Owl Island

Owl Islandbook by Randy Sue Coburn
annotation by Tina Rubin

Coburn’s novel traces the life of Phoebe Allen, a forty-something widow living an ostensibly successful life on a Puget Sound island, who finally comes to terms with the relationship that has haunted her for two decades. The author moves the central conflict of the story—Phoebe’s confrontation with former lover/movie director Whit Traynor—forward through the terrain of three generations of Phoebe’s family, loving friends on the island, and a childhood belief in fairy tales that clouds her judgment now.

Coburn does many things well in this book. Although I felt Owl Island missed its potential as a work of literature, I still learned from it. The characters are so well drawn, so detailed, that it’s hard to believe they are fictional. I can imagine the myriad charts Coburn must have created to keep their backgrounds and personalities distinct. From Phoebe’s mother Pearl’s secret history to daughter Laurienne’s career as a programmer in a biotech firm to the creation and filming of the movie Kiki, the level of Coburn’s detail is astonishing. Even minor characters such as Jasmine (Whit’s young astrologist wife), Cliff (Phoebe’s daughter’s lovable boyfriend), and Jack (Phoebe’s emotionally reserved professor emeritus father) have been given distinct voices and their own worlds to move about in, complete with songs, television shows, teas, technology, and even perfumes to anchor the era.

The raison d’etre of the novel for me was Coburn’s spot-on portrayal of Whit, a charming, talented predator who needs women and recognition to ground him. Whit is a psychological double for Tristan Blake, one of the main characters in my novel. Seeing this character unfold on the page was like having a blueprint; Coburn showed me what I need to do to make Tristan believable. First she revealed Whit’s appeal and mystery as Phoebe’s “imaginary friend” on his radio show. Then quickly, once the characters had met, she showed us his vulnerability: his self-doubt as a filmmaker, his fear that he couldn’t make Kiki without her. When things fall apart for Whit at the story’s end, he visits Phoebe in her office, seeking emotional support. When it doesn’t come (she’s finally discovered her strength!), he insults her. In a lesser author’s hands, the reader would be struck by what an s.o.b. this character was—but because Coburn had shown me Whit’s weaknesses all along, I understood his response. It was totally in keeping with who he was.

The author has some very nice segues in time from one chapter to the next, as if the narrator (omniscient third, in different characters’ heads) is remembering these details, letting them flow in a natural rhythm. Coburn alternates one chapter in the present with one in the past until they meet in time. I prefer a subtler way to weave in the backstory, although she does make this work. The backstory clearly accounts for Phoebe’s bad decisions, as well as her ability to rise above them in the end, with a little help from those who love her.

At the risk of shortchanging the many elements that worked well, I want to mention a few that didn’t. Coburn uses some lovely metaphors (onionskin paper with black holes in it from the typewriter, torn fishing nets, hummingbirds), but she spoils the effect by using them repeatedly, in different contexts, and telling the reader what they mean. There are also a number of instances where the dialogue, events, or metaphors are clearly in service to the plot, such as the childhood song “Don’t go in the lion’s cage tonight”; the Peter Pan gene at Laurienne’s biotech company; the variety of “Alices” in Phoebe’s last dream about Whit. Finally, the continuity of events from one generation to the next is as contrived as the timing of the alternating chapters: the deaths, shortly after marriage, of Pearl’s first husband, of Phoebe’s husband, and almost of Laurienne’s boyfriend (to let us know that things have, at last, changed. The secret history that Pearl kept from Phoebe and then Phoebe kept from Laurienne. The headaches and tumor that killed Pearl showing up as a threat to Phoebe and Laurienne, yet going nowhere.

Although I enjoyed the story and was rooting for Phoebe by the end, there was nothing subtle about Owl Island—it could have been 150 pages shorter. I’m going to work hard in my second draft to make my novel one of literary eloquence. (Please remind me that I said that.)

