Edgar Allen Poe Complete Tales and Poems

41H1jnVQ2XL._AA160_ book by Edgar Allen Poe

annotation by Kirsten Imani Kasai

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Girl in the Flammable Skirt

book by Aimee Bender

annotation by Lee Stoops

“He wondered: was it possible to die simply from an absence of tempo?”

~ Aimee Bender, “Fugue” from The Girl in the Flammable Skirt (89)

Magic realism and Aimee Bender go together like religious figures and jokes about the bars into which they walk. But the label “Magic Realism” doesn’t necessarily help Bender’s reputation. Underneath the absurd, impossible, strange elements of her stories is creative, brave, emotionally-tissued writing. Readers and writing students read Bender because other readers and writing students talk about how interesting and bizarre the content of her stories is, but what they get is more than expected – and usually realized. Bender, through the use of fantastical characters and magical circumstances, quietly, almost as if she is intentionally distracting her audience from enviable crafting, delivers unflinching prose and humanity at its most vulnerable to create stories that slip painlessly into the imagination, where they can fester without hope of ever being forgotten.

Bender’s language is a study in economy. Down to the syllables, she keeps her syntax tight, her sentences direct, and her words to the point. No matter how strange or drawn out a story may get, her prose never strays from that of telling and showing only what needs to be told or shown. That includes eliminating many dialogue tags and quotation marks – reducing everything to its most essential. And, while she writes much of each narrative in passive voice, the circumstances allow for it, especially since most of her stories are told in the first person perspective. The result is a satisfying mix of twisted fairy-tale feel and impassioned, necessary, minimalist, I-was-there-and-need-to-get-it-out-as-quickly-as-I-can-so-I-don’t-forget-it anecdote.

They arrived home at six-fifteen that night; Hannah and I had been concerned – six o’clock marked the start of Worry Time. They announced the double news right away: Daddy’s fine. Mommy’s pregnant.

Are you going to have it? I asked. I like being the youngest, I said. I don’t’ want another kid.

My mother rubbed the back of her neck. Sure, I’ll have it, she said. It’s a special opportunity and I love babies.

My father, on the couch, one had curled up and resting inside his stomach like a birdhead, was in good spirits. We’ll name it after my dad, he said.

If it’s a girl? I asked.

Edwina, he said.

Hannah and I made gagging sounds and he sent us to our rooms for disrespecting Grandpa (41-42, “Marzipan”).


Perhaps the element of Bender’s stories that should define them more absolutely than their magical realism is their ardent, yet whispering displays of human vulnerability. How remarkable is it for a reader to relate so deeply to a woman whose lover is reverse evolving, or to a young girl whose father has a giant hole through his abdomen, or to an orphan who can find anything that’s lost with some kind of sixth sense, or to an imp who pretends to be a school boy and falls in love with a mermaid who pretends to be a school girl, and so on. In each story, Bender steeps the reader in human frailty while the reader thinks he or she is steeping in engaging, impossible-to-set-down stories. Bender does not manipulate, she does not camouflage these elements. In fact, it’s these moments of true human desire and starvation that enable the stories. Some examples of heart-rending, shadow-blasting, humanizing lines:

What did I wish for? I wished for good. That’s all. Just good. My wishes became generalized long ago, in childhood; I learned quick the consequence of wishing specific (5, “The Rememberer”).

This is the sex that she wishes would split her open and murder her because she can’t deal with a dead father; she’s wished him dead so many times that now it’s hard to tell the difference between fantasy and reality (58, “Quiet Please”).

…he showed me how he carved letters into his skin. He’d spelled out OUCH on his leg. Raised and white. I put out a hand and touched it and then I walked directly home. It was hard to feel those letters. They still felt like skin (124, “The Healer”).

I want to fuck her by a Dumpster and cut her down, like she’s a tree, I don’t care if she wants me back, I don’t care if so many people back home love her so much (112, “Fell This Girl”).

