The Stand

book by Stephen King

annotation by Telaina Eriksen

I just finished Stephen King’s The Stand:Complete and Uncut. I read and read this book as a teenager. (And you’re going to have to bear with me on this annotation because this book is 1345 pages long, and I want to preface my annotation with a wee bit of an introduction. So go get a cold beverage, and dig in for a second, if you don’t mind.)

When I mention Stephen King to many educated and avid readers, they get a look on their faces like I just farted or, depending on how many advanced degrees they have, wet my pants in front of them. I am exhausted by literary snobbery but, on the other hand, I am a literary snob myself. Several years ago when The DaVinci Code came out, I read it in less than two days and I completely understood why it was popular. The Nicholas Sparks phenomenon evades me, but I can generally see why things sell. And who I am to tell a busy man or woman, or even a retiree, what they should and shouldn’t be reading? I am currently sneering at the popularity of 50 Shades of Gray, but if it’s spicing up some couple’s sex life and putting a smile on their faces as they go out into the world to meet the demands of their jobs and families… that’s not a bad deal for under $10, in my humble opinion.

I consider The Stand (and several other Stephen King novels), Gone With The Wind, Lonesome Dove, The Thorn Birds, and several other novels of John Irving and Pat Conroy, to have been the “gateway” books of my teenage years. My dad was a factory worker who enjoyed reading the paper and paperback westerns and my mother was a voracious reader, enjoying the daily paper, women’s magazines and romance novels. Her ultimate endorsement of a book was, “It reads right along.” My mother had seven children and finances were always tight, if not in active crisis. She alternated working part-time and full-time as our ages and the job market in Michigan allowed. She didn’t want to spend her evenings working through Anna Karenina. She didn’t want to lie on the couch and talk about the marriage plot in the novels of Jane Austen. She wanted a story to amuse and delight her.

There was no literary snobbery in my house. My aunt would give us big garbage bags full of books after she had read them. She bought a few new, a few used, and many at garage and library sales where in the 70s, you could fill up a large bag with books and then pay $1. We would buy books at garage sales, get them from the library (though we had issues returning them–my apologies to The Stair Public Library in Morenci, Michigan) and people knew we read, so we got a lot of people’s handmedowns and castoffs. In my teen years, I began to have some disposable income and one of the first things I bought was my own books. And here was where I encountered the novels of Stephen King. And it was books like The Stand, still a good old-fashioned story, but with literary devices and scope, then enabled me to go further on in my reading and tackle Russian novels. These starter literary novels  (for lack of a better term) were what allowed me to pick up and read the books which would later change who I am as a reader and writer—books like Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, Lydia Millet’s Oh Pure and Radiant Heart and many others… too many others to list.

So what did I learn re-reading The Stand with adult eyes—the eyes of a college professor, no less? First of all, I couldn’t believe how much I had forgotten. This was very probably my third time through this giant book (published when I was 22) and I probably made my way three times through the shorter version which was published in the late 70s.  Secondly, the novel still piqued my interest with its epic scope and romantic showdown between good and evil. (If you want a summary of The Stand click here because this annotation is already going to be a monster.) And finally, yes, I did notice the wheels do come off of King’s story here and there. There are some inconsistencies with the novel that I never noticed before. In this reading, I had to ask how does the superflu kill everyone on the base instantly, and yet when it is released to the public, it takes days, sometimes even a week for people to die? And all the traffic jams and cars with dead bodies in them? People just stayed in their cars to die of flu? And why does Randall Flagg need a new identity and a car no one can trace if the world is falling apart? Is someone going to check his driver’s license before he becomes dictator of Las Vegas? And how does The Judge get gas in Wyoming when he is trying to get to Las Vegas to spy? I’ve driven across Wyoming. It already looks like there’s an apocalypse, let alone when the few sad and lonely gas stations would be closed and without electricity.

