The Paris Wife

book by Paula McLain

annotation by Talya Jankovits

I have a soft spot for books that take history and spin it into marvelous fiction based on thorough research. Paula McLain’s The Paris Wife, is the epitome of such fine work. Taking the story of Hemingway’s first marriage and merging fictional voice with real life events, McLain presents to us a novel, a work known as fiction, but one that probably more closely brings a reader to the intimate lives of Ernest Hemingway and Hadley Richardson that by the time you finish the book, you are unsure if you read fiction or fell into the world of a real woman in the 1920’s.

There are so many striking aspects of this novel that made my head dizzy with want. Firstly, the research is thorough and detailed. From authentic description of place and time to vernacular, fashion and a movement of writing that swept through and made a place in the literary canon. McLain takes a world that to many avid readers of literature, might seem dreamy and unreachable and through conviction of narrative, places her reader in Paris cafés with writers such as Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Its a writer and literary academic’s wet dream. She so fully captivated this time that there were moments where I felt disappointed to put the book down and face our own modern reality. This is a testimony to how well McLain researched her characters and time period. When taking a chunk of history and using it for fiction, a writer takes many risks and often, falls short, but McLain sets the bar high and honors a woman whose experiences deserved to be captured and shared.

At times, I wasn’t sure if I was reading fiction or someone’s actual memoir. I so thoroughly believed McLain’s fictional voice of Richardson and Hemingway, and all the real life writers that came in and out of the story as characters that I hardly thought these conversation were imagined. Everything; each interaction, character development and change in plot felt authentic. What most struck me is the change I saw in Hemingway in the novel. McLain was so careful to allow the character to morph into himself. Nothing felt sudden or expected, something of note when reading a novel about a person’s life that has been so thoroughly exposed and studied already.

I think the challenge of character development is greater when trying to capture an actual person, because you are already limited by what that person became. Laws of fiction are broken to an extent when committed to staying true to history. But McLain made it seem easy and seamless, as if these people were her own. The conviction was mesmerizing.  Days on end have passed and I still can’t get the characters out of my head. I feel haunted by them, betrayed and torn. I don’t think that it’s only because the actual marriage of Hemingway and Richardson was so rich in story already; it’s a tribute to McLain, who merged these people into fiction and brought the reader closer to them than a memoir ever could.

I’m working on a historical fiction novel myself, but unlike McLain, I am not limited by honoring the lives of real people. I have the luxury to explore my own characters of creation, but I am familiar with the demands of history and the obligations it imposes on fiction. I  decided to take greater liberties with my historical background and events and I’ve made these decisions in order to honor and serve the fiction which demands to take place on the page.

I am humbled by McLain, who did not compromise her commitment to history nor her vision of fiction and was able to produce something that felt both fictional and real. The Paris Wife is writing at its best.

Blueprints for Building Better Girls

book by Elissa Schappell

annotation by Talya Jankovits

When I finished Elissa Schappell’s “Blueprints for Building Better Girls”, I was sort of jumping up and down in my seat. I wanted to shout out loud YES! You nailed it! I know its a keeper when I feel a bit heavy in the head and my writing heart is swooning and droopy, and of course, I know for sure when that leak of envy comes out – why couldn’t I write this? And I think the reason for all my fanfare is that Schappell was able to capture the girl and the woman that every one of us can relate to in some way. It doesn’t matter whether the story is set in the 70’s the 80’s, if its in a teenage bedroom or an arty New York studio, what does matter is the finite focus on the united emotions and right of passages that most of us can relate to. At moments, I blushed or cringed, thinking Schappell must have spied on me at some point. She didn’t, she spied on girlhood and womanhood collectively.

Blueprints for Building Better Girls is a series of short stories that hold soft echos of each others characters or glimpses of former character selves. The first story and final story, Monsters of the Deep and I’m Only Going to Tell You This Once, share the same main character, Heather, but in the first story, we see Heather young at sixteen and in I’m Only Going to Tell You This Once, we see her as a mother, speaking to her seventeen year old son about something that happened to her as a young woman. Throughout the stories, we see Heather in three different stages, teenager, college student and mother, and through it all we see Heather as Heather. She feels authentic and real, as if we have in fact stayed with an actual person who morphed and grew and retained a former self. Characterization is hard to do, but staying with a character in different stories at different times in life, while incorporating both flashback and memory–that’s called expertly executing craft.