These lines, like so many in each of her stories, invite readers to get away from the structures of their daily lives and consider how much pain each person suffers, and how deep the cuts go. It is these kinds of reactions Bender is after with her characters and their circumstances. The magic realism forces the reader to get away from the reality of his or her life so that when Bender drops these bombs, the reader is already removed from, and thereby enabled to access differently, his or her own pain, struggle, loss, secret brokenness. This is the true power of short stories, and Bender, it’s clear, takes full advantage.

Craft, magic, humanity, prose, and secrets aside, the most surprising thing Bender’s stories do is inspire. They inspire readers to keep reading and thinking about their lives and how much strangeness exists. More importantly, they inspire writers to write fearlessly. Good short stories should always do this. A powerful short story, short story writer, or collection might make a writer yearn for his or her own short story or collection that changes minds. But this collection, along with Bender’s particular style, not only makes the writer want to write but it gives the writer permission to do it in new ways. To experiment with the strange. To bring something odd and impossible into the mix because it can and will foster change and discomfort. To challenge the rules of story, of narrative. To challenge the boundaries of verisimilitude. Bender, to be sure, writes with this in mind. How wonderful it is to know the writer is not just writing to entertain or change, but to encourage other writers to go freely after the same.


book by Alan Heathcock

annotation by Lee Stoops

 “He inhaled deeply and his insides burned, and Vernon knew that all that smoke was now just the air we breathe.”

~ Alan Heathcock, “Smoke” from Volt (60)

Alan Heathcock’s debut collection of short stories drills into readers’ imaginations, digging for every response possible. His narratives compel senses and emotions, his characters beg attention for their eccentric, strange, dark, fleshy human presentations, his words connect to each other with the evidence of careful, precise architecture. Heathcock is a real story-teller, a wordsmith, and a powerhouse writer. It’s no surprise that this first collection has garnered so much attention and earned awards – many of its stories have already shown up in some of the most respected literary journals in the US. Both Heathcock and his stories deserve the success. Through a smart, consistent commingling of character/circumstance development, of steady and committed pacing, and of dedication to craft, Heathcock reaches for the standard of great American story-telling, and maybe even raises the bar a bit.

By the end of the first page of the first story, someone has died. Not just someone; a man’s son. And not just died, but been accidentally killed by the man. A dark, burning image of a young boy, lying in the field like something “fallen from the sky” (3) is the one Heathcock chose to set the tone for his collection, not because the collection is about death or violence or darkness, but because in each and every story, the reader will live with the characters as they react – living, breathing, loving, hating human beings – to strangely familiar (not wholly familiar, but not unfamiliar…maybe anti- or de-familiar?) – circumstances: love, loss, familial ties, sexuality, desperation. It’s the stuff readers want in short stories, but so often don’t get in modern short stories because many modern short story writers are still learning what, exactly, it takes to make a short story a real short story. The results of eager, amateur, or unseasoned short story writing are melodrama, salaciousness, and cliché. Heathcock, a teacher and student of story creation, loves his characters and commits to their circumstances. The result is a series of character-centric events that infects. An example from the short story “Smoke:”

“Maybe the Devil was in you when you did it?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “What’s better anyway, Vernon? To have the Devil in me, or to have it be me alone?”

“You ain’t a bad man, Pop.”

His father shook his head. “We are what we do.”

“You ain’t bad. I believe in that.”

“No, Vernon,” his father said. “I’m about as bad as they come. Now go on and bring Mr. Augusto in here. I need to lay still and be quiet awhile.”

“Mr. Augusto would’ve killed you.”

“Then he’d be the bad man,” his father said, quietly. “Now leave me be awhile, Vernon. Gather wood for a fire. We need lots of wood.”

Vernon studied his father in the milky light, searching for something in his face, or the way he held his body, that was evidence of the good man he knew as a child. If God didn’t want Mr. Augusto dead, why’d he let Pop kill him? With all the killing in the world, did one more man really matter?

