Whitman’s “Beginning My Studies”

While reading a PDF selection titled “How to Read a Poem” for my English 340 / Studies in Poetry course, I came across something that caused me to have an epiphany of sorts.

Walt Whitman’s poem “Beginning My Studies” was one of twenty-six he wrote to introduce his major work, a single book he had been working on his whole life.

The feeling he describes in this poem, the feeling of loving the idea of just starting out so much that he does not want to move forward, is exactly how I feel when I start working on a new story. Perhaps this is why I have difficulty completing what I hope would become novels. When inspiration strikes, I absolutely love sitting down with my laptop to begin typing out a new idea. It’s moving past that beginning I have trouble with, and this must be because I “linger with pleasure over the ecstatic beginning.”


A Response to Byers’ ‘Shipmates Down Under’

Okay, so I’m not sure if we were supposed to respond to this short story or not, but I thought I would take a second to talk about how much I liked Michael Byers’ Shipmates Down Under. I was hooked after less than the first page – I think the characters’ odd language (“bluh,” “mumph,” etc.) was part of the intrigue.

Byers gives the reader a look into an average family’s life, but in an interesting way. Part of the tension going on definitely has to do with their daughter, Nadia, being sick, but a lot of it already exists between the narrator and his wife. At first I got a sense that Alvin liked his son, Ted, more than his daughter and kind of resented both Nadia and his wife, Harriet. This alone was enough to make me keep reading; I wanted to know more about these characters’ relationships. Toward the end, however, the narrator seemed to care about both his children – it was just Harriet causing problems.

Obviously, a lot is left open in this story. We don’t know if Alvin and Harriet work things out. We never figure out what exactly caused Nadia to get so sick. We never discover – and I was particularly interested in this – why they say those made-up words. But none of this really matters. Byers has used his story to look at certain problems families may encounter, particularly between husband and wife. His characters are certainly believable, and I, as the reader, saw Alvin’s perspective and took his side – but Byers allows the readers to do this in such a way that they don’t necessarily see Harriet as the bad guy.

The characters themselves were all very interesting and not the norm or the expected. The entire family was a bit strange, but in a good way. Byers gains reader interest not by having a spectacular, earth-shattering plot, but by creating characters the reader is interested to know more about. I would definitely read another story about Alvin, Harriet, Ted, and Nadia… or perhaps just another story by Byers in general.

A Response to Cheever’s ‘The Swimmer’

John Cheever’s The Swimmer was brilliant and depressing at the same time. I had a difficult time getting into the story at first, but once I realized he was swimming all the pools in the county to get home, I was quite intrigued. Then, when the weird details started popping up – such as how early it is getting dark and how rapidly the leaves seem to be changing – I was even more hooked.

Cheever’s choice to reveal the truth about Ned’s life just a half a step ahead of Ned himself finding out was a successful one. Because the story is in third person, we see all the little hints at the same time as Ned does, but we can make sense of them before he thinks it all through. This adds to the aspect of tension, prompting the readers to try to figure out all the details and to wonder, When will Ned figure out what’s going on? I guess it’s kind of in line with the idea of suspense instead of surprise. Ned doesn’t just swim through the town all happy then come home to an empty house on an Autumn night that causes him to realize his sad life story. We are told something bad has happened to him fairly early on; it’s just the particulars we still need to figure out, so we keep reading.

Though I’ve finished the story, I’m still not one hundred percent certain what happens in it. Has this really occurred in one day, with Ned simply having a skewed perception of time and not realizing the true date until the end? Or is this adventure through backyards and swimming pools something he does regularly, his growing fatigue a sign of how he’s actually aged? Cheever leaves the reader with less questions answered than not, but this works to his advantage (think of the ending of the movie Inception).

Another thing I want to note – this idea of Ned swimming home by way of the neighborhood swimming pools and calling them the Lucinda River made me think that this could be a poem rather than a short story. Doesn’t a river of swimming pools sound like something that would be touched upon in poetry? (I guess this Repurposed Art assignment has me thinking this way.) Overall, The Swimmer was quite inventive.

A Response to Foer’s “What The?”

“What The?” is the first chapter of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which has recently been adapted to film. I have yet to read the book or watch the movie, but after reading this chapter, I want to do both.

