Noir, Dames and Real Women

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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.

 

My Brilliant Friend

9781609450786_p0_v1_s260x420book by Elena Ferrante

annotation by Lorinda Toledo

Elena Ferrante is an Italian author whose latest novel, My Brilliant Friend, is a character-driven story with a plot that is relatively quiet yet rich. The novel, the first in a trilogy, is set in motion by a mysterious disappearance. Motivated by this mystery, the narrator, Elena Grecco—called Lenú—sits down to write the entire story of her life-long friendship with her vanished friend, Lila. Imbued with the gift of perspective, the narrator reflects on the 1950s childhood and adolescence of the two friends. While Ferrante does many things well in this book, I believe one of the main ways she creates a successful novel is through precise characterization of the protagonists, as well as the minor characters.

While Lenú is the narrator, Lila is arguably the more fascinating protagonist in the story. Because we have only a first person narrator, and therefore do not know what is going on in Lila’s mind, the eccentrically intelligent friend becomes a marvelous mystery to the reader in the same way she is to Lenú. Ferrante establishes the singular bond between these two protagonists at the outset when Lenú introduces the reader to Lila, who’s real name is “…Rafaella Cerullo, but everyone has always called her Lina. Not me, I’ve never used either her first name or her last. To me, for more than sixty years, she’s been Lila. If I were to call her Lina or Raffaella, suddenly, like that, she would think our friendship was over (loc. 103).

Ferrante illustrates the life-long nature of the girls’ friendship beautifully, as in this scene early in the book when as children they bravely approach the house of Don Achille, a man with a reputation as the town ogre, to retrieve the dolls Lila has purposely dropped into his basement through a window: “She thought that what we were doing was just and necessary; I had forgotten every good reason, and certainly was there only because she was…She stopped to wait for me, and when I reached her she gave me her hand” (loc. 171). Lila is simultaneously a solitary outcast and the most beloved in the town. She consistently acts according to her own, highly intelligent mind, which is frequently in opposition to the status quo. As a result, she regularly pushes Lenú outside her comfort zone and on to success. Lila’s character grows and changes quite a bit throughout the book, but what always remains is the intrigue, or brilliance, of her persona.

Lenú and Lila grew up in a small, impoverished town in Naples, which is where most of the story takes place. Even Lenú’s characterization is largely dictated by that of Lila, as in this scene where, as an excellent student, she has received the honor of an island vacation where she can think and rest. It’s something that is unheard of in the poor town she’s from, and is also her first time outside Naples: “I missed only Lila, Lila who didn’t answer my letters. I was afraid of what was happening to her, good or bad, in my absence. It was an old fear, a fear that has never left me: the fear that, in losing pieces of her life, mine lost intensity and importance” (loc. 2694). Throughout the wave-like ups and downs of the novel’s plot, Lenú consistently describes this type of conflicted love, frustration, and doubt about herself. Lila, in effect, has determined who Lenú is.

There are many other characters in this novel, as well. So many in fact, that there is an “Index of Characters” at the beginning of the book (loc. 16) that the reader can easily refer back to. However, I found that it was rarely necessary because of Ferrante’s skill with creating memorable characterization of each of these relatively minor but recurring personas. There’s Marcello Solara, who falls in love with Lila after she holds a shoemaker’s knife to his neck (loc. 1626). The intelligent Nino Sarratore is the railroad worker/poet’s son and also Lenú’s main love interest (loc. 601). There’s Gigliola Spagnuolo, the smart, pretty baker’s daughter who in many ways becomes Lenú’s main rival (loc. 2501). One of the most memorable characters is Melina Cappuccio, the crazed widow and town outcast who everyone shuns except for Lila (loc. 295). These minor characters and their relationships with Lenú and Lila often say as much about the protagonists as their own actions do of themselves.

There are far too many characters to mention them all, but one of my favorite characterizations is of Lenú’s mother:

The problem was my mother; with her things never took the right course. It seemed to me that, though I was barely six, she did her best to make me understand that I was superfluous in her life. I wasn’t agreeable to her nor was she to me. Her body repulsed me, something she probably intuited. She was a dark blonde, blue-eyed, voluptuous. But you never knew where her right eye was looking. Nor did her right leg work properly—she called it the damaged leg. She limped, and her step agitated me, especially at night, when she couldn’t sleep and walked along the hall to the kitchen, returned, started again. Sometimes I heard her angrily crushing with her heel the cockroaches that came through the front door, and I imagined her with furious eyes, as when she got mad at me (loc. 387).

