book by Natashia Deon

annotation by Kate Maruyama

I have been itching to read GRACE ever since I heard Natashia Deon read a bit of it at David Rocklin’s ROAR SHACK a few years back. This was someone who clearly knew how to create scene, cared about language and the voice of the book had clear, strong, narrative clarity and control. I always tell my students that the key to voice is creating a voice so strong that the reader feels in good hands. From what I’d heard, I was definitely in good hands.

Once I got a hold of GRACE I was not disappointed, the book is hard to put down. From Naomi’s first line,

I am dead.

…the voice has such strength and assuredness that you have no choice but to sink into the narrative and absorb it.

Starting with your narrative character dead is nothing new, but Deon takes it one further. Because of her predicament, Naomi can observe several characters’ stories. She spends the book telling her story, and the story of her daughter, over whom she watches as things unfold. But she can also, without the glibness of an omniscient narrator, fly around and observe things happening in different environments that will affect her daughter. Through this tool, Deon manages to let Naomi tell several other people’s entangled stories herself.

I tell my students that as long as you keep the reader oriented, you can get away with a lot. And Deon is masterful at keeping us anchored in a complex array of characters in a voice that creates its own rules and sometimes bends them a little. Naomi has these “flashes” of hindsight, portions of her life that unfold more fully in narrative than they did when she was living them. It launches the reader, much like that long view in magical realism, into a broader overview than the character would be capable of observing on her own:

You may never know.

May never know about the choice somebody made for you that changed your life. Just like I didn’t know about the choice made for me that day. By the time I was standing behind Albert, watching him bang those last nails in, my life had already changed.     — Page 353


Naomi can then, because we feel we are in capable hands, fly over into the world of a character who, without her knowing, will change the course of not only her life, but of her daughter’s. This is not her ghost being conscious of the world as it unfolded to her during her lifetime. This is a “flash” of a more fully realized hindsight from her ghost consciousness-perhaps a broader sense of things a soul can have once freed from its body. And this is deftly handled.

The narrative devices result in a richly layered story that is laid against not only the cruelties of slavery, but that volatile difficult time after Abraham Lincoln declared the slaves free, but in the South it wasn’t to be a reality until a few years later after several bloody battles. And the repercussions of the cruel system that spawned slavery still haven’t completely passed as of today, a consciousness that is woven carefully into this period piece.

Within Naomi and Josey’s story is that of Charles, whose life is central to both of theirs as well as the stories of Cynthia and Annie, two different morally complex white women doing what they can to survive not the repercussions of the war, but trying to live life on their own terms in a time that simply wouldn’t allow for it. In that lost moment of war between old and new, they slice out a bit of life by use of their wits and their bodies. Cynthia and Annie are so wrapped up in their own problems they have no idea that their whims and often careless decisions can change, even destroy people’s lives. And their ripple affect through the delicate web of two generations of women around them creates a solid portrait of the danger of unconscious white privilege which, while shown in the past, can easily be applied to the present.

With all of these characters, and Naomi’s ability to glide in and out of their lives as they unfold, Deon can deal with issues of gender roles, slavery, race, powerlessness, love, family, power struggles, individuality, strength and of course grace, all while keeping us rapt in the language of her storytelling.


Noir, Dames and Real Women




annotation by Melissa F. Olson


I love crime fiction. I especially love the old noir detective fiction. It’s just that I don’t always love what happens to the women who appear in it.

My troubled love affair with hardboiled detective fiction began….oh, somewhere around middle school. A voracious reader without a driver’s license, I spent my adolescence plundering my parents’ bookshelves for anything, anything I could get my hands on to read. (Obviously, this was before Kindle, or I would have sent my parents into bankruptcy.) And after I’d worked my way through all of my mother’s Mary Higgins Clark, I moved on to my dad’s stash of 90’s-era Robert B. Parker.

Unless you’ve been in this position yourself, I’m not sure you can understand just how flat-out cool Robert B. Parker’s Spenser can be to a thirteen-year-old. Here was a guy who existed on perfect confidence: he always had a quip, always knew what to do, and was always surrounded by a legion of loyal friends and acquaintances. At thirteen, I never knew what to do, I was always half-convinced my friends hated me, and if I thought of a funny comeback, it was usually about twelve hours too late to be deployed.

When I finished all the available Parker, I decided to backtrack to some of the classic hardboiled novels of the 30’s: Dashiell Hammett,* Raymond Chandler, Ross Macdonald (his Lew Archer became my favorite, probably because he occasionally showed signs of possessing actual human feelings). During my freshman year of college, I took a survey course on detective fiction. Then I took some gender studies courses.

And then some red flags began to spring up in my mind.

Holy crap, those guys were all a bunch of sexist assholes. Even (especially?) my man Spenser.**

As disappointing realizations go, this one was not small. Here were all these detectives that embodied the very spirit of cool, and they treated women like possessions, or china dolls, or hapless victims. The most impressive thing a woman could do in many of these classic noir books was be a femme fatale, because that at least made her interesting. But it also made her a villain – usually a slutty one, too, back when that was one of the worst things you could say about a woman.

I want to say that those hardboiled noir stories got more enlightened over time, but it certainly took awhile. Even 90’s-era Spenser, who should have been modern enough to know better, had as his best female role model Dr. Susan Silverman, who would “get out and walk home in her high heels” before pumping her own gas.

Now, however, it’s been eighty years since Phillip Marlowe sauntered into LA, and female mystery authors have long since created their own hardboiled detectives who can play on the level of Marlowe, Sam Spade, Spenser, and all the rest. Sara Paretsky, Sue Grafton, and recent debut Ingrid Thoft are all great examples, and there are many more.

As for me, well, I never wanted to compete with the old noir stories – I wanted to answer them. So I stopped reading Parker and started working on my own detective novel, The Big Keep. I wrote this book to explore not whether a female detective could be tough, because that was established ages ago, but whether she could be tough and have feelings, a pregnancy, and a marriage, all at the same time. I hope that I pull it off, but I know that I’ll never regret trying.

