The Sand Child

book by Tahar Ben Jelloun

translation by Alan Sheridan

annotation by Ghada Bedair

The Sand Child is a lyrical wonderland for all who are mesmerized, intrigued, and passionate about words. The Sand Child is truly a piece of poetic beauty each line taking the reader into that enchanted wonderland. With that said, I must admit to being one of those who deeply love language; I love the use of language so much that I find myself jotting down lines from books whose words are strung together like harmonic notes. I do love when prose becomes poetry and this book was not short on this in the least. While reading The Sand Child, I often became so lost in the fluidity and grace of the translated piece that I would have to go back several times and reread parts of the book to remind myself of the plot.

Being a native speaker of the Arabic language, I often have a critical eye on the fine details of the usage of the language the work is being translated into, in this case the translation was simply exquisite.

The story itself is simple:  a father, hopeless about having a son after fathering seven daughters, weaves a lie that his eighth daughter is a son. It shows the intense desperation and deception this father will go to hide that his eighth child is, in fact, a daughter. He masterminds a plan where he strings a perfectly played out lie which no one questions, and the daughter is raised as a son. Through twists and turns we see this confused child grow to adulthood and even marry; what we also see is the traumatic and bitter impact this lie has on her.

What I disliked about the story was the form of narration Ben Jelloun chose. It was a narrator who speaks to a doubtful audience. The narrator claims to have a journal that recounts the story in the voice of the traumatized daughter. This can get muddled and confusing–the shift in voice, with the sometimes overpowering language–and leaves the reader confused and somewhat frustrated. Although the book was incredibly strong in the execution of its translation and its slow unfolding of the child’s life, it was overpowered with clumsy narration.

I have a deep appreciation and respect for translated pieces–the task of taking on language, culture, and all of the small nuances of writing, being capable of crafting a believable tale is quite a feat that Alan Sheridan was successful in doing.

The book does not have a clear ending, the audience in the book eventually become narrators themselves describing what they believe happens to the daughter, some tragic and some happy, yet you don’t get that clear clean ending that some readers, like myself, crave. For some, the open-ended style of the tale is appealing and believable; for someone like myself who enjoys a clear conclusion to the adventure I felt a tad let down and yet hungry to try to concoct what I felt the ending would/should be, and, as any true writer, I did. I must say, my ending is a happy and beautiful one.

The Buddha in the Attic

book by Julie Otsuka

annotation by Tina Rubin

Stories dealing with the misguided actions of the U.S. government toward its perceived enemies usually affect me like a punch to the gut. But I need to know, so I don’t run away. Julie Otsuka’s novella about the Japanese picture brides who came to California between the two World Wars was a killer in that respect. Her short, Hemingwayesque sentences were icebergs of emotion.

Otsuka uses an interesting device: her point of view is first person plural. The “we” of the book is a group of young Japanese women who meet on the boat, sailing to an unknown future in America to meet Japanese husbands they have never seen. The husbands, of course, had sent twenty-year-old photos back to Japan to win over their brides and hired professional writers to craft their courtship letters. The narrative arc moves from the women’s arrival and initial disappointment to their inevitable adjustment—to their husbands as well as to the new country, culture, and language. Most accept their fate stoically and thrive despite disease, extramarital affairs, and having to work in the fields or as maids to white families.

I read the book with mild interest until the last forty or so pages, when the Japanese internment begins. After that, the anguish of the author’s understated words hit me, and I could only read a page or so a night before choking up. It was then that I recognized the degree of Otsuka’s skill. Despite keeping individual characters at arm’s length throughout the book, she managed to reveal who they all were. And I cared about every one.

Here’s how she did it. Otsuka relates much of the action by opening her paragraphs with words like “some of us” or “most of us.” She follows with  statements expressing many different situations, ending with a specific thought by someone in the group that illustrates the point. As I absorbed first the general examples and then the narrower one, I began to differentiate the characters—although I didn‘t realize it at first.

An example, from the opening chapter, “Come, Japanese,” on the boat:

At night we dreamed of our husbands. . . . We dreamed we were lovely and tall. We dreamed we were back in the rice paddies, which we had so desperately wanted to escape. The rice paddy dreams were always nightmares. We dreamed of our older and prettier sisters who had been sold to the geisha houses by our fathers so that the rest of us might eat, and when we woke we were gasping for air. For a second I thought I was her. (5)

Or, from the chapter simply called “Whites”:

One of us blamed them for everything and wished that they were dead. One of us blamed them for everything and wished that she were dead. Others of us learned to live without thinking of them at all. We threw ourselves into our work and became obsessed with the thought of pulling one more weed. . . . We forgot about Buddha. We forgot about God. We developed a coldness inside us that still has not thawed. I fear my soul has died. . . . But it was not we who were cooking and cleaning and chopping, it was somebody else. And often our husbands did not even notice we’d disappeared. (37)

As the novel goes on, Otsuka attaches names to the characters but keeps the structure intact. The effect is to reveal the tremendous power of each detail. Details tell the entire story, yet each one, so carefully chosen, becomes irreplaceable.

