book by Jorges Luis Borges

annotation by Tina Rubin

With the earlier stories in this collection (Part I: The Garden of Forking Paths), Borges not only “explodes all previous notions of genre,” as critics have said, he also exploded my own naiveté about the impact magical realism can have when done well. Borges’ references to ancient literature, his explorations on the nature of reality, and his hints at chaos theory literally elated me. I had long boxed these subjects into the nonfiction category (philosophy, religion, history), not realizing that they could be incorporated into fiction. A few years ago I began a nonfiction novel based on translations of ancient texts, on the order of his “Circular Ruins” story in which thought form becomes reality which, in effect, turns out to be thought form. The few people who read my early chapters labeled it science fiction, and I promptly put it away. I hadn’t yet discovered magical realism. Reading Borges, however, gave me insight about writing in this genre and the courage to pick up my previous work.

Borges’ well-crafted stories, many written with tongue-in-cheek humor, are excellent examples of how to amuse while expanding a reader’s mind. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the first story, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” contains this sentence: “Then Bioy Casares recalled that one of the heresiarchs of Uqbar had stated that mirrors and copulation are abominable, since they both multiply the numbers of man.” If you’re going to write about possibility, probability, and a chaotic universe, it’s probably a good idea to be funny while you’re at it.

Borges weaves his philosophy, which questions our perception of reality (including books), through his stories. Our perception of reality is one of my favorite topics, and one I’ve incorporated into my current novel, so I read with great interest to see how he did what he did. “The Babylon Lottery” reflects on the Godlike qualities an artificial system can take on, making the reader wonder whether our own notion of God began with such an artificial system. Borges’ reviews of imaginary books (which brought Vladimir Nabokov to mind—specifically The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, in which Nabokov’s narrator convincingly analyzes his dead half-brother’s novels) astounded me with their implications. And from the world of Uqbar, where there are no nouns, to the Library of Babel, a chaotic universe where books have no meaning, the message seems to be this: Don’t take reality for granted; there are innumerable probabilities and you can choose whichever future you like.

Although Borges carries his themes through the second half of the collection, Part I resonated more with me. The stories in Part II, however, were excellent examples of craftsmanship and narrative story, conveying an equal measure of action to theme with not quite as much intellectualism.

Ficciones is a difficult collection to annotate—with these two pages, I haven’t begun to do it justice. But as Pierre Menard, Borges’ fictional author of Don Quixote, suggests, every time we read we are, in effect, creating an entirely new text simply by viewing it through the distorting lens of history. So it is with Ficciones. I could create any number of pages here, since with each review I go off on an entirely new tangent. Such fun!



Book by Charlotte Roche

Annotation by Marya Summers

A novel published in German in 2008 and translated in English in 2009, Wetlands tells the story of 18-year old Helen Memel and her hemorrhoid operation.  As the narrator, Memel tells her story – that of a hedonist punk who loves to shock people – the first-person present tense gives the story an immediacy, but even more, the character’s willingness to share her most private moments takes the reader to a sometimes uncomfortable intimacy. Memel talks to the reader without shame, offering graphic details of her delicate condition, her unapologetic sexuality, and her idiosyncratic hygiene practices. The reader is provided gruesomely vivid scenes such as Memel’s creation, insertion and disposal of homemade tampons as she defies conventional wisdom about sanitary practices. The scenes and details provided, such as her plunging her healing bottom down on the hospital bed’s brake in order to rip open her wounded anus so that she can get her divorced parents to the hospital so they can reconcile, are always frank and frequently shocking. During her stay in the hospital, the reader becomes just as acquainted with Memel’s emotional state, which is more desperate and painful than the gaping wound in her bottom. The wound becomes symbolic of Memel’s ability to withstand the injury caused by her parents’ break-up, her father’s remoteness, and her mother’s suicidal depression.

I chose this book because it was recommended to me several times when I would discuss the negative reactions readers had to the sexual parts of my memoir. Roche has been much praised and her book compared to J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, J.G. Ballard’s Crash, and Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch. Roche’s frank, non-exploitive and highly graphic scenes were so powerful that at times I had to put the book down until the nausea they induced subsided. I’d never read anything like this from a female perspective, and since I am very receptive to discussions about sexuality, I was surprised that the novel was repulsive and shocking to me. It was only in hindsight that I was able to appreciate what the graphic scenes contributed to the story. As I read, I was so engaged in the physicality, that it was difficult for me to be engaged intellectually. It was a good experience and an extreme example of how description of bodily functions can be difficult for readers and how that can be used to mirror the character’s emotional state and provoke a reaction from readers.

