House on Mango Street

51Z5oIVULHL._SL500_AA240_book by Sandra Cisernos

annotation by Marya Summers

The acclaimed first book of fiction from the feminist poet Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street relates a young writer’s experiences as a Latina growing up poor in America in a series of powerful, poetic vignettes. Esperanza begins her story with the introduction of the house in the opening, eponymous chapter. The one-bedroom house, shared by six, represents progress for her family: they are finally homeowners. Still, the narrator is ashamed of the house, which both demonstrates poverty and symbolizes girlhood; the house is personified and depicted as “small,” “red,” “tight,” and “swollen” (4) – terms easily interpreted as symbolically vaginal in this coming of age story. The narrator’s quest is to escape this house so that she may return on her own terms and help those who could not escape.

Presenting issues of gender and poverty in the Hispanic community, Cisneros explores the psychology of the female experience through her narrator. Women are often sexual prey and property, both victimized and protected in men’s houses. Some women own their own property (like Edna and her mother), and even then, men pose a danger (Edna’s brother sold it when they weren’t looking). Edna now owns a home and lives alone with only a daughter. The house becomes a symbol for the world. Esperanza dreams of owning her own house. “Not a flat. Not an apartment. Not a man’s house. Not a daddy’s. A house all my own” (108). She wants her own world – a complete one on her terms.

While the book exists as written text, it reads like spoken language with all its fluidity, lapsing into dialogue without quotation marks (sometimes without paragraph breaks) and shifting person without warning. This chatty quality contributes to the sense of the narrator as an authentic, dynamic person. The author effectively disappears behind her narrator, whose voice matures as she does.

The author’s word choice adds to the richness and resonance of Esperanza’s story. It is no accident that Esperanza means two different things. That “in English it means hope” (10) suggests that her command of the language is her hope, her ticket out of poverty; that it means “sadness” and “waiting” (10) in Spanish asserts the disadvantages she has inherited. Cisneros gives her narrator a simple vocabulary that still is capable of imaginative descriptions and keen observations. In this way, the author is true to her character as she presents her narrator as writer-material. In essence, as Cisneros creates Esperanza as a writer, she creates esperanza in the reader for the narrator’s chance at a literary future.

Furthermore, Cisneros’ syntax and grammar reflect the psychology of the narrator. For instance, in an early chapter like “Hairs,” Esperanza relates her observations about the family members’ hair in short, simple sentences – that is, until she gets to her mother. Then she devotes an entire paragraph for indulgent and convoluted description. However, the paragraph is comprised of only one sentence and a fragment, and even in all her linguistic zigs and zags, the narrator achieves the grammatical sophistication of only a compound sentence. In fact, throughout the book, complex sentences are few.

For all its chattiness, for its convolutions and repetitions, there is something lean in this approach to story-telling. As vignettes, it works as the memory does, recalling the past as a series of images told in the voice of the self at the time. The reader is given only those scenes that are essential to portraying the emotional and psychological experience of the narrator’s childhood. Rather than providing a traditional, linear narrative, where one event leads to the next, (though the events are told in a chronological sequence), Mango Street gives us Esperanza’s episodic reportage. Her vignettes are like the house’s tiny windows, both offer glimpses of a vast world.

Though there is no true resolution (the narrator’s life is still in progress, after all), the book concludes with the chapter “Mango Says Goodbye Sometimes,” which echoes the opening chapter. Reminded of the family’s slow progress, the reader believes Esperanza’s resolute dream that her writing will liberate her from Mango, but as the book concludes, hers is a dream yet unrealized.

This book was recommended to me because as I have been writing my memoir, the story has been presenting itself in a series of unrelated scenes rather than as a fluid, cohesive narrative. Because, like Cisneros, I was a poet before I tried my hand at storytelling, my vignettes also have a poetic quality. Reading The House on Mango Street provided me with a fine example of how a series of vignettes can effectively develop character and advance a narrative. The book also helped me to appreciate not only what was so artfully and movingly presented, but what was missing; a few well chosen scenes can go a long way if their language uses the compression that is usually more often employed in poetry than in prose.