In a startling final chapter, “A Disappearance,” the first person plural now represents the whites who are left behind after the Japanese have been rounded up and taken away. The unexpected shift in point of view is a delicious surprise. Not only does it work perfectly, but it’s a logical choice, given that the original “we” is gone. And from a historical perspective, even if a fictional one, the reactions of the whites trying to make sense of their friends’, schoolmates’, and local business owners’ disappearance wraps the book up with food for thought.

This is a novel that remains in one’s thoughts long after the last page is read—for Otsuka’s technique as well as her story.

The Knockout Artist

amazon.com

book by Harry Crews

annotation by Kate Maruyama

Rob Roberge introduced me to this underrated but brilliant writer who pretty much blew me away. He passed away Wednesday at the age of 76. In his honor, we’re re-running this annotation from 2009.

Given the dark subject matter, I had thought this noir book would be a chore, but found it instead a heartbreaking delight. Crews takes us directly into the dark underbelly of society, accompanying Eugene, the eponymous knockout artist, to one of his gigs. He gives us Eugene’s simple look at the world, taking stock in his surroundings, staring at the jackets in the closet across from him. When Jake comes in with Oyster-Boy, thin, pale, shedding skin, a dog collar around his neck led by the enormous and salacious Purvis, we know that he has crept into the darkest side of town, the part most of us don’t want to see but can’t help staring at. But Eugene keeps his head, protects himself by fighting off any interaction with these people and goes and does his job, knocking himself out.

Within one chapter, Crews has given us a coherent world and a solid hero with a strong voice. There is something uncorruptable about Eugene, made more obvious by his introduction taking place in a deeply corrupt society. What is it about this guy that is so decent despite the fact that he is a kept man and knocks himself out to make money? He is deeply buried in self-loathing, but there is something solid at the core of Eugene that will never be soiled. The complexity of a character having such opposing aspects to his personality makes for a compelling protagonist. I seriously need to work toward that, but figure I’m still years away.

Things for Eugene are bound to get worse, we know this from our classic noir surroundings; his simple act of blacking out regularly is very Phillip Marlowe. Of course we are introduced to the mysterious and tragic woman (Jake), then the user trouble woman (Charity).

Pete is a beautiful best friend character. Crews does a great thing by taking us inside Eugene’s hopes for Pete. When it looks like Pete is getting his life together, Eugene buys it. We know because of the nature of the book something awful will happen, but Crews is careful about weaving Eugene’s hope in a way that makes us feel it with him; Tulip cleaning up Pete’s apartment, the fact that the two are clearly in love. Eugene has a respect for this real love, and knows more and more clearly it is not what he shares with Charity. Crews has a real eye for finding the good in people readers might otherwise not think of: Tulip who had a sex act with a teddy bear on Bourbon Street, is the woman who gives Pete something larger to live for. And Pete, porn and snuff film projectionist, who could not make peace with Eugene’s knockout living, saw the good in her, which makes him more appealing.

There is such tragic beauty in Eugene’s dealings with Blasingame. It is Eugene who takes Pete into his deal with Blasingame, and it is Blasingame’s world that ruins Pete forever. In trying to free himself from corruption and kink (the knocking himself out) he has unwittingly led Pete down the path to destruction. It is on Blasingame’s boat that the clean Tulip uses again, which plants the seeds for her downward slide, making our final image of Pete, fully immersed in Blasingame’s world, a complete and utter destruction whose responsibility rests on Eugene’s shoulders.

The tenuous, frenetic hope that Crews weaves around Eugene and Pete’s plans for a future in boxing management reminded me a lot of April’s spinning hopes about Paris in REVOLUTIONARY ROAD. You can feel the exhilaration of the character, especially when Pete gets on board and starts talking Blasingame’s ear off. But their enthusiasm creates its own tension, since the reader is fully aware that things are not going to end well. It is such a careful balance and I would like to somehow steal that for the climax of my book.  (I actually did end up stealing Yates/Crews’ technique which worked quite nicely)

Charity takes the Noir female villain to the next level. She has the upper hand when we first meet her, as she is keeping Eugene and cataloging him with her sex-produced recording sessions. Crews builds a dominating woman, but once Eugene gets into her files and learns that she was kicked out of school, she becomes even more vulnerable and therefore more interesting. Charity’s drive to get inside other people’s lives and destroy them is all bluster; this fragility makes her completely fascinating and when she takes an interest in Jake, Eugene and we feel genuine worry for her. This reminds me that I need to build my villain’s motivation in a more human way. If I can get into her human need to collect souls, beyond a supernatural level, she’ll be much more interesting. I have her motivation from a stance of pure evil and, frankly, that’s not enough.