The worst thing to me though, was the “updating” Stephen King did. His 1970s characters were all logical and believable. When he moved those characters (inconsistently, I might add) up into the late 80s and 90s, they lost their credibility. Frannie in the book was supposed to be my age in 1990. She makes little comments about lying to get birth control pills (really wasn’t necessary in 1989/1990… though it might be now the way things are going). She also says “Only the Shadow Knows” which is something my mother would say, not me. (Frannie might have quoted the Partridge Family or the Brady Bunch, or Love Boat etc.)  There is also a part early in the book where someone in east Texas babysits two or three children the whole morning for $1. That would have been fine in the 70s, but a decade later, this woman would have received at least $5, even in the smallest town in America. Toward the end of the book, King begins to mention things like MTV, but his characters are generally inhabiting a pre-cable, pre-music CD, pre-blockbuster movie, Vietnam-was-very-close-and-life-changing, world. Which would be fine if he’d left them in the 70s. But he didn’t.

The other issue I had was King’s treatment of race in the novel. Mother Abigail is the wise African matriarch which, given the archetypal nature of the book , I don’t have a big issue with.  Flagg is a pretty archetypical demon, as well. I had an issue with the following passages… black servicemen “also nearly naked, all wore loincloths”… “more members of this black ‘junta’ covered perhaps 200 khaki-clad soldiers with rifles…”. Now, it’s not that I think when the end of the world comes that race relations are going to be stellar, it was the absence of other discussions or background story to this scene that stuck in my craw. That this, and Mother Abigail and the Rat-Man (who dressed like a pirate), are the sum total of black characters in this massive tome. This too reflects the “old” nature of the book, and I think King would probably write those passages differently today.  (And I won’t even begin to address the problems I have overall with Stephen King’s women characters who tend to be weak, emasculating women who divorce their good long-suffering men. That is SERIOUSLY a separate annotation.)

The things King does well far outnumber my speculation of how The Judge finds gas without electricity in Wyoming and why everyone takes so much aspirin (when in 1982 the FDA issued a warning about aspirin pertaining to Reye’s Syndrome and young adults and when the kick-ass anti-inflammatory Advil was brought to market in the United States in 1984).

King works in Yeats, the Bible, Watership Down, sociological theory and much more. His vision of a smashed America (an apocalypse where goods aren’t scarce and where we haven’t destroyed our planet) allows him to question why characters turn from good and whether people who have had less than stellar lives ever have a chance to be “inside.” This novel illustrates the power of story, the power of the reader to be invested with characters that are even briefly introduced. King does this extremely well when summing up the post-plague plague—people who were immune to the superflu but fall down wells, die of appendicitis, accidentally lock themselves in freezers, etc. In a few brief paragraphs he tells what happened to these characters and he tells it concisely, each vignette a tiny piece of a more traditional brand of flash fiction.

Reading this book as a writer reminds me to ground my characters fully in their time and place so there isn’t any disconnect with the reader. It reminds me that we all need editors. While the 823-page original definitely benefited from some of this richness and back-story in this uncut version, 1300+ pages was too much. A happy medium between the two lengths probably would have been perfect.

And finally, never forget as a writer (no matter what your genre) the power and the joy of a grand, compulsively readable, invested-in-the-characters-oh-my-god-what-is-going-to-happen-next, story.


The Tortilla Curtain

book by T.C. Boyle

annotation by Telaina Eriksen

The publication date on this book is 1995 but this novel is still as relevant and as controversial today as it was 17 years ago. Tortilla Curtain is the story of two couples—the undocumented workers América and Cándido, and the well-to-do Californians real-estate agent Kyra and environmental writer Delaney.

Boyle has structured this novel as a satirical and brutal mirror. For every action on each couple’s part, the other couple experiences a less-than or greater-than reaction, in a strange and violent  balancing act between the two cultures. The opening event is Delaney hitting Cándido (accidently) with his car on his way home on the winding canyon road to his soon-to-be walled and gated community. This sets off a chain of tragedy that neither party can foresee.   Cándido refuses to go to the hospital and Delaney throws Cándido $20 to salve his guilty conscious.  Boyle then sets up an intricate chessboard of a story where each couple continues to lose things and every loss is diluted in the white upper class couple and magnified in the ill-fated and Job-like América and Cándido.

