The Buddha in the Attic

book by Julie Otsuka

annotation by Tina Rubin

Stories dealing with the misguided actions of the U.S. government toward its perceived enemies usually affect me like a punch to the gut. But I need to know, so I don’t run away. Julie Otsuka’s novella about the Japanese picture brides who came to California between the two World Wars was a killer in that respect. Her short, Hemingwayesque sentences were icebergs of emotion.

Otsuka uses an interesting device: her point of view is first person plural. The “we” of the book is a group of young Japanese women who meet on the boat, sailing to an unknown future in America to meet Japanese husbands they have never seen. The husbands, of course, had sent twenty-year-old photos back to Japan to win over their brides and hired professional writers to craft their courtship letters. The narrative arc moves from the women’s arrival and initial disappointment to their inevitable adjustment—to their husbands as well as to the new country, culture, and language. Most accept their fate stoically and thrive despite disease, extramarital affairs, and having to work in the fields or as maids to white families.

I read the book with mild interest until the last forty or so pages, when the Japanese internment begins. After that, the anguish of the author’s understated words hit me, and I could only read a page or so a night before choking up. It was then that I recognized the degree of Otsuka’s skill. Despite keeping individual characters at arm’s length throughout the book, she managed to reveal who they all were. And I cared about every one.

Here’s how she did it. Otsuka relates much of the action by opening her paragraphs with words like “some of us” or “most of us.” She follows with  statements expressing many different situations, ending with a specific thought by someone in the group that illustrates the point. As I absorbed first the general examples and then the narrower one, I began to differentiate the characters—although I didn‘t realize it at first.

An example, from the opening chapter, “Come, Japanese,” on the boat:

At night we dreamed of our husbands. . . . We dreamed we were lovely and tall. We dreamed we were back in the rice paddies, which we had so desperately wanted to escape. The rice paddy dreams were always nightmares. We dreamed of our older and prettier sisters who had been sold to the geisha houses by our fathers so that the rest of us might eat, and when we woke we were gasping for air. For a second I thought I was her. (5)

Or, from the chapter simply called “Whites”:

One of us blamed them for everything and wished that they were dead. One of us blamed them for everything and wished that she were dead. Others of us learned to live without thinking of them at all. We threw ourselves into our work and became obsessed with the thought of pulling one more weed. . . . We forgot about Buddha. We forgot about God. We developed a coldness inside us that still has not thawed. I fear my soul has died. . . . But it was not we who were cooking and cleaning and chopping, it was somebody else. And often our husbands did not even notice we’d disappeared. (37)

As the novel goes on, Otsuka attaches names to the characters but keeps the structure intact. The effect is to reveal the tremendous power of each detail. Details tell the entire story, yet each one, so carefully chosen, becomes irreplaceable.

In a startling final chapter, “A Disappearance,” the first person plural now represents the whites who are left behind after the Japanese have been rounded up and taken away. The unexpected shift in point of view is a delicious surprise. Not only does it work perfectly, but it’s a logical choice, given that the original “we” is gone. And from a historical perspective, even if a fictional one, the reactions of the whites trying to make sense of their friends’, schoolmates’, and local business owners’ disappearance wraps the book up with food for thought.

This is a novel that remains in one’s thoughts long after the last page is read—for Otsuka’s technique as well as her story.

The Women

book by T.C. Boyle

annotation by Tina Rubin

My rendezvous with this novel, which was on a sale table at Borders, was too coincidental to ignore. I’ve always loved the work of Frank Lloyd Wright, and I always meant to read something by T. C. Boyle. When the two forces coalesced, I was helpless. Of course, this novel is about Wright’s messy relationships with the four women he loved, not his work—but through them and the narrator, we do get a sense of the complete man.

It’s fascinating to learn about each of the women and see how the architect, a classic narcissist, interacted with them and others in his world. But Boyle takes us beyond fascination. There are many elements of interest to writers here.

If I were contemplating writing this novel, the first question I would ponder is who should narrate it. Each of the four women and Wright himself—five narrators? Have Wright tell his own story? Use an omniscient narrator?