Eugene has lost everything, including the one friend who had loved him for who he was and had kept him together. But Crews is careful to leave us with a sense of hope. Jacques comes into the picture only at the end, but we get the sense that his Cajun common sense may well be a solid calming force in Eugene’s life and may help him hang onto the shred of decency at his core. This is an important reminder that if you lead your reader down a dark path, you can’t abandon them there. A sad story works better with a glimmer of hope, or at least a foothold and forward movement for its hero. Something gained.

This was a truly artful book, a pleasure to read, completely not in a genre I’ve ever written, and yet it was totally useful.

The Family Fang

Imagebook by Kevin Wilson

annotation by Diane Sherlock

Facebook brought me to THE FAMILY FANG. I’ve been fortunate to experience the acquaintance and generosity of some well-known authors, including Nick Hornby. He posted that THE FAMILY FANG was his favorite book of 2011. Since my mentor, Rob Roberge, recommended I read Hornby as I was writing my own comic novel, WRESTLING ALLIGATORS, I was curious to read Hornby’s recommendation. I was not disappointed. THE FAMILY FANG is a lot of fun. It also illustrates one of Roberge’s maxims: funny and sad go together in order to make funny work. 

A short digression… in college, I attended a theater conference in Los Angeles and within it some performance art pieces (and I use that term loosely). I sat next to David Antin as he apologetically passed me a pile of rabbit droppings on a silver platter. That was one “performance” without a point and even the lack of point wasn’t the point – it was just bad. Anyway, I attended my share of odd performance art and avant-garde plays in New York and L.A. and met people like Caleb and Camille Fang, the performance artist parents of the novel. Wilson nails it.

Camille and Caleb use their children, Annie (Child A) and Buster (Child B), in their pieces. Examples: Annie on guitar, singing with Buster as they sit on the street beside a guitar case with the sign, “Our dog needs an operation. Please help us save him.” As the “piece” develops, a man heckles her, ending in shouts and a smashed guitar. That man is of course her father, unknown to the “audience.” There are also pieces featuring Buster in drag to win a beauty contest and one with the children complicit in a fake shoplifting. Some pieces are innocent, some are exploitive, and some are cruel.

For the parents, “art, if you loved it, was worth any amount of unhappiness and pain. If you had to hurt someone to achieve those ends, so be it. If the outcome was beautiful enough, strange enough, memorable enough, it did not matter. It was worth it.”  Everything is in service to Art. The parents are oblivious to the effect of their lifestyle on their children, but mirroring them are two children who are oblivious to the gifts (awe, wonder) their parents have provided them in the midst of the pain. It is no surprise that though Annie and Buster try to create lives for themselves, they fail and return home. This delights their parents. “We’re a family again,” their dad cries. “This is what the Fangs do. We make strange and memorable things.” Their mother adds, “We distort the world; we make it vibrate.”  

The cycle of art begins again, but then the parents vanish at a roadside stop, apparently the victims of foul play. Or are they? Is it art or did something actually happen to them? This mystery propels the reader forward as Wilson explores the limits of familial relationships. The questions surrounding their disappearance that he sets up so well – well enough that the reader can imagine the book going either way – is something I want to explore in my own writing. I haven’t used the reader’s participation and curiosity to the degree that Wilson has here. He not only keeps ratcheting up the stakes, but creates tension in his use of our revulsion over the performance pieces even as we are sucked into fascination over what will happen, with the parents’ elation, and the children’s emotions over the outcome, good or bad. He makes great use of the small telling details that enhance a good story, “Annie felt her fingers snap into fists…then she felt Buster’s own hand slowly uncurl her fingers until they were straight and steady.”

Fine details, vivid characters, an outrageous yet realistic premise that builds over the course of the narrative with increasing stakes add up to an entertaining book that resonates more deeply – and ends with more impact – than one might expect from a comedic novel. Funny and sad indeed.

 

 

The Tiger’s Wife

book by Téa Obreht

annotation by Talya Jankovits

I am not proud to admit this, but sometimes I get writer’s envy. When I got word of Téa Obreht, I almost fell over with jealousy. Born the same year I was and she was already published in places such as The New Yorker, Harper’s and The New York Times, as well as voted in for The New Yorker’s “20 under 40” and The National Books Foundation’s “5 under 35”. Her novel, The Tiger’s Wife, is a New York Times bestseller, a 2011 National Book Award Finalist and the winner of the 2011 Orange Prize for Fiction. So you better believe that I, with a handful of modest online publications (thank you Annotation Nation!) and a novel still four years in the making, watched my hands grow green when I picked up her novel. I tried to put petty jealousy aside when I began her book and instead set out to learn from a peer and figure out what she did that I need to do. Surprisingly, I also figured out what she did that I don’t want to do.

