Great House

book by Nicole Krauss

Annotation by Talya Jankovits

I have come to know myself as a book hugger. It only happens to a few lucky books and it really takes a lot for me to want to take that hard, short spine in my arms and embrace it as a friend, also as a somewhat obsessive and envious fellow writer. My most recent book hug was with Nicole Krauss’ “Great House”, and great it was.

In this marvelous novel of humanity, vulnerability, loss, love and worldly chaos, Krauss uses the simple object of a desk to stir up a whirlwind of interconnecting stories. This strikes me as a remarkable thing to do, to use something inanimate and familiar in order to dig up the most honest insecurities, doubts and discoveries in her character’s lives. And while this desk is important, it is also utterly disposable because the real meat, the real beauty lies in the characterization and the tiny stories that hold large quantities of mortal humanity in them.

A multitude of lives are inter-crossed through the constant recycling of a desk that originally sat in the study of a Polish Jew before his life was shattered by the Second World War. At first, I couldn’t seem to grasp how all these people were connected, why they were relevant to one another besides for the commonality of once having owned this large and overpowering desk, but as I continued to read, I realized that sometimes even the most subtle and seemingly trivial ways people connect in real and often haunting situations can lead to an incredible story and Krauss knows a good story. She knows how to develop the voices, the nuances and the sometimes brutal and devastating honesty of her characters that stir you into a deep, emotional awakening.

How does she do it? I wanted to know because I too want to write stories that might one day cause a reader to hug my cardboard spine. It’s all about the building; Krauss layers and not always with beautiful bricks. Her characters are whole but not necessarily enjoyable. Never flat, but so round they can barely fit through the door, their baggage is real and sometimes quirky enough that you can imagine that yes, people are keeping secrets like this. Often times I find that characterization gets sick with flatness and familiarity, but Krauss is so detailed in building and revealing her characters that you know this person, you feel as if you have been privy to peek into their closed curtains. Reading Krauss’ novel makes me want to go back to my own, to start to undress my characters and be sure that they are whole, that I’ve remembered every nuance. Because I strongly believe that Krauss knew even more of her characters then she eventually revealed to the reader and I truly think this is a secret tool to creating fictional people. Each chapter is written in the first person of a different character’s voice (some voices repeating again in second chapters) and while the chapters are not titled by the character’s names the reader can still easily distinguish between the multitude of voices. Now that is effective and successful characterization. To know these people, to wish their stories were never ending is beauty. And on top of all this, her prose is gorgeous.

Once again, the novelist, Nicole Krauss has gotten me to wrap myself around her book both physically and emotionally. A book to read for pleasure and for craft.

A Gate at the Stairs

book by Lorrie Moore

annotation by Heather Luby

This novel by Lorrie Moore, her first in over fifteen years, tries to do many things. Moore casts her net wide and tries to bring to the reader a story that is both coming of age, and a reflection of the time (post 9/11), but mixes in with these things love, tragedy, wit and the bizarre.

The story is told from the perspective of Tassie, a country farm girl who seems to both embrace this aspect of her identity (she enjoys helping her father in his organic potato fields) and yet it also seems a source of embarrassment. Even though Moore would like to have her reader believe that Tassie is a unique and quirky, it seems more likely that Moore has been removed from this age for too long to appreciate the very ordinary desire of all young people to feel they are different, smarter or more enlightened than their parents, and that in the end, just simply misunderstood.

Moore strives for humor with Tassie, and succeeds to a certain degree, but even her wit is tainted a bit with an underlying resentment or anger toward those around her. Much of this is focused at Tassie’s parents – her mother in particular – and seems to be grounded in nothing more than a selfish and immature attitude. While this makes her character very authentic – what freshman in college is not insufferable with their newfound knowledge and independence — it doesn’t make her likely to connect with most readers.

In addition to a coming of age story, centered on the small town farm girl going off to college and being wooed by the intellectuals, Chinese food and Silvia Plath, Moore is also telling the story of Sarah Brink, Tassie’s employer. Tassie is nanny to Sarah and Edward, who adopt a bi-racial baby. Moore dives into a world of marital unhappiness, the struggles of adoption, parenthood and the challenges of a white couple with a little biracial girl, and she does all this while also commenting on the prejudice and contradictory nature of the world around them.