As I Lay Dying

41cyZTFwQ2L._SL160_book by William Faulkner

annotation by Tina Rubin

In this brilliant 1930 novel, Faulkner tells the story of a rural Mississippi family on a mission to haul their mother’s body in its coffin to her native Jefferson, where she had requested burial. But Addie Bundren tells us, after her death, that this is her way of taking revenge on them. In a series of missteps told through multiple narrators in both present and past tenses, Faulkner reveals not only Addie’s revenge, but each character’s inner workings and the faceted ways they view each other.

Faulkner’s willingness to explore various techniques for this novel opened doors for me to the possible ways of structuring a story. His multiple narrators, for example, each given their own chapters, give the reader unusual insight into the characters pursuing this absurd journey. Through the voice and perception of each one, the use of repetition and irony, and a paucity of information that makes the reader work hard for understanding, Faulkner effects a stunning novel that blazed new trails for both writers and readers.

Placing the “Addie” chapter at almost exactly two-thirds through the novel was a brilliant strategy. Addie is the missing piece of the puzzle; her words clarify the other characters’ actions. Once we know Addie’s real feelings, we can see how she’s taking revenge on her family by having them make this journey. Yet Faulkner then gives us an ironic ending: the revenge is only effected upon Darl, a sympathetic character who is taken away to an insane asylum. Darl seems the most together of the whole clan and the most like his mother, intelligent and philosophical. Anse Bundren, the father, whose behavior has been amoral (taking his children’s money and his son’s hard-earned horse), gets exactly what he wants in the end—false teeth and a new wife—even before Addie’s grave is a day old. Which is sort of how things are in life, the creeps often win. We don’t want our endings to be too tidy.

Jewel, Addie’s illegitimate son who dearly loved her, was treated with irony too, but in a different way than Darl: via character rather than plot. Jewel’s eyes were frequently described as wooden, his body wooden-backed, and he said little—but his actions exhibited the most passion of all the siblings. (And his name was a perfect choice: hard, rigid, but filled with splendor.) I’m rethinking my treatment of my characters with irony in mind—but then that’s what makes literature literature.

Repetition, which Faulkner uses masterfully, is a technique I’ve been taking careful note of in my readings. When done well, it makes the point and acts as an emotional tag to remind the reader of an earlier passage or moment in time. It was most often used by other characters in regard to Jewel. The neighbor Vernon Tull also repeats his razor-edge perception of Anse: “It’s like a man that’s let everything slide all his life to get set on something that will make the most trouble for everybody he knows.” (89)

Faulkner’s use of language is inspirational too. Many passages struck me, such as in the very beginning when Darl describes Jewel’s encounter with his horse (“enclosed by a glittering maze of hooves as by an illusion of wings”). His descriptions of the flooded river, which kills the mules and nearly kills Cash, and of the fire Darl sets to the barn containing the coffin, were riveting and well paced.

It seems absurd to criticize Faulkner, but as others have noted, I thought many passages were obscure and would not have survived a writing workshop. Take this passage spoken by the youngest brother, Vardaman, for example: “Pa said flour and sugar and coffee costs so much. Because I am a country boy because boys in town. Bicycles.” (66) (What??) That said, however, I thoroughly applaud Faulkner for taking the risks that enabled us to learn from him.

On Chesil Beach

On Chesil Beachbook by Ian McEwan

annotation by Ted Chiles

Time should move equally. When the narrative shifts from front story to back-story and then returns, an appropriate amount of time should have elapsed in the front story. Not equal chronological time, but equal narrative time. The alternative is the perception that the characters in the front story have been frozen mid-step waiting for us with glasses raised or forks poised. This equality of narrative time is not maintained in On Chesil Beach, yet we are not thrown out of the narrative. Ian McEwan uses an omniscient narrator to create space in the front story for his extended movements to back-story.

McEwan tells the life stories of a young couple, Florence and Edward, on their wedding night. He focuses on the how life can be altered, not only by what is said and done, but by the choice not to say or do what should be said or done. He uses back-story to explain the reasons of inaction.

