Robert Olen Butler, transcribed by a graduate student, and edited by Janet Burroway is a breath of air and validation for those authors who believe that writing cannot be taught.

Butler argues that fiction comes not from the mind, but from the heart, “from where you dream” and he offers MFA students a wealth of examples, philosophy and writing exercises to support his claim.

The best moments of the book are when Butler attempts to define the indefinable about writing and literature. In talking about the difference between genre and literary writing Butler says, “(genre writing) It is not art because her emotional response is a result of her filling in the blanks left by that abstraction. The direct, visceral response to the text results from her filling in from her own fantasies, her own past, and her own aspirations. Abstract, summarizing, generalizing and analytic language will induce the reader to fill in the blanks and thereby distance her from the work and the characters. The moment-to-moment fresh, organically connected sense impressions of the work of art will draw the reader into it. In the emotional reaction to a work of art, you do not fill in from yourself; you leave yourself. You enter into the character and into the character’s sensibility and psychology and spirit and world. It’s the difference between masturbation and making love. The former is a self-referential experience; you have on the surface, a similar response, but it’s a closed loop. In making love, you leave yourself and enter into the other; that is the experience between two people connecting in deeper ways. And that’s the experience of literature.” (46-47)

He talks about the two kinds of novelists—the preplanner/outliner and the draft writer. (86) Butler suggests a third way, what he considers to be a more organic way, saving you on time and structure and ensuring the author the book will come from the heart, not the head. He suggests a series of index cards and key words for scenes on a legal pad, where the structure is loose and can adapt and change to the needs of the novel. This results in a nearly complete novel that you do not have to rewrite from page one to restructure it.

Butler tells authors and writers to keep living. To close yourself totally into writing and academia is to kill the creative wellspring. (118) He emphasizes that a piece of art is alive and breathing. He uses the word organic many times.

He also offers student stories that were workshopped in the appendix, as well as a before (head) and after (dream) piece of his own.

This book is accessible and easy to read and will strike a chord with all those writers out there who rebel at the outlining structuralists and who strive to write from their hearts every day.

Frisk

Friskbook by Dennis Cooper

annotation by Andrew Killmeier

This book is only 128 pages. I made it through 104. I’m not particularly prudish, nor homophobic. In fact I’m a pretty jaded reader, but this book was too much for me. My initial reaction is to think that Cooper is simply trying to shock the reader with repetetive (sometimes redundant) accounts of sexual sadism and murder. If I had seen a hint of a real plot or the potential for some literary payoff, perhaps I would have finished the last 24 pages and read on through the rape and evisceration of the ten year-old Dutch boy, but alas, not only was I disgusted at that point, but also bored.

The experimental structure of the book is interesting at first. It is divided into different sections — Wild, Tense, Torn, Spaced, Numb, Wilder, [Infinity sign] — in which a narrator, who is also named Dennis and is a writer (gee, I get it), explores his sexual history. His early realization of his homosexuality becomes entangled with a penchant for sadism. As he grows up and experiments with various lovers, he slowly gives into his darker urges, etc. One section of the book features a story the narrator claims to have written as part of a previous novel. What happens in the story? A young man/boy is lured into another man’s house where he is raped and murdered. This scene unfolds repeatedly in the book. In a sense the book is really more of a cubist painting or some kind of collage. Cooper explores the same imagery over and over again with slightly varying circumstances. The effect on the reader is like being stuck in the long, gory, wet dream of a psychopath.

The narration is confusing at first because, though there is one central narrator, he has godlike omnipotence. The Dennis character refers to himself as “I,” but goes on to explain what other characters are thinking even when he himself is out of the scene completely. Cooper blends close third person and first person perspectives. This was a new experience to me as a reader. It took some getting used to. I can’t figure the exact benefit of this style. I suppose it illustrates that though the story is told by Dennis (and we want to think it is Cooper or that some of these experiences at least belong to him so we can grant him some kind of authorial credit) the third person omnipotence reminds us it is fiction and thusly only a fantasy. He is exploring his most unfettered desires in the safe realm of fiction; yet he teases us into thinking/knowing he really fantasizes about these things by tagging his own name, by writing himself into the story. This structure is bold, imaginative, unique (to me), if at times annoying.

I can only commend Cooper on the brevity of the novel, though it was still too long for me. I just don’t know how many readers (gay or straight) can read through a dozen scenes of excrement eating. I figure five scenes are enough. Maybe six. I don’t see any real depth to this book. It explores one theme (sadomasochism, sex-death, desire-murder) relentlessly. Every scene is essentially a rerun, only with ever-increasing visceral pyrotechnics to bloat the effect. I find it sensationalist. It’s clear Cooper has some literary talent, but his motives remind me of the black-clad, too-serious painters and photographers I was stuck with in art school — “Look at me! I’m dark and fucked up!” If Cooper set out to shock me, he only half succeeded. The imagery was gruesome and gratuitous, yet repetitive. I was mostly shocked at myself for having not put the book down sooner.

The Dubliners

The Dublinersbook by James Joyce

annotation by Devin Galaudet

I’m torn after reading Dubliners.

Not from the stories themselves, which ranged from entertaining to not. Or because some of the topics that at one time would have been highly vulgar/salacious/groundbreaking have now become common place.

It is because Joyce seems to go against some of what I am learning in grad school – the rules of writing and how to tell a story. Yes, I know that there aren’t any rules really. Or that there are rules and that once I have learned the rules then I will know how to break them.

Here are just a few thoughts that I had while reading the short stories of Joyce:

• Confusing pronoun use. A couple of scenes became chore of deciphering who did what with whom.

• Economy of words. There are a lot of sections that circled around information in a long winded fashion rather than get straight to the point.

• Unexplained references. Example, in Counterparts a woman was referred to a “appearing Jewish.” While I have no problem the political uncorrect-ness, I know that any writing instructor would have circled this and written “explain this!”

So I am left wondering, why is this great writing? After all, Joyce is Joyce and the writer of a couple of novels frequently considered the best ever written.
I am not either slamming the importance of what I am learning in my MFA pogram – I am grateful – or the writing of Joyce – less grateful – but definitely thinking about why one certain cultural writing style become standardized/praised and others don’t. Some of the concepts that are no-nos today maybe be ideal later.

Dubliners is a book, I would have likely put it down and picked it up nine months or a year later before putting it back down rather than be drawn in by the stories. I think Joyce does a great job with setting mood and a place, I think I could get around Dublin of 1915 based upon a few street descriptions. Moreover, if I want to get a sense of writing a time period and the kinds of details to make a particular scene come alive, I would use Dubliners as an excellent example. Unfortunately with regard to the stories themselves, my mind frequently wandered while trying to read these short stories. I just didn’t care what happened. Moreover, I asked myself, if I were writing this, what would be my point? What am I getting the reader to experience in terms of story. Beyond a slice of life, not much. It would seem that Joyce offers a story without leading the reader in any particular direction. On several occasions, I had to go back to look at stories I had read a few days prior because I had forgotten what I had read. So for me, this didn’t work well and wondering why am I reading this?

I realize I am in a small minority here with Joyce’s most accessible book, the reason why I chose it (I got this beautiful Folio Society edition with these great sepia photo pages of 1900s Dublin). Knowing this, I will give it another go in the next few months and chalk up my experience as workload, the nuance of his style and time period, and new millennium impatience on my part. I know that I still have some work to do when reading the classics.