More tragedy is introduced as Tassie finds out about the death of Sarah’s first child, when Sarah was actually called Susan, and did I mention that this is all going on while Tassie is falling in love with a student who might be a terrorist? And one more thing, the plot goes on to include her brother Robert, who graduates from high school and joins the Army, only to be killed in action.

This is not to say that Moore doesn’t do several things very well. She intertwines a world of humor, of clever observation, with a world cast in the shadow of impending doom. Moore gives the reader a dark foreshadowing incident and then follows it up with something humorous and wise so that later, when that something awful occurs, we have already forgotten that we should have seen it coming. This ability to move the reader back and forth is fluid and flawless. Her use of language, her descriptive passages of nature and of her surroundings are breathtaking – if not a bit distracting at times – and it is polished to perfection. And to a degree, Moore captures the angst of a teenage girl, especially in the paragraphs that detail her first sexual experiences and the inevitable breakup.

As much as I would like to praise the novel for these things alone, I feel it was too ambitious. Moore did many things well, but the large scope prevented her from doing any one thing great. It makes me think of movies with too many big name stars — you have high expectations — but in the end all the big egos in the room prevent you from really experiencing the story.

If you can ignore the plot contrivances, it becomes apparent that Moore is most interested in her narrator, in character development and what her characters have to say to the reader. This only leads me to wonder why she spent so much time weaving a complicated plot – full of unlikely situations — that, in the end, she ultimately felt abandoned and misused. Just as Tassie is crafted to be a clever, an insightful observer and commentator on the world and people around her, you never really see her character grow or mature. She is shallow and selfish in the beginning and is the same at the end.

A perfect example is how she can make commentary on a post 9/11 world and on the war, but when her brother emails her to say he is joining the Army and wants her advice on whether or not he should do it, she is so self absorbed in her own little world that she doesn’t bother to write him back. Once he joins the Army and is killed in action, she has this wrenching moment at his funeral where she crawls inside of his coffin and lies down next to him. But the time she spends actually contemplating how things would have been different had she written him back is nothing but a paragraph.

She spends a great amount of time sizing up the faults of her mother, but even after she discovers the glaring and unforgivable flaws of motherhood committed by Sarah, she never has a moment of clarity or perspective where she might see her own mother in a different light. Worse yet, after she is no longer Sarah’s nanny, she seeks out a possible position working for Sarah at her restaurant, all the while maintaining the distance between herself and her own mother, believing her mother has nothing to teach her.

I generally do not believe that characters have to change in a novel. But I do believe that characters must have the potential to change, or that as a reader, I should see the hope for them to change in the future. In this novel, I feel as if all the events in Tassie’s life so far have not given her the tools for proper self examination and self growth, then I have no hope for her. This aspect, more than anything else, is what I feel was lacking in this novel. If Moore intends to use plot only as a device to reveal character, and if character is the most important element of this novel, then why not give Tassie more depth?

As a writer, this book showed me that if you are doing to dismiss the importance of plot, you must get the characters right. Moore did not accomplish this with Tassie. And if you are going to concentrate on plot – and to me a white couple adopting a biracial baby had the most potential – then you have to pick the right narrator for that story, which also was not Tassie. In a perfect world, a talented writer can do both things. While I think Moore is a talented writer, I think she got a little off track with this novel.

Middlesex


book by Jeffrey Eugenides

annotation by Kate Maruyama

Since I finished grad school, I’ve been trying the “read what books come to you” approach to choosing books and that approach was serendipitous this past weekend when I came across “Middlesex” in a beach house library. It turned out to be exactly the right book to read for what I’m working on. The general approach to this site is that every book you read is exactly the right book to read for what you’re working on, but some really are more relevant than others.