Vernon crossed the room and crawled from the shimmering cavern. Maybe awful things is how God speaks to us, Vernon thought, trudging up the lightless tunnel. Maybe folks don’t trust in good things no more. Maybe awful things is all God’s got to remind us he’s alive. Maybe war is God come to life in men. Vernon pushed on toward the light of day. He stepped out onto the ledge and in to the heat, and if felt like leaving a theater after the matinee had shown a sad film, the glare of sunshine after the darkness far too real to suffer (50-51).

After character and circumstance, the element a short story requires to sustain its life and meaning is pace. Heathcock’s stories model methodic, measured tempo – the way a musician might craft the rise and falls of moving instrumentation. The effect is similar in that the reader can settle into the prose and let the story unfold at the speed at which it’s been set. Heathcock engineers the changes in pace with ultimate regard to the characters and their circumstances, without forgetting the reader and the needs he or she will have. In many cases, when tension mounts, Heathcock reigns in the tempo and slows the story – a move that seems contrary to story “rules” but works to the advantage of the experience, permitting the reader time and reason to steep. Heathcock’s gift in this is notable not just because it works in his stories but also because it is so challenging and it speaks to his craftsmanship that he can pull it off without it feeling forced or denuding the stories’ structures or characters. The below excerpt is from just before the end of a long story (“The Daughter”) wherein a mother and her grown daughter struggle to re-establish life after loss, and a troubled neighbor boy has gone missing on their property. The story buzzes the whole way through with ominous, slow energy, and the mystery of the boy’s disappearance sets the tone to dark and somber.

Miriam stepped to the table and swiped the sponge over the trail of salt. “You weren’t in the city,” she said, brushing salt off into her palm. “Where’d you go?”

Evelyn wiped her cheeks on her sleeve. “Don’t’ know what you mean.” She pressed the heel of her hand between her eyes.

Miriam wanted to touch her daughter, to hold her and make her feel right for what she’d done. But Miriam turned away, stepped again to the sink. She rinsed the sponge, watched the water flowing, the salt swirling down the drain.

She shut off the faucet. Snow striking the window was the room’s only sound. “Where’d you put him?” Miriam asked. “Where’d you put that little boy?”

Miriam listened as Evelyn heaved long sighing breaths, each slower, softer, than the last. “Does it matter?” she whimpered.

Miriam quietly gasped. When she looked up from the sink, a face glared back from the window. Night had come early, and she gazed at her bleary reflection in the snow-streaked glass, stared at the room behind her, its faded wallpaper, its watery light, her baby girl slumped at the spot where each morning her mother had sipped her coffee and worked her puzzles (162).

To use the word again, not as recycling but as reiterating, Heathcock is a craftsman. He assembles the skeletons of his stories to support, robustly support, the themes he imbues with his satisfying prose. His language, like his characters, his pace, and his structure, is the obvious result of smart decision-making. There are lines throughout the collection that demonstrate a word-by-word approach to construction. The result is a stylistic pay-off that rewards and informs the themes and architecture of his stories.  Examples of Heathcock’s craftsmanship:

Winslow stepped to the window. The sky hung green. Soon it would snow. The hillside of winter wheat lay swaddled in snow, the rails of freight tracks like silver spears over the wet road (39, “The Staying Freight”).

Black smoke smeared the sky like an oily thumb dragged down pretty paper. In that smoke were brass buttons and blood. Vernon’s eyes burned from smoke. His hands and arms were beaded with soot-black sweat. Smoke clung to his hair, his clothes, his skin. He tasted smoke on his teeth (59, “Smoke”).

This is how I’ll be, she thought. I’ll be this icy hole, this season, this falling snow. I’ll just freeze myself over (80, “Peacekeeper”).

Jorgen could feel himself coming untethered, like he often had over there, where kids slept in the dust and nothing got buried and everything felt like it wasn’t quite real (93, “Furlough”).