Cándido is sick and broken from the accident and Delaney’s car is broken. Very soon after the accident, one of Kyra’s pampered dogs is captured in their backyard and eaten by a coyote. América ventures up from the canyon where the immigrants are “camping” and tries to get a job at the job exchange. She is pregnant and a teenager. Bad-luck has dogged Cándido and América throughout their journey north—their coyote (the man helping them cross into the United States) was corrupt and they were beaten and robbed at the border. América gets a job working with toxic chemicals scrubbing kitschy Buddhas for some un-named man, who also tries to grope her. A few days later, her boss forgets to give her gloves and América can barely stand the chemical burn of scrubbing the Buddhas.

Also in Boyle’s balancing act are two teens from Kyra and Delaney’s neighborhood causing trouble for the undocumented workers staying in the canyon. They tear apart Cándido and América’s camp, ruin América’s only good dress and paint “gang sign” graffiti on the new gate to whip up fear and mistrust of Mexicans. Two other undocumented workers scrawl graffiti on Kyra’s favorite for-sale house. These two characters rape América on her way home from work and give her gonorrhea which causes her girl-child, when she is born, to be blind.

Another fascinating mirror in the book is that a white-collar criminal is under house arrest in one of the huge houses in Kyra and Delaney’s neighborhood. As they raise the gate and the seven-foot stucco fence in the neighborhood to keep the Mexicans, coyotes, snakes and scorpions out, they seem to not care at all that they are walling this criminal in. No one seems to be concerned about what he has done to warrant house arrest for three years because he has maids and catering and tasteful decorating.  Another bit of worthy, though somewhat heavy-handed irony, is that there is little doubt from Boyle’s prose, that undocumented workers help build the wall that ends up surrounding the neighborhood.

As the story arches to its conclusion, Delaney and Kyra lose their other dog to a coyote, their cat, Dame Edith (another humorous tongue in cheek reference to the haves and the pretentious in this book is that Kyra has named all of her pets after the famous literary Sitwell family–Edith, Osbert, and Sacheverel) is eaten by Cándido and América in their desperate hunger. Kyra is oblivious to the suffering of the immigrants, but is incensed when she sees a dog left in a car in the heat.

Cándido receives a free Thanksgiving turkey from a shopper at a grocery store and is so excited to roast it that he accidentally starts a fire in the dry season which obliterates Kyra’s favorite house she is selling, her dream house, and ruins the Thanksgiving of everyone in the neighborhood. In the chaos, the white-collar criminal escapes, with potentially millions of dollars squirreled away, while Cándido steals supplies from backyards to help the in-labor América. He even steals dog dishes to use as pots and pans. Cándido’s theft, which is personal, is more outrageous then what the white-collar criminal has done, because that crime was done organizationally and systemically. This literary observation is also just as pertinent today as it was 17 years ago.

Boyle’s book draws fire for its characters being stereotypes. I am not sure if this accusation is leveled at Kyra and Delaney (who recycle and are mostly vegetarian) or América and Cándido, who have an impossible litany of horrible things happen to them.  These characters all feel real to me—not as in I might meet them on the street, but I recognize their complexity, hypocrisy and humanness. Perhaps in some people’s vision of liberals, they aren’t quite so hypocritical. Or perhaps some readers don’t like that Cándido and América are uneducated and that Cándido occasionally hits América. It is a well-documented fact that as unemployment rates increase, domestic violence also increases. Cándido and América’s story of the corrupt coyote rings true with much nonfiction I have read as well.  Perhaps some readers also don’t realize Boyle’s mirroring technique and instead see a heavy-handed portrayal of have and have nots—where I saw a satirical layering of the bitter struggle for survival versus the first-world problems in the United States which cause us “stress.”

I also realized that every time Delaney wrote about the coyote for his nature column, what he was really writing about was immigration. This veiled column (pp. 211-215) is a masterpiece of showing and not telling but its complexity reverberated for me because character Delaney was “telling,” letting author Boyle show us so much about this character and the world and culture he lives in…which happens to closely resemble early 21st century America. The mere fact that Boyle names the young, pregnant, beaten, besieged teen in the book América is a constant reminder to the reader of what our country used to be, and contrasts it to what our country is now, without the author ever having to say a word on that subject.