I enjoyed Eugenides first book The Virgin Suicides. It was tight, lyrical and wickedly funny, so it was inspiring to see him branch out into a much bigger story that crossed generations and cultures. Eugenides presents us with Cal as the narrator who tells the story of his genetic beginnings across oceans and cultures. We start with Desdemona’s journey from an incestuous relationship with her brother that led to a marriage, travel through Ellis Island and into the Detroit of the early car industry. The voice is immediate and absorbing and when Cal gets into these stories of his past, from Desdemona swinging a spoon over her pregnant daughter-in-law’s belly to determine the sex of the baby (the spoon was incorrect in many ways) to the sexual tension between a brother and sister left on a small island in Turkey which belonged to Greece, Eugenides keeps things tense and close.

I’m working on a novel now that takes place in the present and the past, and I was fearful of combining two such very different worlds. I come from film originally, and moving out of the confines of a tight, two-hour story feels treacherous and unwieldy. But that’s where my characters are taking me at this point. Fortunately, Eugenides has given me courage to forge forward and see where the story leads. It seems that as long as each scene is fully created, that as long as we are with aligned with each character, it is possible to create a larger story comprised of these scenes.

That said, looking at Middlesex as a whole, there seem to be some weak spots in the structure. Desdemona and Lefty’s story is so absorbing, and Cal’s coming of age story is similarly all-consuming, but something doesn’t hold in bringing them together with several other family stories. While Cal’s parents’ love story is important and reasonably well told, tension is lost in their section and in Cal’s present–his courtship of a woman whom he is afraid to tell of his being a hermaphrodite–seems like it is being told in another book entirely. Desdemona, who had been the center, the beating heart of the story, disappears in a manner so abrupt that the author self-consciously scrambles to make up for it:

“Patient reader, you may have been wondering what happened to my grandmother. You may have noticed that, shortly after she climbed into bed forever, Desdemona began to fade away. But that was intentional. I allowed Desdemona to slip out of my narrative, because…”(521). At that point I tuned out, a bit miffed by the clumsy excuse. If the excuse hadn’t been there I would have been baffled by her absence, but with the excuse highlighted the problem rather than dismissing it.

In looking at the book in an index-card fashion, holding up the scenes next to each other, something gets lost in the whole. The ending is triggered by Milton’s dramatic death, yet his portion of the story is so disconnected from its beginnings that the end becomes dissatisfying. Desdemona gets no closure whatsoever, having become totally out of it in her dotage (although she gives Cal lovely closure). Cal gets a happy ending in finally being able to open up to a woman about his different anatomy, but as we hadn’t gotten very emotionally involved in this “present” portion of his story (unlike his obsession with the Obscure Object which was a poignant, heart-rending love story), it all comes out somewhat unsatisfying. There seem to be three books here, two of them truly absorbing and brilliant (Desdemona and Lefty/Cal coming of age in Detroit) and the third sorta tossed in like that one ingredient too many in a salad.

While the different stories of lives wrapped together need to be equally involving, there has to be some sort of tight overall arc to pull it all together. Desdemona’s story could have accomplished this, having been woven more carefully into Cal’s coming of age, or Cal’s story could have accomplished this by rooting us firmly in the present before taking us back to fill us in. I’m not suggesting “fixes,” Euginedes accomplished a great deal in this book (as several rave reviews will attest), but while the reading of the book was encouraging for me, it was also a cautionary tale. It was a reminder that we all need to kill some darlings, cut entire scenes–even if they’re lovely–and pay attention to the larger story being told.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being


book by Milan Kundera

annotation by Ramona Gonzales

This book was rich with layers. There was a narrative with 3rd person omniscient analysis woven in. In this way, the book in its very construction fell into the motif of light (narrative) and heavy (analysis). The division of the chapters was set up like a palindrome or cycle with misunderstanding stuck right in the middle. There were so many beautiful abstract observations – metaphors are dangerous, readers are “special” for lack of a better word – and so on. As a nonfiction writer who finds it difficult to get “personal” and often gets caught up in concept, I particularly enjoyed this book almost solely on the basis of craft. It didn’t bother me that the narrator sat in a higher place and occasionally judged his creations as they were created solely for the purpose of literally fleshing out Kundera’s theories.

Alternately, the concepts of lightness and heaviness were a little difficult to grasp at times which I assume may have to do with a difference in experience, culture, and sociology. However, I did not get hung up on trying to reconcile the theorizing and the narrative on a first read. Both the right and left brain threads of the novel – the light and the heavy/dark, the yin and yang – were written with a great deal of passion and dedication and truth that each were easy to follow individually. Both pieces were connected and well matched because of that passion as well.