As the first chapter of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, “´╗┐What The?” successfully pulls me into wanting to read the whole book.

Foer does an excellent job establishing the narrative voice of his story right away. As a reader, I really got a sense of Oskar’s personality. I really wanted to continue reading in order to know more about this honest young kid who seems far too intelligent for his age, is constantly thinking up random inventions, and thinks his mom doesn’t love him and wishes he were the dead one instead of his father. What makes him wear only white clothing? What is his obsession with Stephen Hawking? Foer has created a narrator with intriguing quirks that peak the reader’s interest.

Foer’s first chapter provides the reader with a lot of background information but doesn’t explain everything – just enough to get to know the characters and their lives a bit while still provoking questions. The most obvious one is: What happened when Oskar answered his dad’s call? This, of course, is the cliff hanger that pushes the reader onto the next chapter. Other questions involve the narrator and his father’s Sunday Reconnaissance Expeditions and the relationship between the narrator and his mother, as I mentioned before.

I also found it nice that the phrase “What the?” was actually used a couple times throughout the chapter, and the narrator wasn’t the only one to say it. Not only is the title a line from the text, it serves as the reader’s initial reaction to the narrator – the first paragraph really had me wondering who this person was and why the heck he was thinking about teakettles and talking anuses. Something else I found interesting was the constant use of the words “incredibly” and “extremely.” Though I haven’t read the entire book, these adverbs in the first chapter make its title really fit.

Just from this excerpt of the novel, I can see that the narrator’s point of view will be used to touch upon serious and tragic issues while providing a somewhat lighter perspective – due to his personality and age – making me as a reader far more interested than I would be if the narrator were a serious adult.

A Response to Harty’s ‘Why the Sky Turns Red When the Sun Goes Down’

Ryan Harty’s Why the Sky Turns Red When the Sun Goes Down is a brilliant example of successful science fiction. Harty flawlessly weaves the futuristic and imaginary idea of robot children into a world as normal as our own. The story addresses spousal conflict, parental worries, and many other themes that could be found in any genre of fiction. These issues could be interesting enough to read about on their own, but Harty’s surprising inclusion of a mechanical, robotic son really ups the ante.

Because Harty writes about his robots as if they are completely normal – they look like human children, and they are treated more or less the same as anyone – the reader really believes it and doesn’t have that little voice in the back of his head saying, But this could never really happen.

Harty uses the perfect balance of detail and mystery. The reader doesn’t know every detail about the world of the story – how common it is to have a robot child, how these robots actually work, how and why people want or need to adopt a robot child – but doesn’t need to in order to comprehend the story. The world constructed by Harty seems to be the same world we live in, but with a futuristic and scientific twist.

One of the issues at the heart of the story is the conflict between Mike, the narrator, and his wife Dana. Their disagreements, though revolving around their robotic son Cole, could happen without the sci-fi aspect of the novel; any couple could disagree over what course of action to take with their child, causing them to grow apart and contemplate leaving one another.

Another successful element of this story is the believability of the characters’ emotions. The little details about Cole when he gets upset convey his emotion really well – “a look of panic overtakes him,” “he’s trying to appear calm for my sake,” “his eyes suddenly fill with tears and he has to glance off at the picnic tables,” etc. – and as a reader, I really feel for both Cole and his father.

Since the story is told from Mike’s point of view, I take his side. I agree with him about not wanting to get Cole a new chip and almost view Dana as the bad guy (almost, because I still feel Mike’s love for and desire to get along with his wife). Would anyone exchange their human child for another if he got sick? No. So why would someone do that with a robot child? Harty makes the reader question right and wrong in a way that isn’t so black and white – clearly, we don’t have to deal with exactly the same issues that the narrator and his wife do, but their problems are very similar to ones we could encounter.

I think the biggest reason Ryan Harty’s short story is so great is that he writes about something odd in a way which makes it seem normal, connecting his story’s conflicts with real life and providing the reader with just enough detail. Additionally, using a modified line from the story as the title was an excellent choice.

A Response to Russell’s ‘St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves’

I am a huge fan of science fiction, so I was surprised to find myself less than impressed upon finishing Karen Russell’s St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. Perhaps I was disappointed in the short story because I’ve spent a lot of time reading stories and novels of this genre and have high expectations, but I feel Russell could have done a much better job presenting her ideas to the reader.