As a writer, I learned much about the power of parallelism while reading this story—not just the rhetorical device of constructing sentences and paragraphs, but the power of alternating viewpoints and intertwined tragedy and the unintended domino effect of character actions on the other characters within the novel.  In addition to a stinging social commentary about immigration, poverty, violence and even healthcare in the United States, Boyle has also produced a remarkable and envy-worthy structure for this novel.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Extremely Loud and Incredibly CloseNote: We at Annotation Nation are frequently asked if we will take an additional submission on a book that has already been annotated. The truth is we love how different authors have completely different points of view on the same book. Books inspire writers in so many different ways. So thanks to Telaina Eriksen’s fresh contribution below, and two annotations from 2009, we offer you three ways of looking at one novel: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. For other twice-annotated books, check out Jesus’ Son and The Road

book by Jonathan Safran Foer

annotation by Telaina Eriksen

Michigan State University and East Lansing choose a book each year to read as a community. The 7,000-8,000 freshmen are given this book at their summer orientation and community members are encouraged to read the selection as well. In early fall, a month of activities surround the chosen book in the hope that students, faculty and community members intermingle at these events, giving students and East Lansing citizens something proactive to talk about… rather than fighting over parking places and witnessing public intoxication which often leads to public urination. The chosen author speaks at least twice (once to the community and once to the students and faculty of the university), there are writing workshops, related films are shown, and other sanctioned events dot the community calendar.

And while literary critic/Yale professor Harold Bloom doesn’t “like these mass reading bees…it is rather like the idea that we are all going to pop out and eat Chicken McNuggets or something else horrid at once” (, I believe literary-centered activities help communities talk about important things… discrimination, stereotypes, wars, and other personal and societal tragedies. Just as all politics are local, so are all good books (with my insincere apologies to Harold Bloom).  The book chosen this year, in part because the committee wanted to promote discussion and commemoration of the 10th anniversary of 9-11, was Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close is the story of Oskar Schell, whose father died in the collapse of the Twin Towers.

Having lived in this community for 25 years, my friends and acquaintances know of my book worm habits and often discuss books with me. Never have I received such a spate of negative and/or confused opinions about a book as this 2011 selection of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I’ve received this response to the book while I am at the gym. Standing in parking lots. Workshopping in classrooms. Men and women alike approach me with utter bafflement and apprehension. Many book lovers had trouble with this book. As I began reading Foer’s lyrical, mythical tale, I understood their reactions.

This is not a linear narrative, though it is full of story. You don’t always know exactly what is happening and no, it is not always believable that a nine-year-old savant is being allowed to wander all over New York City with no supervision. It is not always believable that Oskar’s grandfather cannot speak, so he has had “yes” and “no” tattooed on opposite palms. It is not always believable that a nine-year-old can know about women’s “VJs” and their periods, but not know what the word intimidating means (p. 293). And perhaps it is unbelievable that a caring mother might not notice or comment on over 40 bruises on her son’s torso.

Foer does not break lines between different characters speaking and dialogue attributions are at a bare minimum. Visuals are scattered throughout the book, many a selection from Oskar’s scrapbook “Things That Have Happened to Me.”  Michigan State University Professor Stephen Arch commented in a video he did for the One Book community on Facebook, that readers should take the visuals in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close as one would take the pictures in a graphic novel, as an integral, not supplemental, part of this story.

So why have my fellow readers struggled with this book and what does this tell me as a reader and a writer? It tells me that we are at a strange time in the creation of and enjoyment of novels. I think we are always at a strange time, but I think we can all agree that the Internet is changing at light speed how books are distributed, marketed, sold, and read. I don’t think writers or readers have been able to keep up with this frenetic evolution and evidence is piling up that our time on Google and Facebook, etc., actually rewires our brains.  While Foer’s work is probably accessible to the incoming freshmen at Michigan State who grew up with a cell phone in one hand and an iPod in the other, other readers, who remember the days of whole sets of encyclopedias at the library, might struggle with what Foer’s creation IS and may not like this integration of visual elements, this stream of consciousness experience of loss and mourning, this fantastical fable of a bright American boy losing his whole world on a single dark day.