Without sounding condescending, (and really, how could I, she’s the one with a national bestseller, I’m the one still pulling out repetitive clichéed imagery from my novel) Obreht’s writing felt beyond her years. I was enthralled with her imagery, her description, moments of writing that made me keep glancing again at her very young looking photo in the back of the book, trying to convince myself that yes, this young woman really wrote these sentences. She captured the young, the old, the foreign, the magical and she delivered lovely word by word fresh imagery, rich metaphors and breathtaking descriptions. While recently revising my own novel, I cringed with shame when a generous reader pointed out that I had used “thin lips” about a half dozen times in a dozen pages. Language is vast and supple with variety and Obreht utilizes all of it in her novel. It was a good kick in the writer’s gut to remind me that language is endless and profoundly important, you don’t want to just write a story, you want to write a story well, and write well Obreht did. But that isn’t enough to earn you the kind of acclaim that The Tiger’s Wife earned Obreht, and I’m sorry to say but the buck stopped there for me.

Obreht is a storyteller, that’s for sure. She can tell a story in a post war-torn Balkan country, she can paint you a tiger’s wife and a deathless man and she can lead you to a small village with big superstitions and she can capture the persona of the young and the old, but despite her ability to captivate me in various chapters, I was constantly left with questions, holes and confusion. Where Obreht soared in writing, she slumped in plot. Chapter chunks seemed like short stories strung along with barely a thread connecting them. The main character, Nadia, is on a quest to understand her grandfather and his death but all Obreht did was lead me down a wild goose chase of story clumps that dizzied me and left me wondering exactly what the novel was about.

As a reader and a writer, the importance of plot to me is incomparable. My own novel stretches across time, jumps point of view and countries. Something I am very aware of is being sure that everything comes together, that I am writing a story in which I am posing questions that get answers, that everything is serving a driving purpose towards the ending, in other words,  that a novel is taking form. And no matter the novel, no matter the plot, be it linear or non-linear, but it in various POVs or one, there should always be a beginning, middle and end. There should always be continuity, regardless of structure. Even if plot plays second fiddle to language, it still needs to be addressed cohesively. Obreht had too many pages of opportunity to fix her plot blunders and it made me wonder about the value of editing, revision and clarity of mind. Putting writer’s envy aside, I was disappointed with what, at the outset, felt like a promising read.

Whether or not I’ll ever make the New York Times National Bestseller list, I do hope to achieve smaller and more doable accomplishments, such as completing a novel where I can attain the same level of language as Obreht, yet remember the importance of something as basic as the purpose of plot. In writing, it all matters.

The Corrections

book by Jonathan Franzen

annotation by Talya Jankovits

It started off as a crush. I was feeling flustered and warm with each rich sentence, his detailed imagery, the way sound greeted me through my eyes and I discovered that a stack of bills could be made interesting. At the same time, I also found myself rolling my eyes and skimming eagerly to reach the next relevant scene or narrative. Jonathan Franzen’s The Correctionsis an exhausting work of fiction that left me both panting and out of breath with want for more as well as feeling condescended to and abused. I was in turmoil reading this novel; was I in love or was I being driven mad? I decided it was okay to feel both.

My Infatuation:
Franzen’s novel is a story without a story. A funny thing happened while reading. I kept wondering when it was all going to come together and at first I was disappointed to find out it never actually comes together but still works brilliantly. Franzen takes a family of five, two aging parents, and three adult children and reveals the stories of these characters’ lives through the ultimate, larger but mostly irrelevant story of a quickly ailing and demented father who meets his end by the final chapter of the book.

Recently, I am finding myself drawn to novels, short stories or creative pieces that don’t have an ultimate goal of selling you on some sort of convoluted and dizzying plot, but find the story in the mundane, the every day, life as we know it. (Granted there were some grand elements, but when you’re talking about a novel that is close to 600 pages, 40-80 pages of grandeur is really not much to talk about.) This fiction was not fiction at all. I felt as if somewhere, someone is living one of these lives. They were so real, so devastatingly flawed, a smorgasbord of richly textured humanity. I almost felt a part of this dysfunctional group of fictive genes.Franzen paid attention to the nuances that don’t usually get attention and made a novel of it, a particularly lengthy novel of it.

From the first sentence, I knew I was in for a writing treat. Franzen is so detailed that you can hardly go more than a few sentences without being greeted by a beautiful image, a clever metaphor or a breathtaking string of adjectives and nouns. Just after reading a few pages I wanted to run to my own novel and find ways to make it “prettier” to enhance my  images and descriptions, to pay attention to the sound of a screeching tire or the color of a mole on an elbow. I was so driven to write after reading that I did. I’m pretty sure that’s enough in it of itself to assert a bit of an infatuation. But infatuation is usually fickle.