*It’s worth pointing out, in the name of fairness, that because I was focused on the lone-wolf detective, I did not read The Thin Man or any of the other Nick and Nora books. If I had, Nora might have inspired me.

**Yes, I know that Parker eventually wrote a separate detective series with a female PI – but Sunny Randall was really just Lady Spenser. You can’t just throw a vagina on a lead character and expect that all is forgiven.





book by André Breton

annotation by Carrol Sun Yang

The first line of Breton’s French surrealist work written in 1928 inquires:

Who Am I?

The philosophical thrust of this book is thereby established and I am propelled into this semi-autobiographical novella that operates in the form of a drawn out fit of dreamlike passion and then a waking obsession over the title character Nadja. Breton’s rapturous and sometimes tangential ramblings, albeit linear and spanning ten chronologically ordered days, are intersected by images of Surrealist artworks, quotations by prominent figures in the Surrealist movement, Nadja’s symbolic scribbles on napkins and architectural landmarks (places he narrates in the story, such as café’s he frequents and various other pedestrian locales).  All of the imagery serves the writing by grounding it in a certain reality, a travelogue or possible nonfiction, by refusing to let the airy, phantom texts disorient the reader to the point of misunderstanding. There is a fine balance struck between the poetic language of capriciousness and the sensible speeches of lucidity.

Nadja is a woman who is met by the author, by chance or fate, walking alone on a sidewalk with no apparent destination. She promptly shows herself to be a little “mad” in the sense that her waking life and dream life are blended and this confused state is noted somewhat tenderly by the narrator. We detect her unconventionality (freedom) through her spectacularly absurd but somehow touching, in a childlike way, speeches and dialogue with Breton. The following fanciful transaction occurs between Nadja (or rather she to herself) and narrator in a cab, she invents:

Close your eyes and say something. Anything, a number, a name. Like this (she closes her eyes): Two, two what? Two women. What do they look like? Wearing black. Where are they? In a park… And then, what are they doing? Try it, it’s so easy, why don’t you want to play? You know, that’s how I talk to myself when I’m alone, I tell myself all kinds of stories. And not only silly stories: actually, I live this way altogether.

There is a sense that she is precious to Breton precisely because she is unhinged and able to access a secret world that only she is able to fully inhabit, a place where Breton wishes to gain entry but of course cannot fully, as he establishes early on in the text that his interests are stoked by absurd stimulation/ childish play. He also suggests and perhaps hopes that Nadja will “need him” indefinitely as she is bound like an invalid to her condition, her madness, the condition of the surreal:

When I am near her I am nearer things which are near her. In her condition, she is always going to need me, one way or another, and suddenly. It would be hateful to refuse whatever she asks of me, one way or another, for she is so pure, so free of any earthly tie, and cares so little, but so marvelously, for life.

His already questionable love for Nadja, as it is based on his perception of her as a darling-magical-cripple in some sense, falters when she progressively reveals to him, what he alone fears are too many remnants of her past. By unveiling herself as not solely his “creature” or “specter” but someone who was part of others lives, she inadvertently alienates herself from the mercurial cocoon that the narrator has spun around them. She bursts his figment of her. She bursts his figment of them. He bursts. In essence, she becomes too common to adore:

I reacted with terrible violence against the over-detailed account of she gave me of certain scenes of her past life, concerning which I decided, probably quite superficially, that her dignity could not have survived entirely intact.

 Upon cutting off ties with Nadja, the narrator promptly begins to pine for her with a fiery obsession, as one would over a newly dead lover. Nadja a ghost. Nadja his concoction. Nadja the abstraction with her “fits of abstraction” who he could not live without as much as he could not live with the flesh and blood reality of her.

When he learns that his beloved was eventually committed to a sanitarium, the platform is set for Breton to offer sociopolitical commentary, which he does quite succinctly, a departure from the more esoteric language that inhabits the preceding text:

Unless you have been inside a sanitarium you do not know that madmen are made there, just as criminals are made in our reformatories. Is there anything more detestable than these systems of so-called social conservation which, for a peccadillo, some initial and exterior rejection of respectability or common sense, hurl an individual among others whose association can only be harmful to him and, above all, systematically deprive him of relations with everyone whose moral or practical sense is more firmly established than his own?

In my reading, this opinion is what drives the book. Breton elevates Nadja, the mad one, to the level of a beautiful, genius, mystical specimen of unfortunate internment. In writing her, he releases her from certain captivity while simultaneously keeping her in bondage to his memory. He champions her flights. There is a section in the book where we see Nadja asking that Breton write her into a book. He does not fail her.

The closing sentence summarizes the structure of the book and the nature of madness and longing:

Beauty will be CONVULSIVE or will not be at all.

What I take away from Nadja is a way to communicate the confluence of mammalian love and human madness, both visually and textually. How love and madness are always initially conjoined. The initial convulsions of an adult “crush” are hormonal and spiritual. A crush is based in fact and fiction. Exposed to dissection. Open to portent. Joyful in it’s high frivol. Obsessive until it’s inevitable death. Precisely the way Breton manages it.

I am also noting the beginning and ending lines of books. In “Nadja” the first line seems to be answered in part by the closing line. (I think that is one possible method I may employ in my own pieces as a jumpstart/ shortcut to creating a basic framework around the “filling”).

In “Nadja” Breton never seems to be able to answer with any solidity the question of who he is except to suggest that who he is, is related to who he haunts or who haunts him. He attempts to understand himself in relation to other men/women/objects in the world. These beings by virtue of purely existing (within his view) are also not-existing (already dead) and in that they become something. They become his/ him. This model which I am able to tease out of his writing appears to be somewhat based on Surrealist engagement with the Hegelian Dialectic. Those people/objects which Breton writes about are ultimately arranged in changeable and mysterious patterns and the only way to know who he, Breton is, is by looking at the ways in which he arranges them in his own mind. Simply, I would say that he is what he writes. That what he writes of and how he writes are convulsive, he haunts with his words and his words haunt back, objects in the world haunt him and he hunts them, in that animal purity is the great beauty that insists on itself and in a way gives answer to who we all are. The haunters/ haunted and the hunters/ hunted.