Foer does many things well in this unique narrative and one of the things I truly admired was his juxtaposition of the WWII bombing of Dresden versus the events of 9-11. Not only does this show the unrelenting onslaught of war, of human experience, how we are trapped in the same place over and over again only with different heroes and enemies, that the innocent are so often mere threads in the tapestries of insanity, egos, human greed, and self-righteousness, but the contrast of these two events also shows how our losses both tie people (and characters) together and tear them apart.  I know from my son’s love of WWII history, that the necessity of the Dresden bombing remains historically questioned. Was it really necessary to drop bombs that destroyed EVERYTHING for 15 square miles? The parallels between the innocent deaths in Dresden and the innocent deaths of 9-11 were not lost on this reader.

In the final pages of the book, Oskar receives a letter from Stephen Hawking, after repeatedly writing to Hawking in the days following 9-11.  Hawking finally responds personally and tells Oskar “I wish I were a poet…I’ve been able to explore the origins of time and space with some of the great living thinkers.  But I wish I were a poet.” We writers sometimes bemoan our vocations. We wring our hands and complain about our rejections, the disrespect of our art and the written word. Most writers are dreadfully underpaid and we have to have an elastic sense of self that encompasses both occasional success and more frequent abject failure—sometimes these ups and downs occurring in less than a 24-hour period. But indeed what a joy it is to be a poet…even in this high-energy uncertain death-of-print world.  Who else gets to create mythical hybrids like Foer’s? Myths that try to guide people (baffled by form or no) to the heart of death and acceptance of loss? Astrophysics must adhere to its laws. Astrophysics pauses in stuttering awe at the mystery of dark matter.  Writers reach right into the dark, laws be damned, and take their readers with them.

The Brothers Karamazov

book by Fyodor Dostoevsky

annotation by Telaina Eriksen

I am, generally speaking, a cheerful and uncritical reader. I don’t know if this stems from my childhood where I, without complaint, read my mother, father, and six siblings’ cast-off books or whether it stemmed from an early knowledge that writing books is hard work. My childhood was salted with books like Devil’s Desire by Laurie McBain and the Flowers in the Attic series and anything by Stephen King I could get my hands on. But my childhood was also peppered with books like the Gone with the Wind, Lonesome Dove, To Kill a Mockingbird, Wuthering Heights, and the poems of Robert Frost. The only book I remember actively disliking as a teen was Suffer the Children by John Saul. It was a blood-soaked mess which culminated, if I recall correctly, in a girl child walking across a field carrying a severed arm.

I say all of this in preface to my annotation of The Brothers Karamazov because the classics are not something that I’m inclined to pick up. They are the cruciferous vegetables of my reading. I know they are good for me, but I enjoy my contemporaries more with all their chocolate-y goodness. I will devour a Margaret Atwood in hours or a brief day or two. Anna Karenina took me almost a month of whittling away on it, an hour or two at a time.

I began reading The Brothers Karamazov of my own free will in December. (I’m out of graduate school so no one can make me read anything hahahaha!) It was the end of February when I finished. I completed and read other books while I was reading it but about five times a week, I spent an hour or two reading it and sometimes I was so absorbed, I would spend a bit longer. The Brothers Karamazov came onto my bucket list because I very much enjoyed The Brothers K by David James Duncan and I suspected Duncan had used the same structure and other parallels of the classic, but didn’t know what they were, since I had never read it.

The purpose of an annotation is supposed to be things you can steal from other authors that you can use in your own writing. But I have also used my annotations to help me become a more critical reader because I tend to be so happy-go-lucky about my reading. “Well, I can tell they tried very hard here, even if it didn’t work.”