His whole life now he’d been awake to feelings a child couldn’t know (110, “Fort Apache”).

Heathcock lands mightily on the short list of contemporary writers who prove that the short story form is not only alive but also that it is well, it is growing, it is coming into its own at a time when readers need more reason than ever to read. And, like his peers, Heathcock inspires other developing writers not by his market success but by his craft commitment, his example, his demonstrating that short stories – real, powerful, well-written short stories – can and are still being written and read. That’s good news for writers, and reason enough to read and write new stories.

Blueprints for Building Better Girls

book by Elissa Schappell

annotation by Kate Maruyama

In Blueprints for Building Better Girls, Elissa Schappell’s  characters all have something more going on than they are telling us. The stories are revealed in intimate detail, but in careful increments. Schappell is brilliant at ensconcing the reader in place, a teenage bedroom with Jacques Cousteau playing in the background, a drunken college campus, a quiet well-to do home, a starving artists’ view of New York City–then she starts peeling back the layers. By the end of each story, we are left as changed as the characters, with more to think about.

In “Aren’t You Dead Yet?” Our heroine Beth, later B, later Lizzie, is in a mutually destructive self-aggrandizing artistic relationship with Ray, a painter. In his discovery of Beth’s “earlier self,” Ray creates her as playwright, as artist, as someone important, but can’t cope with her growth. He leaves her, but haunts her in later years and when Beth, now Lizzie runs into him again, she tries writing their story into a play. The problem is that in her version of the story, Ray dies. He’s a likely candidate, as he is now a junkie waiting for a heart donor. But when Ray doesn’t die, our narrator is left choosing the story over the reality. Within this one short story, Schappel creates a many-layered nostalgia littered with objects and random bits of art. Nothing is placed in this story accidentally. A stolen tube of cadmium red, and a Navajo blanket—one of the only things Ray takes with him when he leaves Lizzie–turns up at the end. Schappel also portrays the layers of love as seen through different ages and varying degrees of nostalgia. Lizzie’s view of Ray goes from starstruck and smitten, to re-smitten and nostalgic, to barely tolerant. Lizzie grows up, but Ray stays the same.

I am constantly investigating the various stages of love in my stories and novels, and Schappel is deft with managing love in its stages, fickleness and wistfulness. She has inspired me to peel back at least one more layer in what’s going on in my stories, to try to have things happening on different levels. So often I am stuck in the moment in front of me; pulling wires to get each moment to resonate through the others will take some work.

In “Are You Comfortable?” Schappel gives us Charlotte, home from college, knee deep in her WASP life. When her mother tells us that she has mono, we are pretty sure something more is going on with this girl. Charlotte is instructed to take her once intimidating and intelligent grandfather out for lunch—only now he suffers from dementia. He is the only one to whom she can come clean; she tells him of her date rape and how it’s destroyed her. Schappell is so careful in setting up this story, that we are lost with Charlotte in her day and her inability to get motivated to do much of anything. Schappell recreates the malaise of depression and jams it up against an old folks’ home and a pip of an old man who used to be intimidating. Things slide sideways as a simple trip to the diner becomes a mess and by the time we are delivered to the reveal, it is devastating.

Schappel has a way with final lines. So much has been written about opening lines, but the final line of a short story, once it has dragged you through the wringer, is every bit as crucial, if not more so.  We are left with Charlotte’s grandfather’s non-reaction to her enormous reveal. Her grandfather: “Peering out at the woods, hands pressed against the glass, he watched as the sun, red and round as a rubber ball, dropped behind the trees.” It was an enormous thing for Charlotte to tell her grandfather—but did it do any good? We are left to mull things over.

Another story’s last line:

“I wonder, when we’re done, what will be left of us.”


“They stayed like that, not moving at all, until the streetlights began to come on.”

It is what our readers are left with, in short stories, that creates that final note. And that is seriously something I need to work on. Schappel had me going through my short stories and seeing those last lines as a missed opportunity. She has a facility with that last moment or image. That fade to black.