One problem I have with this story is its vagueness; yes, mystery can be an effective tool to keep the reader’s interest, but too much abstruseness can confuse or distract the reader. Throughout the entire story, I was anticipating a description of the halfbreed girls – do they appear fully human, or are they covered in fur? I was surprised that a better description wasn’t provided on the first page, but I had hope that it would come later. I ended up let down and left with a lot of questions.

In a different genre of fiction, leaving the characters appearances up to the reader’s imagination works just fine – the reader can often place herself into a character’s shoes and construct the character’s appearance as she likes – but this doesn’t work as well for science fiction. Because Russell introduces a new way of looking at werewolves (or at least new to me since this was the first story I read about werewolves having human offspring), the reader cannot simply refer to more common descriptions of the beings. Not only did I question what the halfbreed humans looked like, I also wondered about their purebred werewolf parents. For example, when Claudette, the narrator, goes back to visit her family and they are feeding, are they in full-on wolf form, or have they transitioned into humans?

Though it was an entertaining read, the story’s lack of information distracted me quite a bit; the amount of mystery Russell chose to include in her story did not work to her advantage. Since she is writing science fiction and is choosing to create her own world, she should paint a picture for the reader of how this world looks and operates. Since her way of looking at werewolves is so unique, Russell’s story could have been a lot better had it been told more effectively.

I don’t mean for this review to be completely negative, because the story was certainly fun to read, and I don’t doubt that Karen Russell is a good writer – some of her prose was quite lovely. However, she neglected to tell what I feel are imperative parts of the story. Her idea could easily be made into a full novel that actually explained in more depth the steps the girls went through to become civilized, and perhaps that is why it fails for me: it covers too much for its length and leaves too many questions unanswered.

Because my curiosity about the characters’ appearances was not satisfied, I searched for any cover art of the story in case it would help. The three different covers I found do not really help at all, except for maybe letting me assume the parents are full-on wolves. I still don’t know what to think of the daughters.

A Response to Perrotta’s ‘The Smile on Happy Chang’s Face’

In The Smile on Happy Chang’s Face, Tom Perrotta does a brilliant job convincing the reader to sympathize with his flawed narrator, Jack. Right away, Jack proves to be bitter, jealous, and pessimistic. He loathes his neighbor, Carl, for having a better life than he himself has, which is his own fault in the first place. “Embarrassed” by and unable to deal with his son, who he thought showed an “unhealthy interest” in all things feminine and wasn’t “normal” like the boys next door, Jack had eventually snapped, punched Jason, and broken his nose. Consequently, his wife divorced him and got a restraining order, and he isn’t able to see his kids freely. Additionally, Jack practically admits to having a crush on a young girl who plays baseball, which anyone would agree is morally wrong. However, Jack’s complete and utter honesty is precisely why we don’t think badly of him and feel as if we’re on his side.

By using first-person narrative, Perrotta allows us to enter Jack’s mind and know his innermost thoughts and feelings. We are aware of his severe regret over hitting his son certainly more than his wife will ever be. We understand his distress over raising a child whom others might view as abnormal and hence view Jack as a failure of a father. Jack’s memory of slapping Jason allows us to follow his thought process as it happened, the reason proving to be years of built-up stress causing him to reach his breaking point when Jason says something appalling. The second hit, the one that broke Jason’s nose, is pardoned slightly by Jack’s instinctive rage at Jason actually hitting back.

First-person also lets Jack explain himself and justify his words or actions, such as when he’s (almost inappropriately) describing Lori Chang. Though he says there’s “something undeniably sexual about her presence” and that if he were her age he’d have “a hopeless crush on her,” the reader sees that he doesn’t actually mean this is an inappropriate way; he almost apologizes for having these thoughts and says, “I hope it’s okay for me to talk like this.” Usually, a grown man describing a young girl – his kids’ age, especially – as “sexual” would be thought of as perverted and morally wrong. In this scenario, the reader isn’t as bothered by it.

Perrotta constructs Jack as a character who, when viewed from the outside, probably seems to have questionable behavior and many faults. However, by engineering the narrator’s personality to be reflective and remorseful, Perrotta successfully ends up with a protagonist who’s relatable and an average person. His cleverly crafted main character is just one factor contributing to this short story’s success.