While it is expanded upon throughout the course of the story, this demonstrates the level of characterization in the novel well. Although Lenú’s mother is a minor character, Ferrante instills the relationship with a complexity of villainy and sympathy beginning with the choices she makes in the narrator’s description of the mother.

As a fiction writer, what I appreciate that Ferrante has achieved nearly unlimited plot potential by populating the world of her novel with well-developed characters. Furthermore, she is able to sustain consistent and ever-deepening characterization over the entire course of the novel. The characterization—particularly that of Lenú and Lila—becomes the main aspect of the plot. This is a powerful skill for me as a writer to learn, because much of my writing seeks to explore the nature of relationships through literature, without turning the story into melodrama.

In My Brilliant Friend, the external conflicts are many and the stakes are high, but they feel secondary, existing only to serve this exploration of the relationship between the two girls. In this way, Ferrante achieves a realistic and multi-faceted meditation on the nature of female friendship.

Wonderbook

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book by Jeff VanderMeer

illustrations by Jeremy Zerfoss

annotation by Kate Maruyama

I have this compulsion to buy people books—books they MUST have. But long ago I learned that it’s impossible to sustain a family on that impulse, so instead, I recommend.  The recommendations frequently come with a bossy, “Seriously, you HAVE to get a copy, you MUST read this,” or run in punishingly long emails about said books filling unwitting friends’ inboxes.

But this year’s recommend,  Wonderbook by Jeff Vandermeer has gotten a bit out of control, as, since I first laid eyes on it, I want every writer and teacher of writing to have a copy. I would like to lay it in the hands of so many people and have written so many emails and have used giant hand gestures with my students, insisting they each get a copy that, well, it’s getting embarrassing.

It’s difficult to talk about Wonderbook without totally spazzing out about its awesomeness, but fortunately, in this space, it’s not about reviews or raving, it’s about talking about what is useful to us as writers. So I can calm down. And be in control. Right?

Because of its subtitle: An Illustrated Guide to Writing Imaginative Fiction and the writers who appear in its pages (Neal Gaiman, Ursula K LeGuin, George RR Martin and Michael Moorcock, among others,)  realistic fiction writers or writers not in the genre of science fiction and fantasy may think this book is not for them. And that’s where I start jumping up and down and ranting.

As soon as the book arrived in the mail this past October, I started using charts from its pages to help teach my students (all of whom write a variety of types of fiction at a variety of levels) plot, character, process and whatever my class was discussing in our last few lessons. I can yammer all day about plots, their varieties and patterns, but the plot lizards do so much work in gorgeous images, not to mention the Story vs. Situation dragons (pictured above,) the Storyfish (who brings on the Ass Backwards Fish in the revision section, a gorgeous illustration of exactly what was wrong with a certain element of my novel before a very skilled developmental editor got his hands on it) and the evolutionary Lifecycle of a Story.

What stopped me – totally stopped me – in a gobsmacking way in the book was an illustration of The Middle Zones (116) of story. There on the page, completely illustrated, was something I’d tried explaining to so many writers over years of doing notes for friends or in teaching . From my screenwriting days, I’d called it the Second Act Wall. It’s when the initial steam of starting a script, or novel, poops out. You’ve introduced these characters you had so clearly in your head, the world you’ve put them in, the circumstances that got you excited to write it in the first place, but you have absolutely no idea how to proceed.  In this illustration, one of Jeremy Zerfoss’s little faceless (but totally animated) creatures walks around a chart, saying  things I’ve heard from so many writers who are stuck: “This senseless slog.” “I never should have started.” “I will never get to the end.” “My outline is stupid, method suspect. I no longer know what I’m doing.” The chart provides questions to ask of your manuscript, suggestions how to proceed (or as Diane Sherlock has been known to say, ‘poke it with a stick’), but moves in a circle, demonstrating so completely the utter hell that is the Middle Zone. When you’re in it, you feel you’ll never emerge. Along the edge of this wheel are hopeful words of encouragement and suggestions, “persevere,” “new venue,” “new energy.” And to describe it further is not going to get you any closer to having the book, which, if you are a writer and/or teacher of writing, you should probably do. (Like now.) Because a picture is worth a thousand words and I’ve used up only two-fifty in this chunk.