The Brothers Karamazov is a huge sprawling work (between 650 and 800 pages depending on what translation you read) and I would say it contains everything but the kitchen sink, but since it also alludes to sinks at several points in time so I am forced to say The Brothers Karamazov contains everything. Dostoevsky began writing it in 1879 and as the last book he ever wrote, it appears to be the culmination of the extremes of his life—socialism, devout Christianity, poverty, prosperity, obscurity, acclaim, illness, health, imprisonment, and freedom. The story of the three brothers, Dmitri, Ivan and Alyosha, and to a lesser extent their baseborn and not-acknowledged fourth brother, Smerdyakov, tackles Christianity, atheism, secular humanism, dysfunctional families, the role of gentry and serfdom, politics in monastic life, the hazards of romantic love, jealousy, power, greed, honor, philosophy, alcoholism, mental illness, and Russian police procedure in the 19th century. On top of this, it’s a great who-dun-it and a riveting old-school, bitch-slapping courtroom drama. We know from page one that Fydor Pavlovich is going to die but it isn’t until half-way through the book that he turns up dead.

I often amused myself while reading the book imagining Dostoevsky coming into an MFA workshop with this massive manuscript in its early stages. I imagined a 24-year-old “colleague” dressed in black picking through Dostoevsky’s pages and saying, “It’s a structural mess. I mean, so Ivan tells Alyosha this whole story about the Grand Inquisitor over dinner and I like, didn’t see the point? I mean, like, how does it move the story, like forward? And I don’t, like, really believe that he could have told this story in like what? 20 minutes? because it took me like an hour to read? So it, you know, seems really unbelievable and totally detracts from the STORY. I also, you know, had like a total issue with telling like, all the background characters’ stories as they like entered the drama? It makes like no sense? And I just don’t think the reader is going to CARE and that should all be like, totally cut.”

My hypothetical workshop participant is correct.  Father Zosima, Alyosha’s mentor and a saint-like figure in the book, gives long sermons in dialogue, with no paragraph breaks, about his particular view of Christianity. Ivan tells his “poem” The Grand Inquisitor to Alyosha over dinner about how the church would put Jesus to death again if he came because while Jesus gives choice and freedom, the church gives constraint and certainty and man prefers the latter to the former. Ivan, suffering from what must have been meningitis (that’s my best-guess definition of “brain fever”) has a long talk with a hallucinatory devil on the eve of Dmitri’s trial for his father Fyodor’s murder. (There is a particularly hilarious line in their conversation where the devil is talking about an atheist who finds himself in an afterlife and refuses to accept it and the atheist’s punishment is to walk “quadrillion kilometres in the dark” to which the devil adds “we’ve adopted the metric system, you know.”) But these essays, asides, foils…they expand this book in a way that raises it above many, many of the books I’ve read in my 35+ years of reading. And while I am a cheerful reader, I am also an exhaustive one, and have read thousands of books in my life. (The only thing that interfered with my complete enjoyment of this novel was its anti-Semitism. I have the same problem when I read Hemingway.)

Dostoevsky identifies the most painful things about humanity with his characters, their dialogue and their interactions. Ivan tells Alyosha that only a human is capable of cruelty—an animal would never kill a baby in front of its mother just for the cruelty and the pain of it. An animal kills to eat or protect itself. It does not kill to inflict psychological damage. This Ivan says, is a uniquely human trait.

So what did I learn as a writer from finally reading The Brothers Karamazov? Write your passion. Write your dream. Don’t waste your time reading books like Writing the Blockbuster Novel. Listen to your own voice. Pay attention to the things you need to say. Don’t think small. Synthesize your life, your art, your morals, your religious views, the pain that has been imprinted on your body from living in this hard world. Recognize that the family is the world in a microcosm. Oh, and LIVE. Go to prison in Siberia. Come back a devout Christian. Live with epilepsy and probably bipolar-disorder. Struggle with God. Observe your nation. Read its history. Write it all down.


The Way Things Are: A Novel

book by Allen Wheelis

annotation by Telaina Eriksen

This quick read from renowned psychiatrist Allen Wheelis tackles the inherent violence of our culture and how many people refuse to acknowledge the violent and the sexual in the human condition. Wheelis weaves his theories and philosophies through a series of lectures held by the character Eliot Hawkins who argues that the sacred and the forbidden are one and that our Garden of Eden lies in our pre-human past, before enlightenment. Eliot tells his lecture attendees that when we awakened to the beauty of nature, to the pleasure of sensual enjoyment, the joy of floating in water, at that same moment, our fear was also awakened. Unlike animals who fear in brief interludes, humans are in a constant state of fear of their impending mortality, physical pain, etc. This constant state of fear gives birth to exploitation and the rise of gods.

