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.


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.

A Good Man is Hard to Find

A Good Man is Hard To Findbook by Flannery O’Connor

annotation by  Aaron Gansky

O’Connor has long been one of my favorite writers. Just about everything of hers I’ve read, I’ve enjoyed. This collection of stories is no different, though I noticed a couple of things that I’d not noticed before—things that have altered my perception of her writing, and perhaps, lends credibility to some of my students’ complaints when we read her. In the process of writing this critique, I went back over the titles of her stories, all of which are brilliantly subtle (with the exception of “The River” and “A Circle in the Fire”). The rest work by distraction, but also serve to lend credence or importance to certain aspects of the story that might have been otherwise missed by a quick read-through. It points the reader to important details in the story, and allows them to conclude WHY the things are important without being hit over the head with her “theme baseball bat.” No one likes that. So she’s more subtle. She paints a picture and says, “here it is, make of it what you will.” And her stories all sound real. Her characters are deep, thanks in large part to the seamless narrative (juggling) movement between action and thought (can you tell I’ve been reading Stern?). Her characters walk, chew, spit, breath, and speak like real people, and we’re left with the sense that these are stories, not that we’ve heard, but that we’ve experienced. It’s like hearing a news story and saying, “I know that guy,” like the people we knew in Katrina and we hear their story on the news. Like the Southern California fires and we had the displaced families living in our homes, sleeping on our couches. By God, we KNOW these people.

But, and I hate to pull out criticism, but isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? I feel awkward saying anything negative about her work because she’s a literary hero of mine, someone I aspire to be like someday (except that I don’t plan on becoming a woman, not physically at least). Anyhow, looking over the titles of these stories made me realize something else. I’m glad I’ve read them, but I’m in no way eager to jump back into them. Why? The impression I’m left with at the end of each of her stories was, “That was great,” and “I’m so glad that’s over!” This has nothing to do with the tension of the stories (which she does an excellent job of building), but rather, the LENGTH of her stories. Maybe it’s because we live in an ADD society and our commercials are all 30 seconds long because that’s all the time and attention we want to give to any one thing. Maybe it’s because I just finished reading Sudden Fiction and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. These collections are quick reads. With O’Connor, I found myself counting pages (okay, I do that with almost all stories, but there was a LOT of counting and not many stories). I guess, in short, I want to get down to it. In “A Good Man is Hard to Find” we get a family traveling for pages and pages. There’s tension in the family, yes, but not much. Then, the build up is paid off in the final few pages. The stakes are raised to life-and-death. A beautiful ending, masterfully crafted, and I realized all those pages were necessary to set everything up. But then, inevitably, I ask, “Really?” Many of the stories didn’t need such a big build up. The pay offs (endings) were always spectacular, but I wondered if they’d have been better received by me if she’d gotten to them quicker. I’m thinking especially of “The Artificial Nigger” here, where she goes on for about six pages getting her two characters into the city where they get lost. Can’t we just start with them lost and flash back a bit?

Lastly, I wondered about the characters. There were no less than three stories in here where I never got a sense of who was whom until FAR too late in the story. “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” I’m still confused about. “The Artificial Nigger” took me three or four pages to get the characters and their relations right in my mind. “The River,” had something similar, especially since the protagonist goes by two names. Then, for whatever reason, some random guy shows up at the end and it gets pretty unclear who’s doing the action because of her use of pronouns (which “he?”—Bevel or Mr. Paradise?) And, lastly, she’s a tendency to use titles for names or character traits, etc. Mr. Head, Mr. Paradise, Mrs. Hopewell, Joy, etc. Not bad, per se, but maybe a little annoying at times.

Yes, I’m nit-picky. Yes, I feel bad for speaking ill of O’Connor. Yes, I know I’d be lucky to be half the writer she is. Still—this is what I noticed.

