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.

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Craft Essay: Greg Hrbek’s ‘Sagittarius’

Longer than most of my short story response posts, this will serve as my critical essay for the assignment. Greg Hrbek’s Sagittarius was my short story of choice. I call it a “fragmented” walkthrough because I did not cover everything I could have or would have liked to; I stuck with the points I made for the sake of brevity and keeping the essay within the confines of the assignment. In addition to posting this as text, I’m including the Word document version here: Craft Essay (since WordPress isn’t very formatting-friendly).

A Fragmented Walkthrough of Sagittarius

From just looking at the title, the reader can tell that Greg Hrbek’s short story Sagittarius is not going to be the norm. In the first moment we glance at the piece, Hrbek sets our expectations and gives us a vital piece of information. The word “Sagittarius” is automatically associated with astrology, causing the reader to think of the otherworldly, the heavenly; Hrbek provides us with an image of the mythical creature that is central to his story right away – a half-human half-horse, centaur-like being – even if we do not pick up on it at first.

If this association is not made from the title, Hrbek flat-out gives us this knowledge in his opening section. He sets up the scene, defines the major conflict, and introduces three of his four main characters. We are given Sebastian, the baby with an upper “human half” and horse-like “hindquarters,” who has run away from a “they” whose identity we are not quite sure of yet (106). The end of the paragraph clarifies one of “them” as Sebastian’s mother, which alludes to the fact that the other is his father. The only character we do not get is his older brother, Kaden; this exclusion of him in the introduction is effective by its echo of his possible feelings of unimportance and neglect later in the story. Hrbek is already giving us insight to the relationships and lives of his characters, right from the start.

Another – perhaps more obvious – accomplishment of the first paragraph is the establishment of point of view, tense, and narrative distance. Hrbek starts in third-person past tense, but soon shifts into present tense, showing us that there was not much narrative distance in the first portion of the paragraph to begin with; this event of the baby running away has happened quite recently, and it is still taking place. We get the idea that we will be allowed to see into the minds of more than just one character by the sensory details of multiple characters: “they heard his hooves… but were too late to see him jump,” “he stands in the trees, hominid heart thundering in his chest,” and “he hears his mother call” (106). This omniscient narration is confirmed as the story continues, showing multiple characters’ thoughts.

While reading, something that quickly becomes apparent to the reader is Hrbek’s structure and organization; each section is a very long block paragraph, and the story bounces from character to character. Both of these choices add to the dramatic effect of the story’s pace. By going from the mother to the father to the son at home and back again, we get the panicky feeling these characters themselves are experiencing. We get to see the commotion from every angle. The block formatting does not allow the pauses that normally accompany paragraph breaks, quickening the pace; the characters thoughts and lines occur simultaneously with the action.

The choice not to put quotation marks around most of the dialogue and not to italicize thoughts also adds more emphasis to the thoughts of the character in that particular section. Without thoughts being in italics, we read them just as we read the normal narration; thus, we feel as if we actually enter a particular character’s mind for a moment. For example, Isabel’s thoughts trail into what seems to be the narration when Hrbek writes the following:

“No, Isabel thinks. Dawn is ten hours away. We’ll find him before then. We have to. Hardly April. The temperature still hypothermic at night. Even if he wanders for a mile, in this silence we’ll hear him. Except that his cries, until today, have been so very faint… She herself can scarcely speak” (106-107).

Everything from “No” until “faint” consists of Isabel’s thoughts, and Hrbek chooses ellipses to transition back to narration. This short section mimics first-person narrative, making the mother’s thoughts seem more authentic to the reader. The exclusion of quotation marks around dialogue occurs when the characters are alone and reflecting on a conversation, emphasizing that it is a memory occurring in one person’s head. We sometimes do see quotation marks and new paragraphs for dialogue, but only when it is actually occurring in the present, such as Martin calling out to his wife about the deer. Hrbek follows a pattern with these choices that is easy for the reader to pick up on.

Insight to a mother and father’s thoughts and actions during a situation such as this – a young child running away from home at night – is common, but Hrbek also provides us with the other son’s point of view. Because Kaden is only three years old, Hrbek’s use of the child’s thoughts is inventive and attention-grabbing. Indeed, for me, the Kaden sections were the most riveting. That he worries his parent’s anxiety is his fault, knows his brother’s escape was his doing, and is so accepting of his brother’s condition all at such a young age makes him a very dynamic character. While his parts were most interesting to me, other readers might have been more attentive to the mother or father’s sections; Hrbek creates flexibility in his story with the view of multiple characters, making Sagittarius appealing to a range of readers.

As for the supernatural or science fiction aspect of Sagittarius, Hrbek addresses this in a way that works quite well; it does not really matter if his readers cannot believe the existence of a half-human half-horse baby, because his characters themselves are finding it hard to believe. He integrates this presence of a mythical being into the science and medical world in a way that Sebastian is viewed as an anomaly. Because he lets his characters question this creature and marvel over how it could be possible, we as readers do not feel obligated to do as much questioning ourselves. To explain this further, if we started reading a story about a world with centaurs and other mythical species that viewed them as normal, we would immediately realize the author’s fictional world was different from our own. With Hrbek’s world, however, the idea of this type of baby seems plausible, because his world is so similar to ours.