The Talented Mr. Ripley

Talented Mr Ripley

book by Patricia Highsmith

Annotation by Tina Rubin

When I read The Talented Mr. Ripley the first time, I was captivated by Highsmith’s classy, clever, quick-thinking psychotic, Tom Ripley. I wanted to reread this book for a couple reasons: one, because I was working on a critical paper about creating empathetic villains like Tom; and two, because Eve, the protagonist in the novel I’m writing, also has a psychotic breakdown and attempts murder. I wanted to study the way Highsmith unravelled Tom’s psychosis, see if and how she foreshadowed the murders, and pick up tips on how to keep my character  empathetic as she tries to kill her husband.

I wasn’t disappointed. Highsmith is a master of suspense and the psychotic mind. She starts right out on page one showing the reader some of Tom’s symptoms, later amplified, that are indicative of mental illness. The primary signal is his pretense. When childhood didn’t go well for Tom, he began putting on acts to gain acceptance, later realizing that he was funny and could entertain people with made-up stories. As the story opens, he’s pretending to work for the IRS in a scam to rip people off, which is nothing more than a silly game for him, because he’s smart enough to know that he can’t cash their checks without getting caught. (So right away, we might think, “Aw, he’s not so bad. I knew people who did stuff like that in college.” Empathy, ta dah!) Pretense not only runs throughout the book but is the irony of it, because after the murder of his friend Dickie Greenleaf, Tom takes on his identity (just long enough to be the recipient of Dickie’s forged will).

This aspect, pretense, is one that I’ve put into place with Eve in my novel: she’s been pretending to be other than who she is since she was twelve, to please her father. So I was gratified to realize that I was on the right track with this.

Another symptom is frequently feeling humiliated. Highsmith unfolds Tom’s feelings of humiliation slowly and consistently, from his aunt taunting him for being a sissy to Dickie confronting him about being gay (which sets off a long stream of memories about similar confrontations that Tom has blown out of proportion). When Tom and Dickie argue in the street, Tom realizes a “horrible truth:” that he was deluded in thinking he knew certain people, and that for all eternity, he would never know them. For Tom, little things that a healthy person could process aggravate his negative self-image. Easily feeling humiliated was not a  characteristic I had consciously chosen for Eve, but it is present during a significant moment for her, and I can make her husband’s behavior feel that way to her. (Ah, the joy of creating your world any way you want.)

Highsmith does foreshadow Tom’s becoming a murderer, which I hadn’t remembered from my first reading. It happens first in a scene early on, in which Tom thinks about fantasies he used to have about stabbing Aunt Dottie to death with the pin on her brooch; and later in Mongibello, when Tom, alone in Dickie’s room, pretends he is Dickie strangling Marge for coming between them. Good lessons in foreshadowing. I also see that Highsmith takes her time in setting up what’s coming. Dickie’s murder doesn’t occur until page 104, which made me realize that I don’t have to rush into this. It’s those delicious details up front that make it work so well.

Another technique I want to incorporate into my novel is Highsmith’s use of long passages inside Tom’s head, where the reader gets the full impact of his suffering and his thought processes—elements that make him appealing. This is tricky to do (unless you’re Virginia Woolf), but it’s going to be fun trying.

A Mercy

A Mercybook by Toni Morrison

annotation by Aaron Gansky

This was my first Morrison book. I was eagerly anticipating it, as I’ve heard many good things about her work. But I found it very different. I’m not sure exactly what I expected—maybe it’s exactly what I got. It took me a long time to figure out who was who. The shifts in POV, while they provided depth to the characters, seemed so different that I found it hard to follow. For example, many were in first person, some weren’t. Often, in the first person POVs, she would write “you,” as if the narrator was speaking to someone in particular, like it was a letter. This seemed to distract me, because I was trying to figure out who the narrator was AND who they were speaking to. A challenge, to say the least. For whatever reason, it didn’t really become clear to me until the end. I wonder if she did this purposely, so as to create mystery, but I never felt like I knew enough to know mystery. I was just confused.

On the positive side, the characters are definitely well developed, very round. Still, I found it hard to tell them apart at times. I think the dialect was another obstacle for me to overcome. I kept thinking I was simply missing something great—like the rest of the world could read this and would love it, and call it genius. But I struggled just to figure out who was on first.