Boyle did none of the above. He created a completely fictional narrator, 25-year-old Sato Tadashi, a Japanese national whose father has paid steep tuition for him to join the Taliesin Fellowship and work directly with Wright. Intelligent, likable Tadashi was a smart choice for the book. Readers not only see the characters through Tadashi’s cultural bias, which makes this version of Wright’s life unique, but also get a look at the treatment of Japanese in midwestern America during the 1930s and 40s—including a poignant section in which Tadashi is sent away for internment. Bravo to Boyle for finding a way to lobby for social justice.

Tadashi tells his own story in a chapter prefacing each part of the three-part book, then comments in footnotes in the chapters that follow. He narrates those chapters in close third, capturing the voice of the dominant character: Olgivanna (wife three), Miriam (wife two), Mamah (mistress), Kitty (wife one), Frank, or the Barbadian servant, Julian Carleton, who murdered Mamah and seven others and set Taliesin on fire.

Tadashi comes to Taliesin late in Wright’s story (accurately, in terms of the establishment of the Fellowship), when the architect is married to his last wife. Fictional Tadashi relies on opinions from a fictional translator, his Caucasian grandson-in-law, who helps him get at the truth of Frank Lloyd Wright. The device is a bit muddy; Boyle could have carried on without this layer of complication.

However, Boyle does a terrific, fun job of expressing the character of Miriam, Frank’s morphine-addicted, flamboyant second wife (whom he married when Kitty granted him a divorce after Mamah’s murder). The chapters involving the psychotic servant, Carleton, also sing. A caveat: Boyle gives an island dialect to Carleton’s peasant wife, Gertrude. It serves a purpose—to contrast his education with her lack of it—but it made me, as a reader, slow way down to pronounce the words in my mind. Use dialect sparingly, if you have to use it at all. You don’t want the reader drifting out of the story. The Carelton chapters were the climax of the novel, so at least Boyle had timing on his side.

Another choice Boyle had to make was how to structure the story. The logical choice would be to do it chronologically, but that wouldn’t have been the dramatic choice. He introduces Tadashi and then Olgivanna. From there he works backwards, with overlaps. (The overlaps were actually a gift of Wright himself; that’s how the man lived. When one wife refused to grant him a divorce, he simply carried on with a mistress, completely disregarding society’s mores.) At first I was thrown by Boyle’s reverse structure, which (obviously) didn’t move the story forward or build much tension from chapter to chapter, but his reasoning became clear in the end. He closes with Mamah’s murder. High drama. But was it a great structural choice? If the novel hadn’t been about Frank Lloyd Wright, I might not have made it to the end.

Creating enduring characters may be the biggest job a writer faces. The fact that most of the characters in The Women were real made the job easier for Boyle, but he did a good job breathing his own energy into them. Here is passage from Miriam, when she receives Wright’s divorce summons while staying at the home of her friend Leora in Los Angeles:

Yes, she’d left him. Of course she had. Anyone would have. A saint—even the martyrs in their hair shirts and bloody rags. He was impossible, the single most infuriating human being she’d ever met, what with his God complex and his perfectionism, fussing over every last detail as if the world depended on it, his snoring, his musical evenings, the utter soul-crushing desolation of rural Wisconsin where he all but kept her prisoner and every overfed housewife and goggling rube staring at her as if she had the letter A sewed to the front of her dress. Of course she’d left him. But that didn’t mean she didn’t love him still.

In the end, The Women: A Novel is an intriguing, high-energy story with good pacing and some lovely language and imagery. And if one of your characters is a narcissist, as one of mine is, this is the book for you. There’s no better model for it than Frank Lloyd Wright.

East of Eden

book by John Steinbeck
annotation by Tina Rubin

If I ruled the world, East of Eden would be required reading in every creative writing curriculum. Yes, it’s that good, and no, I don’t know how I missed it. Steinbeck’s classic novel, which parallels the biblical tale of Cain and Abel, spans three generations and two families in California’s Salinas Valley.

The point of view is interesting and employs concepts I explored in grad school. The story is told by a first-person narrator, John Steinbeck (one and the same), who was a child as the action was unfolding. The narrator, looking back now as an adult, relates the story using an omniscient point of view. He comes back to the first person pov only now and then—to make an observation or express an opinion and thereby anchor the reader. The narrator clearly could not have been privy to each character’s thoughts and feelings, yet the omniscient point of view works—at least after the first occurrence, I stopped thinking, “Hey, how could he have known that?” I’m still trying to figure that one out, as I learned that a first-person narrator must have been present in order to use an omniscient pov. But that’s the power of Steinbeck.