Useful (and beautiful) diagrams and gorgeous illustrations aside, the book is chock full of very useful and practical writing advice on every stage of writing, from inspiration, through characters, narrative design, world building, revision (progression was an revelatory for me and so useful now even in drafting) and the ecosystem of a story, which is my favorite section in regards to teaching:

 Like living creatures, stories come in a bewildering number of adaptations and mutations. Even within the constraint of written words, incredible variety occurs due to the near-infinite number of possible combinations. Anyone who tells you there are only a dozen types of stories should be viewed with as much suspicion as someone who tells you “all animals are the same.” A penguin is not a hamster; nor is a prawn a sea cucumber, an elephant a squid, an anteater, a dragon. (41)

So often I have students coming in with “rules” they have learned from various craft books, or from cranky teachers who believe that there is only one way to write. And often these rules have shut them down completely. It takes all manner of talking to open these writers up a little, to give them courage in their own process, and to give them the nerve to continue or sometimes to go back to the page at all. The greatest asset of this book is that it speaks gently and kindly to the writer. It contains volumes of information and knowledge, but isn’t bossy or didactic. It is more – like the chart of The Middle Zone – filled with gentle suggestions and useful information to help a writer proceed. Because at the end of the day, at least among the writers I know, we face enough demons, we don’t need an instructor prescribing our various processes.

But we sure could use a big, broad, colorful, but carefully laid out guide full of advice from so many writers who have been there, filled with encouragement, tools and tricks of the trade. This book has tools for novices, but also for pros and, were these words not copyrighted on another infamous Guide, DON’T PANIC (in giant font,) would be completely appropriate for its cover.

If you want to dip further into the world of Wonderbook, you can find more here.

We Were the Mulvaneys

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book by Joyce Carol Oates

annotation by Emma Burcart

I was initially interested in Joyce Carol Oates’ We Were The Mulvaneys because it is a story about family. When boiled down to the basic theme, everything I write is about family. The love, the tug and pull of the relationships, the dysfunction inherent in every family. I was prepared for a big, multilayered story and yes, even for tragedy. But when I read the line from the Los Angeles Times Book Review on the back: “It will break your heart, heal it, then break it again,” I rolled my eyes. I know about family and I know about heartache. The book wouldn’t have much to teach me.

But then I got to know the Mulvaneys. The novel opens with an introduction to the whole clan, from the point of view of the youngest child, Judd Mulvaney, now grown into an adult. He describes his nuclear family: oldest brother Mike Jr., “Mule” the high school jock; Patrick “Pinch”, the science nerd; Marianne “Button”, the good girl cheerleader, and Judd whom everyone called “Ranger.” Dad, Mike Sr. and Mom, Corrine, had met young and married quickly, leaving behind both of their hometowns to set up a family together on High Point Farm. They sound like the perfect American family, but from the first line we know that it will not last.

            “We were the Mulvaneys, remember us?”

            “For a long time you envied us, then you pitied us.

            For a long time you admired us, then you thought Good!- that’s what they deserve.” (1)

I didn’t want to like the Mulvaneys because I knew what was going to happen. Not literally, but I knew they were going to fall apart. I tried to keep emotional distance and study their family unit like a scientist. But it didn’t work. Oates sets up the family with such love, that it is impossible to remain neutral. The narrator is the key to this; Judd is the baby. He looks up to his brothers and sister, and while he may not know all of the adult things that go on, we see each of the characters through his young, adoring eyes. As a writer, this is important to me because it shows me that who is telling the story can completely change what story they are telling. In craft books and at conferences and workshops instructors are always asking, “Whose story is it?” When it is a family’s story, it’s everyone’s story. But even with a shared story, the decision of who tells it is a crucial one.

Judd knew that something had happened to his sister, at her prom on Valentine’s Day 1976, but he didn’t know exactly. This left us, the reader, guessing and trying to figure it out for a few chapters. Eventually we were shown, through Marianne’s eyes, her brutal rape and the hours and days following. Oates used a distance in the writing of these chapters that showed Marianne in denial. She wasn’t sure what happened, exactly, but her body told the story. Even as she was narrating that she couldn’t know, she described the scent of the vomit and blood in her mouth, the tears and blood stains on her prom dress as she hid them at the back of the closet. It was so powerful the way the thoughts and actions of the character, so contradictory, wove together to tell the truth of the situation.