The premise of the book and the philosophy and arguments are fascinating but it is a poorly constructed novel. It is obvious the character Eliot exists so that Wheelis can just talk and at one point in time on page 35 Eliot actually puts an outline up so that Wheelis can outline things he wants to say. Our narrator exists to flesh out (ha ha) the sexual theories and arguments of Wheelis. Our narrator is a 70 –year-old man (or around there) who is attracted to and finally starts a relationship with, the much younger (not yet 30-year-old) Mariane. Wheelis’ point here is that our narrator, by possessing youth and beauty, pushes back his own fear of death. To our narrator and to Eliot, beauty and youth are the same, and there is a deep human desire to sully beauty (Eliot uses the example of a man ejaculating all over the face of a beautiful woman). You cannot sully the old because the passage of time has already de-sanctified the beauty with wrinkles and gray hair.

Readers don’t keep reading for what happens to the characters, they keep reading for Wheelis’ intricate take on human nature and human relationships and the power construct of society.

Two of Wheelis’ nonfiction books The Listener and The Way We Are are both stronger works because they do not attempt to set up the rise and fall of conflict as this one does. Removing the content of the lectures from this story would cause the entire novel to collapse. Readers will struggle to remember the characters’ names and what happened in the book, but they will remember the content of Eliot Hawkins’ lectures.

Momma and the Meaning of Life: Tales of Psychotherapy

Momma and the meaning of lifeBook by Irvin D. Yalom

Annotation by: Telaina Eriksen

Irvin Yalom’s Momma and the Meaning of Life consists of six tales of psychotherapy, four nonfiction and two fiction. Yalom, renowned relationship-based, here-and-now psychiatrist, tackles his personal mother issues in “Momma and the Meaning of Life.” In “Travels with Paula,” Yalom writes about his relationship with a breast-cancer patient that revolutionized the therapy of death in California. “Southern Comfort” offers the reader a look into group therapy in a psychiatric ward. “Seven Advanced Lessons in the Therapy of Grief” details Yalom’s seven-year therapy with a female surgeon who lost her 45-year-old husband, both parents and her godson in a two-year span. The last two stories, “Double Exposure” and “The Hungarian Cat Curse” revisit the fictional psychiatrist Dr. Ernest Lash who readers met in Yalom’s novel, Lying on the Couch.

This is a strange collection that feels like Yalom took everything he’d written that he didn’t know what to do with and threw it in this book. Uneven doesn’t begin to cover it. “Seven Advanced Lessons in Therapy Grief” is well-written and moving…and it inhabits the same space as “The Hungarian Cat Curse” where the protagonist psychoanalyzes a reincarnated cat.

The nonfiction outings do hang together thematically—all dealing with loss. The fiction offerings are more playful (or at least they attempt to be). “Double Exposure” is charming enough to be readable but “The Hungarian Cat Curse” is so out of place it is baffling. It passes playful and heads south on Absurd Highway and not in the good Gabriel Garcia Marquez way. Not only is it out of place, if a reader has read Lying on the Couch, he/she cannot suspend disbelief that the harried and helpful Dr. Lash character would ever (unless under the influence of strong pharmaceuticals) buy into the situation being presented in the short story.

