Tag Archives: 305fiction

Public Reading Response (Oliver de la Paz)

Oliver de la Paz was an incredible treat to have on campus;  I was in another world from the very first poem he read and I don’t think I’ll ever forget the idea of seeing jars with fireflies in them, but “no, they’re hands holding matches.”  Fantastic.  I had never heard of the term “ekphrastic poems” but I’ve done an exercise in which I had to write a poem based off of a picture and it was difficult, so I was pretty impressed that de la Paz had a whole bunch of really neat pictures and corresponding poems.  I also really liked the anecdote and practice of the post card poems.  My least favorite poem or idea was the one about Aeros, the colt, trotting.  I suppose if I were a horse lover it might have stood among the other poems, but as I am not, it was the weakest link for me (which in no way made it a bad poem).

It was really helpful to hear that there was a 10 year span between his first and second book publishing.  I liked the idea of using titles as prompts, as in his “Aubade with constellations, some horses, and snow.”  Very cool experience to get another great poet’s advice and perspective.

I also took great pleasure in hearing “In Defense of Small Towns” read by Oliver himself, as I’d studied this poem, along with a few others, this semester and it was by-far my favorite of his that I’d been acquainted with.

Word Count: 246

Reader Response: The Third Dumpster (Jen Gish)

In The Third Dumpster, Gish Jen uses the contrast of dialogue and thought—direct method—to provide complexity to her characters, which in turn makes them interesting. Goodwin and Morehouse Lee are unemployed, ex-contractor brothers doing their best to fix up an extremely run-down house that they acquired for free so that their parents might have a more easily navigable home to live in. An important theme that keeps this story moving forward is the fact that the Lees are a Chinese family, and despite the parents having lived in America for 50+ years, the Chinese traditions are still extremely important to them.

This detail provides the motivation for the story itself, as the Lee brothers had attempted to fix their parents up in an old folk’s home but were unsuccessful due to the “Western food,” which provided enough of a reason for the Lee parents to decline the option. With this premise at the forefront, the Lee brothers appear to be extremely patient and loving children who will stop at nothing to give their parents the comfort and safety of a new, ranch-style home. As the story progresses, however, it becomes clear through a number of thoughts presented that these boys aren’t as angelic as they first seem to be.

By the second page, suspicions are definitely aroused about the boys’ mission. Despite being in a recession, one that has clearly affected them personally, they are still moving forward with the house flipping process, even stooping to the level of illegally dumping asbestos-ridden debris into a dumpster that belongs to another construction site. They hire illegal Guatemalans for cheap labor, endangering their health. They complete the electrical wiring of the house without being certified in that department, hinting that their parents might not really be that safe in their new house.

At one point the question is posed from brother to brother, “What choice do we have?” On the last page of the story, the answer is given in a thought that neither son will speak, “you guys could come live with me.” Leading up to this point, Jen has done a clean job of depicting reasons why the Lee brothers would not want to extend this offer to their parents; for example, the berating imaginary dialogue filled with disapproval from their parents. It seems both boys have struggled to escape this treatment in their adult lives and perhaps had successfully done so until their parents’ age became an unavoidable issue.

Even in the last couple paragraphs of the story, Jen contrasts Morehouse’s thoughts with the dialogue he might have with his mother, “nodding and nodding” at her remarks, “even as he went on building.” While there is a lot more to analyze within this story, I think it is a great example of using contrasting thought vs. dialogue to create complex characters, difficult situations, and a very believable conundrum for the family presented.

 

Word Count: 485

Reader Response: Encouters with Unexpected Animals (Bret Anthony Johnston)

Despite being a mere four pages long, Encounters with Unexpected Animals by Bret Anthony Johnston provides a remarkable amount of action and emotion to process. I want to focus on the answer to the question “what does it mean to be a human in this particular story?” I think one of the most predominant human characteristics woven in this story is control/power or lack thereof. The reader does not have access into the mind of Lambright, but the story is filled with his decisions.

From the first sentence, Lambright is deciding to drive his son’s, Robbie’s, girlfriend home, an action that seems to have a particular motivation since it is said to be an abnormal choice for him to make. The girl, Lisa, is described as a rebel and a potential bad influence on Robbie, who is younger than she. When Lambright is the one driving Lisa in his own car, he holds a position of power and control over her. He literally gets to decide where they go, and he tries to assume the role of navigator within their conversation as well. His actions are entirely premeditated, regarding motivation.