The characters in her stories overlap each other’s lives in a lighter way than in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, but in a way that’s quite enjoyable and useful in each story where it happens. I didn’t recognize the repeats in character until halfway through, but they bump up against each other’s lives, each living on the periphery of another’s story. In “Out of the Blue and Into the Black,” Belinda is a friend of Charlotte’s and worried about her after her rape, but doesn’t quite get around to helping her–directly. The story itself creates the deep-feeling, yet reckless college life; Charlotte’s being in that story shows the careless hold our well-intentioned selves have on the big things that happen at that age. And Charlotte’s predicament and Belinda’s concern over it forces Belinda’s paramour, Andy, onto a path he may not have otherwise taken.

I am always so eager to get onto new characters and new situations, I hadn’t thought of connecting them or repeating them other than to take characters in my novels out for a walk, hoping to jar something I couldn’t in the novel I was working on. But with Blueprints and Goon Squad, it is tempting to go back and ask some questions of these characters from other periods in their lives.

There are few short story collections I can read all in a row. So often I need to take a breather, a step away. The short story is a tricky medium and collections are trickier. But Blueprints for Building Better Girls was not only completely enjoyable, it was an absorbing page-turner that I finished within the week.

Great House

book by Nicole Krauss

Annotation by Talya Jankovits

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

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

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

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

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

Olive Kittridge

book by Elizabeth Strout

annotation by Talya Jankovits

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

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

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

Wild Nights

book by Joyce Carol Oates

annotation by Diana Woods

I found Oates’ collection of fictional stories about the last days of Poe, Dickenson, Twain, James and Hemingway to be creative and engaging. She encapsulates the personality of the five writers within her fictional characters and creates a setting, plot or fate, wildly improbable, but somewhat related to the life they actually led.

In the first story “Poe Posthumous; or, The Light House,” the fictional Poe has agreed with his patron to isolate himself in a lighthouse and keep a diary to record his activities as part of an experiment. Oates creates a mystical, dark, gloomy setting and mimics the “fated/doomed/ecstatic quintessential voice of Poe.” From this story, I learned about the importance of voice to develop character and portray changes in personality. The story provides a good example of how the setting also becomes a character. I’d like to emulate her techniques in developing the interaction between the character and the setting.

In the second story, “EDickinson RepliLuxe,” physical replications of famous people reliving specified periods of their lives are available for purchase. The Krims, hoping to brighten up their stale marriage, purchase Emily Dickenson, from age 30 to the year of her death at age 55. I was enthralled with the premise of this story and the powerful narrative utilizing parallel time periods– the Krims living in one version of story time and the fictional Emily Dickenson reliving the years 1830-1886.The tension and violence between the characters resulting from their different personalities and lifestyles drives the narrative. From this story, I learned a clever technique for manipulating time. Oates derived her fictional version of Emily Dickenson’s character “… so teasingly inward, elliptical, female-mystical…” from Dickenson’s poetry, letters and photographs. I can see that research yields impressive results.

In the third story, “Grandpa Clemens & Angelfish, 1906,” Grandpa Clemens “collects” pretty girls between ten and sixteen. They become his “angelfish.” His own daughter is incensed by his unsavory behavior, and in the end, Grandpa Clemens ends up being taunted and mocked by his angelfish which leads to his death. Again, Oates has done her research drawing on Mark Twain’s Aquarium: The Samuel Clemens-Angelfish Correspondence 1905-1910 edited by John Cooley, and other published biographical information, to create a fictional version of reality. I enjoy reading literary biographies but hadn’t thought of looking for story ideas in the foibles of the subjects. Now, I’ll be looking for story ideas based on the unsavory qualities of my favorite authors—preferably dead with no living relatives as appears to have been the case with Twain.