The narrator editorializes as he opens many of the early chapters, and these were the chapters I really loved—ones where I got a clear sense of who the narrator was. A classic example is in chapter eight, which opens with “I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents.” He goes on to set us up for the introduction of Cathy Ames (mother of the twins Caleb and Aron), who functions as a force of evil in the story. Another is in chapter thirteen, which opens with the narrator describing the feeling of “glory” that lights a man up now and then, as when he finds a good woman:

The skin tastes the air, and every deep-drawn breath is sweet. Its beginning has the pleasure of a great stretching yawn; it flashes in the brain and the whole world glows outside your eyes . . . a cricket song sweetens his ears, the smell of the earth rises chanting to his nose….

One of the great moral lessons of the novel comes in its theme, which is the Hebrew word timshel. It translates as the idea that man has a choice, he can choose to commit evil or not (this stems, we are told, from varied translations of the story of Cain and Abel.) The narrator expresses his own opinion in a direct conversation with readers, telling us that we all have “a secret pond where evil and ugly things germinate and grow strong. . . it would be absurd if we did not understand both angels and devils, since we invented them.” Steinbeck created two heroic characters, Samuel Hamilton (based on his own grandfather) and Lee, the Chinese-American servant, around whom swirl discussions of this theme, and Steinbeck plays it out in remarkable symmetry among the generations and in repeated symbolism throughout the book.

I can’t claim knowledge of the Bible other than studying it as literature in college, so I’m sure some of the symbolism was lost on me. But it was easy to recognize Steinbeck’s use of the initials of Cain and Abel for the key characters (Charles and Adam, brothers; Cathy and Adam, husband and wife; Cal and Aron, twin boys) and his consistent subthemes of a parent seeming to love one son more than the other and, in turn, one brother feeling murderous towards the other; the marking of both Adam’s brother and wife with scars on their forehead (Cain’s protective marking by God as he wandered in exile east of Eden); and the philosophical question of whether Cal was destined to follow the dark tendencies inherited from his mother or could choose otherwise.

The novel was a lesson in characterization as well, with the personalities of each character being expressed not only through his or her actions but also through in-depth discussions in which each one’s point of view was unmistakably that person’s alone. And as honorable and complex as Samuel and Lee were, that’s how dark and complex Cathy (later “Kate”) and those in her world were. Steinbeck’s Alice in Wonderland references during Kate’s death were the perfect metaphor in what must come close to being a perfect novel. At least from this writer’s point of view.

Tender is the Night


book by F. Scott Fitzgerald

annotation by Tina Rubin

I wish I had discovered this book earlier, because its influence on me was profound. I had been eager to read it, not only because The Great Gatsby is a classic and I thoroughly enjoy the era in which Fitzgerald wrote, but because this story involved a sort of juxtaposition of qualities between the two main characters, which is a main element of my novel as well.

In Tender Is the Night, psychiatrist Dick Diver starts out strong and popular while his mental patient wife, Nicole, is weak and impressionable; as the story goes on he deteriorates and she grows strong. In my story, Tristan starts out unethical and Eve tries to keep him honest; in the end they switch roles.

To gain insight into the psychology behind these character arcs, I tried to identify the turning points for the characters in both stories. For Dick Diver, it was his early interest in eighteen-year-old Rosemary Hoyt, which went again his grain and caused him anguish (but didn’t prevent him from pursuing it); his doing so rocked his self-identity and was the catalyst for his excessive drinking. For Nicole, it seemed to be more a reaction to Dick’s gradual demise. In my novel, Eve is taken out of her familiar environment and thrust almost captive into Tristan’s realm of distorted reality, to the extent that she can no longer trust her own judgment. Tristan reacts to Eve’s gradual demise, like Nicole does to Dick’s. These are complex issues of human nature, so it was helpful to see how Fitzgerald accomplishes them.