Lambright recalls a wild dinner-table conversation, in which Lisa claimed to have seen many non-native animals in domestic spaces. At Lambright’s house, Lisa plays the role of the exotic, a fact not lost on Lambright who wonders not what Robbie sees in her, but what Lisa finds attractive in Robbie. He recalls Robbie’s average, childhood boy’s room and compares it to the brasher standard of living he has acquired since Lisa came along. Not only is Lambright losing his sense of control and security concerning his son, he mentions that two of his wife’s necklaces and a bottle of her pills have gone missing. The underage couple is also caught drinking whiskey in his own backyard. Not even his own house is under his control anymore.

Lambright tries to regain his pre-Lisa control by telling her to ditch Robbie and move along. When she provides resistance to this idea, positions of power intermingle and things get sexual, another form of power and control. Lisa questions if Lambright might try to rape her if she refuses to dump Robbie, to which Lambright only says, “Lisa,” in a tone that makes him feel superior and father-like. He revels in these feelings and then things become overtly sexual. From keywords like “stiff,” and “shiver,” Lisa begins taunting Lambright by scooting close to him and seeming to give him approval to dominate her in an act of sex. There is a major game of control and power playing out here, which Lisa seems to win. Lambright backs down from her seduction. The mouse ends up fleeing from the cat, as it were, when Lisa bolts from Lambright’s truck before he makes a move in any direction. Instead, he begins to make his next move, thinking about how “to see her as an animal he’d managed to avoid, a rare and dangerous creature he’d describe for Robbie when he got home.”

Reader Response: The Chair (David Means)

In David Means’ The Chair, readers learn about Bob Allison, his wife, Sharon, and their son, Gunner (along with an assortment of minor parent characters) through the thoughts of Bob Allison, himself. Bob seems to be an earnest, passionate man, a loving father, an intelligent being, and a worrier. Sharon is portrayed by her husband as a beautiful woman, a workaholic, and a liar, potentially having an affair with another man or just with the city of Manhattan. There is a sense that she is the family realist while Bob is the dreamer, which may or may not be a product of his occupation as a stay-at-home father. Gunner seems to function as both a source and recipient of his father’s love, as well as philosophical prompting device, and, potentially, a wedge driving between the stability of his parents, as separates and individuals.

Each character has a very distinct function in this story, driving the “plot” forward. On the forefront, there is Gunner who is literally forcing his father to chase after him as he daringly heads towards a retaining wall in their back yard. In this scene, there are also the birds that seem to prompt both Gunner and Bob to observe and think certain things according to their sounds and movements.

In another storyline that overlaps Gunner and Bob’s outdoor excursion, Bob procures multiple scenes that revolve around his wife’s movements to and from the city of Manhattan. Her commute, which involves driving and taking the train, is discussed. Her tendency to arrive home after the expected time, as of late, is mentioned in a way that is simultaneously expected and untraditional; it seems, throughout the rest of the story, that Bob is less fearful of his wife cheating on him with another man than he is jealous of her “grown-up” world in the city that he is not a part of. It is implied, through Bob’s deep understanding (verging on recollection) of life in the city, that perhaps he was forced to sacrifice his own career and world in Manhattan with the arrival of his son. Sharon is portrayed as a woman who was not willing to stop working to raise her child, and Bob assumes a life of martyrdom, “willing” to raise Gunner, but obviously unfulfilled at times, as seen in his imagining following Sharon to work.

I think the use of movement throughout this story is extremely well executed. Not only is it functioning on multiple levels, but also it is so well intertwined with the characters that Means has created a very realistic slice of how the momentum of life can quickly pull a person into a life that they never imagined, and somehow also in slow-motion. There are contradictory paces being presented at once with the layering of actions and thoughts and imagination that really encompasses the complexity of the moment when you realize that this is your life; your son’s life. I wish I had more room to talk about this one.