Signaling the dominant voice, McEwan begins the novel with the omniscient narrator: “They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night and they lived in a time when conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible. But it is never easy,” (1). Once the narrator’s voice and command are firmly established, the book shifts to a scene where the young couple is eating in their room: “The formal meal began, as many did, with a slice of melon decorated by a single glazed cherry,” (5). Time slows in the front story as we learn of his sexual anxiety: “His specific worry, based on one unfortunate experience, was overexcitement … ” (8), and her revulsion at the prospect of intercourse: “She simply did not want to be ‘entered’ or ‘penetrated’ … ” (10). We return to the meal: “They ate the melon in less than two minutes… ” (13), where resumption of the front story is marked by a space break. The exploration of their sexual anxieties has taken two minutes in the front- story and six pages of back-story.

Why doesn’t this inconsistency disconnect the narrative? Does the omniscient narrator, always present, with a dominating voice hold the narrative together? The story is largely interpreted and told by a narrator who is not a character reflecting back on his or her life. This choice of POV allows for a different sense of time because a story told instead of shown, is freed from the restraint of the internal logic of scenes.

Scenes exist but even then the characters’ actions are interpreted for the reader: “But the hand that held the wineglass trembled as he struggled to contain his sudden happiness and exaltation,” (14). Two pages of scene again shift into back-story without a space break: “Edward had a degree … ” (15), and returns to scene, delineated by a space break, when the rest of the meal is served: “The waiters were arriving with their plates of beef, … ” (21), six pages later.
In On Chesil Beach, time belongs to the narrator, not the characters. A story mostly told, not shown, has the freedom to move about time because we mark our movement by the voice of the narrator. When does time stop? When are characters frozen helpless and unable to move? It is when a voice, not of the world but above it, comments on the scene below. This we can accept because with omniscient comes such authority.

Often the first piece of advice given to the novice writer is to show not tell. Later, the writer is told that in fiction you can do anything as long as it works. The omniscient narrator, in the hands of an accomplished writer, works. Time can stand still.

The White Tiger


book by Aravind Adiga

Annotation by Talya Jankovits

This novel, set in India, is told in the voice of a narrator who immediately comes alive as soon as page one. A murderer, a coward, an ignorant and morally challenged man from a poor and downtrodden village, Balram takes the reader on a voyage not just through India’s booming industrial cities and highly abused suburbs, but through his twisted logic and climb up the social ladder. Above the suspense, the rich culture and devastating class system, the narration is what makes this novel so captivating.

Balram is candid through out, his voice honest and disturbing. At times you laugh with him and at other times cringe. It’s a look into the life of a murderer in a most unexpected way, an exposure to psychological rationalization of the lowest kind, not only of Balram but other characters as well. There is an immediate attachment to this narrator, a hate love relationship if you will. This torn reaction to the narrator is I think what makes this first person narration so successful.

I am always looking for a complexity of reactions to a character. I never want to be totally infatuated or completely revolted. I crave dimensional characters and Balram is just that. Adiga morphed together both the hero and villain into one multi-layered narrator. By allowing the reader access to Balram’s thinking process, the reader sees his insecurities, the abuses he withstands and how he mentally complies with them and we also see his moral demise. The way his hate builds and his rational for his murderous action begins to develop. I really appreciated this. The opportunity to empathize with a murderer and have moments where I enjoy his company, and try, even for a moment, to see his side of the argument. This is something I can learn from, how to make a villain human, how to appeal to emotion in a way that makes a person think seriously about the plight of a murderer. This mastering of character is most important when in the case like Balram, the character is also the narrator.

In addition to the story line and the excellent use of first person narration, the novel also relates many social issues. A brutal class system and a corrupted government, you see through the eyes of a low class driver all that is wrong with a system that perpetuates greed, bribery and capitalism. This novel can serve both as a critique as well as an entertaining glimpse into the mind and actions of a murderer who decides if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. But Adiga never makes you feel like he has a hidden agenda, his dealings with India’s corruption in the governmental and industrial infrastructure is always handled with the grace of storytelling, never once sounding preachy or socially driven.

It is always enjoyable to be entertained but it takes reading to another level when a writer presents you with a subtle underlay of social awareness. This novel takes you through a long weaving of events where Adiga takes horrifying social injustices and uses them in such a way where it elevates his plot and enriches his characters as well as teaches the reader. This was another aspect of his novel where I paid close attention, wanting a historical fiction piece I am working on to accomplish some of what he has done – a gentle but constant coverage of what it is like to be dehumanized by a brutal, governing system.