My Contempt:
If I had to read one page more of this novel I would have thrown this book in the dishwasher, cleaned it up and made Franzen wash his mouth out with soap. About a quarter of the way through this book, I began to feel like I was out on a date with a gorgeous guy who was smart and funny, but by the time the appetizer arrives I realize he is dominating the conversation to hear himself talk about and assert his own cultured, well rounded intellect and opinion on just about anything. Franzen is a great writer, but at times I felt that entire scenes were inserted totally unnecessarily; I began to feel taken advantage of, as if Franzen created strikingly different characters only in order to assert himself in all things. The character of Chip seemed to be invented purely for Franzen’s philosophical appetite. I felt drained reading hypothetical conversations between Chip and his grad students that went on for pages discussing the ethical responsibilities in mass media commercialism. Greg was an opportunity to explore stocks and business (where I had to read through an entire conference on an imaginary drug with irrelevant characters participating in banter with the drug reps,) Denise was a field day for sexual appetite and food connoisseurship and Aurthur became less of a character and more of an excuse to explore scatological images. Reading this novel was like having my eyes held open and being force fed information. Now, either this actually happened – characters were created to feed Franzen’s frantic appetite for self assertion – or something went terribly wrong during editing.

I am currently in the revision stage of my novel and have gone through multiple drafts and something that comes up frequently is finding irrelevant scenes or lengthy narratives that don’t contribute to the characters, the plot or my readers need to relate to the characters and the plot. What frustrated me in Franzen’s novel is that I felt I was reading lengthy narrative that didn’t at all enhance the reading experience for me and left me feeling drained, so drained that all the beautiful writing I was so excited about at first began to fade before me and leave only the constant barrage of information. My lesson – don’t overload, everything in moderation. Even the luscious writing began to become too much.

My Compromise:
I thought annotating the novel would help me gain clarity on my perspective and writerly gains or losses, but I’m still as torn as before. There will be a second date – I will read Franzen again, to feed my need for glitzy, detailed writing but I will also remind myself during my revision process of the importance of staying honest to my characters and stories, small or great, and staying committed to making sure every page of my novel matters. Because at the end of a novel, its not how much you’ve written or how much you know, but how well you know what you write.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

book by Jonathan Safran Foer

annotation by Diane Sherlock

Foer deals with loss through a number of characters in the aftermath of 9/11, primarily through the eyes of the nine year old protagonist, Oskar, whose father died in the attack on the World Trade Center. There was something that rang a faint bell beginning with the spelling of Oskar and about 100 pages in, the book reminded me strongly of Gunter Grass’ The Tin Drum, another polarizing book. Count me in the ‘admire the writing, didn’t care for the book’ group on both counts. I had a far more negative reaction to The Tin Drum, but it didn’t help my reaction to this book – precocious child wandering through a landscape of loss, tambourine instead of the drum, aftermath of devastating act of man’s inhumanity to man. After this realization, my opinion of the book was colored because it seemed not so much homage (except in the tip of the hat to Vonnegut’s Dresden) as derivative. Most of the writing is very good, the organization of material less so, with the bedtime story about the Sixth Borough seeming more like a stand alone short story than part of this narrative. Foer’s use of repetition was for the most part irritating – “I gave myself a bruise,” “heavy boots,” and “Jose” were not unbelievable for a bright nine year old, just wearisome for me as reader.

Foer has many missed opportunities with the book and it reads like what it is, a book by a young writer with more reading experience than life experience. One missed opportunity was portraying the height of the Twin Towers. He writes about burning jet fuel and the choice to burn or jump (something I spent probably an unhealthy amount of time contemplating as I watched it unfold on TV and since). Years ago, I went to the top of the Towers and it seems like Oskar would have at some point either with his parents or school. It was stunning to step off that elevator and see that view. Some people couldn’t get off the elevator – it was too much like stepping out into space –  and I missed the sense of that in the novel. Other missed opportunities included the grandmother, who could have been the emotional heart of the book, but ended up feeling disconnected. With regard to the grandparents, it would have been nice if Foer had mimicked the areas of Something and Nothing in his narrative in those sections involving the grandparents’ story. Also, there was no satisfactory pay off for hiding the answering machine. It felt like it fizzled away when his mother said she talked to Oskar’s father on her cell. The other glaring missed opportunity was the lack of response by others to Oskar’s relaying of his father’s death. It’s as if 9/11 only happened to Oskar. Even though he’s an unreliable narrator and taking into account the limited perspective of a child, it seems likely that at least one of the people he told his story to would have replied with their own 9/11 story.

I liked most of the pictures, especially in reference to the picture book Oskar collected along the way. He’s on a scavenger hunt he thinks was set up by his father. The rest of the pictures didn’t bother me, but I found them unnecessary, thanks to Foer’s vivid descriptions. By the time I reached the flip book at the end, I was not engaged with the story and it had no real impact on me. This might also be because I had just read Amis’ Time’s Arrow and reread Slaughterhouse Five so rewinding was familiar.