Reader Response: Train (Alice Munro)

Alice Munro’s Train is not a story that lends itself easily to summary, or quick understanding, for that matter.  I am honestly having a difficult time formulating what I would want to stay about this story, predominantly because I can’t pinpoint the role of the war within it.  I am accustomed to analyzing the role of war within any story as the main point of concern and source of change, but I feel like that is completely overshadowed by the theme of sexual abuse or sexuality in general.  I can’t seem to connect how the war-forged parts of this story might tie into the sexually motivated parts, aside from the fact that both war and rape are acts that can involve a person without their consent and radically change a person’s ability to function in the world. This connection also provides, for me at least, an understanding of why Munro spent so long getting the reader of Train involved in the life that Jackson builds with Belle before taking it away with no reward or logical explanation. It was extremely jarring and unpleasant to be waiting for the story to pay off—or at least continue on the same tracks it was headed down—only to have it abandon you and bombard you with a new, unmentioned, unrelated story. If Munro was attempting to write a story whose form mimics the content in the sense that we, as people, don’t always get to choose or end up with what we want, I feel she succeeded.

I also particularly liked the characterizations of the creepy Mennonites and of Belle. Regarding the former, the Mennonites were a haunting collective from the first moment that they were mentioned, and their presence in the area that Belle was living in gave a very The Village-esque feel to the setting. This feeling stuck with me throughout the story and did a really good job of keeping the eerie tone that I think Munro wanted the reader to feel to better relate or react to Jackson and Belle in the end. Belle was an overtly interesting character as well. A lot of description went into her history and her present, down to the fact that the majority of the story took place in her house. In this way, the reader was almost misdirected away from thinking about Jackson and Jackson’s odd choices throughout the story, which also helps exaggerate the impact of later messages.

Train was a very stimulating, almost puzzle-like tale to read. I can’t help feeling like there are a hundred things I missed as a first read-through, which I enjoy in a short story for the satisfaction of going back and figuring it out.

Reader Response: Malaria (Michael Byers)

Michael Byers opens Malaria with a swath of indirect character presentation via exposition through the eyes of the narrator, Orlando. He quickly summarizes himself and his then-girlfriend, Nora Vardon—including what he thinks their outward and inward appearances are like, what they are generally doing in life, who they hang out with, and how they associate with one another. The effect of this information is that we expect a change in their love story (or anti-love story) to unfold in the coming pages and we expect it to include some significant presence of either the Vardon family’s “depressives and schizophrenics” or Orlando’s “bunch of drunks, mainly the men on [his] father’s side.” While the story unfolds with the former, the latter is still of importance. The author has created longevity to the characters; what might yet befall Nora and George, or Orlando, who is poised as the next man in a line of alcoholics, beyond the confines of this story? With that in mind, I find it interesting that the first line of direct dialogue is from Orlando himself, regarding his name saying, “They wanted me to be different.”

While Byers uses summary and indirect dialogue to great effect, from a reader’s perspective there is a clear change in attention when he begins using direct dialogue. There is a lot of thought-provoking banter between Mrs. Vardon, Nora and Orlando that circles around racial identity. The resulting conversation allows a reader to interpret the perceived intellectual levels of the characters, but also brings in some very important ideas about “othering” and “sadness” and “problems,” that interacts with the rest of the text in very peculiar ways considering that son and brother George Vardon is diagnosed with schizophrenia within the story.

There is a skillful manipulation of indirect and direct dialogue throughout this story that allows the reader to draw their own opinions and ideas of and about each character presented, and procure a sense of empathy or sympathy for each one. Because of these direct glimpses we are given of the characters that beacon the story, there is no real need to question Orlando despite the vast amount of exposition that comes from his point of view. I think this allows for a greater connection between Orlando and the reader, which is important because of the nature of what “changes” or “goes wrong” within this story. That slightly sick feeling that Orlando seems to have over George’s long-passed Malaria comment is more easily understood because we were there (through direct dialogue) in the key moments that produced those feelings.

Aside from the use of direct and indirect method, it was an intriguing experience for me to be able to see how mental health issues can seriously affect the people that are surrounded by those who have them. Somehow it stripped away a level of loneliness and perhaps even added a level of bonding that I would not have imagined had I not read this story.

READER RESPONSE: REFERENTIAL (LORRIE MOORE)

While Referential has all the potential to be an impactful short story, I feel that Lorrie Moore made some language choices that lessened the experience of what the piece could have been. Perhaps it is a lack of knowledge and understanding on my part that allows me to point out the following, what I consider “missteps,” and which case I suppose there is a bigger problem afoot; however, I am going to shamelessly volunteer the things that interrupted my experience of what could have been an incredible story.