Adiga’s novel was really an enjoyable read –very deserving of its Man Booker Prize and functioned for me on many levels of writerly enrichment. From the captivating voice of Balram to the development and triumph of a murderer down to the social injustices, it was truly a valuable reading experience.

L.A. Confidential


book by James Ellroy

annotation by Janine Coveney

When I first began reading L.A. Confidential, I thought, Why am I reading this again? I had seen the 1997 film adaptation and enjoyed it; if I hadn’t I would have had a lot more trouble becoming engaged in this sprawling crime novel. This is a fast-paced, intense, testosterone-heavy, violent, detailed, and depressing look at the underbelly of Los Angeles in the 1950s. To some degree I like a good detective yarn, but the racial bias of many of the characters, the portrayal of the female characters as whores and liars (though nobody comes off well in this novel), the complicated plot lines, and ‘50s cop lingo wore me down. I had to create a cheat sheet to follow the characters and the plot, as my mind does not work the way Ellroy’s apparently does. Further, the tangled plot snarls and gruesome murders described in this 492-page tome keep me from sleeping at night.

Here’s what I take away from L.A. Confidential that is helpful to me as a writer:

1. A succinct style. Ellroy writes in a way that has been called “hardboiled” or “telegraphic.” His prose is spare, quick, and dense with information. At times his sentences are fragmented and staccato, which reflect the pace of the action and/or his protagonists’ thoughts. His narrative style fits the mindset of the characters and the tenor of the times, it sets the reader down immediately into that world with authority.

My own writing style tends to be overly descriptive, languidly paced, and too distanced from the characters, so reading this Ellroy yarn is a bracing tonic for what ails me. I can see immediately from this work how a tighter, more eye-level narrative approach would benefit my own writing, particular works with some crime elements.
Still, I find the writing in L.A. Confidential a bit jagged for my taste. Ellroy’s narrative has its own descriptive brilliance, but I wouldn’t call it lyrical. There’s a tension in it that reflects the ongoing tension in the life of a LAPD officer who has to constantly make tough decisions, go where others fear to tread, and deal with armed criminals. In that way, it succeeds.

2. Handling of multiple protagonists. Ellroy follows the lives of three separate policemen in L.A. Confidential: Bud White, Ed Exley, and Jack Vincennes. Each of these men is distinct and has a unique background, personal style, and motivation. Even as a third-person narrator, Ellroy is effective in making us understand how each of these characters thinks and why. He’s also a genius at showing how their stories intertwine, how they exist as pawns on the same chessboard. He was so good at delineating each character that he didn’t even have to name them when he began a chapter—you knew from the rhythm of the narrative whose section it was. For anyone writing a multi-character work, this approach is highly effective.

3. The importance of the universal question for each character. In L.A. Confidential, there are a number of questions and complications that drive the narrative. The overall question is, What really happened at the Nite Owl? White, Exley, and Vincennes are all such good detectives, they can’t help but be drawn by the inconsistencies in the evidence to keep unraveling this mystery years after it has occurred—to their detriment. This is the question that ultimately keeps the reader flipping through the pages.

There are several more questions set up throughout the book that have to do with the personal motivation for each of the characters: what it is they really want. Exley wants power and prestige within the LAPD to impress his distant but powerful father, and also needs to keep up the lie of his wartime heroics. White wants to rid the world of those who would abuse women because of seeing his own mother murdered as a child, and he also wants to get even for what happened to his late partner, Stenslund. Vincennes wants to keep the fact that he’s killed two innocent people buried forever. These desires remain constant throughout the novel for these characters, regardless of what else happens in the book. The flip side of all these desires is fear, because some of their desires are well known but others are hidden. What are the consequences when their motives are revealed? We find out in the novel, so there is a satisfactory cause and effect, an ultimate moment of truth that transforms each characters, after which they are never the same (or no longer living, I guess).

So of course this made me look at my own novel and really try to define in a sentence or two what it is that each of my characters is truly after. What will they sacrifice for and lie for if they have to? How are their desires revealed or concealed? What happens when they get what they are after? This may seem like a basic, but when I begin writing I usually start out with a bunch of characters and a vague idea of where I wanted the story to go. While I have learned to outline the action in my novel, I never previously considered plotting it from the inside out, through each character’s individual motivation.