9780451460752book by Rob Thurman

annotation by Melissa Olson

Like many English literature students, by the time I graduated college I’d developed quite a scornful attitude toward the fantasy novel.

It wasn’t a malicious thing – in fact, I’m not sure I’d even call myself a snob. It’s just that I had been trained in Literature, with a capital L. My undergraduate degree was in reading Literature. The master’s degree I eventually obtained was in writing Literature. I had no problem with the fantasy genre, or with people who wanted to read it. I simply considered myself better than those books.

Okay. Maybe I was a bit of a snob.

But about seven years ago, I was talking to my kid sister about what we were reading, and she started gushing over a book she was really enjoying: Nightlife, by Rob Thurman. She made it sound interesting enough, but I was still rather skeptical as I skimmed the first few pages of her copy. After all, it was fantasy, which to me meant I’d probably have to memorize a map and a couple dozen names that were mostly consonants. But by the time I finished the book – about eight hours later – the ground had shifted beneath my feet. I had discovered urban fantasy, a genre that I would read addictively for the next five years before writing my own.

Nightlife taught me that no only could the genre be wonderfully enjoyable and exciting and clever; it can also take bold risks. The story is written in first person, but halfway through the book the character is possessed by an evil entity, and the rest of the story is written from the entity’s point of view, filtered through the voice of the protagonist. That may sound silly when you read it as a description, but I promise that within the story itself, it is captivating. And as a vehicle for demonstrating someone’s writing talent, it is a breathtaking success.

Most readers probably have books that changed their lives, but Nightlife gave me more than a new passion: I eventually got a career out of it. Reading my first urban fantasy convinced me that I wanted to write my own. Reading Nightlife convinced me that I needed to wait until, like Thurman, I had an original story to tell.

It was years before I came up with an idea that I was proud of and hadn’t seen before. Dead Spots is about a young woman with a unique gift: she nullifies supernatural powers. Any witch, vampire, or werewolf who gets too close to her becomes a human again for as long as they’re in her presence. Because her ability protects her from the supernatural, she makes a living cleaning up their crime scenes so these creatures can stay hidden from the rest of the world.

I’m proud of Dead Spots and its two sequels, but four or five reads later, I am also as impressed with Nightlife today as I was seven years ago, if not more so.  That one book taught me to respect subgenres I didn’t previously understand, and to appreciate that although “genre fiction” may have a reputation for being assembly-line drivel, when you really look at it you can find a sublime, exhilarating creativity that is as joyful as it is original.

Edgar Allen Poe Complete Tales and Poems

41H1jnVQ2XL._AA160_ book by Edgar Allen Poe

annotation by Kirsten Imani Kasai

Poe’s rather disappointing life began and ended in abandonment and sorrow. Loss of love and security, lack of safety, poverty, artistic pursuits of an unattainable peak … his tragedies set the template for the modern writer, for don’t we all milk our tragedies for critical and hopefully, financial gain? Poe’s writing speaks to the isolation, yearning loneliness and madness that resides in each of us to varying degrees. We sense that we are different, that no one else can possibly understand the depth of our pain, yet Poe successfully exploits our human weaknesses, and exposes humanity as ruled by precarious emotions, driven by instinctual urges (territorialism, lust, envy, revenge, fear). We linger among childhood’s intense fears, when phantoms loomed large and imagined creatures lurk in every shadow.

I read “The Raven” to my 8-year-old son last Halloween. I was surprised that he endured the reading and made appreciative little noises while listening; then we discussed it afterward. How can such a nebulous tale, with no evident plot, no other horror that the persistence of a stray bird in the house, can cause such terror? Poe’s first person narrators are unstable, mad, nervous, obsessive, anxious and prone to illness of body, mind and spirit. They are miserable, melancholic plotters, coldly unmoved by others’ suffering or guilt yet driven insane by their own dark desires. Poe writes of love detached from passion and obsession in the abstract. Characters commit gruesome attacks upon others (“Benenice,” “Tell-tale Heart,” “Cask of Amontadillo”) or are themselves the victim of torture or fatal errors (“The Pit and Pendulum,” “The Premature Burial)”. In every case, death claims its prize.

Poe has been credited with initiating the genres of science-fiction and the detective or mystery novel. His powerful prose ranges from complex, embedded with French and Latin, to short declarative sentences that crank up the emotional volume:

“I foamed – I raved – I swore! I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards, but the noise arose over all and continually increased. It grew louder – louder – louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God! – no, no! They heard! – they suspected! – they knew! – they were making a mockery of my horror!-… I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die! and now – again! – hark! louder! louder! louder! louder!”—“The Tell-Tale Heart”

Poe filters raw emotion through eloquence to distill our greatest failings and expose our childish follies.

“… here was the idiotic thought that destroyed me! Des idees! – ah therefore it was that I coveted them so madly! I felt that their possession could alone ever restore me to peace, in giving me back to reason.” –“Berenice”

Alcohol, opium and writing were Poe’s only emotional outlets. His life and work were tented by grief and loss, beginning with the death of his mother Eliza. Longing and ghoulish isolation thread his stories and poems. Death is his constant companion in life and work; desperately, he writes ghosts into existence (Ligeia) and dances among tombstones, conjuring spirits back from the netherworld, attempting to defy, again and again, the laws of life.

It is this drive which shades and informs my own writing, for like Poe, fiction serves as my therapist and confessor. Someone dies badly in nearly every story I write. Hearts break like cheap glass baubles and the horrific swarms and swims between my lines. My pretty little words are flimsy rafts bobbing on a deep dark, melancholic sea. My “happy endings” are ghoulish. I don’t trade in rainbows and sunshine. “But this is life,” I say when countering objections from those seeking hope and happiness.