There were points in the middle and toward the end of the story where Judd left us and we were told bits and pieces from other family members. But, because we had been so clearly set in Judd’s head, I trusted these other sources as accurate. I knew that Judd wouldn’t have given the story over to them, even for a minute, if he didn’t feel it was necessary. The chapter from the point of view of Mike Sr. toward the end, after everything had fallen apart and he was drunk and living alone in a room above an old Chinese restaurant, was amazing. The way Oates made everything seem foggy and off balance, made me feel as if I was drunk while reading. The father was the one narrating the scene, but it was a distant third person as if it was his former self, or an omniscient version of him looking down on himself. He missed whole chunks of information and time, and couldn’t be sure why things were happening the way they were. It was more than just an unreliable narrator. It was a drunk and dying narrator. It was amazing.

Oates’ descriptions are clear, vivid, and the language beautiful in its simplicity. When I went back and looked at all the descriptions I had underlined I saw that one of her specialties is the simile. Oates uses similes which give an exact picture of what is being described while also matching the themes of the novel: family, farming, small town life, roof repair.

            “She knew he didn’t mean it, yet what he might mean was couched so slyly in what he didn’t, like wheat kernels amid chaff, she was left unnerved.” (422)

This led me to realize something about myself as a writer, too. I am drawn to similes. I enjoy reading them and I enjoy writing them. As much as I try and create metaphors for description, they always fall flat, sound wrong, or just don’t work. But similes come naturally to my writing, and they are what I love as a reader. Seeing it work for a writer as talented as Joyce Carol Oates, I am finally willing to give up the quest for the perfect metaphor and embrace my love of the simile. It is really ok.

The last piece of the writing that caught my eye was the way in which she ended and began the story with almost exactly the same line: We were the Mulvaneys. Even though so much had changed by the end, and the patriarch was dead, they were still a family. That was what the story was ultimately about. How a family can be ripped apart at the seams and still find their way back to each other. It was a lovely circular process and the use of the same line made that all the more powerful. And it wasn’t even a simile.

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.

The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing

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book by Alice La Plante

annotation by Andromeda Romano-Lax

I must have about fifty trade-edition writing craft books on my shelves, but I still keep buying them, in search of some hidden magic that will help me as a writer, or a clearer articulation of some venerable craft topic (like POV) that I can steal—I mean, emulate—to improve my own teaching. For a long while, I avoided textbooks at all costs: too impersonally written, too dense, too much under one cover, and those bland discussion questions scattered throughout, reminding me not of college, but of high school–yuck. But the more I teach, the more I accept that textbooks do have a place. If only they weren’t so ridiculously expensive!

This newer one by Alice Plante (author of the novel, Turn of Mind), I am happy to say, is not. Marketed, priced, and designed as a general reference but structured as a comprehensive textbook, LaPlante’s 677-page guide covers creative writing process and composition strategies (including purpose of writing, coming up with ideas), craft (characterization, narration, scenic construction, point of view, dialogue, beginnings, revision), and anthology (learning from masters, with full texts of 26 short stories and nonfiction essays).

While focused mainly on fiction, a limited number of anthologized works and one chapter at the end are dedicated to creative nonfiction, and LaPlante frequently makes mention of ethical concerns and crossover issues between the genres. She also uses a nonfiction essay by novelist Francine Prose to elucidate creative writing concepts. Numerous shorter passages from notable authors are also used as examples throughout each chapter. Generative exercises are provided, as are strong examples of students’ responses to the exercises. Not included are more conventional textbook-like discussion questions at the end of each chapter. Instead, a general questioning tone and points to consider (for example, “is it possible to define a short story?”) are woven throughout the discussions of craft.

The elements covered and stories anthologized position this text as appropriate for both undergraduate and graduate study, while the personal voice and non-dogmatic, highly readable text as well as non-textbook style design throughout seem to aim for a wider, general audience. (Not to be overlooked is the more affordable price, $21.95 for the first edition, in comparison with expensive textbooks with similar craft and anthology content, such as Burroway’s Writing Fiction, 8th edition, priced at $96.33.) Discussion of craft is pitched at a sophisticated level, with a spirited, opinionated tone and an occasional emphasis on debunking writerly myths or oversimplifications, as well as an openness to questions that have no easy answers. On the subject of metaphor exercises, for example, LaPlante (a successful novelist as well as experienced teacher) is refreshingly unapologetic (123): “There is absolutely no way to do a metaphor writing exercise, because that defeats the purpose. If it doesn’t come up organically, within the creative process of the story, then it isn’t worth anything. Its only value is within context.”