Bird by Bird

bird by birdannotation by Aaron Gansky

book by Anne Lamott

When sitting down to write this, I thought, “Why not just put down all the memorable advice she gives and what it meant to me as a writer?” Then, the cold reality: not enough space. Above all, Bird by Bird is a practical book filled with great advice and subtle (often not-so-subtle) humor. Anne Lamott’s voice is clear, and she pulls no punches. She’s as frank as I’ve ever heard anyone on the subject of writing. One thing I like is that she is affirming and reassuring, while still being pointed and direct. Writing is work. It will be difficult. It will suck at times and you’ll hate your life. But you keep going and, eventually, it works out for you.

The name of the book comes from an example she tells about her brother. He was ten years old and working on a report about birds. He’d had three months to do the assignment and, in true ten-year-old student fashion, waited until the night before to begin the project. As Lamott put it, he was “immobilized by hugeness of the task ahead.” Then, her father gave him some great advice. “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” She uses this anecdote to express the importance of short assignments. In fact, she keeps a one-inch picture frame on her desk to remind her that all she needs to write is what she can see through that frame.

For me, this was encouraging, but I have to doubt the effectiveness of the advice for a commercial writer, one who is trying to support him or herself with their craft. I love the example and the idea, and am reassured by it on days when I don’t get much more than a paragraph written. Still, if my father, who supports himself entirely on his contracts, wrote an inch a day, he’d never make a deadline and never get the advances that he needs to pay his bills. His contracts and advances, however, are likely nowhere near what Lamott makes for each of her books. So perhaps the key is being a successful author first, saving up your money, and then writing an inch a day. That, of course, would be ideal.

The second piece of advice she gives, and in her estimation, equally as paramount to writing, is the idea of shitty first drafts. This was not a new idea to me, but she couples it with the idea of perfectionism. Uh oh. Now she’s talking directly to me. As a perfectionist, I find myself revising and revising, but seldom moving on. That’s one reason I wanted to complete my novel. I wanted to get it done and then revise the completed project. And always, always, is that little voice of the perfectionist who sits on my shoulder and says, “Seriously? You’re going to write that? Really?”

An example: While working as a youth pastor for a church, the senior pastor asked me to produce and Easter Drama for the congregation. He handed me the script he wanted to use. I read it and told him it was miserably bad, that we couldn’t use it. It was theologically inaccurate and bordered or heresy in places. Additionally, the dialogue was stiff and forced etc. etc. etc. (I’m also overly critical). He say to me, “Too bad. You’re doing it.” I politely told him, “Nuh uh.” He gave me the look that says, “If you like your job, you’ll do it.” So I said, “Can I rewrite the stupid thing?” He agrees. I complain to my wife about the amount of work I have to do and she says, “Deal with it. You brought it on yourself.” I love her dearly, which was a particularly good thing at the time. She was right. And that’s how I am with all my work. I still look at my first novel and think, “It could be good, if I rewrote it from the ground up.”

She mentions that writing is like hypnotizing yourself into thinking you’re good long enough for you to write. Then unhypnotizing yourself and revising what you’ve done. I found this to be incredibly helpful in terms of coping with my perfectionism.

Another point I found encouraging was the fact that even “famous” writers struggle with self-doubt. I loved her story of her manuscript that went through four drafts, and after each draft she thought it was done, perfect, until her editor told her otherwise. And when he did, she sank into great despair, which she quickly tried to remedy with alcohol and “the merest bit of cocaine.” So maybe it’s all writers, not just me.

Lastly, I liked the idea of a story developing slowly. She gives two examples for this. The first is a Polaroid picture. She says we’re not supposed to know what a Polaroid is of until the final moments when the image emerges from the greenish-gray murk. I like that. I like that it’s okay to have a murky story. I often want to script out the whole book, but I like to leave it open and be flexible. But even then, I find myself forcing events in the plot to get the people where I want them. I’ve not been comfortable up to this point with the uncertainty of where my characters are going. Lamott suggests just having the characters is enough. Watch what they do. Plot will stem from the seed of the characters. It’s a lot like driving at night, she says. You can’t see your destination, but you can see what’s in your headlights, and you can drive the whole way like that. I need to give myself the license to have uncertainty in my novels and stories. If I don’t know where they’re going, the readers definitely won’t, and that should add some nice tension, so long as I don’t resort to Deus ex Machina (ahem, Dean Koontz).