As a writer, what I take away from this novel is the confidence to speak in one’s own voice. Kundera was able to access both parts of his brain, to tap into his masculine and feminine natures in creating his characters, all of which he very much respected. It takes a great deal of time to mine both aspects of one’s psyche. It takes time, focus and dedication, not to mention assurance and faith that someone or a bunch of someones will understand it.

Olive Kittridge

book by Elizabeth Strout

annotation by Talya Jankovits

Olive Kitteridge is a collection of short stories that are all so expertly integrated that the collection can almost be read as a novel. Strout focuses on a small town in Maine, where the characters weave in and out of each others stories, much like familiar faces do in a local setting. Strout’s secret tool to her fluidity of stories is her consistent use of on character throughout them all.

Her “power character”, Olive, appears in each of the stories, sometimes as a main character, other times as only a reference or quick memory. This is the first time I have seen this done in a collection of short stories and it seemed effortless and brilliant; a tool to certainly steal. The character of Olive never seemed forced, she was believable, vulnerable and human, in fact, all the characters were which is what made Strout’s characterization so full and beautiful. Olive was so well conceived that I was almost convinced that somewhere in Maine, a large and vulnerable woman is walking around, barking at people and appearing grumpy while unknowingly causing little miracles of truth to transpire about her. Strout expertly used this woman to birth stories of other characters that just wouldn’t seem as relevant if they didn’t somehow know Olive Kitteridge. Strout masters characterization here, no one is without flaw and no one is without wonder. There is a strong sense of sincerity and honesty about the human condition that is explored through the characters. Everyone stirs the reader to some extent and on so many levels you feel like you know these people, this town.

Typically, I don’t write short stories, but after reading Olive Kittridge I felt that I must and if one is tempted to try it out, especially a writer used to novels, this is the collection to read. The tool of using the same town and the same characters, looking at them from different ages and different narratives really offers the reader a sense of unification within the collection and I felt that this is something that can make short stories approachable for novelists. And even if not, then just to read it for the sheer pleasure of being totally immersed in this town of richly developed characters.

The Way Things Are: A Novel


book by Allen Wheelis

annotation by Telaina Eriksen

This quick read from renowned psychiatrist Allen Wheelis tackles the inherent violence of our culture and how many people refuse to acknowledge the violent and the sexual in the human condition. Wheelis weaves his theories and philosophies through a series of lectures held by the character Eliot Hawkins who argues that the sacred and the forbidden are one and that our Garden of Eden lies in our pre-human past, before enlightenment. Eliot tells his lecture attendees that when we awakened to the beauty of nature, to the pleasure of sensual enjoyment, the joy of floating in water, at that same moment, our fear was also awakened. Unlike animals who fear in brief interludes, humans are in a constant state of fear of their impending mortality, physical pain, etc. This constant state of fear gives birth to exploitation and the rise of gods.

The premise of the book and the philosophy and arguments are fascinating but it is a poorly constructed novel. It is obvious the character Eliot exists so that Wheelis can just talk and at one point in time on page 35 Eliot actually puts an outline up so that Wheelis can outline things he wants to say. Our narrator exists to flesh out (ha ha) the sexual theories and arguments of Wheelis. Our narrator is a 70 –year-old man (or around there) who is attracted to and finally starts a relationship with, the much younger (not yet 30-year-old) Mariane. Wheelis’ point here is that our narrator, by possessing youth and beauty, pushes back his own fear of death. To our narrator and to Eliot, beauty and youth are the same, and there is a deep human desire to sully beauty (Eliot uses the example of a man ejaculating all over the face of a beautiful woman). You cannot sully the old because the passage of time has already de-sanctified the beauty with wrinkles and gray hair.

Readers don’t keep reading for what happens to the characters, they keep reading for Wheelis’ intricate take on human nature and human relationships and the power construct of society.

Two of Wheelis’ nonfiction books The Listener and The Way We Are are both stronger works because they do not attempt to set up the rise and fall of conflict as this one does. Removing the content of the lectures from this story would cause the entire novel to collapse. Readers will struggle to remember the characters’ names and what happened in the book, but they will remember the content of Eliot Hawkins’ lectures.