The writing in this book awed me. It wasn’t just Fitzgerald’s way with words or the thought-provoking way he used the narrator to link the story to the broader universe, but also the unusual techniques he used to tell the story. Two stylistic elements in particular resonated with me. One—which I played with in one of my early chapters—was his use of the em dash with the character’s thoughts coming from somewhere outside the reality of the action and creating a double entendre. Fitzgerald first used it in the story on page 89, when Rosemary’s friend Collis Clay is telling Dick about Rosemary and a college boy making out on the train. Without identifying that these are Dick’s thoughts, Fitzgerald writes:

— Do you mind if I pull down the curtain?
— Please do. It’s too light in here.

He uses these same two lines in several more places throughout the book, and the reader immediately gets it. (I wasn’t quite that clever when I tried it, but it was fun.)

The other element that impressed me came in the second section of the novel, Book 2, when Fitzgerald goes back in time and recounts his meeting and courtship of Nicole the mental patient. Dick has just met Baby Warren, who holds the purse strings, and she disapproves of him as a husband for Nicole; she prefers to “buy” a Chicago doctor for her sister. Without bringing Nicole into the action, Fitzgerald then does four stream-of-consciousness pages from Nicole’s point of view, encapsulating the next few years of their marriage in diary-like entries.

This kind of avant-garde thinking really appeals to me. I spent quite some time pondering how Fitzgerald would write the pages of my novel.

One last point that made an impact on me was his use of the omniscient narrator, as was the trend back in the day, but it made me realize that I have much more to learn more about points of view. When I tried writing my first-person novel in the omniscient p.o.v. the way he did, my writing opened right up. Interesting, huh?

The Time Traveler’s Wife

book by Audrey Niffenegger

annotation by Tina Rubin

After reading so many glowing reviews of this book, I’m going to sound like a curmudgeon, but I learned more about what not to do than what to do reading Niffenegger’s breakout novel. But then I think: Can five million readers be wrong? Who do I think I am?

I’ll answer that by saying I’m a science fiction aficionado and, having tried my hand at writing it, I know the rules. The first is to clearly state the rules, so readers can get oriented. I believe that Niffenegger understood her rules, but they seemed so confusing to me, and unevenly applied, that it became a chore for me to continue. Why, for example, was Henry able to give Clare-the-child a list of dates when he would visit her in the future, but a future Henry could not give Clare-his-wife a list of dates when he’d be gone? Why apply the rules sometimes, but not others?

This issue also came up for me with their young time-traveling daughter, Alba. We assume that, like Henry, she arrives in another time naked. That condition is the bane of Henry’s existence—he has to find clothing, food, money, shelter, and avoid getting picked up by the authorities—but in Alba’s case, Niffenegger carefully avoids these scenarios. But how does a seven-year-old girl cope when she arrives naked and alone in a strange place and time? We get one gratuitous mention, during a rendezvous in time with her father, that she had grabbed a nightgown from an old lady’s clothesline. The author also never explains why, after Henry’s death, a Henry from the past would often visit with his daughter, but not with his wife (until she was 82). So the lesson for me is that if I write science fiction, make the rules clear and simple and apply them evenly.

The love between Clare and Henry is beautifully depicted throughout the book, but I’m left at the end with the question I had at the very beginning: why wasn’t six-year-old Clare afraid of this “old naked guy” who appeared in her meadow? The fact that she took to him right away wasn’t believable; I wanted to see their interaction and how he won her over. In remembering the episode later, Clare says Henry “spectacularly vanished.” If that’s what drew her to him at six, I’d like to have been in the scenes where she felt that and felt the emotion of it then and there.

Certain other elements seemed random to me, dropped in to make the story work. In the last third of the novel, for example, Clare suddenly is agonizing over the fact that she slept with Gomez (currently her best friend’s husband) when she was 18, after losing her virginity to a Henry of the future. The timing of this revelation seems too convenient, because just pages later, Henry learns from Gomez’s wife that Gomez is in love with Clare. That provides an interesting, if exceedingly brief, scene after Henry’s death. The subplot would have been stronger, I think, if it had been woven throughout the story.