Overall, a great read that lived up to the hype. Much of the book stimulated a plethora of writing assignments for myself and for my Creative Writing students. They may not be too fond of Ms. Lamott, but I sure am!

Forever Odd & Brother Odd

Forever Oddannotations by Aaron Gansky
books by Dean Koontz

Forever Odd
I want to blame this tragedy on someone else. I’d like to say that someone required me to read this piece, that it was an onus placed upon me by some authority figure that I’m helpless to resist. But that is not the case. I can blame no one but myself. My father says I’m overly critical, and he’s probably right. I have a feeling that, no matter how hard I try, this won’t be a pleasant annotation.

A quick history: I read Odd Thomas earlier on the recommendation of my father. He said it was a good example of first person point of view and of voice. When I completed the book, I disagreed. I had a few complaints about the book, but still enjoyed it overall.

Like any good workshop, I’ll begin with what I liked about Odd Thomas—the characters. Many of the characters were fascinating and memorable. Their dialogue was natural and often engaging, though it often felt forced.

One of the drawbacks to Forever Odd was that the characters that I enjoyed in the first book didn’t last more than a chapter or two before the protagonist is pulled away into an isolated environment. And the protagonist, Odd Thomas, who many readers find engaging and whimsical (because he jokes about everything) for me, has a serious flaw in his “voice.” He’s a 21 year old short order cook, but seems to have this vast knowledge of trivial information that seems random and out of place. He’ll go on for pages about the history of bowling to say that something bad might happen at a bowling alley. And while his description is good, there are times where he’ll drag a situation out for multiple pages. The description is full and vivid and nice, but over-the-top. At some point, this intense description slows the pacing of the book and takes the reader out of the story, and I found myself wanting to skip pages at a time to just figure out what in the world happens. I shouldn’t have to wade this far into a detailed history of the evolution of the coyote to understand that Odd’s in trouble. Just get to the point already.

Forever Odd suffers from the same description problem, but doesn’t have the intriguing characters to carry it through. Of the three, this feels the least like an Odd Thomas book because his interaction with interesting characters (he himself is not that interesting to me) was gone. The villain was contrived, too easy, cliché. Her cryptic dialogue and flimsy motivation were laughable. The whole plot was beyond hard to believe, it was improbable, impractical, and far too easy. It took more than the willing suspension of disbelief to buy into it. It took a degree in ignorance.

A short summary of the plot: Odd Thomas’ best friend (who, until this novel, was never mentioned, and who has brittle bone disease) is kidnapped by an ultra-wealthy scary occult enthusiast sex-phone operator. She kidnaps the friend (who’s name I cannot remember) to lure Odd Thomas to her so he can show her dead people, which is the one thing she’s not been able to do in her study and pursuit of the occult. Too many coincidences.

Deus Ex Machina is the name of the game. The whole premise is unbelievable, but it gets worse. Odd is saved by a roaming panther who just happens to be at the bottom of a stairwell in a burnt-up casino at just the right time to eat the villain before she kills Odd in a horribly unspeakable way. Then, when running from one of the villain’s henchman, Odd apparently dies, and then magically reappears in Pico Mundo, his hometown, unscathed.

At the end of the book, I was left feeling like this was a sequel to appease the masses who enjoyed the first book, one Dean Koontz threw together at the last minute with no original thought process or plan. To say this book was a disappointment would be courteous.

For my part, I need to understand that compelling, interesting characters can keep a readers interest even if the story often drags. Plus, I need to know that if I get lazy, my readers (when and if I get them) will know. I’m thinking specifically of The Bargain again here. I rushed the ending, and I know it. But I felt I was flexible enough to follow the story and tried not to be too contrived, but I’m sure I was. On my revision, I’ll have an eye on just that.

Brother OddBrother Odd
This book was much better that its predecessor. Here, though Odd Thomas has moved to a monastery, and while he had no contact with the old characters I liked so much, there were new characters, unique characters. Plus, the setting was so different that the whole story, which wasn’t ground-breaking in its originality, felt fresh.