As with All Families Are Psychotic, Foer did not convince me with the character of the mother. She was two dimensional and her reactions seemed off, especially after losing her husband and a child with obvious marks all over him wandering around New York City day and night. The cursory reference to hospitalization and therapy was just that, cursory. The scene when he hides the answering machine from her was poignant, but later when he truly hurts her, while painful, did not have that same kind of emotional resonance and by that point, I was hoping for it, for more to pull me in. Even if the mother didn’t keep track of him (and the explanation that she kept a closer eye than he was aware of seemed like window dressing toward the end), one of the other adults along the way should have behaved, well, more like an adult.

All in all, the book had its moments, but overall was a cautionary tale warning against gimmicks under the sheen of good writing. The ‘look at me’ quality of the writing could have reinforced the character of Oskar. Instead, much of the writing felt forced. It will be interesting to see how Foer develops as a writer after the white hot attention he’s received as a literary wunderkind and the fact he’s already used the two seminal events in living history for his first two books.

Like Water for Elephants

book by Sara Gruen

Annotation by Lee Stoops

Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants begins with an epigraph from Dr. Suess’s Horton Hatches the Egg about the unfailing faithfulness of elephants. What follows is a fast, colloquially-written prologue that ends in violent murder as remembered by an old man. Needless to say, after three pages, I was hooked.

Of course, the prologue is a flash of something to which the reader will eventually return. Chapter one establishes the pace and mystery of the book. Jacob Jankowski, an elderly man living in an assisted care facility. He’s not sure of his age (he’s either ninety or ninety-three), he has a difficult time remembering the names of those caring for him, and he spends more time reliving his youth in his mind than cogitating in the present. His memories are not flash-backs or recollections. When he’s narrating as twenty-three year-old Jacob, he’s truthfully telling the story as it happens.

““It was something alright. I remember it like yesterday. Hell, I remember it better than yesterday”” (324).

Gruen succeeded in the telling of this story in three ways: 1) the perspective of her narrator (the story is told in first person by Jacob, both at twenty-three and ninety (or ninety-three)) is believable both in the presentation of the prose and the reality of his voice and person; 2) the ease with which dialogue is delivered offers the reader true voices and personalities; 3) the story is engaging, mysterious, and well-paced throughout.

Jacob is twenty-three years old for eighty-five percent of the narrative. The story begins with his parents’ tragic death, his losing everything because of their debt, his failing out of an ivy league veterinary school (days before graduation), and his jumping a traveling circus train. It all happens in depression-era America. Chronicling the traveling circus’s tour, its people, and the violence and darkness that exists within the community, Gruen masterfully dictates it all through Jacob’s eyes. The descriptions of scenes were powerful, but it was the interior exposition of Jacob that was so authentic. His emotional development, his naïve struggle with the ethics, morals, and relationships of the other characters, and his inability to put intention to finding himself and his way brought gritty realism to the pages. An example (Jacob, speaking about August who is the “equestrian director and superintendent of animals:” his boss):

“I hate him. I hate him for being so brutal. I hate that I’m beholden to him. I hate that I’m in love with his wife and something damned close to that with the elephant. And most of all, I hate that I’ve let them both down. I don’t know if the elephant is smart enough to connect me to her punishment and wonder why I didn’t do anything to stop it, but I am and I do” (171).

Of course, the story is really about the elephant, Rosie, and August’s wife, Marlena, and what they mean to Jacob. I see it as a great feat that Gruen was able to, for lack of a better word, nail Jacob’s character.

Dialogue drives stories in a very specific, very powerful way. In a dialogue-heavy story, such as Water for Elephants, the story-teller can’t afford to leave any skill at home. Gruen’s dialogue in the story is present exactly as it needs to be. It’s charming in places, it’s colloquial in most (the language of the 1930’s traveling circus is one-of-a-kind), and it’s natural and flowing. There were places an aspiring writer may have been tempted to keep trying to make the characters speak. Gruen rejected that temptation, leaving just enough said. The story continues to weave seamlessly in and through the passages of conversation.

““Damn,” I say.

“What is it?” says Marlena.

I straighten up and reach for Silver Star’s foot. He leaves it firmly on the ground.

“Come on, boy,” I say, pulling on his hoof.

Eventually, he lifts it. The sole is bulging and dark, with a red line running around the edge. I set it down immediately.

“This horse is foundering,” I say.

“Oh dear God!” says Marlena, clapping a hand to her mouth.

“What?” says August. “He’s what?”

“Foundering,” I say. “It’s when the connective tissues between the hoof and the coffin bone are compromised and the coffin bone rotates toward the sole of the hoof.”

“In English, please. Is it bad?”

I glance at Marlena, who is still covering her mouth. “Yes,” I say.

“Can you fix it?”

“We can bed him up real thick, and try to keep him off his feet. Grass hay only and no grain. And no work.”

“But can you fix it?”

I hesitate, glancing quickly at Marlena. “Probably not.”

August stares at Silver Star and exhales through puffed cheeks” (171).

Not long after this exchange, the horse is put down, and then, because of lack of food or funds to buy any, and to the disgust of many, the dead horse is fed to the big cats. Gruen’s use of tags, vocal control, and character consistency in voicing gives the dialogue throughout the novel strength of form and progression of story. As a writer that loves and relies on dialogue, finding stories that use it so effectively is exciting.