The fourth story, “The Master at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, 1914-1916” revolves around a fictional Henry James as an old man who attempts to volunteer at a hospital to help veterans. Despite his stature as a famous author, he grovels before the nurse supervisor and accepts odious assignments that weaken him physically. He worries about dying but won’t give up. Eventually, he succeeds in establishing a friendship with a veteran, a relationship that reverses when James becomes infirm. Oates’ high regard for James is evident by the theme and characterization in this story. In her notes, she comments that James hasn’t been sufficiently acknowledged for his impact on the work of other writers including. Oates’ has motivated me to read more literary biographies and experiment with characterization by exaggerating traits and habits of successful authors.

In the fifth and last story, the fictional Hemingway plays with his gun and thinks about his life. His contempt for women is evident and also his dependence on “the woman” he lives with. Oates captures Hemingway’s narcissism, recklessness and anger and mimics his “tautly written, minimalist, and deeply ironic short stories.” In her notes, she credits him for creating an American vernacular and for developing “the deadpan understatement of a hurt too painful to be acknowledged.” This story serves as a good example of a complex narrator/character who uses denial and self-injurious behavior to deal with the painful situations in his life, arising in good part from his biased and flawed perceptions of both himself and the world around him. I’d like to emulate her techniques in characterization when creating unreliable narrators.

Because of Hemingway’s notorious machismo, I’ve read little of his work and failed to fully appreciate his influence. I didn’t enjoy reading the story but it served as a good example of how to create a narrator with biased and flawed perceptions.

The Night in Question: Stories

Book by Tobias Wolff

Annotation by Kara Hardman

I thought this collection overall had a somewhat masculine sensibility, which is not something I’ve ever really thought about in terms of a short story collection before. I’ve certainly read stories by men or women before that were clearly being told from the point of view of male or female, but with Wolff there was something more vague that gave me that feeling. I don’t know why, possibly that it would give me some sort of insight to my own fiction, but it seemed important to figure out. It reminded me of learning French in high school, the way that making words are seemingly randomly assigned as masculine or feminine, even though there must have been a clear purpose in the language’s origins.

The title “The Night in Question” seemed to imply that the main characters in each of the stories were guilty of something and were having their behavior examined for them or by them. Although motivations were examined, the stories overall were more focused on the consequences of actions themselves, rather than characterization. The story “Migraine” I thought was a perfect example of this. The protagonist, Joyce, goes home from sick from work with a migraine, and we follow her through the rest of the afternoon, as she nurses her headache while waiting for her roommate to come home. Whether the roommates are lovers or codependent best friends was never made quite clear, and Joyce’s real feelings were never explained in depth, even though her actions were described as calculated. This to me made the story more masculine, even though it was told from a woman’s point of view; there’s something about being aware that one’s actions are significant without examining the significance itself (not analyzing feelings) that is more male than female. By the end of the story, it was conveyed to the reader through the two women’s dialogue and interaction that something more than a usual friendship was going on, but while the roommate accused Joyce of being manipulative, Joyce never explicitly examined her motivations for her behavior, and her roommate never demanded one.

“Casualty”- This story intrigued me because of the change in POV during the very last scene. I once wrote a short story that did this and was told by a writing teacher that you “can’t” switch the point of view at the end of a story.  I was chastised, but did never get over the feeling that it had worked for my story. In keeping with my theme of “masculine sensibility”, it’s interesting to note that the point of view switched from the male character to a new female character at the end. While the beginning male character, B.D., struggles to understand his feelings of guilt and loss of a fellow soldier that happens while he’s in the war, the ending female character, a nurse who is tending to the lost soldier as he dies, struggles to blunt her understanding of the loss and waste with illegal painkillers. The way Wolff’s stories are written, with almost subtle distinctions of the way the male and females characters filter their experiences to themselves, is what I felt gave the collection as a whole such a strong voice. It was just a kind of fine distinction that made me start thinking about how I think of my own characters.