The People’s Library

by Kate Maruyama

I take a lot of books out of the library. When I was younger, I didn’t like the idea of a book that had been used, recently, by someone who might have picked his or her nose, sneezed, cleaned his or her fingernails on the pages; by someone who might have read it in the bathroom.

But economy and necessity and becoming a student again after several years have brought me back to the library, and I’ve found an entirely new aspect to library books I’d ignored before.

The readers at Glendale Central Library are annotators. I recently finished a biography of Cary Grant gone over by an irate Angeleno, correcting street names and locations throughout. The funny thing is that he (I imagined an old man, perhaps a retired grip from the 1930s) frequently got it wrong. He was determined that the Pantages Theater was located on Broadway, not Hollywood. He crossed out every mention of Hollywood Blvd. and scrawled in “Broadway” in all caps…but curiously in pencil. He would write in a book boldly in pencil, but wouldn’t commit vandalism with ink.

My first reading of Kafka’s Metamorphosis was enhanced by a reader who, it seemed was having trouble getting the story. He or she used pen. For the first several pages every other line was underlined, in the manner of a college student highlighting…this stuff is important. The underlining stopped about five pages in and the question marks commenced. Then, points would be circled and labeled. “Symbolism” was a good one, but my favorite was the large patch consisting of two sentences involving Gregor’s reflections on being a bug, which was circled with “Humor” written in next to it in the margin. Apparently it was so amusing it had to be pointed out? Or did the reader suspect that it was meant to be humorous, but didn’t get it? A few more question marks and our reader gave up. I was disappointed. Maybe he or she was told it wouldn’t be on the exam, or they bunked out and got the Cliff notes. Or maybe she (and here I imagined a humorless blond bobbed law student dating an English major who had an interest in bringing her up to his level of fiction reading) broke up with the boyfriend who made her read it.

Then there are entire books with only one word or two words underlined or circled. It is usually a bafflingly unimportant word. “Regard.” “imbecile.” “township.” These have me constructing elaborate narratives to figure out what the reader was thinking. I thought of the girl in the movie HEATHERS who walked in front of a bus, who had circled the word “eskimo” in her copy of Moby Dick. Those left behind imbued the word with meaning and clues to her motives. It should be noted that annotators of the movie have pointed out that the word “eskimo” actually doesn’t appear in Moby Dick.

So while these little interruptions are sometimes annoying, and illegible notes scrawled in the corner of library books are bedevilingly distracting, I like that these annotations have created a participatory aspect to the process of reading. They illustrate that reading is not a passive act, it is an involved, thought-provoking give-and-take process. And that annotation isn’t limited to the big thinkers like Mark Twain It reminds me of why we started this site, to become, as writers, more active in our reading. To go beyond the story unfolding in front of us and to try to see how it works. If Twain could correct Kipling’s prose, we can at least be mindful of what we, as writers, admire of an author’s work, and what we might do differently.

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

book by Junot Díaz

annotation by Michael Whelan

Where does a person begin with Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao?  I loved this novel, and have enjoyed discussing it with my peers.  The book was simply amazing.  Diaz’s voice is fresh, funny and exudes a sincerity and authenticity that is so unique in my opinion.  I do not read Diaz’s words, I live his story.

He is a master of characters and complex stories with several layers.  I cared about every single character in this story, even those who might not have been the most likeable.  On the surface, one thinks that this is a story about Oscar Wao and his life that was much too short but it’s really the story of his life, his family, and about their family fuku, a concept that I absolutely loved.

Diaz’s story is also rich in history and culture and the novel takes place or covers a very turbulent time in the Dominican Republic’s history.  Diaz’s use of Spanish, English, and his own twist on Spanglish only adds to the authenticity and culture of this novel.  He also did a great job with his nerdy language and in way gave the reader a taste of his own kind of nerd culture, which was awesome.