Thankfully, Poe and his enduring literary legacy assure me that there will always be a market for our sort of gloom and doom. A century and a half later, his stories still resonate with readers. For Poe expresses what is most essential and inescapable, peaks of joy, deep pools of regret and the desperation with which we cling to the known world—whether fearing or welcoming our inevitable end.

“Either the memory of past bliss is the anguish of to-day, or the agonies which are, have their origin in the ecstasies which might have been.”—”Berenice”

Easter Parade

9780312278281_p0_v1_s114x166book by Richard Yates
Annotation by Lorinda Toledo

Richard Yates is an author who is not afraid of ambitious stories.  He has an innate understanding of the deepest fears of the human psyche, and the human struggle to find happiness and meaning.  Through carefully crafted scenes, he shows – in deftly woven emotion and external plot – that despite the Grimes sisters’ best efforts, they cannot escape the burden of their parents’ legacy.  The Easter Parade is almost a novella (only 180 pages) but within that short space, Yates guides the reader through an innately paced 50 years of complex life for two sisters, Sarah and Emily Grimes.

The story is ostensibly told in the voice of an omniscient narrator, but the viewpoint is actually Emily’s.  Five years her sister’s junior, Emily suffers from a fear of being alone, and this fear, along with her innocence, colors her perspective of the story throughout the book.  Like Sarah, Emily’s entire life is shaped by her parents divorce; and, from the book’s opening line, Yates succinctly sets up the narrative to be that of a long history:

“Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back, it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents’ divorce” (295).

As a result, the reader is not confused or distracted wondering what this story is about; nor is the reader jarred by the rapidity of the sisters growing older.

The book is divided in three parts, which helps moderate the passage of time.  This format allows Yates to jump ahead many years and then catch the reader up in just a sentence or two:

“Whenever Emily thought about her sister over the next few years – and it wasn’t often – she reminded herself that she’d done her best” (421).

Part One covers the girls’ childhood and adolescence, all the way up until both their marriages.  Part Two covers how their marriages affected their adult lives, and what sort of people they’ve become in order to avoid making their parent’s mistakes.  Emily divorces her first husband, after he confesses in lewd, unfeeling detail that he hates her body because of his own inability to perform sexually.  Instead, she pursues a life as a career woman and has a string of men who come and go over the years.  Sarah, on the other hand, sees marriage as a refuge, and hopes that it will save her:

“I’ve always thought of marriage as being – well, sacred…I was a virgin when I got married and I’ve been a virgin ever since” (416).

She invests in this belief even after it is revealed that her husband, a handsome man who Emily once lusted after, has been beating her “…once or twice a month for about – well, twenty years” (413).  Part Three covers the downward spiral of Sarah and Emily.  It is the reckoning of how the choices they’ve made play out at the end of their lives.

Despite Yates’ promise in the opening line that the Grimes sisters’ story will not be a happy one, the narrative twists and turns with high and low points, giving the reader the sensation of riding a car climbing up a winding path toward the top of a mountain.  You stay despite the fact that you’ve already been told that without fail, the car is going to drive off the cliff.  Rather than being a spoiler, it creates built-in tension.  Each chapter makes a neat little arc that begins with a new stage of the girls’ life.  For example, chapter two begins with the girls having reached puberty — “It was Sarah who gave Emily her first information about sex” (301) — and then ends with a pivotal moment that leads to the next stage in the next chapter:  “They were married in the fall of 1941…”(315).  Yates also tends to maximize his use of the seasons to indicate the passage of time and to create foreshadowing; in this case indicating that Sarah is about to enter an unhappy marriage — more like a brutal winter than a bright summer.

Yates provides enough morbid clues along the way that when bad things happen, tension builds and draws the reader in even more.  For example, a tackle shop sign bearing the words “Blood and Sandworms” (349) is mentioned as the sole distinct thing about the town in which Sarah lives, and it is the perfect metaphor for the life she has with Tony and their three boys.  Tony is a brutal man, but no one aside from Emily ever acknowledges it – and even she ultimately prefers to look the other way in order to keep living her own life uninterrupted:

“If Sarah had left her husband she might want to stay with her sister for a while – maybe a long while – which would inconvenience Michael Hogan [Emily’s casual lover]” (416).

Still, Yates keeps the reader invested in the story because he provides enough glimmers of hope that you press on, thinking that things don’t seem all bad, maybe it will actually work out for these characters.  The most obvious example is the scene in Sarah and her sweetheart head out to the Easter Parade, dressed up and happy:

Emily and [her mother] watched from the windows as the open car rolled past on its way uptown – Tony turning briefly from the wheel to smile at them, Sarah holding her hat in place with one hand and waving with the other – and then they were gone…
…The picture came out the following Sunday in a pageful of other, less striking photographs.  The camera had caught Sarah and Tony smiling at each other like the very soul of romance in the April sunshine, with massed trees and a high corner of the Plaza hotel visible behind them…
…Emily knew how important it was to have as many copies as possible.  It was a picture that could be mounted and framed and treasured forever (314).

That is really what The Easter Parade is about – the hope that people cling to in their lives, just as the photo of Sarah and her soon-to-be betrothed represents a kind of mythology of life’s happiness for the Grimes sisters.

Yates shows in this novel that it is possible to encompass many years and layers of a characters life into one succinct tale.  As a writer, I often struggle to show the depth of a character’s life within the pages I have written, but it is what a good writer strives to do.  Not every book needs to cover a character’s entire life, but it is a skill to be able to do so.  Whether or not that is the case, it is essential that any written work is crafted to make use of all the various layers of a character’s life – whether it be through peripheral characters, family life, setting or seasons.  In The Easter Parade, Yates has mastered this, and as a result had created a skilled portrayal of the search for the meaning of life – and that is perhaps the most formidable task that any writer can hope to achieve.