4. Establishment of common values for the fictional world. Here we have a story about Los Angeles cops where the morality is bent. Our socially accepted norms of good and bad behavior are completely upended in this novel. Cops, sworn to serve the public and the greater good, have to lie, cheat, steal, maim, and even kill for the greater good. Someone like Exley is ridiculed and hated for doing things by the book, because these LAPD officers have to be better criminals than the criminals in order to solve their cases and get their convictions. White beats down suspects to get information, but has a soft spot for women in low places. Vincennes has an unholy alliance with a tabloid paper, and a ceremonial position with a TV show and is treated like a celebrity while carrying out dirty work for the DA. There is a sense of brotherhood between the cops on the beat, but the system forces them to compete and snitch on one another to get ahead. In a place of no values, or lax values, anything can happen in the novel and does.

Since playing by the rules is not appreciated or encouraged, the prevailing values for these fictional cops are: 1) It’s better to be alive than dead, 2) Protect your partner and your sources, and 3) The Negroes did it.*

This made me think about right and wrong, about the choices available to characters: Do the right thing? Pretend to do the right thing? Do the wrong thing and hope nobody finds out? Or do the wrong thing and dare somebody to challenge or punish you? For instance, Exley has set himself up as a standard-bearer for do-gooderism, which is why he struggles to keep the fact that he never actually killed all those Japanese soldiers himself under wraps, and why he keeps his relationship with Mexican rape victim Inez off the radar. In his world, marrying a Mexican is unacceptable. When Vincennes feels he has nothing left to lose, he goes to Loew’s party and blurts out to everyone that he does Loew’s dirty work. This is verboten in their world, but at this point Vincennes has fallen off the wagon and doesn’t care. These are choices that Ellroy made for his protagonists, where each action reveals their true characters: Exley outwardly ambitious but with a covert nature; Vincennes losing his grasp and defying the unspoken code to keep silent about their arrangement.

(*In order for me to get past all the negative references to blacks and Mexicans in this book, I had to constantly remind myself that I was reading about a particular society in a particular point in history. In an interview with in 1997, Ellroy answered the question about the prejudice of his characters versus his own this way:
• JE: When you have characters that the reader empathizes with, who are carrying the story, saying “nigger” and “faggot” and “spic”, it puts people off. Which is fine. I would like to provoke ambiguous responses in my readers. That’s what I want. There’s part of me that would really like to be one of Dudley Smith’s goons and go back and beat up some jazz musicians, and there’s part of me that’s just appalled .… I figured out a while back that I’m an unregenerate white Anglo-Saxon Protestant heterosexual. So are my men. Their racism and homophobia is appalling, but it’s germane to their characters, and people will either get that or not get it. That’s that. You can’t really respond to the press and say, “I’m not a racist or a homophobe.” Nobody’s going to believe you.

To sum up, reading L.A. Confidential represented some interesting craft and narrative ideas in four areas: style, writing from multiple POVs, maintaining the central question of the novel, and establishing the value system that the characters operate within.

The Night in Question: Stories

Book by Tobias Wolff

Annotation by Kara Hardman

I thought this collection overall had a somewhat masculine sensibility, which is not something I’ve ever really thought about in terms of a short story collection before. I’ve certainly read stories by men or women before that were clearly being told from the point of view of male or female, but with Wolff there was something more vague that gave me that feeling. I don’t know why, possibly that it would give me some sort of insight to my own fiction, but it seemed important to figure out. It reminded me of learning French in high school, the way that making words are seemingly randomly assigned as masculine or feminine, even though there must have been a clear purpose in the language’s origins.

The title “The Night in Question” seemed to imply that the main characters in each of the stories were guilty of something and were having their behavior examined for them or by them. Although motivations were examined, the stories overall were more focused on the consequences of actions themselves, rather than characterization. The story “Migraine” I thought was a perfect example of this. The protagonist, Joyce, goes home from sick from work with a migraine, and we follow her through the rest of the afternoon, as she nurses her headache while waiting for her roommate to come home. Whether the roommates are lovers or codependent best friends was never made quite clear, and Joyce’s real feelings were never explained in depth, even though her actions were described as calculated. This to me made the story more masculine, even though it was told from a woman’s point of view; there’s something about being aware that one’s actions are significant without examining the significance itself (not analyzing feelings) that is more male than female. By the end of the story, it was conveyed to the reader through the two women’s dialogue and interaction that something more than a usual friendship was going on, but while the roommate accused Joyce of being manipulative, Joyce never explicitly examined her motivations for her behavior, and her roommate never demanded one.