Something I found interesting was how Diaz uses footnotes in this novel.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen footnotes in fiction before, and if I have obviously not often.  When I think of footnotes, I think of stuffy, boring words to further reference a boring, bland topic.  Diaz’s footnotes are as engaging as his voice in the novel and his characters.  They give the reader information that is needed and/or valuable but do so with the same kind of fresh, humorous and engaging voice as the rest of his prose.

As a writer, I can only hope to have a voice as strong as Diaz’s in this novel, from his prose to his footnotes.  It is certainly the key to the novel’s sincerity.  Another thing I would hope to take away is his skill in creating characters you can’t help but become invested in, no matter how minute they are in the grand scheme of things.  It’s apparent that Diaz knows the ins and outs of his characters down to her/his last idiosyncrasy and it certainly makes the difference.

It’s remarkable to me how Diaz pulls from his own life so creatively.  I had nothing but the highest of expectations for this novel after reading Drown by Junot Diaz and this book did not only not disappoint them, it exceeded them. 

Beautiful Losers

book by Leonard Cohen
Annotation by Philip Barragan

Beautiful Losers was a truly unexpected delight. Cohen’s writing is vivid, gross, deep and most of all, surprising. I followed him into his world of love, anguish, sex and adoration of the indigenous tribes of Canada. Cohen captivates the reader seductively and slowly through extraordinary characters in an ordinary world. And through this book, it is impossible to not reflect on one’s own life and lifestyle. I couldn’t help but explore my own values and morals, and what it means to be human. This book challenged my own comfort level with my body, sex and sexuality and what it means to be loved.

Cohen’s unique and bold skill of using the indigenous character Catherine Tekakwitha (CT) to tell his own story was beautifully done. Through CT, Cohen explored passion for life, love and physical intimacy. But his exploration goes so much further. CT’s nature as a historical character provided a certain safety and distance thereby making his quest for a spiritual and sexual relationship with CT more of an intellectual exercise.

An anonymous quote describes Cohen’s writing as “incandescent in its prose.” Cohen’s prose was lyrical, honest, unpretentious, and solid. Images of everyday life were painted with brilliant colors. His radical style tore the page apart while the words drilled into my mind the images of sex and life played out in an unconventional manner.

In Chapter 17, the style of writing takes the form of an unconventional prayer. His capitalizing every word slowed down the pace of the read. I took my time to read it over and over trying to understand what Cohen meant. I am still not sure I understand but I am left with vivid and piercing images:

O God, Your Moring Is Perfect. People Are Alive In Your World. I Can Hear The Little Children In The Elevator. The Airplane Is Flying Through The Original Blue Air. Mouths Are Eating Breakfast. The Radio Is Filled With Electricity. The Trees Are Excellent. You Are Listening To The Voices Of The Faithless Who Tarry On The Bridge of Spikes…

Cohen describes CT with disturbing sexually images of a young adolescent girl as he explores the destruction of beauty through the rape of a young girl: “Magic Trees sawed with a crucifix. Murder the saplings. Bittersweet is the cunt sap of a thirteen year old.” Cohen’s writing can blindside his readers, however one has to look beyond the distressing story to see what he (possibly) could have meant. I was invested to find out what he had in store for me while on this journey.

Cohen’s casual reference to gay sex is subtle and glides in under the radar of the reader. I was surprised how the two male characters enjoyed themselves so completely without the guilt of societal conventions. The friendship of the two main male characters is complex and not easy to understand. From love to anger, sympathy to jealousy, the boundaries of what a relationship should be are specifically challenged.

The book was written in 1966, and despite being forty-three years old, it fits into today’s market for edgy and contemporary literature. The language used by Cohen is modern and the subject of the nature of love and relationships is relevant to today’s world.

Cohen’s weaving of CT’s story into the wife of the protagonist brought the story into heavy focus for me. From the fantasy CT to the actual character of Edith, the reader makes the unfortunate connection between the two. “Edith, forgive me, it was the thirteen-year-old victim I always fucked.” The protagonist’s admission of his sexual desires for the historical CT against the rape of the younger Edith blended the two characters together creating a humanized portrait of the two women. They were human, after all. Neither of the two women were “other” any longer. Cohen’s not so subtle storytelling brought this into focus.