Gruen’s story consists of darkness, mystery, and grittily precise use of sex, violence, and cruelty. But, these elements are only supplements to the overall story. The story is one of love; love in all its forms. It’s truth that Gruen brings to her fiction that drives Water for Elephants.

The Color Purple

 

book by Alice Walker

annotation by Marianne Woods Cirone

The Color Purple is heartbreaking, funny, enlightening, tragic, ultimately uplifting—and I really wish I had read it before I read The Temple of My Familiar.  Alice Walker published The Color Purple in 1982; she received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the National Book Award for it in 1983.  The Temple of My Familiar was published in 1989, seven years after The Color Purple, and includes several characters that were continued from the first book, including Miss Celie and Miss Shug, two of my favorites.

In an ironic twist, the characters of Miss Celie and Miss Shug are brought together initially through an affair between Miss Shug and “Mister” (Albert), who is Miss Celie’s domineering, merciless husband who brings the sexy songstress Miss Shug into their home to have the submissive Miss Celie nurse her to health—only to see the two of them end up falling into a sexual relationship and moving out together.  Miss Celie eventually finds her own independence and self-respect, is reunited with her long lost sister and the children that she “gave up” at birth, and finds peace with a god who resides in nature and not churches.  In TCP, Walker shows the same beautiful skill in developing characters and scenarios which show and extreme fluidity of relationships and lifestyles, constantly redefining the meaning of the words “family” and “spirituality” in a more modern contest.

After reading two on Walker’s book, I can see her exceptional talent in expressing herself poetically and in telling, in particular, the important stories of many voiceless women who have been oppressed over centuries.  Walker shows the transformation of characters such as Miss Celie, who initially started as a little dormouse and developed into her own strong person, as well as those like Sophia, who started out with a will of steel and were nearly broken by the never ending sequence of events involving men determined to break her spirit—and who nearly succeeded.  Walker shows the weaknesses and strengths of people of many different races, and expresses, perhaps on behalf of the untold many, the deserved anger and touches our hearts through the stories behind this legacy of mistreatment and exploitation that started this cycle of fear and loathing.

I found The Color Purple to be much more emotionally engaging that those in The Temple of My Familiar—I was literally in the skin of the characters in TCP, while I found I was held at arm’s length by the stylistic techniques and the complexly intertwining stories in TTOMF.  Every time I picked up TTOMF it felt like starting anew, while TCP (which I listened to on audio book in the wonderful voice of Alice Walker reading her own work) sucked me into their world from the start.

In doing some research on Alice Walker, I found that she attended Spelman College and later transferred to Sarah Lawrence, worked as a civil rights activist and married a white, Jewish civil rights lawyer at a time when interracial marriages were still illegal in some states; they had a daughter together, Rebecca, who was born in 1969, and later divorced.  Rebecca claims to have felt disenfranchised from the black, the white and the Jewish communities; she later wrote a book called Black White and Jewish and said that she felt as though she was “more of a political symbol than a cherished daughter.”   Later in life, Rebecca took “Walker” as her surname although Alice and Rebecca later became estranged, with Rebecca’s citing her mother’s “extremely feminist views that children enslave women” and the absence of Alice as a mother figure in her life as a major distress and void in her life.

Rebecca wrote in a 2008 U.K publication:

Ironically, my mother regards herself as a hugely maternal woman. Believing that women are suppressed, she has campaigned for their rights around the world and set up organisations to aid women abandoned in Africa  –  offering herself up as a mother figure.

But, while she has taken care of daughters all over the world and is hugely revered for her public work and service, my childhood tells a very different story. I came very low down in her priorities – after work, political integrity, self-fulfillment, friendships, spiritual life, fame and travel…My mother … never came to a single school event, she didn’t buy me any clothes, she didn’t even help me buy my first bra – a friend was paid to go shopping with me. If I needed help with homework I asked my boyfriend’s mother.

…When I wrote my memoir, Black, White and Jewish, my mother insisted on publishing her version. She finds it impossible to step out of the limelight, which is extremely ironic in light of her view that all women are sisters and should support one another.

Astrologically, the conflict between Alice and Rebecca seems explicable —Alice’s Aquarius which is the ultimate freedom-demanding, humanitarian, visionary sign with a potential dark side of aloofness, almost versus Rebecca’s Scorpio:  passionate, emotional and deep, with the potential dark side of extreme possessiveness and grudge-holding.

As the mother of two (almost) adult daughters, and a person who has personally struggled with my relationships with them, my roles as a woman, wife, and writer; and how to balance the needs of each, I wonder where the truth in this story lies… and how Alice Walker’s writing and fictional creations fit in with the actual translation into today’s society.  Is Walker’s dream for the world just a dream— do we still live in a world where we must choose work or family?   Is Alice and Rebecca’s relationship, if in fact is as described, a societal failing or a personal one?