Beautiful Ruins

9780061928178_p0_v2_s260x420book by Jess Walter

annotation by Maggie Downs

Both are balmy, sun-soaked locales. Both are surrounded by hills and ridges, switchbacks and shorelines. And both are situated on tenuous earth that threatens to break off and drift into the sea. But the similarities end there for Porto Vergogna, Italy, and Los Angeles, Calif., the two main settings of Jess Walter’s “Beautiful Ruins.”

One is a “rumor of a town,” inhabited mostly by anchovy fisherman and their families. The other is a glittering panorama of “green-and-glassed hills,” where “every table is sporting a sullen white screenwriter in glasses, every pair of glasses aimed at a MacPro laptop.” Together, the two places form the yin and yang of this novel, the opposing but complimentary forces that make this book work.

First there’s Porto Vergogna, a place where people arrive deliberately. “The dying actress arrived in his village the only way one could come directly — in a boat that motored into the cove, lurched past the rock jetty, and bumped against the end of the pier.” (p1)

The few visitors who do come to Porto Vergogna and its one crumbling hotel are seeking more than simple rest and relaxation. They arrive for spiritual recovery and redemption. One of the characters, in describing what makes the location so special, says, “‘Here, on this coast, your walls were made by God — or volcanoes. You can’t tear them down. And you can’t build outside them. This town can never be more than a few barnacles on the rocks.’” (p63) The people here are constrained by the rules of a higher power.

On the other hand, Los Angeles, our second setting, is a place where religion has been co-opted by men. One character describes his pilgrimage to Los Angeles like this: “Weren’t movies his generation’s faith anyway — its true religion? Wasn’t the theater our temple, the one place we enter separately but emerge from two hours later with the same experience, same guided emotions, same morals? … Flickering pictures stitched in our minds that became our shared history, that taught us what to expect from life, that defined our values. What was that but a religion?” (p21)

Claire, one of the main characters, shows up for a job interview, only to be asked, “Claire, how much do you know about Scientology?” (p23)

Los Angeles is perplexing and illogical. One of the characters is perpetually confounded by the sprinklers that go off at 5 a.m. each day to water piles of rocks. “Before sunrise — before Guatemalan gardeners in dirty dinged lawn trucks, before Caribbeans come to cook, clean, and clothe, before Montessori, Pilates and Coffee Bean, before Benzes and BMWs nose onto palmed streets and the blue-toothed sharks resume their endless business — the gentrification of the American mind — there are the sprinklers: rising from the ground to spit-spray the northwest corner of Greater Los Angeles, airport to the hills, downtown to the beaches, the slumbering rubble of the entertainment regime.” (p15)

Also, unlike Porto Vergogna, this is not a place that requires deliberation, a place that necessitates the skill of experienced sailors over choppy waters. Rather, it is a city that zombies could navigate. “Her commute to the studio is a second-nature maze of cut-offs and lane changes, shoulders, commuter lanes, residential streets, alleys, bike lanes, and parking lots, devised to get her to the studio each day precisely eighteen minutes after she leaves her condo.” (p24)

The Italian city makes no promises. It is humble. “Porto Vergogna was a tight cluster of a dozen old whitewashed houses, an abandoned chapel, and the town’s only commercial interest — the tiny hotel and cafe owned by Pasquale’s family — all huddled like a herd of sleeping goats in a crease in the sheer cliffs … The hoteliers and restaurateurs to the north had their own pet name for the tiny village pinched in the vertical seam: baldracca culo — the whore’s crack.” (p2) There is just one place for lodging, The Hotel Adequate View, where expectations are lowered so they are forever exceeded.

In contrast, Los Angeles is a delicate house of cards, hope balanced on top of promises, all positioned on a stack of speculation and possibility. “To pitch here is to live. People pitch their kids into good schools, pitch offers on houses they can’t afford, and when they’re caught in the arms of the wrong person, pitch unlikely explanations. Hospitals pitch birthing centers, daycares pitch love, high schools pitch success, car dealerships pitch luxury, counselors self-esteem, masseuses happy endings, cemeteries eternal rest.” (p28)

In Los Angeles, those who follow their dreams almost certainly find a ruinous end: “He got caught in several traffic snarls and took the wrong exit. By the time the security guard shrugs and informs him that his destiny is at the other gate, he is 24 minutes late.” (p35)

In Porto Vergogna those dreams — no matter how frivolous or ridiculous — are met with support, even admiration. “With nothing but steep cliff faces to work with, Pasquale knew that a golf course was out of the question. But there was a natural shelf of three boulders near his hotel, and if he could level the tops and cantilever the rest, he thought he could build forms and pour enough concrete to connect the boulders into a flat rectangle and create — like a vision rising out of the rocky cliffs — a tennis court.” (p6)

There are two distinct story lines that run parallel throughout “Beautiful Ruins” and finally meet in the end, and neither one of those story lines could have existed without the other. The romance that blooms in Italy would not have happened without the Hollywood dreams; and had there been no ambition for fame and fortune, a hotelier in Italy would have never had a shot at love with an American actress. This was only made possible by Walter’s masterful use of two contrasting locations that formed a more dynamic, balanced ecosystem.

The Intruder

book by Peter Blauner

annotation by Kate Maruyama

Reading books outside your given genre can still inform your writing on an elemental scale.  I love reading Peter Blauner because of his grip on various aspects of society and how they tend to slam up against one another in New York City. He has a mastery of character structure and contrasts very different lives with each other before a character inevitably crosses the line—and it is there that things explode and become something new.

Blauner’s work is painstakingly researched and informed deeply in a way that only a lifetime New Yorker can accomplish. This is a great lesson in how writers can take advantage of a lifetime knowledge of a place: and how many aspects of a character’s life, ego and story that place can affect. In The Intruder, there’s a many-layered conversation between an upper West Side transplant from Brooklyn and his contractor, where they talk about the old neighborhood. But they’re not just talking about the old neighborhood: the subtext is Jake saying, “I’m still a guy from the ‘hood, even though I live in this brownstone and you’re technically working for me…” and this the conversation also takes on a sinister undercurrent that the reader can sense, but not totally make out. This delicate social balancing act gets turned on its ear further on in the book—all starting in a conversation about the neighborhood. Blauner reminds us to pay attention: every detail matters.