Choke

Chokeannotation by Melissa Chadburn

book by Chuck Palahniuk

The narrative is episodic, and is presented out of chronological order which at times was jolting… as well as his shifts in POV. He also had a strange way of addressing his reader by saying ______ isn’t the right word but it’s the first word that comes to mind… a lot. He also says _____ is what would jesus Not do frequently. There was a point in the novel where it seemed like Palahniuk intentionally used poor grammar… to help his character appear immature.

Overall I thought this was a hilarious novel that at times got me to laugh out loud.. not easy for a novel to get me to do that. I miss humor sometimes. I don’t think we have enough of it, possibly because it is difficult to write or very particular and people do not want to limit themselves. Either way there were passages that were distinctly Palahnuik and memorably hilarious.

Although I’ve read that much of Palahniuk’s research on Choke was conducted with total strangers at the gym and sexual addiction groups, I feel he could have done more. He made some mistakes that distracted me from the story… he had people introduce themselves by their full names, first and last in anonymous 12 step meetings, and he said the fourth step was a “complete and relentless story of your life” when it is actually “a searching and fearless moral inventory” of your life. While this might be nitpicky it was definitely distracting. I learned to succumb to research in my writing, but the message I got from reading this novel is if I’m entertaining enough they may make a film.

Then We Came To The End

Then We Came to the Endbook by Joshua Ferris

annotation by Diane Sherlock

Then We Came To The End, titled from DeLillo’s Americana, begins in first person plural, a technique that holds up for about a hundred pages and is intermittently successful after that. Fortunately, the author punctuates the narrative with other points of view. First person plural is an effective choice to convey office life at a large advertising firm in Chicago, “How we hated our coffee mugs! our mouse pads, our desk clocks, our daily calendars, the contents of our desk drawers. Even the photos of our loved ones taped to our computer monitors for uplift and support turned into cloying reminders of time served. But when we got a new office, a bigger office, and we brought everything with us into the new office, how we loved everything all over again, and though hard about where to place things, and looked with satisfaction at the end of the day at how well our old things looked in this new, improved, important space.”

The author uses this point of view to great effect for many aspects of office life. The two omissions noted were arguments around food which he covers by glossing over a break room without a refrigerator and the territorial skirmishes common in large offices, but the book succeeds without them.

The first person plural point of view is broken up by dropping into conversations around the office and occasionally into someone’s first person point of view. The tone falters at page 95 for about twenty pages. The author rather than the narrator emerges to center stage only to slip back behind the scenes and recover the original tone. Amid the gossip and petty concerns in the office, there are glimpses into a couple of ad campaigns, most notably one for breast cancer that runs through the narrative. This parallels the experience of one of the creative vice presidents who is rumored to have breast cancer and a canceled operation.

There is a prologue exclusively in first person plural, “You Don’t Know What’s in My Heart,” followed by the first half of the book titled, “Enter a New Century.” On page 196, a new section, sort of an interlude, “The Thing to Do and the Place to Be” varies between simple past and third person present tense about the female creative vice president gossiped about in the first section. “Returns and Departures” is the final section and mirrors “Enter a New Century” in its structure, including chapters with all of the subheadings stacked at the beginning: “ON NOT GETTING IT – BENNY SPOTS CARL – HOSING THE ALLEYWAY” but the distance created by the structure and layout enhance the feel of a corporate office environment.

The interlude with Lynn Mason, the creative vice president, begins on the night before her cancer surgery and builds into a touching portrait of a woman who has put all of her energy into work and is alone facing the loss of her breast and possibly her life. She is introduced early on, “Lynn Mason was intimidating, mercurial, unapproachable, fashionable, and consummately professional…. She dressed like a Bloomingdale’s model and ate like a Buddhist monk.” As her team works on a pro bono ad ordered to elicit laughs from breast cancer patients, a task they regard as impossible, she comes to terms with her overwhelming fear, especially of the hospital. The author explores her waning relationship with an attorney who devises a way to circumvent her fear with a blindfold, “‘Like you’re a pirate’s captive,’ he said, ‘and you’ve just been told to walk the plank.’” This close up on Lynn provides the heart of a novel that otherwise would be an interesting exercise in first person plural.