Another element that didn’t sit right for me was the final incident with Henry’s frostbite, which seemed way too easy. Having no feet makes Henry conveniently unable to be seen in the bushes during hunting season and unable escape a hunter’s shot. (To Niffenegger’s credit, she makes the point throughout the book that Henry is a serious runner, but the ending is just too convenient.)

The structure of the book, with dates and identification of whose chapter it was, helped anchor me in time and character, but I often could not distinguish who was talking and had to look back at the chapter heading to see. They all sounded alike. Let’s make sure our characters have distinct patterns of speech, so distinct it could only be that person talking. And, pet peeve: characters who say “um” (as in “Um, Clare?” “Um, Henry?”) as if that makes it sound real.

I did like the fact that the author makes a solid scientific basis for Henry’s time traveling. That was quite clever. At some point, I may investigate Niffenegger’s next book, Her Fearful Symmetry: A Novel, to see if she’s grown as a writer and built on her strengths, which include a terrific sense of time and its manipulations and an exquisite sense of place. The New York Times called the new book “mature, complex and convincing.” Publishers Weekly called it “beautifully written if incoherent.” So there you are.

Lolita

book by Vladimir Nabokov

annotation by Tina Rubin

Nabokov became a favorite of mine after I read The Real Life of Sebastian Knight in graduate school. I then devoured his masterpiece, Lolita, which cemented that conviction. His writing is such a joy to read that as soon as I finished the book I started it over again, hungry for more of Humbert Humbert’s (HH’s) world. Through gorgeous and clever use of language(s), remarkable pacing, fabulous detail, and astute character development, Nabokov pulled me into this fictional memoir as if I were entering a prism. I was never quite certain what was “real” and what was reflection as the scenes swirled around me.

Nabokov playfully engages us by giving us precedents and clues for every event in the book, ranging from his childhood love for twelve-year-old Annabel to his ex-wife Valeria’s death during childbirth. Even a random story HH recalls is a careful judgment on Nabokov’s part: the story, which occurred in Arles, is about the role that chance played when a jealous lover stabbed a woman to death while her new husband tried to stop him; the killer escaped when, “by a miraculous and beautiful coincidence,” an explosion occurred. These events of course foreshadow Humbert’s love of the nymphet Lolita, her later death in childbirth, and HH’s toying with the idea of drowning Lolita’s mother (but he didn’t have to, because she was hit by a car). Even Clare Quilty, who follows Humbert and Lolita across the country in an Aztec red convertible (as if they wouldn’t notice?), is Nabokov being playful, drawing us in to unravel the clues. Who knows, perhaps the entire Lolita  portion of the “memoir” was meant to be a figment of a madman’s (HH’s) imagination. What I took from all this—I think—is the magnificent possibilities of the novel, the moods and layers of consciousness that can be created on the page through masterful story-telling. I want to write like that. (Who wouldn’t?)

Nabokov’s use of pacing was instructive too. As Humbert’s insanity grows, his sentences become shorter, his imagery more concrete. From the last part of the story, when HH is determined to murder the man who took Dolly away from him, to the part where he has done the deed and decides to drive on the wrong side of the road (love that symbolism), the action is slowed way down. Every detail, from the ditch and the mud to the bullets and blood, is heightened.

In terms of character development, HH is absolutely convincing and, at the end of the story when he finds Lolita again, even empathetic. In his realization that he loves her completely—despite the fact that she is no longer a nymphet—and his awakening to the degree to which he has ruined her childhood, his pain is palpable. This part in particular moved me because of my interest in empathetic villains (I did a critical paper on their development in works by Capote, Stahl, and Highsmith). Humbert’s actions were despicable, but in his suffering, he became human and vulnerable. Someone like us.

Nabokov said in his note at the end of the book that he intended no message with this story, and I can buy that—I think it was a vehicle that enabled him to attain a level he could not have achieved with a tamer subject. He had to dig deep for this one. I’m aiming for something along those lines with my murderous main character. Years from now, I hope I can say my work was influenced by Vladimir Nabokov.

Ask The Dust

book by John Fante
annotation by Tina Rubin

Charles Bukowski, in his 1979 introduction to Ask the Dust (which Fante wrote 40 years earlier), says that he knew immediately upon reading it that Fante was the influence he’d been searching for all his life. He notes the “energy and substance, the superb simplicity, of each line, one following the other,” and the directness with which Fante confronted emotion and pain.