“Casualty”- This story intrigued me because of the change in POV during the very last scene. I once wrote a short story that did this and was told by a writing teacher that you “can’t” switch the point of view at the end of a story.  I was chastised, but did never get over the feeling that it had worked for my story. In keeping with my theme of “masculine sensibility”, it’s interesting to note that the point of view switched from the male character to a new female character at the end. While the beginning male character, B.D., struggles to understand his feelings of guilt and loss of a fellow soldier that happens while he’s in the war, the ending female character, a nurse who is tending to the lost soldier as he dies, struggles to blunt her understanding of the loss and waste with illegal painkillers. The way Wolff’s stories are written, with almost subtle distinctions of the way the male and females characters filter their experiences to themselves, is what I felt gave the collection as a whole such a strong voice. It was just a kind of fine distinction that made me start thinking about how I think of my own characters.

Something else that I particularly admired about Wolff’s stories was the strength of his opening lines. I’m currently studying improvisation to improve my writing, and one of the important concepts taught in improv is giving your scene partner “gifts” through opening lines that establish as many aspects of environment, character, emotion, etc. about what will be happening in the scene. “Brian Gold was at the top of the hill when the dog attacked”; “The metro editor called my name across the newsroom and beckoned to me”; “Wiley got lonely one night and drove to a bar in North Beach owned by a guy he used to teach with”; “My friend Clark and I decided to build a jet plane.” The opening lines aren’t particularly flashy, but each one sets up the tone and some of the essentials of the story that follows, which is another skill I am working on.


book by Chuck Palahniuk

annotation by Kate Maruyama

In Diary Pahlaniuk creates a fantastical world littered with richly layered characters. He walks the careful line of not revealing too much, but telling us enough that we don’t get completely lost.

The story drifts in and out of second person, which is jarring at first, but once we realize that Misty is addressing her comatose husband, Peter, it makes more sense and becomes deeply poignant. When Palahniuk breaks third person and goes into second, we know that Misty is telling us something important. It’s a clever technique.

Peter is introduced through his scrawling graffiti in the hidden parts of peoples homes and from his words we can pretty much gauge that he’s a total asshole. Even in insanity, a person is revealing what is in his heart and Peter’s graffiti comes from a black, vindictive place with petty snipes at Misty, and seemingly psychotic rants about a coming doom. The story of Peter goes on just offstage: the contractor who went crazy and started sealing up rooms, writing psychotic diatribes on the walls beneath the paper. It is terrifically told and made me want a book from Peter’s point of view (before I got to the reason behind his ranting, but more on that later).

Palahniuk explores Todorov’s realm of The Fantastic throughout this book, revealing the potentially supernatural in a lovely, straightforward frank way. Rather than weave any mystical nonsense, he reveals some creepiness about Misty’s diary when her mother in law, Grace says, simply, “Oh dear. My mistake. You won’t have that terrible headache until the day after tomorrow.” Grace has told Misty that she’s been reading her diary, somehow already written, and that she is destined for greatness. I’ve tried to have the supernatural revelations in my novel given as fact, for the fact of the heroine withering is more alarming without a mystical build up. But this is definitely inspiration to go through and review, make sure I’ve removed all telltale musical stings, such as the one we have in any movie where we discover IT WAS THERE ALL ALONG (dun dun dun) or THE GLOVE IS ON THE BED (dun dun dun). I think my book’s relatively sting free, but Palahniuk was very good at delivering each twist in a clear and powerful manner….until the end. But I’ll get to that in a moment.