The last major section delves into the lives of the key characters set up before the interlude, resolving several, but not all, by the end. Because these are tied together and repeated – the breast cancer, the steady firings due to downsizing, the individual dramas -the narrative builds emotional intensity. The first person plural allows the reader to feel part of the office and there is enough close observation on the politics, in-jokes, and minutiae of general office life to provide amusement and authenticity. There is also a minor character who returns in the coda at the end with a book written and published after his layoff, excerpted from the earlier interlude with Lynn.

Within the first person plural, individual characters are peeled away as they are let go, “At first we called it what you would expect – getting laid off, being let go…. Lately a new phrase had appeared and really taken off. “Walking Spanish down the hall.” Somebody had picked it up from an old Tom Waits song, but it was an old, old expression as we learned from our Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins.” All the way through the book, various employees ‘walk Spanish’ until the book takes a serious turn and the language changes first to “They let go of Marcia Dwyer.” to “When next they came for Amber, a few weeks after that, we said she was tossed into the streetlamp outside the building without any concern for her unborn baby.”

The most valuable parts of the book for my writing were the point of view and the use of language with repeated phrases and narrative threads to tie it together in a different way. There’s a linear element to the narrative, but it’s not a story traditionally told. It helped me consider new ways to convey story and build emotion that may not directly apply to my current novel, but which I may consider for future work. The book is occasionally uneven, but largely successful, with an ending that nicely sums up the layoffs and pays off the initial point of view.

The Time Traveler’s Wife

Time Travelers WifeBook by Audrey Niffenegger

Annotation by Kate Maruyama

The Time Traveler’s Wife is such a lovely read on so many levels and might take a dissertation to unravel its mysteries. There would be lots of charts and diagrams involved.
Niffeneger not only gives us two very tangible and likeable romantic heroes, she gives us the entire interweaving of their complicated lives. Or, the complicated interweaving of their entire lives…the result being an amazing portrait of a marriage and its complications. On top of all of this is a supernatural thriller with its own rules, tension and horrors. There are many lessons to be taken from this gorgeous novel.

The author’s withholding information is artfully done. The first reminder this book had for me is that not everything has to happen at once. This will be enormously helpful for my bloated first chapter of my novel when I go back in for revision. She keeps us in the dark in the beginning, and yet explains the rules of the universe: that is so important. They are breathless and time traveling and clearly in love and Henry briefly explains what it physically feels like and that it happens. Then, the other questions that come up, “When do they meet? Why doesn’t he know her? Is he getting younger?” These can wait because we know the basics of the universe and we know exactly the kind of book we are in and it will all come clear in time. And, better than that, these are the questions that create the tension for the story to go forward.

The different voices in the novel, Clare and Henry, work on so many great levels. First, the voices are so strong and clear and we know exactly who they are. They have a sense of humor, which is great. Their awareness of facts are different at every different time we see them and this creates tension, and we also get that great disconnect that often goes on in marriage when feelings and knowledge are presumed, or suppressed or ignored. There are many things Henry keeps from Clare, so it is a delight when she keeps from him their first time making love. This book gave me courage to welcome my heroine’s voice into the book. Her awareness, her lost feelings and her completely different take on the situation.

The secondary characters are so well written and we know exactly who they are: Clare’s family, Henry’s Dad, Charisse and Gomez (and their entanglements in our heroes’ lives). Niffenegger brings them all together at the end for a party for Henry and the party takes on some joy for the reader as we realize we know all of these people. Their stories and how they interact create a resonance for the tension of Henry’s final departure. I have to try to remember to make my heroes’ close friends a place to learn one or two surprising things about the couple, as well as taking advantage of it as a place to echo what we already know about them. But this book is like a painting, I will have to go back in for a lot of shadowing and highlights: I am still trying to see what the whole picture is.