Bukowski was right to admire Fante. From the first page of this novella, set in 1939 Los Angeles, its hero, 18-year-old Arturo Bandini, gained my empathy. A struggling writer from an Italian family in Colorado, Bandini is a noble character—albeit one with a quirky mean streak—who believes in God and wants to live up to his Catholic upbringing. He loves the little mouse, Pedro, that visits his hotel room; he tries to resist stealing milk bottles from a truck despite his hunger and poverty; and he can’t bring himself to have sex with a prostitute who picks him up because it’s wrong, even though he’s never had a woman. (In fact, he gives her most of the money his mother just sent him for food, so that she will just lie still and talk to him.) These little details wonderfully revealed character and made me care. The central conflict of the story, foreshadowed early, was Bandini’s relationship to Camilla Lopez, the Mayan waitress at the Columbia Buffet.

I was totally taken in as Fante unfolded this character study, gradually peeling off the layers through Bandini’s stuggle as a writer and his schoolboy-like efforts to win the girl. While I anticipated from the title that the story would not end well, I never would have guessed this ending—so, bravo to Fante for the element of surprise, so critical for writers to achieve.

The story is written in the first person point of view, past tense, yet Fante managed to incorporate close third and second person povs, AND present tense, AND shift back and forth among them all without missing a beat. The narrator (Bandini) addresses himself, talks himself through certain scenes, and tells the reader about this Bandini guy in a sort of stream of consciousness. I marveled at how Fante pulled this off; you’d think it would be a disaster. I’m tempted to try his technique just for practice.

The writing is terrific. It would have to be to make all that work. Here’s a moving passage when Bandini is literally running from the prostitute’s room, trying to think of an excuse for his exit (26):
A man of importance, ah yes, now I remembered, my publisher, he was getting in tonight by plane. Out at Burbank, away out at Burbank. Have to grab a cab and taxi out there, have to hurry. Goodbye, goodbye, you keep that eight bucks, you buy yourself something nice, goodbye, goodbye, running down the stairs, running away, the welcome fog in the doorway below, you keep that eight bucks, oh sweet fog I see you and I’m coming, you clean air, you wonderful world, I’m coming to you, goodbye, yelling up the stairs, I’ll see you again, you keep that eight dollars and buy yourself something nice. Eight dollars pouring out of my eyes. Oh Jesus kill me dead and ship my body home, kill me dead and make me die like a pagan fool with no priest to absolve me, no extreme unction, eight dollars, eight dollars. . . .

Fante’s use here of abbreviated run-on sentences and repetition gives a very physical sense of running down the stairs, building the momentum until the character seems to fling himself out into the foggy night, collapsing with shame.
Once Bandini has met Camilla, Fante heightened the tension, bringing out his character’s mean streak. But he also provided Bandini plenty of reflective moments that enabled me to see the similarities between the two characters and where this side of Bandini was coming from; i.e., balancing the bad with the good and maintaining that empathy that was created at the outset. He also used the contrast between Bandini’s rising career and failing romance to add tension, along with a sad, somewhat psycho woman who becomes Bandini’s first lover and the subject of his best-selling novel. The tone, too, becomes darker about halfway through the book when Bandini sends Camilla a love poem at work and, while he stands hidden outside watching her, she tears it up.

Everything about this book was instructive and engaging, but before I go on too long, I want to add that the setting—downtown Los Angeles in late 1930s—was so well done as to be a character in the book. Ask the Dust could not have been written with any other setting. Of course, being a resident of Los Angeles, I enjoyed that aspect tremendously, but it also reminded me that as writers, we can’t just stick our characters down anywhere. The setting has to be as integral to the story as the characters’ own style of speech or personality traits.

Like Bukowski, I’ll be reading more of John Fante. He may not have had the reputation of even his editor, H. L. Mencken, during his lifetime, but he certainly was a major talent, one that we can still learn from.