And while this story was nearly equally unbelievable (mad-scientist monk creates room that will turn his thoughts into living creatures/creations to destroy his disavowed mentally-challenged son, and all disabled children in the nearby nunnery), it felt more credible in terms of motivation. It makes sense that this mad-scientist type character has won numerous prizes and has vast monetary resources. Still unbelievable, but plausible at least.

While this book suffered from the same flaw in voice (the ultra-wise beyond his years 21 year old), long passages of drawn out pointless description, and the fact that everybody (and I mean everybody) loving the protagonist (which becomes tiring after a while—I found myself asking “Really? Everyone loves him? Why? Because he’s quasi-witty? Because he’s suffered? What is it about him that everyone loves? I never saw it.) they were fewer times that this proved to be distracting to the reader.

What does this mean for my writing? Characters can make a story—they can make a reader forgive a stories short-comings. Likewise, the protagonist must be one of those characters that the reader cares about. The other characters in the novel should feel about the protagonist the same way the reader does (ideally). I know that characters is often developed by other characters’ perception of that person, but there should be enough protagonist developed so that it seems reasonable for the other character’s to like them for that. When characters should distrust him, they don’t. This was distracting, and it is a pitfall I’ll try to avoid in my book (something I’ll keep an eye on in the revision process).

Sudden Fiction

Sudden Fictionannotation by Aaron Gansky
book edited by Robert Shapard and James Thomas

WHY I PICKED IT: I wanted to read a collection of flash fiction (though, as I learned, there is a subtle distinction between “sudden fiction” and “flash fiction”—this difference is in length. “Flash” refers to even shorter stories—1 to 2 pages—and “sudden” allows up to about five pages) for a variety of reasons. The first of these was to find good examples of stories to share with my Creative Writing class. Their brevity appealed to me because we could easily cover on in one class setting (though, ideally, a truly good piece could be analyzed for days on end). Secondly, there’s something to be said about our current ADD culture. While I can sit and read a novel (in my spare minutes between work, school, and odd jobs around the house), many of today’s youth, the generation of the 15 second commercial (I know, I know, they’re normally 30 seconds to a minute, but watch them—you’ll see a lot more 15 second commercials these days) lose interest after a page or two. So this style of writing, in my mind, would be immediately compelling. It would get to the heart of a story in as few beats as possible, and then ratchet up our pulses—0 to 600 bps (beats per second) in two pages or less. This was my dream—that each piece would be so riveting, so compelling, so absolutely arresting, that I’d devour each of the stories, then go back for seconds. This, sadly, was not the case. While there were a handful of stories I loved, there were fewer I could use to teach a high school class (because of language or subject matter). And those handful of stories that I loved, that I will re-read time and again, the ones I will teach, they will stay with me. Regretfully, though, the vast majority of these stories were forgettable. Maybe it’s because I’m sick and tired (I mean this here literally—I got that two-week cold that’s beating inside my head and chest, and haven’t had a moment to sit down and unwind since … well, I’m sure I’ve done it at some point—but enough of my pity party). Likely, it’s because some of the stories were too cute for their own good, and others didn’t, in my estimation, truly get the idea of tension. What I wanted were amazing openings and inspiring closings. I got it at times. More often than not, I got confused. At some point I thought that I’d missed the literary movement that insisted that confusing the reader was the highest form of literary accomplishment (here, I see a famous author in a clothing store, the clerk asking him, “Have I read anything of yours?” and the author replying with smug condescension, “Well, it’s possible, considering how perplexed you look). My professional, well thought-out criticism at the end of most of these stories consisted of two primary responses: “huh?” and “What in the hell…?” But it was not all bad, and ultimately, it was well worth the read and, though it may not sound like it just yet, I’m very glad Rob Roberge recommended it to me.