Greg Hrbek followed an atypical path in writing Sagittarius, which is exactly why it is successful as a short story. His organization reflects the mood of the story overall, and his characters add different layers to the plot. Sagittarius is another example of a short story that includes a science fiction aspect in a way that is not ridiculously far-fetched or distracting. I could say a lot more about what he does well as an author, but I think I’ve covered most of the main choices I appreciated.

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 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 Carlson, Dessen, and Puchner

Here are links to the three discussed short stories for any readers of this post who may not be in my creative writing class:
Ron Carlson’s Milk
Sarah Dessen’s Infinity
Eric Puchner’s Essay #3: Leda and the Swan

I read the three stories in alphabetical order of author last name, one after another during the late hours of last night and, technically, this morning. Upon finishing “Milk,” I was certain that it would be the one I’d write my response on; I really liked its simplicity. I decided to finish the readings first though, before making my decision. Not surprisingly, I left “Infinity” sure my response would be about its relatability. Because so many others had already begun posting responses and had chosen Puchner’s story, I told myself I would not choose to respond to “Leda and the Swan.” Once I got through that one, however, I felt an obligation to talk about it. Thus, I cannot help but say a few words about all three of these lovely stories – and I truly did enjoy each one.

In his story “Milk,” Ron Carlson did a superb job allowing the reader to step into the narrator’s place; I, an eighteen-year-old female, was able to relate to an adult male – a father and husband. I think the simplicity of the title really works – clearly the story is not about milk, but about what the pictures of missing children on the back of milk cartons represent: the narrator’s fears and worries. I particularly enjoyed Jim and Annie’s relationship; though there is conflict, they are very loving toward one another, and I really believed in that love and the success of their marriage. I also found Jim’s descriptions of his boys quite intriguing in that he seems to be slightly fonder of Lee than of Bobby – this could just be how I read it, but he seemed to appreciate Lee’s subtle traits more than Bobby’s strong ones, perhaps because he feels he can relate more to Lee? I cannot be sure, but this was something I kept picking up on when he described the twins, though he undoubtedly adores them both. I think the fact that Jim cannot justify to himself the rationality of his refusal to let his sons be fingerprinted is simply great; as a reader, I completely understood both his stubbornness about his decision and his uncertainty about why it mattered to him. Though nothing really happened – no catastrophes, no extraordinary plot – I thought this story was a wonderful look into a young father’s mind. The ending, with him nearly kidnapping his own children but ultimately returning to the safety and comfort of his home, his life, really worked.

As for Sarah Dessen’s “Infinty,” I was completely able to relate, being a teenage girl like the narrator. Everyone goes through young romance and the stress of learning to drive. I thought Dessen did a great job connecting the two experiences – two rites of passage for young adults, if you will. The narrator practiced pushing out of her comfort zone little by little both in driving around the rotary and in her backseat endeavors with her boyfriend, and she felt fear and anxiety about both. Of course, in addition to her own nervousness about the rotary, she feels confined by her mother’s fears and obligated to stand by her refusal to take the shortest route. This story is really about the narrator growing up and overcoming her own personal obstacles; it is about her struggles and self-discovery. She’s realizing some of life’s truths: that love, such as with Anthony, isn’t always love in the sense she wants it to be, that some people have ulterior motives or become distracted and consumed by particular desires, and that people will hurt her. What I really liked though, was her behavior after losing Anthony. Though he storms off and leaves her because she isn’t ready to have sex with him, she doesn’t chase after him or allow her resolve to falter; instead, she focuses her frustration about him, and about her own indecisiveness, on conquering the rotary. She turns what some would allow to be pain and heartbreak (or even guilt at not giving in) into determination and accomplishment.

When I first started “Essay #3: Leda and the Swan” by Eric Puchner, I was sure I had saved the wrong PDF. I thought it might be an essay about the short story I was meant to read. As soon as I actually started reading it though, I became completely engrossed. Parts of it made me laugh out loud – the way the narrator criticized her sister’s appearance and talked of stealing her boyfriend so casually and matter-of-factly, for example. Puchner did a brilliant job writing from the point of view of a member of the opposite gender much younger (and less intelligent, perhaps) than himself. The run-on sentences and casual diction were not a distraction; I really liked all the footnotes and how Natalie’s story was actually supposed to be an essay for a class. I kept waiting for the story to somehow tie back to those perverted swans, but eventually I was satisfied just by reading her narrative. I agree with some of the other students’ responses that it is both comical and sad. What’s sad, to me, is the poor decisions Natalie makes (“intercoursing” with Collin even after discovering him in her sister’s room, for example) that she will surely regret when she’s older. Of course, it is sad that she simultaneously misses her sister and Collin and feels the sting of betrayal caused by their relationship and the possibility that they ran away together. Still, she made the decision to lose her virginity to Collin and was naive enough to believe in “the Gift.” I think the “sad” part is that she doesn’t seem to learn anything. I cannot help but pity her and criticize her at the same time. This was one story about adolescence not ending with the narrator maturing and learning some profound truth, but I think that’s precisely what makes it so good; it is realistic.