Ficciones


book by Jorges Luis Borges

annotation by Tina Rubin

With the earlier stories in this collection (Part I: The Garden of Forking Paths), Borges not only “explodes all previous notions of genre,” as critics have said, he also exploded my own naiveté about the impact magical realism can have when done well. Borges’ references to ancient literature, his explorations on the nature of reality, and his hints at chaos theory literally elated me. I had long boxed these subjects into the nonfiction category (philosophy, religion, history), not realizing that they could be incorporated into fiction. A few years ago I began a nonfiction novel based on translations of ancient texts, on the order of his “Circular Ruins” story in which thought form becomes reality which, in effect, turns out to be thought form. The few people who read my early chapters labeled it science fiction, and I promptly put it away. I hadn’t yet discovered magical realism. Reading Borges, however, gave me insight about writing in this genre and the courage to pick up my previous work.

Borges’ well-crafted stories, many written with tongue-in-cheek humor, are excellent examples of how to amuse while expanding a reader’s mind. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the first story, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” contains this sentence: “Then Bioy Casares recalled that one of the heresiarchs of Uqbar had stated that mirrors and copulation are abominable, since they both multiply the numbers of man.” If you’re going to write about possibility, probability, and a chaotic universe, it’s probably a good idea to be funny while you’re at it.

Borges weaves his philosophy, which questions our perception of reality (including books), through his stories. Our perception of reality is one of my favorite topics, and one I’ve incorporated into my current novel, so I read with great interest to see how he did what he did. “The Babylon Lottery” reflects on the Godlike qualities an artificial system can take on, making the reader wonder whether our own notion of God began with such an artificial system. Borges’ reviews of imaginary books (which brought Vladimir Nabokov to mind—specifically The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, in which Nabokov’s narrator convincingly analyzes his dead half-brother’s novels) astounded me with their implications. And from the world of Uqbar, where there are no nouns, to the Library of Babel, a chaotic universe where books have no meaning, the message seems to be this: Don’t take reality for granted; there are innumerable probabilities and you can choose whichever future you like.

Although Borges carries his themes through the second half of the collection, Part I resonated more with me. The stories in Part II, however, were excellent examples of craftsmanship and narrative story, conveying an equal measure of action to theme with not quite as much intellectualism.

Ficciones is a difficult collection to annotate—with these two pages, I haven’t begun to do it justice. But as Pierre Menard, Borges’ fictional author of Don Quixote, suggests, every time we read we are, in effect, creating an entirely new text simply by viewing it through the distorting lens of history. So it is with Ficciones. I could create any number of pages here, since with each review I go off on an entirely new tangent. Such fun!

As I Lay Dying

41cyZTFwQ2L._SL160_book by William Faulkner

annotation by Tina Rubin

In this brilliant 1930 novel, Faulkner tells the story of a rural Mississippi family on a mission to haul their mother’s body in its coffin to her native Jefferson, where she had requested burial. But Addie Bundren tells us, after her death, that this is her way of taking revenge on them. In a series of missteps told through multiple narrators in both present and past tenses, Faulkner reveals not only Addie’s revenge, but each character’s inner workings and the faceted ways they view each other.

Faulkner’s willingness to explore various techniques for this novel opened doors for me to the possible ways of structuring a story. His multiple narrators, for example, each given their own chapters, give the reader unusual insight into the characters pursuing this absurd journey. Through the voice and perception of each one, the use of repetition and irony, and a paucity of information that makes the reader work hard for understanding, Faulkner effects a stunning novel that blazed new trails for both writers and readers.

Placing the “Addie” chapter at almost exactly two-thirds through the novel was a brilliant strategy. Addie is the missing piece of the puzzle; her words clarify the other characters’ actions. Once we know Addie’s real feelings, we can see how she’s taking revenge on her family by having them make this journey. Yet Faulkner then gives us an ironic ending: the revenge is only effected upon Darl, a sympathetic character who is taken away to an insane asylum. Darl seems the most together of the whole clan and the most like his mother, intelligent and philosophical. Anse Bundren, the father, whose behavior has been amoral (taking his children’s money and his son’s hard-earned horse), gets exactly what he wants in the end—false teeth and a new wife—even before Addie’s grave is a day old. Which is sort of how things are in life, the creeps often win. We don’t want our endings to be too tidy.