Blauner explores the guilt of the innocent and the innocence of the guilty in this story of a homeless man who becomes obsessed with a family, stalking them and the patriarch of that family’s response to this threat. What results is a tangle in which he shows us that as separately as we try to live our city-dwelling lives, we are all tied together more closely than we think.

Once the characters start crossing between their social strata, disaster ensues. In close third person and in intimate detail, we meet Jake the well-to-do lawyer, John G the homeless man, and Philip, the Mafioso. We learn their motivations, background and the reasons for their choices. While there is no part of me that liked Philip, Blauner made me feel for the place life put him—his mobster boss uncle who sexually abused him as a child, his ideas of the success he’ll never attain. The deep sympathy he was able to maintain with each character made the impossibility of their situation all the more painful.

Blauner gives us John Gates in careful layers. We open with his reflections on how he ended up homeless in the park being pushed around by punk kids, who soak him in gasoline and are about to set him on fire. It was through Blauner’s interviews with a guy who had started out with a life, a job, a family, and ended up on the streets that he learned that these things happen in increments, not all at once. In order to show us how John G arrived at the low point where we meet him, Blauner points out that we have to see “each thing in light of what happened before.” We have deep sympathy for John G. His daughter has died, his marriage has fallen apart, he was given Haldol to cope, and started using crack along the way. He stayed at a friend’s apartment and one night just didn’t go home. Then he was on the streets. His paperwork has been shuffled around so much that when he goes to seek help at a hospital, where he encounters Jake’s wife, Dana, she can’t treat him until she sends him to a clinic she where she works–but then only if he gets the right paperwork. John G. is tantalizingly close to getting help, to getting some sort of a life back, but he spends the night in a shelter and it’s when he’s raped by a guard that he becomes truly unhinged and starts to stalk Jake’s family. Jake finds himself increasingly squeezed by this guy, incredulous that this city, which he has spent his life getting to the top of, is closing in around him.  Enter Philip the contractor and the web begins to circle in on itself.

The careful structure of the book is what makes it so difficult to put down and it is this structure that can inform any genre of novel writing. We gain intimate knowledge of each character and his motivation and Blauner ratchets up the stakes for each of them in every ensuing chapter, but it’s the cutting back and forth between the upped stakes that creates its own kinetic energy. John G and Jake’s lives become more entwined and just when you think John’s going to get things together, find his way with the aid of Abraham, who lives in the tunnels under Riverside Drive, Philip enters the scene. Philip encourages Jake to cross the tensile borderlines between homeless and property owner–Guy who has made it and disenfranchised. And it’s then that things explode.

Because of my screenwriting background, I enjoy the way in which cutting from one story to another can up the tension, but in the latest novel I’m working on, with three points of view, three people all in each other’s lives, I got so wrapped up in each person’s story I forgot for several drafts how they were affecting each other’s lives directly. Blauner reminds us that when the characters each step off their tracks and infect each other’s lives, stir things up, that the real action begins.  And if you can push characters beyond their limits, dangerously into each other’s lives, that’s where the story gets interesting.

The Stand

book by Stephen King

annotation by Telaina Eriksen

I just finished Stephen King’s The Stand:Complete and Uncut. I read and read this book as a teenager. (And you’re going to have to bear with me on this annotation because this book is 1345 pages long, and I want to preface my annotation with a wee bit of an introduction. So go get a cold beverage, and dig in for a second, if you don’t mind.)

When I mention Stephen King to many educated and avid readers, they get a look on their faces like I just farted or, depending on how many advanced degrees they have, wet my pants in front of them. I am exhausted by literary snobbery but, on the other hand, I am a literary snob myself. Several years ago when The DaVinci Code came out, I read it in less than two days and I completely understood why it was popular. The Nicholas Sparks phenomenon evades me, but I can generally see why things sell. And who I am to tell a busy man or woman, or even a retiree, what they should and shouldn’t be reading? I am currently sneering at the popularity of 50 Shades of Gray, but if it’s spicing up some couple’s sex life and putting a smile on their faces as they go out into the world to meet the demands of their jobs and families… that’s not a bad deal for under $10, in my humble opinion.

I consider The Stand (and several other Stephen King novels), Gone With The Wind, Lonesome Dove, The Thorn Birds, and several other novels of John Irving and Pat Conroy, to have been the “gateway” books of my teenage years. My dad was a factory worker who enjoyed reading the paper and paperback westerns and my mother was a voracious reader, enjoying the daily paper, women’s magazines and romance novels. Her ultimate endorsement of a book was, “It reads right along.” My mother had seven children and finances were always tight, if not in active crisis. She alternated working part-time and full-time as our ages and the job market in Michigan allowed. She didn’t want to spend her evenings working through Anna Karenina. She didn’t want to lie on the couch and talk about the marriage plot in the novels of Jane Austen. She wanted a story to amuse and delight her.

There was no literary snobbery in my house. My aunt would give us big garbage bags full of books after she had read them. She bought a few new, a few used, and many at garage and library sales where in the 70s, you could fill up a large bag with books and then pay $1. We would buy books at garage sales, get them from the library (though we had issues returning them–my apologies to The Stair Public Library in Morenci, Michigan) and people knew we read, so we got a lot of people’s handmedowns and castoffs. In my teen years, I began to have some disposable income and one of the first things I bought was my own books. And here was where I encountered the novels of Stephen King. And it was books like The Stand, still a good old-fashioned story, but with literary devices and scope, then enabled me to go further on in my reading and tackle Russian novels. These starter literary novels  (for lack of a better term) were what allowed me to pick up and read the books which would later change who I am as a reader and writer—books like Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, Lydia Millet’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart and many others… too many others to list.