Technique overviews that stand out as more distinctive or nuanced in comparison with many classroom-oriented writing guides include LaPlante’s  discussion of imagery that works at both the concrete and abstract or emotional level (chapter 3); a defense of narration and a clearer explanation of the showing-telling continuum (in contrast with the too-often quoted simplication, “show don’t tell,” (chapter 5) including bolded passages by authors Smiley, Proulx, O’Connor, Hemingway, and Wolff that help the reader distinguish between showing and telling; a more rigorous explanation of the unreliable narrator and types of reliability (chapter 7); explanation of story versus plot (chapter 9); and the art of transferring true emotions onto sensory events (chapter 12). LaPlante is candid about drawbacks to the workshop method, and carefully defines the multiple developmental stages of a creative work, advocating a more cautious approach to the giving and receiving of feedback, as well as a more process-oriented “anti-workshop method” (551) for “exploding” works in progress using exercises, in contrast with product-oriented editing or polishing. By contrast, a less distinguished chapter on characters (chapter 10) included mostly pedestrian explanations (flat versus round, general versus specific, wants and needs) and few surprises or insights in comparison with other craft chapters in this book.

More commonly anthologized story choices in this guide include Chekhov’s “Lady with the Little Dog,” Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” and Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” as well as stories by Lorrie Moore, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Raymond Carver, and the much-anthologized “Shitty First Drafts” essay by Anne Lamott. There are also some less-obvious choices, including Katha Politt’s “Learning to Drive,” plus a nonfiction essay by D. T. Max about the Raymond Carver-Gordon Lish editing relationship.

In my own teaching, I will consider LaPlante’s guide as a strong alternative to better-selling textbooks. I appreciated in particular the voice used to address writers at all levels (complex explanations clarified by well-chosen examples, without condescension), more nuanced craft discussions on elusive topics, strong examples of student writings (which would help me choose between exercises and frame my own expectations for student work), and the inclusion of creative nonfiction examples and issues within the larger discussion of fiction craft. Bravo to LaPlante, and to Norton, for putting out a more affordable textbook-style reference guide that any writer in any setting can use.

 

 

High Lonesome: New and Selected Stories

book by Joyce Carol Oates

annotation by Wendy Dutwin

The six stories from each decade of Joyce Carol Oates’ 2006 collection High Lonesome: New and Selected Stories, 1966-2006 showcase the development of an artistic talent devoted to the mastery of her craft. She is a master of the short story form and I learned so much from her, particularly how to build suspense with tiny details.

Oates is constantly exorcising the demons of darkness from her past by revisiting certain themes again and again in her work. It’s no accident that I’m so drawn   her stories. The themes that fascinate her are the ones I find myself most interested in exploring in my own writing. She has a fearlessness I still struggle with in her approach to these subject matters, but I grow braver with every story of hers that I read.

Oates makes zero apologies about the women characters in her work. Feminist critics describe them as weak, needy and passive, withdrawing from emotional and sexual intimacy and drawing themselves toward masochistic encounters. Many of them have experienced abuse, sexual, physical, emotional or all three. But Oates is fascinated with why women are this way, perhaps even why she might be that way as her own history riddled with physical and sexual abuse. She seems to be writing through the violence to discover her own truth.

By having the courage to look at the ugliness in her own past, she illuminates a path for others struggling to find their way. Again, it shows the power of fiction, the social importance of it, the revelation of human truth in the words of the brave. She talks about this in the notes following the High Lonesome collection when she says:

“Prose fiction is, in essence, the realization of an elusive abstract vision in elaborate and painstaking construction, sentence by sentence, word by word. The daunting task for the writer is: what to include? what to exclude? Through our lifetimes a Sargasso Sea of the discarded accumulates, far larger than what is called our ‘body’ of work, for each story is an opening into the infinite, abruptly terminated and sealed in language.” (661-662)

One only has to look at a classic short story like “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” to understand what Oates probably wrote and discarded to get to what she ultimately kept in a story so rich with nuance, subtext and horror. Connie is so vain, a typical naïve teenager aware of her good looks, but blind to her empty soul. Arnold is a fascinating character that a writer knows Oates developed “in elaborate and painstaking construction” because of the endless interpretations that surround him. Is Arnold a man or the Grim Reaper? When Connie looks out to “the vast sunlit reaches of land behind him and on all sides of him” at the end, is she staring at a shepherd who is going to walk her through the valley of the shadow of death? Does she transcend beyond her bodily vanity to something spiritual and greater when she leaves the house to save her family, the first selfless act she performs in her life? These are the questions that fill a writer with excitement when contemplating the words of a writer like Oates and dissecting how she chose this word and put together that sentence.