Something else that I particularly admired about Wolff’s stories was the strength of his opening lines. I’m currently studying improvisation to improve my writing, and one of the important concepts taught in improv is giving your scene partner “gifts” through opening lines that establish as many aspects of environment, character, emotion, etc. about what will be happening in the scene. “Brian Gold was at the top of the hill when the dog attacked”; “The metro editor called my name across the newsroom and beckoned to me”; “Wiley got lonely one night and drove to a bar in North Beach owned by a guy he used to teach with”; “My friend Clark and I decided to build a jet plane.” The opening lines aren’t particularly flashy, but each one sets up the tone and some of the essentials of the story that follows, which is another skill I am working on.

The Female of the Species: Tales of Mystery and Suspense

Female of the Speciesbook by Joyce Carol Oates

annotation by Diana Woods

Oates explores the link between passion and violence in this collection of ten stories featuring female predators. In my favorite story, “Doll,” a father earns money by soliciting men to time spend with his daughter on a do-not-touch basis. Doll, no longer an adolescent, continues the charade, adding her own twist by hiding a blade in her sock. Her father doesn’t approve but he’s lost control. He and Doll flee from city to city to escape detection. When Doll meets up with a pimply-faced junior high teacher, she knows how to manipulate his fantasies and gets him into the bathtub, naked with his eyes closed. How he meets up with his fate is both fascinating and terrifying, although anticipated. All three characters–the pedophile, the father and Doll—end up as both predators and victims. Surprisingly, I feel empathy for each of them.

One technique I’d like to emulate is Oates’ skillful use of foreshadowing. Right from the beginning, I’m anticipating how the story will end. After she hooks me into the characters; then, I worry about their fate. She drops clues. That’s where her skill lies. She knows how much to tell and when, without scaring off the reader or precluding a surprise at the end. I know someone will face a horrific death—that seems to be her signature finale, but I can’t stop reading. My stomach gets queasy. Every twist feels like a knife digging into my chest. I try to think of ways that the character might escape destiny. Where did he or she make the fatal mistake? What would I have done?

I’d like to work on characterizing predators and killers. Oates’ villains in these stories don’t start out evil. They are corrupted by family or the circumstances of their lives. She adds enough background information to help me understand their actions, motivations and deficits. When describing their mental states, she often hints at the character’s self-loathing or regret. Their actions are not all despicable; they have good qualities. They’re often very ordinary people who inadvertently crossed over a line, then couldn’t turn back.

In “Hunger” the story opens with a woman lamenting that she’s made the worst mistake in her life. Great hook! While on vacation without her husband, she meets an arty man, a friend of a friend, who lures her into a sexual relationship. She returns home thinking the affair is over, but he shows up at her door and wants her to assist him in murdering her husband. Until the end of the story, I’m on the edge of the chair knowing someone will die, but who? Oates writes as if any woman could fall into this trap—one bad decision and her fate has been cast. I’ve made poor decisions in the past about men, as I assume that most, if not all, women have. It’s difficult not to empathize with this character even when she becomes a killer.

I’m also studying Oates’ portrayal of victims. Sometimes, they’re children, sick, old or helpless, not physically or mentally able or experienced enough to foresee the consequences of their actions. Only one misstep changes or ends their lives. Other victims end up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some participate in or hasten their own demise, either knowingly or unknowingly. Oates makes it seem as if terrible things can happen to anyone at any time. I think that’s what makes her stories so terrifying. I end up feeling like the victim, railing at my fate—looking around me wondering what awful thing will happen next as I close the book.

In “Angel of Wrath” Gilead, a mentally challenged man, stalks a woman with a baby, thinking that he’s protecting her. She ends up shooting him in the foot, feels guilty and takes care of him. Then, she allows, even encourages, Gilead to kill the baby’s father who’s hurt her emotionally. Now, she’s trapped herself. At the end of the story Gilead is sitting on her bed hoping she’ll invite him to be her lover. This woman starts out as a victim whom all women can identify with and morphs into a killer when the opportunity presents itself. Could I become like her if threatened and pushed or tempted? Is it that easy for an emotional moment to overcome rational thought? Oates makes me sit back and wonder, not only about myself but everyone around me.