WHY I LOVED IT: To a certain extent, I tried to read this with a certain mindset. After the first five or so stories, in which the primary reader response was confusion and discombobulation, I reminded myself that Rob had recommended that I read this when I asked for a good collection of flash fiction. Why, then, did he do it if all the stories are so confusing. Was I missing something, did the better stories come later (in fact, they did). What I started to see, though, was a pattern. The stories, as the book continued, featured a variety of styles and conflicts. When looked at as individual stories, the result can be a little disheartening. When looked at together, they start to paint an image of something greater than the sum of their parts. This, for all it’s perceived faults, was a canvas of the sudden fiction form, it was exactly what the editors said it was. My personal taste may not have been appeased immediately, but it was appeased. I’m sure most anyone who reads this collection would find a handful (or, ideally, two) of stories that they loved. Here’s a short list (which includes some of the first few that I’ve derided so mercilessly. I’ve since learned that there were things about them I liked—teachable moments, tender moments, etc.): “Can-Can,” “Even Greenland,” “Sunday in the Park,” “No One’s a Mystery,” “Yours,” “Thank You, Ma’am,” “Popular Mechanics,” “Say Yes,” “The Hit-Man,” “I See You Never,” “The Personal Touch,” “Tickits,” “Reading the Paper,” “Thief,” “The Sock,” “Speed of Light,” “Any Minute Mom Should Come Blasting Through the Door,” “The Signing,” and “The Quail.” Most of these I liked because I could understand them, but more so because they had a great opening, an inspiring ending, poignant writing, or made me think. Carver’s story, specifically, “Popular Mechanics,” had this response from me: Good God. Wow. His simplicity and commitment to simple detail had the desired effect—the story told itself. It’s a great example of the writer getting out of the way of the story. “Even Greenland” had my favorite ending. “I know I am looking at John’s fucking triumph. His poem.” “Reading the Paper” made me laugh and laugh—a classic example of a man with a simple desire (to read the paper) and life simply getting in the way (his family being run down by a drunk driver the previous night, his only living kid being kidnapped, an escaped convict coming in to rape and cut him “a little,” etc.). For some of them (“The Quail,” “Can-Can,”) were so well crafted that, though I’ll never remember the character names, I’ll always remember the story, the expression of the characters, the details and minutia that make it so ingrainable.

WHY I HATED IT: At some point I was frustrated that some authors (it seemed) took FAR too long to get to the actual story. They’d give a page or two of background information that felt superfluous. I was, after all, reading a book from the perspective of an ADD high school student. So, while some clearly fancied themselves fantastic writers, masters of their crafts, it seemed a bit showy. “Look what I can do! I can write two pages of extraneous information without a payoff!” It was as if they got caught up in the TELLING of the story rather than simply letting the story breathe (a la Carver in “Popular Mechanics”). I would list these, but there’s no need to chronicle the disappointing stories.

Lastly, the gimmicks. Why is it that a relatively “new” form invites people to try gimmicks. I’m thinking here of one that was about five pages of clichés all strung together, presumably, to tell a story. I never got story or character—I got irritated. We’re told, as writers, to avoid these bad boys for a reason. Why did this guy (or girl, can’t remember off hand) think that putting them altogether would make it okay? If two wrongs don’t make a right, I’m pretty sure 1700 wrongs STILL don’t add up to a right (but then, I’m not up on my new math). Writing a story in the form of a questionnaire may be cute, but didn’t seem very practical to me. Using awkward inversions (a la “Even Greenland,” though it was one of my favs) only makes me picture two Yodas in the crashing F-14. And lastly (I mean it this time) it seemed like, because of the word count restriction, that many authors felt that they had to force information in to make everything understandable, rather than simply trusting the reader. I guess that’s why I like Carver—he trusts the reader to get it. His description is sparse, sublimely so even, but we, as readers, get it. We get it all. And we like getting it without having to be force-fed it (like some father making airplane noises to get his son to eat peas—the kid hates ‘em, man. Airplane noises don’t do much to change the vomit-tasting food!) Same thing with background information that is kicked into our mouths like a foot with a smelly sock (this analogy, admittedly, doesn’t work nearly as well as my previous one, but you get the idea).