All of her characters are deeply wounded with psychological scars that have no easy answers. The temptation to avoid such twisted characters that cannot be wrapped up neatly by the story’s end is one that Oates resists; she prefers mess and complication, because that is life. But in her brave and honest hands, that darkness of life takes on a greater beauty. Her stories transform loneliness, rape, suicide, murder and other forms of loss into a broken, but recognizable tapestry of our own humanity. And to do that in the structure of a short story highlights the rhythm and poetry of her prose, proving that her prolific quantity of work carries with it an enormous quality, too.

The Sportswriter

book by Richard Ford

annotation by Heather Luby

It is not often that upon finishing a novel that I cannot immediately formulate an opinion.  As a writer, I find that the reading process has been altered for me, so that any opinion I have must be informed both by my enjoyment as a reader and also by my analysis of craft techniques.  For The Sportswriter I have found myself unable to have a firm opinion because the reader/writer dynamic has led me to contradictory places.

Initially, I felt that the main character, Frank Bascombe, was wooden and without depth of feeling.  The grief expressed over the death of his son and the dissolution of his marriage seemed a bit hollow.  Frank was detached and therefore, so was I.  I wore weary of Frank’s inner thoughts, sometimes so random and self-absorbed, that I began to find him tiresome.  I spent a great deal of time trying to reconcile his actions with the grief I thought he should have, given his circumstances.  After finishing the novel I sought out reviews, in order to see if I was missing something.  I discovered a New York Times review of the novel by the author Alice Hoffman.  It was not a favorable review, though not as harsh as Ford perceived it to be.  Hoffman detailed many of my feelings, as a reader, for the book.  “Even mourning is replaced by self-analysis” writes Hoffman.  “Bascombe chooses to ignore tangled, emotionally charged family relationships, fixating instead on non-relationships and nonevents.”

After a few days I decided that my opinion of the book, praised by many, was too neat. I had not challenged myself enough.  Deciding to examine it more in terms of craft, I found a different view of the work was possible.  The prose is lyrical, sometimes a bit too extravagant, but it was also precise.  Ford’s has a definite ability to vividly create the landscape of everyday suburban life.  I sometimes felt like the dialogue didn’t ring true, in terms of phrasing, but I could easily attribute that to the fact that it was written more twenty years ago.

Essentially, by dissecting Ford’s novel in terms of setting, dialogue, character development, etc. I began to rethink my emotional response the book.  I began to ask myself, how much of real grief do people display?  How much do people bury in order to continue living?  Once I thought about this, I began to see Frank Bascombe differently.  So many books want to offer us closure, growth, some epiphany by the characters once they have survived a tragedy.  But is that really honest?  Are we being manipulated by writers to arrive at conclusions that may be satisfying, but are not often possible?

In order to give my readers an honest portrayal of a man suffering from a debilitating sorrow, I can’t protect them from what might be ugly or uncomfortable.  My character’s response to his grief has to be genuine, not a facsimile of societal expectations often portrayed in other creative works.  My character is nothing like Frank Bascombe, but Frank and Richard Ford allowed to write my protagonist free from the cliché of “the grieving character.” I don’t always have to like my main character or his actions in dealing with his loss, but I do have feel that he is being honest to me and my readers.

After digesting this book I had to ask these same questions of my own writing and they forced me to reconsider my own goals.  Is my only goal to satisfy my reader or do I want to expose some elemental truth – is it possible to do both?   In my novel Laws of Motion my protagonist is a man whose wife is the victim of a brutal act of violence.  The Sportswriter gave me permission to think outside my initial expectations of how a man would respond to his grief.

In the end, I can’t say that I loved this book, but I did grow to admire it greatly.  Mostly because I think Ford told us the truth with Frank.  I think his character was much more complex and real than we are used to as readers.  Ford refuses to give the reader the “payoff” and instead forces us to contemplate the ways in which a person must survive the worst sort of pain by continuing to exist, to find pleasure and comfort any way possible, and yet always realizing that “Grief, real grief, is relatively short, though mourning can be long” (p. 374).

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.