Just when I was settling into the story, the first of a series of off-putting references, similes, and metaphors happened at the end of the first paragraph, which was the following description: “The jars were arranged by color… as if they contained the urine tests of an increasingly ill person.” There is potential here for beauty or even a better medically-centered description (one that speaks to mental decay rather than physical) but this seems more fitting for a story in which a character is suffering from kidney failure or cancer. It did nothing to emphasize what the child was missing out on by not receiving the jams, nor did it relate to his plight.

While I liked the imagery of “the words ‘peace’ and ‘fuck’ [carved] into picnic tables and tress, the ‘C’ three-quarters of a square” because the detail of the “C” in such graffiti is true yet rarely made a spectacle of, this line was the third successive description using figurative language to refer to the scars on the son’s arms. This was preceded by the mother figure thinking that the scars “sometimes seemed to spell out Pete’s name, the loss of fathers etched primitively in an algebra of skin” and the scars depicted as “white webbed lines” that somehow get tied into the campground graffiti simile. These back-to-back descriptions resulted in a long-winded heap that I did not find striking or helpful when reading the story. On its own, the idea about Pete and the loss of fathers is very complex, being that Pete is not the child’s biological father, and one could argue that a father-figure’s presence in the child’s life is unplanned—how could anything have been pre-etched into self-made scars? While I can venture at what Moore was hoping to accomplish in all of this, it could have been presented far more effectively.

Adding to the hard-to-swallow, was the over-swallowed. Looming storms, stabbing tears, mirrors, pictures of memories past, phantom callers and a relationship on the rocks—not even the à la carte version, the full meal with probable cheating included—all detracted from my feelings for this story. The only thing that made me question my understanding of the entirety of the seemingly confusing choices in language throughout was the “monkey’s paw” reference at the end of the story that appeared to hearken back to an Edgar Allen Poe story I read over a decade ago. I’m still not convinced it isn’t a coincidence.

Reader Response: Miss Lora (Junot Diaz)

There is an important ambiguity in the first sentence of Miss Lora that is most easily spotted by the glaring question mark with which it ends, but the uncertainty extends far beyond the obvious signifier.

“Years later, you would wonder if it hadn’t been for your brother, would you have done it?”

From the content of this question alone, Díaz creates the base upon which a story is built that invites a variety of intellectual levels and personal connections to find what they might within. A first read of Miss Lora provides countless images that adhere to the reader’s memory, be it from personal association, surprise, fear, excitement, distaste or some other unforgettable connection—the language of the piece is powerful and commands one’s attention so that even a non-Spanish-comprehending reader understands the impact, if not the meaning, of the foreign words that Díaz integrates throughout. With so many ambiguous, relatable subjects available—sex, teen pregnancy, education, poverty, disadvantage, cancer, war, death—readers might miss the potential implications of the very first sentence of the story.

Narrator Yunior’s self-analytical “would you have done it?” prompts a small, anecdotal reflection about the woman for whom the story is named, which precedes the more comprehensive story placing Miss Lora within the context of his world. Regarding Miss Lora, Yunior’s now deceased brother, Rafa, had once said “I’d fuck her;” this is dually important as it provides a potential stamp of approval for Yunior’s ultimately sexual relationship with Miss Lora and allows a sliver of someone he loves to continue existing through his decision to engage in the tryst.

There is also an aspect of the opening question that implicates Miss Lora’s motivations for seducing the narrator, which is bolstered by details scattered throughout. “You know you look like your brother,” Miss Lora tells Yunior after they have sex. “She is always trying to get you to talk about your brother,” Yunior says of Miss Lora, who “goes right for [Rafa’s] boxing gloves” when she is staying with Yunior at his house; “she pushes them into her face, smelling them,” which is something that a person does when they miss or enjoy a smell, indicating that Miss Lora knew Rafa’s scent. The reader furthermore learns that Rafa had been sleeping with another older woman from the boys’ neighborhood, and the possibility is apparent that Rafa may have been involved with Miss Lora before he died.

“Years later, you would wonder if it hadn’t been for your brother, would you have done it?”

Is the narrator asking himself this question from the perspective in which he had forged a connection that allowed him to keep Rafa alive? Or is he wondering if he would have had the opportunity to be involved with Miss Lora if he had never had a brother at all?

Miss Lora can be read, accepted, and rejected by a reader in so many ways—it feels as though I would never read it the same way twice.