I marveled at the complete story of their relationship as it is told from beginning to end, and yet it could jump around into the future and the past and the different feelings one has in a marriage were bumped up against each other. Particularly after Henry sleeps with the 18 year old Clare and goes home to the 35 year old Clare who has had so much sorrow. I am mindful to hold my heroes’ entire relationship in my head and while I will not be able to share it all in the time structure of this story, being conscious of how a relationship changes will be foremost in my mind.

The ending of the novel was touching, but I found that the part that moved me most was September 11, 2001. Clare gets up to find Henry sitting in front of the television with their hard-won baby Alba in his lap. She asks if it has happened yet and we realize that Henry has already told her about the twin towers. He answers, no, he is just enjoying the last few hours of the world before it changes forever. I do not often cry in books, but this moment set me off. I was pregnant with my daughter on that day and my son was eighteen months and if I had known then what I know now… It was such a small scene, and yet it yielded the horrors of time travel, of knowing; the problems with not knowing when something large hits, the inability to protect your children from history and the extraordinary ability Henry had to take a moment in his unpredictable traveling to relish innocence.

This 500 plus page book was read in one weekend. I could say it was out of a ticking deadline for my packet, but the truth was, I was completely absorbed, in love and couldn’t go very long without finding out what happened next. Bottling that would be amazing, but how does one ensure that every turn for each character will make the reader become completely absorbed, care about the characters and want to know what happens next? It’s not a practical approach, so for now, I will just hold it in my mind as I forge forward in my draft.

The Corrections

Correctionsbook by Jonathan Franzen

annotation by Diane Sherlock

Just as women writers in Los Angeles should not read Janet Fitch until they have found their own voice, Franzen makes the case for staving off the long shadows of Pynchon and possibly Gaddis, the author apparently hat-tipped in the title. The Corrections is nihilistic satire filled with repugnant characters related by a totalitarian narrator who leaves no breathing room for his readers to form their own opinions. Other writers have handled repellent characters and still engaged me in the text so there is something else going on here and that is most likely the mean-spiritedness that infuses the text. Though the author has a good eye for detail, it does not seem that he has done basic research. For example, the manifestations of Parkinson’s are unconvincing. For four years, I helped care for a Parkinson’s patient until we could finally get her into a convalescent hospital; there was nothing familiar in the description of Alfred Lambert.

The main problem is that the author has undertaken the task of mocking everything, especially his garish characters, without deep understanding much less sympathy, save the failed professor. I found myself several times wishing that Franzen had confined the book to the university because that was where he had the most success with his observations, where he seemed the most comfortable, and where his brand of skewering was most effective. He could have had a more sharply realized book in that setting, perhaps a better arena to evaluate his intellectual control, and (one hopes) could have provided a more satisfying ending than the one here.

A writer like Austen intended her novels for the very people she was satirizing, but it’s hard to imagine that is the case here. He does have the underlying didactic intention necessary for his subject matter, probably too much of it.

To be fair, Franzen is a good example of shifting points of view, particularly the three siblings, and helped me establish my own narrative structure. He moves among all five family members, mostly with success. He has a strong sense of character, well, male character, and of place. His women have some problems. His characterization of Denise reads more like a male fantasy of a lesbian than a conflicted young woman. There is not enough reader identification with Enid to either sustain reader interest in her or for her desire for a family Christmas to drive the narrative.

Alfred’s falling off the cruise ship and rescue did not ring true and seemed out of place with the rest of the book. There have been enough people who disappear without a trace off cruise ships and after so much detail in overly long sequences like the Lithuanian cash plot, his fall and how he might have been noticed, found and rescued is glanced over. Franzen strays into self-parody with his narrative, then wraps up the characters into mostly happy ever afters. Chip even gets his father’s doctor and the father has a long slow decline “lasting longer than anyone expected,” which is again glossed over in a few sentences. It seems that the author could have used the one character who exhibits a moral core and self sacrifice to more effect at the end of his life. The Corrections is an overly long novel that fails to amuse and leaves a bad aftertaste.