Much like our younger selves, these characters are not all likable, in fact they are so raw and honest that I don’t think “attachment” to character is relevant in such a series of stories. While reading, I felt inserted into these characters, and I was willing to see where they would take me, even if I didn’t like it, and sometimes, the characters didn’t seem to necessarily like it either. The act of growing up, of coming to age (no matter how old we are, because on some level we are always growing up, always haunted by the smallness of our youth that hovers over us the rest of our lives) isn’t pretty or necessarily enjoyable and Schappell’s ability to narrow in on any girl’s life, be it that of a college student, a high school student, or a woman trying to build a family, makes these stories real, haunting and inexplicably relatable.

I like to believe that the reason I am a poor short story writer is because I am a novelist, (one novel in the works seems to allow me that excuse at the moment). I want to write great short stories like Schappell. I want them to be successful, to stand on their own, or like Schappell, for them to also stand together. A lot of times I try to understand what it is I am not doing right in my short stories that other successful short story writers are. Looking critically at Schappell’s short stories, I tried to find tools that can help me build better short stories (no pun intended). Schappell has the ability to place you in real moments, to vividly build scene without spending too much time doing so, with a few lines revealing something both wondrous and agonizing. And of course, she knows her characters, she knows them so well that she sees them in any stage, can reveal them in any age and utilize both the characterization and the plot to work together and deliver a punch. Her stories made me hungry until the end until a last devastating line left me full but craving more. That’s how you write a short story, or in my case, how you envy one.

The Tiger’s Wife

book by Téa Obreht

annotation by Talya Jankovits

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

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

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

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

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

The Corrections

book by Jonathan Franzen

annotation by Talya Jankovits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

The White Tiger

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book by Aravind Adiga

Annotation by Talya Jankovits

This novel, set in India, is told in the voice of a narrator who immediately comes alive as soon as page one. A murderer, a coward, an ignorant and morally challenged man from a poor and downtrodden village, Balram takes the reader on a voyage not just through India’s booming industrial cities and highly abused suburbs, but through his twisted logic and climb up the social ladder. Above the suspense, the rich culture and devastating class system, the narration is what makes this novel so captivating.

Balram is candid through out, his voice honest and disturbing. At times you laugh with him and at other times cringe. It’s a look into the life of a murderer in a most unexpected way, an exposure to psychological rationalization of the lowest kind, not only of Balram but other characters as well. There is an immediate attachment to this narrator, a hate love relationship if you will. This torn reaction to the narrator is I think what makes this first person narration so successful.

I am always looking for a complexity of reactions to a character. I never want to be totally infatuated or completely revolted. I crave dimensional characters and Balram is just that. Adiga morphed together both the hero and villain into one multi-layered narrator. By allowing the reader access to Balram’s thinking process, the reader sees his insecurities, the abuses he withstands and how he mentally complies with them and we also see his moral demise. The way his hate builds and his rational for his murderous action begins to develop. I really appreciated this. The opportunity to empathize with a murderer and have moments where I enjoy his company, and try, even for a moment, to see his side of the argument. This is something I can learn from, how to make a villain human, how to appeal to emotion in a way that makes a person think seriously about the plight of a murderer. This mastering of character is most important when in the case like Balram, the character is also the narrator.

In addition to the story line and the excellent use of first person narration, the novel also relates many social issues. A brutal class system and a corrupted government, you see through the eyes of a low class driver all that is wrong with a system that perpetuates greed, bribery and capitalism. This novel can serve both as a critique as well as an entertaining glimpse into the mind and actions of a murderer who decides if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. But Adiga never makes you feel like he has a hidden agenda, his dealings with India’s corruption in the governmental and industrial infrastructure is always handled with the grace of storytelling, never once sounding preachy or socially driven.

It is always enjoyable to be entertained but it takes reading to another level when a writer presents you with a subtle underlay of social awareness. This novel takes you through a long weaving of events where Adiga takes horrifying social injustices and uses them in such a way where it elevates his plot and enriches his characters as well as teaches the reader. This was another aspect of his novel where I paid close attention, wanting a historical fiction piece I am working on to accomplish some of what he has done – a gentle but constant coverage of what it is like to be dehumanized by a brutal, governing system.

Adiga’s novel was really an enjoyable read –very deserving of its Man Booker Prize and functioned for me on many levels of writerly enrichment. From the captivating voice of Balram to the development and triumph of a murderer down to the social injustices, it was truly a valuable reading experience.