I wonder what we can each learn from Walker’s writing or her personal challenges that can help to transform our world into a place of greater love—“tolerance” seems a milquetoast expectation indeed, in the larger picture of what the world needs for everyone to feel connected to each other in a loving, positive way, to transform our real world into the ideal created in the fictional world.

The Road

book by Cormac McCarthy

annotation by Lee Stoops

“As for me my only hope is for eternal nothingness and I hope it with all my heart.”

~ Cormac McCarthy, The Road (57)

Chilling. Dark. Cold. Hopeless. And yet, The Road is full of love, regardless; both McCarthy’s love of a real story told well and the love a father and son share, even in the face of nothingness. The landscape is America, though the time is epitomic post-apocalyptic. Nothing remains but ash, broken, Spartan roads, and a few, hungry, desperate, withered people. Winter – and it’s not clear if it’s seasonal or nuclear – sets in and color long ago left the world. McCarthy paints a bleak, grim environment and ravages his characters with it. Yet, they never give up. They sustain each other entirely. And that sustenance is the point. Days without food or water, weeks on the road, sleepless and cold and knowing that the only other people alive are eating each other, and moving toward a goal simply for the sake of having a goal – none of these keep the story moving or give it its poignancy. Its strength, its very meaning, exists in the bond of love the father and his son share.

McCarthy’s intentions with the story are clear. He so much as eliminates visual, typeset elements of the page so that everything makes way for the truth of the prose. None of the dialogue is quoted, and only some the time is it tagged. The characters (the boy and his father) remain nameless for the entire story. No states are labeled, no nomenclature of town or geographic shows. Titles and places, even extra ink on the page for apostrophes or quotations, are unnecessary distractions in McCarthy’s vision.

“At the top of the hill he turned and studied the town. Darkness coming fast. Darkness and cold. He put two of the coats over the boy’s shoulders, swallowing him up parka and all.

I’m really hungry, Papa.

I know.

Will we be able to find our stuff?

Yes. I know where it is.

What if somebody finds it?

They wont find it.

I hope they dont.

They wont. Come on.

What was that?

I didnt hear anything.

Listen.

I dont hear anything.

They listened. Then in the distance he heard a dog bark. He turned and looked toward the darkening town. It’s a dog, he said.

A dog?

Yes.

Where did it come from?

I dont know.

We’re not going to kill it, are we Papa?

No. We’re not going to kill it.

He looked down at the boy. Shivering in his coats. He bent over and kissed him on his gritty brow. We wont hurt the dog, he said. I promise” (81-82).

McCarthy’s characters engage is continual dialogue, and the speech patterns and choices are masterful. Part of the story’s brilliance lies in the boy’s true form; he is a young boy, witness to a world devastated and lonely, but remaining a young boy. The father recognizes and pities his son’s innocence and forced loss, and he struggles to balance survivalism, reality, and compassion in a world that doesn’t care whether they live or die. McCarthy’s approach to developing the boy’s character through reflection and interaction with his “Papa” is one of the indicators that not a single element of The Road is accidental.

Devoid of chapter breaks, or even long scenes, the story reads like a close observer’s journal accounting of the pair’s journey. Most scenes, sequences, or flashbacks are only pieces on the pages, some spanning two or even several. The technique, if described, sounds choppy, like a series of false starts or gapped prose. However, in the case of The Road, it might not work any other way. The reader is trusted to intuit time, place, emotion, and pace. The story may jump from the man holding his son, protecting him while he sleeps, to a flashback to a time when the boy’s mother was still alive, to the next morning or even several days later. Despite the technique and things left unsaid, the disjointed style, rather than create a disjunct narrative, gives even more truth the story, to their lives, and to the experience as a whole.

“He was a long time going to sleep. After a while he turned and looked at the man. His face in the small light streaked with black from the rain like some old world thespian. Can I ask you something? he said.

Yes. Of course.

Are we going to die?

Sometime. Not now.

And we’re still going south.

Yes.

So we’ll be warm.

Yes.

Okay.

Okay what?

Nothing. Just okay.

Go to sleep.

Okay.

I’m going to blow out the lamp. Is that okay?

Yes. That’s okay.

And then later in the darkness: Can I ask you something?

Yes. Of course you can.

What would you do if I died?

If you died I would want to die too.

So you could be with me?

Yes. So I could be with you.

Okay” (10-11).

And, that’s what The Road is – an experience in life at its most uncertain, most hopeless, most true. As a reader, I read rapt. As a writer, I couldn’t put the book down, even though I needed a hand free to make notes – recording everything he was doing right, when and how he was doing it, and why it worked everywhere it did. The story is spare, made rich by authentic characters and some of the strongest contemporary prose available. I closed the book, inspired and terrified, thinking, “This is what a story can do? This is what I can do with a story?” If Cormac ever reads this: Thank you.