Perhaps what I take away from this book is simply the idea that when I work with multiple POVs, I should make sure it is clear who is speaking, and WHEN they are speaking. Jumping POVs is one thing, but jumping POVs and time is REALLY hard to follow.

Corpus Christi


book by Bret Anthony Johnston

annotation by Kate Maruyama

I enjoy reading short stories in bits, picking up one here or there, completely immersing myself in a world and a set of characters, going back to a novel I’m reading then picking up a different story later. In this fashion, any collection holds up. But the continuous movement of reading one collection, no matter how well wrought, gets wearing. So, in looking at the titles of the stories I’ve just read, what sticks out are the three about Minnie and Lee and the first one, “Waterwalkers.” I know that this latter choice may only be because this first story was the one for which I was the most present; ready to be open to the characters and what the author had to present to me.

But the hurricane, two ex-lovers, ex-spouses, thrown together and capable only of remembering the death of their son which tore them apart, this enormous hurdle they can’t get past; the echo of the storm with the night they lost him. This was a gorgeous piece, totally devastating, yet simple.

The Lee and Minnie stories worked because we were given time to get to know them. One layer of their story would be told, we’d be given a break, taken somewhere else and then brought back to another story. I wondered why he hadn’t written a novel about these two, but I realized that their story would have been too hard to take in one continuous stream. Cancer is ugly, and heavy and overwhelming and pinned down to exact moments, it becomes more manageable. We are introduced to the two in a desperate attempt to score Minnie some Demerol at the hospital for a debilitating migraine. Minnie’s point of view is full of spirit and humor and the urgency of the migraine puts a bomb under the stands to raise the stakes. Lee’s concern and patience shows us his character in action and foreshadows the ordeals he must undertake ahead of him…and how he will deal with them. Johnston is careful to weave in moments from other parts of our characters’ lives, so that we aren’t numbed by their immediate circumstances. He also weaves some humor into his telling, those everyday absurdities that make life more real.

Johnston is also good at the element of surprise: Both Minnie and Lee are hiding things from each other, and frequently Johnston withholds what it is that they are hiding until just the right moment to spring it on the reader. Lee is carrying around the dreadful secret of Minnie’s diagnosis, but at the end of that story we find that Minnie knew all along. Minnie’s framing her afternoon around a picnic by the duck pond and Lee discourages her from going: only at the end of that story do we learn that the duck pond was filled in years before, a fact that Minnie’s brain tumors have erased. Throughout their shared story, I kept hoping we wouldn’t have to go through the drudgery of those last days, in which so many authors get lost. But again, we took a break…a several story break, and Johnston brings us back at the end. Minnie is in terrible shape, but he levies this part of the story with Lee’s hope over seeing an old girlfriend, intercutting with her funeral, making it all more manageable, and more poignant for not being so numbing. Totally artful.

I didn’t connect with several of the stories, I could not tell, again, if it was my reading them in a row or a disconnect with the characters. To me, “Two Liars” felt disorienting and detached. I understand that it was shown through the kid’s uncomprehending eyes, but I felt his voice kept me from what was really going on with the parents. While there was plenty to infer, I couldn’t help but yearn for their point of view in their nonsensical behavior. “Anything that Floats” had an interesting situation, but, again, I couldn’t connect. I didn’t understand what the lover, Gil, wanted in his conversations with the boy; or in his relationship with his mother. The mother was better defined, but I felt another layer could have been pulled back to get a lively dynamic going between the three of them which I felt was lacking. Here we kept flashing back to the husband, but instead of becoming part of the larger story, it felt more like a distraction and the story for me became like a dream you can’t remember the morning after as you try to reach desperately for its central purpose.

I am challenged and frightened by short stories, still, and work much more easily in the long form. But I keep whacking away at them. These languorous, narrative Iowa-school stories don’t reach me in the same way as the more immediate and bizarre stories do. While I enjoyed reading Corpus Christi, these stories felt like mini-novels. I go more for the idea of short stories as more akin to poetry or songs. I prefer the sharper, briefer ones, and, unfortunately, I do like them with a bit of sass. Capote’s “Children on their Birthdays” (“Yesterday afternoon, the six o’clock bus ran over Miss Bobbit.” Gotta love that opening line) or “My Side of the Matter”, David Sedaris, fiction and non-fiction stories, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son…every single one of his stories popped off the page, took you somewhere funky and interesting and was deeply stirring without weeping openly. Lorrie Moore paints many of her stories, playing with words. She’s always saying something, never boring. Amy Hempel has taken the short story somewhere else entirely and, as a writer, I can only hope for the lifelong journey to somewhere original that she has enjoyed.