Misty’s voice is well wrought throughout the book. She’s plainspoken, trying to deal with the loss of a husband she never fully understood, who turned into a monster, but whom she loved very deeply. Palahniuk creates a person we know and drives her home with simple repetition. She opens many paragraphs of something she’s telling Peter with, “Just for the record.” Early in the novel it’s used for her point of view, “Just for the record, Peter, it really sucks how you tell everybody your wife’s a hotel maid.” And then, the familiar takes on a devastating tone later in the book with, “Just for the record, she’s sorry about Angel Delaporte. Misty’s sorry you were raised inside such a fucked-up legend. She’s sorry she ever met you.” (236)

Repetition enriches Misty’s personality and her journey with “Take a drink” which is interspersed through the action of Misty working at the hotel and later turns into, “Take a pill.” When a customer says, “‘Well you should serve tofu instead of veal!’ take a drink….If they don’t tip, take another….If you’re not drunk and half naked by this point, you’re not paying attention….Then take a bonus drink.(19-21) A behavioral action repeated in the text that gives us a rhythm to our main character’s downward spiral as the drinks turn to pills and we are given the dogged certainty that Misty is on the road to self-destruction. Pretty cool technique.

They mystery is woven carefully, the sinister mother-in-law, a feeling of certain doom and then downright creepy things happening keep the mood of the book tense, fascinating and moving along swiftly. Palahniuk keeps us onboard with Misty, and reveals awful things to us that she’s too out of it to notice. It’s a good thing to have a reader screaming at the heroine “get out of there!” without feeling like the heroine’s a total idiot. She’s dumb for taking the pills from the doctor, but we’re happy she’s painting and we know that she has an addictive personality, so we’re okay with it. In the meantime, Palahniuk weaves in scenes from Misty’s past with Peter, who, in retrospect becomes a bit less of an asshole. We can see why Misty was attracted to him, and that she really loved him, and that his belief in her must have been contagious. We have scenes with their daughter Tabbi, whom Misty adores. The flashbacks lend depth to the present story as well as clearing up any misconceptions we may have about Misty. Palahniuk reveals her to us in layers, which keeps the story moving.

(spoiler alert) But then the shit comes down. Granted, there’s a sense of urgency when Misty is hooked up to a catheter, fed pills and made to work blindfolded. But this reader got a big, “uh-oh,” and when Misty was being fitted for her dress for the opening. And a “here we go again” when she called the police. Sigh. So much invention, character and technique and I was back in a sixties, seventies reading Shirley Jackson, Ray Bradbury, all the greats who made these plot lines work, but who have been, since then, so often imitated that their stories have become predictable. Wicker Man, Children of the Corn, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. We will get the illusion our heroine is safe, then get pulled back into…oh, not again, the crumbling fortress.

It’s an evil plot, by the island, see, to keep the crops growing, no, I mean to keep their coffers full. Misty is the chosen one who will be sacrificed, whoops, will make a great work of art and the seventh son of the seventh son. You see where it’s going. Of course she almost gets away. Of course she can’t escape her doom. Of course, in the end, we are given the musical sting that Palahniuk has avoided thus far that resistance is futile. This will happen again. The same as it always has. Because it is a self-fulfilling prophecy in which another woman will become trapped.

The plot ending didn’t ruin the book for me, the characters were great and it was a pleasure to read. It is true that we are telling the same stories over and over; it’s just disappointing when they are quite so on the nose. This book made me wary of the ending of my novel. I’ve been avoiding so many things we’ve seen before all the way through and the inevitable does happen, but has it happened in a way that won’t disappoint the reader? It’s the battle all writers fight. Onward ho.

The Female of the Species: Tales of Mystery and Suspense

Female of the Speciesbook by Joyce Carol Oates

annotation by Diana Woods

Oates explores the link between passion and violence in this collection of ten stories featuring female predators. In my favorite story, “Doll,” a father earns money by soliciting men to time spend with his daughter on a do-not-touch basis. Doll, no longer an adolescent, continues the charade, adding her own twist by hiding a blade in her sock. Her father doesn’t approve but he’s lost control. He and Doll flee from city to city to escape detection. When Doll meets up with a pimply-faced junior high teacher, she knows how to manipulate his fantasies and gets him into the bathtub, naked with his eyes closed. How he meets up with his fate is both fascinating and terrifying, although anticipated. All three characters–the pedophile, the father and Doll—end up as both predators and victims. Surprisingly, I feel empathy for each of them.