Yalom is a concise writer with a great depth of philosophical and medical knowledge and his content is interesting. His characters seem real and nuanced. He’s not lyrical, but he gets a reader from Point A to Point B with little difficulty and his characters’ motivations always seem true (with the exception of the reincarnated cat).
Yalom, though confident and experienced, does not pretend to have all the answers. “Where was the line between intimacy and seduction? Would she become too dependent on me? Would she ever be able to break away? Would the powerful husband-transference prove to be irresolvable?” (p.150)
He also tries to bring to light the problems with therapy today. “How can you say Ernest has seen her only for fourteen sessions?…I’m luck to have an HMO give me eight visits and only if I can out of my patient one of the magic words—suicide, revenge, arson or homicide…” (p.171)

Yalom also brings comfort to those readers who might have developed attachment or dependency on their own psychotherapists. He talks about his patients who are dependent on him without judgment and with compassion. “The ending of every session was problematic: she hated me having so much control… Every ending was like a death. During her most difficult periods, she was unable to keep images in her mind and feared that once I was out of sight, I would cease to exist. She also considered endings of sessions as symbols of how little I cared for her, how quickly I could dispense with her. My vacations or professional trips invariably posed such major problems that on several occasions, I chose to phone to maintain contact.” (p.149)

This is a worthwhile collection due to the strength of the nonfiction pieces but in terms of fictional offerings, Yalom’s two novels, Lying on the Couch and When Nietzsche Wept are much more compelling than the two pieces of fiction offered here.

My Happy Life a Novel

My Happy Life as a NovelBook by Lydia Millet

Annotation by Telaina Eriksen

When students of writing read Lydia Millet, it is an exercise in humility. Millet earns her much-deserved reputation again with this deceptively slim novel and its haunting, autistic prose. In My Happy Life, our narrator, whose name is never spoken or mentioned, has been “forgotten” in an insane asylum which has been scheduled for demolition. Alone, with just running water and a small box of artifacts from her life, she proceeds to write her life story on the walls of the room that will surely become her coffin. She calls her life a happy one. The irony of this is so deep and rich, one can barely begin to touch on it in a two-page annotation.

This work is so darkly funny, so black and beautiful, sad and touching. Millet’s command over language and metaphor, her way of tipping things upside down to look at them makes this a unique and challenging work. Horrible thing after horrible thing visits our narrator. She calls herself stupid, but she is also gifted. She has a different way of looking at things and undoubtedly suffered brain damage not only at her birth (prematurely and then placed in a shoe box and given to the state) but by the beatings she suffered as a child. She becomes partly crippled when hit by a car. She is kicked out of school, farmed out to abusers at foster homes and all the while her voice arises from description of these events—with an urgent understatement, innocence and earnestness. Our narrator doesn’t know why anything happens in the world (“I am in charge of nothing” she says on page 40) but you can almost hear Millet ask the reader if any of us really do.

The structure of the book surrounds important objects in the narrator’s life—a tooth, a towel, a leaf, and the shoe box (the one her newborn body was shoved into) which holds all of these artifacts. The narrator describes how each object came into the box and she seems disconnected in some very obvious way from her happy life. But as her trials continue, she gets pregnant by the sadist who has imprisoned her and repeatedly beaten and raped her (she is less than 20 years old at the time). After she has the child, Brother, she calls him, her wispiness fades and she focuses on the baby boy, really happy and very maternal for someone so deeply… reality-challenged. The sadist, who has always wanted a son, drugs her and leaves her in a hotel room, with only her shoe box and a stack of cash, taking Brother and leaving, the narrator suspects, the country.

A substantial part of the book follows where our narrator is much more focused in her happy life because she has to look for Brother. “And I knew what Mr. D. had practiced on me and that he was not prone to charity. Because the tools from the past centuries, and the wires and the knives, might have been all right for me but they could not be plied on Brother. For Brother there could be no history.” (90)

We believe the narrator because of her innocence, her understatement and her constant misunderstandings of the world. She is guileless and toward the end, very probably certifiably insane due to electroshock and starvation. But still we believe her perceptions. The narrator’s grace with language is also believed because of the segmentation—gifted in this area, naïve and clueless in this other one. This gives Millet much to work with in terms of her structure. Her novel is at once straightforward and nuanced. The reader follows the narrator between reflections about ghosts and dreams, memories and the future, and the unreliability of the ocean.

Millet’s originality shines throughout the piece. It is even more impressive if one has read previous works of hers. Her range as a writer is amazing—comic, subversive, strange, slapstick, literary, touching, believable and poetic. If a writer is prone to envy or feelings of inadequacy, he/she needs to stay far clear of My Happy Life, and Millet’s other works as well.