And I am still here, stabbing in the dark. All I can do is wait for the story to speak and see what form it will take. What I find most interesting is that in the four stories I’ve worked on so far, each of them has taken on a different pace, tone and shape. And each definitely has a different voice. In a way it is freeing, I can’t hurt anything by messing around with a few thousand words…but I’ll keep whacking and see where it leads me.

Wild Nights

book by Joyce Carol Oates

annotation by Diana Woods

I found Oates’ collection of fictional stories about the last days of Poe, Dickenson, Twain, James and Hemingway to be creative and engaging. She encapsulates the personality of the five writers within her fictional characters and creates a setting, plot or fate, wildly improbable, but somewhat related to the life they actually led.

In the first story “Poe Posthumous; or, The Light House,” the fictional Poe has agreed with his patron to isolate himself in a lighthouse and keep a diary to record his activities as part of an experiment. Oates creates a mystical, dark, gloomy setting and mimics the “fated/doomed/ecstatic quintessential voice of Poe.” From this story, I learned about the importance of voice to develop character and portray changes in personality. The story provides a good example of how the setting also becomes a character. I’d like to emulate her techniques in developing the interaction between the character and the setting.

In the second story, “EDickinson RepliLuxe,” physical replications of famous people reliving specified periods of their lives are available for purchase. The Krims, hoping to brighten up their stale marriage, purchase Emily Dickenson, from age 30 to the year of her death at age 55. I was enthralled with the premise of this story and the powerful narrative utilizing parallel time periods– the Krims living in one version of story time and the fictional Emily Dickenson reliving the years 1830-1886.The tension and violence between the characters resulting from their different personalities and lifestyles drives the narrative. From this story, I learned a clever technique for manipulating time. Oates derived her fictional version of Emily Dickenson’s character “… so teasingly inward, elliptical, female-mystical…” from Dickenson’s poetry, letters and photographs. I can see that research yields impressive results.

In the third story, “Grandpa Clemens & Angelfish, 1906,” Grandpa Clemens “collects” pretty girls between ten and sixteen. They become his “angelfish.” His own daughter is incensed by his unsavory behavior, and in the end, Grandpa Clemens ends up being taunted and mocked by his angelfish which leads to his death. Again, Oates has done her research drawing on Mark Twain’s Aquarium: The Samuel Clemens-Angelfish Correspondence 1905-1910 edited by John Cooley, and other published biographical information, to create a fictional version of reality. I enjoy reading literary biographies but hadn’t thought of looking for story ideas in the foibles of the subjects. Now, I’ll be looking for story ideas based on the unsavory qualities of my favorite authors—preferably dead with no living relatives as appears to have been the case with Twain.

The fourth story, “The Master at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, 1914-1916” revolves around a fictional Henry James as an old man who attempts to volunteer at a hospital to help veterans. Despite his stature as a famous author, he grovels before the nurse supervisor and accepts odious assignments that weaken him physically. He worries about dying but won’t give up. Eventually, he succeeds in establishing a friendship with a veteran, a relationship that reverses when James becomes infirm. Oates’ high regard for James is evident by the theme and characterization in this story. In her notes, she comments that James hasn’t been sufficiently acknowledged for his impact on the work of other writers including. Oates’ has motivated me to read more literary biographies and experiment with characterization by exaggerating traits and habits of successful authors.

In the fifth and last story, the fictional Hemingway plays with his gun and thinks about his life. His contempt for women is evident and also his dependence on “the woman” he lives with. Oates captures Hemingway’s narcissism, recklessness and anger and mimics his “tautly written, minimalist, and deeply ironic short stories.” In her notes, she credits him for creating an American vernacular and for developing “the deadpan understatement of a hurt too painful to be acknowledged.” This story serves as a good example of a complex narrator/character who uses denial and self-injurious behavior to deal with the painful situations in his life, arising in good part from his biased and flawed perceptions of both himself and the world around him. I’d like to emulate her techniques in characterization when creating unreliable narrators.

Because of Hemingway’s notorious machismo, I’ve read little of his work and failed to fully appreciate his influence. I didn’t enjoy reading the story but it served as a good example of how to create a narrator with biased and flawed perceptions.