So what did I learn re-reading The Stand with adult eyes—the eyes of a college professor, no less? First of all, I couldn’t believe how much I had forgotten. This was very probably my third time through this giant book (published when I was 22) and I probably made my way three times through the shorter version which was published in the late 70s.  Secondly, the novel still piqued my interest with its epic scope and romantic showdown between good and evil. (If you want a summary of The Stand click here because this annotation is already going to be a monster.) And finally, yes, I did notice the wheels do come off of King’s story here and there. There are some inconsistencies with the novel that I never noticed before. In this reading, I had to ask how does the superflu kill everyone on the base instantly, and yet when it is released to the public, it takes days, sometimes even a week for people to die? And all the traffic jams and cars with dead bodies in them? People just stayed in their cars to die of flu? And why does Randall Flagg need a new identity and a car no one can trace if the world is falling apart? Is someone going to check his driver’s license before he becomes dictator of Las Vegas? And how does The Judge get gas in Wyoming when he is trying to get to Las Vegas to spy? I’ve driven across Wyoming. It already looks like there’s an apocalypse, let alone when the few sad and lonely gas stations would be closed and without electricity.

The worst thing to me though, was the “updating” Stephen King did. His 1970s characters were all logical and believable. When he moved those characters (inconsistently, I might add) up into the late 80s and 90s, they lost their credibility. Frannie in the book was supposed to be my age in 1990. She makes little comments about lying to get birth control pills (really wasn’t necessary in 1989/1990… though it might be now the way things are going). She also says “Only the Shadow Knows” which is something my mother would say, not me. (Frannie might have quoted the Partridge Family or the Brady Bunch, or Love Boat etc.)  There is also a part early in the book where someone in east Texas babysits two or three children the whole morning for $1. That would have been fine in the 70s, but a decade later, this woman would have received at least $5, even in the smallest town in America. Toward the end of the book, King begins to mention things like MTV, but his characters are generally inhabiting a pre-cable, pre-music CD, pre-blockbuster movie, Vietnam-was-very-close-and-life-changing, world. Which would be fine if he’d left them in the 70s. But he didn’t.

The other issue I had was King’s treatment of race in the novel. Mother Abigail is the wise African matriarch which, given the archetypal nature of the book , I don’t have a big issue with.  Flagg is a pretty archetypical demon, as well. I had an issue with the following passages… black servicemen “also nearly naked, all wore loincloths”… “more members of this black ‘junta’ covered perhaps 200 khaki-clad soldiers with rifles…”. Now, it’s not that I think when the end of the world comes that race relations are going to be stellar, it was the absence of other discussions or background story to this scene that stuck in my craw. That this, and Mother Abigail and the Rat-Man (who dressed like a pirate), are the sum total of black characters in this massive tome. This too reflects the “old” nature of the book, and I think King would probably write those passages differently today.  (And I won’t even begin to address the problems I have overall with Stephen King’s women characters who tend to be weak, emasculating women who divorce their good long-suffering men. That is SERIOUSLY a separate annotation.)

The things King does well far outnumber my speculation of how The Judge finds gas without electricity in Wyoming and why everyone takes so much aspirin (when in 1982 the FDA issued a warning about aspirin pertaining to Reye’s Syndrome and young adults and when the kick-ass anti-inflammatory Advil was brought to market in the United States in 1984).

King works in Yeats, the Bible, Watership Down, sociological theory and much more. His vision of a smashed America (an apocalypse where goods aren’t scarce and where we haven’t destroyed our planet) allows him to question why characters turn from good and whether people who have had less than stellar lives ever have a chance to be “inside.” This novel illustrates the power of story, the power of the reader to be invested with characters that are even briefly introduced. King does this extremely well when summing up the post-plague plague—people who were immune to the superflu but fall down wells, die of appendicitis, accidentally lock themselves in freezers, etc. In a few brief paragraphs he tells what happened to these characters and he tells it concisely, each vignette a tiny piece of a more traditional brand of flash fiction.

Reading this book as a writer reminds me to ground my characters fully in their time and place so there isn’t any disconnect with the reader. It reminds me that we all need editors. While the 823-page original definitely benefited from some of this richness and back-story in this uncut version, 1300+ pages was too much. A happy medium between the two lengths probably would have been perfect.

And finally, never forget as a writer (no matter what your genre) the power and the joy of a grand, compulsively readable, invested-in-the-characters-oh-my-god-what-is-going-to-happen-next, story.


book by Cheryl Strayed

annotation by Seth Fischer

Editors’ note: We know, this is the fiction page. But we here at Annotation Nation are so pleased by our former mentor Cheryl Strayed’s runaway success with Wild that we wanted to post Seth Fischer’s astute – and nontraditional – annotation of the book on our home page.

It’s been almost three months since I promised this fine publication an annotation of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild. I thought it’d be unfair to write a review, as, like nearly every human who’s ever been lucky enough to meet her, I consider Cheryl a friend. Instead, I would write an annotation: an analysis of what Cheryl’s book taught me as a writer. It would be safer that way, and there wouldn’t be any of that awkwardness that comes from reviewing the book of someone you know.

Easy enough, no?

But then something happened, and I got stuck. Wild became a phenomenon. We all knew it would do well. Cheryl is a brilliant writer—her previous novel Torch and a string of Best American essays and her stint as the advice columnist Dear Sugar are testament to that—and she has a superb editor and excellent representation. The book’s storyline — her lonely hike along the Pacific Crest Trail post-divorce, still not recovered from losing her mother and having narrowly avoided heroin addiction — all but guaranteed people would buy it. I mean, at one point in the book, she even has a run-in with a feral bull.

But then the phenomenon started to get out of control. It was glowingly reviewed in the New York Timestwice. The movie rights were optioned by Reese Witherspoon. Then it made the bestseller list for nonfiction. And just last week, Oprah herself decided to restart her book club because of Wild.