A Good Man is Hard to Find

A Good Man is Hard To Findbook by Flannery O’Connor

annotation by  Aaron Gansky

O’Connor has long been one of my favorite writers. Just about everything of hers I’ve read, I’ve enjoyed. This collection of stories is no different, though I noticed a couple of things that I’d not noticed before—things that have altered my perception of her writing, and perhaps, lends credibility to some of my students’ complaints when we read her. In the process of writing this critique, I went back over the titles of her stories, all of which are brilliantly subtle (with the exception of “The River” and “A Circle in the Fire”). The rest work by distraction, but also serve to lend credence or importance to certain aspects of the story that might have been otherwise missed by a quick read-through. It points the reader to important details in the story, and allows them to conclude WHY the things are important without being hit over the head with her “theme baseball bat.” No one likes that. So she’s more subtle. She paints a picture and says, “here it is, make of it what you will.” And her stories all sound real. Her characters are deep, thanks in large part to the seamless narrative (juggling) movement between action and thought (can you tell I’ve been reading Stern?). Her characters walk, chew, spit, breath, and speak like real people, and we’re left with the sense that these are stories, not that we’ve heard, but that we’ve experienced. It’s like hearing a news story and saying, “I know that guy,” like the people we knew in Katrina and we hear their story on the news. Like the Southern California fires and we had the displaced families living in our homes, sleeping on our couches. By God, we KNOW these people.

But, and I hate to pull out criticism, but isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? I feel awkward saying anything negative about her work because she’s a literary hero of mine, someone I aspire to be like someday (except that I don’t plan on becoming a woman, not physically at least). Anyhow, looking over the titles of these stories made me realize something else. I’m glad I’ve read them, but I’m in no way eager to jump back into them. Why? The impression I’m left with at the end of each of her stories was, “That was great,” and “I’m so glad that’s over!” This has nothing to do with the tension of the stories (which she does an excellent job of building), but rather, the LENGTH of her stories. Maybe it’s because we live in an ADD society and our commercials are all 30 seconds long because that’s all the time and attention we want to give to any one thing. Maybe it’s because I just finished reading Sudden Fiction and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. These collections are quick reads. With O’Connor, I found myself counting pages (okay, I do that with almost all stories, but there was a LOT of counting and not many stories). I guess, in short, I want to get down to it. In “A Good Man is Hard to Find” we get a family traveling for pages and pages. There’s tension in the family, yes, but not much. Then, the build up is paid off in the final few pages. The stakes are raised to life-and-death. A beautiful ending, masterfully crafted, and I realized all those pages were necessary to set everything up. But then, inevitably, I ask, “Really?” Many of the stories didn’t need such a big build up. The pay offs (endings) were always spectacular, but I wondered if they’d have been better received by me if she’d gotten to them quicker. I’m thinking especially of “The Artificial Nigger” here, where she goes on for about six pages getting her two characters into the city where they get lost. Can’t we just start with them lost and flash back a bit?

Lastly, I wondered about the characters. There were no less than three stories in here where I never got a sense of who was whom until FAR too late in the story. “A Temple of the Holy Ghost” I’m still confused about. “The Artificial Nigger” took me three or four pages to get the characters and their relations right in my mind. “The River,” had something similar, especially since the protagonist goes by two names. Then, for whatever reason, some random guy shows up at the end and it gets pretty unclear who’s doing the action because of her use of pronouns (which “he?”—Bevel or Mr. Paradise?) And, lastly, she’s a tendency to use titles for names or character traits, etc. Mr. Head, Mr. Paradise, Mrs. Hopewell, Joy, etc. Not bad, per se, but maybe a little annoying at times.

Yes, I’m nit-picky. Yes, I feel bad for speaking ill of O’Connor. Yes, I know I’d be lucky to be half the writer she is. Still—this is what I noticed.