One technique I’d like to emulate is Oates’ skillful use of foreshadowing. Right from the beginning, I’m anticipating how the story will end. After she hooks me into the characters; then, I worry about their fate. She drops clues. That’s where her skill lies. She knows how much to tell and when, without scaring off the reader or precluding a surprise at the end. I know someone will face a horrific death—that seems to be her signature finale, but I can’t stop reading. My stomach gets queasy. Every twist feels like a knife digging into my chest. I try to think of ways that the character might escape destiny. Where did he or she make the fatal mistake? What would I have done?

I’d like to work on characterizing predators and killers. Oates’ villains in these stories don’t start out evil. They are corrupted by family or the circumstances of their lives. She adds enough background information to help me understand their actions, motivations and deficits. When describing their mental states, she often hints at the character’s self-loathing or regret. Their actions are not all despicable; they have good qualities. They’re often very ordinary people who inadvertently crossed over a line, then couldn’t turn back.

In “Hunger” the story opens with a woman lamenting that she’s made the worst mistake in her life. Great hook! While on vacation without her husband, she meets an arty man, a friend of a friend, who lures her into a sexual relationship. She returns home thinking the affair is over, but he shows up at her door and wants her to assist him in murdering her husband. Until the end of the story, I’m on the edge of the chair knowing someone will die, but who? Oates writes as if any woman could fall into this trap—one bad decision and her fate has been cast. I’ve made poor decisions in the past about men, as I assume that most, if not all, women have. It’s difficult not to empathize with this character even when she becomes a killer.

I’m also studying Oates’ portrayal of victims. Sometimes, they’re children, sick, old or helpless, not physically or mentally able or experienced enough to foresee the consequences of their actions. Only one misstep changes or ends their lives. Other victims end up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some participate in or hasten their own demise, either knowingly or unknowingly. Oates makes it seem as if terrible things can happen to anyone at any time. I think that’s what makes her stories so terrifying. I end up feeling like the victim, railing at my fate—looking around me wondering what awful thing will happen next as I close the book.

In “Angel of Wrath” Gilead, a mentally challenged man, stalks a woman with a baby, thinking that he’s protecting her. She ends up shooting him in the foot, feels guilty and takes care of him. Then, she allows, even encourages, Gilead to kill the baby’s father who’s hurt her emotionally. Now, she’s trapped herself. At the end of the story Gilead is sitting on her bed hoping she’ll invite him to be her lover. This woman starts out as a victim whom all women can identify with and morphs into a killer when the opportunity presents itself. Could I become like her if threatened and pushed or tempted? Is it that easy for an emotional moment to overcome rational thought? Oates makes me sit back and wonder, not only about myself but everyone around me.

The Road
book by Cormac McCarthy

Annotation by Aaron Gansky

Maybe because I’m a man, maybe because I’m a father, this book resonated with me much more. This isn’t what I expected. I’ve heard of McCarthy and how wonderful he is. I think I was expecting something ornate and overly-literary. Instead, what I got was the sparseness of Carver or Hemmingway. My God, the dialogue! My first impression was that it was overly-redundant, and that he could cut out about fourteen pages if he simply deleted the word “okay.” My final impression, on that note, however, was the same. By the end of the novel, I still thought that the dialogue was overly-stiff, overly-sparse, overly-redundant, overly-overly, really. That being said, there were moments that were outstanding. He really nailed the dialogue at times, but not often enough, methinks.

That being said, I loved the book. I would have liked to have known what happened to the world (and I’m really surprised he got away without having to spell out what it was exactly—normally in post-apocalyptic books you have to give light to the cataclysm to satisfy readers). At the end of the book, I still wanted to know, but I was satisfied with the book regardless.
There, I’ve said my criticism. Now, on to what I love. The suspense and tension were ever present. McCarthy made isolation intimidating. He made company terrifying. He made old men and young boys daunting. Weather was ominous, empty homes were menacing.

But, what I thought he did really well was provide a respite for the man and the boy. I read somewhere (why can’t I remember where?) that characters should reap the reward of their actions—good guys should catch a break sometimes, bad guys should get what’s coming to them. It doesn’t always work that way in literature, but having the man and the boy catch a break at times (the ship, the fallout shelter), those were good times. It allowed me to breathe as a reader—something I couldn’t really do in The Grapes of Wrath *Aaron fashions a noose as he types the title*. In my novel, I need to let my characters catch their breath. That’s something I don’t normally do, but it’s something I’m looking forward to trying.