Yes, Oprah.

I can’t just ignore all that. I can’t, for the life of me, write a mundane piece on what Wild taught me about pacing and flashbacks. Don’t get me wrong – there’s a lot for a writer to learn from this book in terms of technique, but given all the fireworks, I couldn’t make myself write a traditional annotation.

I’m going to admit right now, against my better judgment, that Wild’s success made me uncomfortable. It wasn’t quite jealousy, but it also wasn’t quite not jealousy. The success of this book forced me to question my own jaded view of the literary world, and maybe even the world at large. Try as I might to be an idealist, I see the world a bit like Sam Spade. Success doesn’t come to those who deserve it. With a few notable exceptions, only people who lie, cheat, steal and see books as widgets find material success in publishing. As a literary writer, the best you can ever hope to do is throw a few wrenches in the works of a fundamentally screwed-up world, and maybe, if you’re lucky, you can die poor and alone but having made the world suck a little less. In my world, no one will ever reward you materially for being genuine, honest or real, but you should do it anyway, because that’s the point of life.

But there, right in the pages of the New York Times, is a woman whose writing and personality is honest, genuine and real, hugging Oprah, and she succeeded by telling a true story that aims to heal rather than to manipulate. A story whose ending, despite being a memoir, does not end in a trope. Despite the book’s subtitle, Cheryl was never completely lost, and she never was completely found. She doesn’t lie to her readers by giving them an answer or by making it simple. She never makes things easy, especially at the end:

 “It was all unknown to me then, as I sat on that white bench on the day I finished my hike. Everything except the fact that I didn’t have to know. That it was enough to trust what I’d done was true … How wild it was, to let it be” (311).

And that is absolutely beautiful, that a person whose answer is that there isn’t an answer has been allowed to succeed. In this time when marketing rules all, in this time of easy answers and The Secret and infomercials and branding and douches in suits saying “it is what it is” instead of no, I just don’t know what to do with the fact that something so complex and honest has met with so much success.

Actually, it scares me.

Which is all just to say that I struggled when I read this book. I kept looking for reasons to dismiss it, to prove to myself that there was something dishonest about it, that she had sold out in some way. But then, like most people who’ve read the book, it had an enormous emotional effect on me. I bawled like a baby, but I’ll stop there, because many, many people have spoken to the power of the work more eloquently than I can.

I still found a way to get mad, though, because in creating this phenomenon, Cheryl broke some rules. While I’ve never been a huge fan of rules in life, after studying writing long enough, I learned to respect the rules of writing — maybe more than I should — to the point where I shudder when I see them broken.

The most classic example, for those who you who haven’t done the whole workshop thing, is that adverbs are always bad (except, of course, when they’re not), or that you should avoid too much exposition. But that’s not all of them. There are books full of rules. Many of these rules encourage writers to be understated, to make sure metaphors are uncomplicated and that emotional language is minimized, and those rules stuck with me in a big way.

I taught myself to abide by those rules. Cheryl paid no attention to them. In Wild, Cheryl told those rules exactly what they could do with themselves.

I’ll start with a couple lines about fifty pages into the book, toward the beginning of her journey, when the physical exertion is starting to take its toll.

“I was thinking only of moving myself forward,” she says. “My mind was a crystal vase that contained only that one desire. My body was its opposite, a bag of broken glass” (63).

Ooph. What powerful writing, part of me said. I could feel what she was feeling—forgive me, I’m breaking the no clichés rule here—in my bones.

But then another part of me, the writer, the person who has loved being part of a gazillion writing workshops, was freaking out. “You can’t write that,” I thought. Crystal vases don’t hold desires, and why again was her mind a crystal vase? She was coming pretty damn close to mixing that metaphor — certainly torturing it a bit. And to make matters worse, she’s no slouch, so she knew damn well what she was doing. Why?

Here’s another bit that bugged me, about two thirds of the way through her trek, after she had finally replaced the boots that had turned her feet into a giant open sore: “Going down, I realized, was like taking hold of the loose strand of yarn on a sweater you’d just spent hours knitting and pulling it until the entire sweater unraveled into a pile of string. Hiking the PCT was the maddening effort of knitting that sweater and unraveling it over and over again. As if everything gained was inevitably lost” (222).

Again, as a reader, I felt this passage, I understood her frustration, and I never wanted to hike downhill again. But also, the writer and editor in me thought, “That last line is completely unnecessary. It‘s already inherent in the first two sentences, which, by the way, could be shortened.”

But if it was communicating emotion to me, if it was doing it so well I could feel what she was feeling, why did I care that it broke the rules? And if she had written these bits differently, would it have been more effective?

I don’t think it would have.

Recently, Diane Sherlock posted a question on her blog; “Do you read as a reader or a writer?” In other words, do you pay attention to craft, or do you immerse yourself in the emotional effect the words have on you. I thought about it for a second, and I said, “A writer.” And then I thought, “Well, why the hell am I doing that? The only way to get anywhere is to do both.”

When writers go to school, they’re trained to read as writers; they are trained to think in terms of craft, in terms of timing and dialogue and pacing and characterization. And because of that, many writers seem to have forgotten the point of craft: to find the best ways to emotionally connect with your reader.

To make matters worse, we’re trained to write for writers. Workshops can be invaluable, if we focus on learning how to write with the goal of some sort of emotional connection. But instead, we write to impress our workshop leaders. We write for the other writers in our workshops. We try to prove our chops, to show that we can effectively use our “craft,” and we forget the point of what we’re doing in the first place.

And then we sit around baffled, wondering why no one but writers seems to be buying literature anymore.

Cheryl Strayed uses her voice to emotionally connect with her readers, to use craft towards that end and not in spite of it. Which is all just to say that the lesson Cheryl is giving writers is just as valuable as the story Cheryl is giving readers: Don’t forget that craft is a means to an end, and not simply an end in itself. And if craft gets in the way of your voice, to hell with it.