Jewel, Addie’s illegitimate son who dearly loved her, was treated with irony too, but in a different way than Darl: via character rather than plot. Jewel’s eyes were frequently described as wooden, his body wooden-backed, and he said little—but his actions exhibited the most passion of all the siblings. (And his name was a perfect choice: hard, rigid, but filled with splendor.) I’m rethinking my treatment of my characters with irony in mind—but then that’s what makes literature literature.

Repetition, which Faulkner uses masterfully, is a technique I’ve been taking careful note of in my readings. When done well, it makes the point and acts as an emotional tag to remind the reader of an earlier passage or moment in time. It was most often used by other characters in regard to Jewel. The neighbor Vernon Tull also repeats his razor-edge perception of Anse: “It’s like a man that’s let everything slide all his life to get set on something that will make the most trouble for everybody he knows.” (89)

Faulkner’s use of language is inspirational too. Many passages struck me, such as in the very beginning when Darl describes Jewel’s encounter with his horse (“enclosed by a glittering maze of hooves as by an illusion of wings”). His descriptions of the flooded river, which kills the mules and nearly kills Cash, and of the fire Darl sets to the barn containing the coffin, were riveting and well paced.

It seems absurd to criticize Faulkner, but as others have noted, I thought many passages were obscure and would not have survived a writing workshop. Take this passage spoken by the youngest brother, Vardaman, for example: “Pa said flour and sugar and coffee costs so much. Because I am a country boy because boys in town. Bicycles.” (66) (What??) That said, however, I thoroughly applaud Faulkner for taking the risks that enabled us to learn from him.

Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlasbook by David Mitchell

annotation by Tina Rubin

David Mitchell has succeeded in fulfilling my goal in life: to bring a new way of thinking to a society that likes to hold on to tradition. Pretty big footsteps to follow in, I realize. I can’t claim to have Mitchell’s brilliance or talent, but I’ve gained immeasurably from reading this book: from its voice(s), humor, humanistic message, playfulness, and, most of all, its remarkable structure. If Mitchell is on the leading edge of a new wave of literature, I’m right there soaking up the surge.

I haven’t read anything, that I remember, in which the structure of the book is as integral to the theme as it is in Cloud Atlas. Each of the six novellas of the book (like the character Frobisher’s six nested sonnets) stands on its own when its two separated halves are put together, but a small part of each one is absorbed by the next. Not only does the novel move forward in time until the middle and then backward in time to the end, each page contains the whole—just as every moment of what we call “reality” contains past, present, and future. The mirror images Mitchell gives us with this structure are infinite.

Further, as the book goes on we discover that each “recorded” means of telling the story is not exactly the truth we think it is: Adam Ewing’s journal, we’re told, might not be authentic, Sixsmith’s letters are really part of a novel, the novel’s publisher is just a character in a movie, Sonmi ~ 451’s ordeal was scripted . . . until we return, far in the future, to oral tradition, perhaps the ultimate form of ghost writing. The character Isaac Sachs in the second half of the first Luisa Rey mystery is, I think, David Mitchell, literally stepping into the scene to explain himself. Sachs writes in his notebook about actual past and virtual past, symmetry, and actual and virtual future (and then gets splattered to bits as the plane he’s on explodes, which I see as a funny, self-deprecating gesture on Mitchell’s part.) My point here is that Mitchell shows us how memory is actually a figment of our imagination.

Through the different narrators and the tenses and forms of their stories, I learned to assess how much perspective each character has—something I hadn’t realized previously and can definitely use. When, for example, narrator Tim Cavendish relates his story of being trapped in an evil nursing home in past tense, even if I don’t know in the moment what’s going to happen, I do know he’ll be alive at the end, because he’s telling the story. Conversely, a story told in present tense gives less perspective; its temporality and causality are open and plot-based.

Another aspect of Cloud Atlas, Mitchell’s use of language, opened my eyes to how much fun an author can have with words while using them to convey deep meaning. In addition to his repetition of various phrases and images from one chapter to the next as emotional tags of a sort, his generonyms were cleverly done. Best of all, by naming the savior in Sloosha’s Crossing Meronym—“a word that names a part of a larger whole”—he ends the tale on an exceptionally upbeat note, speaking volumes about the civilized world ahead in just one word.