Beautiful Losers was a surprisingly enjoyable read. The characters were motivated, engaging and unique while never following an expected path. They were written with an independent spirit and I enjoyed being surprised by the choices they made.

Cohen’s prose is acerbic and then immediately lyrical. His style is surprisingly modern with interesting characters that move the story along. Though the characters frequently blend into one voice, the dialog was natural and unusually stylized with hyphens instead of quotation marks. The language was at times abrupt and sometimes waxing poetic with beautiful and powerful words that had disconcerting effect on me. Beautiful Losers is an excellent example of stepping outside the boundaries of convention.

Leonard Cohen took a summer in Greece to write this book. Under the hot sun his precious words were burned onto the page and arranged into a curious story. Cohen’s unusual novel showed me that even in experimental writing, the narrative remains important. The reader is invested to get to the end. Cohen seemed to try and lose me throughout the book, but I had to know how the story ended. Regardless of how pretty the words may be, and unique the writing style becomes, the end of the story must have some pay-off for the reader, and Beautiful Losers almost meets that expectation.

An Invisible Sign of My Own

book by Aimee Bender
annotation by Kate Maruyama

Aimee Bender’s spare prose lured me into the fragile world of AN INVISIBLE SIGN OF MY OWN, instantly. It didn’t matter that there was no plot announced, no visible course of story revealed, no genre identified. She describes her world and characters plainly and gives us Mona Gray. Mona is so real for her quirks of character, that despite her need to knock, her urges to suck soap and her strong desire for an axe, we are on board.

Mona’s a math teacher and her obsession with numbers rules her life. At twenty she goes into a second grade classroom and begins to teach. Bender gives us not a gang of stereotypical children, but real little humans. In raising my own kids and working with others I’ve come to realize they’re all a bunch of little weirdos and Bender captures that delightfully. We have Lisa, obsessed with her mother’s cancer and getting downright strange about it, a boy who brings in his father’s severed arm encased in plastic to demonstrate the number one and Ellen who, when excited tends to pee. The conversational patter is very natural and because Mona is undeveloped as a person and her own little weirdo, she speaks their language and they get along quite well.

While the prose was absorbing and the world complete, I felt myself missing some sort of forward motion in Mona’s story. Clearly she is a damaged person, but we never really get to the root of the damage. She has trouble enjoying anything in life and we feel there is something subverted beneath her relationship with her parents, but we never get at what it really is.

Then Bender changes the rules. She seems to enter the realm of the fantastic. We realize that not everything is at it seems and I felt heavy hints of a Tyler Durden coming on.  As Mona’s relationship with Lisa got more intense, I wondered if Lisa was an alter-ego of some sort (both Lisa and Mona’s parents are ill, although Mona’s dad’s illness is never revealed). As her up-til-then very believable second graders had an unreal fight with an axe, I wondered if all of the characters were internal to Mona. Then Mr. Jones and his obsession with numbers seemed a likely alter-ego candidate (perhaps for his predecessor of the eponymous short story by Truman Capote). Then I wondered if Mona’s father had died already and she just wasn’t dealing with it.

With all this puzzling and trying to figure out Bender had me thinking, not, “what’s going to happen?” but “what’s going on?” For all of its grounding in environment and spare prose, the story had derailed and become confusing, baffling, and then annoying for the baffling aspect.  Things get wrapped up, sort of. Mona gets fired, but finally gets the courage to sleep with the science teacher. She forges a lasting friendship with the soon to be orphaned Lisa. It’s unclear what has freed her from the shackles that bound her so tightly for so long. She’s at a peaceable happy place when we leave her, but I wasn’t sure how she got there.

We’re left with some very endearing characters, at the end of a journey in which we aren’t sure what truly happened and what was imagined. That could have been an interesting pattern if we had been in touch with Mona’s emotional arc during that journey, but with the muddle in the heart of the story, it was hard to get a handle.

A friend recommended this book as an examination of “the rules” which I’m trying clearly to define in my own novel. Now I think she may have recommended it as a good question-raising book. It’s a challenge to keep the reader grounded in my characters’ disorientation and to keep a forward movement despite that disorientation. I love Bender’s short stories, and I do love the ethereal quality she gives her worlds, but when this world lost track of itself, I lost track of the story.